Books: The Fate of Mercy Alban by Wendy Webb

Chalk this one up to being a fairly interesting, if predictable, story but the writing style didn't impress me.

On the day Adele Alban agrees to meet with a reporter, she dies abruptly before the meeting can take place. Her daughter Grace comes home to Alban House for the first time in some 20 years, her own daughter Amity in tow. From there, family secrets begin to unravel.

I have a love of gothic stories and ghost stories, so when I read the description for this book, I was excited to try it. Alas, I didn't find Grace a very engaging main character (excepting the first chapter, the novel is written in first person from Grace's point of view), and there was none of the delicacy of prose I expect with this kind of story. It was all a little bland for my taste.

Added to this was a romance with a local minister—so color me surprised when he was okay sleeping with Grace even though they weren't married? Yes, I know it happens, but to have this character spouting his faith constantly (I really did wonder if the book was being marketed as "inspirational" at some points) and then act against the tenets that faith felt hypocritical.

As for the plot, there were no particularly amazing twists. I had most of it figured out early on. But the base story line was at least interesting. Too bad we were living it through such a dull character.

Oh, and the epilogue was just . . . The book would have been better without it, I think.

There is just something so matter-of-fact about Webb's style that I couldn't really immerse myself in it. And for a book like this, that's what I really want to do.

Ah, well. It's not a terrible book. I just didn't enjoy it as much as I'd hoped to.


Television: Fargo, "The Law of Vacant Places"

We begin with an incident in Berlin, 1988: A man is seemingly wrongly accused of murdering his girlfriend, all based upon his living at a certain address. The man insists he is not the person they say he is, that he is happily married and has no girlfriend, but the cold efficiency of the State is not to be denied. He lives at said address? Then he is this man and he must have killed the girl.

Jump ahead to 2010 and to our more familiar surroundings. Ray Stussy (Ewan McGregor) is a parole officer having an illegal affair with one of his parolees. They also play competitive bridge together. Ray's (twin?) brother Emmit is a successful businessman, and also the inheritor of a valuable postage stamp. Ray is still sore on this subject—he inherited a car, Emmit got the stamp, though now the car is falling apart and Ray insists Emmit used reverse psychology to dupe him. Ray therefore gets the brilliant lightbulb of an idea to send yet another parolee named Maurice (Scott McNairy) to steal the stamp. But Maurice is a pothead, loses the instructions, and robs the wrong house. In fact, he robs the police chief's stepfather's house and kills him in the process.

It can only go downhill from here. Which is pretty much the normal state of things for this show.

Meanwhile, Emmit and his business partner Sy are trying to pay back a loan they took out when beginning their business. Alas, the investor who comes to call—V. M. Varga (David Thewlis)—is not interested in money. He (and whatever larger organization he works for) wants Emmit and Sy to act as some kind of front for something shady. Emmit and Sy are understandably uncomfortable.

Maurice shows up with the wrong stamps and a gun and attempts to blackmail Ray. But Ray's girlfriend and bridge partner drops an air conditioning unit on his head. So. Yeah.

A pro forma start for the series, which isn't a bad thing. This is what they do, and they do it well. We'll see how things develop.

Television: Doctor Who, "The Pilot"

This was actually a pretty good episode. Pardon me for sounding surprised, but good Doctor Who has been few and far between in recent days.

Here we establish a few things: that the Doctor has given up on his wandering ways and settled down to being a university professor; he has Nardole (Matt Lucas) on hand as an assistant; and there is a new companion in town, a young woman named Bill who works in the canteen (cafeteria) serving chips (fries) but sits in on lectures in her spare time. Which is how she comes to the Doctor's attention. He offers to tutor her.

If it's a bit coincident that weird things begin to happen only once Bill begins hanging out with the Doctor, well . . .

In this episode, Bill meets a girl named Heather (Bill is a black lesbian, btw, which makes me wonder whether Moffat was ticking boxes after all the backlash of putting yet another old white guy in charge of the Box—yet there's no denying Pearl Mackie is fabulous and the chemistry between her and Capaldi is spot on for the roles) and of course things go south when Heather shows Bill a weird puddle that distorts people's faces. The puddle eventually absorbs Heather and then chases Bill, Nardole, and the Doctor across time and space, all because whatever is left of Heather remembers Bill and still has a crush on her. When Heather had said she wanted to leave, Bill had jokingly asked, "Can I come with you?" and Heather had said, "Maybe." The invitation still stands as Heather has become the titular pilot for this watery entity.

Yeah, it's a bit hokey. But so is a lot of Doctor Who, and it was still loads better than most recent episodes. And as I mentioned, the introduction of Bill breathes some new life into the series. She's fresh and fun and just a really good foil for Capaldi's Doctor.


Books: The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory

A couple of things might have worked against this book for me. 1. I had just finished Bring Up the Bodies, which is so spectacularly written, this pales in comparison. Actually, it isn't fair to compare the two—though both are historical fiction, they're written for different readers, I think. But proximity bias still colors how I received this book. 2. I'd also read Queen's Gambit not so long before, and I found that one a more interesting take on Katherine/Kateryn Parr. I also liked how Queen's Gambit played out through Parr's marriage to Thomas Seymour and her eventual death, whereas The Taming of the Queen ends with Henry VIII's death.

So. Now that I've given the ending away (for anyone not aware of history), what's this book about? It begins with Henry VIII proposing to Kateryn (as she's called in this version). Kateryn must give up her love of Thomas Seymour and marry Henry, then navigate the pitfalls of a court torn by religious differences and Henry's own mercurial temperament.

Anyone familiar with the story knows some of the plot points—how Kateryn was to be arrested but managed to save herself just in time so that Henry shooed the guards away when they came for her. How Anne Askew was eventually burned at the stake for heresy. The goal, then, for a historical fiction author is to bring these moments to life and pose a reasonable version of the people and events of which we have little to no primary knowledge. Gregory is one of the best-known historical fiction authors, and she does this on a regular basis. The result is consistently good and sometimes great work.

Alas, I wouldn't call this one "great." It does the job, but dragged in the middle quite a bit with Kateryn having this and that preacher come to her presence chamber, and having her go on and on about writing and studying. Sometimes it felt as though Gregory were trying to insert her love of writing into the historical figure of Parr. I mean, I understand the reason for showing Kateryn as intelligent and eager to learn, but . . . It felt repetitive after a while. And so did the damn dream sequence that was repeated over and over until I felt beat over the head with it. As though the book needed padding or something.

Meanwhile, if Gregory needed to make a minimum word count, I might much have rather had her go into Kateryn's eventual marriage to Thomas Seymour and everything that went on there. Hence my preference for Queen's Gambit.

Final criticism: hate the cover. The slightly blurry girl looks like she's 15, not like the 30ish protagonist.

On the plus side, the tension as the net closes around Kateryn and she is nearly arrested is palpable here. That part of the book is done really well.

All in all a solid effort (though I got bored in the middle and began reading other things), but not my favorite in the genre, or even my favorite fictional take on Parr.


Television: Feud: Bette and Joan

How do we feel about this series? I'll say overall I enjoyed it. I think Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange did amazing jobs. In fact, everyone involved did really well. And the broader look at how difficult it was to be a woman—especially an older woman—in Hollywood was equally spot on. And continues to be relevant now.

Of course, I worry that whenever a show like this tries to embed social commentary in the spectacle, that commentary gets lost under the color and noise of the story. It's easy for people who don't want the system to change to ignore what's being said and just stay in the plot. One can discard the additional layers the way one eats just the frosting on a cake and throws away the rest.

But anyway. The arc of this particular season: Joan and Bette are each tapped for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? We see how, for them this is a step down in the world, but they're desperate for whatever roles they can get. These two women, clinging to their heydays . . . And here, too, is where the message about women being disposable in the industry can also be subverted by anyone who would rather things remain the way they are. Because it's just as easy to say, "Those broads shoulda known when to let go and retire gracefully."

Of course, if they'd done that there would be no story.

Feud: Bette and Joan is as much a story of two strong personalities as anything else.

In any case, the arc goes on, through the troubled production—though it felt somewhat tame in this retelling—and the nasty Oscar race that followed (probably the best episodes of the season). And then continued to meander through each actress' career and personal life, though the second half of the season felt a little limp. They almost worked together again, but things got vicious (again), and then they lost touch and each slumped in her own way. It's tough to maintain tension at this point because they didn't work together again or even stay in touch from what we see. We can only marvel at the similarities and wonder at their lack of mutual compassion, even as one character points out to Bette that Joan is probably the only other person in the world who understands how she feels. But instead of commiserating, they bristle at one another. The two cats of Kilkenny come to mind.

