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Nerdy Special List December 2016

This month, I asked our illustrious contributors for a December favorite or one from any month this year, as long as it hasn’t appeared on the NSL.

Since you might be looking for gift ideas, how about considering some of these titles? I’ve added suggestions about the perfect recipient(s) for each book.

I’d like to thank Jen, Rory, Erin, Lauren, and Patti for having such excellent taste in books and sharing their recommendations all year long. Though they probably wish to distance themselves from me in public, they make me feel smarter by association.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee, trans. by Chi-Young Kim (Pegasus Books, December 20)

[Ed.: For the intellectual with exotic tastes, but safe for those who vomit easily.]

boy-escaped-paradiseLast year J.M. Lee blew me away with his English debut, The Investigation. This year he doubled down with The Boy Who Escaped Paradise. Both novels employ the richest of language in complex plot lines about dynamic and multidimensional characters.

Ahn Gil-mo is a young, North Korean math savant with Asperger’s syndrome. He is sent to a prison camp because of his father’s transgressions. While he’s in the camp, he makes a promise to always take care of his best friend, Yeong-ae. It’s this promise that takes him on an Odyssey-like trek across the globe.

Even if you fear numbers and feel nauseous at the mere mention of the word math, be not afraid. This book will win your heart, as it did mine.

It’s an epic adventure, a crime novel, a cultural expose. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise is a sure bet for a satisfying read.

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (Viking, September 13)

[Ed.: For the folks who like ’80s TV and riding motorcycles without helmets because they think they’re badass.]

obvious-factAn Obvious Fact makes for a dozen novels in the Walt Longmire series. And even though Walt is the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America, Craig Johnson still manages to keep the stories fresh and highly entertaining.

With a little Sherlock Holmes, a little Dukes of Hazzard, and a whole lot of motorcycles, Fact centers on a hit-and-run that leaves a man comatose in Hulett, Wyoming, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Walt, his trusted friend Henry Standing Bear, and Absaroka’s wily undersheriff Vic Moretti are on the case even though it’s out of their jurisdiction. There’s plenty of action, laughs and surprises.

Series fans who haven’t grabbed this one yet are in for a wonderful treat, including an introduction to the Lola. If you’re new to the series, I encourage you to start back at the beginning with A Cold Dish.

Any of the books can be read on their own and enjoyed, but Johnson has built a community with his characters and their relationships have evolved, especially over the last six books. To truly appreciate that quality, you want to grow along with the Absaroka gang. It’s a fabulous journey.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet (Flatiron Books, October 4)

[Ed.: For your friends in prison who are always trying to bust out.]

guineveresSarah Domet’s debut novel takes its name from the four protagonists, all named Guinevere and all abandoned at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent.

Vere, Win, Ginny, and Gwen are desperate to escape their circumstances and hatch a plan to do so during a parade in a float. When that fails, the girls are sentenced to work in the convent’s sick ward, where they hatch yet another plan, this one involving comatose soldiers.

Each Guinevere has her own voice, though we hear most from Vere. Woven into the girls’ tales are the stories of the lives of various female saints. The nuns generally remain in the background, but are well drawn and not stereotypically Catholic, which I greatly appreciated. The nuns, though strict, genuinely care for the girls.

Rather than a novel about faith, Domet’s debut is instead a wonderful coming-of-age tale. It’s a subtle, complex novel depicting the inner lives of teenage girls, and their search for home and family—a winning combination with lovely writing. Don’t miss it!

From Erin at In Real Life:

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad, October 6)

[Ed.: For the insomniac who likes to be so scared by books that s/he might need to wear a diaper. But not Erin. She can handle scary stuff like a boss.]

never-aloneWhen it comes to stories that make me—often literally—perch on the edge of my seat, I know I can count on Elizabeth Haynes. Her latest is no exception, and it is one of the best books I read in 2016.

Sarah Carpenter lives in a remote part of Yorkshire, and she hasn’t had an especially easy time of things. She finds herself alone after her husband dies and her grown kids move out, so she’s pleased when an old friend, Aiden Beck, shows up needing a place to stay for a while.

Sarah is well able to look after herself and is no shrinking violet, but her kids, friends, and friends of her kids are all concerned about Aiden’s presence, for markedly different reasons. And they might be right to be…but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about that.

Elizabeth Haynes has an extraordinary ability to pull readers right into her tales. I started reading her books when our very own PCN reviewed Into the Darkest Corner back in 2012. (Funny side note: The first time I met Elizabeth at a book event in England, I asked her to sign a book for PCN. When I told her that PCN had to stand in the hall to finish reading it, Elizabeth exclaimed, “I loved that review! It was one of my favorites!”)

Never Alone is spooky and creepy and captivating. Page-turner? Check. Fascinating? Absolutely.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Kill the Next One by Federico Axat, translated by David Frye (Mulholland Books, December 13)

kill-next-one[Ed.: For the uncle you like to make crazy by gaslighting him.]

