Monthly Archives

March 2012

Fantasy Island

I’m on vacation. Can you guess where I am?

I’m reading Driven by James Sallis (sequel to Drive) and Getaway by Lisa Brackmann becase it’s a thriller that takes places during a woman’s vacation in Mexico. Well, we’ll see who has the bigger adventure when I go in search of otters tomorrow.

Happy Friday!

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Book Review: THE PROFESSIONALS by Owen Laukkanen

After graduating from college without promising job prospects in the troubled economy, four friends decide to kidnap an anonymous, rich businessman for a modest ransom. Their reasoning:

“You get a junior VP at a Fortune 500 company, tell his wife to hand over a hundred grand in the next twenty-four hours, and she’ll do it without thinking. It’s an inconvenience at those stakes, not a crime.”

The first kidnapping goes so well, they do it again, moving from city to city, staying under the radar by only asking for mid-five-figure sums, saving up for when they can retire to the Maldives. But then they snatch the wrong guy, someone whose family would rather retaliate than pay up. The kidnappers panic, things go horribly wrong, and thus begins their nightmare that keeps going from oh, sh*t to we are so screwed.

Laukkanen kidnapped me on a Saturday afternoon, keeping me tied to the couch and making me eat saltines and cheese for dinner because I couldn’t stop reading to prepare a proper meal. His prose is propulsive, and his chapters end in a cliffhangery way that kept me flipping them pages. Arthur, Marie, Sawyer, and Mouse are kids who do foolish things, but they’re surprisingly sympathetic in Laukkanen’s hands. They’re loyal to each other and are good people at heart who just don’t know how else to attain The Dream. I couldn’t help wanting to see them get it—as long as no innocents got hurt.

And that’s why the novel also became problematic for me: I half-wanted the criminals to win. They’re more interesting and complex than the law enforcement officers chasing them. Agent Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota Bureau of Crime Apprehension gets the job done but doesn’t leave much of an impression. His partner, FBI Agent Carla Windermere, is young, beautiful, good at what she does; she looks great on the surface but we don’t see much of her inner life. Perhaps they’ll gain dimensions in the next Stevens and Windermere installment, as this is only the first in the series. For now, however, the outlaws steal the show.

Nerd verdict: Propulsive Professionals, with complex criminals

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THE HUNGER GAMES: A Movie Discussion from Three POVs

Life’s been so busy, I haven’t had a chance to blog in about a week, a fact that probably only three of you noticed. But I managed to finish my work on time last Friday to take in a screening of The Hunger Games, which made $155 mil at the box office this past weekend. I’ve never read any of the books by Suzanne Collins because the idea of adults manipulating children into killing each other for sport is horrific to me. I can’t even watch gladiator movies, and still remember how much William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” shocked me when I read them as a teen.

**Spoilers**

 

But Mr. PCN wanted to see the movie, having devoured the books, so off we went. I was stunned by the violence, despite the PG-13 treatment, but I was also greatly moved. Rue’s death had me sobbing into my snack tray. It left me wanting to discuss it afterward, so I asked two other people—my regular contributor, Eric Edwards; and my YA reviewer/10-year-old niece, Mena Dolinh—to participate in a Q&A.

We’d come at it from three different POVs: me as the adult approaching the movie cold, Eric as the adult who’s familiar with the novels, and Mena representing the books’ first and most ardent fans—the tweens and tribute-aged kids.

Pop Culture Nerd: How did the movie compare to the book?

Mena Dolinh: I thought it was good and covered all the main parts of the book, but sometimes I wished they would go into more detail on something, like how Katniss hated Prim’s cat, Buttercup. I suppose it they included every detail the movie would be really long.

I really liked how they added the Gamemakers controlling the arena so you could see how they could manipulate all the tributes and see the game really coming together. In the book, you could only see everything from Katniss’s perspective. I thought that the changes in the movie were necessary because if the whole movie was completely the same as the book then it just wouldn’t be very exciting at all.

Eric Edwards: I was surprised by how bleak the movie was. I figured the filmmakers would make it less disturbing than the text. Even the editing for the film was lean and cold. The movie gives you only hints of exposition instead of drawing it out in the beginning so in that sense, it sticks to the tone of the book.

PCN: One of the reasons I resisted reading these books is because the subject matter is so disturbing. I’m a wuss when it comes to kids and violence. What drew you to the stories, and why do you think they’re so popular?

MD: My older sister got the books for her birthday and was engrossed in them so I was curious. I like the characters and read all three books to find out what happened to them. The first one is the best. By the end of Mockingjay, the story was more focused on the rebellion than the characters and it went on too long. I can’t speak for my friends or why other people like the books.

EE: The book is unapologetic in the way it shows us Katniss’s world and life amongst the populace of District 12 versus the residents of Capitol City. What kept me reading was the lean prose. There isn’t a lot of frou-frou, which makes it a page-turner.

PCN: I thought Jennifer Lawrence did a remarkable job, so strong and steady, and with excellent archery technique. I also enjoyed Woody Harrelson’s performance as Haymitch. The Capitol costumes were dazzling and fun. Did the look of the movie come close to how you imagined everything? Was anything just wrong or done better in the movie?

MD: Most of the things in the movie were pretty close to what I imagined. The only thing I was expecting was a big golden Cornucopia instead of a black one. Some of the fight scenes were a little too rushed and I couldn’t really tell what was going on. I was really impressed with the casting. I really liked the costumes because the Capitol is supposed to have all these outrageous costumes but they weren’t too exaggerated.

There weren’t any parts that were just completely wrong but I thought Effie and Haymitch could have been included in more scenes. In the books, they were the main characters who actually trained Katniss and Peeta and guided them, but in the movie, the only times you saw them was at dinner or when they were giving the tributes [survival] tips.

I really liked Seneca Crane’s beard because it looked like someone just said, “Hey, this guy looks too normal. Let’s use a stencil to make his beard look weird.” I found out his beard has its own Facebook page!

EE: District 12 and the Capitol were as described in the book, but Katniss’s community was bleaker and more squalid than I had imagined, and the Capitol even more plastic and fake.

Also, in the book, the view of what happens within the games is more from Katniss’s point of view. We never get to see the gleeful attitude the Gamemakers have in the creation/manipulation of the obstacles and contestants. It was strange to see how proud they were of the mutts they created. In the book, those beasts were contestants who had been killed already, then genetically altered into a kind of wolf-human hybrid. Kinda like werewolves, I guess.

PCN: Was there anything left out from the book that you missed seeing?

MD: I wished they had included the avoxes in the movie. In the beginning when the hovercraft was passing through, I expected the avox girl to get caught then so when Katniss goes to the Capitol, she would recognize her. I also wished they had included Peeta losing his leg while fighting the mutts because it affected him throughout the whole trilogy. When the movie ended, I expected to see Katniss and Peeta in the hovercraft having their cuts or injuries being tended to, but you don’t see that at all.

EE: The ships that hovered over the dead contestants and spirited them somewhere else. The three-fingered salute was never explained in the movie. And I know this is going to sound silly, but I miss Madge.

PCN: I was so tense during the whole movie, watching through my fingers at times. Did it manage to be suspenseful or surprising for you?

MD: Yes, because even though I knew what would happen, I didn’t know when or how. Like the mutts scene in the jungle. I knew it was coming but when the mutts just appeared, I was really startled. And you also see the movie from a different perspective than [Katniss’s] in the book, so when the Gamemakers started a fire or placed an animal into the arena, I was still wondering, “What is Katniss going to do?” I thought the reaping was suspenseful because even though I knew that Katniss would volunteer in her sister’s place, I didn’t know what her reaction was going to be at the moment she decided to make that sacrifice.

EE: Seeing it reimagined on the big screen made it more intense overall. I didn’t expect the movie to have that effect on me.

PCN: For people who have only seen the movie, would you recommend we go back and read the book? Or should we just read the second and third books since we already know what happened in the first? I actually want to read them now, which is weird because I didn’t originally. And I usually read books before the movie adaptations.

MD: I think you should read them all because the last two books make references to things that happened in the first one. You should read all the parts that weren’t included in the movie. It could also help you picture things differently and you can compare them.

EE: A resounding YES for me.

Thanks, Eric and Mena, for chatting with me!

What did you all think of the movie?

