Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, September 18, 2017

The long and short of book awards in 2017

Now that we've finished up with the Emmys(congrats to the folks involved with Big Little Lies and The Handmaid's Tale for their wins), the next major pop culture award show speculation is all about books,..well,for some of us at least.

The long lists of nominees for The National Book Award were released last week, with the finalists due to be announced on October 4 and the winners to be celebrated on November 17.

As much as I appreciate all four of the categories,which include non-fiction and young adult, my focal point here is on fiction and I was so thrilled to see a book chosen that not only had I recently finished to be on that list, it's also one of the best novels that I have read this year.

Pachinko is the second novel written by Min Jin Lee, who took several years to work on the book in order to get the emotional nuances of the story right.

Part of that research included living in Japan and looking deeper into the cultural history between Korea and Japan, which is at the heart of this multi-generational tale. It begins in Korea, where Sunja, a young girl from a poor yet loving family, falls in love with Hansu, a much older man who neglects to tell her about his wife and children.

When she becomes pregnant, Sunja refuses to live as Hansu's mistress and her family honor is saved by marrying a kind hearted missionary who moves their new family to Japan on the eve of WWII. As Sunja's children and grandchildren face the hardships and prejudices that society inflicts upon them, that certain secret from the past throws a long shadow over their lives in most unexpected ways.

This is a sad at times yet also beautiful at times story that deals with the conflicts between love and duty, honesty and truth and the desire to stay true to heritage while wanting to belong to the majority in control. It's themes of cultural identity and family love are truly universal and I hope that this is not the only book award that Pachinko is in the serious running for:

I'm quite confident that Pachinko will be in the NBA shortlist, along with Jesmyn Ward's newest book, Sing,Unburied Sing, that is getting high praise from readers and critics alike.

The story is set in modern day Mississippi, where young Jojo and his younger sister Kayla live with their grandparents, Mam, who is dying from cancer and Pop, doing his best to take care of the household as well as raise his grandchildren right.

Jojo's mother Leonie is in and out of their lives, haunted by the death of her beloved brother and a persistent drug habit. When the father of her children is due to be released from prison,Leonie takes Jojo and Kayla, plus a friend of hers, along for the long ride across the state to be reunited with him. Their journey is fraught with numerous risks, not to mention the possibility of little to be gained by the end of it.

Jesmyn Ward has won the NBA before, for her novel Salvage the Bones, but unlike some award shows, I don't think that will be seen as a reason to set this work aside. In fact, a second win could change the game for her, taking these stories of heartfelt realism from the regular literary circles into a mainstream market with a wider audience for such lyrical yet harsh beauty:

 Meanwhile, the Man Booker Prize in England has announced their short list of fiction nominees, with the awards ceremony set for October 17.

 Over the years, the Man Booker has expanded their horizons for nomination, adding Canada and the US along with a few other countries for consideration. That has allowed for a strong variety of books to be featured and focused on, with a few breakout stars in their midst to be found as well.

One of those stars is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, set in an unnamed country where erstwhile lovers,Nadia and Saeed, soon find that they have no choice but to flee for their lives.

Their method of transport are specially enpowered doors, placed in random areas that are well protected yet available for a price. Nadia and Saeed land on a Grecian island and are beginning to make a real life for themselves when more and more refugees flood in, causing them to be on the move again and again.

This search for home while the whole world is in chaos is a timely theme that the author engagingly embraces, offering a mix of magic and down to earthiness that makes this book more than just a talking point. It layers the evolving conflict with humanity, something that tends to be lost in the arguments yet is what makes this issue so relevant for fictional and real world folks alike:

Speaking of fictional and real people, George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo mixes and matches both in this novel, another big contender for the Man Booker.

The "bardo" of the title refers to a limbo like residence for the dead, a realm that is disturbed as Abraham Lincoln spends one long night at the family crypt to hold a one man vigil for his recently departed son Willie.

As most of the spirits relive their past mistakes in life and fight among themselves, two of them decided to help young Willie move on to the next world. Roger Bevins, who ended his life after a broken off romance, and Hans Vollman, who died by accident just as his new marriage was about to begin, take this responsibility for the young Lincoln on as the father is torn between his grief and responsibilities to the living.

Saunders has showcased his brand of off-beat storytelling before in his many short story collections but based on the reviews that I've seen and heard, this is next level work even for him. In a way, it would be oddly fitting(as well as weird) if a novel about an American president wins a British book award but stranger things have happened,I guess:

Well, I am happy that there is one book in this potential award winning bunch that I've read(and yes, will be rooting for) and I might try to read a couple of others but perhaps not just yet.

My hesitation isn't due to the quality of the work, it's more about dealing with the many books that I have on hand at the moment. One of those current reads will probably add a few new titles to my TBR piles, Books for Living by Will Schwalbe.

Schwalbe talks about a variety of books, ranging from The Girl on the Train to Stuart Little and Reading Lolita in Tehran, that in their own unintentional way taught him about different aspects of life such as trust, friendship and problem solving. The whole point of this book seems to be finding meaning in your reading without trying to make all of your reading meaningful, if that makes sense.

Well, take award winning(or potentially award winning) books for example-many people feel they have to get these books in order to be considered a "serious" reader, since any book up for a major award must be a meaningful read. However, if you don't feel any connection to the story during your reading of it(or find it hard to even get a good start there), there is no meaning to be found for you,especially if your true motive is only to impress others.

Better to try a couple of them out to see if they suit you or challenge you in a way that makes the page turning a pleasure rather than a chore. A book doesn't have to award winning to be a good read but it's a nice bonus when it does:

Friday, September 15, 2017

When it comes to successful Stephen King movies, this is IT

Yesterday, I treated myself to a matinee showing of IT, the long awaited big screen adaptation of one of Stephen King's most iconic novels. By now, most of the reviews(both professional and word of mouth) have highly praised the film, not to mention breaking box office records in the first weekend of release.

However, as someone who's read the book more than once and seen the 1990 made for TV miniseries, which attempted to capture this elaborate story and did not succeed for the most part, my expectations were above and beyond for a good version here.

I'm happy to say that this film was much more than a good adaptation and instead of a "just the facts" review, I'm going to highlight the three major elements that made this movie work:

THE KIDS: Since the Hollywood powers that be wisely chose to divide the novel into two films, the casting was crucial in order to invest new as well as familiar viewers into this story.

Thankfully, the majority of the cast,both adult and younger, are not well known faces and happen to be amazing actors to boot. Among the kid actors, Finn Wolfhard(Stranger Things) is the most recognizable but his take on Ritchie Tozier,the motormouth of the group, is completely different from his ST character, although I like to think that Mike and Ritchie would be instant buddies.

Stand out performances in this ensemble start with Sophia Lillis as Beverly Marsh, a girl who can break your heart with a self hating haircut one minute and in the next, cause you to cheer as she kicks ass against her enemies(including one that's very close to home).

 Right next to her is Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben Hanscom, whose quiet nature shields deeper feelings and at the heart of the story is Bill(Jaeden Lieberher), the big brother misguidedly trying to make amends for what happened to his departed brother Georgie.

Bill has some major moments in this half of the story, as It has no qualms about pouring salt into that open wound in order to take the biggest threat against it down. Lieberher handles his part like a true professional and then some, leading me to think that he and the other kids in this cast will have some interesting acting careers to check in five or ten years from now:

THE CLOWN: While Tim Curry's performance in the TV version of IT was one of the better elements of that adaptation, Bill Skarsgard brings a very different style to this Pennywise and a major reason for that is budget.

Since there were limits on what could be shown in the earlier miniseries(due to technical and financial restraints along with restrictions on content), it was best for Pennywise to be more verbal, which played well into Curry's wheelhouse there. Don't get me wrong, our creepy clown does get to chat in the big screen version but with more advanced F/X and the creative freedom that an R-rated film permits, enabled the actor to develop his own brand of physical menace for the role.

Actually, Skarsgard gives a more brutal edge to Pennywise, turning his dark humor and sly moments of false cheer into a razor thin veneer that makes you even more tense than you already are as you wait for that leering mask to crack(and trust me, he doesn't keep you waiting long).

 It also helps that Pennywise is able to take on some considerably terrifying other forms, from a twisted woman in a painting to a rotting leper and worst of all, faces of loved ones. Yes, I will not be surprised this Halloween to see a lot of Pennywise costumes hitting the trick or treat scene indeed:

THE CHANGES: Let's get this out of the way; we all know there is a certain scene in the book(involving sexual intimacy) that is not in the film, nor was it in the TV miniseries. Both decisions were correct, as that sequence is best left on the page and that's that.

One of the biggest changes to the movie is setting the early half of the story in the late 1980s instead of the late 1950s. Usually, I hate it when time periods are switched up to modern day(for example, the last remake of Carrie) but this works out well.

 After all, you could argue that the 80s were very akin to the 50s, a redux if you will. Plus, it's not too modern day to break the creative tone of the piece. I don't intend to get into spoiler territory here but I will say that it's obvious that certain things were tweaked for the interest of a reasonable running time(as it is, the movie is a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute deal) and others added a deeper nuance to characters who aren't as fully focused on here.

 For instance, Mike is given a darker backstory that makes the visions It shows him way scarier and Stan's Jewish identity gets seen a bit more here than in the book.

While those guys do get some screen time, they are more in the supporting player section yet these changes give them something solid to work with in the solo scenes that they do have.

Once upon a time, I was one of those "that's not the way it was in the book!" people and thankfully, time has allowed me to take a different approach to such things. When an adaptation is badly done, these changes stand out like an unfinished hem on an outfit for Project Runway. They may not be the full reason for the failure of the project but well worthy of nitpicking.

If, the adaptation is done well, as in keeping with the true intent of the work and not just a direct  carbon copy of the source material, these changes are a true bonus. They give you two slightly different versions of a wonderful story for the price of one. Also, they can offer you a fresh new take on a very familiar scene from the original book, giving you more popcorn bang for your movie ticket buck:

After spending a good portion of my summer watching bad Stephen King adaptations, it was great to see one that Hollywood finally got right. I do hope that when Chapter Two is being made that the folks in charge cast talented unknowns/lesser known actors as the adult versions of the Losers Club. You don't need big names, Stephen King is more than enough here!

Speaking of King, he sounds happy with the film and so do many of his fans, myself included. Tales of outsiders banding together to defeat a seemingly unstoppable evil are much in demand these days and this is one of the best and not just in this genre. Sure, IT may understandably not be your cup of grim tea but it's themes of love,friendship and valor are ones that we need to hold on wherever they may be found,on screen and off:

Monday, September 11, 2017

Preparing a plate full of FrightFall reading

Usually, I'm the type of person who grumbles about the holidays being rushed up,particularly when Halloween candy is on display right along side back-to-school sale notebooks.

However, I am getting ready for Halloween a bit early this year and it's all due to the Seasons of Reading annual FrightFall Readathon. Instead of the regular week or so, this readathon will be for the entire month of October, ending on All Hallow's Eve right about the witching hour(how appropriate indeed!).

 Since this is quite the literary undertaking, it only makes sense to start setting up my reading list as soon as can be. For the SOR readathons that have a scary theme, I tend to pick a Stephen King book to reread and this time out, my selection is Firestarter.

Having reviewed the 1984 film adaptation for Bad Movie Month over the summer, my interest in this novel was rekindled, you could say. I do remember the book being much more engaging than the lackluster pack of wet matches that Hollywood turned it into on screen.

The title character is Charlie McGee, a ten year old girl born with the power of pyrokenesis,aka being able to set things on fire with her mind, due to her parents taking part in a blind study while in college. That study was actually run by a secret government agency experiment called The Shop and the formula that they gave to those unsuspecting students gave those who survived special abilities such as mind control, which Charlie's dad Andy has a low grade version of at his command.

 Now those folks want to see what little Charlie can do, forcing father and daughter to be on the run. Capture is inevitable yet the real risk comes not from those who wish to control Charlie. Young Charlie finds herself at a crossroads when it comes to dealing with her power and she may have no choice but to burn a few bridges in order to figure out who's in charge. Should be fun and fascinating to revisit the original girl on fire here:

Not every book for FrightFall has to be in the horror genre. You can also read mysteries of all sorts as well and with that in mind, I picked up a copy of Miss Marple:The Complete Short Stories by Agatha Christie.

The twenty tales collected here are from other short story sets by the legendary Miss Christie such as The Tuesday Club Murders and Three Blind Mice. All feature the elderly yet lively lady from St. Mary Mead who manages to find the right person that committed murder among the small town folk around her.

I know that everyone's into Hercule Poirot right now, due to that remake of Murder on the Orient Express coming up soon, but Miss Marple is completely more charming and clever to me.

 Ever since I saw the movie version of The Mirror Crack'd(and yes, I read the book,too) with Angela Lansbury, she has been my favorite small town sleuth and reading these stories ,with a cup of tea at hand, ought to do very nicely for this occasion:

The next book on my list is actually doing double duty,as it is also my October pick for my Series-ous Reading challenge. I must confess that in the latter category, I am jumping very far ahead here as The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla is actually the eleventh book in Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series and I've only officially finished the first four books.

However, I have gone out of order before with these particular books and none the worse for it. Also, this entry has a vampire theme and that is just so perfect for Halloween time.

The leading lady here is Sally Fitzhugh, whose interest in vampires is due to the popularity of a gothic novel called The Convent of Orsino, sort of the Twilight saga of the day. When rumors about her new neighbor, Lucien, the Duke of Belliston, being one of the undead, Sally can not help but meet him. While he turns out to be rather human(not to mention rather handsome), a series of strange murders on his property appear to be relying on that vampire rumor to be true.

Sally and Lucien find themselves having to team up in order to clear his name and prevent the true killer from striking again. With these books being set in Jane Austen's time, there is an added bonus of bookish pleasure to be found,especially as Jane liked a few scary stories herself back then:

Speaking of vampires, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Certain Dark Things showcases a different side of the eternal night dweller's world. Our nighttime heroine is  Atl, a descendant of Aztec blood drinkers who is on the run from warring vamp gangs in Mexico City.

When she comes across Domingo, a street kid looking to survive any way he can, Atl sees him as nothing more than a portable meal on her way towards South America and freedom. However, the two of them form a bond that could possibly benefit them both in ways either of them couldn't imagine.

Having read her debut novel,Signal to Noise, I've been eager to check this one out,especially since this is a vampire book, a genre that I do enjoy. This is certainly not going to be a Twilight type of tale and that's good, as there is a real need for fresh blood when it comes to sanguinary storytelling these days:

There's still plenty of time to sign up for FrightFall, if you're interested and I do hope that this new month long format brings us many new reading friends to the party. One thing to remember is that you only have to read one scary book, so it is perfectly fine to have The Shining and Little Women on your FrightFall TBR. Hopefully, you won't have to use Joey from Friends' method of chilling out between chapters:

Friday, September 08, 2017

The first days of fall have me raking in bookish leaves

Now I know that it isn't officially fall, according to the calendar, but it certainly feels that way to me and the best way to start a new season off for me is making my now regular visit to the library.

Usually, I head right for the fiction sections but this time around, a display of non-fiction caught my eye(mainly due to a couple of the books on the table being ones I've recently read) as soon as I returned my latest loans. The theme was biography and The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell rang out loud and clear to me as a must-have.

W. Kamau Bell was the host of the sadly short lived Totally Biased  late night talk show on F/X and these days, doing a series for CNN called United Shades of America as well as the podcast Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period. The book is a combo package of autobiography and essays, chronicling his life and times along with looks at the impact of childhood superheroes, game changing movies like Creed and dealing with daily racism.

Bell doesn't shy away from his own faults, detailing his development of social consciousness and merging it with his comedic voice and making amends for his mistakes, both public and private. The writing is filled with his particular brand of emotionally engaging and savvy humor that never allows the reader to not take his important points seriously.

As a fan of his work, this book is a wonderful insight into his talent and mindset, making me wish that he had another late night show on right now as we could certainly use his keen eye for observation on the current events/pop culture scene:

I did head over to the fiction shelves,of course, and couldn't resist grabbing a copy of Fredrik Backman's new novel Beartown. The title small town doesn't have much going for it, other than the local  hockey team that is on the verge of being in the championship game.

A good portion of that successful surge is due to Peter, their general manager who was recruited to return to his home town after his stint as a NHL player. However, when his star player Kevin is arrested due to an assault on his own daughter Maya, Peter has some hard choices to make as well as most of the town over which is more important, sports or justice?

Backman's prior books do have a blend of whimsy and darkness,so this story certainly sounds like one of his. Yet, this one may be more of a deep dive than A Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Says To Tell You That She's Sorry,judging on subjects at hand. One thing's for sure, it will be well worth finding out.

I also received a few books to review in the mail, including one that is the basis for an upcoming movie starring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.

The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin was originally published in 2010 and showcases a pair of storm-crossed potential lovers; Ben, a talented surgeon and Ashley, a writer  heading to her own wedding.

When the two of them agree to share a charted flight in order to get home sooner, they never expected to spend more than a few hours together.

Yet, when their plane crashes and strands them in the snowy Utah mountains, Ben and Ashley have no choice but to stick together to survive, particularly as Ashley is too injured to find her own way back to civilization. During their travels, more than one threat looms ahead but there is one danger that they can't escape,love.

This does sound a little soap-operaish but it may be some good escapist fun here and hopefully the film adaptation stays true to the source material in the romance department(don't Pelican Brief us on this one,Hollywood!):

 A more recent release that landed in my mail box is the upcoming debut novel by Cara Delevingne(last seen as the Enchantress in Suicide Squad) that she co-wrote with Rowan Coleman and goes by the name Mirror,Mirror.

The title refers to the band that misfit high school friends Red,Leo,Naomi and Rose belong, where they share a love of music and sad home lives. The foursome feel stronger together but that all changes when Naomi suddenly vanishes and is then found later in a comatose state.

The remaining three have to play detective to find out if what happened to Naomi was intentional or not and if so, who did it? And is that person out to get the rest of them? Kind sounds like Pretty Little Liars meets Josie and the Pussycats in Riverdale but hey, why not? This might very well be the kind of book that may not be on the Top 40 yet has a good beat that you can dance to:

My fall reading plate is full and then some,folks, but the search for a good read is a never-ending one. No matter how many books you have on hand, you always want to find that special story that makes the whole world go away and mundane tasks like answering the phone truly nonessential.

Such a quest can not be denied,although you might have to delay it for basic life reasons as stuff like phone messages do tend to pile up there:

Monday, September 04, 2017

The Rook takes me to a new level in my Series-ous Reading game

Along with catching up on a couple of historical fiction series lingering on my TBR piles, my year of Series-ous Reading also permits me to try out the first entry in other genres such as sci-fi/fantasy and for the end of summer, The Rook by Daniel O'Malley was certainly a great blockbuster of a read in that area.

The story introduces you to Mynfanwy Thomas, a young woman who wakes up in a local park in London with no memory yet surrounded by dead bodies, all of which are wearing latex gloves. Now, that's an intriguing set-up but trust me, that will seem rather tame as things start rolling along.

Mynfanwy's only clue as to who she is comes from a letter that her pre-mind wipe self wrote to her future self, as she was given several heads-up from random psychics about this situation. Turns out, she works for a special secret government agency called The Checquy, one that specializes in containing supernatural events and is run by people with unusual powers such as appearing in other people's dreams and sweating tear gas.

Her own powers allow her to control the nervous systems of others, one that was thought to be only activated by touch.

 However, free of her standard shy nature, Mynfanwy discovers that her abilities are much more extensive than she or anyone else knew, yet she did learn a major secret that caused one of her Checquy cohorts to have her memory erased.

Given the option of investigating into this matter or going off to make a new life, Mynfanwy decides to stay on, using the numerous letters that her prior self wrote as a guide to discovering the truth:

This search for what lead to her memory loss forces Mynfanwy to take up her position at work as a Rook, a high level executive of sorts.

While there, she has to hide her amnesia and hopefully not make anyone suspicious of her, despite the matching set of black eyes and other bruises on her person.

 Returning to work does give her plenty of access to information that could solve her personal mystery and it also gives Mynfanwy access to a variety of suspects such as her fellow Rook Gestalt, who is one persona shared among four bodies or Bishop Alrich, a vampire who was born from an egg. There's also recent activity,such as a bizarre purple slime that traps a budding cult in Bath, that indicates that an old enemy of the Checquy known as The Grafters may be rising again.

As Mynfanwy does her best to appear as her former self and look for clues as to who betrayed her, she also gets a chance to develop a stronger personality and more of a life outside her work as well.

This is one of my favorite aspects of the story, as the letters to the new Mynfanwy show the sad,lonely existence she was leading in this strange sector of the world and this reset has a lot of benefits to offer her along with the losses.

 I love how she manages to make unexpected friends and allies along the way, such as her assistant Ingrid, who knows more than she seems and Shantay, a visitor from the American branch of the Checquy known as Croatoan whose special powers pitch in when Mynfanwy gets overwhelmed by her own special skills:

It's great how O'Malley balances out the offbeat elements of the story with the solid character development of our leading lady, a person who we get to know before and after the major event that changes her life occurs.

There's also some wonderful spots of humor, such as a scene where a psychic animal reading goes wrong which leads to a debate over whether or not to dispose of the fool who ruined the event in the first place(don't worry, there is no onscreen harm shown to the duck in question. Yes, a psychic duck, I am so not kidding about that).

At the moment, there is only one sequel to The Rook which came out last year entitled Stiletto and word of mouth has been excellent for that one as well. I do intend to read Stiletto in the hopefully near future and while I have heard that you don't have to read The Rook first to enjoy it, I highly recommend doing so.

This book is a smart,quirky blast and a good way to get to know Mynfanwy Thomas's world which is as amazing odd as any wonderland out there:

Well, with summer now over(for the most part), it's back to the stacks for my September selection which is Stephanie Barron's Jane and the Stillroom Maid.

This fifth book in the Jane Austen Mystery series takes our heroine to Derbyshire, where the shocking discovery of a body holds more than one surprise to be solved.

Derbyshire is also a key spot for Jane Austen fans, as a good portion of Pride & Prejudice is set in that part of England, especially noted as where the fabled estate of Mr. Darcy is supposed to be. Perhaps the inspiration for Pemberley might have a few clues for our detective version of Our Dear Jane? We shall see: