Category Archives: reviews

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.

Books: Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

This one was recommended by a friend, and the prologue had me hooked. I’m just sorry the rest of the book wasn’t from that character’s point of view because the voice of the prologue was, to me, far more interesting and authentic. Not that the rest of the book wasn’t, but…

Well, let’s start with the premise. Darren Mathews is black. He also happens to be a Texas Ranger. On suspension pending a grand jury’s findings in a murder. But when an FBI friend puts Darren on the trail of a small-town murder that’s possibly a hate crime, Darren heads to Lark, Texas to investigate.

I’m from Texas. Grew up in a small town then moved to a bigger town then went to to school at UT. Locke’s descriptions are spot on, her tone perfectly captures the culture. (No surprise given she’s from Houston herself.) I read some reviews saying it was all too slow and too descriptive, so it’s possible that I liked this book more than some just because of my connection to the location. For me, reading this book was like going home.

Still and all, it isn’t perfect. Darren is not a particularly interesting main character. The prologue is told from another character’s POV, one I found much more interesting, but also one that isn’t as evident in the rest of the book. Instead, the chief female character is the murdered man’s widow, and she’s every kind of irritating. Between her and Darren, I will say there were times when I was a bit bored and annoyed with the book. Not the story, mind, just the book. The story is a good one, a solid mystery, though it has a somewhat abrupt resolution. And the book itself doesn’t entirely resolve as it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. I found that to be the most annoying thing about it. Because it makes me think maybe Locke intended or intends to write another one? And yet I feel more or less done with these characters. This doesn’t feel like it should be a series.

Final bit of exasperation comes from the fact the book needed at least one more thorough copy edit. A character named Mack is called “Mark” on page 19, and, well, a few other little things that probably wouldn’t bother anyone not an editor. But having worked as one, they did bother me.

I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads, would have gone higher if not for that ending. This is a mystery in the vein of something like True Detective—not a fast-paced thriller, but a meandering thread that is more character based than plot driven. A bit like my Peter, in fact. If you want to immerse yourself in small-town Texas, be disturbed by the true racial undercurrents of the American South, this is the book for you.

Movies: Marriage Story

As a rule, I don’t typically love Noah Baumbach films. And I can’t say I love this one, either. Only that I tolerated it better than most others of its kind.

The movie is pretty much what every clip you’ve seen suggests: Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play Charlie and Nicole respectively, an artistic couple (he’s a director for theatre productions and she’s an actress) going through a separation that falls into a messy divorce. At the center of their many issues is their son Henry. Nicole takes Henry to LA, where her family lives and where she’s shooting a television pilot. Charlie believes they’ve agreed that they will all live in NYC together once the pilot is done. But free from Charlie’s decisions, Nicole begins to make different plans for herself… and Henry. Mean-spiritedness ensues.

If you enjoy watching people do and say terrible things to one another, this is the movie for you.

Which isn’t to say… Well, “enjoy” is the wrong word. I could have gone my life without watching this movie and probably wouldn’t have felt like I’d missed anything. But I’m not sorry I watched it? That’s maybe the best I can say for it? That, and that parts of it are likely to stick with me over time. Which is, at least in part, the point of art: to make an impression.

I’ll admit I haven’t actually seen many of Baumbach’s movies (the ones he’s directed, I mean). I do recall liking The Meyerowitz Stories, but I really did not like The Squid and the Whale, and I never even made it through all of Margot at the Wedding. Baumbach was once described to me as “Wes Anderson without the whimsy,” and that seems about right. I do love Wes Anderson, but it’s the whimsy that makes me happy. Meyerowitz came closest in a Royal Tenenbaums kind of way. There is, between the two (and yes, I am aware of the work they’ve done together), a real fixation on creative genius, public perception, and family hierarchy (which I suppose is “private perception”?). Marriage Story doesn’t quite go there because it’s so caught up in the drama of a dissolving relationship, but it touches on it—Charlie’s “genius” and how Nicole’s mother adores him, and the fight over who boosted whose career. I do find such themes interesting, but the lack of depth to them here makes them, and the movie, slightly less so. For me. Great performances, though, and Laura Dern definitely earned all her praise. In short, I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend this one, but I wouldn’t warn people away from it either.

Books: One Day in December by Josie Silver

I’m a sucker for love-at-first-sight stories and tales of destined soul mates. Which is why, when I read an online blurb about this book, I thought it would be right up my alley. And it started out well, for sure. But about 30% of the way in…

Just so you have a sense of what I’m talking about (in case this book is unfamiliar to you), let me give the setup in a nutshell: On… wait for it… one day in December, Laurie is riding a bus and sees a guy out the window at the bus stop. And it’s the aforementioned love at first sight. The guy reacts a bit slow, though, and doesn’t make it onto the bus in time. Laurie and her best friend Sarah then spend a year looking for “bus boy.”

So far so good. I liked Laurie and Sarah, though Sarah is a bit too perfect. I realize the reader is seeing her largely through the eyes of Laurie and Jack (more on that in a minute), people who love her and do believe she’s amazing, but… Please. No one is saintly enough to always have charitable thoughts about even their best friends or girlfriends. And best friends/girlfriends are not always wonderful, which is pretty much how we see Sarah 100% of the time. Blech.

Anyway, it’s not really giving anything away to say that, roughly a year after the bus incident, Sarah brings home a new boyfriend (Jack) who is, of course, bus boy.

This is where I started to struggle with the book a bit. It became harder and harder to continue to like Laurie, or to like Jack much at all. The author works hard to make them each sympathetic, and I acknowledge Silver also seemed to be laboring to give Jack and Laurie facets and depth. Unfortunately, for me it didn’t really work. I found Laurie whiney and Jack to be a jerk.

The story is told from two POVs, and that didn’t work much for me, either, because I didn’t find Jack all that distinctive in tone. It’s not that he and Laurie sounded the same—not at all. He just wasn’t interesting. Self-pitying asshole seemed to be his main mode, and I found it tough to live in such a character’s head for any length of time.

Also, the book felt like a slog through a good chunk of the middle.

I will say I liked the ending. So, in short, it started well and ended well, but the middle 50% was a trial. This book ends just as you would predict, so for books like this one, the journey toward that end is meant to be the fun bit. In this case, however, it wasn’t fun at all. I ended up giving it three stars on Goodreads, but only because the moderately amusing ending saved it from receiving two. Even now, I’m thinking this is more a 2.5-star book, but I rounded up like they teach us in school.

Maybe chick lit just isn’t my tea.

Movies: Parasite (2019)

I actually found this movie difficult to watch. Not because it’s bad; it’s far from that! But because it is so tense and anxiety inducing. At least for me. I don’t mind a good thriller, but whew. This film had me in knots.

I went in knowing very little except that I’d heard Parasite starts as one kind of film and ends up as another. And of course I’d heard it’s incredible (and therefore nominated for so many awards, having already gathered a fair amount of hardware—”hardware” being the industry term for award statuettes). I won’t be able to see all the nominated pictures, but I’m trying to get through at least a few, so last night I watched this one.

A non-spoiler sketch of the plot: a poor Korean family is given a lead by a friend that allows them to insinuate themselves into a wealthy family’s household. The poor son goes to tutor the rich daughter, the poor daughter becomes an art therapist for the rich son… Pretty soon the whole poor family is employed by the rich one, the latter none the wiser that their entire staff is related.

And then things go sideways.

That’s all I’m going to say about it. The movie is clever and intense, well written and well acted. It’s solid, is what I’m saying. Deserves all the accolades it’s received. And still I had the hardest time sitting through it because I was squirming so hard.

Worth a watch? Absolutely, if you can stand the mounting tension.

Movies: Joker

Decided to go ahead and watch this one, and I can see what all the buzz is about. Joaquin Phoenix does a stellar job overall, though I have minor quibbles. So many people love the score, too, and I think it’s quite good, but I also found it a bit distracting? Then again, this isn’t my usual kind of movie, so I’m probably the wrong person to ask.

For those even farther behind than I am in these things, Joker is a movie about, well, the Batman character’s origins, I guess. Phoenix plays Arthur Flack, a hapless clown-for-hire with dreams of being a standup comedian. Arthur is a bit… shy of a full quotient of IQ points, I guess? He has a mental illness that can cause him to begin laughing uncontrollably during moments of intense stress. And he also has a habit of daydreaming and not always knowing the difference between those daydreams and reality. In all, he’s portrayed as someone childlike and well intentioned who has been dealt a poor hand in life. I won’t go into details because I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who wants to see it but hasn’t.

Honestly, I found the first part of this movie kind of boring. It’s all very artsy and atmospheric, but it took a while for anything interesting to happen (in my opinion). Once things did get rolling, though, I mostly enjoyed it.

I will say I find it crazy annoying that every movie even tangentially related to Batman has to do the killing-Bruce’s-parents thing, though. We all know the story, we’ve seen it hundreds of times, and in this movie it just wasn’t necessary at all. It added nothing, nor did it give the Waynes’ deaths any new twist. So boo to that.

Anyway, I’m sure Phoenix will win the Academy Award because, hey, a movie that kinda sorta talks about how the system fails those with mental illness, plus a lead who not only lost lots of weight for the role but also plays someone mentally ill? That’s a done deal, isn’t it? Look, I know I sound snarky, and I kind of am. I haven’t seen all the contenders, so I can’t really say if Phoenix deserves to win. But I know what the Academy tends to like. This role ticks a lot of their boxes, and Phoenix does well in it.

Overall, I’m glad I saw it, if only to see what all the hype has been about. The movie is lovely to look at and interesting, but it reminds me of a glossy magazine ad for cologne or something. Artsy but a bit opaque in what it’s really trying to get at. Which is funny since at the same time I felt a bit beat over the head by the underlying social commentary. Well, those ads often have a pungent sample in them, too, don’t they? This isn’t to say Joker is a bad movie or has no merit or whatever. But for me there was a lot more style to it than substance.

Books: Death Brings a Shadow by Rosemary Simpson

I picked this one up because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know it was the fourth in a series. So some of the faults I have with this book may be in part because I’m less familiar with the characters than I should be. At the same time, some of the issues wouldn’t be eradicated by that one difference.

Set in, IIRC, 1889, Death Brings a Shadow is a historical mystery/romance featuring Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter, who are apparently established characters in what’s called “The Gilded Age” series. She is the daughter of a New York lawyer, and he is the estranged son of a Southern… plantation owner? This is what I gathered, anyway; Geoffrey is now an ex-Pinkerton detective who solves mysteries with Prudence. Ostensibly there is some kind of burgeoning relationship developing there, but I didn’t really feel any chemistry in this particular book.

The story is of Prudence and Geoffrey accompanying the Dickson family to their winter home on Bradford Island off the coast of Georgia. It isn’t winter, mind; Eleanor Dickson, the daughter of the house and also Prudence’s best friend, is slated to marry a Southerner named Teddy Bennett. Eleanor’s father bought the island from Teddy’s family, but the Bennetts still have a home there (Wildacre) while Dickson also built a massive mansion (Seapoint). Anyway, when Eleanor is found dead a couple days before the wedding, at first glance it seems like a terrible accident. But then we get some juju priestesses involved, and the usual Southern resentment toward “Yankees,” and… Well, everything goes in a fairly typical fashion from there.

The plot is interesting, but the characters made it less so, unfortunately. As a child of the South myself, I’m heartily sick of the caricatures drawn of us. The heroes are always some son of a planter who saw the error of the ways of slavery well before anyone in their families. (Enter Geoffrey Hunter.) The villains are always resentful slave owners or sore losers of the Civil War. There never seems to be any gray area, or at least not any that’s well shaded. That is to say, I can see Simpson tried to make characters with some depth and dimension, but it’s a prickly area to be sure. Teddy is the closest to straddling the two extremes, but he’s fairly colorless and boring. The murderer is plain from pretty much the moment they’re introduced (leaving it gender neutral for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled). Most of the characters have one chief trait and are otherwise cardboard. And I found Prudence obnoxious. She’s supposed to be “strong,” I guess, but you can be strong without being dislikable—yes, even if you disagree with the people around you. Simpson works so hard to give Prudence the moral high ground, when I’m sure almost anyone would concede she has it without all the high dudgeon. So Prudence mostly comes off as condescending, which makes her supremely annoying.

The use of conjure women in this book, too… Again, coming from some of that background, it just really bothered me. Simpson was careful not to be disrespectful (though killing a cat? no thanks), but I guess I always feel a bit wary when seeing these things depicted because there are so many clichés and solidified falsehoods in pop culture.

Some of Simpson’s writing style just wasn’t for me, either, and that’s a largely personal thing. For example, she head hops. One paragraph will be one person’s thoughts and/or from their perspective, the next will be someone else’s. This is a dated way of writing that used to be common some 30+ years ago. Like, it happens in Dune, which is considered a classic, and which I love. It’s basically third-person, omniscient point of view in that the “narrator” seems to know what everyone thinks and feels. But authors today are told to avoid that. And since I see it so much less now, it’s very obvious when it does happen, and very distracting. Also, Simpson seems to be one of those authors who likes to show how much she’s learned in her research. Details are one thing, but the need to explain stuff just to show you know it is another, and that’s what a lot of the “details” in this book (embalming!) felt like.

Anyway, mixed feelings overall. I don’t know if maybe I’d like one of the others of this series more? Since so many of my issues with this one stems from the setting… But if Prudence is as shrill in the other books as in this one, then maybe she’s just not a character I can enjoy.

Movies: Knives Out

Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson
Lionsgate, 2019
PG-13; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

_______________________________________________________

This being movie #1 of 2020. (I’m hoping to keep count.)

I have long been a fan of cozy mysteries in the Agatha Christie vein. So of course when I saw the trailers for this one, I had to see it. No one makes movies like this anymore; more often this kind of content goes to the stage, if it gets produced at all. (Certainly, there are still many mystery books published.) Anyway, after being disappointed by J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars, it seemed fitting in a way to go enjoy something by Rian Johnson. (Yes, I did like Last Jedi.)

Knives Out is a fun take on the genre. The viewers are fed the building blocks of the crime early on, and a fair part of the film is about watching the murderer attempt to elude Daniel Craig’s Southern-gentleman detective. But of course there is the standard twist. I saw it coming—I would guess many mystery readers will put it all together fairly swiftly—but that didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the film for me. There is a lot of humor and a lot of charm on show here.

Being from the South myself, I had many friends warn me that Craig’s Southern accent was terrible. Maybe they oversold it because it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Overwrought, sure, but I suspect some of that is on purpose as much of the film is somewhat exaggerated, as is common in the genre. Can I also just mention how glad I am to see Don Johnson getting work these days? Between this and Watchmen, he’s suddenly everywhere, and in great form. My guess is that casting agents are capitalizing on us 80s’ kids’ nostalgia by bringing back actors from our childhoods. Well, huzzah! Makes me plenty happy. (I was actually a bit too young for Miami Vice, but my parents were weirdly permissive in letting me watch it with them. I probably didn’t understand half of what I saw and heard.)

Anyway, without giving too much away, Knives Out is about the abrupt death of a famous mystery novelist, and the swarm of his greedy family. The death is at first ruled a suicide, but then a detective (Craig) is anonymously hired to look into it. Things are complicated by the fact that the writer left all his money to his personal nurse (de Armas, managing incredibly well considering she’s on screen for almost the entire movie). Suspense tempered by humor ensues.

In all, I do recommend this one for fans of a fun murder mystery. It’s a bit too easy to figure out (which is why I shaved a wee bit off the rating), but it’s a good time anyway.