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::

Gen X Vs. the World

I didn’t learn the term “latchkey” until I was much older and it no longer applied. As articles pop up around the Internet, all mentioning Gen X’s adaptability in the face of self-quarantining, they all also seem to think we had absent parents and more or less raised ourselves.

My parents worked, but they weren’t absent. As an only child, I spent a lot of time with my parents, especially on the weekends. Even if it was just going to the store or hitting up Burger King, we did a lot together. I never felt neglected. I was never sad to come home after school and have to let myself in (except on days when I’d forgotten my key). If anything, it was a relief to me to have the whole place to myself. After a day of social pressures at school, time without interaction was sacrosanct.

Maybe that’s just because I’m an introvert and need alone time to recharge my batteries. So, yeah, being asked to stay home now doesn’t feel like any massive hardship to me. We’ve got a house and yard and are making the most of them. (Thank goodness, though, that we moved into the bigger house last year, because if we were in the old house right now, we’d be strangling one another.)

I grew up able to entertain myself, both with and without a screen. Sure, I had Speak & Spell. But I also had books. Colorforms. I made up one-player versions of board games for myself. I had My Little Pony. I wrote stories. I went out and rode my bike or roller skated. Coloring books. I had learned to cross stitch. And if all else failed, I knew how to sit and think. I did not require constant input or attention.

Again, I don’t know if that’s a Gen X thing, or just a personal thing, or some blend of the two. I knew some kids who went home to empty houses and just as many that didn’t. I knew kids who seemed to need stimulation and an audience and just as many who were content to be overlooked. (I was somewhere in the middle, and still am—I like recognition, loved being acknowledged by my teachers, for instance, and now love the same from readers and peers, but I don’t need an unwavering spotlight.) We are, like any generation, or any large group of people, a mishmash of personalities. The things we experienced broadly were like the outer planets in an astrology chart—everyone shares those aspects because those planets move slowly. But our individual experiences were varied. For example, a favorite statistic for the Gen X kids is how many kids’ parents were divorced. And I knew a few people with divorced parents. But mine weren’t, and neither were many of my friends’. So… I was aware of single-parent households but had no real experience with them outside visiting friends who lived with only one parent. I don’t recall thinking it was weird or anything. It just was.

And maybe that’s Gen X in a nutshell. Things just are, and we accept those things and get on with life. “You do what you gotta do” is probably our motto. If I had to come home to an empty house, do my chores and homework, and get dinner started, that’s what I did. It never occurred to me to not do those things if they needed to be done. Rebel I was not, at least on that front. I picked my battles for the things that mattered most to me. Getting out of housework didn’t rank all that high, and I never minded contributing my time and effort to the family. I might not love chores, but they weren’t difficult, and I could entertain myself while doing them. I could think or sing or write stories in my head. No big deal.

Still, when it came time to choose whether my kids would come home to an empty house or not, I gave up working in publishing and stayed home. In part because publishing didn’t pay enough to cover child care costs, so I might as well stay home anyway. And in part because staying home gave me the chance not only to be there for my kids as they grow but to pursue my writing. So there are practical reasons and selfish reasons for the decision, as well as the desire to be the one to raise my kids and not miss out on those years. I like the idea I’m making memories for and with them.

Because, while I do have good memories of times with my parents, they are all a bit foggy and vague, too. Gen X tended to make memories with their peers more than parents or family. And sure, I want my kids to have fun with their friends. And I want them to be able to go to their rooms and entertain themselves (without the computer, iPad, or phone). I’m raising them with slightly less benign neglect as I was used to, but only slightly. Because I do want them to be independent and self-sufficient. I want them to figure things out on their own. But I also want them to know that coming to me in an emergency is an option. Which is maybe what Gen X couldn’t count on in our youth. Not necessarily because our parents didn’t care (I know some would say they didn’t, but I believe my parents did), but because I couldn’t just text them if something happened, and what could they do from across town anyway? Still, I lived in a neighborhood where I knew who was home and who I could count on if it came to that. That’s not so much a given anymore. And I always counted on myself first and foremost. Not out of pride. More out of an aversion to causing trouble for others. Out of the idea that figuring it out myself was a better option than going next door and bothering Mr. Kirkpatrick. I think I would have had to be close to dying before I’d have done that.

Where was I going with all this? I don’t know. After reading articles about how this is Gen X’s big moment, I just think: eh. Quarantine is maybe easier for us because we are so adaptable, and so many of us self-isolate anyway. But maybe that’s just true of introverts in general. Then again, being self-sufficient and figuring out how to do things when the usual ways don’t work seems to be in our nature. We’re problem solvers and innovators. And we know how to keep ourselves entertained, with or without technology. Damn, I wish I still had my roller skates…

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.

Life in the Fish Bowl

Some of you may know I live in the San Francisco Bay area. As of midnight Tuesday, we have been ordered to shelter in place. This means no leaving the house except for anything “essential.” Medical needs, groceries… putting gas in your car… And we were given leave to pick up necessary items at the schools so the kids could continue learning at home.

It seems to me that, even though the order as written delineates “essential” fairly clearly, people apparently have their own ideas. I was surprised at how many people were out and about yesterday, on foot and in cars. Well, our town has about 90,000 residents, so I guess if even 10% of them need groceries or have medical appointments, that puts a good number of people on the roads. And so many people in our neighborhood have dogs that need walking. We’ve been told we can take walks so long as we stay 6+ feet away from anyone else out for a walk.

Fortunately, we have a spacious back yard. If the weather would cooperate, we could swim, at least. Our pool guy says the chemicals in the pool kill the virus. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’d be nice to be able to swim anyway.

I’m learning to homeschool. We have a schedule, and we’re finessing it as we go so that it becomes something we can all work and live with. No screens for the first half of the day. We read, play board games, practice music, draw—anything that doesn’t require a screen is fair. Kids are allowed to do online school work after lunch and then have free time once that work is done. We also have morning and afternoon outdoor/exercise time. (With the rain the “outdoor” part has been spotty.)

Thank goodness, too, for the Internet. Could you imagine all this 20 or so years ago? (If you’re old enough, that is.) Yesterday I was at least able to order some cross stitching supplies to keep myself busy over the next few weeks. The shelter-in-place order is through at least April 7. The kids don’t go back to school until April 14 at the earliest, and now I’m hearing probably not even then. So much of this is waiting and seeing, and so much of it depends on people’s behaviors. People are unpredictable and don’t behave rationally, so when things depend on them doing so, well… Don’t bet on it turning out well.

Every morning, even before we were all home and this was our new life and routine, I go through the house and open the blinds to let in the light. Now, when I do so, I feel like I’m in a fish bowl, and like the house around us are other fish bowls, and we’re all just fish, swimming in circles in our little spaces…

You’d think I’d get more reading done, or more writing, but the opposite is true. Having to manage everyone else’s schedules and needs means less time for myself. That is the frustrating bit. As an introvert who requires a lot of alone time in order to recharge, being in a house full of people means my battery wears down very fast and I don’t get plugged in all that often. I could take the easy route and let the kids disappear to their rooms and spend all their time online, but no. I won’t be that parent. I’ll adjust. We all will. We’ll make this work, somehow, for all of us.

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.

How Sick Am I?

It’s time for everybody’s favorite game! How Sick Am I?!

It’s an honest question, actually. Each year around this time my sinuses get stuffed up. Then the drainage gives me a cough and causes me to lose my voice (or at the very least I begin to croak like a frog rather than speak). Sometimes things progress to bronchitis or pneumonia. That happened pretty much every year in Massachusetts, though since moving to California I’ve only had pneumonia once and bronchitis not at all. (Knocking on the wood of my desk now.)

Of course, these days having a stuffy head and cough can mean much worse.

In October of 2009 I had H1N1. Whatever I have now, it’s not nearly as bad as that. But can I use an almost decade-old experience as any kind of measure? I can really only go by the fact that these things happen to me every spring, and I have no fever. At the same time, not wishing to expose anyone to anything just in case, I’m largely self-quarantining. I’m fortunate that I already work at home. My husband’s company has likewise ordered people who can work from home to do so. (He can, and therefore he is.)

Our schools have not closed, though they have canceled all extracurriculars. A shame, since there were a number of things on the schedule. I was even supposed to help with a field trip next week… I guess if I’m still sniffly, it’s probably just as well not to go. But the high school orientation was scheduled for next week, too, and now I’m guessing that will be postponed. Sigh.

Illness is inconvenient, to be sure. I’m grateful that, as of now, it isn’t anything more drastic. An ounce of prevention and all that.

As for me, it’s always annoying to have the stuffy head and the lingering cough. I hate that I can’t sing along to music in the car cuz my voice is almost gone. But I know it could be so much worse, so I’m grateful that I’m upright and functioning. Now if only I could get this book written, I’d be golden.