Monthly Archives

February 2012

Book Review: DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

I originally reviewed this for Shelf Awareness. It’s reprinted here with permission.

When Assistant D.A. Andy Barber gets a case involving a murdered boy who’s a classmate of his son’s, there are gripes about conflict of interest. Then evidence points to Andy’s son, Jacob, being the murderer, and the D.A. takes Andy off the case. He finds himself on the defensive side of the law trying to prove Jacob’s innocence. But the more he investigates, the more he realizes there’s a lot about his son he doesn’t know, including whether or not Jacob is capable of murder.

This novel is a combination legal and psychological thriller, and keeps readers guessing about what happened to the murdered boy and the true nature of Jacob’s psyche. But the central characters are hard to root for. Jacob remains an enigma, seen differently through Andy’s eyes and those of his mother, Laurie. Andy believes his son cannot commit murder, going so far as to destroy potential evidence. Laurie, however, immediately questions whether she and Andy had been good parents, if Jacob had needed help that they never provided. These may be realistic reactions, but they make Laurie somewhat hard to like, as if she’s being disloyal to her son by assuming the worst so quickly.

Landay’s overall style could use some editing—he repeatedly mentions Laurie’s weight loss during the ordeal, and takes half a page to describe idyllic beach scenes on a resort’s website. And the so-called shock ending was somewhat spoiled by promotional materials comparing this to a very well-known legal thriller (if you’ve read it, you can guess the twist here). But the story does have its merits, raising questions about how well we know those we love, and how far we would go to protect them, even from themselves.

Nerd verdict: Overly written, but has its merits

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from an indie bookstore


In Search of a Good Character Name

I recently read three crime novels in which the character names were so over the top that they kept distracting me from the story. I couldn’t focus every time the ridiculous monikers came up because I was either rolling my eyes or snickering. And these were the leads! Instead of continuing to read, I started thinking about what makes a good character name and this post was born.

I’m guessing that the overly dramatic names are meant to make the characters unique. I understand they should be something that if you look in the White Pages (if you still use such a thing), you shouldn’t see eight of them, like you might with a Bill Johnson or Ann Martin. I also get that, say, Larry Brown, may not be sexy enough for a protagonist who’s a spy or former SEAL, and Judy Anderson may be more appropriate for a nice neighbor than an assassin. But when authors go to the other extreme and name their characters along the lines of Brock Savage or Hunter Chevalier—I’m talking thrillers here, not Harlequin romances—I cannot take them seriously. I keep expecting someone to rip open his shirt while caught in the rain in a meadow.

My theory is, the names that work best are those with one unusual name combined with a more common one. Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Dave Robicheaux, Elvis Cole, Sam Spade, Jane Marple, Matthew Scudder. I’ve known people named Jones, Holmes, Dave, Cole, Sam, Jane, and Matthew, so that makes those characters relatable, while the other half of their names sets them apart. Give me two weird names and I’m just going to laugh, wondering if those characters have celebrity parents.

Have character names ever distracted you from an otherwise good story? What are some of your favorite literary names, and why do you like them?



While most people were excited about the Super Bowl, I was more looking forward to the return of The Voice, the singing competition I might abandon American Idol for after the latter’s lackluster season last year and uninspired start so far this year.

My DVR started recording late so I missed the first singer to audition, whom Blake Shelton apparently snapped up. Here are some thoughts about the rest of them:

  • Mann

    Chris Mann not only surprised with his booming, operatic voice, he moved me with what he said about not wanting to shrink his voice down to make it fit the norm anymore. It takes guts to go on a show like this and sing opera, and it was gratifying to see the judges embrace him (except Blake, who said, “I know I’m country, but I couldn’t understand one word he was sayin’!”). Wish Mann had gone with Cee Lo, though, because he’s a savvy producer who could probably do more for Mann’s career than Christina Aguilera.

  • Juliet Simms, who performed a gravelly, achy version of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” had Adam Levine on his feet singing along with her. I think his rock ‘n’ roll style would have been good for her, but she went with Cee Lo. Why was everyone avoiding Adam when he coached last year’s winner, Javier Colon?
  • While fighting for Simms to join her team, Aguilera annoyed the funk out of me when she kept talking over Adam while he was making his pitch. She repeatedly called the Maroon 5 singer a used car salesman and, though she later said she was kidding, was completely charmless about it. She also needs to stop abusing the word “honestly.” Everything was “honestly” this and “honestly” that. Couldn’t she convince the singers and viewers of the sincerity of her comments without having to say that all the time?
  • Campbell

    Jesse Campbell has an incredible voice, and I’m glad all the judges fought over him, but I kept thinking he looked like Cuba Gooding Jr. Anyone else think that? And when his wife got tired of his not being able to provide for his family as a musician, why did she leave the kid with him so that the girl had to sleep in the car with her father? That’s cold.

  • Former Mousketeer Tony Lucca was fantastic in his rendition of “Trouble.” The first two notes out of his mouth and I was already yelling at the TV, “Push the button! Turn your damn chairs around!” The guy was also adorable, looking like he was having the time of his life playing his guitar and singing his heart out. And he chose Adam! Finally! Aguilera was his co-star on The Mickey Mouse Club but didn’t seem to recognize him at all until after he left the stage. I suspect someone prompted her from off camera, because she went from no recognition to a rather shocked look instead of having a slow dawning realization. She then went backstage to meet his wife and son, telling them Britney Spears used to have a crush on Lucca when they were all working together. The look on his wife’s face at the revelation was…interesting.
  • Daniel Rosa, the only wannabe whose entire audition was shown despite his not making it onto a team, was the most painful to watch. His voice actually had a nice soulful tone but he had obvious pitch problems. He performed Neon Trees’ “Animal,” which included the refrain “What are you waiting for?” which poor Rosa kept singing to the backs of the coaches’ chairs, as if begging them to turn around.

Rosa’s audition showed that even those deemed not good enough weren’t train wrecks like they are on Idol. He was also treated with respect by the coaches and producers, not humiliated on national TV. We’ll see whether that holds true as the season progresses, but tonight’s show was a good start, and it’ll have two more hours tomorrow to discover more incredible voices.

Did you watch? Who did you like? Did you think all the singers picked the right coaches for themselves?

Check out Chris Mann’s audition video below:


TV Review: SMASH

Yeah, yeah, it’s exec produced by Steven Spielberg, stars Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, has big musical numbers…but is it any good? Well, it’s technically impressive, but after finishing the pilot episode of Smash (premiering Monday, Feb. 6 at 10/9c on NBC), I still had a hard time locating its heart.

The story revolves around the songwriting team of Tom and Julia (Christian Borle and Messing) trying to find the perfect actress to play Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway production about her life. We see a room full of wannabes and one bad audition and by the end of the pilot, it looks like it’s down to just two contenders: blond and curvy Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, Wicked) and doe-eyed brunette Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee, American Idol). Ivy is a chorus girl itching to strut her stuff in a lead role, while Karen is a waitress from Iowa who’s so green, she immediately jumps at the chance to go over to the director’s home at 10 p.m. for a one-on-one “coaching session.” Uh huh. That’s not just being a naive actress; that’s being a stupid female.


Both Hilty and McPhee have superb singing voices, but so far, neither Ivy nor Karen seems like a shoo-in to play Monroe. Ivy has the Broadway experience, is more dynamic while performing, looks more like the iconic actress, but there’s a been-around-the-block hardness to her character that wouldn’t be right for Marilyn, who’s softer around the edges. Karen has more of the innocence, but she’s so inexperienced as an actress that I, too, would hesitate to put my money on her to carry a big Broadway production. This is part of the conflict of Smash, since the creative team is having trouble deciding between the two. (Isn’t there a third choice? It’s New York!)


In the real world, though, Hilty is obviously the stronger actress. Putting McPhee up against her is like scheduling a fight between Jet Li and a kid who just started studying martial arts two weeks ago. The running gag in the show is that producers keep calling Karen “light” when rejecting her for roles and she doesn’t know what that means (she does eventually find out). The description is apropos, though, because McPhee is a lightweight compared to Hilty. Some of McPhee’s performance looks stilted, her movements are affectations, as if she’s not yet settled into the role.

Messing, whose work I enjoyed on Will & Grace, hasn’t found her footing, either, as Julia. She has a couple scenes in which she isn’t quite convincing as a workaholic taking on two new projects at the same time: trying to adopt a child and producing an original musical. The actress was playing Julia’s dilemma in a dramatic fashion, but it seems as if she just wanted to burst out and do something goofy. Anjelica Huston is formidable as usual, but her producer character is—as of now—secondary (she brings money to the table). It’s more about the dream and the passion and sweat and tears, and yes, some of it is kind of cheesy.

But there is a big, glossy baseball number (because Marilyn was married to Joe DiMaggio), and if you like peeking behind the curtains of a big theatrical production, seeing the training and rehearsals and possible catfights that happen along the way to opening night, this might be the ticket for you.

Note: If you can’t wait until Monday, the entire pilot is available now as a free download on iTunes.

Nerd verdict: Not quite Smashing but has potential

Photos: NBC


Winners of Elvis Cole Detective Agency Business Cards

I entered everyone’s names into and it selected the following 5 to receive an Elvis Cole Detective Agency business card signed by Elvis’s and Joe Pike’s creator, Robert Crais:

Rich Miner
Shell Sherree
Kelly V
Rhonda Hicks

Congrats! Please use this contact form to send me your address and I’ll get this in the mail to you. If I don’t hear from you by Saturday, Feb. 4, noon PST, alternate winners will be chosen.

What? That slogan came straight from Elvis himself.

Thank you to everyone who entered. If you’ve attended a signing then you already know this, but if not, Robert has been sharing on his tour some of your assumptions of him and getting big laughs from the crowds. I’d also like to share that Taken will debut on the New York Times bestseller list at #1 for the week of February 12! I assume he’s pretty happy about that!


World Book Night 2012

You’ve probably heard/read a lot about the World Book Night that’s happening on April 23. It’s an event involving volunteer givers who will go out into their communities and give away 20 copies of a book they love to people who might not otherwise read, or are light readers. The previous deadline to apply as a giver was today, February 1, but it’s been extended to next Monday, February 6, midnight EST!

Carl Lennertz, Executive Director of World Book Night USA (it’s also happening in the UK on the same day), generously took some time to answer a few questions for me about this exciting event.

Pop Culture Nerd:  Why was the deadline extended?

Carl Lennertz: Mostly due to the Super Bowl ad we’re going to run. Hah! I sensed people were stressing and could use a little extra time. And we had built in some time. But I can’t go past Feb. 6. We could launch now with every state very well covered, and every city—and some towns I never heard of, which is great—but I figured the more the merrier. Even if I can’t have less stress, I can offer it to others.

PCN: Can you suggest some places that would make great locations for givers to find light readers?

CL: I hesitate to answer because I want the givers to do that themselves, to let it be spontaneous and original. And they have. The public TOTALLY gets this, and it’s been amazing to see the responses. If you like, I’ll share some after Feb. 6. Okay, okay, don’t pout. My favorites run from nursing home waiting rooms to pubs, from commuter buses (to those not reading—aha!) to schools in low-income neighborhoods.

PCN: What happens if you get an overabundance of requests for some of the titles and not enough for some of the others?

CL: We’re ahead of you on that one. That’s why the givers had to make a second and third choice. A fair number of givers had a different place in mind depending on the book they got!

PCN: What are your expectations for WBN? How will you rate its success?

Carl Lennertz

CL: I want all the givers to have a fun, safe, and rewarding day; for the bookstores and libraries to continue to be cherished as the community centers that they are; to get at least 100 local news stories and 2 national stories about WBN and the value of reading; to have a success that engenders some foundation money so we can grow this yearly; and ultimately, to touch the lives of a LOT of people. I won’t say change a life, as that’s a bit grandiose, but still, that would be possible. Just the gift of a book might touch the giver and recipient in some sweet or deep way.

PCN: If givers want to share their experiences about that night, is there a central message board/forum/site where they can go?

CL: I’m not as interested in any central sort of gathering point for the stories, except perhaps a WBN Flickr page. And Twitter is essentially national. But what I would love is for the year-round love and sharing to reside and go ’round locally within each community, with the bookstore or library at the center. We’re a huge country, and I’m big on regional flavor, or the flavor of communities, online or otherwise. And yes, it could all bubble up via natural interest groups, like teachers, soldiers, health care workers, government officials, caregivers of all sorts, and so on. We’ll see!

Thanks so much, Carl! And thank you to Wiley at for facilitating the interview.

If you haven’t applied to be a giver, go here for more info and to sign up. Here’s a list of the books that were chosen to be given away. If you’re in the UK & Eire, go here.

If you have applied, what books did you request, and why? Good luck and happy giving!