Monday, March 25, 2013

Billed as being "perfect for fans of Downton Abbey," the novel Netherwood by Jane Sanderson looks at the lives of those who live in manor houses, and those whose job it is to take care of them.   In the little village of Netherwood, nearly all of the inhabitants are connected in one way or another to the Hoyland family, owners of the three coal mines in the area as well as nearly everything else.  The father of the family, Teddy Hoyland, takes a nominal interest in the welfare of his workers, but he certainly doesn't go as far as encouraging a union.  He employees the taciturn and devious Absalom Blandford to see to things concerning the estate, so that he isn't bothered by day to day problems.  His wife Clarissa, still a beauty, is given only to thoughts of parties and social gatherings.  Daughter Henrietta is "the son he never had" -- intelligent, independent, and above all interested in the goings on of the earl's various businesses.  Unfortunately, in the year of 1903, when the events of the book take place, the first born son inherited everything, and there was no way to change that.  Which is a pity, because son Tobias is plainly NOT interested in anything boring, which involves anything to do with business on the estate.  His main concerns are drinking and women.  He is handsome and charming, so most people in the village accept his good humor and ready smile as proof that he's a good boy, really.

On the other end of the social spectrum are Eve and Arthur Williams.  They married when Eve was young and are raising 3 children on his wages as a miner.  That means that there is very little left over for luxuries, but Eve is thankful for what little they have after she visits the neighboring village of Grangely, where families are being evicted from company-owned lodgings after a prolonged strike.  Eve is greatly disturbed by what she witnesses there, and when pressed by her pastor to take in a refugee from Grangely, she's reluctant to do so, but guiltily agrees.  The new lodgers, Anna Rabinovich and her baby daughter Maya, soon become indispensable to the family, especially after tragedy strikes and Eve must adjust to a new situation in life. 

As mining is no longer an option for the family's sustenance, Eve must find a new way to support the family.  At Anna's urging, she starts making cakes and pies and selling them out of the front of her cottage while Anna looks after the majority of the childcare and housework.  Before long, news of Eve's success reach the ears of even the earl, and he decides to help the young woman with her business pursuits.  As her business becomes more lucrative, she comes to the attention of more exalted members of society.  Before long, she is sent on an extended stay to London in order to cater some large social gatherings.  There her talents are again requested for all sorts of royal and high society engagements.  During her time in London, she's missing her children terribly and can't wait to get back to her old life.  However, she meets someone in London that makes her re-think her entire future.

I was interested to see where the book would end, and what decisions Eve would make, so it was good news to reach the end and discover that there's going to be a follow-up book to Netherwood which will hopefully answer all the questions the readers might have after finishing this book.  There are also some yummy recipes at the back of the book as well as Reading Group Discussion Points, a Q&A with the author and (best of all) the first chapter of the next book in the series, Ravenscliffe.  I'm really looking forward to reading the follow-up to find out what happens to all these characters!  You really do feel as if they're your friends by the time you get to the end, and it's a shame to leave them!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Netherwood from Trafalgar Square Publishing in exchange for this review

The late author Douglas Adams, best known for Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. also wrote about the unusual detective Dirk Gently and his Holistic Detective Agency.  Dirk believes in the interconnectedness of all things, so if there is a crime to be investigated, he assumes every random thing he encounters in the course of his investigation is somehow connected to the crime and will lead him to the answers he's seeking.

Dirk is certainly eccentric.  In the first of his four cases that are included in this series (the pilot episode), we meet Dirk as he's taking on a case. An elderly lady asks him to find her missing cat.  She's willing to pay whatever it takes to find him, which is a good thing, as one of the expenses that Dirk deems is absolutely necessary to locating the lost feline is a new refrigerator (his old one is out of commission because he hasn't paid the cleaner and she's locked it).  As he's leaving her flat, he notices the flat next door apparently being burgled.  Far from being alarmed or calling the police, Dirk gets the neighbor's phone number and calls -- and the "burglar" answers.  It turns out that the burglar is his old college chum MacDuff, and that he's not breaking into the place, he's simply trying to retrieve his girlfriend's laptop to delete an email message he sent in anger. 

