Friday, December 19, 2014

Banish those Downton Blues!

I know many people, like me, are anxiously awaiting the start of Downton Abbey, Season 5 on January 4.  To help ease the wait, PBS has a slew of great British programming lined up to tide you over until you can get your Downton fix!

On Sunday, December 21 at 8:00 pm, Tales from the Royal Bedchamber will be shown.  This series,

Host Dr. Lucy Worsley. Photo: Courtesy of
© Tiger Aspect Productions 2013
hosted by Dr. Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces (a job I'll be glad to take over, when she wants to retire!), will take a look behind the scenes at what actually went on in Royal State bedrooms.  Aside from being, as you would expect, much more grand than the bedrooms you or I occupy, for many years these seemingly private areas of the castle were actually central to the political future of the country.  Future monarchs were married in bedchambers and crowds would gather to observe royal births (must have been delightful for the mum-to-be!).  The royals eventually had enough of their private affairs being public spectacles and created private chambers, but the public nature of the royal bedchamber before this shift makes for a fascinating story.

The Great British Baking Show with (l to r) Sue Perkins,
Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood and
Mel Giedroyc. Credit: Love Productions
Just before the premier of the new season of Downton Abbey on January 4, the 10-week competition The Great British Bakeoff begins at 8:00 pm.  This show attempts to find Britain's best amateur baker with a series of tests to prepare such delicacies as cakes, pastries and breads (I can tell my low-carb diet is going to take a hit just watching this show!). Mary Berry (the "doyenne of baking") and Paul Hollywood judge the contestants' results while Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc host. Each episode will feature three challenges: the Signature Bake, the Technical Bake and the Showstopper Bake. I'm excited to see how the contestants respond to baking under pressure -- surely some of them will have disasters, which will make me feel better about my own less-than-stellar baking efforts.

Finally, to put you in the mood for some spring planting, The Queen's Garden airs at 10:00 pm on Sunday, January 11th (so start out at 8:00 with all the food and drink refreshment you need already assembled, cause you've got a great evening of viewing ahead of you!).  This program follows the Buckingham Palace Garden (in the middle of London) over the course of a year.  If, like me, you've yet to be invited to a Royal Garden Party, you'll enjoy this opportunity to explore the beautiful urban garden.  Plants and animals that make up the garden, as well as a lake and a 15-foot marble urn (previously owned by Napoleon) are shown in detail.

If you should happen to forget to mark you calendar to watch these wonderful programs, they will be available to stream the morning after broadcast from a variety of sources, including the PBS video site, PBS iPad and iPhone apps, and PBS digital platforms on ROKU, Apple TV and Xbox.  While winter is normally a bleak and depressing time of year, the wonderful "Best of Britain" programming that PBS is going to showcase in the upcoming weeks gives us something to look forward to!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

If you think this is bad, just wait til they get to middle school

I discovered the Australian writer Liane Moriarty when I downloaded a copy of "The Husband's Secret" as an audio book from the local library.  It was very interesting, so I was excited to read her new book Big Little Lies.  I wasn't disappointed!  This book is a real page-turner that kept me up way past my bedtime trying to find out what would happen next!

The story centers around 3 women.  Madeline is the mother of 3 children.  Her teenage daughter was from an earlier marriage, and she has two younger children with her current husband.  Her first husband left her when their daughter was just a baby, and now that he has remarried and has another child, he wants back in to the older daughter's life -- much to Madeline's disgust.

The second main character is Celeste.  She's impossibly beautiful and married to an absurdly wealthy man.  Unfortunately, he also lashes out violently toward her on a regular basis.  She's never told anyone about her situation, both because she's ashamed and because she sometimes fights back and feels that she's also to blame.  She and her husband are the parents of twin boys.

The final female lead is Jane, a single mother to young Ziggy.  Jane works from home as a bookkeeper, and moves around a lot.  She had a traumatic experience with Ziggy's father, and has spent the years since he was born restlessly moving from one place to the next, never settling down.

All of these characters come together when their children start kindergarten together.  The mothers at the kindergarten turn out to be cliquish, gossipy and vindictive.  Things start out on a bad foot when on the first day, one little girl is assaulted by a classmate.  Her mother demands to know who hurt her, and the little girl points out Ziggy as the culprit.  He denies it, but this taint on his character has terrible consequences.  A petition is started by the other parents to get him expelled from the school, and most of the other mothers shun Jane.

