When Emptiness Is All You Know

CarrieThere are certain emotions and experiences universal to being human.  Awkwardness and insecurity during adolescence is one of them.  Stephen King seems to channel these feelings effortlessly, putting a level of realism into the descriptions of his teenaged characters that rings so true, it damn near hurts to read.  Such is the case with Carrie, the story of one troubled teenager whose pitiful life culminates in destruction of epic proportions.

Carrie White just happens to be born the daughter of a man and woman so over-zealously, fanatically religious that she is convinced the world is nothing but one temptation of evil after another and her only means of salvation is to spend her energy repressing her basic needs and wants.  Carrie is never informed about menstruation (and she lives in a time (1974) and place (Chamberlain, Maine) where such things aren’t taught in school) because her mother believes as long as her daughter stays pure, she won’t be cursed by God with a monthly period.  So when Carrie does start her period for the first time, she thinks she’s dying and shrieks in terror.  At the time, she happens to be showering in the girls’ locker room after gym and her classmates take the opportunity to viciously taunt and humiliate her by throwing maxi pads and tampons at her, all the while shouting things like “Plug it up!”  They, of course, don’t understand her melodramatic terror and she doesn’t understand one damn thing about the situation.

Carrie also happens to be a born telekinetic, a condition that is later found to be a recessive genetic disorder resulting from a mutation on the X chromosome, incredibly rare and only affecting females.  (Since it’s recessive, two X chromosomes with the mutation are needed for the disorder to be expressed.  A person with one X chromosome with the mutation is a carrier.)  All of this creates a kind of perfect storm of circumstances under which Carrie White becomes a monster – a confused and tortured teen capable of horrific doings.  After becoming the victim of a cruel and degrading prank at her senior prom, Carrie’s limit for humiliation is surpassed and she uses her supernatural ability to wreak havoc on her town.  In particular, she sets a fire to the gymnasium housing her prom that kills over 400 students and faculty members.  She goes on to murder her own mother, set more fires that destroy several of the town’s local businesses along with one of its central churches and eventually takes down the city’s entire electrical grid.

King reveals the aftermath intermittently via excerpts of books written about the tragedy, radio and news broadcasts transmitted during or immediately following it, transcriptions taken from the hearing on the official investigation and memoirs from the one survivor, Carrie’s fellow student and a girl who played an indirect but significant role in it, Susan Snell.  For the most part, these asides add depth to the relatively Stephen Kingsimple story and give great insight into Carrie’s life and background and the consequences of the incident but the sheer volume of them seem a bit much.  It gets to be distracting from the central story.  Or at least, they should interrupt the story less often.  Placing the bulk of them at either the beginning or end of the central story, perhaps, would have been more to my liking.  I found they interrupted too frequently, breaking my train of thought and interest in the narrative.

King may not write for a broad audience but his ability to slowly weave together a story and create characters in extraordinary circumstances but with whom his readers can relate and empathize has given him a large and faithful community of fans.  Pet Sematary still remains my favorite of the handful of Stephen King novels that I’ve read but I enjoyed Carrie and would certainly recommend it.

~Nikki

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When The Blood’s Run Stale

Mama movie posterI am desperately close to giving up on the horror genre.  Scary movies have been my favorite since I can remember (I watched Halloween when I was literally 7 or 8 years old) and I’ve always been okay with the fact that the bad ones far out number the good, or even decent, ones.  Because however rarely they come along, the good ones make it worth it.  Films like The Ring and 28 Days Later may be the outliers but they’re enough to keep me hanging on through all the campy, awful scary flicks in between.

With all that in mind, I am occasionally duped.  I first saw the trailer for Mama months ago and thought I’d burst at the seams with excitement.  A ghost story wherein the ghost is a possessive maternal figure lingering in the wild?  The idea is rife with possibilities.  However, after the monumental disappointment that was Sinister, I worked damned hard not to get my hopes up.  And what a good thing that turned out to be because Mama is nothing to get excited over.  Like Sinister, it could have worked.  It could have been great.  It had enough tension, enough eerie imagery and a good enough idea to be one of the good ones that keep fans like me holding on.  But director Andres Muschietti simply couldn’t avoid the classic pitfalls of all cheesy horror flicks and his final product is merely mediocre.  It isn’t totally without merit, though, and I’ve broken it down into what worked and what didn’t.  What worked:

  • The fine acting.  The whole cast gives solid performances.  Even the young girls played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse commit to their roles as Victoria and Lily, respectively, as fully as their adult co-stars, which is particularly noteworthy given how young they are.
  • The tense family dynamic between Annabel and the girls.  Setting a ghost story against the backdrop of a new, awkward and relatively unstable family unit is refreshingly un-cliche and creates a wonderfully anxious atmosphere.
  • The whole set up of the girls being raised in the wild by a maternal ghost.  These two girls are abandoned in a shabby old cabin in the woods, itself apparently abandoned by its owners, left to fend for themselves after the vicious deaths of both parents.  They grow feral and animalistic, surviving on cherries and insects and the affection of the protective spirit who finds them, the one they call Mama.  It’s an excellent idea and it works.  At first.
  • The girls “wild” behavior and coping mechanisms.  From a sociological/psychological point of view, watching the girls interact with the psychologist shortly after they’re found and rescued is damned interesting.  And it seems to me their behavior and mannerisms are fairly realistic.  They move on all fours, hide under beds to avoid contact with strangers and young Lily clings to her older sister with an Mama - girlsunrelenting co-dependence that feels impossible to undo.  Similarly, Victoria accepts the role of protector over her little sister with the kind of innate responsibility found in all first-borns.
  • The visual imagery.  I love the use of trees/wilderness at every opportunity – even in the house Annabel and Lucas attain to raise the girls in a conventional family setting, the art work reflects haunting photos of trees.  It reinforces the feeling of isolation, bringing a tinge of dread into every scene.  The images of Mama herself before she’s fully revealed are sufficiently creepy and her means of mobility when she isn’t merely gliding through the air – living in black, necrotic holes in the walls and dissolving into something the size and shape of a scarf to skitter along the floor – give her an ethereal quality, as impossible to pin down as smoke.

What did not work and effectively ruined the whole damn thing:

  • Mama.  Once she’s wholly shown to us, Mama is so poorly done that any hint of of a scare evaporates.  I’m not a visual effects snob – I don’t need the CGI to be on the level of Gollum, but the animation here is so entirely artificial and lazy, I found myself wishing they’d just left her as nothing more than a blurry, dark shadow.  In this case, less would have certainly been more.
  • Mama’s back story.  It’s an embarrassingly simple and trite origin story to begin with and way too much time is spent on it.  It would have been better without it entirely.  It adds nothing to the feel and tone of the movie and slows its pace enough that for me, it actually dragged at times.  The worst part of this is that it keeps its audience from really becoming hooked into the story.  The creepiest, most exciting scenes are cut short or interrupted by the filler of Mama’s history, rendering them less effective.  It made me feel so frustrated, I could have screamed at the screen to just end the damn thing already.  (Which leads me to…)
  • The ending.  That’s right – the end, when it finally came, turned out to be the worst part of the movie.  It is painfully drawn out and absurdly melodramatic and, worst of all, not even remotely scary.

Do I have to write my own damn scary movie just to get a decent one in existence?  What was the last good ghost story – The Sixth Sense?  Come on, Hollywood!  I don’t want to give up on you but you have to give me something to cling to!

~Nikki

Slowly Turning Into You

It’s been a while since I’ve made a good, proper list and you know how I love to make lists.  Today’s topic: chameleonic actors.  Not just talented, not your favorite, not necessarily today’s best actors, but the most transformative actors currently in the biz.  Here’s a list of the first 7 that came to mind:

Bale -The FighterChristian Bale – I hear he’s a real tool to work with and his acceptance speech for the Oscar for his role in The Fighter certainly does suggest so but whether or not he’s a great guy has no relevance in this list.  The man can alter his physical appearance, stance, mannerisms, dialect and accent so much, you hardly recognize him but more importantly, once he commits to the role, you forget he’s Christian Bale.  The Fighter is a fine example as is American Psycho or The Machinist.

Tom Hardy – Even now, it’s difficult for me to believe that the Hardy I watched in Warrior is the same guy who played Eames in Inception.  Throw in his performances in The Dark Knight Rises and Lawless and there’s no question in his ability to transform for a role.  I happened to catch a scene of his small part in Band Of Brothers recently and I had to look him up online to confirm that it really was him.  I’m not sure how he does it, but Hardy somehow manages to look like an entirely different person for nearly every role.

Javier Bardem – I need only two titles to illustrate my point: No Country For Old Men and Vicky Christina Barcelona.  ‘Nuff said.

Cate Blanchett – I first noticed her uncanny ability between 2001’s Bandits and LotR: The Fellowship of The Ring.  Then she played a small but I'm Not Theredistinct role in The Shipping News, became briefly occupied by Katherine Hepburn’s ghost for The Aviator and somehow turned into a young Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.  Yes, you read that right: the same woman successfully played both Katherine Hepburn and Bob Dylan.

Daniel Day Lewis – DDL’s knack for becoming the character he’s playing is something of a legend in show business.  Start at Last Of The Mohicans and work your way through Gangs Of New York and There Will Be Blood all the way to Lincoln and you won’t wonder why.

John Lithgow – He might not be Hollywood’s biggest name right now but his range is astounding.  His earlier work like The Twilight Zone and Terms Of Endearment certainly prove my point but if you dare doubt me, think about this: that goofy, arrogant, outrageously funny alien in 3rd Rock From The Sun was played by the very same man who gave us the cold, calculating Trinity Killer in Dexter.  I hate to say I told you so, but… yeah, I did.

Natalie Portman – I struggled a bit with including Portman on this list but her performances in Garden State and Closer won me over.  She may not always bring the same level of commitment to every role, but these two at least prove that she can.

Tell me: who did I forget?

~Nikki

One Thing I Can Tell You Is You’ve Got To Be Free

Django UnchainedWhat can I tell you that you haven’t already heard (or read) about Django Unchained?  I can go on about the stellar performances.  Tell you that Leonardo DiCaprio has never been this engaged, this completely magnetic.  That he wholly embodies the vile, opportunistic, greedy son of a bitch Calvin Candie.  That the power play between him and Jamie Foxx is damned delightful to witness.  I could gush endlessly over Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of a German immigrant making a living as a bounty hunter in America, a man who abhors slavery and the inhumane treatment of blacks in a time wherein they are considered only slightly more valuable than cattle.  I could point out that the bond formed between Waltz’s Schultz and Foxx’s Django comes about with a perfectly paced and natural grace, that it enfolds without ever crossing over into needlessly sentimental, keeping it from falling into the kind of trap that would cheapen their friendship and blur the focus of the story itself.  Which would lead me, of course, into a diatribe of Quentin Tarantino’s skill as a writer and director, going on and on about his uncanny ability to weave together plot points and details that might sound ridiculous and certainly unbelievable if left to the devices of anyone else but in his hands, come together so naturally, you never even pause to question them for they seem more than plausible – they’re right.  I could say all of this (and much more) and I would not be lying.  But my guess is that none of it is news to you.  Not now.  So instead, I’ll discuss what I think makes Django more than just entertaining, more than two and a half hours of wicked good fun (which it is, every minute) and elevates it to a film for the ages.

From a glance, it looks and feels like a western.  And it is, sort of.  In the way that westerns are about those courageous (white) men who braved the wild frontier and risked their lives to tame the land and the savages who inhabited it, Django is similarly themed.  Because westerns are less about the west, specifically, and more about the singularly American contemplation of the role of violence in the civilization of a viciously primitive world.  Django is that exact contemplation only its frontier doesn’t lie in The West but in The South.  And the savages aren’t wild Indians or corrupt lawmakers but slave owners and the hero is a freed slave, a black man rather than the archetypical white, blue-eyed hero.  And this is why it is a work of genius.

Django Unchained is the inversion of the western genre.  The untamed frontier is a plantation in The South and the savage villain is a white man, a blond-haired, blue-eyed owner of the plantation and all of the slaves who work it.  And the man who comes into town to save it from the corrupted bad guy is a black man without money or power or even the right to vote or own land.  I guarantee that no oneDjango & Clavin, not one single person who sees this movie will root for Calvin Candie to win out in the end.  I challenge even the most racist white person left in America (or the world, for that matter) to watch Django and want anyone other than Django to end victorious.  Which is exactly why it’s more than just a delicious revenge fantasy.  Putting a black former slave in the role of the dark hero we’ve come to associate with westerns is a stoke of genius that forces us all to recognize our collective history without the safety net of excuses or rationalizations.  Because anyone who can watch the cowboys shoot down Indians and feel that such violence was warranted for the sake of establishing civilization in an uncivilized world will now also have to admit that whatever violence helped end the sick institution of slavery was more than necessary.  It was justified.

