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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 23, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Cold, Table 19, Lady Hardcastle

I spent two weeks fighting the same vicious cold that has afflicted so many people this winter. Despite a brief fever, it never rose to the level of influenza, and while any lung ailment I get always wants to turn into bacterial pneumonia, the doctor at the walk-in clinic told me that we were definitely not at that level yet.

I won't bore you with my near-panic at using an inhaler for the first time, or the hideous digestive consequence of using a codeine-based cough syrup exactly once. (I had forgotten that the last time I took codeine, some twenty years ago, the same thing happened. When the doctor asked me if I had any adverse reactions to codeine, I only remembered that all the cough medicine had codeine when I was a child, and that I had had no problems back then.) (And now I've gone ahead and told you, so I guess I will bore you with that story after all.)

The benefit of being sick for two weeks was an 11-pound weight loss, from which I'm trying not to recover, though I am trying to recover from the convulsive coughing, the abdominal pain caused by convulsive coughing, and the tendency to wheeze, which never happened to me when I was young, but now can cause me to panic at my inability to inhale during a major wheeze. It's so fun to be old, because of all these new adventures.

Like getting an old man's sneeze. I used to sneeze like a regular person. Then all of a sudden, after my sixtieth birthday, I started having these massive sneezes that sound like a Prussian officer ordering a bunch of mutinous recruits to lay down their weapons and take their beatings like men. And instead of having the normal two sneezes (they rarely come alone), I now have bouts of sneezing that have that Prussian officer bellowing ten or fifteen times in rapid succession.

Fun, not just for me, but for everyone else in the restaurant/movie theater/airplane. Flight attendants become quite solicitous, because they now regard me as a candidate for being taken off the plane with a sheet over my face. And so, I might add, do I also regard myself.

This is my prelude to the fact that last Friday, I felt better. Not well, mind you, but better than I had felt. I believed I could go to a movie theater (the doctor had told me I was no long contagious) and my wife agreed that it would be a pleasant outing.

We had a few choices. I was not up to watching the live Beauty and the Beast because I really didn't see the point of a shot-for-shot remake of a pretty good animated musical. And both of us agreed that, despite being fans of Hugh Jackman, and despite reviews that universally proclaimed that finally there was a good Wolverine movie, we would not see Logan because we were not interested in watching adamantium blades slice through the heads of living persons.

(If I were attracted to head-slicing, I had already seen Riddick, so I have in my memory all the sliced-through heads that I need for the foreseeable future.)

Kong: Skull Island looked like it might be OK, but that's what we thought about the Jack Black King Kong movie directed by Peter Jackson back in 2005, until we saw it. Andy Serkis, as usual, gave the best performance in that movie, though we never saw his face. Skull Island didn't even have Serkis -- though the actor providing the basis for the CGI ape, Terry Notary, did have experience in hairy primatehood in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so it might be good.

But we weren't in the mood for scary or violent or icky remakes. So we decided to take a chance on a comedy that nobody has heard of because it isn't being promoted with insanely expensive trailers on TV.

Table 19 is a comedy about the wedding guests who are assigned seats at the absolute worst table at the reception. One of them is the elderly spinster (June Squibb) who had been the nanny to the bride and her brother when they were young -- and she was only invited because the bride's mother heard that the groom's family had invited his old nanny.

Then there's the married couple -- Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson -- who are competitors of the bride's family in the restaurant business. They were invited but nobody expected them actually to come, and when we find out why they really showed up it's quite a devastating blow.

Then there's Tony Revolori (Grand Budapest Hotel), who plays a teenage boy whose mother sent him off to this wedding in the hopes that he'd have better luck getting laid than if he went to his high school prom the same night. We never see her, but she may be the most appalling mother in the recent history of film. Revolori is, of course, as luminous, earnest, and funny as ever.

Finally, we round out the table with Stephen Merchant, who plays the eager-to-please nephew of the groom's father (or is it the bride's?; doesn't matter) who, we soon discover, was let out of criminal confinement in order to attend the event. He is quite likable, though his social ineptness makes Revolori look suave.

Oh, wait. Let's not forget the star of this movie, whose storyline defines the plot. Anna Kendrick plays the best friend of the bride who also used to date the groom's best man. As maid of honor, she had helped the bride to make the table assignments, so when, after she breaks up with the best man (Wyatt Russell) and quits as maid of honor, she knows exactly what it means to be assigned a place at Table 19.

So ... we've seen the Kristen Wiig Bridesmaids (2011), which seemed designed to prove that women could be as repulsive in a gross-out comedy as the Hangover dudes. And in case that wasn't vile enough for you -- after all, it had about thirty charming minutes -- there was last year's Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which had only about two charming minutes, both of them near the end.

Those of us who go to the movies both sober and grown-up are finding that the gross-out comedy is no longer interesting or funny. So I'm happy to report that, just in case you are a grown-up who wants a comedy in which the humor arises from characters and relationships that fall somewhere in the range of believability, then you may think, as I do, that Table 19 is the best comedy in years.

Is it a rom-com? No, not like Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail. This isn't a Meg Ryan movie, it's an Anna Kendrick movie. That means that instead of the heroine being relentlessly sweet, she has a sharp edge to her. You can impose on her, but she knows she's being imposed on and She Doesn't Like It.

Being at the wedding where her ex-boyfriend keeps trying to talk to her as if they still had a relationship is painful enough. Maybe things can be saved by the charming guy who calls himself Huck, who seems to be a wedding crasher but is also amazingly kind to her. Or maybe what saves the day is getting to know the other losers at Table 19 -- and yes, they really are losers, one way or another.

All funny. The wedding cake bits -- the disaster and the salvation -- are creative and wonderful. Revolori's attempts to get a date with the only teenage girl at the wedding -- and his equally fruitless attempt to make time with the Infamous Kate Milner (Maria Thayer, as cheerfully funny as ever) who, it is said, will sleep with anybody -- are funny and sad and, did I mention, funny?

There are so many reveals in this movie that I really can't tell you more about the plot except this: Everybody has a kind of a happy ending, except Walter Thimple, who goes back to his horrible roommate in the halfway house he's incarcerated in. (Stephen Merchant also plays Caliban in Logan, and shares created-by credit with Ricky Gervais for The Office.)

By the time the movie's over, we the audience are glad we got assigned to the losers' table, because we like them better than anybody else at the wedding. My wife and I laughed a lot, and we'd love to see it again. But we can't, for a while, because Table 19 was showing in one of the tiny theaters at the Red Cinemas, and tonight -- Thursday, 23 March -- is the last night it will be in Greensboro. And I won't get back to Greensboro in time to see it.

Fortunately, we live in an age where it's only about an hour and a half after a movie leaves the theaters before it pops up as a DVD or streaming from one source or another. So unless you rush to the Red Cinemas tonight, you'll just have to trust me that this is worth streaming or renting or however you get your after-first-run movies.

*

Sometimes you read a book because somebody you trust recommended it, which is how I happened to read What Every Body Is Saying, a book about noticing and interpreting inadvertent messages revealed by body movements, by former FBI interrogator Joe Navarro.

Sometimes you read it because it's on a topic that is surprising or fascinating, like Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers, by botanist Mike Shanahan, a book about the important role fig trees have played all over the world for millions of years.

Then sometimes a book kind of falls in your lap. Like A Quiet Life in the Country: A Lady Hardcastle Murder, Book 1, by T E Kinsey. I had heard nothing about it. I knew nothing about it except the publisher's blurb.

Now, I read a lot of mysteries, but generally I like the kind that follow in the footsteps of the great Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries started with the hard-boiled tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, but turned them into full stories, with a deep and interesting cast of characters.

You know: Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Sue Grafton, Jonathan Kellerman, and, before he died, Robert B. Parker.

Most of the time, I turn away from "cozies," the kind of mystery in which a widow or spinster (or other woman flying solo) keeps getting in the way of the bumbling police, who can't find their own backsides except by falling down. The late great Agatha Christie was certainly not writing cozies with her Hercule Poirot mysteries -- in fact, I remember my parents warning me, as a nine-year-old, not to read them because they were so gruesome. Of course I read them with almost religious fervor after that.

