Sunday, September 30, 2012

Beautiful Disaster

Beautiful Disaster, by Jamie McGuire.

My shirt crackled as I pulled it over my head; the static in the air had intensified with the coming winter. Feeling a bit lost, I curled into a ball underneath my thick comforter and inhaled through my nose; Travis's scent still lingered on my skin.

The bed felt cold and foreign, a sharp contrast to the warmth of Travis's mattress. I had spent thirty days in a cramped apartment with Eastern's most infamous tramp, and after all the bickering and late-night houseguests, it was the only place I wanted to be.

I am actually in the middle of reading a nonfiction book that I will admit I don't like that much, and then I remembered I had started reading this on my Kindle the other day. I decided to read just a little bit of it, but instead I got hooked and read the entire thing - in one night. Beautiful Disaster is the story of Abby Abernathy, a freshman at Eastern University, who meets bad boy Travis Maddox one night. Travis is everything that Abby wants to avoid - she has a checkered past, so to speak, which is why she and her BFF America decided to move across the country to attend Eastern - but she finds herself inexplicably attracted to Travis, even though he's known as a womanizer and he fights in his spare time to earn cash. They try to pretend that they are just good friends, even though she ends up living with him for a month - a result of a lost bet - and sleeping (but ONLY sleeping) in his bed; after a while, though, the facade crumbles, and they have to deal with their attraction to each other.

When I was about halfway through the book, I Googled it to see what other books the author has written, and I found this. I didn't really see the parallels to 50 Shades of Grey at first, but when I thought about it they are definitely similar, though Beautiful Disaster has nothing to do with BDSM. Both Christian Grey and Travis are very controlling, though I would say that Travis is more "human" than Grey; he tries to fix his mistakes and become someone that Abby could see herself with in the long-term, whereas Grey does this too but it's harder for him. Looks-wise, too, Travis is the opposite of Grey: he's a poor college student who fights and is covered in tattoos, whereas Grey was the epitome of the "classy" businessman.

Beautiful Disaster is going to be made into a movie as well, and I'm excited to see who the filmmakers will pick to play Travis and Abby. I could picture Amanda Seyfried or someone similar for Abby, who is 19. In my mind, she looks innocent (she's actually a virgin when she meets Travis) but has a "rough streak" in her; details are revealed about her pre-college life that show that she can play a mean hand of poker when she wants to.

Travis has a shaved head and tattoos, and I believe a wiry build. I couldn't picture any actors I know in that age range (he's 22, so probably like 20-30 age range) who have gone bald or shaven their head for a role. However, when I started thinking about actors that I have seen play "dark" roles but also were sweet in them, Steven R. McQueen and Michael Trevino (both from TV's Vampire Diaries) came to mind; looks-wise, Trevino might fit the role a bit better.

The two characters' best friends, who are actually dating each other, are Shepley and America (who goes by "Mare" for short), and those would probably be harder to cast.

The book veers a little at times - it often feels like it is multiple stories with these characters rolled into one - but the plot is still compelling. The author actually self-published the novel before it got picked up by a publishing house, and after it was published it gained a steady following, probably including those who liked the 50 Shades series. A follow-up novel, Beautiful Disaster, will be released in 2013, and it retells Abby and Travis's story from Travis's point of view.

4.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received an e-galley of this book from NetGalley to review. The opinions expressed here, however, are my own.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Becoming Clementine

Becoming Clementine, by Jennifer Niven.

Each of the men wore a pistol on his belt and extra magazines, and each one carried a large rucksack. I wished I had my pistol, the one they'd issued me for the B-17, but they'd taken it away once we landed at Prestwick.

For a while we followed a creek bed, ducking through brush and bramble, and when this ended we kept pushing forward through the trees. I thought: I am in a forest in France. I am running from the Germans. I'm with strange men I barely know. I am a weapon of this war.

This novel is the third book in the Velva Jean series, the first two (of which I haven't read) being Velva Jean Learns to Drive and Velva Jean Learns to Fly. This one, however, focuses on World War II, and Velva Jean's part in it, in which she ends up in France masquerading as a French widow named Clementine Roux.

Synopsis from the publisher:
It's summer 1944 and Velva Jean has just become the second woman in history to pilot a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean as a member of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). After flying the B-17 Flying Fortress into Prestwick, Scotland, she volunteers to copilot a plane carrying special agents to their drop spot over Normandy. Her personal motivation: to find her brother Johnny Clay who is missing in action. But when the plane is shot down over France and only Velva Jean and five agents survive, she is forced to become a fighter; to become a spy; to become Clementine Roux. As she loses herself in her new identity, she also loses her heart: falling in love with her fellow agent, Emile, a handsome and mysterious Frenchman with secret of his own. When Clementine ends up in the most brutal prison in Paris, trying to help Emile and the team rescue and operative known only as "Swan," she discovers the depths of human curelty, the triumph of her own spirit, and the bravery of her team, who will stop at nothing to carry out their mission. And all the while she searches for her brother. Will she find him? And, at the end of her adventure, will she be able to find herself again?
This book was definitely interesting, perhaps more so to me because I have been to Paris recently and that is where Clementine (Velva Jean) ends up for a good chunk of the novel. The author, too, based the story on tales of her own grandfather when he served in the war, which helps to make the novel more "authentic." The characters that Velva Jean meets on her journey, too, are memorable, and you will find herself rooting for her and Emile's romance to survive, even though they battle the most unlikeliest of circumstances.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this novel to review. The opinions listed here, however, are my own.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross.

I caught exactly what that meant. Evan hadn't been on his meds.

That explained how he had managed to climb all the way up there. How he still would have had the urge to follow through with it.

It pretty much explained everything.

"So how the hell did he manage to find his way all the way up there?" I asked.

"I don't know." He sighed. "But I do know how the death certificate is going to read. Death by suicide." He reopened the door and looked at me before he headed back in. "What the hell else would the kid be doing up there in the first place?"

I have never read any of Andrew Gross's novels before this one, and I have to admit that at the beginning of it I was not impressed; the dialogue was super cheesy and I was metaphorically rolling my eyes throughout it. In the novel, Jay Erlich's nephew, Evan, kills himself by jumping off a rock into the waters below - or so we think. In a scene where Jay is talking to Gabriella, his brother Charlie's wife, the dialogue says:

Evan was their only child. He had always been troubled; he'd been diagnosed as bipolar as well. Out of school. Not working. In and out of trouble with the law. But dead? How?

"He jumped off the rock. In Morro Bay." Then she choked back a sob, any attempt at control completely unraveling. "Evan is gone, Jay. He killed himself. My son is no more."

After reading that, I was thinking that this novel was going to be hard to get through (very soap opera-ish). Then, however, something interesting happened: the cheesy dialogue became less and less, and a good story started to shine through. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I had to admit that the story was good, and actually worth reading.

The story is about how Jay, a doctor, flies to California to be with his brother, whom he isn't close with, and his brother's wife, after Evan commits suicide. Even though Evan was depressed and had "erratic behavior," Jay doesn't believe it was suicide after a few things don't add up. Soon, with the help of a police officer, he finds out more about his brother's history with the killer Russell Houvnanian, leader of a cult who mass-murdered many people thirty years ago, and how Russell has never forgotten Charlie's part in him going to jail. Jay must put together the pieces before more people get hurt, and find out exactly what happened to Evan: whether it was indeed suicide or whether he was murdered.

The characters were all good in this novel, and once the "soap opera-esque" dialogue stopped I ended up liking the book a lot. The novel was actually based on "two real life experiences - the loss of his nephew and a chance encounter years ago with the nation's most notorious cult-killer," Charles Manson - and because Gross is writing about what he knows, the novel succeeds in luring its audience in to the story.

3.5 stars out of 5.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of this novel to review. The opinions listed here, however, are my own.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, by Lois Banner.

Marilyn was a genius at self-creation and at posing in front of the camera. That may be the ultimate act of self-presentation for women in the twenty-first century, driven by technology, visuality, and the homogenization of world cultures. The innocence and sorrow in Marilyn's eyes, transmitted in her photographs and in movies like Bus Stop and The Misfits, makes us, like the audiences in her own day, want to comfort and protect her. She is the child in all of us, the child we want to forget but can't dismiss. We want to know what would have happened to her if she had lived longer. To construct any approximation of that future, we need to know as fully as possible about her past - who she was when she was alive.

As a film blogger, I have seen some of Marilyn's films but didn't know much about her until reading this biography. Lois Banner has written another book about Marilyn too, entitled MM - Personal, but this one - 515 pages including the index and footnotes - can be surmised as the most detailed of any of the Marilyn Monroe biographies written. Banner starts the novel before Marilyn was even born, detailing her home life and her mother and supposed father, and it ends with the aftermath of her death, on August 5, 1962. Even though it's been 50 years, many are still curious about Marilyn and all of the facets of her life - and death - and this biography aims to fulfill those curiosities.

From the publisher:
Marilyn Monroe is an icon whose life and legacy continues to be shrouded in contradictions and inaccuracies. As an academic who has been at the forefront of women's issues for the last half decade, Banner spent nine years researching the intimate details of Monroe's life, interviewing more than one hundred people in her inner circle and fan club, and examining confidential papers and ledgers in the final years of her life that previous biographers have failed to analyze.

I knew a little more about Monroe after watching the film My Week with Marilyn, which was in theaters late last year, but that only focused on one of the productions she was in. This book goes into detail about the issues that plagued her life, including depression, mood swings, and endometriosis, and we see what events may have transpired to make her behave the way she did.

A few little known facts - those in italics are from the publisher's notes:

  • Banner reveals the complex parenting of Marilyn, named Norma Jeane Mortenson on her birth certificate, when Gladys Baker, her mother, was actually married to Edmond Mortensen and Marilyn's father was probably Stanley Gifford, a supervisor at the Hollywood editing firm where Gladys worked. (*and that's not a typo: her birth certificate says "Mortenson" even though Gladys's husband's name was Mortensen)
  • Marilyn was sexually abused as a child, and this formed her adult life too - she had "dissociative disorder."
  • She was married three times: to Jim Dougherty, when she was sixteen; Joe DiMaggio, the baseball player; and Arthur Miller, the famed playwright. She wanted children but due to her endometriosis and other conditions, she was never able to have one, though she miscarried several times.
  • Marilyn was actually very religious, at least in her younger years - she was brought up as a Christian and then turned to Christian Science in her teens and twenties.
  • She may have been bisexual, though this is still not certain; Banner argues the evidence to show that it was, however.
  • The famous Seven Year Itch photo of the wind blowing Marilyn's white skirt over a subway grate was actually a well orchestrated publicity student - one of the greatest in film history - including barricades, police, Klieg lights, photographers, and 1,500 male spectators.
  • Marilyn was involved with the Kennedys for many years and she fought back when they decided to drop hers.
Marilyn may have seemed like a little girl at times, but she was actually very smart and "willing to take risks," and this is what ultimately made her succeed as a film star.

I'm not entirely sure what to give this for a star rating - I'm not a huge fan of biographies, and this book was very long for me to get through - but fans of Marilyn, the 1950s-1960s movie industry, or that time period (1930s-1960s) in general will most likely find this book fascinating.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Interview with Attica Locke, author of The Cutting Season

photo credit: Jenny Walters
Attica Locke is the author of The Cutting Season, which hits stores on September 18th, as well as Black Water Rising. I recently reviewed her novel and then got a chance to ask her some questions via email about her new book and a novels she is currently working on.

I see that you're a native of Houston, and your first novel was set there. How familiar were you with New Orleans before writing the novel, and what inspired you to set it there?

I set the novel in Louisiana because I had been to a wedding at the Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie in 2004. It was an experience that never left me. I had never been on a real plantation before. And I didn’t know what to make of the fact that I was visiting one for the first time for a wedding! I thought it was so strange and macabre to turn a piece of history into an events venue.

In a broad strokes way, East Texas and Louisiana are not all that different from each other. I think this book would have been a lot more difficult to write if the majority of it took place in New Orleans proper because that city has a culture all its own. And I don’t think an outsider like me could get it just right.

What authors influence you and/or your writing?

Jane Smiley, Pete Dexter, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Larry Brown, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes.

Before writing The Cutting Season, how familiar were you with plantation/slave history and the history from that time period? Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?

I did do a lot of research about plantations and about the sugar industry in that particular region of the country. I knew the basics. The arc of slavery and the civil war, but again, Louisiana and New Orleans have their own very specific history, and I wanted to read as much as I could before writing about the area.

I could definitely see The Cutting Season as a movie. If it was, would it be you who wrote the screenplay? (I see that you are a former screenwriter)

Also, who would you cast as Caren, Morgan, Eric, and the other main characters in it?

I don’t know that I would write the screenplay; mostly it has to do with time management. I’m starting my third book now, and I have a five-year-old. I don’t know that I could balance all that while writing a screenplay. But I want very much to be involved in any production that comes from this book – if not as a writer, then as a producer. As for casting, I actually haven’t given it any thought! Which is very different from my first book when I could actually picture Jeffrey Wright as Jay Porter as I was writing. He was almost exactly who I had in mind.

Do you have another book in the works, or a topic in mind for your next book?

I’m finding my way back to Houston and Jay Porter. And that’s all I’m going to say. ;)

Check out The Cutting Season on September 18th - it's a great novel and definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Handbook for Hot Witches

Handbook for Hot Witches, by Dame Darcy.

I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book; originally, I thought it was a graphic novel, but when I received it in the mail to review, I saw that it was something different. What it ended up being is more of a "handbook" for young women, complete with "spells," a few graphic novel-esque comics, and information about astrology, palm reading, and more.

