Category: Book & Film Recommendations

I recently read a couple of delightful books that my dad gave me, Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops and More Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops, both by British bookseller and writer Jen Campbell.

weird things collage

They’re collections of short dialogue vignettes, real things that real people have said to real booksellers (most of which bookstores are identified in the book). I found many of them laugh-out-loud funny. There are also a lot of amusing illustrations throughout both books.


Long ago, I got a seasonal job at a local Barnes & Noble for the Christmas holidays one year. The store was approximately 30,000 square feet (for everyone outside the US, Google tells me that’s 2787 square meters), and we had tens of thousands of book in stock. And it was a daily routine for customers in the store to say things to me like, “I’m looking for a book–it’s blue. Do you know the one I mean?” Or: “I saw an interview the other day with the author of a book. I don’t remember the writer’s name. Or the book’s title. It had something to do with families. Do you have it?”

On one occasion, a couple came into the store who knew exactly the book they wanted–title & author–but they had no idea where in our immense store to look for it, so they asked my help. It was a book that a radio psychologist had recommended to married people who wanted to enliven their sex life. I helped them find the book–and the section of the store where they could find similar books. About 20 minutes later, the store manager interrupted my lunch in the back room, saying someone at the cash register was asking for me. When I went to the register, the couple was very apologetic about cutting into my break; they wanted to buy the book now, and they were too embarrassed to deal with a different clerk. (They were nice people, and I hope they enjoyed their book!)

Anyhow, author Jen Campbell also has a new book out which I’m looking forward to trying, The Bookshop Book.

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If you, like me, are not slim, you might have body image issues. (Actually, in our culture, even if you’re as trim and toned as a Hollywood movie star, you might have body image issues.) You might also have a lot of misconceptions, as I have had, about the health issues so noisily associated in our society with weight.

Body of Truth: How Science, History, and Culture Drive Our Obsession With Weight–And What We Can Do About It by Harriet Brown and Body Respect: What Conventional Health Books Get Wrong, Leave Out, and Just Plain Fail To Understand About Weight by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor have been eye-opening reads about how much the extremely lucrative multi-billion dollar diet industry influences the medical community, how much of what is conveyed to us as “facts” about weight is based on blatantly skewed studies (and often funded by the diet industry), and how much of what the media and even our own doctors tell us about our own weight-related health is misinformation.

* * *

I’m a huge fan of audiobooks, and I’ve also become a huge Agatha Christie fan in recent years. Many talented actors narrate Christie novels, but I think Hugh Fraser (who played Captain Hastings on the long-running Poirot TV series) probably does it best, and I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Taken At the Flood. Another favorite narrator is Emilia Fox, who narrates They Came To Baghdad, whose heroine is one of my favorite Christie characters.

Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Scottish actor Alan Cummings is, in part, a mystery tale. On the eve of Cummings participating in a British TV show that will delve into his family background and heritage, the actor’s estranged father, with whom he has not been in contact for years, tells him he is not really his son–and won’t say more than that. Meanwhile, it becomes clear that there is also an untold story surrounding the death of Cummings’ maternal grandfather. Balanced against these dark family stories and Cummings’ story of surviving his abusive father’s terrifying violence are amusing and engaging tales of the award-winning actor’s international career in film, television, and theatre.

My late-night winter drive home from ConFusion (an sf/f convention in the Detroit area that I usually attend–because who doesn’t want to go to Michigan in January?) this year passed more quickly than usual thanks to Cary Elwes’ delightful As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of the Princess Bride, narrated by the author–with guest narrations from many of the actors who appeared in the movie, as well as from the director and other key people involved in the production. A very engaging book–and it made me eager to watch the movie again.

I canceled my cable TV account about a decade ago, quickly discovered I didn’t miss it, and have never had TV-reception since then. Since I don’t go to the cinema*, this means that I don’t see anything until it’s available via DVD or streaming video. Which is fine, because even when something I want to see, like Game of Thrones, takes a year after its TV/cable broadcast to be released, there are over 300 items in my Netflix queue I can spend my time watching, not to mention what I can see on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video,, YouTube, or from my local library. So, no, I still haven’t seen Joffrey’s wedding and I also haven’t seen Outlander, but since I’ve got plenty to watch, I’m not grinding my teeth about it.

(*I only go to the cinema about once a year, and only because someone else wants to go and I’d be a real spoilsport to refuse. I have terrible luck at the movies, typically winding up seated near someone who insists on narrating the whole movie for everyone else’s benefit, or who has some sort of extremely noisy problem with his false teeth, or who decides that a seat near me is a good place to unzip and expose himself, or who keeps checking text messages and getting calls, or who evidently has dysentery and needs to visit the bathroom half a dozen times during a 100-minute film. Occasionally a basketball player decides to sit in front of me, and sometimes the projector breaks down halfway through the movie or there’s a fire drill. (You think I’m kidding?) Considering that experiences like these additionally require me to attend the film based on the cinema’s schedule rather than my own convenience, and that a movie, drink of water, and serving of popcorn at the cinema cost almost enough $ to fill the gas tank of my car… I’d really much rather stay home to watch a movie. Also, I find that there’s a lot more good TV than good films these days, anyway.)

ANYHOW, here’s what I watched in 2014, listed by title, (year), and country of origin:

Murder On the Orient Express (1974); UK

Saving Mr. Banks (2013); US

Sherlock, S3 (2014); UK

Confucius (2010); China

The Pickwick Papers (1952); UK*

Hitchcock (2012); UK

Les Misérables (2012); US/UK?

Prime Suspect, S3-S7 (1993-2006); UK*

Game of Thrones, S3 (2013); US*

Europa Report (2013); US

Poirot: Murder On the Orient Express (2010); UK

The Hours (2002); US

The Central Park Five (2012); US*

Farewell, My Concubine (1993); China

In the Mood For Love (2001); China

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013); US

The Dirty Picture (2011); India

Talaash (2012); India*

Ravaan (2010); India

Chennai Express (2013); India

Jab Taak Hai Jaan (2012); India

Rosemary & Thyme, S1-S3 (2003-2006); UK*

Much Ado About Nothing (2012); USA

Lawrence of Arabia: Battle for the Arab World (2003); UK

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013); US

The Monuments Men (2014); US

Blue Jasmine (2013); US

The Awakening (2011); UK*

The Fall, S1 (2013); UK

Argo (2012); US

The Fifth Estate (2013); US

Too Big To Fail (2011); US*

Twelve Years A Slave (2013); US

The Bletchley Circle, S1-S2 (2012-2014); UK*

Midsomer Murders, S14 & S15 (2011-2012); UK

To Rome With Love (2012); US

Miss Marple: 4:50 From Paddington (1987); UK*

Miss Marple: The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side (1992); UK*

Miss Marple: A Caribbean Mystery (1987); UK*

Miss Marple: They Do It With Mirrors (1991); UK*

Miss Marple, S1-S2 (1984-1986); UK*

Happy Valley, S1 (2014); UK*

Sleepy Hollow, S1 (2013); US*

Marco Polo, S1 (2014); US

Broadchurch, S1 (UK); 2013*

Julia (1977); US

30 Rock, S1-S4 (2006-2010); US*

(*I’ve put an asterisk next to anything I particularly enjoyed and definitely recommend.)

I watched a number of recent high-profile and/or well-reviewed movies in 2014, and I found most of them so mediocre or bad that I may give up on doing that, since this has been my experience several years in a row now. I thought Les Misérables, Blue Jasmine, Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, The Wolf of Wall Street, Europa Report, Star Trek: Into Darkness, The Monuments Men, and To Rome With Love all landed somewhere between disappointing and unwatchably awful.  I thought The Fifth Estate, Twelve Years A Slave, Argo, and Saving Mr. Banks were worth seeing, but nonetheless lauded beyond their merits–perhaps because they were good films released in a sea of really bad and disappointing ones.

Looking over my list, I see that my favorite movie of the year (meaning: of the ones I watched in the safety of my own home; not: “of the ones released  to cinemas in 2014”) was Talaash from India. Starring Hindi film legend Aamir Khan, a fine actor who’s made a number of (for Hindi commercial cinema) cutting-edge films, this is a compelling drama about a respected police officer who’s investigating the death of a Bollywood star who drove his car off an empty city street and into the bay one night, for no reason that anyone can discern. His investigation leads him into the underbelly of Bombay, in a story that involves sex trafficking and blackmail, and which ultimately weaves together with the cop’s own repressed guilt and grief over a recent bereavement. The story solution is one I didn’t see coming, but the clues are well planted all along the way. (A similarly well-constructed Indian thriller I highly recommend, with an equally surprising (though completely different) sort of ending is Kahaani (2012) starring Vidya Balan.)

A couple of other stand-alone films I really liked were The Awakening, which is an English ghost story (traditional, not gory, and well done); and The Central Park Five, a very compelling documentary about five young Harlem men who were imprisoned for a brutal rape they did not commit.

