Friday, November 27, 2015

Television Series Review - Murder Rooms

Murder Rooms
Inspired by the life and works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Release Date: 2000-2001
Starring: Ian Richardson, Charles Edwards, Simon Chandler, Mossie Smith, Malcolm Sinclair, Dermot Crowley, Sean Wightman, Caroline Carver, Beatie Edney, Ben Macleod, Robin Laing, Claire Harman, Dolly Wells, Alexander Armstrong, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Rik Mayall, Charles Dance, Annette Crosbie, Paul McNeilly, Anton Lesser, John Sessions, Ronald Pickup, Nick Haverson, Roger Lloyd Pack, Ian McNeice, Clare Holman, Warwick Davis, Matthew Macfadyen, David Hayman, Ruth Platt, and Henry Ian Cusick
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Arthur Conan Doyle has gotten his medical degree from Edinburgh and set up practice in Portsmouth. Though the patients aren't exactly beating down the doors; in fact the longevity of his practice is a source of concern to those who care for him. One outlet to fill his time is to write stories, many of which get published. Yet his greatest literary creation is yet to come, and he will be based on his close friend and mentor, Dr. Joesph Bell. Dr. Bell is still working up in Edinburgh, but he finds the time to journey south and visit his most favorite student as often as possible. It doesn't hurt matters that Conan Doyle has started to partake in one of Dr. Bell's favorite pastimes, amateur crime solving. The sleuthing starts innocently enough with Conan Doyle trying to help one of his patients. With the arrival of Dr. Bell they become a detecting duo, much like Sherlock Holmes and Watson will be in the future. And once the duo are known to the police, they are invited to help on other cases, especially in the morgue where they are short staffed and men with medical knowledge are needed. The two insinuate themselves into adventures concerning Spiritualism, Fenians, and even soldier's with PTSD. They connect with their cases on many levels, some of which are personal. But only one thing is certain, the origins of the greatest literary consulting detective of all times was anything but staid. The dark beginnings of Sherlock Holmes are as memorable as the great detective himself.

Murder Rooms had it's origins in the TV movie Dr. Bell and Mr. Doyle, an uneven production that scandalously underused Matthew Macfadyen, had ludicrous wigs, a Doyle that could be outwitted by even the dumbest of Watsons, the requisite doomed love affair, and a tendency to stop and laboriously draw the connection between the real Dr. Bell and his fictional counterpart Sherlock Holmes. But for all that it was a clever conceit, to take truth and spin it into the most famous of fictions. Because that's where the genius lies. This show, at it's core, is based on truth. Not many people realize that Sherlock Holmes didn't spring fully formed from the mind of Arthur Conan Doyle. He in fact had a very real counterpart in Doctor Joseph Bell. The future author was a medical student when he met Bell in 1877 when Conan Doyle served as a clerk in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Bell was known for his keen observational eye and often helped the police with their investigations. Bell inspired Conan Doyle with his unique methods and the man himself was in fact flattered to know that he was, however loosely, the impetus for the detective that seized the imagination of the reading public; unlike Holmes himself who rather frowned at Watson's endeavors. Bell even got some notoriety outside the realm of fiction as an an expert witness in the sensational Ardlamont Murder. And right there is the key to why this series worked, like the Ardlamont Murder, this series embellishing of reality gives the show real world stakes; it makes Murder Rooms feel more alive than the staid Victorian adventures of Holmes. By having the author and his inspiration with Conan Doyle playing Watson to Dr. Bell's Holmes, there's this feeling of truth, an immediacy that was never present in the stories despite how well they were written. The "truth" in the beginning matters for what came after.

Yet for how fun the series is it would never have worked if they hadn't been willing to see the mistakes in that initial TV movie and fix them. I wouldn't say it was precisely a reboot, more like how when Being Human went from pilot to series, they ditched what wasn't working, aka original Mitchell and Annie, but kept the plot as a through line. So we still have Doyle dealing with the death of Elspeth, only it's a Doyle who can actually act and an Elspeth you don't long to see dead. We still have Ian Richardson magnificently cast as Bell, he did play Holmes once dontcha know, only he no longer has that very disturbing Tom Jones wig. Seriously, the TV movie has some of the worst wig work I've ever seen, but Ian Richardson as Tom Jones is the most surreal. The revitalized show also brought in many great British actors, as in a rounded cast of awesomeness, not just, oh here's Charles Dance cause he'll appear in anything, he's totally not the villain just our red herring, oh look, he has red hair, haha. Instead we get the likes of Clare Holman from Lewis and David Hayman from The Paradise, Roger Lloyd Pack from The Vicar of Dibley, Dermot Crowley from Luther, and Ian McNeice from Doc Martin and Doctor Who, and Anton Lesser from everything British you've ever seen. But most surprising of all, Rik Mayall from The Young Ones and Bottom. And not surprising because he's in it, but surprising because of the depth of his acting. You will not believe the acting he is capable of if you've only seen the slapstick and surreal humor of his work with Adrian Edmondson. He is a talent who we lost too soon. It's actors like these that make Murder Rooms memorable. Despite it's unevenness, which is still there in spite of the rejiggering, it will stick with you.

