Movies: The House with a Clock in Its Walls

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.

Movies: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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)

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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.

Sigh.

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.

Books: The Black Opal by Victoria Holt

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.

Movies: Mary Poppins Returns

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)

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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.

Embracing It

Today I read an article giving many good reasons not to seek an agent or traditional publishing contract. They were all reasons I’d heard before, but these came from an established author who’d been published by big houses from 1987-2008. He pointed out that the world has changed a lot and… Traditional publishers haven’t. Why keep using a dial-up modem when Wi-Fi is so readily available?

In truth, I still struggle with my desire to have an agent and a book published by one of the “big five.” I’ve done okay with my self-published work, and I enjoy having the control, but… I think many authors are still looking for the validation that an agent and traditional publishing contract seemingly confers. We want to be chosen ones. Even as we know that we don’t have to wait for someone to choose us—we can choose ourselves, believe in ourselves—something inside us still craves it. We’re the girls (or boys) that know we can go to prom alone but deep down still want someone to ask us.

I went to prom with a group of friends—and fellow self-published authors can be that group of friends, too. And the nice thing about my prom photo is that I’m the only one in it. That sounds weird, but it means I don’t have to look at it and think, “That guy.” Not wistfully, or with distaste, or whatever feeling(s) having another person in the picture might have engendered. I can look at that picture and think, Damn, I looked good. And not be sorry.

But maybe still a little sad that I didn’t have a date.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sum total is about embracing being single at prom a self-published author. I don’t want to say “resigning oneself,” because it shouldn’t be that. So many people think of self-publishing as a last resort, but more and more it’s becoming many writers’ first choice. The article I linked to gives several good reasons for that. My reasons have become practical ones: self-publishing saves me a lot of time and agony, and my self-published work has done better than my small press-published stuff. I mean, if I’m going to put in the effort to market anyway, I might as well be getting all the royalties, right? And when I self-publish, succeed or fail, I can only blame (or congratulate) myself. It’s a neatly closed circle, tidy, and I like that.

Just like with that prom photo—if I’m going to be sorry about anything, it’ll be how I did my hair or something, not about who I chose to be with. Substitute agent/publisher for that guy in the photo, and… You kind of see it?

God, this analogy is messy.

Unfortunately, there is still some stigma attached to self-publishing. Though the quality of self-published books is largely rising, there are some bad ones out there. And there are readers (and other authors) who again assume that self-published books are the result of “not being good enough for ‘real’ publishing.” Bad enough that self-pubbed authors have to fight that image on the outside. We shouldn’t have to fight it in our own minds.

But we do sometimes. Or I do, at least. I still sometimes think I’m not good enough and wish a fairy god-agent would appear and sell my work to a big-name publisher. It’s an old dream, deeply rooted in the time when that was the only way to publish. Just like a dog that spent its life in a cage will feel vulnerable when first set loose in a yard, will sometimes want to run back to the comfort of its own imprisonment… We know the dog is better off with more room, though, right? And authors are better off with creative control of their work. It’s just that they’ve been told for so long that the cage is safe. Look at it: gilded, lovely. But still a cage, as those who’ve had the door slammed shut behind them can attest.

So. I’m determined to embrace, however awkwardly, the fact that I’m a self-published author and am likely to remain one. No more querying, wasting time waiting for generic responses (if and when they ever come at all). I’ve been pleased by the success of Brynnde and Faebourne and hope to build on that. This is me, alone in that prom photo. No regrets.

Ageism in Writing and Publishing (a birthday post)

I was reading an online message board in which an author asked about whether anyone had experienced ageism when trying to find an agent or publisher. While I didn’t feel qualified to answer, it did make me stop and think.

I’ve noticed many writers—well, the ones announcing having landed agents and made deals—are younger than me. I guess that happens as you age; everyone seems young! But I do think that things have changed. It used to be that authors were relatively invisible aside from occasional book tours (if they were big enough names) or conference appearances. But with the advent of social media, being an author is now like being any other famous person. Suddenly it matters what you look like. And just like aging actresses get booted to make room for the young, pretty things, I do sometimes suspect the same about authors.

It probably varies by genre, though. I think it’s YA authors that skew young. Agents and publishers seem to think that younger readers want authors who “get it.” And of course us old fogeys can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be a teenager these days. We can’t even imagine, despite our jobs being to do just that. However, romance writers can be older because *ahem* “experience”?

There are surely gender biases, too. Just as handsome older actors continue to get cast in big motion pictures, old white men get to keep writing and publishing books.

At the same time, this is impossible to prove. That’s the difficulty with ageism. Especially in a subjective business where it’s perfectly reasonable for agents or publishers to say, “This just isn’t for me.” Whether it’s the work or something about you—age or otherwise—you may never know.

To be clear, I’m not bitter. This is really just meant to be a reflection piece. The nice thing about modernity is that, even if agents reject you because you’re “too old to write YA,” that doesn’t have to stop you from being published because you can publish yourself. It’s hard work, to be sure, but at least then you can know for certain whether your writing is good enough (and your age never mattered), or if the agents/publishers were right all along. As the saying goes: You’ll never know until you try.

Solar Return!

Today is my solar return, which is the equivalent of an astrological birthday. It means the sun will return to the place in the sky where it was when I was born. I’ve heard that you should plan fun activities for your solar return because how you spend the day sort of projects into the coming year. I even read once how to break down the hours/minutes of your solar return day into which days and months of the coming year they correlate with so you could see when significant things might happen. I tried doing this once or twice, but it’s a heckuva lot of work, so I think today I’ll just mark down anything that happens that feels important or interesting.

Of course, anyone spends at least a chunk of the 24 hours of their solar return asleep. So I’m not sure how it works to project that onto your coming year. Are those just really dull months? Does nothing much happen during that time? Are you super sleepy for those months?

I guess what I’m saying is, as with everything in life, you can only invest so much into a solar return or astrology in general. Life is what you make it, not what the stars and planets do.

Today I intend to relax. We’re going out for a nice dinner. That’s pretty much the only plan. Maybe that means the next year of my life will be placid. Boring? Well, I’m sure I can find ways to liven things up in my own way.

Gay or Not Gay? A Handy Guide

It was really only a matter of time that someone would give Faebourne a low-star review because there is a gay romance subplot. I did try to be clear in the book description, and the novel is placed in a gay fiction category besides, but… Ah, well. Not everyone reads the fine print.

Here, then, is a breakdown of my writing in terms of gay/not gay:

My books that feature gay characters:

  • The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller (main character is gay)
  • Manifesting Destiny (one of the main characters is gay)
  • Faebourne (supporting characters are gay)

Gay-free books:

  • The World Ends at Five
  • The K-Pro
  • Brynnde

Where are the Sherlock Holmes stories? Well, while in my stories Holmes and Watson are not gay, there are hints that Mycroft is. So it straddles the fence, I suppose.

I’m considering publishing a short story of mine called “The Zodiac Clock,” and it has gay characters, too. So if that bothers you, don’t read it.

I hope that clears up any potential confusion. Happy reading!