Photos: Murray Close/Lionsgate

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Book Review: CLAWBACK by Mike Cooper

This review originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

When Wall Street’s worst-performing financiers start dying in suspicious ways, financial “consultant” Silas Cade—who happens to be a black ops vet—is hired by an investment banker to investigate. Are angry investors who lost their life savings targeting money managers? Clara Dawson, a fledgling financial blogger looking for a big scoop, wangles her way into Cade’s investigation and soon gets caught up in the violence. Cade’s role expands to protect her, as he discovers that greed has no boundaries, not even murder.

“Clawback” is a term used in the financial industry to describe cases in which a firm reclaims payouts that it’s already made—or money managers agree to return dividends they’ve already received—to cover subsequent losses. Cade demonstrates the concept on one of his clients’ investment bankers early in the proceedings. (Mike Cooper is a pseudonym for a former financial executive, who’s also been published as a thriller writer under a different name.) Even with Cooper’s explanations, some of the intricacies involved in investment strategies went right over my head, but the action was tight enough to keep me turning the pages. And there’s humor in the scenario of nervous bankers packing heat to defend themselves, which doesn’t bode well when they all get together for a fancy event.

Cade is a likable character with a wry worldview, though he’s a little slow in figuring out some of Clara’s motives and those of the people doing the—and making a—killing. Perhaps, though, this makes him more accessible than an infallible hero. The ending suggests he might have something in common with Jack Reacher and, like that character, Cade may not be such a loner when readers follow him to his next adventure.

Nerd verdict: An easy sell even for financial laymen

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Book Review: BLUE MONDAY by Nicci French

This review originally ran in Shelf Awareness for Readers, and is reprinted here with permission.

Nicci French’s Blue Monday is the first novel in a new suspense series featuring Frieda Klein, an insomniac London psychologist who does her best thinking while taking long walks through city streets at night. She has a lot on her mind, including a patient named Alan Dekker who tells her he desperately wants a child—right before five-year-old Matthew Farraday goes missing from a local school. Alan wants a son who looks like him, with red hair and freckles—attributes Matthew happens to have.

Frieda takes her suspicions to the lead inspector in the case, and together they uncover perplexing similarities to the unsolved disappearance of a little girl twenty-two years earlier. How much truth is contained in Alan’s desires and dreams? Should Frieda betray her patient to try to bring Matthew home?

Frieda makes a couple of leaps in reasoning that require suspension of disbelief, but the inner workings of the mind are mysterious, so anything is possible. The authors (“Nicci French” is a pseudonym for husband and wife Sean French and Nicci Gerrard) write in a cool, understated style befitting a protagonist who keeps her emotions at bay, and it works well for the story. Their restraint is helpful; the reader doesn’t need all the horrific details of a child in jeopardy spelled out. But the story still manages to resonate, especially in its depictions of the families of the abducted children—the lack of closure tears them apart to the point their souls go missing, too. The dark ending also delivers a gut punch, taking Blue Monday a shade closer to black.

Nerd verdict: Mesmerizing Monday

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Book Review: STARTERS by Lissa Price

This review is by my YA contributor, Mena Dolinh (aka my niece), 10, who’s no slouch in her pop culture knowledge.—PCN

This book is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Callie who decides to become a starter. Starters are teens who rent their bodies to rich old people, but Callie wakes up during her rental and finds out that the renter is planning to commit murder while being inside her body.

I think this book can appeal to kids and adults alike but the concept of renting bodies is kind of creepy. Besides the fact that all my friends wanted to read Starters when I had it on my desk in class since they knew it was an advance copy, I think young adults in general will be attracted to this book because it’s filled with fighting and action, like in the Percy Jackson and The Hunger Games books. It keeps Starters fast-moving and not sappy like Judy Blume books that can appeal only to girls. Adults can enjoy this, too, because it has lots of gadgets. The evil guy in the book is called the Old Man, and he wears an electronic mask that keeps flashing a series of different computer-generated faces, like a character in the episode of Doctor Who called “The Idiot’s Lantern.”

While I like the idea of renting bodies because it’s kind of dark, in general the concept of the book is not entirely new. I can find many similarities in The Hunger Games and [Scott Westerfeld’s] Uglies. For example, in Hunger Games, Katniss lives off her hunting to support her mom and her sister, Prim. In Starters, Callie supports her brother, Tyler, from her high-paying job as a starter. In Uglies, Tally, the main character, gets an operation that all teens get when they turn sixteen to make them pretty. After the operation, everyone lives in New Pretty Town where they spend their life partying. In Starters, the same thing happens when Callie has to get a complete makeover so the renters can go and have fun.

The concept also doesn’t really make sense. Renting bodies would take a while to get approved [by the government], and if you do it illegally, it’d be hard to keep it a secret and would cost a fortune since you have to make over all the dirty kids. And it would be really hard to keep teenagers looking perfect all the time because their bodies are still changing.

I wish the author had gone into more depth with the characters because when a character is introduced, it’s not detailed enough for me to really picture him or her in my head. Callie is a tough girl who knows how to fight and use a gun and is always being chased by the bad guys, but I don’t know if she has blond or brown hair or what color her skin is. Another example is Callie’s close friend Michael. He’s introduced as a friend who stays with Callie and Tyler. He helps Callie find shelter while they are on the run but the author never describes what he looks like or what his backstory is.

This is the first book out of two [Ed. note: Enders, the sequel, will be published in December] so the ending is a cliffhanger. It’s a little predictable because Callie keeps making references to and having flashbacks about someone, but overall the book is a page turner.

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TV Review: GCB

Are y’all watching GCB Sunday nights on ABC? Would it help if I told you it stands for Good Christian Bitches, which was the original title (based on Kim Gatlin’s novel of the same name) until somebody got scared it’d be offensive? Watered-down title aside, at least the powers-that-be have left the show’s content pretty spicy.

Bibb and Aspen

Last week’s pilot opened with a man grabbing a whole lotta cash and making a run to Mexico with his girlfriend in his fancy car. She decides to give him some, ah, oral stimulation on the way, which causes him to drive off a cliff, crashing and burning and killing both of them.

The man was Bill Vaughan (Greg Vaughan), a Ponzi schemer who just made his wife, Amanda (Leslie Bibb), a widow, and left his family with nothing. Amanda has to move from California back to Texas to live with her controlling mother, Gigi (Annie Potts), until she can get on her feet again. Problem is, Amanda was a mean girl in high school, and the local girls she used to terrorize, now supposedly righteous Christian women, can’t wait to help her reap what she sowed. It’s like the flip side of Revenge, only the cruel person has repented and we’re laughing at the vengeful people.

As expected, most of this is over the top, but if you accept it for what it is, it’s pretty entertaining. One of the show’s writers is Robert Harling, who wrote Steel Magnolias, Soapdish, and the adaption of The First Wives Club. The man knows about soapy plotlines and saucy women.

Shor, Chenoweth, and Aspen

The cast is appealing all around, with each actress imbuing her character with a little more depth than first meets the eye. In the pilot, hotshot businesswoman Cricket (Miriam Shor) tries to prevent Amanda from getting a decent job. In the second episode, she has a moment at home with her husband that makes us look at her differently. Sharon (Jennifer Aspen) drowns her insecurities in food because she’s certain her husband Zach (Brad Beyer), who used to be in love with Amanda in high school, will leave her for the new widow. The MVP is Potts, whose signature drollness can’t disguise how much Gigi loves her daughter.

Potts and Bibb

Bibb is okay as Amanda, but she’s not the most interesting character since she has to be the straight woman. Maybe there will be a flashback episode and we’ll get to see her cut loose as that awful person everyone keeps talking about.

Nerd verdict: Funny Bitches

Photos: ABC

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Adventures in the Real World

I’ve been quiet this week partly because of work (editing Brett Battles’s The Destroyed, among other things), and partly because certain recent events made the Internet explode in anger and ugliness that just wore me down. I looked outside my window one day, the sun was shining, and I realized I should step away from the computer, go outside, and hang out with people in real life for a while.

One of the fun things I did was go to a party Mulholland Books threw for author Nick Santora for his upcoming novel, Fifteen Digits (out April 24). It was held poolside at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills, where Mr. PCN and I munched on arugula pizza and fried calamari and shrimp as Nick regaled us with funny stories about his experiences as a lawyer who won a screenwriting competition that got him his start in Hollywood (he’s written and produced shows such as Prison Break, Lie to Me, and Law & Order). CAA called him after the win but he didn’t return the call at first, assuming the biggest agency in NY (and LA) was some shady business that would charge him $300 a month to represent him. Luckily, someone set him straight.

Poolside at the Avalon

Nick (center) telling tales

My favorite anecdote was the one he told me about why he named a character in Digits Elyse, a moniker I obviously like. (It’s a personal story so it’s not my place to repeat it here.) It was also interesting to see how much of Nick is in his lead character, Rich Mauro.

After the party, I had to go check out the brand-new Sprinkles 24-hour cupcake ATM (yes, it’s a real thing!) that had just started operating to alleviate long lines inside the store. Since it was after nine p.m. on a weeknight, I figured I could sail right up, order a couple of red velvets, and be on my way. Wrong! There was a mass of people queued up in front of the machine, which kept needing to be restocked by employees baking their buns off inside the store to keep up with the demand. It would’ve been much faster if they’d just opened the doors and served us that way, but I guess the point was customers had to use the ATM after hours.

Now, I usually stay faaaar away from long lines because crowds scare me. I would fear for my life at a Black Friday sale, or at an Apple store the day a new iPad comes out. That’s why I almost left every time the line at Sprinkles stopped moving forward due to technical issues with the machine or because it was out of cupcakes. I didn’t want to be around if a riot erupted.

But something funny happened. The people around me encouraged me to stay, saying the cupcakes were worth the wait. The guy in front of me talked about the chai-flavored one like it was a sexy woman. He fretted that his girlfriend at home might get mad because he’d been gone so long. I said he should tell her he was only standing out in the cold for her, that he was being romantic and chivalrous. He said that wasn’t true, and that she may never even get to see the cupcakes.

We had a good laugh over it, and I realized a sense of community had descended over the crowd as we patiently stood in 48-degree weather waiting for cupcakes at ten o’clock at night (notice how I said earlier it was nine when I got there). And as much as I love cupcakes, after a while they were no longer the reason I was standing in line. For a moment—that lasted an hour and ten minutes—I was among people united over something, the mood was light and giddy, and that was the real treat I brought home.

Happy Friday, and may your weekend be full of sweet surprises.

Look at all the different flavors!

I chose Red Velvet

Finally, success!

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Book Review: BLEED FOR ME by Michael Robotham

The novel begins with a diary entry by a girl named Sienna about how she cuts herself because “when i bleed i feel calm and clear-headed. it’s like the poison inside me is dripping out. even when i’ve stopped bleeding, i finger the cuts lovingly. i kiss them goodnight.” As if that’s not disturbing enough, we find out the girl is only fourteen. And one day she shows up at her best friend Charlie’s house covered in blood. But it’s not her own—it belongs to her father, a former cop who lies dead back at their house. The police suspect Sienna of murder, and she claims she can’t remember what happened.

Charlie’s father, Joseph O’Loughlin, is a psychologist who tries to help Sienna through the trauma. As he probes into her mind and life, however, he discovers more horrors than answers. Despite his failing marriage and worsening Parkinson’s disease, O’Laughlin becomes determined to protect Sienna from the evils that threaten to destroy her and the community he lives in.

Normally I don’t like a lot of descriptive prose, which can slow the pace, especially in a thriller. But Robotham has such a facility with language that I found myself savoring every word and taking copious notes of my favorite lines. He’s even good at describing the weather:

Outside in the weak sunshine, looking across the hospital grounds, I watch a mower creating verdant strips of green on the turf, light green and dark green. A curtain of rain is hanging above the horizon as though unsure whether to spoil the day.

Here, he paints a less-than-desirable neighborhood:

There are hookers walking up and down Fishponds Road: women who are women and men who are women and crackheads who will be anything you want.

A flash of humor found in a bathroom:

Someone has scrawled a message in marker pen above the urinal: “Express Lane: five beers or less.”

But the author is best at depicting his characters, especially O’Loughlin, a flawed, complex, and immensely sympathetic creation. His estranged wife sums him up when she tells him, “You’re like an archaeologist piecing together his own remains, finding bits and pieces but nothing whole.” We root for him because he keeps trying to come close to happy and whole anyway, knowing his limitations. His Parkinson’s makes him unique as a series protagonist (this book is number four) but it’s neither the focus of his life nor a random trait just to make him quirky. At one point, the affliction makes his body fail at such a harrowing moment that my heart almost failed as well. In my reading experiences, I sometimes have to choose between novels that are strong in either plot, language, or characters. Unlike O’Loughlin with his bits and pieces, I found something wholly satisfying here.

Nerd verdict: Bloody good Bleed

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AMERICAN IDOL S11: Top 12 Girls Perform

Once again, guest blogger Poncho breaks down Idol as only he can.—PCN

Before I start bashing the girls, I have to dedicate a little rant to dear ol’ dawg Randy Jackson: Stop with the freaking name dropping! Really! It’s becoming annoying. I really don’t care if you worked on a record with the pope! Arrgh.

Now that I got that out of my system, let me give my 2 cents about the girls who fought for the Top 12.

The first one was country girl Chelsea Sorrell with “Cowboy Casanova.” I kept thinking of random girls dressed in shiny outfits in karaoke bars I’ve been to. But then I noticed a cool violinist at the top of the stairs. He was rocking it!

Erika Van Pelt has a very nice old-school sound to her voice. That said, her “What About Love” was good but unimpressive. I expected a little more risk-taking in her arrangement since she’s (allegedly) a DJ.

Next, Jen Hirsh was overpowered by her song. “One and Only” showed she had a lot of trouble keeping her breath and that her range (or control) is not that much. Then, during her post-performance bit, I thought, “Why is this girl trying to play dumb when she’s seemingly a lot smarter than that?”

Fourth was a girl named Brielle Von Hugel singing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay,” and though the song started very rough, she brought it together and I noticed a very cool rasp in her voice. But that’s about it. I was unimpressed overall.

Hallie Day has this too-cool-for-school vibe, and I liked that about her, but I wasn’t “Feeling Good” about her singing. It started well, she had nice moments in her lower register, but when she brought it up, it was so-so. By that point, I was already bored.

But then cool-named Skyler Laine brought me to tears of laughter. The second I saw her I wondered, “What is La Chilindrina doing on American Idol?” Her “Stay with Me” was fine and had a good rock-country feel to it, but I got angry at Randy when he said they have never had that rock-country sound from a girl on the Idol stage. I was like, “Really? What about Allison FREAKING Iraheta on Grand Ole Opry night in season 8?!” I get so angry at that guy all the time sometimes. (BTW, La Chilindrina is a character by Mexican actress María Antonieta de las Nieves, who both had her own show and was part of the ensemble on El Chavo del Ocho.)

Baylie Brown might have to pay for the damages caused by the train she wrecked on stage. I was certainly “Amazed” that she didn’t hit one note.

Next, Hollie Cavanagh rushed through the beginning of “Reflection,” but then controlled it at the middle. The girl has a very beautiful voice, and she knows how to use it. But one could actually see her heart pounding through the whole performance. I want to see her through just to hear her sing without her nerves, and to look at those gorgeous eyes of hers. Other than that, she has a very thick Texas accent so I couldn’t understand one word she said to Ryan.

I think “Sweet Dreams” was not a sweet song choice by Haley Johnsen, though I was liking it at the beginning. Once the band kicked in, the arrangement sucked, the banshees drowned Haley’s voice, and I couldn’t hear the runs and voice acrobatics the judges said she did. All things considered, I think her sweet AI dream has ended.

Shannon Magrane decided to sing “Go Light Your World,” and I snored so hard I woke up everybody in my house.

Sanchez

When Jessica Sanchez started to sign “Love You I Do” from Dreamgirls, it was the fastest I’ve ever gone from groaning to picking up my jaw from the floor. I had to run to pick up my socks that had been blown off by that girl’s voice. There is nothing short of amazing about Jessica’s singing. My eyes were out of their sockets when I realized THAT voice comes from such a petite girl. Fantastic, indeed.

Closing the show was Elise Testone with Adele’s “One and Only” (again!), and I thought she was great. The first half was a lot better than the last, but she totally connected to the song and I could feel the emotion coming from her. And I love her voice, which reminds me a little of (Mexico’s) Alejandra Guzmán. And she has a room-service flower on her head!

What did you think? Were you hit any debris in Baylie Brown’s train wreck? Were you blown away by Jessica Sanchez’s huge voice? Did you feel Elise Testone?

Photo: FOX

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