Monday, July 28, 2014

Once again, the beautiful setting of Midsomer County is home to some particularly vexing murders in Midsomer Murders Set 24.  Luckily, DCI John Barnaby and DS Ben Jones are still on the case, questioning witnesses and ferreting out the killers (while dealing with their own personal problems).  For those who need some relief from all the scheming, lying and suspicion, there's the always adorable Sykes the dog to entertain us!  As usual, he steals every scene he's in, and in one episode, even manages to insert himself into the investigation (although in a somewhat indirect manner!).

Written in the Stars takes place around the Moonstone Ridge heritage site.  Members of the local Astronomical Society, as well as faculty and students from the University of Midsomer's observatory and various locals (including local psychic Mystic Mags) have gathered to watch a solar eclipse.  Wouldn't you know it, just as the moon passes in front of the sun, a scream rings out and a body is discovered.  I guess the old superstition that eclipses are bad luck must be true!  The murder victim is Jeremy Harper, a member of the Astronomical Society and owner of a local tea room and museum.  He's also chair of the parish council and is strongly opposed to the university's plan to build a new observatory on the revered Moonstone Ridge site.  Jeremy's death isn't the only one that's happened on the ridge -- several years previously Jeremy's sister-in-law Mary was found dead there under mysterious circumstances.  Could the curse of Moonstone Ridge be
true? Soon the museum is burglarized, and the two items, an arrowhead and a bronze-age disc, are stolen and turned into murder weapons.  Mystic Mags is claiming to have predicted all the deaths (after the fact, of course), but will her prediction of romance for DS Jones come true?  Sykes the dog gets into the spirit of some "down dogs" while helping Sarah practice yoga (her husband Barnaby only uses yoga to fall asleep, a tactic I've been know to employ myself!).

The second episode, The Sicilian Defense, goes into the world of die-hard chess players.  During the Bishopwood Chess Tournament, rivalries of many types are exposed.  There's Alan Robson, who made a fortune on an early chess video game, but who's having trouble beating the young chess prodigy, Jamie.  Edward Stannington, the president of the Chess Society, is quick to rub in the embarrassing loss.  David Farmer, who's running the tournament, is still worried about his teenage daughter, Harriet.  Harriet was going to elope with her boyfriend Finn Robson (Alan's son), the previous year, but she was found injured in the woods behind her house, and Finn disappeared.  She's been in a coma ever since, unable to tell anyone what happened.  The tournament is taking place at the King's Gambit Hotel, which isn't doing too well financially.
Mr. Potts, the hotel's owner, is desperately trying to find people to invest in the hotel and save him from financial ruin, while his wife Caroline uses up precious resources by operating her own "meals on wheels" service for the elderly and infirm in the area.  Harriet finally wakes up, but members of the chess community start turning up dead.  More alarmingly, the deceased all have pieces of paper with some weird notations stuffed into their mouths.  Eventually, Barnaby discovers, these are moves from the famous "Sicilian Defense," used during a renowned chess match.  As Harriet's memory begins to return, it seems someone will do anything to keep the truth from being exposed.

Schooled in Murder begins with an appropriately stylish and saucy Martine McCutcheon storming into a meeting of parents and the headmistress of the prestigious Midsomer Pastures Preparatory School. It seems her character, Deborah Moffett, has received a letter stating that her daughter will not be welcome at the school the next term.  Someone has written an anonymous letter to the school authorities claiming Deborah's immoral behavior reflects poorly on the school.  Deborah flounces out of the meeting, but not before threatening to expose a few secrets.  Shortly afterward, she's killed when her skull crushed by a huge wedge of Midsomer Blue, the award-winning cheese (I hate it when that happens!).  It turns out the dairy responsible for producing the cheese and the school have an unusual link: the school must offer several free scholarships to students of dairy workers.  While investigating the murder, it transpires that many of these students get expelled every year.  The dairy turns out to be having problems.  The new owners, Greg and Hayley Branther, inherited the dairy from her family and moved to the area from London.  Hayley anticipated it would only be for 6 months, but that time is up and Greg shows no intention of wanting to leave.  In fact, he's working with a large conglomerate to purchase milk from them (rather than local small farmers) as well as "modernize" the production process (which will result in the loss of many jobs).   More deaths follow, all of them connected to both the dairy and the school in one way or another.  Which is the true source of the motive?  At the same time, a very spry-looking Sykes is taken along with Barnaby on all his cases.  While he was supposedly involved in a dog fight and needs looking-after, it would seem as if there might be other reasons that Barnaby doesn't want to let Sykes out of his sight . . .

This set contains three new mysteries that were originally broadcast in the UK in late 2012/early 2013.  Many famous faces (for fans of British TV) pop up, including the above-mentioned Martine McCutcheon (Eastenders' Tiffany -- she of the being run-down-in-the-street fame), Maggie Steed, Fay Ripley, Julie Graham and Cal Macaninch.  Even if you don't recognize the names, the faces will be familiar!  The final disk also contains a biography of Sykes the dog.  I only know his work from Midsomer Murders, but he's apparently a very talented and sought-after canine thespian!

Once again, the dedicated police officers and crime scene investigators use their considerable skills to sort out the guilty from the innocent.  The lovely scenery and eccentric locals help to give the series a pleasant feel -- even as the bodies pile up!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Midsomer Murders: Set 24 from Acorn Media in exchange for this review.

Final Verdict for Midsomer Murders: Set 24: Five Gherkins, for being another welcome visit to the beautiful but dangerous Midsomer County

Sunday, July 27, 2014

If you're looking for examples of what can go wrong on a summer vacation, look no further than Summer House with Swimming Pool by the Dutch author Herman Koch.  Dr. Marc Schlosser is a general practitioner who is rather bored with his job and life in general.  He's tired of the patients who come in and want to grumble for 20 minutes, or who insist on an exam or prescription when there's nothing actually wrong with them.  He's beyond fed up with having to accept the social invitations to plays and other "artistic" events that feature his patients.  It's at one of these events that he and his wife become friendly with the obnoxious actor Ralph Meier and his wife Judith.  Ralph is larger than life and his boorish behavior makes it clear that he thinks he's entitled to whatever he wants -- food, women, the company of others -- no matter what anyone else thinks.  It's therefore somewhat surprising (to his wife Caroline, at any rate) when Dr. Marc agrees to spend part of their summer vacation at the Meiers' summer rental house.  Ralph's grotesque ogling of Caroline might make her skin crawl, but the two Meiers boys are close in age to Marc and Caroline's two daughters, so how can Marc disappoint them by refusing the offer?  The fact that he's rather attracted to Judith Meier of course has nothing to do with his acceptance of the offer . . .

While at the summer house, there are no end of unpleasant shenanigans taking place.  The geriatric film director Stanley Forbes and his teenage girlfriend Emmanuelle are also staying with the Meiers, so there's plenty of people around for trouble-making.  A night on the beach leads to all sorts of problems, including a major one involving one of Marc's family members that will have long-lasting consequences.   Marc quickly decides on who the culprit was, and his later actions toward that person will impact nearly everyone in the story.

I found the tone of the novel, especially at the beginning, extremely engaging.  I really enjoyed the narrator's world-weary take on life. As the book went on and we got to know him better, however, I was less enchanted.  I also didn't like the pronouncements that were made about men and women and the supposedly biological reasons for their behaviors that Marc was constantly putting forth.  These "radical ideas" came courtesy of a professor he'd had in medical school. The ideas were so abhorrent that the professor was dismissed from his job in disgrace, although the ideas are now "generally accepted" as being true.  The overall message was quite disturbing, and I ended up being rather disappointed in the book overall.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

When you're planning a trip to London, the sheer number of things to see and do can be somewhat overwhelming. The helpful people at Cheap Flights have created this gorgeous infographic of some of the more popular options for things to see while in London. It will make it easy to narrow down your choices and help you make a plan of action! I've been to some of the attractions listed below, but not all of them, so I've definitely added some for my next trip!


