Monthly Archives

August 2015

Book Review: MOVIE STAR BY LIZZIE PEPPER by Hilary Liftin

movie star lizzie pepperMovie Star by Lizzie Pepper is not actually by Lizzie Pepper, who’s a fictional celebrity, but by Hilary Liftin, a ghostwriter who has collaborated on bestselling celebrity memoirs. But Movie Star is a novel. Confused yet?

The concept is that this book is a fake memoir by Lizzie, cowritten by the very real Liftin. Lizzie is a young famous actress swept up in a whirlwind romance with a much more famous actor and in all the ensuing paparazzi hullabaloo.

Life seems perfect, with the private jets and multiple mansions and public declarations of love from her man and the elaborate wedding—until Lizzie realizes everything might be too perfect.

Lizzie and Rob Mars, her superstar husband, never fight, and she can’t seem to penetrate his unflappable surface. And oh, yeah, there’s that mysterious, cultish organization he’s dedicated to.

This is a thinly disguised roman à clef of the Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes story, so most readers probably know how it begins, quickly escalates, and how it ends. But we don’t know what happened in the middle parts of this fairy tale gone wrong, and Liftin provides a fictional account here, a very readable one.

The author humanizes the movie stars, people who often seem too glossy to be real. Lizzie is no dummy and she’s grounded, but Rob’s courtship is very heady, and I could understand how she allows herself to get drawn into his world so fast she doesn’t realize what’s happening until she’s imprisoned by it.

Though Rob remains a cypher, even to Lizzie, Liftin portrays him sympathetically, not as a nut case, as many tend to label Cruise. Rob’s behaviors and beliefs stem from his conviction that he’s doing the best thing for himself and those around him, that he must always be the hero, offscreen as well as on. Sometimes, though, Lizzie just wants him to get angry, fart, be human.

Liftin also doesn’t vilify One Cell Studio, the organization to which Rob belongs and devotes much of his time. While some higher-ups at the studio do behave atrociously and are definitely creepy, not all members are that way, and the practices don’t seem as alien as some Scientology exercises are rumored to be.

In a Twitter culture with the masses instantly slapping unflattering labels on things and people they don’t understand, Liftin offers a different perspective on very public figures, perhaps asking that readers be less hasty to judge, and to appreciate our ordinary, human lives.

Amazon | IndieBound


Shock vs. Sensitivity



Like most people, I was shocked by the on-air shooting of WDBJ reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward. As I tried to learn more about what happened after first seeing only a tweet about the incident, my shock turned first to horror and then anger.

This isn’t a post about stricter gun-control laws. I fervently, deeply support that, but my friends Lauren and Chris Holm have already covered that in posts more eloquent and effective than anything I could write (click on their names to read them).

What I want to talk about is, why did some news outlets post the videos of Parker and Ward being murdered? The first site I visited was CNN, and though it posted a warning about graphic content, a freeze frame/screen grab of the video was visible and I felt sick after catching a brief glimpse of it.

I quickly scrolled past it, like a person trying to get rid of porn on the computer when someone else enters the room, but I was still shaking. I don’t need to see the final moments of Parker’s and Ward’s lives to understand how horrific their deaths were. I imagine Parker’s and Ward’s loved ones don’t want to watch them being killed, either. The shooting occurred during WDBJ’s morning broadcast so the station can’t be faulted for what went live, but other news outlets had no good reason to show the gruesome images after the fact.

The press exists because the public has the right to know, but did it need to witness Parker’s and Ward’s dying gasps? If the gunman (I refuse to write his name) were still at large and Ward’s footage contained the only lead to his identity, then I could understand it being shown with a plea to help identify the shooter.

But that’s not the case. Therefore I can only assume the video was shown for ratings or clicks. Which means it’s exploitation of a double murder.

I was once like Parker, a young TV news reporter at a small station in Virginia. Occasionally a cameraman would return from location with raw footage of a tragedy, the aftermath of a drunk driver colliding with another car or a child flipping an ATV.

Without being told by our news director, my colleagues and I always knew to edit out the bloody parts and air only enough footage to indicate a tragedy had occurred, never anything that might upset the general public or, worse, the victims’ families. It’s been many years since I worked in TV news and the world has changed drastically, but is it too much to ask for a certain level of sensitivity and a professional standard of decency?

How do you feel about the graphic footage being on air and online? Should it be shown because it’s “part of the story”?


Book Review: RUBBERNECKER by Belinda Bauer

rubberneckerDue to a traumatic childhood incident, 18-year-old Patrick Fort is obsessed with death. He wants to analyze what happens when people die, which makes him a great candidate for the anatomy course at Cardiff University, which requires him and his classmates to dissect cadavers to determine cause of death.

When Patrick finds something unexpected inside his cadaver, he suspects that Number 19—the cadavers are assigned only numerical IDs—was murdered, despite the death certificate claiming natural causes. But Patrick’s attempts to prove his theory are hampered at every turn, resulting in events that threaten to grant him personal experience with the very condition he seeks to understand.

Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker is fast-paced and quick-witted, told from multiple points of view (one seems unnecessary, tied to an extraneous subplot). Patrick’s voice holds the most interest. He’s a curious and intelligent boy with Asperger’s syndrome, who takes everything literally and is deadly serious at all times, but is also funny and charming, albeit unintentionally.

Bauer’s (Blacklands) almost gleeful descriptions of cadaverous viscera display a macabre sense of humor that induces chuckles alongside groans of disgust. Then, with revelations that come only pages from the end, the author punches readers in the heart.

Though Rubbernecker, which was originally published in the UK, received the 2014 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, it’s not just a mystery. It’s also a portrait of a memorable protagonist who finds a way to embrace life by confronting what lies beyond.

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


Sailboats and Seattle and STAR WARS

My posts were scarce these past two weeks because I was traveling with family up and down the West Coast, attempting to be all rugged with boating and mountain hiking and stuff. I’m amazed my legs didn’t fall off and I can still walk upright.

We went from Orange Co. up to San Francisco and Seattle and the San Juan Islands, stopping along the way in places like Santa Barbara and Morro Bay.

Sunset sail in Marina del Rey

Sunset sail in Marina del Rey. I was on the boat in the center. A passerby took the photo.


Hiking Mt. Rainier. Photo: Aline Dolinh (Mr. PCN is in blue on the bridge)

Seattle is where the EMP Museum has the Star Wars costume exhibit, which featured these guys.

Photo: Mena Dolinh

Photo: Mena Dolinh


Photo: Mena Dolinh

Speaking of Star Wars, I have a fun giveaway for you. A marketing rep from Underoos (yes, that Underoos) contacted me to let me know Underoos are now for adults, too. The rep sent along a free set in the design of my choice, and of course I chose something Star Wars related, though it was a tough choice between this and Wonder Woman.


From the Underoos site. Did you think I would pose in my underwear?

The starry blue background is beautiful and R2 pops, but it’s a transfer that sometimes makes a crinkling sound when I move, and I suspect it won’t last long after repeated washings. The set is 100% cotton and very comfortable.

Underoos is letting me give away one set in any design to one PCN reader. To enter, leave a comment letting me know which design you would choose and why. Giveaway ends next Thursday, August 27, 9 p.m PST. US addresses only.


Book Review: WHAT DOESN’T KILL HER by Carla Norton

what doesnt kill herIt’s been seven years since Reeve LeClaire, the heroine in Carla Norton’s What Doesn’t Kill Her, was rescued after being held prisoner as a teen by Daryl Wayne Flint, who’s serving time at a psychiatric hospital in Washington State. Reeve is now a student at UC Berkeley and feeling that her life “has finally bloomed and ripened.”

But a wrench is thrown into her newly idyllic world when Flint escapes and commits murder on his way to reclaim Reeve, his greatest obsession. Instead of running scared, she decides to confront the monster by teaming up with former FBI agent Milo Bender–the man who helped rescue her–to track down Flint. After spending four years in close proximity with her kidnapper, who else but Reeve would know best the inner workings of Flint’s twisted mind?

Norton keeps the pacing swift in this second series installment, after The Edge of Normal. Reeve is based on a real woman the author covered as a true crime writer, and Norton compassionately details the survivor mindset–what it takes for someone to withstand years of torture in captivity and the lingering psychological effects after release. Norton also shows how the ordeal can derail the lives of survivors’ loved ones.

The dialogue is stilted and expository at times, and Reeve oddly seems to be the only person among seasoned FBI agents and therapists to see the obvious when it comes to clues and Flint’s intentions, but Reeve’s voice and fragile courage are welcomed in crime fiction, representing those who refuse to be victims.

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


Nerdy Special List August 2015

I’m traveling right now but the Nerdy Special List must go on. I’m excited every month when the recommendations start coming in from my illustrious contributors, but I think this month the list is especially spectacular. Hope you’ll find at least one or two books to add to your reading list.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year of Looking on the Bright Side Transformed My Life by Janice Kaplan (Dutton, August 18)

gratitude diariesPart memoir, part research project, The Gratitude Diaries is all inspirational. Janice Kaplan, former Parade Magazine editor, made a New Year’s resolution to look at her life differently. She theorized that one’s attitude was more important than the events that occurred—someone could win the lottery and still not be happy—but if that person reframed their perspective they could be happy regardless of circumstances.

To test her theory, she dedicated a year to identifying all she could be thankful for in her day-to-day existence as well as researching the scientific side of gratitude. This book is the journal of her findings.

