Monday, December 30, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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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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