Monday, December 30, 2013

You're the least worst candidate I can find

I've long been a fan of the DCI Banks novels by Peter Robinson, so I was happy to see that they had been dramatized.  Of course, how you imagine things in your mind is never how they turn out in the film or TV versions of the works, but it was still interesting to see the characters of Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot brought to life.  In the first episode of the series, Aftermath, we see not only DCI Banks at his crime-solving best, but we also see when he meets Annie for the first time.

The program starts with a shocking crime and only gets worse from there.  A woman hears a crash and a scream from the house across the street.  She calls the police, and soon a car with a male and a female officer pulls up to investigate.  The police officers get no response from their knocking, but thanks to the British convention of having a mail slot in the door, they are able to look inside the house and see a bloodied woman on the floor.  After breaking down the door, they call an ambulance and then start looking for the perpetrator.  Down in the basement, they encounter another locked door, and upon breaking it down, discover something they were in no way prepared for:  the dead body of a young woman tied to a table, and the covered bodies of several  more women.  While staring at this horrific scene, a man suddenly emerges with a machete and proceeds to slash the male officer.  Girl power is luckily on offer, though, as the female officer is able to subdue the man and attempt to tend to her colleague.

That is the set-up for DCI Banks to enter the scene.  He's been investigating the disappearances of 5 young women in the area, and it looks as though he's found out what happened to them.  Or some of them at least, as there are only 4 bodies in the basement.  Banks has been tormented by images of the missing young women every time he looks out the window to his back garden.  The woman who was found injured is Lucy Payne and her husband, Marcus, is presumed to be the killer.  Both Lucy and her husband are currently in the hospital being treated for various injuries, so Banks is unable to question them at the moment.  In fact, Marcus Payne is in a coma as a result of severe head injuries he received while being subdued.  The extent of his injuries prompt a doctor to demand that the officer responsible for this presumed abuse of power be charged with assault. 

Enter DS Annie Cabbot.  She is with the police internal investigation unit and is given the job of trying to find out what exactly happened to Marcus Payne that resulted in such severe injuries.  She seems determined to do whatever it takes to get a result (based on what her superior officers tell her) so that she can be promoted.  Her investigations overlap with Banks' attempts to find the remaining missing girl, so they are drawn together.  Banks soon begins to suspect that Marcus Payne must have had an accomplice in his abduction and murder scheme, so his investigation begins to turn in a new direction.

I really enjoyed seeing the characters of Banks and Annie brought to life, even if Annie was a bit more glamorous than I had imagined.  Her choice of working clothes was also a bit unexpected.  After all, if you are a policewoman, everyone knows the surest way to gain respect and get promoted is to wear tight and/or see-through blouses.  In most police dramas, the female officers seem to do all they can to be accepted and taken seriously by their male colleagues.  It was very strange to see Annie flouting that in favor of playing up her attractiveness.  Oh well, more than one way to skin a cat, I suppose!

This was the first program in the 12 that have been filmed so far, so I hope I can see more of them.  Banks and Annie's relationship will surely have its ups and downs, and I will be interested to see if any of her superiors ever give her any wardrobe advice . . .

Final Verdict for DCI Banks: Aftermath Four Gherkins, for being a fast-paced drama with lots of twists and turns

Friday, December 20, 2013

More than one secret and a giveaway!

Since the wild success of Downton Abbey, everyone seems to be more than a little interested in the lives of the British aristocracy and the events that take place behind castle (and stately home) walls.  That's why I was thrilled to get a copy of the new book The Secret Rooms: A True Story of a Haunted Castle, a Plotting Duchess, & a Family Secret by Catherine Bailey.  Sounds like all the elements are in place for a fascinating story!  Keep reading to find out how you can enter to win your very own copy!

In 2008, historian Catherine Bailey was granted access to the papers of John, the 9th Duke of Rutland, who had died in 1940.  The current Duke is his grandson, the 11th Duke.  Ms. Bailey wanted to research the effect of World War I on the area surrounding the Duke's ancestral home of Belvoir Castle.  Nearly a fifth of the men who lived on the Duke's lands had gone off to fight in World War I, and many of them didn't return.  They were generally farm workers who had never been more than a few miles from their homes.  The author was planning a book about the war experiences on these men and their families -- both those who died in the war and those who returned home to a country that had been changed forever.

The 9th Duke had spent his life collecting, organizing and cataloging the papers, letters, diaries and historical documents that related to his family.  Soon after arriving at the castle to begin her research, the author was intrigued by the stories she heard about the Duke.  Although the castle where he lived had 356 rooms, many of them beautifully and expensively decorated, he chose to wall himself off in a small unheated part of the castle to work on his organization project of the family archives.  He rarely left these rooms and had little contact with the outside world -- or indeed, with anyone other than his valet.  When the Duke was desperately ill with pneumonia, even doctors were kept at bay as the Duke worked feverishly to finish a "project."  After his death, his son sealed off his father's rooms and papers for over 60 years.  So it was with a great deal of anticipation that the author approached the huge collection of family and castle history that the Duke had been working with at his death.

As she began her research, however, she soon noticed something extremely odd:  there were gaps in the documents.  The Duke's mother was an unbelievably busy correspondent, writing to many, many people and some even more than once per day.  The Duke also kept a diary from his own life.  There were three periods where no documentation of any kind could be found:  one from when the Duke was around 8 years old and surrounded the death of his older brother Haddon; one from his time serving in the diplomatic service in Rome as a young man; and the last, particularly vexing given the subject of the book, a 6 month period in 1915 when John had been serving as an officer in World War I.  John's diary ends on July 6 of that year, and no letters or other correspondence could be found from that date until December 5 of the same year.  What had happened?  Was the "project" that John had to finish on his deathbed an attempt to erase all trace of something that occurred during this time?

Because of this mystery, and how it impacted her original plan, the author changed course and decided instead to write a book about the Duke's life. She was determined to discover just what these mysterious gaps were about and what the Duke had been at such pains to cover up.  The lengths the author had to go to in search of the answers were extraordinary!  She consulted the families of those the Duke's mother corresponded with to see if they still had letters from her, reviewed official war records, worked to decipher some of John's letters that had been written in code, and so on.  Ms. Bailey really needs to get a job with a Cold Case crime squad somewhere, because when she's on the trail of a mystery, she doesn't give up!

The book contains many letters from the family and helps to paint a very vivid portrait of both the individual family members and the privileged society in which they lived.  The castle is also an important part of the story, as is the history of the curse place on it and the family by some disgruntled witches (are there any other kind?).  I really was eager to keep reading and to both find out the answers to some of the questions raised by the missing documents, and to marvel at the author's ability to re-construct the events that took place nearly 100 years ago into a fascinating narrative.  I also enjoyed the epilogue which gave more information about what eventually happened to many of the characters in the book.

Thanks to The Penguin Group, I have a copy of the book to give away!  To be in with a chance to win, please leave a comment stating what holiday reading is going to keep you occupied until Downton Abbey premiers on January 5!  One entry per person and you must have a US address to receive the book. Be sure to leave your email address in the comment or make sure it's visible in some other way so I can contact you. I will contact the winner on Jan. 3 and you will have 72 hours to get back to me with an address, or I will have to choose another winner.  Thanks for participating and good luck!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of The Secret Rooms (and one to give away) from The Penguin Group in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The Secret Rooms Four Gherkins, for being an amazing look at the unraveling of a real life mystery!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A poke in the eye with a sharp stick

I had heard of The Secret Policeman's Ball, and knew it consisted of a live comedy show, but I wasn't at all familiar with the background of how it came to be.  A new book, The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball, takes a look at not only the events leading up to the various shows, but also is loaded with photos from the performances as well as re-printed routines from the well-known comedians who were part of the project.

