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A renowned cyberpsychologist (no, I hadn’t heard of that job title either) discusses the impact of the cyberworld which we are all living in, our 24/7 connection to the internet, and the effect that it is having on a generation that are growing up with the internet as a huge part of their lives.

Admittedly, the subtitle of this book, A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist explains how human behaviour changes online – led me to expect something different. I thought it was going to be more about how perfectly decent and reasonable people often descend into bullying, unkind, trolling behaviour when hiding behind the anonymity of their keyboard. There is a chapter that deals with this, but generally speaking the book is more generalised, but still an interesting subject to discuss.

I wanted to read it because I do think this is an important and fascinating subject. Because I find it interesting and upsetting to walk into a restaurant and see a couple eating at the same table, but not really together because both of them have their eyes glued to their phones. Because it’s not unusual to see a group of young friends walking together, each looking at their own smartphone screens. Because there is now a whole wealth of knowledge at people’s fingertips, yet a lot of it is false or biased.

Unfortunately I also found this book to be incredibly biased. Yes, technology is isolating for some people, but there is so much good about it too. Dr Aiken says in the introduction that she wants to keep the book fairly science-light, which she does. This makes it easier to read in many respects, but also means that a lot of what she says comes over as purely her opinion with very little if anything to back it up. There’s a lot of “I would guess…” “It is my belief that…” “I believe…” etc. She does state a couple of times that there are a lot of positives about the internet, but doesn’t really acknowledge what they are, and focusses heavily on the negative.

Some of the subjects raised are vitally important – the aforementioned effect of bullying online, and how it is affecting mainly young people. There was one chapter about the effects of screens at close range to a child’s face and the effect it can have on that child’s vision. Cyberchondria – i.e., the obsessive checking of physical symptoms online and being convinced that you have the most serious disease imaginable. But none of these are new phenomenons. I remember the debates about whether it was right or just lazy to stick a child in front of the tv for very long. Bullying is unfortunately something that has been around as long as humans have, and hypochondria is a long recognised problem for many people – sure the internet has given people a new way to do all of these things, but it hasn’t caused the problems in the first place.

Although there is little anecdotal evidence to support what Dr Aiken says, she does occasionally come up with examples of what she is trying to say – usually tragic, anomalous stories (let’s face it, you can find one story to support almost anything you believe if you look hard enough).

I will say that Dr Aiken has an engaging and readable style and had the book been more balanced I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. As it was, it comes across as more of a lost opportunity than anything else. An important subject, but a more open-minded discussion would have been nice.

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I first saw this film when it came out in 1985, and thought it was well past overdue another look. I do believe that this was the film that first made me aware of Daniel Day-Lewis, and upon rewatching it, it’s easy to see the star quality that subsequently helped him become such a huge name, and a three time winner at the Oscars.

My Beautiful Laundrette tells the story of the homosexual, mixed race love affair between Omar (Gordon Warnecke) and Johnny (Daniel Day-Lewis). Omar is a young man trapped between two cultures and indeed two relatives – his alcoholic father, who has both intelligence and integrity, and his capitalist uncle, who has money but considerably less scruples. Johnny is one of a group of thugs, but he genuinely wants to change his ways, and like Omar is trapped between the world that he came from and the world that he is moving into. Together they revamp Omar’s uncle’s rundown laundrette, but with both of them with a foot in two worlds, and unable to reveal their relationship to their nearest and dearest, their lives get complicated and fraught with tension.

I should say that this film is so much more than the relationship between the two men. It’s also a social commentary, with some scenes of racism that were uncomfortable to watch. Seeing Omar skirt on the fringes of his uncle’s employee Salim’s criminal enterprise, while Johnny was simultaneously trying to become a better person was an interesting comparison, as was witnessing the success of Omar’s uncle, compared to the dismal life that his father led, despite being the more intelligent and principled of the two men.

The film definitely portrayed an authentic atmosphere of living in a run-down neighbourhood with few prospects, and the frustration of feeling trapped, but through it all, the hopefulness of Omar and Johnny both in their relationship and in their business came through.

I would say that some of the acting was not brilliant, but Daniel Day-Lewis was (of course) outstanding, and special credit also to Roshan Seth as Omar’s father.

I definitely enjoyed this film and highly recommend it.

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Year of release: 1985

Director: Stephen Frears

Writer: Hanif Kureishi

Main cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Said Jeffrey, Gordon Warnecke, Roshan Seth

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Tom Riley plays DI Will Wagstaffe, the officer in charge of an investigation into a brutal murder and a number of brutal assaults in London. It doesn’t take long before Will and his team realise that suspected paedophiles are being targeted, and the race is on to find out who is exacting their own vigilante justice. Meanwhile Will himself is haunted by his own demons, as he struggles to cope with the murder of his own parents several years earlier.

This tv film was a one off, although it almost feels like the pilot for a series; if it was made into a series, I would certainly watch it. I thought Tom Riley was excellent in the main role – both believable as a police officer and also in his personal life as he tried to come to terms with the fact that he would soon have lived longer since his parents’ murder that he had lived before the horrific event that changed his life for good. I also thought that his loving but tense relationship with his sister Juliette (Charlotte Riley, no relation) was very well portrayed. Both siblings have been affected in different ways by the family tragedy and although they clearly love each other, they sometimes struggle to understand each other.

The crime aspect of the story was very well done, and I was kept guessing until the end. The only thing that spoiled it slightly for me was that the ending did seem a bit cliched and stretched the boundaries of belief somewhat. Despite this though, overall the film was well acted and there were plenty of things to keep the viewer guessing.

I hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Will Wagstaffe and his team – I will be looking out for more feature length tv films with these characters.

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Year of release: 2016

Director: Colin Teague

Writer: Chris Lang

Main cast: Tom Riley, Charlotte Riley, Edward Akrout, Tom Brooke, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Miranda Raison

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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.