Tag Archives: review

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020)

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If you have followed this blog long at all, you will know I am a huge fan of the TV show Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. So, you can guess at how excited I was when I heard they decided to make a movie. Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020) released on Acorn TV last month and I talked Bethany into watching it with me last night. It was…okay.

The adventure leaves behind Australia and occurs primarily in London and Palestine. Between rescuing damsels in distress and solving several murders, Miss Fisher uncovers hidden tombs, dodges ancient curses, and spends a considerable amount of time looking fabulous in the desert. The movie basically turns her into a female Indiana Jones. Though Dot and Aunt Prudence get their cameo moments, the only other character from the TV show with any amount of screen time is Chief Inspector Jack Robinson. 

It is a fun, action packed movie and well-acted. Essie Davis (Miss Fisher) and Nathan Page (Jack Robinson) are always great and their natural chemistry shines despite quite a lot of unnecessarily plot angst. The costuming remains as fabulous as ever. And though several scenes tried way too hard to come across artsy, I thought even the filming did a good job. 

The problem is really the plot. It is something of a mess. You don’t have time to think much about it while watching because every five minutes presents another action/chase/shooting/fighting scene. But it tries so hard to keep the viewer constantly entertained that it makes it hard to focus. And once you think you finally understand the mystery, someone starts shooting and Miss Fisher heads off to a different country on a rabbit trail that feels out of nowhere but apparently ties in somewhere. 

And did anyone ever tell poor Dot that Miss Fisher didn’t actually die?? 

Overall, I would say if you enjoy the world of Miss Fisher, definitely give it a watch. And if you don’t but the idea of a female Indiana Jones intrigues you, also give it a try. I would absolutely watch more Miss Fisher movies if they came out. The ingredients are all there for something good…it just needs a more cohesive plot.


Evicted by Matthew Desmond

I’m throwing a pity party because the trip I’ve planned for months got canceled so instead of dragging you into it, I’m just going to share a book review I wrote a few weeks ago. 

Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond–2/5 stars

Evicted purports to look at homelessness and evictions in Milwaukee. This book has an average 4.47/5. And I just…could not get into it. It occurred to me as I made my way through the author’s “solution” in the back of the book that if this was an article submitted to the law journal where I am an articles editor, I would probably recommend against publication. So, in the spirit of the criteria I would use to objectively analyze an argument submitted to my law review, here are my thoughts on the book:

Thesis: the article has a strong and clear thesis that predominates throughout.
Agree.
The subtitle says it all. “Poverty and Profit in the American City.” Matthew Desmond blames capitalism–i.e. profit–for tenant turnover rates. Ironically, the narrative nature of this piece often feels like a direct contradiction to this argument. To give him credit, he gives it all. He reveals the good and the bad choices made by the people he highlights. But when reading about their choices, it quickly becomes apparent that how you interpret their behavior will depend on how you view poverty and the problem of generational poverty in America. (Generational poverty being a phrase he would actually probably strongly object to.) How do you react to a person spending food-stamps on lobster and then having nothing left over to eat for the remainder of the month? A conservative leaning reader will view it as wasteful and part and parcel for why the person remains poor. Desmond views it as a way of “fighting back” against a lifetime of poverty. And he says so.
Initially I thought Desmond did a good job giving glimpses of the landlords as well as the tenants and their varied motivations, but it quickly becomes apparent where his loyalties lie. And it isn’t with the landlords. The fact that anyone gets rich off real-estate appears to offend him. While I agree that some really shady behavior seems to be going down, he doesn’t go there but instead strives for a much more morally righteous tone with capitalism in general. So while I do think his extrapolation of the “data” could get interpreted differently, the author’s thesis remains fairly consistent throughout.

Novelty: the article contains original analysis that is convincing and in proportion to the background provided
Neutral.
It depends what you mean by analysis. In his explanation at the back of the book we learn Desmond moved to a trailer park and lived with many of these people. Good for him. But if I was actually writing this as a review for law review, I’d flag the narrative nature of this piece. It makes it readable–there is a reason this book appeals to a wide, non-academic readership–but is not particularly empirical. So any “analysis” he does at the end when he describes the “solution” feels…less than backed up by actual data. Or possibly even logic. It comes from a place of moral outrage. And I’m all about moral outrage, but just because he lived in a trailer park does not mean he knows the best solution for poverty in America. Talk about entitlement. You live with people for a period of time and suddenly know how to fix all their problems. But Desmond wants to provide a solution. As a reader, we want a step by step solution to combat the tragedies we just read about. I’d be mad if he did not offer one, to be honest. The thing is, solutions do not come from moral outrage. And they do not come by suggesting we throw more money at the problem. If anything, his stories reveal that programs set up by the government to address homelessness don’t do much to actually solve homelessness. Instead, they fund slumlords raising their rent because now there is more money pouring in. So why is more government the solution? I needed more than “countries we consider backwards do this so what is America’s problem.”
So, yeah, I needed more analysis and less storytelling.

Utility: the article solves an important, current legal problem in a nonobvious way and will continue to be important by the time it goes to print.
Neutral.
No matter who you blame for it, homeless is a problem. It doesn’t take a book like this to point to the education and job opportunities lost because of a lack of housing. (But trust me, this book will point it out anyway. Because that fact is about the closest this comes to data.) I already laid out above why I feel like his solution is insufficient. But it bears repeating–after 300 some pages telling heart-yanking stories about why the system fails people, Desmond provides a handful of pages that amount to: “We need a universal housing voucher system. Other countries have it. Why not us?”
Y’all, that does not address the problem. Or if it would, Desmond does not give me nearly enough arguments to prove it will. Desmond thinks that if people aren’t afraid of getting kicked out of their homes, they will pursue education and keep their jobs and pursue better relationships and make better financial decisions and everything will become kumbaya. It is quite an optimistic opinion for someone who got to return to academia (Harvard no less!) after his stint in a trailer park ended.
But perhaps you think I’m being too negative. After all, I am not offering a solution to homelessness, poverty, and racism all in one go. And this book isn’t trying to provide a solution. It is exposing the problem. The details get worked out farther down the line.
Here is my biggest problem with this book’s “solution”: first it wins over your pity, then it says “we can solve the problem by throwing money at it.”
And you what that means? You, the reader, can sit back satisfied because you, the reader, can feel engaged and indignant and cry out for the government to ‘do something!’ while not actually having to do anything yourself to help these people or address their situation or look beyond the problem. Because we have the problem: greedy landlords. Not drugs, not poor financial decisions, not violence.
No, greedy landlords who use the government to their advantage by having sheriffs engage in evictions. So apparently the decision is to get government more involved. And possibly not have sheriffs carry out evictions.

Soundness: the article addresses counterarguments, provides explanations of prior literature in the area, and generally demonstrates mastery of the subject.
Disagree.
Here is where my academic and legal training particularly kicks in–I was driven crazy by the lack of counterarguments in this book. I thought maybe the parts where the Desmond follows the landlord would make up something of a “counterargument.” After all, they’re just trying to make a day’s wage too. But no, as the book goes on, they increasingly become scapegoats for the inner city ills. And maybe rightly so. But the result is that we don’t get alternatives here–alternative solutions or alternative explanations. We simply get one morally charged outrage.
I was particularly struck by how Desmond dismisses an inner city pastor who doesn’t help a woman with her rent. I don’t have the exact quote but it was something to the effect of, “He preached loving your neighbor until it came to actually doing it.” And I’m not saying I would not have handled the situation the same or that I understand it fully. But the fact is, we’ve seen the woman make poor financial decisions left and right. And then the author wants us to get mad that the pastor won’t pour more money into the situation after even calling up her family members and asking them what they think. You’re probably noticing a theme but…less moral smugness and more facts would go a long way for my appreciation of this book.

Clarity & Organization: the article uses clear, efficient, and organized writing to convey ideas.
Neutral.
I mean, it is prettily written. It is easy to get engaged, enraged, energized. A lot of the more negative reviews dismiss the “academic” portion at the back after the more narrative beginning, but I certainly preferred the academic portion. Still, overall, he is trying to put a face to poverty and I can give him credit for it. The problem is, poverty is multifaceted and complicated and often generational. It does frequently occur because of mental illness and childhood trauma, as Desmond illustrates with many of his subjects. Much of it is cultural.
And it means no easy solution emerges. But to make a book like this tenable, you have to provide a solution. I don’t know how you get around it. And Desmond provides his solution. It is one firmly rooted in his worldview.

Your political worldview will likely impact how you read this book. It will tug on your heartstrings. It will give you the moral indignation to cry out for change. But it will not provide you with something workable or sustainable as a solution. And that is where I was left frustrated and why this did not get a higher rating from me. 


BBC’s Sanditon

With three episodes now on PBS, BBC’s new mini-series finishing Jane Austen’s Sanditon has officially made its debut in the United States and the result has been…explosive. 

For those of you who do not belong to half a dozen Facebook pages devoted to Jane Austen, the story goes something like this: Jane Austen began working on the novel in 1817, wrote 11 chapters, and then died. Though family members hinted at its existence, the actual text wasn’t released to the general public till 1925. If Wikipedia is to be believed, at least 9 different authors have since “finished” the story, including the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. (SO THAT IS WHAT THAT YOUTUBE SERIES WAS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT.)

Enter BBC. Not only do they decide to make a mini-series finishing Sanditon, they hire screenwriter Andrew Davies who is most famous (at least in the Austen world) for the BBC Pride and Prejudice starring Colin Firth. (Aka, lake-jumping-wet-shirt Mr. Darcy.)

Fans are ecstatic. We’re getting more Jane Austen, we’re getting new Jane Austen, we’re getting a beloved Jane Austen adapter. What could go wrong? Well…

Rumors begin circulating about certain liberties being taken with the plot. Andrew Davies says he wants to connect with modern viewers and tackle social issues. The appearance of a black heiress (actually in Austen’s original manuscript) got people excited about more representation. But then there is also hints of nudity and sex and the Austen community went….wait, what?! 

It airs in England in 2019. And England revolts. I’m sure some fans enjoyed it but those of us on the other side of the pond were told not to get our hopes up. And then there was the ending after 8 episodes which (no spoilers) did not thrill people. Andrew Davies says a second season will likely depend on how America reacts to it. 

It released in the United States via PBS roughly two weeks ago. Yesterday we got episode 3. 

I don’t know what official pollsters are finding but here is what the posts on the Jane Austen groups I belong to look like:

View 1: BBC’s Sanditon is the BEST THING EVER MADE. Jane would love it. There has never been anything so glorious since Collin Firth’s lake scene in Pride and Prejudice. Lovely to get some new stories.

View 2: BBC’s Sanditon is the WORST THING EVER MADE. Jane Austen is turning in her grave. How DARE they add nudity to Austen? THE SHADES OF PEMBERLY HAVE BEEN POLLUTED. 

View 3: Who cares?! We get more hot Austen men!

And then there are all the poor moderators begging people to keep the noise down and agree to disagree because up until this point the greatest controversy facing Janeites has been whether Collin Firth or Matthew Macfadyen makes a better Mr. Darcy and so the moderators are just not equipped for this level mass hysteria. 

MY VIEWS

I’ve tried to keep an open mind and keep my expectations low going into Sanditon. Obviously, there are still 5 episodes to go so I will post “final thoughts” once I’ve seen them all. I was unimpressed with the first two episodes. I do think the third one was better. 

While I lean toward the negative views about the series, I do understand why some people enjoy it. Jane Austen would probably roll in her grave with all the nudity, politics, and implied incest now permeating her story. At the same time, I love anything to do with the Regency era and even a bad rendition is in some ways better than no rendition. 

The only view I entirely do not agree with is the third one lauding the new Austen hero, because the tall, dark, and brooding Mr. Parker is a complete ass. Bethany and I have spent most of the show so far baffled by his horrible behavior and calling him rude names. Nothing about him charms. He is the anti-Mr. Tilney. If his character doesn’t shape up soon, I don’t know how this story redeems itself. 

 

So, have you seen Sanditon? What are your thoughts? The first few episodes are available on PBS for 6 more days so do check them out: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/shows/sanditon/episodes/

While there, check out Howard’s End. It stars Matthew Macfadyen and Bethany and I are enjoying it way more than Sanditon. We suspect his character might prove villainous, but since we love him as Mr. Darcy, we’re hardcore shipping him with one of the heroines. (And I know it came out in 2017 so NO SPOILERS if you have already seen it or read the book.) 


Cozy and Popular How?!: My 1 Star Reads from 2019 (Part 4)

LAST ONE I PROMISE. 

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig

An expanded universe where the Scarlet Pimpernel retires and the Purple Gentian and Pink Carnation take over as British spies in post-revolutionary France? Um, yes. But alas, no. The story switches between a pointless side story about a modern day woman working on her PhD trying to undercover the identity of the Pink Carnation and actual story of the Pink Carnation. The former bored me. The latter is a trashy, bodice ripping romance novel whose very existence besmirches the name of one of the greatest works in the English language. Poor, maligned Percy. 

The Perfect Kiss by Anne Gracie

I moderately enjoyed the first book in this series and decided to give it one more try with The Perfect Kiss. It sucked. The heroine was fine, I guess, but the lover boy was a pushy jerk who couldn’t take no as an answer. Decent writing could not make up for a trash story. 

The Spy Who Loves Me by Julie Kenner

Walter Mitty meets the female James Bond. They fall in love because reasons. The end. Oh wait, no, there is a Bond level villain who wants to start WWIII because reasons? He has a sexy, evil female sidekick who will try and seduce the main lead because…reasons? The end. No? There is a super predictable mole within the agency that the reader will figure out in chapter 1 because..reasons? None of this made sense.

Tightrope by Amanda Quick

Don’t judge this lovely book by its cover. It is terrible. It cannot make up its mind what year it is set in, the dialogue feels super forced, and the romance is insta-lust. Oh, and it is also book 3 in the series but nothing on the book will inform you of this. Sigh. So pretty. So terrible.

The Duke’s Marriage Mission by Deborah Hale

Take the worst parts of The Secret Garden, add it to the worst parts of Jane Eyre, then multiply by ten. I give you this book. Nothing spectacularly wrong with it but also nothing spectacularly right. The couple’s immediate attraction, stupid misunderstandings, and lame fights left me irritated. And the “moral” of the story (marriage doesn’t mean giving up freedom!) came as subtle as a fence post to the head.

Temple of the Dawn by Anne Hampson

I wanted to find some books set in Bangkok, Thailand and I found it surprisingly challenging to do so. This book did not actually disappoint me much there. It was fun reading about places I’ve visited. But the romance! The romance was beyond terrible. I almost did not finish with 6 pages to go. The climax/conclusion of the book was so out of nowhere that to even hint at it would be a big spoiler. But if you want the spoiler, check out my full review on Goodreads and avoid this one.

 


The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

If you asked me a week ago why I added The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson  to my to-read list, I would say it recently took my Goodreads friends by a storm and someone or other recommended it to me. 

Image result for the accidental beauty queen

But I just checked and, in fact, only one of my friends has read The Accidental Beauty Queen. The rest simply marked it to read. So who knows why I picked it up. 

Image result for fate destiny a horse

The plot centers on Charlotte, a librarian whose identical twin sister competes in beauty pageants. The beauty pageant twin gets a chance to compete in Miss America  Miss American Treasure and invites Charlotte to come along. Of course you know what happens next. The beauty pageant twin has an allergic reaction and it is up to her Harry Potter-quoting, “nerdy” sister to carry the day and win the crown. 

Final rating: 3/5 stars.

Admittedly I kind of want to hate this book, but it was so fluffy I can’t.

The story represents sheer wish fulfillment. It is the idea that YOU (meek little bookworm) are one spray tan and hair extension away from being Miss America. And who doesn’t want to feel that way?

Further, you don’t even need the spray tan to gain the love of a Super Hawt Billionaire (who adores books and dogs and children) because he will take one look at you and fall for your makeup-less face and Quirky Nerd Girl T-Shirt.

Because Harry Potter is, like, so niche. It takes an English degree to get it.

But actually, Harry Potter references I can forgive. I mean, I cannot name all the dogs in the series at the drop of a hat which the male lead just randomly does. So, good for your super hot billionaire Mr. Gray. (Ugh, but his name is Gray. I don’t think I can forgive that. If your book makes fun of someone for calling 50 Shades of Gray her favorite novel, DON’T NAME YOUR HERO GRAY AND MAKE HIM A BILLIONAIRE.)

I also don’t think I can forgive Charlotte’s description of herself. You see, woe is her, she is the Lizzie to her identical twin sister’s Jane. The Jo to her sister’s Meg.

Such a failure.

But come on. We all know Lizzie is the one to be and Meg is an utter bore. So, you’re telling me this well read, articulate librarian ACTUALLY feels bummed that she is a Lizzie and not Jane? I think not. But then she wouldn’t be this totally down-to-earth, quirky, nerd girl if she ALSO had self-esteem, would she?

(Side note: can we talk about this girl’s genes because she eats however she wants and still can fit into her model sister’s swimsuit and evening gowns for this pageant. If I was the beauty pageant twin and never ate carbs, I’d be super salty.)

But all that aside, this IS wish fulfillment and not even the morally superior tone of our nerd girl, the in-your-face message about how beauty queens are great people too, and the rushed nature of the plot can ruin it. It is sheer fluff and fun. A fast, easy, light-hearted read…basically an adult Disney Channel original movie but as a novel. And for once, actually it is kind of nice to have a 29-year-old heroine take the stage and not another angsty teen or incompetent Sophie Kinsella heroine. 


Sweethearts Unmet by Berta Ruck

It continually boggles my mind that Berta Ruck’s books aren’t better known. She wrote before, during, and after WW1 and her novels give stunning glimpses into the social outlook of women during that period, particularly within the context of war. When she writes about ‘our boys in khaki!’ she writes it in 1914 with no knowledge of whether England will win the war or not. She captures the desperation of war and a suddenly changed society and she does it from the front lines. 

Written in 1919, Sweethearts Unmet tells a sweet story about two sweethearts…who never meet. At least, not for the first 3/4ths of the book. The plot flips back and forth from ‘The Girl’s Story’ to ‘The Boy’s Story’ and so the reader gets a front row seat to how often they almost meet. They’re two adorable, sweet characters with old-fashion values and pure hearts. They’re perfect for one another. And they both manage to get engaged to perfectly wrong people. 

Spoiler alert: sweethearts eventually meet.

In fact, by the end it is almost too sickeningly sweet. Not only do the characters harp on ‘what if we hadn’t met?’ (i.e. sweethearts unmet) but the author has an entire chapter at the end devoted to ‘what shall happen to all the nice young people who don’t meet? We must find ways to bring soulmates together!’ 

It that sounds vaguely over the top, I agree. But it is so much better when set within the historical context. Berta Ruck is not just telling some sugary little love story and declaring that young men and women should socialize more. She’s recognizing the change the war has wrought on traditional courtships. 

Because pre-war: Boy sees Girl. Boy likes Girl. Boy has someone introduce them. Or, if no introduction can be found, has his family approach her family. In no way must Boy talk to Girl without an introduction. And for the Girl, not only would she not talk to Boy, but she would not give Boy the time of day if he did talk to her. A Nice Young Lady does not do such things.

But then came War.

And now Boy sees Girl. Boy likes Girl. But Boy’s family is dead. All Boy’s chums died fighting. Boy has no way to introduce himself. Girl sees Boy. Girl likes Boy. But when Boy tries to talk to her, Girl freezes up because a Nice Young Lady does not allow perfect strangers to talk to her. Even if she knows no one else in London. 

The two young people would be perfectly happy if properly introduced. But they no longer live in a world where the old rules work. So they are left at a standstill. (Hence sweethearts…unmet!) And hence Berta Ruck’s strong push for breaking some of the social constraints around ‘young people finding happiness.’ 

Not my favorite Berta Ruck but one I think I will return to as it combines both the interesting historical context with some strong, female side-characters. 


Silence For the Dead by Simone St. James

Silence For the Dead

The Great War just ended but for many the horror still remains. 21-year-old Kitty Weekes is on the run. Determined to get out of London, she forges credentials and presents herself as a nurse at Portis House, a “madhouse” for soldiers suffering from PTSD. But Portis House hides its own secrets. The previous owners mysteriously disappeared. An unknown stalks the corridors at night. And the men all suffer from the same terror…someone coming for them at night. Someone now coming for Kitty, too.

4 out of 5 stars

Silence For the Dead attempts two things. Separately, they succeed. Together, they fall short of full success. But surprisingly, not as short as I initially expected.

First, the book presents historical fiction with a psychological twist. The plot takes place post-WW1 in a “madhouse” for soldiers suffering from PTSD. Kitty experienced abuse as a child and suffers her own form of PTSD. It all feels very realistic and well-crafted. While the heroine might demonstrate a little too much ‘open-mindedness’ for true historicity, the modern mindset towards mental health does not really permeate these pages and that helps a lot with the setting. These men—and the people around them—view themselves as cowards for giving into their nightmares. As historical fiction I found I really enjoyed the setting and the balance the author strikes. 

Second, this is a ghost story. Think And Then There Were None but with ghosts. The characters all live in isolation with no chance of escape, even the staff. Something is coming and they are helpless to stop it. The mystery of the abandoned house-turned-hospital remains an open ended question until the climax. Very intense, very eerie, and very enjoyably put together. I am as a general rule skeptical of ghosts and “mad” characters who act without rhyme or reason. They make such terribly convenient excuses for irrational actions. But the author doesn’t give into the convenience; she does a good job laying the groundwork and setting up the climax. It really pushed this book up a star in my mind.

Separately, then, two good plots. The problem comes when you combine them. It is hard to take the soldiers’ PTSD seriously when ghosts stalk around causing trouble. But on the flip side, it is hard to genuinely enjoy the ghost story when the author so carefully presents actual, psychological issues. The fantasy disrupts the realism and the realism disrupts the fantasy. I never felt the full “punch” of either story line because the other one kept dancing in my peripheral vision, distracting from the actual emotions before me.

But it works in the end. Not, perhaps, as well as it could. But well enough that I do recommend this one if either of those genres catches your interest. It was an engrossing, fun story. I’ll definitely find more by this author.

(PG-13 for a fade to black scene.)