Category Archives: reviews

Books: A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

If you know anything about me and my writing, you probably know I got my start with Sherlock Holmes. I’ve loved Holmes since childhood, but I won’t bother to enumerate my passions here. Let’s just say that this book came highly recommended to me by people who know my background.

This is the first in a series called… “Lady Sherlock” or something? I didn’t realize it going in. And here is where I’m going to sound like a purist snob, but it’s not my favorite thing when people decide Sherlock Holmes must actually be a brilliant woman disguised or masquerading as a man. Not because I have anything against brilliant women, or female detectives, or brilliant Victorian female detectives or any combination thereof. But because I often feel like, at that point, the author should come up with his or her own character from whole cloth rather than grafting it onto the famous name of Sherlock Holmes. Either they’re doing it for marketing power, or because they don’t have faith in their own creations, or possibly a bit of both. Whatever the reason, I’m not a fan.

So. In a nutshell: Charlotte Holmes is the youngest daughter in an upper class family in Victorian London. When she falls from grace, she must find a way to get through the world on her own. Her chief asset is her great intellect. You can guess where it goes from there.

The good: This is [mostly] very well written. I enjoyed a number of the characters and the mystery was a fairly good one.

The bad: The first few pages are somewhat garbled and confusing as they jump from viewpoint to viewpoint. Charlotte isn’t actually all that interesting a character in and of herself. It wasn’t until the second half of the book that things really took off and made me want to keep reading. And the author goes to ridiculous lengths to twist Holmes canon into this new form. We’re supposed to gasp once Moriarty is mentioned, but honestly, who didn’t see it coming? Finally, the answer to the mystery comes in a rush and via post rather than Holmes or any of her associates working it out for themselves. Sure, they did a fair amount of deducing earlier on, but the ultimate solution is laid out for them in an explanatory letter.

Part of me supposes this book is simply meant to set up the situation for subsequent titles in the series. (I know there is at least one other.) So perhaps I can forgive the laborious construction of the first half of the novel. But I think I’d honestly more enjoy a book about Lord Ingram or Inspector Treadles or even Mrs. Watson than another one about Charlotte “Sherlock” Holmes. The forced romantic angle between her and Ingram, too, did not work for me. I can believe in the chemistry—it’s well written enough to work—but *sigh*. I could simply have done without it entirely. The fact that Charlotte made such a stupid decision that caused her fall from Society, too, just makes so little sense to me, despite the attempted rationalizations. I suppose it humanizes her to have her make mistakes, but this one beggared belief. Yet the entire book is predicated on it.

So… yeah. It’s by no means a terrible book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, would even have considered 4.5 until that flat ending. The book is entertaining despite its main character rather than because of her. And I still can’t love the borrowing of Sherlock Holmes by this author when, in this case, he’s actually a non-entity. But that’s a personal bias.

Will I read the next one? Eh. Maybe? I’m in no rush for it, but if I saw it at the library, I might at least pick it up for a look. ::shrug::

Movies: Onward

This wasn’t one I’d planned on going to see at the cinema, but since Disney/Pixar went ahead and released it, we sat down with the kids to watch it. And, uh…

Let me be honest and say I have only sorta liked most of Pixar’s movies. I’m no big fan, particularly of their brand of sentimentality, which seems to be the driving force behind everything they do. I find that kind of thing annoying rather than endearing. So it was a 50/50 I’d get much out of this movie either.

The story is about an elf named Ian Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland, the go-to for nerdy, self-conscious characters). It’s his sixteenth birthday. He never knew his dad, who “got sick” (that’s the only way we ever hear it described throughout the movie) before he was born. Ian’s older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) has a few memories of their dad. He also has a raging interest in the “old ways” meaning the days of magic.

See, while the modern world in this movie is more or less like ours, filled with smartphones and electricity, the past had been way more Lord of the Rings. But magic isn’t really practiced anymore because science is easier.

Still, when Ian’s dad got sick, he apparently also dabbled in a bit of wizardry and left behind a spell to allow the boys to bring him back for just one day.

Cue magical quest and bonding, all layered in a thick paste of sentiment.

The truth is, this is a concept in search of a plot. Everything that happens in the movie (and I won’t elaborate, so as to avoid spoilers) feels disjointed, or at best loosely linked. They are all incidents that… happen, and… It really did feel like people sat down and said, “What can we have them do, or what problems can we give them, that might be funny and also sweet?” And they came up with a list, and had those things happen, and there’s not much more to it than that. The stakes never felt high, and the end results were as expected.

Also, the funny parts weren’t actually very funny. At all. I don’t think I laughed once.

The kids got restless during this movie, and when asked afterward, they all resoundingly preferred Spies in Disguise (more Tom Holland, lots more funny, and all the sweet moments in that one feel earned). I did too. Times a million.

Sorry, but this one fell flat for me. A lot of wasted potential.

Movies: Emma (2020)

I’m a fan of Jane Austen’s novels. And I enjoy a good period/costume drama. So I was probably already primed to like this most recent adaptation of Austen’s story.

If you are unfamiliar with it, Emma is about the titular character, a 21-year-old busybody who fancies herself a matchmaker. But by meddling in others’ love affairs, she actually goes about nearly ruining lives. Emma is often portrayed as having the best of intentions—a sweet but misguided nature. That is certainly the take they had in the Gwyneth Paltrow version, which is probably the best known. But in this one, Emma is really kind of terrible, almost even a bit unlikable. And it works. Because, in truth, to get the full character arc, Emma must start out as someone who needs to change, and she needs to come to that realization.

This take is beautiful to behold as well. The costumes, the sets—all lovely. I did find myself distracted by the fact Emma wore makeup and pretty much no other [female] character did. It was very obvious. But other than that, a mostly gorgeous sight.

In short, I do really recommend this version to fans of Austen or this genre of film in particular. I’m not sure the average viewer would love it, but it’s definitely worthy of attention from those predisposed to it. So glad that Universal chose to release it on demand early to those of us stuck at home.

Movies: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

This was… It’s a movie based on a magazine article, for starters. I didn’t know that going in. I didn’t know much of anything about this film except: Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. What else is there to know?

Well, I had wondered why Hanks had been put into the supporting actor category during awards season. The movie makes that decision clear. Rogers isn’t the real focus here. Instead, the central figure is the magazine article writer, here named Lloyd (actual article written by a guy named Tom). Lloyd has a difficult relationship with his father. Lloyd is given an assignment to interview Fred Rogers. What develops is a kind of friendship? I guess? But this movie is about Lloyd working things out with Rogers as a kind of gentle guide.

Did I like it? Not really. Did I find it moving? Yes, at moments. There’s no rule that says you have to find a movie that pulls at heartstrings to be wonderful. I didn’t really enjoy Lloyd’s story. The movie failed to make me care all that much about him, maybe because I mostly disliked him. The parts that touched me were the ones that brought back childhood memories of watching Mr. Rogers rather than anything about Lloyd and his personal problems.

A few years back we had that documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? That was wonderful. If you have an interest in Fred Rogers, that would be the film to watch. I’m not saying this one doesn’t have value… to certain viewers, looking for something oddly specific, maybe… It’s artistic? I don’t know. But overall it didn’t work for me.

Movies: Spies in Disguise

This was a pretty silly movie. We entered with the expectation that it would be, basically, dumb. And it was. But it was hugely entertaining in its stupidity. Which is really all we wanted.

Will Smith voices Agent Lance Sterling, an American take on James Bond. Tom Holland is more or less doing his Peter Parker thing, only this time his name is Walter, and instead of working with Avengers, he works for… the CIA? I dunno, whatever unspecified agency Sterling serves. Sterling is no fan of Walter’s technology because Walter’s big goal is to not hurt people, just stop them from doing whatever evil thing they’re doing. Sterling, meanwhile, has a “fight fire with fire” attitude and seems to enjoy punching people and blowing things up. Still, Sterling turns out to need Walter’s help when a lookalike villain has the agency believing Sterling is a baddie. Here’s the part you know from the trailers: Walter disguises Sterling as a pigeon and things go from there.

Like I said, dumb. But stupidly cute, too. My kids were howling with laughter, even as they kept saying how stupid this movie was. In the end, they all said they loved it, and even I had to admit it was more fun than it had any right to be. Maybe because we entered with low to no expectations, we were easy to please. But this is one I’d watch again on a long flight or… while under quarantine at home?

