Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Brouhaha in the Belfry

Bouncer the dog and Maurice the cat are back again trying to keep their master, the Rev. F.O. Oughterard, out of trouble in Suzette A. Hill's book Bones in the Belfry, the second in the series featuring the characters. In the previous book, A Load of Old Bones, Rev. Oughterard was placed in a precarious position by a rather rash crime he committed. It was up to Bouncer and Maurice, who alternated telling the tale with the vicar, to keep him out of prison.

All of the characters are back in this version, with the vicar once again in hot water. Due to his fumbling attempts at covering up his crime in the last book, he'd had to call on an acquaintance from his past, the shifty Nicholas Ingaza, for an alibi. Nicholas complied, but felt that he was due something in return. This book begins with Nicholas depositing two large, hideously ugly paintings with the Reverend "for the time being." The two paintings are soon in the news as being very valuable and (naturally) stolen.

The Reverend must attempt to hide the paintings until they are claimed again. After a great struggle, they are deposited in the belfry, but the arrival of mystery novelist Maud Tubbly Pole puts an end to that hiding place. She wants a tour of the belfry as research for her upcoming novel. The Reverend then takes the paintings to his sister's house for safekeeping, but she is also an artist and ends up inadvertently donating one of the paintings to a charity event.

The rest of the novel is a narration of the Reverend desperately attempting to get the painting back, as well as offload them on Nicholas again as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the cat and dog do little more than narrate in this book. They do manage to head off another of Ms. Tubbly Pole's tour requests: to visit the site of the crime from the earlier novel. Other than that small service, however, they are relegated to spectators in this novel.

I preferred the first novel in the series, due to the dog and cat having more to do. This book had some comic episodes, but I felt it was a bit too outlandish in its resolution. Still, when you're reading a book featuring narration from a dog and a cat, I suppose you have to be prepared to suspend disbelief for a while.

Final Verdict for Bones in the Belfry: Two Gherkins, for being an enjoyable, if somewhat inferior sequel

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Keep that leg cold

Don't you just hate it when you are out in the woods on a "team building exercise" and you inadvertently step in a bear trap? That will surely ruin your day. Bear traps are just one hazard that the employees of Palisade Defense encounter in the British horror film Severance.

The seven employees have been sent to a lodge somewhere in Eastern Europe (could be Hungary, could be Serbia) to engage in activities meant to improve their working relationship and productivity. The seven include a variety of stereotypical characters: the ineffective boss who's anxious not to offend; the druggy slacker; the hot blond chick; the nerdy uptight girl (who looks like a cross between Velma from Scooby-Doo and Sonia from Eastenders); the smarmy suckup, etc.

The group is going along in a bus toward the lodge when they are stopped by a tree across the road. There is a crossroad nearby, but the bus driver claims to have heard bad things about what goes on "down there" and refuses to take that road. The boss talks everyone into abandoning the bus and walking to the lodge on the "shortcut." Why, once they were on foot, they couldn't just climb over the tree and continue on to their final destination was not clear. Anyway, they eventually arrive at a run down building that they assume must be the lodge.

Things get weird the first night when smarmy-suckup-guy "finds" a pie and serves it up to his co-workers, one of which finds what appears to be a human tooth in his first bite. Things only get worse from there. During a team-building paintball exercise, one of the group encounters the bear trap, and things just get worse from there on out.

It seems there is a group of former mercenaries who have escaped being hunted down and killed by forces using equipment from our old friends Palisade Defense. Helpfully, the bus the group travels on had the big Palisade logo on the back, so the deranged killers have no problem identifying their next targets.

What makes this film a bit different from other horror films are the occasional flashes of humor and odd situations that occur. The film has been compared to Shaun of the Dead, and while not as good, it does have similarities. Several of the employees meet grisly ends, as do some attackers (how many of them were able to hide out in the woods, anyway?).

Overall, the film was enjoyable, if somewhat predictable. The gore wasn't terribly overdone and there were some giggles throughout.

Final Verdict for Severance: Three Gherkins, for being an amusing slasher-flick

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I have tasted many a heart

Jane Austen is in the news once again with new theories about the cause of her death. She and Edgar Allan Poe apparently were suffering from so many diseases that it's amazing they lived as long as they did! The latest theory is that poor Jane was done in by tuberculosis caught from cattle. Stranger things have happened, I suppose!

Jane Austen's characters remain a fertile ground for modern authors to manipulate. Who knew that zombies roamed the land in 19th century rural England? Poor Elizabeth Bennet had enough problems with her wild sisters, genteel poverty and uppity suitors without throwing in the added difficulties of zombie hoards roaming the countryside. Still, that is what she has to contend with in the imaginative novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

The story of Lizzy Bennet and her four sisters remains the same (the elder sisters calm and in search of suitable marriage partners, the younger silly things in pursuit of flirtations with soldiers). In this instance, however, all have studied the "deadly arts" for many years in China under the tutelage of Master Liu. As their home area is overrun by a plague of zombies, their expertise in dispatching the unmentionables is frequently put into action.

At the same time, there are the social niceties of balls, visits and letter-writing to be attended to. Every social outing is fraught with the possibility of zombie attack, but Elizabeth is just as likely to attempt to decapitate non-zombies who annoy her. In this sense alone, there is a great improvement on the original novel -- the women of the book are literally more powerful than the men for once.

There are also the usual scandals and misunderstandings which result in lovers being united and parted in sometimes amusing ways. Poor, foolish Lydia is given a suitable punishment for disgracing the family by eloping with a soldier.

As amusing as the novel was, my favorite part came at the very end in the form of a "Reader's Discussion Guide." Those questions were hilarious! My favorite: "Some critics have suggested that the zombies represent the authors' views toward marriage -- an endless curse that sucks the life out of you and won't die. Do you agree . . . ?" All in all, the book was a very funny and enjoyable take on the beloved Jane Austen novel.

Final Verdict for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Four Gherkins, for being an amusing update on a classic novel

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Deja vu all over again

Inspired by the excellent Horror, Etc. podcast, I decided to investigate some new horror films. Halloween had just passed, and, as always, I felt a bit let down by the anemic horror offerings on cable TV. I mean, honestly, SyFy, "31 Days of Halloween" programming should not include repeated showings of "The Ghost Whisperer." That's all I'm sayin'. So anyway, I decided to see what juicy new offerings might be available on Netflix. I was quite thrilled to run across something called "The Brøken" which had been part of a series of films called "8 Films to Die For." Sounds thrilling, no? And it's set in London, so even more bonus points in the film's favor. Sadly, this film didn't live up to its hoped-for promise.

Gina McVey is a radiologist working in London. One day while standing on the sidewalk, she is started to see herself drive by. Shocked, she follows "herself" and eventually becomes involved in a horrific car crash. After the crash, she feels as if something is not right with many of the people in her life. Her boyfriend is suddenly acting creepy, her father is not behaving as he used to, and to make matters worse, mirrors keep crashing to the floor around her.

The story is promising and there are a few brief scary moments, but mostly the film is tediously slow. We are treated to repeated slow motion flashbacks of the car crash. And I mean REPEATED. The only thing I can surmise is that this special effect cost a packet, so by god, the director was going to get his money's worth.

It took absolute ages for anything to happen. There were lots of scenes of people looking into mirrors for prolonged periods, which is relevant to the story, but didn't have to take up so much of the film to get the point across. What was really frightening was the emaciated figure of the lead actress, Lena Headey. I did shudder every time her jutting bones swayed into view. I do, however, envy her long and graceful neck. If it takes starvation to get one of those, though, I guess I'll just have to learn to live without.

On the bright side, there was one aerial flyover of the Gherkin. It had absolutely nothing to do with the story, but it was one bright spot in an otherwise dreary film.

Final verdict for The Brøken: One Gherkin, for being an extremely slow and not very scary horror film

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Finally, the cat ISN't the villian!

A cat, a dog and a vicar walk into the English countryside . . . no, this isn't the start of a (hopefully) bawdy joke, but rather the characters and setting of the book A Load of Old Bones by Suzette A. Hill. The Reverend Francis Oughterard feels he can finally relax. He's been assigned to a church in the small village of Molehill in Surrey in the 1950s. He begins the story with no pets, but that soon changes.

Mrs. Elizabeth Fotherington, one of the vicar's parishioners, makes a none-too-subtle play for the vicar (who only wants to be left in peace). One day, while attempting a quiet stroll in the countryside, the reverend is accosted by the boorish Mrs. Fotherington, who was obviously lying in wait for him. Enraged at having his peace and quiet disturbed, and seeing no way to avoid her future attentions, the reverend proceeds to strangle the offending woman. Thus begin his attempts to distance himself from both the woman and the crime. This becomes very difficult when it is shown that Mrs. Fotherington has left the reverend a very tidy sum in her will, despite having known him for only a brief time.

Maurice, Mrs. Fotherington's spoiled cat, is not really sorry to see her go, but he is a bit worried about how this turn of events will affect him (in true cat fashion). After sizing up his options, he decides that moving in with the reverend is the best option. He does this while the reverend is away on his holidays (conveniently scheduled before the unplanned crime), so that by the time the reverend returns, Maurice is already comfortably installed in his house.

Bouncer the dog is owned by Reginald Bowler, the local bank manager. When Mrs. Fotherington turns up dead, Bowler takes advantage of the general upheaval in the village to abscond with a great deal of the bank's money. This leaves Bouncer without a home also. After a few days of sleeping the the graveyard, Maurice convinces him to move in with the vicar, too. Surprisingly, the vicar seems to take the arrival of abandoned pets on his doorstep in stride. I suppose with everything else he has on his plate, a few furry friends are the least of his worries.

The way the novel is structured is very interesting, with each chapter designated as either "The Cat's Memoir," "The Vicar's Version," or "The Dog's Diary," so the reader gets the story from three different points of view. The cat and dog also play a part in helping their new master to cover his tracks after the crime. This is the first in three books (so far), featuring the unusual trio. I'm looking forward to reading the next two to keep up with their adventures!

Final Verdict for A Load of Old Bones: Three Gherkins, for being a light and entertaining mystery featuring some unusual sleuths

Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't even try to say it

I'm very partial to the Kurt Wallander books by Henning Mankell, mainly because, for some reason, they are extremely easy for me to read in Swedish. Having lived in Sweden for 3 years, I did pick up a bit of it, but quite a few authors are just beyond my reading ability. Maybe Mankell writes on the equivalent of a fourth grade level or something . . . . At any rate, I've always viewed them fondly because I can actually understand what's going on in them. I was in no way prepared when he became the father of the whole Scandinavian Crime Novel movement that also includes Steig Larsson, Kjell Ericksson, Liza Marklund, Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum, Camilla Läckberg, etc. etc. It's really amazing that an entire tourist industry has sprung up around the Wallander novels, and Ystad, the southern Swedish city where the books are set -- although I'm sure Ystad is thrilled with all the new visitors.

I was therefore excited to see the series Wallander, based on three
of the novels in the series and starring Kenneth Branagh as the title character. The series was filmed on location and includes some lovely scenery of the coast, town and farmlands. I have to say that Branagh makes for a passable Wallander, although he's still not 100% right. For one thing, stubble aside, he's still much too neat and tidy. I always picture Wallander as being somewhat disheveled. But I suppose that's a small quibble in an otherwise interesting series.

The first story, Sidetracked, concerns the bizarre case of a young girl who runs into a canola field and sets herself on fire in front of Wallander. This is followed up by the discovery of
several murder victims, who are found scalped. The second story, Firewall, begins when two teenage girls brutally murder a taxi driver, seemingly without motive. Wallander soon uncovers a link between one of the girls and a plot to disrupt the global banking system. The final story, One Step Behind, becomes personal when one of Wallander's colleagues is murdered.

As usual, there are some not-exactly-legal events going on, with Wallander deciding to break into apartments and generally go his own way in solving the crimes. He also has problems in his personal life, with an increasingly senile father and a daughter who signs him up for a computer dating service.

I did find the character of Wallander's daughter Linda to be somewhat different than how she was portrayed in the books. In this series, she was smiling, friendly, happy, helpful
, loving and pleasant to be around. In the books she always seemed surly, short-tempered, rude and hostile. I guess the filmmakers felt Wallander had enough on his plate without a hateful daughter to contend with, too!

One other odd thing about this series was the pronunciations. For the most part, they just pronounced the names of people and towns with an English pronunciation. This is understandable and it would have made perfect sense if they had kept that pronunciation all the way through. The inexplicable thing is that they insisted on pronouncing the name of the city, Ystad, as "ooschtad." Very strange. Granted, the "y" sound in Swedish is somewhat difficult for English speakers to imitate, but "stad" is just that -- "stad." There is no "sch" abou
t it. So why add it? Completely unnecessary and baffling. It also sounds very affected and unnatural whenever one of the characters says it.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the series and I hope there are plans to make more English language versions of some of the other novels. The DVD also contains an interesting conversation between Kenneth Branagh and Henning Mankell where they discuss the character and development of Wallander.

Final Verdict for Wallander: Four Gherkins, for being a fairly faithful adaptation of some classic detective stories

Saturday, November 7, 2009

You can't keep a good kitty down

Everyone who is bossed around by a feline will surely recognize many of the situations in the delightful book Simon's Cat by Simon Tofield. The mischievous feline has become an Internet star, thanks to having his adventures documented on his on Youtube channel.

The book contains more delightful antics from the feisty feline. Some of my favorite adventures detailed in the book include trying to force kitty into a pet carrier (not a good idea), playing with the box instead of the intricate and expensive toy, plant chewing (and the results) and playing with his friend the garden gnome. Some of the drawings are absolutely hilarious and really ring true.

There were a few repetitive drawings in the book, such as the cat's attempts to trick birds into thinking his mouth was a birdhouse and sticking things on a hedgehog (?). Those are minor quibbles, though, in an altogether delightful book with an adorable hero.

I'll be anxiously awaiting further adventures from Simon's cat!

Final Verdict for Simon's Cat: Five Gherkins, for being a delightful follow up to the earlier video adventures of an adventurous kitty

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pull me a pint, reverend

The relationship between God and an alcoholic beverage might be a bit startling at first, but the book The Search for God and Guinness by Stephen Mansfield shows that the connection makes perfect sense in this instance. The book begins with a very detailed history of beer itself, even tracing some arguments that state the desire to brew beer contributed to the abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle of early humans. In the early 1700s, when the Guinness family first started brewing beer, the water was undrinkable but gin was cheap and plentiful. Arthur Guinness wanted to provide a drink that would be safer and more nutritious than what was currently available. Because of his deep faith, as his business became successful Guinness became active in social causes, founding Sunday schools and hospitals for the poor. After his death, future generations of the Guinness family continued with socially responsible activities, paying a high wage to workers and providing generous benefits. This example of generosity set the standard for other employers in Dublin and improved living conditions for everyone in the city. The book is written in a chatty, amusing style and the author’s glowing respect for the company is obvious.

A review copy of the book was provided for me from Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The more things stay the same

The years between World Wars I and II are the focus of an enlightening book by Richard Overy titled The Twilight Years. Although Britain as a country hadn't suffered many of the tragedies that had recently befallen other European countries (economic problems, occupation, etc.), there was a pervading sense of doom following World War I. This book examines the causes for the negative outlook between the wars and why the second world war was seen as a test of Western civilization.

The book begins with several helpful explanations, including an overview of the currency then in use, the names and political affiliations of the governments in Britain from 1919 to 1940, and key dates in foreign policy.

The introduction draws many parallels between what was happening then and what is happening in our own turbulent times. Both societies were relatively powerful in the world, had high standards of living and fairly robust economies. Yet there is a deep concern for the future, with many pundits predicting the downfall of the western civilization and way of life.

Overy documents the negative feelings in pre-WWII Britain. During the "Century of Hope" (the 19th century), there was a great deal of optimism about the future. This was followed by the destruction of war, which resulted in something of a general malaise in society and an overall fascination with death. This general negativity was helped along by increasing access to mass communication, which informed the public of all the horrors that the anxious age was producing. Even if people didn't see their own lives as all that bad, they were constantly being given the message that society was headed for a great downfall. This contributed to the general unease that was the hallmark of this period in time. The great thinkers of the age (including H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley) almost welcomed World War II as a test of the validity, resilience and sustainability of modern civilization.

Adding to the societal unease were the rise of ideas such as pacifism, birth control, eugenics and fascism. Radical changes and ideas were part of the general unease fueling the drive toward the inevitability and perhaps the desirability of a new war which would reorder and redefine society.

The book is meticulously researched, with over 100 pages of notes and cited sources. For history buffs, or social critics who want to learn from lessons of the past, The Twilight Years provides a fascinating look at how history can teach us a great deal.

I received a review copy of the book from Katy at Penguin/Viking Publishers.

Final Verdict for The Twilight Years: Four Gherkins, for being a well-researched look at a tumultuous time in British history

The fun never stops!

