Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Making a bad situation infinitely worse

The series Accused takes a different approach to story-telling.  Each episode begins with an accused person sitting in a jail cell, being handcuffed to an officer, and escorted into a court room.  We then get the story of what brought the person to this point in his or her life.  It's generally not until the final few minutes of the episode, when the jury is asked if they find the accused guilty or not guilty, that we even find out what their crime is.   Still, it's very interesting to see how a series of bad decisions or events brought the defendants to that point.  The 10 episodes from Series 1 & 2 take a look at people charged with a variety of crimes and follows through to the jury's verdict.  Each episode features a talented cast of well-known actors.

Episode one, Willy's Story, stars Christopher Eccelston as a plumber with financial issues.  He's hardworking and honest, but when one of his big clients goes bankrupt and pays with a check that bounces, Willy starts down a road of financial disaster.  As frequently happens, this is just the first in a long series of problems:  his van breaks down, his daughter is planning a wedding he needs to pay for, and his plans to run off with his girlfriend is put in jeopardy.  He can't believe his luck when he finds an envelope full of cash in the back of a cab.  Is this the answer to all his problems, or another, even worse complication?  The local priest tries to convince Willy that all his problems will be solved by giving up "the other woman" but Willy seems to think he can solve all his problems and keep the girlfriend, too.

I found Frankie's Story, episode two, to be one of the most haunting.  Frankie and his friend Peter
decide to join the army after getting in trouble with the law.  They are sent to Afghanistan, where they encounter a brutal and sadistic officer, played with gusto by the usually mild-mannered Mackenzie Crook.  Peter comes from a military family, and so when he freezes in the middle of battle, he becomes the target of hostility and derision by the officer.  Frankie has to walk a fine line between loyalty to his friend, and avoiding becoming a victim of the officer as well.

Juliet Stevenson and Peter Capaldi star as bereaved parents in the third episode, Helen's Story.  When their son is killed on his first day of a temporary warehouse job, Helen attempts to find out what really happened.  The owner of the company, while sympathetic, is reluctant to answer any questions.  Her son's friend, who was with him when he died, has been offered a permanent position with the company and also refuses to answer her questions.  As she becomes more obsessed with finding out what happened, she finds herself blocked at every turn.  The company won't answer questions, and if she wants to pursue criminal charges, she and her husband must foot the bill themselves (which seems rather odd . . .).

Episode four is another case of events spiraling out of control for the title character, Liam (played by a wonderful Andy Serkis).  Liam is a taxi driver with a gambling problem.  He also has a disabled wife whose MS is only getting worse.  He and their teenage daughter do their best to look after her.  When Liam's daughter passes an entrance exam for an exclusive school, he's frantic that there's no money to buy a gift for her.  He takes a young woman to the airport for a business trip, and, realizing her flat will be empty while she's away, breaks in.  He finds a necklace that he plans to give to his daughter, but at the same time finds himself drawn to the young woman who lives there, Emma.  He arranges it so that he is always available when Emma needs a ride, and becomes more and more obsessed with her.

Kenny's Story, the fifth episode, plays on the fears of most parents.  When Kenny's young daughter is attacked in a local park, he and two friends set out to find the perpetrator.  Coming upon someone who seems to match the description of the molester, they attack the man.  When he dies of his
injuries, the trio become increasingly desperate in their attempts to cover their tracks.

The gorgeous Naomie Harris is Alison in the final episode from season 1.  Alison is a teacher for disabled children.  She and her husband are having problems, and so when a charming co-worker begins flirting with her, she doesn't exactly rebuff his advances.  While she's supposedly attending a conference in Glasgow, her husband sees on the news that the train she was traveling on was involved in a horrific crash.  When Alison walks in unharmed soon afterwards, her lie becomes exposed and she and her husband end their marriage.  A custody battle over their two children becomes nasty, and her ex-husband and his policeman father will go to any lengths to discredit Alison.

Series 2 begins with another downer, this time involving Mo and her friend Sue, single mothers raising their children on a crime-infested housing estate.  They work together in a salon, but enrage the local gangs when they refuse to close as a "mark of respect" during the funeral of one of their members.  Mo (played by Anne Marie Duff) and Sue (poor Olivia Coleman, whose characters can never seem to catch a break!) are targeted for retaliation.  When Sue's son Sean is gunned down, the two women become active in the local organization Women Against Guns.  Will this bring even more gang retaliation?

Stephen's Story concerns a young man who likely is suffering from schizophrenia.  Stephen's mother is dying of cancer, and a young nurse, Charlotte, comes to the house to offer palliative care.  Not long after his mother's death, Stephen is dismayed when Charlotte begins a relationship with his father and moves in.  Not only is she being increasingly bossy, but she also remodels his  mother's room and even manages to kill the family dog (although accidentally).  Stephen is hearing voices and people on TV are giving him advice about what he needs to do.  He becomes convinced that Charlotte is poisoning his family, and determines to save them.

A lonely, cross-dressing English professor is the main character in Tracie's story.  Simon is a boring professor by day, but at night he dresses to the nines and goes out on the town as Tracie.  Enjoying the attention she gets, Tracie (played by a wonderfully camp Sean Bean) flaunts herself around town.  When a rowdy bachelor party member begins hassling her, one of the other members of the group feels bad and offers Tracie a shared taxi.  Tracie invites him in, and a relationship begins.  The man, Tony, tells Tracie his wife died and that he wants a relationship with Tracie.  When Simon, who goes unnoticed by Tony, happens to see Tony with a woman, he realizes Tony has been lying.  Tracie presents an ultimatum, so which life will Tony choose?

The final episode, Tina's story, ties in two of the earlier stories from Season 2.  Tina is a guard at a young offender's prison.  The guards are short-staffed and overworked.  When Stephen Cartwright, from episode 2) arrives at the prison, Tina (played by Pemberley's Anna Maxwell-Martin) immediately feels something isn't right about him.  She's called away to escort another inmate to the sick bay, and tells her co-worker that Stephen needs to be watched and classified as mentally ill.  When she arrives back, she immediately checks on Stephen, and discovers he's committed suicide.  While she and her co-worker initially tell their superior and the boy's family that they didn't notice anything odd about his behavior, Tina eventually decides that she must tell the truth about what happened.  This will expose not only her, but also her co-worker, to disciplinary action -- which the co-worker wants to avoid at any cost.

I can't say Accused is exactly an uplifting series. You watch each episode with a rising sense of dread as you try to figure out just what the main character has done to land himself or herself on trial.  As events spiral out of control, it's increasingly depressing to watch a series of bad decisions turn the situation from bad to worse.   Still, it's fascinating to see how the characters get themselves into trouble and what happens once they are on trial.  The set also contains a "behind the scenes" feature where the producer, director and writer discuss the making of the series.  I especially liked the interview with the writer, Jimmy McGovern, who said he was inspired to write the series by cases he knew where people were serving life in prison for simply being "at the wrong place at the wrong time."  He particularly mentions the case of someone doing life for "using his cell phone at the wrong time."  Sadly, he doesn't elaborate, although I'm sure that's a case we'd all like to know more about!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Accused from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Accused:   Four Gherkins, for being a step-by-step look at how ordinary people can find themselves on the wrong side of the law

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Words to strike fear into the heart of any killer

DCI Vera Stanhope (played by the wonderful Brenda Blethyn) is still barking orders and driving her old Land Rover as head of the Northumberland and City CID in the newly released Set 4 of Vera.  She's ably assisted by a gang of dedicated cops, including DS Joe Ashworth, DC Rebecca "Shep" Shepherd and the put-upon and under-appreciated DC Kenny Lockhart.  Also, there's a hunky new pathologist, Marcus Summer (who quickly catches Shep's eye). Set 4 includes 4 episodes that were originally broadcast in the spring of this year.

