Books: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

You may have noticed from my reading history that I have an interest in the Romanovs. Mostly that interest has been focused on Nicholas II and his immediate family, but when I found this book at the library, I decided to go back a generation. Sure, it’s historical fiction, so I spend a certain amount of time reading a book like this with historical references in my other hand (not to undermine authors of HF, but because I’m a curious person and find I often want to look up facts and information about historical personages as I read fictional accounts of them). In particular, when historical fiction is centered around a well-known, well-documented figure, I feel the author must work harder to hew to the facts while still creating a compelling narrative. If the author chooses to, er, elide a few things for some reason, I do say it gives me pause. I have to wonder why. To make the story more interesting somehow? I suppose some readers would value a punched-up story over accuracy, but I’m not one of them.

I’m not saying Gortner does that here. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the subject at hand to judge, and maybe that’s what makes me a tad uneasy about the novel. I’d almost want to go read a biography for comparison.

But before I get much further, a quick synopsis: The Romanov Empress tells the story of Dagmar of Denmark, who became Empress Maria “Minnie” Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III. It’s told in first person, which gives fair insight into Minnie’s thoughts and feelings, but necessarily means that anything she is not present for must be explained in dialogue scenes where she and Someone (usually Miechen) discuss politics or whatever. In fact, while the novel started strongly for me, by a little more than halfway through it began to founder for lack of tension, pace, action. Lots of terse discussions as the Russian Revolution built up around Minnie and the Romanovs. But nothing much else until the final few pages of being held by the Soviets and getting the bad news of her son’s family’s execution.

I almost wish the book had gone on a bit longer and shown some of Minnie’s days in exile. There is a solid afterword in the book that discusses where she and others ended up, but I might’ve liked to have seen it depicted. Another reason, perhaps, to pick up a biography.

This isn’t a bad book. I counted it as average on Goodreads, probably 3.5 stars but not quite worth rounding up to 4. I’d maybe try another Gortner book.

Movies: Hereditary

I don’t particularly like horror movies; I have a very low tolerance for gore. But I’d heard this one was good and not too bloody, so…

It still had some pretty gross moments, let me tell you. But it was interesting, and fairly intense if you like that kind of thing.

Toni Collette plays Annie, whose mother has passed away. Then her daughter also dies in an accident. As Annie grapples with these tragedies, she meets a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd, somewhat typecast) in her grief group. Joan shows Annie how to contact the dead, and things go from there.

Annie is also an artist who creates disturbing dioramas. The movie hints at her mother having been crazy, and so maybe Annie has inherited (get it?) whatever genetic disposition made her mother a nutjob.

Then the question becomes how much of what is happening is actually supernatural, and how much of it is Annie.

Which would have been great if the movie had left it there. But it insists on going a bit further and answering these questions. And while I can appreciate the final result, I think a bit more ambiguity would have actually made the whole thing more compelling.

As it was, however… Yeah. Pretty damn creepy.

Movies: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Screenplay by: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Sony/Marvel, 2019
PG-13; 129 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

I’ve mentioned many times that I suffer from superhero movie fatigue. I’m at the point where I’m not really sure why I’m still going to these movies, except that my family loves them… And then I start to think I’ll somehow miss out if I don’t go too. Truth is, some of them are pretty good. And of all of them, I think I enjoy the Spider-Man ones the most.

In this movie, Peter Parker (Holland) just wants to enjoy his school trip to Europe. He’s hoping to use the science trip as a backdrop for a declaration of love to MJ (Zendaya). All that gets screwed up when Nick Fury turns up and needs an assist with some “Elementals” that have been attacking various places across the globe.

It’s a deceptively simple setup, which is probably why it works so well. So many of these films are convoluted to the point of ridiculousness. And in this one, the after-credit sequences almost trip over that line as well. Ugh. Can’t they leave well enough alone? But no, everything needs to be a little tweak, something to launch the next movie(s). It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to dislike this series of films.

But overall, this is a fun movie. A popcorn flick, as we used to call them. I know so many people who invest real time and effort into analyzing and deconstructing and whatever with these, and hey, whatever makes you happy. That’s the point of entertainment, after all. Get as involved (or not) as you like. For me, comic book movies are more like watch, enjoy, and then pretty much forget them… until I’m told I need to remember a million things for the next installment. Again, ugh. These movies should not be so much work.

Well, whatever. I had fun.

Books: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I have so many feelings about this book stemming from a dozen different places so that it would take a machete to cut my way through them all. But I’m going to try.

First, the setup: Alex is the son of the first female president, who was elected in 2016 (so I guess this is an alternate universe kind of book). His archnemesis is Prince Henry of Wales. He’s taken a dislike to Henry because Henry brushed him off at the Olympics in Rio. But after a publicity disaster at Henry’s brother’s wedding, the two of them are forced to fake an international friendship. That becomes a romance.

Bromance turned romance. There it is.

Now most of you probably know I love a good gay love story. But this one didn’t entirely work for me. I liked the idea of it, just not the execution. I felt like the focus was in the wrong place. But that’s a personal preference. As all reviews must be, mine is subjective.

I enjoyed the start of the book—the sniping and banter. Once the romance became set, things began to drag. The middle of the book is a series of situational hook-ups disguised as Alex embracing his new sexual identity in increments, but at the end of the day, this just makes the book another coming-out story. Hardly anything new. And it seems like the author really just wants to revel in boy sex rather than further the plot at all.

The plot, such as it is, comes into play more than half the book later when—hey, I think I’ve heard this before—a private email server is hacked and Alex and Henry are outed. Political scandal ensues, even as Alex’s mom is campaigning for re-election. And of course Henry’s grandmother the Queen is unhappy as well.

There’s something a little fan-fictiony about it all?

Not that I don’t love fan fiction, but I also believe in calling something what it is rather than trying to pass it off as legitimate.

But again, I’m me. I grew up in Texas—in the very Austin McQuiston writes about, and then later outside Dallas, so I’ve seen both blue and red Texas up close. I went to UT in Austin and got the same mass comm degree Alex’s sister June has in this book. I used to hang out at a friend’s lake house every summer. So, you know, while I can appreciate the love letter to my home state and town, something about it didn’t sit right with me. Maybe it’s the way the author forces all the representation down the reader’s throat: gay people, bisexual people, the blended Latino-American family, the trans secret service agent (male to female but still with a wife), the friend who is Indian… Instead of feeling seamless, it feels more like a giant neon arrow saying, “Look at me being inclusive!” And in the emails between Alex and Henry, the various historical extracts that also feel like a big neon arrow saying, “Look at how I did some research!”

Gah. All this makes it sound like I hated the book. I didn’t. I just had some very specific, nitpicky issues with it. Like I said, I enjoyed the start. The middle sagged and the real plot kicked in a mite too late for my taste. I also didn’t love Alex, and since the book is told through his perspective, that wasn’t ideal for me. I mean, he was okay, but ::shrug::

If the focus had been more on Henry and Alex weathering public perception and private pressures, I would have enjoyed it more, I think. Instead, a lot of this book is the two of them having sex in various locations and trying to hide it. That gets dull pretty quickly. For me. Based on other reviews, plenty of people are happy with that kind of thing. But I want more story than sex, so this book counts as “just okay” in my estimation.

Movies: Always Be My Maybe

On the one hand, I have to give Netflix credit for reviving the romantic comedy. Studios don’t seem interested in them these days, and yes, I understand all the reasons why, but there are still people in the world who enjoy these kinds of movies. (I co-wrote one that was briefly optioned, and I wish Netflix would pick it up, too. But that’s beside the point.)

On the other hand, there are those reasons romantic comedies have withered. Namely that they are often rote and predictable. Which is more or less how I felt about this one.

The conceit: Sasha and Marcus have known each other since childhood. Sasha’s parents were never around, so she spent a lot of time at Marcus’s house, to the point that his mother Judy taught her to cook. But after an awkward night at age eighteen, in which Sasha and Marcus have clumsy sex in his car, they fight and go their separate ways. Sasha becomes a celebrity chef/restauranteur. Marcus works with his dad while harboring dreams of his band becoming more than local.

Then a bunch of pretty typical things happen. Some of it is cute, and some downright funny (like Sasha dating Keanu Reeves and… well, I won’t spoil it for you), but none of it really sparked me. I did tear up a tiny bit at the very end, but other than that…

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly nice little movie. I’m not damning with faint praise; I realize that not every movie is for every person, and this one isn’t 100% for me. I’d say it’s 70-80%. That’s still a passing grade, and I know plenty of people who like this movie more than I did. So if you like rom-coms, try it for yourself.

Books: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

I usually enjoy Weir’s books, fiction and non. (My favorites are Captive Queen and Innocent Traitor.) However, in this series I have so far struggled. I found the book about Katherine of Aragon to be repetitive and dull, maybe because Katherine echoes through the ages as having one refrain: “I am the rightful queen!” I didn’t even finish the Anne Boleyn book because (a) I’ve already read many books about Boleyn, so it didn’t feel original, and (b) I just wasn’t enjoying it. So I picked this one up with a lack of expectation… which may be why I did like it.

I’ll admit a certain curiosity about Jane Seymour, so it’s possible that my not already knowing a ton about the subject is part of what kept my interest. I appreciate that Weir makes a case for true love between Jane and Henry, and I like her take on Jane’s death (the author note at the end of the book is quite informative). There is an attempt to show how Jane might have felt in taking the place of the women she served, hence the “haunted” bit. At the same time, the book does uphold the image of Jane as saintly and seemingly lacking in any real flaws. Jane as devout, as manipulated by her family, etc…. That angle is well worn and can sometimes make Jane seem superhuman.

A number of reviews I read called this book slow and boring. I didn’t find that to be the case, but again, when one has few expectations for something, one is less likely to be disappointed. For me, this was the best of the series thus far.

Television: Good Omens

Good Omens is fairly high on my list of favorite books; my cat Crowley bears the name of one of the main characters. (Most people assume the name is from Supernatural, but I haven’t seen that show.) How delighted was I, then, when David Tennant was cast as Crowley? Off the charts, really, and he does a spectacular job opposite Michael Sheen as Aziraphale.

I’m not sure I can adequately encapsulate the story for those unfamiliar with it, but basically Crowley is a demon and Aziraphale is an angel, and yet they’re friends. So when the end of the world is on the horizon, the two of them team up to stop it because, honestly, they rather like the world. I suppose it’s just the right blend of bad and good to make them both comfortable without being bored.

There’s a lot more to it than that, such as witches and witchfinders and prophecies and the antichrist and his pet dog (and a character named Pepper!), but it’s all more complex than I can describe, and you might as well read or watch it anyway.

I usually hesitate over adaptations of my favorite books because (a) I worry it’ll ruin my mental picture by replacing my imagination with a “sanctioned” version, and (b) often they’re just terrible. But there’s no reason to be concerned in this case. Good Omens is a faithful adaptation, and in the places where it’s been changed, all the changes work. It’s well cast and just incredibly entertaining. And at six episodes, easy to binge.

I’d say I want more, and I do… except I don’t, if that makes any sense. By which I mean, it’s like a really good meal: so wonderful, you want to keep eating, yet you know that the food will only begin to lose its flavor eventually, and you’ll only end up uncomfortably stuffed, maybe even ill. Better to eat and walk away with the memory of a nice dinner than make yourself sick and come to feel averse to something you used to enjoy. Or, in short form: quit while you’re ahead. So many shows try to press their popularity by eking out season after season, all for the money, until they’re only remembered for not being as good as when they began. Better to tell your story well and end it (Babylon 5) than keep chasing the audience until they turn on you.

Long story short, the Good Omens miniseries is fantastic, assuming you like that sort of thing. I do highly recommend it.

Books: Game of Crowns by Christopher Andersen

I seem to be on a bit of a Royals kick these days. Well, nothing like summer for reading trash and gossip, I suppose. Which is mostly what this book is—a curated collection of tidbits culled from magazines, interviews, tabloids. At least, that’s my guess.

The book begins with a hypothetical overview of what is likely to happen when Elizabeth II passes. The phone calls, the conversations, etc. I understand this as a “hook,” but it honestly put me off a bit.

From then on we re-tread old ground of Charles & Camilla (and Diana), William & Kate. The thesis of the book is to examine the succession of the British monarchy, but it mostly just points out that, no matter what anyone wants, Camilla will be de facto queen, at least for a little while. And that most people would much rather have William and Kate and skip Charles and Camilla entirely. All true, of course, but we know Elizabeth will give Charles his crown. Whether the monarchy will last under him is another question this book raises, but with Wills and Kate on the horizon, one thinks the monarchy may cling on a bit longer if people are willing to wait Charles and Camilla out.

I didn’t like Camilla before, and I like her even less after reading this book. I had more sympathy for Charles before reading this book, too. In short, this book does little to nothing for their reputations. It repeatedly underscores how they are outshone by the following generation and maintains that a number of Commonwealth countries may decide to leave and become republics when the crown devolves upon Charles and his Rottweiler. These countries, per Andersen, may not want to wait out Charles’ reign.

Kate comes off a bit better, though, in Andersen’s writing, that seems to be in spite of a grasping mother that pushed Kate under William’s nose and worked to keep her there.

It boils down to a lot of ambition on the parts of the women depicted here. Something to be said for persistence, I suppose, but it really only illustrates that good people are often trampled by those willing to do anything to get what (or who) they want.

Books: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

You know where I must begin with this: my relationship to the material being discussed. I like history, though I only came to any real interest in Anne Boleyn after picking up The Other Boleyn Girl at an airport bookstore several years ago. Like many of the people from Bordo’s website and research, a tidbit of historical fiction sent me looking for the truth, though not in any deep way. I read the Wiki and a few websites to glean what about Gregory’s novel was accurate, what was speculation, and what was pure fabrication. It was enough to satisfy my curiosity.

Last week I was wandering the library and came across Bordo’s book and picked it up as a potentially interesting read. Her ostensible goal with this work is to hold up what people think they know about Anne Boleyn and compare it to why they think or believe these things and where in the historical record these ideas may have come from. Considering there are precious few primary sources to mine, and that many of the sources we do have are biased (*cough* Chapuys *cough*), the exercise is not a bad one. But…

Unfortunately, at least in my eyes, the attempt is ruined by Bordo’s own clear biases. She disdains works by Alison Weir, rips apart Gregory’s fiction, snipes at Mantel’s version of Boleyn, and pretty much hates on anyone who ever said a bad word about Anne. Then gushes over Anne of the Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer’s take on Boleyn in The Tudors. Yet seems unable to be clear on why creative license is okay for some but not others (unless it’s because she’s just not okay with Anne Boleyn being a villainess?).

Okay, so some historians make what seem to other history buffs to be wild claims. The real truth is, we don’t know. Bordo disagrees with, well, a lot. And that’s fine; she’s allowed to make her argument and present her data. But to take it that step further and really just attack all these other historian and writers? That’s a bit much.

And the underlying notion that historical fiction should be “more accurate” (or just nicer to Anne, I guess)… It’s f***ing fiction, for one thing. And Bordo doesn’t know for sure Anne wasn’t a total bitch, for another. She’d just rather not believe it. But what really gets me is the argument that, because people will take the historical fiction as true and accurate it should be as faithful to history as possible… That just boggles me. I like to think people know enough to know when they’re reading something that’s made up. I like to think that, just as I and many others Bordo spoke to did, people will go look up the truth if they really want to know. And I don’t think it’s novels’ or movies’ or television programs’ jobs to teach history. If (as The Other Boleyn Girl did for me) one of these media spark an interest in a historical subject, fantastic! If, on the other hand, someone walks away thinking Anne Boleyn was blonde, or had a sixth finger, or was evil incarnate… So? It’s not hurting her any. Pretty sure she doesn’t care, so why does Bordo?

It’s one thing to examine why people think the things they do. That’s an interesting psychological and sociological study—how information spreads in a society, where that information comes from, etc. Even in Boleyn’s time, Chapuys was intent on a smear campaign. But there’s no point in getting angry about it. If it were a fatal disease maybe, but what people think and believe about a long-dead queen? An academic exercise at best; not anything that will save lives or change the world.

In short, Bordo needs to ease up. If she’d come at it objectively, but she didn’t, at that tanked what otherwise was a decent read.

Books: The Bodyguard’s Story: Diana, the Crash, and the Sole Survivor by Trevor Rees-Jones (with Moira Johnston)

I was working on a night shoot when the accident happened, and my whole life was about working both on a film set and my “regular” job, so I didn’t give the news much of my attention. Though I’d loved Princess Diana—or really, the thought of her—by the time the divorce happened and everything after, I wasn’t really following news about her. Maybe this is because I didn’t have regular Internet access, and I’ve never been one for tabloids. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe the fairy tale was over.

Anyway, all this is a long way of saying I don’t even think I knew someone had survived the crash that killed Diana and Dodi. And I only stumbled across this book at the library. Every now and then I get an itch to gorge on some nonfiction, usually history, biography, or psychology. This time I found myself in the world history/culture section and walked away with a small stack that included this one.

I don’t know the whole truth, and I don’t think anyone does, but I appreciate how forthright this book is in tone. I never read all the reports on the crash or more than the summarized versions of the outcomes of the investigations, so this book provided a bit more detail. However, anyone looking for the answer to what actually happened is likely to be disappointed. Though Rees-Jones (and Johnston) paint a thorough pre-crash picture, he doesn’t remember the crash at all, only getting into the Mercedes with Henri Paul at the wheel and Diana and Dodi in back. The back half of the book is about Rees-Jones’ recovery and his being hounded by Dodi’s father, plus various legal issues. Still, I found it interesting enough to push through it all. Those wanting more about Diana might not.

All in all a solid read, if dated, as the book was written and published before all the information was in. One would need to read something more recent for later details. But I think anyone curious about what happened would benefit from getting this side of the story.