Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
especially welcome to extensive readers

Friday, September 28, 2018

Stacking up the scares for my FrightFall reading

October is fast becoming my favorite time of the year not only due to Halloween but because it heralds the beginning of FrightFall, the Seasons of Reading month long readathon.

This year, there will be a pre-and a post readathon(48 hours deals that are completely optional) and hostess Michelle Miller is also having a special group read of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes at her Castle Macabre blog to boot.

My plans are to keep things simple yet I do have a good sized pile of books set aside here, ranging from Gothic chiller to cozy mysteries. If all goes well, I should be able to get through most of them and perhaps add a library loan to the murderous mix:

The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein: Kiersten White retells the classic Mary Shelley tale through the eyes of Elizabeth Lavenza, who becomes the ward of the titled Frankenstein family and constant companion of troubled son Victor.

Upon Victor growing up and leaving home to pursue his studies, Elizabeth grows concerned about the security of her position within the household and persuades her good friend Justine to go with her in search of him.

What she discovers about Victor's breaking away from school and the mysterious experiments that he's now working on is shocking to say the least to her. Nevertheless, Elizabeth is determined to assist him in any way that she can, even if that includes creating a monster. Yet, it becomes increasingly difficult to figure out who is the real monster, the being that was brought forcefully to life or the beloved boy that she grew up with who has become a man that she truly doesn't know?

This take on Frankenstein reminds me of another literary reexamination of an iconic Victorian figure of fear-Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly, which saw another side of the Jekyll and Hyde legend(it eventually became a rather underrated film starring Julia Roberts and John Malkovich).

If The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is fortunate enough to be adapted for the big screen, it would make a fine double feature with Mary Reilly,I have no doubt about it:

BAKESHOP MYSTERY: Having enjoyed the taste of Ellie Alexander's first foodie mystery book, Meet Your Baker, recently, I decided to have a second and third helping of her series.

In A Batter of Life and Death, leading lady Jules Capshaw decides to help her family bakery business out by going for a big cash prize on a baking TV show entitled Take the Cake. However, when one of her fellow competitors is most unexpectedly taken out of the running, Jules has to set aside a possible winning recipe in order to create a crime solving solution before someone else takes their last bite out of life.

I then plan to move on to On Thin Icing(the puns are truly delicious here) where Jules is glad of a gig for the directors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival during the off season in the dead of winter. That tasty opportunity is spoiled by not only the arrival of her ex-husband Carlos but the discovery of a dead body in her walk in freezer as well.

The deceased in question happens to be a rather flirtatious bartender whose fiery temper matches Carlos' own, making him a suspect in the murder. Jules has plenty of reasons to find the killer as it is yet this time, the stakes are higher and personal. I do like the sweet set-up of this engaging series and very pleased as pie to get to know Jules and company all the more:

HER ROYAL SPYNESS: This delightful set of stories by Rhys Bowen follows the adventures of Lady Georgiana,aka Georgie, who due to her low rank in the British royal family(she's 34th in line for the throne) is often recruited to solve a mystery or two.

I've read the first two books and eager to check out the next pair,starting with Royal Flush, where Georgie's summer plans include preventing her princely cousin from carrying on with a certain American divorcee as well as assisting Scotland Yard with a threat on said cousin's life at an upcoming shooting party.

While I will read this series in order, I am most anxious to get to book four which is called Royal Blood. Georgie is sent by royal command to a wedding in Transylvania where a guest is found to be poisoned and someone has perhaps taken a truly bloody nip at the bride-to-be. Yes, I'm a sucker for vampires and while the ones that our heroine may encounter may not be supernatural entities, this particular entry in the series promises to be quite the seasonal treat.

The Silent Corner: Author Dean Koontz introduces us to Jane Hawk, an agent of the FBI whose husband is another victim in a string of suspicious suicides that could be part of a major terrorist plan.

In order to track down the techno mastermind behind this scheme, Jane has to go off the grid and rely on the help of friends to protect her son from being a target. While she makes serious inroads into bringing the bad guys to justice, it's only a matter of time before the main man in charge sets off his ultimate grand plan that could endanger multitudes of unsuspecting souls.

It's been awhile since I've read Koontz and upon hearing great things about his new series of Jane Hawk books(TSC is the first of four titles so far), it does feel like the right time to get reacquainted with his work. From what I fondly recall, Koontz has a great knack for creating smart and strong heroines and Jane Hawk certainly sounds like the kickass lady we need right now:

The official start of FrightFall is October 1 and I hope that everyone who joins in has a fearfully good time with their chosen reads. Of course, one person's idea of a scary book can be very different from another's but with any luck, it's not so scary that you can't finish it there:

Monday, September 24, 2018

My Great American Read: Banned Books Week Edition

Yesterday saw the start of Banned Books Week for 2018, a yearly reminder about how precious our right to read freely is(especially during the trying times that we're going through at the moment).

As it so happens, another literary event is taking place right now that fits well into BBW's themes. The Great American Read series on PBS,which offers folks a chance to vote daily for their favorite novel of all time, has a good number of titles that were banned and/or challenged at one time or another.

Since I do want to catch up on a few of the GAR books and honor Banned Books Week as well, I decided to start reading Zora Neale Hurston's beloved modern classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The novel was first published in 1937 yet not appreciated in it's time. Interest in the book was revived in the 1970s, partly due to the efforts of writer Alice Walker(who cites TEWWG as a major influence) and it's become a cornerstone of African American as well as feminist literature.

The story follows Janie Crawford, a young woman left to the care of her grandmother Nanny and upon turning sixteen, begins to learn about the power of her own beauty.

When Nanny spies Janie receiving her first kiss from a local boy, she pushes her right into a loveless marriage with Logan Hillicks, an older man in need of a help meet on his farm.

 Despite Janie's protests, her grandmother feels that this is the only way to protect Janie from being as used and abused as her daughter was. The notion of marrying for love is truly alien to Nanny, having come from a lifetime of slavery, but it's that desire which urges Janie to resist but in the end, she does give in to oblige the only family she's ever known:

Once Nanny is gone, however, Janie wants more from life than simply being married to someone she doesn't care for. The first chance she gets, she takes off with Joe "Jody" Sparks, an ambitious man looking to make his fortune and having an attractive wife by his side is certainly a bonus.

While Jody works to build up the small community of Eatonville, Janie wants to do more than be his arm candy and that leads to a vicious falling out which then leads to a permanent estrangement. Later on, Janie seems to find true love with Tea Cake, a much younger man, but that relationship has a tragic ending in store for them as well.

The focal points of the book are race, community and the role of women combined with an elegantly straightforward style that at times reads almost like poetry. Yet in 1997, an objection was raised to assigning TEWWG to high school students in Virginia with the reason given being “sexual explicitness and language”. Thankfully, the book was kept within the curriculum and hopefully, those students saw more in this vividly written novel than that narrow minded vision of it suggests:

With Their Eyes Were Watching God being a short book, I hope to revisit another well known tale that shares equal billing on the GAR and BBW lists this week as well.

I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of a graphic novel adaptation by Fred Fordham of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird(it'll be available in October). The original novel is a book that I read for the first time recently and found to be a truly amazing achievement. The best writers are able to capture those authentic moments in time for their characters and readers alike, which this heartfelt novel does in abundance and then some.

TKAM is no stranger to controversy, with calls for it to be banned from classrooms arriving even this very year from a school district in Minnesota. The objections to the book are similar to the ones raised in Mississippi and Virginia in 2017, that of race and racial terms with some saying that the book "made people feel uncomfortable".

Well, sometimes you have no choice but to make people feel uncomfortable in order to get them to truly listen to the problem at hand and that's particularly true when it comes to racism. One of the most touching moments in the book is when Scout unwittingly reminds a group of angry men of their alleged sense of decency in a critical situation, a scene that could easily be a part of the current social movements the older and younger generations are dealing with today:

Banned Books Week runs until September 29 and if you're looking for a good book to read in this category, you can find plenty of them at The Great American Read with such titles as The Pillars of the Earth, 1984 and Bless Me, Ultima having been challenged at one time or another.

You can also check out the official BBW website for other reading selections and find out more about the fight to keep our imaginations and our ideas from being censored and silenced. Setting up a free society isn't easy but maintaining one is even harder,so let us all do what we can to keep our sensibilities on a smooth and steady course towards the promise of a better tomorrow:

Monday, September 17, 2018

My Series-ous Reading gets a taste of the Bard from Meet Your Baker

It's no secret that I've developed a taste for foodie themed mysteries of late and one of the advantages of resetting my Series-ous Reading schedule was adding the first book in Ellie Alexander's Bakeshop Mystery titles,Meet Your Baker.

Yes, that is meant as in "meet your maker" and the series does have a suitable dramatic flair to it,along with a nice note of whimsy as well. The culinary heroine of our story is Juliet Montague Capshaw,known as Jules, who returns to her home town of Ashland, which is home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The whole town is centered around the live productions that keep the tourists coming,with businesses having names like A Rose By Any Other Name,Puck's Pub and The Merry Widow. While Jules is happy to help her widowed mother out at their family owned bakery called Torte, she can't help noticing the tension caused by a new arrival in Ashland.

Nancy Hudson has paid her way to a prominent place on the OSF board and quick to make plenty of enemies with her obnoxious attitude and less than subtle insults. On first encountering Nancy, Jules is happy not to have to host the Midnight Club gathering at Torte later that evening as no doubt the feuds going on between theatrical director Lance and established diva Caroline with Nancy will continue there:

When Jules go in to open up the bakery the next morning, she can't avoid Nancy at all, due to the fact that she's lying dead on the kitchen floor among a batch of broken jars of raspberry jam.

Even with knowing one of the officers on the case,who happens to be her high school sweetheart Timothy, Jules is uneasy about who might be unjustly accused of the crime and winds up getting involved in the investigation.

The suspect list is rather long but Jules does learn a few things that can aid Timothy, who is hoping for a promotion as well as impressing the lead detective known as the Professor,due to his love of quoting Shakespeare on a regular basis:

Before long, Jules uncovers a number of secrets and lies that not only shed light on the murder but stirs up some new troubles for her friends and neighbors,one of whom may be out to do her in to boot.

Ellie Alexander does capture the tone of small town life nicely without getting too cutesy and gives her leading lady a good amount of character development that feels just right. Juliet is a baker in her own right and her return home is also a separation from her chef husband Carlos, who was keeping a major secret from her that will surely break up their marriage.

Jules is also dealing with her mother's business troubles(she's in debt and could lose the bake shop to a local creep) on top of that as well as the murder yet her best stress relief is cooking. I love that amid all of the swirling chaos around, she takes the time to show one of Torte's employees the fine art of appreciating figs and making a sweetly savory dish out of them. It's true culinary comfort which makes the overall story so inviting and delicious:

All in all, I did enjoy this first outing with Juliet Capshaw and company and plan on making a few more. For one, I can't resist the gorgeously punny titles in this series such as A Batter of Life and Death, On Thin Icing, Fudge and Jury, A Crime of Passion Fruit and Caught Bread Handed(that last one I think I like the best!).

 I also want to find out if Jules really does leave Carlos and hooks up with Timothy, not to mention her mom has a budding romance with the Professor as well! Love, cake and murder, not a bad combo here,story wise.

At the moment, my next Series-ous Reading selection is Joanne Fluke's Blueberry Muffin Murder, which is set in the dead of winter and such a relief from the late summer weather in my neck of the woods. However, I do want to head back to Ashland soon because it very hard to resist the Bard:

Friday, September 14, 2018

Falling for historical fiction this season

There's just something about autumn that feels like the right time to read historical fiction. Maybe it's the crisp weather that brings colorful leaves or those cool evenings which invite sweater wearing and warm drinks to curl up on the couch with.

On my TBR pile at the moment, there are about three books that fit the bill nicely in this category(one of which I've started already). Perhaps one of them could suit your literary needs this season as well:

THE CLOCKMAKER'S DAUGHTER: In Kate Morton's upcoming novel, the title character is a benevolent spirit that watches over Edward, an artist of the Victorian era at his beloved Birchwood Manor.

During the summer of 1862, Edward and his friends plan to spend a happy time together at Birchwood but two tragic events occur that change things for the worse. One of those is the death of a female guest , the other is the loss of a valuable heirloom, both of which ruin Edward's future.

Years later, Elodie,a young archivist, becomes intrigued with the mysteries of that particular summer and her search for the truth leads her to Birchwood, where the answers she seeks may come from sources most unexpected. Morton does have a flair for placing her characters in quite engaging  settings that in and of themselves evoke mysterious wonder and this new book promises to be just as elaborately crafted as her previous literary gifts to readers have been:

UNSHELTERED: Author Barbara Kingsolver has a pair of leading fictional folk with a foot in different centuries in this story of the past and present of a grand house known as Vineland.

The current owner is Willa Knox, whose family finances are nearly in as bad shape as the home that her husband Iano just inherited. With both of their collegiate jobs gone and a new baby to provide for, getting a grant to repair Vineland is crucial to their rapidly growing troubles.

While researching the history of the house, Willa discovers the tale of a prior resident from the 1870s,  science teacher Thatcher Greenwood ,whose relationship with naturalist Mary Treat was rather controversial in more ways than one.

Mary was a correspondent of Charles Darwin and both she and Thatcher were eager to spread the word about Darwin's new theories of evolution. However, Thatcher's teaching position,not to mention his marriage, is put on the line for this friendship of ideals.  Can Willa use this story to save Vineland and at what expense will Thatcher's dilemma be the saving of his own future and Willa's as well?

Kingsolver's compare and contrast is not merely a storytelling set-up; she places these characters side by side in order to give a true reflection of what it means to deal with changing times in the here and now.

THE ESSEX SERPENT: I've started this much praised novel by Sarah Perry already and so far, it's a lushly written exploration of mystery and power. Young widow Cora Seaborne decides to leave the social oppression of London life and seek her intellectual freedom on the shores of Essex, where her interest in natural science can best be engaged in.

Upon her arrival, tales of a legendary creature returning to the area emerge due to the mysterious death of a young man on New Year's Eve. Cora is intrigued and eager to awaken her dormant skills in order to find the beast but is discouraged by Will Ransome, the local vicar who believes that the talk of the so-called serpent is a sign of moral failing rather than an actual monster in residence.

While Cora and Will both agree to seek the truth of the matter, their search may threaten the peace and welfare of many others, including Cora's emotionally fragile son Francis. However, their passionate feelings about this quest as well as their own hearts leads them down a path from which turning back is no longer an option. I'm taking my time with this book in order to savor it's simmering goodness all the more, plus the pleasure in getting to know Cora, truly a woman well ahead of her time:

Even though it will be some time before the true fall season kicks in, there are plenty of good books around to help make it so. It also helps that some great historical fiction is available on the small screen as well, with the recent adaptation of The Miniaturist on Masterpiece and another season of Poldark(the next to last one, alas!) plus, we'll soon be getting a fresh season of Outlander, set in America this time out.

Historical fiction has it's limits but when done right,it truly brings the past to life for all to enjoy and learn from, two great things that are actually great together:

Monday, September 10, 2018

Setting up your cinematic reading list for the fall at the Movie Trailer Park

Autumn is a big time for movies, as many of them are stepping out into theaters in hopes of claiming some future Oscar glory.

As it so happens, plenty of those contenders are based on books, giving film fans the perfect excuse to hit the bookstore/library on the way to their nearest multiplex.

I'm going to highlight an interesting quartet of films in that category here, starting with Mary,Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role with Margot Robbie as Elizabeth I.

Based on the John Guy biography, this story covers the growing rivalry between the two sisterly sovereigns with things getting tricky as Mary finds herself with child. Given that Elizabeth is not about to have any children anytime soon, Mary knows full well that her offspring could be the rightful heir to the British empire and willing to declare war in order to maintain that destiny for her descendants.

The movie certainly looks promising and yes, there is a meeting between the leading ladies that didn't happen in real life but given the towering talents of these two actresses, the temptation to bring them together at least once is clearly too hard to resist:

In a more female friendly fashion, we have a new version of Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women, set in modern times. Lea Thompson plays Marmee to her lively set of daughters who are figuring out their future roles in life and love.

Having Little Women be set in the present is not a bad idea; there was a brief YouTube series that did so very well(it stopped at a certain point and a sad one at that).

It also helps that this isn't a big celebrity driven cast which may allow for new audiences to get more invested into the main characters and their particular dilemmas all the more better.

The big selling point for this adaptation is that it's the 150th anniversary of the book and if that gets more people to read or reread that iconic novel, it's good enough for me!:

Speaking of modern times, the acclaimed YA novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give, is about to arrive in theaters very soon. Amanda Stenberg plays Starr Carter, who finds herself switching from one personality to another as she goes from her working class neighborhood to the exclusive prep school that she attends.

Those worlds collide harshly as Starr witnesses the death of her childhood friend Khalil at the hands of a white police officer. Racial tensions increase within both halves of the community and Starr is forced to choose between what's the right thing to do and what is considered the right thing to do by certain people.

To say that this story is timely is a major understatement and this adaptation ought to pave the way for more conversations about the obvious prejudices all around us that affect more than one generation. At the very least, this book and film should be seen as a step forward in the right direction for us all:

Finally, if you're in the mood for a new twist on an old genre, The Sisters Brothers should provide that in plenitude.

Based upon the novel by Patrick DeWitt, the story is set during the California Gold Rush where top hitmen brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters(John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix) are hired to take down a prospector who has ripped off the Commodore(Rutger Hauer).

The job turns out to be not so simple for the sinister siblings and while an opportunity is open for them to gain a fortune, the price for that risk is higher than they expected. This story is a mix of dark humor and family drama, bringing some fresh spice to this familiar brand of popcorn delight:

 These book-to-screen tales should be enjoyable in either form and whether or not you read the book before or after the movie is up to you. Debates still rage on about how well any adaptation does by the source material but by now, we ought to realize that with such pop culture developments, what we're really getting is two stories for the price of one.  That's quite a bargain, if you ask me:

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Caught up with Poldark's Warleggan on my Series-ous Reading 2.0 summer adventure

As some of you may know, I did a reset for my Series-ous Reading series and that lead to me spending Labor Day weekend with Winston Graham's Warleggan, the fourth book in his acclaimed Poldark set of novels.

Being a fan of the current BBC adaptation(which also airs on PBS and the fourth season is due by the end of this September), reading these books provides a bit of a refresher course to the show, which takes two of the novels at a time for one season.

However, that doesn't mean that I don't get anything new out of the books. In fact, it allows me to develop different insights into certain characters and why I feel about them the way I do. To explain that best, I'm highlighting three of the major female characters in this particular book to show cause about how I view them the way I do:

ELIZABETH: Her whole life is directly affected here, due to the death of her husband Francis, and I honestly don't blame her for marrying Warleggan.

Yes, he's a terrible person and complete enemy of Ross yet even she can't deny that George is a good prospect. For one thing, Elizabeth has no interest in running the estate or dealing with all of the responsibilities that go with it and George is more than willing to handle that.

