Friday Flicks: Murder on the Orient Express

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Earlier this year, I read Agatha Christie's famed Murder on the Orient Express. It was easy to see why Christie's novel has been a mainstay among mystery fans since it was published. Essentially a locked room mystery, the novel follows investigator Hercule Poirot's inquiry into the death of a man on the train. When I heard that Kenneth Branagh would both direct a film adaptation and portray the famed detective, I was eager to see this modern telling of the classic tale.

The film opens with Poirot (Branagh) finishing an investigation at a church in Jerusalem. These early scenes introduce both the character's deductive prowess and obsessive compulsive tendencies. Branagh gives the character an air of both humor and wisdom with a charismatic charm that is instantly captivating. Poirot plans to take some time off after his case, but is urgently called to London to take on another. As fate would have it, this sudden change of plans lands him on the Orient Express.

On the train, Poirot encounters the assortment of characters who will shortly become suspects in the murder of one of the other passengers. The film assembles a who's who of Hollywood actors to fill out the cast. Johnny Depp, arguably the most widely known member of Branagh's troop, plays the victim Samuel Ratchett. Ratchett's unsavory business dealings leave a plethora of people who could have potentially killed him. Poirot swiftly begins a methodical investigation of the only people who had access to Ratchett, the other passengers.

Like the book it is based upon, Murder on the Orient Express is a slow building mystery that offers a nice change of pace for a trip to the movies. My only complaint is that the film is so filled to the brim with talented actors that they don't all get the equal opportunity to showcase their skills. Screen time aside, Branagh manages to honor the history of the story while making it relevant to modern audiences. Even knowing how the narrative would end, I still found myself on edge of my seat. Branagh makes ample use of the sweeping landscapes outside of the train and finds several inventive ways to vary the evenness of the interior. The filmmakers have already announced plans to adapt Death on the Nile. I can't wait to see more of Christie's classic novels brought to life.

Artemis by Andy Weir

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Confession: I have yet to read Andy Weir's The Martian. I know what you're thinking, "How could he have missed reading that one?!" I honestly don't know. I loved the film adaptation of the book, and the kindle version has languished on my kindle for over a year. For some reason I just never got around to reading it. My negligence aside, The Martian became such a critical and commercial success that author Andy Weir has released a sophomore novel Artemis. I'm pleased to report that this novel hasn't sat dormant on my kindle. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I doubt you'll be able to ignore it either.

Artemis sees Weir tackling a story that takes place a little bit closer to home than his previous novel, closer to home than Mars at least. In this novel, man has conquered space and made their home on the Moon. Artemis, as the lunar colony has been named, plays host to a variety of tourists, wealthy industrialists, and the people who work for them. Jasmine Bashara, Jazz has lived most of her 20+ years on the moon. Her father is a well-regarded welder who longs for Jazz to follow in his professional footsteps, but Jazz has other plans. Her job as a porter who ships the various goods that make the city run pays only a meager salary. To earn more slugs (the currency of the moon), Jazz has turned to smuggling in contraband for some of Artemis's wealthier citizens.

A local businessman who regularly uses Jazz's smuggling services has called her in for a chat. He has a grand scheme to take over the monopolized aluminum smelting industry on the moon. The plan hinges upon someone sabotaging automated harvesters that scour the moon's surface. Jazz has the capability to both space walk and weld, skills that are paramount in successfully completing the job. In exchange for her services, Jazz would receive one million slugs, enough money to live comfortably and realize her dreams of her own business. But things will not be easy, especially in space!

I thoroughly enjoyed Artemis. The Martian was essentially an escape thriller that happened to take place on Mars. In Artemis, Andy Weir sets a fast-paced heist thriller on the moon. I'm no scientist, so I can't speak to the scientific plausibility of Weir's imagined colony. Still, Weir's consistency in quasi-scientific logic goes a long way in making this out-of-this-world fiction set in an authentic reality. Jazz is unapologetically crass at times, but operates with an unflinching moral compass that makes her instantly engaging. The supporting cast of space-dwelling misfits are equally attractive. I still haven't read The Martian, but if Artemis is any indication of the quality of entertainment that Andy Weir can concoct, I certainly won't put off reading it much longer.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 49)




Broken Harbor by Tana French

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"If you're any good at this job, and I am, then every step in a murder case moves you in one direction: towards order."

Scorcher Kennedy is at the top of his game. As a member of the elite Dublin murder squad, he is known for his by-the-book approach to solving tough murder cases. His meticulous process of making sense out of the chaotic may rub some of his peers the wrong way, but Scorcher always gets the job done.  His unflinching trust in the process has garnered him the highest solve rate of the squad, a distinction that inspires his superiors to assign the squad's rookie as his partner. Kennedy is tasked with showing the rookie Richie the ropes, and their first case together turns out to be a real tough one.

A small housing development named Brianstown features the few suburban homes that were built before the economic crash brought all construction to a halt. The broken potential of that development spreads into one of the homes where a gruesome crime scene awaits. The father and two children lay dead in the home, brutally murdered. The mother lies in a hospital bed battered and barely clinging to life. With all the misfortune that has befallen the area, perhaps it is better to be called by the name it previously held. . . Broken Harbor.

Kennedy certainly has his work cut out for him. The scene seems to be an apparent murder-suicide where the father who lost his job killed his family. But there is more here than meets the eye. Mysterious happenings in the home may lead to completely unexpected results. Kennedy is as focused as he can be, but memories of this particular place keep invading his consciousness. Now more than ever, he must face his tragic past head on for the good of the case.

After being a tad underwhelmed by her previous effort, I'm happy to report that Tana French achieves a near perfect novel with Broken Harbor. Her penchant for slow building mysteries scattered with well-drawn characters is on full display here. I'd even go as far as arguing that the family drama and reconciliation with the past is more important than the actual mystery. There is a sense of suspense and impending revelation that grows with the turn of each page. The plot moves slowly, but I was completely engrossed in every detail. Each novel in the series focuses on a different character, so this is one of the few series that I don't find it necessary to have read the previous novel. Still, readers of French's other works will find an added depth from their knowledge of these characters' past appearances. Broken Harbor has reignited my enthusiasm for French's writing and inspired me to continue reading her remarkable series.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 48)

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

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"There's so much to read, but all I do is end up watching Netflix and play Candy Crush. I feel like I'm wasting my life."

Tom Perrotta has become well known for his comedic and insightful depictions of modern suburbia. I was intrigued by the timeless themes of his novel The Abstinence Teacher. While I felt the novel suffered a bit from being so rooted in the the time period it was written, there was no denying Perrotta's innate ability to depict the intricacies and moral conflicts of everyday life. Naturally, I was eager to read his latest novel Mrs. Fletcher, and Perrotta did not disappoint.

Eve Fletcher is at a crossroads in her life. Her husband left her for another woman over ten years ago, and now her only child Brendan is heading off to college. In a flash, Eve is left home alone with only her job as the director of a senior center and worries about her son to occupy her time. She has a choice on her hands. Eve can either wallow in her own self pity or make an attempt to form a more meaningful life. Fortunately for us, Eve chooses the latter. She enrolls in a continuing education class at the local community college. The course is taught by a transgender professor who seeks to challenge traditional definitions of gender and gender roles in society.

One night, Eve receives an anonymous text that reads, "You are my MILF!" Shocked at first, Eve pays little mind to the crude message. But she can't stop thinking about it. She's in her late forties and looks pretty good for her age. While her sex life has been essentially non-existent since her divorce, she sees no reason why she wouldn't be desirable to someone. Curious, she does an online search and is quickly thrust into the world of online pornography. She can't stop watching it! Empowered by a new found sexual confidence and eager to explore her deepest desires,  Eve sets out to reclaim her life and carve out a new path for herself.

While Eve is off finding herself, her son Brendan faces his new life as a college student. His roommate is pretty cool and there seems to be a plethora of booze and girls for his choosing. But all that glitters may not be gold. His classes are tough and he is struggling to make genuine connections with his peers. Then a beautiful feminist student comes along and rocks his world. He's immediately drawn to her, but his chauvinistic views on women and sex may prevent him from forming any meaningful relationship. This portion of the novel is even more timely when considering all of the stories of sexual misconduct that are currently filling the news.

Mrs. Fletcher is a stunning portrait of sex and enlightenment in the modern American suburbia.  As chapters alternate between Eve and Brendan, Perrotta brilliantly crafts a narrative of multigenerational self-discovery. He doesn't hold back in his descriptions of the sexual situations that the characters encounter, but the novel is never crude for crudeness's sake. While Brendan is the product of a generation desensitized to the complexities of sex, Eve suffers from the opposite. She is finding empowerment in the discovery of different sexual possibilities. Beyond the obvious themes, Perrotta also explores the inevitability of aging, the precariousness of a work/life balance, and the power of diversity. As humorous as it is insightful, Mrs. Fletcher is a enthralling novel that is easily one of my favorites this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 47)


The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne

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Helena had a very unique childhood. Her beginning was dark, born from the forced relationship between her mother and her mother's captor. She grew up in the small cabin in the marsh shared by her mother and father. Helena could never understand the disdain her mother showed her dad. To Helena, her father was everything. He showed her to hunt, track, and fend for herself in the harsh wilderness. He taught her all the skills that he employed in maintaining his own anonymity. It wasn't until she was twelve years old that she saw her father for who is really was.

It has been years since Helena first escaped the clutches of her dad. She's built a new life for herself in the home she once shared with her parents. Helena's husband and two daughters have no knowledge of her unusual past. How could she tell them that her father was the notorious Marsh King? But past and present suddenly collide when a state trooper comes knocking on her door. Her father, who has been locked away since she was twelve, has killed a couple of prison guards and escaped. There's no question in Helena's mind that he'll come for her. She is the only person left alive that he cares for. She may be the only person in the world who can stop him.

The Marsh King's Daughter has been on my radar since its publication. The book has garnered nearly universal acclaim, and I began reading it with high anticipation. Fortunately, the novel lives up to all of the hype. Karen Dionne builds her story in conjunction with a Hans Christian Anderson tale. Each chapter begins with a portion of the fairy tale before proceeding with the main narrative. I'm normally not a fan of the back and forth, but this one works really well. There are many flashbacks to Helena's childhood that read quite similar to the sections about Jack in Emma Donoghue's Room. Dionne takes her character a step further by exploring the effects of a traumatic childhood on her character as an adult. Both the past and present are completely engaging and Dionne keeps the suspense rolling until the very end. Equal parts triller and character study, The Marsh King's Daughter is one of the best books I've read this year.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2017, 46)

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn

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Ever since I read Margaret Atwood's retelling of Shakespeare's Tempest in Hag-Seed, I've been eagerly reading the other books in Hogarth Publishing's ambitious Shakespeare project. The publishing house has tasked well-known authors with writing re-imaginings of some of the thespian's most famous works. While this has been an interesting exercise, the results have been decidedly mixed. Only Atwood has managed to craft a story that truly stands on its own feet. Still, the exercise itself has been enough to keep me reading, and I was happy to receive a copy of the latest novel in the series Dunbar from the publisher.

Dunbar sees author Edward St. Aubyn have his hand at King Lear. Canadian media mogul Henry Dunbar, the King Lear of this iteration, finds himself in a retirement home/sanitarium. His two older daughters conspire against him, taking control of his company and leaving him to rot in the care home. Dunbar may be old, but he's not going to give up his company without a fight. With the assistance of a depressed former thespian Peter, Dunbar escapes his room and begins a quest to take back control from his conniving daughters.

This is the third book in Hogarth's collection that I've read. I find my reaction to Dunbar to be pretty similar to my reaction of Tracy Chevalier's New Boy. While I appreciate many of the moments in the novel, I don't think it really lives up to the standards of the play it is reimagining. To his credit, St. Aubyn gives the novel a kind of political thriller feel with Dunbar working agains forces conspiring against him and his company. Still, the story never seems to exist beyond the point of retelling Shakespeare's narrative. Dunbar can be thrilling and has some surprisingly witty characters, but I'm starting to question the artistic merit of this exercise. Jo Nesbo throws in his take on Macbeth next year, so I'm not ruling out reading more from this collection.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

(2017, 45)

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