Monthly Archives

April 2012

Inside Classic Films

Late last night, reported that Warner Bros. Digital Publishing will be releasing a series of eBooks that contain shooting scripts for classic films, with loads of extra content about each movie. The four announced titles are North by Northwest, Casablanca, Ben-Hur, and An American in Paris.

The extras on N by NW include the storyboards for that famous crop-duster scene, Hitchcock’s notes, costume sketches, and post-production memos. The Ben-Hur tome has excerpts from the journal Charlton Heston kept while shooting, makeup and wardrobe tests, and patent designs for MGM’s new widescreen camera. The Casablanca book details the origins of some of the film’s most famous lines, and contains memos from studio president Jack Warner. An American in Paris takes a look at the paintings that inspired the film’s dream ballet sequence and includes lyrics for the musical numbers. They all contain galleries of behind-the-scenes photos and glossaries of film terms.

The books are available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks. (I’ve linked to the various booksellers above; click on “the editors of Warner Bros. Digital Publishing” to access the other titles from the same bookseller.) I’m aware this is beginning to sound like an infomercial, but no, I’m not getting paid to write this—I never get paid to write anything here—and am only an Amazon affiliate, meaning they’ll give me about thirty cents if you buy it from there.

I’m just excited about these books because they’re treasure troves for movie fans like me. I studied film in college but didn’t have access to this kind of behind-the-scenes information. I can’t wait to see what other titles will get the same treatment.

Are you as excited about these books as I am? Which titles would you like to see Warner Bros. release?


First Impressions 4.27.12

Another Friday, another sampler of opening passages from books in my TBR pile to see which ones grab your attention right away.

For your perusal this week:

Long Gone by Alafair Burke, Harper, out June 19

Second Acts: Confessions of a Former Victim and Current Survivor


It has been twenty years, but at three-fourteen this morning I screamed in my sleep. I probably would not have known I had screamed were it not for the nudge from my husband—my patient, sleep-starved husband, who suspects but can never really know the reasons for his wife’s night terrors, because his wife has never truly explained them.

I could see the uncertainty coloring his face this morning as he sipped his coffee, already going cold, while I poured a fresh cup for myself at the counter, carrying the carafe to the breakfast table to top off his cup. Not uncertainty about my reasons for screaming—that was ever-present—but uncertainty about whether even to raise the subject. Should I ask her? Are some subjects better left in the subconscious?


The Nightmare by Lars Kepler (translated by Laura A. Wideburg), Sarah Crichton Books, July 3

In the light of the long June night, on becalmed waters, a large pleasure craft is discovered adrift on Jungfrufjärden Bay in the southern Stockholm archipelago. The water, a sleepy blue-gray in color, moves as softly as the fog. The old man rowing in his wooden skiff calls out a few times, even though he’s starting to suspect no one is going to answer. He’s been watching the yacht from shore for almost an hour, as it’s been drifting backward, pushed by the lazy current away from land.

The man guides his boat until it bumps against the larger craft. Pulling in his oars and tying up to the swimming platform, he climbs the metal ladder and over the railing. There’s nothing to see on the afterdeck except for a pink recliner. The old man stands still and listens. Hearing nothing, he opens the glass door and steps down into the salon.


Criminal by Karin Slaughter, Delacorte, July 10

August 15, 1974

Lucy Bennett

A cinnamon brown Oldsmobile Cutlass crawled up Edgewood Avenue, the windows lowered, the driver hunched down in his seat. The lights from the console showed narrow, beady eyes tracing along the line of girls standing under the street sign. Jane. Mary. Lydia. The car stopped. Predictably, the man tilted up his chin toward Kitty. She trotted over, adjusting her miniskirt as she navigated her spiked heels across the uneven asphalt. Two weeks ago, when Juice had first brought Kitty onto the corner, she’d told the other girls she was sixteen, which probably meant fifteen, though she looked no older than twelve.

They had all hated her on sight.

Which opener(s) just made you add the book(s) to your TBR pile? (To see past samplers, click here and here.)



If you walk through the memoir section in bookstores, chances are you’ll find books by people who have no business writing a memoir, such as a twentysomething reality-show star whose biggest life struggle so far is being dumped by a vapid boy.

Jenny Lawson, also known as The Bloggess, is the opposite of that. She’s experienced enough wackiness in her thirty-eight years to fill Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) with hilarious stories, and might even have some left over for a few more tomes.

Lawson’s book tracks her childhood in rural Texas, having pet raccoons and a taxidermist father who likes roadkill and armadillo racing; through meeting her husband Victor and working in HR for fifteen years; to having her daughter Hailey and finding female friends for the first time after she starts blogging.

If you’re a fan of Lawson’s blog, you don’t need to read any further because you’ve probably rushed out and bought the book already. If you’ve never read Lawson’s writing, be ready to laugh out loud at outrageous stories that seem almost too wacky to believe—her dog getting her stabbed by chicken, her dad throwing live bobcats on Victor at their first meeting—until she shows you photos. She has a singular way of viewing the world, and such an engaging way of drawing readers into her world, that you, too, might start mentioning vampire cougars and the zombie apocalypse in casual conversations with friends after reading this.

Lawson can be digressive in her storytelling, venturing down tangents that take you far from the starting point, but her detours are entertaining and she eventually comes back to her point. The fact she has a point is a plus (she can even find a lesson in being mauled by dogs), because I’ve read memoirs with anecdotes that go nowhere and have no discernible purpose. She does overuse the word “vagina,” which makes it lose its humor and shock value after a while, and don’t we want to preserve the value of “vagina”?

But it’s not all witticisms and irreverence. Lawson takes you into some dark corners, too—her miscarriages, panic attacks, the devastating pain from rheumatoid arthritis. It’s impressive how she manages to face life with her sense of humor intact. The title aside, she seems to embrace everything that’s happened to her, knowing it has made her who she is. She may be self-deprecating and call herself mentally unstable, but to her fans, she’s an inspiration.

Nerd verdict: Pretend is the real deal—hilarious and full of heart

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore


First Impressions 4.20.12

Last week I got several votes to make this a regular feature, so I’ll once again feature the opening passages of three upcoming books to see a) which ones you would read based on the intro alone, and b) if you can guess what the books are about. I try to select openers with something dynamic going on, and these fit the bill.

The Yard by Alex Grecian, Putnam, out May 29

London, 1889.

Nobody noticed when Inspector Christian Little of Scotland Yard disappeared, and nobody was looking for him when he was found. A black steamer trunk appeared at Euston Square Station sometime during the night and remained unnoticed until early afternoon of the following day. The porter discovered it after the one o’clock train had departed, and he opened the trunk when it proved too heavy for him to lift.

He immediately sent a boy to find the police.


Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Crown, June 5



When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the heard I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.

I’d know her head anywhere.

And what’s inside it. I think of that, too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy?


Cop to Corpse by Peter Lovesey, Soho Crime, June 12

Hero to zero.

Cop to corpse.

One minute PC Harry Tasker is strolling up Walcot Street, Bath, on foot patrol. The next he is shot through the head. No scream, no struggle, no last words. He is picked off, felled, dead.

The shooting activates an alarm over one of the shops nearby, an ear-splitting ring certain to wake everyone.

Which ones have your attention?

Happy Friday!



Why Write the Great American Novel When You Can BE in One?

I saw this on Twitter this morning via @PenguinLibrary and thought it was such a fun idea, I had to share. Flavorwire had written an article about a service called U Star Novels that will allow you to insert yourself and your friends into classic novels, Mad Libs-style, for just $24.95. The clear choice for me would be The Hound of the Baskervilles because I’m a Holmesian nut, and second choice would be The Importance of Being Earnest, because it was one of the required-reading books in school I actually enjoyed. I’m also perusing the list of available titles to see which would make good gifts for my sisters, who had both been English majors.

But I also started thinking about which contemporary novels I’d like to insert myself in. Top of the list would probably be something by Robert Crais. If I’m Elvis Cole, that means Joe Pike’s my partner and who wouldn’t want that?? The Cat would also be mine. I’d also consider wedging myself into a Lee Child novel as Jack Reacher, because being a 6′ 5″ asskicking dude is not something I’d ever get to experience in real life.

So, which classic and contemporary novels would you “reimagine” starring yourself?


Book Review: GETAWAY by Lisa Brackmann

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a little getaway to Morro Bay on the central California coast. I packed too many books as usual, but the one I decided to read was Lisa Brackmann‘s Getaway (Soho Press, May 1), since the title is apropos.

The story begins with Michelle Mason vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, after her husband dies suddenly. It’s the last fling she’ll enjoy before having to deal with the fiasco he had made of their financial affairs, something he had kept from her. She’s losing her home and will have to get a job—why not have some fun first?

She hooks up with an American named Daniel and takes him back to her hotel. Two men break into her room in the middle of the night and hurt Daniel badly enough for him to be hospitalized. From there, she becomes entangled with Mexican cops, drug dealers, and a creepy guy named Gary who coerces her to spy on Daniel without telling her who either of them is. She can’t leave the country until she does as Gary wants, but as her vacation quickly devolves into a nightmare, Michelle may not leave Mexico alive.

The novel is compulsively readable, with Brackmann keeping the pace tight and readers in the dark along with Michelle. The author also captures both the beauty of Puerto Vallarta—you can almost feel the sun and sand on your skin—and its sinister underbelly.

Michelle, however, is a frustrating heroine. She’s mostly a passive character, reacting to events more than being proactive about getting herself out of the bad situation. This is understandable to some extent because her hands are figuratively and literally tied at times, but even when she does have a modicum of control, she still makes unwise choices. A party girl she barely knows asks Michelle to meet her at a seedy club late at night and Michelle goes, then gets in trouble when she leaves the joint much later because there are no more taxis running. Yes, she was hoping the girl had some intel for her, but perhaps she could’ve tried to negotiate a meeting time during the day? She also drinks too much when she knows she needs to stay clearheaded because her life might depend on it. Overall, though, Getaway is like a vacation fling—it may not leave a deep impression, but it’s diverting enough while it lasts.

Nerd verdict: Diverting Getaway

Buy it from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore


First Impressions 4.13.12

Last Friday I did a post on the opening passages of the books I was reading. I received positive feedback from readers who enjoyed those glimpses so I decided to do it again this week.

When I receive ARCs, I go straight to the first paragraphs or pages before reading any of the accompanying press materials. Any book that begins with long descriptions of the weather or scenery usually goes in the donation pile. These are three openers that didn’t mention trees or rain:

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton, Crown, out April 24

I couldn’t move, not even a little finger or a flicker of an eye. I couldn’t open my mouth to scream.

I struggled, as hard as I could, to move the huge hulk that my body had become, but I was trapped under the hull of a vast ship wrecked on the ocean floor and moving was impossible.

My eyelids were welded shut. My eardrums broken. My vocal cords snapped off.

Pitch-dark and silent and so heavy in there; a mile of dense water above me.

Only one thing for it, I said to myself, thinking of you, and I slipped out of the wrecked ship of my body into the black ocean.

I swam upwards towards the daylight with all my strength.

Alpha by Greg Rucka, Mulholland Books, May 22

Mario Vesques was sure he was going to make it, right up until he saw the knife in the dog’s hand.

He had no idea where the blade came from; what he did have was just enough time to realize he was in trouble, and then the cartoon animal was lunging at him in a way that Vesques recognized, had seen before, but yet couldn’t immediately place. Only as he got his left forearm up for a cross-block, felt the tip of the knife nicking skin as it split his sleeve, did it click.

What Comes Next by John Katzenbach, Mysterious Press, June 5

As soon as the door opened, he knew he was dead.

He could see it in the quickly averted eyes, in the small slump of the shoulders, the nervous, hurried manner as the doctor moved rapidly across the room. The only questions that immediately leaped to his mind were: How much time do I have? How bad would it be?

Based only on these opening passages, which would compel you to read further? Would you be interested in my doing this as a regular feature?

Happy Friday the 13th!



Blatant Self Promotion

Yup, I figured I’d put that right in the post title so you know what you’re getting into. I’d understand completely if your eyes are rolling backward or are already more glazed than a Krispy Kreme special.

Couple of things I want to mention today. First, Mystery Times Ten 2011, the YA anthology that published my short story last year, is free for the Kindle today, April 12, only. Click here if you’re interested in mocking reading my story, titled “Submerged,” or the nine other ones. Barb Goffman’s “Truth and Consequences,” is up for an Agatha Award.

The other bit of news is that I entered the Independent Book Blogger Awards competition happening over at Goodreads. The prizes are four free trips to Book Expo of America in NYC in June, one for each blogger in four different categories: adult fiction, adult nonfiction, YA & children’s, and publishing. There are hundreds of quality bloggers entered so my chances of winning are about equal to those of my teenage self being crowned prom queen (I wasn’t even asked to the prom). But Mr. PCN knew I’ve long wanted to go to BEA so he locked me in the den on the last day entries were accepted and said I couldn’t come out for dinner until I had submitted my blog. Imagine him saying, “No soup for you!” in that Soup Nazi voice. I love soup so I had no choice but to do as instructed.

Voting is open until Monday, April 23, 11:59 p.m. ET. If you’ve enjoyed this blog and feel so inclined, you can vote for it here and the universe will bring you good luck in three days (you need a Goodreads account but it’s free and quick to register). If not, I’ll never know and will still think you are smart and attractive. Thank you!

*End of BSP*



In the midst of all the controversy last fall surrounding the National Book Foundation announcing a wrong nominee for the National Book Award in its YA category, it seemed to me the author who actually won that award got lost in the shuffle. Which is a shame, because Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out & Back Again, also a Newbery Honor recipient, is a beautiful piece of work that deserves more attention.

The story, told in verse, begins on Tet in February 1975 in Vietnam, and is told from the point of view of ten-year-old Ha, whose life is about to change drastically as the war draws to a close. She tells about her boat ride leaving the country with her mother and three brothers, her time at a refugee camp in Guam, and getting sponsored by “the cowboy” and going to live with him in Alabama, where her family is not welcomed. Ha takes readers up to the following Tet, when the little girl who had been turned inside out looks toward the new year with hope.

The synopsis may make this novel sound dire, but it has plenty of humor among the more touching moments. Ha studies English by looking up the sentence, “Jane sees Spot run” in the dictionary. Her results:

Jane: not listed

sees: to eyeball something

Spot: a stain

run: to move really fast

Meaning: __________ eyeballs stain move.

Lai has done a superb job capturing Ha’s voice. Some of you might know my personal story resembles this one in many ways. Ha was about my age in ’75, and her birthday is a day before mine in April, when the war officially ended and we fled Vietnam. I remember wanting to celebrate, but understanding that something was happening and there would be no party.

And I remember feeling this way my first year in school here (like Ha, I was put in the fourth grade):

I say
A B C and so on.

[The teacher] tells the class
to clap.

I frown.

MiSSS SScott
points to numbers
along the wall.

I count to twenty.

The class claps
on its own.

I’m furious,
unable to explain
I already learned
and how to purify
river water.

So this is
what dumb
feels like.

As she struggles with the new language, Ha wishes that “English and life were logical,” and when looking at ketchup and mustard on a hotdog, she sees the red and yellow stripes of the flag of her fallen country. Lai can convey so much with so little. Like Ha and her food rations on the boat, the author chooses her words carefully and makes the most out of each of them.

Nerd verdict: Beautiful and moving Inside Out

Have you ever read a book that made you feel it was written about you?

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from an indie bookstore


Book Review: THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone

In Chris Pavone’s debut novel, CIA spy Kate Moore quits her job so she can move with her husband, Dexter, and their two young children to Luxembourg and live a “normal” life. She soon meets another American couple, Julia and Bill, who seem a little too friendly and interested in Kate and her husband. Dexter does banking security, protecting financial institutions from any kind of attack or intrusion. He also doesn’t know about Kate’s past. Are Julia and Bill after Dexter or investigating Kate? Are they Feds or more dangerous characters? Kate uses her skills to investigate, though it might expose secrets she’d rather stay hidden forever.

I had two main issues with this book, the first being I didn’t care for any of the characters. To different degrees, they’re all manipulative people and it didn’t matter to me who won in the end. Kate is a cipher, keeping herself remote from her husband and the readers. For a former spy, her powers of observation seem compromised at times. She allows Julia to both use her computer and go into her car unsupervised, with Julia using lame excuses to do so. Regardless of what the reality is, Kate doesn’t even suspect the other woman might snoop. Aren’t spies suspicious of everyone? And this is after she already thinks something is a little off with her new best friend.

Pavone’s observational skills, on the other hand, are definitely sharp—he describes a lot of things in great detail. Sometimes this creates an enticing portrait of a European setting, but overall the habit is a hindrance. Many of the descriptions are not important to the story, and end up weighing down the narrative. Take this sentence, for example:

Kate turns the battered brass knob that’s set into the ornately molded plate that’s screwed to the gleaming creamy paint of the paneled closet door.

Except for the first word, that’s two modifiers per noun. Kate just needs to retrieve some luggage from the closet—why is all that excess information about the door necessary?

This overwriting is especially problematic when the action escalates. It’s hard for the suspense to be maintained when we have to stop and take note of what every passerby on the street is wearing and what they’re doing and how old they are. I had a Twitter discussion with Jenn aka The Picky Girl and she said this wasn’t a problem for her, because the details put her inside Kate’s shoes, showing how bored the former spy is, and how her restless mind would focus on all that minutiae. This gave me a logical perspective, but then perhaps Pavone did his job too well, because reading this novel made me bored and restless, too.

Nerd verdict: Bloated Expats

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy it from an indie bookstore


First Impressions

I receive a lot of books, and as each comes in, I read the first page or so to see if it grabs me right away. I don’t read the blurbs or dust jacket synopsis because the author doesn’t write those. The good stuff has to be on the page.

I’m currently reading three books because they’re in different genres and I alternate between them depending on my mood. But the books are similar in that their opening passages were interesting enough to keep me reading. Here’s what got my attention.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)by Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess)—Putnam, April 17, nonfiction

This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren’t. It’s basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing. And I know, you’re thinking, “But Little House on the Prairie was totally true!” and no, I’m sorry, but it wasn’t. Laura Ingalls was a compulsive liar with no fact-checker, and probably if she was still alive today her mom would be saying, “I don’t know how Laura came up with this whole ‘I’m-a-small-girl-on-the-prairie‘ story. We lived in New Jersey with her aunt Frieda and our dog, Mary, who was blinded when Laura tried to bleach a lightning bolt on her forehead. I have no idea where she got the ‘and we lived in a dugout‘ thing, although we did take her to Carlsbad Caverns once.”

How can you not want to read more?

The Lifeboatby Charlotte Rogan—Reagan Arthur Books, released this past Tuesday, fiction

Today I shocked the lawyers, and it surprised me, the effect I could have on them. A thunderstorm arose as we were leaving the court for lunch. They dashed for cover under the awning of a nearby shop to save their suits from getting wet while I stood in the street and opened my mouth to it, transported back and seeing again that other rain as it came at us in gray sheets. I had lived through that downpour, but the moment in the street was my first notion that I could live it again, that I could be immersed in it, that it could again be the tenth day in the lifeboat, when it began to rain.

