Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Book Review: "The Great American Whatever" by Tim Federle

"When I'm about to do something that makes me nervous, I imagine how the ideal screenplay version of events would play out. As in: I wish my life were a screenplay that I could write. Because if you leave it all up to fate, who knows how your movie's going to turn out? So far mine's a fairly standard coming-of-age LGBT genre film, with a somewhat macabre horror twist."

The last six months have been quite tough for 16-year-old Quinn Roberts. There was a time when all he really cared about was writing screenplays for movies his sister Annabeth would direct, hanging out with his best friend Geoff, and trying to work up the courage to come out of the closet. But that was before the car accident which changed everything, leaving him and his mother to wallow in their grief and basically hibernate in their house. Quinn hasn't been to school, or even in public, in six months, and he certainly hasn't thought about writing any more screenplays.

Geoff has decided six months of grief is enough, and he's determined to get Quinn out of the house and back into life again. And he's pulling Quinn straight into the deep end, taking him to his first college party, where he meets Amir, a guy (a college guy!) who gets his pulse racing. But how do you try to charm someone when your knack for witty dialogue has abandoned you?

Quinn is unprepared for how Amir makes him feel, despite the fact he can never do or say the right thing when he's around him. (And don't even talk about their bowling date.) But what Quinn is even less prepared for is the secrets that everyone has been keeping with him. How was life going on around him and he wasn't even aware of what was happening among those he cared about? Should he feel betrayed, angry, sad, or some combination of all three? And how is he supposed to get on with his life?

The Great American Whatever is a sweet, sappy, quirky book about how you find the strength to pull your life together when it's been ripped apart. It's about friendship, love, infatuation, grief, secrets, and the movies—not in that order. And it's about finding out the things you've always believed in aren't always true. You really feel for Quinn, even if you wish that someone in his life would just shake him from time to time to snap him out of his funk. But that being said, he's definitely a memorable character.

I enjoyed this book, although I felt Quinn's narration a little hard to follow at times, but I guess that was a reflection of his ADD. Tim Federle draws you into the story very quickly, and makes you care about these characters. It's definitely a book that makes you smile, makes you chuckle, and may even make you tear up from time to time. This is another book I'm so glad kids coming to terms with their sexuality will have to rely on.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Book Review: "Gutshot Straight" by Lou Berney

Every now and again, I love finding a good crime novel. And while I love reading books by my favorite mainstays—Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Steve Hamilton, Barry Eisler, etc.—I love discovering a new author writing their first book, or stumbling upon an author I've never heard of before and being wowed by them. So I was tremendously pleased to find Gutshot Straight, the debut novel from Lou Berney, whose most recent book, the exquisite The Long and Faraway Gone, was among my favorite books of 2015.

Charles Samuel "Shake" Bouchon has been living a life of petty crimes since his first arrest for grand theft auto when he was 19. Now 42, he's just been released from prison again, and he's trying to figure out what to do with his life. Is it time to settle down and finally fulfill his dream of opening a restaurant?

"He wondered where exactly in his life his shit had gone sideways, and why. It was hard to say. It hadn't been a couple of momentous decisions that had determined the course of his life. No volcanic eruptions that altered and fixed his personal topography. Instead what had happened were all the decisions along the way, most of which he didn't even realize at the time were decisions, the bits of coincidence and circumstance, good luck and bad, the steady, slow accretion of rock and soil and sediment. He needed a volcanic eruption. He needed to make a move."

But when Alexandra Ilandryan, a powerful Armenian crime boss, asks him to do one more easy job for her, he is tantalized—and not just because Alexandra may be the most beautiful woman he's ever known. All he needs to do is drive a car into Las Vegas, pick up a suitcase, and bring it back to her. Sounds pretty easy. So what could go wrong?

Well, as you can imagine, a lot of things can and do go wrong. Because although he's done his share of time, often it's been out of loyalty to others and not his stupidity. So Shake has brains and a conscience, and pretty strong beliefs about what he'll do and what he won't. These aren't traits that guarantee success in the crime world—they're actually fairly dangerous. So needless to say, it isn't long before everything goes awry for Shake, in more ways than he was expecting.

In Gutshot Straight, Berney takes us on an Elmore Leonard-esque jaunt, replete with double and triple crosses, eccentric criminals, one beautiful and utterly untrustworthy woman, and lots of quirky characters and situations. This is a lot of fun, but Berney never lets the fun and the zaniness overtake his storytelling. Even though you may know where the plot will ultimately end, it's such an enjoyable journey, and Shake, in particular, is such an appealing character, that you want to know what happens to him. I've said before it's the mark of a talented writer if they can get you to care deeply about criminals, despite their actions.

This book isn't perfect, but it is a quick, compelling read that I practically devoured. I'm glad to see Berney wrote one more book in this series before moving to a standalone novel. If you enjoy crime novels that hearken back to Elmore Leonard's early days, pick this one up. If not, I'd encourage you to pick up The Long and Faraway Gone, because you need to experience just a little of Lou Berney's talent. (You'll thank me.)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: "The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

What is it about family dysfunction that makes it so upsetting and unappealing to experience, yet so compelling to read about?

Leo, Beatrice, Jack, and Melody Plumb are four siblings whose relationships with each other are, to put it mildly, strained and complex. They've spent much of their adult lives waiting for one pivotal moment: the day the youngest, Melody, turns 40, so they can take possession of "The Nest," a joint trust fund their father set up when they were younger. Melody and Jack, in particular, are relying upon their share of "The Nest" to end their financial struggles and help them move their lives in the direction they are hoping.

There's one challenge to this, however. Leo, the oldest, the flame to his siblings' moths, found himself in a bit of trouble a few months earlier. Trouble which caused a car accident that injured a 19-year-old waitress, who was not his wife. Trouble which sent him to rehab. And trouble which has put "The Nest" in danger just months before Melody's 40th birthday. The Plumb siblings are apoplectic at the thought they might not get the financial support they were counting on, and cannot believe that once again, Leo has let them down.

Leo promises to make good on the money, and asks for a few months to put together a plan. It isn't long before old resentments come to the surface again, while each of them has to deal with their own crises and the secrets each of them have tried to hide. Melody, the overprotective mother of twin teenage girls, has been counting on the money to send both girls to prominent colleges, as well as bail her family out of their financial woes. Jack, whose antiques shop has been struggling, has gotten himself into more debt, unbeknownst to his husband, which leads him to make even more foolish decisions. And Bea, once a successful writer with some promise, can't seem to get her long-awaited novel written.

As they wait for Leo to share his plans and right all of their lives, Leo is struggling with doing the same for himself. For a person who has always led a bit of a charmed life, watching people buy his ideas and fall in behind him, suddenly he finds himself at emotional and financial odds. And while he wants to help his siblings, he also wants to put his whole life behind him and start over, no matter who might get caught in the crossfire.

It's hard to believe that The Nest is Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's debut novel, because it's written with tremendous self-assurance. These are fairly unappealing characters but Sweeney keeps them interesting even as they irritate you, even as you can't believe how horrible they are to each other and those they supposedly care about. And Leo is the worst of them all (although not by much).

I thought this book was really good, but in my opinion, what kept it from being great was that Sweeney added a few somewhat-related sub-plots that seemed unnecessary, and which distracted from the strength of the story at the book's core. When the book switched to the story of the waitress who was involved in Leo's accident, or a neighbor of Bea's former editor, I didn't feel as if these storylines added to the book in any way, and I became a bit frustrated.

But in the end, these are minor irritations. Most of us will never have concerns relative to when we're getting access to our trust fund, which may be why it's fun to live vicariously through this spoiled family. But even as the dysfunction and drama ratchets up, Sweeney never lets go of her characters' hearts, even if they're hard to find through all of their bad behavior.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Book Review: "Sunday's on the Phone to Monday" by Christine Reilly

This one just didn't work for me.

Mathilde and Claudio meet at a party at NYU in 1998. Mathilde is an aspiring actress, creative and privileged, while Claudio left his home in Detroit and never looked back, working to buy a record shop in the heart of New York City. Their relationship consumes them both, sometimes whimsical, sometimes all-encompassing, but tremendously fulfilling, and it isn't long before they marry and begin building a somewhat Bohemian life together.

The couple raise three children—studious Natasha; creative, sensitive Lucy, who suffers from a rare heart ailment; and their adopted daughter Carly, empathetic, curious, and occasionally intense. As the girls deal with the usual and the unusual ups and downs of childhood and young adulthood, Claudio and Mathilde face their own challenges as well, mostly in the guise of Claudio's emotionally troubled sister, Jane, whom he moved from an unhealthy life in Louisiana to a mental hospital in New York.

Sunday's on the Phone to Monday is a quirky, thought-provoking, and at times, emotionally compelling book about family and the powerful hold it can have over us, in both the best and worst of times. It's a story about love, about living life to the fullest you can imagine, and attempting to weather the storms that come your way. It's also a book about relationships—romantic, familial, platonic—and how they shape our worldviews and our actions.

I thought Christine Reilly created some interesting, complex characters, but despite spending more than 300 pages with them, I never really felt as if I got to know them. I think this is because the book is told in short, vignette-like chapters, some of which happen within an hour or day of each other, some of which happen months, even years later. It's hard to get a hold on what is happening because much of the book is told in a somewhat stream-of-consciousness, dreamlike way that I found off-putting.

The book's biggest quirk was the constant capitalization of the word "Heart," in whatever ways it was used (Heartache, Heartbreak, etc.). While I think I understand what Reilly was trying to achieve it stopped me in my tracks every time I saw that word capitalized in the middle of a sentence, and it is used quite a bit in this book. I don't know if this is intentional or if this is something that will be fixed before the book is officially released, but it really bothered me.

I think Reilly definitely has talent and creativity, and knows how to paint beautiful visual pictures. While Sunday's on the Phone to Monday didn't click for me, perhaps people more comfortable with less linear, more dreamlike storytelling will find this moving and fulfilling.

NetGalley, Edelweiss, and Touchstone provided an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making it available!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Book Review: "Why We Came to the City" by Kristopher Jansma

The four of them were pretty much inseparable since they met in college several years ago—Sara, the editor who tried to control the group's every movement; her boyfriend George, the sweet yet anxious astronomer; Jacob, the poet, larger than life but unsure of what life he wanted; and Irene, the artist, flighty yet passionate, who has done all she could to put her past behind her.

"Back in Ithaca, these four had traveled nearly everywhere as a pack. While every other college clique experienced seismic shifts and occasional mergers, they had never grown apart."

One winter night, the four meet at a posh reception thrown by the owners of the gallery where Irene works. They encounter another former classmate, William Cho, who had always been enamored of Irene, but the four lived in their own separate world. And as the five enjoy drunken revelry after all of the guests have gone, William hopes for the chance to connect with Irene, George tries to find the courage to finally propose to Sara, and Jacob ponders the foolishness of love. But they all have no idea how the coming year will change all of them.

Kristopher Jansma's Why We Came to the City is a powerful, beautifully written book about friendship, love, and how we tackle (and avoid) the challenges that life throws our way. It's about the cocky confidence of youth, the feeling that everything you want can be yours if you just want it badly enough, and how you handle it when things don't break your way. And it's a book about how one person can have a profound effect on you, even more so when they're gone.

I really enjoyed this. I hesitate to compare books but its structure reminded me a bit of A Little Life in that while there was one character at its core, the book spent time focusing on each of the other characters. That was both a strength and a slight weakness of Why We Came to the City, because it drifted a little bit more than it needed to into the lives of the characters when they were apart from each other, but it was when they were together that they were most fascinating and most dysfunctional. I think I loved George's character the most, and while Jacob's character is probably the most fascinating, he was the hardest to really get to know.

Jansma is a pretty terrific writer, and he has created a rich, moving story that will make you think of your own friendships and your own youth (if you're more than a little bit removed from that period of time as I am), and how the problems which at one time may have seemed insurmountable really shaped your life.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Book Review: "I Don't Like Where This is Going" by John Dufresne

John Dufresne does his best Carl Hiaasen impression with his newest book, I Don't Like Where This is Going, and achieves mixed results.

Wylie "Coyote" Melville has fled his Florida home, where people are trying to kill him, for the anonymity of Las Vegas. He's more than a bit of a drinker, but he has a good heart, even working at a crisis center, where he is often the one speaking to distressed and lonely people on the center's helpline. One afternoon, when he and a friend are hanging out at the Luxor casino, Wylie sees a young woman fall 30 floors to her death.

Wylie can't get the whole scene out of his head, and he wants to understand who this woman was and what happened. Clearly someone doesn't want him to learn the truth—for some reason, he is thwarted at every turn. And it's more than just people refusing to answer his questions or pretending not to recognize the woman's photo when they clearly do. The people who want to hide the truth will stop at nothing—framing him for crimes he didn't commit, even violence.

With his best friend, sleight-of-hand master Bay, at his side, Wylie attempts to uncover the truth, and along the way the two encounter more than their share of unusual characters and bizarre situations. And at the same time, he's confronting crises within his own family, and contemplating some serious issues, such as homelessness, human trafficking, and mistreatment of women, along the way.

This is an intriguing book. I liked Wylie's character and found him much more complex than I originally thought. But Dufresne crams far too many quirky supporting characters and situations into this book, and while some of them are amusing, most of them seem almost like red herrings and distract from the core of the plot. It seemed as if every time the book built up some momentum, the story took another detour. However, Dufresne is a great writer, so while the book meanders a bit, it's mostly an entertaining journey.

I'm a big fan of Dufresne's earlier works of fiction (I'd highly recommend Love Warps the Mind a Little in particular), but I wasn't aware he had begun dabbling in mystery. I Don't Like Where This is Going is apparently the second book featuring Wylie, and while I missed the first, I didn't feel as if I was missing a lot of background.

If you enjoy the quirkiness of Carl Hiaasen and early Elmore Leonard, combined with some good character development, pick this one up. It's a little bit zany, but it's balanced out by strong storytelling.

NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Book Review: "Highly Illogical Behavior" by John Corey Whaley

After reading his third book (following Where Things Come Back and Noggin), I'm seriously becoming a John Corey Whaley groupie. Not that I wasn't already a huge fan, but I absolutely fell in love with the heart and humor of this book, and as always, his writing is funny and sensitive and warm without being too clever.

Solomon Reed is 16 years old. He hasn't left his house in three years, since a panic attack compelled him to sit in the fountain at his school until his parents came to take him home. He's smart and funny, he loves movies and books and Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the thought of leaving his house makes him hyperventilate to the point he cannot breathe. So while his parents worry about his future, for now they're content to let him go to school online and spend his life inside his house, with only them and his spry, sassy grandmother for company.

Lisa Praytor is determined to escape her hometown and make something of herself. She has her sights set on attending the second-best psychology program in the country, but there's a catch: her essay must deal with her personal experience with mental illness. After a chance encounter with Sol's mother, she finds a solution to that problem—she's going to "fix" Solomon (whom she remembers from middle school) and get him to leave his home again. She knows it will be hard work, but isn't realizing her academic dreams worth a little effort?

It's not long before Lisa realizes that Sol may have problems, but he's far from the boring, crazy person she expected. The two develop a strong friendship, filled with movies and games and confiding in each other. Eventually Lisa introduces Sol to Clark, her good-looking, athletic boyfriend, whose lack of ambition has Lisa questioning what she means to him. The three become an inseparable trio.

Sol doesn't realize how much he needed friends, and Clark and Lisa are all too happy to oblige, more out of sheer enjoyment than her original ulterior motive. But as Sol shares his secrets, and starts to think about life outside his house, Lisa starts questioning her relationship with Clark, and what Sol's role might be in the problems they're having. And of course, Sol is not the only one caught in the crossfire.

When we're at our most vulnerable, how do we let our guard down to let people in when we've done just fine on our own (or so we think)? At what point do we put the needs of others over our own needs, and why do we let others force us to act in ways which make us uncomfortable? Highly Illogical Behavior is about what it's like to just let go and put your faith in others, even as your heart and your head are telling you not to. It's a book about coming to terms with our fears and accepting who we are, even if we don't fit the mold most people expect us to.

While obviously the idea that parents would allow their teenage son to stay in their house for three years without leaving seems a little implausible, this issue doesn't detract from the beauty and heart of this book. Yes, we all know I'm a sap, but this book made me laugh and made me think even as it made me tear up. Solomon is such a fantastic character, and while Lisa's motivations certainly were questionable, I really liked Clark and many of the book's supporting characters as well.

Bravo again, John Corey Whaley. I promise not to stalk you, but I will be eagerly awaiting your next book, because I love the way you write. And I wouldn't mind if you wanted to bring a little more Solomon back into my life some day, too.

Thanks to First to Read and Dial Books for making available an advance copy of this book, in exchange for my unbiased review!!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Book Review: "I Let You Go" by Clare Mackintosh

One rainy night, a woman and her five-year-old son Jacob are walking home. He's full of energy, as most five-year-olds are, so he slips his hand out of his mother's grasp and runs across the street to their house. But before he can cross the street, a car comes out of nowhere and hits him, then drives away while his mother screams for help.

Jenna Gray is desperate to escape the nightmare of the car crash that awakens her screaming each night. She is paralyzed by her loss and her fear, and feels that everyone around her is judging her. She flees to the coast of Wales, to a town that is nearly empty most of the year, except during the summertime. She keeps to herself, leading a spartan existence, and doesn't want to let anyone get close to her for fear they might get hurt as well. But despite her resolve to be alone, little by little she regains confidence and starts to get acclimated in her small town of Penfach, beginning a new career as a photographer and starting to trust people.

Meanwhile, two detectives, Ray and Kate, are trying to figure out who was responsible for Jacob's death. They're determined to do right by Jacob's mother and honor his memory by leaving no stone unturned. But this is a difficult case to solve—it was rainy and dark, no one was able to figure out what kind of car hit him or see any noteworthy characteristics of the driver, and they really have no clues to follow. And while they want to chase down every lead, it's not long before they're pressured to drop the case and move on to other things, and Ray, who is hungry for a promotion to senior leadership, doesn't want to jeopardize his future.

I'm going to stop with the plot summary at this point for fear of giving anything away. There is one point in the book that made me literally say, "Wait, what?!?" It takes some interesting and perhaps unexpected turns—some of them work and some of them don't work as well, in my opinion. But this is definitely a book that kept me guessing for a bit until everything started to become clear.

Clare Mackintosh did a really good job creating her characters and reeling you into the plot, little by little, until you're hooked. She's a talented storyteller, and reading her notes about what in her own life inspired her to write this book definitely gave me more insight into the choices she made. I could have done without two of the plot threads, including the one in which Ray struggles with issues at home, because while it rounded out his character a bit, it felt unnecessary.

To the surprise of no one, the literary world is calling this book the next blockbuster thriller for those who loved The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. (You know I loathe when they do this.) I guess these books do have something in common, but in the end, I liked I Let You Go a bit more than either of those. Definitely an intriguing read.

My thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review!!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Book Review: "Cities I've Never Lived In: Stories" by Sara Majka

I find books in so many different ways—I hear about releases getting particular hype or buzz, I see someone else reading something that intrigues me so I need to check it out, or I receive a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust. Interestingly enough, I first heard of Sara Majka's emotional, intriguing new collection, Cities I've Never Lived In from Amazon when I picked up Amy Gustine's fantastic You Should Pity Us Instead, which I read last month, and then I heard some praise from the talented Garth Greenwell, whose exquisite What Belongs to You absolutely blew me away.

So needless to say, I had a lot of expectations coming into Majka's collection, and it definitely didn't disappoint. The characters in her stories are all at some kind of crossroads, whether they are struggling with a relationship or with loneliness, trying to determine what the next step is in their lives, or finding a reason to soldier on in the face of a crisis. Some of the stories are a little bleaker than others, some don't end as definitely as others (but isn't that just like life itself), but all pack an emotional punch and really make you think.

What struck me most about Majka's stories, even more than how they made me feel, is how beautifully they're written. Here's just one example:
"How strange we are. How different we are from how we think we are. We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we've left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn't change."
A number of stories are interconnected, featuring a woman recovering from a divorce and trying to deal with life on her own. She travels to different and unusual places, and recalls the unique situations she has found herself in and the people she has met. There are 14 stories in this collection, so there are a number of stand-alone stories as well.

Among my favorites in this collection were: "Saint Andrews Hotel," about a man who was committed to a mental hospital as a young boy and whose family vanishes when the island they were living on off the coast of Maine disappears, yet years later he is convinced people he once knew have reappeared; "Strangers," which tells of a man caring for his grandchildren after his son disappears, to allow his daughter-in-law to work in a different place during the week, and the way his life changes from this relationship; "Reveron's Dolls," the first in the series of interconnected stories, in which the narrator is coming to terms with life after her divorce; and "Maureen," about how a bartender overcomes tragedy.

Not every story worked for me; I found a few of them a little too vague and I wasn't really sure what they were trying to convey. But ultimately I was tremendously taken by Majka's storytelling ability and her use of language, which made this a collection worth reading.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Oscar's Overlooked, Part 1

As someone who has been a student of sorts of the Oscars for more than 30 years now, I've certainly realized that picking "the best" of anything—the best performances, the best films, even the best scores—is hard to do when you're not comparing apples to apples. (Legend has it that Humphrey Bogart once suggested that all five nominees be asked to perform the same monologue, perhaps Hamlet's soliloquy, in order to determine who was the best.)

The thing with the Oscars, however, is it's kind of like a doctor's office. They're always playing catch-up. All too often the Oscars reward an actor or actress for their body of work, sometimes because the performance they most deserved to win for either wasn't recognized, or it was passed over because that year they were rewarding someone else. While the Oscars do get it right from time to time, overall, their track record is kind of mixed.

Now that this year's ceremony has passed, I thought I'd look back at some of the performances and films over the years that didn't win but, at least in my opinion, should have. (Of course this is subjective; so is choosing a winner of anything.) In some cases these individuals and movies were nominated but didn't win, and in some cases, they weren't even nominated. So, here goes...

David Oyelowo, Selma (2014)
Not nominated

The Deal: As much as I loved Eddie Redmayne's Oscar-winning performance in The Theory of Everything, David Oyelowo should have won the Best Actor Oscar last year for his utterly mesmerizing portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Ava DuVernay's fantastic Selma. He captivated King's cadences, his mannerisms, and his quiet yet fiery nature, but Oyelowo is British, to boot! While I don't think his omission from the list of nominees last year was in any way racially motivated, I do think he should have made it over Steve Carell in Foxcatcher, and should have made it directly to the podium to accept his Oscar!

Glenn Close, Fatal Attraction (1987)
Nominated but lost to Cher for Moonstruck

The Deal: Nearly 30 years later, I cannot believe Glenn Close didn't win an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman who becomes utterly unhinged after a slightly-more-than-one-night-stand spurns her hopes for a longer-term relationship. While parts of the performance were a little campy, her combination of pathos, rage, and emotional instability was truly memorable and unlike most film characters, at least in the 1980s. Yet she was passed over for an Oscar because the Academy was paying Cher back for snubbing her two years earlier for Mask. And amazingly, despite six nominations, Close still doesn't have an Oscar...let's talk about people who are overdue!!

Edward Norton, American History X (1998)
Nominated but lost to Roberto Benigni for Life is Beautiful

The Deal: If it were up to me, Edward Norton would have two Oscars, one for this searing performance, and one for Best Supporting Actor two years earlier for his riveting (and creepy) work in Primal Fear. (He lost to Cuba Gooding, Jr. that year.) His performance in American History X as a former neo-Nazi in prison for his crimes, who is determined that his younger brother not follow the same path he did, is so riveting. At times he is full of bravado, at times utterly vulnerable as he reaches out to unlikely allies to keep his younger brother out of trouble. It's a shame a performance this rich (but perhaps too disturbing for sensitive Academy minds in the late 1990s) was overlooked for the broad comedy of Benigni.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma (1996)
Not nominated

The Deal: I mentioned in my preface to this post that the Oscars are quite often about playing catch-up. Someone doesn't win for a performance they deserve to win for, so they win for a lesser performance, thus passing over the deserved winner that year. This is the case for Gwyneth Paltrow's terrific work in Emma. While I don't think she should have taken the Oscar over Frances McDormand for Fargo, she certainly deserved a nomination. But that snub, in part, was what led to her win two years later for Shakespeare in Love, which I didn't think was as good as this performance (and I might have ranked it third among the five nominees that year). She demonstrated her flair for saucy comedy as well as her sensitivity, and this is a performance I've watched more than a few times.

Paul Thomas Dano, There Will Be Blood! (2007) Not nominated

The Deal: While Daniel Day-Lewis was a mesmerizing force of nature in this movie, Paul Dano more than held his own against him. Playing two characters—a preacher and faith healer who wants the money from the sale of his family farm to fund his church, and his shyer, ne'er-do-well brother—Dano fully captures each character individually, and stokes the fire of Day-Lewis' rapidly building bluster until he explodes. While no one could have beaten Javier Bardem in 2007 for his creepy, unforgettable performance in No Country for Old Men, Dano definitely deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination alongside him. (Dano would again be passed over this year, for his terrific performance as a young Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy.

Michael Shannon, Take Shelter (2011)
Not nominated

The Deal: I talked about this performance way back in 2012, and it really hasn't left my mind. I'm a huge Michael Shannon fan (mostly), and this is one of his best performances. Playing a man trying to make sense of his increasingly disturbing (and perhaps apocalyptic) dreams. Is he hallucinating? Is he seeing visions of what is to come? Whatever the reason, Shannon does an incredible job of portraying a man just barely (if that) holding himself together. This film didn't get much (if any) exposure when it was released, but I think Shannon's performance was deserving of an Oscar, more so than that year's winner, The Artist's Jean Dujardins.

Annette Bening, Bugsy (1991)
Not nominated

The Deal: Amazingly, Annette Bening doesn't have an Oscar, despite some fantastic Oscar-nominated performances (she lost to Hilary Swank twice). And then there's this performance, which didn't even get nominated. Her portrayal of Virginia Hill the gun moll who was the love of gangster Bugsy Siegel's life, was so spot-on, sexy and brash and vulnerable and fierce all at the same time. But what you didn't realize at the time was that the chemistry between Bening's character and Warren Beatty's Bugsy Siegel was more than just good acting—it was the start of a relationship (and a marriage the following year) which has lasted for 25 years now. Watching the movie after their relationship became public imbued Bening's every line with more sensuality—when she tells Siegel to "go outside and jerk yourself a soda," you feel it. The only reason I can attribute to her snub (given that the film received 11 Oscar nominations) is that she somehow was held responsible for the film's commercial failure, while Beatty, as well as Ben Kingsley and Harvey Keitel, all received Oscar nods. Such a shame.

There are many more performances I think deserved recognition from Oscar, so I'll be back with Part II shortly! Would love to hear your thoughts on these performances—of course, these are only my opinion!

Book Review: "The Girls" by Emma Cline

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House for making it available!

There are times in our lives when we feel a powerful need to belong, to be part of something we view as bigger and more important than us. We are desperate to feel a kinship, perhaps even a spark of attraction, and these feelings are what make us feel special, make us feel worthy.

Fourteen-year-old Evie knows that desire all too well. Growing up in late-1960s California, living with her needy, insecure, lonely mother after her parents' divorce, she feels as if she is biding her time the summer before being sent to boarding school. She is bored with her one real friend, longing to be desired, to be a part of something more exciting than her humdrum existence.

And then one day she sees them—a group of teenage girls in a park. To Evie they seem carefree, sophisticated, and utterly enticing, especially the apparent leader of the group, the magnetic Suzanne. It's not long before Evie finds herself pulled into the group, members of a cult who live an impoverished, commune-type existence in a dilapidated ranch up in the California hills, shepherded by a charismatic yet unstable leader, Russell, who can convince people to give the cult money, food, vehicles, drugs—anything they seem to need.

For Edie, who grew up a child of some privilege, the squalor and chaos of the ranch is fascinating. She tries to make herself an integral part of the community, but even bringing them money from time to time, doesn't quite help her fit in with everyone. Yet as she becomes somewhat of a pet to Russell from time to time, it is Suzanne to whom she is drawn the most. Yet as things on the ranch begin spiraling out of control, Evie still wants to belong, even if it means being a part of something dangerous, something she doesn't quite understand.

"There are those survivors of disasters whose accounts never begin with the tornado warning or the captain announcing engine failure, but always much earlier in the timeline: an insistence that they noticed a strange quality to the sunlight that morning or excessive static in their sheets. A meaningless fight with a boyfriend. As if the presentiment of catastrophe wove itself into everything that came before. Did I miss some sign? Some internal twinge?"

This is a fascinating, disturbing story that is so well-told by Emma Cline. She truly captures Evie's nearly all-encompassing need to belong and feel wanted, and reading this book you can understand why someone like her might be willing to do something completely out of character simply to be a part of the action. Evie is a vivid character, although most of the characters around her aren't drawn as fully—you understand Suzanne's magnetism but not what makes her tick, and Russell, while fascinating, seems like a shadowy Mansonesque figure who surfaces from time to time.

The Girls is a story about the loss of innocence and the way we sometimes glamorize those who fascinate us despite their actual behaviors. The book has a strong sense of time and place, and there is a pervasive sense of doom that hangs over the book. It's definitely one of those can't-look, can't-look-away stories where you want to know what comes next but don't want to see what comes next.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Book Review: "Before the Fall" by Noah Hawley

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Grand Central Publishing for making it available!

It's an evening in late August, a little foggy but otherwise uneventful. On Martha's Vineyard, the private plane belonging to David Bateman, the power behind one of the country's major cable news networks, is scheduled to take off and head back to New York. David and his wife Maggie, and their two young children, nine-year-old Rachel and four-year-old JJ, are ready to head home, and their friends Sarah and Ben Kipling are joining them on the flight. Maggie has also invited Scott Burroughs, a painter that she has befriended on their many visits to the Vineyard.

Scott arrives late, just as the plane was preparing to take off, so he tries to relax. There's music playing, and David and Ben are watching the Boston Red Sox game. Small talk is exchanged, and the flight attendant offers everyone a beverage. And then, inexplicably, 16 minutes after takeoff, the plane plunges into the ocean.

Scott regains consciousness in the ocean and begins to realize what has happened. As he tries to find other survivors of the crash, he hears the cries of JJ, apparently the only other person left alive. Despite a shoulder injury, Scott, once a championship swimmer inspired by the legendary Jack LaLanne's swim from Alcatraz when Scott was a boy, swims with JJ nearly 10 miles to shore.

As the authorities try to figure out what caused the crash, details are uncovered and theories begin to emerge. Was the plane brought down by someone determined to may David pay for his network's manipulating of popular opinion via the news it broadcasts? Were there other reasons for sabotage, perhaps related to one of the other passengers on board? Were the flight crew trustworthy?

Of course, the person in the most blinding spotlight is Scott. While his heroism is heralded, it's also questioned, suspected. How did he wind up on the plane that night? What was his relationship with Maggie? How is he the only adult survivor from a plane full of important people? The media circles, leaving no stone unturned, questioning everything in his past, even the pictures he has painted. And as Scott reaches out to JJ given the bond they shared, there are some suspecting nefarious elements there, too.

Before the Fall is a book that doesn't know what it wants to be. Is it a meditation on the fragility of life, the simplicity of luck, and the unconscious act of a hero? Is it a look at how quickly one's life can change, and the beauty of a simple bond between a man and a young child? Is it a portrait of our media-obsessed society, where in an effort to be first to break a story, the media broadcasts what it knows and then makes up what it doesn't, crafting facts to fit the theories they want to espouse? Or is it a thriller, as the authorities (of course, not without the usual pissing match between branches of the government) try to figure out what really did happen on the plane that night?

Noah Hawley tries to make this book all of those things, which means it doesn't quite succeed on any of those fronts. It is beautifully written, and Scott is a fascinating character. If the book had concentrated on him and his life following the crash, and how JJ and those around him dealt with the aftermath, I think this would have been stronger and more appealing, at least for me. But the book gets bogged down in looking at the lives of each of the other passengers and crew on board that night, and what brought them to that moment, and then the zealous media coverage of the crash and the suspicions being levied against Scott (particularly by a corrupt anchor on David's network), and it really frustrated me.

Since Hawley is the executive producer, writer, and showrunner for the television series Fargo, this book is getting a lot of attention, and is even being hyped as "the thriller of the year." I'd nominate several other books I've read so far this year for that honor (particularly Gregg Hurwitz's Orphan X), but despite the fact I think Before the Fall suffered from a bit of an identity crisis, it's definitely a worthwhile, compelling read.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Book Review: "Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs" by Dave Holmes

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing for making it available!

Dave Holmes' Party of One worked for me on so many levels, but mainly because, except for the fact that he was a former VJ on MTV and actually famous, we pretty much lived parallel lives. Pop culture-obsessed? Check. Growing up knowing he was gay but knowing the world wasn't too keen on people who were different in that way, so he did everything he could to (not quite successfully) hide it? Check again. Music playing a huge factor in his life? Yup. Turning to humor and sarcasm in an effort to get people to like him and help him fit in at a time when he really didn't feel he fit in at all? Umm, hello, have you met me?

"I did a lot of embarrassing things and put myself through a lot of useless trouble on the road to accepting myself, and it would have been a much more painful experience had I not had access to the most powerful stimulant known to humankind: the music and popular culture of the last forty years."

Holmes talks about growing up in a Catholic family in St. Louis, where he succeeded in being the funny one so no one noticed how non-athletic he was, and what it was like going to an all-boys Catholic school, surrounded by boys that he was absolutely infatuated with, but he and his other gay friends (although none of them acknowledged this fact) had to pretend this wasn't the case. He also shares memories of going to a Catholic college while toying with the idea of coming out of the closet and starting to accept his sexuality. (Needless to say, that wasn't easy either.)

While there were so many moments in this book that I utterly identified with him and how he felt at various times in his life (hell, we even had obsessions with many of the same male celebrities in the 1980s and 1990s), it was so enjoyable getting his take on what it was like to be a part of MTV in its late-90s heyday, finally getting the chance to do what he loved and be with people who shared the same interests. He name dropped a little without being pretentious, and shared some of the eye-rolling moments of his pseudo-celebrity status as well as some of the ultra-cool ones. And he also touched on what it is like to be a pop culture aficionado who suddenly feels like that world is passing him by, because he's not as up on the new musical acts as he once was.

This is a funny and at times emotional book, probably more so because I know what it feels like to finally come to terms with who you are and finally not give a damn what people think. But Holmes doesn't hit you over the head with inspirational lessons—he doesn't pretend to know more than anyone else about self-discovery or self-acceptance; this is just his story.

I don't know that this is a book for everyone, but if you grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, and remember what it was like when MTV played music videos; if you remember shows like Punky Brewster and the ABC Saturday night lineup of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island; or if you know what it's like to struggle with knowing you're different, then Party of One will be right up your alley. I think Dave and I would be either really close friends if he lived in this area, or we'd constantly try to one up each other. Either way, sounds like fun.

I loved this.