Wednesday, March 30, 2016

In How It All Began, one act has repercussions across the lives of many characters.  Charlotte Rainsford, elderly but still active, is mugged one day, she loses more than her bag.  Injuries mean that she needs time to recuperate before she can move back to her own home, where the lives alone.  She moves in with her daughter Rose and son-in-law Gerry.  She really hates the loss of independence, but decides to make the best of it.

Rose works for Lord Henry Peters as a sort of secretary/personal assistant.  Henry is a retired academic who potters around his house and always seems to have some sort of project on the go.  He thinks about writing his memoirs, but has papers, books, files and notes scattered everywhere, so he never actually gets started.

When Rose's mother has a doctor's appointment on the day Henry is scheduled to deliver a lecture, his niece Marion is roped in to go with him instead.  This upset to his routine causes a great deal of bother, with notes left behind and an embarrassing lack of polish when delivering the lecture.  Marion has her own problems.  She's a self-employed interior designer who has seen much of her work dry up with the downturn in the economy.  She's been having an affair with a married man, Jeremy, who works in the slightly related field of reclamation -- going to properties that are being sold or torn down and rescuing anything that he might be able to sell on.  Because she has to accompany Uncle Henry to his lecture, she sends a text to Jeremy telling him she won't be able to keep their date that evening. Unfortunately, Jeremy's wife, the slightly unstable and hysterical Stella, sees the text and promptly throws Jeremy out of the family home.  Luckily, Jeremy has a small flat that he uses when he's "working" (or entertaining his latest mistress), so he's not totally homeless.  Still, he's panic-stricken at the thought of a divorce and the subsequent upheaval to his life and finances.  While at the dinner which follows Uncle Henry's disastrous lecture, Marion thinks her professional prayers have been answered when she meets a banker who wants her to work with him on his property-flipping project.  She gets started immediately, buying materials and hiring workers, but when she needs money to pay for everything, she discovers that the banker is suddenly MIA . . .

Since Charlotte is basically house-bound at Rose's house, she's had to give up going to the local literacy center where she teaches English to new immigrants.  As a retired teacher, this is work she both enjoys and excels at.  When she calls to say she won't be able to come in for a while, it's suggested that she might tutor a student one-on-one in Rose's house.  She agrees, and soon Anton, an accountant from Poland currently working in the construction trade, shows up for regular lessons.  He's very motivated to improve his English so he can apply for an office job.  Although Rose is out most of the time when he arrives for his lessons, soon their paths cross and she agrees to go with him to pick out some gifts of clothing for his mother back in Poland.  They discover many mutual interests, and soon Rose begins to wonder if her comfortable, but unexciting, life with Gerry might be exchanged for something else.

So the original mugging of Charlotte leads to upheavals in the lives of many people.  Whether these events will have long lasting consequences or not is the question.  It's quite plausible to see how one event can have ripple effects across the lives of so many characters.

Final Verdict for How It All Began:  Four Gherkins, for being a lively look at the interconnectedness of seemingly random events


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cambodia is the setting for Hunters in the Dark, a book about aimless Westerners who travel there to float along with no plans other than to live cheaply and escape from unsatisfying lives "back home."  The book mainly concerns Robert, an Englishman, and Simon, and American, and how their lives intersect with violent and unexpected consequences.

The book is divided into four sections, each more or less told from the viewpoint of a different character (although all of the characters become intertwined).  Karma, the first section, concerns Robert and his background.  He is a teacher in a small village in England. He's stayed in the general area where is parents and grandparents live, but doesn't really feel connected to anything.  He saves his money so that during the summer holidays he can travel.  His current trip to Southeast Asia eventually brings him to Cambodia.  He doesn't have much money left, but on a whim decides to visit a casino where he manages (without much effort or thought) to win $2000.  This money will be the catalyst for many of the events which follow.  He hires a taxi driver, Ouksa, who takes him to some ruins where he encounters another westerner.  Simon is a confident and friendly American who invites Robert to his house.  Ouksa tries to dissuade Robert from going with Simon, saying he doesn't trust the American, but Robert brushes off the warning.  Simon seems to be prosperous, and he is welcoming and friendly, even being so kind as to share his opium (what a guy).  When Robert regains consciousness after his night of partying at Simon's house, he's on a boat wearing someone else's clothes and with all of his belongings and casino winnings missing (I hate when that happens!).  The boat operator has apparently been given instructions to drop Robert in the city but doesn't seem to understand English.  Robert does find $100 in one of the pockets of the strange clothes, and freed of the rest of his belongings, he's strangely at peace.  He decides to find a hotel and try to find clients who will pay for English lessons.  In this way, he meets Sophal, the daughter of a wealthy doctor.  Sophal can speak English already, but her father wants to at least give her some direction after she dropped out of medical school in Paris.

The second part of the book, Dogs and Vultures, concerns what happens to Simon after he steals Robert's money.  Simon and his Khmer girlfriend, Sothea, are drug addicts who simply spend all their time high or trying to find drugs.  Needless to say, their ill-gotten money does not turn out to be a blessing for them.

Dhamma, the third section of the book, involves Davuth, an immoral policeman.  He has good motives for his corruption, a daughter in private school, but he's ruthless and willing to do anything to get more money.  He finds out where Simon got his large windfall, and becomes convinced that Robert has even more money stashed somewhere. In the final section of the book, Hunters in the Dark, the characters come together in a final series of events that will leave nearly everyone damaged in some way.  Is the cursed money to blame?  Certainly, many of the characters seem to be motivated by the pursuit of the cash.

The book was so very slow to get started.  The first part of the book read like a very boring travel journal.  We were treated to where Robert went, how he got there, and what he saw once he arrived.  The author also throws in many presumably Khmer words, with no attempt to explain them, so the book seemed to be gibberish at some points.  Robert is also a supremely annoying character.  He has no direction, no plans, and no enthusiasm for anything.  He is repeatedly warned against people and actions by locals, yet he consistently ignores this advice (to disastrous effect every time).

It was interesting to read about Cambodia, a country that I hadn't encountered much in fiction before.  Davuth the policeman often remembers his days as a young killer in the days of the Pol Pot regime, and this early causal exposure to violence has helped to shape his current outlook on life.  Overall, the book was an interesting look at how the events of the recent past have shaped Cambodia.  It's also a cautionary tale of how greed and the pursuit of easy money never end well.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Hunters in the Dark from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, March 21, 2016

Most people, thankfully, never have to experience the horror of losing a child to violence.  When a child is murdered, it is natural to want the killer brought to justice and punished. In the touching book Forgiving My Daughter's Killer, Kate Grosmaire discusses the terrible events surrounding her daughter's death, and how she was able to find peace through forgiveness for the perpetrator of the crime.

Ann Grosmaire was a 19 year old college student living in Florida when her life tragically ended.  Her parents were at home on a normal Sunday in Tallahassee when their lives were changed forever by the arrival of two police detectives at their front door.  The news that their daughter had been shot and was in the hospital fighting for her life was terrible enough, but worse news was to come:  she had been shot by her boyfriend of two years, Conor McBride.  Believing he had killer her, Conor had driven around aimlessly for nearly an hour before going to a police station and confessing to murder.  Amazingly, despite a devastating head wound, Ann was still alive.  At the hospital, her parents, Andy and Kate, are surrounded by family, friends and fellow church members. After a while, they are also joined by some unexpected visitors:  Conor's parents.  While shocked and concerned for their daughter's welfare, the Grosmaires nevertheless are compassionate and helpful to Conor's parents, feeling that their lives have also been turned upside down.  Kate is also shocked to learn that Conor has listed her as one of the four people permitted to visit him in prison.

Through difficult times in her marriage, Kate Grosmaire had to deal with forgiveness, and came to realize that forgiving the person who had wronged her allowed her to let go of her own anger.  After Ann's death, she and her husband become intrigued with the idea of restorative justice for Ann's killer.  This idea allows for the criminal to work toward understanding the people he has injured with his behavior, and to work toward some sort of restitution.  Of course, in this instance there is no way to bring Ann back, but her parents felt that by participating in Conor's punishment and rehabilitation, they could ensure that he would have a chance at a better life than just being warehoused in a prison.  It involved the parents of the victim and the perpetrator, as well as the perpetrator sitting down with mediators and discussing the crime and how it has effected everyone.  It also allowed the Grosmaires to have a say in the type of sentence Conor would receive.

The book ends with a Q & A with Conor himself.  All in all, I found the book to be a moving story of how parents received the worst news possible, yet were able to keep from letting their grief turn to anger.  Their work with restorative justice has prompted other people in similar situations to contact them for help and advice.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Forgiving My Daughter's Killer from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Bill Bryson is a man with something of a split personality.  Despite living most of his life in Britain, he still identifies himself as an American.  His newest book The Road to Little Dribbling is an updated version of one of his earlier books, Notes from a Small Island.  In the earlier book, he traveled around Britain as a fairly new inhabitant of the country and recorded the towns, customs and people that were strange or endearing to him.  Now, some 20 years later and on the verge of applying for British citizenship (he'll retain his American citizenship, too), he decides to travel around the country again and see what has changed.  Unfortunately, all the changes he notes seem to be for the worse. 

Whether all of Bryson's complaints have to do with the deterioration of British society as a whole, or the fact that at age 63, he's descending into Grumpy Old Man-dom, is hard to tell.  Certainly, he notes (very frequently) how towns he visited many years ago have gotten much worse than he remembered.  Of course, a great deal of this phenomenon has to do with "super stores" coming into even the smallest towns and villages and driving independent stores out of business.  This leaves the main (or high) streets largely derelict and boarded up -- not charming at all.  In Britain, the culprit doesn't seem to be Wal-Mart (Asda), but Tesco.  The Tescos I've visited have been grocery stores rather than everything-under-one-roof-emporiums, so where the people in these villages go for motor oil, nails, vacuum cleaners and sewing notions, heaven knows.

There are traces of his trademark humor, such as early on when his head has an unfortunate encounter with a traffic barrier, or when he is imagining vicious comebacks to annoying people he seems to come in contact with on a regular basis.  Otherwise, the book seems to fall a bit flat.  Not only does he lament the tired and worn-out towns he visits, but even if there does seem to be something to investigate, he doesn't seem to spend much time looking around because he is always checking to see what time the nearest pub opens and how far away it is.

He also seems to harp rather a lot on the problem of littering.  Goodness knows, he has an ally in me on this topic, but even I found his frequent rants on the subject a bit tiring.  Also, he keeps discussion charity walks and hikes he goes on for various causes that always seem to just be thrown in without much context or explanation.

Still, I always admire and enjoy reading about his travels, no matter how grouchy he ends up being!  I hope that he will be going on another trip soon, hopefully to somewhere a bit more exotic where he can really get worked up over strange and different customs and people.

Final Verdict for The Road to Little Dribbling Three Gherkins, for being a prickly look at a green and (apparently) no longer so pleasant land

About Me

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

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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