Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Something is out of tune in this village

The outbreak of World War II has had a devastating effect on the English village of Chilbury.  Not only have all able-bodied men been called up to fight, but the vicar has decided to disband the choir since there are no male voices left.  When a London music professor moves to the village (what luck!) she decides to organize the ladies of the village into a choir and enter them in competitions.  While some in the village are scandalized at the idea of an all-female choir (especially the busybody "Mrs. B." eventually they come around.  In The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, we get a glimpse of how the villagers deal with the war and their day-to-day lives during this time of upheaval.

The story is told from the viewpoint of multiple characters through letters, diary entries, and notices posted in the village.  We get to meet a variety of characters.  There's Kitty and Venetia, teenage sisters whose older brother died early in the war.  This left their father, the overbearing and glowering Brigadier Winthrop, without a male heir.  His browbeaten wife is pregnant again, and just to be sure of a fortunate outcome, the Brigadier makes a deal with the shady nurse Edwina Paltry.  She's already had to leave one position due to some not exactly aboveboard dealings, so she's willing to help out . . . for a price.  Then there's Mrs. Tilling, whose son David has gone off to fight.  Since his room is empty, she's pressed to accept a lodger, Colonel Mallard, who is assigned to the nearby Litchfield Park War Center (but she's none to happy or welcoming).  Venetia Winthrop has also started a relationship with a new arrival in town, Alistair Slater.  Alistair is an artist who has been exempted from serving in the army due to flat feet.  Still, there is a lot of speculation about what he's doing out in the woods at night -- a little black market dealing, perhaps?

While I understand that it's difficult to convey all the action in a book through diaries and letters, the entries should at least ring true.  Sadly, the letters, especially those from the 18 year old Venetia to her friend Angela don't sound like letters at all.  While Venetia is caught up in being the belle of the village, and later with her relationship with the mysterious Slater, she still takes the time to wax all eloquent in her letters. For instance, after a disagreement with Slater, she wrote that she "stalked out of the copse to the orchard, each gentle breeze shifting the delicate shadows of the branches, like life flickering between light and dark."  She also wrote that the village had a "light mist that lingered in the air, coating the village with a wordless hush."  Seriously, what teenage girl writes to another teenager like that?  Especially when said girls seem to have nothing in their heads but clothes and boys.  And 13 year old Kitty?  She describes the quiet after the choir has finished a song as a "calming lull of the slowly undulating final notes, dissipating into the eerie darkness." A passage would occur like a narrator was imparting all this, then you'd come to the end of the "letter" or diary entry with a jolt and realize how unrealistic it was.

I enjoyed the differing character viewpoints and the short entries from each to advance the action.  It just didn't ring true that these young girls were so wordy and descriptive in their recounting of the action in the story.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, August 28, 2017

Grab some wood and get to whittling

With the recent coloring craze, it's no wonder that soothing and relaxing hobbies for adults are becoming more popular.   In today's fast-paced world, it's good to have an activity where you can clear your mind and concentrate on creating something beautiful.  In the new book Carve, Melanie Abrantes, a woodworker by trade, gives everyone the tools, directions and encouragement to pick up the hobby of whittling.

This small book is packed with useful information.  It begins with two lists of tools, one necessary to get started, and another of tools you may want to obtain when you become more comfortable with whittling.  A list of safety information for working with sharp objects is also useful, including establishing the somewhat scarily named "blood circle" of at least an arm's length away from other people before working with tools.  Dull tools are more likely to cause mishaps, so a section is included on how to correctly sharpen your knife.  This is followed by the basic techniques the whittler will use, including the "push cut" and the "stop cut" (each illustrated with a photo).  Advice is also provided on how to choose and cut your wood to the proper size before beginning your project.

The remainder of the book is divided into projects in the following categories:  Eat, Live, and Camp.  Each project is graded according to difficulty, and shows a photo of what the finished object should look like.  There is also a list of tools needed for the project, followed by step by step instructions and photos of the various steps being performed.  The book ends with a section on how to make your piece more personal using such techniques as staining or burning.  Templates for the included projects are located at the end of the book.

I have never attempted to whittle, but after reading this book, I may have a go!  I'm sure it's not as easy as the reassuring author would have you believe to create the projects in the book.  Still, the things that you can create using this book, including a comb, a soap dish and even eating utensils, are all very attractive and appealing.  Every aspect of whittling is covered, even some that would never have occurred to me, so this book is definitely a good place for aspiring woodworkers to learn all they need to know about his appealing hobby.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Carve from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Friday, August 18, 2017

The lobsterbacks hold Boston Harbor

Although it lacks the toe-tapping appeal of the hit musical about the same man, the graphic novel Alexander Hamilton by Jonathan Hennessey and Justin Greenwood will help to bring to life one of the most interesting figures in American history.

The non-fiction book begins with a prologue that leads up to why Hamilton became such a well-known individual, including some historical writings citing Biblical evidence for the rights of kings to rule over people (and how free and lucky those subjects should feel!). In order to explain the times that Hamilton was born into, there is also some historical information on the sugar trade, established in the West Indies where the climate was favorable.  This new trade allowed British businessmen the ability to use their new found wealth to buy their way into Parliament, while British interests in the new American colonies were not so well represented abroad.  This led to the hated "stamp act" which punished the Americans for buying non-British goods.  The sugar industry also gave rise to the brutal slave trade in this part of the world.

The book goes on to detail Hamilton's difficult family circumstances: his mother had fled an abusive marriage and wasn't married to the man who became Hamilton's father.  The family split up and his mother died when he was young.  This left Hamilton, with no family to fall back on, with extremely limited prospects.  He was lucky to find a mentor in the Rev. Hugh Knox, who eventually helped the young man to publish a piece of writing that led to prominent citizens to help him travel from St. Croix to America for an education.  Once arrived, Hamilton became one of the most outspoken critics of British rule, delivering speeches and publishing pamphlets in an attempt to rally support for the cause of independence.

Hamilton's colorful career and path to the famous duel with Aaron Burr make up the majority of the book.  It is interesting to see events and people from (usually) dry history books come to life in the graphic novel format.  Hamilton is certainly an interesting figure and by showing his difficult upbringing and the motivation behind his beliefs, we can learn more about this major historical figure.  The occasionally convoluted language might be off-putting to younger readers, but those who want a glimpse into Hamilton's background will enjoy this effort.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Alexander Hamilton from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Getting started with a pencil

Some people are gifted artists and are effortlessly able to create artistic masterpieces.  For the rest of us, Foundations of Drawing gives not only a history of art, but useful information on the tools and techniques necessary to bring out your creative genius.

Lavishly illustrated with many examples, the author begins with the encouraging reassurance that "anyone can learn to draw."  The book then traces the history of drawing, from its supposedly romantic beginnings when young woman traced the outline of her war-bound boyfriend, to the more likely origins of cave paintings from over 700,000 years ago.  The author notes how Picasso and other artists were influenced by these early cave drawings and made "conscious decisions to adopt alternative methods of drawing."  That's always been my explanation, too . . .

After tracing the development of drawing through the centuries and various artistic movements,  there is a discussion of the various materials that can be used for creating your masterpiece.  In addition to giving a description of each type of material, the author also offers advice on how to use each one.  The majority of the book is devoted to Essential Drawing Skills and Demonstrations, including techniques such as blending, texture and working with light and shade.  Step-by-step instructions show how to begin and progress through such projects as drawing still lifes, animals and the human figure.  After your work is done, there is information on using fixatives and storing your work.

Whether you've always wanted to learn to draw, or are merely interested in art and art history, this book offers a great deal of in-depth information on the subject.  Even if you don't plan to start drawing yourself, seeing how artists go about their work is fascinating.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Foundations of Drawing from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Monday, July 24, 2017

Your thermodynamic toaster

Many of us go through the day using devices without giving much thought to how they function (until they stop working!).  The Physics of Everyday Things takes the reader through a typical day and breaks down the science of how things we interact with actually work.

The book is divided into chapters such as "You Begin Your Day" (covering devices you will encounter at home), "You Drive into the City" (which discusses how your car engine works as well as how you find your way using GPS), "You Check into a Hotel" (motion detectors and key cards), etc.  The scenarios cover how you might come to encounter something like a refrigerator, wi-fi or a microphone in daily life and then goes on to describe the various mechanisms involved.

