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April 2016

Book Review: Suzanne Rindell’s THREE-MARTINI LUNCH

three martini lunchIt’s 1958, New York City.

Cliff Nelson is a Hemingway wannabe who feels destined to be a famous writer, if only his editor father would help him—and if he could get some ideas for great stories.

Eden Katz, fresh from Indiana, wants desperately to be an editor, but encounters prejudices because of her gender and surname.

Miles is a poor Harlem kid who attended Columbia on a scholarship. He has raw writing talent and gripping stories to tell, but struggles with personal crises that threaten to destroy him.

These characters’ paths collide in Suzanne Rindell’s Three-Martini Lunch.

Rindell (The Other Typist) evocatively captures the city—and the publishing world—as the Beat Generation takes hold. Her descriptions and dialogue have realistic rhythms, and readers can almost hear jazz playing in the background.

The distinctively voiced narrators are engaging, although Cliff becomes barely tolerable after he starts complaining about his (lack of) career while not doing the work. He enjoys white male privileges and yet has the fewest accomplishments to show. But that’s Rindell’s point: stop whining and earn your success.

Eden is much more interesting, but unfortunately her chapters get shorter and shorter toward the end of the novel, as if her point of view becomes less valuable. Miles’s story is heartrending, though that’s expected because of the era’s intolerance.

Three-Martini Lunch is profoundly sad, while perhaps making readers glad society has changed since the 1950s. Or, considering the current political and social climate, maybe the melancholia comes from wondering, has much progress been made?

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

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Binge TV Reviews: THE NIGHT GRANTCHESTER and HAPPY THORNE-y KIMMY SCHMIDT

For the last two months, I’ve been binge-watching several shows and they all happened to be British series…until Kimmy Schmidt returned for her second season last Friday on Netflix. Here are some overall thoughts on these shows’ entire seasons.

Des Willie, The Ink Factory/AMC

Des Willie, The Ink Factory/AMC

The Night Manager (starts April 19 on AMC)

Based on John le Carré’s novel of the same name, this 6-episode thriller stars Tom Hiddleston as the titular hotel manager and Hugh Laurie as arms dealer Richard Roper, whom the manager is determined to take down with the help of a spy played by Broadchurch‘s Olivia Coleman.

The pilot is very good, and sets up the reason for Jonathan Pine, the manager, wanting revenge. The second ep lags a bit when Angela the spy is convincing Jonathan to work with her, then he spends time creating his legend to go undercover and gain Roper’s trust. Once he’s in, the suspense ratchets back up.

As expected, the acting is top-notch. It’s entertaining to see Laurie play a full-on villain so effortlessly, but maybe Roper’s just an extreme version of Dr. House, who was not a nice guy, either. Coleman is always welcome on my TV screen, and here she’s as tough as ever despite her character being pregnant (the pregnancy was real).

Hiddleston deftly handles Jonathan’s arc from regular guy to hesitant spy to someone who shouldn’t be messed with. And his fans should have lots to discuss when they get an eyeful of him. I’ll just leave it at that.

One of the most commendable aspects of the series is that there are no bimbos, even when showcasing rich businessmen and their arm candy. The women are more substantial than how they first appear.

I’d never seen Elizabeth Debicki before her performance as Roper’s lover Jed, but standing at almost six foot three, she’s a towering presence. Jed and Jonathan were responsible for Mr. PCN and me screaming at the TV because they do some dumb things, but for the most part, the story and direction are solid.

Nerd verdict: Tense Night

 

ITV1

ITV1

Grantchester season 2 (PBS, Sunday nights)

This series, based on the novels by James Runcie, is as cozy as a warm blanket on a rainy day. Most of its charm comes from James Norton’s portrayal of vicar Sidney Chambers, a charismatic do-gooder who reveals rougher edges this season. His friendship with DI Geordie (Robson Green) is strained due to a disagreement on a case that serves as the seasonal arc, though the two also solve standalone mysteries each episode.

Sidney becomes more interesting as more colors are shown, but I found some of Geordie’s actions troubling, especially in the second ep when he allows torture of a suspect. I thought the friendship should’ve been more strained, because I couldn’t imagine Sidney continuing to hang out with a man he saw being cruel.

Al Weaver as Leonard and Tessa Peake-Jones as the housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire, continue to delight as they get their own personal arcs. Morven Christie, however, has less to do this season as Sidney’s childhood friend Amanda.

Though now married, Amanda continues to visit Sidney but she isn’t well integrated into the storylines. It’s as if the producers were contractually obligated to include the actress in a minimum number of scenes per episode, but they weren’t required to give her anything to do. The season finale will probably make most fans cheer, but I didn’t think it was a good idea.

Nerd verdict: Bucolic Grantchester 

 

Netflix

Happy Valley season 2 (Netflix)

As much as I adore James Norton in Grantchester, I loathe his character in Happy Valley, and that’s a testament to the actor’s talent. He sports a closed-shaved head this season as rapist/murderer Tommy Lee Royce, the polar opposite of Sidney Chambers. Tommy seduces/brainwashes a vulnerable woman to help him get back at police sergeant Catherine Cawood for what she did to him last season.

The woman, Frances, is played by Shirley Henderson, perhaps best known as Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter movies. She may look harmless but she insidiously causes emotional damage in Catherine’s relationship with her grandson.

What makes Catherine a riveting character is that she’s surprising. There were moments when I expected her to explode in anger—heck, I probably would have—but she instead proceeds with kindness or uses an approach that’s more effective with a suspect than intimidation tactics. She’s very good at her job, and so is Sarah Lancashire, who plays her.

Also returning is Charlie Murphy as Ann Gallagher, now a rookie cop while still dealing with the aftermath of last season’s events. Ann is smart and more resilient than people expect, and Murphy is wonderful to watch, but when Ann develops an interest in a much older man with no clear redeeming qualities, my heart sank. Ann could do so much better.

Nerd verdict: Gripping Valley

 

DOCTOR-THORNE-570

 

Doctor Thorne

Downton Abbey‘s Julian Fellowes adapted Anthony Trollope’s novel into this series starring Tom Hollander as a 19th-century country doctor raising his niece Mary alone after her father—Thorne’s brother—dies. (Mary was conceived during an affair and her mother, married to a man other than Thorne’s brother, was forced to abandon her.)

Mary and her childhood friend Frank are in love, but Mary is destitute and Frank’s mother forbids him to marry her. His family desperately needs money to save their estate, so Frank’s mother wants him to hook up with an older American heiress instead. Complications ensue, but since there are only 3 episodes, plotlines are resolved quickly. The story is predictable, but the journey is entertaining and the ending is satisfying.

Just like how James Norton makes me adore him in one series and detest him in another, Tom Hollander is nasty in The Night Manager but sympathetic here as the wise doctor. You won’t find guys like Norton and Hollander (and Hiddleston) always playing the same character the way some actors do.

I was surprised to discover Stefani Martini has only one prior credit on IMDb before playing Mary. She has talent and a graceful screen presence; I bet she’ll rack up more credits soon.

It’s dismaying to see Alison Brie play American heiress Miss Dunstable, a woman considered a homely spinster. The actress is 33 but looks like someone in her late 20s and she’s attractive. At least Miss Dunstable is confident and sharp witted, and Brie seems to have enjoyed playing the character quite a bit.

Nerd verdict: Predictable but enjoyable Thorne

 

Netflix

Netflix

Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt season 2 (Netflix)

Instead of being all stressed about taxes last Friday, I was squealing with joy because new episodes of Kimmy Schmidt became available. Of course I watched all 13 eps in one day.

Season 2 is even quirkier, with non-sequitur jokes coming fast and furious. You might have to do much rewinding to catch them all. Not all the jokes landed, but when they did, I laughed loud and long.

The good things:

Kimmy is finally dealing with her bunker experience. The process is very funny, but her breakthroughs do have emotional truths.

Titus has a new boyfriend named Mikey and the two are really sweet together, despite Titus’s efforts to sabotage the relationship because he fears happiness.

Tina Fey has a prominent role as a drunk lady who meets Kimmy and ends up making a difference in Kimmy’s life. This role is much funnier than Fey’s Marcia Clark-like character from last season.

One episode features several songs that sound like popular songs but aren’t, so that producers can avoid pesky copyright issues. So we get Dusk Mountie singing “Brother Baptist” instead of Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian,” and “I’m Convinced I Can Swim” in place of “I Believe I Can Fly.”

Titus sings more this season, and his voice is astounding.

The bad:

Dong is back, and still not speaking in anything close to a Vietnamese accent. It just sounds like some generic Asian accent. Imagine someone using a vague European accent to play an Italian character. Hey, as long as the accent comes from somewhere on the continent, that’s good enough. Don’t bother getting specific or anything. And when Dong speaks Vietnamese? Forget about it. I couldn’t understand a word and had to read the subtitles. Why is it so hard to do some research and represent Vietnamese people accurately?

At one point, Titus does a one-man show in yellow face. I might have to write a whole other post to address that and Scarlett Johansson playing Japanese in Ghost in the Shell.

Carol Kane’s subplot involving Lilian fighting gentrification of her neighborhood is not funny. i can’t get behind her rejecting recycling and thinking graffiti is good. I guess that makes me one of the hipsters Lillian dislikes.

Nerd verdict: Still funny, still flawed

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Movie Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK

jungle book mowgli bagheera

Disney

The first question I asked when I went into a screening of Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book was: Is this a musical? The answer: No.

Fine by me.

My second question was: Will “The Bare Necessities” be in it? Yes.

OK, good, I was ready to go.

Though the original was not one of my favorite Disney movies, this new version is both more fun and darker, which I welcomed. For those unfamiliar with the 1967 version and Rudyard Kipling’s stories, Jungle Book is about a little boy named Mowgli who’s orphaned and raised in the jungle by a family of wolves, and mentored by a panther named Bagheera.

Shere Khan, a tiger, wants to kill Mowgli before the boy can grow into a man who can hunt and kill animals. To escape the wrath of Khan, Mowgli must travel through the jungle to man’s village and rejoin his people. Along the way he meets several characters, both friend and foe.

In the friend camp is Baloo the bear, voiced by Bill Murray. Up until Baloo’s appearance (later here than in the animated version), the film is poignant (Mowgli saying goodbye to his wolf mom, Raksha) and intense, with a death and a stampede scene that recalls the one from The Lion King. Just as I was thinking, “Ohmygosh, Disney films are disturbing!” Baloo shows up, throwing out a quip a minute.

Initially I found this change in tone jarring, but then I realized director Jon Favreau probably knew what the audience would be thinking by that point and delivered the comic relief exactly when it’s needed. Murray’s performance quickly grew on me, and by the time he’s singing “Bare Necessities” with Neel Sethi, who plays Mowgli, Baloo was my best friend, too.

The other animals are also well voiced. In Zootopia, Idris Elba showed he could be disagreeable as Captain Bogo. Here, he kicks it up a notch as Shere Khan, and his low, resonant tones are as smooth as they’re menacing.

Another actor from a previous Disney hit is Lupita Nyong’o. Though she never appears on screen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, her voice performance makes Maz Kanata a standout. Her voice work here as Raksha, Mowli’s adoptive mother, is also noteworthy.

Kaa the snake is female in this version, seductively voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who also sings the hypnotic “Trust in Me” over the end credits. Sir Ben Kingsley infuses Bagheera with the appropriate authority, and Christopher Walken has King Louie talking like someone from the Bronx. It was so odd I laughed throughout his scene, and I’m still not sure whether or not I was meant to.

Sethi, who apparently won the role of Mowgli over thousands of other kids, is making his film debut here. He has the confidence to carry the movie, but at times he comes off more contemporary than primitive. Some lines are laced with sarcasm and sass, which made me think, “Where did Mowgli learn that?” Not from the animals who raised him. It’s as if the jungle boy has been influenced by tweens at the mall.

One of the best things about the movie is Bill Pope’s sumptuous cinematography, which immersed me in Mowgli’s world, a place with equal parts wonder and danger. CGI often takes me out of a scene, but here it’s used so well that when the end credits rolled, I was startled to see where this movie was filmed.

So, have I given you a clue? I’ll tell you something true: Forget about your worries and let the pleasures of this movie come to you.

Nerd verdict: Delightful Jungle

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Nerdy Special List April 2016

I’m so excited April is here, because not only is it my birthday month, about 93 people I know and love also have birthdays. There will be lots of celebrating ’round here! (With loads of cake and ice cream, of course.) On top of that, Kimmy Schmidt and Amy Schumer return this month to our TV screens and I’m ready for some serious laughs.

April is also a fab month for books. Below are the new releases my blogger friends and I recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

King Maybe by Timothy Hallinan (Soho Crime, April 12)

king-maybeTimothy Hallinan’s fifth Junior Bender mystery involves a lot of burglary and bad luck, with a few murders thrown in for good measure.

A Hollywood has-been producer has a bone to pick with Junior. He tells Junior they’ll be square if Junior breaks into the office of “King Maybe,” a studio exec who holds people’s lives—or at least their entertainment aspirations—in his hands.

The producer wants to know if King Maybe is planning to steal his movie idea. It’ll be 10 minutes in the office, the producer promises. But that isn’t quite how things work out for Junior.

Smart, funny, and captivating, this caper is exciting and insightful. The complex plot, the fascinating characters, and Hallinan’s astonishing gift with the English language make this an absolute must for mystery fans. No matter if you’ve read the first four books in this series or not, you can pick up King Maybe and enjoy it from start to finish.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Exiled by Christopher Charles (Mulholland Books, April 19)

exiledHave you ever picked up a book outside your typical reading genre for quite a few unconnected reasons? I do not, typically, but one of my latest reads, The Exiled, was just such a case.

First, I recently took a road trip to West Texas (from Denver) by way of Alamogordo, NM (I’ll save you the trouble of looking; it’s in very, very southern New Mexico). Those of you familiar with your southwestern American geography know I drove almost the entire length of New Mexico, north to south. It’s barren, rural, and can be brutally hot, but I was quite taken with the countryside.

Second, two of my favorite authors recommended the book—Frank Bill and Patrick deWitt. And third, the author’s short bio said Charles, pseudonym for Chris Narozny, resides in Denver, meaning we are practically neighbors!

Although these reasons have very little actual reasoning behind them, they were enough to make me pick up the book. It’s a good thing, because it’s excellent.

The Exiled is set in rural New Mexico, the home of Wes Raney, a former homicide cop who made one too many bad choices while working undercover in New York. Choices that cost him his job and his family.

As punishment, he is exiled to a two-hundred-mile stretch of southwestern desert. Solitude suits him, but he’s thrown right back into his old mindset when a grisly murder scene is discovered in an underground bunker.

Although the novel works well as a mystery, Raney’s character is so well developed and gripping that Exiled could simply function as a character study, with strong hints of crime. Intense, spare, and gritty, it’s a first-rate page turner that I flew through in two days.

The Exiled is for anyone who loves a good detective novel where the detective isn’t so good, and for those who appreciate a strong story with strong writing—and a fair amount of blood.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Quiet Neighbors by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink, April 8)

quiet neighborsImagine your last trip to a bookstore you love—wouldn’t it be nice to have stayed there? Now imagine it’s a small, old store in a quaint Scottish village, and the proprietor offers you a job and a place to live when you’ve recently left your whole life behind. That’s what happens to Jude in Catriona McPherson’s latest standalone novel, Quiet Neighbors.

It turns out that the titular neighbors are anything but quiet. Everyone has secrets, even the young woman who arrives not long after Jude does and pronounces herself to be the bookshop owner’s daughter.

The town itself has secrets, too, and when Jude starts poking around into the darker corners of the past and present, she finds some of them are downright dangerous. And this is before we even get to the secrets Jude herself keeps.

There’s a lot to love about this book: an enchanting setting, a cast of characters with each more fascinating than the last, and a web of stories that will make you sad to reach the last page. McPherson has already proven she’s a masterful storyteller (if you haven’t read her previous books, you should!), and Quiet Neighbors is a classic mystery whose complexities are a joy to read.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

I Will Find You: A Reporter Investigates the Life of the Man Who Raped Her by Joanna Connors (Atlantic Monthly Press, April 5)

i will find youAs you can guess from the title, this is neither a light read nor an easy one. It is a powerful and important one.

Author/journalist Connors was raped at age 30 while on assignment for her newspaper. She then lived for more than 20 years, mostly in silence, under the weight of all that was forced on her. With her daughter about to go off to college, Connors was moved to tell her children about her rape.

Her disclosure leads to a painful and emotional journey to find out more about the man who raped her, in the hopes of understanding a bit about the whys and hows and perhaps taming some of her demons along the way.

I Will Find You is an inseparable mix of reporter on assignment and woman on a mission. It provides insight not only into rape culture, but race, abuse, and power. It’s a story of survival and adaptation, written with the care of a journalist and the emotion of someone forever changed by violence. Connors not only discovers more about her rapist, but about herself.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

The Body in the Wardrobe by Katherine Hall Page (William Morrow, April 26)

Tbody in the wardrobehis is the second good book I’ve read by Katherine Hall Page in as many months. The Body in the Birches introduces Sophie Maxwell as a second amateur sleuth to series heroine Faith Fairchild. I loved both of these books.

In Wardrobe, Sophie is adjusting to a new life in Savannah, Georgia, and Faith Fairchild is dealing with her daughter and school bullying, along with the possibility of moving to a new parish.

Because of Faith’s experience with dead bodies and mysteries, Sophie calls her when she finds a body in a wardrobe in the house where she’s staying. These books demonstrate a solid friendship between the two women, which I really enjoyed.

I had taken a break from reading this series [ed. note: this is book 23], and I’m either going to start at the beginning, or just go back and read what I’ve missed. Highly recommended!

From PCN:

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, April 19)

eligibleI took this book home last Christmas and devoured it in two days, despite the holidays being insanely hectic. And it’s 500+ pages. I just couldn’t get my nose unglued from it, a testament to Sittenfeld’s skill since I already knew how things end up for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Or, rather, Liz and Dr. Darcy, as they are in this modern interpretation of the Jane Austen classic.

Liz writes for a women’s magazine and Jane is a yoga instructor, both in New York City. The sisters return home to Cincinnati when Mr. Bennet has a health scare. There they meet Chip Bingley, a recently transplanted doctor. He’s also a minor celebrity after his stint as a bachelor on the dating show Eligible, though he failed to choose a “soul mate” on the season finale.

His romantic luck changes when he meets Jane, but the same can’t be said for Bingley’s neurosurgeon friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, whose snobbish behavior toward Cincinnati and its residents repels the feisty Liz. What follows is a story both familiar and fresh, contemporary and classic. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve read Austen or Sittenfeld or neither. Eligible is a thoroughly charming read for anyone who appreciates sharp, witty writing.

******

On a related note, Jen featured me at Jen’s Book Thoughts as part of her photo series showing where her readers are reading. In my picture, I’m reading another notable April book, Michael Robotham’s Close Your Eyes. As for where I am, you can go there and see.

Which April books are you looking forward to?

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