Monday, June 29, 2009

While I'm not a complete Jane Austen fanatic, I do enjoy her work and she seems to be popping up regularly in modern fiction. A new edition to the crowded field of Austenalia is Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo. This story is set totally in London, so that is a big plus right from the start! Unfortunately, the plot is rather frustrating.

Emma Douglas, the heroine of the story, is a Jane Austen scholar who has recently resigned in disgrace from her teaching position. Her cad of a husband was having an affair with Emma's teaching assistant, and together they framed Emma and accused her of plagiarism. Emma flees to England when a somewhat shadowy contact there promises to provide her with some heretofore unknown Austen letters. Once she arrives at her cousin's London flat, Emma discovers that it is already occupied by Adam, a friend from the past.

Emma's Austen contact proves to be a somewhat dotty elderly lady named Mrs. Parrot who sends her on a series of Austen-related trips throughout the country. At the end of each trip, a new Austen letter is revealed. It all seems like a bit of unnecessary running around, but I suppose there wouldn't have been much of a story without it.

The scenery is described very lovingly, and it was easy to tell that the author really loves England and admires Jane Austen. Sadly, this proved another one of those the-protagonist-is-extremely-self-centered-but-every-other-character-bends-over-backward-to-help-her-books. And she really doesn't seem all that worthy of all the intrigue and devotion that everyone seems to have for her (except for the horrible ex-husband, that is).

**Semi-Spoilers Ahead!**

The ending was a real let-down. While Emma started the story with everything against her (no husband, no job, no money, no academic reputation), at the end she is given her choice of glittering options to choose from. However, she prefers to just sort of drift around with nothing really settled. Sort of a "meh" ending . . . why read all through the book if soppy Emma was just going to throw away everything?

By the way, from what I could gather (through all of Emma's woe-is-me whining) Jane Austen ruined her life by making her believe in happy endings. Maybe the author was going against that sentiment by having no ending at all? Yes, that's a much better idea.
Final Verdict for Jane Austen Ruined My Life: Two Gherkins, for a lovely setting, but a drippy heroine who is unworthy of much sympathy

Sunday, June 28, 2009

. . . for the worst book of the decade so far! And it's a strong contender for the worst book of the century, even though it's early days yet. I don't know who has been bribed, but the book A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick has been receiving wonderful reviews. It is without a doubt one of the worst books it's ever been my misfortune to pick up. There just aren't appropriate words in the English language to describe how much I loathe this book . . . but I'll give it my best shot.

The story would seem to be promising. A 50ish man in 1907 Wisconsin places a personal ad in a newspaper advertising for a reliable wife. A woman answers the ad and eventually goes to Wisconsin to marry him. However, she is not all she claims to be and she has nefarious plans of her own.

It would seem to be a good basis for a story, but the author is a terrible writer. This is obviously another one of those "paid by the word" excesses, because this book is filled with repetition, unnecessary detail and general lack of action. Ralph, the man looking for a wife, goes on and on for many pages over and over throughout the book about his miserable former life. Just when you think he's wallowed enough, he'll bring it up again. He's also obsessed with sex, and so time and time again we get to hear about his youthful excesses and his current loneliness. Katherine is inexplicably entangled in another relationship, even when the object of her desire tells her repeatedly (in this book, there is no other way to communicate), "I despise you!" Well, that is one way to a lady's heart.

The writing style is just preposterous. Nearly every sentence was restated 3 or 4 times. For instance, "She went to the library. She walked to the building with books. She entered the place of learning." That's not a direct quote, but that's the gist of it. And it gets better! After she enters the library, she decides to read about plants. So (again, I'm paraphrasing), "She read about lilacs and roses. Then she read about orchids and hostas. After that she read about tulips and geraniums. She read about lilies and . . ." and on and on. Several pages to tell us she read about PLANTS!! Did you notice, I was able to convey that she read about plants in FOUR WORDS?? It was ridiculous. And things like that happened over and over in this pathetic excuse for a novel.

Page after page and paragraph after paragraph and sentence after sentence of boring and inexplicable repetition. Didn't this guy have an editor to reign him in? I kept on until the bitter end because, due to the aforementioned glowing reviews, I thought it must get better. It doesn't. I'm sure I've permanently damaged my eyes by rolling them so far back in my head so often.

I checked out this book from the library and I thought about doing a public service and setting fire to it, but in the end I couldn't be that anti-social. Not like the publishers who foisted this dreck out on the unsuspecting public!

Final Verdict for A Reliable Wife: Zero Gherkins -- in fact, I'm not even going to sully the beauty that is the gherkin by attaching it in any way to this train wreck of "literature"

Friday, June 26, 2009

I had never heard of Graham Young before reading the delightful book "The Wimbledon Poisoner" by Nigel Williamson. In that book, the narrator is determined to poison his wife and takes inspiration from the infamous poisoner Graham Young. Because Young was caught and sent away twice for poisoning people, it wouldn't seem as if he would be the best roll model for aspiring poisoners.

An interesting film made about the Young case is titled The Young Poisoner's Handbook. Graham Young was born in 1947 in north London. He was apparently very intelligent and became interested in chemistry and poisons. In his teens, he started to poison his family. He kept a detailed notebook where he jotted down details of how his stepmother, father and sister were reacting to the poisons. Eventually, his stepmother died and he was arrested and sentenced to Broadmoor. While incarcerated, he came to the attention of a new psychiatrist who was anxious to help cure him, mainly by analyzing Young's dreams. With the doctor's help, Young was released after serving only 9 years.

Upon his release, Young began working at a company that made photography supplies. No one on the outside was told about his previous record. It seemed as if Young was determined to lead a blameless life, until, as chance would have it, a co-worker showed him a cabinet full of his favorite poison, thallium. After that, whenever anyone was especially rude or sharp with Young, he would give them a dose of thallium in their tea. Before long, numerous people at the company fell ill and several died.

Because many of Young's co-workers were becoming ill, the company believed that there was something in the building that was causing the illnesses. It was Young himself who suggested that people might be ingesting poison. This led the authorities to take a closer look at him, and he was again arrested, convicted and sent to prison.

I'm not sure how closely the film followed the real events in Young's life, but his early poisoning of his stepmother was almost understandable. The stepmother was portrayed as being prone to attacking him as soon as he walked in the door over real or imagined misdeeds.

The film attempts to be something of a black comedy, with incongruous, upbeat music played at strange times (including at one point "Low Rider," the theme to the George Lopez show). The stepmother's suffering was played almost for laughs, as her puzzled and somewhat horrified family looked on while she steadily declined in health. Still, it was interesting to see how easily Young was able to obtain poisons, and his dispassionate observations of how his victims suffered.
Final Verdict for The Young Poisoner's Handbook: Three Gherkins for being an interesting look at a true crime figure

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Agatha Raisin is at it again. By "it" I mean of course chasing after unsuitable men, daydreaming about romance, sticking her nose in everyone's business, and dealing with "the press." Along the way, she does manage to stumble over several dead bodies, but not to worry, she always finds the guilty party in the end. The evildoers get their comeuppance, the cats are let out into the garden, and Mrs. Bloxby is waiting in the wings with a cup of tea. What more could anyone ask for?

In M.C. Beaton's latest Agatha Raisin novel A Spoonful of Poison, we are once again transported to the charming Cotswolds village of Carsley. Agatha has arranged the publicity for a local church fete, and is on hand when several elderly ladies, apparently under the influence of drugs, die. It soon transpired that someone has spiked the jams in the tasting tent with LSD (as criminals are wont to do).

There is no shortage of suspects. In attempting to sort through them all, Agatha allows herself to be drawn into a pursuit of George Selby, whose wife died in a mysterious fall down some stairs. Since then, it appears that there have been no shortage of women in George's life. Agatha also has a few problems at her detective agency, with young Toni Gilmour stealing all the male attention and a newly hired detective engaging in some sinister behavior. Along the way, Agatha's two mostly platonic male friends Roy Silver and Sir Charles Fraith wander in and out of the story without seeming to do much.

Since the Agatha Raisin series is one of many that M.C. Beaton writes, it's no wonder that the story is a bit slap-dash at times. Still, Agatha gets into enough humorous scrapes to keep everyone wondering what she'll do next. Her hair extension experience alone makes this book worth reading! Film version please!
Final Verdict for A Spoonful of Poison: Four Gherkins, for being a reliably enjoyable visit with old friends

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

During the recent days I've taken note of a few mentions of Britain in the news. Unfortunately, this morning's news wasn't very good. J.D. Power and Associates, known for rating customer satisfaction, recently released their 2009 Initial Quality Survey of car brands. Not surprisingly, the pricey Lexus was rated most favorably. What two brands were at the very bottom of the list? Mini and Land Rover. Although both companies are no longer British-owned, production of quite a few of the vehicles is still taking place in Britain. This would be bad news at any time, but in the current economic climate if customers are unhappy with the quality of the products, it really doesn't bode well at all for the future of those companies. Some serious work needs to be done in the British automotive industry (in the U.S. industry as well, but that seems to be under way!).

The delightful weekly podcast of the BBC's Friday Night News Quiz had two interesting tidbits of information last week. One was that the British government is considering getting rid of "sell by" dates on food in order to minimize waste. I think that is an idea that is long overdue. What ever happened to common sense? Apparently, people are just looking at the date on food packages and throwing away food without ever testing it to see if it is still good. With all the food safety issues we have in the U.S. with food that is supposedly OK (e coli tainted cookie dough, salmonella in peanut butter, cyanide in grapes, melamine in baby formula, hepatitis in green onions, etc.) we can't really afford to waste perfectly good food!

Another interesting fact that was mentioned in the podcast was that there are new questions in the case of Dr. Crippen, executed in 1910 for the supposed murder of his wife. Part of the evidence used against Dr. Crippen was some skin, apparently showing a scar his wife was known to have, which was found buried in his basement. According to this new information, DNA testing on the skin has shown that it came from a male. There have been suggestions that "Belle Elmore" (Mrs. Crippen's stage name) was alive in New York after her disappearance, and that the body parts presented at the trial were planted by the police. All very interesting! Dr. Crippen always was portrayed as such a timid, mild-mannered fellow, so it always was a bit difficult to believe that he could have murdered his wife. And why would he dispose of some body parts (like the head), but then bury others in the basement? It all makes for a very intriguing mystery! Perhaps, as in the case of Julia Wallace, the truth will come out one day.

Monday, June 22, 2009

It seemed like the book Curiosities of Literature by John Sutherland would be right up my alley. From what I had read about it, I was imagining all sorts of unusual, possibly scandalous, facts about famous authors and their works. In fact, I'm not sure what the author was trying to accomplish. It seems as if there were a few good ideas at the start, but there was not really enough material to make a book so a great deal of filler was added.

The author states in the introduction that this book is modeled on the 1791 book The Curiosities of Literature by Isaac D'Israeli. Perhaps if I had had the pleasure of reading that earlier work, this current one would have made more sense. As it was, I had to muddle through the strange and sometimes incomprehensible collection of facts that were assembled. For instance, the first chapter is called "Literary Baked Meats." The author then discusses several examples of food mentioned in books, examples of gluttony by authors, and foodstuffs that were inspired by literature. Another chapter, "Who?, Who?, Who?" includes 5 short pieces on the apparently disputed authorship of various works, followed by one short discussion about who invented the supercomputer. It's all a bit haphazard.

The thing that really "turned me agin" this book was a blatant error that I spotted rather early in the book, on page 44. The author mentions several times (one of many repetitions in the book) that he is an admirer of Charles Dickens. How then, to explain this sentence, "He was sixty-four years old, and writing (and selling) better than ever." This particular section of the book, titled "Can We Clone Dickens," deals with the death of Dickens. I knew, even without looking it up, that Charles Dickens was in his late 50s when he died. Honestly! How difficult would that have been to check? The author further engages in oddly inaccurate statements when he writes that Edgar Allan Poe was "aged thirty-nine" on his deathbed. In fact, he died a few months short of his 41st birthday -- at least this was a bit closer to the mark. Those were the ones that jumped out at me -- no doubt there were plenty more whoppers where those came from!

In addition, there are bizarre black and white drawings that introduce each chapter. They seem, for the most part, to have little to do with the information that follows, although in quite a few of the drawings it's impossible to work out what in the world is supposed to be represented.

At the end of the book is a very weird section called "Curious Connections" where 10 questions are asked which attempt to make the most absurd and illogical connections between various literary (and non-literary) works. Naturally, to take up space, the questions are repeated and then answered. For instance, one question asks what is the connection between Clint Eastwood and mass poisoner Graham Young. The answer is that Eastwood once starred in a film titled "Pale Rider" and Young was inspired by Agatha Christie's novel "The Pale Horse." Yep, if that's not obvious, I don't know what is!

A final oddity in this book is that the title page of each chapter, as well as the first page of each chapter, for some reason always start on the right-hand side of the book. This means that if the preceding chapter ended on the right-hand page, it would be followed by a blank page, then the chapter title page, then a blank page, then the start of the chapter. I counted 19 blank pages within the text of the 273 page book (and many of those pages that did have text contained only a few paragraphs).

This book could have been really, really interesting, but sadly was only frustrating. The fact of the matter is that there just wasn't enough material to make a book. That is made painfully obvious by the blank pages, repetitions, and attempts to make obscure connections. On the bright side, though, it is a very quick read!
Final Verdict for Curiosities of Literature: One Gherkin, for a good premise, but a poorly executed book

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A book that has been getting a lot of "buzz" in library/book catalogs lately is The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson. The descriptions sounded intriguing. A woman who sees ghosts is visited in her bedroom one night by a drowned girl. When the woman, Laurel, looks out her window, she can see a girl's body floating in her backyard pool.

You'd think, from that description, that the book would be mostly about ghosts, or solving the murder mystery (because, hey, there was surely foul play involved, right?). This book, however, is a bit all over the place. Laurel has an estranged, outrageous older sister named Thalia. Naturally, when Laurel is confronted with the dead girl in the swimming pool, the first thing she needs to do is drag the sister she hasn't spoken to in two years into the action. (?) Laurel's husband, a software developer, spends most of his time in the secluded in the basement and communicates in monosyllables. Naturally, he and the sister-in-law-from-hell can't stand each other. Laurel also has a teen aged daughter, Shelby, who was best friends with the dead girl. To further complicate matters, Laurel's family is from an impoverished Alabama town called DeLop. Laurel likes to play the "lady of the manor" by occasionally descending on DeLop with gifts for the poor underprivileged who live there, and by allowing one of the town's children, a girl called Bet Clemmons, to stay at her house. Oh, someone please nominate Laurel for sainthood!

There are plenty of flashbacks to a mystery involving Laurel's uncle, who was killed in a hunting "accident" when she and Thalia were girls. There's also conflict between Laurel and her husband, her sister, her daughter, her parents, etc. and long, drawn-out descriptions of the quilts that Laurel makes and sells for five figures. The book is filled with many, many unbelievable and ridiculous situations (the one where the young child *volunteers* to go off with a man who had previously attempted to molest her tops the list). Many eye rolls and exasperated sighs later, I managed to finish listening to the audio version of the book.

The story was just too all-over-the-place to be good. The ghost child makes only the one appearance, which was a waste, and the over-the-top sister was a bit too grating. We are supposed to gain some sympathy for her by the end, but she was too difficult to endure.

The only good thing about the audio book was that it was read by the author Joshilyn Jackson. She did a fantastic job! I listen to many, many audio books, and she ranks right up there with the professional actors. All the characters had distinct, appropriate voices, and there was a lot of emotion in her delivery. Unfortunately, she just didn't have a very good story to work with. At the end of the audio book there was an interview with the author where she stated that she often gets an image or an idea and then later builds a story around it. That was very apparent with this story -- it just didn't seem to hang together very well or to have a firm focus.

Final Verdict for The Girl Who Stopped Swimming: Two Gherkins, for a promising start but a lack of overall cohesion

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The book Churchill's Secret Skills by Binden Shovel has a unique point of view: it takes examples of Churchill's expertise in leading Britain through the horrors of World War II, and applies them to the modern business world. In addition to providing real-world examples of business situations, the book is also a wealth of information about how Churchill skillfully dealt with very difficult people and problems. The subtitle of the book, "Keeping the Nazis off the beaches required more than fine speeches" is a humorous indication of the way the book delves behind the public persona of Churchill and examines his more subtle skills.

The chapter titles of the book indicate some of the advice that can be gleaned from observing Churchill's actions: The Weapon of Courtesy and Consideration; Tell it Like it is, Nicely!; Success is Hidden in Details; Focus on the Payoff and Put on a Show are some of the 21 chapters in the book.

The author, Binden Shovel, spent a great deal of time reading and analyzing Churchill's writings. Some of Churchill's memos and letters are included to help to illustrate particular points. The author also has a great deal of experience in the business world, and has dealt with superiors and subordinates who provide ample material for both what to do and what NOT to do!

Anyone who enjoys World War II and history will get a kick out of reading this book, and people who work in the modern business world can also pick up lots of useful tips and examples for becoming more effective in the workplace.

Final Verdict for Churchill's Secret Skills: Four Gherkins, for being a modern business novel with interesting historical roots!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I know it has become fashionable to have famous authors solving crimes in modern mystery novels, so I was anxious to see what Oscar was up to in the book Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth. Oscar turns up at a house to meet . . . let's see, was it a pupil or a friend or a young man for an illicit tryst? I forget in the mish-mash of the events of this confusing and not very interesting novel. Anyway, while at this house, Wilde discovers the body of one of his "beautiful young men," with its throat cut. However, there is no report of the body being discovered, and when Wilde and a friend return the next day, all traces of the murder are gone. So did the murder even happen? Aside from Robert Sherard, Wilde's friend and the constantly bewildered narrator of the story, no less a figure than Arthur Conan Doyle is occasionally trotted out to . . . um, I'm not sure what his purpose was, but he doesn't seem to have much to do with the story.

Wilde and the assorted characters in the book are forever rushing here and there, having conversations that lead nowhere and basically wasting time as absolutely nothing happens. Everyone behaves in an odd manner: from Wilde himself, forever sneaking off for unknown reasons and lying to Sherard, to the police who say they're investigating the case of the missing boy but do nothing, to Veronica Sutherland, a young woman who flirts and holds hands with Sherard in full view of her apparently unconcerned fiancé. It's hard to be drawn into the story when it consists of a bunch of characters wandering about aimlessly and unconvincingly. Plenty of Wilde's famous witticisms are sprinkled about the story, but even that can't save it. There have been two more books in the series since this first one, so maybe they improve, but I don't think I can take more meandering around . . . even if the characters are mostly moseying around in London!
Final Verdict for Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance: One Gherkin, for being spectacularly dull, but having the saving grace of Wilde's amusing observations thrown in

Sunday, June 14, 2009

In the 1985 film Lady Jane, Helena Bonham Carter plays doomed queen Lady Jane Gray. Poor Jane is happily absorbed in her books when the scheming Duke of Northumberland decides that Jane, 5th in line for the throne, would make a fine match for his youngest son, the drunken and carousing Guilford. Jane objects, and is beaten by her harridan of a mother, and would likely never have agreed unless her cousin, the doomed King Edward VI, talked her into the match. She is unimpressed when she first meets her betrothed, and his behavior at the wedding dinner dose nothing to reassure her.

However, once the two teenagers embark on their married lives away from their families, they fall in love (well, they did in the film at least). Once King Edward VI dies, Jane and Guilford are called back to London, where to Jane's horror, she is crowned Queen. Eventually persuaded by her husband, Jane soon decides to use her new found power to reform the country. This is where, for me, the film really broke down. Her ideas were decidedly 20th century: giving land to the peasants, clearing out her closet and donating her gowns to the poor, starting schools where children will be taught with love and not beaten, and so on.

Naturally, that state of affairs can't go on forever, and so after a rule of only 9 days, poor Jane is removed from the throne and tossed into the Tower of London. Her Catholic cousin, Mary, meanwhile takes over the crown. Jane's father, however, won't let things lie, and continues to try to stage a rebellion which will return Jane to the throne. This doesn't sit will with Mary, or the Spanish ambassador (who is attempting to arrange Mary's marriage to a Spanish prince), so the threat of Jane and Guilford must be eliminated.

Apparently, although many of the events in the story are not entirely accurate, the execution scene involving Jane is. After being blindfolded, Jane is told to put her head on the block, but she is unable to find it and cries out.

The costumes and scenery are beautiful, and the youthful Helena Bonham Carter and Cary Elwes (the Princess Bride was still a few years off) are very good in their roles. Even if the love story and other historical events weren't entirely accurate, the film is a nice introduction to a turbulent time in British history.

Final Verdict for Lady Jane: Three Gherkins, for being a visually impressive, if somewhat fanciful retelling of the life of Lady Jane Gray

Friday, June 12, 2009

A few days ago I was reading an online interview with the audio book narrator Barbara Rosenblat where she said that the funniest book she had ever narrated was The Queen and I by Sue Townsend ("sitting in the studio with tissues all over the place, laughing myself hysterical"). Naturally, I was anxious to listen to this laugh-fest, so I was excited to see that my public library had a copy. I just finished listening to it, but there wasn't one laugh to be had! I'm actually a bit confused as to why this would be considered a "funny book," but since it is from 1992, perhaps the memory of the actual story has faded a bit from Rosenblat's mind.

The story is entertaining enough, just not funny. From the high praise, I was expecting a laugh-out-loud experience -- something in the neighborhood of Bill Bryson or Janet Evanovich. There wasn't anything of the sort. The story is about what happens to the members of the British Royal Family when a Republican government (as in, they want a Republic -- nothing to do with the U.S. brand of Republicans) is elected in Great Britain, and the monarchy is abolished. All of the royals are turfed out to public housing projects to live on welfare.

The royals are suddenly confronted with confounding problems like how to open a tin can, how to dress oneself, and where one obtains toilet paper when it runs out. Prince Phillip immediately takes to his bed in a fit of depression/bad tempered sulk. The Queen Mother hits it off with her elderly West Indian neighbor, but even more with the neighbor's son, who helps her to place bets on the horses. Princess Anne takes up with Spiggy, the carpet fitter. Prince Charles grows a ponytail, pines for his plus-sized middle-aged next door neighbor, and potters about in the garden. The queen's favorite Corgi, Harris, takes up with the local mongrels and begins to behave like a delinquent.

Meanwhile, it is left to the queen to attempt to keep everything going, look after her increasingly erratic dog and husband and to try to feed everyone on a pocket of rapidly dwindling pence. Aside from the queen's money worries, most of the royals are more than happy to be freed from public scrutiny and official duties. Only the chain smoking Margaret seems a bit put out at her new situation.

The story worked quite well, and (aside from Prince Phillip), seemed quite sympathetic to the royal family. It just wasn't funny.

Final Verdict for the Queen and I: Two Gherkins, for being a pleasant enough re-imagining of the royal family, if a disappointment on the humor front

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Britannia in Brief by Leslie Banker and William Mullins is a wonderful guide to all things British -- especially those things which would be highly puzzling to Americans. It is just chock full of information that simply can't be found elsewhere -- or at least, not easily.

The book is divided into chapters covering:

1. So Where Are We Anyway?

2. Society

3. Culture

4. Politics and Government

5. Food and Drink

6. Language

7. The Quotidian

One of the topics that I especially appreciated was a discussion of the myriad of newspapers in Britain, who owns them, and their political history and current leanings. Unfortunately, the free newspapers that are constantly being proffered weren't included, but it's a huge help to have some order applied to the perplexing list of options.

There is also an extremely informative section on cricket, football and rugby (who knew there were two different types??!). As incomprehensible as cricket is to an unenlightened American, it is still somewhat amazing to learn that some "test matches" can last for a total of 25 days. No wonder it's never caught on in America, what with our national attention deficit disorder and all . . .

Also of great usefulness is an "offensiveness scale" rating of various British swear words. A word that seems funny to an American might get you slapped or thrown out of a pub if bandied about lightly among British people.

I was also surprised at the number of holidays taken in Britain: two public holidays and six "bank holidays." The public holidays, not surprisingly, are Christmas Day and New Year's Day. Some of the others fall near holidays (Good Friday and Boxing Day), but others seem to have no rhyme or reason (Summer Bank Holiday). The U.S., of course, has quite a few federal holidays, with a confusing mix of what types of businesses are open or closed. [As an aside, Sweden has tons of holidays that have religious significance, but when you ask a Swedish person why such and such a day is a holiday, you often get a vague response ("Kristi himmelsfärds dag" being one).] So it was something of a surprise to realize that the British holidays generally aren't in commemoration of any person or event, just an opportunity to give workers some time off. I'm all for that, but surely there have been enough battle victories, national heroes and notable people to have some dedication and celebrations. Then again, those Brits put living people on their postage stamps, so what can you expect!

There's also a wonderful section explaining the British educational system, including the confusing GCSE system. It was somewhat alarming to learn that a passing grade on the GCSE exam is 50%, and that "Princess Diana failed all her GCSEs." Hmm . . .

Each section ends with a useful FAQ section, containing answers to common misconceptions or questions which might be confusing. There is also a listing of UK Acronyms and a glossary at the back of the book, as well as a quiz to test what you've learned. All in all, the book is an outstanding source of information and interesting facts.

Final Verdict for Britannia in Brief: Five Gherkins, for being a wonderful collection of useful information

Monday, June 8, 2009

Oh joy! Finally a new book in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith. This one, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, finds both Mma Ramotswe and her assistant Mma Makutsi in difficulties. The tiny white van, Mma Ramotswe's faithful companion for many years, has finally started making a noise that even Mr. JLB Matekoni can't fix. Phuti Radiphuti, Mma Makutsi's fiance, is being mesmerized by that shameless hussy Violet Saphoto, who, no matter what she claims to the contrary, couldn't have scored more than 50% on her final exam at the Botswana Secretarial College. Oh the trials and tribulations!

Luckily, there are clients who bring in cases to distract the ladies from their problems. In this instance, the owner of a football club hires Mma Ramotswe to find out why his formerly successful team has suddenly started losing. That will require the interviewing of many players . . . as well as stopping to ponder the situation over endless cups of bush tea.

Once again, the reader is transported into the happy and peaceful land of Botswana for another gentle and pleasant visit with beloved characters. While most of the mysteries were cleared up, there was one left hanging which I'm sure will be addressed in the next novel. Let's just hope there won't be a very long wait for it!
Final verdict for Tea Time for the Traditionally Built: Five Gherkins, for being another wonderful visit with Mma Ramotswe and her friends

Saturday, June 6, 2009

When will I learn that the glowing descriptions of books in those ever-so-helpful library publications will only lead to disappointment? Once again I was woefully misled into wasting 7 hours of my precious audio book listening time on Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles. Not a book with any British connections, alas, but even that probably wouldn't have saved it.

The story centers around Bennie Ford, who is stranded at Chicago's O'Hare Airport on the way to his daughter's wedding (or "commitment ceremony," since she's marrying another woman). Bennie decides to write a letter of complaint to American Airlines demanding the return of the price of his airline ticket. Because he has so much time on his hands, the letter becomes a long narrative on his life and the many mistakes that he has made. His life story is interwoven with his translation of a Polish novel that he's working on. I know I was supposed to be getting all sorts of connections between the Polish novel and Bennie's life, but mostly it was just mind-numbingly tedious.

Unfortunately, once I had invested a few hours in the story, I kept listening in the vain hope that something, anything might happen to make the story interesting. Alas, even after I finished listening to the audio book, I'm still waiting for it to become interesting. Bennie is a failed poet, a failed husband, a failed father . . . in short, no one you can really sympathize with or root for (and, having my own share of airline-related horror stories, I really did want to be on his side).

Final Verdict for Dear American Airlines: Zero Gherkins -- it's really a disappointment!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Jane Austen is many things to many people, but a lush is generally not how she is portrayed on screen. It was a bit of a surprise, therefore, to see Jane knocking back the wine in Miss Austen Regrets (paired with Sense & Sensibility by the BBC for sale in the US).

In this story, based on some of Austen's surviving correspondence, Jane is called upon by her niece Fanny to help choose a suitable husband. Fanny already has a young man in mind for the job, and she wants her Aunt Jane's advice and approval. In the course of this chain of events, we also find out about Jane's own brushes with matrimony, and why she chose an unmarried life as a writer over a life as a wife and mother.

This version of Jane comes off as a wisecracking woman who is fond of wine. Wineglass in hand, she always has a snappy comeback for every situation. Not to say that this isn't a more realistic portrayal of her than the somewhat sappy, reserved Austen we saw in "Becoming Jane," but it was still somewhat unexpected.

Although, at nearly 40, this Jane has given up on romance in favor of creating perfect men in her fiction, she is still flirting away with every man in sight and becomes rather put out when they turn their attentions to younger, more attractive women. So I guess we can gain from this that the "real" Austen was a complex, somewhat conflicted character. Aside from Fanny, the rest of the Austen family is shown in an unpleasant light. Jane's mother is upset that Jane, 20 years previously, turned down a marriage proposal to a wealthy man that would have ensured the family's financial security. Her two brothers are financial failures, with one brother declaring bankruptcy and the other under threat of losing half his property, including the cottage where his mother and two unmarried sisters live. Jane's closest relative, her sister Cassandra, is a household drudge who feels guilty for convincing Jane not to accept the marriage proposals she had in her youth, due to wanting to keep Jane with her at home.

Actually, not a lot really happens in the story, other than showing the final few years of Austen's life. The costumes and scenery were lovely, and it was a nice surprise to see Adrian Edmonson (Vyvyan that was) as one of Jane's brothers. It's always such a shock to see him without an orange mohawk . . .

Final Verdict for Miss Austen Regrets: Three Gherkins, for being an interesting look at the life of a beloved author

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Readers travel back to 12th century England in the mystery novel Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. In the city of Cambridge (although apparently it wasn't actually called Cambridge at the time the events in the novel take place), children are disappearing and later being found dead and horribly mutilated. The city's Jews are blamed for the atrocities, and confined to a castle, unable to do business or pay taxes. The lack of revenue induces the King to send to Italy for help. Help arrives in the person of Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar (we are inexplicably reminded of this unwieldy moniker numerous times), a female doctor from Salerno who has trained as what would today be called a forensic scientist. She is accompanied by Mansur, a "Saracen" who acts as a bodyguard, and the Jewish Simon of Naples.

Because the role of women was very limited at that time, Adelia pretends to be the interpreter for "Dr. Mansur" as he treats patients. During this time, she is also questioning people and attempting to gather facts about the murders. At the same time, she is a short-tempered and somewhat unpleasant person to be around. The story really bogs down around the middle when the author has a character go off into an extended personal narrative/history lesson about the Crusades. Later, the mystery novel unnecessarily descends into a somewhat overheated romance novel. Although Adelia suspects (she claims) nearly every male in town of being the murderer, when his true identity is finally revealed, it isn't much of a surprise. This is the first novel in what is so far a series of three. Although the story was interesting and suspenseful at times, something I found jarring was the use of words throughout the story that seemed totally out of place for the time period ("cosmopolitan" and "stuff" are two that come to mind). It all added up to an uneven read -- at times interesting, at times frustrating, but overall a disappointment.
Final Verdict for Mistress of the Art of Death: Two Gherkins, for bringing to light an interesting historical time period, but with uninspiring characters

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In 1861, women of Victorian England had few options of where to turn for advice on domestic matters. If you own mother hadn't properly prepared you to instruct servants, manage the nursery, make your own clothing and so on, you weren't able to run to the local bookstore and pick up the latest offering from Martha Stewart. Therefore, it was a great relief when Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management was published. All of those topics and many more were covered, including, apparently, the first logical layout of recipes, which listed necessary ingredients first, followed by manner of preparation, number of servings and so on.

The 2007 Masterpiece Theatre presentation of The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton tells the story of the remarkable woman behind the bestselling book. Isabella Mayson was educated at a boarding school in Germany and then returned home to England where her mother and step-father were raising her 16 younger brothers and sisters. She was introduced to the struggling young publisher Sam Beeton and, despite the disapproval of her parents, married him. She almost immediately began submitting articles on domestic issues for his magazine, and these articles formed the basis for the popular book.

It was quite interesting to follow the life of the real Mrs. Beeton. The story was presented in a somewhat unusual style, with the character of Isabella speaking directly to the audience most of the time -- both before and after her death. She died at the age of 28, although not of what she feared would take her life. Before that, she and her husband suffered personal tragedies and financial difficulties. Still, according to this portrayal at least, Mrs. Beeton remained upbeat, cheerful and energetic until the end.

I was interested to see that the entire text of Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management is available to read for free online. In addition to offering helpful advice, the book gives a glimpse into day to day life of a bygone age.

Final Verdict for The Secret Life of Mrs. Beeton: Two Gherkins, for being a somewhat bland portrayal of a pioneering domestic goddess

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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