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Movie Review: THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN

gott

DreamWorks/Universal Pictures

Though I was less than impressed with The Girl on the Train in book form, I like the talent associated with the movie, especially Emily Blunt, who plays Rachel, the titular character. So I went in with an open mind, but the last thing I expected was to be bored.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a spoiler-free version: a woman (Rachel) who takes a train every day becomes a voyeur of the lives of people who live along the train tracks. One day Rachel sees a young woman (Megan) kissing a man who’s not her husband, and then Megan goes missing afterward. Rachel is convinced what she saw is important to the investigation, and finagles her way into it as a helpful citizen. But wait—she’s a drunk and an extremely unreliable witness.

I tore through the book because Hawkins’s nonlinear and unreliable storytelling kept me constantly wondering what the heck was going on, despite my intense dislike of all the characters. They remain unlikable in the movie, even though Blunt, Haley Bennett as Megan, and Allison Janney as the investigating cop do good work. Rebecca Ferguson, a revelation in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, is criminally underused as Anna, the third narrator in the novel.

Some prominent details have been changed (mainly Rachel is in NY instead of London) or left out altogether, but the adaption, written by Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Tate Taylor (The Help), remains mostly faithful. Since I now know all the answers, it was hard for me to maintain interest. The story had lost its only hook: keeping me in the dark.

I sat next to a woman who hadn’t read the book, and it was clear from her vocal reactions she was really into the movie, especially the ending. So it might be a solid choice if you’re coming to it clean. Otherwise, it’s OK to miss this Train.

Nerd verdict: Take a different Train

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Nerdy Special List September 2016

I’ve seen many fall-books list in the last couple of weeks, but they all seem to have the same five books on them. Well, WE’RE RECOMMENDING ALL DIFFERENT BOOKS.

(I’m not punchy, just hungry. And tired of seeing the same five books on lists.)

Here’s what we really liked and want you to read this month.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Darktown by Thomas Mullen (September 13, 37 Ink/Atria)

darktownBlending historical fiction with a police procedural, Thomas Mullen has imagined the lives of the first eight black officers on the Atlanta, Georgia, police force in 1948. The realism tears at the readers’ hearts while the suspense keeps them glued to the plot. It’s a magnificent work of art.

When a young black woman is found brutally murdered and left in a pile of trash, partners Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith decide they are going to find the murderer. They know the white detectives won’t make any effort, but Boggs and Smith could lose their jobs for pursuing the case.

As part of the black officers unit, they don’t have a patrol car, can’t arrest a white suspect, and aren’t even allowed in the main police department; they’re relegated to the basement of the YMCA.

But not long before she was killed, Boggs and Smith had seen the woman in the car of a drunk, white man who hit her. They feel an obligation to find out exactly what happened, no matter what it costs them.

Mullen doesn’t soft play the racism or bigotry of the era, and his despicable antagonists are as complexly drawn as the conflicted protagonists. Mullen has been quoted as saying he’d like to revisit these characters, and that’s the only consolation to turning the last page in Darktown.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Red Bandanna by Tom Rinaldi (September 6, Penguin Press)

red-bandannaImagine losing a child in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and not knowing how or exactly where. Then imagine reading a post-attack article in which survivors describe the courage of the man who saved their lives—a man wearing a red bandanna tied around his face, a bandanna just like your son carried with him every day since he was a boy.

The story of Welles Crowther, that bandanna-wearing young man, is shared by Tom Rinaldi in The Red Bandanna. Emotional but not overwrought, Rinaldi’s writing strikes just the right tone in setting out just who Welles was and the upbringing that turned him into a man who, when faced with a raging inferno, went back up instead of out to safety.

After the first half of background, buckle up for a stirring reenactment of the events of Welles’s final moments, and the impact he had on those he left behind.

When President Obama spoke at the dedication of the memorial museum in 2014, he only mentioned one name: Welles Crowther. Rinaldi’s recounting of the story is well worth a read and one to which we should bear witness.

One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist: Stories by Dustin M. Hoffman (September 1, University of Nebraska Press)

100-knuckled-fistDustin M. Hoffman has an extraordinary voice. To be more accurate, Hoffman has many voices, as evidenced by the sixteen distinct stories in his debut collection, One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist.

Each piece is an ode to the blue-collar worker, a cross section of some of society’s most forgotten and invisible individuals: painters, hardscapers, commission salesmen, and ice-cream truck drivers (to name a few), along with the homeless and the unemployed, each trying to make their way under the pressures their lives and the world exert on them.

The stories in this collection are wonderful and weird and gross and gritty and ingenious. Some made me say, “What the hell?” Others made me silent with awe. To a one they kept me glued to the page.

Although the blue-collar theme is carried throughout, each work is idiosyncratic in its own special way. I highly recommend this collection, winner of the 2015 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (September 6, William Morrow)

hidden-figuresThis book is about black women being hired by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, precursor to NASA) during WWII to do computations as new airplanes were being designed to win the war.

Most of these women had had the opportunity to go to college and studied math. Many selected teaching as a profession as they could get jobs teaching in the then-segregated schools. Several started working at NACA as a summer job, but they stayed on as they made more money there than teaching.