Argentinian author Federico Axat’s US debut is a spectacular mind-meld of a psychological thriller, and it’s no surprise that Kill the Next One has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Ted McKay wants to commit suicide after discovering he has a brain tumor, but he’s interrupted, gun to his head, by an insistent knock at his door. The complete stranger on his doorstep makes Ted an offer he can’t refuse: kill two men, one who deserves to die and one who wants to die. In return, someone will kill Ted so he can die a heroic victim rather than by his own hand.

As Ted tries to follow through with the secret suicide club plan, his reality becomes as mixed up as a kaleidoscope. It’s unclear what is real (is a deranged possum really following him around?), who is telling the truth, how Ted was chosen and why.

As his sanity becomes more questionable, memories start pushing to the forefront of his mind, bringing frightening clarity. Axat brilliantly creates an environment permeated by doubt and one can’t help but begin to question reality on a larger scale. How do we know what’s real and who to trust?

The story is chilling, but Axat infuses it with humanity while maintaining the nightmarish atmosphere. Kill the Next One is thrilling perfection.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

city-bakers-guideThe City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller 

[Ed.: For the pyromaniac pastry lover, or your third cousin once removed.]

Pastry chef Olivia Rawlings accidentally sets a fire in the club where she works in Boston, and escapes from it all by moving near her best friend in Guthrie, Vermont. Olivia gets a job at an inn called the Sugar Maple Inn, concocting wonderful desserts as she adjusts to small-town life.

Her transition starts a bit roughly, but as she meets people and tries different activities, it becomes apparent that Guthrie is quite possibly where she’s meant to be.

I am in love with books where people start over and find the perfect new place for themselves or a new career. I loved being with Olivia and most of the people in Guthrie. Since I read it, I have thought about it often. This is one of my favorite books of 2016!

From PCN:

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (Touchstone, November 15)

9781501117206_p0_v8_s192x300[For the bathrobe-wearing, diminutive aunt who always fights you for the last drumstick and kills at drunk karaoke.]

Anna Kendrick is hilarious in movies, on talk shows, and Twitter, so it’s no surprise she’s also winning in book form. My full review is at Shelf Awareness, and part of what I said was “her breezy tone and accounts of social awkwardness make her seem like a friend you’d love to hang with…if she weren’t too lazy to clean her house and invite you over.”

Despite having been nominated for a Tony and an Oscar and working with celebs like George Clooney, Kendrick lives in sweatpants, fails at adulting, and owns her nerdiness—how could I not be charmed? I think you will be, too.

Are you giving or asking for books this season? What’s on your list?

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Movie Review: LA LA LAND

la-la-land

Ohhh, what can I say about La La Land? If you’ve seen the trailer or photos, you probably already think it looks dreamy. I can confirm that it is. But with one foot in reality, too.

The premise is simple: struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone) meets struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles, they bond over their artistic aspirations, and we see where they go from there, both in life and their careers.

The simple concept doesn’t mean nothing happens; these two go through their ups and downs. Emma Stone makes you laugh in the awkward audition situations, but we also feel her frustration and self-doubt: what if she isn’t good enough to make it? How do we know when to give up?

Gosling, via piano lessons, convincingly plays the beautiful, melancholy original pieces composed by Justin Hurwitz. The leads have proven they have chemistry in two previous movies together, but I think it’s most heartfelt here.

This is only the second movie I’ve seen by writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) but I’m ready to call him an auteur, a word I don’t use often. His is a singular vision; you won’t see another movie like La La Land this year. It’s at once nostalgic and modern. The heightened reality is a feast for the eyes, the music a balm for the soul, the emotions earned. I don’t even like musicals and I swooned over the musical numbers. It’s not just a movie but an experience.

As magical as it is, La La Land never crosses into saccharine territory and doesn’t forget real life isn’t perfect. It just encourages you to dream, and lets you know you’re not alone.

Photo: Lionsgate

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Movie Review: JACKIE

 

jackie

Jackie Kennedy is such an iconic figure, what hasn’t already been said about her? Well, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie tries to give us a different portrait of her by imagining how she was in the private moments immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination.

The framing device is Mrs. Kennedy sitting down to an interview with a Life magazine reporter played by Billy Crudup. (The journalist is unnamed in the movie but is supposedly based on Theodore White.) The agreement is that she’d have final approval of the article.

Thus, we see Jackie chain-smoking through it all, saying whatever she wants no matter how raw, knowing she could strike it later.

What results is a glimpse of a coarser (but only a little) side behind the perfect facade of one of the classiest, most revered women in US history. In Natalie Portman’s hands, the private Jackie is someone who’s both more fragile and steelier than her public image.

Initially it’s a bit jarring to see Portman doing the finishing-school mannerisms and talking in Jackie’s polite breathy voice; I saw a famous actress doing an impression of someone even more famous. I started wondering if a lesser known actress would’ve been able to disappear more into the part.

