Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Book Review - John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Published by: The Franklin Library
Publication Date: 1974
Format: Hardcover, 355 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

When you're a spymaster for the Circus you don't really think about what your retirement will be like, yet that's what George Smiley has been forced to ponder for the last year. Forced out because of a botched operation in Czechoslovakia he spends his days waiting for his faithless wife to return to him. He has come to terms with the fact he'll never know what exactly happened, how Control botched things up so badly that Jim Prideaux got two bullets in his back and all their networks were blown. Yet fate as something different in store for Smiley. The Circus might be under new management, but there's now evidence that perhaps Operation Testify was brought down by a mole. Ricki Tarr is also on the outs with the Circus. Ricki was in Hong Kong to follow a member of the Soviet Trade Delegation code named Boris and ended up falling for Boris' wife, Irina. She was willing to defect for Ricki, but when Ricki contacted the Circus she was swept back to Moscow. Ricki was shaken, he knew this was proof of a mole and went to ground himself. He's come out of hiding to help bring down the mole. But the small enclave of agents working with Under Secretary Oliver Lacon agree, it's George Smiley who must run the operation. He's been called back into action and he must dig into the Hong Kong events, he must look into Czechoslovakia, he must use all the spycraft he's ever learned to smoke out a traitor among his own former colleagues and save the Circus from disaster.

Picking up a book that many people view as a Classic with a capital "C" is daunting. There are those books that legitimately deserve that classification... and there are those that, in my mind, don't. I truthfully don't think I have a prejudice against certain modern classics, but maybe I do... because if it's modern and about war, I just tune out. A Farewell to Arms, Catch-22, both modern classics that I just couldn't stand. Now along comes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and I'm torn. Because it's a classic of spy fiction, it's about the cold war, and well, it just left me cold. Yes, it's a clever and probably more realistic alternative to the image of Bond, but if this is a more truthful representation of the Cold War era perhaps that era isn't for me. It is rare for me to admit, but this book, about 95% of it just left me baffled. If was confusing and at times completely incomprehensible. Every so often I'd get into a good groove, I'd be like, yeah, I'm finally in the book, I totally know what's going on, then I'd put down the book for two seconds and when I picked it back up again it's like all the words had rearranged themselves on the pages and I had no idea what I had read, who anyone was, or what the hell was going on. At the close of the book it's almost like everything you read doesn't matter, it was a foregone conclusion that Smiley would catch the mole, and the mole doesn't justify himself, explain himself, or anything. So why exactly did I read this book again?

I read this book because it's THE spy book to read. Though I find it interesting that after reading it I find all these caveats from people complaining about Carré overwriting his characters and having tedious descriptions of all those who people his pages. I'd say that half that is right. Carré overwrites. He loves minutiae and getting into Smiley digging deep into files for what feels like hundreds of pages. And the thing is, it's not badly written, it's just badly plotted, like he's very purposefully trying to throw the reader off track and kind of forgets that was his purpose and he has now fallen down a rabbit hole and is writing gibberish. Nicely written gibberish, occasionally beautiful, but still gibberish. Whereas for his characters? I could really actually do with a bit more description. Because I have no way of telling them apart. Their names all kind of blended together and sometimes they were referred to by first names sometimes by last, and yet there's no mental image of what they look like to differentiate them. And seriously, one of the characters is named Bland!?! Yeah, cause that's SO going to make me remember him. I think that perhaps this is one of those books that would be better as a re-read because you supposedly know the characters, but the thing is I still don't know who these characters are. I figured out the mole in like five minutes and the rest was just hundreds of pages of sitting around literally reading about Smiley sitting around.

The reason the mole isn't that hard to spot is because Carré based this book on his own experiences, in particular the revelation of the Cambridge Five, Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Blunt, and Cairncross. I know quite a bit about this from watching the Cambridge Spies miniseries as well as all the documentaries on the DVD set which were actually far more interesting. So knowing this history going in it was just about matching the ill-defined character to the real life counterpart. Of course later in the book they are all given codenames, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man, and Beggarman. But that doesn't matter because obviously the mole is the one most like Philby, aka "Tailor." In fact Tailor is the only one really described in detail of the group, so it's not that much of a leap to deduce him as the mole. The only real question that needs answering in this story is if the mole was working alone or as part of a group, like the Cambridge Five. I think it's a bit of a cop-out that Tailor was working alone, but in a way that used the rest of his group and kind of made them look complicit. Having the taint of Communisim be more deep-seated, more wide spread would have made Smiley's task harder. It wouldn't have been just one word, but several. After all that palaver to end with just one? Seems kind of wasteful.

What was fascinating about reading this book in the current world climate is that this book is still very relevant. Until the last few years, and in particular since the election, I think the vast majority would have said that the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. While now we see that it's never ended, just went black ops, underground. So all this spycraft was still ongoing. This isn't a book about 1974 and the events before, this is a book about now. This book is so relevant it's actually a little spooky. To think that everything we had kind of relegated in our mind to being something of the past to realize it's of the now... Carré knows what he's writing about, even if it's not that linear or succinct. There's a reason why The Night Manager resonated so much with viewers, and it's not just because of Tom Hiddleston's ass. In the labyrinth of Smiley's world and all the dealing and double-dealing that goes on, there was one thing that really struck me. That sometimes a country would welcome a defector with open arms, promise them safety, security, a new life, not just for their secrets. There was a hidden agenda. Yes, a vast majority would be taken in, some played back into their country, but some, some were just taken in for bargaining down the road. Some were then sold to other countries, some even sold back to the country they had defected from. That just scares the shit out of me. To be promised this new life only to be passed along.

But what I found most startling was that at the root of it, the mole's reason for turning against his country wasn't a hatred for Britain, it was a hatred for the United States. Tailor clearly saw Britain's position on the world stage and realized that they could never bring down the United States, he saw their ineffectualness. Only the USSR could destroy America, so he should align himself with them in order to achieve his goal. While I fully admit, especially right now, America isn't a popular country, I don't quite get why Tailor felt this way. His reveal as the mole and his summation of why was given so few pages that his hatred of America felt a bit like a slap in the face. I just wanted the why. Why did he come to this conclusion personally. America is barely mentioned in the book. A few of the spies are in Washington from time to time but years previously, and Karla, the Russian spymatser, ran a failed radio scheme in San Francisco, but that is the only real mention of America. So why should Tailor, who was, let's face it, a lover of the finer things, including lots of pretty men and women, and wasn't logically the traitor aside from the fact he aligned with Philby's profile, a strident hater of all things American? I think this is what will stick with me most. Not the rambling and meandering of Carré but the xenophobic hatred of America that comes out of nowhere at the last second. Just why!?!

Monday, February 20, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

Death of a Ghost by M.C. Beaton
Published by: Grand Central Publishing
Publication Date: February 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 256 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"When Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth hears reports of a haunted castle near Drim, he assumes the eerie noises and lights reported by the villagers are just local teenagers going there to smoke pot or, worse, inject themselves with drugs. Still, Hamish decides that he and his policeman, Charlie "Clumsy" Carson, will spend the night at the ruined castle to get to the bottom of the rumors once and for all.

There's no sign of any ghost...but then Charlie disappears through the floor. It turns out he's fallen into the cellar. And what Hamish and Charlie find there is worse than a ghost: a dead body propped against the wall. Waiting for help to arrive, Hamish and Charlie leave the castle just for a moment--to eat bacon baps--but when they return, the body is nowhere to be seen. It's clear something strange--and deadly--is going on at the castle, and Hamish must get to the bottom of it before the "ghost" can strike again..."

Quite literally my mom's favorite series. 

A Cast of Vultures by Judith Flanders
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: February 21st, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 320 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"There was every possibility that I was dead, and my brain hadn’t got the memo. Or maybe it was that I wished I were dead. On reflection, that was more likely.

Usually clear-headed editor Samantha Clair stumbles through her post-book-party morning with the hangover to end all hangovers. But before the ibuprofen has even kicked in, she finds herself entangled in an elaborate saga of missing neighbors, suspected arson, and strange men offering free tattoos.

By the time the grisly news breaks that the fire has claimed a victim, Sam is already in pursuit. Never has comedy been so deadly as she faces down a pair from Thugs ’R’ Us, aided by nothing more than a Scotland Yard boyfriend, a stalwart Goth assistant, and an unnerving knowledge of London’s best farmer’s markets.

From the acclaimed bestselling author Judith Flanders, A Cast of Vultures continues the sharp-witted series starring book editor and amateur sleuth Samantha Clair."

Minotaur dropped me a line and it looks such fun doesn't it!

Friday, February 17, 2017

TV Review - Murder is Easy

Murder is Easy
Based on the book by Agatha Christie
Starring: Steve Pemberton, Shirley Henderson, Sylvia Syms, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lyndsey Marshal, James Lance, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Camilla Arfwedson, Hugo Speer, Anna Chancellor, David Haig, Margo Stilley, Jemma Redgrave, Russell Tovey, Stephen Churchett, Steven Hartley, and Julian Lightwing
Release Date: July 12th, 2009
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Miss Marple is on a train when she meets a very distracted female passenger on her way to London, a Miss Lavinia Pinkerton. Miss Pinkerton is distressed about the possibility that Scotland Yard closes for lunch because she has to talk to them because she believes there has been two murders in her town. Miss Marple isn't sure what to make of her, but Miss Pinkerton's parting words that murder is easy if no one thinks it's murder makes Jane pick up Miss Pinkerton's discarded newspaper, The Wychwood Gazette, to read about the tragic death of the Vicar due to bees. A few days later when she reads of the death of Miss Pinkerton on an escalator in the London Underground Jane packs her bags for Wychwood and is determined to get to the bottom of Miss Pinkerton's suspicions. Arriving for Miss Pinkerton's funeral claiming to be an old friend Jane is soon taken into the community's confidences about the upcoming election concerning Major Horton, James Abbot, and Dr. Thomas, the other recent accidents, the secret trysts, and the nosey yet attractive American who is visiting. Though one of the town's residents sees through Miss Marple's act. Luke Fitwilliam is ex police and is back in Wychwood to clear out his mother's estate and can tell when someone is lying. Miss Marple comes clean, dropping her doddering old lady act and the two of them set out to solve these crimes, another of which has just been committed as Dr. Humbleby drops dead of acute septicemia. Can they catch the killer before even more "accidents" happen?

By the time Julia McKenzie quietly sidled in as Miss Marple taking over from fan favorite, and apparent belligerent drunk Geraldine McEwan, there were only four remaining books and two short stories containing Miss Marple left to adapt. Well, when a series runs to twenty-three ninety minute movies and is drawing on a base of only twelve books staring a character, liberties will be increasingly taken. While this started with McEwan, having Marple show up in four stories she had no right to be in, McEwan somehow pulled it off, nosing her way in. Whereas McKenzie was more passive, just a figure in the background as the series took more and more liberties with the mysteries, heavily expanding and changing them, much to the audience's displeasure. While I'm a fan of McKenzie, she is an incredibly talented actress, she just didn't have the oomph to force her way into these new narratives. I felt like this was the slow death of Marple... it didn't surprise me in the least when the BBC took over the Christie franchise and quickly put Marple out of it's misery. It was a pale imitation of what it once was, whereas Poirot had only gotten better over the years and ended on a high note. Therefore it should come as no surprise that I had actually, until rewatching Murder is Easy, entirely forgotten this episode. The fact that Benedict Cumberbatch was in an episode of Marple was pretty much a surprise to me. But in no way an unpleasant one.

Personally I never got the Christie purists who complained about the changes. Until now. Changing one or two things isn't a crime, but here? They took a solid mystery and tried to make it more modern and more Christie simultaneously by adding in incestuous rape and then having all the suspects rounded up for the big reveal. The mystery worked fine as originally written and would have featured FAR more Benedict Cumberbatch if his character hadn't been relegated to Miss Marple's sidekick. But even if Benedict hadn't been playing the role of Luke Fitzwilliam if you think my favoritism is swaying my opinion, if it had been anyone else, the changes just don't work. There is barely a shadow of the original story. Murder is Easy was written to be about a rather witchy town with lots of people who are at odds, all of them a bit of an outsider, instead we have a happy little village where on the surface everyone is getting along. Yes, they still have dark secrets, but they were bland. It was all who was sleeping with who and not who was doing Satanic rites up on the hillside. And the problem I have is that there are so many actors whom I legitimately love in this, but throwing a whole bunch of celebrities onto the screen isn't going to solve a production that had the temerity to think they knew better than Christie. This adaptation just doesn't work. All the changes throw the dynamics of the narrative off so that you can't actually enjoy watching it.

Each and every change to a character has a ripple effect until at the end the calm stream becomes a massive waterfall. I just want to shake the writers and scream WHY in their faces as long as my breath will hold. They could have just slipped Jane into the story, not changed EVERYTHING. As a starting point let's take Luke Fitzwilliam. Luke is supposed to be the stranger, the interloper that Jane becomes. By having him be a local KNOWN to be ex police, well the who idea of subterfuge and a secret investigation is out the window. The narrative instantly because about Miss Marple being cleverer than the cops with her sitting smugly behind doors from where she's secretly running the interrogations. I mean, it's just a boring police procedural at this point, NOT a classic of crime. Bridget Conway, the love interest, becomes not a local engaged to the big MP, but an American looking for her real parents? Um, why!?! In fact there's only TWO DEATHS, out of the seven in the book that happen the same way. What, those seven different accidents weren't good enough for you ITV people? Apparently death by bees is far sexier... and I'm not even going to talk about the stupid hat dye.

But what makes this adaptation utterly unbelievable is the change of the timeline. In the book aside from the final three deaths they are spread out over a longer period of time, about a year or so. Having the characters be killed by "accident" over the course of a year, well, that makes it more plausible that no one would have cried foul. But to have all these people "accidentally" die over the course of a few days!?! Well, even the ever delightfully bumbling Russell Tovey as PC Terence Reed should have cottoned onto them all being camouflaged murders even without Miss Marple appearing on the scene. I mean, seriously, that many bodies so quickly? And they didn't think, hang on a minute, do we maybe have a serial killer!?! By this point I was actually hoping they'd all die for their stupidity except for Jemma Redgrave who was oddly endearing as the Doctor's manic widow. And the fact that besides just a regular PC there was Luke Fitzwilliam on the scene, a true officer of the law, how stupid are these townspeople? The only real joy I got from this episode was watching Russell Tovey and Benedict Cumberbatch work together. After watching them recently on Sherlock, it's fascinating to see how in just four years they had grown as actors.

In the end though I just want to know, why the change of motive? In the book Honoria Waynflete is a bitter woman pissed at being jilted and seeing her family lose their fortune, but underneath it all she was just insane. She killed just to kill, which is the most terrifying of criminals. Here she was raped by her brother and had the baby and put it up for adoption. When the baby, all growed up, shows up in Wychwood, well, ANYONE who might have known her horrid secret must be killed. It all kind of eliminates the evil... because the killer was a victim who was only trying to cover up a horrible secret she's kept hidden for years. She is sympathetic, to an extent. But you can at least understand the motive... It just makes the story less than. A classic full of sinister townsfolk or a tragedy that has repercussions for years to come... I wanted a mystery, a proper tale of criminals and instead I got this. It just didn't feel worthy of Christie. It comes from modern sensibilities that want to understand and feel pity for the killer. There can't just be evil, that is now reserved for the realms of horror. A mystery has to be complex and understanding and despite being the bestseller of all time ITV felt that they knew better. Personally this was the end of Marple for me, and if I could give one final piece of advice, if would be to Luke Fitzwillim; don't get involved with the girl. She's the product of incestuous rape and her mother was a serial killer. Crazy runs in her family so now you go and run for the hills.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Book Review - Agatha Christie's Murder is Easy

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie
Published by: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication Date: June 5th, 1939
Format: Hardcover, 223 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Luke Fitzwilliam has returned to England from police duty in the Mayang Straits. He's been away from England for years and his return is a mixed bag. He won a packet on the Derby but his train left without him when he was checking the results. Catching the next train up to London he meets Lavinia Pinkerton, an elderly lady who reminds him of his Aunt. Luke humors her and listens to her reasons about going up to London. She believes there is a serial killer in her small town who now has their sights set on the nice Dr. Humbleby and she is determined to tell Scotland Yard all about it because the other deaths were nasty people but Dr. Humbleby is a different kettle of fish. Luke thinks she's an old dear who's a little batty, but when he later reads of her sudden death as well as the death of Dr. Humbleby he remembers her talking about how murder is really quite easy and there's a look in the eyes of the killer. He decides it's only right to investigate. With the help of his friend who happens to have a cousin down in Wychwood under Ashe Luke poses as a writer researching a book on witchcraft and superstitious beliefs that still survive in small communities. Luke hopes this will let him talk about the recent deaths in the town, totaling six when he arrives in the village. But will there be more deaths? And is Luke putting himself in danger by investigating in the first place?

I started this year by reading a murder mystery by one of Christie's contemporaries oddly enough published in the same year as Murder is Easy. Going from No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer to Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie the shift is so dramatic it's patently obvious why Christie is the bestselling author of all time and the "Queen of Crime." Instead of waiting hundreds of pages for a crime to actually be committed, Christie starts with a high body count right out of the gate. She builds the suspense while building her characters, instead of focusing on one or the other and therefore sacrificing quality. Heyer spun things out to excruciating lengths and in the end created a book that was unsatisfying more than anything else. If you're going to do a murder mystery, you kind of need both of those elements. My most favorite mysteries are the ones that follow in the vein of Christie; high body counts with quirky characters and a fun enough journey with plenty of red herrings that the narrative is a cohesive whole. Perhaps that's why I love Midsomer Murders so much, if any show followed Christie on body count alone, it would be Midsomer Murders. Also, this isn't to say Christie is infallible... she does trip up and get stuck in her own devices sometimes, Endless Night anyone? But Murder is Easy is thankfully a classic Christie.

Though, for me, there is rarely a book that is flawless. I mean, there are people out there that actually think for something to be perfect there has to be one flaw for them to pick at. I'm not one of those people, though it might occasionally seem so to others. But Murder is Easy did have a big flaw in it's leading man. Yes, let's talk about Luke Fitzwilliam. Luke is... well Luke must not have been very good at his job out east. Or, if he was good at it, it was with a kind of straightforward bluster that can, occasionally, make a decent cop. Why I've come to this conclusion is that he has no natural ability for subterfuge. He's "supposed" to be in Wychwood under Ashe as an author researching a book... does he ever really commit to this cover? No. About five minutes in he's already telling his friend's cousin who is putting him up, Bridget Conway, the real reason he's there. Um, couldn't she be a suspect? Or is she just too pretty? All his questions to the townsfolk are obviously about the recent spat of deaths, he doesn't once really try to talk about superstition and witchcraft. Which is a shame. Because I was kind of looking forward to a witchy element to this book, especially as Christie set the stage with the town's history for supernatural activity, but then she never followed through. The murders took precedent over Luke's cover and, well, I just was annoyed.

But Luke's inability to dissemble isn't nearly as bad as the forced romance between him and Bridget Conway. Christie does seem to have a need to not only solve the crime but to match off a couple by the end of her books. Like catching the criminal isn't enough. For a true happy ending there must be a marriage to boot. It could be a product of her times, this was released in 1939, but still, think of all the romantic partnerships of crime solvers there are... in fact, could we trace this all back to Christie? OK, that's getting off course, but if she's the reason we have everyone from Nick and Nora to Caskett... I think I'll give her a slid. On most. Not on Luke and Bridget. Because seriously, there is NO chemistry between them. None. In a play or a movie you can understand a lack of chemistry, the leads just weren't able to connect. In a book, there's NO reason for this. The author controls everything and there's no moment where you look at Luke and Bridget and go, "yes, they were meant to be." Luke sees a pretty girl and just decides to fall for her. She, for no apparent reason, is willing to give up a comfortable life with a wealthy man just to what? Marry a poor man who is more in love with the idea of her than her? Seriously. They do not a couple make. But Christie needed the supposed connection for the reveal of the killer... so maybe if she had just worked backwards from that a little more convincingly?

Yet it's Christie's ability to throw so many red herrings at us that we feel as if we're at a fish market that makes her books transcend character issues. She is able to believable posit, through Luke's investigation, so many murder suspects that you're never quite sure. Yes, I am one of those people who try to solve the crime as I'm reading, but if it's a good enough ride I can be swept away and buy into the plausibility of any single person being the killer. What I particularly liked was Luke was continually making up lists with reasons why each person was guilty or innocent. Yet his lists often omitted things, or didn't quite convey what I felt was uncovered in interrogations that we got to be privy too. Therefore we are able to see beyond Luke's narrow mind and see that the suspect pool is far bigger. This allows for Christie to go wild with her red herrings. In fact, just simple turns of phrase, assumptions about how people talk, all these play into the eventual reveal. In fact, it wasn't until minutes before the reveal that I had the aha moment. Where I could fully see her intricate web and who was really at the center pulling all the threads. I used to have this wonderful t-shirt that was for Mystery! by Edward Gorey that had a tree with clues, suspects, and the red herrings being the only items in color. I loved that shirt and I think that shirt captures the feeling of reading Murder is Easy. It's all there, it's all perfect, you just have to wait for Christie to pull back the curtain. Because she really is the master at this game.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody
Published by: Minotaur Books
Publication Date: February 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A murder most foul.

When the landlord of a Yorkshire tavern is killed in plain sight, Freda Simonson, the only witness to the crime, becomes plagued with guilt, believing the wrong man has been convicted. Following her death, it seems that the truth will never be uncovered in the peaceful village of Langcliffe...

A village of secrets.

But it just so happens that Freda’s nephew is courting the renowned amateur sleuth Kate Shackleton, who decides to holiday in Langcliffe with her indomitable teenage niece, Harriet. When Harriet strikes up a friendship with a local girl whose young brother is missing, the search leads Kate to uncover another suspicious death, not to mention an illicit affair.

The case of a lifetime.

As the present mysteries merge with the past’s mistakes, Kate is thrust into the secrets that Freda left behind and realizes that this courageous woman has entrusted her with solving a murder from beyond the grave. It soon becomes clear to her that nothing in Langcliffe is quite as it appears, and with a murderer on the loose and an ever-growing roster of suspects, this isn’t the holiday Kate was expecting..."

Good cozy goodness for a bleak February day. 

In Calabria by Peter S. Beagle
Published by: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: February 14th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 176 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"From the acclaimed author of The Last Unicorn comes a new, exquisitely-told unicorn fable for the modern age.

Claudio Bianchi has lived alone for many years on a hillside in Southern Italy’s scenic Calabria. Set in his ways and suspicious of outsiders, Claudio has always resisted change, preferring farming and writing poetry. But one chilly morning, as though from a dream, an impossible visitor appears at the farm. When Claudio comes to her aid, an act of kindness throws his world into chaos. Suddenly he must stave off inquisitive onlookers, invasive media, and even more sinister influences.

Lyrical, gripping, and wise, In Calabria confirms Peter S. Beagle's continuing legacy as one of fantasy's most legendary authors."

It's Peter S. Beagle and there's a unicorn. Sold. 

Giant Days Volume Four by John Allison
Published by: BOOM! Box
Publication Date: February 14th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 112 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"It's springtime at Sheffield University. Will Susan, Esther, and Daisy make it to summer?

It's springtime at Sheffield University—the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and fast-pals Susan, Esther and Daisy continue to survive their freshman year of college. Susan is barely dealing with her recent breakup with McGraw, Esther is considering dropping out of school, and Daisy is trying to keep everyone and everyTHING from falling apart! Combined with house-hunting, indie film festivals, and online dating, can the girls make it to second year?"

Not my favorite series, but still enjoyable, as in, I have to keep reading for some reason... Also the cover is very V-Day appropriate.

Friday, February 10, 2017

TV Review - Sherlock's The Hounds of Baskerville

The Hounds of Baskerville
Based on the book by Arthur Conan Doyle
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Russell Tovey, Chipo Chung, Gordon Kennedy, Kevin Trainor, Stephen Wight, Sasha Behar, Will Sharpe, Simon Paisley Day, Amelia Bullmore, Clive Mantle, Rupert Graves, Mark Gatiss, and Andrew Scott
Release Date: January 8th, 2012
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Sherlock is bored and on edge, he needs a case to distract him from his nicotine withdrawal. It's been hours since he closed his last case with a rather dramatic incident with a harpoon and little Kirstie's luminous pet rabbit who's gone AWOL isn't going to take the edge off. Thankfully for Dr. Watson's sanity a knight in dilapidated armor appears; Henry Knight. Henry has been haunted his entire life by the death of his father who was murdered by a giant hound twenty years earlier. Young Henry was discovered wandering the moors but his father's body was never found. Henry has recently returned to Grimpen in Dartmoor and he wandered to Dewer's Hollow only to be greeted by the hound of his nightmares. Dewer's Hollow's proximity to the government research facility Baskerville means Sherlock is even more likely to dismiss Henry's nightmares. In fact he would have gladly set Henry on his way back to his psychiatrist if it wasn't for his repeated use of the word Hound. But there's the need for a speedy resolution as Henry's grip on reality is quickly failing. So who is to blame? The villagers keen on embracing the legend of the hound in order to lure in the tourists? The military base which is clearly up to nefarious deeds? Or is there really a giant hound with glowing red eyes? And can Holmes trust his own senses when he believes he's seen the beast himself?

The thing about truly loving something is knowing that it isn't perfect. You can see the flaws but still love it. To blindly love say a TV show means you're not a fan, you're an acolyte. Perfection in this world is rare and a TV show achieving that? Well, it's kind of a miracle. So it sometimes even helps to vent these feelings. To come right out and say "I love you but...." That's how it is with me and Sherlock. In fact, that's how it is with me and every show that Steven Moffat does and Sherlock has the least "buts" of all. I love Sherlock, I really do. It's putting a modern twist on the Conan Doyle canon without being overly predictable like Elementary is and Sherlock is top notch. But... the fact is for a show that has only three episode per season having one dud episode each season is a bit problematical. Yes, I have over time come to grudgingly like these middling episodes, but seriously, is there anyone ready to really go all in on "The Blind Banker?" And let's not even talk about some of the absurdities of this season's "The Final Problem."

What I'm getting at is that "The Hounds of the Baskerville" is distinctly in this lesser than category. Perhaps I had hopes that were too high. I sometimes really need to dial my expectations back. The problem was this is one of the classic Holmes stories combined with Russell Tovey and I let things go to my head a little. I think one of the problems might have been Russell... yes he's perfect, but he's also, in my mind, "a name." He's a great actor but there's also a sameness to the roles in his CV, damaged yet lovable could be his descriptor. So I didn't really see Henry Knight, I saw Russell. This was also problematic with Lara Pulver as Irene Adler in the previous episode. You need to have an actor capable of making you forget who they really are. Which is the genius of Benedict and Martin, I actually see them as the characters. Russell... not so much. But repeated viewings of the episode have gotten me over this issue to focus on more specific problems, like that hound! Seriously, it looked like Zuul from Ghostbusters, and the CGI somehow looked WORSE than a film made in 1984!

But this newest viewing brought a new admiration for this episode, Zuul exempted because there is NO fixing that. Having just read The Hound of the Baskervilles I got to see how Mark Gatiss took the source material and reinterpreted it. Sherlock is all about reinventing what is basically a set of stories that have been told hundreds of times and making them new again. The call backs to the book, which are sometimes just an aside, a single line, to more integrated plot twists are kind of dazzling to watch. You're waiting with baited breath to see what Gatiss will pull out of the book next. From Sherlock's perfume analysis, to Lestrade getting the London out of his lungs, to Dr. Mortimer being Henry's psychiatrist in this iteration, to the dangerous Grimpen Mire becoming the even more dangerous Grimpen Mine Field, phosphorescent animals, John's inferior mind being a good sounding board, Sherlock claiming he's too busy for this case, the episode is just peppered throughout with these lines that are seemingly throw aways, but are SO much more. 

Though just incorporating what was into what is isn't nearly as fun as taking what's in the book and reinventing it, like Gatiss did with the Grimpen Mire. He refocuses on different aspects of the story while using other aspects to throw us off the trail. Instead of Henry being based on the new heir to the Baskerville estate his personality is taken more from the previous... the one driven to death by the apparition of a hound. Add to this a little of the breakdown the new heir suffers after the events of the story and you have a central figure who is far more flawed and therefore far more interesting. Yet what I really love is the red herring of Dr. Stapleton. Spoiler alert, despite whatever you think she's just a red herring. An ingenious red herring, because in the original tale the killer is using the name Stapleton! But the things that brought me the greatest joy was the insertion of two very modern ideas into this very Gothic tale but having them still relate to the story. That's the fact that obviously the small town of Grimpen would try to capitalize on the hound to lure in tourists, even if they do it in a ham handed way... the other is that the mysterious lights that Watson sees are a couple in a car having sex while others watch. This, this would be called dogging.

What I think I took most issue with the first time I watched this was when Sherlock uses Watson as a lab rat to test his hallucinogen theory. Yes, it's scary, but it's more uncomfortable that he would use his only friend in such a heinous way. I mean, seriously!?! If someone did this to me, no matter how much of a genius or how close a friend I viewed them, this would have been the end of the line. But thinking of it analytically I think it makes a point about the bigger horrors that Gatiss discusses in the episode, mainly animal experimentation. No matter which way you spin it animal experimentation is a tricky issue. As Dr. Stapleton says, if you can think of it someone is doing it, and she was just making a luminous bunny rabbit! But there are so many people who justify what they are doing to these poor defenseless animals using the name of science. And you can't deny that valuable data has been collected with regard to these studies. Therefore, how does one come out firmly on the side of the animals and not the scientists? By taking a character we love and turning him into the experiment. By turning Watson into that poor bunny Gatiss has made the strongest possible point against animal experimentation, on any form of animal. And that's why I love this show, warts and all. An old story can be spun into something new and illuminating; literally in the case of Kirstie's bunny.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Book Review - Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
Published by: Children's Classics
Publication Date: 1902
Format: Hardcover, 249 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

221B Baker Street has had a visitor. Only Holmes and Watson were out. Though the person left behind a walking stick and the two men seek to analyze it in the hopes of a clue. They don't have long to wait to figure out whose deductions were right (Holmes) and whose were wrong (Watson). The potential client is one Dr. James Mortimer who brings a bizarre story about a family curse. The Baskervilles of Devonshire are supposedly cursed by a hound that wanders Dartmoor due to the nefarious deeds of Sir Hugo Baskerville hundreds of years earlier, thinning their ranks whenever possible. Dr. Mortimer would agree with Holmes and Watson that this is all a fairy tale if it wasn't for the recent death of his dear friend, Sir Charles Baskerville; whose body was found near massive animal footprints that could only have been left by a hound. Though Dr. Mortimer kept this canid observation a secret at the inquest, fearing what people would say.

The reality versus the mythical is what interests Holmes, but if Sir Charles is dead, why does Dr. Mortimer care? Because his heir, Sir Henry Baskerville has arrived from Canada and is to take up residence on the moor and Dr. Mortimer doesn't know if the story will scare him or prove as a warning. Though it is quickly apparent that Sir Henry is in danger, from a real, not a mythical foe. He is followed, one of his new boots is stolen, and he receives a letter that is either a threat or a warning. Holmes decides that Watson will accompany the two men to Devonshire while he finishes up some pressing cases in London. Watson had scoffed at the story of the hound, but down in Devonshire, there's something primal about the moors that make myths seem real and not something to be scoffed at. Can the two men save Sir Henry, or is he going to be yet another victim of the bloody Baskerville legacy?

There are only four stand alone Sherlock Holmes books, and I can guarantee that the only one that everyone knows is The Hound of the Baskervilles. They might not know what it's about, but it has proliferated across people's bookshelves all over the world. I actually don't know how many copies I have around my house, it being part of set of Sherlock Holmes from the Book-of-the-Month Club I have as well as a classics set, not to mention the old children's library edition I am reviewing here. But it's the classic one I remember so well. It was cloth bound and had a glowing hound on the cover, even though the edition of Frankenstein in that set was far more memorable with the turquoise binding and the monster having long flowing hair. I remember this edition so well because I was supposed to read it in seventh grade. Note the "supposed to" in that sentence. My grade school had crazy amounts of homework. I kid you not. On average I had eight hours of work a night. This paid off when I went to high school because I was so good at multitasking that I could finish all my work during class time during the two days a week I actually bothered to show up.

In fact I didn't really have any outside homework until my junior year in high school, and that's only because I finally got a teacher who inspired me to work. But back in seventh grade, besides those eight hours of work a night we were expected to read two other novels a month and write lengthy book reports on them. Seeing as I actually needed to sleep occasionally I sometimes wouldn't have the time to finish these extra books. So while I was supposed to read The Hound of the Baskervilles, in fact my mom read it and wrote the book report. In fact at one time or another every one of my family read and wrote a book report for me in an effort to keep my pre-teen sanity, thank god for a grandmother who loved to read! But of all those books I was supposed to read, The Hound of the Baskervilles was the one I actually wanted to. So now I finally have and I hope this review will stand in lieu of the book report all these years later. Though I kind of wish I could read what my mom thought I would have written...

What surprised me the most about The Hound of the Baskervilles is that it was written prior to The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I had always understood it as Conan Doyle killed Holmes off in 1893, hue, cry, uproar, people cancelling their magazine subscriptions left and right, publisher weeping to Conan Doyle to not destroy him and Holmes, but Conan Doyle staying firm till ten years later he caved into demand and starting writing the short stories again in 1903 with "The Adventure of the Empty House." But this is not the case! The Hound of the Baskervilles was serialized in The Strand Magazine from 1901 till 1902! So he caved twice! I've always found it odd how much Conan Doyle seemed to hate his own creation, much like Victor Frankenstein of the aforementioned turquoise bound book. He hated his creation so much he killed him only to have the death not stick. He is immortal because of Sherlock Holmes, and yet he tried everything not to write him. In fact, The Hound of the Baskervilles was never intended to be a Sherlock Holmes story! As he was writing it he realized that Holmes was necessary, in fact essential, and as an added bonus it would appease the public.

But there is one person, narratively speaking, who lucked out with Conan Doyle's hesitance to write Holmes, and that is Watson. By keeping Holmes at bay Watson was left to play. Yes, Watson still has a little too much of the "I wish Holmes was here" obsequiousness, but the fact remains that Holmes is hardly in this story. He's there at the beginning and at the denouement to tie up all the loose ends, but in-between it's all Watson all the time. It's Watson's observances and recollections that help Holmes solve the crime. It's Watson taking the risks and striking out onto the moors alone. Sure Holmes gave him the basic outline of what he should do, but it's Watson risking his neck everyday for Henry Baskerville. While the previous volume of adventures showed the development of Watson as more than just Sherlock's number one fanboy and biographer, it's The Hound of the Baskervilles that sets Watson up as Holmes's equal. As I have said before, I've never been down on Watson like many are. In fact I've always rather liked him. But the truth is it's not until this point, which is ironically the half-way point in the Sherlock canon, that Watson finally gets his props. Go Watson! You did good no matter what Sherlock says!

Though what I loved about this book had nothing to do with Watson or Holmes and everything to do with the mood. The awesome Gothic mood. Myth and legend were the starting off point for this book, so it makes sense that this eerie atmosphere pervades the book, with the misty moors and the baleful howls on the wind. Because it's set on Dartmoor not far from Daphne Du Maurier's Bodmin I couldn't help but compare this story of Conan Doyle's to Du Maurier's work. In fact, I would place money on Du Maurier being inspired by The Hound of the Baskervilles to a great degree in writing her seminal work, Jamaica Inn. Both books have outsiders haunted by the bleakness of the moors and the dangers of hidden mires, and the dark majesty of the tors. In fact it was kind of like stumbling on a lost classic by Du Maurier. The truth is that I can see how it could have worked without Holmes, he's just the deus ex machina as many have complained. The real star of this book is the land. Even if you're not a fan of Sherlock Holmes, I urge you to pick this up just for it's Gothic awesomeness.

Yet I must warn you. Though I will totally stand behind this book I will add the caveat that Conan Doyle is a clunky writer. Sometimes with older books you have trouble adjusting to the writing style. It takes awhile to get into the flow when reading Jane Austen, or more specifically Shakespeare. Shakespeare is one of those writers who you're lost for about the first third, and then everything clicks and when you reach the end you really want to go back to the beginning because now you're in the zone. There is no zone with Conan Doyle. There is no time at which his writing flows and you're like, yeah, bring it on. It's a struggle. Constantly. And all uphill. Back when I did Sherlocked, reading five of his books in a row I never found any nice common ground where my mind could rest and just enjoy the reading experience. You will have to fight the text to enjoy these books, which is probably why I have found them more enjoyable as a re-read. I've fought the text once and won so I know I can do it again. So you can be victorious and come out enjoying the book, but you will also be a little exhausted by the whole experience and occasionally find your mind wandering. Which might be how Watson viewed this whole case...

Monday, February 6, 2017

Tuesday Tomorrow

My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella
Published by: The Dial Press
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 448 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Part love story, part workplace drama, this sharply observed novel is a witty critique of the false judgments we make in a social-media-obsessed world. New York Times bestselling author Sophie Kinsella has written her most timely novel yet.

Everywhere Katie Brenner looks, someone else is living the life she longs for, particularly her boss, Demeter Farlowe. Demeter is brilliant and creative, lives with her perfect family in a posh townhouse, and wears the coolest clothes. Katie’s life, meanwhile, is a daily struggle—from her dismal rental to her oddball flatmates to the tense office politics she’s trying to negotiate. No wonder Katie takes refuge in not-quite-true Instagram posts, especially as she's desperate to make her dad proud.

Then, just as she’s finding her feet—not to mention a possible new romance—the worst happens. Demeter fires Katie. Shattered but determined to stay positive, Katie retreats to her family’s farm in Somerset to help them set up a vacation business. London has never seemed so far away—until Demeter unexpectedly turns up as a guest. Secrets are spilled and relationships rejiggered, and as the stakes for Katie’s future get higher, she must question her own assumptions about what makes for a truly meaningful life.

Sophie Kinsella is celebrated for her vibrant, relatable characters and her great storytelling gifts. Now she returns with all of the wit, warmth, and wisdom that are the hallmarks of her bestsellers to spin this fresh, modern story about presenting the perfect life when the reality is far from the truth."

I always love a non-Shopaholic Sophie Kinsella book!

The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by: Anchor
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Our beloved cast of characters are back, as are the joys and trials of life at 44 Scotland Street in this latest installment of Alexander McCall Smith’s delightfully charming series.

Bertie’s mother, Irene, returns from the Middle East to discover that, in her absence, her son has been exposed to the worst of evils—television shows, ice cream parlors, and even unsanctioned art at the National Portrait Gallery. Her wrath descends on Bertie’s long-suffering father, Stuart. But Stuart has found a reason to spend more time outside of the house and seems to have a new spring in his step. What does this mean for the residents of 44 Scotland Street?

The winds of change have come to the others as well. Angus undergoes a spiritual transformation after falling victim to an unexpected defenestration. Bruce has fallen in a rather different sense for a young woman who is determined to share with him her enthusiasm for extreme sports. Matthew and Elspeth have a falling out with their triplets’ au pair, while Big Lou continues to fall in love with her new role as a mother. And as Irene resumes work on what she calls her Bertie Project, reinstating Bertie’s Italian lessons, yoga classes, and psychotherapy, Bertie begins to hatch a project of his own—one that promises freedom."

You know, the months between this releasing in England and in the US is an excruciating wait! 

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A dazzling debut novel—at once a charming romance and a moving coming-of-age story—about what happens when a fourteen-year-old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.

Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine…The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys—Billy, Alf, and Clark—who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan—they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

At its heart, The Impossible Fortress is a tender exploration of young love, true friends, and the confusing realities of male adolescence—with a dash of old school computer programming."

This sounds like such a cute coming of age story. Plus, the eighties are SO in right now!

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: Squirrel Meets World by Shannon and Dean Hale
Published by: Marvel Press
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A 320-page Middle Grade Novel telling an original "tail" of Marvel's cute, quirky, and downright furry Super Heroine--Squirrel Girl!"

Um... Marvel... you might want to work on your description for this book... esp. because your description has the page count wrong. 

Fuku Fuku: Kitten Tales 2 by Konami Kanata
Published by: Vertical Comics
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Format: Paperback, 160 Pages
To Buy

I am ALWAYS up for a new Konami Kanata cat book. ALWAYS!

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Published by: W. W. Norton and Company
Publication Date: February 7th, 2017
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Introducing an instant classic―master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.

Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.

In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki―son of a giant―blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.

Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman―difficult with his beard and huge appetite―to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir―the most sagacious of gods―is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.

Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again."

OH look, it's the book that's been taunting me with an "I Wish" button on Netgalley for the last few months... but aside from that, I am SO HERE for this book! I really don't know my Norse mythology well at all, and that's where my genes are from...

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