Julie & Julia And The Lives Of Writers

Very busy getting the house ready to go on the market this weekend–no time to write a new post! Hope you enjoy this one from the archive.


I recently watched (again) the charming movie Julie & Julia. It stars Meryl Streep as television chef and cookbook author Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell, who wrote a blog about making every recipe in Child’s book Mastering The Art Of French Cooking over the course of a year.

The movie alternates between telling the stories of both women. Child and her husband are living in France during the 1950s when she decides to learn French cooking. This eventually leads to a partnership with two French women to write a cookbook specifically for Americans, and, of course, her cooking show and status as America’s first celebrity chef. Julie Powell, frustrated with a job she doesn’t like and feeling directionless in life, decides to start a blog about cooking, which eventually leads to a book and movie deal.

As Julie cooks the recipes and writes about them…

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Movie Review: The Divergent Series: Insurgent


I enjoyed the first movie in this series, Divergent. Based on the first novel in Veronica Roth’s dystopian YA series, it boasted good casting, energetic direction by Neil Burger, creative envisioning of Chicago after an apocalypse, and a tight screenplay. All these elements helped make it a decent, entertaining effort.

The second book in the series, Insurgent, is not as strong a novel as Divergent. In fact, it’s a bit of a mess, with a very convoluted plot and a lot of new and unmemorable characters introduced, some killed off before you got a chance to care about them (or even remember their names).

The third book is a complete miss. I wrote about why I disliked Allegiant in a detailed and spoiler-filled review here.

Still, I had hopes that when it came to the subsequent films, the filmmakers would expand on what worked in the other two books and fix what didn’t. A not-good book doesn’t automatically mean a not-good film. (Ever read the novel The Godfather? Jaws? The movie versions are much, much better.)

Unfortunately, now in the hands of director Robert Schwentke (R.I.P.D.) the movie not only doesn’t fix the problems of the book, it actually highlights them–and adds even more.

Continue reading “Movie Review: The Divergent Series: Insurgent”

Mini-Reviews of Books I’ve Enjoyed Lately

Looking over the review I posted for Veronica Roth’s Allegiant a couple of weeks ago, I realized it’s such a negative one that it may have given the impression I’m a Nelly Negative, which can’t be further from the truth. In fact, over the last couple of months I’ve read some terrific books and thought I’d share some mini-reviews:

drsleep1. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King – This long-awaited sequel to The Shining follows the troubled adulthood of Danny (now Dan) Torrance, the boy who survived the father possessed by demonic ghosts while his family was snowed in at the Overlook Hotel. He has “the shining”—a way of seeing things that other people can’t see, such as dead people. As he grows up, Dan finds his gift is more a curse and he’s more like his father than he wants to admit, both when it comes to anger and a tendency to abuse alcohol. Haunted by an incident where he steals money from a single mother after a drunken one-night stand, he finally seeks out recovery in a small New Hampshire town. He settles down as an orderly in a hospice where he becomes known as “Doctor Sleep” because he uses the shining to ease the dying patients’ journey into death.

He begins to get psychic messages from a little girl named Abra, who turns out to be even more gifted—and cursed—with the shining. They learn a group of vampire-like creatures known as the True Knot are after Abra. The creatures survive on “steam”—the essence of children who have the shining. The way they harvest steam is by torturing and killing these children. Dan must find a way to save a child he’s never even met.

In the afterword of this book King talks about expectations and how sequels can fall short. Does this book live up to the original? No, but how can it? Why does it even have to? It’s still a solid, enjoyable effort. It suffers from not having one of the elements that made The Shining so terrifying (characters trapped in an inescapable location) but it’s still pretty scary. I also liked how he had a female child character for a change, when in most of his books the children in peril are usually boys. Even better, Abra is no cowering wimp. King draws from his own experiences as a recovering alcoholic, which gives the story more heft than you would expect. I would rank Doctor Sleep in the upper-mid range of Mr. King’s books.

Throne-of-the-Crescent-Moon-Cover2. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed – I rarely read fantasy (up to now, the only fantasy books I’ve really enjoyed are George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series) but when the #DiversityInSFF (diversity in sci-fi and fantasy) hashtag discussion on Twitter was going on a couple of months ago, Ahmed was one of the most vocal participants. I found his insights so interesting (and sometimes provocative) I decided I just had to check out his book. I’m so glad I did.

Unlike most fantasy fiction, the world is not based on Western culture, but rather Middle Eastern, which immediately makes it feel unique. Another unique aspect: in spite of the title, the focus of the story is not royalty and political intrigue. These elements exist but mostly hum in the background. This is about common folk fighting against forces of evil.

Wait, there’s a THIRD unique aspect to this book: the main character is a man in his sixties. He is Adoulla, who wants nothing more than to retire and marry the love of his life. But as long as he hunts supernatural monsters known as ghuls, tradition says he must remain unmarried. He and his young assistant, the pious Raseed, are tapped by Adoulla’s old love to avenge the death of her niece, who along with her nomadic band was killed by monsters. They find a survivor of another attack, a young girl named Zamia, who can shape-shift into a lion. Together they must stop a ghul apocalypse that could destroy Adoulla’s beloved city.

Ahmed has a gorgeous prose style. My one complaint about the book is the ending is a tad abrupt, but Ahmed’s characters are so vibrant and the world is so beautifully realized that it’s forgivable. Ahmed is currently writing another installment in this series and I can’t wait to read it. I guess I like the fantasy genre a lot more than I thought.

empyrean3. Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig – when I finished Allegiant, I was reluctant to start a new dystopian series. But I had been following Wendig on Twitter and reading his blog for a while and hadn’t read one of his books yet, so I went ahead with this one, anyway.

Well, it just about reaffirmed my love of everything dystopian.

This is the story of Cael, a teen boy who lives in The Heartland, where the Empyrean government only allows residents to grow an aggressive, genetically-modified strain of corn. The Empyrean live a privileged life above the Heartland in aerial flotillas. Heartlanders deal with starvation, massive pollen storms, and deadly tumors. They must marry someone picked for them by the government. Cael and his friends are scavengers but have their livelihood threatened when Cael’s rival sabotages his land-boat. Finding an illegal garden of fruits and vegetables, Cael thinks he has made his fortune. When his love Gwennie, “obligated” to marry his hated rival, wins a lottery to live on one of the flotillas with her family, it shakes things up for almost every character in the story.

As with many first books in a futuristic series, there is a lot of set-up and world-building, so the beginning is a bit slow. But Wendig soon gets things hopping. As you would expect in a dystopian, the characters are torn by the instinct for personal survival and a desire to fight the injustices of their society. It ends with a big cliffhanger that left me practically screaming to know what happens next. Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment.

dusthowey4. Dust by Hugh Howey – this is the final installment of the Silo Trilogy, the incredibly successful indie-published dystopian series.

In the first book Wool (actually an omnibus of several connected short stories), Howey tells of a society that lives in a silo buried underground where even mentioning you want to leave is a death sentence. The inhabitants can see the ruined world outside but some still want to get out. They are let out in suits that let them live long enough to clean the sensors that allow people to see outside.

Except for one “cleaner”—Juliette Nichols. She manages to survive and finds another silo, which is uninhabited except for some young children. She eventually returns to her silo and is elected mayor.

This is where Dust picks up again, as well as picking up the story where Howey’s prequel, Shift, left off. Shift explains the what and the why of the silos (mostly). I can’t get into that without giving away a lot of spoilers, so I won’t give a plot overview of Dust.

Instead, I’ll just say that Howey’s conclusion to his series is very gratifying in many respects. Since I didn’t care for Shift, this was a delightful surprise. Just not a fan of exposition-heavy prequels, for one thing, and I found some of the “explanation” of how things came about a little on the goofy side. But if you want to read Dust, you have to read Shift, or you’ll be lost. Though sticking all that exposition in a prequel probably helped make Dust a much better book than it might have been.

Where Dust REALLY shines, though, is the characters, particularly the women characters, who are complex and (oh, my heavens) have inner lives and their own narratives. Even one female character I initially thought fell into a lazy stereotype turned out to have been misjudged, by other characters AND by me.

Although Howey claims this is the end of the series, there are ways he could return to this world for more storytelling. I hope he does, and that’s the highest compliment I can think to give it.

What books have you been reading lately that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments section!

Book Review: The Twelve By Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin is the second of his post-apocalyptic/vampire trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Passage. I wrote a spoilerific analysis of one of the major characters in The Passage a while back. This review will refrain from divulging any major spoilers.

That makes it very difficult to write this review, because, boy, are there some huge surprises in this book.

Most sequels pick up where the last book left off, but that doesn’t quite happen with The Twelve. Cronin finds a clever way to bring readers back up to speed in the beginning (I won’t say how) and briefly lands five years after the events of the previous book.

Then he goes back to Year Zero, when the plague of “virals”–vampire/zombie-ish creatures created in the lab–was unleashed on the North American continent.

The characters he follows are some we’ve met before, including some whose fates seemed a foregone conclusion. Turns out, we were wrong. The new characters in this part of the book seem disconnected from the story so far, but keep reading, because everything turns out to be connected.

That’s not to say this part of the book is boring or a trial to read, far from it. As in the first book, the collapse of this world is incredibly gripping and his characters are fascinating. The reader’s patience–because we waited SO patiently for two years to find out what happens next–is richly rewarded, both by finding out what happens to the characters in Year Zero and by how the story continues 97 years later.

The title The Twelve refer to the original virals who were created by the government as a possible military weapon. They were death row inmates persuaded by FBI agent Brad Wolgast to take a treatment that might be the key to prolonging life indefinitely. A little girl named Amy was given a milder form of the virus and after one hundred years still looks like a pre-teen. She eventually made it to The Colony, a walled village of survivors who assumed they were the last people left on Earth. Some members of the colony, including Peter Jaxson, Alicia Denadio, Sara and Michael Fisher, realized Amy may be the key to finding a way to defeat the virals, so they set out on a perilous journey in the last book to find out how.

