Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, September 28, 2020

At the midway mystery checkpoint on my FrightFall journey


As those of use taking part in this year's FrightFall readathon(held by Michelle Miller at Seasons of Reading) know, the reading time has been expanded to two months, which is perfect for setting that Halloween mood to me!

So far, I've finished one book on my TBR and in the middle of another, with a last minute add-on at hand. First things first-my completed FF read was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, which starts off his series of 1950s British mysteries featuring Flavia de Luce.

Flavia is eleven years old, living with her two older sisters Ophelia  and Daphne and their widowed father in a declining estate known as Buckshaw. Her keen intelligence(her specialty is chemistry with an interest in poison) and dark wit make her an outsider in more ways than one among her family and the local residents of the nearby village.

When a mysterious stranger dies in their cucumber patch, Flavia is the one to discover him and get the police on the scene. As it happens, the dead man is an old school mate of her father's, which makes her remaining parent the prime suspect.

Since her sisters are both useless(I really don't like them)in this situation, Flavia takes charge of the case to clear their father's name, with the only clues being a dead bird left on their back doorstep that had a stamp attached to it's beak, overhearing an argument the night before between her father and his former friend and the last word of the victim(that she was able to hear) being "vale".

That last clue leads her to a scandal involving a stamp collecting club at Greyminster, the all boys school where her father became a lifelong lover of that postage item. While the official lead detective in the case, Inspector Hewitt, doesn't want her involved, he can't help but admit she has been making good progress in gathering evidence here.

Flavia is quite the hard to love type yet her quick thinking in certain situations is to be admired. Granted, she does enjoy unusual experiments such as seeing how long the slow acting poison in her sister Ophelia's lipstick will take to affect her(to be fair, it was payback for teaming up with Daphne to tie their little sister up and lock her in a closet, plus an insult regarding Flavia's family status).

However, she has a bit of a Wednesday Addams vibe that suits her well and made me cackle with wicked delight on occasion during this story:

Yet, when all is said and done, Flavia is still just a kid and she does get into some serious danger at one point, with the chances of her being found in the nick of time slim to none.

For one, what family she does have barely keeps track of her between her chronically withdrawn father who only seems to care about his beloved stamp collection and her older sisters with one on the constant lookout for a boyfriend and the other who sticks her head in books like an ostrich in the sand. Normally, I would like a bookish character like Daphne but she's very much a Mary Bennet in this regard.

 Sure, siblings fight but Flavia's bids for attention are obviously a lonely girl's way of coping with the lack of a mother during such a crucial time in her young life. That makes me most annoyed at her sisters, not to mention her father(who prefers to wallow in his grief rather than connect to his children).

The only other adults on hand are the much put upon housekeeper who insists on making custard pies that no one eats and Dogger, the gardener and old wartime companion of Flavia's father who is clearly suffering from shell shock(what PTSD was called back then).

 She doesn't seem to have any friends that are her age and her blunt manner at times tends to unsettle the grown-ups that she does come in contact with. Plus, she has no memories of her late mother, which troubles her deeply and you know a book is good when you want to yell at the other characters for not paying more attention to the needs of another(yes,Ophelia, you are the oldest and I mean YOU!).

While Flavia has the acid wit of Wednesday Addams, she also has the cleverness of Roald Dahl's Matilda and much like that literary heroine, she's stuck in a self involved family with little emotional support or encouragement of her scientific talents. This book was good enough to have me buy the next two in the series(which I will read later on) and hopefully, the de Luce family will straighten up and fly right when it comes to Flavia as we go on:

Meanwhile, I am in the middle of Chris Cavender's A Pizza to Die For, the third entry in his Pizza Lovers Mystery series. 

Sisters Eleanor and Maddy have enough on their plate at the Slice of Delight pizzeria as it is without getting entangled in murder but the latest demise in the town of Timber's Cove makes them highly listed on the menu of official suspects.

Newcomer to Timber's Cove Judson Sizemore was preparing to open a high end pizza parlor only a few doors down from the Slice. Unfortunately, his opening day was his last on earth and since he had a couple of run-ins with Eleanor before hand, Chief of Police Kevin Hurley is looking hard at the local rivalry here.

