The Latest: 'Mask' holds secrets; shady 'Bungalows'


The Princess in the Opal Mask

By Jenny Lundquist

Running Press Teens; 350 pages


It seems to be Mark Twain season in Orange County. This month, Val Kilmer brought his one-man show, "Citizen Twain," to the Laguna Playhouse, and a few weeks before that came the release of Jenny Lundquist's novel "The Princess in the Opal Mask," which reads like a female take on Twain's "The Prince and the Pauper." Add a double "s" to the end of "Prince," and there you are.

In Twain's story, a young prince and a beggar who closely resemble each other trade places, with the former learning about London squalor while the latter struggles to adapt to royal life. Lundquist, a Huntington Beach native, provides a similar dual plot, as her two protagonists — a meek princess named Wilha, whose family forces her to wear a mask in public, and a headstrong girl named Elara, who toils for an adoptive family — find themselves repeatedly swapping identities.

How that exchange happens, I'll avoid ruining with spoilers. Suffice to say that in the early passages, Lundquist places us in the mythical kingdom of Galandria, whose neighboring state, Kyrenica, broke off from it a century ago and remains a looming presence. Over the former country presides the royal family, which parades out Wilha — known to her subjects as the Masked Princess — for public appearances but keeps her face, for undeclared reasons, a secret.

In its first third, "The Princess in the Opal Mask" stays well within the confines of the fairy tale genre. It's hardly surprising, for example, that Wilha's family hopes to marry her off to a prince who doesn't interest her or that Elara's caretakers treat her more like an indentured servant than a relation.

In addition to Twain's story, you may find yourself drawing parallels to "Snow White" and any number of Disney opuses in which wealth and poverty collide.

But then, those old folk tales survived for generations around the campfire before they wound up on the page or screen — and likewise, a novel like Lundquist's depends less on originality than on the skill of its storyteller. In this case, the teller is a good one, and by the time the protagonists meet and form an alliance amid mounting intrigue, "The Princess in the Opal Mask" becomes an invigorating read.

Much of the fun derives from the intricacy of Lundquist's plot. With the chapters alternating narration by the two leads, scenes depend on small gestures, shifting motivations and quick reversals of strategy; characters' choices are constantly limited by what can't be said or done. It's the kind of material that can be a door-slamming farce if played for laughs, but provides insights into human nature when taken seriously.

Reading "The Princess in the Opal Mask," it dawned on me that many young-adult stories deal with the concept of identity: From Harry Potter to Luke Skywalker, many heroes discover that their pasts and families have been carefully crafted illusions.

Maybe there's something about that age that invites pondering whether our circumstances are the ones we deserve. When Lundquist's heroines tackle that question at the novel's end, their solution is both daring and refreshing — proof that it's the mind, not the mask, that truly dictates fate.

—Michael Miller



Three Black Bungalows

By Joe Lewis

Self-released LP; 10 tracks


Delta blues is a genre of music that allows a musician to express emotions with a guitar and soulful lyrics. "Three Black Bungalows," the album by Joe Lewis, dean of UC Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts, is a good example of just that.

The 10 tracks on this self-released LP harken back to the early days of American music, when all you really needed was a guitar and passion. On the last song on the album, "There Was a Animal," Lewis gently plays his acoustic guitar, as an accordion, played by Ed Vodicka, accompanies him in the background.

It's the most mainstream-sounding track on the entire CD, almost reminiscent of modern-day rhythm-and-blues songs one would hear on the radio. I haven't quite figured out what Lewis is singing about and don't think I will, but just hearing the soft melody coming out of Lewis' guitar and voice warms my soul.

"The Traveler" is another track that exemplifies the simple, bare nature of Delta blues. It's an upbeat instrumental track with Lewis on his guitar. The song sounds like it should belong in the "Toy Story" movies as a backing track for Tom Hanks' character, Woody. It's peppy and will put a hop in your step.

Those two songs aside, Lewis' album takes an interesting approach, to say the least.

"Swim the Big Dipper" starts off just as subtle as the previous tracks mentioned, and just around the 35-second mark, you hear a guitar fill that will be played throughout the song, usually notifying when a new verse is about to start.

The first few lines of the song are eyebrow-raising. "I was brought up by dope fiends and murderers / Had my first kids when I was nine" are interesting lyric choices, and the rest of the song meanders. Every time that guitar riff plays, it's as if you're listening to vignettes of various stories. I'll need to ask Lewis to find out what it all means.

I was confused about the message of a lot of the tracks on the CD, with the exception of the song "Frankie & Johnny Got Busted." In this song, Lewis sings about two men who were pulled over while driving a Maserati merely because of the color of their skin.

Lewis even goes so far as to seem to be saying the N-word in the song to get the point across, but censors the word with a beep. If that doesn't bug the listener, the structure of the song will, with its oddly timed slaps on the cajon, a box-shaped percussion instrument.

When I heard from a colleague that Lewis' CD would have some Delta blues influences, I was excited. But after listening to the album a few times, I realize that I was hoping for more lap steel guitars and a more Muddy Waters-like vibe.

Lewis' music seems to play as if there's no direction, and trying to grasp it at a conventional 4/4 time signature is close to impossible. The UCI dean isn't trying to break into the mainstream, but he's stayed true to the roots of blues and folk music. It just isn't an album for the masses.

—Anthony Clark Carpio

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