The Butchered Man

By Harriet Smart

The_AlienistSo, I’d read The Alienist over twenty years ago in college, and only vaguely remembered  it being about applying the very young field of psychology to the profiling of serial killers, and that the serial killer in question preyed on young boy prostitutes. I didn’t remember any details, including any of the central characters or the final solution, so the miniseries was almost a brand-new story for me, and I loved it! The acting was all excellent, overshadowed only by the lush cinematography highlighting the dramatic differences between the very wealthy and the very poor at the end of the nineteenth century. I am very much hoping that TNT decides to tackle the sequel, The Angel of Darkness, next!

Butchered_ManAnyway, The Butchered Man reminded me strongly of The Alienist, in a good way. It takes place a good fifty years earlier and in rural England, but the two central protagonists fit right in. Giles Vernon is an ex-military man and current police chief, who is working to transition the local police from a loose watchman structure to a more organized unit based on his military experience. To that end, he hires Felix Carswell as a full-time police surgeon and forensic pathologist.

So, both characters are on the cutting edge of their professions and struggling against the status quo to push advancements. Carswell is a particularly interesting character; as the acknowledged natural son of one of the local bigwigs, he struggles with not quite fitting into any social strata. I was immediately engaged in both the characters and the mystery, and am looking forward to continuing with the series. My one caveat, though, is that the overall story does not necessarily show women overall in the best light, and I’ll be on the watch for that in the subsequent novels.

FalletAnd going back to TV, can I also recommend “Fallet” on Netflix? The preview seem to show a somewhat generically dark police procedural, but there was a subtle quirkiness to it that attracted me. Let me tell you, in the actual show, the quirkiness is not subtle: “Fallet” is an extremely funny satire of the popular Nordic mystery genre. The characters and dialogue are laugh-out-loud funny, but the actors, director, and cinematographer all play it extremely straight, which makes it even funnier. The whole season is eight half-hour episodes, so it is a quick and easy watch, though it is subtitled, since half the characters speak Swedish.

The Sisters Brothers

By Patrick deWitt

Sisters_BrothersI really like Western movies, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book in the genre, actually. I love to see the long shots of empty vistas and close-ups of horses, but am not quite so keen to read about them. I have a suspicion that The Sisters Brothers is not your normal Western, but I absolutely loved it!

It was the title that caught my attention, of course, and I checked it out, just to figure out how to parse it (it is two brothers with the last name Sisters). The Sisters Brothers are infamous gunslingers hired by a mob boss to track down someone who ran with his money. Along the way, they run into various misadventures, and discover that things are not exactly as they’ve been told.

It’s not for everyone, I’d say; the writing was similar to Faulkner’s, I thought, with a plainness that highlights the sort of general absurdity of life, but more plot-driven than Faulkner usually is, which is probably why it is a genre novel, not capital-L Literature. It reminded me a lot of the Fargo television show, actually: a fair amount of extreme violence, but balanced with a quirky humor and some unexpected heart.

Speaking of television shows…

Pocketful of Bones

By Julie Frayn

Pocketful_of_BonesPocketful of Bones is straight-up Bates Motel! Within the first chapter or two, a young prostitute accidentally gets pregnant from a john; when he discovers the baby and threatens to take the child from her, she kills him and buries him the backyard She continues to support herself and her son through sex work, which complicates the son’s adolescent sexual awakening (to put it nicely).

Per the description on the back of the book, eventually things come to a head, when the mom has to rebuff the son’s advances, and he leaves, only returning to the house (and yard) much later. The first half constantly increases the sense anxiety, as the bodies pile up, but tempers it with moments of humor and pathos. As it neared the middle, though, I was sort of gritting my teeth, trying to get past the impending incest-adjacent scene, hoping for a respite from the claustrophobia of the house and yard.

Unfortunately, the damage has been done, and the second half just doubles-down, with two different narratives of disturbed people with the potential to wreck havoc on everyone around them. The anxiety became unsustainable, and I found it increasingly difficult to finish. As an aside: this book is not kind to men in general; almost all victims are men, and while it is debatable whether they deserve to be killed and buried in someone’s backyard, I certainly understood why someone might be tempted to do just that.

And Then There Were None

By Agatha Christie

So, over the holiday season, Rebecca and I finally broke down and got Amazon Prime. I’d been resisting because Amazon does some really shady stuff with pricing and publishing, but that free two-day shipping is really seductive. The streaming service isn’t so bad, either, and I finally got a chance to see the recent BBC production of “And Then There Were None,” which I’ve been eagerly waiting to be widely available. I remember reading and really enjoying the novel in high school, so I remembered the basic premise – that ten people are invited on a holiday weekend at a remote island mansion, where they are murdered one by one over the course of a few days – though I didn’t remember all the details.

aidan-turnerI have to admit that I mostly wanted to watch the miniseries because I am a shameful sucker for a pretty face, and Aidan Turner is just so damn attractive. He is so attractive that I’ve watched two very mediocre shows (“Being Human” and “Poldark”) solely in order to look at him. He was very good in this, though his character also turned out to be the most problematic part for me.

Mild spoiler from the first few chapters: all the people on the island are accused of murdering one or two people, except for Turner’s character, who unrepentantly admits to killing about 20 African tribesmen. The other characters are appalled, but not enough to my mind, given we are talking about a large-scale massacre. The other characters make stifled British exclamations over it, but still seem to view him as dangerously fascinating. It really did come across as killing 20 Africans is equal in “badness” to killing one to two English people.

and-then-there-were-noneThat was the one sour note for me; overall, it was all very dramatic and fun to watch. Since there was a fair amount of sex and violence, I wondered what liberties the show had taken to ‘modernize’ the source material, so I checked out the book, and it turns out, not much. That Agatha Christy was quite the salty lady! The show ups the ante just a bit on both, but still sticks remarkably close to the original novel.

I’m not going to spoil anything more of the plot – murders! sex! violence! racism! – but Agatha Christy said that she considered this her most difficult plot to write, and her care and eye for detail really shows. Since I already knew whodunit, I could see all the small ways she had revealed that person throughout the plotting, which provided additional enjoyment to rereading it.


By Garth Ennis

PreacherI’ve been looking forward to the tv show “Preacher” for a while before it premiered last month on AMC. I’d never read the comic book, but I think Dominic Cooper is extremely handsome and just needs to be in more shows and movies in general.

The first episode was a fun, over-the-top mishmash of a western, gritty noir, religious horror, and violent comic book action, all of which are things I like. Dominic Cooper, playing the titular preacher Jesse Custer, was as attractive as expected. Ruth Negga plays Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Tulip, and is so witty and lovely that she steals every scene she’s in. The plot was fairly disjointed, but that’s not terribly unusual for a pilot episode, and the second episode had smoother pacing as well more Tulip, which will always be a good thing.

Preacher2For people unfamiliar with the basic premise, Jesse Custer is a preacher in a small Texas town with a dwindling faith and congregation. In the middle of a lackluster sermon, he gets struck by a supernatural entity, which bestows on him the Voice of God, allowing him to command absolute obedience. Any person’s use of this power is clearly problematic, and sets Jesse up as a pretty classic anti-hero. Rebecca pointed out that this is the precise power abused by the terrifying villain Kilgrave in “Jessica Jones.”

Anyway, I was enjoying the show enough that I decided to go back and read the comic books, written by Garth Ennis. Now, I’m a big fan of Ennis, who wrote Hitman, one of my favorite comic series, which I’ll need to review some other time, but I have not been impressed with the Preacher comic series. In the written series, Jesse is not only an anti-hero, but just an all-around dick. He has a really annoying stereotypical masculinity that is a real pain in the ass to read about. To complement this, Tulip is a whiny pushover who I have trouble even understanding, let alone empathizing.

I was complaining about this to the coworker who had lent me his Preacher comics to read, and he had an interesting theory about it. He said that he figured that Ennis was satirizing Texas good-ole-boy culture. The only problem with that is that Northern-Irish Ennis has no idea what he’s talking about. While Texas misogyny can be a real problem, it is also a lot more nuanced that Ennis shows here. But I don’t want to get bogged down in a dissertation on gender roles in Texas culture, and anyway Rebecca can speak to this much better than I can, having lived in Texas for twice as long.

The tv show also gets Texas culture wrong, though not quite as offensively, and I’m willing to overlook it in favor of the improvements in both Jesse and Tulip. However, by the fourth episode, the plot is floundering a little, and I wish they’d pick up comic’s pacing at the very least.


The Man in the High Castle Book vs. Movie Showdown

It often feels like people set up book readers and movie watchers as adversaries, especially when it comes to adaptations of written works to movies (or TV). “Are you mad that they’re turning this into a movie?”  “How bad will the movie be?” “If you didn’t read the book, you’re not really a fan! You can possibly appreciate the story!” And as a self-proclaimed reader who loves books, people seem to think that my loyalty will lie with books and I will be offended by any adaptation. But I actually love watching movies or TV versions of books and short stories! I find it fascinating to see how something from one medium is changed to another. What characters have to be cut or combined to make something work on screen? How does a plot need to be condensed or modified to work visually? Rather than take the changes personally, I find the adaptation process to be like watching someone work out a logic problem and I like seeing the solutions people come up with. For example, when I heard they were making a movie of the Cheryl Strayed book Wild, I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to turn that very introspective story into a movie. But the movie did a fabulous job of weaving in flashbacks while using silence to communicate Strayed’s loneliness and solitude on her hike. After I saw the movie Brokeback Mountain I went and read the source material–in that case, the movie was based on a short story, so the screenwriter had to create new material to fill out the story. If I had read the story first, I would not have believed it could be successfully expanded to a two-hour movie, but that movie is beautiful and, I think, very true to the original story. Adaptations don’t always work, of course–Little Women  is one of my very favorite books of all time, and pretty much every movie version has serious problems with casting (Winona Ryder as Jo, really?) and issues with the (admittedly) serial plot. But I also once saw a stage production of Little Women that was a failure in almost every way, EXCEPT they totally fixed Professor Bhaer by making him the same age as Jo and writing him as an absent-minded young man. He instantly went from creepy to cute. My point here is, I like comparing different media versions of the same material and seeing what works and what doesn’t, but I don’t always feel like I have to rule that one is better than another.

Having said all that, let’s talk about The Man in the High Castle. In late 2015 Amazon released a ten-episode season of an original drama based on the Philip K. Dick novel. I had never read the book, so I went into the show knowing only that it was an alternate history about a world where the Axis won WWII, and the U.S. was now divided into a West Coast occupied by the Japanese, an East Coast occupied by the Nazis, and an independent, lawless Rocky Mountain region. It’s now the early 1960s and the story follows, among other characters, members of a resistance group that are working to smuggle newsreels that seem to show the Axis losing the war to a mystery “man in the high castle” who provides them anti-Axis intel in return. The show definitely has some issues. The most primary characters–young people caught up in both the resistance and a love triangle–are the dullest on the show. Things move slowly at times, and it is dark. Really dark. Like, there were several times when I thought, “Well, surely they won’t go that far.” But, they’re Nazis! Of course they will go that far! But I really enjoyed the show overall. The world building is excellent–the scenes in San Francisco show all sorts of subtle ways that Japanese culture has been woven into the American city–and Rufus Sewell is chilling as a New York-based Nazi leader. And the newsreels that seem to show the U.S. winning the war raise all sorts of interesting questions that introduce a sci-fi element to the story (Are these fake newsreels? Are they showing our world? Is some sort of time travel happening?). By episode 10, the plot was moving along at a good pace and it ended on a cliffhanger than makes me very eager to check out (the yet-to-be-announced) Season 2.

As I was watching I heard, either online or on podcasts, that the plot of the show branched off from the book very quickly, and that in the book the newsreels were actually books themselves. This kind of change–changing a book to a film so it plays better in a visual medium–is exactly the sort of thing that fascinates me, so I decided to read The Man in the High Castle and see how the book compares. WELL. Look, I know that Philip K. Dick is a highly-regarded giant of science fiction, and I’m sure there are people out there railing about how the TV show completely ruined the book. But as far as I am concerned? DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

First of all, the plots of the two versions are wildly different, and the characters just barely even line up. The Rufus Sewell character (probably the most compelling on the show) isn’t in the book at all, and most of the other characters bear little resemblance to their TV versions. The plot does involve a mysterious book and a resistance movement, but that’s about it–it feels as if the TV writers took the basic premise of an occupied U.S. and the character names, and then went off and did their own thing. And for the most part, that new thing is more complex, with more moving parts and more people, than the book. The TV show did drop a few things that could have been interesting–in the book the Nazis are in the process of colonizing Mars–but that were presumably too complicated for TV. But overall I found the multiple plot threads of the TV show more twisty and fun. However, none of that is why I am telling you not to read this book. My issue is that the book was horribly, terribly, sexist and racist. Every female character is both stupid and mean, and Dick makes a disturbing number of “dumb, like all women” comments. And there are plenty of cases where the book will use a racial slur, and it’s obviously because that is what a particular Nazi character would say or how a white man living under Japanese occupation would feel. But there were also lots of times where it seemed pretty clear that Dick was using a slur because he himself did not realize it was a slur. It all made me feel icky and I almost gave up on the book entirely because it was so gross.

So, although I generally don’t feel the need to decide whether the book or the movie (or TV show) wins, or to tell people that one version is definitive, in this case I am clear: the TV show is better. The move down the scale of racism and sexism would be all that I needed to make that call, but I actually also thought that the TV show’s expansion of the plot and characters and the visual world building were significantly more interesting than in the book. So, as long as you have a high tolerance for darkness, I would say watch the show, and don’t feel a single bit of guilt about ignoring the book altogether.



Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries

By Kerry Greenwood

Cover photo: Miss Fisher's Murder MysteriesThe Australian television show is hugely popular on Tumblr, but I’ve been resisting it because it just looked a bit twee for me. However, when trying to unpack those last random boxes from my latest move (including one marked “desk stuff” that I never unpacked from the previous move that turned out to include a large set of random pens, at least half of which had dried out), I ran a couple of episodes from PBS in the background, and I was hooked. Literally, it appears to take two episodes. I finally caved and checked out the first season on DVD from the library, and Rebecca wandered in and out of the room for the first episode, sat down for the second, and then demanded that we watch the remaining ones together. We finally ended up with Netflix primarily to have access to the third and most recent season.

In case you are not on Tumblr and have somehow avoided all the Miss Fisher love, she is a flapper in 1920’s Melbourne, who sort of falls into detection through lack of anything better to do with her life. It is really hard to put my finger on what makes it so addictive, but I think it is primarily due to the characters and the actors. The plotlines are fun, but not too noticeably different from the many, many other mystery shows. Miss Phryne Fisher is unrepentantly wealthy, frivolous, feminist and raunchy, and that is actually very rare in television these days. I think this is probably the biggest aspect of her popularity – we are so parched for portrayals of sex-positive femininity that we will fall all over any and all portrayals like rabid dogs. Which is not to say that Miss Fisher doesn’t deserve all the fandom, but just to try to explain the level of adulation that even the show-creators seem a little puzzled by.

She has endearing friendships with both her best friend, a gay lady doctor, who assists in some of the cases and is wonderfully dry, and her paid companion, Dorothy, who is a relatively conservative Catholic girl slowly falling (rising?) to Miss Fisher’s influence. Her flirtation with the local police inspector is masterful, as he clearly respects her, is attracted to her and finds her intrusive and annoying all at once. Rebecca pointed out that the actor playing the inspector deserves more than whatever they are paying him just for his very restrained but communicative expressions alone.

So, after enjoying Season 1 so much, Rebecca and I checked out a large stack of the novels it is based on. Each one is barely 200-pages long, and we anticipated a lovely month of entertaining fluff, but neither of us cared to actually read more than the first one. There was no obvious flaw to point at, but the charm of the television show just wasn’t there. Miss Fisher is described as significantly younger, and is more sarcastic and dissatisfied, which comes across as sort of bratty. The other characters are similarly diminished – Dorothy is somehow both more bitter and naïve, Inspector Robinson almost nonexistent, and the communist cab drivers more zealous and confrontational.

I started to think of this series as the flipside to the Haunted Bookstore series that I reviewed earlier. With the Haunted Bookstore novels, I could list several concrete reasons why I shouldn’t have enjoyed them, and yet I loved them all completely and read them straight through until I was so sad to reach the end. With the Miss Fisher novels (or at least the first one), there were so many reasons I should have really enjoyed it, and yet I just didn’t. I even found that while I was reading the book, my enjoyment of the television show fell off a little, so while I finished the first book, I determined not to read any more and just enjoy the show on its own.


Moving Pictures

While this is a book blog and we are all book people, we are not anti-TV. We love TV! (Basically, we are just indoor kids.) None of the books I am reading at the moment lend themselves to blogging, but I have watched some GREAT TV this summer* and look, I have a blog! So here are my summer TV recommendations:

UnREAL–This Lifetime drama is set behind the scenes of a fictionalized version of the Bachelor. Did every element of that sentence just make you roll your eyes? Listen, this is not a typical Lifetime show and it’s not really about reality TV. It’s a drama about the trade-offs people make between professional success and personal happiness, and about how far you can bend, ethically, before you break. The most amazing thing about the show is the main character, who I have seen described as a female anti-hero, a reality show Walter White. Shiri Appleby (who I have loved since Roswell and who was great in Life Unexpected, which only I watched) plays Rachel, a producer on the show. She does terrible things, but your heart still breaks for her. Also, she generally looks awful, especially when compared to the glammed out contestants, which was genuinely surprising to see from a woman on television. The first season is just 10 45-minute episodes, and every one gets wilder and wilder. I watched this on my cable’s OnDemand but I think it’s also on the Lifetime app and/or website.

Catastrophe–This is a tiny little show, 6 half hour episodes, and my only complaint is that there is not enough of it. The premise is that an American business man goes to London, has a week-long fling with a British woman, and she gets pregnant. He decides to move to London to be with her and the baby, and the show is them trying to navigate this weird situation like grown-ups. It’s hilarious and raunchy and awfully sweet. As a bonus, Carrie Fisher plays his mother, who is awful. This is available on Amazon, free for those of us with Prime.

The Fall–We all knew that Gillian Anderson was cool, but I am now dedicating my life to becoming her character in this show. Stella Gibson is a British police officer who goes to Belfast to investigate a series of murders being committed by a remarkably well-adjusted serial killer (played by Jamie Dornan). The show spends equal time with these two main characters so, as a viewer, you always know what’s going on–this isn’t a whodunit, it’s about the cat-and-mouse game of the police desperately chasing this guy and him evading them. But the best part is that Stella is this whip smart, sarcastic woman with no patience for men, who always wears the most perfect silk blouses, and is always in control of the situation. My friend Lisa brilliantly summed her up by saying that she’s what Claire Danes’s character on Homeland could have been, if she weren’t so busy crying and falling in love. The show itself is dark and creepy and made me check the chain on my door over and over, but it’s also hypnotic. Watch it on Netflix and turn on the closed captioning so you don’t miss anything between the whispering and the accents.

*One of things that has allowed me to watch all this awesome TV is that I recently got a Roku. I really do not understand all this fancy technology the kids have these days, but I asked my little sister what I needed to do to make Netflix show up big on my TV and she told me to buy a Roku. It was $80 on Amazon, it took me 20 minutes to set up, and it’s amazing.

Finally, just to spread the love across media platforms: a podcast. I have an annoyingly long commute and podcasts keep me sane. Mostly I listen to pop culture podcasts, but I recently found the History of English podcast and I am hooked. This is a VERY detailed review of the history of the English language, starting with it’s earliest origins. Have you ever wondered why sometimes we pronounce the letter c like an s and sometimes like k? There’s a whole episode about that! Would you like to know how the ancient Hittite language is related to English? You’ve come to the right place. This is maybe the geekiest thing I think I have ever been interested in, and that is saying A LOT. There are 60 episodes and counting, so this is an investment, but that’s a plus for me as I look into a future of morning rush hours. Plus, as someone who had years of speech therapy and can still just barely control what sounds come out of my mouth, I am fascinated by linguists who can demonstrate what Old English or Proto-Indo-European would have sounded like. That ability feels like a superpower to me, and the host of this podcast does a great job of it.