Most of my favorite viewing this year, though, was–surprise!–British mystery series. Why yes, this is in perfect keeping with most of my reading this year. Obviously, I’m on a kick here.

Directly due to my Agatha Christie reading binge, I watched all the Miss Marple TV episodes made with Joan Hickson in the 1980s–and I loved them! As has been said before, Hickson’s performance really was the best portrayal to date of Christie’s Miss Marple (though I enjoy the others); and these were the closest to the books of any TV or film adaptations so far.

I also really liked The Bletchley Circle, a suspense series about a group of women who start investigating neglected crimes in their frustrated desire to use their brains and skills in a society that has confined them to a very narrow existence in the backlash years after their highly-classified codebreaking work during WWII. And I found Broadchurch very compelling. It’s the story of how an apparently contented small town full of seemingly happy people starts crumbling when a child is murdered there and police start investigating.

Unquestionably my favorite discovery in British mystery, though, was Rosemary & Thyme, an absolutely charming British “cozy” mystery series about a couple of professional gardners/landscapers who keep stumbling across dead bodies and solving the crimes. It’s a combination of two very likeable lead actresses in their late 50s (an age at which very few American TV shows feature a woman in the lead role), good guest performers, light mysteries (no gore), and gorgeous garden settings for every episode (in France, Spain, and Italy, as well as England). I wound up watching many of the episodes twice, they were so pleasant.

Like many others, I enjoy Sleepy Hollow’s gothic/historical tone in a contemporary setting with paranormal premises, but my big discovery in American TV this year was 30 Rock. (Which series  ended a couple of years ago. I tend to “discover” most things years after everyone else does…) Tina Fey was the lead actress and also the head writer for this series about the head writer of a comedy-sketch show (which was Fey’s previous job, on Saturday Night Live), and 30 Rock is probably the first American sitcom I’ve liked since Frasier. It’s funny, feminist, odd, irreverent, and usually very well written. I was about halfway through the whole series by the end of 2014, am still watching it, and have recently listened to Tina Fey’s autobiography, Bossypants, on audiobook–a good book with a lot of food for thought about being a working writer, about writing comedy, and about being a woman in a workplace  or profession that’s traditionally male-oriented.

So what were some of the best things that you watched in the past year?

My audiobook consumption increased dramatically due to buying a house about 2 years ago. My lifestyle suddenly includes painting, decorating, and gardening, and I often listen to audiobooks while doing that. Then I also started fostering puppies for a service dog organization about a year ago. I live in a small townhouse in the city with a very small yard, and a growing puppy (my first two fosters were golden retrievers who were 60-65 pounds by the time they returned to their training center) needs exercise. So walking those dogs about an hour a day gave me additional time to get through more audiobooks this year, since I usually wear my iPod when I take them out.

So here’s what I “read” via audiobook in 2014, listed by title, author, and (narrator):

Murder On the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (David Suchet)

The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie (John Moffat)

The Ocean At the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman (also narrator)

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Catherynne M. Valente (SJ Tucker)

A Pocket Full of Rye, Agatha Christie (Rosiland Ayers)

Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders, Neil Gaiman (also narrator)

Dead Heat, Dick Francis & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Call For the Dead, John LeCarré (Michael Jayston)

Under Orders, Dick Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Silks, Dick & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Gamble, Felix Francis (John Keating)

Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie (Penelope Dellaporta)

Grave Goods, Ariana Franklin (Kate Reading)

10 Lb. Penalty, Dick Francis (Simon Prebble)

Even Money, Dick Francis & Felix Francis (Martin Jarvis)

Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell (Eva Haddon); re-reading

The Sirens Sang of Murder, Sarah Caudwell (Eva Haddon); re-reading

The Tuesday Club Murders, Agatha Christie (Joan Hickson)

Cards On the Table, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)

One Two Buckle My Shoe, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)

Death On the Nile, Agatha Christie (Hugh Fraser)

Bolt, Dick Francis (Simon Prebble)

Death of A Bore, M.C. Beaton (Graeme Malcolm)

Murder At the Vicarage, Agatha Christie (James Saxon)

Murder Unprompted, Simon Brett (Simon Prebble)


I didn’t even realize until late in the year how overwhelmingly dominant British mystery fiction was in my audiobook reading in 2014. Instead of having a plan or a list, I just kept finishing books and then choosing whatever appealed next–which turned out, in particular, to be a lot of Agatha Christie! I’ve been on a Christie binge for a couple of years now, and having come this far, I’ve decided to set a goal of reading her complete works–which I figure will take another couple of years.

I had tried Christie a couple of times when I was in my early twenties and, for whatever reason, didn’t find her engaging. But I’m really enjoying her books now, obviously, both audio and print. (I am also addicted to the BBC’s radio-drama adaptations of her works.)

For one thing, I think her two separate series detectives, Monsieur Hercules Poirot and Miss Jane Marple, are much more interesting characters in the books than I had expected, since this rarely seems to get mentioned. (I can’t comment on another regular pair of detectives she wrote, Tommy & Tuppence, since I haven’t read any of their stories yet.)

A lot about Poirot and Marple is left to the imagination rather than related to us by the author. How did an early 20th century spinster who spent almost her entire life in a small English village become so shrewdly cynical about human nature and logically deductive about reality versus common misperception and deliberate falsehood? We are left to imagine the possible answers to that for ourselves while reading stories about a character who is very unusual while appearing to others to be the most conventional of stereotypes, a genteel elderly unmarried English lady who gardens and takes tea.

Poirot’s background is a little more colorful, though almost equally vague. We know he was born to a large, poor family in Belgium, served for years as a distinguished police officer, and arrived in England as a war refugee; and we never learn much more than that about his life prior to his first case in England as a private investigator, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, set during WWI. Poirot is an investigative genius, relying on minute observations, a shrewd understanding of human nature, and deductive brilliance to solve cases. He’s a deepy moral and often empathetic man, but his flaws are part of what make him a compelling character rather than a tiresome paragon. Poirot is extremely arrogant about his own abilities and so vain that it’s vital to him that others should know who he is and admire him professionally. He is also extremely vain about his personal grooming, as well as very fussy about food, tidiness, decor, other people’s toilette, etc. On numerous occasions, when Poirot has all the characters gathered at the end of the story to reveal whodunit, people with lives to lead keeping saying some version of, “Stop recounting to us every excruciating step of your investigation and how incredibly clever you were, and just tell us who the guilty party is!” And Poirot always refuses, because making sure others know how brilliant his investigation has been is as vital to him as exposing the killer to justice.

For all that the author was a person of her own era and not ours, and this is often evident in the text, Christie was obviously well aware of the insularity of her own society, since Poirot, throughout many books and stories, regularly encounters English people (of all classes) who are suspicious of foreigners, express xenophobic views, and judge him negatively because he speaks with an accent or dresses in an urban Continental style rather than like an English person.

Ironically, for all that I enjoy the settings, characters, and stories of Christie’s novels, I’m not always impressed by her mystery plots, which often strain credulity too far or just don’t work for me. For example, Murder On the Orient Express, one of her most famous novels, is like that for me. I find the characters and setting very appealing, and the way Poirot goes about figuring out what the murder is actually about and who all the characters really are completely holds my attention. But when we get to the denouement… (Semi-spoiler alert!) The plot solution involves far too much planning and organization among too many people, and just seems completely unbelievable if you’ve ever even tried to plan a weekend with friends or a family vacation. It also requires a bizarrely inexplicable level of obliviousness in the victim, who apparently doesn’t recognize any of the other characters, despite having good reason to recognize a number of them. And yet… apart from thinking the mystery solution was absurd, I really, really enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone.

In particular, Christie’s novels work very well in audio format, probably because they’re plot-driven, so they keep moving along briskly. Of the narrators I’ve listened to, actor Hugh Fraser is the best–you forget you’re listening and just fall into the story, he evokes it so well. (He played Hastings, Poirot’s frequent sidekick, in the long-running British TV series starring David Suchet as Hercules Poirot.) However, Agatha Christie being not just a bestseller but a veritable legend, her books generally get top level actors as narrators, and all of them are good.

Several years ago I started keeping an annual list of what I read (as well as what films & TV shows I watch). I was partly inspired by my friend Don Wenzel’s annual list, since I enjoyed seeing if any our reading overlapped when I looked at his list.

I had also recently been asked on blogs or interviews, two years in a row, to name the best books or films I’d consumed that year… and, being me, I went blank both times and couldn’t remember anything I’d read or seen all year. So I decided I should start keeping a list. This has effectively prevented anyone from asking me again–so it’s working!

And, finally, I found that I was ordering, reserving, buying, opening, and/or starting various books and films twice, and only realizing after a few chapters of reading or twenty minutes of viewing that I’d already read/watched this story–or had already tried it once and hadn’t liked it enough to keep going. This is especially easy to do when you’re on an Agatha Christie binge, as I have been lately, since it’s hard (for me, at least) to remember all the titles.

I didn’t read as many books in 2014 as I had intended (though I almost doubled my “reading” with audiobooks, coming up in a near-future post). Given the size of my To be Read pile, my goal for 2015 is to double my reading.

Anyhow, here’s the list:

  • The Silence, Sarah Rayne (iPad)
  • Fortunately, the Milk [children’s book], Neil Gaiman (iPad)
  • Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (iPad)
  • Death Ain’t But A Word, Zander Marks (iPad)
  • In and Out of Character, Basil Rathbone
  • The Oldie: Jennifer’s Diary (by One Fat Lady) [collected columns], Jennifer Paterson
  • The Love Talker (re-reading), Elizabeth Peters (iPad)
  • Be the Monkey, Barry Eisler & Joe Konrath (iPad)
  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” [novella], Ted Chiang* (iPad)
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” [novella], Ted Chiang (Subterranean online)
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” [novella] Ted Chiang* (Subterranean online)
  • The Battle of $9.99: How Apple, Amazon, and the Big Six Publishers Changed the E-Book Business Overnight [Kindle Single], Andrew Richard Albanese (iPad)
  • “What the Hell Is Going On With The Debt Ceiling?” [Kindle Single], Stephen Dove (iPad)
  • “Wakulla Springs” [novella], Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages (iPad)
  • The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, Matt Baglio
  • The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed & Lorraine Warren, Gerald Brittle (iPad)
  • “India Dishonoured: Behind A Nation’s War On Women” [Kindle Singles], Sunny Hundal (iPad)
  • Ghost Song, Sarah Rayne
  • The Dark On the Other Side (re-reading), Barbara Michaels (iPad)
  • Death Comes As the End, Agatha Christie (iPad)
  • Here I Stay, Barbara Michaels (re-reading)
  • Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Agatha Christie (iPad)
  • Agatha Christie’s The Monogram Murders, Sophie Hannah (iPad)
  • This Is My Letter To the World: The Omikuji Project, Cycle One [short stories], Catherynne M. Valente (iPad)
  • Break In, Dick Francis (iPad)
  • The Hollow, Agatha Christie
  • Hickory Dickory Dock, Agatha Christie
  • “The Three Monarchs: A Sherlock Holmes Short Story,” Anthony Horowitz (iPad)
  • “A Plague of Zombies” [novella], Diana Gabaldon (iPad)
  • The Honey Month, Amal El-Mohtar (iPad)
  • The Day Diana Died, Christopher Anderson
  • Third Girl, Agatha Christie (iPad)

This year was the first time I ever read Ted Chiang, and now I understand why he appears on awards ballots almost every time he releases a story. His “Lifecycle of Software Objects,” in particular, has really stayed with me.

My mom recommended Sarah Rayne’s Ghost Song to me, which I really enjoyed when I got around to it. Since I happened to come across a copy of The Silence first, I read that initially. I enjoyed it, but would agree that Ghost Song is the better novel and the one I really recommend: A surveyor in contemporary London starts uncovering a dark and complex mystery when evaluating an old music hall that’s been boarded up for nearly a century.

I’m a huge fan of a writer and Egyptologist named Barbara Mertz, who wrote bestselling fiction under the pen names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, and it’s my habit to re-read a few of her novels almost every year. The Dark On The Other Side is one of my very favorite Michaels novels and I’ve re-read it a number of times.

Thanks to getting an iPad last year, I’ve started reading Kindle Singles, a “curated” program (meaning, there’s an editor) which has become a new home for long form journalism. I highly recommend “The Battle of $9.99” to anyone who wants a better or more informed understanding of the collusive price-fixing scheme for which the Department of Justice filed antitrust charges against Apple and five major publishers. I also found “India Dishonoured” shocking and eye-opening.

I started reading Agatha Christie a couple of years ago, an author I had tried and not particularly liked when I was younger. For whatever reason, that has changed with time and now I’m really enjoying her books. I found Death Comes As the End memorable, since it’s set in ancient Egypt, whereas everything else she wrote was set in the era she was writing it (which means her fictional world covers more than fifty years of the 20th century).  Anyhow, between print and audio, I think I’m about halfway through Christie’s body of work, and I intend to keep going and read it all.

So what were some of your favorite reads during 2014?