Friday, August 18, 2017

A Study in Opposites: Bloodline Failed Abysmally, while Ozark is a Triumphant Joy

In general, I’ve never been a big advocate of making snap judgments; to my way of thinking, it behooves no one to be too hasty when deciding on something—or someone’s—merits.

That vegetable you think—for no good reason—you don’t like (because crazy Aunt Ida managed to massacre it into oblivion each Thanksgiving, and you vowed to never, ever let it pass your lips again)? It may be absolutely delicious prepared by more skillful hands. That book your workmates are raving about, which just isn’t "your genre"? Could prove to be as all-absorbing as the watercooler talk purports it to be. Or that guy/girl who, at first blush, isn’t really your “type”? Might turn out to be the one who values your worth and ends up stealing your heart.

The point is, you just never know… which is why I always try to give things that don’t immediately hook me a fair shake. I’ll read sixty pages into a book I’m not enjoying if I have reason (say, trusty recommendations) to think it might actually be good. I’ll give a food I’ve never tried—or never experienced made really well—a shot, if it sounds or looks appealing. I’ve gone on dates with men who didn’t tick off every box on some mental checklist of “must-haves”, because I saw potential there. And, I’ve given TV shows which were hard to stick with—but showed promise—ample time to hook, wow, and impress me.

Sometimes, though, the magic simply doesn’t happen, no matter how much effort you put into trying to like/understand/”get” something… as in the case for what should’ve been a much better show than it was, Netflix’s Bloodline. (Note that I’m using the past tense to talk about Bloodline, as it has--thankfully--concluded the third of its three seasons.)

The situation isn’t all grim, however, since I found Ozark--another Netflix entry, interestingly enough--to be the show that Bloodline could have been.

First, though, the mess which was Bloodline… With a great cast, including Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendelsohn, Linda Cardellini, Enrique Murciano, Chloe Sevigny, John Leguizamo, Beau Bridges, and—in a small role—the late Sam Shephard, the show boasted plenty of talent in front of the camera. The setting—a little family-run hotel in a hamlet in the Florida Keys—was promising, as well, particularly as it hasn’t been done-to-death. And, in the beginning, I held out plenty of hope; although it was an extremely languid show from the get-go, that felt true to the hot, sticky climate in which the action took place (plus, I assumed it had to pick up the pace, eventually).

A ne’er-do-well brother (Danny), returning home to the fold (with anything but familial open arms waiting to greet him). A mess of unspoken undercurrents, which clearly put both the straight-arrow policeman brother (John) and litigator sister (Meg) on edge. A baby brother (Kevin) who seemed to be a perpetual screw-up. The long-suffering parents (Robert and Sally), who were far more concerned with the running of the inn than with their adult children’s respective issues. And then, a sudden death… which highlighted the worst in everyone, and threatened to bring long-buried secrets out into the bright Florida sunlight for the world to see in this crime drama that also functions as family melodrama. 

With so much promise, then, how did it all go so very wrong (for me, at least)? In pretty much every other way possible, frankly. I have both read and sat through some incredibly-slow burns, but Bloodline took the (not-hotly-contested) cake, on that front. Egads, was this show’s pace slow! Some of the side plots were way too contrived, really pushing the envelope of un-believability, which didn't help. The most egregious wrong about Bloodline, though? The sheer unlikeable-ness of Every. Single. Character. (Okay, I actually didn't mind one character who got killed off in the first season… but, like I said, he died.) I have never before found myself watching a show in which I truly disliked everyone, but that was my experience with Bloodline… and that, it seems, is my personal full-stop limit of that which is tolerable/intolerable: I need to like/identify with/root for at least ONE character in a show (book, movie, etc.)--something which I just did not do with this hot mess.

Had it been enjoyable enough to be a so-called “guilty pleasure”, I wouldn’t quibble, but there was so little pleasure to be derived from sitting through Bloodline, it might as well have been non-existent.

(Sidebar: I stuck out two full, tedious seasons of Bloodline, but after forcing myself to watch the first episode of the third/final season… found I simply couldn’t stomach any more. How everything was resolved? Don’t know, and honestly don’t care.)

