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An INSIDE OUT Christmas

This past weekend I attended my friend Mari’s annual holiday theme party. Long-time PCN readers might remember her incredible Harry Potter party and the Dr. Seuss one, among others. This year’s theme was:


In case you don’t recognize it, that’s Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out, with characters representing emotions inside the head of a little girl named Riley. When the movie came out in June, Mr. PCN and I had seen it with Mari and her children—which include a girl named Riley.

When we arrived at the house, we were greeted with this banner as we stepped through the window into Riley’s mind.



Inside was this brilliant table:


Notice the “memories” on the walls.


The hors d’oeuvres and snacks area:



Here’s the live version of, from left, Anger, Sadness, Disgust (in front of Sadness), Joy (Mari), and Fear.



The one in front on the ground? That’s my friend Christian as the lovesick volcano from the short film Lava, which played before Inside Out in theaters. Christian trounced us all for best costume. You can see more of his volcanic splendor in the group shot below.



Hope your holidays glow brightly and bring you much joy. (To see more of Mari’s feasts for the eyes, visit her site.)



Mini Movie Reviews: More Based-on-True-Events Fare

As I mentioned in a previous post, many of this year’s award contenders are about real people and based on real events. After reviewing Trumbo, Steve Jobs, and The Danish Girl, here are my thoughts on the next batch of supposedly true stories.


In the Heart of the Sea

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

Adapted from Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book-award winner of the same title, this recounts the ordeals of the ship Essex and her crew in 1820 after the ship was demolished by a sperm whale. The crew drifted for over 90 days in separate boats, fighting (unsuccessfully for some) hunger, thirst, and nature before being rescued. The incident, and accounts by survivors, apparently inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

The situations are harrowing for sure, but like many Ron Howard-directed films, Heart of the Sea veers toward sentimentalism toward the end. I prefer what Brooklyn‘s director, John Crowley, does—move audiences without being sentimental.

Chris Hemsworth solidifies his status as the go-to guy when Hollywood needs a big, strong dude who can act; Tom Holland continues to make me feel really bad for his unfortunate characters in water-logged tragedies (check him out in The Impossible; he’s also the new Spider-Man and will hopefully stay dry); and Brendan Gleeson is affecting as a traumatized man, though it’s ridiculous that the filmmakers want us to buy the 60-year-old actor as a 45-year-old.


Bridge of Spies



This Steven Spielberg-directed espionage thriller is solid entertainment and much better than you might think it is. That was my reaction, and I’ve heard a couple of other people say the same, probably because a movie more than two hours long about the Cold War and Russian spies sounds dense and dry. It’s actually suspenseful, well-paced, and has a definite supporting actor contender in Mark Rylance. Rylance remains still and quiet throughout the movie, but there’s so much going on beneath the surface.

Tom Hanks plays a lawyer named James Donovan who becomes the second most hated man in America as the defense lawyer for Rylance’s character, Rudolf Abel, an accused Soviet spy. I don’t want to give away too much about the fascinating chess moves that occur, but Donovan ends up being recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of an American spy held captive in the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about the real-life Donovan and the results of his actions, so the ensuing events had me riveted.

The script, by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen, contains thought-provoking dialogue. When a CIA agent pressures Donovan to betray his client’s confidentiality, arguing that Abel is a foreigner and “there’s no rule book” that applies to him, Donovan points out that he himself is of Irish descent, the agent has German roots, and therefore following “the rule book” is the only thing that defines them as Americans.




Fox 2000

Teaming up yet again with director David O. Russell, Jennifer Lawrence plays Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop and many more items. Joy goes from being a kid with bright ideas to a broke single mother with no business experience, then transforms into an entrepreneur and head of a multimillion-dollar empire.

The movie has an uneven tone and odd dream-like sequences; I wouldn’t have been too surprised if the dancing dwarf from Twin Peaks showed up. Can’t fault the acting, though. As with anything she does, Lawrence is immensely watchable. She’s too young to play Mangano (the real Mangano was about 34 when she invented the Miracle Mop; Lawrence is 25), but she does convincingly traverse the character arc from novice to shrewd businesswoman.

The supporting cast is fine, with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad, Bradley Cooper as a QVC exec who gives Joy her first big break, and Diane Ladd as Joy’s grandmother. Unlike with the last three Russell movies, however, I don’t think any of the supporting players will get nominations.

While I have no beef with Elisabeth Röhm as a performer, I wonder why Russell keeps having the fair German-born actress portray Italian (or at least half Italian) characters. Yes, Italians can be fair, and in American Hustle Röhm wasn’t too jarring as Dolly Polito, but here, as Joy’s half sister, she’s distracting in olive face. I kept thinking there are qualified actresses of Italian descent—e.g. Jennifer Esposito, Drea de Matteo—who could’ve played the sister without having to darken their skin.


Nerdy Special List Year-End Edition

Instead of a December list, I thought I’d post a list featuring outstanding books from any month this year, titles that weren’t on previous lists because we didn’t read them before pub date or whatever other reason. This isn’t a best-of or top-ten list, just a roundup of additional 2015 books we found special. Maybe one or four will end up on your Christmas list!

From Jen’s Book Thoughts:

bassoon-kingThe Bassoon King by Rainn Wilson (Dutton)

Actor Rainn Wilson’s memoir is smart, funny, and inspirational. I listened to the audiobook, which Wilson narrates himself, and it will be my favorite audiobook of the year. He offers up an honest look at his rise to The Office fame, with all the bumps, bruises and laughs, including a stint playing the bassoon in his high school band.

