Archive for category Works of Others

Wednesday Reflections #31 – Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Via: Daily Prompt – Faint & Dancing

the-rules-of-magic-9781501183874_hrTitle     Rules of Magic

Series     Practical Magic #00

Author     Alice Hoffman

Genre     Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches

Publisher      Simon & Schuster

Publication Date      October 10, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s

ISBN     1501137492

Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.

Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.

Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.

The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.

Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.

As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.

Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.

Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #30: Crimson Peak

Via: Daily Prompt – Ghoulish & Mystery

ec22screens_1_webTitle     Crimson Peak

Starring     Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston

Director     Guillermo del Toro

Writer(s)    Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins

Genre     Drama | Fantasy | Horror

Release Date     October 16, 2015

Filming Location     USA | Canada

Parental Guidance     R

IMDB Rating     6.5

Synopsis: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) always knew there were ghosts. As a child, she lost her mother to the Black Cholera. The night Mrs. Cushing was buried, her ghost appeared to Edith with a cryptic warning to “Beware of Crimson Peak”. Edith received a visit again with the same warning fourteen years later, when she had blossomed into a young woman of unassuming charm – albeit bookish – and keen determination to prove herself as a novelist, with the blessing and encouragement of her businessman father Mr. Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver). While Edith prefers writing to society, she suddenly finds her world expanding with the return of her childhood friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who just set up a practice in town after completing his medical studies, and the mysterious inventor Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), who is trying to gain her father’s confidence in order to gather the capital to build the machine that would help him mine the red clay on which his family estate sits in Cumberland, England. Attraction between Edith and Thomas is instantaneous and he takes advantage of this in hopes of gaining an ally before her father. Thomas’s sister Lady Lucille Sharpe (Jessica Chastain), who accompanied him to help gain the capital, is not impressed, having hoped her brother would have picked a more affluent and vapid quarry. Neither are Mr. Cushing and Alan, who had their own misgivings about the brother-sister duo from the start. Mr. Cushing hires an investigator to learn more about the newcomers, only to discover their very disturbingly suspicious history, and confronts the siblings about their intent towards his daughter, writing them a cheque to leave Edith alone and return to England. He also tells Thomas to break Edith’s heart so that she may move on, which Thomas does with angry reluctance but publically, announcing he will be gone the next day. Except the next morning, Mr. Cushing is brutally murdered and Thomas, who stayed back even though Lucille left, confesses to Edith that he had broken up with her under her father’s instructions. As Edith comes to learn about her father’s murder, Thomas takes advantage of her distress and marries her. Thomas takes Edith back to his home in England, with Edith hoping to have a new beginning with her husband. Only now Thomas is physically distant and avoid consummating their marriage while Lucille is cold towards her and perhaps a bit too intrusive about their marriage bed. Pretty soon Edith is visited by gruesome red ghosts on a nightly basis and is told that the family estate is referred to by the locals as “Crimson Peak”.

Experience: I’m not easily scared by horror movies, only ever startled when things jump out of the shadows and have actors screaming. This movie, however, instated its creep-factor from the first act. I’m not sure what it was, really. Maybe it was the hovering carcass-y melancholically-draped specter of Edith’s mother that crawls into bed with her when she is a child that did it [I mean, who hasn’t ever slept with their back to the wall out of vigilant fear as a child, right?] or the historic setting of the movie and romantic undercurrent between the various characters that made me feel invested and empathetic, or the appallingly possessive way that the Baronet’s sister watched his love and married life progress, but I could feel the morbidity of this movie take hold from the preamble. It definitely put me in the mood for all things evil and ghastly for this Halloween.

I felt the casting of the movie was very well done. From Jim Beaver to Jessica Chastain, everyone showed just the level of curiosity and invasiveness that the characters needed to possess to make the relationship dynamics – one of the most important mechanics of the plot – emanate from the screen. The characters themselves were well-developed and complementally contrasted one another. On the one side you have the open and honest friendship between the Cushings and Alan, on the other side you have the sinisterly co-dependent devotion between the aristocratic siblings. Watching the two worlds merge, split, and then reconnect was interesting and rather flawless.

Going back to the actors, Beaver was as usual just the right level of encouraging and frustrating as a parent to the honestly devoted daughter that Wasikowska played. As always, Hiddleston pulled off the younger sibling, misunderstood and committing immoral acts against those nearest to him (though here misguided by his sister) with aplomb. Once again I found myself wondering should I be disgusted by the character he portrayed or accept him for his redeeming potentials. I found Chastain, as always, alluringly potent. I think it might be her strong bone structure or set facial features or the matter-of-fact regard of her eyes, but Chastain always casts best as a woman of indomitable resolve, which her acting ability greatly complements. Next to her, Wasikowska featured a pale contrast, which cast a perfect effect to play the deceptively polite but equally gritty new woman of the household (I loved how Edith chased after the ghosts to get to the bottom of the mystery despite being utterly petrified by them). Hunnam took a back seat for most of the movie, acting mainly as a supporting role and a necessary plot device to help Edith out once she solves the mystery and rescues herself, but I admired the fact that he could remain subtly in the background until called to action without trying to overpower the screen.

With regards to the plot itself and the script was written and directed with a steadily accelerating pace. While there was little in the way of plot twists (the audience today has wizened up too much to the evil that lurks in people’s hearts to really be surprised with anything), the real mystery was how the truth will unfold and what will Edith do once she is faced by it (I think I was surprised by her last reaction more than anything). But all in all, there was just enough creepiness to make it interesting.

Recommendation: Totally worth watching this Halloween! Or any dark wintry night, really.

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #29: A Monster in Paris

Via: Daily Prompt – Identity

a-monster-in-paris-poster-a-monster-in-paris-34242996-368-500Title     A Monster in Paris

Starring     Adam Goldberg, Jay Harrington, and Vanessa Paradis

Director     Bibo Bergeron

Writer(s)    Bibo Bergeron and Stéphane Kazandjian

Genre     Animation Adventure Comedy

Release Date     October 12, 2011

Filming Location     France

Parental Guidance     PG

IMDB Rating     6.8

Synopsis: Emile (Jay Harrington/Sébastien Desjours) is a shy projectionist with a passion for films, working in a movie theater and crushing on the ticket girl Maud (Madeline Zima/Ludivine Sagnier) in his free time. When he finally plucks up the courage one day to woo her, his exuberant best friend Raoul (Adam Goldberg/Gad Elmaleh), an inventor and deliveryman, literally drives a halt in the situation with his bizzare delivery van “Catherine” when he arrives to pick up Emile to help him buy a belt for his projector. Lamenting the courtship interruptus, Emile blames Raoul but Raoul takes no notice of his error, too busy encouraging his best friend to go for it. On this transport route, Raoul has Emile tag along for an “adventure” to the private nursery of a scientist, where they roam unchecked in the absence of said scientist. Despite the warnings from the scientist’s guard-cum-assistant, a monkey named Charles, Raoul fools around with the various chemicals in the chemistry lab while Emile records what happens on his new video camera. An accident ensues, during which a flea off the monkey’s back is hit by two unstable chemicals that turn the flea into a human-sized figure. The disgruntled flea, upon seeing Emile’s fearful reaction, “flees” the vicinity and is on the run ever since throughout Paris whenever witnesses reject him in terror upon the sight of him and eventually ends up in the back alley of the cabaret in which Raoul’s childhood friend and crush Lucille (Vanessa Paradis/Vanessa Paradis) sings. At first Lucille, too, is afraid of the giant flea but when the flea with human emotions and the voice of an angel breaks out into a song about his harrowing experience being seen as a monster from the moment he turned, she takes pity on him and invites him in to hide in her dressing room, dubbing him with the name Franceour (Sean Lennon/Matthieu Chedid), which means “honest heart”. Only, in him, she finds the perfect singing partner who inspires her to perform even better. The duo is instantly popular with the audience, except the power-hungry Police Commissioner of Paris Maynott (Danny Huston/François Cluzet) is out to capture and murder the monster in a hope that it will gain him enough popularity to win the mayoral election.

Experience: I had this movie on my TBW list for a while now – years, actually. I just kept skipping over it for some reason but I wish I hadn’t. Yet, I guess, everything has its time and this Halloween prep-season was the time to watch A Monster in Paris. And what I learned is, not all monsters are bad.

And this monster can sing. It doesn’t take animation to realize that almost all species are capable of emotions, many of which are quite human. But I think cartoons do have a way of humanizing creatures better than any other medium. Turn your suspension of disbelief on and it seems perfectly plausible that a flea off a monkey’s back (a monkey which is a scientist’s assistant and guard too) turns to singing to express his fears upon becoming a seven-feet-tall monster instead of sucking the blood out of terrified and lonely pedestrians when he meets them in dark alleys. “It” becomes a “he”, and we sympathize with him and try to give him an opportunity to excel at his talent. The monster in distress becomes the central character with whom we commiserate.

Appropriately juxtaposed, we witness a power-hungry police commissioner out to kill this pathetic creature in a bid to gain popularity and politically climb up to the lofty perch of the mayor of one of the world’s most modish cities. And, in his single-minded track, he is ready to slaughter any civilian in his path. We see the human become the real monster. The story now has greater meaning – not all whom we see are who they are. We learn that before we assume one’s reality or feel any partiality towards or against a person, we should give them a chance to prove their true worth.

Meanwhile, two beautiful romances unfold amidst citywide chaos. We already see early in the movie that Emile is trying his best to hold onto his courage to inform Maud of his feelings (and for a while, I was sure it will be Emile who will end up becoming the monster and start wooing Maud in his new form), but slower to blossom is the romance between Raoul and Lucille. In fact, I found the chemistry between the latter duo much more scintillating than the former, despite (or perhaps because of) the apparent volatility of their relationship. The mystery behind Lucille’s obvious disparage of Raoul and his attempt to jovially disregard it hints at a past and titillated the romantic curiosity in me immediately. Especially because under all the witty comebacks lobbed at one another, the two seem to truly care for each other’s interests.

While at first, I thought the sweet shy Emile might be the hero of the story, and he does rise to the occasion when necessary, driven as he is by friendship, Raoul is adorably comic (think Ryan Reynolds) and he comes alive more throughout the movie. And I found it great that Lucille’s character wasn’t far behind him. She was no damsel in distress even though Raoul did his best to “save” her by protecting her friend-flea Franceour. Yet even while they are working together, they continue to bait each other with hilarious effect. But we see the knot loosening and it’s charming to witness.

Recommendation: I’m sure you all too have plans for this Halloween to catch a monster-flick or two. But I sincerely suggest you make time for this uplifting monster movie this year – especially if you haven’t seen it already. Especially, after all the political and environmental chaos we have experienced throughout this year. It’s a great reminder that human endeavor may be found even in the most unlikely places if we only make the effort to see.

* Original animation was dubbed in French so I have included the name of the French voice-over artists beside the English voice-over artists post forward-slash in the synopsis.

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Wednesday Reflections #28 – The Bad Luck Bride by Janna MacGregor

Via: Daily Prompt – Believe & Tame

51mhw3wneol-_sx303_bo1204203200_Title     The Bad Luck Bride

Series     The Cavensham Heiresses #01

Author     Janna MacGregor

Genre     Historical Romance | Regency Romance

Publisher      St. Martin’s Press

Publication Date      May 02, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     England, 1812

ISBN     1250116139

Synopsis: Lady Claire Cavensham, the only child of the late Duke of Langham, is a veritable heiress and beauty. But that does not save her from being the subject of a cruel joke. The ton believes her to be cursed and the rumor is not wholly unwarranted. As a child, she was in a freak flood accident that resulted in the demise of her parents. To top that, she lost four fiancés in three years to death, disease, dismemberment, and debt, in that order. But on the night that her latest intended reneged on their engagement, one of England’s most sought-after bachelors Lord Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, offered to rescue her by announcing their “spot” engagement – one to which she did not agree – to her family and a few stragglers at a ball. Claire finds Lord Pembrooke’s motives highly suspect but feels the pressure to accept his offer if she ever hopes to stamp the rumors of the curse and have a family of her own, which she so intensely desires. Her only condition is that their marriage is a faithful one. Alex readily agrees to her terms and raises it by telling her just how much he desires her. Only, Alex’s pursuit of Claire stems from his determination to ruin his former friend and Claire’s most recent ex Lord Paul for abandoning his younger sister after getting her with child, leading to her suicide. Alex spent the past year systematically driving Lord Paul to destitution by arranging unlimited credit for his high-stakes gaming and then paying for the debts, accepting all his properties as repayment. The final nail in the coffin is forcing Lord Paul to give up Lady Claire, thus relinquishing his potential hold on her inheritance and any means of recovering his possessions. Lord Paul’s only respite is to tell Alex that he has “had” Claire and when Alex discovers that Claire often purchases men’s apparel from the town’s top retailers, he begins to suspect that his new bride may be keeping a lover, despite her advocacy for loyalty. Too bad he is also ardently falling for her. Maybe she is cursed after all…

Experience (some spoilers): Janna MacGregor’s debut novel The Bad Luck Bride is not half bad. However, there was definitely room for improvement – namely, sounder editing. First, let’s discuss all the reasons that made this novel promising:

  • An ominous beginning: The antagonist is the hero’s former best friend, a reprobate whose actions led to the hero’s sister’s suicide, and against whom the hero has sworn retribution. Also, the antagonist has protested that the hero jumped to conclusions by blaming him, so maybe he is not the cause of the sister’s demise?
  • An edgy hero? The hero is deeply loyal to his family and feels no compunction in the manner with which he goes about exacting said revenge, including using the heroine as an instrument in a way that permanently ties an innocent to him. The secret is bound to get out and then where will they be?
  • A heroine with a mysterious past and fraught with scandals: The heroine already comes with her share of problems, the most obvious of which is her streak of misfortunes with men. But she also suffers from PTSD from the event to which she lost her parents, which has led to some eccentricities and secretive behaviors that throw further shadow over her impending marriage with the hero.
  • A failsafe for conflict resolution: Given that the hero is a generally considerate person (apart from his deceptive manner of procuring a bride), he is readily available to come to the heroine’s aid whenever she is in need, namely during storms and carriage rides which set off one of her traumatic episodes. Potential for them to bond as husband and wife. The heroine, having suffered her share of losses, is able to easily empathize with hero’s loss of the sister, thus becoming someone he may confide in. Additional foundation for build a relationship.
  • A rescue marriage: without any prior courtship or even acquaintance portending an extended adjustment period in which we can only hope to see the characters gradually reveal each of their character traits to the other. Maybe heated disagreements with hotter makeup sex? Who knows?

