Archive | December, 2010

Best Books of 2010

31 Dec

I made my goal of reading over 100 books (101 to be exact). These are obviously not all books released in 2010, but books that I read this year. They’re in alphabetical order because I couldn’t rank them.

Top Ten Best:

1. And Then There Were None- by Agatha Christie. I just started reading Christie about a month ago and have found nearly all of her books that I’ve sampled so far to be delightful, but this one was by far the most suspenseful and gripping. Ten people with dark secrets on an island are killed off one by one- each person suspected is the next to die. Runners up are The Mysterious Affair at Styles (her first novel) and  The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (if I hadn’t figured it out from the summaries).

2. The Book Thiefby Markus Zusak. I’ve read a lot of WWII novels about children, especially in middle school, but this was definitely unique- told from the point of view of Death! It’s a tear-jerker, so be warned!

3. The Hunter Games– by Suzanne Collins. I’ve put off reading this because it seemed just like Battle Royale, which I was too squeamish to watch and/or read in full. (Just the clips of the movie I saw were too much!). But I bit the bullet and gave it a try and was hooked! True, it did seem to be very similar to Battle Royale, but I’m not qualified to make a comparison because, as I said, I haven’t seen or read the whole thing. It took a while to get used to the narrative style with so many sentence fragments but when The Games themselves began, it really fit. I thought the two sequels paled in comparison to this brilliant opener.

4. The Kite Runner– by Khaled Hosseini. You know the story. It was on my shelf for five years and now I’m kicking myself for that.

5. The Law and the Lady– I don’t know when I bought this book but I almost reordered it this year until I found it when reorganizing my books. Oops! The last Collins title I had read (Man and Wife) I found disappointing so I was pleasantly relieved that this one was just as good as his Big 4, in my opinion. I’ve always loved Collins for writing strong females.

6. The Nonesuch– by Georgette Heyer. I loved almost all of the Heyer books I’ve read, but this one is probably my favorite for the delightful hero and heroine and really, the whole cast of characters. My other favorites are Sylvester and Regency Buck.

7. The Red Pyramid and The Lost Hero– by Rick Riordan. It’s a tie! I couldn’t decide which one I liked more. His two new series are off to a better start already than Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which I read last year to fill the void Harry Potter left in my heart and ended up adoring.

8. A Room with a Viewby E.M. Forster. From everything I had seen about the 1985 movie, this seemed like nothing more than a fluffy romance. But I found the book to be so much more powerful and moving story about a girl’s sexual awakening and growth to making her own decisions. Unfortunately, the movie was just what I thought and the newer version went too far the other way, but that’s a different story.

9. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Adventures and Stories Volume 1by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I cheated on this one. I really read three books out of five in one book- The Adventures, Memoirs, and Return of Sherlock Holmes. (I had already read the other two years ago). I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes since watching The Great Mouse Detective and some of the old movies with Basil Rathbone as a child. My favorite of the short stories are “A Scandal in Bohemia” (Holmes outwitted by a woman!), “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (even if Doyle had some facts about snakes wrong), “The Yellow Face” (Holmes overconfident and WRONG), “The Final Problem” (Moriarty!), and “The Adventure of the Empty House” (Holmes returns!).

Honorable Mention: Crown Duel– by Sherwood Smith. I remember checking this out of the school library in eighth grade as two books and loving it. I finally remembered the title after ten years and finding it at the store as one book, which was quite convenient. I loved it even more this time.

Honorable Mention: Sense and Sensibility- by Jane Austen. I had read this title at least a couple times in the past, plus seen the many adaptations, but it wasn’t until this past year that I saw it in a new light and it climbed higher on my list of favorites.


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Emma 1996 (Film) Review

31 Dec

It can be kind of confusing since there were two versions of Emma released in 1996. This review is on the film version with Gwyneth Paltrow. This was one of the first Jane Austen adaptations I saw, after only the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (and the end of the 1940 P&P if that counts). I believe I saw it in either 2002 or 2003, after just happening to find it on some movie channel. It happened to be very shortly after I read the book as well- the same thing that happened with P&P!

This is definitely the chocolate-box version of Emma. It focuses on all the comedic, light-hearted elements of the story over everything else. Quite a bit had to be cut for time, and the Frank Churchill/Jane Fairfax story suffered the most, I think. Still, most of the cast was good (with some exceptions!) and it’s a fun romantic comedy…even if it’s not the best adaptation.

The Characters

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse

I’ve always liked Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. I’m no expert, but I think she does a good, believable British accent. I like how she was able to show Emma’s immaturity and yet still always be lady-like in her speech and mannerisms. In fact, Gwyneth is still probably my favorite in the role. One scene I didn’t really like was her whining to Mrs. Weston at the end about how she loves Mr. Knightley and shouting out “I love John!” and “I hate John!” depending on what she thought he would tell his brother to do. I thought that was a bit over the top. I also didn’t like the styling for her hair- it was always so tightly pulled back. It didn’t look flattering and was probably very uncomfortable. I also wasn’t fond of the Box Hill scene where she insults Miss Bates- the way they played it, Emma seemed to be deliberately malicious and thought out what she was going to say. Badly done!

Jeremy Northam as George Knightley

He was definitely very handsome and attractive in the role…unfortunately a bit too “suave” for me though. I mean, come on. Mr. Knightley is not supposed to be the obvious hero of the story. But did anyone take one look at Jeremy Northam and NOT think he would end up with Emma? Especially since Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill weren’t particularly handsome in this version, there was really no question! Aside from that, I thought he had good chemistry with Emma and was really good telling her off after Box Hill. But his attraction to her was also very obvious from the beginning and I just wish it was a little more subtle.

Toni Collette as Harriet Smith

This was one of the cringe-worthy casting choices for me. What were they thinking? Harriet Smith is supposed to be a pretty little seventeen-year old girl. Why would they cast someone in their 20s and even make her gain weight? I know it was considered attractive to be plump, but I just thought it made her look older than Emma and so she ended up seeming more like a borderline retarded older woman following a younger girl around. I thought it was beyond ridiculous and just not believable.

Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson as Mrs. and Miss Bates

I thought it was cute that they were played by a real life mother and daughter. Miss Bates was hilarious in this one and Mrs. Bates was also pretty funny even with no lines. You could tell that she was exasperated and yet resigned to her daughter’s ways- she could never get a word in and seemed to have just given up. One scene I thought was weird is that after Box Hill, when Emma came to visit, it was Miss Bates going to hide in the bedroom and she wouldn’t talk to Emma at all.

Ewan McGregor as Frank Churchill

Yeah…I don’t know what they were thinking with this one. Maybe he could have done the role justice with better direction and more screen-time…but I don’t know. I think one thing they could have done that would be a major improvement was given him a better wig. Apparently he had a shaved head for another role, but the one they put him in was just hideous. There’s no way anyone would mistake him for a romantic lead. He wasn’t really a cad or a villain in this one. His storyline was unfortunately very truncated and while he flirts with Emma a little bit, he never purposely seems to play with Jane’s feelings and she doesn’t seem bothered by it.

Polly Walker as Jane Fairfax

I don’t know what they were thinking with this casting choice either! It was ridiculous to hear the characters say how frail or delicate Jane was when she was so obviously robust and just the picture of health! She didn’t really do anything either.

Alan Cumming as Mr. Elton

He’s not how I pictured Mr. Elton in terms of looks, but he was funny in the role. He was pretty different from the book Elton- pretty dopey and almost seemed to really love Emma. In the books he was full of himself and just wanted Emma for her money.

Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton

Not who I would have chosen, but she was excellent! She was perfectly annoying and snobbish and just a hoot.

Others

Everybody else that I remember was fine. Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Weston’s parts were pretty small. Greta Scacchi was good as Mrs. Weston and seemed very motherly to Emma indeed. John and Isabella were in it for about a split second, I think!

This was a fun movie, but not quite Jane Austen’s Emma. The Mr. Elton story was given a lot more focus over the Frank Churchill one. I think if I could change just one thing, I’d play up the Frank/Jane story more. Oh, and get rid of the ugly wig as well.

My Rating: 8/10

Upstairs Downstairs

30 Dec

Upstairs Downstairs is a revival of a popular 1970s series, which I unfortunately have yet to see. Jean Marsh, one of the creators and actress from the original, reprises her character here. I thought that sounded interesting since it’s been so many years. It seemed to have everything going for it. I highly enjoyed Downton Abbey, which I’d heard had the same feel- showcasing the family as well as the servants of the house. Also,  I absolutely adore Claire Foy, and it looked great in all the teasers I saw. Unfortunately, I thought it was a disappointment.

I don’t know if it’s because it had the misfortune to be aired so soon after Downton Abbey or what, but I couldn’t help comparing the two. I just felt this one paled in comparison. Honestly, it was pretty good…but not great. I don’t know if I would think more highly of it if I saw it first or not. I’m inclined to think not, but I’m really not sure.

I’ll say one thing I loved about the show- the look. It was gorgeous- the sets, the costumes, the production values were all top-notch. Claire Foy has always been beautiful (and looks great in period clothing) but I have a soft spot for ’30s fashions (my favorite part of the 2005 King Kong was the costumes and scenery as well!)  and she really shined more than ever in them. I found myself so envious at times and wishing I could look just like her…silly I know. Her character wasn’t very nice, but she sure was pretty.

The main point against this show was the lack of likable characters. Jean Marsh was pretty forgettable, which I found surprising, given her history with the show and her performance as Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility. I’ve never been a big fan of Keeley Hawes and she gave the usual blah performance here. It’s not that everybody was bad or anything, but most of the decent characters were simply not very memorable.

The other big problem was the storytelling itself. There were a good bit of nice moments throughout, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts here. Everything seemed to move too fast- the character development and everything just didn’t seem believable to me. One minute a man and woman are fighting, the next they’re in bed, the next they’ve broken up. A new character is introduced, given a backstory, and killed off in the same episode. Everybody’s got all these issues but then at the end everything gets all wrapped up with no explanation.

Maybe with a new screenwriter, the next season could be an improvement? I dunno.  It wasn’t terrible. It had some nice moments and was a beautiful production. Unfortunately, they just tried to cram too much in to too little time and it’s not good for the sets and costumes to outshine the actors and story.

My Rating: 6/10

Agatha Christie Again

28 Dec

Now that I’ve passed my book goal for the year, I really need to rewatch the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma so I can write my review. But I keep finding other things to watch instead. I will get around to it, really!

The last batch of Agatha Christie books I read turned out to be quite hit or miss.

The Witness for the Prosecution- A collection of short stories which I liked much better than any of the Mr. Quin ones. My favorites were the title story, “S.O.S.” and “The Red Signal.” I thought the mystery in “Wireless” was really too obvious and overall I still like her full-length novels better, but overall it was quite enjoyable. 8/10

Passenger to Frankfurt- This was really different, and I must say- I thought it was awful! It was a spy novel basically about how evil the world was becoming in the modern age. There was other stuff too but it was so boring and tedious that I don’t remember the details. Christie was 80 at the time so I guess I can excuse her this one bad novel. Hopefully there are no more like this. 2/10

The Murder on the Links- This was the second Poirot novel and while it was good, I preferred the first, Styles. The twists and turns definitely had my attention but I felt like Christie just tried to shove in too many ideas. It really included everything but the kitchen sink. I liked what she did with Hastings. I thought he was really a dolt, but a good person. 8/10

Agatha Christie Reviews

18 Dec

Agatha Christie is my new addiction! I’ve been gobbling up one book after the other. Unfortunately, my selection is rather random at the moment but I hope to read the Poirot and Marple series in order.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles-

This was Christie’s first novel and most closely follows the stereotypical “cozy mystery” pattern- murder in a country manor full of people who could have done it. But it was done very, very well. I was utterly shocked at the reveal of the murderer. Just one thing bugged me, or rather two things- Poirot and Hastings. I found Poirot almost insufferable and Hastings was just an idiot. I laughed so hard at his statement to the family in the beginning that he had “progressed further” in his detection methods than his mentor. Bwahahahaha! 9/10

The Mysterious Mr. Quin-

This was a series of short stories featuring a somewhat supernatural figure, Mr. Harley Quin, and his friend Mr. Satterthwaite. Mr. Quin always seems to pop up when a mystery needs to be solved, and by asking the right questions and pointing out things others have missed, he helps Mr. Satterthwaite or the others deduce what happened. This was probably my least favorite Christie book so far. It wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t fond of the short story format. Some were better than others, but I just felt like as soon as I started to get invested in a story, it was over. 7/10

Murder is Easy-

I found this one also just a tad bit disappointing. It seemed promising in the beginning- serial killer in a small village, outsider going in to investigate, etc. But the detective, Luke Fitzwilliam, was really a dull character and not that great at his chosen task- he didn’t even solve the crime! He didn’t even figure out the red herring, which I did early on. I also guessed the murderer’s identity, but I wasn’t entirely sure as to motive. I also found the romance to be forced and I just don’t think it’s a good sign if I’m a better detective than the one in the story. 8/10

Downton Abbey Review

17 Dec

How is it possible that I’ve waited until now to watch this wonderful period drama? I definitely knew of it when it was airing a couple months ago. Did I just not think it would appeal to me? I actually think I just didn’t pay attention to it because I’ve been spending all my free time reading…Whatever the reason, I finally decided to watch it this week and marathoned it all in two days. I was hooked from the first minute.

It’s set pre-WWI and focuses on both the family of Downton Abbey and its servants.  The series takes place over two years, which can be a bit confusing, as months pass from episode to episode. It starts after the sinking of the Titanic (and death of the heir and his son) to the outbreak of WWI in 1914. It’s basically a soap opera, with some of its almost melodramatic storylines. I hate soap operas, but I loved Downton Abbey because, unlike the former, DA has good acting and production values!

The whole cast was excellent. My favorite was Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham. From the previews I expected her to just be an uppity snobby bitch used only for comic relief. But really, she wasn’t. She was a snob, yes. But she had a heart even in the beginning, showing it more as the series went on and was a well-rounded character. I was also surprised by Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery. I thought I would hate her after I saw the first episode, but while she got on my nerves a lot, she grew on me.

I can’t forget the “downstairs” characters either.It was interesting to watch all the goings-on “behind the scenes”, so to speak. I went into this expecting to go ga-ga for Dan Stevens as Matthew, the new heir. But instead I found myself falling for Mr. Bates, the lame valet. The villains, lady’s maid O’Brien and gay footman Thomas, seemed a bit over the top to me in the beginning but I liked how in the end, O’Brien wasn’t as evil as even she thought herself. Too bad she realized it too late.

I don’t want to be too spoilery, but Lady Mary’s “seduction” in episode 3 really made me uneasy. To me, the whole situation seemed at best a coercion, and at worst a rape. Yet afterward, Mary was racked with guilt about it, claimed it was not forced, and referred to her seducer as her “lover.” That’s not what I saw! Was this intentional on the part of the writers, showing the double standard of the time? Maybe that’s the whole idea and I’m over thinking things. Still, I loved the series despite this issue.

My Rating: 8/10

Emma 1972 Review

10 Dec

It took me quite a bit longer to rewatch this than I intended. I was just so woozy and tired from being sick that it was hard to pay attention for long periods of time. It definitely didn’t help that this is my least favorite Emma adaptation, either.

It wasn’t terrible, it really wasn’t. Yes, it’s got the usual sub-par production values and theater-like acting custom from the period dramas of the time, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed  other adaptations made in the same way. Despite its length, it made a few changes to the story (such as making the Dixons a couple who wanted to hire Jane…?) that puzzled me. And it felt slightly boring and draggy at times as well. But I think the main reason I couldn’t connect with it was the actors. Or really, one main actress- Emma herself. I’ll get into that in detail below.

The Characters

Doran Godwin as Emma Woodhouse

She was my main problem with the series. I just couldn’t connect with her at all. In this picture she looks rather youthful, but during the series she came off as much older and more mature than the Emma of the book. I was shocked to read she was only 22 at the time, because I would have guessed her to be at least 30. I think it was the way she spoke- a very clipped, fakey aristocratic accent. At least I hope it was faked and that she didn’t really talk like that in real life! I never saw any real emotion from her- it was all so artificial.

John Carson as George Knightley

Well, he was better than Emma. He wasn’t awful, but he was a bit too old for the part (45 to Knightley’s 36) and looked it. Still, he played the part decently enough. He was stern with Emma when he needed to be but you could tell he was fond of her too. Still, it didn’t look like a romantic interest to me. Maybe because of his age? He seemed more like a father figure in my eyes.

Donald Eccles as Mr. Woodhouse

I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but his Mr. Woodhouse was way too nimble and active. He’d be curled up in a chair blabbering about gruel and the next second he’d be jumping all around the room, giving warnings to the other characters not to eat certain things. Was it supposed to be funny or did they just not get it? I just found it puzzling, because he was obviously not the weak old man he claimed to be.

Debbie Bowan as Harriet Smith

I thought she looked the part but all I really ever remember her doing is saying “Miss Woodhouse!’ all the time. It’s also strongly implied that Emma pretty much dictated her refusal to Robert Martin word for word. And we don’t actually see Robert until close to the very end either.

Robert East as Frank Churchill

Perfectly adequate. He wasn’t bad; he wasn’t great.

Constance Chapman as Miss Bates

She was quite a bit older than I imaged Miss Bates but she played the part well. I found it interesting (and not really in a good way) that when Emma goes to see her after Box Hill, she apologizes outright for what she said. Yet Miss Bates was totally clueless and seemed to have forgotten all about it, despite being upset at the time.

Ania Marson as Jane Fairfax

I actually thought she was pretty good. Very reserved to the point of coldness at times. It was weird that she told Emma at the end, after her engagement was public, that it was all an act to keep up appearances. Um…okay. I was pretty sure that it was because she and Emma had never been intimate and she was upset and jealous about Frank and Emma’s flirtations.

Fiona Walker as Mrs. Elton

I thought she was great as Mrs. Elton. Really obnoxious and stuck-up, always blabbering about Maple Grove and trying to control everything. Unfortunately her husband wasn’t very memorable at all so I’m not even going to bother posting a picture of Mr. Elton.

?? as Isabella Knightley

I couldn’t even find this actress’s name in the cast list. I only posted a picture of her because I thought she looked more like she could be Emma’s mother, rather than her sister. I wanted to see how old she was, but no dice.

Others

The Westons were decent. I especially liked Mr. Weston. Unfortunately it seems like the only ones who made an impression on me were negative. This is really one adaptation that I found so boring a lot of the time that I couldn’t even find enough to say about it. I can’t really recommend it except to complete a Jane Austen collection.

My Rating: 5/10