The real success lies outside the casting in the fact that David Pirie was willing to step back from the blunt and ludicrously overt Sherlockian references in the original script and develop a more cunning narrative by drawing on the lives of Conan Doyle and Bell. They reflect and mirror images we have seen in the stories, like "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist" referenced in "The Patient's Eyes," but that is not where the mystery begins or ends. By taking this step back, for those who know a little about Conan Doyle's life, you get far more excitement working out the connections and also the foreshadowing of his life to come. The episode that excels the most in this regard is "The Photographer's Chair." By having a story that deals with Spiritualism and photography we get a glimpse into what will define Conan Doyle's later life. While he starts out as a skeptic at the beginning of the episode, you just know that it will soon turn to belief. In real life it was the deaths of many close to him that led him to take solace in Spiritualism. He defended his beliefs in word and deed. He even lost many friends over his unswerving convictions. But his second wife was a strong believer, she even claimed to be a medium. To see these facts as a burgeoning story dramatized on TV was just fascinating to me. Nothing is overt, it's all subtle. He participates in his first seance, he talks to the medium played by Clare Holman, and his convictions against a spirit realm are doubted. Could there be a world beyond? His doomed love affair of the TV movie also is used for the first time logically, giving him a reason to believe, versus creating a reason for a monastic existence like Holmes and a Moriarty like nemesis.

Though Conan Doyle's belief in Spiritualism also extended to other things beyond the ken of man, such as fairies. The Cottingley Fairies are infamous photographs for the fraud they perpetrated, but more so for the vocal support of Conan Doyle who was utterly taken in by the fakes. The reason they were able to stand up to scrutiny is that the girls didn't mess with the photographic process, they just took pictures of themselves with fairies they had made. Ten years ago I was lucky enough to get to see these originals, and you can almost see why Conan Doyle and others were taken in. They look real enough, but it's more because they wanted to believe. That is where the photography element comes into "The Photographer's Chair." Men and woman who have suffered grief are being killed in an attempt to capture their soul leaving their body. The villain is just trying to capture another aspect of the supernatural, such as the two girls did with the fairies, because he believes with the zealotry of a madman. To take that further, the killer expounds on frauds within Spiritualism, making sure that we know there is truth in the supernatural, but it's being corrupted by the scams. If you have an interest in the more odd Spiritualist frauds I suggest reading Mary Roach's Spook. But if you want a good mystery that tackles the possibility that this could be true or false, then please watch this episode. If you ever thought that Conan Doyle and his later beliefs were a little crazy, it makes you connect to him in a way you never thought you could. Oh, and the little photographic evidence at the end of the episode, it casts such possibilities that you're not quite sure what to believe.

And that's what it all comes down to in the end. Evidence. If that glass plate had survived, that might have been something... but evidence is what is needed for unassailable proof. And it's Dr. Bell's way of approaching evidence that is unique. He could literally be considered the beginning of the forensic sciences. He uses his observational skills to examine patients and come to conclusions about their health, or, if he's in the morgue, about their death. It is these observational techniques that Holmes uses in literature to examine all of life, not just the human body. It is just fascinating how forensic evidence can lead to analytical evidence which can lead to enlightenment. To take your doctoring skill set and apply it to crime solving. Of course in this day and age we take it for granted with all the various CSI offshoots that this is how crime solving was always done, but that isn't the case. Just as recent as the Regency period there wasn't even a police force as such, and if you have a desperate need to actually know more about that read P.D. James's Death Comes to Pemberley. So to have Dr. Bell going out and solving crimes in a way that is unheard of is revolutionary. Don't be jaded by all that has come after, or take anything for granted. Just because the popular image of detection comes from Sherlock Holmes shouldn't detract from "the beginning." It should enhance it! The subtitle for Murder Rooms is "The Dark Beginnings of Sherlock Holmes" but it really could be "The Dark Beginnings of Modern Detection." This might be nothing more than a TV show, but taken in the greater context of crime solving, it's a revolution.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Felines of New York by Jim Tews
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: November 24th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Featuring more than 100 photos and quotes from cats in America’s most glamorous city, Felines of New York exposes the furry underbelly of New York City’s most glamorous, self-important residents.

Where the humans of New York are accomplished, interesting, thoughtful, creative, and even sometimes tragic figures, the cats are simply cats. They do not stand in line for brunch, or have season tickets to the Met, or go indoor-rock climbing in Brooklyn. They do not shop at thrift stores or nibble finger sandwiches at the Russian Tea Room. And they certainly do not give a flying f*ck about the Yankees.

No, the felines of New York bathe, purr, bask languidly in the sun, and occasionally cast baleful glances at the humans who provide them food and shelter. They are proof that behind every New Yorker, there lays a cat just waiting to destroy their IKEA futon and then eat their faces off when they die."

As for the "Humans of New York" trend I could take it or leave it... but the furry kitty counterpart? The world and my Facebook feed would be a bleaker place without it.

Sherlock Holmes: The Novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: November 24th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 608 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"All four legendary Sherlock Holmes novels, collected in a unique Graphic Deluxe Edition with an introduction by Michael Dirda.

Though endlessly reinterpreted, reinvented, and imitated, the Sherlock Holmes stories have never been surpassed. Sporting his signature billowing coat and pipe in hand, the genius investigator Holmes captivates readers with his alluring melancholy and superhuman intuition, while his partner, Dr. Watson, remains ever the perfect foil, a classic Victorian gentleman with brilliant intellect. Collected here are all four Holmes novels—A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Valley of Fear—tracing the origins of the pair up through showdowns with their greatest archenemies, including the infamous Professor Moriarty. Set in the seductive shadow world of Victorian London, the stories of Holmes and Watson live on, as immediate and original in our time as in their own.

For more than sixty-five years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,500 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators."

Seeing as we're in the midst of "Sherlocked" this is a very appropriate book to buy... plus seriously, look at that awesome cover. Damn you Penguin making me buy all the books! ALL OF THEM! But, the separate Sherlock adventures are better than the short stories in my opinion, so this is totally a solid buy.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Movie Review - Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes
Based on the book by Mitch Cullin
Release Date: July 17th, 2015
Starring: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Milo Parker, Hattie Morahan, Roger Allam, Phil Davis, Patrick Kennedy, Hiroyuki Sanada, Frances de la Tour, John Sessions, Francis Barber, and Nicholas Rowe
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Sherlock Holmes is returning to his home in the Sussex Downs after visiting Japan. After the death of his brother Mycroft he realized that his powers of recollection were waning. He couldn't for the life of him remember his last case. The case was thirty-five years ago and involved the wife of a Mr. Kelmot and was the catalyst to his leaving his profession and moving to Sussex. Of course Watson wrote it up, as he did all Holmes's cases, but he changed it, made Holmes the hero and tacked on a happy ending in that infuriating way of his. Before he dies Holmes wants to write down the story as it happened. Truth not fiction. But he can't find the truth. He can't recollect it. Which was the reason for his recent trip to Japan. He had been in correspondence with a Masuo Umezaki who had read Holmes's treatise on the use of Royal Jelly as a memory aid and told Holmes how the jelly of the prickly ash plant that is found only in Japan is supposedly even better. Holmes and Umezaki journey to Hiroshima, where among the devastation wrought by the recent war, they amazingly find a prickly ash plant that Holmes takes with him back to England. During his absence his housekeeper's son Roger snuck into his study and read the preliminaries of Holmes's story about Mrs. Kelmot and wants Holmes to finish the story. As Holmes struggles to recall his reasons for leaving his profession an unlikely friendship develops between him and Roger and the care of Holmes's bees. But can a ninety-three year old man get back his past and change what is left of his future?

To be one of the actors with enough skill to play Sherlock Holmes you enter a rarefied category. Because, for most, you will forever be known for that role, but you will also be harshly judged. Jeremy Brett, Benedict Cumberbatch, Johnny Lee Miller, and Basil Rathbone are linked inextricably with Holmes. They have become one with Holmes and will never separate fully from this legacy. But there are other actors, those who have made a name for themselves prior to donning the deerstalker as it were; Michael Caine, Robert Downey Jr., and Rupert Everett, like McKellen, were known entities. They all successfully became Holmes to some extent, but have maintained their own identity. It is to this secondary category that McKellen belongs. One wonders at McKellen so easily taking up this signature role. For countless people McKellen is Gandalf from Tolkien's works, and for countless others he is Magneto from the Marvel comics. In other words, McKellen has never shied away from playing iconic roles. But one gets the feeling that he is tired of doing this. And yet... he became Sherlock Holmes. It is my belief that he did this because he is the only actor with the ability to realize this character as he was written here. Of all the actors who have played Holmes, McKellen is a virtuoso, wherein you never see him as himself, he is Holmes. But he doesn't just capture one Holmes, he captures two distinct iterations of the icon at two different stages of his life. He takes the character we have always known, built on it, aged it, and given it back to us in a way that is sure to get him his first Academy Award win.

The more you think on Mr. Holmes the more you realize it isn't just a movie simply about the man who solved unsolvable mysteries. The heart of the film is darker, melancholy without falling into the trap of being morose and unbearably sad. Sherlock Holmes has been a man who relied his entire life on his mind to never fail him. His mind palace, as it were, was inviolable. But as we age, our memory, our ability to recollect starts to fail. This is happening to Holmes. He is unable to remember his last case, the case that defined his life as it has become. Most people balance the life of the mind with emotions and love and heart. Relationships that are more than just business. But what happens when the mind starts to go and you have never had heart? There is no corresponding emotions to bring recollections to the light of day. And this all ties into Holmes's last case. He perfectly understood Mrs. Ann Kelmot. He analyzed her and made her secrets bare. But he lacked empathy. He could see everything but he couldn't see that even if someone is fully aware of their situation that sometimes that isn't enough. Sometimes a heart is permanently broken and the knowledge of this can never put it back together. Holmes failed Mrs. Kelmot and therefore failed himself, leading to his new bucolic life. By going back into his past, by trying to remember this case as he forges his relationship with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro and her young son Roger, Holmes is given a lesson in empathy. He finally understands not just the mystery of Mrs. Kelmot, but what he has been missing his entire life and that people sometimes need a little compassion, a little fiction to survive.

I find it interesting that over the years an aging Holmes has really captured the imagination of Sherlockians. This idea that Holmes, the ever unchanging pillar of logic, would somehow change in old age. That there is something, some event, that would somehow make him more human, more relatable. The cold analytical man is what countless generations of readers have latched onto, but in works like Chabon's The Final Solution and the inspiration for this movie, A Slight Trick of the Mind, they humanize him. While I really enjoyed this movie there's a part of me that knows it's just a "what if?" This would never be Holmes, this is an idealized hypothesis of what could, what might have happened with a fictional character. But it's an enjoyable idyl. Never to be taken too seriously, but to be enjoyed nonetheless. One wonders what Conan Doyle would think. He puts in a passing reference in one of his last Holmes stories that he is raising bees, and now that's written in stone as the only thing that Holmes may do in his old age. What would Holmes's creator think of this obsession with this one detail? With this need to humanize his legend. Holmes was never human, he came back from the dead after all! And those bees sure have stuck. Thanks to Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins detectives can only raise bees or cultivate roses in their retirement. I personally think this is a bit boring and narrow.

One of the main reasons I was excited to see this film was because of Nicholas Rowe. He is my childhood (and current) crush from playing the starring role in The Young Sherlock Holmes. The fact that he was playing Matinee 'Sherlock' in a movie version of Holmes's last case as presented within the movie made me giddy. The fact is this film is acutely aware of the history of Holmes, not just the literary works, but also all the adaptations, as well as Conan Doyle's life itself, raised it to a special place for fans of Holmes and the meta universe he now resides in. Phil Davis, the killer cabbie of Sherlock makes an ironic appearance as a Police Inspector as well. But these casting choices are just the tip of the iceberg. What really drew me into the story and therefore the mystery was the glass harmonica and it's obvious spiritual connections. The haunting music alone coupled with Mrs. Kelmot's talking to her dead children where enough to convey the spiritualism aspect of the musical instrument, long before Holmes pointed it out. Mesmer himself even played this instrument. Spiritualism was the overriding obsession of Conan Doyle's later years. He lost friends, including Harry Houdini, because of his beliefs. Within the framework of Mr. Holmes it not only adds this meta layer, but it provides an ingenious red herring that gives the film the depth that makes you continually invested, even when it's obvious what the outcome of the case will be.

To bring this review back around to where I started, we are back once more with Ian McKellen. McKellen has reached an age where he doesn't need to work for money anymore, he does what he likes when he likes with who he likes. This can be both a boon and a burden for the audience, he has many fabulous friends who are actors. For example, take his recent foray into television with Vicious, a show clearly made to hang out with Derek Jacobi and Frances de la Tour. This Are You Being Served? throwback is tasteless and camp, in all the wrong ways. France de la Tour makes an odd appearance in Mr. Holmes as the glass harmonica instructor, Madame Schirmer. She once again proves that she can only act so far over the top that she almost derails the film with just a few lines. But the true fault of the film is Laura Linney, who would NEVER have been cast if not for her friendship with McKellen. I have no doubt that she is a nice person and she has always been an amazing advocate for LGBTQ rights for years, hence her friendship with McKellen. But she is just woefully miscast. I will admit that I have never liked her, but I was willing to be open-minded here. And the only saving grace is that she didn't have too many lines. Those lines she did have were in a dialect that appears nowhere on this earth. I think she might have been trying to do Welsh... but why they didn't just cast someone Welsh is down to Ian McKellen. He's a superb actor, and while he might know a lot of superb actors, he sometimes should know when to reign in on the nepotism.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review - Michael Chabon's The Final Solution

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Published by: HarperCollins
Publication Date: November 9th, 2004
Format: Hardcover, 131 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Sherlock Holmes is retired to the South Downs where he doesn't concern himself with more than his bees and not falling over some detritus in his house and dying ignominiously. But one day he is intrigued when he sees a young boy with a parrot on his shoulder walking down the railway tracks. He observes the boy is about to urinate on the third rail and rushes as fast as his feeble frame will allow him to stop this dangerous pursuit. The boy doesn't answer to his shouts, yet the parrot does, issuing a long string of numbers in German. Curiouser and curiouser. It turns out that the young boy Linus is a Jewish refuge living at the Vicarage, which the Panickers also run as a boarding house. There the parrot has excited some of the residents and his strings of numerals are believed to be more than random. In fact the parrot's abilities are of interest to more people than just those in the South Downs... could the numbers in fact mean something to the war effort? When one of the Panickers's lodgers is brutally murdered and the parrot goes missing with young Reggie Panicker as chief suspect, the local police think perhaps it is time to consult the great detective himself. Holmes agrees to help. Not out of concern for Reggie Panicker or for the war effort or to stop a murderer, his bees are all that he really cares about. He agrees to help to reunite the young boy with his parrot. Because if ever there were two creatures more in need of each other it is this young boy and his bird. If he happens to solve the murder and the mystery of the numbers along the way, well, that's why he was at one time the greatest consulting detective in the world. A world which has now radically changed.

I'm fairly confident that The Final Solution became the "must read" book for me almost ten years ago because of a really good blurb in the Bas Bleu catalog. The problem with the Bas Bleu catalog is that they are masters of writing the perfect precise that makes you not just want to, but need to read the book they are selling. I have had Bas Bleu backlash many a time, most memorably with Agatha Christie's Endless Night. Yet the Endless Night debacle was in my future at this point, and so I excitedly curled up on a summer's day on my side porch to delve into The Final Solution; where I instantly felt I needed to be reading the book with a dictionary constantly open. My initial feelings were that Chabon was a little too self-impressed with his ability to obfuscate his story while simultaneously being a bit of a show-off. For some reason, despite what should be viewed as negatives, because a writer shouldn't try to make his book inaccessible, I was left with this impression that The Final Solution was a masterpiece that I just couldn't fully understand or appreciate. Flash forward almost a decade, with all the expanded knowledge and vocab that time can bring to a voracious reader and I now see the truth. This is a self-indulgent novella that exudes smug self-importance. Just because a book is dense and impenetrable to the point of incomprehensibility doesn't mean it's good and you are the problem in the equation. It means you need to look closer at the book and realize that the dense narrative might be hiding the author's smug self-satisfaction in plain sight. The purposeful use of obscure and highfalutin language combined with the "gimmick" to never actually state outright that this book is about Sherlock Holmes and only deal in allusions and asides makes this book smack of pretension and alienates the reader. A book should service the story NOT the ego of the writer, and hence this book is a failure.

Finally being able to see beyond the veil of academic and writerly gimmickry you see that all it did was mask the problems of the story. The major problem is that this isn't an ode to Conan Doyle but more posturing by Chabon. The LEAST Chabon could have done is capture the essence of Holmes in the slightest. Instead this book seems to intentionally set out to be the exact opposite of all things Holmes and Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle is a writer that is only occasionally melodramatic when writing as Watson, but he is never superfluous. If he is writing as Holmes, as is the case in two of his short stories, the language is terse and to the point. The Final Solution, being in the waning days of Sherlock Holmes, would obviously be written from Holmes's POV, and therefore would necessitate Holmes's narration style. Yet here Chabon luxuriates in description and verbiage. The actual plot could be summed up by Holmes or Watson in a couple of sentences, but it's spun out for 131 pages! This wallowing in the unnecessary and insignificant might be a nice idyl for a writing exercise, but not for a story which suffers under these pretensions. Plus, I don't know if it's just me, but there's a reason Conan Doyle didn't write Holmes into his dotage, aside from being sick of writing him, and that's because no one wants to see the great and mighty struggling to get out of a chair. Yes it might be interesting if handled properly, like the recent film Mr. Holmes, but here it isn't handled properly or reverently like it should be. It's all just Chabon showing off. But what got under my skin more than anything was that while he peppers the book with allusions to Holmes's great works at the end Chabon doesn't understand Holmes. He got him so wrong. "The business of detection has for so many years been caught up with questions of remuneration and reward that although he was by now long beyond such concerns he felt, with surprising vigor, that the boy owed him the payment of a smile." Holmes rarely took any form of payment! I can think of one, maybe two times that entered into it, in ALL of his adventures. All SIXTY of them. As for a reward? He liberally gave all the credit away to different police officers. Gaw! Just SO WRONG!

The Final Problem could have been a sweet little story about a boy and his parrot, but the need to make the story ostensibly about Sherlock Holmes, though remember he's never directly named, derails the tale and drags it out. To make a book of only 131 pages seem overly long is a true talent that Chabon should be congratulated on. Instead of focusing on the relationship of the boy and his bird, we suffer through long reminiscences of what it is to be old and dying. Oh, and not just dying, but to die in an ignominious way. To die sprawled out in an inglorious way that would be very embarrassing for one's reputation, though technically you shouldn't care because, you know, you're dead. The reason I think The Final Solution would have been more successful concentrating on Linus is that you forge a connection with the boy. You never really make a connection to Holmes. Holmes is a character of wonder and magic, and to make him old and feeble, it stripes the character of what connection the reader had. Dwelling on his various daydreams of death doesn't help us connect either. There is only one time you feel a connection to Holmes and the man he was and that's when he journeys back to London in search of Linus's bird. London was the epicenter of Holmes's world. This is a city that bowed down to his greatness and the villains were in constant fear of him. Now London is no longer the place he rules but a place he no longer recognizes. With the onslaught of the Germans he expected to see the city in ashes, and one wonders if perhaps he actually wished this to be true. That London, without the great Sherlock Holmes, had ceased to exist. That it's very lifeblood no longer flowed because of his exodus. Instead there is destruction, but more then that, new buildings, new life, all the new that he doesn't know. He knew this city like the back of his hand, every alley and every bolthole. To see that the city moved on, changed while his knowledge didn't, is the first and only time in the book you feel what it's like to be Holmes, the pinnacle of the previous discarded century.

Going back to Linus and his parrot, I can not express how much a story concentrating only on the two of them would have succeeded. Their relationship is a connection between two souls. When you are young and form a connection to an animal something magical happens. It's not that you're just kindred spirits, you are each others soul mates. Chabon so eloquently describes this connection with the looks exchanged between the two, the way the boy mummers to his parrot and the way the parrot ruffles Linus's hair, that it's almost painful in it's beauty. I had this relationship once with my little cat Spot. We met when I was only eight and we were together for twenty-two years. He was my best friend, my confidant, my better half. He was everything and I see that relationship mirrored in this book. This is the heart and while to an extent it is also the driving force of the narrative, it's too often relegated to the sidelines to actually keep your interest. But to look at their relationship further, I can't help but think about how this bird is truly a service animal. The boy is effectively a mute and is therefore viewed as developmentally disabled by many of the people in the community where he lives. So much study has gone into the aid animals can give to children who are autistic or have learning disabilities, and here we have a story that shows the depth of these connections and how they work yet it is constantly pushed aside. The most interestingly narrated chapter in the book is when the parrot's POV is explored. Here we get more insight into his relationship with Linus, but again this is second fiddle to the importance of the crime committed. Chabon, I am totally calling you out. You set this up so well and had such an opportunity and you wasted it time and time again to indulge yourself and not serve the story or the characters. Get with it already. Edit, rewrite this and get back to me.

Yet the biggest flaw in the book has nothing to do with the story, it has to do with the illustrations. Jay Ryan created a memorable and unique cover, but his interior illustrations leave something to be desired. They feel unfinished and childish, which is the exact opposite of the story whose language is so polished it almost blinds you and is very adult in nature. Seriously, only an adult could have the vocabulary to get through this book not to mention the themes of aging, persecution, espionage, and murder. I am a graphic designer and have done many illustrations. Illustrations are different than regular drawings, they are there to accompany and add insight to the text. They REFLECT the text. Image and words in a symbiotic relationship that is balanced. Here it's not balanced. Stupid childish drawings that you could argue were to capture the childishness of Linus, but I refute that argument. Linus doesn't live in the world of a child and the things he's seen make him unique. Therefore dumbing down the illustrations doesn't enhance his viewpoint, it harms it. While the style of writing and the narrative annoyed me to no end, there is a beauty in the images that Chabon conjures up. There is a lushness in the text that is completely derailed by these technical and awkward images. This isn't how the words make this world appear. If anything these images are 100% the exact opposite of what I see in my mind's eye while reading this book. While most people will probably just flip to the next page ignoring the images, I can't. They are a stumbling block that brings down the book even lower in my estimations. Quite literally you start the book thinking it will be amazing, a five star tour de force. Then Holmes is introduced and mishandled, then the drawings start showing up, then this, then that, and you are left with a book that could have been something magical, but isn't. Not in the least.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Word Puppets by Mary Robinette Kowal
Published by: Prime Books
Publication Date: November 17th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Celebrated as the author of five acclaimed historical fantasy novels in the Glamourist series, Mary Robinette Kowal is also well known as an award-winning author of short science fiction and fantasy. Her stories encompass a wide range of themes, a covey of indelible characters, and settings that span from Earth's past to its near and far futures as well as even farther futures beyond. Alternative history, fairy tales, adventure, fables, science fiction (both hard and soft), fantasy (both epic and cozy)-nothing is beyond the reach of her unique talent. WORD PUPPETS-the first comprehensive collection of Kowal's extraordinary fiction-includes her two Hugo-winning stories, a Hugo nominee, an original story set in the world of "The Lady Astronaut of Mars," and fourteen other show-stopping tales."

What did I do to have two of my favorite authors have books on the same day? Also, how perfect is the title of this book for Mary?

A Bride's Story Volume 7 by Kaoru Mori
Published by: Yen Press
Publication Date: November 17th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 3192 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"As Mr. Smith continues his journey to India, he is welcomed into the home of a wealthy tradesman and his wife, Anis. Custom dictates that, as a woman, Anis is not permitted to meet their visitor face-to-face, but even so, she counts herself blessed to live in such a beautiful estate and be married to a man who devotes himself solely to her. Still, one cannot help but long for the companionship of another person when one's closest friend is a reluctant Persian cat. In her loneliness, Anis visits the public bath house and discovers a place where she feels immediately free among her fellow sisters."

I seriously think I might love this series more than her "Emma" series... and that's saying something...

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movie Review - Young Sherlock Holmes

Young Sherlock Holmes
Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Release Date: December 4th, 1985
Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins, Susan Fleetwood, Freddie Jones, Nigel Stock, Roger Ashton-Griffiths and Earl Rhodes
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

A young John Watson is sent to Brompton Academy in London after his previous school is shut down. There, on the next bunk, trying to learn the violin, is a young Sherlock Holmes, who is put out because he should have mastered the violin in the three days he's had it. But at least he is able to quickly deduce all there is to know about Watson, the son of a Doctor from the north of England who is overly fond of custard tarts. Holmes takes Watson under his wing and shows him the ropes at the school. The real benefit of the school is that up in the rafters one of the retired teachers, Rupert T. Waxflatter, has created a laboratory to rival anyone's and spends most of his time working on a Da Vinci-esque flying machine, mentoring Holmes, and taking care of his orphaned niece Elizabeth, who has caught the eye of every boy in the school but whose heart belongs to Sherlock. Yet things aren't as idyllic as they seem. There is an odd man hanging around the school looking to talk to Waxflatter. Also there is an odd jingly sound heard on several occasions. Two distinguished men, Bentley Bobster and the Reverend Duncan Nesbitt have committed suicide. But if they committed suicide, why was Waxflatter interested in their deaths? Holmes takes his queries to a young police officer, Lestrade, who brushes Holmes aside clearing the way for the trio to investigate on their own.

But their investigation is put on hold when Holmes is expelled, despite his teacher Rathe speaking up for him. One of the other students has framed Holmes, very nicely indeed, for cheating. Holmes's perfect school record works against him because it is assumed by the board that only a cheater could reach that level of perfection. They just don't understand the brilliance of Holmes! As Holmes is about to be sent away, Waxflatter kills himself... or so it would appear to the common observer, much like the previous two "suicides". But Holmes knows better, this was his mentor, and with Waxflatter's dying words "Eh-tar" the game is afoot! Soon Elizabeth, Watson, and Holmes are racing through the streets of London and uncovering an ancient Egyptian cult, the Rame Tep, who are worshippers of Osiris and have been sacrificing young girls in their temple. But their only goal isn't to silence these unwelcome interlopers. They have revenge in mind and the diabolical genius behind the evil machinations might just change Holmes's life forever.

There are movies that forever change you and help form the person you are. They become a part of your DNA. You remember the first time you watched them. Usually followed immediately by the second viewing. And then, in some rare cases, the third. For me there are a few besides the original Star Wars trilogy, which is on a separate list. These films are: Clue, The Princess Bride, The 'burbs, and, of course, Young Sherlock Holmes. Besides forever installing Sherlock Holmes as a focal point in my life, this movie forever shaped my sensibilities and instilled a love of Victoriana and Egypt, not to mention mysteries, in me. Whenever there is an Egyptian exhibit somewhere within driving distance I will be sure to be there. Because not only did my parents encourage my love of movies, helping to refine my tastes by the simple expedient of refusing to watch any crap, they also gave me my love of museums. Though I will still call them out for the incident of King Tut. The Young Sherlock Holmes provided me with a great fear of Egyptian cults and mummification, which exists to this day in one form or another. Sometime in the late eighties King Tut was on display again at the Field Museum in Chicago. I was convinced that he would kill me, take my soul, in other words, something really bad was going to happen. But I think that had more to do with the fact my Dad told me that the mummies all came alive at night and if I wasn't careful I would be locked in with them and they'd attack me. Yes, because I had a "normal" childhood. Therefore I spent the entire time crying in a stairwell. But other than that, I love me some mummies.

Despite the fear I still have whenever I hear the Rame Tep chanting, the movie's music being played at the first Teslacon I went to during the mummy unwrapping sure didn't help any, I love Egyptian history and art. I adore poplar fiction set in Egypt from Elizabeth Peters to the Theodosia Throckmorton books by Robin LaFevers. I can tell you if an artifact is Mesopotamian or Egyptian just from a cursory look, and yes, this has been tested. Because of this movie my world view was expanded and therefore, being a book worm, I sought out more knowledge and information. I have a brain bursting with facts just because of the little seeds planted by Spielberg in my youth. And yes, I still want to ask why there really wasn't any representation of Osiris in the pyramid of a cult devoted to him, instead just his buddy Anubis hanging out. Iconography fascinates me to no end. And when you start to study Egyptian society and culture, this Western culture of ours is just a drop in the bucket. The Pyramids of Giza were built almost three thousand years before Christ. We aren't even three thousand years past the time of Christ, and that society thrived for millennia! Plus, not to put to fine a point on it, but a culture that worships cats? Well, they are doing it right in my mind.

Yet, it's not just Egypt that got me. The whole Gaslight Victorian romance aspect hooked me too. If you think about this film, you could quite easily remove the "Holmes" element and still have a corking good mystery and movie on your hand. The Holmesian elements just add another layer. People might argue with me as to why I love the "romance" aspect, because canonically romance has no place in the world of Sherlock Holmes. Part of it is that I just want to hear Nicholas Rowe say my name over and over again. Holmes purists would decry the idea of lost love being the reason for Holmes's somewhat puritanical sex life. But to me it comes down to the fact that, as Holmes says, he never wants to be alone. That is an astute observation, and a sad one, because isn't that what we all want? And an arch nemesis doesn't really fill that void. They're not someone we can cuddle up to at night. The same can be said for a comrade in arms, now don't you go being one of those people who think Holmes and Watson were more than just work colleagues and roommates, at least in this instance. This movie creates a relatable and good entry point for younger people to get an interest in Sherlock Holmes, and I'm sticking to that statement. If it wasn't for this movie who knows where my interests might lay? Would I have had such a love of Art History that I almost went to graduate school for it? Probably not. This movie made me, and it's as simple as that.

But it wasn't just the side of me that loved art, antiquity, and Victoriana that blossomed because of this movie. It was the creative side of me that wanted to make art as well. My Star Wars obsession had pretty much made me adore Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) for years. But their work on Young Sherlock Holmes showed that their work didn't have to exist in a futuristic setting. Perhaps there most famous and memorable scene they've ever done was the stained glass knight separating himself from the window embrasure and chasing the Reverend Duncan Nesbitt under a carriage in this movie. Because of the way they combined practical and computer generated effects they still stand up till this day. This fueled my love of Muppets and props, leading me to do much sculpture and theater in Undergrad. In fact, when I was at a loose end not sure if I wanted to continue schooling beyond a bachelor's degree, again ILM changed my life. They had a job opening, which I applied to despite being woefully underqualified. Being turned down by them made me go back to school, to learn more about computers, to expand my skill set. Because of this I have the career I have now as a graphic designer. I also have the friends I have because I met them through school and Teslacon. It's weird to think that so much of my life ties into the spark this movie awoke in me, but there you have it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Book Review - Robert Newman's The Case of the Baker Street Irregular

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular by Robert Newman
Published by: Aladdin Paperbacks
Publication Date: 1978
Format: Paperback, 228 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Andrew arrives in London from Cornwall with his guardian Mr. Dennison. Andrew is overwhelmed by the great metropolis bustling around him. He and his guardian have a small room near Baker Street where they are staying. After they settle in they walk around the neighborhood and Andrew gets a glimpse of the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes! The next few days Mr. Dennison is busy and Andrew doesn't see much of him. The young lad is starting to know the area and befriends a young girl who goes by the name Screamer and whose brother is one of Sherlock Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars. They spend a great day at the zoo but then everything changes for Andrew. He sees his guardian, Mr. Dennison, bundled into a carriage against his will by a cabbie with a broken nose. His landlady is very helpful and they report the incident to the police, but soon Andrew's steps are dogged by the man with the broken nose and he takes refuge in the poorer areas of London. Beaten and stripped in an alleyway, Screamer, her brother, and their mother, Mrs. Wiggins, take Andrew in. But Andrew knows he is a burden on this poor family and happily takes any jobs he can get. One comes down from the great detective himself. Andrew is to lead a blind fiddler around town for a few days. Little does Andrew know at first that the blind fiddler is Sherlock Holmes and that their work together might solve not only the theft and forgery of some paintings, the disappearance of Mr. Dennison, but also find Andrew a home. It's all in a day's work for the world's greatest consulting detective!

My younger brother's bookshelves growing up consisted of Dr. Seuss, The Berenstein Bears, and magic books. There would occasionally be a book that didn't fit into these three categories, a book for school or a video game guide, but that was a rare occurrence. Some time last year the two of us were clearing out a few random boxes that contained stuff from his old bedroom, and yes, we did find old Christmas candy, the less said about that the better... but we also found this book I had never heard of, The Case of the Baker Street Irregular. It went into the pile dubbed, "Stuff That is Now Mine." Because seeing that book I had an idea. An idea that morphed into Sherlocked. That night I sat down at my computer and started making a list of all the books I had or wanted to read that were inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes. From middle grade reads written by Eve Titus to continuations written by Anthony Horowitz to loving parodies written by Neil Gaiman, within a few short minutes I had a list of almost twenty books and that got me thinking about how much Sherlock Holmes has been a part of my life in one form or another. From movies with cartoon mice to watching PBS with my mom, Sherlock has always been there for me. My three-month long Sherlocked extravaganza was born then and there and I knew that one of the books I read would have to be The Case of the Baker Street Irregular.

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular is a book that is painfully middle grade. What do I mean by that without being overly critical. Yes, laugh all you want that I'm worried about being overly critical. But I did enjoy the book, it's just that the author has some issues that are common in older books written for a younger audience (cough, L. Frank Baum, cough.) Primarily he talks down to his audience. He dumbs things down to make his audience get the concepts, but to a painful degree. The book is peppered with that dreaded concept of "teaching moments." He seems more concerned with educating his readers than creating a thrilling story that just happens to educate. This lends an overall flatness to the book. There is no fluctuation with excitement or danger or even mystery. The book plods along with it's slow snail pace and it's not until you accustom yourself to this that you can enjoy the book for what it is, not what it isn't. Newman is obsessed with locations and maps and characters muddling along through the morass of London in a way that does more to confuse than aid the reader. It isn't until Holmes in disguise is working with Andrew that the book finds it's legs. Before this moment it's two stories running tangentially that you are just waiting to connect. The book is also clever in that their working together isn't spelled out for you til the end. You know what's going on, but you're not 100% sure, and this is truly the only mystery the book affords that is worth your time.

What bothered me most about the book was the Baker Street Irregulars themselves. Ignoring the fact that the title of this book annoys me because of the singular versus the plural, the Irregulars aren't handled right. It felt to me like Newman didn't want to handle the actual social status of a street urchin in Victorian England because it would create too much of a disconnect with his readers so he made characters that would resonate more with kids today, couching the book in terms a young reader would get. In other words, see the "dumbing down" of above. So instead of true street urchins we have Mrs. Wiggins and her two children that are acceptably poor but not destitute. No, no, and no again. The Irregulars don't have families! Well, they might have siblings in their gang but NOT parents to go home to at night. This is some sort of rose-tinting of the Victorian era that is unacceptable to me. It somehow lessens what the Irregulars are. They are a force to be reckoned with because they have eyes and ears everywhere, they are always watching, not going home to their mom and dad at the end of the day! This is why in the new adaptation, Sherlock, that he uses a homeless network. The homeless problem of today with it's ubiquitousness is equal to what the street urchin epidemic was in Victorian times. They are everywhere so we have learned to tune them out. I just feel that for a book that liked it's "teaching moments" that to not handle an actual problem that is still ongoing in different forms is sloppy writing. Not to mention it just pissed me off and was totally against canon!

But the truth is if you can't get Holmes and Watson right then just don't write about them. Go big or go home. The genius of Eve Titus is that she was able to capture the language of Conan Doyle so perfectly that even a book written for very young children had that spark necessary to interest readers in the world's number one consulting detective. Newman doesn't get Holmes and Watson right at all and therefore is forced to make everyone else so bloody boring that Holmes and Watson are interesting by comparison. I don't think the correct way to interest someone in books is to make your story so boring in parts that their only alternative is to read the original work to get the point you were trying to make. While I've never been 100% on board with the quality of Conan Doyle's writing, when you see someone else fumbling simple descriptions and settings, not to mention the dreadful dialogue, you realize that perhaps you've underestimated Conan Doyle all along. And it's not just the set-up that failed for me, it's that the characterizations were so wrong. Watson was lippy and took control versus being obsequious. Holmes actually bothered to explain things as they were happening instead of reveling in the great reveal at the end. With all that was wrong you are probably confused as to why I liked the book. It's because of the seismic shift half-way through when Holmes is undercover with Andrew. Holmes was quiet and terse and secretive, and FINALLY Holmes. While after this little interlude Holmes went back to being wrong, and dare I say, melodramatic, because Holmes himself couldn't think of a more condemning word, that short interlude made the book worth everything else.

And I haven't even come to the crimes perpetrated in the book. Conan Doyle has a way with creating crime. He created stories that appeared mysterious and convoluted till the end reveal when it all made sense. In a nutshell they baffled while NEVER being illogical. The ending always fit with everything that came before. It's like if you were doing a puzzle but didn't have a picture of what you were working on. Once you finish it the picture is clear and everything fits together. Newman apparently didn't get this memo on how to craft a mystery. The crimes perpetrated in these pages are too convoluted and illogical. They are full of unnecessary red herrings and twists just to cover up their failings. But I seriously can not even when it comes to the illogical. I am quite literally baffled by the stupidity and lack of sense. Let's just look at the theft of the paintings. So their owner Lytell is short on money. Keep in mind short on money means he NEEDS money. Therefore to get money he is auctioning off several famous paintings. These paintings are stolen from the auction house and replaced with forgeries. Now if the thieves then went on to sell these paintings on the black market it would make total sense. Instead they ransom the paintings back to Lytell. So let me get this straight. Lytell doesn't have money, so you steal his paintings he was using to get money and then demand money of him? WHAT THE HECK! If he didn't have the money in the first place how would he have money now? Not to mention that this involves so much more work than necessary with trying to deceive Holmes and finding a decent forger. OK, now I'm starting to wonder why I liked this book... I think it might be the reverse effect of "Last Good Book I Read." Meaning I was reading a lot of shitty comics so this looked good in comparison. So maybe skip this one after all? But read the part where Holmes is undercover, that's fun.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Winter by Marissa Meyer
Published by: Feiwel and Friends
Publication Date: November 10th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 832 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Princess Winter is admired by the Lunar people for her grace and kindness, and despite the scars that mar her face, her beauty is said to be even more breathtaking than that of her stepmother, Queen Levana.

Winter despises her stepmother, and knows Levana won't approve of her feelings for her childhood friend--the handsome palace guard, Jacin. But Winter isn't as weak as Levana believes her to be and she's been undermining her stepmother's wishes for years. Together with the cyborg mechanic, Cinder, and her allies, Winter might even have the power to launch a revolution and win a war that's been raging for far too long.

Can Cinder, Scarlet, Cress, and Winter defeat Levana and find their happily ever afters? Fans will not want to miss this thrilling conclusion to Marissa Meyer's national bestselling Lunar Chronicles series."

If you think there are other books coming out this week you are very badly mistaken.

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