Wednesday, October 31, 2012

DCI Vera Stanhope can be difficult to like.  We gain a little more insight into what makes her so prickly in Vera: Set 2, a collection of 4 new episodes featuring the wonderful Brenda Blethyn as the tough female cop.  DCI Stanhope is joined in her sleuthing by her hunky DS Joe Ashworth (played by David Leon) who is married and has some domestic strife of his own.

Vera Stanhope is a single woman living alone in the remote house of her deceased father.  She tends to drink too much, snap at her subordinates at the police station, and rely far too much on DS Ashworth (much to the displeasure of his long-suffering wife, Celine).  The series is filmed in Northumberland and the scenery is beautiful.  The episodes in this collection feature:

1. The Ghost Position:  Vera's first superior officer has been injured while rescuing his daughter from their burning house after it has been firebombed.  Soon after this, another inexplicable tragedy occurs. Vera learns some shocking things about her former colleague as she attempts to sort out what happened.

2. Silent Voices:  A beloved social worker is murdered while swimming in a local beauty spot.  Since her computer was stolen shortly before she died, could the killer have been trying to stop the publication of a book about an infamous child killer?  Vera and Joe look into the social worker's private and professional life to get to the truth.

3.  Sandancers:  A local army base is the site of an apparent suicide that turns out to be murder.  The victim and his unit had recently returned from a tragic tour of Afghanistan where one of their members was killed by an IED.  Was this wartime death an unfortunate accident, the result of negligence, or something more sinister? 

4.  A Certain Samaritan:  A girl passing by a bridge on a night bus thinks she sees someone being pushed over the edge of the bridge.  The police respond, but where's the body?  When an unidentified body does turn up, miles away, it's up to Vera to figure out who the victim is and how he got so far away from the site of the crime.

There are several other recurring characters who make Vera very enjoyable.  Poor Kenny, an apparently competent officer, is given all the unpleasant and thankless tasks around the station.  Billy, the medical examiner, fancies himself as something of a ladies' man and is always ready with a joke.  The young female detectives, Holly and Bethany, try to avoid Vera's sharp tongue while being part of the team.

I found the series very entertaining.  Vera is such a complex character -- prickly and explosive one minute, vulnerable and compassionate the next.  I really like that she is so unpredictable.  We also get some idea as to why she is the way she is (some hints about a former relationship and her difficult relationship with her father) as well as some possible things that might be revealed in the upcoming season 3 (a previously unknown family member, perhaps?).

All in all, Vera is a wonderful series with enjoyable characters.  I look forward to spending more time in Northumberland!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Vera: Set 2 from Acorn Media

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dancing and attending balls feature prominently in all of Jane Austen's novels.  The characters use these social occasions to advertise their availability, meet prospective mates, show off the latest fashions and observe strict social codes of behavior.  It can all be a bit perplexing to modern readers.  The delightful book A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball by Susannah Fullerton helps to sort it all out.  Using letters Jane wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as drawing heavily from the novels themselves, the author examines all aspects of the ball and the huge importance it held in early nineteenth century society.

There were many aspects to consider when preparing for a ball.  First of all, it was assumed that everyone knew how to dance the most popular dances.  This was achieved by having a "dancing master" come to homes for private lessons.  This was made even more economical by inviting friends and family in the area with young people at home to come over and share in the lessons.  Once the instruction was over, there were more practical matters to contend with.  For instance, how are we to get to the ball?  Well-off families had their own carriages, but unfortunately, many young unmarried ladies (including Jane Austen herself) had to wait for an invitation to either travel with someone or else stay over with them in order to attend a ball.  Even if you were able to secure transportation TO the festivities, getting home was sometimes an entirely different matter.  If you could afford it, you could also be carried in a sedan chair -- although since these were left outside in all weather, the inside would likely be damp and generally unpleasant, somewhat negating all the careful preparation in getting ready!

All images courtesy of Frances Lincoln Publishers, Ltd.
and Susannah Fullerton
After the practicalities were taken care of, it was time to get dressed.  This was, of course, a very complex and intricate operation.  Ladies who were advertising their availability as marriage prospects wanted to look their best.  As well as a fashionable dress, the young lady also had to consider her hair (a complicated, elaborate hair-do likely involving feathers or jewels as decoration), dancing slippers (including "shoe roses"), gloves and fans.  Fans were put to many uses including cooling off an overheated dancer, being used as a flirtatious device, hiding a reluctant maiden's eyes from unwanted suitors, and (more practically) being pressed into service as an impromptu note-taking device! Men were expected to wear knee breeches, silk stockings, frock coats and white gloves -- unless they were soldiers, of course, in which case their formal uniform would do.

The different types of balls are also described (who knew there were so many?).  There were the private balls, requiring a formal invitation and RSVP.  Invitations were highly sought-after, since the balls were likely to be held in homes of high social stature.  Another less-formal type of get-together was an informal ball, when rugs were rolled up and furniture pushed aside to provide room for dancing.  In Bath, there were assembly balls held in public buildings.  These often required tickets to be purchased, and eventually they allowed for the infiltration of all levels of society (even servants -- shudder!) into what had previously been an entertainment reserved for the better-off members of society.  The last, and most exclusive, type of ball was the court ball.  These were generally held at the Royal Palace of St. James to celebrate a royal birthday, and were stuffy and formal affairs.

All images courtesy of Frances Lincoln Publishers, Ltd.
and Susannah Fullerton
The book is beautifully illustrated with both contemporary drawings and paintings and more modern scenes from recent films.  Included in the book are also historical sketches of real people who had an influence on the social history of dance, including Thomas Wilson, a dancing master who published over 15 dance manuals in the nineteenth century, and Beau Nash.  Beau Nash was a "Master of Ceremonies" at the assembly rooms in Bath who set the rules for conduct and dress in the ballroom.  Some of his "Rules to be Observ'd at Bath" (written in 1706) included such admonitions as "gentlemen do not ask ladies to dance until they've been formally introduced" and "a lady must accept an invitation to dance, or spend the rest of the evening sitting out all the dances."  These rules were still scrupulously followed in Jane Austen's time, so having her characters behave in ways that didn't adhere to these rules allowed her to give readers all sorts of information about just what sort of people we were dealing with.  For instance, Marianne in Sense and Sensibility violates another steadfast rule by dancing almost exclusively with Willoughby, rather than obeying her social duties to mingle and dance with others.  This caused her to be not only the subject of gossip among her fellow ball-goers, but also shows the reader that Marianne is allowing her heart to overrule her common sense (which will surely lead her into serious trouble, as we soon see).

I really enjoyed learning all these aspects of balls and what great importance they had in society during Jane Austen's time.  The book does a wonderful job of showing how the characters are constrained by all the "rules" they must follow. By using examples from all of Jane Austen's works, we can better understand the social customs which everyone was expected to obey.

Susannah Fullerton is President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia and has lectured extensively around the world on Jane Austen’s life and novels. She is the author of Jane Austen and Crime, a book described by Claire Tomalin as “essential reading for every Janeite.”

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of A Dance with Jane Austen from Frances Lincoln Publishers in exchange for this review.

Final verdict for A Dance with Jane Austen Four Gherkins, for being a delightful look at the manners and customs that influenced Jane Austen's work

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Those lovable lads from UCOS (Unsolved Crime and Open Case) are once again wrangled into service by Detective Superintendent Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman) in the eighth season of the beloved series New Tricks.  The three retired detectives take a look at old and unsolved cases with a view to finding a resolution.  The stylish boss superintendent Pullman gives orders and suffers no fools as the team reviews files, interviews suspects and hunts down killers in this charming and long-running series.

This set includes all 10 episodes from Season Eight, which was originally broadcast in the summer of 2011 (Season Nine is currently running on the BBC).  These are the unedited UK editions, showing an additional six minutes per episode than was broadcast by PBS stations in the US.  There are plenty of contemporary touches and modern events that help to keep the series fresh.  The three detectives are also amusing as they attempt to solve cases and sort out their personal lives at the same time.  The three detectives are:  Jack Halford (very refined and dapper), Brian Lane (full of facts no one is interested in) and Gerry Standing (always with an eye out for the ladies).

There are some lovely shots of London as the team travels around searching for clues and witnesses.  The stories unfold in beautiful and bustling locations like Borough Market, the Natural History Museum, and the London Zoo. Some of the cases that are tackled include the murder of an Albanian translator, a noted scientist and antiques dealers, bringing the investigators into contact with a variety of different aspects of society.

It's also fun to see the occasional famous face pop up from time to time.  Some of the actors making guest appearances include Peter Davison, Keith Allen, Rebecca Front, Shaun Williamson and Sally Phillips (among others).

There is also a 20 minute extra feature on how the soundtrack for the series is put together.  It's really fascinating and shows just how much work goes into something most people take for granted.  There's a discussion of how the sound effects (walking, doors closing, bicycle wheels turning, etc.) are added after filming, and a fascinating interview with the father and son team responsible for creating the music for each episode.  I was surprised to learn that Dennis Waterman really does sing the "feem tune!"

The series has already been renewed for a tenth season, so it looks as if the UCOS team will be solving mysteries for a while to come!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of New Tricks: Season Eight by Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final verdict for New Tricks Season Eight:   Four Gherkins, for being a light-hearted look at a beloved crime solving crew

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wisdom Meets Passion is a book that offers vocational guidance for those who might be looking for a first job or for someone who might be looking for a more fulfilling career.  The author, Dan Miller, is the creator of the popular book and website 48 Days to the Work You Love.  Jared Angaza is his son, who has lived his life based on many of the ideas that are advocated in this book.  The chapters are written mostly by Dan, with occasional comments inserted by Jared.  The main point of the book is that if you combine your wisdom with something you are passionate about, you will be able to find fulfilling, meaningful work that will be more rewarding to you than any high-paying job could ever be.  There are chapters on things like making a difference, discovering why you're here, and sharing the wealth.

While this book does have some good points, I felt that overall it was impractical.  It's all very well and good to tell someone that they need to find fulfilling work and that volunteering and internships are the way to go, but the very practical matters seem to be glossed over.  The author mentions such admirable figures as Bono, Mother Teresa and Angelina Jolie as people who have done marvelous things with their humanitarian works, but I doubt any of those people had to worry about keeping a roof over their heads or where their next meal was coming from.  The father is very proud of his non-conformist son, who picked up and moved to Africa, but the son himself talked of having a "big network of friends and family to take care of us."  The author also seems to have somewhat negative views of traditional education and useless college degrees.  While it might be true that there are many people who graduate with high student debt and no clear career path, it seems somewhat irresponsible to counsel people to "identify 30 or 40 companies" you'd like to work for, contact them 3 times each, and "God will provide a job." 
He does state numerous times that people should have a plan and take definite steps to put the plan into motion, but there is an awful lot of suggestion that if you "do something you love" that money will just miraculously show up.  I'm really surprised that the practical Dave Ramsey endorses this book and philosophy so highly!
While this book might be useful to someone who is financially stable and suffering from a career crisis, I don't think any desperate, unemployed person will receive much practical advice from it.  For more information about the book, please visit the Wisdom Meets Passion product page.

Disclaimer:  BookSneeze® provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my review.

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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4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

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