The Secret Place by Tana French, Dublin Murder Squad


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


(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”:


Theater Review: Second City’s Incomplete Guide to Everything


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


“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)