Thursday, December 15, 2016

Front door's around the back

Being a teenager is hard enough without your father packing you up and moving you to another country.  Add to all this the fact that you have recently lost your mother, and you'll understand that Shay and Arlo Turner are not exactly thrilled with their new hometown of Weld, New Zealand in the new series 800 Words from Acorn Media.  George Turner, the father of the family, is devastated by the loss of his wife Laura and, unable to face reminders of her in Sydney, decides to take his kids to New Zealand for a fresh start.  George's parents took him to the beautiful seaside town of Weld when he was a child, and so George is sure the town is the perfect place for his family to make a new life for themselves.

Unfortunately, his childhood memories were a bit hazy, because the house he buys over the Internet is not his old family holiday home, but rather a ramshackle affair down the street.  When he arrives at the house with his children, they are all dismayed to see the state of the house.  Not to worry, because laid back builder Woody is always around, and while not exactly a quick worker, at least he does attempt some work (when he's not surfing).

George is the author of a column in a Sydney newspaper called "800 Words" (the exact length of each column).  His writings are mostly musings on life and this gets him into trouble when he describes his new hometown, Weld, as a "dead end town" soon after arriving.  This does not endear him or his children with the locals, nor does the rumor that perhaps his wife's untimely death might have something to do with why the family left Australia so suddenly . . .

The unattached ladies in town, however, aren't too bothered by rumor and innuendo when a new eligible man turns up. George's daughter Shay is not too happy at the crowd of women who seem to always be circling her father.  The main candidates vying to catch George's eye are Fiona, who keeps
herself busy by running the local cafe, working at the town museum and driving an ambulance; Hannah, who is much younger than George, but runs the local surf shop and is always scantily clad but not nearly as unclothed as teacher Tracey, who spends her time out of class at "nudie bay." Then there's Katie, the free-spirited artist whose home is refuge to both her ex-husband Zac and Dennis, another artist and sometime bus driver.

The town of Weld is ruled by the Macnamara family.  Both Shay and Arlo have run-ins with the younger generation of Macnamaras on the first day of school.  Things don't get any better when Shay becomes romantically involved with Ike, a young man who is adamantly opposed to "Big Mac" Macnamara's plans to buy the local scenic camping ground overlooking the ocean in order to turn it into a gated retirement village.  He and Shay wage graffiti war on the billboard announcing the proposed development, and as their relationship grows, so do their plans for keeping the land away from the Macnamaras.

In this 8 part series, George and his children adjust to their new home and begin to forge relationships with the residents of Weld.  George continues to write his column and has frequent Skype contact with his editor, Jan, who was his late wife Laura's best friend.  George also attempts to get back into surfing, with mixed results.  It was probably not a good idea to challenge Dean "Orca" Marshall, his childhood nemesis, to a "surf-off" . . .

I found the series to be charming and funny.  The scenery is beautiful and certainly makes me want to
book my visit to New Zealand sooner rather than later!  The series ends with several "loose ends" which I hope will be cleared up in Season 2.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of 800 Words from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Say your way to a happy day

Most of us have things we want to change about ourselves or our daily lives, but we seem unable to break old habits.  How many people do you hear say they want to lose weight, get a better job or get out of debt, yet they do nothing to achieve these goals?  The book Habit Changers takes a look at some of the most common bad habits people need to overcome, and gives a short mantra or slogan that will be useful in achieving that result.

The author, M.J. Ryan, has worked for many years as an "executive coach."  Apparently this involves working with people in the business world with problems they need to overcome to be successful.  Because of her extensive experience, she is able to give concrete examples of how some problems manifest themselves in the real world, and how she is able to advise her clients to resolve them.  The idea of using "mantras" to overcome bad habits came about when Ryan was reading about Lojong, the Buddhist practice of repeating a slogan until it becomes so ingrained in your mind that you accept the idea without thinking about it.  Because the new ideas are now part of your unconscious thought, you will be able to implement them without thinking.  Ryan estimates it will take 6-9 months of repetition and awareness of your mantra for the permanent change to be made in your brain.  She suggests not only repeating the mantra, but printing it out and putting it where it will be a constant reminder for you.

The book is divided into sections for each category, followed by several sub-categories.  Each sub-category has its own one-page explanation and example, including the relevant mantra.  Some of the categories are Anger, Conflict, Procrastination and Self-Confidence.  Sometimes the manta is the title of the category, such as "Change It, Leave It, or Accept It."

While I enjoyed reading about the situations the author has encountered in working with business clients, I have a hard time believing the claim that after giving some of these people their new mantra, the "transformation was instantaneous and astonishing."  Were that it were that easy!  Still, if someone is truly committed to changing or improving an area of his or her life, being able to reduce the solution to a one-sentence slogan may help to put things into perspective.

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nobody ever died in the village before you arrived

M.C. Beaton's nosy, prickly and lovable heroine Agatha Raisin has been featured in 27 novels, so it is high time that she made the transition to our TV screens.  Acorn Media is releasing Agatha Raisin: Series One so that we can finally get to see Agatha and the idyllic village of Carsely in the English Cotswolds. Series one includes the 2014 pilot episode, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, as well as 8 additional episodes that were shown on UK TV in 2016. There are also some charming behind-the-scenes featurettes about Carsely, the casting and actors.

We meet Agatha in "The Quiche of Death" when she decides to finally chuck in her successful Public Relations job in London and move to a small town in the Cotswolds.  She had paid a firm of interior designers a fortune to make her home look "homey" so she's pleased with the results.  Now her next order of business is to go out and get involved in her new community.  When she hears there's an annual quiche competition coming up, she thinks that will be just the thing to allow her to get involved in village life.  Unfortunately, Agatha lives on microwave meals and has no idea how to bake a quiche, but that's what high-end London bakeries are for, no?  She shows up with her creation, certain of a win, especially after she invites Andy Cummings-Brown (who will be judging the competition) and his wife out for a pricey meal in the local upscale pub.  Therefore, Agatha is shocked when Ella Cartwright wins yet again.  To make matters worse, Agatha comes home and discovers her new cottage has been burgled.  She calls in local police DC Bill Wong and DCI Wilkes, but they don't seem too optimistic that the thieves can be tracked down.  But dark days weren't finished with Agatha, because the next night, Andy is found dead in his home.  He had been eating Agatha's leftover quiche when he collapsed and died.  The police quickly determined it was murder, and that he had been poisoned by deadly cowbane.  At the inquest, Agatha has to admit in open court that she didn't actually bake the quiche that she entered into the competition.  Poor Aggie!  And she endears herself even less to the locals of Carsely when she steals away the cleaner, Gemma Simpson, from her neighbor.  Cleaners are apparently hard to come by in the Cotswolds, so pinching someone else's is just not done!

But things are not all gloom and doom.  DC Bill Wong has a massive crush on Agatha, which means he's often stopping by with gifts, including a kitten and official police investigation notes.  Agatha begins her investigation into Andy's death to clear her name, but soon finds out that she has a talent for it.  Also, her friend Roy Silver is a frequent visitor from London, usually with his latest unsuitable boyfriend (or "boyf" as it's apparently called these days) in tow.  Even better, a hunky next-door-neighbor, James Lacey has taken up residence.

