Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I like about historical true crime is the combination of true crime and an examination of the lives people lived in the past - a snapshot into the daily lives of regular people. Regular, that is, until someone is murdered and they are held up to critical examination and it's revealed that things are not so regular. Or, one could argue that any "regular" life will, upon examination, show lives of secret; private lives that don't match to public lives; and that the myths of the past are just that, myths.

So on one level: the brutal murder of a three year old child in 1860, and the investigation into it.

On another: the start of police work, and detectives, and how different things were, and in some ways the same.

On another: a look at the life of an upper middle class family of 1860 and the "truth."

I'm still not sure what the full "truth" of the Kent family was. But this was a fascinating look at the murder and the people around the murder investigation.

One thing, though -- I wasn't sold on why the suspect became the suspect, even when the confession was revealed. Admittedly, even the investigators thought the confession was incomplete. And maybe they are just smarter than me. And maybe it's not being of the time - I'm not able to completely understand what they saw that was off, that led to their suspicions.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Review: The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer by Kate Summerscale

A combination of my non-fiction interests: true crime, Victorian history, murder, child murderers, the life of working people, mental health, punishment, rehabilitation.

So! The mystery is not what happened. The mystery is why. In 1895, Robert Coombes, age 13, murdered his mother; left her rotting body in her bedroom; and he and his younger brother, age 12, did what two boys on their own would do. Go watch some sports events, play, pawn a few things to get more money. Family members and neighbors were suspicious, and when they came and smelled something and found the body, Robert pretty much confessed right away.

The mystery is why: and in looking at why, Summerscale looks at both Robert's family but also the times he lived in. His trial, and what happened after.

It was both surprising and actually a bit hopeful. The primary documents answer some questions and leave others unpursued, so it's to the reader and the author to connect the dots and make some guesses. Part of my surprise was, well, how sympathetic some people were; and how rehabilitation mattered as much as punishment.

Definitely recommended.

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Thursday, May 23, 2019

Review: The Season of Styx Malone

The Season of Styx Malone The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summer is the season that Caleb, 10, and his older brother, Bobby Gene, 11, meet Styx Malone. Styx is 16 and to Caleb, Styx is everything: cool and worldly and smart, clever and smooth and independent.

Summer at age 10 and 11: when life is both simple and oh-so-complicated. Caleb and Bobby Gene get into enough trouble on their own, and not necessarily on purpose. They didn't mean to trade their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, but somehow it happened, and who can say no to fireworks?

Styx introduces them to the concept of the escalator trade: a series of trades that slowly escalates the value that you hold, so that you start with a paper clip and end with a house. Or, for Caleb, Bobby Gene, and Styx, you start with fireworks and end with -- well, I'll let you find out.

Styx's bravado results in the boys having a magical summer of adventure, but there are some serious things going on. Things that the reader may realize before Caleb does.

Styx, like Caleb and Bobby Gene, is a black kid in Indiana. Caleb and Bobby Gene's father is protective of his sons -- worrying about what will happen in the world outside their small town -- to the point where he doesn't even want his sons to leave for a school trip. He wants them safe and the boys -- well, at least Caleb -- longs for the world outside his small town. Styx represents that world, and Caleb doesn't realize that Styx, a foster child, is not so much independent as a child alone. Caleb doesn't see what he has that Styx does not.

This is a great story -- a story of a summer full of swimming holes and fishing and bike rides. A story of friendship and family and trust. A story of a boy taking the steps to being a man. (In some ways -- and to me this is a great compliment -- this reminded of Stephen King, and how he writes about that time in childhood, a time of innocence and knowledge and darkness and light. But, of course, there are no monsters here.)

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Review: Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America

Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America Spooked!: How a Radio Broadcast and the War of the Worlds Sparked the 1938 Invasion of America by Gail Jarrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spooked! is about the 1938 radio teleplay broadcast by Orson Welles, which updated H.G. Wells' The War of the World by making it contemporary to the time (1938) and location (the US), using a mix of real places and fake names. For various reasons, some listeners did not realize that it was a play and thought that the Martians were invading.

