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Strong Women Taking Charge in TOMB RAIDER & COLLATERAL

Coincidentally, without even thinking about how March is women’s history month, I’ve been mostly reading books and watching movies and TV shows written or directed by women and featuring strong female protagonists.

I’ll write about the books in a separate post, but below are some quick thoughts about Tomb Raider, which opens Friday, and Collateral, the four-episode miniseries available now on Netflix.

Tomb Raider

MGM

I went in with very low expectations and was surprised when I didn’t find myself incessantly rolling my eyes. I can’t imagine this was the best project offered to Alicia Vikander after she won an Oscar, but the always riveting actress is the reason Tomb Raider is watchable. And hey, Angelina Jolie also chose to play Lara Croft after she won her Oscar so what do I know?

Vikander gives Lara a welcome vulnerability and grounds the action in this world even as Lara chases artifacts from ethereal realms. Yes, her arms and abs are corded with muscles, but her most impressive features remain her expressive and intelligent eyes, which let us know she can handle herself in tough situations.

The first half of the movie covers how Lara goes from being a broke bike courier to badass treasure hunter, and the second half resembles a video game that really wants to be Raiders of the Lost Ark. It doesn’t come close, but Vikander makes it palatable and you don’t feel stupider afterward.

 

Collateral

BBC

On paper, it sounds like this miniseries covers too many timely issues: anti-immigration sentiment, racism, fear of terrorism, sexual harassment, PTSD, human trafficking, drugs, and a church’s resistance to gay female vicars.

But somehow Collateral makes it all work without being preachywrapping everything up in a mystery surrounding the assassination of a pizza delivery man. In this way the show reflects real life, where we have to deal with multiple obstacles every day.

As Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie, Carey Mulligan gives the most quietly commanding performance I’ve seen from her. Jeany Spark is haunting as Captain Sandrine Shaw, an intense war veteran who only wants to protect her country but no one protects her when she needs help. And it’s always wonderful to see Nicola Walker (Ruth from Spooks/MI-5), playing a vicar who must choose between her own needs and those of her parish. I was slightly annoyed, though, that her lover, Linh, is Vietnamese but played by an actress (Kae Alexander) who obviously isn’t.

Written by lauded playwright/screenwriter Sir David Hare and directed by S.J. Clarkson, Collateral is a thought-inducing show about the complex times we’re living in, and the compromises that are sometimes made in order to do the right thing.

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Nerdy Special List March 2018

With Daylight Savings Time, I have no idea what day or time it is and have been eating dinner at 3:00 p.m. But I do know it’s March and time to post this month’s list of book recommendations. Pick them up before the next storm comes so you’ll be well stocked in reading materials!

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Tomorrow Will Be Different: Love, Loss and the Fight for Trans Equality by Sarah McBride (Crown Archetype, March 6)

In her highly moving memoir, Sarah McBride, the national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, invites the world into her struggle to not only become her true self but also fight for the rights of others like her.

McBride always knew she was female, but the world considered her male. In college, just before she earned a White House internship, she came out. McBride’s story is extraordinary, and she points out the privileges she enjoys that many others like her don’t.

Heartbreakingly honest, authentic, and inspiring, Tomorrow Will Be Different has the power to ignite change.

Buy it on Amazon

Mary Had a Little Lab by Sue Fliess, illustrated by Petros Bouloubasis (Albert Whitman & Company, March 1)

This delightful picture book reads to the rhythm of the Mary Had a Little Lamb nursery rhyme in order to celebrate smart girls.

Mary, a science nerd, doesn’t have many friends so she invents a machine to make herself a pet—a sheep. When her classmates see how cool her sheep is, they all want one, too. Wonderful mayhem ensues.

The story’s charm has the added bonus of zany illustrations that include outstanding details. Perfect for little readers who like the wacky, sing-song nature of a Dr. Seuss tale, and for every little girl who needs to be reminded that smart is cool. (Read Jen’s full review at Shelf Awareness.)

