Book Review: Secrets of the Hollywood Girls Club

Maggie Marr
Crown Publishers, 2008
260 pages


The fun in reading Maggie Marr's Hollywood Girls Club and now its sequel Secrets of the Hollywood Girls Club is that Marr brings the Hollywood system and lifestyle into vivid reality in a most entertaining way. And no wonder--Marr is herself a writer and producer in L.A. She uses her knowledge, then, to infuse her novels, and the result is an easy, breezy read with characters that are fun to read about.

The books have at their core four Hollywood friends: the big superstar actress, the agent-turned-producer, the producer-turned-studio exec, and the mousy scriptwriter. Also involved are various directors, insane starlets, shady publicists and the like. Having worked a bit in the biz myself, I have to admit I might be biased in my enjoyment of these books, as I find in them a way to live vicariously in the life I chose to leave behind.

The only drawback might be that anyone who reads mysteries on even a semi-regular basis will have things figured out pretty early on. But watching the characters get out of tight spots is the real fun here, and Marr certainly understands the principle of making things very dark indeed before the sunrise. One can really feel the tension building as the problems become more complicated . . . And there was one obvious piece of information left undeclared, which makes me wonder if Marr is planning to use that in yet another book. Hmm?

The ending feels a bit rushed and sudden, but that only marginally detracts from the whole. The bottom line is that it was a book I had a difficult time putting down because it moved so quickly, like a roller coaster, or really a bit like a good movie.


Book Review: The Last Queen

C.W. Gortner
Ballantine, 2006
368 pages


Disclosure: I read a lot of historical fiction. Love the stuff. From Regency romances to the based-in-real-life, it's one of my favorite genres. In particular I can recommend Judith Tarr's books set in ancient Egypt and Alison Weir's books set in Tudor England.

I can also recommend The Last Queen. This was my first foray into Spanish history; it's the fictionalized life story of Juana the Mad, one of the daughters of Isabel and Ferdinand. (Her younger sister, mind you, became Catherine of Aragon--Henry VIII's first wife.) Gortner tells the story in compelling form; the book was extremely difficult to put down. And at the same time, at those moments when Juana was truly trapped by the politics around her, I almost wanted to throw the book across the room. Her frustration was that real, her predicament that moving.

A little background for those who know even less than I do about Juana's life (I found this book highly educational): she was married off to Philip of Habsburg, who was archduke of Flanders. By rotten luck, she ended up as heiress of Spain when her brother, older sister and older sister's son all died. Most people would count that as great luck, but it worked against Juana. Philip was moved to extreme ambition and attempted to take Juana's throne, and their heretofore happy marriage became violent. Juana suffered severe anxiety, and with reason--her husband effectively imprisoned her in an attempt to control her and use her in his own quest for power. It didn't help that Juana's family had a history of "madness" (most scholars now suspect it was manic depression).

Makes for a great story, and Gortner, who is himself half Spanish and was raised in Malaga, takes the threads and weaves them to advantage via his fine prose. One hears Juana's singular voice echoing through the ages. Sure, it's only an author's best guess, since all anyone can go on are historical facts and primary source accounts. But Gortner's "best guess" is a fine one indeed, at least when it comes to entertainment value.


Book Review: The Blue Cotton Gown: A Midwife's Memoir

Patricia Harman
Beacon Press, 2008
290 pages


Perhaps not the best thing for a pregnant woman to read, although the stories are, for the most part, heartwarming--it's just that some are sad, too, and with all my hormones already in an uproar, this book moved me to tears two or three times.

Still and all, there's nothing graphic in this book, nothing to scare off the faint of heart when it comes to hospital stories and such. The author, a midwife, no longer delivers babies, so there were only a couple of mild flashbacks to deal with in that respect. Mostly Harman weaves a lovely narrative of a little more than a year's time spent at the women's clinic she runs with her OB/GYN husband. She focuses on a handful of patients who make repeat appearances, weaving in her own home life at that time, as well as some of the financial woes of running a business. The result is a full picture, well worth viewing.

Harman has a knack for descriptive writing; one easily sees what she imparts. (I only wish I could see some of her photographs; she takes pictures as a hobby.) The book is a quick read, too; I finished it in less than a week, which is no small feat when you've got a toddler and an infant at home and a bazillion things to do besides. Part of the quickness of the read, though, might've been that the stories were engaging enough that I didn't necessarily want to set the book down for very long. I actively looked for snatches of time in which to read it.

I can't say I love the way Harman wraps up the book; the moment she chose seems "off" somehow, though I couldn't tell you what would've worked better. Maybe it was simply that I felt she'd taken an incident and blown it up into something bigger--something that works to her advantage a few times in the narrative, but at the end became slightly too bloated. She tried to make the moment weightier than seemed fair to do, though maybe it was that weighty to her--but it was the one place where her writing failed to get across to me.

Overall, though, a fine read.


Movie Review: Watchmen

Starring: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson
Directed By: Zack Snyder
Written By: David Hayter & Alex Tse
Warner Brothers, 2009
R; 162 minutes
2 stars (out of 5)


Fans of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel (or comic books, if you picked them up before they were collected) will pretty much recognize what they're seeing as an almost exact visual interpretation of what they've read, down to some shots being framed exactly as they appear in the comic. Even though large parts of the original material have been omitted or, in some cases (mostly the ending) changed entirely, in some ways watching Watchmen is like reading the graphic novel--only not as much fun and without a break, so that viewers are almost forced to ingest the entirety of it in one sitting, as if strapped to their chairs during a 12-course meal.

One can commend Snyder on his being faithful to the source, but there are some drawbacks as well. For one, if you're going to make a movie based on a book or comic, there should be a relevancy to the film that distinguishes it from its original material. That isn't evident in Watchmen, which as I've said is rather like reading the graphic novel, if a slightly abridged version. If that's the case, then one has to ask oneself, Why did I bother to watch this? I could have enjoyed the experience equally on the page (and saved ticket money besides). It's the same feeling I get when I go to a concert and the band plays all the songs the same way they sound on the album--why? I could have stayed home and listened to the CD. Give me a show.

Additionally, if anything is/was ripe for an update Watchmen is on that list. Now before the hardcore fans start spitting venom, let's be honest: a film can be visually faithful to its source (if the source is a comic or a Dr. Seuss story or anything illustrated, really) without being true to the essence of the original material. I felt like Watchmen lacked the spirit of the Moore/Gibbons work. Sort of like how some of the American Idol singers can be technically perfect but lack the soul and passion that music requires--Snyder's work, while clearly lovingly cinemagraphed, was missing the core needed to really make viewers invest themselves.

There were a couple cosmetic problems as well: the makeup on Robert Wisden, acting as Richard Nixon, was atrocious, and the effects used to turn Billy Crudup into Dr. Manhattan were sub-par in my estimation, about the quality of a video game maybe. It was his lips in particular, his mouth movements.

The acting was, overall, uneven. Haley as Rorschach was spot on, Jeffrey Dean Morgan did all right with his smaller part (though I still can't help but think "Denny!" every time I see him), Wilson's Dan Dreiburg had all the right facial expressions even if his delivery was somewhat stilted at moments. Meanwhile, Matthew Goode was difficult to digest, and Malin Akerman seemed to be coming from the Xena school of poses during her action scenes. Maybe that was just the hair, though.

Despite all the seeming ranting, I didn't hate the film. It simply didn't kindle any real emotion in me, and unlike the graphic novel, which I'd found difficult to put down when I first read it (and I've read it several times since that first), I could take or leave this movie. Characters that were interesting on the vividly colored pages of a comic paled in comparison here, in the chiaroscuro lighting of grainy celluloid.


Music: Rob Thomas' Cradle Song

drop date: June 30
atlantic records


Although Thomas' initial intention was to write an album full of Latinesque music à la Paul Simon's Rhythm of the Saints, he admits that what was coming out of him didn't all fit that bill. Various tracks have been labeled "Tom Pettyish" and "in the vein of INXS." While that second one gives me pause, the first doesn't at all; Thomas has shown those particular roots before--I recall a very good live cover of Petty's "American Girl" that I witnessed during the Mad Season tour. Thomas could do far worse than to produce this generation's Full Moon Fever, after all. (Aside: wasn't 1989 just the BEST year?)

Of course I'll buy the album. My three-year-old will surely insist upon hearing it multiple times, as he does all "Uncle Rob" music. Still, if I'm being entirely honest, I only enjoy about 2/3 of Something to Be . . . ; the rest I generally skip the tracks on, which is something I can't say of the matchbox twenty albums, of which I enjoy every cut. I realize it's only one solo effort, but I find StB uneven, and I'm hoping the sophomore outing will have a bit more confidence behind it, be more of a straight-shot arrow than a meandering smoke cloud.