Category Archives: Reviews

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

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.

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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. 

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Movie vs. Book: Julie and Julia

Recap: As her 30th birthday becomes frighteningly close, Julie Powell realizes she’s unhappy with her life. She has a wonderful husband who she’s been with since high school, but her job leaves her unfulfilled, she and her husband live in a tiny apartment and she has a condition which will likely make it extremely difficult to have children. Doctors continue to push her to have children before turning 30 since that would be her best chance for success, but she’s not ready for kids yet. Her dissatisfaction with her life leads to a fairly irrational decision. She likes to cook, so she will cook….the entire first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julie Child.

She gives herself a one-year deadline, which sounds feasible until you realize that’s 524 recipes she has to cook in 365 days, and most of them are obscenely difficult and…well…French. They include killing, cutting and cooking lobster, boning ducks and hours and hours of stewing in ovens and stovetops. The challenge is beyond difficult. She has no choice but to employ the help of her husband to buy groceries and meat. She invites friends over to enjoy the food. She keeps a blog which suddenly has readers she feels she must entertain and please. The media picks up on her blog, and Julie’s Julie/Julia Project blows up across the nation. All this happens as her friends deal with the trials and tribulations of love and lust and while Julie’s own marriage takes a backseat to her goal.

Each chapter is also interspersed with bits and pieces about the life and love of Julie Child. Her loves — like Julie — are both cooking and her husband. Much like Julia Child learning to cook at age 37, Julie is also on a search to find herself and does after quite a bit of time and hard work.

Analysis: The movie Julie and Julia is a decent adaptation of the book, cutting back and forth between Julie (Amy Adams) and Julia (Meryl Streep) as they find themselves through food. The movie includes much more of Julia Child’s story as she works to publish her first cookbook. (Right from the start, the movie acknowledges it’s sharing the stories of two different books : Julie Powell’s Julie and Juliand Julia Child’s My Life in France.) Because the movie has more Julia, it therefore has less Julie than in the book. Her fertility issues are not mentioned in the movie, nor are the side characters (Julie’s friends) and their crazy love lives. Those cuts help to make the movie a little more upbeat and uplifting and better parallel the journey of both Julie and Julia.

The best parts about both the movie and memoir are how funny they are — Meryl Streep portrays Julia Child impeccably, and Amy Adams is great at bringing Julie’s frustration, rage, determination and humor to life. Both also end in a more moving way than you might expect, but the movie’s end pales in comparison to the book’s final pages. Powell’s powerful writing about Julia Child’s death and what she ultimately learned through this journey moved me to tears and made clear that this challenge was about much more than just cooking and writing about it; it’s about the journey we all find ourselves on, and sometimes you just need to force yourself to take the first step.

Get Julie and Julia in paperback now for just $3.35.

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Review: Damned Good

51cm3a39uul-_sx311_bo1204203200_Recap: The Rookie has one goal and one goal only: to be the best at poker. He studies. He practices. He takes good care of himself. He sleeps. He eats right. He wants to crush the best of the best at their own game. He does it until he doesn’t. This poker novella follows the Rookie and his friend the Kid as he takes down other players and finally crumbles in a massive loss.

Analysis: But the story is about much more than just poker. It becomes clear through layered writing and metaphors that the Rookie is using his poker to find himself, to perfect himself as not just a player but as a person. That’s all well and good until he ultimately crashes, which lends himself to feeling like a failure in every respect.

The writing of Damned Good is pretty damned good itself. With flowery details, the words give off an almost sonic poetic vibe, as though you can hear the novella being read to you. While it does incorporate a good amount of poker jargon, it’s remains easy to follow even for those unfamiliar with the game.

The fact of the matter is the book is relatable to anyone who’s been through something intense, dramatic and shift-causing.

MVP: The Rookie. As much as he’s able to keep it together is as much as he’s unable to do so. The Rookie is all of us at our core — hard on ourselves and striving for the best.

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Review: In the Studio with Michael Jackson

81goiajvzasRecap: He’s a Grammy Award winner. He’s worked with Quincy Jones. And you’ve probably never heard of it. Bruce Swedien is an audio engineer who’s worked in the music business for almost 60 years, and he was the primary sound engineer on Michael Jackson’s records from 1978 to 2001. When I found this book inside a more arts-oriented local bookstore, I thought Oh my God, I MUST read this. As a big Michael Jackson fan, I knew I would appreciate it. And appreciate it, I did. From the anecdotes about the star (they recorded him on a dance floor so MJ could dance while singing and the sound of his feet would remain on the record to make it feel more “Michael) to the photos (handwritten thank you notes and editing suggestions from the icon himself!), this book is chock full of fun information that would entertain any Michael Jackson fan.

The second half of the book focuses more closely on audio engineering and therefore would likely be most appreciated by those who work in that field. For anyone else — myself included — it was too technical for me to understand and not explained well enough in layman’s terms. That’s not to say the book got worse as I continued to read it, but it certainly became more textbook-like in its approach.

Anaylsis: As I already mentioned, I loved the little anecdotes about Michael Jackson and everything that went into making his big albums, including “Thriller.” I made it a point to listen to the tracks as I read the sections of the book that discussed them in detail. It heightened my awareness of the layering and production of the music and proved how complex and highly-skilled Michael Jackson and his team really were.

The book, however, was terribly written. It didn’t seem as though it was ever formally edited. There were grammatical errors as well as whole sections copied and pasted directly — appearing word for word in several different parts of the book. It was clear that Swedien wrote most of it himself, which is fine, but he is certainly more geared to audio engineering than writing. Parts of it were hard to get through for these reasons and because of the engineering jargon used that was above my head and never fully or well explained.

Get In the Studio with Michael Jackson in paperback for $16.97. 

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Review: The Bookworm

51mmaglqrll-_sx329_bo1204203200_Recap: She’s lovingly called “The Bookworm” by her friends, but Lara Klimt is more than just a nerdy bookworm. She’s a Russian historian and former Soviet chess champion who suddenly finds herself attempting to solve a mystery that landed in her lap — a mystery dating back to the 1940’s during the rise of Adolf Hitler. She must listen to six recordings from a then-famous actor and playwright who — unbeknownst to her and…well…most people — was secretly a British agent reporting to Winston Churchill. All this coincides with her being asked to interview the U.S. President live on Russian television.

If something smells funky, it most likely is. Lara works to unravel the mystery of these tapes, trying to figure out how it connects to today while also trying to keep her distance from the man who sought her out for the Presidential interview.

AnalysisThe Bookworm packs a punch similar to that of a Dan Brown novel. Similarly it uses a quasi-historical fiction plot mixed with thriller that sees our heroine attempt to solve a mystery by using her mind more than her actions. Combine that with the back-and-forth between the 1940’s and present day and The Bookworm has all ingredients in the recipe for my favorite kind of books. It held up until the last third of the book. Maybe it was my own personal lack of knowledge of Britain’s role in WWII or maybe it was the abundance of foreign character names, but eventually I got some of the storylines crossed and was confused as to the intent of some of the characters.

The end seemed to wrap up rather quickly and the reconciliation between Lara and her ex seemed far-fetched, especially after the novel made it clear from the beginning that he was never kind to her. I would have preferred to hear more from the WWII-era tapes to better understand how everything came together.

MVP: Lara. Her brilliance still shines throughout the novel — albeit maybe not in the romance department. Even when she seems unsure of how to crack the historical case, she realizes what she needs to do to achieve a breakthrough. Her mind is steady and her bookworminess pays off.

Get The Bookworm  in hardcover for $17.07. 

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