Foreign Adventures at Home

If your summer vacation was relaxing, but didn’t let you see the world in a big way, we have some Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime suggestions to fill the gap.

The Time In Between

NY Times Watching
We had a lot of fun watching this soapy Spanish show. The star, Adriana Ugarte, does a great job with this historical drama. She moves from a childhood spent in a working class neighborhood where she trains as a seamstress, to a pre-WWII Morocco, back to Madrid (as a spy for the Allies) running a clothing salon for society wives, and then on to Portugal. The clothes are amazing, the people are gorgeous, the Nazis are plentiful and easy to hate, so you’ll forgive a few silly plot devices. Episode one, being a lot less glamorous, makes the series effectively blow up into color as it takes off with Sira as a young woman on the move.

Nobel

This Norwegian political thriller seems to fly under the radar, perhaps because it was just one season, so more of a mini-series than a TV show. We couldn’t find a standalone review to give as a backup link! All the more reason to watch it. It’s set in the current day with the protagonist a soldier, recently returned from Afghanistan, who is married to a fast-rising government political player as the machinations of selecting a Nobel Peace Prize winner are kicking into gear. The show seems to really understand foreign policy and not to shy away from the tricky trade-offs that have to be made in any kind of government.

Bron/Broen (The Bridge)

IndieWire
This mismatched detective TV show has been remade in several languages, but this is definitely the most gorgeous murder location ever. The characters are terrific, with well-fleshed out back stories, and it’s got a good twist with the female detective somewhere on the spectrum, while the male is married with several children. We liked it so much, we’ve knocked out two versions in full already. There’s a murder on the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, exactly on the midline, so it’s tough to know which police force should investigate. We’re not going to spoil how they decide, but invite you to watch the show. The British/French is the same story for Season One only, then it goes a different direction. We found it amusing how good the serial killers were each season, not just at killing in service to a larger social agenda, but in the British/French version how really good they were at making short little horror animations as clues. To be clear, we’re not seeking any felons out as a new client base, but there’s clearly a market.

Call My Agent!

The New Yorker
If you enjoyed Entourage, Barry, or 30 Rock, you’ll enjoy France’s Call My Agent! Set in a Parisian talent agency with all the background character drama, you get to see behind the scenes of the running of the agency with a much less yelling than in Entourage and problems that seem very much the stereotypical French dilemmas (as Entourage was so clearly an LA show). As you would expect the people are stylish, whether young and casual or wealthy society, and the sets are all gorgeous–movie star houses or locations. We suspect if you actually had a strong knowledge of French actors, there are a lot more inside meta jokes that largely passed over our head. Even so, it’s impossible to miss Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche, clearly playing some funny variation on themselves. Each episode has a one-word, first name title so the named client is the focus of the self-contained episode, while the cast of regulars fail to work out their problems over all the seasons available so far. One of those shows that could be good not to binge and keep on the back burner for when you have less than an hour and need a laugh. As a side American recommendation, if you like this, you might check also out Party Down in which actors working a catering business host a different party each episode.

Hard Sun

The Guardian
While Hard Sun has some flaws, what SciFi work doesn’t? We didn’t want to leave the genre unrepresented and we were hooked, binge watching it all in two nights. Hard Sun shows its solid detective credentials, coming from the creator of Luthor, and it’s just hard to nail down an alternate world that makes everyone happy. While the inspiration is said to be a David Bowie song, detectives racing to solve a crime before the world ends has to owe a debt to Ben Winter’s excellent The Last Policeman trilogy, which has long been rumored to be in pre-production as an American TV show. Netflix doesn’t have any credible entries in apocalyptic TV, nor do they need to get it right with their lock on the Marvel TV properties, leaving the field open for Hulu and Showtime. Both networks do a good job, but just don’t make the volume of shows, so if you like this kind of stuff, Hard Sun is worth watching. And if you think times are dark now  as we live through the hottest year on record, hey, this might just cheer you up with the idea that things could be a lot worse.

