Monthly Archives

October 2013

A Peek Inside J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S.

Some of you may have heard about the book called S. that J.J. Abrams collaborated on with Doug Dorst. Abrams came up with the idea and Dorst wrote it.

According to the press release, Abrams saw an abandoned book at the Los Angeles International Airport with a note inside asking the book’s finder to simply enjoy it and leave it somewhere for someone else. It sparked in the filmmaker the idea to do a book project that involves “two strangers connecting through a book.”

The result is this gorgeous tome, out today, that’s more than just a book. There’s the novel itself, called Ship of Theseus, written by a fictional author named V. M. Straka. Then there’s the story that unfolds in the margins, via notes and letters and other pull-out elements that two college students, Jennifer and Eric, leave for each other in the book as they try to solve the mystery of Straka’s life and work.

I haven’t read this yet—it was embargoed and only came out today—but it’s so beautiful I had to share some pictures of the contents.

It came in a sleeve with a seal. (The sleeve is black; the lighting makes it look lighter.)


It’s made to look like a library book.


It was first checked out on Oct. 6, 1957, and last on Oct. 14, 2000. That’s a decoder wheel.


Between the pages you’ll find all kinds of inserts, such as a newspaper article and a telegram…


…and postcards (with writing on the back)…


…and old photos…


…and letters from Eric to Jennifer…


…and from her to him…


…even a hand-drawn map on a napkin from a place called Pronghorn Java.


As you can see, the pages and items have been aged to look like an old book holding old artifacts. The whole thing reminds me of Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine series from the ’90s, which I loved.

Just flipping through the book and discovering these things tucked inside was exciting enough. I’m looking forward to digging into this treasure on all the different levels. S. is also available as an eBook and audiobook, but I don’t think reading this book would be as fun without the tactile experience.

Anyone else excited about this?

Amazon | IndieBound

Official trailer:


Movie Review: ALL IS LOST


Robert Redford stars in a one-person show as a man whose boat (and radio equipment) is incapacitated somewhere in the Indian Ocean and he struggles for 8 days to find land.

If you think that plotline sounds boring, the movie is decidedly not. Watching Redford—we never learn his character’s name—battle one catastrophe after another is quite suspenseful. At first, he faces the obstacles with the calmness of an experienced seaman. But then sh*t keeps happening, and we slowly see his humanity and will to survive stripped away.

Redford commands the screen, and with almost no dialogue (there’s a short bit of voice-over at the beginning, and he lets loose a profanity at one point but that’s it), he manages to convey the man’s intelligence as he considers each new crisis and figures out how to deal with it.

I like that he’s smarter than we are, and how each step isn’t explained to the audience. Because I know nothing about boating, a few times I didn’t get what the man was doing as he yanked this gizmo or turned that doodad on his boat, but there was great satisfaction (and internal “Aha!”s) when I could understand his intentions, such as how he planned to turn saltwater into drinkable water. Kudos to Redford and writer/director J.C. Chandor for being able to elucidate the character’s motivations without spoonfeeding.

Where the story falters, though, is in not telling the audience anything about the man’s past. Why is he even in the Indian Ocean? This movie has been compared to Gravity for also showcasing a person stranded among frightening natural elements and fighting to survive. But with Gravity, the emotional arc of Sandra Bullock’s scientist is clear. We know where she is at the beginning of the movie, and how she has changed by the end.


Knowing nothing about the man’s past in All Is Lost, we have no idea how this ordeal changes him, if at all. The whole point of any story is to invite the viewer to go on a journey to see how it affects the lead character(s), but I don’t know how the man’s life/personal outlook will be different after this experience. I can’t determine how far he’s come if I don’t know where he started. Maybe he was already Gandhi-like before he was stranded and didn’t need big life lessons to be so rudely thrusted upon him.

The lessons to learn from All Is Lost, then, are that Redford is still very much a leading man; a movie doesn’t need fancy effects, more than one character, or even dialogue to hold interest; but, like the man, a story still needs certain basic elements to stay afloat.

Nerd verdict: Redford’s All good; backstory is Lost

Photo: Roadside Attractions


Book Review—BRIDGET JONES: MAD ABOUT THE BOY by Helen Fielding

mad about the boyI really hated starting this book after I’d seen Entertainment Weekly‘s major plot spoiler in a headline on its homepage, with no spoiler alert or option to have the spoiler revealed only to readers who click on the article. Up to that point, I’d avoided all of Helen Fielding’s interviews and was happily clueless, awaiting the return of Bridget Jones.

So, if you hadn’t heard about the bomb Fielding dropped and intend to read the book, I’ll warn you there will be SPOILERS in this review. I wasn’t going to include any but it’s hard to discuss the story without revealing the Very Big Deal.

Stop now if you don’t want to know.

Last chance to bail.



OK, Bridget is now 51 and a mother of two grade-school-aged children, Billy and Mabel. She’s also a widow. *Sob*. Mark Darcy was killed while on a trip to Darfur, doing his international rights work. (The book starts five years after Mark’s death, but backtracks a year, and then catches up to the current year.) Bridget is getting back into the dating game via different online methods, including Twitter and dating sites. She engages in a relationship with a 29-year-old “toy boy” named Roxby but called Roxster due to his Twitter handle. She juggles this with her single-mum duties and work on her screenplay, a modernization of Hedda Gabler.

It’s good to see Bridget back, nutty as ever, but the humor is tempered by sadness. It’s to Fielding’s credit that she created a character whose absence is deeply felt even in a book where he does not appear. When the children do something wonderful and Bridget wishes Mark were around to witness it, or when it’s late at night and Bridget’s loneliness intensifies, the scenes are poignant.

Fielding doesn’t dwell on the sadness, though. Bridget snaps back to her usual go-getter self, and her pluckiness in the face of adversity is probably one of the reasons readers like her.

But sometimes Bridget—and the author—tries too hard to be funny, as if to entertain a younger audience. There are a lot of fart jokes between Bridget and Roxster. And jokes about syphilis and gonorrhea. And pubic lice and diarrhea and throwing up in your mouth. A couple of the jokes made me chuckle but I did wonder at times if I’d wandered into a Hangover sequel.

The ending is predictable; you’ll most likely spot the person Bridget ends up with right at the beginning. That part is OK because in Bridget Jones’s Diary, it was also obvious right away that she’d end up with Mark.

What I question is how this new man managed to develop the intense feelings he seems to confess to Bridget near the end. Mark had known Bridget since they were both children, so despite only occasional encounters in Diary, it was believable that he could have fallen in love with her somewhere along the way.

In Mad, she has only brief run-ins and limited conversations with this new romantic interest. The two barely know each other so it’s not clear where the feelings come from. It seems he’s into her because she’s such a mess, a damsel in need of rescuing, and that’s not a strong foundation for a relationship.

There’s one thing I’m hoping for if this book gets a movie adaptation. Fielding described Mark in Diary as looking like Colin Firth and the actor ended up playing Mark. In this latest book, she describes Bridget’s love interest as looking like Daniel Craig and Bond-ish. Make it happen for the movie! I’m mad about that boy!

Nerd verdict: Pages 386, pages too long 60 (approx.), issues 2 or 3, overall still good

Amazon | IndieBound


Book Review: THE OCTOBER LIST by Jeffery Deaver

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

october listIn the foreword to The October List (or is it the afterword, since it’s at the back of the book?), Jeffery Deaver explains that he got the idea to tell his thriller story backward after hearing Stephen Sondheim discuss the musical Merrily We Roll Along, which unfolds in reverse order. (Other inspirations he cites include the movie Memento and a Seinfeldepisode titled “Betrayal,” both told in a “fractured time line.”)

The novel begins with the last chapter, as a woman named Gabriela sits in a Manhattan apartment on a Sunday, awaiting news from people who have gone to negotiate with a kidnapper for her daughter’s release. The kidnapper apparently wants something called the October List, plus half a million dollars, in exchange for Gabriela’s child. Someone bursts through the apartment’s front door, but it’s not the person Gabriela is expecting, and the chapter ends with her seemingly in even worse trouble.

Each chapter that follows takes place a few minutes or hours before the preceding one, going back to the previous Friday morning. Even the pages are numbered in reverse order, with the title page at the end. Some of the sentences are clunky but the premise is clever, and Deaver’s ability to execute it successfully makes this experimental novel even more impressive. Revealing the ending first, he still manages to surprise with a few twists, constantly challenging readers’ understanding of the story. Read it backward, forward, once or twice, to see how all the pieces fit together—just be sure to chase down this List yourself.

Nerd verdict: Put October on your reading List

Amazon | IndieBound


My Life According to Books 2013

For the past few years, I’ve been making up sentences for a fun meme in which you tell others about yourself using only titles of books you’ve read during the current calendar year. I first saw the idea in 2009 at Reactions to Reading, and have been providing my own sentences every year since.

As usual, I come up with the sentence starters before perusing my list of eligible titles so that I don’t tailor the sentences to the titles. If you’d like to play along, either post your answers in the comments or leave a link to the answers on your blog.

Here’s how my life is going this year.

the never listMy to-do list looks like: The Never List (Koethi Zan)

If a peeping Tom peeked into my bedroom, he’d: Never Go Back (Lee Child)

If Martians meet me, they’d think: The Curiosity (Stephan Kiernan)

My doctor is always telling me: Let’s Explore Diabetes (David Sedaris)

The weirdest thing that happened this past week: The Woman Before Me [at the supermarket] (Ruth Dugdall)

I often daydream about: [being] Unleashed (David Rosenfelt)

The government shutdown makes me: The Enraged (Brett Battles)

a hundted summersIf I win the lottery, I’d: [have] A Hundred Summers (Beatriz Williams)

My superpower is: [always having] The Last Word (Lisa Lutz)

I knew I was a book lover when: Six Years [old] (Harlan Coben)

And because my five-year blogoversary was earlier this month…

My blogging experience has been: Not Dead Yet (Peter James)

Thank you for reading PCN and helping to keep it alive! Now it’s your turn to share your life according to books!

See previous My Life According to Books posts here, here, and here.


Hanging at the White House

If you’re a long-time PCN reader, you’re probably familiar with my niece Aline Dolinh, who has contributed reviews of books, movies, and even plays. Four years ago, she and her sister, Mena, reported on their experience at the National Book Festival, which is held every year in September in Washington, DC.

Last month, Aline returned to the book festival, but this time as an honored guest and speaker. Why? She was one of five poets selected for the National Student Poets Program, the highest honor in the country for young poets, one bestowed by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

From L: Michaela Coplen, Sojourner Ahebee, First Lady Michelle Obama, Nathan Cummings, Louis Lafair, and Aline. Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson.

From L: Michaela Coplen, Sojourner Ahebee, First Lady Michelle Obama, Nathan Cummings, Louis Lafair, and Aline. Official White House photo by Lawrence Jackson.

Ah, yeah, that’s Aline hanging out at the White House with the other honorees and Mrs. Obama, who’s Honorary Chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Aline and the other National Student Poets were chosen from 80,000 poetry submissions, with a blind judging process over an 8-month period. The judges were apparently surprised to discover Aline’s age after she won this top prize. At 15, she is the youngest poet ever chosen for the honor.

I am thrilled for Aline but not surprised. She’s been impressing and entertaining me with her literary skills ever since she could read and write, sending me stories about cats that have pajama parties and write in diaries and bake cookies (complete with recipes), and writing screenplays about dinosaurs trying to beat extinction. She was 7 when she wrote stories with questions at the end to test my and Mr. PCN’s reading comprehension.

National Student Poets will serve for one year, traveling to their designated regions, acting as “literary ambassadors to people across our country and around the world,” as Mrs. Obama states in her letter at the front of the program from the announcement ceremony.


Aline is in high demand now, with requests for media interviews on top of her regular schoolwork. I was required to submit a request to the program’s media rep before I could chat with my niece, and had to wait two weeks before Aline had time. Pretty soon, I’ll have to call her “people” to have lunch with her.

PCN: What was your reaction when you were first notified about receiving this honor?

Aline Dolinh: At first, I didn’t understand! I remember that being selected as a semifinalist was scary enough, since there was a chance I’d be disappointed, so the fact I had made it this far seemed unreal. But when I got the packet in the mail saying I’d won, I was walking on sunshine for a little bit. What this award meant didn’t truly sink in until that weekend in DC.

Aline Dolinh reading poems at NSP Appt. Ceremony - cr. Tony Brown

Photo by Tony Brown

PCN: For the weeks leading up to the official announcement of this year’s winners, you weren’t allowed to tell anyone you were one of the five. How hard was it to keep this secret?

AD: Oh my God, it was terrible. I will keep a secret if you ask me to, but I love to talk. Back around May, before I knew I had been chosen for this particular award, I had told some of my friends and family that I had entered a poetry contest. It was very hard to completely avoid that topic of conversation, and if anyone did remember it, I tried to be vague. It was especially painful when I came back to school and people asked me things like if I had done anything I was proud of this summer, and I couldn’t say a thing!

PCN: Gah! I probably would’ve busted a blood vessel keeping a secret like that. What were your favorite part(s) of that weekend when all the ceremonies and galas happened?

AD: It sounds cliché, but my favorite thing was that I got to make such great friends. The four other poets are some of the most amazing, talented people I’ve ever met, but they were also so approachable and friendly. It was great to meet others who were equally passionate about their work, and I think we all clicked pretty quickly. I think we all felt like we were in the same boat. Additionally, the three student poets we met from last year, and just about everyone involved with the program was so welcoming and eager to guide us through the weekend. I got the sense that they genuinely cared about us, not just as poets, but as people.

PCN: What were your impressions of Mrs. Obama? Did you ask her how we can get arms like hers?

AD: She was absolutely gorgeous, toned, and super tall! If you look at the picture with us, you can see my head barely reaches her shoulder, which makes sense, I guess, since she’s 11 inches taller than me. She was so gracious, and I got the sense that she really cared about this program. When it was my time to get pinned by her, she asked me about my perspective as a writer and she remembered my age. She actually said something like “You know, Malia’s your age!” which was incredible. The fact that the First Lady took the time to talk personally with each of us was amazing.

PCN: Where do you think you got your love of reading and writing?

AD: Growing up, I was lucky enough to have parents who taught me to read and encouraged me to write. I also had good teachers over the years, teachers who recognized that I liked to write. I grew up with books around the house, resources a lot of kids don’t have. That was lucky.

PCN: Your parents also like to take you to book festivals. In 2009, you and Mena wrote about the National Book Festival for me. If someone had told you then you’d come back in a few years as a special guest/speaker, what would you have thought?

AD: I probably would have been like, “You’re lying, right?” I remember the first time I went to the festival, I waited two hours in the rain to get one of my Percy Jackson books signed by Rick Riordan, just because I loved those books so much (I still do). I was actually thinking about that during the night we were at the National Book Festival Gala at the Library of Congress, standing in the same room as writers I probably would have killed to get the chance to talk to [back then], because it felt so unreal that I’d made it here.

PCN: Ooh, you’re so fancy now. If you ever rub shoulders with J.K. Rowling, I’ll slip you a twenty to get her to sign some books for me. What do you look forward to most in your upcoming year as a NSP? What do you hope to achieve?

AD: Again, I’m so excited to be working with so many of the wonderful people who are part of this program, because everyone is so supportive, and there are a lot of people I can trust to help guide me down this road. But I think the greatest thing about this program is the chance for actual change within the community. I’m so eager to design my community service project, since bringing poetry out to people who might not have the chance to experience it otherwise would make such a big difference. Not everyone was lucky enough to grow up with the same support system I’ve had my whole life for my writing, and so being able to personally reach out and show people how much poetry has affected me is something I’m really looking forward to. I hope that, at the very least, I can make someone else fall in love with poetry the same way I have.

PCN: Can you share any details about this community project?

AD: I’m not sure what it is yet, but I’m interested in an outreach project, in spreading poetry to people who might not have access to it or be turned off by it, people who don’t know what poetry can do for them.

PCN: Other than getting summoned to the White House to hang out with the First Lady of the United States, receiving opportunities to travel, and a $5,000 academic award—you know, little things like that—what has poetry done for you?

AD: Poetry encourages you to look at the world in a new way. In school terms, it’s made me a better writer in general. It makes me appreciate ambiguity more, because there’s a mystery to poetry.

PCN: Why is ambiguity something to be appreciated?

AD: It opens you up to the possibility of so many different perspectives in the world. You can have so many meanings in one poem. I like it that the reader might read one of my poems and go away with a different interpretation than what I intended. It’s made me more open-minded.

Thank you, Aline, for taking time to answer my questions. You’ve made me more open-minded.

Aline’s poems have been published in The Best Teen Writing of 2013 and Raw Feet, and you can read her winning poetry here. (My favorites are “immigrant” and “How to Love a Time Traveler.”) Visit this site for more information on the National Student Poets Program (now accepting submissions!).

Congratulations, Aline!



Nerdy Special List October 2013

October is here, which means Valentine’s Day decorations should be going up soon. This year has flown! Hope you’re enjoying the fall weather, though it’s 87 degrees outside as I write this. I try to convince my body it’s fall by eating pumpkin pie. So far it’s not working, so I’d better eat another slice.

Meanwhile, here’s what my blogger pals and I recommend for October.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Double by George Pelecanos (Little, Brown, October 8)

the doubleIn his follow-up to The Cut, George Pelecanos once again proves himself to be a master of the crime genre. Spero Lucas, an Iraq War Vet and a PI who takes cases people would rather were kept quiet, is in search of a missing piece of art. He stumbles into a ruthless trio of thieves and a restless married woman. One almost steals his life and the other his soul.

The Double is complex at every level: characters, relationships, themes, plot, psychology. The writing is dark and gritty. There are no white hats and black hats in Lucas’s world. Instead there’s ambiguity, flaws, and looming questions, with few if any answers. Humanity can be ugly and somehow Pelecanos makes that stunningly beautiful.

Amazon | IndieBound

From Julie at Girls Just Reading:

Mortal Bonds by Michael Sears (Putnam, October 1)

mortal bondsMortal Bonds begins shortly after the end of Sears’s previous novel, Black Fridays. Jason Stafford is an ex-con with a knack for finding lost money, which is why the von Becker family hires him to find $3 billion. Of course, that amount of money is not going to be easy to find; it turns out there was a bit of money laundering going on. While some of the financial speak does go over my head, it’s Jason and his inner circle that I love about the novels. The way Jason tries to connect with his son is something we all can learn from. While it’s an action-packed novel, it’s not all “run and gun”; there is some definite heart in this series.

Amazon | IndieBound

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

This House is Haunted by John Boyne (Other Press, October 8)

this house is hauntedThe newest novel from the author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is a classic Gothic Victorian ghost story. This House is Haunted is everything a ghost story should be. With its Dickensian prose, disappearing servants, crotchety groundskeeper, mysteriously absent owner, precocious children, wary townsfolk, dense fog, and howling wind, it’s like a cross between Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and The Turn of the Screw. If there were a checklist of required elements for creating a “classic” ghost story, Boyne would have hit every single one. From characters paling as a result of distressing news to the mysterious attic inhabitant, Boyne walks a fine line between homage and parody with excellent results. From its opening line—“I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father”—to its closing twist, it’s pure Gothic fun. (Rory has a full review at her site.)


From PCN:

The October List (Grand Central, October 1)

october listA perfect suggestion for the October Nerdy List, The October List is told backward, Memento-style, with the last chapter first, and every chapter afterward taking place a few minutes or hours earlier, as a woman waits for news from men who have gone to negotiate the release of her kidnapped daughter. After the first chapter, you might think, “How can this be the ending?” because it reads like a cliffhanger. But stay with the book, because it answers all the questions raised, while constantly challenging your perception of events. Some of the dialogue and sentences are a bit clunky, but the idea and execution are satisfyingly clever.

Amazon | IndieBound

What are you looking forward to reading this month?


Movie Review: GRAVITY


Movie awards season is finally here, which means the studios are holding screenings all over town, pushing their contenders for the Oscars and the plethora of other awards. This week I went to two screenings, the first being Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (out Oct. 4), starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Within the first twenty minutes, it was clear to me I was watching a 2013 Best Picture nominee, if not the winner. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that makes me wide-eyed and agape, wondering, “How did they do that?” It’s happened only a few times in my life, including when I watched Star Wars as a kid and Terminator 2: Judgment Day more than twenty years ago, with all that liquid metal and Robert Patrick’s T-100 doing all the shape-shifting.

Gravity’s story is simple: Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a scientist, and astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are on a mission when something horrible happens, leaving them stranded in space. What follows is a 90-minute survival tale, an intense and emotional journey.

You know you’re in for something seminal right at the beginning, with a long, unbroken shot of the glimmering surface of the Earth, as seen from 600 km above it. Then the space shuttle Explorer takes its time coming into frame, with Kowalski cruising around it on a jet pack. I find the 3D in most movies completely unnecessary, but in Gravity it’s used beautifully.

I also don’t care for IMAX, but recommend seeing this movie on the biggest screen possible to get the full immersive experience. Sometimes the POV is from inside Stone’s helmet looking out, the sound would cut out, and you really get the sense of floating/spinning in space, which is at once hypnotic and terrifying. I almost cried several times from anxiety and frustration.

But all the artful cinematography and special effects wouldn’t, well, have any weight without Bullock anchoring the movie. Her Dr. Stone is brave and ordinary at the same time, a somewhat regular person being thrown into the most extraordinary circumstances imaginable. Bullock has the difficult job of holding the screen alone for long stretches, but she makes it look easy and natural. Clooney brings his usual charm to the calm and experienced Kowalski, a good balance to Bullock’s novice in space.

The movie may be labeled as sci-fi but I wouldn’t call it that. There are no aliens, the story is about humans, and the technology on screen, as far as I could tell, mostly  already exists. What Cuarón and his collaborators achieved, however, is not something you’ve likely seen before.

Nerd verdict: Gravity has strong magnetic pull

Photo: Warner Bros.