The novel starts on an ominous note with the scent of death and duel in the winter air and proceeds to revenge and a rescue marriage, making for a promising plot. However, halfway in, the tension begins to dwindle, mostly because the narrative gives way to relating the daily events of the couple’s married life in a chronological fashion that was not truly necessary for the development of the story, wasting much of the word limit that could have been better utilized in other efforts. There are plenty of conflicts thrown early in the novel to make Alex and Claire’s marriage a challenging one and I was hoping for some tumultuous disagreements between the two that could have brought out their differences and individualities but these never came. For the most part, I felt there was a loss of focus from the main conflict, which is the secret Alex keeps of how he came to securing his marriage to Claire, and turns to the secondary conflict of his being misguided about her fealty to their marriage. Even then, the secondary conflict is not done full justice because, despite his mistrust, Alex is never exacting with Claire even though in the early stage of the novel, he is so hell-bent on ruining his former best friend, leading to some character inconsistencies. It made me wonder, is he a badass or not? He turned out to be more docile than initially expected. Which is why, when his secrets begin to unravel, we hit the apex suddenly. While in most cases that would make for a great plot twist, here it made the pacing uneven.

Claire, at the receiving end of his manipulation, seems to have got a good bargain out of the marriage. Alex is handsome, titled, wealthy, enterprising, of apparent good character, and loyal to those dependent on him. He seems to genuinely find her desirable despite the rumored curse and is always attentive to her needs. However, if theirs is to be a marriage of convenience (the only explanation for his sudden appearance with a proposal), his end of the convenience should seem entirely improbable to her. Sure, he claims an attraction towards her, but that cannot lead to an offer of marriage to the woman with the worst luck in fiancés and that too on the very first night that they are in company of each other – no matter how large his hero complex or how ready he is to settle down. And just how did he come to know about Lord Paul’s renege of their betrothal anyway? It perfectly warrants her reluctance to accept his offer or end their engagement when he inadvertently accuses her of hiding the extent of her relationship with Lord Paul or telling him to stay out of her bed until he is ready to believe her truthfulness. However, it does not make sense she always puts up her fences after the fact, i.e. informing him she lost her virginity to her first fiancé after the engagement is announced even though she had planned to be honest with him from the beginning in order to give him a choice, telling him she cannot consummate their marriage unless he believes Lord Paul was not her lover after they have already been in bed together, etc. While the motives behind her decisions were believable, the timings of her actions were not. Again, even though I found each plot mechanism employed perfectly plausible, they were executed with too much convenience for me to relate to.

The traits of every character, from principal to supporting, too felt very conveniently brought in and out of focus. I already explained some aspects of inconsistencies in the ways the characters of Alex and Claire were developed. When it came to the villain and Claire’s support system (her uncle’s – current Duke of Langham – family members), the same applied. For one, is Lord Paul meant to be a thorough scoundrel? The evidence surrounding his seduction and abandonment of Alex’s sister is suspicious and we are given hints that it might be a misunderstanding, but then we see him as a gambling addict and he turns out to be a true reprobate when he hurls slander at his intended’s virtue, and again he seems genuinely sorry for his missed opportunities with Claire that pertain to more than her lineage and inheritance – he likes her but also disparages her character to Alex. This is mirrored by the fact that Alex too is using Claire as an instrument of revenge but desires her and cares for her, yet engineers a bet in Lord Paul’s name at a gentlemen’s club that further sullies her reputation (frankly, a man actively contributing to risking his fiancé’s reputation is an irredeemable flaw). But we are meant to see one as a villain while the other is a hero. Yet, what was Alex doing with a potential reprobate like Lord Paul in the first place? For all purposes, Alex seems like a gentleman (other than betting against his betrothed or his mean streak when it comes to revenge) and a responsible member of the nobility whereas Lord Paul is a man with a gambling habit and a propensity to lie about the women in his lives. Yet, apparently they were once thick as thieves, which makes Lord Paul’s betrayal so painful – you know, apart from the resulting death of a sister. I felt that if Lord Paul was mistakenly accused, he could have been presented with qualities to truly redeem him and not just exonerate him – at least to reflect upon Alex as a hero (the companies you keep and all that).

To complement, Claire’s family members each concentrate on the wrong misgivings regarding Alex. Whereas, any reasonable person would wonder at his motive for swooping in with a proposal when Claire needed one most despite never having personally met her, everyone too easily gives in once they determine he is not after her inheritance. If I were the Duke Uncle, I would set the Pinkerton after him to find out exactly why he’s angling after my niece or what’s his connection to Lord Paul that he became privy to the decision to end the engagement at the same time as (or maybe even before) my niece – not agree to the marriage after one night of mulling over. While her aunt seems to be the only one worried that Claire is giving in to a marriage not based on love and romance, her cousin Emma (possible heroine for the next book in the series) is fixated on a rumor she heard that he might have a mistress even though the “overprotective” male cousins gave Alex’s reputation a clean bill. And what is up with Emma anyway? She does not make for a very promising heroine if she can so easily allow Lord Paul to flirt with her after Claire’s betrothal with the man is ended. I mean, where is the sisterly solidarity? It seemed that the novel introduced a lot of characters but did not explore any of them fully or, for that matter, rationally.

It all sounds very dire, doesn’t it? But I will still say that, for all intents and purposes, MacGregor shows a lot of promise as a novelist in her first novel. She had a good plot concept, the beginnings of interesting characters, scintillating conflicts, which all could have resulted in a fine debut. However, I think the tying up of the plot points and rounding off of the characters needed more finesse. For that, I would actually say her editors could have helped her more by providing some fresh perspective. I’m hoping with experience, her storytelling will become more cohesive because she definitely has the potential of becoming a good historical romance author.

Recommendation: Despite the various setbacks in the storytelling, this novel does not make a bad investment of time. What it suffered for inexperience made up for with imagination and, after everything is said and done, I found the read enjoyable. I will definitely read the next book in the series because I see the potential for more tightly written stories and see wish to see how that pans out.

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Wednesday Reflections #27 – Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Via: Daily Prompt – Interest & Deny

22054354Title     Cranford

Author     Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre     English Literature, Classic

Publisher      Heritage Illustrated Publishing

Publication Date      March 17, 2014

Format      eBook via Project Gutenberg

Setting     Regency England, Industrial Revolution

ISBN     N/A

Synopsis: Cranford, sometimes referred to as Chronicles of Cranford, was originally published between 1851 and 1853 as a series of vignettes belonging to a larger body of work by Elizabeth Gaskell in the magazine Household Words, as edited by Charles Dickens. The novel follows the lives of spinster sisters Misses Deborah and Matilda (Matty) Jenkynses and their bevy of matronly comrades who oversee the genteel standards of living for the society of this titular town. The narrative accounts are related by Miss Mary Smith who spends the larger share of each year living with the Misses Jenkynses given her unwavering attachment to the townspeople – though her family moved to and officially resides in the nearby city of Drumble for the benefit of her father’s growing business. Mr. Smith, an industrious man preoccupied with his work, rarely feels Mary’s absence, much to the satisfaction of all principal characters in the story. Mary, in turn, especially benefits from the female society Cranford affords since her mother passed away some years ago, upon whence, she has been left mostly to her own devices in her household. Meanwhile, the women of Cranford take great care to uphold all appearances of dignified living despite any pecuniary shortcomings. What unfolds is a witty commentary of a community that strives to retain the “old ways” despite any modernity the industrial revolution brings to their small town and a heartwarming portrayal of feminine friendship that enlists infallible assistance even in the face of irreparable tragedies.

Experience (some necessary spoilers): Honestly, I did not procure this book until I saw the 2007 BBC adaptation starring Judy Dench and Eileen Atkins last month. I never even listed it among my TBRs. The TV mini-series, however, was very enjoyable and so, as I never deny myself a comparative assessment once I have seen the adaptation of a classic literature, I began reading.

When, in the Making of Cranford, creator and writer Sue Birtwistle (one of the geniuses behind the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) confessed that the crew had taken many liberties while writing the script for Cranford, I did not imagine the extent to which this admission was accurate. If one reads the novel and then seeks any accuracy of narrative or characters in the adaptation, they will feel the discrepancies. However, if the heart of the novel were to be determined, they will discover that the adaptation has amplified Gaskell’s intentions. In essence, while the adaptation made unscrupulous changes to the original story(s), it made up for the one gross limitation of the novel, i.e. a structured plot.

Indeed, it was not until I reached Chapter 12 that I began to see a plot formation. Upon a bit of research into the work, I learned that Gaskell, due to her commitment to writing another novel, was quite irregular with the installments for this one, which must account for why the first half of the book chiefly details individual events in the lives of the various Cranford ladies without amounting to any particular direction in which the overall the story headed. However, the adaptation more than provides for a plot even though the scriptwriters often resorted to omitting certain characters by merging them with others, killing off some characters early in the series while keeping alive throughout the program others who were meant to have died as per the novel, and generally attributing the events of some characters to the roles of others. To wit, there was a lot of shuffling around; however, not always at a deficit. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the adaptation was better than the book but Birtwistle and her team edited Gaskell’s story whereas the original author had not.

Having provided you with a fair warning on book vs. adaptation, allow me to proceed to tell you how I felt about the novel itself. Despite the lack of structure in the storyline, both the subject of the narrative and the writing voice had me vested from the first page. In fact, it boasts one of the better opening sentences I have ever read:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”

For a feminist, this line would be of guaranteed interest and I can imagine the popularity the series would have garnered with its very first installation among bluestockings. Indeed, as Household Words aspired to raise the “affection of both sexes”, Cranford was ideal literature towards that objective.

Gaskell, herself, wrote of her characters with much affection, even though she was not impervious to listing their many deficiencies where soundness of logic is concerned, which may have been engineered to recommend the material to the male readers – or, at least, it prevented the reading from becoming wholly unpalatable to her opposite sex given how self-sufficient the characters were. Before the first paragraph is over, we learn that the men manage to find themselves out of Cranford one way or another (“In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not in Cranford”) because the autonomy with which the womenfolk conduct themselves renders any male presence redundant. As if to exemplify, early in the book, the one man who manages to infiltrate this community and endear himself with his unassuming and obliging ways, manages to get himself killed in an act of heroics.

The Misses Jenkynses, who are themselves daughters of the former rector of the parish, act as the moral compass for the community as well as regulators of the general decorum of their society. The women adhere to certain rules, which would not always make sense to outsiders but manage to ensure that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and lives in harmony with one another. And while the older Miss Deborah Jenkyns passes away early in the novel, her guidelines are continued to be followed by her peers. So much so that the surviving Miss Matty cannot make most of her decisions without in some way counseling with her conscience as to what her sister might have done. In fact, it is one of the distinguishing traits of Miss Matty to second-guess herself and always reflect upon the inferiority of her mental capabilities in comparison to others because she was so determinedly steered by her sister in all things while the elder still lived. It is not until later in the novel, when Miss Matty begins to demonstrate a bit more independence in decision-making – albeit with temerity – that we begin to realize that she is the central character of Mary’s narrative even though so much of their lives is presided over by the spirit of the long-deceased Deborah Jenkyns.

Yet, the women are not without their individualities, from fashion sense to personal peculiarities. For example, Miss Matty always saves on household expenditures by burning only one candle at a time but would alternately burn two candles every day to ensure they are of the same height in a sense of “elegant economy” (since having two candles lit was the due riggeur) for the benefit of witness should they have visitors. While another character Mrs. Forrester regularly washed her prized lace in milk to obtain that fine creamy hue and once, when her cat swallowed the unattended lace with the cream,  had even fed the animal current-jelly before stuffing it in a farmer’s boot so it could “return” the favored item, for such fine lace could no longer be procured given the nuns from the continent who used to produce it had stopped. And such was the friendship between the women in the community that such eccentrics were not laughed at nor even found wanting. In fact, I thought for a feminist herself who wished to demonstrate how well women could get on on their own, Gaskell was rather harsh towards her characters, ridiculing them more often than they did one another though there was plenty of inducement. However, such indiscretions on Gaskell’s part could easily be overlooked when considering how honest and consistent her portrayal of each character was.

Nonetheless, as the story progresses, the true intent of the author becomes more visible and the reader may realize that amidst all the satire, Gaskell’s message from the town of Cranford is related by how Miss Matty continues to remain a paragon of goodness and kindliness even in the face of adversity, which without fail manages to bring about the best qualities in others. We see, in an hour of need, the devotion with which other characters come to her aid, self-sacrificing without hesitation, simply founded on an assurance that, if situations were reversed, Miss Matty would have happily ransomed every single one of her comfort to benefit another. Even individuals outside their immediate social circle is fully aware of Miss Matty’s eternally benevolent heart and childlike expectation of others to do only good, ensuring that they mirror the same qualities – at least in their deeds towards her. As Mary’s father, upon learning how Miss Matty’s friends rally around her, aptly explains:

See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around. Confound it! I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a person; but, as it is, I can’t get a tail to my sentences–only I’m sure you feel what I want to say.”

And Mary, who grows into a woman under the unconscious counsel of this woman, too emulates to think of others before herself, particularly resourcing ways to make Miss Matty happy one of her priorities, faithfully concludes:

We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”

Recommendation: There is nothing I love more than a story that depicts the wholesome traits of humanity and this book had this in many folds. I recommend the read to anyone who feels the need to restore their faith in the goodness of mankind and a reminder that kindness begets kindness.

 

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Wednesday Reflections #26 – Last Man Standing by Jane Ashford

Via: Daily Prompt – Irrelevant & Coincidence

0d4d9e81eab7c76d8e1efaa6be9e06fe-historical-romance-romance-booksTitle     Last Man Standing

Author     Jane Ashford

Genre     Historical Romance, Regency Romance

Publisher      Sourcebooks Casablanca

Publication Date      September 05, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     Regency England

ISBN     1402276796

Synopsis: Ever since her father’s death, Elisabeth Elham has fended for herself by teaching at a finishing school for girls. So when her curmudgeon reclusive elder uncle – a man who cut off both his brother and sister for choosing spouses he did not approve of – dies and leaves her all his possessions as a joke to instigate further family estrangement, Elisabeth chose not to fall for it. Instead, she collects her aunt’s orphaned children, who are almost of age and should have received their share in the will, and brings them to live with her in her new London home. At the advice of her solicitor, she also invites a very eccentric matronly cousin from her mother’s side to act as her chaperone. Soon she finds herself in a flurry of activities that include refurbishing the London house, arranging a complete makeover for the country estate which was left to decay for two decades, bringing up her wardrobe up-to-date, launching one beautiful cousin into society while schooling the other overexcited cousin and his even more unmanageable dog into proper decorum, and, of course, navigating the height of season among the ton. The responsibilities of a newly-minted heiress are many and not the least critical is fending of fortune hunters. Elisabeth’s artless and unassuming air and easy sense of humor endear her to many of London’s eligible bachelors, including a most-sought-after heir to a viscount, a self-proclaimed and jovial fortune hunter, and a Byronic hero with a checkered past from the West Indies, all the while she herself collects a bevy of unconventional friends to occupy her time. Though Elisabeth enjoys her trials and pleasures alike with humor, misfortunes still threaten to set her stoic constitution into decline. Especially, at the risk of losing the regards of the one man she could indeed fall in love with.

Experience: I have been reading romance novels for nearly twenty years now but ventured into historical romances only as recently as 2013. The reason for my general aversion to historical romances was, I’m ashamed to admit, something very superficial – the models on the cover in their usual state of undress. My ultra-conservative mother would have a conniption if she saw me reading them (the fact that some of the stories I have written emanate moderate amounts of steam is not yet known to her). So it was only when I started reading off of tabs that I dared procure my first copy of Regency romance [not including classic literature, of course]. There. I have now revealed the most hypocritical secret of my reading and writing career. String me up if you will, fellow romance readers, I probably deserve it.

You are probably wondering why I have chosen to reveal this about me in this particular post. What does my proclivity to hide the cover arts of some of my favorite novels have to do with Last Gentleman Standing? Well, it’s the fact that those steamy cover arts do deliver what they promise; most historical romances have no trouble fogging up my spectacles every few chapters. The prude in me that my mother managed to instill usually just peruses through them unless they are written exceptionally well or, even better, exceptionally ill [really, some of them are sheer comedy]. So when Last Gentleman Standing did not feature a single such specs-steamer and I discovered that quite a few reviewers condemned the story for it, I decided this book needed my defending.

I should clarify that the fact I found the lack of sex scenes in this book perfectly in-form has nothing to do with my natural diffidence [I already confessed to writing some myself]. Rather that I feel Ashford remained true to a Janeite scheme of romancing. Austen’s heroes and heroines always demonstrated a rather restrained form of courtship. It did not mean that their emotions lacked intensity but only that because they felt it so deeply and consistently, they did not need to prattle on about it to attest its existence. To have discovered the same characteristics present in Elizabeth and her wooers was a rather refreshing promenade down the “original order”. After all, to me, the primary reason for reading Regency romances is the fact Miss Austen is no longer alive and printing new materials.

Moreover, I did not think the main hero was “tame”, as one reviewer put it, but respectful to the heroine’s wishes. I thought he was consistent of character. He fell in love with Elisabeth because she was independent of mind and spirit and very unlike other simpering toadying females of his acquaintance. So if he gave her space, it was because he did not want those very attractive qualities of her to diminish. While he did have one or two spurts of admonishment to issue her way when he felt she took unnecessary risks with her person, he soon reconciled that he had no authority to do so either because she was, after all, an independent woman – perhaps more independent than most women of her time since she was an heiress without a guardian. He was perfectly aware of all her strengths, both intrinsic and extrinsic, and acted with the caution the situation demanded. I thought his wisdom and ability to not be guided by ego rather sexy in itself. He did not need to demonstrate his sexual awareness of her to make me enjoy a secret smile or two or feel the temperature kick up.

The Elisabeth of this story, too, shared a very telling trait with my favorite Elizabeth in literary history. Early in the story, the narrator shared how the heroine had inherited her father’s good humor and ability to take life’s hurdles with a pinch of salt. And throughout the novel, we see just that – Elisabeth brushing off any jittery sensation or blinking away any prickling of the lashes. When her father died, instead of seeking assistance from the family Scrooge, she chose to find employment to sustain her livelihood – it was the quality that made her stand apart in her uncle’s eyes and procured her the inheritance. The same self-sufficiency with a side order of humility that allows her to graciously accept assistance once actually offered is what helps her survive through all the ordeals in the novel. Very admirable quality to have in a heroine.

If the heroine and her hero are not convincing enough that the book is worth the read, there are still a host of very entertaining and very eccentric characters to motivate. Even better, I liked how varied these characters were in their appearances. For example, not all the men who managed to steal the belle of the ball were tall, dark, and dashing, which is like stepping away from one of the cardinal rules of historical romance writing. Also, not all fortune hunters were without a heart. I liked one particular fortune hunter extremely who had a bit of dash in him but moreover was burdened by a penniless title that his mother tried to rectify by being the ultimate Mrs. Bennet, and he felt his shortcomings acutely. My heart went out to his sense of vulnerability that he hid so well behind a jovial demeanor and I dearly hope that Ashford will provide him with a good romantic ending one day. [I think that last bit could be a spoiler… oops! Well, at least there are plenty of other competition for Elisabeth’s hand to keep readers guessing]

Coincidentally, the book was apparently originally titled Bluestocking. And, indeed, when I searched online, Ashford had published a novel by such a name in 1980 with the blurb indicating a very similar plotline and same name heroine. I would love to get my hands on that book and see if it varies in any way because how else does the same book continue to exist simultaneously with two names [I can imagine customers clamoring for their money back]? In any case, the new name is so much more suitable to the plot because indeed it was about a crowd of romantic contestants vying for Elisabeth’s affection as well as hand and fortune and only the most faithful gentleman gets ahead. Moreover, by definition and historical account, to be a bluestocking, a woman would have to demonstrate a certain desire for intellectual pursuit. While Elisabeth was quite intelligent and levelheaded, and even once a teacher, she does not demonstrate particular craving to build her knowledge. She enjoys reading when the opportunity presents her with a good book and circumstances had compelled her to acquire the level of education necessary to survive. This provided her with cognitive independence but it was all very contingent of her various stations in life. No, no, Last Gentleman Standing is a vast improvement to the title.

Recommendation: Though I branched out a bit on my book review for this post, what I’m trying to say is, romance readers, do not write this book off just because it does not offer the usual display of amour. But rather embrace it for the practicality with which it upholds the Puritan nature of a society once lived.

