Thursday, July 31, 2014

Book Review: "The Means" by Douglas Brunt

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

Having lived in the Washington, DC area for more than 25 years, I'm still simultaneously fascinated and reviled by politics. While I've had more than my share of politicians and their rhetoric and mudslinging, I have always been a sucker for the drama of presidential campaigns, watching a herd of candidates enter and only the luckiest one survives. That certainly explains part of the appeal of Douglas Brunt's tremendously compelling new novel, The Means.

The Means follows three characters over a four-year period. Mitchell Mason, former governor of New York, was raised as the scion of a political dynasty, and has been training to be president since he was young. He has finally ascended to the highest office in the land, and although his know-it-all, sometimes-condescending style is difficult for some of his staff to handle, his ideas for governing the country often demonstrate that he is worthy of the job.

Tom Pauley is a defense attorney in North Carolina, whose pro bono work on a controversial trial thrusts him into the spotlight. His folksy, congenial style, coupled with his good looks, catches the attention of state GOP leaders, who quickly tap him to run for governor, and then set their sights even higher.

Samantha Davis is a beautiful, intelligent, driven child actress-turned-lawyer, who leaves the law to pursue a journalism career. Her beauty and smarts, as well as her on-camera skills, quickly set her star on the rise. She gets her hands on an old, unreported story that has the potential to be a gigantic bombshell in the political world, and does everything she can to pursue it, regardless of the consequences.

I found this book utterly fascinating. While those quite familiar with the political process and life on the campaign trail may find that some of the plot isn't 100 percent accurate, for someone who watches these things from a far, I felt as if I had a behind-the-scenes look at campaigning, governing, the life of an incumbent president fighting to be re-elected, the art of damage control, and the toll campaigning takes on a candidate's family. It's also a commentary on just how pervasive the media can be, and its power to shake up the political landscape.

Brunt is an excellent storyteller, and I was hooked on this book from start to finish. His three main characters were tremendously complex—your impressions of them change throughout the book, and I thought it was interesting that he demonstrated that no one person is completely good or bad. There are even a few twists that surprised me, and that doesn't happen.

If you're as fascinated by the political process, the media, and political campaigns as much as I am, definitely read The Means. And even if you're utterly disinterested in the political system, you may still find this tremendously interesting. It's a great book and I think it could make an even better movie—perhaps a less somber Ides of March.

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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: "Everything I Never Told You" by Celeste Ng

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."

The Lydia in question is Lydia Lee, a teenager growing up in the Ohio suburbs of the late 1970s. A hybrid of her parents, with her Chinese father's black hair and her American mother's blue eyes, she has always stood out—particularly when all she wanted to do was fit in. Despite being the middle child, she is the one bearing all of her parents' expectations—her mother's desires that Lydia pursue the medical career she wasn't able to, and her father's wishes that she be popular, affable, and charming.

Lydia's death lays bare fissures between and among each remaining member of her family. Her parents' relationship wearies under the strain of grief, regrets, and the pressure of being an ethnically mixed couple in a world not quite ready to accept them. Lydia's older brother, Nath (short for Nathan), is desperate for his parents to recognize his achievements, yet they leave him to chart his own course, and he wonders if his attitude toward his sister in the last few days of her life had any impact on her death. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, all but forgotten in the haze, but she sees and notices more than anyone realizes, and is desperate to share her love and her thoughts with her family.

This is a sad book even without Lydia's death at its core. This is a book about all of the secrets, resentments, fears, hopes, regrets, and wishes we leave unsaid, and the toll they all take on our lives. It's amazing to realize how giving voice to one feeling, one irritation, one fear can truly change the course of a life, but all too often, they remain unspoken. It's also a book about the need to be the person you want to be, because if you allow someone else to mold you into something you don't want to be, you will lose yourself.

Everything I Never Told You is beautifully written and poignant, but because of all of the things left unspoken, it was a little frustrating at times, much like real life. The book spans through the early days of Lydia's parents' relationship to the aftermath of her death, and points to future events as well. All I kept thinking as I read the book was, "How sad." This is a tragic book, but not a maudlin one, and Celeste Ng's writing is poetically lyrical.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Book Review: "Landline" by Rainbow Rowell

Last year, Rainbow Rowell catapulted onto my list of favorite authors with two of her books, Eleanor & Park and Fangirl. I just loved her writing and the characters she created, and both books made my year-end list of the best books I read. So needless to say, when I saw she had a new book coming out this year, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, and I waited to see how it would be different.

