Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Brief History Of Chocolate

A Brief History Of Chocolate

By Steve Berry & Phil Norman

Published by The Friday Project/Harper Collins UK

April 10th, 2014

This is actually an extract from a much bigger book, The Great British Tuck Shop, but it stands alone very well. Exactly as it says on the cover, it provides a brief history of chocolate primarily from a British perspective. 

From the early triumphs and disasters of commercial chocolate making, to the days of intense competition between the major players of Cadbury, Mars, Rowntree, Nestle, Terry  and Fry, this gorgeous little book is profusely illustrated with pictures of iconic chocolate bars and advertising campaigns. 

 Virtually every page saw me ooh-ing and ah-ing  as I saw long-forgotten favourites like Tiffin and Grand Seville bars, themed bars with collectible wrappers such as the Doctor Who bars, The Wombles bars and Mr Men bars, to the innovative tea-time treats such as Club biscuits, Kit-Kats and Wagon Wheels. 

The book also covers boxes of chocolates and tins: Black Magic, Dairy Milk,  All Gold, and Week End (which was one of my great loves!), Roses and Quality Street - before  delving into the heady realms of Easter eggs and the sophisticated chocolates such as After Eights, Matchmakers, Mint Crisp and Famous Names liqueur chocolates.

The book ended all too soon for my liking, and it would have been nice if it had been written to include more recent brands as well, but a thoroughly enjoyable little book nonetheless.

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The New Science Of Physical Intelligence

By Thalma Lobel

Published by Atria Books, 29 April 2014

Why people do the things they do is always interesting. Psychologists are constantly discovering new things, but comparatively few of them filter down to the general populace, most remaining the preserve of those who read learned journals.

This book goes way beyond fascinating and delves into the realms of the truly amazing, citing and clearly explaining the studies which show that our physical sensations at any given time - colour, scent, sound, lighting, temperature, weight, light and darkness - all have a role to play in determining our actions and judgments, whether we have any inking of it or not.

 Why are people more like to cheat at tests or be deceitful in a dimly lit room compared to when in a brightly lit room? Why can wearing sunglasses adversely affect our moral behaviour?  Why are people wearing dark coloured uniforms perceived as more harsh and aggressive than those wearing white uniforms? How can major elections be influenced depending on the clothes and colours candidates wear? Why does holding a warm or hot drink make you perceive those around you as nice, kind and trustworthy people?

Some truly remarkable results have been obtained from psychological studies over the decades, and in this absorbing book, Dr Lobel gives clear explanations of the likely causes and shows that the way we behave can be profoundly affected by things to which we may not ever have previously given any consideration at all. Definitely a keeper!

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Monday, July 21, 2014

The Moor

The Moor:

Lives Landscape Literature

By William Atkins

Published by Faber & Faber, May 2014

There are some truly memorable books which feature moors, but why are moors so fascinating, so mysterious and so haunting? What actually *is* a moor?

 William Atkins has been intrigued by moors since he wrote an investigative study about his local moor and the impact local industry and activity was having on it, when he was studying for his GCSE exams. It was only much later as an adult that he discovered what they called their moor was not in fact one at all, but rather a fen - moors receive moisture via rainfall as opposed to fens receiving water via underground springs.

Nothing daunted, he has continued to investigate the phenomenon of moors and their influence on our culture and our psyche. The Sherlock Holmes story of "The Hound Of The Baskervilles" was based around Foxtor Mire and the infamous Dartmoor prison was actually home to French and assorted Napoloeonic allied prisoners in 1808 and to American soldiers from the war of 1812/3.

Many authors and poets have lived, worked and loved the moors include Henry Williamson, the author of "Tarka The Otter", the poet Ted Hughes and his wife Sylvia Plath, as well as the Bronte sisters who lived and wrote on the Haworth moors.

True moors can only occur at high altitude and Atkins  describes the topography, history, literature, customs and notable figures of these areas, including unsolved crimes and how historians, geographers and travellers have viewed moors over the years. We learn of farms in Exmoor which experience heavy rainfall every day from early May through to September with all the difficulties and near tragedies that brings, to the ecological preservation now in place to support those who farm these remote areas as well as the remarkable story of the restoration of Buckfast Abbey and its world famous apiaries.

