Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Research This Week

 1) Make and drink herbal tea from raspberry leaves.

2) Watch videos of coyotes howling.

3) Compare maps of abandoned mines in Utah.

4) Study differences between piƱon pine and Douglas firs.

5) Hunt for purslane in the garden. (Why is it always there but not now when I need it?)

6) Sketch out building layouts.

7) Email friend for cabin photos.

8) Message former police officer with questions.

9)  Watch kitten videos.     Oh wait.....

Sunday, August 16, 2020

My Favorite Mystery Genre Series

I read mysteries (historical, true crime, cozies) for fun. I like smart heroines, good research, plots that surprise me, realistic characters, and detailed settings. Here are some of my favorite authors and/or mystery series. I recommend ALL of these. :) 

Historical or set in the past because they're older books: 

 1. Pretty much anything Sherlock Holmes. OK, well, you can skip A Study in Scarlet because the plot structure stinks and Conan Doyle really screwed up geography and history. But The Sign of Four is fabulous, and nothing matches Hound of the Baskervilles. And, of course, the short stories are wonderful. If you only know Sherlock Holmes from movies or TV, it's time you picked up the originals.

 2. Anything by Agatha Christie. I particularly like Sleeping Murder, The Seven Dials Mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, and Mrs. McGuinty's Dead. 

 3. The Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear. These are set beginning in post-WWI England, and they are fabulous. Maisie is my favorite kind of female protagonist: smart and able to rescue herself. The research behind these books is meticulous as well. My favorite of the series is An Incomplete Revenge -- but don't start there; you need to read them in order.

 4. Not quite as good as the Maisie Dobbs series but still very good is Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily series. These have fine plots in various European locations and are well-researched, but Alexander is often forgetful about minor details from past books and has real trouble creating believable children or teen characters. Also, Lady Emily's husband is rather a male Mary Sue; he's just too perfect to be credible, and he almost comes off as a joke. 

5. An excellent self-published series of historical mysteries comes from M. Louisa Locke, who is a historican and sets her books in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Each one focuses on a real scandal/social problem/political issue of the time and shows careful research. I know that many self-published books are sub-par, but these are not. In fact, they are far better than many books published by the big names of publishing. 

 6. Alan Bradley's Flavia DeLuce series. This is set beginning in 1950 in a fictional village in England. They are funny and tightly-plotted. Plus, they appeal to many ages, as Flavia is a pre-teen genius who has no trouble concocting a poison or looking at a corpse, yet who still believes in Father Christmas. 

7. The Veronica Speedwell mysteries by DeAnna Raybourn. These are very much action-aventure stories as well and aren't quite meant to be realistic, but the plots are great and the characterization is superb -- no Mary Sues or cardboard characters here! 

8. The Art Oveson series by Andrew Hunt. There are, sadly, only three of these. Oveson is a cop in Salt Lake City during the depression, and these feel very real. Occasionally, Hunt makes a historical blunder (he has Oveson's pregnant wife teaching school in one book, and I know that female teachers were fired if they were married -- so that a man could have their job -- in SLC at the time, and he also can't remember what subject the wife teaches from book to book), but overall, they're gritty and gripping. I do wish there were more of them.

 9. The Three Investigators series. These are MG novels, but they are far superior to Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Set in the early 1960s in a fictional suburb of Los Angeles, these tales are great for young readers and still good for adults who don't mind MG. Jupiter Jones is a realistic character: fat, very smart, from a non-traditional family (raised by his aunt and uncle), and determined. The main problem with these is that they are out-of-print and can be hard to find. It took me several months to track down copies of all the volumees when I decided to buy the whole series. 

 10. The Charles Lennox series by Charles Finch. The plots of these are good, but Finch is a bit sexist and into benevolent patriarchy, sooooo.... they're not my favorites. They are set in the mid-Victorian era, mostly in London. 

11. Also good but not fabulous for the same patriarchal reasons are the Tony Hillerman books about various cops on the Navajo Reservation in Utah/Arizona. Set in the 1990s, these are a wonderful introduction to Navajo culture and life. 


 1. Paige Shelton's cozies. They're light, they're fluffy, but they're good. Some cozies --- and I read a LOT of cozies -- are just so very....nothing. But Shelton's feature excellent characterization and good plotting. I like her Dangerous Type series the best, but her Farmers' Market and Southern Cooking Class mysteries are good, too. And she's just started a new series, set in Alaska, that is less cozy and more true crime. 

 2. Also straddling the border of cozy and crime is The Bishop's Wife series by Mette Ivie Harrison. Harrison tackles BIG issues of Mormonism from an insider's POV: polygamy, homosexuality, women's equality, transpeople, etc. while penning tight mysteries. These are good. Really good. 


1. Ian Rankin is hands-down my favorite crime writer. Technically, his genre is Tartan Noir, but the reader need not have been to Scotland to understand the books. I own an entire shelf of his books: all but the last two of the Rebus series and several of the others as well. There's a reason why Rankin is so well-liked in the City of Literature; he's just that good. 

There you go. These are my favorites. If you're in the market for a good mystery, you might give one of these series or authors a try.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Beginning Again

I am writing again. It's been a long time, I know. I changed from teaching junior high to teaching high school, we've had a very disruptive change in government, my family situation has changed dramatically, COVID 19 hit, and Utah had a sizeable earthquake. All this made me give up writing fiction. But now I'm on a gap year. The risks of teaching school right now outweigh for me the benefits. Besides trying to improve my health (read: exercise), taking care of family members, and cleaning house (ugh), I have time to .....write. Thus, I have begun again. Right now I have three WsIP: a memoir, a re-write/reworking of The Chocolate Smuggler's Notebook, and a mystery genre novel. Just to remind you all how much work goes into writing something: I worked for two weeks outlining, sketching out places, and researching (foraging for foods, virus timelines, plant life in various elevations of the desert) before I actually began typing the first words of the tale. It's a lot. I'd almost forgotten. So, what are my plans? Well, once I get drafts finished, I think I'll try again with getting an agent. It's been years since I tried, and I know a lot of it isn't how well one writes but how lucky one is in contacting the correct agant at the correct time and catching her/him and her/his assistants in the right mood for the particular work. It's a bit of a crap shoot, really, but I think it's time I tried again.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

What I Read And What I Rejected in 2019

And, once again, here are my lists!  (I've been doing this on various blogs since 2007.)
In 2019, I read 136 books. Cozy mystery: 27  Other mystery/crime: 44 Historical A/A: 4 Alternate History: 1 Realistic: 6  Shakespeare plays: 8 Other drama: 1  Fantasy: 7  NF travel: 4  NF History: 3  NF cookbooks: 11  NF Food/Cooking: 7  NF Crafts: 3  Other Non-Fiction: 7
Totally unsurprising: I read more mysteries than anything else. Again.
Totally surprising: I read no biographies, no sci-fi, and no steampunk.  Wow.  I hadn't realized that.

My list of books I began and then rejected follows the list of what I read.

X Marks The Scot by Kaitlyn Dunnett *** cozy mystery 1/1/19
Mary Poppins by PL Travers **** MG fantasy 1/3/19
Mary Poppins Comes Back by PL Travers **** MG fantasy 1/5/19
Mary Poppins Opens The Door by PL Travers **** MG fantasy 1/6/19
Latino Cuisine & Its Influence On American Foods by Jean Ford non-fiction *** 1/10/19
Scrapbook of Secrets by Mollie Cox Bryan cozy mystery **** 1/13/19
Hungry Planet: What The World Eats by Menzel & D’Aluisio ***** non-fiction 1/19/19
Button Holed by Kylie Logan **** cozy 1/20/19
In A House of Lies by Ian Rankin ***** crime 1/22/19
 Images of America: Salt Lake City Cemetery by Mark E. Smith non-fiction **** 1/26/19
 Hot Button by Kylie Logan *** cozy 1/26/19
 The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley ***** historical mystery 2/1/19
 The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe *** historical mystery 2/7/19
 The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook by  **** cookbook, non-fiction 2/8/19
 Easy Chinese Cooking by Betty Crocker **** cookbook, non-fiction 2/9/19
 Cloche and Dagger by Jenn McKinlay *** cozy 2/14/19
  52 Weeks of Trivia by Sharon Lindsay *** non-fiction 2/15/19
 12 Months of Trivia by Sharon Lindsay *** non-fiction 2/16/19
 Smash & Stash by Cindy Shepherd ** non-fiction, crafts 2/18/19
 I Can Make It With Chex **** cookbook 2/20/19
 Saints 1815-1846: The Standard of Truth. by various authors of the LDS Church *** non-fiction, history 3/3/2019
 Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman YA fantasy ***** 3/5/19
 Food That Harm; Foods That Heal by Readers’ Digest *** non-fiction 3/10/19
 Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson YA mystery ***** 3/12/19
 The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson YA mystery ***** 3/13/19
 The Mystery of Three Quarters by Sophie Hanna mystery **** 3/18/10
 Underground by Will Hunt *** non-fiction, urban exploring/spelunking 3/22/19
 Eggs on Ice by Laura Childs *** cozy mystery 3/24/19
 A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn YA/NA historical mystery ***** 3/27/19
 Cultured by Katherine Harmon Courage non-fiction, food **** 3/20/19
 The Wizard’s Cookbook by Aurelia Beaupommier non-fiction, cookbook *** 3/31/19
 Iced Under by Barbara Ross cozy *** 4/4/19
 Hunting Prince Dracula by Karri Maniscalco *** YA historical A/A 4/14/19
 Escaping Houdini by Karri Maniscalco *** YA historical A/A 4/19/19
 100 Things to Do in SLC Before You Die by Jeremy Pugh ** non-fiction, travel 4/20/19
 The American Agent by Jaqueline Winspear ***** historical mystery 4/23/19
 Language Visible by David Sacks **** non-fiction, linguistics 4/23/19
 MacBeth by Shakespeare (4A) ***** tragedy 4/25/19
 12th Night by Shakespeare (4B) ***** comedy 4/26/19
 MacBeth by Shakespeare (2A) ***** tragedy 4/29/19
 MacBeth by Shakespeare (4A) ***** tragedy 4/29/19
 12th Night by Shakespeare (1B) ***** comedy 4/30/19
 12th Night by Shakespeare (3A) ***** comedy 5/1/19
 Becoming Brigid by Lisa Shafer ***** YA paranormal 5/3/19
 Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman (again) YA historical fantasy 5/8/19
 Assault and Beret by Jenn McKinley *** cozy 5/19/19
 The Sherlock Holmes Handbook by Ransom Riggs *** non-fiction about fiction 5/27/19
 The Melted Coins by Franklin W. Dixon (original) **** MG mystery A/A 6/1/19
 Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez ***** non-fiction, women’s issues 6/3/19
 The Short Wave Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon (Original) MG mystery A/A **** 6/4/19
 The Twisted Claw by Franklin W. Dixon (original) MG mystery A/A *** 6/6/19
 The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie MG fantasy *** 6/7/19
 The House on the Cliff by Franklin W. Dixon (original) MG mystery A/A***** 6/7/19
 Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor A/A time travel *** 6/9/19
 The Short Wave Mystery by Franklin W. Dixon MG A/A **** 6/11/10
 The Squad: Perfect Cover by Jennifer Lynn Barnes  *** YA spy/thriller 6/12/19
 The Yard by Alex Grecian historical crime **** 6/13/19
 Greenhaven Press Literary Companion to British Literature: Readings on Twelfth Night  **** essays 6/14/19
 The Black Country by Alex Grecian historical crime **** 6/14/19
 A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas ***** historical mystery 6/19/19
 The Spook in the Stacks by Eva Gates *** cozy 6/20/19
 Murder Once Removed by SC Perkins **** cozy 6/24/19
 Thin Ice by Paige Shelton mystery **** 6/27/19
 By Book Or By Crook by Eva Gates **** cozy 6/28/19
 Reading Up A Storm by Eva Gates **** cozy 6/30/19
 The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas ***** historical mystery 7/1/19
 Worldwide Ward Cookbook by Diana Buxton non-fiction **** 7/3/19
 Past Perfect Life by Elizabeth Eulberg YA realistic  **** 7/8/19
  Call It What You Want by Brigid Kemmerer YA realistic **** 7/9/19
 Panic Button by Kylie Logan **** cozy 7/13/19
 Wicked Stitch by Amanda Lee **** cozy 7/14/19
 Marriage, Monsters-in-Law, and Murder by Sara Rosett **** cozy 7/14/19
 Murder Knocks Twice by Susana Calkins **** historical mystery 7/18/19
 The Stitching Hour by Amanda Lee *** cozy 7/19/19
 Better Off Thread by Amanda Lee *** 7/20/19
 Buttoned Up by Kylie Logan **** cozy 7/22/19
 Murder At Rosamund Gate by Susana Calkins  historical mystery *** 7/23/19
 From The Charred Remains by Susana Calkins historical mystery *** 7/24/19
 The Masque of Murder by Susana Calkins historical mystery **** 7/24/19
 The Rosemary Spell  by Virginia Zimmerman *** YA fantasy **** 7/26/19
 The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (3rd or 4th time) mystery ***** 7/28/19
 The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (2nd time) mystery **** 7/30/19
 Death by the River Fleet by Susan Calkins historical mystery **** 7/31/19
 Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) crime ***** 8/2/19
 The Beholder by Anna Bright YA A/A alternate history *** 8/5/19
 Murder At Archly Manor by Sara Rosett historical mystery **** 8/11/19
 And Then There Were Crumbs by Eve Calder cozy **** 8/17/19
 Murder At Blackburn Hall by Sara Rosett historical mystery **** 8/18/19
 The Egyptian Antiquities Murder by Sara Rosett **** historical mystery 8/19/19
 Milk: A 10,000-year Food Fracas by Mark Kurlansky non-fiction ***** 8/21/19
 Haunted Salt Lake City by  Laurie Allen et al  urban legends * 8/21/19
  The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxcman realistic fiction ***** 8/25/19
 How The Beatles Changed The World by Martin W. Standler *** non-fiction 8/27/19
 The Readaholics and The Gothic Gala by Laura DiSilverio *** cozy 9/6/19
Twelve Angry Men (again) drama ***** 9/6/19
 Sense and Sensibility (rewrite)( 2nd time) by Joanna Trollope ***** updated classic 9/7/19
 Eligible by Curtis Littenfeld (2nd time) ***** updated classic (P&P by Austen) 9/8/19
 Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (2nd time) ***** updated classic 9/12/19
 Capturing The Devil by Kerri Maniscalco YA historical A/A **** 9/20/19
 The Hummingbird Dagger by Cindy Anstey YA historical mystery ***** 9/30/19
 Handmade Halloween by Country Living non-fiction, crafts * 10/2/19
  The Shadow of Death by Jane Willan cozy mystery **** 10/6/19
 The Hour of Death by Jane Willan cozy mystery **** 10/8/19
 A Different Kind of Evil by Andrew Wilson historical mystery ** 10/13/19
 A Midsummer Night’s Dream by W. Shakespeare (again) ***** drama (2A) 10/15/19
 Better Off Read by Nora Page cozy mystery **** 10/16/19
 The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger *** realistic fiction 10/17/19
 Molten Mud Murder by Sara Johnson *** mystery/crime  10/26/19
 Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power by D. Michael Quinn ***** non-fiction 10/31/19
 Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith (2nd time) ***** western historical mystery 11/2/19
 On The Wrong Track by Steve Hockensmith (2nd time) ***** western historical mystery 11/4/19
 The Conspiring Woman by Kate Parker *** historical mystery 11//8/19
 The Detecting Duchess by Kate Parker *** historical mystery 11/10/19
 Monument Park 4th Ward Cookbook (c. 1960) *** non-fiction 11/14/19
 Cooking Class Global Feast by DeAnna F. Cook *** MG non-fiction 11/16/10
 Oakhills Neighborhood Cookbook (c.1980) **** non-fiction 11/17/19
 Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare (again) ***** drama (2A) 11/20/19
 The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith ***** (2nd time) western mystery 11/23/19
 Dear Mr. Holmes by Steve Hockensmith ***** (2nd time) western mystery 11/24/19
 A Crack in the Lens by Steve Hockensmith ***** (2nd time) western mystery 11/24/19
 World’s Greatest Sleuth by Steve Hockensmith *****(2nd time) western mystery 11/26/19
 Power Hungry: The Ultimate Energy Bar Cookbook by Camilla Saulsbury **** 11/27/19
 The Double-A Western Detective Agency by Steve Hockensmith ***** western mystery 11/29/19
 Food Of A Younger Land by David Kurlensky ***** non-fiction 12/4/19
  Oak Hills Neighborhood Cookbook II **** non-fiction 12/7/19
 The Food Explorer by David Stone **** non-fiction, biography 12/12/19
 In The Hall With The Knife by Diana Peterfreund YA mystery ** 12/16/19
 Farm Chicks Christmas by Serena Thompson (again) **** non-fiction, crafts 12/19/19
 Merry Market Murder by Paige Shelton (again) ***** cozy 12/21/19
 Julie Stories by Megan McDonald  MG realistic **** 12/22/19
  A Killer Maize  (again) by Paige Shelton cozy **** 12/22/19
 A Bushel Full of Murder by Paige Shelton (again) **** cozy 12/23/19
 Crops and Robbers by Paige Shelton (again) **** cozy 12/25/19
 Maisie Dobbs by Jaqueline Winspear **** historical mystery 12/28/19
 Death in St. Petersburg by Tasha Alexander **** historical mystery 12/30/19
 American Girl Character Encyclopedia *** MG non-fiction 12/31/19

Books I Rejected in 2019

The Gilded Wolves by   Chokshi When reading a fantasy book, I like the author to ease the reader into the new world, not drop them in suddenly, with completely different systems left incomprehensible.  In other words, when an author introduces 3 plots in 10 pages, uses French in every paragraph, and does not explain or even hint as to the meaning of key ideas (“Forging”) used repeatedly, I cannot engage with the book.  And when I cannot engage, I toss it aside.  Life is too short to read poorly-written material.  I wonder how many people buy this merely because the cover is pretty. 2/3/19
 Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby 17 pages ZZZZZZZ   mid-Feb, 2019
Dark, Witch, and Creamy by HY Hanna. About three chapters.  I was writing better stuff at age 11. 2/16/19
From Bad To Wurst by Maddy Hunter. 7 chapters in and still no mystery.  Not much of a cozy. 3/2/19
A Christmas Peril by JA Hennrikus 5 chapter, so much telling, so little showing.  All backstory, not mystery. bleah. 7/22/19
 Those Who Go By Night by Andrew Gaddes historical crime.  90 pages.  Poor research on food of the time period, likely poor research on everything else.  Also, the author clearly enjoys writing about men controlling, gaslighting, and punishing women.  He’s misogynistic and rather sadistic.  8/10/19
Have Yourself a Beary Little Murder by Meg Macy. Cozies aren’t supposed to be great literature, but this was soooo bad.. In 30 pages, I found numerous punctuation errors and just plain bad writing: the introduction of at least 20 characters! Ugh.  One chapter. 12/26/19

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Review: The Utah Shakespeare Festival's 2019 Season

Information on the Festival, plays, and tickets can be found at

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is in its 58th season this year.  It is held in Cedar City, Utah, and it is my favorite place to attend plays, especially Shakespeare plays.
I have seen Shakespeare plays in Salt Lake City, in London, England (the Globe), in Straford-on-Avon, England, in Scotland, and in Ashland, Oregon.  But none of these places match what happens at USF.  Let me list a few reasons:
1) The actors are top-notch, big names in the stage acting world, yet they freely do seminars and interact with the public.  They do not hold themselves aloof.  If you want to talk to one of them about a show, it's very easy to do so.
2) The Festival hosts literary seminars the morning after every play.  Several times a week, they host actor seminars, prop seminars, and costume seminars as well.  During the opening week of the shows, the directors will attend the seminars.  These are all completely free.
3) There's plenty of free parking near the Festival complex.  (Parking in Ashland was a joke.)
4)  Cedar City has plenty of motels and restaurants for Festival goers.
5) The Festival also offers classes wherein young or not-so-young students can earn university credit through Southern Utah University.

The new building complex which debuted at the 2016 Festival is still ugly, but it's more comfortable than it was at first.  There are now plenty of restrooms, a tiny, open-air cafe, two gift shops, and more shade.  The Shakespeare sculpture garden is looking good now, although the barren, cement-and-gravel thing behind the Arts Museum has no more charm than a Walmart parking lot.
This year's line-up of plays is a really good one.  I saw seven plays and attended six seminars in three days. Below are my reviews for those plays, done in the order I recommend them.  For example, if you can only see one play, I recommend Twelfth Night, so I review that one first.

1.  The best offering this year is Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
(Click here to see official Festival photos of this play.)
I know this play well, as I teach it to my high school seniors, so I'm well-qualified to make a judgement on this production, and I say it's a winner!
Orsino, played by Rene Thornton, Jr. is a fabulous, over-grown Romeo.  He flops himself about like a love-sick teenager, and it's hilarious!  Orsino's lines are very much like Romeo's, and I've long told my students that Orsino is just a 30-something Romeo, so Thornton is perfect in this role!
Other winning actor portrayals are Betsy Mugavero's Olivia, Chris Mixon's truly repulsive and unlikable Malvolio (this is the first time I've ever felt Malvolio deserved his punishment), and Trent Dahlin's Fool (very good, but I have seen others I liked better).  Also, I was worried that Josh Jeffers could not possibly match Quinn Mattfeld's performance as Sir Andrew Aguecheek a few years ago, but Jeffers is fabulous and hilarious!  Sebastian and Viola are pretty good, much better than the Viola from last time.
Less good are Sir Toby (who is far, far too likable) and Maria.   One of the biggest problems is that the director cut the part of Fabian and gave 90% of Fabian's lines to Maria, which completely changes her role and her personality.
The set of this play is fantastic, which huge statues of the twins Apollo and Artemis dominating the stage.  The costumes are vaguely Three Musketeers, but this works, and they are lovely to behold.
One interesting note is that at least six of the actors are persons of color, with Orsino, Viola, and Sebastian all being African-American in appearance.
Twelfth Night is a hilarious play with a love triangle, a cross-dressing young woman, and twins mistaken for one another.  It's a fabulous and fun romp, and this production is a real win.  If you can only see one play at the festival, choose this one.  If you'd like to introduce your kids or your non-Shakespeare-loving friends to the Bard, this is a great play to have them watch.

2. The next play I'd recommend seeing is The Book of Will, a two-year-old play by Lauren Gundersen.  (Official photos here.)
This play, according to the dramaturg, is fairly historically accurate, but it does add in the delightful character of Alice Heminges (brilliantly played by Betsy Mugavero), who is fictional. (John Heminges had plenty of children, but not much is known about them.)
The play tells the story of John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell (played by the fabulous Rene Thornton Jr), Shakespeare's actor friends/colleagues who put together the First Folio (the first authorized publication of his plays) a few years after his death.  The story is bittersweet in parts and funny in others.  It is well-costumed, and the set is constructed to look like the Globe Theatre.  The scene with the printing of the book is almost a dance, and the addition of the pages flying like flags is really lovely.
This play is easy to understand, a good history lesson, delightfully acted, and heartwarming.  Don't miss it!

3. If you have the time and the money for a third play, make it Hamlet.
(Official photos here.)
Quinn Mattfeld plays the title role this year, and he is a comic genius.  He brings out the humor in Hamlet's feigned madness, how he taunts and torments Polonius as well as Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.  If you've avoided Hamlet in the past because it's too serious, you ought to try this production; it's the funniest Hamlet I've ever seen.  (Note: all the sexual jokes are glossed over, though; this is a very Utah Hamlet.)
That being said, this is also the most violent Hamlet I've ever seen.  Director Brian Vaughn added in extra violence.
In a visual reference to MacBeth, Vaughn has Hamlet wash his hands of Polonius' blood -- and then Claudius forces his head into the basin and tries to drown him.
Even more off-script, due to Vaughn's misunderstanding (which he didn't admit) of the fact that no one rescues the drowning Ophelia because almost no one could swim -- not even sailors -- in Elizabethan England, Vaughn has palace guards drown Ophelia on stage.
Not violent, but also not in the text, Vaughn adds a mistress for Polonius.
I did like the fact that Vaughn did not cut the invading Norwegian army, as many directors do.
Mattfeld's Hamlet is fantastic, probably the best I've ever seen. Claudius is hypocritical, violent, paranoid, and evil (Vaughn hinted in the literary seminar that Claudius is Trump, which is, no doubt, why this production has Russian costumes showing up in it.). And the play-within-a-play is acted brilliantly.  Horatio is boring and not as likable as he should be, however.  And Gertrude and Ophelia are rather dull.
The set is an opulent Russian palace, which is gorgeous, but it has snow all over the interior.  This is stupid, in my opinion.
The costumes are Czarist Russia and are gorgeous.
Hamlet is not for everyone, true, but this is a very good production.

4. MacBeth is next.  (Photos here.)
This production of MacBeth had both good and bad in it, and I've seen a LOT of versions of MacBeth with which to compare it, as I teach the play to my sophomores.
The not-so-great:
a) Wayne T Carr was great as Othello last year, and he's very powerful in several of his roles in the Henry VI plays (see below) this year, but it wasn't a great MacBeth.  He didn't seem evil or conflicted or haunted or ambitious or anything MacBeth might be.  He just sort of was there.  His "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech was lame; I've seen 9th graders perform it better.
b) Because a black actor was cast as MacBeth, a lot of the costumes had African vibes.  The men wore battle clothing in black and gold stripes.  The witches were made up and tattooed to look like voodoo priestesses from New Orleans.  This was an odd choice for a play wherein the setting of Scotland is crucial to the plot.  The whole point is that it is SCOTLAND.  Some plays, such as Midsummer or Tempest or Twelfth Night, can be set almost anywhere, but MacBeth doesn't really work that way.
c) Lady MacBeth wasn't really great either.  In fact, the only parts that were really good with the leads were the hints of romance between the two.
d) So much of Malcolm's speech with MacDuff was cut that it made no sense, and MacDuff's answers made no sense.  Plus, this kept Malcolm from developing any sort of personality.
e) Most of the porter's speech was cut, so there was less humor there.
What was good:
a) The director added in three little Wednesday Addams girl witches who spied on MacBeth and helped out in the cauldron scene.  This made it clear that this director wished to emphasize that MacBeth is not controlled by the supernatural, but makes his own choices.
The girl witches were highly creepy and definitely added to the vibe of the production.
b) Act IV scene i ("double, double, toil and trouble") was very well done.  True, the director cut the racist line about Jews ("liver of blaspheming Jew") but left in the ones about Turks/Tartars, which was an odd choice.  But she had realistic-looking props for the witch girl acolytes to throw into the steaming trapdoor "cauldron" while the grown-up witches chanted and moved about.  Also, actors presented the apparitions.  So many directors leave this out and just have the audience imagine what MacBeth sees, but Anderson leaves it in -- even the line of kings.
c) The banquet scene with the ghost of Banquo was well-blocked and very creepy, even though the humor of the scene was completely ignored.
d) The director actually chose to have MacDuff bring in MacBeth's bloody head (in a bag)!  So many directors leave this out; the last time the Festival did this, the director just had MacDuff stab MacBeth on stage, for example.  But Anderson followed the script.
e) Anderson also adds in supernatural elements I've never seen before.  In both the scene wherein Lady M calls on the spirits ("Unsex me here") and when MacBeth does, the director has them kneel or stand in a conjuring circle and actually commune with the supernatural.  Lighting changes are used to show it.  I'd never thought of its being done in such a way before, and I really liked this.
Overall, it's a pretty good production of MacBeth.

5. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (See photos here.)
 This musical, like Fiddler on the Roof, resonates strongly with Mormons, and, as a result, it has been insanely popular in Utah since about 1990.  I've seen it 8 times live (four of those professionally, one of which was the famous Donny Osmond live production), the video about 20 times, and I've listened to 2 different CD versions more times than I can count.  And this USF production is the blandest I've ever seen (including two high school productions).
The director, Brad Carroll, said in the seminar that he wanted the narrator to be only a narrator, for her not to interact with the other characters or the audience.  Well, he got that, and as a result, the narrator has zero personality.  She might as well sing offstage for all that it matters in the show.
Joseph also interacts very little with the other characters, and never with the narrator.  In other productions, I've seen the actor playing Joseph try to figure out Pharaoh's dreams by reading the Bible or by praying.  Not this Joseph; he does nothing to figure anything out.
Add the lack of character interaction to the extreme cuts in dance numbers and costuming, and you get a cartoonish Dreamcoat.   It's there.  It sounds good.  It's entertaining....enough.   But there's no character arc whatsoever.   It has all the character depth of an episode of Scooby Doo. When Joseph sings "Close Every Door," it's not poignant or heart-rending; it's just a pretty song.  When he meets up with his brothers again after decades of separation, it's like football buddies seeing each other the day after a big game.   There's no emotion at all when he frames his only full brother Benjamin.
Plus, the sixties references and go-go dancing are gone from "Go, Go, Go, Joseph."  And the actor who plays the Pharaoh is the same dude who played him twenty years ago at the festivals, so he plays an OLD Pharaoh -- and it's not really funny.
The good parts?  Well, it's Joseph; the music and lyrics are fabulous!   And the scene with the brothers traveling to Egypt is done as a drill number with a micro-cameo Chorus Line gag, and it's the best I've ever seen that scene done before.
Who should go?  Well, it's kid-friendly.  And if you've never seen Joseph before or haven't seen it in years and years, you'll probably like this just fine and not notice all that's missing.
I was underwhelmed with it.

6.  Henry VI parts 2 & 3 is last because it's not for everyone.  (See photos here.)
The Henry VI trilogy is among Shakespeare's earliest works.  It was wildly popular in its time, but it's not often produced now.  The reason is that it's long and that it's the story of the War of the Roses, which is complex and full of political intrigue.   The seminar leaders recommended it be compared to Game of Thrones and Hamilton for reference.
The Festival did part 1 of the trilogy last year, and this year, parts 2 &3 are done back-to-back in a small, black-box theatre (up close and personal) with a 30-minute intermission between the plays.  Twelve fabulous actors play 82 different roles with dozens of costume changes.  It's fabulous but it's INTENSE.   This is not a play production for the Shakespeare newbie or for a child.   This is a play for history buffs, English teachers, and theatre lovers.
That being said, it's getting hard to get tickets for this, as it's proving to be quite popular.
The costumes begin in the 1400s and end in the modern era.  This is done to show that bad leaders and political intrigue hasn't changed all that much over the centuries, but some people attending the seminar were very bothered by this.  I personally thought it was a bit helpful in keeping track of everyone.
There's a LOT of beheading in this play: four heads are brought on stage.  (One of them is of the same actor who plays MacBeth, so this dude gets beheaded in both his major roles this year!)
The most outstanding actors in this are Jim Poulos as Henry, Stephanie Lambourn as a super-bitchy but effective Queen Margaret, and Emelie O'Hara, who plays a twisted, evil, scary future Richard III extremely well.
This is really an excellent production, but I list it last as it is simply not as appealing to the average theatre-goer.  However, if you love history, Shakespeare, or really good theatre, do NOT miss this!

That's it, folks.   Check out for dates, times, prices, more about each play, and tickets.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Book Review: Thin Ice by Paige Shelton

6/27/19 Review of Thin Ice by Paige Shelton   

4.5 stars

Likely because I’ve been a long-time fan of Shelton’s, I was lucky enough to score an ARC of this thriller/mystery which will not be released to the public until December, 2019.  I received my copy at about 4:00 PM on June 26, 2019, read it in large chunks, and finished it at about 10:15 AM the next day.  I intended to give it five stars, but it does have a few Chekovian issues, which would likely have been non-issues if the book had declared itself to be the first in a series when I assumed it was a stand-alone.  I assume this will be made clear when the book is published.
I am a voracious reader of mysteries: cozies, historical, true-crime, and thriller.  Thin Ice is a mix of these genres (except historical), something of a cozy on steroids.
The protagonist, Beth Rivers, is very much a cozy protagonist.  She is a thirty-something intelligent, capable woman starting a new life in a small town and finding that skills from her previous jobs (thriller author and police secretary) drop her neatly into a new job/role (writer/editor of tiny local paper, although she never actually writes anything in this novel) waiting for her and help her to solve a murder in this new place.  She makes friends with the local cop, also very much like a cozy.  However, the fact that she’s changed her identity because she’s hiding from a stalker/kidnapper from whom she narrowly escaped makes this a bit more like a thriller.  As her escape caused an injury which led to brain surgery, she has a nasty scar and ugly hair, and she doesn’t care much about her appearance.  This makes a refreshing change from the usual cozy protagonist who is beautiful and has a myriad of men after her.   There’s no romance in Thin Ice, which makes it less cozy.  Beth’s also lacking the female bestie(s) usually found in a cozy.
The pacing of the book is much more like a thriller than a cozy.  Many scenes, from the beginning small plane entry into town, to the mysterious phone message, to the river rescue, are quite tense and less contrived than the usual sneak-into-the-house-to-search scenes found in cozies.  Beth’s seizures, headaches, and flashbacks seem quite real and contribute to the plot-building in a good way.
The cast of side characters is also more nuanced than in the average cozy.  All the folks who live in Benedict, Alaska are in the “gray” area; their personalities are far less like stock characters than are the usual group in a cozy.  Take Viola and Benny, for example.  These are tough sisters who ran from foster care at a young age and made lives for themselves in Benedict.  Viola manages a halfway house and Benny’s a barkeep. However, Benny, although she speaks of herself as female, either  enjoys cross-dressing or else identifies as non-binary.  All this is a bit Twelfth Night, except that it’s not Viola who dresses as a man when she reaches the “foreign shore.”  I don’t know if this is intentional or not on Shelton’s part, but it’s nice layering.
However, there is no real thriller tension of Beth’s having to run from Levi Brooks, her kidnapper.  In Thin Ice, he is a mysterious possible threat, but not in the sense of most thrillers.  (I must be vague here in order to avoid spoilers.)  Beth’s biggest conflicts are internal; they are real and add to the book, but they make this more cozy and less thriller.
My only complaints about Thin Ice come from the fact that I thought it was a stand alone, when I now see that it must be part of a series.  Shelton attempts to do what Alan Bradley does in the Flavia DeLuce series: to have a large mystery (finding Levi Brooks in Thin Ice and the past of Harriet in the Flavia series) stretching over the series while there is a murder to solve (who killed Linda in Thin Ice) in each individual book.  **** MILD SPOILER ****  In Thin Ice, I expected from the pacing and from the huge clues to Levi’s identity on page 184 and after that all would be revealed at the end, but instead we only solve the murder.  I felt a bit cheated by that.  I would have been fine with the teaser of a new mystery at the end if I had felt a sense of resolution for both mysteries, but I did not get that.  *** END SPOILER**
Also, there is a real Chekov’s gun problem when a Native man, a bit of a mystic, warns Beth not to go out into the Bay, and..... nothing comes of it.   I assume it will show up in a sequel, but I did find it rather annoying.
Thus, overall Thin Ice earns 4.5 stars from me.   It’s not really a thriller, but it is a ramped-up cozy, in a good way.  The characters seem real, the pacing is excellent, the setting seems very real to someone who’s never been to Alaska (I bet Alaska residents could pick things apart, but I can’t.), and the plot is good, even if the resolution is incomplete.   I would definitely recommend this book to mystery readers.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Book Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

If I had never read Connie Willis' Doomsday Book and its sequel To Say Nothing Of The Dog (there are two more sequels, Black Out and All Clear, but Taylor does not appear to have stolen much from those, at least in this first book), I might have thought this book was terrific.   The plot does trip along quite nicely, after all.
But reading this book after reading Willis' books is like reading Harry Potter spin-offs and expecting them to be as good as the real thing; it's just not going to happen.
Taylor steals Willis' whole concept of an English university in the not-too-distant-future having a time travel department, with the actual time travel done with computers instead of some type of magic (Rise and Fall of the DODO) or device (Dr. Who, Bill and Ted's, Back to the Future).   She also steals the whole concept of whether or not we "strand" someone in the past.   And, (SPOILER ALERT FOR TWO DIFFERENT AUTHORS) Taylor steals Willis' major plot idea of "we can take something from the past as long as it's something that is on the verge of being destroyed." In Taylor's case, this is a pine cone and a chunk of the Library of Alexandria.  For Willis, it's a cat and some kittens, which provide the catalyst for the entire plot of To Say Nothing Of The Dog.
Taylor also steals Willis' plot idea of "What if a disease travels forward in time?"
What Taylor DOESN'T have that Willis does is historical research.   Willis has so much detail in her historical settings that the reader almost feels the author must have lived through the events (clearly impossible), but Taylor picks vague settings and gives vague descriptions of all historical scenes.
Taylor's book isn't bad; it's fairly enjoyable as far as plot and character go.  But it lacks historical detail and certainly does not pull off Willis' parallel plot structure.
Thus, if you want a really good series about a university with a time-travel department which has people trying to cash in on commercializing it, find Connie Willis' books instead of these.

List of books in Connie Willis' time travel series:
The Doomsday Book
To Say Nothing of the Dog
Black Out
All Clear
The historical settings are 1348 Oxford, England, Victorian England, and WWII Oxford and London.
Connie Willis' books on goodreads and Amazon.