Eleanor, with the help of Maddy and a dubious ally, are able to find other suitable suspects such as Judson's sister Gina, who hopes to get all of their reclusive uncle Nathan's fortune and a couple of ex girlfriends, one of which claims to be pregnant with Judson's child! Will these extra ingredients help Eleanor make a spicy solution pizza or create a recipe for more death to follow?

I do like this series with it's comfortable cast of characters and tasty food vibes but mainly I enjoy the bond between Eleanor and Maddy, two sisters with different outlooks on life. Widowed Eleanor does like being a homebody and is not quick to reenter the dating scene despite the urging of Maddy(who has had three husbands and currently dating lovable lawyer Bob Lemon).

Yet, Eleanor is not a stick in the mud and willing to take risks that even reckless Maddy finds to be too much(such as that dubious ally I mentioned). Also, Maddy can prove to be a sweetheart when least expected and she always has her sister's back.  The two of them, along with their crew of loyal workers(one of which is the police chief's son!) create a warm emotional atmosphere that makes this pizza place a delicious spot for solving murders indeed:

While I did plan to keep my reading list short  for this readathon, I find myself adding just one more title to the pile.

Ruth Ware's The Lying Game has four friends reuniting for reasons that have nothing to do with happy memories. New mother Isa receives a message from  former school mate Kate and meets up with her other friends from that time, Fatima and Thea, due to a sudden discovery along the shore of the town of Salten.

Fifteen years ago, this quartet were the best of friends , sneaking off from their dreary boarding school to hang out with Kate's artist dad and her rather attractive brother Luc. Those secret trips lead to a deadly event that got the girls expelled from school and caused a major parting of ways among them.

With the recent find of a human bone, Kate has called them back to figure out what to do next. Isa feels she has the most to lose with a brand new baby daughter but the real truth is more revealing than any of them ever expected.

I did like The Woman in Cabin 10(one of Ware's earlier books) and have been trying to read more of her work ever since. The Lying Game certainly feels like a good sinister gateway to walk through for that:

I hope that everyone taking part in FrightFall this year is having  a fun time with their books and is ready for some Halloween bookish treats. I have a set of three holiday themed reads lined up that should make the upcoming witching season bright, despite the restrictions of the ongoing health crisis that's going to put the stop sign up for the traditional All Hallow's Eve hijinks.

Nevertheless, Halloween still can be fun and safe to enjoy indoors with some of your favorite candy and a viewing of Hocus Pocus(it's going to be on multiple times next month, it's The Christmas Story of Halloween, if you ask me) with the perfect scary book by your side. Brew up a batch of haunted snacks and savor the night,folks!:

Friday, September 25, 2020

The root of the evil that gives us Banned Books Week

 At this crucial point in our country's history, Banned Books Week is about to start as another reminder of the freedoms that we cherish as a nation. 

Nowadays, sadly, those freedoms are feeling few and far between with civil liberties being violated on a daily basis and what once were established norms of a supposedly mature society being tossed by the wayside.

Don't worry,folks-I'm not going to get into a big political rant(most of my regular readers probably have a good sense of my viewpoints in that regard) here. However, instead of listing current and past books targeted by censorship, I thought this would be the right time to talk about why books and authors are banned/challenged in the first place.


We all know the familiar string of excuses(foul language, sexual content, religious objections, etc.) and that old standby "Won't someone think of the children?". 

Protecting the young ones is both true and false, which I will get into in a moment. After much consideration on my part, I find that the real reason, past and present, for censorship like this is simply fear.

No doubt many of these dubious do-gooders would insist that they're not afraid of words on a page, only their influence on others. A half truth at best; what upsets them the most is that these words challenge their already established notions of how the world should be.

These are the type of people who loudly proclaim their love of liberty but when it comes to caring about the rights of people who are not of their social circle, that privilege is not deemed worthy of those who "complain" and "don't appreciate their country", conveniently forgetting that this entire country was brought into being by those who complained about unfair treatment by a government in the first place.

It's no wonder that books about rebelling against totalitarian regimes as The Hunger Games series and George Orwell's 1984 are often challenged. People like this say they're all for democracy but the past four years alone have shown us that they would actually prefer a Big Brother system that takes away any pesky protests about the way things are and simply spoon feed them propaganda, flavored with hate and heartlessness:

So what exactly are they afraid of? Well, that things like racism(the works of Toni Morrison), sexism(The Handmaid's Tale), bias against certain religions(The Kite Runner) and the LGBTQIA community(And Tango Makes Three) are problems that we need to work and make real generational changes that will last.

That's where the kids come into the picture; a lot of these people feel that the way they were taught by parents/school/church was just fine and what was good enough for them is good enough for their children.

Like the song says "children are our future" and many of these narrow minded minions don't want their offspring to change the world. After all, that would invalidate their beliefs, which is their ultimate nightmare, to be proven wrong.

While they accuse others of "thought control", that is exactly what they're after and one of the places where such battles begin is with books both in classrooms and libraries. We may not have those Fahrenheit 451 book burning mandates but trust me, there are many out there who crave them indeed:

So, what can we do about this? While there are numerous challenges to our freedoms all going on right now, intellectual freedom is one of the most important as it's a valuable component to tackling the other situations at hand.

Fighting back in the right way is key and be willing to face off against our own fears is a major step in that direction. Fear can be used against us not only by encouraging the weak to embrace chaos but also to cast doubt in ourselves and stun us into inaction.

Well, as a special litany in Frank Herbert's Dune teaches us, "Fear is the mind killer" and we must be ready to stand against it. It's not an easy task, I well know, yet by facing down such a powerful emotion , we will be the stronger for it. 

You don't have to do anything truly dramatic to overcome fear, even if it feels like an epic storm of woe is about to descend upon us. A small step, such as signing a petition or refusing to give into negative peer pressure either online or off, is just as great a victory:

A great benefit of Banned Books Week is that it reminds us that our right to freedom of thought and speech has always been a long and hard fought battle that we should never take for granted.

Adding that on to the huge bundle of burdens we are up against this year in particular may seem like too much. Yet, it's one that we can't give up on or put on the back burner until later. Keeping it safe from those ready to destroy such a valuable asset is an absolute must.

Banned Books Week begins this Sunday, September 27 and runs until October 3. Please bear it in mind as we make our mark in history by remembering those who took up this cause in the past. Let us honor their struggles and pay respect to those gone before us, on this and many other fronts. Freedom of speech is freedom of choice, something to hold onto in these troubling times:


Friday, September 18, 2020

Booking a few page turning options at the Movie Trailer Park

 As we know all too well these days, new film premieres are rather quick to change their opening dates(not to mention viewing formats) yet we are still getting trailers that make our cinematic mouths water.

Book adaptations are also included and whether a favorite of yours is set to debut on a screen that's big,small or streaming, that doesn't mean we can't enjoy the previews with a bag of popcorn at hand.

First up is Dune, based on the classic sci-fi series by Frank Herbert, starring Timothee Chalamet as Paul Atriedes, the heir to a spice mining fortune who finds himself in the midst of a trade war that also takes him on a spiritual quest on the planet Arrakis.

Other prominent cast members include Oscar Isaac as Paul's father , Jason Momoa as master swordsman Duncan Idaho and Zendaya as Chani, a resident Fremen of Arrakis who Paul falls in love with. It's been a long time since I read the Dune books(the first four, at least) and yes, that David Lynch version from 1984 fell very far short of expectations there.

However, this production is in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, best known for Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and he seems to have a good handle on this genre. There's also talk of this film leading to a prequel TV series for HBO Max called Dune: Sisterhood, focusing on the Bene Gesserit which sounds awesome indeed:

Next up is Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, with Kenneth Branagh taking up the role of detective Hercule Poirot once again. In this tale, he becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving a rather tangled love triangle between Simon Doyle(Armie Hammer), his new wife Linnet(Gal Godot) and Jacqueline de Bellefort(Emma Mackey).

Simon was engaged to Jaqueline but one look at her friend Linnet and that romantic journey changed paths. While on their honeymoon in Egypt, Jacqueline is stalking the two of them with her jealous fury not bothering to hide itself.

 When shots ring out on the passenger boat that they're all sharing,Poirot is ready and able to dive into this not so simple case of murder and deception. Like his last Christie adapation, Branagh is also directing this film with a solid all star cast that includes Annette Benning, Jennifer Saunders, Rose Leslie, Letitia Wright and Sophie Okonedo.

 I happen to be a big fan of the 1978 version of this story(Peter Ustinov is my ideal Poirot and I refuse to waver from that stance) so this movie needs to bring it big time. Also, Branagh wants to create a "Poirot cinematic universe" which is fine but he needs to include Miss Marple at some point if you ask me!:

Set to premiere in whatever theaters are open along with Netflix, a new version of Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca is arriving in late October. 

Lily James plays the second Mrs. de Winter, who arrives at the intimidating manor house known as Manderly with new husband Maxim(Armie Hammer-what is it with this guy and period pieces?) and introduced to the equally intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers(Kristen Scott Thomas).

With the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation firmly emblazoned onto movie history, this movie is going to have a tough time when it comes to making it's own mark. Hopefully, the cast and company of this production will do their best to up the game:

Meanwhile, the made for TV folk are at long last getting their second season of The Spanish Princess on Starz this fall. 

Based on Philippa Gregory's novel about Catherine of Aragon, this season showcases the young queen(Charlotte Hope) ruling and fighting along side King Henry(Ruairi O'Connor) as they defend England from enemies from outward and within their realm.

I have to say that Starz has been giving us some miniseries goodness with these Philippa Gregory adaptations and by expanding The Spanish Princess to more than one season, hopes for more historical fiction fare like this are high indeed:

Finding new entertainment to watch is going to be tricky for the foreseeable future yet it's the least of our real world worries. One thing is for certain; books and film will be ready, willing and waiting to help us bear the burden of these harsh times and hopefully not too long from now, give us something to celebrate better days with.

In the meantime, let's hunker down with a great stack of books and the streaming service/ TV channel of your choice(there are just too many of the former, folks-and budgets are a big issue right now!) and try to find a moment or two of peace to savor. Hey, it's not like we're trapped in a Stephen King novel after all(or are we....?!):

Thursday, September 10, 2020

How about Mansfield Park: The Musical?

I am at the midway point with my Jane Austen rereading of the Classic Six, which takes me to Mansfield Park, a novel that I feel is vastly underrated.

For one, the main bone of contention among Austen fans regarding this book is how mild mannered the leading lady is. Fanny Price stands apart from the other Jane Austen heroines in that she is not a daughter of the title household and constantly reminded that she is "not a Miss Bertram" by her horrible Aunt Norris(who we will talk about indeed!).

Being treated like a poor relation is not easy in any time period(particularly for women) and with Fanny not being prone to witticisms like a certain someone, it's hard for her to stand out but yet she does, using her inner strength to weather some rough times ahead of her.

Yet, what can be done to liven up the perception that MP is not a major player in the Austen game? Sadly, most of the film/TV adaptations have not done well by Fanny(except for the 1983 BBC miniseries) and often confuse the tone of the story.

There are few modern takes on Mansfield, including books and webseries, so I do think our best bet for a MP revival is a musical. Mary Crawford does play the harp and I'm sure a fun number can be done with that instrument!

Let's see what that might be like, in a jukebox musical fashion, and Fanny must be featured first in this regard.

Being an introspective character, finding the right song is a bit tricky for her yet I do think that "Stay(I Miss You)" by Lisa Loeb would work.

 For one Fanny opens up to very few people, one of whom is her cousin Edmund(yes, cousin marrying was the norm back then,folks,okay?) and he in turn makes her his confidante when it comes to Mary Crawford, whose savvy manner intrigues him but her slick morals do not.

 In talking his doubts over with Fanny, he's really trying to convince himself that she's the right one for him despite their vastly different outlooks on life(which is not very sensitive to Fanny, who is seriously yet secretly in love with Edmund-dude, read the room there!). I can picture her singing this after one of their talks regarding Mary in her white attic room, sweetly with a touch of sorrow:

Next on the mike is of course Mary Crawford, one half of the double trouble that arrives to Mansfield Park(courtesy of Mrs. Grant). Yes, I know many people consider her a secondary heroine but I firmly do not.

While she's not intentionally malicious, Mary's witty talk and sly sophistication hide a person who has seen a bad relationship up close and personal(her uncle bringing his mistress home after the death of his wife is so an AITA post in the making there) and refuses to be "taken in" in that regard.

Like her brother(who I have much to say about!), Mary refuses to adjust her views for anyone, even if the other person is perfectly justified in having them. She is genuinely puzzled by the fact that Edmund truly wants to become a clergyman and doesn't give that up out of love for her. To his credit, it's a true calling for him and not simply settling for second son status.

Mary, on the other hand, is good intentioned at times yet possesses a strong selfish streak that settling for anything less than what high society says is repulsive to her. Also, her social skills are more suited to the upper class game playing of London than the down to earth sweet style of country living at Mansfield. With that in mind, Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" suits her perfectly:

The second half of that dubiously dynamic duo is Henry Crawford, whose charms go a long way there. He and his sister both share a taste for snarky conversation and being unwilling to commit to someone who doesn't let them have their way.

Henry and Maria Bertram are very much alike in that neither one of them wants to make the first move towards making their on the side romance a more permanent arrangement. In fact, getting back at Maria for going through with her wedding to Mr. Rushworth is part of the reason that Henry fancies himself in love with Fanny to begin with.

I must say this now: Henry is NOT in love with Fanny; he is in love with the idea of being her romantic hero that would take her away from her ungrateful relatives and make her into his perfect on a pedestal bride. None of this takes Fanny's feelings into account at all(even Edmund fails her in this regard, transposing his thwarted romance with Mary onto her) and by people such as Mary insisting that Fanny can "reform" him is insulting in more ways that one.

At first, his ego can not abide that Fanny is not interested in him once her female cousins have left the neighborhood, making him want to "put a hole through her heart" but then upon, seeing that she is a serious minded person, decides that marriage is the best way to win her and get over Maria(bad idea all around). Is any wonder that a song like "The World's Most Handsome Man" by Robbie Williams seems to have been written for him?

Finally, we come to Aunt Norris, a villain worth a Disney song at least. My musical pick for her wasn't from that pop culture corner but I can assure you she is definitely the worst.

Her petty cruelty towards Fanny(a way of getting back at her sister for not marrying well as well as a long ago argument) combined with her bad match making skills in service of favored niece Maria is bad enough yet topped with her penny pinching ways, tendency to overstep her bounds(especially when it comes to Fanny) and quickness to excuse her own errors in judgement just makes her that much more loathsome indeed.

Hell, even the kids she does favor in the family don't like her much but they hardly hesitate to get her on their side for that play(including costume making, where she makes off with the extra cloth!). It's no wonder that Fanny dreads the idea of living with Aunt Norris once she's a widow but fortunately, that less than good lady would rather admit her former pear tree might not bear tasty fruit than keep Fanny that close to home.

Her company is barely tolerated by her ditzy sister Lady Bertram(who at times seems to be more alert than she lets on about things) and when her ultimate comeuppance arrives, it is awfully lovely to behold. Paramore's "Misery Business" just feels right for her:

 Well, who knows-we might see a musical version of Mansfield Park on Broadway in the distant future. Meanwhile, the book itself has plenty to offer in terms of  topics about family, fidelity and not underestimating the quiet folk among us.

Although, a musical certainly would be fun, especially those Lovers' Vows rehearsal scenes! Things would certainly gather up some considerable stream that might require an extra costume change or two there:

Friday, September 04, 2020

Sweetening the end of summer with my Series-ous Reading serving of Apple Turnover Murder

With summer technically over(I know the first official day of fall is a couple of weeks away), I am so looking forward to the fall season of crisp leaves, cool temperatures and hearty meals.

That is probably why my Series-ous Reading selection was Apple Turnover Murder , the 13th entry in Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen mystery novels. Granted, the story takes place in June but apple desserts just have that autumn flavor to them, in my opinion.

This time out, Hannah is busy as a bee during the early summer season yet can't help but to add some extra work by catering specially made treats to several charity events(a last minute request from the mayor's wife).