Why is she in court? What is she accused of? What happened in the lifeboat? It sounds ominous to me.

The Expatsby Chris Pavone—Crown, out now, international spy thriller


Kate is staring through a plate-glass window filled with pillows and tablecloths and curtains, all in taupes and chocolates and moss greens, a palette that replaced the pastels of last week. The season changed, just like that.

She turns from the window, to this woman standing beside her on the narrow sliver of sidewalk in the rue Jacob. Who is this woman?

“Oh my God, Kate? Is that you?” The voice is familiar. But the voice is not enough.

Though I don’t know much about the plot, I do know that Kate is a former spy living abroad with her family, trying to leave The Life behind. This woman, though, seems like bad news for Kate. Cue suspenseful movie music.

Do any of these appeal to you? Which one would you keep reading?


Quarterly Review

It seems as if I blinked after New Year’s Day and opened my eyes to find the first quarter of the year over. Whaaat? So I thought I’d look back and see what I’ve achieved so far, reading-wise.

I’ve read 27 books, which means I’m averaging 9 a month, or 2.25 a week. At this rate, I’m on track to reach my goal of 100 this year, but I’d still like to pick up the pace a bit in case I have crazy weeks during which I don’t get any reading done at all.

Here’s what I’ve completed, in the order I read them (links are to my reviews):

  1. Taken by Robert Crais
  2. The Retribution by Val McDermid
  3. The Bungalow by Sarah Jio
  4. Defending Jacob by William Landay
  5. Catch Me by Lisa Gardner
  6. Lunatics by Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel
  7. Devil’s Oven by Laura Benedict
  8. Clawback by Mike Cooper
  9. Ali in Wonderland by Ali Wentworth
  10. Night Rounds by Helene Tursten
  11. Play Nice by Gemma Halliday
  12. Blue Monday by Nicci French
  13. I’ve Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella (review coming soon)
  14. The Girl Next Door by Brad Parks
  15. The Next One to Fall by Hilary Davidson
  16. Concierge Confessions by Valerie Wilcox
  17. Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham
  18. Shatter by Michael Robotham
  19. Trail of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz
  20. Kings of Midnight by Wallace Stroby
  21. Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig (review coming later this month on Shelf Awareness)
  22. The Man in the Empty Boat by Mark Salzman (review/discussion coming soon here)
  23. The Guttenberg Bible by  Steve Guttenberg (review coming later this month on SA)
  24. The Destroyed by Brett Battles
  25. The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
  26. Driven by James Sallis
  27. Getaway by Lisa Brackmann (review coming soon)

This isn’t just a time for me to look back, though. April is my birth month, so I’m also looking ahead to see if I want to make any changes as I start a new year. And that includes what I do here at the blog.

I’ve been wanting to start a Q&A column for a long time. I hesitate to call it an advice column because I want it to also be entertaining. As a kid, I used to read Ann Landers or the questions inside the front cover of Parade magazine and laugh at some of the ridiculous Qs. You know, something like, “There’s a steak dinner riding on this. My wife thinks Gary Cooper had a secret love child with his housekeeper, but I say he was a homosexual. Who has to pay for dinner?” I’d be tempted to answer: “Both, because his housekeeper was a beautiful Latino man. You now have to buy me dinner.”

But I’d also like to be helpful if I can. I’ve somehow managed to work in several fields—journalism, the movie business (on and behind the camera), book editing—and would be happy to share any useful info I’ve accumulated over the years.

So, would you be interested in an “Ask PCN” column? I’d need your help in submitting questions. They can be about anything I’ve covered here—movies, books, crime fiction, TV, authors, writing, acting, snacks, how to be a game-show contestant. They can be serious or goofy, and I’d answer in kind. I might not be able to reply to everyone, but I’d have fun trying. Use the contact form, or hit me on Facebook and Twitter. You don’t have to use your real name.

What else would you like to see here? Existing features you’d like to see more/less of?