Tag Archives: fiction

sadie novel on tablet

Courtney Summers’ Sadie raises vital questions

Following the murder of her 13-year-old sister Mattie, Sadie Hunter, 19, vanishes from their Colorado trailer park. Although radio star West McCray questions whether there’s a story in yet another runaway, he’s persuaded to follow the missing girl’s trail by her surrogate grandmother, May Beth.

But as West investigates, he realizes that he must find Sadie – before it’s too late.

The chapters switch from transcripts of West’s True Crime-style podcasts, to Sadie’s own narration. With their mother consumed by drug addiction, it fell to her to care for Mattie. In her younger sister, she found a place to pour her love; Mattie’s death drives her to take a lonely, dangerous path to revenge.

Courtney Summers has a knack for writing complex, ‘unlikeable’ (British spelling!) female protagonists. On one hand her heroine is easy to root for; on the other, she’s reckless, stubborn and doesn’t make ‘likeable’ choices, rushing headfirst into confrontations with male adversaries.

May Beth urged her to see her mother’s addiction as an illness, but this only triggers feelings of guilt for resenting the mother who neglected her.

The book questions how we respond to girls on the fringes of society; people demand niceness, politeness, even as they struggle profoundly. It’s not enough that Sadie suffers from a profound stutter, is an abuse victim, or is merely a “secondary player” in her own life – she should remember her manners!

It’s also a commentary on our tendency to see violence against girls as entertainment, akin to soaps or reality TV. Although it owes much to the true crime genre, it asks readers to question this fascination.

The identity of the killer is never a mystery. It’s not merely a hunch for Sadie – she just knows. It almost feels like we’re being set up for a revelation, or twist, that doesn’t come.

Summers has written a hard-hitting young adult novel with heavy themes. If readers can stomach that, they may yet feel cheated by the ending. Whether or not it’s designed to reflect the lack of closure of too many missing person cases, it worsens the punch to the gut that the book delivers.

Please drop a comment below with your recommendations for this genre.

Saorise Ronan on movie poster

Film reviews winter 2019-20

As it’s a new year, Slow to the Party would like to swiftly wish everyone a Happy 2020!

The weather is depressing, but I’ve bravely left the safety of my bed to catch up with the sorta-latest flicks!

Here are my smallish reviews. I’m not calling ’em mini reviews anymore.

Charlie’s Angels

After the negative press, I was disappointed NOT to feel bashed over the head with woke, man-hating propaganda courtesy of star/writer/director/terrible publicist for the movie, Elizabeth Banks.

It actually isn’t any worse than anything else I’ve seen. The plot is thin, which is frankly more of a relief in these days of convoluted blockbusters. ⭐⭐⭐ Speaking of…

The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve always been a big fan of the Skywalker story and the galaxy far, far away. But The Last Jedi undid the thankless groundwork laid by The Force Awakens. Screenshot_2020-01-01-13-57-40-01.jpeg

Skywalker returns the favour by unpicking Jedi. The Holdo ‘plot hole’ is flung from the future of the franchise, while Finn’s former love interest Rose wilts on the sidelines. Luke returns as a Force ghost, admitting it wasn’t really ‘Luke’ to exile himself on an island, milking sea cows.

As for Rey…I simply don’t care.

Maybe its destiny was always to disappoint. That’s what happens when you have a strict schedule, with no map.

Expect further, more satisfying revelations in the comics. ⭐⭐⭐

Last Christmas

In a toned-down version of her ear-splitting Me Before You performance, Emilia Clarke is Kate, a wannabe singer/actress slumming around twinkly London in a drunken fug, avoiding her overbearing mother (film co-writer Emma Thompson, inexplicably cast as a refugee from the former Yugoslavia).

A jukebox musical named for the 1984 festive hit by Wham!, one moment it’s a sub-par rom-com, then wham! (no pun) there’s this heinous twist. London’s homeless, played by a cast of twee thespians, provide the ‘heartwarming’ backdrop.⭐⭐

Marriage Story

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a self-made off-Broadway theatre director.  His soon-to-be ex-wife Nicole (Scar Jo) is a showbiz industry brat and former Hollywood It girl.

It’s unclear how calculated Nicole is, uprooting their son Henry to LA to consult with multiple lawyers, but Charlie seems to have the bigger battle – including convincing a judge that they are a New York family.

Nicole is bitter, combative and sulky. Charlie rages that life with was her joyless. She feels overlooked next to his genius, yet she’s the one who pushed for marriage too young.

They remind me of La La Land’s selfish creatives. The only real villains are the lawyers, the victim Henry. It’s a clever, accessible film with high re-watch and debate value. ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Little Women

From the trailers I thought this looked insufferable. Why can’t they ever cast to the book ages? Why can’t the March girls look like sisters not college roommates?

There was a spot of a backlash when Greta Gerwig was snubbed for best director, followed by another backlash along the lines of: “Well I’m a woman and I didn’t like it!” hot takes.

Gerwig’s moves are to highlight the novel’s semi-autobiographical nature, and play with the chronology, switching between 1861 and 1868. She also makes Amy (Florence Pugh) a pragmatic misfit in an unconventional family – a much appreciated new dimension to the character. ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Le Mans ’66 (Ford v Ferrari)

Le Mans tells the true(ish) story of how automotive designer Carroll (Matt Damon) Shelby teamed up with Ken Miles (Christian Bale) – a British racing car driver with a temper – to build a Ford race car that would end snooty Ferrari’s dominance.

Caitriona Balfe plays Miles’ long-suffering wife, winning over audiences with a ‘comic’ scene where she drives at high speed while rowing with her husband. There’s little about the seven-times-married Shelby’s home life.

More interesting than the central bromance was the rivalry between the crass, insecure Henry Ford II (veteran character actor Tracy Lett), and old world denizen Enzo Ferrari. Le Mans is a well-engineered, middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser that I couldn’t wait to see over the finish line.⭐⭐⭐

Helen Mirren in Catherine the great Press cuttings

Catherine the Great’s open relationship

In Catherine the Great – HBO and Sky’s new four-parter – the cast talk like they’re in The Crown (Jason Clarke does his own thing – more on him later). Luckily the big fur hats let you know you’re in RUSSIA.

With Helen Mirren playing Catherine, the series aims to provide a balanced image, celebrating her as a socially enlightened female ruler in a man’s world, while not shying away from the fact she ruled with an iron fist.

Politics and empire-building are just a backdrop, though. The true heart of the piece is slowly revealed to be the passionate bond between Catherine and her military leader Potemkin (Clarke), whose existing letters to each other show a loving, open relationship, and an almost modern way of working together.

In the series, Catherine has usurped her husband and their son. Amid tension with her military co-conspirators – including her estranged lover Orlov – she glimpses the swaggering Potemkin. Catherine likes hunky (younger) men, but she’s running a country, so she gets her lady-in-waiting to test his er, political prowess.

By hour two, we’re two years into the Russo-Turkish war. Potemkin has been away covering himself in glory, rising through the ranks. Catherine impulsively orders his return, only to ghost him. They try to make one another jealous, before having an awkward chat about their exes.

It’s true Catherine had multiple lovers, and her sexual liberation gave rise to fake news. Even now, urban legends persist – including the notorious slur involving a horse. Despite the recent press hype, Catherine and Potemkin’s onscreen romance is only steamy in the sense that they (eventually) kiss in a bathhouse.

They settle into domestic bliss, but, rather like the ‘action man’ Prince Phillip portrayed by The Crown, a (literally) thrusting Potemkin becomes petulant and bored. He wants to Make Russia Great, annex the Crimea, and shag half the population while doing so.

As Potemkin, Clarke goes from a clean-cut Aussie Don Cossack, to sounding and looking like the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.

Poor Catherine can’t live with him, can’t live without him. She pines for him and distracts herself with toy boys – some procured by Potemkin, who then has the comical nerve to be jealous.

The script reminds us repeatedly that she’s a brilliant woman, a patron of the arts, but she mostly indulges in sex, paranoia, and bickering with her son and council. It presents a sad case of living long enough to see yourself become the villain, tossing the Voltaire on a bonfire.

Its difficulty is having three decades of history, but only four hours. There needs to be a focus, and the series loses sight of it. Only a pivotal final scene goes a long way to redeeming Catherine the Great as a bittersweet mini-epic about one of history’s greatest love affairs.

Halloween book & movie mash!

At Halloween, a lot of bloggers do horror-themed posts. I’ve always avoided the genre, but something has changed lately, after I binge-watched three seasons of American Horror Story without flinching!

Now that I’m living my best, devil-may-care life, here are the scariest books and films I’ve…encountered recently.

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!!

A SIMPLE FAVOUR – novel by Darcey Bell

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.

We get the perspectives of Sean, Emily, and popular mommy blogger Stephanie – via her thoughts and her inane blog. Emily is reckless and predatory; Stephanie is an insecure dolt. (A “fuzzy bath mat pretending to be a person”, according to Emily.)

Implausible twists aside, A Simple Favor is a dark, tongue-in-cheek thriller and cool satire. (Although I’m not so happy about the way she writes about us Brits. I’m not sure what we ever did.)

A SIMPLE FAVOUR (2018 movie)

Directed by Paul ‘Bridesmaids‘ Feig, the adaptation of Bell’s novel struggles with the tricky balance of black comedy and thriller.

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

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

THE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

Noah, 4, is basically Haley Joel Osment. Booted from preschool for talking about guns and…Harry Potter, he’s scared of water, and wants his ‘other mommy’. When Noey’s (ugh) doctors suggest schizophrenia (!) hysterical ‘mommy-mom’ Janie contacts past life investigator Dr Jerry Anderson. 

There are many ‘encouraging smiles’, and eyes ‘welling with concern’ or ‘shining with sadness’. Janie is too stupid to be an architect (it’s as if Guskin picked it because she wanted her heroine to have a professional career). She’s rude and ungrateful to dementia-stricken Jerry, who is racing to finish his research.

Guskin includes excerpts from work by UVA’s Dr Jim Tucker, who was a loose inspiration for the character. I felt greater investment in Jerry as he ponders his life, while solving the mystery of Noah. The Forgetting Time develops into an intelligent and thoughtful story about three families’ grief.

SERENITY (2019 movie)

Notorious for its very strange twist, it’s one of the biggest box office duds of 2019. But the marketing department hawked it as neo-noir, and I still swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker.

Set on a fictional tropical island, Matthew McConaughey’s 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. She wants him to have an ‘accident’ at sea with her abusive husband, Jason Clarke – who blames Serenity’s failure on a culture-wide resistance to experimental, ambitious films. I’d say this movie should have been canned.

LULLABY (THE PERFECT NANNY) by Leila Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor)

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 a full grasp of her villain.

ladybird dvd with ladybug figure

Film reviews from the 2018 – 2019 Oscars

Lately, I’ve hated most movies. Where I used to watch any old thing, I withstood two minutes of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy before switching off.

I began to wonder if I was on a permanent downer. I decided to ease myself back into film-watching with some of the latest, more highly-acclaimed movies – after all, Oscars are a sure indicator of quality, right?! Errr…. First up:

FIRST MAN (2019 nominee) 

Having glanced at the Neil Armstrong biography First Man (Ryan Gosling) is based on, I expected it to be as entertaining as a double seminar on the physics of rocket propulsion.

It’s the practical effects that really excel; NASA was essentially firing men to space in tin cans. “You’re a bunch of boys,” rages Claire Foy’s formidable Mrs. Armstrong. Sometimes that’s all it takes…

I’d rather watch Brad Pitt fight Moon pirates tho.. 🐞🐞🐞🐞

THE FAVOURITE (2019 nominee)

A luminous Restoration-era comedy-drama, The Favourite is the fictionalized tale of ailing Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman) relationship with brash aristocrat Sarah (Rachel Weisz). They’re depicted as carer/patient, friends, and as lovers, with Sarah the power behind the throne.

Where Mary Queen of Scots was a traditional costume drama with a woke angle, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite is unconventional to its marrow.

Emma Stone, so insipid in La La Land, inserts herself into the bawdy period setting – and the Sarah/Anne relationship – with razor-sharp skill (plus a spot-on English accent).

Where women in power are as vile as the men. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

LADY BIRD (2018 nominee)

At her Catholic private school, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ (Saorise Ronan) is embarrassed by her relatively poor background, so she mean-girls to fit in with an edgier crowd.

Set just post 9/11, she can’t wait to ditch her hometown of Sacramento for college on the coast – upsetting her hard-working mother, frustrated that her daughter can’t be grateful for what she has. (I’d say putting a continent between them is clearly for the best.)

Even if Lady Bird needs to spread her wings, director Greta Gerwig makes their shared hometown look like bliss. It’s a love letter to contentment, and Sacramento.

Little Women still looks insufferable. 🐞🐞🐞🐞🐞

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2018 nominee)

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) believes local cops failed her slain daughter, so she rents three billboards with a damning message for Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), provoking his Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) into a conflict that escalates to Molotov cocktails.

In Martin McDonagh’s earlier, 2008 cult hit In Bruges, you felt sorry for Colin Farrell’s bungling hitman, even though he (inadvertently) shot a child. You laughed when he beat up the Canadian Guy. In Ebbing, senseless violence makes viewers wince, while racist thug Dixon never endears like Farrell.

A ‘dark fairy tale’, or just full of plot holes? 🐞🐞🐞

GREEN BOOK (2019 nomine)

Named after the pre-Civil Rights guidebook for African-American road trippers, Green Book is based on the true story of classical/jazz musician Dr Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) tour of the South.

Meant as heartwarming fare about the power of friendship, comedy is mined from the pairing of the refined Shirley with his driver/heavy Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), an uncouth, working-class Italian-American.

So feelgood, you could almost forget why it was called ‘Green Book‘!

Yikes, Aragorn really went to seed. 🐞🐞🐞

I, TONYA (2018 nominee)

This reminded me of David O. Russell’s American Hustle, so a no-go for me straight off the bat-on. It’s something to do with the camerawork or heavy-handed period detail.

Staged mockumentary-style (à la Drop Dead Gorgeous) I, Tonya follows 90s champ skater Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) connection to the attack (orchestrated by her husband, Jeff Gillooly) on her rival Nancy Kerrigan.

Tonya’s traumatic childhood and abusive marriage are set to retro tunes. She’s playfully presented as a gutsy chick sticking it to the snooty skating authorities who never gave her a chance. An interesting take, challenged by some…!

As exhausting, stressful as Margot Robbie’s frizzball hairdo. 🐞🐞

DUNKIRK (2018 nominee)

Christopher Nolan’s film about the evacuation of Allied soldiers in WWII sees practical effects again triumph. Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance do stoic bravery; pilots Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy do stoic RAF fighter cover, while young soldiers including Harry Styles run the gauntlet.

Historical disaster re-enactment. 🐞🐞🐞

What are your fave films that featured at the Oscars in the last two years? Recommendations please! Lx

sally rooney books on white background

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

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.

Grindelwald dvd on white table

Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald – film review

You’d imagine J.K. Rowling had earned enough goodwill that people might give her the benefit of the doubt.

But even before her Fantastic Beasts sequel started filming, there was controversy. Firstly it centered on her support for tabloid-stricken star Johnny Depp, prompting director David Yates to release a statement via his agents Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs…

“Duh, he’s literally playing Wizarding Hitler, like literally,” shrugged Yates. “Let’s hope nobody takes a pop at Eddie Redmayne and accuses him of drop-kicking a Niffler. Now that’d be a real PR nightmare!” he laughed.

Then a scene in the trailer supposedly broke canon, before the release of the official cast list drew fury for messing with timelines established in books/minds.

But J.K writes great mysteries and she doesn’t make it up as she goes along, right?

OK, there are some potential canonical problems here, but it’s only the second film of five. What’s worse is the critical consensus that it’s the worst Potter ever – that it has too many characters and confusing subplots,no clear protagonist, and exists only to set up later chapters.

To be clear, the first Beasts wasn’t fantabulous – my review was basically, “Wow how hot is Colin Farrell?!” However, I could see it was the start of a story that promised to tap into the richer HP mythology.

Crimes opens with an impressive action scene, even if the criminal was actually already free, and just wanted his escape to have a certain degree of flair.

Depp’s take on the character is more Black Mass than Captain Jack, but dark magic must take a toll, as Jamie Campbell Bower’s blond, handsome, spindly young wizard is just a mirage in the Mirror of Erised.

