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Jill Meyer (United States)

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Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (44 Scotland Street)
Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (44 Scotland Street)
by Alexander McCall Smith
Edition: Paperback
17 used & new from CDN$ 5.48

5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful place in Edinburgh..., Dec 21 2014
I usually begin reviewing books from a series by comparing them to other books in the same series. I can't do that with Alexander McCall Smith's new novel, "Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers: a 44 Scotland Street Novel", because I haven't read anything by McCall Smith, let alone anything in this particular series. I guess I am one of the only people who has not at least sampled McCall Smith's writing. So, I can't compare it to others in this series, but I think I did find a series I can compare it to.

44 Scotland Street, Edinburgh, is the home/work place of of several interesting characters. Alexander McCall Smith began his series in 2008, when he introduced his main characters. Each succeeding book in the series - this book is #9 - brings the reader up to date with these characters. One of the best things about series books is that if done well, each new one reunites the reader with old friends. The main character in this book is the "Bertie" in the title. Bertie is a preternaturally precocious six old boy - just days away from his seventh birthday - with a mother-from-hell. Irene, married to the reticent Stuart, is the mother of Bertie and a younger child, Ulysses, who may - or may - not be the son of Stuart. She sends Bertie to a "Steiner school" (look it up on Wikipedia) and is trying to raise him as...well, some sort of neuter. She gives him a doll - excuse me, "action figure" - for his birthday and makes him play with girls, learn Italian, and take yoga. All Bertie wants to do is to play with boys and have a pocket knife. Irene is saved from being a caricature only by the McCall Smith's good writing. Irene suffers an hysterical fate on a trip to Dubai and Bertie and his father are able to relax and just be boys.

Around young Bertie circle the other characters. Most characters are human, but there is one large dog, Cyril, in the mix. Couples form and drop away, homes and jobs change, children are adopted, but around it all is the 44 Scotland Street address. And the series I think best compares to McCall Smith's - and I doubt if I'm the first one to suggest this - is American author Armistead Maupin's brilliant series, "Tales of the City". "Tales", which began as a newspaper serial expanded into book form, also is based around an address, "28 Barbary Lane" (in San Francisco) and one character, landlady, Anna Madrigal. "Tales of the City" series is perhaps a bit more cutting edge and explicit than the "44 Scotland" series, but both are written by gentle and loving hands.

I don't have time to go back an read the first eight books in this series, but I will continue the visits to 44 Scotland Street when next "visited" by Alexader McCall Smith.

Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War
by Jerry White
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 39.95
14 used & new from CDN$ 25.82

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent look at a piece of the Great War..., Dec 17 2014
This year - 2014 - is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. Many excellent histories have been published in the past few years, and one of the best is British historian Jerry White's book, "Zeppelin Nights", which focuses on London during the war years. Professor White teaches at Birbeck College at the University of London. He is the author of three previous histories of London and its people.

The Great War is best looked at in smaller, more manageable portions than in its entirety. In examining London and the part its citizens played in the war effort, Jerry White has captured how most Britons carried on during the war. London was a microcosm of English society at large. It was an incredibly cosmopolitan city; immigrants from all over Europe and the British colonies made the population very diverse. In particular, Germans and Austrians were over-employed in the restaurants and hotels. When war was declared in August, 1914, those German and Austrian residents - called "aliens" - were sent back to their native countries and the service industries suffered. Restaurants and hotels lost their staffs. This was just one way that residents and businesses began to "make do". Not only were service industries affected by the "aliens" leaving, businesses lost British male employees who had signed up for military service. Houses lost staff when former ladies maids went off to do "war work". Women began taking the places in factories, stores, and transportation, which caused problems when these same men returned home in 1918 and 1919.

But how many Londoners who had marched gaily off to war in 1914 actually returned at war's end? How any soldiers were either killed or badly injured? The population of soldiers - both officers and men - was a fairly large percentage of the male population of London. White examines the London "home front", where hospitals were filled with wounded soldiers from the fighting in France. How did people "make-do" when food was rationed, the German zeppelins were bombing the city, and loved ones were dying both in the streets and on the battlefields? Using primary sources like diaries and interviews transcribed both during the war and soon after, Jerry White has written a lively history of both a city and its people. This was a tough four year period, which ended both in victory for the Allies but also in the calamitous Spanish flu epidemic. It's a great history book.

There Must Be Some Mistake: A Novel
There Must Be Some Mistake: A Novel
by Frederick Barthelme
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 17.56
20 used & new from CDN$ 16.44

5.0 out of 5 stars A story of connections..., Dec 13 2014
"There Must Be Some Mistake" is the first book I've read by Texas writer Frederick Barthelme. Set in the Galveston Bay coastal area of Texas, the novel is the story of Wallace Webster, a mid-50's guy whose life is - in gentle ways - at sixes and sevens.

Wallace - never "Wally" - lives in a fairly upscale housing development and doesn't quite know where to go with the rest of his life. Parents, brother, and first wife have died, leaving Wallace with a daughter, an ex-wife, a platonic girl friend, and other women who pass through both Wallace's life and neighborhood with varying degrees of both interest and permanence. Wallace's life might be up-for-grabs but he is in no way a failure. He is a man who is educated and has had several careers. There are "Wallace Websters" in the works of many Southern writers - James Wilcox and Edward Kelsey Moore are two examples - who use the same type of characters in their novels. These people are not the boringly-proverbial "red-necks", but people of the middle-class, with a certain charm and education-level who readers are often surprised to find are "Southerners".

Frederick Barthelme shows a brilliant use of dialog in this book. Not much happens in the book - okay, I know - but the plot is one of inner-thoughts and emotional connections brought to life in conversation. Using dialog to move a plot forward is not easy, especially when done in the first-person, as Barthelme has done. We might not know exactly what the characters look like, but we feel as if we know them through their conversations.

Barthelme's book uses death - accidental or murder - and other crimes as the background to the story. Residents of Forgetful Bay, Texas are losing their lives in both mundane and bizarre ways. Wallace - with personal connections to very few of the other residents - is seen as a conduit of information by both the local police and the Home Owners Association officials. He is as helpful as he can be but the crimes - like other events - occur at the emotional distance Wallace begins the book as preferring.

I really liked this book but I can see how other readers might be disappointed at the lack of action. This is a book of the minds and the emotions of the characters. If you're considering buying the book or taking it out of your library, please read all the reviews. It's just that kind of book.

Behind the Scenes
Behind the Scenes
by Judi Dench
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 33.73
18 used & new from CDN$ 23.99

5.0 out of 5 stars An actor's life, in pictures., Dec 8 2014
This review is from: Behind the Scenes (Hardcover)
Dame Judi Dench is one of my favorite actors. There's a sense of intelligence in her acting, which seems to be true in her real life, too. She has written a lovely book called "Behind the Scenes", which has pictures from her career as well as pictures of her family and friends. Each picture is captioned and explains where, when, and with whom the picture was taken.

Judi Dench came from a family where acting - both as professionals and amateurs - was important. Her older brother, Jeffery Dench, was also an actor, and her parents worked behind the scenes in theater. She was brought up as a Quaker and she says in the book how important her faith is to her. Her late husband, Michael Williams, with whom she had one daughter, died in 2001 of lung cancer.

British actors seem to have a wider range of work than American actors. Obviously there are some exceptions, but Judi Dench, for example, has appeared on stage, in movies, and in TV. Maybe her acting in so many different genres has honed her skills. She has always been superb in anything I've seen her in. This book is an excellent over-view of her career and her life.

The Emperors: How Europe S Greatest Rulers Were Destroyed by World War I
The Emperors: How Europe S Greatest Rulers Were Destroyed by World War I
by Gareth Russell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 40.64
21 used & new from CDN$ 19.44

5.0 out of 5 stars Three emperors who lost their crowns..., Dec 3 2014
The front cover of British historian Gareth Russell's new book, "The Emperors: How Europe's Rulers Were Destroyed by the First World War" shows four men, rulers of countries involved in the Great War. All but one - Britain's King George V - were turned out of power at the war's end. One - Russia's Tsar Nicholas II - was murdered, along with his family, in the basement of a remote Russian house by revolutionary forces. The other two - Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm and Austria's Emperor Karl (who had succeeded Emperor Franz Joseph in 1916) - escaped with their lives and died in exile. Russell has written an extremely readable - though short - book about these three men and their influences in both their own countries and in the greater world.

The Great War began 100 years ago. It was sparked by the assassination of Franz Joseph's heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, in June, 1914. Europe had not seen large, full-scale warfare since the defeat of Napoleon, almost 100 years previous. Although there had been some short, local wars - France and Germany in 1870, for instance - the idea of a continent-wide warfare was thought a thing of the past. The economies of the countries were relatively booming; even in Russia which had come under some "gentle" reforms for the serf-class. Most of the major countries were in alliances - some had been made 50 years before - and there was a vague awareness that wide-spread warfare, as a result of these alliances, was a possibility. For six weeks, diplomats of France, Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, worked behind the scenes to try to keep the peace. Those attempts failed and war began in August, 1914. Four long, bloody years later, the war ended, with millions dead or injured, and northeastern France and Flanders left in tatters. It also ended the "empires" of Germany, Austria, and Russia.

Gareth Russell does an excellent job of looking behind the scenes at the reigns of Wilhelm, Nicholas, and Franz Joseph and Karl. He uses original sources - listed in the end of the book - and he gives the reader the sense of who these men were and how they ruled. The "personalization" is an important component in figuring out their places in history, and includes examining the influence their wives and families on these men.

Russell's book is just one of the many excellent histories that have been released in the past few years about the Great War. He examines not only the pre-war worlds of these rulers, but the post-war lives, too. If you're a WW1 buff, you'll enjoy this book.

Medieval People
Medieval People
by Michael Prestwich
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 28.98
27 used & new from CDN$ 27.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Seventy studies of figures in medieval society..., Nov. 27 2014
This review is from: Medieval People (Hardcover)
My, oh my, people certainly were brutal in medieval times. Wholesale slaughter of men, women, and children by victorious armies was depressingly common, as were individual acts of blinding, dismembering, and burning at the stake. Throw in crop failures leading to mass starvation, the Black Death, death in childbearing, and it's a wonder that 70 people made it to adulthood to be chronicled by British historian Michael Prestwich in his new book, "Medieval People: Vivid Lives in a Distant Landscape".

But, survive and prosper they did, and life in medieval Europe, Asia, and the Middle East was changed because they did. Prestwich divides his book into centuries, beginning with Charlemagne in the 8th century and ending with Italian painter Piero della Francesca in the 15th. He has chosen the 70 most influential people of the times and gives short biographies, accompanied by art of the period. I was a bit amazed he left out Maimonides (1135-1204) but I assume he couldn't get everyone in. While I'd say the book was featured a lot of European "heavy hitters", Prestwich did feature three Asians and several Islamic figures.

I was intrigued by the art Prestwich included. Most of the bios featured portraits of the individuals. I hadn't realised until I thought about it that portraits were rather generic until the 1300's. There are several portraits in the book of figures before that time, but they were all done in the 1500's. (And how would the artists really know what the subjects looked like?) The first portrait that actually looked like an individual I saw was that of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, done by Rogier van der Weyden in 1460.

Michael Prestwich's book - published by Thames and Hudson - is a beautiful book. The short bios - almost like the tempting appetizers served before a meal in a French restaurant - serve to interest the reader in knowing more about the subjects. Keep access to Wikipedia close; you'll need it when reading this book.

The Pity of War: England and Germany, Bitter Friends, Beloved Foes
The Pity of War: England and Germany, Bitter Friends, Beloved Foes
Price: CDN$ 20.22

4.0 out of 5 stars Ties that bind, ties that fray..., Nov. 26 2014
English historian Miranda Seymour's new book "The Pity of War: England and Germany, Bitter Friends, Beloved Foes", begins slowly and a bit half-dashed, but the final 3/4 of the book are right on-point. If you're beginning the book and are less than impressed by the writing, keep going, it gets better.

Miranda Seymour is the granddaughter of British diplomat Richard Seymour on her father's side and has German relatives on her mother's side. She explores the cultural, educational, and religious ties that have bound Germany and England for centuries. These ties have lessened during times of war and the years leading up to them but have gained strength afterwards by the active work of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Seymour begins her book by looking at the 18th and 19th centuries when the Hanoverian kings were on the British throne and many people were traveling between England and those areas that would eventually coalesce into Germany. Commercial trade, education and appreciation for the arts, and love all contributed to the back-and-forth between the two countries. The marriage of Britain's Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in 1840 and the birth of nine children, many of whom married German princes and princesses, further cemented relations between the two. The most important marriage was that of Victoria, the Princess Royal, and Frederick, the heir to the Prussian throne. Their marriage was a true meeting of two minds who believed in liberal rule, but, produced Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was truly of two countries. It is with "Willy" and his odd relationships with his grandmother, Victoria, and his uncle, Edward VII, that Seymour gets her book going

But Wilhelm II was not the only product of a German father and a British mother (or vice-versa). There were many children who grew up as dual citizens and when war was declared, first in 1914, and again in 1939, many were of the mind, "I feel as though my mother and father have quarreled." Miranda Seymour does an excellent job examining the time period of 1900 to 1950 when the Allies learned from the reparations they imposed on Germany after 1919 and Germany suffered under their harshness. She shines when she writes about the post-WW1 period in the 1920's and the 1930's, when Hitler came to power and families were divided in loyalties, both in Germany and in Britain.

"The Pity of War" is very well written after you leave the initial several chapters where Seymour's sort of throwing "names" and their relations at the reader. She also makes a couple of historical errors I caught; one she wrote that Ernst Rohm was shot in his hotel room during the Night of the Long Knives, but he was shot at Stadelheim Prison in Munich. That's a little mistake but one that shouldn't be there.

I recommend "The Pity of War" to the history buff looking for another piece in the puzzle that is 19th and 20th century European history.

Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film
Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 14.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Film and faces from a destroyed past..., Nov. 23 2014
In summer of 1938, Liza and David Kurtz and three companions took a trip to Europe from their home in the United States. They toured central Europe and several of the places they visited were in Poland. Both had emigrated from small villages in Poland years before - David from Nasielsk and Liza from Berezne. While traveling, David Kurtz took film of their various stops, including three minutes in one of the Polish villages they visited. This film, along with other family photos and albums followed them into retirement, until it was uncovered at the Kurtz's son's house. The film was not in very good condition but was able to be restored by technicians. And what a find this film turned out to be. The Kurtz's grandson - Glenn Kurtz - has written a book, "Three Minutes in Poland: Discovering a Lost World in a 1938 Family Film" which explains how these lost images - once identified - opened up a world thought destroyed by the Nazis in the early 1940's.

Glenn Kurtz is a member of what I call the "Second Generation"; they are the grandchildren of those who survived the Holocaust. MY generation is the "First Generation" and our stories have been told for the past 40 years of living with parents who went through hell in Europe. Now our children are searching and questioning and writing their books. (Another excellent "Second Generation" book is "Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind" by Sarah Wildman.)

As the Kurtzes had been dead for many years, it was left for their daughter, Shirley, and their grandchildren to identify the place and people in the film. The three minutes of film of the Kurtzes returning to a village was misidentified at first as Liza Kurtz's home village of Berezne. Further examination correctly identified the village as Nasielsk. With help from various Holocaust museums and, of course, the internet, several people and places in the film were identified and Glenn Kurtz set out to speak to these survivors, some 70 years after the filming. Several were still living, though quite old, and they were surprised to see pictures of themselves and their families and friends from 1938. Memories were stoked and stories were told of this time before Europe fell apart and most of the people in the film were murdered. Stories told by survivors led to other people from Nasielsk and their children being identified as still alive. Kurtz also writes about his visit to the current-day village of Nasielsk, where the Jews of the past were just that, of the past.

Was it chance or luck that a few of the people in Nasielsk, Poland shown in the film gleefully greeting their visitors from the United States in 1938 survived the mass killings and deportations to Treblinka and Auschwitz? Did those people - both living in Poland and visiting - have any idea that slightly a year after these pictures were taken that the lives of those remaining in Poland would be torn apart? Very few people can predict the future and often what is predicted is considered outlandish and impossible. The villagers of Nasielsk - some who had left for Palestine and to other safe havens - could not have envisioned the wholesale slaughter of the Jews of Europe.

Glenn Kurtz has written an excellent look at a doomed Polish village. It is both an interesting and horrifying look at the past. At what once was and those people who made it what it was.

A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III
A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 18.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb biography of a family., Nov. 20 2014
Generally, historical biographies can be written in two ways. The first is a look at the subject's public life, with a bit of the private. The second is a look at the private life, with a bit about the public life. Historian Janice Hadlow has written a superb biography of England's King George III, looking mostly at his private life as a son, husband, and father of 15 children.

George was the third Hanoverian king of Great Britain. His great-grandfather and grandfather - both named George - ruled before him. His father, Frederick, died before he could take the throne on his father's - George II - death. George III became king at age 22 and ruled for roughly 60 years, though the last 9 years of his life, Britain was ruled by his son, George IV, as a regent for his sick father.

George was raised in what might be called today a "toxic" environment. His great-grandfather loathed his son and heir, that man loathed HIS son and heir, and George was not highly thought of by his father, Frederick. That same pattern extended itself to George's relationship with his own first son. But George seemed to recognise the familial strain handed down to him and he resolved to have a happy marriage and home life. He married, soon after becoming king, a minor German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. They proceeded to have 15 children - all but two reached adulthood - and George and Charlotte were keen to set up a "happy house" in which to raise these children. That is what Janice Hadlow refers to as "A Royal Experiment". However, did "fate" or "genes" or indifferent parenting produce 13 children who lived variously unhappy and unfulfilled lives? His seven living sons produced no legitimate heirs before George's death, though most had illegitimate off-spring. His daughters either married late or remained unmarried, pressed into duty as companions to their parents. All were well-educated for the time, at their parents' express desires - but none seemed to live the happy lives their parents had envisioned for them.

Hadlow also looks at the long marriage of George and Charlotte. George's own paternal ancestors had had bad marriages, and George wanted to break the pattern. His choice of Charlotte, as smart as she was prolific, began happily as Charlotte adapted her personality and interests to George's. It ended in sadness, as many long-term marriages do.

Janice Hadlow has written a lively, readable book filled with strange, unfulfilled, and in some cases, tragic figures. One of the pictures in the book is a drawing of the old George III before his death. He is terribly gaunt and wild-eyed and looks as insane as he was reputed to be. It's a picture of an old, old man, who suffered in life and is moving to his death. It sums up George's life.

Time and Time Again
Time and Time Again
Price: CDN$ 14.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Astounding..., Nov. 17 2014
British author/actor Ben Elton's new novel, "Time and Time Again", is simply an astonishing book. I've been trying to write a review without any "spoilers" but that's just not easy to do with this book. But I'll try and let's begin with the jacket on the British edition of the book. One question is asked: "If you had one chance to change history, where would you go? What would you do...who would you kill?"

The main character of the book, beginning in Cambridge, England in 2024, is former soldier and reality TV star, Hugh Stanton. Stanton was a brilliant student of history at Trinity College and he has been called back to the college by the elderly professor, Sally McCluskey. She and some others are convinced that Sir Isaac Newton had invented a time-warping machine that could send someone back in time to, of all years, 1914. Newton, through mathematical tinkering three hundred or so years earlier, pin-pointed that year as the time that society would begin to fall apart. McCluskey and the others want Stanton to go back to the year 1914 and prevent the "Great War" from starting by stopping the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and then traveling to Berlin and assassinating Kaiser Wilhelm. Pretty heady stuff but Hugh Stanton manages to do just that and the "Great War" doesn't happen. But what does happen? What occurs in its place? How does history change?

Elton's book, and I'll not go any further in my plot description, has as many twists and turns as a path up a mountain. The book is constantly challenging the reader, who may think they KNOW what happens next...but, not really. A reader should have a pretty good knowledge of 20th century history; I don't think Elton's book is for the casual reader. But for the right reader, it's a wonderful path.

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