Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, January 27, 2020

Starting off my Second Acts of Series-ous Reading with Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet

For this new year of Series-ous Reading, I decided to add an extra challenge to this literary look at books in a series by giving a special spotlight to those rather overlooked entries known as Book Two.

So, my first SR read for 2020 was the first of my Second Acts as I'm calling them with M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet.

Granted, this book was adapted into season one of the British TV series so I had a bit of a heads-up here. Yet, there are always differences from script to screen(this story is episode five of the show), plus I did enjoy reading The Quiche of Death so much that this was a welcome pleasure indeed.

For this outing, Agatha is feeling quite bored after her previous detective adventure, not to mention looking for love with handsome neighbor James Lacey. Since James appears to be more interested in either working on his book of military history or keeping company with another local lady, Agatha sets her sights on the new veterinarian, Paul Bladen.

Many of the ladies in the small town of Carsely are eager to take their pets in to see this potential new bachelor and despite the supposedly good doctor's lack of interest in household animals(especially cats), Bladen has quite a few admirers.

 However, he only seems to have an eye for mature women with plenty of money such as Agatha, who he takes out on a less than exciting date at a bad restaurant. Before she gets too involved with him, Bladen is found dead at Lord Pendlebury's estate while administering a shot to one of his Lordship's prize horses.

The whole incident appears to be a work related accident but Agatha is suspicious and manages to recruit James into investigating the matter with her. Turns out that James is having a bit of writer's block and in need of some distraction, not to mention that he has the social connections to make checking out the scene of the crime that much easier:

As James and Agatha persist in their inquiry, evidence of murder crops up ,causing the police to caution the two of them(mainly Agatha) about getting too close to the case.

However, when a former client of Paul Bladen's, whose cat was unjustly put down, invites Agatha over to talk about what she knows and is discovered dead, there is no turning back for her at all here.

This second outing has more of the lively wit that the first book sets up shop with and stays for the most part in the Cotwolds(with a small exception for a brief subplot about a former friendly rival trying to con Agatha out of her money) which allows for Agatha and James to develop more of a relationship. Despite their initial reluctance in romance-he doesn't like being pursued and she would like him to take the lead-Agatha and James do click together quite nicely.

While Agatha doesn't need to be partnered with anyone, she does seem to like having an assistant on hand ,probably a holdover from her PR firm days. Also, a partner does come in handy in detective tales as back-up for when the lead sleuth is trapped by the bad guys.

 Seeing Agatha and James strike up a few sparks is a nice touch and while it may not be as sassy sexy as Phryne Fisher's love interests are, surely Agatha is equally capable of getting her man in more ways than one:

The only regret I have here is in learning of M.C. Beaton's passing just before the new year. Her actual name was Marion Chesney, who also wrote Regency romances under various pen names and along with Agatha Raisin, her other popular detective series was Hamish Macbeth, who had his books turned into a television show as well.

She had a lengthy writing career, starting in the late 1970s with her Ann Fairfax and Jennie Tremaine novels and by the mid-1980s, creating the Hamish Macbeth series(which grew to 34 books in total, not counting a short story collection and Christmas themed tale) and in the early 1990s, bringing us Agatha Raisin, whose final novel, Hot to Trot, is due out later this year.

From all accounts, Marion Chesney was a warmhearted soul with some of the snarky humor that her leading lady Agatha possessed. It is a shame that such a charming, talented writer is no longer with us yet I am glad to have made her fictional acquaintance and to see more of her characters come to life on the small screen to boot:

Well, this Second Act will be followed by another as February's Series-ous Reading selection is Dying for Chocolate by Diane Mott Davidson. No, the plot is not centered around Valentine's Day but a candy themed mystery is hard to resist.

I did read the first title in Mott Davidson's series, Catering to Nobody, featuring divorced caterer Goldy Bear who had to take up crime solving in order to get her business back on track. It was an engaging romp and this second helping has Goldy dealing with two potential love interests while fending off her awful ex-husband and finding herself at the center of a murder investigation once again.

Goldy has a sly sense of humor, despite the various trouble tossed her way, which makes me want to see more of her appetizing adventures. Plus, the recipes included are tasty breaks from the action and yes, a sweet treat is on the menu that is hopefully not fatally delicious:

Monday, January 20, 2020

Spending time in Jane Austen TV land at Sanditon

When it comes to adaptations of a favorite author's work, no one is more excited than a Jane Austen fan can be.

Upon hearing about the ITV miniseries of Sanditon, an unfinished novel by Austen just before her death, and that the screenplay would be written by Andrew Davies(best known for his Colin Firth wet shirt take on Pride & Prejudice), most of us North American Austenites stopped short of dancing in the street for joy.

Now, our bookish bliss is complete as the Sanditon series is currently airing on PBS Masterpiece and not only is there a Making of Sanditon tie-in book, which I highly recommend, we have also been blessed with a novelization of the screenplay from author Kate Riordan.

The story,set in the title location, is anchored by Charlotte Heywood, who is visiting the seaside town as a guest of Tom and Mary Parker.

Tom is bound and determined to turn Sanditon into a thriving spa destination that would rival the likes of Bath and Brighton and put quite a bit of his family's finances at enormous risk to achieve this goal.

While he gets some help from his brother Sidney(whose business is in overseas trade) and mostly emotional support from his sweet natured yet overly concerned with his health brother Arthur and like minded sister Diana, Tom mainly relies on the good will of local diva Lady Denham and her considerable purse strings to fund his efforts.

Lady Denham does not mind assisting, provided that everything is according to her wishes. Charlotte makes her acquaintance along with Her Ladyship's flock of eager to please relations, hoping to earn their aunt's favor when it comes to inheriting her fortune.

 While Charlotte finds Lady Denham's companion, niece Clara Brereton, to be somewhat agreeable, she is not sure what to think of her nephew Lord Edward and his stepsister Esther, whose relationship seems rather too close for comfort there. Not to mention that Edward's interest in Charlotte is not too subtle in it's seductive intent:

Another newcomer to town finds herself connected to Charlotte as well. Miss Georgiana Lambe, a very wealthy heiress from Antiqua, is under the guardianship of Sidney Parker, who feels honor bound to keep her safe from London influences.

Miss Lambe, however, is less than thrilled with England to begin with and being taken off to a remote seaside town doesn't make her any more content with her new situation.

 Being placed with a fussy lady chaperone(plus her two other ditzy charges) and made to attend tedious social events such as Lady Denham's pineapple luncheon that allows the locals to stare at her while eligible yet clueless men seek to court her for her vast fortune of a hundred thousand pounds, Georgiana refuses to be accommodating to anyone's demands on her time and attitude and I for one am firmly on her side in such matters:

Charlotte and Georgiana do become good friends, both of them eager to share resentments as Sidney has been rude and overbearing at times to each of them.

Over the course of time, Charlotte finds herself changing her opinion of him, due to several encounters that show a kinder side to Sidney's usual appearance of disdain. In return, he starts to see Charlotte as more than a country girl with too many opinions.

Despite those signs of budding romance, Charlotte and Sidney do not agree at all about what would make Miss Lambe truly happy and that leads to a series of unfortunate circumstances that threaten the one person they do share a sincere interest in.

There are other story lines here, such as Tom's troubles in building up Sanditon, another young man who finds Charlotte attractive but she only sees him as a friend and a chilling war of wills between Esther and Clara. However, it's more fun to explore them on the page as Kate Riordan keeps a lively pace in relying the screenplay's plot points while adding some engaging insights into the characters themselves.

I know that some folks are surprised at some of the goings-on in this version of Sanditon but bear in mind that this was an unfinished work and in truth, this expansion of the story is pretty much in line with the literature of Jane Austen's time.

One of her early works, Lady Susan, was greatly influenced by the popular literature of the Regency/Georgian period, which had plenty of tales involving upper class folks getting into all kinds of mischief. No doubt readers in those days would raise an eyebrow at some of this Sanditon's incidents such as an unexpected glimpse of sea bathing men and a rather forbidden romance but would also pass the book along to eager family and friends for their mutual pleasure.

Novels such as Belinda by Maria Edgeworth, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones(which we know was a favorite of Jane's) were filled with the shocking doings and occasional bawdy humor that was part and parcel for that day and age as well as part of Austen's regular reading. So, in that respect, this rendition of Sanditon is far from out of place with Jane Austen's life and times:

So, if you're watching the miniseries or not just yet, Kate Riordan's novelization of Sanditon is a delightful addition to the adaptation fun. My thanks to Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose for including me on this blog tour for this book and I hope that many of you in Austenland enjoy both versions with great delight.

In fact, I do encourage any and all period drama lovers to watch as well as read the book, since there is a slim yet not entirely impossible chance that Sanditon might get a second season if enough fan love is expressed to the powers that be. At the moment, there are no plans for another season but let us hope for the better in this regard:

Friday, January 17, 2020

A rather mixed goodie bag of Oscar nominations handed out this award season

Earlier this week, the nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced and there were more reasons to sigh than cheer this time out.

Before I get into all of that, let's start off on the one big positive note here which is the multiple noms for the film Parasite, co-written and directed by Boon Joon Ho. It's up for six nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture as well as Best International Feature(the new name for the Foreign Film category).

This is a first for South Korean cinema, to have such major spots among the Oscar contenders and the film has won several awards at other venues, particularly the Golden Globes and the Palm d'Or from the Cannes film festival. Odds are that Parasite will be a big winner on Oscar night and about the only movie that everyone feels good about it doing so well here.

Both the critical reviews and word of mouth have been great for this social horror story where a poor family schemes their way into the household of a wealthier one, only to face unintended dire consequences from an unexpected source for their status elevation. I remember the first time I saw the trailer for Parasite and right away, you could tell that this was a slow burn of a suspense tale that would haunt you for the better:

The only negative about Parasite's nominations is that none of the actors were included in the Best lead or supporting categories. This omission carried out to many of the other Oscar sections-no women up for Best Director such as Greta Gerwig for Little Women(which is up for several other categories, including Best Picture), Lulu Wang for The Farewell and Kasi Lemmons for Harriet.

Only two POC actors were nominated for the acting categories and while Cynthia Erivo and Antonio Banderas deserved the recognition, so did Awkwafina for her work in The Farewell which won her a Golden Globe.

Also, no appreciation for Eddie Murphy in Dolemite is my Name, which is a funny,engaging film about cult movie hero Rudy Ray Moore and one would argue a fitting companion piece to Tim Burton's Ed Wood as cinematic tribute to the offbeat stars of the silver screen.

The biggest disappointment to me(and quite a few others out there) is that Joker earned the most nominations, eleven, including Jouquin Phoenix in the title role. While I don't dispute the acting talents of Phoenix, this film just repulses me and yes, I have not seen it despite being a big fan of DC Comics and Batman lore in particular.

The whole premise of this film is way off as an origin story for this character and I will tell you why; the Joker was created as a major nemesis to Batman, similar to Lex Luthor and Superman, and while they are polar opposites, they are meant to balance each other off. Granted, there is no set backstory for the Joker(one of his aliases is Jack Napier) but some traits are core components-he's deviously smart and skilled enough to create his own chemical weapons, is gleefully sociopathic and driven by impulse and ego. Basically, a formidable menace in his own right.

According to this movie, the Joker is a sad sack of a guy named Arthur Fleck whose mental health issues and emotional abuse from his mother lead to him taking revenge against a rather Martin Scorsese inspired Gotham City. I'm sorry but dressing up a second rate Travis Bickle in clown make-up and having him attack a King of Comedy(Why, Robert De Niro, why?) is a sadly cynical take on this iconic villain that says nothing original at all.

Instead, it seems to play on cheap stereotypes about those with mental health situations and loaded with pretentious preening about how "we live in a society" where white guys feel free to whine about being picked on for bad behavior. I don't know if I will ever watch this movie but it tells you something when the SNL parody of it sounds like a better version altogether:

What disappoints me even more than that is the overlooking of Rocketman, which received only one nomination for Best Original Song. I suppose that the Academy voters thought that honoring Bohemian Rhapsody last time was good enough but they are so wrong!

Bohemian Rhapsody was at best a standard biopic elevated by Rami Malek's performance but Rocketman is a creative autobiographical musical that feels like a Broadway show on the level of Hamilton in terms of quality. Elton John told the story of his life in an emotionally honest way, using his vast catalogue of songs as touchstones for various points in his journey without glossing over any of the messy moments there.

Taron Egerton(who won a Golden Globe for his performance,hello!) was wonderful and egregiously snubbed in the Best Actor category, not to mention Bryce Dallas Howard as Sheila,Elton's viciously passive-aggressive mother and Jamie Bell as longtime friend and collaborator Bernie Taupin for the Best Supporting sections.

Also, how could you not nominate an Elton John musical for Best Costume, Best Production Design or either of the Sound categories? I have seen Rocketman three times(once in theaters, twice on home video) with family members and all of us were moved deeply by the themes of dealing with the pains of the past and moving onward. Based on audience response and mostly positive critical reviews, we are not alone in that good feeling.

While I am glad that at least ("I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" will be performed on Oscar night, it's a crying shame that the Academy is ignoring such an artistic cinematic gem like this:

Speaking of Best Song, I did listen to all of the other nominees, as is my usual, and for the most part,  found myself less than impressed.

While "Into the Unknown" from Frozen 2(surprisingly not up for Best Animated Film) is nice enough, in the words of a certain Buffy character, it's more of a book number than a breakaway pop hit.

Toy Story 4's "I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away" is a throwaway number that barely lasts two minutes. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that composer Randy Newman spent less than half of the song's running time to write it.

"I'm Standing With You" from Breakthough is your standard inspirational piece and while Chrissy Metz has a good voice, this tune is far from being memorable. What is a real contender with the Rocketman song here is "Stand Up" from Harriet, sung by Best Actress nominee Cynthia Erivo.

She is a Broadway singer, having won a Tony, Emmy and a Grammy for her role in the musical version of The Color Purple and she may become the youngest EGOT winner on Oscar night. Ervio's vocals are amazing and having the lead character perform the theme song to her life story is elegantly touching, to say the least:

Just a few other thoughts before I wrap this up:

Did Scarlett Johanssen really need to be a double nominee? Sure, her work in JoJo Rabbit and Marriage Story was well praised but did she really have to take up spots in both of the actress categories?  I suspect not,folks. Hell, Lupita N'yongo could have taken both categories for her duel role in Us (which was out and out ignored by the Academy!) and that would have been a bold creative use of that nomination there!

As much as I appreciate Martin Scorsese, The Irishman sounds like four hours of his greatest hits and hey, Marty-instead of complaining about superhero movies taking up too much attention, how about taking a creative chance yourself? You've done it before, with The Age of Innocence , The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun...instead of grousing about what others are doing, make your own work relevant to old and new audiences again.

I am happy that Renee Zellweger is up for Best Actress in Judy and that the Make-up/Hair Styling category has five nominees(most of the time, it's lucky to get three).

Other wise, the Best Picture nominees are not that exciting-Ford vs. Ferrari, 1917,Marriage Story, Joker,I don't even want to put them on my Netflix queue, let alone watch them at all. I would love to see Little Women and maybe check out Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Jojo Rabbit but beyond that, a hard pass.

Will I watch the Oscars? Sure, because it's my Super Bowl and even if your team isn't playing, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy the show. I do find it amusing that Best Supporting Actress nominee Margo Robbie will have her Harley Quinn on at the theaters with Birds of Prey a few days before the Oscars-when it comes to clown criminals, her royal riot girl act is one worth watching indeed:

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

My first Library Haul(and LibraryThing prize!) of 2020

Getting settled into a new year of reading can be daunting at first but it does help to take up a regular routine or two to start your bookish engines there.

Having been away from my local library during the holidays, it was wonderful to make my first visit of 2020 this past weekend with at least one book to return(which lead to another loan, that I'll get to momentarily).

What made this trip special was the joy of discovering a new book on the shelf that I've been wanting to check out ever since I first heard about it. The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis has the literary sisters Bronte find themselves  becoming a trio of sleuths as news of a strange death and disappearance at a nearby estate peaks their considerable interest.

With the assistance of their brother Bramwell, Emily, Anne and Charlotte look into what happened at Chester Grange, where the second wife of Robert Chester is missing with only a blood stained bed to suggest a gruesome departure. From hearing the eyewitness account of Matilda French, the current governess of the household and old school friend of sisters Emily and Charlotte, the sisters feel that they have no choice but to use their considerable skills of observation to find out the truth.

This leads them on a search that entails conducting interviews in disguise, finding clues in unlikely places and discovering hidden rooms within the manor house itself. Can the Bronte sisters solve this mysterious situation before another dire event takes place?

This book is intended to be the first in a mystery series and I certainly like this premise. Granted, out of the three Brontes, I'm more of a Charlotte person yet it ought to be entertaining and enlightening to see all of them in crime fighting action here:

During my last library visit, I decided to try a novel by Fiona Davis entitled The Address and it was such an engrossing read that upon my return, I went in search of another one of her works of historical fiction.

Luckily for me, The Chelsea Girls was readily available and quickly added to my pile of  new must reads. The story takes place in New York during the mid-1950s as two ladies of the theater reunite at the title hotel.

Hazel and Maxine became friends during WWII as USO performers on tour to entertain the troops. Now, five years later, they hope to combine Hazel's talent for play-writing and directing with the star power that Maxine has been generating on the Broadway stage to mark their mutual paths to fame and glory.

Unfortunately, their dreams are threatened by official demands to testify about "Un-American activities" as the McCarthy blacklist era begins. Can Hazel and Maxine stay true to their bonds of friendships as well as their professional goals, despite the pressure building from all sides?

This sounds intensely intriguing and I won't be surprised to see a few modern day parallels in this tale of attempted repression of artistic women:

To round out my library loan picks, I went with another debut mystery novel that is starting off a fresh new series and from the looks of it, this is one that I'm definitely going to like.

Marty Wingate's The Bodies in the Library is set in Bath, England as new  curator of The First Edition Society, Hayley Burke, discovers that the world of books is not as safe as one would think.

In addition to not having read any of the classic mystery titles in the collection that she's in charge of, Hayley also has to deal with a cranky co-worker and a local fan fiction writers' group that she has allowed to use the FES quarters who keep fighting among themselves about the proper way to add vampires or zombies to the works of Agatha Christie.

When the group leader is found dead one morning in the FES library, Hayley finds inspiration from Agatha Christie's The Body in the Library to find the killer before things get more out of hand. While she may not be a Miss Marple, Hayley may turn out to be a true detective in the making. I'm already reading this book and it's quite the Christie inspired cup of tea indeed:

When I arrived home, laden with books, there was a nice surprise in my mailbox from LibraryThing. LT does a monthly giveaway of upcoming titles and I won a copy of Little Wonders by Kate Rorick, best known for the Diary of Lizzie Bennet webseries tie-in novels.

When determined super mom Quinn Barrett unleashes her anger at her pre-school age son for not wanting to wear the homemade Halloween costume she created for him in public, she never expected that meltdown to become a viral sensation.

Newcomer Daisy Stone took the video but only meant to share it with her best friend back in California as a private joke. Instead, that slip of Quinn's perfect persona mask has taken on an internet life of it's own, making the once envied suburban diva the talk of the town.

While Daisy's unconventional ways make her reluctant to admit her part in this slow moving mess, she can't help but to reach out to Quinn, who's struggling to regain what sense of self she has left. This take on modern motherhood seems to be mixed with humor and heartbreak yet with a strong dose of unlikely friendship that should make for a solid good read. The book is due out in March and I think it'll be one to watch out for there.

Well, I do have quite a bit of reading on my hands, with the Winter's Respite readathon(reading two books at once for that one!), plus my Series-ous Reading and preparing for a review of Sanditon next week. No rest for the page turning wicked there!

Considering the cold weather on the way and the current news headlines, I think that a good book or two or more is the right choice for my entertainment needs(especially after the disappointing Oscar nominations, which I'll discuss later on) at this time.

For the moment, my first of many library hauls this year is off to a good start and the biggest decision on that score is long book or short book? At least that's a fun choice to make!:

Friday, January 03, 2020

Ringing in a New Year of Series-ous Reading

Welcome back, friends, for another year of Series-ous Reading where I talk about various books from established series and before we begin with the new, I must wrap up last year's list with the last book I read for that purpose.