Buy it on Amazon

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman (Dutton, March 6)

Los Angeles Times staff writer Amy Kaufman uses her insider knowledge and snarky love of the reality-television franchise to fill a whole book with details about The Bachelor, from tryouts through post-season fallout. Lest you think this is all fluff, Kaufman addresses the history of dating shows and delves into more complex issues of feminism and dating culture.

A great read for any fan, closeted or loud and proud.

Buy it on Amazon

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Barbed Wire Heart by Tess Sharpe (Grand Central, March 6)

Harley McKenna has shot a man, buried a mother, and plotted revenge, but her most defining characteristic is being the only child of Duke McKenna—widower, gun runner, and meth dealer extraordinaire. Harley plans to take over the family business, but not before she transforms it by whatever means necessary.

Barbed Wire Heart is a sharp, feminist novel about the length we’ll go to protect those in need, and how hard we hold on to the ties that bind, even when they’re strangling us. Sharpe has created an arresting family dynamic in the McKennas, and though I can’t speak to the constant Breaking Bad comparisons the novel has drawn, I will say it’s a compelling story.

Buy it on Amazon

PCN recommends:

The Sandman by Lars Kepler (Knopf, March 6)

Detective Inspector Joona Linna put serial killer Jurek Walter, aka the Sandman, behind bars years ago, so why are people who had tangential connections to Jurek still dying? Joona will have to confront his most terrifying nemesis again if he wants the living nightmares to end and to save one of Jurek’s victims.

From the first sentence, I was pinned to the page like I was hypnotized. Kepler, a pseudonym for husband and wife Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril, writes in a suspenseful, cinematic style that never allows readers to relax. Jurek is reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter in that he can inflict terror even in captivity. Grab The Sandman and then read the other books in this excellent series, too, starting with The Hypnotist.

Buy it on Amazon

Which books have you read this month?

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Book Review: THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED by Mick Herron

Mick Herron’s standalone This Is What Happened begins in medias res, with 26-year-old Maggie Barnes hiding in a bathroom in a high-rise building during a dangerous spy mission.

Until recently, she was working in the corporate mailroom there, but then the mysterious Harvey Wells recruited her into MI5. Her ordinariness makes her the perfect mole, the last person anyone would suspect of bringing down an evil establishment.

But that average quality also means she’s no Jane Bond. As Maggie creeps around the building to complete her mission while trying to evade the security guards, her chances of failure and level of fear are high. It’s a killer opening.

And that’s all anyone should know before starting this thriller. Part of its impact comes from the discoveries. Herron (Spook Street) constantly throws in plot bombs to blow up expectations. His sentences have no wasted words; they’re just long enough to land their punches and leave.

The story goes to dark, disturbing places, but not without a sense of humor. Regarding current events, Maggie observes, “people would still fight for stupid reasons. It didn’t matter that clever ones had become available.” Another character intimidates someone by invoking a fake law firm: “Her imaginary firm’s title contained five surnames, and simply reciting them felt like an act of assault with a briefcase.”

Readers can trust Herron knows exactly what he’s doing, even if what happened may not be what happened.

Buy from Amazon

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permissionIt contains an affiliate link that could generate a small commission for PCN if used.

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Nerdy Special List February 2018

It’s Friday before a long holiday weekend for some. And after yet another school shooting.

When I’m heartsick, I turn to books to save me, and they always do.

Here are this month’s recommendations.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

A Forest in the Clouds by John Fowler (Pegasus, February 6)

While in college, John Fowler spent a year as a research assistant for Dian Fossey at the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. People close to Fowler wanted to know what it was like to work with the great primatologist memorialized in Gorillas in the Mist.

Fowler experienced a dramatically different Fossey from the one the world knew, and struggled with how to respond to those who inquired. Now, decades later, A Forest in the Clouds is his answer.

