Monthly Archives

May 2016

Book Review: CITY OF THE LOST by Kelley Armstrong

I featured this book in May’s Nerdy Special List, but the full review below appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

5135xhS181L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_” ‘I killed a man,’ I say to my new therapist.”

With this opening line in City of the Lost, Kelley Armstrong introduces homicide detective Casey Duncan. Casey makes clear her declaration is neither a metaphor, such as for breaking a man’s heart—“A bullet does break a heart”—nor a statement about a job-related incident. Nope. She killed a man while in college. And got away with it.

The only person who knows and has kept her secret is her friend Diana, and now Diana needs Casey’s help to escape from an abusive ex. Diana convinces Casey to relocate with her to a remote community called Rockton in the wilds of Canada. The residents there are all hiding from something; with no modern technology available—even electricity is limited—they can stay off the grid.

Casey soon realizes, however, that Rockton may be an even more dangerous place for her and Diana, because someone is murdering the inhabitants. As the town’s new detective, Casey has to hunt down the killer, but this time she might end up as prey.

Casey is a singular, riveting protagonist–tough but loyal, knowing the difference between taking risks and being irresponsible. There’s tantalizing romantic tension between her and Rockton’s sheriff and his deputy, though that element isn’t the focus.

The mystery is complex, takes unusual turns, and the setting of isolated territory surrounded by menacing woods is as breathtaking as it is unsettling. Looking for a captivating story? Escape to City of the Lost.

*****

Have a safe holiday weekend, everyone. What are you planning to read over the next three days?

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Movie Review: THE NICE GUYS

nice guysShane Black, the screenwriter who shot to fame with the Lethal Weapon movies, may have had a few stumbles in the last three decades, but with The Nice Guys, a 1970s noir detective story Black cowrote with Anthony Bagarozzi, Black is firmly in his element.

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe play low-rent PI Holland March and enforcer Jackson Healy, respectively, who meet in a painful way—at least for March—but then team up when clues indicate that Healy’s missing client, a girl named Amelia (The Leftovers‘ Margaret Qualley), may be in grave danger. When they step up their search for her, the violence escalates, as mysterious parties either don’t want her found or they want her dead.

Part of the fun of viewing this movie is in its bizarre twists and turns so I won’t say much more about plot. It’s reminiscent of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a low-budget gem Black also wrote and directed, in its style and tone, and in how much of the action occurs during one very long night.

The biggest pleasure is in watching Gosling and Crowe sling Black’s signature rat-tat-tat lines at each other with perfect comic timing. Yes, the movie is seedy and brutal, but the, ah, Black humor makes it very funny also. The actors’ chemistry is so good, you’d think these guys have been partners for decades. Gosling displays physical comedy chops I didn’t know he has, and it’s the loosest Crowe performance in years.

Also noteworthy is Angourie Rice (you wouldn’t now she’s Australian by listening to her) as March’s tween daughter Holly, who often has to be the adult in her dealings with Dad. Rice delivers her lines in a dry, weary, but sharp-witted way, depicting a girl who understands much more than her father gives her credit for, and is usually the only sane person in the room.

The city of L.A. is a character in itself, all seductive at night despite its crumbling Hollywood sign and porn industry and drug-addled parties. Another selling point? This movie isn’t a sequel or remake and there are no superheroes in sight.

Nerd verdict: Funny, noirish Nice

Photo: Warner Bros.

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Girls on Couches Talking About Books and Snacks

I’m excited about introducing this new joint feature with my friend Lauren from Malcolm Avenue Review. We chat a lot about books and often text each other running commentary as we read. So we thought we’d have conversations about bookish topics on Google Chat and then publish the transcripts, alternating between here and her blog.

Readers in car: Lauren & me, with L’s superhero sidekick, Bird

As a nod to Jerry Seinfeld’s Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, we decided to call this Readers on Couches Talking About Books and Snacks, which can be abbreviated as Readers Talking BS, which is appropriate.

We changed the first word of the name this time to spotlight our first topic: the proliferation of book titles with Girl in them, and of comparisons to those famous Girl books by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins. We’re not the first people to have noticed this trend but we really thought it’d be over by now.

We don’t know how regular this feature will be since we’re both world champions in laziness, but why worry about the future?

The transcript was edited for length and filthiness, mostly on Lauren’s part.

PCN: Let’s get the important details out of the way first. Since part of this chat is about snacks, what do you have on hand right now?

L: I’ve failed out of the gate. No snack. Can I still hang out? Or do I have to go get something?

PCN: It doesn’t have to be right there with you, just somewhere in your house.

L: Oh wait! I have some Trader Joe’s honey wheat pretzel sticks that have been open for a month. I’ll get those.

PCN: OK. I’ll wait. [Ed. note: We’re not sure how you can handle all this intellectual talk.]

L: Phew. On to the less appetizing portion of the program. Hold on while I get the twist out of my shorts…

PCN: You have pretzel twists in your shorts?

GGL: That would be better than the one I have there now about the This is the next Gone Girl/Girl on the Train! phenomenon in book publicity.

PCN: Ohhhh, I get it. Clever transition.

L: What is it about it that I hate so passionately?

PCN: I’m too scared to crawl inside your head. Why don’t you go ahead and unload?

L: Where to start? So many things bother me about it. It doesn’t let an author have his/her own identity without being compared to someone else’s success. I say his/her but I’ve NEVER seen it done to a male author, and that bugs me. None of the books compared seem to have much in common with either GG or GOTT. And last but not least, I loved one of those books and hated the other. So what am I supposed to think when a book is “the next” of both? How’s that for a palette of pissed off?

PCN: Your pissed-off palette has many colors.

L: I am the Jackson Pollock of irksome book publicity.

PCN: I agree this trend is lazy. It slaps a label on new books that’s supposed to entice us to read them, but it has done the opposite for me—make me groan and want to avoid them. If a book has merits, let it stand on its own.

L: Ha! I love that you see the laziness in it. It is lazy. Let Author X be the first Author X, not the next other author.

PCN: Exactly! And as you said, I didn’t love Girl on the Train, so if a promo says, For lovers of GOTT, I’d probably skip it.

L: I know we both tend to avoid books that use the comparison, but what do you think when it uses both? Because you, like me, liked Gone Girl, right? GG and TGOTT were two entirely different books! With GOTT, the author had trouble writing unique characters of either sex. All the men and all the women had the same issues. GG, on the other hand, was about a whip-smart woman who was controlling her life and things in it and the characters were unique.

luckiest girl alive

PCN: For me, it’s more GG is a superb book and GOTT is subpar. Some of the recent blurbs I’ve seen say, For lovers of GOTT and Luckiest Girl Alive. Which is also confusing, because again, different books. And LGA itself was touted as the next GG.

L: I think LGA is closer to GG. Part of what bothers me about it is that publishers have to cram it down the public’s throat that women can write thrillers. Women have been writing thrillers, good ones, for a damn long time.

Interestingly, I just read a book I thought was similar to GG. It was written by a man, so did not suffer from the lazy publicity ploy, but one author did blurb it as being like GG. I’ve thought about why this book (Perfect Days, if you’re interested) did not get that label.

The real answer is I have no idea, but I’m guessing because (1) the author is a man and (2) it didn’t seem to get a ton of publicity. I’m not sure why this publicity trend doesn’t include male authors, too, because using Girl in the title has crossed over [to books by both genders]. But I suppose that’s another different issue that irks me? ☺

PCN: You’re right. Male authors’ books are less often compared to GG/GOTT, which is ironic, since a man started this recent Girl trend: Stieg Larsson.

L: Right? Did you ever see a book say The next Girl with a Dragon Tattoo? Why not?! Because people didn’t think those books were well written? Because Larsson was a man and we can’t compare women and men writers? It all feels very silly, but maybe there is genius behind it somewhere.

PCN: Or sexism?

L: It’s a can of worms, but I think you’re right.

PCN: I don’t think it’s intentional sexism, maybe subconscious.

I did see books touted as the next Dragon Tattoo but only for a little while. It didn’t become a thing that won’t go away. GG was released 4 years ago and new releases are still being compared to it.

This is a free stock photo from Pexels.com. I eat my waffle-cut chips, not take pictures of them.

(BTW, my Srichacha chips are so good. They are spicy and waffle cut.)

L: You and your hot things. I tried sriracha once. Once was enough.

PCN: We haven’t mentioned the fact that not only are too many books being touted as the next GG, they all have Girl in the title, too.

L: We kind of broached it above. I’m not sure if that’s the same issue or just another lazy issue. It’s interesting to me that that does happen with books written by men. So we can share title publicity stunts so long as the sexes are not compared to each other?

PCN: Something like that. Have you ever seen a book by a woman compared to Dragon Tattoo or book by a man compared to GG?

L: I don’t recall seeing a female author compared to either Dragon Tattoo or Larsson himself, but my memory isn’t the best. [Raphael Montes’s] Perfect Days is the only book I can recall by a male author compared to GG, but again, it was not the publisher but another author—a female one—in a cover blurb.

PCN: Sometime last year, I think it was around June, I started keeping a list of all the Girl books being pitched or sent to me. The list has more than 30 entries so far.

L: I have thought multiple times about keeping a list of books compared to GG/TGOTT, but then I pull a muscle when I sigh and can’t pick up a pen.

PCN: You don’t need a pen. It’s called a computer or your phone. How are your month-old pretzel sticks, by the way? Are they still good or do I need to send firemen to your house for chest compressions?

L: I was going to say they are fine until you got to firemen. FIREMEN, PLEASE!

PCN: OK, on their way. Hope you have pants on. Or not.

L: I won’t by then. Bazinga!

PCN: My eyes!

L: Send four firemen. It’ll take that many to untwist my shorts.

PCN: Damn, girl. (<<Not to be confused with GG or GOTT.)

L: Well played. Now that my firemen are gone, let’s get back to books. What are you reading that’s knocking your socks off (or not)?

PCN: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rawley. It’s really good so far and doesn’t remind me of any other book! [I’ve finished this. Will post review soon.] What are you reading?

L: I am in the midst of a trifecta of great reads, so I’m almost afraid to mention them. I’m listening to Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon. My ebook is Dodgers by Bill Beverly, and my tree book is Consequence by Eric Fair. I would have been really embarrassed if I was reading something with Girl in the title right now.

PCN: I’m looking at my huge TBR stack. No Girl titles at all.

L: My three-year-old boyfriend is here for our grass date. I will talk to you later?

PCN: Yup. Happy reading until next time!

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Girl, You Need New Friends

pexels-photoI’ve been reading a couple of books in which a woman experiences or witnesses something shocking and she tells someone or several people. And no one believes her, not even her closest family members and friends.

They suggest reasons for why she might be mistaken about what she saw/experienced:

  • she’s overworked and exhausted
  • drinks too much
  • has an overactive imagination
  • recently experienced some kind of trauma and now blows everything out of proportion.

My favorite (imagine that typed in sarcastic font): she’s taking antidepressants. Because everyone knows those make you delusional, right?

It makes me wonder how realistic this is because it doesn’t reflect my life. If I tell people I’d been subjected to something bad, they would absolutely believe me. Mr. PCN and my mother would lead the charge to rectify the situation.

Not everyone has that kind of support system, I know, but the women in these books are average folks like me—people with jobs and families who are in healthy relationships and don’t have histories of making up stuff. For them to not have anyone believe them is strange to me.

And then I had a thought. Is it because they’re women? If the protagonists were men, would they be deemed more credible and less easily dismissed by others? Or would it be even harder to buy a story in which no one believes a man?

What do you think?

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Nerdy Special List May 2016

Every month I think the list is the best one ever, and May is no different. We read lots and lots of books, and only our top faves make the cut.

Here are the new releases we recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman (Atria, May 3)

britt-marieFredrik Backman earns a hat trick with his third novel, Britt-Marie Was Here. This witty, heartwarming, all-around charming novel features sixtysomething, recently separated Britt-Marie. Those familiar with My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry will recognize the character from Elsa’s apartment complex, but that’s the only connection to Backman’s second book.

Britt-Marie takes place in a rundown town hit hard by the economic crash, and Britt-Marie is there to fill the position of recreation center caretaker. In the short time of her employment, the persnickety woman worms her way into the hearts of the town’s remaining citizens, especially a rag-tag bunch of kids making up the soccer team.

Like Backman’s two books before this, Britt-Marie Was Here induces laughter, tears, and enlightenment. His clever humor and profound yet simple insights about life will find their ways into readers’ hearts and souls. Britt-Marie has to learn to look at the world differently in this novel, and as Backman helps her to do that, he helps his audience to do the same. Stunningly brilliant! [Ed. note: Jen will be interviewing Backman at Anderson’s Bookshop Naperville on May 12!]

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton (Putnam, May 17)

nick-masonSteve Hamilton breaks from his Alex McKnight series and introduces Nick Mason. Mason was in prison for murdering a federal agent, but Darius Cole, a Chicago crime boss—and fellow inmate—makes Mason’s conviction go away. He’s free and clear, no probation, no record, nothing…except the deal he made with Cole to achieve his liberation.

Mason must work for Cole for the 20 years that were remaining on his prison sentence. Mason believes this deal is worth the trade in order to be able to see his daughter again. However, Mason may have been mistaken.

Hamilton kicks off his new series with an intense and exciting story. It’s a fresh concept in an increasingly crowded genre. Sharp dialogue, flashy cars, fascinating characters…and a dog! I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Algonquin, May 3)

atomic weightMeridian Wallace is a brilliant student studying to be an ornithologist when she meets a physics professor and falls in love. Early in their relationship, he moves to the remote southwest to work on a top secret project.

Putting her dreams on hold, she follows him and takes on the traditional role of wife, not scientist. As she feels her dreams slipping away and finds herself fading into the background, she meets a young hippie Vietnam veteran who changes her life.

Spanning decades, The Atomic Weight of Love is the tale of one woman’s both ordinary and extraordinary life. From atomic bombs to a failing marriage to the lives of crows, Meridian’s story is a pleasure to read.

Comparable to Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel is a moving, science-minded tale of the roles women were relegated to in midcentury America, yet it doesn’t get bogged down in it. It is an insightful, notable debut. I’m excited to see what the author does next.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, May 3)

9780062083456_p0_v3_s192x300Secrets are powerful, perhaps never more so than when kept within a family. Truth is often a gray, fuzzy line. Sometimes we seek answers, but in the words of One of Those Songs from the 1980s, it’s the questions we have wrong.

Like her father before her, Lu Brandt is the state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland. She lives in her childhood home and her roots in the community are deep. When she takes on the case of the murder of a waitress, she finds herself coming face to face with secrets from her own past that she had no idea existed.

I’ve long been a fan of Lippman’s stories. Her latest is quite different from her series books, and has rightfully been called out among her best work. It is being heralded as character driven, and it certainly is, but I also enjoyed the maze-like plot.

If you’ve never read Lippman, this is a fine book to start with. If you have, it will not disappoint.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Don’t You Cry by Mary Kubica (MIRA, May 17)

51C-qS47EAL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Mary Kubica is quickly becoming one of my favorite multi-POV authors. This time, the reader is tossed between Quinn and Alex—Quinn an admittedly flawed twentysomething who wakes one morning in her Chicago apartment to find her beautiful, smart, church-going roommate Esther missing; Alex an 18-year-old living an hour away from Quinn in Michigan, working as a dishwasher and trying to keep his alcoholic father afloat.

When a mysterious stranger appears in the diner where Alex works, he falls hard and begins trying to find out who she is and what she’s doing in his small, seemingly boring town. Kubica uses Quinn and Alex to wind around both mysteries and ultimately bring them together in a satisfying conclusion.

Kubica has a great knack for leading readers’ judgment about her characters, only to turn those conclusions on their head. Despite knowing that, she gets me every time. Don’t You Cry isn’t perfect, but it’s a fun, twisty ride.

From PCN:

City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong (Minotaur, May 3)

5135xhS181L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_It’s been almost four years since I found a book that made me stand in the hall in the middle of the night to finish reading, and City of the Lost had me doing that again. It is addictively good, more so than potato chips and you know I love potato chips.

Detective Casey Duncan admits right in the first sentence that she killed a man, and is quick to add it was neither an accident nor job related. And she got away with it.

Her friend Diana, the only person who knows Casey’s secret, is not so tough. Diana is desperate to escape from a violent ex-husband who won’t let her go. She persuades Casey to move with her to a remote town called Rockton in the wilds of Canada where people live off the grid because most of them are hiding from something or something.

Turns out Rockton isn’t safe at all, because residents are being murdered. Cut off from resources and modern technology, Casey, aided only by the town’s sheriff and his deputy, must try to stop the killing before they are terminated. Hopefully you’ll get Lost in this book like I did.

Which May releases are you looking forward to?

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR Movie Review

Marvel

Marvel

Do you have superhero fatigue? Were you tempted to skip this post when you saw the title? What if I told you the movie is terrific?

Which is what I’m doing. Captain America: Civil War is one big bundle of entertainment, something that other recent superhero movie decidedly was not.

Also unlike that other superhero movie: the feud between Captain America and friends makes sense. After the heavy collateral damage that occurred in the Avengers movies, world governments want oversight of the heroes, to monitor and approve their involvements in combat. Some agree to the arrangement, others do not. Hence the discord.

The best conflicts are ones in which neither side is all wrong or all right, and that’s how it is here. Each hero has valid arguments for the side he/she chooses, because they’ve all come from different places—and time, in Cap’s case—and lived different lives. What makes it painful for them is that they really don’t want to fight. They plead and remind one another they’re friends, but ultimately feel they have no choice because each believes his/her position is just.

By now these seasoned actors know exactly what they’re doing in their respective roles, and the group is a well-oiled machine. There are many characters but each has moments to shine. Their chemistry and banter are tight.

But hey, here comes the new guy, joining the Avengers on screen for the first time.

As soon as he appeared, from behind—just his butt, really, walking down the hall—I yelled, “Spideyyy!” It was actually Peter Parker, but, you know, same difference.

I have liked Tom Holland since I saw him play Naomi Watts’s son in The Impossible, so when the announcement came about his being cast as the new Spider-Man, I thought it was a great choice, much better than Andrew Garfield.

And Holland delivers in Civil War. His Chatty-Cathy Spidey is endearing, especially during fight scenes, when all the other heroes are busy throwing punches and no one wants to converse with the young webslinger.

Let’s talk about the fight scenes. I’ve become inured to them in heavily CGI’d action flicks, and they’ve all started looking the same to me. Boom! Pow! Crash! What else is new?

But one pivotal fight scene in this movie—the one at an airport—made me say, “Whoa!” It caused my eyes to go big and gave me that sense of wonder I used to get at the movies as a kid, that feeling I wasn’t sure I’d ever experience again since I’m now old and jaded. As I was sitting there smiling, Civil War threw in a Star Wars reference. My poor nerdy brain could barely handle it.

Oh, and the Stan Lee cameo? Best one ever. He made me laugh out loud.

This movie is a great big bang-up, with very few hang-ups, and like a streak of light, these heroes arrive just in time.

Nerd verdict: America the wonderful 

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Book Review: I LET YOU GO by Clare Mackintosh

i let you goOne minute, a five-year-old boy is walking home with his mother. The next, he’s dead, hit by a car after letting go of his mother’s hand to run ahead. As if the situation weren’t nightmarish enough, the driver takes off without stopping.

Detective Inspector Ray Stevens of the Bristol Criminal Investigations Division catches the case, along with his junior officer, Detective Constable Kate Evans. Though Stevens has developed coping mechanisms to deal with the heartrending situations he encounters at work—“If he thought too long about how it must feel to watch your child die in your arms, he would be no use to anyone”—Kate, new to CID, is upset by little Jacob’s death.

Jenna Gray is also shattered by the car accident. Mourning her son, she leaves her house one day and hops on a bus with no destination in mind, wanting only to get lost. She ends up in a remote Welsh seaside town called Penfach, rents a rundown cottage, and starts rebuilding her life where no one knows who she is or anything about her devastating past.

Months pass, and there’s still no arrest in the hit-and-run that killed Jacob, despite all the attention it receives, with the little boy’s picture splashed on the front pages of newspapers. Though long ordered by the chief constable to close the case, Kate keeps working on it on her own time, and eventually convinces Ray to review the old files, too.

Then, to mark the one-year anniversary of Jacob’s death, the police make a public appeal for any new information. The appeal results in a tenuous lead for the car, but Ray and Kate work it until they have a solid clue about the guilty driver’s identity.

What happens next upends Jenna’s life, for nothing is as it appears, and the cops find they’re far from closing the case.

It’s hard to believe I Let You Go is Mackintosh’s debut novel because it’s so assured. From plotting to characterizations, the author skillfully takes readers inside the frustrations of police officers trying to solve a high-profile case with very little information to go on, and on the flip side, what a mother’s grief looks like when she loses a child.

Jenna’s ordeal is raw, but she’s a riveting character, at once fragile and resilient, from whom it’s hard to look away. Readers will be fully invested in the emotional journey she goes on, keenly feeling her open wounds and tentative hope as she tries to forget her past and move on.

Ray and Kate are engaging characters, too, providing the yin and yang of the investigation–he the veteran rediscovering the hunger he used to have as a young detective (“I like to have [the victim’s photo] where I can see it…. Where I can’t forget what I’m doing, why I’m working these hours, who it’s all for”), and she the newbie whose idealism lights a fire in her senior partner.

She also sparks feelings in Ray that aren’t entirely platonic, which is problematic since he’s married with children. (How Kate handles the situation is refreshingly free of neuroses.) To add to Ray’s turmoil, it seems his son is being bullied at school. All this provides well-rounded pictures of the police behind the procedural and realistic rhythms in their dialogue, perhaps owing to the fact that Mackintosh spent 12 years as a police officer herself.

There is a third narrator who adds a whole other angle to the case, but saying any more would spoil the story.

The author doesn’t just conjure up memorable characters and gripping plots; her settings ring true. Penfach—with the cliff-strewn coastline—and its people are warm and hard, breathtaking for their beauty and harshness. It makes perfect sense for Jenna to choose it as a place to run away to, someplace that might allow her to heal but perhaps not let her forget the jagged edges of her pain.

Mackintosh is very good at keeping readers ensnared in suspense. The denouement includes one too many twists that is neither necessary nor surprising, but even then, the book refuses to let readers go.

The most impressive feat Mackintosh pulls off is the bombshell that’s on the level of the movie The Sixth Sense for its cleverness. Readers who say they saw it coming are most likely fibbing. The revelation is so good, readers might want to reread I Let You Go to see how it changes their perceptions—even the title takes on different interpretations—and whether or not the twist holds up. It does. This kind of sharp, cunning writing makes one eagerly look forward to Mackintosh’s next novel.

This review originally appeared in a Maximum Shelf Awareness issue and is reprinted here with permission.

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