Friday, September 29, 2017

National Book Awards 2017 American Literary Prize List Announced

National Book Awards 2017 American Literary Prize Lists

Every mid-September, the list of 10 competing books in each category for the National Book Awards American Literary Prize is announced, with the five finalists announced by mid-October (this year it will be announced October 4). The Award Ceremony for the winners and Benefit Gala will be held November 15.

Here are the ten books selected in each category for the 2017 National Book Awards, just recently announced. The categories are fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people's literature.

These books were selected by a panel of judges composed of writers, literary critics, and booksellers from the thousands of books that are published each year. According to the Award's website rule page, "In order to be eligible for the Award, a book must be written by an American citizen and published by an American publisher between December 1 of the previous year and November 30 of the current year. Self-published books are only eligible if the author/publisher publishes the work of other authors in addition to his own." They were submitted by their publishers.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Best Books: Esquire's 35 Best Books of 2017

Best Books: Esquire's 35 Best Books of 2017 (So Far)
Published: Sept 7, 2017

As we head into the last quarter of the year, it's a good time to look back through the list of books that have made reading fun or interesting or even a challenge. I begin with Esquire's "35 Best Books of 2017 (So Far)". As they say in their introduction, "Whether you like your reading sexy and satirical or political and polarizing, these stand-out books are guaranteed to challenge the status quo and spark timely conversation."

Take the link above to their article and see what you think of their list. How many have you read -- or might you read?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Booksville Just Broke 50,000 Pageviews Threshold!

My personal thank you to all my readers on the Booksville Book Review and Movie Review blog. It just broke the 50,000 pageviews threshold! That was never a goal, even as I approached that number, just an abstract number like watching the miles tick off on the car odometer. But now that I have reached it, I am grateful for each and every person who has taken the time to view my pages. My actual goal was simply to provide objective reviews of every book I have read and every movie I have watched and hoped you have found them useful. If you have returned to view pages multiple times, then thank you again and again.

Please feel welcome to comment on anything I write, and please feel free to share the reviews if you find something useful.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Red Turtle: A Magical Journey for the Soul

Movie Review: The Red Turtle (2016)
Version: Starz on Demand

One of the more curious animated films recently is The Red Turtle, directed and co-scripted with Pascale Ferran by Michael Dudok de Wit. There is virtually no dialogue, only the occasional "Hey! Hey!" It is all action, but the story line is simple enough, every nuance plain enough, no need for dialogue.

Simply, a man struggles for his life on a rolling sea in the middle of a storm, eventually ending up on a deserted beach on a small lonely island. Besides the abundant beach and a prominent rocky outcrop that overlooks everything, there is a deep bamboo forest and a few coconut trees, along with a fresh water pool -- all the things he needs to sustain himself. Despite living on a paradise, the man is lonely and bored all on his own, and unable to do anything about it in his seclusion, he tries building a raft of fallen bamboo to escape, but something unseen from below batters his raft and he must return to his solo habitat. He tries it again, and the same thing happens. And again. And again. Finally, the man catches the culprit, a large red turtle, which he follows back to the beach and bodily turns over, leaving it to die on the dry beach in revenge. Eventually the man feels remorse and tries to revive the red turtle, but it has already died. Falling asleep, he later awakens to find the turtle's shell has split and a woman arises from the red turtle's shell. This changes the man's life, giving him a companion and spouse, with which he father's a son and with whom he can grow old on this prison island. The story goes on to chronicle the wonderful life they live together, the ups and the downs, even the moment the son reaches lonely adulthood and says goodbye, swimming away.

In many ways, this film is magical, saying so much with the expressions on the characters' faces and their gestures, eliciting so much emotion and communicating so much of the story through color and music. You never doubt for a moment what is going on in the story. And living through the lives of the characters so intimately by watching everything unfold, never needing to intrude with dialogue, it is a far more powerful telling of the story. It's almost real-life like.

No one leaves watching The Red Turtle untouched by the story. It's a magical journey for the soul.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Moonlight: An Important Story of Courage and Perseverance

Movie Review: Moonlight (2016)
Version: Library borrow

As complex and riveting a story as I have seen in a long time is Moonlight. It traces the story of a young African American gay man growing up on the rough streets of Miami. We see his difficult life as a bullied quiet "little" boy of around age 9, as an abused teen, and as a recovering adult. It is vague about his sexuality, although there is one explicit scene in his teen years when a close friend introduces him to gay sex on a lonely beach at night. Less vague are the scenes of motherly neglect as he is growing up and the abuse he receives as a weak male by other children when he is a boy and when is a teen, even receiving a beating on the playground, an act forced on his close friend by the other more aggressive teens.

The main character is Chiron, played at various ages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. He is mentored as a child by a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) and given shelter by Juan's caring girlfriend Teresa (played by Janelle Monáe) when Chiron's mother Paula (played by Naomie Harris) sends him away so she can do drugs or be instead with her boyfriends. Later as a teen Chiron has no mentors, just the shelter of Teresa's home and the friendship of boyhood friend Kevin, played at various ages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland. After his beating on the playground, usually weak teen Chiron has finally had enough and returns to class to take a chair to the back of the head of the main bully who brought on his beating, resulting in his arrest. We next find him on the streets of Miami as a drug dealer. It's been years since his beating, since getting out of jail, and Chiron has moved on and changed his life.

Out of the blue, Chiron gets a call from his old friend Kevin, the one who gave him the beating in the playground. He's wondering what he's been up to all these years. What's he up to now? And we find out how their two lives have changed. Kevin was Chiron's close friend, who shored him up when others were picking on him, who stood at his side until he was challenged by the stronger bullies to act out against Chiron. Now there is an implicit invitation for Chiron to visit Kevin in Atlanta and when Chiron drive up to see him out of the blue, there's another implicit invitation. Chiron has driven all the way there to see what it's all about. 

Everywhere in Chiron's life there is danger. There is betrayal (except for Juan and Teresa). There is abuse. We are always wondering where his life will turn. Even at the end, when there is a slight twist of fate, we wonder where Chiron's life will turn. 

Moonlight won the Best Picture Oscar Award. It was promoted as being controversial because it was a daring movie about a Black homosexual. But having seen it, I would say it is less about that than it is about the abuse of the weak and the rise of the abused against horrific odds.

A good film, a daring film, a film exploring new ground in old territory, Moonlight is an important story of courage and perseverance in a difficult world. It's definitely worth seeing. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Collateral Beauty: Mostly Window Dressing to Get You to the Surprise Ending

Movie Review: Collateral Beauty (2016)
Version: Library borrow

In Collateral Beauty, Howard and Whit partner to create a successful advertising agency, along with the sweat and dedication of Claire and Simon. But when Howard suffers the death of his very young daughter, he retreats from reality and life, putting in peril all that he, Whit, Claire, and Simon have built. Nothing anyone tries to do to help him resolves Howard's deep sorrow. Howard's destructive behaviors begin to affect business to the point that the agency is about to collapse, and Whit decides to sell it rather than have it fail. To do so, Whit has to be able to prove that Howard is mentally incompetent to make the decision on the sale. With the uneasy assistance of Claire and Simon, and the help of three stage actors and a private detective, Whit sets out on an intervention to either bring Howard to his senses or provide the proof he needs.

This film takes a lot on its shoulders to make a point, a point attempted to be made in its title. But the execution comes in the telling, and that's where it comes up short. You have to think long and hard to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, and as obscure as the title is and as strange as the pieces of the puzzle are, it's easy to fumble with the point of the story. The themes are Love, Time, and Death, portrayed by the three actors that Whit employs for the intervention. But it is never really clear how those themes fit into the death of the daughter and how Howard deals with it. Moreover, the title, "collateral beauty" doesn't begin to explain either the desired outcome or the achieved outcome of the story, even though it is referenced at the beginning and end of the film. This is, unfortunately, a scripting problem. The story line is too complex, the writing too evasive.

What is good about Collateral Beauty is the acting. Will Smith puts on an emotional tour de force as Howard, the grieving father. Naomi Harris is riveting as Madeline, the grief counselor but who turns out to have a surprising connection to Howard. Helen Mirren is delicious as the actor portraying Death, Jacob Latimore puts on a strong performance as the actor portraying Time, and Keira Nightley is winsome as the actor portraying Love. Edward Norton as Whit, Kate Winslet as Claire, and Michael Peña as Simon are good as well. Their performances bring a depth to the story that makes up for what the writing fails to provide.

I've read a few explanations for the meaning behind the title in an attempt to understand it. The surprise ending probably best sheds light on everything, but if you have to wait till the last minute for the "Aha!" moment, then the film has failed. All the rest is window dressing simply to get you to the end. In this sense, I believe you will likely find yourself scratching your head looking for its meaning right up to the end and wondering why you sat through everything else. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: A Great Followup to the Original

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Hollywood has a much better success rate lately with sequels. That's certainly true with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a great followup to its original, Guardians of the Galaxy. Partly, it's because the old cast and crew are back. And it's sci-fi/fantasy film magic.

Fresh back from saving Xandar from the wrath of Ronan, the Guardians return heroes. They've become a solid team, like a family of squabbling siblings, and now they need to help team leader Peter Quill, a.k.a. Star Lord, find his true heritage. In the middle of a mighty battle, just when they seem to have met their match against a forceful foe, comes a mighty savior: Ego.

At first, Ego seems pretty cool. He's more than a savior, he's the creator. More than the creator, he's Peter's father. And Ego wants super son to join him in his newest quest of greatness. Then things turn sour, as father and son come to odds and Peter must rely on family and old enemies-turned-allies to battle an all powerful god. 

The special effects in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 are pretty cool. Not, maybe, as cool as in, say, Star Wars or Star Trek, but pretty cool in a fantasy film kind of way. They stretch the imagination and help build an amazing universe you can believe in despite the way the story tellers stretch nature. Adding to the appeal of the film are the zany characters, built both around the scripting and the actors, played once again by Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star Lord, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Dave Bautisa as Drax, Bradley Cooper as Rocket, and Vin Diesel as Baby Groot (adorable this time around). Michael Rooker returns as Yondu, the blue-faced leader of the resistance gang with the pet arrow he can control with a serious series of whistles. New to the cast is Kurt Russell as Ego. Between the fun script and the cast's natural sense of humor, the narrative plays out with lots of interesting twists and gags.

Now, this wouldn't make a bid for best picture of the year or award winner in any category, but it would make a bid for greatest way to spend an evening with the family. It's fast paced and entertaining, and afterwards you won't feel like you wasted your time or your money (assuming you paid to see it). I would have no trouble recommending this film to friends or family. If you haven't yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, put it on your list to see soon!

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Thieves of Threadneedle Street: A True Crime that Is as Good as a Good Mystery

Book Review: Thieves of Threadneedle Street by Nicholas Booth
Version: Hard cover library borrow

The full title is Thieves of Threadneedle Street, "The Incredible True Story of the American Forgers Who Nearly Broke the Bank of England". It nearly broke me as a reader, so long and convoluted a narrative is this true crime story. The telling of the story weaves back and forth across time and place so often as to often be hard to follow. Not the fault of the author, however, is the difficulty in keeping track of all the names, the aliases used by the characters who perpetrated the crimes, which also made it difficult to keep track of the story line.

If you look at Thieves of Threadneedle Street as a detective novel instead of a true crime work, you could hardly find a more amazing story in a Sherlock Holmes tale. In 1873, two American brothers, Austin and George Bidwell, in collaboraton with two other Americans, George Macdonnel and Edward Noyes Hills, exploited a weakness in the lending system at the Bank of England, along with other banks in England, France, and Germany. They learned their craft frauding businesses and banks in America. Using both their own names and multiple aliases, living in multiple hotels and doing business in various multiple companies, they lived off the good intentions and naivete of the ancient institutions of Europe to borrow, sell, and launder money, knowing their loans wouldn't come due for three months, by which time they would be well gone. Because of their use of aliases, no one would be sure who did what, covering the tracks of their misdeeds, or so they thought. But as with all good detective novels -- or as in the case of this true crime story -- criminals always make mistakes, and a good detective will always catch them. So it was that Willie Pinkerton, of the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, New York City, and elsewhere in America, who had been hunting them down for their crimes in the United States, became active in the case for the Bank of England and brought them to justice.

The Bidwells, Macdonnel, and Hills were geniuses in forgery. If not for a few mistakes and one eagle-eyed examiner at the Bank of England, they might have gotten away with it. The four forgers were also very slippery and had nearly escaped the clutches of law enforcement, often aided by dishonest police who were easily bribed. Their adventures took them across the continent of Europe and eventually to Cuba and back to America in an attempt to escape. Pinkerton found them and brought them back to London to trial. Even so, the Bidwells had arranged multiple times for conspirators to break them, even at the last minute, but Pinkerton and the stalwart British police figured it out and stopped them.

Interesting to me living in West Michigan (USA), the Bidwells have a connection to this area. They were born in Adrian, Michigan, and when they were young their family moved to Grand Rapids, where their father ran a confectionery store. They owned a cabin at Black Lake near Muskegon, Michigan. The confectionery business failed, and the family moved to New York City, which is where the Bidwells came into contact with criminals and learned forgery. I wasn't aware of the local connections when I picked the story off the shelves.

Now, I am not a fan of true crime reads. I do like a good mystery and I am definitely a fan of a well-written Sherlock Holmes story. It was in reading Thieves of Threadneedle Street in this sense that I came to enjoy it. If it were just not so convoluted in the telling I might have enjoyed it more.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet: A Moving Film About a Young Boy's Life Journey

Movie Review: The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013)
Version: Library borrow

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a character-driven story that revolves around 10 year old prodigy T.S. Spivet, a misunderstood and under appreciated genius cartographer and science geek just yearning for some love. It is played to perfection by young new actor, Kyle Catlett, who in many ways reminds me of a misunderstood and under appreciated Kevin played by Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone, minus the tantrums and mischievous pranks.

T.S. (S is for Sparrow) lives in the wide open spaces of Montana with his father, mother, and 14 year old sister, all who are too self-absorbed to give him the love he needs. There is also T.S.'s twin brother, Layton, who is his father's favorite, because he is as much like his dad as T.S. is like his mother. But Layton is accidentally killed doing a science experiment with T.S. meant to bond the two together. The accident seems to drive everyone in the family farther apart rather than bringing them closer together. Even T.S.'s mother, after whom he supposedly takes, becomes more obsessed with her study of bugs than with her remaining son.

Now, T.S. has mapped out plans for a perpetual motion machine and sends them to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. And one day, in the midst of family turmoil, he receives a call inviting him to come to Washington to receive the prestigious Baird Award and give a speech. They don't realize the genius behind the machine is a 10 year old. At first he makes up excuses why can't be there, but as he discovers that, in his own mind he won't be missed anyway, T.S. calls back and accepts the invitation. Early in the morning he packs his bag -- underwear, raisins, binoculars, and a few sundry other things a 10 year old would think to take, plus his mother's diary -- and quietly leaves the family ranch to stow away on a freight train, headed for the Smithsonian.

From there, the story becomes a life's journey of self discovery.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet includes a great ensemble cast with fine performances, including Helena Bonham Carter as his preoccupied mother and Judy Davis as the frenetic, PR-obsessed Smithsonian assistant director. The distant father is played by Callum Keith Rennie and the out-of-touch sister is played by Niamh Wilson. Appreciate twin brother Layton is played by Jakob Davies. But all told, this film is driven by the power of the performance by Catlett, on whose young shoulders this story's success depends.

Ironically, the setting for this tale is America -- Montana, a mid-stop in Chicago, and Washington, D.C., and the stretch of country in between. But this is a Canadian film, with parts shot in British Columbia and Alberta as well as in Chicago and Washington. So there are some interesting quirks to the film. Some of the characters that T.S. meets along the way come off not quite believable, in a Canadian sort of way. In one situation, T.S. runs away from a railway security guard and separated from his train ride, he takes to hitchhiking along the highway. A trucker stop to pick him up. That should raise all kinds of red flags but to our friendlier, gentler Canadian friends, that might not seem like a problem. I don't know what the child abduction statistics are in Canada, but apparently they aren't high enough to cause a film director to shy away from that scene.

This film leads me back to a comment I made in an earlier post. Some of the best films are independent films, and The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is a great example. Rather than lots of flashes and explosions and car chases or celebrity sex scenes, the heart of this film is totally character driven about a young boy's fearless life journey. It's a great film, and one every family can enjoy.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Despicable Me 3: Gru Meets Dru and the Fun Begins Once Again

Movie Review: Despicable Me 3 (2017)
Version: Paid movie theater viewing

They're back -- Gru, Lucy, Margo, Edith, Agnes, and all who knows how many adorable minions each who has a name -- in Despicable Me 3. You would think after two tries that a third movie would fall flat on its despicable face. Not so. Despicable Me 3 finds the crew as irrepressibly lovable and fun as the first time we met them. And this time, there's one more member of the crew to love: Gru's twin brother, Dru.

Gru and Lucy are fired from the Anti-Villain League for failing to catch Balthazar Bratt, newest arch enemy of goodness, even though they retrieved the target of Bratt's villainy, the world's largest gem. So for the rest of the movie there is battle between Gru and Lucy to retrieve the gem. Meanwhile, Gru and his family receives a mysterious invitation to visit a far off property which turns out to belong to his long lost -- and unknown -- twin brother, Dru. It turns out Gru's mother and father were spies during the Great War and had a falling out, each deciding to take and raise one son. Dru was raised in the shadow of his father's success as an evil spy while also watching his brother's success as an international bad guy. Now seeing Gru unemployed, Dru wants to join forces to do evil together, as it was meant to be. Gru, of course, has a family to think of, and is resistant, but Dru draws him into intrigue. And there's the matter of Balthazar Bratt to deal with.

