Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: The Emerald Mile

When I first visited the Grand Canyon, I was a bit embarrassed. I had visited Arizona countless times before to visit family in Phoenix, but had never stepped foot north of Flagstaff to the state's top tourist stop. When I was there, snow was everywhere and the color saturation in the rocks was drained out because of the murky wintry weather, but the canyon still had a sense of majesty and awe.

Fast forward years later to 2013 when Kevin Fedarko's The Emerald Mile (Scribner) was published and earning raves from readers and critics. The book was the recipient of the 2013 National Outdoor Book Award. Naturally, I flagged it for my TBR list and the book's paperback edition came out in July.

The book weaves in the history of the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, hydroelectric power and daring river guides who in 1983 attempted to shatter speed records after a torrential flood came rushing through the canyon. Managers of the Glen Canyon Dam at the top of the canyon were frantically trying to stave off a breach by releasing water into the canyon, the result of an El Nino-fueled rain season.

I readily admit, I probably should have tried to reset my expectations for this book after they were getting crazy high. The book had a super-high rating on Goodreads and dealt with a place I find very interesting and close to home. That being said, I thought the book was good, but not quite up to the lofty expectations I had. There were moments of super-flowery exposition that got increasingly annoying and the book has a sluggish first half. But like entering whitewater rapids, the book's slow pace does give way in the last third or so to a thrilling page-turner of an ending. The "Ghost Boat" chapter reads like a scene from "The Perfect Storm."

Overall, I'd give The Emerald Mile a 3/5 star rating. The book's first half was a bit of a slog at times, but the second half made up for it. I feel like I understand the canyon better as a result of reading the book.

For more info on the book, check out the book's trailer below:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Film Friday: Moneyball

This weekend marks the final games of baseball's regular season, meaning the real season, the playoffs, will begin next week. Powerhouse teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will be watching at home with the rest of us while teams that have languished for years without seeing a drop of championship glory are about to end their drought.

Sports teams have searched for years for some formula to repeated success. Some sports like football and hockey have a blueprint while others like baseball do not have any real formula outside of the cliched pitching and defense. Baseball is a sport that has so many arbitrary effects, it's nearly impossible to calculate. Pitchers can have a stellar season then return the next season and not have as good of command or miss the strike zone so much, their earned run average rockets upward (typically, the lower the average, the better the pitcher). Statistics like ERA and the search for a success formula in baseball is the basis for Michael Lewis' Moneyball (W.W. Norton), considered by many to be one of the best sports books ever written.

The book centers on Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who is consistently saddled with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, yet manages to field competitive teams in most years. After losing slugger Jason Giambi to the Yankees during the 2001 offseason, Beane resorted to using sabermetric statistics and acquired players that had high on base percentages as opposed to the traditional home runs and runs batted in. As a result, the 2002 A's went on an unlikely run before losing in the playoffs that year.

In 2011, a film version of the book directed by Bennett Miller and starring Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill made it to the big screen. Like the book, the movie was challenged in making a sports drama without much action and making statistics digestable. Frankly, the movie managed to do it better than the book. When reading the book, I felt it was mechanical at times, and I got lost in the statistics. There were memorable moments like when Billy addresses the scouting department that translated well to the film...

The screenplay, adapted by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, a favorite script writer of mine, was very good in terms of getting the key points without being bogged down in the statistics. Pitt, as Beane, and Hoffman, as manager Art Howe, square off like their counterparts did in real life and make for some of the better scenes in the film. Many of the players were profiled in the book, but the only one that really stuck out to me was first baseman Scott Hatteberg, played in the film by Chris Pratt. The book doesn't talk as much about Beane's present personal life, while the film has a whole subplot involving his daughter (mentioned briefly in the book) that was a highlight of the movie. Both the book and film delve into his past as a failed major league prospect.

My favorite scene in both the book and the film was showing how trades in baseball can be made. Sports fans salivate over trade rumors and it was cool to read and see how one goes down. Here's a clip where Beane and Peter Brand, played by Hill, try to get the team's owner to add to the payroll to acquire Ricardo Rincon, a pitcher for the bullpen...

Overall, I'd rate the book a 3/5 stars while the film I rated 5/5 stars and was my pick for Best Picture during the 2011 Oscars. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including the aforementioned Best Picture, Best Actor (Pitt) and Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, it struck out and went 0/6 in wins. It isn't my favorite baseball movie, but it is certainly in the top 5.

Do you have a favorite baseball or sports movie that was adapted from a book?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird Banned?

This week is Banned Books Week, which spotlights novels and literature that people have deemed unfit, primarily in the public school system. When most people think of a banned book, they think of something like James Joyce's Ulysses because of its historical significance. However, a quick review of books most sought to be banned includes the Harry Potter series, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, A Wrinkle in Time, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Lord of the Rings, and To Kill a Mockingbird. There are dozens upon dozens of books that have come under a ban scrutiny, but I mention these specifically because I read them all in high school or at an earlier age.

Two years ago, Marshall University mapped out reasons why 'Mockingbird' was challenged in schools across the country in recent years, mostly due to racist language and part of the plot that involves an alleged rape of a white female by a black man. When it comes to the language, I liken it to some degree to Disney banning their 1946 film "Song of the South" from the home video market. My generation knows the song "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and characters of the film from the Splash Mountain water ride at Disney theme parks around the world, but we've never seen it. Maybe a clip or two at best. To be fair, many critics of the film blasted it for more than the language, namely the stereotyping of African-Americans. I detest the use of the n-word and it is horrific, but it was an accepted societal norm for the time. We should be able to explain or understand that words or expressions used back then are no longer accepted by society in general.

The 1962 film version of 'Mockingbird' is excellent as well, despite the sets obviously being on the Universal backlot in California. (When we viewed it in my freshman English class, my teacher liked to point out an early shot in the film that pans down to the Finch home and you can clearly see large mountains in the background that would be out of place in Alabama). As with most people who've seen the movie, I raved about Gregory Peck's Oscar-winning performance as Atticus Finch after I saw it, especially in regards to the final courtroom scene when he implores jurors not to convict his client, a black man accused of raping a white woman...

The scene is a landmark in cinema and has inspired many to get into the legal profession, but we wouldn't have had the scene without Lee's classic novel. It is my belief that because so many schools feature 'Mockingbird' in their curriculum, generations will now see the revolting ugliness of racism and seek changes for the better. Several of the books that people sought to ban like 'Catcher' and 'Mice and Men' I don't care for personally, but I would never seek a ban.

Is there a book that has been challenged to be banned that you've read and liked? 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Award and Film Roundup

The longlists for the National Book Award in fiction, nonfiction, young adult and poetry were announced along with the shortlist for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. In years' past, I've been more interested in the nonfiction picks, but this year, the fiction list is full of books I would read, led by Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See and John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van. Richard Powers' Orfeo managed to get on the longlist for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize. On the nonfiction side, Ronald Rosbottom's When Paris Went Dark and Walter Isaacson's The Innovators stood out. For a look at the longlists, click here.

As for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, which honors excellence in fiction from a first-time writer, there are several books that caught my eye. Smith Henderson's Fourth of July Creek currently sits on my desk waiting to be read while Rene Denfeld's The Enchanted is on my to-be-read list. Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning and Matthew Thomas' We Are Not Ourselves, both of which received a lot of buzz earlier this year, also made the cut. I've heard a lot of good reviews for Yanique's novel. To see all the nominees, click here.

Meanwhile, there have been a flurry of film news stories. John Green adaptations are the rage right now in Hollywood after the success of The Fault in Our Stars. 20th Century Fox announced a reshuffling of its summer 2015 film slate, which included bumping Paper Towns up from July 31 to June 19, a sign of confidence from the studio. Also last week, Variety reported model Cara Delevingne won the lead role of Margo. In related news, Universal landed the film rights to Green's Let it Snow, a book of short stories set on Christmas Eve. Green co-authored the book with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle.

Fox also greenlit the sequel to The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, and set a Sept. 18, 2015 release date after the first film took the top spot at the box office with $32.5 million. Not a bad start at all. The other book adaptations that debuted this weekend, A Walk Among the Tombstones and This is Where I Leave You, did not fare as well given the relatively soft market right now.

Channing Tatum is set to produce a film version of Jason Padgett's memoir, Struck by Genius, which came out earlier this year. The film will be distributed by Sony. The story is of a man who suffers a brain injury but becomes a mathematical genius. More details here.

Deadline had a series of big scoops this past week. First up, Ang Lee will direct an adaptation of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk for TriStar as his next film. Based on Ben Fountain's 2012 novel, the story involves an army platoon at a Thanksgiving football game as part of a PR tour after a harrowing battle in Iraq. Lee wasn't the first name that came to my mind for this book, but he is an excellent director.

Second, Harlan Coben fans may finally see a book adaptation on the big screen. Deadline claims Universal is courting Liam Neeson, who is currently starring in A Walk Among the Tombstones, to take the lead role in Tell No One. Third, I mentioned in an article earlier this month claiming Kristen Wiig and Jessica Chastain were in talks for a role in Ridley Scott's adaptation of The Martian. Apparently, Kate Mara was offered a role in it as well.

Fourth, it looks like Tom Hanks has set his sights on his next HBO miniseries project. After the success of producing From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific, Hanks secured the rights to Factory Man, the Beth Macy book chronicling the Bassett (of Bassett furniture fame) family's fight against outsourcing. On a related note, Hanks is also producing the World War II adaptation of Donald Miller's Masters of the Air for HBO.

