Monthly Archives

March 2016

Book Review: THE WATCHER IN THE WALL by Owen Laukkanen

watcher in the wallAdrian Miller, tired of being tormented at school, hangs himself while home alone. But there’s a witness to his act—someone watching via videocam on his computer. Not just watching but encouraging him to do it, apparently so she could muster the courage to do the same.

One of Adrian’s classmates is especially upset about his suicide, and she happens to be the daughter of Kirk Stevens, special agent with Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, whose partner on a joint FBI-BCA task force is FBI agent Carla Windermere. The girl pleads with her dad to investigate Adrian’s death and make someone pay.

Stevens and Windermere aren’t sure a crime has been committed—until they realize that they have an online predator on their hands, someone who targets vulnerable teens on suicide message boards and talks them right over the edge. And it looks like the perp has hooks in two more victims who are ready to jump. Can the agents find the kids in time to save them?

It’s clear early on in Owen Laukkanen’s The Watcher in the Wall that this fifth outing is a departure in the Stevens and Windermere series. Yes, it has the previous novels’ high-octane action and thriller-fast pace, but the descriptions of the teens’ inner lives feel raw and personal. As it turns out, it is—the author’s note at the end reveals intimate knowledge of the subject matter, and offers hope to those struggling with depression. Watcher is a moving reminder for sufferers that they have a different kind of watchers in their lives—loved ones who can provide support and let them know they’re not alone.

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

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Headed for Hogwarts: Experiencing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood

The new Wizarding World of Happy Potter isn’t officially open at Universal Studios Hollywood until April 7, but Mr. PCN and I received invitations to take an early peek this past weekend.

Let’s go there together!

This is the entrance to Hogsmeade.

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Right after I entered, I encountered this, ready to whisk me away to Hogwarts. (Not really—it’s stationary.)

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I’ve arrived at Hogwarts!

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Time to get sorted into a house by the Sorting Hat. It actually moves and there’s a voice inside telling you which house you belong in. I got Ravenclaw, whose members are known for their wit, wisdom, and cleverness. Sure, I’ll take that. But everyone who put it on seemed to get the same result. I suspect the hat is rigged, or Ravenclaw will need a LOT of beds to house all its new members.

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Next we went on a couple of rides—there are only 2 rides: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is a 3-D experience, and Flight of the Hippogriff, a roller coaster.

The first one is fast paced, hurling you through the air, putting you in the middle of a Quidditch game, having you escape the Whomping Willow and giant spiders, making you come face to face with Dementors, etc. The Dementors are pretty scary, and I was like, “Uh-uh, don’t you dare kiss me.” I wouldn’t recommend the ride for kids under 6.

It’s odd how the visuals weren’t sharp, though, and as rides go, it wasn’t as good as the park’s old Back to the Future and E.T. rides.

Flight of the Hippogriff is the shortest roller coaster ever, not necessarily a bad thing since I don’t like roller coasters. I only went on this because it’s deemed “family friendly,” so I figured even a wimp like me could handle it. And it was an easy ride—over in what seemed like 60 seconds. I am not exaggerating.

After that, we visited some of the shops, starting with Ollivanders, “maker of fine wands since 382 BC.”

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Inside, a shopkeeper picks a few kids from the group to participate in a demonstration of how wands choose their owners. There are a few small (underwhelming) special effects involved, and when it was over, the shopkeeper packs up the wands for the kids and reminds them to tell their parents that the wands have chosen them. My jaded self did an internal eye roll. How are parents supposed to say no to that?

I will say the interactive wands are pretty cool. I didn’t get to try one, but I saw one girl using it to cast spells around Hogsmeade. These wands are programmed to work with predesignated windows in the area. You stand in front of the window, say the magic spell, and make things move inside.

See how it works in the video below, with James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley) and Bonnie Wright (Ginny W.).

 

We walked around some more, I used the restroom, where you can hear Moaning Myrtle, and it was a beautiful day, but I couldn’t escape a feeling of…rather, a lack of…wonderment.

I’m a hardcore HP fan, so I thought I’d be like a kid in a Honeydukes candy store. And I did go into Honeydukes. But I was underwhelmed. By everything.

I think the reason is that in my head and in the movies, Hogsmeade (there’s no Diagon Alley here like at Universal Studios Orlando) is a place for wizards and full of magical things. Looking at the streets packed with Muggles pushing baby strollers and waving selfie sticks, I couldn’t find the magic. There are many more shops and restaurants, all with overpriced items, than there are rides and attractions.

I considered the possibility I’m too old to be the target audience for this, but then remembered how awed I was when I attended my friend Mari’s HP-themed Thanksgiving dinner a few years back. I felt more immersed in Harry’s world there than I did today in a place that cost more than a billion dollars to build. Mari’s version was reconstructed from pure love, while Universal is out to make money (ticket prices have been raised in anticipation of WWoHP’s opening). Which it’s allowed to do.

There’s just nothing magical about that.

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Movie Review: BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE

(Clay Enos/AP)

(Clay Enos/AP)

When I was a kid—heck, even now—nothing much could get me out of bed early on a Saturday morning. If something could, it was a BIG DEAL.

And so it was, the show Super Friends, which aired Saturdays at 8 a.m. While everyone in the house was asleep, I’d tiptoe down to the basement to watch Wonder Woman and Superman and the rest of Justice League vanquish bad guys.

In 1978, I was in line opening weekend of Superman with Christopher Reeve, my excitement barely contained, and left believing a man could fly. I’ve seen every single Batman movie, even the George Clooney one.

I could go on about my fandom of DC Comics’ greatest superheroes, but you get the idea—my nerdiness runs deep.

So imagine my dismay when I saw Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice last week and realized it’s a huge mess. It is not the movie I wanted, and I can’t imagine many other fans wanting it.

I won’t go too much into plot, both because I don’t want to reveal spoilers, and also because there isn’t really a coherent storyline. The gist of it is: Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) thinks Supes (Henry Cavill) is bad for mankind, being above human laws, so Batty sets out to take down the Man of Steel. (Gee, a billionaire who doesn’t like aliens—who does that remind us of?)

Lex Luthor also wants to destroy Supes because…he’s a controlling egomaniac. Or something. Jesse Eisenberg’s scenery chewing was too annoying for me to give much credence or attention to what Luthor says.

The disjointed script reaches for Big Ideas, but either hits them with a sledgehammer or doesn’t follow through. Hard to believe this was cowritten by an Oscar winner, Chris Terrio, who took home gold for Argo. (The other screenwriter is David Goyer, who worked on all of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, as well as director Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel.) Mostly the lead men brood a lot and then engage in loud, heavily CGI’d, too-long fight scenes that just wore me down. During the last forty minutes, I thought, “When will it end?” Everything is bleak and there’s no fun at all.

That’s not to say this should be a comedy or even as light as the Marvel movies. But even in Tim Burton’s and Nolan’s versions of Batman, there was a sense of glee among the darkness, whether it’s in Jack Nicholson’s The Joker or Michelle Pfeiffer’s and Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.

Here, you have a rich pouty emo boy fighting a lost Boy Scout who hasn’t gotten over his daddy. Affleck and Cavill look good—salt & pepper temples work on Affleck—but they’re not required to do much acting.

Faring better is Amy Adams as Lois Lane. She’s the heart of the movie, and the scenes with her in them are probably the only ones containing anything resembling human emotions.

As Diana Prince, Gal Gadot has a stunning wardrobe. As Wonder Woman? The actress doesn’t have the requisite charisma or presence. WW isn’t just physically strong, she has a powerful aura. Gadot comes across like a mannequin.

And I hate her new costume. It’s supposed to be red, white, blue (and gold), with WW showing her allegiance to America. In this movie it’s grimy brown and gladiator-like. Yes, everyone wears muted colors, but you can still see the red and blue hues in Superman’s costume and the S on his chest. I felt no connection to Wonder Woman because my brain didn’t recognize her as such; she looked like an escapee from Snyder’s 300. The best I can say about WW is that she gets a strong entrance.

After having seen this, it’s hard to look forward to Snyder’s two Justice League movies, though I am curious about Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, especially after seeing the just released photo below. Who knows—maybe Jenkins will give me a reason to wake up early one Saturday morning next year and sneak off to the movie theater.

Nerd verdict: Doesn’t do Justice to Justice League heroes

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How HAMILTON Lets Me Be a Part of the Narrative

The following piece is by my niece and contributor, Aline Dolinh, who’s starting college this fall. Whaaaaat? Remember when she was 12 years old and contributing book and theatre reviews to PCN? But I digress. Read on about the very personal impact the smash musical Hamilton had on her.—PCN

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IMG_2588You’d be forgiven for viewing the Hamilton hysteria with some cynicism. Crowned last month with a Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, the hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda has been met with unprecedented reverence since its Broadway debut in August 2015, having been hailed as a savior of everything from musical theatre to the Grammys themselves.

The hype? To quote a similarly recent pop culture phenomenon, “It’s true. All of it.”

I’m only a little ashamed to say I broke down into loud and uncontrollable tears when I saw Hamilton in December, alongside thirtysome members of my high school drama department. (I apologize to anyone who was also at the December 10 matinee performance and was in the general vicinity of mezzanine seat E1).

By the time Alexander had fallen to his frenemy Aaron Burr’s (Leslie Odom Jr.) bullet near the end of Act Two, I was inconsolable. My friends were sympathetic, but understandably a little confused by my mascara-streaked breakdown. After all, everyone involved had died over two hundred years ago.

Only hours later, during the insomniac bus ride back home, did I realize why I’d identified so closely with Alexander. It was one of those requisite late-night, teenage soul-baring sessions where every secret seemingly carries the weight of sacrament, and as my friends and I whispered our greatest fears to one another, I couldn’t stop thinking about a single line from the show: I imagine death so much, it feels more like a memory.”

There’s something in Miranda’s frenzied delivery of the verse that follows, the way it perfectly encapsulates Alexander’s fatalistic, ragged-edged ambition, that still strikes a chord within me. It’s the exact same existential anxiety that’s kept me restless for years, but I’ve never heard it articulated so honestly. Hearing those lines now felt validating instead of fearful.

As the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, I’m acutely aware that I’m not the kind of person the Founding Fathers envisioned as their quintessential American. And yet in Hamilton, where the titular character is portrayed as a “young, scrappy, and hungry” Caribbean migrant, fraught with both brilliance and hubris, I found a reflection of myself where I least expected it.

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My HAMILTON shrine

I identified with his inexorable obsession with legacy, his neurotic fixation on overcoming his poor, rootless origins. Throughout the show, his political rivals such as Burr and ideological nemesis Thomas Jefferson deride him in distinctly othering language. Alexander, to them, is simply “this immigrant [who] isn’t somebody we chose,” a man “desperate to rise above his station.”

We are constantly reminded of his status as an outsider, despite his dizzying verbosity and hypercompetence. His relentless work ethic and sensitivity to perceived slights all make sense as the hallmarks of someone who was born—as Burr jealously reminds us—a lowly “immigrant, orphan, bastard, whoreson,” and could never truly leave that identity behind.

Alexander’s arc is constructed in flight motifs and suggests a constant, American Dream-esque fantasy of social mobility, from his enterprising calls to “rise up,” his diligent “rise to the top,” and later, in his disgrace, as an “an Icarus who has flown too close to the sun.” As a second-generation immigrant myself, it was a narrative I’m intimately familiar with but had never seen expressed so fully. Watching Alexander die felt achingly personal.

I’m well aware it’s a little ridiculous to have this much emotional investment in history, but I believe that Hamilton’s propensity to provoke such visceral reactions is a good thing. The musical’s uncanny ability to wring flesh and blood from the Founding Fathers, who’ve long been regarded as infallible figures within the pantheon of American history, allows viewers to have a more complete understanding of their times.

Players like Hamilton, Burr, and Jefferson are portrayed as men who created the pettiness of the partisan fray rather than staying above it. It’s an impression that remains especially relevant today in our polarizing political climate. The fact that audiences are able to relate and root for (or against) these characters, in all their uneven and bickering glory, is a celebration of history rather than a degradation of it.

Hamilton resonates even more strongly in the classroom, as a way to imbue our conventional wisdom of the American Revolution with the urgent, pulsing vitality of declarations like “when you’re living on your knees, you rise up.”

Much of Hamilton’s ingenuity lies in how contemporary it feels, despite the subject matter. The repeated rallying cries of “rise up!” in the rousing “My Shot,” a number that depicts the simmering, nascent moments of the American Revolution, call to mind the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s demands for justice, a comparison that Miranda welcomes.

The line “Immigrants—we get the job done!” uttered by Lafayette to Hamilton on the eve of the decisive Battle of Yorktown, was met by at least five seconds of deafening applause in the Richard Rodgers Theatre; it’s easy to interpret it as a sly retort to the xenophobic vitriol of Donald Trump.

As an Asian-American girl who’s been involved in theatre for the last six years, seeing the half-Chinese Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton feels like its own form of revolution in an industry where Asian women are often relegated to the roles of submissive, sexual stereotypes or domineering dragon ladies. Theatre, for all its imagination, has traditionally read ​white​ as the default, and designated all other identities aberrant.

That’s why ​Hamilton‘​s choice to cast people of color as the movers and shakers of American history—as Miranda says, “the story of America then, as told by America now”-–is so radical. It explicitly affirms those forgotten identities and humanizes history.

With cast member Daveed Diggs (far R.), writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda (next to Diggs), and other National Student Poets

With cast member Daveed Diggs (far R.), writer/star Lin-Manuel Miranda (next to Diggs), and other National Student Poets

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Nerdy Special List March 2016

So…it’s been an interesting month. For the past several weeks, I’ve been traveling a lot—all over California, into Nevada, and down under to Australia. Some of it was work-related, some not, but none of it was my idea or a trip I planned, and in each case I had little time to decide whether or not I wanted to go. I just jumped onto buses, trams, and planes, trusting I’d enjoy the experience on the other side. And I did.

The biggest lessons for me in all this? Embrace spontaneity more often, never turn down great opportunities even if they arise at the last minute, and not being in control can be exhilarating sometimes. (This could be my lazy self appreciating not having to plan things.)

But let’s get on with this month’s recommended reads. Here are the March releases we really liked.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton (Harper, March 22)

way-of-gunBritish journalist and former gun-club president Iain Overton examines the life cycle of firearms in the world today. He looks at aspects of the gun from suicides to hobbies—interviewing a vast array of users, visiting some of the world’s most dangerous countries, attending gun shows and studying research and data from a wide variety of sources—in order to understand man’s relationship with weapons.

His own experiences as a hobbyist and embedded war journalist come out anecdotally, but Overton relies on the accumulation of all his findings to draw his conclusions. The Way of the Gun focuses on the United States because it is the world’s largest manufacturer of guns, and as Overton illustrates, the US viewpoint on firearms has repercussions far outside the country’s borders.

Overton uses meticulous, scientific research, and his status as a non-US citizen removes the sensitive political issues that often taint American conversations. He takes a global view of this hot-button topic, using clear, concise, and persuasive writing to produce an eye-opening read.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye (Putnam, March 22)

jane steele“Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important.”

So begins Lyndsay Faye’s brilliant Jane Steele. In this clever reimagining of Jane Eyre, the accidental vigilante Miss Steele’s life parallels that of the classic Gothic heroine. Where Eyre does not often reveal her strong opinions, Steele acts on them. She inadvertently sets out righting the wrongs she encounters, first for herself and then for those she cares about.

Finding herself a governess at her childhood home, she aims to unravel the mysterious new owner and finds herself falling in love with him. Yet who is he, and would he be able to accept her and her black murderous soul? This is a novel that runs the risk of being ridiculous, yet isn’t. It is, instead, a thrilling mystery and wonderful homage to a beloved classic.

Recommended for both lovers and haters of Jane Eyre. Those who love it will appreciate the original details sprinkled throughout. Those who hate it may feel this action-packed, satirical romance rights all of Brontë’s wrongs.

Reader, I loved it.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Between Black and White by Robert Bailey (Thomas & Mercer, March 15)

between black and whiteThis is the second (after The Professor) in Robert Bailey’s series featuring law professor-turned-lawyer Tom McMurtrie. Between Black and White is both a classic legal thriller and a window to the soul of small-town southern culture. The combination is irresistible.

The story opens dramatically as a young boy, Bocephus Haynes, watches his father lynched in 1966. As a man, Bo still lives in the same town in Tennessee, and it’s there where the former KKK leader he blames for his father’s death is killed.

The investigation and court case that follow are gripping, and the portrayal of and insights into people and attitudes are insightful without being overbearing or preachy. This isn’t a novel-length judgment piece; it’s a story about people who are as complex as…well, as people are. Bailey’s prose is fast-paced and clever. I can see why he’s a successful lawyer himself, and can’t wait for Professor McMurtrie’s next case.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

bursar's wifeThe Bursar’s Wife by E.G. Rodford (Titan Books, March 1)

This is a PI novel that takes place in Cambridge, England. It hooked me pretty much from the beginning. George Kocharyan is recently divorced and has a low-key investigation business, mostly taking photos of cheating spouses.

In walks a beautiful woman who wants her daughter, a Cambridge student, followed. It leads George to places and situations he never would have imagined. It also connects him with his father’s history as a caretaker at Cambridge. This book is well written, ventures into unexpected places, and kept me very interested in the outcome. Highly recommended!

From PCN:

passengerSeveral months ago, I was in a serious reading drought. Every book I picked up either put me to sleep or made me want to throw it across the room. What did I do? Request a copy of Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger, because she’s a reliable slump-buster for me. Boy, did Lisa deliver.

The novel begins with Tanya Dubois finding her husband dead at the bottom of the stairs. Instead of calling the cops, she changes her identity and hightails it out of town. She meets a woman named Blue, who could be an ally or foe, and together they go through more name changes and encounter more deaths. Tanya/whatever-her-name-is finally decides to stop running by going home and confronting the people who ruined her life in the first place.

Lisa’s writing had me in a vise from beginning to end—and I was happy for it. There was no sleep until I reached the resolution. The characters are complex, the plot mysterious, the pace neckbreaking, and I was grateful for the reminder that reading could be fun again.

Which March releases are you looking forward to?

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