Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon" by Jane Austen

I decided to round out my year of reading Jane Austen by reading her unfinished works too.  My mom gave me this collection for my birthday, and I managed to polish it off over the last couple of weeks.

I liked "Lady Susan" the least of these three -- it is finished, while the other two aren't, but I didn't like any of the characters, especially not Lady Susan herself, who is particularly disagreeable.  I enjoy the epistolary format as a whole, so that didn't bother me.  It concerns the selfish, wanton Lady Susan who spends the whole book trying to marry her daughter off to a rich, foolish man that her daughter despises.

I liked "The Watsons" the best, for it had characters I genuinely cared about and wanted to get to know better.  It seemed to be following a plot line similar to Pride and Prejudice, with an unwealthy family's daughters catching the eye of men of more money and position.  We do at least know how that one would have turned out, thanks to Jane Austen telling her sister Cassandra her plans for the novel.

"Sanditon" reminded me more of Emma, with a whole host of hypochandriacal characters similar to Mr. Woodhouse.  It's not long enough for its heroine to really gain shape, and was the least satisfying read, since there's no record of how Jane Austen intended it to end.  Here's something funny:  for years, I thought the title was "Sandition" -- it wasn't until I started reading this book that I noticed it only has one 'i.'  Silly me.

This is my last book review here on Hamlette's Soliloquy -- from now on, they'll be on The Edge of the Precipice.  I'll still be talking about movies and everything else that strikes my fancy here, though.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"Porgy and Bess" (1959)

I watched Porgy and Bess with my mom over the last couple of evenings, the first time either of us has seen it.  I don't know what she thought of it, but I must confess to being a bit disappointed.

I've wanted to see this musical since I was in high school and learned, while doing a research paper, that George Gershwin wrote it while living on Folly Beach in Charleston, SC.  Folly Beach is one of my family's favorite vacation spots, you see.  I know a few of the songs from it -- I love "Summertime," I like "Bess, You is My Woman," and I've never liked "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."  And I'm well acquainted with Bobby Darin's version of "It Ain't Necessarily So."  But I'd never heard them in context, and really knew very little about the story line other than that it involves a crippled man named Porgy and a woman of ill repute named Bess.

A few years ago, I read a biography of Otto Preminger that discussed the making of this movie, though I remember very little of it anymore.  But I do recall that Sidney Poitier didn't really want to make this film, and that Preminger worked with the cast to change some of the dialog so that it was less offensive.  Remember, the operetta itself is based in the early twentieth century and was first performed in 1935 -- by the time the movie was made in the late 1950s, people's attitudes and behavior had changed a great deal.  

But anyway, why was I disappointed in this movie?  I felt a lack of emotional oomph in it, if that makes sense.  And it's not the storyline's fault, because the plot of two outcasts, the kind, sweet man who takes in the woman no one else wants anything to do with -- that's right up my alley.  But I never got really caught up in the story, never felt anything more than a half-hearted sympathy for any of the characters.  I've really enjoyed the other Sidney Poitier performances I've seen, particularly in Blackboard Jungle (1955), Pressure Point (1962), and In the Heat of the Night (1967).  Perhaps his unwillingness to play the role kept him from fully engaging in it, or perhaps it's just the lack of chemistry between his Porgy and Dorothy Dandridge's Bess.  Or perhaps the characters just aren't all that well-rounded -- we never learn more about Porgy than that he's sweet, kind, understanding, and crippled.  And we never learn more about Bess than that she's an addict and has a taste for the wrong kind of men.  The other characters are equally thin -- Sammy Davis Jr.'s Sportin' Life is only around to tempt Bess back into drugs and sin, Pearl Bailey's Maria is the Strong Black Woman, Brock Peters' Crown is the Uncontrollable Black Man --  none of the main characters had any real depth to them.  Since this is the only version of this story I've ever seen, I don't know if the original operetta digs into the characters more, or what.  

I have to say that my favorite character in the movie, and the most interesting, was Claude Akins' Detective, who was clearly out of his element in the black neighborhood, but trying to do his best in a thankless job.  He runs the gamut from uncomfortable to patient to exasperated to weary, and I kind of wished we could just follow him around and see what his life was like instead.  This might be partially because I admit I have a soft spot for Claude Akins, but still, it felt to me like he was doing more with a tiny role than the principals were doing with all their screen time.

The sets, the costumes, and the staging I have no quibbles with.  There was one scene I really liked a lot, where Bess changes an orphan's diaper while Porgy watches, his eyes shining with love for this beautiful woman who has brought his life so much joy.


Both characters felt very real, very alive, and very in love in this scene, and if the whole movie had been like it, I would probably have loved it all.  But I am very glad I got to see Porgy and Bess, and I hope I will get the opportunity to see another version some time, to see if I connect better to the characters then.

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Jane and the Wandering Eye" by Stephanie Barron

This is the third Jane Austen Mystery, and I think I liked it a teensy bit better than the previous book, Jane and the Man of the Cloth.  It had more of Lord Harold Trowbridge, the Gentleman Rogue who keeps joining the fictional Miss Austen in her adventures, and I'm becoming very fond of him.  Here, his nephew is accused of murder, and Jane and Lord Harold sort out the tangle of deceit and intrigue that obscures the truth.  I don't have much else to say about it, other than that I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

I think I will be posting ONE more book review here, and then posting all new reviews only on my book blog, The Edge of the Precipice, starting at the beginning of next year.  So be ye warned:  if you want to read more about what I'm reading, go follow that blog too :-)

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

"The Black Arrow" by Robert Louis Stevenson

I must confess that I have owned a copy of this book for nearly five years, but only now managed to read it. I'm not sure why, as I love the other three of Stevenson's books I've read (namely Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the somewhat clunky sequel to the latter, David Balfour, also called Catriona just to be confusing).  I guess I just haven't been in the mood for this sort of adventure novel until now.  Now, however, I'm deep in the throes of writing my first YA western, and it seems I wanted to read something exciting that young adults might enjoy, to help me figure out pacing and such.

