Monthly Archives: January 2014

Today in new Books – 1/28/2014

It’s a big day in new book releases… or more likely it’s a normal day and I just happen to have read more of these than usual. Either way, here’s what I got on this day in book publishing history.


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The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress (****)
As usual, I didn’t pay anything for this book but instead received it for free directly from the publisher. Also as usual, despite that kindness I will proceed to be completely honest about it.

At a high level, this book is the speculative history of the disappearance of Joseph Force Crater in 1930. At the time the story kept the world riveted to their newspapers and was the object of much editorial speculation. This narrative cobbles the story together from the perspective of the women in Judge Crater’s life.

On the positive side, Lawhon’s novel is set in a wonderfully provocative period in history and gives us a story as capable of captivating an audience as it was 80 years ago. Lawhon’s characters are believable and sympathetic and she renders them wonderfully. She also very skillfully weaves her fictional threads through the facts of the case in a way that gives it great credibility. In her ending notes, she describes some of the liberties she took with the story and based on these tiny provisos, she has been very true to the tale which inspired her.

To the negative, despite the above, the novel does seem to take a while to get started. It took a week to get through the first half and a day to get through the last half. This is not the sort of novel that immediately inspires one to long persistent reading, though it does eventually gain momentum. Also, despite the wonderfully entertaining locale and time period, one cannot help but think it was not put to as great a use as it could be. While it was easy to tell we were in the 1930s, the story didn’t take full advantage of that fact. I would have anticipated greater use of the language of the times and a truer rendering of the culture.

In summary, a great story set in a grand part of history. For fans of the historical this is one not to miss. It only falls short in that it fails to full realize the potential of just how colorful such a venue can be to the reader. I liked it but wanted to like it more.


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Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy (*****)
As usual I received this book for free just so I’d review it. Also as usual I’ll give my candid opinions below.

Since this is a child’s book I don’t judge by my usual criteria but explore two basic questions. The first is whether I would want my child to read it. To this I say most assuredly yes. It has a strong lesson to teach about following your own path, bravery and never giving up and being systematic in everything you do. As a fairly logical person I would like every chance to influence my children in that particular regard especially! More importantly, the book contains nothing one could consider even remotely of concern for young audiences. No sex, no drugs, just a bit of adventure, petty theft and lying to one’s parents. OK, maybe not the best example but not like some of the terrible YA stuff I’ve come across.

The second question is whether I think my kids would want to read it at all. This is always difficult to judge but it does have characters that kids can relate to and a pretty entertaining story line. The vocabulary is not especially daunting and the action picks up from the every first paragraph so I think this one has a chance at setting the hook.

So in summary, I was entertained enough reading it and I think kids will be too. I have no concerns about the lesson they’ll get out of it and they might learn something positive too if they’re not careful. Exactly the sort of book I wold have liked as a youngster.


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This Dark Road to Mercy: A Novel (****)
As usual I received this book via the grand courtesy of the publisher through a Shelf Awareness giveaway. Despite that great kindness my candid opinions follow.

The summary of this one is a bit tough because it’s so many things at once. It is, in equal parts, the story of children forced to grow up before their time, dark criminal suspense and sad story of parenthood failed. As if that’s not enough, there’s also a thread of baseball history and doping thrown in for good measure. The narrative is done in a panoramic style as we hear in first person from the oldest child, the hero and the villain in approximately equal parts.

On the positive side, the circumspect narrative style really gives the reader a detailed look at the situation from all sides. The story has a lot to say about fatherhood and whether that title is given by right or must be earned and delves into the complex situations of parenting in an intriguing way that’s not often seen in such an otherwise gritty novel. The author’s female characters are charming and evoke a great deal of pity from the reader and one inwardly roots for them as they make their way through the short span of time portrayed in the book. This one touches a lot of genres at once and never fails to keep the reader guessing.

To the negative, the narrative switches can sometimes be rather jarring and confusing. The first transition comes 35 pages in and I completely missed it and had to go back and reread a few pages to figure out why the eldest daughter was suddenly sitting in a bar. Once primed to expect it things settled down but this wasn’t the best executed thing about the book. Also, the female characters were very lifelike but the villain seemed rather flat and we missed his back story. He and his heroic counterpart lacked “pop” and didn’t quite pull the reader along behind them as the girls did. Lastly, on the topic of language, it’s worth noting that the narrators tell the story in their own distinct southern vernacular and this is not limited to actual dialog. So those who are appalled by “ain’t got no” and “ain’t hardly no” should be steeled for the fact that these characters have uniquely southern voices.

In summary, a very diverse and well executed book with something for everyone. Fans of gritty crime suspense will find a bit of something to tantalize them; those looking for child-welfare drama will be well served and baseball fans can relive a bit of the late-90s doping drama.

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Book Reviews: The Martian – Andy Weir

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As usual I received this book free of charge in exchange for a review, this time from NetGalley. Also as usual I will give my candid thoughts below.

The plot of this one is basically Castaway plus any movie you’ve ever seen set on Mars. Guy’s marooned on Mars and only has his wits to survive the situation.

On the positive side the level of detail here is amazingly intricate and the author tells you every single detail of every cliff-hanging situation and its eventual resolution. Also, the main character is one of those rare individuals who responds to stress with humor so the book manages to be quite funny in its way despite the rather grim situation being faced.

To the negative, the science in this book is OK but at times left me scratching my head in perplexity. It’s obvious the author has done his homework but there were more than a few holes. For the most part I managed to ignore them but anyone who is hyper-technical will likely be inflamed at the whole thing. Finally, after a while the meticulous detail tended to be rather draining. I started and finished this book in a single 5-hour sitting and by the end I was just exhausted and ready for it to end. I highly recommend that you do NOT attempt that.

In summary, this book has a great premise and pretty good execution for a book so intimately tied to science content. I also have absolute confidence that this will become a movie (if it hasn’t already) so look for it in the theatre eventually.

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Movie Reviews: Girlfriend 19 – Not really any plot to speak of but instead detailed emotional forensics on what it’s like to break up with someone

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I watched this movie because it looked lonely and unreviewed on Amazon Instant Watch and I’m reasonably glad I did but it’s important to know what you’re getting into.

First and foremost, this movie is not broken. It starts out with about 60 seconds of complete blackness and almost no audio and very slowly brightens to reveal a woman’s hand. We scrambled around a bit wondering why the movie wasn’t starting only to realize that the movie was starting but very slowly. So be aware of that oddity.

So, the plot is really not much of a plot so it’s impossible to “spoiler” much of anything. The slowly-appearing opening scene features a couple in bed yet also in the process of breaking up. About 5 minutes into it he’s finally out the door and the rest of the movie covers the next 2-3 days as she deals with the emotional aftermath of the situation. It’s a deep and (I’m told) accurate view of breaking up from the woman’s perspective but it’s not a movie driven by events. She talks to her friends, she flashes back to before the relationship, she talks to her ex, she flashes back to events with her ex, around and around for 90 minutes.

In summary, it wasn’t a movie that took our breath away but it was reasonably thought provoking. Guys will have a bit more trouble with this movie since it’s not really their perspective on things but it’s a pretty accurate and it will spur some potential conversation if you’re open-minded about the whole topic. Most definitely not a first-date movie though.

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Noticed I’m a bit Quiet Lately?

Well, as it turns out I’m not quiet at all; I’m just tired of cross-posting articles to 5 different sites. The Publicize to Facebook feature hasn’t seemed to work for quite some time so all my random blathering has been going over there directly. Lately I’ve been on a pretty feverish movie review kick (primarily on Amazon Instant Watch movies that you can watch free with Amazon prime) so if you want a free movie or 50 to watch (or want to know what to avoid) head on over to my Facebook page for The Tattered Thread!

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The Week in Movies

The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug

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To begin, I really wanted to like this movie. I’ve read the book about 10 times in my life and consider myself a solid fan of the work. Unfortunately, this movie diverts so far from the book and into the realm of vapid uber-action flick that it’s really got nothing to do with its predecessor at this point.

On the positive side, as usual the visuals are incredible. The depiction of Smaug is everything you could hope for and the scenery and backdrops are amazing. Technology continues to make it hard to go to a movie and not see something interesting. Any collection of dwarves as varied as this one is always a treat and the guest appearances by the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and Jeeves (Stephen Fry) were a wonderful mid-movie wake up. These and the other characters were crafted very satisfactorily.

Unfortunately, the negative begins when you look at what these well-drawn characters actually did. Even forgetting a moment that there ever was a book, the action sequences were appalling in their defiance of any reasonable logic about how the world actually works. At one point I thought for certain I was watching a clip from Super Mario Brothers as Mario jumped about stomping on the heads of his enemies. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see someone grow to twice their size after eating a colorful mushroom. Lastly, as artfully as these characters were portrayed it would have been nice if they’d picked a single personality and stuck with it throughout the film.

In summary, as a fan of the book this movie is a tragedy. The story line is mangled and wouldn’t really be recognizable as having anything to do with The Hobbit if not for the names. Sadly this is probably unavoidable when you turn a book that takes about 6 hours to read (including a break for elevensies) and turn it into three movies that take 8+ hours to watch. If you disregard the book entirely you still end up with a hollow and rather silly movie. All that said though it still earns 3 stars because it was nice to look at. As long as you don’t accidentally think about it too much you’ll be fine.

American Hustle

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I saw this movie, as I usually do, by just showing up at the theatre and watching whatever movie is playing next knowing not a single thing about it.

On the positive side, the setting is 1978 and the clothes, music, cars all were done wonderfully. I love a historical piece and this one didn’t fail to show us some of the best and some of the worst from fashion in this era. The soundtrack is diverse and appropriate and doesn’t just stick to the same 20 songs we tend to hear from the late 70’s. Also, as story lines go this one was reasonably well executed and held my own interest for most of the 2+ hours. I saw this one in a VERY crowded theatre and the audience seemed attentive and responsive to the 15-20 comedic bits. In fact one woman in the front row very nearly choked to death on a piece of popcorn that happened to hit the wrong spot just as something funny was going on.

To the negative, the movie did have some continuity problems and the middle hour or so was a bit of a yawn-filled drag. It seemed like a movie that was cobbled down from about 5 hours to 2 as characters made unexplained transitions between emotional states; I suspect an extended version might make slightly more sense but likely end up being fairly unbearable.

In summary, not the best movie I’ve seen in the past few months but it was amusing enough to justify the time spent. Any movie featuring a comb-over as complex as the one in the opening scenes of the movie deserves at least 4 stars.

The Hunger Games – Catching Fire
Seldom have I watched a movie based on a book that so accurately translates what was on the printed page. At several points I thought I must have seen the movie before because the image was so familiar but later realized that the movie just got it so right that I only imagined it.

It’s also worth remembering that the movie is a children’s movie based on a children’s book and despite the fact that it deals with some fairly violent subject matter, it does it in a very child-friendly way. Adults who are accustomed to the usual gore Hollywood likes to spew out will notice a much tamer take on the subject.

Additionally, I’ve read the books but I can’t imagine this movie would suffer terribly for those who hadn’t. The whole thing is fairly straightforward with no great complexity so it would be difficult to get lost even without previous experience in the texts.

Lastly, the thing that makes me like this series most is its strong underlying social commentary on the plutocracy in which we live in this country. For kids reading the book today, they’re probably not seeing the parallels but once they get older it’s just possible they’ll see echoes of this in their own government and the social stratification that we live with every day.

Saving Mr. Banks
As always, no spoilers whatsoever in this review because that’s just plain inconsiderate.

Saving Mr. Banks is a dual narrative portrait of the author of Mary Poppins and the creative team at Walt Disney that worked to bring it to the big screen. In one thread (1961) we have the curmudgeonly author behaving like a stark raving… well, curmudgeon as she tries to exert control over the creative process. In the other thread (1906, Australia) we unwind the story of her grim childhood that makes her a curmudgeon in the first place.

This movie has a lot of things to say not the least of which is to cast an entirely different light that beloved American classic of childhood. Mary Poppins ain’t quite what you think it’s about as a kid (but then what good movie IS what you think it’s about when you’re a kid). It’s also a powerful demonstration of how our childhood influences us as adults sometimes in ways that we don’t quite grasp until we look back on them from a great distance.

It’s also interesting to see behind the curtain of the creative process. Avoiding spoilers, the author’s primary objection is that Mary Poppins and the Banks family have become, in truth, her family over the years and sharing that vision and letting someone else have a piece of them is frightfully difficult. It does make a person wonder if all authors have this same struggle when crossing mediums.

Lastly, I’m a sucker for sentiment but this movie had the audience blowing its nose and audibly sniffing for a good hour. It’s an incredibly intimate portrait. However, the kids won’t think much of it and the group in the theatre with me was 50+ for the most part. All that said, highly recommended for anyone with a sentimental streak. Best movie I’ve seen in a month or more.

PS: The patient who sit through the credits will be treated to some photos from the movie’s production and a section of the recorded conversations between the author and the production cast.

Anchorman 2 – The Legend Continues
Firstly: No spoilers here. That would be pretty inconsiderate.

I don’t think there is any single moment in this movie that people will completely lose it over but for two hours the movie quietly pounds away in absurdity. I watched this in a fairly full theatre of college kids and there was a consistent level of positive reaction. About 80% of the attempted humor got a laugh and that’s not a bad based on recent experience.

Part of the joy of this movie is that it has so many threads of story to appeal to so many. The older set will enjoy the wonderfully archaic fashion (it made me want to find some of those delightful polyester pattern shirts) and numerous period references, though some of these seem anachronistic given the movie is set in 1980.

At times the film echos Zoolander as macho professional archetypes square off in hopelessly absurd duels for dominance of the stage. The film’s closing melee is star-studded and from a story perspective, somewhat of a letdown, but I was too busy trying to figure out all the cameos to realize that until much later. My primary observation from that scene is to note that a lot of famous people are starting to look really old. Yow.

Lastly, the thing that really sticks out for me about this movie is that like all comedies, it goes through that mandatory dramatic shift about 2/3 of the way through but Anchorman 2 somehow survives and continues to be funny. Perhaps that’s because the movie’s poignant moments aren’t all that poignant but nevertheless, the movie manages to deliver laughs even after the usual serious interludes.

PS: If you do happen to sit through the movie’s massive credits, there is a brief additional scene. It’s not worth missing your dinner reservations for but it is there for the intrepid and the absurdly patient.

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