Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Changeling Sea

If you loved the movie, "The Secret of Roan Inish" as much as I did, you will love this wonderful tale of sea and magic, "The Changeling Sea" by my favorite fantasy author, Patricia McKillip. It's a kind of fable that starts with the scullery girl, Periwinkle, who gets mad at the sea for taking her father and putting her mother into a deep depression.
She hexes the sea, and in so doing, finds herself embroiled in a quest to get the kings changeling son back to the sea and his mer-mother. Along the way, the reader also encounters a sorcerer named Lyo, a sea-dragon with a golden chain and many greedy fisher-folk.
As usual, McKillip's prose is gold, full of lush descriptions and fanciful side trips to metaphor. I'd read this particular book years ago, but couldn't resist a new edition with better cover art. It's a slender volume, but one that is well worth the few hours of bliss spent reading it. By the end I had a hankering for seafood and felt that I could almost hear the waves crashing on the shore.
I'm reading Rhianna, by Michele Hauf now, and as I've not read any of her work before, I can't render an opinion on the quality yet until I've finished it.
Happy New Year to all my fellow Bibliophiles, and may 2007 bring us all towering TBR stacks and lots of great reading until all hours of the night!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Good Historical and Science Fiction Romance

I've just read two outstanding romance novels, and if you know me, you know that I'm not the usual romance reader or fan. I tend to read Science Fiction and Fantasy, Literature and Classics with some Modern Fiction thrown in for balance of the mental palate. I've not been a fan of the "throbbing manliness" school of bodice-ripping romance since I was about 12 years old. Even then, I always read Science Fiction in addition to romance, because most romances written in the 1970s were weak and formulaic tripe.
But a friend of mine, Renee Stern, happened to acquire a copy of Linnea Sinclairs "Finders Keepers" several years ago, and she passed it on to me, knowing that I enjoy Science Fiction with strong female characters and adventure. I read it, enjoyed it, and was surprised and pleased when Renee got me a copy of "Gabriels Ghost" by Sinclair this year. I devoured it, and found the characters to be engaging, fascinating and well-wrought. So I bought myself a copy of "An Accidental Goddess" with my Barnes and Noble gift card (my birthday and Christmas are close enough together that people tend to combine them and give me gift cards for both...which is perfectly fine by me. I love shopping for books!) and discovered that Sinclair just keeps getting better and better with each new novel. Her Science Fiction/Romance hybrids are a real treat to read, with just the right amount of futuristic aliens and technology to keep the geek in me happy, and just the right amount of interesting, fun characters and fast-moving plots with juicy male-female relationships to keep me turning pages long into the night.
I went to Sinclairs web site and found, to my joy, that she has a new book coming out in February that I will hasten to acquire from I also wrote to the author, and, kind Libran that she is, she wrote back to me and was quite charming to chat with about being a reporter and about her latest books. I found that one of her earlier works, "Wintertide", is only available online used, at a very dear cost. I am hoping that I will run across a copy when I scour the used bookstores in the spring.
The second good romance author I've discovered is Lynn Kurland, a local (Seattle) gal who writes historical romances. Like Sinclair, Kurland has a knack for storytelling and for well-formed characters who seem real, they're so accurately drawn. I found "This is All I Ask" on the Library Guild book sale cart at the local library, and it seemed interesting enough to warrant a 50 cent price tag. I enjoyed it so much that I bought "From This Moment On" and "The Very Thought of You" and enjoyed them tremendously. I happened to find a copy of "Love Came Just in Time" at a garage sale, and I snapped it up. It contains 4 short stories by Kurland that take place in Scotland. The first story was the best, and a real joy to read, as it entailed some Science Fiction in a time warp that catches a nearly suicidal woman off guard and hurls her into the 13th century, where she meets and falls in love with a poor but hunky Laird. Granted, this isn't the kind of stuff that wins huge literary awards or becomes a classic, but it is great fun and the kind of escapist literature that makes for good distraction when you are waiting in the doctors office for a colonoscopy, for example. Kurland has a sense of humor, too, so she doesn't take her characters or their situations too seriously, which is wonderful. Her prose is fluid and gets down to business without a lot of metaphorical side trips. And her characters are never the perfect model-types you see in so many romances. They have problems, flaws and all too real trouble connecting to others.
So I highly recommend both Linnea Sinclairs SF/Romances and Lynn Kurlands historical kiss-fests. You won't be subjected to bizarre descriptions of pulsating body parts or perfect hair and teeth, I guarentee.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Three December Reads

I've read three great books since the beginning of my natal month (I was born Dec 12, on our Lady of Guadalupe's feast day) and one book that I have already reviewed on my Crohns blog at
I'll start with the last first.
I just finished Jancee Dunn's brilliant "But Enough About Me..." cannily subtitled "A Jersey Girl's Unlikely Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous." I read on Salon that Jennifer Weiner, she of the fabulous "Good in Bed" and other works of chick lit, recommended this book as one of her two best books of 2006. It is everything Jennifer Weiner said it would be: A book that is by turns hilarious, sweet, riveting, compassionate, appalling and sad. You are left with a smile and an honest account of the life of a young journalist in the entertainment industry, which can be a bizarre and nightmarish place, but which also holds great treasures. I could empathize with Dunn every step of the way, as I had to interview celebrities at one time in my life, and I know how wierd that can be. Dunn gives some great advice on what to do and what not to do for such interviews, and the advice, though put forth in a funny manner, is sound and true.
I would recommend this book to anyone who has dreamed of a glamorous life writing about celebrities in the music and movie biz. I would also recommend it to star-struck folks who idolize some actor or music group, because once you get behind the scenes in this book, the reality of these people is revealed and the glitter wears off quickly. My only problem with the book, and its a small one, is that Dunn was a bit too flip at times, too glib with serious subjects like drug addiction and alcoholism. The fact that she managed to survive snorting a lot of cocaine doesn't mean that some other idiot who tries blow in that quantity won't have a heart attack and die on the spot.
My dear husband bought me a copy of Sharon Lee and Steve Millers "Crystal Dragon" which is the second in the duology about the beginnings of the planet Liad and its founders, Cantra, Jela, Tor An and the Tree. It was the perfect birthday present, and I read half the book on the 12th and the other half on the 13th. Though I read Crystal Soldier about two years ago, I don't recall it being as full of technical jargon and pages full of high-end mathematical theorums as this book was. I find math and all its theories boring, and was saddened that there were pages of this kind of discussion in Crystal Dragon. I have always felt that Lee and Millers beautifully-wrought three dimensional characters were their strong suit. The interaction of the characters, the relationships that develop and the culture of Liadens and the people of their galaxy are what make their books stand out and sing. Therefore I wanted to read more about Cantra, Jela, Tor An and the support characters, and was frustrated by the frequent side trips into math-and-theories land. But other than that one complaint, I really enjoyed the book, and was fascinated by the creation of Liad, and by meeting the worlds namesake. I was upset when Jela died, but thrilled to learn that Cantra carried his child. And the ending, as with all Lee and Miller books, was satisfying and solid. Lee and Miller have another Liaden book coming out called "Fledgling" next year, but its only available online, and donations are required. I am hoping that I can get in a small donation soon and secure myself a place in the online que to read the first pages of the e-book.
The book I read at the beginning of the month was called "Gabriels Ghost" by Linnea Sinclair. I've read her other book, Finders Keepers, and I recall enjoying it tremendously. Sinclair writes nice science fiction-romance hybrids that are fascinating to read and always have richly-drawn characters who feel real to the reader. Gabriel Ross Sullivan and Chasidah Bergren don't meet under the most auspicious circumstances. Chas has been court-martialed and sent to a deadly prison planet, where she's rescued from some horrible super-soldier-creature by Sullivan, who makes her an offer she can't refuse to work with him off planet. They form an odd alliance that turns to passion and a kind of mind-melded marriage. Oddly enough, Sinclair doesn't go for the easy "happily ever after" ending, wherein Sully and Chas find out who is creating the bad soldiers and then proceed to kill them all off for the sake of humanity. We are left with the duo going out into space together to try and track down the evil-doers and kill off the bad guys, but they'd only managed to scratch the surface of the conspiracy at books end. That's why I assume that this is only the first book of a series about these characters. I would recommend this book to those who like a juicy romance mingled with their spaceships and ray guns.
I also read "The Good Fairies of New York" by Martin Millar, and reviewed it on my Crohns Blog, but I won't repeat the review here except to say that it was a very cynical and bizarre work with one character, Kerry, who made the book worth reading, as she struggles with Crohn's disease.
I'm currently trying to read "The Amulet of Sammarkand" by Jonathan Stroud, the first of the Bartimaeus series, which is for young adults. I'm also just starting a book for January's book group called "The Madonnas of Leningrad" by Debra Dean.
Merry Christmas to all and happy reading this holiday season!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Full of Grace and Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons

I just finished reading Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, by Lorna Landvik, and Full of Grace, by Dorothea Benton Frank, and it struck me how similar these two authors are. Both write novels about Baby Boomer-aged women who generally had one or two abusive parents, and who break away from their bad circumstances, bad husbands or bad families, and grow immesurably in a better environment, usually with the aid of good female friends, a great kid or a great guy. So far, I've read Landviks "Patty Janes House of Curl" and "Tall Pine Polka" in addition to Angry Housewives, and I am currently reading one of her recent efforts, "Oh My Stars," which has started out with the typical abused teenager striking out on her own to get away from a horrible home environment and an evil drunken father. Most of Landviks books take place in the northern Midwest, in Minnesota or Wisconsin, though she often introduces a character who is a native of the South. Landviks ability to create quirky characters is wonderful, though she tends to stereotype them a bit. (ie the "skinny rabble-rouser," and the "voluptuous sex pot"). But, with shows like "Desperate Housewives" soaring in popularity, I don't think that will keep Landvik from gathering more devotees to her soap-opera-esque works. I find them comforting to read, and there are times when, as a reader, I don't want to read something deep and challenging, just something character-driven and with a plot chunky enough to keep me going. The same can be said for Ms Benton Franks works, in that they are comforting, interesting and fun. Benton Franks characters are mainly from the South, however, with the occaisional foray into the murky waters of the East Coast. Franks works are similar to Landviks in that the main character always starts the book in a less-than-healthy situation and proceeds to move to North or South Carolina and get a better life, and usually a better man. Franks women are fiesty but feminine in the way that only a real Southern belle can be. Full of Grace was no exception in that the main character was fiesty and funny, but this time, the protagonist Grace was a New Jersey Italian American princess, complete with a father named Big Al who acted like everyones stereotype of a "goodfella" mobster, and a wimpy, gutless mother named Connie who was everyones servant and general whipping boy. The fact that the protagonist is supposed to be an inspirational and beloved character in Franks books made it all the harder for me to overlook the problems I had with Grace as the main character. She was spoiled, selfish, rude, whiny and became a puddle looking for a shoulder to cry on every time something bad happened to her. She just couldn't deal, which seemed uncharacteristic of a supposedly tough Joisey princess who runs expensive tours all over the world. Not until we are 2/3 of the way through the book does she finally attempt to help her poor overworked mother and rescue her from slavery. She doesn't even try to tell her father to quit being an abusive jerk. Apparently, because her mother had an affair early in their marriage, that's supposed to mean that she has to spend the rest of her life being treated like a dog by her husband and mother in law. Again, we are supposed to be somehow charmed by this nasty, rude and cruel mother in law, Graces grandmother, when in reality, anyone with an ounce of compassion for Connie would want to see "Nonna" chucked out an airlock or tossed from a 5th story window. Mean people suck, but not to Frank. She lauds them in this particular book. I did like the story line, and the plot was nicely paced. I found the ending to be a bit too much "Touched By An Angel," and too easy, but no one could accuse Frank of leaving her readers hanging or outraging them with a crappy ending. The same could be said of Landvik. She always leaves her readers satisfied that all is well with her characters. Oddly enough, Landviks characters in "Angry Housewives" live on Freesia Court, which sounds an awful lot like the "Desperate Housewives" Wisteria Lane. Perhaps the shows writers are fans of Landviks works. At any rate, I will continue to enjoy the works of both authors, and will also try to continue to develop friendships and a life that is as fulfilled and rich as these characters' always end up being.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

RIP, William Styron, a Great Writer

William Styron died today, and the world of literature is a lesser place without him. I read three of his books, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophies Choice, and though they weren't what you'd call easy reading, they were all brilliant works full of gorgeous prose and riveting, unforgettable characters. I hope they have a desk saved for Mr Styron in writers heaven, God bless him. Here;'s his obituary from the NY Times:
November 2, 2006
William Styron, Novelist, Dies at 81
William Styron, the novelist from the American South whose explorations of difficult historical and moral questions earned him a place among the leading literary figures of the post-World War II generation, died yesterday on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he had a home. He was 81.
The cause was pneumonia, coming after many years of illness, his daughter Alexandra Styron said.
Mr. Styron’s early work, including “Lie Down in Darkness,” won him wide recognition as a distinctive voice of the South and an heir to William Faulkner. In subsequent fiction, like “The Confessions of Nat Turner” and “Sophie’s Choice,” he transcended his own immediate world and moved across historical and cultural lines.
Critics and readers alike ranked him among the best of the generation that succeeded Hemingway and Faulkner. His peers included James Jones, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer.
“I think for years to come his work will be seen for its unique power,” Mr. Mailer said of Mr. Styron in a telephone interview a few years ago. “No other American writer of my generation has had so omnipresent and exquisite a sense of the elegiac.”
For Mr. Styron, success came early. He was 26 when “Lie Down in Darkness,” his first novel, was published in 1951. It was a brooding, lyrical meditation on a young Southern girl’s suicide, as viewed during her funeral by members of her family and their friends. In the narrative, language plays as important a role as characterization, and the debt to Faulkner in general and “The Sound and the Fury” in particular was obvious. A majority of reviewers praised the novel for its power and melodiousness — although a few complained of its morbidity and its characters’ lack of moral stature — and the book established Mr. Styron as a writer to be watched.
Although elated by the response, Mr. Styron balked at being pigeonholed as an heir to Faulkner. “I don’t consider myself in the Southern school, whatever that is,” he told The Paris Review in the spring of 1953, during one of the earliest of that magazine’s celebrated Writers at Work interviews. “Only certain things in the book are particularly Southern.” The girl, Peyton, for instance, “didn’t have to come from Virginia,” he said. “She would have wound up jumping from a window no matter where she came from.”
Besides, he could have added, he had been reared in Newport News, Va., a city of the New South, whose leading industry was the shipyard where Mr. Styron’s father worked. And it was an area that Mr. Styron wanted to escape, with a rich history that he wanted to explore from afar.
To the North and Europe
So after moving North and writing “Lie Down in Darkness” in, and just outside, New York City, he traveled to Paris in 1952 and wrote a novella based on his experiences in the Marines. Published in 1953 in the first issue of the journal Discovery under the title “Long March,” it appeared as a Vintage paperback in 1955 as “The Long March.”
After a year in Italy, in 1954 he moved to Roxbury, Conn., and set about completing his second novel, “Set This House on Fire.” A technical advance over “Lie Down in Darkness,” this novel was richer in its storytelling and, full of the latest in Continental existentialism, distinctly not Southern.
It sold well. But still it remained a somewhat melodramatic portrait of a group of Americans in Italy, and while it was admired in France, it got largely negative reviews in the United States.
In 1960, Mr. Styron returned home in his imagination by undertaking a project he had contemplated since his youth: a fictional account of an actual violent rebellion led by the slave Nat Turner that occurred in 1831 not too far from where Mr. Styron grew up.
The timing of the book was superb, appearing in 1967 on the crest of the civil rights movement. Mr. Styron prepared for it by immersing himself in the literature of slavery.
The reaction to “The Confessions of Nat Turner” was at first enthusiastic. Reviewers were sympathetic to Mr. Styron’s right to inhabit his subject’s mind, to speak in a version of Nat Turner’s voice and to weave a fiction around the few facts known about the uprising. George Steiner, in The New Yorker, called the book “a fiction of complex relationship, of the relationship between a present-day white man of deep Southern roots and the Negro in today’s whirlwind.”
The book sold well all over the world. It won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 1970 William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But as the social turmoil of 1968 mounted, a negative reaction set in. Influential black readers in particular began to question the novel’s merits, and Hollywood, reacting to the furor, decided against making a movie version. In August, some of the angrier criticisms were published in “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond,” a book edited by the African history scholar John Henrik Clarke.
Mr. Styron was accused of having misunderstood black language, religion and psychology, and of having produced a “whitened appropriation of our history.” In the furious debate that followed, several admirers of “Nat Turner” recanted, and the question was raised whether white people could even understand black history — a position that to some seemed racist in itself.
Embittered, Mr. Styron withdrew from the debate and gradually moved on to his next project, “Sophie’s Choice,” a novel about a fictional Polish Catholic woman, Sophie Zawistowska, who struggles to survive the aftermath of her wartime internment in Auschwitz.
Thorough Research
Once again Mr. Styron read extensively, beginning with Olga Lengyel’s memoir of her family’s internment in Auschwitz, “Five Chimneys,” which had haunted him for decades. Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem” suggested the central plot development. After reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the actual commandant of Auschwitz, Mr. Styron made him a character in the novel.
Working slowly and deliberately, Mr. Styron evolved a complex narrative voice in the novel, more Southern and garrulous than any he had used before. The voice ranged so widely that Mr. Styron was able all at once to answer the critics of “Nat Turner” and to document his extensive reading of Holocaust literature while distancing himself ironically from a youthful, somewhat callow version of himself in the book, a central character who somehow mixes up his revelation of Sophie’s tragedy with the comic rite of his own sexual initiation.
Once again, Mr. Styron achieved commercial success and won prizes. “Sophie’s Choice” rose to the top of The New York Times best-seller list, won the 1980 American Book Award for fiction and was made into a successful movie, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, and an opera by the English composer Nicholas Maw. And once again, a Styron project aroused controversy.
The initial reviews were mixed. Some critics seemed to find the complexity of the narrative troubling. But in time, critics focused on two particular objections. One was that the Holocaust so surpassed moral comprehension that it could not be written about at all; the only appropriate response was silence. The other was that even though non-Jews had also been victims of the death camps, for Mr. Styron to write about one of them, a Polish Catholic, was to diminish the true horror of the event, whose primary purpose, these critics pointed out, was the destruction of European Jewry.
Mr. Styron stood his ground. To the criticism that the Holocaust was beyond art, he told an interviewer that however evil the Nazis were, they were neither demons nor extraterrestrials but ordinary men who committed monumental acts of barbarism. To the comment that he was wrong to write about a non-Jew, his response, in an Op-Ed essay in The Times, was that the Holocaust had transcended anti-Semitism, that “its ultimate depravity lay in the fact that it was anti-human,” he wrote. “Anti-life.”
William Clark Styron Jr. was born on June 11, 1925, in Newport News, the only child of William Clark Styron, a shipyard engineer with roots so deep in the Old South that his mother had owned two slaves as a child, and Pauline Margaret Abraham Styron, whose ancestors were Pennsylvanians.
Mr. Styron’s childhood was close to idyllic. Doted on by his family, an early reader fascinated with words, he made friends easily and happily explored the waterfront and environs of Newport News. In 1940, his father sent him off to Christchurch, a small Episcopal preparatory school in West Point, Va., for his last two years before college. He graduated in 1942.
World War II shaped his college career. Enrolling in the Marines’ reserve officer training program, he started at Davidson College, a conservative Christian school. But unhappy with the school’s strict religious and academic standards, he was transferred to Duke University by the Marines in June 1943.
Active duty followed in October 1944, and after nearly a year of hard training, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in late July 1945 and assigned to participate in the invasion of Japan. A month later, the atomic bomb attacks forced Japan’s surrender, and he was discharged in December, relieved yet frustrated by his lack of combat experience.
He returned to Duke in the fall, where he renewed his friendship with Prof. William Blackburn, who had become his writing mentor. Graduating in the spring of 1947, he came away disdaining academic criticism and determined to be a novelist.
He moved to New York City. “I just found intellectual life here more congenial,” he told an interviewer years later. After completing “Lie Down in Darkness,” he put in a second, three-month stint, in the Marines in the summer of 1951. When the novel won the Prix de Rome, which entailed a year’s expenses-paid residence at the American Academy in Rome, to begin in October 1952, he spent the preceding summer in Paris.
This interlude involved him in the founding of The Paris Review; made him lifelong friends among the expatriate literary set there, among them Peter Matthiessen, George Plimpton and Irwin Shaw; and gave him the time to write “The Long March.” The year in Italy provided him with the material for “Set This House on Fire,” and it was in Rome that he became reacquainted with Rose Burgunder, at the American Academy, after having been introduced to her the previous fall in Baltimore, her hometown.
They were married in Rome in May 1953. She survives him. Besides Alexandra Styron of Brooklyn, Mr. Styron is also survived by two other daughters, Susanna Styron of Nyack, N.Y., and Paola Styron of Sherman, Conn.; a son, Thomas, of New Haven; and eight grandchildren.
When the Styrons settled in their Connecticut farmhouse and began a family, his life became the ideal of any aspiring writer: productive yet relaxed, sociable yet protected. On the door frame outside his workroom, he tacked a piece of cardboard with a quotation from Flaubert written on it: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
An Unusual Regimen
The precept seemed to work for him, but it was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.
With Rose to guard the door, run the household, organize their busy social life and look after the children, Mr. Styron followed this routine over the next 30 years. He turned out his novels slowly, yet he found time not only for occasional short stories, novellas, a movie script and a play about his wartime scare with venereal disease, but also for essays, reviews and occasional pieces, the best of which he collected in “This Quiet Dust and Other Writings” (1982).
His life seemed to expand outside the door of his workroom as well. In 1966 he bought a house on harborfront property on Martha’s Vineyard, where the family regularly vacationed and where he began to live from May through October. His circle of friends grew over the years to include Lillian Hellman, Art Buchwald, Philip Roth, James Jones, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, Candice Bergen, Carly Simon, John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mike Wallace and even Norman Mailer, with whom he had feuded fiercely early in their acquaintanceship.
He traveled abroad frequently, especially to France, where he continued to be admired.
Yet if the aura of his life was golden, it was also bordered with dark shadows. At only 13, he suffered the trauma of his mother’s death, which, perhaps because of the time and place he lived in, he was never allowed to mourn properly. A predisposition to depression was evident in his family’s emotional history. For whatever reasons, suicide is a recurrent theme in his fiction. By his own admission, he drank heavily partly to ward off ghosts.
In the summer of 1985, when he turned 60, he suddenly found that alcohol no longer agreed with him. But giving it up brought on mood disorders for which he had to be medicated. These drugs in turn produced destructive side effects, and he was dragged into a deep, prolonged suicidal depression that did not lift until he was hospitalized from December through early February 1986.
He recovered and wrote a harrowing account of his experience, which began as a lecture and became the best-selling book “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (1990). Three years later he collected three stories previously published in Esquire magazine in a volume titled “A Tidewater Morning: Three Tales From Youth” (1993). Each treats the confrontation of mortality, and the title story deals with the death of his mother.
Depression continued to stalk him, and he was hospitalized several more times. In “Darkness Visible,” he concluded, referring to Dante: “For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upward and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as ‘the shining world.’ There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.”

