Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Gearing up for Downton Abbey's return

January 3 is the date for the PBS premier of the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey.  Fans are anxious to find out what has been happening with the inhabitants of Downton, both upstairs and downstairs.  To get ready for the final season, fans will enjoy this Ultimate Map of Downton Abbey Locations from wayfair.co.uk:



Clicking on the icon for each location will show you a photo and more information about the place, including how it was shown in Downton Abbey.  The icon at the top right of the map also shows what types of locale are included (museum, castle, etc.) and whether or not they allow visitors.

This great map will surely give fans of the series plenty of ideas of places to visit during their next visit to the UK! In the meantime, enjoy the map and see if you can spot any of the places when series 6 begins in a few weeks!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Put the drugs down!

It's no secret that bad habits (including negative self-talk) are hard to break.   The revised and expanded edition of Change Your Brain Change Your Life explores how to make lasting changes that will help you overcome behaviors and compulsions that are holding you back from living a productive, fulfilling life.

The author, Daniel G. Amen, is the head of a group of clinics that use SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) studies to scan the brains of patients to determine if there are biological issues causing such problems as anxiety, weight control, or ADHD. Most patients he sees have never had studies taken of their brains, but have rather immediately been prescribed numerous medications in an effort to attack their symptoms, without ever trying to get at the root of the problem. Dr. Amen's philosophy is to see if non-pharmaceutical therapies might not work better and be long-term solutions for many of his patients. He does this by seeing what parts of the brain suffer from decreased blood flow or activity, and developing an individualized plan for treatment of that specific condition.

Even if you don't have access to a center where a SPECT scan can be done of your brain, Dr. Amen uses what he has learned from studying brain scans over the years to give advice to people suffering from various behavioral and emotional problems.  Various conditions are explored (including anxiety, impulsiveness, worry, etc.) including what part of the brain controls such behavior.  Then, strategies for dealing with each condition are outlined in 4 areas: biological, psychological, social and spiritual.  Plenty of examples involving real people and situations are used to demonstrate how each condition might manifest itself followed by coping strategies in each of the 4 areas.

Even if you suffer from a condition, such as ADHD, there are differing types.  Chapter 16 goes into detail about the various types of ADHD, anxiety and depression, addition and overeating.  If you suffer from any of these conditions, you will probably see yourself in one of the descriptions. One thing I found surprising was how resistant the medical community was toward using brain scans to diagnose biological causes of medical problems.  As Dr. Amen says, psychiatrists are the only doctors who don't get a look at the organ that is troubling their patients.  His advice is useful for everyone and likely will help to reduce the number of unnecessary medications that are taken by people with problems caused by underlying biological conditions.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Change Your Brain Change Your Life from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review


Escaping from tyranny

Most days the news brings us a story of some compelling human interest. While we are riveted for a few days, invariably another story grabs the headlines and we soon forget about the people whose story fascinated us just a few days ago.  It's rare that we get to revisit these people and find out what happened to them once the spotlight faded. The book "My Name is Mahtob" involves a young woman whose name we might not know, but whose story is likely familiar.

Mahtob Mahmoody was born in Texas in 1979 to an American mother and an Iranian father.  Her story eventually was told in the movie "Not Without My Daughter" starring Sally Field.  This book is the story of the young girl who was the center of that drama, and what has happened to her since the events in the book.

At age five, the family went to Tehran to visit her father's family, but he had no intention of coming back to the United States.  He was unpredictably violent and abusive, and refused to allow Mahtob and her mother to return to the United States.  He also censored their mail from relatives back home, and forced them to write letters about how much they loved their new lives in Iran.  At the same time, the war between Iran and Iraq was escalating, and bombings were a frequent occurrence.  Mahtob's controlling father at first refused to allow his wife and daughter out of his sight, but eventually he relaxed control enough for them to go out shopping for daily necessities, which ended up taking most of every day.  They planned an escape and when the time was right, they were able to flee and return to her mother's family in Michigan.

They went by new names and Mahtob's mother achieved some degree of closure by working on the book "Not Without My Daughter."  Mahtob was negatively affected by her experiences, and grew to hate everything to do with Iran, and her father especially.  Much to her mother's credit, she tries to get Mahtob to remember some good times with her father, mainly to keep Mahtob from becoming bitter and angry.  Her mother wanted a divorce, but filing would open them up to all sorts of dangers -- their location would be revealed to her father, and likely he would be granted unsupervised visits with his daughter, leaving him free to take her out of the country again.

This situation allowed Mahtob's mother to become a vocal advocate for safeguarding the rights of parents whose children were taken to other countries by estranged parents.  Mahtob spent her childhood afraid of being abducted by her father, yet at the same time sad about her estrangement from other members of her family.  This book is a very interesting look behind the headlines into the live of a resilient young woman who overcame huge obstacles to live a fulfilling life.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of My Name is Mahtob from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, December 7, 2015

My tongue has some more things to say

Fans of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency will be happy to see there are new adventures for the hardworking sleuths in The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine.  The detective agency is pretty much in the same spot where we left it: co-managers Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, and assistant Charlie are waiting in the office for clients to appear while drinking endless pots of red bush tea.

All this changes, however, when Mma Makutsi gets it into her head that Mma Ramotswe needs a vacation.  It's never easy to argue with her, and when Mr. JLB Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe's husband, endorses the plan, there seems to be no option but to take time off.  Luckily, Mr. Polopetsi, who teaches part-time at the local high school, is called upon to fill in during Mma Ramotswe's absence.

Soon this enforced leisure begins to take its toll on Mma Ramotswe.  Just why, she wonders, was Mma Makutsi so insistent that she remove herself from the office?  Is she planning a takeover of some sort?  This seems unlikely, as Mma Makutsi is already a partner and is married to the successful furniture store owner Phuti Radiphuti.  Still, the whole thing doesn't sit well . . .

The opportunity for dropping by to check on things crops up, and her visit to the office does nothing to calm Mma Ramotswe's fears.  Mma Makutsi seems to be acting in a rather strange and secretive manner, although she insists nothing is wrong and she has everything under control.  Luckily, Mr. Polopetsi contacts her with a plea for help, and that gives Mma Ramotswe the opening she needs to immerse herself in the current case, which involves trying to find out if there is any scandal attached to a Mr. Government Keboneng, who is recently late.  The case seems a little complicated, so why would Mma Makutsi pawn it off on the relatively inexperienced Mr. Polopetsi?

At the same time, the evil Violet Sephotho makes an appearance as she tries to steal some of Mma Ramotswe's thunder by opening the No. 1 Ladies' College of Secretarial and Business Studies -- a development that offends Mma Makutsi as well (as a proud graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College).  And the tiny white van is still going strong, although, as usual, it suffers some injuries in the course of the adventures of its driver.

As always, it's wonderful to take a step back and enjoy a visit with the beloved cast of characters in Zebra Drive and Tlokweng Road.  The people are friendly, their manners polite, and there's no problem so big that can't be solved over a cup of red bush tea and a slice of fruitcake.  I'm anxiously awaiting the next adventures of the No. 1 Detectives!

Final Verdict for The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine Four Gherkins, for being a pleasant trip to visit old friends





I have to write about this on my blog!

Little Miss Overshare is so excited about every little thing that happens in her life that she's sure you'll want to hear about it, too.  It doesn't matter if you are a long-suffering roommate, co-workers in a professional setting, or strangers asking directions, Little Miss Overshare will gladly and openly provide details of her life that no one wants to hear.  Not that this slows her down at all!

Little Miss Overshare is a parody in a series of books by the author Dan Zevin.  Some other titles include Mr. Selfie and Mr. Humblebrag.  While each small book no doubt reveals characters that we all encounter on a daily basis, for sheer self-absorption and cluelessness, it would be hard to top Little Miss Overshare.

The book is very tiny, only about 5 inches square and 30 pages long.  Each page of "oversharing" is accompanied by a drawing of an excited looking Little Miss Overshare along with pained looking recipients of her pronouncements.  The book is cute and entertaining, and I'm sure it will call to mind people in our own lives who are fond of imparting TMI in social settings.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Little Miss Overshare from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Did you attend Nazi Confectionary College?

If you've ever wished you could hire someone for a good argument, or dispute the health of a parrot, or felt the irresistible urge to get from point A to B via a funny walk, you can thank John Cleese.  His memoir So Anyway . . . chronicles his life from his upbringing in a small English seaside town, to his worldwide fame as a comedian in Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers.

Cleese was born when his parents were already in their 40s.  He describes them as overprotective and suggests this was the reason he was somewhat reserved and "unmanly" during his youth.  The family surname had started out as "Cheese" but his father changed it when he enlisted in World War I (although Cleese says this didn't stop him from being called Cheese during his school years).  His father was calm, patient and kind but his mother could be unpredictable, difficult and anxious.  Therefore, he had a hard time with his relationships to women throughout his life.

The book details his early days at a boys school, where he was a day pupil rather than a boarder.  Eventually he discovered a love and talent for cricket, which helped him find his place in school.  He eventually went to Cambridge, originally to study science but later switching to law.  Before he started his university studies, he taught history to elementary school boys, an experience he greatly enjoyed.  While at Cambridge, he became involved in the Footlights committee, a theatrical group, and really got his start writing and performing comedy.  He still intended to make a career in law, but  after meeting Graham Chapman, he changed direction.

He goes on to describe his years in television and his collaboration with other entertainment greats such as his fellow Monty Python actors, Peter Sellers and David Frost.  He also discusses his meeting and work with his first wife, Connie Booth, known to TV audiences as the long suffering maid Polly in Fawlty Towers.  The book basically ends as Monty Python gets started, but there is an afterward where Cleese discusses the reunion shows that the surviving members performed in 2013.  They were unsure of the reception they'd receive, but the fact that they were able to sell out all the shows is a testament to the enduring fondness the public has for the zany antics of the Python crew.

This book is an interesting look at how a comedy legend got his start.  It is told in an amusing, self-depreciating way, and is quite entertaining. Perhaps the details of his career leading up to forming the Python group are a bit too long, but overall, for anyone who is a fan, this is a pleasant visit with someone who feels like a somewhat eccentric uncle.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of So Anyway . . . from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Ringing the dinner bell

With the holidays coming around, many people will be getting ready to prepare special foods for friends and family.  While there are certainly family favorites that will be prepared time and time again, every table can benefit from a new recipe or two.  Whitney Miller's New Southern Table features recipes from the Masterchef winner's family as well as inspiration from her world travels.

The book as all the usual categories, including Breakfast, Sunday Dinners and "Somethin' Sweet," as well as directions for preparing "Essentials and Enhancers" (such things as ketchup, various types of pesto and peanut butter).  There's also a helpful section titled "My Southern Pantry" that includes staple items that everyone should have on hand.

The recipes include such favorites as Turkey Potpie, Fried Green Tomatoes and Pork Ribs.  Many of the recipes have been tweaked to include lower fat/sugar/calorie options from ones Miller grew up enjoying (such as using olive oil to make biscuits).

Most of the recipes include delicious-looking photos of the finished dishes to entice would-be cooks to get busy!  There are also a large number of photos of the author's family (some identified by captions -- I just assume the non-captioned photos contain members of her family).  If you aren't related to her, I fail to see the appeal of all the photos.  Each recipe is introduced with a small explanation of why it's included or how she's updated a recipe (again, lots of "I remember back when my grandma . . ." type asides thrown in that will be of limited appeal to those outside her inner circle).

Overall, it's a very nice cookbook, with appealing recipes that don't require a lot of specialized ingredients or equipment (she recommends using a plastic freezer bag with a corner cut off for piping, for instance).  Plenty of substitutions are included as well, in case every ingredient isn't to your liking.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Whitney Miller's New Southern Table from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'm repelled by what I see

We seem to think that an obsession with weight and dieting is a fairly modern idea.  The reality series The Diets That Time Forgot shows that our counterparts from as far back as the Victorian era were trying all sorts of things to get rid of unwanted pounds.  This 6 part series takes a group of 9 overweight people and divides them into groups to test out diets from the past to see which, if any, are effective.

The three time periods are:

1) The Victorians, which are on a mostly meat-based diet

2) The Edwardians, who can eat whatever they want, but must chew every mouthful 32 times

and

3) The 1920s, who are on a strict limit of 1200 calories per day

The 9 volunteers are sequestered in a beautiful stately home re-titled "Sir Roy's Institute of Physical Culture" for this program.  Sir Roy Strong, the former head of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is the leader of the project, assisted by various experts in things such as health, physical exercise, movement and other aspects of wellness.

There's an added degree of difficulty:  as well as conforming to diets from the past, the contestants from each time frame must also wear the clothing from that era -- this includes when they are exercising or otherwise doing anything involving physical exertion.  That alone makes gives the 1920s team something of an edge, as their clothing is looser and the women don't have to deal with corsets and stays.

The first episode introduces the contestants to their new way of eating during the 24 days of the experiment.  The Edwardians, who must chew every bit 32 times, also find out they must tip their heads back and let the well-chewed mess slide down their throats -- whatever is left, they must spit out.  Charming!

The second episode starts the contestants on the exercise ideals from their time periods.  The
Victorians were concerned with balance, posture and breath control, while the Edwardians first attempted to isolate and train various muscle groups using weights.  The 1920s group got a more games-based, PE approach.  This is also when the strange ideas that supposedly aid in weight loss began, starting with cold baths and immersion in cold baths.  It was thought that the shivering would help in weight loss!

Part three brought the contestants into the great outdoors for events such as the "paperchase," where some contestants would leave a trail of small bits of paper through the woods that the other contestants had to follow.  The 1920s contestants were also introduced to "naturism," which involved exercising in the nude.  Not surprisingly, not all the contestants were eager to give that a try.  There were also fads with different types of "bathing," including air bathing (a favorite of Florence Nightengale, who was all for fresh air, no matter what the temperature) and sand bathing, which theoretically causes you to sweat out the calories while being buried in sand with only your head left exposed.

Episode four looked at the "great insides" and how the various groups attempted to manipulate their bodies into expelling, rather than turning excess calories into fat.  Some of the ideas introduced here included abdominal massage, saunas, vibrating belts, and colonic irrigation.  Phase five involved increasing the contestants' self-reliance and motivation.  The groups worked together in an orienteering challenge, which involved setting up a a camp and preparing wild game.  There are also some temptations set out to see if anyone will take the bait, and, not surprisingly, there are some cheaters . . .

The final episode shows some extreme measures that have been employed throughout the ages to try and achieve quick weight loss (some things never change!).  Some things that are demonstrated are "slimming pills," electric current, and hypnotherapy.  At the final weigh-in, we get to see which of the three diets was the overall winner based on the total weight loss of the teams.

It was quite interesting to see how diets and weight-loss ideas haven't really changed much over the years.  While the contestants were able to lose some weight, I doubt that any of them would want to stick to the regimes they were given during the program.  Still, I'm sure the overall ideas of nutrition and exercise were useful to them in the outside world.

A warning for those who might be interested in watching, this series contains some nudity, bad language and scenes of skinning and preparing wild game.

Final Verdict for Diets That Time Forgot: Three Gherkins, for being and interesting look at weight-loss strategies from days gone by



Saturday, October 17, 2015

Be intentional with your money

Nearly everyone is looking for ways to make some extra money.  Blogger Crystal Paine has taken the lessons she's learned about generating extra income and collected them into the book Money Making Mom.  She stresses that having more money won't solve all your problems, but it will give you the freedom to live, save, and give on your own terms.

While on the Internet, it's easy to become enthusiastic when reading about how others have been successful at creating their own businesses, but this book stresses that you have to find an idea that utilizes your own unique talents.  There are questions to help you discover the areas in which you excel, as well as worksheets to help you identify your strengths.  Even though someone else might have made a success of selling a particular product or service, if your talents don't lie in that area, you risk losing time, money and motivation on something that will never be profitable for you.

Another chapter gives the pros and cons of various business options, including multi-level marketing, home-based vs. online vs. brick-and-mortar businesses.  Once you've identified the best business model for your idea, then there are helpful options in terms of writing a mission statement, marketing and networking.  Still stuck for ideas?  There are some suggestions for starting your own business such as blogging, pet care, virtual assisting, mystery shopping, etc.  Each option is defined, then there are useful websites or books mentioned that will allow further exploration to determine if this is a good option for you.

Once your business is up and running, there are also things you have to do to ensure that things run smoothly.  Suggestions are provided for time management, overcoming fear of failure and dealing with negativity from others.  When you're finally running a successful business, the author also gives you ideas on how to give wisely and generously.  A list of resources, including websites, books and podcasts is included at the end of the book.

I think this is a very inspiring and informative look at ways to start a business.  I really like the variety of ideas on identifying your talents and how to go about setting up a business that help you to consider aspects that might not first be apparent.  Anyone looking to make some extra money could find many valuable ideas in this book!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Money Making Mom from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Chruchill's trial is also our trial

Sir Winston Churchill is rightly regarded as one of the premier statesmen of the 20th century. His unflinching leadership during the second world war inspired his country during dark times and gained him the admiration of people around the world.  The book Churchill's Trial takes a look at the career and driving forces behind this leader, from World War II and beyond.

The book is divided into three sections which reflect the three major forces that Churchill faced during his career:  the war years, the struggle to maintain the British empire, and the rise of socialist policies following the war.

Churchill's work during the war is well documented, but I was more interested in reading about his attitudes following the war.  Apparently, he believed that the countries in the British Empire would want to stay part of the empire "by principle and sentiment."  Surprisingly, countries in the British empire contributed nearly a third of the soldiers and suffered nearly half the casualties of British forces in World War II.  Certainly, the point can be made that Britain might not have been on the winning side in the war without the assistance of so many soldiers from the empire.  At the same time, Churchill didn't believe that these countries had the ability to govern themselves.  While this put him at odds with the United States, he held firm in his belief that Britain could best govern these countries, and that the people were incapable of doing it themselves.  He was also of the viewpoint that maintaining order was the most important thing ("harsh laws are sometimes better than no laws at all").  While his viewpoints might seem at odds with modern ideas, the author does believe that British influence had a great impact on the establishment of modern democratic India and that, in the long run, the Indian people as a whole are better off than they might otherwise have been.

During Churchill's lifetime, the Labour party was formed and governed Britain.  He fought their ideals of nationalization for the rest of his life, even though he was to lose this battle.  Churchill believed that Capitalism unequally shared the wealth, but that Socialism was more than happy to spread misery to everyone.  He was also concerned that when problems arose in a Socialist society, that leaders would resort to a "Gestapo" to keep order.  His opposition to Socialism was so staunch that he refused to work with any Socialists in cabinets or coalitions, except when the stresses of World War II required him to set his principles aside.  He was gracious in defeat in 1945 when his party lost to the Labour party, but he was concerned that the British nation was changing in character (for the worse, of course!) due to the hardships caused by the war.  At the same time that he opposed Socialism, Churchill did see the need for social and economic reforms, and even supported some of these reforms.  However he disliked the thought of big government and feared that it would not be able to better serve the needs of the people than the systems of rule that had come before.

The book ends with some of Churchill's writings and speeches.  Overall, the book is an interesting look at a well-known leader that helped to shape modern Britain.


Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Churchill's Trial from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, September 28, 2015

Some people don't appreciate their good luck

Poor Julia Conley.  Her previously unknown Aunt Regina has died and left her a house in London.  Why do these things never happen to me?  The book That Summer follows Julia as she heads to London to get the house ready for sale and what happens when she uncovers a mystery at the house.

Julia has lived most of her life in New York City.  Parents are from England, but after the death of her mother when Julia was a child, her surgeon father relocated to NYC.  Julia grew up with only a few vague memories of her mother.  When the story opens, Julia has recently been laid off from her finance job in the city, and despite her best efforts, has been unable to find another position.  The letter from England informing her of her inheritance couldn't have come at a better time.

She packs up and travels over to London to inspect the house.  It's old and has been somewhat neglected.  It also turns out the Great Aunt Regina was something of a hoarder, with boxes of papers and receipts stashed in every room.  Julia soon notices a portrait in the living room of a woman in mid-nineteenth century dress.  The painter turns out to be someone she's never heard of, Gavin Thorne, who was an associate of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

As Julia begins to attempt to sort through the mess in the house, she's "helped" by her cousin Natasha.  It seems Natasha, daughter of her mother's cousin Caroline, is only too eager to help.  Natasha also brings along her friend Nicholas Dorrington.  Nicholas owns an antiques shop, and Natasha says he'll be able to help identify any valuable items.  As they get to work, Julia soon discovers a painting hidden away in the back of a wardrobe.

The action set in the present day alternates with the story of Imogen Grantham.  Imogen's story takes place mainly in the 1840s.  She was a young, isolated girl living with her widowed father when she met Arthur Grantham.  Arthur seemed dashing a refined, and the young Imogen was thrilled by his proposal.  When her father died, it seemed only natural for her to marry Arthur.  Arthur's first wife had died, leaving him with a young daughter and (unfortunately) a sister-in-law, Jane, who lived in his home.  It soon becomes apparent that Jane doesn't appreciate having a new female in the home.

Arthur is kind to Imogen, but he treats her as one of his possessions -- something to be acquired and showed off in public, but pretty much ignored at home.  Imogen becomes terribly bored.  When Arthur decides to have Imogen's portrait painted, he hires Gavin Thorne, a young up-and-coming artist.  Due to the long process of having a portrait painted, Gavin and Imogen spend a lot of time together.  Before long, events take a predictable turn . . .

The present-day sleuths quickly suspect that the painting found in the wardrobe is by Thorne, but it is one that is unknown in the art world.  Thorne only produced a handful of paintings, and he seemed to disappear, reportedly to Australia, never to be heard from again.  Julia and the attractive Nicholas also become close as they attempt to sort out whether the painting is indeed by Thorne.  But does Nicholas have ulterior motives for wanting to help Julia???

I enjoyed the back-and-forth stories in the book, although I thought the resolution of the historical one was left a little vague.  It seemed somewhat rushed at the end.  But maybe that's just sour grapes coming from someone who's still waiting to inherit a house in central London!

Final Verdict for That Summer:Three Gherkins, for being a two-pronged London mystery

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

On your marks, get set, BAKE!


The Great British Baking Show is back!

Armchair bakers, rejoice!  The drama-filled Great British Baking Show returns for its second season on PBS on Sundays beginning September 6.  It will air from 7:00 - 8:00 PM (but check your local listings to verify the broadcast time).  All of the favorites from the first series are back, including Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry (the Doyenne of Baking).  Episode one looks ready to get off to a delicious start, when all of the challenges involve cakes (don't watch on an empty stomach!).

The 13 amateur bakers will be challenged each week in three categories.  The Signature Bake generally requires the contestants to bake a tried and true recipe in a given category.  The Technical Bake gives ingredients, but not much in the way of instructions.  The Showstopper Bake involves creations of jaw-dropping complexity and creativity.  It is no surprise that the winner of last season's show was a carpenter!

The 10 week series will be sure to have plenty of drama, tears and stress as the bakers compete to be crowned Master Baker of the week, as well as to avoid elimination and to move on to the next round. The Great British Bake Off (to use its UK title) has won several awards in its five seasons, and so we can hope that more seasons will be shown here in the US!  

If you miss the Sunday night broadcast, there are numerous ways to catch up!  The episodes will be available for streaming through your local PBS station's website the morning after the original airing, and can also be streamed through Roku, Apple TV, Xbox and apps for iPhone and iPad.  Additionally, for those who are brave enough, you can visit PBS Food to see recipes (in case you're feeling creative), video clips, or just to learn more about the contestants.

I'm really looking forward to another season of this great series!  You wouldn't think there would be that much drama in the kitchen, but it's amazing to see how well the contestants (if not always their creations!) perform under pressure.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bless this bag of Cheetos

Just what is a Jackwagon, you may be asking yourself?  As comedian Tim Hawkins points out on the back cover of his book Diary of a Jackwagon, it's an old term referring to military vehicles that were repaired with spare parts and were therefore unreliable.  He uses the term to refer to himself, as someone who is lacking in achievement and who frequently messes up.

The book is a collection of "comedy journal" entries that Hawkins has kept over his 20 year career as an entertainer.  He offers his humorous observations on topics such as marriage, homeschooling (which he and his wife participate in), aging and society.  Each chapter ends with some "Tweet Thoughts" -- Twitter postings he plans to unleash at some point.

The observations are pretty funny and he seems like a down-to-earth and self-effacing kind of guy.  However, the material does seem to get slightly repetitive (his wife is great and he doesn't deserve her, things are different from how he grew up, he's kind of a doofus, etc.).  He also puts a Christian spin on many topics. There are tons and tons of appreciative quotes from a variety of people on the back of the book and covering the first 4 pages (overkill much?).  Still, it's an enjoyable enough read for those who like their comedy topics clean and kind!

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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Do you know where your food comes from?

Mark Bittman started writing a food column for the New York Times in 2011 and the book A Bone to Pick is a collection of those columns.  He looks at the broken food-production system, both in the United States and in the rest of the world, which has resulted in over a billion people going hungry every year.  Not only that, but another billion are malnourished or undernourished, even in supposedly wealthy countries such as the United States.  Bittman looks at what he sees as problems which need to be addressed in order to improve food production, reduce waste, and improve nutrition.

There are plenty of stark facts that are presented early in the book:  that the vast majority of grain produced in the United States never makes it to the table (it's either used as animal feed, converted to bio diesel or wasted); that up to 98% of pesticides used end up other than where they were intended (leading to even more pesticide use); that government "farm subsidies" never lead to edible food.  These facts alone are enough to cause concern and outrage.  The author goes on to discuss how "inefficient" small farmers are actually producing nutritious, edible food, and should be subsidized instead of the large, environmentally destructive industrial farms.

Many ideas are presented which will help to solve problems (waste, environmental, dietary, etc.) related to food production and distribution.  Some of these include taxing junk foods (such as the tax Mexico implemented in 2014), crop rotations (to replenish the land and reduce the reliance on pesticides) and support for smaller farmers (to keep farmers on their land and increase local access to healthier foods).  Is there enough wide-spread determination to implement such ideas?

The articles in the book, while written over several years, are gathered into sections such as "Big Ag, Sustainability, and What's in Between, " "What's Wrong with Meat?," and "Legislation and Labeling."  While each individual article contains interesting information, the fact is that when they are grouped together like this, they tend to get a bit repetitive (all 10 articles in the "Sustainability" section, for instance, mention how most grain is turned into animal feed, and how 1/3 of the population is hungry while another 1/3 is obese/malnourished). 

Overall, the book brings up many distressing and unpleasant facts about where our food comes from, and how the entire process could be so easily changed to eliminate both hunger and diet-related diseases.  We can only hope that the pressing issues presented in this book will be addressed so that everyone will have access to the nutritious, bountiful foods that are produced every year (rather than the food being wasted or converted to non-food purposes).

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of A Bone to Pick from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

People are basically good

 We are constantly being bombarded with horrible events from around the world; crime, wars and senseless acts of violence have become a sadly predictable part of the evening news.  Unfortunately, these terrible events are so commonplace that we barely have time to reflect on one tragedy before we are presented with a new one.  But each of these awful occurrences results in shocked and grieving people who must somehow put their lives back together.  The book The Rising takes an in-depth look at one man who survived a horrific home invasion and how he was able to heal and continue on with his life.

In July 2007, Dr. Bill Petit was awakened in the middle of the night as he was being beaten over the head with a baseball bat.  Two intruders had broken in and immediately immobilized him and his family.  He was tied up in the basement, while his wife and two daughters were tied up in their rooms upstairs.  His wife was later taken to a bank and ordered to withdraw money.  She was able to alert bank employees to the situation and the police were notified.  Dr. Petit was able to escape and run to a neighbor's house to ask for help.  Unfortunately, while the police were deciding on how best to handle the situation, the intruders were able to kill Mrs. Petit and set the house on fire, which resulted in the deaths of the two daughters as well.  Since the police had been alerted, they were able to catch the criminals as they fled the crime scene.

Dr. Petit was left completely devastated.  He'd lost his family, his home, and due to lingering medical problems from his injuries, was no longer able to practice medicine.  The book chronicles his journey from those awful days after the murders, through the trials of the two perpetrators, and on to his life since both men were sentenced to death.

The book gives a lot of background on Dr. Petit's early life, including his close-knit family and how he met his wife, Jennifer.  Jennifer was a nurse and a very kind and generous woman.  Even after she was diagnosed with MS, she continued on with work and raising her family.  Daughter Hayley had just graduated from high school and was looking forward to a summer of hanging out with friends before heading off to Dartmouth in the fall. Younger daughter Michaela had just finished fifth grade.  They were a typical loving, close family who had no idea that evil was lurking outside their home.

Dr. Petit, as the lone survivor, naturally dealt with guilt at not being able to save his family.  He moved back in with his parents and tried to figure out how to live without his wife and kids.  This is when his assertion that "people are basically good" was reinforced.  Cards, letters and money poured in from around the world.  People had heard of his terrible story and wanted to offer their sympathy and do what they could to help.  Local friends and neighbors inundated the family with offers of help, free airplane transportation, clothing and whatever else they could do to help.  Sitting down and replying to each letter personally (with the help of his family) initially gave Dr. Petit something to focus on and helped him through the most awful time of his life.  So much money was donated that he started the Petit Family Foundation, dedicated to supporting the education of women in the sciences, helping those with chronic illnesses, and protecting victims of violence.  Working with the foundation also gave him something to focus on.

It took three years before the first defendant was tried, and Dr. Petit attended every day of the trial.  He had to hear the awful details of what his family went through.  After that trial was over, he had to do it all again for the second defendant.  At least there was some justice when both men were sentenced to death.

In the years since losing his family, Dr. Petit has found love again.  He married Christine, a photographer and marketing director and they had a son.  The most amazing thing about the story is how Dr. Petit hasn't lost his faith in the overall goodness of society and his belief that most people are good.  It's sad that his faith in this goodness had to be tested in such a cruel and terrible way.  It was fascinating to read about how he was able to get through such an unimaginable and horrific event and to continue to live a life which honors and pays tribute to his lost loved ones.

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

Friday, July 24, 2015

Let's stay in the 1600s please!

Viper Wine concerns the exploits of Venetia Stanley, one of the great beauties of the 17th century.  Five years older than her husband, the explorer and adventurer Kenelm Digby, she was so concerned about growing older and losing her famous looks that she retreats from society.  She asks her husband to prepare a tonic for her that will help her to regain her youthful beauty, but he refuses, still seeing her as the beautiful woman he married.  She eventually finds someone else to provide her with the Viper Wine potion which will make her beautiful again.  As a couple, the Digbys are each immersed in their own worlds and too distracted to really seem a believable pair.

This book was very hard to read.  I wasn't sure what was happening most of the time.  There were elements of time travel and descriptions of things like radio transmissions sort of thrown in here and there (in a book set in the 1630s) that were distracting and annoying. The characters and setting were interesting enough (and based on real events), but I guess the author felt a straightforward narrative wouldn't be challenging enough.  The result was a confusing, meandering, mess of a story.

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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Life beyond death row

Mitch Rutledge is someone who started out life with the cards stacked against him.  Born to a 13-year-old mother and never knowing his father, he never really had a family to be a part of.  His mother was in and out of his life, so he and his 3 siblings were passed among family members, only to be briefly reunited when his mother showed back up.  Eventually, his path led to prison.  Death on Hold tells the story of how he ended up in prison, and eventually began a correspondence with Burton Folsom which would change both of their lives.

Mitch Rutledge had several opportunities to turn his life around before he ended up in prison, but he was always held back by one obstacle:  illiteracy. The shame of being unable to read or fill out a job application led him to a life on the streets.  After his mother died when he was only 15, he was well and truly on his own.  Before long, he ended up in prison, after an attorney convinced him to plead guilty to a burglary he didn't commit (although he rationalized that there were plenty of crimes he had gotten away with up to that point, so maybe things were just being evened out!).  This put him into the criminal justice system, where he learned to adapt to the system.  He talks of being jealous of other inmates who had family members to visit them in prison and to care about their welfare.

Eventually, when he was released from prison, he continued his life on the streets and ended up killing someone during a robbery.  Luckily for him, a lawyer associated with the Southern Poverty Law Center defended him during his trial for murder.  The new lawyer taught him how to speak and behave in front of the jury, something Rutledge had never before considered.  Even so, he was convicted and sentenced to death row.  While on death row, Time magazine sent a reporter to interview inmates, and he was featured in a story that caught the attention of Burt and Anita Folsom. The article painted a grim picture of several death row inmates, with Rutledge being described as having an IQ of 84, defective and concluded, "His death would not be unbearably sad."

Both Burton and Anita Folsom read the article and were incensed at how Rutledge had been portrayed.  Both were teachers and both were unable to forget the friendless man sitting on death row in Alabama.  Burton Folsom reached out by writing a letter to Rutledge, and the two became friends.  As well as the Folsoms, several other people were moved by the Time article and also began regularly writing Rutledge.  This small group became his family, and even testified on his behalf when he attempted to get his death sentence commuted.

Eventually, Mitch's sentence was commuted to life without parole and then he moved into the general prison population at Holman Prison.  His story continues as he discusses the problems he faced adjusting to life in prison, even as he taught himself to read and write and went on to earn his GED and take college courses.  This book is mostly from Mitch's perspective, taken from letters he's written to the Folsoms over the years.  It is fascinating to read about all he was able to accomplish behind bars, from speaking to at-risk youth groups, to tutoring and mentoring his fellow inmates.  Overall, this is an inspirational story about a man who was able to see the terrible wrongs he had committed in his youth and to become a useful member of society, even from behind bars.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Death on Hold from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Does the habit get caught in the wheels?

The Case of the Sin City Sister concerns searches for missing family members.  Sister Evangeline Divine (pronounced Di-VEEN) is a Harley riding nun who has become entranced with her father's private detective business.  Her father Jackson, a retired cop, lives in Madrid, New Mexico.  Sister Eve takes a leave of absence from the convent to help her father when she learns her sister Dorisanne has gone missing.

Dorisanne lives in Las Vegas, and has always had money troubles.  Her husband Robbie is a known gambler and troublemaker, and the family worries that he's dragged her into his troubles.  At the same time, the detective agency gets a new case:  to find out what happened to a man who came to the area in the 1880s to mine turquoise, but was never heard from again.  Skeletal remains have been found in a cave, and a man from North Carolina hears about it and wonders if the body could be that of his long lost great-great grandfather.  So much time has passed that the Divines are unsure what they can find out, but they take the case and set to work.  Another client asks Jackson to dig on his property to see if he can find any of the rumored gold that's buried there.

Sister Eve decides that she has to go to Las Vegas to see if she can trace Dorisanne's movements.  Although she's perfectly content with her plans to ride her Harley all the way to Vegas, her father has other ideas.  Daniel, a current cop and her father's former partner, takes a leave of absence to travel to Vegas with Eve.  It seems that Daniel is quite fond of Las Vegas, and goes there rather frequently.  The pair begin at Dorisanne's apartment, where they meet Pauline, a neighbor and fellow casino cocktail waitress who seems to have befriended Dorisanne.  Pauline has problems of her own, but she agrees to speak with Eve, even though she claims not to know much about Dorisanne's mysterious departure.  As Eve and Daniel investigate, they begin to notice several strange people and vehicles following them.  Could they be connected to Dorisanne's disappearance?

I enjoyed the unconventional Sister Eve and her adventures, which included being stranded in a hospital morgue and hot-wiring a motorcycle.  She has to make a decision about whether or not to return to the convent, but given her love of investigation, it won't be easy for her to choose one life over the other.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Case of the Sin City Sister from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, July 6, 2015

A literary dose of melancholoy

Even though M. Perdu has a job that sounds perfect, he's still pretty miserable in The Little Paris Bookshop.  He runs an "apothecary bookstore" moored in the Seine in Paris.  Visitors to the shop know that they might not leave with the book they came in for, but that M. Perdu will unerringly be able to recommend the book that they need at that precise moment in their lives.

Unfortunately, he's not able to fix his own problems so easily.  Twenty years ago, when he was 30, the great love of his life, Manon, left him with no explanation.  He was totally broken by this experience -- so much so that when a letter arrived from her a few weeks later, he was unable even to open it.  He put it in a drawer in a kitchen table, in a room which he then walled off with a bookcase.  There matters have stood for two decades, until he's bullied into donating some furniture to a new tenant in his apartment building.   The new tenant, Catherine, is a middle-aged woman who has been abandoned by her husband, and is terribly distraught.  When she discovers the letter in the drawer of the table M. Perdu gives her, she invites him over for dinner to read it.  These two broken souls might be just what the other needs, but M. Perdu can't give up on his heartbreak just yet.

Another tenant in the building is Max Jordan, a young man who's just found literary success with his first novel.  However, he finds the rabid, enthusiastic fans hard to take, so he's trying to hide out while he waits for inspiration to strike so he can begin on his follow-up novel.  When M. Perdu decides to unhook his literary barge and set off in search of his long-lost love, Max impulsively jumps on board for the journey.

And so they begin a journey toward the south.  Along the way, they pick up more people who are searching for lost loves (among other things).  Scattered throughout the book are selections from Manon's travel diary from 20 years earlier.  Also, the end of the book features recipes and a suggested "Emergency Literary Pharmacy" recommending books for various "ailments."

The book starts off strongly, but then meanders along aimlessly, much like the characters on board the barge.  I had a hard time accepting that everyone could just pick up and leave their current lives, with no thought of how they would support themselves, and then immediately, wherever they ended up, just miraculously be taken in and given food, shelter and jobs by the people they randomly encounter.  The whole book, from about chapter 5 on, was a huge let-down for a promising book.  The characters were all so woe-is-me that I really didn't care if they were ever happy again.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Little Paris Bookshop from Blogging For Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Stella gets her 15 minutes

I knew that one of my favorite writers, Marian Keyes, had a new novel coming out, so I was thrilled to be able to buy it a few weeks early on my recent trip to London (it had already been released in the UK).  It was a good thing I decided to invest in the book, since long delays at the airport meant that I had plenty of time to get engrossed in the story.

The Woman Who Stole My Life concerns Stella Sweeney, a Dublin-based woman who is the author of the recent book One Blink at a Time.  Stella had suddenly developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome and spent months in the hospital recovering.  She was unable to speak or move and could only communicate by blinking her eyes.  Her neurologist, Dr. Mannix Taylor, takes the time to actually try to talk to her, working out the blinking code to ask questions.

Stella is married to Ryan, but their marriage, after 18 years, has reached a somewhat boring plateau.  Ryan has always dreamed of becoming an artist, but through a series of events has gotten into the custom bathroom remodeling business. He's very successful, but unfulfilled.  Their two children are typical teenagers:  Betsy is dreamy and laid-back, while Jeffrey is petulant and moody.  Stella co-owns a salon with her more driven sister, Karen. When the illness strikes, everyone must try to get along without her.  At the same time, there seems to be an undeniable spark between Stella and her neurologist . . .

Once she's back home and recovering from her illness, Stella is stunned to receive a box of books.  It seems that while blinking out messages to Mannix, he was keeping a log of her thoughts and sayings.  He's assembled them into a book and had it privately printed.  Stella is touched and gives out the books to family and friends.  When one of her books makes its way into the hands of a celebrity, suddenly agents and publishers are knocking at her door.

Eventually, Stella splits fairly amicably with Ryan and, after a similarly civilized divorce between Mannix and his too-good-to-be-true wife Georgie, the former patient and her doctor begin a torrid relationship -- much to the disgust of Jeffrey.  The publishers are so enthusiastic about the prospects for Stella's book that they insist she relocate to New York City to begin book tours and publicity work.  Mannix quits his job and follows along, as do the children.  Ryan is understandably miffed that his ex-wife is becoming world-famous when he is the "artist" in the family.

During exhausting rounds of publicity, Stella is grateful for the help of her new best friend.  Gilda Ashley bumps into Stella in a store, and immediately becomes her personal trainer, stylist, and confidant.  But is Gilda really too good to be true?

The book shifts back and forth in time, with present-day scenes letting us know that Stella is back in Ireland, broke, jobless, and without Mannix.  So what happened to the glamorous NYC life?  Those events fill out the story, as she struggles with her new-found fame, and the demands of trying to write a follow-up book.

Marian Keyes's books have always been favorites of mine due to being laugh-out-loud funny, while at the same time dealing with difficult and sometimes tragic subjects.  This book did have some funny moments, but overall, it was something of a let-down.  Stella was so wish-washy, especially where loutish son Jeffrey was concerned, that it was hard to feel anything but exasperation for her.  There were also some very strange elements to the story, such as when she and Mannix were faced with financial difficulties -- it apparently never dawned on either of them that he could just resume his medical career.

I'm always thrilled to read a new book by this wonderful author, but I can only hope that in the next one she'll regain her comedic spark.  She's already given each of the Walsh sisters her own book, but maybe she'll discover a long-lost Walsh cousin or something to take up the reigns of the next story!

Final Verdict for The Woman Who Stole My Life: Two Gherkins a somewhat disappointing look at the life of an expected celebrity

Monday, June 8, 2015

It is better to keep a secret and die, than tell it and live

I remembered reading some news stories about some clusters of suicides among young people in a Welsh town, and was intrigued that the plot of the book What You Left Behind seemed to focus on the same type of phenomenon.  Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher comes to the sleepy rural English town of Radcote to visit her sister, Jo.  Radcote was the scene of a rash of suicides among young people a few years previously, and recently it seems as if the cycle is starting up again.

Jo, who has a history of expecting Lorraine to bail her out of trouble, is separated from her partner and has an 18 year old son, Freddie.  Freddie is moping about, being generally moody and uncommunicative, but it turns out his behavior is due to more than growing pains.  For several weeks, he's been the target of a particularly nasty online bullying campaign.  He hasn't told anyone about it, but he is becoming increasingly disturbed by it.

Jo is close to some people in town, Tony and Sonia Hawkeswell, whose son Simon recently committed suicide.  Sonia tries to overcome her grief by working at the local homeless shelter, and she's browbeaten her daughter Lana into also volunteering there.  Sonia has decided that Lana is going to become a doctor and that volunteering will look good on her university applications.  Their household is also made up of Tony's autistic brother, Gil.  Gil lives in a separate building from the main house, but is pretty much involved in everything the family does.  He's also an extremely talented artist.  When Lorraine sees a drawing he made of the scene of another supposed suicide, she becomes convinced that all the new suicides might instead be foul play.

I really wanted to like this book, due to the setting and intriguing premise, but it was too annoying to be enjoyable.  All of the characters seem to be harboring secrets, which they refuse to tell anyone, but which could likely be easily remedied if they would just SAY SOMETHING!  You know it's all going to come out in the end, so why keep going over and over how, for instance, Freddie just *can't* tell anyone about the bullying because "that would make it worse."  Just how exactly, we never hear.  It's not that Freddie is embarrassed about being targeted, or afraid of physical harm -- his reasoning is that the non-stop online abuse "will get worse."  Um, OK . . . As the various characters are wrestling with their secrets which they can't tell anyone, they seem to continue to have the same conversations over and over (especially Freddie and Lana).  Nothing ever gets sorted out and they continue to cover the same useless ground over and over, chapter after chapter.

The author does try to throw in a few red-herrings to point us toward several suspects, but I'm still not very clear on why some of the suicides were arranged to look like murder. By the end, we know who the supposed murderer was, but the motivation is still murky.  There are also lots of forged suicide notes, false confessions to crimes and contradictory statements (in one chapter Lorraine has read a supposed suicide note, in the next she's wondering what was in the note) which don't really add up to a cohesive and enjoyable story.  The novel ends with something that is supposed to be a shocking twist, but by that time I'd long since stopped trying to make any sense of what the characters were doing and why.

Disclaimer:   I received a copy of What You Left Behind from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bodies, bodies everywhere

Forensic science developments in recent years have helped to solve many crimes that might not even have been recognized as murder in past times.  The events in The Anatomist's Apprentice take place in the year 1780, when the study of anatomy, not to mention forensics, was in its infancy.

At the country estate of Boughton Hall, a terrible scene takes place.  The young lord of the manner, Edward Crick, experiences a terrifying episode of convulsions and excruciating pain before dying in front of his horrified sister Lydia.  Lydia is married to the Irishman Michael Ferrell, who inherits the estate upon the death of his brother-in-law.  Since Edward was so young and there is a motive for someone to want him dead, tongues in the village begin to wag.  In an effort to silence the gossip, Michael calls in two local doctors to examine the corpse.  The doctors, not surprisingly, don't waste too much time on pondering the cause of death, and decide it was from natural causes.

Lydia's cousin, Francis Crick, is a medical student who is studying under the American Dr. Thomas Silkstone.  He mentions the pioneering work in anatomy and chemical analysis that Dr. Silkstone is doing, which causes Lydia to ask the doctor to examine the corpse of her brother.  She is very disturbed by the rumors which call her husband a murderer. Even though Michael Ferrell has turned into a disagreeable spouse, she feels very loyal to him and doesn't want the family name to be ruined.

Dr. Silkstone agrees to take on the case, both to find out if murder was done, and to please the beautiful Lydia.  Things begin to look even worse for Michael when it becomes known that he set up a still to brew up his own rat poison (doesn't everyone?).  Dr. Silkstone takes samples from the by now decomposing body of Lord Crick, but is unable to find any rat poison.  This doesn't stop the rumors, nor does it protect Ferrell from becoming a suspect.

No one on the estate, apart from Lydia, seems particularly upset at the young Lord's death.  In fact, more than one person had a motive for wanting him dead, but none as much as Ferrell.  Naturally, someone doesn't want Dr. Silkstone to get close to the truth, so he is brutally attacked.  Will he be able to discover the truth before there are more deaths?

Well, unfortunately not.  As the bodies pile up, the red herrings also fly thick and fast.  Just when you think the murder has been revealed, someone else dies and suspicion falls on a different person.  That happening once might be OK, but it happens several times and starts to get really annoying before the book finally ends and we apparently have tied up all the loose ends, and assigned blame for all the deaths to the correct people.

While I can appreciate that the author wanted the story to have twists and turns, there were just too many of them to make the story enjoyable.  I would have preferred a more straightforward resolution to the mystery.  This sleepy village suddenly being overrun with dead bodies and plotting murderers was just too far-fetched to be believable.

Final verdict for The Anatomist's Apprentice: Two Gherkins, for being a mystery with too many killers coming out of the woodwork

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I'd start the screamingest night club in London

I had high hopes for Murder in Piccadilly, a book that combines two of my favorite things:  a mystery and a London setting.  This book was originally published in 1936, and has been re-issued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.  Unfortunately, to my mind, the book doesn't hold up very well for the modern reader.

The story is a somewhat familiar one.  Bobbie Cheldon is a young man who lives with is widowed mother in somewhat shabby circumstances in Fulham.  The one bright spot in their drab existence is Bobbie's prospects:  he is the heir to the estate at Broadbridge Manor.  When he takes over the estate, he'll have an income of £10,000 per year (as we are informed over and over again).  This was apparently quite the fortune in 1936!  Unfortunately, Uncle Massy Cheldon, who at 50ish seems quite ancient to young Bobbie, shows no inclination of helping things along with a natural death any time soon.

Bobbie has fallen madly in love with a lower-class but lovely dancer at the Frozen Fang nightclub named Nancy Curzon.  Nancy is willing to marry him, but not if it involves living in poverty.  She has been told that an American tour showcasing the dancing talents of her and her partner Billy Bright is in the works, but she and Billy would have to be married first (somewhat antiquated morality!).  Bobbie is naturally becoming desperate at the thought of losing Nancy.  A somewhat shady acquaintance of Nancy's, ex-boxer Nosey Ruslin, hears of poor Bobbie's predicament.  Nosey insinuates himself into Bobbie's life, seemingly befriending the younger man and offering to help him out financially from time to time as necessary.  The dim and naive Bobbie takes Nosey at his word (naturally).

Nosey and Billy, meanwhile, are plotting ways to get rid of Uncle Massy and, once Bobbie has the impressive yearly income, help themselves to a large portion of it.  Bobbie is rather wishy-washy, but willing to do anything to keep Nancy.  It's therefore no surprise to the reader when the titular Murder in Piccadilly occurs (in Piccadilly Underground station, in full view of hundreds of witnesses) and Uncle Massy is no more.

Enter Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard.  He has a pretty good idea of who was behind the murder, but with no many witnesses all claiming not to have seen anything, he's going to have a hard time proving anything.  In fact, his complete assurance of who was behind the murder (and who had absolutely no knowledge of it beforehand) seems to have come out of nowhere.  His discussions with his second in command, Detective-Sergeant Clarke, go over and over the suspects and why they are or are not involved, but never seem to have much evidence backing them up.

The action in the story is extremely slow, and the characters seem to have the same discussions over and over again.  There is a final "twist" that is, I assume, meant to confound the reader, but I thought the overall resolution was rather weak.  Also, some of the language will be rather startling to modern ears -- particularly the ethnic slurs that are thrown around rather casually.  I know that we are supposedly dealing with lower-class and uncouth individuals (those in Nancy's circle, anyway), but it's still rather jarring to read.

Sadly, even a London setting couldn't save this story!

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

Final Verdict for Murder in Piccadilly:  One Gherkin, for being a long, drawn-out mystery with an unsatisfying ending

Friday, May 15, 2015

A homogeneous plastic mess

In recent years, a movement to "eat clean" and limit the number of processed foods in the average diet has gained momentum.  The implication is that processed foods contain all sorts of unhealthy ingredients that we would be better off without.  The book This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?" breaks down everyday products to discover just what is in them. The book is made up of columns that originally appeared in Wired magazine.  In the preface to the book, the author, Patrick Di Justo, discusses how he first attempted to contact the manufacturers of the products to get their input on the articles.  Many of the larger companies were understandably suspicious of his motives and didn't want to cooperate.  Other companies were thrilled to have their products featured.  Any publicity is good publicity, right?

There are two sections, the first covering edible/consumable products, and the second household products.  The food section even gives the reader the low-down on Alpo. The individual ingredients are then examined to determine what part each plays in the overall make-up of the item.  Also, each product usually has a "backstory" which discusses the author's attempts to get the information about the product or further explains things like the history of the product or (in some cases) the more unpalatable aspects of the product (for instance, chocolate covered cherries contain enzymes that "pre-digest" the liquid center for you).

Still, most of the ingredients, while not sounding exactly appetizing, also don't sound particularly dangerous, either.  Naturally, most of the food products have added sugar, salt and fat to make them tastier (and probably more addicting).  I was really surprised to read that Enfamil baby formula contains an ingredient designed to "jump start" infant immune systems.  While this probably occurs naturally in breast milk, it was something I wouldn't have thought of as being part of the formula.

This book is full of interesting information (and the occasional snarky aside) which makes it enjoyable reading rather than a dry recitation of facts.  For instance, the author points out that protein deposits on contact lenses can "cloud your vision like a snot cataract."  As a contact lens wearer, I can appreciate the comparison (even if it does make me wince a bit!). One thing I learned (rather to my alarm) is that the aluminum in most deodorant products works by causing the pores of the underarm to swell shut and stop sweat from coming out.  So the non-food entries ended up being more disturbing for me!  Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book and finding out just what big companies are adding to their products.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of This is What You Just Put in Your Mouth? from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On this site in 1782 nothing happened

Any book with a title like "Londonopolis" is a book that is guaranteed to grab my attention.  I had high hopes for the slim little book by Martin Latham, but sadly, other than a few interesting tidbits, I was generally disappointed by the book.  If you're like my husband, you may wonder why there are so many books constantly being published about London (and more to the point, why I own most of them), but the subject is so endlessly fascinating that each book seems to have something new to say, even on such a well covered topic.

Londonopolis is divided into sections based on time frames such as "Ancient London," "Medieval London," all the way up to "Twentieth-Century London."  There is one final chapter on The Secret Thames.  Each section is not just a straightforward history of London during the time mentioned, but rather contains an odd (in my mind) assortment of anecdotes and stories which I assume are meant to give an impression of the city at that particular time.  However, since the stories don't seem to have a unifying theme (other than that they happened to take place during a vaguely similar time frame), the overall result is unsatisfying.

For instance, in the chapter on Victorian London, there are stories about Big Ben's construction, Karl Marx's daughter, some of the scientists who worked at the Natural History Museum, a discussion of 6 artists who work working at this time, and a strange one-off ghost story featuring people you've never heard of (John Hernaman, anyone?).  Nothing really ties the stories together or really gives you any sort of feel for the time period.

The author is lucky enough to have grown up in London and so has a lot of personal memories of the city and people he encountered at various times, but even those stories aren't very interesting.  Maybe his family or acquaintances would enjoy the recollections, but they seem too personal to be of much use or entertainment to the casual reader.

If you feel that you've read everything there is to read about London, perhaps this book might have a few tidbits that would interest you. Otherwise, it's an odd collection of recitations about people and events that are of limited interest.

Final Verdict for Londonopolis: Two Gherkins, for being an ultimately disappointing look at London history

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Show people their shortcomings

Björn works for the Authority, a bureaucratic government agency, which will explain why he often escapes to The Room in the new book by Swedish author Jonas Karlsson.  He has a desk in the middle of a room of similar desks, but he's constantly annoyed by his co-workers.  They don't dress up to his standards, work up to his standards, or have sufficient intelligence to comprehend his superiority.  He does his work in regimented 55 minute stretches, allowing himself a break only at his self-appointed times.  Once, while on his way to the bathroom, he notices a door in the wall.  Upon opening it, he discovers a room.  There's nothing particularly special about the room.  It looks like a generic office with a desk and file cabinets.  When Björn steps into the room, however, he finds it very calming and peaceful.

His co-workers, never very fond of Björn and his strange ways, soon complain to the boss, Karl, about his odd behavior.  It seems that whenever Björn visits the room, what his co-workers observe is him standing completely still, staring off into space.  When he's in this position, they tell him, he acts as if he can't see or hear anyone else.

Björn attempts to convince himself and others that the room exists.  His put-upon boss tries to humor Björn, especially after Björn begins staying late and going into the room after everyone else has left.  He finds that while in the room, he's able to think more clearly and logically than ever before, and he is able to produce outstanding work.  His output has even caught the eye of superiors outside the department, who use it as a model for how all the work in the Authority should be performed from now on.

Naturally, this praise makes Björn feel as if he has the upper hand.  He begins setting conditions:  he must be allowed to go to the room whenever he wants, he asks for certain co-workers to be fired, etc.  As tensions build, the question remains:  does the room exist, or, as Björn thinks, is it being kept secret for some nefarious reason?

The book is short and quite funny in places.  Even though he's clearly socially isolated and awkward, Björn is sure that he is brilliant and that everyone else is jealous of him and plotting his downfall.  He never waivers in his beliefs that the room exits, or that he's on an unstoppable upward career trajectory, even if all indications are that he could be mistaken on both counts!

Jonas Karlsson, the author, is a well-known Swedish actor, famous for the films Cockpit and Bang Bang Orangutang.  It's really exciting to see him branching out so successfully into fiction writing.  I'm sure this will be made into a film soon!

Final Verdict for The Room: Four Gherkins, for being a thought-provoking book about differing perceptions of reality

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be careful not to offend

Nina is a forty-something artist living in London with her husband and teenage daughter when she catches sight of someone from her past in Her by Harriet Lane.  The woman she spots, Emma, is a pregnant woman with a toddler.  When they do interact, it's obvious that Emma has no recollection of having met Nina at all.  So why is Emma so memorable to Nina?

The chapters in the book alternate between Nina and Emma.  Often, the same event will be told from each point of view in successive chapters.  It's clear from the beginning that Nina blames Emma for some upsetting event in her past, and that she's out to exact some sort of revenge.

At first, Nina's efforts seem to be just a way to keep in contact with Emma.  While Emma is distracted with her son, Nina is able to lift her wallet out of her purse.  She then calls Emma and tells her she found it on the ground, and offers to bring it around to her house (after carefully inspecting all the contents first).  When she gets to Emma's house, she's rather pleased to see that Emma's life is rather chaotic.  Emma has given up her job in television to raise her children, and her days seem consumed with domestic tasks, none of which she seems to take care of particularly well.  The house also seems rather shabby and in need of repairs.  Nina, on the other hand, is doing rather well both financially and professionally.

Nina's plan to somehow get back at Emma (for what we don't find out until nearly the end of the book) then take a slightly more sinister turn.  She leads Emma's young son, Christopher, away while his mother's back is turned in the park.  Nina then calls the police and says she found the boy on her doorstep.  She then convinces Emma that her daughter Sophie is available for babysitting duties, only to show up for the job herself.  Once Emma and her husband gratefully leave for their date night, Nina can then go through their house at leisure.  She doesn't do anything malicious -- she just paws thorough all their belongings.  And she makes sure young Christopher has plenty to drink before bedtime so he'll be sure to wet the bed.

When Nina invites Emma and her family to spend a week at her father's summer house in France, you know that things will probably hit a crisis point before everyone gets back to London.  All the while, Emma has no idea that she had a past encounter with Nina. She sees Nina as nothing other than a kind, helpful and pleasant friend.

The book sort of meanders along, slightly building tension without actually being "edge of your seat" suspenseful.  I was anxious to find out both what exactly it was that Emma did, and also just what Nina planned to do to get revenge.  Was the ending satisfying?  Well, not really.  Once Emma's big misdeed was revealed, it didn't seem like such a terrible transgression.  And perhaps Nina is just reacting to her daughter getting ready to go out on her own, but it seemed like she had way too much time on her hands.  Still, it was interesting trying to figure out where the book was going, and to see if Emma would ever catch on that Nina wasn't the friendly, generous person she seemed to be.  The main point of the book is interesting to ponder:  your actions, no matter what your intent might be, can easily be misinterpreted by others.

At the same time, as I read the book it seemed *so familiar* to me.  I had the nagging feeling that I'd read it before, but the copyright date is 2015, so I'm not sure which book I'm thinking of.  The story really did keep my interest, and of course, I was thrilled with all the references to places and streets in London!

Final Verdict for Her:   Four Gherkins, for being an interesting look at how people can misunderstand each other