Category Archives: Books

7 Hair-Raising Books & Movies for ‘Halloween’

What scares me probably doesn’t scare you.

At Halloween, a lot of bloggers do horror or ghost-themed posts. I’ve always avoided the genre – not out of snobbishness – but because I always end up sleeping with the light on.

Something has changed lately, and I binge-watched three seasons of American Horror Story without flinching! I’m living my best, devil-may-care life.

This a post about some of the scary books and films I’ve encountered recently. Stuff that creeped me out for…reasons. Mostly I just want to do a round-up post.

ELI (Netflix)

Why is it scary? Well, it goes something like this:

Viewer: Oh goody, a standard ‘sick kid in a haunted house’ tale.

Eli: WE’LL SEE WHAT SATAN HAS TO SAY ABOUT THAT!!

I don’t know what they were smoking when they came up with this. Like Annihilation, it was originally a Paramount piece, dumped on Netflix when the studio didn’t know how to market it.

A SIMPLE FAVOUR by Darcey Bell

Why is it scary? It’s a gleeful little domestic suspense whose main character, Stephanie, is that terrifying breed: a mommy blogger.

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A Simple Favour feels like a younger, less elegant Gone Girl. When fashion PR Emily disappears, leaving her British husband Sean and their young son behind, her deluded ‘best friend’ Stephanie sets out to discover the truth.

Debut novelist Bell mercilessly satirises Stephanie’s ‘Captain Mom’ routine. Of course I’m not so happy about the way she writes about us Brits. I don’t know what we ever did.

We get the perspectives of Sean, Emily, and Stephanie – via her thoughts and her inane blog. Ahem. They’re all liars, for different reasons. Emily is reckless and predatory; Stephanie is an insecure dolt. (A “fuzzy bath mat pretending to be a person”, according to Emily.) Sean is…Sean.

Emily’s grand scheme is dumb, but it’s less a true mystery, more a biting satire.

A SIMPLE FAVOUR (movie)

Why is it scary? Directed by Paul ‘Bridesmaids’ Feig, the adaptation of Bell’s novel veers unevenly between black comedy and thriller.

The performances are fun – Emily’s (Blake Lively) unhinged fashion designer boss (Rupert Friend) makes a hilarious cameo. Lively is perfect for Emily, while Anna Kendrick’s Stephanie isn’t just a bath mat, as she evolves from timid mom in cat socks to confident crime solver.

Avoiding spoilers, but Kendrick’s mucky secret doesn’t work on the screen. It’s just plonked in a flashback, when it is waaaay too lurid to pass unexplored or without greater payoff.

THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

Why is it scary? Noah, 4, is Haley Joel Osment. Booted from preschool for talking about guns and..Harry Potter, he hates water, and wants his ‘other mommy’.

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When Noey’s (ugh) doctors suggest schizophrenia (!) hysterical ‘mommy-mom’ Janie contacts past life investigator Dr Jerry Anderson. (Guskin includes excerpts from work by UVA’s Dr Jim Tucker, who inspired the book.)

Janie is dim for an architect, and rude and ungrateful to dementia-stricken Jerry, who is racing to finish his research. I felt greater investment in him as he considers his life, and tries to solve the mystery of Noah’s memories.

Early interactions with secondary characters involve many ‘encouraging smiles’ and eyes ‘welling with concern’ or ‘shining with sadness’. Once it gets going though, it’s an intelligent and thoughtful story about three families’ grief.

SERENITY

Why is it scary? The marketing department hawked it as neo-noir. I saw the trailer, and I swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker. It’s notorious for its stupid ‘twist’.

Set on a fictional tropical island, washed-up war vet Dill toils as a fisherman/gigolo, obsessed with catching a tuna he’s named Justice. Poor Djimon Hounsou is stranded as first mate and conscience.

Sexy thriller undercurrents arrive with Dill’s femme fatale ex Anne Hathaway, who wants him to have an ‘accident’ at sea with her abusive husband, Jason Clarke.

Then it gets really weird. I want to say this movie should be canned but Clarke blames culture-wide resistance to experimental, ambitious films. Hmm. Maybe like Eli, it could have found fame on Netflix.

LULLABY (THE PERFECT NANNY) by Leila Slimani

(translated by Sam Taylor)

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Why is it scary? It’s the infamous killer-nanny book that won prestigious awards and was one of the most hyped books of 2018.

I was worried it would be tacky or exploitative, but it’s a darkly literary novel, which explores themes of race, class, motherhood and domesticity.

The Moroccan-French Slimani is incredibly clever, and the prose is sublime – but I wasn’t sure the author had full grasp of her villain.

PET SEMATARY

Why is it scary? It’s not. But Jason Clarke plays another bad dad/husband.

I’ve never read any Stephen King (remember I have to sleep with the light on) but apparently King himself hails this as one of the best adaptations of his books.

Somehow, I’ve managed to watch The Shining, and in comparison, Pet Sematary seems like basic horror.

There are some well-publicised changes. The ‘child’ isn’t the toddler son but the older girl – and the young actress, Jeté Laurance, is excellent and would be perfect casting for a Greta Thunberg biopic.

Book Reviews Sally Rooney – NORMAL PEOPLE are overrated

You’re in so much pain you pass out. Before you collapse, you’re pondering your unearned cultural privilege and reductive iteration of gender theory. Meet Frances: communist, poet, and narrator of Sally Rooney’s coming-of-age debut set in post-crash Dublin.

Frances and BFF Bobbi study at the elite Trinity College. They encounter 30-something photojournalist Melissa, who introduces them to her actor husband Nick and their arty social set.

While Bobbi gets cliquey with Melissa, Frances has a desultory affair with the handsome yet passive Nick, who suffered a breakdown.

Before college, the girls attended high school together, where Bobbi scrawled “fuck the patriarchy” on a wall near an image of a crucifix. (She’s a rich anarchist who browbeats her fellow students with her “remorseless intelligence”.)

When not joining Bobbi in putting the world to rights on everything from gender roles to capitalism and police brutality, Frances self-harms, and mops up after her violent alcoholic dad. Bobbi ‘compliments’ her by saying she doesn’t have a “real personality”.

Frances has insecurities about her looks and working-class background, but consoles herself she’s smarter than other people. “I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me…” she daydreams, leafing through A Critique of Postcolonial Reason.

It would be OK if Friends were a biting Millennial satire. But it’s as earnest as its characters, and like being battered round the head with that copy of Postcolonial Reason.

I can see why it would appeal to young female readers who identify with Frances’ self-esteem woes. It’s much, much darker though – in terms of mental health – and full of doctorate level gobbledygook. Hardly the witty, sparkling delight people have been cooing over.

Normal People

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The couple who mope together…

Normal People’s third person narrative is shared between Marianne and Connell.

Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s rich family. At school, he’s a popular soccer player, while Marianne is an outcast. Terrified of what other people think, he ignores her, setting up a tortured on/off romance.

They leave small-town Ireland for Trinity College, where (like Frances and Bobbi) they’re the two smartest people enrolled. Aspiring writer Connell is further alienated by his working-class background, and suffers a breakdown.

Marianne revels in her isolated perch, with the scholarship exams a matter of needing her “superior intellect to be affirmed in public.” In another Friends retread, she’s beaten at home, this time by a brother.

During an on-again phase (and in an echo of Frances and Nick) Marianne (who feels herself “degenerating, moving further and further from wholesomeness, becoming something unrecognisably debased”) asks an uncomfortable Connell to hurt her during sex.

Described as a ‘modern love story’, it puts you through the wringer: depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, domestic violence, abusive boyfriends, death, predatory schoolteachers, BDSM. If this is a modern love story, do count me out.

Rooney again nails Millennial hangups, and doesn’t challenge them. She’s a young voice emerging ahead of the pack, pale and interesting in interviews, so smart you can barely understand her.

The Aftermath: BOOK vs FILM Review

It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.

The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. Among the scores who died in the firestorm, was the wife of non-Nazi architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).

Top British officer Lewis Morgan requisitions Lubert’s palatial home, but being a decent fellow, doesn’t send its owner packing. Joining the mansion share – it could be a reality show – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightly), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.

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If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry her husband would rather save Germany than confront their loss.

The obvious love triangle relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he resembles Skarsgård that it isn’t terrifying.

Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a payload on the book, with the final romantic twist axed, and Lewis’s political role reduced to nothing.

At least the cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and The Aftermath is picturesque enough to get you Googling “houses on the river Elbe”.

🍔🍔 1/2

The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

20190323_104422-02.jpegWe first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.

Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy – staying in the home of German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter Freda.

Rachael’s pretty, but provincial – not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’

Freda notes how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. But Herr Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. In this zero hour, they both want a better world, where people talk about what matters.

It’s a slow burn, two people brought together by loss – compared to the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.

Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, even he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.

With their parents busy, Freda and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.

The Aftermath has a compelling premise, and its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense make a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

🍔🍔🍔1/2

jane fallon book reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Tell Me a Secret by Jane Fallon

Jane Fallon describes her work as chick noir. I’ve never read any of the non-noir variety, but this is my third Fallon, and I looked forward to another fab read with a happily-ever-after.

I don’t expect a psychological thriller exploring the dark side of human relationships and our own worst fears,  but a self-effacing heroine turning the tables on a cheating fella with the help of a bubbly best friend. There’s revenge, but it doesn’t involve death, cannibalism and crime.

Well, maybe a little bit of crime, but only ever for a good cause, and nobody gets really hurt.

In Tell Me a Secret, Holly is a fortysomething professional, and this time it’s a job, not a man, that she ends up fighting dirty over. She works as script editor for a TV show. She’s just won a promotion, when her office pal Roz starts running a campaign to make her look bad in front of the boss.

Roz is an unholy terror, and Holly a bit of a meek and gullible sidekick, sharing in her gossiping and Mean Girl-ing. It’s a mystery how she got the promotion in the first place, and you despair for her when her idea of retaliation is to hide Roz’s scripts.

There are cliffhangers, dramatic twists, and over-the-top antics, but also suspense and a real edge: How are you supposed to react when you’re targeted by a workplace bully? The Rozs of the world excel at playing the victim, and funnily I’ve always found authority figures tend to fall for it!

But this is escapist revenge chick lit. Before becoming a bestselling author with the likes of My Sweet Revenge, Fallon was a TV producer on shows including Eastenders and This Life, so it’s a backstage world she knows well.

With its supporting cast of badly-behaved z-listers and raging egos, I can imagine Tell Me a Secret on the small screen as a bright comedy-drama .

It was a fun read for a difficult time.

🍷🍷🍷🍷

catherine steadman something in the water movie

BOOK REVIEW: Something in the Water….

While scuba diving on your dream honeymoon, you discover something sinister. Do you a) report it to the authorities b) speed away and pretend it didn’t happen, or c) get in way over your head?

Sadly some people – like film school grad Erin and her jobless banker husband Mark – don’t make good choices.

Catherine Steadman’s debut isn’t exactly a hidden gem. In the UK I couldn’t avoid the hype, while across the pond it was a New York Times Bestseller and a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. (Steadman is an accomplished actress herself, with Downton Abbey among her credits.)

With Witherspoon’s new production company Hello Sunshine set to make the Something in the Water movie, normally I would have been all over this like a shark in a feeding frenzy, but it was described as a ‘beach read’, which put me off.

Luckily, I took the plunge when Jonetta @Blue Mood Cafe recommended it!

After a much-admired opening chapter, we head backwards as our narrator Erin plans an exclusive London wedding and a honeymoon on Bora Bora, with sumptuous descriptions of super-first class travel and deluxe wedding menus.

Their showy lifestyle is funded by Mark’s job in investment banking, while Erin has a creative background and is working on a documentary about prisoners on the verge of release.

Her greatest catch is a gangland legend named Eddie Bishop, who knows a scary amount about Erin. But she has bigger problems; before the honeymoon, Mark lost his job in spectacular, escorted-from-the-building-by-security fashion.

Then they find something in the water that could literally change their fortunes forever – if they’re smart. Ahem.

The narrative is shadowed by the fear and mistrust caused by the financial crash, and the subtleties of the class system. When Erin visits the home of another one of her prisoners, she is paranoid about sounding condescending or bourgeois.

Yet while Mark – used to babysitting wealthy clients – flies First Class like it’s no big deal, Erin is a fish out of water. She quickly learns that having real money isn’t all about buying nice things, so much as it’s about avoiding the rules.

The sickly way Mark talks to Erin – like she needs constant soothing and reassurance – grates, but then she really ramps up the stupid, making rookie criminal mistakes (not that I’m an expert!) and being really, really slow on the uptake, so maybe he was right.

I know some readers expected more confrontation or climax, but the story is less about who the bad guys are and what they want, and more about what greed and dishonesty do to normal people, and how much we ever truly know each other, even that stunning Millennial couple with the perfect life.

“Careful what you wish for…”

🌴🌴🌴🌴

BOOK REVIEW: Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown

The Shoebill is a prehistoric-looking bird that exists in the marshes of East Africa. Scientists know that these intensely private creatures rarely raise more than one chick; a second is insurance in case the older one doesn’t make it.

A similar philosophy underlies the royal heir and the spare. The lionized firstborn is groomed to rule, but being a second-born royal can be trickier; modern spares must accept indifference and resentment from the press and public, especially as cute toddlers pile up in the palace nursery.

Such was the fate of HRH Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister to Elizabeth II. The Crown renewed interest in the glam yet troubled royal, whose star faded long before Diana arrived to swipe her tiara. Luckily for Princess Margaret’s new admirers, Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling was published last year to gushing reviews.

Subtitled “99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret”, he takes a magpie approach, including letters, palace statements, interviews, and snippets from memoirs penned by creepy footmen and VIPs who, er, encountered the queen’s sister.

Having only Netflix and Vanessa Kirby’s portrayal of Margaret as a spoiled, party-loving Millennial to go on, I didn’t know just how frosty and demeaning she could be.

The princess loved to party, and nobody could break protocol by leaving before her. She was drawn to celebrities, and the feeling was mutual – she was a princess, after all. Girls copied her clothes, while Picasso was among the many men who wanted to marry her.

But celebs and diarists also swapped horror stories. Of all the jaw-dropping anecdotes, it’s hard to top the time she turned to a disabled guest at a party and asked: “Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and seen the way you walk?”

Or when she was opening an old folks’ home and was presented with a specially cooked chicken dish. “That looks like sick,” she said.

While her sister was groomed to be queen and meet ambassadors and presidents, birth order discrimination pushed Margaret to the background, destined for a lifetime – as Brown puts it – of opening “scout huts and pumping stations.”

Ma’am Darling gets repetitive with examples of bad behaviour, but Brown throws in some counter-factual flourishes too, such as Queen Margaret delivering a DGAF Christmas speech.

There’s been speculation that Princess Margaret’s life was ruined by the Townsend saga – when she supposedly couldn’t marry her beloved Group Captain without losing her royal status and income. Brown doesn’t seem to buy the fairy tale, and is skeptical of the 16 years older Group Captain.

Princess Margaret eventually married Antony Armstrong-Jones, photographer to the rich and famous. The Snowdons, as they became known, lived a bohemian life, but the marriage was unhappy, with Brown even accusing Snowdon of ‘gaslighting’ – that terrifying common tactic of abusers and bullies everywhere.

Ma’am Darling is a whimsical book. I didn’t find it as hysterically funny as some critics did, and I got exhausted by all the ‘famous’ names from the mid-century arts world and high society. But Brown looks at Princess Margaret from many angles, that you pity her and dislike her at the same time. It feels like her life was never her own. 

👑👑👑 1/2

 

13 reasons why book differences

NETFLIX 13 Reasons Why – Book vs Show

Recently I read the new story collection, “You Think It, I’ll say It”, by Curtis Sittenfeld, whose work often features adult women still seething at the injustices of high school.

It made me want to watch Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, based on Jay Asher’s 2007 YA novel about a teenage girl, Hannah Baker, who leaves a suicide note blaming her classmates before taking her own life. Her note is actually a set of audio tapes, passed between thirteen recipients under threat of being exposed by a third party.

As nice kid Clay Jensen listens to the tapes, trying to figure out his place in the story, Hannah’s tale unspools in flashbacks. Played by Katherine Langford, she’s prettier and sweeter than an uptight, petty Sittenfeld heroine.

Each tape focuses on one individual, and a whole episode is devoted to that character and what Hannah says they did wrong, and about everything that was going wrong in their own lives, which, we discover, was a lot…

Because we move from mean girls and school cliques to sexual harassment, multiple rapes, victim blaming, abusive parents, fatal car crashes, gun incidents, drug addiction, self-harm and more. It seems like a lot of problems for a dozen or so under-18s, even if the cast do look more like 25.

Netflix even nightmared up a second season/sequel to Asher’s book where Clay – now straight-up cray – develops a saviour complex and runs an amateur rehab clinic under his parents’ noses, while Hannah’s absentee parents sue the school whose teachers lazily ignored a brutal culture of bullying and rape.

Supposedly a ‘realistic’ portrayal of teen life, they’re all feverishly conforming to that TV contrivance of ‘protecting’ their parents from reality, and being a ‘good kid’. Oh Netflix! We’re a few weeks into the UK summer vacation, and all I’ve heard are teenagers complaining about boredom and being unable to find any clean underwear!

That’s the immature demographic Netflix are targeting – and winning, by being edgy and smugly socially important. I get that certain aspects – such as the bullying and social pressures – hit home for many young female viewers, but the show is so implausible, bleak and slow-moving that I don’t get the appeal.

Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (2007)

After ditching the show before the end of Season 2, I was curious about the novel, so I checked the YA section in my local bookshop. “We’re not allowed to shelve that in YA!” cried 51syyO7qB5L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgthe sales assistant, nearly fainting, although he agreed it’s marketed at young people.

It was sold out, anyway.

Asher’s book is both gentler and sadder than the series. Instead of cramming in every social issue, it’s tightly focused on the mind of one suicidal girl, and Clay’s rising horror as he listens to the tapes over a single night.

At times their voices merge confusingly into one, and the premise still feels a touch far-fetched; I think if you have a dozen kids involved, somebody would have confided to a parent.

The school isn’t radioactive, but bullying goes on everywhere, and ongoing exposure can be a factor in suicidal behaviour. The book nails how hurtful gossip and rumours can be, and how one or two malevolent individuals, or pack leaders, can dominate a school or group.

Hannah clearly felt victimized, but as he listens Clay contradicts her – not because she’s a liar, but because of her mental state. He listens, powerless, as tape Hannah goes down a reckless, self-destructive path. (“You knew it was the worst choice possible….You wanted your world to collapse around you. You wanted everything to get as dark as possible.”)

He remembers Hannah withdrawing and avoiding eye contact, but he didn’t talk to her because of what other kids would say if they knew he liked her. He had no idea who she really was; he just believed what other people said. Then all the chances were gone.

It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age, and I think the message is supposed to encourage readers to be friendly and undaunted by toxic peer groups. Maybe schools and colleges could be easier for the Hannah Bakers of the world.

The number for the Samaritans in the UK is 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Further international suicide helplines can be found at http://www.befrienders.org.

Book Review: The Princess Diarist

Carrie Fisher once gave a cow tongue wrapped in a Tiffany box to a film producer who allegedly attacked her friend. My first thought was “poor cow”, and my second was “yep, that sounds like Fisher.”

It’s a tale that surfaced in October 2017, as #MeToo was going viral. Fisher was already gone, dying from sleep apnea and “other factors” in 2016 while promoting her memoir about life as teenage space royalty and the affair known as Carrison.

Having previously written about her addiction and Bipolar disorder, this memoir is based around the journals – which are really an opus to Harrison Ford – that Fisher kept while filming the original Star Wars (“the only girl in an all-boys fantasy“) and re-discovered while renovating her house in the Hollywood Hills.

She starts pre-Leia, ambivalent about following her mother, Singin’ in the Rain’s Debbie Reynolds, into showbusiness. Reflecting this, the shy and retiring Carrie:

  • dropped out of school to be a chorus girl in one of her mother’s Broadway shows
  • visited the set of Shampoo! when she knew there might be a role in it for her
  • auditioned for and attended the Central School of Speech and Drama
  • left drama school after landing her first big professional gig – Star Wars!

She admits she might have been kidding herself. For all the hardships actresses face, their daughters seem drawn to the limelight (including Fisher’s child Billie Lourd).

Carrie herself was born during Reynolds’ marriage to 50’s singer Eddie Fisher, who left his family for Liz Taylor – which, in Carrie’s words was “one of the great midcentury tabloid feeding frenzies.”

Although Fisher writes with her trademark wit, she was traumatized by her mother’s love life and her father’s abandonment, and undermined by self-loathing.

After successfully auditioning for George Lucas, she was ordered to lose ten pounds – and worried she’d be fired when she didn’t. She quips that although just 110 pounds, she “carried about half of them in my face”.

Insecurity makes girls easy prey. At a party the crew plan a “joke” abduction – before Harrison Ford intervenes. Soon they’re having “sleepovers” at her flat, with Fisher falling obsessively in love with the married Ford. Some rescue.

A selection of diary entries and poems from her journals take up the book’s mid-section. They’re not her best work, but are disturbing in their intensity. Fisher poured her heart out on paper because she couldn’t talk to Harrison – who to be fair, doesn’t have a rep for easygoing chattiness.

Fisher explains that she presented a false appearance, a “kind of ironic, amused, disenchanted creature.”

She must have just seemed like a hip, rising young actress from a famous family, living in a fancy London flat. With the Harrison affair, she was good at “hiding in plain sight, mocking the suggestion that there was anything going on” – a bluffing technique she says she’d use throughout her life.

Well-matched onscreen and hooking up off of it, Fisher still thought Ford was out of her league, destined for greater stardom. Was she bitter? “…not so you’d notice“.

Of course she could never have foreseen the phenomenon Star Wars would become, or her own enduring fame. It rankled to the end that, aged just 19, she had signed away all merchandising rights relating to her image for the “little space movie”.

In the final third of the book, Fisher laments “celebrity lap dances” AKA signing photos for money at fan conventions AKA “has-been roundups”. She discerns a lack of empathy among some of the fans – something Kelly Marie Tran, Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best might recognize.

But Carrie still had compassion for the “sweet and mystifying” fans who’d wait in line for hours, including the poor kid named Leia Carrie and the man who thanks Fisher for his childhood and walks off. She knows he didn’t mean his whole childhood, “just the good bits. The parts he escaped to”.

It must have felt like listening to the prayers of the galaxy.

Carrie Fisher is often remembered as a tough rebel leader with a strong sense of destiny and self-worth. Online tributes call her a feminist icon and a “bad ass” role model, skimming over her profound problems and confusing her with a fictional character. In this surprisingly raw book, Fisher’s wit and wisdom fail to disguise her lifelong pain, revealing a side to a woman who was deeply damaged, but charming to the last. 

***

Netflix Review: Mudbound Book vs Movie

“Mudbound is the Oscar movie we need right now,” admonished The Washington Post.

A female-helmed drama about two families – one white, one black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, Mudbound’s script is adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’). It’s perfectly-timed, with the industry under scrutiny for #OscarsSoWhite.

There was a landslide of articles emphasizing the tough shoot and the transformation of star Mary J. Blige, warning voters that the movie must not be overlooked.

Distributed by Netflix (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) Mudbound sees stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drag his kids and wife Laura (Carey Mulligan), plus racist father Pappy, to a dilapidated farm in the Mississippi Delta where the frequent rains strand them in acres of mud.

Their lives become entangled with those of their share tenants, Hap and Florence Jackson (Blige), who keeps house for the McAllans. They are joined by Henry’s brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and the Jackson’s son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), both returning from WWII Europe.

The veterans form a bond that riles Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law – although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she isn’t checking his shirts for lipstick, or taking her frustrations out on Florence.

Writers have described the movie as focused on Florence and Laura as two Strong Women whose differing views of the world are shaped by race and class etc etc. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders...”

This is an interesting projection, as – in what is a very long and slow movie –  writer-director Dee Rees seems to concentrate on the friendship between 6’2 leading man Hedlund, and quirky little character actor Mitchell, miscast as the noble Ronsel.

Rees keeps Jordan’s strategy of spreading narration between six characters, but Hedlund emerges as the hero. He’s more enlightened than his book counterpart – instead of being shocked by interracial dating, Hedlund leers: “Ever been with a white girl?“.

It’s a shame that, along with other splashes of dark humour, his drunken encounter with a hapless cow has been culled.

What the picture does achieve, despite its small budget, is a truly epic look, especially in the flashback scenes. We get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography, which earned her the distinction of becoming the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category.

Deferential Oscar voters also handed Blige a best supporting actress nod for doing little more than look dignified with her arms crossed, while Dee Rees earned an adapted screenplay nomination for turning a historical suspense into solemn prestige.

🏆 1/2

BOOK REVIEWS: Annihilation & The Book of Strange New Things..

I’m too scared to see the movie ‘It’. I know it involves an evil clown and sewers and things that float down there – and of course that it started out as a book by Stephen King.

Recently, I’ve been reading books that are being adapted for the big screen. One such pick was Annihilation, the first volume in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series, a novel that King himself called ‘creepy’!!

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer

Four women are sent by a secretive government agency to investigate Area X, a quarantined coastal zone in the USA.

The Biologist, the Psychologist, the Surveyor and the Anthropologist (no names) uncover a terrifying force writing on the walls of an uncharted subterranean tower: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Errrr.

And as if I had breathed in the spores from the cover, Annihilation is immersive, sinister, and genre-defying.

One issue I had was that it takes the Biologist’s field journal as source material, and while she may be happy spending hours observing lifeforms in tidal pools, I’m not! (The novel also flashes back to her life with her husband, who volunteered for an earlier, doomed, expedition.)

I hope the movie doesn’t end up feeling like Alien Covenant – scientists behaving stupidly while trudging through the wilderness.

Luckily, it’s directed by Alex Garland, who proved he knows a thing or two about creepy tension with Ex Machina!

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber 

From a woman of science to a man of faith. The King of the North has gone interstellar in the Amazon pilot ‘Oasis’.

It takes as its veeery loose inspiration Michel Faber’s (Under the Skin) melancholy novel The Book of Strange New Things – published in 2014 before the Netflix phenomenon.

The good book focuses on Chaplain Peter Leigh, who leaves his beloved wife for a job with a shadowy multinational, ministering to the native inhabitants of a distant colonized planet named Oasis.

Peter’s new congregation were introduced to the Bible by his (missing) predecessor, and they’ve really taken to it enthusiastically, calling themselves Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, etc. Their ‘faces’ resemble “a placenta with two foetuses…nestled knee to knee.”

To speak their language, Peter would “need to rip off his own head and gargle through the stump.” (Any linguists want a challenge?!)

It’s not a mystery or a religious satire, but a tale of grief and failure of communication – interplanetary email can be a bitch.

The Amazon pilot couldn’t be more different. It’s a budget sci-fi, and the sad heart of TBOSNT is gone. There’s no word yet on whether it will go to series, but the book is certainly worth the near-600 pages.

💙💙💙💙💙

I’m currently slogging through the latest Zadie Smith, but I should be back with a Wind River review soon……

Book Haul! Future adaptations Ophelia & The Lost Wife

Earlier this year I read Lion, about a little Indian boy, Saroo, who gets lost in Kolkata, and survives on the streets before being adopted by an Australian family. As an adult he tracks down his mother and sister in India by using Google Earth.

