Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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

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

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

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

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 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
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

Please bring me some new letters for my sign:

. . . and possibly a dictionary

About Me

My photo
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 . . .

I'm waiting! My library holds

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My LibraryThing Library

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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