Friday, April 29, 2011

Sitting Down for a Cuppa with Jane

Jane Austen was quite the tea fancier.  Her novels and personal letters are filled with references to her love for the drink.  In the beautiful book Tea with Jane Austen, author Kim Wilson gives us an inside view of the rituals and routines associated with this most British beverage.

Because tea is so associated with Britain, it's interesting to note that it was unknown in Queen Elizabeth I's time.  A few hundred years later, however, it was definitely a status symbol to be able to offer your guests tea.  This book describes how tea was such a valued commodity in Jane Austen's home that it was kept under lock and key.  Not only was the beverage itself an important part of social calls, but elaborate tea sets and tables were also necessary to impress the guests.

Chapters in the book deal with such important matters as the time of day when tea was consumed, how tea was purchased, the effects of tea on health, and taking tea away from home.  Sprinkled throughout the text are lovely excerpts from Jane's books and private letters relating to tea.  She was apparently in charge of tea operations in her family's household, and took her duties very seriously.

The book also features many recipes that would have been familiar to people in Austen's day, including Hot Bath Cakes, Barley Water, Plum Cake and China Orange Jelly.  There are also plenty of illustrations throughout the book which help to set the mood.  Luckily for me, the final chapter of the book concerns "Making the Perfect Cup of Tea."  This chapter includes advice on the correct water temperature based on the type of tea you're using, how to correctly use and steep loose tea, and the proper accessories needed to get the most enjoyment out of your cuppa (a beautiful pot and cup, plus a Jane Austen novel, of course!).

I found this book to be very informative and delightful.  I truly felt the importance of tea and its place in society during Jane Austen's life!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Tea with Jane Austen from Frances Lincoln Publishers

Final verdict for Tea with Jane Austen:   Four Gherkins, for being a thorough look at that most delightful of British customs

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jane Austen's Green Fingers

Gardens figure prominently in the works and life of Jane Austen.  The lovely book In the Garden with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson looks at all aspects of gardening as it relates to the writer and her characters.

This little gem of a book looks at how gardens that Jane knew and loved look today.  The gardens are even divided up into Cottage Gardens, Mansion & Manor House Gardens, City Gardens and Public Gardens & Parks.  The final chapter contains advice on how would-be gardeners can re-create Jane's gardens (including flower and vegetable varieties) for themselves!  The book also features a listing of gardens that were shown in screen adaptations of Austen's works. It's rather interesting how frequently films and TV programs are made from her novels. 

The book is filled with beautiful illustrations, as well as information about visiting the locations that are open for tours.  There are also plenty of quotes from Jane Austen's works as well as from her personal correspondence.  I especially enjoyed the aspects of gardens which might not be considered by modern readers.  For instance, one inescapable feature of every garden was the outhouse.  The book gives some interesting details about how people tried to disguise them (plants in front and vines to obscure) and how the paths to the outhouses were suggested to be circular, so "it would not be obvious to the casual observer what the stroller's purpose was in choosing that particular path."  You have to wonder if modern gardeners know how easy they have it!

Another interesting feature of the book is recipes from the period when Austen lived, including how to make Bee's Wax Lip Salve, Pot Pourri and "Mrs. Norris's Dried Roses."  Well, Martha Stewart had to get her ideas from somewhere!

This book is gorgeous and packed with information.  Fans of Jane Austen, gardening or flowers will be enchanted!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of the book from Frances Lincoln Publishers

Final verdict for In the Garden with Jane AustenFive Gherkins, for being a beautiful look at the world that Jane Austen inhabited

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Are you an Upper or a Downer?

British TV fans in the US were overjoyed this year when we found out that the wonderful TV series "Upstairs Downstairs" had been updated and was going to be shown on PBS's Masterpiece Classic.