Disney's film version of Michael J. Tougias' book The Finest Hours added Ben Foster to the cast, joining Chris Pine (Star Trek) and Casey Affleck (The Ocean's Eleven trilogy). The book tells the story of Coast Guard efforts to rescue the crews of two oil tankers wrecked by a nor'easter storm. The film is slated for release next fall and is a project I'm really looking forward to. More details from Variety here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Film Friday: The Last Gunfight and Tombstone

Last month, I wanted to read some books that took place in the Grand Canyon State. Most of my extended family is there, I was born there and it still holds a special place in my heart. From the red canyons of Sedona to the Mogollon Rim to serene Oak Creek Canyon and the magnificent Grand Canyon itself, Arizona has such beautiful scenery despite being a desert state.

Since so much of the state's history and lore involves the Old West and the romanticized images of gunslinging cowboys, I read Jeff Guinn's The Last Gunfight (Simon & Schuster) and thoroughly enjoyed his history of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Guinn explains how the town of Tombstone came to be, what drew people to it, and the political infighting between the town's residents that led to the gunfight. According to Guinn, Wyatt Earp was very similar to his father in that he wanted to be known for something, he craved recognition and fame. Guinn explained the political battle of wills that occurred between Johnny Behan, the slimy sheriff who often sided with the cowboys' illegal activity, and the Earps, most notably Wyatt. There was also a battle between the town's two newspapers and the residents were quickly drawing sides between the Earps and the cowboys.

In the last chapter, after explaining the Vendetta Ride after the gunfight, Guinn explained how the gunfight at Tombstone became the legendary gunfight it became known as, mostly through 1930's-era books and the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Guinn's The Last Gunfight was an entertaining and surprisingly fast read that was also enlightening. Rating: 4/5 stars

A couple of years ago, a roommate of mine said one of his favorite movies was Tombstone, the 1993 film depicting the gunfight and its aftermath. I watched it on a whim and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The film stars Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton and Sam Elliott as the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday. There are a ton of other actors in this movie that have become more famous over time. A young Jason Priestley and Thomas Haden Church are both in this movie, as well as more established stars and character actors like Dana Delaney, Powers Boothe and Stephen Lang (the latter two are especially known for villainous roles - Boothe was most recently in the Sin City sequel as a bad guy and Lang is better known as the malicious military colonel in Avatar.)

Tombstone has its moments of camp, but it has some of the best one-liners of any film, especially from Kilmer's Doc Holliday, arguably the star of the movie. Lines like "looks like somebody just walked over your grave," "I've got two guns, one for each of you," and "I'm your huckleberry" are instantly quotable. Russell also delivers his fair share of great lines as well. The cast gives solid performances and the cinematography is good, but there are some moments that are obvious 20th century thinking out of 19th century characters. Were it not for the fact that the filmmakers stressed accuracy in their story, I would be more willing to overlook it. There are some moments that left me thinking "Would someone really say that in the 1880's?" A slight nitpick here, but the music can be a bit overkill at times. Overall, I'd grade Tombstone a very solid B. It's a fun movie to watch and I own it on Blu-ray if that's any indication.

As for differences between history, the book and the film, I'll simply say the film gets the essence of the gunfight, but does leave out a lot of details and tweaks Earp's real life a bit. There is no indication in the film of the political or social undertones between the Earps and the cowboys. The film sets up the gunfight a bit differently than what actually happened. The essence of the characters is mostly true to history, especially Behan.

Have you seen Tombstone or read The Last Gunfight? What did you think?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: Fantasy Life

One of my favorite fall pastimes has been to participate in a fantasy football league with friends. After having consecutive years of dwelling in the cellar, I though this year was the year my team, A New Hope (complete with a lightsaber logo), would rise from the ashes and take the league crown for the first time. My team has the components to be something special with a stellar quarterback (Andrew Luck), a great running back (Marshawn Lynch) and a good wide receiver set (Alshon Jeffery, Jeremy Maclin, Michael Crabtree, Michael Floyd).

So far, I'm 0-2. As in 0 wins, 2 losses.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law's team, Honey Baked, is annihilating the competition and took the league award for highest score last week. My dad's team is also doing well despite taking the risk of drafting Jimmy Graham, the tight end from New Orleans, as his first-round pick. Both of their clubs are 2-0.

Such is life during football season when you are in a fantasy league. The camaraderie, rivalries and funny league traditions are perfectly documented in Matthew Berry's Fantasy Life, which came out in paperback earlier this summer from Riverhead.

The book chronicles Berry's time in fantasy sports (he previously worked as a screenwriter on shows like "Married with Children") and harnessing the internet to become one of the most recognizable experts in the genre. In each chapter, Berry tells of the many shenanigans of leagues around the country over the course of a would-be season.

Each chapter reads like an extended post from his "Talented Mr. Roto" blog, so if you are a reader of Berry's online column, the book doesn't stray too far from that writing style. That's not a bad thing, though. There were some moments that were genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and others that left me thinking "Really? You would do that for fantasy sports?"

I am not sure if readers who are unfamiliar with fantasy leagues would enjoy it as much as those who have already caught the bug, but to Berry's credit, there are some anecdotes that involve players' wives and spouses that don't play, showing that side of the sport.

Overall, it's a light and enjoyable read. When I was reading this, I was handling several bleak, high-profile stories, so when I came home from work, this was a welcome respite. Rating 4/5 stars.

Here's an example of one of the more memorable hijinks in the book:

Do you have a favorite fantasy sports moment or embarrassing moment in your fantasy league? Are you guys having any better luck this season than my team?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Some Monday humor...

I was out of town on vacation, but managed to see this fun little ad jabbing at Apple before I left. It's not about what platform you write on, but what you have to say being available in all platforms.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Film Friday: The Fault in Our Stars

Author's Note: Due to the release of The Fault in Our Stars on DVD/Blu-ray and download on Tuesday, Sept. 16, I'm combining the book and film reviews.

Spoilers are like vampires, they suck the anticipation right out of a book or film or television show. In the literary world, I hadn't had a spoiler happen in ages until I was about to read John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (Dutton/Penguin). I was trying to squeeze in reading the book before the film came out earlier this summer and I wanted to get a sense if this young adult book was attracting readers who don't normally read YA books, like The Hunger Games did in recent years. After scouring Goodreads and YouTube, the answer was a definitive "yes." One YouTuber, however, opted to talk about the book's ending and thus, spoiled the novel in what was the worst spoiler I've had since Cedric Diggory's death in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The book itself is wonderful in telling the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, two Indianapolis teens diagnosed with different forms of cancer who fall in love. The book plays off of the usual cancer-related groups (cancer support groups, the "Genies" being a stand in for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, cancer drug trials, etc.) in a way that grounds the book and gives off the impression that this could actually happen. Both Hazel and Augustus are written well. They're not doe-eyed innocent creatures who suddenly realize how messed up the world is, but they're also not the most mature teens ever seen. They still do stupid teenager things and have their moments of teenage pretentiousness.

Despite the witty writing, the book hinges on the twist that sets up the ending and frankly, even if I hadn't had the ending spoiled for me, I probably would have still guessed the outcome. The book tries to push one possibility so hard, one begins to suspect the opposite will happen, which it in fact does. I probably would have rated it a bit higher, but because of the spoil, I'll give the book a 3.5/5 stars rating.

When the movie came out, my publication's entertainment writer knew I was an avid reader and asked if I had read the book. I said yes, only for her to ask if I could write something up that compares the book and film. I went to a late Friday showing and as the ticket-taker at the theater glanced at me and my ticket, she stifled a laugh. I braced myself for a chick-flick bonanza with screaming teenagers in the audience, but luckily the movie was not like that.

Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort play the film versions of Hazel and Augustus with a terrific supporting cast led by Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe. The Amsterdam sequences were great in the book but were better in the film, especially Dafoe's crusty portrayal of Peter Van Houten, a secluded bestselling author who has succumbed to his demons. Well-directed by Josh Boone, the film adaptation does the book justice and was one of the better films I saw this summer. Both in reading the book and watching the movie, I was constantly reminded of 2007's "Juno," a story that deals with quirky teens handling an adult issue in a Midwestern town, complete with an alternative-pop soundtrack. Personally, I like Juno a bit better. I would save future viewings for a date night, but "Fault" earned a solid B rating.
If you saw the movie or read the book, what did you think?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Rise and Fall of Brick-and-Mortar Bookstores

Over the last decade or so, the rise of Amazon has caused shivers to go down the spines of booksellers of brick-and-mortar stores. Borders went belly up in 2011 and Barnes and Noble is weathering a big storm again after reporting its quarterly earnings Tuesday. According to Publishers Weekly's Jim Milliot, revenue at the big chain fell 7% in its most recent quarter. The Nook e-reader, which has never caught on in the wake of Amazon's Kindle, has been a big loss leader. Speaking from personal experience when I've been at my local B&N, I've heard multiple customers come in for tech support, only to be turned away because the store's "best tech support guy is out." Apple customer service support, Nook is not.

The bookseller giant also said their stores benefited from the ongoing spat between Amazon and big publisher Hachette as well as book-to-film adaptations for the teen audience like Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay. As for a planned redesign of its website, retail CEO Mitch Klipper said it would be delayed until after the Christmas shopping season. I have to admit, isn't that bad. It doesn't beat Amazon, but then again, few e-commerce sites do.

In my town of about 210,000, we've never had a genuine independent bookstore, but we used to have a Borders in addition to the Barnes and Noble. I used to peruse the two-story Borders right before catching a movie at the local megaplex (the two were adjacent to each other). Both the movie theater and Borders were adorned with figures like a cameraman outfitted with a cowboy hat and a little girl perched atop the Borders sign reading a book while the Barnes and Noble sat a couple of miles away across the street from the city's car dealerships. Since Borders went belly-up, the space it occupied has become a Gold's Gym and the figures are long gone (though the theater's is still there). Meanwhile, Barnes still draws a crowd, though it recently had its large wooden doors that it's had since opening replaced by dark, gun metal gray ones. Given the store's wood-and-green motif, the new doors are really out of place.

Ironically, as Barnes reported its earnings, Slate writer Zachary Karabell came out with a report on the growth of independent bookstores. During the late 1990's and early 2000's, big bookstore chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders were booming while independents were dying out. Karabell notes that 1,000 independent stores closed between 2000 and 2007. Now, shops like Washington's Politics and Prose and Portland's famously massive Powell's are booming with 8% growth over the past three years, according to Karabell. He makes an interesting point in that the big chains were looked at differently than Amazon and that's what did them in, but the independents have managed to dodge the whole mess altogether by offering author Q&A's on a bigger scale than ones offered by a chain store and cultivating a culture all their own. Independent stores are doing well in the hardcover nonfiction category, no surprise given the recent success of Unbroken, Hard Choices and In the Kingdom of Ice. Patrons flock to book signings, mingle over books and sellers offer suggestions on a wide variety of genres.

Within the last year or so, I stumbled onto Vroman's Bookstore, a Pasadena institution for 120 years. In the heart of the Pasadena Playhouse district, the local community has been hugely supportive of the store, despite the photo I took on the right, which was taken on a summer weekday. Consider that the Barnes & Noble on the opposite end of Old Town Pasadena gets busy on the weekends too, but Vroman's tends to be a bit busier. One of the strengths of Vroman's is its emphasis on its Southern California roots, whether it be its robust film book section, subject matter or writers. California author Edan Lepucki was a former Vroman's writing instructor and used to sell books at its West Hollywood sister store Book Soup.

Since I first went there last summer, I've quickly fallen in love with the place. A fair number of my paperbacks have been purchased from Vroman's. A few weeks back, they had an anniversary sale that allowed me to bring home some loot for $15. Walked out of there with three hardcovers, which is rare for me because I tend to favor paperbacks for the cost. I had been looking for A Man and His Ship for months and was about ready to give up and take the Amazon plunge before I found it at Vroman's, along with Fourth of July Creek and Travels with Casey, which were just released this summer. While independents still have some kinks to figure out, especially in the world of ebooks, here's to hoping they stick around for a long, long time.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Review: The Boys in the Boat

Maybe it's from my youth and watching the likes of "The Mighty Ducks" and "Remember the Titans," but I've always loved an underdog story. Whether its people overcoming personal obstacles or rallying to become the champion when no one expected them to win, I love watching people triumph. In the case of Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, originally published last year by Viking but was just released on paperback this summer by Penguin, the reader gets the best of both worlds in an excellent, page-turning read.

The book tells the story of the 1936 University of Washington rowing, or crew, team as they beat the rival University of California team and went on to represent the U.S. in the Berlin Olympics. Brown profiles every member of the team, especially Joe Rantz, who survived a rough childhood to get to college. Every member of the crew faced the hardships of the Great Depression, growing up in Northwestern logging camps, dairy farms and mining towns. Brown paints each setting, whether its the shell house where the crew's boat is stored or the Olympic race course, with painstaking detail akin to Laura Hillenbrand's outstanding Unbroken and Seabiscuit.

Initially, there are some personality clashes as people vie for spots on the crew, not to mention the inner rivalries between the class levels. But as the team gels together, the pace of the book quickens and I found myself rooting for the team more and more. I would sit in bed reading into the late night hours audibly cheering for the crew. Even the side characters like coach Al Ulbrickson, boat designer George Pocock and the sports journalists that follow the team, especially Seattle sports icon Royal Brougham, are all fully fleshed out.

As the story shifts to Europe, the pace picks up and Brown explains beautifully how Hitler wanted the Games to be, particularly involving filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, as well as how the team interacted with other Olympians. I have seldom watched an Olympic crew race on television, but I have a better understanding of the sport, both in terms of the strength and stamina needed and the strategy involved. I was absolutely riveted in the last race.

Here is the trailer for the book:

I absolutely loved this book and it is one of the top 3 books I've read this year. When I write feature stories, it's books like this that I aim for as an example of feature writing at its best. The book celebrates the triumph of what people can do when they work together as a singular unit and achieve great things. I try to be judicious in handing out 5-star ratings, but The Boys in the Boat is a book I'm glad I own in hardcover and will remain on my shelf for years to come. Rating 5/5 stars

Apparently, there is a film adaptation in the works. In 2011, more than two years prior to publication, The Weinstein Company purchased the film rights to the novel. The company distributed and produced such Oscar fare as "Silver Linings Playbook," "The Artist," and "The King's Speech." At the time, it was announced that"Thor" director Kenneth Branagh was attached to direct. However, there has been little to no new developments since the initial announcement.

Below, Brown further explains how he came to write the book at a Q&A session inside Washington D.C. literary landmark Politics and Prose:

Friday, September 5, 2014

Film Friday: Fall Movie Preview

The fall movie season has historically been one lined with awards contenders, but this year, the autumn months will also be stuffed to the brim with book-to-film adaptations.

The Maze Runner (U.S. theatrical release: Sept. 19)
The era of young adult dystopian adaptations continues with this adaptation of the James Dashner novel, starring Dylan O'Brien from MTV's Teen Wolf series in the lead role. The plot is more solitary than Divergent or The Hunger Games, though, as a group of teens try to escape from the middle of a giant maze they've been trapped inside. According to reports, the film only cost studio 20th Century Fox $30 million for its budget. For comparison, Fox's summer adaptation of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars has gone on to gross more than $280 million worldwide on a $16 million budget, crazy low by summer blockbuster standards. The producers of "Stars" are also shepherding this project and seem to have their finger on the pulse of these young adult adaptations in what I'm sure Fox is hoping becomes a franchise. The newest trailers show a lot of promise.

This is Where I Leave You (Sept. 19)
Writer Jonathan Tropper wrote the screenplay and produced this adaptation of his 2009 bestseller about a family sitting Shiva, a Jewish mourning ritual, in the wake of the death of the patriarch. With an all-star cast led by Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Tina Fey and Adam Driver among others, the film has made some alterations from the novel (the family's last name is now Altman, not Foxman like in the book), but with Tropper writing the script I wouldn't expect any dramatic changes from the source material.

A Walk Among the Tombstones (Sept. 19)
Based on a 1992 book by Lawrence Block, the film follows private detective Matthew Scudder as he tries to find the missing wife of a drug dealer. According to reports, Block has said star Liam Neeson is an ideal choice to play Scudder, even going so far as to tell The Wrap, "My book's in good hands." However, the trailer has already framed the movie as a "Taken"-style revenge thriller. At a recent movie screening, a friend of mine who is unaware of the book turned to me after watching the trailer and said, "That one's a renter." Judge for yourself and take a look at the trailer:

Gone Girl (Oct. 3)
The cast of this film is outstanding (Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris), the script is being written by Gillian Flynn herself, and David Fincher is directing. Sounds like an awfully good combination. Given the book's narrative structure of bouncing back and forth between the perspectives of husband Nick and wife Amy, it isn't surprising that the film will deviate from it, though rumors are swirling that the ending is being re-tooled as well. Any way Flynn does it, the book is in very capable hands and it wouldn't surprise me if the movie is both a box office hit (budget of only $50 million) and an Oscar contender.

Left Behind (Oct. 3)
I admit it, I read most of the Left Behind series when I was in junior high and early high school. I lasted to book 9, Desecration, out of the initial 12 books before I opted not to continue. When the first film adaptation came out, starring former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron, it was a cheeseball movie. Given that the premise of the series, two authors' fictionalized opinions about how the Book of Revelation could unfold, can be seen by some as cheesy or goofy to begin with, enlisting Nicolas Cage as Rayford Steele was probably not the best call. Having said that, the supporting cast is a bit better than I thought it would be.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Oct. 10)
In what figures to be a heavily reworked version of Judith Viorst's 1972 classic, Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner star in a comedy about a boy's horrible day. In the book, Alexander wakes up with bubble gum in his hair and his day gets progressively worse, but in the film's trailer, the hijinks are leveled on the other family members. I remember reading the book as a child and have been split on whether or not to see this one.

Big Hero 6 (Nov. 7)
Very loosely based on the Marvel Comics team that debuted in 1998 and was later the subject of a 2008 miniseries, this animated film has already garnered a following online with its trailers and clips. A boy and his robot companion venture into a world of superheroes as a villainous figure tries to take over San Fransokyo, a colorful mashup of San Francisco and Tokyo. If you're going into this film with the hopes of an Avengers cameo, the director told Total Film this summer that the universe of Big Hero 6 would act as a stand-alone world separate from the other Marvel films. The movie is one of the top five films I'm most looking forward to for the rest of the year. Here's the latest clip, which debuted Sunday during a "Frozen" special on ABC:

Rosewater (Nov. 7)
Based on the 2011 memoir Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari, the film tells Bahari's story of being held captive by the Iranian government for more than 100 days after the 2009 election. The film has been getting buzz for being directed by Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" fame, but the film's crew and subject matter suggest a good movie as well and apparently critics have given it generally favorable reviews after debuting last week at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado (current Rotten Tomatoes rating is 89%).

The Theory of Everything (Nov. 7)
Despite the title, the movie is not necessarily based on Stephen Hawking's 1983 book, but rather on his wife's memoir Travelling to Infinity. Starring Eddie Redmayne, who was last seen by most audiences as Marius in the excellent 2012 adaptation of Les Miserables, and Felicity Jones, the film will show Redmayne as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking during his time studying at Cambridge, falling in love and being diagnosed with a motor neuron disease. The movie is set to debut this weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here is the trailer, which debuted to big Internet buzz last month:

Is there a film based on a book you are most looking forward to this fall?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Film News Roundup

There have been several high-profile book-to-film projects buzzing about Hollywood this week. Here's a quick look at some of the key stories.

Ridley Scott and Matt Damon have been linked to an adaptation of the Andy Weir novel The Martian (published by Crown) for some time, but now comes word from Deadline that Jessica Chastain and Kristen Wiig may play the lead female roles in the sci-fi drama. The film is set to be released by 20th Century Fox in November 2015. The book follows an astronaut struggling to survive Mars after he is accidentally stranded on the Red Planet. Chastain will next appear in another sci-fi epic, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. I read a good portion of The Martian a few months ago when I plundered my local Barnes and Noble and was intrigued by the story, but was put off at the sometimes juvenile dialogue and humor. Let's just say there was more bathroom humor than I anticipated.

From the folks at The Wrap, George Clooney is set to direct a film version of the Nick Davies book Hack Attack (published by Faber and Faber), which chronicled the British tabloid phone hacking scandal that rocked Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Sony Pictures, where Clooney has an overall deal, will distribute the film and according to Jordan Zakarin, production will start next year. If this film is anything like Clooney's previous foray into journalism, 2005's "Good Night and Good Luck," I'll see it opening weekend.

Given the Hack Attack news plus recent book to film adaptations from Sony like "Moneyball," "Captain Phillips," "The Social Network" and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," it should come as no surprise the film studio has reached into the publishing world and hired Ryan Doherty, the former senior editor of Random House imprints Ballantine, Bantam and Dell. According to Mike Fleming at Deadline, Doherty was the editor of some of the imprints' narrative nonfiction including Toms River by Dan Fagin and the Jim Henson biography by Brian Jay Jones (both have been on my TBR list for some time). Given the recent reshuffling at Penguin Random House, it will be interesting to see how these moves will affect the publishing giant going forward.

Fans of the Jojo Moyes bestseller Me Before You may or may not have imagined Daenerys Targaryen and Finnick as Lou and Will, but actors Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin have snagged the lead roles. Clarke, who has garnered a large following on the heels of her role in "Game of Thrones" and Claflin, who starred in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean and Hunger Games movies, will be seen together on the big screen in this romance adaptation next August. More details can be found here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Most Anticipated Fall Reads

Fall is traditionally the time of year when prestigious awards like the Man Booker and National Book Awards are handed out, but the autumn season will have several worthwhile reads to add to the ever-expanding To Be Read list. Here are five to watch for that are on my TBR roster.

Perfidia by James Ellroy (Knopf, Sept. 9)
Ellroy, the mastermind behind the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz) is starting a second L.A. Quartet beginning with Perfidia, set in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. When a Japanese family is found dead, the investigation brings together historical figures (LAPD Chief William Parker) and figures of fiction in a sprawling crime epic that weaves in war, romance, Japanese internment and a whodunit. I've always enjoyed the era of the 1940's from the Art Deco architecture to the swing music to the clothing styles of the era. Growing up in Los Angeles, two of my favorite buildings in the city are Union Station and City Hall, both Art Deco icons. I'm really looking forward to this one.

The Malaria Project: The U.S. Government's Secret Mission to Find a Miracle Cure by Karen Masterson (NAL, Oct. 7)
Like an investigative journalist, Masterson traces desperate efforts during World War II to cure malaria. As thousands of troops were getting infected by the disease, researchers Stateside used a variety of methods, some very questionable, to find a cure. Strangely, the very people U.S. troops were fighting had the answer: chloroquine. 

Scribe: My Life in Sports by Bob Ryan (Bloomsbury, Oct. 7)
A frequent fixture on ESPN's "Around the Horn," "The Sports Reporters" and a Boston mainstay for decades, Bob Ryan has been called by fellow writer Tony Kornheiser "the quintessential sportswriter." Argumentative and opinionated, but well-spoken, especially on the NBA and the Boston Celtics, Ryan is a well-regarded figure in his industry and I'll be looking forward to reading his tales of the Celtics at their height and other Boston teams as well. Here's a sample of Bob Ryan answering questions about his career:

Sleep in Peace Tonight by James MacManus (Thomas Dunne, Oct. 7)
An adviser to Franklin Roosevelt is sent to London during the Blitz in this story about America's isolationist tendencies prior to Pearl Harbor. Before that horrendous day in Hawaii, the country largely felt the conflict that would become known as World War II was Europe's problem. However, several of America's ambassadors and foreign diplomats were urging the White House to get involved. The novel highlights some of that tension while introducing a British intelligence agent and legendary reporter Edward R. Murrow. Of the books on my Goodreads TBR list, Sleep in Peace Tonight is the highest rated (as of this writing).

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet (Norton, Nov. 3)
A satirical look at the wackiest Caribbean honeymoon ever written on paper, Millet's novel follows two newlyweds who bump into a marine biologist who claims mermaids have been on a local reef. Once the sirens are discovered, it's a race to protect them from the resort's owner, who wants to turn the area into a theme park. Despite being two months away from it's publication date, the book has already garnered plenty of buzz from the literary world.

What new books are you looking forward to this fall?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

Some books just sneak up on you, and for me, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (FSG), was no exception. I had seen a lot of buzz on Goodreads about the book and managed to squeeze it in last month.

The book opens with Clay Jannon, a laid-off Web designer in San Francisco that gets a job as the overnight clerk at the eponymous bookstore.As he works there, he realizes the strange store has plenty of secrets. Along the way, he meets a gal who works at Google and are more in tune with modern technology than the bookstore or its patrons. While that premise may seem a bit short, the second half of the book is best kept unspoiled. Let's just say the book takes an unusual turn or two before it wraps up.

If I had to sum up the book in a word, it's quirky, and I don't mean that in a bad way. The Google designer character is a product of her time (apparently, the company will be able to solve all our problems), Clay's roommates are memorable in their brief moments, and Mr. Penumbra for some reason reminded me of a sort of literary Mr. Miyagi. A character towards the end that sort of acts as the story's villain reminded me of a few people I know in real life that detest modern technology. The usage of San Francisco as the setting works well and you can tell Sloan is familiar with the city and manages to weave in Industrial Light and Magic, Google's hometown of Mountain View, along with some landmarks and other Bay Area icons. There was a sense of authority during the sequences at Google, as though Sloan was using his own personal experience as a template. There are moments where the book seems to go off in a strange direction, but when the last page is read, it all ties together and makes a wonderfully cohesive plot.

In a summer that had few "light reading" books, Penumbra was a pleasant surprise. It still manages to pose big ideas about technology, the pending death of print publications, and how generations interact over technology while providing an entertaining story.

Rating: 4/5 stars

One bonus tidbit: If you buy the hardcover or paperback versions, expect the cover to glow in the dark. The first night I had it on my nightstand, I was trying to figure out what was glowing until I realized it was the book.

Monday, September 1, 2014

What I'm Reading This Month

As summer breathes its last gasp and the calendar turns to September, a new month of reading begins. When I read, I typically do two books a month that have some sort of shared theme or topic. For example, I focused on my birth state of Arizona last month by reading Kevin Fedarko's The Emerald Mile and Jeff Guinn's The Last Gunfight. Mile tells the story of a Grand Canyon river guide who uses a torrential runoff to slingshot his boat into the record books. Gunfight tries to discern myth from fact in a retelling of what really happened at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, most recently popularized in the 1993 film Tombstone. Because I finished a bit early, I managed to slip Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore under the wire as a free choice before the month's end.

This month, the theme is, more or less, bestseller fiction, starting with Gillian Flynn's mega bestseller Gone Girl from Crown. A wife goes missing and all signs point to the husband as the prime suspect. As he is scrutinized from nearly every angle, investigators realize this marriage was less than happy. I normally don't read books as dark as Gone Girl, but I'm anticipating the upcoming film version, set for release on October 3. I loved director David Fincher's work in "The Social Network" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and the cast for Gone Girl is stellar. The film, as with most fall releases, has Oscar buzz around it.

Later this month, I'll be delving into the world of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, also from Crown. Set in a dystopian future, the book follows a man desperate to flee the real world for a virtual one, the OASIS. When inside, he stumbles upon a series of puzzles from the founder, who apparently has a penchant for 1980's references. The real and virtual worlds eventually collide. The book has been said to have elements of the Harry Potter series and The Matrix, so it's right up my alley. Most people I've talked to about the book rave about it and it has a 4.3 rating right now on Goodreads, so it's been well-received from a variety of readers.

What are you looking forward to reading this month?