Saturday, December 26, 2015


Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe, 1921

Actors soar in tender, fact-based transgender story The Danish Girl

What must it be like to feel that the body you were born into is the wrong gender? This cataclysmic emotional shift in identity is such a private matter, it seems near impossible to capture onscreen.

But Tom Hooper makes a valiant effort in The Danish Girl, the fact-based story of Danish landscape painter Einar Wegener, one of the first people known to have undergone sexual reassignment surgery in the 1920s, transitioning into a woman named Lili Elbe.

Although the spotlight is on Einar/Lili, the larger story Hooper tells is the evolving relationship between the painter and his wife, Gerda.

It is Gerda's journey, watching the husband she adores turn into someone else, and the choices she must face to accept and support him, that makes their story so engrossing.

Factor in a couple of splendidly nuanced performances from Eddie Redmayne, as Einar/Lili, and Alicia Vikander, as Gerda, and it all adds up to a moving, tender, and sometimes even wryly funny portrait of love and identity.

Vikander and Redmayne as Gerda and Einar: Oscar-bait
Scripted by Lucinda Coxson, the movie is adapted from the novel by David Ebershoff. The book is a fictionalized account, so it doesn't necessarily stick to the facts of the Wegeners' real lives.

 But as a work of fiction, this tale of sexual confusion and transition is told with compassion and clarity.
That magic moment: Einar poses for Gerda
In Copenhagen, 1926, Einar Wegener (Redmayne) is a successful painter of lovely, meticulous landscapes. His wife, Gerda (Vikander), is also a painter, but she can't get anyone in the local art community to take her portraits seriously. The two of them met in art school, married young, and enjoy a healthy, active, sex life and a playful sense of camaraderie.
Redmayne as Lili

 Rushing to finish a commissioned portrait one day, when her model is delayed, Gerda begs Einar to pose in a pair of silk stockings and satin slippers so she can paint his feet. The effect on Einar is immediate and electrifying, as an aspect of his personality he's been trying to suppress his whole life begins to assert itself.

It's no surprise that Redmayne tackles his role with persuasive delicacy. But Vikander (having a great year, after Ex Machina and Testament of Youth) is the real Oscar-bait for her tough, funny, sensitive Gerda. (Read more)

Hooper's film might have been even gutsier had he stuck closer to the truth of the Wegeners' lives. For one thing, the couple had already moved to Paris in 1912 to immerse themselves in the Bohemian art scene and escape the more conventional morality of Copenhagen society.
The real Lili, ca 1930: all girl

Gerda was the more successful artist, a magazine illustrator who became notorious for her decadent drawings and erotic female watercolors. Some biographies suggest that she an Lili lived openly as a lesbian couple in Paris. Lili certainly remained one of Gerda's favorite models.

(That's Gerda's portrait of the two of them at the top of this post.)

Gerda married another man (at Lili's insistence, according to some sources), when her marriage to Einar was legally annulled by King Christian X of Denmark after Einar's first surgery became public knowledge. By then, Lili had a male suitor she also hoped to marry.

Obviously, the shifting psychological currents between them must have been even more complex than in the film.

Sexual identity is a tricky and very personal subject. Hooper tells a simplified version of the story, but that he grapples with it at all, with so much reason and empathy, is satisfying indeed.
The real Gerda and Einar with one of Gerda's paintings

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


Ghost of Christmas Presents; did we need all that stuff?
Hands up, everyone who needs more stuff in their lives.

I didn't think so. This holiday time of year has become almost exclusively devoted to the acquisition of new stuff—the real reason for the season. Show them how much you love them—buy them more stuff!

Our house is already crammed to the rafters. We call them vintage collectibles—childhood toys and dolls, movie posters, books yet to be read, pieces of furniture no longer in use, random kitchen appliances, clothes and shoes unworn since the Clinton administration—but no matter how much lipstick you put on it, it's still stuff.

And instead of mindlessly accumulating more of it, we're ready to get rid of it.

So this year, Art Boy and I made the radical decision not to exchange holiday presents. We won't totally Grinch-out; we're going to bake cookies, hang stockings, play carols, and deck the halls. I'll even put up my infamous Nativity of Troll dolls.

But our season will be a lot more jolly without the frenzy and hysteria that usually comes with it—desperate trips to the mall, long check-out lines, frazzled clerks and fellow-shoppers. Worst of all is that awful feeling that you just can't keep up with the demands of the season, that you're going to run out of time before it all gets done.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbles Jo March, lying on the rug, at the beginning of Little Women. But as the residents of Whoville can tell you, it doesn't really have to be about the presents. Not even the Grinch could keep Christmas from coming—presents or no.

The gift of space and time.
The impulse to bestow gifts on your loved ones is hard to resist. But maybe it's the nature of the gifts that has to change.

Instead of more stuff, Art Boy and I are giving ourselves the gift of space and time.

No, we haven't bought a Tardis. (Oh, if only we could!) But, as an alternative to stockpiling more things, we'll be devoting a few days to clearing out what we already have, and, hopefully, streamlining and sprucing up our space.

And the time we save by not shopping for more stuff can be better spent in so many other ways—like hanging out with friends and family, the kitties, and each other.

What better way to celebrate this most festive, yet reflective time of year? Hey, maybe I'll even get around to reading some of those old books...

Monday, December 14, 2015


Track Changes: editorial suggestions in blue, author whining in red.
I've been off the radar for a few weeks, and here's what I've learned: editing a book is not for sissies!

After writing two revisions of my next novel, Beast: A Love Story, for my smart and very thorough editor, Kaylan Adair at Candlewick, we were ready to move into the phase called Line Edits. I figured the hard part was over and I could cruise into what I consider the fun part —tinkering with a word here or there, reframing the occasional sentence, finishing up the details.


Gone are the days when editing was done the genteel way, with a red pencil on hard copy, making a few tweaks here and there. Now we have a torture device known as the Track Changes program, by which a writer and her editor a continent apart can communicate virtually on the pages of the ms itself—one page, one paragraph, and yes, one line at a time.

The editor reads through the ms and makes suggestions in the Comments column at the right. There's a sample of what it looks like, up top. Editorial suggestions in blue; my feeble responses in red.

For the author, scrolling through the story and encountering the Comments is like entering a minefield. A lot of suggestions are perfectly reasonable and easily fixed—if we both agree there's a problem. But you never know when one is going to blow up in your face.

Maybe she has a different interpretation of a character's personality or motives than I do. Maybe she wants to subtly alter the course of the story in a way that never occurred to me—hmmm, let me think about it. Maybe she wants to soften a scene that I think has to be tough, or reconsider a certain  sequence of events.

Editing, the old-fashioned way!
Maybe her idea is better than mine—as is often the case—or maybe not. The point is, every suggestion has to be thought over and dealt with. When I agree with one of her suggested changes, it has to be implemented, which often includes either minor tweaking or large tracts of rewriting. If I don't agree, or have any other issue, I can leave my own Comments in the margin, attempting to defend my decision.

Either way, there's a lot more writing involved, whether I'm altering the story itself or attempting to compose Comments that will make any kind of rational sense. At times, the very act of writing a Comment makes me think about my decision in a new way, leading to a new batch of changes. Maybe reading one of her Comments triggers a revelation that neither one of us thought of before.

Back to the keyboard!

It's a lot more work than I ever expected, which is why I've sort of dropped off the face of the earth these last few weeks. I would never do it if I didn't have so much confidence in Kaylan and her opinions, based on how much she loves this story.

What's great about the process is it's giving me the luxury to really pay attention to the story again, page by page, line by line. It's not an author vs. editor battle; it's a collaboration. Together, we're midwifing the best Beast he can be!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Screenwriter defies injustice in sharp, witty Trumbo

Bryan Cranston has come a long way since he played in A Doll's House and The Taming Of the Shrew with Shakespeare Santa Cruz onstage in the Festival Glen in 1992. He was a flustered TV sitcom dad for several seasons on Malcolm In the Middle.

And, oh yes, there's a little item in his résumé called Breaking Bad, for which he won four Emmys and a Golden Globe.

Cranston has also been making films for years, but rarely has he landed such a plummy starring role—and played it with such relish—as Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted real-life Hollywood screenwriter at the center of Jay Roach's smart, incisive drama, Trumbo. Scripted by John McNamara, from the non-fiction book by Bruce Cook, it's a wildly entertaining plunge into the dark heart of anti-Communist witch-hunting in Hollywood during the 1940s and '50s, as experienced by one extremely savvy intended "victim" who had the guts, the brains, and the chutzpah to survive.

In 1947, at the height of a fruitful Hollywood career writing hit movies for the likes of Spencer Tracy and Ginger Rogers, Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) has just inked a deal with MGM to become the highest-paid screenwriter in the business. He and his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane, terrific, as always), and their three young children live on a gorgeous property in the Hollywood Hills.

Mirren and Cranston: she's on a mission
Then one day, he gets a subpoena from the House Un-American Committee to testify in Washington DC about alleged Communist "infiltration" of Hollywood.

Helen Mirren is wonderfully waspish as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who's on a mission to get "Commie traitors" out of Hollywood. John Goodman is hilarious as exploitation movie mogul Jack King, who's only too happy to hire Trumbo to churn out cheesy potboilers under an assumed name when no one else will give him work.

(According to my sources, the 1950 film noir classic, Gun Crazy was written by Trumbo for King Brothers Productions.)

The real-life Trumbo in his famous bathtub
Cranston plays Trumbo with an edgy, raging wit, pounding away at his typewriter with a cigarette holder in one hand and a glass of hooch nearby.

He edits in his bathtub with its makeshift desktop, literally cutting up the script with a scissors (in those pre-computer days), and re-pasting the scenes in better order on what looks like a long roll of shelf paper.

He's the heart of this sharp, frisky film for anyone interested in stories about writers, backstage Hollywood, or the (belated) triumph of reason over fear-mongering. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


Long before I ever became an official movie critic, I fell in love with the Nickelodeon.

Back in my student days up at UCSC, I saw most of my movies on campus, either at student-generated film series (Film Noir! Swashbucklers!), or at any one of the six individual college dining halls where double-or triple-bills seemed to be playing every night. But when my best friend Jan moved to town in 1974, and we rented our first little downtown apartment in Beach Flats, I had to find some other way to feed my insatiable movie habit.

That way was the Nick.

Original owners Bill Raney and JoAnne Walker Raney had operated an art house movie theatre in San Francisco before they migrated down to open the Nick in 1969. The University was just getting started, so UCSC and the Nick sort of came of age together. The United Artists theatre chain owned basically all the other movie houses in town, showing a steady diet of Hollywood fare, but Bill had other ideas.

The original theatre had only one screen (what's now known as Nick I). An old-fashioned nickelodeon machine sat roped off in a place of honor in the lobby. The snack counter was dominated by its vintage popcorn popper, and contained such marvels as a bag of Swedish mints (round chocolate mint balls coated in pastel candy), which quickly became my drug of choice. Price was, I believe, 45 cents.

As if the regular fare of new foreign-language films by Bergman, Wertmuller, Fellini, and Truffaut (always subtitled, never dubbed), and non-mainstream American independents were not blissful enough, there were afternoon programs like a ten-week series of classic French New Wave. Jan and I went to all of them. People ask me where I acquired my "background in film." I say: at the Nickelodeon.

In 1975, I started reviewing movies professionally (ie: in some place other than my journal) for Good Times. Okay, it was awhile before I actually got paid for it, but I knew I had arrived as a real critic the day that Nancy Raney, Bill's second wife, invited me to my first press screening at the Nick.

It was 1976, and the movie was Francois Truffaut's L'Histoire de Adele H (The Story of Adele H), starring the beauteous Isabelle Adjani. I took along my posse—Jan and my brother, Steve—and we got to watch an entire movie with only a couple more people in the audience. (I had no idea who they were at the time, and I was too shy to ask, but it was probably Dale Pollock from the Sentinel, and whoever was reviewing movies for City on the Hill that week.)

What an illicit thrill! A private screening in the middle of the day for a movie that wouldn't be open for the public for another week—it was surreal! Little did I know that would be my new reality for the next 38 years.

Nancy was the consummate hostess. When the Nick screened Almodovar's Women On the Verge (Of a Nervous Breakdown), where gazpacho figures prominently in the plot, Nancy served everybody cups of gazpacho in the lobby.

 When Bill and Nancy bought the three-year-old Sash Mill Cinema in 1978 from its owner, Rene Fuentes-Chao, Nancy was able to use the adjoining Sash Mill Cafe for "dos," as she called them, wine-and-munchies receptions for the press to meet visiting filmmakers. (For Les Blank's doc, Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, she even served up garlic popcorn.)

But she really outdid herself in 1987, promoting the Danish film, Babette's Feast, in which a Frenchwoman prepares and extravagant meal for the dour inhabitants of a 19th Century Danish village. Yup—you guessed it! In cahoots with Casablanca Restaurant, Nancy had Babette's entire feast replicated for about a dozen members of the local film-reviewing press, whose ranks had swollen over the years. (And you can see why!)

The point of all this was to get people talking about the movies and the little-art-house-that-could, that kept bringing the best of world cinema to our little burgh. And, oh, how it worked! Bill and Nancy opened a second screen at the Nick in 1976, and added two more in 1981.

While the Nick spread the gospel of indie and art films to the public at large, the Nick screenings pretty much begat local movie culture. I met so many folks (and made so many friends) in the Nick lobby at screenings, I probably can't remember them all. Morton Marcus came to Nick screenings regularly; he was so famous, I was afraid to talk to him for years!

I'd known Buz Bezore up at UCSC, but it was at Nick screenings that I got to know the other alt-journalists—Christina Waters, Michael S. Gant, Tom Maderos, Geoffrey Dunn —who would be staffing Buz's string of alternative weeklies for years to come.

Vintage me, vintage Nick lobby, ca 2004. My home away from home.
Bruce Bratton was writing his column for Good Times when I started at the paper, and was one of the most loyal screening attendees. UCSC film prof Vivian Sobchak was a regular, and, occasionally, her colleague Eli Hollander. I got to know all the various Sentinel film critics over the years—Dale Pollock, Rick Chatenever, Catherine Graham. And while I can't recall the movie being screened, I vividly remember the day I met the "new kid" at the Sentinel in the Sash Mill Cafe, at one of Nancy's dos—Wallace Baine. He was there with his wife, Tina, and he had their infant daughter in a baby carrier over one arm.

Early in my tenure at GT, I went to a screening of one of Bill Raney's favorite movies, the obscure, utterly impenetrable 1965 Polish epic, The Sargossa Manuscript. (He was bringing it back as a classic revival.) This time, there was only one other person in the theatre, and as he and I staggered back out at last into the light of day, laughing and utterly flummoxed, we bonded over the fact that neither one of us had a clue what the movie was about. This was the first time I met Jim Schwenterley, who was then writing for the Cabrillo Log.

Soon, Jim was working for Rene Fuentes-Chao, programming the eclectic repertory double-bills at the Sash Mill. When Bill bought the Sash Mill in 1978, Jim became part of the Nickelodeon family. When Bill and Nancy were ready to retire in 1992, they sold the business to Jim. Who else loved movies as much as the Raneys, or was better suited to maintaining the Nickelodeon legacy?

Jim and his then-partner, Chuck Vowiler, were responsible for bringing the dilapidated Del Mar under the Nickelodeon umbrella, and restoring it to its Art Deco glory. Next came stewardship of Aptos Cinema—to the delight of Aptonians starved for Nickelodeon-style film content down in South County. More recently, Jim and partner Paul Gotlober undertook the massive project of switching the theatres over from film to digital.

Now, after 23 years of savvy, challenging, and entertaining film programming, Jim and Paul are ready to step down. The Nick has been sold to Landmark Theaters; yes, it's a theatre chain out of Los Angeles, but its theatres specialize in art-house and independent films.

The current plucky staff of Nick, Del Mar and Aptos employees are being retained to do what they do best: continue bringing the best movies out there to our community. The theaters will be dark on December 17 and 18, then rise, Phoenix-like on Friday, December 18, in time for the holiday movie season.

Here's looking at you, Nick. Let's hope the fabled Nickelodeon legacy continues!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


David Ledingham as Sky Masterson, & co
JTC inaugurates new Tannery space with spirited Guys and Dolls

The second production in Jewel Theatre Company's eleventh season is more than just an evening of theatre. It's an invitation to come check out the company's spanking new performance space, the Colligan Theater, at the Tannery Arts Center.

Enter the complex from the main parking lot, and the Colligan is the first building to your left (next door to the Radius Art Gallery). With raked seating for 200 patrons above the stage (the incline is gradual, not nosebleed-steep), there are no bad sightlines.

And while the space seems enormous compared to JTC's previous venue, the microscopic Center Stage, it still feels intimate in terms of the viewer's relationship to the performers.

Christopher Reber and Julie James
 To inaugurate this new space, JTC mounts a production of the crowd-pleasing, vintage musical, Guys and Dolls. Originally produced in 1950, but set in the '30s, the show is based on the short stories of Damon Runyon, and populated by his usual cast of lovable Broadway denizens on the outskirts of respectability—gamblers, bookies, and chorus girls.

The JTC production is a bit slow out of the starting gate, but picks up steam in the second lap and gallops to a strong, exuberant finish.

The show features the ever-likable Christopher Reber as Nathan Detroit, David Ledingham as gambler Sky Masterson, Cornelia Burdick Thompson as straight-laced Salvation Army captain Sarah Brown, and JTC Artistic Director Julie James as showgirl Miss Adelaide (having a high old time with her Bronx accent and racy stage numbers like "Take Back Your Mink.")
Diana Torres Koss: Runyon-esque
But the best coup is casting JTC veteran Diana Torres Koss in the male sidekick role of Nicely Nicely. Her Runyon-esque patter, dialect, and attitude are perfect, and she delivers some of the best songs.

The property is a bit dated at times. Viewers may cringe at the comic subplot of Sky getting Sarah drunk to loosen her up (she thinks she's drinking a milkshake). But this is a family show, so he doesn't do anything but beam at her indulgently when she sings her big epiphany song.

Likewise cringe-worthy is the wheezy idea put forth in the ladies' duet ("Marry the Man") that all a woman wants to do is force a makeover on her man the minute he puts a ring on it.

But otherwise this lively production successfully launches JTC's new home.
(Read complete review in this week's Good Times)

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Full disclosure: Meryl Streep is only in one scene
Hey baby, it's cold outside, so you might as well go to the movies. Here are a couple of good ones you should try to catch up with before they're gone!

Women who defied social convention to join the "suffrage" movement, campaigning for women's right to vote, risked family rupture, public ridicule, and physical violence. 

Known by the vaguely demeaning name, "suffragette" (based on the Biblical sense of the word "suffer," as in "to allow"), these women on the front lines of the struggle for equality considered themselves warriors, especially as their protests became more disruptive, and the reaction of the authorities more brutal.

Their story is told in Sarah Gavron's illuminating drama, Suffragette a fictional story woven skillfully into the fabric of real-life history about the radicalization of a working-class Edwardian woman into the cause of voting equality. Carey Mulligan plays a marginalized laundress recruited into the movement by Helena Bonham Carter's crusading pharmacist.

Rallied to ever more defiant public acts, the women are routinely beaten with billy clubs, arrested, and brutally force-fed in prison when they try to publicize their cause with hunger strikes. But as police methods become more draconian, the press becomes more and more sympathetic to the women and their goals.
Uppity women campaign for voting rights
The film is very clear about personalizing what these women are fighting for. In their daily lives, they get paid less than men (sound familiar?), and have virtually no legal rights over their own bodies, their property, or their children.

Gavron and scriptwriter Abi Morgan want us to understand how courageously these women fought for something so easy to take for granted now—the chance to have even a tiny political stake in their own destinies. (Read more)

Boy meets Mac: Fassbender as Steve Jobs
Leave it to scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin to come up with a punchy, comprehensible way to distill the complex story of the visionary who invented Apple computers into a feature film. In Steve Jobs, Sorkin's sharp, literate script, and the propulsive energy with which director Danny Boyle tells the tale makes for a hugely entertaining biographical drama.

They choose to focus on three crucial moments when Jobs’ career, celebrity and personal life intersect, literally, on the public stage: at the press launch for the Macintosh in 1984, the press launch of the ill-fated NeXT Cube in 1988, and the press launch for the first iMac in 1998—which was destined to revolutionize home computing forever.

Factor in three Oscar-bait performances—Michael Fassbender, mercurial, infuriating, and fascinating in the title role, Kate Winslet (left, with Fassbender), as Jobs' no-nonsense gal Friday, Joanna Hoffman, and Seth Rogen as stoically truth-telling Steve Wozniak—and the result is just about irresistible. (Read more)

Don't believe those naysayers calling this film a disappointing failure. It's a great movie, full of fast, funny dialogue, and emotional complexity. Don't be the last kid on your block to see it!

Sunday, November 8, 2015


The promise of books!
The readers website Goodreads is democracy in action. Any reader can post a review, assign stars, and gush great billows of praise—or snark— about a book she or he has read. Every review, from zero to five stars to dnf (did not finish) carries the same validity, and nothing is ever censored for language, grammar, content, or opinion.

I've occasionally heard of a reader launching a vendetta against an author (or vice versa). But Goodreads is a mostly useful place for an author to find out what the Public—as opposed to your friends and family—really think about your book.

The first thing an author learns about Goodreads is there's no such thing as a consensus of opinion. Reviews are all over the map, criticism-wise, at least for my books.

For all the readers who complained about the flashbacks to Captain Hook's past in Alias Hook, there were just as many who loved the historical backstory. For those who accused me of the dreaded "Insta-love" in the love story, there were others who claimed things finally perked up as soon as the romance kicked in. Some thought the thrilling finale made up for the book's dreary, boring beginning, while others thought the drawn-out finale went on forever.

Still, the canny author might discover certain trends threading through these disparate reviews. In my case, the trending theme was reader expectations. Alias Hook was not what they expected.
What do readers want?

Why not? Most of them were expecting it to be a YA (young adult) novel.

Never mind that it was never promoted as YA, that my publisher, Thomas Dunne Books, doesn't even have a YA line. Never mind that it says "adult fairy tale" right on the dust jacket. The subject is Captain Hook and Peter Pan, the genre is fantasy, ergo, according to the prevailing rationale, it must be YA.

This was not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, some readers were indignant about it, as if they'd been purposely hoodwinked. But others praised the difference between my book and the YA genre fantasies they're used to. (Usually in multi-volumes, with kick-ass heroines battling their way through fantastic family legacies, dystopian futures, or sci-fi/fairy tale landscapes.) Many commentators were also pleased by their ability to rise to the challenge of reading it. (One reader—who loved it—proudly proclaimed "this was the first adult novel I've ever read!")

But here's the thing: an author, scribbling away in her bubble, can't possibly know—let alone write to—a reader's expectations. It's out of our hands. Alias Hook was not written with any particular genre, focus group, or reading demographic in mind; the story unfolded the way it wanted to be told as I went along.

Scribbling away in the bubble...
As most books probably are. The whole idea of YA is a fairly recent construct in the centuries-old publishing biz, this odd notion that a book has to be pitched to a very narrow window of age levels. ("Children's," "Middle-grade," and the very recent "New Adult" are also thriving sub-genres, at the moment.)

Books have not always been so strictly stratified. Once upon a time, a book was released into the world without labels, to find its own readership, regardless of age group.

Consider these literary classics: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, To Kill A Mockingbird. All are read by teenagers in high school today. Would they have been published as YA, if that category had existed back in the day? Would readers have been expecting Ahab's Daughter: Blood Feud (Moby Dick #2)?

Back over at the Republic of Goodreads, reader expectations color reviews on every page. (One reader complained that because the word "alias" was in my book's title, she was expecting a spy novel. And was, of course, sorely disappointed.)

Neither authors, nor readers themselves, can control readers' expectations. When I switch into critical mode myself, to review a movie or a book, I'm as guilty as anyone else in that department. I feel the pain of those disappointed GR readers. If one's expectations aren't met, it's hard to review the entity in front of you, and not the one that might have been.

(Above top: Childrens Book Week poster, N. C. Wyeth, 1928)
(Above middle: Beautiful Reader by Christian Schloe)
(Above bottom: Art Nouveau poster advertising ink)

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Profile in courage: Malala Yousafzai in He Named Me Malala
Teen's courage profiled in powerful doc 'He Named Me Malala'

The word "inspirational" is highly overused. It's come to denote an entire sub-genre of books and movies, mostly devoted to Christian themes or underdog sports stories.

But for real-life inspiration of jaw-dropping proportions, look no further than Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pakistani schoolgirl who spoke out for the rights of girls to be educated, nearly paid with her life when she was shot in the face by the Taliban, and survived, to continue her work on behalf of women's rights around the globe.

In 2014, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace—at age seventeen.

The amazing story-so-far of this incredibly poised young woman and her family is told in the moving, informative documentary, He Named Me Malala. Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) chooses this title for a good reason: the "He" refers to Malala's father, schoolteacher and activist Ziauddin Yousafzai, who is revealed to be an influence and inspiration for his daughter. But as Malala points out in the film, "He named me Malala, but he didn't make me Malala." Guggenheim's film is the fascinating story of Malala inventing herself.

Let's start with that name. In a voice-over, accompanied by lovely, animated pastel images (which are used throughout the film), Malala tells the story of her namesake, a legendary 19th Century heroine from Afghanistan called Malalai. When the Afghani troops were in flight from invading British forces, Malalai climbed a hill above the battlefield and rallied the troops, crying "It's better to live one day as a lion than spend the rest of your life as a slave." (Read more)

Now an international advocate for girls' rights to an education, we see Malala in Kenya, talking to schoolgirls in a remote village classroom. When she asks what they are studying toward, every student says she wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher. Malala's battlefield is the classroom, and this is how she wins her war—one girl at a time.

Monday, October 12, 2015


A cool images from "Pan," but it comes at the very end
All flash, no fun, in shipwrecked 'Pan'

Full disclosure: I went to see Pan with extreme prejudice. As someone who has cheerfully adulterated J. M. Barrie's classic for her own devices, I'm leery of anyone else trying to do the same. And I'm very possessive of the way "my" characters (let alone Barrie's) are portrayed onscreen.

I wish I could say I was pleasantly surprised by Pan. But it's even worse than I imagined, in every way that matters: a story that makes any kind of sense on its own terms, characters we're invested in who share a sense of camaraderie, fresh dialogue, and, you know, fun. Pan comes up goose eggs in every department, opting instead for insanely huge and irrelevant CGI effects that pummel the fun right out of it.

Director Joe Wright can do literary adaptations (the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice; Atonement). But Jason Fuchs' script is an ill-conceived origin story that makes hash out of the original's time frame and sensibility. Not that Barrie's world of perverse feral children isn't ripe for a little tweaking, but Fuchs' revision is a clumsy, derivative mashup that steals from other, better sources, like Oliver Twist and Star Wars.

Neverland tribes: don't call them native Americans
12-year-old Peter (wide-eyed newcomer Levi Miller) grows up in a London orphanage run by ferocious nuns. One night, during World War II, while the Nazis are bombing the city, Peter and some other boys are snatched up into a flying pirate ship that whisks them away to Neverland. There, they join the ranks of captive child slave laborers mining the caverns for "pixium" (ie: pixie dust), which pirate captain Blackbeard (Hugh Jackman) has been using to rejuvenate himself for the past 220 years.

It's not much of a life for a pirate—no women, no plunder, and nothing to spend it on, so why he wants to sustain it eternally is just one of the many things that doesn't add up. Tipping on a precipice one day, Peter astounds everyone, including himself, by flying across the gorge; turns out there's a prophecy that Blackbeard will be defeated by a boy who can fly. This is big news to the native tribes that live in the lush greenbelt over the hill from the mine, who need to stop the pirates before they despoil the entire island.

Indiana Hook and the kid. Before it all went wrong
There was much ado in the media when Rooney Mara was cast as native princess Tiger Lily. But it's clear in the film that the tribes are not Native Americans, just a bunch of mixed-race exotics speaking in vaguely British accents.

Not so James Hook (Garrett Hedlund); in this version, Barrie's well-spoken Etonian is a blond American  laboring in the mine, spouting a line of trite, patently "cocky" dialogue that would make Han Solo cringe. He befriends Peter (Hook calls him "kid"), and they steal an extra pirate ship that happens to be floating around and fly off to join the princess in her fight against oppression.

Did I mention there's an entire flotilla of flying pirate ships hovering above the island? Why do they fly? Who knows, but evidently that's not what they're using the pixie dust for. But if every ship is airborne anyway, what's the big deal that Peter can fly?

Jackman: Darth Blackbeard
 The story of Peter's birth might have had some resonance, but it's told in a confusing underwater animation sequence that's too murky to understand. And the only reason for bumping up the time frame to the 1940s (from the turn-of-the-century original) is so one of the flying pirate ships can have a dogfight with the Luftwaffe. No, I'm not kidding.

You know a movie is in trouble when not even Hugh Jackman, stomping around in black leather as a sort of steampunk Darth Blackbeard, can liven things up. He cruises around in a flying ship whose figurehead is a massive sculpture of his own head in its pompadour wig, which is a funny image for a couple of frames, but the script never gives Jackman—or anyone else—an actual character to play.

Who is this movie is aimed at? Wright says he made it for his son, but it's hardly magical enough to enthrall kids (and it's way creepy when the pirate ships blast through the Fairy Kingdom with flamethrowers), while adults will feel bored and/or bludgeoned (often at the same time). The wheezy plot won't interest young hipsters—not even (especially) in 3D. It's a shipwrecked extravaganza for an audience that doesn't exist.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Veteran Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is the master of emotional nuance. In haunting, deeply textured films like Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home, he suggests oceans of feeling roiling beneath the surface of the slightest glance or gesture. His new film Coming Home, is a spare, simple-seeming, deeply resonant story whose life-sized characters will break your heart.

Scripted by Jingzhi Zhou (from a novel by Yan Geling), the film tells a moving story of love, loss, and attempted reconciliation beginning in the final years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

As in most of Zhang’s work, the ongoing political turmoil of 20th-century China is a huge factor in the lives of ordinary people just trying to scrape by and survive. This film makes cataclysmic political events personal by exploring their impact on individual lives.

Lovely Gong Li (Zhang’s longtime muse) stars as Yu, a teacher, whose husband has been in a labor camp for so long, her 13-year-old ballet dancer daughter, Dandan (the excellent Zhang Huiwen) doesn't even remember him. When the Cultural Revolution is declared over, prisoners are released.

But the happy homecoming Yu's husband, Lu (the wonderful Chen Daoming) yearns for is shattered when he finds Yu suffering from a  form of amnesia and doesn’t recognize him.

To make things more poignant for Lu, his wife knows that her beloved husband is coming home and goes every day to the train station to meet him, but she’s unable to see in Lu the man she loves.

Zhang plays the material as a chamber piece for three voices, full of small, resonant notes to be savored. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


Happy news on the book front: my agents have just made their first sale of foreign-language rights for Beast: A Love Story to Poland!

This is a big deal to me. Foreign rights have not been sold to any of my books since my very first novel, The Witch From the Sea, came out in a gorgeous, hardcover German-language edition (as Die Heimliche Piratin)—three years before it was published in the US.

It's so typical of my backwards career that foreign rights sold way before the book ever came out in a language I could actually read! Beast—so far, at least—seems to be following a more traditional publishing path.

No word yet on a date that Beast will be available from HarperCollins Polska. But I'll keep you posted on this, and any future foreign editions!

Saturday, October 3, 2015


Art Boy welcomes you to his 25th Open Studio!
Hey, kids, what time is it?

Ten points for Gryffindor if you said Open Studios time!

Artists all over Santa Cruz County are standing ready, as we speak, to throw open their doors to you, The Public, for the next three weekends. And it all begins today.

For those of you who came in late, here's the deal: participating artists countywide are divided geographically. North County artists (basically from the Yacht Harbor to Davenport) open their studios this weekend. South County artists (between the Yacht Harbor and Watsonville) will be open next weekend, October 10-11.

The following weekend, October 17-18, is Encore Weekend, meaning artists from both sides of the county can be open for one last hurrah. If they want to. It's not mandatory to do a second weekend, so if you're putting off visiting your favorite artist until Encore, check the catalogue first to make sure he/she will be open.

(A word top the wise: North County ceramicist, painter, and jewelry-maker Beth Allison Gripenstraw, a favorite here on the blog, will only be open this weekend. Beth doesn't just show art, she creates entire environments—including, in recent years, Alice's Mad Tea Party, an African safari, and Paris in the 1920s. This year' she's promising a voyage down the Amazon—without the bugs. Or, if there are bugs, they'll probably be made of papier mache! Or perched on a vase, like these froggies!)

Speaking of the catalogue, it's now a slick, glossy magazine format, with much larger images of each artist's work. And this week only, it's free, free, free inside the Good Times! Otherwise, you can pick one up at any of the usual outlets around town for the ridiculously cheap price of $5! (I suggest you get one at the Art League and stop in to see the show featuring one piece of artwork from each of this year's participating OS artists.)

And to get in the mood: look who's the lead story in the Arts & Entertainment section of GT this week! Yes, it's Art Boy (aka: James Aschbacher, above), juggling paint cans and ideas with equal dexterity, in this great photo by Chip Scheuer. Click here to read the profile by the one and only Christina Waters.

Then grab a catalogue and an art buddy, and chart your personal art adventure!

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Fischer vs. Spassky in Cold War chess thriller 'Pawn Sacrifice'

The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union was waged on many fronts. One of the most intense and memorable confrontations took place not on a battlefield, or in a congressional hearing room, but in an indoor sports arena in Reykjavik, Iceland.

At this venue in 1972, the temperamental American chess phenom, Bobby Fischer, duked it out with defending Russian champion Boris Spassky for the World Chess Championship, an event publicized at the time (and still thought of) as the Match of the Century.

There's a lot of drama here—Fischer's eccentricity, political agendas, the "big game" motif—most of which is used to good effect in the fiction film Pawn Sacrifice. While the plot revolves around the famous 1972 match, through canny use of select flashbacks (along with a harrowing glimpse into the future via newsreel footage at the very end), the film provides a long view into the unorthodox life and times of Fischer, forever teetering on the crumbling border between genius and madness.

Scripted by Steven Knight, the film is thoughtfully directed by Edward Zwick, veteran of TV's Thirtysomething and many other screen credits. In the starring role, Tobey Maguire has to ratchet down his innate likability to play Fischer in all his abrasive, paranoid complexity. Nobody (including the filmmakers) understands Fischer any better at film's end, but Zwick and company successfully reconstruct the context within which he rose to fame. (Read more)

Saturday, September 26, 2015


What does Alias Hook have in common with the books of Sarah J. Maas, Marissa Meyer and Neil Gaiman? They're all featured this week in an article in the glossy showbiz mag, Entertainment Weekly!

Yes, Captain Hook's voyage of conquest through pop culture continues. The occasion for the EW story is the return of the insanely popular TV series, Once Upon A Time, this Sunday night, for its fifth season.

To celebrate this event, EW writer Megan Lewis selected eight books, contemporary novels in the retold classic fairy tale genre, that should appeal to fans of various characters on the show. And since Guess Who is the most popular character on the show, Alias Hook ranks numero uno on the list!

I could not be more thrilled to share these column inches with so many other talented scribes. Not to mention being linked up with such a popular show.

Okay, I've had my issues with OUAT over the years. But I have to give the show credit for helping to redeem Hook from the ranks of pure villainy. According to readers on my Goodreads pages, lots of people picked up Alias Hook because they were envisioning Colin O'Donoghue in the role!

Anyway, my Amazon numbers spiked overnight!

Read the whole article here.

Friday, September 25, 2015


Captain Hook dominated the runway last night on Project Runway. But, then, you know what a fashionista he is!

The designers were taken to see the Broadway musical Finding Neverland (based on the Johnny Depp film), about J. M. Barrie's friendship with a widow and her five young boys, which inspired him to write Peter Pan.

The designers' challenge was to create any kind of outfit inspired by any aspect of the show—they were encouraged to let their imaginations run wild! Predictably, most of them riffed on fairies, clouds, dreams; two outfits were done in shades of Peter Pan green.

But not winner Candice Cuoco. She was inspired by Captain Hook—and she went way beyond scarlet coats and pirate boots. Her favorite part of the play was when Hook tells Barrie to "own the darkness inside him." And so she came up with this very cool and edgy look that's all about embracing contradictions: hard and soft, leather and brocade, darkness and light. The judges loved it!

Owning your darkness and growing from it—my hero in Alias Hook could definitely relate. It's the Tao of Hook!

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Last year, Australian author Kate Forsyth's splendid adult novel, Bitter Greens, retold the tale of Rapunzel from three fascinating female viewpoints—Rapunzel herself, the beautiful sorceress who imprisons her in the tower, and Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a real-life writer at the court of Louis XIV who set down one of the earliest versions of the Rapunzel tale.

This year brings us The Wild Girl, which is actually Forsyth's first adult novel (written before Bitter Greens), but the second to be published in the US. In the new book, Forsyth builds her narrative around the very act of retelling, collecting, and preserving the old tales.

Its heroine, Dortchen Wild, is another real-life figure, a girl who grew up next door to the Grimm family in the small German kingdom of Hesse-Cassel during the tumultuous early years of the 19th Century.
Dortchen Wild, 1815

It's Dortchen who's credited with telling Wilhelm Grimm, and his brother, Jakob, many of the enduring folktales collected in their now-famous fairy tale book, Children's and Household Tales (first published in 1812).

Forsyth also builds her narrative around the growing romance of spirited, stout-hearted Dortchen, fifth of six daughters of a severe, upper middle-class apothecary and his frail wife, and Wilhelm, second of five sons of an impoverished widow.

As we all know, the ancient tales so painstakingly recorded by the Grimms are nothing like the Disney versions. Forsyth is interested in the way these symbolic, magic-infused tales reflect the real-life human dilemmas of the people who pass them along over the generations.

She skillfully weaves many of the most extreme cautionary tales of violence, mutilation, and treachery into the equally harrowing real-life events of war (as Hesse-Cassel is occupied by the French and then the Russians), oppression, poverty, drunkenness, abuse, and thwarted love.

In particular, the relationship Forsyth imagines for Dortchen and her cruel father (determined to tame his "wild girl" into obedience) looms over the novel like a black thundercloud, providing some of its most grueling scenes.
Later edition of the Grimms' book, 1865

 Yet the humor and lyricism of the story snippets themselves, along with Forsyth's strong character-building (especially Dortchen and her lively sisters), help to offset the story's darker moments.

The pacing falters a bit in the last suite of chapters. The author seems to be delaying events in the speculative part of her story to coincide with historical dates, and these scenes feel somewhat unfocused and meandering after the smooth tension-building of the rest of the book.

Still, The Wild Girl is an impressive debut. It's not as gorgeous nor as intricately put together as Bitter Greens, but does provide an insightful look at the enduring stories we tell, and how, and why we tell them.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Did'ja miss me?

No, I did not fall off the edge of the world in a leaky pirate vessel, nor vanish in an untimely explosion of fairy dust.

I've been right here, hunkered down over the keyboard, hammering out my latest revision of Beast: A Love Story. And as much as I love this book, and as mind-expandingly fabulous my editor Kaylan Adair's suggestions have been for tweaking it into even better shape, let's hope this really in the last revision!

I don't want to dither around too much longer; I want to launch Beast in all his glory out into the world. But I also want him to be as buff as possible—and really, really ready for his close-up. And so I cobble away, word by word, sentence by sentence, scene by scene...well, you get the idea.

Fortunately, I love to edit. By this time in the process, you have a complete draft to work on, so you know where the plot is going, and more or less how it's getting there. (Let's hope so, anyway. Expect delays if you're still monkeying around with story structure at this late date.)
Be ready to kill, or at least cut your darlings

So now it's time for the more detailed wordsmithing—reorganizing sentences, phrase by phrase, and finding exactly le mot juste (as they say in France—which happens to be where Beast takes place, and where the best-known Beauty and the Beast tales originated). Picking the right word—this is the fun part for me!

But editing also involves pruning, and you have to buck up and be ready to kill your darlings. (Wait, that sentence was perfect! Except, that plot point has now been discarded. Oh, the humanity!) In the best-case scenario, you have the luxury of time (as I've had, this month) to approach this process with a scalpel, not a broadsword. 

Instead of the wholesale slaughter of entire paragraphs (although I've done plenty of that too), you have to select the most important ideas in that great slog of verbiage and find somewhere else to slot them in. In the sneakiest manner possible, of course, so it will look seamless, as if each sentence had never been anywhere else.

Not to be too anal about it, but every word counts. And as I race (okay, crawl) toward the finish line, I want to get as much juice as I can from every single one!

(Above: Illuminated manuscript, pre-1492, found here)