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Movie Review: JUSTICE LEAGUE

I’ve been attending lots of award-season screenings and am behind in reviews, so I’ll do some in this format. Below are my quick thoughts on Justice League.

What you want to know up front: I liked it. It’s not even close to being as good as Wonder Woman, but is much better than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was garbage.

More info: Thanks to Joss Whedon coming in to finish the movie and oversee post-production (director Zack Snyder stepped away when his daughter committed suicide), Justice League is lighter in both tone and palate. I can actually see the details in scenes instead of them being all murky and dark.

The plot is inconsequential and the villain is a bland CGI monster, but I enjoyed seeing the heroes in action. Ezra Miller steals the show as The Flash and nerdy comic relief. He could crack me up with only his eyes behind a mask.

I love me some Wonder Woman, but as the only female, she mostly has to act as den mother so Gal Gadot doesn’t get to display much of her fun side. At least she remains fierce.

Jason Momoa doesn’t work for me as Aquabro but I don’t think that’s his fault. He’s playing the role as written, and the powers-that-be tried too hard to hip up Aquaman, with the long hair, tattoos, dudespeak (“My man!” and “All right”), and heavy rock music every time he appears. I just rolled my eyeballs.

Ray Fisher does his best with Cyborg but the character can be summed up as Sulky Strong Hybrid Guy.

Difference between men and female directors: In JL, Diana wears tight leather pants and a cleavage-baring top, with the camera sometimes lingering on her butt during a walking shot, and there’s at least one upskirt shot of WW. Both Mr. PCN and I noticed this and it made us uncomfortable. Patty Jenkins never objectified WW or Diana that way.

Conclusion: See it if you’re into DC superheroes. It has fun moments. Then go home and rewatch Wonder Woman on Blu-Ray.

Photo: Warner Bros.

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Nerdy Special List November 2017

It blows my mind Thanksgiving is in a couple of weeks and Christmas is next month—I’m still wearing shorts!—but this is my favorite time of year so I say bring on the holidays. With time off, maybe we can catch up on eating reading.

To that end, here are the November books we recommend.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang (St. Martin’s Press, November 7)

Ruth Emmie Lang’s fictional realism debut is heartwarming and inspiring at a time when we could all use a little hope. Weylyn Grey is an orphan raised with wolves before re-integrating into the human realm.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances tells his life story through the voices of those who were a part of his unusual life: a foster sister, a teacher, employers, a young boy and the love of his life. Lang has crafted a rich story with sparkling language, robust characters, and a fascinating plot. It’s a story that will ignite a spark of magic inside each of its readers.

Garden of the Lost and Abandoned by Jessica Yu (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, November 7)

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu makes her book debut with a true story about an amazing woman making a difference in the lives of Ugandan children.

Gladys Kalibbala is a journalist who writes a weekly “Lost and Abandoned” column in Uganda’s largest newspaper, trying to reunite homeless, orphaned children with their families. Gladys goes to extremes—most of the time at her own expense—to find relatives, provide medical assistance, education, and basic needs like food and clothes, and to let these children know someone cares. Gladys’s compassion and selflessness make her a role model for us all, and Garden of the Lost and Abandoned is a fitting tribute to this beautiful human being.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich (Harper, November 14)

Cedar Hawk Songmaker is pregnant, living in a near post-apocalyptic world. Evolution is seemingly running backward, with the flora and fauna looking downright prehistoric, and the government is ruled by religion. Pregnant women are being captured and monitored. Cedar knows she has to protect her unborn baby, but how? What, where, and who is safe?

Erdrich has written a timely, disturbing, and bleak novel about the degradation of women and the environment. Its relevance is what makes it both difficult and wonderful to read. I’d highly recommend Future Home of the Living God for fans of Margaret Atwood (the comparisons are unavoidable) and P. D. James.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Savage by Frank Bill (FSG Originals, November 14)

A follow-up to the bare-knuckled badassery of Donnybrook, Frank Bill’s The Savage is set only several years on but light years away. The US dollar and power grid are worthless, and power-and-land-hungry hordes are savaging what and who remains.

Against this backdrop, Bill explores the competing interests of (mostly) men living in the madness, and how they survive in light of their histories and the type of men their fathers taught them to be.

The Savage is soaked in vengeance and unapologetic violence. Bill writes in a unique voice that takes the reader to the heart of the brawl, but from the safety of the other side of the page, you’ll look forward to every hit.

PCN recommends:

The Woman in the Camphor Trunk by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street Books, November 14)

Check out this killer opening line: “Anna Blanc was the most beautiful woman ever to barrel down Long Beach Strand with the severed head of a Chinese man.” This captures the tone of the book—whimsical but deadly.

It’s 1908 Los Angeles, and assistant police matron Anna’s investigation of a murder leads her to Chinatown. Kincheloe strikes just the right balance between dark and light, commenting on serious social issues while keeping Anna madcap but never, ever dumb. Woman is as smart as it’s entertaining.

What are you reading this month?

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Book Review: THE CHILD FINDER by Rene Denfeld

As the titular character in Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, Naomi does exactly what her job description says: find missing children. Madison disappeared three years earlier, at the age of five, and her parents have approached Naomi. The family was in Oregon’s Skookum National Forest to cut down a Christmas tree when the little girl walked away—and seemingly off the edge of the Earth. It’s impossible for Madison to have survived in the wilds and frigid cold by herself. Turns out she didn’t.

The story alternates between Naomi’s point of view and Madison’s, although Madison has been calling herself the snow girl, after her favorite fairy tale. The child’s living conditions—more like survival conditions—are disturbing, but her resilience is a marvel and Denfeld uses restraint in describing the most difficult scenes.

Besides Madison’s case, and another one involving a mother incarcerated because she can’t remember how her baby disappeared, Naomi must also confront mysteries in her past. She was found at the edge of the woods when she was nine and has no clear memories of what came before.

Haunted by what she doesn’t know, and believing her work is atonement for something, Naomi wonders why people have children when it means potentially inviting so much pain. But while Child Finder is indeed gut-wrenching, its compassion goes a long way toward healing readers’ aching hearts, showing that love is always a risk worth taking.

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

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This is Spinal Crack: Joe Ide’s RIGHTEOUS

Here we are doing another Spinal Crack chat already. Lauren and I are shocked it didn’t take us another 1.5 years.

We were motivated by a book we both loved, Joe Ide’s Righteous (out Oct. 17), the follow-up to last year’s IQ, which won Shamus, Macavity, and Anthony Awards for Best First Novel. Righteous was one of our selections for October’s Nerdy Special List, but Lauren and I wanted to delve more deeply into it.

Read on for our thoughts, and find out how you can win copies of both books.

Lauren: I know we are both excited to start this installment of Spinal Crack, but since I’ve given up sugar and other bad (i.e, GOOD) food for two weeks, gimme your master snack menu.

PCN: I have my standbys: chips and salsa and some pepper-jack cheese thingies.

L: Dude. I can’t live vicariously through the same damn snacks every time. Get some variety.

PCN: Lemme see what else I can find…there’s an old pouch of Swedish Fish in my bag! Wait, why did you give up snacks for two weeks? Are you a savage?

L: Because the state of the world wasn’t awful enough as it was. Tell you what will make me feel better. Let’s talk about Joe Ide and Righteous, the second in his glorious IQ series.

PCN: Can we first talk about the pronunciation of his name?

L: Great idea. Why don’t you set our adoring masses straight on the correct pronunciation?

PCN: It’s Jo—

L: And don’t say “Joe.”

PCN: Nuts. So I have to set the record straight because I’m Asian?

L: Yes. It comes in handy on plenty of occasions, of which this is just one. Also, pho ordering.

PCN: His last name is pronounced Eeday. I’ve heard it said like the singular form of ides of March, or rhymes with Heidi, or like ID or Edie. At least they don’t call him Shirley.

L: I had a case with a plaintiff named Ide and she pronounced it “eyedee.” Autocorrect changed that to “eyesore,” which is now Joe’s new and unfortunate nickname.

PCN: That’s his rap name. Now that we have that straightened out, let’s talk about Righteous.

L: As I read Joe’s work, I have a word that hit me over the head repeatedly, so we’ll play word association. When I say “Joe Ide” to you, what word springs to mind?

PCN: Astute observer of human nature, funny AF. I know, #onewordfail.

L: You have a problem with singular and plural, but you’re also correct so you get points. For me, it’s smart. He’s just so damn smart. Smart in his observations and humor and how he gets them across without seeming like a smart ass. Plus, in plotting and character. He’s just smart about everything.

PCN: Definitely smart without being a show-off.

L: Since you’re more succinct than I am, want to do your stellar $.02 plot summary?

PCN: Isaiah Quintabe, aka IQ, and his friend Dodson are looking for a missing woman, but in an earlier timeline, Isaiah is searching for the killer of his beloved older brother, Marcus. In both situations, he encounters people who could kill him as easily as they make readers laugh.

L: One of the things I really enjoy about this series is the different layers of investigation. You’ve got the main case, Marcus’s case, then the cool things IQ does to help those in his community. Each layer informs the characters beautifully.

PCN: I love how fully Joe paints these characters. None of them is perfect or one thing. You could both like and fear a character. Someone could be a stone-cold killer and forgiving, wise and misguided.

L: Yep. That’s where I was going next. Joe details fantastic backstories for many/most of the characters, including villains and henchmen. Not only are they funny, they are full of humanity. It’s never in question who we’re rooting for, but it still serves to make you think about the concepts of what makes someone “good” and/or “bad.” Everyone is shades of both, even IQ.

PCN: And Joe’s able to do all that without bogging down the prose with exposition. He’s precise and selective about which details he includes.

L: Multiple storylines, multiple arcs within the main case, numerous characters, and I never felt like I lost a thread. I will admit he got me on a timeline once. I missed a transition somewhere. But he’s remarkably adept at keeping things woven yet so clean. It’s maddening, really.

PCN: It’s quite a feat, and he makes it look easy, though I’d bet $94 it wasn’t. He probably came up with 37 different descriptions for everything and kept whittling/revising until he had just the right line, the kind that makes you think, “Those 12 words told me all I need to know about this person.” Specificity in details is one of the reasons this book is so winning. Cherise, Dodson’s lover, has a vice principal’s voice, not a principal’s.

L: Yes! One of the notes I took was this one about IQ: “You’d choose him third for pickup basketball.”

PCN: I can only dream of being chosen third for any sport.

L: It’s obvious, and I say this with love, that Joe is, like you, a total pop culture nerd. Sports, music, television, movies, all the references are there, all relevant and fun. And now that you’ve mentioned Cherise, I’ll segue into the fact that the female characters ROCK.

PCN: All the characters are fantastic. What about the science nerds? They’re like Sherlock Holmes’s Baker Street Irregulars.

L: And they become operatives! I hope they show up in later installments. What a goldmine he’s set up there and in the neighborhood in general. I want to jump into their world. If you could meet one of them in real life, who would it be?

PCN: The science nerds, Phaedra and Gilberto. Nerds are my people, obvs. Once again, I don’t know what one means. You?

L: It’s tough, but I think I have to go with IQ’s friend and Dodson’s business partner, Deronda. She is nails. And funny and smart. There’s one scene between Deronda and Janine (the woman IQ and Dodson are trying to find and help) that is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. Deronda has attitude I admire.

PCN: Deronda is a hoot. She’s so vivid. Speaking of Janine, I’m glad she was a DJ and a screw-up. Refreshing not to have an Asian character who’s not an overachiever or a pharmacist. Balthazar, who’s part office building, part orangutan, is another great supporting character. And Ramona. And Gahigi. And Gerald the gangster who looks like an accountant. List goes on and on.

L: I loved Zar’s backstory. There is so much change and growth in this book, historical and otherwise. It gives it so much heart.

PCN: Can we talk about Grace, the woman Isaiah meets in the junkyard? That was one of the sparkiest scenes I’d read in some time, and they barely talked or acknowledged each other!

L: That scene was fantastic, and her silences and lack of reaction made her all the more intriguing. Another strong woman presented in just a few short scenes. She got under our skin, just as she got under Isaiah’s.

PCN: Let’s discuss the dialogue. I didn’t just read the book, I heard it.

L: Which is saying something, since there are characters with such disparate backgrounds. Each voice is unique. It goes back to how well he paints the details. The better you know a character on paper, the better you get them in your head.

I have to mention how Joe handled the Tutsi/Hutu-massacre background of one of the characters. One of the best books I read this year was Scholastique Mukasonga’s Cockroaches, a nonfiction piece about that horror. In so few sentences, Joe gave such import to the gradations of good and bad in one person, and that was just stupendous.

PCN: Absolutely. He also handles the different dialects well. Characters of different ethnicities hurl racist comments at one another but it works because it’s believable they would say stuff like that. Made me think of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

L: Totally works. As it does in the Deronda/Janine scene I talked about earlier. The subject matter of that conversation was totally racist—who are more worthless, Chinese or African Americans?—but you can’t help but laugh because of the tone. So wrong! Yet, life.

PCN: We laugh because the conversations show how ridiculous those stereotypes are.

L: It also just struck me that those conversations had different overtones. Deronda and Janine are women on something of a level playing field, play-sniping at each other. Another was with a man in a position of power. No one is going to say anything to the man in power about his racist comments, but if Deronda or Janine took a wrong step toward each other, it played out differently. Ha, I’m getting deep.

PCN: Glad one of us is.

L: I’ll take it back up to surface-level summary: Joe Ide has become a must-read author for me.

PCN: Same. As in, I don’t need to know what the book’s about just give it to me.

L: OK, it feels like two weeks since we started this chat, so I’m going to go mainline some sugar.

PCN: I’ll send paramedics if I don’t hear from you in 10 days.

**********

Want to win signed copies of both IQ and Righteous? Send a message to Joe Ide on Facebook with proof of a donation to hurricane relief and he’ll enter your name in a drawing. The giveaway ends October 17 so act fast!

CrimeSpree Magazine and Friday Reads are also giving away (unsigned) copies of IQ. Entries are accepted here until October 20. Good luck!

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Nerdy Special List October 2017

October is one of my favorite months. The leaves change colors—well, not in L.A. but back east in pictures from family. The weather is cooler so I don’t have to sweat my back off every day, and we have Halloween, when I can laugh at people’s costumes and eat all the leftover candy.

And then there are fall books. October has such strong releases that even after three of us fought over the same book (Joe Ide’s Righteous; Erin won the wrestling match), we had no shortage of other titles to recommend.

Read on for this month’s picks.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash (William Morrow, October 3)

Wiley Cash’s third novel is based on the story of Ella May Wiggins, a white woman working in an integrated North Carolina textile mill. Wiggins works nights six days a week—approximately 70 hours—and earns nine dollars. Abandoned by her husband with four small children, Wiggins has very few options if she wants her family to survive.

When she learns about a union rally in a nearby town, she risks everything and attends on her only day off. Her personal story and singing talent grab the attention of the union organizers, and she soon finds herself the poster child for the movement.

Cash’s rich sense of place, enthralling narrative, and compassion make The Last Ballad a wonderful reading experience. The illustrations of early union efforts remind us of the sacrifices that were made to build the United States into the country it is today. Relating it to current events only makes the themes all the stronger. Another winner for Cash.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi (Razorbill, October 31)

Debut author Tochi Onyebuchi has created a profoundly gripping fantasy world, using influence from Nigerian folklore and the age-old, universal idea of haves and have-nots.

In this world, there are the powerful mages who can extract sin from people in the form of beasts, and aki who are needed to kill and eat the sin once it’s been withdrawn. The aki then bear the burden of the sin, in their hearts, minds, and on their skin in the form of tattoos.

Taj is a cocky young aki who gets tangled in a sinister plot to destroy his homeland. He must team up with a young mage to defeat the evil forces and protect his loved ones. Beasts Made of Night is brilliant and intense. It touches on powerful themes like justice, inequality, and family. And it unhooked this fantasy skeptic from her stronghold on reality and delivered her into an amazing realm of magic and wonder.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Righteous by Joe Ide (Mulholland Books, October 17)

What do ruthless Chinese gangsters, a loan shark with a horrific past, a beautiful lawyer, and a DJ have in common? They’re all part of the case Isaiah Quintabe investigates in Joe Ide’s impressive sophomore novel.

IQ heads to Las Vegas on a case that is close to his heart, while also investigating his brother’s death ten years earlier. Ide balances mystery, action, humor, and danger perfectly, and has a singular ability to create a cast of characters as engaging and fascinating as any you’ll meet, and the cases IQ investigates are worthy of his skills.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Dirty Book Club by Lisi Harrison (Gallery Books, October 10)

In 1962, Gloria Golden and three twentysomething girlfriends live by Prim: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Manners. Then, at a monthly potluck, over martinis and Neil Sedaka on the hi-fi, they explore a copy of The Housewife’s Handbook to Selective Promiscuity.

For the next 54 years, the group meets to secretly discuss evocative books, pushing the boundaries of their truths and repressions. Their fabulous history is the background for a new generation when Gloria’s gang passes the club on to four young women who hardly know each other and sometimes don’t even like each other.

Though filled with ribald humor and infused with a fantastic Golden Girls/Maude vibe, there is plenty of substance as well. Funny and warm, smart and sassy, it’s an all-around satisfying read.

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano (Skyhorse Publishing, October 17)

My tagline when I recommend this debut, and I’ve been doing that quite a bit lately, is “Gird your loins.” It’s not for the faint of heart, but man, is it worth the pain if you’re a fan of grit-lit.

Two young brothers are abducted in a gut-clenching opening and only one returns alive to their small hometown in New York. The impact on the surviving brother, his family, other members of the town, and the town at large are explored in depth over ten interrelated stories that strip life to its core and then probe it with a red-hot poker. This is never done for the sake of shock value, but always in furtherance of the characters and story.

If, like me, you’re a lover of great writing that pushes your comfort zone, look no further. As an added bonus, the cover is glorious.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Breach of Containment: A Central Corps Novel by Elizabeth Bonesteel (Harper Voyager, October 17)

This is the third in a science-fiction series, and I am loving them!

After Elena Shaw has left Central Corps, she’s working as an engineer for a commercial shipping vessel. She meets up with her former ship and shipmates after a disastrous delivery on a planet that added more problems.

There are space rescues, tense communications, and Elena’s reunion with her ship, but with a corporation trying to rule the galaxy, will reunions save it?

While this is part of a series, this strong and page-turning story stands alone.

PCN’s recommendation:

We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union (Dey Street, October 17)

Whether or not you’re already a fan of Union’s screen work, you’ll likely want to be friends—or at least have drinks—with the actress after reading this collection of personal essays. She is funny, whip smart, and unafraid to make herself look ridiculous, like in detailing the home remedy she tried for her yeast infection to avoid being seen buying Monistat.

But as I was still laughing, she ripped me to shreds with the account of her rape at 19. And about her wearing mittens in her mostly white Chicago neighborhood because “thugs don’t wear mittens.” Union has faced obstacles but she’s a survivor, and readers will find her strength and sense of humor inspiring.

Which October releases are you excited about?

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Text, Don’t Call: An Illustrated Guide to the Introverted Life

Being an INFJ (the rarest personality type), I was happy to come across this book. The following review appeared originally in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

Twenty years ago, as illustrator and author Aaron Caycedo-Kimura was trying to figure out what to do with his life, he made a monumental discovery: he was an introvert, specifically an INFJ, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. “The description nailed and validated me; among other things, INFJs are deeply emotional, empathetic, relational, and INTROVERTED.”

Later, during a creative dry spell, Caycedo-Kimura, using the handle INFJoe, began posting illustrations online about his life as an introvert. “The response was amazing…! One person wrote, ‘I’m so happy to find out I’m not the only one.’ ” Following that experience, Caycedo-Kimura created Text, Don’t Call: An Illustrated Guide to the Introverted Life.

The guide is intended to help introverts understand themselves better and navigate the extroverted world. Caycedo-Kimura points out, for example, that introverts often describe themselves as antisocial or shy, but he illustrates how introversion differs from those two other qualities: being shy stems from a lack of confidence and antisocial behavior indicates an aggressive attitude toward others, while “introversion is the preference for directing our attention inward.”

The guide could also help extroverts be introvert allies—e.g., by ensuring at social gatherings that introverts “have a quiet corner where people don’t crowd [them]”—or simply be more empathic when introverts feel “peopled out” (exhausted after spending time at large gatherings). The drawings have a gentle wit, getting Caycedo-Kimura’s points across in a conversational, nonclinical style. Introverts will find he nails and validates them, by making it clear “we introverts are alone together.”

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This Is Spinal Crack

A million years ago, my friend Lauren and I had a conversation about books and snacks and said we’d do it again, though we didn’t know when. Well, we were even lazier than we realized.

But we managed to finally have another online chat, this time about Rachel Khong’s superb Goodbye, Vitamin. As usual, Lauren is the one who brings up testes. 

Oh, and the title of this post? It refers to the cracking of books’ spines. Mr. PCN came up with it as the name of this series of conversations. As if Lauren and I are capable of doing it again. Let’s see first if we can crank this baby up to 11.

Pop Culture Nerd: Hey, you there?

Lauren: I don’t see anything.

PCN:

L: Never mind, figured it out.

PCN: This will be part of the transcript.

L: Then I won’t swear at you out of the gate.

PCN: Swear away, but not at me since I’m not the problem.

L: My swear was going to be your inclusion of my ineptitude, but since that will not be a surprise to anyone, let’s get on with the show. Would you like to start with the lovely and funny Goodbye, Vitamin?

PCN: Yes, but first we need to talk snacks. What do you have on hand?

L: I think I failed at snacks last time, too, didn’t I? I just crammed some Trader Joe’s mac and cheese down my gob before we started. You?

Photo: Pexels. I don’t take pics of my food.

PCN: Mmm. Mac and cheese. I’m eating popcorn with sea salt and chili lime corn chips.

L: You’re so much better at that than I am. It’s also fitting we start with Snack Talk since Vitamin includes some pro-level snacking. Because I’m a weirdo, I counted the different foods mentioned: 142. I think my first text to you while reading was “I love this already, tons of snacks and missing pants.”

PCN: Yes! Snacks + no pants = perfection. It’s clear Rachel Khong knows what she’s talking about, whether it’s food or life or dementia. The impressive thing is her specificity. She cuts out all but the most riveting details, leaving nothing but scalpel-sharp observations.

L: She did a fantastic job with an emotional topic (dementia) in a difficult format (diary entries). In most books, that many mentions of one category of things, especially in fewer than 200 pages, would drive me insane. That she makes those feel such a natural and welcome part of the story evidenced a fabulous talent to me. Should we interrupt ourselves with a plot summary?

PCN: A 30-year-old woman, still smarting from the breakup of a relationship, goes home to help take care of her father, who’s suffering from dementia. She keeps a diary while there, and it’s funny AND poignant. How’s that?

L: Perfect. You read it before I did, which was fun because I then got to bombard you with texts while I was reading. One thing you mentioned that we both agreed on is that this one grabbed us both right off the bat. Opening line: “Tonight a man found Dad’s pants in a tree lit with Christmas lights.” Hilarious, poignant, and those wonderful, specific details you mentioned, all right in the first line. It only gets better from there.

PCN: A man stages a protest by throwing away his pants—how could that NOT grab us right away?

L: More than ten mentions of pants. (I’m starting to sound like Rain Man).

PCN: Is it 13 minutes to Judge Wopner? There are so many funny details. When I first heard this book had a character with dementia, I thought, NOPE. That’s a painful subject for me. But I kept hearing how witty Vitamin is, and I’m intrigued by writers who can find the humor in difficult situations. I’m so glad I took Vitamin. (Corny?)

L: Ha. Yes, corny, but I laughed. I had also passed it by, and I can’t even say why since I like difficult and painful stuff (was Rain Main also a masochist?). What blew me away about Khong’s writing is just what you mention above—all the details related to both the humor and the pain. All those mentions of food make it clear how important food is/was to this family.

And yet Ruth’s mom stops cooking because she feared anything but juice and vitamins might have contributed to Ruth’s dad’s dementia. That was heartbreaking. To get those ideas across so well in short diary entries is…let’s just say I was astounded to learn this was Khong’s debut and that she wrote in diary format because she didn’t think she had the chops (corny?) to write a novel. Methinks she’s way off base with that self-assessment.

PCN: With all the rave reviews, I hope she realizes she’s quite good as a novelist. Looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

L: I will pick up her next offering immediately, without regard to cover or subject matter. We are not easily won over (some might even say difficult), but she snagged us but good.

PCN: Oh, I want to mention one of my favorite lines. In her dad’s journal that he kept about her childhood, he wrote about how after he kept telling her to behave, little Ruth got frustrated one day and yelled, “I’m BEING have!”

‪L: That was a great line, out of so many. It will come as no surprise that one of my favorites includes “testes.” Oh, shit, I meant “balls,” but in the meaning of testes.

PCN: Balls always make a book better. Remind me: the balls weren’t mentioned in a food context, right?

L: Ha. No. They were talking about jury duty, which led to this diary entry about what her dad told her: “The word ‘testify,'” you said, “comes from testicles. Men used to swear by their balls.”

PCN: So honorable.

L: There was a mention of meatballs.

PCN: Now I want spaghetti. I liked how, when Ruth watched an old movie in which her dad was a background actor, she saw him sitting in the back eating an olive on a toothpick. Another great example of Khong’s specificity. She didn’t just write Ruth caught a glimpse of her dad onscreen. She described exactly what he was doing.

L: She knocked those details out of the ballpark. Which reminds me, before we move on, I have to say that you, sports hater extraordinaire, using a sports analogy to describe this book to me has to be the greatest compliment/blurb of all time. I can picture this on the paperback version: “Nailed me in the sweet spot. Or whatever that saying is.” —Pop Culture Nerd

PCN: Huh? I don’t even know which sports analogy I used.

L: That’s the beauty of it.

PCN: If you say so. Hey, all this talk of food has made me hungry.

L: Let’s shut ‘er down and eat.

Buy Goodbye, Vitamin from Amazon

The above is an affiliate link that provides a small commission to PCN if used.

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Nerdy Special List September 2017

I’m late getting the list up this month because I ran away. It’s been an exhausting year and I needed a respite from everything, so I went to stay with relatives where there’s no cell service or Wi-Fi. Don’t believe such a place still exists?

It was wonderful. I could hear crickets.

No filter

I did drive into town to make one phone call and peek at Facebook to make sure friends were OK from Hurricane Irma. Otherwise I just breathed fresh air, hiked, stared at the water and stars at night, contemplating whether I could give up working and start paying for things with chickens.

But of course, I could never give up reading.

Here are the September releases my pals and I recommend.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Western Star by Craig Johnson (Viking, September 5)

At book number 13, I’m still as in love with Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series as I was at book 1. This installment takes readers into some of Walt’s backstory—the early years with his wife Martha—and a deadly train trip of Wyoming Sheriffs on a locomotive named The Western Star.

Johnson includes his trademark humor and smart allusions to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Wyoming’s nature is mostly in the passing countryside, but Johnson proves he’s equally talented at building a strong setting on a moving train as he is in the amazing beauty of his home state. Boy, howdy, another great read.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins (Farrar, Straus Giroux; September 12)

This stunning YA novel about three generations of women from an Indian family is both timely and timeless. As teenagers, Sonia and Tara Das move to the United States with their parents. The girls attempt to acclimate to their new home in their individual styles while their mother holds tight to the cultural traditions and norms of India. Their clash of personalities comes to a peak when Sonia elopes with a man her mother disapproves of, causing an estrangement between the two.

But the next generation of Das women find a way to heal the past and move forward. The themes of identity, diversity, and compassion are relevant now more than eve, and Perkins has delivered them in a gorgeous book geared to young readers but with appeal for all ages.

From Erin at In Real Life:

House. Tree. Person. by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink, September 8)

Ali gets a job at a psychiatric hospital despite her lack of qualifications, but finds the residents take to her. Her success with patients gets her in trouble with the spooky couple running the facility.

She’s also investigating what, if anything, her son had to do with the death of the person whose body he allegedly discovered. If that’s not enough, an unexplained trauma in Ali’s past haunts her, making her family question her every move.

Catriona McPherson is one of those rare authors whose characters jump off the page and into readers’ hearts. She puts them in situations as fascinating as they are terrifying. House. Tree. Person. (the title is explained in the book) pulls you in and along every twist and turn. My only complaint is that it had to end.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder (W. W. Norton, September 26)

For three years, journalist Jessica Bruder immersed herself in an exploding American subculture—individuals, couples, and families who have forsaken real estate for “wheel estate,” living on the road performing itinerant work to make ends meet.

As a result of the housing crisis, stock market collapses, divorces, failed businesses, and health issues, to name a few causes, people are increasingly finding themselves having to choose between food and electricity, health care or rent. By living in converted campers, vans, or even the family Prius, they have found a way to survive and sometimes even thrive.

Bruder’s account of this transient community (and some of the businesses that take advantage of them, e.g. Amazon) is insightful and frightening, as the American dream is exposed as something often closer to a nightmare.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Dear Fahrenheit 451: Love and Heartbreak in the Stacks by Annie Spence (Flatiron Books, September 26)

Seriously, who wouldn’t fall in love with a title like that? Annie Spence is witty and fun, and I think she’d be a blast to work with.

Libraries do have to break up with books—the title is too old, its condition may be too gross, the information may have been found to be incorrect. We call this weeding.

But the books Annie is in love with—well, it makes you want to keep a list of new books to try. And like all good librarians, she provides lists of recommended reading at the end.

Come for the laughs, stay for the books.

PCN’s recommendation:

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur, September 5)

Here I am talking about trying to relax and unwind, and yet I’m recommending this book that kept me TENSE the whole time I was reading it. Sharon Bolton usually has that effect on me. And I love it.

The premise: A group of tourists on a hot-air balloon ride witnesses a man killing a woman on the ground. The man looks up, sees them. The balloon crashes, and it’s nonstop terror from there as the killer relentlessly pursues the eyewitnesses to his crime.

I’m not saying anything more because the revelations are a 10 on the scale of whaaaat? Read Dead Woman Walking if you want a suspenseful thriller that makes you feel like the call is coming from inside the house.

What are you reading this month?

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Nerdy Special List August 2017

Summer is almost over and I’m relieved because I’m melting. But I’ve had more excellent reads this summer than I did in the past few years, and many of the standout books are August releases.

Here are our recommendations this month.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption by Benjamin Rachlin (Little, Brown; August 15)

In a troubling look at the rape conviction of Willie J. Grimes, little justice is found in the American justice system.

When Grimes was convicted, his lawyer believed him innocent. When the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services examined Grimes’s case, they too believed him innocent. When he was referred to the Center on Actual Innocence, they believed he was innocent. But no one could help Grimes because the process was never deficient; the jury simply made the wrong determination of guilt.

Ghost of the Innocent Man is nonfiction that reads like the most heart-pounding of thrillers, and that makes it all the more terrifying. (Read Jen’s full review at Shelf Awareness.)

Pablo and Birdy by Alison McGhee, illus. by Ana Juan (Atheneum/Caitlyn Diouhy Books, ages 8-12, August 22)

This sweet, mystical realism middle-grade book about an orphan and his pet parrot examines the theme “the winds of change mean fortune lost or fortune gained.” As the almost-ten-year-old Pablo discovers when he goes in search of the truth about where he came from, it isn’t always easy to tell when what’s been lost and what’s been gained.

Packed full of rich characters, an intoxicating island setting, and an enchanting myth about a seafaring parrot that knows all the words of the world, this heartwarming novel will have readers searching for the seafarer and craving elephant ear pastries.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

If the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss (Sourcebooks Landmark, August 22, 2017)

Sadie Blue is seventeen, pregnant, and a Loretta Lynn super fan. She’s also an abused newlywed at the end of her rope. Living in the impoverished Appalachian community of Baines Creek, Sadie is supported by many of the small town’s inhabitants.

Told from multiple perspectives, Leah Weiss’ debut novel paints a portrait of a struggling town filled with struggling people. Colorful characters and a unique voice make this a standout debut. If the Creek Don’t Rise is an excellent example of gritty, southern fiction with a dash of hope.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Party by Elizabeth Day (Little, Brown; August 15)

Three weeks following a party at an upper-crust British vacation estate, one attendee is in critical care and Martin Gilmour is undergoing police questioning.

Through Gilmour’s interrogation, Day unravels the dynamics and history of two couples linked by the husbands’ longtime friendship. Sociopathy, class structure, devotion, and betrayal all play a part in the evening’s spiral into a moment of violence.

From PCN:

The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh (Ecco, August 1)

Calvin Cooper is the sheriff in an isolated Texas town full of people who are starting over after they either committed a violent crime or witnessed one. But since the residents have had their memories entirely or partially erased, they don’t know if they’re innocents or killers. Things go well for 8 years, until people start getting murdered.

The Blinds defies categorization with its unique blend of Western, sci-fi, dark humor, and examination of fate and human nature. I normally don’t even like Western or sci-fi, but this blistering, unpredictable novel moved me with its moments of beauty among life’s brutalities.

What are you reading this month?

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Book Review: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

I was in a bad reading slump recently. Picked up six novels and put them all back down after reading only the opening paragraphs. Nothing pulled me into its world, or introduced me to characters I wanted to spend time with.

Then I met Eleanor Oliphant, and she was exactly what I needed.

Eleanor is the star of Gail Honeyman’s delightful debut, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. She does accounts receivable in an office, takes phone calls from her mum every Wednesday, eats pizza and gets drunk on vodka every weekend, and talks to no one until Monday comes back around.

When she does have to be around people, she has no edit button or social skills. When she goes to events, she sees no problem with putting sausage rolls into her purse for later consumption. In other words, she’s my kinda gal.

Here are glimpses of her inner life.

On sports:

Sport is a mystery to me. In primary school, sports day was the one day of the year when the less academically gifted students could triumph, winning prizes for…running from Point A to Point B more quickly than their classmates…

As if a silver in the egg-and-spoon race was some sort of compensation for not understanding how to use an apostrophe.

Her thoughts while walking through a neighborhood:

The streets were all named after poets—Wordsworth Lane, Shelley Close, Keats Rise…poets who wrote about urns and flowers and wandering clouds. Based on past experience, I’d be more likely to end up living in Dante Lane or Poe Crescent.

Her disdain for obvious statements, after buying a coffee at McDonald’s:

Naturally, I had been about to pour it all over myself but, just in time, had read the warning printed on the paper cup, alerting me to the fact that hot liquids can cause injury. A lucky escape!

How she’d like to be dealt with after her death:

I think I might like to be fed to zoo animals. It would be both environmentally friendly and a lovely treat for the larger carnivores.

She’s a straight-up weirdo but this is why she’s wonderful. Her life is forced out of its routines when a man falls down in the street in front of her. Extending herself is something she doesn’t do, but when she helps him, it leads to unexpected places—and feelings. Eleanor is funny and tragic, innocent and wise.

There’s an element of mystery to her backstory—why did she show up at her job interview with a black eye? Why can’t anyone meet her mum?—but it’s hardly necessary. Eleanor is the draw. She believes no one thinks she’s interesting, but she’s all that and more.

Nerd verdict: Eleanor is more than Fine

Buy from Amazon

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Nerdy Special List July 2017

Oh, man, it’s been so hot here, I’m tempted to run down the street naked and dive into random sprinklers. Mr. PCN said the neighbors would just think it’s a regular Friday.

The other day, I was reading with the window open and smelled smoke and got all annoyed at my neighbor for ruining my air. He’s always outside my window smoking something or other.

Then I turned on the news and saw it wasn’t my rude neighbor but a FIRE.

Speaking of heat, below are our favorite July reads. This month, we have a guest contribution from Mr. PCN, who liked a book so much he wanted in on the NSL action.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words by Bianca Marais (Putnam, July 11)

Set in the midst of apartheid in 1970s South Africa, Bianca Marais’ debut novel is heartbreaking and inspiring, revolting and uplifting. The darkness of hate is countered by the illumination of love and compassion. The result is an intensely powerful story that transcends time and geography.

Robin is nine years old when her parents are killed. Her only remaining relative is her aunt, Edith, an airline hostess.

Beauty is a widow schoolteacher whose daughter, Nomsa, goes missing during the Soweto student uprising. Beauty leaves her home in the rural village of Transkei to search for Nomsa.

Fate brings the two together when Edith needs someone to look after Robin while she travels for work, and Beauty needs a residence in order to stay and try to find Nomsa. Robin’s white world clashes with Beauty’s black one at first, but they each learn from the other. The lessons are rarely easy, but their journey together is gripping and hopeful.

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words is at times very difficult to stomach. The hate and disregard for human life is too easily disseminated. But Marais does find light in the darkness, reminding readers that change starts with those little glimmers of kindness and compassion, and that bigotry is learned behavior that, under the right circumstances, can also be unlearned.

King Louie’s Shoes by D.J. Steinberg, illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Beach Lane Books, ages 4-8, July 11)

D.J. Steinberg’s nonfiction picture book about King Louis XIV is whimsically delightful. Adults will have as much fun reading it to children as kids will have taking in the world of this famous French king.

The story (accompanied by fun facts at the end) of short-stature Louie’s high-heeled shoes is as captivating as Neubecker’s fantastic caricature illustrations, bold with color and humor.

Louie wants to be big in every way. He gives big gifts, holds big parties, but he needs to figure out how to change his height. He tries tall wigs and high thrones before asking his shoemaker to craft him special shoes. The result offers a life lesson complete with giggles. Steinberg and Neubecker know how to make learning fun, for kids and adults.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed (Little, Brown, July 25)

If a book can be said to be both dreadful and wonderful, then Gather the Daughters is one such book.

Set in an unknown period after a fire destroys civilization, an island community is formed by ten men desiring a deeply patriarchal society. These men, known as the ancestors, make a list of things a person shalt not do and those are the rules that govern their small society.

The men farm, or carve, or labor outside the home, while the women keep house. Females submit to their father until they are married, and then they submit to their husbands. When their child has a child, they take their final draught. The shalt-nots are never questioned, and if women were to question them, well, bleeding out is very common in childbirth.

Janey, Amanda, Caitlin, and Vanessa are four girls living in this rustic island community. They begin to question the rules, and that is a very, very dangerous thing to do. When one of the girls is murdered for desiring something better for her own daughter, the girls start a resistance.

Eerie, bleak, and full of dread, Jennie Melamed’s debut novel is also excellent. Her beautiful prose balances the grim existence of the characters, and the multiple narrators flesh out life on the island. For those who enjoy dystopian fiction, this will be my go-to recommendation of the summer.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips (Viking, July 25)

In Fierce Kingdom, Gin Phillips turns an idyllic mother-son afternoon at the zoo into a skin-prickling, breath-holding nightmare.

As Joan and her four-year-old son rush to the park’s exit at closing time, they find their path blocked by a man with a gun. What follows is a three-hour, real-time evening of cat and mouse, where every noise could mean death around the corner.

Phillips does a stupendous job creating an atmosphere that will take readers straight to the gut of the hunted. This is one hell of a summer blockbuster.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite (Plume, July 11)

We’ve all been there. Watching a movie or reading a book, we’ve all said, “That could never happen to me,” or “There’s no way I wouldn’t have seen THAT coming.” Jen Waite is here to dispel those notions with her gutsy and oh-so-important memoir.

Jen and her husband Marco’s first encounters were out of a Hollywood movie. The sparks flew, they “just knew.” Five years later, the blissful couple is married and expecting a baby.

But after his daughter is born and his wife is at her most vulnerable, Marco changes into someone unrecognizable. In Before and After timelines, Waite takes readers through the horrific journey of discovering the man she thought she knew was a textbook psychopath.

Waite pulls no punches on any front, writing with scathing honesty about herself, Marco, guilt, shame, cognitive dissonance and the myriad emotional assaults that come from such a discovery.

This is not a story of redemption. Waite required none and Marco can never obtain it. It’s the story of one woman courageous enough to share her story to shine a light for others.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

Chasing Down a Dream by Beverly Jenkins (William Morrow Paperbacks, July 4)

This eighth book in the awesome Blessings series, about a woman who bought a town on eBay, has two citizens marrying, one citizen planning another’s funeral, and Gemma and her grandson working on fostering and adopting two orphans injured in a tornado. Another very enjoyable visit with the Henry Adams community in Kansas.

From Mr. PCN:

First of all, I’d like to say I am honored to be among all of you who tirelessly contribute to the NSL. Here’s my contribution.

Afterlife by Marcus Sakey (Thomas & Mercer, July 18)

Marcus Sakey’s novel encompasses a London street urchin in 1532, a modern-day sniper being chased by two FBI agents, and not only what connects them but literally everything in between. I’d describe it as spiritual science fiction with a love story at the center of it all. Confused? Just read it.

Note: Producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer have grabbed Afterlife to turn it into a feature film. I hope they don’t muck it up.

From PCN:

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner (Random House, July 4) 

Manon Bradshaw from last year’s Missing, Presumed is back, and this time she has 1.5 kids, one she adopted and another in her tummy. The single mom (by choice) has moved from London to give her family the elusive better life, but then murder happens nearby. And the main suspect is someone Manon will turn her full fierceness on to protect.

She and her former detective constable Davy, who’s now a detective sergeant, are the kind of decent, smart, and witty people with whom I’d want to share a pizza (English sandwiches?) if they were real. Add the complex plot and Unknown proves Steiner should be as well known as the best writers in crime fiction.

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Book Review: THE LIGHT WE LOST by Jill Santopolo

Lucy and Gabe met as Columbia University students on 9/11, when emotions were running high and “our shields were down.” After spending a very intense day together, however, Gabe reunites with an ex, and Lucy doesn’t see him again until graduation, and it’s only for a brief moment.

Almost a year later, they run into each other once more, and this time they embark on a passionate relationship. But their desire to effect positive change in the world—a yearning sparked by what they witnessed on 9/11—means career choices that won’t allow both to stay in Manhattan. Gabe goes overseas and Lucy meets someone else, but they keep in touch through life changes big and small, wondering if they’ve made the right decisions and what their dreams may have cost them.

Spanning 13 years, Jill Santopolo’s The Light We Lost is a beautiful, thought-provoking exploration of life choices, and how attaining one’s dreams can be euphoric and gut-wrenching at the same time. Lucy and Gabe’s love is both idealistic and realistic; Santopolo puts them in situations where there are no easy answers. Should one choose a dream job offer or true love? Who must do the sacrificing or compromising? If you know a relationship would be once in a lifetime but finite, and soul-crushing when it ends, would you jump in anyway?

Don’t read the promotions comparing this to other popular novels, for that might spoil the ending. But even if that happens, the emotional journey is worth it.

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

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