Any time you retrace someone's life, you play a game of "if only." The missed opportunities, the what ifs. There's a lot of "it's too bad" in there, too. One can feel sorry for Bette and Joan, and one can also feel frustrated by them, but what's the lesson here? Aside from a sad story of two women struggling against a system stacked against them, that is? What can we take away and use? Because if there's nothing but the tragedy, we're really only voyeurs.


One More Time

Thank you so much for helping Brynnde to win the weekly cover contest! Now she's moved on to the finals for the month of April. So if you voted before, you can now vote again! PLEASE! And then I promise to stop bugging you about it.


Brynnde's next blog stop

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Thank you for all your support!


Movies: La La Land

I wasn't as transported by this film as so many others seem to have been. I'll tell you what I did like:

  1. The music.
  2. Ryan Gosling.
  3. All the bright colors.

Now here's what I didn't like:

  1. The entire first hour, which is the story of Seb and Mia falling in love.
  2. Mia in general.

Fundamentally, I have a problem with movies where the female character is this perfect little ball of cute and sweet and she's struggling in a world of not cute and not sweet. This gives the character nowhere to go. I mean, the character fights for what she wants, but she doesn't actually grow in any way as a person because she's already perfect. And then she ends up having the perfect life: happy family, big career.


Also, why is it okay for a woman to be obnoxious—because somehow that's "cute" and funny—but if a man were to do the same thing, he'd be an asshole?

Why does the woman have to be the one that got away, or the great unattainable object?

Something about this movie—or a lot of little somethings—just doesn't sit right with me, and while I understand I'm probably working too hard here, I walked away with a sense of nagging unease rather than elation or regret or whatever else the filmmaker was going for.

Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, I don't know. I see the merit in this movie, but I feel like I can only see it from a distance; there's too much between me and it for me to embrace it.


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Television: Broadchurch 3.8

And so it ends, again with a lot of misleads, though I had the gist of a lot of it correct. (SPOILERS FOLLOW)

1. I did suspect that the porn videos were playing into the rape, and they were to an extent.
2. I thought more than one person was involved, and that was true.
3. I had Leo pegged as the mastermind, and he was.

It is, of course, a shame that Michael ended up roped in. There is a definite thread of "be careful who your friends are" throughout this series.

I won't spoil the ending (any more than I already have) by going into details. Let's just say it was satisfying enough, and that I'll miss the show. Part of me really wanted Hardy to go to the pub with Miller, but I know that to have it be so would have undermined the character and the relationship between Hardy and Miller that had been so carefully constructed over the three series (seasons). Miller will always be looking for ways into Hardy's life, and he'll always be fending her off.

I don't know that I would say the third series was as compelling as the first or second—though definitely more difficult to watch—but I'm gratified with how story lines were wrapped up as much as they could be and still give the sense that life goes on. I'm not entirely sure why they felt the need to have Paul or Maggie around since they didn't really get much in terms of plot, but I suppose if they'd been absent things would have felt strange. Better to have a little something than a vacuum.

All in all, Broadchurch remains some of the best dramatic television I've seen in recent years, due largely to its fabulous writing and acting, the consistency of the characters while still giving them compelling arcs, and the beauty of the cinematography. Lovely work all around. We need more television like this.


Brynnde Begins Her Blog Tour

And YOU can win a $15 Amazon gift card by following along! Every Monday between now and June 5, Brynnde and I will be making a stop or two. Today you can find an interview on Christine Young's site and a guest post on Long and Short Reviews. I hope you'll swing by and visit!


Television: Broadchurch 3.7

In the penultimate episode, the net begins to close not around Ed but Jim.

But first things first, Mark Latimer is pulled from the water suffering hypothermia. Beth tells him to live in the present instead of the past, and Chloe asks him why they aren't enough for him. Sometimes I do think there's a subtle sexism going on here—that Mark is fixated on the loss of his son in a way he might not have been if it had been his daughter?

Speaking of daughters, Hardy's wants to leave town after being really embarrassed by some digital photos of her that got passed around the school. Miller tells Hardy to tear up her train ticket, and he eventually dresses down the boys who started the whole thing and does as Miller suggested. "I've been too nice," Hardy tells Miller, and her expression at that is priceless. Olivia Colman has the best reactions.

Anyway, they're unable to keep Ed in custody due to lack of hard evidence (though I would have thought a dirty suit with blue twine in the pocket would be enough?), so he's released on bail and told not to contact Trish or her family either directly or indirectly. Ed slouches off home to drink and his daughter comes around to lash him a bit, too. Later, while moving pallets at the store, Ed finds a bag of blue twine, shows it to Harford, who examines it and notes there are blood stains on it.

Ian comes into the station and tells Hardy and Miller that he had put spyware on Trish's computer. They drill him down and he is forced to admit he didn't put the spyware on, but he's not ready to tell who did. They give him until that night to cough up the name, and he does eventually call in and let them know it was Leo.

Leo is oddly contrite during his police interview. After everything we've seen of him, it doesn't feel honest that he would behave in such a way. He admits to doing it, says Ian was a teacher who helped him a lot, finally admits he was at the party for a little bit...

Meanwhile, Cath's spidey sense begins to tingle and she finds a box of condoms in Jim's car, complete with timed and dated receipt. Guess when they were bought? The afternoon of her party, natch.

Jim gets pulled in, and it's confirmed that he towed one of the other victims' cars, and Cath also confirms that she was away the two dates of the other two attacks. Uh-oh, Jim.

BUT. In the midst of all this the cab driver's wife discovers his porn on his computer and then discovers Trish's keychain in a locked drawer in Lucas' workshop. Of course Lucas drives up just in time to see her finding the evidence. Uh-oh indeed.


Television: Broadchurch 3.6

Known as: "The one where Ed gets arrested."

AKA: "The one where Harford gets in big trouble."

So in the previous episode, Ed went and beat Jim up. Turns out this was less about defending Cath as it was about Ed having a crush on Trish. A terrible, awkward, stalkery crush that (we discover) includes taking lots of pictures of her, though at least he only seemed to do that when she was out in public?

No big surprise that Ed is the one who sent Trish the anonymous flowers. Miller finds the exact same kinds of cards in Ed's desk. (I'm not sure if the UK has the same rules as we in the U.S. do in terms of things having to be in plain sight or else you needing a warrant? Maybe it was okay to look in the desk because Ed admitted to beating up Jim? But then the cards were not directly related to the offense Ed was being arrested for . . . It's a little muddy to me.) Anyway, then Miller also notices the blue twine Ed uses on the vegetables in his store. And when they ask Ed to show him what he wore to the party the night Trish was attacked? Yeah, blue twine in the jacket pocket.

Looks bad for Ed. Which probably means he didn't do it, but you never know.

Meanwhile, Harford only now thinks to mention Ed is her father. Way to compromise the case, Little Miss! She's immediately booted from the investigation, of course, but the damage is [potentially] done. If the case were to go to trial, this bit of info would make for a veritable media circus.

Ian steals the laptop and tries to get Leo to clean it for him, but Leo won't touch it because things are getting too hot for his liking. Cath and Jim talk about leaving everything behind and starting fresh elsewhere. Beth has no luck trying to convince Nira—another rape victim who had been attacked some time before all this—to come forward and help the investigation. And Mark, who had tracked down Joe, finally confronts him . . . but can't bring himself to act on his anger. Instead he has Joe tell him everything that happened, and Joe tells Mark there's nothing he [Mark] could have done to stop it. By the time Mark had returned to the car park, Danny was already dead. So . . . Mark calls Chloe and says a kind of goodbye, takes the boat out, and tosses himself into the water.

Only a couple episodes left! (Well, only one if you're up to date; I'm a week behind.) The gyre is narrowing . . .


Four Kinds of Incense

Okay, so I burn incense in my home office while I'm writing. This is a fairly new thing for me. I used to burn scented candles, but the soot was discoloring the ceiling. I tried the little wax thingies but don't enjoy them as much.

I don't know why I want happy smells while I work, but that's beside the point. Now I have both a cone incense burner (it's a cool dragon that blows smoke out of its nostrils) and a fairly standard stick burner. I've been trying lots of different kinds of stick incense, buying groups of them from Amazon, and here's how they shake out—in my opinion and personal experience, anyway.

I have four different brands of stick incense at the moment: HEM, Satya, Aromatika, and Divine.

HEM is the one that comes in the hexagonal box. I generally like it—it burns for a fair amount of time and the scent lasts—but in some scents I've noticed an underlying charcoal or chemical smell. I have yet to figure out what makes the difference, so it feels very hit-or-miss. I can say the Dragon's Blood and Goddess are probably my two favorites in this brand.

I bought a huge variety pack of Satya incense, and I really like this brand, but I've found it the most likely brand to give me a headache. In particular, their Romance and Jasmine scents are really strong to the point of almost overpowering. However, they do great with things like Nag Champa, Sandalwood, and I really like Sunrise, Celestial, Midnight, and others of that ilk. These sticks burn for a moderate amount of time and the scent does linger; if I close my office up for the night, I can still sometimes smell it the next day.

Aromatika sticks don't burn as long as HEM or Satya, but the scent is, for lack of a better way to say it, purer? Less "burny"? Their Frankincense & Myrrh blend is my favorite of theirs, but they make a nice Sandalwood and also a good Patchouli.

Of all four, the Divine sticks burn up the fastest. They are so fragile that even just taking one out of the box can cause it to crumble a bit. These have light scents that feel very natural (though this may be because I have only the floral scents). I like all their scents—no headaches here— and do particularly enjoy their Rose and Lavender sticks. However, as I mentioned, these burn fast and the scent does not linger.

Do you burn incense? If so, what kind(s)? Anything I should especially try?


Books: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

This is the second in Mantel's historical fiction series about Thomas Cromwell. The first was Wolf Hall, which I resisted for some time before finding it at Half-Price Books and deciding what the hell. Two long flights from coast to coast gave me ample time to sink into that story, and once I had waded past the first few pages, I found myself fully immersed.

The same holds true of this book, which is also much shorter than the first. If you consider that Wolf Hall begins with Cromwell in his youth and his climb through the service of Cardinal Wolsey to the ascension of Anne Boleyn as Henry VIII's second wife, it makes sense. That's a lot of ground to cover. Bring Up the Bodies takes the story from Henry's waning interest in Anne and growing interest in Jane Seymour through the former's execution and the latter's marriage to Henry. All from Cromwell's point of view as he works to keep the king happy—and if the king's wishes are in some accord with Cromwell's desire for revenge against those who brought Wolsey down, that is just an added bonus, yes?

Again, I struggled with the first few pages, even though I'd loved Wolf Hall in the end and was sure this book would be just as good. I don't know why I have such a hard time getting into them, but if you're like me, do try to stick it out for a bit. Don't give up too soon.

Mantel's characterization of Cromwell is very rich; he feels real here, almost everyone does. I did find it distracting that, because of the point of view from which the book is written, Mantel was forced to often use 'him, Cromwell' and 'he, Cromwell' in order to make clear from whence the action or words issue. There is no way around it that I can see short of changing the POV, and that would be a crime. Still, it was something very obvious, something I noticed every single time it occurred.

If you know your history—or are inclined toward Wikipedia, I suppose—you can see where this is all leading. I know my fair share of Henry and his wives, but I'll admit my knowledge of Cromwell is limited. I'm avoiding the Wiki entry now because I'd rather read Mantel's books and be surprised, at least by the details. (I do have a sense of what eventually happens.) No spoilers, please! Yet even if you do know the details, these books have plenty to offer. If you love rich historical fiction with depth of character, these books are for you.

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Television: Elementary, "Dead Man's Tale"

It's about pirates. Kind of.

It's about a pirate known as Black Peter who left a book that showed where treasure and/or a wreck was, I think? I dunno for sure because I lost interest pretty quickly. Anyway, it was clear the minute the murderer appeared on screen that he was the one, so I mostly waited for them to come around to the same conclusion.

I guess what happened was, a guy found the Black Peter book and tried to find someone to go with him to the wreckage and salvage the treasure, but then someone else killed the guy because he wanted the treasure to not be there because there was some investment scheme. Wait . . . Then why not just let the guy with the book go get the treasure anyway? Oh, wait, because there was a thing about a professor who wanted all that stuff to go to a museum . . . I dunno. It wasn't all that interesting.

Oh, but then the Shinwell stuff. Groan. Holmes confronts him about having murdered his friend/fellow gang member, and of course Watson is all of two minds about the whole thing, and then the episode ends with Shinwell attacking and threatening Holmes, telling him not to get in his way while he takes the gang down.

Okay. There is a kernel of something good in here that has been wildly mis-sown. The idea of Holmes training someone only to have them flip and become evil? That's fantastic. Love that. But Shinwell is not a compelling character, not as a good guy and not any more so as a bad one. What a missed opportunity.

Six more episodes, I believe? Elementary was not on CBS' early list of renewals, though it has not been officially cancelled either. It, along with a handful of others, hangs in the balance.


Movies: Doctor Strange

Never send a Brit to do an American's job.

I guess they figured since it worked (kind of) with Christian Bale? But at least Batman had a reason to disguise his voice; his hoarseness had purpose. Here it just sounds perpetually like Strange needs to cough something up.

Other problems included the weak attempts at defining character (that music thing, I guess?), the unconvincing arc of Strange's asshole-to-hero story, and Cumberbatch's utter inability to sell a joke. Which became a joke in and of itself, but hanging a lampshade on it does not excuse it.

The plot, meanwhile, had all the usual earmarks. A "regular guy" (by which we mean, of course, a rich jerk, in this case a neurosurgeon) goes through a terrible ordeal (car crash caused by his own assholery) and in the course of recovering discovers amazing abilities that allow him to transform into a superhero. His mentor (the much decried Tilda Swinton) turns out to have a fatal flaw and of course dies and leaves the hero to take on the heavy burden of continuing the goal/quest/whatever.

Oh, and the goal/quest/whatever in this case is to fight someone the mentor trained who then defected, and beyond that to fight the "dark side" or something, and then to continue the job of defending against that dark magic or . . . something . . . that we're never really made to care very much about.

They also shoehorned a romantic subplot into all this that was pointless and held no chemistry.

I suspect what they might ultimately have been going for was: "What if Sherlock—arrogant know-it-all that he is—gotten taken down a few notches and then became magical?" Why else get Cumberbatch, whose high note as an actor is: insufferable? Seriously, half the time Strange simply comes off as a facet of Sherlock anyway.

Also, Cape of Levitation? Really? No, I get that a lot of this comes from the comics, but when the CGI cape is funnier than you are, there are problems.

And just because you learned some magic, you did not suddenly learn martial arts. Those aren't the same thing. That's a different skill set.

There are some nice visual effects here, but they can't make up for the blandness of every other part of this movie. So. Pedantic. So. Rote. Just no charm to it at all.

Television: Broadchurch 3.4 & 3.5

I have the definite feeling that what we're dealing with is an underground porn ring where they attack women and film the attack. Like, the light that Trish saw? Camera light from someone filming?

Just a theory.

But I'm pretty sure the boys watching porn and the computer stuff (remote viewing spyware so Ian can watch Trish is my guess) is all related to the attack(s). I use the plural because two more potential victims turn up in the course of these episodes, one from as long ago as two years before. She never reported it because she assumed that, because she was done up for a night at the pub, she'd be considered as "asking for it." Or earn a reputation as a slut.

Look, this is a difficult season to watch. Painful even. But it's doing a very nice job of delicately prying apart the layers of rape culture. I commend it for that. (Still, if it were any other show but Broadchurch, I probably wouldn't be able to stomach it.)

Meanwhile, Mark has gone off to find Joe after getting info on his whereabouts from a private investigator. We find out the man Trish slept with the morning of Cath's party was Cath's husband Jim—no relationship ties, just both feeling sex starved. Still, after the police get to the truth of it, Trish feels like she must tell Cath before Cath finds out some other way, and that goes about as well as can be expected. Ed weighs in, too, by beating Jim up.

Still can't entirely figure Ed out. At first I thought maybe he was sweet on Trish, but then he also seems protective of Cath? Or did he beat Jim up because Jim slept with Trish, not because Jim betrayed Cath? SMH. Who knows!

We're halfway through—more than halfway—so things should begin to tighten. Dare I say the net, the rope? I still feel like Leo is the lynchpin in all this . . .