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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 1

My reading took a somewhat different direction this year. I read very little in the young adult genre, but a lot of mystery and multiple nonfiction works. There were even a few classics because you don’t just stop being an English nerd. Here are my favorite books read in 2016, numbers 10 through 6!

10. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris


My Classic Hollywood education has naturally progressed to reading. Pictures at a Revolution follows the production of the 1967 Best Picture nominees and the breakdown of the studio system. The book could have easily been a confusing collection of names, but Mark Harris makes the stories easy to follow without feeling the need to refer back to earlier chapters. Like the best writers of film history and analysis, he brings immediacy to the rebellious beginnings of films that are now established classics. I stayed interested from start to finish.

9. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood is a scholarship student at a prestigious East Coast college doing a summer internship with a women’s magazine in New York City, during which she experiences mental breakdown. Swap Esther Greenwood for Sylvia Plath, and all of these details remain true to her life. While sometimes stressful, The Bell Jar provides spot-on descriptions of the acute pain of depression. Having read a biography of Plath’s early life in 2014, I enjoyed finding the fictional counterparts to real-life people. It’s a tough but worthwhile read.

8. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane


As mentioned in this post, I’ve been reading Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro mysteries this year. I liked all of the books, but Prayers for Rain stands out as a favorite. Being the fifth book about these characters, the emotional threads start to come together in satisfying ways. Patrick and Angie’s repartee is as sharp as ever, and at this point Lehane has become deft at asking complicated moral questions without being heavy-handed. The psychopathic killer also provides a particularly mind-bending mystery for the detectives and the reader.

7. Me Before You by Jojo Meyes


I avoided reading this book for a few years because of the weepy storyline. Then I took it to Florida with me, and while there are weepy moments, I was pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of the characters and pacing. When the movie came out, many people took issue with the story’s approach to the paraplegic character. All I can say as a reader is that I took his choices as particular to him and not representative of how all paralyzed individuals feel or think. To recommend itself, the book has witty dialogue and a narrator worth loving.

6. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca Cover

I had a running joke with my mom about how long it took me to read this book. However, the delays were a product of library book interruptions, not a dislike for the book itself. Daphne Du Maurier’s writing reminds me of my favorite Gothic novels. In fact, the setting and plot are somewhat reminiscent of Jane Eyre, which blends the styles of Gothic and Victorian novels. While maintaining its foreboding atmosphere, Rebecca also made me feel a kinship with the narrator. I was glad to take my time with it. (You can read my full review here.)

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!


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The Erasure of Angie Gennaro

Gone Baby Gone 3

I first watched Gone, Baby, Gone in 2012, at the height of my enthusiasm for Ben Affleck. At that time I hadn’t read the novel upon which it was based, or any of Dennis Lehane’s work, and Ben hadn’t tainted his career renaissance with the scandal surrounding his separation from Jennifer Garner. In short, it was a simpler time. Becoming familiar with the source material, as well as two articles by Anne Helen Petersen , affected my second viewing in unexpected ways. Back in March, Petersen wrote a pair of articles about the evolution of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner‘s public images. But what do Jen and Angie have in common?

Since reading and loving Mystic River last summer, I’ve read three more Dennis Lehane novels. Two of them are part of a series that follows Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro, private investigators in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. Gone, Baby, Gone is actually the fourth installment, although it’s not essential to read the books in order. Normally I don’t condone such things, but I got impatient in this particular instance. And of course, reading the book required a revisiting of the movie. In doing so, I was alerted to a great injustice in film adaptation: the erasure of Angie Gennaro.

Gone Baby Gone 1

Lehane’s novels are narrated by Patrick, but Angie is his partner in every way. To put it bluntly, she’s a total badass. She knows how to defend herself, both physically and verbally, and is a better shot than Patrick. Their partnership is one of the best things about the books. So imagine my distress at seeing her role diminished to a typical Hollywood female supporting character. Michelle Monaghan would certainly not be my go-to actress for this role, but she’s also not given much to work with. In general Affleck follows the trend begun by Clint Eastwood of going wildly off-book when casting a Lehane adaptation. Changing a character’s appearance is one thing, but Affleck’s casting choices actually make some of the characters less interesting. For instance, the detectives who work closely with Patrick and Angie have very distinctive personalities in the novel, while the film turns them into generic cop characters.

Since she should be the other lead role, the flattening of Angie’s character is the most egregious. The film cuts her out of one key action sequence entirely. Even when she is present, she serves as a passive observer who needs Patrick to protect her from unsavory characters. In fact, she’s usually so peripheral to the action that it’s a bit confusing when she does speaks. While Casey Affleck waves a gun around, she watches the scene in mild distress. Angie of the novels would be right there with him, verbally sparring and saving his neck if necessary. Affleck’s screenplay turns her into a stock female character whose only role is to provide support for the male hero and give a “sensitive” perspective about the missing child. Angie of the book continues to obsessively review the case, and Angie of the film cries when she thinks Patrick isn’t home.

Gone Baby Gone 2

The erasure of Angie gave me surprising flashbacks to Anne Helen Petersen’s article about Jennifer Garner. The article is a great read, but to summarize: Garner was an action star on Alias and poised to become a romantic comedy star with the success of 13 Going on 30. After she married Ben Affleck, her public image was mainly used to make him more likable. Obviously Affleck isn’t to blame for the existence of Hollywood character tropes, but he and co-writer Aaron Stockard did nothing to combat them either. Art imitated life in a way that was only recognizable years later. The greatest irony of all is that the Jennifer Garner of yore could have played Angie Gennaro with ease, but instead she’s starring in movies about cats and children miraculously recovering from diseases.

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Best of 2015: Book Edition, Part 2

These are some wonderfully odd, deliciously creepy, and beautifully written books. If you like them too, let’s be friends. Here are my top 5 books of 2015!

5. The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

After recently completing the MaddAddam trilogy, you would think that Margaret Atwood might be out of speculative fiction ideas for a while. But you would be wrong! The Heart Goes Last takes readers to a different but also disturbingly familiar future. To escape homelessness caused by a major economic collapse, a married couple joins an experimental community requiring them to alternate monthly between a comfortable home and a prison. This being an Atwood book, the situation becomes emotionally fraught and plot twists ensue.

4. Dreamer’s Pool, by Juliet Marillier

Dreamer's Pool

Reading Juliet Marillier is one of the most comforting activities to me. Her new series Blackthorn & Grim has many familiar components from her past books, but some new elements as well. Unlike the young women who usually narrate Marillier’s novels, Blackthorn has half a lifetime of traumatic experiences behind her. In Dreamer’s Pool she escapes wrongful imprisonment with a large man named Grim. The two settle in a faraway region, but Blackthorn’s work as a healer soon embroils them in a mystery involving the local prince’s bride-to-be.

3. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls

Lauren Beukes writes literary mysteries with a supernatural twist. The Shining Girls features a time-traveling serial killer in Chicago. In the 1990s Kirby is one of his would-be victims who survives, then takes a newspaper internship in order to investigate her attack. The relationship between Kirby and her reluctant mentor at the newspaper is hilarious and ultimately touching. The story is sometimes frightening but very well-executed. Beukes paints the world as raw and starkly beautiful, which is a worldview that I find incredibly compelling.

2. Friends with Boys, by Faith Erin Hicks

Friends with Boys

I picked up Friends with Boys because Faith Erin Hicks is collaborating on a project with Rainbow Rowell. My exposure to graphic novels is limited, so I was shocked by the emotional connection I felt to the characters. The images gave me a strong sense of their voices and mannerisms without needing many words. Maggie is starting high school after years of being homeschooled with her three older brothers. There she makes her first female friend, and Lucy is such a cute, vibrant character. Friends with Boys is the perfect way to spend an afternoon.

1. Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River Cover

Dennis Lehane, I’m sorry I wrote you off for years because your books are shelved in the mystery section. What a fool I was! Mystic River is phenomenal as both a mystery and a character study. After an incident involving three childhood friends, Lehane jumps ahead to the men in adulthood while also giving the reader a strong sense of how they became the way they are. The mood of a blue collar Boston neighborhood permeates every page. I was completely immersed, enthralled, and astounded. (You can read my discussion of the book here.)

I hope you enjoyed this year’s retrospective. I certainly did!

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Mystic River, Page and Screen

Mystic River Cover

Before my stint as a bookseller, I ignored the mystery section at book stores and libraries. Perhaps I was being a bit of a literary snob. However, when I had an opportunity to become familiar with the section, I started to notice things like, “Hey, the guy who wrote Mystic River is shelved under mystery.” In fact, Dennis Lehane is the guy who wrote Gone, Baby, Gone and Shutter Island as well. What really tipped my interest was Gillian Flynn mentioning Mystic River as an inspiration while she was writing her first novel. This fangirl will take a second look at anything if Gillian recommends it.

Mystic River centers on three childhood friends in a fictional Boston neighborhood: Jimmy Marcus, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle. After Dave is abducted for four days and returns home, the three boys are never able to rebuild their friendship. Sean, the boy from the right side of the neighborhood, becomes a state police detective. Their lives converge twenty-five years later when Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter is murdered and Sean is assigned the case. Solving the murder forces the men to face how this shared childhood trauma has shaped their lives—Sean and Jimmy because they didn’t get into the abductors’ car, and Dave because he did.

Given my predilection for Boston films and actors, I was already biased in favor of Dennis Lehane. As it turns out, he’s a sharp writer with an eye for detail. It’s clear why filmmakers are attracted to his books as source material. The setting is crucial to Mystic River, and Lehane makes his readers feel right at home in a working-class Boston neighborhood. The intertwining lives, the lack of anonymity, an inability to escape the past—it’s all immediately accessible to the reader. Lehane gives an insightful portrayal of all three main characters, as well as musings on how gentrification is slowly erasing the neighborhood that is central to their identities.


Clint Eastwood’s 2003 film adaptation earned many award nominations and Oscar wins for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. You have to feel a little bad for Kevin Bacon as the only one of the Big Three who wasn’t showered with awards. As Sean Devine, Bacon has the least showy role, whereas Sean Penn is emoting all over the place about his daughter’s murder. I read the book before watching the movie, but I knew its actors were well-received. I was surprised to find that Eastwood didn’t bother much with fidelity to the source material in his casting. It’s a classic dilemma in adaptation. Should you cast someone who looks the part or just find the best possible actor for the role? Common sense would say the latter, yet there are times when these changes affect the story.

The most glaring change is the ages of the main characters. Jimmy Marcus should be about 36. He had his oldest daughter and lost his first wife at a very young age, and these events helped conform him into a pillar of the neighborhood. Sean Penn was 42 when he played Jimmy. The other two men should be the same age, but Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon were 44 or 45 when they played their roles. Six to ten years is probably not that drastic by Hollywood standards, but it made a difference to me. These men have young families, and they’re still trying to sort out their lives. It’s similar to how The Great Gatsby adaptations always cast someone older than Gatsby in the novel. A Gatsby who is almost 40 is a somewhat different character, in my humble opinion.

Mystic River 1

Despite my issues with the casting, I can’t deny the talent of the performances. Sean Penn is a powerhouse, and I enjoyed the way he worked off of Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins. The film was shot on location in Boston, which is crucial for authenticity when a story is this connected to its setting. A few minor characters and red herrings were understandably cut out, but the meat of the story is there and mostly unchanged. In general I liked Clint Eastwood’s moody direction, although the way he shot Kevin Bacon’s estranged wife was on the cheese-tastic side and out of sync with the rest of the movie. Mystic River as a film is a different beast, but both versions have their merits.


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