Monthly Archives

June 2010

Book Review: Chevy Stevens’s STILL MISSING

Any time someone says a book is “unputdownable,” I take it as a challenge: “Oh, yeah? Watch me.” And I often win.

But author Chevy Stevens (a pseudonym for Rene Unischewski) has earned this word on the back cover of her debut novel Still Missing (St. Martin’s, July 6), making me hate myself every time I had to put it down to attend to basic human needs. I was thisclose to strapping on an adult diaper and a feed bag so I wouldn’t have to take breaks.

Annie O’Sullivan is a Realtor from Vancouver Island who was abducted and held captive for about a year by a man she calls The Freak. Her horrific experience in an isolated cabin up unfolds in first person through sessions with her therapist. From the beginning, you know she survived but don’t know how she escaped or what was done to her. As the sessions continue, you kinda wish she wouldn’t tell you. And just when you think Annie’s ordeal might be over, she discovers the reason behind her abduction. The new revelations are more shattering than anything The Freak did to her.

I usually know right away whether or not I’ll like a book and here’s what hooked me from page one:

Even the guy’s office was a turnoff—black leather couches, plastic plants, glass and chrome desk. Way to make your patients feel comfortable, buddy. And of course everything was perfectly lined up on the desk. His teeth were the only damn thing crooked in his office, and if you ask me, there’s something a little strange about a guy who needs to line up everything on his desk but doesn’t get his teeth fixed.

Photo: Suzanne Teresa

This is Annie’s description of her previous shrink and it perfectly sets up her voice: wary but sharp and dark-witted. Though she doubts she’ll ever find her way back to normal, she’s more resilient than she realizes. What she endures at the hands of The Freak is beyond disturbing (he makes Lord Voldemort seem charming), but I couldn’t stop reading. It’s as if I had to bear witness to Annie’s pain because if I look away, she’ll disappear again, maybe for good.

Stevens’s lean, punch-in-your-gut style held me captive. She doesn’t embellish the terrible events because she doesn’t need to. She does drop an obvious clue to the culprit’s identity long before Annie recognizes it, but Annie’s psychologically scrambled state makes it plausible she wouldn’t catch on.

Throughout most of the book, my stomach hurt from the tension; my skin wasn’t just crawling, it was practically jumping. It’s easy to see why Stevens had to approach only one agent and one publisher with her first manuscript before she was signed to a three-book deal (read more about it here and try not to hate her too much).

Nerd verdict: Searing Missing

Buy Still Missing from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from an indie bookstore

I’ll be missing from this site for the next several days as I go out of town for the holiday weekend. I’ll have Internet access but may choose not to use it. If you observe the Fourth of July, I wish you a safe and wonderful celebration.

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The Versatile Blogger Award

My friend le0pard13 from Lazy Thoughts from a Boomer just gave me the Versatile Blogger Award, which tickles me. When I was first learning English, I used to confuse “versatile” with “flexible,” so I wondered for a second, “What does my flexibility have to do with my blogging?” but then I sorted myself out. Good thing, since this would’ve been really weird.

Apparently I can’t accept this award without doing a bunch of things, the first being to thank the person who bestowed it on me. Thank you, Michael, for thinking I’m way cooler than I really am. I hope you will always be thus deceived.

Next, I have to reveal seven things about myself:

  1. In fifth grade, I wore an eye patch to school for three days after a dodgeball hit me in the face and damaged my cornea.
  2. I mangle idioms all the time. I can never seem to hit the nail in the jackpot. Oh, well. Half of one, six dozen chickens.
  3. I’ve found that the easiest way to take down a large man who’s coming at me is, yup, a hard kick in the nuts. Who needs fancy martial arts?
  4. There are no baby pictures of me and no one can really remember what I looked like.
  5. I once got a free pasta dinner at Universal Studios when the backlot caught on fire and restaurant staff told me to just take my food and run. I took the rolls, too.
  6. I know sign language and can sign most Madonna songs.
  7. Assholes make me want to kick them in the nuts.

