Title: Her Last Mission (A Better Late Romance)
Author: Michelle Knowlden
Genre: Romance, Mystery/ Thriller
Sandra Baak (Sandy) has spent her life periodically impersonating her twin brother Sanford (Ford) in order to make sure he got ahead. When she was seventeen, Sandy spent a year playing Ford while attending a prestigious private school, where she met Mark Orlando. Sandy fell for Mark early on but never had the courage to tell him her true identity.
In the intervening years, Sandra has led a full life as a single woman. In addition to her work as an engineer, she uses her skills in technology to conduct counter-espionage missions--again, in the guise of Ford. When her handler suspects that Mark Orlando, the CEO of Orlando Tech, is involved in peddling government secrets, Sandy finds herself once again in the presence of her old flame. Can she continue to keep her identity under wraps while she conducts her last mission? Or is it time to let her disguise go and tell Mark how she feels?
I know Michelle Knowlden, and I like her stories, the Abishag Mysteries being my favorite. Her latest book came out early this July, for only 99 cents. I was excited, since this is the first full novel of hers I’ve read in a long time. Being a friend may create a bias; however, I will try to be as honest in my review as I can.
Her Last Mission is a light and wholesome riff on Twelfth Night with an industrial espionage mystery thrown in. It has its romantic moments, but I would not exactly call it a romance. The love story comes across less like a journey or an experience, and more like a problem that needs to be solved. Between romance, family drama, and mystery, there were a lot of plot threads flying around. The set-up slowed down the first half of the story, but it picked up in the second half.
What grounded the story and tied the plot threads together was the character of Sandy, a single older woman who has spent her life fulfilling family and career obligations and now finds herself considering a very different future. She tries to reconcile these different aspects of her life and understand what brought her to this point. I found Sandy’s journey very relatable. For me, it made the book a worthwhile read.
Typically, my plans for the 4th of July include hanging out with my family, eating hot dogs and hamburgers fresh off the grill, and making some kind of red, white, and blue dessert. But with COVID-19 raging, I was only able to do one of those three things, i.e., stick some strawberries and blueberries on a store-bought vanilla cupcake and call it a day. From my quarantined apartment, I called my family to wish them a happy Independence Day, ordered a pizza, and watched Hamilton on Disney +. It seemed like the most patriotic thing I could do.
Hamilton tells the life story of Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s founding fathers, who is most famous for co-authoring the Federalist papers, setting up a national bank, and dying in a senseless duel. In this musical play, Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) is an immigrant who is “young, scrappy, and hungry” and sees the America Revolution as a way to make a name for himself. Unlike his friend Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), who advises him to “talk less, smile more,” Hamilton is vocal about his beliefs, and his gutsiness lands him a position under George Washington (Christopher Jackson). With his loyal wife Eliza (Phillipa Soo) by his side and famous friends, Hamilton rises to the heights of political power--and starts to self-destruct. As his fateful death draws near, what will his story be and who will be the one to tell it?
I can’t deny Hamilton was well-done. The music, the dance, the spectacle--it is beautifully crafted, it is impressive, and it hits your emotions hard. But it hit me in a way I didn’t expect, and that’s really what I want to write about. After watching it, I raged, I cried, and now I am going to rant. This is your warning. I have strong opinions about the role of women in Hamilton, and I am going to express my opinions.
But first, I want to talk a little about what the play actually is. Hamilton is a big, splashy Broadway musical first and a historical fiction second. It’s not meant to be a critique of history; in fact, I would go so far as to label it a revisionist fantasy. It reinterprets American history through a modern lens, not unlike how certain Shakespeare productions reinterpret their source material. This makes history recognizable to a modern audience, and because we recognize it, we can relate and empathize. Although it includes some politics, Hamilton is, for the most part, about the men who struggled through impossible odds to create a new country. It is a personal story set amid an epic backdrop.
In other words, my kind of story. I enjoy a good epic. Hamilton makes a conscious choice to cast people of all colors and races in roles that are historically White. I find this refreshing and inclusionary. I know that some critics have said that, in this environment, simply re-casting the Founding Fathers doesn’t go far enough; we need to look more critically at American history. That may be, but I think I understand what the play’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was trying to do. I remember, in high school, I would grapple with history, trying to make sense of it and see myself in the people who changed the world. Lin-Manuel Miranda obviously saw himself in Hamilton, an immigrant, who, through ambition, intelligence, and hard work, was able to leave his mark on American culture.
I don't think there's anything wrong with this. This is, after all, art, and art does not always have to be accurate. It can be fun. Hamilton is trying to be fun. It’s like kids playing dress-up. It has that joyful feeling of imagination, the boundless possibility that you can do anything and be anyone you want. And I like that feeling. As the play progressed, I found myself getting swept up in a patriotic fervor. When the Battle of Yorktown raged and Americans toppled an Empire, I felt proud, I felt happy. I thought, I am this and this is me, and I am America. In this moment, I felt bonded with my country.
And then I glanced in the background of the stage and saw the women walking back and forth like ghosts. That’s when the sour feeling hit me. I realized not everyone is included; women don’t get to have fun. Yes, women are present in the play, but they’re all love interests, and moreover, love interests to Hamilton. A few background dancers are women, but they are not given names or songs. They are like the real women in history, I suppose, living and dying and doing their part to change the world with no name and no fame and no glory. “Who tells your story?” the music asks, but for women, the answer is, “No one.”
The world is sort of crazy, I’m busy with my writing, and the movie theatres are closed. For these reasons, rather than seeking out new movies, I’ve been re-watching some of my old favorites, especially comedies. One such movie wearing out my DVD player right now is a very strange and obscure cult flick called, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has the feel of a bad, black-and-white monster movie from the 1950s, though it was made in 2003. A scientist named Dr. Paul Armstrong (Larry Blamire) and his wife Betty Armstrong (Fay Masterson), the wife of a scientist, are searching for a meteor made of a rare metal known as atmospherum. Dr. Paul Armstrong, a scientist who studies rocks, hopes to use the meteor to do science and better all of mankind through science for the benefit of all. (This is an example of the kind of intentionally repetitive dialogue that riddles the movie.)
Meanwhile, evil scientist Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe) hopes to find and revive the famed Lost Skeleton of Cadavra in order to rule the world. Meanwhile, a married pair of aliens named Kro-bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell) crash land their rocket and can’t get home. Meanwhile, the aliens’ escaped mutant rampages through the woods. Roger learns he can only revive the skeleton through atmosphereum. The aliens learn they can only fix their ship through atmosphereum. Everyone collides on the atmosphereum and hijinks ensue.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a movie you can really only appreciate if you’ve seen lots of bad movies, particularly bad monster/ sci-fi movies from the 50s. I did not have this background the first time my uncle showed the movie to me, and as a result, I was perplexed and sort of bored. It just seemed like a bad movie. However, after watching several episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, I came to truly understand what bad movies were, making The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra seem like a brilliant parody and also, surprisingly, a pretty good movie on its own merits.
June has been a crazy month, so crazy, I’m not sure where to begin. Do I with the happenings of the outside world? How I learned via texts about looting in Best Buy near my parents’ house, then heard about George Floyd and a state curfew and defund the police and protests? Or maybe I should talk about America opening for business before spikes in the Coronavirus reached an all-time high? Disneyland was going to re-open in July; now it’s not. New movies were weeks away; they got delayed. Turmoil erupted just as I was making my mind up to re-enter the world.
Re-entering the world meant going to Panera to do my writing. There was a restaurant not five minutes from my apartment. I drove there and ordered coffee--small hazelnut, with cream and sweetener--and chose one of the tables bearing the green circle of availability. I’d sit with my homemade mask still on my face, not drinking my coffee (lest I need to run to the bathroom), with my computer, my composition book, and my cheap ball point pen ready to go.
I had determined, early on, that the month of June felt like a test. It felt like a test on a national level, but for me, personally, I knew I needed to make substantial progress on Company or I was not going to get it published. It was time to buckle down and write.
Unfortunately, I had a problem. My roommate’s puppy, Atlas, kept demanding my attention. He whined and barked and jumped up on the kitchen stove, all to get my attention. My roommate was struggling with a host of health issues and couldn’t bring the dog in her room. My bedroom is the living room, so there was no barrier to keep the dog’s yip from drilling into my ears. Even sitting in the patio, I could hear him.
I give the dog a lot of attention. I walk him for 45 minutes in the morning and the evening. But I needed time in the morning to write. Specifically, I needed the hours between 9:00 and 11:00 in the morning, my most creative time. These hours were the keystone to my productivity. I could work around the dog’s schedule the rest of the day, but I needed these two hours unbroken.
It got so bad that I decided to risk going out into the world again, just to get time to write. I spoke to my roommate and my roommate’s mother to make sure they were comfortable with me breaking quarantine. My roommate’s mother also volunteered to look after the dog in the morning. I was worried about finances, the cost of going out every day, but I learned Panera had a coffee subscription. For $8.99 a month, I could get unlimited coffee. I could afford that. It seemed like all the pieces were falling into place.
Reading The Snow and the Darkness put me in a bad mood, so I decided to watch Tucker & Dale Vs Evil to cheer myself up. It’s a comedic riff on a hillbilly slasher movie, and it’s available on Netflix right now. I’ve watched it before, and I really love it, because it's clever and funny and leaves me feeling good.
When a group of college kids travel deep into the Appalachian Mountains for a camping trip, they encounter a couple of hillbillies who occupy a creepy-looking cabin. It seems like the perfect set-up for a horror movie. However, the hillbillies turn out to be harmless. Pragmatic, beer-loving Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and hopeless romantic Dale (Tyler Labine) just want to renovate their “vacation home” and go fishing. When Dale rescues college student Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, a series of misunderstandings lead the remaining college kids to believe that Tucker and Dale are psycho killers. Soon the bodies start piling up in violent, gory, and hilarious ways.
Tucker & Dale is a kind of a parody movie, and I, personally, love parodies. They play with the conventions of genre, which I’m always a fan of. But whereas some parody movies are content to rest on laughs and not really bother with a story (I’m looking at you Scary Movie), Tucker & Dale Vs Evil delivers a well-written tale with fleshed out characters and plenty of heart. Also, it’s funny. Really funny.
The humor, as I see it, comes from two major sources. The first is that the college kids, through a combination of misunderstanding, bad luck, and extreme stupidity, end up killing themselves and each other. This is played for laughs, and it works because the deaths are so extreme, they’re ridiculous. However, this humor is predicated on shock value, and it becomes less and less effective as the movie wears on.
Fortunately, the second kind of humor is more consistent, as it relies on the charms of Tucker and Dale. They’re pretty funny from the start, but it’s their reaction to the extreme circumstances that’s particularly hilarious. Tucker and Dale are horrified and confused by the profusion of college kids “killing themselves all over [their] property.” This humor never lessens because it is rooted in character. It also helps that the actors are funny, especially, Alan Tudyk, who has excellent comedic timing.
The humor peaks in the middle, during a brutally gory and hilarious scene, where two college kids manage to kill themselves right near Tucker and Dale. Our two heroes first react in shock and horror, and then come together to try and figure out what’s going on. They decide that the college kids must have some sort of suicide pact and realize that the dead bodies are going to make the two of them look pretty bad. Right in the middle of cleaning up, a cop arrives. It’s a scene that’s genuinely tense, and watching Tucker and Dale squirm is oh-so-delightful.
But even if the humor declines somewhat after that second act, the story continues strong. As the college kids decide to “fight back,” Tucker and Dale struggle to survive. One college kid, meanwhile, is morphing into the titular evil. Will Dale find the confidence to become the hero and win the affections of the girl? Will Tucker ever get to have a beer and enjoy his vacation home? I won’t spoil the ending, but it is a happy one.
Now as I was watching this flick for the hundredth time, I was thinking that, in order to be effective, Tucker & Dale has to make us care for the title characters very deeply and not care about the college kids at all--and it has to do both at the same time. As a writer, I find this a fascinating study. How do you make an audience care for certain characters? Likewise, what makes an audience stop caring to the degree that they actively root for the characters’ deaths? I have my theories.
Title: The Snow and the Darkness
Author: Matthew Warren Wilson
Jason doesn’t care that a snowstorm is coming. He spent $800 on plane tickets for him and his girlfriend Valerie to travel to Virginia, and he intends to use them. At the airport, Jason’s brother Frank and his girlfriend Lucy meet them. As Frank drives them home amid a freezing blizzard, an accident causes them to divert to a side road. There, Frank sees a lone man walking in the snow. He picks up the stranger out of a sense of compassion. But the stranger gives Jason a bad feeling. The worst seems to be confirmed when, on a pit stop, Lucy is attacked and their tires are slashed. But is it the work of the stranger? Jason thinks he saw… something… in the darkness. Can it be that a monster lurks in the snow?
I was on Amazon, buying some DVDs, when The Snow and the Darkness popped up on the suggestion screen. Normally, I’d download a sample, but this book happened to be free, so I “bought” it. Since it was a gloomy day and I was feeling tired, I decided to go through my books and see which one would be worth reading. The Snow and the Darkness was that lucky book.
The Snow and the Darkness is a horror novel that contains lots of gore, some of it very creative. But it has little in the way of scares. I felt disturbed once or twice in the beginning, but eventually the fountains of blood caused me to feel detached and repulsed. This was because I never felt more than a mild interest in the human characters. Rather than reveal deeper personalities and develop heroic traits, Jason and the survivors unraveled, and I found myself liking them less and less.
The character that came across as the most sympathetic was, ironically, the monster. The monster kept me reading, as I became curious about its origins, its relationship to the human villains, and its fate. Unfortunately, none of these things were answered in a way I found satisfying. Toward the end, the action was so bizarre and ridiculous it was almost comedic, and the ending put me in a bad mood.
As you may imagine, this book contains copious amounts of violence and gore, including mutilation and attempted rape. There is a healthy amount of cursing, mostly the f-word, and some sexual content and nudity.
(Warning: Light Spoilers Ahead.)
A Certain Slant of Light is A Heart-Wrenchingly Beautiful Tale About Love, Language, and the Human Spirit
Title: A Certain Slant of Light
Author: Laura Whitcomb
Genre: Romance, Fantasy, Literary Fiction, YA?
A long time ago, Helen died, but her soul did not make it into Heaven. For over a century, she has existed as a ghost and a writerly muse, attaching herself from one literary figure to the next, watching their lives but never being more than a whisper in their ear. Helen’s latest haunt is an English teacher and aspiring writer named Mr. Brown. One day, as Helen stands beside him in his English class, a boy notices her.
The boy is not what he appeared. James died as a young man and also became a ghost, but very recently, he discovered he could enter an “empty” body. Possessing a high school boy named Billy gives him access to the world again and allows him to see Helen. As the two ghosts begin a whirlwind romance, Helen wonders if she, too, can enter a body and be with James. After so much time spent watching in the distance, is it possible that Helen can once again partake in life?
It has been a long time since I read a book I unabashedly loved. But that is how I felt about A Certain Slant of Light. It is sweet and romantic, full of yearnings and emotions, with beautiful prose and a genuine affection for words and literature. I loved Helen and James. I loved their old-fashioned courtship and their passionate yet somehow innocent romance. This rendered the second half of the book hard to read, as the tension started to ramp up and I became genuinely afraid of what might happen to them. But, though it took a lot of pain and struggle to get there, the ending was happy and left me as a pile of mush, basking in emotion.
I’ve been watching a lot of old episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (MST3K) on YouTube. It’s not a quarantine thing; I just like it. If you’ve never seen MST3K, it’s a T.V. show from the 90s that features a man sent up to space by villains who torture him by making him watch terrible old movies. The man and his robot friends keep their sanity by riffing and cracking jokes at the cheesiness on screen. (MST3K was revised briefly by Netflix; modern episodes can be seen there.)
The movies are well and truly awful. You really cannot watch them without the jokes; even then, they can be hard to get through. And yet this, ironically, makes it perfect viewing for when I’m doing something else, like typing or cooking or playing Candy Crush on my phone. Typically, I watch the same episodes over and over, until I have all the jokes memorized and can practically recite the bad movies word for word.
Sometime around the 20th viewing of an episode, I start to become oddly sympathetic to the bad movie. Once you get through the tedium, the confusion, the bad acting, the ugly visuals, and the lack of budget, there’s usually… something. An idea that went terribly wrong. What was it trying to be? What potential did it have? And why did it fail so miserably?
One of many problems I’ve noticed with these bad old movies--the one that’s been on my mind lately--is that these movies don’t seem to understand whose story it is, possibly due to sexism or racism. The main character has to be a white male lead, even when, as I examine the plot and character arcs, I realize that it is not that person’s story.
This an excerpt from a fantasy/ romance/ historical fiction I've been working on during quarantine. In an alternate version of America, where magic is commonplace, a witch and wizard have adventures as they travel the country in pursuit of magic and gradually fall in love. Right now, I call this story Hazel and Saul, after my main characters, but the title is subject to change. This is a second draft, which means it's pretty early on in the writing process. I haven't added a lot of details and description, and the prose is rough. This scene takes early in the story, when the title characters first meet.
Hazel Meets Saul
Pennsylvania, October 1870
He was worse than a peddler. The wizard stood at the gate of her aunt’s house, banging on the door for a good ten minutes. Hazel could tell he was a wizard by the gaudy purple cloak he wore, popular among only the lowest rung of that profession. Hazel had made the mistake of peeking out through the window to see what was making the noise. Unfortunately, he’d seen her, and his rapping had only grown more furious.
“Miss Blackwood! Miss Blackwood!” he cried.
Hazel pressed her hands to the side of her head. She had a terrible headache and his pounding on the gate only made it worse. She’d been sick these last three days and wanted nothing more than to curl up and rest. But here was this annoying creature, disturbing her peace.
“Miss Blackwood! A word, please! Just a word!”
Hazel sighed. From his voice he sounded rather young. Young and full of energy and shamelessly relentless. She decided she wasn’t going to get rid of him, so she put on her cloak and bonnet and hobbled out. It was cold and chilly, and the wind on her face made her shiver, despite the warmth of her cloak. She walked down the path through the front yard until she reached the gate.
“Ah, Miss Blackwood!” The wizard sounded relieved. “Thank you for your indulgence. I crave but a moment of our time. You are Miss Blackwood, are you not?”
“I am, but--”
“My name,” he said with a flouncy and exaggerated bow, “is Solomon Felix Zephyrus, an apprentice wizard of distinction, and I have a proposal for--”
He stopped and blinked. He leaned forward and stared at her face, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You’re young,” he said, with some dismay.
Writing, when you think about it, is an unglamorous and solitary act. You spend several hours in one place, by yourself, stuck inside your own head, confronting your own emotions. So if you think that quarantine is ideally suited for a writer… it is. Now that we’re about two months in, I feel comfortable sharing what I’ve been up to as COVID-19 rages on.
Phase 1: Stress and Anxiety
Somewhere in the middle of March, the world as we knew it shut down. It was on a Thursday, when Tom Hanks tested positive for the Coronavirus, Disneyland shut down, and the stock market plunged. At that point, I realized something very serious was going on. That weekend, I went to Panera to eat a bagel and journal about my anxieties. It would be the last time I sat down at a restaurant for many months to come.
My life was already in upheaval. I had moved into a new apartment at the end of February, with my friend Rita. She suffers from chronic pain and a host of other conditions, none of which were helped when she fell down the stairs and got a concussion 4 days after I moved in. With her being incapacitated, it fell to me to take care of her new Belgian sheep dog, Atlas. I had barely gotten the apartment equipped and was beginning to contemplate looking for a job, when quarantine hit.
I’m used to my life being a mess. I was not used to the world being a mess along side me. The anxieties built and built within me. For a writer, this can be a good thing. The higher my emotions, the easier it is to write. In this case, though, I was supposed to be focused on completing Company, my novel about a ghost and an imaginary friend, and I couldn’t focus. I journaled a bit, watched a little T.V., and played around with some other story ideas.
This phase lasted for about a week.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.