Category Archives: Reviews

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

Review: Walk Into Silence

517dhybyiol-_sx332_bo1204203200_Recap: When Detective Jo Larson moves from Dallas to a small town nearby, she expects she’ll be able to avoid major crime. But she soon learns that’s not necessarily how things work — not when it comes to hate, jealousy and betrayal. Patrick Dielman shows up at her office one day, explaining that his wife has gone missing, but clues in their conversation make it apparent to Jo that Patrick may have been a pretty controlling husband. There’s a good chance, she thinks, that he may have something to do with her disappearance. As she digs deeper into the missing woman, Jenny, she also learns that it’s a week shy of the three-year anniversary of the death of her young son — a death that affected her so deeply, she and her first husband divorced.

That’s when Jo finds Jenny’s body. At that point, Patrick is still a person of interest, but she and her partner also begin to consider that this could have been a suicide. Jenny was depressed about the death of her son and a near-anniversary would make a suicide likely.

So was it a suicide? Was it Jenny’s husband? What about her ex-husband? His new wife? Or Jenny’s odd neighbor who seems to have more than just a crush on Jenny’s late husband? There’s a lot to investigate and not much evidence to go off of. What’s worse is Jo learns Jenny was abused growing up — something to which Jo can relate. Suddenly, this case is hitting closer to home that Jo would like it to.

Analysis: In many respects Walk Into Silence follows many formulas for detective and crime novels. After all, the killer is not the most obvious suspect, and the detective herself is troubled in some way (actually, in this case a lot of ways). Both of these are common tropes in this style of book. The mystery was compelling initially, and the random pages of Jenny’s journal, which are included in the novel, gave the reader great omniscient background knowledge of Jenny. But the mystery seemed to lose steam as the novel continued. It became pretty clear who was likely involved in Jenny’s death earlier than I expected; it took a while before it was actually solved by Jo.

That said, Jo was an extremely compelling character. She got a lot of setup: her abusive childhood, her sick mother, her boyfriend, Adam, who left his wife to be with Jo. I liked that her story and background was so similar to that of the victim in her case. It made the case more difficult for her to solve in that it brought up a lot of other emotions.

MVP: Jo. I recognize that this is meant to be the first in a series of detective novels with Jo as the central character, and I would absolutely be willing to follow her just to see her developed even more.

Get Walk Into Silence in paperback for $6.99.

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “Once Bitten”

The latest installment of the Big Little Lies limited series picks up with Amabella now being bitten by one of her classmates. Once again, Renata blames the bullying on Jane’s son Ziggy, adding more stress to Jane’s life. She’s already tangled up in visiting the man who assaulted her years ago after Madeline and Celeste find him online and learn that he lives and works nearby. In this episode, we see a different side of Jane starting to come out as she takes her gun to target practice and smokes weed while she drives to her assailant. It was a trip she had planned to make with Madeline and Celeste but instead she goes it alone. We only get a glimpse into her meeting with him but never learn how it ends or if she confronts him. Instead, we just get an image of her screaming and banging the horn in her car, speeding home and getting pulled over by the cops.

Meanwhile, Madeline is having her own car troubles when she gets into a crash with her co-worker and director at the theater, Joseph. He picks up her and takes her “for a drive” to discuss their relationship. The discussion erupts when they crash in the parking lot. Joseph injuries seem serious, but he winds up coming out of it okay, and it becomes clear that the crash more or less shocked the relationship right out of them as they recede by their families for the love and support they need.

Love and support are two things Celeste certainly isn’t getting at home as she continues to navigate her murky and abusive relationship with her husband Perry. Here, again, we see her going to therapy without him. It’s probably for the best, since she finally comes clean –after some serious pushing from her therapist — just how physically abusive and harmful Perry can be.

Again, I loved this episode and how they’re slowly building the tension to the explosion that I expect the final episode will be. However, NOTHING that happens in this episode — with the exception of Celeste’s trip to the therapist — happens in the book! Because this tawdry relationship between Madeline and Joseph doesn’t exist in the book, there’s never a car crash in the novel either. And because Madeline and Celeste never tell Jane they found her assailant in the book, Jane never goes to visit him. If the show was going to add so much story to fill the time of seven episodes, why didn’t it just stick to the book and shorten the series to six episodes instead of seven? But again, the story is still well done, the acting great, and the editing –especially the audio editing int his episode– is incredible.

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “When Push Comes to Shove”

The murder is still a mystery but the motivations between characters continue to build in the latest installment of Big Little Lies. Once again, the children’s teacher notices some tension between Ziggy and Amabella, encouraging Jane to take her son to a child psychologist. The psychologist determines he doesn’t have the characteristics of a bully and in fact may be getting bullied at school.

Meanwhile  Jane is starting to feel a release and a new interest in men after revealing (in the last episode) that she was raped by a man named Saxton Banks. Madeline looks up Saxton Banks online and shows a photo of him to both Jane and Celeste — a big shift from the book. In the book, Madeline and Celeste keep their knowledge of Saxton Banks to themselves without bringing it up to Jane.

Meanwhile both Celeste and Madeline and working to conquer and succumb to their troubled marriages. Celeste visits her therapist again — this time, alone — and Madeline cheats on her husband with her co-worker at the theater! Soon after, we learn that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened between them.

I have to say, having Madeline cheat on Ed is a HUGE change from the book and one of which I am NOT a fan. Madeline’s character in the book is nutty and intense, but still likable and having her make a decision like this is the very opposite from likable, especially when Ed is …pretty good. Now it makes sense why the show has put such an emphasis on this whole “Avenue Q” storyline; it was all to build to the tryst and relationship between Madeline and the director of the show. Madeline’s work is mentioned many times in the novel but is not a focal point by any means, and we certainly never learn the names of her co-workers through it. That said, I have to admit I love the following scene in which Madeline very openly tells Celeste what happened and Celeste just laughs and laughs (probably because Celeste doesn’t have the ability to be as open with Madeline, and her secrets are so much darker that Madeline’s little makeout session seems trivial to Celeste).

I’ve noticed that in these past entries, I’ve pointed out a lot of changes the show has made from the book. While I’m not a fan of shows and movies changing adaptations from the story we already know and love, I still love this limited series version of Big Little Lies. Reese Witherspoon’s acting in it is some of the best we’ve seen from her. The show has also done an excellent job at making Celeste and Jane as complicated as they are in the book, which can sometimes be hard to do onscreen when we don’t get to read their thoughts like we can in the book. The editing on the show and all of its random flashbacks and quick shots are incredible and add little pops of knowledge and feeling in a way a book simply can’t.

 

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “Living the Dream”

The backlash against Renata’s daughter not inviting Ziggy to her birthday party continues in this third episode of the Big Little Lies limited series. Finally, an episode where things really get moving. We see and hear less from the other parents in the school as part of the investigation and instead delve deeper into the lives of our main characters: Madeline, Celeste, Jane …and Renata? (Renata is an important character in the novel, but certainly is not central to the story; however it appears the creators of the series are trying to make her more of a central character here. Maybe that’s just what happens when you have someone as good as Laura Dern playing the role.)

This episode takes us through Renata’s daughter, Amabella’s, birthday party. Because everyone in class was invited except Ziggy, Madeline arranges for Ziggy and several other kids and moms to instead go to “Disney On Ice” in lieu of the birthday party, stirring up all kinds of mom drama.

Meanwhile, Ziggy accidentally leaves the class hippo behind at “Disney On Ice,” sending his mother, Jane, into a spiral over what the moms will say about her. Jane then reveals to Madeline her big secret: that Ziggy’s father is a man she met in a bar who assaulted her. Madeline’s older daughter decides to move out of the house and in with her father because of the stress she feels in her mother’s home. Celeste and her abusive husband see a counselor together.

This episode takes big steps in moving the story forward. The veil is starting to lift on the darkness of Jane and Ziggy, as well as Celeste and her husband. The episode also somewhat redeems Madeline, making her more likable than in the second episode by showcasing how much she genuinely cares for others.

