Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: "The Long and Faraway Gone" by Lou Berney

I'll be honest: the first thing that drew me to Lou Berney's The Long and Faraway Gone was the lettering of the title on its cover. (Admit it: it's happened to you before, too.) Because it looked similar to some other books I've enjoyed recently (particularly Marian Palaia's The Given World), I was intrigued.

And then I started reading the book...and was instantly hooked. Holy wow, this book is fantastic.

"The past had power. The past was a riptide. That's why, if you had a brain in your head, you didn't go in the water."

In 1986, two separate crimes rocked Oklahoma City. In a rundown movie theater, six employees were killed in a robbery, although one mysteriously survived. And then at the State Fair, Genevieve, a teenage girl, disappeared after leaving her younger sister on the midway for a few minutes. No answers were ever found in either crime.

Twenty-five years later, Wyatt, a private investigator in Las Vegas, is asked to do a favor for a friend and look into a case in Oklahoma City involving a relative of his wife. The young woman, who was bequeathed a rundown music club by a man she knew vaguely, has become the victim of strange, harassing incidents, ostensibly to get her to sell. But while the case itself proves more challenging than he thinks it is, returning to Oklahoma City dredges up more memories than Wyatt can handle, and reminds him of questions he never could answer.

Julianna was 12 years old when her sister Genevieve disappeared. Despite the fact that the police never were able to figure out what happened to her, Julianna has never given up trying to solve the mystery, at the expense of her relationships, her career, and often her sanity. When a person from those days re-emerges, she is willing to risk everything she has to find the answers she so desperately needs.

"The landscape of memory was like that. Sometimes the near seemed far, far away and the faraway was right beneath your feet."

This book is so powerfully written, so compelling. If you've ever found yourself unable to move on from something that once happened to you, you can identify, although perhaps only on a small scale, with these characters. And they're wonderfully memorable characters, so desperate to move on with their lives but utterly unable to pull themselves away from the past. This book is both hopeful and sad, and Berney did such a great job shifting perspectives between Julianna and Wyatt, and from past to present.

I had never heard of Berney before, but I am definitely interested in reading his earlier books. He's a tremendously talented storyteller, and The Long and Faraway Gone was just a fantastic book.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: "In Some Other World, Maybe" by Shari Goldhagen

If life always turned out the way we hoped, the way we planned, the world would be a very different place. And so would literature, movies, theater, and music. Luckily, that doesn't seem to be the case for the characters in Shari Goldhagen's terrifically warm In Some Other World, Maybe, and the reader is better for that fact.

It starts in 1992. The popular Eons & Empires comic book series has been turned into a movie. In three different cities, three different teenagers experience the movie in different ways.

Adam, a popular, talented high school senior from Florida, gets a surprise date with a girl he used to have a crush on when she was in high school. He's hoping for one last connection before he can leave his sleepy town and head to NYU. In Cincinnati, Sharon, who used to read the comic books in secret, skips school to go to the movies during the day, but her infatuation with the movie leads her to make a choice that has the potential for disastrous consequences. And in Chicago, Phoebe is excited to go on her first date with her classmate, Oliver, despite the presence of her two best friends and their dates, as well as her younger brother, who has tagged along with them.

The book follows the paths of these characters through the years, as they achieve successes and confront failures, experience unbridled happiness and are hit by unexpected tragedy, take risks and settle for less than they want and deserve, fall in and out of love, and try to figure out which are the right decisions to make. Their lives intersect and separate, and just like real life, they often don't understand the weight of their decisions and their secrets and their knee-jerk reactions until it's too late.

In Some Other World, Maybe is a book about trying to make your dreams come true and what you do when they don't. It's about the age-old dilemma of whether to follow your head or your heart, and how hard it often is to make the right connections. It's also about the periodic forces that take us back to where we came from, and how fighting our true natures doesn't always work out for us.

I really loved this book. Goldhagen has created such memorable characters which truly resonate, even as they make decisions you might not always agree with. I enjoyed each of their stories, and honestly, could follow each one of them in a story all their own, but the shifting among perspectives made this story an even richer one. She is a terrific storyteller who truly cares about her characters, which is why you do, too.

If I had one tiny criticism, it was the periodic sprinkling in of historical events to set the time period of a particular portion of the story. Some of those felt tremendously pat and unnecessary—it honestly didn't matter when the story took place, because the themes and the issues the characters dealt with were fairly universal and timeless. But this is a minor quibble that didn't detract from how much I enjoyed this book. Really well done.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Oscars 2014: Who will win and who SHOULD win??

Tomorrow night is one of my favorite nights of the year—the Oscars.

If you know me reasonably well, or have been following my blog, you're aware of my obsession with all things Oscar. Of course, with any awards program, the winners are always subjective, and there's rarely universal agreement about who deserves to win. And with about a million different awards being handed out prior to the Oscars, there are rarely many surprises when the winners are finally announced on Oscar night.

But I won't let that stop me from sharing my predictions for who will win the major awards on Sunday night, and who I think should win. We've seen all of the films nominated for Best Picture, and all of the performances nominated for acting awards except one, so I feel pretty knowledgeable when sharing my opinions. (Not that I've let it stop me before.)

How accurate will I be? Tune in tomorrow night and find out!

Best Picture
The nominees are: American Sniper; Birdman; Boyhood; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Imitation Game; Selma; The Theory of Everything; and Whiplash.

Who Will Win: As much as I'm hoping it won't, I believe Birdman may very well win Best Picture, although it's locked in a very tight race with Boyhood.

Who Should Win: My favorite movie of the year, and the film I believe most deserving of the Oscar, is Boyhood. Not only is it an achievement in filmmaking the likes of which no one has ever seen, but it's a beautifully told, artfully written, splendidly acted movie. Here's hoping it ekes out a victory!

Best Actor
The nominees are: Steve Carell, Foxcatcher; Bradley Cooper, American Sniper; Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game; Michael Keaton, Birdman; and Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything.

Who Will Win: This, like Best Picture, is a two-man race, between Eddie Redmayne, for his physical transformation into Stephen Hawking, and Michael Keaton, for his comeback role in a part seemingly written for him. Oscar loves biographies and physical transformations, but they also love comebacks, and while Redmayne won the Screen Actors Guild Award (he and Keaton both won Golden Globes), I think Keaton's film has the momentum, so I expect to see Keaton accepting the Oscar, although a Redmayne win wouldn't surprise me.

Who Should Win: Well, the actor who actually SHOULD win the Oscar, is David Oyelowo for Selma, but since he shockingly wasn't nominated, my second-favorite performance of the year was Redmayne's.

Best Actress
The nominees are: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night; Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything; Julianne Moore, Still Alice; Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl; and Reese Witherspoon, Wild.

Who Will Win: Julianne Moore is widely expected to finally win an Oscar, on her fifth nomination. (She should have won before this, but that's another post for another day.) She has won the Golden Globe and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, and many feel she's due.

Who Should Win: If there's any justice in the world, Moore will finally win her Oscar. But unlike many "it's about time" wins, her performance in Still Alice is absolutely exquisite. On the whole, this is a pretty strong group of nominees.

Best Supporting Actor
The nominees are: Robert Duvall, The Judge; Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Edward Norton, Birdman; Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher; and J.K. Simmons, Whiplash.

Who Will Win: While I suppose there's a chance Robert Duvall could pull off a surprise win given the longevity of his career, I believe Simmons will take home the Oscar for his intense performance, as well as being in so many roles, including Farmers' Insurance commercials.

Who Should Win: Simmons was absolutely mesmerizing in this fantastic film. His is one of the performances that hasn't left my mind since I saw the film. But what's amazing about this category, other than Duvall, is that there are a few nominees who have done great work and are due for their own awards—Norton (who should have won in 1998 for American History X), as well as Ruffalo and Hawke, both of whom have turned in some really terrific performances through the years.

Best Supporting Actress
The nominees are: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood; Laura Dern, Wild; Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game; Emma Stone, Birdman; and Meryl Streep, Into the Woods.

Who Will Win: I believe Patricia Arquette, who has won nearly every precursor award given out prior to the Oscars, will take home her first Oscar tomorrow night. There's a tiny part of me that wonders if Laura Dern couldn't pull off a Marcia Gay Harden-like surprise win (neither were nominated for Golden Globe or SAG Awards), but I don't think Dern's role reached the intensity of Harden's in Pollock back in 2000.

Who Should Win: Dern, Knightley, Stone, and Streep all turn in memorable performances, but Arquette gave Boyhood such heart and soul. I'm so glad she's finally found a film role so perfect for her, and her performance really ran the gamut of emotions.

Best Director
The nominees are: Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel; Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, Birdman; Richard Linklater, Boyhood; Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher; and Morton Tyldum, The Imitation Game.

Who Will Win: Much like Best Picture, I think this is a two-person race between Gonzalez Iñarritu and Linklater. Some think that Birdman and Boyhood will split the top prizes, much like last year when 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture and Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director for Gravity. I still think Gonzalez Iñarritu will eke out the win.

Who Should Win: Hands down, Richard Linklater should win this award for his work on Boyhood. To come up with an idea like, let's film the same cast once a year for 12 years, and then do it so extraordinarily, is deserving of recognition, but his body of work is equally laudable. I hope he wins this.

Book Review: "Demons" by Wayne Macauley

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

"I wonder if stories can change how things are in the world or if they're just us telling others what we think the world looks like?"

Seven friends gather at a beach house in Australia one winter weekend. They've made a promise not to bring their children, and to cut themselves off from the outside world for a few days—no cell phones, no internet, no television. They plan to eat and drink well, and each will tell a story. It doesn't have to be a personal story, simply a story worth sharing.

As they start telling their stories, a storm rolls in, flooding the area and essentially stranding the group in the house. They debate the power of stories on the larger world. Amidst the stories, some tensions rise to the surface, as one friend reflects on his role in a tragic incident that affected his family, and his relationship with his teenage daughter. And then it's not just the weather that is tumultuous, because suddenly some long-held secrets are revealed.

I'd never read anything by Wayne Macauley before, and I thought the premise of this book was pretty intriguing. Macauley is a very good writer, and he ratchets up the tension little by little throughout the story, until you're just waiting for something to happen.

The problem is, there are so many characters it's often difficult to remember who's who, and who belongs with whom. Not all of the stories they tell are interesting, so it's difficult to really get into the book. And I felt the ending just took the whole book down a soap opera-esque path that really undercut the book's overall appeal. It's a shame, because I really thought the book showed promise. But given Macauley's narrative ability, I'm definitely interested in checking out some of his older books.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: "My Sunshine Away" by M.O. Walsh

In the summer of 1989, in a Baton Rouge neighborhood, Lindy Simpson was the object of many adolescent boys' fascination. She was beautiful but didn't seem to know it, a track runner who wasn't afraid to play with the boys.

"She seemed to walk that perfect line between a person you suspect you might not deserve and the prize life would be if everything turned out right."

But one night, Lindy becomes the victim of a crime, a crime that not all of the boys even understand. Many in the neighborhood are suspects, at least for a time. Understandably for Lindy, but also for the 14-year-old narrator of My Sunshine Away, the crime leaves an indelible mark on their lives.

The narrator has had a crush on Lindy for some time, and as he grew into adolescence, that crush blossomed into a combination of lust, love, and perhaps a little obsession. He desperately wants Lindy to like him the way he likes her, and changes his image, his attitude, his activities in the hopes of getting her attention, yet she remains distant, until a tragedy in his own life brings her back—sort of.

My Sunshine Away is a meditation on growing up, and how our lives, and our futures, are shaped by both incidents and people. The narrator, now an adult, is reflecting upon the events of a period of time in his life, and how those events continue to affect him. This is a story of how adulthood gives us a different perspective on the events of our childhood, and the behaviors of those around us. It's also a reflection of how youth gives us a naïveté that we're sometimes fortunate not to lose until we grow up, because it can protect us from the horrors that may surround us.

"But for every adult person you look up to in life there is trailing behind them an invisible chain gang of ghosts, all of which, as a child, you are generously spared from meeting."

I thought this book was tremendously well-written and really moving. There are elements of mystery running throughout, and M.O. Walsh does a great job making you wonder just how that thread will ultimately unfold. There's a feeling of nostalgia that pervades the book, as well as feeling powerless to control the events around you. The characters are flawed but fascinating, at times unlikeable but completely compelling.

At times I found the book meandered a little too much, particularly one lengthy portion that compared Baton Rouge to New Orleans, and I struggled to keep my focus, but Walsh's storytelling and the emotions the book provokes pulled me back. This is definitely one that will get you thinking and, for a sap like me, feeling, as well.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

If I picked the Oscars: 2012

As I've done in three previous posts, in preparation for the Oscars telecast on Sunday evening, I've been looking at the winners from previous years, and sharing my thoughts as to those I would have voted for if I were a member of the Academy. (Check out my thoughts on who should have won the 2000 Oscars, the 2005 Oscars, and the 2009 Oscars.)

This time I'll look at the 2012 Oscars. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts—since this is just my opinion, I'm always interested in talking with people who both agree and disagree with what I think.

Best Picture
The Academy again nominated nine films for Best Picture in 2012—Amour; Argo; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Django Unchained; Les Miserables; Lincoln; Life of Pi; Silver Linings Playbook; and Zero Dark Thirty. (I wasn't, well, wild about Beasts of the Southern Wild, and would have nominated Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom in its place.) The winner was Argo.

My choice: Do I go with my head or my heart? My heart's favorite movie of 2012 was Les Miserables, mainly because I have loved that musical since it debuted in 1986, know every word by heart, and have seen it about 1000 times, and I thought the movie adaptation was really good, despite one notable flaw. (Cough, Russell Crowe, cough.) And perhaps that's why I'd go with my head, and agree with the Academy by picking Argo as Best Picture. As I said in my original review of the movie, despite having reasonable certainty about what happened in real life, this movie kept me in suspense, and I thought the acting was spot on.

Best Actor
The nominees in this category were: Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook; Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln; Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables; Joaquin Phoenix, The Master; and Denzel Washington, Flight. There were a number of really strong performances delivered by actors in 2012, and I felt the most egregious oversight in this category was John Hawkes, whose absolutely fantastic performance in The Sessions, should have been star-making. (I also thought that legendary French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant deserved recognition for his emotional work in Amour.) Daniel Day-Lewis took home his third Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln.

My choice: Like there was a contest in this category? I mean, Cooper, Jackman, Phoenix, and Washington all were very good, but Daniel Day-Lewis was, once again, utterly mesmerizing. His portrayal of Abraham Lincoln was truly an acting master class—he was fiery, emotional, tender, stalwart, and there was almost a moment when I hoped that Steven Spielberg might subvert the course of history and have him decide to skip the play at Ford's Theatre that night in 1865. Honestly, just a phenomenal performance all around.

Best Actress
The Best Actress category in 2012 boasted the oldest and youngest nominees in history. The nominees were: Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty; Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook; Emanuelle Riva, Amour; Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild; and Naomi Watts, The Impossible. Two years after her first nomination, Jennifer Lawrence took home the Oscar in this category. (I would have nominated 2007 winner Marion Cotillard for her amazing performance in Rust and Bone.)

My choice: Jennifer Lawrence was quite good in Silver Linings Playbook (I'd imagine every actress enjoys the opportunity to play a character struggling with emotional issues), but I would have given the Oscar to Jessica Chastain for her performance as a dogged CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty. She is quietly ferocious as she tries to prove that her instincts are correct, and they have found Osama bin Laden, she is emotional and, at times, humorous. It was a fantastic role—one which wasn't perhaps as showy as Lawrence's, but one I felt more deserving of the Oscar.

Best Supporting Actor
The nominees in this category in 2012 had all won an Oscar previously. They were: Alan Arkin, Argo; Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook; Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master; Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln; and Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained. (I believe Leonardo DiCaprio's performance in Django Unchained deserved a nomination, as did Javier Bardem's campy, unhinged performance in Skyfall.) Waltz took home his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar in four years.

My choice: Waltz is his usually hysterically dangerous self in this movie, but I felt like this performance was very similar to his Oscar-winning role in Inglourious Basterds, despite playing a Nazi in one and a bounty hunter of runaway slaves in the other. My choice for this award would be Phillip Seymour Hoffman, for his utterly mesmerizing performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, in which he plays an L. Ron Hubbard-like leader of a movement called The Cause, which is governed by psychological and spiritual mumbo-jumbo involving hypnosis and past life regression, among other things. While the movie was a bit bizarre (as Anderson's films often are), Hoffman delivers one of the best performances of his career, more complex and nuanced than his portrayal of Truman Capote, for which he won Best Actor in 2005.

Best Supporting Actress
This year's nominees were: Amy Adams, The Master; Sally Field, Lincoln; Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables; Helen Hunt, The Sessions; and Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook. (I thought Ann Dowd did some marvelous work in the little-seen Compliance, and I'm still a bit shocked that Maggie Smith wasn't nominated for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.) Anne Hathaway won the Oscar for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables.

My choice: While it is difficult to compare a musical performance with a dramatic one, I would agree with the Academy, and give the Oscar to Anne Hathaway. I thought she sounded great (and as a fan of the show, I'm a tough critic) and really was able to convey the tragic drama of this role without really overacting. It definitely was one of the stronger portrayals of Fantine I've seen—usually casting tends to give this role to someone who can sing well but not necessarily act well.

Best Director
The nominees in this category were: Michael Haneke, Amour; Ang Lee, Life of Pi; David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook; Steven Spielberg, Lincoln; and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild. This category was more about those who were overlooked, namely Ben Affleck for Argo, Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty, and Quentin Tarantino for Django Unchained. Lee won his second Best Director Oscar (the first was for Brokeback Mountain in 2005) for his adaptation of Yann Martel's best-selling book.

My choice: If I had my way, Lee would have already won two Best Director Oscars (for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, and Brokeback). I thought Life of Pi was more a triumph of visual effects and cinematography than anything else, so since Affleck wasn't nominated, I'd give the award to Steven Spielberg for Lincoln, for two reasons—for making a movie so compelling despite the fact that it's based on history and you know everything that will happen, and for getting a spellbinding performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, not to mention strong performances from Field, Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and others. But then again, I would expect nothing less from Spielberg!!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: "Wildalone" by Krassi Zourkova

Thea Slavin is a piano prodigy raised in Bulgaria. The piano has dominated her life, taking precedence over almost everything, including her social life. Pursuing a musical career is certainly a foregone conclusion. But when she discovers a secret about her family that has been kept hidden from her, she does the only thing she can think of—she applies to college at Princeton University, and quickly moves to America.

Life for a freshman at an Ivy League university is difficult for anyone, but for Thea, getting acclimated to the American way of living, familiarizing herself with the customs and behaviors of her American peers, and managing her advisers' expectations of how her musical career will progress all prove to be challenging. But nothing prepares her for the interests of the handsome, mysterious, wealthy Rhys, and his equally handsome and mysterious younger brother Jake. She finds herself simultaneously drawn to and afraid of their mercurial ways, their unexplained arrivals and departures, but she also cannot control her heart.

As her relationship with Rhys unfolds, she learns more of the truth about her family, a truth that touches on mythology and the Bulgarian legend of the samodivi, or wildalones, forest witches who beguile and entrap men, and ultimately lead to their death. And as the facts are uncovered, she uncovers connections she could never have imagined, connections which could threaten both her happiness and her future. What path will she follow? What sacrifices will she have to make?

I found Krassi Zourkova's Wildalone a really fascinating read, and it's unlike many books I've ever read. It combines mythology and intrigue with some Twilight-y angst, although perhaps not as melodramatic. (I don't know about anyone else, but for some reason I kept picturing Robert Pattison's face every time Rhys appeared in the book, and it's not like I'm a huge Twilight fan or anything.)

Although the story definitely requires you to fully embrace the fantastic, Zourkova knows how to weave a tremendously compelling narrative, and I really liked the choices she made, because this story could have devolved into a totally overdone mess. The characters are a bit too brooding at times (although they do have a lot to deal with), but I found them utterly fascinating, and I hope this was the start of a series, because I really want to know more about what happens to them.

I enjoyed this far more than I expected to, and I'm really glad about that. If this type of book intrigues you, and you don't have a problem suspending your disbelief, definitely give Wildalone a try. It's a very intriguing mash-up of genres that worked for me.