"...Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion." ~Madonna

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Furnace

Judy Coopey’s THE FURNACE, is the first book in her The Juniata Iron Trilogy. The three books will follow a fictional family’s rise and fall with the iron industry in Pennsylvania. Family sagas give an author an opportunity to develop a vast variety of characters as well as providing the reader with a personal glimpse of history. If THE FURNACE is any indication of what is to come, Ms. Coopey is going to do just that.

The year is 1816 when we first meet Elinor Bratton. Ellie is young, beautiful, privileged and in love with her handsome, equally privileged, neighbor Robert. Their relationship results in Robert going to Philadelphia to study, leaving a pregnant Ellie behind to face the shame alone.

Over Ellie’s objections, she finds herself married to a man who is a complete stranger; her father has bought her a husband. Adam MacPhail has nothing that made Robert so perfect in Ellie’s opinion. He is poor and has none of the social graces that are so important in the wealthy community in Berks County.

Adam does have an obsession. He wants to make iron in western Pennsylvania. The Bratton money will allow him to buy the iron furnace that he so desperately wants. Ellie has always had servants to pamper her, now she is forced to live in the middle of nowhere, with primitive conditions, a stranger for a husband and expecting a baby fathered by the man she loves. So starts our saga of the MacPhail family.

One of the things that I count on in a Judy Coopey book is a chance to meet interesting characters and THE FURNACE is full of them. The reader may not approve of Ellie - she certainly has her flaws- but I found myself rooting for her. As I fell in love with Adam, I kept wishing that she would do the same.

The author also keeps us guessing who among the citizens of the growing iron community are good, bad, downright evil, or some combination of these traits.When a foreman goes missing, the fact that several of the men in the town hated him enough and were mean enough to have murdered him creates a mystery that may not get solved.

If you have read any of Ms. Coopey’s earlier books, you know that real life happens to her people. Unexpected deaths, natural disasters, dangerous temptations, petty jealousies, and moments of pure joy.

As in any good trilogy, this first book made me want more. We know that two books will follow this one and I will warn you that the ending is a true cliffhanger. I want to see what happens as the children grow and take over for their parents. I want to meet Ellie as an old woman. I want to see what happens to several neighbors that became friends of mine. In other words, I want the next book as quickly as possible!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: Six Characters In Search of an Author

Our local high schools are exceptional examples of what educational theater should be. In the past three years. Bellefonte Area High School Theatre Department has given us plays by Elton John, Oscar Wilde, and  David Ives. This year they really conquered a big challenge by presenting SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR by Luigi Pirandello. The name of Luigi Pirandello may have become eclipsed by playwrights who followed him, but he is very important to the history of modern drama.

The storyline of SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR is very simple. On an empty stage a director has started rehearsals for a play when six fictional characters appear, a father, a mother, a son, a step-daughter, a young boy and a young girl. The father insists that the six of them need an author to finish what another author has left undone. The story is obviously a sad one because all of the family are in mourning except the two young children. As the story unfolds, the characters raise questions concerning reality vs. illusion, the importance of words, and the point is made that real people change, characters in plays are locked in.

Jordan Emery as Father is to be commended simply for the amount of very difficult lines he had to master. Pirandello uses the character of the father to sermonize the basic idea of this play and Jordan had to make the audience “get it”. Because he is a character in a play, he does not always understand when the director tries to explain that real people are different than fictional characters. There were times that Father’s lines were a little hard to hear. This may be due to the acoustics in the auditorium, not the actor.

Mother’s mourning was captured perfectly by Dori Puzycki. The mother is the very consummate figure of grief and Dori took a part that could be easily overdone and played it with great sympathy. Her unbearable grief made the final act even more impressive. When Father explains to the Manager that this is not a woman but Mother, we understand Dori’s part perfectly.

The emotional role of Step-Daughter was handled by Kaitlyn Whitesell. Kaitlyn had a chance to pull out all the stops as the seductive, sometimes vicious, Step-daughter.  I liked that she went from being cruel to most of her family to being tender to the young child.

I kept watching Zachary Spaw as Son. It is hard to play the aloof, quiet part. Son was always alone in the background and when he did speak it was to tell us that he wanted nothing to do with the action. Zachary has the stage presence to keep us aware that he is going to be important at some point. I kept watching for that point.

Alyssa Hamaty as Manager/Director had the role that grounded the play. Her job was to help the audience see the difference between a work of art and real life. Her stating that “Drama is action” seems ironic in a play that relies on words more than movement. Again, this is a part that is very important in helping the audience to understand the play and at times her lines got lost.  

Background actors impress me when they stay in character and the ensemble was perfect. Several actors to keep your eye on in future plays are Jordan Corman, Emma Holderman and Andrew Uhring. We have seen them before in featured roles and, I am sure, will see them again.

Thank you Shaun McMurtrie and Luke Skerpon, directors and faculty advisors,  for remembering that a playwright born in 1867 can still be relevant  and entertaining.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Year of Fog

To be honest, I had to be pulled, kicking and screaming, into reading THE YEAR OF FOG by Michelle Richmond. I had started it over a year ago and simply could not get beyond the first chapter. It was choosen as this month’s discussion book for our library book group and I was told to give it another try.

Walking hand in hand with her soon to be step-daughter,Emma, Abby Mason has just begun to feel that she might actually be a good mother to the little girl. Letting go of Emma’s hand and turning to look at a dead seal puppy, Abby turns back to the child to find that she has disappeared in the fog. We learn how life can change in an instant

Told in the first person, Abby takes us through the year following Emma’s disappearance. She becomes obsessed with hunting for Emma and researching all that she can find on memory. These searches take her everywhere in the San Francisco area. Some areas are dangerous, but for the most part people seem to care. During the search she learns how many children go missing and how many are never found. Time can be very important.

The fact that Abby is a professional photographer with an eye for detail adds an overtone to the story. At times she makes the comparison between memory and photographs that have been over or under-developed, or even double exposed.

The characters in the book, besides Abby, are mostly casually drawn. As in a fog some appear more clearly than others or they are there and then fade back into the fog. The fog is almost a character in itself. This is one of the reason that San Francisco was a good setting for the story.

I have to admit, that once I got into Abby’s life, I was mesmerized. Richmond tells an honest story. We read of loss, grief, redemption, and if not a neat happy ending, always love and hope.

Once in awhile the timing is off to read a certain book. There are books that hit too hard on a personal level and maybe we need to wait until we are in a better place. Or maybe, we need a bossy librarian telling us that, “Yes, you will love it.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Forgotten

David Baldacci introduced a new protagonist, Army Special Agent John Puller in Zero Day and I wanted to learn more about this special investigator, plus it was a good read by an author that I usually enjoy. I picked up THE FORGOTTEN with the hope that there would be more information about the brother who is serving a life sentence in a federal prison for treason and the military hero father who is in a VA hospital with dementia. Only some questions were answered.

As is typical Baldacci, the book pulls the reader in with an action scene. This one  takes place on an oil rig off the coast of Florida’s panhandle. The “forgotten” of the title refers to the people who have been captured by slave traders and are smuggled into the United States by way of the deserted oil rigs in the Gulf. One man escapes from the long line of dispirited people by jumping into the Gulf of Mexico. Thus begins our introduction to the mysterious, and extremely focused, Mecho.

In the resort town of Paradise, Florida, an elderly woman mails a letter, returns to her home and is murdered. The letter was sent to her baby brother, John Puller Sr. a retired three-star general and the father of our hero, John Puller,CID. John’s aunt had hinted, strongly, that something was not right in Paradise and wanted to talk to John Jr.  

When John arrives in the beautiful beach town, he finds that he is the only person who believes that his aunt had been murdered and in the process of his investigation is pulled into the world hidden beneath the beautiful exterior of the town. His life becomes involved with the local mixture of characters as well as with Mecho and his hidden agenda.

This was not the best David Baldacci book that I have read. There are quite a few holes in the plot and many solutions that the reader has to “go along with”. There are times when John Puller seems to be too much of a comic-book hero. Although a large, strong man he is practically useless without his duffel bag and with the amount of things that he pulls out of that bag, it must is a wonder that he can carry it. (Batman’s belt seems much more efficient).  

For a protagonist that is going to be carrying a series, the author has not done a very good job of giving us a character that we will see grow. I am not saying that I will not read any of the follow up novels because I do want to know how John’s brother ended up in a federal prison and because David Baldacci is capable of better things. You can watch for more John Puller reviews in the future.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

THEATER REVIEW: Rose the Riveter

By now those of us who follow Bald Eagle High School’s Drama Club should have complete trust in their choices. The play ROSIE THE RIVETER was unknown to me and I was expecting a light, fun evening.  The show is so much more.

The time is World War II, the Invasion of Normandy to be precise. In Middle America, a car manufacturer has turned his factory into the production of war planes at the insistence of his Girl Friday, Rosie. The audience watches the conflicting viewpoints of the women who fill the jobs that the men, now fighting overseas, had done and the society women who feel that Victory Gardens and knitting scarves are enough. We also see how war can touch us in very personal ways.

The staging of ROSIE was exceptionally good. Placing several scenes on stage at the same time can be a disaster; at no time did one distract from the focused action. The scene that had the women reading their letters from loved ones was effective. Placing the actresses throughout the audience made it very touching.

Director Eric Brinser’s most important talent is his ability to cast his shows. His actors are well trained for high school students, but he seems to be able to match the right actor with the right part. The cast of ROSIE was a good example.

Mackenzie Basalla as Rosie was riveting (pun intended). She was full of energy, delivered her lines with power, and had a chance to show that she could run a wide range of emotions. Very impressive.
Meghan Shiels, as her counterpart Helen, has the natural dignity to pull off the local leader of proper society. I liked the growth that her part called for.

I am beginning to believe that Colton Lucas can be whomever he wants to be. As the brash, self promoting factory owner, Eddie, Colton showed a stage maturity that I cannot wait to see develop. Colton is a sophomore so just sit back and watch.

There has to be room here to mention some of the supporting cast. I really liked Alice Statham as the “brainy” Katherine. Alice is a Freshman, meaning that we should see more of her in future plays. I thought that Matthew Blaylock was a Senior, but was happy to note that we will have this versatile actor for one more year. He made a good romantic lead in ROSIE.

The ensemble was too large to mention individuals, plus I am afraid that I would get the names wrong. It is always impressive to see a show where this group stays in character, especially when the “camera” is not focused on them. Special applause to each of you.

ROSIE THE RIVETER is an example of why I am so dedicated to high school drama. Students learn so much from “putting on a play” and in the case of ROSIE a very personal view of an important part of history. Good choice.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Vacation Reading

Vacation allows me time to read without feeling guilty that I really should be doing housework. It also gives me the freedom to read some good old bodice rippers… books that would not fill the space of a long review. Here are a few of my favorite “just-for-fun” authors.

Teresa Medeiros writes mostly Regency Romances, sexy and fun and usually with a twist. In her SOME LIKE IT WILD her heroine is the illegitimate daughter of an actress. Her mother has died in a suspicious fire leaving her and her beautiful sister penniless. To save the two girls from having to resort to “selling” themselves, she must locate someone to impersonate a duke’s long-lost son. Fortunately, the highwayman who stops their carriage is perfect. My opinion?...funny, sexy, with a highly improbable plot.

Pamela Morsi sets most of her books in the Old West. She can be counted on for warm, human stories with a touch of humor. WILD OATS is a classic story of mis-identification. Cora Briggs is a divorced woman in the small town of Dead Dog, Oklahoma. Her ex-mother-in-law has done all that she can to ruin Cora’s reputation. Therefore, it only makes sense that when Jedwin Sparrow, Jr., local mortician, wanted a woman, but did not want to marry just yet, he ended up at Cora’s door. Then it became difficult for everyone to maintain a”good” reputation. One of the best things about this book was the citizens of Dead Dog. I was happy to see that there is a spin-off with an interesting minor character titled Runabout. I will be hunting that one down.

Usually I read Kat Martin for her historical Western romances. AGAINST THE ODDS is set in modern West Texas. Sabrina has inherited a vast tract of land in the middle of no-where from her eccentric uncle. Uncle Walter had sworn that there was a silver mine that would make him rich beyond imagination. To get to this land, Sabrina hires private investigator and former navy fighter pilot, Alex Justice. Accidents start to happen before Sabrina and Alex even reach the deserted mine and Uncle Walter’s three children may be to blame. This was a fun, adventure tale. The culprit gets caught and I thought the crimes were solved and then Ms. Martin threw in an ending that I did not see coming. I like that in a book.

Mary Jo Putney is an award winning best seller best known for her Regencies.  I like her because she can develop characters who are flawed making them believable. I picked up TWIST OF FATE thinking that I would be transported to Regency England and at war with Napoleon. Instead I met Val Covington a high profile lawyer who has decided to open her own practice. Before she is settled into her new office her assistant pleads with her to save a man from being executed for a crime that he did not commit. With the help of her new landlord, Val gets involved with a case that is literally a matter of life and death. I still prefer going back to the 1800’s with Ms. Putney but this was an entertaining read.

There has to be a connection with the characters for me to enjoy a book, no matter what the genre is. These are authors that I know that I can count on for entertaining plots, fun characters and maybe just a bit of bodice ripping.