A Scattered LifeA Scattered Life by Karen McQuestion

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book follows the lives of three different women and although they don’t serve as narrators in their respective chapters, they are written from their points of view. Skyla is a restless spirit looking for an anchor in her life when she realizes her husband and daughter aren’t enough. Roxanne is the gregarious mother of five that she befriends. And Audrey is Skyla’s mother-in-law, full of rigid ideas and seeking a place where she’s really needed.

In general this was an enjoyable read, but it lacked depth that I kept hoping was around the corner. The book ended too quickly, and the characters had profound changes happen faster than I think is believable. If you’re looking for some light summer reading, this will do nicely.

Part of the reason I was curious to try this is that Karen McQuestion originally self-published this for the Kindle, and I think it’s always worth checking out authors that haven’t found the right publisher yet.

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Reviewing The Help

The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book reminded me a lot of Fannie Flagg’s writing with its easygoing dialogue between friends. But the subject matter here is far more serious as the life as a black person in 1960s Mississippi is one of constant danger.

On the whole I really enjoyed this book which blazed by in no time. Perhaps the ending was a little too pat (perfect for a Hollywood movie). I mostly appreciate Stockett’s ability to juggle three very different narrators, giving each her own voice.

I’m only sorry I didn’t pick this book up much sooner.

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Agatha Christie's Secret NotebooksAgatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First let’s be honest – this is a book meant for hard-core fans of Agatha Christie. But it might also be a curiosity for other authors that are interested in the creative process of the most widely published writer in history.

Curran unearthed a treasure-trove of Christie’s notebooks where she sketched out ideas for most of her work. It sometimes reveals fascinating insight into possible alternate endings, how she developed the names of characters, and how/when she decided on a detective for a given book.

So for the Christie fan, this is all quite interesting. It mainly just got me excited about going back to some of her novels to read them again. Even though this book is full of spoilers, it’s easy to forget them when you’re reading so many.

My two main criticisms…

First, the book is not ordered in the most logical way. Curran has chosen to group notes on books based on a few themes, such as book titles based on famous quotes, or books that take place in foreign locales. Perhaps it’s more interesting than a chronology, but sometimes the books grouped together are just too disparate.

Secondly, the author is extremely opinionated, and sometimes offers up his opinions as fact. He lavishes praise over novels like Crooked House and Endless Night, while pointing out perceived faults in others. And it appears that he has no love for the Tommy and Tuppence books, which are not examined in any detail. All this is not to say that Christie’s work varied in quality, but I just found it presumptuous that Curran expects we will agree with his opinions. Sometimes I did (yes, Hallowe’en Party was weak) but other times I strongly disagreed (Endless Night was an unsurprising retread in my eyes).

In summary, taken with a grain of salt, this book is invaluable to any true fan of Agatha Christie.

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We (Twentieth-Century Classics)We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It may not blow you away, but when you realize that this book was written over 90 years ago, it’s easy to understand how it’s been called the predecessor of dystopian fiction. Reading about a world ruled by cold logic where OneState rules over individuality immediately springs to mind Orwell’s 1984. I even caught glimpses of more contemporary work – isn’t I-330’s rebellion a forerunner to that of Katniss in The Hunger Games?

A quick and worthwhile read to gain insight into the roots of our current obsession with dystopian novels.

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The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art TheftThe Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed the first part of this book. There are vivid descriptions of the paintings themselves, an exciting recreation of the heist, and fascinating insight into how museums handle security. You also learn about the monetary value of art in modern society.

Unfortunately, the book then devolves into the author’s obsession with a variety of suspects, and takes us on a journey to meet what feels like every underworld gangster in Boston. That becomes frustrating, because you already know his leads won’t go anywhere, as the paintings remain missing today.

Glad I read it, but I could have stopped halfway through. Quick tip for e-book readers – the last 25% of the book is just annotations and an index, so it’s much shorter than you think.

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My Oscar Ballot 2011

The Oscars are tonight!  After checking out a few last-minute movies, I can now give you my Oscar picks.  Sadly I missed the shorts again this year, but I’ll do my best with my predictions. Feel free to post your own here, and we’ll see who does well!

