Authors Posts by Jeffrey Sanzel

Jeffrey Sanzel

Avatar
30 POSTS 0 COMMENTS

Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Fans of Mindy Kaling, best known for “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” have been flocking to theaters to see her debut as feature writer for “Late Night,” a by-the-numbers comedy that takes on the issue of diversity in the workplace and makes its statement with a connect-the-dots expectation. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, there are no surprises but it still makes for an enjoyable hour and 45 minutes.

Emma Thompson in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson plays legendary late-night talk show host Katherine Newbury whose ratings have been slipping. She has surrounded herself with an all-male, all-white staff and is described as a “woman who hates women.” In response to this, she gives her long-suffering producer Brad (a wonderful Denis O’Hare) the task of hiring a woman. Through slightly unbelievable machinations, he brings on chemical plant worker Molly (Mindy Kaling) to the writing staff.  

Instead of a true examination of hiring practices, what ensues is humorous but contrived as Molly is first ostracized and then embraced by the team. There are occasional edgy moments – including Molly writing a topical and controversial monologue joke – but these risks are few. For the most part, it adheres to traditional comedy tropes, including an ill-fated and unnecessary romantic entanglement that feels incomplete. (There is a sense throughout the film that a good deal ended up on the cutting room floor as certain ideas and conflicts are introduced but not seen to conclusion.)

The first turning point is when Katherine discovers she is going to be replaced by a mainstream and extremely coarse comedian Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz, a subtle performance that avoids caricature). With this impetus, she goes to war with the head of the network Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan, saddled with a two-dimensional character). With Molly’s wide-eyed, aw-shucks guidance, Katherine begins to reinvent herself.

Minday Kaling in a scene from ‘Late Night’

Emma Thompson, one of the greatest and most versatile actors, creates a delightful monster of a boss. She never talks to her writers and doesn’t even bother to learn their names. When forced into a room with them, she gives them numbers. This is not done with cruelty but rather by someone who cannot be bothered with the people beneath her. Of course, in a comedy of this nature, she gradually learns to appreciate them.

Thompson’s depth is best shown when interacting with her ill husband Walter (a touching John Lithgow) and in an impromptu performance at a hole-in-the-wall benefit downtown. In the latter scene, the audience can see her pondering the mortality of her career.

Kaling is Thompson’s co-star and conscience. She is also “Late Night’s” writer and producer, which perhaps explains some of the weaknesses. As an actor, Kaling is a personality performer. There is no genuine complexity in her work but she is comfortable in her persona. She is watchable but, unlike with Thompson, as a presence, she is not transformative.  

The film is bolstered by a cast of strong actors in convincing performances, including Hugh Dancy, Reid Scott, Max Casella, Paul Hauser and John Early. It is interesting to note that with the exception of Thompson and Kaling, there are no other fully developed female characters.

The second act crisis is clumsily manipulated but, once again, the actors are able to make it work. “Late Night” builds to an expected resolution but, given the nature of the film, it is the one that the audience hopes for and expects.

Rated R, “Late Night” is now playing at local theaters.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Elton John: So how does a fat boy from nowhere get to be a soul man?

Wilson: You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.

The first moments of “Rocketman” easily establish the world in which this film will take place. In full demonic costume, Elton John descends on a rehab group therapy session. This serves as the framework throughout this unusual musical.

Promoted as “based on a true fantasy,” this is less a biopic of Elton John (who produced) but a fantastical rumination on the power and price of superstardom. Chronology and accuracy of time line are flexible at best but this by no means is a complaint. The result is a flashy, frenetic and wholly engaging two hours where we are treated to John’s rise and ultimate self-destruction. 

The movie is both a traditional and a unique musical, most often using the songs to further the story rather than focusing on his concert career. The unusual gambit pays off in Dexter Fletcher’s imaginative direction of Lee Hall’s scattered but satisfying screenplay.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The film shifts quickly from the rehab group therapy as John literally steps into his past. A cold and distant father (an appropriately uncomfortable Steven Mackintosh) paired with an indifferent and narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, in an ugly but believable performance) fuel his need to find himself.

“I wish I was someone else,” laments his boyhood self, Reginald Dwight. With the encouragement of a benevolent grandmother (the always wonderful Gemma Jones), he begins to take piano lessons, graduating to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music.

The film hopscotches through the next years as he begins playing with the pub band, Bluesology. The story then hits the highlights. These include connecting with music publisher Dick James (a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Stephen Graham), meeting and working with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (a saintly Jamie Bell) and his debut at the Troubadour, a Los Angeles club. It is here he meets John Reid (Richard Madden, a little too full-on villain) who becomes his manager and his lover.

Much of the film follows this destructive relationship. John then begins the transition to the flamboyant persona that would carry him through much of his career. With success comes a life of excess as he becomes embroiled in alcohol, drugs and sex.

The film’s center needs to be its heartbeat.  In the starring role Taron Egerton creates a mesmerizing, three-dimensional performance and even provides his own vocals. Egerton smoothly arcs from the inhibited Reggie to the outrageous but equally self-doubting
Elton John. He manifests a complete rainbow of humanity, with shades of loneliness showing through even the grandest moments. Egerton is a marvel and drives the entire film.

As for the music, nearly two dozen songs are used, including “The Bitch Is Back” (a fascinating opening), “I Want Love” (highlighting the family’s dysfunction), “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” (chronicling his early years), “Honky Cat” (embracing his life of indulgence), “Rocketman” (an attempted suicide and recovery), “Bennie and the Jets” (spiraling down), “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” (emphasizing his break with Taupin), as well as various concert moments.

Special note should be made of Adam Murray’s interesting, sometimes dreamlike and often athletic choreography. Costume designer Julian Day’s reimaging of Elton John’s spectacular wardrobe is a whirlwind of sequins, feathers and glitter.

The creators chose not to present the last three decades of his life, instead opting for a quick summation, including sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. While it would have been nice to follow his recovery and the second act of his career (“The Lion King,” “Candle in the Wind,” etc.), it finds an appropriate ending to an epic journey. “Rocketman” is thoroughly entertaining with all of the glitz and razzle-dazzle one would expect to celebrate this legendary icon.

Rated R, “Rocketman” is now playing in local theaters.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Author Sarah Durst

In “The Deepest Blue,” author Sarah Durst has fashioned an enthralling fantasy in a striking and brutal world, rife with dangers that are deadly and ever present. The magic that is part of its existence only defends so much; it is strength and intelligence that become the greatest protections.

Durst outlines with quick, intense strokes the history. Originally, Renthia was four countries and the queens tamed the spirits of earth, tree, air, water, fire and ice. When the wild, unclaimed spirits that lived in the sea attacked the land, the queens repelled them — destroying many and compelling the others into a deep slumber in “the Deepest Blue.” These powerful spirits existed before the time of mankind, and they ache with an ancient hunger.

These spirits have an unquenchable urge to create and destroy.  A wind spirit is described:  “Screaming as it came, it flew across the seas and onto the shore. It bent the trees until they bowed, their tips touching the sand. It tore at the houses, ripping the shutters from their windows and the clay tiles from the roofs.” A water spirit is shown: “Rising up in massive swells, the waves slammed into the island, flooding the homes that were closest to the shore, destroying gardens and drowning livestock.” Ultimately, “all were deadly.”

In the matriarchal mythology, there are select women who have the power to thwart and even annihilate the attackers. When they show their powers, they are taken away and given two choices: to be taken to the Island of Testing, Akena, to train to be an heir, or to forsake family and identity and become one of The Silent Ones, the queen’s white-masked and gray-robed enforcers. The chances of actually surviving to become an heir are slim; so many choose the latter and join the disturbing Silent Ones — standing “as if they were stone” — who come when it is sensed that someone has revealed her power.

Heirs “… were, in many ways, above the law. They were trained to fight threats to the islands. Trained to fight spirits …” It is the strongest women who need to become heirs, to fight the wildest and most dangerous of spirits. Whenever wild spirits are going to attack the islands, the queen becomes aware of their encroaching presence and sends the heirs to subdue them.

At the center of the story is Mayara. The book opens on the day of her wedding to childhood sweetheart, Kelo, an artisan who makes charms that repel the spirits.  Mayara’s parents are in mourning for Elorna, Mayara’s older sister, who was selected to fight the spirits but lost that battle. Like the others so endowed, the power is as much a gift as a curse.

Mayara’s intuits the malevolent forces: “She sensed the wild spirits swirling around them … She felt their unbridled hatred and rage pour into her until she thought she’d choke on it.”  She perceives their existence: “… they weren’t thoughts, precisely.  It was a whirlwind of need and want. They wanted blood, death, and pain.”  Mayara can feel the spirits and the “bottomless hunger and rage.”

Like so many, Mayara, had hidden her powers and only unleashed them when her island is under siege. Thus begins Mayara’s journey.  Confronted, she makes the choice to train to be an heir. From there, the book opens up to her training then the court beyond. It is a wild, fascinating adventure, with honest, inventive individuals and sharp plot twists, building to a thrilling conclusion.

The characters are extremely well drawn.  When we finally meet the Queen, Asana, she is portrayed not as villainous but as conflicted and dimensional, struggling against terrible choices and political intrigue. Her confidante, Lady Garnah, is a wonderful, wicked creation, offering the book’s humorous edge. An often impenetrable anti-hero of fascinating depth, she is deeply devoted and yet amoral, making her all the more terrifying. In one of the most original sequences, Lady Garnah manipulates from behind the scenes, engineering life-and-death revelations.

Themes of sacrifices — both large and small and made for the greater good — play out against the strength of the third choice — that actions do not necessarily come down to one or the other but something that is “more than.” “The Deepest Blue” is a wholly satisfying read. It is a tale of fantasy rooted in human truths.

Here, Durst eloquently and simply sums up our complex existence: “Red spots stained the sand. A drop of blood hit Roe’s forehead.  It dripped in a streak down her temple and then mixed with her tears.”

Sarah Beth Durst is the award-winning author of 18 fantasy books for kids, teens and adults. The master storyteller lives in Stony Brook with her husband, her children and her ill-mannered cat. Recommended for adults, “The Deepest Blue,” Book 4 of four in the Queens of Renthia Series, is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information, visit www.sarahbethdurst.com.

Above, Mia in the role of Toto at Theatre Three Photo by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.
Jeffrey Sanzel with Mia

Theatre Three in Port Jefferson will open the family musical “The Wizard of Oz” on May 18. Appearing in the role of Toto is the lovely Shih Tzu mix Mia Donatuti. Director Jeffrey Sanzel sat down with Mia to talk about her life, her love of cheese, and her upcoming Theatre Three debut.

How are you today, Mia?

I’m good! It’s good to be here!

Well, we’re very glad to have you.

Thank you!

So, we’ve been rehearsing now for a few weeks

Yes, we have. It’s fun! So many people and smells!

That’s very true. We thought it would be fun to find out more about you.

OK!

Where were you born?

Oh. I’m not sure. I know I came to my home from the Kent Animal Shelter in 2014.

And how old are you now?

A lady never tells her age!

Of course. Where do you live now?

I live in a house. With doors. And windows.

That sounds very nice.

It is!

And where is the house?

It’s in East Patchogue. I live with my mommy, Dawn, and my six doggie siblings.

What’s that like?

It’s really terrific! Some of my siblings are big and some are small. The littlest is five pounds. The biggest is ninety-two pounds!

That’s a big family.

Mommy has also fostered a lot of other doggies. I’ve lived with twenty-seven foster doggies since I came to live there.

That’s great. Do you have a favorite sibling?

Well, I’m the Princess so …

Got it.

I like Mommy best. I share my toys and bedding with my brothers and sisters but I don’t share my Mommy’s right cheek for sleeping time.

Fair enough.  

Do you have any cheese?

Uh, no. Not right now. But I’ll get some.

Thank you.

I understand you have a job.

It’s kind of a job but it’s more than that. When Mommy’s daddy went into a nursing home, Mommy brought me for visits. After Grandpa came home, Mommy decided to keep bringing me there on Sundays. So I become a service dog. I like the people SOOOOO much. I spend most of my time with the people who don’t have visitors or lots of family.

That’s great.

Sometimes, they line up to hold me. Once, this really nice lady tried to run away with me!

Oh, my!

Another time, another really nice lady carried me around like I was her baby for an hour and sang me nursery rhymes. She was very sweet.

Was it hard to get certified as a service dog?

No. I just needed to show them that I was focused and not rambunctious. Which I’m not! It wasn’t hard. I love going.

What do you like best about being a service dog?

Sitting on people’s laps. I like attention.

Could we talk about ‘The Wizard of Oz’?

Sure! 

Is this your stage debut?

Well, no … I actually I played Toto in an elementary school production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Mommy’s niece played a munchkin. It was fun to work with the young kids. But this is my first time on a real big stage.

I’ve noticed that you don’t bark.

No. It’s not ladylike.  

What are you looking forward to most about playing Toto?  

Being with the cast. Everyone is so nice. And I’m going to get to meet people after the show.

Really?  

Uh-huh! Anyone who wants can have their picture taken with me and Dorothy and the Scarecrow and the Lion and the Tinman after the show. That’ll be fun! I’ll get to meet so many new people. I like meeting new people.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like getting out of the house by going grocery shopping or to the movies. I like to go out. I like dressing up. I’m a bit girly. I don’t like bows in my hair but I like sweaters.

Anything else?

I like to eat. Liverwurst. Cheese. Bacon. Cheese.  

Do you have any words of encouragement for other dogs who might want to get involved in theater?

It’s a great experience for doggies with a good disposition to see and be seen!

Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

You’re welcome. Cheese, please?

Photo by Brian Hoerger, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

“The Wizard of Oz” plays May 18 through June 22 at Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson. For tickets and information, call the box office at 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com. Stay after the show for a photo with Dorothy, Toto and their friends.

‘Dumbo’ is a live-action remake of the 1941 animated classic.

By Jeffrey Sanzel

In viewing Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” it is hard not to compare it to Disney’s animated feature that served as source and inspiration. The delicate and wonderful cartoon ran 65 minutes and was both enchanting and heartbreaking. Like all of Disney, there is delicacy about this 1941 film that has made it an enduring classic.

The story in both cases is that of the baby elephant, Jumbo Jr., a pachyderm born with giant ears. It is what makes him different that ultimately proves him special. These giant appendages give Jumbo Jr. — crowned Dumbo — the gift of flight. Ultimately, it is a tale of the “other” — a being ostracized for being different and then finding success, and, more importantly, joy in this distinction.

The original film ends with Dumbo’s rise to fame and his reuniting with his mother. Burton’s version extends the length and the plot to a bloated two hours. The film is stunning to watch with incredible CGI in the creation of the title character. Dumbo is a wholly realized creation with eyes that are mournfully soulful. The film (in 3-D) is visually satisfying but comes up short on character development. 

The story is set just after the end of World War I. Wounded soldier Holt (a brooding but sympathetic Colin Farrell) returns to a failing circus and to his children, Milly and Joe (Nico Parker and Finley Hobbins, in nicely understated performances). He has lost his arm to the war and his wife to influenza. The circus is run by a roguish charlatan, Max Medici (Danny DeVito, doing what he does and does well), and is populated by the expected archetypes — the mermaid, the strongman, the snake charmer, etc. Instead of pursing this world and background lives, Burton opts for broad strokes and frenetic action.

It is the children, and, in particular the scientific Milly, who discover Dumbo’s gift. After the reveal of Dumbo’s talent, the film shifts with the arrival of a villainous entrepreneur V. A. Vandevere (scenery-chewing Michael Keaton with an impenetrable and unrecognizable accent). Vandevere fools Medici into signing away his company so that he can headline Dumbo in his Dreamland amusement park. Here, the world becomes even bleaker as it segues into a clumsy indictment of corporate greed. What ensues is often tense and dramatic, but there is a desolation that pervades, only lifted by the final images of freedom.

While there are plenty of homages to the original (the lullaby “Baby Mine,” the pink elephants are particularly clever and a mouse in a uniform harkens to the antecedent’s sidekick), the film has a very modern point of view, especially on the issue of caging animals. It is an important message and one that needs to be heard, but rings oddly false in its period setting. 

Finally, the question one must ask is, “Who is this film for?” The answer: It is a children’s film that is perhaps too dark for the children.

Rated PG, “Dumbo” is now playing in local theaters.

Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Cynthia Baxter

In her sophomore outing of the Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe mysteries, author Cynthia Baxter once again returns to the fictional Wolfert’s Roost, a small town nestled in the Hudson Valley where Kate McKay has opened up an artisan ice cream parlor. A former public relations director and transplanted New Yorker, she has returned to her hometown to help care for her feisty grandmother, the woman who raised her.

Picking up immediately after the end of the delightful “Murder With a Cherry on Top,” Kate becomes embroiled in the murder of a beloved fashion designer, Omar DeVane. The page-turner focuses on a quartet of suspects that orbit Omar’s world. Secrets and deception intersect with the world of high fashion. Kay, along with her “Three Musketeers”— childhood friend, Willow; niece Emma; and Emma’s boyfriend, Ethan — embark on an inquiry.

What is unique is Kay’s motivation? She’s not just another amateur sleuth involved where she shouldn’t be; instead, her concern is that the murder has made the area notorious and has negatively affected the town’s businesses. Her drive is to solve the crime to put Wolfert Roost back on track.

There’s also a nice romantic triangle that plays out in the background, creating additional conflict for Kay, but never interfering with the rapid progress of the mystery. In addition, Baxter shows her literary skill in a portrait of Omar’s brother, Arthur. Touching and dimensional, it provides a whole different shade in the fast-paced narrative. It is a sympathetic and unusual portrait of a man who has found satisfaction in the simplicity of his life.

With appropriate tension and intrigue, the story builds to a satisfying resolution. And, of course, like in the premiere outing, the entire tale is told against the world of the ice cream parlor, complete with the traditional flavors (Classic Tahitian Vanilla) as well as a host of unusual confections Kay dreams up (Honey Lavender, the sorbet Peach Basil Bliss!). 

“Hot Fudge Murder” is a great second helping of cozy mystery. Looking forward to a third.

Cynthia Baxter is the author of 55 novels.“Hot Fudge Murder” is the second book in her new Lickety Splits Ice Cream Shoppe Mystery series with Kensington Publishing Corp. and is available online at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. Visit her website at www.cynthiabaxter.com.

Jude Law and Eddie Redmayne star in ‘Fantastic Beasts 2.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The thirty minutes prior to seeing “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” were taken up with trailers for movies that were almost exclusively CGI. One film after another displayed a visual and auditory assault of effects. This was an appropriate herald to the main attraction.

The latest addition to the Potterverse is a hodgepodge of characters too numerous to mention — and, in the case of the script — too numerous to develop. Several plots (and what seems like myriad subplots) wander around the two hours and fourteen minutes of playing time.

Eddie Redmayne in a scene from the movie. Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

Vaguely at the center is Eddie Redmayne, returning from the first film, as Newt Scamander, an expert in exotic magical creatures.  Redmayne has created a character that mumbles and meanders his way through the story to the point where the audience wants to scream  “Please make eye contact with anyone!”

The first film, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” had a benign whimsy with dark edges. The newest entry is basically a mess of hidden secrets and a very frightening look at fascism through the actions of the titular villain (played by Johnny Depp, alternating restraint and scenery-chewing) as a budding Hitler — complete with a chilling nod to the Nuremberg Rally.

There are other villains and half-villains; there are holdovers from the first film; and there are new characters with shifting or surprising allegiances. In short, there are just too many characters. This would all be well and good if the movie had a modicum of charm. It plods, alternating between grand effects and brooding close-ups.

Director David Yates has directed much of the film like it’s ready to be the newest ride at Universal’s theme park.  Visually, it is stunning and the designs are striking but the center is hollow. There is a lack of depth and the actors are left to play with little-to-no dimension. 

Sadly, blame must go to Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who is credited with the screenplay.  The Harry Potter books are works that will endure as great literature. The world Rowling created was populated with people whom we grew to know, care about, and, ultimately, love.  There was honesty and humor, and, most importantly, humanity.   

Unfortunately, she brings very little of this here and seems to contradict or reinvent elements that were part of and at the heart of the series. Even the glimpses of Hogwarts and Jude Law’s Dumbledore seem foreign in this setting.

Finally, we are left with what feels like a very long set-up to the next film. Rowling has announced that there are three more films to come. We can only hope that she finds the magic that was so lacking in this sophomore outing.

Rated PG-13, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindenwald” is now playing in local theaters

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Not to brag (well, this is my story, so I guess if I’m going to brag, this is the place to do it, right?) but my house is the most beautiful, most magical, most jaw-droppingly fabulous place in the world …”

So begins Jenna Gavigan’s charming young adult novel “Lulu the Broadway Mouse,” appropriately subtitled “Tiny Dreamer. Big Dream.” And what is the protagonist’s house? It is the Shubert Theatre, located at 225 West 44th Street in New York City. Here is where the sassy young mouse and her family work and reside.

Jenna Gavigan

Gavigan made her Broadway debut as a teenager in the 2003 “Gypsy” revival, which starred Bernadette Peters. It is clear that Lulu is both a celebration of the author’s experience as well as a peek behind the curtain. “Show business is an uncertain path full of highs and lows, hills and valleys, sunshine and clouds … but still …” The tale (tail?) paints a picture of a theater world that is both exciting and challenging, full of rewards and disappointments — but, most of all—lessons in life.

Lulu works with her mother in the wardrobe department and has one goal:to perform on a Broadway stage. While it’s a daunting proposition, she is a wonderful role model of inspiration and drive:

“Here’s the thing, though. In case you’d forgotten. I know I’m eloquent and funny and it’s easy to forget … I’m a mouse. A darn cute and talented one, but, well mice can’t be on Broadway. At least, none of us ever have been. I know it’s not fair. It’s just the way it is. True, plenty of things never happened until they did. No one had ever walked on the moon until that Neil Armstrong guy did it.”

Lulu we learn (like all mice) can talk. “We can talk everywhere … but so far, only theatre people listen.” Gavigan creates a mythology with the story of a seamstress, Bet, who befriends Poppy, the first mouse ever to work in the building. It is a wonderful story in the narrative’s rich tapestry. “These mice are here to help us,” says Bet. “They’re our coworkers, not our enemies.” 

Lulu’s world is populated with a winning variety of characters including the stage manager, the child wrangler, the dance captain, backstage staff, actors and, of course, the show’s star, the regal-yet-kind Stella James. “What’s important is to remember that it takes a team, a village, a family to put on a Broadway show and take care of the theatre.” Here is the bustle of theater life, the demands of rehearsals and the excitement of performance. And we are appropriately reminded that it is not just the performers but everyone from box office to backstage who make the magic.

Driving the story is the arrival of young and diminutive Jayne, the new understudy for the show’s child star, Amanda. Amanda is the epitome of selfish and self-absorbed; she is a bully and a manipulator.  “Sometimes dreams come with terms and conditions. Sometimes dreams come with Amanda.” But Gavigan ultimately presents a dimensional character, whose harshness is rooted in a deep-seated insecurity.

What ensues in this enchanting work and how Lulu pursues her dream make for an eventful and engaging journey: “Because everyone — no matter what size or species — deserves to live their dream.”

While the book will be embraced by children (and adults) with a passion for theater, the lessons that are offered are universal and told in a way that all readers will embrace the joy that is both the heart of Lulu and Lulu the Broadway Mouse.

Recommended for middle school readers, “Lulu the Broadway Mouse” is available at your local Barnes & Noble bookstore; can be ordered at Book Revue in Huntington; and is online at Running Press Kids, Hatchette Book Group; Barnes & Noble; and Amazon. For more information on the author, visit iamjennagavigan.com and on Twitter and Instagram @Jenna_Gavigan.

by -
0 1631
The cover of Dineen's novel

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

In his novel, “Suburban Gangsters,” Michael P. Dineen paints a bleak picture of the drug dealing/criminal culture on Long Island, spanning the 1980s right through the War on Drugs of the 2000s. And while Dineen is dealing with a difficult and often ugly story, he has managed to create an engaging and occasionally darkly humorous chronicle.  

Clearly, the book is a fictional account of his own life, told first person through Huntington resident Patrick Hunter. While Hunter was born in New York City, he was raised on Long Island. And while his experience focuses mainly on the drug dealing issues that were faced locally, he tells a universal story.

Hunter is the son of a cold and demanding Army vet and New York City firefighter. He starts off as an athlete but strays from the path. He can trace the turning point to his father refusing to co-sign a car loan for him. “Had my conversation gone differently with my father in the spring of 1985, I may have never become a criminal.” By his junior year, it is this deep-seated anger with his father that turns this jock into a burnout and juvenile delinquent.  

The cover of Dineen’s novel

A combination of intense training and steroids also fuel his rage and anti-social behavior. He and his friends “trained like animals” in this hybrid martial art called American Combat Karate. His change in personality draws him to like-minded and like-feeling young people. He begins using cocaine and then successfully selling it. “I had no clue that we had just opened Pandora’s box.” This metaphor points to the perils that follow. 

Dealing out of his home, Hunter could clear $5,000 to $10,000 a week. “For being average kids from the suburbs, that was serious dough. And we were just starting to scratch the surface of this modern-day gold rush.”

It’s not long before the enterprise begins to grow: “Settling into a nice routine, we began expanding the scope of our business. In addition to selling cocaine, we were now selling steroids, pain pills, other pharmaceuticals, and even small amounts of marijuana. And we also began some small loan sharking.”

Hunter gives an unflinching description of the toll that cocaine and crack cocaine have taken on the community. Throughout the book, there are devastating reports of destruction — both of people and property. (A wilding incident secures his gang’s creed but also called them to the police’s attention.) It is a brutal world where the anger and danger manifest in violent and senseless brawling. The only loyalty in this cutthroat existence is to money. There are many stories here of drug users that involve beatings and worse.  

His life is populated with equally damaged souls. When he falls in love, drugs predictably complicate his life. His girlfriend (and later wife), Vanessa, is a cocaine user and later addicted to pain pills. He shows that there is no emotional security when dealing with an addict. Love may blur the problems but it won’t make them go away. His partner, Jake, is a study in contrast. Jake is a high risk-taker and that causes a much earlier fall than Hunter. Even those who are committed to him in their own way are a liability in this hard society.  

The first shift is when dealers begin making deals with the police and FBI. As they begin to roll over, it becomes an era defined by survival. The narrative refrain is to “trust no one” as the likelihood is betrayal. His life alternates between dealing and partying and hiding and running.

Throughout the narrative, Hunter addresses issues of karma. The fact that he is the one who hooks Vanessa on Percodan (and eventually she goes back to cocaine) is just as much his fault as hers. There is the overall ruin that visits all who are involved. “When you are caught up in the hustle game making easy money, it’s almost impossible to voluntarily stop. It’s just as hard to stop dealing drugs, as it is to stop using drugs. Making that money becomes just as addictive.”

In addition to the drug world, there is theft. A gang called the Crash and Carry Gang are featured throughout. A highly dangerous crew that steals and fences, the intersection of Hunter and these men only furthers his twisted existence.

After a number of years, Hunter shifts his dealing to only selling marijuana and becoming a police informant. This gives both security and the ability to rat out the competition. He and his second partner, Big Ray, make a fortune while serving as police informants:

“We just finished a two-year run of basically being able to deal drugs with police protection. Our involvement with them and setting up that huge bust allowed us to operate while they looked the other way. It may sound crazy, but it’s true. Had you told me back in 1985 that seven years later I would still be dealing, only acting as a double agent by being a federal informant, I would have said you were nuts. But that is the insanity of this lifestyle. If you weren’t smart enough to roll with the changing times, you would have the life expectancy of a housefly.”

The fact is, by this time, everyone was either being caught or flipping. Everyone with whom Hunter had been involved was either cooperating or in jail.

Through all of this, glimmers of Hunter’s humanity come through. There is a poignant account of the death of a friend to heroin overdose (one of many in his journey).  

His love for the daughter he has by Vanessa and his fear for her safety is also very honest. The devastating loss of his karate mentor coincides with the dissolution of his marriage.

And in 1998, Hunter gets hooked on painkillers. The final portion of the book, entitled “To Hell and Back,” is the ultimate karmic payback. He begins the section with an unflinching assessment of the opioid and heroin crises: 

“The painful truth is no one seemed to care when heroin was devastating the inner city minority neighborhoods. Now that Little Johnny and Suzy from the bourgeoisie started dying, people finally started taking notice. That is politics for you. … For years, my fellow criminals and I cashed in on the suffering and unquenchable desire of a population that demanded drugs. It was almost like taking candy from a baby, it was so easy. But now the universe was about to flip the script and teach me a punishing lesson, you reap what you sow.”

While he began with a pill addiction, like so many, Hunter shifted to heroin because it was both cheaper and more accessible. His own downfall is inevitable:

“[H]eroin became the new love of my life. It was a total obsession for me. My habit became enormous overnight. Within a few weeks, I was sniffing twenty bags or two bundles a day. This continued for about three months until [his dealer] just up and disappeared. Now unable to get it, I began to panic. Withdrawal began creeping in and I was miserable.”

What ensues is a circle of detox, followed by relapse, methadone clinics, jail, homelessness … There is a harrowing observation that after 9/11, dopers thoughts were only how would they get their fix? And, of course, the question of how did he get here haunts him: He went from a million dollar drug business to being a junkie with nothing to his name. It is not until 2008 that Hunter is finally drug free and has his life on track.

In the beginning, Dineen writes with wonder at his often good luck … and later is accepting of his ultimate fate. In the end, he reaches both a sense of self and responsibility. His final thought is an important warning:

“So let this be a cautionary tale to anyone who is thinking about embarking on a life of crime or being involved with narcotics. There is no riding off into the sunset, no Hollywood endings when it comes to drug and crime. You will be lucky to escape with your freedom, and most importantly, your life!”

“Suburban Gangsters” by Michael P. Dineen is available online at Amazon.com or from its distributor AT www.dorrancepublishing.com.

by -
0 872
The cover of Pielmeier's latest book

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

“Everything you think you know about me is a lie.”

This bold claim is made by the author, one James Cook, born Feb. 23, 1860 — the Man Who Will Be Hook. It is an appropriately provocative statement as what follows is an extraordinary account that is so beautifully crafted it rings true. It is an epic, engaging and profound journey.

Taking a famous story and its characters and presenting them from a different perspective is a delicate and difficult task. More often than not, these attempts miss the mark. The exceptions (Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked,” Tom Mula’s “Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol”) are few. We can joyously welcome to this short list John Leonard Pielmeier’s remarkably entertaining “Hook’s Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself.”

While honoring J.M. Barrie’s source, “Peter Pan,” this is an entirely unique universe, told eloquently with candor and avoiding the pitfalls of preciousness. The book is both humorous and heart-breaking in turns and results in a portrait of the titular character that is memorably dimensional.

The novel explains how both the captain’s hook and Captain Hook came to be. The narrator begins with a detailed account of his emotionally dark and complicated childhood (shades of David Copperfield), a boy living in the shadow of an absent father and whose mother’s complicated history is gradually brought to light. An unfair expulsion from Eton sets his course, being drugged and impressed into naval service at 14 years old. Cook’s odyssey to Hook begins here.

At the center of the tale is the contrast of the man (Hook) and the child (Pan). It is a sharp account of the consequences of actions and the repercussions of retaliation:

My enemy. I refused to write his name, though it is a name well known, oft-illuminated by the gaudy lights of money-raking theatrical houses, where it is exploited for glamour and gain. Wherever his name is lauded mine is hissed. We are forever linked. The same audiences who pretend to save a supercilious fairy’s life by applause either laugh at me as a piratical clown or sneer at me as the Devil incarnate. Children cast the least popular child to play me in the nursery, while their professional counterparts hire histrionic overachievers to portray me. Heavens, what villainy! And all because of a lying tale told by a dour Scotsman that casts him as Hero and me as the Dastardly Villain who would stop at nothing to see him dead.

And yet, Hook makes clear that before they were enemies, they were friends as devoted as brothers. He knows that Peter is what he is: “I forgave him his childish behavior. He was, after all, my first and closest friend, the very best part of myself.”

The cover of Pielmeier’s latest book

Peter is both so innocent as to not understand what a pocket is and how it works, yet, like a child, capable of terrible cruelty. He is doomed to live in the “now.” This is a very different take on “Peter Pan,” finding the reality of what it means to never grow up: “In deifying youth, the Never-Archipelago frees us from the unknown — how marvelous! ‘You will never grow old’ promises delight; ‘You will never be different’ sounds like a punishment.”

What passes between James and Peter is the driving force of their story leading to Hook’s desire for revenge:

The remarkable thing about revenge is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it really is. There’s no false altruism involved, no lessons to be taught, no fortune to be gained, and more often than not, it has terrible consequences for those who seek it out. It’s a complete mystery to me why it is so attractive. Yet it is. I admit it. I was drawn to it as if it were a lovely lady (and it sometimes is).

This extraordinary understanding infuses Cook/Hook with a profundity that further shows how complex and yet accessible Pielmeier’s protagonist is. Hook, the narrator, is bravura and melancholy, struggle and hope.

In this world, there is birth and death and yet the laws of physics, geography, astronomy and even time itself are broken and twisted. “Yesterday” and “tomorrow” have different meanings. It is mind-bending and yet completely logical onto itself.  

In the midst of this, many of the images, ideas and characters inhabiting Barrie’s world are threaded in Pielmeier’s distinctively rich tapestry. Here is the fairy dust (flying sand); shadows lost, found and stolen; and “second star to the right.” Tink the fairy and the Darling family take their places in new and innovative ways. A cast of buccaneers, headed by the kindly Smee (the boy’s first and true shipboard friend and the one who dubs him “Captain”), populate a world that is shared with the mermaid lagoon (signaling the boy’s burgeoning sexuality), wrestling bears and other marvels.  

The young James’ great romance is Tiger Lily, beautiful and brave, noble from a noble tribe, whom he tries to describe but stops short with the simple yet telling “please picture the first love of your life. She was as beautiful as that.” Pielmeier lands gently on these divine truths.

 Like any great pirate yarn, there is a great deal of adventure. A hidden treasure map leads to mutiny “with buckets of sea water mixed with oceans of blood.” There is a secret monster living in a Deep Well and a sea battle that ends with a Viking Burial.

The crocodile (named “Daisy” for Hook’s mother), well-known in the Peter Pan oeuvre, is so much more, her place in the story revealed in one of the most innovative and creative strokes in a novel full of imaginative flights.

There is a clever and delightful exchange between young James Cook and Peter when they first meet. It is a hilarious dialogue about baptism and the end of time. It is wide-eyed and innocent and yet pointed and shrewd. These charming moments are interspersed in a driving and thrilling narrative that weaves a mystery intertwining the entire company.

The book not only encompasses Barrie’s world but there are nods to history and literature, ranging from explorer James Cook, the murders in Whitechapel and Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart.” The references are subtle and enrich the chronicle as no shared incident is without value.

Pielmeier’s writing is visceral. A journey through an underground cave is thrilling and breathtaking in the tradition of great adventure novels. In addition, he has created individuals of great authenticity in a fantastical world. Almost no one is wholly good or bad, but shades of both, often alternating within the same beings.

The conclusion joins all of the pieces in a satisfying, cathartic and touching resolution. 

While this marks Pielmeier’s debut novel, he is a gifted playwright, author of one of the most important and powerful plays of the last 40 years: “Agnes of God.” It is no surprise that he should prove equally successful in this genre. This will certainly be the first of many such works and let us hope for another visit to his unique vision of Neverland and its environs.

“Hook’s Tale” is a remarkable book, one that will sit proudly on the shelf occupied by the original “Peter Pan” itself. “I am stuck with the Truth,” writes Hook, “and the Truth is neither nice, clean, nor simple.” But, in Pielmeier’s hands Hook’s “Truth” is unflinching in its heart and inspiring in its humanity.

‘A Hook’s Tale’ is available online at Simon & Schuster, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. For more information on the author, visit www.johnpielmeier.com.