Monday, December 8, 2014

Book Review: Detroit, An American Autopsy

Anger and news are a powerful combination. There are those who get angry over breaking news. Then, there are those who get angry over investigations for what is or what is not discovered. As a journalist myself, there are stories that I've had, some in the form of a feature series, that left me shaking my head in disbelief and bordering on anger.

A similar affair occurred for journalist Charlie LeDuff when he left his reporting position at the New York Times and returned to his native Detroit to work at the Detroit News. His book Detroit: An American Autopsy (2013, Penguin) chronicles that period of time when he returned to the Motor City and saw how dire its situation was. At the time, the Great Recession was at its peak and both General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and Ford was not looking good either. Emergency personnel response times were terrible in parts of the city, arson was rampant and whole blocks were deserted, in part because of sky-high foreclosure rates, or had squatters. Understandably, LeDuff was furious over the lack of care in his hometown.

As he starts to unravel stories that indicate what caused the downfall of one of the nation's economic hubs, we learn a little about his own life as well. We see corrupt political figures go to jail, a man frozen in ice and a general sense of despair from the city's residents, as if they realize the problem is too big to overcome.

But the book has its problems. First, the man in ice story, one of the more memorable parts of the book, has had its validity questioned by other Detroit media outlets for various inconsistencies when the print version appeared in the Detroit News. Second, LeDuff can be an unlikeable gruff at times, but I think that's more of an extension of his anger at the city's sullen state. Third, LeDuff shows a lot of the problems in the city, but I don't think he quite got to the root causes and there are no solutions discussed. The latter issue didn't bother me as much because the story of Detroit is ongoing.

Grade: 3/5 stars. LeDuff's reporting has an edge to it that jumps off the page, but possible errors in one of the more memorable stories in the book as well as the incomplete dissection of the causes of the city's plight hold it back.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Friday: Playing the Enemy (a.k.a. Invictus)

About a month and a half after the September 11th attacks, the World Series pitted the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks against the powerhouse New York Yankees in what many observers of the sport consider to be one of the best playoff series of all time. But more importantly for the country, the seven-game series was something to rally around, a sign of life returning to normal. It was a moment of people coming together through sport.

John Carlin's Playing the Enemy (2008, Penguin) paints a stirring picture of a nation, South Africa, transitioning out of apartheid hatred and unifying around sport. But to call it a sports book would be a severe disservice, because Playing the Enemy manages to elevate beyond a simple sports story. In journalism, the term is "sports feature writing," where sports ties into a larger social issue and Carlin does it fantastically.

Several friends of mine have visited South Africa (one even stayed) and I found myself fascinated by that country. Carlin's book gives a thorough history of the internal struggles within South Africa leading up to the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela and the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which the country hosted. Mandela was a political genius and Carlin traces how he managed to meet with white leaders F. W. de Klerk and P. W. Botha and eventually be released from prison. Then, he bet his political capital on the Springboks national rugby team, captained by Francois Pienaar, to unite the nation during the World Cup. Carlin also tells the story of the Viljoen brothers who were split on the issue of ending apartheid and gives equal time to black aspirations of newfound equality and white fears of a vengeful Mandela. As the World Cup got closer and closer, the book veers more toward the sports aspect.

Carlin presents the story with a wide scope and I knew much more of South Africa's terrain, culture, demographics, and history than I did prior to picking up the book. Sports fans may feel like they're plodding though the first two-thirds of the book in order to get to the rugby action and conversely, politicos may be less interested in the rugby, but save for a bit of a slow-down in the middle of the book, I was invested from page to page. And that's the definition of a good read. Grade: 4/5 stars.

In the holiday season of 2009, Warner Bros. released two high-quality sports films based on books of true stories. The first, football drama The Blind Side, won Sandra Bullock an Oscar and was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to The Hurt Locker. The second film, South African rugby drama Invictus, was met with mostly positive but not rapturous reviews like previous Clint Eastwood-directed films. Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were both nominated for Oscars, but they, and the rest of the film's crew, came home empty-handed. Damon lost to Christoph Waltz for Inglourious Basterds while Freeman lost to Jeff Bridges for Crazy Heart.

Invictus tries to straddle both the sports aspect of the story and the political and as a result, it has a few quirks. Audiences unfamiliar with how rugby is played will be a bit lost in following the action. Also, the book's history of the years leading up to Mandela's release from prison and first few years after is completely cut from the film, save for a scene where the team visits Robben Island prison. However, the film's overall theme of sports acting as a unifier in a post-apartheid world shines through in several scenes, including one where the team does a publicity visit to a black village...

And my favorite scene in the movie, when Pienaar, played by Damon, meets with Freeman's President Mandela and they discuss how to make people perform better than they first thought possible...

Had I not read the book, I'd score Invictus a bit higher, but knowing that the whole back history was cut dampens the movie. The book itself is a slice of South African history and the movie is a slice of the slice. That's not to say the movie is bad. It has fine work behind the camera by Eastwood, a great soundtrack and Freeman and Damon do stellar jobs, but the total picture of the history didn't quite make the jump to celluloid. Grade: 4/5 stars.

Have you read Playing the Enemy or seen Invictus? What did you think?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Goodreads Choice Award Winners

The winners of the Goodreads Choice were announced this week. More than 3.3 million readers cast votes for their favorite books of the year.

Best Fiction
Winner: Landline by Rainbow Rowell - 46,154 votes
My Pick: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin - 19,818 votes
My Runner-Up: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - 11,608 votes

This category was going to be a slugfest from the word go and it didn't disappoint. As I expected, Rowell's fans came out in droves, as did avid readers of Liane Moriarty, who came in second place. Zevin's novel came in third, better than where I thought it would end up. Station Eleven came in ninth place, but it had an uphill battle since it was released in September, whereas the others had summer and spring publications. If anything, the fact that it didn't finish any lower is a testament to how well it was received in the short time period between publication and award nomination. Redeployment, winner of the National Book Award, came in 14th place.

Best Historical Fiction
Winner: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr - 41,512 votes
My Pick: Same

This book is on dozens of best books of the year lists, has received universal acclaim and was shortlisted for the National Book Award. So it's no surprise that it cleaned house in the historical fiction category. Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings and Ken Follett's Edge of Eternity made solid efforts, but in the end, the World War II-era tale was the victor.

Best Mystery and Thriller
Winner: Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King - 41,453 votes
My Pick: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) - 41,034 votes

419 votes. That was the difference between the gold and silver in this category. By the hair of it's chinny-chin-chin, Mercedes took the top spot. While other books like Janet Evanovich's Top Secret Twenty One and Tana French's The Secret Place had decent votes, the proverbial air was sucked out of the category by Silkworm and Mercedes. I grew up on Rowling's writing, so I favored her writing, which is more of a detective mystery compared to King's novel, which has a more sinister tone. That isn't to say that I disliked Mr. Mercedes, especially since it was on my TBR list at one point. My vote was more about which style I tend to prefer rather than the quality of writing.

Best Memoir and Autobiography
Winner: This Star Won't Go Out by the Earl Family - 27,850 votes
My Pick: Life, Animated by Ron Suskind - 1,131 votes
My Runner-Up: As You Wish by Cary Elwes - 24,111 votes

Consider this category Exhibit A for the power of John Green's Nerdfighters. As I wrote on my previous post, I was rooting for Ron Suskind's book, but suspected that it would not make it to the final rounds. When it was eliminated, I switched my vote to Elwes' memoir on the making of the 1987 film The Princess Bride. Despite having a late publishing date, it did really well, likely from all the movie's large fan base. And yet, it didn't top a John Green-backed book about a cancer victim that helped inspire Green's book The Fault in Our Stars. The lauded crematorium memoir Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty, which has appeared on a number of top book lists, came in eighth place.

Best History and Biography
Winner: The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport - 21,118 votes
My Pick: Five Came Back by Mark Harris - 220 votes
My Runner-Up: In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides - 7,203 votes

Some surprises here. I didn't see the Romanov biography winning at all and thought it would likely go to Karen Abbott's Liar Temptress Soldier Spy or Bill O'Reilly's latest. I also didn't think Five Came Back would only garner 220 votes, one of the lowest overall votes in the entire competition. Harris' book tells the story of five Hollywood directors, including Frank Capra, John Ford and William Wyler who served in the military during World War II. A relative of mine hardly reads or listens to books, but he was completely mesmerized by the audiobook of Five Came Back. When it got knocked out in the later rounds, I switched my vote to Sides' highly-regarded Arctic tale.

There were some other interesting tidbits from the awards results as well...

• The book with the highest number of total votes wasn't Landline, but rather Rick Riordan's The Blood of Olympus, the latest in the Heroes of Olympus series. It took home the gold in the children's category with 63,000 votes cast. Other big vote-getters included City of Heavenly Fire, the latest Mortal Instruments novel. It racked up more than 53,000 votes and handily won the young adult fantasy category. Diana Gabaldon's Written in My Own Heart's Blood also got more than 50,000 votes and coasted to a victory in the romance category.

• The closest vote came in the nonfiction category, though the best debut author category was also very well contested.

To see a full list of the nominees and winners, click here.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

When I told some friends that I was going to be reading Katherine Boo's book Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Random House), some asked in dismay why I'd read a book that screams "Downer!" I was somewhat taken aback by the question because I thought it inadvertently highlighted how there are some people that can walk this earth completely oblivious or ignorant to the plight of others around the globe. It's partly this reason why I try to read at least one book per year about some other country besides the U.S. This year, Forevers was one of two.

I've never been to India, but I understand the increasing role they play in the global economy. According to the World Bank, India's GDP was averaging 9.5% prior to the 2008 global recession, while the U.S. was averaging about 2.75%. When the recession hit, India's GDP had dropped to 4% and the U.S. rate was below zero. Factor in India's social caste system and its juxtaposing new fortune and the conditions create a horrible tease and grim reality for slum residents.

Perhaps that's nowhere more evident than in the slum of Annawadi, adjacent to the city's main airport, where Boo's tale of life in the Mumbai underclass takes place. The airport gleams with construction walls touting "Beautiful Forevers," hence the title, but behind those walls lie desperate people that want the benefits of their country's newfound economic muscle.

We meet several people along the way, including the ambitious Asha, the area's female slumlord; Abdul, a teenage boy who is the breadwinner for his family by picking garbage; Fatima, a one-legged woman who dies a terrible death; and Kalu, a homeless boy who is killed, but is hardly given a second thought by authorities.

Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writer at The New Yorker and formerly of The Washington Post, writes of the residents' plight as a reporter and it shows. The level of detail in her writing is fantastic and balances a tender sense of care with the grim realities of life in Annawadi. Boo shatters any pre-conceived notions of a slumlord or of religious aid groups in the slum. The book won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2012 and deservedly so.

It is an uncomfortable, heart-breaking and challenging read. There were many times where I had to set the book down and reflect on whether it was hypocritical to read about people so impoverished while I'm curled up on the couch enjoying a Coke on a warm fall day. It is impossible to read this book without feeling some empathy toward the people who were trying everything they could to get out of Annawadi and into India's middle class. It challenges ideas of income inequality, pure free-market capitalism and those it can leave behind.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a difficult and challenging read because of it's inherently brutal subject matter, but it is really well-written and illuminates a side of humanity few in America think about. I am better off for having read it.

While there hasn't been any talk of a film adaptation, though YouTube vlogger and author John Green has called for it, the National Theatre in London just opened a play based on the book. Below is an interview author Katherine Boo gave with the New York Public Library about the book.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Friday: Mockingjay (Part 1)

NOTE: The conclusion of a three-part series. For part one, discussing the original Hunger Games, click here. For part two, about Catching Fire, click here.

After the cliffhanger ending of Catching Fire, Mockingjay picks the story right up and shows Katniss Everdeen unsure of herself as she takes the mantle of the titular bird and becomes the face of the rebellion against Panem. Meanwhile, Peeta and Johanna are held captive in the Capitol, leading Katniss to demand the rebels of District 13 rescue her fellow games participants. Eventually, there is a full-on assault on the Capitol.

One of my few issues with the book was that Katniss seemed to take a step back in her journey toward being the face of the rebellion, as if she was suddenly unsure of herself. While some hesitancy is expected, I thought author Suzanne Collins overplayed her hand on that aspect. If my town was firebombed out of existence by its own government, I'd be beyond furious and wanting to take action. However, when the assault on the Capitol begins, it's a thrilling page-turner from the word go.

One of the book's strengths is the skewering of creating propaganda for a war. District 13 and the Capitol are both trying to rally support, propaganda pieces, or "propos" as they are called in the book, each side is using people to sell the cause, some better than others. Let's just say Katniss isn't a natural in a studio reading prepared scripts. 

I think of The Hunger Games series like dual sliding scales. On the first scale, the survivalist and hunting themes in the original novel are a major presence, but by the time the reader gets to Mockingjay, they have diminished. Conversely, the second scale is the political and social commentary, which is noticeable in the first book but dominates the third.

Grade: 4/5 stars. Despite a couple of missteps, The Hunger Games saga has a generally satisfying ending.

As for the film, my dislike for singular books being split into multiple parts has been documented. Also, Mockingjay Part 1 was coming off my favorite book and film in the series, so it was already behind the proverbial 8-ball. Having said that, the film makes the most of being prematurely split into two. The end scene isn't quite where I thought it was (though it came really close and the screen goes black at where I had guessed it would end).

Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie) make the best of the material while Julianne Moore (Coin) came off as a bit of a stiff, but one could argue her character is in the book as well. Yes, Effie subs in for Katniss' prep team in the book and is in District 13 in the film. This was a change I totally expected in part because fans and viewers who have not read the books would have been asking throughout Part 1, "Where's Effie?" They probably could have been true to the text had the film not been split into two.

