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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Movie Review: "Chef"

Yes, I know I'm late to the party on this one.

Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) is a chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant. When he first started cooking in Miami, he was bold and creative, and was hailed as one of the culinary scene's hot new chefs, but over the years his opportunities to stray from the constraints of his restaurant's menu have been met with resistance from the owner (Dustin Hoffman), who is most concerned with the bottom line.

When the influential food critic (Oliver Platt) who first called attention to him years ago reviews his cooking, it doesn't go as well as he had hoped. (And that's putting it mildly.) After a (somewhat) accidental Twitter war, Carl finds himself a media sensation for something other than his culinary skills, and is unsure of what his next step should be. But that's not his only problem—since his divorce, his relationship with his 10-year-old son Percy has been strained, as the boy is tiring of being an afterthought, dealing with broken promises, and never doing anything that doesn't involve Carl's job.

Carl's ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) coaxes Carl to accompany her and Percy on a trip to Miami, so he can return to the place where his career got started. She encourages him to visit her first ex-husband (Robert Downey Jr.) and buy a food truck, which might give him the opportunity to recapture his mojo, perhaps while making a little mojo?

Chef, which Favreau also wrote and directed, is an absolutely charming, sweet, and fun movie. Yes, it's utterly predictable, but you're enjoying yourself so much it doesn't seem to matter. Favreau's big, blustery, teddybear-like self is perfect for Carl's character—a man whose self-confidence has always been contingent upon people telling him he's great, and the moment someone says he isn't, he doesn't know what to do with himself. He's a man whose sole focus has been his job for so long—much to the detriment of his marriage and his relationship with his son.

While this is Favreau's movie, the supporting characters do a great job as well, particularly Emjay Anthony as Percy, John Leguizamo as Carl's longtime sous chef, and Scarlett Johansson, who has a small role as the hostess/bartender at Carl's restaurant. Vergara is used in the right amount, and unlike on Modern Family, her accent and her looks really aren't the focus of her character.

You won't want to watch this one on an empty stomach, but you really should watch it. This is one of those sweet movies that make you think about following your own dreams. And who couldn't use a little of that every now and again?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: "A Spool of Blue Thread" by Anne Tyler

I've been a fan of Anne Tyler for many, many years. In my opinion, there are few authors who can consistently weave compelling, moving stories about both the seemingly mundane and the more dramatic moments families experience.

Apparently Tyler has said that A Spool of Blue Thread, her 20th novel, will be her last. I tried not to let that fact influence my expectations or color my perceptions of the book.

Abby Whitshank has known her husband Red for as long as she can remember. They grew up in the same Baltimore suburb, and she can even remember the summer day in 1959 that she fell in love with him. Through the years the couple has lived in the stately old house his father built (a house that at times meant more to him than his entire family), raising four children and having their share of wonderful memories as well as arguments, frustrations, sadness, and struggles.

"The disappointments seemed to escape the family's notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine."

Although their relationship has grown a bit more cantankerous as they have aged, and following Abby's retirement from social work, both she and Red know they would be lost without each other. But after a series of health problems affect the two of them, their younger son Stem (aka Douglas), his wife, and his family move back into the house with Red and Abby, ostensibly to help take care of them, which doesn't sit too well with either of them. It also doesn't please their older son Denny, the one child who has caused the most friction in their lives. Denny, too, moves in to help.

A Spool of Blue Thread is the story of the joys, angst, and frustrations that are a part of family dynamics. It's a look at the secrets we keep, the lies we tell, what we say and what we don't, and how there are always people in your family you don't always understand. It's also a bit of a multi-generational love story, as the book not only looks at Abby and Red's relationship both at the start and in the present, but also looks at the relationship of Red's parents, Junior and Linnie Mae.

I have always loved Tyler's writing, and her use of language and storytelling is in fine form once again. Her characters are quirky and a little eccentric, but they have a lot of heart, and you really get drawn into their lives. I enjoyed this book a great deal, although it took a while for me to warm up to the section about Junior and Linnie Mae, because I felt that Junior was a fairly unlikeable character, although Tyler gradually unveiled his depth.

I wouldn't necessarily count this among Tyler's best, but it's another example of why she is one of the most enduring and celebrated writers of our time. I hope that she changes her mind and shares her talents with the world again, but if not, we have 20 wonderful novels to enjoy again and again. And for that I am truly grateful.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

If I picked the Oscars: 2009

As I've done in two previous posts, in preparation for the Oscars telecast on February 22, 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 and the 2005 Oscars.)

This time I'll look at the 2009 Oscars. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts (as long as they don't involve me having too much time on my hands or too much useless knowledge in my head—I know those things)!

Best Picture
2009 was the first year the Academy nominated more than five films for Best Picture since the early 1940s. In 2009, 10 films were nominated. They were: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, and Up in the Air. (I would have probably substituted the similarly titled but utterly different A Single Man for the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man.) The winner was The Hurt Locker, although there was some controversy surrounding the movie and its screenplay.

My choice: I thought The Hurt Locker was a terrific movie, but my favorite movie of 2009, bar none, was Avatar. I absolutely loved the inventiveness of it, the special effects, the story, everything. I don't care that some felt it was a thinly veiled piece of liberal propaganda. I was no fan of Titanic, and in fact, wouldn't have chosen it to win Best Picture in 1997, but this James Cameron achievement definitely deserved it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Book Review: "Five Night Stand" by Richard J. Alley

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

Oliver Pleasant is a renowned jazz pianist who has been playing music since the 1930s. He has played with all of the greats, traveled the world, and made a bit of a name for himself among those in the know. Now in his 80s, he is ready to retire, so he plans to play five farewell shows at a New York City club before leaving his home in New York and moving to Memphis. He hopes that his estranged children will attend one of his shows.

"Oliver sees himself as a carpenter, a craftsman putting notes and melodies together, fitting them when they will, stepping back to rest and reconsider when they won't."

Frank Severs is a newspaper reporter from Memphis, recently laid off from his longtime job, and trying to figure out what is next, both career-wise and in his relationship with his wife. He decides to write a story about Oliver's retirement and pitch it to a number of different publications, so against his wife's wishes, Frank goes to New York to see Oliver play, and hopefully get the opportunity to interview him.

Agnes Cassady is a tremendously talented musician in her own right, stricken by a progressively degenerative disease which is slowly robbing her of her ability to play the piano, and she expects it will cut short her life as well. In New York for one final round of tests to see if anything can be done, she's debating whether she should take control of her death as the disease is taking control of her life. But she cannot resist the opportunity to hear Oliver play for one of the last times in his career.

In Richard J. Alley's fantastic Five Night Stand, Oliver, Frank, and Agnes' lives intersect, each leaving an indelible impact on the others. This is a story about the heydays of jazz and a young man discovering his talent and the fire to make music. It's also the story of life's triumphs and regrets, the secrets we keep and the hurts we nurse, the hopes we cherish and the hearts we gravitate toward. Above all, it's the story of connection, and how the act of telling one's story can change your life.

While the book took a little time to gain steam, Alley is a fantastic writer, and his use of language is so poetic, it's almost musical in its own right. These characters are complex, not always completely likeable, but utterly fascinating and compelling. Five Night Stand is an emotional, enjoyable book, about life, love, and music, one that will make you want to listen to jazz and follow your passions. I'm so glad I found this one.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Book Review: "Plus One" by Christopher Noxon

Alex Sherman-Zicklin, a mid-level marketing executive, has always been tremendously supportive of his writer wife, Figgy, as she works on script idea after script idea, pilot after pilot. Something's bound to work out eventually, isn't it?

But when Figgy's 14th pilot, Tricks, actually gets picked up by a cable network, they're both unprepared for how their lives will change. Despite challenges with its star, Tricks becomes a critical and commercial success, and wins the Best Comedy Series Emmy in its first year. Figgy is finally able to reap the benefits of her success, putting them in a better financial place, but exponentially increasing the pressure on her to sustain the show's momentum.

Given their newfound financial freedom, Alex agrees to quit his job and focus on managing their lives full-time, including caring for the couple's two young children. Alex sees this as an opportunity to do more cooking (he's quite the foodie), finding their new house and supervising the renovations, and perhaps even working on the memoir he's always been thinking about. It's not long before he finds himself drawn into the world of Plus Ones, the men whose wives are more successful and influential than they are. It's fun at first, but that sort of lifestyle starts to take its toll.

"Women married to successful men have a place. But guys in the same position? No one knows what to do with them. He could hear the interior dialogue: boy scored; must be hard on him; must make up for it in other ways."

Christopher Noxon's Plus One is an amusing twist on the more familiar scenario of the wife who finds herself adrift when her husband becomes a huge success. Alex not only must struggle with the mundane—making sure the kids get their homework done, trying to figure out his relationship with his children, and making sure the contractors don't rip him off—to more extreme feelings of inadequacy, jealousy of Figgy's long hours with her handsome coworkers, and wondering what's next for him professionally.

This was a fun book, one which touched on many of the stereotypical behaviors and activities you'd expect of the rich and famous. It's an interesting look at a man adrift, trying desperately to regain a little of his mojo, but also regain the attention and respect of his wife. I can't identify with many of Alex's struggles but I think many people struggle with some of the same issues he is, regardless of how much money their spouse or partner makes.

While I didn't think this was as laugh-out-loud as some reviewers have said, I enjoyed it. It's a light, quick read, and probably would make a fun movie.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

If I picked the Oscars: 2005

As the countdown to this year's Oscars telecast on February 22 continues, I've started analyzing the winners from some previous years and share who I would have picked if I had the chance to vote. (I'll also share my thoughts on performances and films I would have nominated that were passed over.) I started this series looking at the winners from 2000, and this time I'll look at the 2005 Oscars. As I said previously, I'd love to know your thoughts!

Best Picture
The nominees for Best Picture that year were: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Crash; Good Night, and Good Luck; and Munich. The winner, much to the surprise of many prognosticators, was Crash. (My favorite movie of the year, A History of Violence, wasn't even nominated. That movie, believe it or not, ranked #2 on my list of my top 50 movies of the decade, but I guess the members of the Academy didn't agree.)

My choice: Since I can't vote for the aforementioned A History of Violence, I'd choose Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture. Some said it didn't win because many of the older members of the Academy weren't comfortable with a film about homosexuality winning Best Picture; others felt that Crash won because it touched on a number of heady themes, plus it starred most of Hollywood. I found Brokeback Mountain beautifully told and acted, gorgeously filmed (and the Oscar-winning score by Gustavo Santaolalla definitely added to the mood), and utterly heartbreaking. It was just an excellent story; it didn't make a real statement about homosexuality.

Book Review: "Wreckage" by Emily Bleeker

When Lillian Linden's mother-in-law Margaret won an all-expense paid trip for two to Fiji sponsored by a yogurt company, it seemed a good bonding opportunity for the two of them. Even with Margaret's periodic nagging, the first week of the trip was tremendously relaxing, surrounded by the beauty of Fiji.

For the second week of the trip, they'll fly to a private island, accompanied by Dave Hall, the yogurt company's public relations director. Lillian and Dave develop an easy rapport on the flight.

Less than an hour before they're scheduled to land, the plane crashes, leaving them stranded on an island in the middle of the South Pacific. For nearly two years, they are castaways, struggling to survive and not lose hope. But things happened on the island, things that Lillian and Dave have vowed never to talk about if they are rescued, which they don't believe will ever happen. And when they finally are rescued, they vow to tell their families their version of the truth, nothing else.

"Sometimes you have to lie. Sometimes it's the only way to protect the ones you love."

As they try to re-acclimate themselves to the lives they knew before the crash, Dave and Lillian find the adjustment hard, and hiding the truth even harder. They never counted on the media frenzy that would follow their return home, and after months of refusing interviews, Lillian agrees to one exclusive interview with a dogged television reporter, under the condition that Dave be interviewed as well. She hopes that finally sharing their version of the story will put the questions and suspicions aside, and let everyone go back to living their lives, even if they're not sure that's what they want.

Emily Bleeker's Wreckage is a fascinating story about the things we do to survive a catastrophe, the bargains we make with ourselves and others, the secrets we keep, and the sacrifices we make for others' sake. The book shifts back and forth between the crash and the present, and switches between Lillian and Dave as narrators. You see both of their versions of what happened, how they choose to handle it, and how they tell their stories. But of course, you need to figure out which version is really true.

I really enjoyed this book, and found it really compelling. Although this isn't a book with a lot of plot twists, Bleeker threw in a few surprises here and there. This is a book that derives more of its strength from character development and Bleeker's excellent storytelling than any true sense of suspense, but that doesn't take away from its appeal. Definitely worth reading.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Book Review: "One to Go" by Mike Pace

The crime/thriller genre is full of a lot of books that seem rather similar, to the point where at times you can't easily distinguish books you've read from those you haven't. Mike Pace's One to Go is not one of those books. Sure, it's utterly implausible (at least I hope so) and it goes off the rails toward the end, but it takes you on one hell of a ride, and is unlike any other book I've read, mashing together the crime/thriller genre with a bit of the paranormal.

Tom Booker is a new attorney at one of the more powerful law firms in Washington, DC. He's rotating through the firm's different specialties, hoping to find his niche and make an impression on those in charge. Deciding to be a lawyer at a later age than many, he wants to succeed yet still wants to be a good father to his young daughter, especially now that he and his wife are divorced.

Rushing to meet his daughter and her friends at a museum one Saturday, he stops to text his wife that he's on his way (although running late), and he inadvertently winds up drifting into oncoming traffic, causing an accident on the Memorial Bridge. An accident with a truck as well as a minivan driven by his sister-in-law, carrying his daughter and her friends. The minivan tips on its side, starts leaking gasoline, and is on the verge of plummeting into the Potomac River below.

Can Tom shake off his own injuries fast enough to save his daughter? Suddenly time inexplicably freezes, and he encounters a perky couple, Britney and Chad. They give Tom the option to reverse time and save everyone involved in the crash. But this offer is not without its cost—to repay for the four lives he will save, he must kill a person every other week. It doesn't matter who he kills, he just has to kill someone. And if he doesn't, one of the minivan's passengers will be killed instead, which again puts his daughter at risk.

He has to be hallucinating, right? Tom quickly sees that this utterly unbelievable situation is all too real, and he must take Britney and Chad's bargain seriously. But how will he find people who deserve to die? And how will he work up the courage to kill them when he's never really even fired a gun? He must turn himself from an upstanding lawyer into a serial killer in just a matter of days, and he can't caught, or he'll put his daughter in danger. And then he finds himself in the middle of another situation that threatens his freedom and his daughter's life.

One to Go jolts you from the start, and keeps your adrenaline pumping throughout. Tom is not your average everyday murderer—he thinks he can go about killing like he's seen it done on television and in the movies, but he finds it much more difficult than he'd even imagine, and as he finds, the devil is definitely in the details. I liked the fact that Pace didn't change Tom's character too much as the story unfolded. Pace does a great job ratcheting up the tension throughout, and there are some good action scenes.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but I found part of the story's resolution tremendously predictable (I figured it would go one of two ways) and then the outrageous elements of the plot were just a little too outrageous. But if you can completely suspend your disbelief (and I mean completely), you'll probably agree this is a book unlike many you've seen in this genre.

I look forward to seeing what Pace thinks of next!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

If I picked the Oscars: 2000

Those of you who know me well are fairly aware of my, ahem, obsession with all things Oscar. Each year I make it a point to see every film nominated for Best Picture, and all of the performances nominated for acting awards, unless it's a movie I really have no desire to see. Oh, and I happen to have among my arsenal of party tricks the ability to tell you who was nominated for Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress, and Director, as well as which films were nominated for Best Picture—since the Oscars began in 1927. (If only there was a use for this knowledge on the open market...)

If you follow the Oscars, you know that while sometimes the actors who win seem to be the clear-cut choice, in some cases actors win to compensate for their not winning when they actually deserved to, or as a reward for a long career. Of course, any award is subjective—sometimes what one person believes is the best performance or the best film another disagrees with.

I've been watching the Oscars since 1982, and it's a rare year when I agree with all of the winners. So with this year's awards telecast a little less than three weeks away, I thought I'd analyze the winners from some previous years and share who I would have picked if I had the chance to vote. (I'll also share my thoughts on performances and films I would have nominated that were passed over.)

I'd love to hear your opinions—I don't expect you to agree with all (or perhaps any) of my choices, but would be interested to hear your thoughts.

So I thought I'd start with the 2000 Oscars.

Best Picture
The five films nominated for Best Picture were Chocolat; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brockovich; Gladiator; and Traffic. The actual winner was Gladiator. (Truth be told, I would have replaced Chocolat and Erin Brockovich with Almost Famous and Billy Elliott.)

My choice: I would have chosen Ang Lee's magical Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as Best Picture that year. It was my favorite movie of the decade, actually, and in my mind, this is the type of film that makes you love the movies. It's not that Gladiator wasn't good, it's just I felt I'd seen that movie before. But not this one.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: "Golden State" by Stephanie Kegan

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

"I came from a long line of dreamers, of storytellers, and the most dangerous stories we told were about ourselves."

Natalie Askedahl appears to have the perfect suburban California life. Her husband Eric is a lawyer at a prestigious firm while she is a third-grade teacher at a private school she and her husband helped build, and they have two beautiful daughters—Julia, an immensely gifted 15-year-old, and Lilly, a precocious, curious, second grader. The youngest child in one of California's prominent political families, Natalie worshiped her older brother Bobby, a highly intelligent, sensitive soul, who had a tremendous amount of promise.

But after college and what appeared to be a promising academic career, Bobby dropped out of society, moving to a remote cabin in Idaho, living off the grid and refusing contact with his family, although he is more than willing to take the money they send him. While this type of withdrawal hurts Natalie and seems strange to her, the rest of her family has always taken it in stride, just accepting Bobby's eccentricities as mere foibles.

One day, a bomb explodes on the Stanford campus, while Julia is attending a debate tournament. While Julia isn't harmed, other people are killed and injured. Other bombings follow across the state, and the so-called bomber publishes a manifesto, ranting against technology and political corruption. After another bombing, Natalie becomes somewhat obsessed with the incidents, and suddenly discovers that the bomber's manifesto shares much of the same language with a few of Bobby's letters to their mother.

While she is sure that Bobby is in no way the bomber, she fears for her family. Her mother and sister ridicule her fears as outlandish, but Natalie must make a choice on what her next steps are, and how prepared she is for the ramifications of whatever she does. Does she ignore her fears, or run the risk of betraying her family and placing suspicion on her brother?

Stephanie Kegan's Golden State (not to be confused with Michelle Richmond's novel of the same name) has a bit of a Jodi Picoult-esque feel to it. It's well written and compelling, and raises some questions about the strength of blood and family, and what you would do if faced with Natalie's dilemma. It's also a book about the way our lives are shaped by the lies we tell and are told, the secrets we keep, and the things we don't say.

I read this book quite quickly, and think Kegan is a very talented storyteller. I didn't necessarily think any of the characters were particularly likeable, and at times I thought things got a little bit melodramatic (although who can say what would really happen in a situation like this), but Kegan kept me reading, kept me wanting to see how she'd resolve the plot. It's a tremendously thought-provoking read.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Book Review: "Beneath the Bonfire: Stories" by Nickolas Butler

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

Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs made my list of the best books I read last year. He imbued his characters with emotion, complexity, and an amazing sense of place. I absolutely loved the way he told a story. So needless to say, when I saw he had a short story collection coming out later this year, I jumped on it as quickly as I possibly could. And the good news? Beneath the Bonfire is just about as good as Butler's first book, and his writing is still pretty fantastic.

The characters in Butler's 10 stories are all struggling in one way or another. They're struggling to find or keep love; they're struggling with the circumstances they've found themselves caught up in; they're struggling with family, friends, emotions, illness, even loneliness. These are stories which will make you feel, make you think, make you laugh, and perhaps even make you cry. (Or maybe that's just because I'm a sap.)

I honestly loved 9 of the 10 stories, and would love to read a full-length novel with the characters from many of them. There's the man struggling to keep his unexpected family intact despite the emotional instability of his girlfriend in "Train People Move Slow"; the story of childhood friends living very different lives in "Morels"; the policewoman fighting demons both real and unreal in "In Western Counties"; the grandfather wondering if he might need to be a parent again in "Rainwater"; and the beautiful poignancy, restlessness, and desperation described in both "The Chainsaw Soirée" and the fantastic title story.

This collection reinforces my belief that Butler is a writer to be reckoned with. If there's a downside to reading this collection a few months before it is to be released, it's that I'll have to wait even longer for his next book. But don't you wait—read Shotgun Lovesongs, and then wait for Beneath the Bonfire. Hopefully you'll be as blown away, and as touched, as I have been.