The minions, meanwhile, have left the household, having lost faith in Dru because he has been fired but also because he refuses to turn back to doing evil. Theirs is a hilarious side story of getting into trouble, ending up in prison -- which they dominate as a tribe, escape and run off in search of a mission, only to be reintroduced to Gru with Dru. In my opinion, they steal the show, once again.

Gru and Dru are played with delicious joy once again by Steve Carell. Returning as his adorable wife Lucy is Kristen Wiig. The quirky Balthazar Bratt is played by Trey Parker. Also returning, Miranda Cosgrove is daughter Margo, Dana Gaier is daughter Edith, and Nev Scharrel is huggable daughter Agnes. You can't find a more wonderful ensemble cast for an animated film. The ensemble cast for all those adorable minions is one guy: Pierre Coffin. I'd love to have a conversation with him about how he assembles that dialogue!

Technically, the animation is flawless, from color to set decoration to character creation to lighting and on and on. The Despicable Me franchise remains one of my favorite for story telling and attention to detail. It is consistently excellent, and that continued in Despicable Me 3. The history of sequels in film isn't very good, but with this franchise they have kept our faith through two. I'd love to see a third sequel.

I don't know how long Despicable Me 3 will remain in theaters. It opened at the end of June in most markets, early July in some others, and late August in a very few others. But it's worth paying to see on the big screen. If you miss it in theaters, definitely see it on DVD or Blu-Ray or on cable or satellite TV. It's great fun!

Monday, September 04, 2017

Central Intelligence: Watch It for the Comedy and the Actors and You'll Be Fine

Movie Review: Central Intelligence (2016)
Version: HBO on demand

Central Intelligence is a great vehicle for Kevin Hart, maybe not so much for Dwayne Johnson. For Kevin Hart, it shows great range as an actor. For Dwayne Johnson, it rips apart his image as a macho tough guy with softer edges -- his character is a vulnerable guy bullied as a teen, which despite reworking his tubby body into a muscular powerhouse wimps out at the sight of his former bullies.

That said, Central Intelligence is innocent fun for weekend entertainment. The gist of the film is Calvin Joyner (played by Kevin Hart), once elected in high school as most likely to succeed who finds himself 20 years later married to his prom queen high school sweetheart a less than successful accountant, while she's a full partner at a top legal firm. His biggest decision is whether to accompany her to the high school reunion, when out of nowhere comes Bob Stone (played by Dwayne Johnson), a dweeb embarrassed the day of the prom by bullies by forcing him in a full auditorium naked, to the roar of the crowd. But Stone is now totally different, chiseled into a slim, muscle-toned Adonis. Back in high school, Calvin had been Bob's only friend, offering Bob his letter jacket to sneak out of the auditorium, and he wants to make connections with Calvin again, meet up over some drinks. Rather than meet with his wife, Maggie (played by Danielle Nicolet) to discuss going to the class reunion, Calvin chooses the meet up with Bob. And thus ensues an unlikely alliance that becomes an enlistment to help Bob on a CIA mission to secure national secrets, much to Calvin's distaste.

Central Intelligence is a comedy, with Dwayne Johnson playing up a very insecure Bob Stone. It's almost creepy the ease with which he assumes this character. Kevin Hart is masterful as the man out of his element who definitely doesn't want to be there but shoved into the role, but still resisting all the way. Well into the film arrives Justin Bateman as Trevor, the high school bully become stock trader who amiably assists the secret agent duo in uncovering a stock trading code, but then turning on a dime to return to his evil self to torment them. He's actually quite good at playing a bully. Amy Ryan plays Agent Pamela Harris, head of a CIA team trying to stop Bob, who they suspect of being a double agent, and Bob, who they see as his accomplice. Johnson gets to flex his muscles and kick a few asses, so he isn't totally out of his element, and so Central Intelligence also gets to be a typical spy movie at the same time.

There isn't much by way of technology, design, or special effects to make this film stand out. It's all about the comedy and minimal action. Watch it for the story and actors and you will be fine. Don't expect too much and you won't be disappointed.