Book Reviews: Poisoned by Steve Shukis, The Boy Problem by Kami Kinard, and The Diva Wraps It Up by Krista Davis

PoisonedPoisoned
Chicago 1907, a Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him
Steve Shukis
Title Town Publishing, September 2014
ISBN 978-099119381-3
Hardcover

Poisoned is the true account of a man tried and sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of six members of the Vrzal family. The mystery begins in 1903 with the death of the first victim, although at that point no whisper of murder surfaced. That would take several more deaths and a few more years.

It’s important to realize how corrupt officials of that time in Chicago, Illinois, could be. It seemed everything they did, every action they took, was first examined under the microscope of “what’s in it for me?” And some politicians were not above slanting facts in a direction they wanted them to go.

Too much crime in Chicago? Then trying and executing a murderer was bound to pander to outraged public opinion. Was he guilty? Well, that wasn’t necessarily the first criteria. And the burden of proof? That is what this book is all about.

A large city full of recent immigrants, many who knew little English, sets the stage for this case. In the early 1900s a great many Bohemians entered the states. The Vrzals were one such family. The Billiks another. Of this latter clan, Herman Billik was the patriarch. His occupation? It seems to have been bilking other hard-working immigrants out of their earnings. He was known as a fortune teller, a healer, and a magician. Rose Vrzal, wife of Martin and mother to a large family of children, contacted Herman and asked him to tell her fortune. Their relationship soon grew into a romance–on her side, at any rate. Billik seems to have been more in love with her money. Rose, we’re told, seems to have thought her husband and her children stood in the way of her happiness. And so the children, one by one until only three remained, died. So did her husband.

That short synopsis is a short outline of what happened. The book, Poisoned, tells what happened next. It takes the reader through the testimony of Herman Billik’s trial, the circumstances of how each person died, and what witnesses were allowed to say–what they were encouraged to say, true or not. One only hopes such a slap-happy trial could not occur today. Into the mix, a champion does emerge, one man who never believed the murders were perpetrated by the accused. Billik, by the way, escaped the hangman’s noose but was sentenced to life in prison.

Well researched, and complete with photos taken at the time, this is a book to put on your shelves not only because it’s a rousing good lesson concerning our justice system, but an extraordinary picture of life and death in those hard times.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, December 2014.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.

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The Boy ProblemThe Boy Problem
Notes and Predictions of Tabitha Reddy
Kami Kinard
Scholastic Press, May 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-57586-7
Hardcover

The Boy Problem (Notes and Predictions of Tabitha Reddy) by Kami Kinard is a story about middle school student Tabitha Reddy, who is desperately wanting to find “the one.” She goes as far as making several predictability charts that will determine when, where, and how she will find this new beau of her life, despite her best friend Kara telling her that it will never work. As an adult reading a story based during middle school years, I do not miss being 12 years old one second.

Along with the math equations and the shout out to a subject many middle school students most likely hate, Kinard does a nice job at depicting what the typical middle schooler is like. They think their parents are “super annoying and boring”, school is a time for them to catch up with their friends and the daily gossip and they are the age where they can make friends and enemies in a day – within the same person. After reading this and observing the children of the same age during youth group lessons, Kinard nails describing this age group on the head of the nail.

But in between the “boys, boys, boys” plot, Kinard also explores friendship and community. The main character, Tabbi, finds a friend in somebody whom she always assumed to be one of the most annoying students in her year because of the way she acts, dresses, etc. When her uncle and his family feel the effects of Hurricane Sandy hit their town, she sets up a cupcake fundraiser (and also uses it as a class project) to help out. The book is the second in a series but seems to stand-alone as well. If you have a child who is in the 5-8th grade range, this book is right for them – and they’ll most likely want a cupcake when they finish!

Reviewed by Kristina Akers, November 2014.

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The Diva Wraps It UpThe Diva Wraps it Up
A Domestic Diva Mystery
Krista Davis
Berkley Prime Crime, June 2014
ISBN 978-0-425-25814-9
Mass Market

Ms. Davis has created a delightful Christmas mystery. Set in a small town that is close to fanatical about celebrating the Christmas season with holiday cheer, Sophia and her neighbors vie to create the most spectacular interior and exterior house and yard decorations. Amidst putting Santas on the roof, wrapping several zillion lights around every immovable object in the neighborhood, and non-stop baking Christmas treats, one of the neighbors is murdered in the most un-Christmas-like manner.

Intrigue, convoluted family dynamics and Christmas goodies abound as Sophia and her friends try to solve the crime, much to the dismay of Sophia’s sweetheart, a member of the local police force. One of the neighbor’s extended and unwelcome family members arriving for the holidays further complicate the possible list of suspects. But with enough eggnog, spiced tea and chocolate coated treats, the questions are stripped away, leaving everyone aghast when the real murderer is revealed. Of course, not until the killer has cornered Sophia and her life is just a sugar sprinkle away from death.

If you are delighted by Christmas cheer and reindeer, mixed with your ‘who-dun-it,’ you’ll enjoy this cozy mystery.

Holiday recipes at the end of the book, some of which are incorporated within the story, add to the charm of this Christmas mystery.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, July 2014.
Author of Black Cat’s Legacy.