Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber

The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Coldest Cases by Deborah Halber is a non-fiction title that reads like a page turner.  It is gripping and suspenseful, and if you love reading mysteries or true crime, this book is a must read for you.  It's a fairly quick read because it's hard to put down.  It reminds me a lot of Marilyn Johnson's books that looked at the worlds of obituaries, libraries, and archaeology, all of which have been reviewed here on the blog (click the links to read those reviews).

Like Johnson, Halber immerses herself in the world of these amateur web sleuths and interviews several big players in the cold case solving field.  She also exposes the drama and competition that happens on the online discussion boards that lead to irreparable rifts between the sleuths and online forums.  In addition to profiling several sleuths who have solved some of the most notorious cold cases and given names to unidentified corpses, Halber also details the cases and the victims.  The true stars of the book are the victims, their stories, and the long journeys to identifying them and bringing them home to their families--for some it's taken decades, for others, they still wait.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Monday, March 21, 2016

Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

I read Rebecca of Sunnybrooke Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin for a class.  I had some opinions so I decided to review it for the blog.  This is considered a classic of children's literature.  The edition I read is a slim volume, and the chapters are brief, so it made for a quick read once I got sucked into the story.

At first it was a slow start, but the story is engrossing, so stick with it.  The vernacular of some characters' dialog can be difficult to decipher, and this too slows the story.  Wiggin's writing style can also take some getting used to.

Rebecca Randall, a vibrant, lively, good hearted girl, is sent to her maternal aunts in Riverboro, Maine to receive an education (that her mother hopes to be "the making of" Rebecca).  Rebecca's tenure with her aunts also ameliorates the economic situation at home where her ne'er do well father is three years dead, there are seven small mouths to feed, and a mortgage to pay on the farm.  Any tiny, unexpected hardship can throw a wrench into the family's tenuous circumstances, but all the Randalls know is scrapping by to live.

While aunts Mirandy and Jane initially requested the eldest Randall child, Hannah, due to her stoic, responsible nature and her surface resemblance to the Sawyer "side of the house," it is the lively, talkative Rebecca who is sent instead.  Even prior to her arrival in Riverboro, Rebecca charms everyone she meets, although this lively nature fails to charm miserable, miserly aunt Mirandy.  Throughout the novel, aunt Mirandy and Rebecca continue to butt heads though at some point Mirandy realizes that Rebecca is indeed a good person who takes after the Sawyers in her care and sense of duty and responsibility that she feels towards her family.  However, Mirandy never lets on about this change of heart to her beloved niece.

The reader follows what is indeed "the making of Rebecca" over the course of the novel that covers about five or six years while she's under her aunts' tutelage, attending the local school, and then her time at the boarding school that she attends for high school.  Over these years she acquires friends, honorary uncle and aunt, and a rich businessman benefactor and admirer as well as a female teacher mentor.  This is all due to Rebecca's good hearted, charming, and lively nature.

My Thoughts (You know I had some)

Aunt Mirandy is miserable, and it's easy to hate her in the beginning.  However, Mirandy is not your average 'storybook villain' in that at her core she's not unnecessarily cruel or evil.  She's a blunt, abrasive woman, who's cheap, but she's not evil.  And in the end her love for Rebecca and what she does for her niece redeems her.

It's ironic that Hannah, the niece the aunts originally wanted, turns out to be most like the Randalls at her core in terms of familial duty and responsibility.

Also "Mr. Aladdin."  What is up with a grown man taking an interest in a little girl?  Later as Rebecca grows older, especially when she's off at school as a teenager, it's implied that perhaps Mr. Aladdin may harbor some romantic feelings towards Rebecca.  Or maybe I, as a modern reader, was just reading something into their relationship that wasn't intended by Wiggin.  And the novel ends way before anything like a romantic relationship begins between Mr. Aladdin and Rebecca.  I still don't know whatt to think about this except to say that if a future romance is implied, it's slightly disturbing because Mr. Aladdin, an adult, meets Rebecca when she is still a child.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie is the first of the book series from which the British TV series, Grantchester is adapted.  Both major and minor details of characters, relationships, and mysteries change in the adaptation from book to screen.  Having watched the series before reading this book, I can say that both book and TV show are equally engrossing.

Shadow of Death is not a novel, instead it's a collection of short stories that take place successively over the course of a year that follows Sidney Chambers, the bachelor vicar of the Anglican parish in Grantchester near Cambridge in England; these particular stories are set in 1953 and 1954.  In the book Inspector Keating and Chambers are already friends and acquaintances when Chambers is called upon by a mourner who believes that the suicide of their loved one was not a suicide at all.  Unfortunately once Chambers begins meddling in solving mysteries and crimes, these matters encroach upon more and more of his time.  By the last tale it's near to impossible for Chambers to resist being caught up in the most recent mystery.

