Book Reviews from My Nightstand

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to reading books for pleasure, I’m a book reviewer for several online book sites. I typically read about two books a week, so that’s more than 100 books a year. Even so, there’s always a tall stack of books waiting for me on my nightstand – paperbacks, advanced reader copies, and ebooks loaded on my Kindle, delivered to me from various sources, such as publishing houses, book fairs, and writer’s meetings.

People give me all kinds of books to review from the current year or perhaps even published a couple of years earlier. I’m exposed to a variety of genres throughout the year, from traditionally published books to small presses to self-published platforms – including adult books, YA, and children’s publications. As an author myself, I know how important it is to spread the word about interesting, well-written books that readers would enjoy – if only they knew about them. So here are a few of my favorite books that I read this year from that tall stack of books on my nightstand.

Click the highlighted titles for more information or to purchase from Amazon.

Fiction

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (audiobook) 2018 Hachette Audio. ASIN: B0714BGVIV. 8 hours and 17 minutes. Read by Robert Petkoff. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel jumps off the page and into our imaginations with this highly animated audiobook. The story concerns a lonely middle-aged gay author named Arthur Less, who journeys around the world attending mediocre literary events to avoid attending the wedding of his former lover. Naturally nearly everything goes wrong on each leg of the journey, and everyone he meets reminds him of the failed love affair. Poor Arthur starts to believe the entire trip was the universe’s plan to further degrade him. Told with poetic descriptions and comical details, the audiobook version also includes the voice talents of Robert Petkoff, who manages to portray people of all ages, sexes, races, and origins in this lively retelling of Less’s story.

ARMS War for Eden: (Book 1) by [Arseneault, Stephen]

ARMS: War for Eden by Stephen Arseneault. (paperback and Kindle) 2016 CreateSpace. 978-1537554518. In the first of the ARMS science fiction series, two former Domicile Defense Force Biomarines (genetically engineered humans trained to fight during wartime) are forced to find a new gig during a break in the war. Outcasts Harris Gruberg and Tawnish Freely bond together in a lucrative scheme to sell arms to the outer colonists just before hunting season. Ready to retire off the generated funds, their plans go awry when they learn of mysterious deaths and rumors of war in the same place they sold their weapons. The uneasy truce and unacknowledged attraction between these two main characters is enjoyable to read, and the plot contains enough twists that readers won’t quite know what to expect regardless of how many other science fiction, military action, or space operas they have read in the past.

An Incomplete List of My Wishes by [Reiter, Jendi]

An Incomplete List of My Wishes by Jendi Reiter. 2018 (Paperback and ebook) Sunshot Press, 978-1944977207. This collection of eleven short stories by award-winning poet and novelist Jendi Reiter focuses mainly on interpersonal relationships and overcoming grief, fear, and isolation. Several stories include gay characters struggling with their homosexuality, and adolescents contemplating how their religious backgrounds fit into their evolving self-image. Complex and lovely, these stories are filled with great sadness, flashes of anger, touches of humor, and ultimately revelations from characters who in some way mirror our own lives.

And for the Little Ones

Mixter Twizzle’s Breakfast by Regan W.H. Macaulay. 2018 (Paperback and ebook) Mirror World Publishing, 978-1987976496. This children’s book for young readers introduces a peculiar red-deviled creature who lives beneath a chicken coop on a farm. Mixter Twizzle, as he is known, sneaks into the coop at breakfast time and steals eggs out from under the hens. Although his belly is full, his heart is empty. When a stolen egg unexpectedly hatches and a chick emerges, Mixter learn a valuable lesson about life. Beautifully illustrated by Wei Lu, this book should delight early and transitional readers with its quirky main character, who is monstrously cute in appearance, speech, and mannerisms.

Nonfiction

Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now? (Acculturated) by [Smith, Travis]

Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Now? by Travis Smith. 2018 (paperback and hardcover) Templeton Press. 978-1599474540. This book examines the ethical standards and practices of popular comic superheroes. The author dissects these characters from scientific, philosophical, psychological, religious, and cultural perspectives for a fascinating look at who we need to actually save the world from current problems. Five chapters compare two similar superheroes in preliminary battles to determine the final winner. For example, Batman competes with Spiderman for retaining peace neighborhoods, and the god-like characters Thor and Superman are pitted against each other. Fun to read, this book also includes profound insights into humanity.