At the start of each chapter are hints that something terrible happens to someone.  Other parents are discussing the aftermath of some tragic event, and even police officers are quoted as saying they think people are hiding something.  A school trivia night, where all the mothers dress up as Audrey Hepburn and all the fathers dress up as Elvis, is looming, and that seems to be where the horrible thing happens . . . whatever it is!

As I was reading I was trying to guess which of the characters was going to meet a bad end, and who would be responsible for it.  Most of the characters seem to have something to hide, so there were numerous possibilities.  I enjoyed the book overall, but I did feel that the resolution to the whole bullying scenario was a bit rushed.  Otherwise, it was a great read!

Final verdict for Big Little Lies: Four Gherkins, for being an inside look at the cut-throat world of kindergarten politics

Monday, December 8, 2014

Learn to draw creepy cartoons

As someone who's hopeless at drawing, I was very interested in the book Monstrously Funny Cartoons.  The author, Christopher Hart, gives step-by-step instructions for drawing a variety of ghoulish figures including zombies, monsters, mummies and vampires.

The book is illustrated with black and white drawings showing how to construct your scary character from scratch.
Also, there is lots of advice and information for artists that I probably would never have considered.  Such things as how to vary the shapes of eyes to convey different emotions (stunned, puzzled, suspicious, etc.) and how placement of features can be used to vary expressions are explained and illustrated.  Classic traits for the various "monsters" are also included.  For instance, no self-respecting vampire would be seen without his trademark fangs, shadowy eyes, fussily-styled hair and "ears that suggest that his  mom had a fling with Mr. Spock."

In addition to covering the stock horror characters, the author also has advice on how to come up with your own characters and tweaks you can use to make the drawings unique.  It was also very interesting to see how an artist can convey such things as movement and action based on how the character is posed.

The final chapter of the book discusses how to place your characters in scenes.  While this might sound labor-intensive, examples show how easy it is to create a background in which a few elements will help to set the scene.  Overall, this would be a fantastic book for the budding cartoonist.  Even someone as artistically challenged as myself can be inspired to follow the easy directions to create ghouls and zombies of my own!
I think this book would be very useful and inspirational to a young person who was interested in drawing or doodling.  The author shows how to develop characters at each stage of the drawing, and the creepy subject matter is both entertaining and interesting.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Monstrously Funny Cartoons from Blogging For Books in exchange for this review

Monday, December 1, 2014

All this groaning and fist-clenching and agitated face-wiping

I was intrigued when I first heard about The Book of Strange New Things.  The author, Michel Faber, is well-known for his previous books, including The Crimson Petal and the White.  It truly didn't sound like anything I'd read before, and I was interested to see where the story would go.  Peter, a former homeless drug addict, has completely turned his life around.  He's married to the devoted Bea and is the minister of a church in England.  Everything is going well in their lives when he feels called by God for an important mission:  to travel to a distant planet to minister to the native beings who live there.  A large, somewhat shadowy company called USIC has established a permanent settlement on the planet, known as Oasis. Oasis is inhabited and a previous minister has converted many to Christianity.  However, this minister has disappeared, and the natives are asking for a replacement.  Bea is equally proud and alarmed by the fact that her husband is going to be going on a mission so far away.  Still, he's only planning to be away for around 6 months and so that doesn't seem so bad.

Once Peter arrives on the planet, he is struck by several things.  The planet is hot, and the concept of a "day" is somewhat misleading, since their hours of light and darkness are very different from what he's accustomed to.  The atmosphere is very unusual, with tendrils of air that move along the body and inside clothing.  The food is also very odd.  It's all made from a native plant called whiteflower, which can be prepared to taste *almost* like any familiar food you'd care to imagine, based on when it's harvested.  He's very nervous about meeting his flock. The pharmacist, a woman named Grainger, drives him out to the Oasan settlement, which is located quite a distance from the USIC base.

The people in the USIC settlement trade medicine to the Oasans for the various foods they've made from the harvested whiteflowers.  Peter is a bit shocked by his first glimpse of the "alien" Oasans. They are all clad in robes (each a different color so he is able to tell them apart), but their faces don't resemble human faces at all.  Still, the group he meets are "Jesus Lovers" who have been converted by the earlier pastor.  They are identified by numbers -- Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Twenty-Four, and so on.  Not everyone is converted, but the devoted Jesus Lovers are the only ones that Peter interacts with. He needn't have worried.  The Oasans are calm, kind and placid.  They immediately get to work building a church.  They call the Bible "The Book of Strange New Things" and already know many of the stories from it.  However, they have trouble pronouncing the letters T and S, so Peter sets about making small booklets paraphrasing sections of Biblical passages to avoid these troublesome letters.  He spends several weeks with the Oasans, then goes back to the USIC headquarters for a while.

Peter eventually begins to experience some changes.  He loses a lot of weight, suffers severe sunburns (although he doesn't seem to notice) and has problems remembering people and events from his life.  He communicates frequently with Bea via "the Shoot" a sort of email communication device.  The news from home isn't good.  There are many natural disasters, food shortages and general mayhem taking place on earth.  Peter feels both helpless and detached from the events, but he is worried about Bea and tries to reassure her.

As I was reading, I was trying to figure out where the book was going.  Were the Oasans as calm and "Jesus loving" as they appeared, or was there something more sinister about them?  What happened to the previous minister and another employee who disappeared?  What is USIC's real agenda?  Are there other animals on the planet other than the strange, small birdlike creatures they observe at times? Why are all the other employees so devoid of emotion?

Some of the questions are answered, but overall, there's no big conflict or resolution to the story.  I feel a bit disappointed, because I was expecting something major and shocking to happen, but this was really just Peter's story of his journey through life. He grew to realize what he valued and how he should live his life to reflect that.  I can't see Hollywood making it into a film without adding a few explosions or evil-doers, though!  I did enjoy the story, it just wasn't what I was expecting, so it was a bit of a letdown.

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Getting control of your physical hunger

The author of The Ultimate Guide to the Daniel Fast originally set out to write a traditional cookbook, but a technical glitch wiped out her file.  She set the book aside, meaning to come back to it, when her church leaders asked everyone to go on a 21 day fast.  Because many people were uncertain about what they could or couldn't eat during the fasting period, the author pulled out her old cookbook notes and began posting recipes on her blog.  This was the beginnings of this book.

The book is divided into three sections:  The Fast, The Focus and The Food.  The first part discusses the purpose of the fast:  to forge a deeper connection with God by participating in a spiritual fast.  The author describes this process as "setting aside your basic physical desires for spiritual ones."  She uses the Biblical story of Daniel, who fasted for 21 days by eating only the most basic foods required for survival.  It is this type of fast that she is attempting to re-create.  Physical and spiritual preparations for before, during and after the fast are also given.

Part two of the book gives daily devotions and additional suggestions for readings.  Part three takes up the majority of the book: the food!  The section begins with a list of foods that are allowed and foods that are to be avoided.  The allowable foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts and oils, while meat, dairy and sweeteners lead the list of banned foods.  There are suggested meal plans, preparation tips and recipe combination suggestions.  The recipes are divided into Breakfast, Appetizers and Snacks, Salads and Salad Dressings, Soups, Vegetables, Main Dishes and Juices.  The recipes don't include nutrition information in the form of calories, fat, etc. but since most of the foods are probably pretty low in these areas, it's not much of a problem.  There are some color photos of prepared dishes in the middle of the book that look very yummy!

This book would be a good starting point for anyone looking to eat more healthy foods and to find new ways to prepare dishes that are lower in fat and calories.  The recipes look very tasty and the ingredients list at the back of the book will make compiling a shopping list easy.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Ultimate Guide to the Daniel Fast from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The destiny drinking game

Rev. Parker Saint (born Brian Parker) seems to have everything going for him.  As the pastor of a popular mega-church, he has a large television following and a new book coming out.  But then there is the totally out of character "travel rage" incident at the airport where he ended up getting irate and assaulting an airline employee.  In order to avoid possible criminal charges, Rev. Saint agrees to work with the police as a consultant on a series of brutal murders.

Five people have been murdered in what looks to the police to be some sort of religious or Satanic manner.  Churches in the Grand Rapids area have also been vandalized.  Rev. Saint reluctantly agrees to assist the police, even though he feels completely out of his depth.  Both his father and grandfather were ministers at a local church, which suffered dwindling membership and eventually was forced to leave their building.  Parker is now under the guidance of Joshua Holton, an even more popular and influential televangelist, who has been guiding his career and helping his rise in popularity.  Unfortunately, Holton has strict guidelines for his continuing assistance, the most important of which is that Parker make himself available for weekly calls from his mentor.