Readers will likely discover it is extremely difficult to avoid looking for the positive in their own lives as they read The Gratitude Diaries. It’s packed with easily initiated ideas and fascinating information about the benefits of gratitude. I rarely feel I can recommend a book to absolutely anyone, but I don’t know a single person who couldn’t benefit from more happiness in their life. The Gratitude Diaries is a wonderful way to start finding it.

The Investigation by J. M. Lee, translated by Chi-Young Kim (Pegasus, August 15)

the investigationIn the midst of World War II, Sugiyama Dozen, a Japanese war veteran, is the Fukuoka Prison Ward Three guard and censor. When Sugiyama is found murdered, young guard Watanabe Yuichi is charged with investigating the case while taking over Sugiyama’s duties. At first the crime appears to be open-and-shut, but the smart, contemplative Watanabe isn’t convinced and his probing unearths amazing discoveries.

The Investigation is a stunning tribute to the power of the arts first and a murder mystery second. The juxtaposition of the two makes this novel reaffirming.

Inspired by a true story about a Korean poet, The Investigation is beautifully written. The insightful translation allows for a crystal clear and universal understanding of Lee’s powerful themes and characters, making The Investigation a soul-resonating read.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Andersonville by Edward M. Erdelac (Hydra Publications, August 18)

andersonvilleLourdes Barclay, a mysterious man posing as a black Union soldier, purposefully sneaks into Camp Sumter, aka Andersonville prison. He has a mission, a secret, and a vendetta, but he quickly realizes that his first priority is simply to survive the hellish prison.

Ruled by the mysterious Captain Wirz, tortured by the sadistic Sergeant Turner, and terrorized by the group of prisoners called the “raiders,” most soldiers pray for escape. Not Barclay. He realizes the suffering  radiating from Andersonville is the result of more than just human evil.

Historically, Camp Sumter was filled with human misery beyond comprehension, yet Erdelac expertly adds a layer of the supernatural to great effect. This Civil War horror novel (if that’s not a genre, this novel can spearhead the effort) is thoughtful, Lovecraftian, and well researched. Although it’s not for the faint of heart—much of the horror is vividly described and based on fact—I would recommend this novel to fans of Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and alternate histories.

For those who may be hesitant to pick up a “horror” novel, I wanted to add there is nothing truly scary about this book in the fictional sense. Yes, there are secret societies, forces of good and evil, and a few hellhounds, but the real terror lies in the suffering of the soldiers. What makes that terrifying, for me, is that it happened, without the added demonic influences.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Trust No One by Paul Cleave  (Atria Books, August 4)

trust no oneTrust No One is one of those rare and exceptional books that doesn’t just tell you a story, it makes you experience it.

Jerry Grey is a crime writer. Or he was. And he still sometimes is. Or might be. As his mind descends into early-onset Alzheimer’s, it’s not clear whether or not the brutal murders with which he’s so intimately familiar occurred only on the page. He confesses to crimes everyone else knows are fictional—or are they? Jerry is sure they aren’t, until he’s…not. People are dying, and Jerry can’t rely on anyone or anything around or within him.

As Jerry fights to chronicle the changes he’s experiencing, he loses all trust in his memory and his reality. It’s a terrifying premise, and one that Cleave presents with the mastery of a storyteller who is unafraid to venture into territory most writers would steer well clear of.

This isn’t a comfortable read—it’s not meant to be—but it is a thrilling one. And while it’s not horror, it’s one of the most frightening tales I’ve ever read.

From Shannon at River City Reading:

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips (Henry Holt, August 11)

beautiful bureaucratAfter both Josephine and her husband have struggled to find work for far too long, she is thrilled when she’s hired to work on “The Database.” In a windowless building that takes up several city blocks, she works in a small office, entering strangely coded numbers in an increasingly mind-numbing task. Over time, Josephine’s once supportive husband grows distant, and work on The Database wears at her until she is desperate to discover its true purpose.

In just 192 pages, The Beautiful Bureaucrat packs in the tension of the best thrillers with a double dose of “WHAT IS GOING ON?” for good measure. And Helen Phillips uses every inch of those 192 pages to tell her story, forcing readers to puzzle out the narrative until the very last moment. (Read Shannon’s full review here.)

From PCN:

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer (Atlantic Monthly Press, August 4)

rubberneckerEighteen-year-old Patrick, who has Asperger’s syndrome, has been obsessed with death since a traumatic childhood incident. He signs up for an anatomy course at Cardiff University that requires students to dissect cadavers to determine the cause of death.

Though all the bodies supposedly belonged to people who died of natural causes, Patrick is convinced Number 19—the identifier given his cadaver—was murdered. No one believes him, and as he tries to gather evidence to prove his theory, he just might get to meet his own death.

Patrick is a memorable character with a singular narrative voice, serious in his own head but quirky and unintentionally witty to those around him. The novel’s subject matter is dark but so is the humor, and there’s a healthy dose of heart. Rubbernecker should turn the reader into just that—someone who can’t look away from it.


What are you looking forward to reading this month?