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Jill Meyer (United States)
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Common People: The History of An English Family
Common People: The History of An English Family
Price: CDN$ 16.15

5.0 out of 5 stars A look at the "real" English..., Oct. 25 2014
I suppose when we go delving into our family histories, we hope to find the odd billionaire, a pirate, a famous actor or, at least, someone "interesting". Interesting and rich is a good combination. But most of us, like British author Alison Light, find solid citizens who live fairly quiet lives, passing along from one generation to another. A "family" that is actually a combination of tree limbs that come together to make one individual. We are a combination of all those who came before us. Alison Light, in her thoughtful book, "Common People", gives us brief histories of her forebears.

Light's ancestors really were "common people". Not an earl or pirate or rich guy among them. Most were economically of the working class (or sometimes lower in bad times), while some made inroads into the British middle class. Her "people", on both maternal and paternal sides, rode the wave of the economies of Victorian and 20th century England. Coming from Ireland, Wales, Birmingham, Portsmouth,and rural areas in southern England, they were often tossed in times of economic and societal need. Large families regularly lost members - young and old - to tuberculosis and other diseases that were particularly pernicious in the slums the families often lived in. Other family members spent time in "work houses", institutions for the real needy. Others died forgotten in the crude mental hospitals of the times. A few left for Australia - usually as penal deportees - but most spent their lives moving around the areas I've listed above. Curiously, no one seemed to end up in London.

Alison Light's extended family - from four or five generations back - really is the story of Britain and the affects of the Industrial Revolution. Her writing is always light and she tells the story of her people in almost a fictional way. But, her people were real, as are their stories. This is a really good book.

Berlin: Imagine a City
Berlin: Imagine a City
by Rory MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.67
13 used & new from CDN$ 15.51

5.0 out of 5 stars Glimpses of the city and its people, Oct. 24 2014
This review is from: Berlin: Imagine a City (Paperback)
British author Rory Maclean has written a "history" of Berlin, that is really not straight history. It is, instead, a series of short "glimpses" at the city and its people, beginning in the Middle Ages when Berlin was just a settlement. He continues in time to today, mostly focusing on the last four hundred years.

Maclean writes his story in both fiction and non-fiction; from straight prose to play-form he tells the stories of the unknown Berlin resident to the well-known Berliners who have contributed both the good and the bad to society. For every Fritz Haber - a converted German Jew who was the chemist who formulated poison gasses in WW1, leading to the gasses used in WW2 concentration camps - Maclean highlights the life of artist/pacifist Kathe Kollwitz, whose work was condemned to the fires as "subversive" in 1930's Berlin. (Ironically, Fritz Haber's development of Zyklon B was used to murder his own nieces and nephews a few years after his own death.)

Rory Maclean sometimes uses secondary characters to describe life in Berlin through the ages. For instance, when writing about the GDR, he doesn't use the life of Erich Honecker - the post WW2 Communist leader - but rather uses individuals, "the people", when describing life under Communist rule. A devout Communist "Wall-maker", Dieter Werner - son of a Nazi soldier - is profiled in that section. During the Nazi era, Maclean focuses on architect Albert Speer and propagandist Joseph Goebbels - rather than Adolf Hitler, to look at the both the grotesque use of architecture and mind-warping to involve Berliners in Nazi will. He contrasts Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, who glorified on film the excesses of Nazi rule to actress Marlene Dietrich, who fled Berlin in the early 1930's rather than work under the Nazi regime and who entertained the Allied troops and did other war-work to help defeat Germany in WW2. The choice of those persons highlight Maclean's work; the individual always seems less than the over-all city of Berlin.

Rory Maclean's book is one of the best history books I've read all year. But, it's not history-in-the-conventional sense, so beware of buying the book if you're looking for a straight history of the city. There are plenty of books for that by other writers; Rory Maclean's "Berlin" is about the city and its people.

The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining
The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining
by Charles Spence
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 35.16
12 used & new from CDN$ 33.87

4.0 out of 5 stars Not a cook book..., Oct. 12 2014
I am not sure who Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman's book "The Perfect Meal" will appeal to. It's not a cook book, but is more a book about the history and ideas in culinary styles. It is divided into 11 chapters; each scholarly written and heavily notated. The print is particularly small and the writing is a bit pedantic.

But...and this is a big "but", for the right reader - one who is adventuresome in both his reading and eating - the book will be of great interest. Just note that you are NOT going to be able to sit down and read this book. Each chapter should be read and savored, much like what the authors are describing.

This really is a book that must be looked at before buying.

The Grand Duchess of Nowhere
The Grand Duchess of Nowhere
by Laurie Graham
Edition: Paperback
3 used & new from CDN$ 31.00

5.0 out of 5 stars "Ducky"...the ultimate survivor, Oct. 12 2014
British author Laurie Graham is well-known for her historical novels. From the Joseph Kennedy family in her witty novel, "The Importance of Being Kennedy" to "Gone With the Windsors", she uses historical figures to teach history to her readers. Graham tends to use history's "supporting" characters to tell the story of the major historical figures and it's always a good idea to have access to Wikipedia to get the back story.

Her latest novel, "The Grand Duchess of Nowhere" is the story of the German-born, Russian-married Princess Victoria Melita. The granddaughter of Queen Victoria on her paternal side and of Tsar Alexander II on her maternal, "Ducky" as she was called throughout her adventurous and event-filled life, is a great subject around which history of the time circles. This book, written in the first-person is an account of her life. It is finished in an epilog by her son. Twice married - having divorced her first husband, a gay man - she is the mother of four children. One daughter - born during her first marriage to "Ernie Hesse" - died at a young age, and Ducky went on to have three more children by her second husband, a Russian Grand Duke, who is also her cousin.

Most of the novel is set in pre-Revolutionary Russia and then that terrible time in the Great War, when "Cousin Nicky" dithers and dithers and loses his crown and life in the Revolution. Ducky and her husband, Cyril, and their children barely escape to Finland, where they join the other Romanov survivors in exile. Laurie Graham does an excellent job in connecting the various Russian, British, and German family members but keeping them distinctive in the readers' minds. "The Duchess of Nowhere" is a superb historical novel and a fun read. Just keep Wiki close to you!

The Meating Room
The Meating Room
13 used & new from CDN$ 6.14

4.0 out of 5 stars St Andrews, Scotland police procedural, Oct. 5 2014
This review is from: The Meating Room (Paperback)
"The Meating Room" is the first of T F Muir's St Andrews, Scotland police procedural published in the US, though it is the fourth or fifth in the "Andy Gilcrist" series. Another, earlier book is available now.

The UK is shock-full of police procedurals, from London to Edinburgh, from Glasgow to Bath and Devon. Now we have DCI Andy Gilcrist of the St Andrews Police Department, with several underlings, all of whom have their own "back stories". The problem with reading "The Meating Room" first is that the reader has to puzzle out the characters and their "stories", but TF Muir is a clever enough author to allow the reader to at least get the gist of the stories and the characters.

One of Muir's skills as a writer is fleshing out the murderers, their victims, and the police. This is a difficult thing for a reviewer to describe, but the plot is probably less important than the characters. I didn't like most of the characters - particularly the bad 'uns - but I found them all interesting.

"The Meating Room" which is the story of a mounting number of murders in the uSt Andrews area, all of whom appear to be tied to a couple of men who have less conscience than skill at murder. Most of the murders are horrific; consider the title of the book. If you don't like violent crimes, then "The Meating Room" is not for you. However, if you like give and take of a police procedural and the ambiance of a UK setting, you should look into Muir's book. I just bought Muir's only other book available here, "Hand For A Hand".

The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us
The Language of Houses: How Buildings Speak to Us
Price: CDN$ 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Facts, without opinions., Sept. 29 2014
Alison Lurie has written a book, "The Language of Houses",on a subject that nearly everyone has an opinion about - the way we see both "personal" architecture (our homes) and "public" architecture (the other buildings we encounter in our lives). It is an interesting, if not a bit of bland, look at architecture.

I really think we all have reactions to the spaces we're in - either temporarily (a public building or another person's home) or more lengthy (our own homes). Mostly these feelings are transient - we either like and feel comfortable in the space we're in...or we don't. And if we don't, we often try to leave as soon as possible. This was an important "jumping off point" for me when I began this book, and I read the entire book without receiving much in the way of that, despite the book's subtitle: "How Buildings Speak to Us".

Ms Lurie does an excellent job at looking at the history of buildings and how they're constructed. She covers home styles as they've evolved from one room domains to modern homes with a room for everybody in the family. But she doesn't say much about how these homes affect the families that live within. I'm a compulsive viewer of house plans and love to consider how I could use the house as a home, while also thinking about how others could use it. Lurie writes a bit on how the modern home has moved from being filled with smallish rooms into designs with a lot of open spaces - the country kitchen, the second floor that opens up over the first floor, etc. She also examines how public buildings have evolved.

Okay, one thing a decent reviewer of a book should NOT do is to bemoan what the author does NOT include in her book. And that's what I'm doing here. I would have loved for more opinions from Ms Lurie; I wanted some "spice". I'd have liked to see her flay those architects (and the committees who approved their designs) for buildings like Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin which is a completely unusable home for a museum. Now, again, that's MY - violent - opinion. Many people love that building.

So Alison Lurie has written a very good book about this history of our buildings. It's interesting reading and can heartily recommend it to the reader who wants the facts without the opinions.

The Stone Wife
The Stone Wife
by Peter Lovesey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.94
14 used & new from CDN$ 12.91

4.0 out of 5 stars Chaucer's "Wife of Bath"..., Sept. 28 2014
This review is from: The Stone Wife (Hardcover)
British author Peter Lovesey's 14th novel in his Peter Diamond series is "The Stone Wife". Set in Bath, Detective Superintendent Diamond and his squad are brought in to investigate a murder which occurred at a local auction house. The victim, a Professor from Reading University, was shot while bidding on a large stone. The stone, which was an etching of Chaucer's "Wife of Bath", was left behind as the three would-be thieves flee the auction house after the shooting.

The Peter Diamond series is one with returning characters whose lives Peter Lovesey updates in every book. Many authors do this, but the blend of character evolution with the solving of crimes is sometimes difficult to carry off. In this book, there are actually two cases which go off from the initial murder at the auction house. One, the solving of the murder is well handled but the other, a look at a possible gun racketeer is less well done. It involves Diamond's female detective, Ingeborg, going "undercover". I don't know whether Lovesey didn't think he had "enough" in the "Chaucer antique murder case" to make a book, but this second story felt a bit lacking...

But to return to the main case, Peter Lovesey is best at examining the Geoffrey Chaucer influence in the Bath area. The reader will learn a bit about Chaucer and his writings, and particularly, "The Wife of Bath". At least one contemporary character, the murder victim's wealthy wife, bears a passing resemblance to that fictional lady from 700 years ago.

This was the first "Peter Diamond" series book I've read. I'll return for more.

The Making of Gone With The Wind
The Making of Gone With The Wind
by Steve Wilson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 39.19
16 used & new from CDN$ 39.19

5.0 out of 5 stars What a book..., Sept. 27 2014
Margaret Mitchell's classic "Gone With The Wind" is one of my favorite books. I try to reread it every couple of years or so. It is as compelling to me as it was when I first read it in 8th grade. I took my copy to school and would "sneak read" when I was supposed to be listening to some boring ol' lesson. Not much came between me and my Scarlett.

But the movie "Gone With The Wind" frustrated me when I first saw it in 1967 and continues to bother me to this day. I sat in that huge theater in downtown Chicago and kept muttering to myself, "Where is that character?", "where is the scene between "so and so" and "so and so", and, of course, "uh, Scarlett had THREE children. Where are Wade Hampton and Lorena?" I was proud that as a true "GWTW Book fan", I was not seduced by the film version of "my" book. As the years passed, I thought that had GWTW been made in the 1970's or 1980's, it would have - very properly - been made as a TV mini-series. Ten hours of GWTW would have gotten things right!

But "Gone With The Wind" was NOT made in the '70's, it was made as a movie in 1938 and 1939. All the time constraints, as well as production problems that come with making a movie almost four hours long, of a nation's favorite book are documented in Steve Wilson's huge and enthralling book, "The Making of 'Gone With The Wind'". This is a huge book and for the GWTW film fan it is a must read. I was not a film fan, and I enjoyed it. I don't think there was a memo or a drawing of an article of clothing or a screen test that wasn't included in the book.

The movie "Gone With The Wind" got its start right before the book's publication. Producer David O Selznick ("DOS" in the memos) was advised by his staffer to buy the rights to the book, authorising her to spend up to $50,000. Upon winning the rights, he put into action the preparation to film this colossal best seller. Immediately he ran into problems. While Clark Gable was everyone's first choice as Rhett Butler, DOS was unable to find "his" Scarlett. Hollywood actress after actress tested for the part and Selznick International Pictures sent representatives to southern cities to "find" Scarlett among the local belles. Filming had already begun when English actress Vivian Leigh was signed to play the pivotal role in December, 1938.

One of the most interesting things in Steve Wilson's book are the complaints made by various groups and individuals during the filming. From the KKK to the NAACP to the "United Daughters of the Confederacy" to groups representing the Union side, everyone had a beef. It would take the soul of tact to deal with all these complaints but DOS and his staff did an admirable job. But in addition to these groups, Selznick had the "Hays Code" to deal with. Steve Wilson includes in the book pages of dialog ruled on by the group, slashing words and phrases that deal with childbirth, battle injuries, and other matters that were deemed to be too delicate for movie goers of the times. Everyone knows the battle about Rhett muttering that unforgettable line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn", but there were many other clashes between producer and Hays Code enforcers before then.

As I wrote above, Steve Wilson's book is a great book for movie fans and GWTW fans, in particular. Even though it wasn't my favorite movie, I've enjoyed watching it and am always amazed at the gasps in the theater when the camera shows Rhett Butler/Clark Gable at the bottom of the stairs at Twelve Oaks. Gable didn't want to attempt a southern accent and the book alludes to that. That was one of the many details DOS and his crew fretted about.

Finsterau
Finsterau
by Andrea Maria Schenkel
Edition: Paperback
4 used & new from CDN$ 5.91

4.0 out of 5 stars Spare writing..., Sept. 11 2014
This review is from: Finsterau (Paperback)
"The Dark Meadow", also known as "Finsterau", by German author Andrea Maria Schenkel is a short, dark, sparely written novel about a crime in Germany, soon after the end of WW2. It has been translated from German by Anthea Bell, who has worked with Schenkel to provide a twisty, turning story of desire, death, and the correct attribution of a crime.

This is the second of Schenkel's novels I've read; "The Murder Farm" was the first. In "Meadow", set in 1947 and 1965, a horrendous murder of a young mother and her small son set tongues a wagging in a small, isolated West German village. The young woman had returned to her village in 1944, pregnant with a child conceived out of wedlock. Her aging parents - devout Catholics - had taken her in and gave her and the baby a home. The home, however, was filled with anger the father directed at the daughter, who he felt had brought shame onto he and his wife. One day the daughter is found dead, lying on a couch in a pool of blood. The baby died a few hours later. Who had killed them? The natural suspect - the father - eventually "confessed" to the crime and was locked away in prison and then a mental hospital. Eighteen years later, new evidence is obtained and the case is reopened. With different results.

To say that Andrea Maria Schenkel's writing is spare is an understatement. But, somehow, she is able to give the reader a full rendering of the crime, the victims, and the secondary characters in few words. She draws a picture with those words that seems to convey the desoluteness of both the village and the people who live in it. Their lives are simple and the murder, stripped down as Schenkel does in her writing, is also simple.

I don't know if most readers will like "The Dark Meadow", but I did.

The Empire of Night: A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller
The Empire of Night: A Christopher Marlowe Cobb Thriller
by Robert Olen Butler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.03
22 used & new from CDN$ 19.12

4.0 out of 5 stars Third book in the series..., Sept. 11 2014
Robert Olen Butler's new novel, "The Empire of the Night", is the third in his WW1-era Christopher Marlowe Cobb series. I haven't read the first two, but if I have the time, I might read the backlist.

Books about WW1 - "The Great War" - have been popular for a while now. We're at the 100th anniversary of the beginning, and many authors are finding the war a popular topic. Butler's character, Chris Cobb, is the son of a Shakespearean actress, Isabel Cobb. Isabel might be the family actor, but her son seems to have inherited an acting talent he displays in the story. He plays a newspaper reporter/American spy/German army officer, along with a few other roles. His mother plays Hamlet on the stage and in the bedroom she plays the lover of a British/German aristocrat who may, or may not, be up to no good.

The book's plot is somewhat complicated and very few people are who they say they are. This obviously includes Christopher Cobb and his mother. The most interesting part of the book is the interplay between mother-and-son, actress-and-interviewer, and Allied agents (both Chris and Isabel). Their relationship, no matter what guise it is carried on, is a bit unsettling. There's no sexual tension, but rather the tension that comes from having an unreliable character as the other half of a relationship. The reader can tell that Chris doesn't particularly trust his mother and that may be the result of years of desultory parenting (or non-parenting).

The other interesting part is the background of the German government and military in WW1. Both Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber make an appearance in the story - the poison gas the Germans toss across the lines at Ypers - and the home war effort is highlighted. Oh, and there are zeppelins in the story, too. Zeppelins always make me laugh because their inclusion in plots usually indicates a very silly and far-fetched scenario. In "Empire", the zeppelin is a major plot point and people are NOT escaping on one.

"The Empire of Night" is a good read, particularly for the WW1 buff. I don't think you have to have read the two previous books in the series to read this one.

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