 

Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body by Gavin Francis. 2018 (Audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07DGJPSH8. Unabridged 6 hours and 49 minutes. Read by Thomas Judd. Scotland physician Gavin Francis looks at bizarre naturally occurring physical abnormalities such as humans turning into werewolves and growing horns. Other chapters look at other quirky, though less dramatic physical transformations, such as jetlag, gigantism, infertility, castration, menopause, and bodybuilding. With his professional medical background and sensitive approach to the material, this book doesn’t sensationalize or demoralize, but rather explores weird pathologies with which the average reader is unfamiliar. Clearly written and always interesting, Shapeshifters also contains unexpected humor that lightens some of the darker material.

Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body & Mind by Nick Littlehales. 2018 (Audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07B1JFXHT. Unabridged 6 hours and 39 minutes. Read by Nick Littlehales. A sports sleep coach and creator of the R90 Sleep Technique, the author’s goal in writing this book was to teach people how to maximize their resting time. Everyone knows how debilitating it is to get a poor night’s sleep, but who knew how many elements contribute to a night of tossing and turning? Readers will learn about how lighting, food, activities, and thoughts can aid sleep or fuel insomnia. More than just a guide for improving sleep, this book also offers plenty of ideas for living better and more efficiently.

Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? by Mark Hyman, MD. 2018 (audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07B2Z6J7D. Unabridged 10½ hours. Read by the author. Best-selling health and nutrition author, Dr. Mark Hyman offers his latest book on picking the right foods for optimal health in this book. His suggested plan is the same as what he’s been espousing in his earlier works, such as Eat Fat, Get Thin. He says people are sick, fat, and out of shape from eating sugary, processed, and adulterated non-food items. His recommendations include eating whole foods that are locally sourced whenever possible. The book looks at good food as medicine, and non-food or bad foods as sickness. For those unfamiliar with the latest food trends, this book provides clearly defined useful information and a comprehensive plan for good health.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Boy Erased – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

According to the movie’s trailer, 77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America. This film, based on the 2016 memoir Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, tells the true story of one young man who was forced into the church-sanctioned program by his parents to erase his homosexuality.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe star in Boy Erased. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

The son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and a God-fearing mother (Nicole Kidman), Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is forced to confront his homosexual impulses. Although he has a steady girlfriend throughout high school (Madelyn Cline), he breaks up with her when he goes to college – eager to be free of her increasingly demanding requests for a more physical relationship. At college, he quickly befriends Henry (Joe Alwyn), a handsome, athletic young man who sexually assaults Jared in an ugly violent scene.

Year-Long Conversion Program

When it’s clear their friendship has ended because of the assault, Henry seeks revenge by outing Jared through a prank telephone call to his parents. The call prompts his father to seek the advice of church elders, who unanimously decide the boy needs conversion therapy to chase away the devil inside him. Mrs. Eamons drives her son to the extended Love In Action assessment facility where he’ll be evaluated by its self-appointed expert, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay), to determine whether or not he’ll need the year-long conversion program.

Not surprisingly, most gay participants do not undergo an instant “cure” during the assessment phase, and get recommended for a year-long stay at the facility. The conversion program includes public shaming, invasions of privacy, mock funerals, and physical beatings with the bible. Some attendees embrace the philosophy and want to change, others play along with the program awaiting release, and (in a melodramatic climax) Jared refuses to submit to the ridiculous inauthentic spectacle.

Fine Performances

Kidman (who hails from Australia) is especially good in this role as a sharply dressed Southern Baptist who undergoes a conversion of her own in which she’s finally able to stand up to her husband while still embracing her beliefs. Edgerton also delivers a fine performance in which we’re never quite sure how much Sykes actually believes the rhetoric he spews. For example, when he encourages the teens to divulge more of the sexual details that brought them to Love In Action, there’s a hint of salaciousness without full-blown licentiousness. Likewise, Hedges offers a nuanced performance in which it’s unclear how much of the happy boy has been erased and how much replaced with a struggling young man.

Despite the good performances, there’s often a staged feel to the scenes – a manipulation that arises partly from the material and partly from the direction. Telling audiences what to think and feel sometimes seems a little too much like conversion therapy.

 Boy Erased

  • The gay son of a Baptist preacher is sent to a strict church-supported conversion therapy program where they try to set him “straight.”
  • Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Cherry Jones, Madelyn Cline, Theodore Pellerin, Joe Alwyn, Britton Sear, Flea, David Joseph Craig
  • Director: Joel Edgerton
  • Writer: Joel Edgerton (screenplay); Garrard Conley (author of memoir, Boy Erased)
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Run Time: 114 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? by author and convicted forger Lee Israel, this new biopic stars comedy actress Melissa McCarthy in what’s probably her least-funny role to date: a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, alcoholic has-been author who lies, cheats, steals, and cons her way into paying each month’s rent. If it weren’t for McCarthy’s inherent likability, the character would be completely unsympathetic to most audience members.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant star in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A best-selling biographer in the 1970s and 1980s, who wrote about actress Tallulah Bankhead , cosmetics queen  Estee Lauder , and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, Israel’s inability to play nicely with others and adapt with the times causes her to fall out of favor by 1991. Bookstores offer her previous publications at 75% off and her literary agent (Jane Curtain) won’t return her calls. She loses her full-time job at The New Yorker because she’s drinking alcohol at her desk and spews profanity at the boss. No one is interested in her idea for a biography on singer Fanny Brice. And her aging cat is desperately ill.

Embellishment of Letters

With no money to pay for veterinary care or her monthly rent (and no friends or relatives other than her equally impoverished and alcoholic gay buddy, Jack [Richard E. Grant]), Israel begins embellishing letters by prominent authors and selling them to specialty book sellers. This embellishment of adding an interesting postscript soon turns into completely fabricating letters by literary greats (including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker), and then eventually into stealing original letters from archival sources and replacing them with her forgeries.

Her crimes appear to be natural extensions of who she was personally and professionally before alcohol and desperation took control of her thinking. She has no qualms about misrepresenting her identity on the telephone or stealing someone else’s clothes from the coat rack. She’s always been fascinated with the writings and performance styles of famous people and expresses that through her biographies. Her offences escalate from petty theft and deception into crimes so serious the FBI becomes involved in tracking her down.

Melissa McCarthy Excels

McCarthy provides some outstanding work here, as someone who’s in denial about her situation and considers her criminal activities to be “literary treasures” and her life’s greatest work. Alone, afraid, and on the brink of disaster, Lee Israel is not a person most of us would like in our lives.

Her prickly personality, drinking, and deception have created her dire circumstances. She created this mess entirely by herself, and yet McCarthy reveals the character’s humanity hiding beneath the off-putting exterior. Grant offers a fine performance as well – another pathetic character whose bad judgment causes his formidable problems.

Even with occasional laughs, this film portrays a seedy story inhabited by people who are their own worst enemies. It’s a sad tale, but certainly one worth telling.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Fired from her job and virtually unemployable because of her alcoholism and abrasive personality, former best-selling author Lee Israel turns to crime to pay her bills in this true story based on the memoir of the same name.
  • Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtain, Stephen Spinella, Gregory Korostishevsky
  • Director: Marielle Heller
  • Genre: Crime / Briography
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

 

Beautiful Boy – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on two best-selling memoirs by father, David Sheff, (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) and his son, Nic Sheff, (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), this film focuses primarily on how drug abuse undermines the once-close father-son relationship, causes pain within the family, and damages the addict’s brain.

Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet star in Beautiful Boy. Photo copyright 2018 Amazon Studios.

As depicted in the film, Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) has a childhood far better than most children experience. Living in a custom-built home on a gorgeous plot of land in California with his devoted father, David (Steve Carell) and loving stepmother (Maura Tierney), and two young siblings who idolize him, Nic enjoys a loving family, material wealth, good health, and a talent for writing and illustrating. His mother (Amy Ryan) lives out of town, but they stay in touch often.

Unanswered Questions

So why does he resort to drugs and alcohol in his late teens to fill the black hole inside him? Why does he lie, steal, and engage in other risky and self-destructive behaviors? How does he overcome his addiction? You won’t find out in this movie, which focuses on the past and current relationship between father and son. David’s frequent flashbacks, which can be disorienting at times, return to fun family times when Nic was ages 4, 6, and 12 in a non-linear collection of scenes that show how hard his parents tried over the years to create a healthy environment for their children.

David finally becomes aware of Nic’s long-time drug abuse at age 18, but by then he’s already deep into addiction, which is followed by relapses and recoveries for the next few years. Lovely childhood scenes are contrasted to grotesque addiction scenes that keep the movie cinematically interesting. David, a successful freelance writer, researches information on addiction through the internet and mental health professionals, and even conducts his own field experiment.

Heartfelt Performances

Perhaps the books delve more into elements that could help others who have friends or relatives in the throes of addiction, but this film provides more of a voyeuristic approach to a family in crisis. Steve Carell, normally known for his silliness and fearlessness of doing anything for a laugh, reveals those same traits here, but with a twist. He’s the silly father playing with his children one day, the desperate dad who’ll do anything to save his child the next.

Carell delivers a heartfelt performance, as does Chalamet in his portrayal of Nic, a beautiful boy who somehow manages to retain his good looks despite a crystal meth addiction that normally ravages its victims. His performance is stellar, but the makeup team seemed reluctant to mar his handsome face, which left Chalamet’s acting alone to convince us of his addiction.

Conversely, an oppressive soundtrack takes some of the pressure off the actors by warning that another drug-crazed disappointment is on the way and jangling our nerves by the time it arrives. This film offers plenty to see and feel, but not much new to think about.

Beautiful Boy

  • Based on a true story, an 18-year-old boy’s addiction to alcohol and crystal meth has a devastating effect on him and his family.
  • Stars: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull
  • Director: Felix Van Groeningen
  • Writers: screenplay by Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen, based on books by David Sheff and Nic Sheff
  • Genre: Biography, Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for drug content throughout, and brief sexual material)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

BlacKkKlansman – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Easily one of Spike Lee’s most entertaining and accessible films, BlacKkKlansman depicts a true story from more than 40 years ago that’s still relevant today.

Adam Driver and John David Washington star in BlacKkKlansman. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

Based on the memoir Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth, this film focuses on his time as a rookie cop with the Colorado Springs Police Department in the early 1970s as its first African-American officer. Young, ambitious, and college-educated, Stallworth (John David Washington) despises his assignment in the records room and longs to be a detective. To his delight, Chief Bridges (Robert John Burke) soon promotes him to work undercover when a former Black Panther speaks at a local college.

Plan to Infiltrate the KKK

Stallworth immediately forms a bond with the attractive student union organizer (Laura Harrier) and uses her to gain more information about the speaker’s possible threat to the community. His subterfuge and their romance become important subplots that tie in with the main storyline, which is Ron’s bold plan to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan organization by using a white undercover officer (Adam Driver as a Jewish detective named Flip Zimmerman) to physically represent him, while he manipulates local Klansmen and even Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) over the telephone.

After being threatened at gunpoint by a Klansman, Flip has had enough. He angrily tells Ron: “To you it’s a crusade, for me it’s a job.” As the case continues, however, it becomes less of a job for Flip and less of a crusade for Ron until the two meet somewhere in the middle. Unexpected humor weaves its way throughout the film, as does the theme of parallel marginalization of and prejudice against African-Americans and Jews.

Powerful Storytelling

Lee does an excellent job building suspense as the black/white, police/civilian tensions come to a climax. One particularly effective example comes near the end of the film as scenes compare and contrast Klansman watching D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation at a rally, and black students listening to a guest speaker (Harry Belafonte) describing a lynch mob’s horrific torture and murder of a mentally disabled black man accused of a heinous crime against a white woman.

The film’s most powerful moments are in the actual storytelling (based on Stallworth’s book) and the fine performances by Washington, Driver, and Grace. Lee takes the morality lesson too far with a hate-filled introduction by Alec Baldwin portraying an actor in a propaganda film and a clip from Gone With the Wind depicting the aftermath of war, and ending the movie with disturbing news footage from 2017 about race riots and white supremacy marches across the United States. The message in Ron Stallworth’s story is loud and clear without these unnecessary directorial flourishes.

BlacKkKlansman

  • Based on a true story, the first African-American police detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department leads an investigation to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Stars: Adam Driver, John David Washington, Topher Grace, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Michael Buscemi, Jasper Paakkonen, Paul Walter Hauser
  • Director: Spike Lee
  • Genre: Biography/Crime
  • Run Time: 125 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, including racist epithets, disturbing material/violent material and some sexual references)
  • Watch the trailer for BlacKkKlansman.