Tag Archives: book

Red Sparrow book vs movie review

Jennifer Lawrence stars in this grisly thriller as Dominika, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose dance career is kiboshed when her clumsy partner (Sergei Polunin from Orient Express) delivers a gruesome, bone-shattering injury during a live performance.

Dominika’s uncle Vanya doesn’t believe in bad luck. High up in Russian Intelligence, he informs her that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, provoking Dominika to club them with her walking stick.

After forcing her to seduce a gangster in scenes that end in a bloodbath, Vanya recruits his niece for sexpionage, shipping her off to become a ‘Sparrow’. She’s then deployed to Budapest to entrap a CIA agent called..drum roll..”Nate Nash” – yes really – who is handling a Russian mole, code named MARBLE.

Who is MARBLE? I’m not saying, but Nate Nash shares more chemistry with them during a brush-past in a nighttime park than he does in an entire movie with JLaw, who has unfortunate magnetism with Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The comparison was inevitable, but Red Sparrow isn’t a Black Swan-style psychological thriller. It’s also not the action movie you might expect – there aren’t any scenes where Dominika uses her dance skills to shimmy between laser beams or strangle adversaries with her thighs.

Instead it’s a bleak thriller that defines itself with icky, graphic nudity and sadistic violence, all while garroting itself with gibberish like the scene where Dominika alters her appearance with a home hair dye kit, transforming from raven to platinum. If only!

It doesn’t help the authenticity, especially when it’s already a stretch to buy the premise that a limping Moscow ballet star could slip undercover for Mother Russia.

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Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)

Director Francis Lawrence decided against having an actor portray the real-life Russian president in the movie, because he was too scared it would have been a “different movie”! (Like that would have been a bad thing?!)

Putin does get to feature in Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel. The movie had already set the barre (haha) pretty low for me, so I really only expected a trashy airport read. But the author is former CIA, and the novel bristles with tradecraft and insights into modern Russia.

Dominka is born into privilege – her parents a revered former musician and a revered academic – and she’s a child prodigy with the curious gift of synaesthesia.

She studies at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, until a rival ends her promising future. When her father dies, her uncle reels her into his dirty work before offering her a clerical role, which she rejects, demanding entry to the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR) – the first woman to be admitted.

Book Dominika is fiercely idealistic and patriotic, wanting to serve her country in an elite job. She finds herself belittled as a female operative and abused and betrayed, before she turns double agent, whereas movie Dominika is more out for herself.

She spars with Nate over politics, but ultimately their romance felt pretty tepid on the page too. Uncle Varya doesn’t look like Matthias Schoenaerts, and there are no incest overtones.

It’s still quite icky, and they torture the shit out of people – the filmmakers didn’t go out on a limb in that regard! But it’s an ambitious thriller that might have been improved with a series.

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catherine steadman something in the water movie

Something in the Water, future movie, Reese Witherspoon

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, and 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 gangland legend 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…”

🌴🌴🌴🌴

girl dressed as princess margaret

Ma’am Darling – Picasso wanted to marry Princess Margaret!

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 dynamic of the royal heir and the spare. While the lionized firstborn is groomed to rule, being second-born 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.

This 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 had 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. He includes letters, palace statements, interviews, snippets from memoirs penned by creepy footmen, plus anecdotes from VIPs who, er, encountered the queen’s sister.

Having only 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, but 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.”

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

Ma’am Darling becomes 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 accusing Snowdon of ‘gaslighting’ – that terrifying common tactic of abusers and bullies everywhere.

A whimsical book, I didn’t find Ma’am Darling as hysterically funny as some critics. 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, you pity her and dislike her at the same time.  

👑👑👑 1/2

 

13 reasons why book differences

Netflix 13 Reasons Why – book vs show

Recently, I read “You Think It, I’ll Say It.” It’s a new book of short fiction by Curtis Sittenfeld, an author 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, the show based on Jay Asher’s 2007 young adult novel. A high school student, Hannah Baker, leaves a suicide note in the form of audio cassettes, accusing thirteen (mostly) classmates of bullying her. The tapes are passed around this baker’s dozen, under threat of exposure by a third party.

As nice kid Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) 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, sweeter than an uptight, petty Sittenfeld heroine.

Each tape focuses on one individual, with a whole episode devoted to that character and what Hannah says they did wrong. We also see everything that was going wrong in the accused kids’ lives – which, we discover, was a lot…

‘Cos 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, running 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, of 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 – even winning, by being edgy and smugly socially important. Even if the bullying or social pressures hit home for many young female viewers, the show is so implausible, bleak and slow-moving I can’t appreciate its 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, while 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, with ongoing exposure a potential 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, but he didn’t speak to her in case other kids teased him. Then all the chances were gone.

It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age. I think readers are being encouraged to be kinder, to be less daunted by toxic peer groups. Maybe then 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.

girl with princess diarist book

The Princess Diarist – opus to Harrison Ford

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“). She rediscovered them while renovating her Hollywood Hills home.

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 – then 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 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. Online tributes call her a feminist icon and a “bad ass” role model, skimming over her profound problems – essentially 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. 

***

Lion book with earth

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 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 neighbours in the dry, dusty central Indian town seem to watch out for each other. The little boy loves flying kites, chasing butterflies and tagging behind his brothers as they hustle for food and money.

One time 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 Guddu has vanished. Saroo stumbles onto a waiting train and goes back to sleep.

Childhood memory can be unreliable, but suffice to say Saroo finds himself alone and trapped on a moving train, carrying him 1,500km east (he will later learn) 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 three weeks on the streets until a stranger takes him to a police station. When attempts to establish his identity fail, he passes through a frightening juvenile home into the care of a adoption agency, ISSA, before being 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. Against all odds, he’s eventually reunited with his long-lost family after tracing his hometown on Google Earth – a feat that made global headlines. 

It is reported that 80,000 children go missing in India each year, and despite the pitiless indifference and some sinister near-misses he encountered on the streets, Saroo has been left with a sincere belief in the goodness of people, and the importance of seizing opportunities.

A Long Way Home is as broadly appealing and crowd-pleasing as Lion – the new Oscar-nominated adaptation starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. It offers more information about both his birth and adoptive families, and on the page, is even more awe-inspiring and courageous. 

🦁🦁🦁🦁🦁

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – a review

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.