Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Review: Cujo

cujo.jpgRecap: It’s been five years since a serial killer was on the loose in a small town in Maine, but that doesn’t mean the serial killings are over.  When a massive St. Bernard chases a small animal and becomes rabid, no one is safe. The problem is no one knows the pain he’s feeling. No one know he’s sick. So his owner, Joe, lets him roam around the property. Joe’s son and wife, Brett and Charity, leave town to visit her sister. By the time Donna and her four-year-old son, Tad, go to Joe’s house to have her car repaired, Cujo has already killed several people including Joe.

Donna notices he’s rabid right away; by this point, he’s become more sick and his red eyes and foaming mouth prove as much to her.  She has no choice but to stay in her car with her son but the car is in such disrepair, it won’t start. The July heat doesn’t allow them the fresh air they need, and they have no access to food or water other than what they’ve packed. Because it’s 1980, Donna has no cell phone and no way to get help.

As she waits for a postman to come, for the police to come, anything, her husband Vic is away on business, trying to save his company and contemplating how to save his marriage after he learns Donna had cheated on him. Ultimately, no matter how much he wants to, Vic can’t quit Donna and when his calls go unanswered, he calls for help only to find the devastation Cujo has left behind.

Analysis: For my first Stephen King novel (I know, I know, it’s crazy), this was phenomenal. I was more than pleasantly surprised by the character depth and development he offered throughout the novel. It’s much more than just a “horror novel,” which is what I was expecting. Cujo is a monster, but he’s a completely plausible monster and King interestingly takes us inside the rabid dog’s mind as well as Donna’s heat delirious mind, and Vic’s marriage obsessed head as well as many others.

This level of character depth and plot thickening allows for a slow build until Donna and Cujo are left no choice but to face off. For days as I read the last pages of the book, I found myself repeatedly muttering “Please don’t let Donna die.” King made me care. It’s the stuff real horror novels are made of.

MVP: Vic. While Donna’s a badass, it takes her a while to get there. Vic instinctively and instantly knows something is wrong and uses his intelligence and logic to break open what’s going on and attempt to make a rescue.

Get Cujo in paper for $14.56.

Or get it on your Kindle for $10.99.

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Review: Emma

IMG_3381Recap: In this classic British romance novel, Emma is one of the most popular and well-liked bachelorettes in her community, but no matter how hard she tries, she is completely oblivious to the true wants and needs of the people around her. If you’ve seen the movie Clueless, it may or may not surprise you to know it’s loosely based on this Jane Austen novel from 1815. Emma is the “Cher” character — or rather, “Cher” is the Emma character — focused so much on matchmaking her friends that she misreads signals for her own opportunities at love — or misses them altogether. In the first half of the novel, she is intent on fixing up her new and lower class friend Harriet (“Tai” in Clueless if you’re still following along with the comparison) with her friend Mr. Elton. But every signal that she believes proves Mr. Elton likes Harriet is a sign he actually loves Emma. The result? Both Mr. Elton and Harriet are crushed.

This ripple effect continues throughout the novel as she encourages Harriet to refuse a proposal from a lower-class man, finds herself with feelings for a man who’s secretly already engaged to another woman in town and then tries to set Harriet up with a man who she ultimately realizes she, herself, actually has feelings for.

The gist: Emma is a hot mess. Movie producer Amy Heckerling had it right; she really is clueless. But it’s hard not to root for her anyhow. She is not the greatest friend, but she does try, and as a 21-year-old, can we really blame her for misreading signals from men? Weren’t we all doing that at that age?

Analysis: The truth is I bought this book at a used book sale years ago and never read it because it’s roughly 450 pages and 200-year-old British literature. Very intimidating. But once I started it, I found that it was incredibly easy to follow — much easier than some other classic literature I’ve read. Essentially, it’s a teenage rom com set in 1800’s Britain! It’s quite funny. I particularly enjoyed the Miss Bates character who can’t seem to stop talking. We all have someone like that in our lives.

Aside from the obvious romantic themes and tropes (falling for the one who’s been there all along, etc. etc.), Emma also speaks to much larger themes that still resonate today, including social and economic status as well as gender roles. I never realized how much of Clueless thereby also deals with these themes; it clearly does, but obviously not to the level and depth of Austen’s literature. Emma herself is a strong feminist, refusing to marry for most of the novel. It is more important for her to care for her ill father than to find a man to support her. She also makes her matchmaking decisions based on status, swaying Harriet away from the “poor man” and toward the more upstanding “rich man.” (This can be interpreted negatively in that she is focusing on who can better provide for her friend or positively, in that she doesn’t care for the class system at all and sees no problem in her friend dating outside her class.)

It’s an interesting look at much how much and how little has changed in the 200+ years since Emma was first published.

MVP: Mr. Knightley. As yet another love interest in this complex romance novel and brother of Emma’s brother-in-law, he is the only one who — though bitter and defiant at times — is frank and says what he means. When it comes to Mr. Knightley, there are rarely ulterior motives. He knows what he wants from the beginning and bides his time until he gets it, but never fakes feelings like many of the other characters in this novel.

Get Emma now on your Kindle for $8.00

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Review: Option B

417t2blcp9rl-_sx292_bo1204203200_Recap: Grief is no easy thing and like addiction, it is not something people can “overcome.” It’s something that simply becomes a part of our lives forever, and we are tasked with learning to manage it. If anyone knows about grief, it’s Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who several years ago lost her husband suddenly. He died from heart-related problems at the age of 47 while working out at the gym.

Sheryl feared not only that she would never get over his death but that her children would never be happy again.  She turned to friends, family and experts to help her work through her grief. Along the way, she became close with psychologist, author and University of Pennsylvania professor Adam Grant, who helped her co-write Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. As she writes in her book, “Option A (having her husband) is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of Option B.”

Speaking to Grant and other psychologists, she writes about many theories that helped me to better understand why some of us make grief harder for ourselves than others. For instance, Sandberg talks about “The Three P’s: personalization, pervasiveness and permanence. The goal is to avoid the three P’s; avoid thinking this situation is all your fault, avoid thinking this will affect every part of your life and avoid thinking you will always feel this way.

Analysis: Sandberg’s Option B works in a way that many other self-help books don’t in that she offers concrete, easy-to-employ tactics for dealing with not only grief, but any kind of loss: unemployment (loss of job), divorce (loss of marriage), etc. They’re easy to put into everyday use, like stop saying “I’m sorry,” allow yourself cry breaks, do good deeds for other people, find ways of honoring the person you’re grieving so they don’t feel forgotten and talk about them with others, including co-workers.

She does this while still offering the same theories, analysis and results of psychological studies that other self-help books might also include. But she also tells short stories about people all over the country who have gone through horrific, life-changing events and overcome them. These real-life stories work as great examples for some of the psychological theories that we may not otherwise understand because of therapist jargon. They also worked for me as examples of people who have been forced to work through situations much more severe than mine. The thought process becomes: if they can get through that, I can certainly get through this.

I’d been wanting to read this book for so long after the death of my father, and while I (thankfully) found I had already employed some of these tactics into my own life to help deal with my grief, I also found this book helped me to better understand grief in general and understand why I’m still having trouble working past certain aspects of my grief. As Sandberg explains, grief is not considered to be a linear process, and it’s different for everyone. I have accepted my Option B. Thank you, Sheryl, for showing me what I need to do now to kick the shit out of it.

Get Option B in hardcover for $7.83. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $13.99.

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Movie vs. Book: A Wrinkle In Time

The classic fantasy children’s novel tells the story of a young girl Meg, who is transported to another planet by three other-worldly women (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which). The mission: to locate her father who has gone missing in a space-traveling mishap. Along for the ride are her younger “special” brother (Charles Wallace) who is brilliant and a boy from school (Calvin) who — unbeknownst to her — is interested in her, her intelligence and her friendship.

It’s an empowering female story about love, trust and taking a leap of faith. For that reason, it has been read by boys and girls everywhere since it was first published in 1962. To see it on the big screen with such a phenomenal cast as Oprah, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid and Chris Pine was exciting to say the very least.

The movie takes the novel a step further by not only having a female lead this story, but by making her mixed race, forcing more than just a gender-oriented discussion. The character of Mrs. Who, who in the novel only speaks by quoting famous philosophers and successful people, is also updated in the movie as she quotes more modern artists, including Outkast and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Because the book is so fantastical, the movie has to hold up to it; it relies on a lot of CG in these make-believe planets. Good or bad, cheesy or not, the CG is beautiful. It’s simply a pretty movie to watch, which works considering how pretty the story is when we first read it.

But there are some major changes that really take away from the original story. In the novel, Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace are each given a piece of advice from the three Mrs. when they are forced to complete the journey on their own. Calvin is told his best talent is communication and he should use it when the moment calls for it. When the trio finds themselves in a moment where the evil spirit IT is trying to hypnotize them with monotonous chanting, Calvin gets out of the trap by shouting back at IT in phrasing that doesn’t rhyme or sound rhythmic in any way. It allows him to keep from being hypnotized, and then Meg follows suit. This section is eliminated from the movie altogether. By cutting this scene, the movie ultimately gives Calvin no real purpose. He just seems to be a character along for the ride. Without those few key moments, he’s essentially worthless.

In the book when Meg finally finds her father, he is trapped in a glass tube. Getting him out from there becomes a entirely new challenge. But in the movie, when she finds him, he’s just roaming around in a multi-colored hallway, and they are able to embrace and easily move on with the story.

As the story goes, Charles Wallace has become brainwashed by IT. Meg’s father suggests leaving the planet without Charles Wallace. The mere suggestion leaves Meg so aghast that her father would ever consider leaving his son behind. It leaves the reader aghast too. I remember thinking what a horrible father! But then Meg, Calvin and Meg’s father “tesser” — or transport — to another planet. Meg becomes really sick. She’s comforted and nursed back to health by a mysterious, mystical creature who she names Aunt Beast. During this time, she and her father resolve their issues and the Mrs. come back and tell Meg that she must be the one to  save Charles Wallace since she has the closest relationship with him. This ENTIRE section is removed from the movie. It is crushing to have this section cut and damages the storytelling of the movie. First of all, Aunt Beast is a beloved character. To have her eliminated is just sad. Secondly, this part of the book allows Meg — and  us, the readers — to make peace with Meg’s father over his suggestion to leave Charles Wallace behind. This resolution doesn’t really happen in the movie until the very end, at which point it feels like a rushed, forced afterthought.

It’s no surprise to me that the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time has gotten bad reviews, and that the movie will likely bomb at the box office. Personally, I thought there was some great acting and a few key moments filled with emotion. I also still think it’s an important movie for right now — seeing a biracial female lead us on this journey. But it doesn’t finish with the full scope of emotion, positivity, strength, empowerment, fantasy and storytelling that the book is known for.

Get A Wrinkle in Time in paperback for $5.65. 

Or on your Kindle for $6.99.

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Review: Soul Witness

51lsnw9ki8l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Recap: It’s Black Friday in New York City and another terrorist attack has killed and hurt many. Then the State Capitol of Pennsylvania blows up. Many, many more are killed and hurt. Then a Russian plane headed for New York crashes in northern New Jersey. The number of terrorist attacks has increased. More people are dying and authorities still have no answers. Investigations are started, but seemingly never finished. No terrorists are charged or tried.

But then one of the investigators makes an astonishing discovery. Photos from each of these attacks, as well as the 9/11 terror attacks in New York City and the London bombings from 2007, have one thing in common: the same man’s face. They each show the same man looking as smoke, fire, and chaos ensues. He is never caught in the act with a gun, bomb, or other weapon. He never appears malicious. He just appears to be staring, watching it all happen. Finally at the most recent attack, he is taken into custody, but he will not speak. Authorities don’t even have a way of identifying him.

Ultimately the case moves to trial. Lawyers are determined to crucify the man, assuming that he had something to do with each and every one of the biggest terror attacks in recent history. But even his defense attorneys are unsure what will happen when he demands to take the stand. Who is this man? And how will all this play out?

Analysis: Though Soul Witness was published several years ago now, its story carries through in relevance and relatability since terrorism in real life, just as in the novel, only seems to get more severe and heartbreaking as time goes on. Whether it’s a terror attack or a person who unleashes in a public space in a mass shooting, we, as Americans, are all too familiar with these stories. While the Black Friday attack, Pennsylvania State Capitol attack and plane crash are all fictional plot points in Witness, they feel all too real. Foreshadowing makes it clear this creepy man is not necessarily going to give lawyers and investigators what they want, but author Bill Costopolous does a great job of building suspense as we, like the characters in the book, also wonder how this will all play out.

As a reporter who lives and works in Pennsylvania’s Capital City of Harrisburg, I also couldn’t help but be entertained by the local references woven throughout the novel. (The trial takes place in Harrisburg, PA a few blocks away from the Capitol building.) With his law background, Costopolous is the perfect writer for a story like this — making the case and trial all too believable.

MVP: The No Named Man. His testimony is unexpected and absurd, and yet exactly what you’d hope for in a twisty quick read like this.

Get Soul Witness now in paperback for $19.99.

Or get it on your Kindle for just $3.99.

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Movie vs. Book: Call Me By Your Name

One of my favorite lines from the movie Love Actually” is when the red-headed boy Sam tells his father (stepfather?) that he’s in love with a girl. His father’s response is “I’m a little relieved.” When the boy asks why, he explains he thought whatever the boy was about to tell him would be worse, to which Sam replies “Worse than the total agony of being in love?”

The total agony of being in love is the premise of Call Me By Your Name, which tells the story of a 17-year-old boy who falls in love with another man — a student his father has taken in for research help for their summer abroad in Italy. Enter Oliver, a stunning, charming man who seems so sure of himself, but whom young Elio can’t read. All he knows is he is attracted to Oliver — desperately, hopelessly attracted. Here comes Agony Part One. Over the course of their weeks together, both Elio and Oliver have relationships with girls, but they ultimately keep finding themselves more interested in each other. One night together results in a completely new breathtaking, sensual, deeply loving relationship — one which will knowingly end at the of the summer but affect them forever. (Agony Part Two.)

Typically when I write my movie vs. book reviews, I’ve read the book in preparation for the movie, then see the movie and compare. But in this case, I saw the movie first and fell so madly in love with it, I needed more. So I read the book, which I also fell madly in love with and watched the movie again.

The story resonated with me so deeply, reminding me of my first relationships and flings that, similarly to Elio and Oliver, have had a lasting impact on me. Man man, woman woman, man woman — all that is really irrelevant here. What’s understandable for everyone is the experience, exploration, and desire.

The novel Call Me By Your Name received so many literary awards when it was published in 2007, and it is truly beautifully written with sections full of lovestruck anxiety that wreak of teenager as well as insightful sections about love and life. It is refreshing then, that James Ivory who adapted the screenplay for the movie, kept so much of the book true to the movie down to the dialogue. If the writing is beautiful, why change it? Thankfully Ivory saw, understood and respected that. Thankfully actor Timothee Chalamet (who plays Elio), Armie Hammer (who plays Oliver) and Michael Stuhlbarg (who plays Elio’s father) also do a beautiful job of translating exact lines from the novel into moving action on screen.

That said, there are a few major changes. The movie eliminates one character altogether — a little girl who lived next door to Elio in the book and becomes good friends with Oliver over the summer. She plays a part in getting the two of them together in the behind-their-backs conversations she has with each of them. In the movie, her scenes of dialogue are instead just given to Elio’s mother. The book is also set entirely in memory; it’s from Elio’s point of view and told 20 years after his summer with Oliver. He then writes about several other times he’s met with and seen Oliver in the 20 years since that summer. Instead the movie ends with a phone call six months after the summer (leaving open the option to a possible Call Me By Your Name sequel, which has been widely discussed by the director and actors). The movie also cuts a big party scene from the end of the summer when Elio and Oliver go away together for a few days, an opportunity to show Elio getting excited for his future.

The famous peach scene (which I won’t get into here — but it is full of exquisite metaphor) is possibly more graphic in the novel. And really, everything is a little more graphic in the novel — from Elio and Oliver’s explicit sex scenes and language to Elio’s painstaking agony (See? There’s that word again…) over Oliver.

But overall, it is a beautiful adaptation. I could re-watch and re-read Call Me By Your Name over and over again, if for no other reason than to remember how great love is and how it leaves you no choice but to remember everything.

Get Call Me By Your Name in paperback now for $9.69.

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Movie vs. Book: Wonder

Auggie Pullman is a wonder. The fact that he’s made it to his tenth birthday is a wonder. The fact that he agrees to go school starting in fifth grade is a wonder. That’s because Auggie was born with a number of different medical conditions, resulting in severe deformities in his face. Countless surgeries have helped improve the way he hears, sees, eats and looks, but his face still looks unlike most other 10-year-olds. Until now, he’s been homeschooled by his mom, and he is brilliant. But ultimately his parents decide it’s time to acclimate him to other kids his age, so they enroll him in private school.

The transition is anything but easy. The children claim he has “The Plague” and avoid touching him. They compare him to movie characters who have had their faces badly burned in fires. He is bullied and frankly, psychologically tormented. But because of an orientation that introduces him to a few kids, he finds a friend in Jack Will. Jack Will and a girl named Summer become his two friends in a sea of bullies, until he overhears something one day that makes him think it’s all been a lie.

The book varies in narrators, going back and forth between Auggie, Auggie’s older sister Via, Jack Will, Summer and several others. Each of them are going through a tough time, mostly because of the drama that comes with being close to Auggie. But they love him despite it all. That loves forces them to stand up for him to everyone else.

Wonder is a beautiful young adult novel about friendship, love, kindness, and character over looks, and the movie follows the story closely bringing along with it the emotional impact that book left on my heart. Yes, both the book and movie are tearjerkers. And yes, as per usual, the movie eliminates some things. It cuts out one of Via’s friends entirely. It also decreases the number of narrators (the book has a few sections narrated by some tertiary characters as well) and removes the book’s epilogue. But none of these changes affect the story in any way or the intention behind any of the characters and their actions.

While reading the book, I wondered (see what I did there??) how the movie would pull it off. After all, the book revolves around mostly 10-year-old boys and girls. Would casting agents be able to find as many young actors as was needed for this story? But they did! Jacob Tremblay plays the perfect Auggie and with Julie Roberts and Owen Wilson playing his parents, there’s a good balance of emotion and humor.

It’s also fair to say both the book and movie should not be read and seen by just children or young adults, but by adults too. After all, we could also use a good lesson in how wondrous kindness can be.

Get Wonder in hardcover for $10.19. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.99.

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