December Preview

The hectic holiday season is upon us and already my reading has suffered. At least that’s my excuse for the slowdown. Currently I’m reading Camilla Gibb’s 2010 novel “The Beauty of Humanity Movement” for my book club’s discussion next week. It’s a novel set in contemporary Hanoi, Vietnam but touches on the past as well. I’m enjoying it so far and will review it next week. Have you read any of Camilla Gibb’s novels?

For December, the only books coming out that sort of drew a pulse out of me are Michael Lewis’s new one “The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds” and Will Schwalbe’s “Books for Living.” Granted, I’ve never actually read a Michael Lewis book, but I’ve enjoyed the adapted movies of his books quite a bit, namely “Moneyball,” “The Blind Side,” and “The Big Short,” which were all excellent, and this book looks good as well. Will Schwalbe’s latest work is another for those who like to read about books. His first one “The End of Your Life Book Club” was poignant, and this one similarly entails a personal journey through a life of reading. If you like book lists, or adding to them, then you might want to check it out.

But as far as notable literary fiction goes, there’s very little that comes out in December, so it’s a good time to try to catch up on novels over the past year. I’m hoping to get a few read before the year’s end that I’ve heard good things about, notably: Imbolo Mbue’s “Behold the Dreamers,” Karan Mahajan’s “The Association of Small Bombs,” and Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” They’re all awaiting me. It’s just a matter of sitting down in one place for a certain amount of time, and focusing.

Meanwhile a number of publications have made their Best Books of 2016 lists, which I always find interesting once they narrow it down to 10 or so. If you like these, below are the links:

The Washington Post
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Please note that Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad” is the only novel that made all four of these lists! He had a great year with his novel, which I nabbed in May at the BookExpo in Chicago and plan to get to soon. I hope to make my own Best Of list sometime at the end of this month. So stay tuned.

As usual for December, there’s a lot of movies coming out, but I’m not sure the looks of any of them have really grabbed me yet. I’m usually not too into musicals, but “La La Land,” with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, has received a lot of praise so I will likely see it. It apparently pays homage to the musicals of the 1950s and the Golden Age of Hollywood. So we will see. Also, Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jacqueline Kennedy in “Jackie” looks like it might be one to get an Oscar nomination, so I should go see that as well. It’s set in the period directly after President Kennedy’s assassination while Jackie is grieving.

Other than that I’m thinking perhaps “Gold” with Matthew McConaughey is a movie to see. Does anyone remember the Bre-X mining scandal of 1993 — or only my husband? This movie is based on that, about an unlikely pair that journey into the Indonesian jungle in search of gold. It’s probably best not to know any more than that, or else it might give it away — only to say it seems their gold did quite a number on the Canadian market. McConaughey apparently gained 40 pounds for the role along with acquiring a receding hairline, so he’ll be far removed from his romantic-comedy days.

Other than that, I’m thinking a lot of the notable movies came out in November this year. I still need to see “Loving,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” And maybe even “Allied.” So that’s plenty for the holidays. Though there’s also Martin Scorsese’s upcoming movie “Silence,” about two Jesuit priests in the 17th century who travel to Japan to spread the word. Hmm. And if you like foreign films, there’s “Things to Come” (French), “Neruda” (Spanish), and “Toni Erdmann,” (German) which all look pretty interesting as well. So perhaps there’s more than I thought worth seeing.

Lastly in albums for this month, there’s new ones by John Legend, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones, and Pete Doherty among others. All of these are fine artists, but their new tunes haven’t hooked me, so I think I will opt for some holiday music instead to get me into the Christmas spirit. I have a few albums I turn to every year, but if you know of any great holiday albums, let me know.

So what about you — which books, movies, or albums are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 21 Comments

Born to Run and Sweet Lamb of Heaven

I hope everyone in the U.S. had a very lovely Thanksgiving. It was pretty uneventful here in western Canada. There’s still no snow on the ground, but that’s okay. I’m loving that there’s no ice to slip on. Next weekend, my husband has a conference in Lake Louise, so I’m planning to tag along, for the gorgeous views, fireside reading, and perhaps some cross-country skiing. It should be great.

Meanwhile after a couple weeks I finished reading Bruce Springsteen’s 508-page autobiography “Born to Run,” which is good stuff! Of course, it helps if you’re a diehard fan of his music to read the book as it’s quite a detailed account of his life and career. To me it was like ice cream on the cake — I couldn’t get to it soon enough. I won’t bore you with the details of my years following Bruce’s music and his shows, but suffice it to say I first got into listening to him with the “Born to Run” album in 1975, and I haven’t missed an album since.

I was excited when I heard he was coming out with a memoir. Interestingly, the book was written over a seven-year time period, in a notebook by longhand. Apparently Bruce would write some, then put it away for intervals then come back to it a year later, with fresh eyes. It’s a pretty straightforward, chronological account, which I was quite thankful for as there’s a lot of ground to cover.

My favorite part is the first half of the book about his growing up years. This part flows so well and the narrative is so good you really get a sense of what his working-class neighborhood in Freehold, New Jersey and his family were like. His beginnings were much more humble than I had realized. His family was pretty poor, his dad was often an unemployed bus driver and his mom was a legal secretary. The house he grew up in often didn’t have heat other than the stove they cooked with, and his grandparents played a big role in his upbringing. He was the oldest child, with a sister close in age, and another much later. But it’s his tenuous relationship with his father that’s central in the book. His father had a lot of hostility towards Bruce and was often brooding, drunk, and unrelatable to him in his youth. Seemingly it was through music that Bruce could find an escape.

Like others, Bruce got his first guitar after seeing Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956, but guitar playing didn’t stick with him until after he saw the Beatles on the show years later. He got into it then and was playing in a neighborhood band while eventually graduating from high school — and dodging the draft for Vietnam by being found unfit to serve. He was late in his teens then, when his parents decided to leave New Jersey and move to the San Francisco area with his youngest sister. Bruce stayed behind and moved to the Jersey coast, squeaking by playing in bar bands and writing songs, while crashing on the floor of his friends’ surf shop.

Bruce’s work ethic, as evident in the book, and how he got his recording contract with Columbia Records are quite extraordinary. Not to mention how he followed it up by making such remarkable albums. He tells about it so openly and humbly you feel as if you’re right there as it’s being played out. He has a good memory, and the details are often fascinating. What’s refreshing too is that this is one of the first rock memoirs I’ve read that doesn’t have a lot of drugs or alcohol in it. There’s no overdoses or hallucinations. Bruce didn’t do drugs (he didn’t need to be high in order to write), and didn’t have his first drink till his 20s. Neither did he have a driver’s license till then, so a lot of his transportation came through hitchhiking. (Though it’s interesting to note: all of the cars in his early songs.)

The book’s chapters follow album by album through his career. While he does give insights into each of them, I would have liked even more on specific songs (since I’m a bit nuts about them). Still he does go behind the scenes about the E Street Band and each of its members and talks about his two marriages and three kids. He isn’t harshly critical about anyone and has a lot of positive, kind things to say about all of those he has worked with, and loved. Though I didn’t realize he had suffered periodically from such serious depression. That’s the news of the book. He’s been seeing a shrink since the ‘80s and occasionally has been on medication. Apparently his father was later diagnosed with mental illness, so it appears to run in the family. Still it was a bit surprising to hear of this with Bruce, someone so talented and successful with a close-knit family. If he’s depressed, then what does this say about our lives?

All in all, “Born to Run” is my favorite autobiography or memoir of the year. Are you kidding me? This is a very rare and wonderful treat — from a songwriting, rock legend, no doubt. As I said, I enjoyed the first half of the book the best. Through his albums “The River” and into the years of “Born in the USA,” it’s quite illuminating. Towards the end, it gets more condensed and felt a bit more like a list of things that happened, instead of the neat narrative that flows at the beginning. Still Bruce includes many interesting stories about his amazing life and career in the book, and it’s fortunate that we get such a glimpse. I plan to keep listening to whatever comes next from him.

Lastly this past week, I finished the audiobook of Lydia Millet’s novel “Sweet Lamb of Heaven,” which is pretty cool as it’s read by the author. Oh it’s a spooky, strange little novel. Part thriller, and part horror, it also has an apocalyptic sense to it. The novel is narrated by a woman (Anna) who is on the run from her uncaring husband. She’s taken their 6-year-old daughter from their home in Alaska and is hiding out in a motel on the coast of Maine, where she’s trying to figure out why such strange things as hearing voices have happened to her. It turns out other guests at the motel have heard similar things.

Meanwhile her conniving husband tracks her down, giving her an ultimatum to come back or else face consequences. It’s then that more unexplained things start to occur and Anna and her daughter are almost killed in a number of freak “accidents.” All the while she’s tries to come to grips, along with the other motel guests, with what’s going on and what to do about her husband’s ultimatum. You’ll want to wait for the ending as it’s quite a doozy.

“Sweet Lamb of Heaven” slightly reminded me of a Stephen King story, but with some deeper elements as well. There’s quite a bit of ruminating on “deep languages” and God, which I was trying to stay on top of. I’m not sure I understood everything, but I liked what was said. There’s a mysterious quality about the novel that held me in its grips, along with the protagonist’s narration. I haven’t read Lydia Millet before, but I think some of her other novels have surreal elements to them as well. Thanks to Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom who had such good things to say about the book and the author. I plan to read more of Millet’s works in the future.

What about you — are you a Springsteen fan, or have you read any of Lydia Millet’s novels, and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

News of the World and Where the Red Fern Grows

I want to wish those in the U.S. a very Happy Thanksgiving this coming week. It’s hard to believe Turkey Day is about here and we’re nearing Christmas. Already there’s quite a few Christmas lights up in our neighborhood. We won’t be traveling anywhere this time for U.S. Thanksgiving but are excited to be joining relatives in California for Christmas. So that’s the agenda so far.

Also this week I want to congratulate the 2016 National Book Award winners, notably Colson Whitehead for his novel “The Underground Railroad,” which won for fiction. I heard Colson speak at the BookExpo in May in Chicago and plan to read his novel soon. It’s about a runaway slave named Cora who escapes a Georgia plantation and travels north via a literal underground subway. Judy over at the blog Keep the Wisdom has read and liked it as have other bloggers, so I’m keen to try out my first book by him.

Interestingly another novel given out at BookExpo — George Saunders’s book “Lincoln in the Bardo” — has been hailed by author Zadie Smith as “a masterpiece” in this week’s New York Times’ By the Book interview. Saunders’s book (his long-awaited first novel) is not due out till February but you might want to take note of it, if you don’t already have an advance copy. It’s said to be a “mesmerizing historical novel that’s also a moving ghost story.” It combines a tale of Lincoln with the supernatural. Hmm.

In my reading this past week, I finished Paulette Jiles’s historical novel “News of the World,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award. I have not read a lot of westerns, but this one captured my imagination so I might like to read more in the future. It’s about an elderly widower, a captain in the Civil War, who in the 1870s makes his living traveling around North Texas giving public readings from far-away newspapers to paying customers.
It’s at one of these stops that the Captain is offered a sum of money to deliver an orphan girl to her relatives outside San Antonio. The girl, just 10, had been captured by Kiowa Indians four years earlier when her family was killed. She’s been rescued but now no longer remembers the English language or the white settlers’ ways of life. But the Captain agrees to take her and the two embark on a 400-mile journey south in a wagon with two horses.

It’s not a journey you’d think they could likely make. He’s a 70-plus aged grandpa and she’s a feisty young girl who refuses to act “civilized” and wants to escape back to the Indians. The terrain, too, is unforgiving and the state quite lawless in the 1870s. The towns they come upon often spell trouble, and the threat of attacks on the remote road is high. I was on full alert the whole time, fearing they’d be robbed and their throats would be slit. Maybe I’ve been watching a little too much of the Walking Dead, but they seemed to be sitting ducks on the open road.

As the miles go by, the girl and old man eventually form a bond that helps them endure. Both are appealing. And I liked how a lot of the narrative deals with how different the former-captive girl is — and how she can never fully go back to the ways of the white world. She thinks of herself as an Indian. Apparently this was true of most child captives on the Texas frontier — “they rarely readjusted when returned to their non-native families,” so writes the author in a note at the back of the book. The captain’s character, too, is based on a real person, a friend of the author’s great great grandfather, who traveled around reading the “News of the World” to paying customers in 1870’s Texas. The story of these two combined had me easily hooked to see how it would end — if they would make it to San Antonio, and how the two would part there.

It surprised me how short the novel was. Just 209 pages. This is no epic “Lonesome Dove.” “News of the World” could almost be a novella. It wasn’t a fully expanded drama, but I liked the book’s brevity. The wagon wheels kept turning so to speak. If you’re looking for something short, you might want to throw it into your travel bag. It’ll transport your imagination to the dusty frontier days in no time.

Also this week I finished the audiobook of Wilson Rawl’s 1961 children’s classic “Where the Red Fern Grows,” which I hadn’t read since elementary school. I knew as a dog lover I had to revisit this story about a boy and his two redbone coonhound hunting dogs. Most know the story about Billy and how his family is poor and they live in the remote Ozark Mountains of Oklahoma. And how Billy saves up two years to buy two coonhound pups and train them. Oh yes, Old Dan and Little Ann, how can anyone forget these dogs?

I hadn’t forgotten but I wanted to see what I had recalled of the story from childhood. The good news is after quite a few decades (no one’s counting) I can tell you: the magic of the book still holds up! The love Billy and his dogs have for one another feels very real, and the picture of their lives and the hunting of raccoons they do together at night in the remote woods along the river is very vivid. I was captured by the story once again.

It’s a tale that’s based on the hunting of “coons,” so if you’re sensitive to this topic you might not find it as favorable. But for the most part the scenes are not graphic, they depict more about the dogs’ chase of the critters and the adventures Billy has in the woods with them. There’s one axe scene between Billy and the area bully that scared me as a kid and that still looms large. But compared with today, it’s quite an old-fashioned story that is wonderful for being so. The boy’s narration is pitch perfect and the story of his days with his dogs rings true.

From my youth I had recalled the book as having one of the saddest endings of all time. But luckily I was able to “handle” it a bit better this go-around. It was still very sad, but I reasoned that Billy and his dogs had happily spent the best period of their lives together. That’s all most of us can ask for, right? As a dog person, this book still remains in my Top 10 of canine tales of all time. Children’s book or not.

Lastly this week, I saw the Amy Adams-alien movie “Arrival” at the theater and the Viggo Mortensen movie “Captain Fantastic” on rental. They were both sort of different. “Arrival” seemed to have a slower pace and was more ponderous than I expected. (It would probably be better as a rental.) I liked the scenes where Adams’ character is trying to communicate with the aliens, which are interesting looking things with elephant-like limbs. But perhaps there wasn’t enough in the movie besides the visual. Though there is a time element aspect of “Arrival” that makes you question the sequence of the story. If you like these kinds of “Interstellar” – time sorts of films, you might like this one as well. It makes you wonder about the connectedness of events, and the sequence of them.

As for “Captain Fantastic” — about a father trying to raise his six kids by hunting and gathering in the remote woods of the Pacific Northwest — whoa. It seems a cross between “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Mosquito Coast,” if you’ve seen those. It’s an engaging film — all the kids are intellectually astute from reading books and being self-taught by Dad — and the first half in the woods is pretty cool, but it gets a bit crazy in the second half as the father and kids reenter society to attend the mother’s funeral. Some parts might stretch one’s believability but still the movie (as a rental) is appealing and at times amusing, especially with Viggo Mortensen as the father, one of my sister’s all-time favorites. “Wherever V-goes, she goes,” apparently.

What about you — have you read any of these books, or seen these movies, and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 21 Comments

The Election and The Girl You Left Behind

Oh it was a horrible week. Let’s not sugarcoat this (why should we?). The U.S. election result was a terrible shock and blow. I’m still so ticked off and disillusioned I can’t believe it. What a disaster and heartbreak. The U.S. had a great opportunity in front of it but totally blew it. Completely blew it. As the author George R.R. Martin wrote: “America has spoken. I really thought we were better than this. Guess not.” So glad I’m no longer working in D.C., where I was for 15 years. I even worked on the Hill for awhile. Gawd what clowns this new administration will bring.

Needless to say, the election took the wind out of my sails and I wasn’t able to get much done this week. Of course, my most potent antidotes in times like these are my dog Stella and falling into a good book. So I’m midway into Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography “Born to Run,” which I’m loving. It also helped that my husband, Stella, and I went to a cabin near the mountains last weekend and did some hiking. (See the attached photos.) So far we’ve had a warm November and it’s been nice to have a little Indian summer to our parts. The area of Waterton Lakes National Park is beautiful and we saw a few moose and Rocky Mountain sheep while there, which was really cool.

Meanwhile I did finish the audiobook of Jojo Moyes’s 2012 novel “The Girl You Left Behind.” This is my second novel of Moyes’s — the first being “Me Before You” — and it was light and a story that swept me along, which is what I needed this week. I guess what I enjoy most about Moyes’s works is that she is an excellent storyteller. Even if a few parts of her novels can seem contrived or unlikely, she can spin a good tale.