 From grouse moors and their gamekeepers, tragic floods, Ministry of Defence radomes, artillery ranges (Otterburn), child murders (Saddleworth) and bird-watching (North Yorks Moors), this is a great book which springs surprises on nearly every page.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014


My family will recognise this as an accurate depiction
 of me when anywhere near a bookshop.....
Real Life has been in the way rather a lot 
over the last few weeks, but I am back on my reading schedule again
 and reviews will be posted by the weekend.
Unless I am sidetracked by more bookshops, of course ;-)
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Monday, June 30, 2014

A Mother's Secret

A Mother's Secret

(Book 2 in the Hearts Of The Lancaster Grand Hotel series)

By Amy Clipston

Published by Zondervan, June 3rd, 2014

Carolyn Lapp is a young single Amish mother; her overbearing brother still looks on her as an embarrassment and shame to their extended family and her son Benjamin is a vulnerable teenager being bullied  and set up by his cousins.

When Benjamin seems to get into trouble with a lonely Amish horse breeder named Joshua and has to spend time working for him as recompense, his employer and his mother are thrown into close proximity and all Amos Lapp's plans to find a suitable older widower to agree to a marriage of convenience with his sister seem to go sadly awry, as do those of Joshua's interfering mother Barbie, who is desperate to see Joshua safely married to a girl of her choosing.

 As is to be expected, we run into characters from the first book in the series and find that Hannah, her son and one of her twin daughters are all adjusting well to their new life in the Englisch world - but will she ever be able to salvage her relationship with her one daughter who chose to remain Amish and live with her Amish grandparents?

This is an unusual tale and the feisty and fiery Carolyn certainly is not your typical Amish main character.  The ending was a little predictable and I did wonder how likely it would be that the formidable Amos and Barbie would so meekly turn tail when confronted by Carolyn and Joshua respectively, but it was still a very enjoyable read, with hints of interesting possible plot twists for book 3 in the series!

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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Angels And Saints

Angels and Saints

By Scott Hahn

Published by Image, May 27th, 2014

This is a relatively short book, weighing in at 127 pages in the digital ebook edition I reviewed. It starts with the biblical basis of and references to Jewish sanctity and holiness in the Old Testament and the development of the New Testament concepts of the community of saints, growth in holiness and the call of every baptised Christian to strive for sanctity.

How and why saints now in the Church Triumphant in heaven can and do help those in the Church Militant still on earth, the uses and veneration of relics and the special role of the angels are also examined, before Dr Hahn goes on to describe (albeit fairly briefly) the lives of some of his favourites.

This is a book which will appeal to many Christians who want to know the whys and wherefores of why the Church has saints and how they should be appreciated; although written from a Roman Catholic point of view, only four of the twelve saints are post-Schism which means that Orthodox Christians may also find this of some interest and there is a useful little bibliography of other books the reader may find useful.
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

Cataloging The World

Cataloging the World:

Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age

By Alex Wright

Published by Oxford University Press, June 2014

We are all used to using the internet and indeed for taking it for granted, so much so that sometimes we fail to remember what an amazing and extraordinary resource it is, and to which we have more or less free and untrammelled access.

Yet long before even the first microchip was thought of, there was Paul Otlet - a visionary genius who had the idea (and the intellectual capacity  to carry it out) of a plan to catalogue the entire knowledge of the world and make it easily accessible and widely disseminated.  His ideas, of course, were not for digital distribution of knowledge as we know it, but nonetheless, his idea was truly revolutionary. He saw a future where a simple library catalogue index card would lead to books and journals being published in microform and ultimately to the creation of an analog spider's web of information, where users would access special workstations with viewing screens which would then be connected to a central repository, allowing users to "call up" information on whatever topic interested them.

From the beginning of recorded history and more especially after the advent of the printing press, it had always been a challenge to catalogue, order and be able to find specific pieces of knowledge. As  increasingly large quantities of books were being published throughout the world, the problems became more acute and although  Dewey's famous library classification of books was a fine attempt to bring logic and order,  it had many failings. Topics which were of very  limited interest to the readers, writers and researchers of Dewey's age   were given short shrift and with the rapid advances in technology and science, soon there were to be many, many topics which Dewey had never envisaged.

