Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Natalie Jenner invites you to join The Jane Austen Society this summer

It has become a truth universally acknowledged that readers will flock to a Jane Austen themed book,hoping to love it as much as they do her original six pack of novels.

In the case of Natalie Jenner's The Jane Austen Society, that hope will be happily fulfilled. This debut novel takes a fictional look into the origins of the group of townsfolk in Chawton,England, who decided to band together and do what they could to honor the memory of their most famous literary resident.

We start with Adam Berwick, a young farmer whose family dealt with terrible losses during WWII, leaving him and his mother to manage what's left of their farm.

 Adam always felt out of place, unlike his late father and brothers, and yet was never really interested in Jane Austen or her work. Like most of the folks in town, he tolerates giving out directions to the cottage where Austen lived as well as the Knight family estate nearby to visitors from afar.

One such visitor from America inspired Adam to take up the books for himself ,resulting in his devotion to Austen's books and becoming the first in 1945 to suggest forming a society that would turn the Austen family cottage into a museum. Considered by all to be a quiet sort, much like his favorite Austen hero Mr. Darcy, Adam surprises everyone with his heartfelt commitment to the project at hand:

The American who started Adam off on his love of Jane Austen returns to Chawton, with a fiance in tow. Actress Mimi Harrison has a lifelong devotion to Jane, thanks to her late father sharing those books with her.

Despite her success in Hollywood, Mimi is hoping to embrace a more relaxed life in England with plans to star in an adaptation of Sense & Sensibility(even though her favorite book is Emma).

Her film producer beau Jack is eager to indulge Mimi in her Austen love, to the point of buying her some of the jewelry that Jane herself wore in a Sotheby's auction. Once she hears of the society's plans, Mimi is excited to join in and help anyway she can.

Since she hopes to make Chawton her new home, Mimi is anxious to be part of things, particularly with her Hollywood career slowly yet surely coming to an end. Part of that demise is due to the unwanted attentions of a major studio boss, whose power and influence is sadly more prominent than her own:

Aiding Adam in his mission is Benjamin Gray, the local doctor who everyone trusts with their health and their secrets.

It is hardly a secret that Dr. Gray has strong feelings for former school teacher Adeline Grove. As a widower, he well understands the pain of her losses, from her husband dying in the war and the miscarriage of her child.

As a way of encouraging her to get back into the world, he asks Adeline to join the society and despite her own misgivings about getting too attached to the good doctor, she is more than up for the challenge.

 With the addition of a former student of hers, Evie Stone, a maid in the Knight household who has been writing up a catalogue of all of the books in the vast family library, Adeline finds herself feeling better connected to life. However, both she and Dr. Gray are unsure of their own true feelings about one another. The only thing that he is certain about is the need to protect Adeline from any and all harm ,whether it be physical or emotional:

A key player in all of this is Frances Knight, one of the last direct descendants of the Austen family. While she has lived in Chawton all of her life, Frances withdrew from society due to a romance that was thwarted by her father and in some ways, has become a stranger in her own home town.

While she would like to help with the society's goals, the will of her late father takes away any control Frances has over the property in question. Worse, she must give up most of her meager inheritance to the schemes of a potential male heir,however distantly related.

This situation personally affronts Andrew Forrester, the local attorney who does his best to prevent any conflict of interest between the Knight estate that he works for and the Jane Austen Society, of which he is a member. He and Frances once shared a deep passion that lead to disapproval and disappointment for them both:

While the aim of this group is to pay respect to the literary greatness of Jane Austen, it's also a way for them to thank the author for the meaning she has given to their personal lives as well. In that regard, their mission statement is complete.

Jenner may be a new novelist yet her prose is expertly woven, creating a elegantly tantalizing portrait of a small group of people brought together by more than one type of love and friendship.

While the story could be a little bit longer for my taste, it is my only regret and not much of one at that. The characters are incredibly alive on the page, feeling so real that you are almost beside them during one of their meetings or on a walk through Chawton, a town that I was most fortunate enough to visit many years ago, bringing back some lovely memories for me here.

For any and all Jane Austen fans, this book is a must read for the summer and my thanks to Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose who invited me to take part in this blog tour(the JAS banner in the upper column of this blog has a link to Natalie Jenner's website, which should lead you to more stops along this bookish online tour).