But as Portman delves deeper, showing the pressures on a woman needing to grieve but also having to be a mother to two young children while planning a funeral worthy of her presidential husband, she displays mettle and emotional layers, for which the actress will likely get an Oscar nomination.

Other well-known actors show up to play real people, most notably Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. The actor is fine but is too old (he’s 45 to RFK’s 38 at the time) and doesn’t look at all like Bobby so he’s a curious choice. Crudup mostly just sits opposite Portman looking frustrated because the journalist can’t include the juiciest tidbits in his article.

But Jackie isn’t about anyone else except the titular person and the actress who plays her. I have no idea what our former first lady was really like, but seeing her as less than perfect doesn’t tarnish her image. It makes her more human.

Photo: Fox Searchlight

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Capsule Movie Reviews: ALLIED, RULES DON’T APPLY, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA & LION

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then I imagine your weekend will include not only turkey and stuffing but also football and movie viewing. I can’t help you with the first three items, seeing as how I can injure myself just opening a bag of chips, but with several new movies out this week, perhaps I can help you decide which one(s) you should spend your money on.

Allied

allied-cotillard-pittBrad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as WWII spies who go undercover as husband and wife to assassinate a German ambassador. Afterward, they become husband and wife for real…until a huge conflict arises that might make it impossible for them to remain allied.

This Robert Zemeckis-directed film is all about old-Hollywood glamor and style. Though the plot is hardly groundbreaking, Cotillard and Pitt are gorgeously lit and attired (costume designer Joanna Johnston had better be nominated for an Oscar) and they do generate some heat. Their collective star power charges the film.

If you’re the type who often thinks, “They sure don’t make movies like they used to,” Allied might be the ticket for you.

Rules Don’t Apply

rulesdontapplyWarren Beatty’s latest directorial effort also travels back in time, starting in 1964 and then going back five years earlier, with Beatty playing Howard Hughes.

But it’s not just about Hughes; the story centers on a young couple, a starlet (Lily Collins) Hughes brings out to Hollywood for a screen test, and the starlet’s driver (Alden Ehrenreich).

Peppered throughout are lots of name actors, including Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris. But except for the always riveting Bening, the stars are given nothing to do, and some are practically background actors. I can only speculate they took the gig because they’re Friends of Warren.

Instead, the most screen time goes to the least interesting actors of the bunch: Collins and Ehrenreich, with Collins the bigger problem. She looks good in period costumes but it’s all surface and no depth, and every line out of her mouth is unconvincing. Ehrenreich doesn’t have much to play with, but he has a kind of stillness that hints at something interesting. I guess we’ll see if he’s got any swagger when he suits up as the young Han Solo.

Beatty’s rambling script is problematic, too. It can’t decide if it’s about Hughes or the young couple or aeronautics or Hollywood or all of the above or what. Characters say random lines and talk at not with each other, creating a disconnect like they’re doing different scenes while in the same one. I’m calling this a turkey, though not the delicious kind.

Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-seaCasey Affleck and Lucas Hedges play uncle and nephew bonding in the aftermath of a family member’s death. Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler costar as Affleck’s ex-wife and brother.

If you’ve followed Williams’s and/or director/writer Kenneth Lonergan’s (You Can Count on Me) career, you know neither makes happy movies. It’s as if Williams only wants to explore the depths of grief in her work. But she’s so good at it, and her scene near the end of Manchester is devastating.

It’s not all sad, though; the movie does have moments of humor and Affleck makes emotional numbness compelling. Manchester will likely get multiple nominations for acting and/or writing and directing, so check it out to see what the buzz is about.

Lion

lion-sunny-pawarI’ve saved my favorite for last.

Lion is based on A Long Way Home, Saroo Brierley’s 2014 memoir, and tells the tale of how 5-year-old Saroo got lost in 1986 on a train in India, ending up on the streets for more than a month, with no money and only a vague idea of the name of his hometown. He’s eventually taken to an adoption agency and is adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham) of Tasmania, Australia.

Saroo never stops searching for home, however, and 25 years later, while using Google Earth, he sees an image that fits his hazy memories of where he lived as a boy. But is his family still there?

It’s incredible that Sunny Prewar, who plays the young Saroo (Dev Patel takes over in the later years), has never acted before. The boy is a natural, effortlessly carrying the first half of the movie on his tiny shoulders. The rest of the cast is strong, too; Kidman shows the kindly Sue could also be fierce with just a look.

I was a sobbing mess by the time this movie ended, but they were emotional, life-affirming tears. Even if crying at the movies is not your thing, Lion inspires hope that however far away from home you might find yourself, you don’t have to remain lost forever.

Which movie(s) are you looking to see this week? If you’re considering Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that review is here.

I’ve also seen a bunch of other top award contenders, including La La Land, Jackie, and Hidden Figures, and will post reviews in the next couple of weeks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photos: Allied/Paramount, Rules Don’t Apply/Twentieth Century Fox, Manchester by the Sea/Amazon Studios, Lion/The Weinstein Company

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Movie Review: FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

If you’ve been mourning the fact there are no more Harry Potter movies (for now), the J.K. Rowling-penned Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them should soothe that ache a bit.

tina-and-newt

Waterston and Redmayne

It’s about the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) some 70 years before Harry’s time. Scamander arrives in New York City in 1926 with a magical suitcase that accidentally releases creatures among the unsuspecting no-majs (American Muggles), which threatens to reveal the secret wizarding world.

Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) and Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), a former and current member, respectively, of the Magical Congress of the United States of America, pursue Scamander to make sure he recaptures his creatures and keeps his suitcase shut. But soon they realize a much greater danger looms and things turn dark.

I know, I’m vague about the plot, but does it matter? If you love everything Potter related, you’ll see this movie even if it’s about giant vats of mythical cheese. If you don’t, you’ve probably stopped reading already.

For those of you still here (thanks!), I think the movie is entertaining enough, though it has its clunky bits. Redmayne has done his shy looking-out-from-behind-his-hair act before—see: The Danish Girl—but he is a skilled actor who engenders good will. I hope Scamander becomes more confident as the series progresses.

Sudol & Fogler

Sudol and Fogler

Waterson is appealing as the determined Tina, who can’t be upstaged even when her blond bombshell Queenie shows up. Alison Sudol has a star-making role in the mind-reading Queenie; she’s sexy but also kind and sweet. Dan Fogler, as a man who just wants to open a bakery but gets caught up in magical shenanigans, elicits the most laughs with his reaction shots.

Harry, Hermione, and Ron might be missed at first, but these adults hold our attention, too. Oh, there’s also a super creepy kid named Chastity played by Faith Wood-Blagrove, and it’s hard to believe this is her screen debut.

Despite being a diehard fan of the HP books, I never thought the movies were great so it’s hard to say whether Fantastic Beasts is better or worse. It’s about a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. Where it lags are scenes depicting the antics of the CGI’d creatures or people gaping at them.

For me, the magic lies in the struggles of the humans, both wizards and no-majs. And though these events take place 90 years ago, the themes of oppression, racism, and obtaining power through fear mongering are absolutely relevant today.

Nerd verdict: Engaging Beasts

Photos: Warner Bros.

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Funny Shows For Sad Times

If you’ve been finding yourself weeping for the past week, perhaps you could use some laughter. Why not check out the hilarious shows below? You’re probably on the couch already.

What I especially like about these programs, all half-hour, is that they don’t force silly gags or cheap toilet humor on you. They’re funny and poignant because sometimes there’s only a fine line between the two.

Check them out and hopefully your spirits will be lifted, too, at least while you binge.

Schitt’s Creek (PopTV.com)

schitts-creekThis stars Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy—are you laughing yet? The Christopher Guest ensemble players portray Johnny and Moira Rose, a rich New York couple who, due to their investment advisor’s illegal activities, loses everything. Except a small town they bought as a joke, a place called Schitt’s Creek.

The town is so pathetic the government doesn’t want to seize it, so the Roses and their millennial kids, David (Dan Levy) and Alexis (Annie Murphy), go to live there. Cultures clash as they try to coexist with the small-town folk, who are worlds away from the Roses’ hoity-toity friends from New York society.

As expected, O’Hara and Levy are funny; Moira is an actress so O’Hara gets to be ridiculously dramatic. But the younger Levy—also the show’s cocreator and cowriter with his dad—Murphy, and the actors who play the townies are fine comedic talents, too (save for Chris Elliott, who’s just gross and annoying).

Fleabag (Amazon Prime)

waller-bridgeThis six-part BBC comedy series stars one of my favorite discoveries this year: Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She creates, writes, and stars in her own shows, and does all of it with aplomb. She just won the Groucho Club Maverick Award for this show, beating out Lin-Manuel Miranda. Do I have your attention now?

Fleabag (a nickname; we never learn her real name) is a young woman trying to move on after the death of a loved one. That doesn’t sound funny at all, I know, but the show has many absurd, wacky, laugh-out-loud moments. That’s where Waller-Bridge’s talent lies.

She makes you laugh one minute, and the next she’s hitting you between the eyes with something profound. Or vice versa. Life is like that in Waller-Bridge’s world, where laughter and pain are often not far from each other.

Crashing (Netflix)

After Fleabag, if you immediately want to see what else Waller-Bridge has done, check out Crashing, another absurd dramedy about six people living in an abandoned hospital to save money on rent. Think Friends but much weirder and with much less fancy digs.

Superstore (NBC)

superstore_2

America Ferrera heads the cast playing employees at a Walmart-like store, except here the employees are more outlandish than the customers.

But the characters aren’t weird for weird’s sake. The writing and acting show why they behave the way they do, which engenders more understanding and compassion than judgment toward them. And isn’t that what we need more of?

Have you seen any of these shows? What are you watching these days to lighten your mood?

Photos: Schitt’s Creek/CBC; Waller-Bridge/BBC; Superstore/NBC

 

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Knife-Sharpening Nasty Women

As with millions of people, I have been struggling to process the results of the US election. I wanted to write something about how I was feeling because writing can be healing for me. But my words kept running away from me, hiding somewhere I couldn’t reach them.

Then my 18-year-old niece Aline, who voted for the first time, posted the following on Facebook. I thought it was fiercer and more eloquent and hopeful than anything I could write. She gave me permission to reprint it here. —PCN

*****

knifeI woke up this morning feeling unbelievably small, sore-throated, and unable to shake this Zora Neale Hurston line from my head: “No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” I think I skipped straight from numbness to knife-sharpening.

I recognize that I still come from a place of relative privilege and that this election doesn’t hold as many tangible risks for me as it does for others. Even as a daughter of immigrant and refugee parents, I’ve been lucky enough to have socioeconomic security and education.

But I know how alienating it feels to be a young woman. There’s something desperately lonely about being a teenage girl, especially a nonwhite one in largely white spaces, especially one who’s always wanted more for as long as she can remember.

It’s the kind of Otherness that you can feel anywhere, it’s that pang of fear while walking down a street alone at night, that silence when someone says something casually racist or sexist because you don’t want to be a bitch, that urge to dumb yourself down in conversations so you don’t seem unaccommodating.

It’s almost painful to watch how consummately civil Hillary Clinton’s been in the wake of these results—I’m not asking her to act otherwise, because I understand why she needs to be—but the injustice behind that rationale makes me upset.

I saw a Facebook comment about her in the wake of her concession speech calling her a “power-seeking bitch”—ostensibly for having the sheer nerve to campaign for president in the first place—and it made me think about all the names we have for women who dare to vocalize wanting. Nasty woman. Bitch. Cunt. Et cetera.

The fact that this election’s revealed the vitriolic hatred at America’s core makes me angrier than ever, but I’m glad I’m still feeling something. If fighting to make this country better means I’ll be the nasty, bitchy nightmare of a woman I always feared I’d become, I couldn’t be more excited.

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Book Review: ESCAPE CLAUSE by John Sandford

escape-clauseAfter dealing with dognappings in 2014’s Deadline, Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers investigates catnappings in Escape Clause, his ninth outing in John Sandford’s Prey spinoff series.

The cats in this case are no household pets; they’re a pair of endangered Amur tigers stolen from the Minnesota Zoo. Flowers fears they’ll be slaughtered for parts to use in illegal traditional medicines.

But the first body he encounters is human, a small-time crook linked to the stolen tigers. Then another corpse surfaces. And yet another person goes missing. Flowers realizes he’s up against someone who intends to kill not only the tigers, but anyone who gets in the way of a deadly get-rich scheme.

Though the crimes in this novel are no joke—a subplot involves the exploitation of illegal Mexicans in the workplace—the appeal lies in the humor Sandford gives his eccentric characters.

Sporting long blond hair and cowboy boots, Flowers is sometimes underestimated by others as a law enforcement officer, but readers know he’s smart, competent and fair. His sidekicks are two other BCA agents who resemble “Mafia thugs,” but Flowers points out they’d do well in Hollywood with that look. The cool but complex Catrin Mattson, another colleague (Field of Prey), begs for a spinoff series of her own. Flowers’s girlfriend, Frankie, has a sister who’s dangerously self-centered, but Flowers’s relationship with Frankie is still going strong, just like this series.

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

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Nerdy Special List November 2016

Though some publications have already put out their best of 2016 lists, this year isn’t over yet so we’ll just tell you about our favorite books this month.

Except for Erin, who has a special recommendation. Because of that, she’ll have the final position this time.

We hope you’ll add at least one of these titles to your TBR stack.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran (Harper Perennial, November 29)

moranifestoMoranifesto is a collection of articles Moran published first in London’s The Times. The book is divided into four sections, with exclusive content opening each division. Each article then has a brief introduction explaining how it ties into the whole manifesto.

The articles are intelligent, witty, and diverse. She covers entertainingly silly subjects such as listening to a song over and over, then switches directions to discuss political topics like abortion and poverty.

Those familiar with her work will recognize her strong feminist perspective. Moran is well informed and knows how to interject just the right amount of levity at the right time.

She’s also very capable of wielding her sarcasm like a sword. Moranifesto made me want to subscribe to The Times just so I could spend more time with this amazing writer and woman. This is the perfect book for strong women and the men who are smart enough to appreciate them.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman (Atria, November 1)

andeverymorningThe old adage about good things coming in small packages applies to Fredrik Backman’s novella. It folds an amazingly beautiful story with huge themes into a wee little volume of goodness, complete with delightful color illustrations.

But it also comes with a warning label: Crying guaranteed.

And Every Morning started out as simply a way for Backman to come to terms with something in his life. He hadn’t intended to publish the scribbles he was making to free complicated emotions from his mind.

Lucky for us that changed. The novella tells the tale of an old man, his son, and his grandson. The old man is suffering from dementia and his memory shrinks every day.

Backman opens the book with a letter to readers that says, “This is a story about memories and about letting go. It’s a love letter and a slow farewell between a man and his grandson, and between a dad and his boy.”

And Every Morning is a single-sitting read but one to reread. Just keep the Kleenex close.

[Ed. note: Read Jen’s full review of this novella here.]

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Inherit the Bones by Emily Littlejohn (Minotaur, November 1)

inherit-the-bonesIf you can get past the clown (it’s a dead one, if that helps), Inherit the Bones is a super debut mystery featuring Deputy Gemma Monroe and an impressively diverse cast of supporting characters.

When the identity of the clown is discovered, the small town of Cedar Valley, Colorado, is forced to face dark secrets that have been hidden for decades.

The clown is just the newest in a long line of tragedies, including the disappearance of two boys, the discovery of a woman’s body on a riverbank, and the seemingly accidental slip-and-fall death of the mayor’s son.

Along with a partner she doesn’t fully trust and a freshly minted recruit, a very pregnant Gemma must mine the town’s past crimes in order to solve its most recent. Any good that comes from taking a shovel to buried secrets in a small town is always coupled with more violence, and Littlejohn keeps the anticipation high by weaving the past and present together in fine fashion.

Littlejohn has created numerous characters with the depth to make them intriguing while never distracting from the action. Her beautiful writing always keeps the story moving forward, and despite increasingly numerous subplots, the author deftly pulls them all together. She has a great start to a new series on her hands.

Niagara Motel by Ashley Little (Arsenal Pulp Press, November 15)

niagara-motelNiagara Motel is proof that writing in the voice of a child can be sublimely captivating. Readers will fall madly in love with Tucker Malone, who is more wise and world weary than any eleven-year-old should be.

Tucker never knew his father, whom he firmly believes is Sam Malone from the television sitcom Cheers, but Gina, his narcoleptic stripper mother, has tried to make a good life for him despite their dreary circumstances.

When tragedy separates them, Tucker is sent to a youth home where he meets older, pregnant Meredith, and the two strike up an unlikely yet lovely friendship.

After Meredith agrees to accompany Tucker to California to look for his father (Sam wasn’t at the Cheers bar in Boston, so the next likely place to find him is on set in Hollywood, right?), what transpires next is one of the most oddly inventive road trips ever.

Yes, ever. It’s so good and weird it’s almost distracting, but Little’s characters and writing are strong enough to keep the story on track.

Smart and funny, Niagara Motel is, at its heart, the story of Tucker Malone and his journey to find meaning and friendship. Go in blind, keep Google at the ready, and be prepared to get sucked in by this charming, heartfelt story.

From PCN:

Keigo Higashino’s Under the Midnight Sun, trans. by Alexander O. Smith with Joseph Reeder (Minotaur, November 8)

under-midnight-sunIt wasn’t until I was about a third into this 500+-page book that I realized almost everything I believed about certain characters was wrong. And it was a chilling realization.

I had to reevaluate the information I had from a different angle with a sense of dread.

Higashino, Edgar Award nominated for The Devotion of Suspect X, has created a Japanese Les Miserables, with a dogged detective who chases someone he believes has gotten away with murder for almost 20 years.

The story starts in 1973 with the body of a man found in an abandoned building. He’s been stabbed multiple times and the police have no suspects.

Over the next two decades, we follow what happens to the man’s young son and a little girl whose mother might’ve had a tangential connection to the dead man. Life is hard, and sometimes they have to do ugly things to survive.

And there’s Detective Sasagaki, who refuses to give up on that cold murder case.

The power of this novel lies in challenging the way we judge others when we don’t know the whole story. It asks us to see that even people who commit horrific acts are capable of great courage, and sometimes they do the former because of the latter.

I vacillated between fearing and loathing and being in awe of the two lead characters, and in the end, I couldn’t help but feel compassion for them.

From Erin at In Real Life:

My love of reading (and my nerdiness) comes in large part from my dad, and as I write this, he’s hours from taking what will be his last breath.

Erin's dad, Christmas '92, with BREAKING BLUE on table

Erin’s dad, Christmas ’92, with BREAKING BLUE on table

Dad recommended a lot of books over the years, including Breaking Blue by Timothy Egan, which he gave me for Christmas 24 years ago. It remains one of my “desert island” books.

So here’s my recommendation this month, with love to my dad, and thanks to PCN for letting me recommend a book that’s not new, but might be new to you.

I’m not a big reader of nonfiction, but when narrative nonfiction is done well, it takes my breath away. Breaking Blue is such a book.

Set in Spokane, Washington, in 1935 (and 1955 and 1989), it concerns a police department that defines institutional corruption in the most graphic ways possible.

When a town marshal is murdered, there’s not much of an investigation and no one is arrested for the crime. By 1989, it was the longest unsolved murder in the United States.

Enter a Spokane cop who, in the course of doing research for his master’s degree, finds an apparent deathbed confession to the murder from 1955. His subsequent investigation of the 1935 crime, and into his fellow police officers, is terrifying and tragic.

Breaking Blue is a genuine page-turner. When my dad gave it to me, I read it on the train back to Chicago from Spokane. I was lucky that Chicago was the last stop, because I was so engrossed in the story, I would have missed any earlier one.

Timothy Egan has won a lot of awards for his reporting and storytelling, including a Pulitzer Prize, and he deserves every one of them. In Breaking Blue, he unravels a gripping cop-vs.-cop tale, replete with fascinating history, nuanced atmosphere, and sociological insight.

This is one of those stories that prove truth indeed is often stranger than–and just as fascinating as–fiction.

Erin with her dad

Erin with her dad

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Review: GOOD GIRLS REVOLT

 

From L: Camp, Darke, Angelson

From L: Camp, Darke, Angelson

It’s funny. When I started PCN eight years ago, I made TV one of the categories because I occasionally review TV shows, but as I started writing about Good Girls Revolt, I didn’t know how to label it because it’s on Amazon Prime. Is it an iPad show? Laptop show?

Whatever you call it, it’s an engaging, thought-provoking series you should definitely check out. The 10 episodes premiered last Friday and I binged them (how else?) in 24 hours.

It’s about the real case of 46 female Newsweek employees who filed a complaint against the magazine in 1970 for gender discrimination, because no women were allowed to be reporters there.

One of those women, Lynn Povich, wrote a book about it called The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace, which became the basis for this show, though the characters and magazine have been fictionalized to give the creators more creative license.

The focus is on three young women: Patti, Jane, and Cindy, researchers and photo caption writer, respectively, for the male reporters and photographer at News of the Week (so subtle). The women chase down stories, gather facts, interview people, write up drafts, and then the men make some revisions (sometimes not) and slap their bylines on the stories.

Patti is the ambitious flower child, the leader of the group. Cindy feels trapped in an unhappy marriage with a man who has given her only one year to work before she must start producing babies. Jane comes from money and is fine with remaining a researcher because she’s certain she won’t be there long, only until her longtime boyfriend proposes, which should be any day now.

Into this mix comes Nora Ephron (one of only two characters who retain their real names), the catalyst for the revolt because she refuses to accept the status quo. When she sees her female colleagues fighting over stories for which they’d receive no credit, the future famed writer says, “It’s like you’re fighting over the bottom bunk in prison.” Grace Gummer nails Ephron’s essence but looks exactly like her mom, Meryl Streep.

Ephron doesn’t last long at the magazine, but long enough to give the other women a wakeup call. Their trajectories move at different speeds, but eventually they realize they deserve more and must challenge the system to get it.

Genevieve Angelson is a major discovery as Patti, the spunky girl who knows what she wants and boldly goes after it—or him. Angelson imbues her character with scrappiness and intelligence, convincing us Patti would be a very good writer if only she’s allowed to be one.

Patti has the most fabulous bohemian chic wardrobe, alternating between looking like Brigitte Bardot, Julie Christie, and Michelle Phillips. Angelson has said in an interview she was tempted to abscond with all her costumes but didn’t want to get fired. I understand that urge after seeing her strutting around in boots and one cool mini after another.

Erin Darke is endearing as sweet, vulnerable Cindy, who at first has the least confidence of the three leads but experiences an awakening at work and sexually, occasionally at the same time.

ggr-just-janeAnna Camp, best known for the Pitch Perfect movies, delivers a complex yet subtle performance as the seemingly perfect woman who holds so tightly to tradition, she becomes the hardest obstacle to move. Her fashion choices are more proper than Patti’s but equally eye popping.

Comparisons to Mad Men are probably inevitable but Good Girls Revolt is from a female point of view. Besides creator Dana Calvo, most of the directors and writers are women—a rarity for any show.

Which isn’t to say the men get bashed. The male characters receive fair and balanced treatment from the writers and the actors who portray them, particularly Hunter Parrish as star reporter Doug and Chris Diamantopolous as Editor-at-Large Finn.

Yes, I often yelled “WTF?!” at the screen due to the men’s sexist behavior. Jane experiences one incident of sexual harassment that’s so obscene, I was shocked into silence. (And it was depressing to think that, judging by a certain presidential candidate’s boasts, that kind of behavior still exists.)

But Doug and Finn are more products of their time than male chauvinists at heart. Once they’re schooled on what women want and how they’d like to be treated, Doug and Finn do attempt to change, albeit not always successfully. Enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight, after all.

What did happen overnight was my finishing the entire season of this show. I didn’t know much about the landmark case before I started watching, and afterward googled many of the key players to learn more. As a former journalist, I’m so thankful I never had to endure what those women did in the newsroom, and that they helped make it possible for me to even call myself a reporter.

Nerd verdict: Very good Revolt

Photos: Amazon Prime Video

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Book Review: WHERE AM I NOW? by Mara Wilson

mara-wilson-where-am-i-nowMara Wilson shot to fame when she was five years old, after playing Robin Williams and Sally Field’s daughter in Mrs. Doubtfire. That led to her stepping into Natalie Wood’s shoes in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. At seven, Wilson landed her dream role: the titular character in the film adaptation of Matilda, the Roald Dahl classic that Wilson and her mother loved.

Then tragedy struck. Wilson’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and would not live to see the release of Matilda. After her mother’s death, Wilson started having anxiety attacks and OCD symptoms. As she entered puberty, casting directors stopped calling.

Where Am I Now? contains engaging, poignant accounts of the actress-turned-storyteller’s struggles to find her identity after losing her mother and Hollywood’s adoration: “I didn’t want to stop acting because I had to, because I was too ugly.”

Wilson covers difficult topics but can leaven a painful anecdote with incisive wit. Remarking on a harsh review in which a movie critic expresses a desire “to shake [Wilson] by her tiny adorable shoulders until her little Chiclet teeth rattle,” Wilson writes: “What better way to show one’s edgy coolness than hypothetical child abuse?”

When fans ask for a picture with her, she panics: “I don’t photograph well, and…they’re going to put it on the Internet, where not everyone knows I’m funny and charming and generally a decent person.” But that’s exactly how she comes across in this memoir, with a sense of self-acceptance that indicates she knows where—and who—she is now.

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

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Squirrels and Kittens and Gators—Oh, My!

Laura_Benedict

Today is pub day for Laura Benedict‘s The Abandoned Heart, and I’m happy to welcome her back to PCN. She’s the nicest twisted person I know, as evidenced by the creepy post she wrote for me last year about medical dolls, which I’ve barely recovered from.

This year she takes a look at Victorian taxidermy, which plays a part in Abandoned Heart. Oh, man, I’m going to have nightmares about the kids below for a long time.

Read on, and then check out Laura’s book!

Victorians and Their Love for Creepy Dead Things

The Victorians were mad for taxidermy. One theory is that it had something to do with their legendary obsession with death. But given that Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert didn’t die until 1861—giving rise to elaborate mourning traditions that the middle class quickly embraced—I think it was more complicated than that.

From the very early nineteenth century, naturalists like Charles Darwin were traveling widely, trying to make scientific sense of the natural world. They brought that world back with them for research and curiosity purposes.

The middle and leisure classes were also always on the lookout for new and novel things to fill their free time. If you were even vaguely interested in exotica like a baby rhinoceros and couldn’t get to Africa to see one, why not trot down to the local exhibition and view the next best thing?

rhino

London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 featured the work of no fewer than fourteen taxidermists. The one who drew the longest lines was Hermann Ploucquet, who had published a book called The Comical Creatures from Wurtemberg. Its illustrations featured anthropomorphized animals, and Plouquet took the illustrations one step further by posing taxidermy animals in representative tableaux.

reading-fox-sketch

reading-fox

drinking-cats

cats-around-table

From the pert look in the eyes of Ploucquet’s creatures, it would appear he figured out that animal eyeballs had to be replaced with glass. Not all early taxidermists understood this, and their work is sadly (and perhaps for the best) lost to time.

There are plenty of bad taxidermy examples on the Internet, but please enjoy this lion assembled from bones and skin in the eighteenth century by a taxidermist who had never seen an actual lion.

This is the famous Lion of Gripsholm Castle, along with his backstory.

lion-of-gripsholm

Plouquet was famous in his time, but the taxidermist who emerged from the era with truly enduring fame is Walter Potter. No one is certain, but he must have been inspired by Plouquet’s earlier work.

Potter (with whom I share a birthday; apparently Cancers are a little twisted) took the tableau method and went crazy with it, often with birds (many, many birds) and kittens. He exhibited his work in a private museum in the village of Bramber in England until 1914, and his animals do look incredibly lifelike and plausible. Let’s try not to think how all of these kittens and squirrels coincidentally died at the same time, yes?

kittens

squirrels

The Guardian did a piece with some wonderful photography of several of Potter’s works.

Thanks to some adoring parents, we have photographic evidence that nineteenth and early twentieth century taxidermy wasn’t just for grownups, but was enjoyed by the kiddies, too.

kid-with-crocodile kid-on-animal

And, yes, also by the Paris Hiltons and Kardashians of their day.

cats-on-heads

Taxidermy as popular viewing entertainment fell out of favor early in the twentieth century as Victorian whimsy was replaced by the very real concerns of industrialization and World War I. People also began to examine the provenance of the animals. Surely they all could not have died natural deaths, as Walter Potter’s descendants suggested.

Hmmm…okay.

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel, The Abandoned Heart: A Bliss House Novel, is set in 1878 Virginia. One of the children in the novel is very attached to a balding taxidermy squirrel named Brownkin, given to her by her eccentric grandfather, an amateur taxidermist. Read more about The Abandoned Heart and Laura’s other books here.

Photo: Jay Fram

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