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #25: Pretty in Pink starring Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy & Jon Cryer

Via: Daily Prompt – Penchant & Disobey

5122qfjsp2lTitle     Pretty in Pink

Starring     Molly Ringwald, Andrew McCarthy & Jon Cryer

Director    Howard Deutch

Writer(s)    John Hughes

Genre     Romantic Comedy Drama

Release Date     February 28, 1986

Filming Location    LA, California, USA

Parental Guidance     PG-13 for thematic smoking

IMDB Rating     6.8

Synopsis: Ever since Andie Walsh’s (Molly Ringwald) mother skipped out on the family, Andie has been busy working at a strip mall record store to keep house for her heartbroken and unemployed father Jack (Harry Dean Stanton), i.e. when she’s not already at school striving to remain on the honor roll. She is generally admired by the faculty and her employer Iona (Annie Potts) alike for the level of commitment she demonstrates in all her undertakings. However, this goodwill is not shared by the more affluent “richie” kids in school, namely Benny Hanson (Kate Vernon) and her boyfriend Steff McKee (James Spader), who take great joy in bullying Andie and her friends for their humbler lifestyle. Prom is coming up but Andie has no time to worry about attending, especially since she hasn’t been asked yet. Andie’s best friend “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer) is in love with her but Andie is oblivious to the nature of his “devotion” as he lacks solemnity in his professions of love. When one of the richies Blane McDonough (Andrew McCarthy) begins to show his interest towards Andie, often finding reasons to catch up with her at the record store or school, Andie reluctantly reciprocates, unsure whether dating a rich kid would be advisable. However, with a gentle nudge from Iona, Andie begins dating him and, when he asks, ecstatically agrees to go with him to the prom. Duckie is livid, seeing their relationship as a form of betrayal, and issues an ultimatum. Blane’s own friends, in particular Steff, too object to the union. Steff, who once himself tried and failed to conquer Andie’s “favors”, reminds Blane that not only will Blane be rejected by his society but asks if he’s willing to put Andie through his parents’ ridicule. Blane withstands the peer-pressure with less aplomb than Andie and their fledgling relationship seems to dive before even taking a proper flight.

Experience: Amazingly, I did not see this classic rom-com until this week. For one, when the movie was released, I was all of four years old. And B, there was never any occasion to before since plenty of romantic comedies were released annually to occupy my time since the days I turned a teen and was allowed to watch movies with smooching in them. But have you noticed how few and far between rom-coms have become lately? Yeah! Apparently, the audience doesn’t pay for romantic movies anymore. In fact, I recently read in a review of this one chick-flick version of Harold & Kumar… that made a statement to that fact. How rude! But I need my regular fix of the romantics and while The Hallmark Channel tries diligently to keep me in supply, those flicks lack a bit of variety, don’t they?

So Pretty in Pink! I liked it even though I think I have grown out of it a bit. I think I would have loved it when I was younger and such teen angst actually would seem like a do-or-die crisis. At this point in time of my life, I was like, “Chuck Duckie and chuck Blane! You can do better, Andie!” In fact, I thought Steff was someone I could work with [yes, I do have a bit of a taste for the bad boys] – you know? Save? I saw a lot of anguish in Steff, the abandoned rich boy who bullies others to make himself feel more important. Oh, yes! Andie the-good-girl could have totally saved his soul. But I’m getting ahead of myself and prattling about that which DID NOT happen in the movie.

Yet, the premise of the story was Andie handles her various romantic options: there was her wacky best friend, the kind-hearted-but-confused rich boy, and the self-assured web-spinning kingpin of haut monde. Which will she end up with? We watch as the Andie tries to find a balance between the world she is accustomed to and the “inside” world where she is invited. But the aspect of this movie that makes Andie such a special girl isn’t her ethereal red-headed sweet looks, her off-the-track fashion sense (all designed by her, by the way), or her great taste in music; it is the fact that even in the middle of her greatest predicaments, she is never dishonest with herself. Andie has a mind for speaking only the truth. She knows exactly what she wants and she is never afraid to let it be known. She does not allow Steff, Duckie, or even Blane talk her into doing what she doesn’t want to do. The way I see it, this movie was a feminist movement all unto itself, and I can only imagine how necessary for the adolescent girls of the 80’s, nay, even now. Even though many of the thematic angles of the story were a bit dated (I mean, I would never have been caught dead in all that lace and rhinestones though Andie’s style became iconic), I would give this movie all the stars in IMDB for holding steadfast to the stance that girls can risk swimming against the current and still get what they want if they only set their mind to it. And that getting the guy is NOT more important than being true to oneself.

Another aspect of the movie that really stood out for me was how writer John Hughes showcased “youth”. As movie aficionados may be aware, Pretty in Pink was only one among a lineup of teenage-angst movies that Hughes had written-directed to great success and followed Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, both of which Ringwald also starred. However, unlike the doe-eyed timid Samantha of Sixteen Candles or the snobbish Claire of The Breakfast Club, Andie has both her feet planted firmly on the ground and, perhaps, is more adult than even her father. She is able to demand if necessary but with humility, provide solace with a bit of sternness, and even learns to let go at times to let fate take its course. And while we watch all the clichéd and prepossessed rules still prevail over her life and the lives of her peers, guiding how they behave and accept themselves, we watch Andie, 18 and on the cusp of graduating from high school, ready to break free and find independence. At the same time, we see a very self-sufficient daughter who never complains about having to be the adult, opening up to her father to ask him to give her a chance to be a kid and the father acknowledging his culpabilities in denying her the opportunity of a youthful existence. As Iona [who happens to be my favorite character in the movie and, frankly speaking, the best dressed] so poignantly and truthfully summarizes, “Oh, why can’t we start old and get younger?”

Recommendation: This is a must-see movie for teenagers everywhere, boys included. While the ladies would probably enjoy it a bit more, and I imagine there would be a few eye-rolls from the male side of the audience, there is still a lot to be learned for both parties in their youth and a few reminders for the older crowds too.

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WRITING CHRONICLES #25: back to the chalkboard with new dilemmas and insights

Via: Daily Prompt – Continue & Finite

 

 

I went away for two weeks to prepare for/attend a cousin’s wedding and when I returned, I found my access to all things WP blocked. Hence, my monthlong absence. Since this is not the first time it happened to me, I didn’t go into immediate panic-mode like I did last November.

You see, every once in a while, the Bangladesh government likes to shake things up by blocking server access to various blogging and social media sites in a bid to “combat” cyber terrorism. This is because Bangladeshis really enjoy our right to the freedom of expression and often use social media/blogging as means of venting frustrations towards various stakeholders in our everyday lives and the world in general, which, of course, also includes the government itself. The government attacks the platforms randomly to monitor activity. What they really mean is, “Hey! You’re using your freedom of speech, kudos to you. But just remember to be cautious how you use it because, you know, words can hurt.” Wish our government wasn’t such a pansy about taking criticism but there you have it.

Of course, this Summer, I have been very cool about it but, last winter, I was pissed. There was a whole lot of name-calling involved and contacting various bodies of government to tell them to do their jobs professionally. Finally, the WP Support Center helped me out by contacting the communications board in BD to see what was really going on and after a week or so, all road were clear to go. I didn’t go into all that this time. In fact, the only time I felt a niggle of frustration was when I received a notification about likes or comments or other activities on my site that I could not fully access to review and approve or reciprocate fellow bloggers with my reading what was happening in their part of the blogosphere.

Instead, I took this opportunity to catch up on my reading (just crossed 75% of my Goodreads Reading Challenge even though I had a late start this year), chill with cousins and the new cousin–in-law (a really sweet girl), buy a new laptop since my old one had been running without a battery for the last six months (the new laptop is a smoothy when it comes to typing, btw, and so far near perfect), get my hair colored burgundy with flaming red streaks (a bit of a shock for my loved ones but I think I’m rocking it), re-run Roswell (why did they cancel that show after only three seasons), and really take some vital decisions on continuing my WEDNESDAY REFLECTONS column (even though I didn’t get much writing done the month).

Which brings me to my very critical dilemma: I’m an author aspiring to become a well-revered author. Is it really fair for me to review the works of fellow authors, especially that of contemporary writers? I mean, I try my best to remain impartial in my reviews of books but ever since I have taken on novel writing full time, these fiction writing courses, and etc., I have become really critical of every nittygritty aspect of creative writing. While it has made my reading experience richer and more profound, it has also dampened the sheer joy of curling up with a good story for entertainment’s sake. It has made me slower at reading, too, and I was already perusing at snail pace compared to, say, my best friend. But this has made me think that while I want all writers to do well out of a spirit of fellowship, I also tend to nitpick more often, searching for plot holes and believability, and that I think shows up on my reviews at time.

At the same time, I’m also conscious of the fact that when I’m inspired by a book or it really manages to annoy me, prompting me to write the review, it is actually building me up as a writer too. I am learning what I should work on and what to avoid when drafting and editing my own manuscripts. So with all these pros and cons of reading like a writer, I have been really in a bind as to how to continue with my WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS, which I write for my “Works of Others” blog category. Finally, this is what I decided:

I can’t stop reviewing novels. I mean, books are my life and now, hopefully, on its way to become my life’s work. I love learning from them whether they are good, bad or ugly. But what I will do is cut down on the number of works written by current authors because… even the best are still learning every day and at this stage, I have yet to prove my worth so it is really not fair of me to judge my contemporaries. To recompense on the fewer book reviews, I will increase on critiquing fictions created in other mediums such as the silver screen or television, and also share my learnings from pure classics. Because dead authors can’t come to call me out for a duel at dawn, right?

I’m quite decided on this. But, of course, I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t second-guess myself. So I’m throwing this out to you guys:

Is this a good decision? Should authors be free to critique and review the works of fellow authors? Let me know what you think in the comment section 🙂

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Headshot of my newly dyed burgundy hair with flaming red streaks !

I’m updating this post with my photo only because some of you requested. I’m terrible at taking selfies and far too self-conscious to ask someone else to take my photo. Generally, not a very gracious subject, much to the consternation of my loved ones. So pardon me but this was the best I could cough up (reason for the need to scroll down).

I did, however, do a bit of editing like adding a filter before uploading it 🙂

 

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#AuthorToolbox 04: the art of landscaping in fiction writing

Via: Daily Prompt – Soil

The cold was bitter, different from New England’s. Outside the city the wind spilled across the sweeping, open land dotted with abandoned farm machinery and old houses buckling in on themselves. You wouldn’t think such houses were habitable, but once in a while there would be a tacked-up sheet in the doorway, or plastic nailed over the windows, and the trace of smoke from a chimney.”

~ Brown, Karen. “The Clairvoyants.” Henry Holt and Co., 2017

51htld99dbl-_sx328_bo1204203200_I finished reading this book over the weekend. And like most well-written (or poorly written, for that matter) novels throughout my reading experience, it left me with a heightened sense of awareness of that “something-something” to consciously add to in my own work. After all, authors learn by reading the works of other authors. I thought, for this month’s blog hop, I would review some of this novel’s more beautifully written passages to summarize how fiction can be enhanced by adding descriptive imageries that are carefully composed and artfully woven to match the subject of the story [I’ll try my best to titillate without giving away any irrevocable spoilers]:

Relevance. Without a doubt, the prose was the strongest suit in The Clairvoyants. Brown approached its various outdoor and indoor sceneries to set the mood for this novel with poetic gusto, addressing both the mental state of the story’s protagonist, Martha, and the themes that adhered to the overall plot, i.e. an observant and slightly self-absorbed young woman with the ability to “see dead people” and a sense of victimhood towards her entire life, who stumbles upon a potential murder mystery when she is abandoned in a new environment. In fact, the landscape mirrors the one prevailing ethos of every character in the novel, who make a motley group of disturbingly selfish individuals, gravitating towards one another in search of companionship one moment and then forsaking each other the next.

Now, beyond my mother’s profile at the wheel of the car, Route 79 wound alongside green swaths of hills still damp from the recent rain. This was an isolated valley with a poor yearly sunlight allotment and haphazard cell phone reception—another version of a sanatorium, a place my mother could tuck me away, the way you pressed a photograph into the back of a drawer—and be free of me. But I might be free of her, too, and I might find someone else to love me.”

Precision. A bit of mastery in the medium of your writing can go a long way – and, of course, shorten the sentences. Words hold connotations that pose parity even among synonyms. Instead of depending on generic nouns and verbs to describe each action, character, object, or surrounding, knowing specific words to allocate to them will not only contribute to their appropriate portrayal but also provide the reader with a richer sensory experience. Obviously, this means having a strong vocabulary is important but does it also mean you need to swallow the dictionary? If you can, kudos to you; otherwise, do a little extra research on each subject matter you introduce in the story, as Brown has in this novel when labeling architectural attributes.

The house stood on a street of similarly grand old places, each shaded by a tree, their roots disrupting the cement sidewalks in front. Mine was a brick Italianate house with a wide cornice and elaborately carved brackets and window caps. The apartment was up a staircase that once might have been glamorous when the house was still a single-family residence. The place had been advertised as a “studio.” I would be living in one room with a twelve-foot ceiling, a decorative fireplace, and an efficiency-sized stove, sink, and refrigerator—so small they seemed like playhouse furnishings.”

Economy. We all know about the taboo on overusing adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs are to be preserved for blurbs, and yet, funnily, that is where authors tend to scrimp thanks to a misguided sense of modesty – but that is a topic for another day. Furthering the argument for precision, knowing specific nouns and verbs is particularly useful when editing redundant descriptors that only serve to weaken and obscure the image you are trying to depict.  Consequently, you may also reveal more information about the plot and characters when relinquishing modifiers.

I had thought he wanted me. But when I touched him he took my hands away, like a correcting parent. I was resigned to kissing him, and even that he interrupted with a story about his motorcycle, a Triumph he was eager to ride again in the spring.”

POV. At every turn, it is crucial to ask oneself if the character whose POV is being used to narrate a scene, would actually experience the situation in that manner. For example, cold is a recurring premise in the novel, of which Martha is constantly aware. Other than simply using it to describe the winter that persists throughout the plot or the relationship fostered among the characters (and the wide range of dead people, in retrospect), Brown also associates it with how Martha undergoes the changes in her life or encounters new phenomena, e.g. when she tries martini for the first time.

I admitted I’d never had one, and she insisted I sample hers. She held her glass toward me by its stem, and I took a cautious sip. I said it was like drinking partially melted snow, and she laughed and poured me one, too.”

Pace. While the vivid narration is what I enjoyed most about the novel, the accompanied tangential style also led to its biggest holdback. I could fully understand why, given that the novel was written in first-person and people tend to digress when relating their experiences, Martha would oscillate between her past and present, actions and expositions. In fact, it even added to the mystery. But at one point, this became monotonous when the tempo should have picked up. The mystery began to chase its own tail and Martha’s continued attention to the mundane details of her surrounding seemed unnatural, relatability yielding before consistency, such as while escaping the scene of a supposed murder.

