Tag Archives: book reviews

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 concept of 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 when cute toddlers pile up in the palace nursery.

Such was the fate of HRH Princess Margaret Rose, younger sister to Elizabeth II. The Crown has 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 arrived 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.

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Bought from Amazon UK. I give Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown 👑👑👑 1/2

The princess definitely 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 meant Margaret was pushed to the background, destined for a lifetime – as Brown puts it – of opening “scout huts and pumping stations.”

Ma’am Darling almost 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/Show Review

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 about 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 avoided talking to her partly 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 less about trying to ‘save’ others, as it is to reach out, and 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.

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. (Kelly Marie Tran, Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best might agree.)

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. 

***

Mudbound – historical page-turner becomes solemn NETFLIX prestige

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

The female-helmed drama about two families – one white, the other black – living side by side in the Jim Crow South, seems to embody the term “Oscar bait”, with its all-star cast and script adapted from Hillary Jordan’s 2006 Bellwether Prize-winner (for ‘socially engaged fiction’).

It is also extremely well-timed; it follows in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, and appears during a season when the industry is under scrutiny for its systemic sexism.

One snag – Mudbound is distributed by the inexperienced awards player Netflix, and voters apparently remain sniffy about a streaming service project that shuns traditional theatrical runs.

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

For me, Mudbound’s Netflix berth (there were no other takers following its Sundance premiere) meant I actually got to see it – while I can’t compare it to its competition, as Oscar movies tend to reach UK screens after awards season.

Narrated by members of both the McAllan and the Jackson families, the story unfolds when stubborn Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) drags his prim wife Laura (a simpering Carey Mulligan) and their small children to a dilapidated shack/farm in the Mississippi Delta, where the frequent rains leave them stranded in acres of mud.

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

The veterans form a bond that riles racist McAllan patriarch Pappy, while Laura becomes infatuated with her brother-in-law (although unlike the prickly character of Laura in the book, she doesn’t check his shirts for lipstick, or take her frustrations out on Florence).

Some 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. According to Refinery39, “both women…feel the growing weight of a patriarchal society bearing down on their shoulders...”

This is an interesting projection, as writer-director Dee Rees concentrates on the friendship between two men. 6’2 leading man Hedlund’s Jamie is portrayed as more heroic and enlightened, while Ronsel (as played by quirky little character actor Mitchell) is far less remarkable than his book counterpart.

There is a frightening and brutal scene near the end, but so much of Jordan’s historical page-turner has been cut (including a drunken Jamie’s comic encounter with a hapless cow) that I can’t work out why the movie is still a two hour-plus slog.

With a small budget and short shoot, it has a sparse yet epic feel, especially in the flashback scenes, and we get lots of stunning farmland vistas courtesy of Rachel Morrison’s cinematography (the first woman to be Oscar nominated in the category).

Blige got 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 compulsively readable historical suspense into solemn prestige.

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: 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. 5 stars.

Sunshine Blogger Award #2

This is the second time I’ve been nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award, and this time it is thanks to Jason’s Movie Blog!! Hi Jason, hope all is well, sending you happy thoughts across the blogosphere.

The Sunshine nomination rules:

  1. Thank the person(s) who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog
  2. Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you
  3. Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions
  4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post and/or on your blog.

Here are my responses to Jason’s 11 questions:

  • Question #1 – What was your favorite movie of 2016?

I’d say Rogue One or Jackie.

  • Question #2 – What was your least favorite movie of 2016?

Tarzan was a waste of time.

  • Question #3 – What is your most anticipated movie of 2017?

The Last Jedi.

  • Question #4 – What is your favorite food?

Chocolate

  • Question #5 – If you could attend a 2017 movie premiere, what movie would it be?

Ghost in the Shell or…The Last Jedi.

  • Question #6 – And who would you bring with you?

I’d probably see if one of my fellow bloggers was around London and wanted to come along. I don’t really mix my writing and my real life.

  • Question #7 – Where do you rather venture to
. Narnia or Middle-Earth?

The childhood me would have said Narnia, but then those films happened. How do you get to Middle Earth? Middle Earth, depending on the travel arrangements.

  • Question #8 – Have you ever attended an advance screening for a movie?

There have been a few offers but I haven’t been able to.

  • Question #9 – Favorite movie quote?

“I am your father!” Ha ha, I don’t have one really! But I loved the conversation The Priest (the late John Hurt) has with Portman in Jackie.

  • Question #10 – Beyond blogging, what do you (as a job)?

Sleep a lot. No, I study!

  • Question #11 – Do you ever sneak in food / drinks when you go to the movies / cinemas?

Maybe.

Nominations: 

I’m just going to take the time to say hello to the following people. It’s been great to read your writing and even to interact on here from time to time. So hi, and thanks for all your posts!

My own questions, if anyone wants to run the nomination on their blog:

  • Favourite hero of fiction?
  • Early bird or night owl?
  • La La Land – overrated, yes or no?
  • Top travel tip?
  • Are there any words or phrases you overuse?
  • What is your idea of the perfect day?
  • Are there any movie/book genres you don’t watch/read?
  • You can only have movies or books. You would choose…
  • Any one thing that always motivates you to blog?
  • Fast reader or slow?
  • Is there a creative talent you wish you had?

That’s it guys! Thanks everyone. Lx