Saturday, December 28, 2013

Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey (Emma Rowley)

Like everyone on the planet (it seems), I am obsessed with this British TV import. While the USA has certainly churned out its fair share of great, "make you think" shows, I've really been into Brit entertainment lately (Broadchurch was one of my favorite shows of 2013).  Maybe it's the accent...who knows?

Emma Rowley's Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey does exactly what its name implies.  This is a must-read for those who love the show as much as I do, as it takes you backstage to see how the show is filmed. Much of the reason why Downton Abbey is so successful is because it is meticulous about making sure every detail is correct.  They even go so far as to have a historian on set, because in a house that big it really mattered how things were done.  No detail is too small, from making sure the footmen serve dinner on the correct side and that the Marcel wave isn't introduced too early to be historically inaccurate.  From the costume designers to the makeup artists to the prop masters, everyone ensures that this is a true period piece.

Rowley spends just as much time going behind the scenes with the servants as with the family.  As fans of the show know, the house could never run as smoothly as it does without Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, and the rest.  It's interesting to learn that the servants' quarters are filmed not at Highclere Castle, but at a studio a fair distance away.  But of course, you would never know that just by watching the effortlessly edited show.  These little tidbits make Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey a blast to read for faithful viewers.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Burial Rites (Hannah Kent)

Every so often a book comes along that does not quite live up to the advanced praise it has received.  I was anxious to read Hannah Kent's Burial Rites since it was recommended as THE novel of the year by the head book buyer at a very famous store.  While Kent has meticulously researched the true story of the murders this book is based on, to me it was almost TOO if she desperately wanted to get every detail of the main character's story out there even if it slowed the plot down to a snail's pace.

In January of 1830, Agnes Magnusdottir, along with two others, was charged with the brutal murder of two men in Iceland.  Agnes was sentenced to death, and Kent recreates her last days living on an isolated farm with people who definitely don't want her there.  Toti, a young priest Agnes chooses to be her spiritual guide, is drawn to her story.  Burial Rites is at its best when Kent focuses on Agnes's impending fate, with the reader knowing all too well how this is all going to play out.  However, the real essence of the book gets lost in Agnes's endless telling of her true story, with Kent going back and forth constantly between third and first persons.

Kent should be commended for her thorough research and worthwhile topic.  However, while a solid 3, I don't quite understand where all the gushing over Burial Rites is coming from.


Monday, December 9, 2013

The Eternal Wonder (Pearl S. Buck)

The story behind Pearl S. Buck’s The Eternal Wonder is almost as interesting as the book itself.  Of course, Buck is most known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth, and you normally would not expect a new piece to be published decades after the author’s death.  The manuscript for The Eternal Wonder was found in a storage unit in Texas; how it got there is a mystery, but it was returned to the Buck family for a small fee.  Buck’s son, Edgar Walsh, decided to go ahead with publishing what will, unless a new piece is found, most certainly be her last book.

Randolph Colfax (Rann for short) is a hugely gifted young man who loves to “know.”  His parents tried him out in normal school, but he was deemed far too extraordinary to fit in with his classmates.  He is constantly searching for meaning in his life, and this search takes him to New York, Paris, and Korea.  Surprisingly racy in much of its content, The Eternal Wonder takes the reader on quite the journey right along with Rann.

Buck’s hypnotizing writing is a reason why she is one of the greats, and The Eternal Wonder is certainly no exception. However, this is no The Good Earth, and Walsh in his foreward says that he realizes this. The plot is all over the place at times, and the ending is just odd (although the beginning is absolutely beautiful).  For rabid Buck fans, though, none of this will matter.


Sunday, December 1, 2013

In the Blood (Lisa Unger)

As you might expect from a novel called In the Blood, it's not going to be about sunshine and roses.  I rated Lisa Unger's Fragile a rare 5/5 back in 2010, calling it "a mystery in the best sense of the word, with well-developed characters and slow-building suspense."  While I'm rating In the Blood a 4/5, I still thoroughly enjoyed it and found myself chilled to the bone more often than not.

Lana Granger is about to graduate from college and living
a life full of lies.  Desperately needing to make some money since her trust fund is almost gone, she takes a job babysitting a young troubled boy, Luke. When her best friend Beck disappears, Lana becomes a suspect; surprisingly, Luke also seems to know more than he's letting on and revels in taunting Lana along the way.  They seem to have met each other's match, both keeping a plethora of secrets and playing one giant chess game trying to outsmart one another.

This is the type of book you'll love reading under the covers with a flashlight.  In the Blood is a psychological thriller at its best, with nail-biting moments and one heck of a satisfying ending.


Taken by Storm, 1938 (Lourdes B. Aviles)

2013 marked the 75th anniversary of the 1938 Long Island Express, a fast-moving hurricane that roared across Long Island and New England on September 21st with over 100 mile-per-hour winds. It is the deadliest hurricane to strike New England since 1900 and, until Sandy last year, the costliest storm in terms of damage to the New England CoastliTaken by Storm, 1938, by Lourdes Aviles, is a social and meteorological history of the hurricane that many refer to as the Long Island Express, with many others referring to it as The Great New England Hurricane. Aviles's work is a historical reference of the storm's history, its impact to property and livelihood across New England, and the scars that remain from the storm in the present day.

Aviles draws on meteorological concepts to explain what causes a storm like the '38 hurricane to make landfall across the New England coastline, how rare hurricane landfalls actually are across New England, and how such a rare occurrence only fueled a higher level of people being caught off-guard when the storm did indeed strike. Unlike today, where 24-hour news and weather information can tell you days in advance if a storm is coming, 1938 did not feature weather satellites and did not have anywhere near the level of warning that modern-day meteorology can provide.  The author points out that warnings on the storm the day prior to landfall did not mention a threat to New England and only mentioned the threat of some gusty winds on the day of the storm's impact.  600 lives were lost in this storm.

The book provides readers with a highly technical and scientific look at the backstory to a significant weather event in our history.  The best audience for this book are weather enthusiasts, historians with an interest in New England, and those with a scientific lean. It's not really suited for a casual audience although Aviles does a good job of explaining the more technical aspects of weather to help shape an understanding of what caused the hurricane to track into New England.