Monday, May 30, 2016

The Wicked Boy: A Book Review

True crime and well-researched historical detail
In the Victorian era, children were considered adults in miniature, the teenager unknown as we look on them today. But attitudes were changing, and when a thirteen-year-old boy murdered his mother in a run-down district of London, citizens debated the reason why. Not unlike today, when teens commit murder and it's the violent video game taking the blame. In 1895, it was the penny dreadful, the cheap literature filled with violence and gore that was seen as the terrible influence on malleable young minds.

Author Kate Summerscale examines one such crime in her newest work of history THE WICKED BOY. She uses the case of Robert Coombes, who freely confessed to killing his mother while his father was away at sea, and presents the sort of evidence that made up the prosecution and, more interesting, the defense.

Quoting freely from court records, Ms. Summerscale crafts an intriguing piece of narrative non-fiction, putting the reader into the middle of the case. Bit by bit, she peels away the layers of testimony that described the actual crime. The fact that Robert made no effort to hide his mother's body suggests a lack of real understanding of the gravity of the crime, at least to our modern eyes. The Victorians, however, were just then drawing that sort of conclusion, although Ms. Summerscale demonstrates the lack of consensus through newspaper reports of the day. She also reveals the prejudices of the time that painted a Coombes family friend as a harmless imbecile, the sort of person who today would be labelled as mentally challenged, rather than a cunning aid to murder. The reporting that described Robert and his younger brother, also implicated, is a window to another age, when overblown prose was typical and court artists took great liberties to portray the criminal as an animal.

The reader is able to draw conclusions without being beat over the head with the author's opinion, and like a jury member can read between the lines of evidence that danced around the possibility of extreme child abuse. We have come a long, long way from Queen Victoria's day, when a parent was allowed to do just about anything they pleased to their offspring.

Without giving away the ending, the conclusion of Robert Coombes' life proves to be uplifting and reinforces the theory that he was an abused child, his mother possibly mentally unstable. His experiences did indeed scar him, but he carried on with the sort of resignation one would expect from a boy raised in poverty and struggling to cope with the stress of a hardscrabble life.

This is a book worth reading for anyone interested in criminal justice in the Victorian period, and how the concept of a child as a wanton criminal was starting to give way under the influence of the newfangled theories of  psychoanalysis, with mental illness as the driving force behind crimes considered unthinkable. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read this five out of five stars book.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit: A Book Review

Author Julianan Gray lost me when she had her character Rose Truelove speak to the dead Queen Victoria.

Rose chats with her dead father as well, besides the Queen, and if you compare the actual novel to the advertising copy from Penguin Random House, you'd be thinking a mistake was made somewhere. A MOST EXTRAORDINARY PURSUIT is not an historical mystery but a very silly book.

I'm at a disadvantage with this one, being a university graduate and burdened with an education that makes this sort of reading impossible. I think there was a story in there, plodding along, but the writing was so over the top in an attempt at levity that I felt as if I was sitting in a music hall watching talentless actors mug across the stage. Rose is supposed to be on the hunt for the heir of her late employer (to whom she does not speak, more's the pity) but I really did not care if she ever found him or not.

The mystery lies in the heir's location, as he has disappeared from some archaeological dig somewhere that requires Rose to take a steamship to reach. There was a rather long stretch about seassickness in there that I skimmed over because it was boring and did not move the narrative. That was about all I could take, despite my best efforts to finish so I could write a proper review.

Perhaps the recently past-teenage female set would find this one amusing, but not being one of those I can't say for certain. If you hunger for a good historical mystery, this novel will leave you famished. It's all empty prose calories that I gave up on after 116 pages.

Thanks, I think, to Penguin Random House for the free copy in exchange for a review. Thanks for saving me the expense of buying a book I'd regret wasting the money on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Radio Girls: A Book Review

Fans of Downton Abbey were made aware of the sweeping changes that washed over England after the First World War, ushering in an era of modern flappers and somewhat liberated women. RADIO GIRLS is a natural offshoot of that theme.

Maisie is the plucky heroine of the novel, making her way in the world after a difficult childhood filled with bullying and parental disinterest. She lands at the BBC as the radio service is just starting to grow, and over the course of the narrative she grows in wisdom and comes out of her shell.

But wait, there's more!