I’ve been doing my best to catch up on the nominees, but there are only 5 categories where I’ve seen everything (same as last year!) – Director, Supporting Actress (we’re watching Animal Kingdom on DVD this afternoon), Art Direction, Cinematography and Sound Mixing.  But you know I do my homework and I never do worse than half.  So listen up!

Best Picture

Ten nominees still seems ridiculous – but at least this year they are all strong and well-reviewed.  We managed to get to nine of them, which I’m rather proud of.  After careful consideration, I really think the Academy is going to play it old school and honor the very worthy The King’s Speech, but of course The Social Network is the potential spoiler if young Hollywood exerts its influence.  Honestly I think a decade from now we’ll look back and wonder why Inception wasn’t considered a strong contender.

Best Actor

Last year I was hoping Colin Firth would win, and this year he will get it.  The Academy loves a male character that is overcoming a disability of any kind, and Firth is going to be honored for two strong roles two years running.  I will also tip my hat to Jeff Bridges who was really strong in True Grit.

Best Actress

Just like last year, the hottest contest amongst the acting categories is here.  It’s a shame that Jennifer Lawrence isn’t a front-runner, as she made Winter’s Bone what it is.  It’s also a shame Julianne Moore wasn’t nominated, as she was stronger than Annette Benning, in my opinion.  The winner will be Natalie Portman, for her fierce portrayal of one (or is it two?) fierce woman, while dancing like a true ballerina.

Best Supporting Actor

Two years running, this category is a an easy pick – Christian Bale all the way.  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, but his crack-addicted boxer/trainer is his best work to-date.  I’ll still give props to Geoffrey Rush, who in another year could have walked away with the prize for his excellent, excellent performance.

Best Supporting Actress

This category could be the most interesting of any this year.  The conventional wisdom for some time was that Melissa Leo had it locked up.  But after an ill-advised self-promoting ad campaign, I think voters reconsidered.  And if they really watched The Fighter, perhaps they recognized what I saw – that Amy Adams was in fact stronger in the movie.  So I’m going out on a limb here and say that the two actresses will split the vote, and running up the aisle will be newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, who was charming, strong and quite funny in True Grit.

Best Director

It’s rare that the Academy splits the Director/Picture winners between two films, but it’s become increasingly common in recent years.  I see that trend continuing here, as David Fincher brought together many elements to make The Social Network so compelling.

Best Documentary Feature

I’ve only seen one of the nominees – it’s got buzz, and a director that will likely only show up to the ceremony in disguise – so it’s all about Exit Through the Gift Shop.  I have heard great things about Inside Job, but I suspect that Academy members are trying to forget the pain of the recession and move on.

Best Documentary Short Subject

This is a shot in the dark – I’ll go with Entertainment Weekly‘s prediction of Killing in the Name, which deals with the fallout from a suicide bomber in the Middle East, a very timely topic.

Best Animated Feature

Pixar is still the king – Toy Story 3 was another triumph.  Who didn’t cry watching it?

Best Foreign Language Film

The only one I’ve heard much about is Mexico’s Biutiful, but I’ll throw my hat in with the Golden Globe-winning Danish film In a Better World.

Best Cinematography

I would say three of the five nominees have a good shot at this one.  Generally I find the Academy likes to award a film that shows a lot of landscapes and imposing settings, so my gut says the winner is True Grit‘s visuals by Roger Deakins, a frequent nominee that has never won.

Best Original Screenplay

Really tough call.  Inception was so inventive, and The King’s Speech is certainly at the front of the pack.  I am most likely to be wrong in this category than any other, but I think there is going to be a consolation prize given to The Kids Are All Right, which was given a lot of praise when it first came out for presenting an original family.  That’s thanks to scribes Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Easy choice again this year – The Social Network was all about rapid-fire dialogue, written by the expert, Aaron Sorkin.

Best Visual Effects

If Inception doesn’t win, I’ll eat my new fedora.

Best Animated Short

This could go any direction – so why not an environmental piece – Let’s Pollute?

Best Live Action Short

Two of EW‘s writers said they think a strong contender is Na Wewe, which is set in Burundi.  Sounds great to me.

Best Art Direction

Several good options this year; I’m going to say it’s the striking colors and visuals of Alice in Wonderland.

Best Costume Design

Again, there were a lot of wild and fanciful costumes in Alice in Wonderland, so I think that will win (not much else to say about that movie, except it was pretty to look at).  Normally a period piece would win, but The King’s Speech is full of very subdued outfits, and the Academy will find True Grit‘s costumes to be too grungy (which is a shame, as I was impressed).

Best Film Editing

The true crime is that Inception wasn’t nominated here, even though it’s major sequence of overlapping dreamscapes was amazing.  That being said, the rapid shifts of time and place in The Social Network should win the prize.

Best Sound Mixing

Big explosions and lots of gunfire – Inception.

Best Sound Editing

See above – Inception.

Best Original Score

I’m actually hoping the Academy doesn’t award schmaltz, and instead gives a deserved award to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose score was a major reason The Social Network was so impressive.

Best Original Song

I can’t handle Randy Newman winning for another of his trite tunes!  So let’s give this one to Dido’s song from 127 Hours – “If I Rise.”

Best Makeup

The nominees here are not ones anyone has seen, so let’s assume it goes to the creature feature – The Wolfman.

So how about you folks?  How do your picks stack up?  Will young co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway knock it out of the park?

With all of today’s hoopla about POTUS and his SOTU speech, you might have forgotten the other big news story – Oscar nominations!  It’s the time of year to dissect and obsess over the best (or “best”) that Hollywood had to offer.  Unfortunately I had to miss my annual ritual of watching them live, but did catch up as soon as I could.  Here are my first reactions, with more to come as the Academy Awards draw closer.

1.  Not such a bad list of 10 for Best Picture

Granted I’m still not wild over this idea of a G10 of nominees for the top prize, but at least this year they have all been well-recognized by critics for being great movies.  So far I’ve managed to see six of them, with Winter’s Bone sitting next to the TV ready to be watched soon.  I don’t really plan to hit them all, however – I just have no interest in 127 Hours.

2.  Biggest snub?

My first instinct when I scanned the list was to cry out, “No Directing nod for Christopher Nolan?  What is wrong with these people?”  Then I noticed he still picked up a nod for Original Screenplay, and of course Inception is up for Best Picture.  That gave me a bit of solace.  So I’ve decided the biggest snub this year is Julianne Moore, whom I thought was deserving of a nomination for The Kids Are All Right.  Her performance was playing a character unlike I’ve seen from her before – and really made an adulteress likable.  Isn’t that usually a shoe-in?

3.  Biggest surprise?

Every year there is one nominee, usually a Supporting Actor or Actress, that comes as a bit of a surprise.  It’s the one person that flew under the radar of the prognosticators and wasn’t on anyone’s lists.  In other words, the one person that Entertainment Weekly hadn’t already run out and photographed for their upcoming issue!  Last year it was Maggie Gyllenhaal.  This year it has to be John Hawkes from Winter’s Bone.  I’ll be watching the movie soon, so I’ll report back if this one was deserved.

4.  Most confusing categories

Other than the categories that amateur critics like myself can’t be expected to predict, the rest of the nominations are usually straight-forward with the occasional surprise.  But this year there are two that just baffle the mind.  First, there is the Best Documentary Feature category – all of the buzz throughout the year has focused on a handful of films – notably Waiting for Superman and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.  But neither made the final list!  This will be a huge advantage for two other docs that got a lot of talk this year – Exit Through the Gift Shop and Inside Job.  The other baffling category is Best Makeup, which features an American film that bombed at the box office (The Wolfman), a Canadian film few have heard of (Barney’s Version) and a movie that was just released nationwide last Friday that nobody’s heard of (The Way Back).  Isn’t this the category where they usually nominate a blockbuster that has only one redeeming quality – good prosthetics?

5.  Plenty still to see

With weeks to go, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do!  Fortunately with one nominee here at home and another (Animal Kingdom) on the way, I have a head-start.  Which begs the question – are there any films I need to make a priority to see in the theaters while I still can?  The FighterTrue Grit?  Weigh in through the comments below.