The first show was a three night event in 1976 held at Her Majesty's Theatre in London.  John Cleese, who at the time was starring in the wildly popular Fawlty Towers TV series, was asked by the assistant director of Amnesty International for fundraising ideas.  Cleese, who was already an Amnesty supporter, came up with the idea of asking some of his funny friends to participate in several nights of comedy to raise funds for the organization.  Cleese was able to get nearly all of his Monty Python co-stars to agree to take part, in addition to other well-known comics such as Barry Humphries (yes, Dame Edna Everage was already an international mega-star by then!).  Included in the first incarnation, titled "A Poke In The Eye (with a sharp stick)," were the infamous Monty Python "Dead Parrot" and "Lumberjack" sketches as well as some others that were new to me but still very funny (such as Cleese's disappointed Pope having a word with Michelangelo about his first version of "The Last Supper").  The second show was a one-off in 1977 which was more limited in scope due to the unavailability of quite a few of the performers from the first show.  Still, it was enough of a success to carry on the tradition.

The first show to carry the name The Secret Policeman's Ball was held in 1979 and introduced a comedy newcomer by the name of Rowan Atkinson.  This show also made music a bigger part of the production by including known musical guests (rather than the occasional songs performed by the comics in the earlier shows).  Some of the musical talent included Sting, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck.  Comedy still was the main focus of the show with performers including the Monty Python troupe, Billy Connolly, and Peter Cook (among others). This show was also the first time the marketing of the program expanded to record albums and TV programs.

The Secret Policeman's Other Ball, from 1981, tried to be a bit edgier, including a more brash type of comic in the form of Alexei Sayle.  The four shows from 1981 were again wildly popular, even if John Cleese was exasperated at how long they ran over the allotted time!  By 1987, the idea of a star-studded event to raise funds for charity had taken off and inspired the Live Aid events.  Additionally, in 1981 Pete Townsend had performed an acoustic musical set that both set the standard for future musical performances on the show as well as inspiring other programs such as MTV's Unplugged series.  At the same time, the success of all these charity events was starting to give the public "charity fatigue." It was therefore important to continue to attract new, fresh talent in order to ensure an audience.  Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Lenny Henry, Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry all participated in the shows in the late 1980s.  John Cleese had distanced himself from the program, but was persuaded to come back to accept the "Silver Dick Award" from Fry & Laurie (the sketch is included in the book, and takes some rather personal jabs at Cleese).

By Amnesty's 40th anniversary in 2001, Eddie Izzard had taken over as the host and routines based on familiar characters were the highlight.  To celebrate Amnesty's 50th anniversary, the Ball was held for the first time outside the UK at New York's Radio City Music Hall.  It was funny to read that during the original show in 1976 the most appreciated comedy bits had been about "Proust, philosophy and iambic pentameter," while in 2012 the biggest laughs came from references to "reality TV, Twitter and texting."  Hmm, not sure this is a positive development for our culture!  Some of the names associated with the American version were Russell Brand, Seth Meyers, Sarah Silverman, Catherine Tate and Jon Stewart.

There's no doubt that the "Secret Policeman's Ball" shows have done a great deal to raise both funds and awareness for Amnesty International.  Founded in 1960, at the time of the first show there were 3,000 AI members.  Today, this number has expanded to over 3 million members.  The important work of the organization in defending human rights and working to free the unjustly imprisoned has benefited greatly from its association with comedy.  Even though the two ideas might seem to be somewhat at opposite ends of the spectrum (topic-wise) they have ended up being a very good fit.  Over the years the performances have been turned into numerous film and album releases.

The book is filled with illustrations of posters from the various shows, as well as photos of the performers.  Many of the skits are also included and make for fascinating and hilarious reading!  A helpful index at the back will let the reader jump to the routines of his or her favorite performers. The ever-escalating cast of comedic and musical talent that the shows were able to attract speaks to the valuable work that Amnesty International did and continues to do.  The pairing of noble work and irreverent comedy was a stroke of genius that continues to benefit us all!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball from Independent Publisher's Group in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The Very Best of The Secret Policeman's Ball:   Five Gherkins, for being a comprehensive and uproarious look at the evolution of a comedic institution

Monday, December 9, 2013

Take this and go away

Everyone's favorite curmudgeonly doctor is back!  Martin Clunes returns in Series 6 of the beloved program Doc Martin.  The citizens of Portwenn know that although the doctor is not exactly up on his "interpersonal skills" he is a very good doctor (blood phobia and all!).

The 8 episodes that make up the latest series are a welcome return to all the quirky characters and beautiful settings that have made Doc Martin so popular.  Episode One begins with a wedding -- Doc Martin and school headmistress Louisa are finally tying the knot.  The whole town turns out for the festivities, and even surprise the happy couple with a honeymoon -- a night in a secluded cottage.  They are dropped off at the location by jack-of-all-trades Bert Large, who forgets to give them their suitcases.  When circumstances make them evacuate the cottage, the bridal couple is reduced to wandering the Cornish countryside in their wedding attire.  And it's all downhill from there!

In Episode Two, baby James Henry gets a new nanny when Louisa returns to work.  The nanny is an ex-Army man named Mike, whose OCD means that no one can ever find anything in the constantly re-arranged house.  Meanwhile, Doc Martin's receptionist, the competent if somewhat fashion-challenged Morwenna, has inherited her grandfather's house and is looking for a roommate.

Episode Three begins with a strange man who washes up on the beach and claims not to know how he got there.  It turns out he has an unnatural obsession with Martin's aunt Ruth, the psychiatrist.  Ruth is keeping busy by being a frequent guest on the wildly popular Radio Portwenn show.  Meanwhile, Al Large, tired of sharing a room with his father after his is rented out to tourists,  moves in with Morwenna.

A locum pharmacist, Jennifer Cardew, shows up, and it turns out she has a past with Bert Large in Episode Four.  We also meet a character with the timely disorder of hoarding.  Unfortunately, his house shares a wall with Aunt Ruth's house, and problems arise.

In Episode Five, things are going just swimmingly between Bert and Jennifer the pharmacist when Mrs. Tishell, the regular pharmacist returns.  She's been undergoing some psychiatric treatment after an unfortunate incident involving baby James.  Luckily, her obsession with Doc Martin is being kept in check by her behavioral therapy, which consists of snapping a rubber band on her wrist whenever she has a negative thought (which is pretty much constantly).   Joe Penhale, the town policeman, sets off on a nature survivalist course of his own devising, which doesn't quite go as planned. 

When Doc Martin casually mentions to a hypochondriac that his cough might have something to do with being exposed to asbestos, the frightened villagers of Portwenn clamor for inspections in Episode Six.   Mrs. Tishell is given the all-clear to work alone in the pharmacy, so Jennifer makes plans to leave for another temporary pharmacy job -- unless something happens to make her stay.   Martin's mother shows up on his doorstep with a large suitcase and some disturbing news from Portugal.

Things look bleak for nanny Mike when two military policemen turn up asking for him in Episode Seven.  Martin and Louisa are both having problems sleeping, and Martin is unable to talk about his problems with her.  Louisa convinces Martin to hand out the prizes on sports day at her school, but his irritability and lack of connection with the children cause major problems for the couple and lead to a serious incident.

In the final episode of the series, things are finally looking up for Al Large.  He's had to move in with Joe the policeman, but he has a business proposal which seems to be promising.  Romance is in the air for Bert and Jennifer, even if their celebrations cause problems for others.  Martin and Louisa's relationship is tested in several ways.

As always, a visit to Portwenn is a welcome return to familiar characters that we've all grown to love.  Doc Martin's blood phobia returns with a vengeance, causing him some trouble, but he's still able to quickly and accurately diagnose most medical conditions -- once his patients give him all the facts.  Louisa is long-suffering, trying to get Martin to open up and be more connected to both her and the community, but he remains decidedly brusque and anti-social.  When Martin's mother comes to visit, we get some insight into why his personality is so cold and disconnected from those around him.

I really enjoyed visiting with all the characters in the series -- both old and new.  The scenery was lovely as always and the situations that arose were amusing and touching.  There were plenty of "behind the scenes" extras as well, that covered everything from the characters to the setting to how to speak Cornish.  I really enjoyed seeing Martin Clunes participate in the extra segments.  It's really jarring to see him so engaged and animated when we've grown used to the surly and unpleasant Doc Martin!  I'm anxiously awaiting Series 7, especially since this series ended on something of a cliffhanger.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Doc Martin: Series 6 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Doc Martin: Series 6: Five Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with some beloved old friends

Friday, December 6, 2013

You can't teach innovation

Everybody is always looking to be ahead of "the next big thing."  We've all been amazed at some new hot-selling product and said, "Why didn't I think of that?" In the book Innovation's Dirty Little Secret, author Larry Osborne takes a look at how some innovators are able to successfully come up with new ideas time and time again while others fail to make a mark.

So just what is innovation's dirty little secret?  Well, it's not a spoiler to say that it's this:  that most innovations fail.  There are a number of reasons why most people don't know this, from failure not being newsworthy (unless it's on a spectacular scale) to the general optimism of human nature.  The author uses personal examples gained in his experience as a pastor to show how to anticipate risks as changes are implemented.  His principles are applicable in many different situations.

Many organizations are steeped in protecting their current day-to-day operations rather than attempting to plan or prepare for the future.  In order not to miss any important opportunities, it's vital that the organization identify those people within it who are insightful, courageous and flexible.  These are traits that are natural to the innovator.  The author also suggests that the best way to implement innovations without risking too much is to have an exit strategy in place before beginning.  This will allow the organization to plan for what to do if the change turns out not to be beneficial.  The major way to ignite innovation is by making sure your organization has a clearly written mission statement (which differs from the overall vision of the group). 

The section on how to Sabotage Innovation contains many useful examples of how the best ideas can quickly go wrong.  The book sums up with how to leave your own legacy of innovation with your group.  Some chapters have questions at the end to help reinforce the main points covered.  Overall, I found the book to have good ideas, but the main idea of the book, that innovators are born and it's the organizational leader's job to find that person, to be a bit odd.   He also talks about how "Mark Zuckerman" wouldn't be able to get a job at many companies that hire based on minimum qualifications.  I think he must mean Mark Zuckerberg?  Still, for leaders of large groups there are some sound ideas about how to plan for change and how to prepare for failure.

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Innovation's Dirty Little Secret as part of the BookSneeze program

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Inspector Wexford is one of my favorite fictional detectives (right up there with Kurt Wallander and Precious Ramotswe), so I was thrilled to see that there is a new Ruth Rendell novel out.  I was under the impression that she was going to "retire" Reg Wexford, but although he is retired from the police force, he is by no means retired with investigating crime as we see in the book No Man's Nightingale.

The book opens with the discovery of the murder of vicar Sarah Hussain.  Sarah and her 17 year old daughter Clarissa lived in the vicarage, but Sarah didn't have many close friends.  Therefore, it's rather puzzling as to who could dislike her enough to want to strangle her.  Detective Superintendent Mike Burden, formerly Wexford's subordinate, is now in charge of the case.

Since retiring, Wexford has spent a lot of time reading, and when we catch up to him in this book, he's still at it.  He's in the middle of "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," but it's not easy to read when you've got a chatty housekeeper, and the Wexfords certainly have that.  Maxine Sams never stops talking while she works, and so Wexford tries to avoid her as much as possible.  Still, her chattiness does occasionally come in handy, such as when she describes the scene when she found Rev. Hussain murdered.  Maxine is most talkative about her own family, including her son Jason and his baby daughter Isabella.

Jason's landlord, Jeremy Legg, is a shiftless layabout who is always looking for ways to make a quick buck without actually having to do any work.  He is separated from his former partner, with whom he rented a flat.  He was able to find a new girlfriend and move in with her, so in the absence of his old girlfriend (who has moved abroad with her new partner), he is renting out his former residence to Jason and his family.  Things are going well until the girlfriend announces she's coming home and plans to move back in to the flat.  Jeremy panics, since the girlfriend doesn't know he's been renting the place out.  Luckily, he's able to convince his new girlfriend to help him buy a new flat that he then convinces Jason to move into.

Wexford, somewhat at a loose end, is thrilled to be kept up-to-date on the murder investigation and to occasionally go out and question witnesses.  Because of his many years of experience, he is able to put everyone at ease and most people have no hesitation in speaking to him.  As in previous years, however, Mike Burden fixes on a suspect and refuses to consider any alternative explanations for the crime -- no matter how weak his evidence seems to be.

At the same time, Clarissa Hussain is nearing her 18th birthday, a milestone which her mother promised to celebrate by revealing to Clarissa who her father was.  Sarah had been married, but her husband died several years before Clarissa was born.  Sarah's one close friend reveals a possible explanation for Clarissa's conception, but Wexford isn't entirely convinced that is the whole story.  Since a new vicar is going to take Sarah's job, Clarissa has to move out of the vicarage.  Luckily, Wexford's prickly older daughter Sylvia has a spare room for rent.  She soon wonders about this arrangement when her son Robin falls in love with Clarissa.

Will Wexford find out the truth about Clarissa's father? Will he be able to solve the murder?  And are the two things related?  Will the cleaner Maxine ever shut up so that Wexford can finish his book in peace?  And will Burden ever take off his blinders and see that, yet once again, Wexford has solved the case?  These questions are all answered by the end of the book.

I enjoyed visiting Wexford's world again, as always, but I did have some problems with this book.  There were many, many occasions when there were inexplicably abrupt transitions.  Wexford would be speaking with someone in person, and in the middle of a paragraph he would suddenly be at home or calling them on the phone at a later time.  Also, the book seemed to end rather abruptly (even though most of the loose ends had been tied up by that time).  I turned the page, expecting another chapter, but was surprised to find that was the end of the story.  Still, I doubt we've seen the last of Chief Inspector Wexford (retired), and that's always a good thing in my book!

Final verdict for No Man's Nightengale:  Three Gherkins, for being a welcome, if somewhat unsatisfying, visit with an old literary friend

Monday, November 25, 2013

I assure you I am profoundly shallow

It's never easy being the poor relation.  That is a lesson Fanny Price must learn when she's sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle in Mansfield Park, based on the Jane Austen novel.  Young Fanny's mother can no longer take care of her, and luckily, she has better-off siblings who are willing to give Fanny a home.

Unfortunately, even though she is family, Fanny is never allowed to forget that she is the poor cousin.  Lady Bertram and her husband live in a beautiful stately home with their four children and another aunt, the snooty (although she seems to be a poor relation living on charity, too) Aunt Norris.  Fanny, played by Billie Piper, is treated as a servant, to be called upon to do everything from fetching and carrying to providing companionship for the aunts.  During her time at Mansfield Park, Fanny has fallen in love with her cousin, Edmund.  He is the second son of her relatives, and so decides to be a clergyman since he won't inherit the estate.  The oldest son, Tom, who will inherit, is a dissolute fellow, given to drinking, carousing, and (horror of horrors) putting on plays.  Fanny's life is going along on its fairly uncomplicated path until a scheming brother and sister pair arrive in the neighborhood. 

Mary and Henry Crawford have left the family home in London to travel in the countryside after their stepfather, "the Admiral" moves his mistress into the house.  Mary is hoping to find a rich husband who will allow her to move up in society.  Henry is a flirt and only hopes to find some girls to occupy his time.  They arrive at Mansfield Park with their eyes on the Bertram siblings.  Poor Fanny, of course, isn't worth bothering about.

Mary, naturally, wants to marry the older brother, Tom, so that she can become lady of the manor.  What a pity that Tom has vacated the boring countryside for more lively surroundings.  Sir Thomas, his father, has had to go to the West Indies for business, so the son has decided to make marry while he has a chance.  There's nothing else for poor Mary to do but set her sights on the younger brother, Edmund.  When she finds out he wants to be a clergyman, which is not only dull but also doesn't pay very well, she attempts to persuade him to adopt a more lucrative career.  Henry, on the other hand, determines to woo the younger daughter, Julia, since oldest daughter Maria is engaged to the devoted, if somewhat simple, Mr. Rushworth.  Maria, however, seems rather smitten with the new arrival.

In the midst of all this flirtation, Tom arrives back and announces that his family members should help him to put on a play.  Everyone is given parts (some more reluctantly than others) and the rehearsals give the couples even more chances to flirt shamelessly.  Unfortunately for the assembly, father Thomas returns, glowering, and puts an end to such frivolities as play-acting.

Once harsh reality sets in, life returns to normal and Maria marries her Mr. Rushworth.  Deprived of his chance of a dalliance, Henry Crawford decides to set his sights on the often overlooked Fanny as someone he can manipulate into falling in love with him.  At this opportune moment, Fanny's brother William returns from sea.  His career in the navy has stalled.  Luckily, Henry sees a chance to gain Fanny's gratitude. He is able to get his
stepfather (the Admiral) to arrange a promotion for William.  He thinks this will make Fanny indebted to him, but he's wrong.  Fanny has seen his scandalous behavior with her engaged cousin, and she knows him to be a devious and untrustworthy person. Henry, not wanting to lose an advantage, appeals to her uncle.  Sir Thomas, as nearly all of the older generation is wont to do, scolds and browbeats Fanny for not doing what everyone else wants her to do. He tries to talk her into a relationship with Henry, but Fanny (still secretly in love with cousin Edmund), refuses to go along with everyone else's plans for her.  Uncle Thomas will eventually be relieved she was so perceptive about Henry's character, although he won't have seen the last of Henry just yet . . .

Just then, Tom is brought back home in a terrible condition.  His drinking and merrymaking have
caught up with him, and he's carried home to recuperate.  Luckily, the doctor is on hand with plenty of leeches, so his health will be sure to improve with such state-of-the-art medical treatment.  In the meantime, Mary Crawford, who had given up on boring old clergyman Edmund, reappears when she hears that older brother Tom might be on his deathbed.  Not that she wishes him ill or anything, but if he's going to die anyway, she might as well be on hand to offer comfort and consolation to the new heir of Mansfield Park.  Thankfully, by this time, Edmund has begun to catch on to her deceitful ways.

Poor Fanny is still hanging around the periphery of all this flirtation and plotting, so it remains to be seen whether or not Cousin Edmund will ever begin take notice of her as anything other than a piece of furniture in the living room.  Then again, as this adaptation is based on a Jane Austen novel, I think we can be pretty sure that the virtuous maidens are rewarded with love in the end!

I was excited to see some familiar Eastenders faces in the cast, with Michelle Ryan (Zoey Slater) and Maggie O'Neill (Suzy Branning) making appearances.

Final verdict for Mansfield Park:  Four Gherkins, for being a gorgeous adaptation of a lesser-known Austen novel

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Letter writing for tuition

I, like many others, am always a sucker for anything that remotely has to do with Jane Austen, so I was excited to see the book Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay.  I was expecting it to be set in the time of Austen's novels, or to feature some of the characters.  I was therefore a bit surprised to discover that this book is only very slightly connected to Austenmania -- namely, the main character, Samantha Moore, is a fan of Austen's work.  Otherwise, people expecting Austen-like characters and situations are in for a shock!

The novel is set in modern times, and features a young girl who's had a very difficult childhood.  Samantha was in and out of foster homes as a child, and after a period of time on the streets as a runaway, she is taken in at Grace House, a home for abandoned children.  Throughout her upbringing, she's always felt alone and rootless, so she's taken refuge in her favorite books -- especially those by Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters.  She often uses the words of the characters in these books to avoid giving away too much of her self, and as a way of keeping people at a distance.  She eventually graduates from college and moves out of Grace House to work in a corporate job, even though she was offered a scholarship to go to graduate school.  Her inability to form personal bonds and her standoffish personality soon get her fired from her job, and she decides to move back to Grace House and look at the possibility of accepting the scholarship.  She knows this is her last chance, because soon she will be too old to live at Grace House.

She finds that the scholarship is still available, but there are some strings attached.  Rather than allowing her to study what she wants, she must study journalism.  With no other options, she accepts.  Also, she is required to write frequent letters detailing her progress in the program to her benefactor, known only as "Mr. Knightley."  The letters to him form the vast majority of the book. 

During her time back at Grace House, she tutors younger children and also begins running with Kyle, a troubled teenager whose upbringing mirrors her own.  Even though her immediate problems are solved, Sam soon finds that her reluctance to open herself up to the world also shows in her journalism assignments.  Her professor, Dr. Johnson, tries to encourage her, but at the same time lets her know that if she doesn't get away from impersonal, perfunctory writing, she will be kicked out of the program.  In the meantime, she struggles with boyfriend issues, personal safety problems, and plenty of self doubt. 

She eventually moves into an apartment and meets the author Alex Powell, a graduate of the same program she's attending.  She's thrilled to be in the presence of such a famous and attractive author, but finds him a bit hard to read.  They eventually become friends and bond over the friendship with a retired professor and his wife.

While I enjoyed most of the book, I did have problems with parts of it.  How likely is it that someone is going to contact you with an offer of free tuition, a paid apartment, a new wardrobe, a computer for schoolwork, etc. and all they ask in return is the occasional letter?  I'm sure we'd all love to have that  happen to us!  And isn't it odd that not only Sam, but most of the people she encounters, have memorized every English and French novel from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, and can identify any quote from them instantly?  Sam was also very prickly and unpleasant most of the time (not that she didn't have good reason), but no one ever seemed put out or angry with her unreasonable behavior. 

I'm not (unlike everyone in this book) familiar enough with the various plots of Jane Austen's novels to know if this is a modern interpretation of one of the books.  Other than the many quotes and references to characters that we are apparently supposed to know all about, there isn't much of Austen to be found here -- so don't be enticed by the title into thinking this is another Austen knock-off.  The story is pretty bleak and definitely grittily modern. 

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Dear Mr. Knightley in exchange for this review as part of the BookSneeze program

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I'd sooner suffer and grumble

Before there were fashionistas like Victoria Beckham, there were the Eliott sisters, Beatrice and Evangeline.  The two sisters in the delightful series The House of Eliott take their flair for design and style and turn it into a thriving fashion business.  The DVD release of the complete collection includes all 34 episodes from the 3 seasons of the series which originally ran from 1991 to 1994.  The series was created by the same team that brought us the classic series Upstairs, Downstairs, so you know you're in for some compelling story lines!

The series begins with the death of Bea and Evie's father in 1920.  The unmarried sisters lived with their widowed father and don't have much connection to the outside world.  Bea is 12 years older than 18-year-old Evie and, because their mother died when Evie was born, has served as something of a maternal figure for Evie.  Their pompous and somewhat slimy cousin, Arthur, has been appointed executor of their father's will, as well as Evie's legal guardian until she comes of age.  It falls to Arthur, who is a solicitor, to tell the girls that not only did their father not leave them anything in his will, but that there was really nothing to leave.  He had even mortgaged the house, so that the girls were soon going to have no place to live.  The sheltered sisters were hit hard with the reality: they had no money, no skills, and no home.  Since this was soon after the end of World War I, they would also be competing with millions of other unemployed people for the few jobs that were available.

Luckily, Evie is friends with Penelope Maddox, who suggest that her brother Jack might need an assistant for his photography business.  This turns out to be just the lifeline the sisters need.  Not only does the no-nonsense and efficient Bea soon become indispensable to Jack, but the sisters move into a flat above his photography studio.  Aunt Lydia, Arthur's socially conscious mother, recommends Evie for a position at Partini's dressmaking shop.  Because the sisters had lived with little money from their father all their lives, they had been accustomed to making their own clothes.  This fortuitous position is their entry into the world of fashion.

Soon the sisters move up to ever more prestigious fashion houses, while continuing to do designing and dress-making for private clients.  When an employer becomes enraged at their creativity and flair for design (which makes his own creations pale in comparison) and fires them, the Eliott sisters decide to strike out on their own. 

They encounter many financial difficulties along the way.  Cousin Arthur, while not embezzling their money, does not inform them of everything they inherited from their father.  He also doesn't tell them that their father had a long-term mistress and, allegedly, an illegitimate son.  This son, Sebastian, eventually turns up expecting his share of the inheritance.  All of this makes starting their own business a tricky proposition.

At the same time, the crusading figure of Penelope reappears, championing the rights of the poor and commenting loudly on the ridiculous ways of the rich, who waste extravagant amounts of money on clothes when that money could be put to better use for social causes.  In addition, the sisters must contend with busy personal lives, employee difficulties, rival jealousies and professional set-backs.

Unfortunately, the series was abruptly cancelled by the BBC after series 3, so there is no big resolution to the series.  Still, it's very enjoyable to follow the trials and tribulations of the Eliott sisters, two young women forced by circumstances to support themselves at a time when female businesswomen were a rarity.

Several familiar faces turn up, including a young Minnie Driver and Burt Kwouk (Cato from the Pink Panther films).  Many fascinating extras make up the set, including a booklet containing an interview with the series co-creator Jean Marsh, who describes how the series was created.  There are also very interesting production notes, including information about the filming -- which cost £6 million for the first season!  I imagine the majority of that was spent on the lovely fashions that everyone (well, everyone but Penelope, who had more important things than fashion on her plate!) wore.  There is also an interview, 10 years after the series ended, with a glamorous Louise Lombard, who played Evie.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The House of Eliott: Complete Collection, from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The House of Eliott: Complete Collection: Four Gherkins, for being a gorgeous and entertaining look at the lives behind a fashionable brand

Monday, November 4, 2013

My husband can cheat me because I am his wife

Hardly a day goes by without a news story about the appalling treatment of women in some far off, "unenlightened" country.  We conveniently forget that not that long ago, women in England had very few rights and were considered to be basically the property of their husbands.  The fascinating book The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton takes a look at the woman who took issue with the situation women faced in nineteenth century England and decided to do something about it.  Author Diane Atkinson, who holds a Ph.D. in the field of the politics of women's labor, takes a very detailed look at the life of Caroline Sheridan Norton, and the progress she made toward advancing the rights of women.

Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan was born in 1808 into the theatrical Sheridan family.  Her father, Thomas Sheridan, was already showing signs of the tuberculosis that would kill him when Caroline was only 9 years old.  His death left her mother, also named Caroline, a widow with 7 children at the age of 37.  Luckily, even though the Sheridan family was somewhat dissolute, with drinking and debts figuring prominently in their lives, they were well-connected.  Tom's old friend the Duke of York was able to secure housing for the widow and children at Hampton Court Palace.  While this sounds rather ritzy, it was in fact something of a last resort for the upper classes.  Charles Dickens wrote how the accommodations were cold, damp and cramped.  Still, it was better than being out on the streets (and I wouldn't mind a Hampton Court Palace address myself, no matter what the circumstances!).  Because of her very poor circumstances, Caroline's mother spent most of her time scrambling to find suitable employment for her sons and advantageous marriages for her daughters. Since the daughters would be entering their marriages penniless, there weren't many takers.  When Caroline was barely 16, she was spotted by George Norton, younger brother to Lord Grantley.  Twenty-one year old George took an immediate liking to Caroline, and asked for her hand in marriage.  Mrs. Sheridan agreed, but stipulated that the couple must wait 3 years to marry.  No doubt she hoped a better offer would come along, but none did, and in 1827 George and Caroline married.  Poor Caroline had little say in the matter, but few girls of her class did at that time.

Caroline was already well-known for her wit, beauty, writing talent and flirtatious ways.  George had trained in the legal profession, but had little ambition to follow that career.  He wanted to make a career as a politician, and had little trouble being elected to Parliament as an "Ultra Tory" -- which was an ultra-conservative branch of the party, whose main objective seemed to be to thwart any attempts at modernization.  George was described as being dull, slow, lazy and always tardy -- in other words, nearly in every way the opposite of his vivacious and intelligent wife.  While "opposites attract" might work out for some, in the Norton marriage, this was a recipe for disaster.

In accordance with the laws at the time, everything Caroline owned before marriage (in this case, not much) became her husband's property.  Additionally, any money she earned also became his.  Because George was not exactly ambitious, throughout their marriage Caroline was the main breadwinner of the family.  She was constantly turning out books of poems, novels and even songs.  In 1831 George lost his seat in Parliament, and he persuaded Caroline to ask their friend William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, who was then Home Secretary, for a job.  He came through with a job for George as a magistrate for Whitechapel.

As their marriage progressed, the Nortons had 3 sons.  George's family took an instant dislike to Caroline and made their views known whenever possible.  George, resentful of his wife's success and popularity, became abusive.  This did not endear him to her family, either.  Finally, Caroline, fed up with the abuse, left her husband in 1835.  He persuaded her to return to him, promising to stop abusing her.  She was pregnant with her fourth child and, believing his promises, returned to him.  The abuse began again, and she lost the baby.  Her brother invited her and the children (but not George, in a pointed snub) to his estate for the Easter holidays.  This, along with his family's goading, persuaded George to lock Caroline out of the house, deprive her of her possessions, and even prevent her from seeing her children.  All of these things were his right as a husband at the time.  Even more damaging, he brought charges against Lord Melbourne, then Prime Minister, for "criminal conversation" -- basically committing adultery with his wife.  If found guilty, Lord Melbourne would have to pay damages to George.

While the publicity of the trial and the surrounding scandal weren't helpful to his career, Lord Melbourne won the case and George Norton ended up looking like a fool.  This added to his already vindictive nature.  After the trial, Caroline set about trying to gain access to her children, but it was brought home to her how she had absolutely no rights in this matter in the eyes of the law.  Thus began many, many years of legal wrangling with George in an attempt to get him to let her see the children.  At the same time, frustrated by her lack of legal options, she set about to bring the horribly unfair treatment of women and mothers into the public eye.  She published a pamphlet titled "Observations on the Natural Claims of a Mother to the Custody of her Children As Affected by the Common Law Rights of the Father," which spelled out her own situation and how unfair the current law was.  This increased support for a bill before Parliament, the Infant Custody Act, which eventually passed in 1839.  It stated that a woman who was divorced or separated who had not been found guilty of adultery could be granted custody of her children who were younger than seven.  However, it was still prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy women to take advantage of this new law, since it required a case to be brought in Chancery Court.  Still, it was a step in the right direction.

Caroline and George continued to wrangle through the courts on issues of child custody and spousal support.  George attempted to get out of paying his wife's debts or much maintenance to her, even though he was legally required to do so.  He also attempted to keep control of a small inheritance she received from her father.  As her sons became older, she was able to spend more time with them, although they had health problems that were a great worry to her.

By 1852, Caroline had slowed her career of writing "fancy things" to concentrate on getting more laws changed.  She published another pamphlet, entitled "English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century" which outlined the many instances where married women were discriminated against in the courts.  This helped to influence the reform of the divorce laws, which up to that time were expensive and complex.  Caroline also appealed to Queen Victoria and explained that she was not advocating for equal rights for women, but only interested in obtaining justice for women.

As I expected when I started reading this book, I was greatly disturbed by much of what happened to Caroline Norton during her lifetime.  Married women were unable to retain property or earnings, appear in their own defense in court, sign contracts or divorce their husbands (unless they could prove incest!).  It was hard to believe that such things were considered completely acceptable.  I really hated that she had to go through such terrible ordeals during her lifetime, but thanks to her refusal to accept the status quo, she did a great deal toward advancing the legal rights of women.  We all owe her a debt of gratitude for using her influence as a writer to help change antiquated attitudes and give women more say in their own lives. 

It's amazing how much research must have gone into the writing of this book.  The lives of Caroline Norton and her family are traced and many of her letters (both sent and received) are quoted.  I also enjoyed reading about Caroline's interactions with many notable literary figures of the day, including Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens.

I wish I could have attended this lecture!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton from Chicago Review Press in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for The Criminal Conversation of Mrs. Norton: Four Gherkins, for being an inspiring look at a pioneer of women's rights

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Agatha's at it again

I'm always thrilled to see a new Agatha Raisin mystery.  Her latest adventures are chronicled in the book Hiss and Hers by M.C. Beaton.  As usual, Agatha is short-tempered and man-hungry, yet somehow she manages to solve mysteries that have the police stumped.

Agatha is a 50-something owner of a detective agency in the picturesque Cotswolds.  She lives in a thatched cottage with her two cats, Hodge and Boswell.  Her ex-husband, James Lacey, lives next door, but as he's a travel writer, he's frequently away from home.  She also has an on again/off again relationship with Sir Charles Fraith, the flighty and somewhat undependable peer who drops into her life from time to time, only to disappear again without warning.

So Agatha is an easy target for the latest unattached man to move to the village, the hunky gardener George Marston.  Her garden has never looked so beautiful, as she's constantly calling George over to work on it.  She never misses an opportunity to flirt with him, and he seems receptive, so she's hopeful that there will be a romantic relationship soon.  To move things along, she arranges a charity ball and gets George to promise her the first dance.  At the ball, however, George is a no-show.  Agatha determines to get to the bottom of why he stood her up, so she goes to his cottage.  To her dismay, she discovers George dead in his backyard.  After the police arrive, they discover that George was killed by being drugged and then having a bag of poisonous snakes tied over his head.  All that idyllic living in the countryside surely does create some colorful killers!

George's sister hires Agatha's agency to look into the circumstances surrounding George's death.  As Agatha and her staff begin to research George's life, she is quite upset to learn that George was having affairs with nearly every woman in the village over the age of 50 -- except her.  Agatha spends a lot of money on personal maintenance.  Every time she sees another of George's "frumpy" conquests, we are treated to a catalog of her expenses for tweezing, plucking, dying, etc.  Unfortunately, she also smokes and drinks and subsists on microwave meals, so throwing money around is perhaps not the most practical physical fitness solution.

As Agatha and her crew get closer to the solution, someone begins a campaign to throw her off the track.  She has excrement pushed through her letter box, is sent a box of chocolates (that proves to contain yet another snake) and a woman sitting in her garden is murdered (apparently mistaken for Agatha).  To make matters worse, her old friend Charles has gotten engaged, which makes Agatha even more desperate about her husband-less state.

I enjoyed Agatha's antics, as always, even though there were some things that were rather glossed over.  For instance, when Charles and his new love go to France, Agatha is able to "go on the computer" and find out what hotel they're staying in.  Say what?  Later on, Charles goes online to find all the hotels in town and resorts to the old-fashioned method of calling them to find out which one Agatha is staying in.  While this approach makes more sense, I have to wonder if modern security policies would allow employees to give out information of this sort.

Still, these are minor quibbles.  I really enjoyed my visit with Agatha and her friends (and cats).  I can only hope she's gearing up for a new adventure soon!

Final verdict for Hiss and Hers Four Gherkins, for being a welcome visit with a neurotic old friend

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Common sense isn't that common anymore

According to the most recent statistics, the average American owes nearly $5000 in credit card debt.   Over three quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, with nothing saved for emergencies or their future well being.   As the recent government shutdown (over the nation's debt)deomonstrates, Americans from all walks of life have severe problems with money.  While there are many books and programs available that promise to help people get out of debt, the common-sense approach offered by Dave Ramsey has helped millions of people to re-think their relationship to money.  The Total Money Makeover outlines the principles that are mentioned on the national radio program The Dave Ramsey Show

Although he has a background in finance and real estate, Dave Ramsey has also had a personal struggle with money.  As a newly married man with two small children, he went bankrupt.  This traumatic event caused him to re-think his approach to debt -- basically, that it was never a good idea to have debt of any kind.  The principles of his program are easy to follow and adaptable to every situation.  The steps to getting out of debt are listed in "the Baby Steps."  Baby Step One is to have an emergency fund of $1000. Baby Step Two is the heart of his system -- the "debt snowball"-- which consists of listing debts smallest to largest (regardless of interest rate), and paying as much as possible toward the smallest debt until it's eliminated.  Once that debt is eliminated, work on the second smallest debt. His view is that it is psychologically uplifting to see debts being eliminated, which will help keep people motivated.  Although getting out of debt might be difficult at first, Dave's philosophy is to spend that tough time "living like no one else" (meaning, not buying the latest gadget, eating out more than at home, or taking expensive vacations on credit) so that later, you can "live like no one else" since you will have abundant extra cash that's not being used for payments or interest on debt.  The steps after paying off debt include paying off the mortgage, saving for retirement and starting a college fund for your kids.  This book comes with helpful worksheets in the back for everything from making a "Monthly Cash Flow Plan" to creating your debt snowball.  There are also many stories of real people throughout the book who have used Dave's plan to get out of debt, even though their original circumstances varied widely.  There are also small boxes of "Dave's Rants" where he gives his (strong!) opinions on the "conventional wisdom" of financial issues.  I can truly say that I'm happy to have found the Dave Ramsey plan, because it inspired me to get out of debt and even pay off my house early.  Everyone can benefit from the principles in this book.  If only we could give Congress a Total Money Makeover!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition as part of the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Spectacle vs. ceremony


Although residents of the United States and Great Britain theoretically speak a mutually intelligible language, there are enough differences to make for an amusing and entertaining study.  In the book Across the Pond: An Englishman's View of America by Terry Eagleton, various aspects of the two versions of English are compared and the reasons for the differences in meaning and expression are explored.  Historical comments on the American character from authors such as De Tocqueville and Dickens are also included.

In addition to different ways of speaking, Americans and British people also have very different approaches to the world in general.  British people go out of their way to be reserved, quiet, and avoid unnecessary attention.  Americans, on the other hand, are much more open, accessible and free with their opinions.  Why should this be so?  The author presents several interesting explanations.  For instance, in the United States, we generally have not had a history of obvious class divisions.  Every child is constantly told that he or she can be whatever they want, as long as they work hard for it.  In traditional British society, you were born into a class and generally stayed there.  American pioneers, with their straight-laced Puritan backgrounds, had to immediately get to work, and therefore developed a more direct and honest approach to language.  The aristocratic class in Britain, with nothing to do but enjoy their leisure, developed a more florid and ironic manner of speech.

On the other hand, more recent events in history in Europe have somewhat put a damper on the expression of things like patriotism, nationalism and heroism, things that are never far from the surface in any American form of expression.  Additionally, Americans are not afraid to be sentimental in public, with politicians, newsreaders, judges and other public figures often tearing up when in front of a microphone and camera.  In Britain, such display of emotion would be considered unseemly, embarrassing and somewhat vulgar.  The author attributes this lack of emotion on the part of the British to not wanting to show weakness in front of their "social inferiors" or "colonial subjects."

Americans and British people don't just differ in language, according to the author.  He claims that American, upper and lower class Britons, and Irish Catholics and Protestants are all dissimilar enough in appearance as to be instantly recognizable and labeled.  There is also a discussion of the American tendency to bend and interpret religion to suit whatever purpose is required.  Americans frequently insistent that, because the country is so prosperous, it must mean that God likes us best and therefore it's perfectly fine (if not a downright duty!) for us to "share" our values and culture with the rest of the world.  In the words of Mr. Eagleton, "sometimes you have to destroy the world to save it."

America's puritanical roots also show in their tendency to blame and punish people who fail to conform to societal norms.  Not only must the weak and guilty be punished, but those doing the punishing seem to take irrational delight in the misfortunes of these miscreants.  If you are successful, it is because of your hard work and determination, and if you aren't -- well, that must be because of something you did as well.  There is also the tendency in the US to think that human beings are inherently bad, and therefore signs and notices prohibiting all conceivable forms of misconduct confront the casual visitor everywhere.  No mention of the British penchant for CCTV cameras covering nearly every inch of the British isles, though! 

The differing national characters are also apparent in terms of the solitary nature of the British, compared to their more outgoing, gregarious American cousins.  The British people do not get worked up about government or politics, unless it impinges on their ability to get on with their lives without too much interference.  The Americans, on the other hand, get worked up at government regulation of almost any sort -- it might interfere with their ability to make a profit.  The British love to grumble and complain, chiefly about things that are out of their control (like the weather).  They also take a morbid delight in negative things; trying to one-up your neighbor with tales of medical disasters, domestic breakdowns and job-related negligence is a national pastime.  This is not generally the case in the US, where striving for achievement is the all-consuming passion.

I thought this was a very fascinating look at the evolution of two forms of English, as well as the differing national characteristics of the United States and Britain.  One thing I found somewhat amusing was that when the author was attempting to illustrate a point by making up a supposed quote by a typical American, there were some "Britishisms" included.  For instance, he discusses the American tendency for "chatty book titles" by mentioning a fictional one titled Phobia: How I Learnt to Conquer My Fear of People Who Have Squeaky Voices and Are Under Five Feet Eight Inches Tall. However, I've never heard an American use the word "learnt" so this fictional title he mentioned must have been the British edition!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Across the Pond from W.W. Norton in exchange for this review

Thursday, September 26, 2013

How to get your message across

As someone who occasionally has to make presentations, I am always looking for ways to be a more effective communicator.  In the new book Secrets of Dynamic Communication by Ken Davis, the founder of Dynamic Communications International, a blueprint of speech preparation is presented that is designed to not only take away the anxiety of giving a speech, but to also help the presenter become much more effective in presenting his or her message.

Many people dread presentations, and the author points out the familiar statistic that public speaking is second only to death in the greatest fears that people confront.  I liked Mr. Davis' "get over yourself!" advice that the speech isn't about you (the speaker).  The anxiety most speakers face is due to the overwhelming desire to get the audience to like them.  This is where the problem arises:  the point of any presentation isn't to make the audience like you, but rather to impart some information that's going to help or persuade the audience members.  If only we could remember that once piece of advice, I think it would take a lot of the pressure off!

Then Mr. Davis gives concrete suggestions for how to construct your presentation. His main advice: have only one objective for your speech.  Many speakers try to cram in too much into one presentation, include too much irrelevant information, and don't have a clear focus.  The result is that, in one example he cites, 70% of people polled after leaving a presentation had no idea what the speaker had been trying to communicate.

Using the SCORRE method to construct a speech will ensure that your ideas are all geared toward communicating your one objective.  SCORRE stands for Subject, Central Theme, Objective, Rationale, Resources, Evaluation.  I really liked that a section of the book was devoted to each of these areas, and concrete examples were given.  There was also good advice on how to involve the audience, the use of body language, and how to incorporate humor into your presentation.  I think any potential speaker would benefit from the lessons and advice in this book, both in terms of preparing a presentation, and getting over some of the nerves that accompany public speaking.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Secrets of Dynamic Communication from the BookSneeze program in exchange for this review.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Life is a mystery that takes us by surprise

One of the most famous novels of all time comes to life in the stunning adaptation of War and Peace.  This four part miniseries, based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy, was filmed in 2007 and stars   as the somewhat spoiled Natasha Rostova, and  as the army officer Prince Andrej Bolkonsky.  The program has been broadcast in Belgium and France, but made its US debut on "Best of British TV" streaming online from Acorn TV in July of this year.  The DVD is available on Sept. 24.

The story begins with preparations for a big party in celebration of Natasha Rostova's name day.  The Rostova family has three children, including boys Nikolaj (who is anxious to go off to war) and young Petja, who idolizes Nikolaj.  During the party, Natasha sees (and instantly falls in love with) Prince Andrej.  Andrej is married, but his not happy with his pregnant wife Lise, and tells anyone who will listen about how he's "trapped" in his marriage.  A Rostova family friend, Pierre, arrives from Paris before the party begins.  Pierre has spent most of his recent time carousing with his dissolute friends.  Although illegitimate, Pierre arrives at his dying father's bedside just in time to be named heir to the estate and to inherit the title Count Bezukhov.  The financial advisor Kuragin, who had been expecting to take over the estate, fumes, but luckily, he has a pretty daughter, Helene.  Helene didn't have much time for Pierre before he became wealthy, but she finds him much more interesting after the death of his father (isn't that always the way?).

While Natasha is entertaining her guests by playing the piano at the party, a messenger rushes in with the news that Czar Alexander has decided to join the Austrian Emperor in declaring war on France.  Napoleon has been marching his vast army toward the east, and the Russian men are all thrilled at the chance to join the battle.  Before going off to war, Prince Andrej leaves his wife Lise at his family estate.  Andrej's father, played by Malcolm McDowell, is a horrible person -- mean, gruff, opinionated, socially inept, and disrespectful toward his children.  He makes sure that Andrej knows it doesn't matter if he's killed in the war -- so long as he doesn't bring shame on the family.

After Czar Alexander and Napoleon declare a truce, Andrej returns home.  His wife has died and that leaves him free to become engaged to Natasha (funny, since before he was eager to leave the prison of marriage behind!).  His father once again shows his controlling nature by demanding that Andrej wait a year to be married.  Things are heating up on the Polish border, and he has volunteered Andrej to go and advise the army there.  Natasha is unhappy, but declares she will wait the year for her true love.

Pierre has married the scheming Helene, although the marriage is not happy.  He wants to spend his time visiting the serfs on his vast estates and helping them to have better living conditions.  Helene's life is a series of parties and social events, and her shameless behavior leads the normally docile Pierre into a duel.  Natasha visits Helene and criticizes her for not doing more to stop the duel.  Meanwhile, Helene's brother, the slimy Anatole, has been forced to marry a peasant girl by Andrej, his superior officer.  Because of this, both Helene and Anatole have reasons to want to see the relationship between Natasha and Andrej destroyed.  Events at the front have kept Andrej away for more than the original year, and Natasha begins to despair that they will ever get married.  This makes her an easy target for the handsome, but unscrupulous, Anatole.

Eventually, the peace is once again broken and the French invade Russia and begin their march toward Moscow. The wily Russian General Kutuzov knows his men are out numbered, so instead of engaging the French in battle, he has them constantly retreat and burn anything that might aid the French.  He knows that as the French are drawn further into Russia, without adequate supplies, the will of the French to fight will be greatly reduced.  His attitude enrages the Czar and most of the soldiers, but he has no will to see his army massacred.  As the French advance, terrified citizens flee from Moscow.  For some reason I never really understood, Pierre demands to be taken to the front to see the war firsthand.  Of course he's something of a spectacle in his dapper clothes amongst all the chaos and misery.  He is on hand when Andrej is wounded in battle, and so agrees to help Andrej get back to Moscow and Natasha.

The story continues with fortunes lost, old loves betrayed, new loves met and unpleasant people getting their comeuppance.  Napoleon is sent back to France, never having achieved his dream of "bringing culture and civilization" to Russia.  Oh well.

I had never read the novel before, but I did have the impression that it was filled with so many characters it was hard to keep up with everyone.  The film wasn't quite that bad, although the extra feature "War & Peace by the Numbers" does state that there were 15,000 extras used in the filming.  There were an awful lot of troops seen marching on both sides!  The extras also mention that the beautiful interior shots were filmed at the Russian imperial palaces of Peterhof and Pushkin in St. Petersburg.

I must admit, I had a hard time with all the Princes, Princesses, and Countesses.  It was a bit strange that Andrej's father made such a fuss about Natasha being from a low-class family, when she was a Countess!  Of course, he wouldn't have been happy with anyone, but surely the Rostovas weren't much lower on the social scale? All the houses looked quite splendid, everyone had servants, and they were forever packing up and moving back and forth between country and city houses. It was all a bit confusing and hard to figure out the pecking order.

Overall, the settings were beautiful and all the battle scenes were impressive. I thought the historical information was presented in an interesting manner, and I really enjoyed the Russian General Kutuzov, who was able to win the war by retreating.  A brilliant military strategist, for sure!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of War and Peace from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for War and Peace: Four Gherkins, for being a spectacular look at a classic novel coming to life

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Though cowards flinch and traitors fear

The war may be over, but former DCS Christopher Foyle's talents are still required.  He's retired from the police force, but British Intelligence convinces him to work for them in Foyle's War, Set 7.  Michael Kitchen is back playing the investigator and Honeysuckle Weeks is back as his assistant Sam.

The new series of Foyle's War will be premiering on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS on Sept. 15.  Viewers can also stream the new episodes immediately after they're shown on PBS, as well as all 22 previous episodes from Acorn TV.  Sign up at Acorn TV now and get your free month of access so you can get caught up on all of the back stories from DCS Foyle!

In the first of 3 episodes in Set 7, The Eternity Ring, poor Foyle is basically ambushed as he arrives back in England from an extended trip to America.  A figure commands him to follow him to security headquarters.  Once there, Foyle is informed that his former assistant, Sam Wainwright, has been seen passing information to a known Soviet spy.  As proof, they offer a photo which seems to show Sam handing an envelope to the man.  The recently married Sam is now working as a secretary for a nuclear scientist and his wife, Professor and Mrs. Fraser.  A worker at the Soviet embassy has recently defected, and some papers he was able to smuggle out seem to indicate the existence of a previously unknown spy ring, known as the Eternity Ring.  The MI5 agents pressure Foyle into investigating both Sam and the Eternity Ring in an effort to keep their Soviet counterparts in check. 
Meanwhile, Sam's new husband Adam is in the running for a vacant seat as an MP for the Labour party.  In a parallel story, a former police offer who had worked with Foyle, Frank Shaw, also returns to England after being held prisoner by the Japanese during the war.  Frank, as was the case with most returning soldiers after the war, discovers that society has changed and he no longer knows where he fits in.  His family has learned to get along without him, his former house has been destroyed, and when he attempts to get a job again with the police force, he is told in no uncertain terms that the police force has no need for former army officers in its ranks.  Feeling frustrated, Frank lashes out at a totally innocent person.  Foyle, of course, in his calm and patient manner, is able to solve the mystery of the Eternity Ring, although in the process, he manages to get Sam fired from her job.  Luckily, when he's pressed to continue working for the Intelligence Service, he's able to demand that Sam also be hired as his driver again.

The second episode, The Cage, Foyle is called to investigate when a seriously injured man, apparently Russian, shows up at a hospital and dies soon afterwards.  The Russian's last words were "ten eye." The next morning, the doctor who treated him dies, too, apparently of a suicide.  Foyle's investigations take him to Barton Hall, a highly guarded estate in the country.  Foyle is given a restricted tour of the place, but feels there's something not right about what's going on there.  Meanwhile, election day is coming up and Sam's husband Adam is out knocking on doors.  He comes across a distraught woman, whose daughter Evelyn Greene has disappeared.  The police aren't doing anything to find her, so Sam asks Foyle to investigate this as well.  Officially, Foyle is now working to recruit new agents into MI5, so he identifies ones who are rejected, but just might be of use to him in some undercover operations.

The final episode, Sunflower, concerns the use of former Nazis by British Intelligence.  A "Professor Van Haaren" is actually a high-ranking Nazi officer named Karl Strasser.  He has been given a new identity as an art professor and put into a safe house by the Intelligence Service, which values his expertise on Soviet spy networks.  Recently, Strasser feels that someone is following him, and he's worried for his safety.  Foyle is assigned to investigate the threat.  During his investigations, he discovers that Strasser, much to his claims to the contrary, didn't actually spend his war years behind a desk, but was a participant in the killing of British and American prisoners known as the Sunflower Massacre.  The US Intelligence agents are anxious to have Strasser turned over to them in order to try him on war crimes charges, but the British don't want to lose such a valuable "asset."  Sam's husband Adam
is approached by a man who was forced to sell his farm to the government during the war.  He was told he could buy the land back at "current market value" after the war.  The land was recently re-appraised, and somehow managed to double in value during the war.  Adam investigates what's going on, and Sam helps out by using all the tools at her hands as an insider at the intelligence service.  Both Adam, as an MP, and Foyle, working for the Intelligence Service, are confronted by a variety of lies, crimes and even murders committed by agents of the government all in the name of the "greater good."  Lots of disillusioned idealists by the end of this episode! I was surprised to see a nearly unrecognizable Tamzin Outhwaite as the landlady, Mrs. Stevens!

There are many interesting extras included with this set.  The first disc contains a handy short re-cap
of what occurred over the course of the first 6 seasons of the series.  Each disc also contains an introduction by the series creator and writer Anthony Horowitz.  It's very interesting to hear how he was able to incorporate the issues facing people in Britain after the war (food rationing, housing shortages, problems soldiers encountered on returning home, etc.) into the series.  The final disc also contains 4 behind-the-scenes features, covering everything from the origins of the series to the style of the characters to a background on the Sunflower Massacre.  There is also a photo gallery from the series.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Foyle's War: Series 7 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Foyle's War: Series 7:   Four Gherkins, for being the welcome return of a beloved investigator