Grand Day Out | Strawberry Hill House

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Back in January the Book God and I took a short trip to Strawberry Hill to visit an exhibition and just generally have a look around. Shamefully, despite the fact that I have lived not too far away for over 30 years, this was my first visit but I know I will be going back as it is just so fascinating.

Strawberry Hill House was built over a period of some 40 years by Horace Walpole as a summer retreat; it was a very early example of Gothic revival architecture (one of my favourites of course). Walpole used it as a place to keep his collection of art, antiquities and objects of interest from all historical periods. He was a man who collected things that were beautiful or historically important or had some kind of story attached to them, rather than focussing on a particular country or era.

As well as his summer home, Strawberry Hill House was also a place for holding parties, a place to study, open to select groups of the public to tour and see the amazing things it held, and of course it was the inspiration for his Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.

In 1842 Walpole’s collection was sold off, and the exhibition we went to see (The Lost Masterpieces) was the first chance to see these items in the place they originally belonged.

Things that caught my interest in particular:

  • an enormous Chinese porcelain bowl from 1730 in which Walpole’s cat Selina drowned, inspiring Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat – drown’d in a tub of goldfishes
  • a red Cardinal’s hat, said to be that of Cardinal Wolsey
  • a portrait of Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France and sister to Henry VIII, with her second husband Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk
  • a tress of hair of said Mary Tudor in a golden locket
  • a cravat carved out of lime wood by Grinling Gibbons – this was something Walpole himself wore on at least one occasion
  • a pair of gauntlet gloves worn by James VI & I (allegedly)
  • a 1782 edition of the Castle of Otranto

I loved the house, it’s so beautiful and the gardens look equally lovely though on the day we visited it bucketing with rain so we decided not to walk round; we’ll keep that for the next time. Visitors are understandably not allowed to take photographs but there is a very good app which lets you study the object and is worth downloading. You can find it here.

Recent Movies | Jan-Feb 2019

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A round-up of a few films seen in the first couple of months this year, and which I haven’t reviewed so far. I will leave Glass to the end because I have Notes.

Searching

Searching is directed by Aneesh Chaganty and stars John Cho.

After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her.

And of course what he finds is a whole side to her life that he didn’t know she had, and which has some bearing on her disappearance though not in the way I at least first thought. What could have become a gimmicky film actually delivers a really involving story and is clever about the way technology is accessed and used to move the plot forward. I thought John Cho was very good indeed as the single dad and the supporting cast is also great. I didn’t see where the story was going at all until the end was on top of me and I like that; I spend a lot of my TV watching time correctly guessing who the murderer is and I was way off here.

But the best thing about the film is the stuff in the background which the directors talked about after the film was released – I won’t spoil it (though there are articles out there giving an explanation), but I will be re-watching this specifically to spot the stuff they’ve dropped in.

Bad Times at the El Royale

This was a film that we missed in the cinema but which the Book God in particular wanted to see, so we got a hold of the DVD on release.

Circa 1969, several strangers, most with a secret to bury, meet by chance at Lake Tahoe’s El Royale, a rundown hotel with a dark past. Over the course of one night, everyone will show their true colours – before everything goes to hell.

It has a cast of well-known faces and a twisty plot which I enjoyed, but it was the non-linear structure in the first part of the film which really made this for me. I also liked the fact (not a spoiler) that although The Greater Hemsworth is front and centre on the poster he doesn’t really turn up until about halfway through the story, but boy when he does he’s in full Manson mode and very very watchable.

Sorry for going a bit fangirl there 😀

I really enjoyed it. I particularly liked Cynthia Erivo’s character and Jeff Bridges is reliable as always. One that I will definitely be watching again.

And now…..

Glass

OK, so I will say first off that this was much better than it had any right to be but that doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic. This is the last in what we are apparently now calling the East Rail Trilogy (who knew?) but I don’t think it has provided us with a satisfying conclusion.

For the record, I absolutely love Unbreakable, but I checked back on my old blog and found I had this to say about Split:

M Night Shyamalan’s latest is a multiple personality horror thriller thing with an amazing performance by James McAvoy but which in the end is pointless and confusing. I couldn’t work out where it was headed and became quite impatient. The much-lauded cameo at the end was a real blink or you miss it event. Annoyingly disappointing.

So I went into Glass with very mixed feelings. IMDB says:

Security guard David Dunn uses his supernatural abilities to track Kevin Wendell Crumb, a disturbed man who has twenty-four personalities

Which tells you absolutely nothing about the story. So Sarah Paulson (for it is she) is a psychiatrist investigating those who believe they have abilities in order to demonstrate that they are actually delusional. After a variety of plot devices she manages to bring together Glass (Samuel L Jackson), Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) and David Dunn (Bruce Willis at his most laconic) so that she can study them, and of course things don’t go according to plan (or do they?) and all hell breaks loose.

McAvoy is brilliant and you can really see him transform into his character’s various personalities, but his very physical performance is in such marked contrast to Willis, who spends a lot of the film looking pained and confused that they could almost be in different films. There is the obligatory awful cameo from the director and if you think about it too much the ending makes No Sense At All.

It also made me think of a post my blog friend Jenny made about ableism in horror, which I quote a bit of here. You can find the whole post on her blog and is really worth reading. I say this as a massive horror fan who won’t stop reading the stuff but will certainly pay more attention to this sort of thing

Once someone gets you to notice the trope of the pure innocent disabled character (who dies! how poignant!) or the trope of the evil disabled character whose soul is as twisted as their [insert body part here] (who also dies! how inevitable!), you start seeing those tropes everywhere. I wish we had grown past them. Failing that, I want at least to not let them pass me by in silence.

This was about her experience of horror fiction but is equally applicable to film, and is similar to Anne Billson’s observation on the tendency for action films to have a woman kidnapped and/or killed so the hero has a reason to do the thing that he shouldn’t but knows he must.

Once seen, impossible to forget.

A bit like Glass really, but not necessarily for the right reasons.

 

Sunday Salon | 3 March ’19

img_0823It’s Sunday evening and Storm Freya is hitting the UK with strong winds, and although we’re likely to miss the worst of it here in my corner of London it is howling wildly outside my window – I love that sound! Anyway, let’s dive in to my reading week.

Books read:

I actually finished a couple of books this week – The Affinity Bridge by George Mann (the first in his Newbury & Hobbes series) and Night Season by Chelsea Cain (the fourth in her Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell series) – one of the things I wanted to do this year is focus on series that I’ve partially read or wanted to start and I’m pleased that I’ve managed that this week. I enjoyed both of them very much and will review soon.

Currently reading:

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz; this is the second in a detective series where he himself features as a character – great fun.

Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson – I mentioned this in my last post and although it’s still irritating me, the story of the deadly fog of December 1952 and the crimes of one John Reginald Christie have me hooked so I expect to finish this one soon

New books:

Kill You Twice by Chelsea Cain – number five in the Sheridan/Lowell series I mentioned above – Archie Sheridan should be recovering from his past run-ins with serial killer Gretchen Lowell, yet he’s just as haunted as the day she let him go. But when a cyclist comes across a corpse in Mount Tabor Park on the eastern side of Portland, Archie suddenly has a new case to focus on.

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold – very excited to read this new perspective on Jack the Ripper, focussed on the women he killed – Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888.

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie – A+ fantasy if the reviews are to be believed – Listen. A god is speaking. My voice echoes through the stone of your master’s castle. The castle where he finds his uncle on his father’s throne. You want to help him. You cannot. You are the only one who can hear me. You will change the world.

Year of Learning Dangerously by Quinn Cummings – I love her so much as you will have guessed if you’ve read my non-fiction round-up post – In this honest and wry memoir, popular blogger, author, and former child actor Quinn Cummings recounts her family’s decision to wade into the unfamiliar waters of homeschooling – the fastest-growing educational trend of our time — despite a chronic lack of discipline, some major gaps in academic knowledge, and a serious case of math aversion. (And that’s just Quinn.)

So that’s it – hope you all have a great reading week!

Non-Fiction Round-up | 2019 #1

IMG_2278A round-up of non-fiction books I’ve read so far this year but have not yet reviewed in any way, shape or form. Enjoy.

NB: Comments on Marie Kondo will be accepted but I reserve the right to disagree 😉

Notes from the Underwire – Adventures from My Awkward & Lovely Life by Quinn Cummings

Meet Quinn Cummings. Former child star, mother, and modern woman, she just wants to be a good person. Quinn grew up in Los Angeles, a city whose patron saint would be a sixteen-year-old with a gold card and two trips to rehab under her belt. Quinn does crossword puzzles, eats lentils without being forced, and longs to wear a scarf without looking like a Camp Fire Girl. And she tries very hard to be the Adult–the one everybody calls for a ride to the airport–but somehow she always comes up short.

This is one of those books that I didn’t know I needed until I read it. It’s totally delightful and quite moving in places, especially where she talks about her involvement in an HIV advice line when she was a young woman. I am so enamoured of Quinn that I am one of her supporters on Patreon, and she is very much worth following on Twitter (she’s @quinncy) It’s the kind of book that you just want to read bits of out loud to anyone near you. I had a load of quotes but I’ll leave you with just one:

Like most heterosexual males, he sensed but rarely understood why the emotional room temperature dropped thirty degrees.

Very pleased that this was the first book I read in 2019.

The Life- Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo

An obscure little book which has garnered minimal attention….. OK, just kidding. This is of course the book that will help you

[t]ransform your home into a permanently clear and clutter-free space with the incredible KonMari Method. Japan’s expert declutterer and professional cleaner Marie Kondo will help you tidy your rooms once and for all with her inspirational step-by-step method. The key to successful tidying is to tackle your home in the correct order, to keep only the things you really love and to do it all at once – and quickly. After that for the rest of your life you only need to choose what to keep and what to discard.

This was first published in 2014 and I bought it 2015 when I saw some YouTubers talking about it. I had always intended to read it this year because my home (and especially my study where I’m typing this at the moment) is in sore need of sorting out, but of course when I picked it up Marie’s Netflix series was being broadcast and all sorts of nonsense was hitting the internet. I feel she has been misunderstood, especially when it comes to books, and wonder how much those who object to her don’t like their consumerism being “criticised” or fail to note the cultural differences she brings from her Japanese heritage. Personally I found that the book gave me a lot to think about. My favourite tweet about the whole book thing was:

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And if nothing else, charity shops are benefitting from us getting rid of stuff we no longer want or need. That works for me!

The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us by Dr Lucy Jones

The Big Ones investigates some of the most impactful natural disasters, and how their reverberations are still felt today.  From a volcanic eruption in Pompeii challenging and reinforcing prevailing views of religion, through the California floods of 1862 and the limitations of memory, to what Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami can tell us about governance and globalisation.  With temperatures rising around the world, natural disasters are striking with ever greater frequency.

As someone who has never been able to resist any TV programme that warns us what might happen if Yellowstone erupts or a chunk of the Canary Islands falls into the sea, I couldn’t resist this, especially when I saw it was written by a woman, Dr Lucy Jones, who is hugely qualified as a seismologist and expert in disaster planning. Some of the disasters she deals with I knew quite a bit about I remember vividly watching the TV coverage of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami), but others were new to me and reading about their impact served to show what short memories we have as we fail to learn from those experiences.

As the climate changes and there are likely to be a greater number of extreme weather events this is a very timely book, and an accessible read for the non-expert.

2019 Oscars | Thoughts

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I used to faithfully watch the Oscar ceremony every year but a couple of years ago I missed it due to illness and then last year realised that the thing I was most invested in was the fashion, which I could find out about more easily in other ways (I refer you to www.gofugyourself.com for all of your fashion needs.

This year I was enthusiastic about some of the films in competition and decided to pull an all-nighter, and I’m glad I did because although I was exhausted the next day – this is when being retired really comes into its own – I found the ceremony enjoyable though I’m not sure about some of the results.

So what did I actually think?

Best Picture

I only saw two of the best picture nominees – Black Panther & Bohemian Rhapsody – and BoRap, although very enjoyable for a lifelong Queen fan, should not have been in this list. What should have been in was Can You Ever Forgive Me? which I loved. In terms of the winner, I don’t like Peter Farrelly and the film holds no appeal for me whatsoever so I was disappointed in the outcome.

Lead Actor

I was happy that Rami Malek won – your mileage may vary but I thought his performance was excellent and he is generally lovely.

Lead Actress

Would have loved Melissa McCarthy to win, or Glenn Close who is one of my favourite actresses, but of course I was thrilled when Olivia Coleman won because she is a delight in everything she does.

Supporting Actor

I so wanted Richard E Grant to win because he is wonderful and was so good in the role and is also a National Treasure. Some commentators have been horribly cynical about his approach to the whole awards circuit, suggesting that his evident joy is manufactured. Those people are idiots. Was happy for Mahershala Ali, though in my head he is getting this for True Detective S3 where his acting is off the scale.

Supporting Actress

I had no strong views on this category, any one of these women would have deserved the win; I don’t know Regina King’s work but she seemed a very worthy winner.

Best Director

Still very cross that it was an all-male shortlist and that Marielle Heller in particular was not included.

The Others

I delighted that Bao won the animated short and that so many women of colour were honoured for their work this year. I enjoyed seeing Gillian Welch & David Rawlings perform because they are long-term favourites of mine, but was very impressed by the Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper performance; I’ve been humming that song to myself ever since and that says Winner like nothing else. I also thought the ceremony was better without a host.

In terms of fashion, all of the older ladies kicked ass – Glenn Close, Helen Mirren and Michelle Yeoh all looked glamorous, and Barbra Streisand looked like Barbra Streisand and who can ask for anything more.

Hoping to catch up on the films I missed (except Green Book) over the next few months. Roll on next year!

 

Sunday Salon | 24 February ’19

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It’s beautiful sunny spring day here in SW London. The windows are open, the birds are singing and I’m having a relaxing day as I prepare to stay up all night to watch the Oscars; there is wine and there may be a small box of chocolates to see me through to tomorrow morning. But first, the books!

Books read

Since my last post two weeks ago I have finished Changeling by Matt Wesolowski (my review is here) and Thirteen Guests by J Jefferson Farjeon which I shall review alongside some other classic crime novels shortly.

Currently reading

Taking a break from Global Crisis and have set aside Our Tragic Universe as I’m not in the right frame of mind to give it the attention it deserves, though I will definitely pick it up again soon. So I’m 3/4 of the way through The Affinity Bridge by George Mann and in the early stages of Death in the Air. Thoroughly enjoying the former but not sure about the latter; will give it another couple of chapters before I decide.

New books – the speculative purchases

  • No Bells on Sunday by Rachel Roberts – I bought this second-hand having been reading about Roberts after watching her in Murder on the Orient Express; these are her journals interspersed with biographical details of her tragic life.
  • The Flower Girls by Alice Clarke-Platts – “THREE CHILDREN WENT OUT TO PLAY. ONLY TWO CAME BACK. The Flower Girls. Laurel and Primrose. One convicted of murder, the other given a new identity. Now, nineteen years later, another child has gone missing. And the Flower Girls are about to hit the headlines all over again…”
  • The Man from the Train by Bill James & Rachel McCarthy James – “Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Some of these cases—like the infamous Villisca, Iowa, murders—received national attention. But most incidents went almost unnoticed outside the communities in which they occurred. Few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.”
  • The Sea Dreams it is the Sky by John Horner Jacobs – “They had escaped their country, but they couldn’t escape the past – a novella of cosmic horror”
  • The Pale Ones by Bartholomew Bennett – “Few books are treasured. Most linger in the dusty purgatory of the bookshelf, the attic, the charity shop, their sallow pages filled with superfluous knowledge. And with stories. Darker than ink, paler than paper, something is rustling through their pages.”
  • The Night Olivia Fell by Christina McDonald – “Abi Knight is startled awake in the middle of the night to a ringing phone and devastating news – her teenage daughter, Olivia, has been in a terrible accident.”

New books – the pre-orders

  • The Plotters by Un-su Kim – continuing my interest in Korean crime fiction – Reseng was raised by cantankerous Old Raccoon in the Library of Dogs. To anyone asking, it’s just an ordinary library. To anyone in the know, it’s a hub for Seoul’s organised crime, and a place where contract killings are plotted and planned. So it’s no surprise that Reseng has grown up to become one of the best hitmen in Seoul. He takes orders from the plotters, carries out his grim duties, and comforts himself afterwards with copious quantities of beer and his two cats, Desk and Lampshade.
  • The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders – January is a dying planet – divided between a permanently frozen darkness on one side, and blazing endless sunshine on the other. Humanity clings to life, spread across two archaic cities built in the sliver of habitable dusk. But life inside the cities is just as dangerous as the wastelands outside.
  • The Revenant Express by George Mann – Sir Maurice Newbury is bereft as his trusty assistant Veronica Hobbes lies dying with a wounded heart. Newbury and Veronica’s sister Amelia must take a sleeper train across Europe to St. Petersburg to claim a clockwork heart that Newbury has commissioned from Fabergé to save Veronica from a life trapped in limbo.
  • The Buried Girl by Richard Montanari – When New York psychologist Will Hardy’s wife is killed, he and his teenage daughter Bernadette move into Godwin Hall, a dusty, shut-up mansion in the small town of Abbeville, Ohio.Meanwhile, Abbeville Chief of Police Ivy Holgrave is investigating the death of a local girl, convinced this may only be the latest in a long line of murders dating back decades – including her own long-missing sister.
  • Call Me Star Girl by Louise Beech – Pregnant Victoria Valbon was brutally murdered in an alley three weeks ago – and her killer hasn’t been caught. Tonight is Stella McKeever’s final radio show. The theme is secrets. You tell her yours, and she’ll share some of hers. Tonight is the night for secrets, and Stella wants to know everything…
  • The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P Djeli Clark – Cairo, 1912: The case started as a simple one for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities — handling a possessed tram car.Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef are exposed to a new side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons in a race against time to protect the city from an encroaching danger that crosses the line between the magical and the mundane.
  • Master of Sorrows by Justin Travers Call – The Academy of Chaenbalu has stood against magic for centuries. Hidden from the world, acting from the shadows, it trains its students to detect and retrieve magic artifacts, which it jealously guards from the misuse of others. Because magic is dangerous: something that heals can also harm, and a power that aids one person may destroy another.
  • The Taking of Annie Thorne by CJ Tudor – One night, Annie went missing. Disappeared from her own bed. There were searches, appeals. Everyone thought the worst. And then, after 48 hours, she came back. But she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say what had happened to her.
  • Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce – Alison has it all. A doting husband, adorable daughter, and a career on the rise – she’s just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems…
  • The Vanishing Man by Charles Finch – London, 1853: Having earned some renown by solving a case that baffled Scotland Yard, young Charles Lenox is called upon by the Duke of Dorset, one of England’s most revered noblemen, for help. A painting of the Duke’s great-grandfather has been stolen from his private study. But the Duke’s concern is not for his ancestor’s portrait; hiding in plain sight nearby is another painting of infinitely more value, one that holds the key to one of the country’s most famous and best-kept secrets.

I am probably going to try to avoid speculative purchases next month, though I have quite a few pre-orders on the books. We shall see 🙂

Hope everyone has a wonderful reading week!

 

 

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

MV5BMjQzMzEzNDU2NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzQ4NTUwNTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,670,1000_AL_Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the astonishing story of Lee Israel, a successful biographer in the 70s and 80s who falls out of fashion with current trends and stubbornly refuses to refresh her approach. No longer publishable, she hits on the idea of forging letters from major figures such as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and Fanny Brice, selling them for large sums to reputable dealers until, of course, she gets caught.

I knew very little about the film before going in apart from the bare bones outlined above and a vague memory of an article about her around the time of her death in 2014, but the cast was intriguing, the trailers were good and it was encouraging to see a film that wasn’t about superheroes or cyborgs or horror – not that I object to any of those, which you will know if you are a regular reader of this blog, but it’s good to change things up from time to time.

I dragged my semi-reluctant husband along with me; he had been iffy about the subject matter but also intrigued by the trailers and has, I think, a bit of a crush on Melissa McCarthy, so off we went.

I really, really enjoyed this film. I thought it was clever and sympathetic without softening any of the crimes that Lee Israel committed. I particularly liked the fact that the director Marielle Heller (who doesn’t seem to get mentioned anywhere, which is a shame) doesn’t try to minimise the self-pity, arrogance, alcoholism and all-round unpleasantness of the lead character. And this is where the acting comes in to its own. Melissa McCarthy is really excellent as Israel, managing to make her horrible and sympathetic all at once. I wasn’t exactly rooting for her because she was duping a lot of people (though some of them deserved it IMHO) but she wasn’t exactly living the high life on her ill-gotten gains; this was about food and keeping a roof over her head.

Melissa is ably supported by the National Treasure that is Richard E Grant, clearly having the time of his life in the role of Jack, Israel’s friend and co-conspirator, a character who is equal parts touching and self-serving.

I may also have bought Lee Israel’s memoir on which the film is based.

Oscar nominations have rightly followed the success of the film, and I for one will be cheering on Mr Grant, though I suspect that he won’t win. This is a thoughtful film for grown-ups and I recommend it without reservation.