Synopsis: One of the most beloved television series of all time is brought back to life in a sumptuous new production with a fresh new cast.  It's 1936 and six years since parlormaid Rose  (Jean Marsh, Sense & Sensibility) left 165 Eaton Place. Fate brings her back as housekeeper to its new owners, Sir Hallam  Holland (Ed Stoppard, The Pianist, Brideshead Revisited), his wife Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes, MI-5, Ashes to Ashes), and his mother, Lady Maud Holland (Eileen Atkins, Cranford, Gosford Park). Rose soon finds she has her work cut out for her as she recruits a new “downstairs” family to help run the elegance and finery of the “upstairs” world. Both upstairs and downstairs, it soon becomes apparent there lies a labyrinth of secrets, lies and scandal.  Set against the historical backdrop of a pre-World War II Britain with a new King on the throne, with Fascism on the rise on the continent, and with sexual, social and political tensions at 165 Eaton Place, this new series provides an evocative take on the master-servant relationship. 

Available on DVD:       April 26th

Official Site URL:         http://www.bbcamericashop.com/

Anyone who was captivated by the original series, which ran for 5 seasons in the 1970s will be happy to be back among familiar surroundings.  Times are changing, but the social lines are still drawn.  The interactions between the members of staff and the upper-class people they serve prove that there is more going on than meets the eye.

Here is a clip from the new series:



Thanks to BBC, I have one copy of the new DVD series of Upstairs Downstairs to give away!  To enter, just leave a comment answering the following question:  if your finances would stretch far enough to allow you to hire one servant, which one would you hire and why?  I'd have to go for Cook.  Cook always seems to be a sort of no-nonsense person, and I'm sure she'd be able to whip up all the traditional English dishes!

Please remember to leave your email address in your comment if it's not visible in your profile.  The contest is only open to US Residents due to postal costs.  Leave your entry by May 1.  The winner will be drawn on May 2 and notified by email.  If I don't hear back from you within 3 days, a new winner will be chosen.

Good luck on winning this wonderful DVD!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Upstairs Downstairs to offer in this giveaway from BBC.  I was not compensated for this post.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hidden gems in the metropolis

While London is my favorite city, it can be a bit overwhelming.  The noise, the crowds and the concrete can seem bewildering to the casual visitor.  I've often wondered how it must be for everyday Londoners to try to get to work or the grocery store with throngs of people everywhere.

One Londoner decided to seek out the quiet and calming areas of the city.  Siobhan Wall's new book Quiet London takes a look at areas of the city that are not as well known as the popular tourist destinations, but are welcome respites from hectic city life.

The categories covered include:

*Museums
*Libraries
*Parks, Gardens and Nature Reserves
*Places to Relax and Retreat Centers
*Places of Worship
*Small Shops
*Restaurants and Cafes
*Bookshops
*Places to have Afternoon Tea
*Galleries
*Pubs and Wine Bars
*Hotels and Places to Stay

Image courtesy of Siobhan Wall and Frances Lincoln Publishers

Each category contains several recommendations for places that are ideal to read, relax or meditate.  Each suggestion shows a lovely photo (most in color, but some in black and white) as well as an address, phone number and website (if applicable).  There is also information included for every location about whether it is handicapped accessible, or if only certain parts are.  Also included are travel directions including bus, tube and train connections.

I especially liked the descriptions of each place, including whether or not attached cafes or stores play background music.  When this book says quiet, it means quiet!

There are plenty of recommendations that I have added to my "must see" list for my next trip, including the National Art Library, Bunhill Fields (glad I'm not the only person with a fascination for cemeteries!), and the Centre for Wildlife Gardening's Stag Beetle Sanctuary (OK, it says it's for children, but who wouldn't want to see that??).

The only quibble I have with the book is that sometimes the text is set too close to the inner margins, and can make the book difficult to read.  I really didn't want to pull the book apart to see better, because I was afraid of damaging it.   Other than that, the book is a beautiful addition to anyone's library.

The author, Siobhan Wall, has taught fine art, photography, and video production. For a decade she was a full-time senior lecturer at what is now London Metropolitan University. The author and publisher of Quiet Amsterdam is an independent curator who lives and works in Amsterdam.

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Quiet London from Frances Lincoln Publishers
Final Verdict for Quiet London:  Four Gherkins, for being a  a wonderful guide to some seldom-visited parts of London.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Lucifer wasn't the only one crying . . .

With the current popularity of mystery novels set in northern Europe, you'd figure that one set in the snowy climes of Finland would be a surefire hit.  Well, not so fast.  The book Lucifer's Tears, by James Thompson, is the second to feature Inspector Kari Vaara.

The blurb on the back of the book states that James Thompson is "eastern Kentucky born and raised" and has lived in Finland for over 10 years.  He is married to a Finnish woman.  In this novel, the Finnish Inspector Vaara is married to Kate, an American.

Inspector Vaara is the requisite tortured and flawed policeman, although in this instance he really is tortured by extreme migraine headaches.  There are numerous times that his previous case is referred to in the book, and since I haven't read the earlier book, I'm a bit lost when it comes to the background.

In this book, Vaara and his unlikeable partner Milo are called out to a particularly brutal crime scene.  A married woman has been found beaten to death (and Thompson really relishes giving us the gory, vivid details) in her lover's apartment.  The lover was present during the murder, but claims he was attacked and unconscious while the woman was killed.  The husband, a Russian businessman, becomes a suspect, especially when it becomes apparent that he's also having an affair with a woman who is nearly a twin of his dead wife.

Vaara is also directed by his boss to investigate a Finnish national hero from WWII for possible war crimes.  The situation becomes personal for Vaara when he discovers that the war hero served alongside his beloved late grandfather.  If the war hero was guilty of war crimes, that so was dear old granddad.

To complicate matters, Vaara and his wife Kate are expecting their first child at any time.  Kate has previously lost twins, so the couple is anxious that nothing go wrong this time.  Kate's younger brother and sister come to stay with them on the pretext that they are going to "help out" once the baby is born.  The brother is a drunken troublemaker and the sister a judgemental religious fundamentalist. 

The situation of the WWII war criminal and the two American outsiders exist solely so that Thompson can lecture the reader on: a) Finland's involvement in WWII on the side of the Nazis (who victimized them as much as the hated Russians); and b) Finland's superior (to the US) social welfare society.  There are long, preachy passages that are meant to enlighten the reader, but the author is assuming that the reader has an interest in the subject (I really didn't, and my husband is half Finnish!).  Note to author: Tell the story, we don't need a history/civics lesson!

I also found the language to be unnecessarily crude.  The "f-word" loses its intended impact when it's used 5 times in the same paragraph.  Adding "-wad" or "-wit" or other suffixes to it don't make it a new word!

And what was with the hostility toward Mensa?  He has two characters who supposedly are members --  both anti-social, deranged, drunken gun-nuts.  Membership application rejected or something???

So, no, I'll have to say I didn't enjoy this one.  The over-the-top unbelievable sex and violence scenes, the long, boring history lessons, and lack of any sympathetic characters have ensured that this visit to Inspector Vaara's Helsinki will be my last.

Final Verdict for Lucifer's Tears:  One Gherkin, for a passable story told in an unpleasant manner

Great advice for job seekers


In these days of high unemployment, job seekers need every advantage when they are looking for work.  The book Knock 'em Dead 2011: The Ultimate Job Search Guide provides a complete overview of job-search strategies to help you stand out from the crowd.

The book is divided into five sections, each of which covers a different aspect of the process of finding a job.  Part one, "The Well Stocked Briefcase" includes advice, exercises and examples of what needs to be on a modern, technologically-savvy resume.  I especially like advice such as how to create your own "professional brand" and how to "get inside an employer's head."

The second section of the book deals with job interviews -- how to land them and how to project your most professional image during the interview.  Part three is invaluable as it deals with how to handle yourself during the interview, including the types of questions to expect (and what sort of answers will best impress the interviewer), the different types of interviewers (some know even less than you do about the job you're applying for!) and how to cope with unorthodox interview locations.

After you've survived the interview, you're still not finished.  Part four of the book deals with such issues as interview follow-up, dealing with job offer negotiations, fielding multiple job offers at the same time (we should be so lucky!), and how to "ace" psychological tests that might be required before you start your new job.