The women we learn the most about are fascinated with math, and the ways they could use math to solve aeronautical problems so that airplanes, and eventually spaceships, could fly higher, faster, and more safely.

These women were very much like the women of today. They worked long days, were married, did the shopping, cooking, went to church, participated in their communities, raised children, and challenged them to follow in the women’s footsteps. They also participated in the civil rights movement, both in the workplace and out in their communities.

I admire these women so much, and the math they were capable of doing, and then how it impacted America’s progress with aeronautics during WWII, and then later with the moon landing.

[Ed. note: The movie adaptation of this book will be released on December 25, 2016.]

From PCN:

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton (September 20, Minotaur)

daisy-in-chainsLast year, one of my top three favorite books was Sharon Bolton’s Little Black Lies. She’s one of those authors who, well, if I’m eating a pizza after being lost in the woods for a week and someone says, “This Bolton book for your pizza,” I’d hand over the pizza even if a slice was halfway to my mouth.

Bolton’s latest, Daisy in Chains, has that creepy atmosphere she’s so good at creating, and a strong female protagonist who intimidates or rubs everyone the wrong way—another welcome staple of the author’s work.

In this standalone, Maggie Rose is an attorney who specializes in overturning convictions, even of the vilest criminals. She’s trying to decide if she should take on the appeal of surgeon Hamish Wolfe, convicted serial killer of women. He’s charming and all, and keeps proclaiming his innocence (don’t they all?) but she doesn’t know if she can trust him. She embarks on her own investigation and of course it leads her to some pretty dark places.

Bolton’s prose has a mesmerizing quality, and unlike Maggie’s reaction to Hamish, I surrendered to Daisy in Chains.

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Movie Review: SULLY

 

sully-plane

Like many people, I thought I knew what happened on January 15, 2009 with US Airways Flight 1549, which Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River about 3 minutes after takeoff from La Guardia Airport. A bird strike resulted in the loss of both engines and the captain had no choice but to do what he did, right?

Turns out, according to Clint Eastwood’s Sully (based on Sullenberger’s memoir, Highest Duty), we barely knew the story at all.

The movie starts out with a startling scene, of a plane in trouble flying low in Manhattan. I’ll leave it at that.

The story unfolds in a nonlinear way, alternating between what happened on the flight that day, the ensuing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, and Sully’s internal turmoil as he starts to doubt his actions (should he have tried to make it back to LaGuardia? Did he risk killing everyone on board by making that water landing?).

Tom Hanks, on a streak of playing real people (see: Captain Phillips and last year’s Bridge of Spies), is very good as Captain Sullenberger. It’s all in his eyes—the recognition that something is terribly wrong with the plane, the quick analysis of his options, his decision to do the impossible, and his courage as he does his job.

Even after landing, he doesn’t stop being the captain, wading through water in the fast-filling aircraft to make sure everyone has deplaned before being the last man off himself, then begging rescue workers to do a head count during a chaotic situation. It’s not possible due to passengers being taken to different hospitals, but later, when Sully is told simply, “One fifty-five,” Hanks’s quiet reaction, understating the immense relief the pilot must’ve felt in learning everyone has survived, makes that number seem like the most wondrous thing he’s ever heard.

sully-hanks-eckhartAaron Eckhart as copilot Jeff Skiles and Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorraine, have little to do besides being supportive of the captain as the NTSB questions his decision to land on the river (the captain stresses on, not in, the Hudson), while the recovered data supposedly shows he had much safer options.

The investigation provides good conflict and an untold angle to the Miracle on the Hudson story, but I wondered how much of that was exaggerated for cinematic effect. Captain Sullenberger pulled off a remarkable feat, everyone lived—why were they trying to, well, sully his reputation and 42-year career?

The real NTSB investigators have since protested their portrayals, while Sullenberger, who consulted on the movie, stands by his account.

Though this movie is about a recent event whose outcome is well known, director Clint Eastwood still manages to make it thrilling and incredibly suspenseful. Scenes of the plane diving toward water, or coming straight toward the camera, or flying way too close to buildings made me tense. I was like Sully waiting for that head count after the landing—I could not relax.

Eastwood hired real emergency workers to give the rescue scenes veracity. Sully shows how the end result wasn’t so much a miracle, but a group of people coming together to take care of one another during 208 seconds of terror. (Stay for the credits to see some of those real people.)

Nerd verdict: Gripping Sully

Photos: Warner Bros.

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Not Too Long Ago, In a Place Not So Far Away…

This past Saturday, I got to do something I’ve long wanted to do: see John Williams perform live, conducting the L.A. Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.

hb day

I did not come dressed as a Star Wars character, nor did I bring a lightsaber, but after talking to the costumed couple next to me, it was evident that my SW nerdiness ran just as deep, or deeper, than theirs, if only because I’m old and remember seeing the very first film in the theater when it first came out, when it was called simply Star Wars without any episode numbers or subtitles attached, and collecting the Topps trading cards and owning the action figures.

After the first segment of the concert, in which composer David Newman conducted the orchestra through scores for classic Hollywood films such as Sunset Boulevard and The Godfather, the 84-year-old Williams took the stage in a white tux jacket.

The crowd went wild, and out came the lightsabers in Force (heh).

Williams first teased us by playing his more recent compositions, including the score from this summer’s The BFG. But he knew what the crowd, dressed as Ewoks and Rey and gold-bikini Leia (it was cold!), was there to hear. First came “The Imperial March.”

Williams was very personable and witty between sets. He talked about how when he first saw the original SW, he saw two beautiful lead characters in Luke and Leia, assumed they’d end up together, and composed a love theme that built to “a torrid climax, hardly appropriate for a brother and sister. I didn’t find out until two years later!”

He also said he’d already said yes to scoring Episode 8 because “I can’t bear to have anyone else write music for Daisy—Rey,” whom he’d fallen in love with after seeing The Force Awakens.

After playing more SW music, Williams performed 3 encores: music from the Harry Potter and Superman movies, and ET. I kept hollering for the Raiders of the Lost Ark theme, but no luck.

I can’t properly describe how special this experience was for me. The music didn’t bring back only memories of some of my favorite films ever, but also recollections of my time in the school orchestra when I played some of Williams’s iconic scores on my violin in school concerts. I remembered the notes and the runs and crescendos and pianissimos, my fingers tapping along on an invisible instrument.

During Newman’s portion of the concert, he played pieces by Lalo Schifrin (Mission: Impossible) and Bernard Herrmann (North by Northwest, Psycho), giants in their field who left behind unforgettable themes. John Williams is a living legend, and I was thrilled I got to see him doing what he does best.

I leave you with this. May the Force be with you.

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Book Review: THE COUPLE NEXT DOOR by Shari Lapena

couple next doorAt the outset of Shari Lapena’s first novel, Anne and Marco Conti are enjoying a rare night out at a dinner party next door. Their babysitter canceled at the last minute, so the Contis have brought along their baby monitor and are taking turns every half hour to go back to their place and check on six-month-old Cora. When the party wraps at one a.m., Anne and Marco return home to find their front door ajar—and Cora gone.

Detective Rasbach arrives at the scene, and suspects the Contis know more about their child’s disappearance than they’re admitting. There’s also tension between Marco and his father-in-law, and Anne’s wealthy parents may have been the real targets for ransom.

And what to make of the fact Anne can’t remember what her own baby was wearing the last time she saw her? Rasbach is determined to get to the truth, even if everyone he encounters seems intent on hiding it from him.

The prose is wooden, often stating the obvious (“The truth is there. It’s always there. It only needs to be uncovered.”), and the omniscient narrative voice makes it hard to form a clear picture of anyone. But this last quality works in the novel’s favor, because it means any or all of the cryptic characters could be guilty of something. The plot turns are many, and though not particularly shocking, they speed this psychological thriller along toward a satisfying ending.

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

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Nerdy Special List August 2016

Happy Friday, everyone! At least, I think it’s Friday. I’ve locked myself in the den this entire week because it’s too hot to go outside, and—wait, wasn’t I wearing these same shorts yester…anyway, my point is, sometimes the days of summer blend together.

I do know it’s August, though, which means it’s time for this month’s Nerdy Special List. Here are the new releases we recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Repo Madness by W. Bruce Cameron (Forge, August 23)

repo-madnessRuddy McCann, the former high school football star turned repo man, returns in W. Bruce Cameron’s humorous second book of the series. The voice of dead realtor Alan Lottner is gone, and McCann discovers he’s lonely without the meddlesome spirit intruding on his thoughts.

So as the book opens, he’s visiting mediums to try to reconnect with Lottner. While visiting one of these mediums, a stranger approaches McCann and shares information that shakes the very foundation of his existence.

The stranger bolts before McCann is able to learn who she is or how she came upon this information, leaving him stunned and full of questions. He knows he has to find the woman and uncover the truth.

Cameron takes McCann through a whirlwind adventure complete with quirky characters, murder-for-hire, and a love triangle. There’s no shortage of laughs, and the plot is full of satisfying surprises.

Readers don’t need to read the first book (The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man) to understand this new installment, but if you’re considering reading both, definitely start with book 1. Going back after having read the second novel will spoil some of the fun twists of the first. I’m hopeful we’ll see more of this series in the future because I have a bad case of Repo Madness.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (Thomas Dunne Books, August 9)

all the ugly...Wayvonna Quinn was born in the back of a stranger’s car while her parents hitchhiked across Texas. Eight years later, her circumstances have improved, but barely.

Now living in a dilapidated farmhouse, Wavy’s trying to parent her infant brother. Her father runs a meth lab on the property and her mother barely functions. To say her life is difficult is an understatement. She is poor, abused, and afraid.

Then she meets Kellen. Kellen changes her life, they take care of each other—and care for each other, in a world that doesn’t want them. Aside from Wavy’s brother, Kellen is the only wonderful thing in her life. But when tragedy upends and exposes Wavy’s family, her life looks ugly to the outside.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is an unexpectedly touching novel. Filled with tragedy and told effortlessly from multiple narrators, Bryn Greenwood’s novel is one that will stick with me for a long time. It’s a story that challenges the way you view the world.

As Wavy falls in love with Kellen, a man who is much too old for her, the novel needs to be read with empathy and understanding. Greenwood does not romanticize the relationship; she is not sentimental about Wavy and Kellen. Instead she presents their brutal, hard-won existence with an honest, straightforward appeal that is, well, very appealing. I sincerely hope readers give this one a chance. It’s not an easy book to read, but it is worth it.

