Book Reviews: From My Nightstand

By Leslie C. Halpern

Much of my professional work involves reviewing books assigned by someone else for book review sites. So when I select books to review from the towering stack on my nightstand to review for my blog, you can be sure I enjoyed them enough to go to the extra effort. My nightstand includes books from authors I met at conventions, book signings, book fairs, and other events. Sometimes they just arrive without warning in the mail.

The stack is still towering and threatens to topple over at any minute, but of the past several books I’ve read recently from my nightstand, these are my three favorites. Find out more information about each book from Amazon.com by clicking on the highlighted links.

The Bait Man

The Bait Man by DL Havlin. (Paperback) Taylor and Seale Publishing, LLC. 315 pages. 978-1943789450.This mystery-suspense novel takes readers deep into Florida’s snake-filled swamps for an exciting story about Chessie, a brash young woman who works for a small fishing business and her harrowing experiences with her nemesis, Rooster, a vile, foul-mouthed bait man. Told mostly through Chessie’s first-person account, the story pits the former wild child and ex-Marine against the huge, hulking Rooster from their first encounter. After finding teeth and bone in frozen blocks of bait that Rooster provided, Chessie is convinced he’s a murderer and enlists the help of her policeman brother, Reading, to help her discover the truth. With or without police assistance, the strong-willed, thick-headed young woman puts her life in danger on numerous occasions to set a trap for the bait man. Thrilling and suspenseful, this novel reveals its secrets slowly as it reaches a satisfying conclusion.

Journey

Journey by Gary Roen. (Paperback) Legacy Publishing. 252 pages. 978-1937952075. This collection of short stories (both science fiction and general fiction) takes readers on journeys into many “what if” scenarios. Although some of the stories are flash fiction at just 66 words, most of the pieces are several pages long. The stories cover themes including revenge, lust, and greed, sometimes set within the publishing industry. Florida and Chicago serve as backdrops, along with some outer space locations. Each story has the element of surprise for the reader when characters behave unexpectedly and plots twist in curious ways. Seven of the short stories focus on the adventures of a hideous human-sized teddy bear named Slotski who has sharp claws and bloody fangs that come in handy when he’s angry. For the most part, however, his mission is to help people who unknowingly need his services. These quirky stories make an interesting and diverse collection.

Beauty Lessons

Beauty Lessons by Terry Godbey. (Paperback) Quercus Review Press. 63 pages. 978-0974307091. This lovely chapbook was an annual book award winner in the Quercus Review Press poetry series a few years ago. Divided into three sections, “Ready or Not,” “Only Child,” and “Hunger,” the book is loosely chronological and traces the author’s childhood (including her first kiss and awakening sexuality) to her adult life. Throughout the years, she often focuses on beauty, as in “My Face at 46” in which she writes: “I’ve seen enough of my mouth / wrinkled as a drawstring purse, / my parade of big teeth, / the two in front tipping forward / like drunks.” Her critical eye looks outward also. From “Produce Man”: “He’ll fuss over vegetables and fruit / only to watch them leave / in the arms of women / who never look at him / among the mangoes and artichokes / and find him appetizing, / this famished man / who feeds us all.” Sensitive, insightful, and accessible, it’s easy to see how this accomplished poet and her delightful collection won first place in the annual contest.

Forever My Girl – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This prodigal-son themed romance based on a young adult novel offers many tired romantic tropes and few surprises.

Forever My Girl. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Liam Page (Alex Roe, who trades his British accent for a Southern one) left his beautiful young bride-to-be, Josie, standing alone at the altar while he fled town to pursue his country music career. Now eight years later at age 27, Liam is an international celebrity, sleeping with groupies, throwing money around foolishly, putting toxic substances into his body, and doing all the other things prodigal sons do before they return home ready to repent for their sins.

Returning to Saint

When his best friend from high school dies unexpectedly, Liam ventures back to his hometown of Saint Augustine, Louisiana (conveniently nicknamed Saint), where he symbolically sits outside the church while his father (employed as the pastor) delivers the eulogy. Inside the church, Josie (Jessica Rothe) sits with her overly protective brother (Tyler Riggs) and precocious young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). The little girl (who has Liam’s dark brown hair) talks like an adult who works a day job as a mechanical engineer and spends her weekends doing standup comedy at the Improv. (In all fairness to Fortson, she is adorable and likely delivered the performance exactly as directed.)

Why didn’t Josie, the prettiest woman in town, ever marry in those eight years? Why did Josie name her seven-year-old daughter after Liam’s dead mother, Billy? Why does Liam’s father suddenly begin preaching about forgiveness when his son returns home? Why does Josie’s brother appear to have no life outside of caring for his sister and niece, and shaming Liam for his former behavior? Why did Liam save his old cell phone with Josie’s message on it?

Faith-based Romantic Drama

If you’ve ever seen a romantic drama before, you probably can guess the answers. If you’ve ever seen a faith-based romantic drama or read a Christian romance novel, you’ll definitely know the answers. Even if this were the first movie you’ve ever seen, there’s still the title giving away the central idea. The slow-paced scenes, unsubtle morality messages, overly familiar storyline, and predictable dialogue make for a lackluster 104 minutes for cinema-savvy movie lovers, although the very young (under 20) and very old (over 80) seemed to enjoy the film at the promotional screening I attended.

Forever My Girl

  • Based on the YA novel of the same name by Heidi McLaughlin, this tame romance unites a wayward country singer with his hometown love.
  • Stars: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder Fortson, Tyler Riggs, Peter Cambor, Gillian Vigman, Travis Tritt
  • Screenwriter-Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf
  • Genre: Romantic Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements including drinking, and some language)

The Man Who Invented Christmas – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks at how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) changed the way people think about the holiday based on Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation in A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens stars in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Photo copyright 2017 Bleeker Street.

Painters, filmmakers, singers, dancers, and other visual and performing artists are far easier to depict in the movies than writers. Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard just isn’t that interesting to watch. The Man Who Invented Christmas circumvents this problem by depicting the dreams, memories, and imagination of Charles Dickens, in addition to his everyday circumstances. The past, present, and future combine with the real and imagined in a film that compares the creator and his creation.

A Master Storyteller

The movie begins in 1842, when Britain and the United States herald Dickens as a master storyteller for Oliver Twist. Just one year later, however, he’s had two unsuccessful new books, an expanding family, expensive house renovations, and a disinterested publisher. Desperate to reclaim his former glory and secure his finances, Dickens decides to write a Christmas book, even though the holiday is soon approaching.

Encouraged by his friend, Forster (Justin Edwards), who acts as a literary agent of sorts, he enlists the aid of an artist to illustrate the story of a misery man (Christopher Plummer in a terrific casting choice as Scrooge) visited by three ghosts in one night.

A Looming Deadline

The next few weeks are spent observing everything in his atmosphere for inspiration – from the local cemetery to his children’s bedroom – so he can lock the pieces of his puzzling story into place. Sure enough, he finds all the characters and plot points he needs in his everyday life – except for the ending. Struggling with a looming deadline, he finally looks inward for his answer and finds it.

Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne turn what could have been a depressing examination of family dysfunction and hurtful legacies into an uplifting story of self-discovery with the perfect blend of humor and seriousness for the subject matter and the PG rating. From the compelling acting to the extraordinary set design, this inspiring movie adds another dimension to the classic Christmas story about cleansing one’s soul and embracing others.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

  • This fantastical family film (based on a true story) examines how Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol while writing under extreme financial limitations and a ridiculously tight deadline.
  • Stars: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards
  • Director: Bharat Nalluri
  • Writer: Susan Coyne
  • Genre: Biography Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)
  • Additional Information: For another recently released film about a famous British author, read Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review, the story of A. A. Milne’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.

 

Wonderstruck – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Wonderstruck is built on a promise. If you sit through nearly two hours watching the magical teasing together of two plotlines slowly converging, the final payoff will be worth the wait. Unfortunately, Wonderstuck does not fully deliver on its promise.

Julianne Moore and Oakes Fegley star in Wonderstruck. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios.

Two Stories from Different Time Periods

The two stories concern a girl and boy from different time periods. A sweet deaf girl named Rose (Millicent Simmonds, who is actually deaf) lives alone with her disapproving father in New Jersey in 1927. She’s obsessed with a silent movie actress (Julianne Moore) and runs off to New York City to see her. Rose’s older brother also lives there and works at the nearby American Museum of Natural History where Rose enjoying wandering through the rooms.

Although she is advised to go back home to her father, she decides to stay in New York. Rose’s silent world makes a sharp contrast to the noisy action of Manhattan’s city streets. Oblivious to the potential dangers around her, she seeks family and a sense of belonging, and is willing to go wherever it takes to find it.

Seeking Family in New York City

In the parallel story about the boy, Ben (Oakes Fegley, an expressive young actor known for his role of Pete in the 2016 action adventure, Pete’s Dragon) lives in Minnesota in 1977. His mother recently died in a car accident, and he’s staying with his aunt and disagreeable cousin. He finds a romantic message to his mother inside an old book about cabinets of wonder – the earliest form of museum. The note is written on a bookmark indicating a used bookstore in New York.

As Ben calls the phone number listed for the store, a freak lightning strike goes through the telephone receiver and causes him to go deaf in both ears. This latest setback doesn’t deter 11-year-old Ben from jumping on a bus and traveling to New York City to find clues about the love note, presumably written by the mysteriously missing father he’s never known. Like Rose, he’s deaf, alone, and seeking family and a sense of belonging. He finds a new friend, Jamie (Jaden Michael), who helps him adjust to his deafness, and find the answer to the question about his father’s whereabouts.

A Disappointing Ending

The grand sweeping cinematography (Edward Lachmna), enchanting music (Carter Burwell), lush production design of two different eras (Mark Friedberg) and suspenseful direction (Todd Haynes, who also directed Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven) imply that these two stories will combine in an “aha” moment that will send chills down your spine. Intended as a family film, young children may experience this sense of wonder while piecing it all together. However, adults are far less likely to be wonderstruck by this ultimately disappointing film.

Wonderstruck

  • The lives of a young boy in the present and a young girl from the past connect in a mysterious way.
  • Stars: Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds, Jaden Michael Smith, James Urbaniak
  • Director: Todd Haynes
  • Writer: Brian Selznick (based on his book, Wonderstruck)
  • Genre: Drama Mystery
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

 

Rebel In the Rye – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life and a screenplay by Danny Strong (who also served as director), Rebel in the Rye examines enigmatic author Jerry D. Salinger’s early days as a struggling writer and the years directly following the publication of The Catcher In the Rye, a classic American masterpiece.

Nicholas Hoult and Kevin Spacey star in Rebel In the Rye. Photo copyright 2017 IFC Films.

Crafting stories, proofreading, copyediting, and other tasks related to writing tend to be intellectual pursuits that don’t particularly lend themselves to physicality or strong emotion. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that this story of the reclusive writer’s life – compressed here to include his early days in college all the way to later years after two children and a failed  marriage – comes across as more of a cerebral study of the man, rather than an engaging cinematic portrayal.

The Problems of J.D. Salinger

Viewers learn about some of Salinger’s problems as a young man, his writing motivations, conflicted love interests, and constant inner demons, but the story never fully engages our emotions or presents a three-dimensional character we can embrace. The film is interesting without being enlightening or inspirational.

Here’s what Rebel In the Rye does accomplish. We learn of the similarities between the iconic character Holden Caulfield from The Catcher In the Rye and his creator, J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult). After getting kicked out of other colleges for his sarcasm and bad attitude, Salinger finds a mentor (Kevin Spacey as college writing professor and Story editor, Whit Burnett) who believes in his writing, especially the Holden Caulfield character in a short story. (Spacey’s pithy depiction enlivens each scene in which he appears with a zestful sincerity lacking in other characters.)

Other than Jerry’s encouraging mother, his family doesn’t support his writing career. In fact, his father (Victor Garber) disapproves of most of his son’s decisions and behavior. Fighting in World War II has a devastating effect on Jerry that lands him in a mental hospital. His relationships with women mirror everything else in his life, including his publishing career: emotional detachment, inflexibility, and eventual abandonment.

Mysteries Remain Unsolved

Hoult exudes a certain charm as J.D. Salinger, despite his character’s unlikable qualities (such as calling people out for being phoney, refusing to accept critique of his work, and inability to forgive those he thinks betrayed him). Mental health professionals might argue that emotional abandonment by his father caused his anti-social behavior, and that his problems reached critical mass during the war, which led to post-traumatic stress disorder that stayed with him for the rest of his life. But those would only be theories based on the sketchy material provided in the film.

Why did J.D. Salinger really give up writing for publication after achieving worldwide fame with his novel? Why did he give up on his second marriage and two children to live alone in his secluded domestic retreat? Why did he give up on his close friendship with his mentor based on one misunderstanding? These questions remain frustrating unsolved mysteries in this biopic.

Rebel In the Rye

  • The true story of how reclusive writer J.D. Salinger achieved overnight fame with his book The Catcher In the Rye before abruptly deciding to end his publishing career.
  • Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber, Zoey Deutch, Lucy Boynton
  • Writer-Director: Danny Strong
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking)