My favorite books of 2014

I still have a few more books from 2014 that I need to finish or start soon, like the Romanov Sisters, Nora Webster and The Opposite of Loneliness. But the following books (plus two others I’ve already written about here, The Silkworm and The Secret Place) are my favorites of 2014 right now.

 

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

First-time novelist Celeste Ng’s literary mystery has been growing in popularity since Amazon’s book editors selected it as their best book of 2014. Published in June, the book is sold out my neighborhood Barnes & Noble and is one of Amazon’s top sellers.  There’s a reason it’s winning so many accolades, it is a haunting, one-of-a-kind book that I read entirely during one snowy afternoon. I was hooked in the first few pages by the well-developed plot, authentic characters and outstanding writing.

Race, gender, family expectations and sudden death are a few of the heady subject matters Ng tackles with grace. We know from the book’s first sentence that the 16-year-old protagonist Lydia Lee is already dead. Lydia was her parent’s favorite child and they projected their own dreams onto her without ever getting to really know their daughter. Like many unexpected deaths, the tragedy unravels the Lee family. The issues that were simmering under the surface of the seemingly happy family are all brought to light.

Ng expertly takes the reader back and forth in time to see how these dynamics developed over the years and of course, to solve the mystery of Lydia’s death. The book never delves into the police procedural realm but instead dives deep into the perspective of each character to analyze the events that lead to Lydia’s drowning and what they could have done to prevent it. The ending is unforgettable and wrenching but leaves the reader with some hope.

“Everything I Never Told You” powerfully shows how damaging it is to try to live up to expectations of perfection, both self-imposed and imposed by others. It also illustrates how important it is to truly know the people closest to you, not just your idea of them. The book truly is a masterpiece.

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The Children Act by Ian McEwan

“Atonement” is one of all-time favorite books and I know that Ian McEwan will likely never write anything better but I still love his newer works. “The Children Act” is no exception.

Like his 2007 novel “On Chesil Beach”, it can easily be read in one sitting but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. The book centers around Fiona Maye, a British magistrate in her 50s who works in family court but has no children of her own.

The Children Act itself is a British law that states, “When a court determines any question with respect to . . . the upbringing of a child . . . the child’s welfare shall be the court’s paramount consideration.” This rule is at the core of the very tough decisions Fiona must make every day.

At the heart of the plot is a particular case: a 17-year-old boy with leukemia who refuses a life-saving blood transfusion because of his family’s Jehovah Witness faith. What authority does Fiona have to intervene and force a boy to get a life-saving treatment he doesn’t want? The ultimate answer is heartbreaking.

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All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Set in France and Germany in World War II, “All the Light We Cannot See” explores how the unseemly war affects the lives of two children, Marie Laure, a French girl who went blind at the age of 6, and Werner, a precocious German orphan with a technological bend.  The story switches between their viewpoints and different times in their lives so you stay invested in each character’s story equally.

The reader feels a sense of urgency and worry throughout the book as many tragedies befall Marie Laure, Werner and the people around them. Although they are on opposite sides of the war, their paths eventually cross for a short period of time.

I’ve heard some criticism of the book’s final chapters, which skip ahead to the 1970s and 2014. I thought they were very effectivey at tying up loose ends and a moving way to express the guilt and regret that the German people felt about the Holocaust and the Third Reich.

 

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The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

Have you ever been to a haunting old house or town and wished that you could turn back time to see what transpired there hundreds of years ago? People who long to breathe life into historical places will love this book.

This debut novel is set apart by its hauntingly beautiful prose about a coastal village in North Carolina shortly after the American Revolution. For a short book, it packs a remarkable array of tough themes into it including slavery, religion, war and early death.

Separated into two distinct parts, the novel begins with a sailor named John, his 10-year-old daughter Tabitha and her grandfather Asa. Tabitha’s mother, John’s wife and Asa’s daughter Helen passed away during childbirth like her mother before her and countless women during that era.

The second part is set several years earlier and focuses on Helen, her slave Moll, Asa and eventually John. One of the strengths of this book is the strained relationship between Helen and Moll, which illustrates the evil of slavery.

This is a magical book and I wish it was getting the attention it deserves.

The Secret Place by Tana French, Dublin Murder Squad

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In life I’m always in a hurry. Slow walkers drive me crazy, I buy groceries at odd times to avoid lines, people with complicated orders at Starbucks might be the death of me. I do everything I possibly can to rush. The only time I’m not in a hurry is when I’m reading a book I don’t want to end.

It took much longer to read the “The Secret Place” than I would like to admit because I didn’t want to come home and find it had moved from my nightstand to my bookshelf.

I have been hooked on Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series since I randomly picked up “In the Woods” at the library. I was drawn in to the story by her beautiful and clear writing, well-developed and realistic characters, fascinating mysteries and insightful look at modern Ireland. She is a master at mixing suspense, police procedure and character development. Mysteries don’t always get the respect they deserve but French’s books are without a doubt some of the best being published today.

After finishing “In the Woods”, I spent hours in the middle of the night scouring reviews and blogs for opinions on the ambiguous ending (that’s another post within itself) because I still couldn’t let go of the story.  I purchased the book for my mom for Christmas that year and she loved it so much that she ordered the rest of French’s books from Amazon.

“The Secret Place” is the latest and fifth addition to the series and brings back several characters from 2010’s “Faithful Place” (my favorite book in the series so far), Detective Stephen Moran, Detective Frank Mackey and his teenage daughter Holly.

Now a student at a posh, all-girls boarding school St. Kilda’s, Holly comes to Stephen with a clue on a cold case. Someone has posted on an anonymous note that says “I know who killed him” on St. Kilda’s confessions bulletin board, The Secret Place (which has a PostSecret-like philosophy but actually is physical board hanging in the school). The note is referring to the murder of Chris Harper, a student at a nearby boarding school for boys St. Colm’s, who was found bludgeoned to death on the grounds of St. Kilda’s about one year earlier.

Stephen joins forces with Antoinette Conway, a detective who was on the original case. They are immediately thrown into the complicated, gritty and brutal world of teenage girls at St. Kilda’s.

It’s been 10 years since I was the same age as the characters but I can still tell that French masterfully captures the habits of teen girls. Chris’ murder brought an unwelcome taste of the outside world to the sheltered and insular St. Kilda’s and it has forced the girls to question the world around them.

This is the first one of her books to switch perspective. Every other chapter shifts from Detective Moran’s perspective to a flashback of the girls at St. Kilda’s before (and eventually after) Chris’ murder.

The characters are believable and nuanced. One of the great gifts of French’s book is the subtlety you get from reading each of her words closely. There is so much insight and detail packed in that I’m sure rereading her books would be worth it. “The Secret Place” is no different and is a pleasure to read.

If you haven’t read of any French’s books, I recommend starting with “In The Woods” and continuing the series in order. You won’t regret it. If you have read any of the books, let me know in the comments.

 

 

Kacey Musgraves at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, Sept. 27 2014

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(My concert pictures turned out terribly so I’m using her album cover from Amazon)

I discovered Kacey Musgraves in the least likely place to find a new country artist-the New York Times Magazine. Her debut album “Same Trailer Different Park” lived up to the buzz that Kacey was an artist unlike anyone currently on country radio with a classic country throwback sound and lyrics more modern and insightful than artists in any other genre.

Since that March 2013 article, she has been nominated for nine CMA awards, won Grammys for Best Country Album and Best Country Song and toured with acts as different as Kenny Chesney and Katy Perry.  Her fan base extends beyond country fans (even One Direction’s Harry Styles is a fan) and keeps on growing. Her outstanding performance at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago Saturday showed why she’s become so popular in such a short time.

Kacey played for a full hour and a half breezing through her hits like “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow”, covers including “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and new songs. She moved easily between some of the slower songs on her album like “Back on the Map” and faster songs like the Miranda Lambert #1 hit she co-wrote “Mama’s Broken Heart” which kept the energy up for the whole show.

The fact that she has written songs as diverse and catchy as “Mama’s Broken Heart” (my personal favorite Miranda song) and “Merry Go Round” speaks to her incredible songwriting talent. She writes all of her own music and has a knack for storytelling and capturing universal themes in just a few words. Before she even released “Same Trailer Different Park”, she was a well-known songwriter in the country scene and wrote “Undermine” one of the best songs on “Nashville” so far.   

All of her songs are clever and show wisdom and insight beyond her years. As she told the audience Saturday, the  lyrics, which are generally interpreted as a statement on the hopelessness of small-town life, could apply to life in any location. It’s all in the mindset.

“Just like dust, we settle in this town. / On this broken merry go ’round and ’round and ’round we go. / Where it stops nobody knows and it ain’t slowin’ down. / This merry go ’round.”

“We think the first time’s good enough. / So, we hold on to high school love. / Sayin’ we won’t end up like our parents. / Tiny little boxes in a row. / Ain’t what you want, it’s what you know. / Just happy in the shoes you’re wearin’. / Same checks we’re always cashin’ to buy a little more distraction.”

Countless people in cities like New York, LA and Chicago are trapped on a merry go round.

I’m obsessed with song lyrics so I could write a thesis on this topic but I really do love her many songs about being yourself and ignoring the negative people around you. “Step Off”, “Follow Your Arrow”, a new song “Cup of Tea”, “Undermine” and “Trailer Song” are some of her best.

Kacey was a lot of fun on stage and her voice was wonderful as always. I also adored her 60s style pink shift dress. An artist like Kacey is a refreshing reprieve from the “bro country” that has been dominating Nashville recently. I hope to see her again soon.

Also, the opening band “John & Jacob” was a great surprise and gave one of the most assured performances I’ve seen in a while. Their song “Be My Girl” is a stand out and was also used on “Nashville”.  You can check them out here.

Here are more great songs and music videos from Kacey, “Blowin’ Smoke” and “Follow Your Arrow”:

 

Summer Movie Reviews: A Most Wanted Man, Begin Again, Magic in the Moonlight

It’s been well-documented that 2014 has not been the best summer for movies. How many terrible comedies, bad sequels, mediocre action movies and lackluster comic book/Transformers sagas can Hollywood release until the major studios realize what they’re doing wrong? Spending tons of money on marketing and casting famous stars does not guarantee that people will go see your movie.

There are actually a few very interesting and intelligent movies out right now that didn’t have the budget of Transformers 4.

A Most Wanted Man

At times it’s hard to watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last starring role in a movie because tragically, this is his final act. The role of talented and determined yet burdened German intelligence agent Günther Bachmann is a great fit for Hoffman. He plays it so perfectly that it elevates the whole movie to a different level. There’s no question that he was one of the best actors of his generation, if not the best.

Based on a book by John Le Carré, “A Most Wanted Man” tackles the war on terrorism and the world of espionage in the wake of the September 11th attacks. Bachmann plays the head of a small unit of roguish spies operating in Hamburg, a city under intense scrutiny because it was the home of 9/11 mastermind Mohamed Atta. As someone who is fascinated by these operations, I loved this movie and will definitely read the book.

Germany, who is afraid of harboring someone like Atta again, is taking an extremely close look at anyone entering Hamburg. When a suspicious Chechen enters the city illegally, he becomes the focus of Bachmann’s group, other German government entities and U.S. intelligence officers. The question remains, is he really a bad guy or is it just conjecture?

The suspense continues as intelligence officers untangle a web of Russian mafia, terrorists and otherwise upstanding citizens/possible sympathizers giving money to terrorists to buy weapons. It’s a very muddled crowd and frequently it is not clear who they should be following.

Robin Wright has a standout role playing CIA officer Martha Sullivan, who is Bachmann’s sometimes friend, sometimes foe, while evoking shades of House of Cards’ Claire Underwood. Willem Dafoe has a great turn as wealthy banker Tommy Brue whose help Bachmann needs.

Overall, this a great spy movie with a strong Le Carré plot and outstanding acting. The plot ends relatively abruptly but it closes with a haunting final scene of a frustrated Bachmann walking off the screen one final time.

Begin Again

John Carney, best-known for Once, returns with another movie that mixes music into the plot seamlessly. I actually enjoyed this movie more than Once because I found the plot and characters more relatable.

A British songwriter in her 20s Gretta (Keira Knightley) visits New York for an extended stay with her up and coming rocker boyfriend (played by first time actor Adam Levine). Dave, who Adam Levine embodies perfectly since he’s pretty much playing himself) inevitably cheats on Gretta the second he finds stardom. It leads to a heartbroken Gretta singing a song at an open mic night that is attended by a down on his luck record executive Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who immediately recognizes her potential. It takes a while for Dan to convince Gretta that she should step outside of her comfort zone and record an (outdoor!) album with him but when she does, the results are beyond anyone’s expectations.

It’s a hopeful movie with a very strong cast and soundtrack. Keira Knightley, who I think is a really underrated actress, surprises everyone with her singing talent. Her songs “Tell Me If You Wanna Go Home”, “Lost Stars” and “Like A Fool” are highlights. She really owns the role of Gretta and makes her believable as a young woman going through a scary major life change and finding hope in the struggle. In the past, Keira has said that she usually chooses period movies because they offer better roles for women and Gretta is a character as worthy as her past roles.

Mark Ruffalo really stands out in this movie too. He brings a warmth and charisma to Dan’s character that makes him trustworthy. It definitely would not have been the same without him.

I highly recommend this movie and it will find a bigger audience through word of mouth.

You can listen to the music from the movie here:

Magic in the Moonlight

Once I heard that this movie was about a man trying to debunk a spiritualist medium and it starred Colin Firth and Emma Stone, I was sold. Woody Allen is a controversial figure but his ability to write and direct movies with original plots starring great actors is unparalleled. Especially in the age of the remake, sequel, trilogy, franchise, etc.

Colin Firth stars as a grouchy upper-class British magician named Stanley whose stage show involves him dressing as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo. The fact that the movie is set in the 1920s makes it a little easier to believe that Wei Ling Soo is a world-renowned performer. A fellow magician and old friend Howard Burkan (played by Simon McBurney) enlists Stanley’s help to debunk a spiritualist named Sophie who has captivated a wealthy American family and is now living with them in the South of France. The plot takes a lot of twists and turns from there as Sophie’s talents eventually capture the imagination of the famously skeptic Stanley.

This isn’t the best movie in the world but it’s enjoyable and worth seeing if it interests you. The art direction is amazing. The costumes, sets and settings are so gorgeous that you don’t want the movie to end because you feel like you’re on a fantasy vacation. The plot kept me hooked and Colin and Emma both have great comedic timing.

 

Theater Review: Second City’s Incomplete Guide to Everything

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I found “Second City’s Incomplete Guide to Everything” by accident. I was recently looking for last minute tickets to the mainstage show but it was sold-out every night that week. It had been a few years since I’d been to the famous theater at North and Wells and I was pleasantly surprised to see how many different shows they have running.

With a stroke of luck and because of the name, I picked out “Second City’s Incomplete Guide to Everything” currently running at UP Comedy Club in Piper’s Alley. It turned out to be the best show I’ve seen at Second City and the only sketch and improv show I’ve seen where not a single skit fell flat.

The show is made up of best-of sketches from Second City’s history and jumps through time while exploring the theme of connections in history (and pop culture), in a humorous manner. If you’ve kept up with pop culture (especially in the last ten years) you will get most of the references. The night we went, the cast was trying to show how Justin Bieber’s arrest led to the apocalypse. It has yet to be proved that Justin Bieber’s arrest won’t cause the apocalypse.

Some of the standout sketches were a woman who befriends a serial killer in her building’s laundry room, an improv sketch about the typical American family in different years and a woman who discovers her therapist hasn’t been listening to her at all and doesn’t even know her name. Every sketch was funny and had a few lines where the audience laughed out loud.

All of the performers were quick on their feet during improvisation and had outstanding comedic timing. I highly recommend this show if you’re heading to Second City.

This show is currently an open run at UP Comedy Club at 230 W North Ave, Chicago, IL. For more information, visit Second City’s site.

 

 

Book Review: J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s The Silkworm

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“The Cuckoo’s Calling” was one of my favorite books of 2013 so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of its follow-up “The Silkworm”. By page two, I was already hooked and thrilled to be brought back into the world of London’s most famous private investigator, Cormoran Strike.

Strike again finds himself embroiled in an intricate and potentially dangerous mystery, the disappearance of novelist Owen Quine. Hired by Quine’s long-suffering wife Leonora, Strike finds that Quine wrote an unpublished “poison-pen” novel “Bombyx Mori” that left Quine with a few high-profile enemies. When Strike discovers that Quine has been murdered in the same grisly way as the main character in “Bombyx Mori”, the list of possible suspects narrows to a small circle within the publishing industry.

In my opinion Robert Galbraith (a.k.a. J.K. Rowling) is one of the best mystery writers publishing today and one of her strengths as a master storyteller is the interesting worlds that her books capture. There’s depth and cultural insight in this series beyond the mysteries themselves.

In “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, I loved reading about the world of supermodel Lula Landry who was adopted into an upper class British family and found herself in the worlds of high fashion, music and celebrity but never really fit in. Set in the cut-throat London publishing and literature scene, the characters in “The Silkworm” are equally interesting. It explores the snobbery, jealously and backstabbing that goes on between novelists, editors and agents. Quine, who only had one bestselling book in his career, felt like he was an underrated and misunderstood author. People assumed that “Bombyx Mori” was his revenge against his colleagues.

Cormoran himself is caught between several worlds that he balances and rejects at the same time: the unstable world of his childhood with his groupie mother, the celebrity lifestyle of his estranged rockstar father and the posh, high-society existence of his ex-girlfriend Charlotte. Since he doesn’t seem to feel comfortable in any of these realms, he has carved out his own spot in the world. It will be interesting to see how Strike and his two-person investigative firm develop over the course of the series.

The mystery is intricate and develops quickly. Once you get about halfway through the book, it is impossible to put down. The reader sees how Strike is gathering the clues and piecing them together in his head but as an outside observer, you are never exactly sure what he is thinking. I didn’t guess the ending of either “The Silkworm” or “The Cuckoo’s Calling”.

Like in the Harry Potter series, Rowling is gifted at writing the main, secondary and peripheral characters. Each character that enters the story comes to life even if they are only around for a line or two. Strike and his partner Robin, we met both in “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, are extremely well-written and their characters are further developed in “The Silkworm”. Robin’s fiancé Matthew is a bigger part of the story this time and he fits into the novel seamlessly. Strike’s half-brother Al Rokeby, a legitimate son of Strike’s rocker father Jonny Rokeby, is a good addition to the series. I’m sure that Jonny Rokeby himself will eventually appear in the series.

Rowling recently told the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival that her next Strike novel (which she is currently halfway through) is her “best-planned” novel yet. Considering how great her other books are, I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to the return of Detective Frank Mackey and the Dublin Murder Squad on September 2nd when Tana French’s new book The Secret Place comes out.

Theater Review: This Is Our Youth at Steppenwolf Theatre

This Is Our Youth runs at Steppenwolf through July 27 and opens for previews on Broadway on August 18

This Is Our Youth runs at Steppenwolf through July 27 and opens for previews on Broadway on August 18

I haven’t been as excited to see a play as much as Steppenwolf’s current production of This Is Our Youth since I went to see Wicked as a teenager.

With a well-written script and engaging performances, the play, directed by Tony winner Anna Shapiro and starring Michael Cera, Kiernan Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, lives up to the hype.

Set in 48-hour period in 1982 with a group of three characters who are bridging the gap between childhood and adulthood, Kenny Lonergan’s 1996 play still feels relevant in 2014. The early adulthood transition is rich with material worth exploring and Lonergan makes great use of it.

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and iPhones haven’t been invented yet but the universal themes of transitioning into life as an adult haven’t changed that much. It’s not an overnight change for anyone and the bridge period is one of the most exciting and frustrating times in everyone’s life. It’s a different experience for every individual and can last for months, years, decades or even a whole lifetime.

Each character is at different points in their passage but they are all struggling with change in a different way. Dennis (Kieran Culkin) lives in an apartment paid for by his parents and is trying his hand at entrepreneurship, a.k.a. petty drug dealing amongst his friends.  Warren (Michael Cera) still lives with his wealthy father but winds up staying with Dennis following a big fight. Jessica (Tavi Gevinson) lives at home while she studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She appears to have more direction in life than Warren or Dennis who are trying to live on the edge while under the protection of their parents’ money.

The action starts when Warren shows up at Dennis’ place with $15,000 in cash that he’d just stolen from his dad’s bedroom. Dennis is terrified to have the stolen cash in his apartment and involves Warren in schemes to earn the money back that he’s already spent. Warren has a crush on Jessica and their relationship grows and wanes over time.

Conversations between Warren and Dennis and Warren and Jessica sometimes create conflict and bonds while bringing out their deepest inner thoughts, motivations, past experiences and ideas. It has some of the best banter that I’ve ever heard in a play.

Comedy and drama are seamlessly mixed together throughout the performance. The audience laughed out loud countless times but more serious themes of death, family issues and violence were explored thoughtfully which is a rare balance.

Even with a great script, the actors’ pitch perfect performances made the play exceptional. Culkin was hilarious and it was impossible to take your eyes off of him every time he spoke. Cera’s performance as the conflicted Warren was nuanced and natural. Gevinson, who is also a brilliant teen mogul, was really engaging and energetic as the thoughtful Jessica. I’ve already seen Cera in several movies and I hope to see Culkin and Gevinson in more after this play.

One of the best parts of the production is its intimacy. It’s in Steppenwolf’s 299-seat Upstairs Theatre and there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Performed in the round, the action feels less like a staged performance and more like you are sitting in the room with the characters. I was only feet away from the actors and stage and as the play went on, I forgot I was at a play.

I highly recommend it and I would go again if the opportunity arises!

The Chicago-run of the play continues through July 27 (and appears to be entirely sold-out) and then it moves to Broadway’s Cort Theatre on August 18 and runs through January 4th.  The play will not be staged in-the-round in New York.

One of my favorite lines from the play is said by Jessica to Warren towards the end of the first act, “What you’re like now has nothing to do with what you’re gonna be like. Like right now you’re all this rich little pot-smoking burnout rebel, but ten years from now you’re gonna be like a plastic surgeon reminiscing about how wild you used to be….you’ll definitely be a completely different person. Everything you think will be different and the way you act and all your most passionately held beliefs are all gonna be completely different and really depressing.”

For more information visit about the Steppenwolf production please visit their page and for more information on the show on Broadway, click here.

Update: Lonergan wrote an interesting feature on Tavi Gevinson for Vanity Fair ahead of the play’s run on Broadway starting this month.

Check out this interview Steppenwolf did with Tavi Gevinson, Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin. (From Steppenwolf’s YouTube account)