Saturday, July 25, 2015

MIND FIELD

Aging detective vs. memory in lyrical Mr. Holmes

In the canon of famous literary characters, few have been so gleefully adulterated over the years as Sherlock Holmes.

The brilliant, eccentric "consulting detective," first conceived of by Arthur Conan Doyle in the1880s, has proved irresistible to countless other writers trying their hands at Holmesian-style tales, among many other multimedia adventurers.

In the famous series of mystery films of the '40s, Holmes was enlisted in the fight against Hitler. Two popular current TV series (the marvelous Sherlock, and Elementary) update Holmes to the present day.

So, the new movie, Mr. Holmes, joins a longstanding tradition of adapting the character to suit the needs of a new author or agenda, presenting an elderly Holmes in retirement attempting to solve one last case.
Hattie Morahan with McKellen: one last case

Based on the Mitch Cullin novel, A Slight Trick of the Mind, it reunites star Ian McKellen and director Bill Condon, almost two decades after their successful collaboration on Gods And Monsters.

It is, in many ways, a lovely, lyrical film about aging, loss, and redemption, although it settles for an overall tone of wistfulness, instead of the deeper resonance it might have had.

The framing story begins in 1947, with McKellen's craggy, truly ancient-seeming Holmes returning to his stone farm cottage and bee hives on the Sussex Downs after a trip to postwar Japan. Retired from detecting for the past twenty-five years, he's gone to Japan in search of a rare herbal compound he hopes will improve his declining mental faculties.
He was a teenage Sherlock


After years of enduring Dr. Watson's fictions about him, Holmes is determined to write a story of his own.

Holmes' household is run by his Irish housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow, whose young son, Roger (Milo Parker) is an avid reader and fan of Watson's stories.

But in addition to simply telling his story, Holmes is struggling against his diminishing powers to remember what happened in his last and only unsolved case—and why it was the reason he quit the profession.
Art imitates art imitating life: Mckellen and Rowe (onscreen)

The cross-currents underlying the plot are not always clear, nor is the central encounter of the film the emotional epiphany it needs to be.

(But there is a sly in-joke at the cinema with Holmes watching a black-and-white film about his exploits where the onscreen Holmes is played by actor Nicholas Rowe—who starred in Young Sherlock Holmes back in 1985.)

Mr. Holmes is a thoughtful, atmospheric addition to Holmesiana. Still, I hope the next time the movies want to do something really original with Sherlock Holmes, they discover the novels of Laurie King.
(Read more)


Sunday, July 19, 2015

BEHOLD BEAST!

Normally, I'm a tad superstitious about illustrating the characters in my novels.

As a reader (and all writers are readers first), I hate it when a book I'm reading has the "wrong" artwork, especially on the cover—that is, a different face or image than the one I'm creating in my head as I read along.

Reading is the original interactive pastime, and the reader has to do a lot of the legwork of bringing the character(s) to life in her own imagination. So it's always a jolt when, every time I close the book, the wrong face is staring back at me.

On the other hand, I make dozens of character sketches for myself; as the writer, I need to know what they look like from one scene to the next. (Eye color, hair color, which cheek has the mole, which hand has the hook, etc.)

I usually don't share these images. But this has been a big month for Beast, the hero of my next book, Beast: A Love Story. Last week, I signed the contract with my new publisher Candlewick Press. This week, I hit the 'send' button on the first draft completed under the careful eye of my new editor, Kaylan Adair. So I thought it was time to give Beast a face and introduce him to the public!

This won't be the ultimate image, I'm sure. As my concept of the character, or my skill, improve, maybe I'll come up with something closer to the essence of my Beast.

But this is what he looks like right now—evolving before our eyes!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A FOND FAREWELL

Very sad to hear of the passing of Roger Rees, beloved (and inexhaustible) star of the Royal Shakespeare Company's epic 8-hour production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

When Nicholas Nickleby was first broadcast on TV in the States in 1983, Rees' performance gave the whole sprawling enterprise its emotional center. His Nicholas navigated the massive plot with a quicksilver adrenalin-rush of moral courage that seemed to surprise even him.

I'm sure neither my husband nor his will mind me saying I've been in love with him ever since.

Still in the Dickensian mode, he had a featured role in the Georg C. Scott TV version of A Christmas Carol (Rees played nephew Fred), and a TV adaptation of John Fowles' The Ebony Tower. He went on to play recurring roles in Cheers (zillionaire Robin Colcord) and The West Wing (Lord John Marbury).
My poster from the RSC. It's still in my office .

I also enjoyed seeing him pop up in the odd movie over the years—Star 80, Mountains of the Moon, Frida, The Prestige. (Some of the damned odd; who could forget his energetic villainy as the nasty Sheriff of Rottingham in Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men In Tights?)

But his first love was always the stage. He played many leading Shakespearean roles, from A Comedy of Errors to Hamlet, with the RSC in England. He collaborated with playwright Tom Stoppard in original stage productions of The Real Thing and Hapgood. I raced like the wind down south for the chance to see him live, onstage, when Hapgood played in LA.

But (to my eternal regret) I missed his one-man stage show on playing Shakespeare, What You Will, when it played in San Francisco in 2008. And how I would've loved to see him play the divine Gomez Addams in The Addams Family musical on Broadway in 2011!

PR pic from Rees' solo show What You Will, 2008
More recently, Rees won an off-Broadway Obie in 2011, and was nominated for another Tony in 2012, for co-directing the Peter Pan prequel, Peter and the Starcatcher. (If only I'd gotten a grip and finished Alias Hook when he was still in his Forties, Rees would have been perfect for my James Hook!)

Earlier this year, he opened in the new musical, The Visit, opposite Chita Rivera, but had to withdraw in May for health reasons.

Rees' Nickleby had such a profound effect on me, I started binge-reading Dickens. I plowed through Nicholas Nickleby, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend (the best of the lot, with its splendid, propulsive river imagery) before I came up for air. For better or worse, I started seriously writing my own fiction soon after.

By all accounts, Roger Rees was as charming and gracious in real life as he was compelling and entertaining onstage.

Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest, Mr. Rees. You will be missed.

Update: I've just read that the lights of Broadway will be dimmed for one minute, at 7:45 pm, July 15, in honor of Roger Rees. A fitting tribute to a gifted player who loved the stage so much!

Friday, July 10, 2015

TWISTORY BUFF

Big kudos to Mr. Wallace Baine, the Bard of Corralitos, for his entertaining reading before a crowd of fans at Bookshop Santa Cruz last night.

The occasion was the publication of his new book, The Last Temptation of Lincoln: And Other Twistories, a sly collection of humorous short stories in which key historical incidents and figures are reimagined in ways that, while perhaps not a matter of factual record, certainly might have happened.

Or at least, it's fun to think so.

A 14-year-old mixed-race girl raised in a brothel who inspires the democratic ideals of Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine?  (Not to mention composing most of the text of the revolutionary Common Sense pamphlet attributed to Paine?)

A hush-hush lunar landing, called Apollo 11 1/2, where a 'B' team has to go clean up after the more famous moon landing?

A tobacco farmer from the 1830s transported by a bunch of Silicon Valley techno-geeks to the beach in modern-day Santa Cruz?

Well, why not? We can't say for sure that these things didn't happen!

Wallace's fanciful "twistory" book is available as we speak at BSC. Check it out!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

3, 2, 1, CONTRACT!

Break out the bubbly!

I've been working with my fabulous new editor, Kaylan Adair, at Candlewick for two months, but this week I finally got my contract for Beast: A Love Story!

Coming to a bookstore near you in the spring of 2017. Stay tuned for further details!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE WAR AT HOME

Political made personal in lush, heartfelt 'Testament of Youth'

It was called the war to end all wars. Its effects were so cataclysmic, no one who lived through what we now know as the First Worlds War, either in the trenches or on the homefront, could ever conceive that there might be another one.

Vera Brittain was a young Englishwoman whose studies at Oxford were derailed by the war. She wrote of her wartime experiences in the memoir, Testament of Youth, published in 1933, when, incredibly, the international drumbeat had already begun for the march toward the Second World War.

Brittain's book is a very personal view of the effects of the war on an entire generation, particularly the women—mothers, fiancées, sisters, friends—left behind.

It was adapted as a TV miniseries back in the 1970s. And now comes a powerful new feature film, Testament Of Youth, directed by TV movie veteran James Kent.

Adapted by Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), the film is both searing and heartfelt. By maintaining Brittain's focus on the minutiae of women's daily lives, and the gradual, inevitable encroachment of the war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a very broad canvas in very delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.
Egerton, Vikander, Harrington, Morgan: no idea what lies ahead.
 The film begins in the clamor of Armistice Day, 1918, with people thronging the streets in hysterical celebration. Flashback to the summer of 1914, in the idyllic English countryside of Buxton, where 19-year-old Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, last seen as the oh-so-sentient robot in Ex Machina), and her 17-year-old brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), are entertaining Edward's school chum, Victor (Colin Morgan) with a swim in the lake.

The talk of the Brittain household is Edward's impending graduation from preparatory school and acceptance at Oxford. Vera also dreams of attending Oxford to study English literature, but their father (Dominic West) considers it a useless expense for a girl—he wants her to find a husband instead.
Vikander as Vera: Oxford bound.

Just when volatile Vera is denouncing marriage as a barrier to women's self-expression and freedom, another of Edward's school friends arrives, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). An amateur poet himself, smitten with prickly Vera, he makes all the wrong moves trying to befriend her—until he encourages her to write.

During the next year, they become pen pals and soulmates, exchanging poems and fueling each others' dreams.

The lush, pastoral nature of these early domestic scenes, and the languorous pace with which Kent and Towhidi set them up, show what is sacrificed to war, in terms of lifestyle, dreams, and, of course, promising young lives.
Harrington and Vikander: collateral damage
When the young men graduate the next year, war is looming. Edward helps Vera convince their father to let her take the entrance exams for Oxford, and she's thrilled when she's accepted.

But by then, Edward, Roland, and Victor have already signed up to go "fight the Huns" in Europe—with no earthly idea of what awaits them there.

Vera soon disappoints her headmistress (Miranda Richardson) by quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse.

The hospital scenes can be harrowing, but no less so than Vera's attempts to reconnect with her psychologically damaged friends after they've been to the front, or the heartache of letting them go again.
Vikander, Richardson: left behind.

The eagerness of these young people to make a difference, to be a part of something larger than themselves, can't be faulted. But the more experienced she becomes (at a field hospital in France, she tends German as well as English soldiers), the more fervently Vera believes that war itself is the enemy, a lie to seduce young men into madness.

Vikander is luminous as Vera, with Egerton buoyant as brother Edward. Harrington (aka Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) makes a properly romantic Roland, but the real find is Colin Morgan, warm and dynamic as their friend, Victor.

And director Kent has a shrewd eye for telling details: an island of women waving goodbye as a troop train pulls out; a church pew full of mourning women in black on Armistice Day; innocuous objects the eye zeroes in on while a woman receives devastating news on the phone.

It's these personal details that make the film so hauntingly universal.
The real-life Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson, ca 1915


Sunday, June 28, 2015

DESIGNING WOMAN


Female gardener helps build Versailles in fun, if uneven 'A Little Chaos'

Alan Rickman is capable of so much more than his sublimely unctuous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. Still, the chance to see Snape as King Louis XIV, the "Sun King" of France, in the period piece, A Little Chaos, is just about irresistible.

It's a surprisingly good fit: both characters are imperious, uncompromising, and suffer fools not at all. And Rickman layers each character with an unexpected shading of sympathy.

Rickman also directs the film, and you can see why he was  eager to cast himself in such a plummy role. It's also the kind of popular reimagined history in which a plucky woman defies convention to make her way in a male-dominated society.

Rickman as Louis XIV: extreme unction
 Co-written by Rickman (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan), this romantic historical drama concerns a genteel widow eking out a precarious living as a gardener who receives a commission to design a garden at Versailles.

It's a charming concept with a great cast, and a splendid showcase for star Kate Winslet, even if it doesn't quite all come together.

Sabine De Barra (Winslet) is a young widow in 1682 Paris, supporting herself as a gardener. King Louis (Rickman) is building himself the magnificent new palace of Versailles in the countryside. Sabine dares to submit her plans for one of the royal gardens to the king's legendary landscape architect, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen in Far From the Madding Crowd).

She's treated as a joke by the other (male) garden designers vying for a commission—and by Le Notre himself, at first—but her plans intrigue Le Notre, who grants her a commission to plant a garden and build a waterfall for an outdoor ballroom at Versailles.
Winslet and Schoenaerts: big plans

While Le Notre favors "order," and Sabine appreciates a little "chaos" in design, they earn each others' respect amid the pomp and petty rivalries within Louis' circle. (Among the film's pleasures is Stanley Tucci as the Duc d'Orleans, Louis' droll royal brother, whose humor consistently livens up the action.)

Winslet is wonderful, as unaffected, sensible Sabine, working in the mud alongside her construction crew, and speaking with refreshing candor to Louis himself in a nice moment when she mistakes him for one of the king's gardeners.

Another intriguing scene occurs at court, when Louis' new favorite, Madame de Montespan (a lovely Jennifer Ehle) befriends Sabine and introduces her to the sisterhood of court ladies—mistresses, former favorites, dowagers—all of whom, like Sabine, have lost children, or husbands, or both. And all of whom are fascinated to meet a woman who actually does something in her life. These women deserve more screen time.

First Wives Club, 17th Century-style
Schoenaerts' Le Notre is perhaps too restrained and stoic, even for someone cautiously navigating court society. He never gets angry at his scheming wife (he seethes quietly, but never yells), nor quite loses himself in passion with Sabine. This is partly the fault of the script, in which his character fades into the background, partnering Winslet with gallant deference, the way the prince in a ballet steps out of the spotlight while the ballerina dances her solo.
Portrait of the real-life Andre Le Notre

Not that they don't have some sexy and affectionate scenes together. (When Le Notre and Sabine take a break at the job site and share an impromptu meal of rustic bread and home-made pâté, it's memorable as one of the first—and few—times that the guarded Le Notre actually smiles.) But Schoenaerts is such a compelling actor with so much presence, and Winslet is so vibrant, we wish their characters were taking more joy in each other.

(By all accounts, the real-life Le Notre was a wit, whose droll humor earned him Louis' fickle friendship throughout his life. In real life, Le Notre was also 25 years older than Louis, but why ruin a good story with dreary facts?)

Sadly, there is no historical evidence that anyone like Sabine existed, or helped build Versailles. But so what? The whole point of imagining such a scenario in a historical context is to encourage women to push boundaries in their own lives, to promote what Carolyn Heilbrun in her seminal book, "Writing A Woman's Life," refers to as "...the alternate life (the writer) wishes to inscribe upon the female imagination." In that respect, for all its flaws, A Little Chaos succeeds beautifully.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

ME & MY VILLAGE


It takes a village for me to edit a book.

I never have any less than about three or four docs of plot, character motivations, Notes to Self, and, oh, yes, the ms doc itself, open at any given time on my trusty iMac. I'd need an IMAX-sized screen to accommodate all the docs I could be using!

(Notice, I even have random notes stuck in the clay mug off to the left, sheesh!)

Then I need a print-out of the ms, as in actual paper, to scribble on. (# 2 1/2 pencil: my weapon of choice.) This also helps me to actually see all the typos. I know they're in there, I can hear 'em breathing, but it's much easier for me to see them in print, instead of on a screen.

The final element to a productive work day? All the images I can find for inspiration!

This is my Pinterest page for the book I'm editing now, Beast: A Love Story. Yes, it's a fantasy, a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, but it's rooted in a specific historical period (rural Burgundy, France, ca. 1600). And anything I happen upon while cruising the Interwebs—dress, architecture, various objets, the French countryside, or potential character studies—goes into the file for future reference.

I am presently deep into the edit suggested by my terrific new editor, Kaylan Adair, chugging away toward my upcoming July 15 deadline.

All systems are go for me and my village!


Sunday, June 14, 2015

DIRE STRAITS

Buckle your sword belts, folks. It's that time of year that Game of Thrones fans fear above all others—the end of the season. Which means the dreaded season finale is almost upon us. (Tonight, to be exact.)

Never in the history of the cathode ray tube has a popular TV series so relentlessly abused its loyal fans as GoT. Based on the mammoth series of books by George R. R. Martin, still being penned as we speak (five volumes and counting), this is a series that ended its first season with the decapitation of the guy everyone assumed was the hero.

It was as if Don Draper got run over by a cab after one season, or Walter White blew himself up in a meth lab. Talk about the element of surprise! 

Since then, dedicated Thronies understand that their favorite characters are on shaky ground with each new episode. No one is safe, however high up in the narrative food chain they appear to be. "Trust No One," as they used to say on The X-Files, and the ones we don't trust the most are the GoT writers.

Dinklage as Tyrion: don't call him a hero
And Martin gives them plenty of opportunity to wreak mayhem. His books are set in a fantasy world not unlike the Late Middle Ages in Europe; transport is via horseback, ship or on foot, weapons are forged steel, and combat is hand-to-hand.

And there's plenty of it, with some 10 to a dozen royal houses and various upstart factions (I tend to lose count after about seven or eight), from an increasingly broad spectrum of neighboring and foreign lands, all vying for the Iron Throne, whose king or queen rules all. (Nominally, at least.)

Daenerys and her alpha dragon: timely reappearance
Fortunately, as the GoT universe expands, there are plenty of heroes to go around—along with anti-heroes, would-be heroes, and characters who occasionally blunder into heroism by sheer accident, not to mention antagonists and outright villains. Lots and lots of the latter, villains for whose demise we avidly root for.

Sadly, villains in the GRRM universe seem to have a much longer shelf life than the good guys. But when they do meet their just deserts, oh boy, look out!

Like last year's Season 4 finale (SPOILER ALERT if you're still catching up with it on Netflix), when Tyrion Lannister finally put an end to the evil schemes of his reprehensible Daddy Dearest. Thronies were screaming like demented World Cup fanatics.

Harrington: Snowblind
Tyrion, the witty, roguish dwarf played to acerbic precision by the great Peter Dinklage, continues to be the best reason to watch the show. This year, Season 5, has fulfilled the promise of its teaser poster by sending Tyrion on a fateful (and not entirely voluntary) voyage to the Eastern realm of dragon girl Daenerys (Emilia Clarke); one of the baby dragons she helped to hatch in the first season made a timely reappearance—all grown up now, thanks very much—in last week's episode.

Fans have been waiting a long time for Tyrion and Daenerys to join forces, since they are two of the very few characters we consistently root for. A third is Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), bastard son of initial hero Ned Stark (now deceased). Jon Snow always tries to do the right thing; exiled to the monk-like brotherhood of the Night's Watch, he's been elected their commander—just in time to lead a desperate campaign against the undead armies of the demonic White Walkers.

All three of these characters were in extremely dire straits as of last week. The suspense is killing me.

(But, sshhhh, don't call them heroes! We know what happens to them.)

Btw, if you fear GoT withdrawals after the imminent end of Season 5, get ready for: Game of Thrones: The Muscal! No, not really, but that's the premise of this very funny video in which Chris Martin of Coldplay envisions just such a horrible hybrid—to the dismay of several cast members. 12 minutes, complete with songs—check it out!


Also, if you needs further proof that Time Marches On, here's a fabulous fun pic of the kids of GoT back in 2009, when they were first cast. (The series debuted on HBO in 2011.) That's little Maisie Williams (Arya Stark) in front, Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Alfie Allen (Theon Greyjoy), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), and, yes, that's Kit Harrington (Jon Snow).

Thursday, June 11, 2015

MIND GAMES

Davidson, Carroll: head-smacked.
JTC closes season with bittersweet comedy 'Woman In Mind'

Santa Cruz's Jewel Theatre Company is the little company that could. Artistic Director Julie James, works miracles with limited resources, mounting ambitious, professional theatre in tiny local spaces like Center Stage (where JTC has been the resident company for the last five years). James' eagerness to tackle everything from Beckett to Sondheim to Athol Fugard, from musicals to West Coast and World premieres, makes her company consistently worth watching.

For the finale of JTC's Tenth Anniversary season, James presents Woman In Mind, a bittersweet comedy of disillusion by popular British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. First produced in 1985, the play starts off as a jaunty comedy about a midlife suburban woman confusing her fantasy of perfect family life with the far more mundane reality. Ayckbourn's play quietly evolves into something much more poignant, and this production, directed by James herself, strikes both its sad and funny highlights with effective precision.

The story begins with protagonist, Susan (Diahanna Davidson), prone in her modest garden with a strange man kneeling over her, spouting gibberish. Turns out she has just performed the classic slapstick comedy maneuver, stepped on a garden rake and smacked herself in the head, a short trip to oblivion from which she is just now waking up. The man is a medical doctor, Bill Windsor (Shaun Carroll), who's just summoned an ambulance, his nonsense words finally resolving into ordinary English that Susan was mishearing in her delirious state.

A perfect English garden of the mind.
It's daring to start off with a scene so disorienting to the audience, and Ayckbourn wisely sticks to Susan's increasingly suspect and fractured perspective for the rest of the play. As soon as Bill goes back in the house, the drab brick wall of Susan's yard becomes a gateway to an extravagant English garden, full of mazes and hedgerows. (Kudos to Set Designer Kent Dorsey and Lighting Designer Mark Hopkins.)

Through this gateway pour Susan's doting husband, Andy (David Arrow), adoring daughter, Lucy (Danielle Crook), and devoted younger brother, Tony (Jimmy Allan). They seem to have wandered in out of a 1930s Noel Coward play, in their sporty white outfits (costumes by the great B. Modern), wielding tennis racquets and glasses of vintage "champers." The giddy Susan assures them all that she's perfectly fine.
Davies, Torres-Koss: too true to be perfect.

Except that she's not quite. We know something is up as soon as the somewhat bumbling, but good-hearted Bill comes back out and makes reference to family members Susan at first doesn't acknowledge. Her real-life family, as we soon learn, led by stodgy husband, Gerald (Chad Davies), an Anglican clergyman who neglects her for the book he's writing about the history of the parish since 1386.

Then there's frazzled Muriel (the ever-stalwart Diana Torres-Koss), the widowed sister to whom Gerald is devoted, whose culinary attempts have everyone quaking in fear. Aimless son, Rick (Nat Robinson), has joined a cult that forbids him to speak to his parents.

Fantasy family: too perfect to be true.
There are plenty of laughs as these two worlds begin to collide (including a comic Q&A expertly lobbed by Davidson and Carroll, with the recurring punchline "since 1386," including how long Gerald has been working on his book). Arrow, Allan, and Crook are all hilariously suave and arch as the fantasy family, and Davies maintains a vague, melancholy dignity as poor, plodding Gerald.

But this production doesn't really get going until the second act, coming together at last, even as its heroine unravels.

It's not simply that Susan retreats into idle romantic nonsense; the process by which she's become disengaged with her life has been involuntary and devastating. Once content as a wife and mother, she feels abandoned now that no one needs her any more. In her prickly conversation with son Rick, we see how they wound and infuriate each other, despite their best intentions. Finally, even her perfect alternate family starts to get on her nerves.

Davidson's Susan is onstage throughout, and her sharp, yet aching performance helps JTC end is tenth season on a high note of dramatic complexity. (This show plays through June 28.)


(Photos by Steve DiBartolomeo.)