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Synopsis

This novel is set in present-day London during a global pandemic. People are suffering from what is being called ‘The Sweats’ and there is no cure. In the  midst of this, TV saleswoman Stevie Flint discovers her boyfriend Simon Sharkey dead in bed. Soon after, she herself starts suffering from the sweats but unlike most others, she recovers.

Stevie works out that Simon’s death was not due to the illness, but that he was in fact murdered, and she starts investigating who killed Simon and why, but when people are dying all around, it’s hard to get anyone else to care about one single death.

As social order collapses, and crime rates soar, Stevie finds herself alone and afraid, but determined to uncover the truth about her boyfriend.

My thoughts

I am really in two minds about this one. On the one hand I love dystopian fiction and I did enjoy the parts of this book that dealt with the aftermath of the pandemic – people’s terror on the one hand, and their abandonment of all societal norms on the other. However, the murder mystery aspect became the greater story with the pandemic more of a backdrop, and the mystery itself did not really grab my attention. For all that, it was still a quick read and the sort of story I could imagine being adapted for a tv mini series. I’m not entirely sure that I liked Stevie – she seemed devoid of emotion for a large part of the story – but I did kind of grudgingly admire her determination and courage.

I didn’t think it was particularly well written (in contrast to the last book of Louise Welsh’s I read, The Bullet Trick, which I thought was very well written) – Simon was supposed to be in his early 40s and reference is made to a schoolfriend in the same year who now has a son of 29. Not beyond the realms of possibility, but there is nothing to suggest that the man was particularly young when he had his son, although he would have had to have been. A lot of the story seemed to be ‘Stevie did this and then she did that’, and unfortunately the final part was something of an anti-climax.

For all that though, I did race through it quickly and while it wasn’t exactly a can’t-put-down book, it also wasn’t a can’t-bear-to-pick-up book. So a bit of a middling read for me. It has garnered very mixed reviews, with some people loving it and others absolutely hating it. I’m not sure I would recommend it to others, but I would still probably give this author another look if she brought out another book with an interesting subject.

 

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Three bored friends, widowed Alexandra (Cher), newly divorced uptight musician Jane (Susan Sarandon) and single mother of five Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer) all wish that they could meet an interesting man to shake up their lives in the New England town of Eastwick. Enter the devilishly charming Darryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) who not only shakes up their lives, but causes scandal, gossip throughout the neighbourhood, especially upsetting the devoutly religious Felicia, who is the wife of Sukie’s boss.

Darryl seduces all three women and they all stay at his mansion with him, living a life of decadence but when they realise that the town of Eastwick is gossiping about them and calling them all names, they decide that something needs to be done. And then the trouble really starts…

I remember watching this film when it first came out in 1987, and although I had forgotten some of the details, I do recall thinking that it was a lot of fun and visually spectacular, but all kind of fell apart at the end. And this was more or less my feelings on this occasion too, although to say it fell apart is perhaps a bit harsh. The first two thirds of the film are wonderful – the four main members of the cast are superb, especially Jack Nicholson and Cher, and the colour and lavish production are a treat for the eyes. The last third of the film is possibly a bit overblown – I won’t give away what happens in case of spoilers; it may be a fairly old movie by now, but still people will be watching it for the first time – and visual effects seem to take over from the story itself, but it’s still good fun.

Susan Sarandon seems to thoroughly enjoy her role, and the transformation of Jane from a repressed and nervous woman into a sexually adventurous and sensual lady. Michelle Pfeiffer too plays her part as sweet Sukie very well, but it’s Cher as the bohemian, straight talking Alexandra who stood out for me amongst the three female leads. But Jack Nicholson – a man who was probably born for such a part – steals his scenes. Although he is rude and provocative, he does indeed have a lot of charisma and you can see why these women would be attracted to him.

If you like fantasy with your comedy and this one has slipped under your radar, I recommend it – it’s entertaining and amusing, with a great cast.

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Year of release: 1987

Director: George Miller

Writers: John Updike (novel), Michel Cristofer

Main cast: Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon, Jack Nicholson, Richard Jenkins, Veronica Cartwright, Carel Struycken

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friends_with_money_ver5_xlgThis 2008 film is marketed as a comedy/drama/romance, and I’m not really sure that it falls into any of those categories (well, maybe drama). I enjoyed it a lot though, in no small part due to the excellent cast.

Jennifer Aniston is Olivia, the only one of her group of friends who actually doesn’t have money -and who, having left her job as a teacher (for reasons that remain unspecified) is now working as a maid and struggling to make ends meet. She is also the only member of her group who is unmarried, although the marriages of her three best friends range from happy to hateful. There are successful co-authors Christine and David (Catherine Keener and Jason Isaacs) who not only no longer love each other, but don’t seem to even like each other. Their conversations are filed with hate and vicious barbs at each other. Then there is clothing designer Jane and body care entrepeneur Aaron (Frances McDormand and Simon McBurney) who seem generally happy with each other, although Jane is starting to feel old and angry at the world, and almost everyone Aaron encounters thinks that he is gay, and indeed this includes the viewer – well this viewer anyway. Finally there is stay at home wife Franny (who doesn’t need to work because she has a huge trust fund) and accountant Matt (Joan Cusack and Greg Germann) who do actually seem to love each other and have a happy marriage.

The friends try to helo Olivia in various ways – Franny sets her up with a personal trainer named Mike (Scott Can) who right from the beginning is quite obviously a complete swine and only gets worse, and they try to encourage her to get a better job, while being exasperated at her pot-smoking lifestyle.

And that’s more or less it. Lots of things happen, but nothing actually happens if that makes sense. This film is really an exploration of these people’s lives. The kind of scenes that we witness are totally believeable (two of three friends discussing the absent friend), Olivia mooning over a married ex-boyfriend, Christine sobbing over the realisation that she and her husband are no longer happy together…in truth, if you like a lot of action in your films, then this is not one for you. The ending itself is fairly inconclusive. It doesn’t come full circle with a neat conclusion, instead the whole movie is like a slice of life, and the ending is just the point where they’ve stopped showing these lives, but certainly the lives will continue with the little human dramas and triumph that pepper these characters’ stories.

The cast is sublime. Frances McDormand continues to demonstrate exactly why she is so highly regarded – she is one of those actresses who can convey so much with just a facial expression or simple gesture. Catherine Keener’s Christine’s sadness is almost palpable, and Joan Cusack is adorable as Franny, and so real. And if anyone has doubts about Jennifer Aniston’s acting, then there are a lot of films I might direct them to, but I would probably start with this one. She is not always likeable as Olivia, and sometimes I wanted to shake her, but she was absolutely easy to invest in, and just as people do in real life, sometimes I wanted to give her a cuddle and tell her it would all be okay, and sometimes I wanted to yell at her.

Credit also to the male actors – Jason Isaacs played a particularly unlikeable character, but he played him so well. (Isaacs is one of my favourite actors, as he has great range, and is so real in everything he does). Greg Germann was great too as Matt, but I just adored Simon McBurney, who was kind, clever and sweet as Aaron.

In all, I would say that if you like slow paced character studies, rather than high octane thrillers, give this a go. I enjoyed it a lot and hope you do too.

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Year of release: 2008

Director: Nicole Holofcener

Writer: Nicole Holofcener

Main cast: Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs, Greg Germann, Scott Caan

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I have been on a bit of an Agatha Christie roll lately. Having never read anything by her before last year (and never watched any of the TV or film adaptations), I was inspired to read And Then There Were None, after watching the superb TV adaptation of that novel at the end of 2016. Since then, I’ve been catching up on other TV films and have several of her novels stockpiled to read.

My reason for wanting to read this particular book was that the title story, The Witness for the Prosecution, has also been adapted by the BBC, and I wanted to read the story first. I was slightly surprised that it was a short story (and that it was as short as it was), but I enjoyed it. That said, I did not think the twist was quite as spectacular as I had been led to believe by other reviews, and it wasn’t my favourite story in the collection.

The other stories with brief descriptions, are as follows:

  • The Red Signal (I had read this one before): A story of mental illness and unhappy marriages. Sounds cheery doesn’t it?! I liked it a lot though.
  • The Fourth Man: Four men are on a train, and three of them know each other. The fourth man is drawn into their conversation and reveals some interesting details about an infamous woman they are discussing. Enjoyable on the whole, although it was an entirely different story to what I was anticipating from the set-up.
  • SOS: A man’s car breaks down and he seeks refuge for the night with a family who are clearly hiding secrets. He endeavours to find out what they are (and naturally does so). I liked it. It had an air of sinisterness about it – which admittedly is Agatha Christie’s forte – which worked well.
  • Wireless: This was probably my favourite one in the whole collection. An elderly woman has heart problems and is warned that she must not get too excitable and also must not brood on her troubles. Her nephew buys her a wireless to take her mind off things, but then strange events start happening. Although I thought it was fairly easy to guess who was responsible, an added twist at the end made this thoroughly enjoyable.
  • The Mystery of the Blue Jar (another one I had read before). A young man is driven mad when he hears a voice call out ‘Murder’ at the same time every morning while he is on the golf course. He befriends a young woman and her father who live nearby and together they try to work out what is happening. Probably my second favourite in this collection.
  • Sing a Song of Sixpence: Bit of an odd one this. The mystery itself was clever enough – a woman is murdered and the four members of her family who are the potential suspects all seem to be innocent, but there appears to be no possibility that it could be anyone else – however, I did feel that the reader had been tricked a bit when the final denouement was revealed. Also, I did not like the chauvinistic detective figure in this one!
  • Mr Eastwood’s Adventure (aka The Mystery of the Second Cucumber): This was a lot of fun, and another contender for my second favourite of the collection. A man receives a mysterious phone call, clearly meant for someone else, and cannot resist investigating. Naturally he gets himself entangled in all manner of problems. This was quite amusing. I would have stuck with the original title of The Mystery of the Second Cucumber though.
  • Philomel Cottage: A woman marries a man after a brief romance. She then learns that he is a murderous psychopath and has to plan a way to get out alive. This was probably the weakest of the collection for me, which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reading it. I had forgotten the ending when I came to write this review though, which is never a good sign!
  • Accident: Two men are discussing a woman who one of them is convinced is a murderer who has started her life anew under a different name. They believe that her current husband is at risk of being killed by her, and one of them sets out to try and stop that happening.
  • The Second Gong: A family gather for dinner but the uncle is found shot dead in a locked room. It appears that he has committed suicide but Hercule Poirot is convinced that there has been foul play. And Poirot of course always gets his man. I like Poirot stories partly because I love David Suchet and always think of him in the role. This was very cleverly done, and I enjoyed it a lot.
  • Hercule Poirot and the Regatta Mystery: Another Poirot story – a group of people are gather together and a valuable diamond goes missing. The indefatigable Belgian detective is called in to work out who has taken it. Naturally he figures it out.

I’ll be honest here and say that as a general rule, I am not a huge fan of short stories. I prefer novels, where we get to know characters better and plot-lines are more developed. However, as an undemanding diversion these stories worked perfectly well – as can only be expected, some are more enjoyable than others, and probably every reader will have their own ideas of which were the best and which were the worst. It’s also worth mentioning that if you already have any short story collections of Agatha Christie, it’s worth checking that you don’t already possess all of these stories before spending money on this specific book. Most of these appear in the Miss Marple and Mystery story collect and others appear in other collections by Christie.

Overall, based on this collection I remain a fan of Agatha Christie although I definitely prefer her longer novels.

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As a teenager, Theo Decker survives a terrorist attack in a museum, which kills his beloved mother. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Theo makes a split second decision and steals a painting which his mother always loved – The Goldfinch. This incident, and indeed the painting itself, sets the course for his life – a life which as a reader, we join him on as he makes friends and enemies, makes bad decisions which reverberate for years, falls in love and in lust, and eventually gets mixed up in the criminal underworld.

Well, this is a brick of a book – coming in at over 850 pages of smallish font – if I’m honest, the size of it put me off reading it for a while, but once I picked it up I was glad I had done so. After reading it, I did what I usually do when finishing a book and went online to read reviews of it. What struck me the most was that it seems to be a very polarising read – people generally loved it or hated it. It certainly seems to be the least well received of all of Donna Tartt’s offerings, and this is good news for me, because if this is the worst she has to offer, then I definitely look forward to reading the best! I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the first two thirds, which cover Theo’s teenage years. It’s fair to say that not all of the characters are particularly likeable (except for Hobie, Theo’s guardian of sorts, who is just adorable), but they are all beautifully drawn and utterly believable.

The writing is elegant and often beautiful – Tartt uses a lot of words to describe the most mundane and ordinary events, and while this can be annoying with some authors (just get to the point!!) here it works really well, because it is just such a pleasure to read lovely prose. The story is told in the first person from Theo’s point of view, which is good because if we had seen Theo from the outside in, I think he would have been much harder to like or understand.

If I’m honest, I did think that the last part of the book paled in comparison to what had gone before, but it still held my attention and at the end, I came away satisfied.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book – don’t be put off by the size…while the story doesn’t always move particularly quickly, the writing does draw you in. I look forward to reading more by Donna Tartt.

Exam (2009)

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Eight strangers enter a room to take an exam, which will determine which one of them gets a highly desirable job. The invigilator gives them a list of rules which they must follow, and if they break any of the rules they will be automatically disqualified. They are all confused when they turn over their exam papers and realise there is nothing on them…and as tension mounts, it becomes clear that some people will stop at nothing to get the job of their dreams.

This film has everything that I enjoy – it takes place in real time, it’s dystopian by nature (we are told that it is set ‘soon’), it has a small cast, and it all takes place in one location. I was already onto a winner before I even started watching this, and it didn’t let me down! It’s a low-budget British film with a largely unknown cast (Colin Salmon plays the invigilator and Jimi Mistry plays one of the candidates, and they are the two best known names in the cast), which is in no way a criticism. I don’t know why I love films that are set in one small location, but I really do enjoy them – I suspect that it’s the claustrophobic atmosphere – a theme which is really played on in this movie.

I love films that put characters in situations that bring out either their best or worst natures and this certainly does that. Leaders emerge, people’s strengths and weaknesses are revealed, alliances are forged and broken, and people have to make life or death decisions.

As a viewer, we never get to know too much about any of the candidates. Their real names are never revealed; instead they give each other nicknames. In a few cases we may learn a little about their personal lives, but they remain as much a mystery to the viewer as they do to each other.

This film reminded me somewhat of films like Cube or Unknown – the premise is the same …a group of strangers find themselves in a situation and have to work out how to get out of it (or in this case, how to win the coveted prize). Like those films, I enjoyed every moment and it held my attention from beginning to end. If you are a fan of psychological thrillers I would highly recommend this.

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Year of release: 2009

Director: Stuart Hazeldine

Writer: Stuart Hazeldine

Main cast: Colin Salmon, Jimi Mistry, Adar Beck, Gemma Chan, Nathalie Cox, John Lloyd Fillingham, Chukwudi Iwuji, Pollyanna McIntosh, Luke Mably, Chris Carey

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Last Chance Harvey (2008)

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Dustin Hoffman is jingle writer Harvey Shine, in London for his daughter’s wedding, and feeling isolated. He has a strained relationship with his daughter and his ex-wife – who is now happily remarried – and his job is looking shaky. But then he meets lonely airport worker Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), who is jaded by her lack of love life and her mother’s stifling emotional dependence, and maybe, just maybe there might a chance of happiness for the two of them.

I felt that this was a lovely film – not really a comedy although there were some funny scenes, but very poignant and thanks to the two main leads, immensely watchable (it’s a fairly short film at just over 90 minutes, but seemed to pass by in half in hour!) Harvey is not an altogether likeable character – he can be brusque, and he has clearly not been there for his daughter when she has needed him – but Hoffman’s performance still makes you want to root for him, while acknowledging his flaws. In the hands of a different actor, Harvey could have been someone whose happiness meant little to viewers, but I wanted him to be okay and to get his second shot at happiness. And as for Emma Thompson – well, Kate was always the more sympathetic of the two characters, but Thompson’s acting is just sublime. You really felt what she was going through in each scene – the awkward blind date, where friends of the man her friend has set her up with gatecrash the evening, the awkwardness tinged with delight at finding herself at a wedding reception where she barely knows anyone, and the frustration of dealing with her mother (Eileen Atkins) who Kate clearly loves dearly but who obviously feels the need to unleash every thought on her daughter at any given time.

This is a lovely film, which seemed to slip under the radar at the time of release – watch it for the novelty of seeing a film about romance between two people who are over the age of 30 and who don’t necessarily look like they have just sashayed off the catwalk. Watch it for the incredible acting. Watch it to find yourself really caring about these believable, flawed people. Whatever your reason, just watch it!

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Year of release: 2008

Director: Joel Hopkins

Writer: Joel Hopkins

Main cast: Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Eileen Atkins, Kathy Baker, James Brolin, Liane Balaban

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