Monday, January 27, 2014

While reading over some "best of" lists covering 2013, I came across the book The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood.  This title was recommended by Stephen King as one of his favorite books from last year.  Good enough for me!

The book deals with issues that are timely and have been in the headlines recently:  namely, what happens to child killers once they've been released back into society?  The story concerns two women, Amber and Kirsty.  Twenty years ago, when the girls were young, they were convicted of murdering a 4 year old child.  They were sent to separate institutions, and, in time, given new identities and released.  Each woman has maintained her anonymity, even from family and friends, and they have had no contact with each other in the years following their release.

In the present day, Amber works in management at an amusement park in the seaside town of Whitmouth.  She feels dowdy and unglamorous, but does have the consolation of living with the hunky Vic, who also works at the park.  Kirsty is married with two children and works as a journalist.  She travels around the country, following breaking news stories.  The worlds of the two women are about to collide when the bodies of murdered young women begin appearing in Whitmouth, and eventually even inside the park where Amber works.  Kirsty is sent to cover the story, and inevitably the two women reconnect.  Neither woman especially wants to re-establish contact, but Amber is an important witness Kirsty would like to interview and once they see each other, there is an immediate recognition. 

The chapters alternate between the events taking place in the present, and those that led up to the arrest and conviction of the two little girls.  As children, the lives of Bel and Jade (as they were known then) couldn't have been more different.  Jade came from a poor, neglectful family on a housing estate while Bel had a more privileged upbringing -- at least materially.  Bel's mother had re-married and had another child, and while Bel lives in an upperclass area, she is neglected by her parents and overlooked in favor of her mother's child with the new husband.  On the day of the crime, Bel and Jade meet for the first time in a candy store.

At the same time, a disturbed loner develops a fixation on one of Amber's co-workers that shifts itself to Amber when he believes Amber is the reason the woman will no longer speak to him.  He observes the meetings between Amber and Kirsty, and, wanting to get revenge, begins following the women.

The book addresses a lot of important social issues, such as the varying quality of rehabilitation programs and the issue of trying children in adult court.  The mob violence and hysterical atmosphere that surround criminal cases these days are also held up for examination.  The book certainly was a page turner, both as I waited to see if the women's true identities would be exposed, and to find out what really happened when the child was killed all those years ago.
Final Verdict for The Wicked Girls  Four Gherkins, for being a thought-provoking novel about some important social issues

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A story set in Victorian England has all the elements to draw me in:  elaborate clothing, strict rules of behavior, upper-class people who think they are above the law, and lower-class people who silently observe and keep society running.  Anne Perry, whose William Monk and Thomas Pitt characters form the basis of many of her novels, has a new mystery set in the same time period titled A Christmas Hope.  Although none of her more familiar characters makes an appearance here, the main character, Claudine Burroughs, volunteers her time at the clinic for fallen women that Hester Monk founded.

The story begins with Claudine and her somewhat overbearing husband Wallace attending a winter party at the home of one of their society acquaintances.  During the party, Claudine steps outside for some fresh air and makes the acquaintance of Dai Tregarron.  Tregarron is notorious both for his poetry and his drunkenness, but his thoughtful conversation intrigues Claudine.  Not long after, a young prostitute is found grievously injured outside the house, and some of the young men present claim to have seen Tregarron strike the woman.  She is taken to a hospital, but in the confusion, Tregarron disappears.

Not long afterwards, the woman dies, and Tregarron shows up at Claudine's house, asking for her help in proving his innocence.  Claudine doesn't know where to turn to accomplish this, but luckily she is able to call on the assistance of one Squeaky Robinson.  Squeaky has a less-than-squeaky-clean past, and so is a good person to enlist for questioning people from the lower echelons of society.  He works with Claudine at the clinic and they have established a grudging respect for each other. 

Claudine has, in common with Hester Monk, a strong sense of what's right and will do whatever is necessary in order to see that justice is served.  This streak of stubbornness and independence puts her at odds with her husband Wallace, who wishes his wife would be a bit more compliant and conventional.  Even though he blusters and forbids Claudine to get involved, when she disobeys him, there are no consequences.  They live separate and at times opposing lives and so Claudine must find her sense of worth and happiness in her work at the clinic (and solving mysteries!).

I wish the Monks had made an appearance in this book, but it was not to be.  I found Claudine to be an admirable and strong woman, but I found Wallace's blustering and attempts to control his wife somewhat puzzling.  He presumably had the power to exert more control over her if he chose to do so, but instead, he seemed to just shout and turn red a lot.  Still, all ends up being put right at the end, and Claudine continues her work at the clinic no matter what Wallace has to say about it!  Overall, fans of Anne Perry will enjoy this Victorian-era novel where the women have to do all the work to keep society on the straight and narrow.

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of A Christmas Hope from NetGalley

Final Verdict for A Christmas Hope: Three Gherkins, for being a welcome look at the activities of an unconventional Victorian woman

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Books about happiness and how to achieve it seem to be all the rage lately.  I was interested to read The Happiest Life to see if I could gain any insights that would help me lead a happier life.  The author of the book, Hugh Hewitt, is a nationally syndicated radio host, and in the book he discusses the many famous people he's interviewed over the years.  He gives some insight into what makes for a good interview, even if he and the interviewee don't always see eye to eye.

He lists both seven gifts and seven givers who can impact the lives of those they interact with.  The seven gifts are encouragement, energy, enthusiasm, empathy, good humor, graciousness and gratitude.  Each gift is explained in its own chapter with plenty of examples that Hewitt has witnessed in his own life.  The seven givers are the spouse, the parent, family members, friends, the coworker, teachers and the church.

I wish this book could have been more focused on the message, instead of using every opportunity to bash those with differing political or ideological viewpoints from the author.  There are many snide comments and belittling asides about those he perceives as not having he same viewpoint he does.  There's also so much name-dropping and thanking of those who have helped the author along the way that the book becomes very tedious in places.  I think if you can look at his seven gifts, and realize that they can be "given" freely and without much effort to friends and strangers alike, you don't really need to wade through the self-congratulation that makes up the bulk of the book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Happiest Life from the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review

Friday, January 10, 2014

Last year the book The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry gained a lot of attention for author Rachel Joyce, so I was happy to see that she has a new novel, Perfect, out.  This is a story of the friendship between two boys and how one incident can change lives forever.

The book jumps back and forth between 1972 and today, although it's not apparent at first that the time is shifting.  That is in line with the rest of the book, which concerns time and how it impacts our lives.  In 1972, two boys, James and Byron, go to private school and live fairly privileged lives in England.  James, who seems to Byron to be much smarter and more confident than he is, mentions that 2 seconds are going to be added to the calendar in order to align leap year with the Earth's rotation (or something like that).  For some reason, this announcement preys on Bryon's mind and makes him worried that something terrible is going to happen.  You can't just play with time like that, can you?  He begins obsessing over when these seconds will be added, and what effect it will have on his life.  Byron and his younger sister Lucy live with their parents in a large house in the countryside, although is father is away working throughout the week. Byron's beautiful but highly strung mother Diana is driving the children to school one day in a thick fog when she decides to take a short cut through the (horrors!) housing estate for the "lower classes" on the outskirts of town.  While she's attempting to negotiate through the fog, Bryon sees his watch stop, then re-start.  Obviously, he's just witnessed the addition of the two seconds.  He thrusts his watch in front of his mother's face to show her, and she slams on the brakes.  When she starts the car again, Bryon sees a bicycle on the ground, and a little girl lying motionless next to it.  His mother continues on as if nothing has happened, but Byron knows she's hit the little girl.

Being a worrier (as we've seen), he immediately tells his friend James what's happened.  This starts the boys on Operation Perfect -- their investigation of the "crime" and attempts to get Byron's mother to take responsibility for what happened to avoid further trouble.  They make observations, take notes, and come up with a plan to solve the problem. 

Diana, for her part, is totally dominated by her older husband.  He is very suspicious and calls every day, interrogating her on where she's been and what she's doing.  She is obsessed with keeping schedules and making sure everything is kept to her husband's exacting standards.  It's a full-time job and one that never seems to make anyone happy.  When Byron tells her about the little girl, she refuses to believe it until she spies a small fleck of red on the hubcap of the car, and decides it must have come from the girl's bicycle.  She takes Bryon along as she goes to the housing estate in search of the little girl's parents.

Unfortunately, from there I had a sinking feeling.  The "lower class" mother, getting an eyeful of the expensively dressed Diana pulling up in a Jaguar, sees her opportunity when Diana comes to ask about the little girl and any possible injuries.  Soon Beverley (the scheming mother) is visiting Byron's house every day, and items start mysteriously disappearing.  While at first Diana seems happy to have a friend, things only get worse from there.  Just how far will Beverley go to exploit Diana's guilty conscience and fear of exposure?

Alternating with the 1972 events are chapters about "Jim."  He lives in a van and has obsessive compulsive disorder.  He has to complete numerous rituals every day to ensure that "nothing bad happens."  He tells of being a resident in a mental institution for most of his life, until it was closed and the residents were parceled out to relatives or (as in Jim's case) pretty much left to fend for themselves.  He has a job at a restaurant, but because of numerous shock treatments he endured, he is not able to speak very clearly, so he avoids most personal contact.  It takes a while to figure out that Jim's story is happening in modern times, and not at the same time as the 1972 events.

Toward the end of the book there is a "twist" which I'm sure is meant to catch the reader off-guard, but I didn't find it as unsettling as perhaps I was meant to.  The explanation of how things came to be as they are now in the modern sections of the book seemed a bit rushed and unclear.  Still, it was interesting to sit back and wait for events to unfold.

Disclaimer:  I received an Advanced Reader's Edition of Perfect from the Random House

Final Verdict for Perfect: Three Gherkins, for being an engrossing, if ultimately disappointing look at the unraveling of a family

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Thanks to everyone who entered my giveaway to win a copy of the book The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey. choose the winner:

who was tatertot374 (beth)!

Thanks again to everyone who entered, and to The Penguin Group for providing the prize!

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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