Thursday, October 23, 2014

A very different Britain

Great Britain, especially London, was changed forever by the events of World War II.  While British forces eventually came out on the winning side, what if the opposite had happened?  The book The Darkest Hour imagines a London where the Germans have invaded and taken control while the King and pre-war government have fled to Canada.

The events in the book center around policeman John Henry Rossett.  A copper before the war, he was a war hero and even though he fought against the Germans, the occupying forces realize that his cool, detached nature and "by-the-book" officiousness will be useful to them.  He is rehired as a policeman and is given the job of helping to clear out Jewish settlements (where residents are loaded onto trains to be taken away), a job he does dispassionately and efficiently.  He does what he's told without much thought.  Not only have his war experiences damaged him, but he lost his wife and son in a resistance bombing in London.  So now he's without family and performs his duties in a mechanical manner.  He's trusted by the Nazis and grudgingly, if somewhat suspiciously, admired by his British co-workers on the police force.

One day, when clearing out a group of Jewish people from an apartment building, one old man takes Rossett aside and asks him to go back to the flat to retrieve his "treasure."  Rossett goes back and discovers a hole in the wall where a young boy is hiding.  Thinking the boy is the treasure, Rossett gets him out, only to find the boy also has a bag of gold coins.  Rossett dutifully takes the boy to police headquarters and turns him in (the trains have already left for the day), but inexplicably decides to say nothing of the gold coins.

Rossett's Nazi superior is Ernst Koehler, a somewhat sympathetic boss who, as long as everything is going to plan, is easy to deal with.  Unfortunately, the always hovering Herr Schmitt is just waiting to advance his career at the expense of anyone who gets in his way.  Not only the British, but also his fellow Nazi officers are always on their guard around Schmitt.

Before the Jewish boy, Jacob, can be sent to the train, Rossett returns to the jail and retrieves him.  While doing so, he also inadvertently frees some other prisoners, and this involves him in a dangerous game where the resistance, communists and the Nazis are all double-crossing each other.  It seems as if everyone is out to get Rossett, even more so when it emerges that the boy, Jacob, has told his captors that Rossett knows where some valuable diamonds are hidden.

Of course, there has to be a love interest as well, and this is in the form of Kate, secretary to Koehler and niece to Sir James Stirling, an aristocrat who works with the Nazis while secretly leading the resistance.  While Rossett works to stay ahead of all the various factions, he and Kate devise a plan to flee the country with Jacob.  However, time is running out, and the diamonds are a big incentive for everyone to track them down.

The story is very fast-paced and there is a lot of action.  There were several things in the story that didn't ring true for me, though.  Why would Rossett suddenly develop feelings for one of the Jews he was removing?  He'd been doing this job quite a while, and presumably had witnessed many children being deported, so why suddenly develop a conscience?  And why keep the gold?  There was no reason for him to not turn it in to his superiors, as he had always done in the past with valuable property, and he seemed to have no plan for what he was going to do with the gold.  Also, Jacob's grandfather had apparently witnessed Rossett removing Jews for a long time, and while he wasn't brutal in carrying out his duties, there's no real reason why the grandfather would have told Jacob to trust Rossett.  He would have seemed as much of a Nazi operative as anyone else.

If you can overlook those quibbles, however, this is an exciting look at what might have happened if Britain hadn't triumphed in WWII.

Disclaimer:  I received an advanced reader's edition of The Darkest Hour from the GoodReads First Reads program

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dr. Livingstone, abolitionist I presume?

Everyone has heard the phrase, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume," but most probably don't know much about the background that led up to that famous quotation.  The book The Daring Heart of David Livingstone takes a look at the famous explorer, but focuses on his dedication to eradicating the slave trade in Africa.

David Livingstone was born into humble circumstances in Scotland in 1813.  He very early developed interests in both science and missionary work.  The London Missionary Society sent him, as an eager young recruit, to East Africa in 1841.  During his 15 years of work there, he performed the astounding feat of walking across Africa, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean -- a journey that took 3 years.  During that time, he became alarmed at the slave trade that he observed.  Famous Englishmen such as William Wilberforce, William Pitt and Charles James Fox had successfully campaigned to end slavery in the British Empire.  In fact, most British citizens, at the time of Livingstone's work, had no idea that slavery was still going on in Africa.  However, due to geographic and financial limitations, the only real business being done in Central Africa at the time involved ivory and slaves.  It was a difficult job to get the ivory from the interior of the continent to the coasts where it could be shipped to Europe, so unscrupulous traders quickly established the practice of forcing people to work in transporting the ivory, and then, once they reached the coast, selling the workers as slaves.

During Livingstone's early African expedition, his main goal was to establish a trade route for African goods that would give the tribal chiefs income from commodities other than their own people.  Tales of his exploits enthralled the folks back home in Britain -- who were witnessing the decline of the British Empire.  His many contributions included new information about insects, weather, geology and medicine (he pioneered the use of quinine as a treatment for malaria).

When he returned home to seek funding for another African missionary trip, he was dismayed to learn that the London Missionary Society was not very impressed with the lack of converts he'd collected.  His trade plans and explorations were of little concern to them.  They refused to fund further expeditions.  Luckily, at the same time, the Royal Geographical Society had taken note of his many achievements and was able to persuade the government to offer him the position of roving British Counsel to East Africa, at a hefty salary.  In addition, they offered to fund his expedition to discover if the Zambezi River could be used for navigation for trade purposes.  Tired of depending on the slave labor United States, Britain was also eager to find alternative sources for growing sugar and cotton, and Livingstone was certain that there was plenty of fertile farmland available in Africa.

As with most things in his life, Livingstone's second expedition encountered many problems.  He traveled with a number of men with helpful skills, including a botanist, an engineer and a geologist.  His wife and young son initially accompanied the group, but when it was discovered his wife was pregnant, she was left behind in South Africa to have the baby.  The remaining group headed up the Zambezi in a steam ship.  Once the water became more shallow (faster than they had anticipated) they had to transfer their supplies into a smaller ship, the Ma-Robert. This enterprise took six months!  When they did eventually continue on the journey, they were soon forced to turn back due to extreme currents and waterfalls.  So the expressed purpose of the journey, finding a trade route along the Zambezi, was a failure.

Still, Livingstone was not defeated (even if his crew was by this time disheartened and thoroughly sick of their morose leader), and decided to investigate another river, the Shire.  Unfortunately, the area around the Shire River was the prime hunting grounds of the slave traders, so the locals were understandably alarmed by and hostile toward this new group of strangers.  When the Shire also proved to have non-navigable rapids, Livingstone turned to a new idea:  establishing a British colony in central Africa that would allow the poor of England to migrate and establish Christianity in Africa. Unfortunately, these plans didn't work out either, and a disheartened Livingstone returned in London.  His reception was vastly different from that he received upon his previous return.  The public and politicians had believed all of his grandiose talk of navigable rivers, a good climate, and a hospitable place for Christianity to take root.  Still, he wrote a new book about his most recent travels and attempted to get Britain more involved in eradicating the slave trade.

Livingstone's third and final expedition was funded once again by the government.  This time, the purpose of the journey was to discover the source of the Nile.  Livingstone planned to use the trip to continue his anti-slavery campaign.  Unfortunately, this trip was plagued by problems: lack of food, desertions among his men (including one who took all the group's medicine), diseases and heavy rains.  Additionally, the slave raids were continuing at a more alarming rate than ever before.  To make matters worse, in 1866 word reached Britain that Livingstone had been killed by a party of armed raiders.  While the world worried, in truth Livingstone was not dead (although he wasn't exactly in the prime of health), but he was lost somewhere in the wilds of Africa.  News that he was still alive eventually reached a relieved British public, but as Livingstone's supplies were plundered and he faced increasing difficulties, he was unable to get correspondence out.

With the whole world waiting for news, Henry Morton Stanley, a "traveling journalist" was given the assignment (along with a seemingly endless expense account) by the editor of the New York Herald to find Livingstone.  Stanley encountered the same harsh conditions as Livingstone had, but after 8 months, he was able to greet the man with the phrase that has become so well-known.  He even joined Livingstone for a time in his continuing efforts to find the source of the Nile.  When Stanley left to return to the US with his newspaper scoop, he brought along a letter from Livingstone outlining the horrors of the slave trade and imploring the world to do all in its power to stop it.  Even though he didn't live to see it, his efforts eventually had the desired effect of getting Britain involved in eradicating the slave trade in that part of Africa.

I really enjoyed learning more about this man and his dedication to stopping the slave trade.  His tireless efforts for so many years no doubt saved many lives.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Daring Heart of David Livingstone from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Media violence has no age limit

The incidences of youth violence that have been in the news recently have caused everyone from politicians to sociologists to wonder what is behind the phenomenon.  The book Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill takes a look at some factors which may be behind the increase in violent tendencies in young people.

The authors of the book have backgrounds in researching human aggression and parental coaching.  The introduction to the book rightly points out the odd fact that many schools have invested in security officers, metal detectors and lock-down drills instead of investigating the root causes of school violence.  The main cause of the violence, according to the authors, is the desensitization to and normalization of violence since young people are exposed to it nearly non-stop in films, video games and on TV.  Video games aside, the statistics show that graphic violence occurs in 90% of films and over half of the TV shows children watch.

The debate about televised violence has been a factor of American life since the 1950s.  Efforts to address the problem throughout the decades have not had much effect.  Studies are quoted that show the effects on children who have been exposed to both graphic TV and video game violence.  Interestingly, there is a similarity in the training the military does to overcome the reluctance of soldiers to kill another human being, and the techniques that are used in violent video games.  Intentionally or not, game players can be desensitized to killing.  Of course, not all gamers become killers, but the authors outline "risk factors" that, when combined with violent games, can contribute to people acting out aggression. One interesting chapter shows how young people at various ages identify with violence and shape their own self-images on witnessing violent acts.

For parents of children, there is a chapter on how to talk to your child about violence and actions parents, schools and communities can take to intervene in the lives of kids and to counteract the violence children are exposed to daily.  The book contains many resources at the back, including ways to talk to children of various ages about media violence, a chronology of studies/investigations of violence, and organizations that are active in the area.

I found this book to be an extremely detailed and interesting look at the subject of violence in the media and its effects on children.  Naturally, some of the most shocking and horrific crimes committed by youngsters over the past few decades were included as examples, and while those cases are horrible, the truth is that the vast majority of young people are (thankfully) still not acting on their violent impulses.  With the rise of violent images children are exposed to, the strategies outlined in the book are useful tools in helping parents and educators counteract some of that negativity.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Turn your idea for a business into a reality

Many people would like to start their own businesses, but have no idea how to begin.  While everyone starts a business with high hopes, the reality is that 50% of businesses fail during their first year.  There are many reasons why businesses might not succeed, but lack of planning, wasting time on unnecessary tasks and not following through with legal requirements are some of the possibilities.  The book The Employee Entrepreneur's Guide to Starting and Incorporating a Side Business is an invaluable handbook for anyone contemplating starting a new business.

People who have a full-time job already need to maximize the time they devote to starting a side business.  While some people might have an idea for a business, this book has some suggestions for how to start a business that will fill an existing need.  Some ideas that you might not have considered before are that complaints are often a good launching point (if people are dissatisfied with how something is currently being done, can you do something about it?) as is listening to what people are talking about (you may overhear a good idea at any moment!).  Once you have an idea, keep in mind that your side business should generate income, allow you more free time, and possibly eventually allow you to leave your full-time job.

The main focus of the book is giving great practical advice on the nuts and bolts of setting up your side business.  The author discusses the tools you need for your business (including such things as having a professional-looking logo, website and business cards) as well as suggesting sites where the budding entrepreneur can get such things.  There's also a great chapter on when you should outsource jobs and how to go about hiring, paying and evaluating the service you receive.

Most useful for those starting a business is the discussion of how to set up the business structure.  The comparison of the various possibilities (sole proprietorship vs. S corp vs. Limited Liability Company, for example) is especially helpful.  The appendices at the back of the book include samples of an LLC Operating Agreement and Articles of Organization for an LLC, both of which have been explained in earlier chapters.

The amount of detail covered is really amazing.  The book even covers such things as how to come up with a name for your new business and specific rules governing some aspects of creating an LLC in certain states.  I had no idea of the amount of preparation and the sheer number of details that must be considered when setting up a business.   Real world examples of business mistakes and how to correct them help to illustrate the points in the book.  I was also impressed by the clear, easy-to-understand text and the vast amount of important information included in this slim volume. Get this book to get your business started off on the right foot!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pretty but too much personal information

While browsing at the wonderful Union Avenue Bookstore a few weeks ago I opened A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch and was immediately captivated.  The book is gorgeous, with hand-lettered texts, photos and many beautiful illustrations.  Plus, it's about England, so I figured it would be right up my alley.

Susan Branch is the author and illustrator of a number of beautiful books on such topics as cooking and Christmas.  She's also an Anglophile and was excited to book a 2 month vacation to England in 2012.  She and her husband Joe booked passage on the Queen Mary 2 and set off in May.

Once they arrived in England, they rented a car and drove around to many well-known sights and stayed at beautiful homes in the countryside.  She also visited some friends she had known for a while.  There are lots of quotes and historical facts included that help to make the pages attractive and interesting.

That said, for a book that touts being about "the English Countryside" quite a lot of the book was taken up with telling the reader about her relationship with her husband, including (this is not an exaggeration) 20 pages on how they met and their first date.  There are also way too many tedious details of their day-to-day lives.  The part near the beginning when they are on the ship is especially excruciating.  Here is a verbatim section from page 57:

I just slept 12 hours! Didn't do too well the rest of yesterday.  I was seasick.  I put on my wrist bands way too late; next time they go on before I get on the ship, even if the water looks like glass.  They usually work for me.  Joe's fine, he has the permanent sea legs from years of cooking on a schooner, but if the sea is rough, I can even feel queasy during the forty-five minute ferry ride from Martha's Vineyard to the mainland.  Feeling better this morning; knitting & having a cup of chamomile tea to soothe my tummy.  Joe's sleeping; he went to the casino after tucking me in last night. 
All we get to hear about Thirsk

And on and on -- quite a bit of the book is like that.  Why the author thinks anyone is actually interested in reading this, or why she'd take the time to artistically render it (and why no editor stepped in and cut out a lot of it) is a mystery.  Two places that she visited hardly get a mention:  London and Thirsk (home of James Herriott).  It's odd that these places, both packed with interesting stuff, are hardly noted, while we get much more detail than we care to about unimportant domestic matters.

Similarly, the last 13 pages of the book are a weird mish-mash of thoughts after her trip, references to her friends, and advice such as "Walk a Country Road as Often as Possible" and ""Listen to Birds Sing" (with the obligatory photo of her and her husband kissing at the end).  Again, the book is beautiful -- it's only when you actually start reading the text that the problems begin.  If you like to look at pretty pictures, this is a pleasant book to thumb through.  If you're not actually acquainted with the author, however, the details and descriptions of her personal life will grow old quickly.

Final Verdict for A Fine Romance:   Two Gherkins, for being the embodiment of style over substance

Friday, September 12, 2014

Boy, is this place misnamed

Within the first few minutes of the BBC drama Happy Valley, we learn that Sergeant Catherine Cawood is divorced, living with her sister (a recovering heroin addict), raising her grandson, and is the mother of two children:  one is dead and the other doesn't speak to her.  With all that drama, you'd be forgiven for expecting Catherine to be somewhat depressed, but nothing could be further from the truth.  She's a no-nonsense, organized woman who likes nothing more than diving in among the "scrotes and numpties" on her beat and straightening them out (with force, if necessary).

That is until she learns that Tommy Lee Royce has been released from prison and his back in her town.  Royce is the man that she blames for the suicide of her daughter and the man she fears is her grandson Ryan's father.  She becomes obsessed with finding him (he doesn't seem to be staying with his drugged up mother) and keeping him away from Ryan.

At the same time, in a very "Fargo-esque" plot, accountant Kevin Weatherill is desperate for money.  His wife is suffering from MS, and he's in need of money to pay his daughter's school fees.  Since his father was (to his mind) cheated out of a partnership in the business where Kevin works, he feels he's entitled to a raise from the boss Nevison Gallagher.  Gallagher says he really can't agree to a raise, since he'd have to give a raise to everyone.  Furious, Weatherill approaches a local dodgy character he knows named Ashley Cowgill with a business proposition: a plot to kidnap Gallagher's daughter Anne and split the ransom money.  What could possibly go wrong?

After the kidnapping plan has been set in motion, Weatherill receives all sorts of bad news.  Gallagher's wife has cancer and is not expected to live long.  As a concession to his wife and daughter, Gallagher announces he's not going to give Weatherill a raise, but he will instead fully pay the daughter's school fees.  Humbled and chastened, Weatherill attempts to call off the kidnapping plot, but of course, it's much too late.  As the events spiral out of control and more crimes connected to the plot occur, Weatherill watches helplessly and rehearses what he'll say to Gallagher and/or the police if his part in the kidnapping is discovered.

Naturally, the evil Tommy Lee Royce has gotten wind of the fact that he might have a son, and takes to hanging around Ryan's school.  To further complicate Catherine's life, her ex-husband has lost his job and has started coming around again. He remarried after his marriage to Catherine broke up in the wake of their daughter's suicide and her determination to raise Ryan rather than put him into care.

After Catherine suffers horrific injuries on the job, she begins to spiral into depression.  Ryan is a constant source of worry and trouble both at school and at home.  Her son is still not speaking to her unless absolutely necessary. Her sister shows no signs of moving out (although it's hard to see how Catherine would cope without her).  Her superiors in the police force seem to show no interest in tracking down Tommy Lee Royce.  A tragedy occurs to one of her subordinates and she begins to question her entire career.

There are plenty of terrible and heart-wrenching scenes in the series, making you wonder why the town council in "Happy Valley" hasn't voted on a more appropriate name for the town.  Drugs and crime are rampant and everyone seems pretty miserable.  Good thing they have a resilient and dedicated cop like Sgt. Cawood on the job!

I was pleased to see that Happy Valley and actress Sarah Lancashire were big winners at the recent TV Choice Awards.  There has been some speculation that there might be a second series, so I'll be on the lookout for the further adventures of the glum populace of Happy Valley.  Although I couldn't wait and ordered the DVD, it is currently available as a streaming option from Netflix.

Final Verdict for Happy Valley:  Four Gherkins, for being a gritty look at the day-to-day life of a heroic policewoman

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Design your own murder house tour

As a frequent visitor to London, I'm always drawn to places that are somewhat off the beaten tourist track.  Since London has long been a destination for many people from all walks of life, inevitably there have been some gruesome and shocking crimes that have taken place there.  In the fascinating book Murder Houses of London, author Jan Bondeson takes a look at the places that have been the scenes of murders most foul in the capital city over the past 200 or so years.  Interestingly, in this book, he concentrates of places that the, ahem, student of crime can still visit.  He's put in a great deal of detective work to find the locations of crimes where streets have been renamed, houses renumbered, and various building projects have rendered the locations all but unrecognizable.  Still, if you want to see where John George Haigh dissolved his victims in acid, or where George Joseph Smith dispatched some of his "brides in the bath," this is an indispensable guide!

The book is divided into sections based on areas of London: Westminster, Kensington, Islington, Chelsea and Fulham, etc. and then arranged chronologically.  Many famous cases are covered, as well as ones that I'd never heard of before.  While many of the crimes were "solved" (well, someone was arrested, tried and frequently hanged), there are also many cases that remain unsolved to this day.  I was especially intrigued to learn that the street where I stay on my visits to London, Cartwright Gardens, was the site of two unsolved murders in the 1800s.  The houses are long since gone, so one can hope that the ghosts of the victims have also departed the area!

Murder of Olive Yong from Illustrated Police News
The book contained a great deal of historical information and many cases that are probably not well-known among the general public.  There are many illustrations scattered throughout the book, both black and white pages (mostly from the Illustrated Police News), black and white contemporary photographs, and color pages of what the notorious houses look like today (which I'm sure the current owners greatly appreciate!).

The only slight quibble I have with the book is the tendency for some repetitive language.  The phrase "things weren't looking too good for" defendants in murder trials is used multiple times, as is the habit of calling suspects a "cove."  Still, if you are discussing murders, suspects and trials, I guess there are only so many ways to say the same thing over and over!

I think anyone with an interest in London history or true crime would enjoy this book.  I especially enjoyed the many illustrations from the sadly defunct Illustrated Police News, particularly the startled expressions and wild gestures of those who found the murder victims.  If you've already visited London and been on one of the many Jack the Ripper or ghosts tours, this book provides ample information for you to design your own "murder house tour" on your next visit!

Final Verdict for Murder Houses of London:  Five Gherkins, for being a detailed and well-illustrated look at the violent side of London's history