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The Uninvited Guests: A Novel
The Uninvited Guests: A Novel
by Sadie Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.08
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Classic Country House Tale, With A Twist Or Two, September 29, 2014
This short but captivating novel by Sadie Jones has elements which readers of several different genres will find familiar. First it is a country house tale, set in a large and stately manor deep in the English countryside and populated with a group of complex and arch characters. Secondly it is in many respects a Gothic tale, filled with hints of the supernatural intruding upon the mundane. And thirdly it is a comedy of manners replete with sophisticated witticisms. Readers of Saki, Henry James, E.F. Benson, and (to a point) P.G. Wodehouse will all find familiar ground here. Fans of Downton Abbey will likewise find much to enjoy.

In about 1912 the Torrington-Swift family inhabits Sterne, a large house with two wings, one Georgian and the other medieval. Charlotte, who with her first husband Horace purchased Sterne about twenty years before the story begins, lives there with her second husband Edward Swift and her three children Clovis, Emerald, and Imogen. The family is not a happy one, since the children resent their mother's having remarried after the death of their father a few years earlier. The Torringtons are not "old money" and in fact as the story begins Edward is leaving to seek a loan with which to stave off bankruptcy and the forced sale of Sterne. Emerald's birthday is approaching, and plans are underway to hold a party which will include some "friends" whom none of the Torringtons seem to like. As the party gets underway news of a terrible railway accident arrives, and the household is informed that they will be expected to shelter the survivors.

The arrival of the survivors and their presence in the house alongside the party guests naturally causes complications, especially when one survivor turns out to be an old acquaintance of Charlotte's. The complications intensify and eventually come to a head, leading to a unexpected conclusion with some elements of a "deus ex machina". But I felt that the story was satisfying even though all the loose ends may not be completely wrapped up. I enjoyed the elegant and witty conversations and the rich vocabulary, and I felt that Jones did an excellent job of evoking a country house atmosphere.

Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris
Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris
by Steven E. Levingston
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.53
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Seamy Underside Of The Belle Epoque, September 26, 2014
The murder and trial so ably described here by Steven Levingston could only have taken place in late nineteenth century France, a country which was in the middle of a period of rapid development, with a growing and newly literate population eager for sensation which highly competitive newspapers were more than willing to provide. Having recovered from defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, in 1889 France had just hosted a massive International Exhibition, dominated by the spectacular engineering feat of the Eiffel Tower. Then, in that same year when all seemed to be going so well in France, a scandalous murder took place that seized national and worldwide attention.

An outwardly respectable French gentleman with a taste for louche affairs of the heart was lured to a Paris apartment. There he was set upon, hanged, and then strangled by Michel Eyraud with assistance from Gabrielle Bompard. Eyraud was a con-artist who was always on the look out for an easy target and the chance to make off with some cash, while Bompard was a young woman with no moral scruples. They robbed the body, stuffed it into a trunk, took it with them on journey by train, and then dumped it near an isolated country village. They then went into hiding and eventually set sail across the Atlantic, traveling across the US and into Canada before ending up in San Francisco. There their partnership ended and Bompard left with another companion, eventually returning to France, while Eyraud continued his travels, going to Mexico and eventually to Havana.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of the murdered gentleman had caused quite a bit of stir in France, and when a body that seemed to answer to his description turned up there was even more excitement. There was quite a debate over the identification of the body (the details of the body's discovery and examination are not for the faint of heart, by the way), then another one over how to identify his murderers, and then once Eyraud and Bompard had been fingered, how to track them down. Eventually the two went through a sensational trial that centered around a debate over hypnotism: was it possible to take so much control over a hypnotized subject that he or she could be made to commit crimes that they would never dream of in their conscious state?

This is a lively, thoroughly enjoyable account that vividly recreates the tumultuous world of late nineteenth century France. While they were both thoroughly repellent people, I found both Eyraud and Bompard amusing to read about. It was also interesting to read of the ways in which modern technology like the telegraph were used by both the criminals and the legal authorities to assist them. French legal customs also made for captivating reading. Steven Levingston is to be commended for taking the story of a sordid murder and showing how representative it was of the world in which it took place.

Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring
Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring
by Peter Duffy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.18
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Little Known Hero, September 21, 2014
The double agent referred to in the title was William Sebold, a German-American whose career in espionage has been dramatized a number of times. His full story has remained largely unknown, but now Peter Duffy has dug deep into old records and files to produce an interesting history, not only of Sebold but also of German-US relations in the late 1930s.

Wilhelm Sebold(his birth name) was born in Germany's Ruhr Valley. From a modest background, he served in the German army during the final months of World War I, then spent most of the next twenty years journeying around the world, entering the US illegally a number of times and working in heavy industry. In 1936 he became a naturalized American citizen and appeared to settle down permanently with his German-born wife. Then in 1939 he returned to Germany to visit his family. His background training and knowledge of American industry caught the attention of the Nazi government, and he was strong-armed into agreeing to spy for the Reich and help it obtain US industrial secrets, particularly the plans for the Norden bombsight, a tool which would vastly enhance the accuracy of bombers. Sebold agreed to help the Nazis, but almost immediately made contact with the FBI and volunteered to work with them in an effort to ferret out German agents inside the US. Over the next several years Sebold passed information he received from the Abwehr on to the FBI that eventually led to the arrests of thirty three German agents.

Peter Duffy did an excellent job of recounting Sebold's life and career as part of a much larger story: the efforts of the FBI to detect and render harmless German espionage in the US. I enjoyed reading about the colorful and often bizarre characters who werte part of this story and found Duffy's descriptions of the German-American community inside the US illuminating. J.Edgar Hoover's largely successful effort to run the FBI without the trouble of Presidential, Congressional, and public scrutiny has been described many times before, but it is still troubling to realize how much power the man had as well as how eager elected officials were to let him have it. Duffy places the Sebold story within a larger context by describing the buildup to the outbreak of World War I and US efforts to both stay neutral and prepare for possible involvement in the conflict. He describes the lengthy trial of the spy ring, which coincided with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into the war, and then in an Epilogue tells what happened to Sebold, his family, and to the spies and conspirators he helped bring to justice.

If you've read and enjoyed Ben Macintyre's histories of British espionage efforts like Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat, Doublecross, and A Spy Among Friends you'll recognize a number of similar themes in an American setting in Duffy's work. From hints Duffy drops here and there I think it's likely that he may be planning more books dealing with US espionage. At least I hope so!

Royal Childhood (Souvenir Album)
Royal Childhood (Souvenir Album)
by (Art historian) Anna Reynolds
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.27
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ordinary Lives In A Palatial Setting, September 17, 2014
To paraphrase something I once read, modern royalty consists of ordinary people leading ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. Nothing bears that out better than this interesting, nice, little book of pictures chronicling the lives of some young members of the British Royal Family. It is by no means an exhaustive account since it begins with the children of George III, the first King to regard Buckingham Palace as his primary home. It continues on to include material associated with the young Queen Victoria, then her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and then really concentrates on the childhoods of the present Queen and her descendants, including a few photos of Prince George.

There are plenty of pictures of toys and games, doll houses and life size play houses, charmingly awkward handwritten letters from various princes and princesses to their parents signed with their nicknames, artwork created by Queen Victoria depicting her offspring, and the like. It was interesting to see royal thriftiness at work: a toy wheelbarrow being played with by two successive generations, for example. Some elegant royal outfits, some of them handmedowns as well, are also included. Not surprisingly, being raised in a palace is very tradition bound in some ways: a photo of small chairs used by Princes William and Harry and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie reveals that the boys got bold, primary colors and block printing while the girls had pastels and "frilly" lettering. Schooling is not overlooked: there are some reports from teachers to royal parents about the progress (or lack thereof) of their offspring and photos showing Prince Edward's primary school days in a palace classroom.

So this is a pleasant little picture book with minimal text. If you've read many royal biographies you'll be aware that some royals had unhappy childhoods, but when you've looked through this book you'll say "At least they had some nice toys and clothes."

Tolkien Calendar 2015
Tolkien Calendar 2015
by J. R. R. Tolkien
Edition: Calendar
Price: $12.33
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Long Lost Vision Of Middle-earth Returns, September 16, 2014
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This review is from: Tolkien Calendar 2015 (Calendar)
The official 2015 Tolkien calendar is illustrated by Mary Fairburn and is a beautiful piece of work. According to the included essay "An Unknown Vision of Middle-earth" by Paul Tankard, Fairburn first read The Lord of the Rings in 1967 while staying with a friend in Tehran. She fell in love with the work and began working on a series of illustrations. After returning to England in 1968 Fairburn sent a selection of her illustrations, done mainly in colored inks along with some water color and white acrylic, to J.R.R. Tolkien, partly in the hope of being commissioned to do an illustrated edition of The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien was quite impressed with her illustrations and amenable to her suggestion of an illustrated edition, though he warned her that cost and other issues might make that impossible. In the event, no such edition using Fairburn's art was ever produced. At least one of the illustrations went to Tolkien while others were given to friends. Fairburn led an adventurous life and eventually settled in Australia. When her letters to Tolkien were unearthed in 2012 Fairburn reviewed the illustrations, found that some had faded or needed some corrections, and reworked them. For this calendar she has also created three new illustrations.

I like all of the illustrations very much. Fairburn shows a skilled hand in her landscapes of mountains, water, and trees, especially January's "The Journey to Caradhras" and April's "The Journey Down the Anduin River." Some of the works are obviously inspired by Tolkien's own illustrations, like May's "Rivendell", which Fairburn notes is "His scene in my style." "The Old Forest" in July reminds me of Tolkien's illustrations of "Old Man Willow", "Fangorn Forest", and "Mirkwood”, but she could not have seen those when she was at work in 1968, so it’s even more remarkable that she shared so much of his own vision. I think my two favorites are February's "Lothlorien," showing Galadriel with Frodo and Sam at the Mirror (this was the one Tolkien asked for because he felt it really captured his own mental image) and "Gandalf on Orthanc" in August, a dramatic black and white drawing using Indian ink. I also like October's "Treebeard, with Merry and Pippin" because I think it's the most faithful to the book depiction of an Ent I've seen. On the other hand March's "Minas Tirith," which is one of the three new illustrations, shows the influence of the movie in depicting Gandalf riding Shadowfax toward the towering city, though the walls, towers, and houses of the City are very different from the film version, and in my opinion much better.

I will certainly enjoy using this calendar in 2015. Fairburn's work is rich and beautiful, and we are fortunate to be allowed to enjoy it nearly 50 years after Tolkien himself expressed his liking for it.

Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen, And The Revolution
Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen, And The Revolution
by H. Will Bashor
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.44
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars History From The Hairdresser's Point Of View., September 12, 2014
M. Leonard Alexis Autie was an unemployed young Frenchman with few prospects when he arrived in Paris on the day of the transit of Venus in 1769. He did have one skill: a talent in dressing women's hair; and one extremely important asset: he was very good looking.These two gifts worked together to ensure Leonard entree into French society, first through dressing the hair of actresses and singers, then by becoming the favored coiffeurist of King Louis XV's mistress Madame du Barry, until he eventually reached the highest summit of all by earning the right to dress the hair of the Dauphine, later Queen, Marie Antoinette.

Leonard achieved so much success because he was an innovator. Rather than being content with dressing women's hair in the same way as other coiffeurists, he experimented with poufs, plumes, wigs, and wire frameworks that allowed him to turn his clients' heads into amazing towers. Some of his creations were so high that the women bearing them had to sit on the floors of their coaches and stoop to pass through doorways, but no incovenience was too great to be in style. He had a warm and pleasing personality, a taste for gossip, and the ability to keep his mouth shut when necessary, all of which stood him in good stead dressing the hair of the Queen and other noble ladies in Versailles and Paris. Eventually life turned sour for Leonard and his clientele. The people of France grew tired of supporting a lackluster monarchy and aristocracy and rose up in Revolution in 1789. The Royal Family was forced out of Versailles and eventually imprisoned and executed, as were countless numbers of Leonard's former customers. Leonard himself survived, actually serving as an agent of the King and Queen in selling some of their jewels outside France and assisting them in an unsuccessful escape attempt, but eventually fleeing the country when things got too bloody. He worked in Italy and in St. Petersburg until the Bourbon monarchy was restored in France, then returned to lead a quieter life in retirement until his death in 1820. He was a vainglorious, self-aggrandizing figure of little importance other than the fact that his coiffeurs became a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in pre-Revolutionary France.

I found Marie Antoinette's Head enjoyable primarily because Leonard led such a brazen, gall-filled life. His escapades were surprising and unlikely, but they made lively reading, especially in Will Bashor's hands where conversations between him and his clients are recreated. Leonard was not someone I would have cared to know, but his small but undeniable impact on history that is so ably depicted here is certainly worth learning more about.

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair
How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair
by Jonathan Beckman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.33
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deep Duplicity, High Treason, And Extreme Gullibility, September 10, 2014
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France in the mid-1780s was a creaking old machine that was almost out of fuel. An uninspiring monarchy supported by a talentless nobility and an increasingly corrupt Church held all the political power, while the tax burdened bourgeoisie and peasantry struggled to survive in a declining economy strangled by debt and weakened by drought. In the middle of all this gloom and doom a sensational scandal erupted that implicated Queen Marie Antoinette herself in a byzantine plot that featured a garish piece of jewelry, an adventuress claiming royal ancestry, several other shady characters of both sexes, and the wealthy nobleman Louis Cardinal de Rohan. As Jonathan Beckman ably recounts, the Diamond Necklace Affair transfixed France and all of Europe for months and eventually led to the further discrediting of the House of Bourbon and the French nobility.

The scandal began several years earlier with the creation of what must have been the ugliest diamond necklace ever constructed: 2800 carats arranged in several loops and flourishes that threatened to break its unlucky wearer's neck. Not surprisingly, the jewelers who created this monstrosity had difficulty selling it, and it lay in their vault for years while they searched for someone wealthy and tasteless enough to buy it. Then in the 1780s came Comtesse Jeanne de la Motte Valois, as she styled herself. Illegitimately descended from a former ruling dynasty, Jeanne spent her life figuring out ways to con other people out of money. She was quite good at it thanks to her beauty and total lack of any sense of morality. Jeanne and her husband (a former soldier who had no real title) inveigled themselves into the outer edges of French high society until they finally managed to make the acquaintance of the Cardinal de Rohan. Louis de Rohan must be considered one of the great chumps of history. Handsome, wealthy, but not very wise, he desired more than anything to become the friend of Queen Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, the Queen couldn't stand him and refused to receive him. Jeanne and her husband, desiring to get their hands on the necklace, became friends with the Cardinal and convinced him that she was a close associate of the Queen. Marie Antoinette, according to the La Mottes, wanted the necklace but couldn't get King Louis XVI to buy it for her. Therefore, she wanted the Cardinal to obtain it for her with the promise that she would pay for it in stages. Rohan fell for this con-game, which also featured a prostitute standing in for the Queen in the gardens of Versailles; the infamous alchemist and con-artist Cagliostro; and a number of clumsily forged letters; and obtained the necklace, which promptly disappeared into the hands of the La Mottes. Things unravelled when the jewellers began pestering the Queen for payment. Rohan, Jeanne, and some of the other conspirators ended up in the Bastille while others fled the country. There was a sensational trial that lasted for weeks and ended in Jeanne's branding and imprisonment and Rohan's exile. But the real victims (besides the jewelers, who never got the necklace or their money) were the King and Queen. They lost much of their remaining credibility and were widely believed to have had a hand in the whole affair, darkening their last few years on the throne and accelerating the slide towards Revolution.

This is a well written account of the scandal which left me shaking my head at the extreme gullibility displayed by so many of the characters, especially the Cardinal. The adventures of the La Mottes and their confederates were amusing to read for the sheer brazenness of their conduct and somewhat awe-inspiring by the amount of gall they displayed, even after their ruse had been uncovered. I also appreciated the final chapters which summarized the fates of most of the characters, from the King and Queen down to the La Mottes, Cagliostro, and even the prostitute. In the end, How To Ruin A Queen illuminates not just the Diamond Necklace Scandal, but the sorry state of affairs in pre-Revolutionary France itself.

The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History
The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History
by William K. Klingaman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.64
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5.0 out of 5 stars Planetary Ramifications Of Climate Change, September 5, 2014
In April 1815 the Tambora volcano in what is now Indonesia experienced a massive eruption, spewing millions of tons of ash and 55 million tons of sulfur-dioxide gas into the stratosphere. There it gradually encircled the earth via the jet streams, with consequences that would prove to be near catastrophic in much of the Northern Hemisphere. William K. Klingaman and Nicholas P. Klingaman have done a magnificent job of explaining what happened in 1815 and how that affected much of the world in 1816, "the year without a summer."

While there is never a "good" moment for a volcano to erupt, it is true that Tambora erupted at a particularly bad time. Europe had just gone through a twenty five year period of turmoil thanks to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In North America the United States, which had also suffered from Napoleon's wars, was in the middle of a period of expansion and development we now call the Era of Good Feelings. Tambora's eruption caused a temperature drop during the winter and early spring of 1816 and disrupted the jet streams and the normal oscillation patterns in the Atlantic Ocean. There was no understanding of how planetary climate systems functioned then, of course, but people did recognize that something had gone badly wrong with the weather as frosts and snows continued well into the spring and summer of 1816, ruining crops throughout New England, the Atlantic states, and throughout Western Europe. The unstable weather continued through the fall and winter into 1817, which was another cool year, before the ash and gases from Tambora eventually worked their way out of the atmosphere.

The Klingamans made use of extensive documentation from the period, chiefly newspaper reports, to chart the weather changes of 1816-17. They tell many fascinating anecdotes which help their readers recognize the influence the Tambora eruption had on such diverse developments as the beginnings of Mormonism, the writing of Frankenstein, demands for political reform in Great Britain and France, migrations from Europe to North America and Russia, movements from New England into the new Midwestern states within the US, and many others. Because most available news reports came from North America and Europe the bulk of the material in the book deals with those areas, though some attention is also given to the impacts on India and China.

The Year Without Summer is a helpful and needed reminder of the interconnections between global climate systems, and of how quickly a disruption in one area can affect the entire planet. While the Klingamans do not deal with the issue of anthropogenic climate change in this book, the inference that pollution has a worldwide impact is inescapable.

Ilo Ilo
Ilo Ilo
DVD ~ Chen Tianwen
Offered by MEGA Media
Price: $17.64
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Universal Problems In A Singapore Setting, September 2, 2014
This review is from: Ilo Ilo (DVD)
Ilo Ilo is set in Singapore during the financial crisis of 1997-98, but the themes and issues it so well depicts are universal. The Lim family is part of the struggling middle class. Both Teck and his wife Hwee Leng must work to maintain their standard of living, and as a result neither has much time for their 10 year old son Jiale. Inevitably Jiale begins to seek his parents' attention through misbehaving at school and at home. With Hwee Leng expecting another child and the pressures of daily life becoming overwhelming, the Lims hire a Filipina maid and nanny, Teresa or Terry.

Terry is a young woman with a baby of her own she has left with relatives back home. She is an outsider in the family and in Singapore, but she eventually makes a place for herself, especially as a sort of big sister/mother substitute for Jiale. Her life is hectic and uncomfortable, but in some ways she is still better off than the Lims themselves, who struggle with employment issues, money shortages, and countless other problems.

Ilo Ilo provides a gritty and realistic look at life in Singapore from the point of view of its overworked immigrant working class. Much of the dialogue is Mandarin Chinese, but there are segments in Tagalog and in English as well. English subtitles are provided.

New Stars For Old: Stories from the History of Astronomy
New Stars For Old: Stories from the History of Astronomy
Price: $2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Scholarship, September 1, 2014
Marc Read's background as an educator is very much on display in this fascinating history of astronomy from Aristotle to Newton. He has given what might have become just another compilation of short biographies a fresh face that will make it appealing to seasoned astronomers as well as students just being introduced to the subject.

Each of the twenty chapters is written in a different voice. Aristotle, for example, is described from the viewpoint of his constant companion, his deceased wife's former slavegirl Herpyllis. She listens to Aristotle's conversation with the sculptor Lysippos, in which the two men ponder the difficulties of accounting for planetary movements and the struggle to identify the necessary number of heavenly spheres. Hypatia of Alexandria's story is told through letters written by one of her young students over a period of several years, while Thomas Aquinas' contributions are dealt with via discussions among scholars at a medieval university. There are four chapters dealing with Brahe and Kepler which give colorful insights into the two rivals' personalities and habits. Inevitably, because astronomers have so often appeared to challenge official doctrines, there are many chapters that deal with persecution, exile, and execution. Giordano Bruno's chapter was one of the most vivid of these, not least because it is written in the form of a report to the Pope by his inquisitor Robert Bellarmine himself!

Read's choice to use so many perspectives and voices should not be taken to mean that New Stars For Old is a work of fantasy. Each chapter is solidly grounded, as Read makes clear in the note that accompanies each one explaining which, if any, characters are fictional and providing more background. New Stars For Old is a solid work of scholarship that entertains as well as informs.

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