Monthly Archives

October 2012

Literary Conversation Starters

When you read in public, do people often come up to you wanting to discuss your book? It doesn’t always happen to me, but it did tonight while I was at a cafe reading Michael Connelly’s new Harry Bosch, The Black Box (Little, Brown; Nov. 26). It made me remember that the last two times I read a Connelly novel while sitting among people, someone also approached me to say he/she was a fan. I realized that the author and his protagonist are conversation starters among readers.

This past summer, I noticed that if I had Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl with me while doing errands, people would comment on it. So I thought I’d pose a random poll here: Which books/authors spark conversation with strangers when you read in public? Why do you think that is? What’s the most surprising encounter you ever had because of a book?


Book Review: THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Morton

Kate Morton is one of the few authors I think can get away with writing fat, 500-page novels because she fills up those pages with a lot of story. I was a bit surprised, then, to find The Secret Keeper overly long, and not as gripping as it could be if it were tighter.

The story moves back and forth between 2011 and 1941 in England, after an initial scene in the ’60s that sets up the mystery. Sixteen-year-old Laurel witnesses her mother, Dorothy, do something horrific to a stranger and then lie to the police about it. This is especially shocking since Dorothy is a kind, decent woman by all accounts.

Fifty years later, Dorothy is dying and Laurel wants to know the truth behind what she saw and why her mother did it. Laurel digs into Dorothy’s past via letters and books and a photo, and arrives at a startling discovery.

Morton is skilled at developing her characters, and several of them here are memorable, Jimmy and Vivien in particular. Dorothy is interesting for her mercurial qualities—she seems to transform from good girl to reprehensible woman to loving mother. She made me consider how much I’d be willing to forgive someone for a destructive mistake if that person is truly remorseful and manages to turn her life around. And what if that person were my mother?

At times, though, the author goes into too much detail about too many characters, some of whom are tangential, such as Laurel’s sisters. They don’t really contribute to the story because they don’t know anything about The Event (Laurel was the sole witness besides her brother, who was only a baby) so I didn’t need to learn about their personality quirks or wonder whether one had gotten plastic surgery.

There’s also a section going way back to 1929 Australia that relays the background of Vivien, someone who knew Dorothy in 1941. Vivien’s story is tragic, but I think it could’ve been somewhat synopsized instead of being shown in detail. Jimmy, another friend of Dorothy’s from the ’40s, also had a sad past, but Morton managed to convey it succinctly without having to devote a whole chapter to his childhood.

Keeper is most effective when focusing on the story between Laurel and her mother, and the plot line involving Jimmy and Vivien and Dorothy. It loses momentum when it digresses, and there’s a revelation that doesn’t quite explain what the stranger says to Dorothy in the opening scene, but it’s still worth checking out for Morton completists.

Nerd verdict: Secret could’ve been kept tighter


You Will Not Believe This Story

As some of you might know, I’ve been doing a play called Year of the Rabbit at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA for the past couple months. The experience has been more rewarding professionally and personally than I could’ve possibly imagined. After I share the following story, you’ll probably agree that no one could have imagined it.

One Saturday last month, a man approached me after a performance with kind words to say about the show. His name was Rob, and he said the play made him recall his time in Vietnam in the army during the war.

“Oh, my grandfather worked with the army as a translator,” I said.

“What was his name?” Rob asked.

I told him. His eyes went wide. “No. You…you’re joking. You’re his granddaughter?”

My breath caught and I started shaking. “What are you saying?”

“I knew your grandfather.”

I repeated my ong ngoai‘s name a couple times to make sure Rob heard me correctly, and that we were talking about the same man. Rob said he had worked with him from 1968 to ’69. They’d started a school together to teach English. Rob shared stories with specific details about my grandfather and called him “an honorable man.”

I was openly crying at this point, but still found the situation almost impossible to believe. Ong Ngoai passed away fifteen years ago so it wasn’t as if I could ask him. Then Rob said he would return with photos.

I called my mother when I got home that night even though it was near 1 a.m. her time. She was amazed but said she’d wait for photographic evidence because she didn’t want to be disappointed.

Two weeks later, Rob, who lives on the East Coast and was only visiting L.A., came back to the theater. As he approached, I braced myself for the possibility that he’d show me photos of a stranger, that somehow this was all a case of mistaken identity.

But he proceeded to share images of my handsome ong ngoai, which Rob had taken 43 years ago with his Nikon. Not only had I never seen my grandfather that young, I don’t have any pre-1975 photos of him at all. My family had to leave almost everything behind when we left Vietnam. Rob had ordered a set of 5×7 prints and one 8×10 for us. Again, my tear ducts unleashed.

Rob said, “There’s more.”

“How can there be more? This is already too much.”

He handed me a bag with a carefully wrapped present inside. I untied the ribbon slowly, trying to breathe. Inside was a small statue of a goddess, looking almost as good as new.

“Your grandfather gave that to me when I left Vietnam. He picked it out himself. I think you and your family should have it now.”

“I…but…can’t…he gave it to you so it belongs to you,” I managed to say.

“No, I think he’d want you to have it.”

I don’t have words to describe how I felt in that moment. Even when my mind had reassembled itself after being completely blown, I didn’t know how to thank Rob properly. He said our encounter provided him with closure since he’d long wondered what had happened to my grandfather.

I went home and emailed the photos to my mother. She declared herself in a state of disbelief. How to make sense of the fact that never-before-seen pictures of her father were delivered by a stranger?

And then she saw the image of the statue. She sent me back a photo of a similar statue she’s had in her house for fifteen years. She had brought it home from my grandfather’s place when he died, but didn’t know how old it was or where it came from. My sister took to Google and discovered the two are apparently companion pieces. We assume Ong Ngoai had bought the pair around the same time, and now they can be reunited.

I’m not sure I’ve fully processed all this yet. So many things had to fall into place before Rob and I could cross paths that September evening. A gift went from my grandfather’s hands to Rob’s, from Vietnam to America, then traveled from the East Coast to the West to make its way back to my family more than forty years later. What are the chances of that? What were the odds of a girl from Saigon ending up in a play in Los Angeles that led to her meeting a friend of her grandfather’s from back home and so long ago?

One of the themes in Year of the Rabbit is how people are connected to each other through time and space, but they often don’t recognize those connections. Characters have seemingly random encounters with each other, not knowing the other person is not really a stranger but someone who could have a profound effect on their lives. (Did I mention I play a character who coincidentally—or maybe not—has my grandmother’s name?)

Rob said he almost didn’t say anything to me that first night; I was chatting with friends who had come see the show. We could’ve been like some of the people in the play, but luckily this isn’t a case of life imitating art.

It’s a story of life being more spectacular than fiction.

Me and Rob

Ong Ngoai, photo by Rob circa 1969


Fun at Bouchercon 2012

Last week was Bouchercon, but it was also my fourth blogoversary. While everyone thought they were attending the world mystery convention, I knew it was really my blogoversary party, where I celebrated with some wonderful people I got to meet only after starting this site.

By now, you may have read many recaps already, so I’ll just post some photos that represent how much fun I had. I got some authors and friends to make silly faces for my photo-booth app. It gives me strips of four just like a real photo booth, but when I went to upload them here, it got really crowded because 20 strips = 80 pictures.

So I had to select one frame from each strip that’s my favorite, which was extremely hard to do because there were so many hilarious shots. Sometimes the winner came down to which one wasn’t blurry from us laughing so hard.

I hope you enjoy the gallery (click on each to see slightly larger image). And that last author? No, he wasn’t at B’con this year, but I included the photo because I needed even columns.


Nerdy Special List for October 2012

I’m finally getting this list up because we’ve all been super busy, but it didn’t stop us from reading some good books. Here are our recommendations for this month:

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

I decided on a book I don’t think you’ll hear a lot about because it’s from a new author at a smaller publisher: The Aden Effect by Claude Berube (October 15th, the Naval Institute Press).

It’s a military thriller set primarily in Yemen. Former naval officer Connor Stark is railroaded back into active duty as the attaché to the US Ambassador to Yemen. Damien Golzari is a diplomatic security agent who winds up in Yemen while investigating a murder. The three find their political interests intertwined, even if their personalities aren’t quite so amicable.

Berube’s obvious understanding of both the Middle East and the military adds authenticity to a tight, suspenseful, action-filled plot. The interactions between characters is both fun and genuine. I raced through The Aden Effect and I think fans of Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, etc., will find a refreshing new voice in Claude Berube.

From Jenn at The Picky Girl:

If, like me, you enjoy American family sagas but tire of the pretension that oozes from the pen of one J. Franzen, The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (Grand Central Publishing, Oct. 23) is a no-less-literary look at family, obsession, and the decades-old resentments that can build between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter.

Edie Middlestein is eating herself to death. As a child, she’s taught that food equals love, and 30 years later, Edie is over 300 pounds and diabetic and still can’t stop eating. At the breaking point, her husband leaves, and suddenly, the couple’s adult children Benny and Robin aren’t quite sure who their parents are and why they should care, except that they do, enough to stand guard in their mother’s kitchen to stop the relentless cycle. The Middlesteins embodies the idea that we don’t choose our families, but the novel also takes it a step further saying that, if anything, that lack of choice stains our relationships, causing us to constantly question and reevaluate who we are to one another and why we love those we call family.

From Danielle at There’s a Book:

A.S. King’s newest YA novel, Ask the Passengers (Little, Brown for Young Readers, Oct. 23), centers around the life of one very ordinary girl with a few very real questions about who she is and why it matters. Astrid Jones thinks there’s a chance she could be in love with a girl. The only problem is she just isn’t sure and she’s not certain it’s something she needs to know, despite the pressure she feels from everyone around her.

King approaches the theme of self-discovery and coming of age in a completely different way than ever before. This was my third book by A.S. King and again she impressed me with her ability to understand how teens truly think, act, and behave; and how those things change depending on who they are around or if they’re alone. Ask the Passengers is one of the most powerful contemporary GLBT young adult novels I’ve read in a long time, and I’ll likely be recommending it for years to come, along with all of A.S. King’s other books.

PCN’s recommendation:

Michael Robotham’s latest installment in the Joseph O’Loughlin series, Say You’re Sorry (Mulholland Books, Oct. 2), has the psychologist racing against time to rescue a young girl in peril. Three years after teenagers Tasha and Piper were kidnapped, Tash’s body surfaces, leading O’Loughlin to suspect Piper is still alive but possibly not for long. O’Loughlin, who suffers from Parkinson’s, has a sharp mind and big heart, making him one of the most empathic and sympathetic protagonists in a crime fiction series. Robotham can describe even mundane things beautifully, and the chapters written in Piper’s teenage voice are utterly convincing.


Many, many thanks to Jen, Jenn, and Danielle for their contributions. I really like how varied this list is.

I hope this helps you find some interesting books this month. What are you reading now? Anything specific you’re looking forward to? Happy weekend!


Book Review: TALKING TO THE DEAD by Harry Bingham

Despite having loads of fun photos to share from Bouchercon, and wanting to post about something mind-blowing and fantastical that happened to me over the weekend, I just haven’t had any time to write or upload any of it. For now, I’ll run the review below, which appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers last week and is republished here with permission. I’d also like to remind you that my giveaway of Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot ends tonight so enter here if you’re interested in winning a copy.

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham

Fiona Griffiths, the protagonist in Harry Bingham’s debut novel, Talking to the Dead, will likely be compared to a certain Swedish girl with a dragon tattoo, but she’s actually one of the most unusual characters to come along in crime fiction in recent memory. Despite a psychological condition that makes her feel disconnected from emotions, she’s a fiercely smart, highly efficient detective constable in Cardiff, Wales.

She starts out investigating a former cop accused of embezzlement, but soon becomes involved in the case of a prostitute killed, along with her six-year-old daughter, in a filthy squat house. A credit card belonging to a multimillionaire is also found at the scene. The problem? He’s been dead for months. Did the prostitute know the millionaire? Do the murders have anything to do with the embezzlement case?

It’s good news that this is the first in a series because Fi is an indomitable character whose mysterious past should provide fodder for a few more books. As she points out: “Fi. That’sif backward. Griffiths… two more ifs lurking at the heart of it. My name, literally, is as iffy as you can get.” Though she feels removed from those around her, the first-person narration and witty observations (though perhaps they’re not funny to her) make her accessible to readers. Furthermore, her supportive family is a welcome break from the cliché of heroes coming from broken homes. Fi isn’t damage-free, but she’s fully dimensional—and not iffy at all.

Nerd verdict: Dead sparks with a unique protagonist

Buy it now from Amazon| Buy from an indie bookstore



This Friday, Oct. 5, Pitch Perfect will open wide, and Butter will be in limited release and available as VOD. They both feature highly competitive people attempting to win a title, and both made me laugh quite a few times.


I saw Butter last year at the AFI Fest (which runs Nov. 1-8 this year), where a beautiful, pregnant Jennifer Garner introduced the film. She plays a politically ambitious woman determined to win a butter-carving competition against a black child prodigy. The movie’s release was apparently held until now to take advantage of the election season, because Garner’s Laura Pickler has shades of Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin (the actress has said in interviews that’s not intentional).

Garner’s performance is unlike her others that I’ve seen. The actress commits to the character’s uptight, ruthless nature, saying ridiculous things with a straight face, and playing dirty against a little girl—an orphan, no less. It’s clear Garner had lots of fun in the role. Ty Burrell and Olivia Wilde, as a bicycle-riding stripper, also got laughs, as well as Hugh Jackman as a moronic car salesman. Newcomer Yara Shahidi is the heart of the film as the child, Destiny, who at one point carves something surprisingly poignant.

Nerd verdict: Salty and sweet Butter

Pitch Perfect

Based on Mitch Rapkin’s nonfiction book of the same name, this fictional look inside the cutthroat world of collegiate a capella competitions has “sleeper hit” written all over it. The story follows the Barden Bellas, an all-girls group, as they try to redeem themselves at the finals in Lincoln Center a year after a disastrous performance there. The ragtag group contains members of dubious talent, including one who has an inaudible speaking voice, one unwilling to go along with the choreographed routines, and another who calls herself “Fat Amy” and “aca-awesome.”

You may have seen Rebel Wilson in Bridesmaids, but you may not have remembered her name. I have a feeling everyone will soon know it because she takes control of Pitch Perfect as Fat Amy and doesn’t let go. Her confidence cannot be denied. Anna Kendrick impresses as Beca, an alt-girl who just wants to go to L.A. and produce music. Beca’s pseudo-sullenness can’t disguise Kendrick’s natural charm, and she can really sing.

The musical performances are rousing, director Jason Moore (Avenue Q) keeps things moving at a nice rhythm, and as soon as John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks (who also produced) show up as commentators, you’ll probably start chuckling just anticipating the inappropriate things they’ll say. They don’t disappoint.

Nerd verdict: Perfectly entertaining

Photos: Butter/The Weinstein Co., Pitch Perfect/Universal


Book Giveaway: THE WOMAN WHO DIED A LOT by Jasper Fforde

It’ll probably be at least another week before I get caught up with my life (trying to finish an editing assignment before I leave for Bouchercon tomorrow), but I wanted to pop in to post a fun giveaway.

Yesterday saw the publication of the new installment in Jasper Fforde’s popular Thursday Next series, and the good people at Viking are allowing me to give away one copy.

Check out the official description:

Peppered with illustrations by Dylan Meconis and Bill Mudron, THE WOMAN WHO DIED A LOT takes place over the course of a week in the life of Thursday Next, famous in several dimensions as the Bookworld’s leading enforcement officer. After being forced into semiretirement, thanks to an assassination attempt, Thursday takes what was described to her as a “cushy” job as chief librarian at the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat-at-Fatso’s-Drink Not Included Library.

Thursday’s first week on the job proves to be unusually hectic, even by her high standards. As the library faces 100 percent budget cuts, Thursday struggles to remember why she can’t remember that her third child, Jenny, doesn’t exist, even though “Jenny is a mindworm” is tattooed on the back of her hand.

At home, things aren’t any better: her son Friday faces a loss of purpose after his future career as a time-traveling hero is relegated to “might-have-been” status, and her genius teenage daughter is embroiled in a race against the clock to stop a vengeful god from smiting Swindon at midday Friday. On top of it all, Thursday’s nemesis Jack Schitt has returned and is plotting something even more nefarious than usual.

Interested in getting your hands on this? Enter by leaving a comment about the cushiest job you’ve ever had (or wish you had), something you can’t believe someone gets paid to do. Giveaway ends next Wednesday, October 10, at 9 p.m. PST. US residents only. Winners will be randomly selected and have 48 hours after notification to claim the prize.

Have fun! Make up a cushy job if it doesn’t exist already!


Sunday Night Drama—REVENGE Premiere & 666 PARK AVENUE



Back in May, Revenge had a doozy of a finale so I couldn’t wait for tonight’s season 2 premiere. I liked it overall, but not happy that Declan and Charlotte are back. Ugh. Declan is still worthless as a character, but at least Charlotte has sobered up and seems to have turned her life around. Her father is determined to keep her locked up in the rehab center so I feel a little sorry for her.

And she was the only one who knew Victoria was alive! I didn’t think producers would kill off the show’s VIP, but when I didn’t see Madeleine Stowe’s name in the opening credits, and she was absent in the first few scenes, I started to doubt. Maybe Stowe didn’t want to do TV for another year? Perhaps ABC could no longer afford her? When she opened the door to Emily, I yelped with relief.

I like Nolan’s new buff bod and shorter hairdo. The douchey, James-Spader-in-the-’80s look from last year didn’t cut it for me. He had the best line of the episode, at Victoria’s memorial: “You think she’s somewhere looking up at us?” I also think it’s fun that he and Emily are roommates for now. They could cook up a lot of trouble together. And the whale cam has been replaced by the clam cam!

I’m not sure what the deal is with Japanese-speaking British dude, and I got confused when Takeda showed up because I was all, “That’s not Takeda. Who are they trying to fool? All Asians don’t look alike!” But then I remembered that this is a soap and characters get recast all the time. Apparently Hiroyuki Sanada had scheduling conflicts so Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa will now play Em’s mentor.

Jack is such a mope now, I’m OK with it if that’s his body divers find in the opening scene at the bottom of the ocean. Better if it’s Declan’s, though. Do these characters make the show more interesting at all?

Overall, it was a good opener and I’m on board for season two.

666 Park Avenue

Taylor, who might have someone sneaking up on her

I sampled this show, based on Gabriella Pierce’s novel, right after Revenge and thought it was pretty boring. It’s not a complete disaster, but it seemed the creative team hadn’t figured out in the pilot if the show should be horror or camp. The violinist getting sucked through the door slot in the opening wasn’t the least bit scary, but the dead girl in the basement sneaking up on Jane almost made me soil my shorts.

Terry O’Quinn and Vanessa Williams are obviously the show’s strongest assets, but Williams didn’t have much to do, and O’Quinn didn’t stray much from his mysterious, slightly creepy routine. Rachael Taylor is fine, but so far Dave Annable is blander than a sandwich without bacon.

I think the problem right now is that I don’t really care about any of these people yet. So what if Louise’s Vogue shoot falls apart? She seems too controlling toward her husband, Brian. Do I care if Brian ever gets past the title page of his play? No. Was I supposed to feel something when John Barlow couldn’t keep his wife Mary alive? He had no business bringing her back from the dead.

I probably won’t watch this again, or not until it decides if it wants to be truly terrifying or campy fun.

Nerd verdict: Vacant Park

Did you watch either of these shows? What did you think? Whose body is on the ocean floor in Revenge? Did you find Park Avenue scary at all?

Photos: VanCamp and Tagawa—Karen Neal/ABC, Rachael Taylor—Patrick Harbron/ABC