Monthly Archives

March 2017


Does anyone need a refresher on the plot of this “tale as old as time”? The one about a girl whose kindness saves a selfish prince and his household from a curse? No? OK, great. I can jump straight into details you may not already know about this latest version.

Yes, Emma Watson can sing. She doesn’t have the widest emotional range as an actress, but her natural intelligence, pluck, and sense of decency make her perfect as Belle, the bookworm who wants more than a provincial life.

Dan Stevens, playing Beast, can sing, too, but his performance isn’t especially memorable. Out of hairy makeup, he’s Generic Pretty Prince. Robby Benson left a stronger impression with only his voice in the 1991 animated classic.

This live-action retelling is faithful to that previous version and has moments of splendor, but it doesn’t improve on the ’91 film so I’m not convinced its existence is justified.

The ballroom scene with Belle in her golden gown? Lovely, but no better than the iconic iteration. The “Be Our Guest” number? Looks more like a typical, splashy musical number here than an enchanting moment with a singing, dancing candelabra and his dinnerware friends. (Ewan McGregor does a fine job voicing Lumiere but I really missed the late Jerry Orbach in this scene.)

One thing that is different is the “gay moment,” as it’s been dubbed in the media. I was pleasantly surprised by it (saw the movie before director Bill Condon’s comments were made public). It’s funny and sweet and just a quick bit, neither in your face nor so ambiguous it leaves you wondering. It’s not a big deal. At all. The hullaballoo and boycotts are much ado about nothing, people judging the movie before they see it.

Oh, and also? Luke Evans, who perfectly embodies Gaston, is openly gay in real life but that didn’t stop the studio from casting him as the alpha male and Belle’s most ardent suitor. Disney is gettin’ with the times, yo.

Another difference is the running time. The animated movie is less than 90 minutes, but this one is about 2 hours 10, which might be too long for little kids to sit through. And this Gaston is more violent toward Beast than I remember the previous Gaston being. Yet this movie is rated PG. Who is its intended audience?

This inconsistency between themes and running time and rating perhaps means the new Beauty and the Beast is trying to be all things to everyone, but as the prince eventually realizes, bigger spectacles don’t equal more substance.

Nerd verdict: Competent if not quite magical Beauty 


Book Review: DISTRESS SIGNALS by Catherine Ryan Howard

Catherine Ryan Howard’s Distress Signals—shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards’ Crime Novel of the Year after its UK release—opens with a man plunging off a cruise ship into dark waters, but readers will have to wait to discover why he jumped.

Adam Dunne’s girlfriend Sarah leaves Cork, Ireland, to attend a business conference in Barcelona. She doesn’t return. And no one can reach her. Then he receives her passport in a package mailed from France, with a note saying, “I’m sorry—S.”

Adam sets out to track down Sarah, not believing she would leave him like that. When he digs into her recent activities, however, he discovers a shocking secret, and that Sarah was last seen on a cruise ship called the Celebrate. He books himself on the same ship, but will he find Sarah or encounter his own death?

Though this is Howard’s debut novel, she writes with complete command of language, plot, and the thriller genre. She also knows the ins and outs of maritime laws that often lead to deaths on ships in international waters going unsolved.

The chapters alternate among the points of view of three characters: Adam; a crew member on the ship; and a boy named Romain, whose story occurs mostly in the past and is itself a mystery in how it intersects with the others. In a testament to Howard’s skill, Romain’s narrative is the most moving and resonant—his soul may be distressed but his humanity comes through loud and clear.

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


Nerdy Special List March 2017

March brings spring, and whoo boy, I could use some spring right now. Heavy rains (causing a tree to fall on a friend’s car—while she was in it) were rough, turning me into more of a hermit than usual. Good thing I have loads of books.

Here are the March releases we recommend. And no, I don’t know why they all come out today (except for the last one).

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog by Lauren Fern Watt (Simon & Schuster, March 7)

What started out as an impulse purchase ended up being a wonderful relationship.

Lauren Watt bought her canine best friend, Gizelle—an English mastiff—on a whim while out with her mother one weekend. Lauren was just about to start college and her mother decided she needed a dog.

By the time Lauren graduates college and moves to New York City, Gizelle is a whopping 160 pounds. But Lauren explains Gizelle had a gift for fitting into places she shouldn’t fit, and she fit perfectly into Lauren’s life in NYC.

As any pet owner knows, our best friends never live as long as we’d like them to, but when Lauren learns Gizelle has cancer—and after she deals with her initial grief—she decides she’d make a bucket list for Gizelle.

Gizelle’s Bucket List is heartwarming and heartbreaking, funny and sad. It reminds us that since we don’t have a lot of days with our pets, we should make the ones we do have count. Dog lovers will identify with many of Lauren and Gizelle’s experiences, regardless of how large or small their own furbabies are. Their tale will have every pet lover scribbling bucket lists for their four-legged best friends.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler (Ecco, March 7)

Beginning at a Wisconsin summer camp in 1962 and spanning six decades, Nickolas Butler’s newest novel is his best yet (and I deeply loved Shotgun Lovesongs).

Nelson, bullied overachiever, is the camp’s bugler. Jonathan is a popular boy at camp. The two form an unlikely and uncertain friendship.

As the years pass, Nelson, a Vietnam veteran, becomes scoutmaster of beloved Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan becomes a successful businessman. They remain connected as both Jonathan’s son and grandson find their way to the camp.

This is not a happy book, and at times it is deeply unsettling, but it is timely. It shows what the most ordinary of boys and men are capable of.

As it examines both Nelson and Jonathan at turning points in their lives, we learn about the ways they are shaped from their childhood, the men they become, and how complicated even the simplest person can be. It’s a novel full of heart, beautiful prose, and memorable characters. It will undoubtedly be one of my favorite books this year.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Celine by Peter Heller (Knopf, March 7)

When a terrific mystery is the least fabulous part of a novel, you know you’ve hit the jackpot as a reader. Peter Heller has created a simply sublime protagonist in Celine, a 69-year-old former government worker born with a silver spoon who now works as a PI helping to reunite families.

As comfortable in Jackie O sunglasses as her Glock shoulder rig, Celine is a recovering alcoholic who suffers from emphysema and creates sculptures using animal skulls. When a young woman seeks Celine’s help to find out what really happened to her long-thought-dead father, Celine and her husband Pete hit the road to find the truth.

While painted with wicked-smart humor, Celine is about loyalty, despair, art, obligation, and privilege, carried out superbly in Heller’s hands.

From PCN:

I’m recommending two this month.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (Abrams ComicArts, March 7)

Bui was a toddler when she and her family came to the US as refugees from Vietnam. The ghosts of war came with them, and it took Bui many years to finally find the right way to tell her and her parents’ stories. She drops some truth bombs up in here.

This illustrated memoir is moving and funny, telling painful, complex tales without overwhelming readers. Sometimes Bui’s artwork says it all, no accompanying narration or dialogue needed. In this understated quietness, the Buis’ stories come across loud and clear.

Follow Me Down by Sherri Smith (Forge, March 21)

Mia receives call saying her twin brother has gone missing in their N. Dakota hometown. And oh yeah, he’s suspected of knocking up one of his high school students and then murdering her. Mia goes home, encounters life-threatening situations as she searches for Lucas and tries to clear his name. Someone—perhaps more than one—in town is determined to keep her from exposing old secrets.

Smith’s characters are demented and dysfunctional but riveting. I especially liked how Mia and other female characters get to be messily three-dimensional. They have all kinds of issues but they feel like people you’d know.

What are you looking forward to reading this month?