Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Audio: FROM LONDON FAR audio book / THE MAN FROM THE SEA audio book - Both by Michael Innes

And now for something a little different. I normally do a visuals post for Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television and/or other Audio/Visuals meme over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, but today I'm touting audio.Two audio books to be precise. I don't know about you, but I love books on tape (as we used to call them once upon a time) - I love being read to. I used to listen to tapes and CDs in my car, but now I listen on my computer. If, like me, you love the sound of the English language, then audio books are the way to go. I do tend to concentrate on books set specifically in England or Scotland, but that's just my own quirk.

1) FROM LONDON FAR (1946) by Michael Innes - Narrated by Jonathan Keeble.

Keeble does a superb job of narrating this episode in outrageousness by Michael Innes, one of my favorite Golden Age (sort of) authors. While this is my first experience 'listening' to Innes, I have read many of his Inspector Appleby books, falling immediately under the Innes spell with my first one, THE SECRET VANGUARD (which, by the way, remains my very favorite).

At any rate, FROM LONDON FAR is not an Appleby book, but here's the thing, you don't miss the urbane police inspector at all.

The resourceful Richard Meredith, an elderly scholar musing on various bits of poetry as he enters a tobacco shop, is suddenly thrust into a rip-roaring adventure involving art theft on the grandest of scales. The setting is England and Scotland just after WWII.

This is very much an Alice in Wonderland sort of story in which the unlikeliest of heroes falls through a hole (more or less) in the floor and straight into a game of danger and pretense. Meredith, heretofore, a quiet academic type, must keep his wits about him lest he, at any point in the story, be immediately killed. He will shortly also have to contend with a young woman caught up in the same surreal out of control events.

Now some people may cavil at the sheer lunacy of the plot and in listening to the words, I can well see that perhaps, reading the volume of zips and zags as well as the volume of thoughts (both conjecture and literary musings with bits of art history thrown in) that catapult through Meredith's brain might make for a few difficulties. But listening to narrator Jonathan Keeble zip right along in his precise English (and later in the story in various accents including Scottish, American and Italian) is utterly spell-binding. I could have gone on listening for hours and hours more.

Yes, there's lots of extraneous meanderings - you have to expect that with Michael Innes, he's really like no other thriller writer - and for part of the story you have to wonder if you've wandered afar and into a different book, but once you get the hang of it, it's all perfectly wonderful and very, very English. Thanks to Jonathan Keeble's vocal agility and facility with language, the entire farcical enterprise begins to make some sort of insane sense. My personal conjecture: Listening rather then just ruminating in your own brain seems to help this sort of story along.

As events barrel forward, picking up speed, there's nothing for it but to hang on. The uproarious finish, when it comes, is so absurd, so ludicrous, so damned brilliant, that it somehow works as outlandish burlesque, if nothing else. Does Innes lose control of the story? Yeah, just a little bit, but believe me, I didn't mind in the slightest. I'm always willing to believe six impossible things before breakfast.

2) THE MAN FROM THE SEA (1955) by Michael Innes, narrated by Daniel Philpott

Philpott is equally superb in bringing another Innes boys own tale to vivid life and has no problem handling whatever accent is required. I especially loved his Scottish brogue.

The man from the sea in the title is the infamous John Day, a British atomic scientist who'd defected to the Russians years before. The seemingly repentent turncoat has washed up naked on a Scottish beach and into the life of twenty two year old university chap (and son of the local doctor) Richard Cranston, who until a few minutes ago was happily cavorting with Lady Blair, his married mistress. She's just run off to hide in the rocks as part of their nightly hide and seek routine.

Being one of the exceptional sort of intelligent young men (even if a bit callow) who populate Michael Innes' storybook world, Cranston is almost immediately drawn into a cloak and dagger escapade. Soon he is on the run (with a temporarily blinded Day in tow, as well as a couple of adventuresome friends - one an amazonian cousin from Australia newly arrived in Scotland for a family visit) from sinister Russian agents who will stop at nothing to get their hands on Day who, in turn, is bent on getting to London even if the odds against the little band seem insurmountable.

Why is Dick Cranston helping a traitor?

You'll have to listen and/or read to find out.

This is an Innes tale that begins briskly enough then picks up speed. (I had to take a couple of tension breaks while listening.) There is chicanery galore and hairbreadth escapes across the Scottish moors by ambulance, on foot and by hearse, it's the kind of reckless romantic stunt that any of us might want to get involved in while still young enough to - hopefully - live through it all.

Despite it's outlandishness, Innes does manage to make the whole thing heart-stoppingly plausible, at least, so far. I'm still listening to the story so haven't reached the ending. What happens next I cannot say.

I'm having a lovely time.

To read about Michael Innes and for a list of all the author's books, please use this link to Fantastic Fiction.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review: WHERE'D YOU GO BERNADETTE by Maria Semple

This was a surprise of a book. Didn't like the title, wasn't crazy about the cover. But I read a review somewhere (can't remember where, but if you know, then remind me and I'll add it to the post - hey, old lady memory - it is what it is) which told of the book's delights and I was intrigued. Luckily my library had a copy because I wouldn't have gone out of my way to search the book out otherwise. That's how much a bad cover affects me.

Doesn't it look like young adult fare? Or maybe a book-club book? That's the kind of vibe (are they still using that word?) I like least in a book. Why? Because in my own no doubt prejudiced view, it portends a certain style of writing intended to appeal to women.

But I was wrong.

This is the sort of thing I can see being turned into a fun, sly, intelligent film by fun, sly, intelligent folk. Not that the book would be all that easy to transcribe into screenplay being, as it is, written in bits and pieces: mostly e-mails, text messages, first person narration, blog post, letters and other assorted communications. Not entirely an epistolary novel, but almost. This gimmick adds a certain haphazardness to the story which I liked.

The first person narration is handled by fifteen year old prodigy, Bee, who knows something isn't quite right but idolizes her mother and when Bernadette goes missing and is given up for lost, Bee decides it's up to her to go find her mom.

But first a word or two about Bee's mother: Bernadette Fox is an almost forgotten icon in the annals of architecture. Once much admired and even worshiped, she is still talked about as a kind of 'guru' in certain architectural circles - the only woman in a field dominated by men. Twenty or so years ago, Bernadette was a rebel at the forefront of 'green' building design - she was green before anyone knew what being green was all about. Her Twenty Mile House project in L.A. retains the status of legend though the house no longer exists and the plans destroyed. But since that turbulent time, Bernadette has been unable to create anything despite being the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Grant.

The family subsequently moves north to Washington state so that Bee's brilliant father Elgin Branch can begin his dynamic rise at Microsoft. (Reading about some of MS's peculiar quirks and foibles had me shaking my head and, yes, laughing.)

The house the Branch family moves into in Seattle (a town which unsettles Bernadette to the point of psychosis) is nothing more or less that a dismal, rain dampened, swampy ex-school for girl delinquents. A large institutional building on a hill which Bernadette vows to transform into a livable family house just as soon as she gets over her mood swings, resentment, self-pity, agoraphobia and other assorted ills, and springs back to what she once was. But years after the move, the Seattle house is still in total disrepair, weeds and angry plants growing through the floors and walls and water seeping through the ceilings so much so that most of the place is unlivable.

Since Bernadette refuses to join in any of the Galer Street School (Bee's select school situated - democratically - next to a salmon packing plant) parent/student activities and sneers (in hilarious email diatribes) at the whole Seattle lifestyle relished by those Seattle bred and born (and don't get her started on Canada), she is disliked and dissed by the other parents whom Bernadette refers to as 'gnats'. Particularly paranoid is Bernadette's next door neighbor, perhaps not without reason.

In the meantime, driven by personal demons, Bernadette has made some very rash decisions - including outsourcing her day to day chores to an agency in India - which leads to all sorts of misunderstandings involving the FBI, the Russian Mob, blackberry plants run amok, a mudslide which takes out a neighbor's house, a psychiatric intervention gone awry, an ill-fated one night stand, and last but not least, the disappearance of Bernadette off a ship cruising the Antarctic.

Full of surprising plot twists and turns, WHERE'D YOU GO BERNADETTE is mostly a story of mother/daughter love, a troubled marriage, a befuddled but likable father at his wits' end, the resiliency of children, the rise and fall and aftermath of legend, the peculiarities of political correctness, the absurdities of life in the Emerald City and the oddities of day to day at Microsoft headquarters. (I do, however, love the idea of candy machines which produce candy without any coins having to be inserted. Well-played, Microsoft.)

If I were giving stars, which I don't, but if I were, I'd give this book 4 and half.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tuesdays's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Television: ABOVE SUSPICION starring Ciarin Hinds and Kelly Reilly

ABOVE SUSPICION is based on books by Lynda LaPlante who writes and is a producer on several of the shows. I will say this right off the bat: ABOVE SUSPICION is not a nice show. It's a very dark police procedural about unpleasant people doing extremely unpleasant things. Even the cops are hard to like although you do like them a smidgen better than the vile criminals who ply their odious trade in every episode. Who knew that England was such a hotbed of loathsome criminality?

Obviously the British cop system is all about politics and how to rise to the top by making less waves than the next guy. (Oh wait, that sounds familiar.) Of course catching the bad guys counts, but doing it as briskly and quietly as possible. At least, that's the impression I get - nobody likes bad press. Secrets are routinely swept away in order to keep things tidy.

I will say that the newspapers over there seem to screech louder than ours and a juicy crime screams loudest. 'If it bleeds, it leads,' that sort of thing. There's also not a lot of comfort to offer the victims of these assorted crimes.

The episodes I've watched (Netflix DVDs) reveal some pretty repellent crimes in pretty repellent detail. So keep that in mind. I don't, normally, go in for this sort of thing but I admit that there's something repulsively compelling about the show. Probably the cast. Not that they're repulsive. Not really.

Shaun Dingwall, Ciarin Hinds, Celyn Jones, Amanda Lawrence and Kelly Reilly

As is usual in most Brit shows, the entire cast is pretty top notch and most of them look viable as detectives and so forth. The villains are also extremely well cast, most especially Simon Williams (who is still a handsome devil) of Upstairs Downstairs fame as a rather dreadfully creepy bad guy.

You know my affection for Ciarin Hinds, the Irish actor whom I go into rhapsodies over every now and then. Well, he's the star here although Kelly Reilly is supposed to be. He plays DCI James Langton, an over-whelming type-A personality who comes onto a case short-tempered and larger than life, aggressively ready to stampede over everyone and anyone in the interests of catching the bad guy and advancing his career. He's the best thing in the show.

Kelly Reilly plays red-head DC Anna Travis, a trainee who must prove her mettle. She is beautiful (of course) and goes in for high heels even when she has to traipse through the mud (?!) or hit the rutted back of beyond farm roads where one can't help feeling uncomfortable for her poor feet. It is, I admit, distracting. She also appears to only have one suit of clothing. But I'm digressing.

DC Anna is one of those intuitive detectives who seems destined for great things if only she can stop making stupid mistakes like sleeping with a newspaper reporter who goes through her case notes (in her pocket book!!!) while Anna has a post-coital snooze. Needless to say, she wakes up to find secrets of the current case splashed all over the front page of the tabloids. Lucky to still have a job she's forced to apologize to everyone down at headquarters for her ridiculous stupidity.

And by the way can someone please comb this woman's hair? Anna has a habit of looking as if she just rolled out of bed, hair usually dangling in her face. She also needs to buy some boots. And a couple of more work suits wouldn't hurt.

In the meantime, the beautiful Anna (despite her mess of a hair-do and limited wardrobe) has caught the eye of DCI Langton, though he is currently having a secret thing with his boss, a woman more in tune with his age and personality. Langton, to his credit, makes no move on Anna. It's all very nebulous. But we're given to understand that beneath the surface, attraction is briskly simmering away. Not that much is done about it. It's one of those either/or things. Of course I haven't seen the last episodes in the series which, I understand was cancelled in 2012.

Everyone who works down at police headquarters is unhappy. Did I mention that? Well, that's hardly a surprise considering the job stress and the rotten crimes that fall to their division to solve. But funnily enough, you do get inured to the violence after the first couple of shocks. At least that's how it worked for me. Oh, and the language, too. The F-word is fairly flung around, so there's that to consider as well.

On the whole, I recommend the show with the obvious cautions mentioned above.Which just goes to show that I must be a real Ciarin Hinds fan-girl.

Since this is Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other forgotten (or overlooked) films, television or other audio/visuals, other bloggers are talking about today.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Happy Easter Wishes

Uncle Wiggly is a charming character created by Howard Garis who began writing about the clever rabbit in 1910. The stories were drawn by several illustrators, the most notable being Lansing Campbell. Other illustrators included George L. Carlson, Louis Wisa, Elmer Rache, Edward Bloomfield, Lang Campbell and Mary and Wallace Stover.

I am the proud owner of my very own Uncle Wiggly Ovaltine cup. Picked it up at a flea market many years ago and love it still. source of photo

Have a grand Easter and/or Passover everyone.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Six Books Recently Read


Thanks to Nan at Letters From Hill Farm for her introduction to Canon Sidney Chambers, the quietly intriguing 'hero' of Runcie's evocative tales. This was just the sort of thing I happened to be in the mood for. (In truth I am generally eager to read these sorts of gently told mysteries which are, really, lately, few and far between.)

Though some of the puzzles unraveled by the good Canon are violent in nature (you can't get more violent than murder), the stories are really about the man himself and how the good Canon goes about dividing his time as a soul-searching man of the cloth and a clue-searching detective. The time and place is 1950's Grantchester, Cambridgeshire (and occasionally London and even Germany). Cambridge University is just a stone's throw away and that ambiance, though occasionally one of quiet menace, is of a busy, sheltered university center with all its induced prejudices, contradictions and intrigue. The stoies are perfect for a late night comfortable read. In fact, I read both of the Sidney Chambers books over three nights, though I did pause to linger lest I go through them TOO quickly.


The second book in this new and very beguiling series featuring Canon Sidney Chambers, full time Vicar of his church and congregation and part time detective. With the help of his close friend Inspector Keating (with whom Sidney has a weekly pub date to play backgammon and drink a couple of pints), the good Canon is usually 'in' on the latest Cambridge mystery. Keating is only occasionally reluctant to use the Canon's keen mind and deductive abilities.

These books are a loving though clear-headed (and inventive) look back at times long gone. The atmosphere of a claustrophobic university town is perfectly captured by the author and his characterizations make for the sorts of people one would want to know and live side by side with and that's about as good a compliment - as a reader - I can make to a writer.

In this second book, there's spying and secrets and an unexpected incarceration in an East German jail - don't forget that Cambridge after the war was a hotbed of espionage recruitment. There's also a long term cricket match with all the cricket minutiae one could want - unfortunately I don't understand word one about cricket - but despite that, I enjoyed Sidney's enthusiasm for the game and didn't skim the chapter at all.

Both books are made up of six linked short stories each, with recurring characters and setting. Both books are a very special look back in time to a world getting a grip on itself after a shattering world war.


The exact opposite of the Sidney Chambers books in nature and grim deed, this darkly absorbing newish series (three books along) by David Pirie, another author I'd never heard of, tells the story of a young and impoverished Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle (before he took to the writing of the Holmes tales) and his mentor and teacher Dr. Joseph Bell of Edinburgh University.

The brilliant Joseph Bell, highly skilled at deductive reasoning, is said to have been the model for Sherlock Holmes and indeed, the second book refers to 'the strange beginnings of Sherlock Holmes' as a sub-title, in case the reader wasn't aware. I looked askance at these stories since I am not completely fond of Holmes pastiches (unless they are exceedingly well done) but since these books don't technically feature Holmes but his creator, I took the plunge.

Doyle, just out of university, opens his first medical practice with the questionable help of an old university chum and fellow doctor. One of his patients is an enigmatic young woman named Heather Grace. She is an orphan whose parents were brutally murdered years before and who has been lately bothered by eye trouble, not to mention that she thinks she's being followed as she cycles her way daily along a lonely country road near her home. Of course here we get a glimpse of the Holmes story which Doyle will later write and title, The Solitary Cyclist.

There are other hints woven throughout both books which foretell later Holmes tales, hints especially intriguing to those of us familiar with the Holmes canon. Since this is fiction the author is free to invent various sorts of crimes and murderous villains for the real-life Bell and Doyle to encounter.

Behind these dark doings, there are two underlying tragedies: first, the continued incarceration in a mad house of Arthur Conan Doyle's uncontrollably alcoholic father and second, the memory of Doyle's lost love - a young woman brutally murdered (I think in the second book, THE NIGHT CALLS, which I haven't read yet simply because my library doesn't have it) by the vicious sociopath Thomas Neill Cream (1850 - 1892). Cream was a real person, a serial killer who used poisons as his weapon of choice.

The settings are Edinburgh and Victorian England, but far removed from the niceties of country manor living and afternoon tea. These are grim and often ghastly tales which kept me reading (a bit uneasily) late into the night.

THE DARK WATER by David Pirie

Here we meet the odious Thomas Neill Cream, mass murderer and nemesis of young doctor Doyle. In fact, the book begins with Doyle in harrowing captivity. How he escapes and makes for his mentor Dr. Bell who at first has a hard time believing Doyle's outlandish story, makes for a grim and daunting sequence in and of itself. But there will be more.

Soon Doyle and the brilliant Bell begin their own personal man hunt for a merciless killer who has apparently vanished yet again. Evidence against Cream is non-existent hence their reluctance to involve the actual police. Doyle and Bell are on their own. (More or less.) Doyle very much a Watson to Bell's Holmes.

The setting in the latter half of the book is one of the most anguished areas of Great Britain: Dunwich in the English county of Suffolk. Once a thriving seaport with many hundreds of residents, it was by Doyle's time a wretched, secluded and lonely place with very few actual inhabitants. Sunk into the sea by storms over centuries, and riddled with tales of witches, runes and dark doings, this seems the perfect place to hunt down an unspeakable villain.

THE INVISIBLE CODE by Christopher Fowler

If you're not familiar with this amazing series, then drop everything and make yourself familiar as quickly as you possibly can. I know I tend to overuse the word 'brilliant' but really I can't think of another word to describe this incredibly rich and engaging series. It is so different, so uniquely Christopher Fowler, so rapturous in its love of the minutiae of history (London and its environs) that I can't liken it to anything else being written today.

THE INVISIBLE CODE is the tenth in the series featuring and unlikely pair of policemen: the extraordinarily cranky, sartorially challenged, octogenarian detective Arthur Bryant and his cohort, the slightly younger, cleaner and more sartorially elegant John May. Both are members of London's Peculiar Crimes Unit which is exactly what its name implies. Peculiar and eccentric go hand in hand in this series known for outlandish, inventive and violent criminal happenings.

This is a series that probably benefits from being read from the beginning, although not necessarily. It's all up to you. Though the first book in the series, FULL DARK HOUSE, is a total WOW! And you shouldn't miss it.

The setting is modern day England, but the story telling and ambience seem of another time. I read and often forget it's the London of today. That's what I love most about these stories. Oh, and the characters too, of course. When I'm not smiling or laughing out loud, I'm recoiling from the ghastly doings that some of Fowler's villains get up to. It's an often disconcerting combo of emotions, but damn if Fowler doesn't make it all work.

This time out a young woman alone in a church literally drops dead. No visible signs of foul play.

Then - Bryant and May's arch enemy, their saturnine boss Oscar Kasavian, (a man who has the power and indeed has threatened to disband the PCU and force the retirement of its two nominal heads) asks for their help. His wife has been acting oddly. 

(This tale by the way features two of the most sinister children it has ever been my misfortune to meet.)

Oh, and Crippen the office cat who has heretofore been assumed to be a male, is pregnant.


Another delightful and 'world unto its own' mystery from the prolific imagination of Spencer Quinn. Hard to explain this series without giving the impression that it's just another 'cute' gimmick. Believe me it's not. Here's the thing: the series is told from the point of view of a dog named Chet. But don't worry too much about it, jump right in. You'll get it. Don't be misled. This is as well-written a series as you will ever read. There is nothing 'cute' about it.

Chet's partner is Bernie Little (the smartest human in the room), soulful private eye in the Raymond Chandler mode. Sort of.

Somehow, the author has learned to speak the language of dogs (as we imagine their interior lives to be) and makes the whole thing perfectly plausible and occasionally hilarious. There is also the underlying warmth of Chet's touching all encompassing, all forgiving love for his human, Bernie.

Normally set in the 'wilds' of Arizona where Bernie and Chet spend most of their time rousting out unfaithful hubbies and/or wives and other assorted miscreants, this time the duo have a long distance job. They're headed to the bayous of Louisiana on the trail of a missing nephew, the only brainy member of a lamentably lack-witted family. In fact, Bernie has been hired by a member of that family, a guy he and Chet sent to prison.

There is a sequence in this book where Chet is separated from Bernie, caught up in a net by the bad guys and tossed into a river which is the domain of a huge alligator - hard to read those few pages which deal with Chet's desperate struggle to survive. Absolutely brilliant. There, I've used that word again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980) starring Kirk Douglas, James Farentino, Katherine Ross and Martin Sheen

This is a film that is best seen up on the big screen so there's that to consider. It's also one of those films that could and should have been much better since the original premise was so fantastically inventive: What if a modern day (well, let's say modern day 1979) aircraft carrier with full compliment of planes and bombs and whatnot, was suddenly scooped up into some sort of time vortex tunnel (kind of like a sideways tornado complete with noisy special effects) and then spat out the back end into 1941? Specifically, December 8th, 1941 - the day before the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The possibilities are endless.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980) is a film directed by Don Taylor and written by seven writers at least according to the imdb page and as we all know, that many hands on a script rarely heralds anything brilliant. The cast includes many actual U.S. Nimitz crew members and Kirk Douglas who is kind of wasted in an uninspired part as Matthew Yelland the bewildered captain of the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Nimitz. We also have James Farentino as Commander Richard Owens, Martin Sheen as Warren Lasky a Department of Defense trouble shooter who just happens to be on board, Ron O'Neal as Commander Dan Thurman and Katherine Ross as Laurel Scott assistant to Senator Samuel Chapman (Charles Durning). None of these competent actors really have much to do except react in various stages of befuddlement to the on-going on board crisis.

Ron O'Neal, Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen

The Senator and his aid (and her dog) do not come aboard the Nimitz until 1941when their little beauty of a wooden yacht (mint condition) is blown out of the water by two Japanese Zeros on a reconnaissance mission. They are air lifted to safety by a Navy helicopter from the Nimitz. But not before an exciting air display by two 'modern day' jets buzzing around the Japanese planes and finally, annoyed, shooting them out of the air.

But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself as usual.

Let's back up a bit. First there's the intro of the ship with a rather long opening credits sequence to the accompaniment of stirring music by John Scott. Afterwards there's the intro of the actors and before too much longer we're out on the high seas looking for adventure.

In between we're treated to scenes of thrilling flights and views of the wonderful job done by those charged with making sure planes land and take-off safely. There are few things as exhilarating as watching planes take off from an aircraft carrier - at least for me. This is my favorite part of the movie actually. I love all that military hullabaloo. Like most women (or at least women like me) I'm fascinated by the colorful (but orderly) display of military brawn, the nuts and bolts of an alien world - the rugged maleness of it. It's like viewing the workings of a secret club. Yeah, I know that now there are probably women serving on board these sorts of ships but this was then.

At first everyone assumes the on-coming vortex is just some violent storm unexpectedly headed their way though the on board weather equipment says all should be sunny and clear. Uh oh.

Long story short, as the aircraft carrier and crew find themselves back in 1941, they're called upon to pick up a couple of survivors of a Japanese air attack: a Senator and his aid (and her dog). The captain tries to keep these unexpected passengers from interacting with the crew or seeing the 'modern' equipment, but to no avail. Things go from bad to worse as no good deed goes unpunished: a very confused Japanese pilot found floating in the water clinging to wreckage - a survivor of the original attack on the woody yacht - is brought on board. Uh oh.

Once the captain and crew realize - finally - that they really, REALLY are back in 1941, the captain is, understandably, bent on attacking the planes and ships headed for Pearl Harbor even if he more or less understands the ramifications. His argument is this: He works for the U.S. Navy and he and his ship are charged with protecting the U.S. against aggression no matter what year it is. Makes sense to me.

But I don't have to tell you about time travel paradoxes and all that, we've read enough books featuring the 'what if you do or don't do this and that does or doesn't happen?'. We've watched enough Star Trek episodes.

In the end the movie cops out. Things are left undone (maybe for the best), questions are left unanswered and we get, instead, a quirky little smiley-face ending featuring James Farentino, Katherine Ross, Martin Sheen and Charlie the 40 year old dog.

So why am I bothering to talk about this movie if I'm so lukewarm about it? Well, I think it's because of what might have been - it's the sort of 'high concept' story that makes you think about possibilites. I keep imagining what better writing, a better cast and maybe Spielberg at the helm would have done with it. Plus let's not forget, there are those fabulous flying sequences.

And by the way, what is it about movies from the 70's and 80's? Everything always looks so cheesy. I lived through that time - it didn't seem so tacky back then.

Well, it's Tuesday and that means checking in with Todd Mason at his blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other films, television and/or other audio-visuals, other bloggers are talking about today. We're a stellar bunch.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review: THE PIGEON PIE MYSTERY by Julia Stuart

Love the design by John Fontana and cover art by Alison Jay.

I zipped through this engaging historical mystery, one of those books that you take a chance on because of the enticing cover-art and the warmth of a few online reviews. I'd never read anything by Jill Stuart before.

Though I did still take a look at the first page on amazon just to see whether or not the writing made me wince. I'm not really happy with a lot of what passes for 'cozy' these days: too mechanized, too forced, too precious - know what I mean?

Anyway, Jill Stuart is none of these things. Thank goodness.

THE PIGEON PIE MYSTERY by Julia Stuart takes place in Victorian England, in a setting I was not at all familiar with: the vast palace grounds of Hampton Court where the Queen (at her discretion) can offer what is termed 'grace and favor' homes to impoverished gentle-ladies, widows and the like. I'd never heard of this before. Needless to say, it turns out to be the perfect setting for a murder mystery.

Faced with no other choice but to accept the Queen's largess is the newly penniless Princess Alexandrina (nick-named Mink) of Prindur, who, upon the (very) scandalous death of her father, the Majarajah, finds herself not only grief-stricken but destitute and out on her ear, forced to sell her home and worldly goods to pay off her father's mountain of debts. Never one used to economizing, it's a brand new world for the beautiful Princess (born in India, but raised in England), who, nevertheless, is determined to make a life for herself. So she and her devoted but oddly agitated servant, the large-footed Pooki (who spots ghosts and goblins in every shadow of their new abode) reluctantly move into a dark and uncomfortable residence rumored to be haunted.

I know, I know, it all sounds too precious and cute, but believe me it isn't. Julia Stuart is clever and talented, she knows how to handle the permutations of this sort of tale, never once straying into the wasteland of cute for cute's sake. 

Being the object of choice gossip doesn't bother the Princess in the slightest and soon she is befriended (out of curiosity more than anything else) by three eccentric elderly widows who take it upon themselves to spread the latest on dits and to warn the Princess against the various pitfalls of 'grace and favor' living. Speaking of 'pitfalls', they will soon witness a death, that of the loathsome and very married Lothario, Major-General George Bagshot - he of the roving eyes and hands.

Unfortunately, the Major-General dies after eating copious amounts of Pooki's specialty: pigeon pie. So when suspicion immediately centers on her servant, it's up to Mink to save not only the only person left over from her old life of royal luxury, but the only person left who still cares about the Princess at all. Speed is of the essence since the Queen is in favor of a quick and tidy outcome. One can't have servants poisoning residents after all.

The denouement, by the way, is a surprise, both for the culprit and the murder method. Not so much the motive.

The real enchantment of this tale lies in Julia Stuart's creation of a colorfully insular world filled with an odd assortment of quirky characters. Among them: the Honorable Dowager Lady Montfort Bebb, the Lady Beatrice Fisher, the Countess of Bessington, William Sheepshanks, the Keeper of the Maze, Mr. Blood the undertaker, Inspector Guppy, the local arm of the law, Thomas Trout, the Keeper of the Great Vine, the Organ Grinder paid by the public to keep quiet, Albert, the Majarahah's monkey resplendent in a red velvet suit, Victoria the hedgehog (brought in to make a feast of the thousands of black beetles which crawl about the Princess's residence - ugh!) and so on and so forth.

It's a delightful, if slightly off-beat world of misfits and eccentrics, among them my favorite character in the book: the hapless Doctor Henderson, bicycling enthusiast and love-struck physician given to bad hair days. He is smitten by the Princess and bent on impressing her if only he could.

It's the quietly awkward love story that wins the day, at least as far as I'm concerned. I was struck with charm and left hoping for a second book featuring these same endearing characters.

Even if you're not a fan of 'cozy', this book will win you over.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film/Television: ME AND MRS. JONES (2002) Starring Robson Green and Caroline Goodall

This is a Masterpiece Theater 'film' from 2002 directed by Catherine Morshead, written by Caleb Ranson and hosted by Russell Baker who immediately informs us that ME AND MRS. JONES is nothing less (or more) than a 'fairy tale', going on to explain why. (In case we couldn't figure it out for ourselves.) Nothing wrong with fairy tales I always say. Especially one as delicious as this one. The Brits are so good at this sort of light-hearted fare. And as always, the casting is impeccable.

I'm a fan of the actor Robson Green - he of the curiously saggy-sexy face, flat voice and direct approach, who nonetheless makes a woman sigh in anticipation. At least he does me.

And he does the Prime Minister, Laura Bowden (Caroline Goodall who manages to link that fine line between vulnerable woman and aggressive world leader) when first she sets eyes on him at a government function/tea party at Number 10 Downing. Of course she's married and has two children as well as being the P.M. caught up in a fierce election. But she's also young enough to feel the stirrings of inconvenient lust.

Oddly enough, in reality, Green is the host of some sort of Extreme Fishing (?) Show in England, while at the same time pursuing his day job of sexy, hard-boiled actor. Go figure.

Anyway, here, Robson Green plays reporter (and would-be novelist) Liam Marple otherwise known as Mrs. Jones (a kind of Page Six gossip chronicler) always on the look-out for the next juicy headline. Since it happens to be six weeks before another party election and the current P.M. Laura Bowden's chances look 'iffy', Liam is assigned (by his boss who also happens to be his ex-live-in girlfriend or maybe his ex-wife) to rake up some dirt on the P.M. Though politics are not his usual beat, Liam relishes the idea of a front page byline and takes on the assignment.

Cunning and intuitive, Liam immediately gets himself invited to a 'fete' at Number 10 Downing Street thanks to a malleable friend, Ivan McDermott (the oh-so-wonderful and dependable Michael Maloney) who happens to be a party fund-raiser.

A reluctant Michael Maloney and Robson Green conniving.

Once inside the P.M.'s offices, Liam promptly plants a tape recorder in a conference room. (Where on earth is the vaunted British security one might ask - out to lunch, one might answer. But don't forget this is a fairy tale.) He then makes a show of 'blending' in with the rest of the guests, pretending to be just another money man.

In the meantime, there's tea and dancing on the terrace and wouldn't you know it - the P.M. is a bit restless and in the mood to dance so that when Liam seizes his chance, she is intrigued enough to say yes. And by the end of the dance, you can tell that some serious sizzle has been set in motion by the intent expressions on the P.M. and the reporter. So much so that everyone around them is wondering who Liam is and what the heck is the P.M. doing dancing with him. Not the least of which is her bemused hubby (Philip Quast) who we later learn has his own personal agenda which includes spending a heck of a lot of time working late at the office. Uh-oh.

This is the sort of story in which London at night looks softly romantic (there's even a ride on that big Milennium Ferris Wheel) and everything works out as expected (more or less), the rocky but politically accommodating marriage of the P.M. and her hubby is explained - not especially dense hints are dropped along the way - and true love is allowed to triumph. In the end even the adorably hapless Ivan gets a chance at love, as he dances with Max (Aisling O'Sullivan), the P.M.'s very tall (but sternly attractive) female bodyguard.

Needless to say, the P.M. wins her election, given a chance by the electorate to prove herself despite family scandal published by the new Mrs. Jones reporter (a sleazy, sweaty, beefy guy with less scruples than the love-stricken Liam.) And last but not least, Liam writes a best-seller.

A very nice way to spend a couple of hours. I love a good romance.

Since this is Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other sorts of films and/or television and/or audio/visuals, other bloggers are talking about today. We're an esoterically inclined bunch.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: NOBODY WORE BLACK aka DEATH OF A FELLOW TRAVELER by Delano Ames

Cover art by Robert Stanley. This is the copy I have. I was lucky enough to find it though not as cheaply as I might have liked. But after all, it was Delano Ames and who knows when I might ever come across it again. (Or so I told myself.)


Yes, ladies and gents, we're touting the one, the only, Delano Ames for the umpteenth time! Step lively, step closer, you don't want to miss any details.

NOBODY WORE BLACK aka DEATH OF A FELLOW TRAVELER (I prefer the second title) by Delano Ames is yet another mystery delight featuring Dagobert Brown, a keenly intellectual chap who still hasn't found a decent job suitable to his talents (not that he's looked very hard) and his very patient and loving wife, Jane. The book begins as usual with husband encouraging wife to write yet another 'thriller' (she's got two under her belt) in an effort to fund the family exchequer.

Dagobert points out that novel writing is a domestic industry and can be done in the home. He will mend his own socks and queue up for Grippeminaud's [their cat] fish on the way to the British Museum where he is doing research - on Mayan Civilization, I believe....

"What we want" he says "is somebody to get killed. We could easily spare some of your friends."

This is true, of course, but hardly to the point. "But I don't like murders!" I say, returning to the Autumn issue of Vogue.

As usual, a trip is the only thing which will apparently remedy their financial woes. (Don't ask.) Anyway, soon the happy couple is off to Cornwall.

That is the main attraction of this particular book by the way: the setting. I love just about anything set in windswept Cornwall. Plus the delicious and unexpected episode halfway through the mystery - oh yes, mystery follows the Browns wherever they go - there's the most luscious afternoon tea that it has ever been my privilege to read about. I could easily read those particular paragraphs over and over. One day I must try and duplicate the meal that a very hungry Jane Brown indulges in. I love when characters in a book actually pause to eat a meal. Happens so infrequently, especially in mysteries and never in thrillers. (Have you ever noticed that?) Don't you sometimes want to shout at the hero STOP AND EAT A MEAL FOR GOODNESS' SAKE! I know I do.

The fact that the particular meal takes place at a run down farm with a slatternly hostess dressed in slovenly clothing makes the excellence of the tea that much more fascinating. No explanation is given. It remains a culinary mystery for all time. The food is so good that Jane is hardly inclined to decipher the mumblings of her hostess which have something to do with the mystery at hand and which, really she should have paid more attention to.

But as usual I'm getting ahead of myself.

A rather unlikable fellow traveler has fallen off a cliff and remains unmourned by all and sundry. Was the fall an accident? A suicide? Murder most foul? What do you think?

Questions that plague: Why is the victim's sister so oddly nervous? Why is her devoted hubby so calm? Come to think of it, explain this marriage please. And oh by the way, why is that beautiful young actress (travelling with her director and filming a few scenes for her latest movie along the way) so obviously unsettled? Why is the voluptuous proprietor of the pub so skittish? Why is her lout of a boyfriend (a local farmer) so jealous? Why is his frowzy mother so talkative? And what about those two obstreperous harlequin Great Danes?

This time out Dagobert faces a definite moral quandary and just when he thinks he's found the way out, turns out, he hasn't.

Another wonderful entry in this charming series which should, I say again, be much, MUCH better known and appreciated.

Since it's Friday, don't forget to check out the other Forgotten (or Overlooked) books list at Patti's blog Pattinase

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked (or Forgotten) Television: ENDEAVOUR starring Shaun Evans and Roger Allam

I am in love with Roger Allam so I likely can't be sensible about this. But bear with me.

Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and Jack Laskey.


I'm liking it even better than the original Morse and that's saying a lot. I love the Oxford milieu and the gorgeous music (Barrington Pheloung). As always the setting is dazzling. The camera shots of the Oxford spires and domes, the light, make me weak in the knees. I'm a big opera fan so I love that aspect. I love the burgeoning relationship between Morse, DI Fred Thursday (Roger Allam) and PC Jim Strange (Sean Rigby). What wonderful casting.

I've seen the 2012 pilot and recommend it highly. Just tripped over the four 2013 episodes available on Netflix Streaming and hit the jackpot. I'm a little confused about the four other episodes that are supposed to be out there. But I'm waiting patiently until all is made clear.

I've only watched two (of 2013) so far and I'm not waiting any longer to recommend this.

The second episode titled, FUGUE, especially. This one ties in Morse's knowledge of opera with murders that appear to be the work of a brutal serial killer who is taunting Morse. The casting of Shaun Evans as the young Morse, a complex character just fitting into his eccentricities, establishing his rep as a loner, an odd duck who needs careful handling, is perfection.

Here in these early episodes Morse is derided by his fellow workers, especially the new and rather odious chief superintendent (played superbly by Anton Lesser) who sneers at Morse's oddball gumption and his interest in opera. One assumes that his fellow cops resent the obvious fact that Morse is heads above them all when it comes to unraveling clues and seeing things the others routinely miss. They prefer to see him as a misfit. Men are not above indulging in pettifoggery - it really is tiresome. But there we are.

The fact that Morse just has no patience for minds less than his own is obvious. It's that Sherlock Holmes syndrome.

I leave it up to Morse to decipher the baffling (and I MEAN baffling) clues scattered throughout these episodes with me occasionally saying 'huh?' out loud and wondering what did I miss. But that's okay, part of the enjoyment.

And last but not least, I did mention that I am smitten - my heart belongs to Roger Allam. Well, it does. I love him in the part of DI Fred Thursday, Morse's mentor in the force who spends a lot of his time softening the young detective's sharp edges. He knows that Morse is capable of great things. If only the higher ups would allow it (but that's not the way police hierarchy works - is it?) and if only Morse were not his own worst enemy.

I love that they show Fred Thursday's gentle family life in the second episode. I love the sweet looks he shares with his wife. SO adorable. And yet he's a hard cop, make no mistake. But there's something about this character that just me makes me swoony. I guess I'm a sucker for gruff on the outside, soft and mushy on the inside. Plus I like his hat.

Since this is Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other television, movies or audio/visuals other bloggers are talking about today. Todd has all the listings. We're a lovely, free-ranging bunch.