Throughout this first set of tales we meet some of Chambers' friends, among them, Amanda Kendall, his sister's room mate, upon whom he has a crush and with whom he develops a rather close friendship.  We also meet Chambers' parents and his sister and brother as well as some parishioners.  A matter that becomes a recurring theme throughout the stories is the question of when and with whom Chambers will finally settle and marry.  At first he hopes this person might be Amanda, but it becomes increasingly clear that these two are not a very good match and that they are much better as friends.

I think you can probably guess some of the reasons that I like this series since my love of all things British period drama and mystery has been well documented on this blog.  I know we're always supposed to say the book is better than its adaptation, and that's usually always the case.  But having read the book after watching the TV series, I think each are equally as good in their own ways.  I'll definitely read the other books in the series, and I'm looking forward to watching the second series of Grantchester whenever that may air.

Two random thoughts I have:

Mrs. Maguire has no redeeming qualities in the stories as she does in the TV series.  None.  My dislike for her increases with every sentence of dialogue she has in the stories.

Amanda is rather more selfish and oblivious in the stories than she is in the TV series.  She knows she and Sidney are not a good match and is interested only in his friendship, yet she thinks nothing of running him out to London to "tell him something of importance" that turns out to be not really important enough to take a train to London in the middle of the day while he still has church work and a mystery to solve.  This is just one example of how she insists on monopolizing his time and attention.  What will she do when he marries someone who isn't her?

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Shadow Cabinet by Maureen Johnson

This week brings another review installment of the Shades of London series by Maureen Johnson.  This review is from our guest reviewer Miss Shayne.

This is the third book in the Shades of London series.   Since I read the first two, I had to get my hands on this one.   I was really excited for this book.   The author left us with a big cliffhanger to draw us back in once again.   I had to continue reading to find out the fate of one my favorite characters.

In this book, our protagonist Rory has to go into hiding because she knows people are looking for her.   She cannot be found because of her involvement with a secret organization.   There are things going on that the public can’t know about due to their supernatural nature.   In the midst of all of this madness, Rory also has to aid in the search for her kidnapped classmate.   If all of this wasn’t enough, Rory’s therapist is crazy and is trying to resurrect some old friends—some very, very bad friends.

My favorite part of this book is Rory.   She is the kind of friend everyone should aspire to be.   She goes to great lengths to ensure the safety of her friends, even when she is unaware if she will be okay in the end.   She is funny, smart, and thoughtful.   I just hate how she has to put up a fa├žade to keep her friends safe, even when they beg her to tell them the truth.   She wants to, but she legally can’t.
On the other hand, this book confused me.   There was a lot going on, and I found it hard to keep track of it all.  Before reading this book, I would recommend brushing up on some Greek mythology.   Everything is explained eventually, but it was confusing at first.   The author also spends too much time telling us street names and giving us directions from one part of London to another.   This is irrelevant and makes no difference to me because I have never been to London.

This book wasn’t the best in the series, but that won’t deter me from reading the next one when it’s released.   As long as the final book is good, all will be well.   I can’t wait for the conclusion of this series.

--Reviewed by Miss Shayne

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Madness Underneath by Maureen Johnson

This week's review is our semi-regular guest reviewer Miss Shayne.  This week she's reviewing the second title in a series; the first title of this particular series was one her Staff Picks 2015.

After reading the first book in this series, I was confused.  The author left us hanging with a game changer!  It was then I realized that this book is part of a series.  Maureen Johnson’s cliffhanger successfully drew me back in.  I had to have more.

This is the second book in the Shades of London series.  With shiny new characters and a more complex plot than the first book, this book had everything the first book lacked.  And I enjoyed the first book, too. After nearly being murdered, our protagonist Rory had to be taken out of school to go live with her parents and undergo some therapy.  A string of shady events lead her back to school where she must try tirelessly to catch up with her classes.  This is impossible though because Rory leads a bit of a double life that her “normal” friends can’t know about.  Rory is an asset to a group of young adults that hunt for ill-mannered (and sometimes murderous) ghosts.

It’s hard finding a place to stop with this book. The author always has a detail at the end of a chapter that makes you want to read the next one right away.  (This kept me up late at night . . .) The author also does this at the end of the book, so you want to read the next book right away.

Without giving too much away, there is another game changer at the end of this book. The ending of this book had me expressing every emotion: sadness, rage, and finally, inner peace.  How could the author do this to us?! If she didn’t resolve this for us, I would never be able to read the next book.  I then came up with the only ending I would accept in my head.  I accurately guessed the resolution to the final problem, so I decided I would continue reading the series despite my earlier threats never to read again.

My only beef: when will everyone realize that our main character is fully capable of holding her own? The squad kind of needs her now, so just let her join your ghost sleuthing team! She has nothing better to do now anyway!  You scratch her back; she’ll get rid of mean ghosts!  It’s a win-win.  Stop treating her like a child.

--Reviewed by Miss Shayne