Friday, December 11, 2015

Maggie Smith, a Biography, Flygirl by Sherri L Smith and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

I've been a fan of Maggie Smith's since I saw her (in my early teens) in the then-scandalous movie "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie." Now I adore watching her (as does everyone else) as the famed Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey. So news of this new authorized biography couldn't come as more of a welcome surprise. This review is from Shelf Awareness.

Review: Maggie Smith: A Biography

Actress Maggie Smith seems to be at the height of her power, enjoying
worldwide acclaim and success for her roles in the Harry Potter and Best
Exotic Marigold Hotel films, as well as the TV series Downton Abbey. In
Maggie Smith: A Biography, Michael Coveney, one of Britain's most
respected theater critics, presents the storied influences of Dame
Maggie's life and the six decades of her public presence and global
reach on stage and screen.

Coveney explores Smith's exceptional talent by first examining her
"spartan, though... not deprived, childhood." Because she was "not
particularly welcomed" by her two elder brothers, Smith, in her
loneliness, developed a voracious reading habit and a sharp instinct for
privacy, and cultivated her tart spirit and independence. When her
father, a medical lab technician, relocated the family to Oxford during
World War II, Maggie became friends with the daughter of novelist Graham
Greene, took piano and ballet lessons, and attended one of the best
schools in Britain, Oxford High School. An acting teacher who harbored
reservations about Maggie's acting ability fueled the teenager's drive
for the stage. Maggie set off for the Oxford Playhouse School, forcing
her parents grudgingly to reconcile themselves to their daughter's

Coveney spends the bulk of the biography chronicling, in great depth,
Smith's acting roles, her analytical approach to craft and the often
nomadic existence required by her transatlantic career. From her early
days as a West End revue player, Smith was cast at the age of 21 in her
first Broadway show, New Faces 1956, for her comic personality, "the
essence that was to make her a star," and her career took off. Coveney
relates intimate details about Smith's astounding performing range, from
Shakespeare to Noel Coward, Edward Albee to Neil Simon--and Julian
Fellows. There are a host of insider quotes and anecdotes involving
actors such as Judi Dench, Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright, Derek
Jacobi, Michael Caine and Vanessa Redgrave. Directors, classmates,
family and friends share their insights, as well. Along the way, Coveney
touches upon Smith's great loves, marriages and children. Smith's
trademark self-preserving wit--along with her class and energy--enliven
the narrative throughout.

Though the actress granted Coveney permission to write this biography,
he asserts that Maggie Smith, even to those who know her well, is an
enigma, and he accentuates Smith's difficulties in trying to balance her
"private life with the public demands of her talent... career always
came first." Therefore, it is fitting that this thorough and
well-researched biography is anchored on on Dame Maggie's exemplary body
of work and the demanding drive of her dedication and genius, all of
which have earned her critical acclaim and lasting appeal. --Kathleen
Gerard, blogger at Reading Between the Lines

What a great idea! I wish we had a bookstore somewhere nearby who could do the same!
Cool Idea of the Day: Elevenses

Posted recently on the website for Blue Willow Books
in our occasional series that we are calling Elevenses. It's the
civilized British tradition of stopping at eleven a.m. for a cuppa' tea
and a small bite to eat. It will be a way to drop in and meet visiting
authors. Join us in welcoming for Kate Morton
first ever Elevenses. We hope to have many more in the future."

Flygirl by Sherri L Smith is a true delight. A YA novel about a young black woman who is light-skinned enough to "pass" as white, and who desperately wants to fly airplanes during WWII, this book covers the origins of the WASPs, or Women Air Force Service Pilots who tested and ferried planes all over the country in hazardous conditions and yet were denied status as veterans until the 1970s. Here is the blurb: All Ida Mae Jones wants to do is fly. Her daddy was a pilot, and years after his death she feels closest to him when she's in the air. But as a young black woman in 1940s Louisiana, she knows the sky is off limits to her, until America enters World War II, and the Army forms the WASP-Women Airforce Service Pilots. Ida has a chance to fulfill her dream if she's willing to use her light skin to pass as a white girl. She wants to fly more than anything, but Ida soon learns that denying one's self and family is a heavy burden, and ultimately it's not what you do but who you are that's most important. 
While I loved the fact that Ida realizes her dreams of being a pilot, I was saddened that she could never reveal who she really was, and that it caused a rift in her family, because she had to pretend that when her dark skinned mother visited her, that she was just a maid servant, instead of actual family. Even her brother, who also fought in the war and was injured and sent home wasn't supportive of her choice to find freedom in the skies. I was not aware that black women were not allowed in the WASPs, but that Asian women were, nor was I aware that the WASPs faced all manner of dangers as pilots during the war, but then were denied benefits as veterans once the war was over. Shame on the US Government for taking over 20 years to recognize the work of female pilots to win the war. At any rate, this was a well written novel with a wonderful protagonist, though I found her fears and guilt to be a bit much at times. But then, I didn't live through a time when being black meant that you could be killed or court marshalled for the color of your skin. An A for this ground-breaking novel and a recommendation for any woman or girl who is interested in history or aviation to give it a whirl. 

Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is the first in her Grisha trilogy, which are prequels to the Six of Crows series which I've read and reviewed here awhile ago. It must be mentioned first that Bardugo's prose is so clear and yet luxurious that you find yourself unable to put the book down once it's begun. The characters are full bodied and fascinating, and the plot whips along at a crackling pace. The story takes place in a land similar to imperial Russia, and Bardugo makes you feel the cold on your face and hear the howl of the wolves in the forests. Here's the blurb:
Surrounded by enemies, the once-great nation of Ravka has been torn in two by the Shadow Fold, a swath of near impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters who feast on human flesh. Now its fate may rest on the shoulders of one lonely refugee.
Alina Starkov has never been good at anything. But when her regiment is attacked on the Fold and her best friend is brutally injured, Alina reveals a dormant power that saves his life—a power that could be the key to setting her war-ravaged country free. Wrenched from everything she knows, Alina is whisked away to the royal court to be trained as a member of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling.
Yet nothing in this lavish world is what it seems. With darkness looming and an entire kingdom depending on her untamed power, Alina will have to confront the secrets of the Grisha . . . and the secrets of her heart.
Shadow and Bone is the first installment in Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy.
Though a lot of YA novels have love triangles, I wasn't as bothered by this one as I usually would be, because I knew that the Darkling, though seemingly sexy and dangerous, was only using Alina for his own ends. Of course this novel ends with a cliffhanger of a sorts, as Mal, her first love, and Alina flee the Darkling and his plan to take over the world. Fortunately, Alina has finally come into her powers and will hopefully be able to save the country and remove the Shadow Fold so that her people can thrive. I am really looking forward to the next novel in the series. I'd give this book an A, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys Russian folk tales and stories of magic and mystery.

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