 Her business partner Lisa comes up with the idea for the title pastry, which is meant to tie in the theme of "turning over a new leaf", something that a new arrival from Hannah's past is clearly not capable of doing.

College professor Bradford Ramsey, who pops in at the end of the previous book Plum Pudding Murder(which I read out of order), acts as if he doesn't know Hannah from when she was a grad student having a secret romance with him. What he didn't tell her then was the real reason for keeping things on the quiet was that he was married, a most unwelcome surprise that caused Hannah to cut their relationship and her college education short.

Bradford happens to be one of her younger sister Michelle's teachers, making Hannah extra nervous about being around him, not to mention concern for her sibling's welfare. When Hannah does run into Bradford backstage at a local talent show, he not only remember her, he insists that they hook up again or his wandering eye will focus on Michelle!

Those are fighting words indeed and Hannah gives him what for on that score. However, their next encounter is awkward in more ways than one as she finds him stabbed to death with one of her turnovers by his sleazy side:

While Hannah is savvy enough to let police detective/occasional boyfriend Mike in on her past with Bradford, she doesn't do the same for gentleman caller number two Norman(which I'll get to in a moment).

 Fortunately, that omission doesn't impact the case which is tricky given the numerous suspects due to Bradford's wayward habits with the ladies, including a couple of ex-wives.

In this particular book, the murder in question is fitted tightly between two subplots, one of which has Hannah's middle sister Andrea in a panic. Seems as if her police chief husband Bill is being strongly recruited by a security firm and taking that job would require them to move to Florida, a fate worse than death in Andrea's eyes!

Look, I'm not crazy about warm weather all the time places either but leaving Lake Eden wouldn't be so bad for a small town gal like Andrea-sure, adjusting would be difficult yet it would also be an opportunity to widen her family's horizons there. After all, a real estate whiz like her would do well anywhere and if this was a good move for Bill to make, it would be worth considering.

Despite Bill's refusal of each offer(the whole thing turns out to be a weird scam), she still persists in freaking out over the mere chance that he might say yes-Andrea, honey, you're acting all wacky cake about this,seriously chill with some chocolate there!:

The biggest plot development,however, is between Hannah and Norman. As I said earlier, Hannah was right to tell Mike about her priors with Bradford(keeps her from being a suspect) but when given the same chance to tell Norman, she doesn't.

Now I know that talking about past relationships with a current significant other is tricky but the reason that Hannah holds back is shame. She has nothing to be ashamed of here(neither does her sister Michelle, who Bradford did flirt with, the lowlife!).

At this point in their "who will she choose" situation, Mike has already told Hannah that she would be better off marrying Norman(a bit of an eyebrow raise on such presumption!) and when informed about Bradford's prior romance with her, Mike is mad enough to wish that Bradford wasn't dead so that he could kill the guy(metaphorically speaking). In other words, he doesn't blame her at all and neither would Norman, I have no doubt about that.

Yet, Norman is also keeping something back from her. Upon returning from a reunion with some old dental school buddies, Norman is acting all distant from Hannah and even though he tries to help her out with the mystery, it's clear that he's going through the motions.

Hannah does,finally, ask him what is the matter and he tells her that there's a big decision that he needs to make but can't go into details just yet. We discover that this major choice involves his former fiancee Beverly, who is now going to join his dental practice and what does this mean for Hannah's relationship with Norman? We shall see.

I've been Team Norman for quite some time now but have to admit that if neither one of them is willing to open up to the other person about the past or the present, this is not a good sign for future happiness there. Honesty is a key ingredient in any recipe for lasting love, folks:

Yes, the murder does get solved but I am so concerned with whole Norman situation that my latest Series-ous Reading pick is the next book in the Hannah Swensen saga, Devil's Food Cake Murder.

As Hannah is trying to cope with Beverly being part of Norman's professional life(plus, everyone in town really seems to like her!), she gets a welcome distraction from Reverend Knudson's grandmother, who is rather suspicious of an old childhood friend of her grandson's being back in town.

I must admit that the book cover looks scrumptious, with a touch of a broken heart look in that sliced section(or am I reading way too much into that?). Regardless, any story with devil's food cake included is always  bound to be a delicious read indeed: