Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Never mind the sinking ship, I've got other problems

It's April 1912, and the attention of the world is focused on the maiden voyage of the gigantic marvel of the seas, the Titanic.  In Dan James's new novel Unsinkable, the hubris of the age is vividly portrayed as we follow several passengers on the ill-fated voyage.

The main character in the story is the disgraced Scotland Yard detective Arthur Beck.  Through a series of stressful, job-related events, Beck has become a haunted man.  Although the demands of the job have resulted in the loss of his fiancée, his mental health and ultimately his position, he remains obsessed with finding the man he believes is responsible for his downfall:  the anarchist Peter Piatkow.  Beck was among a group of policemen sent to investigate some strange goings-on at an apartment building, only to be ambushed by the criminals inside.  While severely wounded, Beck watches the deranged Piatkow shoot his fellow unarmed colleagues in cold blood.  Later attempts to corner Piatkow result in more bloodshed, and an eventual nervous breakdown on the part of Beck. He decides to leave behind the bad memories and sail toward a new life in the United States. 

Another character we meet is the American journalist Martha Heaton.  Martha has been sent to cover the upper classes on their luxurious journey across the Atlantic.  Her trip across the ocean to meet up with the Titanic was less than comfortable, so she's not exactly looking forward to another journey by sea.  Still, it was generous of her editor to book her into first class on the Titanic! 

An elderly Swede dying of cancer, Sten-Åke Gustafson, is the final character whose journey we follow.  A widower with only one child, he decides to visit his daughter in the United States and meet his grandchildren before his fast approaching death.  Sten-Åke, due to his age and illness, is moved into a private compartment, which will eventually be shared with an unwelcome companion.

As the ship begins its journey, Beck thinks he spots the fugitive Piatkow among the passengers.  Because he's become somewhat obsessed with the murderous criminal, though, he's not sure he can trust his instincts.  Still, he decides to alert the captain, as well as J. Bruce Ismay, the owner of the ship, to the fact that there may be a dangerous felon on board.  Since he wants to be taken seriously and have access to all areas of the ship, he neglects to mention that he's no longer employed by the police. 

Martha makes the acquaintance of Beck, and soon feels that there is a story associated with him somewhere.  She sneaks around to various areas of the ship in search of that story, putting herself in danger as she searches for a scoop.  Beck is attracted to Martha, and debates whether or not to let her in on the secret. 

Meanwhile, the passengers are all abuzz with the news that a fire is burning below decks, while at the same time the ship is being pushed to its limits in an effort to reach New York in record time.  The old Swede Sten-Åke knows that they are nearing iceberg territory, but he figures that technological advances must mean that the new ship is able to avoid such dangers.  Oops . . .

Naturally, as the ship hits the iceberg and begins its descent, Beck's search for the wanted man becomes more desperate.  Has Piatkow escaped in a lifeboat, or gone down with the ship?  Which of the passengers will manage to escape the disaster?  Do Martha and Beck have a future together?  All of these questions make for an engrossing and thrilling conclusion!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Unsinkable from Independent Publisher's Group in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Unsinkable:  Four Gherkins,   for being an evocative and engrossing mystery set inside a familiar tragedy

Monday, April 29, 2013

A look at a tragic American hero

“When Adam Brown woke up on March 17, 2010, he didn’t know he would die that night in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan – but he was ready.” So begins the book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown.  There’s no suspense in how this book will end, but the look into how Brown turned his life around and ended up in Afghanistan that fateful day makes this book a compelling read. Adam Brown had a typical childhood. Raised mainly in Arkansas, he was one of three children of an electrician and his wife. Adam excelled at sports, had a stable home life and was generally liked, yet after high school he lacked direction. This eventually led him to drop out of college, quit his job working in the family business, and get involved with a questionable group of friends. After an unsuccessful stint in rehab, Adam began stealing from family and friends to support a growing drug habit, which eventually led to arrest and a year-long stay at Teen Challenge, a residential rehab facility out of state. During the stay there, Adam became more religious and seemed to turn his life around, but more relapses followed. He met his future wife, Kelley, and eventually, after spiraling back down towards addiction, he decided to follow his childhood dream to become a Navy SEAL. Luckily, a father’s friend was a naval officer and was able to convince the skeptical recruiter to accept the drug addicted felon into service. This proved to be the major turnaround that Adam needed. The discipline required to be accepted into SEAL training gave him something to focus on and allowed him to channel his energy into his calling in life. As he and Kelley started a family, Adam began his life in the elite SEAL training program. Although he suffered some serious injuries after joining the Navy, it didn’t deter his determination or ability to be the best. The only problem I had with the book was deciphering and keeping straight all the acronyms – HLZ, BUD/S, DEVGRU, etc. are some of them that are bandied about and repeated over and over. It can all be a bit confusing! But I did enjoy the story of the man behind the hero. We all hear the heartbreaking news of loss and sacrifice that our military families endure, and this book makes a tragic loss tangibly real.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Fearless from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review

Well boil my brains


You would think that being a titled aristocrat would come with enough responsibilities to keep one busy, but Lord Peter Wimsey finds plenty of time to devote to crime-solving in the delightful Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries.  The series, based on the stories by Dorothy L. Sayers, contains 5 episodes which were originally broadcast in the 1970s.

Ian Carmichael stars as the dashing, intelligent Lord Peter.  Although the episodes don't take place in chronological order, we do get some information about Wimsey from each of them.  The events in the series take place from WWI through to the 1930s.  We are shown how Wimsey and his butler/assistant, Bunter, came to have such a strong bond.  After serving together in the trenches in WWI, Wimsey was rescued by Bunter following a bunker bombing.  That isn't the only time Bunter comes to Wimsey's aid, as he pulls him from a bog, disguises himself to go undercover in investigations, and basically takes care of things while Wimsey goes off in search of clues.  On several occasions, it's left to Bunter to look around and, wondering where Wimsey's disappeared to, goes in search of his boss only to find him in a tricky situation.  Wimsey is never deterred, though, and generally goes dashing off in search of clues with little regard to placing himself in jeopardy.  I guess we would all do the same if we had a Bunter to come to our rescue!

The episodes here are:

1. Clouds of Witness -- The fiance of Wimsey's sister is found shot to death, and his brother, the Duke of Denver, is charged with the murder.

2.  The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club -- An old man is found dead at Wimsey's club, but due to a provision of his will, it becomes imperative that Wimsey discover exactly what time he died.

3.  Murder Must Advertise -- Wimsey goes undercover as a copywriter at an advertising agency to discover if a workplace accident was really murder (this episode features a very young Christopher Timothy).

4.  Five Red Herrings -- With six suspects in the frame, Wimsey must narrow them down and find the real killer.

5.  The Nine Tailors -- Some emeralds go missing after a wedding at a stately home, and Wimsey must solve the mystery several decades later.

My favorite episode was the one involving the Bellona Club, because it seemed the most straightforward.  Some of the others lost me a bit in the intricate plotting, but that was more a

problem of my not paying close enough attention, rather than any fault of the production!

I really enjoyed the character of Lord Peter Wimsey.  With no apparent money problems, he's free to indulge his passions:  music, cars, attending society functions, and of course, solving murders.  Unexpected talents also are highlighted from time to time as we learn that he is an accomplished bell-ringer (takes some skill) and is an admired author of at least one book, "Notes on the Collection of Incunabula."

Most of the disks also include portions of an interview with the actor who portrayed Wimsey, Ian Carmichael.  It was fascinating to see how long he had to agitate for the series to be made before he was finally successful.  He states that by the time it was agreed to make the series, he already felt too old to play Wimsey, but he took on the role anyway.  He does a marvelous job as the cheerful, intelligent and utterly suave sleuth!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Lord Peter Wimsey Complete Collection from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The Lord Peter Wimsey Complete Collection Four Gherkins, for being a delightful look at an upper class sleuth

Monday, April 22, 2013

At least there are refreshments along the way

Moving to a new country at any time is difficult, but Jennifer Richardson had a tougher time than most.  In addition to having a somewhat difficult marriage, she was also struggling with the question of whether or not to have children when she and her husband, "D", decided to move from the U.S. to his native England.  Their experiences and problems are chronicled in the new book Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage.

The couple first moves to a small flat in London, where they are dismayed at the noise and inconsideration of their neighbors.  Since D had come into some money through an inheritance, they began looking for a "country home" where they could escape the bustle of London on the weekends.  Soon they've purchased a cottage in the picturesque Cotswolds and begin to settle in to village life (at least on the weekends!).