Spooked!, a middle grade nonfiction book, takes an in-depth look at the creation of the play, how listeners responded, why, and the aftermath. It's the type of book that shows why I like middle grade and young adult fiction, and recommend it to others: it's in-depth but at the same time a quick read, and sometimes you want to read on a specific topic but don't want to do it in a 500 page book with small print.

Being from New Jersey, I always enjoy books that are "my" local history. For various reasons, the teleplay set the initial invasion landing in Grover's Mill, NJ. So it's a topic I'm familiar with; and still learned so much from this book.

Other good parts: links to the actual production for folks to listen to, an examination of why people believe something like this in the context of "fake news," and lots of primary documents.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: Front Desk

Front Desk Front Desk by Kelly Yang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ten year old Mia and her parents immigrated from China two years ago. Her parents moved for the freedoms the US offered. They have freedom, yes; but it's been hard. Very hard. If they are lucky, the jobs barely pay the rent; if they aren't lucky, they are living in a car.

Their luck changed when they saw the job posting to manage a hotel -- with an apartment included! They jumped at the chance, but the reality is a bit different from what they hoped.

Yes, there is an apartment: a tiny one bedroom, with Mia's parents sleeping in the living room so they can be on call 24/7. They are responsible for everything, including cleaning the rooms, and in order to get all the work done, they both can't be staffing the front desk. And that is how a ten year old ends up running the front desk.

Mia's parents face other challenges, including a hotel owner who relishes underpaying them and not spending any money -- including when the washing machine broke.

Meanwhile, Mia is happy to be at school -- except she likes English but everyone (even her mother) thinks that being Chinese means she should be good at math, not English. The richer kids make fun of her clothes. The worst is the boy who is the son of the hotel owner. She makes a friend -- and isn't one friend enough?

Especially when she has other friends: the "weeklies," the handful of folks who live full time at the hotel. And the other Chinese immigrants who visit her parents, with stories of their own struggles, who find comfort in friendly, familiar faces and the free, empty hotel room her parents offer.

Mia has ups and downs as she works the Front Desk. And along the way, she tries to figure out a way to make her family the success they hoped for when they got on the plane from China to the US.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Review: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Can I give this six stars? I want to give it all the stars and then double it.

Stop what you're doing and read this book.

Of course I "know" Jack the Ripper, thanks to movies, TV shows, and documentaries about the 1888 murders in Whitechapel. The poor prostitutes of Victorian London.

Mind blown by this book. Rubenhold has researched the lives of the five women killed by Jack the Ripper and it turns out, poor, yes. Prostitutes? Their individual lives were complex and two did engage in sex work. But no, not all. And that realization could alter how one thinks about who Jack killed and why -- but no. This is not a book about Jack. It's for another to use this to look at Jack the Ripper; this book is about the women.

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, Mary Jane. One by one, their stories are told, starting with their births. Their deaths are not described; the mourning, the impact on family and friends, is.

Put aside the murders; this is of interest to look at lives that history normally ignores. Women who are poor. Or, rather, whose lives end in a place of poverty.

This book is heartbreaking, not just because each of these women are murdered. But because for each of them, it was a tragic slide into poverty, a life of bad luck, few choices, no opportunities. It wasn't that there was "one thing", but so many things.

Unhappy marriages with no ability to divorce and no real spousal support and no opportunity to make money to earn a living. Deaths of parents that shift a family from close and loving and struggling, to one divided between family members at best or in the work house at worst. Alcoholism, and the impact across generations. Single women getting pregnant and the punishing consequences.

So many, many things --but some universal commonalities. The lack of a social services. The work it takes to survive while poor. The lack of work opportunities. A world view that sees women as either saints or whores, so that those that fall out of one role of course have to be in the other.

Also, the original research! The primary documents! The checking of workhouse records to see where people stayed, even if just for two nights, in the days and months and years before they died.

This is not a book about a murderer; it is not a book about murders; it is not a book about depth.

It's about five women who were alive, and loved, and did the best they could. And it gives back the dignity they lost.

Read this; you won't regret it.

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