All Posts By

Pop Culture Nerd

Nerdy Special List March 2017

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

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

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Celine by Peter Heller (Knopf, March 7)

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

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

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

From PCN:

I’m recommending two this month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you looking forward to reading this month?



Oscars 2017: And the Winner for Biggest Flub Is…

Wow. I tuned into the Oscars hoping for at least one surprise and I got it, all right.

In case you’d bailed on the very long show and haven’t heard: the wrong best picture winner was announced (La La Land) and the winners had already come on stage and were in the middle of their speeches when Jordan Horowitz, one of LLL’s producers, announced Moonlight actually won best picture, saying “It’s not a joke,” and raised the correct card to prove it.

My reaction:

Horowitz and the rest of the La La Land crew were incredibly gracious to the Moonlight group, hugging and congratulating them as they came onstage in a daze.

Before they could give their acceptance speeches, however, Warren Beatty explained he was given the best actress card by mistake. To make things momentarily weirder, Emma Stone, who’d won that category, said backstage she was holding the Best Actress card the whole time. Whaaaat?

Turns out there were two cards for each winner. See explanation here. Mystery solved. Or at least some of it. How/why was Beatty given the wrong envelope? Why did Faye Dunaway say La La Land when looking at the wrong card? (She declined to comment when The Hollywood Reporter asked her at the Governors Ball afterward.)

Here’s a clip of the confusing moment:

This closeup, tweeted by ABC News, shows Beatty holding the wrong envelope.

I liked both movies and would’ve been happy with either as the winner. In a way, both did win, for Best Handling of a Mistake Seen by a Billion People.

Now, let’s see…what else happened during the show?

Justin Timberlake opened it with an energetic performance of best-song nominee “Can’t Stop the Feeling” that got everyone up and dancing, which was fun. But little did they know when they sat down that they wouldn’t be getting up again for many, many hours.

Some highlights:

Most delicious surprise: No, I’m not talking about Viggo Mortensen in a tux. That’s no surprise. I’m referring to the free candy and donuts dropping from the ceiling to keep the audience happy and not hungry. I swear, if bag o’ chips had started dropping, I would’ve jumped in my car, driven over to the Dolby Theater, and tried to grab a few.

Funniest disrespect of a celebrity: Host Jimmy Kimmel’s continuing diss of Matt Damon. The actor was announced only as Ben Affleck’s guest when the two came out to present Best Original Screenplay, and then Kimmel tried to play Damon off with music when Damon tried to announce the nominees. His takedown of Damon’s performance in We Bought a Zoo—“his acting is so effortful”—got in some good digs.

Cutest kid in the candy store: Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Hamilton creator was enjoying the heck out of himself, happy and smiling big the whole night, like someone had put all his favorite things in the world in one place and he couldn’t believe his eyes. It was nice to see someone who wasn’t too cool or jaded to be there.

Cutest kid who’s actually a kid: Sunny Pawar. I’m not sure how I feel about Kimmel holding up Pawar Simba-style, but it was adorable how Pawar asked for Mike & Ike candy while that was happening.

Favorite dedication to theater nerds: best song co-winner Benj Pasek (with Justin Paul and Justin Hurwitz for “City of Stars” from La La Land) said, “[My mom] let me quit the JCC soccer league to be in a school musical, so this is dedicated to all the kids who sing in the rain and all the moms who let them.” I hated soccer in high school, too, and was much happier in theater. High five, Benj, and to all the cool moms.

Moments that made me cry: tie between Katherine Johnson, now 98, one of the real-life “Hidden Figures,” coming out on stage; and the In Memoriam segment, with Sara Bareilles singing “Both Sides Now.”

On top of the reel reminding us of so many greats we lost last year (nice touch to have presenter Jennifer Aniston mention Bill Paxton, who died yesterday), that song guts me every time I hear it. And then the segment ends with Carrie Fisher as General Organa saying, “May the Force be with you.” I was gone.

From L: Janelle Monae, NASA astronaut Yvonne Cagle, Johnson, Taraji P. Henson, and Octavia Spencer. Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Best political statements: there were many, done eloquently. It was as simple as Alessandro Bertolazzi, who won best makeup for Suicide Squad, dedicating his Oscar to “all the immigrants.” Or as pointed as best foreign film director Asghar Farhadi, who stayed in Iran to show solidarity with his people being banned from the US, sending someone in his place to read his statement that says, “Dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” I never felt hit over the head or lectured by these remarks. And oh, yeah, Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win an Oscar.

OK, Mr. PCN is yelling at me from the other room that I have to wrap this up because it’s 1:30 a.m. I’d better move on to the fashion commentary before he cuts me off by playing loud music.

No one’s gown wowed me. Most looked fine but safe. Below are a few who did stand out, for better or worse.

Emma Stone

Mr. PCN: She looks great on the top half, bottom half is a lampshade.


Nicole Kidman

Mr. PCN: Nude woman with doilies.

PCN: It does look in photos like she’s wearing a fancy nude bodysuit, but the beading looked much prettier on TV.


Janelle Monae

PCN: So much going on, but she carries it well.

Mr. PCN: Why is she carrying two birdcages?


Halle Berry

Mr. PCN: Auditioning for The Wiz.

PCN: Little Orphan Halle gets caught in fishing net.


Jessica Biel

Mr. PCN: Cleopatra in space.

PCN: Golden camo, so she can be invisible in a jungle of Oscars.


Karlie Kloss

Mr. PCN: Isn’t she a Victoria’s Secret model? She should be wearing wings instead of a cape.

PCN: I just want to know—why is she at the Oscars?

Ginnifer Goodwin

Mr. PCN: Spanish vampire.


Leslie Mann

Mr. PCN: I thought Emma Watson is playing Belle.

PCN: I didn’t know IKEA shopping bags could be worn as evening gowns.


Isabelle Huppert


PCN: My favorite look, elegance crossed with badass. Look at that pose and those dark nails.

Did you watch? What did you think? (See complete list of winners here.)

Photos: Stone–Kevin Mazur/Getty, Huppert–Steve Granitz/Wireimage, all others–Frazer Harrison/Getty


Nerdy Special List February 2017

Like many people, I’ve been distressed by what’s going on in DC and have found it hard to focus on reading for pleasure. I also wondered if movie and book reviews are too frivolous to write at this time.

But then I realized books are never frivolous, and we need to support the arts right now because arts programs are at risk of being defunded. Arts are a part of culture, and our culture is our history.

So, with great pleasure, I present you this list of February releases we recommend.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, February 7)

I read The Refugees long before the travel ban executive order was written, but how stunningly appropriate that I can recommend it as my Nerdy Special List pick this month.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen’s collection of short stories is rich in complex characters and relationships, with identity playing a recurring theme throughout the stories. Nguyen’s skill encourages his readers to connect with characters who are likely very different from themselves. In the current political climate, we can all benefit from more of that because, after all, we don’t tend to fear what we understand.

Nguyen’s language and imagery are stunning, making this collection captivating and memorable. I’m certain that even those who don’t tend to favor short fiction will find themselves engrossed in these gorgeous stories.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Shimmering Road by Hester Young (Putnam, February 1)

A little over a year ago, I was in one of the biggest reading slumps of my adult life. On a whim, I picked up Hester Young’s The Gates of Evangeline and absolutely loved it.

So I was both excited and nervous to read The Shimmering Road, Young’s second book featuring journalist Charlie Cates. I am happy to report it’s an enthralling read and a solid follow-up to her first novel.

Charlie, expecting her first daughter, is now in Arizona, searching for clues that might help solve the murder of her mother and half sister. Plagued by recurring nightmares, she can’t help but worry about the fate of her unborn daughter and that of her half-sister’s daughter, even as she gets drawn further into the mystery surrounding the murders.

The novel is fast paced, unexpected, and a pleasure to read. The Shimmering Road, as is its predecessor, is everything a page-turner—with a supernatural flare—should be.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard (Blackstone, February 2)

I find the idea of taking a cruise both intriguing and terrifying, so Catherine Ryan Howard’s debut thriller Distress Signals was right up my alley.

Adam figures he has a pretty great life, right up until his girlfriend, Sarah, doesn’t come back from a cruise to Barcelona. Adam goes after her, and that’s where any predictability in this story ends.

Help from the police? Nope. Her family? Nah. Adam doesn’t know whether Sarah is gone permanently or temporarily, voluntarily or by force, and as his unease builds, it’s impossible not to be roped into a story that doesn’t let up until the final page.

This alone would make this a fantastic book. But Howard shows herself to be a masterful storyteller by creating a parallel story that ties together with Adam’s beautifully and in a way I can’t explain without giving too much away.

If you like stories brimming with suspense and plot twists you’ll never see coming, you’ll want to grab a copy of Distress Signals immediately.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Desperation Road by Michael Farris Smith (Lee Boudreaux Books, February 7)

After an 11-year prison sentence, Russell Gaines returns home to McComb, Mississippi, where he tries to get on with his life, apologetic to no one.

Despite a supportive father, however, the pull of his ex-fiancée and the vengeful family whose lives he changed keep throwing a wrench in his plans. Maben, a woman on the run with her young daughter, seems permanently caught in a web of problems. When Russell’s bumpy path intersects Maben’s troubled one, their rough lives only get rougher.

Smith is a beautiful writer, and a sense of poetry underlies the straightforward nature of his words. He writes about the slog of everyday life with integrity and grace, making even the difficult parts beautiful to read. This is a fantastic follow-up to Smith’s wonderful debut, Rivers.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

August Snow by Stephen Mack Jone (Soho Crime, February 14)

August Snow is an amateur detective in what is hopefully a new series from Soho Crime. It’s set in Detroit, and is an excellent mystery in the tradition of Robert B. Parker. A bit of violence, a lot of smartass talk—set in my favorite city!

August is half Hispanic and half African American, and lives in the Mexicantown area of Detroit in the house his parents owned. He’s a former cop who went up against the department and was awarded 12 million dollars in a lawsuit.

He is asked to look into the business dealings of a private bank, and while he hesitates to take the case, the woman who wants to hire him is killed. August looks into her death, going up against the police department again, as well as hired thugs from the private bank.

August ends up with some great friends and/or teammates, and they work well together to take care of a variety of issues. He’s pretty firm about not being a private investigator, but I would be thrilled if he becomes one. Highly recommended!

From PCN:

A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong (Minotaur, February 7)

The first in the Casey Duncan series, City of the Lost, knocked me out last year, and Darkness is weird and menacing, too.

Casey is still the detective of Rockton, the off-the-grid town in Canada where people go to hide from someone or something. She and sheriff’s deputy Will find a woman who’s been kept in a hole in a cave for over a year. All Rockton residents have shady pasts but that’s just nasty. And almost anyone could be the sick bastard who abducted the woman (she never saw his face).

On top of the twisted plot and a heroine I continue to root for, the setting of blizzardy Rockton gives me the creeps, amplifying how isolated Casey is, and how if she gets in trouble, she’s on her own.

What are you excited to read this month?


Nerdy Special List January 2017

Since almost half the month has passed, I figured I should get this list up. I’ve been moving slowly due to January rains, days that get dark at 1:00 p.m., and my general tendency to be sloth-like. My big win today was changing out of pajama pants.

The one thing I’m not lazy about is talking books. Below are the January releases we recommend you check out.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

Fever Swamp: A Journey Through the Strange Neverland of the 2016 Presidential Race by Richard North Patterson (Quercus, January 10)

fever swampThroughout the entirety of the 2016 presidential race—both the primaries and the general election—novelist Richard North Patterson wrote a weekly commentary for Huffington Post. Fever Swamp is a collection of those articles, with additional remarks from Patterson after the November election.

Patterson takes his legal background and the knowledge he’s accumulated writing political thrillers to base his arguments in facts, data, and other tangible evidence. His margin notes and section introductions indicate where his predictions went wrong and why, where he was correct and what that meant, and other insights looking back on arguably the most unprecedented election in American history.

Patterson is unapologetically liberal, he’s thorough and knowledgeable, and Fever Swamp is at times infuriating and at others terrifying, especially when Patterson discusses the Supreme Court. But it’s always enlightening.

It may feel early to scratch the scabs off the wounds created by this election, but we all need to be aware of what is now at stake. Fever Swamp is a good place to start.

From Erin at In Real Life:

Clownfish Blues by Tim Dorsey (William Morrow, January 24)

clownfish bluesIf you’ve read Tim Dorsey’s books, you know what to expect from Clownfish Blues and will be glad to hear he’s in top form. If you haven’t yet traveled to Dorsey’s Florida, you’re in for a treat.

In Clownfish, our erstwhile hero, Serge, and his trusty (although he can’t be trusted with much) sidekick Coleman are hard at work reenacting the classic TV show Route 66. Did you know a Florida episode of Route 66 introduced the country to the concept of a bookmobile? Neither did I. I didn’t even know there were Florida episodes. But I digress.

Like all Dorsey’s novels, Clownfish has moments that are laugh-out-loud funny. There is, however, much more than humor. Serge kills people with more style than any protagonist I’ve met.

The complicated plots highlights aspects of Florida life, yes, but also American culture as a whole, including state lotteries (and the people who play—and manipulate—them), undocumented immigrants, the legal system, psychics, and…sign spinning.

I would hate to be the person in a bookstore who has to decide where to shelve Clownfish Blues. Crime? Social commentary? Humor? Whatever you love to read, this will not disappoint.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Burning Bright by Nicholas Petrie (Putnam, January 10)

burning brightAs in real life, there is no shortage of literary military veterans suffering from PTSD. That makes what Nicholas Petrie has done with his protagonist Peter Ash all the more special.

Ash feels very grounded in reality, but also different in a way that’s both refreshing and unsettling. As Burning Bright (second in a series after The Drifter) begins, Ash hasn’t slept in anything but a tent or his truck for two years. Instead, he’s roaming the outdoors planning to get arrested, since being locked in a cell might force him to “get over” his claustrophobia.

While taking shelter in the California redwoods, Ash stumbles upon the nature fortress of investigative journalist Jane Cassidy, who is also trying to outrun forces beyond her control. Jane’s demons are external rather than internal, and take the form of dark-suited men.

It’s clear Jane is being hunted, and the men appear to be connected with her recently deceased mother, a genius tenured professor at Stanford. Unfortunately, Jane has little idea what her mother was working on that could spark such dark interest.

Jane and Ash join forces (he has nothing better to do and Jane is attractive), and her investigative prowess coupled with Ash’s brawn and resourcefulness make for a compelling team. Although the romance and competitive banter get a bit schmaltzy, it’s also obvious neither has connected with another person in a long time.

Petrie focuses on character and action and does both quite well. The pace doesn’t let up and the story turns are engaging. The investigation is fraught with mercenary violence and heady computer technology, but the characters’ talents always feel righteously earned.

Backed by a cadre of appealing secondary characters, Jane and Ash’s chase leads to a place they never expected and a satisfying conclusion worthy of the risks.

From PCN:

Blood and Bone by V.M. Giambanco (Quercus, January 3)

blood and boneWhen I first saw the cover of another edition of this book, it had nasty-looking jagged pieces of glass with blood spatters on them and my reaction was, Nope, not reading that. I’m terrified of graphic violence.

By the time the US version arrived on my doorstep, however, the cover has changed to something innocuous enough for me to pick it up. And I’m glad I did.

This is the third in the Alice Madison series but I was fine starting here. Madison is a Seattle PD detective trying to solve a series of extremely brutal slayings possibly linked to old cases that have already been solved. Or have they?

Madison is no-nonsense and so is the prose: after a long day at a murder scene, Madison picks up food on the way home but then doesn’t eat it. And that’s all that’s said about her emotional state that night. By holding back, Giambanco helps Blood and Bone resonate more.

Which books are you exciting about reading this month?



