Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Wish List Wednesday: June

Summer is here! Ready to sit poolside, sip umbrella drinks and read? Here are five books to soak up while working on a tan.

Finders Keepers by Stephen King
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

The sequel to last year's Mr. Mercedes, King returns to territory similar to his 1987 book Misery. An author created a memorable character, but hasn't published a new book in decades. One fan gets enraged and kills the author, but not before finding notebooks containing one more novel. Years later, a boy finds the notebooks and retired cop Bill Hodges tries to protect him from the crazed fan, recently released from prison. While I don't read King's books as rapturously as others, Finders Keepers has been the most pre-ordered audiobook on Audible for at least a month and with Will Patton narrating, I totally understand why.

How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt
(June 16, Viking)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Remember when Napster was a thing? In the early days of the Internet, many were using sites like LimeWire, Napster and Kazaa to get the latest albums for free. But once the 2001 injunction against Napster came, many users unloaded it from their systems. Stephen Witt explores the digitalization of music and the advent of music piracy in a book the publisher likens to works by Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower, Going Clear) and Michael Lewis (Moneyball, Flash Boys).

Love May Fail by Matthew Quick
(June 16, Harper)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

The author of The Silver Linings Playbook and The Good Luck of Right Now returns with a tale of a Florida woman returning to her South Jersey childhood home after she finds her husband cheating on her. She invests time with her former English teacher who has retired after an incident in his classroom. Peppered into the story are a nun, metal-music-loving boy, a former heroin addict and the woman's mother who is a hoarder. Ultimately, Quick's newest seems to emphasize themes similar to Silver Linings in regards to taking control of one's life and picking up the pieces.

Pirate Hunters by Robert Kurson
(June 16, Random House)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Yo ho, yo ho, it's a pirates' life for Kurson as he follows two men trying to find the remains of the sunken ship Golden Fleece, a ship captained by pirate Joseph Bannister. But the hunt for the ship gets complicated as the two men race to find documents and fend off rivals. This book was one of my most anticipated of the summer and has earned rave reviews across the board with endorsements from the likes of Daniel James Brown (The Boys in the Boat), Lee Child and Sen. John McCain.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
(June 23, St. Martin's)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

One of the buzziest books of the summer, Swyler's debut novel is a mystery thriller with elements of fantasy set on the Long Island coast. After receiving a mysterious book, a librarian realizes that many women in his family die on the same date, all by drowning. When his sister returns home for the first time in years, he wonders if she will suffer the same fate. The librarian is then in a race against time to solve the mystery of his family history and to save his sister's life.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Audie Award Winners

The annual Audie Awards were announced last week and several that I reviewed took home trophies. Most notably, Zach Appelman's terrific narration of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See took home the prize in the fiction category. Also, Robert Petkoff won the award in the suspense category for his narration of Michael Koryta's Those Who Wish Me Dead.

Other notable winners included Amy Poehler's Yes Please, Alan Cumming's Not My Father's Son, Andy Weir's The Martian and Mandela: An Audio History, which won the Audiobook of the Year Award. Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book took the most awards with honors in the children's, best production and multi-voice performance categories.

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Audiobook Review: So You've Been Publicly Shamed

So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015)
Written and read by Jon Ronson
Publisher: Audible/Riverhead
Run Time: 7 hours 26 minutes

At it's best, the internet is a wonderful engine of creativity, thought, imagination and ideas. But at it's worst, the internet can be, as Obi-Wan Kenobi described the Mos Eisley Cantina in "Star Wars", a "wretched hive of scum and villainy."

Journalist Jon Ronson explores the latter side of the World Wide Web and social media in his newest book So You've Been Publicly Shamed. Using several high-profile cases, Ronson traces the epidemic of public shaming and efforts by some groups to undo the damage. One of the cases involved a woman making an ill-advised tweet before she boarded a plane at London's Heathrow airport. The tweet went viral and there were even hashtags joking about whether she had landed yet. She was fired from her job the moment she landed. Ronson managed to interview the woman and see what happened in her life after the fallout.

The book was very thought-provoking and can challenge readers who use social media: Have I been part of the problem or part of the solution? Ronson also points out that social media users may even constrain themselves in what they say or do online in order to avoid any possible shaming.

Besides a chapter on S&M I could have done without, the audiobook breezed by and Ronson narrates with compassion toward the victims of public shaming.

Grade: 4/5 stars. Should be required reading for social media users.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Audiobook Review: Elephant Company

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II (2014)
Written by Vicki Constantine Croke
Narrated by Simon Prebble
Publisher: Recorded Books/Random House
Run Time: 9 hours 43 minutes

In Disney's animated version of The Jungle Book, Colonel Hathi comically leads his elephant troop through the jungle. Most of the other animals are bothered by the marching and would rather the pachyderm parade go elsewhere. But Mowgli the mancub is curious as ever and at one point joins in on the march.

In Vicki Constantine Croke's Elephant Company, elephants march and a man is curious about them, but not for slapstick comedy. A British employee working in the jungles of Burma (Myanmar) named Billy Williams works with logging elephants through the Great Depression and World War II. Despite the mention of the war in the book's subtitle, it isn't really discussed until the last third or so. Before then, the book is a wonderfully rendered biography of Williams building his life in the jungle while deepening his relationship with the elephants. As the book progresses, he goes from company man to married man to jungle warrior, using the elephants and trails he knows well against the Japanese onslaught.

Croke touches on some universal, but beloved themes in nature writing in this book, namely man's relationship with animals and the cost of human conflict on the animals themselves. The research is thorough and first-rate, which is par for the course for Croke, who has been featured on NPR and wrote in The Boston Globe for more than a dozen years. The narration by Simon Prebble can drone on occasionally, in part because he repeats the same vocal cadence in how he reads sentences, but is otherwise a good read.

Rating: 4/5 stars. An enjoyable, even-handed history of a man's relationship with elephants through economic and global strife. I especially recommend this one to animal lovers and those curious about exotic places, since the book also acts as a bit of a micro-history to Burma.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Audiobook Review: All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See (2014)
Written by Anthony Doerr
Narrated by Zach Appelman
Run Time: 16 hours 2 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio/Scribner

When All the Light We Cannot See debuted last year, I predicted it was going to be one of the key books of the year. The story seemed tailor-made to my tastes since I'm a World War II-story junkie. As the buzz grew and it was shortlisted for the National Book Award, I anxiously downloaded it for my Kindle, where it then sat for months as my appetite for reading on a digital device waned.

After a family member raved about the audiobook and implored me to read it that way, I gave it a shot. Halfway through me reading the audiobook, Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize and the audiobook itself is up for an Audie Award (winners will be announced May 28). The novel has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 52 weeks, as of this writing.

Doerr wrote a lyrical tale of Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a blind French girl who escapes Paris for Saint-Malo with her father who may or may not be in possession of a famous jewel coveted by the Nazis. Meanwhile, in Nazi Germany, Werner Pfennig is raised in an orphanage in a coal mining town, destined to be a miner until he is discovered to be a prodigy with radios. As these two characters journey toward their eventual meeting in Saint-Malo, they meet a number of characters along the way who have been scarred or twisted by the war.

War stories can be brutal and this one has its moments of showing humanity's brutality towards one another. But it has two of the most likable characters I've read in a long time in Marie-Laure and Werner. Both of them are extremely intelligent, overcome obstacles and have strong moral centers while the adults around them degrade into war. It has often been said that "war is hell" and as each minute passed, I was rooting for both of the main characters to survive the conflict.

Zach Appelman provides great narration work here. Rather than using voices, he opts to use subtle voice inflection with slight accents to differentiate the characters and it generally works. The one exception I can think of is the character of Nazi officer Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who often sounds like a close relative to Hugo Weaving's Red Skull in the first Captain America movie. It was mildly distracting at first, but given the characters' similarities of being treasure hunting Nazis, it works.

It pains me when I talk to friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances who say, "Oh, I don't read much." As a result, I am occasionally asked about books that would cater to those that are not frequent readers. One of the beauties of this novel is that the chapters are very short, perfect for brief nighttime reading or those with shorter work commutes.

Bonus points to the folks at Simon & Schuster Audio for using Claude Debussy's "Clair de Lune" as the intro and outro music for the audiobook. "Clair de Lune" is one of my favorite pieces of classical music (I've written most of this review while listening to an extended version). It certainly doesn't hurt to start a book with the tender piano melodies of Debussy's masterpiece, especially when the song factors into the novel itself.

Rating: 5/5 stars. Why, oh why, did I torture myself and wait so long to read and review this book? The novel is terrific and worth every accolade.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Closer

The Closer: My Story (2014)
Written by Mariano Rivera with Wayne Coffey
Narrated by Michael Kay
Run Time: 7 hours and 25 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Little, Brown

In my years of being a baseball fan, I have always rooted against the Yankees (I'm a D-Backs and Red Sox fan, but of course, as I write this, the Sox are getting swept by the Yanks). Yankee players like Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens have earned my dislike over the years for a variety of reasons, but there were two Yankees that I had the utmost respect for: Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.

Rivera's autobiography The Closer is a terrific read, even for us born-and-raised Yankee haters. His humility is on every page, from his upbringing in Panama through his minor league career and into his days of walking out of the Yankee Stadium bullpen to Metallica's "Enter Sandman." A devout Christian, Rivera leaned on his faith throughout the highs (five world championships, 13 All-Star appearances) and the lows (injuries, key losses) of his career. I can't say I was all that bummed about hearing his losses since two of his big ones came against my teams, but hearing his descriptions of the games made me realize how personally he took them. He felt he let his entire team down and that sting didn't leave.

Role models in sports are hard to come by, especially in a sport that has been wracked with steroid scandals, egotistical players and contracts totaling north of $250 million. But Mo was never any of these things. I genuinely enjoyed hearing how he came up to the big leagues and had to adjust to living in America. His love for his wife Clara is evident every time he talks about her and how much of a pillar she was for him during his playing days. He mentions his faith often and it was a welcome perspective in my view, but it never felt overbearing.

I typically don't care for Michael Kay when he announces games (his victory chant of "Thaaaaaaaaaa Yankees win" is particularly annoying), so I proceeded with caution. He wasn't all that bad, but I got the sense that he was more comfortable recalling in-game moments. Considering the book is short in audiobook terms, clocking in at less than 8 hours, Kay reads Rivera's story at a quick and steady pace. I listened to it in one sitting as I was doing some house work.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Yankee fans will obviously enjoy this one, though there are universal themes of faith and perseverance in it that should make it accessible to everybody. Even us Red Sox fans.

The book is available in hardcover, ebook and audiobook formats. A paperback version from Back Bay Books is set to hit bookshelves May 5.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wish List Wednesday: May

This weekend, the summer blockbuster season kicks off with the highly anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron invading theaters. A few weeks after that, the new Mad Max will blast into the multiplex and the parade of big-budget films continues through August. But for the book world, May is also a blockbuster month, complete with some of the year's most-anticipated titles. On May 5 alone, dozens of frontlist and backlist books will enter the marketplace. Here are five to look out for in May.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
(May 5, Ecco)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

The first novel from Leslie Parry, Church of Marvels is a historical mystery set in the fading years of 19th century New York. Part of the Coney Island set of attractions, the Church of Marvels sideshow draws crowds daily. But one day, it is burned to the ground, killing the matriarch. Making matters worse, the show's starlet goes missing, forcing her sister to begin a desperate search to find her. Complicating things further is a woman trapped in an asylum. The novel, one of several darker books in this month's assortment, scored a spot on the Indie Next list.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
(May 5, Little, Brown)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Kate Atkinson's 2013 novel Life After Life was a smash hit. Now, Atkinson returns to that book's world with a companion novel centering on Teddy, the brother of Life After Life's protagonist Ursula Todd. Teddy lives through most of the 20th century and plays a role in historic events like World War II, where he serves in the RAF as a bomber. Of all the books coming out this month, A God in Ruins may be the most anticipated by literary fans, no doubt helped by the success of Life After Life. Kirkus, Booklist and Publishers Weekly gave the novel starred reviews.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
(May 5, Simon & Schuster)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Whenever historian David McCullough announces a new book, it immediately grabs people's attention. After a long line of bestsellers like The Johnstown Flood, John Adams, Truman and 1776, McCullough turns his attention to the aviation pioneering Wright Brothers. The book will trace the lives of the two brothers in McCullough's plainspoken but thorough style. Tom Hanks' production company has already picked up the television rights in the hopes of making it a HBO miniseries, similar to what they did with John Adams. Audiobook readers will have the added bonus of McCullough himself narrating the text. Booklist and Library Journal gave the book starred reviews.

Girl at War by Sara Novic
(May 12, Random House)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

The second debut on this list, Girl at War has been described as a coming of age tale amid the Balkan conflict of the early 1990s. Ten years after the war, the novel's heroine Ana has escaped to New York but soon returns to her native land in an attempt to reconnect with her roots and what was lost during the conflict. Like Church of Marvels, Novic's book also landed a spot on the Indie Next list. Random House is likening Novic to Anthony Doerr, the writer behind the brilliant All the Light We Cannot See. In addition to being on the Indie Next list, the novel earned a starred recommendation from Booklist.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
(May 26, Knopf)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

The Water Knife is a thriller that uses the current drought in the American Southwest as a springboard to a terribly realistic and dystopian future. The titular "water knife" Angel ensures his boss' rich Las Vegas developments thrive while poorer communities in Phoenix and elsewhere thirst. But when the Golden State makes a power play for more water, it's a race against time for Angel as desperate groups resort to violent means to ensure the water keeps flowing. Bacigalupi previously wrote The Windup Girl, which was well received in the literary world (it's being released in paperback a few weeks prior to Knife's publication). The Water Knife also received a starred review from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly.

Notable books coming out in paperback include Mariano Rivera's terrific The Closer (May 5), Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove (May 5), Sue Monk Kidd's smash hit The Invention of Wings (May 5), Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You (May 12) and Hampton Sides' Arctic adventure In the Kingdom of Ice (May 26).

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Book Review: A Passion for Paris

A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light (2015)
Written by David Downie
320 pages
Publisher: St. Martin's

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

Paris is a city that Western culture has long been fascinated by. For me, it has been near the top of the list on places to visit. From the sidewalk bistros to the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame to the Louvre, there are so many iconic places to visit. About eight years ago, I was in Charles de Gaulle airport on a layover to Italy and I was taken aback by how the airport looked. Were it not for the French signage, there would have been little way of knowing I was in Paris.

David Downie's book is a terrific tour guide to parts of Paris that are sometimes off the beaten path. Using the era of Romanticism and his own interest in photography as a starting point, Downie takes readers on a photo tour to places that Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas would have populated.

I admit, my knowledge of the Romantic period is little, so some of the key figures' importance didn't quite connect with me as it would someone who knows the period well. However, I particularly liked the chapter on Notre Dame Cathedral and its influence on Victor Hugo writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Downie also explains the cathedral's connection to the Pantheon, where Hugo is entombed.

I typically do not recommend specific versions of a book, but I cannot emphasize enough to read this on a color e-reader or hardcover. Downie has terrific photographs in his book, but my review copy was on a Kindle Paperwhite, so all of the photos were in black and white.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Fans and students of the Romantic era will appreciate the book more, but nevertheless, it is a wonderfully written photographic history of Paris.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Film Friday: The Soloist

The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (2008)
Written by Steve Lopez
Narrated by William Hughes
Run Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Publisher: Blackstone Audio/Putnam

Downtown Los Angeles is a strange mix. First Street is home to City Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall, government buildings and the Los Angeles Times. Fifth Street has the U.S. Bank Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast, Pershing Square and the LA Central Library. On these streets, it's not uncommon to see men and women in business attire rushing to and from meetings with their lattes and suitcases in tow. But further down Fifth, in the eastern reaches of downtown, lies an infamous place called Skid Row.

Despite using the term 'Row', Skid Row has no defined boundaries. Many of the homeless that call the area home suffer mental illness, addictions, and other hardships. In my travels through downtown over the years, I've seen homeless sleep on benches in and out of the Skid Row area and a college class tour down Fifth Street walked right through a drug deal. Many of my classmates and I were stunned at what we saw, some acted indifferent, while the teacher was either purposefully ignorant so as to not have to mention it or completely unaware. While nonprofit groups like Union Rescue Mission and the Downtown Women's Center help, there are anywhere between 2,000 and 11,000 homeless residents on Skid Row today, according to a recent Daily Beast profile.

Steve Lopez's book The Soloist is a wonderful story about compassion. Lopez, a Pulitzer finalist and longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, met Nathaniel Ayers in Pershing Square. Ayers, who dropped out of Julliard after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, speaks in a stream-of-consciousness style. Lopez befriends him and writes a series of columns on Ayers. The columns eventually attract the attention of then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Lopez writes in a straightforward style and I immediately cared for him and Ayers to succeed and get the latter's life back on track. He thoroughly explains how groups like LAMP assist the mentally ill of Skid Row and the bond between the two men that develops seeps through the pages. For a subject that can be dour, Lopez keeps it honest but never overbearing. As a journalist who has covered mental health issues myself, Lopez's accounts of the mental health system were similar to ones I've seen. In terms of the audiobook itself, the narration by William Hughes is pitch-perfect.

Rating: 4/5 stars. The book is a stellar example of journalistic nonfiction and a testament to compassionate care toward our fellow human beings.

The real-life Ayers (far left) and Lopez (second from left) and their big-screen counterparts in Foxx (second from right) and Downey (far right).

The Soloist (2009)
Directed by Joe Wright
Screenplay written by Susannah Grant
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
Distributor: DreamWorks

Initially scheduled for release in 2008, the film version of The Soloist was tabbed as a potential Oscar contender. Robert Downey Jr. was coming off the original Iron Man and Tropic Thunder while Jamie Foxx had won a Best Actor Oscar four years earlier for Ray. However, a schedule shift to April 2009 effectively took it out of consideration.

While I enjoyed the book more than the movie, the film does have some bright spots. Some of my favorite moments were brief sequences where Lopez, played by Downey, is just observing people on Skid Row. The camera just focuses on various people waiting on both sides of the LAMP compound's walls, as if to say they're just waiting for something or someone to help them right their ship. The movie also presents the fears associated with the shrinking of newspapers well.

In the book, Lopez is married, but in the movie, he is divorced from his ex-wife who is also his editor. As part of that change, there's a very awkward dinner scene that felt out of place. I'm not sure why these particular adjustments were made, but they made me think of the book and the true story and not what was happening onscreen.

The performances by Downey and Foxx were commendable and the movie still hits on the book's key points. But, as is mostly the case when a book makes the jump to celluloid, the movie paled in comparison. Grade: 3/5 stars

After the movie was released, Ayers performed at several conventions including one for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI (see video below). Lopez continues to write for the LA Times. In the wake of a shooting involving a police officer in Skid Row last month, Lopez followed up on his experiences with an updated column. As a result of the shooting, CNN also did a profile on Skid Row.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Audiobook Review: Water to the Angels

Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct and the Rise of Los Angeles (2015)
Written by Les Standiford
Narrated by Robert Fass
Publisher: HarperAudio/Ecco
Run Time: 9 hours 11 minutes

Seldom does one get to read books that directly involve their town, but in the case of Les Standiford's Water to the Angels, my hometown of Santa Clarita plays a strong supporting role. Some cities have canals, rivers or lakes as water sources. Our primary source is a lake, but the Los Angeles Aqueduct traverses our hills and valleys as it snakes its way to the big city to our south.

The high school I went to sits next to the aqueduct, or as students called it, "The Pipe." When I was on the JV and freshman volleyball teams, we used to run on a dirt trail next to it. The aqueduct looms over one of Santa Clarita's biggest parks, where families walk their pets and play baseball, soccer and ultimate frisbee on the weekends. At times, it sits at ground level and in other places, is mounted onto concrete stilts as it climbs and descends hills.

Standiford's book begins with one of my town's most notorious disasters, the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. The dam acted as a reservoir for the aqueduct. When it broke, thousands of gallons of water rushed through the Santa Clarita Valley, into the Santa Clara River (which is normally dry) and barreled through the farmlands of Fillmore and Santa Paula before it flowed into the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. The site of the dam is about a 20 minute drive from my house and if you know what to look for, remnants are still visible from the canyon road that passes by the area. Standiford does provide some details and historical perspective about the incident, particularly from the dam supervisor who seemed concerned about the St. Francis when few others were.

Standiford's book primarily focuses on the engineering of the aqueduct and while the planning and building of it is certainly worth writing about, I didn't expect the bulk of the book to be devoted to it. William Mulholland, who would later have the famous curvy mountain highway named after him, is a central figure in the book and rightly so. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, of which Mulholland was the longtime head of in the city's early days, has been highly influential in Los Angeles' development for years and it traces back to the aqueduct and its designer. The portions of the book with Mulholland in them were the strongest parts.

Another strong focus is the battle between Owens Valley residents and Los Angeles. The aqueduct designers put the intake channel so far up the Owens River, it devastated farmers below. As a result, the aqueduct is still a point of contention today.

Since "The Rise of Los Angeles" is part of the subtitle, I was hoping there would be a history as to how the aqueduct helped spur the population boom the city had in the mid-20th century. The San Fernando Valley, home to the reservoir that serves as the endpoint of the aqueduct, went from being farmland to vast cityscape. Communities as far away as Huntington Beach and Pasadena started to flourish in the 1920s and drew residents via the Red Car Trolleys. Were those developments helped by the aqueduct? Also, when we say Los Angeles, do we mean the city or the metro area, the latter of which gives new meaning to the word sprawl?

As a bonus, the end of the book focuses on the 1974 film Chinatown, which is partially based on the early days of the LADWP and the water rights war between Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

Rating: 3/5 stars. It's a good starting point of early Los Angeles history and its thirst for a sustaining water source. However, I still had questions as to how the aqueduct helped trigger LA's boom and the emphasis on the construction was a surprise, given the human drama of the water wars and the dam disaster. It should also be noted that based on some other reviews, some readers looked to the book for any commentary on our state's current drought situation, but this isn't the book for that.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Audiobook Review: Ghettoside

Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America (2015)
Written by Jill Leovy
Narrated by Rebecca Lowman
Publisher: Random House Audio/Spiegel & Grau
Run Time: 13 hours 28 minutes

This past weekend, thousands descended onto the University of Southern California campus for the 20th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. This was my first time attending and it was a blast! Had fun perusing the many booths, scored a good-size book haul and I'm already anticipating next year's event and the panels that go with it. If this year was a toe dip into the proverbial water, next year is the full-on plunge.

A book that was prominently featured in sellers' booths was Ghettoside, written by the Times' own Jill Leovy. The USC campus is south of downtown, but it is a vastly different world than the one Leovy describes a few miles away as part of the 77th Street Division of the LAPD. The division covers 12 square miles of South Los Angeles and neighboring Watts. Many of the homicides are gang-related and black-on-black.

The book follows the murder of Bryant Tennelle, the son of a police detective, and John Skaggs, the man assigned to find the responsible killer. Skaggs is an immediately respectable, if not likable, detective with a low BS-tolerance who genuinely cares about finding justice. His care disarms skeptical residents wary of the LAPD for its past sins, a remarkable feat considering he is white and most of the residents are black.

The entire case, from a gripping interrogation by Skaggs to the courthouse conclusion, is gut-wrenching in its unflinching look at the reality of life in South LA. The sheer number of murders and why they happen caused my jaw to drop.

In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, Leovy referred to residents here feeling "walled in" and sadly, she is right. Commuters from more affluent parts of town like the South Bay will drive by on their way to work downtown via the 110 Freeway, but most wouldn't dare to drive through the actual neighborhoods, even to fill up their gas tank. Leovy also makes the point that many officers of the LAPD do not live in the city itself, but in outlying suburbs like Santa Clarita (my hometown), Orange County and Simi Valley. Tennelle's father lived in the area he policed, so he had a high investment in the safety of his community, making him admirable and sympathetic even before the tragic loss of his son.

Rebecca Lowman delivers solid narration for the audiobook, refraining from dramatic voicing or unnecessary frills when the book so starkly lays out the crime epidemic. A minor gripe I had with the book is that Leovy addresses some solutions to the problem of black-on-black violence at the book's conclusion, but they felt rushed. I wouldn't have minded seeing more details on those ideas and how they would have helped the people of South LA.

Grade: 4/5 stars. In a year of outstanding nonfiction so far, Leovy's journalistic narrative stands out as a testament to the current state of crime in America. As a newspaper reporter myself, there are stories I've covered that were horrific, but needed to be told. Likewise, Leovy has done that with Ghettoside.

Below is a portion of an interview between LA-based PBS host Tavis Smiley and Leovy about the book...

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Audiobook Review: Every Day I Fight

Every Day I Fight (2015)
Written by Stuart Scott with Larry Platt
Read by Adam Lazarre-Smith & Cassandra Campbell
Publisher: Penguin Audio/Blue Rider Press
Run Time: 8 hours 3 minutes

"When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and the manner in which you live." — Stuart Scott

My love of sports didn't start at the earliest age, but I knew SportsCenter. My friend's dad was a ferocious Seattle Seahawks and Mariners fan and ESPN was a semi-regular presence in their house. Two of the anchors caught my eye and went on to be two of my favorite sportscasters: Stuart Scott and Dan Patrick. Scott was one of the earliest definitions of hip to me, especially with phrases like "call him butter, because he's on a roll," "he is as cool as the other side of the pillow," and of course, “booyah."

Every Day I Fight, Scott’s tale of his life before and during a long battle with cancer, is a raw, powerfully-written memoir. He cherished fatherhood, loved life, valiantly fought cancer to the very end and all the emotions that go with each one seep through the pages. As he journeys from his youth and college days in North Carolina to his time in Connecticut at ESPN, we as readers experience the highs and lows with him. I was elated for him when he recalls his now-famous ESPY speech (see video below) and it felt like I had been punched in the gut when he tells of the cancer remissions.

Part of the beauty of the book is that it manages to transcend sports and isn't written for fans. The best sports stories, whether they be akin to Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights or Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, is that they showcase life through the prism of sports. Scott thought of cancer like a boxer views his or her opponent, but still lived life to its fullest in spite of cancer. Some of the best portions of the book had nothing to do with his time at ESPN or cancer treatments, but rather his parenting of two girls and his youth. Another book that came to mind as I was listening to Scott's memoir was Randy Pausch's The Last Lecture.

Of special note is the narration of the audiobook by Adam Lazarre-White, who manages to not imitate Scott, but speak in a cadence similar to how Scott would talk. Scott wasn’t in my car, but it was pretty close.

Grade: 5/5 stars. A memoir from one of the best sportscasters that speaks to more than just sports fans and cancer patients. I cannot recommend this enough.

Below is Scott's acceptance speech of the 2014 Jimmy V Award at the ESPYS in Los Angeles. In his memoir, he vividly describes the moments leading up to and including the speech. Booyah, Stuart.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Film Friday: The Year of Bond

Much of the discussion on 2015 films has been about Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But if the newly-released teaser trailer for Spectre is any indication, the newest James Bond flick may be right up there with the others. For the first time in years, we'll see the criminal organization known as SPECTRE, or Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion. The group first appeared in the first, and in my opinion one of the better Bond films, Dr. No in 1962. This time, they appear more sinister and less ripe for parody like in the Austin Powers series of the late 90's. And after the events of Skyfall, which I likened to a Bond version of The Dark Knight, the darker tone makes complete sense.

A teaser trailer for Spectre was released last week:

But the film world isn't the only place Bond will be this year. Already, there have been two books involving his creator, Ian Fleming. The nonfiction Goldeneye: Where Bond Was Born: Ian Fleming's Jamaica details how Fleming retreated to the island in the latter half of his life to write the Bond novels and Jamaica's influence on him. The second book, Francine Mathews' fictional Too Bad to Die, is a fun thriller I reviewed earlier this week. While Spectre does not factor into Mathews' book, the Soviet counter-intelligence group SMERSH (a portmanteau of two Russian words meaning "Death to Spies") does.

In September, Anthony Horowitz will debut a Bond novel of his own. The writer, who has received praise for the Sherlock Holmes novels House of Silk and Moriarty and received approval from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate to write them, went a similar route with his yet untitled Bond novel and gained authorization from the Ian Fleming estate.

Of course, there's always the original Bond novels themselves. Audiobook listeners will enjoy the celebrity series that Blackstone Audio released last year of several British celebrities, including Jason Isaacs (Harry Potter, The Patriot) and Tom Hiddleston (Thor, The Avengers), reading Fleming's novels. Also, they are short enough that they serve as a great introduction to audiobooks for those looking to try that reading format.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wish List Wednesday: April

March was an embarrassment of literary riches. From Erik Larson's fantastic Dead Wake to Ishiguro's latest and Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, the month was jam-packed with good titles. How can April top it? Having a Nobel laureate certainly helps. Here are six books to look out for in April.

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
(April 7, Scribner)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Ann Packer's latest is a family saga that spans 50 years in the life of the Blair family. In 1954, Bill and Penny settle on three wooded acres in an area that would later be known as Silicon Valley and have four children. Decades later, the youngest returns to the family, causing havoc for each of his siblings and an uncertain future for the family. Each of the children take turns as narrator, so audiobook readers that like multiple narrators should like this one. The audiobook features the voice talents of Thomas Sadoski (The Newsroom), Santino Fontana (Frozen), Frederick Weller (In Plain Sight), Marin Ireland (Girls, The Slap) and Cotter Smith (The Americans). The book has received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist and Library Journal.

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy
(April 14, Grand Central)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Imagine Lewis and Clark setting out on their famed expedition across the western U.S. only this time it was in a post-apocalyptic future. After a super flu and nuclear fallout devastate the country, Mina Clark and Lewis Meriwether are inside the confines of The Sanctuary, or what remains of St. Louis. Then, a mysterious rider tells them of life in the Willamette Valley, or Oregon, and that civilization is restored there. This was one of my most anticipated books of the year purely because of the premise and I'm really looking forward to it. The thriller earned starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist.

Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
(April 21, Harper)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Lemmon tells the story of 1st Lt. Ashley White who was a member of the U.S. Army Special Ops' Cultural Support Team. White would try to forge relationships with the women of Afghanistan in ways regular soldiers could not. As a result of her efforts, she was later recognized on the Army Special Operations Memorial Wall of Honor. Sheryl Sandberg, Phil Klay, who won the National Book Award for Redeployment last year, and Sen. John McCain have all written blurbs raving about the book. Actress Reese Witherspoon bought the film rights in March, so expect a big screen adaptation to be in development.

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
(April 21, Knopf)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

Toni Morrison is one of those few authors that can jolt the literary world when she announces a new book. A short book, God Help the Child is, as her publisher described it, "about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of an adult." Themes of love, deceit, anger and abuse permeate the book. I'm fully expecting this one to be sad, heavy and pack an emotional gut punch to readers. Audiobook listeners will have the added bonus of hearing the Nobel laureate read her work. The novel scored starred reviews from Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly.

The last two books are ones I received early via NetGalley to review.

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl
(April 28, Penguin)
Available in hardcover, ebook and audio

There was a time in publishing when publishers could release a book without the author's consent. This era, thanks in part to lax copyright laws, spawned literary pirates called "bookaneers" that would steal authors' manuscripts. In Pearl's novel, a treaty that would end the bookaneer trade is about to be signed and Robert Louis Stevenson is on the island of Samoa working on his last book. The result is a mad race between two groups to pull off one last heist before their profession ends. Kirkus gave the book a starred review and I've heard nothing but good things. I'm looking forward to cracking it open in the coming weeks.

A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light by David Downie
(April 28, St. Martin's)
Available in hardcover and ebook

The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre museum, and much of the surrounding Parisian city have been on my places-to-visit list for ages. Downie takes readers on a complete tour of the sights, history and his personal experience within the City of Light. I'm a couple chapters into this one already and it's been enjoyable. As someone reading this on a Paperwhite, I'd suggest a hardcover or color ebook format, because there are loads of pictures throughout the book. Kirkus also gave this book a starred review.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Review: Too Bad to Die

Too Bad to Die (2015)
Written by Francine Mathews
348 pages
U.S. Publisher: Riverhead

Bond. James Bond. The words are iconic.

The suave style, the pithy one-liners, the strong women and the exotic locales are all part of what makes a Bond movie a Bond movie. But what about the man behind the secret agent?

In Francine Mathews' newest novel, Too Bad to Die, Ian Fleming does some spy work of his own to thwart a Nazi conspiracy to assassinate Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin during the Tehran Conference. When Fleming intercepts a message from Enigma code breaker Alan Turing suggesting a turncoat is in their midst, the race is on to find the culprit and stop the conspiracy.

Mathews clearly had fun writing this and that enthusiasm is evident on each page. She throws many Bond references in, whether it be a martini drink or Fleming thinking of himself as 007. Many of the trademark Bond items are in Mathews' book and the thrills are heaped on, particularly at the halfway point. It felt like a Bond movie written on the page and as I read, I thought, "This would make a pretty good movie." Mathews also melds the history of the Tehran Conference and fiction together seamlessly, causing some to try to guess where the fiction starts and ends.

In a welcome departure from the usual Bond formula, Mathews takes special care to creating strong female characters, particularly a British Signals operator and a rogue agent that plays both sides, that help advance the plot.

There's just one little hitch. I figured out who the turncoat was early on, so when the character is revealed to be said traitor, it didn't have the emotional impact. Most of Bond's villains have not been particularly secret (Goldfinger and Dr. No come to mind), so on one hand, this works with the usual Bond style. But on the other hand, it made the book easy to deduce.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars. Despite spotting the villain early, Too Bad to Die is a fun spy thriller, especially for James Bond fans, history buffs or anyone who wants a fun read.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Film Friday: Spielberg is Ready for Player One

Steven Spielberg made waves at the beginning of the month when he signed on with Jennifer Lawrence to adapt Lynsey Addario's memoir It's What I Do for Warner Bros. This week, WB announced that he'll also helm the adaptation of Ernest Cline's sci-fi novel Ready Player One, which was one of the best books I read last year. A mashup of young adult dystopia, virtual reality, 80's references and Willy Wonka, the book felt cinematic when I was reading it. Spielberg is explicitly mentioned in Cline's book, so it'll be interesting to see him directing a character that is very fond of E.T., Indiana Jones, and other Spielberg films.

When it was announced that Zak Penn was polishing Ready Player One's script, WB apparently wanted a big-name director attached to the project. The fanboy community immediately thought of Christopher Nolan, who is based at the studio and made sci-fi films like Inception and Interstellar plus The Dark Knight trilogy. Deadline said Ready Player One would be Spielberg's next project after he directs the adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG. Personally, I was hoping for It's What I Do first over Ready Player One, but I'm excited for both projects.

In a weird twist, the news is both good and bad for sci-fi book fans. Spielberg is notorious for dropping projects (American Sniper and Memoirs of a Geisha were two), but his jumping onto Ready Player One will likely mean the further delay of Robopocalypse, another sci-fi film he was in line to direct. That project, based on the Daniel Wilson book, had a screenplay written by Drew Goddard and even had a release date at one point.

Another literary project likely to be put on hold is Thank You For Your Service, a film version of the David Finkel book about soldiers readjusting to life after a Middle East campaign. The film's screenplay is being written by Jason Hall, who was nominated for an Oscar for adapting American Sniper.

In other news...

• Academy Award winner Eddie Redmayne's turn as transgendered artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl, based on the novel by David Ebershoff, will be released Nov. 27 in New York and Los Angeles. The film's release will be in the thicket of Oscar season.

• Steve Martin has signed on for a role in Ang Lee's adaptation of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which was written by Ben Fountain. Few details are available on Martin's role, but production is set to begin soon. The book is about an Army platoon being feted for heroism during a Dallas Cowboys football game after a firefight in Iraq. The novel earned a number of awards including the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize when it debuted in 2012.

• The film rights to Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, a novel of two sisters in World War II France, were acquired by TriStar, the same studio behind Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Hannah's book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for six straight weeks and earned rave reviews. While the acquisition of rights does not automatically mean a movie will be made, it shows that there is interest and given Hollywood's penchant for World War II-era stories, I'd bet the book will make the jump to the big screen.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Book of Unknown Americans

The Book of Unknown Americans (2014)
Written by Cristina Henriquez
Narrated by Yareli Arizmendi, Christine Avila, Jesse Corti, Gustavo Res, Ozzie Rodriguez and Gabriel Romero
Run Time: 9 hours, 12 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Knopf

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
 — Emma Lazarus, "The New Colossus" (1883)

Lazarus' poem, mounted on the inside of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty 20 years after it was first written, was emblematic of European immigrants' hope for a better life once they passed Lady Liberty's lamp beside the proverbial golden door that was Ellis Island. According to records, about 12 million immigrants transited through the island by the time it closed in 1954. The process to get into America took three to seven hours. For those that made it through, Ellis Island was an "Island of Hope." Those that were turned away, often because of a criminal record, insanity or a chronic illness, dubbed it the "Island of Tears."

A century later, the lamp is still lit and people from all over the world want to get through the golden door and have a better life in America. For some, it remains a place of hope while others have shed tears during their American experience.

Cristina Henriquez's book The Book of Unknown Americans taps into the inherent sense of risk and desperation immigrant families have in coming to America for that better quality of life. Arturo, Maribel and Alma Rivera have made the long trek from Mexico to a Delaware apartment complex in the hopes helping Maribel, who has suffered a significant injury. Her parents sacrifice for her to attend a special school, even when facing racism, bureaucracy and ludicrous job conditions. Meanwhile, Maribel starts to fall for Mayor Toro, the son of Panamanian immigrants who also live in the apartment complex.

One of the best qualities of the book, and it really stands out in the audiobook, is the variation of people. There are interludes where immigrants in the apartment complex tell their backstory and come from the likes of Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama. When these interludes happen, they are each spoken by a different voice actor, giving a variation that hammers home the point that there is no one single road for immigrants. Some of the characters arrive through visas while others walk across the Mexican border or are smuggled into the U.S. No two journeys are alike.

Henriquez writes in a style that at times felt like a series of feature news articles. She writes with a sense of the harsh realities of immigration, because not everything goes swimmingly when a family migrates to another country and tries to adjust to its culture and idiosyncracies. At the same time, there are tender moments, particularly with the teenage romance between Mayor and Maribel. The characters are easy to empathize with, especially when they struggle in adapting to American life.

Rating: 4/5 stars. Regardless of what your view is on the current state of immigration, I would encourage picking up Henriquez's book for the relatable characters and diversity of backgrounds they have as they try to blend into the American melting pot.

As part of the book's launch last year, Henriquez debuted the Unknown Americans Project on Tumblr. Below, she gives a taste of the kinds of stories the project has unearthed.

The book is available in all formats. A paperback edition was just published in the U.S. earlier this month via Vintage.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Audiobook Review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination and Being Prepared for Anything (2013)
Written and narrated by Chris Hadfield
Run Time: 8 hours 45 minutes
Publisher: Hachette Audio/Little, Brown

Growing up in the hills north of Los Angeles during the days of the Space Shuttle, my school would occasionally announce through campus-wide speakers something to the effect of, "Do not be alarmed, the Space Shuttle will soon be passing overhead. It will be loud." Moments later, a sonic roar would blast overhead as the shuttle flew en route to a safe landing at Edwards Air Force Base, about 45 minutes northeast of our suburb.

While he may not have flown the shuttle on those landings, Col. Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency peels back the curtain in this memoir of his time pursuing a dream to be an astronaut as well as some of his adventures onboard the International Space Station. He handled each challenge with humor and grace, whether it be an episode on going blind in space (which he later gave a TED talk on) or the day-to-day routine of living in zero gravity.

Much of the book is about problem solving and Hadfield presents his strategies in clear, practical ways. His ability to make multiple contingency plans and get around roadblocks reminded me of Hannibal Smith, the leader on the TV series "The A-Team" who would famously say, "I love it when a plan comes together."

While on board the space station, Hadfield made several YouTube videos that later went viral, including a cover of David Bowie's song "Space Oddity." Among those videos were Q & A sessions he did with Canadian schoolchildren explaining how some basic tasks on Earth are a bit different in the zero-gravity of space, like wringing a wash cloth. Hadfield briefly touches on this in the book, but I loved hearing his enthusiasm for explaining space, especially in a post-Space Shuttle era.

One of the biggest strengths of the memoir is Hadfield's narration of the audiobook. There's an authenticity to it that wouldn't be achieved by a third-party narrator. He makes the complicated world of space flight accessible to readers without talking down to them or overloading it with jargon. There are lots of humorous moments in the book and its pace is excellent, making it an audiobook suitable for any listening style (I listened to it on my work commute).

Rating: 4/5 stars. A great audiobook perfect for those curious about astronaut life with a dash of humor to go along with it.

The book is available in most countries in hardcover, ebook or audio. A paperback edition will finally be published Stateside on April 14 via Back Bay Books.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Book Review: Lost Boys Symphony

The Lost Boys Symphony (2015)
Written by Mark Andrew Ferguson
352 pages
Publisher: Little, Brown

Disclosure: I received a free advance digital review copy via NetGalley in exchange for a review. The book will be on store shelves March 24.

The scene is a classic. The man runs out to the middle of the bridge as snow is falling and screams "Help me Clarence! Get me back! I don't care what happens to me! Get me back to my wife and kids!"

The above scene from Frank Capra's Christmas classic It's a Wonderful Life has a distant cousin in Mark Andrew Ferguson's debut novel The Lost Boys Symphony. Henry is heartbroken after a breakup with his girlfriend Val when, while on the George Washington Bridge, two older versions of himself intervene and kidnap him. Naturally, his friend Gabe becomes increasingly concerned and contacts Val in efforts to find Henry.

I didn't care for the book as much as I thought I would, but that's not to say it was poorly written. Ferguson melds several genres together and at first, the plot strands don't quite gel. But as the novel progresses, the blend works really well. Ferguson uses sound descriptions throughout the book (after all, the title does refer to a symphony, the cover art features a guitar neck and headstock and Henry is a musician). After awhile, I began to wonder what this book would sound like if it were like a radio play with all the musical sounds and interludes.

However, I thought the novel was mostly dour and sometimes, downright bleak. Multiple characters look at the past, present and future with the proverbial glass half-empty outlook. This doesn't mean every character has to be happy-go-lucky, but the brief hints of humor were welcome relief from the overall dour tones, especially when characters lament not being able to adjust life events. Some of the drug and sexual humor was also not the right fit for me personally, though I know most wouldn't object to it.

Rating: 2/5 stars. This isn't a bad book per se and it's use of music to help tell the story is commendable, but it just wasn't a good match for me.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Audiobook Review: Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015)
Written by Erik Larson
Narrated by Scott Brick
Run Time: 13 hours, 4 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Crown

Like two bullet trains on a collision course, the Lusitania sinking at the hands of the German U-boat U-20 is a gripping story.

While reading Erik Larson's excellent history of the Lusitania's sinking, Dead Wake, I often had a sense of dread. Like a retelling of other historical attacks such as Pearl Harbor, I read Larson's thriller of a book hoping something or someone would intervene, but knowing full-well that no intervention would come.

Larson is one of the best at writing narrative history and his eye for detail is ever-present in Dead Wake. Not only does Larson give full backgrounds of Lusitania captain William Turner and U-20 captain Walther Schwieger, but also many of the Lusitania's passengers. He explains the diplomatic tensions at the time and even delves into President Woodrow Wilson's search for companionship, which was happening simultaneously with Lusitania's voyage.

Larson's book is written on a big scale, stretching from the walls of the White House to inside the British Admiralty. And yet, it isn't overwhelming. One of my favorite aspects of the book was the descriptions of how passengers passed time while onboard, including poetry readings. Man, how times have changed.

Brick's narration provided a sure hand through the story, accentuating moments of tension without going over the top or sounding melodramatic. There are even sections in Brick's narration that manage to be very humorous, a respite from the white-knuckle tale. And when the attack comes, it is handled with grace by both Larson and Brick.

Rating: 5/5 stars. This was one of the most eagerly anticipated nonfiction books of the year and it didn't disappoint.

Below, Larson reads the prologue from Dead Wake during a Q and A with the Wall Street Journal. It sets up the story to unfold well and gives an idea of what is to come in the later pages.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Film Friday: Shoeless Joe and Field of Dreams

Shoeless Joe (1982/1991)
Written by W.P. Kinsella
Narrated by Grover Gardner
Run Time: 7 hours and 46 minutes
Publisher: Blackstone Audio/Houghton Mifflin

Growing up, my dad shared his love of sports with my sister and I. The two sports he loved most were baseball and football. My sister played softball for years, often playing first base or pitcher while I operated the scoreboard or was the bat boy for some of her league games. I played T-ball at a young age, but I was terrible at it.

Years later, Dad and I would take occasional sabbaticals from California to Arizona, where I was born and where he grew up, to watch spring training baseball. By March, the desert heat would make the ballpark feel like it was summer, with some stadiums having open-air barbecues and sunbathers soaking up the UV rays on towels beyond the outfield fences. Hope is renewed for a successful season for each club, even for the legions of Cubs fans who make the annual pilgrimage to Mesa for spring training, despite their team not having won a World Series title in more than 100 years.

It is with this frame of reference that I recently read the classic book Shoeless Joe, or as its film version is known, Field of Dreams. The book, published in 1982 and made into an audiobook in 1991, is a wonderfully told story of an Iowa farmer named Ray Kinsella who hears the now-famous voice in his corn field "If you build it, he will come." As he builds a baseball field, Shoeless Joe Jackson, the famous Chicago White Sox outfielder indicted as part of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, appears. Eventually, Ray sets off on an adventure to meet author J.D. Salinger and little-known player Archibald "Moonlight" Graham. But as he is away, the farm is in danger of being snatched from Ray by his brother-in-law and business partner who don't see the value of the baseball diamond.

The book is solidly enjoyable as it focuses on the passing of bygone eras. It celebrates everything old-fashioned, from day games at ballparks to carnivals and older farming techniques. Some of these pay off while others didn't quite work for me. There's a whole subplot that involves Ray's brother and a traveling carnival that I didn't care about as much as I should have. The novel runs at such a quick pace, though, that it didn't detract from the main story. Amusingly, the book made me like J.D. Salinger, even though I really didn't like The Catcher in the Rye when I read it in high school. Gardner gives a great performance as the audiobook's narrator, providing just the right tone to fit each character, especially Salinger.

Grade: 4/5 stars. Despite an ending that felt a little too all-over-the-place, the book is a love letter to baseball and nostalgia.

Field of Dreams (1989)
Written for the screen and directed by Phil Alden Robinson
Rated PG for some language and mild thematic elements
Run Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures

In the interest of full disclosure, this is my favorite baseball movie, but I think that's in part because of how heavily it focused on the father-son relationship. In the book, the relationship between Ray and his father was a key part in the story, but the movie strips down the narrative to have the relationship be center stage. For example, there's a subplot unique to the movie about censoring questionable books that ties back into the relationship, since author Terrence Mann is blamed for the split. (Due to fears of litigation from Salinger, the character of Mann was created).

Two of my favorite scenes in the movie and book are almost verbatim from each other. The first is Ray's first meeting with Moonlight Graham in the ex-player's Minnesota office. Played by screen icon Burt Lancaster, Graham is resigned to hoping for another shot at the majors after realizing that "we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening."

The second is the famous speech given by James Earl Jones' Mann about how "the one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball."

But what commentary on the movie would be complete without the scene that makes grown men cry? In the movie's final scene, the father-son relationship is healed, despite the father wearing a Yankees jersey. (In the book, he only played in the minor leagues and hated the Yanks).

Grade: 5/5 stars. While others may like Bull Durham or The Natural from the many 80's-era baseball movies, I'll gladly take Field of Dreams over them any day. The book's themes of faith in what you hold dear stand out and it's father-son subplot became the central plot in the movie.

Field of Dreams was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. Robinson went on to write and direct the 1992 hacker film Sneakers, as well as direct an episode of the lauded miniseries Band of Brothers and the action film The Sum of All Fears. James Horner conducted the music, one I play frequently, and went on to conduct the music for the likes of The Rocketeer, Apollo 13, Braveheart and Titanic, the latter of which won him an Oscar.

The field and farm where they shot the movie still stands and has been visited by more than a million visitors since the film's release. The field is near the town of Dyersville, Iowa and is routinely named as one of the top places to visit for baseball fans.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Book Review: A Man of Good Hope

A Man of Good Hope (2015)
Written by Jonny Steinberg
294 pages
U.S. Publisher: Knopf

If war is an earthquake, then A Man of Good Hope is about the many aftershocks that resulted in one man's life from the civil war in Somalia that erupted in the early 1990s.

The book chronicles the life of Asad Abdullahi, a man born in Somalia who became one of millions displaced by the conflict. He had one of the most hellish childhoods I've ever seen or read and traveled through a half-dozen African countries in search of a permanent place to call home, only to find adversity at every turn.

This story is not for the faint of heart. There were multiple times where I had to read it piece meal because of the level of tragedy in it. Having said that, it is a terrific book that sheds light on so many contemporary global issues. There's a lot to be said in the book about migration, war, immigration, xenophobia, family, survival of culture and values and how to face adversity. From Somalia to Ethiopia to South Africa, Abdullahi constantly had to fend for himself in counties where he was not welcome by some of the residents. Beside the initial terror in Somalia, the worst events came in the supposed safe haven of South Africa, where a string of tragedies in 2008 killed Abdullahi's family or co-workers or drove relatives out of the country. I was glad for him in the end, but the road to that ending is paved with heartbreak, violence and a steely resolve for a better tomorrow.

The book's aforementioned themes made me think long and hard about geopolitical issues akin to ones in the book. For example, Americans tend to think of immigration exclusively in regards to people migrating through the border with Mexico. But migration and immigration happens all over the world. And as people migrate to different countries, native residents resent the newcomers for loss of job opportunities and the like. And yet, people migrate every day in search of a better life.

In a strange way, the sheer amount of trials Abdullahi had to persevere through reminded me of some of Louis Zamperini's experiences in Laura Hillenbrand's mega-bestseller Unbroken. Steinberg, a lecturer of African studies at Oxford, interviewed Abdullahi dozens of times in his car, an unusual place for an interview. As the book progresses, Steinberg will point out geopolitical forces at work and if Abdullahi has a fuzzy recollection of events, Steinberg indicates it. As such, Abdullahi is not made out to be a perfect saint, but he is still a person I rooted for to get his happy ending, wherever it would be.

This is, simply, a stellar book. Highly, highly recommended. Grade: 5/5 stars.

The book is currently available in hardcover and ebook formats.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant (2015)
Written by Kazuo Ishiguro
Narrated by David Horovitch
Run Time: 11 hours and 48 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Knopf

I had never read an Ishiguro book prior to his newest tale, one set in a Britain of mottled greens and greys as well as giants, ogres, dragons and other fantasy folk. Would it match up to the hype? Sort of.

The book follows an elderly couple named Beatrice and Axl who seek to reunite with their long-lost son. Along the way, they meet Arthurian knight Sir Gawain, a boatman and an assortment of other characters. They want to end a supernatural mist that causes the area's inhabitants to forget their past.

The book weaves in allegory akin to The Chronicles of Narnia, the quest from Beowulf and a malevolent dragon from the likes of The Hobbit. Some of the allegorical motifs really worked. The novels themes of memory, both collective and personal, were intriguing, especially when transposed with our digital era of instant gratification and forgetting history. Other issues like ethnic conflict also factor into the narrative. While the titular giant is mentioned briefly at about a quarter or so in, I thought the title was reflective of uncovering memory.

The narrator's prose, when read by Horovitch, reminded me of what I imagined the professor in Narnia or a conversation between Gandalf and Bilbo sounding like. The sound is of a scholarly English gentleman and it really shows, particularly in conversations between Axl and Sir Gawain. At first, the novel had a great start, but then it started to really slow for me as the story shifted away from Beatrice and Axl. I just didn't find the other characters to be as likable. There were lengthy conversations that seemed to be circular and repetitive and there were several times when I felt like I had a case of audio deja vu. During these moments, I often wondered what the other characters were doing and had to really focus to get back into the story. It picked up again in the end, but that was mostly due to a shift of focus back to Axl and Beatrice.

There has been heated debate online as to whether or not this novel is a fantasy book. I would classify it as part of the genre in part because it has characters that would be at home in a fantasy novel and an archetypal quest. Having said that, if you're expecting grand battles a la The Lord of the Rings or similar books in the genre, this book is not that kind of page-turner.

Grade: 3/5 stars. Fantasy books like Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were books that established my love of reading. In some aspects, Ishiguro did them proud, namely the use of allegory, conversation style and setting. However, the middle portion of the book heavily sagged for me. While the audio narration by Horovitch is very good, I would urge readers to read the print or ebook editions, since it is a book that works best with complete undivided attention.

For a primer on the book from Ishiguro himself, click here.

Unsurprisingly, Hollywood power producer Scott Rudin, who has a long track record of purchasing the rights to books, purchased the film rights a day after the book's publication. However, I genuinely don't see this book lending itself to film well.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Film Friday: Five Came Back

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014)
Written by Mark Harris
Narrated by Andrew Garman
Publisher: Recorded Books/Penguin
Run Time: 20 hours 1 minute

Amid the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age, the war that spanned the globe called five men to act.

Five Came Back is a very thorough, completely engrossing and stellar history of five Hollywood directors who were compelled to get involved in World War II, even as America was slow to follow. The Hollywood of the late 1930s and early 40s was one of powerful studio titans with vice grips on actors and actresses, a government-mandated production code that creatives hated and an industry that some in Washington feared had too much of an ability to influence.

As Nazi Germany continued to invade countries in central and western Europe, Hollywood was getting concerned about what was almost exclusively referred to as "the war in Europe." Some directors sought to make movies about the war, but isolationism in America dictated the box office. Few studio bosses wanted to be seen as war mongers. While not referenced directly in Harris' book, I suspect that these directors and screenwriters that wanted to spotlight "the war in Europe" thought and acted like Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca when he says, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America."

And then, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed most everyone and everything. Few isolationists retained their pre-December 7th views and America was at war.

Directors John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra all joined the military and offered their expertise in making movies in service to the war effort. Each director and their contributions to the war effort, at a time when countries waged "total wars," are remarkably researched and delineated from each other by Harris. For example, Ford was the gung-ho type who served in the Navy and directed this film on the Battle of Midway:

The directors went to both the Pacific and European theaters of war, all while chronicling both the experiences of soldiers as well as their own ordeals. Capra opted to make a series of informational videos, known as the Why We Fight series:

Heading into the book, I was most familiar with Ford and Capra's work, thanks to Stagecoach and It's a Wonderful Life, my favorite Christmas movie. Wyler, however, turned out to be my favorite of the five that Harris follows in his book. The director, an immigrant from the often fought over Alsace-Lorraine region of France that borders Germany, wanted to make a difference for both his adopted and native lands. Wyler, like many of the men who returned from World War II, suffered physical and mental anguish as a result of his time in Europe. Arguably, he had the greatest tragedies and triumphs in the book.

Other cultural and historic icons make their way into Harris' pages, including a humorous portion involving Theodore Geisel, the man who would later be better-known as Dr. Seuss. Also, Harris documents the five directors' time before and after the war so well, including Capra's making of It's a Wonderful Life and its subsequent flop at the box office, that they were part of the natural ebb and flow of the story. I was as invested in these sections as I was the descriptions of the filming in combat.

The book is one of the best nonfiction titles I've read. While a knowledge of early cinema is helpful, it isn't required to enjoy the book and as a result, caters to a wider audience than some would think. Earlier this week, the book was named as a finalist in the history category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes of 2014.

I had initially opted to hold out for the paperback version, but after hearing rave reviews from family and the online film community, I snagged the audiobook. Garman does an admirable job of showcasing the material and helping give each person a distinct narrative.

I cannot recommend this book enough. 5/5 stars.

Five Came Back is available in hardcover, ebook, audio and a just-released paperback edition.