Monday, February 9, 2015

Did you lock your house? Doesn't matter

Did you change your house keys when you moved in?  You will definitely consider doing so after
reading A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan.  William Heming is a real estate agent who prides himself on his unremarkability.  People never remember him, which suits Mr. Heming just fine.  He has worked his way up to owning the agency, and he's very successful.  This is useful to him, not just financially, but because it allows him increased opportunities to pursue his greatest hobby.  Mr. Heming keeps all the keys from the properties he sells.  He watches the new homeowners to determine their habits, and when he's sure the properties are empty, he lets himself in for a leisurely snoop around.  He often takes meals in some of his "favorite" properties.  He never gets caught, but surely the possibility is part of the thrill.


While observing one of "his properties," he sees a married man who seems to be having a fairly intimate meeting with an attractive young woman.  He becomes obsessed with finding out if they are having an affair.  Soon, he is infatuated with the woman, Abigail, and determines to somehow get her away from the cheating husband.

Abigail's property isn't one of "his" so he comes up with a daring plan to get her key so he can copy it and explore her home.  He eventually achieves this, even hiding at the home when she's there (to better observe her routines).  Unfortunately, he miscalculates during one of his explorations, and this requires him to go to extraordinary lengths to keep his secrets from being exposed.  

William is certainly a fascinating character.  In telling his story, we get glimpses into his childhood which help to explain why he is the warped person he is today.  Odd as he is, he seems to appear "normal" because he has no problem in attracting female attention (when he's not trying to be invisible, that is!).  Still, the ladies would do well to steer clear of this character, and certainly not to ever try to beat him at his own game . . .

I really enjoyed the events leading up to the conclusion, but when Heming was under pressure, his attempts to cover his tracks and mislead investigators got a bit confusing.  It was certainly an interesting premise, and the deluded character of Mr. Heming (who keeps telling himself that he only wants to observe, not cause any harm) is a memorable one.  This would make an interesting film -- one that would surely inspire a great deal of unease about what may be going on in your home after you leave for the day.

Final Verdict for A Pleasure and a Calling: Three Gherkins, for being a creepy look at the activities of a less-than-benign invisible man

Monday, February 2, 2015

Superlatives abound

Any book about London is OK by me, so I was thrilled to find this little gem of a book on my most recent visit last November (although the shop where I found it, The Book Warehouse, is sadly apparently closing soon -- if it hasn't already).  The London Book of Lists includes (according to the subtitle) "fascinating facts, little-known oddities, & unique places to visit."  It's always nice to find a book about London that presents facts in an interesting way, and this book certainly fits the bill!

The book isn't really divided into categories -- one interesting page of facts simply follows the next, although there is a "Fast Fact" of fascinating information on nearly every page.  My favorite of these is the fact that the Duke of Westminster offered to sell the US the land that the American Embassy is located on, if the US would return the land his family lost in the Revolutionary War.  The US didn't take him up on the offer, since this mainly encompassed the state of Tennessee.  It might have made for an interesting geographic feature if it had worked out!

Some of my favorite lists include "Who's Buried Where," an overview of the major cemeteries and the famous inhabitants to be found within; "Infamous Murders and their Locations," proving Jack the Ripper doesn't have a monopoly on gruesome murder sites; and "The 15 Oldest Stores" still operating in London (the oldest dates from 1676).

The book is packed full of fascinating facts and information, but there are also plenty of lists that are subjective, such as "London's Best Markets" or "The Best Fish and Chip Shops."  Still, it gives you a background on the places mentioned, as well as addresses to look them up on your next visit.  I also enjoyed the "first person accounts" included of such things as the plague and Victorian-era slums.  It's one thing to read a modern perspective of terrible places and events, and quite another to re-live them through the eyes of those who were there.

Plenty of statistics are also to be found, including those involving the Underground, The River Thames, and Westminster Abbey.  Along with the numerous photos (all in black and white), this book is a handy and fascinating look at all aspects of London.  The disclaimer by the authors at the front of the book states that they have done their best to compile the facts in the book -- even when older claims are hard to verify or sources disagree.  They invite comments on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, so we can hope this means that if there is enough interest there might be an updated and expanded second edition sometime it the near future!

Final Verdict for London Book of Lists:  Five Gherkins, for being a fun and useful look at some of the more unusual aspects of the capital

Friday, January 30, 2015

A beautiful stately home, but at what price?

I'm sure everyone who watches Downton Abbey dreams of living in such a beautiful and historic home (generally upstairs, rather than downstairs!).  As we know from countless television dramas, however, the beautiful stately home can hide terrible secrets.  The book Black Diamonds looks at the intriguing background of Wentworth House in South Yorkshire, the largest privately owned house in Britain.  The book contains a many intriguing aspects:  an aristocratic family with secrets, a class divide, economic upheavals, and even an American connection!

Built in the 1720s, the house is the ancestral home of the Earl of Fitzwilliam and at the time of its construction, the facade was the longest in Europe.  The five miles of passageways were so confusing that guests had to strew confetti to find their back back to their bedrooms after dinner.  The events in the book begin with the inheritance struggle that occurred in 1902 following the death of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam.  His son and heir had died in 1876, so grandson Billy, who was estranged from the family, inherited, much to the dismay of the old Earl's children.  Billy's Aunt Alice, in particular, set out to prove that the odd circumstances surrounding his birth (in a remote cabin in Canada) must show that he was a "changling" -- a male child substituted for a daughter born to the heir.  Eventually, Billy was declared the rightful heir and took up residence at Wentworth House.

The wealth of the Fitzwilliams was based on coal.  Their mines and others in the area employed over 115,000 men at the time of the 6th Earl's death.  While the "family owned" mines, such as those operated by the Earl, had better conditions than most, the lives of the miners and their families were hard, dirty and poverty-filled.  To make matters worse, some of the mines were operated by outsiders who had no ties to the local area or the people who lived there.  They controlled every aspect of the lives of their employees, who depended on the mine owners not only for their employment but also for housing, food and drink (through company owned stores and pubs).  When the owners refused to pay miners in the small village of Denaby for the time they had to clear away dirt from the mines in order to get to the coal, the miners refused to work.  Eventually, the mine owners sent in the police to evict over 3000 people from their company-owned (but still shoddy and primitive) homes.  In the years following Billy's inheritance, the country was torn by a series of strikes across many industries.  The King and House of Lords were slow to accept that their way of life was changing and that workers were no longer going to accept such poor working and living conditions.

In 1912, King George V and Queen Mary visited Wentworth House.  The plan was for the king to visit one of the Fitzwilliam mines, and to show an interest in the lives of the miners.  During the visit, two explosions occurred in a local mine, killing over 80 miners.  While the royal couple did visit the area during the effort to recover the bodies of those who died, nothing changed in the mining industry.  World War I stopped the growing hostilities between the workers and the mine owners for a time.

Billy's cousin, Toby Fitzwilliam, was also estranged from the family.  In his case his mother, Evie, strongly objected to his marriage with Beryl Morgan.  A former chorus girl herself, Evie had no right to put on airs and reject Toby's lower class choice for a wife, but that's exactly what she did.  She felt that Beryl misrepresented herself as being from a "good" family, when in fact she was only "the daughter of a draper."  Evie grew so upset at the perceived insult from her son that she even suggested that he was illegitimate -- born before she and his father were married.  In this way, she hoped her younger son would inherit from his father instead of the disrespectful (as she saw it) Toby. This family rift was to have consequences for the fate of Wentworth House many years in the future.

After World War I, the old animosity between miners and mine owners resurfaced.  There were calls to nationalize the mines, which the mine owners strenuously fought against.  Fear of Bolshevism as well as a perceived war on their way of life motivated the mine owners and operators to stand firm against the miners.  General strikes in the late 1920s caused unease and fear in the whole country.  At the same time, demand for British coal was falling as other countries were able to provide a less expensive product.

Billy and his wife Maud were the parents of four daughters before their son and heir, Peter was born. There were rumors of infidelity on the part of both Billy and Maud, and Billy was thought to have numerous illegitimate children in the village.   Peter was a pampered, overweight child who was nothing like his robust and athletic father.  In 1933, when he was 23, Peter married Olive "Obby" Plunket.  During World War II, stately homes were requisitioned by the government for various uses, and Wentworth House was no different.  Since it was so large, Billy and Maud moved into the "West Front," part of the house and made sure all valuable objects were moved there as well.  Their son Peter had been called up soon after war was declared and was recognized as a brave and respected soldier.  He and Olive had, after 7 years of marriage, only one child, a daughter called Juliet.

Enter Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy, daughter to US Ambassador Joe Kennedy and sister to future president John F. Kennedy.  She had lived in England with her family in the late 1930s, but as World War II began to seem inevitable, she and her siblings, along with their mother, returned to the US.  In 1943, she came back to England as a Red Cross volunteer.  She renewed an attachment she made before the war, to another Billy, this one the son of the Duke of Devonshire.  They were attracted to each other, but the fact that she was a commoner (not to mention a Catholic) had put a damper on their relationship.  Eventually, they married, but her family never accepted the union.  When Billy was killed during the war, she was accepted back into the Catholic Church and the Kennedy family.

The war had taken a toll on Wentworth House and the Fizwilliam family.  The newly elected Labour government nationalized the coal industry, which meant that the rich coal seams in the gardens and fields surrounding the stately home could be mined with no payment or consideration to the family.  The environmentally destructive "open-cast mining" operation dug up centuries of carefully tended parkland. The 7th Earl, Billy, had died, and Peter took over as the 8th, but the family wealth and power were waning.  There was wrangling over the ownership of the house, with Peter offering it to the National Trust, but that offer fell through.  Eventually, his Aunt Mabel struck a deal to allow the house to be used as a school for female PE teachers, with the family allowed to stay in their private apartments.  The cost of repairs and upkeep would fall to the County Council.

At this time, Peter, the 8th Earl Fitzwilliam met the widowed Kick.  He was still married to his wife Obby, but their time spent apart during the war had caused their relationship to become strained.  He had a well-known reputation as a gambler and philanderer, so Kick's friends were less than impressed with the relationship.  Once again, her family (especially her mother) threatened a complete break if she were to marry Peter.  A tragedy occurred that put Wentworth House in the center of a court battle, the outcome of which has repercussions to this day.

It was so fascinating to read about the history of this beautiful house, which, because it is not open to the public, is largely unknown.  While we like to think we'd love to live in such opulent surroundings, the toll on the land and families who lived there make it more of a tragic house than a beloved stately home.  I really enjoyed reading about the downfall of the Fitzwilliam family, and to learn about what has been the fate of Wentworth House since the fortunes of the family and the coal industry, which supported it, have collapsed.  Now in private hands, one can only hope that at some point in the future Wentworth House will be opened for the public to tour and appreciate.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Black Diamonds from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

That Jane Austen sure gets around

Poor Jane Austen never lived such an exciting life until after she'd been dead a few centuries!  The book First Impressions had a Jane-centered mystery at its heart, traveling back and forth in time between Jane's time and the present.

A young Jane meets the 80 year old Rev. Richard Mansfield and delights to discover that he is someone she can discuss literary subjects with.  They spend a great deal of time together and Jane shares her literary ambitions with him.  She's been busy with a work called "Elinor and Marianne" that she lets Rev. Mansfield and her family read as she completes each section.  She hasn't yet attempted to get anything published, so she's somewhat thrilled to learn that Rev. Mansfield has published a book entitled "A Little Book of Allegorical Stories."  Talking with Jane gets Rev. Mansfield thinking about putting out a second edition of his work.

In the present day, Sophie Collingwood has just graduated from Oxford and finds herself at something of a loose end.  She loves literature (and Jane Austen in particular), but she's not really sure what sort of job that will lead to.  As a bibliophile, she's had the great fortune to grow up in a stately home, Bayfield House, with an enormous library.  Unfortunately, her father keeps the library and the books locked up except for occasions when there are special visitors to the house.  Luckily, his brother Bertram is a fellow book lover who takes a special interest in Sophie.  She makes frequent visits to Bertram's London flat, and he takes her with him as he visits bookstores and book sales in the capital (shouldn't we all be so lucky to have such a doting uncle!).  Since he must agree to any disposition of property at Bayfield House, he has so far successfully blocked his brother's attempts to sell off books from the library to pay for repairs to the family home.

One day, when Sophie is visiting her parents at Bayfield, there is terrible news.  Her beloved Uncle Bertram has fallen down the stairs and died.  Sophie is devastated, and can barely function for a while.  When she does finally accept the news, she learns that Uncle Bertram has left his London flat to her.  She is sad to live there under such unhappy circumstances, but consoles herself with the knowledge that she'll be in a place she loved, surrounded by her uncle's beloved books.  When she arrives in London to take possession of the flat, she's dismayed to discover that all the books have already been sold -- her uncle's will didn't specify that the books belonged to her, only the flat, so her father has sold the books to help pay Bertram's debts.

Because Sophie had accompanied her uncle on his many book-buying jaunts, she is a familiar face to the booksellers of London.  She is offered a job as an assistant in a bookstore she used to visit with her uncle.  Not long after she starts working there, she's stunned when two separate buyers contact her and ask her to locate a specific book for them: the 2nd edition of Rev. Mansfield's "A Little Book of Allegorical Stories."  One of the potential buyers is the charming and handsome Winston Godfrey.  The other one, who only ever reaches her by phone, is the sinister and threatening George Smedley.  Both are desperate to get their hands on this book, which doesn't seem to exist, but Sophie has no idea why.

Sophie begins a relationship with the hunky buyer, Winston, while at the same time having feelings for Eric Hall, an American she met briefly before he left to tour the continent.  Eric continues to send her postcards and gifts, but Sophie has a hard time carrying a torch for him with the gorgeous Winston much nearer to hand.

As Sophie attempts to figure out the mystery of the Mansfield book, she begins to suspect her Uncle Bertram's death might not have been an accident.  Could her life also be in danger?  I enjoyed the story and the shifting time perspectives.  It was a bit disturbing that Sophie went around during her investigations stealing anything she thought might help her in her quest.  I found it a bit hard to believe that the bookstores and archives she pilfered from didn't at least have some cameras or alarms in place to watch over some of their valuable and irreplaceable property.  Surely the story could have moved along with wholesale theft!  Still, it was an interesting story and I enjoyed the build-up of suspense as we learned why everyone wanted the second edition of the book -- not to mention which of Sophie's suitors she would end up with.

Final Verdict for First Impressions: Three Gherkins, for being an interesting historical mystery

Monday, January 26, 2015

Bloom where you're planted

It's difficult to stay on a budget when every day we are bombarded with images of glamorous celebrities who are living fabulous lives.  We are encouraged to spend, spend, spend if we ever want to be as beautiful, happy and fulfilled as the celebrities would have us believe they are.  The author of Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life, Ruth Soukup, spent many years trying to buy happiness, only to realize that this behavior merely increased her desire for more useless objects.  She finally decided to embrace the things that are important in life while at the same time appreciating what she has and living a good life.

The book is divided into two sections (the Living Well and Spending Less of the title) and each chapter is designated as a "secret."  Some of the secrets include "Less Stuff Equals More Joy" and "Saving is a State of Mind."  Each chapter ends with a challenge designed to review the "secret" and to give the reader exercises to reinforce the message.  The author also uses Biblical teachings to illustrate her ideas.

The first half of the book is all about appreciating the gifts you already have, especially the non-material ones. The reader is also encouraged to use whatever personal talents he or she may have instead of wasting time and energy envying the talents of others.  I especially liked her advice to avoid books/TV shows/magazines/people who make you feel inferior and drive the need to spend your way to happiness.  The second half of the book gives plenty of ideas on how to curb your spending so that you can get control of your finances.  Her advice includes ways to reduce spending (illustrated by her own experiences with a "radical" 30 day spending freeze), how to establish a budget, and recipes for cleaning products using things you probably already have around the house.

I enjoyed reading this book because of the down-to-earth, chatty style of the author. Ms. Soukup is also more than willing to point out her many failings and challenges as she struggles with "stuff-itis" and attempts to reign in her spending.  She also gives plenty of positive messages (from her own life) such as "it's OK to quit" and "bloom where you are."  It took a crisis in the author's own marriage before she was able to take a hard look at her life and what she was valuing to make her realize what was most important.  She started a blog with the same title of the book when, on being put on a strict budget by her husband, she turned her energies into trying to save money on food so she'd have more to spend on shoes!  While this worked for a while, eventually she sheer amount of "stuff" in her house (which never fulfilled her) made her re-think her priorities.  While most of the advice in the book is probably common sense, hearing about how someone else struggles to control her spending makes the shopaholic in all of us feel a bit better about our own most recent "lapse!"

