Sarah’s Unsolicited Reviews

love letter to Monica Ferris

12 September 2010
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I was sad to read the last/latest Betsy Devonshire needlecraft mystery book by Monica Ferris. I found a slew of them at the Saukville Library and checked out the first 5 books for our Door County vacation. And I loved them. they were well-written, well-plotted, well-paced, nicely developed characters. As believable as any other cozy series (so not really, I mean who the hell would even want to be so close to so many murders. But I respect how Ms. Ferris has made Betsy uneasy about the same thing.)

I woke up on vacation, already with that strange sensation of where am I? and I wondered if I was in Excelsior. As much as it would pain the Door. Co. tourism bureau to hear, I wondered if I had ended up in Minnesota.  I have been craving needlecraft. The last time I sewed was Halloween costumes. And the last time I need any needlework, I was making Bella’s Christmas stocking. And now I wonder if maybe I should just give counted cross stitch another try. After all, Betsy improved. I like Betsy’s mind and her maturing as a character.  she would be fun to know. I want to hang out with Godwin, who skates a careful line of not just being your stereotypical gay best friend of pop lit, but is a fleshed out through and trough. Struth!

I was hooked. I scurried around. I checked out the other 8 or so books from three other libraries in our area. Annoying that Cedarburg had none of them. And I read them in order.

And tonight I finished the last one I have. I love how the secondary and tertiary characters slide in and out. Jill and Lars and I can picture Emma and Erik growing. Aww. And Doris went from being a small bit character (although didn’t she have a brother somewhere nearby?) and now she’s one of the gang. And Phil and Alice and Bersheda and Irene and Leona… And even Patricia, that daffy would be murderer who we get to see in redemption. I’ve read some series where all of the side-talking gets in the way of the plot. The mystery is either told as slight of hand and not clever deduction, all luck or random. And crossing my finger, Ms. Ferris has managed to keep the plots on target.

Now I just have to wait until the library gets the new release in December.  Find an independent needlecraft store and pick up a canvas and get to sewing. And stop seeing clever plots that Betsy could solve if there were a murder nearby.



14 July 2010
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I will try to keep this rant small and light. One of the best Agatha Christie novels is Murder on the Orient Express. Okay, you can make your case for And Then There Were None. Or the sparkle of the Miss Marple stories. Are you done? Good. Murder on the Orient Express is genius. And David Suchet playing Poirot is genius. And that is why the Masterpiece Mystery Poirot Series X: Murder on the Orient Express is so upsetting. Disappointing. Infuriating.

When I saw that Poirot was on Sunday, I was delighted. My heart skipped a beat. Orient  Express. Woohoo! Long awaited. By me. If you haven’t read the book, you should. But look away from the rest of this as it will have spoilers.  I watched the movie via DVR with Miranda. And I wanted to explain the story to her. The jumble of characters. The  hidden patterns. And this movie hewed to the book plot far more closely than some of the movies. But the introduction of an adulterous honor killing in the Middle East seemed forced. And was a pain to have to explain. On the upside, she can’t imagine anyone killing someone over their marriage or family honor orreally for any reason. I find that innocence lovely.

And then Poirot defends honor killings as cultural, he has zero compassion for liars and he has not wit or joie de vivre. His “I do not like murder” stance is clear, but Papa Poirot has a twinkle in his eye and mercy in his heart.  In this movie, Poirot seems old. There are so many of the later novels that stress that Poirot is aging and feels old, but Orient Express has never fit that category for me. Orient Express is Poirot as a genius. Agile, able, and in the end, compassionate. In this movie, Poirot is old, rigid, slow. I couldn’t help but think this portrayal will fit Poirot in Curtain, the final novel. And even in that tale, he is more thoughtful.

I know Orient Express will be remade. I am dismayed that David Suchet did not create the definitive work. And Miranda didn’t even really watch the end, turned off buy the darkness. Explaining liking murder mysteries is difficult enough. What a waste.

practical learnin’

16 March 2010
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A long time ago when I was a college student studying advertising in the journalism school in Madison, we talked about truth in advertising. I think more than most, we J-School majors who studied the dirty practical arts of advertising were constantly being forced to consider whether advertising was evil, a necessary evil or just horribly misunderstood. And I have never had a problem with the idea that advertising  can be an information source. Probably not your only information source.  But I constantly use advertising, consciously, to find out about products. Did the advertiser create a product that solves a problem I didn’t even know I had…maybe.

An example that had stayed with me is when plastic sandwich bags were introduced. The problem, as far as the market researchers could tell, was that the woman making a sandwich lunch for her working man’s lunchbox worried that the sandwich would get stale. Stale sandwiches, yuck! So the advertiser put a sandwich into the new nifty sealable plastic baggie and immersed it in water. This showed the little lady that the sandwich was safe. From spilled coffee and apple cores and stale air.

The professor then pointed out that the water molecules that the plastic prevented from reaching the sandwich–those molecules were far bigger than air molecules. And keeping water out didn’t prove that the air and its following staleness were being blocked.

I thought of that today. I was being frugal (I know, so 2009 of me) and put my PBJ sandwich and my 8 pretzels in the same sandwich baggie. Sealed it and headed to the office. Around 12, I was hungry. Got out my sandwich. And damn it all, it was crusty and stale. But the worst was the soggy distortion that my pretzels became.  Somehow, the moisture in the sandwich and the crunch of my pretzels merged. It wasn’t pretty.

And I think I wish I had taken more science classes and less advertising and media theory.

this post will probably not post

24 February 2010
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This has been a day of small hiccups. It just didn’t even seem worth trying to get anything done. I got side-tracked this morning and forgot to eat breakfast. Henry forgot his gloves. I didn’t notice that I Henry forgot his gloves until he was taking his cold little hands out of the car. On the day he has cold hands, we got to school 4 minutes earlier than normal, so he had 5-6 minutes of cold hands rather than the normal 1-2 minutes of warm hands before he goes in. I went home. I got the gloves. By the time I got back, the kids had gone in.  I had to park, walk the gloves all the way to the kindergarten rooms. I came home, decided to go to Target. Target had only 2 of the 3 things I went to get. But they had Kindergarten Cop for $4.75.

I came home, dyed my hair, started reading a Jennifer Cruisie novel. This was the highlight of my day. Then I was off to a doctor’s appointment at 1. Henry was seeing the same doc at 3:45. I didn’t notice earlier in the week when I could have combined those appointments.  After the doctor, I went to Walgreens. They had the missing item from Target. I finally got a prescription filled that I have been trying to have approved for 2 weeks. Another small plus – 90 day supply for $30 for a name brand drug. Even though it was to my favor, the line on my receipt that said my insurance saved me $370 seems ridiculous. I don’t want to pay $400 for the medication. But I hope my insurance company doesn’t pay that much either. Or that Walgreens doesn’t eat the $370.

I head home, make the homemade blueberry mini muffins I promised Miranda for her half day birthday at school tomorrow. Yesterday, I decided I was too lazy to follow a recipe from scratch. I wanted a mix. The first mix had lard in it.  No. All the rest had partially hydrogenated oil. Ugh. I buy the Hodgins Mill Whole wheat blueberry muffin mix. Whole wheat. Some molasses. Add egg and sugar and milk. And then I give in and buy some of the Betty Crocker.

The whole wheat muffins are so stereotypically hard and chewy that I think I could make crunchy granola out of them. I made the “regular” muffins as well. And then the plan to give each kid 2 mini muffins fell apart. And I was out of butter. Despite 2 store trips, no butter. Did I mention we had a miserable whiny snow  all day? It was messy and wet and I just didn’t want to go out again. My mom rescued us by heading to the grocery store and getting grapes – so each kid will get 9 grapes and 1 mini muffin. Happy half Birthday.

I get 39 rock muffins. And 35 fluffy muffins. I head to school to pick up Henry for his doctor’s appointment. On most pickups, Henry is sitting in the office, dressed in his boots and snowpants and hat and gloves. Waiting. Not today. I am a bit later in the day, there is no parking. I double-park with my flashers. And Henry isn’t there. The office confirms Henry should be there. I head down to his room. I grab all of his stuff and pull him from class.

The doctor’s appointment was fine. We head home. We see Henry and Miranda’s bus. And after we’re home and Bella is watching at the window…the bus with Miranda on it? Doesn’t stop at our house. We wait. It circles the block. Then it stops.

Henry got in trouble for talking 3 times at school today. Miranda couldn’t sleep between staying up later than normal watching American Idol and thinking about her half birthday. Arabella took a later nap and didn’t want to go to sleep. I should be trying to sleep right now. But it just hasn’t been that kind of day.

pumpkin love

21 October 2009

I live entirely too much of my life in pursuit of value and believing that more is better. As my husband (And Mythbusters, I guess) likes to say, anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And that brings me to this:

All our pumpkins

All our pumpkins

Barthel’s Fruit Farm in Mequon, my favorite apple orchard*, sent us a postcard I could not resist. $49 for all of the pumpkins you can fit in your car. $89/minivan and $128/pickup truck.  I wanted at least 10 pumpkins. Rob emptied his Civic. The kids and I took the van. And Rob crammed 60 pumpkins into the car. I am gleeful. The kids are gleeful. It was like if Costco decided to sell pumpkins. As you may guess, we are carving a lot of pumpkins.






and even



All together now:

I carved and carved and carved

I carved and carved and carved

I wish I had some grand plan for the pumpkins, beyond acknowledging that we won;t be able to carve all 60. Maybe 30? I don’t think I have ever had pumpkins this large – they are really hard to get the knife in. The smaller ones are normal. A curiosity.

Like in the field, but cleaner

Like in the field, but cleaner

* According to those new FTC rules, this review was not compensated in any way. Unsolicited. No free lunch and no free pumpkins.

Harry Potter and the Ultrascreen Reserved

16 July 2009
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We went to Harry Potter at the Ultrascreen last night. We reserved our seats a few weeks ago. They were delightful. The entire experience of seeing a sold-out brand-new film was dramatically different. I remember sitting in long hallways for an hour to get jammed into a packed theater for the Phantom Menace. I hated the experience…the film wasn’t as bad as the wait. Rob and I started negotiating how soon we needed to see new blockbusters. I usually lost and we waited and waited. By showtime at 10, Harry Potter was sold out. Reserved seats does make people bold – we got their early enough to get popcorn and beer, but some people didn’t sit down until opening credits.  The people who sat in the unreserved seats down below (the hoi polloi, I say in jest) waited in line. Strained to file in and find seats together, seats far enough away from the giant screen to avoid neck and eye strain. At least that’s what I would have done.  We had debated what row to sit in (3) and which part (dead center) and whether we wanted to share a loveseat or have a little table between us. That debate was made moot by the ticket seller’s stance that she had to sell us a loveseat pair. And then it turned out, we had a table between us. There is something wacky in their software. The table was handy, and then a group of 5 and a group of 3 got to share the row with us.

I’ll wander off-topic to say that I like our trend lately to have the discussion/argument/heated exchange/fight about something far in advance. I would have been unhappy to sit really close to the screen and to wait on the floor for an hour. Rob would have been unhappy to not see the movie until next week or whenever the crowd had faded. So we negotiated/bartered/thought creatively and enjoyed a lovely evening.

The movie? Oh, that was quite fine. Emma Watson is luminous. The supporting cast is amazing. The reviews that call this movie filler, showing sign of “fatigue”, or feeling like a placeholder, well, they’re not wrong. Like catching up with old friends, it is delightful to see Harry, Ron and Hermoine. I remember this book as having a lot of talking and mystery – who was the Half Blood Prince? who? And then the endless debates over how evil Snape really was. And I am not sure the movie captured that sense of mystery. Or why it mattered. I welcomed the romance but I have to say I feel like a Puritan that the amount of snogging in dark corners alarmed me a bit. It was a gorgeous film to watch despite being very very dark. Can’t wait until 7 and 8.

I can wait for my children to grow out of their Harry Potter fixation. Rob read book 1 to Miranda. Then we watched the first movie. And then we watched the second movie because it was going to take so long to read 2 first. We are pausing before they try 3. The children have now seen 1 and 2 at least 3 times for each movie. Miranda absorbed the book and the story and it is delightful to see. Henry has decided to wave a wand everywhere, all day, all the time. They printed the spells off the internet, but he can’t read, so he still ends up saying wingardium leviosa over and over and over. And he talked me into a lightning bolt scar drawn on his forehead. I actually adore Harry Potter but I am so over the wand (a drumstick in our case) in the house.

The Marcus North Shore Ultrascreen

11 May 2009
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We saw Star Trek in the premium reserved seats at the Ultrascreen. Proof of the theory that coupons cost you money – we had Movie Cash for a free ticket (2 if we hadn’t let the first one expire, darn it). Because we had $12 off, it seemed OK to pop for the $16 seats. The experience was sweet and slick. I think I have been to live theatre with fewer ushers.

The premium reserved seats cost the price of the ultrascreen ($10.50, which is $1 over the regular screen price) plus $5.50 at the concession stand. I like eating at the concession stand and I usually buy popcorn and drinks, so this $11 premium was just shifting my spending from the concession stand to the ticket window. Little did we realize that there was an actual bar outside of the premium seats. And that the voucher worked there. So Rob missed out on beer! I missed out on beer! There is gold in them thar hills, friend, and we should collect it.

The premium reserved seats take up the top half of the seating area. Leather seats. Wide. Comfy. I actually had a slight railing obstruction in my view, but the screen/sound/view was  generally fabulous. The ad says tables, but really, all you’re guaranteed is an extra wide cup holder. Every 2 seats or so, they had a table. I was shocked to find the ultrascreen half empty at 10 pm on the opening weekend of Star Trek. We were intrigued by the pizza parlor at the front of the theatre – you could buy pizza and bring it to your reserved seats and enjoy beer during the movie. The two seat groupings have the loveseat option – you can raise the armrest and cuddle. With the extra heavy usher presence, I doubt you’ll do more than hold hands, but maybe not. But if you choose the loveseats, then you share the table, potentially, with the next couple. I think that makes the tables less useful in full theatres, but maybe the world is better at sharing than I perceive.

The seat picking process could be improved. The woman who sold us our seats was friendly and eager, but she found it hard to explain the seating arrangement. I think a nice full color laminated seat map – with the seat groupings and tables marked – would help immensely. There were half a dozen kiosks in the area where you would wait to buy tickets if there were a line. I will try that next time – I hope the interface looks better than the one the ticket seller had. Her screen was cramped and hard to read.

When the next Harry Potter comes out, I want to sit in the assigned premium seats. If that comes out in 2 months, perhaps I better buy them soon? The seats were spacious – you could walk in front of someone without making them move. Score! If the theatre can make the waiting process go smoothly, it will be my best blockbuster movie visit yet.

Star Trek

10 May 2009
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About 16 minutes before the end of the new Star Trek movie, the prequel to the original series, I realized that the writers weren’t going to tie up the interesting space time alteration they created. And if you are a Star Trek fan and you haven’t seen the new movie, I would consider this a SPOILER. But nary a review of this movie has mentioned spoilers at all. So SPOILER: the new movie is not a prequel in any way that I would consider a prequel. I wondered how they could tell a back story about characters we’ve watched, loved, hated, analyzed for 40 years and still tell a story. How it could be new and different and yet still get us to the beginning of the original series?

The answer? They don’t. They are starting over. Instead of the life James Kirk lived that led him to Starfleet, the original series, the Enterprise, the movies…Kirk led a different life. Starting at the moment of his birth, when his father was killed by what turned out to be an Romulan from the future. And so, this prequel is actually an alternate reality. The filmmakers get to tell the story all over.

As for a movie review, the movie was everything the Onion promised, watchable, funny, exciting. My flaw my be literalism, but I spent most of the movie trying to figure out the puzzle of how they get this batch of familiar cadets onto the path that leads to the original series. I wondered how many movies they could squeeze in before they got to William Shatner’s Kirk. I am a little vague on the chronology of Star Trek. I suggested to Rob we  find a Trek fan to help us fill in the gaps. And SPOILER alert, when Spock’s mother doesn’t get beamed off of Vulcan, and then the planet itself gets destroyed, I realized we weren’t in the same playbook. Maybe not even the same universe. I may be a fast and loose Trek fan – no Klingon boggle in my future –  but I always liked Spock’s mother and I knew she had been a presence in Spock’s life.

There was something profound about the idea of constancy of personality and character. Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Chekov, Sulu, Scottie – we know them, love them, care for them. And it doesn’t seem that they’ve had the same life events, but it was them. And while considering the nurture v. nature, genes v. environment debate as generally complex, I am fascinated to see that personality is so resilient in the Star Trek universe.  If Rob were to read this over my shoulder he would point out that Kirk may have essence, but the storytellers were hinting at a whole new Spock. Spock and Uhura kissing was a shift in a new direction. If he was confounded by human behavior in the original, in alternate reality, he is having a much harder time sticking to logical Vulcan.

The skeptic in me says that if we didn’t know and love the logical, cold original Spock, the emotional new Spock would be much less interesting.

I don’t know if the movie reviewers don’t care that this new Star Trek movie is not a prequel but a do-over or if the reviewers don’t know or like Start Trek enough to feel the discontinuity. Up until that last 16 minutes, I still thought they might close the loophole in time and go back to the original timeline. Kirk’s dad wouldn’t die, Vulcan wouldn’t be destroyed, Spock’s mom would live. And that would be OK. It was mind bending to think that the story starts again. I can imagine a new series where they redo the original episodes – can you imagine the Trouble with Tribbles with modern CGI?

So if you like Star Trek, see the movie. We saw it on the UltraScreen. That was pretty cool. (See my next unsolicited review on the ultrascreen). If you aren’t a Star Trek fan, I think the movie will still be entertaining. Go see it. It will its sequels more interesting.