Review of “Chaos” by Patricia Cornwell

This is the 24th book in the crime fiction series featuring forensic pathologist Kay Scarpetta, who now is the head of the Cambridge Forensic Center in Massachusetts.

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As the story opens on a suffocatingly hot day in early September, Kay and Police Investigator Pete Marino are called to the scene after 23-year-old cyclist Elisa Vandersteel is found dead in John F. Kennedy Park. Marino got a call about the case allegedly from Interpol, although it’s glaringly and annoyingly obvious to everyone but Marino and even Kay for a while that it was a fake call.

Kay has gotten her share of prank calls lately as well. These threatening calls come from someone identifying himself as “Tailend Charlie.” The voice on the calls has been manufactured to sound like Kay’s deceased father, and the messages are delivered in Italian, always at 6:12, which is Kay’s date of birth. Moreover, they always last 22.4 seconds; 224 was the street address where Kay grew up.

Kay and Marino discuss the current death, the calls by Tailend Charlie, and the upcoming visit of Kay’s sister Dorothy in confusing and chaotic dialogue, although this is probably not the “chaos” to which the title refers. When Kay’s FBI husband Benton Wesley enters the picture, the dialogue does not become more comprehensible. Clarity is not the strong point of this book.

As Kay and Marino analyze the crime scene, they discover that Vandersteel was a victim of some sort of electrocution, in a way similar to other recent puzzling deaths. In spite of some badly done red herrings, Kay, Marino, and Benton – for inexplicable reasons – suspect involvement of the pathological Carrie Grethen, nemesis of Kay and her niece Lucy.

The story builds to a predictable climax, and ends with a surprising revelation that ensures the storyline will continue in future books.

Evaluation: The plot is a bit silly and the dialogue is hopelessly garbled. Except for the interesting forensic details, the book was a great disappointment to me.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

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Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Titanic” by Sean Callery

Like the analogously named books about World War I and World War II, inter alia, this small book on the Titanic is replete with excellent pictures, entertaining fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics. Sean Callery is a journalist and teacher who has written about the Titanic before, and here contributes to the “50 Things” series with an excellent, photo-filled history.

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The Titanic was the largest ocean liner ever made when it was built in 1912. It sank early on the morning of April 15, 1912 on on its maiden voyage, however, after colliding with an iceberg on the way from Southampton on the south coast of England, to New York City.

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Disasters always capture our imaginations. Andrew O’Connell, an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group, has written about the phenomenon, and summarized our fixation in an interview:

“Well, disaster stories are great. . . . you always want to know how they’re going to end, you know, what’s going to happen. But even more than that, they’re really great to read because you put yourself in the place of the person who’s been lost in the woods, or knocked overboard, or whatever it is. And you think . . would I be able to survive that, would I have the grit, or would have the strength. But even more is the question of, would I be able to make some of those difficult choices that people in disasters often have to make. And the moral stakes, if they’re really high, they can make a story incredibly gripping.”

Titanic on her sea trials, April 2, 1912

Titanic on her sea trials, April 2, 1912

For these reasons and more, few people don’t find the story of the Titanic fascinating. The Washington Post reported in 2012:

“There are more than 100 Titanic-related museums and monuments worldwide, and on March 31 [2012], Belfast added another to the list, unveiling a $150 million tourist center on the slipway where the Titanic was built from 1909 to 1911.”

More than 1500 people lost their lives in the disaster.

The wreckage was not discovered until late 1985. Since then thousands of objects have been retrieved and studied.

The author puts the tragedy in context by including background on the state of transportation and technology at the time, and on the demand for transatlantic voyages by both emigrants and by wealthy vacationers.

1912 engraving of the sinking of the Titanic

1912 engraving of the sinking of the Titanic

He reviews the process of constructing the Titanic and explains how it was powered – it used 750 tons of coal a day!

He also provides an overview on who the passengers were, especially interesting because of the cost of the trip. There were 2,223 people on board the ship. A first-class ticket (of which 325 were sold) cost 870 pounds, the equivalent of about $100,000 today. Some of these passengers brought their own staff along as well. There were also 284 second-class passengers who paid approximately $585 in today’s dollars, and the rest, 708 people, were in third class, or “steerage,” for which they paid around $365 each. These third-class passengers came from at least 20 countries, and many did not speak English. They were confined below behind locked gates with armed guards, and permitted on deck for only one hour a day. Third-class passengers also shared only two bathrooms, one for men and one for women. Additionally, there were 891 crew members.

Collapsible lifeboat D photographed from the deck of Carpathia on the morning of  April 15, 1912.

Collapsible lifeboat D photographed from the deck of Carpathia on the morning of April 15, 1912.

The author lists some of the cargo the ship was carrying, including 3,000 bags of mail, 12 cases of ostrich feathers for fancy hats, 79 goats’ skins, and even a car, belonging to a first-class passenger. Callery explains how the passengers passed the time and what they ate (for example, the ship carried 40,000 eggs). (You can see more on a list of interesting facts about the Titanic here.)

The topic of icebergs is also given coverage.