After managing to solve the quiche murder, Agatha is back for Episode One, the Walkers of Dembley.  In this episode we are introduced to Sir Charles Fraith, owner of a large estate, and boss to the gloomy butler Gustav.  When some local ramblers insist they have a right to walk through Sir Charles' fields, Gustav tries to convince them otherwise (using a gun).  Charles arrives on the scene and tells them they are welcome to walk on his land, just not on the crops.  This doesn't sit well with the outspoken leader of the group, Jess Tartick, who claims an ancient right of way goes right through
the fields.  A few days later, she is hit over the head and murdered while walking in these same fields.  Naturally, Charles is a suspect.  Sarah Bloxby, the vicar's wife, brings Deborah Camden to Agatha and they ask her to investigate the death.  Deborah has her heart set on marrying Charles, so she needs to clear his name (Charles may have other ideas about the marriage, though).  Further complicating Agatha's life, Roy Silver has been dumped by his long-term partner and is drowning his sorrows with wine, Pringles, and a naked yoga teacher -- in Agatha's house.  Even more annoying, James Lacey seems to have taken up with the insufferable Mary Fortune.  Although Jess and most of the ramblers were teachers, Agatha soon discovers a hot-bed of infidelity and scandal among the ramblers.

In Episode Two, Hell's Bells, Agatha again tries to fit in with the local community by getting involved in the local bell-ringer's society.  The bishop is coming for a visit soon, and the bell-ringers need all the practice they can get to be able to play something recognizable.  The head bell-ringer, Amanda Ballard, is spending an awful lot of time with the vicar, much to his wife Sarah's annoyance. When Amanda is found hanging in the church with an apparent suicide note nearby, the police are only too quick to accept the death at face value.  Agatha tries to get James to investigate the death with her, but when he refuses, she presses Gemma (her cleaner) and Roy into service as her assistants.  It turns out Amanda wasn't the wealthy widow she claimed to be, but did her death have something to do with Reverend Bloxby being investigated for irregularities in church finances?

Two sets of village residents are at each other's throats in Episode Three: The Wellspring of Death.  Robina Toynbee owns the land where an ancient spring sits.  She has agreed to allow a company called Ancombe Water to collect the water for sale.  The problem is that the village is small, and the heavy, loud and dangerous trucks thundering through the area are disrupting village life. The parish council is going to vote on whether or not to allow the trucks access to the spring.  The council is evenly divided, with Robert Struthers having the deciding vote.  Both sides are hoping to influence him, but he is found dead at the spring the morning of the meeting.  Due to the negative publicity surrounding Ancombe Water after the death, the company hires Agatha to manage the PR surrounding the product launch.  She's able to convince the head of the company, Guy Fremont, to work closely with her (personally and professionally).  James Lacey doesn't seem to be paying much attention to her domestic arrangements, much to  Agatha's annoyance, because he and Mary Fortune have decided to out-detect Agatha and investigate the murder themselves.  DCI Wilkes, meanwhile, has learned some new investigation techniques from watching "Morse" so there is no shortage of sleuths trying to trap the murderer.

Just because Agatha didn't win the quiche competition doesn't mean she's not willing to compete in other areas.  In Episode Four: The Potted Gardener, Agatha is getting her back yard ready for the upcoming Open Gardens Competition.  Just as well that she's going for something modern and zen, because nearly all the flowers and plants in her competitor's gardens are vandalized a few days before
the competition.  Could it have something to do with the noisy joyriders who have been terrorizing the villagers in the middle of the night?  When one of the gardeners is found "planted" upside down in her own garden, Agatha has many mysteries to solve:  the murder, the vandalism and the joyriding.  It seems like she's on to the killer when she finds out the dead woman's daughter might be in need of money, but could it be more complicated than that?

Carsely has a new handsome vet in Episode Five: The Vicious Vet.  It's a good thing there's nothing really wrong with Agatha's cat Hodge when she takes him in for a visit, because every other female in town is in the waiting room with a healthy pet in need of an urgent exam by the vet.  Paul Bladen, the vet, asks Agatha out to dinner.  She's flattered, but is somewhat taken aback when she calls his house and his "wife" answers.  When Paul makes excuses, she's ready to forgive him, but then he turns up dead at Lord Pendlebury's horse stables.  Paul was going to operate on a horse, when he somehow managed to inject the horse tranquilizer into his heart.  Once again, the police see no reason to investigate this tragic accident, but Agatha sets out to find out who might want the vet dead.  Since James (an ex-army man) has some shared colleagues with Pendlebury, he comes along to give Agatha an introduction and a chance to snoop around the estate.  Agatha and crew do manage to find an important clue, but James is distracted by the prospect of a date with Lord Pendlebury's daughter Cilly and the clue goes missing.  Things go from bad to worse when Agatha discovers that someone has "catnapped" Hodge and demands that she stop investigating if she ever wants to see the kitty again.

Although Sir Charles Fraith certainly doesn't need the money, he's started a lucrative sideline in renting out his estate for weddings in Episode Six: The Day the Floods Came.  Couples are lining up to hold ceremonies there until new bride Kylie Leeson is found floating the the river the day after her
wedding.  Even though business is suffering, Charles doesn't want Agatha to investigate.  This demand is easy to meet, since none of Kylie's friends are eager to speak to Agatha.  That is until she comes up with the idea of having Roy pose as the producer of a new reality program about the village youth that they are currently scouting talent for.  Agatha soon finds out that Kylie was having affairs and blackmailing people left and right, which certainly doesn't help to narrow down the list of suspects.

In the Witch of Wyckhadden, Episode Seven, Agatha makes a somewhat understandable error. She's booked into a spooky castle for a Spa Retreat, only it turns out that SPA stands for Special Paranormal Activity.  The reason she needs to get away for a while is that she's had an unfortunate
hair disaster, and needs to hide out until she can rectify the situation. One of the other guests at the hotel tells Agatha about Francie Juddle, the local witch, who, in addition to doing palm and Tarot readings also has a booming sideline in potions of all sorts.  Agatha visits Francie for a hair tonic and after returning to her room, becomes alarmed at the caustic nature of the product.  She storms back to Francie's caravan to demand a refund, only to find her dead.  When Roy, Gemma and James read about the murder in the newspaper, they all come to the castle to help Agatha find the murderer.  When there is another death during a seance in a locked room, it turns out the paranormal might be involved after all.

Episode Eight: The Murderous Marriage, finds Agatha about to go through with a wedding.  She's finally managed to snare James Lacey and has sold her cottage in preparation of moving in with him.  On the day of the wedding, as she and James are exchanging their vows, everyone is shocked when Agatha's husband, Jimmy Raisin, turns up and says she's already married.  It turns out Agatha had never bothered to get a divorce from Jimmy when he disappeared soon after their marriage many years earlier.  It seems Jimmy has been living rough, and he's only too happy to agree to a divorce -- but it will cost Agatha.  When she argues with him, they are spotted by a villager.  Jimmy is discovered strangled to death soon after that.  Agatha would seem to have the strongest motive for murder, so she is quickly arrested.  James also has a motive, so he soon joins Agatha in the cells.  After they are bailed, their investigations determine that Jimmy had been sent to rehab by a charity for the homeless run by a woman named Fiona Gore-Appleton.  When they try to track her down, they find she and the charity seem to be bogus.  But some new female villagers have
moved into Carsely lately, so could there be a connection?

I have been a big fan of the Agatha Raisin books, so I was thrilled to see all the characters come to life.  Ashley Jensen is a bit more glamorous than I had pictured Agatha, but her ability to get herself into embarrassing situations and her hopeless love life are completely in keeping with the Agatha we know and love.  A few other changes have been made from the books, such as Rev. and Mrs. Bloxby being a young couple, and the cleaner being a single mother, but other than that, the setting and other characters will be familiar to fans of the books.  I really liked the comedic touches, such as the hopelessly inept DCI Wickes.  We can only hope we haven't seen the last of Agatha and her friends on the small screen!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Agatha Raisin: Series One from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Round and around and around we go

A traumatic experience takes center stage in the new novel from Australian author Liane Moriarty in Truly Madly Guilty, but we don't find out what actually happened until far into the book.  Instead, events jump between the present, where we see the effects of whatever-it-was sending ripples out through the lives of various characters, and the past, where we see how the "Day of the Barbecue" unfolded.

Clementine and Erika have been friends since childhood.  Erika came from a single-parent home where her mother was a hoarder.  As a result, Erika was neglected, withdrawn and isolated.  Clementine's mother, a social worker always on the lookout for someone to rescue, demands that Clementine befriend Erika.  She reluctantly does so, and has continued to do so ever since, even though she does not particularly like Erika and feels burdened and frustrated at always having to look after her.  Clementine is married, has two young daughters, and is a professional cellist who always has to audition for jobs and has a big one coming up.  Erika is also married, but childless and has a high-paying and respectable job as an accountant.

Erika and her husband Oliver have invited Clementine's family over for dinner.  As Erika leaves her house on the way to the store, her neighbor Vid stops to chat.  Vid is a very successful and slightly shady businessman who lives in a huge, ostentatious mansion with his new trophy wife Tiffany and their daughter Dakota.  When Vid hears Erika is inviting people over for dinner, he insists that everyone come over to his house for a barbecue instead.  He loves socializing and cooking, and his dominant personality means that Erika soon gives in without consulting any of the others.

Clearly, from the way the book is structured, something catastrophic happens at the barbecue.  Based on the fact that the book opens with Clementine, several months after the barbecue, is giving "yet another" speech to a community group about her experiences, you get the impression that whatever the terrible event was, her children were involved.

While it is very suspenseful to try to work out what in the world happened at the barbecue from the sparse clues we're given, the rest of the story is very tedious.  It's over and over about how Clementine is worried about the upcoming audition, how Erika is such a pain in her life, how poor Erika is so emotionally stunted and has such a terrible life (although she's happily married and has no financial worries), etc.  The book just seems on a boring, never-ending loop going over and over the same ground without the story really advancing. I'm sure it's an attempt to draw out the narrative and heighten the suspense before "the big reveal" but it makes for very dull reading.  I read some of Liane Moriarty's earlier books and really liked them, but sadly, this one is mostly filler and very little of substance.

Final Verdict for Truly Madly Guilty Two Gherkins, for being a tedious look at first world problems

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Life's too short to drink bad coffee

DS Eve Winter is juggling many roles in the Australian police drama Winter.  Not only is she investigating numerous murders, but she has a very complicated relationship with her sister.  Add to all this a busy romantic life, and some unwelcome attention from “Professional Standards” (the Australian equivalent to “Internal Affairs”) and you’d be forgiven for thinking she would be somewhat stressed out.  However, Eve remains driven, focused, and impeccably dressed throughout her many trials!  Now available from Acorn Media, Winter: The Complete Series is 7 episodes of gritty Australian drama set in and around a gorgeous Sydney backdrop.

The series Winter begins with a pilot episode that finds Eve (played by Rebecca Gibney) no longer actively working with the police, but instead working on policy issues from an office.  That is until her old lover and partner Lachlan McKenzie asks for her help in investigating the disappearance of a young woman, Becky Ryan.  While searching for her, the graves of 5 missing women are found in a field.  Becky isn’t among them, but the fact the women are all found at the same location points to a serial killer.  Eve is drawn back into the world of investigation and there is no shortage of suspects.  Becky’s parents own a bakery, and it seems as if Becky was quite friendly with Damien, who worked there.  Several people
reported seeing Becky talking to Damien the night she disappeared.   Then there is the usual assortment of odd people and troublemakers who populate the small town of Mingara.  It turns out that another girl went missing at the same time as Becky, so could it be possible that several killers are at work?

After solving the mystery in the Pilot episodes, Eve returns in a 6-part mystery that begins with the death of Karly Johansson.  Karly is a young mother who lives with her husband and parents in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean in Sydney.  The story begins with Karly being stabbed and chased by a mysterious attacker outside her home.  She is eventually forced over the cliff and falls to her death.  On the same evening, a young woman is gravely injured in a hit and run accident in the city.  Both women had the same unusual tattoo on their wrists.  Is it a coincidence that someone apparently tried to kill them both on the same evening?

Eve is back investigating the crimes, and this time she has additional complications because two other cases are possibly connected to the murder.  Lachlan McKenzie is back, and he’s convinced that there is a connection between the murdered woman and the death 8 years previously of Janet Pagent.  Janet was the counsellor at a high school who was murdered.  Lachlan has always believed her husband, Paul (a groundskeeper at the school) was to blame, but he never had enough evidence to arrest him.  He’s more than happy to try to connect Paul Pagent to these new crimes.  At the same time, the federal police are involved in the case of the young woman injured in the car accident.  Her name is Indiana Hope, and she is the major witness in an upcoming case involving human trafficking.  The main federal agent, Jake Harris, is only interested in making sure Indiana shows up to testify in his case.  He’s not concerned with solving the murder of Karly or even allowing Eve or her team to question Indiana.  It turns out that Indiana and Karly were foster sisters 8 years ago, so Eve believes there must be a connection in the crimes.  Once an attempt is made on Indiana’s life by a mysterious man in the hospital, Indiana goes on the run and there are frantic attempts to locate her.  Things become even more complicated when it is discovered that Indiana is actually the daughter of the politically powerful DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions), which brings unwanted publicity to the case.

On the personal side, Eve is unwilling to rekindle her relationship with Lachlan, but as she’s working alongside Jake, they become romantically involved.  At the same time, Eve’s psychologist sister Melanie doesn’t seem too concerned when her 14 year old son is caught with drugs.  Eve uses an inside tip to keep her nephew from being caught up in a drug sting, something that comes back to haunt her when the Professional Standards department begins investigating Lachlan for his handling of the Paul Pagent case. As Eve doggedly tries to track down Indiana and solve the murder of Karly, she becomes convinced that there is a “mole” operating inside the police department.  On one occasion when the police are on the trail of Indiana, the mysterious assassin shows up at the same time.  Someone must be feeding information from the police to the criminals.  So who can Eve trust?

I enjoyed the lovely views of Sydney and the glimpses of the ocean that popped up in the background frequently.  The Johansson home, with its wall of windows overlooking the ocean, was a breathtaking setting for many scenes.  It was never really explained how Eve came back to full-time policing after the events of the Pilot episodes, but we can only assume the thrill of the chase was more exciting that all those meetings and paperwork she was dealing with in the policy department!  I got a bit tired of everyone chasing after the sullen, uncooperative Indiana, but otherwise, it was fun seeing Eve and company trying to unravel the mystery of who would want to kill a suburban mother of two.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Winter: The Complete Series from Acorn Media in exchange for this review


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Finding out what you didn't know you didn't know

The other day I was watching an episode of Judge Judy when one of the litigants talked about someone harassing her using an Internet "meme."  She pronounced it Me Me, instead of how I'd always thought it was pronounced, MEEM.  So I immediately started worrying -- was I the one mispronouncing it?  Granted, it doesn't come up in conversation often, but had I been throwing around this word incorrectly all this time?  Thankfully, a quick double-check online verified that I was the correct one (for once).  If you've ever been in the situation of worrying about the correct way to pronounce words, then the book You're Saying it Wrong by siblings Ross and Kathryn Petras is a book you'll want to keep handy.

The book begins with a short history of "shibboleth words."  These are words which are used in one language or culture, but might be difficult for an outsider to pronounce.  It has been a way of weeding out invaders and imposters throughout history.  The book takes a look a large group of words (including not only words in everyday usage, but also names, and quite frequently culinary terms) and looks at their origins, definitions and even helpfully lists some common mispronunciations so that you can see if you fall into one of those categories.  The authors have based their conclusions by consulting many dictionaries, journal articles and Internet sources, but for the purposes of this book, they are favoring American pronunciation.

