Reading - February 2021

The Firm by John Grisham (1991)
I felt like reading something familiar and this caught my eye. It's still a great story, well-told and involving. It just sweeps me along and I finished it in a couple of days. It's showing its age slightly: the two main women characters are cartoons and almost exclusively described in physical terms, which I hope would be improved these days. It jars occasionally but doesn't spoil the story.
Tight-Fittin' Jeans by Mary Lynn Baxter (1997)
The cring-worthy title should have warned me off - but at least it didn't take long to read. Very predictable and marred by a number of typos. Although at least one of them made me laugh - apparently this series of books features "sexy herpes"!
Cracking The Dating Code by Kelly Hunter (2012)
I quite like the idea of a geeky heroine, who understands computers but not relationships, except there's not enough geekiness for me. Having her paired with a studly, tortured hero straight out of central casting makes for an appealingly odd couple, but there's not enough clear progression in the relationship - suddenly he's obsessed with her and doesn't know why, which sounds like a cop-out from the author. Sweet enough overall, as expected, but unmemorable.
The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2007)
It's kind of depressing that this book was, and is still, needed. Dawkins' main points are all irrefutable and it constantly bewilders me that anyone should find this hard to understand. Of course religion is a sociological construct. "God" is about a credible explanation of anything in the universe as Rudyard Kipling's story of why the giraffe got his neck. The book itself can be repetitive and over-laboured in places, and occasionally he tries to engage with the idiocy that is theology instead of just pointing out that it's irrelevant (in fairness, he has done elsewhere), which leaves him open to the fatuous criticism (and category mistake) that his arguments are invalid because he "doesn't understand theology". But overall, it's a very readable, rational and sustained argument in favour of what should be blindingly obvious to everyone, but sadly isn't.
Saddle Up by Mary Lynn Baxter (1996)
This is the book that comes before Tight Fittin' Jeans (above) and for some reason I though it would make sense to complete the set. It's of its time, which in romance novel terms means that no-one sees anything wrong with the man basically forcing himself on the woman, which is all absolutely fine because actually she wants it, the little minx. Needless to say, this wouldn't get published these days. Other than that, it was OK.
Single Dad by Jennifer Greene (1995)
Another novel from the same era and series as the previous two (M&B/Silhouette Desire, I think), from the time when they used an illustration that looked like it had something to do with the plot as opposed to a random library pic - although in this case it's a very amateur drawing. However, in this case, rather than its age dating it with some attitudes that we wouldn't accept now, this is just a nice story of two people overcoming their own insecurities to work out how they can be together.
The Guitar Magazine (March 2021 / Issue 390)
Red-Hot Renegade by Kelly Hunter (2010)
I've been going through romance novels a lot in the last couple of weeks, which usually means I can't be bothered to concentrate on anything more challenging. While this book isn't exactly hard to read, as a combination of romance and thriller it has a bit more going for it than most and the Singapore setting is unusual. Despite the mandated length (these books are always a pretty specific number of words) it managed to pack a fair amount of action in. Not bad.
Exposed: Misbehaving with the Magnate by Kelly Hunter (2009)
Something about this plot really appealed to me: the housemaid's daughter all grown up and returned to find the son of the heir of the estate. So far, so Sabrina I suppose, but it's all handled very nicely and I like the idea that the two youngsters were separated and have come back together as adults - I think it's romantic. Very enjoyable.
Revealed: A Prince and a Pregnancy by Kelly Hunter (2009)
The very last in my month's romance novel binge, I promise, is this sequel to Exposed, in which the other two main characters get together. Very neat (if a bit weird). The plot itself feels a little manufactured and tries to put all sorts of roadblocks in the way of our couple, but they all sort of magically fade away right at the end. I didn't enjoy it as much as the previous book, but maybe that's a sign I should lay off the Mills & Boon for a while!
The King's Speech by Mark Logue & Peter Conradi (2010)
Not exactly the book of the film, even though it's tied in with a nice pic on the front of Geoffrey Rush and local boy made good Colin Firth, but a more complete and historically accurate history of the relationship between Lionel Logue (the lead author's grandfather) and King George VI. Obviously it's not quite as dramatic: Logue worked with the then Duke of York from 1926 until near his death in 1952, and there was no one "King's Speech" with which the treatment culminated. However, what is clear is that the two men worked together constantly for years and held each other in high regard, with Logue even being invited to Christmas at Sandringham for several years, not just to help with the (then live) Christmas speech, but to take part in the family gathering. Interesting and an unusual insight into monarchy. And a very reasonable length too - not unnecessarily extended.

Watching - February 2021

The Firm (1993)
John Grisham's source novel is one of my favourites, but I only vaguely remembered this - so having just read the book, it seemed logical to watch this. I got over my usual irritation with Tom Cruise fairly quickly, and for the first half of the film it's pretty faithful to the source material. However, it goes downhill in the second half when they start changing the plot for no obvious reason, and ends up with Mitch McDeere (Cruise's character) gathering evidence for the FBI to be able convict the firm for (wait for it) over-billing. Yawn. William Goldman, in Adventures In The Screen Trade (read it, kids, it's brilliant) says that stars can't bear to appear weak, and I think that's what's happened here. In the book, McDeere breaks his legal oath and then runs away - but leaves enough evidence to smash the firm and the mob wide open. In the film, however, he ends up walking right up to the mob bosses and blackmailing them into leaving him alone. Maybe the producers, the writers or even the star felt this was a better look. Really, while it's superficially "brave" (gasp, walking right to the lion's den!), actually it's more selfish - and it's a less satisfying story, in my opinion.
The King's Speech (2010)
A nice, gentle film for my day off. It's beautifully made, of course, and although I thought the accents (particularly Guy Pearce's) sounded a bit over-done, it's worth listening to Edward's real abdication broadcast and to that made by George VI at the declaration of war - The King's Speech of the film's title - to hear that they really did talk like that. If there's one problem with the film, it might be that it is so successful at telling the story that its version of events, which are necessarily compressed and simplified, will probably become what people remember (although no-one seems to be complaining about this in the same way that they are about The Crown).
Dinnerladies (Series 1) (1998)
Here's another series I didn't watch at the time - my loss, of course. It's a brilliant sitcom, with some fantastic one-liners and Victoria Wood's characteristic descriptions and metaphors - but what keeps you watching over multiple episodes is the interplay between the actors. While all clearly comedy characters, they are believable and easy to like. The only real exception to this is the Julie Walters character, which feels like it's come out of a different (and worse) programme - it's too broad and doesn't ring true at all. Occasionally it threatens to unbalance the whole thing, which is a shame. 
Doc Hollywood (1991)
This is one of my favourite romcoms. It's a bit dated: nowadays the scene with Julie Warner emerging naked from the lake would surely be dropped (she's gorgeous, but I do feel worried that she would have been pressured into this); and the way the Michael J Fox so blatantly hits on her would have been been softened, I think. But that's in the first, more comedic half of the film. The second half is an involving, gentle, tender romance that I find genuinely moving. The scene where Warner and Fox dance to "Crazy" and everyone else melts away is wonderful. The depiction of small-town America is unashamedly rose-tinted and cliched, but no less charming for it, and the surrounding cast of characters are so well filled in. Just great.
Serendipity (2001)
Stylistically this seems deeply in debt to When Harry Met Sally, but it has enough of its own character to be distinct, and in any case the style is good enough to stand another story. John Cusack is great to watch, as always, and Kate Beckinsale is pretty good too. The chemistry between the two of them is just about enough to believe that they'd ditch their fianc├ęs to chase a romantic dream, and the story of intertwined fates is sweet, if a bit fantastical - but that's OK too, because it gives the film a sort of magical feel. And finally, we have to note that with this and High Fidelity, John Cusack has been in two films that have the most perfectly chosen pieces of end music: Nick Drake's gorgeous "Northern Sky" and Stevie Wonder's ecstatic "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" respectively. 
Zootropolis (2016)
Movie & pizza time with the family! It took a while getting everyone to agree on a film, but this hit the mark nicely. It's very good: lots of detail, great parallels with real life of course, and a satisfying story.
Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (2017)
Just bought on DVD and watched again to, you know, check the rip was OK and not because I actually like it or anything. Well, maybe a bit. Jack Black is surprisingly restrained for him (he says he's channelling his inner teenage girl, but I think he's actually channelling a token gay character from an 80s sitcom), and you wouldn't guess that Karen Gillan is actually Scottish. What makes the film for me as much as anything are the tongue-in-cheek moments, like when Dwayne Johnson does a "smoulder" but doesn't realise it. Great fun.
Le Mans (1971)
Since the "plot" covers barely ten minutes of screen time, I'm assuming that the reason this was made was because Steve McQueen fancied driving at Le Mans on somebody else's dollar. The action sequences are great - mostly filmed at the previous year's actual 24 Hours of Le Mans - and there's plenty of it to watch if you're an enthusiast. I grew up reading about the legendary Ford GT40 and the mighty Porsche 917, so it was great for me. I can't imagine what the average McQueen fan made of it at the time, though.