Desperately Seeking Agatha Christie

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Ordeal by Innocence is the third in a series of Agatha Christie adaptations written by Sarah Phelps (preceded by the deliciously campy And Then There Were None and the darkly disturbing Witness for the Prosecution). I so enjoyed both of Phelps’ previous takes on Christie that I marked the release date for Ordeal by Innocence in my calendar! (Fear not, dear reader, I stalk only my favorite pop culture commodities). Unfortunately, this latest adaptation did not live up to the previous two.

The story unfolds in three hour-long episodes and, due to the large number of characters, much of the first episode gets eaten up by exposition and replaying the crime itself. By the second episode, it’s clear that the victim (and mother to five adopted children), Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor), was almost universally despised by her family but the reasons why only become clear in the final episode. Phelps uses a large number of flashbacks, beginning with short snippets of scenes that gradually lengthen as we learn more about the Argylls, but which tend to make the pacing of the storytelling quite choppy and frustrating since the early flashbacks don’t contribute much knowledge about the murder or the characters. In fact, the flashbacks return repeatedly to the same scenes, extending them only briefly each time. Season one of How to Get Away with Murder used a similar tactic and I found it tedious then as well. It’s difficult to strike that happy compromise where you repeat enough information so that the audience can follow the chronology of the story without becoming bored of the same series of shots showing the discovery of the victim’s body, etc. as they are replayed.

While I enjoyed the dark tone Phelps used in adapting And Then There Were None and Witness for the Prosecution (which was much more ominous than the majority of the Poirot and Miss Marple series found on PBS), Ordeal by Innocence felt far too melodramatic for my taste (and I count myself as a fan of Days of Our Lives). Perhaps the issue isn’t that Phelps uses melodrama (the story’s about a murder and a disintegrating family, after all) but that there’s no relief from the melodramatic tone and it becomes tiring well before we reach the plot’s climax.

With all of those criticisms in mind, I thought the actors gave strong performances given the script and tone of the overall project. One of the central roles was recast and reshot after Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick was accused of sexual assault. It’s impossible to say exactly how that may have impacted the final product but I applaud the cast and crew’s efforts to finish the film and release it under such stressful circumstances. The overall standout for me was Morven Christie, probably best known to American audiences as the charming Amanda Hopkins from Grantchester. Here in Ordeal by Innocence, she completely disappears into the role of Kirsten Lindstrom, the largely taciturn housekeeper. Christie does stellar work even with relatively few lines and some of her scenes without any dialogue are the most gripping of the entire project. The cast rounds itself out with the charming Bill Nighy, Anthony Boyle (currently starring in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway), the delightful Matthew Goode (here playing a nasty, vile character that proves Goode is best when he goes bad), and Poldark’s always engaging Eleanor Tomlinson. Ordeal by Innocence is currently streaming on Amazon Prime (not just for two-day shipping!).

Sarah Phelps’ next Christie adaptation is The ABC Murders (one of my absolute favorites!) starring . . . (you may need to take a seat) John Malkovich. Hmmm. So we’ve gone from David Suchet as Poirot (aka the one and only Poirot in my mind) to a Giant Mustache (Kenneth Branagh) impersonating as Poirot in the most recent Murder on the Orient Express film to John Malkovich. It may be time to go back to the bookshelf rather than the film or tv screen to satisfy your Agatha Christie-sized craving. In fact, Sophie Hannah has written several new Poirot mysteries in recent years and the latest, The Mystery of Three Quarters, is out now!

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Shady Women Doing Shady Things

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Following the popularity of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a new genre has emerged which I like to think of as Shady Women Doing Shady Things. It seems that every time I head to a bookstore (increasingly rarely as there are so few left) or wander through my local big box store’s book aisle there’s a new book being blurbed as the latest Gone Girl.

What are some of the traits needed to label something as the newest Gone Girl?

  • How fast can you turn the pages? Hopefully fairly quickly because I would argue that’s the primary factor needed to GoneGirl-ify something. The story needs to barrel onward and keep the reader interested, preferably to the point that you don’t want to put down the book.
  • As per many mysteries/thrillers, readers crave sinister characters (ideally both men and women but just one or the other will suffice).
  • Many thrillers of this genre use the tired stereotype of the “desperate single woman” (sigh . . . and deep breath everyone). Here’s where things can start to feel a little bit . . . icky. Why does the single woman have to be on the receiving end of violence so often? What does it say about readers that we often enjoy these kinds of stories, collectively buying millions of copies and happily watching movie and TV adaptations galore? Why is the single woman in these stories so often consumed (to the point of obsession) with finding a partner? Or fixated on a past partner? Don’t despair just yet, though, because he stronger writers in the Shady Women genre use these pitfalls to potentially subvert them in new (and hopefully surprising) ways.
  • Perhaps most disturbingly, the Shady Women genre requires a woman placed in close proximity to peril (often with the killer/sinister character). On the one hand, I completely understand this trait. Part of crime fiction generally is experiencing danger vicariously through the fictional world. On the other hand, taken too far this interest in seeing women endangered can become . . . yucky, for lack of a better word. For me, the distinction lies in the skill of the writer and the tone he or she takes in depicting any crimes or encounters with sinister characters (much like the handling of the desperate single woman trope). There’s a difference between wallowing in the mental or physical torture of a female character with no greater purpose and depicting violence without losing its brutality or the consequences it brings to the victim and perpetrator.
  • The most successful examples of this genre add in at least one unreliable narrator to keep the reader questioning whether what she’s reading is accurate or not. The unreliability can come from memory loss, blackouts due to drinking, etc. (see The Girl on the Train), or just plain withholding information from the reader. Unlike Golden Age detective fiction which typically lays out all the information for the reader and allows you to follow the deductions of a Poirot, for example, the Shady Women genre typically makes it much harder to fully solve the mystery ahead of the book itself, enhancing the need to keep flipping those pages and, if done well, making the narrative resolution that much more satisfying when finally revealed.
  • Finally, chilling set pieces are a vital ingredient to create the eerie atmosphere of this genre. One of the things I most enjoyed when I read Gone Girl was the various locations where Flynn staged the action. Most frightening to me was an abandoned mall where people were running a black market. (Having read two of Ruth Ware’s novels, I can tell you that she excels at this as well. Her bachelorette party thriller In a Dark, Dark Wood features a glass house set in the middle of a forest where the occupants are on display to any and all passersby. Her most recent release, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, features a British estate that fans of Golden Age detective fiction will practically weep over.)

I love nothing more than a good mystery/thriller so I checked out two recent releases to see where the Shady Women genre currently stands.

Not That I Could Tell by Jessica Strawser

Set in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Strawser’s novel is a fairly close relative of the Gone Girl tradition. Much like Gone Girl, Strawser initially uses gender stereotypes, in this case particularly  those surrounding mothers, to help color readers’ perceptions of her characters. The morning after a group of women socialize around a backyard fire pit, one of them goes missing along with her two children. While Gillian Flynn seems interested in the individual psychological pathologies of her characters, Strawser uses the mystery of the disappearance to explore domestic abuse, how it might appear to someone outside the abusive relationship, and the ethical responsibilities of someone who suspects domestic abuse. Strawser also plays with the trope of the desperate single woman (also used by Ware for In a Dark, Dark Wood). In the hands of a less thoughtful, less skilled writer, using these stereotypes could be insulting to readers. Luckily, Strawser’s characters are imbued with specificity and motivated by their emotions in a way that feels purposeful for the character and not a mechanized plot device. Initially, I felt Strawser’s characterization of the “desperate single woman” was superficial but it improved throughout the novel’s second half. Strawser’s writing style is rarely lyrical and does not strive towards much more than conveying the ideas and dialogue necessary to the story. However, in a thriller such as Not That I Could Tell her approach gets the job done and maintains the reader’s focus on the novel’s central disappearance. Although I was not particularly surprised by the resolution to the central mystery, I enjoyed the red herrings along the way and was genuinely alarmed by the confrontation with the novel’s baddie.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware’s latest novel combines certain elements of the Gone Girl-style thriller with the characterization and logical puzzle of an Agatha Christie mystery, bridging multiple traditions. Harriet Westaway, an orphaned fortune teller working on the Brighton pier, receives a letter informing her that her grandmother Westaway has died, leaving her a bequest, and inviting her to Trepassen, her grandmother’s estate in Cornwall. Confident that her real grandmother died long ago, Hal initially dismisses this letter until a series of increasingly dangerous threats from a loan shark convince her to try and collect the fraudulent inheritance. I enjoyed The Death of Mrs. Westaway so much that I immediately requested Ruth Ware’s other novels from the library. The last 200 pages or so were riveting to the point that I read them on the treadmill (or death machine as I fondly think of it). I truly could not put the book down until I had learned the mystery’s resolution. Unlike the unreliable narrators of so much of the Shady Women genre, here Ware plays fair with the reader by giving them all the pieces of the puzzle that the protagonist has at any given moment (and they actually do all fit together in the end). However, Ware also uses past diary entries interspersed with in the present-day action to give the flavor of the unreliable narration so common in Shady Women thrillers. Despite the seemingly cozy setting of a large estate in Cornwall, Trepassen is more dilapidated than charming and a Mrs. Danvers-esque character helps manifest the unsettling atmosphere Ware amplifies throughout the novel’s second half. Ware is a mystery writer to watch for the future as she uses the best of the Golden Age tradition mixed with contemporary trends that make her work exciting but also a (scary) pleasure to read!

Wait for a rainy day or, better yet, a dark and stormy night and then crack the spine on these thrillers.

Endeavour Season 6 May Be Its Best Yet

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Morse. Inspector Lewis. Endeavour. The Morseverse, in addition to its intricate mysteries and compelling detectives, is one of the most fertile mystery series (maybe even just TV series) in recent memory. Colin Dexter’s original run of thirteen books has generated three very successful series and Endeavour finished its fifth season run last week on PBS.

I can remember watching Morse’s final episode when it aired across the pond, dutifully tuned in for every episode of Inspector Lewis (and Hathaway), and re-bingewatched much of Endeavour in preparation for this latest season.

As an avid mystery reader and viewer, having an interesting crime puzzle is the primary quality of a solid detective show, for me at least. Endeavour rarely lets viewers down in this regard and season five has maintained, if not raised, this standard. Endeavour is written solely by Russell Lewis rather than a writers’ room, meaning the variations in characterization and overall quality that sometimes plague TV series have been largely smoothed over. Russell Lewis’s scripts are well constructed, so much so that rewatching his work (even when I remember whodunnit) remains engaging. The city of Oxford, with its neverending supply of academics and students, paired with Morse’s love of crossword puzzles and classical music, lends endless opportunities to embellish the average murder (or three, more likely).

Even more so than in Morse and Inspector Lewis, Endeavour’s characters stand as a lovely counterpoint to the macabre suspects and killers who crop up in its weekly cases.

  • His Man Thursday: Roger Allam plays the family man detective Fred Thursday perfectly, even down to his reactions to his sandwich fillings— a long-running joke at this point. Sometimes gruff—even frightening when he needs to be—Thursday’s largely gentle mentorship of the too-clever-for-his-own-good Morse and the pair’s trusting camaraderie surpasses even that of the original Morse and Lewis. Allam’s and Shaun Evans’ ability to portray the emotional depth of their characters’ relationship without stating it explicitly creates a beautiful thread running throughout the series as a whole.
  • He Should Be Named Anton Greater: Anton Lesser’s Chief Superintendent Bright has grown on me the most of any character over Endeavour’s five seasons. Initially, he seemed to be the ultra-conservative manager who didn’t “get” Morse’s genius. However, (and I think Lesser’s performance and Lewis’s writing share near equal credit for this) this season in particular has shown that, while he is part of the police force establishment, he is not unfeeling and in fact cares about his officers, even if his approach differs from both Thursday’s and Endeavour’s. Bright’s vulnerability (especially during his hospital visit last season) and his mentorship of WPC Trewlove have softened the harsh disciplinarian of the early seasons. His decision to resign after the death of one of his officers and the closing of their station in the season finale only reaffirmed his leadership role going forward as the characters presumably reassemble in a less official capacity to find PC George Fancy’s (Lewis Peek) killer next season.
  • Trewlove, Please Don’t Leave Us!: Endeavour’s period setting has always increased its style quotient but recent seasons have seen the late 60’s providing even more atmosphere and historical context. The addition of Shirley Trewlove (Dakota Blue Richards) in season four as the department’s first WPC (Women Police Constable) was a welcome one that shed new light on our series regulars and provided insight into changes in the force. This season, Trewlove faced more pointed misogeny while also showing skills that would make her Morse’s heir apparent (given the chance for promotion). She was also paired romantically with George Fancy (a somewhat average newbie who was played for laughs until his surprising death in the season finale). Giving shades of Prime Suspect-Lite, I love that we see Trewlove’s skills as a WPC while the show also demonstrates the challenges she faces moving into the all-male ranks. (If the Morseverse results in yet another spinoff, Trewlove and Hathaway both have my vote to anchor shows of their own.) Unfortunately, it seems as though Trewlove won’t be returning for the confirmed sixth season as her character is moving to the London Metropolitan police.
  • The Morse of It All: Finally, so much rests on the character of Endeavour Morse himself. As Thursday says of Morse in the season finale, “Morse’s as decent as they come.” Although the intelligence, crosswords, and classical music carry over from the original series, Endeavour Morse, as the audience knows him here, works as a character in his own right instead of just as an imitation of John Thaw’s Morse. Although Endeavour’s often clueless about how to approach relationships both personal and professional (and who isn’t?), he usually operates from a motive of uncovering the truth regardless of who it inconveniences, even the police force itself. Endeavour’s tenacity when working a case and his seeming inability to put aside small details which don’t support the police’s working theory of a crime makes him an excellent guide for the audience when working through each week’s mystery. Shaun Evans does such an effective job playing Endeavour it’s hard for me to isolate a single trait or tactic to highlight. (Although if you’re interested, look up some interviews with Evans to hear his native Liverpool accent and marvel at his technical brilliance in creating an entirely different one for Morse.) I truly can’t imagine another actor playing Endeavour. I’ve seen Evans in a couple of other British TV shows in guest starring roles which I also enjoyed, but his ability to make the young Endeavour compelling over five seasons and also show his development as a character is captivating.

Endeavour has already started production on its sixth season so hopefully it will air next summer on PBS (I believe it usually airs first in the UK). Shaun Evans will direct an episode next season in addition to his starring role which gives fans even more to anticipate! In the meantime, check out what I have dubbed the ‘Morse-stache’ in the production stills that have been released. I’m not sure if Morse is having a quarter-life crisis or just leaning hard into the 70s. Either way, I know Endeavour fans won’t be far behind.

Get Thyself to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

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It’s been a long summer, actually, a loooong summer. Just when there seems to be no break in the heat the sweet popcorn bliss of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again enters stage right, pursued by dancers in bell bottoms. Initially, I was doubtful about the prospect of a Mamma Mia! sequel. With most sequels I ask myself: does the world need another of [insert major movie franchise here]? Usually, the jaded film critic inside me says no. Several months ago I had the same response to this Mamma Mia! sequel. However, last week I found myself getting excited when I saw previews, noticed people talking about it on Twitter, and listened to ABBA (*you are the dancing queen, young and sweet . . .*).

You guys, it was so much fun! I laughed, I cried, I added peasant tops and shimmery eye shadow to my mental shopping cart.

Mamma Mia! focused on Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) unraveling the mystery of her dad’s identity and holding her eventual wedding. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again follows two timelines. Timeline #1 (or should it be timeline #2 since chronologically it comes after the events of Mamma Mia!? Let’s not stress the timelines too much. It’s not an episode of Doctor Who after all.) So, timeline #1 continues Sophie’s story as she opens an inn on the gorgeous Greek island where her mom raised her. Once again we get to see Sophie’s three dads, her hubby Sky (Dominic Cooper), and her mom’s best friends/girl group partners in crime Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). Timeline #2 features younger versions of many of the same characters, specifically Donna (Lily James), Harry (Hugh Skinner), Bill (Josh Dylan), Sam (Jeremy Irvine), Rosie (Alexa Davies), and Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn— sporting a remarkable impersonation of Christine Baranski’s voice) albeit with 70’s costumes as they meet, become entangled in romantic relationships, and generally make cute with the singing and dancing.

Let’s be clear, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is not a movie that will win awards or change movie musicals for all time. That’s not what this movie’s about nor is it why fans will go see it. The fact that the creators and cast of the film understand this makes me love them all the more. This movie is funny, silly, goofy and a delightful two-hour respite from reality. While the first few numbers felt off—either choreographed too literally to follow the lyrics or focused on a young Donna who wasn’t featured in the first film (and therefore doesn’t have much of an initial connection with the audience)—as soon as I saw the mature Rosie and Tanya I got a giant grin on my face and settled in to enjoy the music, dancing, and Cher of it all.

All of the returning cast do a nice job (thankfully the producers minimized Pierce Brosnan’s musical solos). Baranski and Walters are standouts as in the first movie and Cher brings all the glamour and camp you want her to with a platinum wig to match. Colin Firth really leaned into the nerdy loveableness of Harry and earned several of the biggest laughs in my theater (a Titanic reference alone was worth the cost of my ticket). Meryl Streep reappears only briefly but is dependable as ever and her character remains the emotional heart of the film as it celebrates mothers and daughters.

Lily James, probably best known for playing cousin Rose on Downton Abbey and Cinderella in Disney’s recent live action remake, has the toughest role as she plays the younger version of Meryl Streep’s character. She nails it. James’ singing has a lovely quality to it and she captures the carefree unconventionality of Donna while still making her emotional arc understandable (no small feat given the gauze thin plot connecting all the ABBA hits here). I was struck again by just how cool Donna is. She’s the lead singer of a girl group, she travels the world, and then decides to raise her daughter on her own in the seaside paradise that is Greece. For all the silliness of the film (and I love it for that in its own kooky way), the fact that it chooses for its protagonist this unique woman who shirks many of the stereotypes we see in characters who are also moms differentiates the Mamma Mia films from other jukebox musicals.

Although Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a sequel, a musical, and makes for fantastic escapism, it provoked a surprising number of thoughtful, dare I say, philosophical questions, such as:

  • Has Christine Baranski discovered the fountain of youth? What is in her water and where can I buy some?
  • Is goofy dad Colin Firth actually peak Colin Firth?
  • Should I uproot my life and open up an inn on a remote Greek island?
  • Will there be a third installment speculatively titled Mamma Mia! How Can I Resist You?

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ends with a sort of celestial curtain call featuring all the characters (both the young and mature versions of Donna, et.al). Everyone is in fantastic lamé jumpsuits and Cher kicks off the singing of “Super Trouper.” I can only hope this is how I’m greeted when I get to the pearly gates!

Like a House on Fire— No, Wait, There’s Literally a House on Fire!

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Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere is a gift of a novel by which I mean it is pleasurable, thought provoking, beautifully written, and over all too soon for this reader. Ng’s second novel, set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, (Ng’s hometown) uses this environment well (specifically the fact that it’s one of America’s first planned communities) to give context to its working-class and uppermiddle-class characters at the heart of its themes and conflicts. Although the book jacket description focuses on a wealthy white couple’s custody battle for the daughter of a Chinese immigrant they are trying to adopt, this legal case exemplifies other questions running throughout the narrative about found families and accepting that the way you choose to live your life, with all its necessary compromises, is only one of the many possible ways to live.

I would describe Ng’s literary ancestors as equal parts Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and Barbara Kingsolver. Little Fires Everywhere adeptly portrays the characters within their social environment (à la Austen), whether in the middle-class suburbs, a local high school, or a New York art school. Within these various locales, Ng remains attentive to how class status shades all the characters’ interactions (à la Wharton). Ng writes what often feels like magical realism in which there is no supernatural magic— only the surprises and reversals that even the most ordinary life can contain (à la Kingsolver).

What most impressed me, however, was Ng’s ability to capture the characters’ various, and often conflicting, perspectives, show the limitations of each outlook, and yet still maintain empathy for each of the characters. Ng balances so much in her character work, connecting her to the best of nineteenth-century realism, while she elevates the mundane in a way that feels magical yet modern. Ng directly confronts issues of motherhood which will elicit strong opinions from readers, making Little Fires Everywhere a perfect book to read with a friend, in a book club, in a college classroom, etc. (To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, I will read it in the car. I will read it in a bar.)

What’s more, Ng renders exquisite prose. Her combination of first-rate storytelling and beautiful style is one to be appreciated by readers and envied by fellow writers. Little Fires Everywhere’s pacing is swift. It’s what I think of as a third-arm book that you drag around wherever you go so you can continue reading. (I even stayed up late to finish the book rather than wait for another sunrise to reach the end.) In fact, after devouring the novel during my first reading, I’m eager to savor it again at a more leisurely pace.

While ultimately more hopeful in tone than her strong debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, Little Fires Everywhere is equally compelling. If you’ve never read Ng’s work, her novels are a treat for readers. You can’t go wrong with adding either of her novels to your bookshelf.

Lionaires, Leoponaires, and Panthenaires, Oh My!

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Unlike Black Panther’s afrofuturism which posits through the fictional country of Wakanda (“Wakanda Forever!”) what Africa might have been without colonization, Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone takes readers to the pre-industrial fantasy world of Orïsha to create a unique magic all its own. Set in a kingdom where magic has been suppressed violently and mature practitioners have been slaughtered, Adeyemi establishes a complex world for readers to inhabit. Orïsha divides itself between those who have inherited the ability to do magic—divîners—and those who have not—kosidán. Among those with magical abilities there are ten clans, each wielding a different skill set. Zélie, Children of Blood and Bone’s protagonist, is a Reaper who helps souls to cross over but can also command an army of the dead. Other kinds of magic can enter people’s minds to access thoughts while still others can create fire. After the discovery of an artifact that can restore a divîner’s magic a quest to return magic to all of Orïsha ensues. Adeyemi’s worldbuilding is very well done but what’s astounding is that there’s still so much territory left to explore in future novels.

Adeyemi unspools the narrative across three characters’ perspectives with virtually no events being narrated by more than one person. When the characters are operating in the same location the variety of these perspectives helps keep the pace moving nicely and shows the characters’ interiority. At times when the characters are separated physically the multi-perspective POV sometimes worked against itself (although I felt this more frequently in the novel’s first half than its second). Just as one POV would reach a climax the chapter would end and the next would feature a different narrator. All the momentum built up from the climax was left unused (for at least a chapter), leaving the reader metaphorically perched at the top of a rollercoaster only to have to wait for the downhill release where you get to waive your arms and shriek with delight. At other points, especially when the characters are at cross purposes, the multiple perspectives do work much more effectively to ratchet up the tension.

Similarly, one of the narrators is a dangerous character whose alliances shift throughout the novel and at certain points this antagonist’s perspective added to the suspense and complexity of the story. At other times, however, getting inside this character’s head made me feel as if I had almost too much information when it came to questions of loyalty, robbing some plot points of their suspense.

Now on to some of the elements I loved unabashedly:

  • Adeyemi’s female characters, particularly Zélie and Amari, would be standouts in any novel. In Children of Blood and Bone, they not only drive the action forward (squeal of feminist joy) but also contain both strengths AND weaknesses. Adeyemi’s women are well balanced in terms of their attributes as well as their flaws. Even better, the quest plot provides ample opportunity for both women to sometimes fail and sometimes succeed along their journey, making them consistently compelling.
  • The mythical lionaires (like lions but with horns and wings) that our heroes ride are my newest fictional creature obsession. Bye, porgs.
  • Adeyemi writes movingly in her author’s note about writing in response to police violence and her novel provides a beautiful example of how literature, especially the fantasy genre, interacts with the “real world.” The visceral descriptions of the King’s guards’ attacks and the Raid in which the adult magi were effectively lynched aptly demonstrate parallels to the history of race in America and contemporary social justice debates without pulling readers out of the world of Orïsha Adeyemi so capably builds. Children of Blood and Bone, alongside last year’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, are great YA books that invite high schoolers (and adult readers like myself) into meaningful narratives that grapple with real-world events.

The next book in Adeyemi’s Legacy of Orïsha series, Children of Virtue and Vengeance, is slated for a March 2019 release and a movie adaptation of Children of Blood and Bone is in the works!

If You Give a Han a Wookie . . .

Solo: A Star Wars Story arrives at your local Cineplex with both a troubled production history and a weighty list of fan expectations, a potentially lethal combination for which no one would hope. The fact that Solo manages to deliver on some aspects of its premise as a Han Solo origin story is possibly a minor miracle given its initial directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, were fired during principle filming.

The most persistent and pernicious problems with Solo lie in its script and storytelling. The movie’s early scenes in particular do a poor job of establishing the characters and making the audience excited to re-enter this universe so many love so deeply. The tone (a problem for the movie as a whole) is extremely earnest early on as Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to make it out of their current interstellar slum. Earnest is perhaps the last adjective you would apply to the blasterslinging, wisecracking Han Solo in A New Hope (let’s dispense with numbers as Star Wars math is hopelessly confusing). Of course, in Solo you don’t see exactly that Han but, for me at least, A New Hope Han is the primary reason I’m going to see Solo—and therein lies the prequel chestnut Solo doesn’t successfully address.

Han seems to be a “Good Boyfriend” to Qi’ra and, without devoting any significant time to their relationship/coupledom, the film asks viewers to invest in their love (if it is love) for each other. Banking on this couple so hard means the film has built the narrative equivalent of a chair with wobbly, teetering legs—the existing foundation cannot adequately support all the weight the subsequent story asks it to carry.

The film’s other major flaw is the script, in many cases even at the sentence level. Although written by Star Wars heavyweight Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) and legacy newcomer Jonathan Kasdan, the script was weighed down by, at times, overwrought dialogue and, surprisingly, a great deal of clichés. (Perhaps the worst was Qi’ra’s confession that thoughts of Han make her smile. Yuck.) All that said, Solo does have some fun elements on its side.

  • The film features stellar supporting performances from Thandie Newton, Woody Harrelson, and Donald Glover, although the greatest of these is Donald Glover. His performance echoes the spirit of Billy Dee Wiliams’ as the original Lando Calrissian but still works within the context of this new narrative (something Ehrenreich never fully achieves). My favorite moment of the entire film may well be Calrissian’s equivalent of a captain’s log which we see him recording aboard the Millennium Falcon.
  • The film oscillates between heist plots and neo-Western which worked well and helped kick the plot into hyperdrive (spaceship pun: check) after the humdrum opening. The heists make sense given that we know Han evolves into a smuggler and the Western elements added another level of visual language and film tropes such as a train chase, shootouts, high-stakes card games, and desert landscapes no longer so common in summer blockbusters filled with robots and increasingly high-tech superheroes.
  • The cape game was strong with this one. Lando’s closet was particularly deep and Qi’ra’s jumpsuit was another high point.
  • Although there were no new breakout species a la The Last Jedi’s porgs, the new aliens featured were a fun and welcome addition to the universe. In the opening scenes, a female alien who craved shiny objects as tribute/payment was one of the few interesting characters in that segment.
  • Phoebe Waller Bridge provided surprising robot wokeness and necessary laughs as Lando’s companion, L3-37, who staunchly defends the notion that robots are people too.
  • The rebel leader Enfys (Erin Kellyman) appears only sparingly in Solo but I immediately wanted a standalone movie for her given the enigmatic strength Kellyman projected onscreen.

 

Ultimately, the relationship in the film which shined the brightest was that between Han and Chewie and seeing their initial meetcute is great fun. More Han/Chewie and less Han/Qi’ra might have been a helpful course correction in charting the film’s tone.

Until the next Star Wars universe release, I’ve put together a wish list for what I long to see in a galaxy far, far away:

  • A villain without tiger stripes, black/red face paint, a giant black helmet, or golden bathrobe
  • Chewbacca standalone whether it be novella, movie, or tv series
  • Han and Chewie slash fiction (don’t let me down internet!)
  • More robot uprisings a la L3-37
  • Janelle Monae voicing a droid (she’s already the Archandroid, right?)
  • The Calrissian Chronicles 

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