Georgie McCool is a successful sitcom writer, a job she has dreamed of for as long as she can remember. She and her best friend, Seth, have been a comedy team since college, and they have risen through the ranks of the comedy writing world. They're finally working on a commercially successful show, despite the fact that they hate the comedian who is the star, and they dream of someday having their own show, the show they've thought of and planned for since they first met.

Georgie and her husband, Neal, have dated since college. While they both truly love each other, and the family they have created with their two young daughters, they don't always get along. But what married couple does, right? Maybe Georgie doesn't try as hard as she could, maybe she's not as fully involved in taking care of the girls as Neal is. And maybe Neal resents Georgie's weird symbiotic relationship with Seth all these years. But every couple has issues.

"How does anyone ever know whether love is enough? It's an idiotic question. Like, if you fall in love, if you're that lucky, who are you to even ask whether it's enough to make you happy?"

One day, Georgie and Seth finally get the news they've been hoping for—their dream show has been given the go-ahead by a network executive to be a mid-season replacement. They have just a few days to come up with the first several scripts. The only problem is, it's two days before Christmas, and Neal, Georgie, and the girls have plans to go to Nebraska to visit Neal's mother. But Georgie says she has to stay in Los Angeles, as she can't give up this dream.

Georgie is reeling from Neal's departure, and her fears that this may be the crushing blow to their marriage. One night she finds a way to communicate with college-aged Neal, at a moment when their relationship was at a crossroads. Although she fears continuing to speak with "past Neal" might ruin something in the future (a la Back to the Future), she can't tear herself away, and at the same time, she can't help but wonder whether there's some cosmic opportunity to try and fix something in their relationship—and whether she should stop it this time before it took off.

I read Landline in a day. While I didn't love it as much as Rowell's earlier books, I really, really enjoyed it. As I've said numerous times before, I'm sappy enough to enjoy stories of making love work through difficult times, and I guess I've read enough books with gimmicks like these that I didn't have any trouble with this plot twist either. In fact, I imagined what I would do if I had the same opportunity Georgie did.

If I have any criticism of Landline, it's that the characters are all fairly unsympathetic. From time to time, I wanted to shake nearly every one of them to say what they were thinking, to prevent something major from happening, although I know that's pretty much like life is. But I just love the way Rowell writes, so even with cranky characters, she has the ability to charm me and keep me reading. Can't wait for her next one!!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: "The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories" by Marina Keegan

I randomly stumbled upon this book, and I'm so glad I did.

Marina Keegan was an aspiring writer who graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She was a talented go-getter with a bright future ahead of her, one which included a job at the New Yorker and a play in production. Five days after her graduation, she was killed in a car accident while on her way to visit family.

An essay called "The Opposite of Loneliness," which she wrote for the Yale Daily News, recounted the excitement she felt about graduating from college and heading into her future, yet it was also tinged with the melancholy of the simpler college days, when minor problems seemed so insurmountable. After her death, the essay went viral, and it led to the publication of this book by the same name, a collection of short stories and essays she wrote.

After reading this book, I can say unequivocally that Marina Keegan was an exceptionally talented writer, one whose fiction was imbued with sensitivity and rich characters, and whose essays were insightful, sometimes humorous and sometimes quirky. The essays in which she referred to the thoughts and fears she had about her own future were particularly poignant, because she had no idea just how short her future would sadly be. It's difficult, of course, to separate the emotional weight of her work from the tragedy of her death, but I still believe this pieces would be powerful had she not died.

I particularly enjoyed a number of her short stories, particularly "Cold Pastoral," in which a college student deals with the death of a fellow student she was dating, but isn't really sure what their relationship meant to her; "Winter Break," which told of the difficulties a college student has reconciling her own romantic relationship with the difficulties her parents are having; "Reading Aloud," in which an aging woman reads to a younger blind man and finds unusual emotional catharsis; the perils of returning to your hometown after your life hasn't gone the way you planned, in "Hail, Full of Grace"; and "Challenger Deep," the story of the crew on a doomed submarine.

Of her essays, the ones I enjoyed the most were "Stability in Motion," in which Keegan recounted her relationship with her first car, a gift from her grandmother, and "Against the Grain," which told of her challenges living with Celiac disease, and her mother's fiercely protective nature where those issues were concerned.

Keegan's writing is layered, at times both poetic and humorous, and quite beautiful. The literary world lost a star it never got the chance to have, but luckily her work was left behind for us to savor, and wonder what might have been.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: "Brutal Youth" by Anthony Breznican

Some say that the high school years are the best years of your life. Those who say that never attended St. Michael's school. Anthony Breznican's novel, Brutal Youth, essentially chronicles one year—1991—at this Catholic high school, which would make the principal from Lean On Me, the teacher from Dangerous Minds, and the students from Heathers or Mean Girls transfer as quickly as possible.

Peter Davidek has always lived in the shadow of his older brother, Charlie, which isn't a good thing, since Charlie is now persona non grata in their family. But since Charlie went to St. Michael's, their mother wants Peter to attend school there as well. But orientation day for visiting 8th graders is somewhat eventful, when a troubled student snaps, unleashing an attack on fellow students and teachers alike. It falls on Peter and another prospective student, Noah Stein, to rescue a student injured in the attack, even though it means disobeying—and making an enemy of—the school's guidance counselor.

When Peter and Noah begin their freshman year, they quickly realize this isn't just another school. On top of the fact that the school itself is falling apart, and the chapel has taken over the school's gymnasium since the original chapel burnt to the ground, freshmen are like raw meat to the older students. It's not just innocent pranks or teasing—it's all-out abuse, physical and emotional, every day. And the teachers are just as bad as the kids. It's all justified, you see, because when the upperclassmen were freshmen, they were abused, so it's kind of like the circle of life, you know?

Noah, who has been thrown out of schools before, is a take-no-prisoners kind of person, one who doesn't let anyone bother him, although that bravado hides some real emotional vulnerability. He and Peter become an unlikely team against their tormentors, along with fellow student Lorelei Paskal, who charms them both but isn't as successful making friends with her classmates. But as the school year progresses, their relationships with each other and their other classmates are tested by violence, misunderstandings, secrets, and a faculty more than willing to turn their backs on what is happening in the school.

"Everybody's pissed off and wants to f--king hit somebody, but this whole system has only one rule: You can't hurt anyone who can hurt you back."

This is a brutal book, one that truly lives up to its title. I have never seen students, teachers, and parents so relentlessly cruel, petty, and awful, even though Breznican gives you some idea how they got that way. While I loved Peter and Noah's characters, I just found every other character in the book so utterly unappealing and unsympathetic. I had a hard time believing that any school, any administration could be so bad, but then I remembered that the book is set in 1991, a time before Columbine and other incidents of school violence.

This book reminded me of some of my own issues with high school. I definitely wanted to see where Breznican would take the plot, to see if he could continue escalating the cruelty and all-around awfulness of his characters. But as much as this book troubled me and made me angry, I also would love to know what happened next, so I guess the characters stuck with me.

I've seen so many glowing reviews of this book, so if my description intrigues you, I'd encourage you to read it. I can't get the characters out of my head, in a good way. I guess in the end, I'm struck by this quote from the book:

"The things we surrender to when we're young, we keep surrendering to the rest of our lives."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Movie Review: "Jersey Boys"

Making movies out of Broadway musicals is nothing new, but it seems to have become more frequent in recent years, and we've even gone the movie-turned musical-turned movie again route a few times. (Of course, they've also made musicals out of movies, but that's a different article.)

While sometimes the adaptation works (IMHO, Grease is a prime example), many times the transition from stage to screen is more awkward, because where simply bursting into song works for musicals, it doesn't always feel right in the movies, so directors and screenwriters feel compelled to add dialogue and facial expressions that weren't necessary onstage.

Jersey Boys was a pretty fantastic musical, the winner of the Tony for Best Musical in 2006. Recounting the story of 60s-supergroup The Four Seasons, from their humble beginnings in (where else?) New Jersey to their successes and challenges along the way, the musical was upbeat and grabbed your attention from start to finish, because The Four Seasons' music was so memorable and hooked you immediately.

Clint Eastwood's film adaptation endeavors to do the same thing, tracing the group's start to know-it-all Tommy DeVito's (Vincent Piazza) shepherding of young Frankie Valli née Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young, recreating his Tony-winning role) to the mega-talent he became. After a series of brushes with the law, DeVito and his friend Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) agree to let Frankie join their musical group, only to discover the world doesn't want any more trios. So they find Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), already a successful songwriter in his own right, and convince him to join the group and write them some hits.

But success doesn't come easy to the Jersey boys (see what I did there?), as they find themselves fighting with a record executive to get the chance to record a demo, and they need to find the money to fund their own studio time. And then that first magical hit takes shape...and the rest is history. But along their road to success comes a number of bumps—personal problems within and outside the group, jealousy, gambling problems which lead to debts and other challenges, the need to control the group, etc. Suddenly this group that made such joyful music doesn't seem so joyful.

Getting the chance to hear all of The Four Seasons' hits, see all of the terrific choreography, and feel all of the energy from their performances was what made the musical so appealing. The music is still the best part of the movie, but the pauses between songs are much longer. There's far too much introspection, far too much backstory, far too much of the characters talking directly to the camera (a gimmick which worked much better in the stage version), and just not enough singing. But when the band takes center, well, stage, that's when the movie comes alive.

The performances are all strong—Young still sounds great (although you can tell the years of hitting those high notes has worn down the smoothness of his voice), and although I wish they had been able to reunite the original Broadway cast for the movie (especially Christian Hoff, who also won a Tony for playing Tommy DeVito), Piazza, Bergen, and Lomenda do quite well. The only person who seems a little out of place is Christopher Walken, who plays mafioso Gyp DeCarlo. I can't help but feel that many of his performances have become caricatures of Walken himself.

If you loved the musical, you'll probably be a little disappointed by the movie, although the music is still worth the price of admission. It's an okay movie, not a great one—if you have a choice, I'd definitely recommend you see the musical if at all possible. Ultimately, the movie will be good to watch at home one rainy or cold night, where you can sing along with no fear of upsetting your fellow audience members, but I definitely wouldn't pay full price for it.

Movie Review: "Begin Again"

What purpose does music serve? When an artist creates a song, should they create it for themselves and hope that people will enjoy their vision, or should they cater to what the audience wants? How far should you follow your instincts? These questions, as well as, can Adam Levine act, are answered in the sweet, tremendously enjoyable Begin Again, written and directed by John Carney, the genius behind Once.

Dan (Mark Ruffalo, suitably scruffy) is a once-successful music executive nearing the end of his tether. Living in a small apartment, alienated from his wife (Catherine Keener) and teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), he drinks too much and has taken too many risks following musicians he believes will be the next sure thing. Everyone is through coddling and indulging him, even his best friend Saul (Mos Def), with whom he co-founded the record company.

One night Dan drunkenly stumbles into a club to find Greta (Keira Knightley), a dejected musician, half-heartedly singing after being goaded onstage during an open mike night. Greta has her own issues—namely, her boyfriend (Adam Levine), with whom she wrote songs and pursued musical dreams, has suddenly become a star, and left her behind. Despite her lack of performance ability, Dan is immediately taken with Greta's voice and her songwriting, and believes she will be his ticket back into the musical good graces, if only she takes his suggestions. (A scene in which Dan "sees" how he could produce her song is tremendously creative and fun.)

The thing is, Greta isn't so sure she wants to compromise her vision for her music in order to make a hit. She doesn't really care if she sells her music—she just wants to be able to perform it, at least when she's not wallowing in her misery. But with nowhere to go to record the album, Dan convinces Greta to follow an outlandish idea—why not record the album all over New York City, in the middle of the elements, with all of the ambient sounds—traffic, crowd noise, etc.—as part of the album's sound?

As Dan struggles with his own personal problems, Greta is trying to resolve her feelings for her former boyfriend, since he has recorded one of the songs she wrote for him. Will love win out, or will music? Will Greta compromise and embrace Dan's vision for her music, or will she stick to her guns? And will Dan be able to get his old life back?

While most of the plot of Begin Again is fairly familiar, the performances—particularly Ruffalo and Knightley's—keep the movie fresh and appealing. They're an unlikely pair but Ruffalo's rumpledness (if that isn't a word, it should be) and Knightley's slightly uptight airs mesh well together. Keener and Steinfeld do well with what they're given, and Cee Lo Green tears into his small role with an appropriate amount of gusto.

And to answer the questions I'm sure you're wanting to ask: Knightley's singing is pretty good—her music is actually something I'd find myself listening to. Levine's acting, on the other hand, isn't as impressive as his singing. While his character never really transcends general douchebaggery, some of his lines are delivered with about as much flair and emotion as Green Card-era Andie MacDowell. (Watch that movie and you'll see what I mean.)

While Begin Again doesn't quite reach the level of Once, I really enjoyed this, more because it combined my love of movies with my love of music than anything else. But that's more than enough reason to check this one out. (Plus, for the most part, Levine is still nice to look at.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book Review: "Lucky Us" by Amy Bloom

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

Amy Bloom's latest novel begins with quite a hook:

"My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us."

It's the 1940s, and Eva, an awkward yet intelligent teenager, has her life uprooted when she and her mother get a glimpse of her father's life away from them, a life she had no clue about. She is intrigued by her glamorous half-sister, Iris, who is determined to be a star. The two set out on a journey to Hollywood, where Iris quickly begins to get noticed, and Eva watches from the sidelines, the ever-faithful champion. But when fame proves it has an ugly side as well, the girls are rescued by their father, and wind up headed back across the country, to pursue a new dream on Long Island.

Their lives take an unexpected turn, and each seizes whatever opportunities they can, whether ethical or unethical, until tragedy separates the sisters. Eva begins to realize she must be responsible for her own destiny, and her life continues to follow paths she never expected. As she longs for love of her own, she tries to figure out what her future holds, and whether Iris will be a part of that future.

Lucky Us is the story of the likely and unlikely bonds we forge in life, and how we handle adversity and surprise. It's also a moving look at what makes a family—an interesting concept in today's world, but even more complex given that the book is set in the 1940s. And above all, this is the story about love—romantic and platonic, among friends, lovers, and family. Eva in particular is a fascinating character, one you think at first glance is passive but you realize how insightful and resourceful she is.

I've been a huge fan of Amy Bloom's since I first read some of her short stories in the 1990s. I just love the way she occupies her characters, and pays such detail to the setting as well as the plot. I just wish I loved the book a bit more. It was good, and it definitely kept my interest, but it just didn't wow me. I felt as if a few of the characters weren't as fleshed out yet they had major roles in the plot, and I felt at times that the use of letters as a device to advance the plot didn't quite work. But still, Amy Bloom's storytelling ability dazzles, and that makes the book an interesting and readable one.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Book Review: "The Book of Unknown Americans" by Cristina Henriquez

Arturo and Alma Rivera lived a happy life in Mexico until their beautiful teenage daughter, Maribel, sustains a serious injury in an accident. Unsure if she'll ever be the same again, they migrate to the United States—Delaware, specifically—where Maribel will be able to attend a special school and hopefully begin to recover some semblance of normalcy. But America is difficult for the Riveras—the job Arturo secures to sponsor their journey to America is brutal, Maribel doesn't seem to be making much progress in school, and Alma struggles with English, and trying to become acclimated to a different life.

"Because a place can do many things against you, and if it's your home or if it was your home at one time, you still love it. That's how it works."

The one bright spot is that the Riveras meet Celia and Rafael Toro, who came to the U.S. years ago to escape the destruction and violence in Panama. The Toros are more settled into their American lives, although Celia in particular longs to return home, at least for a visit. And when their teenage son, Mayor, who struggles with self-confidence in the shadow of his more athletic, popular older brother, sets eyes on Maribel for the first time, he finds himself completely in her thrall, and wants nothing more to spend time with her, despite what others perceive as her challenges.

As the relationship between the Riveras and the Toros grows stronger, it is tested—as are relationships within each family—by secrets, incorrect assumptions, fears, longing, and struggles. And a number of incidents occur which set in motion a chain of events which will affect each member of both families in vastly different ways.

Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans gives a powerful and moving glimpse into the immigrant experience for many Latin American people. In addition to telling the story of the Rivera and Toro families, the plot is interwoven with brief testimonials from other neighbors, each of whom came from a different Latin American country and experienced different struggles and happinesses upon arriving in America. This is a book that makes you think a little bit more about the challenges and barriers people often deal with when coming to America, even legally.

I thought this was a very captivating read, and Henriquez is an excellent storyteller. While some of her characters may seem familiar, I thought she imbued them with interesting characteristics and quirks that made them more complex. I read this book very quickly, and found it an emotionally rich story I'm still thinking about.