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December 2009

Nerdies for Favorite Things of 2009

Hope you all are enjoying the holidays. Me, I’m having so much fun with family, I need more gigabytes in my brain to store all the memories being made.

I get grateful this time of year for 1) making it this far and 2) all the wonderful experiences I had in the last 12 months. So, between all the eating and social gatherings, I present to you my Nerdy Awards for favorite things this year.

Most Valuable Preposition: Up. Apparently, the best way to make sure a movie is good is by putting this two-letter word in the title. Up and Up in the Air tie for best movie I saw this year. Both are perfect blends of comedy and poignancy, light and dark, entertainment and explorations of what makes us human.

Best Reasons for Staying Home Wednesday Nights: Glee, Modern Family and Cougar Town. Wednesday nights are always a party in my house, as I sing along to Glee then laugh my face off with Family and Cougar. You’ve probably heard plenty about the first two but may not know that Cougar‘s cast, led by the game Courteney Cox, has really gelled into one hilarious ensemble.

Most Unique New Voices in Crime Fiction: Chet the Jet from Spencer Quinn’s Dog on It, Pietro Brwna from Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper, and Stella Hardesty in Sophie Littlefield‘s A Bad Day for Sorry. The field is crowded with cops and detectives but this year, I met fresh new characters starting with Chet, a dog who narrates the adventures he has while solving crimes with his human partner, Bernie. Brwna is a hit man turned jaded medical intern who uses a deadly weapon I’ve never seen used before. And Littlefield introduced us to a 50-year-old, slightly overweight woman who helps abused women keep their partners in line partly by using S&M restraints. These books are all first in a series so discover them now before the next installments come out (Chet’s new case, Thereby Hangs a Tail, arrives January 5).

Best Noir Debut: Richard Lange‘s This Wicked World. This is Lange’s first novel but it reads like he’s been writing them forever. Worthy of a place on my shelf among the genre’s greats.

Best Avoidance of Sophomore Slump: Gillian Flynn with Dark Places. Her debut, Sharp Objects, was so stunning, I wondered if her second novel would measure up. I was thrilled, then, to find Flynn delving even more deeply into the female psyche’s dark, twisted side in Places. Few writers can write about damaged, prickly women and make them so mesmerizing.

Fattest Books I Finished in Shortest Time: I got lost in Kate Morton’s gothic, 560-page The Forbidden Garden for 3 days, while my eyeballs were glued to the 512 pages in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire for 34 hours, finishing it in almost one sitting, minus a few hours of sleep.

Most Soul-Shaking Book: Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman. This non-fiction tale of a star football-player-turned-soldier gunned down by friendly fire in Afghanistan ripped me apart and made me re-evaluate how I live my life. A searing read I won’t forget anytime soon.

Funniest Person I Least Expected to Be: Brian Williams on 30 Rock. The veteran NBC Nightly News anchor made me laugh hard when he unexpectedly showed up on Rock, telling Tina Fey he wanted to audition for her show within the show by doing a stand-up act. The punchline wasn’t funny at all but Williams’s hammy, goombah delivery was very much so.

Favorite Movie Trend: Women 45 and over kicking ass at the box office. Sandra Bullock had two big hits (The Proposal, The Blind Side), Meryl Streep had three movies (Julie & Julia, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, It’s Complicated), one of which may win her a third Oscar. And Sigourney Weaver returns as sci-fi queen in Avatar. I hope this trend continues so I can stop watching actors get older while their female co-stars get closer to infancy every year.

Best Performance by Any Actor, Male or Female: Mo’Nique in Precious. Not so much a performance as a terrifying inhabitation of a nightmarish character.

Most Memorable Movie Quote: I just met you and I love you.” —Dug the talking dog in Up.

What were some of your favorite things this year?

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A Tale from My Christmas Past

One year in college, I was stuck at school until Dec. 23 because of finals that must have been scheduled by Scrooge or the Grinch. Christmas was around the corner but I wasn’t feeling it. I was trying to cram a whole semester’s worth of astrophysics into my aching brain.

The dorms had cleared out and my roommate Lennie and I were the only ones left in our building. On Dec. 22, after many hours of studying, Lennie and I decided to take a break and finally do some Christmas shopping. We splurged on a cab to take us into town. We couldn’t really afford it but it was too cold to stand outside and wait for the bus.

When the taxi arrived, we were surprised to see the driver was a boy about our age. His name was Bobby. On the way to the mall, we learned it was his birthday but he was working a double shift to earn extra money for a Christmas present for his mom. He’d been on the clock since six o’clock that morning and it was about seven p.m. when he picked us up. Lennie and I said he should do something to celebrate his birthday but he insisted he’d prefer to do something for Mom.

We told Bobby to wait when we got to the mall then ran inside to See’s Candies and bought two boxes for him and his mother. We ran outside and gave him the candy with our cab fare. “Happy birthday,” we said. “And merry Christmas to your mom.”

Bobby stared at the boxes for a long moment, then turned off his meter. “I’m not charging you for the ride.”

“What?! You’re working late to earn money, not give out free rides!” Lennie said.

“The candy didn’t cost that much!” I said.

He refused our payment a second time, then said he’d wait to take us home.

“Stop being ridiculous. If you won’t take our money, then go pick up someone else you will accept it from. And we might take awhile.” Lennie and I thanked him, made sure he drove off, then went inside.

Two hours later, shopped out and ready to leave, we called for a cab and—surprise—Bobby pulled up.

“We’re not getting in if you won’t take our money!” I said.

“And I’ll just tell my dispatcher not to send anyone else if you call for another cab because I’m already here!” Bobby retorted. It was dark, snow was starting to fall, we got in.

Once we were settled, he turned around and offered his box of See’s.

“We can’t eat that. It’s your present!” Lennie said.

“Which means I can do whatever I want with it and I want to give you some,” Bobby said. Man, he’d be good in my Debate and Argumentation class, I thought. Bobby kept insisting; Lennie gave in and took a piece of chocolate. I might’ve taken two—only to make him happy, of course.

Bobby started driving us home, his meter dark and silent.

“Turn it on!” Lennie said.

“Think of your mama!” I added.

“It’s all right. I finally made what I needed tonight. I’m off after this.”

So he drove, taking the long way home, making detours through neighborhoods so we could look at Christmas lights. We ate candy, talked, he said his mother was the most amazing woman in the world, raising him as a single parent since he was a toddler. He hoped to someday go to college and start his own business, maybe buy Mom a nicer car.

When he finally dropped us off, Bobby said, “This birthday was happier than I could’ve imagined. Thank you.” I didn’t know how to respond, overwhelmed by a feeling I hadn’t had a few hours earlier.

Luckily, eloquent Lennie stepped in. “Thanks for giving us a gift, too, Bobby. And your mom already has the best one.”

He gave us a business card and said to call him if we ever needed a cab again. We never did, but I still have his card, yellowed and frayed at the edges, the printing faded but the memory still clear after twenty-three years.

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Movie Reviews—IT’S COMPLICATED, BROTHERS, THE LAST STATION

With all the holiday activities going on, I’m woefully behind on everything (haven’t seen Avatar—what?!) so the following reviews will be a little abbreviated. They’ll take less time for you to read so you can fulfill your obligations, too.

It’s Complicated

In writer/director Nancy Meyers’s ultimate female fantasy, Meryl Streep plays a woman who’s lusted after by two successful, attractive men: her lawyer ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and the sensitive architect (Steve Martin) who’s renovating her house, an already gorgeous spread in Santa Barbara she’s trying to make bigger and more awesome.

The movie is a very mature, if flawed, exploration of the emotional complexities of divorce, not making anyone out to be the bad guy or completely blameless. Streep is as radiant as ever (she doesn’t age!), Baldwin has some very funny scenes, including an unfortunate Skype incident, and Martin turns in a lovely, understated performance as someone who might be falling in love but is reluctant to move forward with the bitter taste of his own divorce still fresh in his mouth.

The most refreshing element for me was seeing how the family, though damaged by divorce, is so functional. They talk things out, they’re respectful towards each other and the kids don’t seem to prefer one parent over the other. Conflicts exist and obstacles abound; the affected parties just don’t turn their affairs into a Jerry Springer episode. I’m not sure what it says about the state of our times when I was surprised, but pleasantly so, to see family members not bitching each other out on screen. Nerd verdict: Complicated but fun.

Brothers

After Marine captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) goes missing and is believed dead in Afghanistan, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) helps his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and daughters Isabelle and Maggie (Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, respectively) through the grieving process. Uncle Tommy gets a little too close and of course, this is exactly when Sam comes home. [Note: This isn’t a spoiler. We see him alive in Afghanistan even while the family mourns.]

Maguire does impressive work as the conflicted soldier who comes back haunted by things he was forced to do to survive, actions for which he can’t forgive himself. He’s a shadow of his former self, unrecognized by loved ones, feared by his children. He’s intense in a quiet way, which is much scarier than an over-the-top way.

Portman is more sensual and womanly than usual as a young wife and mother trying to navigate uncharted waters. Gyllenhaal is believable as Maguire’s brother but I didn’t buy for one minute that he’s some tough ex-con who just got out of the Big House. The real stars for me, though, are the two actresses who play Sam and Grace’s little girls. They have a natural, easy style that made me think they were simply being, not acting. It’s an easy concept to grasp, not necessarily to execute on camera. Drawing out amazing performances from young actresses (see: In America) is a specialty of director Jim Sheridan, who makes his movies intensely personal.

I also like his way of covering heavy subject matter with a light hand. He often cuts away from a scene before its natural end because he trusts we can fill in the rest. When two military reps arrive at Sam’s house to notify Grace of his so-called demise, we see Grace approaching the open door, the horrible realization washing over her face, and the scene ends without the actual notification. Sheridan doesn’t jerk tears; this isn’t a war movie. It’s about people trying to find a way to live again after a part of them dies. Nerd verdict: Relatable Brothers.

The Last Station

I’m going to keep this one brief because I fell asleep three times while watching it. The performances can’t be faulted, except for maybe Paul Giamatti’s scenery chomping as a devout Tolstoyan who wants Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) to will his estate to the movement, much to the chagrin of the author’s wife. The movie is one long melodramatic tug of war between Giamatti’s Vladimir and Helen Mirren’s Sofya and none of it was compelling. It’s more a history lesson than entertainment and even James McAvoy’s presence as Tolstoy’s secretary couldn’t save this for me. Nerd verdict: Bypass this Station

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THE SING-OFF

Anybody watched this show? I abhor reality shows (except American Idol and Project Runway) but tuned in to NBC’s The Sing-Off because it was advertised as real-life Glee and you know I love me some of that. The four-night competition is between a capella groups made up of non-pro singers hoping to land a Sony recording contract. Guess what? The Glee comparison wasn’t completely off base! It was like watching sectionals, except some of the singers are older than school age.

The groups are quite talented and one in particular, the Socals, reminded me the most of our beloved New Directions. They even sang “Don’t Stop Believin'” and “Somebody to Love.” Another bunch of preppy school kids, The Beelzebubs, sang “Sweet Caroline,” though Puck’s rendition was much, well, sweeter. The ‘Bubs are well-liked by the crowd but they turn me off with their cheesy smugness. My prediction for the win is Nota, an all-guy group which manages to put some spicy flavor into every song.

If you missed the three episodes which aired this past Monday through Wednesday, you can watch full episodes on NBC.com or Hulu. Then you can still vote for your favorite group (on NBC.com only; voting closes Sunday, Dec. 20) and the winners will be revealed on Monday’s show.

Check it out, tell me which group(s) you like best, and help some folks get a recording contract for Christmas!

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67th Annual Golden Globe Nominations

In case you haven’t seen them yet, here’s the full list. Film highlights (if a title is underlined, click on it to read my review):

Best Picture, Drama
Avatar
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious
Up in the Air

I haven’t seen Avatar but unless it’s awesome, I’m rooting for Up in the Air.

Best Picture, Musical/Comedy
500 Days of Summer
The Hangover
It’s Complicated
Julie & Julia
Nine

Haven’t seen The Hangover. So excited to see (500) Days in there! It’s a charming little film you need to rent when it comes out Dec. 22. As long as the winner isn’t Nine, I’m good.

