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Tammy Dotts has commented on (31) products.

The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner
The Next Best Thing

Tammy Dotts, July 3, 2012

Fans of Jennifer Weiner won’t be disappointed by her new book, The Next Best Thing. And the book won’t disappoint readers intrigued by seeing Weiner’s name on bestseller lists or her other books displayed as staff picks at their local bookstores.

The story follows Ruthie Saunders as she brings her idea for a sitcom focusing on a young woman and her grandmother to life. The sitcom loosely follows Ruthie’s own story: a young woman trying to succeed in a male-dominated world while living with her grandmother. In real life, Ruthie was raised by her grandmother after her parents’ death. The two moved to Los Angeles so Ruthie could pursue her dream of writing for television.

The Next Best Thing tracks her journey from assistant to showrunner, offering readers glimpses behind the Hollywood curtain as Ruthie decides how much she’s willing to compromise with the network to get her show on the air. Along the way, Ruthie’s relationship with her grandmother continues to evolve.

Weiner has a gift for creating vibrant characters; even minor characters are fully fleshed out on the page. The small details she invests in her characters end up making them seem like people you may know, or, in the case of The Next Best Thing, people you’ve read about in tabloid headlines.

The book’s release date couldn’t be better timed. The Next Best Thing is just right for taking to the beach or poolside. The plot moves quickly and keeps readers interested all the way through. Weiner deftly avoids making the book a vapid read ��" one of those summer books meant to be forgotten once it’s read and left behind at the shore house. Instead, she delivers a story with characters facing real decisions and who, at times, make real mistakes. Ruthie isn’t perfect, and that’s one of the reasons readers will come to love her and hope that Weiner revisits this slice of her universe in future books.
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Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise by Mark Clark
Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise

Tammy Dotts, July 2, 2012

Chances are, even if you’re not a fan of Star Trek (in any of its incarnations), you can reference Captain Kirk, “live long and prosper,” and “beam me up, Scottie” in conversation. Casual fans may remember the episode with the tribbles or visiting Vulcan. True fans know “beam me up, Scottie” was never uttered on screen.

Mark Clark’s Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Voyages of the First Starship Enterprise serves all three classes of fans. As he explains in his introduction:

Star Trek FAQ is primarily a historical account, with some analysis and criticism to provide perspective …. While it’s perfectly acceptable to read this book front to back, Star Trek FAQ has been designed for nonlinear consumption. Each chapter functions independently.

Clark’s self-assessment is on the money. Repetition can’t be avoided given how the book is organized. Fans of any stripe will be better served by dipping into sections that catch their eye from time to time. Not every section is for every reader.

Star Trek FAQ doesn’t take an academic approach, but it isn’t a tell-all book of feuds and dressing room hi-jinks either. Clark manages to hit both notes though.

He addresses Gene Roddenberry’s goals in creating the show and uses it to provide commentary on modern society and to answer why the show’s popularity carried on from the original series through four expansions of the universe on TV plus movies, books and a pervasive hold on pop culture:

Roddenberry’s vision of a future where the ancient evils of war, poverty, and racism have been replaced by peace, prosperity, and brotherhood comforted its audience during the turbulent 1960s and continues to reassure viewers today …. Until his vision becomes a reality ��" something that, sadly, is unlikely to happen any sooner than the twenty-third century ��" Star Trek will continue to serve as a beacon of hope.

The book starts with the creation of the show. For hard-core fans, the list of influences won’t provide any surprises, but Clark does a good job showing the specific pieces Roddenberry took from his muses. Bios of the original cast highlight their pre-Trek appearances, but misses the opportunity to explain why the actors were hired for their particular roles.

One of the highlights of the book is how Clark covers the episodes. Instead of a season-by-season plot summary, he divides his episodic discussion into villain type. Tribbles show up in the monster category, while “malignant life forces” highlights Redjac (“Wolf in the Fold”). Technological terrors and madmen round out the villain section. Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans have their own chapter. Other episodes are discussed according to the show’s setting: strangely familiar worlds, strange old worlds (the time travel episodes), strange new dimensions and strange new worlds.

The organization works well and may send you searching for reruns to spot connections you may have missed the first (or forty-first) time you watched the series.

One of the best sections covers Trek technology. It explains what the tech does, how it works and whether we may ever see it. It’s a great introduction for someone new to Star Trek and offers some laughs for longtime fans. For example, on when man will ever see the transporter come to life:

So when can I buy one? Right after you ride your unicorn over to Frodo’s house and borrow his magic ring. The transporter defies so many of the basic laws of physics that it is, essentially, a fantasy element dressed up as science fiction.

Some sections are for true die-hard fans who want every detail down to music rights and how score changes were needed because of rights issues when the show was released on VHS but restored for the DVD release. Casual fans may skip these sections.

At times, Clark provides a little too much information. A section on Star Trek’s competition covers Bewitched with details about the cast switch, influences on the series, spinoffs and the 2005 movie. The section on famous actors, scientists and politicians who were Trek fans may be interesting to some, but may seem like too much padding to others.

The FAQ ends flatly (famous fans precedes a bibliography) for a book that began by addressing Roddenberry’s philosophy behind the series. Perhaps Clark’s planned sequel, which will look at the movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation, will bring those opening thoughts full circle. For now though, Star Trek FAQ can be a book with which to dip your feet into the Star Trek universe or with which to add to your knowledge of Trek minutiae.
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Between You and Me by Emma Mclaughlin
Between You and Me

Tammy Dotts, June 11, 2012

In Between You and Me, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus turn their focus from the world of New York nannies to the fast-paced world of Hollywood personal assistants. Logan Wade leaves her boring Wall Street job to work for her cousin, Kelsey. Will Logan maintain her own identity while navigating her new world of paparazzi, helicopter parents and family secrets?

Readers who enjoyed McLaughlin’ and Kraus’ first novel, The Nanny Diaries, will be entertained by this one. The book moves quickly through an ever-escalating series of events, giving readers little time to reflect on the plot holes Logan nimbly ignores.

Kelsey ascended to celebrity on a music program for teens. Her own pop music career took off shortly after the show ended, with her parents responsible for all decisions and for pushing Kelsey to and beyond her limits. Between You and Me hints at the darker side of having no control over your life and living to support an image, but doesn’t go far enough. If anything, Kelsey’s attempts to take back her life lead to her inevitable downfall.

Logan and Kelsey grew up together and were close before Kelsey’s entry into Hollywood. Kelsey’s dad is a recovering alcoholic by the time the book starts and Logan has vague memories of a car accident. In Logan’s version of history, the accident led to Kelsey and her mom deserting Oklahoma for California and to Logan’s parents breaking away from that side of the family. McLaughlin and Kraus bring up the accident and the girls’ childhood often enough that readers know something more is there, but what they deliver doesn’t live up to its promise. Or maybe it’s too easily pushed under the rug again.

Where the authors succeed is in creating interesting characters readers will want to know more about. Unfortunately the characters make stupid decisions that the authors don’t always explain or too easily chalk it up to “that’s just wild Hollywood.”

The book’s fast pace also doesn’t let readers spend as much time as they might like getting to see behind the velvet rope. McLaughlin and Kraus have a knack for describing party scenes and backstage drama; the book would have been better served if they employed it more often. Perhaps slowing down the book and splitting into an introduction to the Wades and then a sequel detailing their downward spiral would have been a better approach.

As it is, Between You and Me is a light piece of summer fluff that entertains as long as readers are willing to suspend disbelief again and again.
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The Odds by Stewart Onan
The Odds

Tammy Dotts, February 6, 2012

Any introduction to writing or literature class will include the theory that most (if not all) books follow a pattern of escalating peaks that reach a climax before drifting off into a denouement. In a line graph, the crux of the book, regardless of the genre, would stand above everything else. The pattern of plot denotes a clear beginning, middle and end.

But what if a book chooses to disregard this tried-and-true formula? What if the book chops off the traditional beginning and end? What if the middle the book portrays would be more of a flat line in a traditional book’s graph?

If the book is The Odds by Stewart O’Nan, you’re in luck. And, under close observation, the flat line displays fractal properties of the traditional plot graph. Readers meet Art and Marion Fowler as the couple travels to Niagara Falls. A whole other novel could take place before page 1: The Fowler marriage and finances are already dissolving, with only legal steps remaining before both are wiped out, when we meet them.

The two return to the site of their honeymoon with what remains of their savings in a last-ditch attempt to regain financial solvency at the casinos. The plan is Art’s idea; Marion goes along with it because she doesn’t have a better idea. Art’s other idea is to win back Marion’s heart, to return to the passion of their younger years. Marion just wants the weekend to be over.

Like O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, it’s easy to say not much happens in The Odds. Instead both novels offer a glimpse of a couple of almost ordinary days in the lives of ordinary people.

What other authors might treat as a peak to build tension ��" say, a bus accident ��" O’Nan uses to build character. Art wants to comfort Marion, but isn’t sure how it would be received given her constant rejections of intimacy. Marion wonders how the accident will delay their trip.

ONan tells the story from a third-person point of view that shifts perspective between Art and Marion. The transitions in perspective work seamlessly and serve to fill in some of the back story that led the couple to page 1.

While Art saw the divorce as a legal formality, a convenient shelter for whatever assets they might have left, from the beginning she’d taken the idea seriously, weighing her options and responsibilities��"plumbing, finally, her heart��"trying, unsuccessfully, to keep the ghost of Wendy Daigle out of the equation. How much easier it would be if Wendy Daigle were dead …. She’d lost her spot on the page and read the same sentence again, sighed and kneaded the bunched muscles of her neck.

“Want a neck rub?” Art offered.

“I’m just tired of sitting.” She shifted and went back to her book, ignoring him again.

These little rebuffs, he would never get used to them. Years ago he’d come to accept that no matter how saintly he was from then on, like a murderer, he would always be wrong, damned by his own hand, yet he was always surprised and hurt when she turned him down.

Art and Marion are masters of masking their reactions. Inside, they may question what the other is doing, imagine unsaid conversations and untaken actions. On the surface they remain calm, even though, and sometimes because, that calmness frustrates the other.

The Odds ends when the Fowlers’ weekend at the Falls does. What happens to them after the casino is left to the reader decide. O’Nan’s approach may not be the traditional peak-and-valley storytelling, but his quieter approach is worth spending time with.
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The Night Swimmer
The Night Swimmer

Tammy Dotts, January 10, 2012

Books captivate readers for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s a character that reminds you of someone you know or someone you want to know. Maybe it’s a setting that you’ve always dreamt of. Maybe the plot engages your attention fully, refusing to let go even as it twists and turns.

If you’re lucky, a book captivates you because of its author’s voice and its author’s awareness of how to build character relationships and how to maintain suspense. Readers of Matt Bondurant’s The Night Swimmer can consider themselves among the lucky.

Bondurant centers his story on an American couple who win a pub in Ireland. Many people might take the cash equivalent of the prize, but Elly and Fred make the decision to leave everything and everyone they know behind. As Fred restores the pub in Baltimore, Elly spends her time swimming in the waters off Cape Clear Island.

Elly has a minor genetic abnormality (an evenly distributed, thin layer of fat) that allows her to spend long amounts of time in cold water. Her communion with the ocean is one of the strong points of Bondurant’s writing, likely because he is a long-distance swimmer himself.

A side note ��" the locations in The Night Swimmer are real, and images are available on the web if Bondurant’s word paintings make you want more.

Another strong point of the novel is the bond between Elly and Fred. Bondurant doesn’t describe their love in over-the-top prose. He lets his characters’ actions speak for themselves. It’s clear these two love each other, which makes it slightly confusing when events of the novel begin to overtake their relationship.

Elly and Fred begin to feel the power of the Corrigan family which controls most of the commerce and culture of Baltimore and Cape Clear. The Americans are outsiders and Elly’s growing awareness of the undercurrents on Cape Clear make them more of a target. Fred retreats into a novel he’s trying to write and neglects the needs of the bar. Elly retreats into her swimming and getting to know Cape Clear. The two start to drift apart, but Bondurant never fully explains why.

It’s a jarring flaw in the novel. Other plot points go unexplained. For some of them, this works ��" Elly starts to learn about mysteries on the island and she may not need all the answers. Some of the island’s mysteries though cry out for explanations, at least for the reader.

Highgate, a blind goat farmer who becomes central to the story, may be more than he seems. As may the Fastnet lighthouse, which exerts a strange pull on Elly.

It’s to Bondurant’s credit though that these flaws are minor. The story is told from Elly’s point of view, and Bondurant never once drops the female perspective, a feat not all male authors can pull off. The mood he creates throughout The Night Swimmer pulls a reader in. His descriptions of setting and character are active. Readers experience the setting as Elly does, not as a laundry list of flora and fauna. Even when Elly befriends a visiting birder (who offers his own threat to her marriage), her exposure to the numerous species excites the readers, rather than becoming a mind-numbing list of bird names.

The novel builds exquisitely to a series of climaxes before ending on what may seem an abrupt note. Perhaps that’s an area for improvement in Bondurant’s writing. Or perhaps it’s just a sign of not wanting to find yourself on the last pages of a book.
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