Maisie and her boss, the indomitable Hilda (based on the actual Hilda Matheson), tackle misogyny and general discrimination with steely resolve, making their marks on BBC programming in a way unheard of for women of the day. The author lays the mysogyny on a bit thick and it gets tiresome, but let the heavy application of sexism roll past your eyes and concentrate on a well-crafted bit of prose.

While fighting for the opportunity to rise up the ranks, Maisie blunders into a remarkable scoop and is soon involved in a shadowy bit of espionage thanks to HIlda, who may or may not be involved in MI5. Fascism was indeed on the rise in the 1920s and Maisie discovers evidence of upper-class involvement in a plot to take over the newspapers and the BBC so that all media could become a venue for spreading fascist propaganda.

The author tries a little too hard to equate our modern conservative politicians to the budding fascists in a way that pulls a reader out of the story, like hitting a speed bump when the ride is otherwise smooth. Other than that minor flaw, the story uses real-life characters and imagines the story behind the early years of the BBC, where women could find employment on an almost equal footing as men.

Readers looking for well-told historical fiction will enjoy this one.

Thansks once again to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advanced review copy.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Girl From The Paradise Ballroom: A Book Review

There's nothing to see here, move along
I usually don't look at the author bio when I'm reading a book. Where that person comes from, or what's been done in the past, is not important, as long as I am captivated by the writing or the plot.

Soon after cracking open THE GIRL FROM THE PARADISE BALLROOM, however, I had to find out what compelled someone at Broadway Books (a division of Crown, one of the Random Penguins) to buy the manuscript.

Ah, yes. There it is. Alison Love has had short stories published. Therefore, she must be a writer who can capture a reader's interest.

A novel is not a short story. And in THE GIRL FROM THE PARADISE BALLROOM, it's evident. The chapters read like short stories, disconnected to each other, and maybe things will fall into place later in the novel. I've given up reading after twelve chapters. I have found the book too boring to continue.

The main characters of Antonio and Olivia brush up against each other early, but then their lives run off on different trajectories as the novel focuses on their experiences quite apart from each other. Those experiences are not all that exciting, given the stereotypical nature of Antonio's Italian immigrant family with its hackneyed interpersonal conflicts. As for Olivia, she meets and marries a wealty gentleman and if you can believe that a dance hall hostess recovering from an abortion could end up well placed, you're better at suspending disbelief than me.

The book opens with a prologue that's designed to pique interest, but the pages that follow do not maintain whatever curiosity is aroused. A story about Italian immigrants in London in the tumultuous years just before the first shots of World War II were fired should have some element of tension, but the only tension in the first 94 pages has nothing to do with that theme but falls back on ordinary family conflict. Even the presence of a pro-Mussolini social club agitating for fascism doesn't provide the power needed to drive the narrative forward. Too often the tension is teased but then the author pulls back to provide another glimpse into the life of Antonio or Olivia and the mood is lost.

The premise of the novel does not meet the execution, making for a disappointing experience. I tried to push on but my eyes kept closing, lulled to sleep by a plodding pace with no action.

Thanks to Blogging For Books for the copy, which I will donate to the library's used book fundraiser. Someone will enjoy it, I'm sure, but this one is not for me.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

An Unfortunate Choice Of Words When Your Skin Is Of A Pale Hue

So it was perfectly fine for comedian Larry Wilmore to call the President of the United States his nigger, but Gerry Adams is not to use the n-word.

The rules of engagement are complex indeed when it comes to certain words that have the power to trigger strong emotions.

The debate wages on, and not all black folks are in agreement that using the n-word amongst themselves is acceptable. Let the rappers drop all sorts of profanity, but to some in the community it is part of a negative culture. Taking control of a word does not diminish its negative connotation, as far as they are concerned. If it is wrong for white people to use the word, it is wrong for blacks to refer to one another as nigger.

What's Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein to think, so, when he sees Larry Wilmore use the word in such a public forum? The annual Correspondents' Dinner is full of jokery and humour, the President joins in the fun, and there goes the n-word flying. No one jumped up and shouted Mr. Wilmore down, or called him out for not only using a slur but for applying it to the leader of the free world, as if Barack Obama is just another gangsta from the 'hood.