A few years ago I went to a conference where various topics were being discussed. One topic was London and the moderator was an American who had lived in there for several years. During the session, I mentioned that I'd been to London several times and had seen all the major tourist attractions. I asked if he could recommend something new and exciting for me to do on my next trip? He answered with all the day trips I could take to Oxford, Brighton, etc.

Me: No, no, I mean I want to find some interesting "out of the way" things to do in London.

American who lived in London: What?

So I'm afraid I came away from that session none the wiser about new or different things to do in London. Too bad I hadn't yet discovered 24 Hours London by Marsha Moore. This handy little guide is bursting with interesting, unusual and exciting things to do on your next visit.

The book is arranged in a really interesting way. Since London (like NY, NY) is a city that doesn't sleep, there are numerous things to do at any hour of the day. The book starts at 5:00 am and lists activities which can be done at that time. Each hour of the day has ideas and suggestions for things that are happening at that time. Not all of the activities are time dependent -- some things don't necessarily have to be done at 5:00 am, but others do. Still, if you find yourself at a loose end at 3:00 am one day, it's nice to know there are things that you can be doing so as not to waste valuable tourist time!

Each entry also includes helpful information such as whether it's a family-friendly activity, whether it's an activity centering on food and drink (I've made a note of all those!), or whether it is an activity which has varying hours based on the season. There are also website addresses, contact phone numbers, and nearest tube stops for nearly every activity mentioned.

So, what sort of things could you get up to in London in the wee hours? Well, I'm sure there are plenty of things I'd rather not know about, but the book suggests a visit to Billingsgate fish market, fishing at Clapham Common Pond, a hot air balloon ride over the city, and great places for early morning coffee and/or a full English fry-up!

As if I needed more things to fill my frantic time when in London! This is a wonderful and very handy guide that has already given me loads of ideas about what to do on my next trip. The author, Marsha Moore, blogs and tweets about more things to do when you next find yourself in London. The book is available for $13.95 with free postage worldwide from Prospera Publishers.

Marsha kindly sent me a review copy of the book. I've got shelves full of London guidebooks, but I can honestly say the unique format and content of this one will make it one I turn to again and again!

Final verdict for 24 Hours London: Five Gherkins, for being a new take on guidebooks with many unique suggestions

Monday, November 2, 2009

Dear Santa

Please bring me some new letters for my sign:


. . . and possibly a dictionary



Friday, October 30, 2009

Disco Utopia

Jack the Ripper at large in present day San Francisco? That's the premise behind the time travel movie Time After Time starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. In 1880s London, writer H.G. Wells shows off his newly constructed time machine to several of his friends. They are somewhat skeptical that it will actually work, but when the police appear, one of the men jumps in the time machine and transports himself nearly 100 years into the future. Wells quickly realizes that his former friend, John Leslie Stephenson, must be Jack the Ripper, and that it is his responsibility to catch him.

Wells is somewhat excited about traveling into the future, because he is certain that people will have reached utopia due to continuing development and societal changes. When he arrives in 1979 San Francisco, he is, of course, astounded by all the new inventions that greet him. He is also saddened at the news reports of wars, shootings and violence. Naturally, he has no trouble tracking down the Ripper, and he confronts him in his hotel and attempts to force him to return to Victorian England. Luckily, there happens to be an H.G. Wells exhibit on at a local museum, which includes the time machine as one of the displays. Not surprisingly, the Ripper has no intention of going back. He escapes and continues his murderous deeds.

Wells is assisted in his search for the Ripper by an American bank clerk named Amy.
Unfortunately, the police are no help when he attempts to inform them that he knows the identity of the killer. This is likely due to the fact that when the police ask Wells for his name, he tells them it is Sherlock Holmes. There is some predictable action and some suspense as Wells and Amy close in on the Ripper. Since the film dates from 1979, the special effects are somewhat amusing and consist mostly of flashing lights and colorful swirls as the "time machine" lifts off.

The story is mostly enjoyable, except for the performance of Mary Steenburgen. I've seen her in many film and TV roles, and she's always done a wonderful job but something was clearly amiss here. She looks dozy and speaks in a strange, almost drugged manner. It's very annoying.

At the end of the movie there is a statement which points out that Wells was greatly ahead of his time. In his writings he anticipated many social and technological changes, including space travel and socialism. It's amusing that this film suggests that the reason he knew about those things was that he had visited the future and seen them firsthand!

Final Verdict for Time After Time: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting concept, but a rather dated look

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yellowstone DVD winners!

Yay! I'm happy to have had so many wonderful comments on my Yellowstone: Battle for Life DVD giveaway. I used Random.org to choose the winners and they were:

Marcia

Erin Cook

degood

The winners have all been notified and the DVDs have been mailed out! Thanks again to everyone who participated and I hope to have more giveaways in the future!

On another note, I was saddened to hear today that Barbara Windsor will be leaving Eastenders next year. She's played the part of Peggy Mitchell since 1994 (although she wasn't the original actress cast in the part). It will be interesting to see how she goes out. Hopefully she will run off into the sunset with a young hunk -- and thus be available for some guest appearances in the future!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Not so much Sherlock Holmes as Dear Abby

After finishing the first Maisie Dobbs novel, I was excited to read the second one to continue following her exploits. In Birds of a Feather, Maisie continues her successful detective agency along with help from her assistant Billy Beale.

Maisie is called in by a powerful businessman, Joseph Waite, to discover why his daughter Charlotte is missing. He is a gruff, unpleasant man and doesn't really seem all that concerned about the fate of his daughter. He is more worried about appearances should the story get out.

At the same time, Maisie's police colleague Inspector Stratton is investigating several brutal murders. Maisie investigates the crime scenes and discovers a similar item was left at each: a single white feather. Maisie is then able to link the missing girl and the current murders with events that happened during World War I, when Maisie worked as a nurse. The police, of course, are not at all convinced by Maisie's theory, but she arrives at the truth at last.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. Maisie, apparently buoyed by her success in the case, takes it upon herself to go all preachy, and bestow a great deal of unwanted advice on people who would not realistically take it from her. While the story was a decent enough mystery, the sudden emergence of Maisie as someone who knows how to settle problems for everyone (whether they wanted her advice or not) was a bit unnecessary. Save the preaching for a more appropriate character, Ms. Winspear!

Final Verdict for Birds of a Feather: Two Gherkins, for being a mostly enjoyable visit with an interesting character

Monday, October 26, 2009

An unexpected fortune

Imagine my shock, no -- my jaw-dropping horror-- at the title screen of the program At Home with the Braithwaites (or should that be "Braithwaite's"). According to the title screen, it should be the latter. Horrors! Apparently the convention of just sticking an apostrophe in now and again, no matter whether it is actually needed, is not just an American invention. Or maybe it's some of that American culture that we're so fond of exporting. Whatever the explanation, I was pleased to see that the next 5 episodes had lost the offending apostrophe, and we could get on with concentrating on the events in the series.

And the events are really worth concentrating on. Allison (played by Amanda Redman -- she of the improbable blue eyes) is a kindly mother of three who spends her spare time volunteering at the nursing home. Her husband, David (the usually adorable Peter Davison), is self-important, pompous and having an affair with his divorced secretary. Their three girls all have problems to varying degrees. Virginia, the eldest, is a self-proclaimed lesbian who has just flunked out of university. Second daughter Sarah has written an obscene poem to a supposedly gay teacher, and is being pushed toward counseling. Instead, she drops out of school to work at a convenience store. Youngest child Charlotte is, well, somewhat odd -- always sneaking around, spying, eavesdropping and generally being a creepy nuisance (although for all her spying, she doesn't seem to uncover many of the family's secrets).

Into the midst of all this, Allison wins £38 million on a lottery ticket daughter Charlotte gave her for her birthday. While her family screams and fusses around her, she decides not to tell anyone close to her that she's won. Instead, she hires one of her friends from the nursing home and a sympathetic accountant and starts a charitable organization. Her goal is to invest the winnings, hire staff to help out on specialized tasks, and use the interest the money generates to fund worthy projects.

There are many complications along the way. The local press know that someone in the area has won the big jackpot, and they are closing in on Allison. After her daughter Virginia suffers a crisis, Allison confides her secret and Virginia launches herself on a spending spree. She gets Virginia a "job" at her corporation, but Virginia is more interested in shopping and speeding around in her new Lotus.

In the meantime, middle daughter Sarah leaves home with the unambitious boy-next-door and sets up housekeeping with him in a run-down flat. Her father tries to get her to come back home, but Sarah knows about his secret dalliances with the secretary.

Eventually, all the secrets come boiling out at the same time (and, in true Eastenders fashion, mostly in public). The first series ends with Allison's family now aware of her win, but there are still plenty of questions up in the air -- will her marriage stay intact? Will Sarah remain at home or go back to the boyfriend? Will Virginia put her mechanical skills to work, or continue to be a waster? Will Charlotte's snooping ever uncover anything juicy?

All those questions and presumably more are eventually answered, since this series ran for 4 seasons. Sadly, Netflix only has the first one so far. I'll have to hope Santa makes a stopover by the UK before he delivers my Christmas gifts this year!

Final Verdict for At Home with the Braithwaites: Four Gherkins, for being an intriguing story with plenty of drama and comedy

Friday, October 16, 2009

The beauty and hardship of Yellowstone (and a giveaway!)


The BBC has a worldwide reputation for its high-quality and well-made programs, and now there is a new offering to add to the list. Yellowstone: Battle for Life follows the animals who live in Yellowstone over the course of three seasons. The impact of Winter, Summer and Autumn on the lives of the animals are shown in 3 separate episodes, each lasting 50 minutes. As well as documenting the struggle for survival among species such as bison and elk, the abundance and natural beauty of the landscape are also on display.

Here are two video clips that give a taste of the program:



Elk with some serious horn issues:


The majestic bison:



Thanks to Bridget Murphy Groller from Warner Bros., I have 3 copies of Yellowstone: Battle for Life to give away! To enter, please leave a comment stating whether you have been to Yellowstone. If not, let me know your favorite place to observe nature! The winners will be chosen on Monday, Oct. 26 by random.org. I'll notify the winners by email, who will have 3 days to get back to me before a new winner is drawn. Please be sure your email address is in the comment or on your profile so I can contact you. I'd hate for you to lose out on winning one of these wonderful DVDs!

Good luck!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

OK, so I have a thing for Steve Buscemi

As someone who never met a self-help book she didn't like, I was expecting great things from Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick. Over the course of a year, Lisick reads a book by one self-help guru per month and tries to follow that plan. She is hoping that after a year, she will suddenly have a clean house, a clear direction in life and a magically obedient child. Things don't turn out as planned, though . . .

It was somewhat refreshing to read about someone who needs the self-help more than I do, but it did get tiring after a while. Lisick and her husband live in an apparently not-very-good neighborhood in San Francisco, in a disorganized, disintegrating house. They both apparently decided to give up the security of full-time jobs to "live their dreams" -- in his case, operating a recording studio, in hers, freelance writing (neither of which is very successful in monetary terms). They also have an out of control 4 year old son who refuses to comply with any orders/requests/suggestions that his parents might issue. It doesn't take long for the reader to agree that, yes, this is a woman who needs the help of some help.

For someone with chronic money troubles, Lisick is able to get funds to attend several functions featuring the self-help biggies -- Steven Covey in Chicago, a Richard Simmons "Cruise to Lose," a retreat in San Diego at the "Chopra Center," etc. The problem is that although she can summarize what each person is trying to teach her, she approaches nearly every new book with a sense of skepticism and snarkiness that shows she really has no intention of following through. In other words, most of the efforts are a waste of time.

She felt that Richard Simmons was truly warm, approachable and somewhat mesmerizing, but was less than impressed with the rest of the celebrities. Naturally, during the weight loss cruise, she "didn't really need to lose any weight" but luckily, she had an overweight friend who went on the cruise with her (and slept-in during most of the morning workout sessions). She also seemed to half-heartedly follow through with the organizational suggestions offered by Julie Morgenstern's coach -- buying a few totes and clearing out some broken junk out of drawers and closets. In the end, even that attempt was not really successful. Lisick has the unfortunate solution to junk of "I'll just put it down in the basement," so rather than dealing with problems, she just moves them to another area of the house.

It was interesting to learn, however, that Sylvia Browne says the world only has 95 years left before it self-destructs. Maybe Lisick feels it just won't be worth the effort to straighten out her life if the world is winding down. Still, her overviews of the programs discussed are interesting and the fact that she is a fellow Steve Buscemi fan is also a point in her favor!

Final Verdict for Helping Me Help Myself: Two Gherkins for some interesting overviews of popular self-help books, but a general lack of effort on the part of the author to implement them in her own life

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Fountains of blood and more!

Life in the time of King Henry VIII is as unstable as always, but lawyer Matthew Shardlake is jarred out of his comfortable routine working at the Inns of Court by the murder of his friend Roger Elliard. It turns out to be only one in a series of murders committed in the latest Shardlake mystery Revelation by C.J. Sansom. Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak are further disturbed when they discover that the killer is apparently enacting punishments from the Book of Revelation for his victims. They discover what is happening, how many murders are left, and the probable fate that awaits the victims, but they don't know who the killer is or where he will strike next. Because one of the early victims of the killer had a connection to Lady Catherine Parr, the latest woman to catch King Henry's eye, powerful men induce Shardlake to investigate the killings, but to keep the matter private.

At the same time, Shardlake has been asked to represent a teen aged boy who is being held in Bedlam with religious mania. While trying to track down a deranged killer, Shardlake must make frequent trips to the asylum to monitor the condition and progress of his charge.

The events in Revelation take place around 18 months after the last book in the series, Sovereign, ended and our old friends from the earlier books again play a large part in the story. Barak and Tamasin are now married but are becoming increasingly estranged after a personal tragedy. Guy, now practicing as a doctor, also has some unpleasant experiences with a young apprentice.

I enjoyed this return to the Tudor days of England. As always, there were plenty of details about life at that time, which helped to bring the story to life. There were also many threads which were left dangling for possible future adventures for Shardlake and Barak, so I'm anxiously awaiting the next installment! So far, my favorite book in the series has been Dark Fire, where the two heroes were constantly in perilous situations. The other books have been exciting also, but not as suspenseful.

Final Verdict for Revelation: Four Gherkins, for being an evocative look at a fascinating time in history

Monday, October 5, 2009

My observation would be quiet and not intrusive

One of my favorite books (even though it's not by a British writer) is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The evocative New Orleans setting on Constantinople Street, the hilarious turns of phrase, and the larger-than-life character of Ignatius J. Reilly all come together in a comic masterpiece. I knew that the author had committed suicide at a young age, but I really didn't know much else about him. I was excited to see that several biographies have been published recently, including Ignatius Rising by Rene Pol Nevils & Deborah George Hardy.

John Kennedy Toole was the only child of Thelma and John Toole, born to the couple late in life. Ken, as he was known, quickly became the center of his obsessive mother's life. She was something of an odd character, known in the neighborhood for giving "elocution" lessons and singing and playing the piano for any visitors who might stop by. Mr. Toole, a car salesman, was totally dominated and overshadowed by his overbearing wife. Many people are quoted in the book as saying they had always thought Mrs. Toole was a widow when Ken was growing up. In fact, both parents outlived him.

Ken showed early brilliance (which is mother was eager to tell everyone about) and eventually earned several degrees. His adult life alternated with teaching positions while also working on a Ph.D. at Columbia. While in New York, he enjoyed big-city living, while at the same time feeling an unbearable pull back to New Orleans. His parents were elderly, his father showing signs of dementia, and he was their only means of support. Eventually, he decided to return south and possibly finish his degree there.

Unfortunately, he was unable to accomplish much of anything while living at home with his parents. His mother wanted Ken as a drinking buddy, and refused to allow him private time to write or study. He was rescued from this existence by being drafted. While in the army, he was stationed in Puerto Rico. He seems to have excelled at army life, at least in the beginning. Ken was fluent in Spanish, and was put in charge of a group of college graduates who were teaching the Puerto Rican recruits English. However, there really wasn't much work to do, so it was here, the authors believe, that Ken began writing what would eventually become A Confederacy of Dunces.

Although he dated some women during his high school and college days, the authors believe Ken was homosexual. There were flamboyant homosexuals in the same barracks as Ken, but he was very prudish and tended to remain aloof from them. His personal conflicts ended up costing him much good will, as he delayed in getting help for one of the homosexual soldiers who attempted suicide. After that incident, (although it was not reported in official channels) both Ken and the army lost enthusiasm for each other.

Back home in New Orleans after his army service, Ken started teaching at a private girl's college while living at home with his parents. It was at this time that he sent his manuscript out to Simon & Schuster, with the hopes of getting it published. Simon & Schuster was described as a "small, family-owned publishing house" in 1964. The novel came to the attention of senior editor Robert Gottlieb. There are many letters between Ken and Gottlieb that are included in the book. Gottlieb dithered for over two years over publishing the book. He kept giving vague rejections, such as the fact that the book didn't have "a real point" (this from someone who holds Thomas Pynchon up as a great novelist!) and that he liked the book, but didn't know how to fix it. Ken was alternately encouraged and deflated. Finally, after two years with no progress, Ken asked for the manuscript to be returned. He then placed it on top of his wardrobe, where it remained, more or less, for the rest of his life.

After his bitter disappointment at not getting the book published, Ken began to exhibit signs of mental illness. Whether it was all due to his lack of literary success is debatable, but he eventually withdrew money from his bank account and disappeared. Where he was during the last two months of his life has not been discovered. He was found in his car on March 26, 1969 having committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 32 years old.

His mother, for whom Ken had been the focus of her life, was completely broken by his death. She did not let his death diminish her view that he was one of the most brilliant, talented people who ever lived, however. When she heard that the author Walker Percy would be teaching a class in New Orleans, she showed up at his office with the manuscript and demanded he read it. Thus began the long and tenuous process of getting the book published. Without the single-mindedness and determination of Thelma, A Confederacy of Dunces would never have been published. At the same time, her abrasive personality and martyr complex offended and repelled everyone she dealt with. Even after the book was published (and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize), legal wranglings helped Thelma alienate even more people.

Although I knew a biography of someone who ultimately committed suicide wouldn't be a laugh riot, I was distressed to read just how dysfunctional John Kennedy Toole's life really was. Growing up with an overbearing mother he was unable to ever detach from, conflicted about his sexuality, and unsuccessful as a writer, Ken comes across as a sad and lonely character. Which makes his creation of Ignatius and his world all the more of an amazing achievement.

Final Verdict for Ignatius Rising: Four Gherkins, for providing a fascinating look into the mind of a troubled genius

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A woman ahead of her time

Being a woman of the "working class" during the early part of the 20th century was not an enviable position. There were few opportunities for advancement or recognition of special skills. That is the situation of heroine of Maisie Dobbs, a delightful book by Jacqueline Winspear, finds herself in.

Maisie is an extremely intelligent and inquisitive girl, born in 1897 to a costermonger and his wife. The job of a costermonger was strenuous and involved delivering vegetables with a horse and cart. When Maisie's mother dies, her father has no choice but to send the 13 year old girl into service. The devastated Maisie begins work as a maid at the home of the aristocratic Lady Rowan and her husband Lord Julian. Maisie gets on with the work, but is soon distracted by the well-stocked library. She decides to further her education in secret, getting up hours early in order to read on her own before starting her duties for the day. Inevitably, she is discovered. Rather than losing her position, her employers decide that she has a mind which should be developed and nurtured. She is placed under the tutelage of Maurice Blanche, a friend of the family who has wide-ranging interests.

Maisie eventually is accepted to a women's college at Cambridge, but her education is interrupted by the start of World War I. Like many other young women of her time, Maisie volunteers to be a nurse and is sent to France. While there, she experiences many horrors, but also finds love.

Jumping forward to 1929, Maisie has taken over Maurice Blanche's detective agency upon his retirement. She is called upon to investigate the possible infidelity of a young wife, but is drawn into a mystery which takes her back to her war experiences.

The events in the novel jump back and forth in time, and tantalizing hints are dropped throughout the book which are only answered at the very end of the novel. Not having read much about World War I, I found this book to be extremely enjoyable. It was also a tumultuous time in English society, as old social walls began to crumble. "Factory girls" could make a great deal of money and were suddenly a new force to be reckoned with. Females suddenly had more options in life than becoming wives or servants in rich households.

This is the first of seven novels about the exploits of Maisie Dobbs, and I'm looking forward to reading them all!

Final Verdict for Maisie Dobbs: Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating look at a forgotten time in history

Look at me, I'm so great!

That was the sentiment that I felt the book "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years" by Donald Miller was trying hard to get across. Although the premise of the book is that everyone's life is a "story" with scenes that you can choose to make meaningful and interesting, it was hard for me to concentrate on that point. The vast majority of the story was about "the time my friends so and so and I climbed this mountain" or "the time my friends so and so and I went on that cross-country bike ride" or how the ex-rock star who's now a film producer absolutely BEGGED Mr. Miller to let him make a film out of one of Miller's books. It was a non-stop brag-a-thon about all his friends and the wonderful experiences he was forever having with them. Miller also threw in a section about his life-long obsession with tracking down his missing father, only to sit like a bump on a log staring into space when he finally met his father. The book is short, with several pages taken up with cartoons.There's just not much substance.

Monday, September 28, 2009

London and books and cats, oh my!

Imagine combining three of my favorite things in the whole world into a novel: London, books and cats. You'd think you'd be on to a winner, wouldn't you? All those elements come together, not entirely successfully, in the novel Death's Autograph by Marianne MacDonald.

The story concerns antiquarian bookseller Dido Hoare (one of the worst names ever in fiction) who scrapes by in her shop in London. She is divorced from her con-man husband Davey but is kept company by her cat, Mr. Spock. She also pays frequent visits to her father Barnabas, a retired Oxford professor. Things are going along as usual when one evening, Dido is startled when she notices a car following her. Not long afterward, the slimy Davey makes an appearance and attempts to worm his way back into her life and her shop. Before long, Davey and another of Dido's acquaintances end up dead, and Dido feels she is the key to the crimes. She just has no idea what the connection could be.

A hunky policeman named Paul Grant appears on the scene and gets more involved with the situation than is strictly warranted. There follows a great deal of rushing back and forth, worrying about her elderly father, and, most annoyingly of all, a lot of ignoring the advice of the police (and common sense) in putting herself in danger. There's also one situation that is blatantly obvious as it's happening, but it only occurs later on to Dido -- and you can tell the reader was supposed to be amazed and impressed when "all is revealed."

The book had the potential to be interesting, but the characters and "big mystery" just weren't all that engaging. Add to that the bizarre assertion that the term "rent boy" is of American origin (don't ask), and you're just left with a muddle of a book. This is the first in a series of 7 books, so they must improve over time.

Final Verdict for Death's Autograph: Two Gherkins, for some great scenery, but an overall weak story

Monday, September 21, 2009

Diabetics beware!

When a book spends over a year on best-seller lists, I'm always curious to find out if it is worth all the hype. A while ago, I checked out the audio book of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows to see what all the fuss was about. I can emphatically say that this is not a book that should have been made into an audio book. The story is told in the form of letters between the characters, so if you aren't paying extremely close attention ALL THE TIME, it is impossible to remember which character was writing the letter, and which character was the recipient. I had to give up on the audio book before it got very far.

We recently decided to start a book club at the library where I work, and due to its extreme popularity, we chose Guernsey as our first book. So I had to read it! I'm sorry to say that I wasn't as enthralled with it as I'd hoped to be. The main drawback is that it is just too treacly sweet for words. Every character is just too sweet, kind and accommodating for words. My teeth ached with the gooey-ness of it all.

The story mainly concerns Juliet, who earned her fame as an author of humorous newspaper columns published under the name of Izzy Bickerstaff during World War II. After the war, finding that her London flat has been bombed, er . . . flat, she grows increasingly distressed at the gray, depressed feeling in London and is floundering about for an idea for a new book. At about this time, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of the island of Guernsey. He has bought a book that previously belonged to Juliet (who apparently had the maddening habit of defacing books by writing in them and then discarding them). He wants her help in getting more books since Guernsey is still suffering from wartime deprivations.

Thus begins Juliet's correspondence with the members of the Literary Society on Guernsey. It seems that everyone on the island cannot wait to write to Juliet, and she responds in kind. Through the islanders' letters, Juliet learns about their suffering and resilience under German occupation. Eventually, Juliet decides to go to Guernsey to write a book about the people and their experiences.

I was very interested to read more about Guernsey, especially the information about the wartime occupation. It is a place you don't hear much about, so I appreciated having it brought to life. The characters, however, were basically all cardboard one-dimensional characters: the quiet, dignified farmer; the wacky woman forever brewing "potions"; the wise matriarch; and the saintly Elizabeth. There are a few "baddies," but they aren't given much space in this sunny narrative. Even the Nazi occupiers are seen sympathetically (for the most part).

Although the story could have been more gripping, perhaps if told as a straight narrative, the "sweetness and light" aspect of the characters got old quickly. I'm glad Guernsey is seeing an upswing in popularity from the book, but I just wish it had been more interesting.

Final Verdict for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting idea with a poor execution

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Harrowing story of captivity

The book Kabul 24 tells the story of eight western aid workers who were arrested in Afghanistan the month before the Sept. 11 attacks. Ostensibly arrested for attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity (by showing a DVD), the prisoners were kept in abominable conditions, interrogated repeatedly, and eventually put on trial. Their Afghan co-workers were also arrested, and were treated much worse by their captors, suffering beatings and torture. The book would be a harrowing account in the hands of more unbiased authors, but this book is so blatantly "us vs. them" that it's difficult to suspend disbelief long enough to get drawn into the story. The Christian aid workers are humble servants who only speak of their religion if asked. Their Taliban captors are illiterate, incompetent, brutal and cartoonish. While it's apparent that the aid workers suffered their captivity with grace and faith, a more balanced telling of the story would have let the reader form a more realistic opinion of the actions of both the captives and their captors. As it is, we are left to marvel at the strength of character of the captives who never lost their faith in extremely trying odds.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Detection goes to the dogs

The second book featuring the "investigative consultant" Teddy Ruzak, The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs by Richard Yancey, follows the same pattern as the first book. Teddy is still as passive and rambling as ever, Felicia is bossy and exasperated, and not a whole lot happens.

Ruzak still doesn't have his Private Investigator's licence, having failed his first attempt at taking the test. He doesn't seem entirely motivated to study for another go-round, so when an official tells him he must close his office until he obtains a license, Ruzak isn't too bothered. In the midst of closing up his office, he looks outside and sees the body of a homeless man in the alley. This is the same homeless man that Ruzak gave money and a stained hat to the previous day. Other people will inexplicably tussle over that old, shapeless, used hat later in the book.

The police seem to have little interest in the case, but for some reason Ruzak decides that he is going to offer a $25,000 reward in order to solve it. Remember, he is out of a job for the foreseeable future, so just why he should invest money in the case is not really clear. He has plenty of time on his hands, though, so he is able to come up with some leads that the police have overlooked.

In the meantime, he gains an aggressive semi-girlfriend, but he's unable to either commit to a relationship or tell her he's not interested. She works at the animal shelter, and shows up on his doorstep one day with a dog (even though he's not allowed to have dogs in his apartment). Aside from all the wishy-washy lack of action, Ruzak also spends a great deal of the novel rambling about the existence of God. It's all very tiresome.

There are some interesting descriptions of Knoxville, and I could vividly imagine where everything was taking place -- there just wasn't much of anything else to hold my interest. An overall rating of "meh." At least the chapters are short. There was even a blank page inserted between chapters with the date the "supposed" action was taking place. All the better to pad the pages of the book without actually having to have any action or plot.

Final Verdict for The Highly Effective Detective Goes to the Dogs: One Gherkin, for being a continuation of a not very interesting series