The incredible true story became a movie starring Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. I watched it and couldn’t help but be disappointed – it wasn’t a patch on the book. Yet if I’d seen it in theatres first, I wouldn’t have bothered picking up the memoir.

As a film blogger, I’d already packed my incredibly packed (not really) reading list with some future adaptations and it’s quite a mix – YA, historical, science fiction. I better get cracking before I’m tempted to laze in front of the screen. Here goes the YA/fluffier reading..

Ophelia, by Lisa Klein

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Ophelia by Lisa Klein

Get thee to a nunnery…not as passionate as Juliet, or bold and witty as Beatrice, Ophelia has always seemed a flimsy role.

But Lisa Klein’s re-imagining of Hamlet from his love interest’s perspective has forever banished thoughts of her as a tragic waif.

We meet Ophelia as a motherless girl moving to the court of Danish King Hamlet, with her ambitious father Polonius and callow brother Laertes.

Under Queen Gertrude’s slightly capricious care, Ophelia grows into an exceptionally intelligent woman whom I can see inhabited by Daisy Ridley. She catches the eye of Prince Hamlet, and becomes an expert on botany and herbology, curing the ailments of people at court.

What if she used those skills – and her formidable intelligence – to try to survive the tragedy that engulfs her family and Denmark?

I was a bit doubtful when I read that the characters talk with ‘contemporary language’, but it’s not “Yo Hamlet, your mother’s a total MILF.” (Gertrude will be played by Naomie Watts.) They don’t speak in blank verse, but there is a vivid sense of time and place.

As a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature, Klein knows the setting and characters, and the result is a very atmospheric YA novel with a genuinely impressive heroine, although I did find the final quarter heavy-going.

Wrapped back in July after shooting in the Czech Republic, the film will star George MacKay – who was very good in Captain Fantastic – as Hamlet, and Tom ‘Draco Malfoy’ Felton as Laertes.

The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman

Daisy Ridley is having a busy year (or two). In this, she is slated to play a young art student in WWII Prague.

Lenka, a young Jewish woman living with her well-heeled family, falls in love with a classmate’s older brother, Josef, who is following his father’s footsteps into medicine. They marry, but when he escapes with his family for the USA, Lenka’s own family are unable to follow, and the couple are torn apart.

This is well-researched (life in Prague before the occupation; the artwork of Jews suffering in the ghetto Terezin; the bravery of a few to produce an underground movement) but I couldn’t take to it.

Richman’s prose is flowing and romantic, but this is no epic, ambitious narrative. I didn’t believe Lenka and Josef were real people, while the secondary characters are very lightly daubed on the page, and their stories end (tragically) when it is clearly very convenient, which undercuts the tragedy.

I also have doubts about Richman’s decision to start the novel with the conclusion.

It’s hard to dismiss this as lightweight when Auschwitz and Mengele – names which strike immediate horror – appear in the text. Lenka’s choices and circumstances are naturally going to be heart-wrenching, but if I wanted to read a deeply affecting account of the Holocaust, there are plenty of books out there.

I suspect Richman just isn’t a writer I could enjoy. It’s far too early to say anything about the movie, but I hope they change it so that the ending….is at the end.

Next week, I review some forthcoming sci-fi adaptations….

BOOK REVIEW: The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls was one of the biggest, most hyped books of 2016. Debut author Emma Cline’s manuscript sparked a bidding war and was optioned by a powerful Hollywood producer long before it even reached shelves.

Amy Adams-lookalike Cline is young, enigmatic – and like the heroine of her novel – grew up in sun-kissed California. This coming-of-age however is set during the late sixties, and is (rather luridly) inspired by the infamous Manson cult and their brutal murders.

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The story is seen through the eyes of 14-year-old outsider Evie Boyd. Her parents are newly divorced; her father lives with his young girlfriend in another town, and Evie’s mother is busy dating and following every New Age trend going.

Evie studies the studio portrait of her late maternal grandmother, a famous, beautiful actress. “The realization was bracing” she thinks, “we looked nothing alike.” Poor Evie has a dour best friend who finds a new best friend, who then throws a drink in Evie’s face.

Bored and crippled by insecurity, Evie’s the kind of girl whom Russell Hadrick preys on. He’s teaching his followers about a “new kind of society”, that’s “free from racism, free from exclusion, free from hierarchy.” Only it’s not Russell, but his teenage lieutenant Suzanne, who holds a dark pull for Evie.

Some of the girls in thrall to Russell have vague histories of abuse and violence, but Suzanne’s a sly one – her past, motives and feelings for Evie remain obscure. During her long summer at the group’s decrepit ranch, Evie becomes less passive, and acquires coarser edges from Suzanne and co. as they scavenge, steal, and drop acid.

I can see why it’s been compared to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, another queasily authentic look at the horrors of being a rather unattractive and unpopular teenage girl. But the section with an older Evie isn’t so successful – Cline struggling to write a character much older then herself.

It would be a bleak and woozy debut about the forces that shape and ruin girls’ lives without the cult-murder backdrop. It just wouldn’t have been so hyped.

BOOK REVIEW: My Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon

In the summer, my cat makes me sit outside where I can’t get any WiFi. Apparently she is too scared to stay in the garden by herself, and just feels safer when I’m there.

I suppose I could spend my enforced no-WiFi time doing Yoga and meditating on how I became so devoted to such a demanding creature, but it’s actually a great chance to catch up on some reading.

My Sweet Revenge was written under the furry supervision of author Jane Fallon’s diva moggy Ollie (she’s a girl) Fallon-Gervais, so it’s only right it should be read while under the paw too.

Ollie has her own Twitter account (37,000 followers) and my familiarity with her social media antics clued me in that I would love Jane’s world. Not that Jane writes Ollie’s Tweets, of course.

So I really have to thank Olls – because this isn’t the kind of book I’d grab off the shelf. I know it’s not necessarily a popular term, but ‘chick lit’ isn’t generally for me. (Fair play to all such writers out there –  I would never have the talent to write it.)

As expected, Jane Fallon’s work has too much drama and deceit to be fluffy or girly. It’s chick lit written by an evil feline genius.

The heroine, Paula, works in a bakery (hence that mouthwatering jacket cover) and her idea of getting back at her (apparently) cheating husband isn’t just to fling a cream pie in his lying face.

(See? That would be the plot of my own romantic revenge novel.)

Paula and her husband Robert met at drama school; his acting career took off, hers didn’t. Robert’s not exactly Benedict Cumberbatch famous, more like second-billed lead on a soap (or ‘long-running drama’) famous, and beloved by the nation’s grannies. The couple’s teenage daughter Georgia is the only celeb sprog on the planet to not be an aspiring actress/photographer/model, and has her heart set on medical school instead.

Their life is shattered when Paula makes a discovery leading her to believe that Robert is having an affair with a gorgeous co-star named Saskia, who is married to a producer on their show Farmer Giles (!). Paula doesn’t confront her husband, deciding instead to execute a scheme for retribution that will make him fall back in love with her, while scuppering any chance he has of happiness with Saskia.

It’s playful, addictive, and about as likely as a sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, calorie-free pastry ever tasting good. Paula is a great main character – likeable and with enough gusto to keep the reader engaged. I honestly could not see the twists coming. The book has been an absolute joy and a great vacation read.

Verdict: I haven’t enjoyed a story set in an bakery so much since Pushing Daisies.

BOOK REVIEW: Lion (A Long Way Home: A Memoir) by Saroo Brierley with Larry Buttrose

In 1980s India, five-year-old Saroo, like many small children in poor communities, looks after a younger sibling; he has special responsibility for his baby sister Shekila. He washes and feeds her, and plays games of peekaboo. Saroo’s streetwise big brothers, Guddu and Kallu, take care of each other and little Saroo.

With no father at home, their mother works on construction sites, carrying rocks and stones on her head in the baking heat. Despite this hardship, Saroo is lucky – his family are poor, but they are, Saroo will recall, “reasonably happy”.

Saroo’s mother is warm and kindhearted, and people in the dry, dusty central Indian town watch out for each other. The little boy loves flying kites, chasing butterflies and tagging behind his older brothers when they hustle for food and money.blogbooks2

On one longer jaunt with his eldest brother Guddu, an exhausted Saroo is left to nod off on a bench on a railway platform. When he wakes up, it is dark, and his brother has vanished. Saroo stumbles onto a waiting train and goes back to sleep.

Childhood memory can be unreliable, but suffice to say Saroo found himself alone and trapped on a moving train, carrying him 1,500km east to the megacity of Kolkata.

There, people mainly speak Bengali. Saroo speaks Hindi, and is unable to pronounce the name of his town or his last name. (It later turns out he was mispronouncing even his first name – his name is actually Sheru, or ‘Lion’ in Hindi.)

He spends a unbelievable three weeks on the streets until an older boy takes him to a police station. When attempts to establish his identity fail, he finds himself first in a frightening juvenile home, and then mercifully in the care of a adoption agency, ISSA, and then flown to his adoptive parents in Tasmania – Sue and  John Brierley.

From the impoverished child with broken teeth and a heart murmour, Saroo grows into a healthy and amiable adult, a “proud Tassie”. Yet he never forgets India or fully moves on. Nobody can find his original home until a new technology – Google Earth -leads him to months of searching, eventually reuniting him with his past.

My thoughts (updated after seeing the movie)*

This is a remarkable story that captured the attention of the world. Reading Lion, it’s impossible not to have compassion for little Saroo as he finds himself trapped and terrified, then lost amid Kolkata’s immense Howrah Station.

Despite the pitiless indifference and random cruelty of adults – not to mention some of the sinister near-misses he had on the streets – the adult Saroo says that his journey left him with a sincere belief in the goodness of people.

80,000 children go missing in India each year, yet Saroo does not seem to suffer from the survivor’s guilt that was the driving force in the film adaptation*. Instead he emphasizes the importance of grabbing opportunities when they are presented.

Lion may now be a major Oscar-nominated movie starring Nicole Kidman, but I’m very glad it jumped out at me from the bookshelf first.

🦁🦁🦁🦁🦁

BOOK REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Passionate fans aren’t happy with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new play that (we’re promised) concludes the story of The Boy Who Lived.

The script is a collaboration between J.K Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and Cursed Child’s director John Tiffany, with the magic being brought to life at the Palace Theatre in the London West End. The release of the script was timed to coincide with the play’s opening, and naturally it has become a publishing sensation.

Unfortunately, some Muggles didn’t realize that Cursed Child is not a new novel, or a novelization of the play, but a play. Oops.

The action is set 19 years after Harry and pals defeated Lord Voldemort, and it revolves around Albus Potter’s and Scorpius Malfoy’s quest to go back in time to save Cedric Diggory. Why? Because the teenage Albus doesn’t get along with dad Harry, that’s why.

This immediately throws up problems, because time travel in Rowling’s universe has previously been a closed casual loop that can’t affect future events.

