Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Quick

Owen_The-Quick-201x300I’m writing this not only after finishing Lauren Owen’s debut novel The Quick (due out in bookstores June 17th) in two days, but also after walking home in the dark and being scared to death despite the fact that I know full well that I just read something fiction.  Translation: points to her, now please let me lock my door and curl up in a corner with a blanket and some Friends reruns.

This is another ARC that someone at work handed off to me.  And let me say that, while ARCs usually are at least decent about giving a good blurb and something to intrigue you (I mean, that’s the point – you get interested in the advance copy, you read it, and then you order it for your store), this one wasn’t nearly as awesome as the book ended up being.  This is what it said:

An astonishing debut novel of epic scope and suspense that conjures all the magic and menace of Victorian London

I mean, seriously?  That’s how you’re going to sell me on the book?  Once again, “epic scope” doesn’t do anything for me, and the only part that made me say, “Well, yeah, I guess I should read this,” is that I love Victorian London.  It’s kind of my thing.  But the plot, while not entirely original or shocking, is twisty and fun and overall a good mystery/thriller/romance/etc. things you expect in Victorian London.

Now I’m going to put the SPOILER ALERT very early on here because the “surprise twist” happens pretty early on in the novel, and it’s kind of impossible to review it appropriately without mentioning… well, the “surprise twist.”

Seriously, don’t read on if you want to be totally surprised.

You’re still hanging in there?  All righty then.

The Quick opens with a pair of children living on an estate.  The mother is dead, father is not able to connect, older sister Charlotte loves baby brother James desperately, and they’re kind of accustomed to the general air of mystery around their home.  Fast forward to James’ graduation and decision to move to London.  And then he meets his flatmate – who he met briefly at school – and eventually they recognize a mutual attraction.  Important to note that at this point, the time of Oscar Wilde (who makes a brief cameo), homosexuality was still a crime and could be punished with death.  So obviously James and new lover-boy Christopher aren’t able to go gallivanting around as freely as they’d like.

But then, after they’ve decided to run away to Italy together, they’re attacked in the street.  By none other than a society vampire.

Yep, there’s your page 100 twist: vampires.

Now, when I read this I thought that it was going too far.  I’m a big fan of supernatural on occasion, but after Twilight, I got a little tired of vampires.  Werewolves I still love and just have yet to find a book that I really think works for the lovable lycanthropes.  But vampires?  A little overdone.

But I kept reading.  Like I’ve said, the plot twists weren’t complete shockers – there’s only so much you can do with vampires, after all – but it was a well written book.  Some of the old myths are adjusted into new vampirisms, which was a nice change (not the stereotypical garlic/holy water/stake through the heart).

When the narrative returns to Charlotte, the story kind of picks up because she gets to meet a young man who escaped the vamp club (I’m not kidding – a gentleman vampire’s club) as well as some… they’re not vampire hunters, but they’re still pretty badass.  And they’ve got an interesting little backstory too.

So the plot, once Charlotte returns, becomes the adventure of her trying to rescue her brother from the evil vampires, run away from the people chasing her and the escapee, and figuring out a cure for James.

Generally, I wasn’t really intrigued with the story until about page 350.  It was (I’m repeating myself again) well written and the characters were developed with interesting quirks, but then it kind of got my attention.  My main gripe was the occasional interruption from one character’s diary, which felt more obligatory (vampire stories like Dracula – and even Twilight, I suppose – always seem to require some first person narration) than plot driven.  But again, around 350 I kind of got into the story and actually wanted to figure out how it ended.

And while I was not entirely surprised by the last sentence, I will say that I had just read that when I had to walk in the dark.  And the fact that I’m still kind of freaking out should tell you something about that.

I must admit that, although I started this feeling obligated to finish for the sake of the two copies we ordered for the store, I really enjoyed it.  And the ending made it a book that I can appreciate more because the longer I let it sit on my palate, the more I like it.

I also have to take a moment to congratulate Ms. Owen on a great first novel – it’s pretty incredible that this is the first, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her work in the future.

Remember, The Quick flies into bookstores near you June 17th.  Check out more details at IndieBound.

 

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The Invention of Wings

18079776I’m so proud of myself for actually getting some reading done before the schoolwork starts pouring in.  Granted, I should be reading things like The Sound and the Fury instead of more recreational books, but oh well.  Today’s challenge was the next Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick, Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Invention of Wings.  It was only released last Tuesday, so I’m actually feeling really on top of this.  And now for the bad news: I didn’t really like it.

