Monday, March 29, 2010

When asking for book recommendations of beloved classics, one that frequently is mentioned, in gushing terms, is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I've never heard anyone who's read the book respond with anything less than animated enthusiasm when talking about the book. Somehow, I never got around to reading it, but I was excited to see that a film had recently been made from the book, starring the always quirky Bill Nighy, so I couldn't wait to watch it.

Somehow, in among all the accolades, I'd never actually gotten any idea about the plot of the book. It centers around the Mortmain family, who move into a damp, crumbling castle. Their father, who had published a successful novel a few years previously, had seen the castle from the road and decided to move his family there, no matter what the cost or consequences. We see the excited family rushing in to their own private fairytale castle.

Suddenly, the next thing we know, 10 or so years have passed, and the family's fortunes are decidedly worse. Father has been unable to repeat the success of his first novel, or indeed to even write anything at all. Mother is suddenly and inexplicably gone and replaced by a wacky stepmother named Topaz. The girls, Rose and Cassandra (who is telling the story through her journal entries), are socially isolated. There is no money to pay the rent on the castle or even to buy food.

Word reaches the family that the old landlord, who was not anxious to enforce the rent collection, has died and the new landlords are requesting payment of back rent. Of course, this throws the entire family into a panic. The two daughters are soon delighted to discover that the new owner is a young American man, Simon Cotton, who is currently visiting the main estate house with his younger brother Neil. Rose immediately decides that she will get Simon Cotton to marry her, so that she can save her family from being thrown out onto the streets.

Here is where the story gets odd. Rose and her family are all decidedly quirky. Not just poverty stricken and socially inept, but also wildly out of touch when it comes to things like appropriate attire. The Cotton family, by contrast, appears to be insanely wealthy and caught up in society affairs.

Naturally, though, after only a few meetings, Rose's plan works and she becomes engaged to Neil Cotton. She is immediately whisked away to London to start getting ready for the wedding. Cassandra becomes worried that Rose is sacrificing her own happiness in order to save the family, but when Cassandra comes to London to visit her, Rose assures her that she does love Neil. This presents something of a problem, as Cassandra is also in love with Neil.

That's the story. There are a few events at the end, but basically, the story just sort of fizzles out. I was left puzzled as to why everyone is so enthralled with the book. It might be a wonderful story, but it didn't translate very well to the screen. The characters were not sympathetic, and their actions didn't ring true. Why on earth would Neil Cotton suddenly propose to that odd girl with the weird family? Why was the "artsy crowd" so enthralled with the bizarre step-mother Topaz? Whatever happened to the mother? It just didn't make a whole lot of sense.

Final verdict for I Capture the Castle: Two gherkins, for some lovely scenery of an old castle, but not much believable plot

Friday, March 26, 2010

The miniseries Fallen Angel starts in the present day and works backward in an attempt to show how the title character, Angel, became so . . . unangelic. The series is told in three episodes, each of which could basically stand on its own, although some characters attempt, in voice overs, to tie past events to the present.

The first episode takes place in the present. A female vicar stands to address the congregation for the first time, only to be interrupted by an intruder who stands at the back of the church and yells insults. This is shortly followed by the abduction of the vicar's young daughter. As the police try to find the child, and the parents become more distraught, we are introduced to "Angel," a young woman who lives in a house with the son of her recently deceased landlord. It soon becomes apparent that Angel is cruel and manipulative. She and the grown (if somewhat slow) son, it seems, have been abducting children off and on for a while. Angel claims that they were orphans who "weren't right" and that she eventually returned to the orphanage. Oddly, this claim is never followed up or referred to again. When the vicar's daughter goes missing, there is a great deal of media attention, so it seems odd that if other children had been turning up missing it would have at least been mentioned. This becomes important because body parts begin turning up all over town, which the police are quick to determine don't belong to the missing girl. So who supplied them? We never find out.

The second episode concerns Angel, then called Rosie, as a teenager. She has been away at boarding school, and comes home to live with her widowed vicar father. Much to her disgust, she finds her father has become engaged to the researcher Vanessa. Rosie comes across as a real spoiled brat, constantly screaming and slamming doors. She also takes up with the local bad boy, Toby, who lives with his sister in a nearby mansion. It's also at this time that she becomes interested in the story of the Rev. Youlgreave, a clergyman who was accused of human sacrifice in the early part of the 20th century and "thrown out of the church."