As alluded to earlier, though, my experience with Ozark (a new-in-the-2017-season show) was the exact opposite, despite there being some surface similarities between the two shows.

Like the previous example, Ozark can claim some impressive talent, including Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, and Esai Morales. There are dual settings for the action, here, with part occuring in Chicago, and the remainder happening in Missouri, in the eponymous Ozarks. (Again, places we don’t see portrayed every day—especially the latter, obviously—which is instantly attention-grabbing.)

And what about that action? Without saying too much, it revolves around one family, the Byrdes (financial advisor dad, Marty; part-time professional mom, Wendy; and their preteen and high-school-age son, Jonah, and daughter, Charlotte) who find themselves forced to vacate the Windy City for parts remote, humid, and lacking in any excitement whatsoever when Dad runs afoul of the drug cartel for which he’s been providing some shadier services over the past decade. (Of course, you know that means going from the frying pan and into the fire, right? Otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a show…) 

What makes the two shows so very different, then, separating them by multiple country miles, as it were? Aside from the obvious situational similarities, the short answer to that question is, “pretty much everything else”.

Where Bloodline was a study in just how long the writers and directors could drag out any scene, every plot point, and yet another ridiculous scenario (making the whole a torturous slog), Ozark is all about the pay-off, with things happening right now, and everyone scurrying to keep up and figure out how to deal with it all (kinda like in real life), before the next blow happens (as it invariably will)… keeping things moving along briskly.

Equally notable are the characters in Ozark, which I find myself—if not precisely rooting for everyone (I’m not a monster, so of course I’m not sitting there hoping the bad guys come out on top)—nonetheless completely intrigued. As for the characters I do like—the Family Byrde, en masse, the thieving young woman and her equally-sketchy (but woefully-less adept) family, the bordering-on-sociopathic Feebie, the slow-to-trust bar owner, and the suave cartel hombre, to name a few—they are all deliciously compelling.

In short, while both shows have overlying story arcs involving basically “good” people being put in positions where doing bad things seems the only realistic option (and is, indeed, always the chosen one), it’s the combination of writing—the characters, the situations, and the motivations—the acting, and the directing which makes the earlier show (Bloodline) an abysmally-disappointing failure for me, and the new show, Ozark, an utter win.

Final Verdict:
Bloodline: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; not recommended at all;
Ozark: crime drama/thriller/family melodrama; highly recommended

~GlamKitty


Monday, August 7, 2017

What Happens Next... When the World Goes Dark & Scary

No matter how you cut it, there's a lot of scary stuff out there that we humans--regardless of how technologically-advanced, smart, or just plain ingenious we think we are--can do basically nothing about. 

Fortunately, many of the things which once plagued us no longer loom quite so large; some diseases have been virtually eradicated, while other conditions--which would once have been death sentences--can be managed, if not outright cured. We understand more about the nature of storms and tectonics, so are better equipped to take precautions against natural events. As a species, we humans are pretty darn plucky at the whole business of surviving-and-thriving.

But that still leaves an awful lot of unknowns and variables out there, the sorts of things that--well, there's just no way to say how we'll respond... unless/until they happen.

One of those impossible-to-prepare-for scenarios plays out in Matthew D. Hunt's chilling debut, Solar Reboot.
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What starts off as a pleasant father/daughter trip--with Alex and daughter Piper flying from Seattle to New York City so that she can compete in a big swim meet, after which their plan is to do a little sightseeing--takes a turn for the strange when the sky overhead becomes an unnatural hue, and meteorologists report being stumped. The strangeness isn't confined to the east coast, either; Alex's wife Cameron describes a similar phenomenon back home in Seattle during their nightly phone call.

A park ranger by trade (and bit of a doomsday-er on the side) whose job requires him to pay attention to weather anomalies, Alex is concerned, but no one else--certainly not his preteen daughter, whose mind is full of Big Apple fun--seems inclined to share his worries. Not until the morning breaks, with the sky still oddly dark and the city experiencing a total power outage, in fact, do others start exhibiting signs of alarm.

Unwilling to hold out for the power to come back on so they can catch their flight home--feeling the wrongness of whatever is happening down to his bones--Alex hurries his (extremely put-out) daughter out of the hotel, posthaste... making their way across the blacked-out city to New Jersey, where they eventually finagle a rental car for a (very) long drive home, instead.  

Meanwhile, Cameron (normally a cool-as-a-cucumber surgeon, herself) wakes up to similar chaos on the west coast; power outages and some pretty scared neighbors (who, to her dismay, all suddenly seem to be waving handguns and rifles)--combined with the uneasy phone convo with husband the night before--persuade her to load up the car with some of the supplies he'd been stockpiling, and head up to their remote weekend cabin in the mountains... just to be on the safe side.

It soon becomes apparent to everyone that those weird skies and the nationwide disruption of power grids are only the tip of a gigantic iceberg, though; the earth's atmosphere has been hit by fluke solar flares (which apparently go whizzing by us all the time, but almost never hit the teeny-tiny target that earth is, astronomically speaking), and all sorts of meteorological hell is about to break loose. 
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Solar Reboot is, at its core, a classic "road story", in which characters must undergo a journey fraught with perils to (hopefully, eventually) reach their destination. I've always found road tales to be particularly-compelling action stories, when done well, and this one doesn't disappoint; Alex and Piper endure hardship after hardship on their long cross-country odyssey, and I found myself worrying how/if this or that trouble was going to resolve itself (especially complications caused by Piper's diabetes, which would be an unimaginably scary, life-or-death concern in a world temporarily gone all to hell).

It is also, obviously, a work of science fiction (granted, not too heavy on the science, but with enough to likely please all but the biggest sticklers for the inclusion of copious scientific facts), and for me, it acquits itself admirably here, too.

Lastly, Solar Reboot is a story about relationships. Of course most books are about people, but sometimes relationship dynamics can take a backseat to the action. Such isn't the case here; Hunt draws not only his three main characters--the family unit (something he clearly knows well, as illustrated in a few particularly lovely, poignant scenes between father and daughter)--but also his side characters, both the ones who have larger roles and those who have quite minor (yet meaningful) ones, with great care. 

My one (very) minor quibble is that things occasionally get a little heavy-handed, as the author does his part to try and undo some stereotypes and common tropes. It's just one of those things I'm always hyper-sensitive to, though, and definitely isn't enough to detract me from any of my enjoyment of the book.

Solar Reboot is one of those stories I really hated having to put down when it was time to go to bed (or work, or to make dinner, etc.); I was completely invested in the characters, and couldn't wait to find out what was going to happen next. So, this debut gets my enthusiastic recommendation... and this author has earned himself a place on my must-read-right-away list for any future works. :)

~GlamKitty









Monday, July 31, 2017

Shenanigans in Silicon Valley

An increasingly big part of being alive today is staying “connected”, with options ranging from a boatload of all-encompassing social media platforms, to the narrower job and industry-specific networking sites.  Unless you’re a troglodyte or are just doing your damnedest to stay “off the grid”, though, it’s almost impossible to avoid being lured in by at least some of them.

But, being virtually connected goes a lot deeper than the expected social sites; unless certain precautions are taken, most websites you visit (news, info, shopping, porn, whatever) will try to entice you to share your contact info—by joining an email list, a members-only program, etc.—and nearly all of them will begin tracking—unbeknownst to you, usually—your visits to their sites. 

It seems innocent enough, doesn’t it? If Site A notices that you repeatedly visit to look at sneakers, you’re likely to receive notifications about new models of sneakers, and when something you’ve looked at previously goes on sale or comes back in stock. Such things can benefit you, sort of like having your own personal shopper (for free!), in this instance.

But what about the downside of someone being able to track your online activity? And, even scarier, what about when that ability is taken a huge step further… so that even the contents of your computer become visible to an outside party? Joe Klingler shows how that might look in Mash Up.
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Salmon-out-of-water cop Qigiq has been trying to make the best of his sabbatical, which has him on temporary loan from the tiny, remote Alaskan village he calls home to the vast San Francisco police department, with the goal of becoming more computer savvy during his sojourn.

His stay in the city by the bay has multiple purposes: to get him away from some bad memories (a recent case gone bad, mostly because Qugiq wasn’t fluent in computerese), learning about computer/online crime, and to offer any unique perspectives he, himself might have to his new partner, Detective Kandy Dreeson. (Not that Kandy—whip-smart, capable, and a ballbuster in her own right—probably needs his insight, but one never knows.)

Qigiq’s learning is going about as well as can be expected—in other words, at near-glacial speed—when a new case drops into their laps to provide a little distraction. A violin student at an area college has just received an Amazon package that—mysteriously, horrifically—yields only a thumb inside…which, going by the shade of nail polish, looks suspiciously like that of the girl’s roommate, a cellist (who has yet to return from a date with a new mystery man... and who will surely, sorely, miss that thumb).

But, as difficult as it proves to be, trying to track down a missing girl (missing a digit), the case manages to get even more complicated, as it leads the detectives down a twisting path of internet shenanigans—with violent YouTube videos depicting torture (and worse?), a rash of iPod scams, including the curious disappearance of thousands of pirated music files on users' devices (and threats of similar disappearances on a global scale), and news of a crazy-bad virus spreading like wildfire through the ‘net. It also puts Qigiq and Kandy directly in the sites of a madman. (Cue crazy car and motorcycle chases, clandestine meetings with folks of questionable repute, cross-country hijinks, and threats of blowing up pieces of Silicon Valley.)
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I’ll be honest; a couple of chapters into Mash Up had me feeling antsy. Half of the story—the on-loan-from-Alaska detective and his worldly San Francisco counterpart—was immediately intriguing, but the other half--following a small programming team and the members of a board at a high-tech company in Silicon Valley--was tedious. Once the two story lines began intermingling, though, the whole became more cohesive, and eventually turned into a compelling, "ripped-from-the-headlines (tomorrow, if not today)” sort of story. 

So, my take on Joe Klingler’s Mash Up? Well worth reading, and if you can stick out the uneven beginning, you'll wind up with an entertaining techno-thriller read. :)

~GlamKitty

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Change of Ocean... If Not of Murderously-Maladapted Mindset

Most of us, I suspect, find it a generally-acceptable bit of fun to be obsessed with something (or, oftentimes, with someone). 

With things, it’s easy to get sucked into, say, the quest for the primo Pinot Noir (for what, after all, is an oenophile, if not one who is obsessed with all things wine). Or, maybe it’s the search for the holy grail eyeliner (the one capable of creating that sexy cateye, but which never fades, smudges, or runs), or the precisely-fitting pair of jeans that make your backside look flat-out HOT (and price, by the way, be damned). The most badass motorcycle (complete with exhaust upgrades, custom paint job, and chrome accessories) that money can buy. Or finding a righteous Les Paul—preferably previously-owned by someone who reeks of cool—that feels like it’s just been waiting for you to come along and hold it in your arms.  

When it’s someone, it seems perfectly natural if the person you’re fascinated by is in the public eye—especially when it’s the sort of celebrity that the consensus of print, online, and televised gossip-mongers push on us non-stop. (The Kardashians, en masse [for reasons I will never, ever understand]. The British Royals [whom we, stateside, view as quite exotic and novel]. The latest barely-legal [or not even, in many instances] rail-thin fashion model, whose every sartorial choice must be dissected and treated with slavish regard. Etc.)

Rarely does the quest to find/obtain the perfect thing get us into any real trouble… short of going deeply into debt, taking up too much of our time, or—perish the thought—some sort of theft. 

Obsessions with people, on the other hand, can go all sorts of wrong… particularly when the someone in question is not famous by anyone’s definition, but is, instead, just a regular Jane/Joe. 

Such is the case in Caroline Kepnes’ You (briefly reviewed here), which follows a-not-really-“regular”-at-all Joe’s increasingly-crazed pursuit of his fantasy girl, Beck, to some very, very dark places. (Like, the darkest.) So, if you haven’t yet read You, that’ll be your first order of business, because Hidden Bodies is a continuation of that story… 

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When fate provides bookstore employee Joe Goldberg the opportunity to leave all his bad memories of New York City (and the Northeastern seaboard) far behind and start anew by relocating to sunny Los Angeles, he wastes no time in taking fate up on her proposition.