Now I’m supposed to give this to 15 other bloggers but le0pard13 hoarded all my blogger friends on his list so I have none left. Darn. Guess I’m a day late and need two dollars more.

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Fall Movie Trailers 2010

This year’s summer flicks have been so underwhelming, I can’t help fast forwarding to fall movies. Saw a few trailers in the past week that have me pretty excited. Any of these look good to you?

Harry Potter and the Death Hallows, Part 1 (November)

The other trailers for this movie left me feeling “meh.” This new one, released today, is the first that makes the movie look epic and highstakesful. Will you see it in IMAX 3D?

Red (October)

Tell me this movie doesn’t look funny and kick-ass at the same time. Can Helen Mirren be any more awesome? Throw her in with Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Mary-Louise Parker as a group of Retired and Extremely Dangerous ex-CIA agents and I’m there.

Conviction (October)

The buzz is that the third Annette Bening vs. Hilary Swank smackdown might occur at the Academy Awards next year, with Bening getting strong notices for The Kids Are All Right while Swank looks like Oscar bait in this true story about a woman who goes to law school just so she can get her wrongly convicted brother out of jail.

The American (September)

George Clooney plays an assassin in Italy doing one last assignment. I like Clooney and love Italian scenery so it’s a safe bet I’ll be checking out this one.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (October)

The Girl Who Played with Fire is coming out in a couple weeks (as well as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on DVD) and I’m already looking forward to the final film in the trilogy. Lisbeth rules. Speaking of Lisbeth, have you read this Stieg Larsson parody by Nora Ephron from the New Yorker?

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Book Review + Giveaway: Carolyn Parkhurst’s THE NOBODIES ALBUM

Carolyn Parkhurst‘s The Nobodies Album is such a unique book with such beautiful language, I won’t do it justice by compressing its ideas into a review. But hopefully I’ll pique your interest enough to get you to read it because I really, really want you to. Thanks to Doubleday, I’m even giving away two copies to help that along. But first, let me tell you a little more about it.

Octavia Frost is a famous author traveling to New York to turn in the manuscript for her latest book, The Nobodies Album. It’s unlike any of her previous novels because it consists solely of revised endings for all of them. While in Times Square, Octavia is stunned to see a news crawl on a Jumbotron announcing that her son Milo, lead singer of a rock band called Pareidolia, has just been arrested and charged with the murder of his live-in girlfriend. Octavia and Milo have been estranged for four years but she decides it’s time she tries to bridge the gap, literally and emotionally.

Throughout this book, excerpts from Octavia’s original endings and her rewritten ones are interspersed between the chapters dealing with the murder mystery. Though her stories range from paranormal to sci-fi and metaphysical, they reflect Octavia’s struggles to cope with a family tragedy, details of which are slowly revealed. The new endings are more hopeful than the previous versions, a blatant appeal for Milo’s attention since one of her books is the reason for their estrangement. The Nobodies Album is a phrase from a childhood game Milo used to play with her back when their family was whole.

Octavia’s attempt at reshaping her personal story through her fictional ones raises an interesting question: Since writers and artists inevitably inject parts of themselves into their work, should they be allowed to alter it as they evolve? As Octavia says to Roland, a Mick Jagger-y aging rock star who’s mentor to Milo:

“If I’ve changed since I wrote those books, if the way I see my life events is different, and the way I approach relationships is different…If I were writing any of those books now, they wouldn’t be the same books. I want to change the way I put myself in them.”

Roland responds:

“The only way you got here, to the point you’re at now, is by writing those books the way you did…I guess I’d just say that if you want to do something, do something new. And whoever you are now, whatever ways you’ve changed, that’s going to show up in the new work without your even trying.”

I’m with Roland in this debate, but I do understand the endless need to tinker with one’s words (this post alone took 84 hours), chasing perfection, knowing that complete satisfaction is elusive.

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

I don’t know how many revisions Parkhurst went through but her prose and dialogue are sublime. From Milo’s rocker talk to Octavia’s prim expressions and the media-ready soundbites of the dead girlfriend’s mother, each character’s speech has its own rhythm and sounds like how I imagine people like that would talk. Milo isn’t a spoiled celebrity, though; he shows sensitivity even while wary of Mom. Octavia is far from being a nice, cuddly woman but I don’t judge her. How can I criticize someone for the way she deals with grief?

