Saturday, January 30, 2021

A Spoonful of Sugar?



Before she was P.L. Travers, she was Helen Lyndon Goff.  She was born in Australia in 1899, the daughter of Margaret and Travers Goff.  Her father, an alcoholic, died when she was young; Lyndon (as the family called her) moved with her mother and sisters to New South Wales where a great aunt supported them. She immigrated to England in 1924 to continue her budding career as an actress, and changed her name to Pamela Lyndon Travers.  She had some success in writing articles for newspapers to help support herself, but true success arrived in 1934 when she published Mary Poppins, the first novel in what would become a series.

Despite the old fashioned feel of her books, Travers was in many ways a woman ahead of her time.  She was fascinated by myth and religion; she studied Zen in Japan and lived with the Navajo in Arizona for a time.  She was friends with a number of Irish writers, including William Butler Yeats. Though she never married, she adopted one of a set of Irish twins to raise as her son—a fact that the boy didn’t know until his identical twin showed up 17 years later. She was considered “prickly” and difficult by some, though others would see her as fiercely independent, and an artist trying to protect her work.

Walt Disney pursued her for years, trying to get the rights to make a film out of Mary Poppins, which was a favorite book of Disney’s daughters.  Travers was unimpressed by Disney’s films, feeling that they were too sentimental and lacked depth.  She finally agreed to sell the rights to her book, but stipulated that she have script approval.


Unfortunately for Travers, she did not have final approval over the film. While the movie’s success provided a great deal of financial support, she was devastated over the movie itself.  She abhorred the animation, thought the actors were ill-suited (Julie Andrews was far too pretty to be her Mary Poppins), and again that the production was far too sentimental.  At first she was not even invited to the premiere, but managed to attend. She told writer Jerry Griswald that when she left the screening she was crying.


She never authorized another film of her books and only grudgingly agreed to a stage adaptation, stipulating than no one who worked on the Disney film could have anything to do with the play.  She also demanded that only British writers work on the script, though she did allow some of the songs from the movie to be used.  ”Saving Mr. Banks,” a 2013 film with Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers, is about Disney’s attempts to make the Mary Poppins movie; it’s notable that the film wasn’t done until after Travers’ death or else there is no doubt that she would have had a lot to say about it.  However, some of those involved in the deal are still living, notably Richard Sherman who, with his older brother Robert, wrote the songs for that movie and several others.  In “Saving Mr. Banks,” there are scenes re-creating the way the Shermans tried to win Travers over with their songs.  It did not go well, either in the film or in real life and Richard Sherman still shudders at the memory of trying to work with Travers. In the end, two of the five Academy Awards given to the film were for musical score and best original song.  

There are eight books in the Mary Poppins series, with the last one being published in 1988.

Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins Comes Back
Mary Poppins Opens the Door
Mary Poppins in the Park
Mary Poppins from A to Z

Mary Poppins in the Kitchen
Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane
Mary Poppins and the House Next Door

P.L. Travers died in 1996 at the age of 96 and is buried in the UK.

Some of the sources consulted:

Friday, January 29, 2021

All Systems Red by Martha Wells


Reviewed by Ambrea


In All Systems Red, Martha Wells introduces her readers to “Murderbot,” a self-aware security android – or Sec Unit – which has learned how to hack its own governor module and selectively obey orders.  For the most part, Murderbot covertly downloads media (it’s a big fan of a space soap opera called Sanctuary Moon), pretends it hasn’t gone completely rogue, and spends its days tuning out its human charges.


For the most part, its humans are pretty boring.  As a SecUnit created and commanded by the Company, it’s met worse humans – much, much worse – and its faced worse jobs.  Protecting a handful of scientists conducting surface tests on a new planet is pretty easy.  Until, one day, a neighing mission goes dark and Murderbot discovers that someone is attempting to sabotage its mission and kill its humans.

Not that it cares.  Much.

I absolutely loved listening to All Systems Red.  I picked it up as an audiobook on Tennessee READS, and I think I listened to it in one day.  It’s not a long book – more like a novella, than a full-length novel – but it’s packed with tons of adventure, android angst, and humor.  Kevin R. Free narrates the audiobook version, and he does an excellent job of conveying Murderbot’s general antipathy toward humans. 

Despite its grim moniker – that Murderbot bit is privileged information – Murderbot isn’t particularly motivated to commit capital offenses.  It would rather covertly download and consume vast quantities of media, while pretty much ignoring the scientists it’s being forced to guard.  “As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure,” it admits. 

Although Murderbot is surely the star of the show, I found myself enjoying Mensah, too.  Mensah is the captain of the expedition.  She’s a scientist, but she’s one of those with a small streak of Indiana Jones in her DNA – just enough to make her feel a little like an action hero.  She’s smart, she’s commanding, and she’s very, very good at her job.

As Murderbot grew to appreciate her, I also found myself enjoying its interactions with Mensah and the rest of the crew of PreservationAux. 

One of the main things I loved about Murderbot was the fact that it wasn’t some cold, calculating, perfect robotic entity.  It was flawed – very flawed.  I mean, I’ve never imagined an android could have social anxiety, so it was very enlightening and it made for some very funny lines that I just adored, like:


“Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings.  The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency.  I’d rather climb back into the Hostile One’s mouth.”




“They were all so nice and it was just excruciating.  I was never taking off the helmet again.”


As an introvert who occasionally – admittedly, often – dreads social situations, I felt Murderbot’s plight deep in my bones.  I also laughed so hard I snorted.


Overall, I enjoyed All Systems Red immensely.  It’s probably one of my favorite science fiction novels – right up there with The Martian by Andy Weir and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – and it’s definitely in my top ten books for the year.  I loved reading about Murderbot, and I can’t wait to continue reading about its further misadventures.


All Systems Red is the first in a series titled “The Murderbot Diaries.”  It’s followed by:

·         Artificial Condition

·         Rogue Protocol

·         Exit Strategy

·         Network Effect

·         Fugitive Telemetry

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Nevermore: Black, Doig, Clarke, Price, Buechner, Rosewood, Cline


The novel Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black is set during World War II and covers the mysterious three hours that Hitler spent in Paris, never to return.  The main character, Kay, is a markswoman from Oregon living in the UK.  After a Nazi attack kills her husband and child, she is recruited to kill Hitler.  Airdropped into Paris armed with only rudimentary instructions and a rifle, Kay misses Hitler, and the whole plan unravels.  Kay is on the run and must escape France if she is ever to reach home.  This historical thriller was recommended by our reader.

 Oliver is the widowed father of three sons and is looking for a housekeeper/cook to help the family on their Montana prairie homestead when he spots an intriguing ad which promises an exceptional housekeeper who “can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.”   Oliver spends a lot of money to bring Rose out West and when she shows up with her brother Morris is in tow.  Thus begins Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season, a humorous tale of eccentrics, institutions and life on the prairie at the turn of the last century.  Our reviewer says this is a book for anyone looking for funny and well written fiction.


Next up was one of the weirdest books our reader has ever tackled: Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke, the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel.  This dark fantasy was proving hard for our reader to get through. Written as the diary of our narrator, called Piranesi (though that may not be his name), this surreal story is about a man living in an infinite building lined with statues and containing an ocean.   There are scratches all in the building, and the man thinks this building is the entirety of the world.  There is only one other person in this world, The Other, a man who shows up in a suits and ties and asks Piranesi questions and asks him to do things.  Our reader was not finished with the book but was not sure what the point was supposed to be.


Children of Ash and Elm: The History of the Vikings is by Neil Price, a professor at University of Upsalla. This book is described as a definitive history of the Viking age, from 750 – 1050 CE and covers the diaspora of the Vikings both westward and eastward and south to Istanbul.  The Vikings were not just raiders, but also traders, colonists and slavers whose impact reached from Eastern North America to the Asian steppe.  Our reader was fascinated by this book and it made her wonder what knowledge of these people has been lost to history. 

King University had a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publishing of Godric, a Frederick Buechner book which was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980.  Buechner is an educator, theologian, and writer who has authored thirty six published books.  Godric is about a 12th century Saint (Godric of Finchale) who lived the first part of his life as a scoundrel and the last half of as a hermit.  Our reader loved this book, particularly as it is written as if from 12th century, and is in iambic pentameter.  Our reader can’t see a general audience liking it but she loved it. 

True Crime Case Stories:  12 Disturbing True Crime Stories by Jack Rosewood is the first volume of a 4 volume set captivated our reader. Every story is interesting, every story is true and the mystery always gets solved.  If you like Forensic Files, you will love this series, according to our book club member.


In the dystopian novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline the world has undergone an economic collapse, making reality a dreary place to be.  Wade, the main character, is a teen who mostly lives his life in The Oasis, a completely immersive internet world/game that uses 1980s culture as its basis.  James Halliday, inventor of the Oasis, has died and has left his massive fortune to whoever can find the “Easter Egg” in The Oasis. When Wade finds a clue, he becomes a world-wide celebrity—and target.  Our reader found it to be a lot of fun and is looking forward to the second book, Ready Player Two.