Monday, November 30, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

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

"Fester Cat returns us to his favourite place in the world, and casts a wry but compassionate eye over events in the house on Chestnut Avenue. In the months following his death Fester watches his hapless housemates Paul and Jeremy cope with living in a quiet, catless house, and gradually come to the decision that they must adopt a new friend. It is at the eccentric cat rescue / charity shop THARG where they first meet the robust and sproingy young Bernard Socks – the black and white cat who is destined to inherit Fester’s place in their home and garden down beside the railway tracks.

But things are never simple and straightforward in this family, and there follow months of excitement, adventures and downright palavers. Bernard Socks escapes and discovers a ghostly cat parade that happens every Midsummer Night’s Eve in Levenshulme. He helps the boys through the sudden death of a close friend. He gradually settles into his new life on Chestnut Avenue and everything seems fine, as Autumn draws near.

But then the men from the roofing company arrive and set up scaffolding all over the terrace and pretty soon all the ceilings are falling in and it seems that the three boys’ precious home is never going to be the same again. By the end of the year everything feels as if it’s in jeopardy – even the health of Bernard Socks himself. But what can Fester Cat do to help, watching all of these disastrous events unfold? How can that tough little, much-missed companion still make his voice heard by the humans that he loves?"

Because duh. 

Dead to the Last Drop by Cleo Coyle
Published by: Berkley
Publication Date: December 1st, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 432 Pages
To Buy

The official patter:
"After the White House asks coffeehouse manager and master roaster Clare Cosi to consult on the coffee service for a Rose Garden Wedding, she discovers a historic pot was used as a CIA "dead drop" decades before. Now long-simmering secrets boil over, scalding Clare and the people around her...

Clare's visit to the nation's capital is off to a graceful start. Her octogenarian employer is bunking with her in a charming Georgetown mansion, and she's invited to work with a respected curator on the Smithsonian's culinary salute to coffee in America.

Unfortunately, Clare's new Village Blend DC is struggling to earn a profit--until its second floor jazz club attracts a high-profile fan, the college-age daughter of the U.S. President. Clare's stock rises as the First Lady befriends her, but she soon learns a stark lesson: Washington can be murder.

First a stylish State Department employee suspiciously collapses in her coffeehouse. Then the President's daughter goes missing. Is she a runaway bride or is something more sinister in play? After another deadly twist, Clare is on the run with her NYPD detective boyfriend. Branded an enemy of the state, she must piece together clues and uncover the truth before her life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness come to a bitter end."

It's starting to be winter, which means it's time to get some cozy reading in... what better choice than this series, a favorite of my friend Paul Magrs!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Television Series Review - Murder Rooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Review - David Pirie's The Dark Water

The Dark Water by David Pirie
Published by: Pegasus Books
Publication Date: May 1st, 2003
Format: Hardcover, 354 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Arthur Conan Doyle's nemesis has returned to England. He and Dr. Bell have made it their life's work to capture this man, Dr. Neill Cream, and see him pay for his crimes, not the least of which is murdering Elspeth, Conan Doyle's fiance. Yet Conan Doyle didn't expect Cream to strike first, kidnapping the would-be author and holding him hostage while heavily drugged. But Conan Doyle miraculously escapes, and thanks to some help in the unlikeliest of places, he reunites with Dr. Bell in Edinburgh. They retrace Cream's steps through England, where he is using the name Dr. Mere, and realize that this murderous man is in desperate need of funds. Dr. Bell starts going over everything that Conan Doyle remembers of his incarceration and Cream's mention of the sea seems to coincide with a suspicious disappearance of a wealthy man in the town of Dunwich. Sir Thomas Jefford had just inherited a house in Dunwich, The Glebe, when he disappeared. His friends thought it was a joke, but locals believe it is tied up in the legend of the Witch of Dunwich Heath, which Jefford was planning on writing about. Conan Doyle and Bell set out for this remote village on the Eastern Coast and slowly start to piece together what has happened. But soon there are not just dealing with a disappearance, but deaths. Murder! Can they separate facts from fiction and catch Cream before he has a chance to escape their grasp once more?

Recently I was having a conversation with one of my friends about people who rate books on Goodreads when they haven't finished them. We were in total accord that it's unfair to the book and the author. To give a star rating that is factored into the overall rating for something you couldn't be bothered to finish skews the results. You either finish the book and rate it or abandon it, there is no middle ground. This then morphed into a discussion on when do you give up on a book. Do you give it fifty pages, a hundred pages, what? When do you know in your gut that enough is enough? When do you know that you can't make it to the end and have the satisfaction of adding your two cents on Goodreads? I'm a masochist, because I can really count on one hand the number of books I have actually given up on. I'm in it for the long haul, no matter what. Rage reading, incentives, whatever it takes, I WILL finish that book. The reason I bring this up now, other than the wacky serendipity that made these two events happen within days of each other, is that if I was the type of person to actually give up on books, well, The Dark Water would have been abandoned early. Yet you will notice that in the end I really liked it. I mean, I REALLY liked it. So how long did it take for me to get into it? 123 pages. This just proves that there is no magical page number at which you should abandon hope. A book with a disjointed and awkward start can click from one page to the next and become a true page-turner. Plus, it's always nice to have your patience rewarded, it's awkward when the book goes the other way, ie, to the dogs.

The Dark Water is actually the third book in David Pirie's series about Dr. Joseph Bell and Arthur Conan Doyle. While I didn't actually know this when I bought the book, before reading it I looked up the summaries to the first two books, The Patient's Eyes and The Night Calls, and realized that they sounded very familiar. See, this series actually didn't start out as books, but as a television show, Murder Rooms, therefore doing the opposite of most adaptations out there. 'The Patient's Eyes' was the first episode after the pilot, while the pilot became The Night Calls. While I think 'The Patient's Eyes' is one of the strongest episodes, the pilot isn't of the highest quality, so I figured I'd be safe just skipping to the new story. Because that is what I was really excited about. I was sad when Murder Rooms was cancelled and here, with this book, it felt like the axe hadn't fallen. Yet upon starting The Dark Water there were all these mentions to things I hadn't heard about, little stories that didn't line up with the show. References or asides I just didn't get. This could in fact be one of the reasons it took me 123 pages to get into the book. It was just a weird experience, like hearing a story you've heard a hundred times but with key points changed for no perceptible reason. I almost felt as if the books took place in a parallel dimension to the television series. You knew enough about the world to get around but it was just that little bit off to be disconcerting. Therefore, given the chance to do this over, I would read the first two books first, because maybe it would make those first 123 pages interesting.

But then again... I think not. The reason those first 123 pages don't work is because of Cream. Dr. Thomas Neill Cream is an historically interesting person; a Scottish-Canadian serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner who tried to claim the victims of Jack the Ripper as his own. So we have historical precedence of his evil deeds and ways. But, despite this book being fiction, the sheer unlikelihood of his ever crossing paths with Conan Doyle, nine years his junior, let alone becoming his arch-nemesis just strains credulity. Add to that the whole lovelorn Conan Doyle who lost his first love at the hands of Cream and we're in absurd penny dreadful territory. While there's a disconnect between the fictional Conan Doyle and the actual, artistic license allows a little freedom, but taking Cream and forcing him into the role of Moriarty to Conan Doyle's Holmes... it just doesn't work. And not just the fact that Bell is the true Holmes of this narrative. It's fun seeing the little hints of how life became fictionalized in Conan Doyle's stories, but this is too heavy handed. Too obvious. Cream is taking Moriarty too far, especially at the end. Subtlety is needed to make this conceit believable. Subtlety and just enough reality. Cream is too over the top. Too theatrical. His kidnapping of Conan Doyle and holding him hostage is so overly dramatic and also tedious that it bogs down the first two sections of the book. It's not until Cream disappears offstage that the book starts to work. If it wasn't for Cream this could be a near perfect book, but alas, it isn't. Also, is there anyone else that thinks the name Cream doesn't inspire terror?

Getting beyond Cream and into the history of the small English town of Dunwich captivated me. Dunwich is a small coastal town on the eastern coast of England that was mentioned in the Doomsday book. Much of the town has been lost to coastal erosion and now lives under the sea. They have stories that you can still hear the bells of the churches under the water calling you. This locale brought with it the haunting atmosphere that made The Hound of the Baskervilles so memorable and easily Conan Doyle's greatest story in the Sherlock Holmes canon. There's something about desolate and bleak settings that just up the Gothic impact of a mystery and make me all the more invested in it. It's the haunting landscape of Cornwall coupled with her writing that makes Daphne Du Maurier so memorable. Her writing wouldn't have had the same impact set anywhere else. Plus she had a symbiotic relationship between her and the land that makes me think if it wasn't for Cornwall who knows if she would ever have really written anything memorable. That is what Dunwich does for The Dark Water. The town becomes a reflection of the story and becomes a character in it's own right. The treacherous walks along the cliffs where even holy landmarks to God were destroyed by the forces of nature sends a frisson of excitement through me just thinking about it again. The wind and the rain which might be a detriment anywhere else here become a real danger. Now I'm not saying I ever want to go there, but the way this book transported me there, it feels like I've already been.

Yet Dunwich wouldn't have had the impact unless it was coupled with the mythology and folklore that surround the town, and not just the ghostly bells. The way "The Wylde Hunt at Dunwich" and the Witch of Dunwich Heath not only added an otherworldly element to the story but spread fear and cleverly concealed the real killer is the beating heart of this book. I have always been fascinated by the idea that Fairy Tales may be real and that mythology and folklore must have some basis in fact. I love how Dr. Bell instantly sees through these scare tactics, such as the howling man roaming the moors, but realizes the importance of these stories and the effect they will have on the surrounding community if they are believed. He works backward, from the stories that have survived, knowing that they have a grounding in reality. He is able to find how seemingly impossible deaths were accomplished by using the truth within the story. But it's not just the ability to use these stories to catch a killer, but the stories themselves that give you a glimpse into the past. You get a mini history of this small community through their folktales. Regional folktales are the way history has been passed down through the generations. You learn more about an area and it's past from it's stories than from some staid history written to set the record straight. Plus let us not forget that in his old age Conan Doyle set more store in fairies and folklore than in his own writing. Fairy Tales are just history and mystery coming together, and in this instance they are used to catch a killer.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Movie Review - Mr. Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review - Michael Chabon's The Final Solution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

Movie Review - Young Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tuesday Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 6, 2015

Movie Review - The Great Mouse Detective

The Great Mouse Detective
Based on the books by Eve Titus
Release Date: July 2nd, 1986
Starring: Barrie Ingham, Vincent Price, Val Bettin, Candy Candido, Alan Young, Frank Welker, Diana Chesney, Eve Brenner, Melissa Manchester, Basil Rathbone, and Laurie Main
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Olivia Flaversham has a wonderful life, he father loves her dearly and is a talented toymaker. One night a peg-legged bat breaks into their toyshop and kidnaps her father. She determines to ask the greatest mouse detective ever, Basil of Baker Street, to find her father. Only poor Olivia is young and gets lost trying to find Baker Street, let alone trying to find Basil. Luckily for her Doctor Dawson has just returned from Afghanistan and finds the poor mite in an old boot. He hasn't heard of this Basil, but he does know where Baker Street is, so he offers to help the young mouse. When the duo meets the eccentric detective it looks as if their petty affair will not interest him until Olivia mentions the bat. The bat, Fidget, is the henchman of that most notorious of criminals, the Napoleon of Crime, Professor Ratigan! A rat with pretensions of being a mouse. But what could such a diabolical villain need with a mouse known for his clockwork creations? With the help of Sherlock Holmes's dog Toby they track down Fidget to yet another toyshop where he is looting it for uniforms and gears. Yet he is also supposed to kidnap Olivia, as extra incentive for her father's acquiescence. Their arrival at the toyshop gives the wily bat the opportunity to get the girl. Basil feels as if he has let down not just Olivia, but Dawson as well. Yet all is not lost! With his powers of deduction he will rescue Olivia and her father and put a stop to whatever plans Ratigan has! But what are Ratigan's plans? Could they be linked to that night's grand celebration, the diamond jubilee of their great Queen Victoria?

I have been reminded by my mother time and time again how hard it was for her with two small children in the eighties to take us to the movies. Not because we were ill-behaved, more on that later, but because the films we wanted to see were, oh, how can I put this nicely... shit? I don't think I will ever atone for The Care Bears Movie or My Little Pony: The Movie. My mother for years had been trying to interest us in more refined animated fare from Disney, apparently the mice in Cinderella were too much for me, and as for my brother and The Jungle Book, I never got to see the end of that film till I was in high school, and that movie had two theatrical viewing attempts made while younger. I was able to handle Peter Pan, my brother was purposefully left at home. But I'm pretty sure the success of Peter Pan was down to the fact that I knew I'd be in big trouble if I ruined my mom's favorite Disney film ever. Oddly enough all these films came out around 1986. Needless to say my mom was desperate for a movie that she could enjoy with us. That is where The Great Mouse Detective enters. I had since overcome my apparent animated mouse issues, seriously I don't remember them at all, and my mother was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, so this movie seemed to be the perfect remedy, not just for us but for Disney. It quickly became a favorite with all of us and the perfect way to spend a hot summer afternoon after swimming lessons while simultaneously saving Disney's animation department that would go on to make some of my favorite films ever, from Aladdin to Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Therefore The Great Mouse Detective holds a special place in my heart and was logically the first movie adaptation that I had to feature.

Until recently I had never read the book, Basil of Baker Street, on which this film was based. Going back to the movie after reading it's inspiration was a little jarring. The film creates more of a parallel world then a comedic homage to Holmes. In the book it's very amusing and self-deprecating with the way Basil sets out to be his hero, Sherlock Holmes. Whereas here the mice world is a reflection of the real world, with the mirroring not being humorous, just a fact of life. For every human there is a mouse counterpart, Holmes and Basil, Watson and Dawson, Queen Victoria and Queen Victoria. Excuse me? See, this is where my brain struggles with credulity. We have a Queen Victoria mouse who is celebrating her diamond jubilee... so, there's a mouse monarch who has reigned for sixty; yes that is SIXTY YEARS! A MOUSE! Who has lived a minimum of sixty years... yeah, not buying it. But more than this miraculously old mouse if they had actually wanted to stick with this parallel concept then they should have fully committed and made sure that none of the characters behaved against the type of their real world counterparts. For example, Holmes would NEVER actually accept any awards or honors. He is only in his line of work for the game. The solving of the unsolvable. He NEVER takes credit for any of his cases and to stoop to accept an honor? NEVER! If he were given a nice emerald tiepin in secret, that would be fine, but anything else, especially front page news would be unseemly! Plus Ratigan... his human counterpart Moriarty was a pillar of society, a man who studiously kept up his front of respectability in order to cover his crimes. To have Ratigan be instantly offensive to other mice, well, that didn't ring true.

As for Ratigan. The main draw for this film was that Ratigan was voiced by Vincent Price. I personally have issues with celebrities doing voices in animated films. By having a celebrity voice a character it takes you out of the story and makes it more about them. My favorite animated films are my favorites because they are one cohesive whole. I don't know who voices any of the characters in say Robin Hood and therefore that voice IS that character and therefore more believable. While I do really like newer films like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon, I am forever distracted by knowing Po is Jack Black or Gobber is Craig Ferguson. Therefore The Great Mouse Detective to me is the beginning of a slippery slope that forever eliminated voice actors and made all films about the star attached. But getting down off my pulpit and getting back to Vincent Price, he at once seems perfectly cast and completely ill-suited. His voice is very distinctive, not one you'd necessarily associate with someone whose main career was in horror films. Yet he brings a refined menace to any character he portrayed. In The Great Mouse Detective the disconnect is in how they decided to portray Ratigan, as more thug like, versus the cultured Napoleon of crime he really was. You can't somehow connect the voice to the image. Much like Richard E. Grant in Corpse Bride, the image of the character is just SO WRONG to the image in your head and you can't reconcile the two. I keep wondering if Vincent had projected more, actually put some rage behind his lines if it would have worked. But it wouldn't, because that wasn't him. He had menace and mocking in the quietest of lines. Which is why his genius only comes out in the musical numbers. In the song "Goodbye So Soon" by Henry Mancini you see the heights to which this film could have reach had they tinkered with it a little more, but sadly they didn't.

But in the tradition of all movies from you childhood there has to be something to traumatize you for years to come. Like The Nothing in The Neverending Story, the pan of bloody oatmeal that made me not eat oatmeal for years in The Golden Child, Large Marge in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, the list could go on and on, this movie has it's own special horror. They might not have meant to traumatize me, but they did. Since I had gotten past my mouse phobia phase at this point, and Vincent Price was somewhat of an ill fit, I turned to Fidget, the evil bat with the broken wing and a peg leg. Now I didn't and don't have a problem with bats, unlike everyone else in my family. In fact, overall, I rather like Fidget. But there are one or two scenes that were, I think, specifically designed to terrify the audience, and in turn me. Whenever he bares his teeth and leans into the camera and his eyes go crazy red... I don't really like this at all. Yet there is one very specific scene that is very traumatic. When the gang leaves Baker Street on Toby's back and follows Fidget to the toyshop, that is when my nightmare begins. Not even taking into account the creepy dolls that are demented to such an extent that you will never want to see a porcelin doll with ringlets ever again, this scene is THE ONE. The one for nightmares. Fidget hides in a cradle and puts on a little bonnet and when Olivia looks in the cradle... there's something about, well, about everything in this scene that just gives me the wiggins. Bats in bonnets? NO THANK YOU! Fidget later repeats this gag by impersonating Olivia, but it's a far cry from this scene. I really am surprised I didn't develop a bat phobia from this...

One thing that struck me while rewatching this film so many years later is how Steampunk it is. Yes, I'm sure someone could find someway of justifying almost anything Victorian as being somehow Steampunk, but The Great Mouse Detective certainly is. Not just the overall look, or the epic Reichenbach moment in Big Ben with all the gears, but one aspect in particular. Hiram Flaversham and his clockwork creations. There's just something so Jules Verne about these creations. But taking it even further, the movie uses a true Steampunk trope, the mechanization of Queen Victoria. Usually she has done it to herself or someone has corrupted her and made her immortal, because obviously the Victorian era lasting forever is at the heart of Steampunk. Here it's Ratigan's plan to make a clockwork Queen Victoria that will be his puppet. So it's a little different than some of the takes, but I can't think of anything more Steampunk than a clockwork queen! Add to that the pomp and circumstance around the diamond jubilee, and seriously, why isn't everyone jumping on this Steampunk bandwagon. In fact, seeing as when this movie came out, I would say that author's like George Mann might have gotten their first taste of Victoriana here and it helped shape their sensibilities and therefore their work. Which brings me to an odd deduction I have never thought of before. While this film obviously helped shaped my sensibilities with regard to Sherlock Holmes and my love of all things British, is there a chance that this is what started the Steampunk germ in me? This is something I'll have to think about... in the meantime, goodbye so soon!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Book Review - Eve Titus's Basil of Baker Street

Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus
Published by: Whittlesey House/ McGraw Hill
Publication Date: 1958
Format: Hardcover, 96 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
Out of Print

Basil is a mouse with one great ambition, to be the best detective for mice that ever was, much like his idol, Sherlock Holmes, is to humans. Basil has learned his trade at the very feet of this great detective, even if that detective is unaware of this. In fact Basil, with his trusty assistant, Doctor David Q. Dawson, has set up his headquarters in the basement of 221B Baker Street. Their first big case that rocks the Holmestead is the disappearance of the Proudfoot twins. They never returned home from school and their parents are sure something is amiss. Observing the area in which they were last seen Basil deduces that three men kidnapped the twin girls and that they need to be patient because there is surely a ransom note to come. Sure enough the note is delivered as expected and by carefully observing the bearer of the note Holmes is sure he can find the twins before they must meet the demands of these deplorable villains, which is giving them the vacancy of the Holmestead so they can have their criminal enterprise in the center of London! Basil would never stoop to allowing crime a foothold in Sherlock Holmes's house! By consulting maps and train timetables he thinks he has located where the twins have been taken, to the Northwest of England near the sea. Disguising themselves as sailors, Basil and Dawson set forth to rescue the twins and stop villainy from getting a grip in Baker Street!

There are books that elicit the nostalgia response in you very easily. Usually it's books that you read as a child that forever imprinted on you. Going back to them when you are an adult makes you remember what it was like to be that young innocent reader picking up that book for the first time. You feel safe and happy and the world is right just for those few minutes that you are once more lost in the story and things like bills and taxes don't exist for you yet. Unless of course it's one of those books that traumatized you forever, like The Witches or A Wrinkle in Time, but that's a story for another day. I view this as the Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas effect. Every Christmas when the music of Paul Williams plays over the river near Frogtown Hollow the world is set to rights. Ma and Emmet's troubles are just as real as yours and mine but everything comes out right with a song. I had this feeling while reading Basil of Baker Street. That warm inner glow that everything would turn out right. While it is very odd to have nostalgia for a book I've never read, there's something about the writing that made me feel this way. Also, technically, it doesn't hurt being a fan of the movie based on this series of books... Eve Titus has created a memorable story for children that doesn't feel as if you are being talked down to, I'm looking at you L. Frank Baum. This is just an endearing story that celebrates literature.

It is this celebration of Sherlock Holmes that pervades the whole book. This book was obviously not written to cash in on the Sherlock Holmes name but to bridge the divide between children and adult literature. In her dedication to Arthur Conan Doyle's son Adrian at the beginning of the book Eve Titus states the hope that this story will lead children one day to the great detective himself. I think that this is a very realistic goal. The book not only revels in it's love of Sherlock, but it pays homage to him in the most wonderful ways. The respect Eve Titus holds for the Holmes canon can be seen in the loving care she has taken to mimic the writing style of "Watson" with Dawson. Having immersed myself in Conan Doyle's work I can see on every single page how Eve Titus is spot on in her interpretation. Little details popping out left and right, like Paganini! Oh how the Paganini made me smile. I'm sure you could even hunt down the exact sections of certain stories that Basil and Dawson are observing from their hiding place within 221B. Even the solving of the kidnapping of the Proudfoot twins with the typewriter comes from the short story "A Case of Identity." But never does the story feel derivative. It is a reinterpretation, with mice, of the greatest literary detective ever.

But if Eve Titus is a fan of Sherlock Holmes, his true number one fan is Basil himself. I love how Basil doesn't just study Holmes's methods so that he can reproduce his sleuthing abilities for his fellow mice. Basil studies the man himself. He is literally trying to become Sherlock Holmes for mice kind. Basil even moves his entire community into the basement of 221B Baker Street to be closer to his idol, thus forming the wonderfully named "Holmestead." Above his fireplace he even has a shrine to Holmes with items he has picked up from the apartments above, from scraps of paper with writing on in, to various discarded violin strings. As we see in this story Basil has finally acquired a full set of strings for the violin he has carved. Sadly his playing abilities aren't yet up to the real Holmes. Then there is the clothing! He has had a clever mouse tailor outfit him in a replica of Holmes's own clothes. While at this point you may be thinking that Basil seems more of a stalker than a sleuth, yet never does the narrative cross the line from cute into creepy. This is because Basil is able to utilize what he has learned to solve cases. He is using his love of Holmes to make himself a better mouse and to provide a service to his fellow creatures. When he dresses himself and Dawson up as little sailors to track down the nefarious three, well, it's just plain adorable. Plus in removing him from the shadow of 221B it shows his abilities and removes any taint of being a copycat, though he would smirk at my turn of phrase.

What also makes it so distinctly unique and sets it apart from Sherlock Holmes is that it remains distinctly mousy in tone. It's little touches here and there about their paws and cheese that remind you and make the book so endearing and so individual. Couple that with Dawson describing them sneaking aboard trains and carriages to save their weary paws, and it's just delightful. But the one thing in the whole book that I think really brings home that we a reading a book about mice, not men, is that their number one nemesis isn't Moriarty, but owls. In the epic rescue of the twins from the abandoned barn at the end of the book the crime solving duo is almost derailed by a dangerous owl. Luckily it wasn't a full sized owl, because obviously even though they are being attacked and their very lives are in danger Basil takes the time to notice that the owl is only nine inches in height and therefore more easy to be repelled. As he notes, if it had been a full sized owl, well, there would have been no hope for them! It's details like this that raise the story up, but also, in an oblique way educate the children who read it. If there's anything I hate more then "teaching moments" I don't know what it would be. But through the narrative Eve Titus not only shows the young readers that owls are the natural predators of mice, but she reinforces "stranger danger" in a logical way with an interesting crime. Because obviously if the moral of the story is just a natural part of the story and not being forced on you with blunt blows to the head it will stick with you longer.

While Eve Titus deserves all the kudos there are to give for creating this wonderful little tale, as an artist I have to give props to the illustrator, Paul Gladone. My whole life well-drawn books have called to me, but it was Garth Williams and his illustrating of Charlotte's Web that made me fall in love with anthropomorphized animal drawings. Well, Charlotte's Web and his tale of three kittens and their mittens which was part of his book Three Bedtime Stories. Paul Gladone's drawings are reminiscent of Williams but are just adorable and unique in their own way and shame on any publisher that had the nerve to hire some other artist to do a new cover! What I love is that they are so distinctly mice, unlike the overly cartoony look from the movie, this somehow makes the story more real. Not to mention the mouse equivalent of Mrs. Hudson and her keys, or the little pipe Basil smokes, or they way Basil listens attentively at the base of the chair supporting the great Sherlock Holmes. What is so wonderful about Gladone's style is that it has such detail but retains a freshness and vibrancy, a looseness that makes the illustrations live. Most likely this is due to the fact that he extensively observed animals in real life, drawing everything from the humble dormouse to the neighbor's cat. Whatever way you look at it, the text and the illustrations fit together hand in glove and need each other to bring Basil of Baker Street to the next plateau of children's books.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home