Author Archives: SoniaG

Tea with Miss Marple

Over the last several months I re-read (or in some cases read for the first time) Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. What a delight! In addition I introduced myself to the Joan Hickson TV adaptations (most excellent) and revisited nearly all of the Geraldine McEwan and Julia Mckenzie versions that were canon Miss Marple. Might you indulge me as I share a few favorites?

Favorite book: I keep changing my mind on this one, but at the moment I think it might be A Pocket Full of Rye. Miss Marple has a very personal stake in this one as her former maid Gladys is involved. The pacing is good and the misdirection effective, and I enjoyed the chemistry between Marple and Inspector Peele. That said, I’d also put The Moving Finger, 4:50 from Paddington, and Sleeping Murder close to the top. The beginning of At Bertram’s Hotel is so charming (and I will revisit it even though the mystery itself is rather “meh”), and I quite enjoyed Nemesis for its window into Marple’s sleuthing process.

Favorite short story: The Thirteen Problems was an entertaining story collection and I was pleasantly surprised to find so much Gothic goodness running throughout. The most Gothic of all was “The Idol House of Astarte,” a country house mystery involving a fancy dress party that ends with a deadly accident. Or was it murder? I wish this one could somehow be adapted to television!

Favorite TV adaptation: While the Joan Hickson versions are excellent and much truer to the original texts, I have to admit that my favorite of all the individual adaptations was the Geraldine McEwan version of The Moving Finger. One might say it takes liberties with its blatantly Noir setup and the hero’s PTSD angst, but it also gives more agency to the love interest and effectively reimagines that troubling “makeover” scene. It’s a delightfully cheeky adaptation, and James D’Arcy and Emilia Fox have great chemistry as the Burton siblings.

Favorite Miss Marple quote: “I like living myself — not just being happy and enjoying myself and having a good time. I mean living — waking up and feeling all over me, that I’m there — ticking over.” (from A Murder is Announced).

[My favorite non-Marple quote might be Gina’s description of Stonygates in They Do It With Mirrors: “It’s pretty ghastly, really. A sort of Gothic monstrosity. What Steve calls Best Victorian Lavatory period.”]

And now for tea!

After all the time I spent with Miss Marple, I felt she deserved a celebratory afternoon tea out on the town. Las Vegas actually has several options for proper tea, and for this occasion my husband and I tried the offerings at Rí Rá Irish Pub in Mandalay Bay.

[Did Miss Marple ever take tea at an Irish pub? Probably not. But I certainly can imagine her nephew Raymond coaxing her into a local pub for tea just so he could study the “local color” for one of his novels.]


We found Rí Rá very charming. The server placed us in a comfy little nook near the entrance of the pub — does one call this a “snug”? — and we were fortunate to have it all to ourselves.


Here is a closer look at the cozy china pattern. We both chose the Organic Assam tea, which was perfectly steeped and delicious.


And here you see the tea tray, featuring sandwiches (ham & tomato, egg mayo, cheddar with Ballymaloe relish, cucumber & creme fraiche), raisin scones with cream and black current jam, and a selection of “decadent desserts.” It was the perfect amount for two — we ate almost all of it and didn’t feel too stuffed. (It helped that we took a long walk through the Luxor to Excalibur and back before returning to our car.) I do think Miss Marple would have approved!

Do you have a favorite Marple novel, story, or TV adaptation? If so please share in the comments!

October Reading Recs

For various reasons this has not been my best year for reading, but the situation seems to be improving of late. Today I have two books to recommend, and though they don’t have that much in common, they both celebrate female relationships.

A Secret Sisterhood synopsis: Male literary friendships are the stuff of legend; think Byron and Shelley, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. But the world’s best-loved female authors are usually mythologized as solitary eccentrics or isolated geniuses. Coauthors and real-life friends Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney prove this wrong, thanks to their discovery of a wealth of surprising collaborations: the friendship between Jane Austen and one of the family servants, playwright Anne Sharp; the daring feminist author Mary Taylor, who shaped the work of Charlotte Bronte; the transatlantic friendship of the seemingly aloof George Eliot and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, most often portrayed as bitter foes, but who, in fact, enjoyed a complex friendship fired by an underlying erotic charge.

Through letters and diaries that have never been published before, A Secret Sisterhood resurrects these forgotten stories of female friendships. They were sometimes scandalous and volatile, sometimes supportive and inspiring, but always–until now–tantalizingly consigned to the shadows.

If you know me at all, you understand how thrilled I was to hear about this book! I was especially delighted to learn that the co-authors have been close friends for years. That said, it took me a little while to sink into their narratives. Part of this stemmed from their “creative” approach — Midorikawa and Sweeney often convey details through reconstructed scenes, which I found a bit jarring at first. (When I reached the footnotes, however, I saw that all these “scenes” were carefully annotated.) Another challenge was balancing my expectations with what I already knew about the featured authors.

For instance, I’m a passionate fan of Jane Austen and feel like I know her characters well, but I haven’t yet read the author’s letters or a detailed biography. (I promise to read Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre le Faye, very soon! And doesn’t this book look good?). As I delved into the first chapter, I think I had unrealistic expectations regarding Austen’s friendship with the family governess, Ann Sharpe. As it turned out, their acquaintance was not as enthralling as I’d hoped, perhaps because the facts were a bit sketchy and for the most part originated from the journals of Jane’s young niece, Fanny Knight. I was glad to learn that Jane knew another writer, and of course I’m always interested in governesses — especially those who “scribble” — but for me this was the least fleshed-out friendship in the book.

On the other hand, I already knew a great deal about Charlotte Brontë’s relationships with Ellen Nussey and Mary Taylor from reading biographies and letters (I particularly recommend Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters), so the details revealed in the second chapter, though compelling, were mostly familiar to me. Your mileage may vary, but for me the first two “Secret Sisterhoods” were entertaining but not particularly revelatory.

That said, I truly enjoyed and learned much from the chapter on George Eliot/Marian Evans’ friendship with Harriet Beecher Stowe. Middlemarch ranks among my very favorite novels, but I never knew that much about its author and now feel compelled to find a good biography. (Perhaps I’ll start with My Life in Middlemarch and see which biography Rebecca Mead recommends?) Stowe was a vivacious personality and, lo and behold, an avid Spiritualist (much to Evans’ dismay). Though I don’t yearn to read her fiction, I think it might be interesting to read more about Stowe’s life.

The authors’ take on Virginia Woolf’s complicated relationship with Katherine Mansfield was perhaps my favorite part of the book. I’ve read To The Lighthouse and A Room of One’s Own and have always felt intimidated by Woolf’s intellect, but Midorikawa and Sweeney presented her in a very accessible way. No longer will I automatically think of her as the tormented genius who drowned herself, for I have replaced that default image with one of a younger Virginia painstakingly setting the type for her Hogarth Press publications. Katherine Mansfield was the least familiar to me of all the published authors featured in the book, but she was such a vivid character in this chapter that I do intend to explore her short stories and perhaps read her letters and journals.

Now I turn to you, dear reader — can you recommend collections of letters or journals by favorite authors? I own and still need to read Dorothy Sayers’ letters, and I know there are multiple volumes of L.M. Montgomery’s journals to be had. What else?

Bonus book recommendation: The War I Finally Won

The sequel to Kimberly Brubaker Bradley’s The War that Saved My Life (which I recommended in this “tea and a book” blog post) was such a joy to read. I don’t want to say too much in case you haven’t read the first book, but the wartime setting is even more compelling in this book, especially because we learn more about Lord and Lady Thornton and are introduced to a new character who boards with Susan, Ada, and Jamie. All the clichés apply: I laughed, I cried, I couldn’t put it down, I didn’t want it to end, and though it all wraps up in a satisfying way I would love to have MORE. Of course, I’m not the only one who feels giddy about the book, for it has received umpteen starred reviews and is an Amazon and NYT bestseller. HOORAY!

Spooky Film Recs for Halloween, part III (2017 edition)

The adventure concludes!

I tend to gravitate toward ghost films, but from time to time other forms of horror tempt me. So if you’re looking for a ghost-free option, here are three films for your consideration:


The Devil’s Candy (2015) — Unrated
A struggling painter is possessed by satanic forces after he and his young family move into their dream home in rural Texas.
After finding this on several “best horror” lists I decided to branch out a little from my usual ghostly fare. Imagine my surprise when I recognized gentle Coyote Bernstein from Grace & Frankie playing the tormented hero! (Can we all get the name of the trainer who prepped Ethan Embry for his shirtless scenes, please?) A man’s struggle with artistic integrity clashes with his obligations as a father, and the way in which the conflict evolves makes for a very tense–at times gut wrenching–viewing experience. (BTW: I happened upon this youtube review and I agree with everything this guy says about The Devil’s Candy. But I can’t decide if I want you to watch the review before or after viewing the film. Maybe it’s better NOT to know too much before watching?) The Devil’s Candy is unrated but I’d give it a strong R for violence, gore, and disturbing content.
Watch the trailer (a bit OTT). Available on Netflix. Metascore: 72


The Girl with All the Gifts (2016) — rated R
A scientist and a teacher living in a dystopian future embark on a journey of survival with a special young girl named Melanie.
I devoured (heh) M.R. Carey’s novel a couple of years ago, so of course I noticed the departures from the text and missed the character development while watching the film. Still, I think it holds up as its own thing, particularly because of the strong performances. (Special thumbs up for Sennia Nanua and the always brilliant Paddy Considine.) If you’re looking for a fresh entry in the post-apocalyptic genre, I recommend this film. And if you like it, please read the book!
Watch the trailer (or don’t — it’s spoils more than I’d prefer). Available on Amazon Prime and on Netflix (DVD only). Metascore: 67


The Invitation (2015) — Unrated
While attending a dinner party at his former home, a man thinks his ex-wife and her new husband have sinister intentions for their guests.
This is one of those films where I think the less I say the better, so this will be brief. Two years after a terrible tragedy, old friends gather. But the hosts have a mysterious agenda, and our protagonist (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Hardy — I’m not complaining!) suspects a dark purpose lurks behind their seductive hospitality. Deliciously eerie and tense! The Invitation is unrated, but I’d give it an R for violence and adult content.
Watch the trailer. Available on Netflix. Metascore: 72

That’s it for this year. Feel free to share your Horror recommendations in the comments. Wishing you heaps of happy horror viewing this Halloween!

AND REMEMBER — if at any point you want to browse my previous spooky film recs (which go all the way back to 2012), simply click the tag “spooky film recs” in the tags list below or in the sidebar! Easy Peasy.

Spooky Film Recs for Halloween, part II (2017 edition)

The adventure continues…


Dark Signal (2016) — Unrated
The spirit of a murdered girl returns with a message for the staff of a local radio station.
Ghostly voices appearing during a radio broadcast? Yes, please! I’m a fan of Welsh actor Gareth David-Lloyd from his days on Torchwood, so of course I had to watch this one. Dark Signal is just as much slasher film as ghost story, and there’s hardly any subtlety to it, but it totally held my attention. Also, it briefly features James Cosmo, who is in every TV show and film you’ve ever loved, so why not give it a try? If there’s such a thing as a “ghostly slasher romp,” this is it. (No rating, but I would give it an “R” for language/violence/gore.)
Watch the Trailer (warning: it is cranked up to eleven!). Available from Netflix and for rent from Amazon. No meta score — see external reviews on imdb here.


Under the Shadow (2016) — PG-13
As a mother and daughter struggle to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s, a mysterious evil begins to haunt their home.
This is the best reviewed film of my 2017 recommendations, and I enjoyed every second of it. A progressive Iranian woman denied the opportunity to continue her medical studies must accustom herself to stay-at-home mothering when her doctor husband is sent to the front lines. The bombing of Tehran grows increasingly violent, but she knows that taking her daughter to her in-laws will mean a loss of freedom. Does her resentment at being left behind (in more ways than one) explain the bad behavior of her daughter? Or is something else going on? Highly recommended, and very possibly an option for family viewing. Filmed in Persian but English subtitles available.
Watch the Trailer. Available from Netflix and for rent at Amazon. Metascore: 84


I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (2016) — Unrated
A young nurse takes care of an elderly author who lives in a haunted house.
This is my favorite of the new-to-me ghost films I’ve watched this year. From the very first line I wondered if this was based on a Shirley Jackson short story. (The title and the protagonist’s voice-over narration both reminded me of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.) But no, this was written and directed by Oz Perkins, son of the late Anthony Perkins, and once I figured that out it all made a certain sort of sense to me. I LOVED it. Warning: people who crave jump scares, gore, and a clear resolution will not like this film. It’s a slow burn of dread punctuated by occasional bursts of horror. Ruth Wilson (so good in Jane Eyre, Luther, and The Affair) offers a quirky and compelling performance. No rating, but solidly PG-13 in content.
Watch the Trailer. Available from Netflix. Metascore: 68

(Perkins’ first horror film, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, features more hallmarks of the genre — demonic possession, lots of blood/gore, surprising twist in the resolution — but I cared less about the characters in that one. RobertEbert.com agrees: “In spite of some compelling performances and a consistent mood, [Blackcoat’s Daughter] fails to ground any of these aesthetic flourishes in story or emotion.” It’s a good film and worth watching, but I am the Pretty Thing was much more to my taste.)

Stay tuned for the final installment of my 2017 film recs, in which I’ll be sharing non-ghostly horror options.

AND REMEMBER — if at any point you want to browse my previous spooky film recs, simply click the tag “spooky film recs” in the tags list below or in the sidebar! Easy Peasy.

Spooky Film Recs for Halloween, part I (2017 edition)

It’s that time of year when I voraciously consume recent (or new-to-me) horror films in hopes of sharing my favorites with you — oh what fun I have! If you are a horror fan, you’ve probably seen most of the recent mainstream options. However, there are plenty of lesser known films waiting to give you goosebumps, and I’ll feature a few of them today and next week.

Sadly, I’ve only seen two horror films in the theater this year: Get Out (huge thumbs up for this one–more about tension than horror) and Annabelle: Creation (Bleh–I’m not a fan of the “jumpscares on a platter” brand of horror). For a mainstream Gothic option, I highly recommend Sofia Coppola’s gorgeously haunting The Beguiled (a vast improvement upon the 1971 Clint Eastwood version, in my opinion, though perhaps not as true to the novel).

And now I offer some lesser-known horror films for your consideration:


The Blackwell Ghost (2017) — Unrated
A filmmaker tries to prove that ghosts are real but soon regrets his intentions after he finds himself being terrorized in a haunted house by a ghost with a dark past.

There is no IMDB listing for this, and therefore no rating or metascore. I’m convinced this is a mockumentary, but it’s realistic enough to have inspired at least one paranormal researcher to investigate it. (Although this investigation could have been part of the promo?) I happen to LOVE films about paranormal investigations, and I prefer fictional representations to actual ghost hunter shows, which alternately embarrass and bore me. This film is only an hour long, and I found it charming, funny, and legitimately spooky. It didn’t terrify me, but I experienced actual, sustained GOOSEBUMPS, and you know by this point I am terribly jaded regarding horror films. This is the kind of film I wish there were more of–engaging characters, spooky setting, and a reliance on tension rather than jump scares. I would give it a PG rating for a bit of profanity. No sex/violence/gore. (Teachers–this one could be fun to watch in a high school film class!)
Watch the trailer. Available on Amazon (free for Prime members).


A Dark Song (2016) — Unrated
A determined young woman and a damaged occultist risk their lives and souls to perform a dangerous ritual that will grant them what they want.

Found this recommended at Vulture’s Best Horror Movies of 2017 (So far). First of all, it was shot at a Welsh country house, so if nothing else you’ll enjoy the scenery. I appreciated how the film perfectly enacts the “emotional wound” sort of story journey–for that very reason, however, it’s not an easy film to watch. If something along the lines of “Extreme Bootcamp for Desperate Occultists” appeals to you, you might appreciate this. It is unrated, but I would give it a solid R for adult content, brief nudity, and mild gore. This isn’t a “fun” horror film, but it is beautifully shot, wonderfully atmospheric, and interesting as a character study.
Watch the Trailer. Available at Netflix and for rent at Amazon. Metascore: 71


The Possession (2012) — Rated PG-13
A young girl buys an antique box at a yard sale, unaware that inside the collectible lives a malicious ancient spirit. The girl’s father teams with his ex-wife to find a way to end the curse upon their child.

I found a reference to this while researching dybbuks and was surprised I’d never heard of it. It isn’t a great film, but it does spend a good amount of time on character development and offers nuanced performances from Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, and the young actresses who play their daughters. Yes, there are hokey and/or predictable moments, but there are some truly spine-chilling ones, as well. Go in with low expectations, perhaps?
Watch the trailer. Available on Amazon to rent or buy. Metascore: 45 (rather low, but Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars out of 4. And it’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick!)

Stay tuned — more recommendations coming on Tuesday!

AND REMEMBER — if at any point you want to browse my previous spooky film recs (dating all the way back to 2012), simply click the tag “spooky film recs” in the tags list below or in the sidebar! Easy Peasy.