Sunday, May 27, 2018


If a designated "thriller" doesn't have E-ticket action, it had better come up with some other way to keep its audience riveted. The dark, edgy drama, Beast, manages this, big time; it has thrills to spare, not from violent action, but from the deft accumulation of detail.

For his impressive debut feature, writer-director Michael Pearce crafts an eerie mood of unspecified menace, in which anything might happen — and anyone might be capable of the most heinous actions. Trying to figure out whodunit — that weary cliché — is a puzzle that keeps us on the edge of our seats in Pearce's capable hands.

The tale is set in a contemporary village community on the isle of Jersey, off the southern coast of England. The town is on edge over a series of murders of young women. The serial-killer-on-the-loose motif is standard for the genre, but Pearce uses it as a launching pad to examine the tensions (emotional, psychological, cultural) already at work beneath the placid surface of this middle-class community.

At the heart of the story (and Pearce's nesting-doll design of inner tensions wrapped around each other) is young, twenty-something Moll, skillfully played with both presence and vulnerability by Irish singer and actress Jessie Buckley. She is ably partnered by Johnny Flynn — unsettling, and dynamic — as Pascal Renouf, a reclusive young handyman living in a stone cottage inherited from his parents far out on the edge of town.

Not every question is neatly wrapped up, but the stylish look of the movie, its dark heart, and the fascinating complexity of leads Buckley and Flynn, make for a highly provocative thriller.

(Read more in next week's Good Times)

Saturday, May 26, 2018


Just found this tribute from the newsletter for Pajaro Valley Arts (PVA), where James Aschbacher, (aka Art Boy) served as a board member for the last two and a half years.

(He also applied his business skills and artistic eye to running the Gallery Store at their Watsonville gallery!)

It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to our dear friend James, who left this earth with a suddenness that created a huge hole in our community.

Board President Adrienne Momi wrote "James was a very important part of our PVA family, not only a Board member, but the guy who didn't hesitate to roll up his sleeves to get the rocks shoveled into the hole in the garden and to put the railing up so we complied with the (ADA) rules.

"He was a 'doer.' James' commitment to PVA included the annual Membership drive - and although he didn't want to take credit, his efforts produced more than 15% of our annual budget." 

James managed our gallery store, and filled in with whatever tasks at hand needed to be done. He worked with humor and directed focus. Judy Stabile, Board Member wrote. "Saying goodbye is so difficult, especially to someone so vibrant and joyful. James, you made PVA a better place to create, and a happier place to be."

The tribute concludes: "During our members' show, What Nourishes Us, you will find the Gallery Store filled with James' work from our private collections, as a dedication to his life, so well lived."

Hear, hear!

Thanks, PVA!

Thursday, May 17, 2018


Great news, faithful readers! 

The folks at Publishers Weekly just awarded a STARRED review to Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge!

The review says, in part;

In this compelling reimagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” Jensen integrates a new plot thread in the form of a third protagonist into the familiar fairy tale. Jensen includes all of the tale’s most significant elements, while still adding new twists and depths. Haunting language and lush descriptions (“the petals are long-dead; they have lost their bright color and velvety texture and curled into crisp, dry cinders...”) engage the senses, making this a memorable, worthy addition to the canon of “Beauty and the Beast” retellings.

This is my first ever starred review from PW, and I couldn't be more thrilled!

Beast unleashes (at last!) on July 10! Meanwhile, read the full review.

Thanks, PW!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Superhero Ginsburg fights for justice for all in smart doc RBG

Forget The Avengers Infinity War. Here's a movie that's really worth cheering about, entering the marketplace with the same quiet, unassuming, yet  determined demeanor as its subject — legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As cunning as Loki, as grounded as Black Panther, she wields her opinion with the impact and precision of Thor's hammer, and achieves actual change, fighting for gender equality under the law as she has for five decades of groundbreaking decisions.

And nary a special effect in sight — unless you count her incredible stamina to keep fighting the good fight at age 84.

According to Gloria Steinem, Ginsburg is "the closest thing to a superhero I know." An opinion shared by many in this smart, sly, and heartfelt documentary, RBG, by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

The title references the recent biographical book, Notorious RBG (inspired by the moniker of the late rapper Notorious B.I.G), a nod to the younger generations of fans who have discovered RBG on social media and weren't even alive when she was fighting for things like equal pay and equal social security benefits in the workplace.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: pop culture heroine

"Whenever she writes a dissent," notes one of the younger observers in the film, "the Internet explodes!" It's sad that in these troubled political times, the actions that have recently made RBG such an unexpected social media icon are the clear and vigorous dissenting opinions she's written in opposition to recent Supreme Court rulings.

The Court has been shifting gradually to the right since RBG (nominated by Bill Clinton) was confirmed in 1993. In the current so-called administration, RBG is one of the few voices of sanity left on the bench.

But what a lot of people don't know about RBG (particularly her younger fans) is the hard work and determination with which she chose a legal career, and how the obstacles she faced shaped her views on society and the law. This is the story told most persuasively by filmmakers Cohen and West.
(Read more in this week's Good Times)

Monday, May 14, 2018


Friends, if you'e missing James Aschbacher as much as I am, here are a couple more tributes that might ease the sadness a bit.

First is from his longtime friend and business partner, Joe Ferrara, co-owner of Atlantis Fantasyworld.

It's a lovely, heartfelt memoir of how they launched the store, way (WAY) back in the day, November, 1975.

But get a load of these vintage pics of the two of them as eager young entrepreneurs! Guaranteed to make you smile!

And here's one written by the mighty Michelle Williams, intrepid head of the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County, in appreciation of all James did for the arts community.

It's kind of hard to imagine how the Santa Cruz arts community is going to forge ahead without James cheering them on.

But from the outpouring of love and support (and great stories!) that has been coming my way, I am comforted to think that my Art Boy continues to live on in the hearts of all who knew him!

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Hey, there, readers!

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge is only two more months away!

Publication day is July 10, 2018.

To celebrate, here's my Beast of the Month for May, another evocative Beauty and the Beast illustration hand-picked (by me) from the wilds of the Internet.

The artist is contemporary French illustrator Julie Rouviere.

I love the candelabra poking out of the shrubbery lighting Beauty's escape! This haunting image is sort of a mash-up of Jean Cocteau and the Disney version.

Of course, the scene plays out a little differently in my telling of the tale!

Click here to see more of Julie Rouviere's work.

Monday, May 7, 2018


John Lennon once said, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans." As it turns out, so is death.
The man behind the woman! Photo by Jana Marcus.

My life was knocked sideways last month by the sudden loss of my own, beloved Art Boy, James Aschbacher — husband, sweetie, soulmate, yoga partner, companion in so many adventures, and my absolute best friend for 40 years. "And not a night apart!" as he used to boast.

That was true until two weeks ago, when I spent my first three nights alone without him since we first moved in together way back in the Dark Ages of 1978. He spent those three nights in the ICU at Stanford after a stroke felled him early on a Monday morning. By Wednesday, we had to let him go.

It's inconceivable how my life is supposed to work without him. He was (and is) in every part of it. Famously joined at the hip, we went everywhere together — movies, art shows, theater. I co-hosted his Open Studios at our home for 27 years. When he got his first public mural commission (Plaza Lane, downtown), I helped him paint it.

Comic Book Boy, ca 1977
When I was invited to co-host the film review program, "Talking Movies," with former Sentinel film critic Rick Chatenever, on local TV, James drove me up to the taping in Scotts Valley every other week, and hung around to heckle — er, I mean, cheer us on from the sidelines.

When I did a book reading somewhere, or participated on a book panel, or in a film discussion group, he was always in the front row.

I can't tell you how many terrible movies he sat through with me. (Especially since a film critic doesn't have the option of walking out!) But we saw some great ones too, more shared experiences to rack up over our time together.

It all began one day, a few millenia ago, when I walked into the comic book shop, Atlantis Fantasyworld, on lower Paific, with a friend who collected comics.

Little did I know I was about to meet my future.

Meet the Future: Wedding Day, 1978
A transplant from the Midwest, James had opened the store a year earlier with his partner, Joe Ferrara. By that time, James had already established a mail-order business with book collectors from all over the country in search of vintage sci-fi paperbacks (the more lurid the cover, the better).

We would spend many Sundays at the flea market, James groveling around on the asphalt pawing through boxes of forgotten books in search of that one item he knew some collector somewhere desperately wanted. Matching up people with their dreams — that's what he loved to do all his life.

He was a man of many diverse passions, one following another in orderly sequence (Libra that he was). As a teenager, he'd performed a magic act at kids' parties. He loved cheesy '50s monster movies and collected vintage posters from his favorites.

Loony 'toonists (with one of our jokes on the wall), 1991

Soon after we moved in together, we launched a joint career as single-panel cartoonists (pen name: "Bonet," after the cheap bubbly we were drinking in those days.)

Believe it or not, I drew the cartoons and he wrote the jokes. (Even after he became known as an artist, James claimed he never knew how to draw.)

He amassed a vast library of his favorite horror/sci-fi movies and vintage TV shows on videotape. Whenever anyone was coming to dinner, he first asked what their favorite TV show had been as a kid, and then had that tape cued up and ready for a blast to the past.

And then, on the brink of turning 40, after total immersion in pop culture for so long, he decided to become an artist. No one knows why.

From Comic Book Guy to Art Boy — 1991
He'd never taken a single art class in his life, but was suddenly in the grip of a very demanding muse. Because (as he always said), he didn't know how to draw or even hold a paintbrush, he started out wielding cans of spray paint and cutting out cardboard stencils to shape the image.

Ultimately, this would lead to the distinctive technique that he made up: fanciful images (birds, fish, animals, dancing figures) painted in acrylics on spray-painted cardboard, then nailed onto a piece of wood with a hand-carved border of magical symbols.

After the quake of '89, when Atlantis had been relocated into a tent in a parking lot, James decided to pursue art full-time. He and Joe cooked up a 5-year plan for Joe to buy his half of the business; if he couldn't make a decent living after five years, James thought, he could always go get a job. But he didn't have to — he's been selling his artwork ever since.

If the frame fits: this piece became a mirror!
James became a popular stop on the Open Studios Art Tour, and an inspiration and mentor within the thriving Santa Cruz arts community. For several years he was also Chairman of the Open Studios Committee for the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County.

He left his mark — literally — on buildings countywide as a muralist, including 10 years painting murals at local elementary schools with 4th and 5th-graders — who were always encouraged to create and paint their own creatures.

OS visitors loved his work, but they especially loved to hear his story about his DIY art career. His path had been so strange, so unexpected, and so self-motivated, he was always encouraging others (artists and normal people) to pursue their dreams, no matter what anyone else told them.

Anybody can be taught to copy some style or other, he often told his mural kids or other artists who sought him out for advice, but only you can create your vision.

Gail Rich Award, 2005
Unlike the popular image of the flaky artist, James had a strong business sense and a practical streak. Having worked with his father, a general contractor, he also knew how to do stuff. Among friends and colleagues, if you needed a shower door set in, or bookshelves built, James was your go-to guy.

Working at home all day led James to new passions. One was cooking, which he embraced with the same glee with which he'd devoted himself to art. He became famous for his pasta, but his pizza was legendary! (He baked it on a screen set on the floor of the oven for seven minutes — a process for which he gave many tutorials among our friends.)

When our Sorrento lemon tree had a bumper crop one, year, he did some online research and taught himself to make limoncello.

But his drug of choice was always Champagne, either the authentic French kind (Moet was a favorite), or one of the crisp Spanish cavas we'd discovered over the last few years. He'd had some youthful fantasy about some day being successful enough to drink Champagne every night, but in truth, he just loved the sparkle.

It matched his effervescent personality.

On a shopping run, inevitably, the person checking him out with a case (or two) of bubbly would ask, "What's the occasion?" "Just celebrating life," James would say, with a smile.

After he left the store, we started taking daily afternoon walks around the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, to clear our heads of any lingering debris from whatever various projects we'd been working on all morning. More recently, as mobility became an issue for me (due to an unexpected diagnosis of MS), I couldn't walk as far or for as long at a stretch.

Chair Boy, 2017
His solution was to start driving us down to park in the upper harbor, where I could go from bench to bench whenever I needed a time-out. Meanwhile, he would walk from the car all the way down to Aldo's and all the way back to get in as much of his regular walk as possible, back and forth, like a duck in a shooting gallery.

Later, he bought a folding patio chair to stash in the car trunk, in case I needed to rest between benches. That man would cheerfully walk beside me, schlepping the chair like a Sherpa guide until I needed it!

As opposed to me, the reclusive writer, he was the most social man in the universe. He planned all our dinner parties, arranged dates, did all the shopping AND all the cooking! All I had to do was make dessert (my favorite part!) and show up. He ran errands and even fielded robocalls in the mornings when I was writing.

He was so tickled when I finally got a book contract after so many years of toil. The contract was for Young Adult (YA) fiction, and he embraced the book biz with the same enthusiasm he devoted to his other passions — doing research and urging me along. He even started reading YA!

60s-Themed Hearts for the Arts event
In addition to his other talents, he was a hell of a lot of fun to be around, with an upbeat sense of humor, and the twinkle in his eye. We got our first phone answering machine one February when the Winter Olympics were on TV. James recorded the message, "Lisa and I are waxing our luge and can't come to the phone right now."

When we were planning a Will and Trust a couple of years ago, the subject or organ donations came up. James laughed. "Nobody wants my liver!"

The Master of Malapropism, James was also famous for the odd combinations of words and ideas — often seemingly unrelated to each other — that would pop out of his mouth unexpectedly. Once when we were discussing travel plans (he was a notorious homebody), I pointed out that some people actually liked to travel. "Well, some people eat fur for breakfast!" he sputtered. That stopped the conversation cold. As soon as we both realized what he'd said, we laughed until we cried.

Many Faces of Art Boy: birthday altar, 2011
That's the kind of intimacy I'm going to miss, more than any other kind. The kind that can only be brewed from 40 years of shared jokes that nobody else gets, and the helpless laughter that comes with them.

There will be a huge hole in the heart of the Santa Cruz arts community without him, and an even more enormous hole in my heart. I am lucky to have had 40 wonderful years with him. Please remember him as he was — cracking jokes, making fabulous art (and pizza!), and toasting Life with Champagne! Every day should be a celebration.

It certainly was for James.

Right now, it seems like people need permission to start feeling more happy that they had him in their lives than sorrow that he's gone. Permission granted — from both of us.

I know James would not want to make everybody sad and miserable — he'd be the first one out there making jokes and popping corks — so I am adopting his upbeat spirit and positive outlook as I plunge ahead into the next chapter.

Our last photo together: at the Gailies, 2018
Things he will miss:
The final season of Game of Thrones.
The demise of the Trump administration.
The complete first draft of my next novel he was so eager to beta-read.
Our 40th wedding anniversary (although we got to celebrate 40 full years together!)

Things I will miss:
Everything about him

I love you, Art Boy!