Best Actor, Drama
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Tobey Maguire, Brothers

Haven’t seen Invictus or Crazy Heart. Nice surprise to see Maguire nominated; he’s quite good in Brothers. I’d love to see Clooney take this, though.

Best Actress, Drama
Emily Blunt, The Young Victoria
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious

This category is a tough one; I like all these. I’d narrow it down to Blunt vs. Sidibe.

Best Actor, Musical/Comedy
Matt Damon, The Informant!
Daniel Day-Lewis, Nine
Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 500 Days of Summer
Michael Stuhlbarg, A Serious Man

Another tough one to call. Might as well do eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Best Actress, Musical/Comedy
Sandra Bullock, The Proposal
Marion Cotillard, Nine
Julia Roberts, Duplicity
Meryl Streep, It’s Complicated
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

Streep deserves it for Julia & Julia but if she cancels herself out, Cotillard should take it. I like Roberts and Duplicity just fine, but her inclusion here has got to be the biggest shocker.

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds

This one’s easy: Christoph Waltz.

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo’Nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man

Another easy one: Mo’Nique all the way, baby!

Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Clint Eastwood, Invictus
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

I’m on Team Reitman but Lee Daniels was robbed for Precious.

Best Screenplay
Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell, District 9
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Nancy Meyers, It’s Complicated
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Jason Reitman & Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air

Rooting for Reitman & Turner. And wha…?! Precious snubbed again? No matter. I’m still certain it’ll be Oscar nominated in this category.

Best Score
Up
The Informant!
Avatar
A Single Man
Where the Wild Things Are

Michael Giacchino has had an amazing year and will win for Up (he also scores Lost, Fringe and Star Trek). Up‘s theme is the only one I can still hum and I saw it back in May.

Best Song
“Cinema Italiano,” Nine
“I Want to Come Home,” Everybody’s Fine
“I Will See You,” Avatar
“The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart
“Winter,” Brothers

The prestige song here is “Winter,” by a socially conscious band about a serious subject (our military personnel). But I came out of Nine singing “Cinema Italiano,” and I didn’t even like the movie that much.

Best Animated Film
Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs
Coraline
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess & The Frog
Up

No contest: Up is tops in my book!

Best Foreign Language Film
Baria
Broken Embraces
The Maid
A Prophet
The White Ribbon

No clue here. Haven’t seen any of them. If I had to guess, I’d say Ribbon.

What did you think of the noms? Who are you rooting for? I think I’m most excited about Ricky Gervais as host!

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Winners of THE FIRST RULE Giveaway

After I plugged everyone’s names into Random.org, giving extra entries to those who qualified, the website drew Sophie Littlefield as my first winner. Sophie, you get an ARC of Robert Crais‘s The First Rule (pub date 1/12/10), which will be sent to you directly from Putnam. Please e-mail me your address. My friend Lydia there said she’ll also throw in some temporary red arrow tattoos so you can be like Joe Pike!

Random.org selected a second name for the autographed set of photo cards and that winner is le0pard13. I’ll ship you these with some red tats as well. Both you and Sophie will have to send me pictures after you try them on! (Mine’s below.)

Many, many thanks to all those who entered and shared your tales of heroism. It was inspiring to hear about all those good deeds, especially during this season. I always knew there are superheroes among us.

Me, Pike-like

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Book Review: U IS FOR UNDERTOW

I’ve been reading Sue Grafton for a quarter century now, starting in high school when I found her books in the school library (I spent a lot of time there). I devoured the “A” through “C” Kinsey Millhone adventures like an ex-con having his first meal on the outside. Over the years, the books were uneven but I kept reading out of obligation, as if Kinsey had become an old friend whose imperfections I accepted. I listened to her tales even if she rambled a little.

I was thrilled, then, to find her latest adventure, U is for Undertow, utterly captivating. After only a few pages, I knew Kinsey was back on track and I could dive in out of pure pleasure.

The case begins when Kinsey is approached by a young man named Michael Sutton who suddenly remembers something that happened when he was six years old. At the time, Sutton attached no significance to the incident but, after reading a newspaper article about an unsolved 21-year-old kidnapping of a little girl, he believes what he saw were two people burying the child.

After Sutton hires Kinsey to investigate, the story moves back and forth between 1988 (Kinsey’s present) and 1967, when the kidnapping occurred. Grafton deftly juggles multiple POVs; besides Kinsey’s, the author doles out pieces of the puzzle from the perspectives of several characters who are directly and tangentially involved in the crime, painting a full-bodied portrait of each. The plot turns in unpredictable directions and though it might be obvious early on who did it, Grafton keeps you guessing about the why.

The case is complex enough to keep Kinsey busy, but she’s also grappling with personal issues after making startling discoveries about her past which destroy her long-held perceptions of certain family members. Because the books are told in first person and I’ve sided with Kinsey for years against the relatives who abandoned her as a child, these new revelations threw me for a loop as well. Kinsey won’t be able to change overnight but at the end of this book, she takes brave, hopeful steps towards what could be an extreme life makeover.

Nerd verdict: Strong Undertow will pull you in

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Movie Review: NINE

Nine (and the movie 8 ½, on which it’s based) is about a writer/director who has a hard time coming up with a story for his latest film. It’s ironic, then, that Nine, written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, also seems to be lacking a plot of its own.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays the auteur, Guido Contini, who’s having a breakdown since his movie Italia is supposed to go into production within days but he still hasn’t written one word. His leading actress, international star Claudia (Nicole Kidman), is getting impatient and demanding to see a script. He’s haunted by memories of the women in his life, including his mother (Sophie Loren) and a prostitute he knew when he was a boy (Fergie). In the real world, he continues his dalliance with mistress Carla (Penélope Cruz) despite telling his long-suffering wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard) the affair is over.

Rob Marshall said during the post-Variety-screening Q & A that he thought long and hard about how to integrate the musical numbers into the movie. On that level, he succeeded; the songs are interwoven well and don’t really disrupt the story’s pacing.

Trouble is, there’s not much plot to interrupt. It’s mostly about what’s going on in Guido’s head and since he comes across as a self-absorbed, lying, cheating bastard, I couldn’t sympathize with him. He hasn’t earned the self-pity because his misery is of his own doing. It’s not Day-Lewis’s fault; he gives a consummate performance as usual. His Italian accent is spot-on and his singing robust (is there anything he can’t do?). The problem lies more with the character and this was partly why I also disliked Fellini’s film: Guido is a whiny little boy.

As for the all-star female lineup, Cotillard, Cruz and Dench come through most spectacularly. Cotillard is wistful and heartbreaking at first then busts out the sexy in “Take It All,” doing a striptease and letting Guido know she’s done being the accommodating little wife. Cruz scorches the screen in her “A Call from the Vatican” number, with her, um, gymnastic moves. She’s also emotionally flexible, going from vixen to little girl lost, and somehow manages to make me feel sorry for her adulterous Carla. And Dench, as Guido’s confidante Lilli, displays a fun side and hearty voice along with her usual gravitas.

Kate Hudson also knocked my socks off, singing and dancing with abandon in the movie’s catchiest number, “Cinema Italiano,” but her Vogue reporter is otherwise given nothing to do. Likewise Fergie’s Saraghina. Although this character was in Fellini’s movie and Fergie attacks “Be Italian” with impressive ferocity, the prostitute from Guido’s past has no usefulness here. Kidman looks great but this version of Claudia could have easily been played by any other beautiful actress with a passable singing voice.

The costumes are dazzling, the dancing and singing energetic, but I’m afraid I’m not in love with this Cinema Marshalliano.

Nerd verdict: Nine‘s a 6 on scale of 1 to 10

All photos by David James © The Weinstein Co.

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Book Review: THE LINEUP

It was cold this weekend in L.A. so I wore everything I own, causing my husband to say I looked homeless, but it was good because it made me stay in. I slept, read, drank lots of coffee, watched reruns of Fantasy Island without knowing why. And I finally wrote this review of The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives, edited by Otto Penzler.

This is a collection featuring some of crime fiction’s most successful writers—Robert B. Parker, Laura Lippman, Lee Child, Robert Crais, among others—discussing the creation of their popular characters. Michael Connelly’s revelation that a real tunnel near his childhood home inspired Harry Bosch’s tunnel-rat background is both chilling and enlightening. Crais has a funny yet poignant conversation with Elvis Cole about their mutual fears and sense of hope, and gives a glimpse of Joe Pike’s inner world (it’s green!). Carol O’Connell’s badass ‘tude reminds me I gotta pick up another Mallory book. And though I’d heard most of Jack Reacher’s origin story at Child’s signings, it retains its charm in print.

