Agatha Raisin and the Haunted House

10/30/2017 at 6:45 AM (Books, Classics, Mystery, TV) (, , )

When I borrowed this book from my local library, I was under the impression this was an Agatha Christie type mystery with a bit more edge. I think Agatha Christie type mysteries are older fashioned compared to Agatha Raisin. The novel ends in a surprising fashion with the protagonist deciding to begin her own agency for ladies.The problem the victim faces is that she is an older, much maligned lady and her claims that her house is being haunted falls on deaf ears when it comes to the local police. Due to her interest in solving crimes, when the old lady is murdered, it makes M.C. Beaton’s Agatha sit up and take interest. For her, the solving of a crime holds more interest because she finds it more fun rather than chasing after ghosts.

Agatha Raisin, comfortable and warm in her cottage, in Carsley has that same old feeling-boredom-until a report of a haunted house sends her and new neighbor, handsome Paul Chatterton, to investigate. Suddenly, middle-aged Agatha is aglow with romance and excitement. But the charm fades fast. It turns out Paul is a cad because he is married to Juanita. The victim of the haunting is a universally disliked old biddy. And the ghost is most likely someone playing a dirty trick. Then an old lady is soon found murdered. For Agatha, solving a homicide is more fun than hunting a ghost. She quickly has a theory and a risky scheme. And she makes a startling discovery which could either be her greatest triumph or leave her heartbroken, in trouble with the police, and in danger of losing her reputation – or her life.

 Agatha is again mesmerised with the latest man living next door Paul Chatterton while she pines under it all for James Lacey. Her older age comes out well when she can’t get up out of a lawn chair gracefully. I like Agatha because she is so very real. I can imagine myself doing what she does just blundering around until something happens. But there is a susceptible side to Agatha, and this was brought out in this book and at times I felt a little sorry for her. As usual Agatha solves the murders, and saves the day, and everything turns out alright in the end. This was #14 in the Agatha Raisin series written by M.C. Beaton.

There is a TV series also based on the much-loved books by M.C Beaton where Cotswold dwelling amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin attempts to solve the mysterious murder cases that seem to plague her community.

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The Diary of a Young Girl

07/06/2014 at 1:21 PM (Books, Classics, Inspired) (, , , , )

Anne Frank

Anne Frank

I recently finished reading The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. The diary was a birthday present given to Anne. She decides to make the diary her trusted confidant to whom she spills her innermost thoughts and addresses it as ‘Dear Kitty’. Her diary is full of lively, imaginative prose and brings the personalities of the residents of the Secret Annexe to life. It is miracle her diary survived confiscation by the Gestapo.

When the Nazis occupied Holland in 1942, Anne was a 13-year-old girl of Jewish descent who was persecuted into fleeing her home and going into hiding along with her family and another family. For two years until their location was betrayed, her family resided in the secret annexe compartment of Anne’s father’s office building. In her diary, Anne writes about this experience and her daily conflicts with the imposed living conditions in tight quarters, the fear of discovery and the penalty of death. Despite this, she also talks about typical problems faced by teenagers – waging battles of will with her parents, having romances with boys and the struggle of keeping up with her clever, intelligent older sister Margot. In the grand scheme of life, it is sad to learn this budding writer’s demise was a result of the Holocaust. While her mention of her family is sparse in the early entries, this changes after her confinement. Through her diary, Anne Frank portrays a compelling, evocative and poignant story on bravery and resourcefulness in the face of danger.

Unfortunately the only family member to survive the Nazi occupation was Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Luckily he was able to rescue her diary and bring it worldwide attention. Anne says in her diary “I don’t want to have lived in vain like most people. I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I’ve never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”. In a sad roundabout way, her wish was fulfilled. I think the simple and plain language will make this an easy text for the majority of readers as long as they are able to keep in mind this was a personal diary and not a work of imagination.

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A Room with a View

06/13/2014 at 1:40 PM (Books, Classics, Movies, Romance, Romance, Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

It has been so long since I posted here. I feel like I’ve renewed a friendship with someone who had drifted away. Now the cold winter months are approaching and the sky is pitch dark by 6 PM, blogging seems like less of a geeky, couch potato activity to do on a Friday night. It also distracts me from food in the fridge because while many are increasing their waistline in winter by eating carb-piled comfort food, I’m doing the opposite by depriving myself.

In terms of reading exploits, my latest read was A Room with a View by author E. M. Forster, who also wrote A Passage to India. While the book is meant to be a comedy of manners with its cast of medieval and renaissance characters and employment of witty, humorous dialogue, I didn’t find it as entertaining as expected.

It narrates the story of Lucy Honeychurch, a free-spirited but sheltered young middle-class lady, who has her rigid, ordered life thrown off balance after visiting Florence with her chaperone and older uptight cousin Charlotte leads to a meeting with the Emersons. Other unconventional characters residing in the Pension Bertolini opens Lucy’s eyes to differences between ingrained archaic, repressed Edwardian morals and emerging liberal social values through the author’s cleverly contrasting England’s staidness with Italy’s vitality. She ultimately learns propriety can mask the truth and beauty can be found by not conforming to etiquette. This new knowledge affects Lucy’s structured plans as she has discovered that social boundaries are arbitrary. In the end with a fitting dramatic conclusion, Lucy decides to follow her own heart in regards to love and chooses her own destiny and defies convention. The most interesting thing is that while we are allowed into the minds of all the characters, save the two Emersons who remain an enigma.

I have not watched the movie adaptation of A Room with a View starring Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch so I cannot personally comment but here’s a film review by Roger Ebert to present some perspective on the film.

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The Help

06/10/2012 at 10:45 AM (Books, Classics, Inspired, Politics) (, , , , , , )

This was a book which I had reserved for ages thanks to a work-related book club listing. It was so readable and engaging in tone that it took one sitting to finish reading although it was approaching the wee hours of the morning by then. I didn’t realise it encompassed the perspectives of different characters (Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter) until the fourth chapter – I was too engrossed in the unfolding plot. This is a book written by a writer who has paid attention to suspenseful build up of plot with teasers – in my experience, those books are the page turners. Each character also has a unique voice but while I’m sure it helped the reading, I didn’t exactly dwell over it.

So here’s the summary: The Help by Kathryn Stockett is the story of Skeeter Phelan, Aibileen Clark, and Minny Jackson. Skeeter has  graduated from college and has returned to Jackson, Mississippi. She feels unsatisfied by her small town, Wednesday bridge club and working as the editor of the Junior League, because she wants to be a professional writer. She has her fair share of troubles because unlike her friends she has not found a husband yet and her mother is always trying to remind her to find dates. She wants to obtain a publishing position in New York but she has only received rejection letters. Inspired by her fondness for her former maid, Constantine — who left without a word before she returned — and annoyance with her friend Hilly’s “Home Sanitation Initiative” (a scheme for white people to set up bathrooms for their colored help), Skeeter sets out to write the stories of the black maids in her town. Naturally given this story is set in 1962 and given the setting, they are embarking on a fairly dangerous mission.

The Help book cover

 I’m not white, I’m not African-American and I’m not a citizen of USA. While I knew some background on civil war history, I  liked the angle this book took on the Jim Crow laws and maids working for white women that they once raised as babies. There were two readings which struck me: Skeeter, a white woman gives a voice to “colored” maids who are silenced by the laws governing their state about race. On the positive side, it represents a simple college girl finding courage to stand up for the oppressed race. On the negative side, this is a story about mastery and race – the maids could not have done this without Skeeter’s assistance. At least, those are the two sides of the coin to me.

What was most beautiful to me was the relationship between Aibileen and motherly affection-starved Mae Mobley. I loved how the racist first grade teacher was changed when Raleigh Leefolt saw her playing ‘Rosa Parks on the bus’ with her sibling after she lied to defend Aibileen. Celia Foote, Johnny and Minny also had quite interesting interactions. The book definitely has its share of dramatic and funny moments.

Well, as for my opinion? It is worth reading, though there is plenty of subject matter about racism in the Southern States, because of the perspectives from which it is written – especially that of Aibileen andMinny.

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The Collector

02/10/2012 at 12:01 PM (Books, Classics, Horror, Movies) (, , , , )

So I finally have some breathing space to actually sit down and write a review. I have been reading but just haven’t had the time to write since my reading is mostly done during my one-hour train commute to work. Well, I was fascinated by The Collector’s cover and the vintage classic which was the first effort of John Fowles (better known as the author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman) was an unexpected treat.

Here’s the basic overview of the plot: Dull and ordinary clerk Frederick Clegg has an obsession. The object of his obsession is a woman, namely a pretty art student named Miranda Grey. After lucking out on the lottery, he moves out from his aunt’s and purchases an old estate with a cellar in country England. This is where it starts getting bizarre. Deciding he has to have the company of Miranda at all costs because he “loves” her, he kidnaps the poor girl and keeps her captive in the cellar which contrasts with his hobby of collecting different butterflies. Essentially Miranda is a human specimen.

The Collector - John Fowles

The first half of the story is narrated from Frederick’s point of view while the second half is gleaned through Miranda’s diary. It is obvious that these two are far from being a perfect match because their opinions conflict and their individual perspectives are at odds with the beliefs of the other party.

but I have left the best part for last. With the last of Miranda’s diary entries, we come to a plot twist that will shock you about Frederick for whom, nine times out of ten, you would have felt sympathy so far because of his lack of social skills. Reeling with that, we are treated to an unexpected ending which is very ingenuous for book written in 1963. There was a movie made in 1965 but seriously don’t miss out on the prose. I thought Miranda’s rambling went on for a little too long for my liking since I found her own obsession with an older paramour grating but other than that I have no quibbles with it.  It is in the face of what happens, I would say, a horror story in the sense of psychological suspense.

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Angela’s Ashes (Film)

12/20/2011 at 12:29 AM (Actors, Classics, Drama, Emily Watson, Inspired, Movies, Robert Carlyle) (, , , , , )

Based on Irish expat Frank McCourt‘s Pulitzer Prize winning memoir Angela’s Ashes, this 1999 film adaptation shows us how he grew up in the wretched slums of Limerick during the Depression. It is clear from the start food is as scarce as employment, poverty is rife, disease is a precursor to death and squalor is everywhere. Nevertheless despite all the tragedies that befall this family including their pathetic alcoholic father figure who uses even welfare money for the drink instead of feeding his babies, Frankie seems to find some joy in life and builds his dreams on escaping to America while even managing to love his irresponsible dad. It is the rich variety of characters and experiences he has along the way to achieving this that makes this story so poignant and moving. Frank’s Irish Catholic upbringing is given a lot of focus on the film as well as the rank hypocrisy of the church.

The film is brutal in its depiction of the bleak and sad life that was had to be in Ireland with the drab brown and grey tones pervading it. Nevertheless it is still injected with doses of optimism and humour, sometimes from the most unexpected quarters. Robert Carlyle does a great job as the laconic and irresponsible Malachy while Emily Watson seems to bear the patience of a saint as she portrays the self-sacrificing woman who was Angela, Frank McCourt’s mother and the namesake of the film. The three boys who portrayed Frank were all great actors in their own right so kudos to the casting people.

Despite Angela having a husband who rarely if ever fulfilled his obligations as a father, she is the rock who made Frank determined to achieve his goal and move on from the past. It is clear she was a good-hearted person who coped with immense hardships that were thrown in her way. Ultimately while this is a tragic movie about the pain and suffering one can undergo for the love of one’s children, the ultimate triumph at the end eclipses it all.

While this is a good movie, it is possibly because it stays true to the heart of the book most of the time. If you want to watch it but haven’t read the book yet, I suggest trying it out first. Angela’s Ashes may be an uplifting story in its final message but it is not a happy one. After seeing this, you might want to think twice about complaining about your lot in life and eat humble pie instead!

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Jude the Obscure (Film)

12/07/2011 at 12:10 PM (Actors, Books, Christopher Eccleston, Classics, Drama, Historical, Kate Winslet, Movies, Religion, Romance) (, , , , , , , )

Jude is a poignant film directed by Michael Winterbottom based on the controversial novel Jude the Obscure penned by Thomas Hardy (by now you followers might have noticed I’m a big fan) starring Christopher Eccleston as Jude and Kate Winslet as his cousin (gross but legal) and love interest, Sue Brideshead.

Jude Fawley is a working class man who dreams of pursuing a university education after a heart-to-heart with a free spirited teacher but his social class and his poverty prevents him from realising his ambition. Before he attends university, he hastily marries Arabella which quickly leads into an unhappy marriage as the wedded couple realise they don’t have matching temperaments. When his wife suddenly leaves him, Jude decides to chase after his rainbow.

He becomes bitter after his university applications are rejected because of his lower class status. This is when he meets his cousin Sue, a lively and intelligent young woman who takes delight in defying convention. Jude falls for her but not before making the mistake of introducing his old teacher Mr. Phillotson to Sue; she makes the mistake of accepting his former teacher’s proposal after Jude confesses he’s married despite having no romantic chemistry with her intended husband. This eventually leads to another failed marriage.

Finally giving into her romantic urges, Jude and Sue begin to live together as they travel from place to place when he finds any work as a stonemason. In the midst of their travels, they suddenly hear from Arabella who reveals Jude has a son called Juey who seems to be a very despondent sort of child. Juey comes to stay with Jude and Sue who try and entertain him. Meanwhile Sue gives birth to two children of her own. Things come to a head when the couple is denied lodging again after Sue insists on saying she’s unmarried. She explains to Juey that they have to move because there are too many of them. This turns out to have been a fatal error on her part though Juey’s tragic reaction to her reasoning is way too dramatic – perhaps he had depression.

After this incident, Sue and Jude become severely depressed and start drifting apart. Meanwhile Sue who had turned her back on God turns her interest back into religion assuming what happened was a punishment from above. She decides to return to Phillotson because it is they who have the true marriage in divine eyes. One year later, she meets Jude as they mourn the circumstances of the past and he tries to win her back. We realise although Sue now lives with her legal husband, her true feelings have always been reserved for Jude.

The novel this film is based on was so controversial that writer Thomas Hardy stopped writing books after its publication and turned to poetry instead. Perhaps his wife may have been an influence – she thought the  tension between Sue and Jude parallelled her own relationship with Hardy. Luckily, the film version of Jude was made when it was not as bad to defy convention for love.

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Slaughterhouse Five

11/08/2011 at 2:06 PM (Books, Classics, Science Fiction) ()

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut is about accident-prone soldier Billy Pilgrim who does not happen to like war and consistently bungles his duties. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he and his comrades are kept in an abandoned slaughterhouse known as “slaughterhouse number 5”, hence the title. During the bombing of Dresden during WWII, both Billy’s fellow prisoners and the Germans hide in the cellar and manage to be some of the few who survive. Sounds OK so far but now get ready for the arrival of some sci-fi detail.

In addition, Billy is also an optometrist in a dull marriage who claims he was abducted by aliens from Trafalmadore; these aliens can see four dimensions and have witnessed their futures but are powerless to change it although they can choose to relive and reexperience specific moments continuously. These creatures, we are led to believe, exhibit Billy in a zoo with a B-list film actress Montana Wildhack selected as his “mate”. He even knows and expects when he is to die. So time travelling Billy moves forward and backward in time, while he relives occasions of his life, both real and fantasy.

Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut cover

The experiences Billy relives again includes being a captive zoo exhibit in Tralfamadore, Dresden during the firestorm, Germany just before his capture, his dull post-war life in USA and the moment of his murder. Billy’s death is caused by a chain reaction of events that precipitate his death. Before the Germans capture Billy, he meets soldier Roland Weary, a bully who picks on Billy due to his lack of zeal about war. When they are captured, the Germans confiscate everything Weary has including his boots and gives him wooden clogs to wear. He dies of gangrene brought on by the clogs. On his deathbed, Weary convinces petty thief Paul Lazzaro that Billy is to blame; Paul vows to avenge his death by killing Billy. But while Billy knows how, when and where he will die, he can’t do anything to change his fate. He relives these experiences in fragments of bits and pieces in no particular order.

Still as protagonist Billy Pilgrim is a time traveller, who experiences random events of his life, with no idea of what part he will live again — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time (just like Time Traveller’s Wife although this is more of a absurdist postmodern book rather than a romantic novel), like another experience mingled with his other experiences which seem to have a sharper edge to them in any case. While the book is interesting in its exploration of free will or lack thereof depending on how you choose to interpret the underlying message, I found that I’m one of those people pigeonhole Slaughterhouse-Five as belonging to the science fiction genre even if it’s an anti-war novel but please keep in mind I tend to hate anything that references aliens of the non-immigrant variety  as much as I dislike Jane Austen. So for a different point of view, check this review out.

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Lolita (1962)

11/03/2011 at 2:00 AM (Books, Classics, Comedy, Drama, Movies, Romance, Romance) (, , , , , , )

I usually tend to hate black and white films (despite my love of vintage fashion) so it was a pleasant surprise when I found myself enraptured by one. This was the black and white rendition of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita by Stanley Kubrick, director and fan of the game of chess (a passion he shared in common with the author of Lolita who was also an avid lepidopterist). What a shame that Kubrick died even before editing Eyes Wide Shut properly – his films resonate with the audience so well because of his distinctive touch of style.

On opening credits, it had me spellbound on seeing a very pale and small foot having its toenails painted rather tenderly and fluffs of white cotton balls stuffed between the toes. This simple foreshadowing scene of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) painting Lolita’s (Sue Lyon) toenails is artistically composed with soothing music to match the mood. It then cuts to the first scene which has changed the order of events in the novel by putting the last event to unfold first in order to sustain interest.

The plot contains more of Kubrick’s vision despite the screenplay credit made to the original author; Vladimir Nabokov’s original content in Lolita was used sparingly in this adaptation produced in 1962. In this film, Quilty (Peter Sellers), a man similar to Humbert Humbert in Lolita’s life but lacking his naiveté, plays a more active and prominent role.

Stanley Kubrick Lolita 1962 film still

The film has been panned in the past because the eroticism was not as overt as depicted in the book and the young “nymphet” of Humbert Humbert’s infatuation looked less like a child and more like a teenager with developing curves especially when he is first tempted to stay by the sight of her in a bikini. The toning down of the sexual tension between the principal characters was mostly because the production had to be demure enough to make it by the censorship board of that time. But in doing this, Humbert Humbert is made to look less of a predator on a vulnerable young girl. This could also be due to the fact this film falls into the genre of dark comedy, hence Peter Sellers and his multiple personas. But this did make me feel uneasy and perhaps this was a clever stratagem on Kubrick’s part as this seems to be the intended feeling he wanted to evoke.

Nevertheless I found it to be an interesting interpretation that was skillfully delivered through the cinematic medium for me to remain engrossed from start to finish. For some reason, I feel that if you liked American Beauty by Sam Mendes, you will enjoy Lolita if black and white does not pose a problem for you.

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The Mayor of Casterbridge (Film)

10/13/2011 at 2:24 PM (BBC Drama, Books, Classics, Historical, Mystery, Romance, TV) (, , , , , , , , )

I first fell in love with Thomas Hardy novels after reading The Woodlanders. If you are familiar with tales by Hardy, you’ll know this guy probably would have been the master of soap opera storylines if television had been invented in his days but it really is his descriptions that you can’t go beyond due to his skill with evocative prose. Recently I watched The Mayor of Casterbridge, based on his novel of that name, adapted for the silver screen by David Thacker, starring Ciaran Hinds as Michael Henchard, who delivers a stellar, heartbreaking performance in the pivotal last scenes. The captivating and beautiful score set against the lush country backdrop does not hurt. By the way, Casterbridge is a fictional town representing Dorchester. Do note though it is a long production with a running time of almost over three hours so only start watching when you have enough time to spare.

It all begins in a small town where a young hay-trusser named Michael Henchard sells his wife and infant daughter for five guineas, in a bid that begins as a joke but turns serious, after having too much to drink. When he sobers up and realises his folly, he makes an oath not to touch alcohol 21 years, the number of years he has lived, and builds a good life for himself.

Nineteen years later he is a successful agrarian and the mayor of Casterbridge – a town not far from the fair where he sold his family. When his wife Susan (Juliet Aubrey) returns with his daughter Elizabeth-Jane (Jodhi May) because her other “husband” Newson was lost at sea, Henchard is tormented because while he has a chance to atone for his wrongdoing, he is paranoid that his past transgressions will be discovered by the townspeople. His deep-seated need to protect his reputation from past improprieties soon leads to a complex web of deceit and lies involving Henchard, his “mistress” Lucetta (Polly Walker) and his wife. Poor Elizabeth-Jane is an innocent but cannot help being caught in the middle of the ensuing drama.

Meanwhile on the same day his family returns, Henchard meets a Scotsman, Donald Farfrae (James Purefoy), who has developed a technique to restore bad grain.  The mayor persuades Farfrae to become his manager and confesses his secret to the young man. Luckily for him, although his secret is ousted later in court when he is judging a case, Farfrae is an honourable, just and trustworthy man unlike the mayor. So the mayor turns bitter and jealous when his new manager consistently outdoes him.

Like most other works by Hardy, the plot is full of secret revelations, hidden romantic entanglements, family feuds, complicated tangles of lies and business rivalries. What makes this story so interesting is that Henchard, his wife, and his mistress are not bad people but each makes terrible choices of which the aftermath is horrible. There are many themes in this story but the recurring theme is deception. In the end the people who hurt the most are the ones who give rise to it. Henchard’s behavior makes him difficult persona to admire mostly because of his hostility to Elizabeth-Jane after Susan’s letter provided the truth but because in sudden bursts he will do the right thing or tries to enables the audience to feel empathy for him especially when we hear his final will and testament.

I think that was the last straw for me because I felt stinging in my tear ducts and let out the waterworks. If you can stand tragic melodrama, enjoy classics and are able to endure the screen time, you’ll love this production if you can forgive the farfetched plot.


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