~Nikki

Eyes On Fire – Nikki’s 2012 Book List (Part 2)

As promised, here’s part two:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – Typically I try to read the book before seeing the movie but occasionally, it happens the other way around, which was the case here.  I saw the flick and thought it was a good idea but too heavy-handed in its execution.  After reading a couple of glowing reviews of the book, I thought I’d give it a look in the hopes that it succeeded where the film failed.  Sadly, I did not find that to be the case.  It’s a dark and sad tale set in the not-so-distant future wherein people who have the available funds can buy rights to clones of themselves.  At any point, if they need a kidney or a lung or any other vital organ, they’ll have a perfect match on hand.  Never Let Me Go tells the story of the doomed clones as they grow up in a boarding school, aware of their inescapable fate and still somehow trying to find some joy in life.  The writing is JaneEyrebeautiful and the story is not without merit but some passages just try too hard to convey the sense of loss that would come through much better without Ishiguro’s forcing it.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I don’t know why it took me 30 years to read this but upon doing so, it immediately became a treasured favorite.  Bronte’s Jane Eyre offers a narrative that’s warm and personal without ever being trite and the story itself is as much about a young woman coming into her own and finding a way to assert her own independent spirit over the course of her life as it is a dark and intoxicating love story.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie – Alexie’s greatest skill as a storyteller is to make the stories of utterly ordinary lives feel extraordinarily tragic and simultaneously funny.  This collection of short stories deals with many of today’s pertinent issues – love, marriage, divorce, parenthood, racial conflict, substance/alcohol abuse, 9/11 and the War On Terror.  It isn’t Alexie’s best (for me, that’s still The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven) but it certainly is worth a read.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – I’m not sure what finally got me reading this.  It was different than I expected, more about the emotional aftermath for this poor dead child’s family than the capture of her killer.  The writing itself is good and the characters very real and fully developed but I never got totally sucked in.  There is no plot and at times, the story seems to just spin out in tangents.  For those of who love a good character study, I recommend it.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Yes, I read this in anticipation of the upcoming film adaptation by Baz Luhrman.  You know I’m a sucker for the classics so I’m sure I would have gotten to it eventually, anyway.  I had no expectations going in, really knew nothing of the story other than it’s set in or around the roaring ’20s.  It centers around a young man fairly new to New York and its high society.  He happens to be neighbors with a man called Gatsby, who is infamously mysterious as well as exceedingly wealthy.  He eventually witnesses Gatsby’s downfall along with the disintegration of the small circle of socialites that he briefly became a part of.  Hailed for capturing the essence of an era, it belongs on everyone’s book list.

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – Two brothers find an abandoned crashed plane and in it, a duffel bag full of money.  Over $4 million, it turns out.  Should they disappear with it?  Is it marked or otherwise sought after by the police… drug lords… the FBI?  Such is the premise for A Simple Plan and it sounds promising enough.  Smith develops a fairly good story but the writing – the actual sentence by sentence writing of it isn’t good enough to make it great.  There are a few plot holes, nothing monumental, but made more obvious by the overly descriptive explanation of events surrounding them.  The action and every thought behind it were given too thorough a description, taking any semblance of nuance out of the work.  I hear they made a movie some years ago but I doubt I’ll see it.  Once through this story is enough.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens – These 100 pages are a compilation of the very last writings of Mr. Hitchens, all written during the last 18 months of his life between his diagnosis with esophageal cancer and his untimely death.  They contain some of his most personal work and his most poignant.  By turns philosophical and musing, he never lost his ability to write with penetrating intelligence and unmatched grace.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King – This was the second book King published and I’d venture to say that at the time of its writing, he hadn’t fully found his voice yet.  Some passages went on far too long while others felt cut short.  Still, it contains a few of those slow-to-reveal moments that King does so well, the kind that creep up on you and make you shiver with delight at the suspenseful, scary images you know are coming but still somehow feel fresh and surprising.  In 1975, King may not have yet mastered his craft but he was already well on his way.

The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant – This novel formed the basis for the film Lawless, easily one of 2012’s best flicks.  The wettest county is Franklin county (Virginia) and during Prohibition, it spawned what would later be called The Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy involving the Bondurant brothers and a deputy called Charley Rakes.  That much (along with some other details) is true.  But much more of the book is fictionalized.  It centers around the Bondurant boys and rightly so; they are the stars of this story and my interest in the details of their lives is what got me to buy the book.  It drags a bit in the beginning but stick with it – it’s worth it.

Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell – I enjoyed Outliers so much, I thought I’d go back and read this earlier work by Gladwell that studies the idea of “thin-slicing” – selecting the few most relevant factors from any number of variables in the first few open bookseconds’ reaction to something – and how it affects our decision-making.  Gladwell examines a psychologist who can predict a couple’s chance of divorce with shocking accuracy by listening to them talk for a mere few minutes, a museum curator’s ability to judge the authenticity of a piece of art within moments of gazing upon it and the tennis coach who knows the player will double-fault before he even finishes his serve.  Gladwell also gives some examples of decisions made by those whose instincts lead to disastrous consequences and explains the difference between them.  Each case study is well explained and thought-provoking, exploring the successes and failures of rapid cognition.

50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed – Yes, I read them and no, I did not particularly enjoy them.  The first in the series is by far the best of the three (in the way that the time you broke your finger was a more enjoyable experience than when you fractured your skull) and the best thing I can say for them is that they weren’t quite as awful as I had expected.  The writing itself, while not anything I’d call good, isn’t the worst I’ve read but the characters are lifeless and underdeveloped and there is no story to speak of, just one pitifully contrived set of circumstances after another during which the girl worries she’s not enough for the boy and the boy worries she’s going to leave him and then they argue and make up and have kinky sex, some of which is mildly hot but not nearly enough to justify the time spent reading this schlock.  I read them because I felt guilty about hating all over a series I hadn’t actually read.  So I gave them a shot.  And now I can knowingly say they’re a waste of paper.

Can’t wait to see what literary treasures 2013 will bring.

~Nikki

In The Time Of Chimpanzees I Was A Monkey

The Golden Globes are roughly 48 hours away and for the most part, I’m happy with the nominations.  (Except, of course, for the snub against Martin Freeman for his portrayal of Dr. Watson and the seemingly endless love for Modern Family, which has become tiresomely stale.  Oh, and why are Sherlock and AHS: Asylum listed as Mini-Series?  They are TV shows.  Did I miss something?)  The newly released Oscar nominations, on the other hand…  I guess the people over at the Academy Awards decided the GG nom’s just weren’t controversial enough, forcing them to take matters into their own hands.  Which, of course, gives me something to bitch about.

DiCaprio- DjangoThe many nominations for Silver Linings Playbook make my heart swell for everyone involved in the making of that movie including Matthew Quick for writing the novel and David O. Russell for adapting it so damned well into a screenplay.  Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper give smart, sincere, completely uninhibited performances and DeNiro delivers the kind of performance that reminds us why he’s a living legend.  And considering SLP really isn’t the kind of movie you’d expect to get this kind of recognition (it’s too honest, not sugar-coated nor overly dramatized and seriously, it’s little more than a rom-com, albeit much smarter and with mental health issues), I have to say: Academy, you’ve done well.

That being said, what the hell are you thinking by not nominating Leonardo DiCaprio?  DiCaprio should be AWARDED that damn statue for his unmatched, uncanny talent and skill in his portrayal as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained.  What the fuck, Academy???

The most snubs came in the Best Director category: no Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained), no Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), no Tom Hooper (Les Miserables) AND no Ben Affleck (Argo)?  Again, WHAT THE FUCK,  Academy?

The good news?  Seth MacFarlane is hosting, so it shouldn’t be a total bust.  Here are all the bastards lucky enough to actually be recognized this year:

Best Picture

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

Lincoln

Les Miserables

Life of Pi

Amour

Django Unchained

Argo

Best Director

David O. Russell, Silver Linings Playbook

Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Steven Spielberg, Lincoln

Michael Haneke, Amour

Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Actor

Daniel Day Lewis, Lincoln

Denzel Washington, Flight

Hugh Jackman, Les Miserables

Bradley Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master

Best Actress

Naomi Watts, The Impossible

Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty

Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook

Emmanuelle Riva, Amour

Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Best Supporting Actor

Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, The Master

Robert DeNiro, Silver Linings Playbook

Alan Arkin, Argo

Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Field, Lincoln

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables

Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook

Helen Hunt, The Sessions

Amy Adams, The Master

Best Original Screenplay

Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, Moonrise Kingdom

Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty

John Gatins, Flight

Michael Haneke, Amour

Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained

Best Adapted Screenplay

Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild

Tony Kushner, Lincoln

David Magee, Life of Pi

David O. Russell, Silver Linings PlaybookOscars

Chris Terrio, Argo

Best Animated Film

Frankenweenie

Pirates: Band of Misfits

Paranorman

Wreck-It Ralph

Brave

Best Foreign Film

Amour, Austria

No, Chile

War Witch, Canada

A Royal Affair, Denmark

Kon-Tiki, Norway

See you Sunday.

~Nikki

So Take A Look, It’s In a Book – Nikki’s Book List 2012

booksMy goal for 2012 was to read at least 24 books throughout the year – that’s two a month.  Surprisingly, I surpassed that meager goal with ease and read a whopping 39 books!  (My goal for 2013 is 52 books!  I’m already two down – take that, books!)  Since the list is quite long, I’ve decided to break up their reviews into two posts for your reading convenience.  (For those whose review I’ve already written and posted, I’ve conveniently linked them for you below.)  Here is part one:

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – As the title suggests, The God Delusion argues that the idea of God (and religion) is fictitious.  Written by one of the world’s leaders in evolutionary biology, it is a scientific examination of religious ideas (most of them founded in either Judaism or Christianity) and the very notion of God.  Dawkins, as well as being expertly knowledgeable of evolution and natural selection, writes with an unbiased, clinical kind of honesty, simply presenting the evidence without his (or others’) personal feelings to obscure it.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens – This memoir by the late writer/journalist Christopher Hitchens sometimes reads like an autobiography and at others, like a personal essay.  It’s pretty typical Hitchens: poetic, honest, intelligent and written with extreme grace.  My only complaint is that he glosses over some of the more personal aspects of his life (like fatherhood) and didn’t talk much at all of either of his marriages.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell – An excellent, easy to read but very thorough look at the many contributing factors that lead “outliers” the likes of Bill Gates, The Beatles or even Albert Einstein to their atypical, extreme success.  Many people like to think it’s nothing more than hard work and determination but the truth is, while those are essential, they are far from the only things needed.  A faithful support system, the right opportunities (sometimes nothing more than being in the right place at the right time), a culture that encourages and allows for such success and plain old luck all play significant roles.

The Necessity Of Certain Behaviors by Shannon Cain – A collection of short stories, all different but each having themes revolving around sexuality, these are a light and easy read.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – In all honesty, I’m a bit worn out on stories set in the Old South.  I decided to read this mostly just because it was wildly popular and seemingly inescapable.  I particularly liked that it was told from several different narratives rather than being limited to one point of view.  For anyone who enjoys historical fiction or simply a good Southern story, you can’t go wrong here.

I Am Number Four and The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore – These are the first two in a four-part series (the third of which just came out and no, I haven’t read it yet) about the last nine members of an alien race hiding on Earth from a different alien race out to wipe them from existence.  It’s light, exciting fantasy, loaded with action and quickly paced.  Fantasy and sci-fi fans will almost certainly enjoy.

Untouchable by Scott O’Connor – I bought this book at Powell’s in Portland (Oregon) after reading the jacket.  It tells the tale of a man and his son as they try with difficulty to deal with the sudden death of their wife/mom.  The kid is bullied at school and I admire O’Connor’s relentless dedication to honesty in these passages.  They’re so real, they’re often painful to read.  His characters are very real and the prose is well-written, but the story is slowly paced and lacking in depth of plot.  In fact, there really isn’t much plot to speak of.  Overall, an elegant, albeit slow read.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Amazingly, I had never read this classic until last spring.  Its gothic imagery and dark themes sucked me in right from the start.  For those of you who may not know, this is a haunting tale of a fierce and unnatural love between an orphaned young man and the daughter of his adopted father.  The writing is engaging and poignant; the main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, both wicked, selfish creatures devoured by their intense love of one another and the madness it inspires.  My only complaint is the narrative.  The story is told second-hand through the memories of a housemaid as she tells it to a man who has rented Heathcliff’s property.  I would have felt more connected to the characters and more invested in the story were it told by Heathcliff, or perhaps in third person narrative.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Crimes In Southern Indiana by Frank Bill – Though I usually enjoy dark and gritty tales, the writing here is too heavy-handed for my taste.  Rife with abstract metaphors and overly wordy descriptions, the writing actually masks the action in the stories and takes the pleasure out of reading.

One For The Money through Lean Mean Thirteen of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich – Anyone looking for an introspective or socially relevant book will be disappointed here.  Evanovich’s prose is light-hearted and easy to read, fast-paced and fun, but there’s nothing deeply intricate or nuanced about it.  These are escapism, nothing more.  Twelve Sharp is my favorite of the series so far.

To Kill The Irishman: The War That Crippled The Mafia by Rick Porrello – I am from Youngstown and grew up on stories about the Youngstown/Cleveland/Pittsburgh mafia, so the subject matter was of particular interest to me.  Author Rick Porrello is a police officer by trade, not a writer, and it shows.  It reads more like text, listing events and facts rather than a narrative.  He clearly did his homework, though, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about true crime, history and/or mob stories.

To be continued…

~Nikki