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Review: Dead If You Don’t

Recap: It was supposed to be a fun Saturday soccer (football) game. Everyone and their mother seemed to be going — or father as the case may be. But the day quickly turned as stadium officials received threats of a terrorist attack at the game, threatening to kill and injure hundreds of fans. But that was just the beginning. Before the game even began, Kipp Brown realized his son, Mungo, was missing. They’d been fighting earlier, but surely his teenage son wouldn’t leave the biggest game of the year over a fight with his father.

The police are slammed, facing both a potential terror attack and kidnapping. The kidnapping is no big surprise considering who Mungo’s father is; Kipp is a well-known and successful business. Anyone would go after him for his money, but they’d be sadly surprised to learn that Brown also has a massive gambling problem and little to no money to his name.

The ransom calls start coming in, and soon Detective Superintendent Roy Grace must step in to deter the terror attack and find Kipp’s son. The investigation leads him to a group of dangerous Albanian men who have made a life for themselves in England by killing anyone who gets in the way of their greedy quest for money, wealth and power. But where is Mungo? And will they get to him in time before he becomes another victim?

Analysis: A straight-up crime detective novel, Dead If You Don’t pulls no punches, getting right to the many tropes that make a crime novel a good one: lots of characters, winding and intertwined storylines, good guys and bad guys, unforeseen turns and short chapters with little cliffhangers that help move the story along quickly.

It didn’t, however, necessarily feel like Roy Grace was the main character of the story. I was more invested in Kipp Brown, his family and his financial stupidity — hoping and praying that he’d learn his lesson when it comes to money. To be fair, of all the officers, Roy Grace was the one whose name I knew the best; he was clearly the star of the unit and the man in charge, but his story was less compelling than some of the other characters in the book. Basic in its structure, but effective in its plotting, Dead If You Don’t was the perfect read if you’re in the mood for a quick and easy crime novel.

MVP: Roy Grace, for the sole reason that he saves the day and Kipp Brown never quite lives up to his full potential.

Get Dead If You Don’t in paperback now for $14.35.

Or on your Kindle for $7.99.

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Review: The Storyteller’s Secret

Recap: It’s after Jaya’s third miscarriage that her marriage falls apart. A journalist in New York, she is at a loss. She no longer has her husband to turn to for support, and her relationship with her mother has always been difficult, lacking love and support. It’s around this time that Jaya learns the grandfather she never knew is dying. He lives in India, where her parents were born, but her mother has no interest in returning home to see her father. Confused and alone, desperately seeking comfort and support in her family, Jaya decides to visit India, to get away from her own problems and to meet her grandfather and learn why he sent her mother away to America many years ago.

By the time she arrives, he has already passed. Inside her mother’s childhood home, she instead finds Ravi, her mother and grandmother’s servant. Ravi welcomes Jaya instantly and over the course of several weeks shows Ravi around India and tells her about her grandparents. It’s a long saga about love, secrets and finding one’s own path. It’s a story that even Jaya’s mother knows nothing about. It’s a story that changes her perception of her life, world and family forever. In looking to the past, Jaya is able to better understand her present and re-shape her future.

Analysis: In its simplest form, the plot of The Storyteller’s Secret sounds like the start of Eat, Pray, Love: woman’s life falls apart, woman sets out on journey across the world, woman finds herself. But Secret also adds the element of the past. The story also changes time periods and storytellers, switching back and forth between Jaya and her grandmother, Amisha, decades earlier. It gives the story an extra layer of depth and mystery that the read is dying to uncover. I found I could not put this book down, desperately wanting to know what happened in Jaya’s family history and how it affected her today.

The title of the book is a reference to so much storytelling that’s happening here: the narration from both Jaya and Amish, the story of Jaya’s past as told to her by Ravi, and the storytelling that Jaya does as a journalist and that her grandmother used to do as a writer and writing teacher. The parallels between Jaya and her unknown grandmother are beautiful and help to deepen the bond between Jaya and her mother. The story is moving in its statements about different cultures and especially womanhood: relationships between women, the strength of women and the sacrifices they make for their families.

The Storyteller’s Secret is a powerful, unstoppable read that makes you laugh, cry, think and feel. A truly excellent story.

MVP: Ravi. While the women are the focus of this book, Ravi may be the real star, the glue that binds together the woman of generations past and present, telling the stories that Amisha is unable to tell in her death. His generosity and love knows no bounds.

Get The Storyteller’s Secret in paperback now for $8.97.

Or get it on your Kindle for free.

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Review: The Four Agreements

Recap: Be impeccable with your word. Don’t take anything personally. Don’t make assumptions. Always do your best. These are the four agreements, the four promises that Toltec master Don Miguel Ruiz says will change your life, offer you personal freedom and make you a happier person with less suffering in this highly recommended self-help book. The agreements are simultaneously simple and difficult: simple in the sense that they appear to be common sense. Of course, if we always do our best, we will be happy. Of course, if we are impeccable with our words or stop assuming or don’t take things personally, we’ll be happy. DUH! But life isn’t quite so easy, and neither is making these changes. It’s one thing to promise to make these agreements; it’s another to actually follow through with them.

Analysis: Before Ruiz can make the case for the four agreements, he first must make the case for why we all have an often insatiable desire to be happy. He does this well, by explaining that we spend our lives raised by our parents, taught their lessons, experiencing the world and society around us and essentially accepting everything that’s thrown our way to be “true.” But it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to follow societal norms. It’s up to us to decide whether we want to fit in with the crowd or stand out in our own greatness. He explains that if we opt to not care what other people think. to do what makes us happy and to keep a positive outlook, we can be and remain happy. He explains that most of the suffering we each experience in life is self-induced.

For example, maybe someone cuts you off in traffic and you become enraged. You honk at them and start waving your arms and yelling in the car. The other driver sees you and starts yelling back or gives you the finger. The rest of the drive, you spend gripping your wheel, fuming. We’ve all been there. But what if, when that person cuts us off, we don’t take it personally? What if we realize that person is probably in a massive rush for some reason? What if we realize that their actions had everything to do with them and absolutely nothing to do with us? Then we’d just merrily continue driving to our destination, completely at ease. So why do we so often go down the first path? It’s because we’re causing our own suffering. We have the power to change this. We have the power to recognize that what other people do has nothing to do with us. We have the power to take a positive approach and fill the world with joy instead of anger. It will make you feel better and the others around you feel better too.

The concepts are easy. The actions are hard. But they are also worth it. Because we all want ease and joy. Ruiz’s book is at times a little heady and very spiritual, so it might be a bit much for some. But if you really want to improve your life and yourself, this is a book that will single-handedly get you there.

Get The Four Agreements in paperback for $7.49.

Or on your Kindle for $4.02.

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Movie vs. Book: The Hate U Give

the hate u giveStarr Carter has to bounce back and forth between two worlds: the white world of her private school and the black world in which she lives with her black family in a predominantly black neighborhood, known for its violence and lower income housing. It’s when she’s at a party in her neighborhood that her two worlds come to a head.

She meets up with her oldest friend, Khalil, who she hasn’t seen in quite some time. After shots are fired at the party, the two escape. When Khalil drives Starr home, he’s pulled over. He’s asked to step out of the car. He complies but reaches back in the car to check on Starr and grab his hairbrush. It’s at that moment that Khalil is shot and killed by a white police officer.

Witnessing this devastating trauma is not even the first time it’s happened to Starr. When she was 10 years old, her other best friend was innocently shot and killed in a drive-by shooting.

Tension within the town escalates as the media reports that Khalil had been dealing drugs and paints the white officer in a better light. Starr speaks to investigators but her parents refuse to have her identity revealed. She also keeps the fact that she was a witness to the shooting a secret from her white friends and boyfriend, as she continues to try and separate the worlds. But ultimately, she can’t keep them separate anymore, and as her worlds collide, she grows into the woman she never knew she could be.

The movie version of The Hate U Give is excellent and follows the novel almost to a T. There are four major changes it makes — some are understandable, some are little too dramatic for an already dramatic story. First of all, in the movie Starr and Khalil kiss before he is killed. An understandable change, it helps explain the depth of their relationship and what they mean to each other, making his death all the more shocking and painful for the viewer. That said, I didn’t like that they kissed because it made Starr cheat on her actual boyfriend, something her character would never actually do.

The movie also eliminates the DeVante character: DeVante is a teen in the neighborhood who gets caught up in one of the local gangs. Starr’s father doesn’t want to see him get lost in the gang world so he takes him in and protects him from the gang leaders. He’s a beautiful parallel to Khalil and Starr’s father and what each of them could have been had they received guidance from an adult. Instead the movie folds DeVante’s character into Starr’s older brother. I loved DeVante in the book, but again, I understand the decision to cut him to shorten the length of the movie.

The other big changes come at the end of the movie as rioters are taking over the city, pushing for justice for Khalil. In the novel, Starr navigates the riots with her brother, DeVante and her boyfriend. But in the movie, the boyfriend leaves early and goes home. Maybe producers thought having a white boy in the midst of black people rioting wouldn’t be believable. But in the novel, I thought it was good to have a white person experience that, to be caught up in something that the average white person doesn’t typically see, to witness an eye-opening historic moment and also to show his love for his girlfriend by staying with her through a dangerous time.

But the biggest shock in the movie (***SPOILER ALERT***) comes when Starr’s little brother holds up a gun to the gang leader who has just burned down their father’s grocery story in the middle of the riots. Sure, it is a truly perfect image of how gun violence, racism and society impact children and rob them of their innocence. But it so shocking, dark and also completely absurd (in that if Starr’s parents were looking for her in the riots, they would NEVER bring a seven-year-old with them), it just didn’t work for me. In the book, the cops arrive and cuff the gang leader pretty quickly without any major escalation. Call that anti-climactic if you will, but I call that realistic.

The important thing to keep in mind regardless is that both the book and movie are incredibly important right now. They are so topical, so relevant, so timely, so valuable, I would highly recommend both to everyone.

Get The Hate U Give now in paperback for $7.15. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Movie vs. Book: Crazy Rich Asians

crazy rich asiansRachel Chu is nervous. She’s about to go to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nick, but this is not just some vacation. They’re visiting for his best friend’s wedding, and it will be the first time she’s meeting Nick’s family. Rachel takes some time to decide, but ultimately determines it would be a fun way to spend her summer off from teaching economics at NYU.

What she doesn’t realize is how nervous she really should be. As it turns out, Nick comes from one of the wealthiest families in Asia. He keeps this information on the down low so as not to be treated differently, but from the moment she hops the plane with him, she begins to understand his very rich reality and quickly comes to realize she may not be accepted by his family or friends.

Yes, Rachel is Chinese. But she is American-born Chinese (ABC), and to his traditional mother, ABC is essentially unacceptable. This pit-in-the-stomach, all-out sinking feeling is excellently portrayed in the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians based on the 2013 bestselling novel. The movie beautifully emphasizes all the best parts of the novel: the romance between Rachel and Nick, the drama between Rachel and Nick’s mother Eleanor, and the glitz and glamour of Singapore and the crazy rich Asians who live there.

The movie follows the book fairly closely except for the ending. The movie adds a scene in which Nick’s family and Rachel make dumplings together, offering an opportunity for Rachel and Eleanor to get to know each other better. The building of their relationship is effectively trashed when only minutes later, Eleanor tells Rachel she will “never be enough.” This scene adds a layer of indiscreet, purposeful anger between Rachel and Eleanor, which then gives Rachel a reason to show Eleanor who’s boss. This is a significant and positive change from the novel. Where Rachel remains mostly timid in the book, this scene in the movie pushes Rachel to fight for the alpha female role, positioning herself strongly against Eleanor so that she stands up for herself in a way we don’t get to witness in the book.

It then leads to a different and happier ending between Rachel and Nick and a more concretely positive relationship between Rachel and Eleanor.

As it aimed to be one of, if not the most successful rom-com in years, Crazy Rich Asians had no choice but to tidy up some of the open-endedness of the book. But the plot choices made at the end of the novel were made to set up the next book in the trilogy (China Rich Girlfriend), and that is lost in the movie. (That includes much of the storyline about Astrid, Nick’s beautiful cousin.) This matters now because the movie sequel has already been confirmed, thanks to the wild success of the first movie.

Crazy Rich Asians is everything a girl could possibly want in a romantic comedy: romance! scandal! makeover montages! a big, beautiful wedding! But it’s possible — nay, definite — that the novel has more depth to offer.

Get Crazy Rich Asians in paperback for $9.60.

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.99.

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Review: 10% Happier

10 happierRecap: When ABC News anchor and correspondent Dan Harris was in his 30’s, he had his first on-air implosion: a panic attack on national television in the middle of a report. Did he handle it well? Of course. Like a pro. But it was clearly something had happened. It was only after that that he finally started seeing a therapist and learned his increasingly frequent panic attacks were a result of his cocaine addiction, a habit he picked up while covering the war in the Middle East.

TV reporting is no joke, folks. Harris knew he needed to make some massive changes. In this part memoir, part self-help book, Harris brilliantly and beautifully documents his long, dubious path out of his own darkness and into a space that’s at least 10% brighter. Harris tells the story of his downfall and his unexpected spiritual journey that led him to meditation. A skeptic, as many journalists are, Harris needed to understand meditation from all angles before he truly jumped in. In time, he has become a huge proponent of the practice. Being more mindful, he says, has helped him become a more relaxed, focused, less stressed, more loving person.

Analysis: This book had come highly recommended for years. But it wasn’t until about a year-and-a-half ago that I stumbled upon meditation itself. In sifting through and trying various meditation apps, the one I happened to like best was the 10% Happier app. Its guided meditations were the easiest to understand. They cut through the BS and gave it to me straight. They made me understand the purpose, point, goals and benefits of meditation. I was not surprised to learn that it was connected to the 10% Happier book, just surprised to realize the book had developed into the world of podcasting and apps. The more Dan Harris talked about his experience with meditation in the app and podcast, the more I knew I had to read the book.

Basically — everyone was right; this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in the last year (and I have read a LOT). Harris’s story of ups and down in his personal and professional life were of course very relatable to me since I, too, am a TV reporter. But more than that, it’s his self-doubt, self-loathing and temper I related to most. I often shouted while I was reading this “He’s me! I’m the female version of Dan Harris!” I feel grateful that he did so much of the meditation and Buddhist homework for me, talking to various teachers and getting a plethora of insights.

It was hard to put this book down. Having written his second book, Harris often says he hoped that his first book (this one, 10% Happier) would make the case for meditation and was surprised to find that for most of his readers, it didn’t. I, however, found that it did. His spiritual awakening is inspiring and something I think we all could use a lot of these days. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a reporter professionally so his writing is obviously fabulous — leaving little tease-worthy bread crumbs at the end of each chapter. I find myself going back to his book frequently, reminding myself of some of his methods so that I, too, can become 10% happier. Because every little bit counts. And isn’t that what it’s all about on this journey to betterment?

Get 10% Happier now in paperback for $13.25. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Review: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

nphRecap: You may recognize him as Doogie Howser. Or that other weird doctor, Dr. Horrible. To you, he may be Barney Stinson. Or a very angry Hedwig. Or he may just be the high guy from Harold and Kumar. Either way, Neil Patrick Harris has made quite the imprint on Hollywood in the past 25 years he’s been in the business. Like many other stars, he uses his celebrity here to write his own memoir, but NPH is far too cool to just run your everyday, run-of-the-mill celebrity memoir. After all, he loves magic. So he makes his memoir a little more magical by writing it in the form of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of yesteryear. Finish a chapter, and choose between options like this: “If you need a drink to calm down, turn to page 45. If you need to wake your brain back up, turn to page 150. To continue your stage career, willkommen/bienvenue/welcomeim/au/to page 130. To attempt to relaunch your movie career, turn to page 124.”

Some chapters are silly absurdist fake short stories he’s written about his life. Some are recipes for his favorites food and cocktails. Some are magic tricks. But most are real stories from his life, including his time as a child star, the years when he was “washed up” in his twenties, his various stints in theater, his comeback into movies and television, his coming out of the closet both personally and publicly and the process he and his husband went through to have their children.

NPH has led every kind of life you can feature in an autobiography, so he gives us, the reader, the choice to read whichever one we like.

Analysis: The truth is I didn’t follow the choose your own adventure format and just read straight through the book. I think most people do — considering NPH wrote in an extra page in the book that no chapter urges you to turn to; clearly he knew people would find it because they’re lazy like me and just reading straight through. That said, the book is enjoyable either way. It zigs and zags through his life — some of it in order, some out of order. Some of the absurdist fake story chapters had me rolling my eyes thinking ‘why did I even bother to read these two pages?’ But the rest of the book more than makes up for it.

The struggles he’s faced in his career, in figuring out his sexuality and in having a family are as real as they get. NPH may appear to have it all, but it took him a long time and a lot of strife to get there. The sections about his children moved me to tears. He keeps his sense of humor throughout every page of the book, even if it’s in just the directions at the end of a chapter. His Barney Stinson silliness wreaks havoc on the book in the best way possible. This was by far the most creatively written memoir I’ve ever read and easily one of the most enjoyable, fun, and deeply moving.

Get Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography in hardcover for just $4.29.

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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