Wednesday, September 28, 2016

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

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

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

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

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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