  It needed a special person indeed to face such a challenge of catologuing the whole world and the exponential rise in published books, journals and documents, and that man was Paul Otlet.  He was convinced that knowledge went hand in hand with the potential for world co-operation and peace and saw his work as benefitting the whole world. He created a vast social network of personal friends, organisations and interested individuals and supporters who shared knowledge  and information freely. His creation of a Universal Bibliography and its associated museum displays, the product of almost fifty years of devoted work and housed at the Palais Mondial in Brussels, was ultimately to be dismantled by German troops in the pursuit of Hitler's dream of utilising the resources of Occupied Europe to create a Nazi university for the Third Reich.

Otlet's dreams had been dashed, and he was to die shortly after the liberation of Brussels in 1944, his work scattered and largely forgotten. It was not until the late 1960s when  a student named Boyd Rayward, who was working towards a doctorate in library science, unearthed references to Otlet and chose to use his work as the subject for his dissertation.  Searching through Brussels,  Rayward found the abandoned and deteriorating remains of Otlet's life's work and set about preserving  and recording as much as he could.

Alex Wright has done a superb  job of bringing Otlet's vision and achievements firmly back into the historical record and assessed his contribution to information technology in its broadest sense. A remarkable look at a truly amazing man.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sous Chef

Sous Chef: 24 Hours In The Kitchen

By Michael Gibney

Published by Canongate Books, April 2014.

Cooking programmes, even documentaries, tend to focus on only a few aspects of how a restaurant kitchen really works (or fails to work, in some shows!). I certainly could not tell you in detail what the duties of a sous chef would be, and over the years I have watched a variety of such programmes. When I started to read this particular book, I was prepared to be entertained and enlightened, and that certainly happened. After all, Gibney worked his way up from being a lowly dishwasher at the age of 16 and knows the restaurant industry through many years of first-hand experience.

The book opens with a detailed kitchen floor-plan and details of the restaurant kitchen Chain of Command, to set the scene for what follows. Chefs squirrel away their favourite supplies and samples from praying eyes and the eager mouths and fingers of their fellow-workers. The fact that baby powder and nappy rash ointment are also squirrelled away for emergencies, along with pain relief and burn ointment for the ever present hazard of burns was an unexpected but honest look at the downside of working in the food industry.

From clothing and shoes to the joys of perfectly balanced knife sets, to the difficulties of keeping food in the best possible condition, Gibney tells it like it really is. There are stresses and strains of working at top speed, with immense precision and under intense pressure to produce the very best food in the fastest possible time, all the while relying on your team of cooks and support staff to enable you to do what you love - cooking food for people who appreciate it as much as you do. The idiosyncratic quirks and tricks of the many individuals he describes made me smile, but what I did not expect was the absolute, poetic beauty and passion of so many of the descriptive passages. This is a man who loves, respects and enjoys experiencing everything about working with food. I never expected to be riveted by a description of filleting fish, but I was!

An absolute joy to read.

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Sunday, June 01, 2014

Under Magnolia

Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir

by Frances Mayes

Published by Crown, April 2014

I credit Frances Mayes' wonderful book "Under The Tuscan Sun" with making me fall in love with Italy as it described Villa Bramasole, the Italian house she and her husband rescued and renovated.  In that book she regularly mentions snippets about her life growing up as a Southern girl; "Under Magnolia" is the fuller story of growing up in Georgia.

Fitzgerald, South Georgia, was a place where there was a  racial segregation and this coloured her early life; one of her staunchest allies in an often unhappy family was Willie Bell, who worked for her parents and cared for her. Her parents had a volatile relationship with each other and with Frances, who could be hit with a switch till she bled. Her father was shot, taking a bullet that was meant for her grandfather by a disgruntled employee, and this affected him profoundly, fuelling his subsequent outburst of anger; Frances vividly describes having to go to the same school as the executed shooter's daughter in their small community.

 Her father died comparatively young, after a long illness which cast a shadow on their family both at the time and afterwards; her feisty mother was most profoundly affected even though his death had been expected for a long time, and Frances' relationship with her changes quite dramatically as she becomes more and more independent of her mother. As her mother drowns her sorrows and financial worries in drink and searches for another husband, Frances devours books and music in equal measure as she finishes high school and looks forward to college days, where she eventually elopes and sets up life as a married woman.

She describes a completely different world from that of her adult academic career and her other home in Italy, that's for sure. From Southern names, food, clothes, the language, houses, the weather - everything is different, foreign, exotic even to this UK woman, and now I have a hankering to visit the South too....

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Knit Your Own Moustache

Knit Your Own Moustache:

Create 20 knit and crochet disguises

By Vicky Eames

Published by Pavilion Books, April 2014

My youngest daughter loves the current fashion for items decorated with moustaches and I initially asked to review this book thinking it would give me ideas on how to whip up a few very basic knitted moustaches for her to stick on folders etc. I did not expect to find that there was so much more in this excellent little book!

Full and easy instructions are given on how to create classic, handlebar and walrus moustaches, the Sven, the Dali and even a Groucho Marx disguise on a stick, complete with glasses,  a colourful Rasta hat, an eye patch, a loopy long sailor's beard, a knitted brown paper bag to put on your head and a blue rinse wig.

Whether you want to crochet your own bandit mask, knit your own animal ears, create a bald head type wig or look like Pippi Longstocking with pigtails, this book is priceless and will show you how :-)

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A Tale Dark And Grimm

A Tale Dark & Grimm

By Adam Gidwitz

Published by a variety of publishers depending on edition, from 2010 onwards.

The title alone should give you a clue what sort of book this is. It is not a cute and fluffy, heavily edited and sanitised version of fairy stories suitable for reading to little children....oh no, indeed NOT.
This is filled with acerbic asides and commentaries which sound exactly as if they had come out of the mouth of an intelligent and sassy kid, and had me chuckling from the very first page.

The first story is "Faithful Johannes", which tells us about the ugly but faithful servant Johannes, who had served the old king who was grandfather to Hansel and Gretel, and how the new king came to meet and marry his beautiful wife. This is essential scene-setting for the bloodthirsty adventures which will befall the intrepid Hansel and Gretel as they rampage through the kingdom and the pages of this brilliantly clever book, the first in a trilogy.

The author, Adam Gidwitz, is an experienced former teacher and it shows. From the length of the stories, the clever asides and their suitably appealingly gruesome  yet child-suitable content, this is a book older children will love reading themselves and which parents will enjoy reading out loud to slightly younger children who are made of stern stuff. It won't appeal or be suitable for all children, but mine would have loved this when they were younger. Ideal for children around ten years old.

There is an extensive website, complete with videos, here.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Obesity Paradox

The Obesity Paradox: When Thinner Means Sicker and Heavier Means Healthier

By Carl J. Lavie, MD with Kristin Loberg

Published by Hudson Street Press, April 2014

The author of this book, Dr. Carl Lavie, is an eminent cardiologist and educator, well-known and respected in his field, and also a keen runner.

 When he noticed some unusual patterns about health and obesity were being revealed by well-conducted medical research, even though these patterns were diametrically opposed to the prevailing medical orthodoxy, he felt compelled to investigate them and make them more widely-known, knowing full well that he was setting himself against mainstream medical opinion. Further research, by himself and many others from all over the world, has continued to prove him right.

Having a low or "normal" BMI is certainly not guaranteed to  protect you from major ill-health or premature death, and those who may be carrying some excess weight, although statistically more likely to develop diseases such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, are actually likely to cope better with these illnesses and less likely to die prematurely from them. The most at-risk group of experiencing serious illness and premature death are those who are thin, but also physically inactive, contrary to what the media would have us believe! 

Those at either of the extreme ends of the weight spectrum are at significant risk of ill-health; this book will not only tell you why, but also show you *how* to protect yourself as much as possible, whether you are currently well or have been diagnosed with a health problem. Improving our physical fitness and levels of daily activity is by far the easiest and most protective thing we can do for our long-term health, although interestingly, excessive exercise can  also be as bad for our health as being extremely obese. Dr Lavie explains that it is enough to concentrate on developing cardio-respiratory fitness through very moderate amounts of exercise, amounting to 20 -30 minutes of brisk walking, swimming or gentle running four or five times a week and avoiding prolonged periods of time sitting down.

Rather a medical detective story, I found this book engaging, absorbing and truly fascinating. It has earned a permanent place on my book shelves.....

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Zombie Film: From White Zombie to World War Z

The Zombie Film: From White Zombie to World War Z

By Alain Silver & James Ursini

Published by Applause Theatre & Cinema Books

April 17th, 2014

This is an absolute "must have" book for anyone who has an interest in the history and production of films in general or of zombie films in particular.

The authors are well-known for their many collaborative works about a variety of genres, especially film noir, vampire, horror and gangster movies, and despite its ghoulish topic, this book is a revelation from start to finish.  The role of the zombie in folklore, culture, literature and history is examined from its roots in West Africa and Haiti, before starting to assess the place of zombie films in cinematography. I knew about the 1932 film "The Mummy", starring the mummified Egyptian King Imhotep, which was a precursor to the zombie genre, but the first true zombie film was called "White Zombie" and was also produced in 1932 - much, much earlier than I would have ever guessed.

Fully illustrated throughout, including movie stills, cinema posters, paintings, drawings and sketches from a variety of sources including manga, anime and comic books, zombie operas, video games and mash-ups, this book pulls together a wide-ranging history of zombie portrayals to produce a superb resource for media students, cinema students and film fans alike.  I was particularly interested in the way that women zombies and women zombie-fighters are both portrayed; there has been a distinct culture shift from women being simply helpless victims to active protagonists and heroines as the genre developed.

 From black and white trail-blazers to the shoestring budget films of the seventies and eighties, covering foreign language movies and the most modern Hollywood blockbuster movies with immense budgets and the full extent of digital technology/ CGI special effects, from vegan zombies to Nazi zombies and just about everything else one could imagine in between, ending with a comprehensive "filmography", there is something for everybody to with an interest in the genre to enjoy in this comprehensive book.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

501 Amazing Uses for Salt, Vinegar, Baking Soda, Olive Oil and Lemons

501 Amazing Uses for Salt, Vinegar, Baking Soda, Olive Oil and Lemons

By Laura M. Westdale

Published by Thunder Bay Press, May 1st, 2014

This is a book which is a little difficult to review fairly.

 There was certainly much information which I did not know, such as the fact that baking soda/bicarbonate of soda is actually a naturally occurring substance which can be mined, although it is generally manufactured these days instead. Some of the hints and tips were new to me, but equally, there were some which are well-known to anyone who comes from a practically-minded or thrift-minded family, or who follows such topics on Pinterest or Tumblr, for instance.

Having said that, it is an interesting collection of ideas; chapter one relates to general household cleaning, chapter two covers recipes and tips for cooking and the subsequent clean-up of the kitchen and cooking utensils,  chapter three deals with personal hygiene, health and beauty topics. Chapter five is possibly my favourite and is all about art, craft and science uses of the four staple ingredients, including growing salt crystals, making salt dough, dissolving eggshells, making natural plastic from milk and white vinegar and much more.

I was a little disappointed that Hints 272 through 294 are all single sentences telling you to add lemon zest to a food to enhance flavour, and there is a degree of repetition where the topics overlap, but all in all, this is a useful compendium which will certainly be useful in our house.

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Friday, May 02, 2014

Don't Dangle Your Participle

Don't Dangle Your Participle

By Vanita Oelschlager

Illustrated by Mike DeSantis

Published by Vanita Books

May 1st, 2014

Grammar lessons can be hard going for teachers, children and parents alike; anything which makes grammar  more understandable and more enjoyable has to be a good thing in my opinion.

Participles and their correct usage are featured in this short but fun book, crammed with humorous colour illustrations depicting how a dangling or wrongly placed participle can completely change the meaning of a sentence, with some very funny results indeed.....

I enjoyed every page of this book and hope that other grammatical constructs will get their own titles in due course :-)

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Adaptogens In Medical Herbalism

Adaptogens In Medical Herbalism

By Donald R. Yance

Published by Healing Arts Press

September 15th, 2013

The author's extensive experience as a master medical herbalist has refined and honed his techniques and expertise, and this book is the fruit of his twenty five years of work and study.  He uses four main techniques to optimise healing: herbal formulations, carefully selected nutritional supplements, improved diet and encouraging a generally healthier lifestyle, including reducing stress.

The first part of the book covers metabolism and its effect on aging, the healing response, food and weight management, exercise, the role of the mind-body-spirit relationship  and specific body systems: bone health, the endocrine system, cardiovascular health, maintaining a healthy brain and the possible use of adaptogens in cancer treatments. 

Some herbs/supplements/foodstuffs are particularly suited to helping the  body to re-balance itself and these are known as adaptogens; they form the keystone of the book and just over sixty are extensively explored in individual monographs, along with their specific uses and dosages, in the second half of the book.

It is a large book, with 675 pages in the PDF version I reviewed, and there is a *lot* of science as well as many, many references to medical journal articles and studies. The book is clear and well-written but is probably not really suitable for the faint-hearted or total novice in this field unless he/she is prepared to do some serious study. Such study would be well worth the time and effort, however, and I will certainly be buying a hard copy for my own home library. 

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Lieutenant Don't Know

The Lieutenant Don't Know: One Marine's Story Of

Warfare And Combat Logistics In Afghanistan

By Jeff Clement

Published in the UK & USA by Casemate Publishers,

 March 7th, 2014

Although I have read a few accounts of modern-day warfare and the challenges soldiers face in conflict, for some reason it had never occurred to me to wonder just how it was that they had equipment and supplies no matter where they were in the sphere of conflict.  Combat Logistics was not a term I had even heard of, let alone knew anything about, until I read this absorbing book.

Jeff Clement joined the US Marines and became a logistician, making sure that the chain of supply remained fully functioning and intact so that all necessary equipment and supplies were in the right place at the right time. His extensive training in the USA was to prove vital for his work when he had to ensure the supply of items for the use of both American and British troops in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

The Afghan terrain was rugged, brutal and naturally dangerous; added to this was the determination of hostile forces to do everything in their power to destroy or at least impede the progress of supply convoys. No matter how carefully they planned their convoys, checked for explosive devices and hazards, each convoy was a risky undertaking and there were many confrontations and injuries. And still the front-line troops needed their supplies, no matter what.

 It was an essential, stressful, difficult and  frustrating role, but one without which no battles could ever be fought.Those providing Combat Logistics required initiative, sound common sense, minute attention to detail, the habit of meticulous planning, a huge amount of background knowledge about the items needed and used by the troops and a phenomenal ability to think outside the box; they had to be prepared for anything and everything and to be surprised by nothing.

This is a remarkable look at the unsung heroes who provide the backup and support for the front-line troops, and whose work is often equally dangerous. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

American Saint

American Saint

The Life of Elizabeth Seton

By Joan Barthel

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, March 2014

This book is about about the life of Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born canonised Roman Catholic saint, but it is no hagiography.

St Elizabeth Ann Seton was born in 1774 and dying at only 47 years of age. In her short lifespan she married, was widowed, brought up her five children and set up the first Catholic school as well as  founding an active religious order, the Sisters of Charity. 

She was only too aware of the social conventions and pressures upon women at that time, but she chose to convert to Roman Catholicism, knowing full well she would be ostracised and mocked by many of her family, friends and social circle for so doing. This was a sacrifice she made willingly, trusting God to guide and lead her.

The life of St Elizabeth Seton is fascinating but it grieves me (and I am not RC!) to see this Saint being suborned as a poster child for a group with whom she would find very little in common. The life, faith and importance of "Mother Seton" have been interpreted through an entirely modern mindset and subjected to  an agenda of political correctness and ultra-feminism.  Joan Barthel, in her introduction, references the  beliefs of  the vocally strident American Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose passion for "reform"  has put them perilously close to espousing ideas which would risk putting them beyond the pale as far as traditional Catholic doctrine is concerned. St Elizabeth Seton was willing to struggle to follow what she believed was the will of God for her, but she still accepted the doctrine and Magisterium of the Church.

St Elizabeth Seton certainly understood the importance and true function of the religious life in the church; I am not convinced that the author truly  does and sadly, I cannot in conscience recommend this book to my Catholic friends.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Pieces Of Someday

Pieces Of Someday

By Jan Vallone

Published by Gemelli Press, November 2013

How does a Catholic lawyer of Italian-American descent end up teaching in a small Yeshiva?

Jan Vallone's father was a highly ambitious lawyer who wanted her to become a professional, which to his mind was either a doctor or a lawyer. He certainly did not want her to be a teacher like her mother! Pushed and prodded, she ended up eventually becoming a lawyer, but then she was the wrong sort of lawyer for her father's taste.

 When her adopted daughter Cristin struggled to make progress at school, Jan investigated becoming a teacher, but was deemed not qualified enough to undertake teacher training; nevertheless, by a series of chances, she ended up becoming a substitute teacher at a Jewish Yeshiva and a whole new life began for her.

As she poured out everything she knew and loved about writing, she learnt an enormous amount about Judaism and life from her students as well as gaining insight into her own Catholic faith, her life and marriage. She learnt, as well, just what it means to be a true writer and a true teacher, no matter how difficult things might become - and they became very difficult indeed.

This was a very pleasant read indeed; part autobiographical and part travelogue about her family's roots in Italy. I particularly loved the literary, Christian and Jewish quotations  scattered in the text to mark the themes of different parts, as well as the "discovering your vocation workshop" at the end.

The author has an excellent website at

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Thursday, April 10, 2014



By Chris Ryan

Published by Random House, April 10th, 2014

Chris Ryan is well known for his adult SAS fiction and his remarkable autobiographical account of his mission in the Gulf War from which he barely escaped with his life; he is also a prolific writer of great young teenage fiction.

Raphael and Gabriella are expert agents, charged with teaching and training the orphaned fifteen year old Zak Darke for a classified government agency represented by the mysterious "Michael".

Zak has survived several perilous missions for which his cover as a teenager was necessary. Once more he is on a mission, this time to South Africa to see if his one-time friend turned enemy, Cruz Martinez - who had been presumed dead - is actually still alive and involved in drug smuggling.

What looks like a simple and straightforward reconnaissance of a toy shop goes badly wrong and Zak is captured by Cruz's gang, forcing Gabriella and Raphael to find Zak's computer hacker genius friend Malcolm in order to track down Zak and join in the chase for Martinez across the African rain-forests, encountering deadly hostile wildlife and confronting a dangerous gang of child soldiers as they do so.....

 Action-packed, exciting and a compelling read from start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed this as much as I enjoy Chris Ryan's adult fiction.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Harry's War

 Harry's War:

The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater

Edited by Jon Cooksey & David Griffiths

Published by Ebury/Random House UK, October 2013

August 4th of 2014 will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, the war that was believed would be the war to end all wars,  and which almost destroyed an entire generation of men who fought in the four years of bitter armed conflict.

We are far enough removed from that time for it to be almost impossible to truly comprehend just how terrible it was, and it is perhaps only when we are able to catch glimpses of how it appeared to those who actually experienced it that it becomes real for us in our own generation.

Harry Drinkwater was rejected when he first applied to join the army. He was all of half an inch too short to meet the criteria, but he persevered until he found a battalion that was prepared to overlook that half an inch; he left his home in Stratford upon Avon to become a soldier with the 2nd Birmingham City Battalion in October of 1914. After basic training, he was set to France in November 1915, to the Somme, where he had a baptism of fire. It was to be fourteen long months before he slept in a bed again.

For Harry and his companions, the war meant that  barns, rough billets, tents and the vile, muddy trenches were to be their home and rats and vermin their uncomfortably near neighbours as they saw their friends and colleagues die around them. Exhaustion, privation, lack of food and clean water, harsh military discipline which saw infractions punishable by execution added to the horror of being surrounded by rotting corpses and the ever present danger of death from incoming sniper fire and mortar shells.

 Harry broke the rules and secretly kept a diary of what his war was like; this was in itself an offence for which he could have been court-martialled.  The delights of actually being able to have a proper wash and a shave after a week pale into insignificance as the war progresses and he has to scrape the trench mud off his hands and clothes with a knife and ends up wearing the same clothes for over a month before the bliss of finally being able to get clean ones and bathe properly. Cold rations and heavy rain are frequent companions, making tots of rum both a welcome treat and a morale-booster.

  Harry saw active service in Arras, the Somme, Passchendaele, French Flanders and even Italy before the war ended and although he was wounded twice, he was one of the fortunate few who survived. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery (he had completed a trench raid although badly wounded) and was an officer by the time the war ended; he remained in the army, being sent to Italy and then to Egypt before being finally discharged on medical grounds with a pension in May of 1920.

This is the remarkable story of a remarkable man, who willingly did what he felt was his duty to his King and Country, like so many of his compatriots. Major Harry Drinkwater's spellbinding diary speaks for the many equally brave souls who did not survive that terrible war and is a tribute to all who served.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s:

Why Don’t They Do It Like They Used To?

