Screenplay by MacDonald Harris

An enthralling, time-traveling version of Alice, in dual wonderlands of 20th-century Hollywood.


Originally published in 1982, Screenplay by MacDonald Harris (The Balloonist) exhibits remarkable sleight of hand with two parallel versions of Los Angeles. Alys was raised in the late 20th century by fabulously wealthy, unconventional parents and orphaned at age 18. With no personal connections and unlimited money to burn, he amuses himself with unusual old books and music and soulless sexual liaisons. An odd old man shows up at his doorstep and requests to rent a room–though no room has been advertised. He introduces himself as Nesselrode, a film producer, and says he can get Alys into pictures.

Soon Alys’s tenuous link to modern 1980s L.A. falters as he steps through a screen into black-and-white 1920s Hollywood with Nesselrode as a surly, time-obsessed guide. In this alternate world, he falls in love with a beautiful starlet, but can they make a life together in her time? Or in his?

In addition to the unmistakable overarching reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Harris’s novel recalls the moral questions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Alys himself could have stepped from the pages of The Great Gatsby. Even with such classics for comparison, Screenplay is a masterpiece of darkly playful cunning. Harris’s evocative prose, in Alys’s disturbingly clinical, coldly self-indulgent first-person narrative, is both intoxicating and disquieting; the altered reality here is more sinister and sensual, even erotic, than in Carroll’s Wonderland. The tension in this memorable and singular dreamscape builds with perfect pacing to an ending that raises more questions than it answers.

This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the December 30, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Rating: 8 toasters.

Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, trans. by Anthea Bell

Not being a big reader of YA, or time travel, or fantasy/alternate realty/insert-concept-here, it surprised me how much I was drawn to this book. But I was.

Before I tell you about this story, here’s a funny detail I noted right off: the translator, Anthea Bell, also translated the last book I read from-the-German, The Stronger Sex. This title is YA where that one was decidedly adult material, but I guess a strong German-to-English translator is the same across the board. I hadn’t really thought about it before. Just as I said about The Stronger Sex, Bell gets full credit for making the translation invisible. If anything, the language here is a little more awkward; but having read that other example of Bell’s translation, I think this awkwardness comes from the original. If I hadn’t known, I wouldn’t have suspected translation issues – I would have assumed just what I have come to feel is a common YA writing issue. It feels a little bit effortfully simplified, if that makes sense. It’s something I’ve encountered in YA before. I guess it’s a reading-level thing. Like in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, it bothered me slightly when I focused on it, but the story ended up engrossing me enough that it faded into the background. I don’t read a lot of YA. If you don’t, either, this little issue may irk you as it does me; if you read a fair amount of YA, chances are good it won’t faze you.

Gwen is trying to live a normal teen existence in present-day London, but her obnoxious cousin Charlotte’s destiny is difficult to ignore. Charlotte has inherited the family’s time-travel gene, and any day now, she’s expected to take her first trip. She’s been trained all her life in languages, history, the mannerisms of different periods, fencing, dancing, and music. But when the first uncontrolled time travel occurs, it’s not Charlotte, but Gwen – of all people! – who finds herself in an unfamiliar era. She’s thrust unprepared into a complicated world, and finds herself partnered in adventure with Gideon de Villiers, the time-travel-gene-carrying teen of his own family. He is snotty and bossy… and sooooo handsome…

I enjoyed the intrigue, the plots and codes and ancient documents and secrets and mysteries. I enjoyed the world Gier builds. I even enjoyed, mildly, the juvenile romance. But I didn’t get enough of any of it. I felt like the set-up for the story took 3/4 of the book, and then the story began and –whoosh– please buy the sequel that comes out in 2012. Is this a YA thing? I was frustrated and unsatisfied; but I’m also intrigued enough to seek out Sapphire Blue, the aforementioned sequel. Sigh. I guess she got me.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

What an odd, fun, creepy little romp this was! I had been fascinated by the idea of this book months before it came out. The story is this: our first-person narrator, Jacob, has always been close to his grandfather. Grandpa Portman has told him stories all his life of the peculiar, magical children he grew up with, in a home for orphaned refugees during World War II. He even has pictures: a levitating girl (on the cover); an invisible boy; a skinny boy lifting a giant boulder. As Jacob grows up a bit, he begins to understand that perhaps Grandpa’s stories were just that, stories; but when Grandpa dies in a mysteriously disturbing fashion, in Jacob’s arms, and with the strangest of last words, he begins to wonder again. Under the care of a psychiatrist, Jacob travels with his father back to the tiny Welsh island where Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was located. The story he begins to unravel… well. I don’t want to ruin anything for you.

This is really a YA (young adult) book, for two reasons: 1, the reading level, and 2, the young adult protagonist. Jacob is 16 or 17 years old. I found it very enjoyable, though, and I don’t read YA very regularly. It was a quick read, partly because of the rather basic reading level. But here’s the unique bit: there are quite a few pictures mixed in with the text. Grandpa Portman had a collection of pictures; Jacob has a few of his own; he discovers a cache of pictures in his explorations of Cairnholm Island. And every one of the pictures mentioned in the story is included, so we get to do our own examining of them alongside Jacob. This was very cool, because the oddness (or perhaps, the peculiarity) of these pictures is a large part of the point of this book. And here’s the kicker: while this is a work of fiction, and the impossibility of the photos is obvious, I found an interesting detail at the back of the book. The author writes, “All the pictures in this book are authentic, vintage found photographs, and with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing, they are unaltered.” I don’t know what “minimal postprocessing” might entail, but it made me go back and reexamine the pictures all over again, knowing that they each have a real life mysterious story behind them. I love it: an additional facet to this curious tale.

This is a paranormal story, even one of time travel. I don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in these areas, but I found Jacob to be a likeable (if doofy – is this a regular facet of YA, too?) protagonist, and his Grandpa was a real hero. The peculiar children were extremely likeable and fascinating. I had a lot of fun with this diversion from my more normal reading.

Teaser Tuesdays: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

This book is great fun so far. My teaser comes from page 142:

We walked through the house, past more curious eyes peeping through door cracks and from behind sofas, and into a sunny sitting room, where on an elaborate Persian rug, in a high-backed chair, a distinguished-looking lady sat knitting. She was dressed head to toe in black, her hair pinned in a perfectly round knot atop her head, with lace gloves and a high-collared blouse fastened tightly at her throat – as fastidiously neat as the house itself. I could’ve guessed who she was even if I hadn’t remembered her picture from those I’d found in the smashed trunk.

catching up: Niffenegger weekend

Hello there. Sorry I’m slow to cover my weekend’s reading for you. Here I am now!

This was a fun weekend because the Husband did a marathon mountain bike race while I watched and supported for a change. He did much better than he had hoped, and seemed to do it pretty easily too, so I’m very proud. I had a good time watching a number of friends do very well, in fact.

I also managed to finish Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and then Her Fearful Symmetry (finished today at lunch), so it’s been a Niffenegger-heavy weekend. I didn’t intend to read two of hers in row, but was already reading and enjoying Time Traveler when a library patron brought me her personal (autographed) copy of Symmetry, to borrow – thereby making me feel like I should read it next…

So first things first. The Time Traveler’s Wife was very enjoyable! I felt like it had a little lighter feel to it earlier in the book, then gets a little more thoughtful, dark, contemplative, and frightening later in the book. This is actually appropriate, for Clare’s point of view, since she takes her time-traveling husband lightly when she’s younger, only realizing risks & dangers as she grows older. When she is an adult and understands all the implications, things become very frightening indeed. I found all the emotions and reactions pretty human, and was very absorbed in the characters. I also found the novel’s implied questions, about fate, sequence, causality, responsibility, forgiveness, and other issues of humanity, to be compelling. The time-travel construct worked well for me. I was impressed by a beautiful, romantic story with believable characters. I was also impressed with some of the emotional scenes Niffenegger managed to “paint” for us, like the dream sequences on pages 373-4.

And, I found myself crying. Again! Something strange must be happening to me. At least I can say it’s NOT my biological clock 🙂 because I continue to be just a little impatient with all the maternal stuff in several books I’ve been reading over the last several months: The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger; Still Missing, Chevy Stevens; Look Again, Lisa Scottoline; I’d Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman; My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult – just off the top of my head. I’m a bit fed-up with motherhood and maternity as themes, and have decided to purposefully avoid (in the near future at least) Emma Donoghue’s Room, which I’ve been interested in for months now, because it sits pretty squarely on those themes.

I give this one a strong rating and am glad I finally picked it up.

With some hesitation, then, I picked up Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry as my next read. I hesitated because I rarely read the same author, or even theme or style or subject matter, back-to-back. I don’t even think I can remember reading back-to-back in a series. I guess I just feel like my brain likes a break, a palate-cleanser if you will. So with slight trepidation I began the next book; and I think I was right to be a bit nervous, because the first book ends with a death and a partner mourning, and the second book begins with a death and a partner mourning, and really never gets much happier than that. No, they’re not serial, just continue a similar tone.

Plot synopsis: Twins Valentina and Julia do not know their mother’s twin sister Elspeth until they inherit Elspeth’s London flat. There are two conditions: they must inhabit the flat for a year before they can sell; and their parents cannot set foot in it. Upon arriving in London, these ethereal, deeply attached young girls meet their interesting neighbors: Martin is an endearing but very sick obsessive-compulsive; and Robert was Elspeth’s lover, and is having quite a bit of trouble “letting go” her memory. They also get to know their mysterious aunt.

The melancholic, obsessive grief that starts this book doesn’t really let up. Perhaps I simply wasn’t in the mood to be made to feel this way, but I didn’t *love* this book as much as I did Time Traveler. I think it was almost every bit as well-crafted, and the emotions (while disturbing) still rang true; but it was just a bit too creepy. I won’t go any further for fear of spoiling, but this was a creepy book. To be fair, I had trouble putting it down; I think it was well done. But it didn’t feel as good. I think The Time Traveler’s Wife accomplished a feat: it took me through a range of emotions and life stages and, if it didn’t tie things up in a happy cozy way, at least it tied things up in a way that felt very complete. Her Fearful Symmetry, on the other hand, explored dark emotions rather deeply without a great deal of light. The paranormal aspects in the first book were a quirky vehicle through which to experience emotions and relationships and ask interesting questions. The latter read more like a ghost story (more and more so as the story develops), with an ending that was a little Poe-like in its creepiness.

I preferred the first, obviously, although if you were a bit more open to the ghost-story aspect, you might like the second better than I did. I believe even objectively, though, the first was a greater achievement. Or maybe I just shouldn’t overindulge in Niffenegger, hm?

I’ve heard a fair amount about her recent graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, as well. Librarians and libraries and books play an important role in Niffenegger’s work in general (Henry from The Time Traveler’s Wife is a librarian; Elspeth from Her Fearful Symmetry is a bookseller), and the starring role in this latest. But the consensus amongst the library groups I hear from seems to be that her treatment of the librarian in The Night Bookmobile is downright and absolutely creepy. They don’t seem to like it. Again, maybe we just need to be looking for a ghost story? Or is there really something “wrong” with these stories? Presumably there are readers out there who love them. Any thoughts?

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