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Nocturne is a Sexy Winter Romance

February 12, 2011

Nicole Whitcomb is an intelligent, gorgeous, independent woman, spending a weekend at a dear friend’s wedding in snowy Colorado. She is carring a painful secret, and her personal and professional life is stagnant. While the weekend has been a delightful escape for her, we sense she’s carrying a heavy burden. As she rushes over mountain roads, trying to beat a snowstorm on her way to the airport, her car runs off the road. A reclusive stranger, Michael Tyler, comes to her rescue. As Nicole takes refuge in his house, waiting for the storm to blow over — unsurprisingly — they kindle a romance. But Michael is hiding a dark secret of his own which is likely to send her fleeing in terror.

I am quite a fan of Syrie James’ last novel, Dracula, My Love, so I was excited to have the opportunity to review Nocturne. To be honest, while Nocturne was eloquently written with interesting characters, I didn’t find¬†it nearly as captivating as Dracula, My Love. It didn’t have the same richness, and the story was predictable. Of course romances are often predictable, and that’s part of the reason they’re like literary comfort food. ūüôā But as Trisha pointed out — and I’m trying hard to avoid spoilers here — there were several twists that seemed a bit too coincidental.

On the other hand, I liked Nicole and enjoyed the story, and it was a light, sexy read. It’s a bit like Twilight for grown-ups, but more concise and well written, without the annoying sparkly vampires, and– thank God — lacking the icky, creepy quality of Edward’s relationship with Bella. It also had some interesting literary touches which I enjoyed; I wished they had been developed in more depth.

I think this novel, by a gifted author,¬†will be quite popular. The reason I didn’t love it is probably that I am the wrong audience for this book. I generally don’t enjoy romance novels. I chose Nocturne because I’d thoroughly enjoyed a previous, more literary novel by this writer. For readers who enjoy escaping in a well written, hot romance,¬†with a strong female heroine and¬†touches of classical music, literature, and history woven in, I highly recommend this book.

Read More Reviews: Bookalicious; Eclectic Eccentric; Miss Remmers’ Review; Babbling About Books, and More


Movie Talk

February 7, 2011

We’re posting some movie reviews here: ūüôā

Look! A Blog Post!

February 5, 2011

I’m just stopping by, in case I still have any readers, to let you know I haven’t left cyberspace altogether. I do miss blogging, but lately my heart just hasn’t been in reading or reviewing books. I don’t know why. It’s certainly not due to any lack of good books I want to read and talk about.

This winter has been flying by. I took on some additional students this semester, because my family needs the money. I work with middle school-aged writing students online. Mostly I chauffeur¬†my kids to various activities. I’m a badly dressed chauffeur with a carful of kids and a crappy old jeep. ūüôā DD1 is taking Spanish lessons and auditing a university film class, among other things. The course is titled Major Film Directors — it’s focused on the Coen brothers.

DS and his dad finished a Lego Mindstorms project. I have to blame Tara for this — she’s the one who put the idea in my head. :-):

Cinematic Saturday: Movies I’ve Watched in December & January

January 22, 2011

{My favorite movie of the month: The Kids Are All Right. Best mind-bender: Inception. Most disturbing: Trainspotting. For one thing, I needed to be detoxed after watching that movie. :-P}

El Bola (2000), directed by by Achero Ma√Īas, written by Achero Ma√Īas and Veronica Fernandez

This is a heartbreaking Spanish film about the friendship between two twelve-year-old boys: Pablo (Juan Jos√© Ballesta) and Alfredo (Pablo Galan).¬†Pablo’s family is weighed down by crippling grief over his brother’s death, and he is terrorized by his abusive, controlling father. Alfredo’s family is quite flawed, and they are also coping with grief. Alfredo’s beloved godfather is dying of AIDS.¬†¬†Yet there is a lot of love and laughter in their home. When Pablo becomes closer to his friend’s family, his father sees his control over his son slipping and forbids him to spend time with them. This is an outstanding movie, which won the Mejor Pel√≠cula (Best Film) Goya Award in 2001. Please read a full review here.

Me and Orson Welles (2008), directed by Richard Linklater, written by novelist Robert Kaplow & screenwriters Holly Gent Palmo and Vincent Palmo, Jr.

This is a colorful, lighthearted period piece. In 1937 New York, Richard (Zac Efron) is mind-numbingly bored in high school. He skips school to join the cast of an off-beat presentation of Julius Caesar directed by a young Orson Welles (Christian McKay).  Welles is a brilliant performer and director, however everyone is at the mercy of his ego and womanizing. Richard bonds with fellow actors Joe Cotten (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) and predictably, Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) becomes a love interest. I thoroughly enjoyed this flick. Please read a full review here.

Canvas (2006), written and directed by Joseph Greco

Mary (Marcia Gay Harden) is a dedicated mom and amateur artist living on the Florida coast. Diagnosed with schizophrenia a year and a half ago, Mary is coping with increasing anxiety and paranoia. When she becomes a danger to her family, hospitalization is the only option. Her devoted husband, John (Joe Pantoliano) copes with her absence by focusing on something positive: his and Mary’s shared passion for sailing. He immerses himself in building a boat, but this makes their 10-year-old son, Chris (Devon Gearhart) more lonely and frustrated.

My daughter has said there are two kinds of movies about mental illness: the sentimental kind and the more artistic, “mind-trippy” variety (think Spider by David Cronenberg). Canvas is definitely the more sentimental sort. It was a labor of love for Joseph Greco, who was inspired by coping with mental illness in his own family. And the movie does have a certain sentimental, predictable quality.

However, this was offset my the fact that the script had tremendous heart and the acting was first rate. The little boy, watching his family fall apart in wide-eyed silence, was heartbreaking. Pantoliano was terrific. His face reflected constantly shifting emotions: love, hope, fear, anger and frustration. And I loved Harden. The movie didn’t fully capture the overwhelming confusion and anguish of mental illness. However, I felt her slowly mounting anxiety, paranoia, and fear as she decompensated, and her love for her family was reflected in every aspect of her performance.

I also liked the fact that the film was ultimately hopeful, yet there were no conclusive answers. A severe mental illness is unpredictable, and it’s financially and emotionally draining for a family. At the end of the movie, we don’t know what will happen, yet we sense this family will pull together to face whatever lies ahead.

Inception (2010), written and directed by Christopher Nolan

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert at the newest form of corporate espionage: extraction, invading a target’s dreams and¬†stealing valuable secrets from deep within¬†the subconscious. However, Cobb has secrets of his own, and he’s become an international fugitive and lost his family. Now he’s getting one shot at redemption. If he pulls off this heist, he will win his freedom and be reunited with his children.

He enlists the help of a talented maze-maker: someone who can design the landscape of the target’s dream. His new accomplice (Ellen Page) is aptly named Ariadne. She is as insightful as she is adept at creating dream-mazes, and as they navigate the multiple levels of the target’s dream, she’ll help Cobb find his way out of his own personal labyrinth.

This was an imaginative story and a visually stunning movie. It had sort of a Jungian feel, which¬†I really enjoyed. However I didn’t love this movie as much as I expected to. The beginning captivated me, but the end, which included a shoot-out on a snowy mountainside, felt a bit like a garden-variety thriller. Neverthelesss,¬†I enjoyed it, and¬†I think it merits a second viewing.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009), written and directed by J. Blakeson

Two British criminals (Martin Compston & Eddie Marsan) adapt an abandoned apartment to serve as a prison cell for the young woman they plan to kidnap (Gemma Arterton). Their target is the daughter of a wealthy man. On the surface this movie, which showcases a cast of three, is a typical crime thriller, and we get only a cursory glimpse at the characters’ back story. However it’s much more complex than it appears. The most interesting facet of this film is the dynamics of shifting power among the three characters. At the outset we see three people whose roles seem clear: the older, more ruthless criminal, the younger partner he dominates, and their victim. Yet everything is not exactly as it appears. This is an excellent movie with several twists … and Oh. My. God. look for Martin Compston’s naked martial arts maneuver. Seriously disturbing.

The Kids Are All Right (2010), directed by Lisa Cholodenko and written by Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg

It’s not surprising that teen siblings Joni (Mia Wasakowski) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) would be curious about their paternity. Their moms, long-time lesbian couple Nic (Annette Benning) and Jules (Julianne Moore), conceived them using sperm from the same donor. On her eighteenth birthday, Joni wins the right to seek out their biological dad (Mark Ruffalo) and he quickly becomes part of their lives.

The quality of the acting in this quirky comedy-drama really blew me away, and I loved all the interwoven themes, including love, betrayal, the tenuous balance of power in a marriage, coming of age and the search for belonging. I’d enthusiastically recommend this to any movie aficiando, if you don’t mind some naughty language and explicit sex.

Trainspotting (1996), directed by Danny Boyle, written by Irvine Welsh (who penned a novel of the same name) and screenwriter John Hodge

This ugly, disturbing, and often darkly funny film focuses on young heroin addicts in 1980s Edinburgh. It opens with Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and his friend Spud (Ewen Bremner) running down Princes Street with security guards in hot pursuit. Renton reflects that he’s chosen to reject¬†a traditional¬†life with children and¬†financial stability, and that a heroin high is “1000 times better” than the best orgasm.¬†Renton’s circle of friends¬†is introduced: con artist Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), clean-cut athlete Tommy (Kevin McKidd),¬†good natured¬†Spud, and violent sociopath Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Then a downward spiral begins.

This movie was well acted, with clever dialogue, and it’s a gut-wrenching, off-beat exploration of drug addiction and “outsider” culture. However I can’t say I enjoyed it, largely because one particular scene was too disturbing for me. And I don’t mean the bit with the “Worst Toilet in Scotland,” though I had to close my eyes during that scene.¬† This is a film that will interest some viewers, but proceed at your own risk. ūüėČ

Have you seen any of these movies. What did you think?

Betrayal of Love and Freedom

January 22, 2011

Betrayal of Love and Freedom by Paul Huljich is an ambitious novel, spanning four decades and¬†four continents.¬†It¬†weaves together three separate stories. The first has overtones of a thriller. It finds Luke Powers, a powerful international businessman, in a courtroom, facing life imprisonment for the¬†murder of a woman he once loved. The second focuses on Luke’s previous life. It begins on a tragic day, when he was eleven years old, and ends with him as a middle aged man on trial for his freedom. The third story is about Rick Dellich, another wealthy, successful businessman whose life intersects with Luke’s several times. Rick’s story begins in medias res, as the New Zealander begins his stay in an American psychiatric hospital. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, separated from his¬†wife and two sons, and¬†stripped of his rights as a New Zealand citizen. We learn about the events that led him to this point and about what comes next, as he begins his gradual journey to recovery.

This is largely a character driven novel, relying on narrative and exploration of the characters’ thoughts and feelings. Overall, I didn’t find the character development as subtle and rich as I might have hoped. On the other hand, Huljich created characters I cared about, which is no mean feat for an author. Rick’s character, and his story, was the most compelling. Perhaps this was because it was loosely based on events in the author’s own life.

One of the main reasons I agreed to review this book was because it explored a character’s battle with bipolar disorder. As some of you know, mental illness is a deeply personal subject for me, and I wanted to get a glimpse of the author’s journey through a fictional window. I was not disappointed. While Rick’s experiences were vastly different from my own family’s struggles, it was a captivating and inspiring story. Rick refused to accept the assumption that his illness was biogenetic and that he would be on psychtropic medication for the rest of his life.¬†Keep in mind that he¬†had no known family history of bipolar disorder and his illness was relatively late in¬†onset. Rick stepped away from the mainstream medical establishment, rehabilitating himself through nutrition, including organic, nonprocessed foods, exercise, and making courageous changes in his life.

One of the things I enjoyed most was the author’s exploration of Rick’s relationship with his wife, Kate, before and after his “breakdown.” While their marriage had been incredibly difficult before Rick’s illness was treated, it became even harder in recovery. This is often the case. The problems in¬†Rick and Kate’s¬†relationship were fairly complex, and this part of the novel felt real to me.

¬†One of the most interesting things about¬†Betrayal of Love and Freedom¬†is the breadth of scope. It¬†visits several decades and many countries, including the author’s home country of New Zealand, Australia, Europe, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States. I discovered interesting cultural details about some of these countries, including¬†a Maori creation story and an exploration of¬†the Chinese sense of duty to ancestors. My main complaint? This novel took me on so many fascinating journeys, from a pilgrimage to a rocky mountainside in Medjugorje, where the Virgin Mary had appeared, to scuba diving around the Great Barrier Reef. While¬†it included interesting details about the characters’ travels, I wanted much more descriptive detail. Perhaps this is the wannabe traveler in me. I was disappointed at having “visited” these places without really “seeing” them.

Furthermore while¬†Betrayal of Love and Freedom is written in an articulate style, the prose seemed labored at times. It struck me that there was a lot of that “telling rather than showing” that’s anathema to us writing teachers. ūüôā The author spent a great deal of time telling us what characters thought and experienced rather than leaving room for readers to explore for ourselves.

On the other hand, this novel has many interesting facets, especially in its exploration of a man’s experience with bipolar disorder and its geographic scope. At times,¬†it¬†was a real page-turner; the plot¬† kept me guessing until the end. I think it will be enjoyed by many readers, and I hope to see it more widely reviewed in the¬†near future. FYI: The first part of the¬†novel contains explicit sex scenes, in case you’re sensitive to that … or in case it sweetens the deal for you. ūüôā

Many thanks to the author and to Eric Glover, publicity assistant with Planned Television Arts, for providing a copy of this novel for review.

Read Another Review: All About Bipolar

The Holidays Have Put Me In the Mood for … Zombies

January 2, 2011

Note: Happy New Year! Please check out Sarah’s first movie review of 2011! — Me and Orson Welles — and leave a comment to let her know you stopped by.

Zombies seem to be very popular in my house, and in our culture in general, right now. I’m not sure why. Maybe it taps into our confusion, fear and fascination concerning our own mortality. Maybe its allure stems from the mythology and mystery. Or maybe we just think the undead — and the people who battle them — are completely Bad Ass.

The Walking Dead: Book One by Robert Kirkman

I bought this graphic novel for my hubby for Christmas, after we both got hooked on the T.V. adaptation, and I read it as soon as he opened it. It’s very different from the show. Some of the characters were changed, and it has radically different plot twists.

After a zombie apocalypse, a small group of survivors set up camp on the Georgia countryside. There are two police officers; one has a wife and son. A young Asian man, a¬†former pizza delivery driver, is astute at navigating the streets of Atlanta, now infested with hordes of homicidal zombies, to gather essential supplies. A religious middle aged housewife, with a weakness for sticking her nose into other people’s business, has a husband and twin boys. An elderly man meant to travel the country with his wife after retirement. She died, and he uses¬†their recreation vehicle as a means of survival. The encampment also includes a young widow and her daughter, two sisters, and a young man.

This comic book follows their ongoing struggle to survive. There are intense, often brutal, action scenes and grotesque images of the walking dead. Honestly, you’d be disappointed if you didn’t get to see pictures of decomposing¬†zombies, wouldn’t you?

However, the focus of the book is not on action but on the characters. The artwork is detailed, and there are many frames showing close-ups of characters’ faces. The focus is on facial expressions; they’re often subtle and¬† incredibly well done.¬†There are¬†moments of stillness, when the action and dialogue¬†pauses and¬†we focus on an emotional scene or a character’s face. It’s as if we’re alone, for a moment, with their thoughts and complex, overwhelming emotions.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the complex web of relationships among the characters and the way they evolved throughout the story. It explores the myriad ways people respond to a continuing struggle to survive, loss, and looming despair. A character might lose his humanity, becoming ruthless, or gain a new depth and capacity for compassion.

I definitely recommend this to zombie aficianados and graphic novel lovers. Not for the faint of heart! (4/5 stars)

Other Reviews: Comic Book Revolution; The Zombie Digest

Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindquist

It’s impossible to describe a human eye; all expectations end up ghost-like, paintings and photographs acceptable only because we know they are frozen moments of time. A living eye cannot be described or recreated. But we know all too well when it is not there … Her eye was dead. It was covered by a microscopically thin gray membrane, and it might as well have been a stone wall.¬† (p. 44)

My daughter gave me this novel, by the author of¬†Let the Right One In, for Christmas. It’s a unique and unusually believable twist on the zombie genre; this makes it even more disturbing.

In contemporary Stockholm, something bizarre is happening. During a heat wave, electric lights and appliances can’t be turned off; it’s like a reverse blackout. Everyone is suffering headaches. The opening scenes seemed so real, I could feel the sweltering heat and the persistent pain.

(Warning: the following paragraph is a bit spoilerish, though it doesn’t give away any more than you’d glean from the jacket cover.) A young man rushes to the hospital, after his wife’s car accident, only to find she died while he was on the road. He had always feared, deep down, that this would happen. He believed she was too good for him; his good fortune couldn’t last. It seems like the situation couldn’t get worse. Until she reawakens.

He soon learns that the recently deceased are rising throughout the city. Hospitals, police and military are scrambling to collect the “reliving” and figure out a way to deal with them.

He had not been particularly surprised to hear about what was happening in the morgue. It seemed to him as abhorrent, implausible — and as logical — as everything else. The world had been thrown into darkness tonight: why shouldn’t the dead come back to life as well? (p. 87)

Throughout the city, others struggle to cope with the crisis. The recently breaved grandfather of a small boy. A woman who just lost her husband of 50 years, after an excruciatingly long illness. Her granddaugher, a teen with a passion for Marilyn Manson’s music and horror movies and a history of self mutilation.

Each person responds differently to the news. Everyone’s reaction is shaped by his religious beliefs and his unresolved feelings about the recent¬†death.

The zombies in this story aren’t quite like the ones we’ve seen in horror movies. I will leave you to discover this for yourself. Or if you don’t plan to read this novel, spoilers are in the white space below (highlight the space to read the text).

At first glance, the zombies don’t seem violent. They aren’t scrambling to bite the living or devour their brains. They’re passive, confused, and almost mindless. However, they unwittingly have an insidious, dangerous power. When zombies are nearby, the living can suddenly¬†hear each other’s thoughts. This causes¬†great turmoil. It’s difficult enough to face ones own¬†combined hope, fear and revulsion when meeting a loved one who’s risen from the grave. Being inundated with everyone else’s ¬†intense, conflicted emotions is unbearable. And no teenage girl wants to learn everything about her boyfriend’s latent homosexuality and self loathing.

Furthermore, the undead absorb the emotions of the living. When confronted with a terrified, disgusted person, a zombie lashes out in rage.

Strictly speaking, this is not really a horror novel. It is a painful, sometimes horrific, and often grotesque psychological novel about how people cope with unspeakable loss, old wounds, grief, hope and longing.

It is a compelling,¬†gorgeously written novel, but it’s difficult to read. It would be especially hard on a reader who is recently bereaved or has ever lost a child. And some scenes are frankly disgusting. These scenes are an integral part of the story; they’re not gratuitous. However, this is not a book for all readers.

I had another problem with the book, albeit a fairly minor one. This might be spoilerish, so highlight it if you want to read it. Zombies are reduced to the most primitive part of their brains. Some of their behaviors, like taking apart mechanical devices and repeating words and phrases, were a bit like traits of people with autism. I doubt these little parallels were intentional, but still, it didn’t sit well with me.

Overall, this was a terrific read and some passages were beautiful and unforgettable. (4/5 stars)

Just Want to Say …

November 25, 2010

To my U.S. friends, Happy Thanksgiving! In many ways, this has been the most difficult year of my life. I definitely wouldn’t want to go through it again. ūüôā But it spotlights all I have to be thankful for, especially having my family together: my hubby and best friend, who has put up with me for over 20 years, and my beautiful children, who delight, inspire, and challenge the living hell out of me. Wishing you all many blessings!