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Living Well, Spending Less from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Don't let the number of forks perplex you

It used to be that you could consult Emily Post or your own grandmother on the ins and outs of manners.  But the Internet, social media and other aspects of modern life have opened up new areas where the old rules no longer apply.  The book Modern Manners gives advice on how to navigate your way properly through society -- both IRL and online.  The book is written by Dorothea Johnson, founder of The Protocol School of Washington (which teaches "Etiquette and Protocol Intelligence"), and her granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler.

The book is divided into sections such as "On the Job," "Electronic Communications" and "Dining Skills."  Each area is covered in detail, and there are plenty of "dos" and "don'ts" and lots of illustrations.  It seems as if Ms. Johnson, the etiquette expert, has written the bulk of the book, with occasional comments from Ms. Tyler on the topics, usually put at a bubble at the end of a page.

I really liked the detailed information and illustrations on such things as what constitutes "business dress" and how handshakes should be offered in different countries.  All the same, most of the "advice" falls into the blindingly obvious category.  For instance, in the section on traveling on public transportation, we are reminded to keep up with our children, not to smoke, not to allow luggage to block the aisle and to offer a seat to pregnant ladies.  If people need to be told these things, I doubt they'd take much heed of etiquette advice!  Some of the social networking rules are a bit strange, too.  For instance, "don't provide a running commentary of an event you're attending" on Twitter.  Since most conferences I've attended encourage this very thing, that advice seems questionable.  The author also advises against "watching or searching for porn on YouTube" as "it might prompt a visit from the police."  I would think that anything objectionable would be first of all removed from YouTube by the site administrators, and secondly if the police visit anyone, surely it would be the one who was responsible for posting it (if it contained illegal images).

Still, there is some good information in the book, particularly the section on how to properly eat various foods in public.  If you've ever wondered whether or not you should be dunking your donuts, this book will provide the answer!  In these days of increasing informality, it's good to sit back and review the rules of civility.  Everyone can use a lesson in how to conduct oneself in social settings from time to time, and if you follow the advice in this book, you'll save yourself some embarrassment!

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bad wives need not apply

The title of the book How to be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman comes from a book that Marta, the main character, was given by her mother-in-law upon her marriage.  Marta is a troubled and troublesome woman, highly strung and difficult to get along with.  Her behavior has been kept in check by an unnamed "medication" that her husband Hector administers to her regularly.  Lately, however, Marta has been spitting out the tablets when Hector isn't looking, and the result is that she is transformed from the previously docile and compliant "good wife" into a woman who experiences hallucinations and exhibits unusual behavior.

Marta and Hector have been married for many years and live in an unnamed country (although the clues seem to point to Norway -- lots of mentions of fjords).  Marta is in her early 40s, and Hector is 20 years older.  They have one child, a son named Kylan who has recently moved out and plans to marry is live-in girlfriend, Katya.  The thought of her son leaving home (and being permanently left alone with her husband) fills Marta with a sense of panic, even though Hector seems to be nothing but kind and considerate of his wife's wild mood swings and unpredictable behavior.

When questioned about how they met, Marta can't remember but Hector tells the story of how he saved her from drowning at a holiday beach spot.  When he found her, she was malnourished, and her hair was matted.  She knew that her parents were dead but nothing else about her past.  Since her marriage, she has devoted herself to her family and to being "a good wife."  She travels no further than the local village to shop for food and spends most of her days cleaning and preparing meals for her family.

Since Marta decided to stop taking her medication, without anyone's knowledge, she has been seeing a young blond girl in and around the house.  The girl seems to be in some sort of danger, but Marta has a hard time figuring out where the danger is coming from, especially since the girl vanishes whenever Marta seems to get close to her.  Marta's odd behavior isn't going unnoticed by her family, but they only express concern for her well-being.

As Marta experiences longer and longer visions of the blond girl, her own memories of the past begin to surface.  Is Marta in danger as well?  I really enjoyed trying to figure out what was real and what was a figment of Marta's illness as the story progressed.  It was somewhat claustrophobic as poor Marta rattled around her house polishing yet another surface while stopping occasionally to observe the blond girl and her predicament.  I wish the book had an epilogue to further explore what happened after the events in the book, but since it doesn't, it leaves the reader with a lot to think about!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of How to be a Good Wife from the publisher in exchange for this review

Final verdict for How to be a Good Wife: Four Gherkins, for being a thought-provoking look at the life of a troubled woman