Shetland

The Guardian
Another crime series, our one gripe is that it requires a significant suspension of disbelief—how many murders can you have on one tiny little Scottish island? (Shades of Agatha Christie and those little English villages.) The scenery is unbelievably beautiful, the accents seem to be pretty authentic–every once in a while we’d have to back up and put on the English subtitles, but if you binge watch, you get the hang of it. DI Jimmy Perez seems to be the best TV boss around–the right mix of caring, unselfish, and yet distracted by his own life just enough to be human.

Things we’re just going to assume you’ve already seen because they are so universally acclaimed:

  • Broadchurch
  • Money Heist (La Casa de Papel)
  • The Honorable Woman
  • Occupied
  • Catastrophe
  • Borgen

Summer 2018 Beach Reads

We read a lot for fun, for work, and just to get some different perspectives. As much as we love to read on airplanes and in hotels, it’s pretty great to stretch out and read at the beach. Summer opens up some time for recreational reading for all of us, so we thought we’d provide some suggestions.  While we note a few of these books are already in development for TV or feature films, almost all of them seem likely to end up there eventually.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

NY Times review
Hogarth has been publishing a few Shakespeare plays retold by contemporary authors each year, and Nesbo’s is the latest. The whole series is great, but if you want to give your beach noir reading a sheen of respectability, this is the thriller to make you look smart while you relax. While set in the 1970s, the theme of addiction to drugs and power feels incredibly relevant today.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

NPR review
Okay, it’s 600+ pages, but it may be one of the fastest reads on this list, so we’re saying it’s a beach read. With John Irving missing in action for the moment, Nathan Hill’s book reads like a variation of The World According to Garp. The shared premise: People are all a little nuts, time just makes us more so, and inevitably over a lifetime we’re on a collision course with our past that’s going to be ridiculous and heartwarming all at the same time.

The Dry by Jane Harper

NY Times review
This debut mystery, set in a drought-ridden Australian farming town, makes clear the environment can be scarier than a murderer on the loose and you definitely can’t go home again. The detective has a secret past, which required he leave town as a teenager. Now he’s back for his murdered best friend’s funeral. This one is pretty dark, but set in a sun-seared landscape, so it seems just right for a beach read. Californians will find the drought state itself pretty terrifying. Ms. Harper’s second novel, Force of Nature, features the same detective, in a different, but equally hostile physical environment, wrestling with some other people’s difficult pasts, and is also excellent. The Guardian review.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

NY Times review
This book is funny and light with an undercurrent of meaning, a completely enjoyable comedic beach read, and yet, when queried, you can give it the gloss of respectability by noting Mr. Greer just won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for the novel. An author’s midlife crisis runs from country to country, on a shoestring budget, it’s a book about running away from your problems, which seems like perfect vacation fodder. Of course it doesn’t really work, so you won’t feel bad not being on permanent vacation yourself.

American War by Omar El Akkad

Washington Post review
Set in a dystopian future America this is a story about a country fundamentally changed by an unwillingness to compromise, where a new set of irreconcilable differences have required a second civil war. What’s terrifying is how easily you can imagine the split occurring in the next 20 years and there’s no other special sci-fi suspended judgement jump required to get to this book’s view of 2075. If you love The Hunger Games, it’s an easy win, but if you run from anything dystopian, you are missing some of the most interesting social commentary being written right now. The author is a journalist who spent time in Afghanistan and currently covers the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, so he’s able to create very believable scenarios.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

The Guardian review
A definite must-read for fans of Agatha Christie. Horowitz, who also writes extensively for BBC mystery shows like Foyle’s War, recreates a Christie mystery within another modern-day mystery. It’s perfectly pulled off, and both stories are fully enjoyable for mystery fans. (If you’ve got video-gaming boys in the house, who need a push to read a book this summer, tip them off that Horowitz’s Alex Rider books were a big hit 10 years ago with current Houston Outlaw Jake Lyon. (There’s a piece of Overwatch League trivia you can’t get anywhere else.)

I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

The Guardian review
We had to have a little true crime in any list of beach reads, so we went with this fascinating story about the search for the Golden State Killer and also about the writer obsessed with the story. The book was ultimately finished from the writer’s notes after her death, and that’s an interesting story in and of itself. HBO has optioned the story for a documentary series, so this is one that you’ll be hearing more about for some time to come. This story continues to unfold in the press with the DNA testing that helped discover the killer hitting not only the life science breakthroughs of the last decade but the data privacy issues we’re all newly wrestling with this year.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

NPR review
We felt we needed at least one book of short stories and luckily Ms. Sittenfeld’s first collection, after several novels (Prep, American Wife, Eligible, etc.), was released in late April. We are otherwise a little California-heavy, so it was ideal to pick up a smart Midwestern sensibility here, too. If there’s no way the Eve Babitz collection about 1970s LA is to your taste (see below), this book might be the perfect counterweight. And if you like the stories, you can delve into her novels and cover the whole summer quite enjoyably. (Eligible is a delightful retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a modern Bachelor-type reality TV show, while American Wife is a fascinating imagined life of someone much like former First Lady Laura Bush, if you need a paperback entry point to a great writer.)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

NPR review
If you were ever a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the idea of bringing together a set of mismatched, but unconnected, set of literary characters as in Showtime’s recent Penny Dreadful series, you’ll enjoy this book. Not billed as first in a series, it’s still hard to imagine it isn’t. Actually, it’s hard to imagine HBO or Netflix won’t scoop up the rights and make a TV series. The monstrous daughters of a variety of England’s nineteenth century fictional mad scientists find each other and set off on a mission. Ms. Goss teaches at Boston University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on 19th century Gothic literature, and as you might imagine with those credentials, she pulls this off flawlessly.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

NY Times review
If you’re under 30, you’re not going to believe that kids used be this unsupervised all summer long. You’re also not going to believe that before parents spent their time helicoptering into kids’ lives, they lived their own lives without regard for the trail of damage they were leaving in their wake. If you’re over 30, you don’t have to get over the shock factor and can just enjoy a hell of a good story. It’s also not too late to go back and read Ms. Patchett’s breakthrough success, Bel Canto. Ms. Patchett is also a bookseller (Parnassus Books in Nashville), and gave a great talk about trends in books at UCSD last year, which will give you some more recommendations.

Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

The Paris Review review
Ms. Babitz wrote about 1970s Hollywood and had slipped largely out of print until a few years ago, when a couple of the books were re-issued as forgotten classics. She writes strikingly funny lines about deeply observed people, more current memoir than actual fiction, and a deep love of the people, time and place comes through it all. We’re not the only fans, film producer Amy Pascal, producer of The Post, has picked up four of her Hollywood books for production as a Hulu dramedy series (L.A. Woman), so you might want to get cracking on one of the books now.

You Say to Brick by Wendy Lesser

Washington Post review
In this case, a movie was already made about the life of architect Louis Kahn. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Kahn’s personal life makes for scandalous reading but there’s no denying the cultural contributions made by his work all over the world. Among other buildings, his work includes our neighbor on the Torrey Pines Mesa, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. We thought that San Diego link too good to ignore, and the book is fascinating.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

NPR review
This book, the first in a series, imagines Sherlock Holmes as a brilliantly observant  young woman trapped by the social mores of Victorian England. Ms. Thomas intricately plotted out how to cover every character in Sherlock’s world around this premise, and it’s very well done. Just when you start to wonder how she’ll handle a loved character, they appear, with a rational reason why they would buy into this deception, and without asking that they are all secret feminists with ideas a hundred years ahead of their time. A classic beach read, you’ll want to read it in a day or two, and probably have the second one, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, on hand. Ms. Thomas is a former romance novelist, so if that doesn’t give her beach read credibility, nothing does. However, if that résumé scares you off, then you probably won’t have enough respect for Charlotte Holmes to enjoy the books either.

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

NY Times review
Ms. Klein is a former Inside Amy Schumer writer. She’s also married and a mother, so the terrain here is a little different than Ms. Schumer’s focus on single life, but it’s equally irreverent and very funny. If you’ve ever been a nursing mom back at work, her essay on trying to pump after a win at The Emmys, dressed accordingly, will make you laugh out loud in commiseration. You’ll be profoundly thankful your job doesn’t require evening attire at 2 a.m. while you’re still out on maternity leave.