It's been a busy month, though a lot of what I got through were recommendations from my work colleagues. And it's not that I didn't enjoy what they suggested, but my own personal To Be Read pile certainly isn't getting any smaller.
And there's absolutely no singular theme to this month's reading/watching log: a fairy tale picture book, a graphic sci-fi space opera, a London-based crime novel, a psychological thriller, a bunch of murders set in 1920s Sydney, a couple of superheroes...
Speaking of which, these two Marvel superheroes sit on opposite ends of audience response: one was lauded and the other heavily criticized. I'm naturally talking about Black Panther and Iron Fist, one of which left me feeling pumped, and the other... well, at least I can watch The Defenders now.
The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivien French
If I could disappear into the illustrations of Angela Barrett, I would. There's such a dreamy, ornate quality to them, and she does wonderful things with perspective and spatial relationships. In a fairy tale that's set in a quasi-imaginary Venice, she takes every opportunity to depict sunny courtyards, shimmering canals, wooded isles, and rose-covered brick towers. I could stare at any of these pictures for hours on end.
The story itself elevates itself above its clichés by being as sincere and sweet as possible. Two ruling monarchs realize they have to organize a husband for their daughter, and so put out word that she'll marry whoever can bring them the most wonderful thing in the world. But while they're busy, the princess begins to spend time with a young messenger boy, who has his own idea of what constitutes the most wonderful thing in the world.
Saga: Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
My first glimpse of this comic book series was one that you've probably seen too: a large turquoise hairless cat. More than anything else, the Lying Cat seems to be the iconic image of Saga, and mention of it popped up all over the internet. Having been encouraged to track down a graphic novel to read for an upcoming project at work, I knew what to choose...
Saga can best be described as a blend of Star Wars scope and Joss Whedon characterization. In a galaxy at war, a young couple from opposite sides of the conflict fall in love and attempt to reach safety with their newborn daughter, knowing that all manner of hired assassins are after them.
A rather straightforward plot has a wealth of imaginative force surrounding it: this is a world that includes rocketship trees, television-headed robots, pink-tinted ghosts, and (as mentioned) at least one large turquoise hairless cat who can tell when people are lying.
At times it goes a little too far in its depiction of sex and gore, to the point where you suspect such things are included just to be shocking and edgy (reminding me of Torchwood in that respect). The story is at its best when it's focused on the human side of things: Alana and Marko looking after each other and their daughter, and the layers that are gradually revealed beneath the ruthless veneers of the assassins chasing them.
I was suitably intrigued, so I've got volume two on order at the library.
Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
Rounding off what is (so far) the Cormoran Strike trilogy is Career of Evil, which shakes things up a bit when Robin is sent a package that contains a woman's severed leg. Naturally she's rattled, but Strike even more so. As it happens, he knows no less than four men who could want to send him such a grisly gift, and the bulk of the novel involves our two private detectives trying to track down suspects while juggling their increasingly complex personal lives.
This was probably my least-favourite of the books due to the subject matter, though at the same time I raced through it the fastest. More a thriller than a murder mystery, I couldn't help but wonder if perhaps Rowling had a bit of an axe to grind concerning readers who woobified the likes of Snape and Draco during the height of the Harry Potter craze, as there's a very pointed commentary here about women who allow predators into their lives because they find bad boys to be super-hot.
As it happens, Strike and Robin do nothing for me as a ship (Rowling was never much good at romance, was she?) and so it's frustrating to watch them dance around each other, especially when a third party is involved. As it happens, Robin's fiancé is turns rather odious in this instalment, which only makes the endgame even more predictable.
The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
I have an odd relationship with Robin McKinley's work. Basically, I know that she's a good writer, and I appreciate her careful prose and turns of phrase. She's definitely imaginative and original. But I've never been able to emotionally connect with any of her stories or characters, no matter how much I might want to.
She's a bit like Ursula le Guin in that respect, though I did enjoy The Hero and the Crown. So it follows that I would enjoy its sequel, right? And I guess I did...?
Set several generations after the prior book (which – apart from the appearance of one immortal character and frequent mentions of another – has no other connection to its predecessor) the story involves an orphaned young woman who goes to live with her older brother in the foreign country of Damar.
Although the fantasy genre makes it easy to assume everything is set in the Middle Ages, this takes place in an alternative early 19th century, involving two sects of people that can be roughly interpreted as white colonizers and native desert nomads. Whether you see traces of the American Wild West or the British Raj will probably depend on the reader.
Harry quickly grows to love the desert, though she's half-frightened, half-intrigued by rumours of Corlath, the Hillfolk king. There are whispers of discontent and danger, but things don't become clear until the two meet face-to-face. There are a lot of standard fantasy tropes here: the chosen one, a destiny that's marked by a person's bloodline, love growing between our heroine and her kidnapper (with the inevitable dash of Stockholm Syndrome) but there's enough interesting world-building and lovely prose to keep me page-turning. And I give credit to any fantasy novel that wraps up its tale in a single volume.
The Sisters by Claire Douglas
This was a second-hand book lent to me by a co-worker, and which can best be described as ... let's go with "suspense chick-lit." I realize that the term chick-lit has become inherently sexist, suggesting lightness and frivolity, but that pretty much captures general tone and content of The Sisters, even when it starts delving into some pretty dark stuff.
Abi is haunted by the death of her twin sister Lucy, believing that she is responsible for her death in a car accident. Leaving her old life behind she moves to Bath and takes on freelance work, only to meet twin siblings Beatrice and Ben and instantly hit it off with them. Before long she's moved into their beautiful home – which is where things start to go wrong. Beatrice is jealous of the attraction between Ben and Abi, and soon Abi begins to find strange and disturbing messages around the house: a dead bird in her bed, missing antidepressants, flowers sent from her dead twin.
It's a strong enough premise, but dragged down a little by the rudimentary prose that's told predominately in Abi's first-person narrative (lots of "I felt..." and "I thought...). And the dialogue – yeesh. People sound more like robots than fully-functioning adult humans.
But the main problem is that both Abi and Beatrice are both so highly strung, so emotionally demanding, so paranoid and self-absorbed and mercurial that any sympathy the reader might have for their traumatic backstories is quickly wiped away. (And on learning the reasons behind the accident that took Lucy's life, it becomes obvious that Abi has always been irritatingly overdramatic).
The twist is pretty obvious, and reminded me of Big Little Lies without any of the character nuance. As a beach read, you could do worse than this, but I dread the day someone thinks it's a good idea to adapt the story to television.
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes by David Grann
Another recommendation from a work colleague. This is a collection of twelve journalistic essays (some of which I believe were published in The New Yorker) that have "obsession" as a very tenuous theme. Whether it's a thirty-year old con-artist who impersonates teenagers or a New Zealand biologist who goes hunting for the giant squid, each one taps into humanity's darker impulse to fixate so heavily on one thing that the rest of the world ceases to matter. More or less – like I said, they're only very remotely linked.
And some are vastly more fascinating than others. Some of the later articles that dealt with organized crime weren't of particular interest to me, but if nothing else you HAVE to look up Frédéric Bourdin and Krystian Bala. The former impersonated a missing American teenager so as to avoid getting arrested by Interpol, and the latter was found guilty for murdering a man and then writing about it in a fictional novel (and now I wonder if this was the inspiration for Robert Galbraith's The Silkworm).
And the title of the book derives from the mysterious death of Richard Lancelyn Green, an Arthur Conan Doyle fanatic who died in mysterious circumstances after a prolonged battle to get some of Doyle's personal papers released to the public. As it happens, this story was the reason my colleague suggested the book to me in the first place, since I'm currently working my way through my sister's copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. At the time I said to him: "if I was a Sherlock Holmes fan and I wanted to commit suicide, I would deliberately make my death look suspicious so as to create further speculation." And lo and behold, this is exactly the conclusion that David Grann draws!
Slayers and Vampires byEdward Gross and Mark A. Altman
Can you believe it's been over twenty years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer first aired? Ten years, maybe. But twenty? This volume is made up of hundreds of interviews, quotes and soundbites from the cast and crew of both Buffy and Angel, laid out in (roughly) chronological order, which discusses their experiences and insights into the making of both shows. It's remarkably candid in several respects (the guy who played the male Oracle in season one of Angel flat-out calls David Boreanaz an asshole, and the whole debacle over Charisma Carpenter's pregnancy is covered) but in other respects there are several gaping holes.
It's not until the acknowledgements that the authors admit that Joss Whedon chose not to participate in the creation of this book, and that all of his quotes were edited from earlier interviews. There's also remarkably little from Alyson Hannigan and Nicolas Brendon, and I get the feeling that only James Marsters and Charisma Carpenter actually sat down for full interviews. That said, it's amazing who is included here – people who played guest stars or bit-characters get their two-cents in – even Kirsty Swanson who played Buffy in the original movie.
It provides an interesting walk down memory lane, but there's not much here that hard-core fans won't know about already, giving the whole thing the air of a cash-grab in light of the twentieth anniversary.
Black Panther (2018)
I got my tickets for opening weekend and enjoyed every second. First off, I have to admit that it wasn't quite what I expected. I thoughtBlack Pantherwould be a James Bond-esque thriller in the same way thatAnt-Manwas less of a superhero movie than a heist flick. Instead this felt more like aThor movie in that it focused on the internal politics of a royal family, and all the Shakespearean connotations that such a story naturally carries.
In a nutshell (and to reiterate what has already been said hundreds of times) its strengths are its vivid colour and beauty, its complex villain, and its plethora of strong female characters. As much as I enjoyed Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok, there was a certain self-consciousness about the character, as though the movie knew it had a unique take on a female lead and so had to showcase her.
Here the likes of Nakia, Shuri, Okoye and Ramonda simply exist without the need for any fanfare or self-congratulations. This is the way it should be, when a female character's intelligence, perspective and importance is simply taken for granted.
The male/female ratio also provides an interesting contrast to other Hollywood blockbusters, like – let's say – Rogue One. There we had Jyn Erso as its lead, and yet she had no other female characters to bounce off of. You could say the same of Wonder Woman in its second and third acts. But in a direct inversion, Black Panther has its male lead surrounded by women who not only talk to him, but each other as well. If it was a choice between these two types of casts, I think I'd choose the latter. (Though of course, the ideal third option is a female lead and a female supporting cast!)
But there were so many wonderful moments: T'Challa's reaction to Nakia, Okoye whipping her wig off, the vision-quests, the rhino stampede, Shuri in her laboratory, T'Challa addressing the United Nations flanked by the Dora Milaje, and the final post-credits scenes, which honestly made me more interested in Bucky than any of the previous Captain America films. Its one weakness is that the plot itself is pretty standard Marvel fare, elevated by the likeability of its characters and the refreshing lack of interconnectedness with the rest of the franchise. It's also the first Marvel film in a long time that's left me eager to see it again.
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries: Season 2 (2013)
There's nothing like settling down to a Miss Fisher murder mystery; it's like a warm blanket and a hot drink on a cold night. The setting, the atmosphere, the characters, the costumes, the whodunits – it's like someone peered into my brain and crafted a show based on all my favourite things. As you've probably noticed, Phryne Fisher was my Woman of the Month in February, but there's something to be said for the entire cast of characters. Everyone loves the "found family" trope, and this has the perfect combination of fusty old aunt, middle-aged lesbian doctor, wayward scamp, stalwart butler and timid maid-turned confident junior detective.
The flirtation between Phyrne and Jack is certainly turned up a notch this season, though I felt perhaps it went a little too far. I mean, we've got two free and consenting adults – what's stopping them? As much as I've enjoyed the slow burn, and acknowledge that this is one of those ships that is probably more appealing in theory than reality, the emphasis on their will-they-won't-they dynamic threatens to overshadow all of Phyrne's other wonderful friendships.
But since we're on the subject, I gotta say that Phryne/Jack makes for a wonderful parallel to T'Challa and the women in his life, as both prove that there's nothing more appealing than a male/female dynamic that's based on mutual respect. There's still a nasty assumption that a man who heeds a woman's advice or opinions is somehow henpecked or pussy-whipped (not helped by stories that depict women as wise and men as idiots) – but Jack proves that perfect equality with a woman of intelligence, glamour and wit doesn't undermine a man in any way at all. They're each other's match, and they enjoy every second of their dance together.
Plus, murder mysteries.
This was an odd duck. A four-part miniseries that covers the search for and discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb is prime material for a compelling show. And yet this never manages to be anything other than workmanlike. It ticks all the major events: Howard Carter's sponsorship by Lord Carnarvon, the interruption of World War II, the discovery of the tomb (and Carter's famous words: "I see wonderful things") the intense media interest surrounding the Egyptian boy-king, the tension between the English archaeologists and the Egyptian Antiquities Office, but the whole thing is strangely low-key.
It doesn't delve very deeply into Carter's state-of-mind, or what the discovery of Tutankhamun meant to the world, or the political climate at the time, or anything really. There's a half-hearted attempt to inject some sex into the proceedings by having Carter embark on an affair with Lord Carnarvon's daughter Evelyn (suddenly the name of the heroine in The Mummy has a deeper resonance!) but it involves the two of them being pretty insensitive to Carter's first love Maggie Lewis, and Evelyn eventually calls a halt to the romance for reasons that remain totally unclear.
Sam Neill is as reliable as always, and I rather like Max Irons as well. There's certainly nothing wrong with the cast, or the setting, costumes and other period details. But it almost feels like Tutankhamun's life, death and rediscovery is reduced to a mere blip in history, echoed in Howard Carter's own strange, empty life. At least that is how both are portrayed here, whatever the show's real intentions may have been.
Iron Fist (2017)
Hype is an interesting thing: too much of it and things are bound to be disappointing. But it works in the opposite direction as well: after all the negative publicity surrounding Iron Fist, I found that it wasn't anywhere near as bad as I was anticipating.
Which isn't to say that it's objectively good. It's certainly the least of the four Netflix Marvel shows, with a bland lead, confusing story and an unpleasant undercurrent of the ole white saviour complex. But it kept my attention, and there were some things that I appreciated; namely most of the supporting cast. To put it another way, I felt that Luke Cage had a charismatic lead but a terrible final villain, whereas Iron Fist had a weak lead but a range of great supporting characters that ran the gamut from "sympathetic and heroic" to "appalling but entertaining".
What's most striking about Iron Fist is how closely it echoes other comic book stories (or perhaps visa-versa; I have no idea what the publishing dates of the comics are). In this case, the story of Danny Rand is essentially that of Oliver Queen: a rich kid gets stranded after a boat/plane accident and learns preternatural survival skills in an isolated location before returning home to reclaim his fortune and fight crime. It's also amazing how much he resembles Ray Palmer in terms of his "courtship" of Colleen Wing: buying her dojo so he's her new landlord, bringing food to her place in which is essentially a forced date, constantly impinging on her time and attention after she makes it clear she's not interested – but of course, she's eventually won over by his tepid "charm."
There was even a dash of Luke Cage in the way the show kills off a major villain halfway through the proceedings (though in this case, he comes back from the dead, so perhaps it doesn't count).
Amidst all these comparisons, there's also a stark contrast to the likes of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. I suppose every superhero team needs at least one millionaire to finance their crime-busting shenanigans, but the appealing thing about Matt, Jessica and Luke was that they did have to live in poverty-stricken areas, help people from low socio-economic backgrounds, and occasionally worry about where their next meal was coming from. Danny has no such concerns, and so his story lacks a "real world" quality – which is precisely the quality that set the Netflix Marvel shows apart from the film franchise, despite sharing the same universe.
It's hard to know what Finn Jones is going for in his portrayal of Danny. Naivety? Arrogance? Entitlement? Any of these single traits would have been fine, but the show not only doesn't explore any of these flaws in the context of the story and character development, but doesn't even seem to recognize them as flaws in the first place. As it happens, the response of the Meacham siblings to Danny's reappearance in their lives is perfectly understandable (disbelief, fear at the way he crosses boundaries, seeking outside help to have him institutionalized in the attempt to get clear answers) but apparently the audience is supposed to side with Danny.
And again, you could chalk this behaviour down to Danny's naivety and lack of social skills, but Finn Jones can't pull it off in his performance. There's a sequence in which he asks his new secretary for a favour, but between his hypothetical questions designed to test the extent of her obedience while simultaneously making her an origami flower, the whole scene ends up baffling in its mixed signals. Is it meant to be charming? Suave? Creepy? Is it showcasing Danny's talent, entitlement or lack of understanding?
What I did enjoy (surprisingly enough) was the family drama of the Meachams, particularly Ward's storyline. Ward is a rich, entitled asshole, who undergoes a rather harrowing spiral into violence and drugs after his emotionally abusive father exerts too much control over his life (a father who, incidentally, has to live in an isolated penthouse after the Hand saved him years ago from cancer in exchange for future favours, with his eldest son as his only link to the outside world).
What initially seems to be a psychotic Stephen King bully emerges a man who grows visibly panicked in his attempts to protect his sister and escape his father, and you can't help but feel a degree of empathy for just how terrible his life is, whether it's having a defensive one-sided conversation with the bodies his father orders him to dispose of, realizing that his entire office (and phone) is bugged, discovering that his personal accounts have been emptied, getting verbally destroyed by his father on a regular basis, or waking up in the exact same institute he committed Danny to. (Basically, this is what Kylo Ren wishes his tragic backstory was).
David Wenham plays Harold Meacham with relentless malevolent cheer. Watching him manipulate his children is like screaming in a soundproof room, as there's nothing any of them can ever do to faze him. When Ward finally tells him how he really feels about him, Harold simply blinks and says: "well, that's just mean". On some level, the man's demeanour is deeply frightening. Kilgrave may have been a thousand times more dangerous, but at least Jessica knew how to get a rise out of him; knew he had buttons that could be pushed. Harold is a blank wall that nothing can penetrate.
It's a pity that Danny wasn't more integrated into this storyline, as it's by far the most interesting one of the show. Instead he finds himself fighting Madame Gao and the Hand (first introduced in Daredevil) in a plot that grows ever-more convoluted with every passing episode. There are apparently two factions of the Hand? And one is slightly less evil than the other, but still pretty evil? And it gets kids off the street and into scholarships, which is actually a bad thing since they're trained to fight the Iron Fist? Whose destiny it is to fight the Hand? For some reason...?
Somewhere between Colleen being revealed as the Hand, and Danny's best friend from the monastery turning on him, I stopped trying to keep track of the endless plot-twists and character alignments.
Other parts are unbearably sloppy. Danny (joined by Claire and Colleen) talk about how utterly stupid it is to fly to China to confront Madame Gao, and then go do it anyway, without any sign of concocting a plan during the twelve hour trip to get there. The permanent presence of Harold's secretary Kyle in his penthouse is a running gag – until he temporarily disappears without explanation right when the plot requires it. If Danny holds fifty-one percent of Rand Enterprises, then how can the rest of the board oust Danny, Ward and Joy? Why are Madame Gao's bodyguards so useless that Claire can effortlessly take one of them out?
The characterization is off too. After establishing Danny took a vow of chastity, his subsequent love scene with Colleen plays out without any indication of nerves or uncertainty, and even has him ask her: "are you sure?" Who exactly is the virgin in this scenario? There is some acknowledgement of Danny's line-crossing behaviour when Claire decides to stick around the dojo after Danny arrives with an elaborate takeaway feast that Colleen feels obliged to eat, but she soon leaves anyway, even after Colleen tells her: "you don't have to go" (which is obvious code for "please don't leave me alone.") Yet by this point (only a few minutes after sitting down) Claire has presumably decided Danny is harmless rather than shady?
The show gets so close to examining some of the issues it raises, only to pull back immediately – which is more infuriating than if they didn't bother at all.
But there's definitely the sense of prepping for The Defenders, which is the main reason I watched this in the first place. Not only do Madame Gao and the Hand return, but so does Jeri Hogarth and (of course) Claire Temple. Karen Page, Jessica Jones and Daredevil get shout-outs, and the whole thing ends on a far more open note than its predecessors, leaving the door open for the big team-up...
Star Trek Discovery (2017 – 2018)
It's amusing to note that Star Trek Discovery was very much like The Last Jedi in terms of its reception. Both are popular sci-fi franchises that caused controversy among fans by shaking up the preconceptions and familiar tropes that have so far defined each fictional universe, and as with the latest Star Wars movie, feelings are decidedly lukewarm on Discovery.
For what it's worth, I've only ever been a casual fan of Star Trek, and so could enjoy the show on its own merits without getting too hung up on continuity, tonal change or whatever was going on with the Klingons. Ultimately I thought there was plenty to enjoy: the general premise (a mutineer ends up on a ship with a secret), the high production values, the lead character, and a few of the plot twists, but also some frustrating parts.
Two things stuck out. The show had a definite case of They Wasted a Perfectly Good Plot, with potentially fascinating story-arcs being unceremoniously dropped only seconds after they're introduced. For instance, I was caught off-guard by the reveal of who Captain Lorca really was – but then he's disposed of in the very next episode. I loved the idea of the Discovery being permanently trapped in the mirror universe and choosing to fight the Terran Empire, knowing that their home will never know what happened to them – but they get back to their own dimension after just three episodes. They get back several months after they left at a point where the Klingons have nearly taken over the entire galaxy – but this is immediately wrapped up in the finale. They churn through storylines so quickly that they ignore the chance to explore the ideas they've raised.
The other thing is that although the cast of characters are individually very interesting and likeable, they fail to form any equally interesting dynamics with each other. Michael, Saru, Stamets, Tilly, Tyler – they're all great characters on their own, but I never felt myself drawn into any of their relationships.
At times it could be too self-conscious (dropping an f-bomb for no real reason) and at others utterly, painfully, horrifically obtuse. For months leading up to the premiere, the show loudly and repeatedly congratulated itself on a) its racially diverse cast, and b) its inclusion of an unambiguous same-sex relationship. By the end of the two-part opener, Michelle Yao's Captain Philippa Georgiou is dead and midway through the season one-half of the gay couple is killed off.
I'm just... staggered. Truly incredulous that they could triumphantly brag about how progressive they were being and then fall to the Bury Your Gays cliché without the slightest hint of self-awareness.
Look, if you want to have gay characters and then kill them off – whatever. Go ahead. No one can stop you. But to deliberately promote them as a reason to watch your show in the first place, knowing full well that you're going to kill one of them off is as stupid as it is cruel. Did Lexa's death on The 100 teach writers absolutely nothing? Do television writers not keep tabs on the conversations and controversies surrounding other shows? Why is this bullshit still happening??
But apart from that astoundingly awful screw-up (which is all the worse since they didn't even treat the death as that big a deal) I enjoyed myself, largely because I had no preconceptions in the first place.