After one of the original virals, Babcock, was killed, Amy was able to help all the virals he created with their “passage” from life into death. She and Peter hoped that meant by killing the other original virals, they could reclaim the world for humans again. They also found out there were more human survivors, including a city in Texas with tens of thousands of them.

After five years, to Peter’s dismay, there has been no progress in destroying the rest of the original virals. Now a soldier, he finds himself going AWOL to seek out another rumored enclave of survivors in Iowa.

This turns out to be a place called The Homeland, a fascist dictatorship lead by Horace Guilder. He is a “red-eye”–a sort-of viral–who was a government bureaucrat in the “time before.” The Homeland is populated by survivors who have been kidnapped from other areas of the country and are forced to live in a kind of concentration camp to work as virtual slaves.

That’s where I have to stop giving an overview of the plot, because as I said, it’s chock full of surprises. Mr. Cronin certainly knows how to keep things from proceeding in a predictable manner.

He also has a remarkable talent for creating characters people genuinely care about. When he “killed off” a major character in the first book (yes, the quotes are there for a reason) it was hugely controversial, mainly because he was such a beautifully conceived character. While the book has some truly evil characters, almost all are given moments of complexity.

I felt a major theme of the first book was how goodness is not always sufficient in battling evil, as good people helped create the crisis by the sin of omission, or by waiting too long to act. In The Twelve, redemption is a strong theme that runs through the story, as several characters try to right many wrongs, including some they helped to create. Another running theme is the relationship between parent and child, as several characters lose or are separated from their children.

Consequently, this is a book populated by many sad and lonely characters, including some of the monsters, who aren’t quite as monstrous as one would assume. Some are going to break your heart. They sure broke mine.

My one quibble with the book is some of the violence (particularly against some of the women characters) is a bit more over-the-top than necessary. Not that I expect little or no violence in such a tale, but it could have been pulled back just a tad and still been just as effective.

Other than that, I found this a more than worthy follow-up to The Passage, and am once again facing a looong two-year wait for the next book, The City Of Mirrors. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into that one.

(I know, I know . . . I couldn’t resist.)

Subjective vs. Objective When Writing Reviews

Has this ever happened to you?

You pick up a book, or watch a movie or TV show that has received rave reviews, from friends, professional critics and internet posters–and you don’t like it.  At all.

You don’t get it.  You can’t understand what everyone else is flipping out over.

Of course, it happens to everyone.  The sitcom Seinfeld even devoted an episode to it when Elaine couldn’t understand why everyone else thought The English Patient was a great movie.

This happened to me again just the other day.  I was seeing rave reviews for Gillian Flynn‘s new book Gone Girl all over the place.  The blurb sounded interesting to me.  I had an extra Audible credit in my account and decided to download it.

It didn’t take long for me to realize I had made a mistake.  I just couldn’t get into it.

I gave it about three chapters, then quit.  I went to Amazon to see if there were negative reviews, and as with most popular books, there were more than a few.  (What is it about human beings that we so desperately want someone to validate what we feel?)  Only a few people  disliked it from the beginning of the story.  The others mostly complained about how they didn’t care for the twist ending.

After putting aside Gone Girl, I’ll admit I was in a bit of a snit, annoyed with the people who had given these glowing reviews and convinced me to spend an Audible credit on the book.  I gave a lot of thought to exactly what was bothering me about the book.

It turns out that most of what bothered me was connected to my own personal taste.

The first issue I had was it front-loads the story with a lot of exposition.

I stopped reading The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo after two chapters for the same reason.  I want to get right into the action, not hear about the characters’ life histories up to the point where the story begins. (In the case of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it was also the economic history of Europe for the last thirty years.)

The other thing that put me off about Gone Girl was the writing style.  It’s a very descriptive, stylized form of prose writing.

I happen to prefer a leaner, plainer, more direct style of writing.  I don’t know why that is–maybe because I read a lot of writers like James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald when I was in my teens.  That may also be why I like stories to get right into the action.  It’s not that I can’t appreciate dense writing (heck, I love Thomas Hardy, you can’t get denser than that) but I want something to happen in the middle of it.

That’s the point–this is my personal preference.  Because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it has no value.  There are people who enjoy this style of writing.  There are people who love to read a lot of detail about the characters’ histories at the beginning of a story.

They’re not wrong.

They’re just not me.

The thing is, when people write reviews, sometimes they forget this.  Too often it boils down to “I loved it, so it’s a work of genius” or “I didn’t like it, so it’s a piece of crap.”

Clearly, Gillian Flynn is a talented writer.  Clearly, Stieg Larsson hit some kind of nerve with his Millennium series.  That’s a remarkable achievement.  I don’t have to read the books to admire how he grabbed the imaginations of so many people.

While our first response to a story is emotional, we should make an effort not to be entirely emotional when writing reviews.  We don’t have to pretend a book rocked our world when it didn’t.  It’s actually O.K. not to like something other people like.  But we should try to figure out why we didn’t care for a book–and whether those reasons are personal taste, rather than poor execution.  Every author deserves that much respect.

Oh, and for the record–I agree with Elaine.  I also didn’t love The English Patient.  However, unlike Elaine, I won’t try to convince everyone else they’re wrong because they liked it.