Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, September 30, 2013

When it comes to the new Bridget Jones,are you going to be Mad About the Boy or mad at the author?

One of the highlights of this literary season has been the anticipation for Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy,the third book in Helen Fielding's lively blend of modern day humor with a Jane Austen twist. Just the anticipation for what the full title would be was sheer book lover delight.

As many of you know,the first Bridget Jones book(Bridget Jones' Diary) was a phenomenal success with an equally engaging film adaptation that pulled off the hat trick of pleasing both audiences and critics alike. Major bonus points were awarded to the movie for casting Colin Firth as Mark Darcy,the inspiration for the leading man in our Miss Jones' love life.

However,some of that joy has been diluted today as word that Mark Darcy has been killed off in the new book, leaving Bridget a widow with two kids and looking to tackle the dating scene again. I am sure that some people will find this a non event but to those of us who really liked these books, this is quite the major shock indeed.

 Particularly since identifying with Bridget and all of her awkward ways was something many of us did and seeing how Mark Darcy was truly enchanted with her,warts and all, made our hearts hopeful for a happily ever after of our own:

Yet even in fiction, no love is perfect. In some ways, you can sympathize with the author's dilemma to keep the romantic tension going,a struggle that occurs not just on the page.

 Countless TV show "will-they-or-won't-they" relationships have had to jump through these rings of fire with varying degrees of success but more often than not,failure. Even the second follow-up to BJD,Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,wasn't as celebrated as it's predecessor was,both on film and in print.

 I tend to give that one a break since the plot line is loosely based on Jane Austen's Persuasion(my favorite Austen novel) but the movie version in particular does replay most of the high points of the first movie in a rather routine fashion:

Speaking of Austen, no mention has been made so far regarding whether or not BJD:Mad About The Boy will be using a plot line from one of Jane Austen's books as the previous ones did.

 Personally, I was hoping for an Emma type of story line with Bridget becoming one of those Smug Marrieds that she always dreaded during her Singleton days. Trying to fix up one of her still unwed girlfriends or a new person in her social midst(a cousin,perhaps?) or even one of her kids would provide lots of fun opportunities for mocking of social media.

I can see why the author would want to put her heroine back in the dating game but it is kind of harsh to kill off Mark there. A divorce would have suited the purpose just as well,with a move overseas due to his work thrown in,but perhaps she didn't want to deal with any notions of Bridget and Mark getting back together. In my Emma scenario, a divorce would have worked to make Mark over into a great Mr. Knightley who did see what he originally saw in Bridget and lead to a renewal of their relationship*sigh*.

I must tell myself,however, that Bridget Jones is not my character and that Helen Fielding has every right to write her story as she sees fit. It is not what I or many other fans would have wished for but since the book is not out yet, let's try not to get too Annie Wilkes about the whole thing:

Look on the bright side;at least we are getting another Bridget Jones book and this one might be as fun as the first one was. Not to mention having the perfect excuse to reread and re-watch the original editions of BJD(which I will be doing this weekend at Austenesque Reviews,where this topic will probably come up more than once).

So, even if you're not Mad About The Boy after reading it,don't get too mad at Helen Fielding over the departure of Mark Darcy. He is in good company in that regard,right next to Sherlock Holmes,Sirius Black and Dumbledore in terms of fan love.

For all of the amusement that her Bridget Jones stories have given us over the years, we as the fans should grant Helen Fielding the courtesy of hearing her out before we judge:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

How much mileage is left in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying?

As Banned Books Week comes to a close, I am ready with my review of one of the most controversial novels from the 1970s,Fear of Flying by Erica Jong.

First published in 1973, this frank and forth right look into the sexual challenges facing a woman of those times was banned in France and Italy,not mention stirred a bit of ire amongst Americans due to this book being made possible by a NEA grant.

 With FOF set to release a fortieth anniversary edition next month(with a thoughtful and heartfelt introduction by present day author Jennifer Weiner) that I happen to receive an Advance Copy of,thanks to Library Thing,holding off until this particular literary themed week seemed to be perfect timing. Perfection,however, is a goal that the heroine of this story seeks just about everywhere and in vain.

Isadora Wing is our reluctant guide into her troubled psyche,a journalist and poet with her first poetry collection doing well yet she still harbors doubts about rejecting traditional family life for her art. Frustrated in her work and her second marriage to Bennett,a mild mannered psychiatrist,she decides to accompany him to Vienna for a conference of  his colleagues.

Her plan is to write an article about the event but instead,her mind wanders to a favorite fantasy known as the zipless fuck( casual sex,also known as the one night stand).  Isadora is not shy in her speech about her wants and needs,which at the time of it's debut, was considered rather shocking especially from a woman. Nowadays, not so much but despite her language being saltier than a bag of jumbo pretzels, Isadora has a charm that grows on you. I came to see her as a raunchier version of TV's Rhonda as the pages turned:

During the conference,Isadora hooks up with Adrian Goodlove,an Englishman whose boldness challenges her own hidden desires and level of self confidence. Adrian possesses a rogue's persona which, combined with a devil-may-care attitude,proves to be catnip that she can't resist.

While they do have a few romantic romps together(once Adrian is able to get his equipment fully into gear,that is) and jealousy games are played with Bennett, this relationship is not depicted in the hot and heavy manner you might be expecting here. The whole point of this plot is for Isadora to experience what she believes to be her greatest wish come true but as they say, be careful what you wish for:

Don't get me wrong,Isadora doesn't come to a horrible end because of her affair(and then later choice of taking off with Adrian on a jaunt through Europe for awhile) or winds up crawling back to her husband with a sharp taste of regret on her tongue along with an apology.

Rather,she slowly realizes that while deciding your own course in life is not something to be pursued lightly, holding yourself back with fears and doubts isn't that much helpful either. As Isadora does a mental review of her life and times, one thing that stands out to me is that her writing career has caused more people to throw obstacles in her path than her sexual pursuits have

From the love-hate relationship with her frustrated artist of a mother to the resentment born by her questionably happily married-with-children sisters and the frowning disapproval of a college professor when she confesses to him that she is sick of studying literary criticism and would prefer to be on the other side of the pen,Isadora and her unwavering drive to write and be published gets more eye brows raised at Isadora than anything else.

The struggle for women to have to choose between career and family(and the comments made regarding whichever path said lady takes) is still ongoing and is one of the reasons that,despite the book being very much of it's time, Fear of Flying does have some resonance for today's reader. Not every woman or man picking this up may take to it but the artistically inclined might find some common ground with Isadora's yearning to sing a better song of herself:

When all is said and done, I did find reading Fear of Flying to be quite an interesting experience but I'm not sure that it will be one that I'll be repeating any time soon.

In looking over some of the novels that have been banned and/or challenged over the years for being "sexually explicit", I've come to the conclusion that a number of those authors simply used sex as a means of getting readers intrigued enough to open their books to discover what they really want to talk about,such as class struggles(Lady Chatterley's Lover),the deeper meaning of life(Ulysses) or in this case,women trying to balance out their head and heart choices in their personal lives.

That's not a reproach on my part. After all, catching the eye of a potential reader strolling along the bookshelves is as difficult as trying to get customers to chose your casino or nightclub over the hundreds of others on the Vegas strip. The main difference is that instead of bait and switch, the reader is actually given more than he or she bargained for in a good way.

Isadora Wing may not be your ideal of a leading lady whose footsteps you want to follow in but you have to admire her willingness to become a frequent flyer in her own right. Erica Jong's outspoken heroine paved the way for many others and for that alone, Fear of Flying is worth keeping on the shelves:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Top Chef Masters finale feast,a second look at Sleepy Hollow and signing up with Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Top Chef Masters wrapped up their fifth season with a leisurely start,as host Curtis Stone made them a lovely meal at the location for the last challenge.

 Since the building happened to be a former church, the theme of this four course feast was traditional wedding prep ideals; something old,something new, something borrowed and something sous(as in their secondary chefs who made desserts for their final showdown). Douglas wasn't thrilled to find out that he wouldn't be working with his sous until the day of service but he managed to get through most of the prep just fine on his own.

 In the something old category,Bryan did a retake of the first dish that he made for his wife. It was a heavy handed chicken and fish combo originally that he lightened up by turning it into a groat salad with dungness crab,chicken skin and a hen egg custard.

The judges felt it was a great representation of the love in his food and for awhile,Bryan's chances for a win were strong here.

Jennifer had a solid presentation as well and her something new was paella gnocchi served with chicken meatballs.

The fish that went along with it(shrimp and mussels) was an extra special touch that the judges liked but the gnocchi itself was the main crowd pleaser.

Curtis Stone even said he usually preferred a "melt in your mouth" type of gnocchi but the more firm texture of Jennifer's gave him a better appreciation of the dish-high praise,indeed!

However,it was Douglas who took the win home and won the big money prize of a hundred grand for his charity.

Even with the duck breast for his "borrowed" plate being overcooked, the majority of his food knocked everyone for a loop,flavor wise.
He also redeemed the panna cotta that his sous chef lost with and while the black sesame gave that dessert a gray color, it still tasted good enough(particular since Jennifer's take on her sous's dessert was too busy and Bryan's rendition didn't hold up to what his sous had made first).

So,congratulations to Douglas Keane and his charity,Green Dog Rescue. Next week starts off the regular edition of Top Chef,this time in New Orleans which means Emeril will be on hand quite a bit.

The second episode of Sleepy Hollow settled into the creature of the week theme as Crane and his modern day partner Abbie Mills went about tracking down a resurrected witch.This did tie into the main plot thread of the impeding Four Horsemen threat,as the burnt at the stake sorceress was intended to speed along their arrival

. The show is still trying to walk steady on it's feet and some of the character quirks may get old fast such as Crane's wonderment at the new world(although I found his mini rant about doughnut tax pretty funny) and the non answers that ghosts of the past give but there is plenty of meat on these story bones to gnaw at.

 With the upcoming addition of Abbie's sister Jenny(put into an institution for insisting that the strange vision she and Abbie saw as children is real) in the next episode, more character development is on the way,not to mention more monsters:

The much heralded debut of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired the other night and so far, the hype seems to be well merited. Agent Coulson's return from the dead(and I don't buy his claims of a "magical" recovery in Tahiti) after his very fatal looking assault in the Avengers movie hasn't slowed him down one bit.

The set-up of the story line has Coulson bringing together a team of qualified yet quirky folk to form a tight unit that checks out threats posed by bad guys eager to exploit the vulnerable(such as Mike Peterson,a single father desperate for work) and create chaos in an already chaotic world.

I've taken an instant like to the brainiac pair that makes up Agent Fitzsimmons,plus Melinda May,a reluctant "pilot" who clearly has a kickass past and Skye, a savvy hacker girl eager to get on board this crazy train.

The real challenge will be in how the scripts and spine of the main plot line will hold up after a few episodes. Also, high expectations are placed on Joss Whedon for a smart and savvy season worth watching.

Granted, some subplots might take their sweet time to develop and no doubt, a few restrictions on how far things can go will be due to the network and comic book company behind this baby but let's all remember to have some fun,first and foremost here:


EMMY AWARDS:  There were the expected wins,usual disappointments and some thoughtful tributes to those departed but not much more than that. At least Neil Patrick Harris gave us some great song and dance numbers to break up the tedium:


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Just how ladylike was Jane Austen?

With this being Banned Books Week,my thoughts can't help but turn to one author who has so far escaped the censor's glare(and who I hope will continue to do so) and that would be Jane Austen.

As much as I detest book banning, it does irk me slightly that Jane does get quickly overlooked by those looking for literary trouble. She's easily dismissed as "safe" and "moral",with romance plots that end happily in marriage. Most people,who only know Austen from afar, have no idea of how truly wicked and wild she can be and I'm not talking about any of the modern day versions either.

 While Austen's works do provide some food for thought concerning good manners and possibly a few life lessons, her books were never intended to be morality tales(and that goes for Mansfield Park as well!),rather provocative portraits of the world as she knew it. After all,there is a reason that the poet W.H. Auden declares that "next to her,Joyce seems as innocent as grass"!

 One person who appreciates this most about Jane Austen is Andrew Davies,the modern day adapter of  Pride & Prejudice(which gave us the joy of Colin Firth's wet shirt scene),Emma,Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.

 I was privileged to meet him,along with the rest of my Republic of Pemberley friends during our trip to England many years ago and his sense of humor regarding Austen's novels relishes the sensual nature of her subplots. While he is very faithful to the source material,many of us do enjoy his method of tweaking the hidden passions of the characters there.

Take S&S,for example, where a secret engagement and a ruthless seduction that leads to unwed motherhood are major turning points for the two key story lines of our Dashwood heroines. Davies was bold enough to mix those intrigues right into his 2008 version,beginning with Willoughby's thoughtless pursuit of his own pleasures:

He takes a similar tact with Northanger Abbey,the one book that readily lends itself to the darker side of a young woman's fancy. Think about it;it's no coincidence that naive Catherine Morland and her supposedly more worldly new gal pal Isabella Thorpe are into Gothic novels which have plenty of hapless females being kidnapped by mysterious strangers and bizarre situations to puzzle out.

Austen herself delighted in many of the books she had those girls read while in Bath,including Ann Radcliffe who many modern readers are surprised to learn was a actual writer of the time.

 Not to mention that some of her favorite novels were considered particular shocking for a gentlewoman to read like Tom Jones or Samuel Richardson's Clarissa(altho she did prefer Sir Charles Grandison). Like many readers still do to this day, Jane and her fictional counterparts liked to live vicariously through fiction where the repercussions of being a bad girl couldn't directly affect them:

And now we get to Mansfield Park,a book that even the most ardent of Austen admirers have trouble with. Fanny Price's low key manner doesn't engage as many readers as does  the vampy yet vibrant personality of Mary Crawford,not to mention the shameless ladies' man vibe that her brother Henry gives off there.

While I strongly dislike the 1999 Patrica Roxema film version of the book,I will credit her for getting one thing right and that is the open door to secret love trysts that the young folk at MP gamely entered during their rehearsals of Lovers' Vows.  To paraphrase Fanny,by the time Sir Thomas had come home from his business trip,everything had gone quite far enough indeed!

There are also a good number of love triangles in MP,starting with Henry,Maria Bertram and her sister Julia,then going to Henry,Maria and her intended husband Mr. Rushworth with the most hidden one being between Mary,Edmund Bertram and Fanny-how is this book dull,I ask you? Granted,I am a tad biased as I'm currently writing a version of Mansfield Park with vampires(I think you can guess who the blood suckers are going to be!) but there is more than enough bad romance to go around for anyone eagerly searching the pages for to be agreeably engaged in:

All I'm saying is that Jane Austen did indulge in a few wicked wonderings in her work and while her leading ladies did manage to avoid getting entangled in the consequences of unbridled passion, her novels weren't merely prim and proper fairy tales.

It just shows how unimaginative the book banners are,that they have no idea of the secretly subversive nature of Jane Austen. With any luck, they never will and we can all share sly smiles behind our copies of P&P. As much as we love her admirable men and women, it is rather apparent that Jane did have a fondness for the bad girls and especially the bad boys of her books:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Checking out the sexy side of Banned Books Week

Once again, we open the page to Banned Books Week,where our freedom to read is cherished by examining the past and present attempts to restrict our library liberties.

This year, I thought it would be a good idea to focus on a particular theme that keeps many people all too interested in yanking books off of shelves,sex.

 No doubt, the first titles that come to mind here are the notorious ones such as Fifty Shades of Grey(which has been challenged) but you might be surprised to see such notable and well respected(not to mention award winning )books such as Beloved by Toni Morrison,The Kite Runner by Kaled Hosseini and Orwell's 1984 be considered as just as brown wrapper cover worthy.

 According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the majority of calls to restrict certain books between 2000-2009, were due to charges of "sexually explicit" material. Mind you,some of these titles.like Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, have no form of love scene whatsoever but for some,the mere mention of something sexual like adultery just causes them to shudder in their repressive boots.

While there are plenty of passionate novels under fire in this category,let's take a gander at three in particular that are far more challenging to the mind than the lower regions of the body to see what is really troubling the censors:

LOLITA: This 1955 novel by Vladimir Nabokov has stirred many an ire since it's original publication and while it's been turned into two films,a couple of stage plays(one of which was a musical that closed before it officially opened) and even an opera, yet it is still a very misunderstood story.

This insight into the deluded mind of Humbert Humbert,who thinks that his obsession with young Delores Haze(known only to him as "Lolita) is true love, is a strong metaphor for the controlling forces that seek to oppress women in many societies.

 Debate still rages on about who is the true victim of the story but you could argue that both Humbert and his Lolita are caught in a mutual trap perpetuated by the social double standards applied to male/female relationships,along with the upper hand given to older men in their pursuit of much younger women.

It was even a focal point for a secret course on literature for young women held in Iran(if you haven't read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, I urge you to do so.) and still seen as a fine example of how the dark side of sexuality can be easily overlooked by it's seemingly mundane appearance:

 LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER:  The title alone has become an instant go-to for those expecting a wild romp in the literary hay and with it's having been banned in numerous countries such as Australia ,Canada,Japan and England(where it was the headliner of an obscenity trial in 1959), you can see how such a reputation was maintained.

However, those who finally obtained a copy might have been slightly disappointed at the contents. While there are plenty of steamy for the time period scenes, the major themes of the novel were more about the connection between mental and physical completeness of person(along with class struggles and social mores) than wanton displays of amorous affection

No doubt,the women who did read it found more that they expected to find between the covers and maybe in some ways,it pushed the women's movement a few steps forward:

ULYSSES: This is the one novel in this category that truly needs no introduction,yet it's history is worth repeating. Privately published in Paris of 1922 by Sylvia Beach,the legendary owner of Shakespeare and Company, this lengthy exploration of a day in the life of several interconnected characters  riled up authorities in several countries enough to seize any editions imported to their shores.

Many lawsuits later,the book is held today as James Joyce's masterpiece and fans of this iconic work celebrate Bloomsday(June 16,with the pivotal character of Leopold Bloom as it's namesake) in honor of the author's legacy. The book is rather complex,requiring a few other books to help understand all of it's far flung references as well as it's better known ones to Homer's  epic poem The Odyssey.

It is one of those books that folks are always meaning to get to(I know it's on my ultimate must read list) and anyone flipping through it in search of cheap thrills would be better off elsewhere. The emotional resonance of such characters as Molly Bloom are what make this turbulent tale an artistic shore for readers to want to reach and take port in:

Banned Books Week began yesterday and continues until September 28. I will be doing a couple of other related posts on this topic this week,including my take on Erica Jong's infamous Fear of Flying which will be celebrating it's fortieth anniversary in October. If you choose to read a banned book this week, I hope that it will be entertaining as well as enlightening,in more ways than one:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Top Chef Masters get schooled,Under The Dome closes the curtains and a visit to Sleepy Hollow

The next to last episode of Top Chef Masters began with a recent blast from the past,as the latest to be eliminated chef Sang dropped by to judge the food in the Quickfire Challenge.

The challenge was to create a high end hamburger and most of them seemed to be sliders in terms of portion size. Sang wasn't told who made what before tasting them,so even he was surprised by the one that made the cut.

Jennifer's beef burger with srircaha ketchup and caramelized bacon won this round,plus a nice chunk of change for her charity(over fifty grand to date). Ever since she came back from being part of a double elim,Jennifer has been on fire and a nice streak of victories to boot.

Bryan was again disappointed about not winning any Quickfires this season but cheered up when he found out his sous chef had earned immunity for him in the Battle of the Sous(a pretty nifty edition to this series,I have to say).

The Elimination Challenge had the chefs prepare a four course meal to honor a quarter of L.A.county teachers.

Each dish had to reflect upon one of the teachers and each chef was responsible for one course. A new guest judge,Alan Richman from GQ magazine,joined the panel and was very impressed by an entree that took almost everyone's breath away.

That dish belonged to Bryan,who made a calamari Bolognese with squid ink and miso cavatelli. He had doubts concerning the choice of fish but Alan Richman declared that it was good enough to make him cry,uncommon praise indeed!

Bryan already was guaranteed a spot in the Finale but earning his first win(and ten grand for his charity,Share Our Strength) was that extra touch that means so much.

Joining him for the finale,Douglas earned his place with a smoked salmon that had three kinds of caviar served with it.

 Curtis thought it was a tad too rich for his palate but the rest of the judges loved it enough to let it pass.

Jennifer was in danger of being sent off to pack her knives for the underdone nature of her rack of lamb.

There was a mini debate at the judges' table about how well cooked lamb has to be(which I have no opinion,since I've only had it once in my life and that portion was thinly sliced rather than on bone) but the fennel porridge that came with it helped to save her bacon,so to speak.

That meant David Burke was the one who was sent home. His bittersweet chocolate souffle with raspberry sauce came out okay but deflated quickly as soon as it arrived at the end of dinner.

He made 60 of those suckers,no easy task there,and it was with great reluctance that he was dismissed. The finale is next week and the final Battle of the Sous Chefs aired last night,with Bryan's sous winning ten grand for his boss's charity and David's sous not allowed to help him out during the first day of prep. How will that affect the competition? We shall soon see and savor,folks!

Under The Dome wrapped up it's first season in a very loosey goosey way,as the butterfly born under the mini Dome caused the outer one to turn black.

 That naturally freaked everyone out(more than they already were) and as chaos lead folks to the nearest church to pray, Big Jim went on the hunt for the mini Dome. The group of four(Joe,Norrie,Angie and Junior) managed to open the small dome and release the butterfly,which chose Julia to be it's "monarch".

The big Dome stayed in place,however,and the egg from the smaller one grew in size. After taking it away from Junior's reach, Norrie got a chance to ask the unknown powers behind their situation to let them in on what was wanted of them. Their reply came in the form of a vision of Norrie's deceased mom, who insisted that the Dome was intended to protect them. From what, you may ask? Good question,but that knowledge wasn't shared with the group just yet:

 While that was going on,Big Jim prepared to have Barbie hanged in the town square(on a quickly built scaffold,no less!) and Julia had the fun choice of either hiding the egg or rushing into town to save her man from the noose.

She decided to send the egg on a one way trip to the bottom of the river,which appeared to be the right answer as the much talked about pink stars started to fall in line. Quite a cliffhanger set-up here and while this initial outing of Under The Dome had it's ups and downs, I am willing to check back in next year to see what happens next:

The fantasy horror series Sleepy Hollow debuted this week,setting up it's premise of Revolutionary War era Ichabod Crane awakening in modern day Westchester,NY,along with a certain cranium deprived warrior.

Soon enough,Crane and his new partner,Lt. Abbie Mills realize that they have been tapped by fate(and possibly a secret coven of good witches) to bring the Horseman down in order to halt the end of the days. Pretty far fetched,even for network TV,I know and yet, this show does have a interesting spark or two worth exploring.

The two leads on this show(Tom Mison and Nicole Beharie) do possess a nice chemistry together and the pace of the plot is well balanced between the bizarre and the farcical. Not to mention that as a Westchester gal myself, it's nice to see this neck of woods represented here. So, I'll give Sleepy Hollow a strong shot at being a must-see mainstay on my dial and perhaps I won't be alone at that:


THE EMMYS: I don't usually bother with this particular award show,as it rarely honors something I actually like and watch. However, with Neil Patrick Harris on board as host, it should be worth a look:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Jennifer Cody Epstein answers a literary prayer via The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.

The centerpiece of Jennifer Cody Epstein's second novel,The Gods of Heavenly Punishment,is the 1945 fire bombing of the city of Tokyo during the Second World War, with the major characters in this story illustrating the before,during and after math of that event.

One of the key pieces in this plot puzzle is Cam Richards,a soldier going off to war armed with a special keepsake by his beloved wife Lacey,a ring meant to ensure his safe return home to her. Cam joins the Air Force and is on the flight crew of an early attempt to bomb Japan,which ends badly in more ways than one.

Other major players connect during a dinner party in Karuizawa,Japan as two architects and their families celebrate their mutual success while hiding their private woes. Anton Reynolds feels somewhat out of place in life,especially with his wife and son Billy while Kenji Kobayashi and his European educated wife Hana have class differences that divide them emotionally. All of them are not expecting the impeding war to touch their lives and yet it does:

A most unexpected connection is made between Hana and Anton,who find relief from their emotional turmoil in one another's arms. Their affair is as discreet as possible yet Anton can tell that Hana's bitter disappointment over not being allowed to lead the life she truly wanted is something he can't or won't be able to fix.

Leaving Japan for other work gives him the opportunity to break off his ties with Hana without much of a goodbye but his memories of her  and their stolen moments haunt Anton still ,particularly years later as his building skills are called upon to help the U.S. military prepare for a more powerful attack upon Tokyo to win the war:

The true heart of TGOHP belongs to Yoshi,the daughter of Hana and Kenji who loses her innocence of heart as she bears witness to the disintegration of her family,along with the country during the harsh years of the war.

Over time,Yoshi becomes a reluctant caretaker of her unraveling mother,ashamed of the cruel blunt nature of her father and falls in love with a young man whose heart and soul changes during his time in service.

 She barely survives the horrors of the fire bombing in Tokyo and is given a rare chance to escape a dismal future due to a random encounter unknowingly connected to her past:

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment may not sound like a cheerful book and while the tone is serious,that does not mean that spending time with these characters is a depressing experience.

The intricate emotional portraits of the people,places and events of that time period are blended in an elegant style that not only teaches you more about the history regarding that part of WWII that you may not have known before,it also displays the resilience of the human soul trapped in situations both within and beyond their control.

 Jennifer Cody Epstein handles her prose with the skill of a calligrapher,adding emotional depth and tender touches of triumph and despair when needed.  If you haven't discovered her work just yet,now is the time to do so. The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is readily available at all literary outlets and I was pleased to be asked to be part of the blog tour for the book this fall.  My sincerest hope is that more readers tune into the amazing talents that the author has to offer:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Joanna Trollope's Sense & Sensibility heralds the arrival of The Austen Project

Many fans of Jane Austen's  original works are as equally interested in the fictional variations on them via sequels,prequels and re-imaginings from modern day authors. A group of writers not known for their Austenseque lit have come together to form the Austen Project,which will have each one of Austen's classic novel made over in their own personal style.

Starting with the first published book by Austen, Joanna Trollope introduces us to her take on Sense & Sensibility,which is due out in October. As I was fortunate enough to be sent an Advance Copy, I am more than eager to give my opinions upon this new version of the well known sisterly story.

The time frame of Trollope's S&S is set in present day England,where Dashwood sisters Elinor,Marianne and Margaret(who are often referred to as Ellie,M. and Mags at times) and their mother Belle are unduly being forced out of their home at Norland, due to the death of their father who only had a common law marriage to the second Mrs. Dashwood.

Their half brother John and his obnoxious wife Fanny quickly move in and start rearranging the entire household,giving not so subtle hints to the former family in residence to pack their bags.

One of the key elements in recreating an iconic story is in bringing both the heroes and villains to believable life without over exaggerating their best and worst features. Fanny Dashwood,however, is the sort of social ladder climber that can't be too overdone.

In Trollope's version,she seems to be the exact type of entitled diva who would fit right into a Real Housewives reality show and steal as many scenes as she could:

 The main heroines are also well defined, with Marianne being the most emotionally open(although her little sister Mags gives her a run for her money in the moody category) and  the most physically vulnerable, due to an inherited asthmatic condition.

She is musically inclined but prefers guitar to piano and is pretty much finished with school yet has no immediate plans for her future,unlike Elinor who has to put her architecture course on the back burner and immediately finds work in order to help the family out financially.

Marianne has no bones about barely tolerating the good natured Sir John Middleton(who is a successful manufacturer of hunting gear and outfits) who offers them a home and his extended family and friends such as Bill Brandon,a former military man that has turned a good portion of his estate at Delaford into a rehab center. She is all too enthusiastic in her relationship with Willoughby,aka "Wills", whose eager affections are suddenly broken off,leaving her in a state of misery that plays out as dramatically as any Taylor Swift ballad:

 Meanwhile,Elinor has to keep a brave face on about Ed Ferrars,who shares a mutual attraction to her but is under a lot of family pressure to find a more suitable girl ,money wise.

Things get even harder to bear as Lucy Steele(and her dippy sister Nancy) worms her way into Ellie's life by burdening her with the secret of Lucy's engagement to Ed. Lucy is also someone who would blend all too well into the modern mean girl society of today and you really feel for Ellie as she is called upon to be the strong shoulder that her immediate family leans on far too often:

Joanna Trollope does stick to the main track of the story yet does add a few twists of her own that play out well in the end. Insights into characters such as Mrs. Dashwood gives a more developed nuance to the modernized counterparts and yes, the Austen originals are in no way surpassed,however this updated edition does true justice to them.

 Even if you are completely familiar with S&S, this rendition offers up some real delights and makes this old fashioned novel feels as fresh and new as when it was first published. Joanna Trollope's S&S may even inspired new readers to take up the splendid source of this story,another bonus for the ever growing Austen army of admirers.

Next year will yield two more books in this series(Val McDermid tackles Northanger Abbey in the spring and Curtis Sittenfeld 's P&P is set for the fall of 2014) and I have to say that Joanna Trollope starts this party off just right. This version of Sense and Sensibility will be available on October 29 and should be a lovely bit of ivory for any Austen library to display:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Rounding up some friends for a Friday the 13th fear fest

Yes,today is Friday the 13th,the perfect excuse to watch a few good(or bad) horror movies before October rolls around. While you could go for the obvious choices here, it might be more fun to get together with a few friends or even watch on your own a few frightening examples of what happens when the whole "safety in numbers" concept goes horribly wrong.

First up is V/H/S, an anthology flick whose framing device is a group of rowdy guys who take a break from filming their chaotic antics to break into an old house to steal one videotape. As most of the group separates to search the place(that only has a seemingly dead man as it's occupant), one guy starts watching the five videotapes that make up most of the film.

A lot of those stories have groups of friends looking for trouble and finding more than they could handle,such as a trio of college kids picking up a pair of girls,one of whom turns out to be less than human and a four pack of buddies heading for a Halloween party but stumbling into the wrong house in more ways than one. Different types of video taping are showcased,from online video chats to handheld cameras and even a hidden eyeglass spy cam.

I saw this film over the weekend by chance(and it was late at night,making the experience extra spooky) and found myself impressed by the ingenuity of the multiple film makers on board here. While the found footage formula can get very routine these days and the horror anthology a rather old staple, this merging of both had real moments of startling creativity and suspense. A sequel was recently made and I'm more than willing to see if it stands up to the previous eerie effort:

 Next up is Identity,a thriller from 2003,that has a group of stranded strangers at a remote hotel becoming victims of a mystery killer one by one. As the lone survivor recounts what happened that night, a pattern emerges that reveals the connections amongst the members of this supposedly random gathering.

The cast of this movie is pretty impressive with the likes of Alfred Molina,Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet,Rebecca De Mornay and John Cusack who acts his little heart out here. The set-up of this story line is smarter than the average slasher film and while it wasn't a big hit when it first came out(it did make some money but not a lot of impact, pop culture wise), I feel that it's very underrated and deserves another look at and appreciation of:

Last but far from least is Tales From The Crypt Presents Demon Knight, based on the HBO series that revived the old school horror comics genre.

The main story of Demon Knight has a mystery man on the run(Will Sandler) hiding out at a run down motel from a creepy "Collector"(Billy Zane,in fine villain form) and who winds up having to recruit one of the locals(Jada Pinkett) to help him battle the forces of evil. Much like the early seasons of the cable show, it's gruesomely funny but scary smart as well.

I have great memories of this movie,since I saw it at a midnight preview thanks to the NYC Fangoria convention that year,where I meet  two of the screenplay writers(Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voff)and the screening was attended by one of the film's co-stars,B-movie legend Dick Miller. Also, if you're in the mood for a good old fashioned gore fest with a heap of humor and  characters worth cheering on, Demon Knight fills the bill nicely:

Whatever you watch tonight, I hope it's a great scary time had by all. Even if you do go for the traditional Friday the 13th fare, maybe that will spark some fresh conversations with your usual gang of fiendish friends:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Top Chef Masters wrestle with a meal,Big Jim goes all out evil Under The Dome and a peek at next year's Downton Abbey

Top Chef Masters got off to a surreal start this week,as guest judge Daniel Handler(aka Lemony Snicket,author of the off beat Series of Unfortunate Events books for kids) showed off his special brand of weird during the Quickfire.

The QF challenge was chosen by Douglas,due to his sous winning the Battle of the Sous Chefs, and not only did that particular helper appear(a replacement for the earlier gent,who had to leave due to a family emergency) but Douglas decided to aim his arrows at Sang here by selecting ketchup as the focal point of the dishes.

While I do agree that Sang has a point about ketchup possibly drowning out the flavors of a dish, banning it from his restaurants is a bit much. Douglas' choice backfired on him as his duck breast with ketchup and red miso was deemed to be a rather heavy entree by Handler.

Jennifer wound up taking the victory for her scallop served with ketchup sauce and fermented black beans. That didn't spare her,however,from the obstacle to come in the Elimination round.

The challenge was to make two Mexican style dishes for 300 folks attending a Lucha Vavoom wrestling event. At first, things seemed fine as everyone went shopping for ingredients but as soon as it was prep time, the boom was lowered.

Since Jennifer and Sang's sous chefs(all of the sous were on board to help out here) scored the lowest in their battle,they had to switch sides. Taking on someone not familiar with your cooking methods is rather daunting for something like this but it worked out well enough for one of them at least.

Bryan was hoping for a win,especially since he hasn't won anything for his charity so far. He did well enough to land in the Top Two,but alas no win just yet.

The judges did love his chile masa dumplings with braised beef tongue but his shrimp with chorizo and yellow corn porridge didn't quite rock the house for them.

Jennifer managed to beat him out with her shrimp,bass and scallop ceviche served with a plaintain crisp. The judges also appreciated her chile posole with shaved cabbage,liking the balance of flavors and textures within the dish.

At this point,Jennifer has won about twenty grand for her charity,Work Options for Women, a nice hefty sum. Congrats and keep up with the good work there,chef!

On the bottom were Douglas,David and Sang for varying degrees of lackluster approach with their food. David's quesdilla seemed more like a instant party food item(to Judge Gail) and the olives in his red snapper Veracruz overwhelmed the plate.

Douglas had immunity,which made the judges go over his food with more of a fine toothed comb. While they liked the shrimp and chorizo fritter that he made,the Bloody Maria drink that Douglas presented as his second dish felt phoned in.

Yet it was Sang sent off to pack his knives. The Thai approach taken with his shrimp cocktail didn't give it enough of a Mexican flavor,plus the fish sauce was pretty powerful on the palate. Not to mention that his pork shoulder barbacoa with slaw was mostly a salt bomb.

I really thought Sang was going to be in the finale but you never know with these things. He did at least earn thirty thousand for Worldwide Orphans,a very good cause and apparently from what I saw in the clips for next week, we won't be missing him for long!

Big Jim has been building up to some serious bad guy maneuvers Under The Dome but by now,the gloves are openly off.

It wasn't hard for him to convince the residents of Chester's Mills to accept his brand of marital law in order to hunt down Barbie and that loosening up of the search and seizure laws helped him to try and track down the mini Dome as well.

Dodee,without realizing his ill intentions,clued him in on the mini Dome's existence and brought Big Jim to her set-up at the radio station to listen in on the military radio signals that she was picking up. He freaked out when it was clear that the forces outside wanted Barbie to take charge of things in Chester's Mill and that his murder of Rev. Coggins was known to them.

Unfortunately,Dodee heard too much and Big Jim chose to add her to his list of "accidents" to blame on Barbie. I was sad to see her go,her character was a sharply smart one but perhaps too book savvy and trusting for her own good. At least she lived longer on the show than she did in the book:

Meanwhile,Barbie was able to hide Julia before Big Jim could silence her for good(thanks to Angie) as Joe and Norrie were smart enough to hide the mini Dome before Big Jim and his crew found it first.

The kids were hauled off to jail and later released,as part of a deal Big Jim struck with Barbie to go along with his "trial". So,we have at the next to the last episode,a frightened Julia,a number of other people now clued in about the mini Dome which is set to go off and do something and Barbie out and out defying Big Jim in public. The finale next week should be one hell of a show,I hope:

The fourth season of Downton Abbey won't be airing until January of 2014 but already news of what's to come is spreading like wildfire. Most of the info relates to the casting as Paul Giamatti will be appearing as Cora's feckless brother Harold(and yes, Shirley Maclaine will be showing up again as their mom).

Other new characters include Gary Carr as a jazz singer named Jack Ross,Dame Harriet Walter as an old friend of our beloved Dowager Countess Violet(one of her best known roles is as Fanny Dashwood in the 1995 Ang Lee directed and  Emma Thompson penned adaptation of Sense and Sensibility) and Tom Cullen as Lord Gillingham,a Crawley family friend.

Expected plot lines will of course include Mary dealing with her widowhood status and frankly, I wouldn't rush her into another relationship just yet. Give the poor woman time to truly grieve before shoving a new man at her already! I am looking forward to seeing a stronger side of her sister Edith and finding out how things are going between Bates and Anna,along with the rest of the folks assembled for what will be the final season of this delightful series:


THE WHITE QUEEN: Things are heating up on this Starz saga of the War of the Roses and it certainly is making Saturday night viewing well worth the wait for. Catch it if you can,folks: