Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This is going to take a long time

The detective series A Touch of Frost was recommended for me on Netflix, so I put the first season in my queue and waited for it to arrive. I wasn't disappointed. The series follows the adventures of "Jack" Frost, a detective in the Denton police department. Frost is played by the actor David Jason, perhaps best known for his role as the perpetually scheming Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses. The Frost series begins with the terminal illness of Frost's wife. We learn throughout the series that he and his wife, who were childless, were long estranged. He's gotten into the habit of spending long hours on the job in order to avoid coming home. Unfortunately, this habit has caused him to give up everything in his life except his job. Later, when he makes some attempts to start a new romantic relationship, he finds that old habits are hard to break. The series definitely revolves around Frost, and in the first few seasons for some reason he has a new partner in every episode. This isn't really explained, other than vague insinuations that the younger police officers will learn a lot from being partnered with Frost. Frost himself, of course, always gets results, but he tends to be forgetful, temperamental and messy. Still, he is very likable and it is interesting to watch his personal life (what there is of it) develop.

On a side note, while I have been watching the series, my husband, from the other room, keeps commenting that he "can't stand" David Jason's voice. I don't notice anything strange or annoying about his voice, so I have no idea where the problem lies!

I was startled when I went on to Netflix and discovered that there have been 13 seasons (so far) in the Frost franchise. This is going to take a long time to get through! Apparently, this series could go on in perpetuity, but David Jason has said that he's getting too old to play the part and that there will be a final two-part episode in 2009.

Final Verdict for A Touch of Frost (what I've seen so far): Four Gherkins, for being an engaging British detective series

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

If you can't say something nice

The title and subject of this book made me anxious to read it. I knew it was written by an American who had been living in Britain for a while, and so I was anxious to read The Anglo Files by Sarah Lyall. I realize that when moving to another country there will inevitably be some culture shock. What I wasn't prepared for in this book was the constant theme running through it of how outdated/ridiculous/backward the British were in absolutely every aspect of modern day life. There are frequent laments along the lines of how "this would never be tolerated for a second in America" and how much superior in every way the U.S. is when compared to Britain. I don't doubt that this is true in some cases, but what puzzles me is why the author continues to live in such a clearly horrible place for a second longer. One would have thought she would have been on the first boat/plane/dirigible back across the Atlantic long ago.

The book is divided into chapters, each addressing a particular topic and how the British tend to deal miserably with it. Some examples: blatant sexism is tolerated in government; newspapers don't even try to publish the truth; everyone is drunk all the time; people care more for hedgehogs than children or the elderly; the state of dentistry is a disaster (with NHS dentists often just pulling out all the teeth in healthy patients so they won't have to deal with problems later); the service industry is full of surly, uncaring workers; washing machines are smaller, slower and more expensive than their American counterparts; things are stolen more often than not in the Royal Mail; the weather is terrible all the time; and people "enjoy an excuse for a grumble." Even national heroes can't measure up. American heroes tend to overcome adversity and survive, while British heroes die due to poor planning and "failure to pack the right gear." Every chapter is a rant against something in British society, and no opportunity is missed to point out how much better everything is in the U.S. The worst sin of all (from what I can gather) is that for some unexplained reason, the British do not rinse the suds off their dishes when they wash them. Horrors!

This book was a disappointment for me, simply because it came off as an extended whine. I'm sure the author felt better after writing it, but I certainly felt worse after reading it.

Final Verdict for The Anglo Files: Two Gherkins, for some interesting insights, but for overall being a non-stop whinge-fest

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Not as bad as I'd feared

I went to the sneak preview last night of the film Valkyrie, starring Tom Cruise. I am by no means a Tom Cruise fan and I definitely wouldn't have paid to see it, but it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. I have been reading ominous warnings about this film for ages on the gossip sites (the film was delayed numerous times, it got poor reviews from test screenings, etc.), so I wasn't expecting much. It turned out to be better than I had hoped, but I doubt it will do gangbusters at the box office. Whose bright idea was it to release a film about Hitler at Christmas-time????

The film is based on a true story (so they inform us at the beginning) and details one of the 15 or so attempts to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Tom Cruise portrays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg of the German army, who was wounded in Northern Africa. Now back in Germany, he joins a group that is plotting to use Hitler's own emergency contingency plan, Valkyrie, to seize power.

My main problem with the film was that it was so difficult to tell the characters apart. Helpfully, they put an eye patch on Tom Cruise and dressed him in a lighter colored uniform than everyone else, but most of the other characters were impossible to identify. Whose side where they on? Had we seen them before? Did they have a history with Cruise's character? It was impossible to tell. All of the actors fell into two categories: the younger, steely-looking, blond types, and the middle-aged, overweight, blustery types. They tried giving a few in the latter category funny-looking glasses to help to distinguish them, but it made no difference.

Cruise's performance, sadly, was terrible. He has two expressions, depending on what is called for a the moment: scowling indicates he's really serious this time, and smirking means he's trying to lighten the mood. That was the range of his acting style in this film. Also, I know it's supposedly based on a true story, but come on. If you are sending someone out with a disassembled bomb, with instructions on how to assemble and arm it, would you send the guy with one eye, one hand, and a total of only three fingers? Me, neither.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to the film was that it stars one of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy. He was nearly unrecognizable at first, with his trademark floppy blond hair slicked back (he also got the funny glasses treatment). He absolutely didn't disappoint in his role as General Friedrich Olbricht. He was twitchy, nervous, indecisive and high-strung. All the things we've come to know and love!

One weird thing is that the security for this screening was out of control. There were 3 people stationed at the entrance to the auditorium and they were searching people as they came in for cameras and "camera phones." They were awfully severe. I wanted to say, "Just relax. No one is THAT anxious to see it." I thought that was very odd. I go to several free screenings per month and I don't remember this level of security before. Someone has an awfully inflated perception of this film.

On another topic, London is once again featured in this month's issue of Fate magazine. In the article "London's Phantom Menagerie," author Neil Arnold details the long history of strange creatures that have been sighted skulking or flying around London over the centuries. Among the apparitions that have been seen over the years have been griffins, dragons, "peculiar hominids" (I've seen quite a few of those, myself) as well as phantom bears, cats, birds, dogs and "hellhounds." Quite interesting reading!
Final Verdict for Valkyrie: Two Gherkins, for being an interesting treatment of a historical incident, but with way too many characters to keep up with

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We had one of them, but the wheels fell off

I had high hopes for the new library-centric novel The Book Stops Here by Ian Sansom. In addition, my excitement only grew when it turned out to be nearly impossible to obtain the book using Interlibrary Loan. I figured it must be a great book if it was constantly checked out and in use.

This, it turns out, is the third in a series of mystery novels featuring the librarian Israel Armstrong and his grumpy co-worker, Ted. In this installment, Israel and Ted coax their aging and dilapidated bookmobile from their town of Tumdrum, in Northern Ireland, to the annual mobile library convention in London (organized by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals -- sounds much more impressive than the American Library Association, dunnit?). They are hoping to enter their bookmobile, Marilyn, in a contest to win the coveted "Concours D'Elégance" prize for the best looking van at the competition. Israel also has some unfinished business back in England, in the form of his girlfriend, Gloria.

Israel and Ted arrive in England and stay with Israel's mother. Immediately, he reverts to the role of child, and is belittled and ordered about by his mother. Ted and his mother also start up a flirtation which irritates Israel immensely. To make matters worse, Gloria is not returning any of his phone or text messages.

Even more alarming events occur, however, as Marilyn the van is stolen after only one night in England. There follows an amusing account of Israel and Ted attempting to track down the van and "steal it back" -- and make it to the bookmobile competition in time for the judging, too.

The book is an extremely quick and easy read (which still confuses me as to why it's always out at the libraries that own it), and in a refreshing change from most mystery novels, no one is killed. However, the writing style can be a bit annoying. Take this passage, for example: "When Israel and Ted arrived back at the site the following day the travellers had gone -- disappeared, vamoosed, packed up, beat a retreat and headed for the hills." Or this one: "Israel vomited continually and consistently for most of the journey, although it was dry vomiting after a while, obviously; retching, voiding, spewing, ructating; stomach turned up and turned overboard; and down, and up, and down again . . ." (there's more, but I think you get the picture). Most writers occasionally make use of a thesaurus, but they don't feel compelled to share every single synonym they find there, do they? The book also goes off on meandering tangents that don't add anything to the story, such as Israel's meeting with two bored former friends, a useless discussion with the travellers about their beliefs, and lengthy tours of three "state of the art" bookmobiles at the library convention.

The most annoying thing about the book to me as a librarian (and reader, for that matter), however, was a blatant mistake in Chapter 4. Israel, having moved from the cosmopolitan and exciting city of London to the out-back-of-beyond town of Tumdrum, has found more time to broaden his reading horizons. He goes on to elaborate for the reader the many authors and books he's recently discovered. Imagine my shock and dismay at this inexplicable sentence: "He'd even started reading Patricia Cornwell from A to Z, but they seemed to go downhill rapidly, and he'd lost interest around about D." Oh no he didn't!!! How in the world did this error get through the editing process? It doesn't take a librarian to know that the author of the alphabet mystery series is Sue Grafton, not Patricia Cornwell (although he was correct in the assertion that Cornwell's novels went downhill pretty rapidly after the first few).

That mistake and the general rambling nature of the story left me feeling unsatisfied. I'm sure there will be more books in the series, but I doubt I'll be reading them.

Final Verdict for The Book Stops Here: Two Gherkins, for some interesting library-related topics, but an overall rambling story

Monday, December 15, 2008

Mouse tales

On Saturday morning I went to a free screening of the new film The Tale of Despereaux. OK, so it's a kids' movie, but free is free. It also had a nice tie-in for anglophiles, as about 1/2 of the voice cast was British. Some of the actors included Tracey Ullman, Robbie Coltraine, Emma Watson and Charles Shaughnessy. The story took place in the city of Dor, and about half the inhabitants (both 2 and 4 footed) spoke with British accents and the other half spoke with American accents. I suppose the target audience of the film won't question the inconsistency!

The story concerns creatures that don't conform to the accepted roles that they are supposed to play. Roscuro the rat loves the sunshine while Despereaux the mouse refuses to cower and scurry. After a tragedy involving Roscuro and soup, the King of Dor bans all soup, rats and joy from his kingdom. His daughter, the Princess, is locked away in her tower longing for sunshine and happiness. It is up to the little mouse Despereaux (who is tiny even in mouse terms) to take on the scary rat underworld, the miserable king, and his own disapproving mouse society in order to put things right.

The movie is just adorable, and the computer graphics work is amazing. There are, of course, funny moments as well as touching moments. There are some scenes which might be scary for younger children, but none of the children in the theater where I saw the film seemed particularly upset.

The main objection I have with the film is that the dog lobby has infiltrated a children's film and made an anti-feline statement. Again. Why is it that basically any children's film made over the past 20 years has a cat as the villain? (Babe, anyone?) In this film, there are plenty of villains to go around, but the cat is the biggest and scariest of all. Naturally, there is a dog in the film also, but it is seen as basically cheerful and brainless. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but a much more positive portrayal than that of the evil, skulking cat. Honestly, have these movie makers ever lived with a cat? They can barely get up the energy to rouse themselves long enough to eat, let alone be cunning and evil enough to plot and scheme for the downfall of other creatures. Let's give cats a break Hollywood!
Final Verdict for The Tale of Despereaux: Three Gherkins, for being a beautifully rendered fairy tale about staying true to yourself

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Led astray once again

Browsing around the audio book shelves in the local library, a work by a new (to me) author, Katie Fforde, caught my eye. I quickly read the overview of the story on the back of the container for Stately Pursuits and it sounded promising: "look after a relative's stately home," "dilapidated house," "quirky, ever-present neighbors," "absurdities of every day life," and "wit and charm" were some of the phrases used to describe it. The story was also set in the English countryside, so it sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, somehow I missed the fact that this is a romance novel {shudder}. Now, I have read some decent romance novels in my time (I used to be quite taken with Kathleen Woodiwiss), but this one is just dreadful. It has the requisite brooding hero, but unfortunately he is given to such eye-rolling, cringe-inducing dialogue as, "I promised my Uncle Samuel that I wouldn't seduce you." The heroine, Hattie, is a sympathetic enough character, but as she is generally described as wearing "filthy" jeans and "grubby" t-shirts, it's a bit puzzling as to what is supposed to make her romance heroine material. I did persist throughout the whole book, hoping it would improve, but it was predictable, bland, and (despite the blurb on the back) not at all funny. Give this one a miss and pick up something by Sophie Kinsella or Marian Keyes instead. Now they can write "romantic comedy!"

In Entertainment Weekly's list of the top 20 films of the week, inexplicably they noted about the film Happy-Go-Lucky, "This quirky dramedy from British director Mike Leigh finally made its way onto the chart after seven weeks in theaters." I highlighted the "finally" because that makes it sound as if everyone is puzzled as to why such a masterpiece has struggled at the box office. Um, could it be because it's one of the worst, most pointless films ever made? We should be asking ourselves instead how the theaters showing it avoided riots in the streets. EW somehow gave this film a grade of A-. A relative of someone in the cast must have been the reviewer -- or else the reviewer didn't actually sit through the film. Those are the only possible explanations for an even lukewarm review, let alone a positive one.

Also in EW this week, Stephen King gives his Top 10 books of the year, and coming in at #3 is When Will There Be Good News? Well, I'm not sure if I would have listed it as one of the top books of the year, but it's nice to know that Uncle Stevie and I share similar tastes in leisure reading material.

Final Verdict for Stately Pursuits: One Gherkin, for some interesting plot ideas (such as opening a stately home to the public), but an overall weak story

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Merry Christmas, Check Republic

Yesterday I went to the local post office to mail some Christmas cards and gifts to friends overseas. All went well until the flummoxed clerk tried to find "Check Republic" in her computer. She punched buttons, looked at the envelope on the scale, looked back at the screen, pushed more buttons, and furrowed her brow murmuring, "Ch . . ." Finally she said, "It's just not here." I told her, "It's probably the last of the 'C' countries." She said, "No, I don't see it." She then turned quickly, disappeared into the back and was gone a loooooong time. Since I was doing this "quick errand" on my lunch break, I greatly appreciated her snappy attention. After a while, she came back and immediately began rummaging around her desk, muttering that she was looking for "the manual." I told her it was OK, I had a postage scale at home and I'd take care of it there. Unwilling to accept defeat, she came back and proceeded to punch more buttons on the computer screen. Finally, she exclaimed, "There it is! I just didn't go down far enough." Well, duh. You'd think the address clearly printed on the envelope which read, "Czech Republic" might have been a clue about how the country name was spelled. But apparently not. She also charged me nearly $9 to mail an envelope of slams (small booklets of questions which have made the rounds of pen-pals) to Sweden, which I think was waaaay too much, but since she was actually able to find Sweden in her computer, I didn't have the energy to protest.

And we hear that company after company is laying off presumably competent employees. It would be funny if it weren't so depressing . . .

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

You know this won't end well

If you've ever been tempted to exaggerate just a little on your resumé, you owe it to yourself to see the Swedish film Underbar och Älskad av Alla (Wonderful and Loved by Everyone). Bella is an actress who is receiving money from unemployment. When she's notified that her benefits are about to run out, she decides that drastic action is called for. She does a little work on her resumé (ahem) and sends it out to every casting director and agent in Sweden. In addition to being an actress, she also claims to be a champion fencer and an acrobat. By an amazing coincidence, Ingmar Bergman happens at that moment to be casting a new play. This version of Twelfth Night will involve (wait for it) acrobatics. The director is thrilled to find Bella, who has the unhoped for credentials -- an actress who is also a trained acrobat. She is told from the beginning that her part in the play will involve wall flips, no-hand cartwheels, and rolling down from the ceiling in a piece of fabric. Bella, thrilled to have an acting job at last, feels that she'll have no problem learning these moves in the four weeks or so before opening night.

She immediately contacts a coach, who charges her money she really doesn't have for acrobatic instruction. Her lessons all involve turning somersaults on the floor. When, after several expensive, somersault-filled lessons she expresses a desire to "move on", her coach quits in disgust. She continues to put off the play's trainer, who wants to see her acrobatic skills in action.

In the meantime, she starts an affair with a popular Danish actor. Predictably, Bella's exaggerations catch up to her, and the boyfriend turns out to be something of a creep. Still, Bella's good nature and positive attitude are undiminished in the end, and she's able to at least exact a hilarious revenge on the odious jerk.

This film was based on a popular book by Martina Haag, who plays the leading roll of Bella in the film. Also, the movie turned out to be something of a "who's who" of Swedish film culture, with appearances by Björn Kjellman, Marie Richardson and Thomas Hanzon. There's also an amusing daydream sequence in which Bella totally blows away the actor Mikael Persbrandt and the director Kjell Sundvall with the one line she's given in the latest Beck film. But the best part of all is that my favorite Swedish actor, Reine Brynolfsson, has a major part in the film. He's actually playing himself and has been cast as Sebastian in Twelfth Night. Bella is cast as mainly for her acrobatic skills, but also because she is going to play Viola (Sebastian's twin) and she supposedly has a resemblance to Reine Brynolfsson.

I first discovered Reine Brynolfsson while living in Sweden. A kindly elderly neighbor lady had invited us over to "fika" (drink coffee and eat cookies). I cannot stand coffee of any kind, but I tried to be polite and choked down a cup. When I had my head turned for a moment, she filled the cup up again ("påtår", or "top up"), and I had to drink that cup, too! For the next two days, I was incapacitated, what with the severe stomach pains and the vomiting and all. So, there I was, stretched out on the couch, clutching my midsection, when what gorgeous creature should appear before my eyes but Reine Brynolfsson in the Icelandic film Korpens Skugga (In the Shadow of the Raven). Since then, I've followed his career avidly -- from the drunken loser in Black Jack, to the Abba-loving priest in Änglagård (House of Angels), to his most recent turn as a spouse-abusing government minister in Kungamordet. Sadly, 20 years have now gone since Korpens Skugga, and the years are beginning to take their toll (as they do for all of us). Still, he'd look much better if he'd lose the "slicked back" hairstyle that he seems to favor these days.

Final Verdict for Underbar och Älskad av Alla: Three Gherkins, for being an amusing "girl power" film with many unexpected cameos by Sweden's acting elite

Monday, December 1, 2008

I'm still waiting for the good news

Kate Atkinson's now-familiar characters of Jackson Brodie and Louise Monroe make return appearances in When Will There Be Good News? In keeping with the themes of her earlier books, Atkinson's former police officer Brodie is still trying to rescue "lost girls." Both Brodie and Monroe have embarked on new relationships since the last book in the series, but they are still carrying torches for each other.


This book concerns the disappearance of Dr. Joanna Hunter. As a child, Joanna's mother and siblings were murdered but she survived by hiding in a cornfield. Her young "mother's helper", Reggie Chase, a 16-year-old girl with problems of her own, badgers the police and Brodie to look for the missing Dr. Hunter. At the same time, DCI Monroe is attempting to ward off another tragedy, this time in the form of an estranged husband intent on killing his family.

The story has many different story lines and characters, and all the loose ends are tidied up at the conclusion. Still, I found the story to be unsatisfying. The main problem I had with it was that many of the main characters (Jackson Brodie, Joanna Hunter, Reggie Chase) had terribly unexpected and unpleasant things happen to them, but they didn't seem to be bothered in the slightest. There was a lot of shrugging and "oh, well"-type reactions that didn't really ring true. Also, Louise Monroe comes across as a truly unpleasant person -- short-tempered, angry, hostile and unreliable -- yet every male she comes across seems to fall instantly in love with her. No matter how many promised meetings she misses, nor how many times she snaps at them, they just keep coming back for more. No one ever seems the least bit put off by her rude and self-centered behavior.

Those things made the book hard to like, even though the action was engrossing and entertaining. I'm sure there will be more opportunities to get to know Louise and Jackson, since there were plenty of hints given as to further interaction between them.

Final Verdict for When Will There Be Good News?: Two Gherkins, for suspenseful action but an ultimately unsatisfying story