Sunday, December 27, 2015

The play's the thing

The fifth book in Gary Corby's hilarious ancient Athenian mystery series focused on that still-resonant cultural development, the Greek play. Previous books in the series focused on the (original) Olympics and the Battle of Marathon, and the future of democracy itself is always at stake if our hero detective Nico and his partner-in-crime/wife Diotima don't solve mysterious murders. This latest installment was another captivating caper -- this time involving the feast of Dionysus, the hierarchy of ancient Hellenic actors, and a good old wine-vs-beer subplot. Corby delivered yet another funny and insightful tale, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek jokes for a modern audience. I'll have to wait another year or so for the next book in this excellent series, though.

Over Thanksgiving, Mi Hermana and I went to see the final installment of the   Hunger Games film franchise.  It was largely faithful to the books, and like its three predecessors was a visual feast -- from the stunning architecture of the Capitol to the massive action sequences.  One thing that wasn't made especially clear in the movie, though, was the reason for Katniss' eventual rejection of Gale and subsequent acceptance of Peeta. Both Mi Hermana y La Otra Hermana were confused about how it played out in the movie, and neither had read the book. In the book it's much clearer that the love triangle represents war vs. peace; maybe that didn't come across on screen for the uninitiated.
But speaking of the initiated... La Madre drags family to see Pacific Northwest Ballet's The Nutcracker every few years. She mainly does it when family friends or boyfriends are in town. I've never particularly enjoyed the production or the story or the dancing (I've gotten bored every year), but I do love the music.

This year, I honestly loved the entire production. I'm not sure what exactly changed for me -- the CGI introduction, the costumes, the set, old age, the fact that I could pre-order wine for intermission... But whatever it was, I've only ever seen the PNB's Stowell and Sendak version. Their switch to the George Balanchine choreography this year made me actually love this ballet. Little details in the dances and set were hilarious, touching, beautiful. And I was never bored.  So kudos to PNB for trying something different and for finally getting me to appreciate my mother's holiday tradition!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Shaken, not stirred

60s-inspired spies are back! At least, for me. On the big screen.

I never watched the old classic series, but the remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E  was good, cheesy fun.  Cold War spy thriller + Henry Cavill = reason I went to see the movie with no idea what it entailed. But the plot was outlined for us 21st-century newbies: an American and a Russian spy have to join forces to stop a nefarious secret organization bent on controlling the world. It's cute and HILARIOUS and chock full of great action scenes. Surprisingly, I wasn't drooling over Henry as much as I expected to be; the frenemy interactions between him and Armie Hammer were what stole the show. I will watch it again and again when it's released for streaming, and I really hope there's a sequel.

While I'm on the spy theme...

Daniel Craig is definitely my favorite James Bond; he brings a grittiness and brutal realism to the violent world of espionage. Some earlier Bonds were utterly ridiculous, little more than laughable fops. But I like how Craig's 007 continually makes us second-guess why Bond is so popular, 50+ years later and with all its sexist, colonial baggage.

Plus, his cars just get better every movie.

 is now my favorite Bond movie. I wasn't the biggest fan of Skyfall (too much focus on Bond returning to his childhood roots, plus they offed Judy Dench). But SPECTRE was great.  It questions what makes a good spy tick, the relevance of field agents, and the limits of technology and privacy.  SPOILER ALERT:  You know when Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty in Sherlock, appears onscreen, there's no way he's a good guy; he's just too good at the evil supervillain thing. Likewise with Christoph Waltz. But SPECTRE had its share of belief-suspending action and momentary honest introspection. It didn't go overboard with the love interests (which I always hate in Bond movies); and though it drew on Bond's personal past, unlike Skyfall it didn't seem like a Freudian-riddled therapy session.

Hooray for the return of uncomplicated spy films!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Whatever the cost may be

Connie Willis' books were what made me start to like and appreciate science fiction.

Blackout and its sequel All Clear are two of her time-travel stories I hadn't previously had a chance to read. History students in the late 21st century go back to various points during World War II: the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the London Blitz, and V-E Day. They each get trapped in the times they are only supposed to observe. Every failed attempt to return to the 21st century forces them to keep participating in the civil defense of Britain, possibly altering the future: crossing the Channel to rescue soldiers, sleeping in Tube shelters, driving ambulances, protecting St. Paul's.

The books were captivating, can't-put-down-even-at-4am reads, and a poignant testament to the legendary indomitable British spirit during the Blitz.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On the rooftop of Africa

It's been a little over 10 weeks since my Kilimanjaro summit. I haven't had much time to reflect on the experience -- returning to the States, I hit the ground running with an annual work convention, canvass deployment, and then election season. But now that I'm suffering from the annual post-election cough and sniffles, I had the opportunity to go through all my Kili pics again and re-live the trip.

Like most vacations, I wish I could go back. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

I never did find out the name of the flower whose nighttime scent welcomed me to Africa. As I deboarded the plane in Tanzania and walked across the tarmac, and the aroma was spicy and pleasant in the dark.

Day 1: Shira I camp (3550m/11,686ft)
Our trekking group assembled at the lodge - two British girls, an Australian, a California mother/daughter duo, and me. All women again, which was nice! I had misread the weight limit for our packs as 15 lbs when in reality it was 15 kgs, so by accident I packed the lightest and most efficiently. Turns out I didn't need much else than the bare minimum. Unlike our Peru trip, the weather was very dry so I didn't sweat as much, and luckily my hair didn't get so greasy-dirty-nasty! Both Rainier and Peru also taught me that I didn't need to carry as much food as I would otherwise normally do.

Day 4: on our way to Lava Tower Camp
It was eight straight days of walking. Except for the final summit push, the trails were not actually that difficult; the distance and elevation gain were on par with regular hikes around the PNW. It's the altitude that made it tough: standing up from a camp chair or the toilet or just walking would reduce your breath to gasps and cause your heart to beat like a rabbit's. Small headaches, lack of hunger despite nonstop walking, breathlessness.... but we were all very good about staying hydrated!

Dust was everywhere. It was windy everywhere. Our noses ran and dried up and were raw, and we practically choked on dirt and sand. It was cold at night and in the early mornings, but once the sun came out it became rather toasty.

Each time we reached a new high altitude (a record we would break daily), I marveled that I was higher than the tallest peak in my state, higher than I'd ever hiked before on three continents, and that mountains around the world can be so vastly, beautifully different at the same elevations.

Everybody but me took Diamox. I tried it once on Day 4, but it made my vision blurry so I stopped. Three of us had emergency oxygen, which I tested during an acclimatization hike on Day 4 and used for about an hour on summit night until it broke. Maybe that was kismet after all: in the end, I underestimated my own lung capacity and adaptability because as long as I walked pole-pole and followed our head guide Mussa's advice  to "Walk at your own pace," I didn't need the backup oxygen. If it's possible to owe a debt of gratitude to a mountain, there's a part of me that thanks Kilimanjaro for teaching me not to cop out so easily or question my own abilities. I made it to the summit on my own, at my own pace.

Day 6: Barafu Camp (4600m/15,091ft),
less than 8 hours before summit push
We saw fellow climbers being escorted down all along the way to the summit; altitude sickness is still the leading reason why people don't make it to the top. (Another sober reminder occurred just weeks after our summit, that Kilimanjaro is still quite dangerous despite not being a "technical" mountaineering feat.)

I had enough layers on both my upper and lower body to keep me warm, but during the coldest wee hours of the morning I honestly thought I might lose my fingers and toes to frostbite. My godsend of a guide, Julian, kept saying "The sun is coming, don't worry. Keep going."

Day 7: sunrise at about 6:15am, after
7-8 hours of climbing in the dark
I'll never forget the sunrise, about 85% of the way to the top from the final high camp. After seven or eight hours of climbing in the dark, of slogging through the bitterest, freezing hours from 2 - 4am, we stopped for a tea break to watch the sunrise. The minute the sun peeked up from the eastern horizon, every climber on the mountain cheered. It was a wondrous sound: whoops and claps and cheers coming from above and below, from near and far, echoing down the valley.

Reaching the crater rim at the top was the first tangible milestone. Like Rainier's Muir Snowfield, it is seemingly close but a never-ending anguish; like St Helens above the tree line, it is nothing but ash and pumice boulders and a humbling testament to the Earth's geological forces.

Day 7: Uhuru Peak, the summit of 
Kilimanjaro (5895m/19,341ft)
Out of a mixture of exhaustion and altitude, I cried when reaching the crater rim, then again at the summit for simply making it and thankful to Julian for pushing me... aaand then again on the descent down the ashy slopes (though that last tearful bout was mainly due to frustration and dehydration).

Climbing Kilimanjaro and going on a safari (accomplished three days later in Kenya with close friends from college) have been on my bucket list since before I knew what a bucket list was.

Somewhere back in time, teenage me feels the eerie tug of a future unknown accomplishment. The intervening twenty years will teach her that, through 6 deaths and 7 births, anxiety and depression, love and loss, two lessons from the rooftop of Africa can reorient her.

The sun is coming. Just walk at your own pace.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Flights of fancy

I was ridiculously excited about the entertainment selections on the plane rides back from Africa. And even though I probably should have been sleeping for some portions of the flights, I went a little crazy with the movie watching.

The Giver was really only loosely based on the book, which I only read recently, so I don't have any particularly strong ties to it. It gave way more plot time to minor characters from the book, which changed a lot of the book's relationships but that I actually thought rounded everything out better. The book's ending was pretty vague, but the movie made it a quasi-happy Hollywood ending. So at least it wasn't entirely dreary like the book was.

While on safari, I overheard some members of another party highly recommend Kingsman. Since it stars Colin Firth, it wasn't hard to convince myself to watch it. While it was pretty good cheesy fun, as a spy recruitment caper it tried way too hard to be story about class. Samuel L Jackson must have had a ton of fun playing the evil super villain. But it was actually a pretty gruesomely violent movie, for all its camp. And it definitely needs a sequel: as a stand-alone, viewers have invested too much emotion in a street kid who bests the toffs and saves the world to just leave him as he takes over a secret intelligence society.

Someone in my own safari party, during conversation about Disney cartoon plots, recommended the new Cinderella film. Basically, Disney made a film version of its 1950 animated feature. After the Kingsman bloodbath, I needed something happy and predictable. And to my own utter surprise, I actually liked Cinderella. There are some pretty bad retellings of this particular fairy tale out there; Ever After is still my favorite, but this one is pretty good.

Like a lot of fans of the musical Into the Woods, I was skeptical when a movie was announced. I've only ever seen a PBS broadcast of the Broadway version, but this film version was actually pretty decent. Meryl Streep is always a good villain (though still not better than Bernadette Peters!), and "Agony" is still one of the most hilarious songs in show tunes.

Lastly, because my nieces all loved Tangled and it was pretty short, I forced myself to watch this meh cartoon.  I get why it would appeal to several rather strong-willed small children, but I've never liked the Rapunzel story in the first place. None of the songs were memorable, Flynn the romantic interest is basically just Aladdin in a different setting, and the plot twist of Rapunzel's hair being magical threads made the climax no different from Beauty and the Beast. It's a pretty forgettable cartoon. I want those 100 minutes back.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The same age inside

Back from Africa, but am still processing the experience. It's only been 6 days, during which our annual convention at work took place, so I haven't had much rest time since climbing Kilimanjaro and going on safari and seeing old college friends on a different continent and celebrating a friend's wedding.

I know Kilimanjaro changed me, but I've had precious few well-rested moments to myself to articulate exactly how.

In the meantime, other entertainment sources have flooded my brainwaves. I watched Midnight in
Paris on the plane to Amsterdam and LOVED it. Obviously, because it involves time travel to the 1920s and features both Fitzgerald and Hemingway (among other of my idols-between-the-World-Wars), it was practically tailor-made for me. It was also somewhat timely, since reading Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in my formative years contributed to my wanting to climb the mountain. I'm not a huge Woody Allen fan, but this was a light-hearted, funny movie that hit home in many ways: a writer who loves the 1920s gets transported back, meets his idols, and reassesses his life and priorities in the 21st century. And when every famous artist (writer, painter, philosopher) appeared, I almost clapped with glee. So delightful!

Miss Buncle's Book also took place between the World Wars. It came up in the library's "You might also enjoy this" suggestion list. I enjoyed it a bit, but it took a while to get into. The premise is seems trite now, but maybe 90 years ago was novel: an anonymously published book about the lives of villagers in a small English town starts to come true, and the townspeople start accusing each other of being the author.  The real author is a dowdy spinster named Miss Buncle, and I think the main reason I couldn't really get into the book was because she came across as something of a country simpleton. She didn't mean to upset the balance of her town, but her reaction was something of a "Oh gosh, gee willikers, tee hee, look at all this" and it was a little off-putting. Definitely not a modern heroine, but not an entirely dislikable one either. She had an idea for a book, and subconsciously wrote her astute observations into them; it wasn't her fault they storylines all came true.

Like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, maybe there's a lot I can relate to in that.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Out on the wine-dark sea

A friend suggested the Queen's Thief series, and I quickly became addicted. I think it's meant for tweens, because the 4-book series is a quick (but thoroughly enjoyable) read.

Half ancient Greek and half medieval, it tells the stories of three kingdoms on a vaguely Hellenic Mediterranean peninsula. Sometimes warring, sometimes allied, they all face a common threat from a very Ottoman-like empire to the east. Megan Whalen Turner even completely makes up her own pantheon for the mythologies that drive the characters.

The three monarchs and their courts play a continuous but fascinating game of chess with each other, drawn out across the four books. Each one has several brilliant plot twists that had me laughing at myself for not seeing them coming and applauding the author for skillfully weaving a delightful saga.

Recommended the series to Mi Hermana, but also think my nieces and nephews might enjoy it in 4 or 5 years. Time flies!

Sunday, July 26, 2015


Since my adventure buddy was just diagnosed with breast cancer, I've been thinking a lot about our recent trip to Peru.

We read Turn Right at Machu Picchu  before we left. It's a hilarious memoir by a travel writer following in Hiram Bingham's footsteps, tracing the 1911 jungle trek that led to Bingham's (re)discovery of Machu Picchu.

Going from 0 to 11,000 feet was horrible; we felt the effects of the altitude within 2 hours of our arrival in Cuzco.  We had 4 days to acclimate before starting on the Inca Trail, and there were plenty of things to see in Cuzco: the Qorikancha, the Sacred Valley (Pisaq, Ollantaytambo, Chinchera), and Saqsaywaman.  At every site, the ruins were a stunning testament to Inca engineering: amazingly precise stonework and astronomy.

And Peru is BEAUTIFUL.

On the road to Chinchera
On the road to Chinchera

The Inca Trail itself was not as difficult as we anticipated it would be. (I think Muir Snowfield is a tougher hike.)  But there were SO MANY STAIRS. It's completely mind-boggling that the Inca road system, which stretches across thousands of miles in 5 modern countries, could be made up of so many stones and stairways.

The terrain was breathtaking: desert to alpine to jungle in all varieties, over every other hill.

And the highest I've now hiked is now 13,828 feet, to Dead Woman's Pass on the Inca Trail.

There were several more Inca ruins on the 4-day trek to Machu Picchu. Honestly, when our group got to the end of our destination, where a thousand international tourists roamed around us with cameras, it was a bit much - especially after being on the trail for over 3 days with few other people.

Huayna Picchu towering above
Machu Picchu
But then we climbed Huayna Picchu. In the rain. And though we didn't feel particularly bad-ass after the Inca Trail itself, we absolutely did after finishing Huayna Picchu. BECAUSE IT'S ALL STAIRS. 1,180 VERTICAL FEET OF STAIRS.

After the super touristy Machu Picchu experience, we headed west to Arequipa. There was a general strike going on in the region, so our plans had to be a little flexible. We took a tour of Colca Canyon, where we saw condors; the same tour took us to see more awe-inspiring mountains. And the bus sneaked up to 16,108 feet -- the highest I've been, period (even if I've only hiked up 13,828).

A condor flies over
Colca Canyon
Sabancay, the smoking volcano
El Misti
There was so much of Peru we didn't have time to explore: Lake Titicaca, the Amazon, the Nazca Lines, the foodie scene in Lima, other gorgeous hikes in the Andes.  But it was so beautiful, and the mix of cultures so proud and fascinating, that we just might have to go back some day!

And yes, I did eat a guinea pig....

.... Meh.

Friday, April 03, 2015

No frigates, indeed

Sometimes when I'm caught up in the dramas of murder mysteries, I forget what day of the week it is or what time I need to wake up the next morning.

I didn't mean to read a book about Passover and Easter during Holy Week, but that's how the reservation queue at the library worked out. Though it's described as a novel, The Fifth Servant feels like the first book in a mystery series. A murder mystery that takes place in Prague's ghetto in the late 16th century, it features a Polish scholar as the outsider who investigates the crime. There were a lot of Talmudic side conversations and musings about life and faith and persecution, and the mystery itself was a good one. The end of the book wasn't very satisfying, in that so many interesting characters had only minor parts. And the half 1st-person, half 3rd-person narrative kept throwing me off.

When I got curious about what might be left of the old Jewish quarter of Prague, a few minutes on  wikipedia told me that basically half the events in Wishnia's book are inspired by real-life people or tales. That made me realize what was missing that would have tied up the loose ends for me: an afterword or notes on the history and research behind the characters and the historical events.

But I finally caught up on the two most recent installments in my favorite, favorite, favorite murder mystery series (or one of them, anyway). The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches has our adorable evil genius detective faced with two new challenges: solving her own mother's decade-old murder, and dealing with her initiation into her family's long tradition of being master spies. Which is AWESOME.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust has our heroine shipped off to boarding school in Canada to follow in her famous mother's footsteps and continue her secret agent training.

I really, really, really don't want to wait more than a year for the next installment, but I know time flies and when nerd child detective Flavia de Luce appears in her next book, it will seem like no time has passed at all!

In the meantime, there are other frigates...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Unfinished business: Movies

I've been binge-watching shows on Netflix and Amazon lately, instead of watching movies online. However, I've seen a surprising number of movies in actual theatres in the past few months.

I wasn't the biggest fan of Wild the book, and I was less a fan of the movie. For starters, I don't think Reese Witherspoon was the right actress to play Cheryl Strayed: she's too delicate-looking and tiny and wholesome-seeming. The movie also left out quite a lot of the book that detracted from Strayed's personal journey. Her ex-husband's role in the movie is reduced to a simply supportive character rather than a best friend who becomes a casualty of her grief and rage; her stepfather is completely absent; her mother comes across as flighty instead of complex.  I really don't know how this got nominated for Best Picture.

Fury was a pretty by-the-book WWII movie. I grew up watching them, so it was fairly predictable. The audience is initiated into the horrors of war through the experience of the young soldier who wasn't supposed to be on the front lines: he has to be taught to kill, has to be shown by his commanding officer how to interact with civilians amid chaos,  has to learn how to be part of a team in order to survive. It wasn't the greatest or most poignant war movie (though it tried to be), but it was a decent addition to the genre.

Dear White People was a movie I would have really related to when I was 21 or 22. Because it definitely reads like it was written by people fresh out of an elite private college. (It's clearly supposed to take place at a Harvard clone.) The basic plot revolves around a largely white fraternity hosting a racist Halloween party, and the events that lead up to it: attempts by the college administration to get rid of a historically all-black dorm, the role of money in higher education, and media depictions of blackness. The film attempts to explore nuances of African-American identity, which I as someone who isn't black don't feel I can critique as heavily; I feel I can say, however, that that is the most intriguing part of the movie. It reminded me of Spike Lee's Bamboozled, but set on a college campus and filled with angsty young adults trying find themselves amidst a cloud of hormones, historical race relations, and the influence of money. I left the theatre with long-buried, unsettling flashbacks to my own college experience, but feeling that the movie tried too hard with too much material. It could have been a more powerful statement on race in higher education. In the moment, I appreciated certain scenes in the movie; but stepping back it was barely even a surface-scratching look at a very serious set of issues.

Mi Hermana and I ran out to watch the third movie in the Hunger Games series. As a huge fan of the books, I was a huge fan of this movie. The third book in the trilogy is split into two movies, and Mockingjay: Part I was pretty amazing. Friends who saw it before me told me that the communications team (following Katniss around bombed-out areas of Districts supporting her revolution) reminded them of me, which is rather flattering but funny. And weeks after seeing the movie, I was a little horrified to hear the remixed version of Katniss' inspiring a cappella call to revolution: "The Hanging Tree" all beat-ified is actually playing on mainstream radio stations.

Mi Hermana, who hasn't read the HG books, was highly disturbed by the scenes of Peeta's psychological struggles. She said she's been watching too much Dora the Explorer, Super Why, and My Little Ponies in the past few years to dive full-scale into a movie about violently overthrowing an oppressive system...

... and yet she was completely fine watching The Eagle, a highly forgettable movie about the 9th Legion in Britain. We watched it on Netflix back-to-back with Centurion, so we might have overdosed on B-quality films about the famous Roman legion lost to time somewhere in the mists of Scotland. The unexpected role of Jamie Bell (who we last saw in Billy Elliott) was one of the only highlights. Like most stories about Roman Britain, it had to bridge the political and cultural divide between occupier and occupied with some sort of hint that the eventual melding of the two would solidify into what we now see as the indomitable British bulldog spirit.

While I was critiquing the history, Mi Hermana the linguist was critiquing the lack of adequate explanations as to how all the different characters from the polyglot Empire were actually communicating.

Fun times.

Friday, March 13, 2015

O me! O life!

A little late with the New Year's reflections, but it's still pretty close to Chinese New Year so I figure I'm only kind of tardy.

Notable "firsts" in 2014:
  • My first mountain summit outside the United States
    It rained cats and dogs on me most of the time, but I loved every minute of it. Mt Snowdon kicked off my solo Welsh hiking trip -- and infected me with the destination hiking bug. If all goes well in 2015, I'll be on to two more international summits!
  • My first Sounders fan trip outside Seattle - to Canada! 
    There was a lot of unanticipated drinking involved. I had packed a nice little sandwich and nalgene bottle for the bus ride up to Vancouver, and was completely unprepared for the total boozefest that the 16-hour adventure turned out to be.
  • I swear, sheep can stand sideways. This one
    was in the Brecon Beacons on my toughest
    hiking day, which included 4 summits.
  • My first 10K!
    This experience also came with my first taste of GU gel at the halfway mark, which was kind of gross but did indeed provide an extra sugar boost. The course was completely flat, which helped.
  • First trip to Dallas
    I was at a conference for work. Got to see the JFK memorial and a few other touristy sights in downtown Dallas.
  • First time going to a roller derby match
    Or whatever they're called. The rules are still somewhat of an enigma, but it was still fun to watch a new sport.
  • First time camping on a beach
    Not just any beach -- the ocean! The Pacific Ocean!  Our campsite was mere yards away from the shore. A cacophany of barking seals kept us up all night. It was awesome. We had to hike three miles across sand during low tide  -- and then I actually volunteered to walk an extra six miles when we ran out of wine -- but it was worth it.
2014 was pretty cool. Here's to 2015 and the Year of the Sheep, and all the "firsts" in store!

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
                                             -- Walt Whitman 

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Unfinished business: Books

2014 was a whirlwind, but a year in which I developed my strongest coping mechanisms yet for managing anxiety. I'm proud of myself for working hard to do that -- even if it meant declining happy hours with friends or taking naps and accidentally oversleeping for soccer games.

The projection for 2015 so far is pretty awesome: new season ticket seats for Sounders FC games, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, and a college friend's wedding in Kenya.

Having said that, there are some unfinished reviews from 2014 that entertained me and helped me pass the time....

I never actually read either A Wrinkle in Time or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as a kid, but would have loved them both. Both have inquisitive smart girls as protagonists. Wrinkle is a bit darker and uncomfortable, with a not-so-vague religious undertone that comes across as slightly cheesy now.  I would have LOVED Files as a third-grader; the eldest-child heroine so skillfully manipulated her younger brother and managed to turn a museum into a hotel!

I did have to read The Door in the Wall in 6th grade, and I remember taking forever with the reading assignments because it being extremely boring. Twenty-four years later, it's a faster read but still kind of a boring story about a kid crippled during the Plague who recuperates in the country and saves a castle from invasion. Had I read The Trumpeter of Krakow instead, I might have appreciated medieval tales earlier in life. For starters, it doesn't take place in England or France, which is a huge cultural shift. And though the description of the Asiatic Tatars is super-outdated and kind of offensive, it's still a decently rousing adventure story.

One mystery series I found that was cheesy and slightly objectionable in its portrayal of colonial Africa was Suzanne Arruda's Jade del Cameron series.

I'm not sure if "orientalism" can describe 21st-century depictions of 1920s Kenya, Tanzania, and Morocco... but it should. The detective protagonist is a supercool gun-slinging American chick who is welcomed into the British expat colony; but though the Great War and technological developments are at the heart of the white settlers' lives, the tribal Africans in the story are steeped in mysticism and "exotic" otherworldly shrouds. Even if Arruda took pains to make the main characters less racist than they probably would have been in real life, there was still an underlying sense of privilege and superiority that made me uncomfortable as a modern reader. Of course, I still read the whole series. (They were good murder mysteries!)

The last two books in Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy series were much in the same vein as the previous ones: enjoyable, fast reads. Our heroine is now married to her police captain husband, preggers then a mother, and still joining up with her lesbian best friends in upstate New York and Paris to solve mysteries. (Y'know, just the typical life story for an early-20th century Irish immigrant...)

I do hope Bowen releases another Molly book this year. I like her Royal Spyness series better, and am GIDDILY EXCITED to have discovered that while I was bogged down with Election 2014 work, she released a new one which I have now reserved at the library and would totally be worth whatever overdue fines I'm likely to have to pay on it.

Unless I try very hard not to accrue library fines in 2015. Which is not realistic at all.

A book I plodded through because I thought it would be right up my alley (but I absolutely hated) was The Beekeeper's Apprentice, about a young female genius apprentice to an aging and retired Sherlock Holmes. What was so horrible about it? Oh, just the usual idea that intelligent women are incapable of having PLATONIC intellectual relationships with intelligent men. Because the protagonist protegee, who ranges in age from 15 to 20 in the story, ends up (SPOILER WARNING) marrying a 50-or-60ish Holmes.  I was so grossed out and offended, I won't read the rest of the series. Besides, though it was a decent narrative in the Sherlockian tradition, it wasn't that interesting a storyline. Also, the grossness factor.

Sometimes when I read NYT bestseller books that are being turned into movies, I'm disappointed. Not so with This is Where I Leave You.  Though I probably won't watch the movie,  the book was a hilarious, brutal, and oddly poignant look at how families, exes, and friends treat each other in the aftermath of tragedies, heartbreak, and other stresses. A man who catches his wife cheating on him with his boss heads back to his hometown to sit shiva for his father; in the time it takes to officially grieve, he faces a barrage of questions and memories from his siblings, old family friends, and old school chums. It's one of those stories I probably wasn't old enough to appreciate in my 20s;  it's not a hugely life-changing book at all, but I found myself relating to it now in unexpected ways.