From my Keeper Shelf — The Impossible Virgin


When I was young (alas, quite a long time ago) my mom would take us to the library every two weeks. There is no way I can express how important this was in my journey toward being a teacher and a writer. We didn’t have much money, but we had a wealth of information at hand, in the form of borrowed books. As I made the transition from young adult fiction to things written for an adult audience, mom was a valuable guide, because she was quite a good reader herself. One day, she handed me a book with a title that was a bit unusual: The Impossible Virgin. I’m sure I said something like, “Really, Mom?” She assured me that she had read it and that I would like it. OMG, was she right. I really loved that book.

Peter O’Donnell wrote an entire series of books featuring a better than James Bond heroine, Modesty Blaise, and The Impossible Virgin was my introduction to the series, although it is actually book five of thirteen books. The books generally followed a pattern, a bit like a James Bond movie of that era, wherein there is some action sequence at the beginning, then some exposition to get the reader up to speed on the characters, plus plenty of mid-level action before a dramatic series of events that leads to a climax with a very short denoument. Each book is decorated with highly eccentric characters, both the villains and the “guests” that Modesty and her friend Willie Garvin are helping with whatever dastardly doings drive the action.

(Some spoilers follow at this point.)

The Impossible Virgin centers around Modesty’s guy friend, a doctor named Giles Pennyfeather. He gets involved with some bad guys over in Africa, and Modesty helps him out. Later, Giles and Modesty are abducted by the baddies, and friend Willie is thrown out of a plane without a parachute. Giles ends up injured by a gorilla, so he has to walk Modesty through performing an emergency appendectomy  on one of the minor characters, and all that happens before the big climax, which involves a battle with quarterstaffs and a heck of a lot of wasps.

Most of the books in this series are really good, and I have all of them. Some books spend very little time with me, as they are forgettable, but The Impossible Virgin, along with others in the series, including Modesty Blaise, Sabre-Tooth, and I Lucifer are on my keeper shelf, and I have re-read them from time to time.

Modesty Blaise was the subject of a truly horrible movie, so bad that I try to forget that it was ever made, and a really good short film still available on DVD by Quentin Tarrantino, entitled My Name Is Modesty.

Mr. O’Donnell also wrote some nifty “romantic suspense” novels as Madeline Brent, and those are memorable as well.

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Winter’s Bone— review and commentary

Winter's BoneAs the film Winter’s Bone is based upon a novel, let me be clear— I am discussing the film, not the book. Hubby and I watched it via Amazon Prime, due to seeing it listed as one of the best films available via streaming, and it stars a young (pre Hunger Games) Jennifer Lawrence. I knew little else about it, other than the brief description on Amazon.

Honestly, it is a haunting movie, but is isn’t a horror story. This film is a polar opposite of a action adventure. Not that it isn’t interesting, because it is, but this is a window into a world that will be foreign to many of us, but maybe not as foreign as we’d like, because drug users, abusers, and dealers are an ever growing aspect of modern America.

Basically, the story follows the efforts of seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) to find her missing father, after a bail bondsman informs her that if her dad doesn’t show up for his trial, the family home is forfeit. The setting is in the Ozark Mountains, within the past few years, based on the cars. The father manufactures meth, and this is apparently no secret. Jessup Dolly hasn’t been around for a while, and there is little to eat, for the family or their animals. Ree is also burdened with younger siblings who rely upon her, because the mother is a mentally ill mute. As Ree goes from person to person, asking for news of her father, the viewer learns much about the poverty and other issues that inhabitants of this community endure.

When I was a youngster, I remember reading Oliver Twist and thinking that if one more bad thing happened to that kid, I was going to return the book to the library, unfinished. More misfortunes did befall young Oliver, so I didn’t finish the novel. A few years later I saw the musical Oliver on school field trip, so I did finally learn what happened to the characters. And while Winter’s Bone has little in common with Oliver Twist, the relentless despair with only a small germ of hope is similar.

As I do hope readers of Visions and Revisions will take a look at the film, I’m avoiding spoilers. Certainly, Jennifer Lawrence is amazing in this film, but the rest of the cast is excellent, too. The filmmaker did a fabulous job of showing the situation but not telling the viewer what to believe.

I have to agree that Winter’s Bone is an excellent film, and it brings a simple yet sophisticated treatment to the problems associated with the drug culture in rural America.

Butterfly Garden— a review

Trust me, this book will get under your skin and into your memory. I’ve read a lot of books, but this one is haunting.

One of my favorite genres of fiction is what is sometimes termed psychological fiction because the author gets into the minds of the characters. Perhaps it is due to my life experiences, or maybe it is due to my eclectic reading, but I am fascinated by the caretaker/villian. One my first exposures to this genre was the film “The Collector” based on the novel by John Fowles. Later, I read the book, which was also fascinating, but perhaps even more disturbing than the movie, which nicely bridges the gap between suspense and horror.

I think that Dot Hutchinson may have read the same book. That is not to say that her novel, The Butterfly Garden, is a rip-off of The Collector; it is not. However, there are some common aspects, so I will say that my guess is that she was inspired by the Fowles novel. Both novels deal with a warped collector, interested in butterflies, and his hapless series of victims. But, the villain in The Collector had one victim (at a time); in Hutchinson’s novel, the Gardener has a much bigger operation. Hutchinson basically took the plot, then raised the stakes. Her villain is far more villainous, so be forewarned that this novel is really disturbing. There is some bad language, as well as non-graphic rape and other unpleasantness directed toward the female victims.

The Butterfly Garden is modern in tone, pace, and language. But it is more of a “why” novel than a “what novel” as it begins at the end, and the plot unfolds as detectives try to unravel the story of the interactions between our victim (who has 3 names before it is over, so I won’t name her here) and an individual that the main character knows as the Gardener. Our protagonist is more victim than heroine, but she is certainly brave in a multi-layered manner. The novel is well-written and sufficiently suspenseful for me to have read it in a couple of evenings.

There are few parallels between The Butterfly Garden and my own psychological novel, The Gift Horse. However, an exploration of the role of the victim is common to both. If any of you readers enjoyed The Gift Horse, and were not overly offended, then you should try The Butterfly Garden. I really, really enjoyed it. But, I am not am not outraged by villains doing really bad things. That is what makes such characters villains.

Honor Among Thieves— a Star Wars novel

Honor Among Thieves coverThus far, my favorite Star Wars novel is Steve Perry’s Shadows of the Empire, which takes place between the film The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Familiar characters from the film are necessary, but Shadows also introduces the memorable Dash Rendar, and by fleshing out what happened between Han Solo’s freezing in carbonite and Luke and Leia’s rescue, Perry’s novel seems quite organic.

There have been quite a few Star Wars based novels published since Shadows, but with the upcoming new Star Wars movie, it is natural that a new story, with the original characters, come to market, along with a zillion tee shirts. So, we have James S. A. Corey’s Honor Among Thieves, which takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, as Han continues to try to raise money to pay Jabba the Hutt, and Leia is involved in leading the rebellion, which is not just a war, but a fund raiser. Someone has to pay for all those X-wings. Anyway, a valuable spy sent a message indicating that she needs to be recalled, and Han needs the money, so he’s off to make contact, pick up Scarlet Hark, and pocket another reward. Nothing in their universe (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) is simple, however, and Han’s little errand gets complicated really quickly.

(spoiler alert)

One of the best ways to create suspense is to raise the stakes, and they are quite high in this novel. No, there is not a Death Star (twice is one too many IMHO) but a device that kills hyperspace travel is high stakes indeed, and Han, Leia, and Luke end up converging in an effort to wrest control of the hyperspace dampener from the Empire.

To be honest, I didn’t like Honor Among Thieves as much as I did Shadows of the Empire, but I did like it. Readers who want to revisit a young farm boy Luke, the pivotal Princess Leia, and the roguish Han Solo should pick up or download a copy of Honor Among Thieves. Before you know it, you’ll be right back in the groove, wondering when Darth Vader will swoop back into the action. This is a great way to get in the mood for the new film.