Which led to Christie's Miss Marple mysteries -- which either created or popularized the entire "cozy" subgenre. The mysteries themselves are not "cozy" -- some perfectly dreadful crimes are committed. It's the readers who are cozy, snuggling into a pile of pillows on an overstuffed chair near a flickering fire with a favorite beverage -- usually tea, of course, or warm milk because it's nearly bedtime, never brandy ... almost never -- and then reading about bodies found dangling from trees or bashed over the head.

Because the heroines of such stories are women of good breeding, the reader is assured that, while horrible evil might be confronted, it will all happen with the utmost civility and, usually, with very good humor.

This is the genre that gives us mysteries that contain recipes, or home remodeling tips, or clever cats, and Murder, She Wrote. There are picturesque towns or unusual jobs, and if people have sex, they do it in one of those spaces between paragraphs.

I came across the Lady Hardcastle mysteries quite by accident, but the description on Audible.com sounded interesting, and when I started listening, I found that while Lady Hardcastle herself is pretty much what you might expect from a cozy sleuth, her personal maid, sidekick, and the narrator of the series, Florence Armstrong.

Florence grew up in a circus family, which gave her considerable expertise in various kinds of cons and disguises; and when she accompanied Lady Hardcastle to China and India, where Lady Hardcastle was involved in something like diplomacy and/or espionage, and where her husband was murdered, Florence managed to pick up some serious martial arts training, so that even though she is a tiny slip of a woman, she can take care of herself with thugs who think they can easily overpower her.

Since Lady Hardcastle regularly calls her "Tiny Servant," and yet includes her socially in circumstances where treating a servant like a person is simply Not Done, we know that this is an unusual friendship. And it takes both of them to solve the various mysteries, like the friendless farmer who keels over in his pie at a tavern. It is plain that he was poisoned, but the police laboratory can't determine what the poison was, and Hardcastle and Tiny Servant can't figure out how it was administered.

For me, cozies often try too hard to be cute, which is why I gave up on the Maggody books, because it was clear the author was going to keep recycling the same gags in book after book, like a five-year-old repeating the one knock-knock joke he knows. (The "funny-once" rule is one that too many writers of cozies were not taught as children.)

The Lady Hardcastle stories do repeat some witticisms, but there are also many surprises ... we aren't beset by the same characters doing the same things in book after book. So far, at least.

Because at this moment, there are only two Lady Hardcastle mysteries available in the United States; a third one is coming in June. There are three volumes in Britain, but it seems there has been some retitling and, it seems, some revisions for the new American editions.

The two titles you can get now are A Quiet Life in the Country and In the Market for Murder, both by T E Kinsey, and both narrated in the audiobook by Elizabeth Knowelden, who strikes the perfect balance of upper-class tones and dry wit.

The local athletic hero hanging from a tree forms the backbone of the first book; the farmer poisoned in the tavern does that job for the second. And I can assure you that all the mysteries in the books -- each one contains an A murder, a B murder, and a non-murder crime -- are interesting, and their solutions are satisfying.

Along the way, the dialogue is fluid and delightful. It is, so far, one of the best cozy series I've ever read. Bravo to T E Kinsey.

Those initials, with no periods after them ... what is that about?

After so many decades -- no, centuries -- in which female writers used initials or male names to conceal their gender, we have the delightful news that T E Kinsey is, in fact, a man. His female leads are perfectly convincing, which is no surprise, since male and female writers have never had any difficulty writing characters of the opposite sex at exactly the same level of understanding and accuracy at which they write characters of their own sex. If a male writer's female characters are awful, then chances are his male characters are just as awful.

When Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters used male pseudonyms in publishing their novels, it was not because female writers could not be published. Quite the contrary, female writers using female names were among the bestselling authors of the time. However, female writers were expected to write novels about love and romance, often within the framework of gothic horror.

So if you were a woman who was aspiring to write "serious" novels that were intended for readers of both sexes, you really did need to have a male-sounding pseudonym. Because a female name raised genre expectations, sharply limiting the author's access to the wider audience.

And that is, or so I suppose, why T E Kinsey adopted the kind of pseudonym that women use to hide their gender, giving, in this case, a strong impression that the books have a female author -- because the cozy genre is owned by women. Yet the "secret" came out almost at once, and that's fine, because once you've read a Lady Hardcastle, you won't care about the gender of the author, but only about the author's talent, which is considerable.

There is something both weird and refreshing in this series. Book 1 has the main characters referring back to all sorts of adventures and spying missions in China and India before the book began, leaving a strong impression that, far from being in the first volume of a series, it has probably been going on for years. (It hasn't.)

Then, between books 1 and 2, there is apparently another case they solve which we are told almost nothing about -- but which has enhanced their reputation in the neighborhood. Again, you wonder if you missed a book in the series ... but you did not.

Arthur Conan Doyle also has Watson refer to Sherlock Holmes cases that we're never shown, but the Lady Hardcastle books really double down on that conceit, referring to many aspects and results of the untold tale.

Either this is an excellent way of signaling us that we are only getting the Best Of stories -- or Kinsey is leaving the door open to writing lots of short stories or novelettes about Lady Hardcastle's "other adventures," which can be published as books once the series has really taken off.

These books have been brought to America by a publisher named Thomas & Mercer, which I had never heard of. Here's why: Thomas & Mercer is Amazon.com's mystery imprint, so Amazon.com has become British author Kinsey's American publisher.

This would not matter except for this: Barnes & Noble, along with most retail bookstores, has banned all Amazon imprints from their stores. So you can't stop by Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy of these books. You can only order them from Amazon.com, or the audiobooks from Audible.com (owned by Amazon).

This action by book retailers seems to me to be rather foolish. Amazon is going to sell these very good mysteries anyway; why shouldn't Barnes & Noble sell copies and earn a little money from the sales? Yes, Amazon will also profit -- but losing some sales in Barnes & Noble won't exactly bankrupt Amazon.

It's as foolish as Fedex refusing to allow UPS Stores to ship via Federal Express, the way those stores used to do when they were Mailboxes, Etc. This has simply cost Fedex a lot of business we would have given them, because in most cities we've found that the Fedex/Kinko's stores have no idea how to package the items they ship. They were copy shops, for heaven's sake, and the employees clearly show no training and no interest in competent packaging.

So instead of having the real package experts at the UPS Store (trained in the Mailboxes, Etc., days) box things up and ship them Fedex, as we usually did, we now ship everything UPS ... because the quality of the packaging is vital to having items arrive at their destination in good shape, whereas the carrier is usually not.

People browse the shelves of a bookstore and often discover titles they would not otherwise have found. That's why books have attractive covers, to catch the eye. But the most powerful selling tool is word-of-mouth. So when I tell you that you will take real delight in T E Kinsey's Lady Hardcastle mysteries, and you can only find them on Amazon.com, how does Barnes & Noble's petulant policy help themselves or their customers?

But I get it. Twenty years ago, Barnes & Noble looked like the rapacious, take-no-prisoners barbarian invasion of the world of bookstores. Now Amazon has taken over that role, and it's kind of ironic to see the shoe on the other foot. Remember that Fox Books in You've Got Mail is obviously and explicitly based on Barnes & Noble's longtime policy of locating their stores in direct competition with the most successful independent bookstore in town, with the intention of driving it out of business and inheriting its customers.

So if Barnes & Noble decides to treat Amazon as the invading enemy in a bitter war -- well, they know what they're up against, because it used to be them.

*

By the way, another happy result of my being sick and canceling all my classes the week before Southern Virginia University's weeklong spring break is that I actually finished the novel that has been consuming all my hopes and joys for more than a year.

Children of the Fleet tells the story of a student from Earth who is admitted to Fleet School, which replaced the Battle School of Ender's Game. The enemy they face isn't aliens this time, it's raiders from Earth, who are determined to take the children of Fleet School hostage in order to provoke the International Fleet to intervene in the wars now breaking out on Earth.

Of course, all sci-fi plots sound kind of stupid when you summarize them, because the ability to believe in and care about the story depends on the wealth of detail and the depth of motivation that you develop over hundreds of pages.

Suffice it to say that Ender Wiggin has a brief appearance in Children of the Fleet, and Colonel Graff, now the Minister of Colonization, is also a major player. So there are some old friends -- and some old enemies -- for those who are familiar with various other Ender's Game-related novels.

Look for it in October. I can't wait to see what the cover looks like.


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