It’s surprising that Harry and Albus don’t see eye to eye – in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows Harry seemed very attuned to his son. Other students harassing the boy because of his famous dad is pretty believable, but again, I’m left wondering: does Hogwarts have any anti-bullying policies at all?!

Albus has been sorted into Slytherin with Scorpius, who has his own troubles. Rumours persist that his frail mother Astoria traveled in time to get knocked up by Lord Voldemort, because Draco is firing squibs. Harry isn’t happy with the boys’ friendship, which feels slightly unHarry, and more Ron, who is of course married to Hermione, now Minister for Magic.

Albus and Scorpius get their hands on a time turner, and thanks to some encouragement from Cedric Diggory’s cousin Delphi Diggory, Albus and Scorpius go back to the Triwizard Tournament to stop Cedric from winning with Harry and getting killed by Voldemort.

They succeed, only to discover that changing events means the future they return to is altered. Albus is now in Gryffindor and Hermione is a bitter unmarried Hogwarts teacher.

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The boys go back again to put things right, but only make things worse, ushering in a future where Voldy won and Umbridge is headteacher at Hogwarts. Harry Potter is dead, thus no Albus. Scorpius is in this mess all on his own.

This is the second act of the play, and it sees the return of Snape, still alive, still teaching potions and still undercover. He is joined by Ron and Hermione, who are hiding as fugitives. Thanks to their help, Scorpius is able to put things right and go home.

This is where the play’s biggest twist occurs: Delphi is Voldemort’s daughter with Bellatrix Lestrange, and she wanted the boys to change history so that she wouldn’t have to be an orphan. Only now does she realize that entrusting her plan to two confused adolescents wasn’t the best idea.

A lot of fans balk at the thought of Voldemort and Bellatrix having a relationship, but seriously – Voldemort got rid of his nose, not his….er, other appendages. As for Bellatrix’s husband, I guess he would have had to be OK with it really, unless he wanted to die in a duel with his evil overlord.

I’m not completely against a Voldebaby, but it feels awkwardly conceived, and just maybe that child didn’t need to go bad. Poor Delphi. Like her father she grew up orphaned and unloved and is irredeemable.

And as if poor Harry hasn’t suffered enough, the play has him and the gang (plus Draco) save the day again, forcing Harry to relive his parents’ deaths. Meanwhile, the memory of noble Cedric is corrupted – could humiliation really make him angry enough at the Wizarding World that he would become a Death Eater?

The script manages to be a compelling read. Scorpius is arguably one of the most endearing characters in the Potter world, and Cursed Child is as funny as Rowling’s novels. Still, I can get on board with fans’ disappointment. A script-book is no compensation for the magic glow of a new novel.

For now, I think seeing Harry, Ron and Hermione portrayed by a trio of real actors is worth the hassle and the cost of a ticket.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When asked to define history, as a graduating class are in this Man Booker Prize winner, most would say it is the events of the past and the study of days gone by.

In Julian Barnes’ novella, the flaws and misuses of memory riddle the reflection of unreliable everyman narrator Tony Webster.

Tony recalls the last of his school days, when his little clique was joined by Adrian Finn – more serious-minded than his new friends and ambivalent about his inclusion. They move on to university and to their adult lives, with the usual promises of staying in touch.

Years later, a letter from a solicitor and a mysterious last will and testament link to the past. Now retired, divorced, a father-of-one and still unremarkable, Tony tries to re-examine his past relationships and his connection to a youthful tragedy.

Stricken with remorse, he reconnects with a woman he edited out of his own history – the prickly and perplexing Veronica. This leads Tony, and readers, down a bewildering path.

The Sense of an Ending offers an observation of middle class mediocrity and insecurity, as Tony shifts his position on his own recollections.

He becomes a one-man revisionist school of thought as other viewpoints come to light, and old evidence – including an excoriating letter penned by the young Tony – is re-evaluated, evoking regret, responsibility, and the elusiveness of memory.

BOOK REVIEW: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland is a tale about identical twin sisters with hidden gifts. Growing up with a hostile, depressed mother and an ineffectual father in St Louis, Violet and Kate called their eerie dreams, insights, and premonitions their “senses”.

We follow Kate, the novel’s first-person narrator, as they take divergent paths through adulthood. Kate has suppressed her senses and taken the conventional route in life, living with her husband and their children in the suburbs, whereas Violet is a proud, rebellious misfit, earning a crust as a psychic and medium.

After a minor earthquake strikes, Violet has a premonition of a catastrophic follow-up. When she announces the date in a television interview, she becomes an overnight media sensation and the international attention rocks Kate’s domestic life and the siblings’ already tense relationship.

The chapters alternate between the present day fallout and the twins’ troubled back story. It covers a lot of familiar territory for Sittenfeld – such as awkward adolescence and self-identity.

Kate’s abilities are an innate part of her, and are presented as matter-of-fact. These extrasensory flashes are a blessing for the reader, as they help break up Kate’s mundane adult life and judgmental inner voice. As someone who enjoyed the extreme introspection of Sittenfeld’s other, rather similar heroines, Kate is irritatingly priggish.

Violet is lazy, stubborn, and delights in provoking her straight-laced twin, whilst Courtney – a work colleague and friend of Kate’s geologist husband – subtly ratchets up the sarcasm and cutting remarks.

Even if some of Kate’s choices feel unbelievable, Sittenfeld’s characters and the intricacies of female relationships are again depicted with an alarming – almost spooky – perceptiveness.

The ways in which earthquakes – romantic, emotional and physical – play out for the characters make for an absorbing conclusion.