Friday Flicks: American Sniper

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A review of a book to film adaptation.

Based upon the bestselling autobiography, American Sniper chronicles the life and incredible career of the deadliest sniper in American history, Chris Kyle. The film begins with young Chris's father teaching him how to hunt. From that early age, Chris is taught to respect the weapon and to always look out for others in need. An early flashback shows young Chris putting these lessons into practice. He intervenes in a fight between his brother and a bully, earning punishment from the school, respect from his father, and sealing the hero complex that would shape the rest of his life. 

After witnessing the 9/l1 terrorist attacks via his television, Chris, now an adult, immediately enlists in the Navy and begins training to become one of the branch's elite warriors. As a member of the Navy Seals, he is summoned to the field as a sniper. Kyle's mission is to cover areas as other branches of the military complete ground operations. As the film progresses, we witness Chris excelling at his job, racking up a kill rate that earns him the nickname "Legend". 

Director Clint Eastwood does a nice job of mixing the tense action sequences with personal glimpses into Kyle's psyche, especially when he returns home. Bradley Cooper as Chris, and Sienna Miller as his wife show us the raw emotional toll that war takes on both their individual emotions as well as their marriage. In hindsight, a few of the stateside scenes may be overtly cliche, but in the context of the film and the many intense war scenes, these moments are necessary in creating a balanced view of the war. 

Since it's release, there has been much debate about this film. Having read the book upon which this movie is based, I can attest that real life Chris Kyle was much more matter of fact about his actions than Cooper's film version. In the book, Kyle does not seem to be conflicted by the amount of people he kills. It is impossible, of course, to know what was really going on inside the man's head, and I feel that I have no right to comment on his actions. It is worth noting, however, that the film humanizes Kyle in a way that never really happens in the book. As such, the emotional payoff of the movie is extremely high as the credits roll. In the end, the biggest take away from both the book and movie seems to be that war is a big, ugly, complicated mess. Regardless of our individual political or even moral views, our country has asked men and women to leave the comforts of their lives to protect the comforts of our own. American Sniper, is a flawed but important reminder of the sacrifice and heroism of our military.

Cross My Heart by James Patterson

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For over twenty years, the Alex Cross series has been the flagship of author James Patterson's prolific output. While the bestselling author notoriously employs co-authors to aid in his writing, Alex Cross remains one of the only series to be credited entirely to Patterson himself. As such, the Alex Cross series has always seemed to maintain the thoughtful mysteries, thrilling pace, and honest characters that gained Patterson the acclaim and notoriety that he enjoys today. True to form, Cross My Heart delivers all of these elements, proving that Patterson is still at the top of his game.

Thierry Mulch is a scorned man looking for revenge. As a college psychology professor he studied and wrote a book about a spree of unsolved murders committed by, as he claims, the perfect criminal. His writing on this super criminal captured the imaginations of countless readers, leading to many speaking engagements and book signings. Despite the almost universal praise, Mulch finds himself obsessed with  his biggest critic. . . DC Metro Police Detective Alex Cross.

Things seem to be going well for the Cross family. Alex and his wife Bree are busy working on two separate murder cases, all three of the cross children are enjoying success at school, and Nana Mama the family matriarch is overseeing a massive kitchen renovation. Little do they know that life as they know it is about to come crashing down. One man is planning the perfect crime. One man has made it his mission to destroy the Cross family. One man want to bring Alex Cross to his knees.

This is one of the best Alex Cross novels in recent years. This series has always stood out due to the strong writing of the family dynamic. In each novel, the reader checks in with the Cross family, and, over the course of 21 books, the Cross family has become close to the hearts of those who read about them. As always, Patterson writes with a quick pace that keeps the pages turning and the tension high. By changing Alex from the hunter to the hunted, Patterson puts a unique twist on his usual formula. This is the kind of novel that keeps readers up at night, unable to sleep until every twist of the plot has been resolved. There has been much written about the cliffhanger at the end of this novel. I have been vocal about my disdain of incomplete endings in series mysteries, especially when they seem unnecessary. That being said, I felt that this novel had a defined stopping point, while still leaving the larger story open for completion in the next installment. For fans of James Patterson and thrilling mysteries, this is an exceptional installment in a stellar series.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 7)

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson


Every once in a while, an author attempts to make big statements about big ideas. To portray social subjects (racism, class, history, tradition, culture, etc.) in the confines of written words is no easy task. Often, any commentary becomes burdened by the mechanics of language. In his new novel, Welcome to Braggsville, author T. Geronimo Johnson attempts to tackle some of these topics.

As he begins his freshman year at UC Berkley, D'aron Davenport is clearly a fish out of water. Thousands of miles away from his hometown in Georgia, D'aron struggles to find his way in this new place. He has never had to put much effort into his school work, and quickly ascended to the top of his small high school class with minimal effort. But the rigors of collegiate academics have taken their toll on D'aron. After the first semester, he finds himself with unsatisfactory grades and the threat of academic probation. A meeting with his advisor reveals deeper internal issues. D'aron's advisor, who also made the move from small conservative town to large liberal city, diagnosis the young man's social conundrum. She tells him that his difficulty in reconciling his upbringing with the culture of his new setting is normal, but he must come to terms with these issues to achieve success in his studies.

It is not until an awkward turn at a party that things for D'aron begin to change. A misunderstanding finds D'aron, his roommate Louis Chang, Candice (from Iowa) and black prep school student Charlie being accused of being racially insensitive. From there, the group, 4 Little Indians as they call themselves, become close friends, and it seems that D'aron has overcome his social insecurity. It is an American History class on alternative perspectives that inspires the friends to create a performance piece that makes a political statement. D'aron's hometown, Braggsville, the kind of conservative place where "gay" is used as an insult or joke, holds an annual Civil War re-enactment. The group decides to make their statement at this event. When things don't proceed as expected, the foursome and the entire town of Braggsville are forced to face racial, social, and cultural issues that none of them could have anticipated.

Johnson tackles tough issues and interesting characters to middling results. The central plot and characters are very well conceived and offer natural ways to explore complex social issues. Unfortunately, Johnson's unique authorial voice takes a bit of time to get used to, sometimes making reading this novel a chore. As is so often the case with this subject matter, the mechanics of written language fail to portray the lofty ideas that are discussed. That being said, there is no denying Johnson's craft. Even when the plot becomes muddied by excess points and overtly obvious observations, Johnson manages to steer the story back to a central focus that is both timely and engaging. In the end, Welcome to Braggsville is not a book that everyone will enjoy, but definitely offers the kind of sharp satire and commentary that is difficult to achieve.

For more information, visit Amazon and GoodReads.

(2015, 6)

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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As someone whose life has been intimately touched by cancer, I was extremely hesitant to read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Regardless of the positive reviews, bestselling status, and movie adaptation, I simply was not ready to subject my emotions to a book about the awful disease. As time passed, however, I was overcome with curiosity. A year after cancer invaded my life, I finally broke down and read the book that everyone was talking about.

Sixteen year old Hazel has a terminal case of cancer. An experimental drug has held the tumors at bay, but the threat of the disease remains. Her lungs regularly fill with fluid and she requires the assistance of an oxygen tank to help her breathe. There is no denying the truth. Cancer will kill Hazel. But there is much more to this character than her illness. A voracious reader, college student (she completed her GED while undergoing treatments), and fan of America's Next Top Model, Hazel shares many attributes of a typical teenage girl. At the insistence of her overbearing mother, who fears her daughter is becoming a recluse, Hazel finds herself at a weekly support group for  critically ill teens. She grudgingly attends the meetings, but the shallow sentiments of the group leader and rotating group of teens (it's hard to keep a consistent membership when all of the members are terminally ill) do little to interest Hazel.

It is at these meetings where Hazel first meets Augustus Waters. A lanky, attractive, former high school basketball star, Gus lost one of his legs to cancer. The young man seems to live life by his own rules. For example, Gus frequently places an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a metaphor for controlling  something that has the power to kill him. The two immediately hit it off, bonding over literature and philosophizing about life and death. As their romance blossoms, they face the ugly truths about cancer and the ways the disease will inevitably affect their relationship.

John Green does an incredible job of accurately portraying the horrors of cancer and the way it shapes the lives of those who come in contact with it. As a young adult novel, this book could easily have fallen into the trap of romanticizing a love story about teens facing the hardships of a disease. Fortunately, Green's characters are written with the kind of depth that allows readers to naturally become enraptured in their story. It is great to see an author write intelligent characters who are smart because of their thoughts and actions. . . not because he told us they were! There are no "against all odds" or "wisdom beyond age" sentiments in this story. Rather, the character grapple with the fear and unknown that comes with a terminal diagnosis. We see the horrific toll that cancer can take on the human body, mind, and soul. Yes, cancer largely influences the story, but it is the incredible, once in a lifetime kind of love between Hazel and Gus, that makes The Fault in Our Stars the rare, must read book that it is.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2015, 5)

Breaking News: Harper Lee to release New Novel

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More than fifty years after the release of her acclaimed novel "To Kill A Mockingbird", Harper Lee will publish a new novel. "Go Set a Watchman", a sequel to Lee's previous work, will be published on July 14 by Harper. In a statement to the AP, Lee gave some insight into the conception of this new book:

In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called ‘Go Set a Watchman.’ It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort. My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became To Kill a Mockingbird) from the point of view of the young Scout.
I was a first-time writer, so I did as I was told. I hadn’t realized it (the original book) had survived, so was surprised and delighted when my dear friend and lawyer Tonja Carter discovered it. After much thought and hesitation, I shared it with a handful of people I trust and was pleased to hear that they considered it worthy of publication. I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years.

The new novel, set in the same Alabama town as Mockingbird, will feature many of the same characters. Scout, now an adult, will return from New York to visit her father in her hometown. 

Everything to Lose by Andrew Gross

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Hilary Cantor is a good person, but like all good people, she has seen her share of hardship. A single mother of a son with Asperger’s syndrome, she has been working hard to maintain a quality life for herself and her son. Despite her best efforts, her world has begun to drop out from under her. Her deadbeat ex-husband is waning in his financial and emotional support, her bills have begun to stack up, and she has recently become a victim of the recession when she loses her job. Facing bankruptcy for herself and the possibility of losing the ability to properly care for her son, she makes a final trek to beg for her ex’s assistance.

On her way through the country to try and right her upended life, a miracle occurs. When Hilary witnesses a freak car accident and stops to help, she finds what seems to be a godsend… a bag containing $500,000. In the split second before someone else arrives on scene, Hilary makes the decision to keep the money. With the money, Hilary begins to fix her life; she pays off her debts and even makes sure that the money is not missed. 

However, no miracle comes without a price, and for anyone to make money, someone else has to lose it. When another person associated with the crash is found dead it becomes apparent that the money is missed, and the owner is determined to get it back. Pursued by a ruthless hired gun, Hilary must work with the son of the crash victim and trace the origin of the money through death, desolation and 20 years of history before it’s too late for her and her son.

Andrew Gross produces a thrilling journey in Everything To Lose. The main protagonist is relatable and well rounded. Further, Hilary is filled with a sense of morality that closely mirrors what would be expected of anyone else facing her situation. The writing is typical of the genre and kept me engaged throughout my reading. Despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I couldn’t help but compare the plot to that of No Country for Old Men. While the books did not share an atmosphere, setting or writing style, I continuously drew connections to characters and plot points from the earlier novel. However, this did not detract from my enjoyment, and I am now excited to read more of Gross’s work. I would highly recommend this as a fast-paced, plot-driven thriller that could easily consume a weekend. 

Review by Brett Schneider

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads

(2015, 4)

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