Begin Again and a Silkworm update

Last week, my husband and I went to see the movie “Begin Again” with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. It’s by the same director who made the 2006 movie “Once” that’s about a pair in Dublin who collaborate on some songs and end up falling in love. Like “Once,” “Begin Again” is about an unlikely pair who end up working together to create a music album, although this time it’s set in New York City. Mark Ruffalo plays the down-and-out music producer who teams with a stage-shy songwriter (played by Keira Knightley) whom he happens to hear perform at a bar’s open mic night.

As it so happens, I almost skipped this movie because of rough reviews in various newspapers, but luckily I was steered back by the positive review on Nose in a Book’s blog and my husband’s apparent preference for films with Ms. Knightley. And come on, it’s a movie about the magic of music -- listening, playing, creating music -- with a few bankable actors set against a backdrop of the streets of the Big Apple by the same writer and director who did “Once.” Why wouldn’t I see it? Adam Levine is in it, too; the frontman for Maroon 5 plays Knightley’s rockstar boyfriend, so I was curious and thought it might be good.

Luckily it is. “Begin Again” turns out to be quite an enjoyable film, clearly better than the regular summer schlock out nowadays. Its message about how music can transform people’s lives comes across in an engaging, creative way, set against scenes in New York that bring the city vibrantly to life. I had trouble believing the singing was actually Knightley’s own voice in the movie, but impressively it is. Somehow she manages to pull it off, and it helps that Levine lends his considerable singing talents as well.

In the movie, both the music producer and the songwriter’s lives become transformed by the album they’re working on. Ruffalo’s character finds his purpose again and tries to win back his estranged wife and daughter, while Knightley’s character gains more confidence as a singer-songwriter and comes to realize her rockstar boyfriend and her are heading in different directions.

It’s a bittersweet story -- one sparked by the music and performances. Although some critics say “Begin Again’s” music and songs are too weak and that it pales in comparison to the film “Once,” I didn’t get that feeling at all. Similar to “Once,” I thought the music had a transcendent effect. And while “Once” might be considered a more artful, off-the-cuff film, “Begin Again” felt more enjoyable and uplifting. If you haven’t already seen it, check it out for yourself.

And let me know what you think. Have you seen either “Once” or “Begin Again”?

Meanwhile in book news, I’m half way through the mystery “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) and like it quite a bit. Admittedly, I started “The Silkworm” before reading Galbraith’s first mystery with the same detective “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” but I plan to go back and read that one later. I can already imagine these books will make good movies, so I’m sure the bidding war is intense. I’m just trying to figure out which actor I would pick to be the private investigator Cormoran Strike from Cornwall. From the book, he’s very tall, a bit heavy and has slightly curly hair. He’s also a war vet who has a prosthetic right leg. For some reason, I want to say he’s in his mid-30s, but I’m not sure she really says. So who’s a tall British actor that could play him? Any guesses ??? I sort of want to say Benedict Cumberbatch from the show "Sherlock Holmes" but I'm sure he's too typecast as Sherlock by now, so I'll have to pick another.

Eyrie

I’m a big fan of author Tim Winton’s books, having read “Dirt Music” (2001), “The Turning” (2005) and “Breath” (2008), but his new one “Eyrie” tested me a bit and I wasn’t sure if it was ever going to get off the ground.

It’s a story about Tom Keely, 49, a disillusioned environmentalist who lives in a downtrodden high-rise building overlooking the harbor of Fremantle, Australia. He’s divorced and been disgraced in some incident that’s forced him out of his job as spokesman for an activist group. It’s a bit sketchy what’s happened but suffice is to say he used to be on the TV news and was a prominent somebody but now he’s unemployed and his wife is gone. Meanwhile his sister and mother worry about him since Tom spends his days in a drug and alcohol haze, looking back on his life, angry at the world and becoming more broke by the minute. He’s also prone to sleepwalking, feinting spells and often doesn’t remember these episodes.

But eventually Tom runs into a neighbor from his childhood days who incidentally is living in his building. Gemma was the beauty from back then whose Tom's parents generously gave refuge to, but she’s 44 now and taking care of her six-year-old grandson, Kai, because her druggy daughter is in prison. Tom forms a bond with them, helping Gemma on her work nights by watching Kai who’s a strange, shy, intelligent boy who worries Tom with his dreams about death.

But it’s when Kai’s meth-addicted father starts blackmailing Gemma for money and threatening Kai that things turn dicey. Tom is pressed into action that he hasn’t been capable of in eons. But whether they’ll be safe from the meth-punk, you won’t know till the very end.

“Eyrie” paints a vivid picture of disillusionment and place, the past and the present: the high-rise and the harbor in Fremantle, Tom’s childhood and current unwell state. But the story’s plot doesn’t seem to pick up until after page 200. For awhile, I wasn’t sure anything was going to happen in it. At the beginning it was just Tom going in and out of his apartment, drifting off to sleep, or listening to the building’s noises. I couldn’t take it much longer. So I was thankful for Gemma and Kai’s appearance and the novel’s last 100 pages when things indeed speed up.

Thank goodness. The second half with the meth-blackmailer dad are pretty gripping. Although the characters aren’t that likable, particularly the foul-mouthful Gemma who isn’t very grateful to Tom, I was into it by then and wasn’t sure how or if they’d escape. The ending turned out to be pretty abrupt (I had to read it over a few times), but it seemed real.

Judging from comments on Goodreads etc., other readers were either big fans of “Eyrie” or were really disappointed in it. Funny how that happens, such a wide dichotomy. I’d say I didn’t care much for the first half and liked it more in the second half. But overall, I didn’t think it his best book. From those I’ve read, I liked his books “Breath” and “The Turning” better. I’ll still read whatever he writes next. I haven’t read his 1991 novel “Cloudstreet” yet, which many say is his finest. I’m excited though that Tim Winton’s coming to our town’s book festival in October. Wow, now that’ll be good. I’ll have to get him to sign all my copies of his books.

How about you -- have you read this author before or do you plan to?

A Preview of July Releases

On average July brings the warmest temperatures of the year here in western Canada and with all the sunshine come active, busy days. I’ve been a bit here, there, and everywhere, except blogging lately. I had company staying for awhile, but now I’m back and ready to check out what’s releasing for this summer month.

If you hadn’t noticed, there’s quite a few heavyweights due out with books right about now (see list at right). Such reliable, strong-selling authors as Jojo Moyes, Liane Moriarty, and Rainbow Rowell have new novels out this month, which could be perfect for the beach. It might be just the right time to sink my teeth into “Big Little Lies” or perhaps “Landline.” Have you read these already?

I’m also curious about four highly praised books coming out from debut novelists. Elizabeth Little’s book “Dear Daughter” introduces a protagonist recently released from prison for the murder of her mother who goes undercover to find out what really happened to her. Author Tana French says the book is “an all-nighter and the best debut mystery I’ve read in a long time.” Kate Atkinson calls it a “really gutsy, clever, energetic read” and a “breath of fresh air.”

Then there’s Mira Jacob’s popular debut “The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing” about an Indian American family dealing with tragedy and loss. It goes from India to New Mexico and Seattle and expands on the family’s difficulties living in America and with each other. Both multigenerational and alternating from past and present, the novel’s been called “epic” and “dazzling” and everyone seems to be rating it highly.

But my attention is also captured by Rufi Thorpe’s debut “The Girls From Corona del Mar,” a story about a complicated friendship between two complex women over decades and continents, which author Maggie Shipstead says is “generous, soulful, and tough.” Ann Packer says “what’s most impressive is its incredible vitality, its searing intensity.” I’m taken, too, by its title since I used to go to the beach there as a kid. Could that also be its allure?

Lastly in enticing debuts is Will Chancellor’s “A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall” about a professor of classics and his son, captain of Stanford’s water polo team who is blinded during a match and flees to Berlin. His father follows trying to find him in Greece, Germany and Iceland. While in Europe, both son and father undergo a summer of personal and professional transformation, which author Molly Antopol says is “at once a psychological journey and a terrific page-turner.” Hmm. Count me in.

Meanwhile in movies this month (see list at left), it’s the usual summer fare, which I can’t say that I go to watch much anymore. For some reason, I’m not even psyched for the latest Planet of the Apes movie, despite its favorable reviews and seemingly excellent special effects. The apes look eerily real, do they not? But gosh I once was riveted to the '70’s TV series and Cornelius back in the day. Planet of the Apes did rule for me back then.

But for now I’m picking the espionage thriller “A Most Wanted Man” based on the John le Carre novel. It looks intriguing and includes one of the last roles played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, which seems rather disconcerting seeing him, knowing that he's longer around, but he’s so good in these parts. And I did like the film for le Carre’s novel “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” so I’m hoping I’ll like this spy flick, too.

In albums out this month (see list at bottom right), there’s not one that calls out to me strongly, but I’m glad to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are back with a new one. And I’m also curious by Jason Mraz’s new album “Yes!” which I think will have some good songs on it. So I’ll pick this one.

Enjoy your summer days of new books, movies and albums! Which ones are you most looking forward to?

A Sunny Homecoming

Thomas Wolfe once wrote that you can’t go home again. I know what he means, but part of me says why the heck not. This week I’ve been back visiting my folks and roots again (see photo above), which I always really enjoy. I grew up in Southern, California, but my adult, married life is in Canada now, a world away. In between, I spent years in Texas, Colorado, Washington state, Virginia and D.C. All these places were great, but there’s so many memories in one’s hometown; is there not? I feel younger, and healthy here, too. What about you -- do you still enjoy going back to your hometown?

This week I intend to finish Kate Morton’s thick-ish novel “The Forgotten Garden” on the plane back tomorrow as I have no time to waste with piles to read. I read her book for my book club, which we’ll discuss on Tuesday. It’s sort of a light, summer read but quite enjoyable nonetheless as Morton spins an engaging tale about family secrets.

Meanwhile, I picked up two used, nonfiction books on sale here that look devourable. First, the 2010 biography of “Cleopatra” by Stacy Schiff, which I’ve wanted to read since going through a Rome phase sparked off by our trip there last fall. That was followed up by the “Rome” TV series from 2005 and 2007, which we spent the winter watching on DVD. Who doesn’t want to know more about Antony and the mysterious Cleopatra? Yes, count me in.

I also got J.R. Moehringer’s 2005 memoir “The Tender Bar,” which I’ve heard raves about for years. It seems a juicy read. Someone wrote he’s the “best memoirist of his kind since Mary Karr.” Hmm. Is this true? Have you read “The Tender Bar”? I recall Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club” being bleak but I’m hoping “The Tender Bar” is sweet and a bit funny, too. We’ll see.

Until next time, happy reading.

A Preview of June Releases

We are half way into the year now -- so how is your reading going? Mine has slowed a bit but I’m looking to rectify that with the plethora of new novels coming out this month (see list at right).

But first, I’m taking in Australian Kate Morton’s 2009 novel “The Forgotten Garden,” which I’m reading for my book club this month. It’s about an abandoned child on a ship going to Australia in 1913 whose identity is pieced together as the book goes on. I’m not sure this is my typical genre to read, but Morton seems an engaging and natural storyteller, making it worth while for summer reading on the back deck. (Apply sunscreen as needed.)

In new novels out this month, I’d have to say I’m most interested in Tim Winton’s novel “Eyrie” because I’m a big fan of Winton’s and will read whatever he writes. Coincidently, like Morton, he’s an Australian, too. So far, I’ve read Winton’s novels “Dirt Music” (2001) and “Breath” (2008) and his excellent short story collection “The Turning” (2005). The great thing too is the author is coming to our city's annual book festival in October and will speak there. So I definitely plan to have “Eyrie” read by then and have him sign it, which will be quite a thrill. Apparently, “Eyrie” is about a man who’s struggling to accomplish good in a world run amok who becomes broke and encounters a woman from his past and her preternatural son who are in desperate need of help. Hmm. Can he help them? I will have to find out.

Next up, I’m interested in Lily King’s new novel “Euphoria” about three young anthropologists in the 1930s caught in a passionate love triangle that affects their lives. It’s based loosely on the real life of Margaret Mead who studied native tribes in the territory of New Guinea, where the novel takes place. “Euphoria” has received high marks, and for those like me who are interested in Mead’s life and work and anthropology in general, it might be just the right historical novel to dive into.

Another book I plan to check out is “We Are Called to Rise,” which is a debut novel by Laura McBride. It’s set in Las Vegas and is about three lives that collide and are bound together by a split-second mistake in which a child's fate hangs in the balance. What happens next is said to restore one’s faith in humanity. Hmm, I’m quite curious about this emotionally powerful tale, which has received such positive feedback from readers and authors alike. Will it affect me the same way?

Other honorable mentions this month include Lisa See’s latest novel “China Dolls” about three young women who meet at a San Francisco nightclub in 1938 and become fast friends, relying on each other through changing wartimes. “China Dolls” reminds me I need to read this author again after enjoying her 2005 novel “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.”

Then there’s “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Cristina Henriquez, which is said to be a passionate and powerful story about a handful of hispanic immigrant families living in the U.S. Author Billy Lynn calls it a “triumph of storytelling,” and from what I hear, it might just be a novel about the immigrant experience that’s too important to miss.

Lastly if you want suspense this summer, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” by Michael Koryta could be just the thriller for you. I’ve read it’s quite breathtaking, about a 14-year-old boy who witnesses a murder and is hidden in a wilderness skills program where the killers are trying to reach him. Yikes, run!

In movies this month (see list at left), “Fault in Our Stars” raked in an impressive $48 million on its opening weekend. I liked the John Green novel it’s taken from so I hope to see it. You would think a tale about two young cancer patients in a relationship would turn out too maudlin or weepy, but apparently like the book, the movie does well to make it more life-affirming and witty. What did you think, have you seen it?

The other dramatic movie that might be worth seeing is “Third Person” by the same director (Paul Haggis) who did the movie “Crash” years ago. It’s about three love stories that end up being interconnected in some way. It has a notable cast with Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody and James Franco among others and looks quite intense so I will likely see if it’s any good.

Lastly in albums for June (see list at bottom right), it’s always good to see Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders back singing again. This time solo, too. I like her new song “Dark Sunglasses” but I’m not sure of the entire album “Stockholm” just yet. I need to hear some more. I’m also curious about listening to David Gray’s new one “Mutineers.”

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

The Giver

This was my first time reading Lois Lowry’s 1993 award-winning, young adult novel “The Giver.” It’s a slim book, which is coming out as a movie in August, starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes, and even Taylor Swift among others. I was curious about the book and had to check it out. Perhaps a few of these older novels such as this one and “Ender’s Game,” which have recently been made into movies, are trying to follow-up on the coattails of the young-adult movie audiences for “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” The young-adult medium is sure the rage these days, though perhaps it’s always been pretty popular.

The movie trailer of “The Giver” appears to expand on the book and take some liberties with it. It gives off a sort of “Handmaid’s Tale” creepiness, too. And like that novel, and “Brave New World,” “The Giver” takes place in a utopian society in the future where things are tightly controlled, restricted, and not at all what they seem.

The community in “The Giver” has taken away hunger, war, suffering, unemployment, and sickness but has also eliminated color, music, and love. A selected handful of "Elders" control whom people marry, which children and jobs they get, and when they will be “released.” Choice has been restricted, and life follows a “Sameness” plan, where even people’s capacity for memories is eliminated and borne instead by a “Receiver of Memories.” He alone knows the past, but is now an old man who is called upon to train a successor.

Jonas is the eleven-year-old boy selected to be the next “Receiver of Memories.” But as he trains with the old man (the Giver) he comes to realize from the past the possibilities of what life once was. He’s able for the first time to see color and feel warmth, and becomes disillusioned with his family and the community for how it is. Ultimately it’s when he discovers a hidden chilling truth about what’s going on, that he decides to hatch a plot to change the “Sameness” and escape the community’s pain-free, sterile world.

It’s an interesting little book, which spookiness has stayed with me for awhile after. It’s not that “The Giver” necessarily blew me away with its storytelling or its message but its cautionary tale of such a colorless society is simply and straightforwardly told, and I followed Jonas eagerly to the depths of his journey of discovery. I’ll be looking forward to see how the filmmakers handle this utopian-turned-dystopian tale. Judging by the old man (the Giver) on the book’s cover, I haven’t exactly been able to picture Jeff Bridges as him, but we will see. As long as the movie captures some of the book’s eeriness and forewarning, it might just work.

What about you -- have you read this Newbery Medal winner? And what did you think? Do you plan to see the movie?

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