The Favourite (2018)

Movie – In the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), early 18th century England, the physically and emotionally frail queen rules with the support of Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), her oldest and closest friend. When a cousin of Lady Sarah’s arrives at court, fallen on hard times and happy to take a job as a servant, Lady Sarah takes her under her wing, giving cousin Abigail a chance to regain her aristocratic status. War rages in France, Abigail (Emma Stone) takes advantage of Lady Sarah’s distraction to insinuate herself into the queen’s affections, and soon the war between the two women is as fierce as anything being fought on the Continent.

This is often described as a sex comedy, and while there’s quite a bit of sex and any number of funny moments, I wouldn’t call it a comedy – it’s far too bittersweet. The Favourite is a political story, full of backstabbing and dirty dealing, as nasty as anything out of House of Cards. It’s also a story about love and loyalty, including broken loyalties and broken hearts, and the particularly messy space occupied by women who love women in a time and social class when everyone must be married and produce heirs. This is a multi-layered film, and dismissing it as a sex comedy with good costumes (although the costumes are exceptional) is a great disservice.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Book– Do not let the book’s thickness fool you. Knowing that I gravitate towards historical fiction novels, a dear friend of mine recommended All the Light We Cannot See and I could not put it down!

Doerr uses succinct, alternating chapters narrated by a blind French girl and a German boy, illustrating different perspectives of World War II from a child’s point of view. Although the Holocaust, Russian sieges, invasion of Paris, and the Allied Invasion of France are acknowledged, it is worth noting that the author assumes readers have some background on World War II, as the novel’s focus is on how the character’s development is shaped by war conflict.

Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, who works at the Museum of Natural History. The museum is rumored to hold The Sea of Flames, a jewel whose beholder becomes immortal at the expense of all their loved ones fatal suffering. At six years old, Marie-Laure’s vision deteriorates and she eventually loses her eyesight completely. Despite Marie-Laure’s visual impairment, her father makes it his mission that she learn to navigate on her own. He builds a miniature model of the town so she can tactilely memorize her way about the neighborhood. Fast-forward six years to Nazi-occupied Paris. Seeking refuge, Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo and stay with her agoraphobic great-uncle, and with them, they carry the most valuable and dangerous stone, The Sea of Flames.

Werner is an orphan boy who lives in a mining town in Germany. Fond of applied mathematics and science, he is fully enticed with the processes behind operating and maintaining devices, so much so that he becomes the town’s go-to person for fixing various radios. After another successful repair, Werner is recruited to an academy for Hitler’s Youth, where his talents will be put to use. Werner is kept in the dark regarding the implications of his special assignments to track the resistance. At first, he creates triangles and finds points on a map, and only later comes to realize the destruction caused by his seemingly innocuous actions. Torn between doing what is expected and understanding what is moral, Werner questions his loyalties when he and Marie-Laure’s paths converge in their attempts to survive Saint-Malo’s bombings.

All the Light We Cannot See poses compelling questions about fate, free will, and making the right choice in a time when the pressures of political forces meet moral ambiguities. It is available in book, audiobook on CD, and e-audiobook via OverDrive formats.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

Book – What’s a young woman to do when she’s possessed by a singularly brilliant mind and a distinct disdain for social conventions? If the young woman in question is Charlotte Holmes, main character of Sherry Thomas’ A Study in Scarlet Women, the answer to that question is; deliberately be caught behaving scandalously to avoid being forced to marry, move in with former actress and well-to-do widow Mrs. Joanna Watson, and set up a private detective agency under the fake name “Sherlock Holmes.” After all, no one in Victorian London would come to a lady consulting detective.

A Study in Scarlet Women is both a character study and mystery novel. However, as a mystery, the pace moves fairly slowly at first. Readers should be aware that for the first third of the story the actual murder mystery takes a back seat to character development. But with characters like these, it’s worth waiting for the plot to pick up. Thomas does an excellent job exploring the many ways Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and John Watson would be very different characters if they’d been born and raised as middle class women in an extremely male dominated society, inured in all the strict social guidelines that women were expected to abide by. This extra care and consideration makes for three dimensional characters that practically leap off of the page. And when the mystery plot does take off, watch out. It becomes hard to put the book down as Thomas throws misdirections and surprise twists at the reader, concluding in a startling and highly enjoyable finish. Readers who enjoy Sherlock Holmes adaptations and books that focus on strong character development should definitely check out A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Book–Henry “Monty” Montague, bisexual teenager and soon-to-be British lord, is a drunk disappointment to his abusive father. His last hurrah before descending into the doldrums of running the estate at his father’s side is his grand tour, the trip around the European continent that many young male aristocrats take to shore up overseas alliances and soak up some culture. Monty is not interested in alliances or culture; he’s interested in (read: has a massive crush on) his traveling companion, his biracial best friend Percy, and in getting drunk and laid as much as possible. Monty’s tour gets hijacked by his father sending along his sharp-tongued little sister Felicity and, even worse, a chaperone to keep Monty on a strict itinerary. However, when Monty swipes a MacGuffin from one of his father’s allies and highwaymen ransack their carriage to get it back, their tour takes a sharp turn toward adventure, complete with alchemy, pirates, and even true love.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is so darn much fun. Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all such well-drawn characters with great dialog and relationships with each other. While each of the characters has some darkness and secrets in them, the overall tone is optimistic. If I had any complaint about this book, it’s that it felt too modern. Monty’s coolness with his bisexuality (and conception of it as such) among other things seems anachronistic and is not entirely explained away by the Author’s Note at the end. If you enjoy this one, you might also like the Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette for a darker, more complex take on an adventuring and queer romance story or Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda if you were into it for the character dynamics and romance, but not the adventure.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

dbd04a03f81f114a28fac1068a273e72Book—  His Bloody Project concerns the murder of a husband, wife, and child in a remote 1800s Scottish highland town. There is no question that local teenager Roderick Macrae is guilty. Framed as a series of historical documents found by the author, Macrae’s fictional descendant, the novel captivates not on the basis of who did the murders, but why he did the murders. We get views of Roderick from his neighbors, his lawyer, the newspapers, his priest, a famed criminal anthropologist of the time, and his own diary, each of them proffering viable explanations . Despite all of this testimony, I was unsure at the end what motivated Macrae and am still spinning theories to explain his reasons.

I was surprised to learn this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His Bloody Project has all the drive and atmosphere of a tautly written thriller and is more reminiscent of the documentary Making a Murderer than the literary fare that generally garners Man Booker prizes. If you enjoy this novel, I would recommend others with compelling, unreliable narrators in historical settings, such as The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

51323qF2glL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Book–In the port town of Malacca in Malaya in the 19th century (modern-day Malaysia), Li Lan is the daughter of a impoverished-but-genteel opium addict. Though of marriageable age, Li Lan receives no suitors but one: the prestigious Lim family wants her for their only son’s bride. There’s a catch, however. Lim Tian Ching, heir to the Lim family fortune, has recently died under mysterious circumstances and is demanding a bride from beyond the grave. Ghost marriage, an ancient but rarely practiced custom, is used to soothe an angry spirit, and guarantees the bride’s place in her groom’s house for the rest of her life.

Before Li Lan has even accepted the proposal, Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt her, and she is drawn into lifelike nightmares that sap away her energy. Li Lan is torn between the waking world and the shadowy ghost world where, if she’s not careful, she may remain forever.

The gorgeous, strange setting of turn of the century Malaya and the dreamlike ghost world draw the reader in, stealing the show from the somewhat milquetoast Li Lan and her trite love triangle between new Lim heir Tian Bai and mysterious spirit Er Lang. The Ghost Bride will appeal to those who enjoyed the movie Spirited Away, which has a similar beautiful, nightmarish, dream-logic setting and characters drawn with a light hand.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

indexBook–Based on some 200 cases of ‘fasting girls’ in the US and Great Britain throughout the 19th century, The Wonder follows Lib Wright, a no-nonsense nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, who is contracted to determine the veracity of the titular Wonder, a young Irish girl named Anna O’Donnell whose family claims she, of her own volition, has not eaten since her birthday several months ago. Together with taciturn nun Sister Michael, the two women watch Anna in shifts, Lib hoping to expose the O’Donnell family as frauds and secure her own reputation back home. Lib begins to realize, though, as she gets closer to Anna, that their watch is rather cruel. If, up until their watch, Anna has been fed in some covert way and their watch has put an end to it, they are complicit in starving Anna. As Anna begins to grow weak with undernourishment, Lib must decide if she will watch Anna’s slow death, as the village seems to wish her to do, or put a stop to it.

Set just after the Great Famine, the reader can easily see how Anna and her family have made a virtue of not eating. A child who claimed to be full quickly would be a source of relief to her struggling parents. The unique setting, religious faith, and a web of irresponsible adults and family secrets conspire to keep Anna trapped in her fasting and it is difficult to read. The reader feels culpable for Anna’s abuse just as Lib does. This intense read combines the richly detailed, thoroughly researched historical fiction that Donoghue is known for with the pulse-pounding immediacy of her 2010 breakthrough hit Room.

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

isabelBook – The Japanese Lover is a sweeping saga of enduring passion, friendship and reminiscing in old age.  It is also a tale of secrets.  Our central character, Alma Belasco in her 70’s has come to the realization that her health is failing.  Her personal assistant, Irina along with Alma’s grandson, Seth have been asked to help her write her family history.  They suspect that Alma has a lover, because she leaves her nursing home to go on secret errands every few weeks with an overnight bag packed with lingerie.  The story of a romance slowly unfolds as we go back to pre WWII, when Alma at the age of 8 arrives from Poland to live with her uncle’s family in San Francisco to keep her safe from the looming war back home. Feeling displaced, she quickly becomes friends with Ichimei the son of the family’s gardener.  Spanning over 50 years their love for each other remains strong, despite many separations including the internment of Ichimei and his family in Utah after Pearl Harbor.  The two manage to meet sporadically over the years despite children and spouses. Irina and Seth piece together some of the story by going through Alma’s correspondence and diaries. But Alma is not the only one with a mystery, Irina’s panful past is also revealed.

This is a lovely spellbinding, and bittersweet story. This book reminded me of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and you might also enjoy Garden of Evening Mists.  We have many of Isabel Allende’s other titles.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

indexBook – The opening of the book sets the tone of A Reliable Wife. Widower Ralph Truitt waits on a train platform in bitter cold blizzardy conditions in rural Wisconsin.  It is 1907 and the wealthy business man awaits his future bride, Catherine from Chicago, whom he chose from numerous responses to his newspaper ad seeking a “reliable wife”.  He is shocked to find that the photograph that she had sent him represented her as a plain looking woman versus the stunning beauty before him and it makes him wonder what other secrets she may be keeping from him.  Despite his suspicions, he marries her anyway due to his loneliness and his own ulterior motives. Catherine, haunted by a tragic past is motivated by greed and plans to eventually leave Wisconsin as a wealthy widow.

After the wedding Catherine and Ralph treat each other amicably. Catherine tries to be cheerful, though she feels trapped, because of the cold and snow. She also misses her fast-paced life in the city.  Sensing her restlessness Ralph reveals to her a splendid house on the property filled with treasures.  He had built it for his wife, Emilia and had not gone in it since her death.  Ralph also wants to find his estranged son to atone for the abuse that he had stowed upon him. So when some detectives have a lead that he is in St. Louis, Catherine jumps at the chance to go kick up her heels in the city under the pretext that she would try to coax Andy to come home to his father.

Things become more twisted when Andy becomes part of the plot. The gothic tone of this suspenseful story will keep the reader engrossed and the pages turning. If Hitchcock would have been alive, I’m sure he would have made a movie out of this. This book reminded me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Redwood & Wildfire by Andrea Hairston

imagesBook – Redwood is a girl with music in her bones and magic in her fingers, a born performer with a gift for hoodoo and witchcraft. She was never going to be the kind of girl who stayed home on the farm, but rural Georgia in the early 20th century is a dangerous place for a black girl in love with an Irish-Seminole man. So she and her lover Aidan strike out for the big city to get into the movies — Chicago, the birthplace of American filmmaking.

This is a poetic kind of book, full of enchanting twists and turns, beautiful vignettes of what life was and could have been like for people usually ignored by history, although it’s not strong on plot; if you want a strong story to carry you through, you might want to skip this one. But like a mosaic, the scenes in Redwood & Wildfire add up to more than the sum of their parts. If you love magic, romance, Blues music, movies, Chicago, and glimpses of joy that emerge from the struggle for survival, give this book a try, I think you’ll like it. (And if you do, don’t miss its science-fiction sequel, Will Do Magic for Small Change.)