The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out by Wayne Byrne

The Cinema of Tom DiCilloBook Review
Title: The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out
Author:  Wayne Byrne
Publisher: Wallflower Press
Released: September 2017
Pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-0231185356
Book Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  4.5

I admit that I can’t review The Cinema of Tom DiCillo: Include Me Out by Wayne Byrne without bias, but I can say that my bias is formed by a deep appreciation of Tom DiCillo’s films and Tom DiCillo, the man. I was fortunate to receive a review copy of the book from Columbia University Press’ Wallflower division and am pleased to give you my honest opinion about it.

I believe that the first of DiCillo’s films that I ever saw was Living in Oblivion, when I rented it on DVD soon after it was released – likely in 1996. As a life-long film fan, Living in Oblivion, a humourous, heartfelt film about the making of an independent film, was an absolute treasure to discover and has since become DiCillo’s seminal masterpiece. It wasn’t long after that when I also rented and enjoyed watching Johnny Suede, the now cult film with a cool surf music score that helped to launch Brad Pitt and Catherine Keener’s careers. Because I’ve always enjoyed Keener’s work and because she was in four of DiCillo’s films, I kept watching them and had seen at least four of them before I got to know a lot more about the filmmaker.

Then, in a strange, albeit serendipitous twist of fate, I became friends with Tom DiCillo when I discovered his blog as he was writing about the process of releasing and trying to find a distributor for When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors (which won a Grammy in 2011), over seven years ago. The Doors are on my Top 5 Favourite Bands of All Time list and as such they formed the basis for our original conversation. However, we have continued to stay in touch ever since, because Tom is a very accessible, generous man with a kind heart and genuine appreciation for his fans. Not only am I a fan of his body of work, but I admire and respect him as an artist and a human being.  I’m equally enamored with Tom’s music project, The Black and Blue Orkestre, because I love his singing voice and the combination of Spaghetti Western, Surf and Cinematic Gothic Rockabilly grooves that form the music.

But back to the book. This volume by Irish author and Film Studies lecturer / education consultant Wayne Byrne is an extremely well-written, intelligent, enthralling addition to the Directors’ Cuts series published by Wallflower Press and a must-read for any cineaste or film student. It took Byrne five years to complete, but during that time he interviewed not only Tom DiCillo, at length, but also many of the actors in his films, including Steve Buscemi who wrote the foreword.

“In short, this wonderful book details the ultimate triumphant journey of one of independent cinema’s smartest, funniest, and fiercest warriors.” ~ Steve Buscemi

Byrne’s book is an interesting in-depth look at all of DiCillo’s eight independent films (seven of which premiered at Sundance) the agony and the ecstasy of birthing them, as well as an honest, insider’s view into the independent film industry and the machinations of the Hollywood system.

In his book, Byrne analyzes the themes of identity, family, and masculinity in DiCillo’s work and supports it with “in-depth coverage of the generic and aesthetic aspects of DiCillo’s distinctive and influential film style.” Through detailed chapters on each of his feature films, readers receive “…a candid look behind-the-scenes of both the American independent film industry – from the No Wave movement of the 1980s, through the Indie boom of the 1990s, to the contemporary milieu – and the Hollywood studio system.”

Byrne studied the writing, production, and release of each of DiCillo’s films and followed them with an extensive and intriguing Q&A with him, as well as exclusive interviews with many actors and collaborators including Steve Buscemi, Catherine Keener, Peter Dinklage, Sam Rockwell, John Turturro, Chris Noth, Maxwell Caulfield, Matthew Modine, Gina Gershon, Kevin Corrigan, Alison Lohman and John Densmore and Robby Krieger of The Doors.

Johnny Suede (1991)
Living in Oblivion (1995)
Box of Moonlight (1996)
The Real Blonde (1997)
Double Whammy (2001)
Delirious (2006)
When You’re Strange (2009)
Down in Shadowland (2014)

I own all DiCillo’s films and have watched them all again with new eyes after reading Byrne’s book, getting something new from each of them even though I’ve seen six of them previously, at least a couple of times. Perhaps that is what allows DiCillo’s work to endure throughout the years. It is clever, often subversive and upon first viewing you may think, “Well, what was that all about? That was a bit bizarre…”, but upon further viewing, you really get a feel for the director’s unique style and voice, use of colour, choice of music (often created by composer Jim Farmer) as well as the themes that inspire him. It is DiCillo’s way of viewing and expressing humanity in his work with his distinct sense of humour and pathos that makes these films stand out in the crowd of slick, violent, comic-book infested, often soulless, unoriginal movies from Hollywood that we’re seeing today. Give me the work of Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, The Coen Brothers, Michael Winterbottom, Tim Burton and Tom DiCillo any day. If you agree, read this book.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot SeeBook Review

Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author:  Anthony Doerr
Imprint: Scribner
Published: 2014
Pages: 544
ISBN: 978-1-5011-0456-5
Stars:  4.0

I am not usually drawn to novels set during World War II.  Maybe it’s because I am half German, and have no desire whatsoever to read anything about Hitler, particularly now that we are living in a political climate fuelled by a buffoon dictator just south of the border, in 2017. I do, however, love stories set in Paris, which is why I decided to give this book a try, although it was also enthusiastically recommended to me by my good friend Deborah Ledon who did not steer me wrong with her last recommendation.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel, is a work of art in more ways than one.  Each short chapter is like a photograph come to life, filled with colour, texture, and light, revealing one image, a small piece of the story. Doerr’s prose is so beautiful that we cannot put the book down for wanting to experience, with all of our senses, that next piece of the story. And all of our senses are heightened as we do.

The book begins on 7 August 1944 as Germany is bombing France, or more specifically, Saint-Malo, France, as a 16-year-old blind girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a table at Number 4 rue Vauborel, holding a model of the city in miniature. She knows every centimetre of the model by touch and has memorized its street names. She can hear the bombers, who are three miles away, approaching Saint-Malo.

“Five streets to the north, a white-haired 18-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum.” He is in the Hotel of Bees, a once cheerful address where Parisians would stay on weekend holidays. Werner is in the building when bombers brandishing high-velocity anti-air guns known as 88s start to destroy everything in the vicinity of the hotel. What, we wonder, could possibly happen next?

Compelled to turn the pages of each short chapter, we study them as if they are photographs on exhibition in an art gallery. As we move through each chapter in the first 90 pages of the book, a ten-year history of these two main characters is revealed in snapshot after snapshot.

We learn about the curse of an ancient blue diamond containing a touch of red at its center, known as the Sea of Flames. The 133 carat diamond has been locked up in a cleverly disguised vault in the basement of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Marie-Laure’s father works as the principal locksmith.

We also learn that Werner was raised with his sister Jutta, in a Children’s Home in Zollverein, a coal-mining complex near Essen, Germany by a kind woman named Frau Elena, and that young Werner, who has a love of science, also possesses a knack for repairing radios, which may just save him from having to work in the coal mines like all of the other 15-year-old boys in the region.

Sergeant Major Reinhold Von Rumpel, a gemologist before the war, now works for the Reich. It is his mission to find the Sea of Flames for the Führer for his proposed empyrean city in Linz, Austria, at the center of which he plans to build a kilometre-long museum filled with the greatest treasures in all of Europe and Russia.

The author flips us back and forth between what is happening to Marie-Laure and what is happening to Werner from 1934 to 1944, his exquisite writing moving with the pace of a suspense thriller. And then he starts to weave in the story of Von Rumpel and we slowly discover how all three characters’ lives will intersect.

Werner’s story is particularly heart-wrenching as he is recruited by the Reich – who force 14-year-old boys to train for their Machiavellian purposes – always weeding out the weakest, with unbelievable cruelty, while staying focused on building their superior Aryan race. Werner is small, sensitive and very smart and he dreams of becoming an engineer. He tries with all his strength to hold onto those dreams as the grim realization of his situation becomes evident and he slowly understands just how evil the force that he has had to follow and support really is.

By the time I read half of this novel, my guts were gripped by the horror of how vicious human beings can be and I cried as I was reminded that although we earthlings have endured two World Wars, so many of us don’t seem to have learned anything from them as the current political state of affairs in much of the world can attest to.

However, it is the indestructible optimism and resilience of the spiritually strong, like Marie-Laure,  who give us hope that things can change for the positive in the future. When one’s will to live is as strong as hers, there may be no limit to what we can endure. However, the price we pay for surviving the struggle is steep.

By the time I read half of this book, I was filled with sadness. This is not the type of book I should be reading as throughout this winter I have struggled with stress and depression. I read on because I had to know what happens to these characters in whom I had become deeply invested. There has to be some light at the end of this literary tunnel, some redemption, joy even. After all, the title is All The Light We Cannot See…but by page 400 there is still no light.

By the time I had almost finished the book, I could barely read the last 50 pages because of the ugly, depressing, soul-destroying events that occur page after page in relentless succession. Surely there can be no light in reliving this dismal history? I understand Doerr’s metaphors and by the end of the book I could see the light he refers to in the title, but that light just didn’t shine brightly enough to make me feel that reading this book was a gift and something that I shouldn’t have missed out on. The novel has its share of beauty and light, to be sure, but the cold, hard facts of what people endured in World War II at the hands of a fascist dictator are definitely not something I ever want to relive in a story, of any kind, ever again.

The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom the magic strings of frankie prestoBook Review

Title: The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto
Author:  Mitch Albom
Imprint: Harper Paperbacks
Released: October 25, 2016
Pages: 368
ISBN-10: 0062294431
ISBN-13: 9780062294432
Stars:  5.0

Once in a very blue moon a book comes along that is so unique and wonderful, no – downright magical – that it immediately becomes one of the best books you’ve ever read. Those books are what I call five-star desert island classics; books I want to have with me for the rest of my life because I know I will read them again and again.

Recently, my client and dear friend Deborah Ledon recommended a book for me that she said she loved and was certain that I would love too. I bought the book, called The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto by Mitch Albom, whose work I had read previously and especially adored in The Five People You Meet In Heaven (which I’ve so far read twice). Albom is a maestro of the rhythm of storytelling and I believe he has created his magnum opus with The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto, a book narrated by Music itself.

Francisco de Asís Pascual Presto was born in Villareal, Spain in August 1936 in a church where his mother had sought refuge from El Terror Rojo – the Red Terror – revolutionaries and militiamen who were angry with the new government. Francisco’s mother Carmencita was aided by a young nun as she gave birth to her son, and we later learn that she died after childbirth and the nun took care of the newborn, who would not cry, in his early days as an infant. Before Carmencita dies, she sings a melody to her baby, a song called “Lágrima” (teardrops) by the renowned Spanish guitarist Francisco Tárrega, and the song is immediately ingrained in baby Frankie’s memory.

On the boy’s first birthday his guardian takes him into town to its largest store where Frankie hears a song by Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia on a wind-up gramophone for the first time, and he finally cries. In fact, he continues to cry constantly and the only thing that will ease his torment is music.

Frankie is raised by a blind guitar teacher in Spain, known to him as El Maestro, who gives him six mysterious blue strings and a beautiful acoustic guitar, educates him in music, and allows Frankie’s magnificent talent to blossom.

Throughout this extraordinary story, we travel back through Frankie Presto’s illustrious history from the 1940s jazz scene to the Grand Ole Opry, to the birth of rock and roll and Woodstock, while Frankie (accompanied by his hairless dog with no name) searches for his childhood sweetheart, Aurora York. We meet some of the great artists who influenced him and were influenced by him along the way, including Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, Darlene Love, Tony Bennett and Paul Stanley to name a few, who help Music to narrate the tale.

I couldn’t believe it when in Part Five of the novel, Albom wrote about Paul Stanley‘s reminiscences of Frankie Presto, at the end of which he recalled:

“It’s funny. In 1999, I got a chance to play the lead in Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. I’ve never tried anything like that. But I went for it, partly because my son at the time was about five years old. And I remember thinking, “I want him to see me in this.”

Well, I saw Paul Stanley, guitarist and founding member of KISS, in 1999, in Phantom of the Opera in Toronto, and he was absolutely brilliant!

I was mesmerized by Albom’s story from the very first chapter and found myself smiling a lot, although sometimes tearing up too while reading Music’s epic tale about Frankie’s journey to discover what matters most in life and how the power of talent can change our lives. Music, fame, true love and the inevitable fall from grace shape the melody and harmonies of Frankie’s soundtrack and like all great soundtracks, leave us thinking about our own.

Like most of us, Frankie doesn’t get through life unscathed and has to deal with more than his fair share of tragedy, but music, love, and the magic of synchronicity save him, again and again.

This passage brought tears to my eyes with its simple truth:

He recalled a conversation with his teacher.

“Why do the strings make different sounds, Maestro?”
“It is simple. They work like life.”
“I don’t understand.”
“The first string is E. It is high pitched and quick like a child.
“The second string is B. It is pitched slightly lower, like the squeaky voice of a teenager.
“The third string, G, is deeper, with the power of the young man.
“The fourth string, D, is robust, a man at full strength.
“The fifth string, A, is solid and loud but unable to reach high tones, like a man who can no longer do what he did.”
“And the sixth string, Maestro?”
“The sixth is the low E, the thickest, slowest, and grumpiest. You hear how deep? Dum-dum-dum. Like it is ready to die.”
“Is that because it is closest to heaven?”
“No, Francisco. It is because life will always drag you to the bottom.”

I love the messages in this story that tell us with perseverance, practice, and determination, we can overcome the largest of obstacles in our lives…and the loyalty of a good dog can sometimes save us. But ultimately, true love and leaving a positive legacy for our children, is what matters most in life, and for this die-hard romantic, no truer words have ever been written.

With this book, Mitch Albom has become one of my favourite authors. I hope that you will read it so that he will become one of your favourites too.

 

Just Kids by Patti Smith

Just Kids by Patti SmithBook Review
Title: Just Kids
Author:  Patti Smith
Publisher: Ecco
Released: October 24, 2010
Pages: 306
ISBN-10: 0060936223
ISBN-13: 978-0060936228
Stars:  5.0

Like Patti Smith, I grew up writing poetry and listening to rock’n’roll. That is where the similarity ends because I am not an artist, only an appreciator of them. Although I haven’t read Arthur Rimbaud or Jean Genet, nor have I yet been to Paris, I have always been captivated by the music of the 70s and the writings of Sam Shepard, Jim Carroll and Jim Morrison. I had no idea that Shepard and Carroll were Smith’s lovers but reading the dreamy, tender narrative of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe surprised me in many ways, including the fact that he was also her lover, because I knew he was openly gay. Until now, I haven’t known very much about Patti Smith except that some of my friends are big fans of hers, she’s collaborated with Springsteen (one of my music heroes), and that her poetry, music and art earned her a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

I often dream of where I’d go if I had my own hot tub time machine and New York City during the late 60s/early 70s is definitely one of the places I’d choose. Patti Smith was born almost 20 years before me, but I’ve listened to and loved a lot of the music that was created by her contemporaries (in particular, The Doors and Janis Joplin) and have been a fan of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography for a long time. However, she has made me appreciate his work with new eyes and I’m grateful for that. Reading Smith’s autobiography Just Kids is the next best thing to using a hot tub time machine as she has written an exquisite account of her early years as a struggling artist and Mapplethorpe’s muse.

From 1967 to 1978, Patti shares her memories of their lives in New York City and specifically at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, a dreamscape so perfectly realized and vividly fascinating that you feel as if you’re there with them. We meet many legendary artists including William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Sam Shepard and Tom Verlaine, although none of them holds a candle to the flame that is the telling of the birth of Smith’s and Mapplethorpe’s artistic legacy.

Patricia Lee Smith was born in Chicago on December 30, 1946 and was part of a close knit family that included her siblings Linda, Todd and Kimberly, who later relocated with their parents to South Jersey. What struck me about Patti that I wasn’t expecting is that she’s a very down-to-earth, deeply spiritual person and was never a drug addict as one who hasn’t known her might imagine based on her skinny heroin chic look and the time in which she came of age and became famous for being a punk rocker poet. In researching her for this review, I discovered that we share a very similar view of religion as well:

I believe there is good in in [sic] all religions. But religion, politics and business, all of these things, have been so corrupted and so infused with power that I really don’t have interest in any of it – governments, religion, corporations. But I do have interest in the human condition. (Rolling Stone)

Patti’s love for Robert Mapplethorpe was utterly pure and transcended any boundaries that society might have wanted to instill upon them. Although they weren’t meant to be together as husband and wife, they were most certainly soul mates (regardless of her marriage to MC5 guitarist Fred Sonic Smith) up until his tragic death at the age of 42. On March 9, 1989 Robert died from complications due to AIDS. Her recollection of his passing within the pages of this book brought me to tears. Just Kids opens with the phone call she received from Robert’s brother Edward telling her that he had finally succumbed to his illness, at which moment she was listening to Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte”, and it ends with her making peace with having to say goodbye. (“Smile for me Patti, as I am smiling for you.”) In between, we get to know Robert Mapplethorpe as intimately as a stranger can and develop an understanding of what inspired him as an artist as she traces “their first meetings (there were two of them before one fateful night in Tompkins Square Park) to their days in and out of hotels, love affairs, creative collaborations, nightclubs, and gritty neighborhoods…” (Interview Magazine)

Just Kids is a masterpiece, filled with iconic black and white photographs of Smith and Mapplethorpe, including some of their art and a few of Smith’s poems as well. She’s a very gifted poet and although I confess that I was never a big fan of her music aside from “Because The Night” and “Power To The People”, (I was 11 when Horses was released) I’m listening to it now with new ears and would love to read more of her poetry and song lyrics because this book has made me fall for her…hard. I now understand why she has endured and why there will never be another female rock artist like her. Anyone who can write a memoir that inspires someone to discover their career forty years after it began deserves to be the national treasure that Patti Smith is.

 

The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me by Cathie Borrie

The Long Hello by Cathie BorrieBook Review
Title: The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me
Author:  Cathie Borrie
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Canada
Released: January 6, 2015
Pages: 225
ISBN: 978-1-4767-9251-4
Book Reviewer: Christine Bode
Stars:  2.5

 

My younger sister died five months ago today from ovarian cancer at the age of 48 so it’s quite possible that I’m just not in the right frame of mood to be reading and reviewing a memoir about a woman who spent seven years caring for her mother before she died from Alzheimer’s in her late 80’s. Nonetheless, the good people at Simon & Schuster enticed me into reading The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me by Cathie Borrie by using these paragraphs to describe it:

“It explores the emotional rewards and challenges that Cathie Borrie experienced in caring for her mother, who was living with Alzheimer’s disease, for seven years. Between the two, a wondrously poetic dialogue develops, which Ms. Borrie further illuminates with childhood memories of her family, and her struggle to maintain a life outside her caregiving responsibilities. The Long Hello demonstrates how caregiving creates an opportunity to experience the change in a relationship that illness necessitates, one in which joy, meaning, and profound intimacy can flourish. 

Written in spare, beautiful prose, largely in the form of a dialogue, The Long Hello exquisitely captures the intricacies and nuances of a daughter’s relationship with her mother.”

After reading the book, this is not my experience of it. My 62-year-old cousin, who cared for her own mother while she was dying from Alzheimer’s three years ago, read it before me and she found Borrie’s to be very unlike her own experience and not as moving or profound as she thought it might be based on what we were led to believe by the above description either.

Another thing that caught my attention and makes me wonder is why Simon & Schuster chose to use the quote “Joy!” from Maya Angelou on the cover of the book because it hasn’t been published yet and Angelou died on May 28, 2014. If she did indeed have a chance to read this book before she passed away, I would have thought she’d have more to say about it than one word, but this to me is suspicious and the word is in my humble opinion, inappropriate.

Born in Vancouver, Borrie started her career as a nurse before attaining a Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University and later graduated from Law School at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2005, she earned a Certificate in Creative Writing from The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She is also a ballroom dancer and has performed in the theatre and as a clown. She has some impressive credentials but I don’t feel that this book “is immensely lyrical and moving” nor a “powerful display of Cathie Borrie’s talent as a writer.”

On a positive note, it’s a very quick read. I read it in two sittings. It’s written somewhat like a journal, almost in point form with the Canadian author flipping back and forth between her past and the present as she’s caring for her mother who is slowly slipping further and further away into the tunnel of dementia. However, I find that there is very little joy in this book aside from the often amusing things that Cathie’s mother Jo says as she’s losing her mind. Borrie recorded conversations with her mother so that she could write this memoir but her own emotions come across as flat and depressed, which I can totally understand that she would be, while going through such a difficult experience. When she describes the facts of her life, they’re just that, facts. The way she’s written them down it appears that she’s had very little joy in her life and maybe that’s the truth of it, I don’t know. She was, at the time of writing The Long Hello a 51-year-old single woman who couldn’t get her own needs met, but was compelled to do everything she could to help her mother before she died and that I can definitely relate to. But it makes for a sad, downer of a read and I was somewhat offended when she wrote this passage:

“My surgeon’s in his forties, easy on the eyes.

“How are things?”

“I’ve been praying for ovarian cancer.”

“You what?”

“So I’d be dead before you have to replace my hip. I figured it was a fast cancer so I’d be dead before my name got to the top of your waiting list.”

The things people say and write when they’re depressed…I’m telling you. We shouldn’t be allowed near a writing implement. I know this from experience.

Cathie Borrie’s mother left her alcoholic father when she was a young girl and soon after her 13-year-old brother Hugh was killed in a random fight with a neighbourhood bully. His, like so many others, was an utterly tragic and meaningless death. Years later, her mother remarried an older man who was always away on business but when he was home he didn’t want his wife’s child to be there because he’d already raised one family and didn’t want to deal with Cathie so she was sent away to boarding school, a fact that upsets her for the rest of her life.

Three quarters of the way through The Long Hello, Cathie’s mother asks, “What happened to the joy of life, Cath?” She replies, “I don’t know, what do you think?” “I think you thought it was going to be better than it was.” That is certainly a statement I can relate to at this point in my life and I also identified to Cathie saying, “I wish I was dead too. And when I’m old there isn’t going to be anyone left to take care of me…No one left who knows my story.” “Goddamn it, Hughie – why did I have to be the one left behind?” I’m sure that’s how many people feel when they lose a beloved sibling because I have and that’s exactly how I feel. And I didn’t need to read this book to be reminded of it.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (My All-Time Favourite Series of Books)

Outlander by Diana GabaldonBook Review
Title: Outlander
Author:  Diana Gabaldon
Publisher: Seal Books
Released: October 9, 2001
Pages: 896
ISBN-10: 0770428797
ISBN13: 978-0770428792
Stars:  5.0

Like millions of other Outlander fans, I’ve been watching the new Starz television series of the same name and LOVE it! I think the producers have done an excellent job of staying true to the book and I’m sure that’s because author Diana Gabaldon is a consultant for the series. The casting of Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan as Claire & Jamie Fraser and Tobias Menzies as Frank/Black Jack Randall is perfect, and even though the casting of Dougal MacKenzie seems wrong because Graham McTavish doesn’t look like Dougal and seems too old for the part, he is doing a great job with it. I can’t wait to see what comes next…although having to wait for April 2015 to see the second part of Season 1 is PAINFUL!!

Needless to say the Outlander series of books are those which fans read over and over again. While I’m not a super-duper obsessed fan, I have always named Diana Gabaldon as my favourite author since I read the first four novels in the late 90’s. Then, like everyone else, I waited and waited and waited for the next books to be written and in the meantime, I had theChristine Bode meets Diana Gabaldon for the second time great pleasure of meeting Diana Gabaldon twice at book signings…once after the release of A Breath of Snow and Ashes (2005) and once after the release of Lord John and The Brotherhood of The Blade (2007).

I own all of her novels but I haven’t read the last two books in the Outlander series yet and that’s because I decided that I would have to make the time to re-read the series in order, back to back, so that everything would be fresh in my mind. I read A Breath of Snow and Ashes when it came out and haven’t read another of her books since. So, now is the time! The television series has inspired me and the next year will be the year of Diana Gabaldon for me. And what a sensational year of reading it will be!!

I finished reading Outlander for the second time at 3:00 am this morning. It took me two weeks and two days, and that’s with reading at least a couple of chapters a day. These mammoth tomes are hard for an engaged reader to put down so that they can sleep, work or just get on with their day. I know they’re very long novels, but I swear that every chapter is captivating.

Although there have been an army of authors who have tried to replicate the success of these novels for themselves, no one else has come close to the popularity of Diana Gabaldon’s novels. This very intelligent woman, who happens to hold three science degrees including a PhD in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology, has sold over 25 million copies (the books have been published in 26 countries and in 23 languages) and continues to live happily with her husband in Scottsdale, Arizona. Diana Gabaldon is an extremely smart, charming, witty and beautiful woman and that’s why her books have stolen the hearts of so many people.

I’m going to reiterate what Outlander is about using Diana’s own words:

“In 1946, after WWII, a young Englishwoman named Claire Beauchamp Randall goes to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, Frank. She’s an ex-combat nurse, he’s been in the army as well, they’ve been separated for the last six years, and this is a second honeymoon; they’re getting re-acquainted with each other, thinking of starting a family. But one day Claire goes out walking by herself, and comes across a circle of standing stones—such circles are in fact common all over northern Britain.  She walks through a cleft stone in the circle…and disappears. Back into 1743, where the first person she meets is a gentleman in an 18th-century army officer’s uniform. This gentleman, Jack Randall, looks just like her husband Frank—and proves to be Frank’s six-times-great-grandfather. Unfortunately, he also proves to be a sadistic bisexual pervert, and while trying to escape from him, Claire falls into the hands of a gang of Highland Scots, who are also trying to get away from Black Jack Randall—though for other reasons.

In order to avoid being handed over to Captain Randall, Claire is obliged to marry one of the young clansmen. So she finds herself trying to escape from Castle Leoch and her Scottish captors, trying to get back to her husband Frank, trying to avoid being recaptured by Captain Randall—and falling in love with Jamie Fraser, the young man she’s been forced to marry. The story rolls on from there…”

And what an amazing, fantastic, romantic, adventurous, historical story it is!!

There’s not much more that I can add about Outlander except to say that if you haven’t read this series yet, do it! Now!! Before you die, you have to read at least the 8 novels that are currently in print (if you skip the Lord John Grey novels, you’ll be forgiven, but you should read them too) because I guarantee you, that if you love romantic, historical, adventurous, fantastical stories, no finer have ever been written. And no ladies, Jamie Fraser does not actually exist. A man like that is purely a fictional creation! Amen.

NOTE: Chapters Kingston is now selling the Outlander series (except for Written In My Own Heart’s Blood) for 2 for $15!

 

An Eternity of Roses (The Valthreans: Book 1) by Natalie G. Owens

An Eternity of Roses by Natalie G. OwensBook Review
Title: An Eternity of Roses (The Valthreans: Book 1)
Author:  Natalie G. Owens
Publisher: Rose of Atlantis Press/Natalie G. Owens
Released: January 5, 2013
Pages: 468
ISBN-10: 0988577216
ISBN-13: 978-0-9885772-1-3
Stars:  4.0

”She crashed headlong into an incandescent whirlpool of emotion from which she never wanted to escape.” Emma Deramore, in the throes of ecstasy after being separated from her true love for over 200 years…yes, I’ll have what she’s having!

It’s always such a joy when I read a book by a Facebook friend that I enjoyed enough to review. An Eternity of Roses (The Valthreans: Book 1) by Natalie G. Owens is an intelligently written, passionate, historical paranormal romance that will leave you wanting to read Book 2 of The Valthreans series, A Lifetime for Revenge, right away.

An Eternity of Roses is the story of the dashing blonde & blue-eyed Adrian Segrave, Viscount Bournemouth and his raven-haired, doe-eyed, adventurous betrothed, Lady Emmaline Deramore who in December 1807 are about to be married, thus creating a union that their British society are excited about. What they don’t know is that fate has its cruel twists mapped out for them as the jealous, red-haired, green-eyed, inherently evil immortal witch, Lady Madeleine de Brandeville is going to use a powerful curse to separate them for over 200 years.

Disclaimer: Do not read this novel if you dislike drop dead sexy heroes, strong heroines, intriguing immortals, magic, spells, mystery, amazing adventures, exotic settings, secret cults, and sensual love scenes.

Well, I do love all those things so I read the book and am not sorry that I did. I was only sorry when the story came to an end.

In the Prologue we discern the history of the Valthreans, an immortal race originating in Kashmir, India.  Their namesake Valther was murdered within sight of his brothers Nila & Candaka by the Naga King Aravala for not immediately revealing that he had found a magic Chalice that was part of a group of mystical objects that would allow him to enter a state of immortality. Valther, who had a keen interest in the science of healing and a thirst for knowledge, had found one of the legendary Cups of Life from the lost seven Chalices of the River Demon. King Aravala possessed supernatural powers that allowed him to control the seasons and the weather, and he decided who lived and died. He also used the venom of cobras to kill immortals.

Valther was deemed a traitor to his people and sentenced to death by the sting of the cobra. The Naga people’s (The Cult of the Snake) sworn enemy, King Asoka, conspired to destroy the Naga beliefs.  Knowledge of magic was coveted by both peoples and Asoka could not allow Aravala to possess more knowledge of the Black Arts than he. Aravala, the Snake King, cared only for power and wealth and his people were either terrified of him or believed in the same things while the Valthreans sought to live peacefully. But what Asoka and Aravala didn’t know was that Nila & Candaka possessed the remaining Cups of Life and they were prepared to spend eternity protecting their own by keeping them from falling into the wrong hands.

An Eternity of Roses is a highly imaginative tale of the lengths one woman will go to, to be reunited with her true love and what another will do to keep that from happening. Emma’s adventures take her from England to Scotland to Italy to Holland and back to England over the course of 200 years. Her love scenes with Adrian are steamily and sensuously written but they’re far and few between as this is a story about separation, stolen identity, revenge and redemption. Lady Madeleine de Brandeville is a deliciously vile antagonist. She kidnaps Adrian, casts a spell on him that makes him forget his past, gives him a new name (Adam Alvar), makes him an immortal and cohabitates with him in a loveless marriage, because no matter how hard she tries, Adrian does not feel any love for her. Madeleine fortuitously gets her hands on the Demon’s Chalice and positions herself as an ally of a very influential member of the Cult of the Snake’s hierarchy. She has to remain in his good graces or suffer the ultimate consequence of betrayal. However, when members of the Valthrean Council catch up with her she has to flee her home in Scotland which provides Adam with the opportunity to leave her and embark on a new life of travel and adventure.

Emma in the meantime befriends another immortal, the mysterious Massimiliano “Max” Damiani (the main character in Book 2 of this series) in 1944 in London, who is instrumental in helping her find her lost love. Max is a friend of Nila and Candaka, now known as Neil and Cam, the oldest Valthreans in existence, and head of the Council, an organization that can find just about anything and who will go to any lengths to ensure that Valthreans remain able to live in peace among humans. What will happen when they do find Adrian, who doesn’t remember a thing about his past? Although the war is coming to an end, the battle for true love has yet to begin.

This is an epic adventure that readers of both historical and paranormal romance will undoubtedly enjoy. Owens’ (a former lawyer who lives on the island of Malta) poetic prose is far better than the average self-published work and even though she indulges in a few moments of extreme cheesiness and (“Mayhap one day is all I can say. But never forget, brother, home is in here.”) the book’s cover could be more enticing, it deserves a large audience. I will definitely read more of Natalie G. Owens’ work.

The Troop by Nick Cutter

troop coverBook Review
Title: The Troop
Author:  Nick Cutter
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: February 25, 2014
Pages: 368
ISBN-10: 1476717710
ISBN-13: 978-1476717715
Stars:  4.5

Do you know how hard it is to kill something? Nothing wants to die. Things cling to their lives against all hope, even when it’s hopeless…You hold on to life until it gets ripped away from you. Even if it gets ripped away in pieces. You just hold on. ~ from The Troop by Nick Cutter

I’ve read a lot of horror novels in my day, although admittedly most of them were when I was younger. I’m a fan of Anne Rice, Clive Barker, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and of course, Stephen King, who said about this book,

“The Troop scared the hell out of me, and I couldn’t put it down. This is old-school horror at its best. Not for the faint-hearted, but for the rest of us sick puppies, it’s a perfect gift for a winter night.”

I couldn’t agree with him more. The Troop by Nick Cutter is the scariest, creepiest, most disturbing novel I’ve read in years. Perfectly marketed as a Novel of Terror, The Troop is a book best read during the daytime with the lights on so that you can avoid the inevitable nightmares you’ll be plagued with if you read it before bed. There were scenes in this book that were so unsettling that I had to put the book down and go back to it later, and I read it during mornings. Described as part Lord of the Flies, part 28 Days Later (Thinner by Richard Bachman also comes to mind), this is one exceedingly freaky, well-paced read.

The Troop is the unforgettable tale of Scoutmaster Tim Riggs and the scouts of Troop Fifty-Two: five fourteen-year-old boys who head out for a weekend wilderness survival expedition (meaning no cell phones) on deserted Falstaff Island in the tiny fishing community of Lower Montague, Prince Edward Island and come into contact with a strange, extremely thin man who changes the course of their lives. One by one members of the troop are infected with a bioengineered, parasitic hydatid worm (originally created in a laboratory to be used in a weight loss product) that infuses them with a hunger that cannot be satiated and causes them to do things that they never would have imagined they were capable of.  What is certain to become the infamous “kitten” and “turtle” scenes immediately come to mind and if I’m ever locked in a dark closet I will surely lose my mind.

Kent (popular jock), Max and Ephraim (best friends: one calm, the other explosive, but well liked by others), Newton (overweight nerd) and Shelley (odd duck) are a tight-knit group of teenage boys who have grown up together and evolved as boy scouts from Beavers to Cubs and from Scouts to Venturers. We learn about their backgrounds and personalities as the story unfolds and as a result we care about them (or most of them because let’s face it, no one cheers for a sociopath) which makes it all the more upsetting to witness their individual transformations during the most terrifying experience of their lives. Indeed, something wicked this way comes!

Divided into three graphic and gory parts: The Hungry Man, Infestation, and Contagion and scarier than any ghost story I’ve ever read, The Troop is so frightening because the cause of its horror is something that could conceivably happen. Many of the chapters are prefaced with either newspaper or magazine article, geographical survey report, excerpts from scientific papers, evidence logs from the police investigation and sworn testimony of individuals involved with the events occurring on FalstaffIsland. As we are given more of the details surrounding the development and legacy of the Modified Hydatid worm, we’re pervaded with dread and feel increasingly sicker about the fate of the boys.

I’m wondering if author Craig Davidson will wish that he didn’t use the pseudonym of Nick Cutter for The Troop after its release later this month as it will undoubtedly be a bestseller and a huge success for him.

I loved this book and the only reason it didn’t get a 5 star review from me is because the boys’ characters are fairly clichéd, albeit enjoyable. However, this story stayed with me from the time I finished reading it until I wrote this review (a month), so if you read one horror novel this year, it has to be The Troop.

Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy by Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones Mad About The Boy by Helen FieldingBook Review
Title: Bridget Jones Mad About The Boy
Author:  Helen Fielding
Publisher: Knopf Canada
Released: October 15, 2013
Pages: 386
ISBN-10: 0345807952
ISBN-13: 978-0345807953
Stars:  4.0

I’ll never forget reading Bridget Jones’s Diary. It was July 1998 and I was traveling through Ireland on my own for the first time. Helen Fielding’s iconic masterpiece was referred to me by my best friend who’d had it referred to her by a close girlfriend. I was sick with a terrible head cold and spent one day in the most miserable B&B in all of Ireland, I’m sure (Goin’ My Way in Dublin), trying to take care of myself. The room wasn’t clean, the mattresses were about three inches thick, the sheets musty, the pillow as flat as a pancake. There were cracks in the window and cobwebs everywhere. But I was too sick to care. It was cheap and I needed to just stay in bed and so I did and I read Bridget Jones’s Diary and I couldn’t put it down because I absolutely loved it!

Helen Fielding has been dubbed “the grandmother of chicklit” by Barbara Walters and I hadn’t read anything like chicklit before reading Bridget Jones’s Diary. She had created a single, thirty-something character who was bright, funny, insecure and far from perfect who had a circle of eccentric but loving friends and that’s almost exactly who I saw myself as at that time (I was 34). Bridget Jones is a woman that almost all women can relate to and in the third and long-time-coming novel about her, Bridget Jones Mad About The Boy, I can still relate to her 51-year-old self even though I’ve never married, had children, or had a partner die on me.

It’s no longer a surprise that Fielding decided to kill off the suave and debonair Mark Darcy (who loved Bridget “just the way she is”) and in fact, fans everywhere were horrified when they first heard the news. But it’s okay…really! The book only suffers a little from the fact that Darcy is not in it because his spirit certainly is and there are new characters that are almost as charming. Bridget still logs her calories and time spent tackling to-do lists in her diary. She still calls her pervert ex-boss Daniel Cleaver a friend, and while she’s more clean-living than she was in her 30s, she’s still as neurotic as she tries to figure out her way through raising two young children by herself while maneuvering through online dating in 2013. Of course it helps a lot that Darcy left her a fortune and she doesn’t really have to work to support her family. If he hadn’t this would have been a completely different book.

As the story begins, our heroine has been saved from her status as a born-again virgin by her soon to be 30-year-old toy boy Roxster whom she met on Twitter, but she doesn’t know how or whether she should invite him to her friend Talitha’s 60th birthday party, and she’s just discovered her children Mabel and Billy have head lice. Bridget is now attempting a career as a screenwriter and is adapting Ibsen’s Hedda Gabbler into a story relevant to modern women even though she thinks it was written by Chekhov and doesn’t know how to spell Gabler. She’s dealing with email inbox bombs, histrionic soccer moms, and trying to grow her followers on Twitter (while studying the Dalai Lama’s tweets). She has not got over the death of Mark, five years earlier, and she doesn’t know if she ever will. After the opening Prologue, Fielding takes us back to one year earlier and we find out how this situation came about.

There are appearances here by Daniel, Tom, Jude, Magda & Jeremy, Bridget’s mum and her friends Woney & Cosmo, but we also get to know Chloe the nanny, Perfect Nicolette, the Class Mother, gym teacher Mr. Wallaker (rather like Daniel Craig in appearance), first date Leatherjacketman, neighbour Rebecca, her eternally busy & bumbling agent Brian Katzenberg, and of course there’s a lot of flirtatious texting with Roxster in between Mummy moments. Bridget’s kids are endearing and into Minecraft and Plants versus Zombies too. However, none of the supporting characters in Mad About The Boy will ever be quite as appealing as Mark Darcy, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a fun, enjoyable read.

By Part Three of the book, Descent Into Chaos, Bridget’s life makes another U-turn and everything we supposed was going to happen, doesn’t. This is a good thing because the ending is a surprise. The tone changes and so does Bridget but there is an opening here for another volume, somewhere down the road.

The constant in Mad About The Boy is the comedy sprinkled with truly touching moments as expressed in a way that only Bridget Jones can. What really struck home for me this time was her decision to attend an obesity clinic to help her get her weight under control so she wouldn’t have to be a born-again virgin forever which is precisely what I’ve been going through for the past three months, during which time I haven’t eaten food but have been surviving on Optifast shakes, water, diet drinks and coffee with Stevia (I’ve lost 38 lbs).

The chapters on How Not To Do Dating, The Number One Key Dating Rule (DO NOT TEXT WHEN DRUNK) and Escalating Dating Incompetence are particularly hilarious. While I, too, find it easy enough to shag younger men, they’re not in it for a relationship and I can’t find anyone my own age with either integrity or baggage that’s light enough for me to carry. The thing is, Bridget Jones, even though she’s a fictional character, gives me hope! And that is the essence of her long-lasting appeal. She gives us all hope that we can figure out a way to get through the crap that life slings at us without totally losing our sense of humour and without having to give up on the notion that we’re entirely loveable just the way we are.

Finding Colin Firth by Mia March

Finding Colin Firth by Mia MarchBook Review
Title: Finding Colin Firth
Author:  Mia March
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: July 9, 2013
Pages: 336
ISBN-10: 1476710201
ISBN-13: 978-1476710204
Stars:  4.0

Okay, I admit it. I’m not original. I’m like over a million other women who think that Colin Firth is absolutely talented, dreamy, amazing and someone to gush about. When I stumbled onto a copy of Mia March’s Finding Colin Firth in Chapters recently, I couldn’t help but buy it. The title captivated me instantly. I’d heard about Mia March through Jane Porter’s blog and knew that her debut novel was called The Meryl Streep Movie Club and being a huge movie fan, I’d thought that I’d love to read that as well. I just happened to find Finding Colin Firth first. I trust Jane Porter’s taste in women’s fiction implicitly as she has yet to steer me wrong.

Finding Colin Firth is not only a story that has some of the main characters literally searching for Colin Firth when it’s rumoured that he’s going to be shooting scenes for a new movie in the small coastal town of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, but it’s also a deeply moving account of three women’s issues of identity and their sense of belonging that stresses the importance of female relationships.

We first meet 22-year-old Bea Crane, a cook at Boston’s Crazy Burger who longs to become a teacher, on the day that she discovers from the deathbed letter of her mother that she was adopted. This shocking news turns Bea’s world upside down and after her bitchy boss complains about her work ethic one time too many when she’s just heard this life-changing news, she decides to quit Crazy Burger. She then travels to Maine to meet her birth mother who left her contact information with the local adoption agency.

Veronica Russo is a beautiful, single, 38-year-old waitress who works at the Best Little Diner in Boothbay. She has a small business on the side making the best pies in the area as well as teaching classes on pie making. Her “elixir” pies are particularly special because of the love, care and thought she instills in the making of every one. March’s delectable pie descriptions had me salivating, and I loved how she created special names for Veronica’s different kinds of pie: Amore Pie (chocolate caramel cream), Spirit Pie (shoofly), Feel Better Pie (blueberry), Confidence Pie (key lime) and Hope Pie (salted caramel cheesecake) to name a few.  Veronica loves Colin Firth and decides that she’s going to apply to be an extra in the movie that’s being filmed in Boothbay Harbor with the hope that she’ll get to see him in person.  We also discover that 22 years ago Veronica gave birth to a baby girl who she got to hold for all of two minutes before she was taken away from her as she’d decided to put her up for adoption. Her parents and high school boyfriend had both disowned her and she was sent to Hope Home for unwed mothers to live until she had her baby, after which she left Maine for Florida and didn’t come back for many years.

Gemma Hendricks is a 29-year-old, newly unemployed reporter from New York City who’s just discovered she’s pregnant but who is terrified that she doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body and that she’ll have to give up her career to become a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs, which is exactly what her lawyer husband Alexander wants her to do. She decides to take a vacation alone and go back to Boothbay Harbor where she spent her summers as a young girl, to reunite with some close girlfriends who co-own a little inn called Three Captains (who just happen to be running a Colin Firth movie month) and to try to figure out how she’s going to compromise with Alexander to find a happy medium for both of them. While in Boothbay Harbor, Gemma is given an opportunity to write a feature article about Hope Home’s 50th anniversary for the local Gazette which leads to her meeting both Bea and Veronica before they’ve even met each other. We come to care about each one of them in the meantime through discovering their histories and because they’re sweet, likeable women. I particularly enjoyed Veronica and looked forward to her appearances in the novel most of all.

This is a delightful, easy read that although predictable in its outcome, still held joy for this reader. Reading it is equivalent to watching a romantic comedy starring Colin Firth (think Bridget Jones’s Diary or Love Actually) while enjoying a bowl of popcorn with your girlfriends, which is something that the women in Finding Colin Firth, actually do. However, the issues of adoption, parenthood and what makes a good parent; reputation and judgment and how one can hurt the other; and finding a way to allow your heart to open after it’s been seriously damaged are not fluffy in any way. There are also interesting love interests for Bea and Veronica with several sub-plots to add depth to their characters and just the right amount of tension and conflict. There were, perhaps, too many questions raised by the main characters in the literal sense, as there were times when March listed the questions running through their minds about their individual predicaments, and that made me roll my eyes because they were quite simplified in my mind, but other than that, I loved the journey of watching these women not only find each other but also themselves, not to mention discovering whether they would actually find Colin Firth. You’ll have to read the book yourself to find out.  Go ahead, it’s worth it!