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Headed for Hogwarts: Experiencing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood

The new Wizarding World of Happy Potter isn’t officially open at Universal Studios Hollywood until April 7, but Mr. PCN and I received invitations to take an early peek this past weekend.

Let’s go there together!

This is the entrance to Hogsmeade.

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Right after I entered, I encountered this, ready to whisk me away to Hogwarts. (Not really—it’s stationary.)

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I’ve arrived at Hogwarts!

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Time to get sorted into a house by the Sorting Hat. It actually moves and there’s a voice inside telling you which house you belong in. I got Ravenclaw, whose members are known for their wit, wisdom, and cleverness. Sure, I’ll take that. But everyone who put it on seemed to get the same result. I suspect the hat is rigged, or Ravenclaw will need a LOT of beds to house all its new members.

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Next we went on a couple of rides—there are only 2 rides: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is a 3-D experience, and Flight of the Hippogriff, a roller coaster.

The first one is fast paced, hurling you through the air, putting you in the middle of a Quidditch game, having you escape the Whomping Willow and giant spiders, making you come face to face with Dementors, etc. The Dementors are pretty scary, and I was like, “Uh-uh, don’t you dare kiss me.” I wouldn’t recommend the ride for kids under 6.

It’s odd how the visuals weren’t sharp, though, and as rides go, it wasn’t as good as the park’s old Back to the Future and E.T. rides.

Flight of the Hippogriff is the shortest roller coaster ever, not necessarily a bad thing since I don’t like roller coasters. I only went on this because it’s deemed “family friendly,” so I figured even a wimp like me could handle it. And it was an easy ride—over in what seemed like 60 seconds. I am not exaggerating.

After that, we visited some of the shops, starting with Ollivanders, “maker of fine wands since 382 BC.”

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Inside, a shopkeeper picks a few kids from the group to participate in a demonstration of how wands choose their owners. There are a few small (underwhelming) special effects involved, and when it was over, the shopkeeper packs up the wands for the kids and reminds them to tell their parents that the wands have chosen them. My jaded self did an internal eye roll. How are parents supposed to say no to that?

I will say the interactive wands are pretty cool. I didn’t get to try one, but I saw one girl using it to cast spells around Hogsmeade. These wands are programmed to work with predesignated windows in the area. You stand in front of the window, say the magic spell, and make things move inside.

See how it works in the video below, with James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley) and Bonnie Wright (Ginny W.).

 

We walked around some more, I used the restroom, where you can hear Moaning Myrtle, and it was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t escape a feeling of…rather, a lack of…wonderment.

I’m a hardcore HP fan, so I thought I’d be like a kid in a Honeydukes candy store. And I did go into Honeydukes. But I was underwhelmed. By everything.

I think the reason is that in my head and in the movies, Hogsmeade (there’s no Diagon Alley here like at Universal Studios Orlando) is a place for wizards and full of magical things. Looking at the streets packed with Muggles pushing baby strollers and waving selfie sticks, I couldn’t find the magic. There are many more shops and restaurants, all with overpriced items, than there are rides and attractions.

I considered the possibility I’m too old to be the target audience for this, but then remembered how awed I was when I attended my friend Mari’s HP-themed Thanksgiving dinner a few years back. I felt more immersed in Harry’s world there than I did today in a place that cost more than a billion dollars to build. Mari’s version was reconstructed from pure love, while Universal is out to make money (ticket prices have been raised in anticipation of WWoHP’s opening). Which it’s allowed to do.

There’s just nothing magical about that.

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Movie Review: BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

(Clay Enos/AP)

(Clay Enos/AP)

When I was a kid—heck, even now—nothing much could get me out of bed early on a Saturday morning. If something could, it was a BIG DEAL.

And so it was, the show Super Friends, which aired Saturdays at 8 a.m. While everyone in the house was asleep, I’d tiptoe down to the basement to watch Wonder Woman and Superman and the rest of Justice League vanquish bad guys.

In 1978, I was in line opening weekend of Superman with Christopher Reeve, my excitement barely contained, and left believing a man could fly. I’ve seen every single Batman movie, even the George Clooney one.

I could go on about my fandom of DC Comics’ greatest superheroes, but you get the idea—my nerdiness runs deep.

So imagine my dismay when I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice last week and realized it’s a huge mess. It is not the movie I wanted, and I can’t imagine many other fans wanting it.

I won’t go too much into plot, both because I don’t want to reveal spoilers, and also because there isn’t really a coherent storyline. The gist of it is: Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) thinks Supes (Henry Cavill) is bad for mankind, being above human laws, so Batty sets out to take down the Man of Steel. (Gee, a billionaire who doesn’t like aliens—who does that remind us of?)

Lex Luthor also wants to destroy Supes because…he’s a controlling egomaniac. Or something. Jesse Eisenberg’s scenery chewing was too annoying for me to give much credence or attention to what Luthor says.

The disjointed script reaches for Big Ideas, but either hits them with a sledgehammer or doesn’t follow through. Hard to believe this was cowritten by an Oscar winner, Chris Terrio, who took home gold for Argo. (The other screenwriter is David Goyer, who worked on all of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, as well as director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.) Mostly the lead men brood a lot and then engage in loud, heavily CGI’d, too-long fight scenes that just wore me down. During the last forty minutes, I thought, “When will it end?” Everything is bleak and there’s no fun at all.

That’s not to say this should be a comedy or even as light as the Marvel movies. But even in Tim Burton’s and Nolan’s versions of Batman, there was a sense of glee among the darkness, whether it’s in Jack Nicholson’s The Joker or Michelle Pfeiffer’s and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.

Here, you have a rich pouty emo boy fighting a lost Boy Scout who hasn’t gotten over his daddy. Affleck and Cavill look good—salt & pepper temples work on Affleck—but they’re not required to do much acting.

Faring better is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She’s the heart of the movie, and the scenes with her in them are probably the only ones containing anything resembling human emotions.

As Diana Prince, Gal Gadot has a stunning wardrobe. As Wonder Woman? The actress doesn’t have the requisite charisma or presence. WW isn’t just physically strong, she has a powerful aura. Gadot comes across like a mannequin.

And I hate her new costume. It’s supposed to be red, white, blue (and gold), with WW showing her allegiance to America. In this movie it’s grimy brown and gladiator-like. Yes, everyone wears muted colors, but you can still see the red and blue hues in Superman’s costume and the S on his chest. I felt no connection to Wonder Woman because my brain didn’t recognize her as such; she looked like an escapee from Snyder’s 300. The best I can say about WW is that she gets a strong entrance.

After having seen this, it’s hard to look forward to Snyder’s two Justice League movies, though I am curious about Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, especially after seeing the just released photo below. Who knows—maybe Jenkins will give me a reason to wake up early one Saturday morning next year and sneak off to the movie theater.

Nerd verdict: Doesn’t do Justice to Justice League heroes

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Nerdy Special List March 2016

So…it’s been an interesting month. For the past several weeks, I’ve been traveling a lot—all over California, into Nevada, and down under to Australia. Some of it was work-related, some not, but none of it was my idea or a trip I planned, and in each case I had little time to decide whether or not I wanted to go. I just jumped onto buses, trams, and planes, trusting I’d enjoy the experience on the other side. And I did.

The biggest lessons for me in all this? Embrace spontaneity more often, never turn down great opportunities even if they arise at the last minute, and not being in control can be exhilarating sometimes. (This could be my lazy self appreciating not having to plan things.)

But let’s get on with this month’s recommended reads. Here are the March releases we really liked.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton (Harper, March 22)

way-of-gunBritish journalist and former gun-club president Iain Overton examines the life cycle of firearms in the world today. He looks at aspects of the gun from suicides to hobbies—interviewing a vast array of users, visiting some of the world’s most dangerous countries, attending gun shows and studying research and data from a wide variety of sources—in order to understand man’s relationship with weapons.

His own experiences as a hobbyist and embedded war journalist come out anecdotally, but Overton relies on the accumulation of all his findings to draw his conclusions. The Way of the Gun focuses on the United States because it is the world’s largest manufacturer of guns, and as Overton illustrates, the US viewpoint on firearms has repercussions far outside the country’s borders.

Overton uses meticulous, scientific research, and his status as a non-US citizen removes the sensitive political issues that often taint American conversations. He takes a global view of this hot-button topic, using clear, concise, and persuasive writing to produce an eye-opening read.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (Putnam, March 22)

jane steele“Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

So begins Lyndsay Faye’s brilliant Jane Steele. In this clever reimagining of Jane Eyre, the accidental vigilante Miss Steele’s life parallels that of the classic Gothic heroine. Where Eyre does not often reveal her strong opinions, Steele acts on them. She inadvertently sets out righting the wrongs she encounters, first for herself and then for those she cares about.

Finding herself a governess at her childhood home, she aims to unravel the mysterious new owner and finds herself falling in love with him. Yet who is he, and would he be able to accept her and her black murderous soul? This is a novel that runs the risk of being ridiculous, yet isn’t. It is, instead, a thrilling mystery and wonderful homage to a beloved classic.

Recommended for both lovers and haters of Jane Eyre. Those who love it will appreciate the original details sprinkled throughout. Those who hate it may feel this action-packed, satirical romance rights all of Brontë’s wrongs.

Reader, I loved it.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Between Black and White by Robert Bailey (Thomas & Mercer, March 15)

between black and whiteThis is the second (after The Professor) in Robert Bailey’s series featuring law professor-turned-lawyer Tom McMurtrie. Between Black and White is both a classic legal thriller and a window to the soul of small-town southern culture. The combination is irresistible.

The story opens dramatically as a young boy, Bocephus Haynes, watches his father lynched in 1966. As a man, Bo still lives in the same town in Tennessee, and it’s there where the former KKK leader he blames for his father’s death is killed.

The investigation and court case that follow are gripping, and the portrayal of and insights into people and attitudes are insightful without being overbearing or preachy. This isn’t a novel-length judgment piece; it’s a story about people who are as complex as…well, as people are. Bailey’s prose is fast-paced and clever. I can see why he’s a successful lawyer himself, and can’t wait for Professor McMurtrie’s next case.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

bursar's wifeThe Bursar’s Wife by E.G. Rodford (Titan Books, March 1)

This is a PI novel that takes place in Cambridge, England. It hooked me pretty much from the beginning. George Kocharyan is recently divorced and has a low-key investigation business, mostly taking photos of cheating spouses.

In walks a beautiful woman who wants her daughter, a Cambridge student, followed. It leads George to places and situations he never would have imagined. It also connects him with his father’s history as a caretaker at Cambridge. This book is well written, ventures into unexpected places, and kept me very interested in the outcome. Highly recommended!

From PCN:

passengerSeveral months ago, I was in a serious reading drought. Every book I picked up either put me to sleep or made me want to throw it across the room. What did I do? Request a copy of Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger, because she’s a reliable slump-buster for me. Boy, did Lisa deliver.

