Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Do you greet your house?

Most of us probably are surrounded by more clutter than we'd like.  Before we know it, the books, papers, clothing and other detritus of everyday life make it difficult to find things we're looking for.  In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Japanese organizational expert Marie Kondo describes her KonMari method of tidying.  Ms. Kondo has found, through many years of working with both business and personal clients, that straightening up your surroundings improves all areas of your life.  Once you are free from the burden of too many possessions, your entire outlook on life changes for the better.

Throughout the book, the author discusses her early life in Japan, when she was fascinated with lifestyle magazines and spent days organizing and re-organizing everything in her home (sometimes to the annoyance of her family).  What a stroke of luck that she was able to turn her personal obsession into a job!  Luckily for us, she has tried all the conventional methods of putting your possessions in order: clearing out one room at a time, doing a little bit every day, buying the latest and greatest organizers, etc.  However, none of that really worked in the long term, so she had to develop her own system.

Instead of doing a room or area of the house at a time, she found it's much easier to do a category (books, clothing, etc.).  Her one criterion for keeping an object is simple, "Does it bring you joy?"  If so, it can be kept.  If not, it gets tossed.

When I was describing the KonMari method of getting rid of anything "unjoyous" from your house to my husband, he was appalled.  "You mean you just throw out everything?  Think about what an environmentally bad idea that is!" he exclaimed.  But the focus of this book isn't recycling, donating or re-purposing: it's clearing out the clutter.  In fact, the author makes a good point about giving away unwanted possessions -- the giver will likely feel compelled to keep the object, since it was a gift (particularly if the recipient is a close friend or family member).  In that case, you haven't blessed the recipient, you've just passed your problem along to someone else.

I really liked some of the ideas in the book that were new to me.  For instance, the purpose of an object may be in the thrill it gave you when you bought it.  If you felt good when you initially acquired it, you shouldn't feel bad about getting rid of it even if it's never been worn/read/utilized -- it's served its purpose in making you happy.  She also says when you get rid of an item, you should thank it for serving its purpose.  She feels that items want to be useful to their owners and if an object is no longer serving a purpose, it will feel better in being discarded.  So you don't need to feel guilty about throwing things away. Your possessions want to help you by giving you a less-cluttered environment.  Some of her ideas, however, such as ripping pages with quotations you like out of a book and then discarding the book (an idea she later rejected) were a bit unsettling to me!

I enjoyed this book, although I think the subtitle, "The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing" is a bit misleading.  It sort of implies that Japanese people are just naturally more adept at organizing, the way the French are renowned for their cuisine or the Italians for their sense of fashion.  The fact that Ms. Kondo had to do so much trial and error (and that she is in demand as an organizer in Japan) shows that while she happens to be Japanese, her methods are entirely her own!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Banish those Downton Blues!

I know many people, like me, are anxiously awaiting the start of Downton Abbey, Season 5 on January 4.  To help ease the wait, PBS has a slew of great British programming lined up to tide you over until you can get your Downton fix!

On Sunday, December 21 at 8:00 pm, Tales from the Royal Bedchamber will be shown.  This series,

Host Dr. Lucy Worsley. Photo: Courtesy of
© Tiger Aspect Productions 2013
hosted by Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces (a job I'll be glad to take over, when she wants to retire!), will take a look behind the scenes at what actually went on in Royal State bedrooms.  Aside from being, as you would expect, much more grand than the bedrooms you or I occupy, for many years these seemingly private areas of the castle were actually central to the political future of the country.  Future monarchs were married in bedchambers and crowds would gather to observe royal births (must have been delightful for the mum-to-be!).  The royals eventually had enough of their private affairs being public spectacles and created private chambers, but the public nature of the royal bedchamber before this shift makes for a fascinating story.

The Great British Baking Show with (l to r) Sue Perkins,
Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood and
Mel Giedroyc. Credit: Love Productions
Just before the premier of the new season of Downton Abbey on January 4, the 10-week competition The Great British Bakeoff begins at 8:00 pm.  This show attempts to find Britain's best amateur baker with a series of tests to prepare such delicacies as cakes, pastries and breads (I can tell my low-carb diet is going to take a hit just watching this show!). Mary Berry (the "doyenne of baking") and Paul Hollywood judge the contestants' results while Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc host. Each episode will feature three challenges: the Signature Bake, the Technical Bake and the Showstopper Bake. I'm excited to see how the contestants respond to baking under pressure -- surely some of them will have disasters, which will make me feel better about my own less-than-stellar baking efforts.

Finally, to put you in the mood for some spring planting, The Queen's Garden airs at 10:00 pm on Sunday, January 11th (so start out at 8:00 with all the food and drink refreshment you need already assembled, cause you've got a great evening of viewing ahead of you!).  This program follows the Buckingham Palace Garden (in the middle of London) over the course of a year.  If, like me, you've yet to be invited to a Royal Garden Party, you'll enjoy this opportunity to explore the beautiful urban garden.  Plants and animals that make up the garden, as well as a lake and a 15-foot marble urn (previously owned by Napoleon) are shown in detail.

If you should happen to forget to mark you calendar to watch these wonderful programs, they will be available to stream the morning after broadcast from a variety of sources, including the PBS video site, PBS iPad and iPhone apps, and PBS digital platforms on ROKU, Apple TV and Xbox.  While winter is normally a bleak and depressing time of year, the wonderful "Best of Britain" programming that PBS is going to showcase in the upcoming weeks gives us something to look forward to!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

If you think this is bad, just wait til they get to middle school

I discovered the Australian writer Liane Moriarty when I downloaded a copy of "The Husband's Secret" as an audio book from the local library.  It was very interesting, so I was excited to read her new book Big Little Lies.  I wasn't disappointed!  This book is a real page-turner that kept me up way past my bedtime trying to find out what would happen next!

The story centers around 3 women.  Madeline is the mother of 3 children.  Her teenage daughter was from an earlier marriage, and she has two younger children with her current husband.  Her first husband left her when their daughter was just a baby, and now that he has remarried and has another child, he wants back in to the older daughter's life -- much to Madeline's disgust.

The second main character is Celeste.  She's impossibly beautiful and married to an absurdly wealthy man.  Unfortunately, he also lashes out violently toward her on a regular basis.  She's never told anyone about her situation, both because she's ashamed and because she sometimes fights back and feels that she's also to blame.  She and her husband are the parents of twin boys.

The final female lead is Jane, a single mother to young Ziggy.  Jane works from home as a bookkeeper, and moves around a lot.  She had a traumatic experience with Ziggy's father, and has spent the years since he was born restlessly moving from one place to the next, never settling down.

All of these characters come together when their children start kindergarten together.  The mothers at the kindergarten turn out to be cliquish, gossipy and vindictive.  Things start out on a bad foot when on the first day, one little girl is assaulted by a classmate.  Her mother demands to know who hurt her, and the little girl points out Ziggy as the culprit.  He denies it, but this taint on his character has terrible consequences.  A petition is started by the other parents to get him expelled from the school, and most of the other mothers shun Jane.

At the start of each chapter are hints that something terrible happens to someone.  Other parents are discussing the aftermath of some tragic event, and even police officers are quoted as saying they think people are hiding something.  A school trivia night, where all the mothers dress up as Audrey Hepburn and all the fathers dress up as Elvis, is looming, and that seems to be where the horrible thing happens . . . whatever it is!

As I was reading I was trying to guess which of the characters was going to meet a bad end, and who would be responsible for it.  Most of the characters seem to have something to hide, so there were numerous possibilities.  I enjoyed the book overall, but I did feel that the resolution to the whole bullying scenario was a bit rushed.  Otherwise, it was a great read!

Final verdict for Big Little Lies: Four Gherkins, for being an inside look at the cut-throat world of kindergarten politics

Monday, December 8, 2014

Learn to draw creepy cartoons

As someone who's hopeless at drawing, I was very interested in the book Monstrously Funny Cartoons.  The author, Christopher Hart, gives step-by-step instructions for drawing a variety of ghoulish figures including zombies, monsters, mummies and vampires.

The book is illustrated with black and white drawings showing how to construct your scary character from scratch.
Also, there is lots of advice and information for artists that I probably would never have considered.  Such things as how to vary the shapes of eyes to convey different emotions (stunned, puzzled, suspicious, etc.) and how placement of features can be used to vary expressions are explained and illustrated.  Classic traits for the various "monsters" are also included.  For instance, no self-respecting vampire would be seen without his trademark fangs, shadowy eyes, fussily-styled hair and "ears that suggest that his  mom had a fling with Mr. Spock."

In addition to covering the stock horror characters, the author also has advice on how to come up with your own characters and tweaks you can use to make the drawings unique.  It was also very interesting to see how an artist can convey such things as movement and action based on how the character is posed.

The final chapter of the book discusses how to place your characters in scenes.  While this might sound labor-intensive, examples show how easy it is to create a background in which a few elements will help to set the scene.  Overall, this would be a fantastic book for the budding cartoonist.  Even someone as artistically challenged as myself can be inspired to follow the easy directions to create ghouls and zombies of my own!
I think this book would be very useful and inspirational to a young person who was interested in drawing or doodling.  The author shows how to develop characters at each stage of the drawing, and the creepy subject matter is both entertaining and interesting.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Monstrously Funny Cartoons from Blogging For Books in exchange for this review

Monday, December 1, 2014

All this groaning and fist-clenching and agitated face-wiping

I was intrigued when I first heard about The Book of Strange New Things.  The author, Michel Faber, is well-known for his previous books, including The Crimson Petal and the White.  It truly didn't sound like anything I'd read before, and I was interested to see where the story would go.  Peter, a former homeless drug addict, has completely turned his life around.  He's married to the devoted Bea and is the minister of a church in England.  Everything is going well in their lives when he feels called by God for an important mission:  to travel to a distant planet to minister to the native beings who live there.  A large, somewhat shadowy company called USIC has established a permanent settlement on the planet, known as Oasis. Oasis is inhabited and a previous minister has converted many to Christianity.  However, this minister has disappeared, and the natives are asking for a replacement.  Bea is equally proud and alarmed by the fact that her husband is going to be going on a mission so far away.  Still, he's only planning to be away for around 6 months and so that doesn't seem so bad.

Once Peter arrives on the planet, he is struck by several things.  The planet is hot, and the concept of a "day" is somewhat misleading, since their hours of light and darkness are very different from what he's accustomed to.  The atmosphere is very unusual, with tendrils of air that move along the body and inside clothing.  The food is also very odd.  It's all made from a native plant called whiteflower, which can be prepared to taste *almost* like any familiar food you'd care to imagine, based on when it's harvested.  He's very nervous about meeting his flock. The pharmacist, a woman named Grainger, drives him out to the Oasan settlement, which is located quite a distance from the USIC base.

The people in the USIC settlement trade medicine to the Oasans for the various foods they've made from the harvested whiteflowers.  Peter is a bit shocked by his first glimpse of the "alien" Oasans. They are all clad in robes (each a different color so he is able to tell them apart), but their faces don't resemble human faces at all.  Still, the group he meets are "Jesus Lovers" who have been converted by the earlier pastor.  They are identified by numbers -- Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Twenty-Four, and so on.  Not everyone is converted, but the devoted Jesus Lovers are the only ones that Peter interacts with. He needn't have worried.  The Oasans are calm, kind and placid.  They immediately get to work building a church.  They call the Bible "The Book of Strange New Things" and already know many of the stories from it.  However, they have trouble pronouncing the letters T and S, so Peter sets about making small booklets paraphrasing sections of Biblical passages to avoid these troublesome letters.  He spends several weeks with the Oasans, then goes back to the USIC headquarters for a while.

Peter eventually begins to experience some changes.  He loses a lot of weight, suffers severe sunburns (although he doesn't seem to notice) and has problems remembering people and events from his life.  He communicates frequently with Bea via "the Shoot" a sort of email communication device.  The news from home isn't good.  There are many natural disasters, food shortages and general mayhem taking place on earth.  Peter feels both helpless and detached from the events, but he is worried about Bea and tries to reassure her.

As I was reading, I was trying to figure out where the book was going.  Were the Oasans as calm and "Jesus loving" as they appeared, or was there something more sinister about them?  What happened to the previous minister and another employee who disappeared?  What is USIC's real agenda?  Are there other animals on the planet other than the strange, small birdlike creatures they observe at times? Why are all the other employees so devoid of emotion?

Some of the questions are answered, but overall, there's no big conflict or resolution to the story.  I feel a bit disappointed, because I was expecting something major and shocking to happen, but this was really just Peter's story of his journey through life. He grew to realize what he valued and how he should live his life to reflect that.  I can't see Hollywood making it into a film without adding a few explosions or evil-doers, though!  I did enjoy the story, it just wasn't what I was expecting, so it was a bit of a letdown.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review


Friday, November 28, 2014

Getting control of your physical hunger

The author of The Ultimate Guide to the Daniel Fast originally set out to write a traditional cookbook, but a technical glitch wiped out her file.  She set the book aside, meaning to come back to it, when her church leaders asked everyone to go on a 21 day fast.  Because many people were uncertain about what they could or couldn't eat during the fasting period, the author pulled out her old cookbook notes and began posting recipes on her blog.  This was the beginnings of this book.

The book is divided into three sections:  The Fast, The Focus and The Food.  The first part discusses the purpose of the fast:  to forge a deeper connection with God by participating in a spiritual fast.  The author describes this process as "setting aside your basic physical desires for spiritual ones."  She uses the Biblical story of Daniel, who fasted for 21 days by eating only the most basic foods required for survival.  It is this type of fast that she is attempting to re-create.  Physical and spiritual preparations for before, during and after the fast are also given.

Part two of the book gives daily devotions and additional suggestions for readings.  Part three takes up the majority of the book: the food!  The section begins with a list of foods that are allowed and foods that are to be avoided.  The allowable foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts and oils, while meat, dairy and sweeteners lead the list of banned foods.  There are suggested meal plans, preparation tips and recipe combination suggestions.  The recipes are divided into Breakfast, Appetizers and Snacks, Salads and Salad Dressings, Soups, Vegetables, Main Dishes and Juices.  The recipes don't include nutrition information in the form of calories, fat, etc. but since most of the foods are probably pretty low in these areas, it's not much of a problem.  There are some color photos of prepared dishes in the middle of the book that look very yummy!

This book would be a good starting point for anyone looking to eat more healthy foods and to find new ways to prepare dishes that are lower in fat and calories.  The recipes look very tasty and the ingredients list at the back of the book will make compiling a shopping list easy.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Ultimate Guide to the Daniel Fast from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review.



Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The destiny drinking game

Rev. Parker Saint (born Brian Parker) seems to have everything going for him.  As the pastor of a popular mega-church, he has a large television following and a new book coming out.  But then there is the totally out of character "travel rage" incident at the airport where he ended up getting irate and assaulting an airline employee.  In order to avoid possible criminal charges, Rev. Saint agrees to work with the police as a consultant on a series of brutal murders.

Five people have been murdered in what looks to the police to be some sort of religious or Satanic manner.  Churches in the Grand Rapids area have also been vandalized.  Rev. Saint reluctantly agrees to assist the police, even though he feels completely out of his depth.  Both his father and grandfather were ministers at a local church, which suffered dwindling membership and eventually was forced to leave their building.  Parker is now under the guidance of Joshua Holton, an even more popular and influential televangelist, who has been guiding his career and helping his rise in popularity.  Unfortunately, Holton has strict guidelines for his continuing assistance, the most important of which is that Parker make himself available for weekly calls from his mentor.

That had been no problem, but once the police persuade him to work with them on the murder cases, Parker's time is basically spoken for.  Matters aren't helped when three mysterious priests, Father Michael, Father Ignatius and Father Xavier also show up and demand Parker's help (they have a DVD of the alleged assault of the airline employee that they might have to release to the media).  They are part of a shadowy, secret society called the Jesuits Militant who investigate religious-based crimes for the Vatican.  They are convinced the murders and vandalisms are connected, and that they are related to an attempt to find the Crown of Marbella.  This holy relic has been missing for many years, but their research indicates it might actually have made its way to Grand Rapids. They are most interested in recovering it.

So during the day, Parker follows along with police raids, suspect interrogations, autopsies, and anything else they can drag him along to.  At night, the priests show up for debriefing and further investigations.  Naturally, Parker's ministry suffers.  He has his assistant, Paige, book guest ministers for his weekly sermons, but Joshua Holton is becoming increasingly irate at being ignored.

At the same time, we follow along with "Danny" a young man who is possessed by demons.  He finds that going into small churches allows him to receive all sorts of help from the congregations -- money and exorcisms being the main draws.  He goes around to all of the churches in the area, because he discovers that once he undergoes an exorcism, the demons come back in greater numbers and with much greater power than before.  Could he be the same "Damien," a young man with seemingly creepy influence over the young people of Grand Rapids?

I enjoyed the book and was anxious to see how it played out.  There are many humorous moments in the story, even when dealing with such gruesome and disturbing topics.  The author was perhaps a bit too hard on "Rev. Saint," who's New Age-y catchphrase "God's awesome, and so are you!" is just one of the many digs at the whole "positive thinking" movement.  I also felt as if the final confrontation between the evil-doer and Rev. Saint was a bit too drawn out.  Still, the book is very entertaining and certainly a page-turner!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Satan must have been napping

Lena Jones works as a private investigator in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Her business, Desert Investigations, is a two person operation. She's assisted in her duties by her partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, who is proud of his Pima Indian heritage.  Their latest adventures take place in the book Desert Rage, the eighth Lena Jones adventure.

The book starts out on an unsettling note, when 14 year old Allison Cameron and her boyfriend Kyle Gibbs take her gravely injured dog Misty to the vet.  They are very concerned about the welfare of the dog, but the fact that the bodies of Allison's parents and 10 year old brother are in the house with them doesn't seem to bother them very much.  After dropping off the dog, they attempt to flee to California, but are caught and returned to Scottsdale.  Once in custody, both confess to the brutal beating deaths of the family.

Lena is contacted by Representative Juliana Thorsson and asked to investigate the case.  Thorsson has been a very outspoken politician in the area, and is gearing up for a run for the Senate.  She confides in Lena that while a struggling college student, she was an egg donor for her sister and for the Cameron family.  Allison is her biological daughter.  She hadn't been in contact with the family, but she happened to see Allison and her mother in a store one day, and due to the family resemblance, she quickly realized Allison was her daughter.  She also believes that the girl is incapable of killing her family.

When Lena begins investigating the case, one of her first stops is the juvenile detention center to interview Allison.  Allison is defiant and sticks to her confession, claiming that she hired a "hit man" with her allowance money.  The family had been bound, gagged and tortured before being killed, and Lena doubts a hit man would have taken so much trouble (even if he would work for allowance money!).  It's also odd that Kyle, a foster child who loves animals, would have hurt Misty the dog while killing the family.

Lena's research finds that the father of the family, an emotionally remote but gifted emergency room physician, has a secret second job.  This leads to a line of inquiry that finds plenty of new suspects with a reason to want Dr. Cameron and his family dead.

While investigating the murders, Lena also has personal problems to deal with.  As a child she had been found in the street with a gunshot wound to the head, and nothing is known of her family.  She grew up in foster care, where she was terribly abused in some of the placements.  One of her foster mothers, Madeline, regards her as a true daughter and is a frequent source of friendship and support.  Lena still continues to have nightmares about her early childhood, though.  Also, she gains an enemy when she has a car towed that is illegally parked in front of her office.  That leads to all sorts of physical and property-related problems . . .

Even though this book is part of a series, I enjoyed reading it.  It's obvious that the author has a true love for the southwest culture and history (although perhaps not the climate!) and it has made me want to visit Scottsdale -- although probably not in July!  I plan to go back and read the other books in the series to get caught up, and I look forward to finding out more about Lena's past in the upcoming books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Desert Rage from Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for this review

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tarred by the brush of history

People all over the world have a continuing fascination with the uniquely American phenomenon of the Wild West.  The idea of cowboys on the open range stirs images of freedom and the wide open range.  There was also a lawlessness that has, to some extent, been romanticized.  The book Cattle Kate takes a look at the true story behind a terrible crime that was never punished.

Ella Watson, posthumously dubbed "Cattle Kate," was a young woman who moved to Wyoming in 1885.  She had been born in Canada to Scotch-Irish parents, but the family emigrated to Kansas when she was young, lured by the promise of free land.  Her family prospered and she eventually married William Pickell, a neighbor who was initially kind but soon turned out to be an abusive spouse.  She fled back to her parents and filed for divorce.
Many people had been lured to Kansas by the Homestead Act, which provided 160 acres of government land to people who would move there, cultivate the land, build a house, and stay for at least 5 years.  By the time Ella and her siblings grew into adulthood, most of the Kansas land had already been claimed.  Eager to get away from her ex-husband, Ella set out alone for the territory of Wyoming, which was offering a similar free-land program.

Ella began her life in Wyoming working as a cook in a boarding house.  She saved money to pay the filing fee for her land claim, as well as to invest in building materials for her house.  She soon meets James Averell who owns a roadhouse on a busy crossroads.  They begin a romantic relationship, but decide to hold off on getting married.  That way, they could each apply for the 160 acre homestead.  Otherwise, as a family, they would only be eligible for one plot of land.

Unfortunately, the site Ella chose had been used as grazing land by a powerful cattleman, A.J. Bothwell.  Even though the land was not owned by him, he felt entitled to continue using it and tried everything he could to discourage Ella from building a cabin and run her off the land.  Undeterred, she continues clearing the property and even demands that Bothwell pay her a fee for allowing his cattle to access the stream that runs through her land.

Bothwell and his powerful friends try other means to block Ella's plans.  She applies for a brand to mark the cattle she hopes to buy, but she's denied.  When a neighbor decides to leave the area, he sells his brand to her.  She buys a small herd of cattle and duly brands them with her new marker.  Bothwell and his friends, enraged at being thwarted, ride up to Ella's farm one day and accuse her and James of rustling the cattle.  She denies the charges, but the cattlemen lynch her and James. She had just turned 29 years old. This isn't really a spoiler, since the book starts out with Ella and James being hanged and expecting to be saved at any moment.

News of the lynchings reaches the authorities, who begin to investigate.  Since the story is newsworthy, the local newspaper also gets involved.  The journalists are dependent on the good will of the powerful cattlemen, so they publish their version of events -- that Ella (now given the nickname "Cattle Kate") and James Averell were killed for stealing cattle.  Anyone who had witnessed the "crime" and might have come to the defense of the couple mysteriously disappeared.

This story was written based on a great deal of research into the life of Ella Watson.  The book has a very extensive list of endnotes that give the outline and background of Ella's life.  There is some follow-up on what happened to the evildoers in the story, and sadly, the answer is: not much.  Still, it was fascinating to read this story and get the facts behind the myth.  Ella deserves to have her name cleared and not to go down in history as she was painted in news reports of the incident, as a cattle thief and prostitute.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Cattle Kate from Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for this review.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A general air of having come from Bobonong

Mma Ramotswe and her friends are back in the 15th installment of the adventures of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. This time, people are branching out into new careers in The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe.

The detective agency is still attracting new clients.  In this book, Mma Ramotswe and her co-director, Mma Makutsi are approached by a man and his sister to help them get to the bottom of a mystery.  They are part of the Indian community in Gaborone, and an Indian lady they do not know has come to their house and claims to have amnesia.  They want to help her, but have no idea where to begin.  The immigration authorities are becoming impatient with this person who has no papers, and therefore, a somewhat dubious claim to be allowed to remain in the country.  How will they get to the bottom of this mystery?

Luckily, they have a new employee who can help them with surveillance.  Charlie, the apprentice mechanic who can never pass the exams to finish his apprenticeship, has been let go by Mr. JLB Matekone.  The garage isn't doing as much business as in the past, and so someone had to go.  Since the garage and the detective agency share a premises, Mma Ramotswe hears the commotion that occurs when Charlie is informed that he no longer has a job.  Feeling sorry for him, she offers him a position at the detective agency.  After all, Mma Makutsi is now a partner in the business, so perhaps she won't have time for all the mundane, day-to-day tasks that need to be done in the office.  Also, Charlie's position is so new that people won't recognize him if he needs to follow someone.  This is just what happens when he's given the assignment to follow the amnesiac lady.  Unfortunately, while waiting for her to emerge from the house and actually go somewhere, he gets a bit distracted when a pretty girl walks by . . .

At the same time, Mma Makutsi, fresh off her promotion at the detective agency, decides to branch out into the restaurant business.  She plans to leave the day-to-day running of the restaurant in the hands of others, but she will be the boss, make no mistake.  She feels that there needs to be a place for the "fashionable" people to gather, and her restaurant will be just that place.  There are plenty of people who need to be hired, though, and in her haste to get everything up and running, she takes some bad advice.  This wouldn't necessarily be a fatal mistake, but guess who is the new restaurant critic for the local newspaper?  None other than her mortal enemy, the evil 50% Violet Semphotho.  Apparently there weren't enough Handsome Men in the cafe at the time of her visit, because she was especially mean in her review.  Will the fashionable set be put off by her catty remarks?  And when will Mma Makutsi ever learn to listen when her shoes are speaking to her?  Not everyone has talking shoes, so you would think this alone would cause her to take note of their comments.

Once again, we have a very pleasant visit with our friends at the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.  The only small quibble I have is that Mma Makutsi is starting to be a bit annoying with her ill-advised remarks and her judgemental ways.  Everyone has to tip-toe around her, and it's all starting to be a bit uncomfortable.  She was always my favorite character, and I hope she won't become more unlikeable in future books.

Final Verdict for The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe:  Four Gherkins, for being a welcome look into the lives of our favorite Batswana

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

More murder in dark and dreary Ystad

Even though we thought we'd seen the last of Kurt Wallander, he makes a return appearance in An Event in Autumn by Henning Mankell.  In this novella, Wallander is thinking of buying a house in the country, but the first house he goes to view turns out to have skeletons not in the closet, but buried in the yard.

Wallander has grown tired of city life and longs to move to the country and get a dog.  His daughter Linda is also living with him in his apartment in town and working with him on the police force.  So whether he wants to distance himself from the city living or his daughter is not really clear!  His co-worker Martinson knows he's looking for a place in the country, so when his wife's relative has to move from his farmhouse to a nursing home, it seems like great timing.

Wallander takes the keys to the house and goes out to view it.  As he's looking around the garden, he trips over something.  On closer inspection, it turns out to be a bony hand sticking up from the ground.  Naturally, forensic officers come in for a look and end up discovering the skeleton.  The medical examiner can't be more specific than to say that the body has been in the ground "for a long time."  The skeleton belongs to a woman in her 50s who died from hanging.  So suicide is considered, but if that were the case, how did she end up buried in the garden?

Wallander, as he's been known to do, goes back to the house to look around, and notices that some bushes seem out of place.  More digging ensues and what do you know, there's another body down there.  This time, the body is that of a man, and once again, it's not exactly "fresh."  Wallander and his team begin looking at the history of the house and trying to trace its former occupants.  This leads them all the way back to the chaotic war years, when refugees were flooding in and records weren't as well-kept as they are today.

Also in keeping with his usual practice, Wallander goes off to investigate some hunches, and ends up in some hot water . . . but of course he's able to solve the crime and live to fight another day.  Although he decides this particular house is not the one for him!

The book also contains a very interesting afterward written by Henning Mankell where he talks about how he came up with the idea for the Wallander character, and his surprise at the global popularity of the books.  This book was originally published in Holland as a giveaway for people who bought another mystery novel.  The events in this story are meant to take place just before the last Wallander book, A Troubled Man.  There is a bit of foreshadowing of the events in that book, with Wallander being depressed and uneasy at visiting elderly people, and worrying about his own future.

I've always had a soft spot for Wallander, since "Mördare Utan Ansikte" (Faceless Killers) was the first book I was able to read in Swedish.  I still remember the thrill of picking it up in the local library, paging through it, and realizing I understood it (more or less).  So Kurt and I go way back!  I'm distressed to read that Mankell says in the afterward of this book that absolutely, positively, this is the last we will hear of Kurt Wallander.  He doesn't rule out future books with Linda, however, so I'm hoping that we will get some news of him from her stories!

Final Verdict of An Event in Autumn: Four Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with an old crime-fighting friend

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Becky's still shopping, but it's for work!

You've gotta admire Becky Bloomwood, the heroine of the Shopaholic series.  No matter how badly her grandiose plans turn out (and they always fail spectacularly), she never stops dreaming and planning for her glittering future.  She's up to her old tricks in Shopaholic to the Stars.

The Brandon family (Becky, husband Luke and two year old Minnie) relocate to Los Angeles when Luke gets involved in a project related to the film industry.  Becky had hoped to continue her career as a personal shopper, but when that job falls through, she sets her sights on bigger and better things:  becoming a Hollywood stylist.  Certainly, her background in fashion and her close friendship with renowned fashion designer Danny Kovitz would seem to indicate that being a stylist is the ideal career for her.  But how does she get her foot in the door?

Naturally, Luke is no help.  Even though he's working closely with movie star Sage Seymour, will he help Becky with introductions and red carpet appearances?  Not likely.  He remains as unimpressed as ever.  Still, he does just happen to mention to Becky that Sage is looking for someone to join her "team" in running a charity marathon -- the next day.  Naturally, Becky immediately takes steps to participate.  She goes shopping for the perfect running outfit.  While in the store, she happens to see someone shoplifting and runs after the thief.  She's shocked when the culprit turns out to be another Hollywood star, Lois Kellerton.  Lois gives Becky the stolen merchandise and makes her promise to tell no one.

In the meantime, Becky enrolls Minnie into a pre-school that turns out to have a waiting list and very competitive parents vying for the few openings.  So how was Becky able to get Minnie in with no problems?  It turns out the school is run by none other than Becky's nemesis:  Alicia Billington (known non-affectionately as Alicia Bitch-Longlegs). Alicia seems to be all sweetness and light, but Becky is still suspicious.

Soon, Becky's best friend Suze and her family arrive for a visit, but Becky's laser focus on getting started with her styling career doesn't leave her much time to see them.  Before leaving England, she had promised to look up an old friend of her father's, and when that leads nowhere, her father also hops on a plane over to LA.

At the same time, Becky has finally managed to get acquainted with Sage Seymour and gets invited to a big event, but an embarrassing incident leads Becky to her "15 minutes of fame" -- Hollywood style.  She hires bodyguards and begins contemplating appearing on a plastic surgery reality show.  Meanwhile, Suze is facing her own problems, which Becky seems too self-absorbed to help with, and when Suze's husband and Becky's father head out on a mysterious road trip, Becky finally has to take note of what's going on under her own roof.

While I love the madcap antics that Becky always gets involved in, I didn't like the way this book seemed to be just a set-up for the next book.  We all know and love Becky and the other characters in the series, so I didn't like it that everything wasn't resolved in this book.  I'm sure it will be a while before the next book is released, and all of the events of this book will be long forgotten by then!  Still, it's good to spend some time in Becky's fashionable, high energy world again.

Final Verdict for Shopaholic to the Stars: Four Gherkins, for being an amusing look at  the life of a self-absorbed fashionista

Friday, October 31, 2014

A shadowy shocking story

I am a long-time fan of podcasts, and the Swedish Radio series P3 Dokumentär recently had a program about the infamous von Sydowska murders.  Even though I lived in Sweden for several years and my Swedish husband has introduced me to many interesting aspects of Swedish history and culture, this crime was unknown to me.  In 1932, the wealthy Fredrik von Sydow murdered his father and two servants, then fled with his young wife Ingun.  As the police closed in, he shot her and then himself.  In the nearly 100 years since the crime was committed, no one has really known what the motive for such a random and senseless act of violence could have been.

I was very interested to hear that someone connected to the family had written a book about the case.  Helena Henschen was the daughter of Fredrik's sister Marianne, who was 15 years old at the time of the crime.  The book I Skuggan av ett Brott (In the Shadow of a Crime), is somewhat unusual.  It's classified as fiction, but there is plenty of factual information included.  The author (who sadly passed away in 2011) interviewed people who were connected to the crime -- her mother (although she was always reluctant to discuss it), the von Sydow's daughter Monica, a sibling of one of the murdered servants, etc. as well as used public records and archives to reconstruct the facts of the story.  There were events, however, where no documentation was available, and in those cases she constructed an imagined narrative of what might have happened based on the facts that were known.  These events include how Fredrik and Ingun (called Sofie throughout the book, for some reason) met, Ingun's troubled relationship with her step-mother, and so on.

The story is fascinating in part because it involves people who moved in extremely privileged circles.  The von Sydow family was especially rich and powerful.  Fredrik's father, Hjalmar, was a well-known politician and leader in the Swedish Employers' Confederation.  Ingun's father was also a very successful businessman, but he wasn't successful enough (or from a prominent enough family) for Fredrik's father to approve of the match.  Fredrik and Ingun met because their families had neighboring summer houses on an island outside Stockholm.  They also had another thing in common -- absent mothers. Fredrik's mother abused morphine and cocaine (which her son also reportedly did) and died when he was young.  Ingun's mother ran off with a Romanian musician and left her husband and four children.  The children were never told what happened to their mother; she was simply gone one day and never mentioned again.

Despite parental objections, Ingun continued to see Fredrik and when she became pregnant, she was sent to Italy to have the baby.  Her step-mother's sister lived there, and the baby girl was left with her (although Ingun did eventually take custody of the child when she was around two years old). When Ingun returned to Sweden, she and Fredrik resumed their relationship and were eventually married, although they continued to live apart.   Fredrik, although a law student, was a typical spoiled brat:  lazy, frequently drunk, and chronically short of money.  Not long before the murders, Fredrik awoke to find his bed on fire (likely the result of passing out while smoking) and jumped from a three story window to escape the flames.  He suffered numerous broken bones and other injuries, so is it possible that what happened later was the result of some head trauma?  It certainly no doubt increased his consumption of drugs.  His behavior was so erratic that Ingun had filed for divorce, although she couldn't bring herself to go through with it, especially after he was injured.

On March 7, 1932 Hjalmar von Sydow's niece, who was living with the family, came home from school and discovered the bodies of Hjalmar, the maid Ebba Hamm and the cook Karolina Herou.  They had all been beaten to death, likely with an iron bar.  Since Fredrik was missing, the police immediately began searching for him.  Several visitors to the flat throughout the day reported that Fredrik met them at the door and wouldn't allow them in, but they did glimpse Ingun inside.  She had apparently helped to clean up the blood (although why bother when you leave 3 bodies behind?). After attempting to clean up the apartment, Fredrik and Ingun ordered a taxi and made a number of stops.  At one of them, Fredrik visited a friend and borrowed a pistol (the friend apparently didn't ask too many questions).  The champagne and oysters were flowing when the police managed to track the couple down at a restaurant.  Wanting to be discreet, the police asked a waiter to inform Fredrik that they wished to speak to him outside.  Fredrik and Ingun got up and walked toward the door.  Suddenly, in full view of several witnesses, Fredrik leaned forward and whispered something in Ingun's ear, then pulled out the pistol and shot her in the head.  He immediately then turned the gun on himself.

While the bare facts of the crime are well-known, this book is fascinating for the glimpse into the world of the surviving family members.  The author's mother was more or less shunned for the rest of her life -- so much so that she eventually moved with some of her children to Denmark to escape the notoriety.  In later years, she informed her daughter Helene that she had burned all the photos and letters from her family.  She was always reluctant to answer any questions about the case, so no doubt the author's curiosity was increased by the secrecy surrounding her family's history.

I enjoyed the story a great deal, and of course it was fascinating to read the author's interviews with people who were directly affected by the events that happened so long ago.  I appreciated the mix of fact and fiction that made this an interesting look into a tragic event.

Final Verdict for I Skuggan av ett Brott: Four Gherkins, for being a believable account at the lead-up to a horrific crime


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Making a bad situation infinitely worse

The series Accused takes a different approach to story-telling.  Each episode begins with an accused person sitting in a jail cell, being handcuffed to an officer, and escorted into a court room.  We then get the story of what brought the person to this point in his or her life.  It's generally not until the final few minutes of the episode, when the jury is asked if they find the accused guilty or not guilty, that we even find out what their crime is.   Still, it's very interesting to see how a series of bad decisions or events brought the defendants to that point.  The 10 episodes from Series 1 & 2 take a look at people charged with a variety of crimes and follows through to the jury's verdict.  Each episode features a talented cast of well-known actors.

Episode one, Willy's Story, stars Christopher Eccelston as a plumber with financial issues.  He's hardworking and honest, but when one of his big clients goes bankrupt and pays with a check that bounces, Willy starts down a road of financial disaster.  As frequently happens, this is just the first in a long series of problems:  his van breaks down, his daughter is planning a wedding he needs to pay for, and his plans to run off with his girlfriend is put in jeopardy.  He can't believe his luck when he finds an envelope full of cash in the back of a cab.  Is this the answer to all his problems, or another, even worse complication?  The local priest tries to convince Willy that all his problems will be solved by giving up "the other woman" but Willy seems to think he can solve all his problems and keep the girlfriend, too.

I found Frankie's Story, episode two, to be one of the most haunting.  Frankie and his friend Peter
decide to join the army after getting in trouble with the law.  They are sent to Afghanistan, where they encounter a brutal and sadistic officer, played with gusto by the usually mild-mannered Mackenzie Crook.  Peter comes from a military family, and so when he freezes in the middle of battle, he becomes the target of hostility and derision by the officer.  Frankie has to walk a fine line between loyalty to his friend, and avoiding becoming a victim of the officer as well.

Juliet Stevenson and Peter Capaldi star as bereaved parents in the third episode, Helen's Story.  When their son is killed on his first day of a temporary warehouse job, Helen attempts to find out what really happened.  The owner of the company, while sympathetic, is reluctant to answer any questions.  Her son's friend, who was with him when he died, has been offered a permanent position with the company and also refuses to answer her questions.  As she becomes more obsessed with finding out what happened, she finds herself blocked at every turn.  The company won't answer questions, and if she wants to pursue criminal charges, she and her husband must foot the bill themselves (which seems rather odd . . .).

Episode four is another case of events spiraling out of control for the title character, Liam (played by a wonderful Andy Serkis).  Liam is a taxi driver with a gambling problem.  He also has a disabled wife whose MS is only getting worse.  He and their teenage daughter do their best to look after her.  When Liam's daughter passes an entrance exam for an exclusive school, he's frantic that there's no money to buy a gift for her.  He takes a young woman to the airport for a business trip, and, realizing her flat will be empty while she's away, breaks in.  He finds a necklace that he plans to give to his daughter, but at the same time finds himself drawn to the young woman who lives there, Emma.  He arranges it so that he is always available when Emma needs a ride, and becomes more and more obsessed with her.

Kenny's Story, the fifth episode, plays on the fears of most parents.  When Kenny's young daughter is attacked in a local park, he and two friends set out to find the perpetrator.  Coming upon someone who seems to match the description of the molester, they attack the man.  When he dies of his
injuries, the trio become increasingly desperate in their attempts to cover their tracks.

The gorgeous Naomie Harris is Alison in the final episode from season 1.  Alison is a teacher for disabled children.  She and her husband are having problems, and so when a charming co-worker begins flirting with her, she doesn't exactly rebuff his advances.  While she's supposedly attending a conference in Glasgow, her husband sees on the news that the train she was traveling on was involved in a horrific crash.  When Alison walks in unharmed soon afterwards, her lie becomes exposed and she and her husband end their marriage.  A custody battle over their two children becomes nasty, and her ex-husband and his policeman father will go to any lengths to discredit Alison.

Series 2 begins with another downer, this time involving Mo and her friend Sue, single mothers raising their children on a crime-infested housing estate.  They work together in a salon, but enrage the local gangs when they refuse to close as a "mark of respect" during the funeral of one of their members.  Mo (played by Anne Marie Duff) and Sue (poor Olivia Coleman, whose characters can never seem to catch a break!) are targeted for retaliation.  When Sue's son Sean is gunned down, the two women become active in the local organization Women Against Guns.  Will this bring even more gang retaliation?

Stephen's Story concerns a young man who likely is suffering from schizophrenia.  Stephen's mother is dying of cancer, and a young nurse, Charlotte, comes to the house to offer palliative care.  Not long after his mother's death, Stephen is dismayed when Charlotte begins a relationship with his father and moves in.  Not only is she being increasingly bossy, but she also remodels his  mother's room and even manages to kill the family dog (although accidentally).  Stephen is hearing voices and people on TV are giving him advice about what he needs to do.  He becomes convinced that Charlotte is poisoning his family, and determines to save them.

A lonely, cross-dressing English professor is the main character in Tracie's story.  Simon is a boring professor by day, but at night he dresses to the nines and goes out on the town as Tracie.  Enjoying the attention she gets, Tracie (played by a wonderfully camp Sean Bean) flaunts herself around town.  When a rowdy bachelor party member begins hassling her, one of the other members of the group feels bad and offers Tracie a shared taxi.  Tracie invites him in, and a relationship begins.  The man, Tony, tells Tracie his wife died and that he wants a relationship with Tracie.  When Simon, who goes unnoticed by Tony, happens to see Tony with a woman, he realizes Tony has been lying.  Tracie presents an ultimatum, so which life will Tony choose?

The final episode, Tina's story, ties in two of the earlier stories from Season 2.  Tina is a guard at a young offender's prison.  The guards are short-staffed and overworked.  When Stephen Cartwright, from episode 2) arrives at the prison, Tina (played by Pemberley's Anna Maxwell-Martin) immediately feels something isn't right about him.  She's called away to escort another inmate to the sick bay, and tells her co-worker that Stephen needs to be watched and classified as mentally ill.  When she arrives back, she immediately checks on Stephen, and discovers he's committed suicide.  While she and her co-worker initially tell their superior and the boy's family that they didn't notice anything odd about his behavior, Tina eventually decides that she must tell the truth about what happened.  This will expose not only her, but also her co-worker, to disciplinary action -- which the co-worker wants to avoid at any cost.

I can't say Accused is exactly an uplifting series. You watch each episode with a rising sense of dread as you try to figure out just what the main character has done to land himself or herself on trial.  As events spiral out of control, it's increasingly depressing to watch a series of bad decisions turn the situation from bad to worse.   Still, it's fascinating to see how the characters get themselves into trouble and what happens once they are on trial.  The set also contains a "behind the scenes" feature where the producer, director and writer discuss the making of the series.  I especially liked the interview with the writer, Jimmy McGovern, who said he was inspired to write the series by cases he knew where people were serving life in prison for simply being "at the wrong place at the wrong time."  He particularly mentions the case of someone doing life for "using his cell phone at the wrong time."  Sadly, he doesn't elaborate, although I'm sure that's a case we'd all like to know more about!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Accused from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Accused:   Four Gherkins, for being a step-by-step look at how ordinary people can find themselves on the wrong side of the law

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Words to strike fear into the heart of any killer

DCI Vera Stanhope (played by the wonderful Brenda Blethyn) is still barking orders and driving her old Land Rover as head of the Northumberland and City CID in the newly released Set 4 of Vera.  She's ably assisted by a gang of dedicated cops, including DS Joe Ashworth, DC Rebecca "Shep" Shepherd and the put-upon and under-appreciated DC Kenny Lockhart.  Also, there's a hunky new pathologist, Marcus Summer (who quickly catches Shep's eye). Set 4 includes 4 episodes that were originally broadcast in the spring of this year.

Episode one, On Harbour Street, draws the attention of the police more quickly than most cases.  DS Ashworth is taking the train home with his young daughter Jessie when she becomes upset that an elderly lady is still sitting on the train when all the other passengers have gotten out.  She goes to wake the lady, only to discover she's dead.  It turns out that the lady in question, Margaret Kraszewski, has been stabbed.  Margaret lived in an old boarding house by the seaside and spent most of her time working with the local women's shelter.  An old photo of a young Margaret with some people from the village might hold the clue to her murder, but Vera's having a hard time tracking down all the players.  When a skeleton is discovered buried on an island not far from the boarding house, it looks like there are lots of secrets to be discovered.

Protected, the second episode, also concerns secrets from the past that are about to be exposed.  David Kenworthy is found gravely injured on the beach on the night of his father's big retirement party.  He dies before the ambulance arrives, and Vera sets out to discover why he's out wandering along the seafront and not at his father's party.  The elder Kenworthy is the owner of a big property development and management company, and David is set to take over.  The other son, Tom, has no interest in the business, and daughter Lorna is estranged from the family.  A man who runs the local arcade seems to have a grudge against the Kenworthy family, because in 1977 his son was killed by a fall from their roof.  He was suspected of being a burglar, but his father never believed that.  Still, it gives him a motive for seeking revenge.  Vera and her team are able to discover that Lorna had recently been in contact with David again, and also that the company was apparently running a scam by renting public housing to deceased people in order to collect money on ramshackle properties.  So many motives.  Good thing Vera has a dedicated crew ready to carry out her research requests, no matter how vague!

In the third episode, the Deer Hunters, Vera must go back to a world she knows very well:  that of poaching.  Her father wasn't opposed to doing some poaching in his day, and frequently took young Vera along.  So when the body of a man is found with a shotgun wound to the chest on the grounds of
the stately Peyton House, it looks as though he might have been interrupted in the act of poaching -- especially when pellets of food used to attract wildlife are found near the body.  Two teenage siblings, Saskia and Louis, find the body while 4-wheeling and immediately contact their mother, who works on the estate.  In fact, most of their family is employed by the estate.  Their grandfather is the gamekeeper and their aunt is married to the owner.  The dead man, Shane Thurgood, is a local man who had moved away years ago but recently come back when he inherited some property from his grandfather.  The mystery surrounding his death deepens when the burned out truck belonging to local ne'er-do-well Linus Campion is found not far from where the dead man was discovered.  Are the two crimes connected?  And why did Shane, who couldn't wait to leave the area, pull out of the sale of his grandfather's property -- a sale that would have solved his considerable financial problems?

Death of a Family Man, the final episode, concerns a man with an extremely complicated personal life.  John Shearwood is found floating in the river, and at first it seems like his death might be a suicide.  His shoelaces are tied together, which would have prevented him from swimming to safety if he changed his mind after jumping.  His injuries don't seem consistent with suicide, even if he did die by drowning.  His family, including wife Stella and brother Luke, insist the dead man can't be John, since he is in Dublin attending a conference.  They soon discover it is indeed him, and Vera sets to investigating his life. It turns out he was working with an agent from Revenue and Customs about a scam involving illegal liquor being run by one of his employees.  He also had a flat in town (in addition to his country house, where his family lived) which seems curiously un-lived in.  The investigators wonder where he was spending time if not in the flat, but that question is answered when a nosy neighbor makes an appearance and says the dead man is "Gemma's fiance."  John Shearwood seemed to be planning a new life with another woman, which comes as news to Vera, since his wife is saying that everything was fine between them.  John also was having financial problems, so there are plenty of places to look for reasons someone would want him dead.  At the same time, Vera seems to have caught the eye of an admirer.

It's great to see Vera up to her old self.  She likes a drink and is forever using her motherly, unassuming manner to put suspects at ease.  It was fun to see her frequently pulling food from her pockets and offering it to various people as she questions them.  Poor Kenny still seems to get the majority of the grunt work and the least recognition for his work, but he carries on.  I also enjoyed how the four episodes were tied together, with occasional references to things that had happened in previous episodes.  I see that there is a fifth season of Vera in the works, so I'm happy that we'll get more time with her and her team (and hopefully, the hunky Dr. Summer!).

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Vera: Set 4 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Vera: Set 4: Four Gherkins, for being the welcome return of a dedicated officer who always gets her suspect

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Questionable hospitality from the Taliban

Dr. Dilip Joseph was an Indian-American doctor serving with the non-governmental agency Morning Star when he was kidnapped by the Taliban while working in Afghanistan in 2012.  The time he spent in captivity and his rescue make up the story in Kidnapped by the Taliban.

Dr. Joseph was born in India and moved with his parents to the USA before his junior year in high school.  He had a background in public health when he decided to attend medical school after serving an internship in India and deciding that would be the best way to help people.  He married and had 4 children when he began working for the aid agency.  He had been to Afghanistan on aid missions nine times previously without incident before his luck ran out.  One day, while returning to Kabul from a remote village, he, his Afghan colleague Rafiq and their assistant and driver Farzad were intercepted by several Taliban fighters and forced to walk many miles to a remote cabin.

While the captives were understandably concerned about their fate, they were allowed to contact their superiors in the agency to let them know what had happened, and to try to facilitate their release.  The problem was that the Taliban fighters could not agree on what they wanted in exchange for the prisoners.  It varied from millions to thousands of dollars, then to the release of prisoners.  All the time, certain members of the Taliban were apparently arguing that they should just kill the captives.

As the prisoners are being moved around, they are treated fairly well and shown Afghan hospitality -- always given food and drink at the same time as their Taliban captives, for instance.  With Rafiq translating, Dr. Joseph is even able to learn a bit about some of the individual fighters who are holding him.  He begins to understand how people who have known nothing but war and violence might turn to the Taliban.

From the beginning, it seems, the location of the captives is known to the US military, and after four days Dr. Joseph is rescued in a raid by Navy SEALS (this isn't giving anything away, the subtitle of the book is "A Story of Terror, Hope, and Rescue by SEAL Team Six").  Rafiq and Farzad, being Afghans with local family connections, were released before Dr. Joseph due to local pressure.

After his ordeal, Dr. Joseph was debriefed and returned to the USA to be reunited with his family.  Throughout his confinement, his Christian faith sustained him and allowed him to remain strong and compassionate in the face of fear for his safety.  He hopes to one day be able to return to help in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

I really enjoyed the personal story of someone who went through such a traumatic experience, yet remains sympathetic and humble.  The fact that he wants to continue his aid work speaks to the genuinely good heart and humanitarian spirit that drives this compassionate doctor.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Kidnapped by the Taliban from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Step by step comic creation

With the growing popularity of graphic novels, it's no wonder that many people are interested in breaking into the field as artists and/or storytellers.  The new book Words for Pictures gives helpful advice from someone who has achieved success as a graphic novel author, but who found there were few places to turn for help when he was starting out.  Thankfully, there are now many more resources available for budding graphic novelists -- the author, Brian Michael Bendis, even teaches at the University of Oregon in the undergraduate comics program.  Some of the graphic novels he's worked on include the Avengers series and Halo, so he's had a lot of experience in the business.

The book begins with general writing advice that crosses all genres.  The author quickly points out that most authors don't make much money, and there's a great deal of competition for the public's money and attention.  That being said, the next chapter is a very detailed description of how to write a graphic novel -- starting out with such things as writing outlines and scripts before the art ever comes into it, and following up with stylistic additions such as lettering and color.

So many aspiring writers and artists have contacted the author with similar questions over the years that one entire chapter consists of FAQs about the business.  Also, many creative types are likely so caught up in their stories that they don't consider the legal/financial and other business aspects of their work.  The author's wife is his business manager, so there is an interview with her where she spells out the many mistakes he made when starting out.  There's also a helpful section on publishing terms.  Finally, the book ends with some writing exercises to get the creative juices flowing!

The book also includes sections where successful writers, editors, and artists are interviewed or discuss their creative processes.  Of course, the book is also lavishly illustrated with both black & white and color images taken from various graphic novels.  For the next Frank Miller or Will Eisner, this detailed and inspirational book will be an invaluable resource on every step of the creative process.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A very different Britain

Great Britain, especially London, was changed forever by the events of World War II.  While British forces eventually came out on the winning side, what if the opposite had happened?  The book The Darkest Hour imagines a London where the Germans have invaded and taken control while the King and pre-war government have fled to Canada.

The events in the book center around policeman John Henry Rossett.  A copper before the war, he was a war hero and even though he fought against the Germans, the occupying forces realize that his cool, detached nature and "by-the-book" officiousness will be useful to them.  He is rehired as a policeman and is given the job of helping to clear out Jewish settlements (where residents are loaded onto trains to be taken away), a job he does dispassionately and efficiently.  He does what he's told without much thought.  Not only have his war experiences damaged him, but he lost his wife and son in a resistance bombing in London.  So now he's without family and performs his duties in a mechanical manner.  He's trusted by the Nazis and grudgingly, if somewhat suspiciously, admired by his British co-workers on the police force.

One day, when clearing out a group of Jewish people from an apartment building, one old man takes Rossett aside and asks him to go back to the flat to retrieve his "treasure."  Rossett goes back and discovers a hole in the wall where a young boy is hiding.  Thinking the boy is the treasure, Rossett gets him out, only to find the boy also has a bag of gold coins.  Rossett dutifully takes the boy to police headquarters and turns him in (the trains have already left for the day), but inexplicably decides to say nothing of the gold coins.

Rossett's Nazi superior is Ernst Koehler, a somewhat sympathetic boss who, as long as everything is going to plan, is easy to deal with.  Unfortunately, the always hovering Herr Schmitt is just waiting to advance his career at the expense of anyone who gets in his way.  Not only the British, but also his fellow Nazi officers are always on their guard around Schmitt.

Before the Jewish boy, Jacob, can be sent to the train, Rossett returns to the jail and retrieves him.  While doing so, he also inadvertently frees some other prisoners, and this involves him in a dangerous game where the resistance, communists and the Nazis are all double-crossing each other.  It seems as if everyone is out to get Rossett, even more so when it emerges that the boy, Jacob, has told his captors that Rossett knows where some valuable diamonds are hidden.

Of course, there has to be a love interest as well, and this is in the form of Kate, secretary to Koehler and niece to Sir James Stirling, an aristocrat who works with the Nazis while secretly leading the resistance.  While Rossett works to stay ahead of all the various factions, he and Kate devise a plan to flee the country with Jacob.  However, time is running out, and the diamonds are a big incentive for everyone to track them down.

The story is very fast-paced and there is a lot of action.  There were several things in the story that didn't ring true for me, though.  Why would Rossett suddenly develop feelings for one of the Jews he was removing?  He'd been doing this job quite a while, and presumably had witnessed many children being deported, so why suddenly develop a conscience?  And why keep the gold?  There was no reason for him to not turn it in to his superiors, as he had always done in the past with valuable property, and he seemed to have no plan for what he was going to do with the gold.  Also, Jacob's grandfather had apparently witnessed Rossett removing Jews for a long time, and while he wasn't brutal in carrying out his duties, there's no real reason why the grandfather would have told Jacob to trust Rossett.  He would have seemed as much of a Nazi operative as anyone else.

If you can overlook those quibbles, however, this is an exciting look at what might have happened if Britain hadn't triumphed in WWII.

Disclaimer:  I received an advanced reader's edition of The Darkest Hour from the GoodReads First Reads program

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dr. Livingstone, abolitionist I presume?

Everyone has heard the phrase, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," but most probably don't know much about the background that led up to that famous quotation.  The book The Daring Heart of David Livingstone takes a look at the famous explorer, but focuses on his dedication to eradicating the slave trade in Africa.

David Livingstone was born into humble circumstances in Scotland in 1813.  He very early developed interests in both science and missionary work.  The London Missionary Society sent him, as an eager young recruit, to East Africa in 1841.  During his 15 years of work there, he performed the astounding feat of walking across Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean -- a journey that took 3 years.  During that time, he became alarmed at the slave trade that he observed.  Famous Englishmen such as William Wilberforce, William Pitt and Charles James Fox had successfully campaigned to end slavery in the British Empire.  In fact, most British citizens, at the time of Livingstone's work, had no idea that slavery was still going on in Africa.  However, due to geographic and financial limitations, the only real business being done in Central Africa at the time involved ivory and slaves.  It was a difficult job to get the ivory from the interior of the continent to the coasts where it could be shipped to Europe, so unscrupulous traders quickly established the practice of forcing people to work in transporting the ivory, and then, once they reached the coast, selling the workers as slaves.

During Livingstone's early African expedition, his main goal was to establish a trade route for African goods that would give the tribal chiefs income from commodities other than their own people.  Tales of his exploits enthralled the folks back home in Britain -- who were witnessing the decline of the British Empire.  His many contributions included new information about insects, weather, geology and medicine (he pioneered the use of quinine as a treatment for malaria).

When he returned home to seek funding for another African missionary trip, he was dismayed to learn that the London Missionary Society was not very impressed with the lack of converts he'd collected.  His trade plans and explorations were of little concern to them.  They refused to fund further expeditions.  Luckily, at the same time, the Royal Geographical Society had taken note of his many achievements and was able to persuade the government to offer him the position of roving British Counsel to East Africa, at a hefty salary.  In addition, they offered to fund his expedition to discover if the Zambezi River could be used for navigation for trade purposes.  Tired of depending on the slave labor United States, Britain was also eager to find alternative sources for growing sugar and cotton, and Livingstone was certain that there was plenty of fertile farmland available in Africa.

As with most things in his life, Livingstone's second expedition encountered many problems.  He traveled with a number of men with helpful skills, including a botanist, an engineer and a geologist.  His wife and young son initially accompanied the group, but when it was discovered his wife was pregnant, she was left behind in South Africa to have the baby.  The remaining group headed up the Zambezi in a steam ship.  Once the water became more shallow (faster than they had anticipated) they had to transfer their supplies into a smaller ship, the Ma-Robert. This enterprise took six months!  When they did eventually continue on the journey, they were soon forced to turn back due to extreme currents and waterfalls.  So the expressed purpose of the journey, finding a trade route along the Zambezi, was a failure.

Still, Livingstone was not defeated (even if his crew was by this time disheartened and thoroughly sick of their morose leader), and decided to investigate another river, the Shire.  Unfortunately, the area around the Shire River was the prime hunting grounds of the slave traders, so the locals were understandably alarmed by and hostile toward this new group of strangers.  When the Shire also proved to have non-navigable rapids, Livingstone turned to a new idea:  establishing a British colony in central Africa that would allow the poor of England to migrate and establish Christianity in Africa. Unfortunately, these plans didn't work out either, and a disheartened Livingstone returned in London.  His reception was vastly different from that he received upon his previous return.  The public and politicians had believed all of his grandiose talk of navigable rivers, a good climate, and a hospitable place for Christianity to take root.  Still, he wrote a new book about his most recent travels and attempted to get Britain more involved in eradicating the slave trade.

Livingstone's third and final expedition was funded once again by the government.  This time, the purpose of the journey was to discover the source of the Nile.  Livingstone planned to use the trip to continue his anti-slavery campaign.  Unfortunately, this trip was plagued by problems: lack of food, desertions among his men (including one who took all the group's medicine), diseases and heavy rains.  Additionally, the slave raids were continuing at a more alarming rate than ever before.  To make matters worse, in 1866 word reached Britain that Livingstone had been killed by a party of armed raiders.  While the world worried, in truth Livingstone was not dead (although he wasn't exactly in the prime of health), but he was lost somewhere in the wilds of Africa.  News that he was still alive eventually reached a relieved British public, but as Livingstone's supplies were plundered and he faced increasing difficulties, he was unable to get correspondence out.

With the whole world waiting for news, Henry Morton Stanley, a "traveling journalist" was given the assignment (along with a seemingly endless expense account) by the editor of the New York Herald to find Livingstone.  Stanley encountered the same harsh conditions as Livingstone had, but after 8 months, he was able to greet the man with the phrase that has become so well-known.  He even joined Livingstone for a time in his continuing efforts to find the source of the Nile.  When Stanley left to return to the US with his newspaper scoop, he brought along a letter from Livingstone outlining the horrors of the slave trade and imploring the world to do all in its power to stop it.  Even though he didn't live to see it, his efforts eventually had the desired effect of getting Britain involved in eradicating the slave trade in that part of Africa.

I really enjoyed learning more about this man and his dedication to stopping the slave trade.  His tireless efforts for so many years no doubt saved many lives.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Daring Heart of David Livingstone from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review.