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.