A tale of two movies: You’ve got mail (1998)

 

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Just for fun, I thought I’d review an old favourite of mine today: You’ve got mail.

Along with disaster movies, I have a soft spot for rom-coms. You’ve got mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan is one that resonates with me, because I met my wife online through an AOL chatroom (as the characters do), and it’s one of the first movies we watched together.

But the last time I watched it, something occurred to me that changed everything…

The Nice

The story is that our Meg lives a quiet life running a quiet bookshop in New York. She’s never wandered close to the cliff edges of her life and looked down, and she’s never thought about what would happen if the cliff ever gave way…

She talks online to a man she’s never met, spilling her innermost thoughts and desires to this man without even knowing his name. Unfortunately for her, the man is our Tom, who owns a mega-bookstore around the corner from Meg’s bookshop. It pushes our Meg over the edge of one of those cliffs.

Since Tom doesn’t know who Meg is either, much mis-understanding results until they all get it sorted out at the end. About halfway through, Tom figures it out, but realises he needs to change before Meg will go near him. He starts a project to win her over by getting to know her in real life.

And the ending where Meg is standing there figuring it all out as Tom walks towards her makes me tear up every time.

No, that’s just something in my eye, I’m not crying. You’re crying.

The Nasty

I work in a school, in IT, and one of the things we have to be aware of (and not just me, everyone who works here) is something called “safeguarding”. The internet, for all its wonders, is a dangerous place. There are people out there who want to groom our pupils for their own malicious ends.

So let’s look at You’ve got mail again:

Meg talks online to a man she’s never met, spilling her innermost thoughts and desires to this man without even knowing his name. They’ve agreed anonymity. Meg has no idea who she’s talking to, or what he’s doing with that information. She doesn’t even know if it’s one man or several sharing the same account. Some major red flags right there!

About halfway through, Tom figures it out. He doesn’t tell Meg this. He blatantly manipulates her throughout the rest of the movie, pulling her along. His online knowledge of her allows him to twist Meg into the shape he wants until she is convinced she’s in love with him.

At the same time, his online persona continues to tease her interest for the eventual meeting. Tom even says towards the end, “He waited until you were primed. Until you knew there was no other man you could ever love.”

Ted Bundy was charming too!

This is textbook grooming. Tom has cut Meg off from her boyfriend and isolated her from her business and her friends. He’s spun her and confused her enough that she can’t help fall in love with him. It’s like a manual of how to manipulate someone.

The second interpretation isn’t one I like to see when I watch this movie. But the subtext is there, never the less, and makes the outcome of the movie all the more disturbing because of it.

Not so cute now, huh?

Have you ever seen You’ve got mail? Do you think Tom is a sociopath or a good guy? Let me know!

Review: The Last

 

2/5

 

 

Civilisation blows itself apart in a nuclear war, and a small party of survivors begin their new life in an isolated Swiss hotel. Only one of them may be a murderer…

Reading a premise like that, you’d think this was a murder-mystery. Reading reviews on the back that say this is like “Ten Little Indians” you’d think the twenty guests would drop like murdered flies every night. You’d think the other guests would flitter and scurry about the hotel in fear of their lives.

There’s more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what’s going on.

But no…there’s actually only one murder, and the only person who cares is the narrator. There’s more of a Lord of The Flies feel to what’s going on. How do you construct a civilisation in miniature? Who decides: death penalty or exile for a crime when there are no police or courts to take the burden? There are also existential conversations on the nature of religion, both as a source of comfort and as a source of antagonism.

There are conversations about what happens when every single thing you love and work for has disappeared in a nuclear fire…who do you become after that? Some good explorations on the different natures of shock and trauma. Some guests give up, some hoard and prepare, while others obsess to the point of mania.

So most certainly not a murder-mystery, and I find it odd it was ever advertised as such. In a typical rolling-eyes-give-me-a-break murder mystery move though, the murder is resolved in the last five pages with information we didn’t have. The main drive of the story feels like a casually thrown in afterthought.

Stereotypes fill the hotel: A Japanese woman is described as delicate and graceful, speaking with a calm voice; the black security guard is aggressive and the dominant male; the beautiful woman is a loner and a bitch.

Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other.

Towards the last thirty pages, the plot became unravelled and started to break. Character dialogues became indistinguishable from each other as it hurried towards a weak anti-climax.

What started out as a solid and intriguing idea ran out of steam in the second act and rolled to a complete stop by the end. There’s a curious note added to the end as potentially a sequel hook, but I won’t be looking out for it.

Have you ever read a book advertised as one genre when it’s not? Let me know!

The Book Thief

2/5

 

 

The place is a suburb of Munich and the time is World War Two. Watching the small life of young girl Liesel Meminger is Death, but it’s not her he’s here to collect…

This was a re-read from 2012, and I’m confused as to why I rated it four stars last time. Death cannot keep himself from interrupting this story and robs it of all momentum.

*** A Small Note ***

Momentum: noun; plural noun: momenta

1. Physics: The quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity.

2. The impetus gained by a moving object.

3. The impetus and driving force gained by the development of a process or course of events.

Yeah, kind of like that. Except those inter-textual notes are every other page. Just when you’re feeling like you’re digging into the story and relaxing, one of those notes pops up and throws you back out again. It’s like a book full of footnotes, destroying the flow of the story. Or like someone blowing one of those party poppers into your face every page or two. It did the story no favours whatsoever.

There’s little character development or story arc.

Not that there was much story to start with. It’s more like a series of vignettes of Liesel’s life, most of which was simple repetition: She would get shouted at by her mother (The author also seems to have learnt one German swear word, saumensch and the masculine saukerl and is determined to use it five times a page), she would go somewhere with her friend Rudy. Repeat this for three hundred pages or so. There’s little character development or story arc for Liesel or anyone else, and what there is becomes fractured by the annoying asides of Death.

Death also has no idea what a metaphor or a simile is either, coming out with some absurd images: “He watched the parade with the blinds drawn across his face.” – “Liesel sat with her hands between her knees in the long legs of the day.” The metaphors aren’t effective, and only make the prose pretentious.

Did anything work for me? Only the last thirty pages or so had any emotion woven into them and I teared up as I read them. Tellingly, those are the same pages where Death shuts up for a change.

Have you ever rated a book lower on a re-read? Let me know!

Review: The Girl on the Train

 

1/5

 

 

Commuting to and from a fictional workplace on the same train every day, Rachel gets to know the backs of the homes she passes and has time to imagine the people who live in them. She even names them and gives them lives…but then reality comes back with a crash when one of them is murdered…

Ugh. That was deeply unpleasant. Hawkins seems to have decided that “thriller” means “plot from East Enders soap opera”. So we have a woman slipping into alcoholism; lots and lots of vomit (Seriously: Hawkins loves the word and loves the grossness of it); women being serially unfaithful – every one of them; men being abusive physically and psychologically just for fun; screaming and crying all around and generally unpleasant behaviour.

There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency.

There isn’t a character in here I was rooting for. There isn’t anyone with a moral standing or a fibre of decency. We have a man whose wife died and he’s sleeping with another woman inside of a week. We have a therapist who sleeps with his patient.

Everyone seems fine with this, by the way: The therapist is still seeing patients after this is discovered, rather than…gosh, I don’t know…being suspended and struck off. We have a man with a very small child sleeping with the babysitter while his wife is asleep upstairs.

Ugh and ugh again.

There are quite a few points I wanted to scream at the people in this book. Rachel is our girl on the train. Not woman on the train, girl.

No woman in this book is defined in any other terms than their relationship to the men in it. Rachel is defined by her abandonment by her husband (Tom) for another woman. Anna, Rachel’s replacement, is a weak and feeble shadow of a woman who can’t put her foot down and does nothing about Rachel’s semi-stalking. And by nothing, I mean nothing. Rachel sometimes phones Tom when she’s drunk. Anna and Tom tolerate this rather than…gosh, I don’t know…changing their phone number.

I figured out who the killer was on page ninety (nothing really happened for the first eighty pages or so), so it came as no surprise at all when the reveal rolled around.

Grimly unpleasant characters with no morality, lots of running mascara and emasculated women only defined by the men in their lives. I could go on, but this book has taken up too much of my life already.

How disappointing does a book have to be to rate one star from you? Let me know!

Review: The Hobbit

4/5

 

 

Coerced into accompanying thirteen dwarves on an adventure to kill a dragon and grab some treasure, the home-loving Hobbit Bilbo Baggins eventually has the adventure of his life…

I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time.

Well, it’s taken me a while to get around to this one, hasn’t it? Most people read this as children, and I’m forty-six right now and just picked it up for the first time. What took me so long?

Mostly, I really don’t do stories where they name swords, just on principle. It’s just one of those things, alongside avoiding books where muscular men don’t wear shirts on the cover. It’s just not my bag, baby. I tried Lord of The Rings once and got halfway down the first page before I gave up.

Fortunately, there were only three swords named.

I also think if you’re naming a sword, you might want to think about your fictional life a little more. Having said that, I read all of Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, and there’s lots of sword and axe naming in there. Fortunately, there were only three swords named in here, so I’ll give that one a pass.

If you know The Hobbit, as most people seem to, you really don’t need much of a plot recap than the title. What kept me interested was the blistering pace that Tolkien sets: Only a chapter for each creature – goblin, elf, man-bear, whatever, before he was moving on to the next.

I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon.

It wasn’t until Bilbo and company reach Smaug that it started to drag for me. I suspect Tolkien didn’t know how to kill off the dragon once he got there.

There’s not much to fault it. It’s a clever mixing of the everyday and the fantastic, something Harry Potter learned well. It touches our childhood imaginings of creatures under bridges and hiding in holes in the ground, just out of sight.

The story is charming and funny and very entertaining, and I can see why people develop a lifelong bond with Tolkien, Middle Earth and fantasy after they read it.

How old were you when you first read this? Let me know!

Review: The Shadow of The Wind

3/5

 

 

At the age of ten, Daniel Sempero is taken to a “forgotten cemetery of books” in Barcelona and told to choose one. It starts him on a quest that comes to determine the rest of his life…

I believe Stephen King said somewhere that he considers a story a promise to the reader: I’m promising you a good time, and I’m going to try my hardest to keep that promise when I write. If I fail, I know I tried my best.

I don’t think Zafon gave us his best. He gave us a first draft, full of hard turns that needed smoothing into corners. There were a lot of tangents we didn’t need to read because the story was strong enough without them.

In one instance, an aged nanny of an off-screen, never seen, character relates how her long-ago husband put a bag over her head when they had sex. Did that matter to the plot? No. Was it important? No. Was it in the story? Yes. Yes it was. For no reason whatsoever.

And that tangent was straight on the heels of another chapter of filler about an insane asylum where the nanny was detained. It didn’t do a thing except show Zafon had done his research, and by Harry, we were going to read it!

What it reminded me of…beginning writing guides mostly say the same thing: Compose a little backstory for every character, where they were born, who they fell in love with, etc, before you start writing. Then they go on to say leave it out of the story. The same with research. We don’t need to hear 99% of it.

The main story is set in the 1950s, but I also had trouble believing it. Characters relate details from the 1920s and 30s as though it were a few years ago, not twenty and thirty. It’s off putting as well, the fact that each of them has such perfect recall. One remembers that Carax’s father couldn’t sleep after a revelation. How would they know this?

And: How would someone know how a character smiled to the prostitutes who lived across the hall from him in 1948 or whenever? How would someone relating a story third hand know that a voice on the phone was asthmatic? It strained the narrative to a breaking point at times.

There were a lot of genres thrown into the story: Coming of age, tragedy, comedy, Victorian melodrama, Gothic horror, murder mystery. Some of it even felt like a YA story. It lent the whole thing an unfocused quality that didn’t help the narrative.

It’s difficult to separate the characters from the writer sometimes. I sincerely hope that Zafon doesn’t consider women as objects to be smashed and knocked around, or that all he can see in them is sex or purity, with nothing in between. That’s all the women in this story are. It was set in the 1950s, but that doesn’t make the degradation of women easy to read.

And they have no internal lives except as mirrors that reflect the men around them. For example, a woman goes to Paris. She doesn’t marvel at the Metro, or visit the Eiffel Tower. She’s only complete there because a man is with her, and when she leaves, she’s incomplete. And remains so until, again, a man fills her life. Another ends up a desolate aging divorcee who has no life without a man in it. The woman who becomes Dan’s wife is the only one who seems to have a mind of her own.

Every character is torn apart from loneliness and isolation, pushing them to melodrama and desperate acts. It’s fine for the story, but everyone seemed to have their dials up to eleven all the time. Almost every motion and scene felt like the characters were chewing the scenery.

Dan remained the shallowest character throughout the story, a passive player…there wasn’t much depth to him beyond a horny teenager. Comic relief Fermin and the villain Fumero were the strongest. In fact, I was as terrified of psychopathic Fumero as the characters were. Whenever he appeared, he’d invoke a physical reaction of dread.

Counter balancing all this are moments of great beauty, powerful writing and wonderful descriptive passages. Zafon knows how to write weather so well that you feel it on your skin. In the last pages, a character opens a new book and “inhales the enchanted scent of promise that comes with all new books”. Beautiful. “Books are mirrors that reflect what we already are.” Someone says (Significant, then, that Fumero the villain has so few).

There are three more of these Forgotten Cemetery books, but I suspect they might all be essentially the same narrative voice and tangents, so I won’t be adding them to my TBR any time soon. Run them through an editor first, and then let me know when you have.

 

This was my second buddy read with my good friend Becky. She also hangs out a lot these days on Instagram.

(She’s still not a pancake, by the way!)

She’s always fun to read with, and I’m proud to call her my friend. She spots things I never notice, and vice-versa! It’s like reading a book with someone else’s brain.

And I don’t mean that in a trivial way.

She saw things I completely missed, like the sexism and the degradation of women throughout the story. I think that says a lot about how densenitised I am to it that I didn’t notice. But once she pointed it out, I realised how prevalent it was.

I’ve walked in Becky’s shoes for a while and caught a glimpse of the red flags she must see every day, flags I never realised were waving.

Because I’m a male, I don’t have to live in a world where every gesture I make or clothes I pick at random can be construed as something sexual or provocative. I’m sorry the women of the world have to live in a world like that. I’m sorry that I’ve let things like that pass without noticing them.

What particularly stuck with me was a rape scene she mentioned that I (and the story) just breezed over…but it caught in her mind.

Seeing the world through her eyes with this buddy read has been a learning experience for me and one I’m going to be considering for a long time.

Review: Before I go to sleep

2/5

 

 

(I apologise in advance for the use of caps lock. Never a good sign when a review makes me use caps lock…)

Chrissie wakes every morning and does not know where she is. She doesn’t know who the man sleeping next to her is, and why the face in the mirror is twenty years older than it should be…

They really made a movie out of this? Well, it started with a strong premise, fair enough, but then quickly ran out of steam. Most of the book is section-break repetition of “Can I trust my husband? Yes. Oh, no, I can’t. Oh, yes, I can. Nope…changed my mind again.”

It really slows the pacing down.

I understand that Chrissie’s mental state is fragile and easily unbalanced, but it gets pretty wearing after two hundred pages, sometimes when it happens from one paragraph to the next. And when it’s essentially the only thing happening, it really slows the pacing down.

So, yes. Let’s talk about pacing. The writer seemed to think thriller means filler. Here’s a paraphrased example:

“I started washing the dishes in hot, soapy water. I made sure the bubbles were frothy before I started. I washed Ben’s breakfast plate. The doorbell rang. I put down the sponge. I dried my hands on a tea towel. I walked to the front door. There was a man there.”

GET. ON. WITH IT.

And I was wondering what about the narrative voice was annoying me until I realised that Christine doesn’t use contractions, making her stilted and artificial:

“I think Ben does not hear me walk into the kitchen. I do not hear him move from the sofa. He has walked into the kitchen behind me. But he does not talk.”

For most of the story, there’s not much else going on but stilted narrative and clumsy dialogue (“It’s your novel,” he said. “The one you wrote”. As opposed to her novel she didn’t write?).

By the time the last third came around, I just wanted to be finished and done. Which is a shame, because the last third is where all the good stuff happens. But by then, it’s too late to save it.

Have you read any books where the story starts off strongly then fades out? Let me know!

Review: The Quiet at the End of the World

4/5

 

 

Shen and Lawrie are the last humans to be born…or will ever be born. A global infertility epidemic four generations ago made every woman sterile, and the human race destined to die out within the next hundred years. They spend their days mud larking and cataloguing the past, until an accident reveals a truth about their world…

Another solid and remarkable story from Lauren James. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers, even though this is only the second book of hers I’ve read. Her world building and characterisation is elegant and subtle, and her research feels solid and reliable. This is an end of the world you can feel and touch.

Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn.

Delightfully, Lawrie is bisexual, and it isn’t her defining characteristic. I’ve read too many YA books recently where it’s the only thing about the character that exists in any solidity, but not here. Lawrie and Shen are both rounded and fully developed characters in their own right, despite their preferences. Their romance isn’t insta-love either, but a slow and sensuous burn of low heat, of shared touches that eventually turn into something more.

There are deeper themes as well about what it means to be human and what it means to love and exist on the edge of extinction and about how it feels to have the responsibility to the rest of your species behind you. How your parents can coddle you or let you experience the world for yourself – and more importantly fail for yourself.

I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked the twists out.

There was a plot twist about a third of the way through which I mentally called about fifty pages in, so it didn’t come as a surprise to me when it turned up. Another twist at the end was telegraphed earlier as well, so neither of them made me jump in surprise. It felt like it took something away from the story to know they were coming; I’ll never know if my experience would be better if I hadn’t worked them out.

I didn’t see the ending coming though, or a delightful, subtle echo that had been running throughout the whole story that was revealed towards the end. That was a lovely touch – sorry to be so vague, but spoilers would ensue if I wasn’t.

What didn’t work for me was the dialogue between Shen and Lawrie. Mostly, it felt flat and laboured and slipped towards cliché and overused expressions. Their dialogue didn’t seem as strong as that between Lawrie and her parents, for instance. When that major plot twist happens I was just talking about, James feels it necessary to repeat herself three times in three pages, just to make sure we all got it. It felt a little laboured and repetitive in places.

In all though, a book I savoured like a good wine. I shall be back for more Lauren James!

Who’s the best new author you’ve discovered this year? Let me know!

A birthday that wasn’t

It should have been a milestone today.

My brother should have been fifty. There should be a wife and kids (and grandkids maybe!) celebrating with him, and nieces and nephews for an uncle like me to spoil.

There should, at least, have been cake. And possibly a party. I’m not one for parties, but I’m sure I would have tolerated this one. Hey, I’m very food motivated, and never fussy when it comes to free sugar.

I’m not sure if our parents would still be alive – who knows the effect losing a son has on your health? Probably not my dad, who would be 86 and smoked all his life. But my mum might still be hanging in there: She’d be 79 nine days later.

I’m not sure about my sister being there either. My brother did have a calming effect on the worst of her sociopathy – some of the time, anyway. She might have parked it for the day, but that’s a big might.

There should have been lots of stories to share about my brother: The odd puckered scar on his elbow from falling off skateboards and always hitting the same spot. The dart that entered just beneath his eye and was a centimetre away from blinding him. Blowing apart lightbulbs by putting blu-tac on top of them. The time he annoyed my mum up so much she started hitting him with the plug from the vacuum cleaner. The wads of paper he shoved behind the electric heater at the top of the stairs and yet somehow managed not to burn the house down. The Christmas he broke my dads ribs without either of them realising it.

But back in the real world, the stories all stop when he reached twenty, as old as my brother ever became. Somewhere out there is a woman who should have been his wife and never was. His kids and grandkids went unborn. There are no stories about how the two of them met, about how he proposed. No tales of pregnancies or first-borns. There are thirty years of blanks where there should be memories.

It should have been a milestone today, and it is.

But not for the right reasons.

Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe

Warning: Unmarked spoilers!
4/5

 

 

Romy Silvers is the most isolated human in the history of humanity. For six years, she hasn’t touched another human being. She’s never felt the rain on her face, or sat under a tree. Her only company has been a TV show beamed to her from NASA, two light years behind her lonely spacecraft. But someone is coming, catching her up…

I don’t like to drop reviews under such a full spoiler tag, but this book makes me feel like it would be impossible to talk about without it. Look away now if you haven’t read it.

***

Romy’s follower on his spaceship is a boy called J – or so she thinks. I doubted from the start that J would be as wonderful as he was pretending to be, but when the absolute bombshell of what he’d been doing to Romy dropped in act three, my eyes widened and I swore internally. I never expected it to be so huge.

His manipulation – and downright torture – of Romy is textbook grooming and psychological manipulation. Not only has he isolated her from earth (under the very believable pretense of an imaginary war), he’s sending messages back to earth pretending to be her. He’s also pretending to send messages to her from earth from the “UPR”, a replacement government.

It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do.

He forces Romy to live in the dark, to shower less, to flush the toilet less, all in an attempt to utterly degrade her and control her before he arrives. It’s grooming in space, and there’s not a damn thing Romy can do about it.

You know the best part? Romy doesn’t give in. She never yields or submits to J, even when he tries again to fool her later in the story. Romy is a young woman who won’t quit, despite her insecurities and her self-doubt. She really is stronger than she realises, and she’s a great character because of it.

It’s a wonderful story, full of subtleties and warmth. Parents who try and give their daughter the best life they can, despite the circumstances, and a daughter who loved them and misses them. We really get a feel for Romy and her isolation and cocooned existence. In one instance, she gets cold and doesn’t realise it: She’s never experienced anything other than 24 centigrade temperatures her entire life. Messages sent to earth won’t make it for two years. She really is all alone out there.

So NASA ships run on Windows?

If I have a problem with it, they’re only small ones: The use of zip files, mp3s and pdfs made me frown. So NASA ships run on Windows? And will they really do so in 2048? Mp3s are already being replaced by AACs, for instance. Romy also seems immature for a young woman given such heavy responsibilities. Given her only interactions have been with adults, I would expect to mature faster, not slower.

But as I said, these are only minor points. This is a gripping and thrilling read, and well worth it.