Some of the other essays aren’t as successful. A few are too earnest and one outright creeps me out (not in a good way), but this is a great intro to the crime fiction world for those of you who haven’t taken the plunge. If you’re already a junkie like me, you’ll enjoy learning more about your favorite detectives while meeting those you’re not familiar with. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Ken Bruen, but after experiencing his blistering, profanity-laced piece (love his description of an Irish sport called hurling as “a cross between hockey and homicide”), I will rectify that situation.

I also want a hurly.

Nerd verdict: Insightful collection from great Lineup of writers

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Books as Snapshots

In the movie Up in the Air (read my review here), George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, repeatedly gives a speech about how it’s better to travel light through life. If you put all your belongings in a backpack and set it on fire, you’d be free. It’s easy to see why Bingham believes this since he’s constantly avoiding putting down roots and making meaningful connections.

I’ll admit I lived that way for years and found it liberating. As a kid, I left everything behind in Viet Nam to come to the States. Dogs, relatives, friends, shoes, books—my backpack was literally empty. But instead of refilling it as soon as I could, I left it bare. I’d learned I could survive on very little so why get attached to things again? (This didn’t apply to people, just objects.) When it came to spartan living, Jack Reacher and Joe Pike had nothin’ on me.

Eventually, though, I realized I had it backwards. Since I wasn’t destroyed by my losses, it must be all right to have things as long as I had the right attitude about them. I could probably set my backpack on fire like Clooney’s Bingham if I had to—it’s just stuff, right? As a mental challenge after seeing the movie, I looked around my home, thinking, “That chair’s replaceable, I don’t need that lamp, wouldn’t die without my TV.”

Then I got to my books. Could I live without them? What did they mean to me? And that’s when it hit me some weren’t just books, they’re snapshots of specific moments in my life. I could look at one and remember exactly where I was, what I was doing and how I felt while reading it.

When I was traveling by myself a lot for work one summer, a set of Harlan Coben paperbacks kept me sane by making me laugh through 10-hour flight delays and sleep deprivation. Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds on Nantucket makes me instantly think of my friend Maria Taylor from 7th grade, who introduced me to the Wolves Chronicles featuring Dido Twite, a plucky girl whom I desperately wanted to be when I was young. Maria moved away after 7th grade but every time I look at Nightbirds on my shelf, I remember her.

Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps reminds me of standing in line in frigid weather back in 1985 to meet the author for my virgin signing experience. I was so excited, you would’ve thought I sighted Elvis. And that first successful foray encouraged me to attend other author signings, resulting in many autographed books by my favorite writers.

My Tintin books are the first things I remember being able to read on my own (though I read them in Vietnamese), and the first time I became obsessed with a series as a child, wanting to collect every adventure. A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books have lifted me through difficult times because that bear of very little brain is actually very wise. My copy of The Red Balloon takes me back to the time in fourth grade when I fell in love with Albert Lamorisse’s classic film Le Ballon Rouge because I didn’t need to speak English in order to grasp its wordless beauty.

So, my question to you is: What are the books on your shelves snapshots of? What specific memories do they represent?

While I await your stories, I guess I won’t be lighting my backpack on fire after all.

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Nerd Chat with Robert Crais Plus Giveaway of THE FIRST RULE

Though he’s busy gearing up for the release of The First Rule next month (January 12), Robert Crais generously took time from shopping for loud socks to do an e-mail interview with me.

If you’re already a fan, you know the basics. If not, visit his website for all the dish, then check out his tour schedule.

I’m giving away some goodies, with details below the interview. But first, read on as we discuss Joe Pike, who’s center stage in The First Rule. The novel is a blood-pumping, rocket-paced adventure with all the usual Pike-isms, but it also reveals an unexpectedly tender side of him that makes your chest clench a little.

PCN: Since there’s a heartrending twist in TFR that I don’t want to spoil, I’ll just ask vague, possibly irrelevant questions. Hopefully, this will entice people even more to pick up the book to see what the hell I’m talking about.

Pike goes where we’ve never seen him go emotionally and it changes him. How will that affect his future actions?

Robert Crais: Maybe it won’t. Pike has been Pike for a long time, so he’s good at repressing his feelings.

PCN: Does he repress his, um, urges, too? I don’t recall any girlfriends since Karen Garcia in L.A. Requiem and even she was in flashbacks. When’s he gonna get some again?

RC: You offering?

PCN: I’d ruin him. He’d start knitting me sweaters and calling me “Pumpkin.” Who would want that? Could he remain an interesting character if he were in a happy relationship?

RC: I doubt it. Part of Pike’s appeal is his “other-ness.” He’s a strange cat and readers like those aspects of his character. If he were “normal,” I don’t think people would find him as interesting. Could Pike be in a happy relationship? I don’t know. He probably wants to be in a happy place, but I don’t think he knows how to get there.

PCN: I could draw him diagrams but I don’t really want him to go there. Now, some actors do Method Acting. Ever do Method Writing as Pike?

RC: That’s how I write. I put myself in his place, feel what he feels, share the moments with him. If I don’t feel what Pike feels, if I’m not there in the moment, the scene won’t work.

PCN: What does putting yourself in his place entail? Knocking heads, eating vegetables, then running at night with coyotes?

RC: Pike does those things to put himself in MY headspace.

PCN: When he’s not on a case with Elvis, at the gun shop, working out or cleaning his Jeep, what does Pike do? Pottery? Watch Glee?

RC: Decorative macramé. It’s all the rage. And Pike loves Glee. You going to make fun of him for that? Go ahead—I dare you.

PCN: Nah, I like him more for it, especially if he does the “Single Ladies” routine to warm up before a run. You excel in showing how Pike feels about people and things through his actions so I’m happy with the third-person perspective. Hypothetically, though, could you write him in first person?

RC: Of course. I am the World’s Greatest Writer.

PCN: What kind of book would that be?

RC: Short. He doesn’t say much.

PCN: In TFR, Elvis goes to eat at the Sidewalk Café in Venice. I’d bet he’s there to sample the Robert Crais pizza. Why does your namesake pie have way more meat than the Cormac McCarthy pizza?

RC: Have you eaten me yet? I’m pretty good.

PCN: I have, and thought you were cheesy and meaty. And cheap!

RC: You should tell your readers the Sidewalk Café in Venice is a real place. They named a pizza after me, so I like them a lot.  Also, they make a dynamite pie.

PCN: I see you’ll be signing at a Costco on tour. Which aisle is your favorite place to sit?

RC: Big screen TVs. There’s something to watch after the crowd thins.

PCN: Right, once you tell people where to find hams and batteries. What’s the next book about? Is it an Elvis? Standalone?

RC: Another Joe Pike book. I want to write something else, but Pike won’t let me.

PCN: Have you publicly announced that anywhere else? Can I claim it as a world exclusive due to my intrepid scoop-breaking abilities?

RC: Probably, but you can tell everyone I’m announcing it here first. I won’t tell.

And that concludes my world exclusive scoopy interview. Deep, massive thanks to Robert for chatting and not telling. (To see and hear him read excerpts from TFR, click here.)

Now, for the giveaway…

Prizes and Rules:

Up for grabs is an ARC of The First Rule, which will come gift-wrapped from Lydia at Putnam, who has mad wrapping skills. The winner will be randomly selected.

A second name will be randomly chosen to receive a set of four picture cards, autographed by Robert. (See closeups below.) They feature locations from the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike books—including Elvis’s house!—with text from the novels in which they were mentioned.

Robert Crais, happy to see me

These aren’t available anywhere else because I made them, then ambushed Robert at a restaurant and got him to sign. (If the pictures look familiar, some were used in the video “Elvis Cole’s Los Angeles,” which can be viewed here.) They can be used as postcards, bookmarks, coasters, refrigerator art, etc. I haven’t even offered them to my own mother but will give a set to one of you.

Temporary red arrow tattoos might also be included with the prizes if I can resist putting them all over myself first.

In The First Rule, Joe Pike goes to great lengths to defend the name and memory of his friend, Frank. To enter, answer the following question:

  • What’s the most heroic thing you’ve ever done for a friend? This includes acts big and small.

You must also be a:

  • U.S. or Canada resident
  • subscriber or Twitter follower

New subscribers/followers get 1 entry, current ones get 2, people who tweet about this giveaway (and let me know) get 3 entries. Giveaway ends Dec. 14, 5 p.m. PST.

Winners will be announced only here and via Twitter; no e-mail notifications will be done. If winners don’t respond within 48 hours, alternate names will be chosen.

Good luck!

 

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Movie Review: THE LOVELY BONES

© DreamWorks Studios

Just came out of a screening of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones (opening Dec. 11) and I’m about as confused as the movie is. So, my movie partner, Eric Edwards, and I had the following discussion to help process our thoughts. [Possible mild spoilers.]

PCN: Oh, man, what happened? The trailer was intense but the movie felt like one long yoga/meditation video.

EE: I think my biggest struggle was I kept thinking I should like it more than I do.

PCN: Why do you have to like it?

EE: Because the message they’re trying to put out is very deep and Zen. It was all about the big picture and trusting that the universe will take care of things in its own time. But it took soooo long for payback to happen.

PCN: And when it did, I felt no real closure, which begs the question: Are we impatient, bloodthirsty people? In real life, sometimes comeuppance doesn’t happen at all and you have to find a way to move past the grief.

EE: But this is a movie and I think most moviegoers want to see some kind of reckoning for a bad deed.

PCN: There was reckoning, just not in a way we expected. I feel the same ambivalence toward the movie as I did toward Alice Sebold’s book. It’s internal and meditative and more a dissection of the grieving process than a story. I get that it’s not supposed to be action-packed. So Peter Jackson fills up the in-between with eye candy to amuse us. Look, there’s a waterfall! And Susie frolicking among flowers! A random giant beach ball! And that music sounded like something from a sleep machine. I thought maybe Enya would show up to sing.

EE: That score was pretentious. I did enjoy the book, though. I think this was just bad handling of source material.

PCN: Do you think this has a chance at any awards? The cinematography is gorgeous—

EE: It’s beautiful.

PCN:—but I don’t think the movie deserves anything else. Even Stanley Tucci’s performance is off. He’s really creepy but I was distracted by the blond rug, blue contacts, prosthetic teeth and slightly slurred speech. It’s a little too much. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a perfectly normal-looking guy turn out to be the creepiest one of all?

EE: I don’t think Jackson allowed Tucci to let the full creepiness out.

PCN: What?! He’s super creepy! During the scene where Harvey lures Susie down into the hatch, you were cringing like a baby, you were so scared.

EE: I wasn’t cringing, I was merely showing disapproval. Tucci kept shaking and acting nervous. Jackson should’ve just let Tucci stare at Susie and let the suspense build before making his move. Would’ve been a lot more explosive.

PCN: Oh, it was plenty explosive enough for me. I was sick inside, knowing what would happen to her. I was grateful most of it happened off camera.

EE: But you were projecting your feelings due to prior knowledge. Would it be as creepy for viewers who haven’t read the book?

© DreamWorks Studios

PCN: A grown man preparing to murder a 14-year-old girl? Yeah, I’d say that’s creepy for anyone. What’d you think of Saoirse Ronan’s performance?

EE: The biggest problem for me was her narration, which made the movie so melodramatic, especially when accompanied by Brian Eno’s overwrought score.

PCN: I had no problem with her. I actually liked her as Susie much more than I liked her as that little brat in Atonement. Here, she’s vibrant and shows more range. She also handled the American accent quite well.

EE: I’m not talking about her acting, strictly the narration. Otherwise, she was fine. I liked Rose McIver, who plays Susie’s sister. She made an impression on me.

PCN: Yeah, she had spunk. She’s a New Zealander who also nailed the American accent.

© DreamWorks Studios

EE: What’d you think of Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz?

PCN: They’re okay but their best work is elsewhere. Susan Sarandon looks like she had fun as the boozy, chain-smoking grandma, but the role isn’t significant enough to register come awards time.

Nerd verdicts—PCN: Weak Bones. EE: Bones is lifeless.

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