Books: The Thirteenth Tale by Diana Setterfield

This is another book that was recommended to me, and… it wasn’t terrible, but… I had a difficult time staying interested. Which is strange given the author works very hard to make everything mysterious. Maybe she tries too hard?

I’m not sure I can accurately describe my feelings about this book. Let’s start with the story itself. Margaret Lea is the daughter of an antiquarian book dealer, and she helps her father in his shop. Her mother is an invalid, and the family has a secret: Margaret was born with a conjoined twin who, when cut free, died. They all pretend it never happened, but the “ghost” is there, so to speak. In fact, Margaret spends an almost ridiculous amount of time dwelling on this ghost, which is very real to her. And perhaps I’m being insensitive? But I just couldn’t feel anything about this. Maybe because Margaret herself has very little personality. I suspect this is by design, since Margaret narrates the novel, and her job is to actually tell someone else’s story. If her character were too strong, the other story would fail to shine through. It’s a delicate kind of balance, quite the undertaking by Setterfield. But Margaret is nothing more than lightly tinted glass, and that prevented me somewhat from being fully invested in her or her story.

Margaret sometimes writes little biographies of authors. These are nothing more than tracts, really, but a famous author named Vida Winter notices them and asks Margaret to come stay at her house in Yorkshire so as to write her life story. Miss Winter is known for telling many lies about her past, but she’s old and ill now, and wants to have the truth recorded for posterity or something. So then we get a different story about twin girls growing up in very strange circumstances, &tc. &tc.

And somehow this story isn’t actually all that compelling either. It’s odd, no lie, and there are twists, though I suspected as much if only because I had friends tell me they’d read this book more than once. And it’s the kind of book where, if someone reads it more than once, you conclude it must be because they want to re-read based on some new knowledge. You know, like when you watch a movie that has a big twist, you then want to watch it again and look for all the clues? As I was reading this book, the only reason I could imagine anyone would have for reading it again would be that. Of course, I’m sure many people like it well enough to want to read it for the pleasure of it, but… Overall, it felt somewhat lacking to me. It introduced many characters and pretended to delve when, in fact, we’re left with only slices of information and/or personalities. At the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I knew anyone intimately, except maybe Margaret, and she’s the least interesting one.

It’s not a bad book. I gave it three stars, which is to say, it’s average. There are things that I’m sure will stay with me. But overall, for me, this one was just okay. And I did feel like I had to drag myself back to it now and then because the story didn’t light a need in me to keep reading. “Idle,” is the word that comes to mind when I think of this book. If I hadn’t finished it, I might have idly wondered what happened in the story. The prose itself feels idle, languid. There is no urgency in it, and therefore no urgency was created in me to read, to finish, to find out. So much description… but so very little actual tale.

_____

I saw after finishing this book that Setterfield also wrote Bellman & Black, another book once recommended to me. That one I was never able to get into; I made it maybe thirty pages in? So perhaps this author just isn’t for me.

Theatre: The Last Ship

There was, from what I understand, a version of this show some five years ago, but it didn’t do all that well. So it has been retooled and now… Well, in a way, the play itself lends the best metaphor: a ship was built, but then needed to be broken down and rebuilt. Or something.

The Last Ship isn’t a show I would have sought out; it just happened to be part of my seasonal subscription to the local theatre. Anyway, I like Sting, and I know a little about his background and therefore knew there had to be a pretty personal connection between him and the content of this show. He wasn’t as involved in the first version, only having been called in later in the run in an attempt to save the show. When it closed to be reworked, Sting remained the headliner in the hopes the familiar name would draw audiences.

Still, here is all I knew going in:

  1. Sting
  2. Ships

These aren’t, perhaps, the greatest selling points? I mean, if one thinks about the fact that the first version of the show didn’t even have Point 1… Who goes to see musicals about building ships? The Venn diagram of people who have an interest in manual labor crises from the 1980s, and/or have an interest in shipbuilding in particular, and have money to toss at musical theatre has got to be a pretty thin slice, doesn’t it? Adding Sting and his music as a new circle, well… I suppose there are more people interested in him and his work than the other things, but…

Okay, so the backdrop of this musical is Wallsend, 1986. The shipyard there is being closed down. The shipbuilders are told that a fraction of them will be hired at lesser wages to break apart the ship—the last ship—that was nearly finished but is now to be sold for scrap. Over this is laid the story of Gideon, son of a shipbuilder, who ran away from Wallsend 17 years before in hopes of avoiding the shipbuilding life. He became a sailor instead. I guess that’s better? But he left behind Meg, and as he returns to Wallsend, he discovers Meg has a 17-year-old daughter. Meg has become a fiercely independent single mum and pub owner, and she’s not interested in going back to being vulnerable. Another, smaller story is that of foreman Jackie White (Sting), trying to navigate his workers and their union through the rocky shoals of the industrial crises. Jackie has lung cancer, too, so that’s… a thing.

Here’s the problem, at least with this new version of the show (I wish I’d seen the previous; reviews make it sound way more entertaining): I was never really all that invested in any of the characters or situations. They are all pretty rote and lack much depth. The stories themselves are insanely simplistic; there is hardly any real tension and opportunities to highlight conflict are mishandled. If anything, I found the inflection of the show monotonous. The music wasn’t particularly catchy; I didn’t feel the desire to download the cast album and listen to any of it again, which to me is the sign of a good musical. Some of Sting’s known songs have been tweaked and used (gah, the guy two seats over kept leaning over and telling his date, “This is one of his songs,” every time something familiar got worked in). Much of the stagecraft is reliant on screens, which doesn’t make for particularly interesting visuals, the final scene notwithstanding.

There are a number of interesting characters whose potential are squandered. One guy named Davy doesn’t want to strike, wants nothing to do with the big plan to win back the shipyard, etc. I waited for him to betray the others or, really, something, anything. But he just comes crawling back, no hard feelings. A carpenter named Adrian quotes from literature, and that was fun. The one bit of humor in the show that worked for me was when it’s pointed out that no one ever understands him. The show could definitely have used more moments of levity like that one to give it some bounce. Sadly, as it sits (like a hulk in dry dock), it’s a bit of a flatline. No tide.

Sting, too, didn’t seem all that into it. Maybe he was tired, maybe his arm hurt (it was in a sling for some reason), but he gave the impression of not particularly wanting to be there. On the other hand, many of the actors were clearly giving it their all, and they had impressive voices and some also were skilled dancers. Which is to say, The Last Ship wasn’t all bad. It just… could clearly have been better? With a more interesting story, more depth of character… Which, after the fact, I went to read more about the history of the show and discovered that it probably did have those things in the original version. Based only on what I read, I think this retooling probably did the show a disservice. Meant to make The Last Ship more, what? Comprehensible? It actually lobotomized it. (Again, I can’t say for sure, not having seen the original production, but…)

It’s nothing I need to see again. Nothing I need to hear again, either. It will probably stick with me, but not for the reasons shows want to be remembered. Only because I’ll likely continue to try to figure out why it didn’t work, what went wrong. I’ll want to pick at it, deconstruct it. That’s my media studies degree at work, maybe, but with really good shows, that desire almost never surfaces. We only autopsy when we think there’s been foul play.

Movies: Doctor Sleep

I haven’t read the book. Let’s get that out of the way first thing.

I have read The Shining. And it turns out all you really need to know in order to understand Doctor Sleep is that Dan Torrence was the little boy in The Shining and that, well, he “shines” (by which we mean he has psychic powers of some sort).

Here we pick up with Dan as an adult, coping as best he can with his past and his abilities. But it turns out there is a group of really terrible people who hunt and kill people like Dan in order to “eat” their magic. This allows the hunters to be nearly immortal, so long as they keep killing people who shine. They prefer children because their powers are purer and therefore stronger.

You can probably see where this is going, more or less. The film is equal parts disturbing and cathartic because there’s really nothing more satisfying than watching very bad things happen to very bad people. I’d say on the whole it’s an incredibly good movie because it’s effective. That’s more than I can say for most films these days, so many of which are just action sequence after action sequence until you’re numb. I felt this movie. It had impact.

I’m not much for horror movies; I can read the books but can not really tolerate the visual gore. This one manages to walk that line very carefully. I love a good psychological thriller, and Doctor Sleep definitely has elements of that. Tension builds. And there is blood, but not in excess. I don’t do splatter fests, and this isn’t one.

Honestly, I’m surprised by how much I liked it. I do love Ewan, though, so that probably helped. I might even go ahead and read the book after all.

Books: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I’ve known about this book for a long time and had it on my Amazon wish list, but then I had this brilliant moment of realizing my library probably had a copy? And it did! With a less cool cover, but whatever.

The book (which is about a decade old now) recounts the disappearance and eventual discovery of the murder of 21-year-old Lucie Blackman. She was a British woman working in Tokyo as a hostess. Parry does a fair job of explaining what “hostessing” is, but I think it might be difficult for those who don’t know much about Japanese culture to fully understand it. It’s easy for people to jump to the idea that Lucie was a prostitute, but she wasn’t. In Japan, there are clubs where men can pay to just spend time chatting with pretty young ladies. They’ll buy the women drinks, they’ll do karaoke with them… And many of these clubs have foreigners working in them because some of the men like to talk to foreign women, even just practice their English with them.

Still, such a setup lends itself to predators in a number of ways as well, and unfortunately Lucie crossed paths with one of them.

It’s a long book, and detailed. It started strong but for me began to wobble about halfway through. Parry shifts focus from Lucie, her family, and the search in favor of the accused. Who is indeed a strange character. But I felt a lot more time was spent with this guy than perhaps strictly necessary, particularly since there is a lot not known about him. He grew up rich in Osaka, but as someone whose family originated in Korea, he also faced a certain amount of discrimination. Eventually he became a serial rapist and suspected murderer. Parry is crazy fascinated with the guy, it seems, but has never been granted an interview, so… Meanwhile, he does talk to Lucie’s family, her friends, etc. That part of the book feels richer to me, and more worthy.

The bits about the eventual trials go on for a while, too. I absolutely applaud the thoroughness of this book, but I’ll admit I started to skim at places.

As a person who loves true crime, this one was really something. It will stay with me for sure. But potential readers may want to prepare to be a tad bogged down by the minutiae.

Movies: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I, like many, have mixed feelings about Quentin Tarantino. I mostly don’t like his movies, though that may be because I mostly don’t like him. I find him sexist and gratuitous, and the fact that he’s so smug and pleased with himself about these things is a massive turn off. It’s fine. He doesn’t need me to like him, and he clearly has an audience that revels in his bad attitude. And I will say that I’ve enjoyed, if not all of any one of his movies, parts of a few of them?

So. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood re-imagines what might have happened if the Manson Family had picked a neighboring target rather than Sharon Tate and her friends. But that’s pretty much beside the point in this movie. The real story is of washed-up actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt stand-in Cliff (Brad Pitt). Never mind that these guys look nothing alike, mind. Maybe that’s supposed to be funny?

The film meanders through, er… I’m not even sure what. It’s not a cohesive story, more like loosely stitched events. Rick being turned down for a role and having to make spaghetti westerns. Cliff picking up hitchhikers and dropping them at Spahn Ranch. And we follow Sharon Tate around a little bit for no apparent reason except, I suppose, to establish her as the neighbor. And then the whole Manson Family thing and… ::shrug::

It’s not a bad movie. In fact, for me it’s one of Tarantino’s most tolerable. Which probably isn’t saying much. Maybe because I like Brad Pitt, and he’s very Brad in this. Still, there’s no reason this film needed to be nearly as long as it is (running time: 2 hours 41 minutes). A lot of this is Tarantino indulging himself, but that’s pretty much all his movies anyway. He’d be first to tell you he makes movies for him, not for viewers. He doesn’t much care what anyone else thinks.

Well, that’s one way to approach the industry, I guess. Must be nice to be an old, white guy that people hand money to and don’t hold you accountable if you lose any of it making your hack movies.

I can say OUaTiH deserves the production Oscar it won. That much was well done, and Leo and Brad are fun to watch, even if the movie doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. Well, I guess there was enough for Brad to do to win him Actor in a Supporting Role, and I can’t begrudge him that either. He does a fine job, and seems to be having fun at the same time. No one said you had to be miserable to win an Oscar, right? If anything, it seems harder to win for an upbeat role than a serious, dramatic one. So good on him.

So is the movie worth watching? Eh. It’s almost the kind of thing you can have playing in the background while you cook or something. It simply does not require your full attention to follow. But it’s a bit of fun. I’m not sorry I saw it.