Golden Globes 2017: Predictable *and* Surprising

Here we go, the first of one million award shows this season. I always look forward to the Globes because it’s usually the loosest, wackiest award show, with drunk celebs and the Hollywood Foreign Press often choosing odd winners (Madonna as best actress comedy/musical for Evita).

This year had predictable wins—La La Land swept, which I’m happy about—but some upsets, too, which kept us viewers awake at home.

Below are my own awards for the ceremony. The 2017 Nerdies go to:

Most smile-inducing musical number: OK, fine, there was only one number and that was the opening. Host Jimmy Fallon parodied La La Land but also referenced several memorable moments in movies and TV this past year, including what happened to Barb in Stranger Things and Jon Snow in Game of Thrones. He had help from singing stars like Amy Adams, Nicole Kidman, Evan Rachel Wood, and Sarah Paulson. I didn’t even know the latter two could sing. They always play such serious roles, it was nice to see them have some fun.

Best upsets: Aaron Taylor-Johnson winning best dramatic supporting actor in movies and Isabelle Huppert for best dramatic movie actress. I’ve long admired Taylor-Johnson for disappearing into his roles; I hated his character SO MUCH in Nocturnal Animals, but in real life, he’s well spoken and handsome and seems nothing like the lowlife he played. Huppert is a French legend, and though I’m too scared to watch Elle, I hear she’s fierce as a rape survivor who tracks down her attacker for revenge.

Funniest banter: Kristin Wiig and Steve Carell talking about the first time they saw an animated movie. We quickly realize these occasions were memorable for horrible reasons. And that’s how you do comedy.

Best speech, bar none: Meryl Streep. While accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award, instead of talking about herself, she spoke for five minutes about how we need to band together in this changing political climate to defend a free press and have empathy and not fear foreigners, pointing out Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem, Amy Adams in Italy, Dev Patel in Kenya, and Ruth Negga in Ethiopia.

You can watch below or read the entire transcript here, but the standout lines for me were “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.” When she ends by quoting “the dear departed Princess Leia, [who] said to me once: ‘Take your broken heart, make it into art,’” I was in tears.

On to the fashion. For this, I’ll bring in my co-commentator, Mr. PCN, who always adds a unique perspective.

Thandie Newton


Mr. PCN: She’s hot, as in she looks like she’s literally on fire.


Jessica Chastain


Mr. PCN: She was a bridesmaid who caught the bouquet, but then other people fought her for it and the bouquet broke apart all her over dress.

Natalie Portman


Mr. PCN: I know she played someone from the ’60s, but she doesn’t have to look 60. The hair is too severe.

Zoe Saldana


Mr. PCN: Car wash.

Sarah Jessica Parker



PCN: With her hair and white gown, she’s totally channeling Princess Leia.

Mr. PCN: The sleeves make me think the designer also designs straitjackets.

Blake Lively


PCN: She looks like Wonder Woman in evening wear, with the bulletproof bracelets and pockets made out of golden lasso.

Mr. PCN: I see a golden octopus wrapped around her from behind.

Nicole Kidman


Mr. PCN: This looks one of those Magic Eye pictures from the ’80s, but I can’t see what the hidden image is supposed to be.

Emma Stone


PCN: I saved the best for last. The actress who plays a girl with stars in her eyes is wearing stars on her dress. Perfection.

Did you watch? What were your favorite moments?

Photos: Getty Images


Favorite 2016 Books

I’m baaaack!

I took off for a couple of weeks over the holidays, and when I go on vacation, I go off the grid. There’s no blogging or social media, sometimes no Internet or cell reception. I might as well have been in the witness protection program. And it was glorious.

This is me on Christmas Eve. The photo has not been doctored in any way.


Now that I’m home, it’s a good time to review my year in reading. My 2016 goal was to hit 60, or 5 books a month. I reached 58 but I’m OK with that. I’m not counting all the manuscripts I read for work so my actual total is closer to 80.

A few stats:

  • Authors new to me  31
  • Debut authors  13
  • Non-American authors  14

Shortest book: 224 pages (Phoef Sutton’s Heart Attack and Vine)

Longest book: 560 pages (Keigo Higashino’s Under the Midnight Sun)

Publishers I read most: Minotaur (9) and Mulholland Books (8), both crime-fiction imprints

I don’t know what all that means. I’m just posting stats because they make me seem scholarly.

This year was good, reading-wise. When I compiled my list of favorite books last year, only 3 made the cut and that plunged me into an existential crisis.

Happily the 2016 list is much longer. Here are my favorites in the order I read them, each with an excerpt from my review.

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz


In her thrilling standalone…Lisa Lutz (the Spellman series) keeps the pace blistering without sacrificing characterization. (Starred Shelf Awareness review)


Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld


This modern interpretation of [Pride and Prejudice] is…both familiar and fresh, contemporary and classic. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve read Austen or Sittenfeld or neither. Eligible is a thoroughly charming read. (April Nerdy Special List)


City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong

city of lost

The complex mystery takes unusual turns, and the setting of isolated territory surrounded by menacing woods is as breathtaking as it is unsettling. (Shelf Awareness review)


Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

lily and the octopus

Rowley is a lovely storyteller and astute observer of life, and he will take you on an emotional, existential journey you didn’t even know you were looking for. (June Nerdy Special List)


Collecting the Dead by Spencer Kope

collecting the dead

Steps is a welcome new series protagonist, not only because of his unusual [synesthetic] talent but also his sense of humor…. Refreshingly, he’s far from being a hardened hero haunted by his past. (Shelf Awareness review)


The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

last days of night

Last Days is a cerebral thriller, full of twists, legal maneuverings, and courtroom drama, peppered with idealistic do-gooders and intimidating villains. (Starred Shelf Awareness review)

IQ by Joe Ide


Isaiah and his sidekick, Dodson, are a hilarious urban version of Holmes and Watson. One can hear the characters talking in their lively, rhythmic dialogue, and the descriptions paint vivid pictures. (Shelf Awareness review)


Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil by Melina Marchetta


While large in scope, exploring timely issues such as terrorism, racism, the plight of immigrants and social media’s lynch-mob mentality, the book also tells the heartrending personal stories of multidimensional and memorable characters. Bish is like a British (and a quarter Egyptian) Harry Bosch. (Starred Shelf Awareness review)


Under the Midnight Sun by Keigo Higashino

under-midnight-sunHigashino, Edgar Award nominated for The Devotion of Suspect X, has created a Japanese Les Miserables…. The power of this novel lies in challenging the way we judge others…[asking] us to see that even people who commit horrific acts are capable of great courage, and sometimes they do the former because of the latter. (November Nerdy Special List)

What were some of your favorite books last year?



The holidays are upon us and the movies are coming out fast and furious, competing for your dollars. Since you’re probably doing last-minute shopping and have no time for full reviews, I’ll keep my comments concise for the following batch of films. (For reviews of Rogue One, La La Land, Jackie, and others, click on the titles,)


fencesDenzel Washington directs as well as stars in this movie version of August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning play about a black man in the 1950s who takes out his frustrations about life and career on his family.

No doubt the acting is strong, with Viola Davis a front runner to win the best supporting actress Oscar, but Washington’s performance is too over the top for me (they both won Tonys in 2010 for playing the same roles on Broadway).

The movie looks like a play that was filmed instead of a true adaptation, i.e. it’s static with mostly one location and lots of monologues. What works on stage is too big and presentational for a more intimate medium. It should’ve been opened up more but instead it feels, well, fenced in.

20th Century Women

20thcenturywomenMike Mills based 2010’s Beginners on his dad and directed Christopher Plummer all the way to an Oscar for the role. With 20th Century Women, Mills tells the story of his mother, played by the radiant Annette Bening.

Dorothea is an earthy single mom raising her teenage son, Jamie, in 1979 Southern California. She asks for parenting input from the man (Billy Crudup) renovating her house, a female boarder (Greta Gerwig), and Jamie’s best childhood friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), on whom Jamie has a not-so-secret crush.

These characters form an unusual family unit, each with his/her own story that’s both funny and sad, but the film is a showcase for Bening, whose every line and emotional note rings true.


sing-pigsThe premise: a koala bear is determined to save his crumbling theater by holding a singing competition. Contestants include pigs in sequins, a piano-playing gorilla, a shy elephant, and a rock ‘n’ roll porcupine.

You don’t have to be a kid or like animation to enjoy this movie. The story line is sparse and characters don’t get deep backstories, but the movie is infectious with its can-do spirit and never-give-up-your-dreams mentality. Kids will be delighted by the funny animals and adults will tap their feet to the soundtrack, which includes singing by stars like Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Matthew McConaughey, and Jennifer Hudson.

Hidden Figures

From L.: Monaé, Henson, Spencer

From L.: Monaé, Henson, Spencer

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monaé play the 3 female black mathematicians who “helped [the US] win the space race,” according to the subtitle of Margot Lee Shetterly’s nonfiction book, from which this movie was adapted.

The racism and sexism these women experienced frustrated the heck out of me, and made me wonder how much more our country could accomplish (and how much faster we could do it) if qualified people are simply given a chance, regardless of skin color or gender.

The story is ultimately inspiring, though, considering all that Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson were able to achieve despite the obstacles in their way. The cast is all good, but Monaé as the confident, sassy Mary is the one with the breakout role. It’s incredible that this is only the singer’s second on-camera acting role (after Moonlight).

Though he has limited screen time, Glen Powell also stands out as John Glenn, one of Katherine’s champions. I hope the real Mr. Glenn got to see how well he was portrayed before he left Earth to explore the next dimension.

Which movies are you excited about this season?

Photos: Fences/Paramount, 20th Century Women/A24, Sing/Universal, Hidden Figures/Fox


ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY Spoiler-Free Movie Review



Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you. I might be even more spoiler-averse than you are. In fact, that made me miss the first 5 minutes of the movie.

I went to a screening without being told what I’d be seeing, and when Rogue One started, I thought it was only the trailer and refused to watch it. When the “trailer” didn’t end, I was like SHUTUPISTHISTHEACTUALMOVIE?!?!

I’ve been using ninja-level deflecting methods for a year to avoid everything related to this movie so I had no expectations. And ended up thoroughly enjoying myself, whooping with glee several times.

Rogue One has the rebel spirit and enough references to the previous Star Wars movies (the best ones—you know which I mean) to make you feel that nerd’s delight, but it forges its own identity, too. It’s both familiar and different enough so that it doesn’t seem to be rehashing the same ol’ plot points.

Felicity Jones imbues Jyn Erso with heart and spunk, making her an engaging new addition to the cast of characters. After seeing the actress in supporting roles, it’s nice to have her front and center as a strong action heroine, a guise she dons comfortably without having to try too hard.

One of my favorite things was seeing not one but two Asians in significant roles. (I mean no disrespect by not including the actors’ names; if you’ve been avoiding trailers like I did, maybe you don’t want to know ahead of time who they are. I only mention Jones because she’s hard to miss on the poster everywhere.) I’ve been a fan of this franchise for almost 40 years, and I can’t believe it took this long to see people who looked like me playing important characters. Say what you will, but representation absolutely matters. The Force can be with me, too!

This group of rebels is the most diverse bunch so far. While no cast has matched the star power and chemistry of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, Rogue One‘s leads leave their mark.

What else is there to say? This movie isn’t just Disney milking the franchise for all it’s worth. It’s a thrilling adventure that fills in the blanks and melds neatly with what we already know about that galaxy far, far away.

Photo: Disney


Nerdy Special List December 2016

This month, I asked our illustrious contributors for a December favorite or one from any month this year, as long as it hasn’t appeared on the NSL.

Since you might be looking for gift ideas, how about considering some of these titles? I’ve added suggestions about the perfect recipient(s) for each book.

I’d like to thank Jen, Rory, Erin, Lauren, and Patti for having such excellent taste in books and sharing their recommendations all year long. Though they probably wish to distance themselves from me in public, they make me feel smarter by association.

From Jen at Brown Dog Solutions:

The Boy Who Escaped Paradise by J.M. Lee, trans. by Chi-Young Kim (Pegasus Books, December 20)

[Ed.: For the intellectual with exotic tastes, but safe for those who vomit easily.]

boy-escaped-paradiseLast year J.M. Lee blew me away with his English debut, The Investigation. This year he doubled down with The Boy Who Escaped Paradise. Both novels employ the richest of language in complex plot lines about dynamic and multidimensional characters.

Ahn Gil-mo is a young, North Korean math savant with Asperger’s syndrome. He is sent to a prison camp because of his father’s transgressions. While he’s in the camp, he makes a promise to always take care of his best friend, Yeong-ae. It’s this promise that takes him on an Odyssey-like trek across the globe.

Even if you fear numbers and feel nauseous at the mere mention of the word math, be not afraid. This book will win your heart, as it did mine.

It’s an epic adventure, a crime novel, a cultural expose. The Boy Who Escaped Paradise is a sure bet for a satisfying read.

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson (Viking, September 13)

[Ed.: For the folks who like ’80s TV and riding motorcycles without helmets because they think they’re badass.]

obvious-factAn Obvious Fact makes for a dozen novels in the Walt Longmire series. And even though Walt is the sheriff of the least populated county in the least populated state in America, Craig Johnson still manages to keep the stories fresh and highly entertaining.

With a little Sherlock Holmes, a little Dukes of Hazzard, and a whole lot of motorcycles, Fact centers on a hit-and-run that leaves a man comatose in Hulett, Wyoming, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

Walt, his trusted friend Henry Standing Bear, and Absaroka’s wily undersheriff Vic Moretti are on the case even though it’s out of their jurisdiction. There’s plenty of action, laughs and surprises.

Series fans who haven’t grabbed this one yet are in for a wonderful treat, including an introduction to the Lola. If you’re new to the series, I encourage you to start back at the beginning with A Cold Dish.

Any of the books can be read on their own and enjoyed, but Johnson has built a community with his characters and their relationships have evolved, especially over the last six books. To truly appreciate that quality, you want to grow along with the Absaroka gang. It’s a fabulous journey.

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet (Flatiron Books, October 4)

[Ed.: For your friends in prison who are always trying to bust out.]

guineveresSarah Domet’s debut novel takes its name from the four protagonists, all named Guinevere and all abandoned at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent.

Vere, Win, Ginny, and Gwen are desperate to escape their circumstances and hatch a plan to do so during a parade in a float. When that fails, the girls are sentenced to work in the convent’s sick ward, where they hatch yet another plan, this one involving comatose soldiers.

Each Guinevere has her own voice, though we hear most from Vere. Woven into the girls’ tales are the stories of the lives of various female saints. The nuns generally remain in the background, but are well drawn and not stereotypically Catholic, which I greatly appreciated. The nuns, though strict, genuinely care for the girls.

Rather than a novel about faith, Domet’s debut is instead a wonderful coming-of-age tale. It’s a subtle, complex novel depicting the inner lives of teenage girls, and their search for home and family—a winning combination with lovely writing. Don’t miss it!

From Erin at In Real Life:

Never Alone by Elizabeth Haynes (Myriad, October 6)

[Ed.: For the insomniac who likes to be so scared by books that s/he might need to wear a diaper. But not Erin. She can handle scary stuff like a boss.]

never-aloneWhen it comes to stories that make me—often literally—perch on the edge of my seat, I know I can count on Elizabeth Haynes. Her latest is no exception, and it is one of the best books I read in 2016.

Sarah Carpenter lives in a remote part of Yorkshire, and she hasn’t had an especially easy time of things. She finds herself alone after her husband dies and her grown kids move out, so she’s pleased when an old friend, Aiden Beck, shows up needing a place to stay for a while.

Sarah is well able to look after herself and is no shrinking violet, but her kids, friends, and friends of her kids are all concerned about Aiden’s presence, for markedly different reasons. And they might be right to be…but you’ll have to read the book to find out more about that.

Elizabeth Haynes has an extraordinary ability to pull readers right into her tales. I started reading her books when our very own PCN reviewed Into the Darkest Corner back in 2012. (Funny side note: The first time I met Elizabeth at a book event in England, I asked her to sign a book for PCN. When I told her that PCN had to stand in the hall to finish reading it, Elizabeth exclaimed, “I loved that review! It was one of my favorites!”)

Never Alone is spooky and creepy and captivating. Page-turner? Check. Fascinating? Absolutely.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Kill the Next One by Federico Axat, translated by David Frye (Mulholland Books, December 13)

kill-next-one[Ed.: For the uncle you like to make crazy by gaslighting him.]

Argentinian author Federico Axat’s US debut is a spectacular mind-meld of a psychological thriller, and it’s no surprise that Kill the Next One has been translated into more than twenty languages.

Ted McKay wants to commit suicide after discovering he has a brain tumor, but he’s interrupted, gun to his head, by an insistent knock at his door. The complete stranger on his doorstep makes Ted an offer he can’t refuse: kill two men, one who deserves to die and one who wants to die. In return, someone will kill Ted so he can die a heroic victim rather than by his own hand.

As Ted tries to follow through with the secret suicide club plan, his reality becomes as mixed up as a kaleidoscope. It’s unclear what is real (is a deranged possum really following him around?), who is telling the truth, how Ted was chosen and why.

As his sanity becomes more questionable, memories start pushing to the forefront of his mind, bringing frightening clarity. Axat brilliantly creates an environment permeated by doubt and one can’t help but begin to question reality on a larger scale. How do we know what’s real and who to trust?

The story is chilling, but Axat infuses it with humanity while maintaining the nightmarish atmosphere. Kill the Next One is thrilling perfection.

From Patti at Patti’s Pens & Picks:

city-bakers-guideThe City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller 

[Ed.: For the pyromaniac pastry lover, or your third cousin once removed.]

Pastry chef Olivia Rawlings accidentally sets a fire in the club where she works in Boston, and escapes from it all by moving near her best friend in Guthrie, Vermont. Olivia gets a job at an inn called the Sugar Maple Inn, concocting wonderful desserts as she adjusts to small-town life.

Her transition starts a bit roughly, but as she meets people and tries different activities, it becomes apparent that Guthrie is quite possibly where she’s meant to be.

I am in love with books where people start over and find the perfect new place for themselves or a new career. I loved being with Olivia and most of the people in Guthrie. Since I read it, I have thought about it often. This is one of my favorite books of 2016!

From PCN:

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (Touchstone, November 15)

9781501117206_p0_v8_s192x300[For the bathrobe-wearing, diminutive aunt who always fights you for the last drumstick and kills at drunk karaoke.]

Anna Kendrick is hilarious in movies, on talk shows, and Twitter, so it’s no surprise she’s also winning in book form. My full review is at Shelf Awareness, and part of what I said was “her breezy tone and accounts of social awkwardness make her seem like a friend you’d love to hang with…if she weren’t too lazy to clean her house and invite you over.”

Despite having been nominated for a Tony and an Oscar and working with celebs like George Clooney, Kendrick lives in sweatpants, fails at adulting, and owns her nerdiness—how could I not be charmed? I think you will be, too.

Are you giving or asking for books this season? What’s on your list?


Movie Review: LA LA LAND


Ohhh, what can I say about La La Land? If you’ve seen the trailer or photos, you probably already think it looks dreamy. I can confirm that it is. But with one foot in reality, too.

The premise is simple: struggling actress/barista Mia (Emma Stone) meets struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in Los Angeles, they bond over their artistic aspirations, and we see where they go from there, both in life and their careers.

The simple concept doesn’t mean nothing happens; these two go through their ups and downs. Emma Stone makes you laugh in the awkward audition situations, but we also feel her frustration and self-doubt: what if she isn’t good enough to make it? How do we know when to give up?

Gosling, via piano lessons, convincingly plays the beautiful, melancholy original pieces composed by Justin Hurwitz. The leads have proven they have chemistry in two previous movies together, but I think it’s most heartfelt here.

This is only the second movie I’ve seen by writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) but I’m ready to call him an auteur, a word I don’t use often. His is a singular vision; you won’t see another movie like La La Land this year. It’s at once nostalgic and modern. The heightened reality is a feast for the eyes, the music a balm for the soul, the emotions earned. I don’t even like musicals and I swooned over the musical numbers. It’s not just a movie but an experience.

As magical as it is, La La Land never crosses into saccharine territory and doesn’t forget real life isn’t perfect. It just encourages you to dream, and lets you know you’re not alone.

Photo: Lionsgate


Movie Review: JACKIE



Jackie Kennedy is such an iconic figure, what hasn’t already been said about her? Well, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie tries to give us a different portrait of her by imagining how she was in the private moments immediately following President Kennedy’s assassination.

The framing device is Mrs. Kennedy sitting down to an interview with a Life magazine reporter played by Billy Crudup. (The journalist is unnamed in the movie but is supposedly based on Theodore White.) The agreement is that she’d have final approval of the article.

Thus, we see Jackie chain-smoking through it all, saying whatever she wants no matter how raw, knowing she could strike it later.

What results is a glimpse of a coarser (but only a little) side behind the perfect facade of one of the classiest, most revered women in US history. In Natalie Portman’s hands, the private Jackie is someone who’s both more fragile and steelier than her public image.

Initially it’s a bit jarring to see Portman doing the finishing-school mannerisms and talking in Jackie’s polite breathy voice; I saw a famous actress doing an impression of someone even more famous. I started wondering if a lesser known actress would’ve been able to disappear more into the part.

But as Portman delves deeper, showing the pressures on a woman needing to grieve but also having to be a mother to two young children while planning a funeral worthy of her presidential husband, she displays mettle and emotional layers, for which the actress will likely get an Oscar nomination.

Other well-known actors show up to play real people, most notably Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. The actor is fine but is too old (he’s 45 to RFK’s 38 at the time) and doesn’t look at all like Bobby so he’s a curious choice. Crudup mostly just sits opposite Portman looking frustrated because the journalist can’t include the juiciest tidbits in his article.

But Jackie isn’t about anyone else except the titular person and the actress who plays her. I have no idea what our former first lady was really like, but seeing her as less than perfect doesn’t tarnish her image. It makes her more human.

Photo: Fox Searchlight



If you celebrate Thanksgiving, then I imagine your weekend will include not only turkey and stuffing but also football and movie viewing. I can’t help you with the first three items, seeing as how I can injure myself just opening a bag of chips, but with several new movies out this week, perhaps I can help you decide which one(s) you should spend your money on.


allied-cotillard-pittBrad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as WWII spies who go undercover as husband and wife to assassinate a German ambassador. Afterward, they become husband and wife for real…until a huge conflict arises that might make it impossible for them to remain allied.

This Robert Zemeckis-directed film is all about old-Hollywood glamor and style. Though the plot is hardly groundbreaking, Cotillard and Pitt are gorgeously lit and attired (costume designer Joanna Johnston had better be nominated for an Oscar) and they do generate some heat. Their collective star power charges the film.

If you’re the type who often thinks, “They sure don’t make movies like they used to,” Allied might be the ticket for you.

Rules Don’t Apply

rulesdontapplyWarren Beatty’s latest directorial effort also travels back in time, starting in 1964 and then going back five years earlier, with Beatty playing Howard Hughes.

But it’s not just about Hughes; the story centers on a young couple, a starlet (Lily Collins) Hughes brings out to Hollywood for a screen test, and the starlet’s driver (Alden Ehrenreich).

Peppered throughout are lots of name actors, including Annette Bening, Candice Bergen, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris. But except for the always riveting Bening, the stars are given nothing to do, and some are practically background actors. I can only speculate they took the gig because they’re Friends of Warren.

Instead, the most screen time goes to the least interesting actors of the bunch: Collins and Ehrenreich, with Collins the bigger problem. She looks good in period costumes but it’s all surface and no depth, and every line out of her mouth is unconvincing. Ehrenreich doesn’t have much to play with, but he has a kind of stillness that hints at something interesting. I guess we’ll see if he’s got any swagger when he suits up as the young Han Solo.

Beatty’s rambling script is problematic, too. It can’t decide if it’s about Hughes or the young couple or aeronautics or Hollywood or all of the above or what. Characters say random lines and talk at not with each other, creating a disconnect like they’re doing different scenes while in the same one. I’m calling this a turkey, though not the delicious kind.

Manchester by the Sea

manchester-by-the-seaCasey Affleck and Lucas Hedges play uncle and nephew bonding in the aftermath of a family member’s death. Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler costar as Affleck’s ex-wife and brother.

If you’ve followed Williams’s and/or director/writer Kenneth Lonergan’s (You Can Count on Me) career, you know neither makes happy movies. It’s as if Williams only wants to explore the depths of grief in her work. But she’s so good at it, and her scene near the end of Manchester is devastating.

It’s not all sad, though; the movie does have moments of humor and Affleck makes emotional numbness compelling. Manchester will likely get multiple nominations for acting and/or writing and directing, so check it out to see what the buzz is about.


lion-sunny-pawarI’ve saved my favorite for last.

Lion is based on A Long Way Home, Saroo Brierley’s 2014 memoir, and tells the tale of how 5-year-old Saroo got lost in 1986 on a train in India, ending up on the streets for more than a month, with no money and only a vague idea of the name of his hometown. He’s eventually taken to an adoption agency and is adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham) of Tasmania, Australia.

Saroo never stops searching for home, however, and 25 years later, while using Google Earth, he sees an image that fits his hazy memories of where he lived as a boy. But is his family still there?

It’s incredible that Sunny Prewar, who plays the young Saroo (Dev Patel takes over in the later years), has never acted before. The boy is a natural, effortlessly carrying the first half of the movie on his tiny shoulders. The rest of the cast is strong, too; Kidman shows the kindly Sue could also be fierce with just a look.

I was a sobbing mess by the time this movie ended, but they were emotional, life-affirming tears. Even if crying at the movies is not your thing, Lion inspires hope that however far away from home you might find yourself, you don’t have to remain lost forever.

Which movie(s) are you looking to see this week? If you’re considering Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, that review is here.

I’ve also seen a bunch of other top award contenders, including La La Land, Jackie, and Hidden Figures, and will post reviews in the next couple of weeks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photos: Allied/Paramount, Rules Don’t Apply/Twentieth Century Fox, Manchester by the Sea/Amazon Studios, Lion/The Weinstein Company