Also,her mother becomes seriously ill and the additional work that caring for both of her parents(as well as her son and Aunt Agatha) demands is a lot for anyone to deal with even if that person wished to or was financially able to do so in the first place. Elizabeth is low on funds as well as inclination and in that light, George's proposal is a welcome relief.

When Ross confronts her about marrying Warleggan(in a night time visit that's as controversial as that night Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara had at one point in Gone With The Wind), she does make a good point about being expected to be a lonely widow for years on end.

In a weird way, she and George had something in common-a major fixation with Ross Poldark. While their reasons are very different for that, neither one of them can just get over what past they had with him and go on with their lives. Elizabeth does have one advantage over Warleggan, the fact that he does truly love her(in his own way) and is willing to be her fool in that regard . That's going to help her out as a certain family event is waiting in the wings that promises to be a game changer for them both:

CAROLINE: Since she does take up a good deal of time in the book, I have to talk about her but my first instinct for dislike is somewhat similar to Emma Woodhouse's recoil from Jane Fairfax, although I have far better reason than Miss Woodhouse does for such feelings.

While Caroline is occasionally generous, as when she anonymously helps Ross get out of debt with the Warleggans, she is too concerned with her own needs before anyone else's, especially when it comes to Dwight Enys.

She easily rationalizes eloping with Enys, despite his own reluctance in the interest of propriety, and then when he is unable to meet up with her on that fateful night first due to a medical call and then to save Ross and company from an ambush, Caroline flatly refuses to try again. Why?

Well, she tells Ross some time later than it bothered her that Dwight was willing to put someone else before her, even after Dwight fully explained what had happened. Caroline, the man is a doctor and there are times when his calling demands his complete focus-must you be so in need of constant attention there? Also, he risked quite a bit to help Ross in a moment of crisis and isn't that very quality one of the reasons that you like Dwight to begin with?

 As the book ends, Dwight and Caroline are about to give their relationship another chance and I suppose I wish them well but can't help wishing that Caroline was in a different series altogether:

DEMELZA: I have said this before and I'll say it again-Demelza is too damn good for Ross.

While she is willing to proclaim her trust in his fidelity, Demelza is well aware of what is about to happen when Ross learns of Elizabeth's agreeing to marry Warleggan and his determination to walk out their door forcefully that night is a true slap in the face.

Her anger is extremely justified and while in the book she doesn't punch him out as that particular scene in Season Two showed(she does sort of flip a table instead), Demelza firmly holds on to her fury there. Sadly, it's mixed with some insecurity due to her social status but I do like how it takes Demelza a good long while before she even considers forgiving him(and not completely at that!).

I know that some might blame her for exploring the possibility of revenge sex(which she doesn't go through with) but not me. Demelza has never been in any other relationship besides being with Ross and seeing how other men admire her is quite the novelty. Lesser folk have had their heads turned by such attention.

 On top of that, when Demelza and Ross share their stories on this subject, Ross thinks that it's worse for her to have a brief encounter with another man than for him to be with Elizabeth since he actually has feelings for Elizabeth! Uh,Ross-let me tell you something there-THAT ONLY MAKES IT WORSE, especially for your wife!!!

They do move past it somewhat, but the one change from the book on the current series is a vast improvement on the source material. I only wish the literary Demelza was given that moment to knock her ungrateful husband down for the count as well:

 Granted, most of my initial feelings about these fictional females are pretty much confirmed with this reading yet I do feel a bit more understanding about Elizabeth at least(and more firmly Team Demelza there!).

However, I am properly prepared for the new season of Poldark and will probably end my Series-ous Reading with the next book in the series, The Black Moon. I should get the next couple of books after that but not until season four is done with in order to be surprised by what's to come.

In the meanwhile, my latest Series-ous Reading title is the first in a foodie mystery series by Ellie Alexander. Meet Your Baker has it's heroine Juliet Capshaw involved in a mix of murder,Shakespeare and baking that ought to be a tasty treat to enjoy the upcoming flavors of fall with: