Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Frances McDormand, 3 Billboards: blackly comic
Mavericks to duke it out at 90th Academy Awards

After the OscarSoWhite hashtag movement a couple of years ago, the Motion Picture Academy's demographics have altered.

With membership now opened up to a younger, more diverse crowd of film pros, you might expect this year's nominees to feature a few plucky mavericks vs. the mainstream favorites.

But — surprise! Almost none of the nominees qualify as "mainstream," including the two top contenders: Guillermo del Toro's eerie, romantic fantasy, The Shape of Water, and Martin McDonagh's blackly comic morality play Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Guillermo del Toro in the (Best) Director seat
While the predictive winners in all four acting categories are pretty much set in stone (results have been uniform throughout the awards season), there's still plenty of room to stir up trouble!

Here's what I think will happen:

BEST PICTURE Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri Usually, if you subtract the four (out of nine) nominees whose directors didn't get a nomination in their category, that narrows the field to five serious contenders.

But even though McDonagh wasn't nominated for directing Three Billboards, it's already won a Golden Globe for Drama, and the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble award. The Shape of Water is my favorite movie of the year, but I think it will rack up its Oscars elsewhere.

Gerwig directed herself and star Saoirse Ronan to Oscar nominations
Or it could be that The Shape Of Water has just gotten so much buzzier even since those early awards were issued to Three Billboards that it might just bubble up to the top here, as well.

The Post was a favorite going into the season, with its timely tale of crusading journalists standing up for the truth, but here, the lack of a nomination for director Steven Spielberg suggests it's run out of steam since then.

Less likely (but not impossible) upsets might by Greta Gerwig's smart, beloved indie comedy, Lady Bird, or Jordan Peele's darkly subversive racial-politics horror movie Get Out (Gerwig and Peele both scored directing nominations).

Jordan Peele directs star Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
BEST DIRECTOR  Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water He's already won every award there is in this category — in compensation for Three Billboards walking off with most of the Best Picture prizes — but mostly because Del Toro's irrepressible, iconoclastic personality infuses every frame of this rapturous movie.

Gerwig won a Golden Globe in the comedy category, and Peele earned a Best First Feature nod from the Directors Guild on America (although Del Toro won Best Director from the DGA). So anything is possible.

BEST ACTRESS Frances McDormand, Three Billboards  Bet the rent; name an award in this category, and she's already won it. And deservedly so.

BEST ACTOR Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour Another shoo-in, like all four favored acting nominees. Besides, there has to be some kind of recognition for a guy who started out playing Sid Vicious tackling the role of Winston Churchill.

Rockwell, McDormand, 3 Billboards: Winners
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Allison Janney, I, Tonya  She doesn't just "disappear" into the role of Tonya Harding's cold, heartless mom; Janney plays her in a trance-like state of viperish perversity.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards He's got all the buzz, as the hot-headed deputy dragged kicking and screaming to a kind of redemption. I thought his co-star, Woody Harrelson (also nominated) was just as good in this category.

But I'd have liked to see a shout-out for Doug Jones in The Shape of Water. A longtime Del Toro co-conspirator (he played Fauno/Pan in Pan's Labyrinth, and was recently seen as the impossibly elongated alien First Officer Saru in Star Trek: Discovery), Jones' poignant Amphibian Man romancing Sally Hawkins gives the movie its heart and soul.

Doug Jones, Amphibian Man: Romantic
OTHER Here's where those new Academy members may prevail with an Original Screenplay award to Peele for Get Out, beating out Del Toro and McDonagh (Although the latter has scored some pre-Oscar awards for Three Billboards). Veteran director James Ivory looks poised to win the Adapted Screenplay award for Call Me By Your Name.

Expect Blade Runner 2049 to score gold for Cinematography, while Phantom Thread wins in the Costume department. (Although, for a movie about the fashion industry, I found the clothes as lackluster as everything else in Phantom Thread.)

Meanwhile, The Shape of Water should swim to victory for its atmospheric sea-green Production Design, and its expressive Original Score by Alexandre Desplat.

(The 90th Annual Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, March 4, at 5pm on ABC.)

Friday, February 23, 2018


More time to read means more books to share!

Behold The Bohemian Gospel, by Dana Chamblee Carpenter, an intricate, compelling novel set in 13th Century Prague. (And you know how I feel about Prague!

Dark and despairing in so many ways, the clarity and audacity of this harrowing tale will leave you breathless.

At its center is Mouse, an unbaptized girl for whom no one ever cared enough to give a proper name. Raised in an abbey whose sisterhood she can never be allowed to join, Mouse is a gifted healer who possesses other, more frightening gifts as well.

She's 15 when she saves the life of Ottakar, the "Younger King" of Bohemia;  he's on the brink of death when his men bring him to the abbey from the battlefield. Only a few years older than Mouse, Ottakar rules in an uneasy alliance with his tyrant father.

Whisked off to Prague to aid the recovery of the Younger King, unworldly Mouse struggles to navigate life at court and understand the intense attraction growing between herself and Ottakar — all while trying to solve the puzzle of her birth and the source of her powers.

The seal of the histoical King Ottakar, ca. 1253
Dana Chamblee Carpenter breathes life into Ottakar, the Iron and Golden King, a historical figure who founded cities, created just laws, and sparked an era of prosperity in 13th Century Bohemia when he wasn't busy defending his turf and his people from the armies of rival nobles.

But it's Mouse — both vulnerable and defiant, intelligent and intuitive, in and out of God's favor, yet boldly carving out a place for herself in an unforgiving world — whose journey keeps us turning the pages.

There's a lot to process in this book, plot-wise — including a finale so incendiary, readers might be outraged if we didn't know there was another book (or two) coming to complete the story. Yet the book is such a vivid portrait of the human spirit, in all its strengths and weaknesses, as well as the complexities of its medieval era, that you can't help getting swept along like a current in Vltava River by the drama of these characters' lives.

PS: In Christian lore, "Gospel" means "good news" — ironic, when the central mystery of this book is finally revealed!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Film noir star Grahame memorialized in wistful love story Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Gloria Grahame is not much remembered these days. She was never as famous a movie star as, say, Marilyn Monroe. But, with her soft, girlish voice, sensual mouth, and trademark pout belying the gutsy toughness of the characters she played, she was a staple player in 1950s film noir, who is still much beloved by fans of the genre.

But it's Gloria Grahame at the end of her career who's the centerpiece of Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool.

Based on a memoir written by Peter Turner, it's the story of how Turner, an aspiring young actor trying to break into showbiz, met and fell in love with the veteran actress when she was working onstage in England in 1979.

Bell and Bening: plausibly beguiling
The book is now a movie by director Paul McGuigan, a wistful tone poem about age and celebrity featuring dynamic performances from stars Annette Bening and Jamie Bell.

Peter is 28, and Gloria is almost 30 years his senior. But they bond over the craft and business of acting as he squires her around town, and pretty soon they become lovers.

When, inevitably, she moves back to Los Angeles, she invites Peter to come live with her in her trailer on the beach at Malibu — a heady fantasy for a lad from Liverpool.

That Bening's no-nonsense, often fiercely anti-glam onscreen persona is so different from the kittenish Grahame's gives the casting its interesting edge.

Grahame and Turner, real-life
Instead of trying to mimic the actress, Bening digs into the heart of a woman of a certain age whose appetite for life and the work she loves is undiminished, investing her with a vitality and playfulness that plausibly beguiles the younger man.

Gloria tells Peter the best acting advice she ever got, from Humphrey Bogart. "Keep it all inside," she says. "Let the camera come to you."

Clearly, Bell has taken this advice to heart. Many of the movie's richest moments come from Bell's still face, perceptibly filling with emotion to which he never quite gives voice.

As the movie is based on Turner's book, we have only his word that Peter was as gallant and adoring as Bell plays him.

But if this movie revives interest in Gloria Grahame's vintage movies, I'm all for it.

Here she is at her saucy best, mixing a drink an cracking wise with her big lug of a boyfriend, mob enforcer Lee Marvin, in The Big Heat (1953)

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Books: entertainment the old-fashioned way
We didn't make a resolution, but once the holiday festivities were over last December, Art Boy and I came up with a radical decision for the New Year. We decided to read more books.

It takes some planning, of course, given the finite number of hours in the day. So we came up with three strategies for wresting time away from our usual allotment. Just call us the time bandits!

Strategy 1: In the dark of winter, we designate the hour before we start prepping dinner to reading. What a luxury! I've already read more books in the last six weeks than I was able to read in all of last year!
Time to excavate those bookmarks and put 'em to work!

As a writer, too, I have to keep filling up the well. It's not like stealing ideas from other books; it's more like the act of reading plunges you into the milieu where ideas are created, both on the page and in your own imagination.

As a smart sociologist once wrote, "we create as we read in a way that we do not as we watch Roseanne." Or, I would add, bringing the comparison up to date, as we do not as we watch the latest Looney Tunes emanating from the White House.

(No offense intended to the original Warner Brothers Looney Tunes of classic cartoons. If only Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were running things in DC!)
Oh, if ONLY we'd had this option!

Which brings me to Strategy 2: Unplugging from the nightly news frees up another extra hour — or an entire evening, if you decide to give your psyche and your sanity a break. Stay informed. Seize every possible opportunity to resist. But don't let it occupy your every waking moment. Besides, you'll catch up with the news the minute you go online again.

Strategy 3: W'eve started getting up one hour earlier in the morning. Yes, it's daunting to try to roll out of bed when it's still dark outside. But once showers are taken, the cat's been fed (and, sensibly, gone back to sleep), and caffeine has been imbibed, I find myself at the keyboard before 8 o'clock in the morning! Which means three uninterrupted hours of writing time before we're off to yoga!

And the more writing I get done in the morning, the more deserving I feel about all that rapturous reading to come!

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Revolting Rhymes: Girl vs Wolf
Dark themes, wit, diversity, in Oscar Nominated Short Films

A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got the bright idea to start packaging each year's Oscar-nominated short films in two programs to play in movie theaters — one featuring all five nominated live-action shorts, and a second featuring all five animated nominees (plus a few extras, to bump it up to feature-length).

The 2018 editions of the Oscar Nominated Shorts are in theaters now. If I was forced to pick a favorite, I'd go with the Animated Shorts —far more stylistically diverse, in a format that encourages  creative imagination.

The Live-Action nominees represent a broader range of racially and culturally diverse experience, evoking some powerful responses.

Who knows what you'll find in the Lost Property Office
Purists planning to see both should start with the more serious-minded Live-Action Shorts, then treat themselves to the Animated Shorts for dessert!

Among my animated favorites is Revolting Rhymes, from Jakob Schuch and Jan Lachauer (UK). Adapted from a collection of fairy tale-inspired poems by Roald Dahl, it's a sly, subversive mash-up of classic tales conveyed in Dahl's waspishly elegant verse.

A dapper wolf (voice by Dominic West) spins a tale for a sweet little old lady in a tea shop in which strands of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs are woven into a fiendishly clever narrative where little girls are not as helpless as they seem, and "goodness" does not always prevail.

The Silent Child: Maisie Sly
Daniel Agdag's Lost Property Office (Australia) isn't even one of the nominees, but the retro-steampunk vibe in this dialogue-free sepia-toned tale of a lowly clerk in a lost-property office underneath a metro station is completely beguiling.

The most moving of the Live-Action films is The Silent Child by Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton (UK), in which a compassionate young audiologist bonds with a 6-year-old deaf girl whose well-meaning family is too busy to engage with her.

Kevin Wilson Jr.'s My Nephew Emmett (USA), set in Mississippi in 1955, is a dark elegy exploring events leading to one of our nation's most notorious racial crimes, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, told with stark, potent grace.

Watu Wote/All Of Us, by Katja Benrath, (Germany) tells a harrowing true story of Muslims and Christians protecting each other on a bus trip between Kenya and Somalia when their bus is invaded by terrorists.
(Read more)

The film was completed by director Benrath as her graduation project at the end of her studies at the Hamburg Media School.

 (Right: Adelyne Wairimu in Watu Wote/All of Us)

Saturday, February 10, 2018


Poor Beast!

He can't get a break. No matter how nobly he behaves, Beauty can't accept him as a romantic partner.

Of course, Beast gets a different story in my book, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge!

Speaking of which, as the countdown continues to my publication date (July 10, 2018), behold my Beast of the Month! This lovely image is by Gordon Laite (1925-1978), a popular illustrator of children's books in the 1950s and '60s.

Laite is perhaps best known for The Blue Book of Fairy Tales, a Little Golden Book (remember that series of thin cardboard-bound picture books with the shiny gold spines?), and the collection Five Fairy Tales (which was a Big Golden Book). One of those five stories is Beauty and the Beast, which is the origin of this image.

Although Laite's Beast does not resemble mine, I still love the vivid colors and fanciful details of this picture — look at that winsomely decorated candelabra, and those busy butterflies! Not to mention her gown festooned with peacock feathers!

But I especially love the tenderness of Beauty's hand attempting to comfort Beast.

He gets the companion he deserves in my version of the story!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

ART to GO!

Hearts for the Arts: love themes
Now that it's positively spring-like outside, it's time to do what Santa Cruz does best: celebrate art and the artists in our midst!

Two fabulous new art shows are up and running this week.

First up, welcome back a beloved local tradition, Hearts for the Arts, the long-running benefit for the  Arts Council of Santa Cruz County.

Once upon a time, it was the biggest clambake of the art season, a catered affair at the Civic Auditorium, where artists came out of their lairs to mingle, while art patrons came all fired up to bid on their work — fueled by free champagne a chocolates provided during the increasingly raucous live auction that closed the evening.

These days things are a bit more (ahem) decorous. Artisan's Gallery, downtown, generously provides the wall space for an ongoing silent auction that opened February 1st, and continues to February 13.

In keeping with the Valentine season, most of the art pieces feature hearts or other love-oriented themes.

And the varying interpretations of that theme is what makes the show so interesting — as you can see from the eclectic grouping, above!

Besides small paintings, there are textiles, mixed media, encaustics, and a selection of fine jewelry to tempt art lovers — 100 pieces in all. Each piece comes with a preemptive strike option, a "Buy Now" price that will secure that item without any further bidding.

Several pieces have already sold out of the show this way, so get out there and place your bids!

I love my Connie Grant watercolor!
And while you're there, check out the vast selection of art, craft, jewelry, and greeting cards Artisan's has to offer. (How funny is it that Art Boy's painting ended up above the greeting card rack featuring champagne cards!)

Meanwhile, down in Watsonville, it's time for the Pajaro Valley Arts annual fundraiser Take Aways: Art to Go. The show features 62 local artists showing small, original pieces, priced to take away!

The cool thing about this show is that each artist displays a selection of pieces, grouped together, so you really get a sense of not only their style and use of materials, but the kind of artistic journey they're on.

It's also handy to have a few extra pieces on display as others are sold and whisked away!

The Aschbacher wall, PVA: on a journey

(Here's our score from the Preview Reception (above): a lovely little watercolor by Connie Grant that we just couldn't resist! You may know her from the fabulous art glass she's made for years with her husband, Jim Grant.

But just look how wonderful these little abstracts are! We love ours!)

The PVA Gallery on Sudden Street is such a rabbit warren of interesting little rooms (it's converted from a stately Victorian house), it's worth it just to poke around and see what marvels you find. There's always a surprise around the next corner!

See for yourself in this virtual tour of the Take Aways show!

One of my other favorite discoveries was this marvelous little window suite of mini chairs (each about 12" tall) from Cristie Thomas and Scott Lindberg. How cool are these? I especially love the one with the tree-limb chair back and legs!

Take Aways: Art To Go runs through March 4 at the PVA Gallery. There will be a closing reception March 4, 2-4 pm. But don't wait 'til then to see the show — pieces are already disappearing off the walls!

Exclusive Seating: mini-chairs by Cristie Thomas and Scott Lindberg

Thursday, February 1, 2018


Totally thrilled to announce the first pre-publication giveaway for Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge!

It all starts today (Feb 1) on Goodreads, and continues through March 10 — exactly four months before publication day, July 10.

If you're a Goodreads member (or even of you're not, yet; it's free to join), you're eligible to enter the giveaway.

Only three books (printed Advance Reading Copies, not digital) are being offered by my publisher, Candlewick, sponsor of this event. But if we get a good response, who knows? Maybe we'll do it again!

Just click on the link — it's live today.

And Beast of luck to all!