We drove through farmland spread for miles in either direction. Del fiddled with the radio, her hand shaking, and found a station playing Dixieland jazz, and we passed through a landscape distorted by the windshield ice—the wide open space, the few remaining outbuildings of an old farm, their gray, splintery wood darkened by the sleet, jutting like carcasses. “There are bones of families out there,” I said. Spread under layers of soil, compacted in their separateness. The Dixieland band played its tinny hopefulness. We drove this way for a long time until we could see nothing of the land we passed through save an occasional kitchen light in a house set off the road. Then we reached an intersection, a small town, like Milton, with a gas station and a diner, and Del pulled into the diner’s parking lot. After David Pinney died we’d gone on, pretending he hadn’t. I could say we were murderers now. This didn’t happen to other people twice.”

To wit, this novel made me sit up and take notes. My own stories tend to consist more of dialogues and actions than discussions on the setting but I could certainly appreciate the patience with which Brown weighed in the haunting atmosphere in her narrative. It reminded me of something I learned a few months back while attending an online course on writing fiction. There was a lot of emphasis on note taking and journal keeping throughout the syllabus. Until I took the course, I always wondered how writers sit in public places such as cafes and parks while composing tales without becoming distracted by their environments. Turns out they don’t become distracted at all because they are too busy recounting what they witness on their pages and screens.

 

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!

 

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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #24: The Americanization of Emily starring James Garner & Julie Andrews

Via: Daily Prompt – Grit

220px-americanization_of_emily_posterTitle     The Americanization of Emily

Starring     James Garner, Julie Andrews, and James Coburn

Director     Arthur Hiller

Writer(s)    Paddy Chayefsky (screenplay), William Bradford Huie (novel)

Genre     Comedy Drama War

Release Date     October 27, 1964

Filming Location    Dukes Avenue, Muswell Hill, London, England, UK

Parental Guidance     PG for thematic semi-nudity, carousing, and war imagery

IMDB Rating     7.4

Synopsis: Lt. Cmdr. Charles Madison (James Garner) of the US Army is a “dog-robber”, or batman, to Adm. William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas) and is known for managing the best supplies to make his superior’s lifestyle near the frontline of WWII opulent. Even based in London, Charlie can arrange the best prime cuts for the Admiral’s lunch, the most lavish food, drink, and women – down to the preferred hair color – for the evenings, and the biddable bedpartners for his best friend and co-worker Lt. Cmdr. Paul ‘Bus’ Cummings’s (James Coburn) nocturnal exploits with less than 24-hour notice. Such blatant display of pleasure-seeking in the middle of war rationing is something that Emily Barham, a driver from the British military motor pool and a woman who has lost her father, brother, and husband to the war, finds deplorable and has no compunction informing Charlie of her feelings to his face. Charlie too is wary of her moralization and forthright about giving her a piece of his mind. Charlie, who openly advocates his anti-war sentiments and is a self-proclaimed “practicing coward”, enjoys his position as the Admiral’s adjutant because it keeps him from having to actually fight in the war and feels Europeans have caused wars for centuries, which is nothing to boast about. However, soon Emily realizes that there is a kind of charm in his cynical honesty and approaches him to initiate a no-strings-attached affair, which quickly develops into a more serious meet-the-parents kind of tableau. When the Admiral, already depressed from the death of his wife, has a mental breakdown over the Army and Air Force overshadowing the Navy and initiates an idea of filming a “reality” movie of the bombing on the French shore of Omaha Beach on D-Day, Charlie is assigned the responsibility of getting it made and Bus is adamant to get Charlie onto the war site, putting a damper on his amorous plans for Emily and even risking his very life.

Experience: I think there is a bit of a pattern among my celebrity crushes and I realized it after seeing James Garner in this movie. It’s a weird revelation too. I like men who have wide foreheads with horizontal creases on them. Do you see it?

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Be still my heart! There is something similar about their physique as well, though at different levels of buff. I just had to get this out of the way before I carried on with the review.

Aside from Garner, there is another heart-stopper to sigh over in this movie. I think the whole world has been crushing on Julie Andrews since The Sound of Music. With additional star actors Melvyn Douglas and James Coburn, this movie was destined to shine. But it’s not only the cast that makes it a success but also the eccentric plotline, the unabashedly candid characters, the snappy dialogue, and the unique theme for its time that helped it win hearts – at least, it did mine.

Let’s talk about the message of the movie. There is no doubt that the producers and director of the film took a big risk when they decided to make an anti-war dark romantic comedy at a time when the US government was only becoming more aggressive in its foreign policies throughout – or maybe it was just the perfect time. Sure, there was also a rising anti-war sentiment among the public but did it constitute the dominant segment of the public? Hardly. So the movie could have tanked.

But the plot carried the message of the movie by ensuring that it was “the virtue of war” and not the men and families who sacrificed their lives and loved ones that deserved criticism. We see an old man, bereaved by the loss of his wife, dictating and demanding what the movie should feature: a make-believe unnamed soldier who is the first to die on D-Day to stir up public sentiments for the glory of the Navy. He goes on as far as to enlist the president’s endorsement for a monument for this fake martyr. The idea reeks of the same self-indulgence that is depicted earlier in the movie where we see the American military that “can buy anything with a Hersey bar” enjoying a good bout of hedonism. With a finely written script, the argument cuts deep and succinctly.

Speaking of his lines, I was quite taken with how magnificently Garner delivered his dialogues. There is no apology in his expression when Charlie presents a set-down to Emily after she demonstrates her disdain for the amount of “swanky goods” occupying the bedroom-converted-pantry in the Admiral’s quarters. You would never imagine that he was talking to a beautiful woman that he had been slapped by after patting her bottom during their initial meeting. And Andrews, always the epitome of sophistication, demonstrates a starry-eyed enchantment even as she sincerely tells him why he is just all-wrong.

In fact, there is a bit of name-calling between the two throughout the movie that aptly describes the traits of each character. She is “something of a prig” with an “ingrained British morality”, “facile” yet a “fancy Euro”, and “emotionally sticky” with a propensity for “sentimental contempt” who takes “sensual satisfaction in grieving”; he is a “rascal”, “charmer scoundrel”, the “most immoral man [she] ever met… a shameless coward, selfish as a child, and ruthless about what he wants”, “a Yank who can’t even show affection without buying something”, “dotty” but who “cuts to the core of things”. Gee, tell us how you really feel. But it really makes you want to see the two actors saying it all to each other, doesn’t it?

And the two actors wear their roles like finely fitted gloves. Andrews manages to generate a certain softness towards him even as she is exasperated with him and listing out all his negative qualities. While there are such competence and cockiness to Garner that a girl cannot but help swoon. In fact, there is this scene early in the movie where Charlie goes about folding clothes and running baths and doing all the things a valet does while preparing the bedtime rituals for the Admiral, and I was so mesmerized watching him in action of domestic efficiency that I had to keep replaying the scene to catch what the Admiral was yammering about. It made me think there’s a man who is comfortable in his skin no matter what the situation. Garner in motion is a graceful thing to watch. That scene alone is worth re-watching the movie.

Recommendation: It’s a fine movie, as efficient in delivering the message as the actors were in playing their roles. Prepared to be riveted.

 

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