“The Girl You Left Behind” is no exception. I got sucked into the first part of the story that takes places in 1916 during WWI in a small French town that has fallen to the Germans. Sophie and her sister are caretakers of their family’s hotel, where the German officers are coming for meals. Both sisters’ husbands are gone, fighting at the front, and life is precarious in the town. Especially once the German Kommandant there becomes interested in a portrait of Sophie’s that her artist husband had painted that hangs in the hotel. A gripping scene follows where Sophie’s fate seems to hang in the balance.

But then the story abruptly changes to 2006, and a 32-year-old woman in London named Liv owns Sophie’s portrait. It was a wedding gift from her husband before his sudden death. But when Liv’s new boyfriend, who deals in returning stolen art, sees the painting, troubles begin. He says Liv must turn over the portrait to Sophie’s descendants who’ve been searching for it, but Liv’s determined to keep it. A court case ensues and the reckoning of what happened to Sophie and her painting is unveiled in twisty ways.

I was jarred at first by the change in the novel’s second half but then got into it as well, as the new cast of characters came to life. Though the second half seemed a bit more flawed to me. I wasn’t sure exactly why Liv wanted to hang on to the painting so much in the face of financial ruin and doing what seemed right to those who were looted from during the war. But still I was compelled to find out more in the court case. The ending though seemed a bit too nicely tied up. Ultimately while parts of the novel might have stretched my believability, I still enjoyed being swept away for awhile with these characters and finding out what had happened to the painting and Sophie during the dark days of WWI. It’s quite a tale.

What about you — have you read this book, and if so, what did you think? Or what are your thoughts on the election? This Rocky Mountain sheep might know better than I do where we go from here.

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

November Preview

We are off to a cabin this weekend near Waterton Lakes National Park so I will dash off a quick post now about new releases coming out this month. I usually do these preview posts as a way to help myself put new things on my radar; it helps me organize too about what’s coming out. I hope you might find them useful. November is a time when the volume of literary fiction starts dropping off a bit while the release of notable movies starts ramping up. Still there are a couple veteran authors with books out this month along with a few others, which I likely can’t pass up.

First off, British author Zadie Smith’s new novel “Swing Time” is about two young girls of mixed race who grow up in the same low-income project in North London and become friends, sharing an interest in dance. One is good at it and the other is not. The novel is about their friendship as they grow up and their lives diverge. Having read one of Smith’s books — “White Teeth” — previously from 2000, that’s all I need to know to be excited to read her again. “White Teeth” blew me away with Smith’s talent, and even if “Swing Time” is a fraction of that, it will be quite all right.

I’m also curious about Michael Chabon’s upcoming novel “Moonglow,” which is based on a trip the author took to visit his terminally ill grandfather, a WWII veteran, whose deathbed reminisces serve as the novel’s main narrative. According to Library Journal, “The story builds to core revelations of wartime horror and postwar heartbreak as powerful as they come.” I’ve read two of Chabon’s novels in the past — “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “Wonder Boys” — and have liked his personal-based stories. This one, according to the publisher, is an autobiography wrapped in a novel disguised as a memoir. With the prose of Chabon, it’s a book likely not to miss.

I’m also looking at Kelly Luce’s debut novel “Pull Me Under.” It’s about a Japanese-born mother who leaves her family in Colorado and travels back to Japan for the funeral of her estranged father. While there she is forced to confront a violent crime from her childhood and everything that led up to it. “Pull Me Under” has received some high praise and sounds like a psychological novel that explores themes of home and identity amid illuminating descriptions of Japan and Japanese culture. It looks to be a bit of a page-turner and one that I might like.

Finally I wouldn’t mind checking out Nicola Yoon’s young-adult novel “The Sun Is Also a Star” and Ted Russ’s debut war novel “Spirit Mission.” Granted, I don’t read a lot of YA novels, but I did read Yoon’s first novel “Everything, Everything” and thought the author showed quite a bit of promise. Her new one is about two teenagers with nothing in common who fall in love over the course of a day in NYC. Hmm it’s usually not my thing, but Yoon’s novel has been picked as a National Book Award finalist so I plan to read a copy of it that I picked up at BookExpo earlier this year.

As for “Spirit Mission,” it looks to be a fast-moving thriller about a Chinook helicopter team that goes on an illegal run deep into ISIS territory to save an American aid worker. This one has flashbacks to the days at West Point when the Lieutenant Colonel of the mission knew the man being held by ISIS. Judging by the scoop on the novel, it appears to be both a psychological study of military school and a compelling action story. Quite a few are hailing the book on Goodreads so I’m interested to check it out.

As for movies in November, there’s a lot of notable ones coming out. It’s sort of hard to pick which one I’m most interested to see. Amy Adams is in a new one called “Arrival” that seems bit reminiscent to me in subject matter to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or perhaps “Contact.” If you liked those, you probably will like this one as well as it’s getting a lot of advance praise. Usually I like Amy Adams, though some of these ET kinds of movies can get pretty predictable, eh?

There’s also three war films coming out including: “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” “Allied” with Brad Pitt, and “Hacksaw Ridge” directed by Mel Gibson, which has been advertised to death. I wanted to see “Billy Lynn” since I read and liked the book and since it’s directed by the wonderful Ang Lee, but it’s received some low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. So I’m not sure about that. “Allied” should be worth seeing with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard. The preview for the movie makes it appear that the character Cotillard plays is suspected of being a German spy during WWII, which her Allied husband, played by Pitt, is later informed about. Uh-oh, sounds like a heap of trouble.

Lastly in November movies, I want to see both “Loving,” based on the true story of the interracial couple that were sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for getting married; and “Manchester by the Sea” about a Boston janitor who is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies. Both movies have received a lot of favorable press and the trailers look good. I often like these smaller indie films best, so I will choose these as my picks this month.

As for albums in November, there’s new ones by such popular artists as Alicia Keys, Bon Jovi, Bruno Mars, Sting, and Miranda Lambert among others. Sticking with my indie preferences, I’ll pick a combination of Martha Wainwright’s latest album “Goodnight City” along with the new one from Alicia Keys’ called “Here.” Should be a good mix.

What about you — which books, movies, or albums are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 26 Comments

Late Fall Mini-Reviews

Happy Halloween to all. It seems a lot has happened lately. First off, congrats to Paul Beatty for becoming the first American to win the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel “The Sellout.” The publisher calls the book a “biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court.” I’ve seen reviewers refer to it as “scathing,” “caustic,” and a “bruising” novel about American race relations, but it’s also said to be “funny and daring.” I think I’m curious to check it out though I’m glad to be forewarned about it too. Judy over at Keep the Wisdom thought it was the real deal when she reviewed it back in April, so I’ll put my name in for it at the library, though now it could be quite a wait.

Also last week there was the ghastly season opener for the TV show “The Walking Dead.” Good grief, the new villain Negan killed off two characters of the show with his barbed-wired bat, one of whom had been an original cast member. Oh I was not happy but mainly because it was so gruesome and sadistic. It almost seemed similar to the beheadings by ISIS and who wants to watch that. It was graphic and intense.

My husband regularly asks me why we watch the show, now in its seventh season, and even I don’t know why. Because it’s there? I haven’t read the comic strip that the show is loosely based on so I don’t know what comes next, but I still hope the group will be saved and be able to live a peaceful existence on some farm or whatnot — at least give me a break — but the show seems constantly into misery. Forget the zombies, it’s the other human beings they come across that are always the worst. They are never to be trusted. Remember the cannibals? Ugh. Do you watch the show, and if so, what did you think of the opener?

Meanwhile last week I finished three books, which is a bit crazy for me, but I started them awhile ago. First off, I read “The Perfect Girl” by Gilly Macmillan for my book club. It’s another psychological thriller-type novel — a very quick, light read that I think members of my book club were looking for after I picked the dense novel “The Sympathizer” last time. “The Perfect Girl” was a palate cleanser for sure. I liked that it was quick but otherwise I didn’t care for it that much. Apparently the book was originally titled “Butterfly in the Dark” but then retitled “The Perfect Girl.” I can only imagine that might have been because of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train.” They were likely trying to market another “Girl” blockbuster to the mix.

This one is about a 17-year-old musical prodigy (Zoe) who’s life was shattered three years ago after she was involved in a tragic accident that left three of her classmates dead. After some jail time, Zoe is given a second chance to start anew when her mom moves them away and remarries a well-off man with a musically gifted son. But she never tells them of Zoe’s past. Then on the night of Zoe’s first big recital back, her mom mysteriously winds up dead. The book alternates narrators piecing together what happened and concludes with a final twist.

It’s a novel that includes quite a few characters with a lot of problems: from drunk driving, to bullying, alcoholism, abandonment, abuse, MS, infidelity, and murder. I found it pretty simplistic and manipulative for suspense. With a storyline that happens over a 24-hour period there isn’t a lot of development, just actions and reactions. I kept wondering too why Zoe’s past solicitor narrates various chapters though he’s not involved in the present case. I also found it implausible that Zoe is described as having an IQ that’s higher than Einstein’s. Really? Come on, I didn’t think she really acted like it. Despite all that, it’s a decent, fast thriller if you’re stuck on an airplane or need a palate cleanser. It keeps the pages turning rapidly.

I also finished geobiologist Hope Jahren’s memoir “Lab Girl,” which has been quite a popular hit this year. It took me awhile to read it though. The author alternates chapters about the science of plants and trees with chapters about her personal life, career, and experiments in the field with her lab partner Bill. I especially liked these parts best, as she and Bill are quite quirky and funny. Who knew? The book includes many amusing anecdotes and stories of Hope and Bill’s adventures together and their rising careers as research scientists. How they squeaked by in the early years — he living in his van, and she working all nighters at the lab; how they got degrees at Berkeley, and built labs in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Hawaii. I sort of thought they would wind up together married, but around age 32 she meets her husband to be, who seems an understanding man for how much Bill is apart of her life.

I also liked how her passion for researching plants comes through, and how candidly she talks about her life in science and the difficulties she faced as a woman in the field, as well as with her pregnancy and bipolar disorder. I think she gives a unique window into the world of being a female research scientist and I was fascinated to hear about it, even though I muddled through some of the science / plant parts of the book. Some of the book felt a bit uneven to me — I liked some parts of it better than others — but all in all I did find “Lab Girl” to be quite interesting, and her words are making me look at trees a bit differently this fall. Who knew they had such lives.

Lastly I finished the audiobook of Stacey D’Erasmo’s 2014 novel “Wonderland.” It’s about a former indie rock star (Anna Brundage), who at age 44 after a seven year absence puts out an album and sets out on a European comeback tour with a new band and manager. Anna narrates the story, which alternates chapters between her stops along the tour and those of her past with her artist father, her tours from her heydays, and her affair with Simon, a father of two.

It’s a different kind of novel; there doesn’t seem to be a big story arc, but it’s more like a travel journal of Anna’s life. The chronology in the story jumps around a bit, which confused me a few of times, but I was still able to piece it together. While the novel feels a bit disjointed, I found the writing and passages to be quite poetic at times and likely the best feature of the book. After awhile I came to enjoy the narration of Anna, her inner life, and what happens to her on the tour. Her tone is quite measured and low-key, she’s definitely not a diva but is someone struggling to come to grips with the choices she’s made and is exploring the possibility of second chances. I’m interested in rock artists’ lives so this novel was in the ballpark for me. Kudos to Xe Sands who read it for the audio; she is always one of the best.

What about you — have you read any of these books, and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, TV | 20 Comments

Siracusa and The Girl on the Train

Well it’s been a fairly calm week. I am behind on carving pumpkins and getting the candy stocked for Halloween, but wait, there’s still time! The snow is gone here but most of the leaves are down. I raked them into bags for a couple hours this week and was able to finish the audiobook of Delia Ephron’s 2016 novel “Siracusa,” which is a doozy of a story about two married couples that vacation together in Italy along with the enigmatic 10-year-old daughter of one of the couples. They go to Rome first and then on to the city of Siracusa on the coast of Sicily, where things quickly unravel and something happens that changes their lives forever.

Narrated from the two wives’ and two husbands’ perspectives, this story is pretty hard to put down. There’s Lizzie and Michael who are writers from New York, and Taylor and Finn, who own a restaurant in Portland, Maine and have a daughter named Snow. Lizzie and Finn had once dated back in their 20s, but now that’s over and this is the second vacation in later life they’ve taken together with their spouses. I’m not sure that this would necessarily happen in my household but … I was willing to go with it.

I think I heard about the novel “Siracusa” from Catherine over at The Gilmore Guide to Books, who liked it quite a bit, and I found it didn’t disappoint. I particularly recommend the audio because the four parts are read by four different actors who do a heck of a job with these different characters. You’ll find them an interesting mix with each their own secrets. Taylor, for one, is a helicopter mom from hell who cares only for her shy, beautiful daughter, Snow. And Finn still holds a flame for Lizzie, while Michael’s affections have turned cold towards her. Lizzie though is looking to win Michael back in Italy and jump-start her career as a journalist. But then in Siracusa all goes to hell in a handbasket.

The descriptions in the book and the characters make it an enticing read, but the story is pretty dark and cynical. It reminded me slightly of Herman Koch’s eerie novel “The Dinner,” which is also about two couples in Europe whose families go through something disturbing. But the stories also differ a bit. “Siracusa” is not totally without flaws, you likely will be able to forecast what will happen long before it does, though I still liked hearing how the characters played out their parts, and the ideas they came away with.

I had not read much from Delia Ephron before, though I knew of her from from her 1998 movie “You’ve Got Mail” and of course her famous sister Nora Ephron whose books often made me laugh. I had read parts of Delia’s nonfiction book “Sister, Mother, Husband, Dog: Etc.,” which for some reason I had put down, but nothing like “Siracusa.” It is much darker than I would’ve guessed of her fiction. It’s not exactly fit for an early Meg Ryan type of role: such as “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Speaking of which, I dragged my husband to the movie “The Girl on the Train” this week. (He said when we were leaving the theater he was the only guy in there. Ha ha ha, gotcha.) But “The Girl” was good, if you like this kind of movie. It followed Paula Hawkins’s blockbuster-selling novel closely.

Luckily Emily Blunt starred in it, which made all the difference. She made one hell of a messed-up Rachel Watson, hooray. Just like Rachel is in the book. I’m not sure the movie was all that suspenseful since I already knew what was going to happen — even my husband figured it out pretty early on without having read the book — but still I’m glad I went. Come on, I wasn’t going to miss it.

And the fact that they change the novel’s setting from London to New York for the movie didn’t seem to make much difference. Blunt pares down her English accent quite a bit, and there’s a couple of beautiful shots of the train along the Hudson River, which seemed good to me. While “The Girl on the Train” might not be as good as “Gone Girl,” it still was entertaining in a wacky thriller kind of way.

What about you, have you read “Siracusa,” or seen the movie “The Girl on the Train,” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 25 Comments

Book Festival Days and 3 Mini-Reviews

This past week I’ve been busy attending Wordfest, the annual weeklong book festival here. I went to eight events and heard more than 20 writers give readings and interviews.

See authors: Peter Behrens, C.C. Humphreys, Steven Price, and Peter Robinson at left. It’s been great, listening to a wide variety of authors, from such well-known fiction writers as: Emma Donoghue, Yann Martel, Affinity Konar, Lisa Moore, and Madelein Thein, who’s novel is on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, to many lesser-known authors as well. The talks have been interesting, and one thing’s for certain: I need to read more “CanLit” among other things.

Before moving to Canada full-time over six years ago, I didn’t really know much about CanLit other than reading Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields. But since then I’ve read a sprinkling of novels that fit the mold from across this vast country (including a few from the great Alice Munro), but I need to get to a lot more.

I picked up some Canadian books from the festival and had signed: Lynn Coady’s fiction “Hellgoing” and “The Antagonist,” Lisa Moore’s novel “Caught,” Julie Salverson’s book “Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir,” and Jowita Bydlowska’s memoir: “Drunk Mom,” which looks pretty harrowing. (Unfortunately Jowita was sick and did not speak at the event or sign books.) I also heard from and picked up copies of Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s debut novel “Harmless Like You” (she’s from England) and U.S. authors: Jim Lynch’s novel “Before the Wind” and Alexander Maksik’s “Shelter in Place.” So I have a new pile of books, which I’m sure wasn’t totally necessary on top of my other piles, but it’s good nonetheless so I can read some new voices. Have you read or heard of any of these?

Meanwhile I finished Andria Williams’s debut novel “The Longest Night,” which came out earlier this year. Any military brats out there? This one is set in Idaho Falls, which was a remote military town in the late 1950s when the book begins. It’s based on the true story of the only fatal nuclear reactor accident to occur in the U.S.

It’s about a married couple that moves to the town with their two young kids. The husband Paul is there to help oversee one of the country’s first nuclear reactors, but soon finds out that the reactor is compromised and the higher-ups would rather delay fixing it. Meanwhile his wife Nat is struggling to adjust to their new life, which is stifling amid the societal mores of the times. As troubles mount with the reactor, so too do cracks surface in their marriage.

I completely fell into this novel and could feel the Army base lives of these characters and the remoteness of where they were and the staid times in which they were living. The mores and gender roles of the late 1950s and early ‘60s are pervasive in the story and feel suffocating. I felt particularly thankful not to be a woman living there at the time, and sympathized with the wife, Nat, for having trouble fitting in. I liked how the book alternated chapters between the husband Paul, Nat, and Jeannie, the wife of Paul’s boss. You get a wide range of perspective and feeling for their lives and situation.

“The Longest Night” is quite a believable story and one that I did not want to put down despite it being a slow-burn of a read. The story and characters develop and develop until finally at the book’s end things boil over (quite literally with the accident and aftermath). I hadn’t heard of this historical event — the 1961 nuclear reactor accident near Idaho Falls — so I was very interested to read the novel and look up the accident online. Among other things in the story, it’ll make you think twice about nuclear energy.

I also finished the audiobook of Suzanne Rindell’s 2013 novel “The Other Typist,” which is set at the height of Prohibition in New York City. It’s about a police department stenographer (Rose) who becomes obsessed with a newly hired glamorous typist named Odalie. They become friends and soon Odalie lures Rose into the underground world of speakeasies and jazz, which ultimately has dire consequences.

Oh where to begin with this one?! I was engaged in the story, but it also wore me out quite a bit. I tired of the narrator Rose, who describes herself as a pretty insular woman who grew up an orphan and was lucky to get a job with the police, typing crime reports and confessions. She waxes on about Odalie, the stylish well-off woman whom she has met from the typing pool.

You wonder what’s going to happen to these two — and if their lives at the police department will catch up with their underworld parties. The story has some vibrant touches, but I also thought it rambled extraneously at times, was repetitious, and piles on a heavy dose of foreshadowing. I thought the Big Reveal in the book was quite drawn out and when it finally came at the end it was confusing. Perhaps a couple realities could be possible of what happens at the end, but I know what I think happens. It’s one of those switcheroozy types of novels, which you can’t say much about without giving stuff away. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island,” but that story had more action and suspense. There’s still plenty for me to think about with “The Other Typist,” but I guess I’m not a huge fan of this type of book twist. Maybe it depends on the novel. What about you? If you like such twists, you might like this one.

Finally last week, my husband and I saw and both liked the movie “Deepwater Horizon.” Wow I almost had to be picked up off the floor afterwards. This one is much better than I had expected going in. My husband wanted to see it as he’s an engineer and I was glad I tagged along. The movie is not your typical fluff Hollywood reenactment but rather takes a gripping look into the 2010 disaster of the offshore drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the deaths of 11 people. It’s a hair-raising movie. I couldn’t believe most of the 126 workers on the rig made it off alive. Kudos to those who made the movie — amid all the legal maneuvering that had to be done just to bring it to the Big Screen. It may not honor every single detail accurately but shows that when human beings with various incentives interact with complex systems, sometimes bad things happen. It’s also a moving tribute to those who died on the rig and is well worth seeing.

What about you, have you read either of these books or seen the movie “Deepwater Horizon,” and if so — what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 22 Comments

Snowflakes and Shrill

We had our first snow day on Friday, which is always a bit of a shock to a Californian living in Canada. On Thursday I had been out raking leaves for hours, which aren’t all down yet. Then Friday it dumped a couple inches. The snow should melt away this week, but we could be in store for a long winter. Gripes, I guess it’s best to stay in and curl up with a book near the fireplace. While I do, my thoughts go out to all the people in the path of Hurricane Matthew. What a monster storm. It’s going to take quite awhile to recover. I remember Hurricane Isabel from 2003, which I experienced while living in Virginia, and I think it took about a week to get my power back on. So stay safe and hang in there.

This week I finished the audiobook of Lindy West’s 2016 nonfiction book “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman.” Admittedly I didn’t know much about the book or the author before starting it, other than reading that it included feminist essays, and Shannon over at River City Reading had praised it back in May. What I did know was “Shrill” had come up on my queue at the library and I was game to check it out.

And oh my, the author Lindy West, 34, is quite a force. I had no idea, and hadn’t thought about some of these issues like she has. It’s perfect that she reads her book — a collection of personal essays about her life and what she believes — for the audio as she enlivens it and adds perspective. In “Shrill,” Lindy details the derision she grew up with as a “fat person” and her move to become an advocate for fat acceptance and other issues. She talks about her family, self-esteem, boyfriends, stints in stand-up comedy, and jobs in journalism, and how she came to speak out about: fat shaming, anti-abortion views, internet harassment, misogyny, and rape jokes. It’s all told in a way that seems incredibly open, honest, and quite funny as well. I couldn’t help but laugh in places.

I don’t think you have to agree with every opinion or thing Lindy West does in “Shrill” to be open or agreeable to the book. At first, I wasn’t sure it was the type of book for me, and I almost set it aside, but I’m glad I stuck with it. All in all, I commend Lindy for her courage and fight, and found her book to be thought-provoking and different than what I typically read. While some bits of “Shrill” might take one out of his or her comfort zone, other parts shine on its humanity.

Meanwhile, I’m midway through reading Andria Williams’s 2016 debut novel “The Longest Night,” which is based on a true story in 1961 of the only fatal nuclear reactor accident that took place in the U.S. It’s about a young couple who move to a remote army base, whose marriage is tested, and a cover-up that ensues at the base. I’m loving the story so far and plan to review it next week. I’m also midway through reading Hope Jahren’s 2016 nonfiction memoir “Lab Girl” about her life as a scientist studying trees and plant life in her laboratories. It’s interesting and enjoyable in a unique way. I’m liking her quirky sensibility so far. Lastly, I’m listening to the audiobook of Suzanne Rindell’s 2013 debut novel “The Other Typist,” which is set in 1920s New York. Keira Knightley is reportedly set to produce and star in the movie adaption of it, but apparently it’s still in the development stages.

Also last week, my hub and I saw and liked the movie “Sully.” You might have already seen it about the pilot who landed the damaged plane on the Hudson River in 2009 to save the passengers and crew. I found the structure of the movie — how it goes back and forth in time from the investigation to the flight to be quite interesting. You find out details you might not have already known about the crash and the pilots. And despite already knowing what happens from history, the movie is still quite a heart-pumping — and thankfully pleasing — watch.

What about you have you read any of these books, or seen “Sully,” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 26 Comments

I Let You Go and October Preview

Happy October. Hard to believe — there’s only three months left of the year. It’s time to make haste with one’s reading goals. I’ve been enjoying the fall colors and got out last week for a bike ride, see photo at left. Oh it was nice and I hope to get a few more rides in before the snow flies. This month looks to be a busy one with our city’s annual book festival taking place the week of the 10th. It highlights mainly Canadian authors and has them here for readings, interviews, and book signings. I plan to see quite a few of the author events including those with: Emma Donoghue, Andre Alexis, Madeleine Thien, and Affinity Konar among many others. I will let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile last week I finished the audiobook of Clare Mackintosh’s 2015 debut thriller “I Let You Go,” which held me from start to finish so I give it high marks for that. It reminded me a bit of Paula Hawkins blockbuster “The Girl on the Train,” or at least it’s in the same vein as that. Though this one is about a hit-and-run car case that leaves a 5-year-old boy dead and sends the book’s protagonist (Jenna) fleeing the memory of the accident by moving to a small cottage on the remote Welsh coast. What’s her story? You only find out little by little, but midway through the book there’s a big twist that spins the story on its head. Wow I walked into it like falling through a trap door.

The chapters alternate between the detectives pursuit of the case to Jenna’s life — past and present — both of which I found enticing. Just a forewarning: the villain in the novel is truly disturbing, and the plot gets a bit crazy (or unbelievable?) near the end, but I had to see it through. I was impressed by “I Let You Go” as a thriller, which made for a captivating audio and is quite visual, particularly of the Welsh coast. I can see a movie being made of it. Have you read it?

Meanwhile there’s a lot of good fiction coming out in October. At least eight novels are on my radar, all of them by women this month, though I need to narrow down my picks. The first one I’m considering is a post-Civil War western called “News of the World” whose plot reminds me slightly of “True Grit’s.” It’s about two mismatched individuals who come together to make a long, arduous journey through Texas in the 1870s. This kind of story might not always appeal to me, but apparently “News of the World” is told with such heart that it’s gained a lot of high marks and popularity on Goodreads. So I will check it out. I could use a good western at this point.

Next up is Brit Bennett’s highly anticipated debut novel “The Mothers.” Set within a black community in Southern California, it’s about a teen romance — and the subsequent cover-up that results from it — that makes an impact that goes far beyond the protagonists’ youths. The novel has been called one of the most exciting debuts of the fall by various publications, and according to Amazon is a “powerful novel about motherhood, female friendship and finding love with a broken heart.” From all the hype I’ve read about the novel, count me in for it.

I’m also curious about Margaret Atwood’s forthcoming book “Hag-Seed” which is another in the Hogarth Shakespeare series that pairs eight of today’s authors with the retelling of Shakespeare works. While Anne Tyler’s recent book “Vinegar Girl” took on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” Atwood’s latest is a remix of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” And from what I can tell, the plot of “Hag-Seed” appears to involve a clever play within a play of the story. The Hogarth series seems fun, and in the capable hands of Atwood, it’s likely her take on “The Tempest” is a real winner. So I need to check it out.

I will also likely pick up a copy of Madeleine Thien’s latest novel “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” which has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and the Giller Prize, and is an author I will hear at our city’s upcoming book festival. Her novel has been hailed as an “extraordinary” epic of recent Chinese history, which involves two generations of a Chinese family — those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. I’m keen about finding out more about this novel and trying out Thien’s writing. Apparently Thien is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants who was born in Vancouver and now lives in Montreal.

Other novels out this month that might be of interest are: Maria Semple’s “Today Will Be Different,” Caroline Leavitt’s “Cruel Beautiful World,” Tana French’s “The Trespasser,” and Marcy Dermansky’s “The Red Car.” My, the month is jam-packed full of enticing new books.

As for October movies, I will definitely see “The Girl on the Train,” which I read in all its inebriated glory last year. The Paula Hawkins thriller surely took in a chunk of change since it was published in early 2015. I want to see how Emily Blunt handles Rachel Watson; she’s definitely not heavy, but she appears to accurately conjure the messed up Rachel. The trailer looks sufficiently crazy, so I’m sure it follows the book well. It seems to ask the pertinent question: what happened that night in the tunnel?! I don’t think it’ll match the movie of “Gone Girl,” but I am looking forward to it nonetheless. One needs a wacky thriller every once in awhile.

There’s also another “Jack Reacher” movie coming out as well as another Robert Langdon / Da Vinci Code follow up — “Inferno,” but I will likely wait to see those when they come on pay-per-view.

Though I likely plan to see “The Birth of a Nation” at a theater. It’s based on the true story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831. It looks to be a powerful movie judging from the trailer, though it’s been mired in controversy lately due to the resurfaced 1999 rape charges against the filmmakers while at college, notably the director and lead actor Nate Parker.

The film apparently interjects a brutal fictional rape scene into it, for which it alludes is one of Nat Turner’s reasons for the rebellion. This has caused the victim’s sister from 1999 to respond in a recent column by writing: “Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.” Yikes. It’s not exactly an issue I can forget now that I know about it.

Lastly for this month, there’s a lot of albums by popular artists coming out, such as Green Day, Kings of Leon, Bon Jovi, The Pretenders, Michael Buble, and Lady Gaga among others. That’s Gaga, people, you heard it right. I have no idea what her new album “Joanne” will sound like. It comes out Oct. 21. But I heard that Lady Gaga will be headlining next year’s Super Bowl. So there is a Gaga resurgence. Meanwhile I will pick Norah Jones’s latest album “Day Breaks” as my pick this month. I like her music. Enjoy.

What about you — which books, movies, or albums are you looking forward to this month?

Posted in Top Picks | 27 Comments