The other major change in the film is the rescue. In the book, Katniss' first-person perspective does not allow us as a reader to see it and we are instead in Katniss' head where she frets about the possibilities. So it was a welcome change when the camera goes along with the rescuers and we see it unfold. Chalk that up to the camera being a third-person POV.

There is another potentially huge change involving Katniss' deal of becoming the Mockingjay of the rebellion, but it depends on how things unfold in Part 2.

Grade: 3.5/5 stars. Is the film good? Yes. Should it have been split into two? Probably not. 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book Review: Publishing

It's the watermark of writing: Getting a book published. Some writers hope to get their one dream book published, some manage to be the next James Patterson and get a million books published, and some go it alone and self-publish.

Gail Godwin's memoir on writing, Publishing, is set to be published January 13 by Bloomsbury, but I was able to review it early thanks to NetGalley. The book is a quick read and gives a taste of the author's quest to be published. Godwin opens the book with an author's nightmare: getting turned down by a scout from Knopf, one of the most distinguished publishing houses (many in the publishing world name Knopf and Farrar, Straus and Giroux as two of the most distinguished houses). Godwin manages to bounce back with several bestsellers including A Mother and Two Daughters (1982), Father Melancholy's Daughter (1991), and Evensong (1999).

All three were published by different houses, but Godwin explains some of the writing process, having an agent and editor among them. At one point, she laments changes at Viking after it became part of the Penguin Group. Considering the recent mega merger of Penguin and Random House, two titans in the publishing world, how does it compare now to the Viking-Penguin merger back then? That was a question I had during most of the book.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not read any of Godwin's books prior to Publishing. Fans of hers will enjoy the behind-the-scenes look at how she wrote her books. I was more intrigued by the tales of her getting her books published, but there is also a fair amount of her life story intertwined as well.

Rating: 3/5 stars. I readily admit, I probably would have enjoyed this more had I read Godwin's previous works, but there was enough here to keep me invested. I was left wanting more details of the publishing industry, but Publishing was a good starting point.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Film Friday: Catching Fire

NOTE: The second in a three-part series leading up to Mockingjay, Part 1. To see the one on the original novel, The Hunger Games, click here.

I rarely watch television and when I do, I actively avoid reality shows. So it wouldn't surprise you when I say I dislike Survivor, especially its All-Star editions. The same idea is behind part 2 of The Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire.

Katniss and Peeta thought they had escaped the clutches of the Capitol for good. But when the 75th Hunger Games (also referred to as the Quarter Quell) rolls around a year after the events in the first novel, they are back in with other victors from previous editions of the Games. Meanwhile, unrest continues in the districts as Katniss and Peeta's act of defiance at the end of the first Hunger Games sparked talk of a revolution.

Of the books in the series, Catching Fire is my favorite. The spectacle of the arena continues to be peeled away for the grotesque and macabre rampage that it is and the political subtext that started in the original becomes more apparent. Peeta is elevated from being the damsel in distress and Katniss rounds into form as the take-no-prisoners heroine the reader knows she will eventually become. The book also has one of the better cliffhanger endings of any book I've read in recent years and showed a willingness on author Suzanne Collins' part to shake up the formula her books had held to up to that point.

A lot of people like the side characters in the original novel, namely Rue and Prim, but I like the supporting characters in Catching Fire better. Each of the previous victors that are being forced to return to the Games rebel against the Capitol in their own unique way, from Beetee's knowledge of electricity to Finnick's inner rage at what happened to his sweetheart Annie. There are major consequences to side characters we've known since the original novel, so the stakes are raised more than they ever were in The Hunger Games.

One caveat on Catching Fire is the audiobook version. I briefly flirted with trying to listen to audiobooks last year and the first one I tried was Catching Fire. I made it about two hours in before I couldn't take it any more. Katniss came across as a whiny heroine that didn't have a backbone.

When the first Hunger Games film made $152 million in its opening weekend, still the highest-ever for a non-sequel, a green light for Catching Fire was a foregone conclusion. The studio swapped director Gary Ross for Francis Lawrence (no relation to series star Jennifer) in order to make a November 2013 release date. Some were concerned because Francis' most notable film up to that point was I Am Legend, the Will Smith zombie action film. The worries turned out to be for nothing.

Catching Fire managed to improve on the original in every aspect. Less shaky cam, better character development, and with some minor exceptions it stayed true to the text. The movie is second only to Silver Linings Playbook on my "best Jennifer Lawrence performance" list. She managed to show Katniss' growing confidence in her role as the eventual Mockingjay well.

Like the first movie, my favorite scene has Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman in it. Main characters Katniss and Peeta pull a surprise on the capitol that leaves the audience upset at Caesar. Again, as was the case in The Hunger Games, the book's more political subtexts really stood out here.

The movie is intense and managed to leave the cliffhanger from the novel intact. When I saw the film with my sister and brother-in-law, I could hear him saying something to the effect of, "Oh man, they're going to cut it on that last shot" while I said "Just like the book." Below is the last scene, in its entirety, that set up the countdown clock to this weekend's Mockingjay Part 1.

Catching Fire managed to raise the stakes, change up the world of The Hunger Games and was a page turner from beginning to end.

Grade for the book: 4.5/5 stars
Grade for the movie: 4/5 stars

What did you think of Catching Fire?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

National Book Award Winners

It was a good night to work for Penguin and Farrar, Straus and Giroux last night at the National Book Award ceremony. Penguin books took the honors in fiction and young adult, while FSG walked away the winner in nonfiction and poetry. All four winners are first-time recipients of the award.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin Press)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press)

The Winner: Redeployment
My Pick: All the Light We Cannot See
My Runner-up: Station Eleven
Heading into the awards ceremony, I figured it was going to come down to the books by Klay, Doerr and St. John Mandel. All three are on my TBR, though I've read large chunks of the latter two and I've sampled Redeployment. Most of the social media traffic and blogs seemed to favor Doerr and St. John Mandel, though Klay had gotten a lot of attention earlier in the year. All the Light We Cannot See is written in a very lyrical style, while Station Eleven is a wonderfully descriptive take on the well-worn post-apocalyptic genre. Meanwhile, Redeployment is a jarring collection of stories that look at a soldier's life both at war and returning home. Consider the opening paragraph, "We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I'm a dog person, so I thought about that a lot." Quite the opener for what follows. Much like when The King's Speech won the Oscar in 2010 when I was rooting for Inception and The Social Network, I get why Klay's book won the award, despite not being my first choice. Definitely a worthy winner.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury)
The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright/Norton)
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes by Anand Gopal (Metropolitan/Henry Holt)
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton)

The Winner: Age of Ambition
My Pick: Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
As someone who initially read only nonfiction books when I resumed reading daily as an adult, I thought I had my finger on the pulse after reading or successfully guessing the last two winners (Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers and George Packer's The Unwinding). Apparently, the judges and I didn't see eye-to-eye on the nonfiction side at all this year. My early picks didn't make it onto the shortlist, then the book I thought would win lost out to Osnos' account of modern China. That isn't to say Age of Ambition isn't good, but that it wasn't on my radar at all until the shortlist. And even then, I thought Chast had it. Consider Age of Ambition the newest addition to my TBR list.

Other winners included Louise Gluck for Faithful and Virtuous Night (Poetry) and Jacqueline Woodson for Brown Girl Dreaming (Young People's). Both Gluck and Woodson are huge names in their respective fields, so it's great to see them finally get a National Book Award to add to their already large trophy cases.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Book Review: Dance Floor Democracy

Throughout my schooling and especially when I pursued a history minor in college, I thoroughly enjoyed studying World War II-era history. Some of my favorite films take place during that time period, ranging from 'Saving Private Ryan' to the pulpy 'The Rocketeer' and 'Indiana Jones' films.

I received Sherrie Tucker's Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen as a NetGalley read, in part, because I was curious about an aspect of World War II-era history that I hadn't seen before. The Canteen was only open for three years, but nearly three million servicemen stopped by the club before or after being sent overseas. The club catered to all servicemembers, including women, and Allied soldiers. Starlets and actors would frequently dance with attendees and everything was free. Warner Bros. even made a film about the canteen towards the tail end of the war.

Sherrie Tucker's book is a very academic study in the history of the war via the nightclub, namely how the jitterbug dance represents the war to some younger generations and how people remember social history. However, I wasn't expecting it to be as academic of a study as it was (not that there's anything wrong with that, just not quite what I had prepared to read). Tucker delves into racism, sexism and other social forces, but is written in an academia-friendly way.

Rating: 2/5 stars. There's a good story to be had here, but it was way more technical than I was expecting, which made it a more difficult read. It veered off into directions that I wasn't expecting and admittedly, I lost interest at the halfway mark. Readers accustomed to university presses and more technical reading will enjoy it, so I can't give it my usual 1-star rating I give to books I don't finish. To the book's credit, it did make me look up more information on the Canteen.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Film Friday: The Hunger Games

NOTE: Part 1 in a three-part series leading up to Mockingjay, Part 1.

"But it's kids killing kids."

That's what friends and co-workers would say whenever I mentioned Suzanne Collins' novel The Hunger Games. The story of a heroine in a post-apocalyptic North America taking part in a gladiatorial game to the death is a hard sell to people unaware of the novel's first half. Supposedly, the novel was conceived by Collins after flipping through television channels and seeing a reality television show then footage from the Iraq war. With that in mind, the novel's first half is the best part because it's able to set the tone for the unsettling action to follow. The early scenes of The Reaping, where main character Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take the place of her much younger sister Prim in the games, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding the state-sanctioned games are all a bit unnerving in that it isn't all that far off from reality.

My favorite scene in both the book and the subsequent film has nothing to do with the games or the arena. It's when the contestants, or "tributes" as they are called, are interviewed by television hose Caesar Flickerman. The crowds adore the tributes, yet everyone knows those same contestants are heading into certain death...and the crowds are entertained (cue Gladiator's Maximus "Are you not entertained?) There's jabs at high society, all adorned in ridiculously over-the-top fashions, wagering over who will survive the games The dark satire, practically embodied by the oft-quoted "May the odds be ever in your favor," plus elements of class warfare, poverty, and government oppression elevate the series above its YA post-apocalyptic brethren.

My one complaint in the book is the graphic descriptions of some of the tributes' deaths once the games begin. There were whole pages that I was like "Yeesh, that's a gruesome way to go," followed by me quickly turning the page. However, despite those few pages, the book has something to say about modern culture that rises above the gladiatorial fray. It's worth a read. Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

When The Hunger Games film debuted in March 2012, the fate of a studio was riding on it. Lionsgate was fending off a takeover attempt by activist shareholder Carl Icahn and the studio plunked down $78 million to make the film. They hired director Gary Ross, who I enjoyed previously from when he directed Seabiscuit (but he's also known for directing Pleasantville), and Collins herself helped write the script.

The film made Jennifer Lawrence, who was already an ascending star via Winter's Bone and X-Men: First Class, a household name. But the movie's strength is in its supporting cast, namely Stanley Tucci as Flickerman, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and Donald Sutherland as the villainous President Snow. Tucci is outstanding as Flickerman and really drives home the satire of the reality television show that is the games. Harrelson is likeable as Katniss' drunk mentor and Sutherland has arguably the best line in the movie when he speaks about containing the spark of hope against an oppressive regime. Below is the scene where Katniss is interviewed by Flickerman...

Thankfully, the book's more poignant points don't get diluted in the jump to celluloid, though some minor side characters are left out. The biggest example is Madge, the daughter of the mayor of District 12, who gives the famous mockingjay pin to Katniss (in the movie, Katniss gives it to her sister Prim, who then returns it to Katniss). Also, I thought the movie gave more of a sense of place, since you can very easily tell the filmmakers shot in North Carolina and Appalachia, where District 12 is said to be in the novel. The movie handles the violence better than the book, mostly through the use of shaky cam and quick cuts so as to keep a PG-13 rating. As a result, I usually tell people interested in the movie but concerned about the violence to see the movie rather than read the book. This is one of the few properties that breaks my rule of "book first, then movie." Rating: 4/5 stars

And it's more than just "kids killing kids."

Have you seen The Hunger Games? Are you excited for Mockingjay Part 1?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Holiday Movie Preview

Picking up where the fall movie preview ended, the holiday season is chock full of high-quality films that are vying for awards contention. Many are based off books this year and stand a real chance to be mentioned come Oscar time (along with fall preview mentions The Theory of Everything and Foxcatcher. Here are the eight films that will be making the jump from page to screen...

Nov. 21 - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (Lionsgate)
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) returns in the penultimate episode of The Hunger Games series as Panem is in full-blown civil war. While I liked the book in general, I really don't care for studios to split a single book into multiple parts, whether it is Harry Potter or The Hobbit or The Hunger Games. I remember walking out of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 saying, "WB just sucker-punched us." At least with that movie, it was only an 8-month wait until Part 2, whereas Mockingjay's conclusion won't be in theaters until November 2015. In these split films, plot lines tend to get super-stretched and because Mockingjay's book wasn't that long, I suspect there will be plots divergent of the source material when there didn't need to be. And yet, I'll still see it opening weekend. Yes, I'm a sucker. Below is the final trailer.

Nov. 28 - The Imitation Game (The Weinstein Co.)
Based on the book Alan Turing: An Enigma by Andrew Hodges, the film details the efforts of British mathematician Alan Turing to build a computer in order to break Nazi codes. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, the film has already garnered major awards buzz (as of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes already posted a score of 86%). I'm really looking forward to this one, especially to see Cumberbatch in light of his excellent job in the BBC's Sherlock series. The film is opening in limited release, likely focusing on New York and Los Angeles, so the release date may be later for other audiences. Should it gain traction in the Oscar race, expect a wider release in January. See the trailer below.

Dec. 5 - Wild (Fox Searchlight)
Debuting in limited release, Academy-Award winner Reese Witherspoon stars in this take on the Cheryl Strayed memoir about her discovering herself on the Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Southern California to Washington. Witherspoon jumped all over the film rights for the book and it is a passion project of hers and based on the awards buzz, it looks like it paid off. I still think of her from Walk the Line and Sweet Home Alabama, though she was really good in this fall's The Good Lie. Director Jean-Marc Vallee also knows his way around awards season after directing last year's Dallas Buyers Club. The teaser trailer is right here...

Dec. 12 - Exodus: Gods and Kings (20th Century Fox)
Movies based on the Bible are a complete crapshoot, given the inevitable controversy that stirs. One could argue that The Ten Commandments could not be made in today's era of cinema. Darren Aronofsky's Noah ran into a buzzsaw of controversy earlier this year, but still managed to make $100 million Stateside. For Exodus, director Ridley Scott looks to do for biblical movies what he did for ancient epics with Gladiator, one of my favorite films. I won't be expecting this one to be anywhere close to the text, but consider me somewhere between cautiously optimistic and excited on this one.

Dec. 12 - Inherent Vice (Warner Bros.)
It's amazing that a writer of Thomas Pynchon's storied reputation and caliber has waited this long to get a film adaptation, but his 2009 novel is getting the Silver Screen treatment. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and featuring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, and yes, Reese Witherspoon, the film is a drug crime caper in 1970's-era Los Angeles. The movie will debut in limited release before expanding nationwide January 9.

Dec. 17 - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Warner Bros./MGM)
The trilogy is mercifully ending. I never thought I'd say that about The Hobbit, since the Lord of the Rings finale is my favorite film (and series) of all time. But, I've watched the previous Hobbit films with dismay after seeing plot lines stretched out, characters doing really dumb things, and plot rehashes from Fellowship of the Ring that cause continuity problems down the road. I have many friends who love the Hobbit films and I'll likely see it with them since they enjoy it so much and I love Tolkien's book, but my enthusiasm for the movie is very dampened compared to what it was prior to An Unexpected Journey. Here is the most recent trailer that's making a lot of noise online.

Christmas Day - American Sniper (Warner Bros.)
Starring Bradley Cooper, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the Chris Kyle memoir, the teaser trailer for this movie was fantastic. Kyle was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history and was infamous among Iraqi insurgents. The movie will debut in limited release and barely qualify for Oscar contention before expanding nationwide January 16 (typically, most Oscar films this late in the season have a limited release run in order that they can qualify for awards, then expand in January. Last year, Lone Survivor used the same tactic). I'll be reading Kyle's memoir for sure before I see this at my local multiplex. Below is the riveting teaser trailer.

Christmas Day - Unbroken (Universal)
This one's the big one. The adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand's memoir of World War II hero and Olympian Louie Zamperini's life was one of my most eagerly-anticipated films of the year. The book, which I read in the spring, is currently my No. 1-rated book of the year. Directed by Angelina Jolie with a screenplay written in part by the Coen brothers, the film has pedigree up and down the credits list. This is clearly a project Jolie cared deeply about, met with Zamperini multiple times and lobbied Universal to direct the film. So while she has little directing experience, I'm optimistic that she's up to the task. Below is the most recent trailer.

Is there a movie you are most looking forward to this holiday season?

Monday, November 10, 2014

Book Review: Travels With Casey

Growing up, I had three retired racing greyhounds, Magoo, Zoey and Kismet. After watching a documentary on the horrors of greyhound racing, my parents contacted a local rescue agency and, over the years, we brought home the three. Being that greyhounds are one of the fastest land animals with speeds up to 46 mph, taking care of them required some additional protections. For example, taking a greyhound to an open park is an exceptionally bad idea, but taking them to the local elementary school's enclosed field isn't all that great either (school security guard nearly called the cops because we were trespassing).

Reading Benoit Denizet-Lewis' Travels With Casey (Simon & Schuster) reminded me of those years our family owned the greyhounds. Blending a travelogue and a pet-focused memoir, Denizet-Lewis takes his yellow labrador Casey all across America in a rented RV. The book looks at every aspect of pet ownership, from dog whisperer Cesar Milan's compound (which I didn't realize was in my hometown) to the Westminster Dog Show to the unpleasant reality of overcrowded animal shelters. There is one particularly gut-wrenching chapter about dogs' lives on Native American reservations in Arizona. That chapter led the author to do something most people wouldn't do, but is incredibly noble.

To call the book a travelogue is selling it a bit short. What makes the book work is that it's really about the people and less about the environments they are in, so if you're expecting a travel book akin to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, you'll be disappointed. Perhaps a better way to describe the book is that its a pet book that happens to involve travel rather than the other way around. A chapter that takes place in a Manhattan dog park had me laughing, but as Denizet-Lewis' journey progressed, the author has challenges in his own life as well as seeing the aforementioned darker side of dog life in America. For that, the author should be commended for showing an even-handedness in portraying dog life.

Unfortunately, the last third of the book felt rushed, as if the author's rented RV suddenly grew rocket boosters on its back and hauled buns across the country. Admittedly, the author was going through some relational issues at that point in the journey. However, the whole book was leading up to what Denizet-Lewis discovered from his travels around our dog-obsessed country and if his relationship with his dog was any better than before their trip, but the book ends before finishing developing these ideas.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars. Despite the rushed ending, there's a lot to like about the book and I would still recommend it. Travels With Casey has moments of humor, lots of heart and shares concern for those dogs not yet lucky to find a home. Any dog owner will enjoy it.

To see videos Benoit shot during the road trip, visit his YouTube page here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Film Friday: The Blind Side

Fall is a time to watch the boys of the gridiron and this month marks the 5-year anniversary of the theatrical release of The Blind Side. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, the film earned $255 million at the box office as well as a Best Picture Oscar nomination and netted Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. I remember finishing reading the book within a few days of seeing the movie opening night, hoping as all book fans do that the adaptation doesn't botch what was beloved about the original source material. Thankfully, director and screenwriter John Lee Hancock delivered.

In professional football, the game has become more dependent on the quarterback who captains the offense and often throws the ball. In order for the quarterback to get the proper amount of time to throw a pass or determine what he wants to do with the ball, he has to have a strong offensive line, particularly an all-world left tackle to protect his blind side from defensive pressure. Often, the left tackle is the second-highest paid player on the team besides the quarterback. Essentially, they're the QB's insurance policy.

Lewis' book delves into the history of the offensive lineman position and specifically, Michael Oher, a Memphis teen with a troubled childhood who gets taken in by the Tuohy family and discovers a talent for protecting the quarterback's blind side on the high school football team. The book's structure is set up to where the two key threads alternate, so one chapter is on the football specifics, then the next one is on Oher's story. At the time I read the book, I was more into the sports minutiae than the human interest side of the story, but there were moments where I wanted to blaze through the lineman history chapter and get to the next part of Michael's story. The book is well-paced and informative, but may not be the best for readers not interested in the football position details.

That's where the movie comes in, for better or for worse. The explanation of the offensive lineman position is limited to a brief opening sequence, but then focuses exclusively on Oher. Bullock was well-deserving of an Oscar for her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy, who spearheads the effort to take Michael in. The film is firmly rooted in realism (there's a lot of cameos by college coaches, namely current University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban) and the film's final scene is archive footage from the NFL Network of Oher being drafted by the Baltimore Ravens. When I saw the movie with friends who had not read the book, they were able to guess the plot threads correctly, so there are few twists and turns for the average audience. Overall, Bullock's performance elevates what would otherwise be a very ordinary movie. Rating for both the movie and book: 4/5 stars.

When the film was released, Oher was in his debut season with the Ravens. He went on to a 5-year career in Baltimore, winning the Super Bowl in 2012. He currently plays for the Tennessee Titans. Meanwhile, Oher's alma mater, the Ole Miss Rebels, has an outside shot of competing for the national championship as of this writing. They were at one point this season the No. 3-ranked team in the country. The team is coached by Oher's high school coach, Hugh Freeze. The Tuohys have gone on to be featured on television and countless interviews (Leigh Anne is an interior designer, husband Sean owns dozens of restaurant franchises and previously worked as a broadcaster for the Memphis Grizzlies NBA basketball team).

When Oher won the Super Bowl, ABC News did a follow-up piece on the story. If you can't see the video below, click here.

Since the film's release, director John Lee Hancock earned acclaim for directing Saving Mr. Banks, one of my favorite movies of 2013. Sandra Bullock was terrific last year in Gravity and Tim McGraw (Sean Tuohy) will be in next year's sci-fi film Tomorrowland, but actor Quinton Aaron (Michael Oher) and actress Lily Collins (Leigh Anne and Sean's daughter Collins Tuohy) have not had the same level of success post-Blind Side despite receiving acclaim for their roles.

Have you seen or read The Blind Side? What did you think?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Goodreads Choice Awards

UPDATE (12/4/14): The winners have been announced. To see the results, click here or read my take on the winners here.

This week, the annual Goodreads Choice Awards kicked off its first round of voting. There are 20 categories and 15-20 books per category and three rounds of voting. The first one ends Saturday, Nov. 8, the semifinal voting period runs from Nov. 10-15 and the final round of voting goes from Nov. 17-24. More than 825,000 votes have already been cast for the first round.

This is the second year I'll be voting in the awards. I admit, most of these books are on my TBR list because of the backlog of books I have, but more often than not, I've downloaded previews of each book onto my Kindle. Here are three of the categories and some of my picks:

1) Best Fiction
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin)

This category was brutal to pick a winner. Fikry, post-apocalyptic drama Station Eleven and Phil Klay's military tale Redeployment all have spots on my TBR. I've read excerpts for both Zevin and Emily St. John Mandel's novels, even going so far as to buy Station practically unseen. Both Station Eleven and Redeployment are shortlisted for the National Book Award. And yet, I'm giving my vote to Zevin's titular book store owner. The novel's line "No man is an island; every book is a world" is an apt description of the novel's key themes of loneliness, the rapidly changing book industry and a love for reading. What's not to love about that?

Outside of those three, the nomination list is stacked. Rainbow Rowell's Landline is sure to draw her legion of fans as will Jojo Moyes' One Plus One and Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies, not to mention David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks and Haruki Murakami's latest.

2) Best Memoir & Autobiography
Life, Animated by Ron Suskind (Kingswell)

I admit the chances of Suskind's book advancing to the later rounds is probably slim (other nominees are more high-profile), but I'm rooting for this one out of deeply personal interest. As someone who is a total Disney fanatic and diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I had rapt interest in this book from the moment I read the first excerpt. Below is a Lesley Stahl piece on the Suskind family that aired on CBS Sunday Morning. If you can't see the video below, click here.

The book is up against the likes of Robin Roberts, Elizabeth Warren, Cleveland kidnapping victim Michelle Knight, Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman and The Princess Bride actor Cary Elwes.

3) Best Historical Fiction
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner)

This was the easiest lock in the entire vote. I've read the first several chapters of this book and it is beautifully written, almost lyrically. This book is a finalist for the National Book Award and has received near universal praise from all over the literary community since its debut in the spring. I'm a sucker for World War II-era books, so this one literally had me at its description of a blind French girl and a German boy who's a whiz at the radio. Their paths eventually intersect in the French coastal town of Saint-Malo as Allied troops prepare to bomb the town.

As for the category itself, it's a good category, even taking into consideration the heavy tilt toward Doerr's novel. Other nominees in this category include Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, Lisa See's China Dolls and Jessie Burton's The Miniaturist.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: How Google Works

What was life like before Google again, I asked myself when I sat down to read Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg's new book How Google Works (Grand Central). As I read through it, I realized just how many Google services I use. This blog runs on the company's Blogger, as does its feed manager, Feedburner. I search via Google, use the Chrome browser despite having Safari built into my Mac, use Gmail and once briefly flirted with the idea of having an Android smartphone, but thankfully, the iPhone became available on Verizon and that was that. The point is, so much of our lives has been impacted by the company that started out as a search engine with the colorful logo (does anybody even remember the early internet search days of Excite? AltaVista?)

There has been some debate and consternation online from early reviewers who were disappointed by the title, assuming it was about how Google compiles its search results or how the company came up with systems like Google Maps. I will emphasize that How Google Works is about how Google is managed and would be right at home in the business book section. Where the book excelled is explaining strategies of what makes Google successful. The sections on the company's "Don't be evil" mantra and the breakdown of the "smart creative" were particularly useful. As someone who works in a more creative industry, I read the sections that involved how to manage creatives with keen interest.

The book is a solid addition to the business book canon and does peel back the curtain slightly on the inner-workings of the Silicon Valley giant.

Rating: 3/5 stars. 

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for a review.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Civil War Over Amazon

Last week, Amazon announced its most recent quarterly earnings and they weren't so good. According to Publishers Weekly, there was a loss of $170 million mostly associated with the Fire smartphone and more students renting textbooks rather than purchasing them. Many readers on PW and other publications were quick to bash the internet giant. Some wondered if Kindles would eventually be shut down while others claimed the company's quarterly history indicates the end is nigh.

Some of the dislike toward Amazon is heightened by the company's ongoing battle with publishing giant Hachette. The group Authors United blasted Amazon for its hardball tactics, namely "refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors' pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books." It should be noted that I am not a fan of these tactics either and have made adjustments, specifically buying Hachette titles from independent bookstores while the negotiations are ongoing.

However, people have used the event to paint Amazon with a broad brush and in the grand scheme of things, I'm in the middle. I realize being in the middle isn't the cool position in our hyper-partisan society (Democrat vs. Republican, Coke vs. Pepsi, DC vs. Marvel, Mac vs. PC, the list goes on), but hear me out.

After heavy research of e-readers like the Nook, Kobo and the Kindle, I recently purchased a Kindle Paperwhite in part so I can read new releases at a much more economical rate. Previously, I had only purchased paperbacks, which typically do not come out until a year after the book is initially released, because that was the most economical option. Nielsen announced earlier this month that paperbacks make up 42% of sales, but ebooks make up only 23% and hardcovers 25%.

For readers that only read a handful of books a year, I totally understand the anti-Amazon crowd and their support of local bookstores. According to, if a person spends $100 at a local bookstore, $68 of that stays in the local area. If you shopped the same hundred bucks at a chain store, $43 stays in your town. Coincidentally, the difference, $25, is close to the average cost of a hardcover book. IndieBound also touts taxes being reinvested in the community. In the case of Los Angeles County, the sales tax alone is a whopping 9%.

I'm on pace to read 32 books this year. Let's assume for sake of the argument, that I bought all of those in hardcover at the average retail price. Based on figures from the School Library Journal, the average hardcover book cost is $27.20, which would total out to $870.40 in my scenario, not including sales tax. You might say, "Well, wait a minute, you said earlier you read paperbacks." Using the average price of a trade paperback, $17.84, the total cost would drop to $570.88. The School Library Journal did not compute ebook pricing, but they are even cheaper. I recently purchased Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, both shortlisted for the National Book Award, for a combined total of $13 on my Kindle.

Also consider that while 32 books may seem like a lot (and frankly, to me it is), the average Goodreads reading challenge has 52 books in it. So of the 658, 079 participants that are in the 2014 reading challenge, an average number are planning to read a book a week during the calendar year. I'd hate to see the book expense bill on those accounts.

My love for independent bookstores is well-known. Vroman's Bookstore, one of the best in Southern California, is 45 minutes to an hour away from my house (assuming L.A. traffic wants to cooperate). Despite sporting a Kindle, I will still make the long drive down the hill to Vroman's and buy a paperback in support of the local bookstore occasionally.

All in all, I'd relax and ease off the doomsday predictions regarding Amazon. The company's self-publishing platform has enabled thousands of authors like nothing previously while publishing companies from Hachette to W.W. Norton to Penguin Random House have teams of copy editors, jacket designers, and others to create beautiful works of art in written form. Independent bookstores are thriving meeting places and often have the best author Q&A. The three can and will be able to coexist well into the future.

What do you think about the Amazon debate?

Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Friends and family know I adore the writings of C.S. Lewis. Understandably, most people think of his Chronicles of Narnia series and rightly so, but my favorite Lewis book is The Screwtape Letters, a darkly comedic take on temptation. A co-worker, knowing I liked Lewis, had suggested The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow) as a perfect first-time Neil Gaiman novel.

This is one of those books that does better with as little of a plot synopsis as possible, so readers can visualize the novel's imagery in their own minds. The bare minimum is that a man returns to the street of his childhood home and remembers a series of terribly fantastical events involving a neighbor girl named Lettie who claims the pond behind her house is an ocean.

There are certainly strains of Lewis in the book, especially an antagonist that reminded me more than once of Narnia's White Witch. Between this character and Disney's "The Little Mermaid" villainess, it'll be near-miraculous if future generations of parents name their daughters Ursula. Gaiman's use of imagery echoes Lewis as well.

Like some of the other books I've read this year, "Ocean" unfortunately suffered from a serious case of fandom. Readers left comments everywhere, especially Goodreads and Twitter, that were so effusive in their praise of the book, that it put the novel at a disadvantage. If the axiom is "under promise and over deliver," this was the other side of that, but by no fault of the book or author themselves.

But that doesn't mean the novel itself was bad. Quite the contrary. It is a modern adult fantasy tale and a welcome change of pace from the usual bestsellers. Like Lewis, Gaiman uses fantasy to beautifully convey ideas that transcend age, but without Lewis' overt religious themes. Children can be exposed to the darker aspects of life and none more so than a particular scene the main character goes through involving one of his parents.

Overall grade: 3.5/5 stars. It wasn't the smash that fans made it out to be, but I'm definitely open to reading another Gaiman book in the future.

Two quick notes: I typically don't talk about a book's various editions, but the paperback edition of this book is gorgeous. Beautifully embossed typography on the cover and deckled pages that absolutely match the feel of the story. Also, the film rights to the novel have been purchased by Focus Features, the indie unit of Universal Pictures and Playtone, Tom Hanks' production company. Hanks will produce the film, but no word yet as to whether he'll be playing a role. Joe Wright (Atonement) has signed on to direct. No word yet on a release date, but the talent involved is a good sign for the adaptation.

Do you have a favorite Gaiman book?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Flatiron Books Launch

One of my first loves in reading is literary nonfiction. Rocket Boys, Band of Brothers, The Boys in the Boat, Friday Night Lights, just to name a few. So it is with a keen interest that I saw Macmillan, one of the big five publishers, launch a new imprint. Dubbed Flatiron Books after the famous Flatiron Building in New York, where Macmillan's headquarters happen to be based, the imprint is set to debut in the winter.

Macmillan explains the imprint as "committed to publishing intelligent fiction and nonfiction with commercial appeal by authors with distinctive voices." Based on that description, it seems like the imprint can be along the lines of Sarah Crichton's label at Farrar, Straus and Giroux or a much more selective Riverhead. Flatiron will be off to a good start with former New York Times and current Yahoo writer David Pogue debuting his book Pogue's Basics in December.

I purchased a Kindle Paperwhite recently and received a preview of the Flatiron sampler for Winter 2015 via NetGalley. Five nonfiction titles were previewed, but here were the three that stuck with me.

1) Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland (Feb. 24)
Journalistic nonfiction is right in my wheelhouse and this book is no different. We as a society tend to think of PTSD as the result of being in a war, but McClelland suffers the disorder after a 2010 trip to Haiti to report on the devastation post-earthquake. She delves into the history of the disorder and how it impacts her as well those she meets. At times it reads like a suspense tale, but I was impressed by the level of detail and openness she expresses. It was a gripping, albeit difficult read at times given the subject matter, but of the five samples Flatiron provided this was the best of the bunch and the one that immediately made it onto my to-read list. 

2) A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power by Paul Fischer (Feb. 3)
Part thriller and part world and cinema history, Paul Fischer's debut book chronicles the crazy but true story of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il's kidnapping of a South Korean director and actress in order to make better quality propaganda films. Fischer, a film producer who produced the documentary Radioman, Fischer explains Jong-Il as a petulant ruler who seeks worldwide acclaim for his films. Based on what we know of North Korea during his rule, his ambitions seem darkly comical but the means at which he aspired to achieve those ambitions were anything but. I have been going back-and-forth on adding this to my TBR, but would readily recommend it, especially to folks like a relative of mine who is both in film school and is interested in world history.

3) The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History by Robin Givhan (March 17)
I'm not a fashion maven by any means. I don't like shopping for clothes and I don't get the hubbub over fashion shows. Having said that, I know the names of fashion icons like Oscar de la Renta, who passed away this week, Givenchy and Christian Dior. Part of that is the result of watching the Oscars for years and hearing the inevitable "Who are you wearing?" questions on the red carpet. Givhan's debut book, based on the preview, was well-researched and almost felt like the fashion equivalent of an underdog sports story. The book focuses on a 1973 fundraiser for Versailles when American fashion designers managed to tilt the focus of the fashion world from Europe to the U.S. Occasionally, I like to read things outside of my usual interest areas and based on the preview, I would consider this one. I'd also recommend this to a few friends of mine who are more in tune with the fashion world.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Film Friday: The Year in Film So Far

Rather than do a Film Friday review, I thought I'd just take a look at what the film landscape has been like this year and what lies ahead as we get into the good season.

My top 5 films so far are as follows:
1) Guardians of the Galaxy
2) The Lego Movie
3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
4) Gone Girl
5) X-Men: Days of Future Past

The year has been dominated by the superhero genre, in part because of just how much better Guardians of the Galaxy and the Captain America sequel were than most people expected. The Lego Movie has been the surprise of the year so far. I went into it with minimal expectations and came out loving it. When a movie (or book) surpasses the expectation, I tend to give it a bump in the ratings. Would I give Guardians the Best Picture Oscar over Gone Girl? No. Did it exceed expectations more than Gone Girl did? Absolutely.

But as good as those five films are, we've had an unusually high number of films that were less than stellar. I went with friends to The Expendables 3 expecting nothing and found myself underwhelmed. Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Maleficent were easily the two biggest disappointments of the year. I thought Godzilla was just okay and unintentionally hilarious in some scenes.

Based on the upcoming fall and holiday slate, I fully expect my top 10 to look radically different come January. In terms of other book-based movies, The Fault in Our Stars is in the top 10, but Divergent missed the cut. Frankly, I thought Divergent could have been trimmed, but it was by no means the worst adaptation of the year. That honor belongs to Maleficent. Audiences can tell when a script or book is written scattershot (this summer's Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a textbook example of how not to create a superhero movie — and audiences promptly blasted it online for its shoddy plot). Guardians, Lego and Gone Girl were the total opposite and very well composed. Other factors I look at include the acting, the level of anticipation vs. the payoff and memorable dialogue. In these categories, all five of the top films delivered.

Comparative to last year, I think the quality is down. We had an amazing October last year (Gravity, Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave were released in back-to-back-to-back weeks) after a decent summer. Because some films underwhelmed in public opinion this summer, the market feels more down than it probably is. I don't think we're going to get that same kick in quality we got this time last year until late November.

As far as upcoming films go, the schedule is dominated by Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Arguably the most important movie to come out of Hollywood in years and my No. 1 overall most anticipated of the entire year, the film could allow certain filmmakers to pursue original projects. Audiences like to rip the industry for running out of ideas and at times, that pessimism is warranted (Exhibit A: The Transformers series). If Interstellar is as good as it looks, audiences and the industry as a whole could get a lasting ripple effect of quality, original films that tout ideas and make viewers think rather than cater to the lowest common denominator.

Other films I'm dying to see are Unbroken and Big Hero 6. I'll do a more detailed look at the holiday slate as it gets closer, but now it's your turn: What was your favorite movie this year so far? Is there one you're looking forward to later this year?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Nominees Get Winnowed Down

The literary world's awards are being handed out or narrowed down this week. The Man Booker Prize was awarded Tuesday to Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf). The novel is a World War II-era love story set in Burma about an Australian doctor in a Japanese POW camp as the Thailand-Burma Railway is being built. Flanagan told attendees, "I never expected to stand here before you in this grand hall in London as a writer, being so honored."

When the Man Booker shortlist was announced, I predicted Flanagan's book as the likely winner and immediately added it to my to-be-read list. For more on Flanagan's win, go here.

Stateside, the shortlists for the National Book Award were announced this morning on NPR's "Morning Edition." Three of the five fiction nominees are on my TBR, including Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner), which I've had pegged as an awards contender since reviewers started buzzing about it back in the spring. The other titles that made the cut were Phil Klay's Redeployment (Penguin Press) and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Knopf) along with Marilynne Robinson's Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Rabih Alameddine's An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press). Despite literature being a subjective art form, there has been universal praise for the fiction nominees from critics and readers alike. On Goodreads, Doerr's book ranks the highest with a 4.19 rating currently with Station Eleven and Lila not far behind.

The nonfiction side was missing my two TBR picks, Ronald Rosbottom's When Paris Went Dark (Little, Brown) and Walter Isaacson's The Innovators (Simon & Schuster). Instead, other works that mostly focused on contemporary topics got the nod. John Lahr's behemoth Tennessee Williams biography (Norton), Roz Chast's memoir Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury), Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) explores modern China, No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal (Henry Holt) looks at Afghanistan and The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson (Liveright/Norton) made it to the shortlist. I'm not surprised by Norton's dominance and at this point expect Lahr's biography to be the winner but I can't say I'd be disappointed with a Chast win.

The winners will be announced Nov. 19. For complete coverage of the award's shortlist, go here.

My sympathies to Richard Powers, whose book Orfeo did not win either the Man Booker or make it onto the shortlist for the National Book Award. It was on the longlist for both. I was also pulling for John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van, but it also did not make the National cut.

Is there a book you're rooting for? Did it make the cut?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Book Review: Ready Player One

A book that has taken the reviewer community by storm in recent years is Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, a hybrid of "The Matrix," "Tron" and "Willy Wonka." The story involves a Midwestern teenager who spends his days in a virtual reality world called the OASIS because the real one has succumbed to catastrophe. He hopes for a better future by participating in the OASIS treasure hunt, created by the its deceased creator. After stumbling onto the first clue, it's a race against time, corporate interests and other players to find the treasure.

The primary characters are teens, but calling the novel another dystopian YA book would be selling it short because of its timely themes. People around the world want to escape into a virtual reality whether it be the Internet or the novel's OASIS. We create online profiles of ourselves, promoting our best qualities and doing our best to hide the less-than-good ones. There's also a running plot about a nefarious corporation trying to control the OASIS and given the ongoing furor of net neutrality, the timing is perfect. Cline delves into these ideas and wraps them in a fun action-adventure package rife with 1980's and early video game references. As someone who was born in the late 80's, I got most of the references, but some flew over my head. The plot and the worlds were very well-constructed and with a minor exception or two, there wasn't anything that seemed out of place or not cohesive with the overall storyline. There's also a romance subplot that serves the story well, but doesn't feel shoehorned in for the sake of having a love story. As a result, the book is accessible to a much wider audience.

Ready Player One is one of the better fiction books I've read in a while and is the best I've read this year. Grab a copy and enjoy the ride. Rating: 4/5 stars

As one may expect, a film version is in the works. Cline sold the rights to producer Don De Line and Warner Bros. after a fierce bidding war that included at least five studios and production companies. De Line worked on films like "The Italian Job," "Green Lantern" and "Pain and Gain." Cline wrote the first draft of the screenplay, but Zak Penn was commissioned to rewrite the script this summer and get it closer to a point where the studio can start hiring a director and begin production, according to Hollywood blog The Wrap. Warners' 2015 and early 2016 slate is mostly booked and considering the many effects that would be involved in recreating the OASIS, I can't imagine the movie version to come out any earlier than late 2016 or 2017.