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Archive for the ‘Thoughts on TV’ Category

magicland“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.”

That was President Barack Obama talking recently to The New York Times about what books mean to him. He reads widely, both fiction and nonfiction, for all the usual reasons: information, enlightenment, connection, comfort. “And then there has been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head.” Hence, fiction.

I am so there these days about being someplace else. And I don’t just want fictional, I want fantastical. Narnia. Middle Earth. Camelot. Fillory. The latter is found in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy and is sort of a mash-up of those famous magical kingdoms and other classic fairy-tale realms. The second season of the TV adaptation of the books begins airing tonight on the SyFy Channel, so I recently reread the third book, The Magician’s Land, to get ready. I’m not sure it will make any difference. The TV series is itself a stylish if choppy mash-up of Grossman’s books, changing some characters and events. The first season was disconcerting at times, but I still liked it. Fillory forever!

bearIf you’re looking for deep-winter magic, Katherine Arden’s richly imagined first novel The Bear and the Nightingale (Random House, digital galley) is all once-upon-a-time in medieval Russia, where a spirited heroine embraces the old myths. Vasya Petrovna, whose mother died at her birth, defies custom, her stepmother and a young priest so as to save her village, which has turned its back on the traditional spirits of the house and woodlands. Arden casts a spell with her lyrical writing, evoking Russian fairy tales and folklore, putting her own spin on the chilling story of the blue-eyed demon Frost.

wintersongS. Jae Jones sets her first YA novel, Wintersong (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in 19th-century Bavaria, drawing on German legend, Greek myth and Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market.”  It’s narrated by 19-year-old Elisabeth, the innkeeper’s eldest daughter, who has always looked after her younger siblings, including a musically talented brother and a beautiful, foolish sister. When the mysterious Goblin King chooses the sister for his bride, Elisabeth, who is strongly attracted to the eldritch stranger and who composes music, sets out to rescue her. Read the book as a fairy tale or as romantic fantasy, but by all means go back and reread Rossetti’s poem, still as irresistible as the luscious apples and quinces hawked by the goblin men.

hangingPerhaps urban fantasy is more to your liking, in which case you probably know Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like its predecessors, The Hanging Tree (DAW, digital galley) is another wild and witty paranormal police procedural. Police officer and junior wizard Peter Grant and his mentor Nightingale investigate the overdose of a teenage girl, who may have been practicing illegal magic. The case swiftly involves them in the lives of the river goddess Lady Tyburn and her extended family, as the villainous Faceless Man has returned. This is the sixth book in the series, and it’s rife with references to current pop culture and past books. Aaronovitch, a screenwriter for Doctor Who, neatly straddles the real and unreal worlds. More, please.

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thegirlsI’ve been catching up with the second season of Aquarius, the NBC series set in the age of and leading up to the Manson murders in August 1969. “You’re looking at life through a dirty window,” one character says in the third episode, and I know what she’s talking about. Everything and everybody looks murky in the sepia shadows, as if the camera lens was smeared with dust.  This is in sharp contrast to the clarity of Emma Cline’s ambitious first novel The Girls (Random House, digital galley), which covers the same period, although she changes the names  and relocates events from L.A. to the Bay area.

“It was the end of the sixties, or the summer before the end, and that’s what it seemed like, an endless formless summer.” This is Evie Boyd looking back from disappointed middle age to when she was 14, formless and yearning in the way 14-year-old girls are. A child of divorce set to go to boarding school in the fall, she becomes aware of three long-haired girls making their way through a local park. “Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.” She sees them again in a grimy black school bus, dumpster diving for food and shoplifting toilet paper. She is especially drawn to the fierce, feral Suzanne, who shepherds Evie to the rundown ranch where a troubadour called Russell holds sway over a squalid commune. Evie easily succumbs to Russell’s scruffy charisma but her loyalty and love lie with Suzanne.

These scenes from that long-ago summer are interspersed with chapters of present-day Evie, a caregiver whose house-sitting gig is interrupted by the arrival of the homeowner’s druggie son and his teenage girlfriend. The son announces Evie’s past with reverence, but she downplays her role in the famous cult because she didn’t kill anyone. Why not? For that answer the narrative returns to those hot August nights humming with menace, their chilling aftermath.

Cline’s prose is mostly hypnotic as Evie recounts that pivotal time, although the occasional overwritten sentence calls attention to itself and detracts from the fascinating story. Still, watching Aquarius, I’m ready to reread The Girls.

americangirlsIf not for Cline’s buzzed-about novel, I suspect more attention would be paid to Alison Umminger’s smart YA novel American Girls (Flatiron Books, digital books), in which the memories of the Manson murders shadow the present day.

Atlanta teen Anna is a bit of a brat and something of a mean girl at book’s beginning. Feeling left out of her divorced parents’ new families, she uses her stepmother’s credit card to buy a ticket to L.A. to see her half-sister, a striving actress. Delia agrees with Anna that their mother isn’t the best, and works out a deal so that Anna can stay with her for the summer, provided she earns money to pay back her plane fare. Conveniently, Delia’s ex-boyfriend Roger is an indie film director and hires Anna to research Hollywood murders, especially the Manson girls. Anna is surprised to discover parallels between herself and the “regular” girls who became killers, and is disturbed when it appears a stalker has targeted Delia. Hanging out on the set of a popular teen drama scripted by Delia’s current boyfriend, Anna also is exposed to competitive backlot Hollywood, where fame proves fleeting for young starlets. Meanwhile, news from back home has her rethinking her relationships.

Anna sounds like a real 15-year-old — smart but insecure, sarcastic yet vulnerable. Her candid voice reveals the complexities of her life in particular and those of girls in general. Did I mention that American Girls is also a first novel? It sure doesn’t read like one.

 

 

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ladyvioletI dined today with Lady Violet. Not really, but I did have Sunday dinner with my mother and several of her friends, all of whom now are of the age the Dowager Countess was back then, in 1925. All were looking forward, too, to the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre tonight. Although they’ve already bid farewell to Downton Abbey in the UK, with the finale airing Christmas Day, none of the ladies I was with went looking for spoilers on Google beforehand. Not that they don’t know their way around an iPad or a laptop, thank you very much. But they are anticipating the pleasures of reacquainting themselves with the Crawley family, upstairs and downstairs, certain that writer Julian Fellowes can be counted on to deliver the requisite drama.

Indeed, Downton Abbey has been rife with love, loss, scandal and the challenges posed by a changing world, or as the New York Times listed in a quiz about the characters: Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Forbidden Desire, Child Tribulations, Devastating Betrayal, Physical Misery, Blackmail Travails. Most of the main characters have been beset by multiple woes.

lakehouseDownton Abbey is like a good novel, and not surprisingly, it has been good for publishing, not only with the popularity of official companion volumes, but with the renewed interest in family sagas set in World War I or post-war Britain. I’ve recommended many over the last five years, but the only novel I’ve read recently that sort of falls in that category is Kate Morton’s The Lake House (Atria, digital galley). In 1930s Cornwall, the wealthy Edevane family is visited by tragedy when their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, vanishes from the nursery during a midsummer’s eve party. The case is never solved, and in 2003, disgraced young police detective Sadie Sparrow, stumbles on the abandoned manor house while visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She’s intrigued by the case and also by the fact that famous mystery novelist Alice Edevane, a child when her brother disappeared, is still alive but has never returned to Cornwall. Morton shifts the story between past and present as Sadie investigates the cold case and as Alice recalls in vivid detail the events of that fateful summer. It’s a Downton-kind of saga, evoking a bygone time and many family secrets.

turnerhouseBut the Brits are not the only ones who write family sagas. If what interests you is how generations of a flawed family are torn and bound by secrets over time, then check out Angela Flournoy’s absorbing first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which was a National Book Award finalist. The house on Yarrow Street on Detroit’s East Side is about as far away from Downton as you might imagine, but for 50 years it was the home of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was a comfortable one for a working-class black family, but by 2008, the recession has wrecked the East Side. The house is nowhere near its mortgaged value, and the clan must make some decisions. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner offspring — truck driver Cha-Cha, young police officer Troy, and baby sister and gambling addict Lelah — and also includes flashbacks tracing Francis and Viola’s migration from the South. Social history, family history, American history. Also, Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Child Tribulation, Devastating Betrayal, etc., etc

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cindersThe new season of the PBS powerhouse Downton Abbey arrives stateside Sunday after having already aired in the UK. If you are the kind of person who likes spoilers, you probably already know via Google what’s up with Lady Mary, sister Edith, ladies’ maid Anna and butler Carson, etc., etc. The rest of us have been making do with reruns and the Downton Abbey cottage industry of books inspired by the series.

Publishers continue to ride the crest of Downton’s popularity, with authorized spin-offs, as well as reprints of similar family sagas (Philip Rock’s Passing Bells trilogy) and newly minted volumes (Fay Weldon’s The New Countess pubbed last month).  Aimed at teens, Leila Rasheed’s At Somerton series, which started last year with Cinders & Sapphires (Disney-Hyperion, purchased e-book), continues this month with Diamonds & Deceit, as Lady Ada and her sister brave the London season on the eve of World War I.

franceBecause 1914 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, we can expect more novels set in that era. I’m reading one of them right now — Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson (HarperCollins, digital galley). When war breaks out, plucky Lady Elizabeth “Lilly” Neville-Ashford, striving for independence from aristocratic society, becomes an ambulance driver “somewhere in France.” She is reunited with her brother’s childhood friend, Robbie Fraser, a field surgeon whose working-class background disqualifies him as a suitor in her parents’ eyes, but the war breaks down some barriers while erecting others. Love and war, duty and honor. Remember in Upstairs, Downstairs when Georgina was nursing in France and found wounded James? Lilly reminds me a bit of Georgina, as well as nurse Bess Crawford in Charles Todd’s ongoing series (A Question of Honor). Her challenges as a female ambulance driver also are similar to those of the title heroine of Anita Shreve’s recent novel Stella Bain.

ashendonW. Somerset Maugham drew on his time as a British intelligence officer during WWI for his collection of short stories Ashenden. It’s not to be confused with Elizabeth Wilhide’s Ashenden (Simon & Schuster, paperback review copy via Shelf Awareness), which takes its name from an English country house, its checkered history chronicled in a series of linked short stories. The first, set in 2010, finds brother and sister Charles and Ros wondering what to do with the old house they have surprisingly inherited. The narrative then skips back to 1775 and the building of the Palladian mansion designed by a Yorkshire architect who gives heart and blood to the project. Years later he returns to Ashenden with his ailing niece, who carves her initials beneath the window sill of the still-unfinished octagonal room. In 1837, the lady of the house takes a lover with scandalous consequences for the family and its servants. The house itself, neglected for decades, is then rescued and restored by the rags-to-riches Henderson clan in 1844, and  it’s a Henderson son’s housemaid’s impulsive theft 40 years later that makes for another tale. Like Downton Abbey, Ashenden becomes a convalescent home for wounded soldiers during World War I. Later, it’s the site of a Jazz Age treasure hunt, then a wartime POW camp. Nature takes its toll until a young couple intervenes in the 1950s, and so on. The episodic structure gives the book a familiar Masterpiece Theatre feel.

tyringhamRosemary McLoughlin’s Tyringham Park (Atria, digital galley), which will be published next month, is much more melodramatic. It begins on a summer day in 1917  when “the pretty one” — toddler Victoria Blackshaw — disappears on the huge estate in Ireland. The handsome stable manager and the kindly housekeeper are the most concerned. “The plain one” — eight-year-old Charlotte — is mute in the aftermath of her sister’s disappearance, ignored by her pompous father in London, and victimized at home by both her selfish mother, Lady Edwina, and scheming Nurse Dixon. Young Charlotte has a tough time in the years ahead, but her own behavior doesn’t always win sympathy, except when contrasted to Lady Edwina, who is such a conniving witch that she deserves disaster. Meanwhile, Nurse Dixon reinvents herself as Elizabeth Dixon in faraway Australia, where she plots revenge against the Blackshaws and eagerly awaits the day she can return triumphantly to Tyringham.  It’s soap opera in a scenic setting. Did I mention that Downton Abbey has been renewed for a fifth season?!

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downton3I’m more than ready for the third season of Downton Abbey to begin Sunday night on PBS. I’ve watched the rerun of season 2 (that last scene of Matthew and Lady Mary gets me every time), looked at the preview clips online, tried to ignore the spoilers coming from across the pond and thumbed through the glossy pages of the Downton Abbey engagement calendar I gave my mother for Christmas. So far, though, I have resisted buying a “Free Bates” T-shirt and/or coffee mug, but I have signed a petition to get the guy out of prison.

passingThen there are the books, and not just the official companion volumes. Last year about this time I wrote “Up with Downton: more reading,” and it was my most popular blog post of the year. I mentioned titles by Kate Morton, R.E. Delderfield, Elswyth Thane and Phillip Rock, among others, noting that Rock’s The Passing Bells trilogy was sadly out of print.

Not any more. HarperCollins is publishing Rock’s novels with the tagline, “Before there was Downton Abbey, there was Abingdon Pryory.” It’s the grand home of the Greville family, headed by the Earl of Stanmore, and World War I changes the lives of  the household, upstairs and downstairs. My favorite characters are the servant girl Ivy and the Grevilles’ American cousin, Martin, who becomes a war correspondent. The story continues in Circles of Time and The Future Arrived.

Fay Weldon, the British novelist and screenwriter who penned the original Upstairs Downstairs pilot, begins a late-Victorian/Edwardian family saga this month weldonwith Habits of the House. It introduces the aristocratic but financially-strapped Earl of Dilberne, who decides to marry off his son Arthur to American meat-packing heiress Minnie O’Brien. The servants evidently have plenty to gossip about, as St. Martins’ Press will publish the second volume in the “Love and Inheritance” series, Long Live the King, in May.

I’m planning to read Weldon’s books because I enjoy her witty writing, although UK reviewers have dubbed this one lightweight dish. It can’t possibly be lighter than American writer T. J. Brown’s Summerset Abbey (Gallery Books, digital arc via NetGalley), the first in a summersettrilogy charting the lives of English sisters Rowena and Victoria Buxton and the governess’s daughter Prudence Tate beginning in 1913. I’m halfway through this soap bubble, and I keep yawning. I’m thinking of abandoning it and watching the 1995 DVD of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, which I reread last year.  Really, Sunday can’t come soon enough.

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Four beach books for the Fourth, or for whenever you want your reading lite.

I’ll never again watch Dancing with the Stars without thinking of Deirdre Griffin, the title character in Claire Cook’s lively Wallflower in Bloom (Touchstone, library hardcover). Deirdre, fed up with assisting her brother Tag’s rocketing career as a self-help guru and her own sorry love life, uses his fans and her social-networking skills to become the hit show’s first non-celebrity contestant.  Even as Deirdre, weighed down with extra pounds and poor self-esteem, struggles to learn the cha-cha with dance partner Ilya, Tag and the family begin to reevaluate her role in holding them together. Cook spices her cute Cinderella story with inside show trivia — I want some illusion mesh of my very own — and humorous self-help aphorisms.

Reality TV also figures in the plot of Wendy Wax’s Ocean Road (Berkley, paperback galley from publicist), a stand-alone sequel to last year’s Ten Beach Road. The three women — Maddie, Avery, and Nicole — who became friends renovating a Florida Gulf beach house — head to Miami, along with Maddie’s grown daughter and Avery’s estranged mother. They’ll be filming the pilot for a home improvement show called “Do-Over,” and the neglected mansion owned by ancient vaudevillian Max is badly in need of repair. But the film crew seems intent on capturing the women’s messy personal lives instead of their renovations, and outside forces, including an actor on location, a secret from the past and hurricane season, threaten to thwart the whole project. Pleasantly predictable, the book offers fascinating DIY details and a delightful supporting cast (the Oscar goes to Max) as the women hammer out their problems and shore up their friendship.

I felt completely at home reading Dorothea Benton Frank’s Porch Lights (William Morrow, library hardcover), and not just because it takes place in my part of the world — the South Carolina Lowcountry — and I know the author. I think it’s because I’m from a family of talkers, and Frank’s two narrators — Jackie, a widowed Army nurse, and Annie Britt, her opinionated mother — can talk a blue streak. After Jackie’s firefighter husband is killed in the line of duty, she takes their traumatized 10-year-old son from New York to the family house on Sullivan’s Island. Annie, who drove off her husband Buster with her meddling ways and constant chatter, tries to comfort Jackie and young Charlie with down-home meals and a heaping helping of good intentions. Fortunately, neighbor Deb, sister-in-law Maureen and Buster himself help  keep mother and daughter from driving each other crazy. At times, reading Porch Lights is like being on a conference call with two of your best gal pals, who hardly come up for air as they talk, talk, talk, skittering from subject to subject like a couple of water bugs. They entertain, overwhelm and keep on keeping on.

Kate Klise rotates among four narrators in her zippy In the Bag (Morrow, paperback review copy). Teenager Webb and his dad Andrew are in coach on the flight to Paris, while Daisy and her teen daughter Coco are in first class. On a whim, Andrew sticks a mash note in Daisy’s carry-on, but what brings the two single parents and offspring together is checked luggage. Webb arrives in Madrid with Coco’s black duffel bag, and Coco is dismayed to discover she has Webb’s duffel in Paris. The two tech-saavy teens soon find one another on the Internet and their e-mail exchanges propel the story fast-forward as the initial mix-up leads to comic complications and conspiracies.

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Friends of the blog know I am a “Downton Abbey” fan, addicted to the upstairs-downstairs lives being chronicled on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. Last night’s episode was especially entrancing with the return of the viper Vera and the wounding of Matthew and William in France. And didn’t you love dowager Lady Violet doing battle with the vicar?

I’ve seen a number of proposed “Downton Abbey” reading lists for those wanting to know more of the Edwardians and World War I. Mostly they round up the usual suspects in literary fiction, memoir and poetry, which is well and good to a point. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory is one of my favorite books, and yes, you really should read Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Lowell’s Goodbye To All That, Vera Brittain’s elegiac Testament of Youth. Be aware, though, they are more downers than “Downton.”

They are not the books I went in search of to satisfy my craving for sudsy family sagas. I am still getting to know the Crawleys. The Swanns, the Grevilles, the Straffords, the Spragues and the Days are all old friends, and thanks to R.E. Delderfield, Philip Rock, Ursula Zilinksy and Elswyth Thane, I know their family trees better than my own. (They also are handily printed at the novels’ beginnings).

Right now, I’m basking in Zilinsky’s The Long Afternoon, delighting again in the details of life at Altondale Park a century ago: “Draperies and portieres and clutter made unending work, especially when combined with sooty coal fires, but housemaids cost less to keep than a hunting dog, and the rumblings of William Morris, who preached natural wood, light-colored walls, and simplicity, would not reach Yorkshire for some years to come, and when they did, would be ignored.”

After I finish with the changing fortunes of aristocratic Toby, his German cousin Felix, and their friend David, the vicar’s son, I plan to move on to Rock’s The Passing Bells and reacquainting myself with the Grevilles, American cousin Martin and housemaid Ivy Thaxton. Since it’s the first book in a trilogy, I’ll be hard pressed to stop with one book.

And then there are Delderfield’s doorstops in his God is an Englishman trilogy. The Edwardian/ World War I story of Adam Swann’s heirs is the third, Theirs Was the Kingdom. And there are seven volumes in Thane’s Williamsburg series, although The Light Heart, following Phoebe Sprague and Oliver Campion from 1902 to 1917, may well be my favorite.

Unfortunately, many of these books are out-of-print, but you can find copies in libraries and used bookstores. Lucky me has them all, as well as Alison McLeay’s The Summer House, Rumer Godden’s China Court, and Kate Morton’s more recent The House at Riverton.

The many new books I have to read are just going to have to wait. Look for me in an English country house. I hope you’ll stay for tea.

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