Last November, as the Camp Fire was at its worst, I gave a presentation at our local library for those brave enough to venture out into the smoke and haze. Not many, alas. But our library was kind enough to also record the presentation. It’s long—I had a lot of ground to cover. Here’s hoping you find it helpful, or at least amusing.
Sometimes I’m asked, “What books do you think are good?” and that is a very broad question because “good” is subjective. Also, it depends on your criteria for “good.” Do you mean “well written”? Do you mean “entertaining”? Do you mean books with characters I fell in love with? Or do you mean books that have stayed with me for years, despite whether I actively enjoyed reading them?
There is, perhaps, a fair argument that a book cannot be very good if it can be forgotten the moment you finish reading it. However, not all writers are aiming to live in long memory. While I hope readers enjoy Brynnde and Faebourne, I understand that those books and others like them are often kind of like candy floss, melting away as the reader moves on to the next thing.
Then again, just because a book is memorable, that doesn’t mean it is (or was) enjoyable to read. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—we remember books (or movies) precisely because they had such a negative impact on us. Yet one could argue the author has done a “good” job because he or she has made the book into something you will never forget. No such thing as bad publicity? Some authors and filmmakers actively attempt to shock and discomfit their readers/viewers. If they do so, they consider themselves successful, even if critics and viewers hate their work.
Sometimes, though, it’s a neutral thing that, for whatever reason, leaves an impression. I was once talking to a friend of mine about (if I remember correctly, and if I don’t, it probably disproves me) Needful Things by Stephen King. And at one point we both said at the same time: “When Alan catches the glass.” This references a very specific scene in the book, one that has stuck in both our brains for years. After all, I’ve only read that book once, when I was about sixteen or seventeen years old. I don’t remember much about it, but Alan catching the glass is burned into my brain… and velvet Elvis paintings.
At the same time, there are plenty of books I can recall liking, but if you asked me for specifics now, I wouldn’t be able to give you any. I loved “The Turn of the Screw” (and The Innocents), but I can’t give you any details on what about the story or film I particularly enjoyed. I only have this general feeling of: Oh, yes, I liked that one. This is true of so many books and movies, probably because we’re designed to remember what we dislike—what affects us badly—more than what we like. This is an old part of the brain, a holdover from the days when we needed to remember which plants made us sick or which animals were dangerous. But it’s the part of the brain that, today, makes us more likely to write a letter of complaint, or a bad review, than to praise something.
So what am I getting at here? I’m only pointing out that “good” is measured in many different ways. You can say, “I liked it,” but can you articulate why? And even if you don’t like something, if it stays in your mind and follows you around, does that make it “good,” at least on some level?
What books or movies have stuck with you over time? Did you like them? Or have they made an impression precisely because they were terrible? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
“Poignant” is the word that came to mind while watching this little indie film. I don’t know if that fits, exactly, but it’s what I actively thought at the time.
This movie stars Nick Offerman as Frank, single father to Sam, who is taking classes over the summer before leaving NY to attend UCLA. Frank has run a record store called Red Hook Records for 17 years, but now too broke to pay the rent, he has to close the place and find another job. He also has a mother (Blythe Danner) who “gets confused sometimes” and yet refuses to give up her rent-controlled apartment to live with Frank.
There are a couple of B storylines: Nick’s landlord Leslie is giving him mixed signals, and Sam falls in love with a girl named Rose. But the chief conflict is that Frank and Sam “jam” together, and after recording a song one night, Frank uploads it to Spotify and it gets put on a “new indies” playlist. It gets enough attention that there is interest in repping them, but Sam isn’t happy with her dad’s push for stardom. He used to be in a band with her mother, who sadly died in a bicycle accident, and Sam sees his desire to return to the limelight as pathetic. She doesn’t want to sign a contract and go on tour; she wants to go to med school.
As an aside, let me just say that I like to “collect” people who share the same birthday as me (date, not year), and Kiersey Clemons, who plays Sam, does! She really does have a magnificent voice, and she’s incredibly talented as an actress as well. No need for my well wishes, however, as she’s lined up to play Iris opposite Ezra Miller in a Flash movie. She’s well on her way.
Hearts Beat Loud is a small film, zeroed in on Offerman’s Frank as he navigates major life upheaval. While the storyline with Blythe Danner didn’t seem to go much of anywhere, overall this is a movie worth curling up with. If you liked Begin Again, or enjoy films of that sort, you’d probably like this one as well.
So, in the wake of re-reading The Black Opal and finding it disappointing, I decided to try another one of the Victoria Holt novels I have on my shelf. I’ve read them all, but it’s been a couple decades, so I don’t remember much about any of them except that I liked them an awful lot at the time. (Well, I remember finding the name Lavinia in The India Fan to be just the most elegant name… That’s literally the only thing I remember about all the Victoria Holt books I’ve read.) My question was: if, upon revisiting, The Black Opal wasn’t all that good, how do the others hold up?
The Legend of the Seventh Virgin is much older than The Black Opal, by almost three decades. So it’s probably not entirely fair to compare them as authors’ writing styles change over time. But these are the two I’ve read and refreshed my memory on, so these are the two we’re going with.
My chief complaint about The Black Opal was that the main character Carmel was really, really dull. Not so with the main character of TLOTSV. If anything, Kerensa Carlee suffers from a surfeit of personality. The problem here is that she’s not terribly likable. She is fixated on the local manor house known as the Abbas, determined to somehow make it her own. I guess she’s what some would consider a “strong female character,” but I think her counterpart Mellyora is stronger in a lot of ways (and much more engaging, though we only see everything through Kerensa’s eyes, as she is the narrator).
Cornwall, Victorian Era. Kerensa has big aspirations, not just for herself but for her brother Joe, who she is determined will be a doctor. Kerensa constantly wants people to do what she wants and is infuriated when they make choices different from the ones she thinks are best for them—but are really best for her, or suit her ambitions. I won’t spoil anything on the off chance you’d like to read this book at some point, but Kerensa is selfish and domineering, which she readily acknowledges but makes no attempt to change.
The other annoying thing is that Kerensa is repetitive in her narration, hitting the same points over and over again until readers want to scream, “Yes! We get it!” Time after time she goes on about her brother and how disappointed she is when he doesn’t become a doctor but instead a mere veterinarian. (I guess that was a minor spoiler. Sorry.) She harps on the house, her goals for her son Carlyon… [As an aside, I once had a bad review for one of my books because the reader didn’t find the names believable for the time period, but I ain’t got nothin’ on Victoria Holt. Just sayin’.] Kerensa orchestrates things in an all-out attempt to make her dreams come true, but the costs turn out to be great as well.
I suppose a lot of the fun in reading a Victoria Holt novel is that they’re so outlandish. They’re historical gothic romance, really, and I’m not sure much can be expected of them. I did find TLOTSV to be more absorbing than The Black Opal, but toward the end I was skimming. There were a number of false endings of a sort—just when you thought everything was settled, some other little thing would pop up and happen. If you’re a savvy reader, many of the twists were telegraphed, though I still enjoyed them for the high drama they were.
I have a few more of Holt’s books, but I’m going to take a break before trying any more of them. Although I used to read them one after another like a kid scarfing down candy, I feel I need a bit of a palate cleanser before tackling another.
It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.
Question of the Month: What are your favorite and least favorite questions people ask you about your writing?
I love being asked about my writing, and I can’t think of any questions that annoy me or that I don’t like to answer. If anything, I wish more people would ask me about my work… Maybe I just like to talk about myself!
I suppose there are offensive questions, but that’s usually based on how the question is asked. I get accusatory-sounding questions about why I make characters gay, for example. “Why did you have to make them gay?” Look, I know that’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but sometimes as I’m writing a character, I come to understand things about him or her. I don’t plan it; my characters grow organically as I write. A lot of mine happen to be gay.
When I first started writing The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller, I had planned for Peter to be a womanizer. Alas, he had different ideas, and it was Jules who stepped up to chase the girls. (I still have ideas forming in the back of my mind for a book about Jules.) When I was writing Faebourne, I had planned for George and Edward to get together, but… If you read the book, you see how that went.
That’s another thing I do get tired of hearing: “Oh, but you should be in charge of your characters and make them do what you say!” I find that creates stilted characters that are bound by plot. When reading, I can always tell when a writer was determined to stick to their outline because the characters don’t seem to breathe or act of their own accord. They do things that seem out of character or don’t make sense, and it’s usually because the author forced them.
It takes me a long time to write a draft because I’m a bit like Michelangelo, chipping away at the stone block and seeing the story take shape. I have a general sense of the story and what’s going to happen, but my outlines are very loose and free flowing. After that arduous draft, however, the refinement takes far less time. This is why it takes me about a year to write and publish a book: ~9 months of drafting and ~3 months of rewriting and editing.
Still, as long as people are respectful, I don’t mind answering whatever questions they may have.
My kids were asking for a movie night, and this one was family friendly and streaming (the only two criteria). I vaguely recall reading and like John Bellairs’ book when I was younger, but I don’t remember the book itself in any detail… What, I wonder, does that say about it?
The movie is about Lewis, whose parents have died in a terrible car accident, so he has gone to live with an uncle he never knew he had. Uncle Jonathan (played with aplomb by Jack Black) lives in a house as weird as he is, and with a platonic friend Mrs. Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett). I really enjoyed watching these two; they seemed to be having fun, and my nine-year-old son laughed like a loon at all the banter and physical comedy this movie had to offer.
This is, in fact, exactly the kind of movie I would have adored at that age. However, be forewarned that, while my youngest did enjoy it, he was also a bit “creeped out,” as he put it, and we had to take extra care putting him to bed for the night. The creepy stuff includes animated dolls/mannequins, which I must agree is the basis for many a nightmare.
The story itself is fairly linear and goes without any real surprises: at first Lewis thinks Jonathan might be evil, but then he finds out his uncle is simply a warlock. Magic ensues, things go wrong, etc.
The production values are quite fine, and the movie is fun to watch as much for the colors and visuals as for the the silliness of the actors. I’m not sure why audiences didn’t enjoy it (46% on Rotten Tomatoes, though critics gave it 67%). Were they expecting something more sophisticated? It’s a kids’ movie based on a kids’ book, so it came in as exactly what I anticipated—slightly better than I expected, actually, given the ratings.
In short, it’s a solidly middling film, neither amazing nor terrible, just a fair amount of fun. I’d give it three stars out of five and say it’s worth watching with your kids (if you have them, or any you can borrow); otherwise, I’m not sure whether, as an adult, you’d find it worth your while. Maybe for nostalgia value. In any case, that’s a call you’ll have to make yourself.
Voices by: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage
Directed by: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Written by: Phil Lord & Rodney Rothman (screenplay); Phil Lord (story); from characters created by a whole list of people I can’t be bothered to type here
Columbia Pictures/Sony/Marvel, 2018
PG; 117 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)
It’s no secret that I’m long over superhero movies. Marvel in particular has been crumbling under its own weight for a while now. A large part of the problem (though there are many) is that these movies have begun to take themselves too seriously. They’re constantly seeking to up the stakes and lay on the drama. Yet the result is the audience becomes numb to the would-be tension. Instead of feeling like stakes are higher, it has come to feel like there are no stakes at all. Everyone comes back, after all. “We can rebuild, rebirth, turn back time; we have the technology.”
But I still enjoy some superhero movies. Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok are two of my favorites, and why? Because they don’t take themselves too seriously. Spider-Man: Homecoming was similar, though the need to shoehorn in Stark and tie it all to the Avengers… Ugh. Not everything has to be a crossover, guys. This isn’t fan fiction (though it sure does feel like it these days—except I’ve read better fan fiction than a lot of these scripts).
Okay, but what about this movie? I went in with no real expectations and no particular background knowledge of Spider-Man outside the films I’ve seen (Tobey Maguire, yes; Andrew Garfield, no; Tom Holland, yes) and what my husband sometimes tries to explain to me while my eyes glaze over. I’d heard, for example, that Gwen becomes Spider-Something at some point… That there were multiple universes… Yeah, that’s about it.
Into the Spider-Verse follows the origin story of Miles Morales, one of the many incarnations of Spider-Man. Miles is smart and awkward, new to a private high school where the expectations are higher. Meanwhile, he just wants to do his art (graffiti). While doing just that, he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and… You can guess the rest.
One supercollider-that-opens-other-dimensions later, Miles is joined by a number of other Spider-Peeps. He learns the ropes while trying to get everyone back to their respective universes. Then he must destroy the collider to keep the world (or at least NYC) stable.
It’s a straight-forward plot, which I really appreciated. These days, all the plots feel so convoluted as to be nonsense, just a backdrop for character drama. This felt refreshing by comparison.
The animation style, too, was really nice. This is a visually pleasing movie, and it really is like watching a comic book.
Viewers don’t have to know much about Spider-Man to get anything out of this film either. Once again, so nice not to have to watch twenty other films first to understand the story or know the characters.
Of course, there’s the imminent danger that this did well enough that they’ll turn it into a long, complicated series in its own right. But let’s hope not. For once, maybe they could just leave well enough alone and let us have nice things instead of ruining everything in their pursuit of profits.
Things don’t have to be complex to be good. In fact, there’s a tipping point at which they get so elaborate they turn bad. You know, it’s like jewelry, or architecture. There’s a pleasant level of embellishment, but that one extra piece or detail turns it from stylish to tacky in an instant. The Marvel Universe has become just that: tacky. But this movie, over here on its own and minding its own business—it’s chic. Fun. Well worth viewing. It doesn’t stumble under the weight of anything before it, nor does it try too hard to be “important.” It’s just a really good movie. And in a world filled to the brim with superheroes of all sorts, this one somehow manages to stand out like a rare gem.
And for those who don’t observe the holiday, a very merry day all the same.
Much thanks to those of you who have supported me and my work. You mean the world to me!
When I was a teenager, I gobbled up Victoria Holt novels. They were—still are, I suppose—the reading equivalent of candy. However, this one gets a bit stuck in your teeth. And not in a good way.
The Black Opal is told by Carmel, who as a baby was found under an azalea plant outside Commonwood House. The family at Commonwood grudgingly takes her in, and it’s bandied that Carmel is the daughter of the gypsies that return to the area each summer. Carmel doesn’t feel entirely welcome, except that the governess is kind, as is the neighboring family at The Grange. Lucien Compton makes it a point to include Carmel in teas and such, and to her he is a hero.
When the harridan wife at Commonwood dies unexpectedly, the children are sent away. Carmel is taken by Toby Sinclair, a sea captain, to Australia. She lives there for several years before deciding she wants to return to England. Alas, she learns that the doctor whose family she’d lived with at Commonwood was hanged for his wife’s murder. Carmel is so sure that he didn’t do it that she… Doesn’t do much of anything, actually, except write a few letters and visit old friends.
Carmel is not a very interesting character, and it’s difficult to understand why three men fall in love with her. The writing here, too, is quite pedantic, with a lot of tell and little show. Maybe that just shows how styles and standards have changed, but even if that’s the case, it’s difficult to ignore while reading. Meanwhile, the murder mystery isn’t much of one, and Carmel’s hesitation when re-connecting with Lucien doesn’t make for much tension either. The whole book feels like a wet rag.
I’d like to go back and read another of Holt’s novels now to see if the problem is just with The Black Opal, or if all of them were this weak. At the same time, I’m worried I’ll discover it’s the latter, and my rosy memory of these books will be shattered. The Black Opal was, I believe, the last one I ever read by her. She died not long after. So maybe her work simply began to fail towards the end? I have several other of her books on my shelf… I will have to pick one up and see how well it stands.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: David Magee (screenplay); David Magee, Rob Marshall, John DeLuca (story); based on characters created by P.L. Travers
Walt Disney, 2018
PG; 130 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)
I really didn’t have any expectations going in. I recall enjoying Mary Poppins when I was young, and we took the kids to the stage play a couple years ago. Still, I wasn’t sure if they’d get anything out of this resurrection of an old character and property.
I needn’t have worried. My children loved this movie, and it was a joy to watch them watch it, especially my youngest. He was so very invested, bouncing in his seat, laughing like a loon. Meanwhile, my 10-year-old daughter kept checking on me to make sure I didn’t cry too much. (I did cry a bit, though, which is very unusual for me.)
Here we have a grown and widowed Michael Banks, raising three children: twins John and Annabel, and young Georgie. Due to their mother having died less than a year before, the twins have taken it upon themselves to grow up quickly and help run the household. They’re no-nonsense… Something Mary Poppins will soon fix.
The titular nanny arrives as the Banks learn they have only five days to pay back a loan to the bank else lose their house on Cherry Tree Lane.
It’s clear the goal was to evoke the feel of the original film in an almost one-to-one ratio of musical numbers and adventures. “A Spoonful of Sugar” is now “Can You Imagine That?”, “Jolly Holiday” becomes “Royal Doulton Music Hall”, “I Love to Laugh” equates to “Turning Turtle”, and “Chim Chim Cheree/Step in Time” has turned into “Trip a Little Light Fantastic.” That said, all the charm remains intact (or it did for me, my husband, and family). Instead of a pale imitation, Blunt makes the role her own and Miranda likewise is endearing as earnest lamplighter Jack.
There is also more of a sense of a cohesive story here: the Bankses must save their home. Colin Firth plays the villainous banker intent on claiming the property. I do love Firth, and don’t especially like to think of him as evil, but he does the job with all the aplomb of a typical Disney villain. I’m only sorry he didn’t really get his moment of redemption at the end.
I’m very aware that, having just come out of the cinema, there’s a fair chance I’ll feel differently later as it all sinks in, but on the whole I call this one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Just purely enjoyable. It felt a bit like a gamble to make it, but the result is a delightful win.