Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Vampires are all the rage these days.  In the novel The Radleys, author Matt Haig takes a look at a family of vampires living today in northern England.  Father Peter is a doctor, while Helen, the mother, is an artist who doesn't work outside the home.  The two teenaged children, Rowan and Clara, have been raised without knowing they are vampires.  They are pale, regarded by their classmates as strange, and constantly ill.  Peter and Helen have determined to live as "abstainers" -- vampires who attempt to overcome their craving for blood by following the advice in The Abstainer's Handbook.

Things would have probably gone on like this for the foreseeable future, except for an unfortunate incident involving Clara.  One evening she is attending an outside party with Eve, a new girl at school, when she begins to feel ill.  Clara starts walking home, but one of the drunken boys follows her and refuses to leave her alone, even after she throws up on his shoes.  He becomes more violent, and, without really knowing what she is doing, Clara transforms into her vampire self and kills him.  She is understandably confused about what has happened, so she calls her parents in a panic.  They arrive and her father is able to fly the body out to sea to get rid of it.  Then the parents are in the awkward position of having to explain to their children that they are vampires.

While in a panic over the situation, Peter makes a call to his estranged brother Will.  Will is a very active vampire, killing anyone who attracts his attention.  His negative influence is one reason why Peter and Helen have chosen to distance themselves from him.  He shows up and parks his somewhat distinctive van outside the Radley's respectable suburban house.

With the taste of blood, Clara has transformed into a beautiful, calm and confident girl.  Rowan becomes very interested in the possibility that he might also feel better if he indulged in blood also.  Uncle Will is, of course, all for the children to become their true vampire selves.  Some members of the police force are aware of the activities of the vampires in their communities, but they have a truce with the Sheridan Society, a vampire association which attempts to keep the more rogue vampires in check.

Unfortunately, Clara's victim washes up on a beach and is quickly identified as being the victim of a vampire.  The police are sniffing around, and there is a great deal of tension between Uncle Will and the rest of his family.  Can the Radleys continue to live among regular society, or will they be punished for their vampire activities?

The book is interesting in that the author has created a vampire society which has its own rules.  Crosses don't bother vampires in this book, but they do become violently ill if they accidentally ingest garlic.  They can inherit their vampire charistics, or they can be "converted" by a practicing vampire.  Many famous people throughout history were vampires, including Lord Byron and Jimi Hendrix.  Most chapters begin with some instructions for vampires from The Abstainer's Handbook.

The book is a rather pleasant addition to modern vampire literature. The chapters are short and the book moves quickly.

Final Verdict for The Radleys: Three Gherkins, for being an interesting, if somewhat predictable vampire tale

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Walking is a popular pastime in England, and I wonder how many people stop to think about what is UNDER their feet?  That is the question that the book Granite and Grit: A Walker's Guide to the Geology of British Mountains attempts to answer.

The book begins with the author, Ronald Turnbull, discussing how he became interested in the geology of Britain through various school trips and visits to a holiday cottage.  The next section of the book concerns the history of Britain.  How did it come to reach its current shape and composition?

After giving a brief overview of how Britain came to be, the author then gives an in-depth discussion of 17 types of stone that can be found in the country.  An interesting feature of the book is that the author describes walks that the reader may want to follow, and what sort of rocks and other features (algae, fossils, etc.) can be found along the route.

The book is written in a very engaging and conversational style.  The author puts a lot of his own experiences into the text, which helps to make it very relevant to the casual reader.  At the end of the book is a glossary of terms, which is very helpful!  The book has many, many large and colorful illustrations of not only various geologic features, but also of lovely landscapes.

All in all, I found this to be a gorgeous, very informative book about what lies UNDER a beautiful country.

Granite and Grit will be released in mid-January and is now available for pre-order through Amazon.

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Granite and Grit from the publisher

Final Verdict for Granite and Grit:   Four Gherkins, for being a very thorough introduction to an unusual subject

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It seems that almost every day there are new business books which come out discussing "new" and "revolutionary" techniques which guarantee success or improved leadership skills.  Sometimes, we can learn more from looking to the past than in trying to invent new skills. 

The author Stuart Finlay, while reading the memoirs of Winston Churchill, became struck by the personal and professional qualities Churchill employed in order to help him successfully lead his country through the dark days of WWII and emerge victorious.  The book What Churchill Would Do is a fascinating look at how Churchill's skills can be applied in today's workplace.

The book is a mix of an examination of Churchill's writings and action during and following the war years, and the author's personal experiences in the modern corporate culture.  Each chapter examines a trait that Churchill exhibited, followed by a discussion of the historical actions that exhibit this trait.  For example, in the chapter titled "Disarmingly Ruthless," Finlay shows how Churchill could be ruthless but compassionate.  To illustrate this trait, the author discusses Churchill's actions during the blockade of French ships at Oran in North Africa.  The British were concerned that French ships would fall into the hands of the Germans, so Churchill gave the French naval commander several options, including handing over the ships to the British, destroying them, or sailing them to a conflict-free area of the world.  The French naval commander refused all these conditions and attempted to flee a British blockade.  There was a battle with a large loss of life on the French side.  Churchill had attempted to avoid the loss of life, but he had to show a ruthless streak to send a message that he would follow through with consequences if provoked.

Finlay then shows that this same trait of ruthlessness can be harnessed successfully in the business world, if, as Churchill displayed, it is tempered with fairness and compassion.  He shows how at some jobs he's had, ruthless bosses who display only the negative side of the trait, have workers who are fearful and do not work for the good of the company -- but rather not to make any mistakes that might cause the boss to turn his or her negativity on them.  On the other hand, bosses who display a ruthless streak in business matters while at the same time showing understanding and support for their employees have workers who are willing to work hard for the greater good of the company.  I know which sort of boss I'd rather be  . . . and work for!

The book has 21 chapters which demonstrate the traits that made Churchill so successful. The last chapter of the book is the text of Churchill's "victory speech" from May, 1945, in which he discusses his strategies during the war and the hardships that he and the country have overcome, while not dismissing the dangers that were still present at the time.

This book combines the best of two genres:  history and business.  Times may change, but the personal traits which make people successful can be applied at any time.  Today's business leaders would do well to take note of What Churchill Would Do -- and follow suit!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of What Churchill Would Do from the author.

Final Verdict for What Churchill Would Do Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating book filled with personal examples of how following a great leader can make you a better leader

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

We all wish we could do more to help solve the many problems in the world.  Many of us, especially at this time of year, try to help out by giving donations to charitible causes.  In the book Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski, a young man feels compelled to act on his desire to really understand the problem of homelessness in America.  As he stated, "We were created to be and to do, not merely to discuss.  The hypocrisy of my life troubled me."  He made the decision to go onto the streets and live as a homeless person, both to experience homelessness, and to discover how churches are responding to the needs of the homeless.

At the time of his decision, Yankoski was a Christian college student.  Needless to say, his family and friends were somewhat shocked and dismayed at his decision.  He began slowly, volunteering at a homeless shelter and even gathering a group of advisors who helped him plan his journey.  Before he left, he was joined on his mission by another young man, Sam Purvis.  They both wanted to learn more about the problem, and felt that two men travelling together would have safety in numbers.

They set out to experience homelessness in 6 cities:  Denver, Washington, D.C., Portland, San Francisco, Phoenix and San Diego.  They found differences in the homeless populations in each city.  In Washington, DC, for example, they found that most of the homeless people they encountered were African American veterans in their 50s.  In Portland, most of the homeless were young people in their teens and 20s.  And in San Francisco, they were dismayed at the racial hatred that played out frequently among the various groups. Mike and Sam took their guitars with them, and tried to earn money by panhandling.  This went better in some places than in others, but they were often able to make enough money for at least one meal per day.

They encountered a few people who helped them along the way, but for the most part, they found that to be homeless was to be invisible.  Whether through fear or some other reason, they found it was rare that anyone would even make eye contact with them.  The most shocking thing they discovered was that many churches were not only not helping the homeless, but were actively avoiding them.  They found churches that were padlocked when "church business" wasn't being held, and were told to leave several churches where they had come to either attend services or perhaps find a meal.  In one memorable instance, Mike and Sam slept in the doorway of a church to be there first thing in the morning when the doors opened.  They were awakened by singing -- every member of the church had entered for services through a side door, in order to avoid the two "vagrants" at the front door!

Through all of this, Mike and Sam knew that at the end of their journey, they had warm beds, clean clothes and hot meals waiting for them.  They constantly wondered and worried about the people who had been living for years in the existance that was nearly unbearable for them to endure.

At the end of the book, Mike gives many suggestions for people who might want to get more involved in working with the homeless.  He encourages everyone to step outside of their comfort zones and truly live the life that God intended.  I found the story to be very touching and encouraging.  It is wonderful to see someone who really puts his faith into action.

You can download an Under the Overpass action plan for Christmas here.

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Under the Overpass from WaterBrook Multnomah for posting my honest opinion

Friday, December 10, 2010

Creepy English castles are always a great setting for a story, so I was excited to read The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  While the events covered in the novel move back and forth in time between the 1940s and the 1990s, the creepy house, Milderhurst Castle, is featured prominently throughout.

The story concerns modern (well, 1992) woman Edie, who works for a small bookshop and has just broken up with her boyfriend and become homeless in the process.  She is staying with her kindly boss and trying to figure out how to break the news to her parents.  While visiting her parents one day, her mother receives a letter that had been sent in the 1940s, but for some reason was only just now delivered.  The sight of the handwriting on the letter has a profound effect on Edie's mother, and she eventually tells a story that she had not mentioned before.  During WWII, she was evacuated from London and sent to live in the countryside.  She ended up staying at Milderhurst Castle, home to writer Raymond Blythe and his 3 unmarried daughters.  She states that after she returned home, she had never been back to visit the castle nor the Blythe sisters, but the long-lost letter was from one of the sisters, Juniper.

Edie becomes very interested in Milderhurst Castle, both because of her mother's association with it, and the fact that it had been the home of Raymond Blythe, the author of one of her favorite books.  The book The True History of the Mud Man (Blythe's best-known work) is mentioned as a beloved children's classic, although everything mentioned about the book seems to indicate that it would be quite dark and scary, not the sort of thing that would appeal to children at all. 

Edie eventually visits the castle and meets the now elderly Blythe sisters, who still live there.  The two oldest sisters, Persephone and Seraphina, are twins (although nothing alike) and the youngest sister, Juniper, suffers from some sort of mental disorder that causes her to wander around the castle, lost and ghostlike, mumbling incoherently. I know this is supposed to be creepy and Gothic and all, but really could we have had some more believable names?

So anyway, the story begins to alternate between Edie in the present, who has been tapped to write a biography of Raymond Blythe (and therefore has access to the castle, his papers, and the sisters) and the 1940s, when events happened which caused Juniper to go all loopy.  The big mystery is what happened to Juniper's fiance.  She was kept virtually as a prisoner in the castle by her father, who felt that her "talent" as a writer would be wasted if she were to marry and have children.  She escapes, however, and travels to London where she meets Thomas Cavill, a young teacher (the teacher of Edie's mother, the war refugee, in fact) and they fall in love.  They decide to marry, and Juniper decides to introduce her strange family to Thomas.  On the night she and Thomas go to the castle for the introductions, Thomas disappears, along with Juniper's sanity.  Oh, whatever could have happened???

Well, by the time the mysteries of the novel have been revealed (what happened to Thomas and what was in the long delayed letter), the reader is really ready for some big, earth-shaking, mind-blowing, wildly unexpected revelations.  The build-up to the ending is so agonizingly slow that you think, "It must be worth waiting for."  Therefore, it's a huge disappointment when the ending just sort of fizzles out.  Nothing that is revealed is all that shocking or even interesting.  There is a huge feeling of let-down when you realize you've slogged through nearly 700 pages (in my Advanced Reader's Copy) for . . . well, not much.  Very depressing.

The book had the elements to be really good, but it leaves the reader flat.  As I mentioned, I didn't read the final edition of the novel, so I can only hope it has been pared down somewhat.  Not much of interest was revealed, but it sure took a long time to get there.

Final Verdict for The Distant Hours Two Gherkins, for some creepy potential, but an ultimately disappointing story

Thursday, December 9, 2010

As an avid reader of mystery stories, I love anything featuring private detectives.  Most mystery series on TV seem to focus on policemen and women as they attempt to solve crimes.  I was therefore excited to discover the series Vincent, which features Ray Winstone as a former cop turned private investigator. The series I watched was from 2005 and contained 4 episodes.  There was a season 2, so I'd be interested to see it as well if it's ever released in the US.

We drop in on Vincent just as his personal life is going down the drain.  His long-time girlfriend Cathy has moved in with another man (a surprisingly mild-mannered Phillip Glenister) and is pressuring him to sell their jointly-owned flat.  Vincent still has a thing for Cathy and tries to convince her to come back to him, but she's having none of it.

Vincent has an office with 4 assistants who perform various duties.  In the four stories presented in the first series, the team investigates a cheating girlfriend (with tragic consequences), a young man's death in a nightclub, an autistic young man who might have killed a woman, and a cocaine distribution ring.  While the stories are interesting, there are quite a few events that make the series not quite as believable as it should be.  In the episode where the team is investigating the young man's death in a club, Vincent and his co-workers are threatened by a menacing, powerful crime boss, whose son is suspected of the crime.  By the end of the episode, the crime boss has inexplicably decided to confide in Vincent (rather than follow through with trying to kill him, which he has been doing non-stop up to this point).  In the final episode, Vincent gets a bit to close to a beautiful, jet-setting cocaine dealer, and after knowing each other a few days, she apparently decides to give up a life of crime to be with Vincent.  And let's not forget the fact that the not-exactly-svelte, generally rumpled, aging Vincent is inexplicably irresistible to beautiful women (even if they are sometimes annoyed by his habit of having to answer phone calls and rush off after exchanging two sentences with them).  There are also story lines which are developed, but never resolved.  In one case, Vincent's young assistant is sent to follow a teen aged boy who is getting into trouble and suspected of doing drugs.  The tape of the son's activities is shown to his father, who is upset, but that's the end of that story.  What happened as a result of the father seeing the tape?  We never find out.

I did mostly enjoy the series, even if I found the story lines to be a bit far-fetched.  Still, it was interesting to see the gadgets that the team employed in their investigations, and the relationships between the members of the team.  Small bits and pieces were dropped from time to time about Vincent's employees  (the two female assistants have children/former partner problems), so it would be interesting to see if these events came into play later in the series.
Final Verdict for Vincent:  Three Gherkins, for a generally enjoyable look at a modern private detective

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanks to everyone who entered my prize pack giveaway from Warner Bros. online.  The lucky winner was:

Jinxy and Me!!

A big congrats and I hope you really enjoy the prize.  With all those great gifts, who wouldn't?

Thanks again to Bridget at Warner Bros. online for providing the great prizes.

Keep watching 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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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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