The final section of the book discusses thirty-five occupations which will see job growth in the near future.  Each occupation is described in detail, as well as the outlook for that job and Internet sites that provide more information.

I found the advice in the book to be very encouraging and applicable.  I know that it can be difficult to know where to start when trying to find a job.  I especially liked the "Knock 'em Dead" tips sprinkled throughout each chapter.  With this book, everyone will find plenty of advice and concrete examples that you can apply to turn your job search into a job offer!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of this book from BookSneeze

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Something to cheer about

The British royal family is in the news quite a bit lately, due to a certain event that's coming up.  In addition to the current crop of royals, this has also been a very good year for some royals from a few generations back.  The film The King's Speech was certainly the most decorated film at this year's Academy Awards, winning Best Actor (Colin Firth), Best Director (Tom Hooper), and Best Picture.

I was lucky enough to see the film in the theater.  This was before it had received so many nominations, and I was surprised to find the theater absolutely packed.  I was even more surprised at the round of applause that broke out at the end of the film.  That's when I knew for sure that this was a film to be reckoned with!

Anchor Bay Entertainment and The Weinstein Company announced will release the Blu-ray™ and DVD versions of The King's Speech on April 19th.

In case you aren't familiar with the story, here is a quick synopsis:

After the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon) and the scandalous abdication of his brother King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), Bertie (Colin Firth) – who has suffered from a debilitating speech impediment all his life – is suddenly crowned King George VI of England.  With his country on the brink of war and in desperate need of a leader, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mother, arranges for her husband to see an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  After a rough start, the two delve into an unorthodox course of treatment and eventually forge a genuine friendship.  Through this unexpected bond, the new monarch will overcome his stammer to find his voice, inspire his people, and rally the world.   The King's Speech is cinematic royalty: a magnificent production, studded with glittering performances, based on a true story of friendship, triumph and, ultimately, glory.

The Blu-ray™ and DVD bonus features include an audio commentary with director    Tom Hooper; a 20-minute “Making Of The King’s Speech”; archival footage of the actual King George VI; and much more.

Be sure and get yourself a copy of this wonderful film which will leave you cheering, too!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

If You Can't Be There in Person . . .

With the joyous occasion of the Royal Wedding coming up at the end of the month, many people are looking for ways they can help to celebrate.  One way to help set the mood is by listening to the great new CD Music For A Royal Wedding.  This CD contains 16 different selections, for a total running time of 67 minutes.

The music on the album includes a variety of selections which have a connection to royalty.  The liner notes give detailed information on each track and how it relates to the royal wedding.  Some examples:

The first track, Fanfare for a Festive Occasion, was played at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and The Duke of Edinburgh in 1947

Elger's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4 was the music that Princess Diana and Prince Charles heard as they left St. Paul's Cathedral after their wedding ceremony

For the Love of a Princess was featured in the film Braveheart, and evokes the love story between William Wallace and Princess Isabelle of France

Other songs will be familiar to listeners because they've been used in numerous televisions shows (The Flower Duet) or are old favorites (The Bridal March from Lohengrin, Pachelbel's Canon in D Major and God Save the Queen).

If you are unlucky enough to have misplaced your invitation to the big event on April 29, you can still enjoy the atmosphere of being at a Royal Wedding by listening these uplifting and emotionally stirring songs!
For more information visit http://www.silvascreenmusic.com/

A bad hair day, but still giddy

G.K. Chesterton is mostly known (by me, anyway) as the author of the Father Brown mystery series. I was interested to find out more about the man and his career in the book Defiant Joy: the Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton by Kevin Belmonte.  Chesterton comes through in the book as a larger-than-life character, bursting with happiness and intellectual curiosity.

His early life was happy, spent with doting (if somewhat lax) parents.  His youth was marred by the death of his older sister Beatrice when he was three.  The only thing mentioned about her death was "she fell off a rocking horse," but at age 8, that would seem to be unlikely.  Whatever the cause, her death caused Chesterton's father to periodically retreat from the family, and G.K. himself to become overly fearful of illness and death.

As with most young boys of the time (1880s), Chesterton was sent away to a boy's school, where he made lifelong friends and began his interest in debating.  After finishing at that school, however, Chesterton went to study art in London.  Away from friends and family, it was at this point that he experienced a severe personal and spiritual crisis.   While suffering through this deep depression, Chesterton suddenly had a miraculous turn-around.  He began to be extremely thankful for the gift of life and for the "personal gifts" he received from his "personal God."

He began working as a journalist and at various publishing firms.  His anonymous art criticisms brought him his first notice, after which he published two books of verse in 1900.  His two books of social criticism and personal journey to faith, "Heretics" and "Orthodoxy" cemented his place in literary history.  In these books, Chesterton laments the pessimism of the day, and details his believe in a God that brings joy, not repression.

The first Father Brown story was published in 1910.  Chesterton went on to publish 52 Father Brown stories.  The character of Father Brown was based on Chesterton's own good friend Father John O'Connor, and differs from the other sleuths of the day in that he works alone.  Father Brown has heard the worst that man can do in his confessions, so he is all too familiar with evil.  This allows him to use his knowledge of the human spirit to make connections and solve the mysteries presented to him.

In addition to writing spiritual, critical and mystery works, Chesterton also wrote novels, plays and an epic poem.  The book is also filled with well-known names that sparred with Chesterton in friendly and not-so-friendly fashion, including George Bernard Shaw, H.L. Mencken and T.S. Eliot.

I was very happy to learn more about his amazing and prolific author.  I wish the book had concentrated more on the author's life instead of including large passages from his work, followed by what everyone who ever wrote said about them.  It got a bit tiresome to slog through all the comments that everyone else was making about Chesterton's work: a few sentences would have been preferable to three-quarters of a page.

Still, the book helps to increase interest in an author who is not so well-known today.  I hope to be able to read more works of the prolific G.K. Chesterton in the future!

Friday, April 1, 2011

I'd be dangerous if I had any direction

Don't grow too fond of the crow on the cover of Four Lions.   I'm sorry to say that Mr. Crow doesn't have a happy ending in this film about four (well, really five) incompetent terrorists in London.  You wouldn't think a film about terrorists could be funny, but this one is.  The would-be "terrorists" are plagued by numerous difficulties, including in-fighting and being, uh, not overburdened with brains. 

The main players in this film are:

Omar, who has a wife and young son

Waj, Omar's best friend, who is a bit dumb

Barry, the middle-aged British convert

Faisal, who is rather low-key and hopes to train crows to be bombers so he won't have to get involved

Hassan, a student who is recruited into the group, but whose commitment remains shaky

This group of aspiring terrorists spends most of its time attempting to make videos which will be shown after their deaths.  But they can't even manage to get through a video shoot without erupting into arguments.  They do eventually begin to develop explosives, but once again, can't come to any sort of agreement about what their target should be. 
Eventually, they decide to "go undercover" and dress in costumes to conceal the bombs.  It's even more absurd to see the fearsome group dressed as a clown, a man riding an ostrich, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, and whatever this thing is:

In the end, the film manages to make a very difficult and touchy subject look silly.  As a viewer, I found myself feeling both angry at and sorry for the main characters. Each was misguided and lacked direction.  Instead of paying attention to giving their families a better life, or working to change things, they were all caught up in the idea of "making a statement" without having any clear idea what sort of statement they wanted to make or why.

I found Omar's wife Sophia to be the most confusing character of all.  She fully supported her husband's wish to become a suicide bomber, but mocked his deeply religious brother when he came to visit.  She seemed to have no qualms about becoming a single mother.  Even though this film was not meant to be taken as a serious study of suicide bombers, I would have liked to learn more about her character's thoughts and feelings. 

Overall, I greatly enjoyed the film for its look at a misguided group attempting to make a statement about their beliefs . . . if only they could figure out what those were.

Final Verdict for Four Lions:  Four Gherkins, for being an amusing film about an all-too-serious topic