After all… it’s not like any of his relationships in the Big Apple have ever really panned out (an understatement of epic proportions which you’ll get, if you recall what happened in You), or as though he has any other ties binding him. His most-recent girlfriend-cum-obsession, Amy, recently moved out to L.A.—after ditching him in a reaaaaaally unacceptable way (not that Joe’s the sort of chap to be down with rejection, anyway)—which makes giving up four seasons for palm trees that much more appealing. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Joe has become a very jittery guy, always looking over his shoulder for the (ehemliteral) bodies (yes, plural) hidden in his past. So yeah, a fresh start definitely seems like a stellar idea.

Of course, that’s pretty much what everyone who makes the move from wherever to LaLaLand starts out thinking…

Things do progress about as well as can be expected… when moving to a huge new place without knowing a soul or having any prospects. Joe finds a crappy (but semi-convenient) dive apartment in Hollywood, so at least there’s a roof over his head. He gets a job in a bookstore (no, the marching tide of electronic media still hasn’t completely wiped out brick-&-mortar purveyors of books on either coast… yet). He makes a few friends (well, okay… acquaintances would be more appropriate; this is L.A., you know, where true friendships are rare and not at all quick to blossom). He even happens upon his ex, Amy, not too long after arriving, which seems fortuitous, as they have--erm--unfinished business.

More importantly, though, Joe falls in love… in a way he’s never done before. Sure, his usual m.o. of obsession is there, but this time? There seems to be something more, which is a totally-new experience for him. And, miracle of miracles, it seems like Love (the given name of his affections, I kid you not—L.A., remember??) is pretty darn enamored of him, as well. 

He also manages—through his new lady love (erm, Love)—to get himself set on a potential new career path: screenwriting, with her crude, garrulous brother, Forty, as his writing partner.

Of course, this is Joe we’re talking about here, and a leopard can’t really change his spots (at least, not that easily)… meaning things are bound to go sideways FAST.

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The fun in Hidden Bodies, as in the earlier You, is that Joe is such an unusual character. He’s the guy who—at least in literary (as opposed to in-the-flesh, all up-in-your-business) form—is impossible (for me, anyway) not to like and root for… all while feeling vaguely horrified at myself for succumbing to his appeal. He’s an anti-hero, to be sure… but one who feels and believes things so strongly, that I can’t help but kinda-sorta want him to come out on top …regardless of, you know… All. Those. Bodies. (however well-hidden).

For me, Hidden Bodies was even better than You (which I thoroughly enjoyed, so that’s truly saying something). The first book deftly laid the groundwork for Joe’s character—giving us glimpses into his past as well as providing plenty of new examples of how his unapologetically-psychotic mind works—and left me wanting to see what would happen next. 

Hidden Bodies obviously fulfills that craving, but it also doles out a lot of insightful observations on Life in L.A.—from the crazypants entertainment industry, to the woo-woo culture of rich artsy-fartsy types, to the bleakness of actually living in Hollywood (which is a world apart from those buzzing-with-paparazzi events and imagined glamour of any sort, really), to the sort of desperation so prevalent in a place utterly caught up in the quest for fame, to… well, the list goes on. (Suffice it to say that only someone who lives or has spent a fair amount of time—and not as a tourist clad in rose-colored sunglasses, mind you—in the City of Angels can make such observations.)

So, Hidden Bodies scores big on multiple levels with me, and, bottom line? Caroline Kepnes is now on my "must-list". :) 


~GlamKitty (who, yes, lives in L.A.)

Friday, June 30, 2017

The Things That Make Us Who We Are

Typically I respond to any hint of a book being a “cozy” (or “cosy”, if you prefer the British spelling) mystery in much the same way I approach certain other things which I hold in disregard, at best (or abject fear and/or great distaste, at worst)—Spiders. Liver (as a “food”, not a necessary part of my body). Rats (as in, not the cute-&-domesticated variety). Visits to the dentist.—I back away, shaking my head and wrinkling my nose from a safe distance. 

You see, anything that smacks of being remotely twee—which is how I tend to view that subset of the mystery genre—holds little to no interest for me. (If, of course, so-called cozies are your bag, that’s totally cool.)

It was definitely, then, with some trepidation—and a really hesitant trigger finger (hovering above the “purchase now” button on Amazon)—that I deigned to purchase what was described as a (modern) cozy, John Bowen’s Death Stalks Kettle Street. (Point of fact, though, the description—and the recommendation I’d read somewhere—sounded really good.) 

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Greg Unsworth is a pretty great guy. Smart, funny, considerate, responsible, good-looking, healthy, fit—seems like just the sort of chap who would lead at least a semi-charmed life, you know? But there’s a catch: Greg suffers from a serious case of OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which has basically condemned him to living a very small life. He can’t walk on cracks, lines, etc. He can’t cross streets (without first performing what usually turns out to be numerous countdowns in his head from 100, before his foot can even leave the curb). He wakes up at the crack of dawn and cleans his small, already-meticulous flat. His mug handles all have to face precisely the same direction in the cupboard. He has to close his front door several times upon entering or leaving to make sure it’s actually, really, truly closed. 

Shorter? This lovely man is not quite—but is very nearly—house-bound.

One day, however, something happens to shake up his quiet little neighborhood on Kettle Street: he learns that a neighbor—an older man, so not a huge surprise—has died a rather unpleasant death. 

Life goes on, as it tends to do, until a few days later, when Greg sees a young woman frantically yelling at the front door of another one of his neighbors—an elderly woman, with a fondness for whisky—and, after being co-opted by the agitated girl, they discover the body of that nice old lady, apparently the victim of a very bad fall. 

Another sad thing, but surely just fate, right? Both of the dearly-departed were in their golden years, and all. 

But, when yet another neighbor—one not so up-in-the-years, this time—winds up dead,  Greg can only conclude there’s more at work than a series of unfortunate coincidences. 

The highly-anxious Greg, along with his new friend, the beautiful Beth (a librarian who lives and works just a few blocks away, who’d been checking up on one of the library’s patrons--the tippling widow--on the day they met), take their story to the police… where, naturally, they’re met with skepticism and disbelief. (“A serial killer on Kettle Street? Knocking people off randomly? Pish-posh!”) All of this leaves, of course, the intrepid-in-spirit (if not in physicality) duo to try to piece together what’s going on, before the entire population of Kettle Street winds up six feet under.   

What makes things so very much more interesting is that Beth isn’t just a pretty face, either; like Greg, Beth has to deal with her own Thing. (Yes, yes, so do we all, but we’re not talking in any generic sense, here.) Beth has cerebral palsy, which renders her speech a bit off, gives a decidedly-noticeable wobble to her gait, and makes doing things with her hands a not-always-successful-on-the-first-(or-even-second)-attempt ordeal.

As these two individuals come together—first, to stop a killer, and then, as friends, once they start looking beyond their neighbors and take a closer look at each other—the story becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts (which are, in their own rights, actually pretty darn good parts).

Oh, and the denouement, when it comes? Not one I was expecting… (so, kudos to the author for keeping me guessing).

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Death Stalks Kettle Street unexpectedly struck all the right notes with me. It’s a crackling-good mystery, first—with a tinge of Rear Window, in parts (one of my favorite movies, so a good thing, that). The supporting characters and other relationships are all interesting and are responsible for some nifty little twists, as well.

It’s the main characters, though—Greg and Beth—who sparkle like beautifully-imperfect diamonds, here… even under the extraordinarily-bright light which Bowen shines upon them (and all their issues, baggage, eccentricities, and just plain stuff). That each of them is a little further out of the mainstream than we generally see in mysteries (of any type) lends a wonderful dimension to the tale… and to their individual stories, as we see how they live, cope, and thrive. 

The fact that neither of their impairments is anything which can be “tidied up” by book’s end, but is something that each of them, instead, will have to continue living and dealing with forever, because those things are intrinsic parts of themselves? Leaves the reader—certainly this one—with a lovely sense that everything can still, under all sorts of odds and less-than-ideal (on paper) situations, be quite “right”. 

There is magic in that message… and I highly recommend giving Death Stalks Kettle Street your time.


~GlamKitty