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Book Review: “The Agony Column,” by Earl Derr Biggers

3234828Genre: mystery; suspense; intrigue

Plot Summary: Geoffrey West is a young American staying in a rented flat in London when he meets another fellow American—the pretty daughter of a senator who is touring with her father. The year is 1914 and it is the hot month of July. Talk of war is in the air as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand makes headlines. But there is another column in the newspaper that catches both Americans’ attention: the personal notices in the Agony Column. As Geoffrey communicates to Marian via this modern-day version of Facebook, he delivers an exciting narrative of mystery, murder and suspense that may threaten his life.

My Book Review: I found this vintage publication on Librivox and found it to be a short but cute read. Chapters are long, but the plot moves right along and it didn’t take long to finish. All of the fun melodramatic elements of a dime novel are present in the tale: murder, spies, ladies in black veils, strangers at a restaurant, espionage, cloak and dagger, shadow-filled alleys…

This wasn’t the classic of the century, but it made for some good entertainment. It certainly had a couple of huge plot twists towards the end that kept me on the edge of my seat! (Talk about a way to keep a lady’s attention!) If you’re in the mood for something light, fun, and adventure-filled, you may enjoy this WWI-era story.  I know that for myself, I plan on reading at least one other book by this author!

*This book was also published under a different title: The Second-Floor Mystery.  I believe it was turned into an early film by this name.

*To listen to the Librivox audiobook for free, click here.

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Posted by on October 25, 2016 in Book Reviews

 

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Dear Masterpiece

SPOILER ALERT!: The following public letter to Masterpiece reveals some spoilers from the tv series, “Downton Abbey,” but contains nothing from the current Season 6.  No offense is intended for those who find redeeming, personal enjoyment from said miniseries.  These are completely my own opinions, based on my own reactions from the show.

Dear Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theatre),

MV5BMTg2ODI2NTUwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTMwMzU0MjE@__V1_UY268_CR31,0,182,268_AL_Like a lot of period drama lovers out there, I love certain aspects of Downton Abbey. The music, the costumes, the drama, the romance, the props, the elegance of the time era…!  It makes this romantic-at-heart swoon.  Truth be told, I was hesitant about watching it when it first came out, because I had my suspicions about it.  I had heard about certain plot elements that went against my spiritual convictions.

However, I decided to give it a try and took the plunge into Season 1. I was able to gloss over some of the parts I winced at (Thomas’ love affair with another man; Lady Mary’s tryst with Mr. Pamuk).  I told myself that Thomas’ story didn’t last long, and Lady Mary’s actions were not celebrated.  So I concentrated on all the lovely details of the episodes.

I determined not to watch Season 2 when I saw the trailers. It seemed to contain a lot of sleeping around and I didn’t feel I could watch the new series with any real pleasure.  But then I changed my mind and decided to flip the channel during sex scenes.  I was glued to the dramatic storyline.

Season 3 was by far my most favorite of all. The acting was superb, my emotions were engaged with every episode, I cared about the characters, and I didn’t have to worry about fast forwarding.  I was highly looking forward to Season 4!

I know many people were upset at the unfortunate turn of events centering around Anna. I, however, was not one of them, since bad things do happen to good people in this fallen world.  I’ve heard Joanne Froggatt’s acting was exceptional throughout this season.  But I decided not to view it, mainly due to the fact that I am very sensitive by nature and didn’t feel I could handle the heavy theme.  I kept up on what happened through the season though, by reading the descriptions of the episodes.  Suddenly having the drama stripped of all it’s heady “frills” and just reading about its descriptions made me realize something.  I could conceive no good that would come of me viewing the rest of Downton Abbey.  Tom has a dalliance with another woman after his being widowed, something that just doesn’t feel true to his character (even if he was drunk).  Viewers are to feel in favor of Mr. Gregson divorcing his mentally disabled wife and taking up with Edith; eventually they have an affair and she becomes pregnant.