The author also gives a lot of insight into the writing process, which I found fascinating:

I used to think it made me a good writer—look at me, honing my craft as I stand here to pour a cup of coffee, drafting and revising my descriptions of the mug, the smell, the sound of the hot splatter! Now I just find it tiresome, though it doesn’t seem to be something I can stop. An end to narration: that’s what I imagine death will be like.

While I don’t find it tiresome to come up with descriptions for this novel, Parkhurst is more eloquent than I so I’ll steal another quote from her to sum up my feelings:

You, the reader, shouldn’t be able to see what’s coming, but you should put the book down feeling satisfied that there’s no other way it could have gone.

And that I did.

Intrigued? If you’d like a chance to win one of two hardcover copies Doubleday is allowing me to give away:

  • be an e-mail subscriber or Twitter follower
  • leave a comment about a scene/chapter in your life you’d like to rewrite
  • have U.S. address, per Doubleday’s request

Giveaway ends Tuesday, July 6, 5 p.m. PST. Winners will be randomly chosen via Random.org and announced here and on Twitter. Winners will have 48 hours to claim the prize before alternate names are chosen.

Now let’s hear your stories with new happy endings!

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Movie Review: WINTER’S BONE

Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for drama this year, resembles two previous winners, Frozen River in 2008 and Precious last year, in being the kind of movie that’s well crafted but saying I loved it would be inappropriate due to its unrelenting bleakness in depicting people driven to take desperate action just to survive.

The movie, based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, takes place in Missouri’s Ozarks and follows seventeen-year-old Ree as she searches for her meth-cooking dad after he puts up their house for bail then disappears. She’s also trying to take care of two younger siblings and her mother, who has slipped into a non-responsive, shell-shocked state. The people in Ree’s community don’t want her asking questions, which lead to some disturbing discoveries.

I saw it with PCN contributor, Eric Edwards, with whom I had the following conversation to process our thoughts about the film.

Pop Culture Nerd: I wish you’d taken a picture of my face when the credits rolled. It would’ve summed up my feelings about this movie perfectly.

Eric Edwards: When your jaw was just hanging open?

PCN: Yeah. This movie is so unsettling, from beginning to end. What did you think?

EE: I’m probably going to be haunted by it a little. Those characters in the movie reminded me of my own rural upbringing though I’m not from the Ozarks. I could draw many parallels to people I grew up with.

PCN: Did you cook meth and play the banjo?

EE: No, meth was not part of my childhood but the banjo did feature prominently. And I saw more full sets of teeth in this movie than I expected.

PCN: Everybody was so creepy with their dead stares and quiet menace. They looked like they could erupt into violence at the drop of a hat and it made me so tense, bracing myself for it.

EE: But we actually saw very little violence. It was implied and you see the aftereffects. It’s a true testament to the storytelling that the movie makes you feel that way without going all Tarantino. The thing that disturbed me the most was watching Ree’s little sister be exposed to so much hardship. I just wanted to take her out of there and give her a better life.

PCN: I felt that way about all the kids. I hate it when children have to suffer. Jennifer Lawrence was amazing as Ree. This is a star-making role, for sure. She was so still and confident, something some actors don’t know how to be on screen. They think chewing scenery equals great acting, but a good actor knows economy of movement can be much more effective.

EE: She did most of her acting with her eyes.

PCN: Yeah, there were moments when she was talking and acting tough but you could see in her eyes how scared she was. Hey, side note: What do you think about her for Lisbeth Salander in the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?

EE: The coloring’s all wrong; she’d have to dye her hair. She could be tough enough but I don’t know if those baby cheeks will translate to Lisbeth.

PCN: You’re right. Just a thought. Let’s talk about John Hawkes, who plays Teardrop.

EE: Oh, man, does that guy have a thousand-yard stare or what? That face reads like a road map to anger. You could see the rage steaming off him. My only issue is that he was too controlled for all that meth he was snorting. He’d have the shakes.

PCN: Ah, I wouldn’t know anything about that. Hawkes just scared the beans out of me every time he was on screen. He reminded me of a younger Harry Dean Stanton. And you know who else scared me? Patty the day whore from My Name is Earl.

EE: What’s her real name again?

PCN: I keep forgetting. [Going to IMDb.] It’s Dale Dickey. No wonder we always forget. It’s a man’s name.

EE: Right! It’s a complete 180 turn here from what she did on Earl. It’s impressive how she can be equally adept at both comedy and drama.

PCN: I’ve seen her do drama before and she is good.

EE: Yeah, but nothing on this level.

PCN: Did the movie move too slowly for you? Some parts did for me. Ree did a lot of walking around and asking questions but nobody would tell her anything so nothing was happening.

EE: That didn’t bother me. It just added to the bleakness and authenticity of her situation. It goes to the code that rural people have of sticking together and keeping your mouth shut or you’ll be damn sorry you opened your trap.

PCN: So, does the movie make you want to read the book?

EE: Yeah. I have a few questions because some plot points went by too fast for me and I want to see if it covers how they all got to be in that situation.

PCN: I heard the novel is superb. Let me borrow it after you’re done.

PCN verdict: Tough, raw Bone. EE verdict: Winter’s cuts to the Bone.

Photos: Sebastian Mlynarski/Roadside Attractions

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Movie Review: KNIGHT AND DAY

I’ve never been a big fan of Tom Cruise, even before all the crazy talk and couch jumping. He comes across exactly the same way in every movie, no matter who he plays, even Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself liking him as Roy Miller in Knight & Day (out today) more than I’ve liked him in anything for a loooong time. It’s as if he realized he doesn’t have to try so hard to prove he’s a mega star.

Roy and June (Cameron Diaz) meet in an airport as she’s flying to Boston to attend her sister’s wedding. They bump into each other twice and it’s super cute with lots of smiles and “No, I’m sorry”s. We know Roy is manipulating the encounters; we just don’t know why. Then they both end up on the same plane and all sorts of crazy stuff breaks out. There are fights in tight spaces and creative use of seat belts and cords from oxygen masks.

After a crash landing, lots of other outrageous things happen in quick succession, with everyone chasing a MacGuffin all over the globe, from Massachusetts to Spain to Austria. Not all of it makes sense but you really don’t need to understand everything. It’s just an excuse to watch Cruise and Diaz banter and have a lot more fun here than they did in Vanilla Sky. Though Roy is a highly skilled action hero, he’s also a former Eagle Scout who’s soft-spoken and polite even while dispatching baddies. “Please move,” he nicely asks a bystander during a fight right before he slams into the space where the person was standing. When June freaks out in the midst of massive gunfire, he says in a calming voice, “I’ll just go talk to these guys and I’ll be right back. Actually, I’m just gonna shoot them, but I’ll be right back, okay?” Instead of busting a vein trying to show us how badass he is, Cruise relaxes into Roy’s gentlemanly ways and the result is rather charming.

Diaz’s June screams a lot at first but the actress manages to make her character’s reactions more realistic than annoying. If I were repeatedly thrown into a hail of bullets, dodging firebombs from airplanes and chased by bulls in Seville, I’d probably behave that way, too. But June eventually gets the hang of things and it’s entertaining to see her develop her action muscle.

Supporting cast includes Viola Davis, who’s completely wasted in the role of an FBI muckety muck, and Peter Sarsgaard, who is problematic because you know he’s a bad guy the instant he appears on screen. No, really, Roy tells June in the beginning if she runs into Sarsgaard, he’s a bad guy. I thought, “Well, duh. It’s Sarsgaard. No warning required.” But this isn’t a big hindrance because the movie isn’t about him. You sign up for the thrill ride with Cameron and Tom as your energetic Cruise directors.

Nerd verdict: Go where the Day takes you.

Photos: Frank Masi

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PCN Weekend Roundup

Photo: Disney/Pixar

On Friday, I saw Toy Story 3 in 3D (it made $109M over the weekend). You’ve probably seen or heard a lot about it by now so I don’t need to go into detail. I’ll just say, yes, I cried. It reminded me of Christopher Robin telling Pooh he has to leave 100 Acre Wood: “I’m not going to do Nothing any more.” Pooh asks, “Never again?” and Christopher Robin says, “Well, not so much. They don’t let you.” Then he asks, “Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?” And “Action!” on the tears streaming down my face.

That’s pretty much what happens in TS3, as the toys come to terms with Andy going away to college and their losing relevance in his life. Their little CGI faces, especially during a pretty disturbing scene where they hold hands and accept their fate, express more emotional depth than some human actors can muster (*cough, Nicolas Cage, cough*). Saying good-bye to our childhood is hard but if we haven’t done it, we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the beauty of this movie. Nerd verdict: Moving Story.

Saturday morning, I finished Cammie McGovern‘s new novel, Neighborhood Watch, after having started it Friday afternoon. It reads like Desperate Housewives, with polite, attractive people living on a bucolic street named after a shrub, hiding secrets in their basements and occasionally committing murder. Betsy Treading, dubbed the Librarian Murderess, is released after being falsely convicted and spending twelve years in prison for killing her neighbor, Linda Sue (not sure about her last name since it says Murphy on the dust jacket but she’s referred to as Linda Sue Nelson in the book). Betsy moves back to Juniper Lane, staying with a friend and looking for the real killer before she can move on.

McGovern has a subtle way of divulging the characters’ secrets that’s quite seductive. Instead of one big revelation, she leaks little tidbits in each chapter, making it seem almost accidental that the information slipped out at all until you realize somewhere near the end you have all the pieces. Many of the characters are flawed but sympathetic and Betsy makes an effective heroine, most touching when she finds a surprisingly tender relationship in an unexpected place. Nerd verdict: Engrossing Watch.

From L: me, Juliet, Sue Ann, Sophie, Travis

My favorite nerd experience this weekend was seeing the dynamic duo of Juliet Blackwell and Sophie Littlefield at their Mystery Bookstore joint signing in Westwood. Blogger extraordinaire le0pard13 also showed up with his lovely daughter and her friend and I had the pleasure of meeting both.

Sophie read from Juliet’s A Cast-Off Coven, the second in her Witchcraft Mystery series about Lily Ivory, while Juliet read from Sophie’s A Bad Day for Pretty, the second adventure featuring the kick-ass Stella Hardesty. (Sophie revealed the tentative titles for the next two Stella books but I’ll await her permission before blabbing.) These are smart books by amazing women so if you haven’t read them yet, you should immediately consider doing so before Stella comes looking for you with her bondage kit and/or Lily throws some black magic your way.

After the signing, which I survived without getting yelled at for climbing on furniture (thank you, Linda!), I got to dine with Sophie, Juliet and three other writers, Paul Levine, Sue Ann Jaffarian and Travis Richardson, all funny, fabulous people. Sophie and Juliet had promised pole dancing but I guess our hunger took precedence (author Stephen Blackmoore, who attended the signing, had also said he’d strip but chickened out last minute).

Dinner conversation included all sorts of interesting topics. Some were X-rated so I can’t recount them here without illustrations but I’m just not good at finger painting. At one point, we did discuss the following question, which I’ll end with, since it’s Monday and you might feel the need to be armed:

If you were a ninja, which weapon would you have?

For the record, I’d carry a sword, throwing stars and a Kenny G CD. Hit the comments and let me know your weapon of choice!

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Pictures from Soccer City

In light of USA playing Slovenia tomorrow (Friday) morning, I thought I’d run these pictures my brother sent from Soccer City. If you follow me on Twitter, you already know he’s in S. Africa right now, part of a team of editors and producers providing World Cup coverage for ESPN and ABC. He’s been working over 12 hours a day, has had only one day off since he arrived more than two weeks ago, but says the experience and energy in Johannesburg have been amazing. If you think those vuvuzela horns are loud on TV, he says they are SUPER LOUD in person, a constant soundtrack to his days, filling the streets and open markets, not just around the stadium. And when our national anthem played at the open of last week’s game against England, he found himself misty-eyed hearing it so far from home.

These pictures are from the Argentina vs. South Korea game, with Argentina winning 4-1.

© Thuy Dinh

Have fun sitting next to that. © Thuy Dinh

Closer view of players. Photo © Thuy Dinh

View of Soccer City at dusk. © Thuy Dinh

Go, USA! Tim Howard rules!

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Movie Review: CYRUS

I usually find Jonah Hill obnoxious in the roles he’s played but he surprised me in Cyrus, the indie film written and directed by brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (limited release, June 18). Hill plays the title character, a son in arrested development who lives with his mama (Marisa Tomei) and loves her just a little too much. When John (John C. Reilly) starts dating Molly and the relationship quickly turns serious, Cyrus launches a passive-aggressive attack—passive and needier than ever with Mom, escalating war when he’s alone with John. What results is a lesson for all parties involved in knowing when to let go and when to fight for something.

Hill is the revelation here. Shorn of his big hair, he’s lowered his usual manic energy to a stillness and fake politeness that makes him a disturbing opponent, a barely contained nutjob you keep waiting to go off the deep end. When Molly is in the room, Cyrus turns on big innocent eyes a la Puss in Boots in the Shrek movies, but then gives John the finger and mouths profanities at him behind Mom’s back. Cyrus’s nastiness isn’t surprising if you’ve seen Hill in movies like Superbad, but the actor also displays a vulnerable side here that suggests he’s got solid dramatic chops.

Reilly turns in masterful work as usual, making us believe a schlub like him could actually land a sexy woman like Tomei (“I’m like Shrek. What are you doing in the forest with Shrek?”). John is too raw and honest for most humans but we can see why he’s endearing to Molly, who’s way past falling for guys who play games. Tomei once again proves her long-ago Oscar is not a fluke, imbuing Molly with a wariness that makes her believable as someone unlucky in love despite her obvious physical gifts.

Though Oedipal tones and wrongness abound, the uncomfortable situations give rise to quite a few laughs. Is it wrong for Cyrus to wrestle with his mother? Did she breastfeed him for wayyy too long? It sounds absurd but the Duplass brothers keep the story grounded in these three lonely people’s need for love and prevent the movie from spinning into ridiculousness. The ending feels a little too pat but after all the weirdness, I was ready for these characters to have a little hope.

Nerd verdict: Sweet, funny Cyrus

Photos: Chuck Zlotnick

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It’s a Good Day for Winners of Sophie Littlefield’s BAD DAY Books!

Congrats to DarcyO and Gina! Darcy, you’ll get a hardcover copy of A Bad Day for Pretty, the second Stella Hardesty installment which just came out, and Gina, you’ll receive a paperback copy of Stella’s debut adventure, A Bad Day for Sorry. Both will be signed by Sophie. Please hit the contact form by Thursday, June 17, and let me know where to send.

Thanks to all who entered and shared your stories! If you didn’t win, you can buy Sophie’s books by clicking on the links below. And keep your eyes peeled for more giveaways!

Buy from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from Indie Bookstores

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Book Binge

My parents recently asked if they can come visit, which is a happy thing, but then I thought, “Uh oh, where will I put them?” Because my den has been completely overrun by books. Books in piles, on shelves, serving as furniture, crammed into drawers and stacked on the guest bed. So I locked myself in there, crawled among my books, getting paper cuts in weird places but determined to read until I can at least see the bed cover.

Perhaps you’ll find something interesting among what I managed to finish so far.

The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum

Storms are the new black because this is the third book in a row I’ve read that features them. In Sophie Littlefield‘s A Bad Day for Pretty, a tornado uncovers a dead body at the beginning of the book; in Michael Koryta‘s So Cold the River, the story builds up to a climactic storm; but in this novel, storms are at the heart of the story, not just literally but metaphorically.

Karena hasn’t seen her twin brother, Charles, in twenty years when she receives a phone call from a clinic in Kansas saying he’d just checked into a psychiatric facility. By the time she arrives from Minnesota, he’s gone from the hospital. She joins a tour with a professional storm-chasing company, hoping to track him down because Charles is a gifted storm chaser. He’s also bipolar and often a danger to himself and others. He and Karena share a terrible secret, something that happened on a chase twenty years ago, the resulting burden partly responsible for their estrangement.

Blum spins a fascinating tale with an impressive knowledge of the different kinds of storms, getting the lingo and details down, but it’s her descriptions of bipolar disorder, an electrical storm inside the brain, that are most riveting. Any reader who has ever known anyone with this disorder will recognize how authentic Charles’s behavior is. When he’s having a good day, he’s kind, loving, charismatic; when he’s manic, he’s a nightmare. Charles doesn’t take his meds because of the horrific side effects, creating the central dilemma: “Either Charles takes his medication and suffers, or he doesn’t and everyone else does.”

That’s what Karena does—suffer—but it’s the reason she’s a sympathetic character. At the beginning, she does a couple things during a chase that are incredibly stupid and dangerous but as I learned more about her motivation and love for Charles despite all he has put her through, I forgave her and wanted to hug her instead. There is no cure for bipolarity but the end implies Karena and her brother might experience calmer skies ahead. Nerd verdict: Electrifying, raw Stormchasers.

Buy The Stormchasers from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from IndieBound

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession by David Grann

Every once in a while, I like to read non-fiction books so I can feel smarter. They not only tell me a story, they teach me facts! Grann‘s book is a collection of previously published essays about, well, those topics in the subtitle. The first, “Mysterious Circumstances,” deals with the death of the world’s premier Sherlock Holmes scholar, Richard Green. He’s found garroted in his home shortly after he alleged that the priceless papers from Arthur Conan Doyle’s archives which turned up at Christie’s for auction in 2004 were stolen. The police find no signs of forced entry and rule the death a suicide, but certain details—e.g. no note, Green’s telling friends he feared for his life days before dying—leave many questions unanswered, resulting in a speculative conclusion that, if true, makes for quite a Holmesian twist.

The second essay, “Trial by Fire,” about a man on death row for murdering his three toddler-aged children by setting his house on fire with them inside, details a race against the clock to save him from execution with compelling new evidence of his innocence. Todd Willingham maintained he had no idea how the fire started; he was also inside and asleep at the time but got out without being able to save his babies. Grann includes facts from studies by a noted scientist and fire investigator who was able to debunk all the alleged arson indicators found at the scene. Dr. Gerald Hurst’s reports made me doubt everything I’ve read in other books or seen in movies about arson markers, and the ending kicked me right in the throat.

There are several other strong stories, tales that are truly stranger than fiction, and some which aren’t so engaging. Overall, I was impressed by Grann’s access to sources and information and his willingness to put himself in hair-raising situations to get the story. He methodically lays out his facts and sometimes makes you feel almost as smart as the titular detective. Nerd verdict: Uneven Tales but some are Devilishly good.

Buy The Devil and Sherlock Holmes from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from Indie Bookstores

The Seven Year Bitch by Jennifer Belle

Isolde “Izzy” Brilliant is a recently laid off financial analyst who’s trying to figure out her next move. She has a toddler and a husband who’s becoming increasingly annoying to her. The guy who got away years earlier conveniently resurfaces in all his rich and handsome glory, enticing her with offers of romantic, exotic trips. Izzy vacillates between her patch of lawn and eyeing the grass on the other side before discovering her perfect place and the life she truly wants.

Yes, the synopsis is thin because the story is more Izzy’s personal journey than plot driven, but boy, is that journey hilarious. I laughed out loud quite a few times, not just chuckles but actual guffaws. A lot of the humor is R-rated and politically incorrect but here’s a sample I can reprint of Izzy interviewing potential nannies:

The first nanny showed up right on time and took her seat across from me…I asked her my first question: “Do you cook?”

“You want me to cook!” she said, making her eyes so wide it was as if I had asked her to take off her blouse. I crossed her off the list.

I crossed the next two off my list right away because one brought her baby with her to the interview and the other had long, decorated nails with pastel stripes.

“You speak excellent English!” I told one enthusiastically.

“I’m from Trinidad,” she said.

“Yes, but your English is excellent,” I said, nodding my head like a crazy person.

“We only speak English there.” She looked at me with unmasked disgust. I crossed her off my list.

One had an almost contagious case of mush mouth. “Yesh, yesh, thatch nicesh,” was her answer to all my questions. I croshed her off my lisht.

You may think Izzy doesn’t have reason to complain, with her cushy life and NYC pad, but the right to be dissatisfied with one’s situation doesn’t belong exclusively to the unprivileged. Ennui can affect anyone and at least Izzy processes hers with a large dose of humor. Nerd verdict: Funny Bitch.

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Following Polly by Karen Bergreen (out June 22)

After being fired from her job as a casting director’s assistant, Alice Teakle becomes obsessed with a former acquaintance from Harvard who seems to have the perfect life. Alice follows Polly all over NYC, hoping to discover her secrets to success so maybe Alice can have a taste of it, too. When Polly ends up being viciously murdered, Alice becomes suspect number one. She manages to elude police and seeks out the help of her unrequited college crush, Charlie (though that’s not his real name), to find the real killer and clear her name.

Though the Publishers Weekly blurb on the jacket says, “It’s like Comedy Central picked up Law & Order for an episode,” the humor is mild and the mystery isn’t that gritty. The story is more about Alice growing up and finding her way (when her therapist asks her at the beginning of the book what her dream is, she realizes doesn’t have one). Alice is a pleasant enough protagonist and I enjoyed her relationship with Charlie, who lets her hide out in his apartment and is quite a prince.

I might have liked the book more if it weren’t for a repeated distraction—the author’s overuse of the word “that.” Example: “I’ll tell him that I’ve always loved him, and he’ll tell me that he knew there was someone right under his nose, and that it wasn’t until he found me going through his garbage that he knew that I was that someone.” Out of six “that”s in that sentence, only two—“that” #4 and the last one—are needed. I know this makes me sound super picky but it disrupted the rhythm in Bergreen’s writing and happened so often, I couldn’t ignore it. Nerd verdict: Slight Following.

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What did you finish this weekend? What are you reading now?

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Stan Lee: African-American Spider-Man Would be “Confusing”

Photo: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Stan Lee has finally spoken out about the Twitter campaign that’s been going on for some time to get Donald Glover, an African-American actor who’s currently on Community, to play Spider-Man in the movie reboot. You can listen to the entire statement here but the major points Lee made were:

  • “I don’t ever want to make it sound like I’m trying in any way to influence the Marvel people as to who to cast in any roles. That isn’t my job.”
  • “We’ve already had the Kingpin in ‘Daredevil’ portrayed by a black man [Michael Clarke Duncan], where he was white in the comics, and we’ve had Nick Fury portrayed by a black man [Samuel L. Jackson] where he was white in the comics. But not that many people had seen these characters—not that many moviegoers are familiar with them.”
  • “Everybody seems to be familiar with Spider-Man, so I say that it isn’t that it’s a racial issue—it’s just that it might be confusing to people. But that’s a matter for the people at Marvel to take into consideration. I certainly don’t want to weigh in on it in any way except to say I think Glover is a fine actor.”

I agree with Mr. Lee that it wouldn’t be a racial issue if Marvel doesn’t want to consider African-American actors for Spidey. It’s more about how we’ve always envisioned him. If the Wonder Woman movie ever gets made, I wouldn’t want a blond actress playing her (well, she’d have to dye her hair or don a wig), not because I’m a blondist but because the image of the brunette WW has been ingrained in me since I was a kid and I don’t want it messed with. I wouldn’t want a waifish actress, either, because WW is curvy and strong. And she’d have to wear the red, white and blue suit; they absolutely cannot put her in some black, sleek leather outfit like they’re considering for Thor. A commenter (who says he’s black) at scifiwire.com said he would find a black Spidey confusing, just as he would if a white man plays Shaft.

My informal poll: Are there certain characters (not just superheroes) whose image is inviolable to you?

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