Monthly Archives

December 2012

Merry, Happy, Joyous Everything

I’m getting ready to get on a bus to the airport, where I’ll board a plane for the East Coast, where I’ll rent a car to drive to my brother’s place for the holidays. I haven’t had any time to think about Christmas because I had to finish editing a manuscript before leaving, which meant locking myself in the den for the past ten days and waking up this morning thinking it’s Wednesday because I’d lost track of time. If I could grow facial hair, I’d probably have a beard down to my navel right now.

So I’m ill-prepared for the holidays, but to get in the spirit, I thought I’d share one of my favorite Christmas memories before I head out.

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of The Bionic Woman TV show. Jaime Sommers, as played by Lindsay Wagner, was an idol to me, a smart, strong woman who couldn’t be messed with, who fought fembots and won (this last part was very important).

December 1976 or ’77, for my family’s second or third Christmas in America, my mother took us kids to the mall, said we could pick out our own presents as long as we stayed under ten dollars per person. (Our family is large, we were on a budget, and we’d stopped believing in Santa years earlier.)

Once out of the station wagon, I ran all the way to Kay-Bee Toys, muttering, “Oh please, oh please, oh please” hoping the Bionic Woman doll was in my price range. I squeezed between shoppers to get to the right shelf, where Jaime was waiting to—perhaps—be taken home by me. I stood on tiptoes to bring down the package, holding my breath as I looked at the price tag…$9.99!

I clutched my present and jumped up and down; my face almost cracked from smiling. If there had been room in the store, I might’ve done a cartwheel. I dug out my own change, from my allowance for doing chores around the house, to pay for the tax.

I cherished that doll, and created lots of adventures for Jaime to go on. I played with her until her hair and limbs started falling out. Then came a flood in the basement and lots of treasured childhood things were lost.

But the tale doesn’t end there. Several years ago, my dear friend Christian, who knows this story, gave me a Christmas gift. I opened it and found an original Bionic Woman doll inside (pictured). He’d trolled eBay, determined to find a replacement for me. I told him she may have cost only ten bucks originally, but what he did for me was priceless.

Jaime now sits prominently on my mantel and amuses my visitors, who wonder if she’s out of place up there among candles and wedding pictures and flowers. I say no. She’s exactly where she should be.

Happy holidays to you. I hope you’ll create memories to cherish for many years to come. Is there a favorite recollection you’d like to share in the comments?

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Movie Review: THIS IS 40

I went to a screening of Judd Apatow’s latest comedy because I needed a few laughs, and This Is 40 provided a few, but it’s also much more dramatic than I anticipated. Which isn’t a bad thing, when Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann are anchoring it.

The “sort of” sequel to Knocked Up opens with Pete (Rudd) and Debbie (Mann) enjoying, ah, each other in the shower until he admits he uses Viagra, which she takes as meaning he doesn’t find her attractive enough to get it up naturally. This is not something she wants to hear on her fortieth birthday. Pete is also turning forty the same week, and what follows is their examination of their lives, who they used to be, who they are now fifteen years and two children later, and whether they like where they’re headed.

Rudd and Mann have very good chemistry, making each argument believable and every moment of joy seem well earned. Some viewers might judge Pete and Debbie for being too navel-gazing or having privileged people’s problems, but I thought the two leads managed to make their characters relatable as they deal with stressful issues. Mann’s performance is especially complex, her face registering Debbie’s every thought and feeling, going from neurotic to vulnerable to sad to tough, sometimes all in the same scene. And when Debbie sits at a table with a bunch of men and declare she’s the only one there with balls, I agreed with her.

Once again, Mann and Apatow’s daughters, Maude and Iris Apatow, play Pete and Debbie’s kids in the movie. Iris as the younger child is cute, but Sadie, the teen character Maude plays, is unbearable, screaming throughout the whole movie, angry at everyone and everything. It’s too bad because the younger Sadie was so winning and witty in Knocked Up. Jason Segel and Charlyne Yi also return as Jason and Jodi, but it’s a bit odd that Alison, Katherine Heigl’s character, doesn’t drop by or at least call to wish her older sister a happy milestone birthday.

The movie is uneven because some gross jokes are included among the crises the characters encounter. It was as if Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed, didn’t trust his core audience (e.g. viewers who think people getting high, farting, and getting rectal exams are funny) can handle more grown-up issues. Some restraint was shown, though, and when these jokes appeared, they didn’t go too long or too far. This is 40? This must be a more mature Apatow.

Nerd verdict: Apatow grows up

Photos: Universal Pictures

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Winner of Robert Crais’s SUSPECT

The randomly selected winner is:

  • Shell Sherree

Congrats, Shell! Please email me by Wednesday, Dec. 19 noon PST with the address where you’d like the ARC sent.

Thank you to everyone who shared amazing dog tales. If you didn’t win but would like to get some Robert Crais books, a few of his previous titles are 60% off at Amazon as I write this. Hardcover editions of the following are less than a dollar more than the eBook versions:

  1. The First Rule for $10.78
  2. The Watchman for $10.38
  3. Chasing Darkness for $10.38

Grab them if you don’t have the hardcovers, or give them as gifts if you’d like to turn friends into Craisies. You can also pre-order Suspect, out 1/22/13, from Amazon or from your favorite indie bookstore.

Lastly, his tour schedule is up. Check here to see if he’s coming to a bookstore near you!

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Movie Review: LES MISERABLES + Notes from Q&A with Cast and Director

Full disclosure: I dislike musicals. I know Victor Hugo’s story, and liked the 1978 Les Miserables movie with Anthony Perkins as Javert and Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean, but the one time I saw the musical live, I fell asleep. I sat way in the back and was emotionally and literally distanced from what was unfolding on stage.

But I enjoyed Tom Hooper’s film version and didn’t sleep a wink. The director makes everything more intimate with close-ups, pulling me into the story more. I even dropped tears into my bag of popcorn during a couple of scenes.

The movie opens with an unrecognizable Hugh Jackman, eyes bugging from his emaciated face, as Jean Valjean aka prisoner #24601, who’s wrapping up a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his nephew and trying to escape prison multiple times. After his release, he seeks redemption following a bishop’s act of kindness toward him, becomes mayor of a French town, takes in a prostitute’s young daughter to raise as his own, all while being hunted across miles and decades by the police inspector Javert. The story is too long to summarize here so please Google it if you need more details.

I’m glad Hooper had his actors sing live instead of lip sync over prerecorded vocals because it made the songs more emotional and believable. I’ve often rolled my eyes when watching someone produce perfect vocals while crying. Ever tried doing that, when your throat is closing up? That’s why I appreciated hearing the gasps, sighs, and sobs in the live performances here.

Jackman has a formidable voice and is a perfect Valjean, displaying talents not previously captured on the big screen. Hathaway makes Fantine’s suffering startlingly raw, and sings “I Dreamed a Dream” in one long take with no cutaways, just the camera lingering on her naked face. Her performance made me weep.

Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, in her film debut, are fine as Marius and Eponine, respectively. Amanda Seyfried looks beautiful as the older Cosette (Isabelle Allen plays the younger version) but is overshadowed by the stronger performances. Russell Crowe seems detached, his Javert is one note, and his singing voice sounded strained, not a good match for musical-theater-style songs.

Some of the issues I had with this movie are ones I have with musicals in general: The songs make everything too on the nose. Sometimes intentions and feelings can be expressed with just a subtle look or simple line, but actors in musicals are required to burst into song and spell out everything they are feeling. The internal monologue is made external when the audience already understands the message. Valjean spends five minutes singing “Who Am I?” when it’s already clear he’s conflicted about letting an innocent man go to prison in his stead. He spends another three minutes (all times are estimates) belting out “Bring Him Home” when no one doubts that Valjean would really like Marius to survive the revolution. The result is a movie that’s over two and a half hours long, when it could’ve been maybe thirty minutes shorter if some of the songs were trimmed. Fans of the stage show, however, may have no problem with the length.

Notes from Q&A with Tom Hooper and Cast Members

After the movie, presented by the L.A. Times Envelope Screening Series and Epix HD, Hooper, Jackman, Hathaway, Seyfried, and Redmayne came out to answer questions from the Times‘ Nicole Sperling. Among the highlights:

  • Hooper said he went from directing a movie in which the protagonist couldn’t speak (The King’s Speech) to one in which characters only sing to each other. “I don’t know what my problem is with just chatting.”
  • Jackman said he “stalked Tom” the minute he heard Hooper was attached, and auditioned for his role like everyone else. Despite his enthusiasm and desire to play Valjean, once he got the part he became scared that he wouldn’t live up to his and others’ expectations. To get his gaunt look at the beginning of the movie, he didn’t drink any water or liquids for 36 hours. He doesn’t advise anyone try that at home because side effects were unhealthy.
  • The cast had 9 weeks of rehearsal, during which Hathaway went full throttle to build up her stamina, and then feared she had “shot her wad” and wouldn’t have anything left once cameras started rolling. She and the others admitted to a collective fear that their performances wouldn’t be up to par, and this anxiety lasted throughout production.
  • Hooper said because sometimes singers contort their faces when reaching for high notes, the actors had to train for months in belting out songs while keeping their faces relaxed “so that the close-up wouldn’t be an unpleasant place to be.” They also had to learn to hold pitch while crying. [Hathaway passed these tests on “Dream.”]
  • Hathaway said the most significant change for her from stage to movie version was the placement of “Dream.” On stage, it happens after Fantine has only lost her job at the factory, but in the movie, the number comes after Fantine becomes a prostitute. This change allowed Hathaway to get more emotional during the song; it would’ve felt indulgent getting too distraught before things got really bad for Fantine.
  • While on set of another movie, Redmayne recorded himself on his iPhone singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and sent it to his agents to simply let them know he could sing and express his interest in Les Mis. His reps sent the clip on to Eric Fellner, the head of Working Title Films. Redmayne said if he had known, he wouldn’t have recorded himself while dressed as a cowboy meth-addict pedophile, his character in the movie he was shooting.
  • Jackman said among the actors playing Marius’s fellow students in the revolution, “fifteen had played Marius on stage, and two were currently playing Marius” during the shoot. Nevertheless, Redmayne put his stamp on the role, and Jackman believes “it’s the most affecting [Marius portrayal] I’ve ever seen.”
  • When asked which role in Les Mis beside their own they’d like to play, Seyfried said Fantine, while Jackman and Hathaway both said Javert. Jackman shared a story about his first musical theater audition in Australia, when he sang Javert’s “Stars” because it was the only piece for which he had sheet music. One of the people in the room told Jackman to put it away because he’d never get to sing it.

Nerd verdict: Long, but more enjoyable than miserable

Photos: Universal Pictures

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Winners of Jojo Moyes’s ME BEFORE YOU

Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You is one of my top 5 reads this year, so I’m really excited to share it with the following randomly selected winners. I think you all will enjoy it. After you read it, please let me know what you think.

The winners are:

  • Rhonda
  • Paulette
  • Eirego
  • Lauren
  • Jann

Please use this form to let me know your address, or email me if you’ve done so in the past. If I don’t hear from you before Friday at 9 a.m. PST, I’ll pick alternate winner(s).

Thanks so much for entering!

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Giveaway: SUSPECT by Robert Crais

Wow, it’s good to be back. If you visited this site over the past several days, you probably saw a “suspected malware” warning, which was extremely upsetting to me. I hired a company to scan the site, and the problem was my WP software and some other plug-ins and files were outdated. I don’t always upgrade right away because sometimes the new versions are full of bugs (Apple Maps, anyone?), but I’ve updated everything, installed extra security plug-ins, and Google has removed the warning. It’s important for me to make clear I’d NEVER knowingly install or host malware of any kind.

Anyway, on to some good stuff. Thanks to Lydia at Putnam, I get to give away an advance reading copy of Robert Crais’s highly anticipated Suspect, which doesn’t come out until January 22, 2013, but you can have the ARC before Christmas if you’re good. And lucky.

This is a standalone featuring LAPD’s Officer Scott James and his new partner Maggie, a former military working dog retrained for the K-9 platoon. They’ve both suffered on-the-job injuries—physical and emotional ones—and the deaths of their former partners. Together they track the killers of Scott’s previous partner, and learn to trust and heal each other along the way.

I think you will fall in love with Maggie; she made me cry. Crais writes several chapters in Maggie’s POV and, based on my former ownership of a German shepherd, her thoughts and actions seem spot on. The relationship between her and Scott is life-affirming.

For a chance to win the ARC, share an amazing dog story in the comments. Could be about your dog, someone else’s, one you read about, or saw on YouTube. Let’s make this a celebration of our four-legged friends. I’ll take entries only until this Sunday, December 16 at 9 p.m. PST. US addresses only.

As with my other giveaway, please only enter if you can check back to see if you’ve won because I may not get around to contacting you by email. The winner will be randomly chosen, announced here on December 17, and have 48 hours to claim the ARC before I select someone else.

In related news, the Kindle version of L.A. Requiem, a game changer in Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, is on sale for only $1.99. Don’t know how long it’ll stay at that price so grab it now.

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Nerdy Special List December 2012 + Giveaway

 

Here’s what my blogging pals and I recommend this month, just in time for your holiday shopping!

 

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Invisible (Bantam, Dec. 11) is Carla Buckley’s sophomore novel, and like her debut, The Things That Keep Us Here, she leaves the reader with haunting thoughts about the science and technology surrounding us today. What if the technology that is supposed to create wonderful products, keep entire cities employed, and be sanctioned by the government is actually killing us? What if no one really wants to know the truth?

Buckley’s writing style, her fully developed characters, and her well-researched subject matter combine to create a riveting plot that readers will have trouble tearing themselves away from.

Buy it from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore

Danielle from There’s a Book has two recommendations this time, the first a picture book, and the second a YA title:

Who wouldn’t “loathe” two adorable, best-friend monsters? I Loathe You by David Slonim (Aladdin, Dec. 18) is a story about best friends who, despite many bumps in the road, are always there for each other. Through beautifully rhythmic text and often hilarious illustrations, Slonim has brought to life two characters that children and adults will adore. Our family has been laughing hysterically while reading the silly things monsters do as friends, and since this is our first introduction to David Slonim’s work, we now know we’ll be searching out more in the very near future.

Buy it from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore

The Darkest Minds (Hyperion Books for Children, Dec. 18) is the second book by the remarkable Alexandra Bracken, and she proves that the sophomore slump can be broken. This is the first book in a new planned dystopian trilogy, in which children ages 10-13 suddenly become ill. If they are among the few who survive, they acquire an X-Men-like ability. Many readers might instantly turn and walk away from yet another dystopian trilogy, but they’d be missing out. Darkest Minds has everything—a brilliant lead character and equally powerful supporting characters, including a villain who will take your breath away. This is truly one of the best novels of the year.

Buy it from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore

PCN’s recommendation:

Jojo Moyes’s Me Before You (Pamela Dorman Books, Dec. 31) ruined me for days after I finished it, making me hesitate to pick up another book for fear it wouldn’t be as good as Moyes’s. The novel is about Lou, an “ordinary” 26-year-old woman who takes a job caring for Will, a former alpha male and extreme sports enthusiast who was hit by a motorcycle and is now paralyzed from the neck down. Will has lost his love for life, and Lou is hired to help him find it again. Their burgeoning friendship is realistic and completely devoid of any corniness. Some of Moyes’s scenes are achingly perfect, and the beauty of it all left me shattered.

But don’t take my word for it; you can see for yourself. Viking/Pamela Dorman Books has generously offered me five copies to give away to five people. Enter by leaving a comment about a book that blew you away and ruined you for the ones that came right after. I’ll take entries until Tuesday, Dec. 11, 9 p.m. PST. US addresses only, please. (Publishers Weekly, which gave this book a starred review, is sponsoring a Twitter chat with Jojo on Thursday, Dec. 6 at 1 p.m. EST. Join in by using the hashtag #JojoPW; you don’t need to have read the book first.)

Note: Please don’t enter the giveaway unless you can check back next week to see if you’ve won. I’ll announce results on or around December 12, and winners will have 48 hours to claim the prizes. I’m behind in returning emails, so having to track down five winners for mailing addresses may not get done for a while, and I want you to have this book as soon as possible.

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Nerdy Mad Libs Results

Yesterday we played Mad Libs™, and below are the results, with your words inserted into a fake book review I wrote.

I thought the game would be open for at least a day, but you gave me all the words I needed in several hours. Thank you to everyone who contributed, and if you’d like to do this again, let me know in the comments!

I just read this book that’s so gingery, I couldn’t wait to itch you about it. It takes place during the space age in the Alps, and is the story of an imaginative 17-year-old girl named Lolo, whose life becomes engorged when she finds a magic bunny that turns her into a chupacabra with the ability to skip at will.

She meets a boy named Alfalfa who promises to schmooze ankles with her if she’d let him soar her bunny. Things are picaresque for a while until they encounter the evil noodle, which can blow monocle from its uvula. Together, Lolo and Alfalfa fart the evil noodle and live zestfully ever after.

This book is righteous for all ages so ascend your copy today!

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