The tweet - a force for good or the road to hell
The Provos have long equated the treatment of Catholics in Northern Ireland to the treatment of slaves in the Deep South, and there have been a few equivalencies made between the civil rights movement and The Troubles.

Not nearly equal, of course. The Catholics were an oppressed minority and were denied their rights, much like the blacks who lived under the Jim Crow laws designed to keep them oppressed. Maybe a man could make something of the similarities, but to paint Northern Irish Catholics as slave-like is going a bit too far.

Poor Mr. Adams went and tweeted without thinking after seeing the film Django Unchained, with its theme of revenge against a backdrop of carnage. His blood was up, apparently, because his fingers typed out a message that included the phrase "A Ballymurphy Nigger". His heart was leading while his head was far behind.

More words had to jump in to explain the context of his 140-character thought bubble, and the next thing you know it's all Cromwell and Penal Laws and 800 years of British perfidy. Still not the stuff of slavery. So more words had to come to the rescue and that's how deep holes get dug, with word upon word dredged up until you've buried yourself deep in rhetoric.

Tweets are fine for short messages, but when you're trying to explain your entire political philosophy, you'll find that some thoughts can't be compressed down to a few characters without losing the essence of the argument.

Too few words can be just as difficult to repair as too many.

Just ask Gerry Adams, who is out there trying to convince everyone that he's not a racist or a white supremacist, just a Catholic politician doing battle with a Protestant government that doesn't much like him or his kind.

Monday, May 02, 2016

The Haves And The Have Nots: Transportation Edition

If you have to ask, you can't afford it
Money may not buy happiness but it does get you a very nice apartment with some nice conveniences thrown in.

Those who cower in the face of gentrification have long been pointing their collective fingers at the cost of rent, which has been rising in certain parts of Chicago that are popular with the young millenials. The kids aren't all out of work, despite the stories you might have heard. Sure there are plenty who come out of college with a degree in psychology and no marketable skills, destined to live in the parental home for all eternity.

For others, however, it is a different story. There are a lot of 20-somethings who went into finance, medicine, accounting or law and managed to land decent-paying jobs. Maybe it was Mom or Dad who pulled some strings to get that job, but at any rate the kids are working and they have money to spend.

They spend it on rent, so they can live in vibrant neighborhoods like Wicker Park or Pilsen, filled with good restaurants and bars that craft exotic cocktails (or throwbacks to the Mad Men era). Music venues abound, there is plenty to do, and the working professionals enjoy their youth in apartments that were once housing the urban poor until someone rehabbed the place and raised the rent beyond the reach of the average manual laborer.

What could be worse, then, for those who have not and feel that they are losing what little they have?

The young millenials don't want to own cars because cars cost too much to keep, especially in Chicago where fees are high and gasoline is even higher.

That being the case, they have to live near transportation, and that transportation has to take them into the Loop where they work in tall office towers.

Put it all together, and the have nots are losing access to cheap transportation, which they also need to get to work, because those with financial means are pricing them out of the convenience.

Them that's got shall get to work with a minimum of fuss, hopping on an 'L' car that is close to home. No need to transfer to multiple buses, which they don't want to do. The train system is close at hand for those who can pay the cost of living near the tracks.

Them that's not are losing out. Landlords can command higher rent, so they take it. Considering the rising cost of property taxes in Chicago, to say nothing of the nickel-and-diming that empties a pocket with remarkable speed, the folks who own properties are cashing in while they can, before the next round of tax increases takes a bite.

When you're not making much money, you either move or pay up until it hurts so much that you move. And when you move, you find that the places you can afford are farther away from convenient transportation. You have to take the bus, and if it means taking several to get to the 'L' stop or the factory where you toil, you're the one getting up hours earlier to manage a longer commute.

Transit-oriented development, as they call it, is cashing in on the phenomenon. Young millenials want what the developer is offering, and the developer can build to suit and get his investment back because the young millenials will pay the price. The poor can't, and so there is no incentive to put up a swanky new tower next to the 'L' stop. The money just isn't in it unless people with money buy in.

What's an anti-gentrification activist to do?

Talk and complain, sure, and demand that aldermen do something to stop the onslaught, but money talks louder. The developers are the ones paying the cost of aldermanic election expenses, after all, and the poor guy who votes for the alderman doesn't have much pull. What's one vote, when there's money to be had?