Mr. Churchill's Secretary is the first title in author Susan Elia MacNeal's Maggie Hope novels which are set in England during WWII. Maggie was born there but grew up in America, due to both of her parents being killed in a car crash when she was a baby.

She was raised by her aunt in Boston and encouraged in her studies yet when word came of her grandmother's passing and her house in London in need of selling for any sort of inheritance, Maggie went over overseas to do just that. However, the escalation of the impending war with Germany made her hard for her to find a buyer so Maggie decided to take in a few roommates and see how she could help the war effort.

Despite her incredible math skills, the only solid position she could get in the government(thanks to some help from her good friend David) was as a replacement secretary to Winston Churchill. Seems that the former occupant of that position met with a rather deadly end.

Regardless of her disappointment, Maggie takes on the job and finds that while Churchill is a rough talker, he's also incredibly clever and even has a bit of a sense of humor about him, making those long hours of work at 10 Downing Street far more bearable there:

As the bombing raids in London begin, Maggie and her friends, such as Paige, her favorite roommate and best friend from college back in the US and Chuck, who is engaged to a solider headed for the front lines, do their best to keep their spirits up.

However, when a raid strikes down one of their own, Maggie becomes more determined to be of real use.

She spots a potential secret code in a newspaper ad for women's fashion(the skirt has a strangely sequential design of dots and dashes) and tries to bring this espionage in open sight to the attention of others in the department yet is politely but firmly shut down.

 Nonetheless, she is intent on finding the truth and as it turns out, there is a hidden secret regarding her family's past that leads her down an unexpected path of spies and secret plots that threaten the nation. I don't want to say more than that as this book is an entertainingly engaging adventure with characters that are well rounded and suspenseful plot points that keep those pages a-turning.

What I liked the most about this story was Maggie, a smart, capable woman who stayed on point despite being underestimated by the men around her and who was a good friend even to those who betrayed her trust. In truth, this reminded me of the short lived TV show Agent Carter, which really should've stayed on the air for longer than it did. Fortunately, Maggie Hope seems to have more staying power in print:

So, yes, my last Series-ous Reading of 2019 was a wonderful treat and for this new bookish bout in 2020, the next entry in the Maggie Hope series, Princess Elizabeth's Spy, is part of the literary line-up.

In fact, that book is part of a special category called Second Acts, which will highlight those crucial follow-ups to the debut novel in a book series. The first one may set up shop but the second steadies the balance for more to come.

Along with Princess Elizabeth's Spy, the second book selections include Dying For Chocolate by Diane Mott Davidson and A Medal for Murder by Frances Brody, plus another book that I'll get to in a moment.

 Speaking of Frances Brody, I plan to read more of her Kate Shackleton series such as Death of an Avid Reader, A Woman Unknown and Murder in the Afternoon. Having read a later book in her series set in post WWI England about a lady photographer who becomes a detective last year, I thought it would be right to catch up on her other mystery entries as well. Also, I have more of Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swenson stories to read as my mom has gone far ahead of me on that score!

For now, my first Series-ous Reading selection of 2020 is the second book in the Agatha Raisin mysteries from the late great author M.C. Beaton, Agatha Raisin and the Vicious Vet.

Sadly, Ms. Beaton(aka Marion Chesney) passed away on New Year's Eve at the age of 83. Before the Agatha Raisin books, she was well known for her Hamish Macbeth detective series,which also became a popular TV series in the UK much like the Raisin books are right now.

She also wrote a number of historical romances and mysteries under various pen names such as Charlotte Ward, Ann Fairfax and Jennie Tremaine. In total, she had over 160 books published during her lifetime and many of her colleagues describe her as a witty, warm hearted yet no nonsense lady who they felt honored to know. As a very new reader , I send my condolences to her loved ones and wish them some peace of mind during such a sorrowful time.

I hope to do justice to my write-up on the second Agatha Raisin novel, which I've already started, and perhaps I might try some of the Hamish Macbeth books,too. For now, Agatha's continuing adventures as  the city savvy country sleuth are a great way to get this new year of Series-ous Reading started: