Archive for the ‘Ceilidh’s Picks’ Category

Let It Be Me.jpgLet it Be Me is the enchanting new romance from author, Kate Noble.  It tells the story of Bridget Forrester, a gifted pianist, who is, unfortunately, plagued by a terrible case of stage fright and insecurity about her abilities, and Oliver Merrick, a man with a gift for discerning people’s talents and nurturing them.

Bridget, frustrated by the roaring success of her sister’s social debut compared with her own lackluster first season, has been declared a shrew and her “character fixed as ‘unpleasant.’  And there seemed little she could do but endure it.”  Until, that is, she receives a letter from the famed Italian composer, Vincenzo Carpenini, inviting her to become his student when he returns to England for an extended stay.  Bridget is elated. Finally, proof of her own worth!  But after finding out that Carpenini has suddenly changed his mind and no longer plans to leave Venice, she is heartbroken and humiliated.

However, not one to simply accept defeat–at least when it comes to her heart’s desire–and assisted by the convenient collapse of a tree on her family’s townhouse, Bridget manages to persuade her mother, together with her younger sister, to decamp for Venice and warmer climes.  When she arrives in Venice for her long-awaited music lessons, she is stunned to discover that the composer does not remember her at all.  But Oliver, Carpenini’s friend and supporter does; and since Carpenini has foolishly risked both his career and Oliver’s with a wager against the Austrian composer Klein–the new favorite of the Marchese–Bridget’s sudden appearance is well-timed.

The blossoming relationship between Bridget and Oliver is lovely to read about. As Bridget’s passion for life and love flourishes, so does her ability on the piano.  Oliver is unlike any other romantic hero I’ve ever encountered. Very much a beta, he supports and encourages Bridget, and believes in her in a way no-one else has.  His character has a good natured temperament and a gentle sense of humor–somewhat refreshing after the big, bad alphas, who seem to get riled up over nothing.

Noble’s writing is lyrical and filled with musical metaphors and similes.  Framing the relationship in terms of music was an enjoyable novelty.  I particularly liked reading a historical romance set somewhere other than Britain or America, and I’ll admit I’m partial to the romantic setting of Venice.  For those seeking a well-written, touching romance with a hero and heroine worth cheering for, I highly recommend Let it Be Me.

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I ClaudiusMeet the Roman Julio-Claudian dynasty of I, Claudius – the original dysfunctional family – and get ready for a history lesson unlike any you’ve ever had.

I, Claudius is one of the most beloved miniseries ever made and is a wonderful, blackly funny dramatization of the Robert Graves’ novel of the same name. It tells the story of the Roman Empire from the reign of the first emperor Augustus – a reign that brought a longed-for period of peace after over a hundred years of on-and-off civil wars – right up to the rule of the infamous Nero. It romps through seventy years of Roman history, all told through the eyes of an elderly Claudius as he records the history of his extraordinary family.

The BBC miniseries stars Derek Jacobi as our eponymous hero, although he doesn’t seem like much of one. Born with a club foot and terrible stammer, Claudius is alternatively mocked and ignored by his extended family. Claudius soon realizes the value of being underestimated, and as he grows, he hides his intelligence behind his physical disabilities and avoids politics as best he can. But in this family, even the ultimate underdog can’t hide forever.

I, Claudius features Brian Blessed as Augustus and Siân Phillips as Livia, the manipulative, conniving matriarch and Augustus’ wife. Indeed, this tale is as much Livia’s story as it is Claudius’. Livia is the true power behind the throne, delicately manipulating with a rumor here and a little poison there. She is the center of the wheel, turning her family’s fortunes and fate at will. Livia desperately wants her son, Tiberius, to follow in Augustus’ footsteps and become the next emperor of Rome. The problems with that grand plan? One: Tiberius is her son from an earlier marriage, not Augustus’ biological son. Two: Augustus has grandsons by his biological daughter, Julia, who precede Tiberius when it comes to inheriting. Three: Tiberius himself has no interest in being emperor – he’s a soldier through and through. But these minor impediments certainly don’t phase the mighty Livia. Despite her sins, Phillips manages to make you understand, if perhaps not sympathize with, Livia’s single-minded pursuit of power. There is a deeper motivation here beyond mere money and influence.

The miniseries also includes a young Patrick Stewart (with hair!) as Sejanus, the corrupt and power-hungry leader of the Praetorian Guard, and John Hurt in one of his most magnificently terrifying roles as the mad emperor, Caligula.

Bribery, corruption, murder, poison, blackmail, adultery, madness, lust – I, Claudius has it all.

Check the WRL catalog for I, Claudius.

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Hot CoffeeEveryone knows about the McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit in the mid-90s. Or at least, they think they know. Hot Coffee, a recent HBO documentary, strives to tell the truth about this case, and other civil lawsuits, that have been deemed “frivolous” and the impact of tort reform on the United States’ civil justice system. Sound kinda boring? I thought so too – at first.

It analyzes and discusses four cases and how each one relates to “tort reform.” It begins with the infamous Liebeck v. McDonald’s Restaurants case in 1994, which has practically entered into urban legend. I certainly thought I knew the details of the case, but I only knew the inaccuracies and the game of Chinese whispers I had heard in the media. In truth, Ms. Liebeck was a 79-year old lady, sitting in the passenger seat of a parked car, who, while trying to add cream and sugar to her coffee, pulled off the lid and spilled the cup of coffee on her lap. Coffee that, in keeping with McDonald’s franchise instructions, had been kept at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds. And indeed, Ms. Liebeck suffered severe third-degree burns in her pelvic area, and the documentary does not skimp on the photographic evidence – the burns are appalling. Nor was Ms. Liebeck the first to suffer terrible burns because of their coffee – there had been over 700 prior complaints. (And these are just the individuals who made the effort to lodge a formal complaint.)

As well Ms. Liebeck’s case, the documentary goes on to discuss Colin Gourley’s malpractice lawsuit and caps on damages; the prosecution of Mississippi Justice Oliver Diaz and the buying of judicial elections; Jamie Leigh Jones v. Halliburton Co. and the growing pervasiveness of mandatory arbitration.

The documentary concludes by examining how the plague of mandatory arbitration is swiftly erasing many individuals’ ability to take complaints to the courts. Own a credit card? Cell phone? Well, if you do, it’s almost certain you have signed away your right to a civil trial in your contract and if you ever have a serious complaint and feel entitled to claiming damages, you will be forced into secret mandatory arbitration with an arbitrator who – wait for it – has been chosen by the corporation itself!

Hot Coffee is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping documentary that exposes how corporations have spent millions on a propaganda campaign to distort the average American’s view of these civil lawsuits. This documentary will forever change what you think you know about “frivolous lawsuits” – in reality, what you’ve been told by corporations and doctors afraid of being sued.

The way that the individual’s rights have been infringed upon by mandatory arbitration, caps on damages, and corporate campaign contributions is unacceptable. Hot Coffee shows how access to the courts has been blocked by greed, corruption, and the power of special interests and how the U.S. civil justice system has been changed – maybe forever.

Check the WRL catalog for Hot Coffee.

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Ice PrincessI first came across Camilla Läckberg when she was mentioned in an article on Scandinavian mystery writers in Romantic Times. I became even more intrigued when I read the review on the front of The Ice Princess from Val McDermid –“Heart-stopping and heart-warming.” “Heart-warming?”  That certainly made me pause. After all, “heartwarming” is not an adjective I expect to read describing a murder mystery, and a Scandinavian mystery at that, which tend to be characterized by their wintry settings and bleak atmosphere. But after finishing this book, I couldn’t help but agree with Ms. McDermid’s review.

The two protagonists and primary investigators –Erica Falck, a biography writer, and Patrik Hedström, a local policeman – both grew up in the sleepy fishing village of Fjällbacka, Sweden. This village, overrun by visitors from Stockholm in the summer, desolate and empty during the bleak winter months, has definitely seen better days. The Ice Princess is definitely not a “cozy” mystery, but the blossoming relationship between Erica and Patrik, as well as the various familial bonds that lace the narrative, help to temper the sadness and gloom surrounding the murder.

Following the sudden death of her parents, Erica returns to her hometown and soon discovers the body of a beloved childhood friend, Alexandra Wijkner, frozen in her bathtub. As a biography writer, Erica is seized with the impulse to write about her one-time, enigmatic friend and the reasons that could drive a woman who seemed to have everything to commit suicide. But, as any seasoned mystery reader will guess, Alexandra’s apparent suicide is only the beginning. As Erica begins to delve into Alexandra’s past, Patrik begins to investigate his own suspicions surrounding her death.

A picture of the victim begins to build. Alex was beautiful, blonde, icy, and remote – everything this reader wants in a Swedish noir mystery. And, like any good victim, she was hiding a deep, dark secret that somehow seems to involve the tragic figure of the town drunk, Anders Nilsson. No one in the village can understand how these two disparate figures were connected, least of all Erica and Patrik.

The Ice Princess features tragic childhood secrets, mysterious disappearances, and bribery, all set against the backdrop of the bleak Scandinavian winter. Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will enjoy this mystery, although it focuses less on social issues and politics, and is more in the vein of a traditional mystery.

The novel has a wide cast of characters, and the author continually introduces new characters to keep her readers guessing.  We meet Erica’s family, her ex-boyfriend, the victim’s family, and the motley crew of police officers at the local police station, including Mellberg, the pompous, slimy, self-obsessed monster of a police chief, who is both hilarious and horrendous at the same time.

This is a great winter read, perfect for a cold night, curled up with a blanket. Camilla Läckberg is one of Sweden’s bestselling crime novelists and The Ice Princess was her first novel. If you gobble this one up as quickly as I did, never fear! WRL has two more in the series, which have been translated into English.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ice Princess.

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HourThe Hour, a recent BBC period drama, has flown somewhat under the radar (at least when compared with the roaring success of a series like Downton Abbey), and it wasn’t until a colleague recommended it that I even became aware of the series. Set in 1956 at the BBC Lime Grove Studios in London, it follows the launch of an hour-long weekly current affairs television show, simply titled, The Hour. 

The six-part miniseries stars Romola Garai as Bel Rowley, the independent (female!) producer of the show; Ben Whishaw (the new “Q” in Skyfall and star of Cloud Atlas) as her best friend, Freddie Lyon, a brilliant and passionate reporter; and Dominic West as the charming and well-connected anchorman, Hector Madden. This is the opportunity Bel and Freddie have been waiting years for – to be a part of a new breed of investigative news program that could change the face of news at the BBC.

But a chance meeting with a childhood friend and a hushed-up murder on the Underground thrusts Freddie right into the middle of a deadly Cold War conspiracy and the silent war being waged between MI6 and the KGB. As Freddie begins to investigate, the trio becomes embroiled in a tangled web of politics, ambition, and romance. But a controversial breaking story could spell the end for the program, just as it is beginning.

And in amongst all the secrets and spy-games, I even learned a fair amount about the Suez crisis in 1956 between Britain, France, Egypt, and Israel (something I wasn’t even particularly aware of prior to the show), as well as the rules regulating broadcasters at the time. To my surprise, there used to be a fourteen-day gag rule that prohibited news programs from debating or analyzing anything discussed in the Houses of Parliament until two weeks after the event. But our intrepid team manages to find a neat way around this limit to free speech.

The Hour is lushly produced with period sets and costumes and is a wonderful piece of escapist drama. It is full of quick-witted repartee and fast-paced dialogue. The love triangle at the heart of the story is nicely balanced by the Ian Fleming-esque intrigue that seems to follow Freddie wherever he goes. Best description? It’s like HBO’s The Newsroom crossed with John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Check the WRL catalog for The Hour.

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Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles was the first book I read this year, and come December, there’s a pretty good chance I may say it was the best book I read in 2013.

I studied Classics at university, and of course the Iliad was required reading. But I often had to admit, always a little sheepishly, that I was never really a big fan of the epic. I could never enjoy the long lists of ships, war prizes, heroes, and descriptions of violent, bloody deaths that fans of Quentin Tarantino would find familiar – and least of all the sulking, brutish, prideful Achilles. I always found myself cheering for the tragic figure of Hector instead – the prince of Troy who fights not for glory or everlasting fame, but to defend his home and family.

But Madeline Miller has caused me to completely rethink and revise my opinion of Achilles. The novel tells the story of this mythological hero, from his boyhood in the kingdom of Phthia to the Trojan War, through the eyes of his beloved companion, Patroclus. Patroclus is a character from Greek mythology who we know less for himself and more for the cycle of vengeance that follows his death. (Spoiler alert! Hector, prince of Troy, kills Patroclus; in vengeance, Achilles kills Hector; to avenge his death, Paris kills Achilles; to avenge him, Philoctetes kills Paris, and so on. You get the idea.)

Ms. Miller begins her story with Patroclus, a sullen, awkward prince exiled from his home to the kingdom of Phthia, ruled by king Peleus. Patroclus quickly falls under the spell of the bright-eyed, golden-haired prince, Achilles. Achilles is intrigued by Patroclus and the two become inseparable. When Achilles is sent away to become a student of the ancient, learned centaur, Chiron, Patroclus cannot bear to be separated from his closest, and only, friend; and so he runs away from the palace and joins Achilles on the slopes of Mount Pelion.

The author handles their blossoming affection and romance very delicately and reverently. She does not beat around the bush in her explanation of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship as many more prudish historians and translators have been wont to do over the centuries. Moreover, Ms. Miller gives her readers an opportunity to better understand Achilles’ motives for going to war and provides believable explanations where Homer remains silent. She fleshes out both his and Patroclus’ characters and gives added dimensions to a character, who, in the Iliad, is little more than the sum of his anger (μηνιν…ουλομενην) and pride.

One of the difficulties facing any modern adapter of Homer and his heroic epics is the omnipresence of divinities. Do you, as an author, ignore them, thereby stripping the stories of their heart and soul? Or do you portray the heroes living in a magical world, thereby making the story unrealistic to modern readers and difficult to reconcile with the grim, visceral effects of war? Well, Ms. Miller simply takes the gods in her stride. At the beginning of the novel, she deals with them matter-of-factly in Patroclus’ child-voice. It reminded me very much of how a child today might explain the existence of Santa Claus and his elves. He does not think twice about their existence, and consequently, neither do you. She writes with clear, evocative prose and I would agree with the Guardian’s review that the prose is better than almost all the so-called poetic translations of Homer I have ever read. The Song of Achilles is a must-read for any lovers of historical fiction, and Classicists too, whether they are fans of the Iliad or not.

Check the WRL catalog for The Song of Achilles.

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At sixteen, Millicent Graves has always known that she’s merely a cog in her father’s machine of Marrying Well. The only daughter of nouveau riche parents, whose family had the temerity to make a fortune from–wait for it–canned goods, she has known practically from birth that she must marry a peer with an exalted title, or frankly, any title at all.  Enter the Earl of Fitzhugh, only nineteen, and the sudden recipient of a title accompanied by overwhelming debt, who needs to marry an heiress in order to save his estate from bankruptcy.  Cue the marriage of convenience.  But unfortunately for Fitz, he’s already in love with someone else.  And unfortunately for Millie, who’s been raised to be “sensible” about love and marriage, she falls in love with Fitz almost at first sight.

Knowing how unhappy Fitz is to be selling himself on the marriage mart and losing all hope of being with his beloved, Millie makes a bold proposition. Partly to protect her heart and partly due to her youth, she suggests they wait a few years before consummating the marriage. Neither one is eager for children, and so the heartbroken Fitz readily agrees to her proposal. As the years pass, the work of saving a failing estate and reviving a stagnating business unites them, and the marriage, the greatest challenge either has known, begins to define them both.  To their surprise, a deep and considerate friendship develops.  But can their friendship ever turn to love?

Ravishing the Heiress is the second book in Sherry Thomas’ new series, which began with Beguiling the Beauty, featuring Fitz’s elder sister.  (This novel is definitely worth a read too–not only because it is our first introduction to Millie and Fitz, but also because the story takes place in the unusual setting of a transatlantic liner crossing from New York to Southampton.)  While at first glance, this book may just seem like another a marriage of convenience story, it is also a coming-of-age story for Millie and Fitz.  It is about the importance of friendship in building the foundation for a meaningful relationship–a welcome antidote to books like the Fifty Shades series. And most importantly, it’s about the old adage that life is what happens when you are making other plans.

Thanks to Thomas’ skill, Millie is kept from being a milksop–by her quiet strength, her sensible nature, and her sincere, patient love for Fitz.  Whilst Millie certainly longs for Fitz to reciprocate her feelings, she realizes how unlikely this is and chooses instead to focus on other things, such as her affectionate relationships with her sisters-in-law, her thriving business, and the genuine friendship she and Fitz share.  She is a character you can admire.  And since this is a romance, it’s no great spoiler for me to say that at the triumphant end, we finally see Millie’s patience and faithfulness rewarded as it should be.  And boy, is the ending worth the wait!

Even though I stayed up late to reach the end, I wasn’t quite ready to let Millie and Fitz go and am now waiting impatiently for the next installment in the series, Tempting the Bride, in which they are sure to make an appearance.

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I first watched this film not long after its release in 2007 and I come back to it time and again. Like many people my age, I was only familiar with a couple of Édith Piaf’s songs prior to watching La Vie En Rose.  But I was immediately fascinated by this portrayal of the famous French singer, whose voice was often described as the “soul of Paris.”

We first see Édith as a young child on the streets of Paris and then as a frail invalid nearing the end of her life in 1963.  La Vie En Rose is told in a non-linear format and follows two general timelines.  The first follows Édith as she grows up and attains great international fame as a singer, and in the second we see her attempt to recover from two bad car accidents, which left her with an addiction to painkillers, in order to perform one last time.

Abandoned by her mother and father as a very young child, Édith is left to grow up in her grandmother’s brothel and is cared for tenderly by one of the prostitutes, Titine.  But a few years later, her father, a contortionist in a traveling circus, returns to claim her and forces her to join his itinerant lifestyle.  We then meet her again, a few years later, living on the streets of Paris with her friend, Simone, singing for her supper. It is while singing on a street corner that she comes to the attention of Louis Laplée, a cabaret owner.  From this point, the movie charts Édith’s rise to fame under his patronage through the time she spent in New York and California, until her premature death at the age of 47 in the French Riviera.

Piaf’s life had its fair share of trials and triumphs, just as you would expect in any musical biopic, but it is Marion Cotillard’s performance that is the real revelation here.  Marion Cotillard gives the performance of a lifetime as the La Môme Piaf and in fact she won a Best Actress Oscar for the role (the first time an Oscar has been given for a French-language role). But by no means is the character of Édith always sympathetic–her fame and sycophantic hangers-on turn her into something of a monster, spoiled and prone to tantrums.  But at the end, it is the gift of her voice that triumphs.

And what would a film about Edith Piaf be without the music?  It features a long list of classics including “La Vie En Rose” and, of course, her swan song “Non, je ne regrette rien.”  La Vie En Rose is a marvelous film about the remarkable life of one of the twentieth-century’s greatest stars and I highly recommend it.

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Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces the history of a fictional lost Vermeer painting back in time to the moment of its creation through a collection of eight short stories that come together to form a cohesive novel.  Each story can be read and appreciated on its own, but when taken all together, they create something greater than the sum of their parts.

The story opens as a new art teacher at a private school is invited to the home of a  reclusive colleague.  This colleague, Cornelius Engelbrecht, shows him the painting, in the desperate hope of finding a kindred spirit who can appreciate the painting and recognize its true origin.  But when asked why he has not made the painting known to the world, we quickly find out that Cornelius is paralyzed by the truth of how his father, a German soldier in World War II, came to own it.  If he admits to the world that it is a Vermeer and attempts to auction it or donate it to a museum, questions of provenance will no doubt be raised, and the truth of his father’s role in the German occupation of the Netherlands will also become public knowledge. Tragically, the painting and Cornelius’ enjoyment of it have been tainted irreparably by his father’s crimes.

 The one thing he craved, to be believed, struck at odds with the thing he most feared, to be linked by blood with his century’s supreme cruelty.”

The story then moves further back in time to its previous owners: a Jewish family living in Amsterdam during World War II, a Dutch merchant at the turn of the century, a farmer’s wife, a student, and, finally, the Girl herself – the inspiration for the painting.

The author lovingly describes the painting in such detail that you almost forget it is a fictional painting, invented by the writer. You almost begin to believe yourself that this story could be about a lost Vermeer. Each character sees something different in the painting, be it potential justification and vindication for a life poorly spent, a kindred spirit, a remembrance of first love, or unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and each focuses their devotion on a different aspect, whether it’s the subject matter, the light, the setting, or the painter’s skill. At the same time, the stories are all connected by a collective affection, even adoration, for the painting.

As a reader, you begin each story knowing ultimately how it will end, but even knowing this, it is a testament to the author’s skill that you still feel compelled to read on to learn how that person obtained the painting.  Through the vehicle of the painting’s mysterious history, Vreeland explores the small, but poignantly significant moments in people’s lives.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a delicate, beautifully written novel that is also available as an audiobook and as a 2003 Hallmark movie starring Glenn Close, entitled Brush With Fate.

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You just can’t help feeling sorry for Aurelio Zen.  A Venetian by birth, living and working in Rome as a homicide detective, he has always put honesty before advancement.  While this may be an admirable trait, it hasn’t exactly done wonders for his career in the Roman police force.  As a government minister aptly puts it, “Your scruples do you credit, Detective, but really, it’s no way to get ahead, is it?”

Zen is a three-part mini-series, based on the celebrated mysteries by Michael Dibdin.  Originally produced by the BBC in 2010, it was broadcast as part of Masterpiece Mystery over here in the U.S.  Each hour and a half episode is based on one book and features a different mystery.  Vendetta begins with the cold-blooded murder of a judge on a country road outside Milan.  Back in Rome, Zen, played by the enigmatic and exceptional Rufus Sewell, finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Thanks to his “reputation for scrupulous integrity,” he’s been tapped by a government minister to prove the “innocence” of a businessman with friends in high places, who has been indicted for a triple homicide.  But at the same time, his gruff, no-nonsense boss at the Questura demands he close up the holes in the case and prove the police have arrested the right man.  What’s a detective to do?

Cabal, the second episode in the series, feature the apparent suicide of an Italian nobleman.  This time, both the Questura and the Ministry are happy for this death to be neatly wrapped up as such, but, unfortunately for Zen, he’s convinced the man was murdered.  In the third episode, Rat King, Zen is tasked with rescuing a wealthy industrialist, who has been kidnapped, and finding out why the man sent to pay the ransom was inexplicably shot dead in the street.

All career problems aside, things aren’t exactly going well for Aurelio Zen at home either.  His marriage has failed, his wife wants a divorce, and he’s back living at home with his mamma, even though he’s almost forty.  But somehow, Zen manages to juggle the competing demands of his conscience, the Questura, and the Ministry.  Each time he finds himself in an impossible situation, up against systemic bureaucratic corruption and civil servants who give new meaning to the word “oblique,” he manages to land on his feet, like a cat with nine lives.  But is it skill or sheer dumb luck?  For me, the jury is still out.  Sewell plays Zen with just the right dose of cynicism and wry humor, even as he finds himself entangled in a web of deceit, politics, and corruption.

The series was shot entirely in Rome and the city is as much a character in the story as Zen, his colleagues, or the criminals.  But this isn’t meant to be a tourist promotional video of Rome and the directors made a point to film in areas that are not so familiar to British and American audiences.  One such place is the EUR – a residential and business district just south of the city center, begun by Mussolini and famous for its fascist architecture.  This is the Rome where pedestrians block traffic, that is crowded, infuriating, and crumbling around the edges.  But don’t worry; there are still plenty of sporty little Fiats racing around the city and men in slick, stylish suits with the requisite skinny ties and snazzy sunglasses.

Zen is a very stylish, compelling and intelligent drama – it feels like a Hitchcock adventure, but with a modern noir feel, where the stakes are high, but the story is still delivered with a great deal of wit and wry humor.

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One Man, Eight Countries, One Vintage Travel Guide…

In 1870, the English diarist Francis Kilvert complained that, “Of all noxious animals…the most noxious is a tourist.”  But despite this scathing criticism, Doug Mack, author of Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day, desperately wants to be one.  Unlike the trailblazers of recent decades seeking to explore new and uncharted parts of the globe, Mack wants to undertake a journey on the very firmly well-beaten path, hoping to obtain “full immersion in the modern tourist experience.”

And so he decides to backpack around Europe using only a 1963 edition of the quintessential Europe on Five Dollars a Day by Arthur Frommer that he found at a secondhand book festival in Minneapolis.  To add to the retro charm, he also brings with him the postcards and letters that his mother wrote to her fiancé (Mack’s father) during her own Grand Tour in the late 1960s.  And that’s it.  There would be no Internet research, no competing guidebooks.  As much as possible Mack planned to stay in the same hotels recommended by Frommer, eat in the same restaurants, and visit the same sites – although perhaps not on the same budget.

On his Not-So-Grand Tour, Mack visits eleven of Europe’s great cities, including Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, and Venice, boldly going  “where millions have gone before, relying only on the advice of a travel guide that’s nearly a half century out-of-date.”  Setting out on this well-beaten path, Mack’s goal was not to live on $5 a day in some kind of “gimmicky challenge,” but to explore the ways the traditional tourist experience has changed–and hasn’t–during the last fifty years.

Just like any traveler, he enjoys some cities more than others (a big fan of Madrid, not so much of Venice).  But of course, as Mack travels around Europe, he finds most of Frommer’s suggestions are either closed, have been converted into a giftshop, or serve food so expensive that if Frommer were writing this guide today (adjusted for inflation, of course!) they would never have made the cut.  Other differences include Frommer’s choice of seventeen “must-see” cities, which leaves out destinations that are very popular today, such as Prague and Barcelona.  And let’s not forget that Berlin was a divided city in 1963.  But in 2009, Mack finds the American and East German soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie are now played by Russian and North African actors, demanding tips for photos.

Europe on 5 Wrong Turns A Day offers an interesting analysis of the culture of travel, the changes that have taken place since Frommer’s seminal work was published, and the changes that the book caused (e.g. cheap travel as something you could boast about).  To flesh out the travel narrative, Mack includes some history of American tourism to Europe, the evolution of guidebooks, Frommer’s success story, and how politics affect the travel decisions of Americans.

If you have ever traveled abroad, particularly in Europe, you will see yourself in this book.  But Mack’s teasing is kind and you won’t be able to help laughing at yourself.  I freely admit to doing the “Tourist Dance” myself:

Hold out your camera, smile sheepishly, point to yourself.  Half the time the other person is already performing the same gestures to you…”

The book is sweetly charming, with laugh-out loud moments, but it also has some serious points to make about modern travel and the effects of globalism over the last half-century.  Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day is an amusing, self-effacing, and very wry travel memoir, told by an observant and affable narrator.  The book is an entertaining mix of social commentary, history,  ode to Frommer’s “manifesto for the common traveler” and exoneration of your average, much-maligned tourist.

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It is 1900 and India Selwyn Jones, daughter of an aristocratic family, naïve and idealistic, has just graduated from the London School of Medicine for Women. She is ready to change the world and is determined to make a difference as a doctor in the slums of East London. She hopes to establish a free clinic for the poor women and children of Whitechapel, but ends up stumbling into the world of the notorious criminal and gangland boss, Sid Malone. Malone is a shadowy, menacing figure—a gangster with a mysterious past and little mercy. But when India saves his life after a dockside brawl, she finds herself drawn to his magnetic charm, and their friendship quickly grows into something more.

But Freddie Lytton, India’s ambitious and ruthless fiancé, is determined to advance his political career, force India to give up hers, and drag Sid to the hangman’s noose. And to do it, he’ll use any means necessary, be it theft, betrayal, even murder.

The Winter Rose is a sweeping, epic love story that moves from the pubs and opium dens of the East End to the Houses of Parliament, colonial Africa, and beyond; and it’s certainly epic in length, coming in at 707 pages! The story is full of mystery, passion, family drama, and star-crossed romance.

Jennifer Donnelly has a wonderful gift for this kind of grand storytelling, as she expertly interweaves history and fiction. Her cast of vivid characters is set against a backdrop of the emergence of women’s rights, British colonial expansion in Africa, and the birth of the British Labour party.

But be warned: this book is the sequel to The Tea Rose, and if you intend to read the first book, this one does contain spoilers. However, The Winter Rose can certainly be read and enjoyed on its own as a standalone novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Winter Rose.


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“Would you be my boyfriend for five minutes?”

Nick isn’t cool—he’s neurotic, drives a Yugo, and is pining for his ex-girlfriend, the shallow, man-eating Tris. He leaves long, rambling messages on her cell phone and spends hours making mix CD after mix CD (like “Road to Closure, Vol. 12”), which she throws into the trash, providing music-lover Norah the chance to retrieve them. Norah isn’t cool either—she always plays by the rules and seems to spend most of her time looking after her unreliable friend, Caroline. But a chance encounter and a surprising proposition at a New York City club lead Nick and Norah on an unforgettable journey through the city’s indie music scene. A quest to find their favorite band’s secret show turns into a night they’ll never forget.

But their nocturnal adventures are interrupted by their search for Norah’s party-hard best friend, Caroline (played by the hilarious Ari Graynor). Nick and his band-mates try to help Norah find Caroline before they miss the show, but Nick’s cluelessness very nearly destroys his chance with our “hetero heroine.” However, in a moment of clarity (to the tune of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing”), he recognizes his mistake. But is it too late to repair the damage he’s done?

As much as it tells the story of the immediate attraction and growing affection between the leads, the film is also a love song to New York City, as it follows Nick and Norah all over the city that never sleeps from dusk ‘til dawn.

The film stars Michael Cera as the bumbling, awkward Nick and Kat Dennings (currently onscreen in the sitcom Two Broke Girls) as the self-deprecating Norah. This movie is better than your average teen hipster comedy, in part due to the skills of Kat Dennings and Michael Cera, as well as the genuine affection the movie demonstrates for indie music. The lead characters’ mutual passion for music serves as a means of communication and the focal point for their growing attraction. Their attempts at conversation are hilariously awkward and clumsy, so their similar taste in music plays a vital role in their budding romance and attempts to articulate their feelings.

Kat Dennings’ portrayal of Norah’s insecurity is endearing and there are scene-stealing turns by Nick’s ex, the perpetually drunk Caroline, and Nick’s well-meaning, but inept, band-mates. The film is quirky and charming, fueled by a vibrant, contemporary soundtrack and smart, funny dialogue.

Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is based on the young adult novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. WRL also has a copy of the soundtrack, which is well worth listening to for its assorted mix of indie darlings, including Army Navy, Band of Horses, and Vampire Weekend.

Check the WRL catalog for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.


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Edie Sha’nim is a prodigy. The best cypherteck in the galaxy, she has been trained since childhood to manipulate advanced biocyph seed technology by members of the all-powerful, interstellar Crib empire. This technology helps to terra-form inhospitable alien planets, but the empire uses it hold Fringe worlds to ransom. Every year the “biocyph retroviral automated terraformer seeds” (BRAT seeds) sustaining their ecosystems automatically fail unless the colonies pay the Crib an exorbitant amount for a renewal key.

Edie is kidnapped by mercenaries from a Fringe planet, hoping to exploit her gift to reprogram stolen BRAT seeds. To ensure her cooperation, they “leash” her to a slave bodyguard, Finn—a former member of the Saeth, a shadowy, secretive group of freedom fighters. If she cooperates, they promise her freedom from a life she hates as well as freedom from her manipulative, ambitious mentor, Natesa. But if Edie tries to escape or strays from Finn’s side, he dies. Finn and Edie have no choice but to trust each other as they fight for their freedom from both the mercenaries and the Crib.

Finn is the very embodiment of “tall, dark, and mysterious,” and we only learn about his past in small increments. Edie, sensitive but defiant, is the heart of the story, and the romance that develops between the two is understated and does not overshadow the rest of the plot.

One of the book’s strengths is the author’s intricate and detailed world-building. The author handles descriptions so skillfully that you aren’t left feeling overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity and sophistication of the universe she has created. Creasy has created a fascinating universe, full of eerie alien landscapes and intriguing scientific speculation.

Song of Scarabaeus was nominated for the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2010 Aurealis Award for “Best SF Novel.” It is a brilliant debut, from a very promising new author, with a subtle romance at its heart that can be enjoyed by romance and sci-fi readers alike. There is enough action and suspense to satisfy SF fans, and enough tension and simmering chemistry to keep romance fans happy too. And if you enjoy it, don’t miss the sequel, Children of Scarabaeus.

Check the WRL catalog for Song of Scarabaeus.


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It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of wits and good sense must be in want of a Darcy (or to be more accurate, Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). But there are only so many Darcys (and library copies of Pride & Prejudice) to go round. So, if you’ve watched this BBC miniseries so often you can recite it line for line and are looking for something new, I recommend North & South.

North & South can best be described as a Victorian Pride & Prejudice, but the central romance is laced with powerful and interesting social commentary. Based on the 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, it tells the story of Margaret Hale, the daughter of a middle-class vicar, who, used to a privileged, slower pace of life in rural southern England, is suddenly uprooted when her father suffers a crisis of faith and gives up his livelihood. He moves his family to a dreary, smoky northern mill town trying to find its feet as the industrial revolution marches onward, but Margaret cannot see beyond the noise, the smell, the dirt, and the conflict between “masters and men.” When she meets the handsome, charismatic mill-owner, John Thornton, North and South collide.

Margaret struggles to come to terms with her new home and feels nothing but contempt for the greedy, ambitious mill-owners, including Thornton, who is one of her father’s new students. Thornton is instantly attracted to the strong-willed and outspoken Margaret, but she is unable to hide her repulsion and disdain for his work and the way she mistakenly believes he treats his employees. Gradually, Margaret’s attitude towards the town and its inhabitants changes, as she becomes friends with the mill-workers, including a local union leader and his daughter. But as Margaret becomes more invested in their lives, the strife between the mill-owners and their workers culminates in a crippling strike, the consequences of which affect every member of the town. Even as Margaret’s opinion of the town and her new life changes, she remains stubbornly prejudiced against mill-owners, and one in particular. Like Lizzy Bennett, it is only later, when the strike and the events that follow threaten to keep the two apart, that Margaret finally begins to recognize the integrity, strength of character, and value of the man she has rejected.

North & South stars Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale and Richard Armitage as the brooding hero, John Thornton. It also stars Brendan Coyle (currently onscreen as the self-sacrificing Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey) as the union leader, Nicholas Higgins. The screenplay was written by Sandy Welch, who also wrote the 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre (with Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens) and the 2009 version of Emma (with Romola Garai).

Anglophiles and fans of high-quality BBC period drama, such as Downton Abbey, will fall in love with North & South. Like any good costume drama, it is full of simmering passion and smoldering sexual tension, where one glance, one touch, can carry the weight of a thousand words.

Check the WRL catalog for North & South.


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Love is in the air…

Yes, folks, it’s Valentine’s Day tomorrow and this week Blogging for a Good Book features five romance-filled reviews:

Charlotte wants a divorce. Not the most promising of starts for a romance novel, admittedly, but I have always found the books that tell the story of what happens after the “I do” the most intriguing.

Charlotte, Duchess of Rutherford, will try anything—gambling, drinking, flirting—to cause a scandal big enough to force her husband, Philip, the stern, stodgy Duke of Rutherford, to divorce her and finally end their painful sham of a marriage. Three years before, a heartbreaking betrayal led to their estrangement. Philip set his wife aside in favor of his mistress, and Charlotte cannot forgive the pain and humiliation. So Charlotte leads a separate life in London, hoping to cause enough scandal to force Philip to petition for a divorce—but he kidnaps her instead.

Philip has realized the enormity of his mistake three years before, and he is desperate to convince his wife that he has changed for the better. He spirits her away to his country estate, far from the distractions of London, and puts his plan into motion. To win his wife back, Philip promises her the divorce she so desperately desires, but only if she teaches him how to be a better husband for another woman (in particular his former fiancée, Lady Joanna Grey). Quite rightly, Charlotte cannot help but be suspicious of his motives—especially since it comes with such an unusual caveat.  But as Charlotte and Philip spend time together, she begins to wonder if she really wants to lose him, even as she pretends to help him court another woman.

Seducing the Duchess is a remarkable debut novel, and what I found particularly enjoyable was the author’s decision to tell the story, as it develops, from both Charlotte’s and Philip’s perspectives. She will interrupt a scene halfway through to switch to the other’s perspective, and the results are hilarious. The “spirited debates” pit husband against wife as each struggles to gain the upper hand. Just when they think one of them is ahead, the other manages to unexpectedly turn the tables.

Seducing the Duchess is a compelling read, populated with richly nuanced characters. Philip is saved from being an antihero by his desire for forgiveness and redemption, and Charlotte’s stubbornness is tempered by an inner vulnerability. Readers will enjoy the witty banter and the ruse each is perpetuating against the other. The characters are engaging, the writing is clever and fun, and the opening chapter is one of the most entertaining I’ve read in a long time. Philip and Charlotte’s antics as they each try to outwit the other may have you laughing out loud more than a few times.

Check the WRL catalog for Seducing the Duchess.


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Well, who would have thought it? The Blink boys are all grown up.  “Neighborhoods” is the first album from the SoCal pop/punk trio in eight years and marks a significant shift from their previous albums.  Blink-182 originally grew out of the San Diego punk scene and made their name by taking the edge off punk and making it accessible for the middle of the road.  But “Neighborhoods” is considerably darker than their previous offerings and has something of a pensive quality (not a word I ever thought I would use to describe Blink-182).  The band has clearly evolved and the guys have matured lyrically.  You can still hear the classic, catchy “blink” riffs on many of the songs, but the band has created a new, more adult sound.

The opening track, “Ghost on the Dance Floor” is a poignant song about the death of a friend and sets the tone for the rest of the album:

I saw your ghost tonight
The moment felt so real
If your eyes stay right on mine
My wounds would start to heal…”

“Up All Night” is the first single from the album and I have to admit, it took a while for me to fully appreciate it.  This is not your typical radio-friendly Blink-182 tune, but it is a song that rewards repeated listening.  “After Midnight” is a brooding, almost nostalgic song.  It seems as if the band members are longing for the time in their youth when they could “stagger home after midnight/Sleep arm-in-arm in the stairwell” and “fall apart on the weekend.”  There is a darkness in this song with lines like:

I kind of like the little rush you get
When you’re standing close to death…”

“Snake Charmer” was initially titled “Genesis,” (a nod to the references in the song to Adam and Eve) and is an angry, menacing track about the frustrations of relationships.

That’s how it was to all begin
‘Cause good girls they like to sin
Way back at the starting line
When Eve was on Adam’s mind…”

Another personal favorite is “Wishing Well” – a track full of vivid imagery, with a deceptively bouncy melody and a very catchy chorus.

“Neighborhoods” is certainly the bleakest album Blink has ever produced, and many of the lyrics were obviously influenced by serious events in the band members’ lives during the last decade (drummer Travis Barker nearly died in a 2008 plane crash), but I find the music much more intriguing as a result.  Inevitably, there will be many criticisms from ardent Blink fans about this shift to a more mature style, but the band’s signature sound (characterized by double-time tempos and angsty guitar riffs) is still very much intact.  It has just been enriched by greater lyrical introspection and musical sophistication (such as the pianos on “Kaleidoscope” and the violins on “Ghost on the Dancefloor”).

As a warning, there are some explicit lyrics on this album, and it may not be suitable for children under eighteen.

Check the WRL catalog for Neighborhoods


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This is a review about an album by The Black Keys. The name of this album is Brothers.

Without a doubt 2010 was something of a banner year for The Black Keys — a blues-rock duo comprised of singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney.  They won four Grammy Awards (including “Best Alternative Album”), Spin magazine named The Black Keys their “Artist of the Year,” and they spent the year touring the world, opening for Kings of Leon and headlining at concerts like Bonnaroo and Coachella.  All of this buzz was triggered largely by the May release of their sixth album, Brothers, which Rolling Stone named their second favorite album of 2010.

The Black Keys have admittedly been around for a while, but it wasn’t until the release of this album that they started to get some significant airtime.  The Keys play a version of electric Mississippi blues fused with psychedelic sixties rock, but with a pop twist.  On this album, they have shifted away from more basement blues-rock into spookier, swampier territory, although they haven’t lost their do-it-yourself sound.  With little more than Auerbach’s guitar and Carney’s drums they manage to paint a picture of sweaty honky tonks, the stifling, oppressive heat of southern summers, and steamy bayous.  In truth, their music would not be out of place on an episode of True Blood and the song “She’s Long Gone” was used to promote the second season of Swamp People on the History Channel.

The album opens with the slow, sultry groove of “Everlasting Light.”  Auerbach sings in falsetto, and although it is a simple song in melodic and lyrical terms, it is remarkably powerful, as the persistent, pulsing rhythm mirrors the lyrics:

A train going away from pain
Love is the coal
That makes this train roll…”

When you hear “Tighten Up” – the first single from the album – you could be forgiven for thinking the lead singer is a reincarnation of a blues legend from the sixties, instead of a small, bearded white guy from Akron, Ohio, so intense and soulful is his voice.  The second single – “Howlin’ For You” – is a raw, raucous track that opens with a beat ripped straight from Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Pt. 2.”  Auerbach really manages to makes his electric guitar sing on “Next Girl” – a funky, smoldering song about regretting past relationships:

My next girl
Will be nothing like my ex girl
I made mistakes back then
I’ll never do it again…”

The track “Unknown Brother” calls to mind the Hollies’ 1969 hit “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” and the guys channel sixties soul on the Jerry Butler cover “Never Gonna Give You Up.”  The Keys mark the halfway point on the album with the instrumental piece “Black Mud” – a song inhabited by quivering guitars and wailing organs, which reminds me strongly of The Animals.

Brothers is a dirty, earthy album.  The driving power of the music feels like a gathering thunderstorm, creating a sound that is full of atmosphere and menace.  The Black Keys will appeal to any fans of the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, and old blues legends.  In fact, the Black Keys are a band you may find yourself playing the sound-alike game with, but despite the many and varied influences you’ll spot, they have a very distinctive sound, as each track shakes with swampy fury and raw blues power.

Check the WRL catalog for Brothers.

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