Monthly Archives

May 2017

Movie Review: WONDER WOMAN (No Spoilers)

I’m so excited the review embargo has finally been lifted on Wonder Woman and I can share how good it is!!

I hated last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and even Wonder Woman’s cameo couldn’t save it. I wasn’t impressed by what little I saw of Gal Gadot in that movie. All she was allowed to do was be a mannequin in gorgeous gowns and briefly fight as WW, without showing much personality.

What a difference it makes when she gets to be the star of her own movie. Gadot doesn’t have the greatest emotional range, but she’s much warmer and playful in Wonder Woman. She’s convincing as both a warrior and an innocent, when Diana meets a man, leaves her all-female home island of Themyscira, and experiences the real world—all for the first time.

That man, of course, is pilot Steve Trevor, imbued by Chris Pine with gravitas when called for, and deadpan humor when not. Steve isn’t just a helpless mortal always in need of being saved, like women often are in movies about male superheroes. Pine gets to do some heroic stuff, too. He and Gadot make a winning crime-fighting pair.

The supporting cast of Amazons, led by Connie Nielsen as Queen Hippolyta and Robin Wright as General Antiope—Diana’s mother and aunt, respectively—can be best described by one word: fierce. Their fight scenes are awe-inducing. I’ve followed Wright’s career for more than 30 years and I’ve never seen her kick ass like this. It made me think of Chinese martial arts films, where women fight as brutally as men and no punches are pulled for them. They aren’t trying to be cute or bopping someone over the head with a frying pan. These women are warriors and have the scars to prove it.

The real leader of cast and crew is director Patty Jenkins, who has managed to create a thrilling, action-filled movie that’s also surprisingly poignant and contains social commentary. Instead of going up against CGI monsters, Wonder Woman fights man, those consumed with power and greed who are willing to slaughter innocents in their bid for supremacy. WW is refreshingly free of angst—when she sees evil, she charges full steam ahead to combat it. She doesn’t go on a long trip to some far-flung location to gaze at her navel first, like some of her Justice League pals.

Wonder Woman—like the other Amazons of Themyscira—believes we should be governed by decency, wisdom, compassion, and courage. She’s the hero we need right now. Her world is an inspiring place to visit, and I can’t wait to see it again soon.

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Interview with Dennis Lehane

photo: Gaby Gerster/Diogenes, Zurich

Dennis Lehane’s latest novel, Since We Fell, was published this week. I reviewed it for Shelf Awareness, and interviewed Lehane for the same issue. Below is our conversation, reprinted with permission.

It seems the only thing predictable about your career is that you always do something unpredictable. Since We Fell is different from anything you’ve written. The central POV is female, and Rachel and her family aren’t working class.

After 20 years of writing mostly about guys, it was refreshing to step into a woman’s perspective. And, yes, I decided to write about a bit more upscale world than I have before. Rachel comes from an intellectual family–her mother and father were both professors–but the damage they inflicted on her is just as brutal as the more direct forms of violence that happen in my other novels. And her journey (at least until she meets her second husband) is one of dislocation and isolation, of people abruptly leaving her life without a look back. In the first third of the book she’s on a search for her paternity. After that search leads to a mental breakdown, her next journey is to reclaim herself, which is the main journey of the book.

Rachel’s voice was so convincing, both as a woman and an individual with agoraphobia. How did you go about finding it? Did it come easily, and how did you know when it was right?

The voice mostly came easily. I did a pass after I was done to red-flag any areas where I thought Rachel could be sounding like a man or where I was seeing the scene through a pair of guy goggles. But there weren’t too many moments like that, as luck would have it. I ran the manuscript past a few female friends and it passed muster with them, so I figured I was okay from there.

As for the agoraphobia, I did a tiny bit of research but hardly to a taxing level. Most of the hard work of the book centered around drilling down into the causes of Rachel’s maladies. The gender-specific stuff and the particulars of how her panic attacks manifested themselves came out without too much struggle.

Your recurring theme of family is present: biological vs. chosen. Has becoming a father yourself affected how you write about family and father-child relationships?

No how-to manual can prepare you for the depths of both love and fear that overtake you when you bring a child into the world. I mean, before you have kids, you sort of get it… but you don’t, not really.

Since I’ve had children, I wrestle with the not terribly original terrors of not measuring up to what they need me to be, of failing them at crucial moments and, most of all, of what will happen to them if something happens to me before they reach adulthood. That last fear is clearly reflected in both the father-son relationship in my previous book, World Gone By, and the relationship Rachel has–or, more specifically, doesn’t–with her own father(s) in Since We Fell.

Regarding movie rights, you’ve said you only “sell to a studio through somebody,” e.g., to Clint Eastwood who then approached Warner Bros. about Mystic River, not to WB directly. Via which director did DreamWorks buy Since We Fell?

In the case of Since We Fell, I broke all my usual rules. I’m writing the adaptation, for example, and I did sell directly to DreamWorks, although with the inclusion of three producers whose work I admire. I’ve been in L.A. now for almost four years, so the “studios” are not as faceless as they were when I lived in Boston; I know a lot of the top execs. So, it’s a bit different from the days when I refused to sell to a studio because it felt like dropping the book into an ocean filled with unknowable but predatory creatures.

Tell us about your decision to write the screenplay, which you’ve said you never wanted to do for one of your novels.

Most times when I write a novel, the last thing I can see is the structure of it. I usually mosey on into my novels with a character or a line or two and just fumble around blindly for the light switch. And I rewrite a lot, usually in no particular sequence. So it’s normally impossible for me to see the structural through-line. I leave that for readers and, yes, screenwriters who wish to adapt the book.

But with Since We Fell, the idea popped into my head, fully formed: What if an agoraphobic woman with the “perfect marriage” comes to believe her husband has a second life in another city? And the answers to why that husband might be lying and what was going on in the background and how Rachel was going to have to conquer her agoraphobia to solve the mystery–all of that came to me in a matter of days. So for the first time since Shutter Island, I started a book with the structure locked in place. That made it easy to see how to adapt it for film. And I seemed like the right guy for the job. For once.

You live in L.A. now. Has the city inspired you to write any L.A. noir?

No. You’d be jousting with giants there. [Raymond] Chandler, [John] Fante, [Nathanael] West, [Horace] McCoy, and [James] Ellroy–to name just five right off the top of my head. I don’t see the point. I still have my little neck of the woods in Boston, the one place I feel confident that I know better than almost anyone. L.A. would take a lifetime to learn and I’ve spent that lifetime learning Boston. The L.A. literary landscape can get along great without any contributions from me.

You’ve written different genres and in different mediums. Is there something you’d like to tackle but haven’t yet?

Two things: I’d like to do a straight-up chase novel someday, à la Three Days of the Condor, a film I love. And I’d like to do a purely naturalistic novel in which there are no big action sequences or even overtly big emotions. Something small and quiet.

What have you learned in the past 20+ years of your career that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

Nothing. Careers are often built because of what you don’t know, what you’re too ignorant to fear or too stupid to realize you shouldn’t try. I never regret something I tried at and failed. I only regret things I never tried at all.

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Nerdy Special List May 2017–Take 2

OK, let’s try this again. Earlier this post was unfinished but published without my knowledge or permission. While writing it, I experienced technical issues so I saved what I had and asked tech support to look into the problems. When I went to bed, IT reps were still looking into it. 

In the morning, I got an email saying it had gone live and out to subscribers, even though I’d never asked the support team to publish it.

So here’s the finished post, including my own rec, if you still want to take a look.

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Happy May, everyone! It’s raining as I type this so I’m happy to be inside curled up with a good book. Oh, who am I kidding? Even if the sun was shining, I wouldn’t be outside. It’s too…humany out there.

Luckily, books make great company, and here are the ones we recommend this month. Happy reading!

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate (Amulet Books, May 2)

For those old enough to remember the Dustin Hoffman movie Tootsie, Noteworthy may conjure some of those memories.

This delightful young adult novel features Jordan Sun, a scholarship student at a prestigious performing arts boarding school. A junior at Kensington-Blaine, Jordan has never succeeded in securing a role in the school’s musical, so she confronts her advisor—also the show’s director—who tells her her Alto 2 voice isn’t conducive for most female roles in musicals.

Feeling dejected, Jordan thinks, “What have I got to lose?” when an all-school email arrives announcing try-outs for the elite, all-male a capella club on campus. She puts her theater training to work and disguises herself as Julian Zhang to audition. For the first time in her Kensington-Blaine career, Jordan, a.k.a. Julian, discovers a place she’s wanted, but how long can she maintain the charade and who exactly will she be when it’s over?

Noteworthy sings with fun language, sharp dialogue, and the cacophony of high school life. Redgate builds around themes of identity, class, and of course gender roles. This is a novel that exemplifies the high standards being set for young adult literature today. Humorous, complex and engaging, Noteworthy deserves a standing ovation!

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The White Road by Sarah Lotz (Mulholland Books, May 30)

“I met the man who would save my life twice—and ultimately destroy it—on a potholed road in the arse-end of the Welsh countryside.”

With an opening line that foreboding, I was hooked.

Sarah Lotz’s latest novel, The White Road, tells the tale of Simon, once a troubled youth now an adventure seeker, trying to get a spooky website off the ground. The cofounder, Thierry, sends Simon spelunking in search of three bodies left behind in a cave, Cwm Pot.

Guided by the unbalanced Ed, they find the bodies, just as a flash flood traps him with the bones. The intense cold and darkness, along with Ed’s corpse, terrorize Simon, but he makes it out alive with his film footage intact. The footage goes viral, against Simon’s wishes, leaving Thierry wondering how to top it.

He decides on a literal approach, and sends Simon to climb Mt. Everest to film the climbers who perished in the attempt. Once there, Simon realizes he didn’t escape the cave alone, nor is he the only one haunted.

The White Road is about Simon’s ill-fated exploits and the true weight of guilt. Lotz’s prose, though standard, is visceral and compulsory, and she absolutely nails the claustrophobic atmosphere. The beginning and end of the novel are excellent, and though it lags in the middle, it’s worth the journey to complete the whole thing. If you’re looking for a page-turner with an ending that will haunt you, give The White Road a try.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

A Negro and an Ofay by Danny Gardner (Down & Out Books, May 15)

Danny Gardner’s debut is a powerful work of historical crime fiction. Elliot Caprice is a chameleon with no clear space in the world. The son of an interracial couple raised under the wing of a Jewish loan shark, the semi-disgraced Chicago police officer has a history on both sides of the law.

Elliot returns home to Southville, Illinois in 1952 to find his uncle ill and the family farm in peril. Determined to save them both, Elliot takes a straight job, but ends up embroiled in the multi-fronted fight over a powerful businessman’s estate, not to mention his potential murder.

Elliot’s shady background, sense of justice, military and Chicago PD service, and skin color make for a fascinating and combustible mix mined superbly by Gardner. Intimate, violent and intense, with just the right humorous undertones, A Negro and an Ofay is a fast-moving crime novel with a soul.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer (Touchstone, May 16)

Beatrice is very empathetic, and can feel some of what happens to her patients as she performs neurosurgery on them. Beatrice takes a leave of absence to clear up the affairs of her brother after he passes away overseas.

Ben lived in Siena, Italy, doing historical research on the plague. Once Beatrice is in Italy, she reads Ben’s research. Between her empathy and Ben’s project, she finds herself in Siena in 1347, shortly before the arrival of the plague. Ben was researching why Siena had suffered more during the plague than any of its nearby cities, and Beatrice discovers one of the reasons.

I really enjoyed this book. I loved Beatrice, how smart she was, her sense of humor, and how she took care of herself. The descriptions of Italy in the 1300s are wonderful (though going there from the 21st century would be hard). I loved the characters, the setting, and the hows and whys of Beatrice’s time travel.

Highly recommended!!

From PCN:

Where Dead Men Meet by Mark Mills (Blackstone, May 30)

Reading this is like watching a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie, one with an everyman caught up in engrossing intrigue and on the run from dangerous spies and nefarious characters.

Luke Hamilton (think a young Jimmy Stewart or Joel McCrea) doesn’t know why deadly strangers want him dead. He partners up with a beautiful woman named Piper (picture Veronica Lake or Joan Fontaine) who may be able to help him—or put him in even more danger. They race across Europe, encountering many dead bodies on their quest to find the answer to Luke’s troubles, and to complete Piper’s agenda of avenging a loved one’s death.

The charismatic leads, sparkling dialogue, complex characters, mysterious plot, fast pace, and vivid European locales all add up to one breezy, entertaining adventure. For more info about this novel, check out the Maximum Shelf issue I did on it, which includes an interview with author Mark Mills.

What are you excited about reading this month?

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