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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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Review: Scrappy Little Nobody

scrappy-little-nobody-9781501117206_lgRecap: Actress and singer Anna Kendrick proves she’s as funny as you think she is in this bestselling memoir about her path to becoming a Tony and Oscar-nominated actress, best known for her role in Pitch Perfect. Like Tina Fey’s BossypantsScrappy Little Nobody reads as if Kendrick is speaking to you with silly lines that you can hear in her voice like “if i saw ‘advanced’ in the corner of a Martha Stewart Living recipe, I’d think, Bring it on, you crazy bitch” or “Player WHAA.”

Her memoir tells her story, including growing up in Maine and becoming an unlikely child star on Broadway, being nominated for a Tony, continuing to work in theater and then movies, dating guys, losing her virginity, meeting celebrities, and being nominated for an Oscar while still not being able to afford food or toilet paper. But it also includes more introspective stories as well, about mourning her grandmother while shooting a movie, about witnessing Drew Barrymore having a “moment” to herself after winning an award, about getting advice from acting legends, about dealing with her anxiety.

Analysis: It’s too much for me to count the number of times I laughed out loud while reading this. She’s witty and silly while still being analytical and finding subtle ways to let the reader into who she really is. She also tells stories in great detail. She described premiere dresses, scenes from movies, references to camera shots during awards shows in such a fun way, I found myself Googling photos and YouTube clips so I could see everything. She wrote the book, knowing that would happen too, specifically when she includes a photo of her stoned at that red carpet and wrote “Here’s a picture of my stoned face, so you don’t have to Google it later.” (How does she know? She just does.)

Scrappy Little Nobody includes all the things a celebrity memoir should: fun facts about shooting her most famous movies and skits — like how she lost her shoe while performing at the Oscars, the complete ridiculousness of being famous — like how she showed up stoned to a red carpet about a brief hospitalization,  what it’s really like to work with Zac Efron (spoiler: every bit as incredible as you think), and the fact that she’s just a real person who often can’t believe her life is her life.

Get Scrappy Little Nobody in paperback for $8.06.

Or on your Kindle for $13.99.

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Lara’s Top Picks of 2016

booksIt’s the end of the year, so you know what that means. It’s time for my top book picks of 2016! As always, this is NOT — I repeat, NOT — a list of my favorite books that came out this year. This is a list of my favorite books I read this year, regardless of what year they came out. (And as always, for those of you who want to read a list of the best books that came out this year, I recommend the New York Times’ Notable Books of 2016 list.) That said, there are probably more “new” books on this list than in years past and several books by some of my favorite authors. It’s also worth noting that I struggled picking between my #1 and #2 choices, as they’re both equally fantastic. It’s also the first year my list has included a play! (Any guesses which mega bestseller that might be?) As always, below my top picks list is a list of ALL the books I read this year — a year I happened to slack. Don’t judge me! Read on for some great book suggestions to follow you into 2017, which will hopefully be another great year of books!

10. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. Oprah Winfrey picked this read as an Oprah’s Book Club book back in 2005 as a nonfiction memoir about addiction and getting clean, and instead it became controversial after it was determined that the author embellished much of what he had written, but it’s still a gripping read. I believed the narrator’s struggle and enjoyed it with the mindset that it was fiction or “enhanced” nonfiction. Buy it now.

9. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by Kim BarkerIn this actual memoir, Kim Barker delves into the world of journalism in the Middle East. The book feels more like a compilation of vignettes of her experiences that include everything from getting interviews with Middle Eastern warlords to partying hard with other foreign correspondents in a very real depiction. Buy it now.

8. Meet the Regulars by Joshua D. FischerAlso a compilation book, this one profiles random New Yorkers and the bars/coffee shops/restaurants/hangouts they frequent. It works for NYC-lovers who may just be looking for foodie recommendations, but it also works as a subtle study on people, why they like what they like and why they do what they do. Buy it now.

7. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany and Jack ThorneIt was not the greatest of the Harry Potter stories; in fact, I found it fairly repetitive and cyclicle from the original novels, but it holds its own and is just plain nice to once again connect with the characters we know and love — and their offspring. Buy it now.

6. The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay. A little bit Water for Elephants and a little bit Little Women, this new historical fiction novel (one of my favorite genres) explores a family of strong women performing as a traveling tumbling act as a means to an end during the early 1900s. It debuted at exactly the right time – a year in which strong females became a focal point. Buy it now.

5. The Tenth Circle by Jodi PicoultThough the ending wasn’t my favorite, I read this story about a rape victim and the death of her alleged rapist on vacation and couldn’t put it down. Its parallels with Dante’s Inferno add another layer of interest making this a page turner in true Jodi Picoult fashion. Buy it now.

4. The Hopefuls by Jennifer CloseIn an election year, this book about how demanding, exhausting, scandalous and ridiculous a political campaign can be was a perfect fit. The novel follows two young couples as one husband runs for political office, and the other husband — who can’t quite hack it as a politician — runs his “friend’s” campaign instead. Buy it now.

3.  Me Before You by Jojo MoyesA young woman is hired to care for a paraplegic who wants nothing more than to end his life. While controversial, the book is also insanely romantic and delves into paralysis in a way other mainstream books haven’t seemed to conquer. In the end, it’s a book about finding yourself and deciding what you want from life. Buy it now.

2. Year of Yes by Shonda RhimesThis memoir/self-help book is everything you could want from both a memoir AND a self-help book. Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder creator/producer/writer Shonda Rhimes writes about her behind-the-scenes experiences working on these shows and the benefits she reaps as a show creator, but also details her hesitance and how forcing herself to say “yes” to everything changed her life. Truly inspiring. Buy it now.

1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. Two sisters separate in France during WWII, where the Holocaust is gaining momentum. One sister cares for her family, while the other works to save as many people as she can. But the story’s back-and-forth persepective between the sisters as well as the time jump between WWII and modern-day U.S. — where only one sister has survived — makes the saga breathtaking, tear-inducing, and monumentally profound. Buy it now.

A Million Little Pieces – James Frey

Revenge Wears Prada – Lauren Weisberger

The Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – Kim Barker

Allegiant – Veronica Roth

Baggage – S.G. Redling

Year of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

Ragtime – E.L. Doctorow

The Tumbling Turner Sisters – Juliette Fay

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Sunsets of Tulum -Raymond Avery Bartlett

The Tenth Circle – Jodi Picoult

Meet the Regulars – Joshua D. Fischer

The Hopefuls – Jennifer Close

The End of the Age of Innocence – Alan Price

All the Summer Girls – Meg Donohue

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

Losing It – Emma Rathbone

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Review: Losing It

1024x1024Recap: It’s a premise we’ve seen before. Part 40-Year-Old Virgin, part American Pie, Losing It tells the story of a 26-year-old girl, Julia, who is yet to lose her virginity. Still a little lost in life and determined to have sex, she quits her job and moves to North Carolina for a summer to stay with her Aunt Viv, who she barely knows and of whom she only has vague childhood memories.

Not so much focused on connecting with her aunt, Julia instead gets a part-time job, joins several dating sites and attends a regular art class all in the hopes of not finding her one true love, but finding a one-time lover. First, there’s Elliot in her office, but he’s married. Then there’s the crazy — and rude! — guy from the dating app. Then the one she meets at a funeral. Each relationship starts off promising, but turns sour. Quickly.

In the midst of all this, she learns that her Aunt Viv is also a virgin. Finally! Something about which she and her aunt can connect! But as time goes on, she loses the nerve to share with her Aunt Viv that she, too, is a virgin. It seems the more Julia tries to connect with people, the less she’s able to, and by the end of the summer, things rapidly spin out of control.

Analysis: The premise is great. Everyone loves a good losing-their-virginity story. They’re funny and charming. That would be the case in Losing It except Julia is a deeply unlikable character. She’s awkward in a hypocritical way. For instance, she’s willing to put herself out there and get a job and sign up for random community classes, and she has no problem flirting with strange men; and yet when her Aunt Viv talks to her about her artwork, all Julia can muster is “Oh. Okay.”

Aside from being a poor conversationalist with Aunt Viv, she’s misses events with her, doesn’t come home for dinner, attempts to sleep with someone at her friend’s funeral and snoops around her bedroom. She’s completely ungrateful to a kind woman who’s put her up for free all summer.

Julia is so completely self-involved, she can’t see past her own virginity. The way it consumes her every waking thought does not come across as funny; it comes across as desperate and sad. I appreciated the effort the book made in its attempts at wry humor but frankly, they just didn’t work.

MVP: Aunt Viv. She’s easily the most generous person in the book and gets the least credit for all that she does. I do wish we learned more about her and her background, but with the book coming from the point-of-view of Julia, there was little chance of that happening.

Get Losing It now in hardcover for $16.30. 

Or on your Kindle for $12.99.

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New Dan Brown ‘Robert Langdon’ Novel Coming

originWhether or not you saw or read Inferno — which you absolutely should have — have no fear; Dan Brown is blessing us all with another ‘Robert Langdon’ novel. Yes, I said blessing because yes, I truly love his books.

According to his web site, Dan Brown’s next book in the series is Origin, due to be released September 26, 2017.

Little is known about the  novel. It was only recently announced, and there isn’t even cover art yet. What we do know is that it will once again involve Brown’s character Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist and will “thrust” him “into the dangerous intersection of humankind’s two most enduring questions, and the earth-shaking discovery that will answer them,” according to the press release.

I, for one, am all in, but I hope Brown’s books continue to sell. Inferno, the movie, did…well…less than stellar in theaters, so hopefully people aren’t starting to get sick of this character and format. They truly are fun, adventurous, dark and thought-provoking books.

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Review: All the Summer Girls

51qeoz7vyzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_Recap: Nothing like a broken-off engagement and pregnancy, a cheating husband and being fired after your life’s become overrun with drugs and alcohol to start your summer. But that’s the way the summer begins for three high school best friends who grew up together and in recent years have mostly grown apart. Kate, Vanessa and Dani had already planned to go away for the weekend for Kate’s bachelorette party. Now that she’s no longer about to become a misses, the three decide to go away together anyway and keep it close to home: the Jersey Shore, the place where they spent all their summers together growing up.

But for the three of them, the Jersey Shore brings up bad memories of the last time they were here together, back during college when a tragic night lead to the death of Kate’s twin brother — a loss from which none of the girls ever truly recovered. Anxiety builds as the secrets of their lives — pregnancy, cheating, addiction — keep finding ways to creep into this home away from home that holds another big, aching secret. Eventually that anxiety must break, and break it does.

AnalysisAll the Summer Girls has just the right ingredients for a great summer beach read — romance, friendship, scandal, secrets and of course the beach setting. Meg Donahue brings it all together, forcing the reader to wonder what she would do any of these characters’ positions. Female friendship is complicated, and this novels dives deep into those murky waters, especially as it details the relationship between Vanessa and Dani, which is so severed, one wonders if it can even be repaired at this point. Sometimes girlfriends truly do just drift. Other times, secrets keep them separated. And still other times, girlfriends remain friends despite all the secrets, all the time that’s passed, and all the little things that annoy each other. The bonds prove strong in this novel.

While Donahue brings it all together, it does feel forced. Vanessa’s obsession with her ex-boyfriend is unwarranted since it seems to be nothing more than an eight-year-old summer fling. Not only that, but there’s a lot of build to a rather anticlimactic and uneventful plotline in the end. Dani discovering some of the things she learns on this trip also seems to make it a perfect time for her addiction to only get worse. Instead, she fights it off which is empowering and impressive, but in my opinion, unlikely under the circumstances. I’ve read several books about female friendship and all their secrets coming out over the course of a summer. It’s a common trope in “chick lit,” but I’ve seen it done better elsewhere.

MVP: Dani. Though her life is more of a mess than any of the other three girls, she’s the one that pulls through the best. She doesn’t freak out. She doesn’t cause a scene. She just deals with it. She decides ultimately that she needs to make some changes, and she does it, no questions asked, no hesitation, and that is impressive.

Get All the Summer Girls in paperback for $12.74. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $9.24.

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Movie vs. Book: Inferno

**Note: This post does include spoilers about both the novel and movie versions of Inferno. 

Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital. He has been shot, doesn’t realize that he’s in Florence, Italy — and not Boston, Massachusetts — and doesn’t remember anything that’s happened in the last 48 hours. So begins Inferno, the latest and easily one of the best of Dan Brown’s bestsellers conspiracy thriller novels that have been captivating readers since The Da Vinci Code was released.

In the latest adventure, Langdon teams up with his nurse, Sienna Brooks, and finds a projector in one of his pockets that displays Botticell’s Map of Hell. He knows that whatever reason he’s in Italy, it must have something to do with this map. Over the course of the novel, he discovers that he has been brought to Italy by the World Health Organization to solve a puzzle, whose answer indicates the location of some kind of virus or plague created by a billionaire geneticist named Bertrand Zobrist. Zobrist is well-known for his teachings against overpopulation, so it makes sense he would create a plague that would wipe out the population.

The reason why I believe Inferno was such a successful Dan Brown novel is because it veered far from the others, avoiding the format we’ve come to expect from a Robert Langdon novel. Langdon wakes up and not only has to solve the puzzle, but his amnesia is so bad, he doesn’t even know why he’s solving it!  The young ingenue with whom Langdon teams up is actually working against him! And what’s more — he does NOT solve the puzzle in time! The plague gets out after all. The end of Inferno is not only sad, it’s unsettling and alarming.

The movie followed the book so well until the moment when the characters arrive at the Hagia Sofia in Turkey, where the plague is expected to be released. The movie ends there. Langdon locates the soluble bag that contains the virus, Sienna is killed, and the WHO gets the bag before it dissolves and leaks out the virus. The novel, however, has much more story. We find out that yes, Sienna Brooks was working against Langdon, but she also wants to stop the virus from getting out and is essentially a good person. In the novel, they also learn that the virus had been released a week earlier anyhow, so the chase that led them there was irrelevant; it’s already out. The good news is that the plague is not a deadly one, but one that causes sterility.

It’s obvious why the movie adaptation’s ending is so different. Everyone wants a Hollywood ending. The idea of the movie ending with a sterility plague released is horribly pessimistic. Not to mention, viewers would condemn the fact that Langdon wasn’t really much of a hero after all. On the other hand, the book ending the way it did totally works. Sure, it’s unsettling, but it makes you think. People watch movies to make them happy. People read books to make them think.

Get Inferno now in paperback for $7.40.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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