Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wish List Wednesday: February

A new feature that I'm rolling out today is Wish List Wednesday, when I preview five new books coming out the following month. Each month, I'll be pulling out a few fiction and nonfiction selections that are either generating a lot of buzz in the literary world or are on my personal to-be-read list. Perhaps you'll see something you want to add to your wish list.

Why does February have to be so cold? Once Valentine's Day passes, the month is just plain freezing and not much to do. So here are five books you might want to curl up on the couch with while enjoying a hot beverage.

1) The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
(Feb. 3, St. Martin's)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
Arguably the book of the month, this tale of sisters in World War II-era France has been making waves since the first reviews trickled in last fall. Topping out at nearly 450 pages, the book has romance, suspense and intrigue as one sister is forced to house a Nazi in her home while the other rushes headlong into the French Resistance. Hannah can expect to add another bestselling book to her list of accolades with this one and I anticipate that this will show up on many best books of the year lists.

2) The Glittering World by Robert Levy
(Feb. 10, Gallery)
Available via hardcover and ebook
When I first read the description of this book, I immediately thought back to Neil Gaiman's 2013 book The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and apparently, I'm not alone. The publisher has it listed as a comparable title to this debut thriller of a New York chef who returns to his Canadian home and realizes that home contains dark truths wrapped in long-forgotten memories. Themes of alienation, family secrets and the supernatural await readers. No word yet on an audiobook version.

3) My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
(Feb. 10, Putnam/Amy Einhorn)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
My Audible pick of the month, this book takes place deep in the heart of Louisiana, home to crawfish and LSU Tigers fans craving a national title in college football. In the summer of 1989, however, an unspeakable crime shatters the childhood of a 15-year-old girl. Growing up, memory and its power and the ability to forgive what many consider an unforgivable act play a big role in this book.

4) A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
(Feb. 24, Tor)
Available via hardcover and ebook
From the writer of the acclaimed Vicious, which put a spin on the superhero genre, comes the start of a new series aimed at fantasy. The story involves dual Londons, a courier that can travel between these parallel cities, magic, royalty and a pirate thief. Like The Nightingale, this book has also been generating a ton of excitement among online readers and it looks like it'll be a fun romp with a sequel reportedly planned for publication next year. The book is also my Kindle/hardcover pick of the month.

5) Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland
(Feb. 24, Flatiron)
Available via hardcover, ebook and audio
Last year, I received a sampler from Macmillan's newest imprint Flatiron Books. Their 2015 slate heats up this month with A Kim Jong-Il Production and Irritable Hearts. McClelland's memoir suffered PTSD in 2010 during a trip to report on the Haitian earthquake. In the extended preview I had, she wrote thoroughly and openly about her struggle with the disorder and traced its history. It will likely be difficult for some readers to read because of how raw it can be at times, but if the preview was that good, I'm curious to see the finished product.

While it didn't quite make the list, it should be noted that short story writer Laura van den Berg makes the jump to novels with her highly anticipated Find Me (Feb. 17, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which tells the story of a girl immune to a pandemic disease who tries to find her mother.

Is there a book you're looking forward to this month?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Nonfiction Audiobook Medley

As the month of January is drawing to a close, I've been racing through nearly a half-dozen audiobooks. Here are three pleasant nonfiction selections that I've finished that span the memoir, travel and history genres.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (2014)
Written by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden
Narrated by Elwes and most of the film's cast
Run Time: 7 hours
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio/Touchstone

For many summers growing up, I would often go to Christian camps in the mountains north of Los Angeles. Like clockwork, they would show a movie on select nights. The film would always be, without fail, The Princess Bride. It got to the point where I was burned out on the movie, but luckily, as time has passed, my liking toward the movie has returned. It is indeed a classic, as Cary Elwes points out in his book on multiple occasions.

What made the audiobook so enjoyable isn't necessarily what was written, but rather that Elwes managed to get most of the cast back together. So when the parts involving Billy Crystal's Miracle Max character pop up, it's Crystal talking about it from his perspective. Ditto with Robin Wright's Buttercup and Wallace Shawn and director Rob Reiner. In that sense, it almost takes on the persona of a radio play. Elwes' writing has a few of my pet peeves in it, such as teasing the reader with "more on that later," but again, the audio experience and the genuine affection the cast conveys toward the film and each other make up for any flaws. Have fun storming the castle with this one. Grade: 4/5 stars (Also available in ebook and hardcover formats).

The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change (2014)
Written by Adam Braun
Narrated by Kirby Heybourne
Run Time: 7 hours, 32 minutes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio/Scribner

We often hear about the plight of people in developing regions of the world, but seldom do people actually do something about it. Braun, to his credit, did something and launched Pencils of Promise, a charity dedicated to building schools in impoverished regions of the world. He takes readers from New York to Laos to Central America to Ghana and back again as he grows his charity. A hybrid of memoir, travel and business writing, the book tries to cater to multiple audiences.

I had a couple of issues with the book. First, the subtitle usage of 'Ordinary Person' is a huge stretch considering Braun previously worked at Bain and Company as a business consultant before starting PoP and was Ivy League-educated at Brown. He may have started very small, but he used the business management skills he learned from Bain to rapidly grow his charity to where it is now. Second, the book has multiple sections that can come across to some readers as self-congratulatory. Overall, I liked the book, but can't give it the full-throated, enthusiastic approval I hope to give every book I pick up. Grade: 3/5 (Also available in ebook and hardcover formats; paperback edition debuts next week.)

Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition and Survival (2014)
Written by Peter Stark
Narrated by Michael Kramer
Run Time: 10 hours, 55 minutes
Publisher: Harper Audio/Ecco

When the originators of the expression "Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" coined that phrase, you'd think the tale of Astoria was in their minds. The story of the journey to establish a colony at the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1800s, Astoria has the makings of a tour-de-force read. Bickering settlers, nationalistic rivalries, deadly winters and a wealthy backer bent on seizing the world's fur trade should make for a compelling story, considering it was known by most Americans in the mid-1800s via writer Washington Irving.

However, for every harrowing description of the overland and sea journeys and character studies of the various men and women involved, the writing pounds into your skull repeated phrases like "John Jacob Astor's West Coast empire" that dulls the rest of the story. As a result, the book gets monotonous fast. It should also be noted that contrary to the subtitle, Jefferson's involvement was more of a blessing of the enterprise rather than any hands-on action. It's not a bad book, but it makes you wonder what could have been were it not for the incessantly repeated phrases that make it seem as though the author didn't trust his audience to be able to follow along. Grade: 3/5 stars (Also available in ebook and hardcover formats; paperback edition debuts Feb. 10.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

Film Friday: Oscar Noms and Snubs

Since I was very young, our family would always watch the Oscars. Los Angeles is the movie town, with thousands of people working at the film studios, production companies and costumers, not to mention the hundreds of restaurants and other businesses that cater to the various film productions shooting in and around town. My hometown is on the outskirts of L.A., but it is a bastion for film and television production, providing a big boost to the economy. Seldom does someone not say that they have some involvement with "the industry." All that being said, there is something special about living in L.A. on Oscar night, since the town practically shuts down for the Academy Awards. Couple that with the fact that I and several family members are big film fans or work for the studios and it's easy to see why the Oscars are the awards show most significant to us.

The nominees for Best Picture are...
American Sniper
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

As of this writing, I've seen four of the nominees and hope to see three more. Selma was fantastic with a great performance by David Oyelowo and was the first film I saw this year that I walked out of the theater thinking "That is a sure-fire Oscar best picture." Birdman was good, but I didn't love it as much as the critics did. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything both were pretty good and I favored Theory a touch more, but I'm hesitant to say they were the definitive Best Picture.

As good as those films may be, it isn't Oscar season without snubs. When Ben Affleck was left out of the Best Director race for Argo in 2012, I thought that would be the last time in a long while that there would be a snub of that epic of proportions. Boy, was I wrong. The omission of The Lego Movie is nothing short of highway robbery. That film has been ranked No. 1 on my rankings for most of the year, was named the presumptive winner by many Oscar handicappers and has a ridiculously high score on Rotten Tomatoes. I went into the movie with little expectation and was beyond pleasantly surprised after viewing it. The film has a lot of heart and can be enjoyed by the widest possible audience while still being smart. It doesn't stoop down to children and entertains adults as well. Were the other animation contenders like Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2 good? Absolutely, but they would have been no match for Lego, whose sole nomination was for the song "Everything is Awesome."

Other notable snubs include Gone Girl and Nightcrawler for Best Picture, Ava DuVernay (director) and Oyelowo (actor) for Selma (both pictured at right). Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo (acting), David Fincher (director) and Gillian Flynn (adapted screenplay) also got snubbed for Nightcrawler and Gone Girl, respectively. Having said that, some of the categories like actor and director were stacked full of viable nominees, so I'm less disappointed over these than the glaringly obvious omission of Lego.

For a full list of the nominees, click here. I'll be revealing my picks before Oscar night Feb. 22.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Penguin Train Brings Finest News

• There was a major shakeup at Penguin's adult imprints Tuesday, which feature some of my favorites like Viking and Riverhead. Nearly every Penguin imprint was affected, from the aforementioned divisions to Dutton and Putnam, all of which make regular appearances on the bestseller lists. Even smaller ones like Avery, which focuses on health-related books, were impacted. There were three key headliner changes, but arguably the one most visible to the average reader is the late-summer closure of Gotham Books and Hudson Street Press.

Any change at the behemoth known as Penguin Random House impacts bookstores by virtue of that company being the biggest publisher by far with dozens of divisions, or imprints. The problem with having this many imprints is that eventually, there will be overlap and that's what led to the closure of Gotham and Hudson Street. For example, I've always found Viking to have a wide variety of titles. It manages to publish nonfiction history like The Boys in the Boat to fiction like Mo Yan's controversial Frog and throws in some critical thinking books from the likes of Sir Ken Robinson along the way. With that wide of range, there's bound to be some overlap with other Penguin imprints.

• On Friday, I wrote about three trends for 2015 films based on books. Naturally, dates and movies were shuffled after that post's publication. Instead of The Jungle Book coming Oct. 9, Disney has opted to delay that to April 2016 and bump up its adaptation of the Michael J. Tougias book The Finest Hours, the true story of the Coast Guard's rescue of two oil tankers during a 1952 Nor'easter storm. The film stars Chris Pine (Star Trek, Into the Woods), Casey Affleck (Interstellar, Oceans trilogy) and Eric Bana (Lone Survivor, Hulk). So essentially, they swapped one trend of public domain stories for another in survival stories. Frankly, I don't think it's a bad trade. I had already planned to cover The Finest Hours when it was set for release. When the book was published by Scribner in 2009, it received generally favorable reviews and it currently has a 3.91 on Goodreads.

• In other book film news, the adaptation of Paula Hawkins' debut novel The Girl on the Train is gaining more traction at DreamWorks. Erin Cressida Wilson is set to turn in a script soon. The story is about a train commuter with an unreliable memory becoming entangled in a murder investigation. Hawkins' novel is taking the literary world by storm and has been flagged as a major bestseller of 2015. This one, along with Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, which is set for publication next month, have been heavily hyped for months. Hawkins' novel was published this week by Riverhead. I'm about three hours into the audiobook and the novel is definitely dark and twisty while the comparisons to Hitchcock are accurate.

• Speaking of Hitchcock and trains, Gone Girl writer and screenwriter Gillian Flynn is re-teaming with star Ben Affleck and director David Fincher for a remake of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Strangers on a Train. No word yet on a release date.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus (2011)
Wriiten by Erin Morgenstern
Narrated by Jim Dale
Run Time: 13 hours, 40 minutes
Publisher: Random House Audio/Doubleday

The music started off with spooky, ethereal tones. I was nervous as to whether or not I'd like audiobooks after a first try two years ago that turned out less than stellar. I knew Jim Dale was supposed to be a legend within the audiobook community after doing the narration for the Harry Potter series, so I figured The Night Circus was a good place to start.

The book is the story of Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, two magicians of considerable skill pitted against each other in a high-stakes "challenge" that could result in death. Celia is the leading illusionist at Le Cirque De Reve, a late 1800's traveling circus that "opens at nightfall, closes at dawn." Marco helps run the circus, but has ulterior motives for his involvement. Eventually, the two start to be smitten with each other before conflict ensues.

The book's strength is in its descriptions of items, not its plot. Hearing Dale describe colors, foods and textures, among other items, was a delight. He is so good, I would pay to hear this man read nutrition label facts at a grocery store. He nails various English-language dialects, including what sounded like Irish and Scottish, with ease. The praise and accolades showered on Dale were validated by his performance here.

The world Morgenstern creates and Dale explains is stunning at first glance, but as the novel progresses, the luster starts to wear off and the characters become fairly predictable. When the two magicians try to find a way out of the challenge, I knew exactly how they would do it, in part because it had been strongly hinted at earlier in the book. By the time the book's main plot conflict was over, I was ready to pack up and go, but there was still 45 minutes left to tie up the story. At the end, there's a plot twist that sort of reminded me of Christopher Nolan's film The Prestige in terms of a shocking twist finale. It worked in Nolan's movie, but it did not work here.

Rating: 3.5 stars. The audiobook narration was a delight to listen to coming to and from work and the world of The Night Circus is intricately detailed. However, the book is hindered by a slow-moving plot, especially in the cumbersome third act. Having said that, it was a great starter audiobook and had me rush onto the next one. And the one after that. And the one after that. Then, I finally said screw it and got an Audible subscription.

The Harry Potter connection doesn't end with Dale. Potter film producer David Heyman will also produce a movie adaptation of this novel as well. Lionsgate/Summit, the film studio that has had huge success in novel adaptations of The Hunger Games, Divergent and Twilight, will handle and oversee this one too. No word on when we might see Marco and Celia grace the big screen, but as I read the book, I could imagine how beautiful it could look.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Film Friday: 3 Book-to-Film Trends for 2015

Every year, film publications, blogs and fans trot out a most anticipated movies of the year list. While I love reading those as much as the next guy or gal, this is the year those lists seem particularly ridiculous. We're getting a new Star Wars, an Avengers sequel, two Pixar movies and a Jurassic Park reboot? Game, set, match.

However, in the world of book-to-film adaptations, there seem to be three key trends this year.

1) Public domain titles are here again
Hollywood loves books and stories that are in the public domain because no one has to purchase film rights and they have a built-in audience. When studios are consistently making $100 million-plus tentpole event films, movies based off pre-existing stories that have already done well in front of an audience are seen as safer risks. This year, we have Cinderella (March 13), Pan (July 24), Victor Frankenstein (Oct. 2) and The Jungle Book (Oct. 9).

All four of these films have top-notch talent attached, but they also come with some baggage. Early word from both Cinderella and The Jungle Book indicates the previous Disney classics are being used as the film's respective templates, even down to songs and minor characters, rather than the original stories. Not much is known about Victor Frankenstein at this point, except that it stars Daniel Radcliffe and James McAvoy. Pan is essentially an origin story to The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, Peter Pan, and has great talent both in front of and behind the camera.

2) Young adult adaptations will still be big
Among the headliner films set to debut in 2015, Katniss Everdeen's adventures will come to a close in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 (Nov. 20). Other young adult titles next year include The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (Sept. 18), the second part of the Maze Runner trilogy and Paper Towns (June 5), a romantic adventure based on John Green's book. The latter film is being made by the same team that made Green's bestseller The Fault in Our Stars into a box-office smash. Of course, Shailene Woodley returns as Tris Prior in The Divergent Series: Insurgent (March 20).

Young adult novels can become pop culture phenomenons (Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Twilight) with big-budget blockbuster adaptations. Word-of-mouth among teens is unbeatable in creating buzz for a film, especially with the advent of social media. Consider that The Fault in Our Stars made about $125 million Stateside and $180 million overseas — all on a $12 million budget. It helps that author John Green has his Vlogbrothers YouTube channel, but teens are one of the strongest demographics in terms of social media engagement, reading and moviegoing at theaters.

3) Survival stories are back in style
In an era where two to three superhero movies are being churned out each year, survival stories are great ways to put ordinary people in extraordinary, and dare I say, super-heroic situations. Director Ron Howard, no stranger the genre, is back with an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick's 2000 National Book Award Winner In the Heart of the Sea (March 13), the story of the whale ship Essex and an encounter that would inspire Moby Dick. Later in the year, when Oscar campaigns traditionally start, Everest (Sept. 18), The Martian (Nov. 25) and The Revenant (Christmas) will be ready to hit theaters. Everest, based on Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air, tells the tale of the 1996 Mt. Everest expedition that went horribly awry. The Martian, about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet, and The Revenant, a Western tale of revenge are both based on fictional works, but have survival themes in them. The former is being directed by Ridley Scott while the latter is being helmed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who is earning raves for his work directing Birdman, a likely Best Picture candidate at this year's Academy Awards.

Admittedly, this group of four is the one I'm looking forward to the most. In the Heart of the Sea is my most-anticipated movie of the spring and the other three are high on my watch and read list. If my best books of 2014 list was any indication, I love stories of people overcoming challenges, whether it be true-life stories like Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat or fictional tales like The Rosie Project.

Other high-profile book-to-film adaptations this year include Fifty Shades of Grey (Feb. 14), The Longest Ride (April 10) and Me Before You (Aug. 21), as well as an untitled Whitey Bulger film based off the book Black Mass (Sept. 18). While they have not been given a release date yet, adaptations of The Light Between Oceans and A Walk in the Woods are expected to hit cinemas. A House in the Sky and Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk could also find their way into theaters in late 2015 as well, though those are both unconfirmed.

Is there a book adaptation you can't wait to see on the Silver Screen this year?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Best Books of 2014

2014 was a great year of reading and as thousands of reviewers put out their best-of lists, I realized I had read 30+ books this year. There was no way I'd put every single one in, so I chopped the list in half. True to my goal to split time between both fiction and nonfiction, the list is about as close to 50/50 as you can get with a top-15 list. Within these fifteen standouts, there's a wide range of genres from sci-fi and romance to memoirs and history.

While most of my reading in 2014 was backlist titles, there were a few new books sprinkled in and a couple of books that just barely made it in before the year closed. Without further a due, here are the top 15 books I read in 2014...

15) Travels with Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis - 3.5 stars. A great travelogue about dog care in America, both at its admirable best and heart-breaking worst.

14) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - 3.5 stars. A wonderfully descriptive book about magicians pitted against each other that helped spark my current audiobook craze, thanks to Jim Dale's terrific narration.

13) As You Wish by Cary Elwes - 4 stars. A memoir of the making of the classic film The Princess Bride, the audiobook features commentary spoken by most of the cast, which creates a much more engaging read.

12) The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak - 4 stars. I bought this for my niece and nephew for Christmas and breezed through it as I was trying to figure out that all-important question "Would they like it?" Novak's book challenges the assumption that children's books have to have pictures to be entertaining and encourages interaction between children and their parents.

11) Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo - 4 stars. Gut-wrenching tale of life in a Mumbai slum that served as a powerful reminder of how many in the world live in abject poverty and an unquenched desire to better their situation.

10) A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson - 4 stars. One of the funnier books I read in 2014, this one is considered a classic in the travel genre and it lived up to that reputation.

9) Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan - 4 stars. The quirkiest book I read and I mean that as a compliment. It's themes of digital information vs. old-fashioned printing are timely and make for a wonderful tale.

8) The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn - 4 stars. After watching the early 1990's film Tombstone, I read this definitive history of that famous shootout and it didn't disappoint.

7) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion - 4 stars. A genetics professor with autism seeks to find love in a story that says everyone wants to find their soulmate — even the socially peculiar ones.

6) Fantasy Life by Matthew Berry - 4 stars. The funniest book I read last year. There are fantasy sports team owners (me), fanatics, professionals and then there's the crazies in Fantasy Life.

5) Playing the Enemy by John Carlin - 4 stars. One of the most informative and impactful books I read in 2014. The story of South Africa's improbable 1995 World Cup victory that inspired the 2009 film Invictus isn't just a story of sports transcending the playing field — it's a story of a country healing.

4) The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon - 4 stars. I avoided this critically-lauded book for years because of fears it wouldn't portray autism and the struggles of those affected by it well. Shame on me for waiting so long.

3) Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - 4 stars. Simply put, the most fun I had reading last year. The story of Wade Watts' quest to solve the OASIS scavenger hunt is a fun ride chock full of 1980's references and heart.

2) The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown - 5 stars. A wonderful true story about the University of Washington rowing team and its journey to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brown tells the story with zeal and care and as the book progressed, the more I was cheering on the team. In any other year, this would have been No. 1.

1) Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand - 5 stars. After all the hype, I finally picked this book up in March and it became the pace-setter for the year. The life story of Louis Zamperini is meticulously told and delivered with powerful punch after punch. The ripples from this one are still being felt.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Book Reviews: The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect

Early last year, I heard about Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project and the numerous rave reviews it got when it first hit store shelves in 2013. Talk was at a fever pitch, the film rights were purchased and a second book was announced. Once the original was available on paperback, it jumped to the top of my to-be-read list. Here's my take on both Rosie books.

The Rosie Project (2013)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Edition: Paperback (295 pages)

For those of us on the autism spectrum, there are a lot of challenges in life. Some are nonverbal, while others have milder symptoms and have more difficulty in the social arena. In the case of Don Tillman, the book's protagonist, he has the latter issue. As a geneticist in Australia, Don is content with his rigid schedule and routine, except for that one thing that most others have - a companion. In an attempt to find the perfect wife, he creates a questionnaire and dubs it "The Wife Project." A colleague introduces him to Rosie, a woman who is the antithesis to Don, including smoking and drinking (two automatic disqualifications on his questionnaire). As he uses his genetics skills to help her track the father she never knew, an attraction begins to develop.

As expected, the autism community has been split over this book. While the book never explicitly states Don has Asperger's or autism, it is essentially assumed he has it. Some have criticized it for stereotyping autism, particularly Asperger's Syndrome or playing it for laughs. Others have said it doesn't show that people with autism have anguish over being able to connect with people. In some respects, these are valid criticisms. The book plays to comedy a tad much and the character's lack of frustration or anguish over being able to find his soulmate doesn't quite feel right. Autism is not a one-size-fits-all condition. I have friends who are higher and lower on the spectrum than where I'm at and we express behaviors in different ways. Don has some behaviors that are emblematic of some people I know on the spectrum, while others would be appalled by being compared to him.

There were situations Don gets himself into that reminded me of scenarios I've been in or others I know that are also on the spectrum. Some of those moments were very humorous, while others brought back painful memories because they were reminiscent to a bad social situation I've had or someone else has had. Both Don and Rosie are well-developed and I found myself rooting for them to get together in the end, despite the rom-com type of ending.

I blazed through this book in a few sittings and found it very enjoyable. Rating: 4 stars.

The Rosie Effect (2014)
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Edition: Kindle (304 pages)

Disclosure: I received an advanced review copy via S&S and NetGalley.

Whatever trepidation or concerns I had during the first book were validated during the second book. Conversely, whatever goodwill I had toward it was completely sapped too.

Rosie and Don are settled into an apartment in New York until they are surprised by news that Rosie is pregnant. Don then tries to juggle half a dozen items in his life, all while Rosie is pregnant and wants to be with her husband. Don's best friend Gene, who I didn't much care for in the original novel, unfortunately plays a role here too. His mind tends to be in the bedroom all the time and without the counterbalance of his open relationship partner Claudia, like in the original, I found him even more unlikable as the story went on.

I found Don getting himself into situations that should have never happened. The moment when I finally said "Enough" was when Don gets apprehended by police for watching and observing children at a playground as a way of understanding children. As someone with high-functioning autism, I know it is a priority to know what is and what is not legal. The idea of watching children in a way that would make people suspect we were pedophiles would never cross my mind, nor the minds of many of my fellow Aspies or others I know that have autism. As a reporter, I've covered autism seminars that help teach children the law. This scene in the book is supposed to be humorous, but it simply and utterly was not funny at all. It came across as demeaning.

The charming characters I liked in the first book were nowhere to be found. Don seemed to take a giant step backward in his development from the original, Gene was the same and Rosie wasn't around as much as I would have hoped. The plot seemed to try and force Don into crazy situations, whereas in the original, it is much less forced and felt like a more natural plot and flow.

In an attempt to give the book every possible chance, I set it down for a week, trying not to think about the possible ramifications that it would have on pop culture. Early on in my autism experience, everyone I met assumed autism equaled "Rain Man." I'm concerned a similar experience is ahead with the pending 'Rosie' film adaptation, but I wanted to give the book a chance to dig itself out of the proverbial hole. I resumed reading it a week later, only to be aggravated again by the plot contrivances and characterizations.

Unfortunately, I have to give this book a 1-star rating. The charm of the original was completely missing, the plot uneven with contrivances galore and scenarios that were uncomfortably demeaning to read. I appreciate the hard work of authors, editors and page designers to create these lovely books we as readers enjoy so much, so I feel terrible in giving 1-stars. But, on a subject as deeply personal as autism, it's hard to give material like this a seal of approval.

The Rosie Project is being made into a movie, thanks to Sony Pictures. According to industry blog Deadline, Phil Miller and Chris Lord (21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) are in talks to direct and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars, 500 Days of Summer) are drafting a script.

Have you read either of Simsion's books? Do you agree with its portrayal of autism and Asperger's?

Friday, January 2, 2015

Film Friday: Unbroken

Every so often, a book comes along that has sky-high expectations and it manages to surpass them. That was the case with Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 masterpiece, Unbroken. After my stepmom wouldn't stop raving about Edward Herrmann's performance on the audiobook version, I finally trudged down to Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena and bought it in hardcover, a rarity for me. I was afraid the book would be a letdown after all the hype and praise showered onto it. Thankfully, the book was thoroughly and utterly impressive.

I don't usually like to be overly effusive in reviews with platitudes like "mesmerizing" or "triumphant," but Unbroken got those raves from book critics around the world and then some and earned every single one. The story of Louie Zamperini's upbringing, harrowing survival through World War II including a plane crash and POW camp, plus his rocky return home are expertly detailed, with no stone left unturned and every last detail written with a strong sense of empathy. That's classic Hillenbrand and a style I've tried to emulate in my own writing, particularly in two feature series I was writing for the newspaper this past spring, coinciding with me reading her book.

When reading the book, there were many times when I would gasp at what was happening to Louie, scaring my roommate in the process, then laugh at a humorous paragraph the next page over. Hillenbrand perfectly captured Zamperini's ability to overcome the horrors he was experiencing and pursue life.

As I set out to write this review, I grabbed my copy of the book and perused through it again, the first time in nearly a year. My roommate walked by and said with some exasperation, "You're reading that again?" I answered, "I'm writing a review on it, but I'd absolutely reread this. You should try reading it some time."

The last two years, my yearly reading seemed to have one book act as the cannon that propelled reading through the year. In 2013, that book was Jurassic Park. In 2014, after a couple of misfires with other texts, it was Unbroken. Like a pace car leading the pack at the Indy 500, this was the book every other one in the year, fairly or unfairly, was trying to chase in terms of quality.

Grade: 5/5. Only the second book in 2014 to earn that rating, mostly because I try to be judicious in handing these out (some reviewers, particularly on Goodreads, hand them out like candy). The other is here.

One quick note: My condolences to the families of Louie Zamperini and Edward Herrmann. Zamperini was named the Grand Marshal of this year's Rose Parade, but passed away in July at the age of 97. His son Luke filled in at the parade. Louie was an avid University of Southern California Trojan alum and made frequent visits there in his later years. Herrmann passed away earlier this week at the age of 71. I didn't have the pleasure of listening to the audiobook version of Unbroken, but based on my stepmom's reaction to his narration and the many glowing reviews of it online, it will be a hallmark of his career, along with his other narrations and acting performances such as Gilmore Girls, for years to come.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics in February, NBC aired a teaser trailer for the film version of Unbroken narrated by former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw...

To say that I was excited for the movie would be an understatement. I figured that it'd be a long movie, since the book itself tops out at more than 400 pages (excluding notes). When the run time of 2 hours 17 minutes was announced, I admit, I was getting concerned. Critic ratings started pouring in on websites like Rotten Tomatoes and the early word wasn't good (it started at less than 50% on the Tomatometer and as of this writing, it's at 51%). My worries were starting to come true.

In terms of the film's craftsmanship, Unbroken is excellent, particularly the cinematography by Roger Deakins and musical score by Alexandre Desplat. The production design is sound and Jack O'Connell delivers a fine performance as Louie as does Miyavi as the villainous prison warden nicknamed "The Bird." Much has been made of Angelina Jolie directing and for the most part, I thought she did a capable job.

However, my main gripe with the film stems from one issue that manifests itself in two different ways. Louie's fellow prisoners are fully fleshed-out in the book, whereas in the movie, they are seldom discernible from one another. That's not to say they were poorly acted, but rather they just didn't have much to do or say to distinguish themselves as more than fellow POW's. I was willing to forgive this though because of the film's run time. Some things were going to get trimmed from the word go.

But some of the most powerful moments in the book were trimmed as well, namely Louie's return home and some of his Berlin Olympics hijinks. When Louie returned home from the war, life was not as rosy as the film's final shot made it appear (I sat there in the theater muttering to myself "Don't end it here, don't end it here," only to groan when the credits rolled). Louie hit rock bottom and his wife nearly left him, but managed to convince him to go to a Billy Graham revival that would change his life in more ways than one. This is partly what lead him to want to forgive his captors, which is hinted at briefly in the closing seconds of the movie, but could have been greatly expounded on.

Louie's son Luke wrote an online column explaining the film's ending and giving it his approval, particularly that the film wasn't "forcing (Louie's Christian faith) down people's throats," to quote Louie's autobiography Devil at My Heels. However, I respectfully contend that there had to be a happier medium between full-blown dogma and what was on the final cut. It's quite the jump to go from him returning home, then a title card explaining that he forgave his captors.

Grade: B-. It's not a bad movie per se, but as seems to be the case with most adaptations, my first recommendation is the book.

Have you seen or read Unbroken? What did you think?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Resolutions, Audiobooks and Recent Movies

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you've had a fantastic holiday season and have a great 2015 ahead!

When people discuss New Year's resolutions, it's often times things like "lose weight" or "have a better diet." But what about us bookworms? Here are three of mine...

1) Read diverse authors
I started listening to several podcasts this year like Book Riot and Books on the Nightstand and was not privy to the ongoing concerns in the publishing industry about a lack of diversity among authors. BookExpo America, the New York trade show that aspires to be the book equivalent to Comic Con, suffered high-profile public relations gaffe this summer when it had multiple panels that didn't have female or minority authors. While a book's subject matter will still be the proverbial compass I use to determine which book I want to read next, it cannot hurt to consider more diverse voices. In an attempt to put my money where my mouth is, I've recently acquired bestseller Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and both Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans and Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone are on the wish list.

2) Aim for 52, hope for more
Goodreads started up their annual yearly reading challenge again today and I put in 52 books, with the hope of topping that number even more. How does one help get to that number? Well...

3) Listen to more audiobooks
For a while, I didn't care for audiobooks. I had canceled my Audible account after having several bad experiences listening to books, most notably Catching Fire, the second novel of The Hunger Games series. After realizing that I was spending my 90-minute roundtrip commute listening to a local sports radio station talk 24/7 about the Lakers, who I don't care for, I wanted to be more productive with that time. I started with Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, then went to Cary Elwes' As You Wish and Michael Koryta's Those Who Wish Me Dead, which I'm almost halfway through. I initially thought I'd take inventory after Koryta's novel, but by the time I was done with Night Circus, I knew I was hooked. Guess I should fire up that Audible account again.

During the holiday hiatus, I saw several movies, most of which were okay at best.

1) Theory of Everything - Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones give fantastic performances and David Thewlis of Harry Potter fame is a nice addition. The movie's classical soundtrack is excellent and the direction was exemplary. The movie is in my top ten of the year, but it didn't strike me as the definitive Best Picture of the year. Grade: B+

2) Interstellar - This year's "great idea, so-so execution" movie. Two of director Christopher Nolan's past movies are two absolute favorites of mine and I eagerly awaited this one all year. Having said that, I mostly enjoyed what the film tried to do, despite a plot that seemed to bend and twist over itself to the point of confusing audiences. There were moments when I was taken out of the storyline because I was trying to digest the science of the previous scene. Having said that, after the movie, I drove over to my local Barnes & Noble and perused Kip Thorne's book The Science of Interstellar. If other filmgoers managed to have their imaginations sparked and pursue the stars, then Nolan can consider it mission accomplished. Grade: B-

3) The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - I didn't care for the first two parts of The Hobbit, so I went in with minimal expectations. I love the book, but I didn't like the splitting of the story into three films. The resolution of the Smaug storyline could have easily been handled in the second movie (it's finished before the title card, so get to the theater on time). There are now major continuity problems with The Fellowship of the Ring, especially in how Gandalf knows about the One Ring and Sauron. The latter part of the movie I enjoyed, mostly because the damage had already been done. The Hobbit is to Lord of the Rings what the Star Wars prequels are to the original triogy, both in terms of timeline and quality. Grade: B-

4) Exodus: Gods and Kings - After hearing negative reviews online, I went into Ridley Scott's Biblical epic with greatly reduced expectations. Even then, this movie didn't deliver the goods. Dozens of changes from the original text didn't serve the story and seemed to be made for the sake of a change, rather than serving the story. The visuals were good, but with the likes of The Hobbit playing in the same multiplex, there wasn't anything special about Exodus. Grade: C- (the visual work saves it from the F).

Do you have any book-related New Years resolutions this year? Seen any stellar films this year?