Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ruth Rendell's novels written under her Barbara Vine pen name are always something of a challenge for me.  Although she's one of my favorite authors, I can rarely finish the Vine books.  The style of them is hard to follow.  There might be frequent references to "the awful event" from page one, which I suppose are designed to reel in the reader, but just serve to exasperate me. The "event" is generally not revealed until the very end of the novel, by which time I've long since ceased to care.  So I was a bit wary when I saw that there is a new Barbara Vine book out, The Child's Child

This book concerns two themes: homosexuality and single motherhood and how the two issues have become more socially acceptable.  There is also the device of a novel-within-a-novel at play here. 

The story begins with college lecturer Grace being given an unpublished novel, The Child's Child, which was written by a fairly well-known deceased author.  The author's son wants her opinion as to whether or not the novel could interest a publisher.  Grace has recently moved into her deceased grandmother's large house with her brother Andrew.  The house is so large that they can live independently of each other if they wish.  Andrew soon moves in his attractive, but somewhat prickly boyfriend James.  Grace puts the novel aside as she works on her thesis, which deals with the idea of illegitimacy and single motherhood in Victorian fiction.  She gets into some rather heated discussions with James, who says that male homosexuals faced a much more difficult life during that time, as homosexuality was illegal and anyone found guilty of the crime could be sentenced to hard labor. 

While society may have softened its views on both homosexuality and single motherhood in modern times, James and Andrew experience the continuing hostility that gay men face when they witness one of their friends being murdered as they leave a gay club one evening.  They are both potential witnesses at the trial, a possibility which causes James to become severely depressed.  In this state, he and Grace experience a new dimension to their relationship.

At this point, the modern story takes a pause while we are given the full text of the novel "The Child's Child" which Grace has agreed to read.  This story begins in 1929.  John is a teacher at a school in London, and is involved in a highly passionate, but illegal relationship with the flighty Bertie.  He decides to move to a rural school to get away from the temptations of London, and plans to devote himself to a life of celibacy.  A visit home to his parents at this time reveals that his teen aged sister, Maud, is pregnant and unmarried.  Her horrified parents plan to send her to a home for unwed mothers and have the baby adopted.  John quickly takes charge and proposes a solution that will change every one's lives.

The Child's Child part of the book is the main chunk of the story.  None of the characters is particularly likable:  the ungrateful, selfish Maud; the opportunistic, violent Bertie; and the spineless, weak John.  A murder happens, but most people seem rather indifferent to it.  Eventually, the crime is solved, and things go on pretty much as before.  Undeserving people are rewarded and unreasonable demands are inexplicably met without much resistance. 

We eventually swing back to the modern story where there is a bit of unrealistic drama and an ending that sort of fizzles out.  It is interesting how the social problems are contrasted between the modern and distant characters.  A single woman becoming pregnant in 1929, which was seen as the end of the world, is today accepted as the norm.  States are passing same sex marriage laws, when homosexuality was a crime in Britain until, unbelievably, 1967.  The book does make the reader marvel at the societal changes that have taken place over the last century, but the characters in the book are not very likable, either in the present or the past.  There's not really anyone to root for.

On the bright side, I did manage to get through this Barbara Vine novel, so perhaps I'm mellowing in my old age!

Final Verdict for The Child's Child:   Three Gherkins, for being a thought-provoking look at modern social changes

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Most people tend to think of London as being an ancient city full of history.  Surprisingly, most of London is not really that old.  Little remains from the Roman era, and a series of disasters (the Great Fire of 1666, German bombing during WWII, misguided attempts at modernization) has removed many of the landmarks and buildings that would have been familiar to London residents over the previous centuries.  Lost London: An A-Z of Forgotten Landmarks and Lost Traditions by Richard Guard singles out some notable nearly forgotten aspects of London that have been lost to the march of time.

There are buildings which have been lost, but also occupations, among them Crossing Sweepers, Death Hunters (early sensationalist journalists) and Dog Finders (although I have a feeling "dog-napping" might still be a lucrative, if not very popular, occupation!).  The Frost Fairs, held on the ice on the rare occasions when the River Thames froze over, are also mentioned, along with the years, starting in 1150, when they were held. 

Some of the lost things are not missed, such as plague pits.  It was interesting to read that still today when new construction is begun, excavations frequently turn up large numbers of human bones.  Must make the life of the London construction worker a bit more lively than those who work elsewhere!  The old horrific Fleet Prison, so vividly described by Charles Dickens, is also better off being relegated to the pages of history, as is the appropriately named Execution Dock.

I would have liked to have seen some of the locations built strictly for entertainment, though.  The Colosseum in Regents Park, described as having a dome larger than that of St. Paul's Cathedral, must have been a sight to see.

The book is packed with many interesting facts and contains many beautiful black and white drawings which help to give the book a feeling of historical charm.  All in all, this book gives the reader an appreciation of the older parts of London that managed to survive at all!

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Lost London from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Lost London Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating look at a vanished past

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Most couples, at some point in their relationships, will experience disagreements and possible resentments over money.  While the conventional wisdom has always been that having a budget and sticking to it will solve the financial problems in a marriage, this isn't always the case.  The book The 5 Money Personalities: Speaking the Same Love and Money Language by Scott & Bethany Palmer instead focuses on the different beliefs and attitudes about money that each partner brings into the marriage.  Until you and your partner understand your own unique Money Personalities, it is unlikely that any money disagreements can be solved.

While nearly everyone is familiar with the statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce, I was surprised to find that among couples who do end up going through a divorce, 70% of them blame money issues for the failure of their marriages.  The authors of this book, who work in financial planning, recount their experiences in working out detailed financial plans for their clients, only to have the clients come in at a later date and announce their separation over some financial aspect of their lives.  This gave them the unique insight that budgets and financial plans will not solve money problems unless each person realizes and takes responsibility for his or her own Money Personality. 

The five Money Personalities are: Saver, Spender, Risk Taker, Security Seeker and Flyer.  Not only that, but most people are a combination of several of these personalities.  Talk about being challenging in coming to a financial consensus!  There are examples of each category given in the book to help you work out your primary and secondary type.  Additionally, there are negative aspects of each type given to show how the resulting behavior might impact your spouse.  If you're still unsure, you can take an online quiz to determine your Money Personality.

I enjoyed the insights that were pointed out in this book.  For instance, many small decisions you make during the day can have a negative impact on your relationship.  If you and your spouse are trying to save money, but one has a Starbucks habit or leaves the cap off the toothpaste so that it dries out and half the tube has to be thrown away, that can enrage the other partner who may feel it is unfair that he or she is putting more effort into following the plan.  "Make it Happen" suggestions at the end of the chapters to help you more fully explore your attitudes toward money.  There are also suggestions on how to negotiate and "fight fair" if you happen to be married to someone with a different attitude to money than you have. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from BookSneeze for the purpose of writing this review.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Any visit to London would not be complete without stopping by the venerable Fortnum & Mason store in Piccadilly.  Serving customers since 1707, the dealer in luxury goods is especially known and admired for its food selection.  The new book Fortnum & Mason: Honey and Preserves offers a delightful look at the process of making preserves and honey, and also plenty of recipes using both substances to make a wide variety of delicious dishes.

The book begins with a lovely overview of both Fortnum & Masons, and the history of preserves.  Known since the middle ages, when it was called "stuff," preserves have been used to liven up an otherwise bland diet.  Still, it was difficult to keep any food fresh for very long, until 1809, when the Frenchman Nicolas Appert won a prize from the French government for his discovery of how to preserve food to keep it fresh for transport and storage.

Fortnum and Mason has been selling different types of jams, jellies, chutneys, pickles and honeys for over 300 years.  In the mid 19th century, they began selling their own range of preserves.  The history of the company is very much tied in with the history of the British empire.  Travellers to exotic foreign lands brought back a variety of new spices, fruits and flavors that quickly became sought-after in general society.  Fortnum & Mason incorporated these new tastes into numerous popular new creations.  Everything was going quite well until the war-time rationing of sugar (and the frequent torpedoing of ships carrying fruit) meant that supplies for creating the jams and other delicacies were in short supply.  The creative folks at Fortnum & Mason just continued on with what they had, creating jams using cheaper fruits (such as apples and plums) and using such things as raisins for sweeteners.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the idea of rooftop bees was put into place, with a palatial hive built to exacting specifications.  After dallying with some inferior foreign bees, it was decided that the hardy and industrious Welsh Black bees should be used instead, and they have not disappointed.  However, the honey is only harvested two times per year, so it is not easy to secure a batch before it's sold out.  You can watch the activity of the bees on one of two "beecams" on the website (although they weren't working when I checked.  Maybe the bees' lack of activity in the wintertime necessitates a camera hiatus until spring!).

The majority of the book is taken up with delicious recipes, many accompanied by lovely color photos of the dish involved.  The recipes are divided into Light Bites & Starters, Main Courses, Puddings, Bakes and Preserves.  Some of the recipes included are Lemon and Lime Cheesecake, Beef and Stout Puff Pastry Pie, and Warm New Potato and Spinach Salad.  Yummy!  Most, but not all, of the recipes include a specific Fortnum & Mason product.  I can't wait to try some of them out, even if some of the recipe instructions are a bit puzzlings.  In one, for instance, we are instructed to "gradd the remaining milk."  Is that a mis-print, or some new word that means (I think) "gradually add"??  I was also puzzled as to what a "marrow" is, but it seems to be a generic squash.  It's interesting to read the recipes, although I'm sure my own versions won't be nearly as pretty as the ones in the illustrations!

I found the book to be lovely and quite informative.  If you've ever wondered about jams, jellies, mustards and piccalillis, and how they came to be on our tables, you will enjoy this little gem!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of the book from the publisher, Trafalgar Square Publishing.

Final verdict for Fortnum & Mason: Honey and Preserves Four Gherkins, for being a delicious look at how condiments came to play such an important role in our lives

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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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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