Tuesday, January 29, 2013

At the age of 54, Robert D. Smith suddenly realized that he had been alive for 20,000 days.  While he knew how many days were behind him, he has no idea how many days remain in his life.  With this in mind, he determined to set a course to be more mindful of the important things in life.  He set out to live his life in a more purposeful, deliberate way so that he would not get lost in the “everydayness” of life.  He advises the reader in several ways that they can also live their remaining days to the fullest.  The first thing one must do is accept and embrace the idea of death.  Once we face our own mortality, we can begin the process of planning how to live.   One of the things he suggested was to create a “Life Purpose” statement.  He gives the example of people who have had near-death experiences and afterwards live profoundly different lives.  He suggests simply writing ideas on a piece of paper until you are able to refine your purpose into one sentence that fills you with joy and excitement.  After this, it is up to each of us to continually focus on the purpose statement in order to live a meaningful life.  Another suggestion is that we should celebrate more often.  Waiting until goals or milestones are reached before celebrating will not guarantee that the outcome will be worth waiting for.  Celebrate the small achievements every day (even if one of them is waking up in the morning!) and life will be more enjoyable.  I also love his suggestion to always order dessert first before you fill up on all those other calories.  The final section of the book contains some questions to ask yourself and activities to help you seize the day and make today more important.  I believe the overall suggestion of the book is to experience gratitude, reach out to others, and project a feeling of happiness every day in order to make your next 20,000 days more meaningful.  The book also includes a link to the author’s website to determine how many days you’ve been alive, which will probably amaze you, but also spur you on to make the upcoming days more significant.
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of 20,000 Days and Counting as a member of the Booksneeze program in exchange for this review

Monday, January 28, 2013

Although Agatha Christie wrote mysteries with numerous crime-solving sleuths, her two most famous detectives must be the quiet, unassuming Jane Marple and the flamboyant, dandyish Hercule Poirot.  Now, Acorn Media is offering a new DVD set featuring the best cases from each detective, as chosen by Christie fans.  Poirot and Marple: Fan Favorites features the detectives at the peak of their investigational powers, solving crimes and rooting out murderers when the police are baffled (which is most of the time!).

The six discs feature 5 Marple and 6 Poirot cases.  In an unusual bit of casting, Miss Marple is played in 3 of the episodes by Geraldine McEwan, and in 2 of them by the "new" Miss Marple, Julia McKenzie.  Poirot is portrayed by the inimitable David Suchet.  I wonder if in real life he's a bit of a slob, since he has to be so persnickety as Poirot?  There are also plenty of familiar faces popping up in the various episodes, including Joanna Lumley, Peter Davison, Derek Jacobi and Hugh Bonneville.

Miss Marple's cottage
Miss Marple lives in the idyllic village of St. Mary Mead, where there is the occasional murder, but she also has an amazing network of friends, relatives and acquaintances around England that she visits to help with their pesky murder problems.  In "Murder at the Vicarage" from 2004, we learn a bit of Miss Marple's past, and perhaps why she has remained single all these years.  Geraldine McEwan's Miss Marple spends her spare time reading mystery stories and knitting as suspects reveal their secrets.  The police at first regard her as a silly nuisance, but before long they realize that people are only too eager to share confidences with the unassuming little old lady.  The police are generally baffled, even when they work in pairs, until Miss Marple is able to explain how the crimes occurred!  The stories featuring Miss Marple include:
  • The Murder at the Vicarage (2004)
  • A Murder is Announced (2005)
  • At Bertram's Hotel (2007)
  • A Pocket Full of Rye (2008)
  • The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (2010)

It's been a while since I read any of the Agatha Christie mystery stories, but even though these mysteries seem to be true to their time period in terms of setting and costumes (and frequent references to "the war" -- meaning either the first or second world war, depending on the year events take place), I can't help but think these episodes have been "spiced up" a bit for modern viewers.  There's a presumably lesbian couple, a vaguely predatory homosexual theatrical-type, and a few energetic sex scenes (although not among same-sex couples -- Dame Agatha would have never even implied that, I'm sure!).  For some reason, in these episodes, I preferred Geraldine McEwan's performances.  Her Miss Marple was very sweet and kindly, wearing soft pastels and radiating gentleness.  Julia McKenzie's Miss Marple dresses more business-like and seems a bit more sharp.  Both Marples manage to get the job done, however!

The Hercule Poirot collection includes:
  • Murder on the Orient Express (2010)
  • Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1995)
  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1990)
  • The ABC Murders (1992)
  • The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb (1993)
  • Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1989)
Poirot's detection kit
In contrast to Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot has his side-kicks in most episodes, including his friend Captain Hastings, and the hardworking, if somewhat clueless, Inspector Japp.  In "The ABC Murders" in particular, Poirot ropes in a gang of helpers (all possible suspects) to assist him in his work to catch a killer.  Still, it is left to Poirot to actually figure out what is going on and enlighten the others.  I was also interested to see him employ a "detection kit" for collecting evidence in "The Mysterious Affair at Styles."  These episodes also span a long time period.  In "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," Poirot is a Belgian war refugee in 1917.  The very next episode, "The ABC Murders" takes place in 1936, when Poirot and his friend Captain Hastings are reunited and refer to a six month separation!

In all the episodes, there are no shortage of possible killers, and very few of them make a convincing case for their innocence until they are eliminated by the sleuth in charge.  We have a single person killed with many possible suspects, many people killed with lots of motivated relatives, killers working together and people being framed.  You'll never see the solutions coming -- at least I never did!

This set also includes a small booklet, "Delicious Death" which contains a scrumptious looking recipe for a cake of the same name, which is mentioned in "A Murder is Announced."  I haven't attempted to make the recipe yet, but the ingredients and accompanying photo do indeed look delicious!

Disclaimer:  I received a review copy of Poirot & Marple: Fan Favorites from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Poirot & Marple: Fan Favorites Four Gherkins, for being a wonderful look at the art of detection from the Queen of Crime!

Friday, January 18, 2013

No, I'm not the clueless one mentioned above (although, to be sure, cluelessness figures prominently in my daily life.).  The clueless lady I refer to is Constance Harding, the leading character in the book A Surrey State of Affairs by Ceri Radford. 

Constance is in her early fifties, married to a lawyer named Jeffrey, with one child out of the house and the other one nearly so.  She decides to chronicle her daily life in a "blog thingy."  Her intentions are a bit unclear:  she goes to great pains to make sure the blog is anonymous, but she uses real names and is shocked when someone close to her admits to reading the blog (surely if you're anonymous no one can find you on the Internet!).  She also occasionally addresses the "dear readers" so she assumes she has an audience, although just who that might be is also vague.  There is never any mention of comments or interactions via her blog, so the premise is a big murky from the get-go.

Still, Constance is free with the details of her life.  Husband Jeffrey is a bit vague and distracted.  The maid, a somewhat surly Lithuanian named Natalia, is a constant source of irritation for her.  Son Rupert resists her attempts at match-making.  Daughter Sophie is a self-centered, spoiled girl floating around on her "gap year" and constantly ringing up for more money.  Others in her circle are also experiencing problems:  a man in her bell-ringing group has recently been abandoned by his wife while her pregnant next door neighbor suffers severe financial problems.

All well and good, but there are some awfully heavy hints thrown around about some topics that come as a shock once the penny drops and poor Constance gets a clue.  Naturally, all of these events conspire to occur at the same time, throwing her into a crisis which causes her to re-evaluate her life and relationships.

I did enjoy the blog format of the book, but it was hard to believe that Constance was unable to see or interpret things that were going on around her, which were pretty obvious.  Also, I tend to base my reactions to characters on my own (admittedly high) standard of, "Is this something I would do?"  Most of the time, the answer was "no."  So I can't say I found Constance or her acquaintances to be very credible.

Still, if you're willing to put aside your credulity and can stop your eyes from rolling too much, this book can be a somewhat enjoyable read.  I just wish Constance didn't come across as so dim for the vast majority of the book.

Final verdict for A Surrey State of Affairs Two Gherkins, for being a light, if somewhat far-fetched, look at the life of a middle aged English housewife

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Crime solving duos are not entirely unknown in the world of mystery fiction, but Agatha Christie is most known for her two solitary sleuths: Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple.  She did, however, write quite a few mysteries featuring the married duo Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  In Partners in Crime: the Tommy & Tuppence Mysteries, we get to see the detecting pair in action.  This incarnation of the pair stars Francesca Annis as Tuppence and James Warwick as Tommy.

The series begins soon after the end of World War I.  Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley are childhood friends who came across each other during the war when he was wounded and sent to a hospital and she was a nurse. They have re-connected after the war, but while they have feelings for each other, at the beginning both insist their relationship is merely friendship.  Both are at a loss for employment after the war, and both complain of poverty (although this doesn't stop them, Tuppence in particular, from having a fantastic wardrobe; "poverty" must be a subjective term here!).  They begin their search for interesting, and hopefully lucrative, employment by placing an ad in the local newspaper offering their services to "go anywhere" and "do anything" as long as the pay is good.  Naturally, an interesting offer comes in right away.  Tuppence is granted an interview with a man who offers her good pay to travel with him to Paris as his ward and investigate a finishing school.  She's more than happy to accept, but when she turns up the next day at his office, she's distressed to learn he "closed up" his business and has left no forwarding address.  With what little they know, she and Tommy set out to solve the mystery.  They end up involved with government ministers, shadowy foreign figures, an American millionaire and a mysterious Mr. Brown.

After that case is wrapped up, the pair declare their mutual admiration for each other and decide to get married.  Fortunately, Tommy's uncle decides to give him "an allowance" so that money problems seem to be a thing of the past for the young couple.  They are also approached with an offer to take over a business, the International Detective Agency, as the former owner, a Mr. Blunt, is going to be spending some time behind bars.  It is suggested that since Mr. Blunt has established an identity as a detective, that no one in the public needs to be informed that a new "Mr. Blunt" is taking over the business.  So Tommy assumes the roll of Mr. Blunt, and Tuppence becomes his secretary/assistant, Miss Robinson.

Their first case is something of a plant, as Tuppence conspires with a friend to arrange a missing person case for the agency to investigate.  This garners them word of mouth publicity, in addition to the occasional newspaper ad advertising their services.  They are soon investigating missing jewels, a possible haunted house, murders and poisonings.  Through it all, Tuppence exhibits her love of sometimes outrageous hats and Tommy indulges her shopping habit.

Tuppence's "disguise tree" because a good hat
is all you need to fool the criminals!
I was surprised to see an appearance in one episode by Lynda La Plante, the author of the Prime Suspect mystery series.  I had no idea that she had started her career as an actress.  She does a quite passable American accent in her role as a spoiled wife who carelessly mislays her expensive pink pearl.

This set includes 11 episodes on 3 DVDs.  The episodes were originally shown on PBS's Mystery and were filmed in the 1980s.   This set also includes SDH subtitles, which are always useful!

In typical Christie fashion, most of the action seems to center around the upper-classes: fabulous clothes, expensive cars and stately homes feature prominently.  The characters also direct phrases at each other like "old thing" and "old bean" -- and these are apparently terms of endearment!  I really enjoyed seeing these episodes and learning more about Christie's married detective duo.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Partners in Crime from Acorn Media.

Final Verdict for Partners in Crime: the Tommy & Tuppence Mysteries: Four Gherkins, for being a fabulous visit with two stylish and funny detectives

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

While not much of a military history buff, I do enjoy compelling stories of people and events from past conflicts.  A new collection of such fascinating stories, Narrow Escapes of World War II has recently been shown on the Military Channel and is now available on as a 4 DVD set.

We meet some charismatic characters in the stories from the DVDs.  My favorite was the eccentric Charles Onde Wingate from Episode 3, "Wingate and the Chindits."  Wingate belonged to a religious group that was seen as somewhat odd, so that made him the object of bullying during his school days.  Nevertheless, he became a much admired and respected leader in the British army.  He trained his troops to fight and survive in the jungle.  Their mission was to sabotage the railway in Burma to keep the Japanese from being able to use it to transport troops and supplies.  The men and their mules managed to complete the mission, which included crossing a dangerous river, but were then faced with attempting to evacuate back to friendly territory.  While everything didn't go as planned, Wingate's methods and tactics influenced special operations training for many generations.
The most poignant story was one I had never heard of before, the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion, a group made up entirely of African-American soldiers.  This was documented in Episode 4, The Black Battalion.  Many of the soldiers from this battalion were from northern states, and were shocked to experience racism for the first time in the military.  They were invariably led by white commanders who gave them the most menial tasks to complete.  The 333rd was sent to a supposedly quiet area of the Belgian front.  However, military commanders didn't realize that Hitler was planning a march to Antwerp in order to target one of the few ports still under Allied command.  As the conflict began to get heated, Allied troops began to retreat, with the men of the 333rd providing cover for the retreating soldiers.  Many of this unit were captured or forced to surrender.  Eleven soldiers from the group became separated from their unit and took refuge with a local farm family.  The family was more than willing to hide the men, but word got out that they were there, and they were rounded up and marched off by German soldiers.  Later, it was discovered that the 11 men were horribly tortured and killed  by their captors.  No official recognition of their sacrifice was made by the US government, but in 2004 a monument was erected near the area where they were killed in Belgium to commemorate the "Wereth Eleven."

This set includes 13 gripping episodes covering a wide range of locations and individuals who made lucky escapes during the war.  There is also a 16 page viewer's guide with information about the war as it was fought in Europe and Asia, as well as an overview of the "ways of warfare," highlighting newfangled tactics used in WWII such as the blitzkrieg, aircraft carriers and commandos.  Something that really surprised me from the series was how often soldiers were deployed for daring and involved missions, with little or no thought put into how they were going to be returned to safety after completing the missions.  I hope that today's military commanders put a little more thought into completing missions safely than their predecessors did!

Anyone with an interest in history or even fans of suspense will enjoy this exciting look at how some colorful characters managed to make their escapes from behind enemy lines during WWII.   The stories really come alive with archival footage, modern re-enactments, and commentary by some of the men who participated in the events.
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Narrow Escapes of World War II from Acorn Media.
Final Verdict for Narrow Escapes of World War II:   Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling look at some brave (and some foolhardy) wartime escapes

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

After a long and productive career catching the evildoers around the picturesque Midsomer area, Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby has left the crime solving to his Detective Sergeant, Ben Jones.  If Jones thought he was going to be promoted to the top spot, he was sadly mistaken.  A new DCI, who happens to be the cousin of the former one, John Barnaby, comes in to take the reins.  The 21st set of the delightful Midsomer Murders: Set 21 features all the things that make the series so enjoyable: friendly banter, lovely scenery, and not-too-graphic murders.

This set features four episodes:

Episode One: Death in the Slow Lane takes place at a private girls' boarding school.  DCI Barnaby is attempting to get his bearings in his new assignment, living among unpacked boxes and fending off the advances of his new female neighbors.  His first case to solve in Midsomer involves both a new and old murder.  He also must adjust to the sometimes quirky ways of his new town and co-workers.  The coroner, George Bullard, has a perfectly rational natural/accidental explanation for nearly every death that crosses his path.  It's up to the skeptical Barnaby to work out who is really responsible for the deaths.  We are also gradually exposed to Barnaby's family situation, starting with his "sprechhund" Sykes, who gets to hear all the theories as Barnaby works them out.

The second episode is Dark Secrets, takes place mostly at a stately country home and at a nearby artists' colony.  A social services worker, something of a busybody, turns up dead, and Barnaby and Jones need to question everyone in the vicinity to solve the case.  Naturally, another body turns up before they are able to work out who the culprit is.  There's more development on the home front as Barnaby's wife Sarah arrives to take over as head of Causton Comprehensive School.  Mirroring her husband's situation, the existing employees are not especially pleased that the new head is an outsider, rather than one of their own.

Echos of the Dead, the third installment, is the goriest of the lot.  Someone seems to be re-enacting scenes from famous British murder cases.  The first is a woman found drowned in the tub, with a reference written on the mirror to the famous "Brides in the Bath" case.  Unfortunately, this time there are no shortage of suspects:  a former bent cop who now runs a pub, his wife who used to work in the S&M industry (is it an industry?), a somewhat odd gas station attendant, etc.  Basically, most of the townspeople in this episode are a bit weird.  This episode is chock full of familiar faces for fans of British TV, though.  We've got Kacey Ainsworth (Little Mo from Eastenders), Pam Ferris (of Rosemary and Thyme fame) and Sarah Smart (who most recently graced our screens in Wallander).  Poor Sarah Smart spends most of this episode sniveling, though, so it's perhaps not her most attractive role.

The final episode, The Oblong Murders, requires DS Jones to go undercover as a prospective member of a local cult in order to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of one of the members.  He turns out not to be the only undercover operative there, and he also turns out to be the object of affection of some of the female cult members.  Sykes the dog also has some adjusting to do as he is sent for an audition at a doggy day care.
The new DCI Barnaby gets on well with his underling DS Jones, and he seems to be fitting well into Midsomer, even if the local customs still confound him.  At one point, someone mentions that a possible witness has moved to London, to which Barnaby replies, "Who can blame him?"  Still, I'm sure he will continue to be an asset to the police force in Midsomer for a long time to come!

Disclaimer: I received a review copy of Midsomer Murders: Set 21 from Acorn Media

Final Verdict for Midsomer Murders: Set 12 Four Gherkins, for being a delightful visit to a beautiful part of the country which houses some of its most devious criminal minds

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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