Each entry begins with the word, a short definition, and a pronunciation guide that is mercifully easy to follow.  No weird upside-down "e" characters or other strange letters or accent marks.  The pronunciation of mischievous, for instance, is written out as Mis-chuh-vus.  There's even a slightly off-color joke told about how to remember to pronounce the Vietnamese dish "pho" which will brand it forever in my memory!

Worryingly, I came across several examples where my own mispronunciations were pointed out, such as mascarpone (look how far along the word you go before you hit an 'r') and ophthalmologist (the oph is pronounced like "off" -- who knew?).  All in all, while it's a subjective group of words, I'm sure nearly everyone will find words that they have been pronouncing wrong or have never learned how to pronounce in the first place!  If you're interested in word origins or language, you will enjoy paging through this useful little book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of You're Saying it Wrong from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

It must be something in the water

The water must be terribly tainted in Midsomer County.  How else to explain the incredibly high murder rate in such a beautiful and seemingly peaceful area?  At least the many murders keep DCI Tom Barnaby and his side-kicks DS Charlie Nelson and Dr. Kam Karimore busy.  Series 18 has just been released and is available from Acorn Media (as is all of the Midsomer Murders back catalog!).

Series 18 contains 6 brand new mysteries, as well as bonus material containing behind-the-scenes featurettes.  This series also introduces Dr. Kam Karimore as the hardworking pathologist who is called out to murder scenes and expected to instantly determine time and manner of death.  She remains remarkably cheerful and able to offer up extremely well-educated guesses to all the questions, so she quickly becomes an invaluable member of the team.  She and DS Nelson are both extremely competitive (in everything from pub quizzes to tennis to vying to dog-sit Sykes), so they seem to have met their match in each other.

The new series starts out with Habeas Corpus.  An elderly man dies at
home in bed, surrounded by his family and the local doctor. The family retires downstairs to wait for the undertaker, but when he arrives and goes upstairs to retrieve the body, everyone is shocked to discover the bed is empty and the recently deceased Gregory Lancaster is nowhere to be found.  This is perplexing enough, but not long afterward, a body is stolen from a grave in the local churchyard.  This missing body also turns out to have a connection to the Lancaster family, as it belongs to the former nanny of the children (now grown).  This case has aspects that reach far beyond Midsomer County, as Felix Lancaster (son and heir of the missing man) spends most of his time on expeditions to Antarctica.  It turns out he has already pledged to sell the estate to his childhood friend Sonny Desai.  Sonny, meanwhile, has made his fortune in somewhat shady mining deals in Mozambique.  Felix's sister Rose, her finance Craig, and mother Hermione, are all somewhat shell-shocked at the thought of losing their home.  Still, the living arrangements are of little concern to Barnaby and Nelson as they try to figure out where the missing bodies are, and who on earth would have taken them.  On the home front, things are rather noisy at Casa Barnaby, as baby Betty's beloved Pink Ted continually goes missing, only to turn up in the oddest places.

A connection even farther away than Antarctica occurs in The Incident at Copper Hill, where people are gathering at a place known for UFO sightings.  Felicity Ford, a forest ranger, is found dead in very unusual circumstances.  Her vehicle is found in the middle of the road, running, with the door open and one of her boots nearby.   Eventually she is found encased in a strange bag and covered in an unusual goo.  Kam quickly determines that the cause of death was drowning in this goo, which was apparently in liquid form at high temperatures, but solidifies as it cools.  Aside from the UFOlogists who are in town hoping to glimpse some extraterrestrials, a MOD base is nearby and figures in the investigation.  The commander of the base, Group Captain Ford (father of the dead woman) is not keen to have any civilians on his base, even if they are investigating a murder.  So were alien beings really responsible for the death, or is the truth closer to Earth?

The world of competitive cycling gets nasty in Breaking the Chain.  Greg Eddon wins the current
stage of the Midsomer Cycling Grand Prix, even though he had been instructed to let another teammate win.  As Greg is winding down after the race, someone interferes with his equipment and murders him.  All sorts of possible motives emerge, including professional jealousy, team rivalries and illegal doping -- which have people scurrying to cover their tracks, even if certain individual mis-deeds didn't lead to the murder.

Episode Four, Dying Art, concerns a wealthy man who has upset most of his neighbors by blocking off the area woodlands in order to open a
private sculpture garden.  When the man, Brandon Monkford, is discovered murdered and posed on one of the sculptures, Barnaby and Nelson must consider the fact that someone in the village really wanted their woodland back.  Of course, there were also plenty of artists who wanted the fame and recognition of having their artwork displayed in the new attraction, and when that didn't happen, plenty of rejected artists had a motive for murder as well.  Brandon's family is astonished to learn that he cut them all out of his will and left his sizable estate to an employee, so could money be the motive?

Saints and Sinners concerns an archaeological dig taking place in the
county.  The renowned leader of the dig, Zoe Dyer, is jubilant to discover a skeleton that she believes to be the remains of Cecily Milson, a 16th century Protestant martyr who was tortured and put to death for her beliefs.  This presents a problem in the small village of Midsomer Cecily, because they believe they already have her remains on display in the church, where they are enshrined as religious relics.  In fact, the annual Cecily Day celebrations are coming up, and it's very inconvenient to have two sets of remains for one individual.  When Zoe is discovered murdered at the dig site, Barnaby discovers just how ruthless the fields of history and archaeology truly are.

The final episode of the series, Harvest of Souls, takes place during the Whitcombe Mallet Harvest Fayre.  The village green is taken over for the annual "fayre" but it looks as if the celebration's days may be numbered.  The local "squire," Harry Wyham, wants to sell the land and stop the annual tradition.  This especially doesn't sit well with Butch Nevins, owner of the Wall of Death motorcycle attraction at the fair.  When Harry is discovered apparently trampled to death by a horse in his own Wyham Equestrian Center, it quickly becomes apparent that it wasn't an accident.  As well as angering the villagers in general and Butch in particular, Harry was also in a custody battle over his young daughter Amy.  Her mother, Jessica, has had some problems, but now wants more time with her daughter.  So the finger of suspicion points in many directions!  At the same time, the Barnaby family is hoping to go on vacation to France, but Sykes the dog is not happy about the idea.

It was wonderful to go back to Midsomer again, and to try to work out the tangled lives of its inhabitants.  Everyone seems to have plenty to hide, even if it isn't a murderous secret.  There seems
to be a lot of "us vs. them" conflicts in these stories -- outsiders (UFO chasers & nighthawks/
metal detectorists) vs. villagers, as well as people trying to do new things and villagers getting upset that it was disrupting the natural surroundings (the bike race and sculpture park).  I liked the lighthearted competition between Nelson and Kam, and I'm sure they'll find plenty of new areas to challenge each other in when we see them again next year! It was also nice to see familiar faces popping up including Allison Stedman, Helen Baxendale and Julia Sawalha as well as Sian Webber.  I didn't recognize Sian Webber's name, but she was instantly familiar as "Ritchie," the long suffering legal fixer for the Mitchell clan on Eastenders.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Midsomer Murders Series 18 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Can a wicked boy be rehabilitated?

What would cause a young boy to murder his mother and can there be any redemption for him after committing such an act?  Those questions are central to The Wicked Boy, a novel which covers a true crime that happened in Victorian London in 1895.