Also the audio edition is narrated by actor Richard Armitage, best known for the miniseries North and South, which should be an extra bonus for many period drama viewers indeed! However you engage with The Jane Austen Society, this tribute to the legacy of Austen and her readers is a beautiful grace note to life, love and literature:

Friday, May 22, 2020

Spending my summer in the shade of a good book

We're starting our first big holiday weekend of the summer and while some might be considering an outdoor adventure in the midst of what still is a major health crisis, I know that I'm not alone in planning on enjoying this occasion safely inside.

Part of my fun will be with books, which are a major player in my summer games, and while I have one readathon on deck next month(Sci-Fi Summer), the rest of the season is wide open, so to speak.

Granted, my TBR cup is overflowing at this point but this list of summer reads is short and savvy, I hope. Let me just showcase the top three titles on my pile of fun away from the sun reads:

NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA: Chanel Cleeton's acclaimed novel has two leading ladies, one from the past and the other dealing with the present.

The former is Elisa, who along with her sisters, was seen as a "sugar queen" in their elite social circles in Cuba of 1958. Sheltered from the harsh realities of everyday life and the revolution rumbling to life all around her, Elisa meets Pablo, a young man who opens her eyes as well as her heart.

Decades later, her American born granddaughter Marisol is visiting Cuba with a special item on hand, determined to honor the memory of the most influential woman in her life.

There, she also discovers her grandmother's past while meeting Luis, the grandson of a family friend that could help her ignite a passion similar to the one Elisa shared with Pablo back in the day. Will learning about Elisa's past help Marisol figure out her own future?

I've heard so many wonderful things about this book(and yes, I do like Reese Witherspoon's book club picks) and this sounds like a riveting read for any time of year:

THE GREAT ALONE: Author Kristen Hannah introduces you to Leni, who at age thirteen knows all too well about impulsive and self destructive behavior, due to the turmoil in her own household.

When her father Ernt decides to take their family off to Alaska in 1974 to claim land left to him by a deceased Army buddy from his time in Vietnam, Leni hopes that this will lead to a better life for all of them.

The rough conditions of their new home,along with the total lack of preparations made, takes an even harsher toll on Leni and her mother Cora. With Ernt being unable to handle such isolation, both mother and daughter find solace and support among their new neighbors.

Despite Ernt getting some work along the new pipeline that's being built, that time away from Cora and Leni does little to ease the tensions. While she struggles to find new friends and perhaps love, Leni has no choice at one point but to think of her own emotional survival.

At the moment, I'm reading an earlier book from this author, Firefly Lane(which is being adapted for Netflix,) and that novel is so engagingly good that it's beyond awesome to have another one of Hannah's books on hand. This is the first time that I have read her work and clearly, I've found a great author to catch up on here:

THE MASTERPIECE: Writer Fiona Davis centers most of her historical fiction in and around New York City, with this story truly being at the heart of many points of the famed metropolis.

Grand Central Station is the connection between two women from different moments in time. Clara Darden is both an artist and a teacher at the Grand Central School of Art in 1928, gaining some attention for her work but not all of the extra notice is seen as respectable.

In 1974,  Virginia Clay,a new employee at Grand Central's information booth, discovers a painting in the now abandoned art institute that appears to have been one of Clara's, who vanished long ago.

With an auction at Sotheby's that has a similar work up for sale, Virginia is determined to find Clara and let her know how valued her art has become. This search brings her some clarity to the troubles in her own life, battling illness and then dealing with a painful divorce, as well as helping to solve more than one mystery regarding Clara's life and times.

I so enjoy Davis' skillful blend of well developed female characters and finely crafted pieces of historical interest. She has a new book coming out this summer(The Lions of Fifth Avenue) and until I get to it, this intriguing novel should do nicely. I also love the cover art of her novels, although I know good and well that you can't judge a book by it's cover(in this case,however, you can!):

I hope everyone has a good Memorial Day weekend and finds plenty of fun even at home during these times. Good books help a lot, not to mention a little binge watching and/or re-watching  of tried and true favorites.

Speaking of favorites, I'm taking a bit of a breather from catching up with the classics and doing a reread of Jane Austen's classic six novels. I'm starting with Emma(yes, due to the new movie) and hoping to tackle Sense & Sensibility before Labor Day is upon us.

While I do know these books fairly well, there is value in revisiting them and it's been some time since Austen's original works were on my reading radar. At the very least, I hope to feel like a truly accomplished woman by the turn of that last page:

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Setting up a reader's beach towel for Sci-Fi Summer!

With Memorial Day weekend just around the corner, the summer season is about to officially begin. Granted, the usual holiday plans that are made this time of year have no choice but to be quite different (and indoors) due to the prevalent health crisis at hand.

However, that doesn't rule out having some fun and that's where a good readathon comes forth to offer just that. Seasons of Reading is now signing folks up for their annual Sci-Fi Summer event, which starts on June 1 and lasts until the end of the month.

The theme is science fiction, with fantasy also included.While I'm more comfortable with the latter than the former, there is one major sci-fi author that I haven't tackled and fully intend to here, for a start on my own TBR for this event:

THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS: This modern classic from Ursula K. LeGuin is set on the planet Gethen, where Genly Ai, a human envoy of the galactic alliance of planets known as Ekumen ,is hoping to encourage them to join this society of worlds.

His mission is fraught with peril, partly due to his discomfort with the formal set of manners that are not defined by gender practiced among the various people that Ai encounters. In fact, the Gethenians are ambisexual, only taking on a specific gender for procreation related purposes.

Ai's journey takes into several ruling realms, finding the social norms and politics to be daunting yet he makes an unexpected friend along the way who not only helps him but changes his perspectives on life and love as well.

This is a major novel in LeGuin's canon of groundbreaking works of fiction and there's no time like the present for me to give such an amazing book a serious try. Perhaps it might lead me to her other works, perhaps not. Nonetheless, this is an adventure well worth the taking:

THE BONE DOLL'S TWIN: In this first in a trilogy written by Lynn Flewelling, we are introduced to Tobin, a young boy hiding in plain sight from those who would destroy him due to the wrath of a usurper king.

Tobin was born into a set of twins, yet due to his uncle King Erius eliminating any females newly entering the royal bloodline, his parents called upon a sorcerer to use dark magic to protect their infant daughter. That spell had dangerous consequences, leaving Tobin with a ghostly sibling and a secret identity to be kept even from him.

While their country is constantly under siege from without and within, Tobin's father and a few carefully chosen allies are awaiting the day when the truth can be revealed and a warrior queen can rise again to save their realm.

I received this book from a mystery box brought during the recent Virtual Con held by Penguin Random House online(it was a fun event!) and since this story line reminds me of one of my favorite Game of Thrones characters-plus, the book cover has a positive blurb from G.R.R. Martin-I am most intrigued indeed:

SILVIA MORENO-GARCIA DOUBLE FEATURE: Not only does this fantastic writer have a great new book coming out this summer(Mexican Gothic) , her impressive body of work has at least two titles that I need to catch up with here.

In The Beautiful Ones, Antonina "Nina" Beaulieu is making her debut into high society, trying to keep her telekinetic abilities at bay in order to find a good martial match.

Her cousin Valerie is meant to be her guide yet when Nina attracts the attentions of Hector, who proudly flaunts his psychic powers , lines are drawn between the two women. It doesn't help that Valerie and Hector were once in love yet she had to give him up for what her family considered a more suitable connection.

At first, Hector is only interested in using Nina as payback against Valerie but over time, his affections start to change. However, Nina is not simply a pawn for either side to play in this emotional game and her own set of magical skills turn this love triangle into a source of true power for herself. This so sounds like if Edith Wharton wrote The Night Circus and I am all in for that!

Gods of Jade and Shadow has it's leading lady, Casiopea, finding herself bound to a Mayan death god and assisting him in his quest to fully regain his divinity. After opening a secret box belonging to her grandfather, she accidentally awakens the imprisoned Hun-Kame and finds out about her family's role in trapping him for decades.

She's less than thrilled to be caught up in this vengeance driven journey, as the deity in question plans to take on his betraying brother, yet along the way, Casiopea learns a few things about life from her new acquaintance and so does he, each gaining a new respect for the other.

Can their quest be completed, however, without a true sacrifice that changes both of their families for good? I've been looking forward to reading this book for some time now and saving it for the summer feels just right. Moreno-Garcia's blend of reality and mythology is truly compelling with a spell binding beauty that engages awe and terror all at once:

There's plenty of time to sign up if you're interested(see link in the top portion of this post) and you can also follow the hashtag #SciFiJune on social media. My thanks as always to Michelle Miller for making these reading challenges easily available to all.

I do like the fact that science fiction and fantasy are both part of this, as fans of one over the other tend to draw battle lines around their preferred genre. In the end, we're all on the same side of the bookshelf here and getting together for some good bookish fun is what's most important, especially these days. A little mock trash talk is fine but agreeing to be reading buddies is even better:

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Some summer time bookish TV to tune into soon

Despite talk of going back into society with the current health crisis all around us, chances are that most of your upcoming summer activities this year are going to be of the indoor variety.

That's not an entirely bad thing,especially for book folk, as this season has several new TV series based on books due out just in time to sit in the shade and enjoy.

First up is HBO's adaptation of Wally Lamb's novel, I Know This Much Is True, which began it's six episode run this past weekend. Mark Ruffalo stars as twin brothers Dominic and Thomas Birdsey, with one brother taking care of the other due to being diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In addition to Ruffalo, the cast has some pretty big names on deck such as Melissa Leo as the Birdsey brothers' mom, Rosie O'Donnell as a social worker trying to help both brothers deal with the mental health system and Juliette Lewis playing an Italian translator who is working on the memoir written by their grandfather, which may reveal some much needed family secrets.

Granted, this is not a cheerful story to watch, especially during these troubling times, however, the book was beautifully written with deeply well developed characters and no doubt, Ruffalo offers a solid performance here.  Also, there are some who find solace in tales of emotional survival and this series may provide just that kind of relief:

For some real world chills mixed with supernatural thrills, HBO will be airing Lovecraft Country. Based on Matt Ruff's novel, this series is set in America of the 1950s where Atticus(Jonathan Majors) seeks the help of his uncle George(Courtney B. Vance) in finding his father Montrose(Michael K. Williams).

Montrose is being held captive by the Braithwaite family, ruled by patriarch Samuel(Tony Goldwin), who is a founding member of "The Sons of Adam", a secret group with sinister and otherworldly connections. In order to save his father, Atticus ,along with his family and friends, have to make a road trip with deadly detours that include everyday racism and actual monsters from beyond.

As someone who read this book, this is so a must-watch! For those who haven't, the fact that Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams are executive producing this is a sure sign of great and scary things to come here:

If you're more in the mood for some comic book capers, the CW will be debuting Stargirl on May 19(it'll also be streaming on their digital platform the day before). Bree Bassinger plays Courtney, a high school sophomore who has moved to a new town with her mother and stepfather Pat(Luke Wilson).

Turns out that Pat was once a superhero sidekick for The Justice Society of America, destroyed by their enemies in the Injustice Society. Pat has been keeping the cosmic power staff of Starman hidden away, waiting for the right person to claim that mantle.

Courtney appears to be that special someone and she decides to use her new found powers for good, not to mention reforming the JSA with some new friends to push back against the still rather active Injustice crowd.

 Due to the Crisis on Infinite Earths shake-up on the CW superhero shows earlier this year, this new show ought to fit right in with the current line-up. Plus, this just looks like pure popcorn fun and that is something we all could use these days:

To round this out, TNT has a made for TV version of Snowpiercer, which was previously adapted to the big screen by Oscar winning director Bong Joon-ho  and based on a graphic novel.

The basic premise has the entire world covered in endless winter, with only one train carrying what's left of humanity. The people onboard have a firmly structured class system with those such as Melanie(Jennifer Connelly) in first class living the good life while residents who dwell in the back car of the train are barely surviving.

A rebellion is born, lead by Layton(Daveed Diggs), a man tired of seeing the suffering of others as well as his own. Their progression through the numerous train cars to reach the front engines causes many shake-ups in the traveling society but will gaining access to their goal really help or hurt all of the passengers in the end?

This sounds interesting indeed and a second season has already been approved, so this might be a thrill ride worth taking this May:

Having good books and TV shows on hand does make the time go by a little bit better and while that can't solve all of our present moment problems, using them to take a mental break is just as important as maintaining your physical health.

So, do look forward to these great combinations of imagination that are not too far away,folks! The fall season could be as equally promising, especially for fans of Starz's The Spanish Princess which will grant us an audience with season 2 of the show! More Phillipa Gregory adaptations, yes, please!:

Monday, May 04, 2020

Rounding up my April reading challenges

Last week, the Spring Into Horror readathon wrapped up and this time out, I must admit that I bit off more than I could chew, figuratively speaking.

While I did finish three of the books on my TBR, those Jessica Beck Donut Shop mysteries had to head back into the display case, along with Fiona Barton's The Suspect. However, after completing Egg Drop Dead by Vivien Chien, I'm taking my time with the third book in Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Culinary series, The Cereal Murders.

To start, our catering heroine is working at the home of Elk Park Prep's headmaster Perkins , serving up a special meal for the current crop of graduating seniors and their parents. Since her own son Arch is attending Elk Park, getting the job wasn't too hard but dealing with the overly ambitious parents eager to get their kid into the best college along with the just as eager to get big donations headmaster most certainly is.

Goldy is fine with the job as along as she gets properly paid(something that rather well-to-do folk seem to be less interested in doing) but even with a smile on her face, her attitude about the cut throat competition of a school like this makes her stand out in a manner that's not the best for drumming up new business with this crowd:

What does rattle Goldy is the discovery of a dead body as she's packing up the dishes at the end of the event. The victim is Keith Andrews, who was chosen as class valedictorian and appears to be one of the least liked students among his peers.

Out of concern for her own son Arch(who is being harshly bullied in school-a dead rattlesnake in his locker!) as well as Julian, the potential culinary student that she's mentoring, Goldy finds herself on the case. Her police detective beau Tom Schulz is willing to get whatever insights she can get into the murder as the Elk Park Prep folk are being way too close mouthed for his official investigation to go anywhere.

I'm about two-thirds of the way in(math is not my strong suit!) but the story is pretty engaging and I do like the humorous moments with the private school parents,teachers and students. A really great scene has the headmaster's own son read aloud for a college prep class his "honest" essay about how he didn't do well at a college application trip, showcasing the intelligent ineptness that he has clearly majored in here:

My thanks as always to Michelle Miller at Seasons of Reading for such great readathons and I look forward to the next one in June, Sci-Fi Summer.

 With so much at home time these days, it feels as if you have nothing to do but read and yet that's not how it is at all. It's best to take things like a readathon as a guidepost rather than a mandatory test of page turning skills. Reading is fundamental and fun is a key element in that phrase! For my Sci-Fi Summer TBR, I'll keep it short but smartly sassy:

Meanwhile, the latest Second Act selection for my Series-ous Reading was a grand follow-up indeed.

In Princess Elizabeth's Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal reintroduces us to Maggie Hope, once a secretary for Winston Churchill, who is now in training to be a WWII spy for MI5. Her determination to be in the field is commendable but unfortunately, her fighting skills are not seen as suitable for an overseas assignment.

While she is less than thrilled to be given a position in Windsor Castle as math tutor to the young Princess Elizabeth, Maggie tries to make the best of things. It does help that Elizabeth aka "Lillibet" is a good student and quick to catch on to code making, something that Maggie thought would make the whole subject all the more interesting. As it turns out, this special area of study comes in handy sooner than either of them expected:

The sudden and shocking death of a royal lady-in-waiting causes Maggie to realize that more is at stake , especially when evidence slowly begins to surface of a German spy ring within the castle walls and a plot against the royal family.

As more and more intrigue piles on, Maggie is able to be on the spot when Lillibet herself is in danger but can she rescue the girl and save herself in the process? There's more than one level to the story and it makes the leading lady all the more relatable, with additional secrets about her own family's past coming forth, not to mention mourning the potential loss of  her boyfriend John, who was shot down in enemy territory and presumed dead.

All in all, Maggie Hope is a great heroine for any time period-a smart, capable woman who is just as human as anyone else caught in a dire situation. Persisting despite all odds is not an easy thing for anyone, fictional or otherwise, to do yet when it's done well, such efforts can be appreciated. I have a few more Maggie Hope books on hand and they ought to be of real comfort as time goes by:

As for this month's Series-ous Reading, it's back to Lake Eden with Hannah Swensen for a bout of Cream Puff Murder.

I thought this would be good for May as part of the plot has Hannah's mother Delores getting ready for the party to celebrate the release of her debut Regency romance novel. However, the title demise takes place at the local workout spa as Hannah needs to lose a few pounds in order to fit into the period themed dress for that occasion.

The exercise place happens to be run by Ronni Ward, a local flirt and rival for Hannah's potential love partner Mike. I haven't gotten to the murder scene yet but so far, so good. I do like that the gym is called Heavenly Bodies, which gives me some 1980s workout craze flashbacks there(the book is not set in that era but still...). Should be some flavorful fun!: