Thursday, August 27, 2009

Following on the heels of such literary giants as Jordan and Russell Brand, London has joined the "tell-all" game by releasing an autobiography. London the Autobiography is subtitled "2,000 Years of the Capital's History by Those Who Saw it Happen." Author Jon E. Lewis has combed through historical sources to find contemporary accounts of the major events in the city's history.

The book begins with an account of Boudicca's sacking of Londinium in AD 60 and ends with eyewitness accounts of the 7/7/05 bombings of London by terrorists. In between are fascinating stories of London's history, including plagues, fires, rebellions, demonstrations, coronations and hangings. There are several sections of black and white drawings and photos that help to give the book more period detail.

Some of the accounts in the book go on a bit too long, but for the most part, the snippets provide a fascinating insight into the history of this vibrant and ever-changing city. My favorite story? Why, the one about the construction of the building at 30 St. Mary Axe, known as the Gherkin, of course! The author of that piece, Jonathan Glancy, says that the building "deserves to be relished," and, really, who can argue with that??

Final Verdict for London the Autobiography: Five Gherkins, for being a wonderful trip through the history of London

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Two amusing stories caught my eye recently. The Times Online is reporting that some ATMs in London are showing Cockney Rhyming Slang instead of standard English. Wonder what the tourists will make of that one?


The second story concerned "putpockets." Apparently, some former pickpockets have been consumed with guilt over their former activities. To make amends, they are now going around London PUTTING CASH IN random pockets and bags. According to the story, the activity will soon spread to the rest of the country. Hmmm, let's just hope unrepentant pickpockets aren't trailing the "putpockets" and relieving people of their surprise cash!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Jane Austen is all the rage these days. Who knew a young lady who lived 200 years ago would be so adept at solving mysteries, fighting zombies and negotiating 21st century life? In Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler, a contemporary of Jane Austen is suddenly transported to modern day Los Angeles.

Jane Mansfield, who thinks it is the year 1813 and that she lives in Somerset, is horrified to realize that she has suddenly been transported to the year 2009 and into the body of Courtney Stone. Courtney is surrounded by friends, an ex-fiance, and co-workers who tell her that she recently suffered a blow to the head in a swimming pool accident. For Jane, this means nothing. She speaks "Austenese" and shows helplessness at such minor tasks as getting dressed and answering her cell phone. Still, no one around her seems to take in the fact that she claims to be from another time and another century. They all think that her obsession with Jane Austen books and films has addled her mind.

The first half of the book is taken up with the above-mentioned friends all exclaiming, "You don't remember so-and-so?" or "Can't you remember when we did such-and-such?" Obviously, NO, but the bemused questioning continues.

It soon transpires that Jane had been chaffing against her repressed life back in 1813. She resented the rigid rules that society had set out for women of the period. She was also experiencing romantic difficulties, and had a mother who was cold and distant. Courtney, before the switch, had made a muddle of her life -- a broken engagement, a degrading job, and a severe financial crisis.

Although Jane/Courtney is at first totally amazed by all the new technology, it soon emerges that she "remembers" how to use the computer, drive a car, do laundry and other modern tasks. She also seems to get occasional flash-backs to Courtney's previous life. Of course, there is something of a love triangle between the ex-fiance and an old friend, so Jane must negotiate the very different rules of male-female interaction between her time and the present.

The story was an interesting concept, but I was annoyed by how slow it was. Not much happened over the course of the whole book. On the one hand, Courtney's friends are incredibly dim at picking up on how little she seems to know about day to day life. On the other hand, Jane can easily pick up technology, yet she clings on to her outdated ideas about dress/relationships/interactions long after it would seem plausible. Overall, the book was a strain to finish because it was so dull!

I'm sure we'll be treated to another book in this vein, because there are some hints that 21st century Courtney has changed places with Jane and is inhabiting 1813 Somerset. Maybe that book will have more action! We can only hope . . .

Final Verdict for Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict: Two Gherkins, for being a pleasant, if somewhat slow, tribute to all things Austen

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rick Burgess and Bill “Bubba” Bussey, the two popular hosts of the “Rick and Bubba” syndicated radio show, give their best relationship advice in the book “Rick and bubba’s Guide to the Almost Nearly Perfect Marriage.” Since the duo is known mostly for their clean, Christian-based banter, their book is a gentle look at how men and women differ. There is also plenty of advice included for how both parties can work together to solve common problems. The book offers advice beginning with “First Impressions” (how to attract a mate) all the way through the marriage ceremony, having kids, and adjusting to life as man and wife. Although the book is full of humor, the advice is straightforward and fair to both parties. There is also some information on how your marriage can survive difficult times. Rick and his wife Sherri lost their two year old child and the book chronicles how they dealt with the loss, and how their faith and marriage survived that terrible ordeal. Included in the book is a “Best of Rick and Bubba” CD which contains highlights of their radio program. Overall, this book is a (mostly) funny, positive look at marriage.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I've been a huge Stephen King fan for most of my life. I read Carrie and Salem's Lot when they first came out, and anxiously awaited his new releases. As time went on, however, the books got thicker, but less coherent somehow. I stopped grabbing each new release, and eventually stopped reading his books altogether. I was thrilled to see that he released a new collection of short stories recently called Just After Sunset. Although his novels might have "lost the plot," he's always been a master of the short story.

I listened to the audio book of this collection. The introduction, end notes and one of the stories were read by King himself. Other narrators included Mare Winningham, Jill Eikenberry and George Guidall. There seem to be two recurring themes in the book: the events of 9/11 and facing/dealing with death. Most of the stories were enjoyable, but didn't really make a big impact on me. Until, that is, the last one, titled "A Very Tight Place." This has to be one of the most disturbing stories he's written in a long time. Maybe it was because I was listening to it rather than reading it, but . . . it's really awful. But, awful in a squirm-in-your-seat/Stephen-King sort of way. I get that the point of the story was rebirth and a new appreciation for life. Still . . . eeeeewwww! In the notes at the end of the story, King said he even grossed himself out a little with that story. And you know that would take some doing!

The other stories, particularly "The Gingerbread Girl" and "The Cat From Hell" were also enjoyable and suspenseful. All in all, another great outing from the master storyteller!

Final Verdict for Just After Sunset: Four Gherkins for the sheer audacity of "A Very Tight Place" alone!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This book has some slight British connections, but Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities by Amy Stewart focuses mainly on dangerous or disgusting North American plants. And who knew there could be so many of them??

Two pages in, I was startled with the information that every year in the U.S., electrical outlets cause 3,900 injuries, but nearly 70,000 people are poisoned by plants. Each plant family in the book is then given a designation at the top of the page: deadly, intoxicating, dangerous, illegal, painful, destructive or offensive. There then follows a historical description of how the various unpleasant properties of each plant were discovered. For instance, how in the 19th century Duncan Gow, a Scottish tailor, unwittingly ate a sandwich made with "greens" which turned out to be hemlock. Or how kudzu was actually introduced by the U.S. government, who encouraged farmers to use it to feed livestock and control soil erosion.

This book is full of alarming and creepy facts. It makes me wonder how any of our ancestors survived the dangerous outdoors! The plant that killed Lincoln's mother, by the way, was the milkweed, which livestock ate and then passed on the plant's poisonous properties to humans by tainted milk or meat products.

I was also surprised to learn that many seemingly benign plants can also cause, if not outright death, then at least unexpected problems. For instance, I was alarmed to read that people who have an allergic reaction when exposed to poison ivy (I am apparently one of the lucky 15% of people who suffer from this) might also be sensitive to the rind of mangoes. Thanks for that info! Or that handling celery, coming in contact with lime peels, or even eating too much corn (well, subsisting on a diet of only corn, really) can cause horrible reactions or death.

Seems Dr. Atkins was onto something after all!

Final verdict for Wicked Plants: Four Gherkins, for being an informative, if alarming look at the natural world

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Although I would be hard pressed to point it out on a map, the English county of Staffordshire has put itself on the map with numerous fascinating crimes over the past century. Many of these cases have been researched and gathered in the book Staffordshire Murders by Alan Hayhurst. I was thrilled to locate this book recently in my beloved local used bookstore.

The book begins with the sad story of Christina Collins from 1839. Christina's husband had obtained work in London, and sent her money to join him there. She only had enough money to travel via the canal system on narrow boats. Apparently, the crew of the boat was drunk the entire time and nearly all of them attempted to molest Christina in some way. She never made it to London. After a few days aboard the boat, her corpse was fished out of the canal. There is a detailed review of the subsequent trial and outcome, as well as the author's own commentary on the tragedy.

Some of the other interesting cases covered in the book include Dr. William Palmer (The Rugeley Poisoner), Maltese-born rowdy George Semini, and child killer Raymond Morris. There are many interesting photos throughout the book, including contemporary photos, death certificates, and modern photos of how crime scenes look today. At the back of the book is a bibliography with not only book and newspaper sources, but also National Archives files that were consulted.

Final Verdict for Staffordshire Murders: Four Gherkins, for being a well-researched look at some unsavory history

Monday, August 10, 2009

King Henry VIII's favorite hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake makes another appearance in Dark Fire, the second book in the series by C.J. Sansom. After having (as he thought) distanced himself from the King's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, at the end of the last book, Shardlake is looking forward to returning to his quiet life as a lawyer in London.

He is quickly to learn that his life is going to be anything but quiet. He is convinced to take on the defense of a teen aged girl who is being accused of having thrown her 12 year old cousin down a well. Making matters more difficult, the girl refuses to speak or enter a plea to the charges in court. At that time, the response to such willful disobedience to the court was pressing under heavy stones until either a plea was entered, or death occurred.

While working on this perplexing case, Matthew is once again summoned to the offices of Thomas Cromwell. It seems that the king has heard that the ancient and deadly weapon Greek Fire has been rediscovered. A pair of brothers, who worked as alchemists, had arranged a demonstration of Greek Fire which had greatly intrigued the king. Unfortunately, the brothers had been found murdered, with no trace of the Greek Fire or any instructions on how to make it. Since Cromwell felt his influence with the king slipping away, he was desperate to obtain the secret for how to make Greek Fire. This time, in sending Matthew out on his dangerous task, he sends along an assistant, the brutish thug Jack Barack to help to persuade those who might not wish to speak.

More murders follow, and Matthew and Jack always seem to be one step behind the killers. At the same time, there are visits to the prison cell of the accused girl and her family, nearly all of whom think she's guilty. Aside from the conflicts plaguing Matthew, there are plenty of conflicts between factions loyal to Cromwell and those loyal to the Duke of Norfolk, and the always uneasy balance between Catholics and Protestants. It was an extremely dangerous time, when someone who was a favorite at court one day could be beheaded for treason the next.

In contrast to the first book, this book seems to have much more action. There are numerous times when Matthew and Jack find themselves backed into a corner, with no possible escape. Talk about suspense! I'm now extremely anxious to read the two follow-up books to find out what Matthew gets up to next!

Final Verdict for Dark Fire: Four Gherkins, for being a suspenseful page-turner with many interesting historical facts thrown in

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The book Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Life wasn’t written by Stephen R. Covey, but he does provide the introduction and some commentary throughout. The book is a wonderful collection of inspirational stories and quotes which were originally published in Reader’s Digest magazine. The articles are collected into categories such as Searching for Meaning, Taking Charge and Overcoming Adversity. Each category is then further divided into topics such as Respect, Empathy, Courage and Integrity. There is a short introduction to each piece, followed by comments at the end to further reinforce the lesson being taught. Reflections follow at the end of each piece, encouraging the reader to examine his or her own life to find ways to contribute. Some of the stories are extremely touching and sad, while others are uplifting. All the stories and insights are extremely inspirational.Many celebrities contributed pieces about their own struggles in life and how they overcame them. An Afterward section at the end of the book has suggestions for putting the principles outlined in the book into practice.Overall, this book is moving, encouraging, and uplifting.It encourages you to go out and make the world a better place!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

It's a bit difficult to know how to classify Flavia de Luce, the 11 year old heroine of the novel The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. Flavia lives with her widowed, distant father and two older sisters in a stately English home called Buckshaw. When a man who was arguing with her father is subsequently found dead in the back yard, Flavia must investigate the matter to help her father avoid being charged with murder.

Flavia is fortunate to have a fully equipped chemistry lab all to herself at Buckshaw. One of her deceased relatives had suffered a mental breakdown while studying chemistry at Oxford, so his father had built him his own laboratory. Flavia spends most of her time and considerable intelligence on studying and concocting various poisons and potions in the lab.

After her father is arrested on suspicion of having killed the man in the garden, Flavia and her trusty bicycle Gladys make the rounds of the town of Bishop's Lacey to try to find out where the dead man came from. In investigating the mystery, Flavia finds out things which seem to indicate that her father was involved not only in the present death, but possibly in an earlier death as well.

Flavia is a thoroughly enjoyable character, although much, much too advanced in her chemistry and general reading to be a believable 11 year old. I was also unsure, especially at the beginning of the book, if Flavia was a budding (or already fully formed) psychopath. She certainly didn't seem to have "normal" reactions to events (plotting the poisoning of her sister, being tied up and left in the closet by her siblings, being not at all distressed at finding a dead body in the garden, etc.). Throughout most of the story, she appeared quite calm and coolly detached from the events around her, but at odd times she would have emotional reactions. That kept her somewhat human.

The book is also an overall interesting mystery. Flavia gets herself into some sticky situations, but she is always able to find a way out of them. There is another Flavia book in the works, to be published next year.

Final Verdict for The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: Three Gherkins, for being an engaging English country house mystery with a unique heroine

About Me

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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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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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