Book synopsis from
Combine a graphic novel with a dash of crafts, a sprinkle of feminist fairy tales, and a whole cauldron of spells—voilĂ !—Dame Darcy's Handbook for Hot Witches. This is the guide for girls who want cool things to do and great friends to do them with, who aren't afraid to be their different, awesome selves. It's a celebration of powerful, creative girls—the sort of girls who may have been called "witches" once, but who, as this book proclaims, are "hot," because of their talent and their uniqueness. With sections on banjo playing, beauty spells, palm reading, and much more, this fully illustrated handbook will send girls on their way to independence, creativity, and magic.
The palm reading section interested me the most, because I've always wondered how the palm readers do it. The book seems to be aimed mostly at teens, as it has a lot of "self-esteem"-type encouraging words throughout as well, but anyone interested in spells or "light" witchcraft will find something interesting in this book, most likely. I also liked the comics a lot, as they took Disney and fairy tale girl characters and changed their fates, usually so that they rescued themselves rather than waiting for a prince to come rescue them.

*Disclosure: I received an Advance Reader's Edition of this book to review. The opinions expressed here, however, are my own.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Cutting Season

The Cutting Season, by Attica Locke.

Ascension Parish, 2009

It was during the Thompson-Delacroix wedding, Caren's first day on the job, that a cottonmouth, measuring the length of a Cadillac, fell some twenty feet from a live oak on the front lawn, landing like a coil of rope in the lap of the bride's future mother-in-law. It only briefly stopped the ceremony, this being Louisiana and all. Within minutes, an off-duty sheriff's deputy on the groom's side found a 12-gauge in the groundskeeper's shed and shot the thing dead, and after, one of the cater-waiters was kind enough to hose down the grass. The bride and groom moved on to their vows, staying on schedule for a planned kiss at sunset, the mighty Mississippi blowing a breeze through the line of stately, hundred-year-old trees. The uninvited guest certainly made for lively dinner conversation at the reception in the main hall. By the time the servers made their fourth round with bottles of imported champagne, several men, including prim little Father Haliwell, were lining up to have their pictures taken with the viper, before someone from parish services finally came to haul the carcass away.

Still, she took it as a sign.

A reminder, really, that Belle Vie, its beauty, was not to be trusted.

The Cutting Season is the second novel by Attica Locke, the first being Black Water Rising which was set in her hometown of Houston. This novel is set in the Louisiana Bayou, close to Baton Rouge and not so far from New Orleans, where the main character, Caren, lived for a while. Caren and her daughter Morgan now live at Belle Vie, which is in Caren's blood; her mother, Helen, lived there with Caren while working there, and Belle Vie welcomed back Caren when she needed a job.

Synopsis from the publisher:
In post-Katrina Louisiana, Caren Gray manages Belle Vie, a sprawling antebellum plantation where the past and the present coexist uneasily. To stay afloat, the estate's owners have turned the place into an eerie tourist attraction complete with full-dress reenactments and carefully restored slave quarters. Outside the gates, a corporation with ambitious plans has been busy snapping up land from struggling families, who have been growing sugar cane for generations, and replacing local employees with illegal laborers. Tensions mount when the body of a female migrant worker is found in a shallow grave on the edge of the property with her throat slashed.

As the investigation gets underway, the list of suspects grows. But when fresh evidence comes to light and cops zero in on a person of interest, Caren has a bad feeling that the police are chasing the wrong leads. Putting herself at risk, she ventures into dangerous territory as she unearths startling new facts about a very old mystery - the long-ago disappearance of a former slave - that has unsettling ties to the modern-day crime. In pursuit of the truth about Belle Vie's history and her own, Caren discovers secrets about both cases that an increasingly desperate killer will do anything to keep hidden.
After Caren hears about the body that was found on the edge of Belle Vie's property line, and one of her own employees is arrested for the crime, her old law-school tendencies kick in and she decides to figure out who killed the laborer. Her ex, Eric, flies up from D.C. to be with her and Morgan, even though he's getting married in just a few short weeks to his fiancee. The story slowly unfurls and also jumps back to the past without becoming obtrusive, which was a great part of the novel, and Caren's relationship with the Clancy's, who own the plantation, is also explored.

I liked this novel a lot, although I did think the ending could have been better. It's very, very detailed, and I found that I needed to read it in a quiet room, so that I could absorb the entire thing without missing anything. The setting of the novel, too, is in post-Katrina, 2009 Louisiana, shortly after President Obama has been elected, and it makes for an interesting time to explore. Caren, as an African-American woman, respects Belle Vie but can never forgets its history, and the fact that one of her own relatives worked the cane fields on its property; the slave quarters out back, though sometimes ignored by wedding guests, make sure that no one else can forget it, either.

The Cutting Season will be in stores on September 18th. 4 stars out of 5.

For Attica Locke's tour dates, click here.

*Disclosure: I received a copy of an uncorrected proof of this novel to review. The opinions expressed here, however, are my own.

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