That had been no problem, but once the police persuade him to work with them on the murder cases, Parker's time is basically spoken for.  Matters aren't helped when three mysterious priests, Father Michael, Father Ignatius and Father Xavier also show up and demand Parker's help (they have a DVD of the alleged assault of the airline employee that they might have to release to the media).  They are part of a shadowy, secret society called the Jesuits Militant who investigate religious-based crimes for the Vatican.  They are convinced the murders and vandalisms are connected, and that they are related to an attempt to find the Crown of Marbella.  This holy relic has been missing for many years, but their research indicates it might actually have made its way to Grand Rapids. They are most interested in recovering it.

So during the day, Parker follows along with police raids, suspect interrogations, autopsies, and anything else they can drag him along to.  At night, the priests show up for debriefing and further investigations.  Naturally, Parker's ministry suffers.  He has his assistant, Paige, book guest ministers for his weekly sermons, but Joshua Holton is becoming increasingly irate at being ignored.

At the same time, we follow along with "Danny" a young man who is possessed by demons.  He finds that going into small churches allows him to receive all sorts of help from the congregations -- money and exorcisms being the main draws.  He goes around to all of the churches in the area, because he discovers that once he undergoes an exorcism, the demons come back in greater numbers and with much greater power than before.  Could he be the same "Damien," a young man with seemingly creepy influence over the young people of Grand Rapids?

I enjoyed the book and was anxious to see how it played out.  There are many humorous moments in the story, even when dealing with such gruesome and disturbing topics.  The author was perhaps a bit too hard on "Rev. Saint," who's New Age-y catchphrase "God's awesome, and so are you!" is just one of the many digs at the whole "positive thinking" movement.  I also felt as if the final confrontation between the evil-doer and Rev. Saint was a bit too drawn out.  Still, the book is very entertaining and certainly a page-turner!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Satan must have been napping

Lena Jones works as a private investigator in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Her business, Desert Investigations, is a two person operation. She's assisted in her duties by her partner, Jimmy Sisiwan, who is proud of his Pima Indian heritage.  Their latest adventures take place in the book Desert Rage, the eighth Lena Jones adventure.

The book starts out on an unsettling note, when 14 year old Allison Cameron and her boyfriend Kyle Gibbs take her gravely injured dog Misty to the vet.  They are very concerned about the welfare of the dog, but the fact that the bodies of Allison's parents and 10 year old brother are in the house with them doesn't seem to bother them very much.  After dropping off the dog, they attempt to flee to California, but are caught and returned to Scottsdale.  Once in custody, both confess to the brutal beating deaths of the family.

Lena is contacted by Representative Juliana Thorsson and asked to investigate the case.  Thorsson has been a very outspoken politician in the area, and is gearing up for a run for the Senate.  She confides in Lena that while a struggling college student, she was an egg donor for her sister and for the Cameron family.  Allison is her biological daughter.  She hadn't been in contact with the family, but she happened to see Allison and her mother in a store one day, and due to the family resemblance, she quickly realized Allison was her daughter.  She also believes that the girl is incapable of killing her family.

When Lena begins investigating the case, one of her first stops is the juvenile detention center to interview Allison.  Allison is defiant and sticks to her confession, claiming that she hired a "hit man" with her allowance money.  The family had been bound, gagged and tortured before being killed, and Lena doubts a hit man would have taken so much trouble (even if he would work for allowance money!).  It's also odd that Kyle, a foster child who loves animals, would have hurt Misty the dog while killing the family.

Lena's research finds that the father of the family, an emotionally remote but gifted emergency room physician, has a secret second job.  This leads to a line of inquiry that finds plenty of new suspects with a reason to want Dr. Cameron and his family dead.

While investigating the murders, Lena also has personal problems to deal with.  As a child she had been found in the street with a gunshot wound to the head, and nothing is known of her family.  She grew up in foster care, where she was terribly abused in some of the placements.  One of her foster mothers, Madeline, regards her as a true daughter and is a frequent source of friendship and support.  Lena still continues to have nightmares about her early childhood, though.  Also, she gains an enemy when she has a car towed that is illegally parked in front of her office.  That leads to all sorts of physical and property-related problems . . .

Even though this book is part of a series, I enjoyed reading it.  It's obvious that the author has a true love for the southwest culture and history (although perhaps not the climate!) and it has made me want to visit Scottsdale -- although probably not in July!  I plan to go back and read the other books in the series to get caught up, and I look forward to finding out more about Lena's past in the upcoming books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Desert Rage from Poisoned Pen Press in exchange for this review