Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Keeping warm by the glow of my chilling book haul

With the snow falling outside my window right now, I am more glad than ever about my latest book haul. In rough weather conditions, it's always reassuring to know that you have enough food in the cupboard, a good blanket to crawl under and a pile of spanking new books to read.

First on the pile(thanks to Blogging for Books) is The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry,which is a follow-up to her earlier novel, The Lace Reader, yet it's not necessary to have read that one before this. Having read TLR, I'm curious to see what she has store here.

This book returns to the town of Salem, where police detective John Rafferty  is investigating the death of a teenage boy that may be connected to a cold case called "The Goddess Murders". Those killings were tied to descendants of accused witches back in the bad old days and many believe that a local historian,Rose Whelan, is responsible for those untimely deaths.

John doesn't buy that and neither does Callie Cahill, the daughter of one of the original victims who has come back to Salem. Even if Rose is innocent and they can prove it, how will they find the real killer? Especially if that killer is truly less than human in more ways than one. Barry's storytelling skills impressed me greatly back when I read The Lace Reader and catching up with these characters ought to be an engaging get-together:

My other two books came from the library and I was thrilled to find Jeffrey Toobin's American Heiress on the shelves. This is his take on the Patty Hearst kidnapping back in the early seventies, a story that has always interested me ever since I read Patricia Hearst's own account of it entitled Every Secret Thing(I even saw the movie version).

I know that Toobin didn't have the cooperation of Patty Hearst for this book, which from what I've heard has doubts regarding her participation in the crimes committed once she "joined" the SLA. Granted, I am rather sympathetic to what she went through but willing to see what evidence Toobin has gathered to make his conclusions.

After watching the adaptation of his book about the O.J. Simpson trial and gaining new insights into that event, this should be as equally fascinating. I've already started American Heiress and his addition of the social chaos swirling around that particular moment in time is certainly enlightening things for me already:

I paired that with the first in a new mystery series,Arsenic with Austen by Katherine Bolger Hyde. The leading lady here is widowed lit professor Emily Cavanaugh, who has a fondness for Jane Austen's Persuasion, a book she's reading while traveling to the small village of Stony Beach to claim an inheritance.

While settling the estate of her great aunt(who, rumor has it, may have been murdered) and getting to know the locals, Emily reunites with Sheriff Luke Richards, a former love of hers that could be the Captain Wentworth to her Anne Eliot.

Unfortunately, there's also a scheming cousin of hers named Brock who is reminding Emily a lot of the duplicitous Mr. Eliot of that novel about. As Emily and Luke look into a suspicious string of deaths going on, Brock is only one of the many suspects that might also add Emily to their deadly to-do list. This sounds like a charming cozy mystery and if it fulfills it's promise of Austen antics, I will look forward with pleasure to the next entry in this "Crimes with the Classics" series indeed:

This is a small book haul, to be sure, but a manageable one for the present. Of course, having books to carry around is a delightful burden for most readers as you can't possess everything you need to know at all times even with the internet available. Books allow you to travel where ever and when ever you please, particularly during bad weather days like this:

Monday, January 30, 2017

Wrapping up A Winter's Respite of reading

Having a two week long readathon,such as the one I just completed with Seasons of Reading and their A Winter's Respite one recently, turns out to be quite the literary blessing. My TBR had six books on it and I managed to finish four of them, which is not too shabby.

The first two books I covered in a prior post, so here's the second half. Liane Moriarty's Truly Madly Guilty is set,like her earlier bestsellers such as The Husband's Secret, in Australia and follows three families still reeling from the aftermath of an incident that took place at a backyard barbecue.

The hosts of that gathering, Vid and Tiffany, seem to be handling things well yet Tiffany notices that her pre-teen daughter Dakota is perhaps acting a little too well adjusted there. The main guests, Erika and Oliver, also appear to be doing well but Erika is concerned over a memory lapse that could connect the dots better about what happened.

 The guests who were affected the most are Clementine and Sam, who brought their two young girls to the party, which was originally meant to be a simple at-home visit.

 That last minute change in venue made the true purpose of that get-together a bit more awkward and ultimately resulted in straining their marriage to the breaking point.

The format of this book is similar to Moriarty's Big Little Lies, which is set to air soon on HBO as a limited series, yet the stakes are slightly different for this set of characters. However, she has a real knack for domestic dramas and a talent for adding solid layers of depth to her fictional folk which serves her well here. TMG is an engaging read that may not have as much sizzle to the steak as BLL did but still offers up plenty of flavorful punch:

The last book that I was able to finish for this readathon happened to be the first one I started, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. It's not a particularly long book but it is worth taking your time with.

Our leading man of the title is a retired widower living in the small English town of Edgecombe St. Mary, who when we first met him is in shock over the sudden death of his brother Bertie. He gets immediate comfort from Mrs. Ali, a widow who runs a local shop and shares his taste in reading.

While the Major is dealing with his relatives in order to claim what he considers to be his inheritance(a hunting rifle that was part of a matched set given to each brother by their late father), he keeps running into Mrs. Ali and winds up getting involved in her own struggles with her family, who want her to give up the shop in order to hand it over to a moody nephew.

Their ongoing relationship becomes the talk of the town, despite the polite chasteness of their connection and things come to a head at a country club dance that is rife with cultural insensitivity.

 In the end, it is up to Major Pettigrew to do what he likes least-make an open declaration of his feelings-to make everything work out for all concerned.

For a debut novel, Helen Simonson makes an outstanding first impression that marks her as a true professional. From her touches of gentle humor to the details of country village life, this book transports you right over to England with vivid emotions and stylish flair.

 Many have said that her writing style is very Jane Austen like and I do feel that's not just hype. If I was to select an Austen novel to pair this story with, Persuasion would suit the bill nicely. The hesitation dance of love that the Major and Mrs. Ali engage in during the course of the novel does follow in the same steps that Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth first mapped out, right down to the last wonderful two-step of the heart:

I did get a start on the last couple of books on my readathon list, Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye(had to extend my library renewal for that) and Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, both of which I'll continue with,of course, along with my Series-ous Reading pick,which I hope to have a write-up for later this week.

Much thanks to Michelle Miller of Seasons of Reading for setting up another fun time for all of us to indulge in. It's really good to find bookish friends to share this dreary season with and perhaps make new ones as well:

Friday, January 27, 2017

A rallying cry to reading

One of the few bright spots in the news these days are reports of a renewed interest in reading, particularly certain classics that seem to reflect all too accurately upon our current state of affairs.

A book that has quickly climbed to the top of bestseller lists and has publishers scrambling to print copies as fast as they can lately is George Orwell's 1984, particularly now that the phrase "alternative facts" has entered our lexicon.

With so many new examples of doublespeak coming at us both online and off, it's almost no wonder that people are seeking some much needed clarity from this iconic novel about the long term effects of an intrusive dictatorship upon it's citizens, hoping to be far more successful than the book's leading man, Winston Smith, in his efforts to resist the grasp of Big Brother's minions:

Even before the results of the recent presidential election, readers were scrambling to get any edition they could of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Publishers are also straining to keep up with the demand for this one.

 This 1935 novel(which was also adapted into a stage play and later, an inspiration for the 80's sci-fi series V) is not as well known as Lewis' other stories that highlighted social ills of his time such as Main Street and Elmer Gantry but with it's tale of an America run by manipulative politician turned dictator, ICHH has certainly stuck a nerve in the here and now.

It's also interesting to note that the hero of the novel is a journalist, Doremus Jessup, who uses his power of the press to thwart the growing danger of this new government. Particularly relevant to our current headlines since a sadly prominent White House staff member has recently declared  "the media" to be the big problem and that they need to "shut up". It's charming attitudes like this that are making people run to their bookstores and libraries looking for relevant reading:

Another book with a similar theme to ICHH that has been gaining new popularity is Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, which has become an Amazon Studios series now in it's second season.

PKD's vision of a world where Hitler and his allies won WWII is considered a hallmark of the science fiction sub-genre known as alternate history(which is basically a twisted version of It's A Wonderful Life). The book won the Hugo award in 1963 and even before the online series was regularly reprinted.

While the show has naturally revived interest in the source material, you really can't deny that our real world headlines are making both the book and the series feel incredibly current to the way we live now:

While we're seeing many forms of protest these days, it's good to note that reading is just as much of a formidable act of rebellion as any other. Choosing to be educated and knowledgeable about the world is your best weapon against ignorance and intolerance.

I'd also like to point out that novel reading during such times is important. Nonfiction is vital, of course, but fiction teaches people empathy, a skill that is in serious decline right now. Seeing things from another point of view and realizing our own flaws and preconceived notions about how others live is how we learn to advance as a civilization.

There are plenty of wonderful novels out there that can open your eyes and be thoughtful entertainment as well. Books such as A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee, The Absolutely True Adventures of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Mothers by Brit Bennett and so many more. Celebrating our freedom to read is a key part in dealing with what lies ahead as well as healing our emotional wounds together:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Rejoice,for Oscar season is upon us!

Well, we certainly needed a lift after the events of this past weekend and thankfully, pop culture has provided with the announcement of the nominees for the 89th Academy Awards, due to be presented on February 26.

There's plenty of applause out there for La La Land's large number of nominations(more on that in a moment) but to me and no doubt many others, the true belle of this cinematic ball is Hidden Figures, which is up for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer.

This is an end of the year release film that has been gaining a groundswell of support from movie goers and critics alike, hitting box offices highs that even had it beating Rogue One at one point. As thrilled as I am that Hidden Figures is a main contender here, I do wish that it was also being featured in more categories such as Taraji P. Henson for Best Actress and Best Score as well.

A film that brings to light the untold story of three African American women who were a vital component in our country winning the Space Race should be just as celebrated at the Oscars as we know a certain other film is going to be and while I haven't seen either movie yet, it's not hard to see which one is truly more inspiring:

Meanwhile, La La Land is making headlines for it's 14 nominations, including Best Actor and Actress for Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and yes, All About Eve and Titanic had the same amount but that's no guarantee of success.

 Just ask the folks who put out The Turning Point and The Color Purple how well multiple nominations work out(they both had 11 and won nothing on their respective nights).

Look, I'm sure that La La Land is a nice enough film and musicals are one of my favorite genres. However, the hype machine is seriously working overtime on this one and if it sweeps the Oscars, fine but don't expect everyone to be over the moon for that:

By the way, La La Land, did you have to take up two of the slots in the Best Original Song category? Sorry but I did take a listen to "City of Stars" and "Audition" and forgive me for saying so but they do sound awfully alike.

I know how this category works, they like to mix up somber songs such as the Sting number from Jim, with more lighthearted fare from animated movies like Trolls(which is up for an award here). It's just that the La La Land songs aren't that lively and Moana could have had had one of those spots.

As much as "How Far I'll Go" is a lovely song that deserves it's nomination, it would have also been nice to have "You're Welcome" right along side it. Am I alone in wishing to see Dwayne Johnson singing the praises of his demigod character on Oscar night? I don't think so:

There are other nominations to be happy about, such as Moonlight and Arrival sharing eight each, including Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris in the Best Supporting categories, Viola Davis and Denzel Washington up for Fences and Zootopia being among the Best Animated Film contenders.

On the other hand, I find it highly amusing that Suicide Squad is up for both Oscar and Razzie honors(two for the Razzies, thanks to Jared Leto and Best Make-up and Hair for the Academy Awards). Suicide Squad wasn't as awesome as I had hoped yet it at least had a less mediocre iconic villain than DC's other major movie did.

 Speaking of which, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is sure to sweep the Golden Raspberry Awards this season, being that it's main competition is Zoolander 2, which shares eight nominations in the now infamous bad movie mockery festival.

It's one of the best aspects of Oscar time that movies, both good and bad, are celebrated together with some getting a bit more and less than they deserve from us all. Either way, movies still have much to offer world weary audiences on either side of the cinematic coin yet hopefully better than the epic fail of BvS:

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Winter's Respite Readathon Report

I've been taking part in Seasons of Reading's A Winter's Respite readathon this month and since it happens to be a two week deal, a progress report at this halfway point seemed right.

So far, I have completed two books on my TBR, the first being Emma Cline's The Girls. Evie Boyd was a lonely,bored teenager in the summer of 1969 who needed an emotional anchor during the turbulence of her parents' divorce.

Unfortunately, she found that in Suzanne Parker, a slightly older girl whose seemingly wild and carefree life was only a thin layer of icing over the rotting cake served up for a cult of personality. Said personality was Russell, a would-be singer and charismatic con artist planning on using his connection to a semi-popular musician to make it to the big time.

While Evie was dazzled enough by Russell's charms, her true interest in being part of the group was all about Suzanne. As things went from bad to worse and then to bloody violence, Evie was mostly a hanger-on but that brief bond she shared with Suzanne cast an overwhelming shadow over her whole life.

Yes, this story is loosely based on the infamous Manson murders but author Emma Cline is deftly able at creating her own original take on that by focusing on what even a temporary association with such a destructive group can leave behind in a person's heart and mind.

The core of the story is the twisted relationship with Evie and Suzanne, which reminds me in a way of the film Heavenly Creatures, a based on a true story tale about two girls who lead each other down a garden path of deadly damage. I don't know if Emma Cline has seen this movie but I do recommend it to anyone who has read The Girls as a thoughtful companion piece:

The other book that I finished was The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis; in fact, I spend the entirety of last Friday reading that one straight to the end. Considering what was going on that particular day, it was a very opportune time to read this.

The letters in question are written by a high ranking demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, giving him advice on how to best tempt the first "patient"(human being) on his Junior Tempter roster. Most of that advice mocks the moral code of mortals and while it is set during a particular time frame(originally published in 1942), there are some key points that still ring true today.

For one, Screwtape points out to Wormwood that the sin of gluttony is not simply about overeating; calling too much attention to how little you wish to consume and insisting that others remake your dish over and over again until it is up to your standards is equally bad. How many versions have we seen of that over the years?

Most compelling is the speech included at the end of the book "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", written by popular demand in 1959.

As Screwtape is toasting a new graduating class of Tempters, he also outlines the plans that mortals are making to dumb down society by lowering educational standards which will make the devil's work all the more easier. It's downright scary just how prescient that satirical essay is.

Granted, the book is very Christian themed but I feel that many of the humorous insights that are made here can be readily applied to other faiths as well. If you only know C.S. Lewis as the man who wrote the Narnia series, this set of social satires will certainly be an eye opener.

 The Screwtape Letters have been adapted into numerous pop culture mediums, including stage, radio and even comic books.  With that in mind,I do wonder if the folks who created the TV show The Good Place read this book as a few of the characters certainly do have some of Screwtape's charms here:

As for the rest of my AWR reading, I've made a good start in Liane Moriarty's Truly, Madly, Guilty and thoroughly enjoying Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Both of them are great but I am so adoring Major Pettigrew and hope that the author writes a follow-up to it.

Hopefully before the readathon ends, I will have tackled Curtis Sittenfeld's  American Wife and Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye(had to renew it until early February from the library but I know it will be worth it). There is still plenty of time to join in the fun and one of the participants,Bemused Bookworm, is holding a giveaway that you may want to check out.

One of the best things about a readathon like this is that you are given time to release your anxieties about the way we're living now and while you don't want to be too zoned out to know what year this is, having a good chunk of reading to do is a grand way to revive your spirits:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Tuning into the cinematic Queens of the Throne Age

I've noticed that here in America, despite all of our vested interest in democracy, we still find the whole kings and queens of England deal fascinating,particularly in pop culture.

 Granted, the British also share our taste for royal biopic fare as they produce plenty of it for our mutual viewing pleasure. This past Sunday was the PBS Masterpiece debut of  the miniseries Victoria, starring Jenna Colman as the young queen as she first takes the throne.

She is beset on many sides(including her own mother and a "family friend") as to how to rule but the one person who truly listens to her is Prime Minister Lord Melbourne(Rufus Sewell). As their professional relationship grows, rumors fly about as to how much influence the PM has over her, a theme that is revisited more than once in Queen Victoria's life:

While Victoria is more of a historical soap opera than a drama, it is well acted and entertaining enough to keep on watching. Plus, that persistent notion of Queen Victoria being easily swayed by the men in her life is worth exploring.

A fine example of that is the 1997 theatrical film Mrs. Brown(aka Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown in the UK), where a later in life Victoria is in deep mourning for her deceased Prince Albert. Both the government and her family wish her to take part in the world again but it's only through the friendship of royal groomsman John Brown that her spirits start to revive.

The bond between them causes much talk,hence the title nickname, and eventually a wedge is made between the queen and servant,which perhaps did not fully diminish their affections. It's s a stellar film and the one of the best performances by both Judi Dench and Billy Connolly which shows that while Queen Victoria did need someone to lean on, she wasn't the weaker for that, rather the reverse:

Of course, PBS's Victoria is being compared to the Netflix series The Crown, that is chronicling the life and times of the current Queen of England, Elizabeth the II.

The show has just won a couple of Golden Globes recently, with Best Actress going to leading lady Claire Foy and the entire program winning Best TV Series. I do plan to watch The Crown at some point but I do think it's a bit unfair to compare TC to Victoria. For one, being on a streaming service like Netflix allows for more storytelling boundaries to be stretched than something made for standard television.

Another even more compelling reason for the difference in dramatic direction is that Queen Elizabeth is still with us,thankfully, and that any biographical depiction of a living notable person tends to err on the side of the serious when it comes to screen. I'm sure that some artistic license has been taken  with both productions but Victoria has the advantage of being set in the far enough past unlike The Crown, which has to tread a little more carefully there:

My opinion on that may change once I watch season one of The Crown but it does seem to be par for the course with dramas about Elizabeth II. The movie that I think opened the door for this series is the 2006 film The Queen, where Helen Mirren played Her Majesty upon dealing with the untimely death of Princess Diana in the late 1990s.

Mirren's performance lead to an Oscar and then a stage adaptation entitled The Audience(which earned her a Tony). The film deftly displayed the dilemma for the queen as to how to balance the private pain of what happened with the appropriate public response, a struggle that even those not having a royal title can relate to and I suspect The Crown covers similar emotional ground:

In the end, part of the appeal for such queenly shows for Americans is, in my opinion, seeing what it would be like to have a woman in charge. While we probably will have to wait a bit longer to see such a shift in power in real life, that time will come for us,

What's important to remember,as many of these stories teach us, is that it is not gender or even bloodline that makes for a worthy ruler. It is the strength of character that such a person has and what he or she is willing to give up for the sake of their duty to others.

This display of character can also be seen in those whom that person chooses to ally themselves with and most importantly, their choice of advisors. Hopefully when we do find that true leading lady to lead us, her inner circle will be a true reflection of her character and perhaps even on the same level as the future queen of Westeros and her Hand will be:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Catch-Up Theater opens the door to Stranger Things and Jessica Jones

This past Friday the 13th, my sister and I watched the perfect programming, the last four episodes of Netflix's Stranger Things. For those unfamiliar with this online series, it takes places in a small town in Indiana during the latter half of 1983 and begins with an experiment gone wrong at a nearby lab which leads to the disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers.

Will's disappearance is only the start of the weirdness as more folks go missing, bizarre creatures have been spotted and a newcomer,a girl called Eleven(or El for short) is being hunted by dangerous people.

 These challenges encourage three generations to seek answers, such as Will's mother Joyce(Winona Ryder), a frazzled single parent, moody sheriff Jim Hopper(David Harbour), distraught teens Nancy and Jonathan(Natalia Dyer and Charlie Heaton) and Will's circle of D&D playing buddies Mike,Dustin and Lucas(Finn Wolfhard,Gaten Matazzo and Caleb McLaughlin)

To tell anymore would ruin the fun and while this show has been out there for awhile, I'll do my best not to spoil stuff(some of the videos included in this post are a tad spoilery in spots,so you have been warned!).

What I can safely say is that Stranger Things has truly pulled off a pop culture hat trick; while rift with various references to other genre fare, this is a wholly original story with characters that are fully fleshed and allowed time to develop and grow.

Part of the reason for this success is the writing. The Duffer Brothers,who created this series and wrote and directed most of the episodes, really have a handle for organic storytelling. In other words, the 1980s weren't used as a diorama for them to play-act with stick figures in here. If this had been a book(and yes, these fellas know their Stephen King), it would be one of those great reads that hooks you from page one and doesn't let you go until the end:

While I have several favorite characters on the show such as Joyce,Nancy's missing friend Barb(who I hope does reappear in season two) and Dustin, the top of that list belongs to Eleven, brilliantly played by Milly Bobby Brown.

I know what they say about child actors but this role would be a complex one even for an adult. A girl raised like an experimental animal with incredible psychic powers yet unable to speak in complete sentences, Eleven slowly yet surely becomes the emotional core of the story.

Granted, there are a number of emotional focal points within the plot(especially Jim Hopper's past memories of his daughter) but El's  struggle to find her place in the world is at times heartfelt and menacing,which can also be seen as the overall tone of ST. Eleven is the ultimate outsider whose humanity is what truly keeps the threat of the Upside Down at bay:

As I mentioned earlier, there is a second season in the works and how long they can make Stranger Things last is going to be the real cliffhanger here. It's not just the kids growing up or filming schedule conflicts that might hamper the show's future.

Again, it's all about the writing and I sincerely hope that the Duffer Brothers know when to say when, story wise.  Meanwhile, both my sister and I are joyous to have shared this entertainment experience together and we may even re-watch ST at some point(my sis definitely wants to see that Stranger Things SNL skit again in order to really appreciate that parody):

 My next foray into Catch-Up Theater may be a solo one as I head for Marvel's Jessica Jones on Netflix. This show, along other Marvel properties on that streaming service, is meant to be much darker in content than typical comic book fare and judging by the first episode alone, this is not PG-13 fare.

Kristen Ritter stars as the title character, a private investigator with super  poewers who is recovering from a terrifying past experience with a deadly telepath named Kilgrave(David Tennant). Jessica is mostly going through the motions of her life but when her former nemesis returns, she had to find a way to defeat him once and for all.

This story is not the usual moody comic book anti-hero tale, particularly since it's dealing with the emotional aftermath that women have to deal with from abusive situations, which makes it all too fitting to watch in times like these. Since the show is 13 episodes long, it may take me awhile to get though it but I have no doubt that this is a journey worth taking and then some:

Friday, January 13, 2017

Settling into A Winter's Respite of reading

Well, the way things are going these days, a readathon is surely welcome and starting this upcoming Monday, Seasons of Reading will be hosting their annual A Winter's Respite,which runs for two weeks.

One of the best parts of this readathon is that you are given an easy and open access to it. Fiction and nonfiction alike is encouraged, you can start and stop at your own pace and prizes will be awarded but the main reward is catching up on your reading.

Since this is a long readathon, my intended reads list is a moderate one but here are at least four books that I'm hoping to get into as we go along:

THE GIRLS: I have two books on hold at the library to pick up this weekend and one of them is Emma Cline's debut novel about a young woman caught up in a Manson-like cult in 1969.

 Fourteen year old Evie Boyd's desire to become part of this group is not really due to it's charismatic leader,Russell. It is nineteen year old gritty glamorous Suzanne Parker that firsts attracts Evie to seek new experiences outside of her safe suburban sphere and before long, she finds herself willing to do anything to please her new best friend. That anything proves to be fatal in more ways than one.

I've heard a lot of good things about this book and it appears to be much more than a retelling of the infamous Manson murders(although the author did some in depth research on cults). A dark subject for leisurely reading,perhaps, but one well worth exploring:

TRULY MADLY GUILTY: My other library pick-up is Liane Moriarty's latest novel, this one dealing with the aftermath of an incident at a neighborhood backyard party.

The friendship between long time best gal pals Clementine and Erika is a bit strained at times and when they and their families join in at a last minute invite from newcomers Vid and Tiffany for a bit of barbecue, those close ties become dangerously close to unraveling.

With the upcoming debut of the HBO adaptation of Moriarty's previous best seller Big Little Lies, interest in her books is already growing, so I'm very grateful to have the chance to tackle this one:

MAJOR PETTIGREW'S LAST STAND: Upon finishing and thoroughly enjoying Helen Simonson's The Summer After The War, I decided to treat myself to her earlier novel(which makes it the first book I've bought in 2017).

This story is set in more modern times than TSBTW but small town politics still play a huge role here. The title character is a retired military officer who prefers to stick with his old habits and keep most of the world at arms length.

However, he develops a friendship with local widow Mrs. Ali, which stirs up unwanted attentions from more than one quarter. Between disdainful relatives and prejudiced locals, the budding romance is at risk for being cut down before it's blossoming time.

Simonson has a lovely way with words as well as characters,which should make for a warmly charming read as the nights grow colder:

AMERICAN WIFE: I have this book on order from Better World Books and it should arrive long before this readathon is over. Curtis Sittenfeld's fictional look at a First Lady is said to be loosely based upon Laura Bush but the intent of this story is not a political takedown.

Rather, it's the tale of Alice Lindgren, who had a relatively quiet life until being swept off her feet by Charlie Blackwell, the trouble making son of a wealthy family who winds up in the White House.

 While Charlie's antics in office do cause plenty of strife, Alice is haunted by her own personal demons,which include the accidental death of a former love, and has to make peace with that past in order to deal with the present. This book was written several years ago and yet it does feel oddly appropriate to read right now as learning to see beyond official appearances is going to be an important skill to develop as we go on from here:

 Other books that I plan to enjoy during this readathon include C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters and Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye, as well as continuing with my Series-ous Reading of Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor. I hope everyone who joins in on A Winter's Respite has a good reading time and that my page turning doesn't wear me out too much. Sleep is important but not while you're in the middle of a good book:

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A trio of terrifying TV shows offer up some dark comfort for our times

There's an old saying that goes "May you live in interesting times", which can be seen as either a blessing or a curse. Well, it's pretty clear that we're all going to be in for some interesting times indeed, starting later this month and as always, pop culture will be reflecting those fears in hopefully entertaining ways.

A good place to look for such frighting focal points is TV and I've found at least three upcoming shows(two of which will be online) that showcase different ways to deal with a dramatic shift in the norm.

First up is Netflix's Santa Clarita Diet, due to debut in February. Drew Barrymore stars as Sheila, who has a successful real estate business with her husband Joel(Timothy Olyphant). When an untimely accident cuts Sheila's life short, she finds a way to stay one step ahead of the Grim Reaper while ridding the world of some very obnoxious people in an appetizing manner.

Yes, this appears to be a zombie comedy that's set in a more upscale locale than the CW's iZombie(which will be back with season three this spring). Humor is certainly one way to roll with the changes yet chuckling does come easier if you're not one of the entrees on the monster mash menu:

Next, the CW is ready to air Riverdale,based on the Archie comics, by January 26. However, this take on Archie and friends is more Twin Peaks than Happy Days, as a local murder puts moody reporter Jughead on the case with plenty of secrets and lies to uncover.

This version is set within the more modern landscape of the Archie comics world that has adapted to our times and included such elements as interracial dating, gun violence and gay characters(Kevin Keller will be on this series). Granted, this series does seem to be a bit of a goth Dawson's Creek, with Archie dating a teacher as well as Betty and Veronica, in some ways but at least it's willing to embrace a more nuanced approach to the traditional set characters.

It would be all too easy to draw upon the simple nostalgia of the 1950s incarnation of Archie but fortunately, the current creators of both the comic book and latest live action adaptation are smart and bold enough to allow this world to mature to the next level instead of letting it become a stale relic of the past. This show could be a good example of showing that embracing a more well rounded version of the way we live now has more to offer all audiences:

For the spring, Hulu has The Handmaid's Tale waiting in the wings. Elizabeth Moss is Offred, the reluctant leading lady of this dark futuristic story, a woman trapped in a new world order that only values females as potential breeders for the state.

This is based on Margaret Atwood's iconic novel, which was made into a full length movie back in the day, and for many of us, it's a nightmare scenario that hits close to home. However, the hallmark of this tale is the determination to survive and endure, as we see the daily horrors through the eyes of Offred,whose fate was left rather open in the novel.

No doubt, there will be some changes from the book, not to mention the previous movie version, and how things turn out for Offred may be part of that. Hopefully, this new adaptation can give us a glimmer of hope as to where she ultimately finds herself by the end of this season:

So, while the real world is going to be throwing some curve balls our way all too soon, we can take heart in seeing our fictional friends deal with their particular set of challenges along the way. True, having super powers or high tech allies might make things better but they're not always a guarantee for finding the perfect solutions.

Even Supergirl(returning on January 23) is going to have some rough times ahead yet her best weapons against the forces that want to take her down are her generous heart and good friends, both of which any of us can have and use without donning a cape and boots(although, those are pretty cool):

Monday, January 09, 2017

Enjoying some Catch-Up Theater with Netflix's Stranger Things & Gilmore Girls

I have to confess that due to my not being able to afford Netflix streaming services, I have had deep rooted pop culture envy for anyone able to happily binge watch all of these well received,talked about shows.

 Sure, I did check out season one of Orange is the New Black on DVD but it's hard to keep up with a show that is several seasons in by the time the new batch gets to the home video circuit. Well, this year, it's going to be different.

Thanks to some budgetary rearranging(and my sister getting a awesome Christmas gift that upgrades her TV), my Netflix streaming drought is over. Granted, I won't be able to get up to instant speed on every series and special that I'm interested in but now at least I can dip a toe into these entertainment waters.

 So, my first big dive into the Netflix stream was ,of course, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. I watched that over the course of a week(I come from the old school,folks,of viewing in installments) and it was truly a joy to behold.

Since just about everyone has had their say about the revival, my talking points will be brief(spoilers up ahead):

THINGS THAT I LIKED: Paris Geller(especially her bathroom meltdown), the Stars Hollow musical(which did run long but totally wacky fun), Kirk and his pig Petals, Babette having a barbecue at the Black & White & Read Theater, Lorelai's attempt at doing an authentic Wild experience(that whole "book vs. movie" debate was hilariously true to life) and her emotional phone call to Emily about Richard(more about Emily in a moment)

THINGS THAT I LOVED: Luke and Lorelai finally getting married, Rory trying to keep The Stars Hollow Gazette alive, Sookie's big scene(so wanted more of her!) and Emily having had enough of the DAR and calling them all out on their nonsense:

THINGS THAT I WANTED MORE OF: Lane and her life(seeing her dad finally wasn't that big of a deal), more time with Paris and Doyle,even if they are breaking up and more,more,more of Jess(I know that Milo Ventimiglia has a hit show right now but still...)

THINGS THAT I COULD DO WITHOUT: Logan, who I always considered the worst of Rory's boyfriends, the Life and Death Brigade(who wear out their welcome fast for me) and Rory having that childish phone fight with the head of Sandee Says(she could've prepped better for that interview, I do agree).

All in all, the revival was wonderful and in my opinion, Emily had the best character arch. Trying to adjust to life as a widow, particularly as structured a life that such a marriage as that demanded, is far from easy and seeing Emily come into her own was a journey worth taking.

 Ironic that part of that trip had Emily befriending a maid and just letting that whole extended family into her world, something that she insisted on drawing distinct social lines for back in the day. While her story wasn't wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end, Emily did seem to find a new happy ever after there and I wish her well.

As for the Rory backlash, yes, she did act immature at times but if you look back at past seasons, she was still being Rory. It takes a long time to grow up, folks and perhaps with those final four words, Rory will be able to do just that. No, I won't say what those words are(for those who don't know) but they do make sense in terms of this series coming full circle there. If we do get a follow-up to this, great but if not, I'm fine with that. A Year in the Life was a well lived one,indeed:

Once I was done with GG:AYITL, my next stop was Stranger Things, the 1980s set sci-fi thriller that became the cult hit of the summer.

For those who don't know, it involves mysterious disappearances, a secret experiment gone awry, adventurous kids and an amazing girl called Eleven.

The first two episodes, I watched alone but the next two, I waited until my sister could join me. We saw the first half of the eight episode run and will finish it up by next weekend, which made for quite the bonding experience there. There's a considerable gap in years between me and my sis(I'm the older one,btw) and yet, we both found plenty of pop culture references within the show to share.

Stephen King's influence does show here, along with music from John Carpenter's films(my sister was particularly reminded of Christine) and we both agree that the older sister of one of the boys did have a Nightmare on Elm Street vibe about her(she is named Nancy and the actress does have a bit of a Heather Langenkamp look to her).

 However, this is a very original story that allows for solid character development and creates genuine "I don't know what's going to happen next" suspense. I'll be able to talk more about Stranger Things once I complete the first season but I am happy to find that the hype for this series was well warranted:

Once Stranger Things is done with, I'm not sure which show to check out next.

On my viewing list are most of the Marvel series that Netflix has produced, including Jessica Jones and Luke Cage(too bad Agent Carter isn't among them) and The Crown, which just won big time at the Golden Globes last night.

The Crown tells the backstory of Elizabeth II, with Claire Foy(who I remember from her roles in the revival of Upstairs,Downstairs and Little Dorrit) playing the queen in her younger days. Sounds like my cup of tea and with PBS about to debut Victoria, this winter feels rather royal in storytelling times.

Whatever I watch, I'm just glad to be in the loop and able to join the conversation here. Granted, my seat is on the aisle in Catch-Up Theater but better late than never, as they say:

Friday, January 06, 2017

Preparing for some upcoming cinematic epics at The Movie Trailer Park

We've got a whole new year of movies to look forward to as well as look out for, with just about everyone having their own favorite genre to narrow their focus on. Yet, there is one category that spans across genres and that is the one known as "epic."

An epic film doesn't necessarily mean a long running time or big name stars or even serious dramatic content. Epic is more about the tone of the story and the importance of the plot to the characters, who may have true consequences at stake that won't be easily resolved by the time the end credits arrive. It's more about feeling that seeing,although a true epic delivers on both fronts.

While all of these trailers for future release in 2017 may not live up to that promise, they certainly are serious contenders for that cinematic spotlight. First up is Blade Runner 2049, a long in the tooth follow-up to the 1982 sci-fi cult classic. Here, a new replicant hunter(Ryan Gosling) is searching for his predecessor Rick Deckard(Harrison Ford) to unravel a mystery that threatens to shake up things for the worse.

There's a new director at the helm(Denis Villeneuve, who directed the recently acclaimed science fiction drama The Arrival) as Ridley Scott prefers to just take a producer's credit this time around. A lot will be riding on this sequel, as the original film itself stirred up a ton of movie debut but if it works, this could be a game changer,folks:

Speaking of Ridley Scott, he is willing to take the director's chair for Alien: Covenant, the sequel to Prometheus, which is the prequel to the original Alien that Scott directed back in the day. Yeah, that's quite the loopy turn to get back to where you started, huh, Ridley?

Anyhow, Covenant is the name of the space explorer vessel that comes across android David(Michael Fassbinder,who was in the prior film) while searching for a fresh new planet to call home. Turns out this stop is not the ideal one as the locals are pretty vicious to newcomers indeed.

As the situation goes from bad to worse to doomed, it's up to crew member Daniels(Katherine Waterson) to take charge and kick serious ass. While the jury still seems to be out regarding Prometheus, the verdict for Alien: Covenant could be a solid win, especially if the leading lady of this piece lives up to the legacy of  Lt. Ellen Ripley:

Historical epics are usually the one to come to mind with this category and those that take place during times of war are instant go-tos for certain audiences. Christopher Nolan is no stranger to epic tales and as he turns his considerable talents to Dunkirk, chances are that more than the regular WWII buff will in in line for this movie.

The major focus of the story is the evacuation of Allied Forces during a strong siege on the beaches of Dunkirk in May and June of 1940. Quite the stellar cast is on deck here, with Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy, just to name a few.

This is set for a summer release but I won't be surprised if Dunkirk becomes an Oscar contender before Labor Day arrives:

You can argue over whether or not a comic book superhero movie can be considered an epic but clearly the upcoming Wolverine film is intended to take a more somber look at the genre.

For one thing, it's called Logan(the actual name of the iconic X-Men character) and while it may or may not be Hugh Jackman's last onscreen depiction of that role which made him famous, this take on him certainly feels like a final chapter.

Set in a time that follows Days of Future Past, Logan is tending to an ailing Professor X(Patrick Stewart, also back on board) and called upon to help a young girl on the run from a sinister project known as Transigen. Echoes of the Western classic True Grit can be heard here(that Johnny Cash song selected for the trailer is not a random choice,to be sure) and perhaps this X-Men saga can be the ultimate setting off into the sunset for Wolverine, a real steel cowboy if there ever was one:

 More epics are sure to come but this batch at least looks interesting. A good epic should be fun as well as meaningful, with the audience finding them shocked to see it end so soon, even if it took up several hours of their lives.

I hope that we get a few epic musicals along the way, not just the animated ones or the live action based on animated ones. Don't get me wrong, cartoon musicals are among my favorite films and I'm even curious to see how well the new Disney version of Beauty and The Beast turns out.

 I know that La La Land is a critical darling at the moment and that's great but it would be nice to have the likes of Hamilton or The Book of Mormon be on the big screen,too. Give us some song and dance,Hollywood! We certainly could some of that right now: