Friday, June 27, 2014


Good Grief, I seem to be all over the blogosphere this week, ranting on about villains, villainy, fairy tales, and Alias Hook.

The Hugo Award-winning sci-fi blogsite, SF Signal, invited me to weigh in on its "Mind Meld" feature of the week. And forget about redemption; this time the topic is Villains We Love to Hate!

A selection of genre authors contribute their ideas on Worst. Villain(s). Ever. Me, I tried to steer clear of the heavy hitters—your Voldemort, your Sauron.

Because in books, as is so often the case in real life, the worst, most egregious villainy is often perpetrated not by the designated evildoers, but by more or less ordinary folks behaving very badly. That's the kind of life-sized villainy that gets me steamed.

Then, just another click away—look, Ma, I'm on Huff Post! Here's a piece I wrote on the fashion for rewriting fairy tales, listing some of my favorites in the genre.

Why do these ancient tales (in which I also include mythology, folklore, even Shakespeare) endure? Because each new generation of bards and storytellers reinvents those tales to keep them vital and current. Times change. Tastes change. One woman's Beast is another woman's Prince.

In this piece, I salute some writers who have dared to retell an old tale from the villain's side of the story. Like Tad Williams' Caliban's Hour. In one fleet, revisionist tale, Williams creates one of the most soulful of modern Beast-heroes!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014


It's my very great pleasure today to have a guest post up on the excellent speculative fiction blog, Layers of Thought.

My topic is "Top 5 (Redeemable) Villains." Since I've already revealed my soft spot for Captain Hook, I was asked to come up with some other designated villains from fantasy fiction, characters who I think may have gotten a raw deal. Characters who might deserve a chance to tell their side of the story!

Case in point: Circe. Okay, she turned Odysseus' men into pigs. But remember, they were a shipload of strange men of unknown provenance invading her island. And it's not like she killed or enslaved them; they were free to roam around her island in peace, enjoying the fruits of the land.

All they had to give up was the man-like shape that made them war-like. (Get rid of those pesky opposable thumbs, and no more weapons can be grasped!) Besides, she only turned them into swine after they spent a night of gluttony feasting at her table.

Click here to read the rest of the story. Then let me know what villains you would like to see redeemed!

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Hey kids, check it out!

It's a real book!

My first copy of the US edition of Alias Hook arrived yesterday (in hardcover, yet), and, seriously,  could a person get any more stoked?

This is only the second time I've ever had a book published in hardcover. And the first one just wasn't the same, since it was only published in German, and I couldn't read it.

But I can read this one. And let me tell you, seeing my words in print—well, it's just indescribable. (Obviously, or else I'd be doing a better job of it!)

And right now, for a limited time only, you have a chance to read Alias Hook too—for free! From now through July 4, there are 10 copies up for grabs via a giveaway on Goodreads. Nothing to buy, no hoops to jump through, just follow this link, sign up and try your luck.

Meanwhile, I'll be reading from Alias Hook, signing books, and generally flailing about at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Wednesday, July 16, 7:30 pm.

I would love to see you there!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Family and history collide in intimate, yet powerful 'Ida'

Who says size matters? At a mere 80 minutes, the Polish film Ida is a small miracle of economic storytelling, emotional complexity and astonishing scope. Co-written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, it is both an intimate, mostly two-character drama, and an unsparing and unsentimentalized look back on two tumultuous decades of Polish history as told over the course of a few days in the life of a young woman.

It's everything we want a film to be—focused, beautifully composed, surprising, and powerful.

Shot in expressive black-and-white by cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, the film begins within the fortress-like walls of a rural convent. It's about 1962, and Anna (lovely and luminous Agata Trzebuchowska), an 18-year-old novice, is an orphan raised in the convent. She has never known anything else than the orderly routines and obedience of convent life; meals are taken in silence, discipline is strict, and the young novices regularly prostrate themselves on the stone floor of the chapel before their wooden Christ.

Anna is about to take her vows. But before she can, the Mother Superior tells her she must visit her only remaining relative, an aunt she never knew she had who lives in the city.

Aunt Wanda (a superb Agata Kulesza) is a tough, chain-smoking, hard-drinking, middle-aged court judge who sleeps with random men and has little interest in bonding with her niece. But she shows Anna an old photograph of her mother (Wanda's sister), tells the girl that her birth name was Ida—and drops the bombshell that their family was Jewish.

Their family history proves to be a harrowing tale, dating back to the Nazi invasion of Poland, and continuing into the severity of the Communist era. But director Pawlikowski reveals it only in small, potent bits, as the two women set off on an impromptu odyssey, first to the farmhouse where Anna's family once lived, and then on a quest to find her parents' unmarked grave.

Along the way, their fragile alliance is shattered and reformed, painful secrets are told, and a subtle portrait emerges of the troubled legacy left to a younger generation born out of chaos. (Read more)
Every beautifully composed frame film tells its own story.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Hey, I like a good pirate yarn as much as the next girl—and considerably more than most. And a successful pirate series could only bode well for Alias Hook.

But NBC's much ballyhooed Crossbones is sinking fast.

First the good news: it's not aimed at kids. And it doesn't have zombies, which has become distressingly de riguer in the genre since the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

But it doesn't have much in the way of, you know, pirates either. In the opening five minutes or so of the first episodes, pirates board and plunder a ship at sea, but the rest of the action so far has been confined to an island. Sure, plots and counter-plots unfold, but where's the swashbuckling? Where's the yo-ho-ho-ing? Where's the adventure on the high seas?
A tough death to fake

The show's main pirate is Blackbeard, but this is the old rogue in retirement, his trademark mane snowy and neatly coifed and trimmed. (Although he keeps his original moniker, "White Goatee" lacking a little something in oomph.)

I even kind of like the idea that Blackbeard has faked his own death and gone underground to rule his own little pirate island kingdom, unmolested by the Royal Navy.

But anyone who knows her pirate history knows that the real Blackbeard, Edward Teach, died spectacularly in front of numerous witnesses, on board his own ship in a pitched battle with Lt. Robert Maynard. Like Rasputin, he was hard to kill; five pistol balls and twenty sword cuts were found in his body after he finally keeled over, and, for good measure, his head was chopped off and hung from a yard on Maynard's ship.
Dueling Blackbeards: Malkovich

So, not the kind of mystery-shrouded demise from which he might have rolled over with a nod and a wink when no one was looking and slunk away. Even if you go in for the imposter theory, who else but the maniacal Teach could have lasted that long in combat?

Then there’s Blackbeard himself, as played by John Malkovich. He can be a marvelous actor, and he has a swell time gobbling the scenery here, but I don’t think Malkovich would be anybody’s first choice for a swashbuckling pirate—especially not with whatever strange accent he uses here. And especially not the way he spends all his time swanning around the island in a white djellaba instead of out there on the deck of a pirate ship. He has moments of loony menace, but he lacks a certain robustness.
Dueling Blackbeards: Jackman

(As a point of comparison, here's Hugh Jackman in sword training to portray Blackbeard in a new live-action Peter Pan movie coming out next year. (What's Blackbeard doing in a Peter Pan movie? Well, that's another blog.) He looks more piratical in sweats than Malkovich has managed in two hours of screen time so far.)

The wheezy plot revolves around a fancy ship's chronometer en route to London that the pirates steal. The nominal hero is ship's doctor, Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), who's really a British spy trying to keep the device out of the pirates' clutches, and who becomes Teach's prisoner.

 Coyle works hard and lands the occasional deadpan wisecrack, but—hello!—he's NOT A PIRATE! He's the enemy of the pirates, so what fun is that?

The island is home to the usual scurvy dogs and a surprising collection of nubile women. (Borrowing a page from Game of Thrones, the community boasts its own brothel, but, unlike GoT, everyone keeps their clothes on even in mid-clinch. This is network TV, after all.) But there's not really anyone in the cast worth caring about.

No, wait, I did like one character, the black woman pirate (Tracy Ifeachor) who’s the first to board the king’s ship at the beginning. But she’s quickly relegated to the status of bit player, with only a few lines of dialogue. Too bad. I wish they’d write a story about HER!

Years and years ago, there was a TV show in syndication called Queen of Swords. It was like a female Zorro in old California, an aristocrat’s daughter by day, but a crusading swordswoman for the downtrodden at night.

It was all a load of hooey, but cheeky enough in its silliness to be entertaining. It had a level of pizzazz I fear Crossbones will never attain.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I've just discovered the month-long "bookaday" conversation currently rocketing around the blogosphere. Every day in June, us bibliophiles (or "fetishists," as we are known to Kindle devotees) are invited to tell a story about the books in our lives. Who could resist?

Today's topic is Best Bargains. I have an unfair advantage in this category since I reviewed books for the SF Chronicle for 13 years, so I got lots of free stuff. (And they paid me too—what a racket!)

One of my biggest scores was a hardcover, first edition (with dust jacket) of Charles Palliser's debut historical novel, The Quincunx. I knew nothing about Palliser or the book at the time (let alone had I any clue what a "quincunx" is), and no doubt I grumbled lustily about its girth: 781 pages, not counting maps, charts, and family trees. But it turned out to be one of my Favorite. Books. Ever. (Here's my review on Goodreads.)

 Also for review purposes, I once received a massive paperbound galley of Edward Rutherford's first historical novel, Sarum, which I also loved.  (My review was so positive, it was quoted—with my name!—in an ad for the book that ran in The New Yorker.)     

A couple of years later, when Rutherford came to the Capitola Book Cafe, I showed him the ad. (Of course I kept it; it's my only chance to say I've been published in The New Yorker!) And he was gracious enough to sign my well-worn dog-eared galley.

I made out like a bandit the year I went to a Historical Novel Society conference and swapped one of my little paperbacks of The Witch for a spanking new hardcover of Broos Campbell's robust seafaring adventure, The War of Knives.

But one of my best bargains ever came out of the Edward R. Hamilton book catalogue, from which I used to feed my fiction habit way back in the day before I had online access.

This catalogue offered thousands of mostly remaindered books at cheapo prices—but with only a scant sentence or two of description, it was always a crapshoot what you'd get!

But some sort of guardian book angel must have been at work the day I ordered a remaindered hardcover historical novel called Playing The Jack, by an author I'd never heard of, Mary Brown. I wouldn't have spent more than about three or four bucks on it, and probably less, but I took a chance—and fell madly in love.

To this day, I will rhapsodize about this book to ANYONE not speedy enough to get away!

(PS: Since I came in a day late to this conversation, I missed yesterday's topic, Favorite Book(s) from Childhood. But, aha! Here's a blog I recently posted on that very subject!)

Sunday, June 1, 2014


Sleeping Beauty villainess tells her side of the story in Maleficent

For 40 years, feminists have complained about the sanitized fairy tales force-fed to little girls in Disney cartoons—the ones that promise a handsome prince and true love's kiss. And over the last couple of years, the Mouse House seems to be getting a clue. (Well, better late than never...) Brave featured an independent-minded princess who didn't get (or need) a prince. In last year's mega-hit Frozen, an ironic plot reversal was built around the (mistaken) notion of true love's kiss.

Times and tastes change, of course. Kick-ass heroines (the very phrase is already a cliche), in the Katniss Everdeen mode, are all the rage in the YA fantasy market—to which all little pink Disney Princess fans graduate soon enough. And it probably made a difference that the above Disney films were largely conceived, as well as co-written and co-directed, by women—Brenda Chapman and Jennifer Lee, respectively.

For Maleficent, the studio turns over scriptwriting duties to one of its most accomplished players, Linda Woolverton, who wrote (among other things) Disney's fabulous Beauty and the Beast, and its live-action Alice In Wonderland. It's Woolverton's task to blithely rewrite the vintage Disney Princess cartoon, Sleeping Beauty—or at least provide a bracketing story around events in the earlier movie that pretty much changes everything.
Not your ordinary fairy wings.

This time, the story is told from the viewpoint of the so-called evil fairy, Maleficent, formerly the designated villain. It's an audacious idea, and a nod to the trend for rehabilitated villains, a la Wicked (not to mention Alias Hook).

And while the narrative stumbles now and then, Maleficent is often a savvy and entertaining live-action revision. With the formidable Angelina Jolie in the title role, we get a character who is both deliciously wicked (when she needs to be) and surprisingly, believably tender as her side of the story plays out.
Disney's original, in all her wicked glory.

In this version, we meet Maleficent as a young fairy (Isobelle Molloy) growing up blissfully happy in the moors, a verdant haven for all manner of magical CGI critters adjacent to a kingdom of humans. For some reason never explained, Maleficent is blessed with majestic hawk-like wings as tall as she is, which enable her to tumble around joyously in the sky, but also to swoop down on anyone or anything that threatens her precious moors.

As a child, she befriends a human boy, Stefan, who strays into the Moors one day. They become close friends—until the day, years later, that he betrays her. It's not simply that his love isn't true enough, but as a grown man (now played by Sharlto Copley), driven by ambition to inherit the kingdom, he commits an act so heinous and horrifying against Maleficent, it hardens her heart and sets her on the road to villainy.

The symbolic weight of this action for female viewers cannot be overestimated, and it ground's Maleficent's psyche in something much deeper and more primal than an unhappy romance.

When her former friend becomes King Stefan, and he and his queen celebrate the birth of their daughter, Aurora, Maleficent crashes the party and delivers her famous curse: on her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a trance-like sleep from which she will never waken.

This is the "familiar" part of the story, except things don't play out the way we expect in Woolverton's clever script. Not to give away the best surprises, but Aurora, raised in secret by three fairies in a cottage in the wood, grows up a wild child, beloved by all the woodland creatures. Including, gradually, Maleficent herself—whom Aurora calls her fairy godmother.

When Aurora (now played by the dewy Elle Fanning) nears her sixteenth birthday, Maleficent actually tries to revoke her curse, but can't. Ironically, the only possible escape clause is "true love's kiss"—which Maleficent believes does not exist.
The film marks the directing debut of visual effects wizard and production designer Robert Stromberg (Oscar-winning art director on Avatar and Alice In Wonderland). The effects are sophisticated, especially the transformations of Maleficent's shape-shifting crow familiar (nicely played by Sam Riley in human form). Also cunning is the way the faces of actresses Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple are morphed onto tiny winged bodies as the guardian fairies—although too much time is wasted on their slapstick Three Stoogettes routines when they switch to human size.

Something to crow about: Sam Riley and Jolie.
In an earlier scene, there's something ugly, gratuitous, and out-of-character in the savage way winged Maleficent keeps diving into the fray when an invading army attacks the moors—especially since giant bog creatures of trees, rock, and mud seem perfectly capable of defending themselves.

Short shrift is also given to the story's central motif, the death-like sleep into which Aurora falls when the curse is fulfilled. Her sleep is usually shown to cast a pall of tragedy over the realm; in some versions of the tale, the entire kingdom likewise falls asleep for a hundred years.

Here, she's only asleep for about five minutes of screen time before the apparent rescuer(s) start parading in. I love how the notion of what does (and does not) constitute "true love" is handled in this sequence; still, waking the princess from a nap doesn't have quite the same dramatic urgency.

But despite these missteps, the film's fresh ideas (including its notion of who the real Sleeping Beauty is) help this radical retake cast a certain spell.