I can’t say this book was the worst thing I’ve read recently, because there have been a few real bummers, but for me, it didn’t live up to the hype everyone was repeating.

Let me begin by saying that I’m so (insert adverbial expletive) tired of books being described as “sweeping,” “epic,” “powerful,” focused on “sisterhood,” “the power of friendship,” etc.  It is, in fact, one of the giant flashing lights that goes off when I’m reading a blurb.  It’s like a voice comes over a PA system and says, “STEP AWAY FROM THE BOOK.  IT IS GOING TO DISAPPOINT YOU.”  To be fair, sometimes the book in this situation actually lives up to its blurb.  I can’t think of an instance, but I’m sure it’s happened.

When I received the copy of The Invention of Wings from my friend, it was on her recommendation that this was one of the best books she’s read in a long time.  Like, singing praises and encouraging me to read it best books.

I say, “Meh.”

Essentially, the novel is the fictionalized story of Sarah Grimké (check out her Wikipedia page here) and her relationship with her personal slave in the 1800s.  Sarah’s the stuttering daughter of the South who doesn’t believe in slavery, while Handful (or Hetty, as she’s “officially” named) is the spunky slave who believes in something more.

Now, I’m no expert on Grimké, so just a glance at the Wiki, plus a quick look over the notes that Kidd actually did research, impresses me.  I usually think history is pretty good on its own and doesn’t need the additional characters or complicated storylines, but I respect Kidd for putting in time and working to make this novel what it is.

I’m just not the target group, apparently.

My promise when I began this blog was to be the Honest Reader and say things that no one else wants to say when they review a book.  And after glancing at the Goodreads page, I think we really need someone to say it straight: it’s predictable.  It’s not poorly written, but it’s not astonishing.  It just sort of is.

I guess I was just underwhelmed the whole way through.  There were moments I thought I might be starting to care, but then the storytelling felt so slow that I just sort of stalled and gave up having an emotional attachment to anyone.  And yes, I know that was kind of the point in Sarah’s chapters (because the book also switches POV every other chapter between Sarah and Handful) because she’s struggling with finding her voice (literally and figuratively).  But my goodness, it slowed me down.

My biggest disappointment was that I felt Handful didn’t share the novel equally.  I understand that Grimké is a historical figure and actually had lots of history to be shared, but this is one instance when I wanted it to be epic.  If we’re going to say that this is a “sweeping” novel, let’s make it sweep, okay?  I wanted more Handful because that was the compelling part of the story.  And she’s the character Kidd invented.  Theoretically, she should have had just as big a scope as Sarah did.  But, whether it’s true or not, it felt like Handful was getting the short end of the stick.

I just am having a hard time understanding how so many people are saying that this is the book that has changed their lives and that it’s the best book and blah blah blah.  It’s a good book.  It’s a nice look at historical figures in the abolition movement in the US.  It’s just not the stunning, incredible, heart-wrenching, life-altering novel I was told it would be.  At least, not for me.  But hey, maybe you’ll love it and come back and tell me I’m crazy.  And that’s okay with me.

Now, if you want a really powerful book that I thought was both beautifully written and powerful (ugh, it kills me to use those words, but I’m trying to play fair), I’d recommend Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.  THAT is a powerful book.  It’s set in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004 and if you don’t cry for most of it, you can’t be human.  Or maybe you just loved The Invention of Wings.  Which is fine.

So in conclusion, The Invention of Wings, the sweeping fictional epic of Sarah Grimké, was mediocre.  Not bad, but I wouldn’t say it’s worth rushing out right now to buy it in hardcover.  Maybe wait for the library.  Or paperback.  Or your friend to loan it to you so you can return it with a (falsely or otherwise) positive review.  Because that’s what I’m about to do.

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In Sunlight and In Shadow

13391073While I was waiting for my copy of Winter’s Tale to arrive (because I saw the trailer for it and it looks like it’s just meant for me), I wandered into the library and found Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow.  I’d thought the cover was beautiful when it came out in hardcover, and lately one of the girls at work and I have been discussing our interest in actually reading it.

I checked it out and must acknowledge my first thought: “Good grief, this book is 705 pages long.”

I’m not someone who tends to judge books by length (I absolutely and unashamedly judge by the cover) but if it’s more than about 400 pages, I start to get a little nervous because that’s a commitment, not just a fun recreational read.  But I figured that, if I was going to read Winter’s Tale anyway (and that’s just as long) I should just read this one.  Having worked on it for about a week, here’s my general opinion: beautiful, well written, and insanely LOOOOOONG.

Basic plot structure: Harry Copeland (only son of the recently deceased owner of Copeland Leather) returns from WWII and is kind of drifting as most veteran protagonists do.  Then, on the ferry, he spies a beautiful woman and falls immediately in love with her.  She is, of course, already engaged to another man.  A nasty man.  A bad man.  And, oh, yeah, she’s a society girl.  Catherine (that’s her name) is struggling herself because she has a part in a musical but doesn’t want people to think she bought her place because her family is one of The Families in NYC and she can do whatever she wants because she has money.

As with all love stories, Catherine and Harry really do fall in love with each other and, after Harry crashes her engagement party, she breaks it off with Bad-Boy Victor.  It looks like there’s some hope, right?

Wrong.  Because Victor happens to be a pretty influential (and not easily crossed) kind of dude.  Copeland Leather is suddenly being shaken down by the mob, Catherine gets miserable reviews for her performances even though everyone knows she’s amazing, and finally Harry pins it all back to Victor’s madness.  This forces him to make a decision: sell out and take Catherine away to try to retreat or stand his ground and fight like the soldier he is.  When he chooses to defy Victor and keep fighting, he opens himself up for some serious damage, and the only question we have is whether or not he’ll survive this second war.

As I’ve mentioned, Helprin’s writing is hauntingly beautiful.  The characters have some lovely and insightful conversations, NYC is described with such enchantment that it’s impossible not to fall in love with it, and you really sink into the world.  However, my issue is that, despite the brilliant style, it was a little heavy for me.  I like description, and I enjoy authors creating worlds into which I dive and float around for weeks and weeks.  What I don’t like it wading through paragraphs and paragraphs of exposition.  And that’s just a personal choice – I prefer a more equal mixture of dialogue, action, and description.  Which is probably why I like Hemingway.  Hmmm…  My point is, ISaIS is an incredible piece of writing.  I really enjoyed the story, and would love to see this condensed as a film, but it was a little much for me.

At this point, I would like to say SPOILER ALERT and suggest that if you are interested in reading this novel yourself – or at least want the ending to be a surprise – that you STOP READING.

Because that’s my main issue with this: the end.

You’re sure you want to read on?  Okay, here we go.

Harry dies.

Yep.  Dead as a doornail.  After he marries Catherine and she’s just found out she’s pregnant.  He never knows that he has a child on the way, which just adds to the sadness.  And I’m not saying I don’t like sad endings – I think there’s a place for them.  If everything had a happy ending, it’d be a pretty boring world of literature.  What I don’t like, though, is spending 650 pages waiting for something to happen, then get this weird section that makes it sound like he’s dying, and then get that confirmation, and have the book end essentially right after that.  Not okay with me.

I also have to say that Harry gets involved in some sort of gang warfare through another character (who, for some reason, seemed in my mind to resemble an older Gatsby) and decides to take out the guy who’s robbing Copeland Leather.  It’s not that I didn’t like this plot-wise, but it just felt confusing and clunky – like there was a need to add another 200 pages to really fill out the story.  Maybe it’s just writing style again, but if it’d been a trimmed down interaction, I think I would have liked it more.

So generally speaking, I’d recommend this book.  It’s beautiful, it’s romantic, and I enjoyed 90% of it.  I think the 10% that wasn’t great for me was all down to style, which makes me even more curious about Winter’s Tale.  That one’s around #3 on my reading list right now (I’ve been loaned some other new books and I’ve got to get on it), but I’m excited for it all the same.

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The Good Luck of Right Now

18054175I found the ARC (advance reading copy) of this at work and I thought, “This sounds like an interesting story.  And oh, look.  It’s the guy who did Silver Linings Playbook.”  I haven’t read SLP still (though I really should), but I enjoyed the movie, so I thought I’d give this a chance.

The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick is messed up, sad, redeeming, and inspiring.  It’s the story of Bartholomew Neil, who has just lost his mother to cancer (after living with her for 38 years) and is trying to get his life together.  While Wendy the counselor tells him to go out and make a new “flock,” BN is stuck in his routine.  Then BN discovers a “Free Tibet” letter from Richard Gere to his mother and, since she called BN “Richard” at the end, he thinks there must be a connection.  This prompts the entire story, told through BN’s letters to Richard Gere.  In the letters, BN describes the challenges of moving on from his mother’s death, trying to talk to the cute Girlbrarian, questions about faith, and how he’s trying to make his flock.  In the end, BN’s flock (the Girlbrarian and her brother, a defrocked priest, and “the spirit of Richard Gere”) joins him on a trip to Canada and all the secrets of the universe (well, some of them, at least) are revealed.

The letters make the reading easy and fun, and BN’s confessions are incredibly sweet.  His long-distance love of the Girlbrarian, for instance, is so endearing that you just keep hoping he’ll work up the courage to ask her out.  The defrocked priest, Father McNamee, is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking – he wants to help BN, but sometimes it feels like he’s doing more damage than help.  And Girlbrarian’s brother, whose every other word is f***, is the same way.  Between the four of them (and Richard Gere, of course), it’s a strange family BN is building, but you can’t help but think it’s exactly the family he needs.

So here’s the thing: I started reading this a while back, when I first found it, and I really liked it.  I thought, yeah, I’ll enjoy this, and then life happened and I put it down.  And last night, after Longbourn and an attempt at The Sound and the Fury (school reading, which will soon be causing a decline in reviews of recreational reading), I needed something else.  I saw this sitting on my shelf and I thought, why not.

I was only on about page 35 when I started.  I read until 100.  I looked at the time.  It was almost 10:00.  I figured I could read a few more pages.  So I read the next chapter.

And then I read the next chapter.

And the next.

Until finally I reached that point where you think, “You only have 75 pages left.  You might as well just finish.”

So I did.

There’s so much to love about this book.  Really.  One of my favorite things about BN is that he constantly mentions Jung’s synchronicity (check out Wikipedia’s short version here).  Everything that happens to BN has a meaning behind it, even when he goes to group therapy and meets his crazy cat-loving therapy partner – because Mr. Feline ends up being Girlbrarian’s brother!  For BN, everything is connected, and it’s beautiful to read it and think, yes, the universe has a reason for working out the way it does.

About halfway through the book, BN describes a horrible break-in that happened to him and his mother years earlier.  The house is terribly vandalized and he’s understandably upset about it.  But then check out the response:

“What have I been telling you since you were a boy?  Whenever something bad happens to us,” Mom said as she tucked me into my new bed, insisting that I needed some sleep after staying up all night, “something good happens – often to someone else.  And that’s The Good Luck of Right Now.  We must believe it.  We must.”

It’s a beautiful idea and, in the following pages, it gets even better.

Ultimately, when I put this book down last night at nearly 11:30, I did so with a smile on my face.  It was sweet, it was meaningful, and it was just a good ending.  And yes, it’s kind of predictable, and no, I wouldn’t say it’s the most amazing book I’ve ever read, but it’s just a good book. And if you liked SLP (the book is now on my “Need to Read” list), I think you’d like this.

The Good Luck of Right Now is due out in bookstores this February.  Preorder your copy at your local bookstore!

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Longbourn

9780385351232_custom-1e2c6e44582547b7fa06f4ed69b812312e09525a-s6-c30I’ve had this book waiting on my shelf for a while, so I finally decided to get it read.  As a huge Pride and Prejudice fan (it’s one of my all-time favorite books) and one of those people who loves the upstairs/downstairs elements of Downton Abbey (and, obviously, Upstairs Downstairs), I figured it would be a fun little read.

Quick breakdown: this is the story of the servants who keep Longbourn running.  In P&P, we know there are a couple of housemaids and Mrs. Hill (poor Hill, who always has to run and try to fix Mrs. Bennet), but that’s all.  This allows Jo Baker to swoop in and develop whole personalities and storylines for our beloved servants.

Essentially, I thought this was a fun but I was not excessively diverted.  I enjoyed creating backstories for the servants, especially because we have so little information about servants in general in JA books.  I mean, it makes sense, because it’s the same reason there aren’t any scenes of men-only moments – it would have been highly inappropriate.  Mrs. Hill is particularly interesting the way Baker builds her up because she reminds me of (for my DA fans) Mrs. Hughes mixed with Mrs. Wilson from Gosford Park.  Brilliant, and very motherly, but with a definite edge.

Sarah, the lead housemaid, is less compelling.  While there’s quite a bit of emphasis on the servants dealing with the upstairs (which makes sense, because there are five daughters under the age of 25 who no doubt make enormous messes), Sarah of course has her own love story.  For anyone who has read P&P (which should be everyone picking up this book), you can see the outcome of the romance pretty quickly.  Yes, there’s a bit of a twist at the end, but it wasn’t enough to really shock me.

Probably my favorite character was James Smith, the new manservant Mr. Bennet hires who causes a bit of an uproar downstairs.  What I appreciated, other than the obvious goodness of him, was the backstory that’s revealed at the very end.  He has a connection with the militia, which characters discuss early on, but in Volume Three, the exact nature of that connection is revealed and it’s a pleasant surprise.

In my ultimate nerdness, I must also admit that one of my favorite period piece dramas is Horatio Hornblower because 1) Ioan Gruffudd is fantastic, and 2) because it’s an awesome series about the British Navy during the Napoleonic wars.  Now, in case you couldn’t tell, the Napoleonic era is one of my very favorite to study because there’s so much going on.  And in JA novels, you don’t get a lot of military because the women at home weren’t really influenced.  Yes, the men in uniform always pop up and cause some trouble, but there’s hardly discussions of Napoleon’s military tactics in the tea room.

James Smith’s story sets him up in the army and follows what he goes through on the front.  This is also a direct contrast, as James points out, to Wickham, the handsome rogue we all know and hate from P&P.  Wickham, whose commission was bought, has apparently never actually served in battle – he’s kept safe at home.  But James has actually gone out, seen things, done things, that give him a pretty good reason to have a temper.

My main disappointment is that James’ story is short.  It comes at the very end and doesn’t actually cover that many pages.  I’m not saying I wanted the entire book to be about James, or that I wanted to learn his story sooner – it’s just that, when the rest of the book is pretty predictable and not all that exciting, I really enjoyed his bits and then it was all over.

So overall, making this a pretty short review in comparison to some of the others here, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to other Janeites, but maybe wait for paperback or the library.  It’s not one I’m going to own to keep in my JA collection, but a good lightweight JA spinoff.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of Life.

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As my second post of the day, I was hoping I’d have shorter, more concentrated thoughts on this one, but I can’t help it.  I loved this movie.

For those of you who are familiar with James Thurber’s short story of the same title (which you can read in full here), don’t expect this to be a full-on adaptation.  In fact, what it does is essentially take the idea of Thurber’s story and blow it up into a beautiful, self-affirming film that’s totally worth seeing.

Here’s the basic plot: Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has worked at Life magazine for 16 years.  He does not do anything adventurous or daring or special.  He works, he is responsible, and he lives a life he didn’t expect to.  Oh, and he also happens to like the new girl at the office (Kristen Wiig) but he can’t get the courage to talk to her.  Then, Life staff finds out that they’re about to publish the last issue of the magazine.  Walter receives the film from star photographer Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) but it’s missing the picture Sean wants for Life‘s cover.  Walter makes a decision to go after Sean instead of sitting back and that decision sets off the greatest adventure he’s ever had.

Thurber’s story, while short, funny, and excellent all by itself, is incredibly transformed by Stiller’s directing.  And there are so many things I liked about this movie that I think it’ll just be easier for me to make a numbered list.

  1. Treatment of text: From the opening credits, text is placed throughout the film and if you don’t pay attention, you might miss it.  When Walter first takes off on the plane, watch for all the phrases – it’s a familiar quotation that pops up throughout the movie and keeps the Life motto in the front of your mind.
  2. Film style: It’s a beautiful movie.  Because a lot of the storyline is based on photography and capturing that moment, it’s just pretty to look at.  And again, the opening credits are a testament to how clever the art of the film is.  Just watch the colors if you don’t believe me.
  3. Locations: WOW.  From Greenland to Iceland to Afghanistan (obviously not all locations of the film are the actual filming locations), it’s just beautiful.  Most of the shots look like something out of National Geographic which, again, makes sense because that’s the whole point of the movie – finding that one shot.
  4. It’s funny.  Like, really funny: There were so many moments I laughed out loud.  And not because it was crude or mean.  Because it was genuinely and innocently funny.  Yes, there’s some language in the PG-rated film, but it’s not used as the humor.  One of my favorite moments, for instance, was when the Icelandic/Greenlandic guy on the ship is saying goodbye to Walter and says, “Stay gold, Ponyboy!”  For anyone who’s read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, you know that’s a hilarious use of that line.  The same character also mentions seeing Walter “on Sesame Street.”  It’s just funny.
  5. The ending: Which is perfect.  Again, funny, sweet, and just good.  You can’t complain.  Really.
  6. It makes you believe: One of my all-time favorite movies is It’s a Wonderful Life.  That movie, every Christmas, reminds me of how important I am in the world.  And it’s not because we need an ego boost.  It’s just that sometimes we need to be reminded that our existence is miraculous and beautiful, and that we serve a purpose in the world.  There’s a line in the movie Hugo that it reminds me of, when Hugo says: “I’d imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason, too.”  What It’s a Wonderful Life tells us is that it’s okay to have a simple life in a small town.  It’s okay to not be the adventurous one – you are still important to the world.  Walter Mitty tells us that we can be the adventurous ones.  We don’t have to live in our own heads all the time, and no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, no matter how old or young, we can go out and still live.

And that’s what I really loved about this movie.  Maybe it’s just because I’m at that point in my life where I’m thinking, “So you’ve graduated college and been places.  What’s the point of your existence?”  But this is the movie where I walked out of the theater and thought, “Yes.  I matter.  And I can still make a difference.  And I can still go on adventures.  And I can still live a full life.”

I also want to take this opportunity to applaud Ben Stiller for the least-funny acting I’ve ever seen from him.  His performance as Walter is beautifully understated and so incredible, I just can’t get over it.  And his choices as a director are excellent.  I can honestly say there is not a single thing I didn’t like about this movie – it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, it makes you feel good.

I know it’s not getting great reviews from critics, but I’m not surprised.  It’s just a good movie.  There’s no real angst, no dystopian universe, no intensely political commentary.  It’s just good. And sometimes just a good movie is exactly what we need.

As Sean O’Connell says, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Martin Freeman's Bilbo is, as I expected, fabulous.

Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is, as I expected, fabulous.

 

Over the holidays, I’ve kind of gotten caught up on my movie list, so I figure I should add to the “serious literature” by including (hopefully) brief discussions of Hollywood’s latest.  And what better place to start than The Hobbit?

Okay, maybe there is a better place to start, but we’ll go with furry-feet anyway.

I confess that it has been years since I read The Hobbit.  As a younger person, my dad suggested I read it and I never could get into the story.  When the first Lord of the Rings film came out, I saw it, fell in love, and read the entire trilogy and loved it.  I was in fifth grade.  I was a confirmed nerd.  But I still didn’t like The Hobbit.  Now I wonder if it’s because it’s more of a fairy tale than the epic of LotR.  So when the first part of the movie trilogy came out, I accepted that I wouldn’t like it as much, but I still wanted to see it.

Let’s address the first issue: a trilogy of films from one book.  This seems like a poor idea.  I was willing to give old PJ the benefit of the doubt because I was impressed with his treatment of LotR.  And if he’s pulling in extra narrative that we don’t really get otherwise, that’s a plus, right?

Now I have mixed feelings.

Part One (An Unexpected Journey) was actually pretty fun.  I liked the additional storylines, even though I was still not sure how they were going to stretch it to three movies.  The Orc deal was like, okay, I’ll forgive this totally cliched plot because it needs to have some epic element.  I understand.

But for Part Two (The Desolation of Smaug), this was my immediate reaction that I muttered to my dad: “Oh my goodness gracious, I can’t feel my bottom.

Now here’s what I find interesting: Part Two is actually 8 minutes shorter than Part One.  But in Part One, I didn’t feel like I could fall asleep, nor did my legs actually fall asleep.

To be fair, DoS is the ugly middle child of the trilogy, just like The Two Towers (my absolute least favorite book and movie of LotR).  It’s going to be long.  But it just felt like it took forever.  And I don’t know what it was – maybe all the cuts to different storylines (because now there are about a million going at once) or just the general appearance (Lake Town is, unsurprisingly, pretty grim looking).  Even if the length was doable, though, there are still some serious issues with this installment, which I can only hope will make more sense/be better after Part Three comes out next Christmas.

Serious Issue #1: LOVE TRIANGLE

Love triangles are always my least favorite additions to any story.  And yes, sometimes they’re necessary, and I accept that this is not a new concept in PJ’s Middle Earth (I mean, the Aragorn/Eowyn/Arwen situation?  Sure, Aragorn was committed to his elf lady, but it made for some good romantic tension.).  But a dwarf/elf/elf love triangle?

NO.  JUST NO.

I don’t even care if it was a dwarf/elf Romeo/Juliet moment.  We know they won’t end up together because it just can’t happen.  But then you add in Legolas (played once again by Orlando Bloom – that’s a whole other issue) and it just gets ridiculous.  The King of Elves (who looks younger than his son, Legolas) does that great line about “Don’t give him [Legolas] hope where there is none,” and the girl elf (Captain of the Guard who looks like an obvious rip-off of Arwen – who I thought was awesome in LotR) makes the obvious comment about “I didn’t think your son, the prince of this elvish land, could pledge himself to some nobody like me,” to which the king says, “Uh, duh, he can’t.  So get over it.”  Okay, I might have paraphrased a little.  My point is, it’s such a cliche love triangle moment – the prince can’t love the commoner, and she must accept this and move on.  Girl elf would have no problem giving Legoland the thumbs up because they clearly like each other, but when the king puts the kibosh on that, she turns her affections to a… dwarf?

NO.  JUST NO.

Serious Issue #2: Repeat of Fellowship of the Ring

Then the dwarf (Fili?  Kili?  I can’t keep them straight, and frankly, I don’t care because I’ve never liked the dwarves.) happens to get shot with an Orc arrow that the audience then discovers is actually a mortal instrument!

If you remember Elijah Wood’s excellent Frodo moment in FotR when he is stabbed by the Ringwraith sword (no bueno), put those facial expressions on the dwarf.  It’s the same thing.  And then he’s getting worse and worse at Lake Town, until the company splits (???????) and one of the dwarves staying with him says, “Do you have kingsfoil?”  “Kingsfoil?” repeats the human (Bard, who’s pretty cool), “That’s a weed!”

Where have we heard this dialogue before?  Oh, right.  FotR, where the same damn thing happens.

And guess who saves the day?  Yep, the pretty, feisty, and surprisingly action-ready elf lady.  Nobody who saw the LotR trilogy could have seen that coming.

Serious Issue #3: More Smaug!!!

I wanted more Smaug.  Seriously.  Lots more.  He was awesome.  And the whole dialogue between Smaug and Bilbo – when it wasn’t interrupted by annoying clips of Gandalf v. Necromancer or Fili/Kili/young dwarf dying – was fantastic.  I just wanted a whole segment of just them.  I would have been happy.

So those are my main issues.  They’re not big (okay, the love triangle is), but they make a difference.  In smaller issues, I’m tired of the Orc storyline.  And why did Legolas have to come back?  I didn’t like him in LotR and I don’t like him now.  All he does is kung-fu Orc killing.  I don’t need that, because I don’t need the Orcs.  I’m just tired of all this epic-ness when all I want to see is the dragon destroy Lake Town.

As usual, though, Martin Freeman did an amazing job as Bilbo, and Benedict Cumberbatch voicing Smaug was, as I mentioned, magic.  There are still good moments in the movie, and I’m glad I saw it, but it just felt like it was never going to end.

My hope is that the final chapter of The Hobbit is going to make me look back on this and say, “Oh, that’s why they did it.  Never mind.  I was wrong.”  I don’t think I can forgive the love triangle (because we all know it’s not going to end well), but I’m willing to accept it if it’s wrapped up correctly come December.

Overall, I’d give it a 3.5/5.  Worth seeing, but not the smash I was expecting.  Can’t wait for There and Back Again, though, because knowing PJ, it’ll be a huge finale.

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Philomena

Philomena, now out in theaters

Philomena, now out in theaters

The only way I can begin is to say that, having literally just finished, this is a powerful and devastating book.  Originally published as The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, Martin Sixsmith’s exposé recounts the story of Philomena, the birth of her son Anthony, and his adoption and subsequent life in America.  There are lots of brilliant aspects of this book – I think one of its great achievements is Sixsmith’s writing, which really does read like a novel – but overall I’m walking away with a hole in my heart and a greatly lessened desire to see the movie.

Let’s put it this way: you know it’s going to be a tough read when the whole point of the story is that the mother and her son are separated and trying to find each other.  But here’s what you might not be expecting (or, at least, I wasn’t expecting, probably because I’m not well-versed in modern history): they’re separated because of Americans wanting to adopt Irish babies and the Irish government/church working to make it possible through bastard children.

In the case of Philomena Lee, she is an unmarried pregnant woman in 1952.  Her child will not be “accepted” because of his mother’s position as a “fallen woman,” ideas which seem more compatible with a novel from Hardy than the twentieth century, but there you have it.  Sixsmith develops the budding relationship between Philomena and Anthony, even though the convent where she gives birth attempts to keep mothers and children separated to (I suppose theoretically) reduce attachment.

Of course, Philomena is pushed to sign her rights to her child to the Mother Superior, a nice American woman comes to adopt Anthony and Mary (the daughter of Philomena’s friend), and the children are whisked away from Ireland to live in America.

The stories of Anthony (now dubbed Michael) and Mary’s new life in America is heartbreaking.  Although Marge, the mother, seems to love her new children in addition to her three older sons, Doc (the father) appears to fluctuate in his affections.  And Stevie, the youngest son of Doc and Marge, seems to have it out for Michael, who has usurped his position as the baby brother.

Sixsmith follows Michael’s youth, touched by some traumatic experiences, through his adult life.  With a significant portion of text devoted to Michael’s college experience, during which time he accepts his homosexuality, the book feels focused on his growing understanding of himself.  As in all teen/young adult stories (fiction or nonfiction), the development of Michael’s sexuality is a pivotal point.  The time in which he lives is hardly conducive to homosexual behavior, and he struggles to balance his desires with society.

It must be a sign of how far we have advanced that this portion of the book did not make me uncomfortable, but frustrated.  My college (and even high school) experience was one colored by friends figuring out their sexuality, and though they met with some difficulties, I think they ended up feeling pretty comfortable.  And maybe it’s because I live in a smaller town with a tighter community than a big city like Washington, D.C. or New York, but I think the world has made some pretty positive steps.  It was frustrating to watch Michael navigating relationships, especially since they had to be fairly secretive, and often resulted in distressing break-ups.

Moving through college and into his adult life, the story becomes heavier.  Michael becomes a lawyer, explores wider sexual practices, and watches as the new disease (AIDS) crops up.  Eventually, he does develop a stable relationship with a man named Pete, but the road there is rocky.  And, despite the fact that I know this is a true story and very unlikely to end happily, I hoped.  And hoped.

SPOILERS AHEAD – THIS IS YOUR WARNING.

Michael contracting AIDS is the worst part of this story.  His first test is clear, but the second time he isn’t so lucky.  I don’t know how else to say it, but Sixsmith does an excellent job of making your heart break.  Pete (who is clean and will live) trying to accept that the end is coming is especially horrifying.  And despite making several trips to Ireland, Michael is never able to find anything more about his mother than her name.

This was the passage that haunted me, though:

Early on the morning of Tuesday 15 August, after thirty-six hours at Mike’s bedside, Mary and Pete went to the cafeteria for coffee.  They returned at 11.30 to find Mike’s bed empty and the doctor writing up his notes.  Mike had suffered a series of cardiac arrests.  He had died at 11.10 a.m.

Sixsmith then describes his own work with Philomena herself.  A friend made the connection and they work together to try to find her son.  And when she finds out he’s dead, I think my heart actually broke.  Philomena is able to connect with Pete and at least find some peace in knowing that Michael/Anthony led a prosperous life.  And, most importantly, he never gave up his search for her.

I think it’s also important at this moment to point out that this is not an anti-Catholic, anti-Republican, anti-anything book.  Yes, there are elements that sound like it, but it needs to be read while keeping in mind the times.  If this story took place in 2014 (wow, it’s 2014 already!) it would certainly feel like a long essay on the badness of religion and the right wing, etc.  This was 1950s-1990s for the most part (obviously ending in the early 2000s), and issues like gay rights (or rights in general) were great dividers politically.  As a gay man working in the RNC, Michael would obviously have run into some issues.  And even in the moments when the Catholic church seems like a pretty bleak entity, there are still good people in it.  Philomena has stated “This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith” (read more here).  So don’t read this and praise or condemn its politics – it’s a different world, and one that offers us an a look into how far we’ve come.

As I’ve said, this is a haunting, wrenching story.  And I’m glad I’ve read it because I really did want to.  But I can’t say this makes me want to go sit through the movie when I know it won’t end happily.  Was it so wrong of me to hope for something positive?  For them to meet just once?  And I know that’s not the point – the point is that she found him eventually.  But my God, it’s a painful book.

So overall review: great writing by Sixsmith, and powerful story, but only read it if you’re in the mood to sob your heart out.

And now I’m off to find something a little lighter.  And a Kleenex…

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