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Three Movies, Three Different Responses

Armed with a "BOGO" coupon, yesterday I rented three movies that I've been wanting to view for awhile, and haven't had the time to see until now. "Mr and Mrs Smith" the action/spy/romance movie, starring Brad Pitt and the lush Angelina Jolie, "A Good Woman" starring Scarlett Johansson (a favorite of my husbands) and Helen Hunt, and "Capote" starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I watched "Mr and Mrs Smith" first, and was stunned by the car chases, harrowing escapes, gunfire and special effects. Not a movie for the faint of heart. Yet with his hair shaved and his age beginning to show, I thought Brad Pitt was always a breath behind the lithe and svelte Jolie. He's still got those sweet baby blue eyes, and can make with the innocent "don't you just want to mother me and take me to bed" stare at the drop of a machine gun cartridge, but I still found myself thinking that Jolie could do better with someone a touch more emotionally mature. Though I find tatoos disgusting and in poor taste, I still think Jolie makes one hot leading lady, and she's a decent actress to boot. The whole plot of two spies sharing a lie of a marriage, and going to counseling, was funny for about 15 minutes, and then it palled by the end of the movie. Note to film makers: Too much snark is a bad thing. The next movie was "Capote," which, if you've ever read "In Cold Blood" will devastate you, and I was not disappointed. Phillip Hoffman had the Capote lisp and drawl down to a science, and he even managed to appear as small as Capote, and as brilliant and petulant. "In Cold Blood" was the first book of Capotes that I read, and it seared me to the soul.It is, without a doubt, a masterwork of American fiction. It did, as the editor in the movie says, "change the way American fiction is written." And I had no idea that Capote was good friends with the marvelous Harper Lee, author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," another masterwork of fiction. I was also unaware that neither author would ever finish another novel, and that Capote spent so much time with the prisoners that he fell in love with one of them, and that he watched the murderer hang for his crime. Amazing, horrifying and yet, fascinating at the same time. I am not surprised that Hoffman won an academy award for this role. He deserved it. The last movie was a new take on an old Oscar Wilde story, "A Good Woman." I was sobbing so much at the end of Capote that I had hopes that this movie would be uplifting to my dark mood. Unfortunately, a lot of talented actors are wasted on what appears to be a very thin script. You do get to see the gorgeous Amalfi Coast in Italy, and some luscious fashions and villas, but other than that, it's not a movie I'd recommend.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The South Rises Again With Sookie Stackhouse

Just in time for the Halloween season, a series of supernatural mysteries was recommended to me by my friend, Renee Stern.
"Dead Until Dark," "Living Dead in Dallas," "Club Dead," "Dead to the World," and "Definetly Dead" are all marvelous reads, and I highly recommend them.
Sookie Stackhouse is a barmaid and waitress in Bon Temps, Louisiana, and following the days that vampires come "out of the coffin" and prove they are real, Sookie, who is a reluctant telepath, falls for Bill Compton, a vampire made during the Civil War whom she can't "hear" with her gift. Hijinks follow, and, though she's a pretty young blonde, Sookie shows us that her spine is steel and her brain works just fine, thanks. She holds her own against the evil vampires, were-creatures of all stripe and ruthless shape-shifters, and she does it with aplomb. There's a great deal of humor, tenderness and plain old common sense in these novels, though they're placed in an exotic mileau. Harris' prose is smooth and soothingly Southern, but her characters are full-bodied and fascinating, and her plots move faster than a vampire before dawn. The romantic element is done appropriately, and I was fascinated to learn that though vampires have no heartbeat, the other parts of their anatomy seem to have all the requisite blood flow. I highly recommend the series to all who find the supernatural and the South fascinating. You're guarenteed a good read that will refresh all those who've gotten bored with the same old blood-drenched, brooding vampire novels.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Angel With Attitude by Michelle Rowen

"Angel with Attitude" is a funny, fluffy read that is just absorbing enough for a good time. It's what some might call a good "beach" read, but I prefer to think of such light and easy fare as "mental vacation" reading. To be honest, I don't think anyone can read the hard stuff all the time. The last book I read was very serious and intense, so I felt the need to kick back and relax with something none too taxing. The Angel with 'tude in this book is a wise-cracking blonde named Valerie Grace, who gets thrown out of heaven for the sin of pride in her work. She meets a "hottie" demon from Hell, sent to tempt her into giving up her soul, and after some shenanigans involving a key to the backdoor of heaven, falls in love with said demon. Inbetween, we meet a rat of a boyfriend and his witch girlfriend, a 'gay' demon who writes romance novels, and Lucifer himself, who turns out to be an okay guy, somehow. I enjoyed the funky characters, the bizarre and silly take on heaven and hell, and the zippy plot that was like a cheetah on stopped for nothing, and parts went by so fast it was a blur. There's the requisite happy ending, the hot sex, and the 'maturing' of the main character that is found in most decent romance novels. I am not a huge fan of romance, but I do like fantasy novels, and this particular novel fit the bill for off-beat fantasy that provides some prime escapism without the intense prose or convoluted plots and sub plots. I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys modern romance fiction with a slight twist.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Raising Readers: Happy Kids, Peaceful Parents by Dr Shannon Knepper-Maveety

I was drawn to this POD guide to raising readers because my son is in first grade now, and is experiencing difficulty in the fluency of his reading. As a helpful guide for parents, I felt the book got a solid B plus, but not an outstanding A, mainly because the author spends too much time with anecdotes and admonishing parents to teach their children, and keep them from watching TV, and less time on actual strategies for making your child a reader than I would have liked. Still, there is good information here, and help with common sense items like reading books to your child before bedtime and other ideas. I found myself wondering, though, if Dr Shannon was one of those women who, like militant breast-feeders, believes that there is only one right way to do things, and that any other way leads directly to the handbasket of hell. She has a long-winded chapter on the horrors of allowing children to watch TV, any TV, and admonishes parents that they, too, will become mindless idiots if they have the temerity to watch the "boob tube" themselves after their children have been sent to bed. Tsk, tsk, BAD PARENT! I happen to have watched more than my share of cartoons as a child, and stupid TV shows like Gilligans Island and the redoubtable Star Trek, and I was reading by age 4, and have been a lifelong-reader and college graduate. My mind did not become mush, nor does it turn to mush because I happen to be a fan of the marvelous TV series "House" and "Gilmore Girls." I still read constantly and enjoy books tremendously. A friend of mine, Syne Mitchell, who is a genius and had many degrees by the time she was 15, also watched cartoons and reruns of Gilligans Island as a child, and she didn't turn out mush-minded at all, and in fact is a successful mother, wife, Microsoft employee and author of stellar science fiction books. I just think that the panic-inducing screech I hear from teachers or self-help authors about the evils of TV is overblown and ridiculous. There is no conclusive proof that TV turns anyones mind to mush, children or adults. Excessive TV watching is like anything in excess, of course, but I don't believe that most parents allow their kids to watch 6 hours of TV a day. I certainly don't, nor do I know any parents who do. Nick watches some TV, but gets bored with it easily, and usually will play with Legos, complete some lovely origami or come to me with a book in hand to read at least once a day. I have been reading to Nick since I brought him home from the hospital at the end of January, 2000. The first book I read to him was "Goodnight Moon," by Margaret Wise Brown, a classic. It is still one of his all-time favorites. But I don't know that my reading to him consistently for the past 7 years has really turned him into a reader, as Dr Shannon seems convinced it will. He loves being read to, of course, but still struggles with reading books himself. I believe that there are people who are wired to be readers, and people who are more tactile, or kinesthetic learners who like to create with their hands. Nick likes to build things--he's always been that way. I was always more language oriented, the kind of person who loved words. And preschool isn't always as good a thing as Dr Shannon suggests in her book. My younger brother was the only kid in our family to go to preschool, and he hated learning, and was a very poor student throughout his life. My elder brother and I didn't go to preschool, and he was a brilliant student who got straight As, while I was a very solid B student through high school and most of college. I think kids burn out if they are in school before they can walk. I also think that not all parents are good teachers. There are people who are born to the profession, like my father, who have the patience and excel at helping young people get an education. I am not one of those people. I don't have the patience, nor the talent to be a teacher. And I rather resent the implication by Dr Shannon and others that I should be a teacher, and that if I am not up for being a tutor my son will suffer greatly for it in school. That's hogwash. I can help him with his homework, and he and I can work on his reading together, but I am not homeschooling my child in addition to his going to public school--I can't imagine him thriving under that kind of stress and pressure to perform. Kids need time to relax and play, and they need guidance and help from their parents, certainly, but they shouldn't be constantly bombarded with lessons all day and all night, without respite. That is why I don't understand the subtitle of this book "Happy Kids, Peaceful Parents." There is little peace for parents in this book. They must be constantly on their children to learn, learn, learn, read, read, read, and they must never allow that child time to watch TV, play or do anything fun. Their young minds might become, gasp, mush! Despite its slightly fanatical tone, I still recommend this book, if for no other reason than to enjoy the great book lists and the wonderful quotes about reading and libraries.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Night Swimming by Robin Schwarz

I picked up "Night Swimming" at my son's elementary school book fair, mostly out of self defense. My son had managed, like a lot of kids in that small room stacked to the rafters with books, to grab a whole pile of books he wanted to read and to have read to him, and most of them were, regretably, SpongeBob Squarepants stories. Spongebob is an innocuous, silly cartoon character who also happens to be very naive and stupid. I find that in watching the show, I get bored rather quickly, and the books are similar, in that I can only read one or two before wanting to feed them to a paper shredder out of irritation. So I happened to see that Scholastic had this mass market paperback, Night Swimming, for sale, along with some titles by well-known authors, and I grabbed it, thinking it couldn't be too bad if it was published by the same pub house that produced Harry Potter novels for the US market. I have to admit that I was also attracted by the theme of a larger woman breaking out of her routine to create a new life, as that's something that is on my mind a great deal lately. I was surprised and dismayed to discover that the novel wasn't empowering in its view of larger people, but denigrating, in somewhat the same way Wally Lamb treated fat as some kind of hideous disease in "Shes Come Undone," one of the novels high on my Most Despicable list. Schwarz creates an interesting, if naive and stupid character in Charlotte, a woman who weighs over 250, and is therefore described as being disgusting and grotesque, and only fit to wear mumuus and tent dresses. As if there isn't any fashionable clothing over size 8. Ha. That may have been true when I was a teenager, but it certainly isn't true today. Charlotte is told that she has a year to live, and in response, she quits her dull job at the bank and later robs the place of 2 million, and sets out to find love and happiness in Hollywood. She stops at several memorable places along the way, and has predictable encounters with "Deliverance" type of Southerners and an old wise granny (cliches! Arg!) and meets up with a rich Jewish woman (another cliche!) in Hollywood who, of course, takes her under her wing and teaches her how to give to poor sick children and learn to love someone without stalking them. Inevitably, Charlotte, who changes her name to Blossom, falls for a handsome lawyer turned pool boy (and that happens so often, of course...ha) and ends up throwing all her money away in Las Vegas out of sheer ignorance and there really anyone who doesn't know that the odds are always with the house in Las Vegas? Is there anyone who doesn't know that the city is nicknamed "lost wages" for a reason? Sometimes, ignorance can be charming, as it was with Bridget Jones, the first chick lit heroine. Schwarz didn't really manage to make Charlotte/Blossom that charming, as she was always spouting cliches and always doing ridiculous romance-novel-heroine things to gain the love of her pool boy. The trial at the end of the book is laughably unrealistic, as Charlotte is exonerated of all charges and allowed to go free and marry the shallow pool boy, who wants to become an architect. Oh PULLLLEASE! No one just gets off scott free after robbing a bank! Doesn't happen! The cover blurbs said this book would make me want to cheer. It made me want to contact the author and tell her to take some classes and learn to write fiction that isn't cliche ridden and create characters that aren't perfect stereotypes and one-dimensional. It's obvious that she is a new author, too, in the way her prose goes from decent to awkward and embarrassing, almost formulaic. I felt as if the author had purchased a book on writing chick lit and followed the instructions to the letter, thereby satisfying the form, but not the spirit of the genre. It is clear that Schwarz has talent, but not enough skill to pull off a great work. This is an average book, an okay read and a nice little distraction full of the cliches and shortcuts we've all come to expect from modern novels. However, I think Schwarz is capable of something much more original, fun and juicy. All she needs is a bit more work honing her writing, and a good editor to ride herd on her penchant for cliches (and typos...come on Scholastic, there is no excuse for publishing a book with 5 blatant typos!) I would recommend, too, that Schwarz spend time talking to larger women who have been that way most of their lives, and learn that you can be a larger person and still get a man, a good job, have a family and lead a decent life. You don't have to lose weight to be attractive, intelligent or valuable as a human being. Free your mind, Ms Schwarz, and the rest will follow, as the song says.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen

Rise and Shine is a brilliant and often discomfeting look at the life of a television morning show celebrity and her twin sister, who works in the Bronx as a social worker. I've read Quindlans work before, mainly in big newspapers and magazines, and I've admired her no-nonsense take on almost every aspect of American society. She's a journalist in the old fashioned sense of the word, a real news hound with a "dame" perspective. I can only relate to her as a lowly community journalist relates to someone like Ted Turner or William Randolf Hearst. Quindlan, like Susan Orlean, can create long-form journalism pieces that are so acute and fascinating that they yearn to become non fiction books. I've not read her fiction mainly because I'd heard bad things about Black and Blue. I shouldn't have listened to those whispers of warning, because this book was very well written, paced beautifully and full of unforgettable characters. The sisters, Meghan and Bridget, are somewhat hard to empathize with, because both live in such rarified worlds, as twins and as professionals. Yet I found it hard not to want to comfort them when they were sad, or call them on the phone when in crisis, as if they were real people. Writers who draw such vivid characters are rare, and rarer still is the author who can sustain a sense of reality throughout a book filled with things that don't happen to "regular" people, for the most part. The story is told through the eyes of Bridget, the submissive, almost masochistic sister, while we hear of all manner of trauma and tragedy in the life of Meghan, the dominant, wealthy and very selfish twin. You find yourself not liking her decision to drop out of sight, but you admire her guts in taking a stand anyway. From what I know about the world of television (from the time my husband worked at a local TV station), Quindlans account of the backstabbing and ridiculous machinations of the suits in the offices is right on. I'd imagine she has had similar experiences in TV, or dealt with someone who has, and knows of what she speaks. Other than an ending that is saved from being happily ever after by a crippling accident and a cop who refuses to get married to his pregnant girlfriend, this book is nearly perfect, as modern novels go. I recommend it for all those who wonder what life as a celebrity is really like.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Night and other tragic tales

First, a quote from one of my favorite authors:

"You've got to love libraries. You've got to love books. You've got to love poetry. You've got to love everything about literature. Then, you can pick the one thing you love most and write about it."
~ Ray Bradbury

So true! I love libraries, and always have. Maple Valley has a great library, and I joined their library guild to try and help the place stay great.
Our next book club selection is "Night" by Elie Wiesel, which I read in high school, 30 years ago. I thought it was the book about the holocaust that I really loved and felt had an important message, but it turns out that it was Victor Frankels "Mans Search for Meaning" that was the book I remember enjoying, because it was so uplifting. "Night, on the other hand, is a searing, horrifying account of Weisels time in the Nazi death camps during WWII. We are not spared any of the ugliness, any of the pain that Weisel experienced, from being dragged from their homes in Transylvania/Hungary and transported in cattle cars on a train to Auschwitz. One hears about mans inhumanity to man, but here is proof positive of the depths to which men will sink, morally and physically, to harm one another for no better reason than one madmans idea of making a perfect world.
If you are a student of history, you know that the Jewish people have been persecuted for centuries. Every time some plague or political problem sprouted up, the Jews were blamed (even if it had nothing to do with them) and inevitably there was a pogrom and entire villages of Jewish people were wiped out. The knowledge that Hitler came close to wiping out all the Jews in Europe and surrounding countries makes me ill. That level of cruelty and depravity is just mind-numbing, disgusting and horrifying. All because there was a belief by some that the Jewish religion was offensive, and created a people who were lesser human beings. By making the Jewish people seem too different, fascists encouraged peoples fears, and this allowed them to somehow justify killing millions of men, women and children. What a tragedy. There is no apology appropriate enough, or any restitution that gives enough value to recompense the Jewish people for the holocaust. At any rate, I found "Night" to be a painful, but necessary read, and I hope that I can find a copy of "Mans Search for Meaning" and re-read that as well, as I read both of these books together 30 years ago, and they made an impression on me then, just as they will make a different impression now. I found evil astonishing and repulsive back when I was 16, and I still find it so today. Now I just have more of a context for it because I have a family, and I can imagine the pain of losing family members to Nazi butchery.
I have an ARC of "This Is Not Chick Lit," (edited by Elizabeth Merrick) which is a great compendium of short stories by women authors that I am starting today, and a book by Anna Quindlan that I am going to read. I hope to be able to post about them within the next week.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Spouse Survival by Ray Weinrub

Ray Weinrub's "Spouse Survival" handbook is the first POD book that I've read in a long time that actually lives up to its subtitle, "What to do before or after a death occurs; personal and financial organization." Between the covers of this slender volume lies an incredible wealth of information about handling a spouses demise, and the financial/legal aftermath. There are chapters on everything from estate planning to medicare/social security and even funeral arrangements and obituaries. There is space within the book to take notes and fill in the blanks on your financial information, such as your home expenses and monthly cash flow. The book is written in very plain English, with easy to understand explanations of complex subjects such as social security disability. The chapters are laid out in a logical manner, with important notes in boldface type. Weinrub is even smart enough to know that he can't cover every contingency in one book, so he often refers the reader to a professional attorney or other individual who can help the reader. I found the information on probate court after reading the will particularly enligthtening, as this is an area that has been thorny in my family for decades. I believe this is a resource book that should be owned by everyone over the age of 18, because you never know when a family member is going to pass on, and leave relatives with lots of questions and concerns. It's like having a sturdy umbrella; you may not need it everyday, but when you do need it, having it is a godsend.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Sick Mick Whines Again

Poor Sick Mick, she must be fatigued from jumping to conclusions in a sad rant that she tried to post to my blog review of her book. Here's what she had to say (I'm posting it instead of allowing it as a comment, as I wanted to respond.) "My book was specifically written for people who can relate to the hardship of falling ill, falling from grace and struggling to survive. There are many of us and we are an invisible subset of society. Hopefully you will be blessed and illness and hardship will never find you. As I so clearly state within the book ... and as you so clearly demonstrate in your "review" ... people who have their health "just don't get it." You should probably consider who the intended audience is before assuming you are qualified to write a review with understanding and intelligence. I suggest you continue reviewing fiction; you seem to like it and the real world isn't nearly as pretty." I must reply to this because Micki Suzanne's rant doesn't take into account the fact that I DO have a very complete understanding of falling ill and struggling to survive. I have had Crohns Disease for the past 7 years, and have had to deal with the pain of the disease, trying to work at a newspaper when you are in pain and have to be in the bathroom for long periods of time, having to raise a child and keep a household running when you have pain, etc. Prior to being diagnosed with Crohns Disease, I had severe asthma and allergies from age 5 on, in a state where I was allergic to everything growing there. I was told, when I was 12, that I probably wouldn't live to adulthood. Yet I continued to go to school, work hard, read continually and build a life for myself. I didn't fall into the trap of self-pity. I didn't have the luxury of having parents with money, or husbands with money, I've worked my way through college and graduate school, and I worked all through my pregnancy. Six weeks after delivery of a premature baby, I was back at work, and struggling with Crohns Disease, though I was misdiagnosed and didn't know it. So I am more than qualified to write a review of Sick Micks book, unless she is only marketing it to those who have Lyme Disease. My review made many important points on the validity of the book, which is neither fully a memoir or a guidebook, just a badly rendered hodgepodge of the two. If you want to explain your life and your trials and tribulations in a memoir, then do so, but don't try to tag an incomplete guidebook onto it. Or better yet, just write a guidebook, which is useful for others to read. And as a person who has made her living writing non fiction, I know what the world is like, Ms Suzanne. I would hazard that I've seen more horrors and more nobility working as a nurse in the projects of Boston, working with hospice patients and working with disabled children than you have in your lifetime. I've also published at least a thousand articles in the past 20 years, and I've won 12 awards for my work. I've reviewed both fiction and non fiction on my blog because I read a great deal of both, and because, as a former editor, I know good writing when I read it. I asked Angela and Richard Hoy before I began writing reviews for the POD books they sent to me if they wanted real reviews, or if they were looking for someone who would just say nice things about the books, regardless of the quality. They told me that they were looking for honest reviews, both good and bad. I've done that, honestly reviewed your book. It looks to me like Sick Mick is the one who just doesn't get it.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Sick Mick's Guide to Selling Antiques and Collectibles

Sick Mick's Guide to Selling Antiques and Collectibles by Micki Suzanne suffers from an identity crisis. Is it really a guidebook for "creating a store on Ebay; moneymaking ideas for hoaders with energy issues" as Suzanne says on the cover, or is it just an excuse for Suzanne to complain bitterly about her illness, Lyme Disease? If it is supposed to actually be a helpful "how-to" guidebook, then the reader must skip the first 58 pages, in which Suzanne not only chronicles her disease process, in detail and ad nauseum, but she actually adds the case histories of several friends from an online support group (from message boards like Yahoo Groups) so we have to read about their ailments as well. I imagine most of us have been cornered at the family reunion by some dreaded relative who spends hours boring everyone with their symptoms and aches and pains, but at least we can get up and walk away, eventually, or have someone rescue us from the family bore. There simply is no way to avoid Suzanne's penchant for whining and grousing and bemoaning her fate in this book, however, which makes its value as a "how-to" guide go right into the toilet. Suzanne peppers us with a variety of language that also belongs in the toilet, as she somehow concludes that being "real" means being crude and swearing like a sailor, or having photos of herself "flipping the bird." All it really does is make Suzanne look ignorant, or too lazy to pick up the dictionary to look up a better word. One of the first things journalists learn is the "Who, What,When, Where, Why and How" questions to answer in writing an article. Chip Scanlan of the famed Poynter Institute (which owns the St Petersburg Times) made a point of telling journalists at the National Writers Workshop that, "The most important question to ask yourself about the article is WHY DO I CARE? If you're writing an article and you can't figure out who cares about this issue, then you have to stop writing and go back to the begining." Until Suzanne starts telling the reader about collecting items for sale, where to sell them, etc, she has not answered that important question. Most people who read guidebooks don't want to read about the authors ailments or altered life, no matter how tragic. They're looking for guidance and expertise in selling antiques, not a bitter diatribe against former employers and social security disability. Then, in the midst of advising on selling antiques, the reader is shocked yet again by a totally unnecessary chapter on "Gimmicks and Icebreakers" that's really just an excuse for the author to put in a photo of her little lap dog, Bodhi, and rhapsodize about how "cute" she is. Phrases like "OMIGOD! HOW CUTE IS SHE!!?!" abound. If Suzanne wanted to make the point that having a shop dog or cat can help break the ice with customers and increase sales, she could have done it in two sentences or less. This kind of chapter marks her as an amateur, and looks completely ridiculous to the reader. There is a great deal of redundant information on buying and selling on Ebay, without specific instructions for the newcomer. There is also some awful, biased and ridiculous information on garage sales, in which Suzanne claims that all children attending sales have "boogery hands" (nice made-up word there) and that all parents are shop-lifting rubes who make "insulting" offers on her junk. I'm a veteran of garage sales, and my son never lays a hand on anything he shouldn't, and his hands are not "boogery," nor do my husband and I steal from those having a sale. Bargaining for a lower price is part of the fun of garage sales, and most people who attend garage sales do so because they can't afford to shop for items in a retail environment. Poverty doesn't equal theft, however, but it does make one thrifty, and garage sales are one of the few places left where people can get necessary items like clothing and household goods at a fraction of the usual price. The final problem with this book is that Suzanne doesn't define her terms, though that's the first thing you should read in a guidebook. What defines an antique? How old does it have to be? What defines a collectible? She also neglects to mention that Ebay is not always a good source for pricing, as Ebay is comprised of so many millions of sellers, that it is inevitable that many of them have no clue how much any given item is worth. Most Ebay sellers do not do research at a library to find the value of what they are selling, they just want to get rid of something and make a profit. Other than a dire need for an editor and a good rewrite, this book does have some good advice on starting a business and keeping it running on limited energy. You just have to plow through a lot of whining to get to it.

Jep's Place, a Memoir by Joseph Parzych

Jep's Place is subtitled "Hope, Faith and Other Disasters" and should have been subtitled "A Memoir of Horrible Child Abuse." Joe Parzych grew up during the depression and WWII in dire povertry in Gill, Mass, among 14 brothers and sisters (some step siblings). His parents, Polish immigrants, were harsh and uncaring people, particularly his father, who beat his children mercilessly, often with a leather stropping belt with a buckle. This vile man also refused to take his children to see the doctor when they were ill, and would spend food money on alcohol.He killed and butchered animals in front of his children, picking on Joe in particular, because Joe had a soft spot for animals and would name them and make pets of them. Verbal abuse was also common with both Joes parents, and Joes mother does nothing to stop her husband from harming her children, making her, at best, a coward. One of the main problems with this book is that it is redundant. Joe treats the reader to repeated tellings of his beatings with the leather strop, and every taunt or harmful thing done to him by his family or school mates is chronicled here. While I understand the authors need to write about his awful childhood, I resent having to read the same anecdotes over and over again. I also found 10 obvious typos on my first read-through, which leads me to believe the copy editor that Joe thanks in the "Author's Note" doesn't deserve the recognition. Other than that, I found the "slice of life" descriptions of conditions and wages, costs and cheaters during the depression fascinating. When he wasn't whining or wimpering about not being loved, being beaten, or his sibling's dire plights, Joe has an interesting view of life in an era that seems like ancient history to many of us. And the fact that Joe survived near starvation, hypothermia, severe physical and emotional abuse to enter the Army and have a family of his own makes reading the book all the more miraculous. Many victims of abuse prefer to wallow in bitterness and continue the cycle of abuse by harming their own children. The reader has to assume that Joe did not, in fact, abuse his children, because Joe ends the book with a quick summation of his life after entering the Army, his education, career and his marriage to Edna Carleton, with whom he had four children.He doesn't mention if he was able to parent better than his own father and mother, nor does he explain fully what happened to the 12 siblings who all died, other than one tantalizing mention of his sister Emaline being murdered. I found it amusing that Joe didn't understand his mother's joy at menopause, when she could no longer get pregnant. Yet previously in the book, he discusses her lack of caring, compassion and her lament at having so little money and too many mouths to feed. I am surprised Joe doesn't understand why such a woman, who probably would never have had children at all had she known she would be widowed and then forced to marrry a brute like Pa, would not want to have more children to worry about, to try and struggle to feed, and to clothe,house and care for. One child is difficult, I find, let alone over a dozen. And pregnancy is hard on most women, so I completely understood Joes mother's joy. I would only recommend this book to those who find memoirs of surviving abuse uplifting. I found the book to be a bit too detailed (beatings, blood, gore, etc) and depressing.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Good Southern Writing

Good day, ya'all!
I have to say that I am a fan of good Southern writers, like Carson McCullers ("The Heart is a Lonely Hunter") and Harper Lee ( "To Kill A Mockingbird"), and Wm Faulkner ("The Unvanquished"). I've even enjoyed a tale or two by Pat Conroy, though I am somewhat loath to admit it.
But I have to say that Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees" took me completely by surprise, as I'd not thought of Kidd as a Southern writer, really. I read "Mermaid Chair" and enjoyed it, but thought of it as literary fiction married to chick lit.
Though "Secret Life of Bees" starts slowly and is difficult to read (mainly because I find it hard to read about child abuse and racism), I found myself pressing on, wanting to know more about Lily and being surprised by my joy each time she did something right, though she was frightened and young. The book takes place during the summer of 1964, which was a time of great racial unrest, a time when America was struggling with itself socially. Once Lily encounters the bee-keeping calendar sisters and begins growing and learning through their wise mentorship, the story begins to soar, and ther reader falls in love with the sisters and their awesome Black Madonna. This book moved me in exactly the same way that I was moved after reading "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter." Really fine coming-of-age stories resonate with older readers because they are timeless and completely honest in their emotional mileau. Lily's struggle and ultimate triumph will resonate with me for the rest of my life. What a brilliant author Kidd is, to slowly mesmerize the reader and weave her way into his or her heart. I plan to add her to my list of "read everything this author has written."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Winter Moon by Lackey, Lee and Murphy

Winter Moon contains three stories by three fantasy authors. The stories all have the moon as a major plot device and all have romantic interludes between the characters.
As expected, I liked Mercedes Lackey's story the best, probably because Moira, her protagonist, was such an interesting, strong, brilliant woman who falls for the court fool. And the story takes place at a sea-swept keep, which sounds glorious.
Tanith Lee's entry, "The Heart of the Moon" was rather fable-like, and Clirando was one tough cookie, dealing with the pain of betrayal and a curse, all at once. Much darker than Lackey's tale, I still enjoyed its mix of Homer and feminist uber-heroine.
Murphy's "Banshee Cries" was the weakest of the three, mainly because the writing was very amaterish and the characters a bit too cliched. That's not to say that her main character, Joanne (and why anyone would prefer to be called dull old Joanne instead of Celtic Siobhan, I can't imagine) wasn't interesting, because she was, as a reluctant shaman and a cop. Still, all these old men sniffing around her and her bizarre love of cars just made her seem less like a heroine and more like a head case.
Yet I'd recommend this book for any fantasy fans who like women heros, action, adventure and romance.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

An American Summer by Frank Deford

Friday I finished reading An American Summer by Frank Deford, the next book up for discussion with the Tuesday night book group at my local library.
What a joy it was to read a book that took place over a specific period of time (the summer of 1954) and captured the mood, the flavor and the gestalt of the time period so perfectly, the reader felt that he or she had lived through it.
The story is about a 14 year old boy, Christopher "Christy" Bannister, who moves with his family from Terra Haute, IN, to Baltimore, MD, and meets up with a local woman whose life has become circumscribed by polio. Ms. Slade teaches Christy to swim from the portable iron lung she's forced to live in, and Christy learns to be a better person after falling in love with her.
Beautifully wrought scenes and dialog, staunch prose that reads like a Hemingway without all the macho B.S., and a plot that moves along at a purposeful pace...all things that make this a classic work of literature, a slice of life that is intense and not to be missed.
Because "An American Summer" was so deep, I decided to follow it with a bit of fluff called "Buttercup Baby" by Karen Fox. BB is the story of a cute flower fairy who wants to have a baby, so of course she chooses a confirmed bachelor to father her child, and proceeds to fall tinker-over-teacup in love with him. Lots of hot sex ensues, and situations that are bizarre but funny. Alls well that ends well, of course, and our hero's large family is setting up the perfect wedding for the mortal and the fae at the end of the book. It took me all of 3 hours to read this book, so I'd recommend it for a beach read or a fun little distraction that you can put in your purse and read while you're waiting in line or sitting in the dentists office.
Now that the local library's book sale is over, I only have 23 more books to read! Joy!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Man Booker Prize List

Here are the nominees for Britain's Man Booker Prize, which is somewhat equivalent to our National Book Award or the Pen/Faulkner Award. I should state that I've not read any of the books nominated, but I have read an earlier novel by Sara Waters called "Fingersmith" that was rather bizarre and nasty. I have her nominated novel on hold at the library.
The Man Booker Prize Nominees List:
Peter Carey Theft: A Love Story
Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss
Robert Edric Gathering the Water
Nadine Gordimer Get a Life
Kate Grenville The Secret River
MJ Hyland Carry Me Down
Howard Jacobson Kalooki Nights
James Lasdun Seven Lies
Mary Lawson The Other Side of the Bridge
Jon McGregor So Many Ways to Begin
Hisham Matar In the Country of Men
Claire Messud The Emperor's Children
David Mitchell Black Swan Green
Naeem Murr The Perfect Man
Andrew O'Hagan Be Near Me
James Robertson The Testament of Gideon Mack
Edward St Aubyn Mother's Milk
Barry Unsworth The Ruby in Her Navel
Sarah Waters The Night Watch

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Good Dog by Jon Katz

Here's my review of "A Good Dog, the story of Orson, who changed my life" by Jon Katz. This was an ARC sent to me by Random House.
A damaged dog meets a damaged man. They bond, they heal one another, change one another, contract to never give up on the other, and, surprise, they never do.The relationship between these two creatures of different species is an amazing testament to the empathy of humans for canines, and dogs for the walking wounded among us.For those not familiar with Katz's work, and not obsessed with dogs, the first 50 pages of the book might seem slow going, as the reader wends his or her way into the world of Katz and Devon (who will be renamed Orson) a dog that seemed to me to be so insane he was unsalvagable. Yet Katz seemingly has no end of patience and money to lavish on this sheepdog that won't herd sheep, but will herd Katz through a midlife crisis. As a native Iowan, I grew up spending time on my grandparents farms, and learned early that animals are, in general, not the smart, empathetic and creative creatures that authors have anthropomorphized them into for decades in childrens storybooks. Most animals are dumb creatures whose purpose is to feed and clothe us. They do little beyond eat, poop and reproduce. That is not to say my family didn't value animals or pets, we did, certainly, but we didn't become obsessive about them or ascribe human emotions and actions to them. My grandparents were unfailingly kind to their animals, and my grandfather once horse-whipped a man who was beating an animal nearly to death. He despised cruelty to critters, and had a whole barn full of happy cats and dogs who would follow him to the ends of the earth.Though Katz seems obsessive and off-kilter in the first part of the book, he recovers his sanity and moral compass in the second half, and by the end of the book, the reader finds himself/herself weeping with compassion for Katz and Orson, and their heartfelt journey that came to an unavoidable end. My mother had to put down her beloved cat last year, after Paddington, 18, became too weak to eat or jump or move. Another friend, a pen pal from the East Coast, just this past weekend had to put down her German Shepard, who could no longer walk. Euthanizing an animal is harrowing, and I laud Katz for dealing with his grief in such a spiritual and poetic manner, and with such gentle compassion for his friend Orson.The authors honesty and vulnerability make this book a rarity, I think, among male authors. It takes courage to bare your heart to readers, and to display a relationship that was so personal, so intense, and so meaningful. Even for those who don't currently have a pet, like myself, this book is a good read for the insight and understanding of the human/animal bond that it provides. The prose is what is now called "long form" journalism, made popular by authors like Susan Orleans, so most readers will have no trouble with it. Yet for all its workmanlike prose, Katz still manages to slip in a lyrical, poetic description here, or a lovely narration there.My only two problems with the book were its redundancy, which one can blame on the lack of great editors at publishing houses (gone are the days of Harlold Ross and Malcom Cowley) but which adds a sour note to an otherwise lovely song. We read, at the beginning of several chapters, a repeat summation of what has happened in past chapters with Orson, and this isn't necessary at all. The other problem I had was that, on page 44, Katz expresses his love of Devon/Orsons horrible tendancy to try and bite or maim service dogs. This is just reprehensible on the part of the dog and the human, for admiring a dogs desire to wound a hard-working seeing-eye dog just because they exist. That is cruel and stupid, and not worthy of someone of Katz's seemingly gentle nature. Other than that, I'd recommend this book to all those who have ever had a beloved pet or lived on a farm with many such pets.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Something Rich and Strange

Before we begin with Patricia McKillips fantasy novel, I'd like to post a listing of independent bookstores from public broadcasting via the librarians internet list.
On this site "you will find a list of independent booksellers [in the Puget Sound area of Washington state] ... along with their book recommendations -- 'Best Picks' for that month." Includes bookstores in Seattle, Bellingham, Olympia, and Whidbey Island. From KPLU, a public radio station from Seattle/Tacoma.URL:

Now on to "Something Rich and Strange" by Patricia McKillip, with a cover illustration by Brian Froud.
As with all of McKillips fantasy novels, this book is beautifully written, rife with hypnotic prose that wisks you away to another world that exists alongside our mundane lives. In all fairness, I must state that I've read nearly everything McKillip has written, with the exception of "Harrowing the Dragon," a short story collection in my TBR. I've loved all of her works, and found myself wishing that I had half McKillips talent for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that read like dreamy poems. As I don't, I just have to satisfy myself with being a fan of her work, and pushing them on friends and relations who haven't heard of her fine texts.
This novel is the story of Megan and Jonah, two oddballs who fell in together and are both fascinated with the sea. They encounter two mer-people who bascially lure them under the sea, and make them responsible for all the misdeeds humans have perpetrated on the oceans of the world. Why these two is not fully explained, but the descriptions of the underwater world, the sea creatures of legend and the beauty of the waves, tidepools and shore all make great reading. I would recommend this book for those who love sea legends and artistry.
Now if McKillip would only grace us with her presense here in the Seattle area, I could get my collection signed!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Goodnight Nobody by Jennifer Weiner

I could really identify with Goodnight Nobody, as it's about a mom living in suburbia with a husband who she rarely sees and surrounded by neighbor moms who appear to be living perfect lives. Other mothers always seem more together, always have nutritous snacks on hand, always make sure their kids don't say or do the wrong thing, and the mothers themselves never have stained clothing or unkempt hair. Yet these same soccer mommies also have enough money that they can hire designers to fix their home, clothing consultants to buy them the right clothing, personal trainers to get them in shape, shop at the expensive Whole Foods store for groceries and hire maids and nannies when they need a break. So I've never felt too competative with them because I've never had that kind of dough, never had the parents who lived close by so they could care for my kid when I needed to interview somebody for a freelance article, or I just needed a break. And of course, I can't afford the chain-childcare prices, either, so you can assume that I don't have the money for trainers, nannies or designers. That's one of the few problems I had with the book, as the main character, Kate, kvetched and whined about her borning suburban life caring for her kids (she misses being a tabloid journalist) and not having anything decent to wear and being overweight, when from what was said about her husband, it sounded like she could easily have afforded maids, nannies, trainers and everything else to go with her ultra-expensive Connecticut home. I would have had more sympathy for the woman if she was like me, and had to do it all and still try to keep a freelance career going when you're facing bankruptcy from your husbands lack of financial acumen and you can barely pay the mortgage. That's a lot tougher than being wealthy and just not able to manage your time and your kids (and for some reason, though Kate is obviously furious that she became pregnant with twins soon after the birth of her ill-behaved daughter, she never considers abortion, though that was a good option for someone who felt over-burdened with one child, let alone three. The fact that she made the decision to have two more children that she clearly did not want also lessened my sympathy for her--she could also have used birth control). My other problem with Kate is that she's obnoxious and rude, which I assume we are supposed to find charming because she's from NYC, and she is gutless and stupid when it comes to some total airhead jerk named Evan. She fell for the guy when he was affianced to a b*tchy supermodel, and it was clear he was spineless and wouldn't leave the supermodel for chubby Kate, though he clearly found her attractive. Instead, Kate carries a torch for the guy until she meets a guy she finds to be kind and decent, and apparently good enough to marry, though she never really makes us believe that she loves the guy. When Evan shows up again after Kate finds her neighbor mom dead with a knife in her back, Kate goes back to being childish and stupid about him, and allows herself to get into several compromising situations with him, though he knows she is married (his marriage to the evil supermodel didn't work out, what a surprise). Again, though she is getting more sexual satisfaction from her showerhead than her husband, I didn't have a lot of sympathy for Kates lusty crush on Evan, because she just sat on the fence about it, she never actually got into bed with the man and left her husband, nor did she tell the jerk Evan to f-off because she wants to keep her vows to her husband. And the only thing she seemed to find attractive about Evan was his looks. He didn't seem to be a guy with good character, morals, brains or anything else that most women would find attractive, he was just good-looking, which says something about Kate being shallow, in addition to being ridiculous around Evan. And inevitably, Weiner never did tell us if Kate left her husband for good or planned on having a life with Evan. She left it all up in the air, which was frustrating. I've read all of Weiners previous books, and few of them had such unsatistfying endings. This book was her first murder mystery, and while I think she did a fair job of tracking down clues and making Kate a bungling sleuth, I wish to heck Weiner had worked on making Kate more likable and less obnoxious, and certainly smarter when it comes to confronting the perp. Yet, as a chick lit writer, Weiner is still a better writer than 75 percent of the chick lit scribes in existance.

Friday, August 04, 2006

A Book That Won't Die, and V For Vendetta

The little paperback that could
"Seattle Post Intelligencer book critic John Marshall presents a rather cool story of a book that's been out in paperback in years still selling very well at one of the city's independents. So why is Robert Wilson's A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON still doing great business at Seattle's legendary Elliot Bay shop?Chalk it up to a t-shirt.Marshall explains that Leah Brock, a veteran bookseller at Elliott Bay, happened to wear a T-shirt from Gilley's (of URBAN COWBOY FAME) to work last summer, which caused customer Paul Goode to strike up a conversation. It turned out that Brock is from Conroe, outside Houston, Goode from Kingsville, 250 miles away. Lone Star matters were soon dispatched and talk turned to books. Brock had been reading through mysteries set in World War II, and that immediately made Goode, an avid reader of mysteries with historical settings, think of A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON.And she loved it too. Then came the shelf-taker. Then came more sales. Then the newsletter Shelf Awareness caught on, and as Craig Burke, Berkley director of publicity, reports, sales increased 44 percent in April over March and have continued an upward trend since. Wilson's pretty pleased about the results, too: "I've been delighted by this story, not only because it relies on coincidences, which are NOT allowed in crime novels, but which happen all the time in everyday life, but also because this is what every writer craves: word of mouth."
That was taken from famed "Galleycat" blog, mainly because I once interviewed John Marshall for the Mercer Island Reporter, and because its heartening to read of a book that has made it on word of mouth, from one of Seattles last indie bookstores, heaven bless them.
I also wanted to post about a movie that my husband, the comic book and graphic novel fan, insisted that we both view, called "V for Vendetta." I don't know that I was expecting a movie based on a graphic novel based on a futuristic Guy Fawkes ("Remember remember the 5th of November, the gunpowder, treason and plot..") to be quite so violent, bloody and obvious in its rant on fascism, but it certainly delivered in the big bang dept. I kept thinking that I'd heard that deep, luscious voice before, when I first heard "V" in the movie, and the end credits enlightened me that it was the marvelous Hugo Weaving, who was the cruel agent in the Matrix movies. At any rate, Natalie Portman was the chicken-hearted female lead, who, through torture and letters from a former prisoner of the state, found the means to be free of fear. Rather like the Shawshank Redemption, but since its Portman, and they cut off all her hair, poor dear, I gather we're supposed to be impressed. In all honesty, I was glad that we rented the movie on DVD, because there is no way I'd have paid movie theater prices to see such cliches brought to life. But the DVD is worth it for Hugo Weavings voice alone.
I read the wonderful "If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor" by the hilarious Bruce Campbell last weekend, and was fascinated by all his behind the scenes musings. The one thing I didn't like about the book was the way the humor sometimes went a bit over the line into snarky bitterness. But for the most part, it was a very entertaining read, with some memorable anecdotes and interesting insights on Campbells long career and friendship with famed director Sam Rami. If you ever wondered what real acting is like, what Hollywood is like behind all the supposed glamor, this is your book.
I have to note that my TBR stack is now 21 books high, and teetering, so I need to get back to reading.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Tough Chicks in Tight Bodysuits

After viewing "UltraViolet" and "Underworld: Evolution" I'm beginning to believe that it is impossible for a woman to be a superhero, tough, or even ferocious unless she's been poured into a lycra or leather 'catsuit' and donned thigh-high sh*t-kicking boots to accent her lean profile. And of course, you must either have black hair that is unwashed and stringy, or a neon purple/pink wig to make you seem mysterious. Personally, I think Kate Beckinsale is a better actress than Mila Janovich, and that is why I was saddened to see that she allowed the powers that be in the second Underworld movie to have her nude in a love scene with the horrible actor who plays the Lycan/Vampire hybrid male protagonist. Honestly, the man is supposed to be a resident physician, and he acts like he's got all of three brain cells that work (in addition to his plumbing, of course, which might be the reason Beckinsales character fancies him...a good roll in the hay goes a long way when you're a lonely death dealer, I suppose). Mila looks lovely in UltraViolet, which is a very violent, stylish movie that has gorgeous sets, fast action, gorgeous costumes, props and even sleek weaponry. It's like watching a cleanly-drawn Japanese SF graphic novel come to life. The story is one of fear and bravery, of self-sacrifice and love of innocence and children who are different. Yet there's a violent battle scene every 5-10 minutes in the movie, and while I like watching the choreography of a good martial arts/swords/guns scene as much as the next person, I can't really fathom how the folks that made this movie justified having so little time for plot and character development.
My husband, meanwhile, was disappointed in the lack of "boob shots" to be found in either movie, since he was particularly hoping Beckinsale would bare all. Yet she was covered up by that huge plank of a co-star, who even seemed somewhat slow and unsteady while on top of his favorite Vampire. This makes her grief, when he "dies" later in the movie, seem ludicrous, as you can't imagine the glorious, brilliant and vitally viscious Selene actually caring whether the fumbling, idiotic hybrid lives or dies. My husband and I were both relieved when he bought it, and disgusted when he was "reborn," again. They must have paid the honorable Derek Jacobi millions to appear as the progenetor Alexander Corvinus in this flick. He does his usual excellent job of taking what could have been a cartoonish character and turning it into a dignified, pained and ultimately heroic Vamp/Lycan. I only wish they'd have given him more screen time, and more scenes with Selene. The next SF feature hubby and I want to watch is V for Vendetta, which is coming out on DVD next week.
I also watched "Casanova" the latest version with the delicious Heath Ledger and an unknown co-star who isn't even as pretty as Ledger, sad to say. I became a fan of Ledger when he was the luscious leather-trousered lad in "Roar" which died before it had a chance to find its folkie/celtic-loving audience. Ledger was just drool-inspiring in Roar, and all the other movies I've seen him in haven't taken from that image of the gorgeous fair-haired guy with a mischevious twinkle in his eyes that can weaken your knees, even at my age. And no, I've not seen Brokeback Mountain, though I could easily understand anybody, man or woman, finding Ledger toothsome. (Anne Proloux, the author of Brokeback Mountain, is one of the worst authors ever to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, in my opinion. I refuse to read anything she's written). So I watched with interest as the fair-haired lad of the past was portrayed as a greasy, filthy lecherous man who couldn't keep his pants on for more than a few hours. He seemed to be constantly bathed in sweat during this film, and the wigs they made him wear were just frightening. Jeremy Irons was way over the top as an inquisitor set to hang Casanova, but the real purple heart for turning acting lemons into lemonade in this film goes to Oliver Platt, as the pork lard king of Genoa and the marvelous actress who plays his paramour. They stole every scene they were in, which was a blessing and a relief from watching Ledger sweat and flail and run from everyone. I would only recommend this film if you are really in need of a Ledger fix, and can imagine him cleaned up a bit. As to the tough chick flicks, I'd wait until you can rent them two for one, or until they're in the discount bin.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Disappointment with Two Writing Divas

Gentlemen and Players, the latest novel by the formerly faultless Joanne Harris, and The Last Mortal Man by the brilliant Syne Mitchell are my two latest reads, and currently in a long line of books that disappoint me with their lack of morality.
Let me just first attest to my adoration of Harris's previous works. Chocolat, a perfect confection of a novel was the first book of hers that I read, and relished. I followed it with the fascinating Blackberry Wine, then the passionate and riveting Holy Fools, the mesmerizing Five Quarters of the Orange and the cool Coastliners. I added Harris to the short list of authors whom I'd read anytime, anywhere, any book. Her prose was always rich and fertile, her characters emotional, fully dimensional and her plots tight and brisk. There was little to complain about and much to praise in her work. Unfortunately, Gentlemen and Players breaks that wining streak by showing us a closed and sexist world populated by awful people who seem selfish, ugly and without decency or morals. The main character is a serial killer who never gets caught and indeed, seems to be sympathized with, lauded and not even sought by the police. Considering the main character kills a child, I found that hard to believe. I knew the secret plot twist before I was halfway through the book, which is saying something about the quality of Harris prose, since most authors telegraph their plot twists so clearly that I usually know it by chapter two. Perhaps this is Harris's bitterness toward her English heritage that allows her to flay the world of private boys schools with such a bitter lash. Most of her other novels are set in France, and the French always come off as quirky, but loveable and interesting, rarely crass, vile and cruel as all the Brits are portrayed in this book. Sick obession and a sociopath are not a thrilling combination for those who like being enlightened, entertained, uplifted and informated by the fiction that they read. As I am one of those people, I felt ill and sad by the end of the book, which could have come much sooner for my taste. And please, Ms Harris, don't do an Umberto Ecco and leave all your Latin untranslated. I hate that.
I have read all of Syne Mitchells Science Fiction novels, too, and loved them all for their blending of hard SF and great characters with action-oriented plots. Syne takes on all the latest tech topics and moves them into the future with true "What If" style, and makes the reader see the problems inherent in embracing technology to the nth degree. I loved Technogenisis, Murphys Gambit, The Changeling Plague and End in Fire. In her latest book, The Last Mortal Man, Syne takes on nanotechnology, and extrapolates it to the end, in which it is used to cure mortality, but only for the wealthy. And, as usual, the rich are always the bad guys. I once asked Syne why she seems to have it out for the wealthy, and she replied, "Because I am not one of them." I find that to be a bit glib for someone whose books hang in billionare Paul Allens Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. She's on the board of the SF Museum so I would assume she has even met Mr Allen. I wonder if she discusses her prejudice with him? I am not wealthy, either, but I certainly don't pre-judge people based on their income. It rather rankles, then, that her main character, Jack is a wealthy scion of the man who has the patent on immortality, and we are supposed to like him, though he is a sexist jerk. He spends most of the book drooling impotently over the other main character, Alexa, who helped to raise him (EWWWWW! Oedipus complex, anyone?) and in the end, all he seems to want to do is dominate her by showing her that now that he's rich, he's "boss" and can run her life. Fortunately, Alexa gets out from under his thumb in short order, yet she seems to have become sexless as well as deathless. And Syne, who has a toddler and should know better, kills off all the children that were supposed to be saved by our heros, Alexa and Jack. Instead they are mowed down by some horrible wealthy psychopath who seems to have it out for Alexa, and wants to see her dead or humiliated, or both. Why the sudden "kill the innocents" darkness runs through this latest book, I don't know, but I find myself worried about Synes state of mind, if she thinks the male protagonist is supposed to be a sympathetic character, plus allowing the children to die for no reason. The morality there is just lame. Syne uses Mennonites as the characters on the opposite side of technology, but because my grandparents lived, worked and bartered with the Mennonites and Amish near Wellman, Kologna and Iowa City, I found these characters to be two-dimensional. These groups were, by turns, less kind and more repressed than she shows us, at least in the 70s and 80s, when I encountered them. There was a rather large problem with incest in the Amish communities, and a problem with un-vaccinated children getting diseases thought to be long vanquished, such as polio. Yet for all the problems this book has, it was an interesting read, and Syne explains her tech stuff better than she has in previous novels. It has a lot of important things to say about death, living a life worth living, and taking care of others as your lifes work. I can only hope that the cover of the next book in the series gives us a glimpse of the perfect woman, Alexa from New Orleans, who parlays her terrorist act into the job of a lifetime.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Four Movies and a Visit From Misty and Larry

Bed and Breakfast, Autumn in New York, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Oscar and Lucinda. Four movies viewed this week, and all fascinating in their own way.
Let me first state that I'm not a huge Roger Moore fan, nor am I a fan of Richard Gere. Both men seem to be slightly effeminate womanizers, the kind of smooth, cultured snobs who age gracefully and look gorgeous well into their 70s, despite dissipating habits. However, I couldn't have liked Moore better in the charming and surprisingly deep Bed and Breakfast. Talia Shire plays a Bed and Breakfast owner in Maine, who lives with her mother, the incomparable Colleen Dewhurst, and her troubled teenage daughter, an actress I've never heard of who looks to be a fine violinist. Moore is a rapscallion on the lamb from his latest bout of trouble, who washes up on the beach in front of Shires B&B. Of course, the three lonely women all fall for him in a different way, and he wisely counsels them to follow their dreams. Mayhem ensues in various forms, from the jealous townsfolk to the arrival of thugs looking for Moore, but it all works out in the end, and there are some very tender, lovely scenes delineating the relationship that builds between Moore and the widow Shire, who is very guarded. Interesting moments develop in the mother-daughter relationships as well, and the viewer gets to see the inner workings of the family.
Autumn in New York is a tragic love story, filled with moments in which the luminous, young Winona Ryder teaches the jaded, aged p-hound Gere about what it means to love someone, to commit to that love, and respect it though you know it will end soon. Gere even has a couple of moments of actual acting, where his grief is so naked and his pain so real, I felt it wash over me as well. Because there are such great moments, you can ignore much of the other bits that don't read so realistically. The fact that Gere is supposed to be a restauranteur who believes that "food is the only beauty that nourishes the body" didn't bother me as much as his attempts to appear like he could really cook, long greasy gray hair falling in the food and all. Still, the movie ends with Gere taking responsibility for a daughter he'd ignored, and that left us with the clear message of life moving forward, despite beloved people leaving us behind.
Oscar and Lucinda is also a somewhat tragic love story, of an Anglican priest (the amazing Ralph Fiennes) whose gambling compulsion leads him to team up with a gambling-obessed glass-factory owner, (the camelion-like Cate Blanchett) to create a glass church for another Anglican priest in the wilds of New South Wales. Blanchett and Fiennes are magical when on the screen together, as riveting and vulnerably beautiful as the glass church they seek to create and move across the country. I have to say that I have never seen Fiennes in a role in which he didn't terrify me, on some level, with his intensity. But there's a lure, an attraction to that fear that is like walking outside in a lightening storm in Florida. You know you might get hit with a bolt of ligtening and fry, but you can't help yourself from watching the flashes play across the sky. He was an innocent, shy, brave and skinny man in this movie, not really all that attractive, yet you couldn't take your eyes off the man when he was on the screen. My heart was pounding when he merely brushed his lips across Blanchetts. The fervent way he prayed, the way in which he killed a man with a look on his face like a little boy about to squish some fearful bug, THAT was acting in the true sense, acting as an art form.
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starred my 13-year-old crush, Donny Osmond, who, along with David Cassidy and, to a lesser extent (because he was older) Bobby Sherman, occupied the minds and hearts of 3/4 of the preteens and young teens of the 1970s. I wore purple socks because Donny did. I hated Marie with a passion, because she was always upstaging Donny and making fun of him on their show. I played his records until my brother was forced to hide the album because he was deathly sick of hearing Donnys voice singing treacly pop tunes. Now, Donny is probably 50 years old, and yet he's one buff and handsome Joseph, singing in full voice all the wonderful Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes penned for this light and zippy take on the story of Joseph, son of Jacob, from the Bible. The woman playing the narrator, though very mobile of face and robust of voice, got on my nerves by the end of the musical. She was a distraction from the characters, a kind of deus ex machina, that I felt didn't need to be in every single song and scene. To be frank, I wanted to see more of Donny. I found myself wondering what was up with Marie, and his older brothers who are deaf. What about little pudge-ball Jimmy, who was also very annoying, but whom I could understand, as I had an annoying younger brother, too. Anyway, the story is basically the age-old one of jealous brothers who sell Joseph, the favored son of 12, into slavery and eventually have to ask him for help when Joseph becomes the Pharoh's right hand. Having the Pharoh be an Elvis impersonator was a stroke of genius, by the way. If you can get past the cheezy 70s disco song and the bizarre props and carefully-placed loincloth Donny wears, you'll find a charming and fun musical under it all. The ending was silly, but then, Weber isn't known for his great endings. Why they chose to place the story initially in a British school assembly is still not clear to me, but I chose to just ignore the incongruity and enjoy the funky set design.
Speaking of design, I was fortunate enough to attend the annual visitation by the talented Mercedes Lackey and her handsome, charming husband Larry Dixon. These two are amazing authors, and Dixon's illustrations are top-notch. He passed around a computer tablet with a slide show of his latest work, illustrations of Lackeys books and of Star Trek ships. They were breathtaking, each one so detailed and dimensional that you could almost swear some were photos. Mercedes, or Misty as she prefers, was in full voice, telling about her latest book projects and her predilection for role-playing games and creating stories around characters in those games. The audience all found it as ironic as she does that her way of relaxing from writing all day is to write some more in a gaming setting. Larry Dixon, meanwhile, does not age. The man must have a painting in an attic somewhere aging for him. And I was thoroughly charmed by his mature and generous attitude toward his fans and friends, even after an apparently horrendous difficulty with a stalker and an accident that broke his arm.
Most people wouldn't have the guts to tour the country and talk to fans after an incident like that, but Misty and Larry are made of sterner, and kinder, stuff. They related anecdotes about their time on the set of the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, their work helping rescue birds of prey, and of the new books they have coming out this year and next. I was particularly pleased to hear that the Elementals series continues on, though I wish I would have gotten the chance to ask Misty why fire mages get such short shrift in her novels. Does she have something agin us fabulous fire signs, perhaps? At any rate, I bought a copy of a moon-themed book in which Misty has the lead story, and I got all my other books signed. I also managed to give Larry and Misty some decent pens for signing, so they didn't have to use the cheap ones the library set out for them. I sincerely hope they return next year, so I can have the opportunity to chat with them for a longer period, and hear of their latest adventures.