Episode one, On Harbour Street, draws the attention of the police more quickly than most cases.  DS Ashworth is taking the train home with his young daughter Jessie when she becomes upset that an elderly lady is still sitting on the train when all the other passengers have gotten out.  She goes to wake the lady, only to discover she's dead.  It turns out that the lady in question, Margaret Kraszewski, has been stabbed.  Margaret lived in an old boarding house by the seaside and spent most of her time working with the local women's shelter.  An old photo of a young Margaret with some people from the village might hold the clue to her murder, but Vera's having a hard time tracking down all the players.  When a skeleton is discovered buried on an island not far from the boarding house, it looks like there are lots of secrets to be discovered.

Protected, the second episode, also concerns secrets from the past that are about to be exposed.  David Kenworthy is found gravely injured on the beach on the night of his father's big retirement party.  He dies before the ambulance arrives, and Vera sets out to discover why he's out wandering along the seafront and not at his father's party.  The elder Kenworthy is the owner of a big property development and management company, and David is set to take over.  The other son, Tom, has no interest in the business, and daughter Lorna is estranged from the family.  A man who runs the local arcade seems to have a grudge against the Kenworthy family, because in 1977 his son was killed by a fall from their roof.  He was suspected of being a burglar, but his father never believed that.  Still, it gives him a motive for seeking revenge.  Vera and her team are able to discover that Lorna had recently been in contact with David again, and also that the company was apparently running a scam by renting public housing to deceased people in order to collect money on ramshackle properties.  So many motives.  Good thing Vera has a dedicated crew ready to carry out her research requests, no matter how vague!

In the third episode, the Deer Hunters, Vera must go back to a world she knows very well:  that of poaching.  Her father wasn't opposed to doing some poaching in his day, and frequently took young Vera along.  So when the body of a man is found with a shotgun wound to the chest on the grounds of
the stately Peyton House, it looks as though he might have been interrupted in the act of poaching -- especially when pellets of food used to attract wildlife are found near the body.  Two teenage siblings, Saskia and Louis, find the body while 4-wheeling and immediately contact their mother, who works on the estate.  In fact, most of their family is employed by the estate.  Their grandfather is the gamekeeper and their aunt is married to the owner.  The dead man, Shane Thurgood, is a local man who had moved away years ago but recently come back when he inherited some property from his grandfather.  The mystery surrounding his death deepens when the burned out truck belonging to local ne'er-do-well Linus Campion is found not far from where the dead man was discovered.  Are the two crimes connected?  And why did Shane, who couldn't wait to leave the area, pull out of the sale of his grandfather's property -- a sale that would have solved his considerable financial problems?

Death of a Family Man, the final episode, concerns a man with an extremely complicated personal life.  John Shearwood is found floating in the river, and at first it seems like his death might be a suicide.  His shoelaces are tied together, which would have prevented him from swimming to safety if he changed his mind after jumping.  His injuries don't seem consistent with suicide, even if he did die by drowning.  His family, including wife Stella and brother Luke, insist the dead man can't be John, since he is in Dublin attending a conference.  They soon discover it is indeed him, and Vera sets to investigating his life. It turns out he was working with an agent from Revenue and Customs about a scam involving illegal liquor being run by one of his employees.  He also had a flat in town (in addition to his country house, where his family lived) which seems curiously un-lived in.  The investigators wonder where he was spending time if not in the flat, but that question is answered when a nosy neighbor makes an appearance and says the dead man is "Gemma's fiance."  John Shearwood seemed to be planning a new life with another woman, which comes as news to Vera, since his wife is saying that everything was fine between them.  John also was having financial problems, so there are plenty of places to look for reasons someone would want him dead.  At the same time, Vera seems to have caught the eye of an admirer.

It's great to see Vera up to her old self.  She likes a drink and is forever using her motherly, unassuming manner to put suspects at ease.  It was fun to see her frequently pulling food from her pockets and offering it to various people as she questions them.  Poor Kenny still seems to get the majority of the grunt work and the least recognition for his work, but he carries on.  I also enjoyed how the four episodes were tied together, with occasional references to things that had happened in previous episodes.  I see that there is a fifth season of Vera in the works, so I'm happy that we'll get more time with her and her team (and hopefully, the hunky Dr. Summer!).

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Vera: Set 4 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Vera: Set 4: Four Gherkins, for being the welcome return of a dedicated officer who always gets her suspect

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