Tuesday, September 30, 2014

While browsing at the wonderful Union Avenue Bookstore a few weeks ago I opened A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside by Susan Branch and was immediately captivated.  The book is gorgeous, with hand-lettered texts, photos and many beautiful illustrations.  Plus, it's about England, so I figured it would be right up my alley.

Susan Branch is the author and illustrator of a number of beautiful books on such topics as cooking and Christmas.  She's also an Anglophile and was excited to book a 2 month vacation to England in 2012.  She and her husband Joe booked passage on the Queen Mary 2 and set off in May.

Once they arrived in England, they rented a car and drove around to many well-known sights and stayed at beautiful homes in the countryside.  She also visited some friends she had known for a while.  There are lots of quotes and historical facts included that help to make the pages attractive and interesting.

That said, for a book that touts being about "the English Countryside" quite a lot of the book was taken up with telling the reader about her relationship with her husband, including (this is not an exaggeration) 20 pages on how they met and their first date.  There are also way too many tedious details of their day-to-day lives.  The part near the beginning when they are on the ship is especially excruciating.  Here is a verbatim section from page 57:

I just slept 12 hours! Didn't do too well the rest of yesterday.  I was seasick.  I put on my wrist bands way too late; next time they go on before I get on the ship, even if the water looks like glass.  They usually work for me.  Joe's fine, he has the permanent sea legs from years of cooking on a schooner, but if the sea is rough, I can even feel queasy during the forty-five minute ferry ride from Martha's Vineyard to the mainland.  Feeling better this morning; knitting & having a cup of chamomile tea to soothe my tummy.  Joe's sleeping; he went to the casino after tucking me in last night. 
All we get to hear about Thirsk

And on and on -- quite a bit of the book is like that.  Why the author thinks anyone is actually interested in reading this, or why she'd take the time to artistically render it (and why no editor stepped in and cut out a lot of it) is a mystery.  Two places that she visited hardly get a mention:  London and Thirsk (home of James Herriott).  It's odd that these places, both packed with interesting stuff, are hardly noted, while we get much more detail than we care to about unimportant domestic matters.

Similarly, the last 13 pages of the book are a weird mish-mash of thoughts after her trip, references to her friends, and advice such as "Walk a Country Road as Often as Possible" and ""Listen to Birds Sing" (with the obligatory photo of her and her husband kissing at the end).  Again, the book is beautiful -- it's only when you actually start reading the text that the problems begin.  If you like to look at pretty pictures, this is a pleasant book to thumb through.  If you're not actually acquainted with the author, however, the details and descriptions of her personal life will grow old quickly.

Final Verdict for A Fine Romance:   Two Gherkins, for being the embodiment of style over substance

Friday, September 12, 2014

Within the first few minutes of the BBC drama Happy Valley, we learn that Sergeant Catherine Cawood is divorced, living with her sister (a recovering heroin addict), raising her grandson, and is the mother of two children:  one is dead and the other doesn't speak to her.  With all that drama, you'd be forgiven for expecting Catherine to be somewhat depressed, but nothing could be further from the truth.  She's a no-nonsense, organized woman who likes nothing more than diving in among the "scrotes and numpties" on her beat and straightening them out (with force, if necessary).

That is until she learns that Tommy Lee Royce has been released from prison and his back in her town.  Royce is the man that she blames for the suicide of her daughter and the man she fears is her grandson Ryan's father.  She becomes obsessed with finding him (he doesn't seem to be staying with his drugged up mother) and keeping him away from Ryan.

At the same time, in a very "Fargo-esque" plot, accountant Kevin Weatherill is desperate for money.  His wife is suffering from MS, and he's in need of money to pay his daughter's school fees.  Since his father was (to his mind) cheated out of a partnership in the business where Kevin works, he feels he's entitled to a raise from the boss Nevison Gallagher.  Gallagher says he really can't agree to a raise, since he'd have to give a raise to everyone.  Furious, Weatherill approaches a local dodgy character he knows named Ashley Cowgill with a business proposition: a plot to kidnap Gallagher's daughter Anne and split the ransom money.  What could possibly go wrong?

After the kidnapping plan has been set in motion, Weatherill receives all sorts of bad news.  Gallagher's wife has cancer and is not expected to live long.  As a concession to his wife and daughter, Gallagher announces he's not going to give Weatherill a raise, but he will instead fully pay the daughter's school fees.  Humbled and chastened, Weatherill attempts to call off the kidnapping plot, but of course, it's much too late.  As the events spiral out of control and more crimes connected to the plot occur, Weatherill watches helplessly and rehearses what he'll say to Gallagher and/or the police if his part in the kidnapping is discovered.

Naturally, the evil Tommy Lee Royce has gotten wind of the fact that he might have a son, and takes to hanging around Ryan's school.  To further complicate Catherine's life, her ex-husband has lost his job and has started coming around again. He remarried after his marriage to Catherine broke up in the wake of their daughter's suicide and her determination to raise Ryan rather than put him into care.

After Catherine suffers horrific injuries on the job, she begins to spiral into depression.  Ryan is a constant source of worry and trouble both at school and at home.  Her son is still not speaking to her unless absolutely necessary. Her sister shows no signs of moving out (although it's hard to see how Catherine would cope without her).  Her superiors in the police force seem to show no interest in tracking down Tommy Lee Royce.  A tragedy occurs to one of her subordinates and she begins to question her entire career.

There are plenty of terrible and heart-wrenching scenes in the series, making you wonder why the town council in "Happy Valley" hasn't voted on a more appropriate name for the town.  Drugs and crime are rampant and everyone seems pretty miserable.  Good thing they have a resilient and dedicated cop like Sgt. Cawood on the job!

I was pleased to see that Happy Valley and actress Sarah Lancashire were big winners at the recent TV Choice Awards.  There has been some speculation that there might be a second series, so I'll be on the lookout for the further adventures of the glum populace of Happy Valley.  Although I couldn't wait and ordered the DVD, it is currently available as a streaming option from Netflix.

Final Verdict for Happy Valley:  Four Gherkins, for being a gritty look at the day-to-day life of a heroic policewoman

Thursday, September 11, 2014

As a frequent visitor to London, I'm always drawn to places that are somewhat off the beaten tourist track.  Since London has long been a destination for many people from all walks of life, inevitably there have been some gruesome and shocking crimes that have taken place there.  In the fascinating book Murder Houses of London, author Jan Bondeson takes a look at the places that have been the scenes of murders most foul in the capital city over the past 200 or so years.  Interestingly, in this book, he concentrates of places that the, ahem, student of crime can still visit.  He's put in a great deal of detective work to find the locations of crimes where streets have been renamed, houses renumbered, and various building projects have rendered the locations all but unrecognizable.  Still, if you want to see where John George Haigh dissolved his victims in acid, or where George Joseph Smith dispatched some of his "brides in the bath," this is an indispensable guide!

The book is divided into sections based on areas of London: Westminster, Kensington, Islington, Chelsea and Fulham, etc. and then arranged chronologically.  Many famous cases are covered, as well as ones that I'd never heard of before.  While many of the crimes were "solved" (well, someone was arrested, tried and frequently hanged), there are also many cases that remain unsolved to this day.  I was especially intrigued to learn that the street where I stay on my visits to London, Cartwright Gardens, was the site of two unsolved murders in the 1800s.  The houses are long since gone, so one can hope that the ghosts of the victims have also departed the area!

Murder of Olive Yong from Illustrated Police News
The book contained a great deal of historical information and many cases that are probably not well-known among the general public.  There are many illustrations scattered throughout the book, both black and white pages (mostly from the Illustrated Police News), black and white contemporary photographs, and color pages of what the notorious houses look like today (which I'm sure the current owners greatly appreciate!).

The only slight quibble I have with the book is the tendency for some repetitive language.  The phrase "things weren't looking too good for" defendants in murder trials is used multiple times, as is the habit of calling suspects a "cove."  Still, if you are discussing murders, suspects and trials, I guess there are only so many ways to say the same thing over and over!

I think anyone with an interest in London history or true crime would enjoy this book.  I especially enjoyed the many illustrations from the sadly defunct Illustrated Police News, particularly the startled expressions and wild gestures of those who found the murder victims.  If you've already visited London and been on one of the many Jack the Ripper or ghosts tours, this book provides ample information for you to design your own "murder house tour" on your next visit!

Final Verdict for Murder Houses of London:  Five Gherkins, for being a detailed and well-illustrated look at the violent side of London's history

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nearly 200 years since her death, Jane Austen is more popular than ever.  I'd always been curious about her death at age 41.  Certainly, there were many ailments in the nineteenth century that were unknown to medical science, so there has always been a lot of speculation concerning the precise cause of her death.  The only thing literary sleuths have had to go on are descriptions of her symptoms in letters from Jane and her family.  Because of this, her death has been attributed variously to Addison's disease, lymphoma, typhus or even a form of tuberculosis.  Her only sister and mother both lived to ripe old ages, and so it would seem that if there was something contagious responsible for her death, that others in the household would have also been sickened.

Enter author Lindsay Ashford and The Mysterious Death of Jane Austen.  She's taken the known research into Austen's life and woven the details into a fascinating story that attempts to account for the strange death of the esteemed author.  The book will be appreciated by Austen fans, because it takes a close look at the various members of Jane's family. I knew she was very close to her sister Cassandra, and I had a vague impression of a brother who inherited the family wealth (what there was of it), so I was surprised to learn that Jane had a total of 6 brothers.  Because of this, the brothers, sisters-in-law (past and present), nieces, nephews and other various relations were a bit hard to keep straight.  Still, it's pretty obvious fairly early on who the villain (or villainess!) of the story is.

The story is told from the point of view of Anne Sharp, governess to Jane's niece Fanny.  Because Jane visits her brother's family quite often, she and Anne form a friendship.  When they are apart, they exchange letters and gossip about various family members.  Anne and Jane both begin to suspect that one of Jane's brothers is a bit too friendly with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth.  When Elizabeth suddenly dies, shortly after the birth of her 10th child, everyone assumes it's a complication of childbirth.

Not until many years after Jane's death does Anne Sharp begin to suspect someone might have wanted to keep Jane from exposing a family secret.  As she begins her detective work into the last few months of Jane's life, she also discovers that quite a few people in Jane's circle of family and friends had sudden and unexplained deaths that nevertheless didn't seem to excite any suspicion.  Taking in all the similar symptoms (including an unusual skin discoloration), Anne deduces that all of the deaths were caused by arsenic poisoning, and she sets out to trace motives back to one particular person.

At the author's note at the end of the book, Lindsay Ashford mentions that there was a lock of Jane Austen's hair sold at auction which was later analyzed and found to contain "levels of arsenic far exceeding that observed in a body's natural state."  Her interesting novel is an attempt to explain why someone close to her may have wanted to ensure Jane Austen's silence forever.

I did enjoy reading the book and getting to know more about the Austen family (albeit in a fictionalized setting). I did think the unmasking of the culprit and his/her motives was a bit of a stretch, but I'm sure stranger things have happened.  If poor Jane did have an abundance of arsenic in her body at the time of death, this explanation is as good as any!

Final Verdict for The Mysterious Death of Miss Jane Austen:  Four Gherkins, for being a plausible look at the cause of death of a beloved author
Those of us who have struggled to learn a new language are always looking for any new techniques that will make the unfamiliar sounds and grammar easier to remember.  The new book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner shows the process that the author has used to master 6 languages.

The system that he recommends is one I've never used in regards to language learning, but would be anxious to try:  the flashcard system.  Most of us probably have vague memories of using flashcards in elementary school to remember and test ourselves on various concepts. According to the author, the concept of a Spaced Repetition System (SRS) using flashcards is key to learning a new language, except now there is a more high tech option.  The author gives step-by-step instructions for creating a set of "old school" flashcards using actual cards and a file box, while also pointing out an electronic version Anki.

While the concept of flashcards (whether on paper or electronic) might not fill the prospective language student with excitement, the key to making the system work is to make each card personal to the user.  Research shows that our memory for images is much stronger than that for words or sounds, so associating a picture that is meaningful for you and will trigger your memory is essential.  Also, the general process of creating a personalized flash card for each sound, word, or grammatical concept you need to remember will help to reinforce the idea. The book also includes information about how to set up your own flashcard system for maximum retention of concepts:  namely, how often to review both new and old words so that they will be cemented in your memory.

There are numerous helpful appendices at the back of the book, including recommended books for specific languages, an International Phonetic Language guide, and the 625 words the author feels are most important to start with when learning a new language.

I thought this was a very fascinating and inspiring book for those who want to learn a new language.  The very specific and step-by-step instructions for setting up the SRS make the entire process seem manageable and achievable.  I am anxious to try out some of the author's ideas to see if I'm at least able to get a basic understanding of a new language.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Fluent Forever from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

As a native of the South, I'm probably more partial than most to a good BBQ or pork chop, and we can all appreciate the recent explosion of bacon-related foods and products.  For those who are a bit more discerning in their tastes, the new book The Southern Foodie's Guide to the Pig is a wonderful look at where you can indulge your love of pork, as well as how to recreate some of the most succulent recipes in your own kitchen.

This is really a thorough and exhaustive look at preparing pork in all its forms.  There are three sections in the book.  The first looks at the various delicious parts of the pig, from bacon and chops to ribs and hams.  Already here there are profiles of cooks who specialize in these meats, as well as tasty recipes.  The second part contains restaurant profiles with an overview, address and contact information, lists of specialties, insider tips and page numbers for recipes from each specific restaurant.  Section three is where we get into the "meat" of the book -- the delicious recipes, many accompanied by mouth-watering photos.  At the back of the book, information is divided into three indices:  Recipe, Location and Contributor.  This helps to quickly locate specific information (and I was crushed to find there were no locations profiled in my own town).

Additionally, there are cute pig cartoons and graphics, as well as factual "Pig Tales" scattered throughout the book.  This is a very informative and interesting look at all things pork related for the foodie or general cook.  Even if you aren't up to building your own fire pit to host your own pig roast, there are plenty of recipes and restaurant locations that will be sure to interest your taste buds!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of The Southern Foodie's Guide to the Pig from BookLook Bloggers in exchange for this review.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

We all know people who are "book smart" yet can't seem achieve success, while at the same time others without much formal education are able to achieve great things.  What is is that the successful people are able to do that eludes the others?  In Beyond IQ, the author Garth Sundem details the aspects of practical intelligence, which he argues is a greater predictor of success than IQ.  He also offers examples and puzzles to help all of us train our brains to think in new ways in order to expand our cognitive abilities and look at everyday situations in new and creative ways.

The book is divided into chapters which cover the various aspects of non-IQ intelligence.  The author says topics came about as a result of his interviews with researchers on the subject of human intelligence, as well as extensive reviews of professional literature.  Some of the topics he covers include creativity, intuition, willpower and problem solving.  There are a variety of word and picture puzzles and activities in each chapter to help re-enforce a particular skill.  Helpfully, the answers are included at the back of the book if you encounter some particularly vexing problems.  While most of the answers are straightforward, I did have a problem with some that I felt had 'areas of gray' in them.  For instance, in the chapter on Practical Intelligence, the author includes some scenarios with four possible reactions.  After choosing your answer, you can look in the back of the book to see the best and worst answer for the questions.  Apparently, these types of questions are frequently used by HR managers to weed out undesirable applicants.  However, I felt that the declaration of the best and worst answers were fairly unhelpful without further explanation as to what these right and wrong answers were supposed to be demonstrating.  It also alarms me to think there might be HR managers out there who administer these tests and blindly follow the "right" answers to weed out applicants (although I suppose this is one way to eliminate people from a large group!).

I liked the variety of subjects covered and exercises that were included.  As many studies have shown, people who engage in mentally challenging activities (crossword puzzles, reading, writing, etc.) remain cognitively sharper into old age, so anything we can do to improve our brain function as we age is beneficial.  I especially liked the exercises meant to help filter out distractions and improve mental focus, although those are the ones that will take the most practice!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Beyond IQ from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

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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