Thursday, March 15, 2018


Say what you will about the Ides of March, but I received some happy news today from Kirkus Review!

My editor, Kaylan Adair, at Candlewick, sent me a pre-publication sneak peek at the Kirkus review of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, will be published online next week. (May 1st, in print.) They say, in part:

A fresh retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" with an interesting and meaningful plot twist. Vividly enchanting descriptions transport the reader to the beautiful surroundings. Lucie is a brave and sympathetic heroine who ultimately writes her own happy ending. For readers who love reimagined fairy tales and strong female characters. (Fiction. 13-adult)

The readers at Kirkus are a tough crowd. They weren't so crazy about Alias Hook, so this review is a big thrill for me!

Also pleased that they rate the prospective age group as 13 to adult. Just a reminder that this is not exactly the Disney version!

Thanks, Kirkus!

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


Fans of Dana Chamblee Carpenter's compelling debut novel, The Bohemian Gospel, will find this second installment of the trilogy, The Devil's Bible, something of a hybrid.

The first half alternates chapters between the extraordinary life of heroine, Mouse, in 13th C Prague (picking up exactly where the previous book left off) and a contemporary, globe-spanning chase thriller involving missing medieval manuscript pages, secret societies, sinister priests, and an epic battle between Good and Evil.

But Carpenter amps up the intrigue with the fact that the contemporary heroine is the same Mouse as the outcast healer, manuscript illuminator and purveyor of dark terrifying powers from the first book.

700 years later, she's perpetually on the move; she shuns personal relationships and never stays in one job long enough for anyone to notice that she never ages.

The first book is all about establishing Mouse's character as she comes to grips with her powers and — finally — discovers their source. This backstory is invaluable as Mouse's personal journey continues here, so read the first book first.

In this one, her fractious relationship with her parent, her determination not to give into the dark side of her powers, and her quest for redemption — she even dares to fall in love —  fuel the heart of story.

That said, when the second half of the book goes into full-on Da Vinci Code mode, I wasn't quite as interested. Carpenter writes with urgency, but the demonic assaults and near-death resurrections start to feel a little repetitive.

Page from the real Codex: illuminating
But I found the parent-child debates about the nature of evil fascinating. (And not only because they remind me so much of James Hook's struggle to outgrow the role of villain thrust upon him in Alias Hook!)

Btw, the so-named Devil's Bible is an actual book, The Codex Gigas ("giant book" in Latin), a mysterious 13th C manuscript of mammoth size and unknown origin, with glorious illuminations.

Including the disturbing image of the Devil (above) that Carpenter appropriates for her cover. (Feast your orbs here!)

Carpenter's tale-spinning about the origin and creation of this masterpiece is audacious and satisfying.

Sign me up for the final book in the trilogy, The Book of the Just due out in October!

Saturday, March 10, 2018


It's the tenth of the month, and you know what that means?

Four more months until the release of Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge! (July 10, 2018!)

In the meantime, behold my Beast of the Month, by contemporary artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Is this a Beast with art-i-tude, or what?

Hicks-Jenkins is a theatrical designer, painter, printmaker and book illustrator in Wales.

This sketch is a design for a pair of Beauty and Beast puppets he began in 2014. It doesn't look like Hicks-Jenkins ever completed the pair. But I was able to track down this image of his final version of Beast!

Here's the fascinating backstory of how Hicks-Jenkins was inspired by Jean Marais and Josette Day in the classic Beaty and the Beast film by Jean Cocteau. After making this colorful drawing, he opted to ditch its refinement and instead do a much wilder, rougher version for the actual puppet.

Its papier-mâché head is texturized with plenty of gesso (unsanded), and painted black-and-while (to reference the film), with the focus on it head, paws, and claws.

I love this wild-looking puppet to pieces! (It must be the doll-maker in me.) But I also adore the original sketch!

Here's some more of the artist's insights into his puppet-making process!

Friday, March 9, 2018


Trans heroine triumphs over adversity in A Fantastic Woman

Transgender actress Daniela Vega makes a triumphant debut in A Fantastic Woman (La Mujer Fantastico), playing the role of a transgender woman fighting for respect in modern-day Chile. But this is way more than one-issue movie.

This year's Foreign Language Oscar winner, Sebastián Lelio's engrossing film is a resonant and stylishly-told story about the basic human right to live with dignity and carve out one's identity in the world.

Chilean filmmaker Lelio (along with his co-screenwriter, Gonzalo Maza) made the zesty woman-over-50 movie, Gloria, a few years back.

They continue to delve into the psyche of interesting females here with protagonist Marina Vidal (Vega), a cafe waitress by day who croons sultry ballads in a bar at night.
Reyes and Vega; frisky and tender

She shares an apartment in Santiago with her partner of several years, frisky, tender Orlando (Francisco Reyes), a divorced businessman a few decades older than she is.

But one night, in bed, Orlando becomes disoriented. Marina rushes him to the hospital — where, soon after, he dies.

But the devastating shock of her loss is just the beginning of her troubles.

That not all of the issues she faces are gender identity-based broadens the film's scope. Marina's plight as an outsider forbidden the rights of the legal kinship group is universal.

Lelio makes adroit use of visual metaphor (like mirrors, inviting us to ponder the true nature of identity), as the emotional story draws us in. And in Vega's fearless performance, we get a strong-willed heroine to root for.

Not "tough" in any clichéd way, she's determined to pursue her rights and stay true to her selfhood.

Performer and trans activist Vega was Lelio's consultant on the film, introducing him to contemporary trans culture. But it wasn't until the very end of the process, when the script was completed and the cameras were ready to roll, that it occurred to Lelio that Vega would be perfect to play Marina.

So the role was not exactly written for Vega, but thank heavens for serendipity — her performance is outstanding.
(Read more)

Sunday, March 4, 2018


Well, friends, the Academy Awards will be handed out tonight.

And you know what that means:

 Oh no! Oh yes! It's the Return of the Oscar Barbies!

There are no Best Actress nominees from historical films this year — unless you count movies set in the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

No Judi Dench flouncing around in crinolines as Queen Victoria; no new Jane Austen adaptations. Those are always the most fun to do.

Still, there's room for creativity in this year's nominees.

First up: Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding in I, Tonya.

Okay, yes, she's got roller skates, but I grew up in SoCal so I didn't have Barbie's ice-skating outfit! I made this outfit from bits and pieces — just like Tonya had to do — and the doll's exaggerated hair and makeup are (for once) perfect!

Next up, Saorise Ronan in Lady Bird! Nothing too distinctive, costume-wise — except the slightly pink hair.

I really had a hard time coming up with props for this one.

So I finally resorted to a prom dress from Barbie's closet to reference the scene when Lady Bird and her mom go shopping, and quit their petty bickering the instant they both fall in love with the same dress!

Our third nominee is Meryl Streep, playing publisher Katherine Graham in The Post.


Fortunately, I have a tweed suit, string of pearls, and a vintage short-haired Barbie for — well, basically, any time Meryl Streep gets nominated. (Which is every year.)

All I needed to do this year was Google The Washington Post and print out a mini version of the front page.

Next up, my favorite challenge of the year, for my favorite movie — Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water!

There's not much to her outfit‚ a blue dress and a blue sweater, like all the cleaning staff wear at the secret government lab in the movie. (Also, those shiny black shoes.)

Of course, I had to make the mop, not an item typically fond in Barbie's wardrobe.

But the main event here is her "prop" — the Amphibian Man himself! Yes, it's The Creature From the Black Lagoon, from the classic 1950s sci-fi movie that director Guillermo del Toro cheerfully admits inspired his own character.

This image is on the lid of the box containing the Creature model kit. (Art Boy never built the model, so I had to use the lid.) I found the perfect industrial-green construction paper to frame it in, and Art Boy cleverly constructed the rest of the "tank" around it.

But, as much fun as they were to make, these nominees are the also-rans this year.

And the winner is: Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri!

Definitely the toughest challenge of the year. She spends the entire movie in the same blue-denim jumpsuit, most of which I had to make — the top half, anyway. She has basically no hair, what there is of it wrapped in a bandana. (I had to use a twisty piece of wire ribbon.)

And while I was able to paint out some of her eye makeup, I couldn't do anything about her girly grin.

Still, it all came together when, searching for some kind of prop, we found a Barbie-sized Coke bottle squirreled away somewhere. Art Boy made it into the Molotov cocktail McDormand's character throws in a key scene in the movie — one way for this doll to express McDormand's rage, despite that wimpy grin!

That's it for this year. Click here for a peek at Oscar Barbies Past!

Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Frances McDormand, 3 Billboards: blackly comic
Mavericks to duke it out at 90th Academy Awards

After the OscarSoWhite hashtag movement a couple of years ago, the Motion Picture Academy's demographics have altered.

With membership now opened up to a younger, more diverse crowd of film pros, you might expect this year's nominees to feature a few plucky mavericks vs. the mainstream favorites.

But — surprise! Almost none of the nominees qualify as "mainstream," including the two top contenders: Guillermo del Toro's eerie, romantic fantasy, The Shape of Water, and Martin McDonagh's blackly comic morality play Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Guillermo del Toro in the (Best) Director seat
While the predictive winners in all four acting categories are pretty much set in stone (results have been uniform throughout the awards season), there's still plenty of room to stir up trouble!

Here's what I think will happen:

BEST PICTURE Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri Usually, if you subtract the four (out of nine) nominees whose directors didn't get a nomination in their category, that narrows the field to five serious contenders.

But even though McDonagh wasn't nominated for directing Three Billboards, it's already won a Golden Globe for Drama, and the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble award. The Shape of Water is my favorite movie of the year, but I think it will rack up its Oscars elsewhere.

Gerwig directed herself and star Saoirse Ronan to Oscar nominations
Or it could be that The Shape Of Water has just gotten so much buzzier even since those early awards were issued to Three Billboards that it might just bubble up to the top here, as well.

The Post was a favorite going into the season, with its timely tale of crusading journalists standing up for the truth, but here, the lack of a nomination for director Steven Spielberg suggests it's run out of steam since then.

Less likely (but not impossible) upsets might by Greta Gerwig's smart, beloved indie comedy, Lady Bird, or Jordan Peele's darkly subversive racial-politics horror movie Get Out (Gerwig and Peele both scored directing nominations).

Jordan Peele directs star Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
BEST DIRECTOR  Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water He's already won every award there is in this category — in compensation for Three Billboards walking off with most of the Best Picture prizes — but mostly because Del Toro's irrepressible, iconoclastic personality infuses every frame of this rapturous movie.

Gerwig won a Golden Globe in the comedy category, and Peele earned a Best First Feature nod from the Directors Guild on America (although Del Toro won Best Director from the DGA). So anything is possible.

BEST ACTRESS Frances McDormand, Three Billboards  Bet the rent; name an award in this category, and she's already won it. And deservedly so.

BEST ACTOR Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour Another shoo-in, like all four favored acting nominees. Besides, there has to be some kind of recognition for a guy who started out playing Sid Vicious tackling the role of Winston Churchill.

Rockwell, McDormand, 3 Billboards: Winners
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS Allison Janney, I, Tonya  She doesn't just "disappear" into the role of Tonya Harding's cold, heartless mom; Janney plays her in a trance-like state of viperish perversity.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards He's got all the buzz, as the hot-headed deputy dragged kicking and screaming to a kind of redemption. I thought his co-star, Woody Harrelson (also nominated) was just as good in this category.

But I'd have liked to see a shout-out for Doug Jones in The Shape of Water. A longtime Del Toro co-conspirator (he played Fauno/Pan in Pan's Labyrinth, and was recently seen as the impossibly elongated alien First Officer Saru in Star Trek: Discovery), Jones' poignant Amphibian Man romancing Sally Hawkins gives the movie its heart and soul.

Doug Jones, Amphibian Man: Romantic
OTHER Here's where those new Academy members may prevail with an Original Screenplay award to Peele for Get Out, beating out Del Toro and McDonagh (Although the latter has scored some pre-Oscar awards for Three Billboards). Veteran director James Ivory looks poised to win the Adapted Screenplay award for Call Me By Your Name.

Expect Blade Runner 2049 to score gold for Cinematography, while Phantom Thread wins in the Costume department. (Although, for a movie about the fashion industry, I found the clothes as lackluster as everything else in Phantom Thread.)

Meanwhile, The Shape of Water should swim to victory for its atmospheric sea-green Production Design, and its expressive Original Score by Alexandre Desplat.

(The 90th Annual Academy Awards will be broadcast Sunday, March 4, at 5pm on ABC.)

Friday, February 23, 2018


More time to read means more books to share!

Behold The Bohemian Gospel, by Dana Chamblee Carpenter, an intricate, compelling novel set in 13th Century Prague. (And you know how I feel about Prague!

Dark and despairing in so many ways, the clarity and audacity of this harrowing tale will leave you breathless.

At its center is Mouse, an unbaptized girl for whom no one ever cared enough to give a proper name. Raised in an abbey whose sisterhood she can never be allowed to join, Mouse is a gifted healer who possesses other, more frightening gifts as well.

She's 15 when she saves the life of Ottakar, the "Younger King" of Bohemia;  he's on the brink of death when his men bring him to the abbey from the battlefield. Only a few years older than Mouse, Ottakar rules in an uneasy alliance with his tyrant father.

Whisked off to Prague to aid the recovery of the Younger King, unworldly Mouse struggles to navigate life at court and understand the intense attraction growing between herself and Ottakar — all while trying to solve the puzzle of her birth and the source of her powers.

The seal of the histoical King Ottakar, ca. 1253
Dana Chamblee Carpenter breathes life into Ottakar, the Iron and Golden King, a historical figure who founded cities, created just laws, and sparked an era of prosperity in 13th Century Bohemia when he wasn't busy defending his turf and his people from the armies of rival nobles.

But it's Mouse — both vulnerable and defiant, intelligent and intuitive, in and out of God's favor, yet boldly carving out a place for herself in an unforgiving world — whose journey keeps us turning the pages.

There's a lot to process in this book, plot-wise — including a finale so incendiary, readers might be outraged if we didn't know there was another book (or two) coming to complete the story. Yet the book is such a vivid portrait of the human spirit, in all its strengths and weaknesses, as well as the complexities of its medieval era, that you can't help getting swept along like a current in Vltava River by the drama of these characters' lives.

PS: In Christian lore, "Gospel" means "good news" — ironic, when the central mystery of this book is finally revealed!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018


Film noir star Grahame memorialized in wistful love story Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool

Gloria Grahame is not much remembered these days. She was never as famous a movie star as, say, Marilyn Monroe. But, with her soft, girlish voice, sensual mouth, and trademark pout belying the gutsy toughness of the characters she played, she was a staple player in 1950s film noir, who is still much beloved by fans of the genre.

But it's Gloria Grahame at the end of her career who's the centerpiece of Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool.

Based on a memoir written by Peter Turner, it's the story of how Turner, an aspiring young actor trying to break into showbiz, met and fell in love with the veteran actress when she was working onstage in England in 1979.

Bell and Bening: plausibly beguiling
The book is now a movie by director Paul McGuigan, a wistful tone poem about age and celebrity featuring dynamic performances from stars Annette Bening and Jamie Bell.

Peter is 28, and Gloria is almost 30 years his senior. But they bond over the craft and business of acting as he squires her around town, and pretty soon they become lovers.

When, inevitably, she moves back to Los Angeles, she invites Peter to come live with her in her trailer on the beach at Malibu — a heady fantasy for a lad from Liverpool.

That Bening's no-nonsense, often fiercely anti-glam onscreen persona is so different from the kittenish Grahame's gives the casting its interesting edge.

Grahame and Turner, real-life
Instead of trying to mimic the actress, Bening digs into the heart of a woman of a certain age whose appetite for life and the work she loves is undiminished, investing her with a vitality and playfulness that plausibly beguiles the younger man.

Gloria tells Peter the best acting advice she ever got, from Humphrey Bogart. "Keep it all inside," she says. "Let the camera come to you."

Clearly, Bell has taken this advice to heart. Many of the movie's richest moments come from Bell's still face, perceptibly filling with emotion to which he never quite gives voice.

As the movie is based on Turner's book, we have only his word that Peter was as gallant and adoring as Bell plays him.

But if this movie revives interest in Gloria Grahame's vintage movies, I'm all for it.

Here she is at her saucy best, mixing a drink an cracking wise with her big lug of a boyfriend, mob enforcer Lee Marvin, in The Big Heat (1953)

Sunday, February 18, 2018


Books: entertainment the old-fashioned way
We didn't make a resolution, but once the holiday festivities were over last December, Art Boy and I came up with a radical decision for the New Year. We decided to read more books.

It takes some planning, of course, given the finite number of hours in the day. So we came up with three strategies for wresting time away from our usual allotment. Just call us the time bandits!

Strategy 1: In the dark of winter, we designate the hour before we start prepping dinner to reading. What a luxury! I've already read more books in the last six weeks than I was able to read in all of last year!
Time to excavate those bookmarks and put 'em to work!

As a writer, too, I have to keep filling up the well. It's not like stealing ideas from other books; it's more like the act of reading plunges you into the milieu where ideas are created, both on the page and in your own imagination.

As a smart sociologist once wrote, "we create as we read in a way that we do not as we watch Roseanne." Or, I would add, bringing the comparison up to date, as we do not as we watch the latest Looney Tunes emanating from the White House.

(No offense intended to the original Warner Brothers Looney Tunes of classic cartoons. If only Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were running things in DC!)
Oh, if ONLY we'd had this option!

Which brings me to Strategy 2: Unplugging from the nightly news frees up another extra hour — or an entire evening, if you decide to give your psyche and your sanity a break. Stay informed. Seize every possible opportunity to resist. But don't let it occupy your every waking moment. Besides, you'll catch up with the news the minute you go online again.

Strategy 3: W'eve started getting up one hour earlier in the morning. Yes, it's daunting to try to roll out of bed when it's still dark outside. But once showers are taken, the cat's been fed (and, sensibly, gone back to sleep), and caffeine has been imbibed, I find myself at the keyboard before 8 o'clock in the morning! Which means three uninterrupted hours of writing time before we're off to yoga!

And the more writing I get done in the morning, the more deserving I feel about all that rapturous reading to come!

Thursday, February 15, 2018


Revolting Rhymes: Girl vs Wolf
Dark themes, wit, diversity, in Oscar Nominated Short Films

A few years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got the bright idea to start packaging each year's Oscar-nominated short films in two programs to play in movie theaters — one featuring all five nominated live-action shorts, and a second featuring all five animated nominees (plus a few extras, to bump it up to feature-length).

The 2018 editions of the Oscar Nominated Shorts are in theaters now. If I was forced to pick a favorite, I'd go with the Animated Shorts —far more stylistically diverse, in a format that encourages  creative imagination.

The Live-Action nominees represent a broader range of racially and culturally diverse experience, evoking some powerful responses.

Who knows what you'll find in the Lost Property Office
Purists planning to see both should start with the more serious-minded Live-Action Shorts, then treat themselves to the Animated Shorts for dessert!

Among my animated favorites is Revolting Rhymes, from Jakob Schuch and Jan Lachauer (UK). Adapted from a collection of fairy tale-inspired poems by Roald Dahl, it's a sly, subversive mash-up of classic tales conveyed in Dahl's waspishly elegant verse.

A dapper wolf (voice by Dominic West) spins a tale for a sweet little old lady in a tea shop in which strands of Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and The Three Little Pigs are woven into a fiendishly clever narrative where little girls are not as helpless as they seem, and "goodness" does not always prevail.

The Silent Child: Maisie Sly
Daniel Agdag's Lost Property Office (Australia) isn't even one of the nominees, but the retro-steampunk vibe in this dialogue-free sepia-toned tale of a lowly clerk in a lost-property office underneath a metro station is completely beguiling.

The most moving of the Live-Action films is The Silent Child by Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton (UK), in which a compassionate young audiologist bonds with a 6-year-old deaf girl whose well-meaning family is too busy to engage with her.

Kevin Wilson Jr.'s My Nephew Emmett (USA), set in Mississippi in 1955, is a dark elegy exploring events leading to one of our nation's most notorious racial crimes, the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, told with stark, potent grace.

Watu Wote/All Of Us, by Katja Benrath, (Germany) tells a harrowing true story of Muslims and Christians protecting each other on a bus trip between Kenya and Somalia when their bus is invaded by terrorists.
(Read more)

The film was completed by director Benrath as her graduation project at the end of her studies at the Hamburg Media School.

 (Right: Adelyne Wairimu in Watu Wote/All of Us)