There are many things which are new to both of them:  fairs and fêtes, hunt auctions, and the odd dress and behavior of those who are "toffs" (upper class folks, to you and me).  After enjoying this split-week living arrangement for a while, the author has the chance to apply for a new job which would make living at the cottage full-time a possibility for her (although her husband would still only come down at weekends).  She does get the job and so becomes a full-time country resident.  Her husband, while initially supportive of the idea, becomes somewhat jealous of her situation.  His frequent intermittent bouts with depression are a constant source of conflict with the couple. Additionally, she has to endure her parents' not-so-subtle hints that they are waiting for her to produce a grandchild, something she's not exactly eager to do.

I really enjoyed reading about Jennifer's move to England and the Cotswolds.  Although there were many struggles along the way, it sounds as if the time she and D spent there was interesting and that the culture shock was not too extreme!  The book also includes four Field Guide walks to explore more of the area and which also include lots of helpful information, such as the location of handily located pubs and wine bars along the routes!

About the Author:

Jennifer Richardson is an American Anglophile who spent three years living in a Cotswold village populated straight out of English central casting by fumbling aristocrats, gentlemen farmers, and a village idiot. She is married to an Englishman who, although not the village idiot, provides her with ample writing material. She currently lives in Santa Monica, California along with her husband and her royal wedding tea towel collection. Find Jennifer online:
www.americashire.com
www.facebook.com/americashire
www.twitter.com/baronessbarren
www.pinterest.com/baronessbarren

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this review.

Unexpected riches

Nearly everyone has, at some point, purchased a lottery ticket, and spent some time daydreaming about what would happen if they happened to end up holding the winning ticket.  The BBC series The Syndicate: Series 1 takes a look at what happens when 5 grocery store workers pool their money to buy lottery tickets (forming a "syndicate") and end up as winners.

There are 5 episodes in the series, each following a different member of the syndicate.  We start out with nice guy Stuart.  Before winning, he is desperate for money.  He and his high maintenance girlfriend Amy live with his short-tempered, critical mother and his drug-dealing younger brother Jamie.  Amy and Stuart have one child and a baby on the way, and she finally gives Stuart an ultimatum:  get them their own place, or she's moving out (she makes no offer to get a job or contribute to this arrangement, however).  Stuart, frantic about losing her, goes to his boss at the supermarket, easygoing Bob, to ask for a raise.  Bob then informs him that the store has been sold and everyone who works there is going to be losing their jobs.  Desperate, Stuart agrees to a unwise plan proposed by Jamie about where they can get the money.  They go through with the plan, which turns out even worse the Stuart feared, and then end up winning the money the next day.  Amy gets her big new house, but Stuart is haunted by what he did before becoming a multi-millionaire.

The next episode follows the down-trodden cashier Denise.  Denise's husband Dave left her just days before the lottery win.  In addition to her supermarket job, she takes care of her elderly, disabled mother who lives with them, and has a soft spot for dogs.  She is devastated by Dave's departure, but determines to use her lottery winnings on a self-improvement plan, believing that if she's more attractive, Dave will come back.

Episode three concerns the kindly store manager, Bob.  Bob has been having some health problems, and gets some serious news while in the hospital.  He determines to make sure his winnings are used to benefit his family. He's long divorced from his first wife, a lounge singer.  He has two sons who are greedy and shiftless.  One is a solicitor who lives beyond his means and is constantly in need of money, and the other is a musician who has no firm plans for earning a living, even though his girlfriend is pregnant.  Then there is Bob's long-time live-in girlfriend, Annie, who has been waiting many years for a proposal.

In episode four, we finally discover what cashier Leanne is hiding.  After being confirmed as the winners, the lottery agency holds a press conference where the lucky workers are peppered with questions.  Leanne is far from forthcoming.  She is a single mother of a young daughter named Stacey.  She's extremely overprotective of Stacey, and becomes frantic when she hears her ex-husband has come around looking for her.  In the meantime, she's grown increasingly close to Stuart, causing a spiteful Amy to do something terrible.

Lastly, we learn more about Jamie, Stuart's little brother.  Jamie has been involved in a criminal lifestyle for many years and before the lottery win is in deep trouble with the local gangsters.  His need for money, combined with his streak for recklessness, causes him to do something terrible.  After the win, he embarks on a gangster lifestyle -- flashy cars, buying a strip club, and indulging in drugs.  However, his criminal associates have intentions of using his millions to finance more illegal drug deals.

I was really excited when I saw that there was a Series 2 of The Syndicate being shown on British TV right now, because I was eager to catch up on what happened to these characters later on.  However, it appears that the new series focuses on a new set of lottery winners.  I'm sure they all have as much drama before and after their win as did the former employees of Right Buy U in Leeds!  I really did enjoy this series.  It had a lot of dramatic twists and turns that I wasn't expecting and all the performances were really good.  I especially liked Timothy Spall as the sympathetic store manager Bob.  It's always enjoyable when he pops up in a show!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Syndicate: Series 1 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for The Syndicate: Series 1 Five Gherkins, for being a touching look at the tumultuous lives of lottery winners

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The high cost of getting an education


The title of the book “Is College Worth it?” really sums up the arguments that the authors (William J. Bennett and David Wilezol) make in this book looking at the state of higher education today and whether or not it is financially advisable for young people to choose this route after high school.  In looking at both the costs of attending college and the current employment opportunities that await recent college graduates, the authors contend that, for the most part, college isn’t worth it, particularly if students have to take out large amounts of debt to attend college.  There are plenty of stats and studies thrown around to support their position:  54% of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed; 1 in 5 households has student loan debt; the average student graduates with $23,000 in loan debt; and so on.  However, these statistics begin to lose their impact when the same ones are repeated over and over.  For instance, the assertion that tuition rose 8.3% while inflation was only 3% in 2011 was stated on pages 14, 30 AND 31 (just a few paragraphs apart, in this last instance).  There are also some stats that seem to contradict one another.  At one point they state tuition rose 400% (4 times the rate of inflation) over a certain period, and in another that tuition rose 300% (again 4 times the rate of inflation) over a time period that differed only by a few years. 

The main problem the authors have with our current higher education system is that tuition costs keep rising, mainly due to the unchecked proliferation of easy student aid.  As long as the federal government, and to a lesser extent, banks, offer students seemingly endless amounts of ‘free’ money in the form of grants and loans, colleges have no compunction about raising their fees to take advantage of this bounty.  However, there is no accountability, either on the part of colleges to prove that increased tuition leads to increased value, nor on the part of students to prove that they are academically or economically prepared to incur such debts.  Another problem the authors see is that our society encourages everyone to go to college, when many students would be better off attending some other sort of short-term training that leads to well-paying jobs without incurring crippling student loan debt.  The authors lament the perception that skilled trades jobs are somehow inferior to “white collar” jobs, even if the people doing those jobs are making more money and have no debilitating student loan debt.  Students themselves are also at fault, both for taking out unreasonably large loans, but also for choosing to study fields that don’t lead to employment.  Additionally, schools can be blamed for not being rigorous enough:  today’s students have plenty of leisure time, consult online sites to find “easy” courses and benefit from grade inflation, even in “elite institutions.” 
But, of course, the main villains in this whole thing are the “liberals” who have taken over higher education.  The authors (you can imagine them shaking their heads in consternation) report that in the 1970s, Conservatives concentrated on advancing in business and religion, and that left higher education to the clutches of “doctrinaire liberals.”  Setting aside the repetitive statistics and political finger-pointing, there are some good points to consider in the book.  The authors include a list of “schools worth attending” at the end of the book. 
 
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the Book Sneeze program in exchange for this review

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

They seek him here

They seek him there, but those Frenchies are having a devil of a time catching up with the Scarlet Pimpernel.  This adaptation of the classic story by Baroness Orczy was produced in 1982 and stars Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.  The lovely costumes and beautiful sets make this a thoroughly enjoyable viewing experience.

The story takes place during the height of the French Revolution.  Entire families are being sent to the guillotine for the "crime" of being aristocratic.  One man, the unknown Scarlet Pimpernel, makes it his mission to smuggle out as many people as he can to save them from this terrible fate.  His identity is unknown, but it is known that he is an Englishman, and likely to be from the upper-classes himself.

How is the Scarlet Pimpernel able to perform his daring feats without being detected?  He is a master of disguise and also has a small band of loyal assistants who have been sworn to secrecy. 

We are soon introduced to Sir Percy Blakeney, Baronet, whose only interests seem to be buying fine clothing and attending society events.  He is a foppish fool, delighting gatherings with his poetry, insulting the clothing of others and generally playing the idiot.  But this, we soon learn, is one of his many disguises.  For yes, Percy is the Scarlet Pimpernel.  While in Paris on one of his rescue missions, he meets the actress Marguerite St. Just and falls madly in love.  Marguerite has also caught the eye of one of Robespierre's underlings, the scheming Paul Chauvelin.  Chauvelin believes that Marguerite will soon marry him, but Marguerite has become infatuated with Sir Percy.  In defiance of her powerful admirer, Marguerite agrees to marry Percy.  In a fit of anger, Chauvelin signs Marguerite's name to a paper denouncing a wealthy family so that it appears she is the one responsible for their deaths.  Word of this action reaches Percy, who believes that Marguerite did indeed commit the foul action.  This creates a rift between the newly married couple.  Marguerite knows her husband's feelings toward her have changed, but she has no idea why, and Percy feels he can no longer trust his bride.

Meanwhile, the Scarlet Pimpernel is planning his most daring rescue yet: that of King Louis XVI's and Marie Antoinette's son who is currently imprisoned.  The boy is guarded around the clock, so it looks like an impossible mission, but if anyone can pull it off, it's the Scarlet Pimpernel! 

Will the prince be rescued?  Will the misunderstanding between Percy and Marguerite be resolved?  Will the Scarlet Pimpernel live to fight another day?  Will Percy maintain his exquisite wardrobe?  All these questions are answered in a suspenseful, exciting conclusion!

I really enjoyed the performances in this production. Jane Seymour is lovely as always and Anthony Andrews is perfect in the dual role as the swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel and the foolish Sir Percy. You can even almost have sympathy for the villain Chauvelin, played by Ian McKellen, due to his being thwarted in everything he tries to do.  This really was a wonderful adaption of the story!  I must day, though, I'm glad the fashion for "sideways hair" has died out!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of the Scarlet Pimpernel from Acorn Media in exchange for my review

Final verdict for The Scarlet Pimpernel Four Gherkins, for being a thrilling look at a (sadly, fictional) hero of the French Revolution

Monday, April 8, 2013

Dubious financial advice


I’m always anxious to read good advice, so I had high hopes for the short book “The Death of Money Report” by Tracy Piercy and Lisa Maxwell.  Any book that contains insights on how to better manage finances is surely welcome in these trying times.  Or so I thought.  I didn’t find much useful information in this book, and I thought a lot of the advice was downright alarming.  The first part of the book reinforces why so many people are in financial difficulties:  the conflicting messages they receive to “save” and “spend.”  All financial advice seems to be geared toward instructing people to save as much as possible in order to have a comfortable retirement.  At the same time, we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages encouraging us to spend and aim toward a more luxurious lifestyle.  The authors rightly state that this causes many people to either go on spending binges (after virtuously saving toward retirement gets to be too much) or else relying on a big lottery win to get them out of financial trouble.  The middle part of the book concerns a somewhat confusing incident that happened to one of the authors in her business.   Somehow she was swindled and the company nearly folded, but I didn’t really follow all the ins and outs of the story beyond the fact that people looking for a quick pay-off were lured into unwise investments by a con artist.  The final part of the book is where I really became alarmed.  The authors do encourage people to think outside the box and reject the old financial wisdom, but their advice for new thinking is dangerous.  Statements like “You are not a slave to debt when you understand it as a wealth building tool” made me extremely uneasy.  Surely this book is meant to encourage people who are having a difficult time with finances already, so encouraging them to go into debt for “investing” or “accessing the equity in your home” to do so seems to be extremely bad advice.  The authors even counsel that if you get into trouble with credit cards, if you can manage to pay them off you shouldn’t close the account because “that reinforces lack of confidence” in your financial decision-making.  Well, duh!  Starting a part-time business to earn extra income is a great idea, but going into debt (even to the extent of putting your home in jeopardy) seems to be wildly inappropriate advice, especially for people who might have a history of financial missteps already.
 
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book as part of the Book Sneeze program.