Hollywood took a big hit this past week -- Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, Tom Laughlin -- all gone

Three silver screen icons -- Peter O'Toole, Joan Fontaine, and Tom Laughlin -- all died within three days of each other.

Peter O'Toole, star of the classic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Lion in Winter (1968), died on Saturday, December 14. He had an enormous body of work that, by his own admission, was performed while he was under the influence. His drinking tales with other famous imbibing actors (Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Peter Finch), are legendary -- he once cut off a finger tip, sterilized it in his whiskey glass, and stuck it back on his finger. Backwards. He and Finch were denied entry to an Irish pub because it was after hours. O'Toole and Finch whipped out their checkbooks and wrote checks. To buy the pub. The actors and the pub owner (he never cashed the check), became fast friends. When the pub owner died, O'Toole and Finch were invited to the funeral and sobbed loudly. At the wrong gravesite.

O'Toole, a happily self-described hellraiser for much of his life, who was 81 when he died, was nominated for eight Oscars and yet only received an honorary Oscar in 2003 for "...[his] remarkable talents [that] have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters."

Joan Fontaine, whose personal life was as much a part of her celebrity as was her onscreen persona, died Sunday, December 15. Her lifelong public feud with her actor-sister Olivia de Havilland was the stuff of legends. Fontaine won her only Oscar in 1942 for her leading role in Suspicion (1941). A few years earlier, she had been offered the role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939). Insulted by the offer, (she was aiming for the role of Scarlet), Fontaine said, "If it's a Melanie you want, call Olivia." The Studio did, and de Havilland became the darling of millions of movie-goers.

Ms. Fontaine's most famous role was as the unnamed second wife of Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier in the 1940 film, Rebecca, for which she was nominated for an Oscar.

Ms. Fontaine, who was 96, is survived by her sister, Ms. De Havilland

Last Thursday, December 12th, Tom Laughlin who created the Billy Jack franchise died of complications from pneumonia.

Laughlin wrote and starred in four Billy Jack movies: Born Losers (1967), Billy Jack (1971), The Trial of Billy Jack, and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (2009). Billy Jack is half caucasian, half Indian martial arts expert who sets out to fight racism. Laughlin is credited with creating the concept of 'blockbuster' movie. Laughlin eschewed the standard release protocol for new movies (opening in a few cities, with rolling releases), and released The Trial of Billy Jack nationwide, accompanied by promo ads which aired during the national news. It was a smashing success and studios adopted the model from that day on.

Laughlin died in California. He was 82.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #441

Winner of the American Booksellers Association "Indies Introduce Debut Authors" and Amazon Editors' Fall Pick", Australian Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest * * * is also one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Fiction Book of 2013, "(a)n enrapturing debut novel that toys with magical realism while delivering a fresh fable."

Widowed Ruth Field lives alone in an isolated beach house. Her days are measured by calls from her grown sons and predictable routines. Lately, she thinks she hears a tiger on the prowl around her property at night, bringing back memories of her childhood in Fiji. One day a stranger arrives claiming to be a care worker sent by the government, and Ruth let her in, but not without suspicions that this Frida is hiding secrets. As strange things begin to happen, Ruth's sense of reality becomes shaky.

"This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about aging, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn't be."

"A pleasurable novel, with turns of plot and phrase both startling and elegant."

A readalike for S.J. Watson's debut Before I Go to Sleep

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #440 - "There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted" ~ Henry David Thoreau

Ewart Hutton's debut Good People * * is one of Kirkus Reviews' Best Fiction Book of 2013, and shortlisted for the 2012 British Crime Writers' Association New Blood Dagger for best first novel.

In this "atmospheric, criminally smart" new police procedural, award-winning playwright (BBC Radio) introduces Detective Sergeant Glyn Capaldi. Disgraced and banished from Cardiff to the Welsh countryside, Capaldi (half-Welsh, half-Italian) investigates the disappearance of a van packed with young men after a night of rugby and hard drinking. Those who turn up could not explain why one of the men and the only woman in the group are missing.

In the face of opposition from the local constabulary and his superior, Capaldi delves deeper when one of the men is found hanged, and uncover a network of conflicts, betrayals, and depravity that resonates below the outwardly calm surface of rural respectability.

"(A) stunningly dark debut. The first-person narrative keeps it personal, making the detective's vulnerabilities that much more intense."

"...the plot twists are cunning, and Glyn Capaldi is the most appealing antihero this side of Ian Rankins' John Rebus."

Readers who enjoyed Peter May's The Blackhouse would not want to miss this one. (See previous FFF blog).

* * = 2 starred reviews

Pope Francis, the first Pope from the Americas, is Time Magazine's Person of the Year

Pope Francis, one of the Catholic Church's most popular pope's, was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year this morning on NBC's Today Show..

Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina almost 77 years ago (December 17th is the Pontiff's birthday), was elected Bishop of Rome and absolute sovereign of Vatican City on March 13th of this year. He is a Pope of many firsts, including he is the first Jesuit priest to become a Pope and the first one born in the Americas.

In his nine short months as the 266th Pope (the anti-Popes are excluded), he has rocked the globe with his humility and his rejection of the opulent trappings of the papacy (from garments to living quarters to transportation). But it his public walking of the talk of the Gospels that has galvanized peoples of all faiths and nationalities. Pope Francis focuses a light on the need to help the poor, feed the hunger, and heal the sick through social action. He urges the Church to be pragmatic in its priorities -- he views the intense focus on gay marriage, abortion, and the "tyranny of unfettered capitalism" as impediments to the important work that needs to be done to restore compassion worldwide and renewed efforts to bridge differences that block the way to world peace.

Social media went into overdrive this summer when it was reported that Pope Francis said even atheists can go to heaven. That's not exactly what he said in response to an open letter written by a well-respected atheist and published in La Repubblica. This translation gets close to the heart of the matter: "First of all, you ask if the God of the Christians forgives those who do not believe and do not seek faith. Given that—and this is fundamental—God's mercy has no limits if he who asks for mercy does so in contrition and with a sincere heart -- the issue for those who do not believe in God is in obeying their own conscience."

Pope Francis has enchanted the world by his embrace of social media. In addition to being a presence on Facebook, the Pope can be found on Twitter at @Pontifex. At last count, he was up to 3,349,929 followers.

To learn more about his approach to life and religion, read his latest book, published earlier this year -- On Heaven and Earth: Pope Francis on Faith, Family, and the Church in the 21st Century.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #439

A recast of the First Wives Club meets An Ex to Grind, Saginaw debut novelist Robin Devereaux-Nelson's In Violet's Wake * is an unexpected delight.

This Fabri Literary Prize winner is a buddy road trip story. When Violet leaves her sixth husband Marshall VanDahmm high and dry, he is sure her second husband Costa is to blame. A heated brawl turns into an unlikely friendship and one by one, Marshall and Costa seek out Violet's other ex-husbands (minus #1, the sainted Winston), to help themselves understand what they loved about Violet and why she abandoned them all. When they learn Violet plans to track down Jake, her old high school love and “the one who got away,” the men set off on a road trip to find Jake to warn him.

"A charming anti-romance. Devereaux-Nelson's group of guys learns a touching lesson from the girls: Sometimes, all you need is to talk it over with friends."

Readers might also enjoy The Ninth Wife by Amy Stoll - when Bess Gray learned that the man she is about to marry has eight ex-wives, she sets out on a cross-country journey to meet them; and Jonathan Tropper's This is Where I Leave You - " a riotously funny, emotionally raw novel about love, marriage, divorce, family, and the ties that bind--whether we like it or not."

* = starred review

2013 Young People’s Literature NBA Winner Announced

NBA winner medalNBA winner medal

The Thing About Luck has received the 2013 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Twelve-year-old Summer knows that kouun means “good luck” in Japanese, and this year her family has none of it. Just when she thinks nothing else can possibly go wrong, an emergency whisks her parents away to Japan—right before harvest season. Summer and her little brother, Jaz, are left in the care of their grandparents, who come out of retirement in order to harvest wheat and help pay the bills.

The thing about Obaachan and Jiichan is that they are old-fashioned and demanding, and between helping Obaachan cook for the workers, covering for her when her back pain worsens, and worrying about her lonely little brother, Summer just barely has time to notice the attentions of their boss’s cute son. But notice she does, and what begins as a welcome distraction from the hard work soon turns into a mess of its own.

Having thoroughly disappointed her grandmother, Summer figures the bad luck must be finished—but then it gets worse. And when that happens, Summer has to figure out how to change it herself, even if it means further displeasing Obaachan. Because it might be the only way to save her family.

Author Cynthia Kadohata won the 2005 Newbery Medal for the book Kira-Kira, the Jane Addams Peace Award and Pen USA Award winner for Weedflower, Cracker!, Outside Beauty, A Million Shades of Gray, and several critically acclaimed adult novels. She lives with her son and dog in West Covina, California.

National Book Award winners for 2013 have been announced

The 2013 National Book Awards, some of the most coveted of literary prizes, were announced last night at a gala event, held at New YOrk's landmark Cipriani Wall Street.

James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird, was such an underdog, he had no prepared speech when he accepted the fiction prize. In 1857, abolitionist John Brown kills a slave owner and rescues Little Onion, the narrator of McBride's brilliant novel. Complication the inexorable lead-up to the raid at Harper's Ferry is that Brown mistakenly thinks Little Onion (a.k.a Henry Shackleford) is a girl, a disguise that Little Onion struggles to maintain. Visibly shaken by the award, McBride said the writing of his book saved him during a difficult period of his life when his mother and a much-loved niece died and his marriage fell apart.

George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker captured the non-fiction category for his searing examination of the class warfare currently being waged in America. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is based on dozens of interviews of the mainstays of economic stability have been eroded by the actions of Wall Street and the big banks.

In the poetry category, Mary Szybist won for Incarnadine. Szybist, a professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR, is no stranger to the spotlight. Her first collection of poetry, Granted (2003) which was a finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.

Cynthia Kadohata, a 2005 Newbery Medal winner for Kira-Kira, took home the award last night in the young people's literature category for The Thing about Luck. Twelve-year-old Japanese American Summer and her little brother are left in the care of their old-school grandparents when their mother and father are called away to Japan to care for an ailing relative.

The Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community was presented to Maya Angelou by her friend Toni Morrision.In presenting the award, Ms. Morrison said, "Dr. Maya Angelou, you improve our world by drawing from us, forcing from us our better selves."

Each winner received $10,000 and a statue made of bronze.

Charlotte Zolotow, children's author, has died

This has been a hard week for children's literature. First, we said goodbye to Junie B. Jones creator, Barbara Park. Now, we learn that Charlotte Zolotow, died yesterday at home in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY.

Ms. Zolotow, a fearless champion of facing head-on the tough issues of childhood -- loneliness, anger, death -- began her illustrious career, as a powerful editor for children's literature at Harper and Brothers (now HarperCollins Publishers). On her rise through the ranks (she eventually became head of the publisher's children's division, a vice president, and associate publisher and, 22 years ago, she was named publisher emerita), she made the careers of M.E. Kerr, Robert Lipsyte, and Paul Zindel whose 1968 teen novel, The Pigman, a grim tale of the troubled friendship between two unloved high school students and a lonely old man. She also represented Patricia MacLachlan, author of the the children's classic, Sarah, Plain and Tall (19850, which not only won the 1986 Newbery Medal, but was also turned into the 1991 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie by the same name, starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken.

Ms. Zolotow's work as an editor was a natural segue to her own writing career. She used her books to help children and their parents face emotional subjects. William's Doll (1972) tells the story of a little boy determined to play with dolls when his dad wants him to embrace basketballs and trains. Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present (1962), a 1963 Caldecott Honor book, teaches the abstract idea of the power of color. Maurice Sendak illustrated this perennial favorite.

Ms. Zolotow's titles have been illustrated by some of the giants of children's illustrators. Garth Williams, Tana Hoban, and H.A. Rey are just some of the artists paired with Ms. Zolotow's books.

The death of Ms. Zolotow, who was 98, was announced by her daughter, Crescent Dragonwagon, a well-known children's author in her own right.

Doris Lessing, groundbreaking novelist, has died

Doris Lessing, whose 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, electrified young women with its forward-thinking themes, died yesterday in London.

Ms. Lessing was born in Iran in 1919 and raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) by a father grievously wounded in World War I and a cranky mother who chomped at the bit to escape her domestic responsibilities. Lessing attributed her mother's resentment as a key factor in shaping her own evolving discoveries of the untapped power of women at an early age. She dropped out of school at 14 and discovered writing.

Her first book, the 1950 release of The Grass Is Singing, was instantly controversial. Set in then-Rhodesia, it is the searing account of a bored white farmer's wife and her relationship with one of the farm's black slaves. Lessing's relentless examination of the endless layers of injustice that she saw everywhere was so ferocious that she was labeled a 'prohibited alien' by the governments of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in 1956 for her inflammatory opinions.

In 1962, Lessing became one of the unwilling literary leaders of the nascent feminist movement, a label eschewed by her because she said the early feminists' embrace of all things political made them angry name-callers. The Golden Notebook tackled head-on the full menu of women's issues that to this day drive many social issues conversations. Marriage vs. freedom, motherhood vs. career, intellect vs. coy submissiveness, black vs. white. She herself lived of what she wrote, abandoning two husbands and two out of her three children when she fled to England.

Ms. Lessing also wrote two very popular series. The Children of Violence, which begins with Martha Quest (1952) and concludes seventeen years later with entry number five, The Four-Gated City (1969). During the span of this series, a teenage Martha Quest leaves her life on an African farm and flees to England, endures the horrors of World War II, and forges a new, more independent, if fraught life, in post-war London.

The second series is a five-entry science fiction work, Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979-1983).

Ms. Lessing was recipient of many awards. One of her most notable distinctions was to be named the oldest Nobel laureate for literature, receiving that honor in 2007 when she was 88 years old. She claimed it ruined her life because the demands on her time that accompanied such an honor, made it impossible for her to write.

Her last book, Alfred and Emily (2008) was a study of her parents' life, filled with speculation about what their lives would have been like if World War I had not happened.

Ms. Lessing was 94.

Barbara Park, creator of the beloved Junie B. Jones children's books, has died

Barbara Park, who combined her inner six-year-old self with a fantastic sense of humor to create the popular Junie B. Jones chapbooks, has died.

Ms. Park discovered her love of reading in high school and her writing gifts in the 70s when, as a military wife, she put to paper the antics of her young boys. Her first books were stand-alones that spoke to children about tough subjects with her uniquely child-oriented perspective, such as The Kid in the Red Jacket (1987) which covers the stress of moving and being the 'new kid' in school.

In 1992, Park found her popularity soar with the publication of the first of her 28 Junie B. Jones chapter books. First up, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus. The eponymous five -year-old hates her first bus ride to school so much that she refuses to go home at the end of the day.

Through 16 more entries in the series, Junie B. Jones stayed in kindergarten. Finally, in 2001, Junie B. Jones graduates. In Junie B., First Grader (at Last!), Junie B. faces the twin traumas of losing her best friend to TWINS and of having to get her first pair of glasses.

The last Junie B. Jones title, #28, Junie B., First Grader: Turkeys We Have Loved and Eaten (and Other Thankful Stuff), was published last year.

Ms. Park had battled ovarian cancer for several years. She was co-founder and CEO of Sisters in Survival, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women navigate the many challenges of a diagnosis of ovarian cancer.

Barbara Park, a longtime resident of Scottsdale, AZ, and winner of multiple children's literature awards, was 66 years old.

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