By David Roche

Published by University Press of Mississippi / Jackson

January 22nd, 2014

This is outside my normal remit of book reviews, I must admit, but one of my daughters is doing a course on Media Studies and as she is learning things, she is sharing them with me and I too am becoming fascinated with how and why films/TV shows are made they way they are.

It is popularly assumed, particularly in the tabloid press, that our culture is becoming more and more disturbed and disturbing with each successive year, with violence and mayhem infecting the general populace to the detriment of society as a whole. This may not be the case; David Roche carefully examines the types of films made in the 1970s to those being made more recently to ascertain what has changed in the media industries and why.  It would not have occurred to me to investigate the political and economical milieu of the era in which films were made to see what effect that would have, and I found this a particularly absorbing aspect of the book. The differences between types of remakes was particularly enlightening to me.

This is a scholarly book, naturally based heavily on media studies theories and encompassing sociology, psychology and anthropological underpinnings, but it is surprisingly accessible to a general audience too. Amongst the topics covered are text, subtext and context, the functional/dysfunctional American nuclear family, race, ethnicity and class, gender and sexual stereotyping and just what really constitutes horror and terror, whether it be masks or monsters.

I found it an absorbing read, even though I have only seen a fairly small number of the films and remakes it studies and references. I have very vivid memories of being truly scared by some films I watched in my late teens/early twenties, and it is fascinating to discover just why they had the impact on me that they did.

 This remarkable and compellingly readable book  will be an important addition to the library of Media Studies students and would be a source of unending interest to anyone who has an interest in sociology and/or anthropology, and as well as those who enjoy horror films as a genre.

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An Amish Garden

An Amish Garden

Four Amish Novellas

By Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller, Tricia Goyer & Vannetta Chapman.

All four of the novellas in this collection are connected by gardens and gardening, and this tried and tested format succeeds once more.

Rooted in Love by Beth Wiseman tells the story of Rosemary and Saul, who had been a courting couple for a brief period when Rosemary was sixteen. She is now 21 and like her, Saul is still single, although he shows his continuing interest in her as well as his regard, by his regular requests that she would consider going out with him again.

When Saul and her father have an unfortunate accident which leaves her father unable to work for a while, Saul decides to make amends by overhauling the family's long neglected vegetable garden. As the story unfolds and her widowed father seems to be developing a love interest of his own, we gradually find out exactly why Rosie broke off her courtship with Saul. Can she overcome her anxieties and give her relationship with Saul another chance, and can she come to terms with her father developing a new life for himself?

Flowers for Rachael by Kathleen Fuller introduces us to Rachael Bontrager, currently helping her grandfather and lovingly tending her garden. Her neighbour Gideon is handsome, shy and eager to court her, but unsure of how to start, until he takes advice from his sister, Hannah Lynn. Soon, Rachael is intrigued and baffled by the mysterious admirer who leaves beautiful flowers and attached short messages of regard at various places on her grandfather's land, but will these tokens of esteem be enough to make their friendship develop into something more?

Seeds of Love by Tricia Goyer
Eli Plank is an adventurer at heart. As a young lad living in Florida, he loved to read the stories in the Amish newspaper, The Budget, about those brave souls who set out to build an Amish community at West Kootenai in Montana and at long last, he was there, working and also writing the stories of his newly adopted community for The Budget for others to read and enjoy. Excited children and a bear cub lead him to meet Sadie Chupp, who has recently moved to the area after a family tragedy and she is determined to successfully raise tomatoes from her late mother's precious heirloom seeds. She has to decide if she should accept Eli's help and advice, or may there be an ulterior motive behind his kindness...

Where Healing Blooms by Vannetta Chapman

This was an interesting one to read. Emma Hochstetter is widowed, and lives with her beloved but frail mother-in-law. Her neighbour Danny is someone she has known since her childhood and it once looked as if they might one day get married, but Danny had left to travel and explore, only to return not too long before the death of Emma's husband. Their friendship endured, and when it turns out that a young runaway Amish lad is living secretly in Emma's barn, she and Danny confront him together.  Other problems occur in the community and when secrets from her mother-in-law's past come to light, it seems that there is a definite direction developing for the rest of Emma's life which will involve both gardening and healing, and maybe also love.

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