The Alpha Reads ~ Murder At The Playgroup By Liz Hedgecock

When I first saw the cover I thought, “I have to read this book.”

Liz Hedgecock, author of Murder at the Playgroup, asked if I would like to receive a review copy. I said, “Okay, okay, stop twisting my arm.”

Joking aside, they tell you not to judge a book by its cover. But since I was one of many people who voted for this cover that would be a superfluous argument. I had read snippets of this story and I was like a duck at the pond, drawn to the toddler with a slice of bread in his hands.

Pippa Parker takes her place among good company. I have no doubt she will be on the same bookshelves as Miss Marple, Agatha Raisin, Rosemary and Thyme and a host of other women sleuths who have called the cozy villages of England their home. But Pippa stands apart from them in that she is also mother to an adorable toddler, with another one on the way.

Sure, there are female leads in detective stories that are married or have children. But usually those children are school aged, college, or already adults living on their own. And it’s rare to have the children actually having enough of an impact on the main character that you know they’re not just background noise. Little Freddie is a force of nature unto himself, with the powers of beans and toast at his command and the uncanny ability that all toddlers have to need the bathroom at the worst possible time. Although it is hard at times to gauge just how old Freddie is supposed to be, going on the varying levels of speech and awareness. But I know that children develop differently, and I personally know children who can go from sounding very much like they’re in the early stages of speech, to suddenly dropping clear concise sentences. Children are always a challenge to portray in literature, even when actual parents are writing the story. It’s going to be down to the reader to decide how believable Freddie is. For my part I can say that his characterization is consistent enough to be plausible.

While her husband wages war in the boardroom, Pippa is settling into the town where he grew up but she barely knows anyone. The monotony is broken when she visits the local playgroup and meets with the other parents of Freddie’s future playmates. As if being weeks away from giving birth isn’t bad enough, a murder takes place at, to no one’s surprise, the playgroup.

It’s always a challenge to keep the reader from guessing who the killer is and Liz does a great job of keeping you in the dark until late in the story. However it wasn’t too hard to guess who the victim was going to be. As the first book in the series that takes place in the real world, there are so many ways to set up the main plot of a cozy murder mystery that won’t make the reader roll their eyes. My eyes never rolled once. I have no doubt that Pippa Parker, her family, Marge, Lila, and a retired cop turned librarian will find their places in the hearts of readers.

My only regret was that I didn’t write this review a couple of days earlier for Mother’s Day.

My Good Friend, Phryne Fisher

Because I don’t yet know Kerry Greenwood, I hope she won’t be too wierded out that I consider the main character of the Phryne Fisher mysteries to be my good friend in literature. Look, I finally came to the realization that my characters are living, breathing things, and I’ll gladly say so to the face of any psychologist be they of the criminal investigation varieties, or likewise.

In honor of National Women’s Day, I want to send a nod off towards the Australian continent and thank Kerry Greenwood for introducing me to some of the coolest women in literary history. Phryne Fisher is like the James Bond of the 20’s and the bookshelves would be a very bare place without this particular woman. (And I’ll never forgive the TV series for not including Jane and Ruth. Nope, never)

Also, Kerry Greenwood imparted a bit of writing advice through the actions of Phryne Fisher. In Death at Victoria Dock, Phryne is trying to kill some time by reading a mystery novel. She throws the book across the room when she solves the crime in chapter three, mentally striking the author from her list of books to order.

Any writer worth a grain of salt will take that advice to heart and so to shall I.

Thank you, Kerry Greenwood and Phryne Fisher.

The Mark Watney Diet

I read a little story that you may have heard of called The Martian. I think it got some small amount of publicity before fading into obscurity in the far gone epoch of 2015 AD. Within the flow of the story, Mark Watney, stranded on Mars, has to figure out how to grow potatoes in order to extend his considerably limited rations.

I may not be the only person who has gone on to refer to this as the Mark Watney Diet. But this is meant to be as ironic as the concept of the paleo diet. Watney didn’t eat potatoes as his main staple because he was trying to lose weight, he ate potatoes in order to maintain the teensy bit of weight he had. By the end of the story, he was suffering from the kind of malnutrition you could expect from someone who has lived primarily on potatoes and faith for the better part of a year.

In Penn’s latest book, Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales, Penn Jillette tells readers about a time when he was caught between a rock and a hard place: Stomach sling, or losing 100 pounds fast. The first two weeks of his special diet, herein called The CrayRay diet involved what he loving refers to as a potatoes famine. Except instead of a famine resulting from the lack of potatoes, the only thing Penn’s crash diet allowed him to eat for two weeks was potatoes. Also, he could drink coffee as long as it was black.

Both the author and publisher throw out the disclaimer: Do Not Do This Without Consulting Your Doctor!

Personally, if I ever told my doctor about some of the undercooked and raw things I’ve eaten, he’d have me committed. Fortunately, extreme dieting is not in my future as of yet, since the last time I weighed in I was just over 200 pounds. I’m no where in the neighborhood of being physically and emotionally healthy, but I’m not in danger of having to have a life saving (yet risky) operation.

But I did learn one thing as a result of reading this book: Potatoes are easy to cook in a microwave. Good thing to know if I ever get stranded on Mars but if I do ever get to the point where losing weight could be the only other life saving option available to me, I also have Penn Jillette and NASA buddy Ray Cronise, to thank for at least pointing me in the right direction.

Second Place Idol Contestants and First Place Magicians

Everyday is an Atheist Holiday starts off as a deconstruction of popular misconceptions over certain holiday songs and traditions. In the Jillette Household, there is no special holiday for treating your family and loved ones with love and respect and showing them such with gifts and gestures: Because they do that everyday.

I got the audio CD  because quite frankly, Penn’s voice is like butter on toast. I could be tied up in a basement with Penn Jillette telling me in the most graphic detail about all of the Hostel-esque things he is going to do to me and my only response would be, “Can you read the phone book to me?”

Whether you listen to the audio, or read the text-only version of the book, Everyday is an Atheist Holiday is just as entertaining and informative. The story that remains fresh in my mind is Penn’s recounting of his time on the Celebrity Apprentice with the man who would go on to become the star of a very different kind of reality; but enough about that.

Penn is a performer. His chosen profession is based largely on word of mouth and his ability to remain in the spotlight. So naturally, he does things that he wouldn’t ordinarily do if he had a choice. The least of these things is getting a heart-to-heart lecture from Second Place American Idol contestant, Clay Aiken.

People who knew me in the early 00’s know that I once had the biggest obsession with Clay Aiken. That obsession has faded and now that I’ve had time to analyze the lyrics for Invisible, I don’t even know if I’d consider myself a fan. I certainly lost all sense of respect for him when he decided to give Penn, a self-made man, a lecture about how he should behave towards the other members of his Celebrity Apprentice Team. I had been on the receiving ends of similar “Come to Jesus” chats my whole life and while none of them would make for great reading, I felt Penn’s pain as he regales the reader with every detail of that fateful afternoon. Hearing his voice as he read the book only made it more special and it made me just as glad that he didn’t decide to jump. (Read the book, all will be explained)

Thank You, Penn Jillette

I first learned about this wonderful treat from reading God, No by Penn Jillette.

God, No is a collection of anecdotes following the theme of the chapter, which is titled after one of the Ten Commandments with an accompanying Atheist Suggestion that improves upon the former. This was probably one of the most well thought out and reasonable explanations for one man’s conversion to atheism that I have ever read.

For the record, I have no plans to discuss my own spirituality here. But to people who are put off by the idea of atheism or people writing about it, the coffee jello is meant to give you a reason to read it beyond your misconceptions.

As someone who has always walked the line as to where I am on the subject of spirituality, it’s a refreshing change of pace to listen to the ideas and belief systems of another. And yes, even not believing in something is a belief system.

Even if you’re a hardcore Christian, Catholic, or person of Jewish or Muslim faith, reading this book won’t necessarily convert you. You may wind up learning more about a man who has been one half of a major cultural phenomenon in the United States, or maybe you’ll see something that reinforces your belief system.

Penn doesn’t try to change your mind or insist that by not doing so, you’re less of a person. And hey, whether or not my own sense of spirituality has been changed or converted, the one definite plus I have gained from reading this book is a treat that I will spend quite a bit of time trying to perfect:

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Asperger’s In Literature

The books I am about to discuss are works of fiction, wherein a main character is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, or something similar. Everything written here is my opinion about the portrayal of said characters, in their fictional context, and no part of this blog or any of the works discussed should be referenced in any sort of diagnostic or academic process. I assume no responsibility for how any reader interprets the opinions expressed herein.

Spoiler warnings are in place for the whole entry.

Autism and Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have been portrayed in many works of fiction. Whether or not the subject is accurately portrayed is more or less up to the interpretation of the reader or viewer. The main thing to remember is that every single individual who receives the diagnosis of one of these autistic spectrum disorders is still an individual. This is as true in fiction as it is in real life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time ~ Mark Haddon

Main Character: Christopher.

Diagnosis: Never specified. Book blurbs claim Asperger’s, but the general consensus among readers is that Christopher would be more accurately described as high functioning autistic.

Traits: Dislikes touching. Sleeps with a white noise. Functional incontinence. Violent reactions to random discomforts. Likes dogs, the color red, nature documentaries, prefers animals over people, and becomes ill or violent when threatened by people. Skilled with math and physics.

Summary: Fifteen year-old Christopher is fascinated with detective stories, like Sherlock Holmes. A serious attempt at uncovering the death of a neighbor’s dog leads to uncovering some very disturbing facts about his own family life. As the story is told in first person, everything we are seeing is through his eyes and through the filter of his understanding of the world.

Christopher is quite capable of abstract concepts. He frequently expresses a desire for a world where regular human interaction is unnecessary. A functional inability to properly express himself to others leads to many of the confrontations within the story, especially with peers, teachers, cops, and his own parents.

In spite of his own limitations and the limitations placed on him by others, his problem solving skills are such that he’s able to safely get from Slough to London and locate the address of his estranged mother, whom he had not seen since his father told him she was dead. Later he also completes an A level in math. The general Aesop of the story is that he is capable of doing anything he sets his mind to.

Accuracy: Mark Hadden has stated that Christopher doesn’t have any set diagnosis, in spite of what the advertising would tell you. Within the first chapter it’s clear that Christopher has some sort of emotional or developmental difficulty, so if you’re not trying to pigeonhole him into any particular category, the overall portrayal is believable and consistent.

 

House Rules ~ Jodi Piccoult

 Main Character: Jacob

Diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome

Traits: Obsessed with all aspects of forensic investigation and crime solving. Hates the color orange. Has to be the first to use the shower. Violent and explosive tenancies when provoked. Family must essentially rearrange their own lives to keep him centered.

Summary: Jacob has just turned eighteen. His obsession with crime solving has put him on the radar of the Vermont State Police and as a result, when someone he knows actually winds up dead on the street somewhere, he is the prime suspect.

Eventually it comes to light that the death was an accident and Jacob rearranged evidence to protect his brother.

Accuracy: There were so many negative opinions about this book from the Asperger’s Community that it was easy for my initial opinion of the character to be swayed at first.

Like many, it was easy for me to forget that I am no more a typical case of Asperger’s than the fictional Jacob. The fact is, I’ve known people who are far more sheltered than he is and they don’t even have the excuse of an autistic spectrum disorder. Still, he is an independent person who makes enough of his own decisions that in spite of his codependence he is still responsible for his actions.

This book is written from multiple viewpoints, so it’s very easy to see how the people in Jacob’s life are as much to blame for his behavior and current situation as he is. With no real coping skills of his own and a desire to be independent, his behaviors come across as strange (a to even other people on the autistic spectrum, or in some way involved with such and his portrayal may grate some nerves. But keep in mind that many of the opinions and viewpoints expressed by characters aren’t exactly things we haven’t heard before in real life.

Jodi Piccoult not only has a grasp of the character but of the people and challenges he has to deal with every day.

The Asperger’s Mysteries ~ Jeff Cohen/E.J. Copperman

Main Character: Samuel Hoenig

Diagnosis: Asperger’s Syndrome

Traits: Difficulty with the sight of foods in certain states and disturbing noises, set routines. Fear of driving and losing things.

Summary: Samuel Hoenig is not a detective. His business, Questions Answered, allows him to make a living by answering questions people put to him, but only if they’re interesting. Occasionally, he does work with police as a consultant.

His mother and his partner, Janet Washburn, and a cab driver named Mike provide the bulk of his support system that allows him to better interact with neurotypicals.

Accuracy: Jeff Cohen is the author of the Asperger Parent. His own son was diagnosed at the age of five. Even though the fictional character of Samuel is not based on the real life son, (Word of God), Samuel is probably the most accurate portrayal of the examples mentioned here.

I should admit a little bias. I see more of myself in Samuel, a man who was raised by a mother who tolerated his differences, but spent a fair amount of time trying to teach him to cope with the world (and continues to do so). Samuel is benefited by strong supports and although his severity is different than my own, I identify more strongly with this interpretation than with the examples in the previous books.