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Book Review: CITY OF THE LOST by Kelley Armstrong

I featured this book in May’s Nerdy Special List, but the full review below appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

5135xhS181L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_” ‘I killed a man,’ I say to my new therapist.”

With this opening line in City of the Lost, Kelley Armstrong introduces homicide detective Casey Duncan. Casey makes clear her declaration is neither a metaphor, such as for breaking a man’s heart—“A bullet does break a heart”—nor a statement about a job-related incident. Nope. She killed a man while in college. And got away with it.

The only person who knows and has kept her secret is her friend Diana, and now Diana needs Casey’s help to escape from an abusive ex. Diana convinces Casey to relocate with her to a remote community called Rockton in the wilds of Canada. The residents there are all hiding from something; with no modern technology available—even electricity is limited—they can stay off the grid.

Casey soon realizes, however, that Rockton may be an even more dangerous place for her and Diana, because someone is murdering the inhabitants. As the town’s new detective, Casey has to hunt down the killer, but this time she might end up as prey.

Casey is a singular, riveting protagonist–tough but loyal, knowing the difference between taking risks and being irresponsible. There’s tantalizing romantic tension between her and Rockton’s sheriff and his deputy, though that element isn’t the focus.

The mystery is complex, takes unusual turns, and the setting of isolated territory surrounded by menacing woods is as breathtaking as it is unsettling. Looking for a captivating story? Escape to City of the Lost.

*****

Have a safe holiday weekend, everyone. What are you planning to read over the next three days?

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Movie Review: THE NICE GUYS

nice guysShane Black, the screenwriter who shot to fame with the Lethal Weapon movies, may have had a few stumbles in the last three decades, but with The Nice Guys, a 1970s noir detective story Black cowrote with Anthony Bagarozzi, Black is firmly in his element.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play low-rent PI Holland March and enforcer Jackson Healy, respectively, who meet in a painful way—at least for March—but then team up when clues indicate that Healy’s missing client, a girl named Amelia (The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley), may be in grave danger. When they step up their search for her, the violence escalates, as mysterious parties either don’t want her found or they want her dead.

Part of the fun of viewing this movie is in its bizarre twists and turns so I won’t say much more about plot. It’s reminiscent of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a low-budget gem Black also wrote and directed, in its style and tone, and in how much of the action occurs during one very long night.

The biggest pleasure is in watching Gosling and Crowe sling Black’s signature rat-tat-tat lines at each other with perfect comic timing. Yes, the movie is seedy and brutal, but the, ah, Black humor makes it very funny also. The actors’ chemistry is so good, you’d think these guys have been partners for decades. Gosling displays physical comedy chops I didn’t know he has, and it’s the loosest Crowe performance in years.

Also noteworthy is Angourie Rice (you wouldn’t now she’s Australian by listening to her) as March’s tween daughter Holly, who often has to be the adult in her dealings with Dad. Rice delivers her lines in a dry, weary, but sharp-witted way, depicting a girl who understands much more than her father gives her credit for, and is usually the only sane person in the room.

The city of L.A. is a character in itself, all seductive at night despite its crumbling Hollywood sign and porn industry and drug-addled parties. Another selling point? This movie isn’t a sequel or remake and there are no superheroes in sight.

Nerd verdict: Funny, noirish Nice

Photo: Warner Bros.

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Girls on Couches Talking About Books and Snacks

I’m excited about introducing this new joint feature with my friend Lauren from Malcolm Avenue Review. We chat a lot about books and often text each other running commentary as we read. So we thought we’d have conversations about bookish topics on Google Chat and then publish the transcripts, alternating between here and her blog.

Readers in car: Lauren & me, with L’s superhero sidekick, Bird

As a nod to Jerry Seinfeld’s Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, we decided to call this Readers on Couches Talking About Books and Snacks, which can be abbreviated as Readers Talking BS, which is appropriate.

We changed the first word of the name this time to spotlight our first topic: the proliferation of book titles with Girl in them, and of comparisons to those famous Girl books by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. We’re not the first people to have noticed this trend but we really thought it’d be over by now.

We don’t know how regular this feature will be since we’re both world champions in laziness, but why worry about the future?

The transcript was edited for length and filthiness, mostly on Lauren’s part.

PCN: Let’s get the important details out of the way first. Since part of this chat is about snacks, what do you have on hand right now?

L: I’ve failed out of the gate. No snack. Can I still hang out? Or do I have to go get something?

PCN: It doesn’t have to be right there with you, just somewhere in your house.

L: Oh wait! I have some Trader Joe’s honey wheat pretzel sticks that have been open for a month. I’ll get those.

PCN: OK. I’ll wait. [Ed. note: We’re not sure how you can handle all this intellectual talk.]

L: Phew. On to the less appetizing portion of the program. Hold on while I get the twist out of my shorts…

PCN: You have pretzel twists in your shorts?

GGL: That would be better than the one I have there now about the This is the next Gone Girl/Girl on the Train! phenomenon in book publicity.

PCN: Ohhhh, I get it. Clever transition.

L: What is it about it that I hate so passionately?

PCN: I’m too scared to crawl inside your head. Why don’t you go ahead and unload?

L: Where to start? So many things bother me about it. It doesn’t let an author have his/her own identity without being compared to someone else’s success. I say his/her but I’ve NEVER seen it done to a male author, and that bugs me. None of the books compared seem to have much in common with either GG or GOTT. And last but not least, I loved one of those books and hated the other. So what am I supposed to think when a book is “the next” of both? How’s that for a palette of pissed off?

PCN: Your pissed-off palette has many colors.

L: I am the Jackson Pollock of irksome book publicity.

PCN: I agree this trend is lazy. It slaps a label on new books that’s supposed to entice us to read them, but it has done the opposite for me—make me groan and want to avoid them. If a book has merits, let it stand on its own.

L: Ha! I love that you see the laziness in it. It is lazy. Let Author X be the first Author X, not the next other author.

PCN: Exactly! And as you said, I didn’t love Girl on the Train, so if a promo says, For lovers of GOTT, I’d probably skip it.

L: I know we both tend to avoid books that use the comparison, but what do you think when it uses both? Because you, like me, liked Gone Girl, right? GG and TGOTT were two entirely different books! With GOTT, the author had trouble writing unique characters of either sex. All the men and all the women had the same issues. GG, on the other hand, was about a whip-smart woman who was controlling her life and things in it and the characters were unique.

luckiest girl alive

PCN: For me, it’s more GG is a superb book and GOTT is subpar. Some of the recent blurbs I’ve seen say, For lovers of GOTT and Luckiest Girl Alive. Which is also confusing, because again, different books. And LGA itself was touted as the next GG.

L: I think LGA is closer to GG. Part of what bothers me about it is that publishers have to cram it down the public’s throat that women can write thrillers. Women have been writing thrillers, good ones, for a damn long time.

Interestingly, I just read a book I thought was similar to GG. It was written by a man, so did not suffer from the lazy publicity ploy, but one author did blurb it as being like GG. I’ve thought about why this book (Perfect Days, if you’re interested) did not get that label.

The real answer is I have no idea, but I’m guessing because (1) the author is a man and (2) it didn’t seem to get a ton of publicity. I’m not sure why this publicity trend doesn’t include male authors, too, because using Girl in the title has crossed over [to books by both genders]. But I suppose that’s another different issue that irks me? ☺

PCN: You’re right. Male authors’ books are less often compared to GG/GOTT, which is ironic, since a man started this recent Girl trend: Stieg Larsson.

L: Right? Did you ever see a book say The next Girl with a Dragon Tattoo? Why not?! Because people didn’t think those books were well written? Because Larsson was a man and we can’t compare women and men writers? It all feels very silly, but maybe there is genius behind it somewhere.

PCN: Or sexism?

L: It’s a can of worms, but I think you’re right.

PCN: I don’t think it’s intentional sexism, maybe subconscious.

I did see books touted as the next Dragon Tattoo but only for a little while. It didn’t become a thing that won’t go away. GG was released 4 years ago and new releases are still being compared to it.

This is a free stock photo from Pexels.com. I eat my waffle-cut chips, not take pictures of them.

(BTW, my Srichacha chips are so good. They are spicy and waffle cut.)

L: You and your hot things. I tried sriracha once. Once was enough.

PCN: We haven’t mentioned the fact that not only are too many books being touted as the next GG, they all have Girl in the title, too.

L: We kind of broached it above. I’m not sure if that’s the same issue or just another lazy issue. It’s interesting to me that that does happen with books written by men. So we can share title publicity stunts so long as the sexes are not compared to each other?

PCN: Something like that. Have you ever seen a book by a woman compared to Dragon Tattoo or book by a man compared to GG?

L: I don’t recall seeing a female author compared to either Dragon Tattoo or Larsson himself, but my memory isn’t the best. [Raphael Montes’s] Perfect Days is the only book I can recall by a male author compared to GG, but again, it was not the publisher but another author—a female one—in a cover blurb.

PCN: Sometime last year, I think it was around June, I started keeping a list of all the Girl books being pitched or sent to me. The list has more than 30 entries so far.

L: I have thought multiple times about keeping a list of books compared to GG/TGOTT, but then I pull a muscle when I sigh and can’t pick up a pen.

PCN: You don’t need a pen. It’s called a computer or your phone. How are your month-old pretzel sticks, by the way? Are they still good or do I need to send firemen to your house for chest compressions?

L: I was going to say they are fine until you got to firemen. FIREMEN, PLEASE!

PCN: OK, on their way. Hope you have pants on. Or not.

L: I won’t by then. Bazinga!

PCN: My eyes!

L: Send four firemen. It’ll take that many to untwist my shorts.

PCN: Damn, girl. (<<Not to be confused with GG or GOTT.)

L: Well played. Now that my firemen are gone, let’s get back to books. What are you reading that’s knocking your socks off (or not)?

PCN: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rawley. It’s really good so far and doesn’t remind me of any other book! [I’ve finished this. Will post review soon.] What are you reading?

L: I am in the midst of a trifecta of great reads, so I’m almost afraid to mention them. I’m listening to Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon. My ebook is Dodgers by Bill Beverly, and my tree book is Consequence by Eric Fair. I would have been really embarrassed if I was reading something with Girl in the title right now.

PCN: I’m looking at my huge TBR stack. No Girl titles at all.

L: My three-year-old boyfriend is here for our grass date. I will talk to you later?

PCN: Yup. Happy reading until next time!

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Girl, You Need New Friends

pexels-photoI’ve been reading a couple of books in which a woman experiences or witnesses something shocking and she tells someone or several people. And no one believes her, not even her closest family members and friends.

They suggest reasons for why she might be mistaken about what she saw/experienced:

  • she’s overworked and exhausted
  • drinks too much
  • has an overactive imagination
  • recently experienced some kind of trauma and now blows everything out of proportion.

My favorite (imagine that typed in sarcastic font): she’s taking antidepressants. Because everyone knows those make you delusional, right?

It makes me wonder how realistic this is because it doesn’t reflect my life. If I tell people I’d been subjected to something bad, they would absolutely believe me. Mr. PCN and my mother would lead the charge to rectify the situation.

Not everyone has that kind of support system, I know, but the women in these books are average folks like me—people with jobs and families who are in healthy relationships and don’t have histories of making up stuff. For them to not have anyone believe them is strange to me.

And then I had a thought. Is it because they’re women? If the protagonists were men, would they be deemed more credible and less easily dismissed by others? Or would it be even harder to buy a story in which no one believes a man?

What do you think?

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Nerdy Special List May 2016

Every month I think the list is the best one ever, and May is no different. We read lots and lots of books, and only our top faves make the cut.

Here are the new releases we recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman (Atria, May 3)

britt-marieFredrik Backman earns a hat trick with his third novel, Britt-Marie Was Here. This witty, heartwarming, all-around charming novel features sixtysomething, recently separated Britt-Marie. Those familiar with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry will recognize the character from Elsa’s apartment complex, but that’s the only connection to Backman’s second book.

Britt-Marie takes place in a rundown town hit hard by the economic crash, and Britt-Marie is there to fill the position of recreation center caretaker. In the short time of her employment, the persnickety woman worms her way into the hearts of the town’s remaining citizens, especially a rag-tag bunch of kids making up the soccer team.

Like Backman’s two books before this, Britt-Marie Was Here induces laughter, tears, and enlightenment. His clever humor and profound yet simple insights about life will find their ways into readers’ hearts and souls. Britt-Marie has to learn to look at the world differently in this novel, and as Backman helps her to do that, he helps his audience to do the same. Stunningly brilliant! [Ed. note: Jen will be interviewing Backman at Anderson’s Bookshop Naperville on May 12!]

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton (Putnam, May 17)

nick-masonSteve Hamilton breaks from his Alex McKnight series and introduces Nick Mason. Mason was in prison for murdering a federal agent, but Darius Cole, a Chicago crime boss—and fellow inmate—makes Mason’s conviction go away. He’s free and clear, no probation, no record, nothing…except the deal he made with Cole to achieve his liberation.

Mason must work for Cole for the 20 years that were remaining on his prison sentence. Mason believes this deal is worth the trade in order to be able to see his daughter again. However, Mason may have been mistaken.

Hamilton kicks off his new series with an intense and exciting story. It’s a fresh concept in an increasingly crowded genre. Sharp dialogue, flashy cars, fascinating characters…and a dog! I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Algonquin, May 3)

atomic weightMeridian Wallace is a brilliant student studying to be an ornithologist when she meets a physics professor and falls in love. Early in their relationship, he moves to the remote southwest to work on a top secret project.

Putting her dreams on hold, she follows him and takes on the traditional role of wife, not scientist. As she feels her dreams slipping away and finds herself fading into the background, she meets a young hippie Vietnam veteran who changes her life.

Spanning decades, The Atomic Weight of Love is the tale of one woman’s both ordinary and extraordinary life. From atomic bombs to a failing marriage to the lives of crows, Meridian’s story is a pleasure to read.

Comparable to Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel is a moving, science-minded tale of the roles women were relegated to in midcentury America, yet it doesn’t get bogged down in it. It is an insightful, notable debut. I’m excited to see what the author does next.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, May 3)

9780062083456_p0_v3_s192x300Secrets are powerful, perhaps never more so than when kept within a family. Truth is often a gray, fuzzy line. Sometimes we seek answers, but in the words of One of Those Songs from the 1980s, it’s the questions we have wrong.

Like her father before her, Lu Brandt is the state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland. She lives in her childhood home and her roots in the community are deep. When she takes on the case of the murder of a waitress, she finds herself coming face to face with secrets from her own past that she had no idea existed.

I’ve long been a fan of Lippman’s stories. Her latest is quite different from her series books, and has rightfully been called out among her best work. It is being heralded as character driven, and it certainly is, but I also enjoyed the maze-like plot.

If you’ve never read Lippman, this is a fine book to start with. If you have, it will not disappoint.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica (MIRA, May 17)

51C-qS47EAL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Mary Kubica is quickly becoming one of my favorite multi-POV authors. This time, the reader is tossed between Quinn and Alex—Quinn an admittedly flawed twentysomething who wakes one morning in her Chicago apartment to find her beautiful, smart, church-going roommate Esther missing; Alex an 18-year-old living an hour away from Quinn in Michigan, working as a dishwasher and trying to keep his alcoholic father afloat.

When a mysterious stranger appears in the diner where Alex works, he falls hard and begins trying to find out who she is and what she’s doing in his small, seemingly boring town. Kubica uses Quinn and Alex to wind around both mysteries and ultimately bring them together in a satisfying conclusion.

Kubica has a great knack for leading readers’ judgment about her characters, only to turn those conclusions on their head. Despite knowing that, she gets me every time. Don’t You Cry isn’t perfect, but it’s a fun, twisty ride.

From PCN:

City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong (Minotaur, May 3)

5135xhS181L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It’s been almost four years since I found a book that made me stand in the hall in the middle of the night to finish reading, and City of the Lost had me doing that again. It is addictively good, more so than potato chips and you know I love potato chips.

Detective Casey Duncan admits right in the first sentence that she killed a man, and is quick to add it was neither an accident nor job related. And she got away with it.

Her friend Diana, the only person who knows Casey’s secret, is not so tough. Diana is desperate to escape from a violent ex-husband who won’t let her go. She persuades Casey to move with her to a remote town called Rockton in the wilds of Canada where people live off the grid because most of them are hiding from something or something.

Turns out Rockton isn’t safe at all, because residents are being murdered. Cut off from resources and modern technology, Casey, aided only by the town’s sheriff and his deputy, must try to stop the killing before they are terminated. Hopefully you’ll get Lost in this book like I did.

Which May releases are you looking forward to?

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR Movie Review

Marvel

Marvel

Do you have superhero fatigue? Were you tempted to skip this post when you saw the title? What if I told you the movie is terrific?

Which is what I’m doing. Captain America: Civil War is one big bundle of entertainment, something that other recent superhero movie decidedly was not.

Also unlike that other superhero movie: the feud between Captain America and friends makes sense. After the heavy collateral damage that occurred in the Avengers movies, world governments want oversight of the heroes, to monitor and approve their involvements in combat. Some agree to the arrangement, others do not. Hence the discord.

The best conflicts are ones in which neither side is all wrong or all right, and that’s how it is here. Each hero has valid arguments for the side he/she chooses, because they’ve all come from different places—and time, in Cap’s case—and lived different lives. What makes it painful for them is that they really don’t want to fight. They plead and remind one another they’re friends, but ultimately feel they have no choice because each believes his/her position is just.

By now these seasoned actors know exactly what they’re doing in their respective roles, and the group is a well-oiled machine. There are many characters but each has moments to shine. Their chemistry and banter are tight.

But hey, here comes the new guy, joining the Avengers on screen for the first time.

As soon as he appeared, from behind—just his butt, really, walking down the hall—I yelled, “Spideyyy!” It was actually Peter Parker, but, you know, same difference.

I have liked Tom Holland since I saw him play Naomi Watts’s son in The Impossible, so when the announcement came about his being cast as the new Spider-Man, I thought it was a great choice, much better than Andrew Garfield.

And Holland delivers in Civil War. His Chatty-Cathy Spidey is endearing, especially during fight scenes, when all the other heroes are busy throwing punches and no one wants to converse with the young webslinger.

Let’s talk about the fight scenes. I’ve become inured to them in heavily CGI’d action flicks, and they’ve all started looking the same to me. Boom! Pow! Crash! What else is new?

But one pivotal fight scene in this movie—the one at an airport—made me say, “Whoa!” It caused my eyes to go big and gave me that sense of wonder I used to get at the movies as a kid, that feeling I wasn’t sure I’d ever experience again since I’m now old and jaded. As I was sitting there smiling, Civil War threw in a Star Wars reference. My poor nerdy brain could barely handle it.

Oh, and the Stan Lee cameo? Best one ever. He made me laugh out loud.

This movie is a great big bang-up, with very few hang-ups, and like a streak of light, these heroes arrive just in time.

Nerd verdict: America the wonderful 

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Book Review: I LET YOU GO by Clare Mackintosh

i let you goOne minute, a five-year-old boy is walking home with his mother. The next, he’s dead, hit by a car after letting go of his mother’s hand to run ahead. As if the situation weren’t nightmarish enough, the driver takes off without stopping.

Detective Inspector Ray Stevens of the Bristol Criminal Investigations Division catches the case, along with his junior officer, Detective Constable Kate Evans. Though Stevens has developed coping mechanisms to deal with the heartrending situations he encounters at work—“If he thought too long about how it must feel to watch your child die in your arms, he would be no use to anyone”—Kate, new to CID, is upset by little Jacob’s death.

Jenna Gray is also shattered by the car accident. Mourning her son, she leaves her house one day and hops on a bus with no destination in mind, wanting only to get lost. She ends up in a remote Welsh seaside town called Penfach, rents a rundown cottage, and starts rebuilding her life where no one knows who she is or anything about her devastating past.

Months pass, and there’s still no arrest in the hit-and-run that killed Jacob, despite all the attention it receives, with the little boy’s picture splashed on the front pages of newspapers. Though long ordered by the chief constable to close the case, Kate keeps working on it on her own time, and eventually convinces Ray to review the old files, too.

Then, to mark the one-year anniversary of Jacob’s death, the police make a public appeal for any new information. The appeal results in a tenuous lead for the car, but Ray and Kate work it until they have a solid clue about the guilty driver’s identity.

What happens next upends Jenna’s life, for nothing is as it appears, and the cops find they’re far from closing the case.

It’s hard to believe I Let You Go is Mackintosh’s debut novel because it’s so assured. From plotting to characterizations, the author skillfully takes readers inside the frustrations of police officers trying to solve a high-profile case with very little information to go on, and on the flip side, what a mother’s grief looks like when she loses a child.

Jenna’s ordeal is raw, but she’s a riveting character, at once fragile and resilient, from whom it’s hard to look away. Readers will be fully invested in the emotional journey she goes on, keenly feeling her open wounds and tentative hope as she tries to forget her past and move on.

Ray and Kate are engaging characters, too, providing the yin and yang of the investigation–he the veteran rediscovering the hunger he used to have as a young detective (“I like to have [the victim’s photo] where I can see it…. Where I can’t forget what I’m doing, why I’m working these hours, who it’s all for”), and she the newbie whose idealism lights a fire in her senior partner.

She also sparks feelings in Ray that aren’t entirely platonic, which is problematic since he’s married with children. (How Kate handles the situation is refreshingly free of neuroses.) To add to Ray’s turmoil, it seems his son is being bullied at school. All this provides well-rounded pictures of the police behind the procedural and realistic rhythms in their dialogue, perhaps owing to the fact that Mackintosh spent 12 years as a police officer herself.

There is a third narrator who adds a whole other angle to the case, but saying any more would spoil the story.

The author doesn’t just conjure up memorable characters and gripping plots; her settings ring true. Penfach—with the cliff-strewn coastline—and its people are warm and hard, breathtaking for their beauty and harshness. It makes perfect sense for Jenna to choose it as a place to run away to, someplace that might allow her to heal but perhaps not let her forget the jagged edges of her pain.

Mackintosh is very good at keeping readers ensnared in suspense. The denouement includes one too many twists that is neither necessary nor surprising, but even then, the book refuses to let readers go.

The most impressive feat Mackintosh pulls off is the bombshell that’s on the level of the movie The Sixth Sense for its cleverness. Readers who say they saw it coming are most likely fibbing. The revelation is so good, readers might want to reread I Let You Go to see how it changes their perceptions—even the title takes on different interpretations—and whether or not the twist holds up. It does. This kind of sharp, cunning writing makes one eagerly look forward to Mackintosh’s next novel.

This review originally appeared in a Maximum Shelf Awareness issue and is reprinted here with permission.

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Book Review: Suzanne Rindell’s THREE-MARTINI LUNCH

three martini lunchIt’s 1958, New York City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Des Willie, The Ink Factory/AMC

Des Willie, The Ink Factory/AMC

The Night Manager (starts April 19 on AMC)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerd verdict: Tense Night

 

ITV1

ITV1

Grantchester season 2 (PBS, Sunday nights)

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

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

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

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

Nerd verdict: Bucolic Grantchester 

 

Netflix

Happy Valley season 2 (Netflix)

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

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

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

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

Nerd verdict: Gripping Valley

 

DOCTOR-THORNE-570

 

Doctor Thorne

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

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

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

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

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

Nerd verdict: Predictable but enjoyable Thorne

 

Netflix

Netflix

Unbreakable Kimmy Shmidt season 2 (Netflix)

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

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

The good things:

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

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

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

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

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

The bad:

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

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

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

Nerd verdict: Still funny, still flawed

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Movie Review: THE JUNGLE BOOK

jungle book mowgli bagheera

Disney

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

Fine by me.

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

OK, good, I was ready to go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nerd verdict: Delightful Jungle

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Nerdy Special List April 2016

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

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

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Erin at In Real Life:

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

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

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

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

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

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

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

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

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

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

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

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

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

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

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

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

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

From PCN:

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House, April 19)

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

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

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

******

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

Which April books are you looking forward to?

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Book Review: THE WATCHER IN THE WALL by Owen Laukkanen

watcher in the wallAdrian Miller, tired of being tormented at school, hangs himself while home alone. But there’s a witness to his act—someone watching via videocam on his computer. Not just watching but encouraging him to do it, apparently so she could muster the courage to do the same.

One of Adrian’s classmates is especially upset about his suicide, and she happens to be the daughter of Kirk Stevens, special agent with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, whose partner on a joint FBI-BCA task force is FBI agent Carla Windermere. The girl pleads with her dad to investigate Adrian’s death and make someone pay.

Stevens and Windermere aren’t sure a crime has been committed—until they realize that they have an online predator on their hands, someone who targets vulnerable teens on suicide message boards and talks them right over the edge. And it looks like the perp has hooks in two more victims who are ready to jump. Can the agents find the kids in time to save them?

It’s clear early on in Owen Laukkanen’s The Watcher in the Wall that this fifth outing is a departure in the Stevens and Windermere series. Yes, it has the previous novels’ high-octane action and thriller-fast pace, but the descriptions of the teens’ inner lives feel raw and personal. As it turns out, it is—the author’s note at the end reveals intimate knowledge of the subject matter, and offers hope to those struggling with depression. Watcher is a moving reminder for sufferers that they have a different kind of watchers in their lives—loved ones who can provide support and let them know they’re not alone.

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

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