The final episode concerns Rosie at about age 5. She is living with her parents and her elderly grandfather, who is beginning to show signs of dementia. A family friend, Wendy, comes to stay and becomes the narrator for most of the story. There is a gory death, followed by a family tragedy, but Wendy is uncertain about how she should deal with the events. The entire series ends rather abruptly, with what I presume is supposed to be a shocking revelation, but what is something that has been suspected all along. I was more shocked that many of the unanswered questions from the first episode were not resolved. Where were the body parts coming from? Why was the lady shouting at the vicar?

The DVD also contains a "behind the scenes" feature which turned out to be a bit tedious. Every single person who had anything to do with the series (actors, writers, directors, costume ladies, etc.) has to expound, at great length, about the motivation of the various characters and how they came to work on the project. It was rather interesting to watch, simply for the complete lack of vanity in the actress Clare Holman. At one point in the interview she appears looking quite lovely, but in another, she is interviewed with rollers in her hair and a babushka scarf on. What's up with that?

All in all, the DVD was fairly enjoyable, if somewhat predictable. I just wish some of the loose ends had been tied up.
Final Verdict for Fallen Angel: Three Gherkins, for being an engrossing, if somewhat disappointing story

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I generally love the books of Marian Keyes, even if they sometimes deal with difficult subjects (the news itself is full of painful and difficult stories these days, so why voluntarily subject myself to more of it in my leisure hours?). Her latest book, The Brightest Star in the Sky, once again tackles hard issues but includes a new cast of quirky characters and charming turns of phrase, so that overall the whole book is not a downer.

The events in the novel center around an apartment building at 66 Star Street in Dublin. Overseeing the lives of the tenants is a mysterious presences, whose identity will be revealed near the end of the story. In the meantime, we get to meet the inhabitants of the flats:

Matt and Maeve, a newlywed couple who seem to have no friends and spend every evening watching TV and eating cookies

Jemima and Grudge, an 88-year-old psychic woman and her hostile dog

Katie, a single woman who's just turned 40 and works in the music PR business

Jan, Andrei and Lydia, two Polish workers and their testy Irish cab-driving lodger

The various characters move in and out of each others lives. Throughout the story we get bits and pieces of information which explains why certain characters behave as they do. We find out why Lydia is so short-tempered and why Maeve drives her bicycle so recklessly, for instance. Couples form and break up throughout the book, and there is an interesting side-story about Jemima's foster son, an aspiring TV gardener who has "magic pockets."

In addition to all the slightly wacky characters and amusing situations, there are also some tragic and heart-breaking events that occur. I made the mistake of listening to the audio version of the story, and I had to go to work several mornings sniffling and trying to hold back tears after some particularly ill-timed situations occurred!

The ending of the story is somewhat predictable (except for an unexpected application of some well-deserved justice), but still enjoyable. I was truly sorry when the story was over and I had to leave 66 Star Street behind. It would make a fantastic film -- Hollywood, are you listening? Then again, after the massacre they did on Confessions of a Shopaholic last year, maybe it's better left alone.

On a side note, I was extremely distressed to read in the Marian Keyes newsletter that she has been suffering from severe depression recently. I'm sure all of her fans around the world join me in wishing her a fast recovery.

Final Verdict for The Brightest Star in the Sky: Four Gherkins, for being a charming, if sometimes difficult, modern fairy tale

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Even though I work in a library, we don't buy a lot of fiction, so I guess I'm out of the loop as to what publishers do to promote new books. I was therefore astonished to see this video, which looks like a movie trailer, announcing the new book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls

Good heavens. I do hope it will be made into a film eventually. It looks like they've made a good start on one! I'm looking forward to reading this one, since I did enjoy the first collaboration between our dear Jane and the great unmentionable hoards.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

I've always been fascinated by lurid accounts of historical murders, and luckily, Britain has no shortage of those. I was familiar with the case of Edith Thompson, hanged in 1923 for the murder of her husband, but I had no idea the story had been the basis for a fairly recent film, 2001's Another Life.

The case has always fascinated me, mainly because the accounts of the story I've read always seem to indicate that Edith was unjustly executed. I'm not sure how much poetic license was taken with the film, but I have more questions after seeing it.

Edith Thompson was portrayed in the film as a high-spirited, fun loving girl. She giggled and twirled her way through life. A thoroughly modern woman, she had a good job as a book keeper at a hat store, and flirted outrageously with her boss, portrayed by a sympathetic Tom Wilkinson.

The true tragedy in the story was when the spunky Edith married dull, stodgy, old-before-his-time Percy Thompson. Percy was an accountant, and the son of a right sour-faced old cow (sorry, the Eastenders influence sometimes overcomes me!). World War I is approaching, and no doubt the romance of a possibly permanent separation helped to speed up the wedding. It turns out that Percy had a "bad ticker" that kept him out of the war. He was so pleased to be avoiding the conflict, and so eager to give others advice on how to fake a "dodgy ticker," that Edith lost what little respect she'd had for him. She also earned more than he did, which also served to increase her contempt for him.

Enter Frederick Bywaters. Edith's family knew Freddy as something of a neighborhood thug in his youth. He's grown up now, although Edith is still nearly a decade his senior. Freddy works as a sailor and is frequently gone on to sea, which no doubt only increased his romantic appeal -- visiting all those exotic ports of call, while poor Edith was stuck living in Ilford with boring old Percy. Although Edith's unmarried sister Avis is interested in Freddy, he and Edith begin a long and torrid affair.

At first, Freddy lives with the Thompsons when he's not at sea. It doesn't take long for Percy to suspect that something is going on with his wife and their young lodger. Freddy is banished, but he and Edith continue their relationship. While he is at sea, they being a long and torrid correspondence. This is where Edith gets into trouble. Although she is very modern in her views, she is opposed to getting a divorce. She is worried about what the neighbors would think, and she also states that she would lose her job as a divorced woman. So she convinces Freddy to continue their relationship as it is.

This continues for a while, but she eventually grows so tired of Percy that she asks for a separation. This Percy adamantly refuses to grant, although he seems to be fully aware that his wife is carrying on an affair (she comes in late most nights when Freddy is in town). It is at this point that talk of murdering Percy surfaces. Freddy is apparently serious about the idea, but, as portrayed in the film, Edith goes along with the idea only in theory. She cheerfully writes to Freddy about her attempts to poison her husband, first with ground glass in his food, and later with powders Freddy sent her to induce an abortion. Did she really try to kill Percy? I guess that is where the true question of the case lies. Certainly, in the film she's shown dropping light bulbs, sweeping up glass, and watching intently as Percy eats. Who's to know?

One evening, after Freddy has pressed her to once again leave her husband, Edith states that she and Percy are going to the theatre that night. As they return home, an assailant jumps out of the bushes and stabs Percy to death. Freddy is quickly caught, and there's really no attempt on his part to deny guilt. Edith is arrested as an accomplice, although she denies all knowledge of the murder. Naturally, the police have her letters, which seem to admit to numerous prior attempts on her husband's life.

It was also interesting to see the actual execution scene. I wonder how true to life it was? In the film, Edith becomes hysterical and has to be drugged. She is then carried, more or less unconscious, to the gallows. Of course, for her sake, I hope that part at least was accurate!

Many believe that Edith was executed, not for murdering her husband, but for the sin of being a married middle class woman who committed adultery. I must admit that I didn't have any doubt of her innocence before I saw all of her "joking" about trying to kill her husband. The final credits of the film contained the information that the files from the case were sealed for 100 years, which means they should be open for inspection in 13 years. It will be interesting to see if any new revelations come to light when that happens.

Final verdict for Another Life: Four Gherkins, for being an interesting depiction of a real-life mystery

Monday, March 8, 2010

It really started out quite promising. In the book, The Baker Street Letters by Michael Robertson, Reggie Heath's law firm takes over the building in London which has the address where 221B Baker Street would be, if it were still in existence. As part of the lease agreement, the current tenants agree to answer any letters the arrive addressed to Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, there are plenty. No correspondence is to be entered into, but rather a form letter acknowledging receipt of the letter is sent, along with some general words thanking the sender. As it happens, Reggie's perpetually underachieving brother Nigel can just about handle the mindless task of answering the Holmes letters -- at least until he can appear before the legal authorities to explain why he should be allowed to practice law again. There was apparently an unfortunate incident with a client, who misunderstood Nigel's attempts to return a legal fee as an attempted sexual assault (as so often happens).

Anyway, Nigel becomes interested in one of the Holmes letters, written by a young American girl 20 years earlier. She'd asked Sherlock Holmes to help find her missing father. The letter also included some maps that the father had been working on when he disappeared. Now, 20 years later, two more letters, supposedly from the same girl, have arrived asking for the return of the maps. Nigel doesn't think the girl wrote the new letters. He attempts to interest Reggie in the case, but the self-absorbed Reggie can't be bothered -- until Nigel turns up missing and Reggie's clerk turns up dead in Nigel's office.

Reggie follows Nigel to Los Angeles in an attempt to track him down and prove that he didn't kill the clerk. Naturally, soon after his arrival in LA, Reggie is on the scene as a new murder victim is discovered, so he must now work to clear both himself and his brother of the murder charges.

Unfortunately, the characters didn't spend much time in London. Which is a pity. Although I don't know if it would have saved this book, it would surely have made things more interesting. As it was, there was so much wrong with this book that I was amazed it was published. Where was the editor? Among the problems that so vexed me:

1) Reggie arrives in LA and hops in a cab. He has the address where the girl from the letters lived 20 years ago, but that house is abandoned. He then calls directory assistance to get her new address. The cab driver takes him there and leaves. Then Reggie gets out his cell phone, only to discover it doesn't work in the U.S. SO HOW DID HE CALL DIRECTORY ASSISTANCE FROM THE BACK OF THE CAB????

2) Reggie tracks Nigel to a low-budget hotel and begins asking questions. No one wants to talk, so Reggie tries bribes -- with £20 notes. The first person he tries to give one asks what it is, and when Reggie assures him that the money is worth nearly double that in dollars, everyone accepts it -- hotel clerks, cabbies, cafe workers, etc. Later in the story Reggie grumbles about a long layover in Newark, BUT HE HAD NO TIME TO CHANGE ANY MONEY? And everyone in LA accepts British money in relatively small denominations? Surely the exchange fees would eat up the balance?

3) Reggie, seemingly at random, checks into a hotel in LA. Immediately, he begins to receive faxes, phone calls, visits from the police, etc. IS EVERYONE PSYCHIC? Or did he have some sort of universal tracking device attached to him that told everyone where they could find him?

4) As he checks in at his hotel, the desk clerk informs him they can "set him up with an American cell phone." This is helpful, because he's forever getting calls from people who ask things like, "Is this the British guy who's looking for his brother?" Really? How would you ever request that number from directory assistance?

I listened to the audio book, and the problems continued.

5) The girl who wrote the letters, Mara Ramirez, was apparently sufficiently schooled in the English language at age 8 to write a legible letter to Sherlock Holmes. Yet, 20 years later, she speaks with a bizarre accent. It's probably meant to be Spanish, but comes across more like Russian. We later meet someone from her family, who has no accent at all. Um, why would she have an accent at all if she's lived in the US her whole life? Weird.

6) There is also the methane problem. The story revolves around tunneling for a new subway system in LA, with the construction endangered by methane gas pockets. Reggie, understandably, pronounces methane in the British way: MEE-thane. However, the American characters, inexplicably, have the same pronunciation, instead of how Americans would actually pronounce it: METH-ane. It's jarring to have a character who is supposed to be an American suddenly come out with MEE-thane. Not at all believable.

So all in all, this book was just a disaster. Add to that the fact that the story was quite uninteresting, and you have a dud of a book. I really never cared about any of the characters, and spent the whole time just wishing they'd get back to London or that the story would improve. Sadly, neither happened.

Final Verdict for The Baker Street Letters: Zero Gherkins, for being a terrible, illogical mishmash of a book

Monday, March 1, 2010

The winners have been randomly chosen to receive the Poldark series one DVD from Acorn Media. The winners were:


Nancy in HI

Jinxy and Me

Congrats to all the winners! The winners have been notified and the DVDs should arrive soon. Thanks to everyone who entered, and watch this space for future giveaways!

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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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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