From Erin at In Real Life:

A Time of Torment by John Connolly (Atria/Emily Bestler Books, August 2)

time of tormentI make no secret of my adoration of John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series. Whether you’re already a fan or the series is new to you, A Time of Torment is at once terrifying and comforting, a story that will, trite as this is, keep you up all night and stay with you long after.

Connolly’s plots are nothing if not complex, and this one is no exception. It begins with a man who might or might not be a hero, having been recently released from prison, and the story proceeds to bring readers on a journey to a fictional town where evil is the primary currency.

Our uncompromising hero, Charlie Parker, is compelled to battle the malevolence that inhabits the hearts of some of the most fascinating bad guys ever written, and he’s aided by sidekicks who get more interesting with each book. Connolly’s prose is so vivid that it’s hard to remember at times this book is fiction, because it feels as if you’ve been dropped into this world, and your only hope for survival is Mr. Parker himself.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (St. Martin’s Press, August 9)

behind closed doorsGrace can’t believe her luck. Until she met Jack Angel, her relationships all fell apart over her devotion to her 17-year-old sister, Millie, who has Down syndrome. Not only does Jack have movie-star good looks and charisma to burn, he’s crazy about both Grace and Millie.

After a whirlwind courtship, Grace and Jack are married and living the “perfect” life. But no one can see what’s going on behind the closed doors of the dream house Jack built for Grace and Millie, and Grace begins to fear it wasn’t luck that brought Jack into their lives.

Along alternating timelines, Grace and Jack’s past and present unfold, winding together and building anticipation for a final confrontation. Paris does a good job explaining her characters’ decisions, as irrational as they may be, which helps keep the narrative on track. Behind Closed Doors is a steam train of a psychological thriller that may keep you up into the wee hours.

From PCN:

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore (Random House, August 16)

last days of nightLet me start by saying I don’t read much historical fiction or many books about science. And this is a historical novel about science. Why in the world did I even look at it, you ask?

Mainly because it’s written by Graham Moore, who wrote The Sherlockian (read my review here) and the screenplay for The Imitation Game, both of which I enjoyed (you might remember he won the Oscar for the latter). And I’m so glad I picked this up. Because it’s FANTASTIC.

It’s a David vs. Goliath story of Paul Cravath, 26 and fresh out of Columbia Law, being hired by George Westinghouse to defend him in a lawsuit—make that 312 lawsuits—claiming Westinghouse’s lightbulbs infringe upon an existing patent.

The opponent? Thomas Edison, who claims he invented the lightbulb and will crush anyone who tries to say otherwise.

Paul soon learns Edison’s threats aren’t idle, and all the young lawyer’s clever legal maneuverings may not be enough for him to win in court—or even survive the fight.

The synopsis doesn’t do this book justice, because in Moore’s hands, this fact-based account comes alive. Moore transports you to a time when the world was on the brink of awe-inspiring discoveries. He entertains while making you feel smarter, and that’s sexy.

News has just surfaced that Eddie Redmayne will star as Paul in the movie adaption, which is a great choice despite Redmayne being in his thirties. I can’t wait to see who gets to play the inventor Nikola Tesla (a singular character who figures prominently) and everyone else in the story.

What are you looking forward to reading this month?

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Movie Review: SUICIDE SQUAD

suicide-squad

I didn’t know much about the squad when I went to the screening, and had avoided all the trailers, so I was open to whatever. I just wanted to be entertained.

And I was, by some of it, the parts that didn’t induce eye rolls.

Background for Suicide Squad neophytes like me: a government official named Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), head of a secret agency, comes up with a plan to recruit some crazy-ass villains with special powers to work for the US government, because what if the next metahuman from Krypton isn’t a superman but a superterrorist? We need a super army for defense!

The chosen criminals include: Deathshot (Will Smith), an assassin who never misses a shot; Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a former therapist who fell for one of her patients and went nuts; Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a gangbanger who can throw flames from his hands; Boomerang (Jai Courtney), an Aussie who can throw his country’s signature weapon with deadly precision; and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a guy with a serious skin problem who looks like a cross between The Thing and Godzilla.

There’s also Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a badass chick with a sword that traps souls, but she’s a bodyguard and not a criminal. Neither is Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), a very old witch who can teleport. The convicts must obey Waller’s orders or else get blown up by a bomb implanted in them. You know, employee incentives.

At times too many characters crowd the screen and the action gets too busy and the effects look like generic CGI. Most of the actors don’t have a chance to shine. Scott Eastwood practically does background work as a soldier.

The brightest spot is Robbie portraying the unhinged Quinn with glee. The actress, who seems to be in 53 movies this year, energizes every scene she’s in, but also gives a glimpse of the vulnerability beneath Quinn’s cuckoo exterior. She has brother-sister chemistry with Smith (the two worked together in Focus), and their breezy banter is fun. It almost—but not quitemakes up for the fact she has to walk around in hot pants that cover only two-thirds of her booty. Seriously?

Davis also stands out as the suit running the squad. She doesn’t need any weapons or gimmicks. Her power lies in her steely glare and low, steady voice. Everything about her says, “Don’t f*ck with me,” and the villains, as unstable as they are, know enough to be scared of Waller.

Less successful is Jared Leto as The Joker. While I could appreciate his trying to bring something unique to the iconic character, his interpretation doesn’t stick its landing. The Joker’s laugh is annoying. Having his smile tattooed on his hand serves no purpose. This Joker is neither intimidating nor formidable, and doesn’t come close to Heath Ledger’s still-resonant incarnation.

Delevingne is too lightweight an actress to play the powerful witch. She has no chemistry with Joel Kinnaman, who plays her love interest, Rick Flag, the soldier and field leader of the squad. Hernandez makes an impression, but it’s because his character is the lone holdout—Diablo really, really doesn’t want to use his firestarting powers or engage in violence anymore.

Director/writer David Ayer’s vision of the DC Universe is more palatable than Zack Snyder’s, and I applaud Suicide Squad for having a diverse cast, but in the end, it’s a slick, expensive, loud summer movie based on comic-book characters. Take that as you will.

Photo: Warner Bros.

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Book Review: MISSING, PRESUMED by Susie Steiner

missing, presumedBeautiful Cambridge grad student Edith Hind goes missing, leaving behind her belongings, including her passport and phone. There’s also blood at her home, and the door wide is open.

Investigating Edith’s disappearance, Cambridgeshire Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw and Detective Constable Davy Walker are dismayed to discover Edith’s father has ties to the royal family, which means extra media coverage and pressure to find Edith quickly. But as days and weeks pass without credible clues, and the police uncover surprising details about Edith’s life, they wonder if the “high-risk misper” case is actually one of murder.

It’s not hard to guess the outcome of the mystery, and the pacing lags in chapters from the point of view of Edith’s mother, Miriam. She’s sympathetic but her grief is static.

The strengths of Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed lie in getting to know the detectives. Thirty-nine-year-old Manon is juggling her career with Internet dating, and her experiences with the men she goes out with are amusing. Some of Manon’s behavior toward potential love matches is cringe-worthy, but it’s understandable because underlying it all is her longing to connect with someone and have a child.

Kindhearted, unflappable Davy seems content with his girlfriend, whom everyone dislikes, but as the story progresses, Davy ponders whether or not being nice all the time truly makes him happy. These characters feel like old friends, which is good because readers will get to see them again in future series installments.

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

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Book Review: COLLECTING THE DEAD by Spencer Kope

collecting the deadSpencer Kope’s Collecting the Dead introduces Magnus “Steps” Craig, who works in the FBI Special Tracking Unit as the “human bloodhound.”

Steps has the synesthetic ability to see touch, i.e., he can spot the traces people leave behind on surfaces they’ve walked over and touched. “Shine” is what he calls these tracks, and each person’s shine has a distinctive color and texture, identifiers as specific as DNA.

Steps and his partner, Special Agent Jimmy Donovan, are on the trail of a serial killer of young women. Even with Steps in pursuit, the killer remains elusive with cunning ways of covering his tracks, leading Steps and Jimmy to fight against time and hostile terrains to find the murderer before more women die.

Steps is a welcome new series protagonist, not only because of his unusual talent but also his sense of humor and personality. He hates forests—“They’re like nightmares with leaves”—but often ends up in one while tracking criminals.

Refreshingly, he’s far from being a hardened hero haunted by his past. Steps had a happy childhood with a loving family—he still lives with his brother—and thus it’s particularly upsetting for him to witness so much darkness in his work. Jimmy constantly reminds him, however, that they need his ability to save who they can.

Kope, a crime analyst, gives readers insight into a world in which good people, as he says in the acknowledgments, “confront fear so that others don’t have to.” He praises these defenders of justice, and readers will do the same to Kope for creating a humane and captivating character.

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

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Movie Review: GHOSTBUSTERS

ghostbusters_2016

The first things you probably want to know are: Is it as good as the original? Is it funny?

No, and yes.

I wanted to be fair to this version and not compare it to the 1984 movie, but people kept asking me that first question so I figured I’d get it out of the way. The version starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson is so beloved that it’s hard to beat. Even its 1989 sequel, with much of the original talent returning, couldn’t live up to it.

The reboot’s story is roughly the same as the original: three scientists who believe in the paranormal get fired from their jobs and must strike out on their own, eventually calling themselves Ghostbusters. Along the way, they’re joined by a fourth member to save New York City from an infestation of ghosts.

The leading cast is very talented, too: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones. I don’t think the script, cowritten by Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig, supports them well enough, though it does give them some funny lines—unless they were improvised.

Some of the comedic bits go on too long, but McKinnon’s Holtzmann is a welcome kind of weird; McCarthy’s and Jones’s Abby and Patty, respectively, are reliably sassy; and Wiig proves she can still be funny as the straight person of the group, the “serious” scientist. It’s nice to see the power of female friendship onscreen, smart women working together to accomplish great things. They own their misfitness.

Standouts in the supporting cast include Karan Soni as a droll Chinese restaurant delivery boy, and Zach Woods as a tour guide who sees ghosts.

Not as successful is Chris Hemsworth as the Ghostbusters’ dim-witted and clumsy receptionist. Hemsworth can be funny (see: Vacation remake), but here he’s trying too hard. It’s like he’s asking for the laugh instead of simply being the character.

The actress who played the original receptionist, Annie Potts, shows up as…a receptionist. Look also for appearances by Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson, and Sigourney Weaver. The late Ramis appears, too, in a way. Half the fun is keeping your eyes peeled for original cast members, who drop in long enough to give a touch of nostalgia but not long enough to distract from the current cast. Oh, and stay for the tag after all the credits.

So, if you’re looking for some diverting entertainment, who you gonna call?

Nerd verdict: Doesn’t bust new ground, but good for some laughs

Photo: Sony/Columbia

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Nerdy Special List July 2016

Hope you all have been enjoying summer! People usually go somewhere around this time for vacation, and this year they are all coming to stay with me. I’ve been hosting family and friends, and though their visits create total cleaning panic, it’s the only way I can be motivated to clean.

Before I go back to stuffing crap into closets scrubbing the kitchen sink, I present you with this month’s reading recommendations. It’s a varied list as usual; hope at least one selection sparks your interest!

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry (Tyndale House Publishers, July 1)

jesse-woodsChris Fabry’s lyrical writing style makes this charming story of three young outcasts growing up in t1970s Dogwood, West Virginia, moving and memorable.

Matt Plumley is the new kid in town. Besides being the preacher’s son, Matt is overweight. The first people he meets in Dogwood are Dickie Darrel Lee Hancock, a mixed-race boy, and Jesse Woods, a dirt-poor, fatherless tomboy. Matt’s parents aren’t so thrilled with his new friends, but Matt sees the best in them and finds acceptance in their eyes. The three-way friendship bonds the young teens until a fateful night in 1972.

The Promise of Jesse Woods is a beautiful novel with sharply drawn characters, rich in authenticity and passion. The atmosphere of the period echoes the beautiful simplicities as well as the ugly complexities. With the engrossing magic of exceptional storytelling, Fabry will envelop readers in a time gone by wrapped in themes that transcend time. Stunning.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday, July 12)

heavenly tableDespite only having two published books, Donald Ray Pollock is one of my favorite contemporary authors. For over a year, I’ve been looking forward to the release of his new novel, The Heavenly Table. I was not disappointed, though I can’t quite say that his sophomore novel is better than his debut (The Devil All the Time is in a league of its own).

Following the Jewett brothers—Cane, Cob, and Chimney—-Table takes place in 1917 southern Ohio. After the sudden death of their father, the three brothers become outlaws in the tradition of (the fictional) Bloody Bill Bucket. Before they know it, they are a legendary gang of thieves, rapists, and murderers with a huge bounty on their heads, though the legends are far more preposterous than their true crimes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Eula and Ellsworth Fiddler, a naïve farming couple barely scraping by. An assortment of other characters fill the novel, from outhouse inspector and manhood wrangler Jasper Cone to the Roman military enthusiast Lieutenant Bovard.

Both perverse and violent, this novel is not without humor and heart. It’s absolutely filled to the brim with southern Gothic goodness; just don’t expect any good. In Pollock’s distinctive prose, the reader is taken for a wild, gritty ride that cannot be easily forgotten.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Revolver by Duane Swierzynski (Mulholland Books, July 19)

revolverDuane Swierzynski never fails to surprise readers. His latest novel is his finest work to date, and is a story readers will be well advised to start without any preconceptions.

Revolver is an intricate police procedural involving the murder of two Philadelphia police officers 50 years ago. It is told in three time periods (1965, 1995, and 2015), and Swierzynski weaves these narratives together with beautiful and graceful skill.

The 1965 murders haunt the Walczak family across generations, and each contributes to the story as it unfolds. As much as the family is central to the story, though, this is a tale about Philadelphia, a love story (of sorts) to a city whose history is, in so many ways, part and parcel of the whole of the United States.

Revolver is populated with a range of fascinating characters, including Stan, one of the victims of the 1965 murder; his son Jimmy and Jimmy’s siblings; and Stan’s granddaughter, Audrey. They are as different as most family members are, and each is fascinating in his or her own right.

Revolver will absolutely be on my Best of 2016 list.

From Julie at Girls Just Reading:

The Perfect Neighbors by Sarah Pekkanen (Washington Square Press, July 5)

perfect neighborsThe Perfect Neighbors is a peek into the lives of those we live around and see daily but may not really know. It is about the facades we put on for the public vs. how we really are behind closed doors. It’s about how we all have secrets that we might not want to share, things that are private in our heart of hearts.

We are introduced to four women—three close friends and one newcomer. Each has something they are hiding from the others mainly because they are ashamed of their behavior but don’t know how to let go of it. What Pekkanen added to this was a mystery surrounding one of the couples.

I loved how Pekkanen kept you on the hook and laid out breadcrumbs for you to eat up. I liked how each storyline developes and is resolved. I have a been a huge fan of Pekkanen for years due to her realistic plots and ability to write characters we all can relate to.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Trap by Melanie Raabe (Grand Central, July 5)

the trapBestselling author Linda Conrads hasn’t stepped outside her house in eleven years. Twelve years ago she discovered her sister stabbed to death, and her eyes met those of the murderer as he fled. When the investigation ultimately goes cold, Linda retreats from the world.

More than a decade later, Linda sees the man again on a television newscast. Determined to bring him to justice yet unable to leave home, she decides to lure the man into an elaborate trap she designs by writing a book mirroring her sister’s murder. Linda hasn’t given an interview in years, but she plans to break her silence and give one to the journalist she’s certain killed her sister and who knows she saw him leave the scene.

Alternating between Linda’s first-person narrative and the chapters of her book within the book,The Trap is a fun, engaging read that flows despite getting a bit bogged down by repetition in Linda’s head as she obsesses over the murder and her plans to solve it. At times the story felt like a twisted game of cat-and-mouse, at others a game taking place only in the head of a really unstable cat.

Part of what made the book enjoyable was wondering who to believe and when, and despite one loose thread that nagged at me, Raabe brought the story to a satisfying conclusion.The Trap is an entertaining summer read with a unique premise that doesn’t feel too heavy despite the subject matter.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen (Doubleday, July 12)

nine womenThe one dress is more a style of a dress, not one dress worn by nine women. This is not The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

The book starts with a fashion show. A little black dress is featured and becomes the dress of the season. People shopping at Bloomingdale’s enter and exit the book’s stage, trying on the dress, purchasing it, returning it. The dress is perfect for some but not for others, and occasionally the book seems to ask: Which person deserves to wear this dress?

The book is also about the relationships the women have—with each other and the people they meet and let go—not just romantic partners but also friends and coworkers.

I loved this book, for the New York that exists in it, for the adventures people have in it, and for the endings. It’s a perfect light book for summer. Enjoy!

From PCN:

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware (Gallery/Scout Press, July 19)

woman in cabin 10My recommendation this month was going to be Revolver, but since Erin eloquently covered it above, I’ll go with another July release I enjoyed.

In Ruth Ware’s follow-up to 2015’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, Lo Blacklock is a travel journalist covering the maiden voyage of an exclusive cruise ship with only ten cabins. On her first day aboard, she meets a woman in the cabin next door, but later that night, Lo hears a scream and a splash—and the woman is gone. Leaving behind a bloody smear.

No one on the ship seems to know who the missing woman is, and the head of security insists the cabin next door to Lo’s has always been empty. Lo decides to investigate, even after mysterious messages tell her to stop. Of course she doesn’t, until it’s too late.

Lo is frustrating at times, repeatedly making foolish choices, but Ware’s propulsive writing locks you up and won’t let you out until the end of the journey.

 

Which books are you reading this month?

(See previous NSLs here.)

 

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Nerdy Special List June 2016

I turned on the air conditioning and pulled out the tank tops two days ago, so you know what that means: I shouldn’t be opening the door to strangers.

It also means it’s time for the June Nerdy Special List! We have some fine selections for you this month, to ensure you’ll never have to be seen in public nekkid without a book. Oh, and I’d like to welcome back Julie at Girls Just Reading to the list!

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 7)

marrow islandTwenty years ago, Lucie was a young girl living on an isolated island in the Puget Sound. Twenty years ago, an earthquake devastated that region, sending tidal waves that ranged all the way from the coast of Alaska to the coast of California.

Now an unemployed journalist, she returns to her childhood home after receiving a mysterious letter from Katie, a fellow survivor and former best friend. Katie says she is living on Marrow Island’s “Colony,” which, following the oil refinery disaster that killed Lucie’s father the day of the quake, is supposed to be uninhabitable.

Curious and with nowhere else to go, Lucie feels pulled to investigate. What she finds is beyond her wildest imagination.

Told in alternating timelines, Smith’s sophomore novel features the same gorgeous language present in Glaciers, her wonderful debut. Part eco-thriller, part environmental meditation, the novel opens with Lucie’s rescue, and it is a pleasure to unravel what happened. At times, the dual timelines—2014 and 2016—can be slightly disjointed, but it didn’t deter my reading, and it did add a nice touch of mystery.

Contrary to my mild disappointment over the closeness in times, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the area as stunningly described by Smith. It’s moody and atmospheric. I appreciate when a novel utilizes a character’s close connection to the environment and surrounding landscape, and Marrow Island is a prime example of this done well. If you love a good mystery with an added post-disaster element, pick this one up immediately.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Die of Shame by Mark Billingham (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 7)

die of shameThis is a stand-alone psychological thriller from Mark Billingham, whose Tom Thorne series of police procedurals is beloved the world over. Die of Shame concerns the members of an addiction recovery therapy group in London. They’re as different as the population of any large city, in terms of age, social circumstances, and the details of their addiction, but they are drawn together each week to share their deepest secrets and most personal experiences.

The story centers around a murder, but it is ultimately a character study and a fascinating exploration of human interaction on multiple levels. None of the group members is especially likable on the surface, but Billingham gives each of them just enough sympathetic traits to ratchet up the story’s suspense because we care about them.

[Ed. note: Billingham is a former but not current client of Erin’s.]

From Julie at Girls Just Reading:

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Washington Square Press, June 7)

one true lovesPrepare yourself for the tears; you might not want to read this one in public.

Emma met her true love, her soulmate, in high school. Jessie inspired her to think about life beyond their small town in Massachusetts and to want a life of adventure. After school, they moved to L.A. to pursue their dreams and traveled the world.

All of a sudden, Emma finds herself having to make a life without Jessie, so she moves home and moves on. Until Jessie calls her and tells her he’s coming home.

What would you do if you found yourself in love with two men? One man was the love of your life in high school, throughout college and your early adulthood; the other man helped heal your broken heart and discover you had it in yourself to love again. Jessie and Sam are two completely different guys and each brought out a different side of Emma. All Emma needs to do is decide who she wants to be and which guy is the best fit for that person.

Ms. Reid does a fantastic job of showing us a heartbroken and devastated Emma, but she also shows us the hard work and pain that Emma goes through to rebuild herself and her life. You feel Emma’s pain as she has to decide between Jessie and Sam. This is the perfect summer read. (Read Julie’s full review here.)

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Property of the State: Book 1 of The Legend of Joey by Bill Cameron (The Poisoned Pencil, June 7)

property of the stateThis is Bill Cameron’s first foray into the Young Adult genre. If you don’t know Bill’s work from his fantastic Skin Kadash crime fiction series, do yourself a favor and check that out along with Property of the State. Bill writes with more heart than perhaps any author I read, and that’s never been more evident.

Joey Getchie, 16, has been in the foster system longer than he was with his parents. He’s been shuffled from foster home to foster home, gaining a problematic reputation and a healthy mistrust of adults along the way.

But Joey is smart and a survivor and has a Plan—graduate early from Katz Learning Annex; file for emancipation; and get out of Dodge, away from the school establishment, the foster system, his current foster debacle; and start a new life.

Of course Joey has never been lucky. He’s already in trouble at school, after being blamed for acts of his current foster father, when another student is badly injured, putting Joey and The Plan in further peril.

Bill writes a great mystery and there is plenty of it folded up in the nooks and crannies of Property of the State. This is a book for anyone who enjoys good, intelligent mysteries; humor; multifaceted characters with depth; some smartassery; a little pop culture; and all the heart you can bear. There is a portion of this book that broke me but good. You’ll know it when you read it. (Read Lauren’s full review here.)

[Ed. note: Regular contributor Jen from Jen’s Book Thoughts seconds Lauren’s recommendation. Read Jen’s review here. So much love for this book. I need to get a copy so I can hang with the cool kids.)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid (Gallery/Scout Press, June 14)

i'm thinking of ending thingsIf you’re looking for a tense, nail-biter of a read that just might scare the pants off you and make you want to pull the covers over your head but you can’t because then it would be dark and that would be worse, I’m Thinking of Ending Things should go to the top of your must-buy list.

I can’t tell you much about the plot without spoiling things, but the setup is simple: Jake and his somewhat new girlfriend are on a road trip to visit his folks at the rural farmhouse where he grew up.

The genius is not in the premise, but in the dastardly, stomach-knotting execution. This is the novelized version of the most perfect suspense film you can imagine, the one that has you continually on tenterhooks.

I don’t find myself uneasy to this extent very often while reading, but Reid kept me feeling that doom was just around the next sentence. At 224 pages, the novel made me want to turn right to page 1 and start over again as soon as I’d finished.

If you were a fan of Bird Box or A Head Full of Ghosts, this is most definitely in your wheelhouse, but I recommend it to anyone who likes haunting, atmospheric fiction. It’s not horror per se, but it’s creepy and harrowing just the same.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Stepping to a New Day: A Blessings Novel by Beverly Jenkins (William Morrow Paperbacks, June 28)

stepping to a new dayThis series by Beverly Jenkins is about a small town in Kansas—“Henry Adams, one of the last surviving townships founded by freed slaves after the Civil War. The failing town had put itself up for sale on the Internet, so Bernadine (who had been awarded $275 in her divorce settlement) bought it.”

And then she brought new people to town, set up foster children with new foster parents, and started to grow a community that has lots of love and peace.

In this book, a man named TC comes to visit his nephew who is raising two daughters on his own. TC accepts a job as a driver for the town, taking people wherever they need to go. This is how he gets to know Genevieve Gibbs, a woman who doesn’t drive, and who is coming into her own after a 40-year disastrous marriage.

By bringing new characters to town, Jenkins introduces the reader who doesn’t know the history of Henry Adams to the strong and interesting people who live there. Each book also shines on the former foster children, now adopted, showing their friendships and family relationships.

I love how this series is known as the Blessings series. The characters know they are blessed, and the reader feels blessed, too.

From PCN:

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (Simon & Schuster, June 7)

lily and the octopusOne day in March I received this book with no accompanying press materials to indicate what it’s about. There was only a slip of paper inside saying the less I knew about this book, the better, but it guaranteed I’d laugh and cry. And curse. I was intrigued.

Inside the front cover was a letter saying the manuscript landed in the editor’s inbox unsolicited and unagented, but a week later, Simon & Schuster had bought it and made it a lead title for this year. Again, no details or synopsis because “it wouldn’t do the book justice.” Fine. I dove in.

And found the editor and publisher and marketing team were right. It’s best not to know much before reading this book, but read it you should. I did the hiccuping, noisy cry, alarming Mr. PCN (I made him read it, too, so he’d understand), but I also laughed a lot. The story is very funny. And wonderfully weird.

Rowley is a lovely storyteller and astute observer of life, and he will take you on an emotional, existential journey you didn’t even know you were looking for.

What’s on your reading list this month?

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