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The Blurb

You wake. Confused. Disorientated.
A noose is round your neck.
You are bound, standing on a chair.
All you can focus on is the man in the mask tightening the rope.
You are about to die.

John Wallace has no idea why he has been targeted. No idea who his attacker is. No idea how he will prevent the inevitable. Then the pendulum of fate swings in his favour.
He has one chance to escape, find the truth and halt his destruction. The momentum is in his favour for now. But with a killer on his tail, everything can change with one swing of this deadly pendulum…

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My Thoughts

I listened to this as an audiobook, narrated by Luke Thompson who did a great job. The narrative hits the ground running – rather than any introductory back story, it starts slap bang in the middle of an attempted murder. When photographer John Wallace is attacked in his apartment, he feels sure that he is about to die, but manages to escape by the skin of his teeth. However, his attacker is relentless and seemingly able to track John, no matter where he hides. John has to find out who is trying to kill him, and more importantly why – but his journey will take him across an ocean and down some very dark paths.

I really liked the first part of the book – the action was fast moving and the characters were well fleshed out. However, when the story moved to New York, it faltered somewhat for me, as it began to include elements of cyber terrorism (don’t worry – no spoilers here) and it became unbelievable as Wallace seemed to be able to somehow defy numerous attempts on his life, while around him the body count continued to rise.

Hamdy definitely knows how to write an action sequence, and Luke Thompson’s narration matched the pace of the storyline. However, the second half of the story was something of a slog for me. This book is the first in a series, and although it’s easy to see where the set up for the next book comes in, there was enough closure here for anyone who didn’t want to read any more. I fall into that category – this wasn’t awful, but didn’t interest me enough to want to read any more about the Pendulum case.

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Year of first publication: 2016

Genre: Thriller, action, mystery

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This is the story of two New York sisters – Meghan Fitzmaurice is America’s favourite breakfast television anchor, while younger sister Bridget is a social worker, trying to help women from the Bronx projects find a better life. The sisters are good friends, and life seems to be coasting along nicely – until the day that Meghan, not realising that she is still on air, swears on live television and her career and personal life both go into freefall.  The fallout affects not just Meghan, but her husband Evan and their teenage son Leo.

Narrated by Bridget, the story takes in not just the aftermath of Meghan’s error, but is also a love letter of sorts to New York, and a history of the two sisters’ lives as well as their relationships with the men – and other people – in their lives.

I wasn’t too sure what to make of this book. On the one hand, I definitely think Anna Quindlen is a talented writer and I found myself reading large chunks in one go which is always a good sign (a bad sign is when I put a book down after a few pages and look for something else to distract myself). On the other hand….I felt slightly removed from the action. This was not one of those books where you feel excited to find out what will happen next and neither did I really care about any of the characters. Although the on-air gaffe was entirely unbelievable, the incredible over-reaction to it was not so much. I didn’t warm to Meghan much at all, and possibly this was because the story was narrated by Bridget – even though Bridget is possibly her sister’s biggest supporter. I think it was an interesting idea to have the sister as the narrator, but it would have been quite nice to see Meghan’s point of view, even if perhaps they alternated chapter narrations.

From other reviews I’ve read it seems that fans of Quindlen’s other books were largely disappointed with this one. For me, this was actually the first book of hers that I’ve read and I would probably be interested in trying another on the back of it.

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Lucy and Gabe meet in New York on September 11th 2001, the horrific events of that date causing both of them to want to do something meaningful with their life. Eventually they start a relationship and over the next 13 years, they enter and leave each other’s lives on several occasions, although their choices take them in different direction. However, they are drawn to each other and seemingly unable to forget each other. The book is narrated by Lucy and she is talking to Gabe, although their current (2014) situation does not become clear until the end of the story (although I guessed at what would happen and was more or less correct).

I am in two minds about this book. As I always do when I finish a book, I go online to look at other reviews and it seems that this story polarises readers – most seem to either love it or hate it. Without wanting to be contrary, I am torn. On the one hand, I do think the writing itself was absolutely lovely, eloquent and almost poetic at times. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by the author Jill Santopolo, and I thought she did an excellent job. I would probably read another book by Santopolo, based on the writing alone.

However….the character of Lucy irritated me SO MUCH!! She and Gabe had a relationship of a little over a year, and during the next twelve years she met and married Darren and had a family with him. Nonetheless, even though Gabe would go months or years without contacting her, he would sometimes email her right out of the blue and she would drop everything to go and see him. I think we were supposed to see Gabe as deep and introspective, but actually he just seemed selfish and thoughtless. At one point he does an exhibition of his photography in a New York gallery, and when puts photos of Lucy in it without asking her permission or even telling her – this, after she has been married to Darren for several years and has children. When she asks him why she would do that and put her in such an awkward position he says he didn’t ask her because he thought she would say no. THAT’S EXACTLY WHY YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO ASK!! Seriously, this guy would drop her like a hot potato and then pop back up when it suited him. He was undeserving of her adoration and it frustrated me that she warbled on and on about him, often to detriment of her marriage.

So, a mixed bag for me – it kept me entertained during long runs, which is the main reason I listen to audiobooks, but it also annoyed me. I would probably recommend it based on the amount of great reviews it has – clearly a lot of people do love this book – but based on my own opinion I would recommend waiting for this author to write something else.

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As a teenager, Theo Decker survives a terrorist attack in a museum, which kills his beloved mother. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Theo makes a split second decision and steals a painting which his mother always loved – The Goldfinch. This incident, and indeed the painting itself, sets the course for his life – a life which as a reader, we join him on as he makes friends and enemies, makes bad decisions which reverberate for years, falls in love and in lust, and eventually gets mixed up in the criminal underworld.

Well, this is a brick of a book – coming in at over 850 pages of smallish font – if I’m honest, the size of it put me off reading it for a while, but once I picked it up I was glad I had done so. After reading it, I did what I usually do when finishing a book and went online to read reviews of it. What struck me the most was that it seems to be a very polarising read – people generally loved it or hated it. It certainly seems to be the least well received of all of Donna Tartt’s offerings, and this is good news for me, because if this is the worst she has to offer, then I definitely look forward to reading the best! I enjoyed the book a lot, especially the first two thirds, which cover Theo’s teenage years. It’s fair to say that not all of the characters are particularly likeable (except for Hobie, Theo’s guardian of sorts, who is just adorable), but they are all beautifully drawn and utterly believable.

The writing is elegant and often beautiful – Tartt uses a lot of words to describe the most mundane and ordinary events, and while this can be annoying with some authors (just get to the point!!) here it works really well, because it is just such a pleasure to read lovely prose. The story is told in the first person from Theo’s point of view, which is good because if we had seen Theo from the outside in, I think he would have been much harder to like or understand.

If I’m honest, I did think that the last part of the book paled in comparison to what had gone before, but it still held my attention and at the end, I came away satisfied.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book – don’t be put off by the size…while the story doesn’t always move particularly quickly, the writing does draw you in. I look forward to reading more by Donna Tartt.

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The Normal Heart is a fictionalised account of a gay activist, who tried to raise awareness of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s. Ned Weeks (Mark Ruffalo, in a role based on The Normal Heart’s writer Larry Kramer) is horrified when gay men start dying of what is called Gay Cancer, and he starts a HIV Advocacy group, in an attempt to get the government to take notice, and to help raise awareness. Weeks prefers a more outspoken way of tackling the problem, unlike many of his fellow members of the group, some of whom are not openly gay, and this causes tension amongst them. During this time, Weeks falls in love with Felix (Matt Bomer) a journalist who is also frustrated at the restrictions on what he can write about.

The film also stars Jim Parsons as Tommy (based on Rodger McFarlane), a friend of Ned, Taylor Kitsch as Bruce (based on Paul Popham), another member of the Advocacy group, Julia Roberts as a Doctor who tries to raise awareness (based on real life Doctor Linda Laubenstein). Albert Molina also appears as Ned’s brother, who loves him but struggles to understand his lifestyle or the crusade he has set himself upon.

Well – wow! It’s hard to describe just how fantastic I thought this film was. It was heartbreaking and inspiring all the at the same time. Kramer wrote the play which the film is adapted from, in 1985, at which time the AIDS crisis was in full flow. I cannot imagine how it must have felt to watch his friends dying in such numbers, and yet to be more or less ignored by the government. Mark Ruffalo really portrayed the frustration and anger that Ned Weeks felt. Matt Bomer won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor as Felix, and it was totally deserved. (Ruffalo was also nominated for Best Actor). Jim Parsons – best known for the role of Sheldon Cooper in comedy The Big Bang Theory – was a revelation here, and brought a lot of warmth to the film

I could probably wax lyrical about this film all day long, but for anyone with the slightest passing interest in the AIDS crisis, or the political and social reaction to it, this is an absolute must-see. Keep a box of tissues handy – you WILL cry. Very highly recommended to all.

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Year of release: 2014

Director: Ryan Murphy

Producers: Jason Blum, Dante Di Loreto, Dede Gardner, Ryan Murphy, Brad Pitt, Mark Ruffalo, Scott Ferguson, Gina Lamar, Ned Martel, Alexis Martin Woodall

Writers: Larry Kramer (play), Ryan Murphy

Main cast: Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Groff, Taylor Kitsch, Joe Mantello, Stephen Spinella, BD Wong, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Alfred Molina, Finn Wittrock

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Well, it worked for Baz Luhrmann, when he updated Romeo and Juliet to a modern day setting.  In this film, director Michael Almereyda updates Hamlet and shifts the action to corporate New York in 2000.  Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is mourning the loss of his father, who was the CEO of The Denmark Corporation.  He believes that his father was in fact murdered by his Uncle Claudius (Kyle McLachlan) who has gone on to marry Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Diane Verona) in distasteful haste, and is also the new CEO of the corporation.

Hamlet is determined to avenge his father’s death.  Meanwhile, he struggles with his own loose grip on sanity, as does his former girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles).

I’m not completely sure what to make of this adaptation.  I like the idea – I like Shakespeare’s plays in their own settings, but I do like to see them in new and unfamiliar settings, which may entice other people to try them out.  This version comes in just shy of two hours, which is pretty short, considering that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play (the very faithful Kenneth Branagh adaptation is four hours long).  Certain parts have been cut out, but the essence of the story remains intact, and Shakespeare’s original language is used throughout, although not in its entirety.  The cast overall were strong – Ethan Hawke is an under-rated actor, and he captures Hamlet’s fine line between grief and insanity very well.  I also liked Julia Stiles and Liev Schreiber as Ophelia and Laertes respectively.  Kyle MacLachlan did a fine job as Claudius, while Diane Verona was excellent as Gertrude, and really captured the character.  Hamlet’s ‘friends’ (if you have seen the play, you will understand why I use the term loosely) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman – who is the brother of Ethan Hawke’s then wife Uma Thurman – and Zahn in particular shone in his role.  I also really liked Karl Geary as Horatio, Hamlet’s true friend until the end.

The cast was not perfect however – unfortunately, the usually excellent Bill Murray seemed lost as Polonius.  I’ve seen Murray in straight roles before and he is normally great in them, but I didn’t think he suited this particular character at all, and just seemed to be reading his lines with no inflection or meaning whatsoever.  It’s a shame – Polonius could have been great with a different actor, but overall this did not detract from my enjoyment of the film.

What did occur to me however was that if I didn’t know the story of Hamlet, I think I would have had trouble following what was happening.  It’s not the language; it was more that scenes seemed particularly disjointed from one another, and it seemed to me that it was jumping about a bit – first concentrating on this, then concentrating on that.  On that basis, I would definitely recommend that anyone planning on watching this familiarises themselves with the story first.

On a positive note, New York City is actually a very good backdrop for the story…aesthetically it looks perfect, and I also loved the music.  I’m not sure that I can forgive the famous To Be Or Not To Be soliloquy being recited in voice-over while our hero roams a Blockbuster video store.  There was probably some symbolism there, but it escaped me.

Overall, if you are looking for an adaptation of Hamlet, this is not the best one to start with.  However, if you are a fan of the play and want to see this version for that reason, you might find more to enjoy than you expect.

Year of release: 2000

Director: Michael Almereyda

Producers: Jason Blum, John Sloss, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby, Callum Greene

Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Michael Almereyda

Main cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Verona, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Karl Geary, Steve Zahn, Dechen Thurman

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Click here for my review of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2013 production of Hamlet.

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In 1950, Lucia Sartori is the most beautiful girl in Greenwich Village, New York.  She is a talented dressmaker at an exclusive store, but is expected to give up her job to get married and become a housewife.  However, Lucia has other ideas, and is determined to be as independent as possible.  That is until handsome and charismatic John Talbot comes into the store and sweeps her off her feet.  Lucia falls hard and falls fast, but she and John have several obstacles to overcome, not least her very traditional family.

I always enjoy Adriana Trigiani’s books, and this one was no exception.  The story is bookended by two short chapters set in the modern day, when an older Lucia tells her story to her young neighbour.  Personally I thought the book would have been better without this framing device, as the ending (of the whole book, rather than the ending of the story of events in the 1950s) seemed a bit contrived, but I really enjoyed the main body of the story.

The character of Lucia was developed well, as were those of her family and friends, especially her boss Delmarr, who I particularly liked.  It was interesting to read about Lucia’s life in a large Italian immigrant family, and to understand her conflict between what was expected of her, and what she wanted to do with her life.  There were a number of twists and turns which I did not expect, and Lucia’s story did not end the way that I expected it to, but was better because of it.  However, without wanting to reveal any spoilers, Lucia did make a decision towards the end of the book, which seemed to undermine decisions and plans which she had made earlier, which was something of a shame, although it was probably understandable under the circumstances.

It is a cosy and undemanding tale, and perfect for curling up with on the sofa.  If you are a fan of Adriana Trigiani or such books, you won’t be disappointed.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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