But there are a couple of striking changes between this episode and what happens in the book. Jane’s assault is described much more vividly in the novel. Jane explains to Madeline that the man who assaulted her also verbally assaulted her, calling her fat and ugly. The fact that he called her that is vital to understand Jane as a person. Her lack of confidence in her body and herself all stem from that singular moment. With those verbal details left out of the series, we’re led to believe the assault was strictly physical when, in fact, it was also emotional, and emotional scars also last a lifetime.

The episode also takes a big jump when we see Celeste and her husband go to couples therapy. Though initially timid, they eventually open up a lot about their abusive relationship in a way that’s so dissimilar from the book, I was shocked. It seems as though the series to trying to humanize her husband? But why? He’s horrible. Celeste’s storyline in the book is so great because we get to watch her become stronger and stronger. By going to therapy with her husband and initially lying about the details of their marriage, she comes across more weak than strong. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of this plot is played out in the series knowing that it added this twist.

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “Serious Mothering”

 

The tension between mommies and daddies builds in this second episode of the limited serious version of Big Little Lies, as we get deeper insight into Madeline’s marriage and Celeste’s. We see fewer flashes of police activity alluding to the horrible incident that eventually happens and instead more flashes of graphic and violent sex, as well as the now-recurring images of Jane running down the beach in a blue dress.

Another incident in school happens in this second episode, with the girls daring Jane’s son, Ziggy, and Regina’s daughter, Amabella, to kiss. Though it’s hard to say since we never actually see it. Instead, we only witness the buildup to and aftermath of the “kiss,” much in the same way the show refers to the murder that makes up the main plot of this story.

The kiss that the children are “pushed” to do in class is not part of the book, Big Little Lies. It seems the writers have added this incident as a device to further build tension between all the parents of the children involved. The writers divide the couples even further when, in the episode, Celeste and Madeline attend the same yoga class as Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan and his new wife, Bonnie. Then we learn that Bonnie has helped Madeline and Nathan’s teenage daughter to get birth control pills, pushing Madeline to hate Bonnie even more — and rightfully so! As a stepmom, she absolutely does not have the right to help the teen get birth control when her birth mother is still an active part of her life. This is yet another plot point added to the series that is not part of the book. Yet another thing the series adds in this episode is Madeline’s ex-husband and current husband meeting up for a little “chat,” which quickly turns into a heated exchange.

All of this is an attempt to show the motivations each adult has for one another and adds to the suspense of who’s been murdered and who’s the murderer. All that’s well and good, but it also strays from the book and, in my opinion, just further drags out the story that’s already full of suspense and intrigue. These added scenes and scenarios also make Madeline far less likeable from the way she comes across in the book. Yes, she’s a little nutty in the book, but we still like her.

The show does a good job, however, of foreshadowing some of the big moments to come, including the introduction of Harry Hippo — yes, he actually matters in this story! — and finally we see how abusive Celeste and her husband’s relationship really is. However, her openness about it with Madeline at the bar is a complete 180 from the book.

So far, the show continues to keep in line with basic plot points, and while I see why it’s adding what it’s adding, I don’t know how necessary it really is.

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Review: The Corrections

thecorrectionscvrRecap: Alfred and Enid are your typical Midwestern couple; they did their best to raise a family and provide, and now that they’re in retirement, they’re combating Alfred’s Parkinson’s and doing what they can to best stay in touch with their three grown children, living far away in New York City and Philadelphia.

The plot goes back and forth between the 1960’s and present-day so we get perspectives from each of the kids, Gary, Chip and Denise, both as children and adults. We learn about Gary’s success in his career and in building a family, about Chip’s rise and disastrous fall and Denise’s dabbling in sexual experimentation starting at a young age and ultimately affecting her career as a chef. We also see how Alfred’s business decisions over the years have upset first, his wife and now, his children.

Much of the story revolves around Enid trying to convince Alfred to take advantage of a financial opportunity from the railroad company from which he retired. It’s an opportunity that could earn them a large sum of money, and when Gary catches wind of the situation, he also tries to steer his father toward earning the extra cash. But Alfred can’t be bothered. In his old age and with his Parkinson’s, he feels as though he has enough to deal with. All this is just part of what drives the family into a financial and stress-induced panic.

Analysis: So much of this story is about simply the inner-workings of families and how even small decisions and actions can have big impacts on the people to whom we are closest. While the title, The Corrections, is most directly related to the economic and tech boom of the 1990’s, it’s clear the title also refers to the ways in which each character is trying to correct each other and themselves, sometimes with drugs, sex, love or money. But ultimately, they (and we, the readers) learn family connections run more deeply and more complicated than any other, and as much as we want to “correct” each other, sometimes we just can’t.

The novel gets a lot of praise for its statement about an anxiety-driven America; some have even called it prescient in its take on Americans in a post-9/11 world because the book was published and released several days before 9/11 happened. Reading the history of the book’s timing is fascinating, though I doubt I would have picked up on that had I not read about it beforehand.

I was individually intrigued by each of the characters and loved their stories, but at points I kept waiting for something — anything — to happen. Despite not feeling entirely hooked, I ultimately wept like a baby at the end anyway, when I learned how each of the characters ended up. Alfred’s battle with dementia and Parkinson’s resonated with me personally, and that probably has a lot to do with my emotional reaction. But I realized something else when I started crying then: I truly cared about the characters after all. A book like that has all the makings of a great one.

MVP: Denise. She was extremely complex without being really annoying about it. She also makes some of the biggest sacrifices for the family, even though it’s not what we’d expect.

Get The Corrections now in paperback for $10.62. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.99.

 

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Limited Series vs. Book: Big Little Lies, “Somebody’s Dead”

A blur of flashing red and blue lights, flashes of women in pearls, and images of Elvis and detectives spin in a dizzying display of a dress-up event gone wrong in the opening minutes of the premiere episode of Big Little Lies. The HBO limited series is set to adapt the bestselling Liane Moriarty novel of the same name over the course of seven hour-long episodes.

The density and complexity of the novel certainly lends itself to being a limited series and not a movie that would inevitably leave out plot points for time. That said, the premiere episode starts off a little slow. It focuses on exposition, bringing both the drama of the “Blonde Bobs” — or crazy mothers — around which the murder mystery story revolves and the comedy — particularly from Reese Witherspoon, who plays the character of Madeline.

School orientation is a stressful day for everyone, including children and parents. Madeline proves as much by almost getting into a car crash with a car full of teens, including her daughter from her first marriage and then twisting her ankle. This is where the story starts, in a flashback after the first few minutes establish someone has died at a school fundraiser. This opening episode stays (mostly) true to the story, setting the tone for the tiny beach town of stuck-up mothers and their precocious children.

We meet Madeline, her daughters, her husband, ex-husband and his new wife, Bonnie, as well as Madeline’s best friend Celeste and new friend Jane. Each has kids in the same first grade class, where little Amabella is apparently choked on the first day by a boy in class. She places blame on Ziggy, Jane’s son, who denies having hurt the little girl.

That’s about as far as we get into the story, but in some beautifully shot flashback images, we get the idea that Jane and Celeste have some pretty haunting histories. The visual markers of this are perhaps less subtle than those in the book, but they certainly grab attention.

Differences from the book include the story happening in California instead of Australia and the kids being in first-grade instead of kindergarten (perhaps another year allows for them to be more mature and have more of a voice than in the book?). The series also softens the relationship between Madeline and her older daughter. While they’re sour with each other in the first half of the episode, they have a nice moment at the end that doesn’t really happen in the book until — well, ever. In the show, Ziggy also asks his mother why Amabella said he choked her when he didn’t. That doesn’t happen in the book. While that may seem like a minor detail, it’s really an important one for the overall story and works to make the viewer more sympathetic to Ziggy and Jane.

But the story is so good, the setup so well done, the child actors so good, and Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Madeline so comically spunky, there’s no doubt I’ll be watching the rest of the series.

 

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