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My friends and family would probably say that I'm slightly obsessed with London, and they would be wrong:  I'm totally obsessed!  For those long, arid stretches of time between trips, I try to read as much as possible about my favorite city.  The book Bizarre London: Discover the Capital's Secrets and Surprises is just the sort of book that I can't get enough of.

Of course a city with such a long and illustrious history as London is filled with locations and stories that are well-known to most people, whether they are particularly interested in London or not.  But this book is filled with tons of interesting facts, presented in unusual categories, which make for fascinating reading.

The chapters of the book contain both straightforward topics (Royal London, Working London, and Sporting London, to name a few) as well as some you might not expect (Eccentrics' London or Gruesome London).  Each chapter has many interesting lists included, covering things such as Famous Buildings with Secret Histories, Underground Oddities, Worst Business Decisions Ever Made, and London's Weirdest Wills.  There are also plenty of interesting lists, such as the 108 Livery companies, London's Oldest Shops, and 20th Century Traitors.   And what modern book about London would be complete without a delightful selection of quotes from the inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson?

In short, each page features a fascinating story or character that will keep you reading until, suddenly and with a shock, you realize you're already at the end!  I really loved all the strange and new information and the black and white illustrations were a perfect fit.  If you have any interest in London, history, or just random/unusual trivia, this is a great book for you!

Final Verdict for Bizarre London:  Five Gherkins, for being a beautiful little volume that's packed full of interesting stuff!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

I really do like the cover of I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum.  The stamp and postmark and the familiar (well, to those of us who have/had foreign pen-pals) red, white and blue airmail envelope colors along the edges of the book made me think this would be a lovely story involving travel.  While there was some travel (and letter-writing) involved, the main story was somewhat of a disappointment.

Richard Haddon is a British artist living in Paris with his beautiful and successful French wife Anne and daughter Camille.  He would seem to have it all, but no, he has to go and start an affair because (from what I can gather) he was just a bit bored.  He ends up falling madly in love with the American Lisa, who breaks things off with him to move to London and get married.  Richard, who was beginning to toy with the idea of leaving his wife for Lisa, is desperately depressed by the break-up.  At the same time, some paintings he's done (but is not very enthusiastic about) have had a successful showing, but have left him feeling as if he's sold out.

For some unfathomable reason, the departed Lisa has decided that she wants to keep in contact with Richard by writing to him, but he never writes her back.  To keep the wife from finding out, the letters are delivered to the art dealer who shows Richard's work.  Richard keeps the letters and obsesses over them.  When the family goes to visit Anne's parents, naturally Richard takes the letters along.  Shocker, his wife discovers them and throws him out.  Naturally, once he's in danger of losing his marriage, Richard decides to turn his efforts into winning back his wife.

There is a lot of back and forth with Richard and Anne and their arguments (he's really, really sorry; she can never trust him again, etc.) that gets rather tedious.  Unfortunately, thrown into this domestic chaos is a long, long discussion of Richard's latest "project" -- getting an American washing machine and a British washing machine and having people bring things they want to "wash clean" -- using gasoline.  It all ties in with a long discussion of the Iraq war and how the US and Britain were guilty of war crimes.  The story contained lots of pretentious talk about "art" (some of it tongue-in-cheek, to be sure) and the people who make and view it.

It was just really hard to get behind Richard or care much about what happened to him.  He was wishy-washy in all areas of his life and tended to discard or ignore anything good (his wife, his successful paintings, etc.).  The resolution of the story was also a bit abrupt -- a decision was made out of the blue and didn't seem to make much sense given what came before.  I also wondered about who was buying the art "piece" consisting of two washing machines and a clothesline full of gasoline soaked items.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You from the publisher in exchange for this review. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Doug Fields admits right up front that his book 7 Ways to Be Her Hero was originally going to be titled "How to Get All the Sex You Want" but that he thought that title might be somewhat off-putting to the women who were the likely buyers of his book (for their husbands, of course!).  The book begins with reminders to husbands to stop chasing things (success, women, excitement, etc.) and turn their energies into becoming the best husbands they can be.  He uses Biblical principles and ideas to emphasize the point that once married, husbands and wives form one heart and should try to treat each other with more respect and thoughtfulness, since what harms one harms the other as well.

The seven ways are each given their own chapters, with information and examples to explain each idea.  Among the ideas that are explored are "Don't say everything you think" and "Put your pride aside."  I really liked the way the author presented his ideas with reasons to back them up.  For instance, he gives examples of situations in which the first temptation might be to say something which will be hurtful, or cause tensions to rise and how things like this might be better handled.  Of course, it's easy to sit and read (and plan to act on) advice like this when not in the heat of the moment!  Still, I think the ideas about being more thoughtful in our interactions is good advice.

Many of the chapters have a "B" section following. These sections deal with what to do when you (as the husband) feel that you are not the one with the problem that was discussed in the previous chapter.  Sometimes, while not in the wrong, the way of dealing with character flaws in your spouse in such a way that won't exacerbate the situation.  I enjoyed the way the book attempted to give men concrete ways to be more "heroic" to their wives, but also gave reasons as to why these actions will also be helpful to the men themselves in the long run.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of 7 Ways to Be Her Hero from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The rise in social networking tools like Facebook and LinkedIn have made it very easy for individuals to make contact with others in their field.  Many people, however, are still reluctant to reach out on anything other than a superficial level to others, especially those who might hold a higher position than they do.  In the book Never Eat Alone, author Keith Ferrazzi stresses the importance of creating a large network of people who can help and be helped by you.  By having contacts across many different areas, he argues that you will be creating opportunities for generosity which will ultimately benefit you in ways that might not at first be apparent.

The book begins with attempting to overcome the reluctance to reach out that many people have.  The author mentions many times that he offered to help people newly starting out in their fields with job interviews, introductions or internships, only to be rebuffed because the recipients of his generosity didn't want to feel indebted to him.  He goes on to stress the importance of creating connections precisely so that you will be able to help those who need it when you seen an opportunity to do so -- without "keeping score."  Although he does also frequently mention how he "keeps up" with how young people he's helped are doing in their careers . . .

Once you have accepted that you need to increase your personal and/or professional network, strategies are offered that will help achieve this.  He advises how to "do your homework" to make connections as well as keep a list of "aspirational names" of business leaders that you hope to meet one day.  He also gives advice on how to make the dreaded "cold call" to make connections and how to get around gatekeepers that are employed precisely to protect their bosses from people like us!  This new edition of the book has also been updated to include information on how to network, market yourself and gain followers on the newer social platforms.

One thing I found amusing was the chapter titled, "Never Give in to Hubris," because on nearly every page there is reference to the awards the author's been given, the celebrities he's worked with, the many young people who are clamoring for his knowledge, and generally how important he is.  It felt like a lot of bragging and name-dropping and honestly took away from the message of the book.  He should re-read his anti-hubris chapter before the next edition comes out!  If you can overlook all the self-congratulation, there are some good messages to take from the book about building connections and helping yourself by helping others.

Disclaimer:  I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The European drama series is currently a very popular entry into the mystery genre due to several recognizable characteristics.  The new Welsh series Hinterland is no exception.  Brooding lead detective with some personal baggage? Check. Gorgeous scenery? Check.  Gruesome crimes? Check.  All of which add up to an entirely enjoyable and intriguing drama.

This series has been called a Welsh version of The Killing.  Having only seen the US version of that program, I have to say that I'm not seeing the similarities.  Hinterland features the investigation of 4 distinct crimes, although they take place within a relatively small area, but there's no "who killed Rosie Larsen" story line running throughout the whole thing.  There is a slight connection between several of the episodes, but it's only vaguely alluded to.  Still, it's an engaging drama in its own right.

DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington) comes to Aberystwyth to head up the investigation unit of the local police force.  He's clearly had some sort of personal upheaval -- his letters to "Meg" are returned unopened and he is constantly looking mournfully at a photo of two small girls.  His living situation is also a bit bleak.  He's living in a caravan (trailer to us US folks) in the middle of a beautiful but desolate area.  Still, it's a good place to get in his frequent jogs.

The first episode of the series, "Devil's Bridge," begins with a horrific scene.  An elderly woman is missing from her home, but there is blood everywhere, suggesting she was either killed or very seriously injured.  In the course of their investigations, the team finds out that the woman ran a children's home for many years.  The building is now a hotel, although since it's in a rather remote location, guests are somewhat infrequent.  While looking around the grounds of the school, Mathias finds the old lady's body in a river.  Mathias becomes convinced that a former resident of the home is responsible for the crime, but since the home operated for decades, it will be a challenge to trace all the now-adult residents.

"Night Music," the second episode, once again concerns violence done to an elderly person in his own home.  Solitary Idris Williams is found beaten to death in the kitchen of his farmhouse.  Although he lives in the house on his late father's farm, it soon emerges that Williams doesn't own the farm:  his father left it to "the Guild" -- a local organization of prominent men who allow him to live in the house.  The investigation leads all the way back to events that took place in World War II, so once again, the list of suspects is long.

A close-knit community hides its secrets well in the third episode, "Penwyllt."  Divers discover a body in a local pond.  The body had been weighted down with a large tire, so while suicide is considered as a cause of death, it doesn't seem likely.  The dead man turns out to be a teacher whose van broke down in the town the previous year.  He had to wait around for parts to be delivered to fix the van, so apparently he made at least one enemy while there.  It's up to Mathias to sort out the culprit from a mass of shady characters.  His task isn't made any easier when another suspicious death occurs in the village.

Finally, the last episode, "The Girl in the Water," starts with two boys finding a beautiful young woman in a red dress dead in their field.  She was posed in an odd position, leading Mathias to wonder at the significance of her appearance.  The victim, Alys Thomas, was a student at the local university.  Could one of her professors have had a relationship with her?  While investigating, Mathias embarks on a relationship of his own, but, being something of a misery-guts, you just know things won't run smoothly for him . . .

It would be interesting to know if Welsh law differs significantly from the laws of other countries that we've come to know from detective shows.  For instance, although this is the "badge-flashingist" bunch of cops I've ever seen, they have no hesitation to break in to any suspect's home and start rifling through their belongings.  There's never a mention of any sort of warrant, so I wonder if it's not needed in Wales?  The suspects often turn up as their belongings are being searched, and no one seems to raise a fuss.  Odd.  Also, Mathias is inordinately fond of his flashlight, using it even when it seems a flick of a light switch would serve him better.  Then again, who am I to question the methods of the great detectives?

There are also tons of bonus features on the final disk which demonstrate the amazing amount of work that went into this production.  The series was filmed in both English and Welsh -- at the same time.  So one shot was set up and filmed in English, and immediately re-done in Welsh (or vice versa).  There are several interviews with the producer of the series, who speaks in Welsh (with subtitles, thank goodness!).  The beautiful landscape also presented its own share of filming difficulties.

Overall, I found the series to be quite intriguing.  Both Mathias and his second-in-command, DI Mared Rhys, seem to be suffering from personal difficulties brought on by too much time spent on the job.  In addition, their boss, the dour Chief Supt. Brian Prosser, seems to have a suspect picked out for every crime, before the investigation even begins.  We don't get much of a glimpse into what makes Mathias so morose, but it looks like there will be another series of Hinterland next year, so maybe we'll get some clarification then!
Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Hinterland from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Hinterland: Four Gherkins, for being an exciting and atmospheric detective series set in a breathtaking landscape

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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