The novel begins with Tanya Dubois finding her husband dead at the bottom of the stairs. Instead of calling the cops, she changes her identity and hightails it out of town. She meets a woman named Blue, who could be an ally or foe, and together they go through more name changes and encounter more deaths. Tanya/whatever-her-name-is finally decides to stop running by going home and confronting the people who ruined her life in the first place.

Lisa’s writing had me in a vise from beginning to end—and I was happy for it. There was no sleep until I reached the resolution. The characters are complex, the plot mysterious, the pace neckbreaking, and I was grateful for the reminder that reading could be fun again.

Which March releases are you looking forward to?

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Book Review: THE SHUT EYE by Belinda Bauer

the shut eyeDetective Chief Inspector John Marvel is obsessed with the disappearance of 12-year-old Edie Evans, who went missing more than a year earlier while riding her bike, but Marvel’s boss, the superintendent, wants the detective to look for a poodle belonging to the superintendent’s wife.

James and Anna Buck’s son, four-year-old Daniel, is also missing, and Anna’s grip on reality has been slipping in the months since he disappeared. She seeks out a so-called psychic named Richard Latham, but soon after, Anna thinks she’s having visions herself.

Though chapters in The Shut Eye (a term meaning psychic) are from different points of view and at first seem to be telling separate stories, Belinda Bauer eventually weaves the threads together while keeping readers guessing all the way. As with her previous US release, Rubbernecker, Bauer excels in developing her characters, giving each a distinct and believable voice, whether it’s a grieving mother with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a gruff detective, a black lesbian female police officer (the “Holy Grail of Equal Opportunities”), or a Hmong immigrant.

Bauer can also write from a child’s view as convincingly as an adult’s. Her prose is tight, conveying wonder and heart-gripping emotions without verbosity. In barely 300 pages, she manages to pack in social commentary, cultural insight, and dry humor, along with the suspense of a police procedural and perhaps even the supernatural, depending on how readers interpret certain revelations. Crime-fiction fans can expect little shut-eye after picking up this thriller.

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

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Nerdy Special List February 2016

I’m baaack!

I’ll wait until all 3 of you are done thinking, “Wait, she went somewhere?”

This past month was challenging because Mr. PCN had surgery, but he’s well on his way to recovery so life has returned to a semblance of normalcy. Actually, normal might be stretching it, but at least I have some time now to sleep and blog.

First order of business is to post this month’s Nerdy Special List. It may be a short month but there’s no shortage of good reads. Below are the February releases my fellow bloggers and I recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World by Baz Dreisinger (Other Press, February 9)

incarceration-nationsOver the course of two years, John Jay College associate professor and Prison-to-College Pipeline founder Baz Dreisinger traveled around the world visiting prison facilities. She volunteered in workshops and taught writing classes everywhere from Rwanda to Australia, in order to examine innovated programs the various countries were implementing to reduce recidivism, improve rehabilitation efforts, and aid reentry.

Dreisinger combines her experiences with research, data, and history on incarceration to present an eye-opening—and compassionate—look at a global issue. Her optimism and zeal make Incarceration Nations not only a fascinating read but the inspirational journal of “characters” one that audiences won’t want to leave.

Listen to the Lambs by Daniel Black (St. Martin’s Press, February 16)

listen-to-lambsLazarus Love III gives up his affluent upper-middle class life when he realizes his corporate job is slowly killing him. He despises the materialism and wishes to truly live. Lazarus finds the life he’s looking for as a homeless man living under an overpass, sharing his existence with a small tribe of idiosyncratic vagabonds.

But his Utopian bubble pops when his life is threatened, forcing this newfound family to band together and rise above its cultural invisibility in order to try to save Lazarus. Allegorical, symbolic, and richly layered, this novel about race, class, family, and redemption is stunningly written and powerfully delivered.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Floodgate by Johnny Shaw (Thomas and Mercer, February 16)

floodgateAuction City has a violent history. In the Gang Wars of 1929 (the Flood), warring factions came close to destroying it altogether, until representatives from each group formed a vigilante force called Floodgate to quell the violence.

In 1986, former cop Andy Destra is waging a war against the corrupt department that blacklisted him. Little does he know he’s stirring up a hornet’s nest, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1929, and Floodgate will once again need to rise to the challenge of saving the city.

Johnny Shaw’s genius shines most brightly in his humor and family relationships. That said, this epic and mythological work is much different from Shaw’s prior offerings. Alternating between the Flood of 1929 and the ultra-violent yet madcap conflict of 1986, Floodgate is grander in scope and themes, and almost impossible to synopsize. But the cast of characters, which includes a giant, bald, Bible-wielding, soup-can-chucking black woman; a one-armed female leader of a gang (there are tons of kickass women characters); sewer-dwelling cannibals; a literate troll; and countless other intriguing ones should be teaser enough to get you to crack the cover on this one.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

The Language of Secrets by Ausma Zehanat Khan (Minotaur, February 2)

language of secretsThe first in this series, The Unquiet Dead, was very well written, and The Language of Secrets is as well, with a lot of excitement thrown it. Detective Esa Khattak, a Muslim who runs the Community Policing Department in Toronto, is called to work on a case that involves a possible terrorist cell (or two), a mosque, and the death of a friend. His partner, Rachel Getty, goes undercover as a potential new member of the mosque. Esa is asked to work in a very minimal way on the murder investigation, and has his hands tied at every turn. How the murder is solved and a terrorist attack prevented come at a breakneck pace, all the way to the conclusion of this smart book. Highly recommended!

From PCN:

Back Blast by Mark Greaney (Berkley, February 16)

back blastI had to interview Mark Greaney for Shelf Awareness but hadn’t heard of him, so I picked up his latest thriller, which is number five in the Gray Man series. It’s 528 pages long. “Dang,” I thought. “This is a lot to read for research.”

But from the first page, I was sucked in like dirt into a Hoover. The Gray Man—real name Court Gentry—is a former CIA black ops officer who’s had a shoot-on-sight order against him for the past 5 years. Who put it there? The Agency. Why? He has no idea.

Tired of running all over the globe to evade the kill order, Gentry returns to DC to confront his opponents/former bosses. What ensues is a fast-paced adventure that shows why the CIA should be very, very afraid of the Gray Man, not the other way around. Think Jack Reacher with James Bond’s toys and you get an idea of what Gentry can do. This is a thick book but it’s, well, a blast.

What are you looking forward to reading this month?

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Thoughts on the 73rd Golden Globes

This was one of the weirder Golden Globes ceremonies in recent memory. Sylvester Stallone winning best supporting actor in a motion picture for Creed? Lady Gaga is the best lead actress in a limited series for American Horror Story: Hotel? Seriously??

After the presenters made those announcements, I wondered if they’d Steve Harveyed the ceremonies and read the wrong name. Gaga couldn’t even pull off a convincing acceptance speech. Then again, Madonna won a best actress in a musical/comedy Globe for Evita, so I guess the win makes sense in the world of the Hollywood Foreign Press.

ricky-gervais-ggRicky Gervais, as expected, had no respect for the celebrities in the audience—or NBC, the networking broadcasting the show—but everyone seemed good-natured about it, at least on camera. He did get a bit too graphic about Jeffrey Tambor’s, ah, jewels when wondering how the Transparent actor hides them while playing a transgender, making me miss former hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, whose sharp humor involves fewer comments about genitalia.

Gervais hugged it out with Mel Gibson, making up for his harsh comments about Gibson’s drinking and anti-Semitic rant when he last introduced the actor on the Globes years ago. Gervais’s intro this time: “I’d rather have a drink with him than Bill Cosby.” Gibson’s retort: “I love seeing Ricky every three years because it reminds me to get a colonoscopy.”

The first presenters, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, did a painfully unfunny, too-long bit with Hill as the bear from The Revenant. Paul Drinkwater:NBCUniversal via Getty ImagesLuckily, the banter got better, notably the bit by America Ferrara and Eva Longoria, who had to list all the Latina actresses they are not but are sometimes mistaken for: “I’m Eva Longoria, not Eva Mendes.” Ferrera said: “Hi, I’m America Ferrera, not Gina Rodriguez.” (The HFPA’s Twitter account thought Ferrera was Rodriguez when Ferrera announced Globes nominations last month.) Longoria said, “And neither of us are Rosario Dawson,” to which Ferrara replied, “Well said, Salma,” and Longoria said, “Thank you, Charo.”

Winners I was happiest about: Brie Larson for Room, Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, Matt Damon for The Martian, and Jon Hamm for Mad Men.

aziz-ansari-ggFunniest non-winner goes to Aziz Ansari. When his name is read as a best comedy series lead actor nominee for Master of None, he’s reading a book titled Losing to Jeffrey Tambor with Dignity. (Tambor was the frontrunner but Gael García Bernal ended up winning for Mozart in the Jungle.)

See a complete list of winners and some memorable moments here.

Let’s talk about the fashion. There weren’t many superlative outfits, either stunning or WTH, so I’ll just feature a few favorites.

Alicia Vikander

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I’m not usually a fan of white dresses, but The Danish Girl star looked flawless in this. It takes a gorgeous woman to pull off a gown that kind of looks like an apron in front. The belt loops and delicate pleats make it interesting.

Olivia Wilde

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Love the rich wine color. It’s so boring when people wear black sheaths on the red carpet.

Rooney Mara

She may not hit the jackpot every time, and I don’t usually like nude gowns (apparently this is blush in person), but there’s always something wild and funky to Mara’s choices. She’s the Girl Who Doesn’t Like Safe Choices. Something else I like about her: She doesn’t strike that affected pose most other actresses use, with one hand on hip and one leg forward (see: Olivia Wilde above), which supposedly makes you look slimmer but instead makes all the ladies look unnatural. Mara’s stance is more like: just take my picture so I can move on because I’m already bored with you.

Eddie Redmayne

eddie redmayne gg 2016

The men don’t have as many sartorial choices as the women do, but Redmayne repeatedly finds ways to stand out. This time, his jacket is dark blue and has subtle embroidery. The kerchief in pocket completes this classic-but-modern look.

Did you watch? Which were your favorite bits/looks?

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Q & A with Robert Crais

After a long wait for readers, Robert Crais released The Promise last November. I pounced on it like it was the last piece of bacon post-apocalypse. It’s billed as an Elvis and Joe novel but also includes LAPD officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie from Crais’s previous book, Suspect (read my Promise review for Shelf Awareness here).

Crais went on tour right before the holidays, and will appear tomorrow (Saturday) at the Santa Monica Public Library at 3 p.m., as part of the library’s 125th anniversary celebration. But first, he was kind enough to fill out my questionnaire about his adventures and provide glimpses of his life on the road.

Most unexpected experience:

The Promise debuted at #1 on the NY Times e-book list. In November. When dreadnoughts like King, Albom, and Grisham are plowing the pre-Christmas waves. I expected to be swamped.

Freakiest:

An enormous, 50-foot statue on the road from Cincinnati to Dayton. I asked my driver, “What’s this?” He said, “Touchdown Jesus. We call it Touchdown Jesus because of how the arms were raised like he’s signaling a TD.” I studied the statue, and didn’t see it. “His arms aren’t raised. They’re spread to the sides.” He nodded. “This is the second Touchdown Jesus. The first was struck by lightning and destroyed. They changed the arms when they built the new one, but he’ll always be Touchdown Jesus to me.”

TD Jesus

Most suspenseful:

The car service hired to drive me from Vero Beach to Jacksonville flaked at the last second. It’s a three-hour drive, and I had to be in Jacksonville for a couple of live radio interviews, so the publicists really had to scramble. They found a replacement, but there was just no way we were going to make it. Too many miles and not enough time. But this new driver? This cat was Han Solo. We blasted up the highway like the Millennium Falcon. I had to, ah, close my eyes a couple of times, but we made it.

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Most fun with TSA:

The TSA were great. Three different agents recognized my name, and asked about Elvis and Joe. What’s not to love?

Best meal eaten:

Flounder and fried green tomatoes at The Olde Pink House in Savannah. I’m drooling as I remember.

flounder

Most surreal moment:

The bar in the basement of the Olde Pink House. Ghosts.

Most beautiful sight:

I was in New York City when Paris was hit by the terror attacks. The next day, I happened upon Washington Square Park, which was filled with people. I don’t know how many, maybe a few thousand. Here were all these people, Americans, some of whom were waving French flags, who had come together in this spontaneous show of support for France. I found it moving and beautiful. I still do.

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Favorite activity between signings:

Flying. No calls, no email, and I’m on to another event.

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Favorite souvenir:

Fans brought so many wonderful gifts. Little stuffed German shepherds. Cookies to represent Elvis and Joe and Maggie. I loved them all.

maggie cookies

All photos: Robert Crais. To stalk his snaps, follow him on Facebook and Instagram.

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Nerdy Special List January 2016

Happy 2016! Hope your holidays were beautiful and full of things that made you all fuzzy inside. Or on the outside, if that’s your preference. I don’t judge.

I had a wonderful time with family, mooching off Mom and Dad, loafing around in jammies for days, eating 97 of Mr. PCN’s homemade cookies, having a Star Wars marathon with nieces and nephews who were seeing all the movies for the first time, then engaging the kiddos in long discussions afterward. Nerd heaven.

But enough blathering and let’s get down to business with the first NSL of the new year. Here are the January releases we recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Where It Hurts by Reed Farrel Coleman (Putnam, January 26)

where-it-hurtsReed Farrel Coleman introduces retired cop Gus Murphy, his new series protagonist, in this dark tale. Gus lost his son to an unknown heart defect two years earlier and hasn’t recovered from the devastation. It tore his remaining family apart and now he works for—and lives in—an old rundown hotel. He doubles as the building detective and airport shuttle driver. When a man Gus arrested during his years on the police force shows up asking for Gus’s help investigating the murder of his son, Gus has to confront more than the case in order to have any chance at solving the crime.

Coleman has consistently created dynamic and layered characters in his crime novels, and Where It Hurts is no exception. The histories and skeletons make these characters fascinating and empathetic. They are also a beautiful reflection of the cultural diversity of the Long Island setting.

Coleman excels at turning a breathless phrase amid ugliness and despair: “A pleasant, button-down guy, he was an okay cop who figured the best way to get ahead was by keeping his head down and to paint by the numbers and to stay inside the lines when he did. His wardrobe was strictly K-Mart and so too were his dreams, though he wasn’t altogether unambitious.”

His humor isn’t lacking, either: “Long Islanders believed that world peace would only be achieved through shopping and not even the Dalai Lama himself worked as hard at world peace as the citizens of Nassau and Suffolk Counties.” Where It Hurts is an all around great start to a promising new series.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 5)

splitfootMr. Splitfoot is Samantha Hunt’s latest novel and it’s a strange, intense journey for fans of Gothic fiction. Nat and Ruth are two teenagers living in the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Farm, and Mission. The founder of the home, Father Arthur, only wants the most extreme cases of child abandonment. He doesn’t want kids with families that may reunite or a long lost aunt that might step in; he wants the lost causes.

Mixed in with the grim material are humor and absurdity that keep the novel from getting too dark. The Mother of Love of Christ! sings Black Sabbath’s “Mama, Mama, I’m Coming Home” to the motherless children as they do the heavy lifting, and Ruth declares “Jesus is a hottie” and sincerely means it. Nat and Ruth, siblings by choice, know they need to find a way to earn a living before they age out of the home, and that comes in the form of Mr. Splitfoot. He helps Nat speak to the dead. It begins with the other orphans, but soon draws the attention of Mr. Bell, who brings Nat and Ruth a much more profitable clientele.

Interspersed with Nat and Ruth’s life as spiritualists is Cora’s story. Cora is Ruth’s pregnant niece. One day Ruth arrives unannounced, unable to speak, but insistent that Cora accompany her, destination unknown. Although the novel sounds—and is—very odd, it is also well crafted. Samantha Hunt has written an intricately plotted, ghostly love story that I would highly recommend. It’s a novel I am certain will stick with me through the coming year.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin (Little, Brown, January 19)

even dogs in the wildI’m not sure exactly how it’s possible that Ian Rankin’s books keep getting better, but they do. Even Dogs in the Wild is the latest in his Rebus series, but I wouldn’t call this a Rebus book, because Rankin’s universe of characters, including Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, and Big Ger Cafferty, are every bit as much a part of the story as John is.

Rankin can weave a mystery as well as any storyteller, and he does exactly that in this novel. Murders connected by ominous notes at the scene and committed by an apparently invisible individual would be a conundrum to lesser cops, but Rebus, Clarke, and Fox are a formidable team. And it is against this backdrop that Rankin unfolds one of the sharpest studies in character—into the human heart and soul—in modern literature, and it is a pleasure to read.

Rankin will be touring in the US starting at the end of January (specific info available on his website). He’ll be in New York, St. Louis, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Phoenix, and—wait for it—Fairway, Kansas.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering by Clara Bensen (Running Press, January 5)

no baggage

Does the thought of a hotel messing up your reservation give you angina? How about not having one at all? Clara Bensen throws all kinds of caution to the wind when she agrees to take a trip across the globe with a man she only recently met on an Internet dating site. If that doesn’t sound crazy enough, she’s agreed to travel his way: no itinerary, no hotel reservations, no baggage. They each carry nothing but a toothbrush, a credit card, a passport, and the clothes on their back

This is the story of Clara’s trip with Jeff, but it’s really much deeper than that. Both have recently been hit with difficult life circumstances and the trip presses on nerves and emotions that force them, Clara especially, to face their fears and issues. It becomes readily apparent you can leave your luggage behind, but your life baggage is always with you.

More of a life journal than strict travelogue, No Baggage is both fun and introspective. Recommended for travel junkies and anyone who’s thought of chucking it all and taking to the road. (Read Lauren’s full review here.)

From PCN:

The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer (Grove Press, January 12)

SHUT EYEAfter this book and last year’s Rubbernecker (featured on August’s NSL), Bauer is quickly becoming one of my must-read authors. Her characters are quirky and full of sharp humor, even in the face of dire situations.

Detective Chief Inspector John Marvel can’t let go of the unsolved case of a 12-year-old girl who went missing a year earlier, but his boss wants him to look for a lost poodle belonging to Marvel’s boss’s wife.

Anna Buck’s 4-year-old son is also missing, and she starts having strange visions that may or may not provide clues to her son’s—or is is it the missing girl’s?—whereabouts. The police and her husband think she’s just nuts, though, and her credibility is shot even lower when Anna admits she consulted a TV psychic before she started having her revelations.

Through multiple viewpoints, Bauer unspools a gripping story that allows little shut eye until you’re finished.

 

Which books are you looking forward to this month? 

 

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An INSIDE OUT Christmas

This past weekend I attended my friend Mari’s annual holiday theme party. Long-time PCN readers might remember her incredible Harry Potter party and the Dr. Seuss one, among others. This year’s theme was:

inside-out-pixar

In case you don’t recognize it, that’s Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, with characters representing emotions inside the head of a little girl named Riley. When the movie came out in June, Mr. PCN and I had seen it with Mari and her children—which include a girl named Riley.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted with this banner as we stepped through the window into Riley’s mind.

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Inside was this brilliant table:

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Notice the “memories” on the walls.

 

The hors d’oeuvres and snacks area:

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Here’s the live version of, from left, Anger, Sadness, Disgust (in front of Sadness), Joy (Mari), and Fear.

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The one in front on the ground? That’s my friend Christian as the lovesick volcano from the short film Lava, which played before Inside Out in theaters. Christian trounced us all for best costume. You can see more of his volcanic splendor in the group shot below.

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Hope your holidays glow brightly and bring you much joy. (To see more of Mari’s feasts for the eyes, visit her site.)

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Mini Movie Reviews: More Based-on-True-Events Fare

As I mentioned in a previous post, many of this year’s award contenders are about real people and based on real events. After reviewing Trumbo, Steve Jobs, and The Danish Girl, here are my thoughts on the next batch of supposedly true stories.

 

In the Heart of the Sea

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book-award winner of the same title, this recounts the ordeals of the ship Essex and her crew in 1820 after the ship was demolished by a sperm whale. The crew drifted for over 90 days in separate boats, fighting (unsuccessfully for some) hunger, thirst, and nature before being rescued. The incident, and accounts by survivors, apparently inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The situations are harrowing for sure, but like many Ron Howard-directed films, Heart of the Sea veers toward sentimentalism toward the end. I prefer what Brooklyn‘s director, John Crowley, does—move audiences without being sentimental.

Chris Hemsworth solidifies his status as the go-to guy when Hollywood needs a big, strong dude who can act; Tom Holland continues to make me feel really bad for his unfortunate characters in water-logged tragedies (check him out in The Impossible; he’s also the new Spider-Man and will hopefully stay dry); and Brendan Gleeson is affecting as a traumatized man, though it’s ridiculous that the filmmakers want us to buy the 60-year-old actor as a 45-year-old.

 

Bridge of Spies

bridgeofspies

DreamWorks

This Steven Spielberg-directed espionage thriller is solid entertainment and much better than you might think it is. That was my reaction, and I’ve heard a couple of other people say the same, probably because a movie more than two hours long about the Cold War and Russian spies sounds dense and dry. It’s actually suspenseful, well-paced, and has a definite supporting actor contender in Mark Rylance. Rylance remains still and quiet throughout the movie, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface.

Tom Hanks plays a lawyer named James Donovan who becomes the second most hated man in America as the defense lawyer for Rylance’s character, Rudolf Abel, an accused Soviet spy. I don’t want to give away too much about the fascinating chess moves that occur, but Donovan ends up being recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of an American spy held captive in the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about the real-life Donovan and the results of his actions, so the ensuing events had me riveted.

The script, by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen, contains thought-provoking dialogue. When a CIA agent pressures Donovan to betray his client’s confidentiality, arguing that Abel is a foreigner and “there’s no rule book” that applies to him, Donovan points out that he himself is of Irish descent, the agent has German roots, and therefore following “the rule book” is the only thing that defines them as Americans.

 

Joy

joy

Fox 2000

Teaming up yet again with director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and many more items. Joy goes from being a kid with bright ideas to a broke single mother with no business experience, then transforms into an entrepreneur and head of a multimillion-dollar empire.

The movie has an uneven tone and odd dream-like sequences; I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks showed up. Can’t fault the acting, though. As with anything she does, Lawrence is immensely watchable. She’s too young to play Mangano (the real Mangano was about 34 when she invented the Miracle Mop; Lawrence is 25), but she does convincingly traverse the character arc from novice to shrewd businesswoman.

The supporting cast is fine, with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad, Bradley Cooper as a QVC exec who gives Joy her first big break, and Diane Ladd as Joy’s grandmother. Unlike with the last three Russell movies, however, I don’t think any of the supporting players will get nominations.

While I have no beef with Elisabeth Röhm as a performer, I wonder why Russell keeps having the fair German-born actress portray Italian (or at least half Italian) characters. Yes, Italians can be fair, and in American Hustle Röhm wasn’t too jarring as Dolly Polito, but here, as Joy’s half sister, she’s distracting in olive face. I kept thinking there are qualified actresses of Italian descent—e.g. Jennifer Esposito, Drea de Matteo—who could’ve played the sister without having to darken their skin.

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Nerdy Special List Year-End Edition

Instead of a December list, I thought I’d post a list featuring outstanding books from any month this year, titles that weren’t on previous lists because we didn’t read them before pub date or whatever other reason. This isn’t a best-of or top-ten list, just a roundup of additional 2015 books we found special. Maybe one or four will end up on your Christmas list!

From Jen’s Book Thoughts:

bassoon-kingThe Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson (Dutton)

Actor Rainn Wilson’s memoir is smart, funny, and inspirational. I listened to the audiobook, which Wilson narrates himself, and it will be my favorite audiobook of the year. He offers up an honest look at his rise to The Office fame, with all the bumps, bruises and laughs, including a stint playing the bassoon in his high school band.

Wilson is a wiz with words, crafting brilliant phrases like “drama geeks as the lions of the dork Serengeti.” He also shares his views on his religion, Bahá’í, and of course has plenty to say about The Office. But you don’t need to be a fan of the sitcom to appreciate this fantastic book.

If you’re an audiobook fan, opt to listen to this one because Wilson’s performance adds an extra layer of goodness to an already enjoyable read.

gates-of-evangelineThe Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young (Putnam)

This atmospheric debut novel follows a 38-year-old woman to Louisiana where she’s writing a book about the prominent Deveau family and the still unsolved 30-year-old kidnapping of the youngest Deveau, Gabriel.

The novel contains a hint of mysticism and a wallop of great characters, all wrapped in themes of love, faith, and devotion. Hester Young creates a rich Southern Gothic setting in the old plantation on a Louisiana bayou, and the plot is masterfully constructed with red herrings and twists up to the very end.

An amazing first novel. I’m looking forward to more from this talented writer. (Read Jen’s full review here.)

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

the shoreThe Shore by Sara Taylor (Hogarth)

The Shore is Sara Taylor’s debut novel. Set just off the coast of Virginia, there are a group of small islands in the Chesapeake Bay known as “the Shore.” Inhabited by rich and poor alike, the Shore is the place that binds everyone together.

The story is bleak, filled with abuse, addiction, and tragedy, but beautifully written. Although it’s considered a novel, each chapter has the feel of a short story. The characters are complex and distinct, and they illustrate how you can love and hate the place you call home.

It’s worth warning potential readers, especially based on the misleading cover, this novel is unremittingly harsh. It’s grim, it’s tough, it’s unexpected, but it is so worth the effort to get through.

bull mountainBull Mountain by Brian Panowich (Putnam)

Allowing I didn’t intentionally set out to recommend two debuts, I’m happy it worked out that way. Bull Mountain is Brian Panowich’s brilliant first novel. Set in the backwoods of northern Georgia, this is southern grit-lit at its finest.

The novel tells the saga of the Burroughs family and its transition from selling moonshine to marijuana and eventually meth. It centers on brothers Halford and Clayton. Halford is the head of the Burroughs empire, while Clayton is the outcast and the sheriff of the county. The two form an uneasy truce that lasts until Special Agent Simon Holly arrives. After that, nothing is the same.

This novel is tense and deeply satisfying, truly a page turner (a phrase I never use, but it’s apt here). If a sweeping southern tale of crime, vengeance, and loyalty sounds appealing, pick up this book immediately.


From Erin at In Real Life:

child gardenThe Child Garden by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)

With each of her novels, Catriona McPherson lays bare Scotland’s dark underbelly, and long may she continue to do so (tourism board be damned!).

In The Child Garden, we meet Gloria Harkness, a good (no, really) woman who is doing the best she can in difficult circumstances. Her good nature leads her into the heart of a dark mystery, though, fraught with complications and evil presences.

 

taking pityTaking Pity by David Mark (Blue Rider Press)

Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy is a good guy in the midst of a terrible run of events. His house is gone and his wife and daughter are in hiding. All he needs is…a good case. Or maybe not, but that’s what he gets.

A rural murder in the picturesque English countryside is much more than it appears when McAvoy starts digging, and the result is a story worthy of the McBain comparisons it has drawn.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

61XH0FJVXVLSmaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan (Soho)

I was blown away by F.H. Batacan’s brilliant Smaller and Smaller Circles, winner of multiple awards in the Philippines and published in the US for the first time in August.

The story is set in 1977 Manila, a city rife with poverty, corrupt officials, and lazy law enforcement. When the mutilated bodies of at-risk boys begin showing up in the dump, Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist Gus Saenz is asked by the director of the National Bureau of Investigations to help with the case.

Father Gus, along with his former student and mentee Father Jerome Lucero, now a psychologist, throw themselves into the case with their hearts and heads. Of course, not everyone cares that boys on society’s fringes are being victimized. Not everyone likes Father Gus and his meddling ways.

In Batacan’s hands, these normal elements of crime fiction don’t feel like retreads. Everything fits, the plot and characters are all drawn so well the whole feels very, very real indeed. I was amazed how quickly Father Gus and Father Jerome became a duo I was wholly invested in and would crave more from. Batacan let me know her characters in the most intimate way—by shining a light on their souls through their words and actions.

I loved feeling so powerless to avoid getting caught up in these characters and their plights. I highly recommend this one, which does include some difficult material, but handled appropriately and not for shock value. (Read Lauren’s full review here.)

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

ruined abbeyRuined Abbey by Anne Emery (ECW Press)

This book takes place in 1989, during the Irish “Troubles.” Several members of Father Brennan Burke’s family end up in jail for various reasons. He and his siblings try to get to the main source of their problems, and figure out where everyone fits into the bigger picture.

Ruined Abbey is very interesting, partially because I didn’t know anything about the time period in Ireland or Britain. Highly recommended.

 

dead to meDead to Me by Mary McCoy (Disney-Hyperion)

I did not know this book was a young adult book when I started it, even though the main character is 16. Alice investigates the brutal beating of her older sister, who lies in a coma. The story and the noir atmosphere more than hold up as both a YA and adult mystery.

Goodreads calls it “L. A. Confidential for young adults.” Highly recommended.

From PCN:

little black liesLittle Black Lies by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur)

I’d been going through a bad reading slump when this book arrived and saved me. Many months after I read it, it still haunts me.

Set in the Falkland Islands, the story is told from three main points of view: Catrin, a mother still grieving the death of her two young sons; Rachel, Catrin’s former best friend who may have been (accidentally) involved in the boys’ deaths; and Callum, Catrin’s ex-lover and ex-soldier in the Falklands War.

Little boys are going missing on the islands, and Catrin doesn’t think the disappearances are unrelated. Delving into the mystery, though, only brings back devastating memories of her own lost boys. Her grief is raw and palpable when we see her internal life, but to others she can seem stoic and unsentimental so her sorrow isn’t overwhelming.

Rachel and Callum struggle with their own demons, and the three characters collide in a climax that’s almost O. Henry-ish. If you need a slump buster, you can’t go wrong with this book.

 

And this concludes our final Nerdy Special List of the year. I’d like to thank all the smart, good-looking, well-dressed contributors for expanding my reading universe with their recommendations every month. Hope you all have enjoyed the lists as much as I have. (For previous NSLs, click here.)

Which books were special for you this year?

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Gift Book Reviews: Ghostbusters and Hollywood Fashion

Many of us have probably already started Christmas shopping—well, maybe you have; I usually wait until Dec. 24 and then panic-buy random things next to cash registers in stores—so I thought I’d help by reposting my reviews of these beautiful books that would make wonderful gifts for the pop culture nerds in your life.

The reviews originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and are reprinted here with permission.

Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History by Daniel Wallace

ghostbustersArriving more than 30 years after the original Ghostbusters movie made its debut in theaters and several months before the 2016 reboot with an all-female cast, Daniel Wallace’s Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History is an entertaining collection of behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the origin and production of the 1984 movie and its sequel. The book is generous with on-set pictures and recollections from the cast and crew, though many of the quotes are from previously published or broadcast sources. It also contains pullout memorabilia, such as storyboards, concept art and Peter Venkman’s business card.

Though it doesn’t explain why several key original crew members—including visual effects designer Richard Edlund and production designer John DeCuir—didn’t return for the sequel, this compendium is a must-have for fans who fondly remember the hit movie and are eagerly awaiting the remake.

Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers by Jay Jorgensen, Donald L. Scoggins

creating the illusionBesides Edith Head, how many influential costume designers could most cineastes name? Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins’s Creating the Illusion should help raise that number. This encyclopedic compilation contains profiles of—and interviews with—costume designers who’ve left indelible impressions on film throughout the last century.

For the adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, costume designer Adrian (a one-name wonder long before Cher’s and Madonna’s time) feared the silver slippers from the book wouldn’t pop on screen, so he made them ruby–and created movie history.

While Oscar-winner Gloria Wakeling moonlighted in TV, she designed Barbara Eden’s pink costume on I Dream of Jeannie. The intimidating Irene Sharaff created larger-than-life gowns for The King and I and Cleopatra, among others. Marilyn Monroe’s white, billowing dress? Designed by William Travilla. Who’s responsible for Neo’s black duster in The Matrix? Kym Barrett. They’re all here, along with many more, receiving rightful credit for helping shape iconic characters and sartorial moments in pop culture.

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