0434044092ffbf757733ca74e19be183It didn’t stop there. Season 5 went on to have one character after another heading to the bedroom, without accurately portraying the hurt and pain these people have deep inside as a result of giving themselves away so flippantly.  I haven’t watched another Downton Abbey episode since then.  Will I change my mind about watching it?  We’ll see, but I highly doubt it.  I’m sure there are bits I’d still love about the show inter-sprinkled among all the offensive parts.  But by now, the sexual perverseness far outweighs the glorious costumes for me.  I’ve stuck through movies or tv shows before that weren’t completely clean, but either I was only committed for 2 hrs and could easily fast forward, or there were more redeeming elements than the occasional “oops! Close my eyes!”.  I cannot say that of Downton Abbey.  It really has become a glorified soap opera.  The heady glamor of the show made me feel sucked into rooting for the characters’ debauched behavior.  I’m not a prude.

Masterpiece, over the years I’ve highly enjoyed many films on PBS. But it has increasingly been leaving lots to be desired.  I don’t appreciate movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic novels adding in gay characters to make it more ‘modern’ or other period dramas becoming ‘edgier’ in order to push your liberal agenda.  It just is not true that people don’t want to watch bonnet dramas anymore.  If it is an excellent picture, with characters viewers can identify with, we will be with you.  Classic works of literature are classics for a reason, and they’ve done well enough for a hundred years or more without the graphic bedroom scenes.  I’m not a prude; I just don’t prefer to watch it.  I would look forward to seeing more Masterpiece films and miniseries featuring clean adaptions of classic novels (preferably ones that aren’t remakes of the remakes), instead of ones that are glitzy and glamorous but substantially hollow.

Please give us more wonderful content, and I will be a loyal viewer.

Sincerely,

booklearner

What do you think of Masterpiece’s recent films? Share your opinions below!

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2016 in Movie Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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Book Review: Whisper on the Wind, by Maureen Lang

Genre: romance; Christian Inspirational; historical fiction

Plot Summary: WWI is a difficult time for Isabelle Lassone to be in love.  Nevertheless she has loved Edward since the time they first met as children growing up in Belgium. Now, she sneaks back to her occupied home country in order to rescue him and his family. But she isn’t prepared for the starving conditions in war-ravaged Brussels. Even her own home is billeted to a German officer. Edward isn’t the same person Isa remembers, and he isn’t about to leave the country he loves or La Libre Belgique, an underground newspaper run by anonymous patriots. When the secret project draws Isa in as well, how will she keep her feelings separate from her patriotic cause?

My Book Review: I’ve been a WWI buff long before Downton Abbey was a cult tv show. I used to bemoan the fact there were few stories set during this fascinating time era, but since the popularity of Julian Fellowes’ brainchild many Great War stories have exploded into being. Hence, Maureen Lang’s series caught my eye.

When I first picked up this book, I didn’t realize it was the second in The Great War Series. Some characters would have made a little more sense if I had started with the first book, but for the most part Whisper on the Wind can stand on it’s own.

The book keeps a subdued, grey tone throughout, in keeping with the angst of the period. To be honest, at first I had a hard time keeping interest in the story and the characters felt unlikable. But about halfway through, the plot picks up which improves the characters. Then the story builds to an exciting climax, leaving one doubting whether the story will turn out well.

I expected this to be a run of the mill romance novel in which the whole story revolves around a prelude to a kiss. Fortunately this was not the case, and I didn’t even feel that the plot hinges on the romance itself. Rather, the circumstances and how the characters grow are the stuff the book is based on. In fact, I ended up enjoying the romance between secondary characters more than the main stars of the story. You don’t have to worry about edgy romance in this novel. It’s all kept clean and gentle.

Some of the dialogue did start to feel a little too much like a cut-and-dried Sunday School hour. It felt forced to fit the formula rather than the spiritual lessons organically growing out of the characters’ hearts. But the message is brief and not shoved down readers’ throats.

World War I, German infantry marching into Brussels, Belgium, 1914

I really think the author has a talent for capturing the feeling of gut-twisting fear these characters experience. Like end-of-the-world, no-hope sort of fear. These scenes were very well written and I felt I was right there through it all. Another thing I liked was that she describes the beautiful clothes the characters wear, especially the richly saturated colors. Many authors leave these details out of the picture, but I always enjoy my imagination being helped along a bit!

This was my first book by Maureen Lang, and I don’t think it will be my last. But I’m not certain I will continue reading the rest of the series. If you’re in the mood for a gentle romance set during a dramatic time period, this book should peak your interest. Be a bit patient: the plot will pick up about ¾ of the way through and quickly carry you to the end!

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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Movie Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles

d5c8d3cb575828170ae870f100d89ba7Based on the book by Agatha Christie.

(See my book review here.)

Version: 1990; David Suchet

Genre: WWI; mystery

Plot Summary: When Captain Hastings visits his friend John Cavendish at the family estate in Styles, he has no inkling of the tragic events that will soon follow.  Mrs. Inglethorpe, the family matriarch, is seized with a fit in the middle of the night and dies from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning.  Who had a motive for murdering her?  Was it one of her sons, hoping to benefit from the will?  Her second husband 20 years her junior?  Her daughter-in-law, Mary, who knows her husband is having an affair?

My Review: I recently read Agatha’s Christie’s first mystery novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles and was interested to see the movie.  For some reason, the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series did not film Christie’s mysteries in the order they were published.  I’m not sure why, but this particular episode appears in the first episode of Season 3.  This is odd, since in the book Hastings (on leave from war duty in WWI) meets the detective (who is a Belgian refugee) in England after years of no communication.  But in the tv series, they’ve already solved several mysteries together.

As always, David Suchet played Hercule Poirot to perfection.  I cannot imagine anyone else being able to portray this famous Belgian detective any more convincingly.  I also enjoyed Hugh Fraser as Poirot’s sidekick, Hastings.  Unfortunately, I felt that most of the other characters were miscast, as they didn’t look like how I imagined them.  Be prepared for one of the characters from the book to be left out entirely.  Acting is somewhat stilted, as well.

This mystery wasn’t among my favorite classic Christie novels, so I wasn’t surprised to be a little bored with the movie.  The story was predictable and my mom even guessed the culprit well before the end.

I would say this mystery is due for a remake (as long as Suchet plays the detective!).  Nearly all the Poirot mysteries have been filmed in the series, it having taken approx. 25 years to get them all to screen.  By now, the first episodes in the series feel outdated and they feel a little lackluster.  However, one plus is that they aren’t as gory as the later episodes.

This review sounds like it was a terrible movie, but it wasn’t.  There wasn’t too much to worry about concerning language or bedroom scenes (the affair was implied rather than shown).  It just wasn’t fireworks, which is perhaps why they decided not to start off Season 1, Episode 1 with it.

 
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Posted by on August 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews

 

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Book Review: The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie

816084Genre: mystery

Plot Summary: When Captain Hastings visits his friend John Cavendish at the family estate in Styles, he has no inkling of the tragic events that will soon follow.  Mrs. Inglethorpe, the family matriarch, is seized with a fit in the middle of the night and dies from an apparent case of strychnine poisoning.  Who had a motive for murdering her?  Was it one of her sons, hoping to benefit from the will?  Her second husband 20 years her junior?  Her daughter-in-law, Mary, who is obviously having an affair?  The mysterious foreigner, Dr. Bauerstein, who seems to turn up at odd moments?  This mystery is the first in the Hercule Poriot series, and the first by famous mystery writer, Agatha Christie (published 1920).

My Book Review:  The nice thing about Agatha Christie’s novels is that they are all pretty much standalone stories even if they belong to one of her detective-series.  I’ve read some of the Poirot mysteries before, but I thought it would be nice to go back and start reading them in order.

This wasn’t my favorite Christie mystery, to be honest.  It had a clever ending, but for much of the book I felt sort of bored.  It just lacked something, though I can’t put my finger on it.  I guess it just didn’t have the atmosphere that I enjoyed while reading Ngaio Marsh’s first mystery, A Man Lay Dead.  Actually the two mysteries sort of resembled each other in plot structure, which is interesting.  Although Marsh’s debut had it’s faults, I think I enjoyed reading that one much better than this one.  Then again, maybe if I hadn’t read the two back to back I might have a different impression, but there it is!

This book did include the usual cast of different characters and lots of dialogue, which I always love.  I think that if a person wanted to try out Agatha Christie for the first time, it might be better to start with a different book to really get an idea of Christie’s talent as a mystery writer.  (Personally I would recommend Why Didn’t They Ask Evans or Crooked House.)  But it was interesting to learn a little more about Poirot’s background (ie, what he’s doing in England instead off Belgium?), and if you’re a completist, you won’t want to skip this first in the series.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review: “The Secret Rooms,” by Catherine Bailey

18079634Genre: mystery; non-fiction; WWI

Plot Summary: [from goodreads.com]  “After the Ninth Duke of Rutland, one of the wealthiest men in Britain, died alone in a cramped room in the servants’ quarters of Belvoir Castle on April 21, 1940, his son and heir ordered the room, which contained the Rutland family archives, sealed. Sixty years later, Catherine Bailey became the first historian given access. What she discovered was a mystery: The Duke had painstakingly erased three periods of his life from all family records—but why? As Bailey uncovers the answers, she also provides an intimate portrait of the very top of British society in the turbulent days leading up to World War I.”

My Book Review: I rarely pick up bookpage, and when I do I am always reminded of why I usually don’t read it (there aren’t many of their recommendations of books that I would want to read). But occasionally I do come across a nonfiction book or two that catches my eye, and The Secret Rooms was one of these. At first I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest time in reading a 60 chapter non fiction book cover to cover if it wasn’t going to be as interesting as it was cracked up to be. But I was wrong.

I’m listening to the theme music from Downton Abbey, and there’s a reason for that. If you are a lover of that famous miniseries, you’ll probably like this book! The blurb on the back cover says it reads like an Agatha Christie, but I disagree. It’s more like Nancy Drew meets Downton Abbey.

This book was SO hard to put down, and I often don’t say that. I found myself mesmerized all through breakfast and picking it up to read a page in my spare moments. I kept telling my mom the newest part of the story that I had read, so she heard it in episodic installments.

When author Catherine Bailey set out to write a fiction novel based on real life people who lived through WWI, she decided to do research at the archives of Belvoir Castle. She already knew plenty of WWI history, so when she discovered missing info. in an otherwise meticulously kept family library, her curiostiy took hold and a whole different book project began. This non-fiction work is the result of her findings.

Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall

Every chapter leaves you on the edge of your seat. One question leads to another even more mysterious. Dukes, Duchesses, a haunted castle, lies in a chapel, gold dusted letters, ciphers, rumors, mysterious illnesses…

I can’t believe all the work and minute research the author went to put together the missing pieces of the puzzle and make this story as complete as she could. It was an amazing story of a sad family in desperate times. The story of the Manners family is one of Dysfunction with a captial ‘D.’ I won’t give away any spoilers, but I kept thinking that this was one twisted family living without the light and peace of God in their lives, especially the mother.

There is one thing I felt disappointed about and that is that there were 3 ‘mysteries’ (or, gaps of missing info in the family archives) that the author set out to solve. She did, to the best of her ability but the first two didn’t make a whole lot of sense of why these events had been kept so secret. I’ve read complaints that the mysteries weren’t very exciting once discovered, and I could see where one could make that case. However, the book was so much fun to read anyway, that I didn’t much mind. The actions of some of the real life players in this family drama were certainly unbelievable. It was the process of reading an intriguing true-life mystery that was the most fun.  I also appreciated  that a goodly portion of the book is dedicated to pictures, some of them slightly eerie, which definitely gave some visual context to what I was reading.

If you’re in for a blizzard, or a few days of sick leave, this one is for you! It’s one of those good reads that I lamented nearing the end of.

 
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Posted by on January 24, 2015 in Book Reviews

 

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Book Review: The Amethyst Heart, by Penelope Stokes

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-amethyst-heart-penelope-j-stokes/1112473641?ean=9781595540539=1=9781595540539Genre: Christian fiction; contemporary; historical fiction; 1800’s; WWI; WWII

Plot Summary: A story revolves around an amethyst heart shaped brooch, surrounded by pearls with one missing.  When Amethyst Noble celebrates her 93rd birthday with her son’s family, she is saddened to be told he is planning on forcing her to leave her lifelong home to go to a nursing home.  Suspecting ulterior motives, Miss Amethyst is not about to leave her 150 year old grand Southern style house with it’s rich history to the mercy of her mercenary son.  Focusing on her young great-granddaughter, she passes on to the next generation the story of their ancestral and spiritual legacy, and shares her own life with her as well.

My Review:  Years ago, my aunt recommended a book she thought I’d enjoy called, “The Blue Bottle Club,” by Penelope Stokes.  I always carried that title around with me, even though I have yet to read it.  But I discovered other titles by the same author that looked equally good, so when I found “The Amethyst Heart” at the thrift store, I knew I wanted to add it to my bookcase.

I have to say I enjoyed the way this book was written.  The story is not just the story of one person, though through telling the stories of her ancestors, Amethyst tells the story of herself.  If you’ve done any amount of research on your family history, you will find that in learning about your genealogical past, you learn about yourself—where you belong, where you come into the picture, whom you take after.  This is because we do not live in a vacuum, nor do we emanate from one.  We are born of parents, whether we ever know them or not, and are greatly affected by the role models around us, whether good or not so good.

I loved how Amethyst’s story takes us from the pre-Civil War slavery era in the deep south to post WWI to the Civil Rights movement in the late 1940’s, yet always bringing us back to contemporary times and how the past results in her present.  From a storytelling standpoint, this keeps the reader interested and wondering how the characters ended up in the present circumstances.

Choosing Paths by ~Andrea-ReyesThis book offers a lot of good food for thought.  Yes, people are greatly influenced by the situations, role models, and atmosphere they grow up in.  But that isn’t the be all-end all.  As Amethyst tells Little Am, we can choose for ourselves which path we will follow, who we will become.  Abe had wonderful parents who loved and cared for him, yet chose to go his own selfish route, ending in misery.  Amethyst did not have strong parents to look up to, yet chose for herself to have models of godly people around her.  And even though Conrad had a strong mother who tried to teach him what was right and good, he still decided to follow the influence of his grandfather and peers.

“We’re not born in a vacuum, child.  We’re the product of our genetic environment, our influences.  And although I don’t quite comprehend it myself, I’m convinced that somehow we can be affected by the spiritual legacy left to us by ancestors whose names we’ve never even heard.”

Grandmother & Granddaughter ... I would give anything to hold my Grandmother's hand again.I think it is so wonderful Amethyst shares her wisdom with her only hope for the future (her great-granddaughter).  In the beginning of the story, the grandmother writes Little Am off as being a type of “teenage mutant.”  But as she invests her time and caring into this young girl, the two begin to connect and understand each other.  I hear so many older people today (sometimes even in the church) imply that young folks are in their own alien world and not worth the trouble to spend their energy on.  It’s like they wash their hands of them.  I know I felt like this when I was teenager.  But what I really wish is that people could see beyond the phases of teenage ‘weirdness’ –into the heart of what’s underneath, the pain and loneliness and awkwardness that’s behind the seemingly weird things they do.  Young people need good, healthy role models to come alongside and encourage them.  They might not always listen, they may make their own choices in the opposite direction, but to know that someone cares enough about them to invest in them is greatly needed.  I might even suggest that this writing off of the younger generation is one of the causes of “teenage mutancy.”  People don’t have many good expectations of the next generation.  Maybe if they believed in them, respected them, and expected good things of them, kids would strive to live up to that.

I enjoyed this book and can’t really find anything to complain about.  Except maybe that I would have liked to have been in on more of the romance between Amethyst and Dix.  I think I liked the story of Silas and Pearl best. All in all, a good book worth spending time reading!  Anyone interested in stories about the Civil Rights movement will definitely like this one.

This book came to me at a good time (as I often find to be the case), as my own great grandmother recently passed away.  Her funeral was a time of loving reflection on her long life, what she inherited from her faithful parents, and what she passed on to so many children, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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