The iceberg thought to have been hit by Titanic, photographed by the chief steward of the liner Prinz Adalbert on the morning of 15 April 1912. The iceberg was reported to have a streak of red paint from a ship's hull along its waterline on one side.

The iceberg thought to have been hit by Titanic, photographed by the chief steward of the liner Prinz Adalbert on the morning of 15 April 1912. The iceberg was reported to have a streak of red paint from a ship’s hull along its waterline on one side.

Some of the better-known passengers are profiled in a “Who’s Who” at the end of the book. A glossary is also at the back.

Evaluation:  There is good reason for the continuing popularity of books and television series and movies about the Titanic – the disaster aspect, the shipwreck angle, the class conflicts, the famous people aboard, and the romances, to name a few. Titanic, the 1997 American epic romance-disaster film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet was the first film to reach the billion-dollar mark, remaining the highest-grossing film of all time until 2010. Before that, the 1955 book A Night to Remember about the disaster was, and still is, hugely successful.

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The author of “50 Things” found many ways to include engrossing aspects of this subject, and all the photographs add immeasurably to the story. There are many more gripping aspects of what happened that could not be included in this short format, so it will undoubtedly inspire readers to dig deeper. At minimum, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Published by QEB Publishing, Inc., 2016

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Review of “Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil” by Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta is an expert at characterization, a skill she evinces in this crime fiction book for adults (her previous books have been for the young adult market).

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Bashir (“Bish”) Ortley is a chief inspector with the London police, although he is currently on suspension. He receives a call that his daughter Bee was part of a group of teens on a bus bombed in Calais, on the way back from a camping outing. While Bee was not hurt, 5 were killed and 3 were badly injured. Bish rushes to the accident site and discovers that one of the group of kids was Violette LeBrac Zidane, the granddaughter of an infamous terrorist who had blown up 23 people 13 years earlier. Violette is immediately suspected as both the possible target of the bomb or the possible terrorist who set it off. Violette knows this will not end well for her either way, and she and one of the other kids, Eddie Conlon, take off.

Bish is tasked by the Home Office with finding the two. There are many complications to the case. Not only does jurisdiction cross borders between England and France, but the possible complication of Arab terrorists elicits fear, racism, and intervention from the secret services.

The pacing and suspense are excellent, as are the realistic portraits of the various kids involved in the story.

Discussion: As with previous books, Marchetta’s characters seem so authentic and so vividly depicted that you can’t help but appreciate them as whole human beings – with both good and bad aspects, and internal struggles we all share. Bish in particular is excellently drawn. For all his faults, he yearns most of all to atone for his past failings, especially the fact that he wasn’t there the day his beloved son Stevie drowned. Thus, as Bee observes, he wants “to save every kid in England because he couldn’t save his own.” The way Marchetta reveals the intricacies of family dynamics may bring Tana French to mind; both of them can pull you so deep inside families that you feel as if you are part of them as well.

Evaluation: I loved this intricately plotted, expertly structured book. Marchetta is a versatile writer who can move from young adult fiction to fantasy to crime writing with facility and talent, because it is the characterization that defines each story she writes and makes it exceptional.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2016

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Kid Lit Review of “Gandhi for Kids: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities” by Ellen Mahoney

This book is part of the excellent series by Chicago Review Press featuring educational content plus twenty-one related activities.

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Gandhi is remembered in India for his tireless work to help India achieve independence from Britain. Inside his country, Gandhi is considered to be the Father of the Nation. Outside of India, Gandhi is primarily known for his advocacy of nonviolence as a method of protest. In particular, Gandhi greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr., who called Gandhi “the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change.” Gandhi’s actual first name was Mohandas, but most people know him by the name given to him from midlife on, “Mahatma” which means “Great Soul.”

The book begins with a time line that starts in 1869, the year of Gandhi’s birth, and goes to 1948, the year in which Gandhi was assassinated at age 78.

Gandhi had a fascinating life, but most Americans don’t know much about him. (I astounded a 12- and 14- year old by pointing out that Gandhi was married at age 13 – to an older woman, no less – she was 14.) Also kids might find interesting the fact that, as a young boy, Gandhi was shy and fearful, frightened by the idea of thieves, ghosts, snakes, spiders, and even the dark. He hated leaving the safety of his home.

Yet Gandhi managed to overcome his fears, and grew up to work for Indian rights in both India and South Africa. He spoke to huge crowds advocating freedom and nonviolence, and organized marches, boycotts, fasts, and protests. He was a prolific writer, not just about political issues but on health matters. He also spent a total of nearly six years in prison.

In 1893, at age 23, Gandhi, now a lawyer, left for South Africa after receiving a job offer there. Shocked at the treatment of Indians by the racist white government, Gandhi began speaking about nonviolence as a means of protest. In 1894 he founded the Natal Indian Congress to fight for Indians’ rights. Gandhi eventually called his strategy of passive resistance “satyagraha,” which means “firmness for truth and love.”

Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa

Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa

Gandhi moved back to India in 1915, where he received a hero’s welcome and continued his work for social reform and independence from colonial rule by Great Britain. He used fasting, a boycott of British products, and most notably, a protest against British control of salt. As the author explains:

“Gandhi was angry that the British government controlled one of India’s basic resources and necessities for food – salt. India was surrounded by salty ocean waters, and salt was readily available from the ocean or from shallow salt pans typically located along the coast.

But the British would not allow Indians to collect, produce, or sell their own salt. . . . According to imposed salt laws, Indians could only buy salt from the British. Plus salt was heavily taxed, which made it difficult for Indians to afford it.”

On March 12, 1930, Gandhi, now aged 60, began his historic Salt March. He led around 80 others (including an American journalist) on a 24-day, 240-mile trek to the seaside town of Dandi. When he arrived, he committed the illegal act of scooping up a small handful of salt from the mud in the beach. This simple symbolic act made headlines around the world and ignited a campaign of mass civil disobedience.

Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi on the Salt March

Gandhi, needless to say, was taken to jail. But a female Indian poet, Sarojini Naidu, took over the protest and led nearly 2500 marchers to the Dharasana Salt Works. British-led police brutally clubbed the marchers upon their arrival, even though the protesters did not fight back or even try to defend themselves. Once again the news was broadcast to the world.

Gandhi continued to agitate, get arrested, and go on protest fasts that were increasingly harmful to his health. In 1947, Britain finally enacted the Indian Independence Act that declared British India would be divided into the two countries of India and Pakistan (the latter country designated for Muslim peoples). Gandhi was opposed to the separation, fearing it would cause more problems, which it did, and which remain to this day. Gandhi, now elderly and frail, worked hard to prevent a civil war in India until his assassination on January 30, 1948.

Prime Minister Nehru said upon announcing Gandhi’s death:

“The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.”

Besides Gandhi’s influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., others profoundly influenced by Gandhi included Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the Myanmar freedom activist, Aung San Suu Kyi.

Like the other books in this series, this one includes projects for kids that extend the lessons imparted in its history to other subject areas. The 21 activities included to help learn about Gandhi’s world are, to me, the best I’ve seen in this series so far. One of them teaches basic yoga poses. Another explains how to make Rangoli sand art (an ancient Indian folk art). Others include how to create a toran (a welcoming door hanging), instructions for making a Dija Candleholder (a traditional Indian lamp made of baked clay), a recipe for Nan Khatai cookies (buttery cookies popular in India), how to create a henna hand design (worn by brides when they marry), and how to spin thread from a cotton boll (you can apparently order cotton bolls online – who knew!)

Example of Randoli sand art from festivalls.weebly.com

Example of Randoli sand art from festivalls.weebly.com

There are a number of very interesting sidebars to explain concepts such as Hinduism and Hindu deities, the idea of the sacred cow, the ashram, and the spiritual origins of the nonviolence movement.

A pronunciation guide, glossary, and annotated list of relevant websites are at the back of the book.

Evaluation: This book and the others in the series provide an outstanding supplement to school materials for kids. The author said that she wanted to write about Gandhi for young readers because of the importance of his message of nonviolence in our world today where we witness violence on a daily basis, and this book will surely inspire readers with both the text and the activities. Besides the informative narration of the main story, there are plenty of photos and graphics and sidebars and boxes that mix it up and keep it interesting.

Rating: 5/5

Published by the Chicago Review Press, 2016

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Review of “Smoke and Mirrors” by Elly Griffiths

This is the second book in a mystery series featuring Detective Edgar Stephens by Elly Griffiths, who also writes the Ruth Galloway mystery series, one of my favorites.

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This series is set in post-World War II England. Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens of the Brighton police previously served in a World War II group based in Scotland known as “The Magic Men” assigned with creating false trails for the Germans. Some of the others in his group, particularly Max Mephisto and Stan Parks, continue to be a part of Edgar’s life.

In this book, two young children, Annie and Mark, have been killed, with their deaths staged to suggest the Hansel and Gretel story. And in fact, Annie and Mark worked together to put on plays along with their friends, with fairy tales being a common theme.

Edgar, along with his police sergeants Bob Willis and Emma Holmes, are desperate to find the killer, since they know such criminals tend not to strike only once. But the Christmas holidays are approaching, along with the accompanying snow, ice, and cold, to cover up any trails or evidence.

Edgar feels like he has all the pieces to the puzzle, but hasn’t been able to put it together:

“The truth was there, he was sure of it; it was just hard to see. Smoke and mirrors, Max would say. What was real and what was illusion?”

The question is whether he can figure it out in time before another child is harmed.

Discussion: Griffiths does her research well to bring as much verisimilitude as possible to the time and place of her books. She does a great job of bringing the post-war world to life, as well as the world of magicians and what it was like to perform on the road during the last years before television took over the entertainment world. Also, as with her other series, she limns characters with complex psyches showing a mix of self-awareness, self-delusion, and self-deprecation that make them seem like actual people we all can recognize. I don’t like this series as much as her Ruth Galloway books, but it is still entertaining, and worth following.

Evaluation: Once again the author employs the “misdirection” of magic as a criminal tactic as well as a plot device (in the sense of red herrings and other false trails). I look forward to more stories in this series.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Quercus, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2016

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