Thirteen year old Robert Coombes and his eleven year old brother Nattie were living in London with their parents as the 19th century was drawing to a close.  Their father, also named Robert, worked on merchant ships that made transatlantic crossings.  He was frequently away from home for long periods, leaving the boys in the care of their mother Emily.  During one of their father's job-related absences, friends and family members began to notice that they hadn't seen Emily for a while.  The boys said they had gotten word that a rich relative had died, and that their mother had gone to Liverpool to check on their inheritance.  In the meantime, John Fox, a somewhat simple man who worked at the same shipping company as their father, was staying with them.

The boys were seen spending lots of money (attending cricket matches, among other things), having Mr. Fox pawn belongings, and even sending letters to the shipping company attempting to get an advance on their father's wages while their mother remained absent.  Eventually, relatives insisted on entering the house and the body of Emily Coombes was discovered upstairs in bed.  She had been stabbed repeatedly.

The boys and John Fox were quickly arrested as the police attempted to sort out who was responsible for the crime.  As the investigation continued, it emerged that Robert was the one who wielded the knife against his mother.  What could have caused him to behave in such a way?  The press was quick to blame his love of "penny dreadfuls," cheap books that featured adventurous heroes and exotic locations.  Because of his young age and somewhat more enlightened times (compared to how justice had been meted out in earlier times in England), the boy wasn't hanged.  The rest of the book deals with his punishment for the crime and the events that happened later in his life.

The most startling aspect of the book to me was a quote from an article in the newspaper the Pall Mall Gazette, advocating the practice of killing morally defective children at birth (were we only able to detect such a thing!).  The quote reads, "It would be well if we could choke such moral abortions at birth, as we now choke physical ones."

Beg pardon?

That would seem to imply that it was entirely legal in Victorian England to euthanize babies with physical defects at birth.  That's the first I've ever heard of this practice, and the author didn't elaborate on it at all.  A footnote explaining the historical context would have been appreciated.

I enjoyed reading about how the young boy was treated in the press and legal system of the day.  It was really interesting also to read about how the author was able to tease out the details of Robert's later life and the methods she employed to do so.

Final Verdict for The Wicked Boy Four Gherkins, for being a well-researched account into the aftermath of a shocking crime

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Self-absorbed much?

Pity the poor novelist, especially one who has had at least one successful book in the past.  There's always pressure to live up to the former glory, as well as a possible unfortunate tendency to want to bask in past fame even when more recent efforts haven't been as successful.  The world of a popular novelist and his attempts to remain relevant form the basis for Herman Koch's new novel Dear Mr. M.

M. is how the author is referred to throughout the story.  Now nearing 80, his most famous book, Payback, dealt with the real-life disappearance of a local history teacher (who happened to be having an affair with one of his students).  In the years since that success, M. has followed up with several novels, including one cruelly exposing the "faults" of his ex-wife who left him for a disheveled artist. He now writes mainly about events that happened during WWII.  M. currently lives in an apartment in Amsterdam with his young second wife and 4 year old daughter.

Living above M. is someone we quickly discover was actually involved in the events surrounding the disappearance of the teacher from M.'s bestselling novel.  M. has no idea that his neighbor played a part in this story.  M., in fact, shows little interest in anything other than himself (if the neighbor's viewpoint is to be believed).  The neighbor spends quite a lot of time monitoring the lives of M. and his family, and isn't at all impressed with the behavior, conceit or intelligence of M.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints: of M., the neighbor, Laura (the girl having an affair with the teacher and a fellow student), and eventually even that of the teacher who disappeared.  The events shift from the present back to the events leading up to the fateful day of the disappearance.  We eventually learn that the neighbor's name is Herman, which M.'s wife remarks is the same name as her husband.

So the young man at the center of the disappearance, the writer in the story, and the author of the book all are named Herman?  I'm not sure what the reader is supposed to make of that.  The events surrounding the disappearance of the teacher make up the plot of the story, but a good 1/3 of the book deals with tedious descriptions of the writer M., his life, his thoughts on fellow writers, interviews with him about (what else?) himself and how he came to write this or that . . . the book really bogs down with all this unnecessary commentary.  It adds nothing to the story, only to let us know how self-absorbed M. is and how much back-biting and rivalry there is in the publishing industry.  For the events of the story the reader really wants to know, however, there are many gaps.  Characters appear and leave without any indication of what might have happened to them other than vague, tantalizing statements that are never clarified ("After what she did . . .").  Other statements are startlingly dropped into the story and never explained ("She could sense something about me . . .", "She had to tell me several times because I didn't understand . . .").  Yet we get page after boring page about M.'s thoughts on his fellow writers.  I can understand that the author wants the reader to fill in some of the details on his or her own, but it would have been nice to have more events in the actual "mystery" clarified rather than being privy to every stray thought in M.'s head.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Dear Mr. M from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, September 19, 2016

Helping others while helping myself

Riley Banks-Snyder became interested in Kenya as a young teenager. She had an aunt and uncle who were volunteering and doing mission work there, and she convinced her parents to allow her to visit them.  That life-changing event and how it inspired her to work to help the children of Kenya forms the basis of Riley Unlikely.

After witnessing the poverty in Kenya, particularly the lack of school supplies, Riley comes home and attempts to get stores to donate items she can take on her next trip to Kenya.  She soon finds out that few businesses will donate unless it is to a non-profit organization. An accountant friend helps her file the paperwork to start Generation Next, a non-profit with a 501(c)3 number that allows her to collect donations. After discovering she has a medical condition that means she can't have children, she became determined to build an orphanage in Kenya and worked toward achieving that goal.

I appreciate the desire to help people that motivated the author to get involved, but throughout most of the book she comes off as a rather spoiled and pampered girl who "helps" by collecting consumable items (pencils, sanitary napkins, travel sized toothpaste tubes) that she can fit in a suitcase for her yearly visits and distribute to amazed and grateful people.  While the need is great and I'm sure it makes her feel good to do such things, it all seems rather pointless, in the grand scheme of things.  She did gather sponsors in the US to provide money to finish a small school that was left uncompleted after the death of a previous missionary, but she made sure her name was painted outside it (because, let's face it, it's all about her).  Back in her hometown, a local thrift shop owner got tired of running the business and donated the building and inventory to Generation Next to use as a fundraising arm.  Guess what the store is called?  Riley's Treasures -- I KNOW!  Who would have thought she would name the store AFTER HERSELF?  And then there's the story about how she selflessly goes on a trip to Israel, so she can learn about the Holy Land and tell her impoverished Kenyan friends about it on her next visit since "they would most likely never have reason to travel out of their own villages."  What a gal!

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Live for Today Template

 
Imagine if someone, somewhere were keeping track of all your happy memories and that at some point you would have to pay (literally) for them.  That's the idea behind the quirky book The Invoice by the Swedish author and actor Jonas Karlsson.

The story begins as our unnamed narrator receives a strange invoice in the mail for over 5,700,000 kronor (about $800,000 in US money).  His name is on the bill, but there's no clear indication about what the bill is actually for.  Has he ordered some high-ticket item and forgotten about it?  Are the commas in the wrong places, and maybe it's supposed to be a bill for 57,000 instead (still an outrageous sum, but easier to wrap your head around).  Since there must clearly be some mistake, he throws the bill in the trash and heads off to work at the video store.

He only works part-time at the video store, and even when he's at work, there's not a lot to do.  He is a film buff, so it is enjoyable for him to be able to speak to the rare customer who comes in about film in general and more especially about rare or unusual films.  His slacker friend Roger also drops by from time to time, but with no romantic partner, the narrator leads a quiet life of work, going home to his small apartment to watch movies, play video games or listen to music and occasionally meet Roger for some not-very-exciting-or-adventurous outings.