It engages the reader like a novel, with humor and drama and suspense. The African backdrop, exquisitely woven into the story, adds to the exotic atmosphere with its distinctive climate and breathtaking wildlife. Fowler’s insider story is a new perspective in the world of animal science.

Buy it now from Amazon

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist: A True Story of Injustice in the American South by Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington (PublicAffairs, February 27)

Radley Balko and Tucker Carrington’s story of institutional racism, junk science, and a broken criminal justice system is a difficult one to read, but incredibly important. Their history of Mississippi racism is mortifying, and the ways it still exists today are equally horrifying.

The pair use meticulous research to build their case against Dr. Steven Hayne, a forensic pathologist; and his friend Michael West, a dentist who claimed to be a bite-mark specialist. Hayne and West took advantage of the flaws in the system, and their greed had devastating effects on people like Kennedy Brewer and Levon Brooks, who were wrongly convicted of murder.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist is rich in information presented in a captivating manner. It’s a real-life horror story about a problem that can only be solved through increased understanding and awareness.

Buy it now from Amazon

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin’s Press, February 6)

After unexpectedly inheriting a homestead in remote Alaska, Ernt Allbright moves his family to the Kaneq wilderness. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a POW in Vietnam, Ernt begins to unravel during the long nights in a hostile landscape.

The Great Alone is not his story, however; it’s the story of his resilient daughter Leni and the life she’s able to carve out in the wake of the family wreckage. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous ’70s, Kristin Hannah has written a riveting novel of survival and brutality. Memorable characters and an unforgettable setting make this bittersweet novel a winter standout.

Buy it now from Amazon

PCN recommends:

Sunburn by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, February 20)

An attractive redhead with sunburned shoulders sitting in a bar in Delaware in the middle of a summer day. A handsome man approaches. They strike up a conversation, the start of something that soon escalates and spins out of control.

Sunburn was inspired by the work of James M. Cain, a master of noir and one of my favorite authors ever, so I approached it with interest but also some skepticism. From the first line, however, it was clear the description is apt. The prose is classic and contemporary at the same time, and even if you know how noir usually ends, Lippman makes Sunburn hard to resist.

Buy it now from Amazon

What’s on your reading list this month?

The affiliate links provide PCN with small commissions if used.

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Book Review: THE MAN IN THE CROOKED HAT by Harry Dolan

Jack Pellum is a former police detective in Michigan whose life was shattered when his wife, Olivia, was murdered 18 months earlier.

Since then he’s been posting flyers around town that ask whether anyone has seen a man in a crooked hat, a stranger Pellum spotted in his neighborhood shortly before his wife’s death. The sighting happened at night from a distance, and that description is about all he has. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t yielded useful leads.

But after a local author commits suicide and leaves behind a cryptic note about a man in a crooked hat, someone contacts Pellum with new information.

The caller claims not only to have seen the hatted man when his own mother was killed years earlier, but also to have files of other cases, dating back 20 years, in which witnesses reported seeing a similar man before someone died mysteriously. Pellum embarks on a mission to determine if the cases are related and finally to avenge his wife’s death.

Though Pellum’s search takes him a while, readers know right away who Harry Dolan’s The Man in the Crooked Hat is—he’s identified in the very first sentence.

It’s the mark of a confident author who believes he doesn’t need to withhold the murderer’s identity to engage his readers, and Dolan is right. The surprises lie in how Pellum catches up to the killer, the humane portrait of a man who’s committed horrific acts, and in characters coming out the other side of grief to find they’re still capable of hope.

Buy from Amazon

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. It contains an affiliate link that could generate a small commission for PCN if used.

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Nerdy Special List January 2018

Hello, how is everyone? You’re all looking wonderful and that outfit totally suits you.

I hid from the internet for about 3 weeks over the holidays because I wanted to reclaim my mind space. Choose what to focus on instead of having social media tell me what I should be thinking or terrified about. It was marvelous being able to hear my own thoughts again. Some may have been ridiculous but, hey, they were mine.

To help fill your mind with wonder and insightful musings, check out these books on this year’s first Nerdy Special List.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Wife by Alafair Burke (Harper, January 23)

The Wife centers on a famous man accused of sexual harassment and rape. His wife believes his claims of innocence, but she has skeletons in her closet and fears the attention her husband receives will reveal her secrets to the world.

The suspense is top-notch, the plot twists kept me guessing, and the book had me reading until daybreak. Burke obviously wrote this prior to the #MeToo movement, so once again she proves she has her finger on the pulse of American culture.

Buy from Amazon

Martin Rising: Requiem for a King by Andrea, 9780545702539, January 2)

The final months of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life are told in a series of poems written by Andrea David Pinkney and a collection of paintings from her husband, Brian Pinkney. As a former teacher, I couldn’t help but think how amazing this would be for kids to perform as a slam poetry reading, and as an avid adult reader, I found myself lost in the beauty and inspiration the language and illustrations create, despite their devastating subject. This is truly a celebration of an extraordinary man and his influence on a nation. [Read Jen’s full, starred review at Shelf Awareness.]

Buy from Amazon

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates (Picador, January 9)

In August of 1982, Matthew ties Hannah to a tree and shoots her with a BB gun that belongs to his friend Patch. In 2008, Hannah and Patch are married and living in New York City, but a chance encounter with Matthew sends their lives into chaos.

What they knew, how they felt, and what really happened is slowly unveiled in this literary thriller. Alternating between the past and the present, Christopher J. Yates masterfully weaves the tension, mania, and despair of the main characters. Grist Mill Road reveals how anger, passion, history, and love bind us in the most unexpected ways.

Buy from Amazon

From Erin at In Real Life:

A Map of the Dark by Karen Ellis (Mulholland, January 2)

When a teenage girl goes missing, FBI Agent Elsa Myers with the Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team is called away from her father’s deathbed to find her. As the complex case progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult for Elsa to keep her personal and professional lives separate.

A Map of the Dark introduces some of the most interesting characters I’ve met. It’s a fantastic start to what will be a long-lived series, and a perfect blend of a procedural with a character-driven story.

Buy from Amazon

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (Putnam, January 9)

In the summer of 1969, the four Gold siblings track down the elusive Woman on Hester Street, who they’ve heard can tell fortunes. One by one, they secretly learn the date of their death.

From this intriguing beginning, Chloe Benjamin spins a glorious tale of how knowing their expiration date impacts each of the Gold children over the coming decades. Family, faith, fate, destiny, and dreams are all part of their journeys. Benjamin sucked me in from the first page and wouldn’t let go. This is certainly my first best novel of 2018.

Buy from Amazon

Lullaby Road by James Anderson (Crown, January 16)

Second in a trilogy about desert delivery trucker Ben Jones, Road follows the genius of The Never-Open Desert Diner with more character and atmosphere than you can imagine exists in the Utah high desert.

The eccentric route inhabitants and “friends” who pepper Ben’s days are more than enough to keep the pages turning. Throw in the mysteries of a young child in need and a local icon in trouble and Lullaby Road became my second great novel of 2018. If you’re not reading this series, start.

Buy from Amazon

PCN recommends:

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor (Crown, January 9)

In this fantastic, cinematic thriller that reads like Stand by Me crossed with The Goonies, a group of prepubescent friends discover a dead body one summer and are still trying to come to terms with it 30 years later.

As I wrote in my Shelf Awareness review, “Tudor is a master conjurer of thrills, crafting tight scenes that make the skin crawl in a fun way, like [while you’re] walking through a haunted house at a carnival.” She also “observes life with deadpan humor” and “infuses her story with heart and the pang of lost love.” If I had a box of chalk, I’d draw arrows pointing you straight to this book.

Buy from Amazon

What was your first read of 2018? What else are you reading this month?

This post includes affiliate links, which might generate small commissions for me if you click on them…assuming I embedded the right links. The updated affiliate system is slightly confusing and maybe these links send commissions to some guy named Ted in Iowa. 

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Favorite Reads of 2017

Though 2017 has been in the rearview mirror for almost a month, with skid marks I left on my way out, I wanted to look back to review my reading stats. Last year was rich for me in terms of reading, with mid-June through mid-July being my best period, when I had four 5-star reads. I’ve gone years without one 5-star read, so that many in one month was fantastic.

Excluding all the manuscripts I edited, my number of books read is 65.

Some random stats, because I’m a nerd.

Debut authors: 20

New-to-me authors: 18

Female authors: 41

Male authors: 24

Writers of color: 8

International authors: 20

Imprint I read the most: William Morrow (7), runner-up: Minotaur (5)

Total imprints: 33 (I was pleasantly surprised to see my reads spread across so many different publishers)

Below are my favorites in various categories.

Favorite debuts: Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin and Gail Honeyman’s Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Favorite novel from new-to-me author: Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds

Most welcome return of series characters: tie between Robert Crais’s Elvis & Joe in The Wanted and Joe Ide’s Isaiah & Dodson in Righteous

Favorite illustrated memoir: Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do

Favorite celebrity memoir: Gabrielle Union’s We’re Going to Need More Wine

Favorite new heroines: Sheena Kamal’s Nora Watts in The Lost Ones and Kathleen Kent’s Betty Rhyzyk in The Dime. The common denominator? Fierceness.

Favorite international thriller: Mark Mills’s Where Dead Men Meet

Favorite overall: Sharon Bolton’s Dead Woman Walking 

What are some of your stats from last year? Share them in the comments!

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Nerdy Special End-of-Year List 2017

While all the TV shows and commercials are depicting snow, here in L.A. it’s raining ash and debris. Happy holidays!

Because a smoke advisory is in effect, I have to stay inside and read. Luckily, cabin fever and I have never met. I could shelter in place for years.

This month’s Nerdy Special List, our final of 2017, features some favorites from this year that didn’t appear on previous lists, because we read them after publication or had too many strong choices that month. But these are special, too, and we wanted to make sure they’re on your radar.

Many thanks to Jen, Rory, Lauren, Erin, and Patti for contributing recommendations throughout the year. Each month I look forward to seeing what your choices are, and you expand my reading universe. I couldn’t do this without you.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

My Fairy Godmother Is a Drag Queen by David Clawson (Sky Pony Press/Skyhorse, May 30)

David Clawson’s young adult debut is a modern retelling of Cinderella. Following the death of seventeen-year-old Chris’s father, his stepfamily is determined to regain the wealth and social status they lost in the recession. Chris’s stepmother plots to marry her daughter off to J.J. Kennerly, New York’s most eligible bachelor. But her plan goes awry when J.J. falls for Chris instead.

My Fairy Godmother is full of sharp dialogue you’ll want to read out loud just to taste the words. The characters are amazingly rich, and the themes are both powerful and timely. It’s funny, it’s deep, it’s smart, and it’s at the top of my recommendation list for YA books.

A Stone of Hope by Jim St. Germain, with Jon Sternfeld (Harper, July 4)

This book should have been called A BOULDER of Hope. Jim St. Germain is a Haitian immigrant who grew up on the streets of Brooklyn, found trouble at a young age, and had the luck to be placed in a rehabilitation program called Boys Town.

Stone takes readers through his experience at Boys Town and how it put him on the path to give back to others like him. His story is inspiring, but it’s also an excellent look at the destructive nature of poverty, and at an effective justice system with the potential to change our society. In our current climate of hopelessness, A Stone of Hope is a reminder that goodness still exists—and matters.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (Riverhead, August 29)

Turtle Alveston is 14 years old, being raised by her father. That’s where any sense of normalcy ends, though Turtle doesn’t know that. Raw eggs, guns, and beer begin her day. Turtle does her best to please her survivalist father, but she never quite succeeds.

Within the first few pages of Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel, the reader knows tsomething has gone very wrong in the Alveston household, but the author does an exceptional job of slowly revealing the true depth of Turtle’s torment, her confusion, and her rare moments of happiness. Artfully barbaric and masterfully written, My Absolute Darling is one of my favorite novels of the year.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (Flatiron, Jan. 24)

An orange peel on the cover didn’t tell me much, and by the time I got a copy from the library, I didn’t remember what it was about (seriously, no clue) or what might have intrigued me.

But I cracked the cover and discovered one of my top 5 favorite reads this year. I’m not going to tell you what it’s about, either. Because the moment I read the line that told me where it was going was so lovely and heartbreaking and…everything, I wouldn’t ruin that for anyone. It’s a topical book about a beautiful family. Just do a trust fall with me and let this book catch you.

The Driver by Hart Hanson (Dutton, August 8)

This book is like Ocean’s 11 in book form. Friendship, action, smart dialogue, great pacing, crime, humor, and a little heartbreak. Michael Skellig, highly educated and decorated military veteran, owns Oasis Limo Services, employing a dedicated and unique tribe of fellow veterans. Skellig gets embroiled in the dangerous problems of a client, testing his moral compass and putting everyone around him at risk. The Driver is a rip-roaring good time.

PCN recommends:

I Found You by Lisa Jewell (Atria, April 25)

A handsome man with amnesia, an abandoned bride, and long-ago events in a seaside town are somehow linked in this layered, well-paced mystery. The characters ache with loneliness and a desire to belong, making me root for them even while I suspected a happy ending wasn’t possible for everyone. Sometimes I have to pick between strong plot or characters but Lisa Jewell let me have both, plus an atmospheric setting. I’m glad I found her.

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Mini Movie Reviews: Holiday Season 2017

Hope you had a wonderful weekend! My Thanksgiving was nice and relaxing and the only drama occurred onscreen, with my trying to catch up on movies being touted as award contenders. If you’re wondering what to see this holiday season, perhaps this guide will be helpful.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

If writer-director Martin McDonagh’s name is on a movie, I will run to the theater without passing Go or needing to know what the movie’s about. In Three Billboards, my choice for the year’s best picture, Frances McDormand plays the mother of a murdered teenage girl who puts up billboards to force the police to explain why they haven’t solved the case seven months after the crime.

Original, fiercely acted, and darkly funny, it makes you think it’s about one thing until you realize it’s about something else altogether, something bigger and more profound. McDonagh, McDormand, and Sam Rockwell (as a cop the mother antagonizes) are all sure bets for Oscar nominations.

Coco

This is surprisingly dark for a Disney movie—a kid is in a literal life-and-death situation and there’s a murder—but I appreciated how Coco tackles death and the afterlife in a complex, vibrant, moving, and almost comforting way. At some point, adults will have to explain death to their kids; take them to Coco. But make sure they’re older than 8. The 4-year-old next to me started crying after 10 minutes and had to leave.

Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this funny and poignant semiautobiographical movie about a 17-year-old girl from Sacramento who’s told she’s average in every way and advised to aim lower in life. But she’s determined to get out of “the Midwest of California” and go to Columbia University.

Gerwig captures that feeling of being on the cusp of adulthood, the impatience to leave home and then realizing afterward how precious home was. The beauty lies in Gerwig’s compassion toward her characters, judging neither the parents who want to shield their daughter from disappointment nor the teen who wants more. Saoirse Ronan is the perfect alter ego for Gerwig, with Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts turning in subtle, nuanced work as the parents.

Wonder

After being homeschooled for years, a ten-year-old boy born with craniofacial deformities goes to school for the first time. Let’s just say not all his classmates are nice to him. In another time, I might’ve found this too afterschool-special, but in our current atmosphere of hate, this uplifting movie was something I needed. Without getting too schmaltzy, Wonder reminds us to choose kindness, and that it saves us when we least expect it.

Jacob Tremblay, superb as the kid in Room, makes Auggie’s light shine through heavy layers of makeup. Julia Roberts provides the heart as his mom, and Owen Wilson brings the humor as Auggie’s dad.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

A debt-ridden Charles Dickens needs a book to save his career and comes up with A Christmas Carol. There’s nothing new here, the inspirations seem too obvious—a handicapped boy practically has an arrow pointing to him and a caption saying “Inspiration for Tiny Tim!”—and the performances, including Dan Stevens’s as Dickens, are forgettable.

Also—I hope it’s not a spoiler because we all know he finished the book, right?—I experienced an editor’s horror when Dickens, under a ridiculously tight deadline, writes the last word and then rushes the manuscript straight to the printer so copies could be printed in time for Christmas. What, no revisions? No proofreading??

Molly’s Game

Aaron Sorkin is hit-or-miss for me but I can’t deny he writes smart dialogue. He’s directing for the first time here so he also gets to guide actors through his trademark long speeches. Molly’s Game is based on the real story of Molly Bloom, who ran high-stakes poker games in New York and L.A. until she was busted by the FBI.

Because I know less than nothing about poker and everyone talks fast, I struggled with understanding all the machinations, in and outside the game, but the lead actors—Jessica Chastain as Molly, Idris Elba as her attorney, and Kevin Costner as her father—do compelling work.

Which movies are you planning to see?

Photos: Coco/Disney-Pixar, Three Billboards/Fox Searchlight, Lady Bird/A24, Wonder/Lionsgate, Man Who Invented Christmas/Bleecker Street, Molly’s Game/STX Films

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Movie Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE

I’ve been attending lots of award-season screenings and am behind in reviews, so I’ll do some in this format. Below are my quick thoughts on Justice League.

What you want to know up front: I liked it. It’s not even close to being as good as Wonder Woman, but is much better than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was garbage.

More info: Thanks to Joss Whedon coming in to finish the movie and oversee post-production (director Zack Snyder stepped away when his daughter committed suicide), Justice League is lighter in both tone and palate. I can actually see the details in scenes instead of them being all murky and dark.

The plot is inconsequential and the villain is a bland CGI monster, but I enjoyed seeing the heroes in action. Ezra Miller steals the show as The Flash and nerdy comic relief. He could crack me up with only his eyes behind a mask.

I love me some Wonder Woman, but as the only female, she mostly has to act as den mother so Gal Gadot doesn’t get to display much of her fun side. At least she remains fierce.

Jason Momoa doesn’t work for me as Aquabro but I don’t think that’s his fault. He’s playing the role as written, and the powers-that-be tried too hard to hip up Aquaman, with the long hair, tattoos, dudespeak (“My man!” and “All right”), and heavy rock music every time he appears. I just rolled my eyeballs.

Ray Fisher does his best with Cyborg but the character can be summed up as Sulky Strong Hybrid Guy.

Difference between men and female directors: In JL, Diana wears tight leather pants and a cleavage-baring top, with the camera sometimes lingering on her butt during a walking shot, and there’s at least one upskirt shot of WW. Both Mr. PCN and I noticed this and it made us uncomfortable. Patty Jenkins never objectified WW or Diana that way.

Conclusion: See it if you’re into DC superheroes. It has fun moments. Then go home and rewatch Wonder Woman on Blu-Ray.

Photo: Warner Bros.

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Nerdy Special List November 2017

It blows my mind Thanksgiving is in a couple of weeks and Christmas is next month—I’m still wearing shorts!—but this is my favorite time of year so I say bring on the holidays. With time off, maybe we can catch up on eating reading.

To that end, here are the November books we recommend.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang (St. Martin’s Press, November 7)

Ruth Emmie Lang’s fictional realism debut is heartwarming and inspiring at a time when we could all use a little hope. Weylyn Grey is an orphan raised with wolves before re-integrating into the human realm.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances tells his life story through the voices of those who were a part of his unusual life: a foster sister, a teacher, employers, a young boy and the love of his life. Lang has crafted a rich story with sparkling language, robust characters, and a fascinating plot. It’s a story that will ignite a spark of magic inside each of its readers.

Garden of the Lost and Abandoned by Jessica Yu (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 7)

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu makes her book debut with a true story about an amazing woman making a difference in the lives of Ugandan children.

Gladys Kalibbala is a journalist who writes a weekly “Lost and Abandoned” column in Uganda’s largest newspaper, trying to reunite homeless, orphaned children with their families. Gladys goes to extremes—most of the time at her own expense—to find relatives, provide medical assistance, education, and basic needs like food and clothes, and to let these children know someone cares. Gladys’s compassion and selflessness make her a role model for us all, and Garden of the Lost and Abandoned is a fitting tribute to this beautiful human being.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (Harper, November 14)

Cedar Hawk Songmaker is pregnant, living in a near post-apocalyptic world. Evolution is seemingly running backward, with the flora and fauna looking downright prehistoric, and the government is ruled by religion. Pregnant women are being captured and monitored. Cedar knows she has to protect her unborn baby, but how? What, where, and who is safe?

Erdrich has written a timely, disturbing, and bleak novel about the degradation of women and the environment. Its relevance is what makes it both difficult and wonderful to read. I’d highly recommend Future Home of the Living God for fans of Margaret Atwood (the comparisons are unavoidable) and P. D. James.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Savage by Frank Bill (FSG Originals, November 14)

A follow-up to the bare-knuckled badassery of Donnybrook, Frank Bill’s The Savage is set only several years on but light years away. The US dollar and power grid are worthless, and power-and-land-hungry hordes are savaging what and who remains.

Against this backdrop, Bill explores the competing interests of (mostly) men living in the madness, and how they survive in light of their histories and the type of men their fathers taught them to be.

The Savage is soaked in vengeance and unapologetic violence. Bill writes in a unique voice that takes the reader to the heart of the brawl, but from the safety of the other side of the page, you’ll look forward to every hit.

PCN recommends:

The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street Books, November 14)

Check out this killer opening line: “Anna Blanc was the most beautiful woman ever to barrel down Long Beach Strand with the severed head of a Chinese man.” This captures the tone of the book—whimsical but deadly.

It’s 1908 Los Angeles, and assistant police matron Anna’s investigation of a murder leads her to Chinatown. Kincheloe strikes just the right balance between dark and light, commenting on serious social issues while keeping Anna madcap but never, ever dumb. Woman is as smart as it’s entertaining.

What are you reading this month?

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Book Review: THE CHILD FINDER by Rene Denfeld

As the titular character in Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, Naomi does exactly what her job description says: find missing children. Madison disappeared three years earlier, at the age of five, and her parents have approached Naomi. The family was in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest to cut down a Christmas tree when the little girl walked away—and seemingly off the edge of the Earth. It’s impossible for Madison to have survived in the wilds and frigid cold by herself. Turns out she didn’t.

The story alternates between Naomi’s point of view and Madison’s, although Madison has been calling herself the snow girl, after her favorite fairy tale. The child’s living conditions—more like survival conditions—are disturbing, but her resilience is a marvel and Denfeld uses restraint in describing the most difficult scenes.

Besides Madison’s case, and another one involving a mother incarcerated because she can’t remember how her baby disappeared, Naomi must also confront mysteries in her past. She was found at the edge of the woods when she was nine and has no clear memories of what came before.

Haunted by what she doesn’t know, and believing her work is atonement for something, Naomi wonders why people have children when it means potentially inviting so much pain. But while Child Finder is indeed gut-wrenching, its compassion goes a long way toward healing readers’ aching hearts, showing that love is always a risk worth taking.

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

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