Wilson is a wiz with words, crafting brilliant phrases like “drama geeks as the lions of the dork Serengeti.” He also shares his views on his religion, Bahá’í, and of course has plenty to say about The Office. But you don’t need to be a fan of the sitcom to appreciate this fantastic book.

If you’re an audiobook fan, opt to listen to this one because Wilson’s performance adds an extra layer of goodness to an already enjoyable read.

gates-of-evangelineThe Gates of Evangeline by Hester Young (Putnam)

This atmospheric debut novel follows a 38-year-old woman to Louisiana where she’s writing a book about the prominent Deveau family and the still unsolved 30-year-old kidnapping of the youngest Deveau, Gabriel.

The novel contains a hint of mysticism and a wallop of great characters, all wrapped in themes of love, faith, and devotion. Hester Young creates a rich Southern Gothic setting in the old plantation on a Louisiana bayou, and the plot is masterfully constructed with red herrings and twists up to the very end.

An amazing first novel. I’m looking forward to more from this talented writer. (Read Jen’s full review here.)

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

the shoreThe Shore by Sara Taylor (Hogarth)

The Shore is Sara Taylor’s debut novel. Set just off the coast of Virginia, there are a group of small islands in the Chesapeake Bay known as “the Shore.” Inhabited by rich and poor alike, the Shore is the place that binds everyone together.

The story is bleak, filled with abuse, addiction, and tragedy, but beautifully written. Although it’s considered a novel, each chapter has the feel of a short story. The characters are complex and distinct, and they illustrate how you can love and hate the place you call home.

It’s worth warning potential readers, especially based on the misleading cover, this novel is unremittingly harsh. It’s grim, it’s tough, it’s unexpected, but it is so worth the effort to get through.

bull mountainBull Mountain by Brian Panowich (Putnam)

Allowing I didn’t intentionally set out to recommend two debuts, I’m happy it worked out that way. Bull Mountain is Brian Panowich’s brilliant first novel. Set in the backwoods of northern Georgia, this is southern grit-lit at its finest.

The novel tells the saga of the Burroughs family and its transition from selling moonshine to marijuana and eventually meth. It centers on brothers Halford and Clayton. Halford is the head of the Burroughs empire, while Clayton is the outcast and the sheriff of the county. The two form an uneasy truce that lasts until Special Agent Simon Holly arrives. After that, nothing is the same.

This novel is tense and deeply satisfying, truly a page turner (a phrase I never use, but it’s apt here). If a sweeping southern tale of crime, vengeance, and loyalty sounds appealing, pick up this book immediately.

From Erin at In Real Life:

child gardenThe Child Garden by Catriona McPherson (Midnight Ink)

With each of her novels, Catriona McPherson lays bare Scotland’s dark underbelly, and long may she continue to do so (tourism board be damned!).

In The Child Garden, we meet Gloria Harkness, a good (no, really) woman who is doing the best she can in difficult circumstances. Her good nature leads her into the heart of a dark mystery, though, fraught with complications and evil presences.


taking pityTaking Pity by David Mark (Blue Rider Press)

Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy is a good guy in the midst of a terrible run of events. His house is gone and his wife and daughter are in hiding. All he needs is…a good case. Or maybe not, but that’s what he gets.

A rural murder in the picturesque English countryside is much more than it appears when McAvoy starts digging, and the result is a story worthy of the McBain comparisons it has drawn.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

61XH0FJVXVLSmaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan (Soho)

I was blown away by F.H. Batacan’s brilliant Smaller and Smaller Circles, winner of multiple awards in the Philippines and published in the US for the first time in August.

The story is set in 1977 Manila, a city rife with poverty, corrupt officials, and lazy law enforcement. When the mutilated bodies of at-risk boys begin showing up in the dump, Jesuit priest and forensic anthropologist Gus Saenz is asked by the director of the National Bureau of Investigations to help with the case.

Father Gus, along with his former student and mentee Father Jerome Lucero, now a psychologist, throw themselves into the case with their hearts and heads. Of course, not everyone cares that boys on society’s fringes are being victimized. Not everyone likes Father Gus and his meddling ways.

In Batacan’s hands, these normal elements of crime fiction don’t feel like retreads. Everything fits, the plot and characters are all drawn so well the whole feels very, very real indeed. I was amazed how quickly Father Gus and Father Jerome became a duo I was wholly invested in and would crave more from. Batacan let me know her characters in the most intimate way—by shining a light on their souls through their words and actions.

I loved feeling so powerless to avoid getting caught up in these characters and their plights. I highly recommend this one, which does include some difficult material, but handled appropriately and not for shock value. (Read Lauren’s full review here.)

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

ruined abbeyRuined Abbey by Anne Emery (ECW Press)

This book takes place in 1989, during the Irish “Troubles.” Several members of Father Brennan Burke’s family end up in jail for various reasons. He and his siblings try to get to the main source of their problems, and figure out where everyone fits into the bigger picture.

Ruined Abbey is very interesting, partially because I didn’t know anything about the time period in Ireland or Britain. Highly recommended.


dead to meDead to Me by Mary McCoy (Disney-Hyperion)

I did not know this book was a young adult book when I started it, even though the main character is 16. Alice investigates the brutal beating of her older sister, who lies in a coma. The story and the noir atmosphere more than hold up as both a YA and adult mystery.

Goodreads calls it “L. A. Confidential for young adults.” Highly recommended.

From PCN:

little black liesLittle Black Lies by Sharon Bolton (Minotaur)

I’d been going through a bad reading slump when this book arrived and saved me. Many months after I read it, it still haunts me.

Set in the Falkland Islands, the story is told from three main points of view: Catrin, a mother still grieving the death of her two young sons; Rachel, Catrin’s former best friend who may have been (accidentally) involved in the boys’ deaths; and Callum, Catrin’s ex-lover and ex-soldier in the Falklands War.

Little boys are going missing on the islands, and Catrin doesn’t think the disappearances are unrelated. Delving into the mystery, though, only brings back devastating memories of her own lost boys. Her grief is raw and palpable when we see her internal life, but to others she can seem stoic and unsentimental so her sorrow isn’t overwhelming.

Rachel and Callum struggle with their own demons, and the three characters collide in a climax that’s almost O. Henry-ish. If you need a slump buster, you can’t go wrong with this book.


And this concludes our final Nerdy Special List of the year. I’d like to thank all the smart, good-looking, well-dressed contributors for expanding my reading universe with their recommendations every month. Hope you all have enjoyed the lists as much as I have. (For previous NSLs, click here.)

Which books were special for you this year?


Gift Book Reviews: Ghostbusters and Hollywood Fashion

Many of us have probably already started Christmas shopping—well, maybe you have; I usually wait until Dec. 24 and then panic-buy random things next to cash registers in stores—so I thought I’d help by reposting my reviews of these beautiful books that would make wonderful gifts for the pop culture nerds in your life.

The reviews originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and are reprinted here with permission.

Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History by Daniel Wallace

ghostbustersArriving more than 30 years after the original Ghostbusters movie made its debut in theaters and several months before the 2016 reboot with an all-female cast, Daniel Wallace’s Ghostbusters: The Ultimate Visual History is an entertaining collection of behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the origin and production of the 1984 movie and its sequel. The book is generous with on-set pictures and recollections from the cast and crew, though many of the quotes are from previously published or broadcast sources. It also contains pullout memorabilia, such as storyboards, concept art and Peter Venkman’s business card.

Though it doesn’t explain why several key original crew members—including visual effects designer Richard Edlund and production designer John DeCuir—didn’t return for the sequel, this compendium is a must-have for fans who fondly remember the hit movie and are eagerly awaiting the remake.

Creating the Illusion: A Fashionable History of Hollywood Costume Designers by Jay Jorgensen, Donald L. Scoggins

creating the illusionBesides Edith Head, how many influential costume designers could most cineastes name? Jay Jorgensen and Donald L. Scoggins’s Creating the Illusion should help raise that number. This encyclopedic compilation contains profiles of—and interviews with—costume designers who’ve left indelible impressions on film throughout the last century.

For the adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, costume designer Adrian (a one-name wonder long before Cher’s and Madonna’s time) feared the silver slippers from the book wouldn’t pop on screen, so he made them ruby–and created movie history.

While Oscar-winner Gloria Wakeling moonlighted in TV, she designed Barbara Eden’s pink costume on I Dream of Jeannie. The intimidating Irene Sharaff created larger-than-life gowns for The King and I and Cleopatra, among others. Marilyn Monroe’s white, billowing dress? Designed by William Travilla. Who’s responsible for Neo’s black duster in The Matrix? Kym Barrett. They’re all here, along with many more, receiving rightful credit for helping shape iconic characters and sartorial moments in pop culture.


Holiday Binge-Watching

I hope you all enjoyed your holiday weekend (if you celebrated Thanksgiving). It was a much needed break for me. Every day when I woke, Mr. PCN would ask, “What would you like to do today?” and my answer was always the same: “Attain pure sloth.” I crushed this goal. Mr. PCN pointed out the bar was pretty low, if not on the ground, but remaining immobile for as long as I did on the couch is an art form not everyone understands.

Clearing my schedule—besides attending two Thanksgiving dinners—gave me plenty of time to binge-watch two new series, one from Amazon and the other from Netflix. Below are my thoughts.

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon)


Alexa Davalos

Amazon’s new drama, based on Philip K. Dick’s book and set in 1962, depicts an alternate universe in which Americans lost World War II. The Germans govern the East Coast, called the Greater Nazi Reich, while the West Coast is named Japanese Pacific States, with some areas in between remaining a neutral zone.

The mysterious titular man compels a resistance group to smuggle films to him that show the Allies winning the war, giving hope to the oppressed. Resistance members are pursued by spies and yakuza and kempeitai (Japanese military police) and Nazis.

The series is gripping, suspenseful, moodily shot—it’s extremely unsettling to see the swastika on the American flag and arm bands—and well-acted. Alexa Davalos, whom I’ve been a fan of from her stint on the Buffy spin-off Angel, stars as Juliana Crain, who gets drawn into the resistance when her sister shoves a can of film at her one night while running away from the kempeitai. (Juliana’s last name is too obvious for me, since it’s a homophone for crane, a Japanese symbol of longevity and good luck. In the book she has a different last name.)

A standout supporting actor is Joel de la Fuente as Chief Inspector Kido of the kempeitai. He mostly remains very still but oozes menace from every pore.

The story has many plot holes and the ending leaves a lot of questions unresolved, but High Castle has high-quality production values and deserves a look.