So he is disturbed and somewhat alarmed to receive another invoice, this one even higher due to the "late fees" being added.  There is a customer service number to call, and after being on hold for many hours, he's finally able to speak to a customer service representative.  She tells him her name is Maud and asks what she can help him with.  As he begins to explain the gigantic bill that he's received in error, Maud is aghast.  Hasn't he been watching the news?  Seen all the leaflets? Walked by all the posters in town?  Everyone knows about the Invoices. It seems that the world powers-that-be have gotten together and designed the ultimate wealth re-distribution scheme.  Those who are happiest and having the best lives are charged most, and once they've paid in what they owe, the funds will be redistributed to those who haven't been as fortunate.  Maud goes on to question the things that the narrator enjoys -- sunshine, his apartment, the smell of flowers, etc.  She explains that none of that is free, and that now it's time to pay up.

The narrator becomes increasingly upset as he attempts to convince WRD (World Resources Distribution, the company behind the invoices) that he doesn't have any money or assets to pay such a large bill.  He assumes that there must have been a mistake somewhere in the accounting.  After several visits to the WRD headquarters (all the while trying to get a glimpse of Maud, his phone advisor), the situation doesn't seem to be getting better.  Will anyone listen to him? Why does he owe such an astronomical amount when others who seem to be doing so much better than he is received lower invoices?  Can he ever hope to pay off such a large sum?

I really enjoyed this slim book, and all the ideas it puts forth -- the most successful people aren't always those with the most money; you can be happy with your life even if you don't have much materially to show for it; misfortune can be a good thing in helping us to grow and mature; some people will never be happy even if things are turning out well for them.  I enjoyed Jonas Karlsson's first book The Room as well, and I hope both books will eventually be turned into films.

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


Monday, August 29, 2016

It's not all about you

David Boudia sounded like a real jerk.  While he was a successful athlete, he was rude, arrogant, entitled and had no time for anyone who wouldn't benefit him in some way. He also used every opportunity to abuse cigarettes and alcohol -- and marijuana when he thought there were no drug tests on his horizon. OK, maybe he didn't ever reach Ryan Lochte's level of jerkdom, but he was up there giving ol' Ryan a run for his money.  Greater Than Gold describes Boudia's change of heart and attitude that allowed him to overcome his disastrous showing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (where he won no medals) to becoming a more grateful, focused athlete who was able to bring home medals from the next two Olympics competitions.

David was born into a Catholic family with two hard-working parents and two older sisters.  In order to channel his boundless energy, his parents signed the young boy up for gymnastics lessons.  He soon realized that no matter how successful he was in the sport, no matter how much praise and recognition he received, he always wanted more and to be the center of attention.  Eventually, he got burned out on gymnastics but had discovered diving.  He (and his family) poured all his energy (and lots of time and money) into his diving training.  He was crushed after his performance in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and decided that rather than turn pro (where he would earn a lot of money very quickly) he would go on to college.  His Purdue coach, Adam, was patient and able to reign in the impatient Boudia and help him to focus on the process of earning a medal, rather than rushing headlong toward glory (which didn't work out so well in Beijing).

Because of his earlier successes in the sport, Boudia was somewhat famous on campus. This did nothing to reduce his partying out-of-control lifestyle.  One day in his sophomore year, he had something of a crisis, which led to a long talk with his coach Adam and Adam's wife Kimiko.  Due to his feeling so low despite all of his outward successes, Boudia was receptive to their Christian message.  He was baptized and began to work not for glory and adulation for himself, but to use his sport and talent to bring glory to God.  He also got married and had a child, two things which tend to help most party-animals slow down!

Although he ultimately achieved Olympic glory in London in 2012, Boudia has had to struggle with the fame and the realization that achieving his goal weren't as satisfying as he thought they would be. It was interesting to read about his struggles with hubris and how he became more process-oriented rather than goal-oriented to achieve success. Still, even though he's worked hard and achieved great things, there were many instances where he had to remind readers of his success ("I won Big 10 Athlete of the Week again?").  It sounds like even after all his achievements, he still struggles with his ego and sense of entitlement.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Greater Than Gold from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Monday, August 22, 2016

Can't we leave the snakes alone to do their snaky business?

Poor Gwen Marcey certainly has a lot on her plate in When Death Draws Near. An underemployed forensic artist, she's been commissioned to travel from her home in Montana to Pikeville, Kentucky to help draw a suspect in a series of vicious rapes.  At the same time, a recent bout of cancer has left her broke, and her ex-husband is threatening to sue her for full custody of their 15 year old daughter, Aynslee.  So when Gwen attempts to interview a victim who is recovering in the hospital, she's hoping to be able to do the sketch and get back to her life as soon as possible.

The hospitalized victim, Shelby Lee, refuses to say anything, so Gwen resolves to return later, and this time not be accompanied by the local Sheriff, Clay Reed, who doesn't seem too thrilled to have Gwen in town anyway.  Gwen isn't able to follow through, because she soon learns that Shelby Lee has checked herself out of the hospital and disappeared -- just like several previous victims.  When the young clerk of the hotel where Gwen is staying disappears in the middle of her shift, Gwen is terrified that the "Hillbilly Rapist" has struck again.

Not only is Sheriff Reed unhappy with Gwen's presence in town . . . it seems that someone else is, too.  Walking home from dinner one night Gwen is nearly run down, and later she finds a rattle snake in her bed.  Due to various events in town (who knew Pikeville was such a happenin' place?), there are no other hotel options for Gwen.  Luckily, Sheriff Reed tells her that the people who wanted to bring her in on the case from the beginning, Blanche and Arless Campbell, have insisted that she come and stay with them.  The Campbells are wealthy and influential.  Arless Campbell is a state senator with higher political aspirations.  Blanche is doing all she can to improve the image of eastern Kentucky.  Between them, they want all suggestion of crime, poverty or general "backwardness" removed from Pikeville.

All of this ties in with a second issue that Gwen becomes involved with: the practice of snake handling during religious services.  Since she's in town, Gwen is asked to do a facial recreation sketch for an unidentified body that has been found in the woods, apparently killed by a snake bite.  Gwen does such a good job that the young man's parents gratefully ask her to attend his funeral.  Once Gwen's new hosts, the Campbells, hear this, they ask her to attend and come back and draw sketches of the people who attend the funeral.  Since Senator Campbell has gotten a law passed in Kentucky forbidding the practice of snake handling, he wants the members of this particular church exposed so that he can enforce the law and hopefully stamp out the practice for good. Gwen (and eventually her daughter, Aynslee, who comes to stay with her) both face danger as they are unsure if they can trust anyone or if the snake handling church is looking to silence its critics.

I appreciate that the author was trying to demonstrate that, even if their practices seem strange to outsiders, the free practice of religion (by consenting adults) is one of the foundations of this country.  I didn't like the fact that it appeared the author had done some research for this book, and by golly, she was going to make sure to impart that to the reader.  For instance, when she attends a service at the snake handling church, an African-American woman makes sure to come up to Gwen and let her know that the Pentacostal  movement was started in Los Angeles in the African-American community.  Job done, that character wanders off and is never mentioned again.  Another strange thing is near the beginning of the book when Gwen and Sheriff Reed seem to play "serial killer Jeopardy" with each other (one giving characteristics and the other providing the name of a particular serial killer).  Very odd, especially since they don't seem to like each other and don't really get along otherwise. You'd think bonding over serial killer talk would allow them to warm to one another, but not in this case!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of When Death Draws Near from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Friday, July 15, 2016

Not too late to join the floury fun!


So I am a little bit late to the excitement this year, but the wonderful Great British Baking Show is currently MUST SEE viewing on Friday evenings!  This season began July 1, but there are still plenty of bakers vying for the weekly title of Star Baker, as well as the overall crowning glory of winning the entire thing!  The finale was the most-watched program in the UK in 2015, so you know you don't want to miss it!

Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have to once again put the amateur bakers through their paces as they tackle such challenges as cakes, breads, biscuits (cookies to you and me) and desserts.  Each episode gives the contestants 3 chances to prove their skills (or fail miserably!).  First is the Signature Challenge, where the bakers are making usually tried and true recipes that they are familiar with.  Next is the Technical Challenge, which tests the contestants' abilities to figure out how to make the recipe with only the vaguest of instructions.  Finally, the Showstopper usually features creations of jaw-dropping complexity and appearance.

If you miss an episode or need to catch up will be available to stream each morning after broadcast at http://www.pbs.org/show/great-british-baking-show/. It will also be available on PBS station-branded digital platforms, such as ROKU, Apple TV and Google Chromecast, and on PBS iPad and iPhone apps. Throughout the season, fans can visit PBS Food to learn more about the contestants and get exclusive recipes, photos and video clips from the program. If you want to discuss the program with your fellow enthusiasts online, use the hashtag #PBSBakingShow.

Check your local listings, but most areas are seeing The Great British Baking Show on PBS Fridays at 9:00 pm.  Now, am I brave enough to test out any of the recipes?  I must be sure and test my fire extinguisher and smoke detectors before I begin!





Wednesday, July 13, 2016

This nun is blue for several reasons

Sister Eve Divine, the motorcycle riding nun who moonlights as a private detective is on a new case in Sister Eve and the Blue Nun.  As well as investigating a murder, Sister Eve is at a crossroads in her life.  The monastery where she has lived and worked for many years has suddenly banned the nuns who lived there.  They have all had to leave their longtime home and find new orders to join.  In Sister Eve's case, she has moved back home with her father, retired police Captain Jackson Divine who now runs a detective agency.

Sister Eve is back at the monastery in order to attend a conference about the 17th century Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda.  Sister Maria hasn't yet been declared a saint, but she performed the miracle of bilocation -- living in Spain and yet also appearing at the same time to the Native American Jumano Indians in what is now New Mexico.  The featured speaker at the conference, Dr. Kelly Middlesworth, is going to drop a bombshell during her speech:  that writings from Sister Maria have been discovered that prove she actually visited New Mexico.  Dr. Middlesworth got these writings from her brother, Anthony, who is a monk at the monastery. While he was doing some work at a remote church, he found the writings and smuggled them out to show his sister.  He only intended to show them to her before returning them to their rightful place at the church, but Kelly is determined that the world should know of their existence.  The evening before her speech, however, she is found dead in her room at the monastery.  It is her brother Anthony who finds her, and instead of calling for help, he immediately goes to Sister Eve for help.

Eve confirms that Kelly is dead and begins looking around the room for clues as to what happened.  She suspects that Kelly was poisoned.  As she's investigating, Father Oliver, the head of the monastery arrives.  Anthony also told him of his sister's death.  As the two of them try to decide what to do, the police arrive.  Who called them remains a mystery.  It soon transpires that Anthony, after leaving behind a somewhat incriminating letter for Father Oliver, has disappeared.  Eve knows that Anthony wouldn't have harmed his sister, but who did have a motive to kill her?  And where are the writings of Sister Maria that are missing from Kelly's room?

As Eve determines to get to the truth, she's thrown an unexpected curve ball in the person of a hunky police detective, Earl Lujan.  Whenever he's around doing questioning, Eve begins to feel all lightheaded.  Surely there's not a romance on the horizon???

The book progresses with Eve putting herself in dangerous situations while trying to get at the truth.  At the same time, she struggles with trying to decide what she should do with her life.  She hoped to stay at the monastery, but the archbishop has, for unknown and unexplained reasons, decided that the monks and nuns can no longer live together and the nuns must go.  After taking a vow of obedience, the nuns have no choice but to leave, but the whole thing doesn't sit well with Sister Eve.  She begins to question her future as a nun, as well as whether women have ever had a place in the church.  The mistreatment of Sister Maria, who was questioned repeatedly by the Inquisition during her lifetime, has echoed down through the centuries and shown that women are still being treated as second-class citizens by the male-dominated church.

This is the third book in the Sister Eve series, so I'm sure there are more to come.  It will be interesting to see what Eve decides to do with her life (although she seems to enjoy poking her nose into other people's business and listening outside doors too much to give up being a private detective).  It will also be interesting to see if anything develops with Detective Lujan in the romance department, something I'm sure Sister Eve hadn't expected in her life!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Sister Eve and the Blue Nun from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review


Tuesday, July 12, 2016

I didn't die laughing (as promised)

On a recent trip to London, during one of my many browsing sessions in bookstores, I came across this slim volume that sounded intriguing.  Dead Funny is a collection of short horror stories by comedians.  Looking through the table of contents, I recognized many of the names, including Richard Herring, Katy Brand, Phill Jupitus and Reece Shearsmith.  Many of the other authors were unknown to me, but apparently are well-known in the UK.

The collection begins with "Dog" by Reece Shearsmith.  This recounts a young boy's discussion of his distaste for dogs, why he blames dogs for his brother's death, and how he went about getting his revenge on the canine race.  The following stories, not surprisingly, were a bit uneven.  Some were interesting enough, but others I had to stop before finishing because they just didn't capture my interest.  There are stories about horrifying spiders (I'm sure we can all relate), puppets, vampires and evil entities conjured up by Ouija board.

My favorite story in the collection was "The Patient" by Mitch Benn.  It described a perfectly calm and methodical doctor who has obviously been driven insane by the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of a drunk driver.  When the culprit is given an insultingly short prison sentence, the doctor is waiting to exact his own protracted form of revenge on the man once he's released. However, all doesn't go according to plan. The other story I especially enjoyed was "For Roger" by Katy Brand.  In this story, retired Roger, while searching for mice, uncovers a diary in his own handwriting hidden in the attic.  It is for the near future, and recounts some disturbing events.  Can he prevent them from happening, and how did he manage to foretell the future?

After reading the collection, I can say that if there was meant to be any humor in the stories, I missed it completely.  I can see where the horror aspect of most of the stories was included, but anyone looking for humor with their horror will be disappointed!  I was interested to see that several of the authors used the same "twist" at the end -- recounting a person or event that is later revealed to the reader not to have existed.

All in all, the stories were enjoyable if not exactly side-splitting.  It was great to read some fiction by some performers that I have enjoyed in the comedy realm over the years.

Final Verdict for Dead Funny Three Gherkins, for living up to the horror, if not the funny promise of the title

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Make peace with your frenemies before it's too late!

Rowan Winter is regretting that she didn't make peace with her best friend from childhood, Marianne Glass, before it was too late in Keep You Close.  Marianne has recently died after a fall off her roof, and her death brings back many upsetting memories for her estranged friend Rowan.

Rowan's mother died when she was a baby, and her father was frequently away on business, leaving Rowan with a distant housekeeper.  Luckily, her friend Marianne's family became like a surrogate family to her, taking Rowan in and allowing her to stay there any time she pleased.  She admired Marianne's parents, Jacqueline and Seb, even if she began to see cracks in their relationship.  She and Marianne were inseparable throughout their school years, and Rowan also had a massive crush on Marianne's brother, Adam.

Everything was going well until Seb began an affair with a young woman named Lorna.  It begins to look as if this affair (unlike his many others) will finally succeed in tearing the family apart.  Before there is a final split, Lorna is killed in an accident, and not long after Seb dies also.  These tragic events served to sever the relationship between Rowan and Marianne, but what exactly caused the estrangement?

It's been a decade, and in that time, Marianne has become a world-famous artist.  She is living with a man named James Greenwood who has a teenage daughter.  Rowan continued her education, eventually working as a researcher at the BBC.  Recently, she's given up her job to concentrate on getting another degree.  Since she is not bound to a job, Marianne's family asks if she would stay in the old family home (where Marianne died) in Oxford as a house-sitter, just until they can find a buyer for the house.  Rowan is pleased to be back where so much of her youth was spent happily.  At the same time, she begins to question what really happened to Marianne.  She knows that Marianne suffered from vertigo, and wouldn't have gone up on the roof by herself voluntarily.  Yet the police believe that's exactly what happened, since there was snow on the ground, and only one set of footprints, so Marianne must have been alone when she fell from the roof.  So was it an accident, or suicide, or did someone manage to push her off the roof after all?

Rowan soon begins an affair with Adam, taking up where they never got started as teenagers.  There is soon another, somewhat unwelcome presence, on the scene:  Michael Cory.  Michael is also an artist, although one who courts controversy.  He had apparently been growing close to Marianne before her death, and he's also trying to get to the bottom of what really happened to her.   Plenty of strange things are happening as well, including Marianne's conviction before her death that someone was breaking in and stealing her work, a strange man who seems to be spying on the house from across the street, and an unknown figure that hides in the back garden and always manages to escape just before Rowan can intervene.  Just what do these people have to do with Marianne's death, and does her death have anything to do with the events that fractured her friendship with Rowan?

I enjoyed the Oxford setting of this book, having recently returned from a visit to that lovely city!  Rowan seems like a bit of a drip, not really having any direction in life or real ambition to do anything much (she's always putting off doing any "work" toward her degree).  The story does take an unexpected turn about three quarters of the way through, and the rest of the book is very exciting as we try to see if the mysteries of the past will be able to stay hidden, or if they will explode with unwelcome consequences in the present (guess which?).

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Keep You Close from the publisher in exchange for this review

Ideas for making your day better

All of us, no matter what our current occupation, have good days and bad days at work.  The author Caroline Webb has distilled her experience as a management consultant and her research in behavioral science and psychology to give us seven building blocks on How to Have a Good Day.

First of all, it helps to understand what is meant by having a good day. Some of the ingredients include: feeling productive, confidence in your work, knowing you have the support of others and feeling more energized than exhausted at the end of the day.  So how do we ensure that we have more good days?  The author includes a chart that explains the process of having a good day: starting with priorities and increasing productivity, followed by having meaningful interactions, putting your most creative self forward while having a visible impact and at the same time being to overcome adversity and remain energetic.  Easier said than done, right?

The subtitle of the book is "Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform your Working Life" so the author looks at some scientific research into how the brain works and how we can go about re-programming it (if necessary).  The three main themes that are quoted are deliberate vs. automatic, threat vs. reward, and mind vs. body.  By looking at these three areas, we can become more mindful and deliberate in choosing how we respond to events throughout our day.

My favorite chapter was definitely "Boosting Your Brainpower."  It gives many concrete ways that you can improve your attitude and concentration in order to best attack any task.  I plan to look back on these techniques when I'm wrestling with a difficult problem to get some perspective on ways to approach it which might make it seem more manageable.  Even things such as getting enough sleep and a few short bursts of moderate exercise every day are helpful and suggestions that I'm sure we all can follow!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of How to Have a Good Day from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Preaching the love of all animals

Sarah Withrow King, the author of Vegangelical, always felt the desire to help others.  She knew that her mission in life was to serve those less fortunate, although she didn't really have a direction until she happened to read a pamphlet about the suffering of animals raised for food.  This led to her becoming a vegan and refusing to use products made from or tested on animals.  After college, she began working for PETA, where her devotion to animal rights issues didn't always sit well with her church family.  A devout Christian, King was horrified by the justifications that humans use to harm animals, which she saw as "God's created beings."  Eventually, she attended seminary in order to better merge her faith with her vocation.

The book is divided into two main sections. The first discusses how humans, being made in the image of God, should interpret the ideas of stewardship and love towards animals.  The second part is a stark look at how animals are currently used in a variety of ways by humans:  as pets, as entertainment, for food, for clothing, for research purposes, etc.  There are plenty of examples of cruel and unnecessary treatment of animals which help to illustrate the author's compassionate and faith-based advocacy for better treatment for all creatures.  Each chapter ends with questions designed to help the reader think more deeply about the issues raised.  The conclusion gives suggestions for how people can begin to be more thoughtful in their daily lives in order to incorporate the principles in the book. Throughout the book she quotes Biblical passages which support her ideas. It was very interesting to read about the author's own struggles to give up meat and adapt to meals/gatherings where she is often the only vegan present.  Of course she lists all the ways that giving up animal products in her diet has helped her become more healthy, but she doesn't skip over how difficult it was initially to overcome her cravings for meat and cheese.

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

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Full of old, exhaused-looking places


Yuki has travelled from Japan to visit Bronte Country on a special mission.  She's a "psychic detective" who's trying to see if she can find answers regarding her late mother in Yuki Chan in Bronte Country. We learn that Yuki's mother has died, but not many details about what happened.  Yuki is a 20-something woman who has no particular affinity for the Bronte sisters, but she does have a smattering of photos that her mother took while on a visit to northern England a decade before.  Luckily, she has an older sister, Kumiko who lives in London, so she has a base from which to begin her journey.

Yuki starts out on an organized bus tour to Haworth.  Most of the other people on the bus are elderly Japanese women who are reverently interested in all things Bronte.  Yuki really is just using the bus tour as a way to get her to the correct area to investigate her mother's photos.  After a tour of the house where the Bronte sisters lived, Yuki hides until the bus departs.  She then sets about finding the hotel where her mother stayed on her visit long ago.  It turns out to now be a B&B so Yuki checks in and attempts to see if she can figure out which room her mother occupied.

Once that's done, she takes the photos she has and attempts to recreate the exact pose or angle that her mother saw when the photo was taken.  She's hoping that by doing this, she'll have some psychic connection to her mother and what she was doing when she was there.  While sneaking back into the parsonage where the Brontes lived one night (the better to re-create the situation in the photo without prying eyes), Yuki notices that her movements are being observed by a strange girl.  This girl watches Yuki silently, and seems to turn up wherever she is. Most strangely of all, while Yuki is attempting to find a particular body of water from one of the photographs, she discovers the girl is also out there in the wilderness.  Eventually, she finds that the girl, Denny, has her brother's motorbike (and a gun) and is familiar enough with the local area to be able to take Yuki around to the remaining spots from her photos.  Denny becomes a sidekick as Yuki continues to try to discover the secrets behind her mother's photos.

I found the story of Yuki to be rather odd.  There were strange asides about how she would reopen and re-purpose the old Post Office Tower in London, her experiments with snow, how she fainted on two occasions as a child, intense contemplation of a -Beatle-mania photo from the 1960s, etc. that seem to have nothing to do with the story.  Yuki also visits the "Institute of Psychic Studies" in London, where she believes her mother visited long ago, only to find out she needs an appointment to view their collection of photos.  Since she's already there, she spends a great deal of time poking around aimlessly in the library. There is also an incident with a dog bite that starts out on her thigh, but mysteriously is later on her "ass."  (?)  Overall, the story is about a young woman's attempts to come to terms with the death of her mother -- although going half-way around the world and re-creating old photos that had nothing to do with the death would seem to be an odd way to go about it.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Yuki Chan in Bronte Country from Faber & Faber in exchange for this review