Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"The Girls at the Kingfisher Club" by Genevieve Valentine

There's nothing quite as wonderful as coming across a book you weren't aware of and having it turn into an unexpected delight. That's what happened when I picked up The Girls at the Kingfisher Club at the bookstore the other day, drawn by the cover and then the jacket description. Seriously, the twelve dancing princesses set in the speakeasies of Prohibition New York? How could I pass that up?

As a writer, it seems to me that the biggest challenge in turning a short fairy tale about twelve sisters into a full-length novel is making the characters distinct enough to satisfy the reader, and author Genevieve Valentine does a wonderful job. I was a thrown once or twice early on by the author's tendency to use parenthetical asides to show what some of the girls were thinking, in order to give them motivation, but I got used to it and soon forgot that it seemed odd.

The main character is Jo, the eldest daughter. Ever since their mother died, essentially from being used as a brood mare by a husband who wanted a son, Jo has been the go-between for her father and her younger sisters. He sees his daughters as a detriment to his social and financial ambitions, and therefore keeps them shuttered away in attic rooms -- they don't go to school or walking in the park or even to church. Instead they look out the windows, read books from their home library or glance through clothing catalogs, do some mending, and occasionally hear snatches of the infectious jazz music that has come to New York.

All of this changes one night when Lou, the second eldest, threatens to run away out of frustration and desperation. Jo quickly realizes she must divert that restless energy or risk losing her sister, so she takes Lou and the next two sisters out dancing at one of the speakeasies. The freedom is intoxicating, and a new sisterly tradition is born, with the younger sisters (there are two sets of twins, by the way) gradually added to the outings. The sisters become experts at sneaking down the back stairs at midnight, shoes in hand, to catch taxis in the back alley, and Jo trains them never to give out their names or encourage their partners to pursue them off the dance floor.

And so it continues until the father announces that it's time to start marrying off the girls -- and it seems he's willing to take almost any applicant as long as the price is right. Lest this premise sound too fluffy or too "romance novel," keep in mind that (minor spoiler ahead) this was a time period in which a father could easily have his unmarried daughters committed to an asylum for "insanity," so the stakes for Jo and her sisters are very real indeed. Jo is consumed with worry over her sisters' fates and determined not to show it; as a result, they call her "General," half affectionately and half resentfully. Lou, in particular, suspects that Jo might be out to save herself, but Jo proves her wrong in a very moving way.

Technically, I supposed this might be called a young adult historical fiction, but as is the case with so many YA titles, nobody is too old to enjoy this sophisticated, atmospheric novel. Highly recommended.

* * *

[This is silly of me, but I feel a little self-conscious that it may seem all I do is gush over the books and stories I read, or the movies and live performances I see. So it may seem as though my taste is not terribly discriminating. That's not actually the case, but I just don't like reviewing things I haven't enjoyed, unless I feel I have something important to say about it. But for the record, against the fifteen books I've read so far in 2015, I've also stopped reading six others. And just last night I watched a movie, certain I was going to love it and looking forward to reviewing it, and .... no. So I guess what I mean is that when I say I love something, it means I've really enjoyed it.
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Friday, February 27, 2015

Short Fiction - February 2015

In February I read 35 short stories, and I'm still having a blast with it. (I'm up to 76 for the year so far.) Here are my six favorites from the month, the ones I thought really stood out.

Favorite Short Stories read in February 2015:

[Illustration by Victor Mosquera]

"Damage" by David D. Levine

This story was published in January on Tor.com, and I'll be keeping it in mind once next year's award season rolls around (definitely one of the benefits of keeping a list like this). "Damage" is told from the point of view of an AI-infused military spacecraft in the asteroid belt, fighting against the Earth Alliance. Only this ship is not in its original form; it's been cobbled together from the remains of two other ships, and remembers both of their deaths. It has to balance the programmed love it feels for its pilot with its own feelings of fear, grief, and guilt. Lovely story, very well told. In tone, this reminded me of the author's The Tale of the Golden Eagle, but it's also distinct.

"The Great Goodbye" by Robert Charles Wilson

Originally published in Nature in 2000 and reprinted in the anthology New Skies (Tor, editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden) in 2003, this quite short story is about a grandfather and grandson preparing to say goodbye, since enhanced "New People" are leaving Earth behind to the unenhanced "Stock People." To me, this story represents the best of Nature's fiction; it's a fully realized story rather than just a clever vignette.

"When It Ends, He Catches Her" by Eugie Foster

Currently on the Nebula ballot, this short piece was published in September 2014 by Daily Science Fiction. It's about a ballerina in a plague-ravaged world who sneaks into a falling-down theater to dance her favorite piece over and over, trying to recapture what she has lost. I don't want to give away any more details, but it really is that good. Eugie passed away last autumn, and we lost her much too early. I regret how many of her beautiful stories we won't get to see.

"Alan Bean Plus Four" by Tom Hanks

This was the surprise story of the month! I would have missed this completely is not for the SFWA recommended reading list. Who knew Tom Hanks had published a short story in the New Yorker? It appeared in October 2014, and it's a charming little story, ostensibly with Hanks himself as the main character. I certainly heard his voice while I was reading it. It's about a group of friends who decide to take a little trip to the moon....

[Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg]

The experience of reading this reminded me how much I enjoy actor and comedian Steve Martin's fiction -- his The Pleasure of My Company, which I think comes in at novella length, is extremely well-written.

"Starfish and Apples" by Henry Szabranski

I don't think I've mentioned QuarterReads on here before; it's an experiment in short fiction publishing in which a reader pays $5 for a virtual stack of quarters, then at his or her leisure browses the short stories (none over 2,000 words), reads a little preview, then drops a quarter in to continue reading any given story. That story then remains in the user's permanent library, to be accessed any time. The author gets 22 out of that 25 cents, plus the reader can tip additional quarters if so motivated, and the author gets 100% of any tips. Every week, QuarterReads features a free story, and that's how I came to read this one. I urge you to check out the site; it's great for both readers and writers.

This particular story is narrated by an adult addressing schoolchildren in a world where plant life has become aggressive and taken over almost all of the planet, in part by colonizing humans. The POV is first person, with the narrator occasionally interrupting herself (I think it's a her) to address the children directly. It's exactly the right length for the story, and (minor spoiler ahead) has a clever play on the "apple for the teacher" cliché. Originally published in Nine: A Journal Of Imaginative Fiction, this has been one of my two favorite stories I've read on QuarterReads so far. And the other one is.....

"Seasons of Friendship" by Jamie Lackey

Also a free QuarterReads offering at the time I read it, this is a beautiful little story about a fairy who needs flowers to survive. I loved its sweetness and simplicity. Plus it's set in Pittsburgh. I like that city. This was previously published in Silver Blade. I plan to go back and buy this one so it will be in my permanent account.

Other stories read in February 2015:

- "The Ascension of Thin Skin" by Amy Albany
- "Reality Check" by David Brin
- "Marking Time" by Stephanie Burgis
- "Variations" by Cristina Iuliana Burlacu
- "A Necessary Being" by Octavia Butler
- "Coin Flips" by Tina Connolly and Caroline M. Yoachim
- "A Moon for the Unborn" by Indrapramit Das
- "Stella at the Winter Palace" by Amber Dermont
- "It Takes Two" by Nicola Griffith
- "Four Movie Reviews from after the Zombie Apocalypse" by Michael Haynes
- "Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies" by Kate Heartfield
- "The Alien Invasion as Seen in the Twitter Stream of @dweebless" by Jake Kerr
- "The Sky Didn't Load Today" by Rich Larson
- "A Letter from an Unhappy Customer" by Jennifer Mitchell
- "About Fairies" by Pat Murphy
- "A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide" - Sarah Pinsker
- "Tick Tock Girl" by Cat Rambo
- "When a Bunch of People, Including Raymond, Got Superpowers" by Luc Reid
- "Icarus Falls" by Alex Shvartsman
- "You Bet" by Alex Shvartsman
- "Chocolate Chip Cookies for the Apocalypse" by Claire Spaulding
- "'Pride and Prejudice' in the Club" by Colin Stokes
- "The Mandelbrot Bet" by Dirk Strasser
- "Repairs" by Maureen Tanafon
- "The Heart of a Tree" by Pam L. Wallace
- "The Bennie and the Bonobo" by Neil Williamson
- "Third-Degree Burns" by Andrew J. Wilson
- "Patterns of a Murmuration, in Billions of Data Points" by J.Y. Yang
- "Meat that Grows on Trees" by Caroline M. Yoachim

Many of these stories are also terrific reads, but you'd get pretty tired of me if I wrote about all of them!

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Houston Ballet's Romeo and Juliet: A (P)review

[Design sketches by Roberta Guidi di Bagno.]

Last Friday I attended a tech rehearsal of Houston Ballet's world premiere production of Romeo and Juliet. Before then, I didn't even know what a "tech rehearsal" was, but it's the first time the dancers take the rehearsal from their studio to the performance stage with full scenery, in part to ensure that what they've blocked out fits the way they think it will. Artistic Director Stanton Welch, who has created this new production to the music of Sergei Prokofiev, stopped and started the rehearsal at intervals to make small corrections. Ballet Mistress Louise Lester, costume and set designer Roberta Guidi di Bagno, and several others observed and assisted as well.

I've gotten ahead of myself, though. Before the rehearsal, we were treated to a tour of the Houston Ballet's Center for Dance, which is connected to the Wortham Center via a skywalk. The building was opened in 2011 but this was my first time beyond the ground-floor auditorium, where I've attended a few dance talks. The building is airy and modern, with two-story sprung-floor rehearsal studios (one as large as the Wortham stage), an impressive weight/physical therapy room, administrative offices, and even dorm rooms for some of the international and underage dancers. I've also since learned that the building is qualified for LEED certification as a "green" building.

One of the fun stops on the tour was the "shoe room," where each company member has a basket with his or her name containing many pairs of shoes. We learned that a single pair of pointe shoes costs between $60 and $105 (they are custom made for each dancer), and a dancer can wear out a pair in a single performance -- so it's no wonder that the shoe budget for the company dancers is $150,000 per year! Dancers are responsible for sewing on their own laces (sometimes using dental floss because it's particularly strong), and they have elaborate rituals for breaking in their shoes before they even put them on -- this is a scene you see in a lot of dance movies for the sake of versimilitude: ballerinas bang the shoes against doors jambs, run them under water, hold lighter flames to them, and so on.

Next, we saw the costume shop, which is a huge, warehouse-like space with shelves of fabric bolts, sewing machines, bulletin boards with sketches and schedules, and even a sign reminding the wardrobe staff that because casting is sensitive, it is not to be discussed with the dancers. When the casting is announced, by the way, a very complicated grid is put up on bulletin boards outside the main rehearsal studio. I only had a second to glance at it; I would have needed a lot more time to figure out how to read it!

(And one more interesting costume tidbit before I move on: if there is not enough time to properly clean a costume between performances, they spray them with vodka to absorb odor!)

As is often the case with major ballet and opera companies, the Houston Ballet creates original productions and eventually rents them out, but also rents from other companies when necessary. For instance, the costumes for their September 2014 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (my review here) were rented, because even back then the Houston Ballet costume shop was fully occupied with Romeo and Juliet. I have to imagine that the costumes and sets from this production will be in high demand from other companies over the next several years. And, as was the case when I went on a backstage tour of the Houston Grand Opera a year or two ago, I was overwhelmed thinking about all of the logistics that go into planning a season.

After the tour, we walked across the skyway over to the Wortham Center. It's not entirely closed to the elements, but it does keep out the rain, and allows the dancers to move across without having to put on street clothes or traverse the busy intersection below.

Then came the rehearsal, at which the dancers were accompanied by a single piano. Having been a subscriber to the Houston Ballet for seven or eight years, I'm never disappointed in the choreography, but in this case the company has really gone all out on sets and costumes. I have to wonder if it's unusual for the same person to design both -- it seems to me they are related yet quite distinct skill sets -- but the results in this case are spectacular. The "En Pointe with Houston Ballet" blog has a terrific post about the process of costume creation for this production here that is well worth reading. I won't go into the details myself, except to say that sets are lavish and the costumes are actually luscious. Seriously, they were like the visual equivalent of raspberry sorbet -- I wanted to eat them.

My friend and I watched the rehearsal up through the Capulet masquerade with the primary cast, and then the balcony scene with both sets of Romeos and Juliets. And now I can't wait to see the actual performance, when choreography, costumes, set, and orchestral music will be truly integrated. It's going to be lovely. If you want to see a hint, there's a 30-second television promo spot of this ballet, filmed at St. Paul's United Methodist Church here in Houston. And tickets are available here.

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Top Chef Finale (Episode 15) - Mano a Mano

This was a terrific finale, and again, it was like that coin being tossed in the air, because I realized as it went on that I really, really wanted Mei to win even though I really, really (how's that for being articulate?) like Gregory too and admire his talent. I loved that they gave them two sous chefs each, I loved that it happened to end up boys against girls, and I loved that they gave them five hours to cook. And I thought neither chef played it safe.

Mae served her meal first at Cent'Anni. Her first course was octopus with a fish sauce vinaigrette, avocado-coconut puree, and herbs. Gail thought it was a stunningly beautiful plate, and the judges thought the flavors were big and bold; the only problem was that they found the octopus itself a little tough and dry.

The second course was a congee (essentially a peasant rice porridge) with carnitas, scallion puree, homemade hot sauce, peanuts, and an egg yolk. This looked pretty amazing, and Tom said it was delicious with great balance. I also loved that it took a classic Asian dish and mixed in some flavors of Mexico.

Mei's third course was duck with braised lettuce, kimchi jicama, and huitlacocche. Gail felt that everything went well together, but Hugh said he wasn't sold on the way the fat was rendered.

Finally, the fourth course was dessert. I couldn't believe when Tom said to the other judges, prior to the course being served, that if he was a chef that didn't normally do sweet desserts, he wouldn't do one now; he would do savory. I was surprised to hear him say that, but I suspect he was worried that a terrific meal might be ended with a medicore dessert, like a chocolate lava cake or something. Well, the dish was one of the two stars of the evening. It was strawberry lime curd with toasted yogurt, milk crumble with bee pollen, and yogurt lime ice. Disaster threatened when Mei and her sous chefs, Melissa and Rebecca, realized that things were too sweet, but Mei was able to add more of the tart lime ice to balance it out. Tom admitted at the table that he'd been wrong, and it was the best dessert he'd ever had on Top Chef. Later, at Judges' Table, he said it was one of the best desserts he'd had in his life, and you could tell that Mei was blown away by that. Tom is generally fair but not easy to please -- did you notice the other judges' faces as they waited to find out what Tom thought of the dessert?

The judges then traveled to a restaurant called "The Restaurant" (!) for Gregory's meal. Assisted by Doug and George, Gregory also served octopus for his first course. Specifically, his dish was grilled octopus with prickly pear, xoconostle, passion fruit, and cashew milk. Padma called it sublime, while Tom said it was a "powerhouse" dish, and it was clear they preferred it to Mei's octopus.

Gregory's second course was a shrimp broth with green chorizo, pickled nopales, and crispy shrimp heads. One of the guest judges thought it ate like a Mexican gumbo, and they seemed to like it, but the shrimp heads were a little too coarse. They often like some texture like that, but apparently this felt more like having shells in the broth, which they found slightly unpleasant.

The third course was a striped bass with roasted carrots, radish, pineapple, and tomatillo. Gregory realized that he'd forgotten to add sugar and vinegar to the carrot sauce at the right time, and tried to remedy it by adding sugar at the last minute. Then it was too sweet, so he added salt. But that wasn't enough to compensate, and Tom said that the dish was sweeter than Mei's dessert. He also felt that the fish was not the center of the dish as it should have been.

And finally, another stunning last course: red mole with short ribs and agave sweet potato. Padma kept remarking on the tenderness of the short ribs, and Hugh called the dish spectacular. They definitely all felt it was Gregory's best dish.

By this time, I thought it was fairly straightforward that Gregory took the first course, and Mei the second and the third. So, since both fourth courses were so spectacular, I thought that Mei had the edge. I feel like the judges wanted us to feel more suspense, though, because even though they had earlier remarked on the sweetness of Gregory's third course, and Tom said he preferred Mei's duck to Gregory's fish, which a guest judge noted "felt like a dish from a different chef," they still said that maybe it all came down to the final course, implying that the third course had also been a tie.

In the end, though, they did give it to Mei, which pleased me to no end. Gregory was a strong competitor, and he knows his flavors, but I think the reason I was rooting for Mei so strongly at this point is partly because I thought she would be devastated far more than Gregory by not winning. That's not really a reason to root for someone, but I do also feel like Mei has a shade more technique and refinement than Gregory does.

This was a good season overall.

I don't even know if they did a fan favorite this season, but I would have a tough time picking. It would be between Melissa, Doug, and (!) George -- there's something likeable about him.

And the dish I most wanted to taste: that dessert! I see the Top Chef website has posted the recipe, but I know that it isn't something I could attempt in my wildest dreams. It's funny, I've pretty much lost my sweet tooth as I've grown older; I like one bite of dessert and then I'm done, so I never order it. But that looked amazing. The second dish I would most like to taste is Gregory's mole with short ribs.

Until next season!

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