Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review: "Bellweather Rhapsody" by Kate Racculia

Kate Racculia's Bellweather Rhapsody is a sweet, slightly goofy, rollicking romp of a book that may be a tiny bit overly ambitious, but it's tremendously infectious, and I can't get the characters out of my mind.

It's the winter of 1997. In upstate New York, high school musicians from across the state are gathering for the annual Statewide festival at the Bellweather Hotel, a once-grand place which has become a little rundown in recent years, and reminds many of The Overlook Hotel in The Shining. (There's more than a few references to The Shining in the book.) Fifteen years ago, the Bellweather was the site of a tragedy, a murder-suicide of a couple that had just gotten married in the hotel. Since then, the hotel has had a bit of a reputation for being haunted.

Coming to Statewide are twin siblings Alice and Rabbit Hatmaker. Alice is a bit of a diva, a singer/actress who is in her second year at Statewide, and she expects to be treated like the celebrity she thinks she is. Rabbit, a bassoonist, has always been a bit quieter, as he has lived in Alice's shadow, but he is desperate to be himself for the first time, to live his own life, and find love. When they first arrive at the festival, a chance encounter with the conductor of the orchestra turns Rabbit into a bit of a celebrity, and Alice bristles that suddenly she is being left behind.

Things go from bad to worse for Alice, as the first night, after she does a tarot reading for her roommate, Jill, a young musical prodigy and the daughter of the ruthless acting director of the festival, she finds that Jill has hanged herself. When Alice returns after summoning help, Jill's body is gone, the cord has been cut down, and a note reading, "NOW SHE IS MINE," is the only evidence left. And it turns out this all happened in the same room where the murder-suicide happened years before.

Jill's mother insists this is a prank designed to embarrass her, but Alice knows what she saw, and she has an unusual ally. As a young girl, Minnie Graves witnessed the tragic murder-suicide at the Bellweather, and it has haunted her ever since. She returned to the hotel to try and get her life back on track, but when she hears another crime has been perpetrated in the same room, she is determined to uncover the truth about both incidents. But amidst the investigation into Jill's disappearance, rehearsals are still going on, rumors are being spread, relationships are blossoming and ending, and lives are changing, as the Bellweather readies for what appears to be the snowstorm of the century.

What I loved about this book is that despite the craziness happening at the festival (and I've only scratched the surface in my description), this is at its heart a story about having the courage to be your own person, standing up for what you believe in (as well as yourself), the importance of love and friendship, and the thrills that come from performing. It's also a book about how one person's behavior towards another can have a truly damaging or truly uplifting effect.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and the chapters switch perspectives among many of them. That mostly works, but at times it's a little more confusing, so I had to go back and re-read a few things to make sure I understood who was talking or what was happening. But by and large, I loved these characters, and was glad that more of the plot was spent on character development and story rather than more of a whodunnit about what happened to Jill. As a former choir student who once made it to All-Shore Choir (there weren't a lot of tenors back then so I lucked my way in), this book brought back some great memories. Really fun.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Movie Review: "The Fault in Our Stars"

John Green's The Fault in Our Stars was one of the best books I read in 2012. I have eagerly anticipated this movie since I heard it was to be made, and absolutely devoured every article, every trailer, every photo I saw during the filming. In fact, it's only the emotional upheaval that my life has undergone in the last few months that has kept me from seeing this movie sooner, because I didn't know if I was psychologically ready for it. But whether or not I was, or am, it was time to rip the bandage off.

So the first question you might ask is, given how much I loved the book and how much the book still resonates with me, was the movie able to fulfill my expectations? In short: hell, yeah.

Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) is a 17-year-old who has been living with cancer for several years now. In fact, she's still alive due to the success of a clinical trial of an experimental drug. But (understandably) her inevitably terminal disease leaves her depressed, the fact that she has to tote a portable oxygen tank around because her lungs are so damaged limits her activities, and she mostly just stays at home reading her favorite book (which is also about cancer and dying). Her mother and her doctor convince her to go to a cancer support group.

After one inevitably eye-rolling session, she is forced back again, and there she meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a handsome, confident guy and a survivor in his own right, who lost part of one of his legs to cancer a few years back but is in remission. Gus is immediately taken with Hazel Grace, her willingness to call it like it is and resist any attempt at sentimentality. And while Gus definitely intrigues Hazel Grace, she isn't willing to let anyone get too close to her given the limited amount of time she has left.

But this is a movie, after all, so at first the two bond over her favorite book and the mysteries its ending leaves them with, and the two get closer and closer, until they admit that they're falling in love with each other. But remember, this is a movie in which the main characters meet in a support group for cancer survivors, so you've got to know where this is headed. (And I'm not going to spoil this for you if you haven't read the book or seen the movie yet.)

What I loved so much about John Green's book was its dialogue. It was intelligent without being pretentious, cutting, and poignant without being maudlin. And it translates tremendously well onscreen. (The fact that Green was so closely involved with the movie definitely helped here.) The characters say things you'd imagine they might say, and while they might not always be 100 percent likeable, they're tremendously real.

I'll admit that when I read the book—a day or two after it was published, and I stayed up until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. to finish it—I saw (despite the age difference) Ryan Gosling as Gus and Mae Whitman as Hazel Grace. I don't know why, but those were the images my brain conjured up. Despite being a fan of Shailene Woodley since The Descendants, I had never seen Ansel Elgort in a movie before (which was understandable, since he had only been in the disastrous remake of Carrie when he was cast in this film), so I wasn't sure whether they'd succeed in bringing these characters I so loved to life on screen.

But boy, did they ever. Woodley perfectly captured Hazel Grace's cynicism tinged with hopefulness, and the way she allows herself to fall in love with Gus. ("I fell in love with him the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.") Elgort's mixture of bravado and vulnerability was terrific, and his adoration of Hazel Grace is clearly something so many people dream of from their loved ones. Laura Dern does a wonderful job as Hazel Grace's mother, and Nat Wolff has a small but well-done role as Gus' friend Isaac.

Considering I cried when I first saw the trailer, I was ready for utter emotional upheaval when watching the movie. And that's definitely what happened. There was lots of sniffling in the theater, but this movie doesn't manipulate you—it draws you into these characters' lives and makes you care about them, makes you root for them despite what you think is going to happen. This is a funny, sweet, emotional movie. So rarely do adaptations of books work as well as this one did. And while it took me a few hours to pull myself together, I'd do it all again to spend more time with Gus and Hazel Grace.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review: "The Black Hour" by Lori Rader-Day

It has been a while since I've gotten so engrossed in a book that I nearly missed my metro stop, but that happened when nearing the end of Lori Rader-Day's well-written and compelling The Black Hour. Luckily I looked up just as I realized where we were!

Dr. Amelia Emmet is a sociology professor specializing in the study of violence at a prestigious Chicago university. She is well-respected and driven. Then one day the unthinkable happens—a student shoots her and then kills himself. No one understands what drove the student to violence, although most are quick to believe it was something Amelia did, that perhaps the two had an illicit relationship that caused him to try and kill her. But Amelia never knew him, and has no idea why this student would shoot her before taking his own life.

Much to the surprise of her colleagues, Amelia returns to school 10 months later. She's struggling emotionally and physically, and isn't sure if she can muster the enthusiasm to teach again, but she needs to be back at work. Maybe she's a little dependent on painkillers, maybe finding out that her ex-lover has gotten married has thrown her for a bit of a loop, but she can handle it, can't she?

Nathaniel (Nath) Barber is a graduate student who comes to Chicago because he's obsessed with its violent history—Al Capone and the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, to name a few. And he's a little too interested in what happened to Amelia, which leads him to become her teaching assistant. Nath has his own emotional issues, stemming from his mother's death and the end of a relationship, so he understands the darkness that might lead someone to take their own life. But he also begins to realize that Amelia needs more help than she's willing to let on.

Nath and Amelia begin to uncover the truth about the shooting, and catch the attention of an investigative reporter who covered the incident. Yet as they search for answers, they find themselves in an increasingly tangled web, one which forces them to plumb their own emotional depths and confront their own issues.

I had my suspicions about how Rader-Day would tie up The Black Hour, and I was mostly correct, but the fact that it was somewhat predictable (at least to me) didn't detract in the slightest from its appeal. I couldn't stop reading this book because I was completely drawn into the plot, and found the characters really appealing despite their quirks, so I wanted to know what happened to them.

This is a really enjoyable book—it's a well-written novel with some good suspense thrown in. I look forward to seeing what comes next for Lori Rader-Day. I'll be waiting.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: "Arts & Entertainments" by Christopher Beha

"Handsome Eddie" Hartley dreamed of being a successful actor. After being noticed in a small play, he started to get parts in commercials and small roles on television. But despite his good looks and his desire to succeed, his career never took off. Now, at age 33, he teaches acting to students at the Catholic boys' school he used to attend, and despite the fact that he and his wife Susan are struggling to have a child—something that is taking both a financial and an emotional toll—he's happy with his life, even if it didn't turn out like he had hoped.

Well, sort of. You see, Martha Martin, star of the wildly popular television show Dr. Drake and a perennial fixture in the entertainment media, used to be Eddie's girlfriend. Eddie thought he and Martha had something special, but when her career took off, she quickly left him behind, never to speak to him again. And although Eddie has moved on with his life, he can't help but feel a little envious, a little bitter each time he sees Martha in the media.

Desperate for the money to support another fertility treatment, Eddie reluctantly jumps at the idea to sell an old sex tape that he and Martha made back in the day. He figures that no publicity is bad publicity, so if the attention around the leaked sex tape gives him the chance to get back into the spotlight, he won't complain. But Eddie drastically underestimates the effect the tape will have on his life, his marriage, his career, his relationships with others, and his dream of finally becoming an actor. He won't ever have control of his life ever again.

Christopher Beha's Arts & Entertainments is a satirical look at our obsession with celebrities and reality television, and just how manipulated reality really is. While the book strives to be outlandish, and is in some ways, it's scary how some of the more ridiculous things the book pokes fun of have actually happened on television—or probably will soon. This book had particular relevance for me as I watched a former Bachelorette have an ultrasound on television last night to determine the sex of her unborn child (despite the fact that magazines had already reported she and her husband knew the sex of their baby in advance).

This is a funny, entertaining book, and a very quick read. It all seems fairly familiar, especially if you have any knowledge of our celebrity-obsessed culture, but that doesn't detract from its appeal. The only thing I couldn't quite figure out was whether Beha was saying that everyone really wants to be a star of their own reality television series, or if his characters all were ultimately as shallow as they appeared.

I wasn't sure what to expect of this book, but I enjoyed it. It's a fun summer read—and the perfect complement to the magazines you might pick up at the newsstand or the grocery store. (But it's a book, so you can feel slightly superior.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Book Review: "What It Was Like" by Peter Seth

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

"It's really a very simple story. What happened was this: I met this girl and did a very stupid thing. I fell in love. Hard. I know that to some people that makes me an idiot and a loser. What can I say? They're right. I did some extremely foolish things; I'm the first to say it. And they've left me in jail and alone."

The narrator of Peter Seth's What It Was Like grew up in the late 1960s on Long Island, and seemed to have everything. He was smart, planning to attend Columbia University, and the summer before college took a job as a counselor at Camp Mooncliff, a summer camp in upstate New York. He took the job to earn some money before college, and figured it would be a relatively easy job, better than staying home and working for a rich relative or in the furniture store where his father worked.

What he didn't plan for was meeting the gorgeous yet troubled Rachel Prince, a CIT (counselor-in-training) at the camp who was related to the camp's owners. Over her years at Mooncliff Rachel had developed quite a reputation for teasing and using boys, then discarding them when she got bored. Despite many of his fellow counselors' warnings, he falls hard for her, and she for him. It isn't long before the two are breaking as many camp rules as possible in order to see other as frequently as they can, which doesn't sit well with those in charge, and they do all they can to keep the two apart.

Although his feelings for Rachel are quite strong, he is somewhat put off by the mania of her emotions. With her parents in the midst of an ugly divorce, and her desire not to go to college directly after she graduates from high school, Rachel has tremendous anxiety about her relationship with her mother and her new live-in boyfriend, and worries whether they will try to keep Rachel from seeing the love of her life after the summer ends.

What It Was Like is the story of the intensity of young love that borders on obsession, and how we often suspend logic and don't heed the warnings and advice of others when we're in the midst of that type of love. As we learn early on in the book, the narrator's feelings for Rachel end up embroiling him in trouble he never planned on, and severely alters the course of his life. This book is apparently "the true story" the narrator writes while in prison, as he attests that the real story was never disclosed at his trial.

I thought at first this book had tremendous promise. I like the way Peter Seth writes and I particularly liked the depth he gave to the narrator, despite the fact you wanted to shake some sense into him. He hit the nail on the head in capturing the summer camp experience—many of the events and activities he talked about actually happened at the summer camp I attended when I was younger.

As the book unfolded, I became more frustrated. The story became less and less probable, and while I believe that intense love makes us blind and causes us to act irrationally, I just couldn't believe the sequence of events that occurred. I also thought that the book went on a bit too long—while I understand it was to set up what transpired later, there were far too many instances of Rachel acting emotionally and the narrator mooning over her, and since Rachel didn't seem to be that appealing of a character (apart from her beauty), I found the story dragged.

There's an old saying that "Love makes such fools of us." What It Was Like clearly demonstrates the lengths to which we will go for the ones we love, no matter how it may destroy our own lives in the process.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: "Wayfaring Stranger" by James Lee Burke

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

James Lee Burke is one of my favorite authors of all-time. Over the last 25 years or so, I've read everything he has written, and really marveled at his ability to tell stories. His writing style is one of the most poetic and evocative I've ever seen; no one can set a scene or describe a person quite like Burke.

With Wayfaring Stranger, Burke departs from the usual characters he's written about lately, most notably Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux, to tell the story of Weldon Holland. When we first meet Weldon in the 1930s, he is fatherless, being raised by his curmudgeonly grandfather. At 16, he has several chance encounters with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, as they are hiding out following one of their many bank robberies. Weldon is entranced by the beautiful Bonnie, yet he knows intuitively that the group are criminals, and their last encounter leads to Weldon firing a gun at their car as it drives away. This experience both shapes his view of criminals and sets up an interesting standard of women in his mind.

Years later, Weldon finds himself in the army during World War II, and is one of a handful of survivors of the Battle of the Bulge. He and a fellow soldier, Hershel Pine, whose life Weldon saves, come upon an abandoned concentration camp, where they wind up saving the life of Rosita Lowenstein, who had been captured when her Communist father and her family were arrested. Weldon is immediately besotted with Rosita, who is a firebrand more interested in changing the world than settling down, yet Weldon pursues her again once the two are separated.

Returning to Texas, Hershel makes good on his gratitude toward Weldon by forging a partnership in the fledgling oil industry. Hershel has envisioned using German technology to weld oil pipeline, which makes it strong so it will not split. Yet as they begin to achieve immense success, they are dogged by corrupt businessmen and thieves who want to seize their business, and will stop at nothing—including using information about their wives—to destroy them. But their strong sense of right and wrong keeps them fighting, with positive and negative results.

Burke's writing ability is on fine display in this book, and many times I was struck by his use of imagery and his descriptions of characters, which made them tremendously vivid. Yet while many of the reviews I've read of this book claim that Wayfaring Stranger is a tremendous departure for Burke, I think it is only in that it's about different characters than his other books. I felt that in many ways, Weldon was very similar to Dave Robicheaux, in his steadfast need to right wrongs—even if it means doing wrong in the process—his long-suffering nature, and his fierce loyalty to those he cares about. And many of the villains that Weldon and Hershel encounter seem familiar as well.

I enjoyed this book, but not as much as many of Burke's others, yet many of the reviews I've seen say this may be his finest book to date. Whether you agree with me or not, if you're a fan of excellent storytelling, with a particular emphasis on the seamier side of human nature, I'd encourage you to pick up one of James Lee Burke's books, and hopefully you'll become as much an admirer of his as I am.

Book Review: "World of Trouble" by Ben H. Winters

I both love and hate reading a series of books. I love the familiarity of the characters and the settings, as it's kind of like spending time with old friends. The downside, of course, is that a series eventually comes to an end, and while sometimes the conclusion is satisfying (although you don't want it to end), many times it's disappointing.

With that in mind, I approached World of Trouble, the final novel in Ben H. Winters' terrifically creative and emotionally powerful Last Policeman series, with a great deal of trepidation. I so enjoyed the first two books and absolutely loved the world he created, so I hoped that I wouldn't be disappointed with how he concluded the series. (Spoiler alert: I wasn't.)

"I was a detective for only three months, promoted out of nowhere and dismissed just as abruptly when the CPD was absorbed by the Department of Justice, and so I never received the higher-level training I would have in the normal run of a career."

Henry "Hank" Palace was a police detective in New Hampshire. He was tremendously dedicated to his job. The problem was, scientists discovered that a giant asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, thereby ending the world as we know it, so his job was eliminated, as police departments all across the world were phased out. But Hank couldn't turn off his instincts to uncover the truth about crimes he is aware of, or his need to protect his sister, Nico, who has fallen in with a group of people convinced there's an Armageddon-esque way to destroy the asteroid before it destroys Earth, but the government has covered it up.

When World of Trouble begins, Hank is holed up in New England in a well-stocked safe house with a number of his former law enforcement colleagues, getting ready for the end of the world. But he desperately wants to find Nico before the asteroid hits, and so he finds himself traveling to Ohio with his sidekick, Cortez, and Houdini, the dog he somehow adopted. Along the way, they encounter cities taken over by violence, cities which seem empty because their residents have gone into hiding, and cities which truly are abandoned. And Hank can never turn off his protective instincts, as many of the people he tries to help remind him of Nico.

Their arrival in the small Ohio town leads them to several startling and disturbing discoveries. And as the amount of time for Hank to find Nico before the asteroid hits dwindles, Hank is desperate to figure out where she has gone and what led her there, but more than that, he wants to truly understand whether the solution she so fervently believed in was as far-fetched as it sounds, or if this could be reality. But the truth is far more disturbing—and dangerous—than he imagined.

I don't know how I imagined Winters would conclude this series, but I definitely thought that World of Trouble was a fitting, well-done conclusion, which remained true to Hank's character and the situations that Winters created for him. As you might imagine of a book set in the last few days before the world is expected to end, this was tremendously moving and poignant, and very well-written. There were plenty of twists and turns to keep my interest, but as with the other books in the series, I also found the whole idea very thought-provoking, as I wondered how I would handle knowing that the world was expected to end in a matter of days.

I would definitely recommend you pick up this series, and read it in order. You'll be amazed at Winters' creativity and his storytelling ability, but you'll also find yourself fully immersed in this world, and hooked on these characters.