I knew I was in trouble when, in discussing the humble toaster, the author stated that in order to comprehend how a toaster actually works, you need "an understanding of thermodynamics, electromagnetism and quantum mechanics."  Oh dear . . .  The author does attempt to make the concepts accessible to non-scientific minds (such as mine) by using analogies we can all follow, such as comparing semiconductors to an auditorium with some empty and some filled seats.  The descriptions are still a bit hard to follow though, such as this randomly chosen sentence discussing digital photography: "The positive voltage that emptied the first capacitor at the end of the row will attract the electrons that are held in the second capacitor until all of the electrons that were on the second capacitor have swung over to the first capacitor and swung again, to the reference capacitor . . . ."    There are some drawings scattered throughout the chapters to make the concepts a bit clearer.

I'm sure that people who are interested in how things function will be fascinated by the explanations of how physics impacts our daily lives.  I'm choosing to remain blissfully ignorant, though, and will just continue to plug things in and trust that more scientific minds than mine have figured out how to make all this stuff work!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Physics of Everyday Things from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dust off those aprons


Finally!  Season 4 of The Great British Baking Show returns to PBS on Friday, June 16 at 9:00 pm (check local listings) with two back-to-back episodes. While I'm sure you've been busy since Season 3 recreating all the delicious treats in your own kitchen, it will be great to see the new contestants, flour-covered and stressed, attempting to follow the sometimes vague directives from Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry.  Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc are back as hosts, cheerleaders and (in a pinch) tasters.  

For a sneak peek, check out the PBS Great British Baking Show website. You can meet the new contestants and watch some videos to get some inspiration before the fresh season kicks off.  The series begins with two episodes:

Cake (9 pm - Check Local Listings) 
In the first episode, the 12 bakers test their baking skills as they tackle a back-to-basics British classic, a popular cake with a fatless sponge and tricky chocolate work. 

Biscuits (10 pm - Check Local Listings) 
The remaining bakers are asked to make 24 elaborately decorated biscuits; a biscuit that requires perfect piping; and a biscuit structure that demands precision baking. 

So get ready to settle in with a cuppa and choose your favorite contestant this week!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Tears of a Clown

I have always enjoyed Paula Poundstone's comedy whenever I've had the opportunity to hear her, so I was thrilled to get a copy of her new book, The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness, from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  The book details her attempts to try various projects to see which, if any, would increase her feelings of happiness.  Each chapter takes a look at one of the things she tried.  The book starts with the "Get Fit Experiment" where she signs up for taekwondo classes.  Other things she tries include getting organized, driving a sports car, giving to others (through plasma donation and volunteering at a nursing home) and mediation (among others).  Each experiment is written up in a manner to appear somewhat scientific with a Hypothesis, list of Equipment, the Procedure and various Qualitative Observations, Constants, Field Notes and some Analysis of the project's ability to increase happiness.

While I expected the book to be funny, and it certainly had lots of humorous observations, I was unprepared for the many sad, alarming and depressing details the author shared about her own life.  In addition to being somewhat dysfunctional herself (she claims to suffer from depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and alcoholism), she wrote quite a bit about how much she struggles financially, yet she has 16 cats (in the house!) several dogs, a rabbit, a lizard and a bunny.  She also adopted 3 children, only one of whom seems to treat her with anything but contempt.  Her son, she claims, has a "computer/video game" addiction, to the point that she sent him to an electronics-free school in Virginia, but she never really provided any proof of this other than to say he always wanted to use her computer.  She also states, time and time again, that her children "have never watched television" although they have a TV and watch movies.  So movies=good, but TV=bad  . . . not sure what the justification for that was, either.

So while I enjoyed the occasional humorous observation, I was mostly left dismayed about the holes in her shoes, her lazy, deceitful children, her ramshackle house covered in "cat pee and vomit" and the fact that she doesn't even have a bed but sleeps on a sheet on the floor that she folds up every morning when she gets up.   Instead of being a funny or inspiring book (which I was expecting), I read about a woman who was struggling to keep it together in the face of non-stop chaos (OK, some of it self-inflicted . . . I mean I'm a cat lover, but I stop at three).  I can't really say I enjoyed the book.  All of the blurbs on the front and back of the book are from various celebrities talking about how funny it was.  I'm not sure they read the finished copy.

I received a copy of this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for this review