Grindelwald’s crimes include cruelty to cute critters (justice for Antonio!), murder, and nearly destroying Paris. He’s also guilty of making hot Dumbledore lovesick and mopey…after they spent a summer together in their teens, to put this in perspective.

The benignly manipulative Dumbledore has twisted Newt’s arm into protecting Credence – who is trying to discover his origins. And what a persuasive way Dumbledore has – “Hey Newt, you’re not popular, funny, or charming, but you do what’s right!”

So did Rowling have this new sibling twist planned, or did she come up with it between script revisions, à la George Lucas with Luke and Leia?

Well, there was a distinct lack of buildup. Audiences didn’t really finish the first movie speculating about a particular character’s parentage.

Of course Dumbledore always knows more than he lets on. “For the Greater Good” and all that – old ways die hard. Personally, I’ve always suspected he broke his dad out of Azkaban.

🧙🧙1/2

It’s fantastic Rowling is adding to the mythology of her world. I hope she stays true to her vision. Shame she didn’t leave this new franchise simmering in the cauldron for a bit longer.

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 (Jason Clarke) 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 Knightley), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.

Screenshot_2019-06-29-19-47-05-01.jpeg

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.

(Personally, I find Clarke a far more attractive option.)

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.

The cast try to do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and things are picturesque enough to want to Google “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 widowed 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 notices 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 their feelings.

It’s a slow burn between 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, 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. Its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense lead to a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

🍔🍔🍔1/2

Tell Me a Secret by Jane Fallon – book review

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

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…”

🌴🌴🌴🌴

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.

book adaptation pile

Page to screen book haul! Ophelia, Annihilation, Oasis, The Lost Wife

Earlier this year I read Lion, the true story of a little boy who survives the streets of Kolkata before being adopted by an Australian family. Years later, he tracks down his mother in rural India using Google Earth.

It became a hit movie, which inspired me to get cracking with more novels destined to reach our screens!

Ophelia, by Lisa Klein, finished filming in July after shooting in the Czech Republic, with Daisy Ridley in the title role. 

Lisa Klein’s re-imagining of Hamlet from his love interest’s point of view has forever banished thoughts of Ophelia as a tragic waif. When the story opens she’s a motherless girl moving with her ambitious father Polonius and callow brother Laertes to the court of Danish King Hamlet.

Yet under Queen Gertrude’s capricious care, Ophelia grows into an intelligent woman. She becomes an expert in botany and herbology, learning to cure the ailments of people at court. To escape the tragedy engulfing her country, she uses those skills to feign madness and death.

I was a bit doubtful when I read that the characters talk with ‘contemporary language’, but it’s a far cry from “Yo Hamlet, your mother’s a total MILF.” (Gertrude will be played by Naomi Watts.)

There is a vivid sense of time and place – Klein is a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature. It’s an atmospheric YA novel with an impressive heroine, useful for young readers wanting to gain a better understanding of Shakespeare.

The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman: Production status unknown!

Daisy Ridley is having a busy time! In The Lost Wife, she is slated to play Lenka, a young art student living with her well-heeled Jewish family in pre-WWII Prague. She falls in love with a friend’s older brother, Josef, who is following his father’s footsteps into medicine.

While Josef escapes with his family for the USA, Lenka’s own family are sent to the ghetto Terezin, where art became a way to resist the Nazi regime. She joins the underground painters’ movement, who managed to smuggle their work to the outside world. 

Author Richman studied art history, and she’s written a very, glamorous, beautiful novel which is perfect for fans of this genre of Holocaust chick lit. 

There seems to be few updates about the potential movie, but I hope they change it so that the ending….is at the end.

Annihilation (Southern Reach #1) by Jeff VanderMeer, is soon to be released on Netflix in the UK.

Four women are sent by a secret government agency to investigate Area X, a stretch of quarantined coast in the USA. 

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

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

It does take the Biologist’s field journal as source material, and while she’s content 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 like Alien Covenant,  with 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, which is now an Amazon pilot, renamed Oasis.

From a woman of science to a man of faith – King of the North Richard Madden has gone interstellar, playing a chaplain in budget sci-fi Oasis, which also stars Haley Joel Osment.

The pilot takes as very loose inspiration Michel (Under the Skin) Faber’s melancholy novel The Book of Strange New Things (published in 2014). Chaplain Peter Leigh leaves his beloved wife to work for 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. They’ve 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?!)

A monumental, genre-defying novel about grief, it seems very unlikely that the pilot will go to series. 

My Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon – book review

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.

Mini movie reviews for 2016!

It’s February. That means cold, freezing weather. It is also the culmination of the awards season. Yes, it’s nearly time for the biggest, glitziest celebrity ceremony of the year – the Oscars! Chilly, horrible weather, and awards season? I think I better start with…

THE MARTIAN

Ridley Scott’s latest space offering is set on the red planet, where things get pretty cold for NASA botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), abandoned ET-style by his team.

Based on the 2011 Andy Weir novel, the scenes on Earth are as dry as Martian soil. Mars looks like a fab destination, though – the astronauts even have cool space suits in a kind of burnt amber that match the scenery. It’s a fun ride about human ingenuity and the will to survive.

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SICARIO

In the brutal war on drugs, idealistic young FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt) makes a  gruesome discovery in Arizona. She gets hauled into a narcotics task force led by the morally ambivalent Matt (Josh Brolin), and his even shadier partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). In Sicario, the good guys fight dirty.

Blunt is wide-eyed and vulnerable – but not so much to be miscast as a door-kicker rolling with Delta Force. She’s the audience’s proxy, not driving the story forward so much as along for the ride.

Del Toro is so enigmatic he makes waking up from a nap compelling. Kate appears drawn to him, even if he scares her. He wants to protect her, even as he threatens to kill her. Intense stuff.

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THE DANISH GIRL

Save all your tears for The Danish Girl, a lavish costume drama based on 1920s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.

We first meet Lili-as-Einar, happily married to fellow painter and illustrator Gerda (Alicia Vikander). They are devoted to one another, with a circle of friends (including an earsplitting Amber Heard) who love hearing about their blissful wedded life.

The second Lili holds up a dress for Gerda, she realizes that the midwife who assigned her the role of ‘boy’ was greatly mistaken. Mistreated until she meets a humane physician, she becomes one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, before antibiotics or immunosuppressive drugs.

“I am… entirely… myself,” flutters a deeply unconvincing Redmayne from his death bed.

A blank canvas for the talents of the fiery Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl feels like it should have been released 20 years ago, yet is still bound to find an audience willing to treat it with reverence.

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ROOM

Little Jack and his Ma (Brie Larson) are locked in a soundproofed shed they call “Room”. Their captor, Old Nick, snatched a teenage Ma – real name Joy Newsome – years prior. (It shouldn’t need spelling out, but Jack is the result of Old Nick’s nighttime assaults on Joy.)

Mother and son pull off a rather implausible escape, waking up in a hospital with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a vast cityscape, which seemed like a rapid adjustment for two people used to a cramped room with only a skylight.

Room is a fab showcase for Larson (nobody is taking her Oscar away).  Like the novel by Emma Donoghue that it is based on, all the film’s action – violence, suicide attempts – are seen through the innocent eyes of little Jack. At least on the page the kid isn’t so screechy.

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CAROL

Trapped behind a toy counter in a Manhattan department store for the holidays, Therese (looking like a festive fawn in a Santa hat) is dreaming of a creative life as a photographer. Across a blur of Christmas shoppers she locks eyes with a statuesque beauty – Cate Blanchett’s titular blue-blooded 1950s socialite.

Blanchett plays her as a free spirit, with hint of something predatory. Their acquaintance becomes a love affair – dangerous for the times, especially if Carol’s wonderfully-named husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) has anything to do with it.

Every frame is beautiful, but the lack of right-on wrath may make it too removed for some.

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CRIMSON PEAK

Despite having been marketed as horror, don’t expect Crimson Peak to deliver scares like The Woman in Black.

Set in the early 20th Century, aspiring writer Edith (Mia Wasikowska) falls for British aristocrat Tom Hiddleston, who is trying to convince her Pa to invest in his mining inventions.

Although Pa dislikes both Hiddles and his Brontë mean girl sister Jessica Chastain, Edith marries Hiddles and returns to England to live at his decomposing goo-mansion, where gross red clay oozes through the walls and floorboards. Oh, and there’s a ghost, too.

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