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Spotlight – Must-Reads

Reviewing and recommending new fiction and nonfiction across all genres.

Beautiful World, Where Are You

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney lit fiction Farrar, Straus and Giroux—September 2021 Doing what I do for a living, I’m constantly speaking with fellow industry and creative folks about what we’ve been watching or reading. To be frank? It’s probably about 75% of the conversations I have. Don’t get me wrong—I absolutely love talking about the works of art that I find engaging and interesting. Those tête-à-têtes are always lively, incredibly stimulating, and thoroughly enjoyable. Inevitably, though, in the past two to three years, there’s been something that, without fail, manages to wheedle its way into these discussions—and has become something that I utterly dread. “Did you watch Normal People?” Sigh. Then I reply that not only have I not seen Normal People, I have not read any of Sally Rooney’s books. Then the conversation grinds to a halt and people look at me as if I have…

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Sinatra and Me: In the Wee Small Hours

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

Sinatra and Me: In the Wee Small Hours by Tony Oppedisano with Mary Jane Ross memoir Scribner – June 2021 Ol’ Blue Eyes. The Chairman of the Board. The Sultan of Swoon. Saying I like Frank Sinatra is akin to saying that New Yorkers are just a little annoyed by slow walkers—the understatement of the millennium. In my humble opinion, Sinatra is the personification of the fragility and false pretenses of the oft-discussed “American Dream.” He was a man who seemingly had achieved every single possible accolade someone in his profession could—the first true entertainment superstar the world had ever seen. And yet, he was a person at war with himself—someone brimming over with contradictions, self-loathing, and loneliness. To put it lightly, he is endlessly fascinating—an exemplification of the necessity of checking your expectations (and assumptions) of what defines happiness at the door. I wear the label of “Sinatra Superfan”…

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The Forest of Vanishing Stars

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel historical fiction Gallery Books – July 2021 There isn’t a single, original WWII story left to tell. That’s what some ill-informed people in the film/TV and publishing industries might have you believe. They’ll hit you with some comment about how the genre is oversaturated, and that production companies/studios/houses aren’t looking for that type of material anymore. Blah, blah, blah. And to those people? I triumphantly shove The Forest of Vanishing Stars by Kristin Harmel in their dumb-dumb faces. That’s right. I said dumb-dumb faces. Because I’m an adult, damn it. On a more serious note, I hold WWII stories, across all mediums, to an incredibly high standard. My mother (the New York Times best-selling author L.M. Elliott) wrote a novel (Under a War-Torn Sky) loosely based on my Air Force bomber pilot grandfather’s experiences in WWII after he was shot down behind enemy…

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The Disappearing Act

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

The Disappearing Act by Catherine Steadman psychological thriller Ballantine Books – June 2021 I hate Hollywood. There. I said it. I adore storytelling. Love the craft of screenwriting with all of my heart. I cherish all of the artists involved in the filmmaking process. But, as any creative who’s done anything in Hollywood can tell you, the business side of the industry is—to put it mildly—a soul-sucking, mangy hyena. So, any piece of fiction in any medium that holds up a mirror to that vacuous carnivore and pokes a skewer at it, either satirically or seriously, immediately garners a tip-of-the-cap from me. That said, that goodwill only gets you so far—the work in question has to stand on its own two feet. The Disappearing Act not only does that, but it made me disappear into its pages. Chalk me up a good ol’ basket of dad-joke zinger points. The Disappearing…

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The Babysitter

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer by Liza Rodman & Jennifer Jordan true crime Atria Books – March 2021 What if you found out that someone you cared about deeply—someone who was your babysitter and a happy fixture of your childhood—turned out to be an infamous serial killer? If you answered “that’s already happened to me, Peter,” or some variation of that, then … yeesh. I’m assuming that you’re reading this review wedged in between the myriad therapy sessions it would take to cope with something like that. I’m giving you a virtual hug through my computer. If you’re like most people, however, and have (thankfully) never experienced something that traumatic, then you’ll probably find The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer by Liza Rodman & Jennifer Jordan quite the ride—to put it lightly. The Babysitter recounts Liza’s lonely childhood growing up in Cape Cod in the…

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Wonderland

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

Wonderland by Zoje Stage horror Mulholland Books – July 2020 If the past year has taught me anything? I can’t be afraid of switching things up. Expanding my horizons. Being unafraid to be bold in my decision-making. Holistically speaking, most of the books that I’ve chosen to review for Pipeline are works that are more or less in my wheelhouse, genre-wise. Meaning, I knew going into the read that it was pretty likely that I was going to enjoy them—or at the very least appreciate them. So, in that sense, I’ve been “playing it safe.” To use a gambling analogyI’ve been betting with the house money instead of my own. With this review, I decided to remedy that. I picked a book that, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been inclined to buy for myself in any other circumstance: a psychological horror with a supernatural twist—Wonderland by Zoje Stage. I should…

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This Close to Okay

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith lit fiction Grand Central Publishing – February 2021 “I really like the writing. But we need something that’s more elevated. Something that’s high concept. You know what I’m saying, right?” In the last year and a half, I’ve heard this phrase (or variations of it) tumble out the lips of more film/TV executives, literary agents, and publishers than I’d care to admit. No matter how many times I hear it, I always chafe at this vague “development-speak” way of passing on a submission. It feels like the coward’s way out—a generic, one-size-fits-all statement that they can throw out instead of saying how they actually feel. If you actually liked the writing, you wouldn’t be passing on it, would you, you schmuck? Despite my feelings about this fact, the industry professional desire for “high concept” material isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In the entertainment…

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The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict historical fiction Sourcebooks Landmark – December 2020 The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. Try saying that five times fast. As any of my lovely coworkers at Pipeline will tell you, I’m incredibly partial to any material—whether it be in film, TV, theater, or literature—that’s historical. Ask me about any period drama that’s been released in the past ten years in those mediums, and there’s not only a very high chance that I have seen or read it, but also that I have a very strong opinion about its merits. For example, I’ll fight anyone who suggests Mad Men isn’t a perfectly crafted dissection of the fallacies and contradictions of the American dream, gender identity, and societal hierarchy, or that The Knick isn’t the most underrated series of the past century. I’m kidding. Kind of. On the flip side of being such an aficionado,…

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Greenlights

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey nonfiction Crown – October 2020 All-write, All-write, All-write. It’s impossible not to love Matthew McConaughey. From the classic pieces of film and television he’s graced our culture with, his inexorable humanitarian efforts through his Just Keep Livin Foundation, and his larger-than-life, quirkily charming persona, Matthew is a true “one-of-one.” He’s a slice of Americana that cannot—and will not—ever be replicated. When I heard, though, that Matthew was releasing a memoir? I cringed. Celebrity memoirs are seldom well-executed—they often serve as little more than a printed-and-bound laundry list of the person’s accomplishments and good deeds. But, being a tried and true Matthew loyalist (I still love you, Rust Cohle), I wasn’t going to pass on the chance to check it out. I read the entire thing in two hours. I know what you’re thinking—well, you probably just liked it so much because you’re a fan of Matthew…

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The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

By Spotlight - Must-Reads

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Winby by Maria Konnikova Nonfiction Penguin – June 2020 The memoir. It’s a genre of nonfiction that, quite honestly, is a bit of a wildcard. When done poorly, memoirs can be superfluous exercises of vanity, incredibly dry reads, and thinly veiled instruments of agenda-pushing. Furthermore, for every insightful, sharply crafted, and timely memoir, there are about a dozen that are. . . well, not. Luckily for us? Not only is The Biggest Bluff firmly in the former category, it is one of the most astute, intellectually challenging, and engrossing works I’ve read in recent memory. The Biggest Bluff follows Maria Konnikova, a Columbia University PhD in Psychology and acclaimed writer, as she dove into the world of professional poker as a method to study human behavior, the role of chance in day-to-day life (and the fallacy that we can control all…

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