Saturday, July 25, 2015


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


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, as the writer, I make dozens of character sketches for myself; 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


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


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


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