All Posts By

Pop Culture Nerd

Book Review: HOSTILE TAKEOVER by Shane Kuhn

hostile takeoverShane Kuhn shot onto the crime fiction scene last year with The Intern’s Handbook (movie rights were snapped up), and now his assassin John Lago is back in Hostile Takeover with more explosive action.

At the end of Handbook, Lago had lost track of Alice, the person assigned to “exterminate” him. He not only finds her at the start of Takeover but, after a wee bit of gunfire, proposes to her. The two then stage a coup to take over HR, Inc., the company that places fake interns who are really assassins into the corporate world to kill their targets. As with many relationships, their partnership is heady at first, until they start fighting and turn on each other. As Lago says, “With normal couples, someone might get thrown out of the house after a fight. With us, someone is liable to get thrown out a window.” Or worse.

The violence in Takeover is even more over the top than in Handbook, but done in the same satirical way. A boy named Sue is a fun new character who gives Lago tech support–make that hack support. The identity of the big baddie is predictable, and some of the scenes seem more like set pieces rather than action that helps move the story forward, but Kuhn’s sharp-as-a-blade humor keeps readers, like the bullets, flying through pages. And despite the deadly doings, Hostile is quite romantic, for Lago is hopelessly smitten with Alice, just a boy standing in front of a girl, asking her not to kill him.

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


Nerdy Special List July 2015

We have a long weekend ahead! Hope you have fun plans for the Fourth of July, if you celebrate it. After a rough week, I hope to commence Operation Couch Potato.

This month, I’m very excited to welcome Shannon of River City Reading to the NSL. If you’re not already reading her blog, definitely check it out. It’s a fantastic site with smart, insightful reviews and lively bookish discussions. Shannon is also one of the bloggers heading up The Socratic Salon, which hosts in-depth conversations about books, spoilers and all.

Here are the July releases my fellow bloggers and I recommend. One of these is up for grabs.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much by Tony Crabbe (Grand Central, July 7)

busy coverI don’t know a single person in my life who couldn’t benefit from the ideas expressed in business psychologist Tony Crabbe’s nonfiction book, Busy. The Information Age has brought more opportunities, more demands, more of just about everything, including stress and feelings of inundation. But strategies for coping and succeeding have not changed.

Crabbe, who’s worked with leaders of some of the most successful companies in the world, argues that concepts such as multitasking and time management are ineffectual. What people need to do is consciously choose to have a greater focus on fewer things. Crabbe offers research and anecdotes to support his ideas, but the greatest value of Busy lies in the activities and experiments that correlate with each of the book’s chapters.

The activities encourage examinations of core values, personal brands, and more, while the experiments help readers  see the feasibility of the book’s concepts. Busy is insightful, motivational, practical, and accessible. It’s the starter kit to having a more fulfilling life with less.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Brush Back by Sara Paretsky (Putnam, July 28)

brush backBrush Back is the seventeenth entry in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski series. Seven. Teen. That’s an accomplishment in itself. That Sara Paretsky keeps telling stories that invite readers in and keep us flipping pages is a triumph.

When a high school sweetheart—after a fashion—shows up at V.I.’s office, she doesn’t want to hear his plea. But hear it she does, and it sends her back to the neighborhood where she grew up, where she tangles first with a nasty old woman who hates her and might be a murderer. Before long, V.I.’s managed to piss off a bunch of powerful folks, but she can’t stop looking for answers to the questions she’s brought to light.

V.I. makes no excuses, but she  knows when she’s pushed too far and she is not without humility. When her actions affect those she loves, she strives to put things right. But the forces she’s battling are powerful, and the danger in Brush Back feels altogether too real.

On July 16, a couple of weeks before Brush Back is released, Sara Paretsky will receive the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, England. There can be nobody more deserving, as this latest novel demonstrates.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Swerve by Vicki Pettersson (Gallery Books, July 7)

swerveKristine and her fiancé are on their way across the Nevada desert to his well-to-do family’s Fourth of July celebration when Kristine is attacked in a rest-area bathroom. After returning to the car to find Daniel and most of their possessions missing, Kristine receives a text: Say good-bye. Now. Or he dies.

Thus begins a thrilling and gruesome 24-hour road trip scavenger hunt that means life or death for Daniel. Kristine is faced with horrific choices at each turn, knowing failure will mean the death of the man she loves. When the demands and clues from the madman who has Daniel become increasingly grotesque and personal, Kristine begins to realize the abduction may not be about Daniel’s money at all, but about her.

Swerve is not for the fainthearted. A first-class thriller with the soul of a scary movie, you’ll love it if you have a soft, grisly spot for movies like Joy Ride, Breakdown, and Duel. This was my first experience with the work of Vicki Pettersson, who’s a well-known fantasy/romance writer. If she continues to write edge-of-your-seat white-knucklers like this one, I will continue to peek through my fingers to read them.

From Shannon at River City Reading:

Secessia by Kent Wascom (Grove Atlantic, July 7)

secessiaWhen New Orleans falls to the Union in the middle of 1862, twelve-year-old Joseph Woolsack’s life is suddenly changed. His city is under the tightening grip of Union commander General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler while his father dies of mysterious circumstances, which leaves his mother, Elise, both questioning and questioned. A mixed-race woman passing as white, Elise’s situation grows intense after the death of her husband, as she attempts to hold on to her son and her position in a rapidly evolving, violent city.

As in Kent Wascom’s debut novel, The Blood of Heaven, which I loved, most everything in Secessia is grand. The novel’s key characters are all larger than life, with big personalities that are just as easy to fall into as the grimy, dangerous streets of New Orleans.

But it’s the way Wascom writes those characters and streets that sets his books apart. Though his words are as grandiose as the images they convey, each one is delicately placed to create a cadence that begs the reader to slow down and enjoy the ride.

From PCN:

Signal by Patrick Lee (Minotaur Books, July 7)

signalLast year Patrick Lee introduced us to his retired-special-forces hero, Sam Dryden, in the adrenaline-charged Runner. Dryden is back in another thriller that demands to be read in one sitting (I did just that—stayed up until 4:30 a.m. to finish.)

Dryden is again on the run, this time to protect a mysterious device that could destroy the world as we know it. Seriously, if it falls into bad guys’ hands, things would get messed UP. Lee combines action with scientific elements and what-if scenarios to create a book that has muscles and brains.

My full review will run in Shelf Awareness for Readers later this month.

Here’s the exciting part: I have one signed copy of Signal to give away. To enter, leave a comment telling me who would be chasing you if you were on the run. As usual, fanciful lies are accepted.

Giveaway ends Thursday, July 9, midnight PST. US addresses only. The winner will be randomly selected and have 48 hours after notification to claim the prize before an alternate winner is chosen.


Movie Review: INSIDE OUT

I’m going to start this review by saying if you haven’t seen Inside Out and have any reservations about seeing it, thinking it’s only for kids or girls or whatever, just throw those doubts out the window. This is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

The best way to experience it is without knowing too much about the plot so I’ll be very brief: The movie is a trip inside the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley who’s trying to adapt to a major life change. Her emotions are Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, who take turns at a control board to guide Riley through life.

The voice cast is terrific, with Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith being standouts as the dominant and seemingly at-odds Joy and Sadness. You’d think a character named Sadness would be a downer, but Smith, best known as Phyllis in the American The Office, made me laugh as much as she moved me. And the little blue character representing this emotion is adorable, reminding us Sadness is not always scary and sometimes is exactly who we need to sit beside us.

As with Riley, Joy and Sadness were my primary emotions during Inside Out. I laughed often and hard, and cried just as hard. Pete Docter and his codirector/cowriter Ronaldo Del Carmen have created a confection that looks like a dream but is firmly rooted in reality. Its psychological insight on childhood, parenthood, marriage, and life in general is spot-on and depicted in beautifully subtle ways. Repeated viewings are encouraged to catch all the smart jokes and little nuggets of wisdom. When the Oscar nominations come around next year, Inside Out deserves a place among the best-picture nominees, not only relegated to the animated-feature category.

Docter also had a hand in writing and/or directing Up, Wall*E, and the Toy Story movies, the best in the Pixar canon. From now on, when I see his name on a movie, I won’t pass Go or collect $200 and will just head straight to the theater.

Nerd verdict: Moving and beautiful Inside Out

Image: Walt Disney Pictures


Book Review: DISCLAIMER by Renée Knight

disclaimerImagine reading a thriller and suddenly realizing the much-hated main character is you. And the disclaimer about resemblances to real people being coincidental has been crossed out. This is the premise of first-time novelist Renée Knight’s Disclaimer.

Catherine Ravenscroft, a documentary filmmaker in London, finds a book on her nightstand one evening and starts reading it. With horror, she recognizes the story is about her and something that happened 20 years ago, a terrible incident no one—including her husband—is supposed to know about.

Catherine doesn’t recall buying the book or how it ended up on her nightstand. It’s published under a pseudonym by Rhamnousia, a self-publishing entity named for the goddess of revenge. As Catherine investigates the book’s origins and author, her dark secret threatens to surface and shatter her family and life.

Disclaimer alternates between Catherine’s point of view, written in third person, and the first-person point of view of the man who’s tormenting her with the book. This creates an unsettling experience, as if readers are asked to side with the person who stalks Catherine and wreaks havoc on her. It also keeps Catherine mysterious, making it unclear why she doesn’t work harder to defend herself.

But Knight’s technique pays off, and the ending delivers more than one emotional wallop. Readers’ feelings about each character will likely be upended as they’re reminded that sometimes people commit atrocious acts out of love, and those who behave abhorrently can also be honorable.

This originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. Disclaimer also made the May Nerdy Special List.


Guest Book Review: PARADISE SKY by Joe R. Lansdale

When a copy of this novel first appeared on my doorstep, Mr. PCN, being a big Joe R. Lansdale fan, immediately snatched it up and claimed it for himself. After he tore through it in about two blinks, he submitted the following review. This title also made the Nerdy Special List for June—PCN

paradise skyJoe R. Lansdale’s latest novel Paradise Sky is witty, outlandish, and full of adventure. Fans of his previous books such as The Thicket, Edge of Dark Water, and A Fine Dark Line will recognize the familiar narrative framing device, as well as the usual references to the Sabine River and the fickleness of East Texas weather. Lansdale, however, deftly manages to escape being formulaic in Sky.

Not long after the Civil War, twenty-year-old Willie (aka Nat Love aka Deadwood Dick, a character first referenced in A Fine Dark Line) is sent on an errand by his Pa from their farm in rural Texas to town for supplies. It’s a long walk on a hot day, young Willie’s mind wanders, and his eyes absentmindedly alight on a woman’s bottom while she’s bent over doing laundry—just as her husband’s eyes catch Willie looking.

It’s a defining moment in the story because the couple is white, Willie is African American, and Texas has yet to embrace the notion that former slaves are now free and equal, as opposed to animals that can be killed for little or no reason. This incident begins a world of trouble and the odyssey of a young man toward wisdom. Along the way, Willie strikes up a friendship with Wild Bill Hickok, sleeps with four Asian women (one with a wooden leg), joins the army, wins a shooting contest, and even eats a dead guy.

Among my favorite passages:

I ain’t no great judge of poems, though Mr. Loving had me read a considerable number of them, but I can tell you these were so bad they hurt my feelings. I threw the book away and had an urge to bury it lest a coyote come across it, read a few lines, and get sick.

The buildings was thrown up willy-nilly along the sides of the street, as if some drunk had been given lumber, hammer, and nails and told to go at it. A few buildings had seen paint at one time or another; some rambled nearly into the street, as if they was trying to slink across it and into the hills and return to timber.

This novel is great storytelling as it ought to be, and readers should reach for the Sky.

Amazon | IndieBound


Meeting a Childhood Idol

When I was a kid, my role models were four pop-culture icons: Princess Leia, Jaime Sommers (The Bionic Woman), Wonder Woman, and Laura Holt from Remington Steele. I don’t think it’s hard to see why—they’re all smart, strong women, often smarter than their male counterparts, especially in the case of Laura Holt, who was the brains behind the fake detective played by Pierce Brosnan.

Years ago, I got to meet Carrie Fisher. I cried, because there was no way I could’ve conveyed in words how much the Star Wars movies meant to me as a child. The experience was surreal and mind-blowing and full of joy.

This past weekend I got to meet another of my longtime idols. It started when my very talented friend Eileen Galindo posted on Facebook that she was doing a stage reading of Nora & Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss, and What I Wore, adapted from Ilene Beckerman’s bookAmong her castmates: Stephanie Zimbalist. Laura Holt herself.

IMG_2059The reading was one weekend only. I scrambled for tickets and Mr. PCN and I drove to the Laguna Playhouse on Saturday. I even wore my Holt-ish hat.

I looked at this trip as going to support Eileen, with no expectations I’d get to meet Ms. Zimbalist. I’m no good at walking up to famous people and telling them I used to idolize them. I mean, I recently stood about twenty feet away from Harrison Ford and didn’t say a word to him.

The reading was funny and poignant, and afterward Mr. PCN and I waited in the lobby for Eileen. She came out, we shared hugs and congratulations.

Then, because Mr. PCN (unbeknownst to me) had told Eileen ahead of time about my rabid Laura Holt fandom, she said, “Wait right here. I’ll get Stephanie for you.”



Before I could compose myself, Stephanie walked out, shook my hand, was as nice and gracious as can be, and I started getting that verklempt feeling.

Since the stage reading had been about fashion and the clothing we wear during significant moments of our lives, I told her that in college, while some of my friends were dressing like Madonna with their underwear as outerwear, I liked hats and classic clothes and pencil skirts because of Laura Holt. Her style was timeless, and while I’m not sure I have any fashion sense, to this day I shy away from trends and stick with items I can wear for years. Stephanie said she still has the hats and suits, and that they were her idea.

I didn’t want to take up too much of her time because she needed to rest up for another performance that evening, so I just asked for a photo and thanked her.

I didn’t tell her how much seeing her play a smart, independent woman on TV meant to me, how I admired Laura for being her own boss and teaching her male partner the tricks of the trade, not the other way around. How Laura inspired me to briefly work for a detective agency in L.A.


This is my keep-calm-and-don’t-freak-out face

To Stephanie, I was just another fan. But to me, it was a special afternoon.

Now I just have to find out where Lynda Carter and Lindsay Wagner hang out.

Any other Remington Steele fans here? Who have you always wanted to meet? What would you say to them?


Nerdy Special List June 2015

Summer starts in June, so I’m looking forward to more time for pleasure reading. Oh, who am I kidding? I’m self-employed and make myself work every day.

But for those who do get to take summer vacations, here are the June releases my blogger pals and I recommend. I’m giving away one of these books. Read on to find out more.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, June 16)

Fredrik Backman’s follow-up to his amazing debut, A Man Called Ove, proves he is the real deal when it comes to writing superb novels. My Grandmother incorporates his hiccup-triggering humor, heartwarming compassion, splendidly quirky and complex characters as well as universal themes about the beauty of life and the pain of loss.

Elsa, a precocious seven-year-old who doesn’t really fit in with other kids her age, finds joy in the fantasy world of the “Land of Almost-Awake” with her grandmother. But when her grandmother dies of cancer, the lonely, grieving girl finds herself on the most monumental adventure ever, contrived by her grandmother before she dies. The life lessons Elsa’s grandmother bequeaths her through the exploits of the scavenger hunt are relevant to children 7 or 70.

Backman’s language is breathtaking, creating art with metaphors. And dialogue is splendidly natural and authentic, evoking a rainbow of emotions that mirror the characters’. The layers of the plot and levels of symbolism make this a keeper of a book to read and reread, and walk away with something extraordinary and new every time.

A Force for Good by Daniel Goleman (Bantam, June 23)

Daniel Goleman, a longtime friend of the Dalai Lama, outlines the Tibetan monk’s inspiring vision for changing the world with genuine compassion. A Force for Good is not a religious book; it’s a plan for humanity that incorporates science, economics, education, and more. Goleman shares experiences the Dalai Lama has had as well as evidence and anecdotes from others, all supporting his platform of compassion over greed, violence, and fear.

Many books of this ilk create inspiration but leave their readers wondering what they can do. A Force for Good offers ideas that every individual can work with and build on, ranging from things that help the environment to things that help the less fortunate. Good is a long-range, global plan from a brilliant futuristic thinker, so this is a book that can be of value to any human living on Earth. When you’re ready for a jolt of optimism, pick up this book.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Paradise Sky by Joe R. Lansdale (Mulholland Books, June 16)

paradise skyDespite his life being glamorized throughout dime novels, Deadwood Dick needs to set the record straight—including how he got his name, how he saved Wild Bill Hickok, and how his life changed by looking up at exactly the wrong time.

Willie Jackson was born in East Texas and spent his childhood in slavery. The war between the states changed that, but not enough to make survival easy. Caught looking at a white woman’s backside, Willie inadvertently steals what may be the slowest horse in East Texas to escape said woman’s furious husband. Escape he does, barely, but his father and farm do not.

From there, Willie is kindly taken in, nearly caught again, and then begins a new life as Nat Love, and then eventually Deadwood Dick. Joe R. Lansdale truly is a master storyteller and Paradise Sky is no exception. It’s delightful, funny, and full of the best tall tales. I would highly recommend adding this to your summer reading list.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller (Crown, June 2)

freedoms childJax Miller’s impressive debut is a hard and fast cross-country trip through a family tree full of violence, betrayal, and vengeance. Freedom Oliver has been in witness protection for 18 years when she finds out her daughter, Rebekah, is missing. Freedom gave birth to Rebekah during her two years in prison for killing her husband, and never saw Rebekah again. Throwing a wrench in the works is brother-in-law Matthew Delaney’s release from prison after 18 years, where he was doing time once Freedom turned the tables and implicated him in brother Mark’s murder.

Not sold yet? Throw in three more Delaney brothers; their 600-pound, coke-dealing matriarch, Lynn; Rebekah’s brother (and Freedom’s son) Mason; and Mason and Rebekah’s adoptive parents, who run the church from which Mason was shunned and Rebekah might have been trying to escape. The Delaneys are out for blood, Freedom and Mason (who also haven’t seen each other for 18 years) want to find Rebekah, and all paths are bound to meet up at a bloody intersection. Fast and lean with few missteps, Miller’s debut is a gritty but worthwhile ride.

From PCN:

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George (Crown, June 23)

little paris bookshopJean Perdu runs a Parisian bookstore called Literary Apothecary. What makes it different is that it’s on a barge moored on the Seine, and Jean doesn’t just sell books, he prescribes them. He can read customers’ emotional needs and give them the best book(s) to make them feel better.

The irony is that he doesn’t have the same insight about himself, and has spent the last 21 years emotionally blocked due to heartbreak from a failed love affair. He unmoors the barge one day and, along with a famous novelist experiencing writer’s block, goes on a journey to find himself.

The novel makes charming and witty observations about books, how they’re not merely a “balm for the soul” but “freedom on wings of paper.” Mentions of good food also abound, and George provides recipes at the end of the book, as well as “prescriptions” for readers, e.g. Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April being recommended “for indecision,” with side effects including “falling in love with Italy.” Bookshop is a prescription for those looking to escape to France and vicariously indulge in books and fine dining.


As promised, one of these books is up for grabs. I’ll try to make it a regular feature—giving away one of the recs on the NSL every month.

This month’s prize, thanks to Atria Books, is My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. To enter, leave a comment telling me something your grandmother has told you. Fanciful lies are accepted.

Giveaway ends next Friday, June 12, 9 p.m. PST. US addresses only, please. A randomly chosen winner will have 48 hours after notification to claim prize before an alternate winner is selected.


May 2015 Pop Culture Consumption

While I didn’t review everything I read and watched last month, I consumed a lot of pop culture. Much of it was unexceptional, but there were a couple of gems. I’ll write more about some of these in the coming weeks, but below are my lists and quick notes on the best in each category.

Books read:

  1. little black liesStay by Victor Gischler
  2. Day Four by Sarah Lotz
  3. The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango
  4. Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton
  5. How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz
  6. Invasion of Privacy by Christopher Reich
  7. Manhattan Mayhem: New Crime Stories from Mystery Writers of America edited by Mary Higgins Clark
  8. What Doesn’t Kill Her by Carla Norton
  9. The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

My favorites were Black Lies and Fire. Lies broke me out of a bad reading slump, and Fire shows that Lutz’s writing gets deeper and more complex with each book.

Movies seen:

  1. age of adalineAvengers: Age of Ultron with Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, et al.
  2. The Age of Adaline with Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford
  3. Pitch Perfect 2 with Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld
  4. Welcome to Me with Kristin Wiig, Linda Cardellini, Wes Bentley
  5. Survivor with Pierce Brosnan, Milla Jovovich, Dylan McDermott

By far the best of this bunch was Adaline. Lively is luminous as a woman born in 1906 who has a freak accident in her 20s that arrests her aging process. Though this would seemingly be a dream come true for many Hollywood actresses, Lively imbues Adaline with melancholia and loneliness as she constantly has to leave loved ones behind. Adaline moves through more than a century in the course of this movie, but the actress’s mannerisms, speech, and classic beauty make her believable as someone who’s timeless.

Movie shot:

  1. The Waiting with James Caan. I play a small part.

TV shows binge-watched:

  1. schumerHappy Valley with Sarah Lancashire, James Norton
  2. Inside Amy Schumer with Amy Schumer
  3. Grace and Frankie with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin

I do recommend Happy Valley, a BBC show about a tough female cop tracking a gang of drug dealers/kidnappers, but the top spot here goes to Amy Schumer’s show.

The razor-sharp comic just won a Peabody and you can see why by watching her show, in which she tackles topics such as rape in the military and the media’s objectification of women but makes you laugh while she’s making her point. I don’t use this adjective often but will apply it here—Schumer’s comedy is brilliant.

Have you seen/read any of these? What did you think?


Book Review: LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll

luckiest girl aliveJessica Knoll, a former Cosmopolitan magazine editor, debuts in book publishing with Luckiest Girl Alive, a novel that adroitly handles timely news topics.

Ani FaNelli is an editor at a women’s magazine in New York City, and engaged to the JFK, Jr.-esque Luke Harrison. Before Ani ties the knot, she agrees to be interviewed for a documentary about the devastating events that occurred while she was a student at an august prep school in Pennsylvania. The tragedy rudely thrust her into the public eye 14 years earlier, and Ani finally wants to set the record straight. In doing so, she could also unravel her seemingly perfect world.

Ani may come across as snarky and shallow at first, going to great lengths to curate an enviable life, complete with a glamorous job, aristocratic fiancé and four-carat engagement ring. But as her secrets are revealed, so is her vulnerable side. What happened to her as a teen—and is happening now too often to young people in real life—would destroy the average person, but it fueled Ani to strive for the brass ring. To her, success is the best revenge, and readers will want her to achieve it.

Knoll writes with veritas about Ani’s workplace: “The uglier and trendier [my] outfit, the stronger I emanate intimidating magazine editor.” Similes are arguably overused, but many descriptions are incisive and witty, such as a girl’s eyes being “so far apart they were practically in her sideburns.” Knoll balances the sharp with the sad, creating a protagonist who has pieces of both.

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

Amazon | IndieBound


Big Bear Adventure

Since we had a long weekend, Mr. PCN and I decided to run away from civilization and the noisy neighbors with their chainsaws and leaf blowers and constantly barking dogs.

We rented a cabin in the mountains near Big Bear Lake, where it was blissfully quiet. It was too windy and choppy on the water for kayaking so we took a tandem bike around the lake. The air was crisp, the temp about 40 degrees, and this was our view.



After we had lunch, we came back to the cabin and built a fire. That’s a jacuzzi tub to the left.



The cabin also had a private deck, where I’d take my coffee in the morning…


…but it was cozier to stay inside by the fire and dig into my stack of books. I brought 3, was able to finish the top 2 (reviews to come), and have started the third.

IMG_2020And that’s about all I did on my spring vacation. How was your weekend? What did you read or watch?


Guest Book Review: HOLD STILL by Sally Mann

This review is by contributor Thuy Dinh, editor of Da Mau Magazine.

Hold Still coverThe cover photograph of Sally Mann’s memoir, Hold Still, shows the author as a prepubescent tomboy, airborne against a gray expanse of sky. She seems suspended outside of time, as if she could be from any decade: her hair, white T-shirt, and preppy plaid shorts belong as much to the first decade of the 21st century as to the middle of the last century. This cover image of Mann brings to mind her gorgeous yet controversial black and white photographs of her children in Immediate Family—naked water sprites from a lost, ahistorical Eden.

Here’s the shocker: Mann thinks photographs have the power to distort, or worse, supplant a person’s memory.

Photography would seem to preserve our past and make it invulnerable to the distortions of repeated memorial superimpositions, but I think that is a fallacy: photographs supplant and corrupt the past….As I held my childhood pictures in my hands…I also knew that with each photograph I was forgetting.

The thematic tension in Hold Still reflects Mann’s two life-long passions: the static romance of photography and the dynamism of the written word. Central to this tension is Mann’s identity as a Southern artist deeply burdened by her forebears’ past with slavery.

Mann’s memoir celebrates the natural beauty of Lexington, Virginia—her birthplace—yet it also acknowledges the region’s ingrained racism. Mann recounts being raised mostly by Virginia (Gee-Gee) Carter, her family’s black housekeeper. While she loved and respected Gee-Gee, she now realizes that neither she nor her parents, who were considered kind employers, ever questioned the segregation practice that was prevalent at the time. No one inquired whether Gee-Gee, who worked 12 hours a day, 6 days a week for Mann’s family, besides taking in the neighborhood’s laundry to supplement her income, had time to eat or feed her own family.

By juxtaposing photography’s selective truth with her family’s blinkered complacency on the question of race, Mann offers her stark narrative as atonement. She poignantly observes how often real life is too large, too complex, to be framed by image.

Nevertheless, Hold Still affirms the questing nature of art, how art challenges calcified assumptions and in so doing forges new paths. Mann resurrected the past in her decision to use wet collodion plates for her Deep South project. Air bubbles, dust motes occurring in this painstaking process—where chemicals had to be applied directly onto the glass plates—became “blessings from the angel of uncertainty” who bestowed “persuasive consequence, intrigue, drama, and allegory.”

These marks of imperfection represent the fluidness of art that liberates it from staticity, hewing it closer to life, or what Mann describes poetically as meuse, a word that describes a hare’s bodily imprint on the grass, closely connected to the word Muse, daughter of Memory.

Photo by Liz Liguori

Photo by Liz Liguori

Hold Stil beautifully demonstrates that an artist’s personal history is inseparable from her artistic self. In this indelible memoir, carefully curated with family snapshots and preserved memorabilia, Mann shows that her obsessions with the artistic process, family, race, and death are traits inherited from several of her guilt-ridden ancestors, who were vexed either by unmet desires or by the slavery issue.

Seen in this light, the resplendent images of her long-ago nude children are not so much provocative as wistful. Mann has always known that American innocence is a fictional construct, created out of deep longing, struggle, and isolation.


When Is a Spoiler a Spoiler?

I had two extremely annoying reading experiences recently and it brought to mind a question I’ve had for a while so I thought I’d seek outside opinions.

Here’s what happened, with two books in a row. I was reading the first ARC while using the accompanying press release as a bookmark. I hadn’t read the release because I’m so spoiler averse, I rarely read synopses, except to maybe skim the first sentence and the last to get a very rough idea of plot.

At one point I put the book down to grab a snack, a vital part of my reading ritual. When I inserted the press release into the book to keep my place, I accidentally glanced at the first sentence at the top of the page.

FullSizeRender (1)It mentioned the death of a character. In bold. I was on p. 52, the death hadn’t occurred, and it wasn’t something I was anticipating. I was super annoyed by the spoiler and haven’t picked up the book again.

The next ARC I read, I made sure to not use the press release as bookmark. But like the other book, I dove in without knowing anything about the plot. When I took a break, I put the book front cover down.

And that’s when I saw the synopsis on the back—with the very first sentence IN BIG FONT mentioning the death of a character I’d thought would be the protagonist. I was on p. 35 and the death hadn’t occurred.

Why are spoilers being given away so freely?? In press materials, no less. As I asked myself this, the obvious answer was: Because other people don’t think these are spoilers.

Which brought me to this question: When does a plot point become a spoiler if revealed? To me, if something happens before p. 5—maybe p. 8—it’s OK to mention it in a release or review. If a major development happens after that, best to keep mum or be vague when addressing it.

Not everyone agrees with me, though. Some reviewers have told me anything that happens before p. 30 is not a spoiler. Some people say p. 50 is their cut-off mark.

What do you think? When does something become a spoiler to you?