Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Book Review - Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice

The Beekeeper's Apprentice by Laurie R. King
Published by: Picador
Publication Date: 1994
Format: Paperback, 346 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Mary Russell one day literally walks into Sherlock Holmes on the Sussex Downs. She has just recovered from a horrific accident and has moved to England to be looked after by her aunt. The war is raging across the channel and there's not much to do but wander the Downs and read, hence the walking into Sherlock Holmes. She is intrigued by this man who is intensely studying the bees and soon an unlikely friendship forms. Mary is smart and underfed, the perfect companion for Holmes and his erstwhile housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. Holmes slowly starts to inform Mary's education, choosing her reading material and her course of study, though he will never fully understand her love of theology. While Holmes might be filling his retirement with Mary, the truth is he's never been fully retired, and one day he finally lets Mary help in a case. The daughter of the US Ambassador has been kidnapped while on holiday in Wales. Dressed as gypsies Russell and Holmes find the young girl and return her to her parents. But this case brings them more forcibly onto the radar of Holmes's arch-nemesis. While Mary goes off to Oxford and Holmes stays in the Downs tending his bees, a web is being spun around them, tighter and tighter, until one day it explodes, much like the beehive that Holmes tends that was rigged with a bomb. Russell, Holmes, Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and even Mycroft are all in danger from this intelligent, resourceful, and determined foe. Holmes decides to take the unexpected step of removing himself from the game with Russell, but this only delays the inevitable. There will be a reckoning, and there will be casualties.

Books that start off slow and build to a climax are a lovely surprise. Books that start off fun and slowly chip away at you until you can't wait to be finished, well those are a different kind of surprise all together. The Beekeeper's Apprentice is of the second kind, sort of. A good solid start was had after an initial wobble, but by the end I was just like Holmes listening to the raving denouement from his tormentor, politely bored. I should have guessed from the beginning that Laurie R. King was the kind of author who would devolve into self-indulgent crap, but I had hopes. Why should I have guessed? That "Editor's Preface" my dear which I tried SO HARD to forget about. That little wobble that started the quake that would bring this book down. In this preface, King sets out to make it seem as if the events we are about to read are real, due to the arrival of a trunk stuffed full of mementos from the life of one Mary Russell. While there's the part of me that got a frisson of excitement thinking how wonderful it would be if such a trunk showed up on my doorstep, it's what King sets out to do with this trunk that baffled me. I mean, obviously as a half-way intelligent reader you've realized you're holding one of the "manuscripts" that reside at the bottom of said trunk, what I don't get is the implications this casts on King herself. King is not only devaluing what she has done in writing this book, claiming it to be Russell's, but there's the plagiarism accusation. An accusation she is willing to embrace. In other words, King is proudly proclaiming herself to be a plagiarist and her publisher a willing accomplice. Um... what now? I'm about to read an entire book by an author who will tear herself down in order to make a joke that falls completely flat? Seriously? I am baffled. It sets the book on a weird footing and no matter how hard you try to forget this, there's a part of you that remembers and cringes and knows, this could all go very pear shaped, very fast.   

This faux whimsy of King's backfires to the extent that you start to question everything she writes. She obviously doesn't take herself seriously, which I will admit is something more writers need to do, but she isn't just lighthearted she denigrates herself with a knowing wink, like her writing isn't good enough. Because of this we don't think her writing is good enough, and it is sadly brought home on every single page. Just look to how she handles Holmes. The way Holmes is different as filtered through the perception of Mary Russell versus Watson rings false again and again. He is different, and this story needed him to be, but he is TOO different. He is the Holmes of the daydreams of a fifteen year old girl with serious daddy issues. He is oddly more romantic and sentimental than Watson would ever have dared say lest a vicious tongue-lashing was to come. His desire to solve crimes isn't based on boredom but a deep seated love of humanity. In other words, he's a big old cuddly teddy bear and Mary Russell is the first one to ever really get that. If there had been some ring of truth to this description than it might have been believable, instead I felt like this book was nothing more than fanfic masquerading as fiction, or faux nonfiction as King would have us "believe." Here's the thing about fanfic, it's fine, it's good to have it in the world, it's just not good if you're book exudes it. This way does Casandra Clare and other such hack writers lie. Your book can have it's birth in fanfic, it just must rise above. It must become something more, something new. While Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories could technically be considered Jane Austen fanfic, or Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles Sailor Moon fanfic, neither reads as such, because they have become something more. The Beekeeper's Apprentice isn't something more.

In fact, it goes all the way to hetfic, with Mary and Holmes being set up to eventually "get it on." And this is where my head goes boom. Just no. No no no. First, Holmes is of the asexual variety of humans. He can not be concerned with the workings of the heart, it takes up space needed in his brain for other things, much like he doesn't know the earth goes around the sun. But then again, here we have the overly sentimental Holmes of Russell's imagination. It's like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, there is nothing I hate more than his relationship with Amy, largely to do with casting, which was just consummated as I write this. It's out of character. These are people above hanky panky, thank you very much. Cerebral over physical. But it's so much more than that. There's the creep factor. Holmes is fifty-two when he meets just turned fifteen Mary. This would make him a pedophile people. Sure nothing "happens" for years, but look what he's doing during those years? He's training her, he's helping her learn his secrets, he's grooming her. Child grooming: IE, what pedophiles do! This is the elephant in the room. It's not the thirty-seven year age difference, it's when the relationship started that is all manners of ew. It's like the current Doctor on Doctor Who getting it on with one of Clara's students, and yes, the age difference is exactly the same! Yes Mary claims she views him as a father figure but doesn't that just make this even more creepy? Am I the only one calling ick? And I'm not even getting into the whole dressing like a boy factor! Looking to see what my friends thought I can't understand how they are all praise and no, hang on a minute this is creepy. Just no. I can definitively say that I won't ever be picking up another book in this series if just for the ew factor.

Though the icky fanfic aspect of this book isn't the only problem I have. King said she set out to write this book to show what Sherlock Holmes would be like if he were born a she in the 20th century. OK, interesting concept to think about. OK, I've thought about it, and I think not. Russell is NOT the 20th century's answer to Sherlock Holmes. Not even going into the whole "Mary Sue" of it all, she can't be the new Sherlock Holmes because he was self-formed and she is obviously formed by Sherlock. She might have had the raw material to become him, but had to have him do it for her. She wasn't going around analyzing dirt at a young age. She wasn't trying to decipher different cigarette ash in her spare time. All she is is a smart girl who is opinionated, religious, had a traumatic incident in her life, and stumbled into Sherlock Holmes's life and was cooed over till she became irreversibly his creature. Not a woman of her own making. If we take out the Jessica Jones backstory and use the actual Sherlock mold, self-made genius, sibling, etc, who we get isn't Mary Russell, it's Flavia De Luce! Alan Bradley who is obviously a far more well honed Sherlockian than King could ever hope to be, understood the nuances needed. This is all just bold brushstrokes. In fact I think I could pick out anyone from literature at random from the "bright young people" and they would have the necessary spark, the dazzling wit, and the intelligence that Mary seems to so "uniquely" have. Ugh. Just. Ugh. Why couldn't Mary have been blown to bits again? Oh yeah, because she's the "star" of this book.

And Mary is a stupid little idiot. Yes, that is redundant, but she's so freakin' stupid that I CAN NOT mention it enough. OK, let me highlight the number one reason why she is stupid. Yes, there are many, many examples, but one in particular made me psychically wince at the stupidity of it all and the laziness of the writing. Especially because it's shown as an example of how much smarter she is than everyone else, someone save me. In my mind it shows how f'ing stupid everyone else is. So the evil villain mastermind what-have-you slashed a message in roman numerals into the seat of Holmes's cab. Holmes and Russell don't really get around to deciphering it until they are on their way back from the holy land and they are stumped. Some two months later while sitting in the Bodleian, Russell has a eureka moment and realizes that it spells out "Moriarty" using the most simplistic alpha numeric code ever devised. First let's take into account that all along the two crime solvers were musing about how this new mastermind was so like Moriarty. Wouldn't you just, I don't know, see if the word carved into the leather was Moriarty first and foremost? I know I would! And if they had, well, I guess the book would have been a lot shorter. Instead this "mystery" is strung out for MONTHS. I have read oh so many Sherlock Holmes inspired books at this point and several of them went into code breaking and ciphers. Many concentrated on the Vigenère cipher because it's hard to crack without the keyword, but is still easy to understand if you're not into cryptanalysis. But here A = 1 and B= 2, oh yippee, let me get this first grader to solve it for you Russell. Well, personally, I'm not stupid enough to pick up any more of this series. Be on your merry way Mary, never shall we meet again. Stupid bint.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons
Published by: Plume
Publication Date: December 29th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"A captivating novel that evokes the author’s New York Times bestseller The House at Tyneford .

Natasha Solomons’s breathtaking new novel has it all: a love triangle, family obligations, and rediscovering joy in the face of grief, all set against the alluring backdrop of an English country estate perfect for fans of Downton Abbey.

It's a terrible thing to covet your brother’s girl.

New Year’s Eve, Dorset, England, 1946. Candles flicker, a gramophone scratches out a tune as guests dance and sip champagne— for one night Hartgrove Hall relives better days. Harry Fox-Talbot and his brothers have returned from World War II determined to save their once grand home from ruin. But the arrival of beautiful Jewish wartime singer Edie Rose tangles the threads of love and duty, and leads to a devastating betrayal.

Fifty years later, now a celebrated composer, Fox reels from the death of his adored wife, Edie. Until his connection with his four-year old grandson - a music prodigy – propels him back into life, and ultimately to confront his past. An enthralling novel about love and treachery, joy after grief, and a man forced to ask: is it ever too late to seek forgiveness?"

Yes please! Also, it may just be a part of 'Downton Denial" next year...

The Rogue Not Taken by Sarah MacLean
Published by: Avon
Publication Date: December 29th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 432 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"Lady Sophie’s Society Splash.

When Sophie, the least interesting of the Talbot sisters, lands her philandering brother-in-law backside-first in a goldfish pond in front of all society, she becomes the target of very public aristocratic scorn. Her only choice is to flee London, vowing to start a new life far from the aristocracy. Unfortunately, the carriage in which she stows away isn’t saving her from ruin . . . it’s filled with it.

Rogue’s Reign of Ravishment!

Kingscote, “King,” the Marquess of Eversley, has never met a woman he couldn’t charm, resulting in a reputation far worse than the truth, a general sense that he’s more pretty face than proper gentleman, and an irate summons home to the Scottish border. When King discovers stowaway Sophie, however, the journey becomes anything but boring.

War? Or More?

He thinks she’s trying to trick him into marriage. She wouldn’t have him if he were the last man on earth. But carriages bring close quarters, dark secrets, and unbearable temptation, making opposites altogether too attractive . . ."

Oh, new series, yes please!

Murder Most Malicious by Alyssa Maxwell
Published by: Kensington
Publication Date: December 29th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"In post–World War I England, Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her lady's maid, Eva Huntford, step outside of their social roles and put their lives at risk to apprehend a vicious killer. . .

December 1918: As a difficult year draws to a close, there is much to celebrate for nineteen-year-old Phoebe Renshaw and her three siblings at their beloved family estate of Foxwood Hall. The dreadful war is finally over; eldest daughter Julia's engagement to their houseguest, the Marquis of Allerton, appears imminent; and all have gathered to enjoy peace on earth, good will toward men.

But the peace of Foxwood Hall is shattered on the morning of Boxing Day, when the Marquis goes missing. Not entirely missing, however, as macabre evidence of foul play turns up in gift boxes given to lady's maid Eva Huntford and a handful of others. Having overheard her sister and the Marquis in a heated exchange the night before, Lady Phoebe takes a personal interest in solving the mystery.

As the local constable suspects a footman at Foxwood Hall, Phoebe and Eva follow the clues to a different conclusion. But both young women will need to think outside the box to wrap up this case--before a cornered killer lashes out with ill will toward them. . ."

And another new series that looks like such fun! Murder, mayhem, a country estate! So yes, maybe I'm a bit country house obsessed... but all these books can fill that void.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas is About Books

For me Christmas has always been about books. Even before I was the biggest book nerd out there, Christmas and books went together like a hand in a glove. There was a local children's bookstore in Madison called Pooh Corner that I'd invariably get gifts from. They'd come wrapped in that way only a store could do with a little tag with Pooh and Piglet. Usually they were wrapped in brown paper, but somehow that didn't matter, that red yarn ribbon was just the right accent. My shelves still contain all these books from Christmases past; except for Maurice Sendak's version of The Nutcracker. Seriously, those illustrations are the stuff of nightmares. But there was always a frisson of excitement waiting for these books to come from friends and family. Unlike presents from my parents or grandparents, the rules about waiting to open them were more lax so I could often finagle an unwrapping within a few hours of their arrival, though once a package from my aunt somehow circumnavigated the globe before arriving long past Christmas. Luckily books don't perish. As for presents from my parents, my brother and I were often allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. One year I picked a present that I had been intrigued with because of it's book-like shape. It was On the Banks of Plum Creek, which happens to be one of my favorite books in the Little House series. In fact I received all the books in hardcover that year, though my mom insisted that they be on display in our fancy bookshelves, because she was also a fan. Some years my parents were more cunning in their wrapping so you couldn't detect books from that distinct book-like shape. My brother and I received the entire Children's Illustrated Classics in a box that could have easily fit the both of us! But the true Christmas gift was when I didn't have to assemble anything for my brother, he of the ever elaborate GI Joe and Lego playsets, and I could curl up with one of my new books.

As the years went by my love of curling up with a book became more and more prevalent. I recently heard of the holiday in Iceland, Jólabókaflóð, literally, "the Christmas book flood." You get a new book on Christmas Eve, then crawl into a freshly made bed of crisp and clean sheets and read the night away. To me, this sounds divine, and indicates that I need to get myself to Iceland. There's an Icelandic saying that everyone has a book in their stomach, but I think it's in the blood. It thrums through you. It's not just the story you have to tell but all the stories that become a part of you. Recently I was contacted through my blog by a representative of Invaluable, the world's largest live auction marketplace. They were wondering if I would like to write a blog post on my passion for books and my dream literary collection. This got me thinking, when did my buying of whatever books I felt like reading start to become collecting? When did I start consciously forming a library? When did this need start thrumming through my veins? I think it might have started with that set of Little House books. For the first time my worn and battered copies of books I loved were replaced with nice new editions, though I still have the worn ones as well. But I don't think I realized this at the time. The books were a lovely present and that is all I thought about it. It was another series of Children's books that awoke the collector in me. Books of Wonder started to release these lovely facsimile editions of the Oz books by L. Frank Baum and I eagerly awaited the release of each one. While the collecting of these books indicates the starting of my library, it's more than that, it's the collecting of an author's oeuvre. It's finding an author you connect with that you need to have all their books, and if possible signed copies. Once the number of first editions and signed copies start to take over the rest of the books, a true collection is forming.

My great-grandfather, Joseph Martin, was a Justice of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court and an avid collector of books, a few of which I'm lucky enough to have; lucky indeed seeing as his daughters liked to randomly divide up the matched sets, hence I have half of Pride and Prejudice. He had read somewhere that to be a true gentleman you had to have a library of ten thousand books, but you also have to have read them. I am slowly but surely headed there. But there's only so much shopping at used bookstores and secondhand shops that helps to fill out your collection. There are those books; the white whales that will never show up at these type of stores. Those books too valuable, or perhaps invaluable, that you have to look for elsewhere. These books would be the centerpiece of your collection. The keystone to everything. Your very own Holy Grail. So what are my dream books? What do I want to see on my shelf? What would my library look like, aside from the fact that it is TARDIS-like in that it can ever expand to hold all my books? Well, firstly I see one of those globes that open and hold maps or drinks. I can't help it, ever since reading The Secret History of the Pink Carnation Lauren Willig has somehow made this a must. The more attainable of books would be a signed first edition of The Princess Bride. I've been coveting a copy of that for years. I'd then move onto signed first editions of all my favorite Terry Pratchett books. Then onto rarer fare, signed first editions of Agatha Christie, maybe even Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles to be thematic with my blog at the moment. Of course the holiest of holies? These would have to wait until I had my English Country House, but first editions of all Jane Austen, especially ones before she was credited by name and only say "By a Lady." Oh, and editions of all the Brontes's work, when published under their "Bell" pseudonyms, or even just a scap of one of those letters their father cut up for fans. And and and... a girl can dream can't she? A girl can go to bed on Christmas Eve after reading and dream of all the possibilities of what books are wrapped and waiting for her under the tree. It's Christmas after all, what other time of the year is there to dream big and believe in miracles? Or signed first editions of Jane Austen?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Time and Time Again by Ben Elton
Published by: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication Date: December 22nd, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 400 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"If you had one chance to change history...Where would you go? What would you do? Who would you kill?

In Time and Time Again, international best-selling author Ben Elton takes readers on a thrilling journey through early 20th-Century Europe.

It's the first of June 1914 and Hugh Stanton, ex-soldier and celebrated adventurer is quite literally the loneliest man on earth. No one he has ever known or loved has been born yet. Perhaps now they never will be.

Stanton knows that a great and terrible war is coming. A collective suicidal madness that will destroy European civilization and bring misery to millions in the century to come. He knows this because, for him, that century is already history.

Somehow he must change that history. He must prevent the war. A war that will begin with a single bullet. But can a single bullet truly corrupt an entire century? And, if so, could another single bullet save it?"

It's the week of Christmas, so few books come out... but that doesn't mean I didn't find a good one! Ben Elton seems to be taking his love of messing with history as immortalized in his TV show Blackadder and making it more serious and scholarly. So yes, I will totally be checking this out. Who knows, maybe Shakespeare ended up being the inventor of ballpoint pen?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Movie Review - Without a Clue

Without A Clue
Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Release Date: 1988
Starring:Michael Caine, Ben Kingsley, Jeffrey Jones, Lysette Anthony, Paul Freeman, Pat Keen, Matthew Savage, Nigel Davenport, Tim Killick, Peter Cook, John Warner, Matthew Sim, Fredrick Fox, Harold Innocent, George Sweeney, Murray Ewan, and Jennifer Guy
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Watson is fed up with Sherlock Holmes. Mainly because he created him and now this figment of his imagination has taken on a life of his own, literally, because he hired the unemployed actor Reginald Kincaid to BE Holmes. It all seemed like such a good idea at the time. Watson needed to maintain his prestige to get a job at an exclusive hospital where they would have frowned on his "hobby" of crime solving, and this was a way to do both. He didn't get the job but he did get burdened with his own ingenious loophole. The time has come to eliminate this loophole and destroy Holmes and get the louche Reggie out of his life, and 221B Baker Street, for good. Only problem is, Holmes is popular. Really really popular. And Watson's publisher is disinclined to his new suggestion: "The Crime Doctor." And there's the whole fact that no one listens to Watson but only listens to Holmes parroting back what Watson just said. Therefore a final case will be solved and Holmes will retire. Only problem is, what looks like a simple case is really the machinations of Moriarty. And Reggie REALLY doesn't like the lunatic. The Napoleon of crime, or lunatic, depending on where you stand, has taken up forgery with the actual printing plates from the Bank of England! But when Watson meets an untimely end it is up to the hapless actor to actually fill the shoes of his creator. Hopefully he has picked something up from Watson over their years working together... if not the whole world is about to be disillusioned by Sherlock Holmes.

Growing up in my house my parents didn't really censure television or movies. Basically they viewed that if they wanted to watch it my brother and I could watch it with them. During the early to late eighties this meant that I saw quite a lot of British comedies. Peter Sellers was viewed as the Deity that he rightfully is. One of the family favorites was The Wrong Box. What is not to love about this film? Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, John Mills, Ralph Richardson, Michael Caine, and of course, Peter Sellers with a lot of cats. Therefore when a new comedy with Michael Caine set not only during Victorian times, but within Sherlock Holmes mythology came out, well, it was highly anticipated to say the least. I still have my old VHS copy buried somewhere, but needless to say, it's been awhile since I've reconnected with this movie. I'm happy to say that it was actually better than I remembered it. Over time I tend to think that I was overly kind to movies, and therefore my initial opinion was probably wrong. I thought that what drew me to this film as a kid was the more slapstick elements, and while those are still there, there's so much going on that you can't help but be carried away with the movie and lose yourself to the fun. The conceit of the film is what makes it so clever. The idea that through his narratives published in the paper Watson has created the mythology of Sherlock Holmes, when in fact all of Holmes's powers of deduction are actually Watson's. What's more, make Sherlock a failed drunk actor who is belligerent and it's brilliant. Not to mention Watson's hope of "The Crime Doctor" taking off...

At the very beginning of the film when Holmes is giving a speech to the journalists on the doorstep of 221B after Watson foiled a museum heist and then fired Holmes captures exactly the subversive spirit of the film. Holmes gives his famous line of "you see but do not observe." Reginald Kincaid as Holmes spins out what started as pure nonsense until he has all the reporters in the palm of his hand, all the while Watson is fuming in the background. By taking the canon and spinning it upside down and all around, despite the overt comedy, their is a subtlety that is mocking yet paying tribute to the original text simultaneously. Therefore this film plays on multiple levels, but will be most enjoyed by those familiar with Conan Doyle's canon. But this clever conceit wouldn't have worked without the right actors to pull it off, and I dare say you can't get more well respected or accomplished actors than Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. Michael Caine though is so perfect I couldn't think of anyone else playing the dual role that he takes on. The genius of casting Caine is that he is someone who might logically be cast as Holmes, but here he's an actor playing an actor playing Holmes, and he pulls it off magnificently. The true genius is in his subtle voice work. When Caine is Holmes he has his more refined, later career voice. More polished, but not posh. Whereas when he is playing Reggie, it's more nasal, more reminiscent of his earlier career and The Italian Job. It's just a subtle shift that happens within scenes and it adds another level to the film. I couldn't help thinking of Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan in The Trip where they dissect how Caine's accent has changed over the years. Without a Clue is like a master class for them. You also can't help thinking that in one of Caine's later films, The Prestige, that Hugh Jackman was greatly inspired by this role of Caine's in his doubling of Robert Angier.

Yet just because Caine steals the show, as he is meant to, you can't discount Kingsley. Because, in truth, Kingsley is Holmes, though not in name. What I find interesting about this version of Watson is that he isn't docile. He has this rage within him that drives his work. Of course this is justified by being overlooked for so many years as the true genius, but it actually makes you think more about Watson's purpose. In the original stories Watson is nothing more then a conduit for the readers and Holmes's biographer. Just a boring sounding board. Yet look to the newest interpretation of Watson by Martin Freeman in Sherlock. He doesn't let himself be pigeonholed in this way as the bumbling fool. He is a new Watson for a new generation. He admires Holmes, but he is there for the adventure. Yet beneath the veneer there is rage, a rage for life and adventure and against the world that wounded him in war and even exasperation with Holmes. I was actually shocked by how much Ben Kingsley's portrayal of Watson is like Martin Freeman's. I can see how Freeman would be more drawn to the darker more visceral portrayal of Watson, it is more in line with his own personality. I just find it interesting that in all the Holmes adaptations out there he obviously looked to this one as the defining portrayal of Watson. So think on that will you? A comedy that lovingly mocks Sherlock Holmes gets to the heart of the matter better than some of the most lauded adaptations out there.

Though there are times when the films swerves a little too far off course. It goes for the easy laugh. For how subtle the film can be it's an interesting dichotomy to pair it with such overt humor that is sometimes too broad; falling down holes, falling off roofs, swinging on ropes, your basic slapstick humor. But keep in mind that the Marx Brothers knew how to blend the erudite with the crass and somehow, like with them, this movie just works. One minute you'll be thinking how clever a turn of phrase was and the next you'll be snort laughing to an embarrassing degree. But like everything good in life, a little goes a long way, and sometimes there's just too much of this brand of humor. For everything that is so right there is a false cord stuck every once in awhile, the Baker Street Irregulars are just a little too twee, Jeffery Jones is miscast as Lestrade, Moriarty... well I do have Moriarty issues. My Moriarty issues are basically that he's acting and even dressed like The Master from Doctor Who. While Doctor Who has done it's fair share of Sherlock Holmes homages, especially with the episode "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" it's more then a little odd for Sherlock Holmes to be so Whovian (Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss disagree). But the truth of it is that somehow, even with these missteps, the film is fun and you just go with it. So what if Moriarty is The Master, it just adds a little more camp and you're totally OK with it because it just works.

And then there now comes the part of the review when I go off on a little tangent. It's interesting to go back to films that you held dear when younger and find something in it that calls to your interests now. Back when I first saw this film I would have had no interest in the printing of the money, aka Moriarty's evil plot. It was just what the bad guy was up to and what needed to be stopped. Now though... well, in the last few years taking my love of Graphic Design and going backwards in time to learn Letterpress, well, let's just say I spent a lot more of the climax of this movie paying attention to the printing press than to the gas main that could blow up and incinerate everyone. My letterpress addiction might be considered severe when I'm point out how air suction was used on the press to those watching the movie with me. But seriously people, printing is fascinating! In fact the print geek in me was all, oh, look, they're using a Heidelberg Windmill, even if they did take off the metal identifying plaque. Which then got me thinking. They are in a subbasement of a deserted theater that runs on gas and the Windmill needs electricity... yes folks, the appearance of the Heidelberg Windmill, while very cool, was an anachronism in this film. If you are weird like me and read all the props, you will notice that this case took place in 1900 thanks to a newspaper. And what year did the Heidelberg Windmill come out? 1912! So the print geek in me was a little miffed. They went for the look of it versus the accuracy... but then again, isn't that's what they did with a lot of stuff? Without a Clue has some really great insights, but at the end, it's about the shiny entertainment you're watching and a difference of twelve years for a printing press probably didn't seem the most dire of things when it seriously looks cool on screen. I mean, seriously, watch that Windmill action!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Book Review - George Mann's The Will of the Dead

Sherlock Holmes: The Will of the Dead by George Mann
Published by: Titan Books
Publication Date: November 5th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Watson has left his wife in the capable hands of her mother and has returned to 221B Baker Street. Mrs. Hudson had warned him that Sherlock was in quite a state, which often happens when he has no case to focus his mind on. Luckily for both Watson and Holmes a case is about to walk in the door. Peter Maugham has come to Sherlock Holmes because the will of his Uncle Theobold, who died after a tragic fall, has gone missing. The will has long been known to divide his substantial assets to his three nephews and his niece. Without the will the assets will go to the eldest nephew, Joseph, whose own sister fears for her two cousins and herself if this were to happen. Therefore finding the will is paramount. Though in trying to locate the will, Holmes also realizes that Theobold Maugham's death wasn't an accident, so the disappearance of the will may a have nefarious meaning. And when the son of Theobold's disinherited sister, Hans Gerber appears, he instantly becomes the chief suspect. Older than Joseph, he would inherit the vast estate, and he's making sure his relatives know that this new world order is to be accepted at all costs. Yet no one is willing to accept this change and soon things become dire as Peter Maugham is murdered! The inspector in charge from Scotland Yard, Charles Bainbridge, seems to be less useless than most police officers in Holmes's mind, but he is stretched thin, with his boss not wanting to sign off of Theobold Maugham being murdered, and with the wealthy of London being plagued by large iron men who are breaking into their houses and stealing their most precious possessions. If Holmes can wrap up the Maugham case, perhaps he'd be willing to lend Bainbridge a hand with these devilish iron men?

By now, being readers of this blog, you should have realized I'm a big fan of George Mann. His Newbury and Hobbes series is definitively what Steampunk is to me. He has helped shaped this new Victorian era for me so it seems only logical that he would eventually get around to writing a book in homage to the author and character that shaped the Victorian era in literature the first time around. I'm talking about Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes. Reading George's work you can see how he is indebted to Conan Doyle and even if the world's greatest consulting detective were to never grace the pages of his books George has a way to evoke the spirit of Sherlock Holmes with these new steam-powered adventures. This natural progression of combing these two worlds sees it's fruition in The Will of the Dead. It doesn't hurt that this book is able to be enjoyed within the context of the Newbury and Hobbes universe or as a stand-alone. Those who haven't read George's previous work won't know that Charles Bainbridge, one of the first police officers to not completely offend and exasperate Holmes, is a staple of those other adventures, because he blends so well into this new story. This is a wonderful tribute to the enduring legacy of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle and will hopefully capture George a few readers he might otherwise not have caught, this book handily being shelved in the "mystery" section of Barnes and Noble where that certain type of reader would never bother to go the few aisles over to "science fiction and fantasy." But more than anything this book has tried to derail my well thought out reads for this month by making me want to delve back into the world of George's books. Or at the very least read Sherlock Holmes: The Spirit Box! 

The Will of the Dead is an odd little book in that it's precariously balanced between straight up Sherlock Holmes adventure and Steampunk and there's a part of me that wants to tip the scales one way or the other. I get that this is a nice introduction to Steampunk for those who aren't inclined to pick up a book in this genre and lean towards the traditional gaslight mystery, but this was an opportunity to fully mesh Holmes with Steampunk and instead it came off as a dalliance. The thing is, Steampunk goes well with Holmes. It's just one of those facts of life, like peanut butter and jelly. It just is. Even Guy Richie got this when making his films with Robert Downey Junior. So it's disconcerting that instead of forming a cohesive Steampunk whole George instead creates a traditional adventure running alongside a Steampunk one. The two stories never meet and make a satisfying whole. Each story is great on it's own, but that's just it, it's on it's own. If George had wanted to do this he should have approached the book more like the traditional adventures and written them both as short stories and added in that little extra story from The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes to complete the book. This would have worked better in my mind then some story that tries to bridge the gap and instead just seems to emphasis the gap versus closing it. But perhaps my persnickety self just had issues that despite how different the two cases were they ended up being concluded in similar manners. I should point out though that I don't think this is a fault of George's; it's a fault of Conan Doyle! Conan Doyle often had similar endings and themes, in fact I created my own shorthand to categorize the stories when reviewing them back in October and there were many stories categorized similarly. But still, wouldn't it be better to go further and better than the creator? Perhaps one day that will happen, because I don't think George is about to stop writing about Sherlock Holmes...

As for tipping the scales towards Holmes versus towards Steampunk, I think George could have easily gotten away with this. I have read A LOT of writers failing to make even the most easy of stories convincingly part of the Holmes canon. In fact, big, best selling authors who have been endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate haven't created such a compelling mystery as George does here with the death of Theobald Maugham. But what I really liked is how he wrote the mystery in a very traditional way but omitted the most tedious of Conan Doyle's habits, such as the clients retelling their plight in front of the fire at 221B Baker Street. Instead we are given little testimonial vignettes that get us inside the heads of other characters while also deepening the mystery. This is a genius idea and is one of many ways that George maintains the original feeling of the adventures while also switching it up. I particularly like how Holmes's inscrutability visibly annoys Watson and how he occasionally calls Holmes out or at least elicits the sympathy of his readers, who have also, over the years, tired of some of Holmes's shtick. And this is why it annoys me that the book could have all gone this way, because it would have so worked! As for the omissions of the Steampunk? Well, just having Bainbridge there would be the link! By then including the aforementioned short story at the end readers not familiar with Steampunk could see the way stories like Holmes's could be developed into something new. Plus, a riveting little short story at the end? I didn't expect that little bonus, and though I had read the story previously, I found myself instantly captured by the narrative once more, sitting there with Bainbridge on the edge of his seat. That's how you convert them to Steampunk! Bait them with a tantalizing story after telling them the story they were expecting in the best possible way.

I have the need here to go on a bizarre tangent; it's on the naming of characters. The naming of characters is an art. The perfect name will become enshrined on our hearts, like Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Veronica Hobbes. These are just perfect names. They flow, they are original, they are iconic, like the name Sherlock Holmes itself. An interesting aside, but did you know he was originally named Sherrinford Hope? Now that just doesn't ring true for the world's most famous consulting detective now does it? So that shows that even the best of authors have crazy ideas every once in awhile, Sherrinford Hope, really!?! There is a subcategory to naming characters in which the name strikes a cord with us, maybe because we know someone with that name, or with a similar name. This is always disconcerting seeing that name out of context, and it's even weirder if it's your own name! But what if the character is named similar to someone famous or iconic? Apparently that's the real reason for us not knowing about the adventures of Sherrinford Hope, because Sherrinford was a famous cricketer. Hans Gerber gave me no end of annoyance in The Will of the Dead. Let me set the stage. It's a few weeks till Christmas, I'm reading a book with a German character named Hans Gerber, which EVERY TIME I read it morphs into Hans Gruber, he of Die Hard fame. Yes. Hans Gruber as played by Alan Rickman was incongruously walking around Victorian England. Of course there's a chance that this was on purpose and George put it in as a joke? Please say it's true, because otherwise, well, I have weird images in my head right now. End mini rant.

Reading SO MANY books centered around Sherlock Holmes I have started to become some sort of Sherlock Holmes purist. Well, to an extent. My basic approach is anything is fair game so long as it doesn't go against canon without explaining it. For example I just started reading The Beekeeper's Apprentice and Laurie R. King takes time out to explain why her Holmes will appear different than the canonical Holmes as set down by Watson. This is totally fine with me, I was given a reason, I was told up front not to lose my shit when something different appeared, fair play to Laurie R. King. As for Steampunk seeping to the canon, again, it's George Mann, it's to be expected, and therefore enjoyed. It's the little details that are gotten wrong that crawl under my skin. George nails everything pretty well but there is one detail that has gotten under my skin and it's driving me up the wall. So Watson married his first wife, Mary Morstan in 1889. According to George's website and the timeline of the Newbury and Hobbes universe The Will of the Dead takes place in the 1880s. It's important to know that it's the 1880s because if it was later George could be referencing Watson's second wife that we know next to nothing about. The same can't be said about Mary, as she was an integral part of The Sign of the Four and we know her history, mainly that she's an orphan. Her mother died shortly after her birth and her father, well, to say what happened to him would ruin a decent story... but the key here is she is an orphan. In other words SHE CAN NOT BE VISITING HER MOTHER! Every time Watson said that Mary was off visiting her mother I got a little nervous twitch right below my eye. Seriously, to get everything so spot on and have this one thing just there. Yes... I might be taking this too seriously, but still, Holmes wouldn't let it slid so why should I?

Monday, December 14, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Bryant and May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler
Published by: Bantam
Publication Date: December 15th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 416 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"No case is too curious for Arthur Bryant and John May, London’s most ingenious detectives. But with their beloved city engulfed in turmoil, they’ll have to work fast to hold a sinister killer’s feet to the fire.

In the week before Guy Fawkes Night, London’s peaceful streets break out in sudden unrest. Enraged by a scandal involving a corrupt financier accused of insider trading, demonstrators are rioting outside the Findersbury Private Bank, chanting, marching, and growing violent. But when someone hurls a Molotov cocktail at the bank’s front door, killing a homeless man on its steps, Bryant, May, and the rest of the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in. Is this an act of protest gone terribly wrong? Or a devious, premeditated murder?

Their investigation heats up when a second victim is reported dead in similar fiery circumstances. May discovers the latest victim has ties to the troubled bank, and Bryant refuses to believe this is mere coincidence. As the riots grow more intense and the body count climbs, Bryant and May hunt for a killer who’s adopting incendiary methods of execution, on a snaking trail of clues with roots in London’s history of rebellion, anarchy, and harsh justice. Now, they’ll have to throw themselves in the line of fire before the entire investigation goes up in smoke.

Suspenseful, smart, and wickedly funny, Bryant and May and the Burning Man is a brilliantly crafted mystery from the beloved Christopher Fowler."

Yeah new Bryant and May! Even if I have some issues with that cover...

License to Quill by Jacopo Della Quercia
Published by: St. Martin's Griffin
Publication Date: December 15th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 384 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"License to Quill is a page-turning James Bond-esque spy thriller starring William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe during history's real life Gunpowder Plot. The story follows the fascinating golden age of English espionage, the tumultuous cold war gripping post-Reformation Europe, the cloak-and-dagger politics of Shakespeare's England, and lastly, the mysterious origins of the Bard's most haunting play: Macbeth. You won't want to miss this fast-paced historical retelling!"

Seriously, that title cracks me up to no end! Also, yet another book out today with Guy Fawkes!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Miniseries Review - Arthur and George

Arthur and George
Based on the book by Julian Barnes
Release Date: March 16th, 2015
Starring: Martin Clunes, Arsher Ali, Charles Edwards, Art Malik, Emma Fielding, Pearl Chanda, Hattie Morahan, Timothy Watson, Hilary Maclean, Matthew Marsh, Ciarán Owens, Michael Hadley, Sandra Voe, and Geraldine Alexander
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Arthur Conan Doyle has just buried his wife. Yet he feels he is unworthy of the outpouring of condolence letters and sympathy because while he loved Louisa as best as he could, his heart for sometime has belonged to another. He is mired in guilt and can not seem to put pen to paper. In his copious correspondence his secretary, Woodie, finds a letter that might just invigorate him. People are always writing him assuming that he is equally adept at crime solving as his greatest creation, Sherlock Holmes, is. But this letter from George Edalji is different. Here is a true miscarriage of justice brought about by small town bigotry. If the evidence alone didn't speak for itself, meeting George and seeing this innocent man suffer is enough to make Sir Arthur swing into action. Surprisingly there is much push-back against his investigation. Many shadowy figures don't want the Edalji case brought up. They all site that it was a clear case. George is a degenerate who is out of place and maimed livestock and sent horrific letters to his family and threatened little girls because that's what he is. Arthur sees none of this, while Woodie is a little more skeptical. Yet once they arrive at the scene of the crimes in Wyrley, they start to realize that it's not just about proving George innocent, it's about finding the guilty party. The guilty party who might still be in Wyrley and might take against the great Sir Arthur trying to root him out. Yet the bluff and brash author won't back down from idle threats. For the first time in a long time he has a purpose and the vigor has returned to his life. Woodie sees this, and if it wasn't for Sir Arthur's well-being, he'd view the risks as too parlous. Because there is no doubt that in investigating George's case they are putting their very lives on the line.

If you are looking for a straight up adaptation of Julian Barnes's novel this is thankfully not it. That flawed self-indulgent pseudo-biography has been plundered for it's successful core and made into a story that is more akin to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. While loosely based on true events this adaptation isn't a slave to them. Unlike it's source material, this miniseries understands that adapting truth into fiction should also be fun and entertaining. It should be about Conan Doyle racing through the woods in the pursuit of a killer, not his premature ejaculations. There is fun to be had in taking the truth and spinning it into a fiction that makes good viewing for a Sunday night in. The biggest shift from book to miniseries is that we are given closure. The crimes perpetrated and attributed to George Edalji aren't solved by Conan Doyle in reality, but what kind of mystery is that I ask you? We viewers want some finality, some closure, some feeling of an ending; which we are given here. But oddly, despite how much I disliked the book I wonder if giving this adventure a "satisfying" ending is maybe doing the truth a disservice. The ending makes the whole story lose something of it's reality. Yes, it's more enjoyable, but perhaps they had a duty to make it more believable. There could have still been a more concrete ending while sticking closer to the truth. The diversions they made were occasionally so over-the-top that I found them to rank among the less believable of Conan Doyle's stories. This also did a disservice to how much work Conan Doyle actually put into George's exoneration. He used the tools available to him, mainly the press, but here he used the tools of Holmes and in that regard was more bumbling, less productive. But then again, since his death Arthur Conan Doyle has become a larger than life character, so why not just go with it?

But I don't think that the changes to the truth were intended to undermine it, but just to make it more in line with what mystery aficionados of today expect. The diversions made seemed to serve one goal, to pump up the mystery. We viewers have become very demanding in our blackguards. We want them to have an apparent purpose, to be relentlessly evil, and to have just that edge of crazy that makes hunting them down dangerous. In other words, a creep factor. Oh, and extra points if their lair is full of "otherworldly" symbols and dead bodies, or to be more accurate, parts of dead bodies. This production did all this. You get a hint that the creep factor is rising when the killer is found in a picture the family took outside the vicarage, if you look in an upstairs window. Almost like the ghosts that Conan Doyle believed in so fervently appearing after film is developed. The killer had left their mark indelibly on what should have been a happy and joyful family snapshot. But the scene that really left an impression on me was when Conan Doyle was racing through the woods and stumbled on what could be called a demonic fairy ring, with candles all in a circle and George's sister's doll taking pride of place in the center. This shows us that our perpetrator is truly unhinged. The mounting crimes, dead animals, and progression to actual murder don't actually need the final reveal of the shed of death later to confirm what we already know, Conan Doyle has found a villain worthy of his efforts. He has found Wyrley's own Jack the Ripper.

The creepiness of the culprit wasn't the only thing upped in the production, so were the conspiracies. In actuality Conan Doyle faced bigots and bureaucracy. Here the bureaucracy is more faceless. Nameless men trying to warn him away. Police giving ominous warnings. You get the idea, the standard trope to outsiders when visiting a closed community. While this fed into the mystery this is one clear cut instance that I think they should have stuck closer to the truth. Just look at the world today. Seriously, look at it. The bigots, the hatred, the anger spewing forth not just from the random crazies on the street but from our elected or hope to be elected officials. This is the world we live in and it was like that over a hundred years ago as well! To try to downplay this hatred as organized yet mysterious versus the systematic hatred of the "other" is like trying to deny the truth. It is far more terrifying to live in a world with this directed and specific hatred than a nebulous hatred of this other. In the book, despite George repeatedly saying that this isn't about race, it so clearly is. Or, in this interpretation, it is to an extent... because in the end they make it clear that George was right. The initial attacks against him before the corrupt system became involved were a specific hatred of him for being such a good and favored student. While there is something satisfying in the personal vendetta, here, well, it downplays the real evil. As is oft quoted the idea that all it takes for evil to survive is for one good man to do nothing, well, there's a lot of people doing nothing here, and that is more terrifying than one lunatic with a grudge.

Yet I am very grateful for one change. The downplaying of personal guilt. They quickly get Arthur's guilt over his wife dying and his loving another quite quickly with a few lines of dialogue and a few insights, and that's that. While yes, guilt and his need for diversion did lead Conan Doyle to take on George's case in the first place, it really bogged down the book. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of it. There's only so much self-flagellation you can endure before you grow to hate a character as much as they apparently hate themselves. While this might be the spark, the impetus, by concentrating on the crime we are given a more balanced narrative. I know I didn't sign up for a treatise on self-denial and self-loathing, did you? Some people might like that in their books and movies, I do not. See, I view my reading and watching as something to entertain me. It's escapism, not torturous inner soul-searching. A mystery should be a mystery first and foremost, and the miniseries of Arthur and George is exactly that. A mystery. So if you're looking for something more, something deeper, perhaps the book might be for you? Personally I don't see how the book could be for anyone really, but then again, best sellers lists and must read books often baffle me as to how they ever became as such.

This review of this dramatization wouldn't be complete if I didn't touch just a little on the acting. Oh poor Charles Edwards, always the Watson, never the Holmes. Charles Edwards is probably best known now as Edith's ill-fated beau on Downton Abbey, but to me he is the true Arthur Conan Doyle from his portrayal of him in Murder Rooms. While being the creator of Sherlock Holmes, he played Watson to Joseph Bell's Holmes. Skip forward fifteen years and here he is playing Watson to Conan Doyle's Holmes, in the form Woodie, Conan Doyle's personal secretary. I can't help but feel a little sad at this. He's such a fabulous actor and here he is playing second fiddle again. Not to mention that I read in an interview that Martin Clunes thought that this format of Conan Doyle solving crimes could really work... aw Martin, do you not know of Murder Rooms? Or are you just trying to break Charles Edwards's heart? But even if I do love me my Charles Edwards, there can be no denying that Martin Clunes is the perfect actor to play Conan Doyle later in life. He has that bluff athleticism and bluntness that makes Conan Doyle a more socially acceptable Doc Martin. And was I the only one inwardly giggling and kind of cheering for joy just to hear him talk about the death of his wife Louisa? Yes, I know it's not the Louisa I hate... but still, I have to take my fun where I can find it. As for George, Arsher Ali was well cast, because there is no getting around the fact in print or in film, I can't stand George. And as luck would have it, I really can't stand Arsher Ali. He is SO GOOD at playing someone unlikeable and a bit of a stuck up prick, seriously, watch The Missing and him chain smoking near his child with cystic fibrosis and you'll get where I'm coming from. But these three did not the miniseries make. Filling out the cast with other top notch actors from Art Malik to Emma Fielding to Hattie Morahan made this an enjoyable little mystery that while not overly memorable, will give you something else to think about for a few hours, and thankfully none of that time will be spent thinking about Arthur Conan Doyle's dick. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Book Review - Julian Barnes's Arthur & George

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
Published by: Alfred A. Knopf
Publication Date: July 7th, 2005
Format: Hardcover, 385 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the second greatest writer of his age after Rudyard Kipling, and George Edalji, a half-caste solicitor from Birmingham whose Parsi father became a vicar in a small Staffordshire village, would unexpectedly change English law and bring about the court of appeal in England. As Arthur rose to fame, taking his family out of the gentle poverty of Edinburgh, getting married, having children, establishing his career, George had far smaller ambitions. He wanted to be a solicitor. He kept his head down and studied, being a decent, not excellent, student. Yet his life was full of strife. His family received hateful and horrible anonymous letters. The local police did nothing, and in fact suspected George of persecuting his own family. Yet George kept his life on track, going to college and then working for a firm in Birmingham, finally setting up his practice and even publishing a guide on railway law. The persecution eventually stopped and life seemed ready to go on as normal. Until the animal rippings started. Animals were attacked so viciously that they had to be euthanized due to their wounds. The local police decided that George was behind these crimes. They had no evidence, no logic, and yet George ended up spending three years of his life in prison. All he wanted was to be pardoned and for his simple life to begin again. Yet it wouldn't. Therefore George took the only drastic measure he ever did in his whole life, he wrote to the creator of Sherlock Holmes asking for his help. Arthur had just suffered the loss of his wife while also feeling guilty that during the past ten years he had loved another and was just waiting for propriety's sake till the day he could make Jean his bride. He was at the end of his rope with waiting and here came George with something to distract him. Arthur was willing to play the detective for the first time in his life, and hopefully George would get his name cleared when they were done.

Arthur and George is one of those books that have been sitting on my shelf for ages. Every time I reorganize my books I pick it up and think that now will be the time I read it, and it inevitably gets hidden in the back behind Barrie and Baum until the next reorganization. It might have taken me a decade, but I finally got around to Arthur and George, a book that I think is better in the abstract. There's lyrical and evocative prose, there's eventually a plot you connect to, but in the end I was more than a little dissatisfied. The book starts with little vignettes of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji growing up. Quickly cutting back and forth between the two in a way that at first is interesting but almost a hundred pages in gets on your nerves for it's gimmickry. You're reading and reading and the one thought that keeps going through your head is "when is it going to start?" Because these little glimpses, no matter how many are piled on top of each other, do not a narrative make. When we finally move into the second part of the book you have had your fill of exposition and when you realize that Arthur and George have yet to meet you start to wonder why bother? There was even a part of me thinking Julian Barnes was using Conan Doyle as a lure and it's going to be a bait and switch all over again like P.D. James and Death Comes to Pemberley. I sincerely thought about just setting aside this book because I couldn't take another story supposedly about one thing and then being forced to endure something else. Luckily the historical record proves that these two men met, so I was willing to hold onto that and push through. And meet they did, and that part was good, that part was something, that part was an all too brief 122 pages that could still have used some editing. So in here, there is a story. It's short, there's too much fluff, but that little bit might just be worth it. Maybe.

Besides this constant tease of a plot hopefully emerging the writing has another serious flaw. It might be beautiful, but it is also flat. It's like the book is on a slow and even keel on every single page. There is nothing pushing the narrative forward and nothing to elicit interest, it just is. One reason I fear is this lack of focus. Barnes is so busy showing us just little glimpses of these two men's lives that he loses the ability to know what is and isn't important. There is no drama, no crescendo. George being set to prison is about as dramatic as his daily commute to work. Barnes dwells on weird and unnecessary details instead of those points which could build the story. For example, you'd think he'd spend time on the ripping of the animals, it is after all the major crime in the book. He might talk about the fear this infuses in the community, the importance of livestock in these people's lives, or the docility of pit ponies in particular, but he doesn't. Instead we get a far more detailed description of Arthur Conan Doyle getting an erection and having premature ejaculation issues the first time he kisses the woman who is to become his second wife. So in the context of this book the heinous crime of animal ripping is second to Arthur Conan Doyle's dick. So why did you write this book Julian Barnes? Because to me it seems that a miscarriage of justice wasn't as important as dragging down the legacy of a writer second only to Kipling in his time.

This flatness carries over into the characterization of these two men making me have problems with both. Firstly there's the problem with George. George Edalji is supposed to be the victim here. The man who lost years of his life for a miscarriage of justice. We should like him. We should feel his plight. We shouldn't be hoping that they just keep him locked up because he is an annoying pretentious ass. So the problem with George is that you don't like him. You're hoping that there's some twist, that he has a split personality, that he has some animus to him that doesn't make the highlight of his life writing a book on railway law! That he's freakin' Jekyll and Hyding us all and IS a cold blooded animal killers. But no. He is a shell of a person. And not in the, he endured great tragedy and there was only a shell left. No, he isn't a full person. He does his work, he gets decent grades, he blindly goes through life as a nobody. If it wasn't for someone taking against him he would have been born and died and no one would have noticed. I can't decide if making George this nonentity was a way in which Barnes is showcasing that the crime George was charged with needed to be judged on the evidence not on the man. But we still need to have some connection to this man. We have to care about his fate, not focusing on the criminal procedures of the day, and yes I'm experiencing some P.D. James flashbacks right now. But the worst characteristic, the ONLY characteristic of George is his naivety. He doesn't think that he will be convicted because he's innocent, he doesn't think he was persecuted because he's half-caste, because people aren't like that. Where did this blind optimism come from? Gaw, you're an idiot George, and for that you paid the price.

Yet the ignoramus that is George is nothing to how Barnes portrayed Conan Doyle. So now we're onto the Arthur problem if you're keeping score. If you know a bit about Conan Doyle a lot of his life story here will be repetitive. In order to break out of this Barnes makes the odd decision that he will tear down this legend. He will make Arthur human and fallible and the butt of jokes, re the premature ejaculation mentioned above. Arthur is obsessed with his image and Jean, the woman who will become his second wife. He comes across as three things, girl crazy, sports crazy, and honor crazy. Here's the thing though, Barnes stresses the crazy. He spends hundreds and hundreds of pages stressing the crazy, which, OK, if you have some weird vendetta against Conan Doyle, I can see doing that. But then in the final section of the book he then does a 180 and builds Conan Doyle back up. That he was a great writer, humanitarian, etc. etc. I just don't know what the point of the book was I guess. If it was insight into these two men, it's a fail. If it's insight into miscarriages of justice, well, it's a fail also. Why, ugh, I just don't get it. My mind is literally rebelling wanting to know the why of it. This could have been a cute and insightful book on the author of Sherlock Holmes taking up the mantle of detective and saving a man's reputation. Instead it's an overwritten mess about the author of Sherlock Holmes misguidedly playing detective to distract himself from the fact that he can't yet marry and fuck the woman he's lusted after for a decade. Crime solving as prophylactic! I really don't think Holmes would approve.

There is so much that could be forgiven though if Barnes had been willing to tie up loose ends. In particular, the hate mail and the ripping. But instead we get 40 pages of George's shallow reflections on the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In his brief afterward, Barnes states that there's a man never mentioned in this book who later claimed responsibility for the letters, no reason given, no analysis, nothing. Just a man years later who did this. Um, a little more please? Secondly, as for the ripping... we are given a very good idea of what could have happened with the Sharp boys, but no real answer. As George himself points out it's the same kind of circumstantial evidence that got him locked up. So yes, in life we have unresolved endings. Nothing is tied up nice and neat with a bow. But here's the thing about Arthur and George... it's FICTION! Barnes felt perfectly fine taking liberties with Arthur's dick, yet couldn't give us an ending worthy of Holmes? Instead we are left with this nebulous morass we have read that has left no real impression other then ew to the ejaculation. Was this some arty post-modern experiment to mimic the spiritualist belief of knowledge only after passing through the veil? Seriously, I could sit here all day making up reasons why this book is as it is. I could justify it, I could throw harsh vitriol on it, I could read so much into the text that it would make your head spin, because the book's narrative just lies there doing nothing that you could read whatever you want into it. But you know what? I've wasted enough time on this book and it wasn't worth it, so in the end, writing one more word...

Monday, December 7, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

Beneath the Tor by Nina Milton
Published by: Midnight Ink
Publication Date: December 8th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 432 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"On Midsummer night on the Glastonbury Tor, Alys Hollingberry suddenly dies. Sabbie Dare is in shock over the news, and when Alys's shamanic guru confesses that she may have unwittingly taken drugs during his ritual, Sabbie's shock turns into horror.

After receiving sinister, anonymous emails about Alys, her grieving husband Brice approaches Sabbie for help. She turns to the spirit world for guidance but receives only conflicting and enigmatic answers. She tries seeking help from her boyfriend, Detective Inspector Rey Buckley, but he is embroiled in problems of his own. As she heads closer to the truth about Alys's death, a deranged killer is also heading towards a final victim, and both are closer to Sabbie than she knows."

Between Daphne Du Maurier and Poldark, I'm a little obsessed with tors... just saying.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Review - Paul Magrs's Welcome Home, Bernard Socks

Welcome Home, Bernard Socks by Paul Magrs
ARC Provided by the Author
Published by: Obverse Books
Publication Date: December 5th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 240 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"Recollection of our past together is the happiest of time travel." That is all that remains of Fester cat. Memories, the fur clinging to the chair in the beach house, and the echo of his voice in Paul's head. The grief is raw and real, but once you open your heart you realize that to shut off love from your life would be doing a disservice to the memory of the one you let in. Therefore Paul and Jeremy are hesitantly aware that perhaps there is room for a new furry face in their lives. At a quaint little charity shop that is also a pet rescue, full of the tat that Paul and Jeremy love most, from old disco records to moldering paperbacks, there's a room in the back full of cats. Paul has been looking at these cat's images online, thinking it was idle curiosity, but once at THARG realizing that it was more specific. They are there to meet a dapper tuxedoed cat named Sox. Despite much to-ing and fro-ing, Sox comes to live with them.

It's a new experience for all three of them. Paul and Jeremy have never adopted a cat, Fester having adopted them. Whereas the newly rechristened Bernard Socks has boundless energy with this new life full of rooms to explore as well as gardens and other cats not locked up! It will be an adjustment for all of them, but more than that, it will be a trial as their world quite literally collapses around them. With their cozy home now a disaster zone with a nice view of the looming storm clouds as their ceilings collapse. Yet they are able cope, to move forward, because of this new fury presence in their lives. They are literally rebuilding their lives post Fester and they have found a new companion for the journey. While Fester might not approve of them moving on so quickly, as he casts his wry gaze from a place that is in no way rainbow or bridge-like, he realizes that his boys need this new fury nucleus that is full of life and vim and vigor. Bernard Socks is there for his boys, and if he occasionally needs a little nudge in the right direction, that's why Fester's watching over them all. Ungow!

"You are my first, my last, my everything." The eternal question is how do you move on from your everything? When that little furry face is gone and it hurts to take a single breath. Most cat memoirs are about the cat that comes into these people's lives, makes everything wonderful, and then leaves his humans the better for having had him around. But this is false and the reason I usually avoid them like the plague. They don't tell the whole story. Despite all these narrative contrivances, life goes on and not in a golden glow of remembered love. Life doesn't stop when you lose the one you love. Cats didn't stop with the death of Fester or with the death of my Spotty. When I lost my kitty I was shocked that the world kept turning while I was stuck standing still, there in the backyard under the stars, unable to move forward.

I still have trouble with the moving forward, which makes me applause the braveness of this book. The Story of Fester Cat was about the joy Fester brought Paul and Jeremy. How despite his death, his time with them made them a family as well as raising the book above the standard fare with Fester's unique voice. While this first volume is bittersweet, knowing that Fester's time on earth is no more, this second volume is more about life. Life is messy and it's hard to pick back up the pieces. Yet Paul and Jeremy do. Paul exorcises his grief by writing Fester's story, though the coming year will try them more than once. Welcome Home, Bernard Socks is about moving on in the wake of disaster. Finding a way to keep moving forward. The bravery of embracing change and letting love in. Being willing to let time move forward and let another furry face into your heart, while not replacing the first. This book is warts and all dealing with grief and how life wins, no matter how hard it gets, which is something we all need to be reminded of.

That is why I connect to this book so strongly. Because Paul is letting us into his life. You see his pain and his joy, you see everything and it forges a strong connection between author and reader. Ironically this is a reason I usually don't read memoirs, even if written in honor of the more elevated feline. There's a lack of connection between the writer and their audience. They have created some sort of image and are there to perpetuate that. Not to offer insight or assistance, just to glorify themselves. Well, after The Story of Fester Cat I've started to revise my stance on memoirs. I saw that they could be a reflection of ourselves. I saw they could be full of truth and love and sadness and humor. This past year I have read more memoirs and autobiographies than I ever have. While I connected to none as strongly as I have Paul's writing, I have gotten more insight into myself then I would have thought possible. I also realize that my life could be a lot worse and am grateful for what I have.

But here, now, with Paul, what I connected with most is the weird little habits that develop after you have lost your furry friend. The secretly looking at adoptable cats online and forming attachments to them based on their stories and pictures. You know it's too soon, yet you can't help downloading a few of these pictures to look at later on your desktop. You might even have a cat folder on your computer, not that there's anything wrong with that. You spin scenarios in your head, you look at the hours of shelters and think, what would it hurt to drop by? Then you are shocked by how large cats are compared to the dainty gentleman that left you too soon. Thankfully for Bernard Socks Paul's habits moved into action, while mine are still in the realm of possibilities...

If there is one flaw in this book that I could point to it is that Fester's voice is so strong that it occasionally crowds out Bernard Socks. I love the little insights into the differences of their personalities. The distinguished old gentleman versus the rollicking teenager. The "ungow" versus the "weeee-oooooo!" The fact that Fester was more of a disco lover, while Bernard Socks is all about the jazz. I'm quite convinced my Spotty was into instrumentals, though not of the loud John Williams type, more the quite Sunday afternoon miniseries type, but he loved it when you changed the lyrics to songs to be all about him. Paul is just learning about Bernard Socks, getting to know him, so aside from one little talk between the two cats, Bernard hasn't found his voice yet and it's still Fester who is talking to Paul. Don't get me wrong, I love Fester's voice, I just wonder what Bernard Socks's voice will be like when he stops racing around and settles down. We all mature into our personalities and the newest inhabitant of Paul and Jeremy's house hasn't matured yet. So in other words, I see a third book in this style in Paul's future.

It's Paul's other books that brought me to him, through his fantasy writing where his stories wrap around you like a comfy blanket as he hands you a mug of spicy tea and is there for sympathy should you need it. Because Paul's books always have a ghost of himself flitting about the pages the transition from his fantasy writing to Fester's memoirs, which stayed mostly in the realm of reality, was a pretty seamless shift. The fantastical elements were missing but not missed, and if you're not a cat person and say that Fester's voice is pretty outlandish, well, obviously these books aren't for you. Yet there was a part of me that was excited to think he might one day combine his two styles. When I read in the book's blurb that "Bernard Socks escapes and discovers a ghostly cat parade that happens every Midsummer Night’s Eve in Levenshulme" I realized that time had come. Here Paul was ready to combine his two styles into something new.  

"Deep underground in back gardens cat bones stir and start to remember." When I read these words a little frisson of excitement went across my skin. I was always the dorky cat kid who totally believed that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats was real. I'd spend hours sitting in front of the piano with my cat on my lap trying to teach him how to play some of the songs. Because cats are magical beings that smell slightly of sulfur, and while most of their adventures are mundane, a true cat lover knows that not all of them are. And here Paul has brought to life one of those ghostly adventures, where all the cats who have left us come back to cavort on this one night every year. What it reminded me most of was the chapter "Danse Macabre" in Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book which is filled with eerie ghostly revelries. There is a melancholy frivolity to both that make them memorable. But what is most memorable is the knowledge Fester gains on his return, that cats can come back so long as someone remembers them. With this second volume ghostwritten by Fester he has guaranteed his place at the revelries for years to come. Ungow forever!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Movie Review - Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking
Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Release Date: December 26th, 2004
Starring: Rupert Everett, Nicholas Palliser, Neil Dudgeon, Ian Hart, Anne Carroll, Tamsin Egerton, Perdita Weeks, Jennifer Moule, Eleanor David, John Cunningham, Michael Fassbender, Jonathan Hyde, Gina Beck, and Helen McCrory
Rating: ★★
To Buy

A young woman is found dead with a silk stocking tied around her throat, thrown up by the waters of the Thames. Her body comes to the attention of Doctor Watson and he thinks that this might be just the thing to interest his old friend Sherlock Holmes. The least it will do is get him to put down the syringe for an hour or two. Holmes is intrigued, though he'd never tell that to Watson. Within minutes of seeing the corpse Holmes makes the discovery that not only had a silk stocking been tied around the girl's throat, but that another one was shoved down her gullet. The more shocking discovery is that the girl isn't a young prostitute, but the daughter of Lord Pentney. Though the young girl's death is shocking, it won't be the last. As the aristocracy is reeling, Lady Georgina Massingham disappears out of her bedroom to be found the next morning, killed in the same manner. All of Belgravia is on alert as the killer targets their daughters. At Georgina Massingham's funeral another girl goes missing. But unlike the previous two victims she escapes. With the aid of Watson's fiance, the psychoanalyst Mrs. Vandeleur, Holmes finds the reason for the young girl's escape. She had a club foot. With the stockings and this new information from the intended victim, Holmes realizes that his supposition that the killer has a foot fetish is true. Holmes is confidant he can catch the killer, but he asks Georgina's sister Roberta to act as bait. Will this trick work, or will it needlessly put Roberta in danger?

Back when Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking first came to Netflix I remember watching it and quite enjoying it. It felt like a fresh take on Holmes and Everett seemed well cast. The problem is in the proceeding decade Sherlock Holmes has become a booming business, with Robert Downey Junior playing him on the big screen in Guy Ritchie's films, to Jonny Lee Miller on Elementary, but most importantly, there's Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock which has developed such a rabid fanbase. With so many competing properties quality and production values have skyrocketed. We as the audience demand more of our stories and watching Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, we see the flaws, and not just in that annoyingly long title that I have to keep typing out. What will strike you most is that they didn't even bother to film this TV movie on a decent film stock. It lends that faux reality to it, wherein it almost feels like you're watching the news. This is actually a problem I have with all high definition film conversion, which this is obviously not. But there's a weird surreality to them making them hyper real. If you doubt my theory watch Jaws on a high definition TV, it's like watching a documentary about the seventies. But they coupled their bad film stock with a bad transfer, wherein the PAL to NTSC transfer is jittery, making it look even more shitty. But the worst decision of all was they stuck to the when in doubt use a fog machine for atmosphere school of Victorian filmmaking. There is so much fog you can barely make out any of the action in outdoor scenes, yet incongruously there wasn't enough fog to hide the modern metal structures near the cemetery!

The lack of production quality seeped over into the historical details. They very obviously had no historic adviser like Downton Abbey does. Instead they had a slouching Duchess smoking filtered cigarettes almost thirty years before they existed. I mean seriously, she wouldn't show exasperation and insolence to a police officer, she would show hauteur! And that doesn't even cover the telephones and the improper titles for the King and Queen! They seemed to want to update Holmes, but instead of going all out like Elementary or Sherlock, they added incongruities that exasperate the audience versus adding to the story. But oddly enough what annoyed me the most was the lackadaisical floorplan for 221B Baker Street, which in an odd error is actually once referred to as 222B Baker Street. Of all locations in books and films, I don't think there's any one more regulated than 221B Baker Street. Everyone knows the floorplan, and yet, here they decided to create something entirely other. An obviously ground floor great room that looks like it is part of a house, not terraced apartments. Amd seriously, Mrs. Hudson just wanders in when she feels like from the large hallway? No no and no again. If you are going to take on the greatest detective ever, the least you can do is get it right!

But then again, watching it all these years later, I seem to have nothing but problems with this production. I even question the casting of Rupert Everett as Holmes. He brought nothing to the role other than the required hawk-like profile. Holmes is fun for his excitability, his dark humor, his mood swings, yet Everett plays him almost atonally. But I blame this more on Everett's transitional period than anything else. This TV movie was made as he was switching his period focus from the humor of Oscar Wilde to the more dour dark bearded days of Parade's End, wherein I actually didn't recognize him for the first few episodes. I actually place all the blame on this shift firmly with Catherine Deneuve and that bizarre French adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Can you think of anything in recent years on television more pretentious than an all French adaptation of this story set in the 60s with Rupert Everett struggling with French dialogue? I dare you to! But Holmes is supposed to be balanced by Watson. And Ian Hart was miscast abysmally as a lecturing antagonistic parental figure for Holmes, with a very rat like face. With their ongoing bickering one wonders why they are even colleagues at all, because with this behaviour they are certainly not friends! Plus I hold a personal grudge against this actor, he played Emma's father on Bates Motel so wonderfully in the first season only to be badly recast in the newest season because Hart wouldn't return. Well Hart, I'm marking you down as the second worst Watson in history, my hatred of Lucy Liu will forever save you from the number one place.

And as with every British miniseries that mishandles Americans, my rant must now commence. I don't know what it is with Britain and their American Problem, but it is so pronounced that I seriously want to just ship them a few actors so that I will never have to listen to a bad faux American accent again. Firstly, the changing of Watson's fiance and later wife from being Mary Morstan makes no sense. Unless this is his second wife... but I think they could have bothered to mention that don't you? (Note, I think this is supposed to be his second wife, which was mentioned only once in passing in the books). Mrs. Vandeleur seems to be nothing more than an annoyingly forward American psychoanalyst  who is a slightly scandalous plot device, recommending the book Psychopathia Sexualis to Holmes. Firstly, I'm sure Holmes has read this book and doesn't need the recommendation, secondly, why did we need all this build up just so she can talk to the one surviving victim for five minutes? Anyone could have filled this need, it didn't need this non canonical character to be thrust on us! But the worst part is Helen McCrory's accent. I first want to make it clear that I am actually a fan of hers. In fact one of my most favorite new shows, Penny Dreadful, wouldn't be complete without her and her wicked ways. She is a very talented, very accomplished actress, who is never allowed to do an American accent EVER AGAIN. Her husband Damian Lewis can successfully do one, just look to Homeland. She can not. It's broad, it's flat, it's overly loud, it's annoying, it's WRONG WRONG WRONG! Don't the people who make these films realize that by doing something like this they are alienating their audience and pissing them off majorly? And it's not like this is a problem that in the intervening decade has just gone away, just look to the newest season of Mr Selfridge and those damn Tointon sisters and you'll see what I mean.

Yet all these flaws could be overlooked if the conclusion and the revelation of the killer hadn't been so absurd. Though if you're familiar enough with British actors you will know the killer from the opening credits. The motive of the killer, his being "taunted" by the young girls of the aristocracy could work, kind of. But then why is he a foot fetishist? This is never once addressed in the entire movie. I think that this would be more important than just a red herring used to suspect the shoe maker. And in what is an even weirder turn of events, it isn't Holmes who expounds on how he figured it all out and when and why, but it's the killer explaining himself FOR NO REASON to his latest victim that we get his lame reasoning for killing. He's not a Bond villain for crying out loud! In fact, Holmes is a bit of a nonentity, he doesn't matter so much for the solving of the case, in fact he bungles it more than aids it. Despite having a thousand questions as to why this and why that, it comes down to me wanting to know one thing. Why did the killer start killing? What set him off? To catch a killer you must understand him, and there is no explanation here, just a shallow foot fetishist. Plus, the reasoning that to catch a killer the first victim is of extreme importance... yes, OK, that makes sense, but why did he kill his first victim. She doesn't fit his profile at all and no reason for this is ever given. Also, the whole doubling, why would you be doing it all your life if you hadn't been planning something nefarious all your life? The fact is the more you take apart Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, the less sense it makes. It might fool you into thinking it was OK, but then you start to poke at it and it falls apart like a house of cards. I long for the minutely plotted details of Sherlock after ninety minutes with Rupert and his friends.

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