Nerd verdict: Provocative High Castle


Master of None (Netflix)

master of none

Aziz Ansari & Noël Wells

Aziz Ansari cocreated, stars in, cowrote and directed some of the episodes of this Seinfeld-like half-hour comedy. Ansari plays Dev, an actor in NYC mostly known for his commercials who’s starting to land movie roles. When not working, he hangs out with his buddies, often in restaurants, talking about relationships—with friends, parents, and significant others.

Dev may seem like a shallow dude but the writing is sharp, making funny, keen observations about show business (the audition scenes are hilariously true to life), thirtysomething angst, and our social-media-obsessed culture.

One of the most poignant episodes is titled “Parents,” which depicts Dev and his Chinese friend Brian taking their immigrant parents for granted, then slowly coming to appreciate the sacrifices their parents made to give Dev and Brian better lives in America. It’s an extra sweet touch to have Ansari’s real parents play Dev’s parents.

Noël Wells winningly portrays Dev’s girlfriend, Rachel, a cool girl who seems too good for him, but their chemistry is so adorable she’s also just right for him. I’m hoping for a season two so we can see where Dev’s and Rachel’s adventures take them.

Nerd verdict: Master drops truth bombs about life

What did you watch/read over the weekend?

Photos: Davalos/Amazon Studios; Ansari & Wells/Netflix


Mini Movie Reviews: Biopic Edition

Like last year, many of this year’s batch of award-baiting movies are based on real people or stories. I’m not a big fan of this genre because unless you know very little about the subjects, it’s hard to be surprised by what’s on screen. Plus, many biopics come across like a checklist: in this year, this event occurred, and then in another year, this other thing happened, etc.

That’s not to say the results are always boring, hence my varying thoughts on the biopics I saw recently.


Samuel Goldwyn Films

Samuel Goldwyn Films


Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, the novelist and screenwriter who was blacklisted and imprisoned for refusing to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but nevertheless managed to win two Oscars—for Roman Holiday and The Brave One—under an assumed name.

This is standard biopic fare, with nothing to qualify it as exceptional. Cranston is solid, Helen Mirren doesn’t do anything as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper we haven’t seen from her, and the ever luminous Diane Lane is wasted as Trumbo’s patient wife, Cleo.

Memorable performances come from Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, torn by loyalty to his friend Trumbo and his need to preserve his career, and Dean O’Gorman, whose resemblance to the young Kirk Douglas is so startling, I thought Mr. Douglas had Benjamin Buttoned to be in this movie.

Reasons for seeing it: To be reminded of how mass hysteria and government-dictated imprisonment of US citizens for their political views is a very bad idea.


Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

Steve Jobs

Based on Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of the Apple cofounder, boosted by Aaron Sorkin’s script and Michael Fassbender’s mesmerizing performance in the title role, Steve Jobs is a surprisingly riveting portrait of the complicated man behind the popular computers and mobile devices.

As with all Sorkin-written movies, this is very talky, but the dialogue is sharp, often cutting straight to blunt truths, and nimbly delivered by the cast. When Jobs is asked why he never approached his biological father despite knowing the man’s identity, he replies, “Because he’d probably find some reason to sue me.”

Fassbender is a sure best-actor contender for simultaneously displaying the brilliance and vulnerability, arrogance and fear, triumphs and frustrations, confidence and regret that shaped the mercurial Jobs. Even when Jobs is being a jerk, I oddly found myself rooting for him because he’s simply more dynamic than anyone else on screen.

Kate Winslet supports Fassbender well as Apple’s marketing executive Joanna Hoffman, the only person who seemingly had the balls to stand up to Jobs. Michael Stuhlbarg shows up here, too, once again doing subtly effective work as another real-life person—original Apple team member Andy Herztfeld—struggling with conflicting loyalties.

Reasons for seeing it: Fassbender’s commanding performance, strong writing from Sorkin, learning about the development of iconic Apple products.


Focus Features

Focus Features

The Danish Girl

Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander can count on Oscar nominations for their work as married artists Einar and Gerda Wegener. With Gerda’s support, Eina became the first person to undergo gender-reassignment operations, transitioning into Lili Elbe.

I don’t think Redmayne will win again this year, though. Like he did as Stephen Hawking in last year’s The Theory of Everything, the actor fully immerses himself in the dual role of Einar/Lili, but he’s less effective here. Whereas with Hawking, the actor manages to show the man’s internal life while remaining mostly immobile, Redmayne’s Lili employs a lot of feminine mannerisms and hand gestures that make his performance seem more about the external than internal. Vikander, on the other hand, is raw and hearttbreaking as a woman who can’t stop loving her husband, even after Einar kills him off so Lili can live.

Reasons for seeing it: Vikander’s star-making performance, to better understand the internal and external struggles of a transgendered person.


Mini Movie Reviews: SPECTRE and BROOKLYN

Movie awards season is in full swing, so I’ve been attending multiple screenings a week. Last week I saw four movies, and this week will try to screen three. As much as I’d like to write detailed reviews, I can’t keep up due to work and sleep. Plus, laziness. So I’ll be posting shorter reviews of the movies I see in the next couple months, starting with these two.


SPECTREDirector Sam Mendes’s second James Bond outing and star Daniel Craig’s fourth improved upon the last two films in the franchise to become my favorite with Craig after Casino Royale. I chose to know nothing about the plot before viewing, just plunked myself into a theater seat, and said, “All right, entertain me.” And it did.

The opening sequence is usually among the most thrilling, and this one, set in Mexico City during Día de los Muertos, had me on the edge of my seat. The movie contains several other memorable set pieces involving helos, trains, boats, and fancy sports cars. The action isn’t Michael Bay-ish, meaning it’s not mindless destruction. There’s often an emotional undercurrent to the most explosive scenes, because Bond is trying to save someone’s life or exact revenge.

Craig is ultra cool, tearing across the screen with confidence. His leonine grace makes him equally suave in a tux and dangerous in a fight. This time out, he gets to play some of Bond’s personal backstory, making 007 more accessible than usual.

Despite much press calling her a Bond woman, Monica Bellucci isn’t the female lead. It’s good to see her on screen, alluring as ever, but she has only one scene. Léa Seydoux is the true Bond girl, one who’s believable as a doctor and doesn’t turn into a screaming mess when things get rough. The actress’s most effective features are her expressive eyes, which can go from steely to vulnerable and back again in .02 seconds.

Christoph Waltz is creepy as the villain, but we’ve witnessed this performance before. (See: Inglourious Basterds or any of his 93 other movies in which he plays a baddie.) Andrew Scott is also very good as a jerk; fans of BBC’s Sherlock might recognize him as Moriarty.

Even as Mendes continues to move the franchise forward, he pays homage to past Bond films by including fun references to iconic elements such as a certain white kitty, the classic Aston Martin, and a hulking, hard-to-kill thug who calls to mind Richard Kiel’s Jaws. As for Sam Smith’s rendition of the title song, the only thing I can remember about it is thinking, “Wow, dude can sing high.”

Nerd verdict: Satisfying Spectre



brooklynSaoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, an Irish lass in the 1950s who’s sent to Brooklyn, NY, by her older sister due to a lack of career opportunities for young women in their hometown. With the help of a Catholic priest, Eilis gets a job in a high-end department store while going to school to study bookkeeping.

She also starts seeing an Italian boy named Tony and life looks good—until a sudden death calls her back to Ireland. While there, she meets another young man who makes her wonder whether her life belongs in her home country or across the ocean in America.

The story, from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name, sounds simple, but the movie is highly affecting (while containing more than a few laughs). Sobs were heard throughout in the audience, and some of them might’ve come from me.

During the post-movie Q&A, director John Crowley said he wanted the adaptation, penned by Nick Hornby, to be emotional but not sentimental, and he accomplished his goal. He had able help from Ronan, showing a much softer side than she had with past characters, and Emory Cohen as Tony, whose chemistry with Ronan is palpable and sweet.

The supporting cast, including Domhnall Gleeson as Jim, the third point in the love triangle; Julie Walters as a boardinghouse’s den mother; and Jim Broadbent as the priest who watches over Eilis; is rock solid. The lush cinematography and period costumes made me nostalgic for a time when the world seemed more beautiful and less complicated.

Nerd verdict: Moving Brooklyn


Nerdy Special List November 2015

Happy November! Hope everyone had a fun Halloween weekend. I dressed up as Princess Leia. Does that surprise anyone? Not slave Leia but the I’m-gonna-keep-my-bits-warm Hoth version.

From here on out, we might as well coast into the holidays. But we aren’t done with this year’s selection of good books. Here are the new releases we recommend.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Woman With a Blue Pencil by Gordon McAlpine (Seventh Street Books, November 10)

woman-with-blue-pencilIt feels rare these days to read a book and feel like you’ve experienced something genuinely unique. Woman With a Blue Pencil is that rarity for me. Gordon McAlpine imagines the life of a character who’s been left on the cutting room floor. Sam Sumida is Takumi Sato’s Japanese-American protagonist who simply came into existence at the wrong time.

Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Sato’s publisher didn’t think a Japanese-American hero would be a commercial hit. So Sumida was replaced. Woman With a Blue Pencil intricately weaves together the revised novel, Sumida’s survival following his expulsion from the book, and letters from Sato’s editor—the woman with a blue pencil. Chock full of exciting action, brilliant plot twists, and timeless social commentary, Woman With a Blue Pencil is an exceptional treat.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe (Seventh Street Books, November 3rd)

secret-life-of-anna-blancJennifer Kincheloe’s debut is hilariously entertaining. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Anna Blanc is an intelligent, sheltered, and restless young socialite who has a propensity to worm her way into trouble. So much so that her father has hired a constant chaperone to keep Anna out of questionable situations and protect her reputation.

But Anna’s rascally ways outsmart even her father. She bribes the unscrupulous chaperone and adopts the alias Anna Holmes in order to fulfill her dream of being a detective—she takes a position as a police matron with the Los Angeles Police Department.

While she’s supposed to be typing reports and removing small children from whorehouses, Anna sets out to find a rapist and solve a serial murder case the department seems to be hiding. Anna is very smart when it comes to logic and deduction. But the street smarts and common sense are not so abundant.

Kincheloe does a wonderful job of balancing those two qualities so that Anna comes off authentically awkward and empathetic. Her moxie is admirable and her compassion endearing. The dialogue is excellent, and Kincheloe’s depiction of Los Angeles in the early twentieth century is so realistic, it’s often palpable, sometimes even rancid with the smell of manure. The romantic element is predictable, but satisfying nonetheless. I was sad to turn the last page.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned From a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell (Ballantine, October 27, moved up from November 5)

penguin lessonsThis utterly charming memoir helped me waddle out of a severe reading rut. In the mid-1970s, author Michell, then 23, left his native England for a position at an Argentinian boarding school. On a relaxing weekend jaunt to Uruguay, he comes across the horrific results of an oil spill: a large group of dead beached penguins. When one mighty little penguin shows signs of life, Michell has no choice but to rescue the plucky fellow, who he (quite hilariously) smuggles back to Argentina and ultimately names Juan Salvado.

If you’re given to anthropomorphizing, you’re going to love this book. If you’re not, I dare you to read this gem and not come away with a different feeling and understanding about the minds and emotions of animals. Juan Salvado is a sheer delight—to Michell, his students, his cleaning lady, school staff, and, I’m betting, most readers.

At turns warm and laugh-out-loud funny (I literally did lol at Michell’s efforts to clean the bird in the posh Uruguayan apartment he was using), The Penguin Lessons also provides interesting insight into Argentina and its people in the 1970s. A slim volume at just 240 pages, this would be a great holiday gift for the animal lover on your list.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

A Likely Story by Jenn McKinlay (Berkeley Prime Crime, November 3)

likely storyThis is the sixth in Jenn McKinlay’s Library Lover’s Mystery series and the first to be published in hardcover. As a librarian, it’s no surprise I love this series.

A Likely Story takes place on the coast of Connecticut in a small town, and our heroine is Lindsey Norris, librarian and director of the Briar Creek Public Library. She and one of her suitors, Sully, take a water taxi out to a local island to deliver books to two older men who are brothers. When Lindsey and Sully aren’t met at the dock, they venture up to the Rosens’ house, only to find one brother missing and one brother murdered.

Things are resolved in interesting and satisfying ways, with a bit of a twist at the end, and readers should be happy with how the characters are moving forward with their lives.

From PCN:

The Promise by Robert Crais (Putnam, November 10)

the promiseLongtime Craisies have been impatiently awaiting this new entry in the Elvis Cole and Joe Pike series, and they’re in for a treat. Elvis is hired to look for a missing woman, and immediately becomes embroiled in a case that might involve Al-Qaeda. Luckily he has a formidable team by his side: his partner Joe Pike, mercenary Jon Stone, LAPD officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie (the last two are from Crais’s standalone novel Suspect).

Look for my full review in Shelf Awareness for Readers later this month, as well as additional coverage here of Crais’s first novel in almost three years.

Which books are you looking forward to this month?


Book Review: THE KILLING KIND by Chris Holm

killing kindHit man Michael Hendricks stares through his rifle’s scope at a man in Miami. Crack. Hendricks’s target is rubbed out. Which makes Hendricks the bad guy, right? Wrong.

Hendricks, the protagonist of Chris Holm’s The Killing Kind, makes his living as a hit man who kills only hit men. As a former US military operative presumed dead after a mission went awry in Afghanistan, he’s specially suited for his work. When he hears a contract has been taken out on someone, he contacts the target and offers his services to remove the threat—but only if the target is someone worth saving.

The Council, an organization of representatives from every crime family in the world, isn’t having it. It hires a hit man named Engelmann to stop Hendricks from messing with the group’s killing plans. Also on Hendricks’s trail is FBI Special Agent Charlotte “Charlie” Thompson, who has a hard time convincing her colleagues that Hendricks even exists. Hendricks is very good at his job, but can he elude his pursuers, who also excel at theirs?

Holm (The Collector Trilogy) is good at his job, too. His prose is lean, his pacing brisk, the suspense high, and his plot unpredictable. He encourages the reader to care about characters that aren’t normally sympathetic, and if they’re not likable, they’re at least amusing. There’s plenty of violence and dark humor, but heart as well, with Hendricks holding a candle for a love he can’t forget. He’s not just the killing kind; he’s also the romantic kind.

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


Movie Review: ROOM

ROOM_web-203x300Prepare to be emotionally shattered by Room, the movie. I walked out of the screening with my face soaked in tears and told the studio rep I couldn’t see straight. But this is a good thing, because it means the movie did right by the book.

In 2010, Emma Donoghue’s novel had the same effect on me (see review here), and I wondered how the story would translate to the screen. Luckily Donoghue adapted her own book, so the result is faithful to the source material, losing none of its power.

As with the book, I think it’s better going in knowing as little as possible, so I’ll be vague and succinct with the synopsis. A 5-year-old boy named Jack lives with his ma in a tiny room and they never go outside. A man called Old Nick brings them Sunday treats. The story is told through the boy’s eyes.

Lest you think that sounds simple and harmless, Room is extremely disturbing and suspenseful at times. My hands started cramping from clutching Mr. PCN’s arm too hard while watching.

The cast is note perfect from top to bottom, but the movie belongs to Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack. Though Ma puts on a positive face for Jack, Larson’s portrayal makes it clear her character is only a hair’s breath away from complete despair. But if her kid is threatened, she can transform into full Mama Bear.

I can’t say enough about Tremblay’s tremendously complex performance. He nails how Jack is in the book—preternaturally smart but still innocent, and without a whiff of cutesiness. Sometimes he throws tantrums, other times he rips your heart out. There’s a moment when Jack sees the unfiltered sky for the first time, and his expression is everything.

Tremblay’s work made me think of other extraordinary performances from young actors, like 8-year-old Justin Henry’s in Kramer vs. Kramer and 4-year-old Victoire Thivisol’s in Ponette, and I’d put Tremblay’s accomplishment right up there with them. He deserves to be nominated for every award he’s eligible for. As does director Lenny Abrahamson, who found just the right tone for the movie. He doesn’t shy away from the difficult subject matter, but reminds us love can come from tragedy, and there is light on the other side of darkness.

Nerd verdict: Beautiful and deeply moving Room


Guest Post & Giveaway from Author Laura Benedict


Photo: Jay Fram

I’m thrilled to have Laura Benedict here today because she’s one of my favorite people in the crime-fiction community. She’s as nice as can be, entices you with cookies and tea, but when you read her suspense thrillers, you think, “What the Freud? THAT’S SO CREEPY!” And when you tell her that, she laughs gleefully. How could you not love her?

Laura has a new book out October 15 called Charlotte’s Story, which has received a starred Booklist review. It’s a follow-up to 2014’s Bliss House but not quite a sequel. This means the two books share the house as a character and both involve Bliss family members, but they can be read in either order.

Here’s the synopsis of Charlotte’s Story from Laura’s website:

charlottesstoryThe fall of 1957 in southern Virginia was a seemingly idyllic, even prosperous time. A young housewife, Charlotte Bliss, lives with her husband, Hasbrouck Preston “Press” Bliss, and their two young children, Eva Grace and Michael, in the gorgeous Bliss family home.

On the surface, theirs seems a calm, picturesque life, but soon tragedy befalls them: four tragic deaths, with apparently simple explanations.

But nothing is simple if Bliss House is involved. How far will Charlotte go to discover the truth? And how far will she get without knowing who her real enemy is?

Though Bliss House may promise to give its inhabitants what they want, it never gives them exactly what they expect.

I asked Laura what was the creepiest thing she encountered while researching, and she sent along the post below. (Don’t look at the pictures before bedtime.) Not only that, she’s giving away an audiobook version of Bliss House and a groovy set of headphones to one PCN reader!

Read on to learn more.

Growing up, I was pretty certain I’d be a librarian. No one I knew was a writer—and it never occurred to me that I was even allowed to be one. Strange, I know, for someone who practically burst from the womb in love with books. (More on this womb thing in a minute.)

Mostly, I wanted to know things. No, that’s not quite right. Mostly I was bored with real life, and the best way I found to amuse myself was to read about other people and places and the things in those places.

It made sense to me that the place to surround myself with that stuff would be the library, right? (Let’s ignore the fact that I have always found the Dewey Decimal system completely opaque, and I am a scattered researcher, let alone the information-gathering superstar that every librarian is born to be.)

All I can say is, thank God for the Internet. And pictures.

My laptop can’t get on the Internet at our local university library, so it’s a good place for me to get some writing done. (I stick to the non-stacks areas, or my concentration is toast.) But I do a LOT of research on my phone: When did red velvet cake first become popular? What forms of birth control did Victorians use? Did Cadillac El Dorados have air conditioning in the 1950s?

You can imagine the rabbit holes I disappear into every day. But all those details are linked to background and stories, and I find the stories I write deepening as I read. It feels magical sometimes.

There’s a young Japanese girl fluttering at the edges of my Bliss House series. You won’t meet her directly in Charlotte’s Story, but she’ll be a central character in next year’s Bliss House book, The Abandoned Heart. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about mid-19th-century Japan and the Meiji period (1868-1912). It’s the pictures that feed my imagination, though, and lend an authenticity that’s hard to capture in print.

I found a picture of my Japanese character, Kiku, in a set of images featuring apprentice geishas (maiko) posing in studio “seaside” photos. I love her challenging, enigmatic gaze. I also like that she might be about to rip the lobster in half, down the middle. She’s my kind of character: she looks innocent, but there’s something about her that’s unsettling.


flickr collection of Okinawa Soba (Rob)

What’s a young girl to do with herself when she’s not torturing lobsters? (Really, in the novel, she’s very sweet—she doesn’t get scary until later.) The first thing that comes to mind for me is that she would own at least one doll. I was thinking of something like this (though it’s fancy and a tad modern for the cusp of the Meiji period):

japanese doll

Perhaps this one is a little closer (and creepier):

male japanese doll

Neither is really perfect. I have in mind more of a rag doll. Quite homemade. Kiku is from a family of modest means, and the doll is given to her under tense, dangerous circumstances.

But look what I found down the rabbit hole: Anatomically correct Japanese teaching dolls. They’re like the most terrifying bodies ever made for the game Operation.

I know doctors have been taking apart bodies to learn about them for centuries. But there’s something so disturbing about the way the human body is objectified in these dolls. And yet there are all the parts. The fact that some have the same insides that I do unnerves me.

Prior to the 19th century, medical diagnoses—particularly among the upper classes—were made primarily through observation while the patient was fully clothed. In China (and I assume in other parts of Asia, like Japan), women were forbidden from exposing any parts of their bodies to doctors, so they would carry small ivory dolls and point to the affected body part. Beyond diagnosis, models were created and used as teaching tools for doctors because cadavers were often scarce due to moral objections—particularly in the United States.

Anatomical models have been around a long time. I found one photo in Wikipedia of an anatomically correct female doll—jointed—from the 2nd or 3rd century.

Here are a few of the more disturbing models I came across:

terrifying anatomy doll

more terrifying doll

doll with brains

doll with fetus

[Ed. note: OMG, what is happening right now???]

This guy is my favorite:

man doll

If you’re a brave sort of person, and like Pinterest, there are entire collections of images of anatomical models. Be warned. I can’t make this stuff up.

Watch yourself around those rabbit holes. Sometimes you’ll even find an animal or two peeking back at you.

pig parts

OK, can I open my eyes now? Is it over?

Actually, it’s not over, because Laura is giving away an audiobook of Bliss House, along with a snazzy pair of Skullcandy Sport Performance earbuds!

BenedictearbudBHTo enter, leave a comment answering this question: What’s the creepiest thing you’ve ever unearthed on the Internet while looking up something completely unrelated?

One winner will be randomly selected and have 48 hours after notification to claim prize before an alternate winner is chosen. Giveaway ends Friday, October 23, 9 p.m. PST. US residents only.

Many, many thanks to Laura for terrifying me this guest post and giveaway. Visit her website to get to know her better, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


Nerdy Special List October 2015

Happy October! Have you eaten all the pumpkin spice-flavored things yet? I have some pumpkin-flavored mochi balls calling my name from the refrigerator, so I’d better hurry up with this post.

Here are the book releases this month that my blogger friends and I found noteworthy.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

youdonthavetolikemeYou Don’t Have to Like Me: Essays on Growing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding Feminism by Alida Nugent (Plume, October 20)

Blogger Alida Nugent makes it abundantly clear in her new essay collection that feminism isn’t defined by wearing certain clothes, using certain vocabulary, forgoing certain traditions. What feminism IS defined by is a woman’s right to choose: to choose to take her husband’s name or keep her own, to choose the right to have a career or be a stay-at-home mom, to choose her level of sexual activity.

With a savvy mix of bluntness and humor, she discusses misperceptions about feminism, realities of being female, and why no woman needs to fear the label feminist. She candidly discusses her battle with bulimia, the ludicrous logic of expecting women to be flattered by catcalls, and what needs to be done on both sides of the gender line to help achieve some semblance of equality.

This is an empowering book, both for women and men. It’s also highly entertaining. Share this one with the favorite women in your life!

From Rory at Fourth Street Review:

The Lake House by Kate Morton (Atria Books, October, 20)

9781451649376_p0_v4_s192x300Spanning seventy years in Cornwall, England, The Lake House is both suspenseful and moody. In 1933, Alice Edevane is a clever teenager living on a gorgeous lakeside estate, and while she loves to make up stories, nothing could prepare her for what is about to happen in her own life.

After a large summer party at her home, her brother disappears without a trace. Sending the family down a path they never anticipated, Theo’s disappearance is never solved. Seventy years later, Sadie Sparrow is a detective living in London. While on leave in Cornwall, she discovers the abandoned lake house and begins investigating the crumbling estate.

The lives of Sadie and Alice are about to intertwine in ways neither of them imagined. Despite the novel ending quite tidily, Kate Morton’s latest novel is far from disappointing. It’s a mystery at its core and Morton’s careful plotting keeps the pages turning.

If you’ve read and enjoyed any of her previous novels, you are going to love this one. If you’re new to Kate Morton, this is a good place to start. The Lake House is perfect for October’s crisp autumn nights, so this book may be best enjoyed under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate (or chocolate anything, because chocolate is never a bad idea).

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

The Dogist: Photographic Encounters with 1,000 Dogs by Elias Weiss Friedman (Artisan, October 20)

dogistAfter being laid off from a major New York agency, Elias Friedman decided to combine the two things he loved most: photography and dogs. The result was a 2013 Instagram feed (@TheDogist) that took off across most social media platforms (1.2 million followers on Instagram; same Twitter handle and Facebook page name).

Elias’ work is brilliantly expressive; it’s mostly close-up work on the streets and truly captures the many different personalities and essences of “dog.”

The collection is put together in entertaining categories too numerous to recount here, but including heavyweights, barkers, sassy, haircuts, head tilts, rare breeds, snow, bionic, tongues, beautiful blends, cones of shame—you get the picture. There’s something for everyone and I guarantee you’ll see more than one thing you’ve never seen before.

Elias has been doing the work long and steadily enough that there is no shortage of material to work with, and each page is a lesson in the beautiful and unique qualities of human’s best friend. Elias also created the Give a Dog a Bone program, featuring stories of shelter dogs (more than 50 in 20 different shelters), most of which have found homes.

Highly recommended for photographers and dog lovers alike, or a great Christmas present for the dog lover in your life.

From Patti at Patti’s Pen & Picks:

Dark Reservations: A Mystery by John Fortunato (St. Martin’s Press, October 13)

9781250074195_p0_v5_s192x300A recent winner of the Tony Hillerman Prize for best debut mystery set in the Southwest, Dark Reservations is a good mystery within the world of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, and state politics.

Joe Evers is our hero, a widower still mourning the loss of his wife after two years. His drinking has cost him his job. At the beginning of the book, he is heading toward a forced retirement. He starts working on a new case, mostly because he’s the one available when the call comes in.

It’s a cold case that brings Joe out of his funk. A congressman’s car turns up, twenty-two years after it went missing, but the bodies that belong in the car are not there. Joe’s job is to find the bodies and to find out what happened two-plus decades ago.

I really liked Joe, his evolvement throughout the book, and his heart. Highly recommended!

From PCN:

Guess what? My October recommendation is the same as one of the above. Since we all have different tastes, this is the first time an overlap has happened in the 3 years since I started doing the list.

Instead of recommending another title, I’m going to throw my vote behind Rory’s and second her choice. The Lake House was my favorite October book, an intricate story deftly spun by Kate Morton. Six-hundred-page novels usually give me pause, but never when they’re by Morton. I enjoy diving into her lush, vivid worlds and staying there for a while. And one of the protagonists in Lake House is a mystery author—how could I resist?

Which books are you looking forward to this month?