Thursday, October 20, 2016

M.C. Beaton's nosy, prickly and lovable heroine Agatha Raisin has been featured in 27 novels, so it is high time that she made the transition to our TV screens.  Acorn Media is releasing Agatha Raisin: Series One so that we can finally get to see Agatha and the idyllic village of Carsely in the English Cotswolds. Series one includes the 2014 pilot episode, Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, as well as 8 additional episodes that were shown on UK TV in 2016. There are also some charming behind-the-scenes featurettes about Carsely, the casting and actors.

We meet Agatha in "The Quiche of Death" when she decides to finally chuck in her successful Public Relations job in London and move to a small town in the Cotswolds.  She had paid a firm of interior designers a fortune to make her home look "homey" so she's pleased with the results.  Now her next order of business is to go out and get involved in her new community.  When she hears there's an annual quiche competition coming up, she thinks that will be just the thing to allow her to get involved in village life.  Unfortunately, Agatha lives on microwave meals and has no idea how to bake a quiche, but that's what high-end London bakeries are for, no?  She shows up with her creation, certain of a win, especially after she invites Andy Cummings-Brown (who will be judging the competition) and his wife out for a pricey meal in the local upscale pub.  Therefore, Agatha is shocked when Ella Cartwright wins yet again.  To make matters worse, Agatha comes home and discovers her new cottage has been burgled.  She calls in local police DC Bill Wong and DCI Wilkes, but they don't seem too optimistic that the thieves can be tracked down.  But dark days weren't finished with Agatha, because the next night, Andy is found dead in his home.  He had been eating Agatha's leftover quiche when he collapsed and died.  The police quickly determined it was murder, and that he had been poisoned by deadly cowbane.  At the inquest, Agatha has to admit in open court that she didn't actually bake the quiche that she entered into the competition.  Poor Aggie!  And she endears herself even less to the locals of Carsely when she steals away the cleaner, Gemma Simpson, from her neighbor.  Cleaners are apparently hard to come by in the Cotswolds, so pinching someone else's is just not done!

But things are not all gloom and doom.  DC Bill Wong has a massive crush on Agatha, which means he's often stopping by with gifts, including a kitten and official police investigation notes.  Agatha begins her investigation into Andy's death to clear her name, but soon finds out that she has a talent for it.  Also, her friend Roy Silver is a frequent visitor from London, usually with his latest unsuitable boyfriend (or "boyf" as it's apparently called these days) in tow.  Even better, a hunky next-door-neighbor, James Lacey has taken up residence.

After managing to solve the quiche murder, Agatha is back for Episode One, the Walkers of Dembley.  In this episode we are introduced to Sir Charles Fraith, owner of a large estate, and boss to the gloomy butler Gustav.  When some local ramblers insist they have a right to walk through Sir Charles' fields, Gustav tries to convince them otherwise (using a gun).  Charles arrives on the scene and tells them they are welcome to walk on his land, just not on the crops.  This doesn't sit well with the outspoken leader of the group, Jess Tartick, who claims an ancient right of way goes right through
the fields.  A few days later, she is hit over the head and murdered while walking in these same fields.  Naturally, Charles is a suspect.  Sarah Bloxby, the vicar's wife, brings Deborah Camden to Agatha and they ask her to investigate the death.  Deborah has her heart set on marrying Charles, so she needs to clear his name (Charles may have other ideas about the marriage, though).  Further complicating Agatha's life, Roy Silver has been dumped by his long-term partner and is drowning his sorrows with wine, Pringles, and a naked yoga teacher -- in Agatha's house.  Even more annoying, James Lacey seems to have taken up with the insufferable Mary Fortune.  Although Jess and most of the ramblers were teachers, Agatha soon discovers a hot-bed of infidelity and scandal among the ramblers.

In Episode Two, Hell's Bells, Agatha again tries to fit in with the local community by getting involved in the local bell-ringer's society.  The bishop is coming for a visit soon, and the bell-ringers need all the practice they can get to be able to play something recognizable.  The head bell-ringer, Amanda Ballard, is spending an awful lot of time with the vicar, much to his wife Sarah's annoyance. When Amanda is found hanging in the church with an apparent suicide note nearby, the police are only too quick to accept the death at face value.  Agatha tries to get James to investigate the death with her, but when he refuses, she presses Gemma (her cleaner) and Roy into service as her assistants.  It turns out Amanda wasn't the wealthy widow she claimed to be, but did her death have something to do with Reverend Bloxby being investigated for irregularities in church finances?

Two sets of village residents are at each other's throats in Episode Three: The Wellspring of Death.  Robina Toynbee owns the land where an ancient spring sits.  She has agreed to allow a company called Ancombe Water to collect the water for sale.  The problem is that the village is small, and the heavy, loud and dangerous trucks thundering through the area are disrupting village life. The parish council is going to vote on whether or not to allow the trucks access to the spring.  The council is evenly divided, with Robert Struthers having the deciding vote.  Both sides are hoping to influence him, but he is found dead at the spring the morning of the meeting.  Due to the negative publicity surrounding Ancombe Water after the death, the company hires Agatha to manage the PR surrounding the product launch.  She's able to convince the head of the company, Guy Fremont, to work closely with her (personally and professionally).  James Lacey doesn't seem to be paying much attention to her domestic arrangements, much to  Agatha's annoyance, because he and Mary Fortune have decided to out-detect Agatha and investigate the murder themselves.  DCI Wilkes, meanwhile, has learned some new investigation techniques from watching "Morse" so there is no shortage of sleuths trying to trap the murderer.

Just because Agatha didn't win the quiche competition doesn't mean she's not willing to compete in other areas.  In Episode Four: The Potted Gardener, Agatha is getting her back yard ready for the upcoming Open Gardens Competition.  Just as well that she's going for something modern and zen, because nearly all the flowers and plants in her competitor's gardens are vandalized a few days before
the competition.  Could it have something to do with the noisy joyriders who have been terrorizing the villagers in the middle of the night?  When one of the gardeners is found "planted" upside down in her own garden, Agatha has many mysteries to solve:  the murder, the vandalism and the joyriding.  It seems like she's on to the killer when she finds out the dead woman's daughter might be in need of money, but could it be more complicated than that?

Carsely has a new handsome vet in Episode Five: The Vicious Vet.  It's a good thing there's nothing really wrong with Agatha's cat Hodge when she takes him in for a visit, because every other female in town is in the waiting room with a healthy pet in need of an urgent exam by the vet.  Paul Bladen, the vet, asks Agatha out to dinner.  She's flattered, but is somewhat taken aback when she calls his house and his "wife" answers.  When Paul makes excuses, she's ready to forgive him, but then he turns up dead at Lord Pendlebury's horse stables.  Paul was going to operate on a horse, when he somehow managed to inject the horse tranquilizer into his heart.  Once again, the police see no reason to investigate this tragic accident, but Agatha sets out to find out who might want the vet dead.  Since James (an ex-army man) has some shared colleagues with Pendlebury, he comes along to give Agatha an introduction and a chance to snoop around the estate.  Agatha and crew do manage to find an important clue, but James is distracted by the prospect of a date with Lord Pendlebury's daughter Cilly and the clue goes missing.  Things go from bad to worse when Agatha discovers that someone has "catnapped" Hodge and demands that she stop investigating if she ever wants to see the kitty again.

Although Sir Charles Fraith certainly doesn't need the money, he's started a lucrative sideline in renting out his estate for weddings in Episode Six: The Day the Floods Came.  Couples are lining up to hold ceremonies there until new bride Kylie Leeson is found floating the the river the day after her
wedding.  Even though business is suffering, Charles doesn't want Agatha to investigate.  This demand is easy to meet, since none of Kylie's friends are eager to speak to Agatha.  That is until she comes up with the idea of having Roy pose as the producer of a new reality program about the village youth that they are currently scouting talent for.  Agatha soon finds out that Kylie was having affairs and blackmailing people left and right, which certainly doesn't help to narrow down the list of suspects.

In the Witch of Wyckhadden, Episode Seven, Agatha makes a somewhat understandable error. She's booked into a spooky castle for a Spa Retreat, only it turns out that SPA stands for Special Paranormal Activity.  The reason she needs to get away for a while is that she's had an unfortunate
hair disaster, and needs to hide out until she can rectify the situation. One of the other guests at the hotel tells Agatha about Francie Juddle, the local witch, who, in addition to doing palm and Tarot readings also has a booming sideline in potions of all sorts.  Agatha visits Francie for a hair tonic and after returning to her room, becomes alarmed at the caustic nature of the product.  She storms back to Francie's caravan to demand a refund, only to find her dead.  When Roy, Gemma and James read about the murder in the newspaper, they all come to the castle to help Agatha find the murderer.  When there is another death during a seance in a locked room, it turns out the paranormal might be involved after all.

Episode Eight: The Murderous Marriage, finds Agatha about to go through with a wedding.  She's finally managed to snare James Lacey and has sold her cottage in preparation of moving in with him.  On the day of the wedding, as she and James are exchanging their vows, everyone is shocked when Agatha's husband, Jimmy Raisin, turns up and says she's already married.  It turns out Agatha had never bothered to get a divorce from Jimmy when he disappeared soon after their marriage many years earlier.  It seems Jimmy has been living rough, and he's only too happy to agree to a divorce -- but it will cost Agatha.  When she argues with him, they are spotted by a villager.  Jimmy is discovered strangled to death soon after that.  Agatha would seem to have the strongest motive for murder, so she is quickly arrested.  James also has a motive, so he soon joins Agatha in the cells.  After they are bailed, their investigations determine that Jimmy had been sent to rehab by a charity for the homeless run by a woman named Fiona Gore-Appleton.  When they try to track her down, they find she and the charity seem to be bogus.  But some new female villagers have
moved into Carsely lately, so could there be a connection?

I have been a big fan of the Agatha Raisin books, so I was thrilled to see all the characters come to life.  Ashley Jensen is a bit more glamorous than I had pictured Agatha, but her ability to get herself into embarrassing situations and her hopeless love life are completely in keeping with the Agatha we know and love.  A few other changes have been made from the books, such as Rev. and Mrs. Bloxby being a young couple, and the cleaner being a single mother, but other than that, the setting and other characters will be familiar to fans of the books.  I really liked the comedic touches, such as the hopelessly inept DCI Wickes.  We can only hope we haven't seen the last of Agatha and her friends on the small screen!

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of Agatha Raisin: Series One from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A traumatic experience takes center stage in the new novel from Australian author Liane Moriarty in Truly Madly Guilty, but we don't find out what actually happened until far into the book.  Instead, events jump between the present, where we see the effects of whatever-it-was sending ripples out through the lives of various characters, and the past, where we see how the "Day of the Barbecue" unfolded.

Clementine and Erika have been friends since childhood.  Erika came from a single-parent home where her mother was a hoarder.  As a result, Erika was neglected, withdrawn and isolated.  Clementine's mother, a social worker always on the lookout for someone to rescue, demands that Clementine befriend Erika.  She reluctantly does so, and has continued to do so ever since, even though she does not particularly like Erika and feels burdened and frustrated at always having to look after her.  Clementine is married, has two young daughters, and is a professional cellist who always has to audition for jobs and has a big one coming up.  Erika is also married, but childless and has a high-paying and respectable job as an accountant.

Erika and her husband Oliver have invited Clementine's family over for dinner.  As Erika leaves her house on the way to the store, her neighbor Vid stops to chat.  Vid is a very successful and slightly shady businessman who lives in a huge, ostentatious mansion with his new trophy wife Tiffany and their daughter Dakota.  When Vid hears Erika is inviting people over for dinner, he insists that everyone come over to his house for a barbecue instead.  He loves socializing and cooking, and his dominant personality means that Erika soon gives in without consulting any of the others.

Clearly, from the way the book is structured, something catastrophic happens at the barbecue.  Based on the fact that the book opens with Clementine, several months after the barbecue, is giving "yet another" speech to a community group about her experiences, you get the impression that whatever the terrible event was, her children were involved.

While it is very suspenseful to try to work out what in the world happened at the barbecue from the sparse clues we're given, the rest of the story is very tedious.  It's over and over about how Clementine is worried about the upcoming audition, how Erika is such a pain in her life, how poor Erika is so emotionally stunted and has such a terrible life (although she's happily married and has no financial worries), etc.  The book just seems on a boring, never-ending loop going over and over the same ground without the story really advancing. I'm sure it's an attempt to draw out the narrative and heighten the suspense before "the big reveal" but it makes for very dull reading.  I read some of Liane Moriarty's earlier books and really liked them, but sadly, this one is mostly filler and very little of substance.

Final Verdict for Truly Madly Guilty Two Gherkins, for being a tedious look at first world problems

Thursday, October 13, 2016

DS Eve Winter is juggling many roles in the Australian police drama Winter.  Not only is she investigating numerous murders, but she has a very complicated relationship with her sister.  Add to all this a busy romantic life, and some unwelcome attention from “Professional Standards” (the Australian equivalent to “Internal Affairs”) and you’d be forgiven for thinking she would be somewhat stressed out.  However, Eve remains driven, focused, and impeccably dressed throughout her many trials!  Now available from Acorn Media, Winter: The Complete Series is 7 episodes of gritty Australian drama set in and around a gorgeous Sydney backdrop.

The series Winter begins with a pilot episode that finds Eve (played by Rebecca Gibney) no longer actively working with the police, but instead working on policy issues from an office.  That is until her old lover and partner Lachlan McKenzie asks for her help in investigating the disappearance of a young woman, Becky Ryan.  While searching for her, the graves of 5 missing women are found in a field.  Becky isn’t among them, but the fact the women are all found at the same location points to a serial killer.  Eve is drawn back into the world of investigation and there is no shortage of suspects.  Becky’s parents own a bakery, and it seems as if Becky was quite friendly with Damien, who worked there.  Several people
reported seeing Becky talking to Damien the night she disappeared.   Then there is the usual assortment of odd people and troublemakers who populate the small town of Mingara.  It turns out that another girl went missing at the same time as Becky, so could it be possible that several killers are at work?

After solving the mystery in the Pilot episodes, Eve returns in a 6-part mystery that begins with the death of Karly Johansson.  Karly is a young mother who lives with her husband and parents in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean in Sydney.  The story begins with Karly being stabbed and chased by a mysterious attacker outside her home.  She is eventually forced over the cliff and falls to her death.  On the same evening, a young woman is gravely injured in a hit and run accident in the city.  Both women had the same unusual tattoo on their wrists.  Is it a coincidence that someone apparently tried to kill them both on the same evening?

Eve is back investigating the crimes, and this time she has additional complications because two other cases are possibly connected to the murder.  Lachlan McKenzie is back, and he’s convinced that there is a connection between the murdered woman and the death 8 years previously of Janet Pagent.  Janet was the counsellor at a high school who was murdered.  Lachlan has always believed her husband, Paul (a groundskeeper at the school) was to blame, but he never had enough evidence to arrest him.  He’s more than happy to try to connect Paul Pagent to these new crimes.  At the same time, the federal police are involved in the case of the young woman injured in the car accident.  Her name is Indiana Hope, and she is the major witness in an upcoming case involving human trafficking.  The main federal agent, Jake Harris, is only interested in making sure Indiana shows up to testify in his case.  He’s not concerned with solving the murder of Karly or even allowing Eve or her team to question Indiana.  It turns out that Indiana and Karly were foster sisters 8 years ago, so Eve believes there must be a connection in the crimes.  Once an attempt is made on Indiana’s life by a mysterious man in the hospital, Indiana goes on the run and there are frantic attempts to locate her.  Things become even more complicated when it is discovered that Indiana is actually the daughter of the politically powerful DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions), which brings unwanted publicity to the case.

On the personal side, Eve is unwilling to rekindle her relationship with Lachlan, but as she’s working alongside Jake, they become romantically involved.  At the same time, Eve’s psychologist sister Melanie doesn’t seem too concerned when her 14 year old son is caught with drugs.  Eve uses an inside tip to keep her nephew from being caught up in a drug sting, something that comes back to haunt her when the Professional Standards department begins investigating Lachlan for his handling of the Paul Pagent case. As Eve doggedly tries to track down Indiana and solve the murder of Karly, she becomes convinced that there is a “mole” operating inside the police department.  On one occasion when the police are on the trail of Indiana, the mysterious assassin shows up at the same time.  Someone must be feeding information from the police to the criminals.  So who can Eve trust?

I enjoyed the lovely views of Sydney and the glimpses of the ocean that popped up in the background frequently.  The Johansson home, with its wall of windows overlooking the ocean, was a breathtaking setting for many scenes.  It was never really explained how Eve came back to full-time policing after the events of the Pilot episodes, but we can only assume the thrill of the chase was more exciting that all those meetings and paperwork she was dealing with in the policy department!  I got a bit tired of everyone chasing after the sullen, uncooperative Indiana, but otherwise, it was fun seeing Eve and company trying to unravel the mystery of who would want to kill a suburban mother of two.

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


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The other day I was watching an episode of Judge Judy when one of the litigants talked about someone harassing her using an Internet "meme."  She pronounced it Me Me, instead of how I'd always thought it was pronounced, MEEM.  So I immediately started worrying -- was I the one mispronouncing it?  Granted, it doesn't come up in conversation often, but had I been throwing around this word incorrectly all this time?  Thankfully, a quick double-check online verified that I was the correct one (for once).  If you've ever been in the situation of worrying about the correct way to pronounce words, then the book You're Saying it Wrong by siblings Ross and Kathryn Petras is a book you'll want to keep handy.

The book begins with a short history of "shibboleth words."  These are words which are used in one language or culture, but might be difficult for an outsider to pronounce.  It has been a way of weeding out invaders and imposters throughout history.  The book takes a look a large group of words (including not only words in everyday usage, but also names, and quite frequently culinary terms) and looks at their origins, definitions and even helpfully lists some common mispronunciations so that you can see if you fall into one of those categories.  The authors have based their conclusions by consulting many dictionaries, journal articles and Internet sources, but for the purposes of this book, they are favoring American pronunciation.

Each entry begins with the word, a short definition, and a pronunciation guide that is mercifully easy to follow.  No weird upside-down "e" characters or other strange letters or accent marks.  The pronunciation of mischievous, for instance, is written out as Mis-chuh-vus.  There's even a slightly off-color joke told about how to remember to pronounce the Vietnamese dish "pho" which will brand it forever in my memory!

Worryingly, I came across several examples where my own mispronunciations were pointed out, such as mascarpone (look how far along the word you go before you hit an 'r') and ophthalmologist (the oph is pronounced like "off" -- who knew?).  All in all, while it's a subjective group of words, I'm sure nearly everyone will find words that they have been pronouncing wrong or have never learned how to pronounce in the first place!  If you're interested in word origins or language, you will enjoy paging through this useful little book.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of You're Saying it Wrong from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

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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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