So anyway, The Black Arrow:  A Tale of the Two Roses runs in the vein of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe and things like that -- it's about a young man named Richard Shelton who learns that the man who became his guardian long ago when Richard's father died is actually the man who murdered said father.  This happens just when the Lancasters and Yorks are engaging in what's called the War of the Roses, battling with each other for England's throne, as was their wont.  Richard runs off and joins up with these guys known as the Fellowship of the Black Arrow who are sworn to kill off four evil men (Richard's ex-guardian included) and are headed up by none other than Richard's dead father's best friend.  But Richard doesn't care much for them, as they're involved in a bit too much thievery for his taste, so he runs off again and joins up with someone else, and falls in love, and has lots of adventures.  This was originally serialized, so it has that Dumas thing going on where we have a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter/installment, and lots of excitement throughout.  Anyway, Richard ends up fighting side-by-side with the future Richard III at one point.

If you like rousing adventures where everyone says "ye" and "anon" and "by the Mass!" and "forsooth," this is quite fun.  I happen to like such things, so I quite liked this.  It's not of the same caliber as Kidnapped or Treasure Island (or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I expect, but I haven't read that yet), but it's quite enjoyable. I'm always trying to learn more about England's history, as it's all a bit fuzzy in my head, so this is helpful there too.

"Garment of Shadows" by Laurie R. King

The Novel Book Ratings blog has posted my review of Laurie R. King's latest Russell/Holmes mystery, Garment of Shadows.  You can read it here.  

Cowboy and I have started rewatching some of the Jeremy Brett versions of Sherlock Holmes movies, and I'm thinking that next year, I'm going to try to read/reread all of the original Sherlock Holmes stories.  We shall see.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Northanger Abbey" by Jane Austen

How is it that I'd never read this before?  Okay, it's because I really knew absolutely nothing about it before this year, whereas I knew the general gist of Austen's other major works, thanks to movies or articles I'd read or whatever.  But Northanger Abbey slipped through the cracks.  In my great quest to read all of Austen's novels in one year (which I have now completed, yay me!), I saved this for last because it's always nice to read something new by a beloved author.  And also, I was a little worried I wouldn't care much for it, since if people don't talk about it much, it must not be all that great, right?

Wrong.

Okay, it's obviously not as magnificent as Pride and Prejudice, as thought-provoking as Sense and Sensibility, etc.  Instead, it is fun.  The whole novel revolves around one long joke about how the heroine, Miss Catherine Morland, can't possibly be the heroine of a novel.  Nothing exciting happens to her, she's not beautiful, her parents and family are all alive and healthy, she's not unhappy, no one kidnaps her, no royalty fall in love with her, she never meets up with a ghost... you get the idea.  What she does do is lead a sweet, ordinary life, fall in love with a nice man, get involved in a misunderstanding or two, and wind up happy.

I laughed aloud over and over during this book, and I'm inclined to reread it already.  I love books that make me laugh aloud; they almost invariably become favorites of mine.  On that merit alone, Northanger Abbey would join Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion as my most favoritest Austen novels.  But this book also has very believable characters, the sorts that you could meet up with in real life.  No archetypes, no mysterious and wealthy strangers, no near-fatal illnesses.  Just people being people :-)  I found that especially endearing.  In fact, I believe Henry Tilney has supplanted Mr. Knightley as my second-favorite Austen hero.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Catherine Morland visits Bath with some family friends and falls in love with Henry Tilney, a young minister with a lively sense of humor.

Particularly Good Bits:

"Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love."

"...for I will not adopt the ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding -- joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?"

"The anxiety, which in this state of their attachment must be the portion of Henry and Catherine, and of all who loved either, as to its final event, can hardly extend, I fear, to the bosom of my readers, who will see in the tell-tale compression of the pages before them, that we are all hastening together to perfect felicity."


Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Skyfall" (2012)

When I got in the car to go see "Skyfall" this morning, Adele's theme song for it was playing on the car radio.  An auspicious sign, eh?  I'd really never heard it all the way through, and I quite liked it.  I haven't really jumped on the Adele bandwagon, but if anything would tempt me to, it would be this song.  (Watch the official video here.)  It harkens back to the great Bond movie themes, the ones you can belt to the rafters like "Nobody Does it Better," yet also reminds me a lot of the songs for GoldenEye and Casino Royale.   Quite the heady mix, and it got me very much ready for a sweet, adrenaline-laced ride.  I hoped I wouldn't be disappointed like I was last time around.

And I wasn't.

:-D

Skyfall is not as sleek and insouciant as Casino Royale.  However, it is also not as clunky and glitchy as Quantum of Solace.  It is cheekier than both of the previous Daniel Craig outings, but also more heartfelt.  Stop reading right here if you don't want spoilage, because I am going to spoil a whole lot of stuff, and if you haven't seen this yet and really want to, you are gonna be mad at yourself if you read the rest of this post.  Trust me, just close the browser tab and come back once you've visited the theater.

Okay, you've been duly warned.

Linger here and gaze at your own peril.  You could drown in those eyes.

Let's begin with the opening sequence, shall we?  This one is jam-packed, with a car chase, a motorcycle chase, and a good, old-fashioned fist-fight on top of a train.  Which goes on to involve an excavator -- I kept thinking how I can't wait for Dano to be old enough to watch movies like this, because he would love the whole excavator part (if it wasn't for all the shooting going on during it, I'd show him that part just cuz it'd probably make him laugh in glee).  But this opening sequence deviates in one very important way from all other 007 movies (at least, the ones I've seen), making it very clear that this movie is going some different places.  James Bond does not win.

In fact, he doesn't even come close to winning, though through no fault of his own.  He gets shot by his own teammate, thus raising the question of just who we -- and he -- can trust.

But, obviously, he can't have actually died only ten minutes or so into the movie.  When he returns, he's haggard, he's haunted, and above all, he's not entirely sure he's up to this job anymore.  In other words, he's quite delicious.

Look who needs a hug!
M tries her best to bolster his (and her) confidence, a new Q arms him (and delivers my favorite line of the movie:  "Were you expecting an exploding pen?  Because we don't really go in for those anymore."  I laughed and laughed), and dear James gets sent off to Shanghai after the guy who killed off another agent at the beginning of the movie and stole, well, basically the equivalent of the NOC list from Mission:  Impossible (1996), but hey, new MacGuffins are hard to find these days.

I knew, from reading reviews of this movie, and interviews with various people involved, that they were bringing back some of the quips and bon mots that had mostly been missing from the last two movies.  I was expecting to laugh, and I did, quite a few times.  I was not expecting, however, that I would cry.  I don't think I have ever cried during a James Bond movie.  But I cried at the end of Skyfall.  Because M dies, cradled by Bond in a sort of reverse Pieta that was hauntingly filmed and achingly well acted.

Which brings me to the subject of Sam Mendes, who directed this.  I've seen two of his previous movies, American Beauty (1999) and Road to Perdition (2002).  I didn't care much for the former, but the latter is one of my favorite neo-noir movies, and it made me hope a great deal that Skyfall was not going to have the crummy camera-work and wonky pacing of Quantum of Solace.  Again, I did not hope in vain.

Remind me again why you drove me to the middle of nowhere, Bond.
I have to think that the dead guy in the bathroom at the beginning of this is a nod to the way Daniel Craig's character died in Road to Perdition, and it made me grin.  Also, the last part of the movie, where James Bond and M go on the run, just them and a car, reminded me a great deal of the father and son on the lam in Road, only with the "son" driving and protecting and planning.  Even the ending, with them confronting their pursuers in a house miles from anywhere, had echoes of Road.

Okay, anyway, Skyfall has lots of great nods and winks to the classic 007 movies, from the Aston Martin with the ejector seat and machine guns, to a bunch of Komodo Dragons circling around under a walkway, very like those sharks from Thunderball (1965).  It also as the creepiest 007 movie bad guy since... um... since Christopher Lee in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  (And that's saying a lot, since we all know Christopher Lee = Ultra Creepy.  When he wants to be.)  Javier Bardem's Silva is creeeeeeeepy, and I don't mean just cuz he hits on Bond in the creepiest way he can manage, or because he can take out his top teeth.  He exudes creeeeeeepiness and is scary in the that-guy's-brain-is-a-bag-full-of-cats way you can't figure what he'll do next.

Only a crazy person would wear that shirt, amiright?
Actually, speaking of Loki, they put Silva in a glass prison cell that had me instantly thinking of the cage on the helicarrier where Nick Fury stashed Loki.  And also of Magneto's plastic prison in X-Men and X-2.  Hmm.

Anyway, by the end of the movie, we have a new Q, a new M, and a new Moneypenny.  But the same Bond.  Whew, cuz I like the way Daniel Craig fills Bond's tuxedo (literally and figuratively), and I'm not in any hurry to see him replaced.

Oh, and also, is Albert Finney ever anything less than delightful?  I can't believe how many UK acting heavyweights are in this movie!  Finney, Dame Judi Dench, and Ralph Feinnes... I kept expecting to see Ian McKellen pop up somewhere.  Guess I have to wait for next month for my Gandalf fix, though.

One last note -- kudos to the filmmakers for staying classy and not letting this devolve into soft porn.  All (all!) the love scenes faded to black at appropriate moments.

In sum, is this my new favorite 007 movie?  No.  I still love GoldenEye and Casino Royale best.  But I look forward to seeing this again.  (From Redbox or something, Cowboy -- stop panicking!)

Friday, November 02, 2012

"Mansfield Park" by Jane Austen

The first time I read Mansfield Park, I didn't like it much at all.  This time around, I liked it a good bit better, though it's still my least-favorite Jane Austen novel so far.  (I haven't read Northanger Abbey yet -- that's up next!)  This time, it helped that I'd just read a long discussion of this book, a conversation between A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre in the book Imagining Characters:  Six Conversations About Women Writers.  It helped me get a bit of perspective on the interplay between Fanny and the other characters, pointing out that while Fanny is extremely passive (which irritated me so much the first time through), she's also very observant, and much better at discerning a person's qualities and character than anyone else in the book.  I kept an eye out for instances of that when I read it this time, and found it much more interesting.

While I'm still frustrated with Fanny's overwhelming reticence, and have little sympathy with her "habits of ready submission," (p. 298) I've come to appreciate what I think Jane Austen was trying to say with this book.  It's a kind of morality play, really, full of archetypes more than realistic characters.  This book, to me, is a warning against excess -- each character pursues or possesses one character quality or flaw to such a degree that it unbalances them and makes them unable to be happy.  Henry Crawford is too proud of his own abilities to interest women, too attached to his own flirtatiousness.  Fanny Price has such low self-esteem that she believes herself to be unworthy of anyone's notice, affection, or interest except that of her elder brother, William.  Edmund Bertram is too fond of the idea of romantic love to listen to reason when applied to the object of his affections, Mary Crawford.  Mrs. Norris is so fond of being in charge that she not only runs her own life in the strictest manner possible, she alienates everyone around her by trying to run their lives too.  And so on, and so forth, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.  The warning here, that if you lack what Edmund calls "the most valuable knowledge we could any of us acquire -- the knowledge of ourselves and our duty," (p384) you're going to wind up unhappy or annoying or both.

If you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where poor Fanny Price goes to live with her rich cousins, the Bertrams, and while growing up with them, falls in love with her cousin Edmund, possibly the most oblivious man ever written.

(Note:  It wasn't until about halfway through this reading that I realized that Filch's cat Mrs. Norris in the Harry Potter books is named after the Mrs. Norris in this book.  Also, both times I read this, I could clearly imagine Agnes Moorehead playing Mrs. Norris.  She would have been perfect -- too bad she never played the character.)

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Happy Halloween, Asgard-style

It's okay, Loki couldn't decide who to be for Halloween either.

(I know, it's actually a day late.  Sorry.  My life was overrun with small mice yesterday.)

Monday, October 29, 2012

"From the Dust Returned" by Ray Bradbury

I've been meaning to read a Ray Bradbury book ever since he died earlier this year, and I finally did.  I quite enjoyed this volume of quiet, spooky stories well-suited to Halloween.  You can read my full review here on the Novel Book Ratings blog.

Particularly Good Bits:

"I have no name," he whispered.  "A thousand fogs have visited my family plot.  A thousand rains have drenched my tombstone.  The chisel marks were erased by mist and water and sun.  My name has vanished with the flowers and the grass and the marble dust." (page 96)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Snow White and the Huntsman" (2012)

Fortunately, I didn't have a lot of hopes for this movie.  Which means I wasn't terribly disappointed by it, which I would have been if I'd been expecting it to be good.  Um, yeah.  I'm usually the Happy Movie Watcher, right?  I like nearly everything.  And I'm not saying I hated this movie, because I didn't.  I just thought it was terribly flawed.  And I'm reeeeeeeeeeally glad I decided to re-see The Avengers in the theater instead of seeing this, as I would have come out pretty angry with myself if I'd decided the other way around.

So what went wrong with this movie?  A lot of things, though I need to make very clear that Chris Hemsworth is not one of them.  I'll talk more about him in a minute.  A lot more, I'm sure.  But let's start with the plot.  Got your basic Snow White thing at the core, with her daddy, the king, remarrying and then dying.  The new queen, Ravenna (Charlize Theron) imprisons Snow White (Kristen Stewart) then and there, and the little girl grows up into a young woman.  While imprisoned, Snow White somehow learned to swim, ride a horse, and develop the stamina to run up a LOT of stairs while wearing a suit of armor -- how is beyond me.  This plot has logic problems, as you can see.  The story also sort of lurched from one Event to the next, with few smooth transitions and sometimes no seeming reason.  Here is where we go next, don't ask why.  This could be because it has three screenwriters, and it felt a lot like there was one who was a bit Lord of the Rings fan, one who was a big Avatar (2009) fan, and one who loved little '80s fantasy movies like Willow (1988) and LadyHawke (1985) and Legend (1985) and kept wanting to throw references to those in.  And someone involved may be a big fan of hallucinogenic drugs, both as plot points and as inspiration for the look of several of the scenes and locations.

So, you've got this hodge-podge of a plot that doesn't always make sense AND a weird mix of looks for different scenes.  That's mostly what I didn't like about the movie, so let's move on to what I liked okay (or a lot):  the cast/characters.

There are three characters who are Really Important:  Snow White, Ravenna (aka The Evil Queen), and The Huntsman.  I'll save the best for last ;-)  Kristen Stewart plays Snow White, and since I'm not a Twihard, I've never seen her in anything other than a magazine before.  I was pleasantly surprised -- she didn't annoy me!  She didn't interest me much, either, but at least I wasn't annoyed.  Not even by the fact that her main facial expression seems to convey nothing so much as severe intestinal distress.



As you can tell by the armor, there comes a point when Snow White goes to war.  I really appreciated that she didn't turn out to be this magically wonderful warrior chick.  She's not a Shield Maiden of Rohan, after all, she's an orphan who's been locked in a castle tower for at least a decade.  The Huntsman did give her a 30-second lesson on how to stab someone up close, but she doesn't get a training montage where someone explains the finer points of swordplay.  So when she gets into a battle, she kind of just runs away whenever possible, smacks a few people with her shield or sword in a haphazard way, and generally manages about as well as I probably would have.  That was nicely done, I thought.

So anyway, then there's Charlize Theron as Ravenna.  I've seen her in a handful of things, and she strikes me as a pretty talented actress, not to mention a gutsy one.  But here, she does a lot of vamping and glowering and pouting.  And not much else.  She gets some fruitily cool costumes, though.




At one point, she takes what I think is supposed to be a milk bath (showing that she's a terrible person, cuz the people outside are starving).


I'm not sure it's a milk bath, though, because when she comes back out, it looks more like she's been dipped in glue.


Um, yeah.  Weird.

But then there's The Huntsman.  And while the mere fact that he's played by Chris Hemsworth would probably be enough to make me interested in him, it's like this character was written specifically for (or by) me.  He's sad.  He broods.  He's incredibly talented at the manly arts of brawling, riding a horse, and being dirty.  He definitely needs a hug.


There's a scene where he actually made me cry.  I was just complaining to a friend that I wanted him to do a movie where he got to show off his acting chops a bit more, and to my surprise, this turns out to be such a movie!  In fact, he puts in a performance that convinced me I wouldn't mind seeing this movie again some day.  Especially if I could just fast-forward to his scenes.


So, in the end, not a very good movie.  On the other hand, it has little gore, little bad language, no sex scenes, and that's all too rare these days. So if you don't care about things making sense and like fantasy, you'd probably dig this.

At last!

I got Laurie R. King's new Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mystery, A Garment of Shadows, from the library this morning!  Started reading as soon as I got in the car, and was very annoyed that we got home so quickly.

I'd write more, but I want to go read :-D

Monday, October 22, 2012

Early Christmas for Me

I got an early Christmas present in the mail this weekend:  two Christmas albums by the Piano Guys musicians, Jon Schmidt and Steven Sharp Nelson.  Because Cowboy doesn't like listening to Christmas music before Thanksgiving (he says he's keeping me honest, or some such fiddle-faddle), I only listened to one song from each of them when they arrived, to make sure they're not defective.  You can buy these as CDs or mp3 albums here on their website.

Here's the song I listened to off Steven Sharp Nelson's album, just in case you're in a clandestine Christmas mood too:



"The Carol of the Bells" has been one of my absolute favorite Christmas songs since I was eleven.  It's featured in the McGee & Me movie 'Twas the Fight Before Christmas, which I first saw at my best friend Christy's birthday party, and which is still my favorite McGee & Me movie.  It's originally a Ukrainian song, and I got to sing it in Ukraine with my future in-laws when Cowboy and I spent Christmas there when we were dating :-D

I also got a wristband, which turns out to be a fabulous teething toy!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"Steal Like an Artist" by Austin Kleon

This is a quirky, fun, inspiring little book.  I'm going to try to remember to read it whenever my muses are absent, my creative well has run dry, and I'm convinced I'll never write another coherent sentence -- much less an interesting one -- ever again.  It's a very quick read, with more than half of the 150ish pages containing very little text.  You could read it in one sitting, unless you have three small children.  Then it will probably take you a couple days, like it did me.

The subtitle of the book is "10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative," though I have to admit I'd read some of his tips elsewhere.  The main idea is that, like the writer of Ecclesiastes told us so long ago, there is nothing new under the sun.  Everyone is just reworking the same ideas in their own way.  And so Kleon suggests that you do things like make lists of who inspires you, then find ways to combine the ideas they give you into some new projects of your own.

My favorite section is Chapter 3:  Write the Book You Want to Read.  It's very short, but it made me go, "Okay, yeah, I'm going to pay no attention to what's cool in fiction right now, I'm going to write the book I want to read."  Which is a western, because I love westerns, and who cares if they're what people are into right now, they're what I'm into, and I'm the one putting in all the work.  So there :-)

Anyway, you can buy this book for under $10.  If you want to know a bit more about it, go to the author's site here.  I totally recommend this book not just for writers, but for anyone doing creative work who needs a little boost now and then.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Three Charming Blogs

Today I'm going to natter on a bit about three blogs I've been reading for a while now.  They're all written by teens, intriguingly, and all three informative and thought-provoking.  I'm posting about them in the order I started reading them, because they have to go in some sort of order, and as I don't like one better than the other, chronological it is.


Classic Forever is written by Millie, who's now in college, though when I started reading this blog, she was in high school.  This blog is primarily about classic movies and TV shows, and the actors and actresses who star in them.  Millie is also a Bobby Darin fan, which will forever endear her -- and this blog -- to me.  She writes with such enthusiasm and joy that I can't help but want to watch whatever movie or show she's glowing about.


Lit Lovers & Corset Laces is written by Ari, a high school student with some astoundingly deep insights into the books she devours.  We share a love of Jane Eyre and Jane Austen, which is how she found my blog and I found hers.  I wish my own book reviews were half so detailed as hers.  She also likes to watch movie versions of classic books and blog about what she thinks they got right, and what she thinks they got oh-so-very wrong.


Austenitis is written by Charity, a home schooled teen who, obviously, is also a Jane Austen afficianado.  She blogs about old and new books and movies, so kind of a mix of the other two blogs.  I've only been reading her blog for a couple months, and at first, I thought she was at least my age, if not older!  Finally got around to reading her bio one day and discovered that, nope, she's actually an articulate young woman.  I love that she does ratings for the books and movies she reviews, and also clues me in to any objectionable content.  Of the three, Charity reminds me most of a slightly younger me :-)

Thank you, Millie, Ari, and Charity, for providing me with so many hours of entertainment and enlightenment!  I look forward to reading many more of your posts for a long time to come.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

"Jane Austen Made Me Do It" edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

A couple months ago, I started reading a blog called AustenProse, written by Laurel Ann Nattress.  As you might imagine from the title, a lot of the posts have to do with Jane Austen, and they're intelligent and informative, not to mention enjoyable, which is why I "followed" it after reading about three posts.  Last month, Ms. Nattress held a series of giveaways for this book, which she edited.  I was quite excited, as I'd already read a review of this book that made me want to read it, but I hadn't managed to get it from the library yet.  So I entered a couple of the giveaway drawings, and I won one!  How could this story end even more perfectly?  My copy (autographed, I might add, by Ms. Nattress) arrived just in time for me take it on our vacation.

I'm so glad it did, because these short stories provided a welcome break from the other two books I had along, a series of literary analyses of famous novels written by women and a history of the U.S. Marshals.  A little Austenian fiction was a treat between doses of the other two books.

Like every anthology of this sort, some of the stories pleased me more than others.  There are purely romantic stories, humorous stories, adventurous stories.  There are additional scenes for Austen's own books.  There are several ghost stories, two epistolary tales, and one dream.  Most of the stories take place either in the present or in Austen's own time, but one takes place in the 1960s.  You can go here for a complete list of the stories and a synopsis of each.  I'll just highlight a few I especially like.

"The Chase" by Carrie Bebris.  Hands-down my favorite story!  It chronicles an actual adventure of Jane Austen's brother, Frank, while he's captaining the H.M.S. Petterel and engaging Napoleon's naval forces.  It made me want to dust off my Patrick O'Brian books and Horatio Hornblower movies.

"When Only a Darcy Will Do" by Beth Patillo.  A university student tries to earn a bit of money leading her own tours of London's Jane Austen sites.  She encounters a man dressed in period clothes and calling himself Mr. Darcy, and her life will never be the same.  If all romance novels were like this story, I would read them.

"What Would Austen Do?" by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway.  A bored fifteen-year-old boy mistakenly signs up to learn how to dance Jane Austen-era dances.  He ends up meeting a girl, reading Austen's novels, and learning how to cope better with high school.  The notes at the end say the authors are considering expanding this into a novel, and I hope they do, because I want to read it.

"Nothing Less Than Fairy-land" by Monica Fairview.  Emma and George Knightley return from their honeymoon and begin moving his things into Hartfield, but Mr. Woodhouse makes it as difficult as you might imagine.  Emma comes up with a suitable and logical solution.  I probably liked this especially well because I finished reading Emma so recently, and because it gives a happy ending to a character I've always felt sorry for.

"Mr. Bennet Meets His Match" by Amanda Grange.  Mr. Bennet reminisces about his youth and why marrying Miss Jane Gardiner seemed like a good idea at the time.  Because I spent a great chunk of Pride and Prejudice wondering why on earth he married her, I found this story the most satisfying of all the new-scene stories.

Just like when I read A Study in Sherlock earlier this year, I'm inspired to seek out the works of several of these new-to-me authors and see how I like their other stories.  And because Stephanie Barron has a story included here ("Jane and the Gentleman Rogue"), I'm eager to read another of her Jane Austen Mysteries too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Jane and the Man of the Cloth" by Stephanie Barron

At first, I was afraid I would be disappointed by this book.  For the first few chapters, it felt like the plot was too obvious -- clearly, the brusque, roguish Mr. Sidmouth was the smuggler everyone was talking about.  Then the plot seemed like it was going to follow a bit of Pride and Prejudice, with Captain Fielding playing Wickham to Mr. Sidmouth's Darcy.

But then, about 5 or 6 chapters in, all of that was clearly not the point at all anymore, and I got sucked in.  A Byronic hero, a bit of swash and buckle, and a plot so tangled I never did figure it out before I was supposed to -- I loved it!  Much more so than its predecessor, Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor. That was fun, but this is delightful.

This fictional Jane Austen is presented as a resourceful, bold, and spirited woman of twenty-nine.  I should like to be friends with her, very much.  There are many footnotes that bring in things from the real Jane Austen's letters or the society she lived in, which makes this book sound dull (footnotes being the thing of college research papers, after all), but it's anything but dull.  Even if the main character wasn't supposed to be Jane Austen, I would still have enjoyed this book.

EDIT:  I forgot to add my favorite parts!  Here they be:

Particularly Good Bits

And so I cross the room to peer out at the unknown, stretching before me like all the days I have yet to live; and can discern nothing beyond my own wavering reflection in the window's glass.

The day broke quite stormy, as though all the seacoast mourned the Captain's passing; and the inmates if Wings cottage lay abed, hugging their dreams close against the rawness of the day.

Full many a midnight thought I have entertained with alacrity, only to reject it over my breakfast chocolate as excessively disordered.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Edge of the Precipice

Well, I've done it.  I've started another blog.

Now that you've finished rolling your eyes, I'll remind you that I mentioned earlier this year that I'd like to have a blog where I could collect all my book reviews.  I just couldn't think of a blog name I really liked that wasn't already taken.  I really wanted to call it "Words, Words, Words," after a line in Hamlet, but that -- and every variation I could think of -- was taken.

But I've thought of a blog title I love!  The Edge of the Precipice.  It's from an F. Scott Fitzgerald quotation:  "Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story."  I've loved that quotation for years, and it suddenly popped into my head the other day as being a great name for my book review blog.  I hastened to my computer, and sure enough, it was still available, so I nabbed it.


Anyway, I'm actually re-posting all my book reviews from the past 8 years on that blog.  All the ones from this blog and my other two blogs.  Every single one.  Which is going to take me a while, but once I'm done, I'll start posting my new reviews there too.  I'll try to finish reviewing Jane Austen's novels here, just for completeness, but those will get posted over there too.  And eventually, all my book reviews will go there.  So go follow that blog if you want to keep reading those.

But I'm not closing down this blog, I promise.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

"Emma" by Jane Austen

Let me begin by admitting that Emma is not my favorite Austen book.  I think it makes me laugh just as much as Pride and Prejudice, if not more.  And Mr. Knightley is my second-favorite Austen hero, after P&P's Mr. Darcy.  But I don't like Emma Woodhouse very well.  And since I have to want to be friends with most of a the characters in a book (or movie, or TV show), this is the main reason I don't like Emma all that well.

Why don't I like Emma Woodhouse?  Partly because she is vain and arrogant, as she herself admits toward the end:  "With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny."

But I think mostly I can't like her very well because she is so meddlesome.  If only Emma had left well enough alone, Harriet would have married Robert Martin when he proposed by letter.  And then, of course, the rest of the book wouldn't exist, but still.  She's also quite bossy, and I dislike bossy people.  Probably because I'm kind of bossy myself, or I can be, but it's something I try to overcome in myself, so I guess I expect other people to struggle against their own bossiness too.  Mr. Knightley, for example, is also bossy, but he becomes less so by the end of the book.

And yet, the 1996 film version of Emma is my favorite of all Austen movies.  Why?  Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) is still meddlesome and bossy.  Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam) is still gentlemanly and thoughtful. Harriet (Toni Collette) is still naive and sweet.  Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming) is still officious and grating.  And Frank Churchill (Ewan MacGregor) is still duplicitous and teasing.

But each one of those characters are somehow a bit more likable in the movie than in the book.  Emma has an uncertainty about her that keeps her for being quite so demanding.  Harriet has a look of intelligence that balances out her docile obedience to everything Emma says.  Mr. Elton... okay, he's not, he's still an ingratiating fortune-hunter.  Neither is Mr. Knightley, but only because he can't possibly be more likable, hee.  But Frank Churchill comes off as mischievous more than simply cheerful and heedless, which makes me like him better (despite Ewan MacGregor's terrible wig.  I swear it is actually pink cotton candy!)  I think the only character I like better in the book than the movie is Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson), who is more intelligent and less pathetic in the book.

So anyway, I like Emma better than Mansfield Park, but mostly because of Mr. Knightley and the movie version.

If you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where Miss Emma Woodhouse plays matchmaker for her friend Harriet Smith, with disastrous results.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Ten TV Characters I Would Most Like to Clog My Hard Drive With

My best friend and I have been making very fun lists lately.  I decided to share one of them here, as I can't resist illustrating it.  Here are my top ten hottest TV characters. The ones I could merrily spend all day watching, if I didn't have a husband to amuse, three kids to tend, and a household to maintain.  Here we go:

10.  Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), Firefly (2002-2003)


9.  Heath Barkley (Lee Majors), The Big Valley (1965-1969)


8.  Josh Randall (Steve McQueen), Wanted:  Dead or Alive (1958-1961)


7.  Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Star Trek (1966-1969)


6.  Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker), Cheyenne (1955-1963)


5.  Sgt. Saunders (Vic Morrow), Combat! (1962-1967)


4.  Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), Bones (2005-present)


3.  Spike (James Marsters), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (2003-2004)


2.  James "Sawyer" Ford (Josh Holloway), Lost (2004-2010)


1.  Angel (David Boreanaz), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996-1999) and Angel (1999-2004)


I think we see some very clear themes here, namely Cowboys and Violence.  And the 1960s.  Is this really the same Hamlette who's been reading all those Jane Austen books lately?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

Entertainment Weekly made this book sound poignant and intriguing, so I got it from the library.  They were right, but it seems I'm not at all in the mood for poignant these days.  Remember how This Side of Paradise depressed me?  So did The Age of Miracles.  Not as much, but it still planted a big cloud of gloom over my head for the few days it took me to read it.  If that sounds like a non-recommendation, it's not -- this book is original and lovely, it just was not at all what I wanted (or needed) to be reading right now.  Back before it took a lot of prayer, coffee, and chocolate to get me through the day in a cheerful fashion, I bet I'd have liked this book a lot more.

The Age of Miracles begins on the day that middle-schooler Julia and her parents learn, along with the rest of the world, that the earth's rotation is slowing down.  Known as The Slowing, this phenomenon at first doesn't seem to change things much -- days are a few minutes longer, at first.  Before long, though, those extra minutes are extra hours.  The government decides to stick with a twenty-four hour day, so that everyone can be on the same page about when things like school and work should happen.  Only not everyone likes that idea -- the "real timers" follow the sun's schedule instead, staying awake during the daylight and sleeping in the dark, even though those days stretch longer and longer.

In the midst of all the global upheaval, Julia is also experiencing the ordinary upheaval of adolescence.  She likes a boy.  She doesn't understand her parents.  She wants to need to wear a bra.  She loses her best friend.  She tries to connect with her grandfather.  Life may be slowing down, but for her it is also speeding up.

Walker juggles the balance between global disruption and personal angst pretty deftly.  Neither one ever seems to be more important than the other.  And her concept of what would happen to the world feels very real -- animals and plants can't adapt, humans struggle to find solutions to problems like energy and food sources, and people argue and come to blows over changes they can't control.  In fact, the thing that gloomed me out is how real it felt -- I would sometimes look out my window and remind myself that the world wasn't actually slowing down and my life wasn't being disarranged, that was just in the novel.

If you like end-of-the-world-is-near books, or coming-of-age books, you'd probably dig this.  Me, I'm heading for the solace of yet another cheerful murder mystery.  I have three small children -- there's plenty of angst and strife in my real life, and I don't need more, even if it is fictional.

Particularly Good Bits:

Carlotta's long gray hair swung near her waist, a ghost, I suspected, of its younger and sexier self.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

All play and no blogging

All I've posted lately are book reviews.  I'm sorry.  Summer makes me indolent.  I read, I play with the kids, once in a while I watch a movie.  My brain gets stuck in Playtime mode and doesn't want to create coherent sentences any more often than it has to.  I think I'm using up all its creative energy with that Avengers/Combat! crossover I'm writing.

Oh well, I'm sure once The Avengers comes out on DVD fall comes, I'll be my more productive and bloggy self.

Toodle-oo!

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout

I love Nero Wolfe mysteries.  They are never less than a joy to read.  The dialog sparkles, the plots dazzle, the characters-of-the-day amuse, and the regular characters delight.  In other words, precisely what I needed to bring me out of the everything-is-meaningless-and-grasping-for-the-wind funk I was in after This Side of Paradise.

I thought I'd read this one before, as it's in a Nero Wolfe omnibus I found in my parents' basement a couple weeks ago.  Surely I read that omnibus (two novels and a trio of short stories) back when I first discovered Rex Stout?  But I didn't actually remember any of it while reading, so maybe I just never actually cracked this book, always saving it for when I ran out of library books or something?  'Tis a puzzlement.

At any rate, this is a jolly good mystery.  Wolfe is the guest of honor at a meeting of a group of world-renowned chefs at a resort in West Virginia.  Which means he has to not only leave his Manhattan brownstone, he has travel on a train.  Overnight.  Poor Archie Goodwin -- if you've read any of these books or seen the TV series based on them, you know he's not along because he's expecting to have fun.

But they do get to West Virginia with no actual mishaps, and once settled there, of course the murder and mayhem commence.  One of the chefs is killed, and several of the others had expressed their malice toward him before he died, including Wolfe's particular friend Marko Vukcic, whose ex-wife was married to the deceased.  Fortunately, there's a master sleuth and his trusty aide around to sort everything out.

As a bonus, the recipes for a lot of the dishes described in this mystery are included in the back!  I've always wanted to try the dishes Fritz Brenner (Wolfe's resident cook) concocts, and The Nero Wolfe Cookbook is on my Christmas list, but until the day I get that, I might just try out one of the recipes included in this book.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

"This Side of Paradise" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oh bother.  I'm afraid I didn't like this book very well at all.  Much of the writing was quite brilliant, of course, but it depressed me a great deal.  Not because it's sad, because it's not sad.  I mean, it's not sad like Old Yeller or Doctor Zhivago.  It's just that the character spends his young adulthood wandering around, trying to figure out who he is and what life is all about.  It's pretty well a perfect picture of the whole Lost Generation, which is what it was intended to be, but it got into my head and started making me wonder if I was doing anything with my own life.  And I know that I am doing worthwhile things, such as raising three children, being a loving wife, and even writing something to amuse other people now and then.  But sometimes I feel like I'm just coasting along, and this book really intensified that feeling.  So I'm glad I'm finished with it, and I've picked up a nice, cheerful murder mystery to wash the ennui out.

Particularly Good Bits:

The invitation to Miss Myra St. Claire's bobbing party spent the morning in his coat pocket, where it had an intense physical affair with a dusty piece of peanut brittle.


The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight.

Friday, August 03, 2012

"Sweet Dreams, Irene" by Jan Burke

My review of Sweet Dreams, Irene is now available here on the Novel Book Ratings blog :-)  It's the second in Jan Burke's series about the mystery-solving newspaperwoman, Irene Kelly.  I liked it better than the first, and am confident the series gets even better as it goes along, mostly since I read one of the later books first, dontchaknow.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

"Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor" by Stephanie Barron

It seems that my blog has had three themes of late:  The Avengers, mysteries, and Jane Austen.  Perhaps I am stuck in a three-rutted road.  At any rate, I have just finished reading, this very evening, a book that combines two of those themes.  Not, I fear, Jane Austen and The Avengers, which, however diverting, would be an unlikely pairing.  No, this book combines Jane Austen and the murder mysteries.  It is, in fact, a mystery starring a fictionalized version of Jane Austen herself.

I know what you're thinking:  Absurd!  Travesty!  Sacrilege!

But it's not.  It is, to be precise, great fun.

Stephanie Barron sets up her story by saying that a family friend was excavating an old building and found a trunk of letters and journals that turned out to have belonged to Jane Austen herself.  (This is very like the way that Laurie R. King sets up her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, only in them, Russell has sent a trunk full of manuscripts and oddments to King.)  This book, then, is pieced together from journal entries and letters to Austen's family members.  It does involve historical parts of Austen's life, and also a treasure trove of details about life in Austen's time.

The story begins with Jane Austen visiting her friend Isobel, the new Countess of Scargrave, who married Frederick, Lord Scargrave, a scant three weeks previous.  Jane welcomes the opportunity to visit them upon their return from a honeymoon abroad, as she has only recently accepted and then rejected the hand of Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither (honestly his real name, silly as it may seem).  But Lord Scargrave falls ill and dies following a fancy ball thrown in Isobel's honor, and Isobel is suspected of his murder.  Convinced of her friend's innocence, Jane throws all her intelligence and knowledge of humankind into discerning the truth.

The beautiful thing is, Barron has caught the cadence of Austen's writing, her phrasing and word choices, the flavor of her dialog.  At times, one can almost believe this to be based on something Austen herself wrote.  There are some similarities in situation, character, or specific lines of writing that reflect Austen's novels, which to follow this imaginary timeline, would have been published a few years later. 

The author also included a number of footnotes that clarify things such as how the British justice system worked, medical practices of the day, and which characters were actual people in Jane Austen's real life.  These are especially useful for readers like myself, who enjoy Austen's work to no end, but aren't keen on researching life during the British Regency. 

I do have to say that I was occasionally frustrated by the fictional Austen's tendency to rehash a character's motives after already contemplating them earlier on, and a few of the character names (a butler named Cobblestone?) stretched disbelief a bit, but overall, I enjoyed this book.  I definitely want to read more of them -- Barron has written nearly a dozen now.  Find out more on her website, where she has some intriguing thoughts on Austen, mysteries, and the art of writing.


Here is my favorite passage, which made me laugh aloud when I first read it:
"Nay, Isobel," I protested, "do not cause yourself the trouble to search further.  I believe Lieutenant Hearst will amply serve my purpose.  He has good looks and charm without the slightest suggestion of better feeling, and he possesses not a penny he may call his own.  he shall do very well for a portionless clergyman's daughter.  We may expect him to ruin me and then depart for a noble death before Buonaparte's cannon, at which point I shall throw myself in the millpond and be renowned in wine and song.  Has Scargrave a millpond, Isobel?"
See?  Great fun :-)  For those who love both Jane Austen and a good mystery, this is a treat not to be missed.