This reunion proves fortuitous, because MacDuff, unemployed and depressed, becomes Dirk's assistant and eventually buys into the business (although Dirk certainly doesn't use the money to pay business expenses!).  Dirk and MacDuff investigate other strange cases involving time travel, shadowy hit men, CIA spies,  and industrial espionage.  Because of his general avoidance of paying any bills, he must also deal with angry receptionists, hostile cleaners, trap-setting plumbers and a pile of eviction notices. 

Dirk does have some unusual skills, such as his talent for "Zen Navigation."  This involves following someone who looks like they know where they're going in order to end up somewhere you need to be.  Or "Narcoleptic Clairvoyance," which involves the ability to tell the future while asleep.  These unique talents certainly seem to come in handy during his search for answers, but unfortunately they don't seem to bring him any material gains!  His method of working is also interesting.  Much like the police investigation boards we're used to seeing, Dirk creates his own boards listing all the information that comes in, and attempting to connect it to the puzzle he's working on at the time.  When the case is over, he just paints over the wall and starts again.

The series is quite interesting in seeing how Dirk comes to the conclusions which ultimately solve the cases.  But as a person, he's rather annoying.  He doesn't pay his bills, is extremely messy, and has no problem with causing difficulties for everyone around him.  Still, his clients do get results (except for the one case where some of them ended up murdered, but that could happen to any detective!) and watching him use is "holistic" methods is entertaining.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Dirk Gently from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Dirk Gently Four Gherkins, for being an amusing look at the methods of an unconventional detective

Friday, March 22, 2013

Although the events in Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries take place nearly 100 years ago (the late 1920s, to be exact), the heroine of the series, Miss Phryne Fisher, is a thoroughly modern woman.  Although she is now independently wealthy, she has known poverty and hardship in her life.  This doesn't make her any less dashing as she zooms around Melbourne, collecting male admirers and solving crimes in this 13-part series based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood.

The action begins with Phryne (pronounced FRY-nee) arriving in Melbourne.  She continually scandalizes her Aunt Prudence, but manages to get involved in solving the murder of an acquaintance's husband right away.  Her success in the case, as well as the fun she has in outsmarting the police, make her decide to offer her services as a Lady Detective.

Aunt Prudence, shocked yet again
by Phryne's behavior!
Along the way, she has a talent for picking up waifs and strays.  Her first, the maid/companion, is Dot Williams.  Dot was dismissed by her previous employer, and Phryne takes pity on her.  Dot soon becomes invaluable, both as an undercover agent and as someone who is highly skilled in the domestic arts -- something Phryne has no time for.  She also becomes a foster mother to an orphaned pick-pocket named Jane.  Jane becomes something of a substitute for Phryne's younger sister, Janey, who disappeared when they were children.  What happened to Janey is eventually revealed, but in the meantime, it seems to be the only thing that causes Phryne some sadness in the whirlwind of her life.

Phryne has an outstanding wardrobe (it goes without saying) and throughout the series she continually amazes the viewer with her skills.  She's fluent in Mandarin, speaks Russian ("passably," she claims), instructs neighborhood girls in social graces and judo, wields chopsticks with no problem, and can fly a plane.  We also see glimpses of her past, working as a nurse in World War I and posing nude for an artist in Paris.

The cases she takes on also show her sense of justice.  There are many conflicts that she must resolve, including many star-crossed romances: interracial, Protestant-Catholic, and homosexual relationships are all accepted as perfectly acceptable and normal to Phryne, even though the rest of society might be scandalized.  She also steps in to reunite long-lost relatives, and in her spare time, helps to resolve a labor dispute.  There truly is no end to her talents!

I really enjoyed watching the (mostly) carefree Phryne sail her way through Melbourne between the wars.  Her overall vitality and her compassion for all makes her a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable character.  You can't help but root for her, even if she sometimes puts herself in unnecessary danger!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries:  Four Gherkins, for being a delightful look at a thoroughly modern lady detective

Friday, March 15, 2013

While most of the world was preoccupied with events taking place in Europe in the years 1940-45, people not directly connected with the war continued their daily lives.  Unfortunately, this sometimes included being the victims of crime.  Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle, based in the coastal town of Hastings, has the job of working to ensure that criminals don't get away with murder in Foyle's War: The Home Front Files.  This 22 disc set contains all the episodes from seasons 1-6 of the series.

DCI Foyle is joined in his efforts by his driver, Samantha Stewart (played by Honeysuckle Weeks) and detective Paul Milner (Anthony Howell) who lost a leg in the early days of the war.  Foyle wants nothing more than some quiet days on the river catching trout for dinner, but the criminals keep him too busy to spend much time with his fly rod.  Additionally, his son is an RAF pilot, so Foyle is constantly worried about his safety.

As a World War I veteran, DCS Foyle is somewhat world-weary, yet he never lets his guard down, even when he is at one point suspended from duty and accused of crimes himself.  His sharp blue eyes don't miss much as he ferrets out the criminals and their motives.  While the war is, of course, a big part of the events taking place at the time, the personal jealousies, failings and secrets of the people surrounding the crimes are generally at the heart of solving the mysteries.

I was interested in the things that were going on in relation to the war that affected the daily lives of people, but which have mostly been overshadowed by the war's more devastating aspects.  For instance, people were subject to food rationing, so there wasn't much food left over for pets.  One episode shows the lengths one woman will go to in order to ensure that her dog gets fresh meat.  This also leads to a thriving black market in stolen food, and since it could be considered treason (and therefore a hanging offense at the time), people were understandably anxious to hide their participation in any such activity.  There are also many characters, mostly aristocratic, portrayed as being sympathetic to the Nazis, and who are positively eager for a good old invasion of the country.  You have to wonder what they thought would happen to them when that occurred, but they seem to have been under the impression that the Germans would be more than willing to let them carry on with their lavish lifestyles.  

There are some interesting extras, including an interview with the creator of the series, Anthony Horowitz.  He also wrote many episodes of Midsomer Murders, and some of these episodes have that same small village feel -- a lovely little town where resentments, jealousies and infidelity often lead to murder.  It was interesting to hear the author clarify why some of the things in the series are as they are.  For instance, the series could not be set in London, because London was changed so much by all the bombing in World War II that it would be impossible to get an authentic setting.  That's why most of the action was moved out to Hastings.  Even the character's name of Christopher Foyle is interesting.  He is "foiling" crime, but his name is also a nod to the famous Foyle's bookstore.  Other extras include interviews with cast members and "making of" information which goes into a bit more detail about some of the things mentioned during the programs.  I was sure glad for the clarification on what a "Funk Hole" was!  Many famous faces pop up from time to time as well, including Robert Hardy, Danny Dyer, David Tennant, Rosamund Pike and James McAvoy.

In 2010, Acorn bought the rights to Foyle's War and developed new episodes.  There is a new series of Foyle's War being shown starting this month on the ITV network in Britain.  Hopefully, we won't have long to wait to see it over here, either!  As in most British TV series, the scenery was gorgeous, and I was very happy to see that, while war might have been raging and people were constantly worried about bombings and German invasions, at least they didn't neglect their gardening!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Foyle's War: The Home Front Files from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final verdict for Foyle's War: The Home Front Files Four Gherkins, for being a charming look at a man fighting his own war against crime 

Friday, March 8, 2013

It may seem shocking to contemplate, but Paris, although the "City of Love," is home to as much crime as any other big city.  Luckily, the French have Chief Inspector Maigret (pronounced MAYgray) on the right side of the law.  In Maigret: The Complete Collection, we get to see the wily detective investigate crime in post-WWII Paris and keep the criminals in check. 

This 4 DVD set contains all 13 episodes of seasons one and two of the series, filmed in 1992-3.  Maigret is played by actor Michael Gambon with a sense of flair and dedication.  Maigret doesn't miss much as he interviews witnesses, instructs his subordinates and tries to avoid his boss, the demanding and unimaginative Comeliau.  Maigret finds, much to his chagrin, that the crooks and thieves are generally much more interesting people than those he works with.  Maigret's wife dreams of a quiet retirement in the countryside, but it doesn't seem as if that's going to happen for a while.

Maigret is a very renowned and sought-after detective.  His exploits are covered frequently in newspapers, and he wherever he goes, people recognize him.  He's often called out to the countryside to investigate crimes that happen there, too.  Naturally, he's never stumped!  In the course of his investigations, he gives as much weight to the information passed to him by known thugs, burglars, and prostitutes as he does to that received from "honest" citizens.

My favorite episode was "Maigret and the Mad Woman."  An elderly woman comes to Maigret with the distressing tale of someone entering her home while she's out and moving her belongings around.  Nothing is ever missing, so everyone believes the old lady is merely mistaken -- until she turns up murdered.  Why her belongings turned up in odd places was an interesting aspect of the case.

The one thing that really stood out for me in the episodes (I tend to get distracted by details) was the constant smoking of the characters. I guess it did fit in historically with the time period, and I suppose in those pre-cell phone days that actors needed something to do with their hands, but it was distracting to see a cloud of smoke wafting up in every scene. The period details are also very interesting, with the cars especially attracting attention.  I was intrigued by how the front and passenger doors opened in opposite directions!  You have to wonder how many times those doors banged into each other when the police exited the cars in a hurry.

In addition to the DVDs, this set also contains a small booklet with information about the author, the character of Maigret and the TV series.  The author Georges Simenon became the most successful non-English crime writer in the 20th century.  Like many of his contemporaries, his life was changed by World War II, and while he continued to have a successful career in France, his questionable dealings with the Nazis led him to emigrate to Canada and later the United States following the war.  He continued to have a successful writing career when he began setting his novels in the U.S.  Ultimately, he became known as much for his somewhat scandalous love-life as for his writing!
I really enjoyed discovering this new (for me, anyway) detective and seeing the lovely French settings.  It's nice to know that the citizens of post-war France had such an astute and clever crime fighter on their side.

 Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Maigret: The Complete Collection from Acorn Media in exchange for this review  
Final Verdict for Maigret: The Complete Collection Four Gherkins, for being a look at a suave continental crime-solver

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Even the most dedicated fans of British TV programs must frequently scratch their heads at some of the more colorful and peculiar (to American ears, anyway!) terms that they encounter when simply trying to watch Downton Abbey, Dr. Who or anything involving Russell Brand.  Luckily Jonathan Thomas from the outstanding site has come to rescue with his handy and informative book Anglotopia's Dictionary of British English: British Slang from A to Zed.  Now you can nod appreciatively rather than recoiling in horror when any British people of your acquaintance talk about eating courgettes or sarnies.  You'll also know whether to slap or hug the person who calls you a pikey, chav, plonker or minger (hint: I think it's slaps all round!).

The book is divided in to sections that help you narrow down even further which type of British slang is involved.  As well as an extensive general dictionary, there are also sections on London, Cockney, Scottish, West Country, Yorkshire, and Scouse slang, as well as the indispensable chapter on insults.  There's also a section on Australian slang, in which words that mean one thing to British or American readers have a different meaning down in Oz!  It's quite fascinating to read all the examples of where our supposedly common tongue veer off into strange directions.

The author explains how countless hours of research went into compiling the various lists in the book, and how he made it a practice to jot down unfamiliar words while watching British TV programs.  I really need to do that, because it might help me cement some of these words in my memory.  I can't count the number of times I've had to look up the word "bespoke," which appears quite frequently in British books and TV shows, but rarely over here.

For those who don't know, the Anglotopia website is chock full of interesting and relevant information for those of us who love all things British.  It would be funny to see the counterpart of this book, to see what American terms flummox our British friends, and to read the definitions of those words from a British point of view.

This is really a fascinating book that I'm sure will be really useful during my next British TV binge.  I'll be sure to keep that pencil handy, though, because there is a form in the back for readers to send in suggestions for inclusion in the next edition of the book.  Drat!  They've already got "bespoke" but at least now I'll have a handy way to look it up the next time I encounter it!

Please visit the official site for the book for much more information!

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Anglotopia's Dictionary of British English from the author in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Anglotopia's Dictionary of British English:  Four Gherkins, for being an indispensable guide to those many words which divide our common language

Friday, March 1, 2013

The lovely academic city of Cambridge is the setting for The Start of Everything by Emily Winslow, which starts out with the decomposed body of a young woman found washed up on some marshy land.  Detective Inspector Chloe Frohmann and her partner DCI Morris Keene are put on the trail of the killer.  But first they must identify the victim, which turns out to be no easy task.

The book is arranged into chapters told from the point of view of one of the major characters in the book, most notably the police detectives Chloe Frohmann and Morris Keene.  The relevant character's name appears at the start of each chapter, so the reader knows whose viewpoint we are experiencing.  This is especially helpful in the case of the chapters following Mathilde Oliver, the daughter of a professor at the University.  Although it's never stated, she obviously has some sort of disability.  Perhaps it's Ausberger's, because she can't stand to be touched, seems to have no social skills, and generally behaves in odd ways.  She is extremely intelligent, though, planning to attend college online and holding down a job.  Her job involves trying to track down recipients of mis-directed mail for the college.  In order to do this, she has to open and read the letters, to try to get some clue as to how to find the intended recipient.  She becomes intrigued with a series of letters from "Stephen" to "Katja."  Stephen is a writer who is desperate to meet Katja again.  Eventually, one of his letters reveals that he's coming to Cambridge to see her, and gives the date and time his train is arriving.  Mathilde goes to the station to try to find Stephen, even though she has no idea what he looks like.

Interspersed with Mathilde's chapters are chapters following Chloe and Morris.  Morris is, in rank and experience, Chloe's superior, but suddenly their roles seem to have shifted.  A few months before the novel opens, Morris was questioning a suspect when the suspect suddenly pulled out a knife and attacked him.  Morris was seriously injured and has only just returned to work after months of hospitalization and physical therapy.  He has some lingering physical and mental difficulties which make people wonder if he's still up to doing police work.  Chloe is put in the uncomfortable position of being asked to report back to their boss if she notices that Morris is having problems on the job.  Add to this the fact that Chloe feels somewhat responsible for Morris's injuries, based on the fact that she wasn't with him at the time of the attack, and the reader can see that she is put into an extremely uncomfortable position.

Chloe and Morris eventually attempt to tie Katja and the unidentified body to a remote manor house, which has recently been converted into apartments.  The various families who live there, along with their children, nannies, and assorted visiting relatives, make reconstructing when the murder might have taken place a tricky business.  At the same time, two cases of mistaken identity further help to blur the truth of what really happened, both to the murdered girl and with another case that occurred 10 years earlier. 

I really liked the fact that the character of Chloe was so conflicted and had so much trouble trying to figure out where her loyalties lay -- should she protect her partner, or is he a liability on the job?  Should she commit to her job, or her family life?  Should she protect a vulnerable witness, or press to get at the truth?  There are no easy answers for her, but it's a fascinating journey watching her work through her personal and professional issues.

Disclaimer:  I was sent a copy of The Start of Everything by Tandem Literary in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for The Start of Everything Four Gherkins, for being a page-turning and though-provoking look at how mis-perceptions can have some tragic consequences

About Me

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I'm a librarian who is interested in all things British. I try to visit London as often as possible, and am always planning my next trip. I lived in Sweden for a few years with my Swedish husband, so the occasional Swedish reference may occur . . .

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The Gherkin Scale

5gherkinsb Brilliant!

4gherkinsb Good, innit?

3gherkinsb Fair to middlin'

2gherkinsb Has some good points

1gherkin Oi! Wot you playin' at?

0gherkins3Don't be givin' me evils!

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