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Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Movies’ Category

ana2This time last week I was catching up with childhood pal Scout Finch. This week, it’s Anne Shirley, star of L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables and its sequels. Only this Anne is 15 year-old Ana Cortez, an East L.A. orphan desperate to avoid being sent to yet another group home. Then her social worker offers her the chance to work on a farm run by a brother and sister.

Hmm. The similarities — and differences — between Montgomery’s book and Andi Teran’s first novel Ana of California (Penguin Books, digital galley) are both obvious and intentional. Teran takes Anne of Green Gables as her inspiration and runs with it, updating the familiar story and characters but also veering in different directions when it suits her. I’m not generally in favor of authors piggybacking on favorite tales and characters, unless they can offer an original take, as with Laurie R. King’s  Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series or Helen Fieldings’ Bridget Jones books. Teran’s Ana may be as talkative and imaginative as Anne, and she has that same ache to belong, but she also emerges as a unique heroine in her own right, a talented artist burdened by a traumatic childhood.

Plunked down on the Garber farm in the tiny town of Hadley in northern California, city girl Ana doesn’t know the differences between blackberry bushes and vegetable plants, herbs and weeds. But she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and she works hard, determined to prove herself to gruff Emmett Garber. His sister Abbie is more sympathetic but also demanding, and Ana’s quick tongue gets her into misunderstandings with some of the farm’s neighbors and customers. She does makes a friend of fellow outsider Rye Moon and also attracts the attention of a rich kid on a neighboring farm. Still, unaware of family secrets, she inadvertently stirs up trouble that could send her back to L.A.

References to drugs, gangs and pop culture keep the story contemporary, but vulnerable Ana’s struggle to find her place in the world is timeless. Ana Cortez and Anne Shirley are kindred spirits, and Ana of California is a pleasing coming-of-age YA crossover.

augustIt’s been ages since I read Elizabeth Antrim’s 1922 novel The Enchanted April and saw the 1991 gem of a movie, but I have fond memories of both. Antrim’s comedy of manners about four Londoners who share a chateau in Italy is witty and wise, and the Mike Newell film glows in a sun-drenched paradise. There’s also a warm glow to Brenda Bowen’s update, Enchanted August: A Novel (Penguin Publishing, digital galley), where a huge “cottage” on a small Maine island subs as the transformative getaway for four disaffected New Yorkers.

Bowen keeps the same characters and names for the most part, although elderly widow Mrs. Fisher has become elderly Beverly Fisher, a gay man mourning the loss of of his longtime partner, a famous songwriter, and his beloved cat Possum. But he’s just as outwardly surly and selfish as the original character — he keeps the only coffeepot for himself in the desirable turret room — and the pleasure at watching him thaw is the same. Lottie and Rose also charm as the aggrieved wives and mothers who blossom in the sun and salt air, and young indie actress Caroline also falls under the spell of Little Lost Island. Lottie unwinds enough to invite her uptight attorney husband and toddler son to visit, and Caroline is text-flirting with a best-selling author who longs to meet her in person. He writes under a pseudonym so Caroline has no idea he is actually Rose’s philandering husband. Even as Rose is contemplating asking him to join her on the island, the house’s tweedy owner arrives in hopes of wooing Rose. So, yes, it’s a Maine midsummer night’s dream, but it’s also a smoothly written beach book. I couldn’t stop smiling.

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bookaneerAhoy, my mateys, here’s a literary thriller worthy of  a bottle of rum. In the swashbuckling The Last Bookaneer (Penguin, digital galley), Matthew Pearl spins the tale of late 19th-century book pirates seeking unpublished manuscripts before worldwide copyright laws put them out of business. Operating in a flourishing literary underworld, Pen Davenport and his sidekick Edgar Fergins set off from England for Samoa, where a sickly Robert Louis Stevenson is penning his final manuscript, worth a fortune in America. Davenport, disguised as a travel writer so as to gain access to the famous author, finds himself pitted against rival bookaneer Belial, disguised as a missionary. He also contends with cannibals, German colonials, prison and an astounding betrayal. Pearl frames the digressive narrative, replete with flashbacks, as an “as told by” story, with Fergins, an aging bookseller in New York, recounting his adventures to a black railway porter, Clover. This makes for a slow beginning but a humdinger of an ending, with Clover sailing the high seas to solve the mystery of the last bookaneer.

fifthheartThe game’s afoot again in Dan Simmons’ lively The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown, library hardcover), in which writer Henry James plays Watson to Sherlock Holmes after the two meet in Paris in 1893. Both men are depressed; James after the death of his sister and a downbeat in sales of his books, and Holmes, on his Great Hiatus after his presumed death at Reichenbach Falls, has discovered he may be a fictional character. That’s just one of the head-spinning conceits that Simmons pulls off with aplomb as Holmes and James set off for Washington, D.C., to delve into the death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. Although the death was determined to be a suicide, Holmes thinks it might be a murder connected to the Adams’ literary salon known as the Five Hearts. Real-life figures of the Gilded Age, including President Grover Cleveland and Washington hostess Clara Hayes, mingle with characters from the Holmes canon such as Moriarty and Irene Adler in a case with international implications. Readers need to know their Arthur Conan Doyle and Gilded Age history to truly appreciate Simmons’ playful, tongue-in-cheek tale. Anything but elementary.

emmaEmma is still clueless in Alexander McCall Smith’s witty Emma: A Modern Retelling (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), which is both the charm and the problem with the third entry in the Austen Project. McCall Smith moves the setting to Scotland (as did Val McDermid in her recent Northanger Abbey) and reimagines Jane Austen’s Regency heroine as a 21st-century recent college grad who fancies herself as matchmaker/ms. fix-it. He updates the plot with cell phones and Mini-Coopers, and appropriately modernizes the original characters. Emma’s poor and pretty friend Harriet is  no longer a love child but the product of a single mother and a sperm donor. Vicar Philip Elton’s new bride is a TV talent show contestant. George Knightley is still the neighbor and family friend who dares to call out bossy Emma when she’s behaving badly. McCall Smith’s social commentary is on point, and his droll humor a good match for Austen’s. Still, his Emma seems overly familiar, not so much from Austen’s tale as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Actress Alicia Silverstone set the bar high as a contemporary Emma,  Beverly Hills teen queen Cher Horowitz, and I keep picturing her as McCall Smith’s Emma. Not a bad thing, just been there, done that.

booksellerWith its “what if’?” premise, Cynthia Swanson’s engaging first novel The Bookseller HarperCollins, review copy) reminds me of another movie, the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors. In 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller goes to sleep in her apartment as a 38-year-old single woman who runs a bookstore with her longtime friend Frieda. But when Kitty wakes up, she’s living in a suburban Denver split level as Kathryn Andersson, married to Lars and mother of three. When she wakes up again in her apartment, Kitty is perplexed by her realistic dream of Kathryn’s life, especially when she dreams it again, with more detail, the next night, and the next. Even as Kitty increasingly looks forward to her alternate life as Kathryn, she investigates the intersection with her own — a personal ad she placed several years ago and Lars’ reply. But Lars never showed up for their first date. Visiting the neighborhood where Kathryn lives, Kitty finds only an empty lot, but her life as Kathryn continues to take on a more solid and complicated reality. Swanson makes both lives perfectly plausible with attention to period detail. Books, clothes and hairstyles serve as touchstones in both lives, and their overlap helps Kitty/Kathryn resolve the mystery.

 

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nightfilmSeveral friends just finished participating in a giant international online scavenger hunt that sent them hither and yon around Central Florida taking pictures of assorted vignettes, including a Star Wars storm trooper in a laundromat, a nun on a rope swing and a scuba diver in spin class. My pals said it was fun but also frustrating at times and that they were exhausted.
Which is pretty much the way I felt upon finishing Marisha Pessl’s much-buzzed-about novel Night Film (Random House, digital galley), arriving seven years after her much-lauded Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Billed as a literary thriller, the twisty narrative is sprinkled with realistic documents, newspaper clippings, photographs, transcripts of online sessions and other ephemera related to the life and career of reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova and his piano prodigy daughter Ashley.
The presumed suicide of 24-year-old Ashley in a deserted Manhattan warehouse spurs investigative reporter Scott McGrath on an obsessive quest to find out the truth about the mythic Cordova, who hasn’t been seen in decades and whose terrifying “night films” have a cult following. Two unlikely assistants also play detective: 19-year-old hat check girl Nora, who saw Ashley the night she died, and Hopper, an enigmatic young man whose past wanderings intersected with the dead girl.
Pessl sets these characters loose on a trippy scavenger hunt through the Twin Peaks-like world of a Cordova film: the locked halls of a private mental hospital, a seaside mansion that hosts S&M parties, the hotel suite of a faded movie star/drug addict, a tattoo parlor, a magic shop, an antique store and, eventually, the vast Adirondacks estate that Cordova used in his films. Along the way they meet a professor whose cats are named after Cordova totems, a surprisingly pragmatic psychic, a former priest who lived with the Cordovas, a child clutching a doll-like figurine. Rumors of nasty and possibly Satanic rituals at the Cordova estate swirl like the smoke from the strange incinerators on the property.
The story zips along despite dead ends, red herrings and disappearing witnessess until McGrath and company get lost on the Cordova backlot. Separated from the others, the reporter is chased through dark underground tunnels and begins to lose his grip on reality. He is caught up in one or more of the Cordova films that Pessel has lovingly created as part of the book’s elaborate backstory. She’s a flashy, inventive writer bent on describing the forest and the trees. Keep up, readers!
“What, really, was the difference between something hounding you and something leading you somewhere?”
The book is longer than it needs to be, and some of it is utter rigamarole. I wanted more of Nora, the orphan who grew up in a Florida old-folks home, and less of McGrath’s domestic troubles with his ex-wife. I have a bit of a crush on Hopper. And one day, at least a year from now, I’ll read Night Film again. Or maybe see the movie.

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lexiconWord power! It’s way more than Reader’s Digest vocabulary quizzes. Words are weapons controlled by poets in Max Barry’s genre-melding, mind-bending novel Lexicon (Penguin, digital galley), the most fun I’ve had all summer.
The thrills begin in the first chapter when Australian Wil Parke is kidnapped in the Portland, Ore., airport, undergoes a quick personality test, survives a shoot-out and is whisked away in a van. The action switches to San Francisco where teen grifter Emily Griff is recruited to attend an exclusive academy outside Washington, D.C., where students study neuro-linguistics and the powers of persuasion. The most adept graduates take the names of poets, becoming agents for a secret society that uses words to control the minds of the unwitting populace. The enigmatic Yeats runs the organization; Eliot and Bronte are among the top agents, but Woolf has gone rogue. How is Wil Parke involved? It all has to do with a mysterious toxic event in Broken Hill, Australia, which killed thousands and wiped Wil’s memory clean. Emily’s connected, too, as is the discovery of an all-powerful “bareword.” Remember the Tower of Babel?
Barry’s smart, witty writing, well-defined characters and strong sense of place make his near-future world conspiracy of mind-hacking bizarre yet plausible. (Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to get you.) As Emily learns, words like “bewitched,” “fascinating” and “spellbound” were once literal magic. In Lexicon, they still are. Amazing!
homecomingThe fun continues in Carsten Stroud’s paranormal thriller The Homecoming (Knopf, digital galley), the sequel to last summer’s Niceville, in which a Southern town was beset by trigger-happy thieves, mysterious disappearances and Something Evil from beyond the grave. Detective Nick Kavanaugh returns to try and save the day from the treacherous thieves, possessed orphan Rainey Teague and the Something Evil, now appearing as a black miasma emanating from the Crater.
The story, which isn’t as far out nor as frenzied as the previous one, picks up two weeks after events in the first book with two mysterious plane crashes. Six months later, the mystery and mayhem intensify to include a shoot-out in a mall outdoors store and ghosts from a plantation past. The antique mirror, hidden by Nick’s wife Kate, exhibits its weird through-the-looking-glass characteristics, and strange “bone baskets” found in the Tulip River hint at more nastiness at work in Niceville. Happily, a fast pace and snappy dialogue encourage readers not to think too much and just go with the flow. Hang on, though, whitewater ahead and a third book.
starwars“In time so long ago begins our play/ In star-crossed galaxy far, far away.” If literary snark’s your thing, don’t missWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk Books, digital galley), a five-act mash-up, “Verily: A New Hope,” in iambic pentameter by the clever Ian Doescher. He borrows from familiar Shakespeare passages — C-3P0 taking off from Richard III: “Now is the summer of our happiness/ Made winter by this sudden fierce attack;” Luke Skywalker doing Hamlet: “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew you not;” Princess Leia singing a “hey, nonny, nonny” variation from Much Ado as Alderaan explodes.
Yes, it’s silly, especially when R2D2 beeps in and Jabba speaks jibber-jabber, but the Chorus has an Elizabethan field day: “Mos Eisley now is left behind at last/ While newer scenes come into view apace/ As Han’s Millenn’um Falcon flies far fast/ The action of our play moves back to space!”
May the forsooth be with you.

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After a sudden tragedy jolts young Elsa Anderson’s happy life at her family’s summer playhouse in 1930s Wisconsin, her father tells her that she has two choices. She can either tell people the truth about her sister Hildy, or she can pretend everything is okay.

” ‘Just like in the play,’ he said. “You’re an actress now.’ Despite it all, Elsa could swear there was praise in her father’s voice.  It was good for all of them to remember that there were actors in the world, people whose job it was to pretend. For Elsa, there was no other option after that moment — she saw her future as clearly as she saw the water of Green Bay. Even if she wasn’t happy on the inside, the outside could be something else entirely. There was always another character to play.”

Even though Elsa will assume many roles over the next 50 years — wife, mother, Hollywood star, former leading lady — she really plays just two parts. She is blonde, cream-and-corn Elsa Anderson, and she is sultry actress Laura Lamont, “conjoined twins linked in too many places to ever separate.”

How Elsa/Laura tries to reconcile her two selves over 50 years is at the heart of Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures (Riverhead, digital galley via NetGalley), a novel I wanted to love but just kind of liked. Reading it was like watching an old movie on TV, pleasant in its familiarity but a passive experience all the same.

Straub’s writing is lovely, but once Elsa/Laura arrives in LA as a 19-year-old bride, her life follows a predictable arc. Of course, her first marriage to another young actor isn’t going to last. Of course, she’s going to attract the attention of studio head Irving Green, who makes her a star and his wife. Of course, she’s going to live in Beverly Hills with her three children, a faithful maid, and a best friend, Ginger, who’s like Lucille Ball. Of course, she’s going to turn to pills to ease her anxiety. Of course, her son grows up troubled, etc., etc.

The first part of the book, charting Elsa’s girlhood at the Cherry County Playhouse, is what all of  it should have been. In describing Elsa’s rambling family house, her gregarious father and stoic mother, flamboyant sister Hildy and secretive sister Josephine, as well as the troupe of hormone-fueled young actors gathered for the summer in the verdant countryside, Straub gives readers something real and heartfelt. After that, the story unreels as an imitation of life, the Golden Age of Hollywood with characters from Central Casting.

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I caught the elephant walk on the local news last night; yes, the circus is back in town. As much as I enjoy the animals and the acrobats, I’m too busy to head to the arena. Besides, I’m being vastly entertained by events at the Circus, which John le Carre fans know is his name for the British Secret Service, or MI5.

The novels that make up the Karla trilogy — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People — are among my favorite books, and every few years I reread them all, immersing myself in bespectacled George Smiley’s bleak world of scalp-hunters and lamplighters, Sarratt and the Nursery, London Central and the American cousins.

In Tinker, Tailor, Smiley hunts for the mole planted by Russian spymaster Karla in the heart of the 1970s Circus. The mole’s unmasking leaves the Circus in tatters in Schoolboy, and Smiley sends philandering journalist Jerry Westerby back to Hong Kong. Then, in Smiley’s People, word is out that Karla’s in search of “a legend for a girl.” Time for the Circus to get its act together and bring Karla over.

My latest rereading was prompted by the new film version of Tinker, Tailor, which I liked very much, an excellent distillation of the book although not as suspenseful as the 1979 miniseries with Alec Guinness as Smiley. Who is the mole? “There are three of them and Alleline” among the suspects, and  the miniseries allows for more backstory. Gary Oldham (and his glasses) makes for a wonderful Smiley, and the rest of the cast, including Ciaran Hinds, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Toby Jones, are all well-suited to their roles.

Still, I have quibbles. It doesn’t make much difference that Boris appears in Budapest rather than Hong Kong, but why is Jerry Westerby the night duty officer instead of Sam Collins? What’s the point of Peter Guillam having a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend? And why does everything look so dull and brown when the script is actually as slick and sharp as steel knife?

Oh, apples and oranges. I like them both, or rather all three: book, mini-series and new movie. And all three Karla novels, too. Smiley’s People also was a good miniseries. I’d like to see the same Tinker film team take a crack at that story. Meanwhile, I’m in Hong Kong with Jerry and then on to Switzerland with George. Don’t tell Karla we’re coming.

Open Book: I have multiple copies of all of le Carre’s books, but I lent my paperback of The Honourable Schoolboy to a friend several years ago, who then lost it on a trip to Hong Kong.  Or so he said. I bought the digital editon for the Nook tablet.

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Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and, oh, yes, Cairncross. The infamous Cambridge Five, the spy ring that upended British intelligence in the 20th century. Now, name the Sixth Man.

 Right, there wasn’t one. Or was there? Espionage aficionados, historians and conspiracy theorists have long speculated that perhaps another Trinity College student was recruited in 1930s Cambridge by Moscow Centre. The Brits covered so long for Blunt and Cairncross, perhaps they covered for another mole. What if this ancient agent is still alive?

Charles Cumming uses this unlikely premise as a springboard for his new thriller, The Trinity Six, which reminded me how much I love a good spy novel in the tradition of early John le Carre and Len Deighton. I reread Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, le Carre’s classic mole hunt, every few years even though I know its secrets. Alec Guniness and Ian Richardson starred in the excellent 1979 British miniseries; I’m not sure the new film version due out later this year is needed, even with Gary Oldman and Colin Firth among the stellar cast.

On the other hand, Cumming’s novel appears tailor-made for a film, with its engaging characters and atmospheric scenes in European capitals. It’s written cinematically, too. When history professor Sam Gaddis excuses himself from the bar in Budapest just as his source is primed to spill all, you want to yank him back to his seat. No, don’t go write up notes for your book in the men’s room. Don’t you know about the assassin just waiting to pick off the man you’re with? 

Readers do, of course, because they’ve seen him outside on the street. Shots are going to ring out. Sam’s going to be on the run again, hunted by both the British and the Russians because he’s getting to close to identifying ATTILA, the sixth man with the really big secret. Didn’t Sam learn anything after the fiasco in Berlin? Has he counted the bodies piling up in his wake? Can he really trust the lovely and efficient Tanya, who has betrayed him before? Just as well Sam doesn’t know the British have tagged him POLARBEAR, as in soon to be extinct.

Cumming knows the conventions and tradecraft of the spy novel inside out. The movie The Third Man figures in a code; Sam reads the spy novel Archangel on a train. In the end, he even invokes the Moscow Rules in a kind of rueful homage to a past that didn’t include e-mail and throwaway cell phones.

The Trinity Six is as old-fashioned and entertaining a Cold War thriller as you can find in the age of Google and the Taliban. As one old spymaster instructs Sam, “Never underestimate the extent to which SIS and the Russians loathe one another. It’s a blood feud.”

Still, I wish the story held better secrets and surprises, that the foreshadowing wasn’t so heavy, that betrayal came like a knife to the heart. Ah, where have you gone George Smiley?

Open Book: I received an advance readers’ edition through a web promotion of Charles Cumming’s The Trinity Six (St. Martin’s Press). Now, I want to read  Cumming’s previous three thrillers as I eagerly await his next.

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