Tuesday, January 17, 2017

TV Tuesday: Good Girls Revolt

As I've mentioned here before, I use my lunchtime to watch shows just for me (in a house with 3 men, I don't get that chance very often!). With my sons home for winter break now, my alone time is limited (my older son and I watch NCIS at lunchtime instead), but I took advantage of a few days on my own last week and my husband's business trip to finish watching the first season of Good Girls Revolt on Amazon Prime, a new-ish show based on real-life events.

This show is SO good!! You must watch it! Hmmm...guess that's not much a a review is it? Let me try again...

Good Girls Revolt is set in NYC in 1969 and is based on a nonfiction book with the same title by Lynn Povich. The real-life story is about a group of women working for Newsweek who sued the magazine because they weren't allowed the writing jobs that men had; they were relegated only to support positions. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was still fairly new and had not been applied much yet to women's equal rights.

The TV show is based on the book but fictionalized, about a group of young women working for "News of the Week." As in real life, they are only allowed to be secretaries and researchers. Even when they do much of the writing and/or editing of an article or are the creative force behind a great story, they get no credit or byline - those go solely to the men at the magazine. Though this is the way things have always been, the young, ambitious women there slowly, gradually realize that this situation isn't fair and they want more.

The show focuses on several young women. Genevieve Angelson is in the lead as Patti Robsinson, probably the most ambitious of the young women and the one who first recognizes the disparity. She is the researcher for reporter Doug, played by Hunter Parrish, whom she also has a personal relationship with. Cindy, played by Erin Darke, is a quiet, mousy young woman who works writing captions for photographs (again, secondary to a male photographer). Cindy is married but not happy; her husband expects her to be a typical 60's wife and mother, but Cindy loves her job and doesn't want to leave it. He's given her a 1-year deadline to quit work and "settle down." Jane, played by Anna Camp, is different than the other "working girls" because she comes from a wealthy family. She is also a researcher at the magazine, supporting a male reporter, but her father sees her job as just a fun lark until she gets married to the country-club boy she's been dating. There are many other young women in the newsroom, all played by wonderful actresses, rounding out the group of "girls" in the office. And I loved seeing Grace Gummer as Nora Ephron in a few episodes (she doesn't last long under the restrictions at News of the Week)!

That's the basic plot, with the first season focusing on the women pulling together and trying to get support for their cause, while keeping it a secret from the men in the newsroom. However, the show also delves into their personal lives and pulls in all sorts of different aspects of "the women's movement" that was just starting at that time: roles as wives and mothers, social unrest in the general population, and a growing awareness of sexual freedom, too.

It's fascinating to see what it was like for women in 1969 and the kinds of things we now take for granted. But that's not all. The show does an incredible job of depicting 1969/70 with beautiful costumes, scenes of social unrest in the city, and fascinating settings. It's a gorgeous, enthralling show to watch but focused on some serious and engaging issues, too.

I just finished the first season last week, and I absolutely loved it! The show really grew on me, episode by episode, until I was completely hooked. The acting is superb, the writing outstanding, and the sets and costumes perfect. Plus, of course, there is the outrage at what the women put up with, as you root for them to see what is possible and be successful in their quests for freedom and equality. All in all, it's an excellent show and highly recommended.

This is an Amazon Prime original show, so it is available exclusively on Amazon (link below). I hope there will be a season 2...and I want to read the book, too!


Monday, January 16, 2017

It's Monday 1/16! What Are You Reading?

Wow, mid-January already! Though it feels like the start of the new year to me. I spent the past 2 weeks sick with a cold (which knocked me out due to my immune disorder) and am finally feeling like myself again! I felt normal (my version of normal) for the first time yesterday and was SO productive. Happy New Year!

For us, the holiday season lasts through mid-January. Our youngest son turned 19 on Friday. We went out to a Japanese Hibachi restaurant (family tradition) for dinner and then he and his brother and a few friends headed to the Poconos for a weekend of snowboarding. Seems weird not to at least be accompanying them after so many years of birthday parties, but my husband and I enjoyed the quiet time this weekend. They come back tonight, so I have a pork roast in the crockpot and a cake in the oven! Birthday celebrations in my family tend to last a week or more :)

Anyway, lots of good books being read in our house last week:
  • I just this morning finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a book I've been meaning to read for ages (and that my husband gave me LAST Christmas). It's a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel about the stories of two young people on opposite sides during WWII and how their lives intertwine. It was excellent - just as I'd heard and deserving of all of its awards - but it also felt a little too long to me. I think I have overdosed on long WWII novels lately!
  • Today, I will start a new review book (due out in May), 'Round Midnight by Laura McBride, author of the highly acclaimed We Are Called To Rise (which I haven't read yet). This new novel is about four women in Las Vegas whose lives are intertwined.
  • On audio, I am listening to Anne Frank Remembered: the Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family by Miep Glies and Alison Leslie Gold. It's a memoir, and the narrator is wonderful, with an accent and warmth that makes you feel as if Miep herself is sitting next to you telling her story. It's fascinating so far. The only problem is that my audio ended abruptly in the middle of a sentence! Something must have gone wrong with my download (I got it free from SYNC two summers ago). I was loving it and am desperate to hear the rest! Now waiting for a copy from my library system to get delivered so I can finish it.
  • My husband, Ken, is reading the latest Jack Reacher book by Lee Child, Night School. He loves this series and is enjoying the faster pace after reading The Last of the Mohicans.
  • Jamie, 22, has been reading The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. He is up to book 3, The Dragon Reborn - and flying through it! He may be done by now - I haven't seen him in a few days.
Lots of blog posts last week - these end-of-year summaries take a long time to write up! My 2016 book summary is (finally) coming this week. Here's what I posted last week:
Movie Monday: Favorite Movies Watched in 2016 - all of my 2016 reviews & my faves

TV Tuesday: Favorite TV Shows of 2016 - all of my 2016 reviews & my faves

Fiction Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - a fun & farcical time-travel story

Fiction Review: LaRose by Louise Erdrich - a moving story about family & community

Saturday Snapshot: Cloudy Skies - from overcast to blue!

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

My son's 1st birthday

My son's 19th birthday (he's between his brother & his Grandad)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saturday Snapshot 1/14: Cloudy Skies

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

We have had a LOT of overcast, dark, gray days here the past two weeks, though we finally saw a bit of blue sky & sunshine toward the end of this week (back to overcast now). Here are a few pics of the changing sky over my neighborhood this week:

Another dark, gray, gloomy day - I need sunshine!

The sky is starting to brighten!

gasp - I see tiny glimpses of blue sky!

Getting better...

Ah! Sunshine and blue skies finally on Friday!
And back to overcast & gray today as we await a tiny bit of snow. Hope you are enjoying a lovely weekend!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Fiction Review: LaRose

For years, I heard wonderful things about novels by author Louise Erdrich, who won the National Book Award for The Round House. I was intrigued by descriptions of her latest novel, LaRose, and finally had a chance to enjoy it on audio at the end of the year. I was absolutely entranced by this moving, original novel about families and community.

The story takes place in a modern Native American community in North Dakota. In the summer of 1999, Landreaux Iron is out hunting for deer when he mistakenly shoots and kills his neighbor (and friend)’s five-year old son, Dusty. His own five-year old son, LaRose, was Dusty’s best friend, and the two boys often played together. Everyone, in both families, is devastated.

Landreaux, who is a recovering alcoholic, is particularly horrified by what he’s done and finally sees a path forward in a sweat lodge vision: to enact an ancient Ojibwe tradition and pay for his mistake in kind. He and his wife, Emmaline, give their son, LaRose, to their neighbors, Peter and Nola, to replace their lost son. Now, both families are full of grief and loss.

Little by little, though, LaRose begins to heal them. His new adoptive mother, Nola, suffers from depression, but caring for LaRose seems to help. His new teen sister, Maggie, is thrilled to have him in the house and enlists him to help her keep Nola from her darkest depths. His birth family still misses him horribly, but over time, healing takes place and LaRose himself comes to see what his role should be for both families.

This is an incredible novel, full of emotional depth and intricate relationships; I can see why Erdrich is such an acclaimed writer. Most remarkably, this isn’t just a story of these two families but of an entire community. Perspective switches not only among the members of the main two families but also among others in the community: the local priest, Landreaux’s childhood friend who blames him for his misfortunes, Emmaline’s mother (who LaRose is named after), and more. Within the families, we hear from not only the four parents but also Maggie and LaRose’s original siblings. There are even chapters going back to 1839, where we meet the original LaRose and learn of the family’s long history.

Erdrich weaves all of these different points of view into one cohesive, moving story that is both about an extraordinary tragedy and its aftermath and also about ordinary life. It is historical fiction, family drama, and coming-of-age stories all rolled into one. I loved every moment listening to this audio book, which is beautifully produced and makes you feel a part of the story. LaRose is incredibly compelling – its characters feel like old friends by the end. Although it starts with a tragedy, it is really about healing and moving forward and life, in all its messy glory.

384 pages, Harper
Harper Audio

You can listen to a free audio sample at the Amazon link below:

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Fiction Review: To Say Nothing of the Dog

I love time travel plots in novels, so my husband gave me a modern classic time travel book for Christmas last year: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (published in 1998). While it has all the elements I love about time travel – considering how small changes might affect the future and thought-provoking, twisty cause-and-effect – it also has broad appeal as a well-written novel set mainly in Victorian England with a great sense of humor.

The main characters all live in the near future, where time travel has been developed, though they travel to all sorts of points in the past. They are part of a team at Oxford that has been investigating and perfecting time travel. To raise funds for their research, they have taken on a donor, Lady Schrapnell, who is quite overbearing. Her personal project is to rebuild and recreate – to the tiniest detail – Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed during Nazi bombing in WWII. All the team’s resources are tied up in traveling back to before the bombing and trying to make sure every detail of the cathedral is accurate. In particular, she has become obsessed with something called the bishop’s bird stump (which I thought was a Briticism I didn’t understand, but it is later explained in the book!).

Ned Henry is one of the time travel team members caught in the middle of this mess. As the novel opens, he is combing through Coventry Cathedral the day after the bombing, in 1940, along with several of his team members, trying to fit in with the contemporaries (or contemps, as they’re called), and searching for the mysterious bishop’s bird stump while pretending to help clear rubble. He starts to get confused and babble a bit, and the next thing he knows, he is back in their laboratory in modern-day Oxford. A nurse tells him he has advanced time lag, a condition resulting from too many time travel trips in a short period of time and characterized by exhaustion and confusion.

Long before Ned has a change to recover, he is hurriedly sent off on another mission, barely understanding what his purpose is. His boss tells him he can quickly take care of a problem in Victorian England and then rest there for a coupe of weeks, safe from Lady Schrapnell’s demands. So, suddenly Ned is at a train station in the Victorian countryside, dressed for boating on the Thames. He soon meets up with a young Oxford student named Terence and is rowing down the Thames with him.

Then things get a little complicated! They rescue a drowning Oxford professor who is fascinated by fish, Terence falls in love with the wrong woman, and Ned follows along, still unsure of exactly what he’s supposed to be doing but feeling quite sure this isn’t it. And that’s just in the first 3 chapters! Before long, Ned meets up with a fellow time traveler and discovers that she brought something back to their own time by mistake (something that isn’t supposed to be possible), and the two of them need to set things right. By now, though, Ned has caused a lot more to go off its intended path through time, so they have their work cut out for them.

I would describe this novel as a time travel farce (perhaps a new genre?), as each thing they try to do to correct the inadvertent change to the past causes many more problems, in a cascade of hilarious causes and effects. Through it all, they have no idea how all these changes might affect the future, so they keep trying to put things right. It’s a comedy of errors!

This is a completely unique mix of history, chaos theory, literary references, and Victorian life, with a hefty dose of humor. Although there are explanations of the complications of time travel, the novel never takes itself too seriously, and Ned and his time-traveling partner encounter priests and mediums, play croquet on the lawn, and learn of the advent of the jumble sale. It is absolute fun from start to finish, both for time travel enthusiasts like me and for those who just enjoy a good story and a sense of humor. Now that I’ve discovered her, I’m looking forward to reading more of Willis’ novels.

493 pages, Bantam Books

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

TV Tuesday: Favorite TV Shows of 2016

Copyright: believeinme33 / 123RF Stock Photo
Yesterday, I summed up my Favorite Movies Watched in 2016, so today it's time for TV to get its due. It was a GREAT year for TV shows! There is just SO much available now, between streaming services (we joined Netflix last year), cable channels, and networks, that it's impossible to keep up with all the amazing shows - but we gave it our best! In fact, our movie viewing fell way off last year because we were watching so much TV.

The full list of TV reviews I wrote this year (35 in all!) is included below, and these have all been added to my TV Reviews tab (along with the ones previously reviewed). They are sorted by genre. Just to be clear, I only write reviews of shows that I enjoy, so everything on this list is worth watching!

And here are a few superlatives to whet your appetite:

Best Comedy
This show is just so incredibly unique (some might say weird). It tickled our funny bones all summer. Besides being funny, it is also a sci fi story about aliens and a political drama set in Washington, DC - yeah, you just have to see it for yourself.

Best Drama
This new fall show really grabbed our attention, and we can't wait to see more! It's about a terrorist attack that destroys the US Capitol and most of the Cabinet and Congress, leaving the Designated Survivor as President, the HUD Secretary played wonderfully by Keifer Sutherland. It's a crime show and political drama all rolled into one, with a great cast and a lot of mysteries to be solved.

Best Dramedy
I had trouble choosing just one from this list of great shows, but Orange Is the New Black still rules for its originality, cast, writing, and mix of both humor and drama. We can't wait for the next season!

Best Crime/Mystery/Thriller
Again, a tough choice with so many great shows to choose from, but The Americans has stood the test of time and continues to be one of our favorite shows, year after year. Its story of a pair of Russian spies masquerading as a normal American family in the 80's is suspenseful and compelling, and we can't wait for the new season to start!

Best Sci Fi
Sci fi is one of our favorite genres, and we love all the shows on this list, but Orphan Black is Just. So. Good. It's one of the few shows our college son comes home to watch with us, and the three of us are completely hooked. It's an original premise with great acting, great writing, loads of suspense, and a wonderful sense of humor. And Tatiana Maslany deserves a whole room full of Emmys for her multiple roles as a dozen different clones.

Best Netflix Original Show
We binge-watched this show with our son this summer and loved every moment of it! An original plot harking back to the 80's in feel, look, and pop culture references, we were completely won over by this one.

Best Amazon Prime Original Show
An impossible choice! My three contenders in this category - Bosch, Transparent, and Catastrophe - are all so very different and all excellent. But season after season, Transparent brings gut-wrenching drama and laugh-out-loud humor. This is one seriously dysfunctional family, but they love each other.

In addition to the reviews listed below, also check out my post, When Good Shows Get Cancelled, a round-up of One-Season Wonders still worth watching!

KEY: Available on:
AP = Amazon Prime
C = Cable and/or Cable On Demand
H = Hulu
I = On network’s own website
N = Netflix

BrainDead (C, I, AP) - CBS
Grace and Frankie (N) - Netflix
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (N) - Netflix

Designated Survivor (C, I, AP) - ABC
Feed the Beast (C, I, AP) - AMC
The Fosters (C, I, AP, N) - Freeform (formerly ABC Family)

Dramedy (both Comedy & Drama)
Catastrophe (AP) - Amazon Prime
Freaks and Geeks (N) - NBC (now exclusively on Netflix & DVD)
The Girlfriend's Guide to Divorce (C, I, AP, N) - Bravo
Love (N) - Netflix
Orange is the New Black (N) - Netflix
This Is Us (C, I, AP) - NBC 
Transparent (AP) – Amazon Prime
Younger (C, I) – TV Land

American Crime (C, I, H, AP) - ABC
The Americans (C, I, AP) - FX
Aquarius (C, I, AP, N) - NBC
Bosch (AP) - Amazon Prime
The Catch (C, I, AP) - ABC
Conviction (C, I, AP) - ABC
Dexter (I, N, AP) - Showtime
Legends (C, I, N) - TNT
The Missing (C, AP) - BBC (UK), Starz (US)
NCIS (C, I, AP, N) - CBS
NCIS: New Orleans (C, I, AP) - CBS
The Night Manager (C, I, AP) - BBC (UK), AMC (US)

Sci Fi
Colony (C, I) - USA
Frequency (C, I, AP) - CW
Humans (C, I, AP) - Channel 4 (UK), AMC (US)
The Last Ship (C, I, H, AP) - TNT
Orphan Black (C, I, AP) - BBC America
Stitchers (C, I, AP) - Freeform (formerly ABC Family)
Stranger Things (N) - Netflix
Timeless (C, I, AP) - NBC
Wayward Pines (C, I, H, AP) - Fox

Monday, January 09, 2017

Movie Monday: Favorite Movies Watched in 2016

Copyright: yuzach / 123RF Stock Photo
Time for a recap of the movies I saw this past year and which were my favorites. You can find a full list of ALL of my movie reviews (these recent ones plus past years) under the Movie Reviews tab.

We watched a total of just 19 movies in 2016, quite a drop from the 54 movies we watched in 2015! My husband and I had a lot more free time together this past year, with our nest emptying in September, but I think our movie-watching went down as our TV watching ramped up even higher! With streaming services, cable channels, and networks, there are just SO MANY great TV shows on now that it's tough to keep up with them all. But, more on TV tomorrow, with my 2016 TV Summary.

So, we watched 19 movies, in a nice mix of different genres (see the full 2016 list below, with links to my reviews - no spoilers!). Now, for some superlatives:

Best Suspense/Thriller
Eye in the Sky
We watched plenty of good suspense/thrillers (my husband and sons' favorite kind of movie), but I think that Eye in the Sky takes the prize because of its sheer emotional power. It's very suspenseful with lots of tense moments, but it also really makes you think, about the real costs of modern warfare. You will never look at drones the same way again. This is a movie I am still thinking about, months after watching it (plus, it's just a really great film).

Best Drama

I loved the novel ROOM by Emma Donoghue, and the movie adaptation was excellent. Suspenseful and heartwarming, both my husband and I enjoyed it (he loved the book, too).  The two main actors - both the mom and the little boy - were wonderful in it.

Best Comedy
This was out last movie of 2016, watched in New Year's Eve, and one of the best. I could have fit it into other categories because this movie has it all - humor, drama, romance, and great music. It's the story of a group of teen boys - very ordinary, uncool boys - who start a band in 1980's Dublin. The movie is a lot of fun and it's uplifting, too - a great way to end the year! (or start a new one). Did I mention the music? I was listening to the Sing Street soundtrack on Spotify today, and it brought a smile to my face.

Best Sci Fi/Fantasy
Do I have to choose a favorite in this category? All three that I marked as our favorites - this one, Ex Machina, and Star Trek Beyond - were excellent. But, this is Star Wars! My husband and I both loved this return to the Star Wars world - and enjoyed seeing it on the big screen in the theater (a rare treat for us).

Best Animated/Family
Granted, it was the only family movie we watched this year, but it was worthy of the win. I had my doubts since Disney's classic animated version is an old favorite of mine, but the high-tech effects were amazing, and the casting was perfect. Bill Murray as Baloo the Bear? Plus, they left in our favorite songs. All in all, a very enjoyable evening that left us singing.

Best Documentary
Once again, the only film in the category that I watched this year! TV also crowded out the movies I usually watch on my own, including documentaries. This one was a lot of fun and completely heartwarming.

Here are all the movies we watched in 2016, listed by genre, with our favorites marked with an *

All Good Things - a creepy, psychological thriller based on true story
American Ultra - action-packed thriller with plenty of humor, about a stoner turned secret agent
Bridge of Spies - a quiet, suspenseful story based on real-life spy swap
* Eye in the Sky - a powerful, thought-provoking story about modern warfare 
* The Girl on the Train - dark, twisty thriller based on the best-selling novel

The Legend of Tarzan - a new twist on the classic jungle adventure
* ROOM - Suspenseful, heartwarming - based on the best-selling novel
* Stuck in Love - warm, funny atypical romcom about a family's loves

The Intern – light, warm, funny movie about 70-year old intern
* Sing Street - a musical/comedy/drama about a group of teen boys who start a band in 1980's Dublin
Thin Ice - a comedy/crime caper starring Greg Kinnear & Alan Arkin
A Walk in the Woods -  light, mildly funny movie based on Bill Bryson's book

Sci Fi/Fantasy
Captain America: Civil War - Avengers movie - action-packed with a complex plot 

* Ex Machina - thoughtful, suspenseful, highly-acclaimed sci fi thriller 

Project Almanac - fun, fast-paced story of teens who time travel
* Star Trek Beyond - action-packed sci fi adventure with a sense of humor 
* Star Wars: The Force Awakens – continuation of the classic epic space saga
The Jungle Book - live-action/CGI version of the classic favorite

Twinsters - charming, warm story of two possibly long-lost sisters who find each other

What were your favorite movies you watched in 2016?

It's Monday 1/9! What Are You Reading?

Well, I started the new year off not with a bang but a fizzle. I've had a bad cold all this past week. That's extremely rare for me because of my immune disorder, but what is even rarer is that I've had sinus congestion for a full week but still haven't developed bronchitis. All of this is a major departure for me...and might mean that some of my latest treatments are helping to normalize my immune system. So, it's been a weird week - not feeling well but wondering if that's good news!

On the plus side, the silver lining to being sick is MORE READING TIME! I really hit bottom this weekend and spent all day Saturday in bed or on the couch, completely immersed in fictional worlds - ahhh! So, lots of good books to tell you about this week, from all of us:
  • I decided to make a dent in my overflowing TBR shelves of middle-grade and teen/YA books. One of my favorite book blogs, Unleashing Readers, had just featured Ricki's Top Ten Books of 2016, and I noticed that one of her top picks was on my shelf, so I read The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart. I gulped down this middle-grade novel in record time, and she was right - it was excellent! It's the story of a young boy with cancer who has given up and decides to run away and climb a mountain - suspenseful, thoughtful, and moving.
  • Next, in the mood for some serious fictional escape, I read Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, a novel I gave my husband for his birthday. Now I know why he wanted me to hurry up and read it so we could discuss it! It was SO mind-blowingly good. A man is kidnapped and wakes up in a world where everyone knows him, but it is completely different from his normal reality. Desperate to find his wife and son, he goes looking for answers. This is the author of the books and screenplay that the TV shows Wayward Pines and Good Behavior are based on (two of our favorite shows), and Dark Matter was excellent - fast-paced, compelling, and very, very thought-provoking. I'm still thinking about it!
  • Now, I am reading All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a book I've been meaning to read for ages (and that my husband gave me for LAST Christmas). It's excellent so far - the interwoven stories of two young people on opposite sides during WWII.
  • On audio, I am listening to Anne Frank Remembered: the Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family by Miep Glies and Alison Leslie Gold. It's a memoir, and the narrator is wonderful, with an accent and warmth that makes you feel as if Miep herself is sitting next to you telling her story. It's fascinating so far.
  • My husband, Ken, finished The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper! It was a long, dense book, but he enjoyed it and wants to read more of the series. It's been on his TBR list for years, so he's glad he finally got to it.
  • In need of a change of pace (quite literally!), Ken is now enjoying the latest Jack Reacher book by Lee Child, Night School. He was telling me last night how great the writing is compared to typical thrillers - Child is his favorite author.
  • Jamie, 22, has been reading nonstop during his break from school! He told me I missed one last week, and he read Heir of Fire, book 3 from Sarah J. Maas's Throne of Glass series (a favorite of his) before he came home for Christmas.
  • Jamie also finished one of his Christmas gifts from us, The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan, book 2 in the Wheel of Time series, which he's wanted to read for ages.  He is now reading book 3, The Dragon Reborn - and flying through that hefty brick, too! Good thing he got Barnes & Noble & Amazon gift cards for Christmas, as well.
Despite my illness last week, I got back into the blogging routine after my holiday hiatus, with a bunch of new posts:
Movie Monday: Sing Street - a fun, uplifting story about boys starting a band in 1980's Dublin

TV Tuesday: The Man in the High Castle - a chilling alternate history where the Allies lost WWII

Memoir Review: Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman - funny, thoughtful memoir that was the basis for the hit Netflix series

Teen/YA Review: The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight - a dark & suspenseful start to a new series

Saturday Snapshot: The Golden Hour - late afternoon sunlight makes everything glow
This week, I hope to finish up my December reviews so that I can do my 2016 summaries, best of lists, etc. I also need to choose my 2017 reading challenges - any suggestions? Finally, look for my 2016 movie and TV summaries this week, as well.

What are you and your family reading this week?    

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Saturday Snapshot: The Golden Hour

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by West Metro Mommy Reads. 

I am rarely able to take a walk in the afternoon, but I got out after 4pm one day this week, to enjoy the last of the sunshine and relatively warm temperatures before a cold front hit. This is why photographers call that time of day The Golden Hour:

Golden light & shadows

Late afternoon light through the branches

Our neighborhood glowing

Last bit of light in the trees

Hope you are enjoying a wonderful weekend!

Friday, January 06, 2017

Teen/YA Review: The Outliers

In December, I listened to a new teen/YA novel on audio, The Outliers by Kimberly McCreight, which is the start of a new series. It’s a dark and suspenseful story, with so many unexpected twists and turns, you’ll wish you had a compass with you!

Wylie is going through a very tough time. Four months ago, her mom died in a car accident, and Wylie’s world shattered. Her father and twin brother, Gideon, have returned to their normal lives, but Wylie can’t. She suffers crippling anxiety when she tries to leave the house, so she just doesn’t try anymore. She is comfortable in her own home and has a tutor come to help her keep up with schoolwork, though her father wants her to go back to school. Wylie’s dad is a nerdy scientist who’s never very good at relating to his daughter, despite the fact that his field of expertise is Emotional Intelligence.

Wylie is satisfied with this status quo until one disturbing day. First, her best friend’s mother comes to the door. She says that Cassie is missing, and asks if they can help find her. Cassie and Wylie haven’t spoken in a week, since they had a fight, and Cassie has been even more reckless and out of control than usual lately. Wylie feels like they don’t have much in common any more, with Cassie drinking a lot, going to parties, and dating Jasper, a star athlete at their school whom Wylie thinks is a bad influence on Cassie.

Despite all these recent disagreements and rifts between them, though, when Cassie herself sends Wylie a text saying, “Please, Wylie, I need your help,” Wylie doesn’t hesitate because that’s what best friends are for. She is prepared to extricate Cassie from whatever latest predicament she has gotten herself into. Cassie also texts Jasper and sends him to Wylie’s house to pick her up, since Wylie doesn’t have her license yet. So, Wylie takes a deep breath and leaves the house for the first time in months, reluctantly accompanying Jasper. They head north on the highway, as Cassie has mysteriously instructed.

Cassie texts them periodically with more instructions, sending them deep into the north woods of Maine, where Wylie and Jasper run into all kinds of problems, as things get weirder and weirder. The suspense builds as the plot twists in one direction and then another. This is one mystery you will not figure out before it is revealed. It’s a fast-paced novel, filled with action and a dark sense of foreboding. Since it is book one of a new series, not all of its complex mysteries are solved by the end of the novel, but the main conflicts are resolved, as Wylie finally figures out what is really going on.

HarperChildren’s Audio

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Memoir Review: Orange Is the New Black

My husband and I are HUGE fans of the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, fascinated and amused by the show’s depiction of a middle-class WASP sentenced to a year in a women’s prison. So, I was thrilled to finally read the real-life memoir that the show is based on: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman. The book is excellent, and it’s easy to see where the show got its perfect tone, with that same mix of heartfelt emotion, humor, and thoughtful social commentary (only the book does not include the graphic sex scenes!). I loved reading it.

The story is familiar to fans of the TV show. Piper, an upper middle-class white woman from Connecticut who went to Smith College, went through a brief reckless period after college. Drifting a bit and desperately wanting some adventure in her life, she connected with an older woman named Nora. Piper became romantically involved with Nora and followed her across the globe, from Bali to Europe and beyond, finally finding that adventure she craved. The only problem was that Nora was involved in a drug smuggling operation. Although she just went along with Nora for the fun and travel at first, eventually, Piper got involved by carrying a suitcase of drug money across international borders.

Fast-forward ten years. With both the lesbianism and the hunger for adventure out of her system, Piper settled down with a nice guy named Larry. They lived in New York, and Piper had a job she enjoyed as a TV producer. Life seemed perfect until the day two beefy men showed up at their apartment, explaining that they were from U.S. Customs and were there to arrest Piper. Someone in the drug organization had been arrested and had given up every name he could think of to try to get a reduced sentence. Piper, who left her brief foray into criminal activity behind ten years ago, got caught in that net. Thus began her long ordeal, first waiting years for her case to come to court and then being sentenced to 15 months in a federal women’s prison.

From there, Piper’s life became unrecognizable. She had to find her way through the world of prison life, which was alternatingly boring, humiliating, rewarding, and very often confusing. She had to comply with a dizzying array of arbitrary rules, learn to get along with women from all walks of life, and find ways to stay sane while incarcerated. You might think this would be a heartbreaking, horrifying story – and sometimes it is – but often it is heartwarming and surprisingly tender the way the women band together and take care of each other, creating gifts for each other from scrounged items in prison, making “recipes” using the microwave and very limited commissary goods (she includes the recipe for prison cheesecake!), and supporting each other.

The memoir is very much like the TV show adapted from it. Often there is serious, even disturbing, drama, but Piper has also suffused her story with humor. In addition, she wrote the book in large part to bring attention to the deplorable conditions in our prisons, the ways that women are mistreated, and especially, how prisons can set people back in life (especially those who didn’t have much to start with) rather than providing the rehabilitation they are supposed to. It is truly, unsettlingly eye-opening, and she gives a voice to millions of women who don’t have any.

Piper’s writing is compelling - those years at Smith paid off. She pulls you right into the story so that you get to know these women intimately and come to care about them. She finds the heart and soul at the center, as well as the humor, while also exposing the corruption and neglect of a broken system. You can see glimpses of the memoir in the TV show and see some of the people reflected in the show’s characters, though clearly, the show has taken on a life of its own. This was one of those books that I didn’t want to end, so I read every single word, including the acknowledgements, list of resources, interview with the author, and more. Thank goodness there is a new season of the TV show coming out in 2017!

295 pages, Spiegel and Grau Trade Paperbacks


Tuesday, January 03, 2017

TV Tuesday: The Man in the High Castle

This holiday hiatus time is always challenging for TV fans, like my husband and I, as most of our favorite fall/winter TV shows have been on a break. This year, after all the mid-season finales (when did that become a thing?), we turned to streaming. We are enjoying the 5th and final season of one of our long-time favorites, The Wire, which is available for free on Amazon Prime (all five seasons) and is excellent. We have also been watching the newly released second season of The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon Original series that is an intriguing alternate history, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick.

The basic concept of this very original story is that the Allies lost WWII. The U.S. never dropped the atomic bomb on Japan (or anywhere else), and the Nazis won the war. In this alternate history, set in the early 1960's, the Nazis control the eastern U.S., and Japan controls the western Pacific states. In this scenario, Japan and Germany split the U.S. into these two power territories, with a narrow strip left in the middle and known as the Neutral Territories. As the show begins in season 1, we see glimpses of both of these empires.

In Nazi-ruled New York City, Joe Blake, played by Luke Kleintank, leaves with a cargo truck for neutral Colorado. He seems to be a resistance fighter, and once he is on his way, both he and the viewer find that his hidden cargo is a film canister. Meanwhile, in Japan-controlled San Francisco, a young woman named Juliana Crane, played by Alexa Duvalos, sees her sister killed in the street in front of her. Her sister leaves behind a bus ticket to Colorado and a film canister. Confused, shocked, and grieving, Juliana gets on the bus with her sister's ticket to find out what she was involved in. She discovers that the film shows a different version of the end of the war, with the Allies winning and the Nazis defeated. She and Joe meet in Colorado, both of them afraid to trust anyone.

That's just the beginning of the first episode - to describe much more of the plot would ruin the fun, since this show is filled with roller coaster twists and turns. Each episode shows more of what life is like both in the Nazi east and in the Japanese west, as both Joe and Juliana try to figure out what's going on and what these strange films mean. There are plenty of other interesting characters, including Juliana's boyfriend Frank, played by Rupert Evans, the Japanese Trade Minister of the Pacific United States, played by Nobusuke Tagomi, and the Nazi commander Obergruppenführer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, who actually seems like a decent, normal guy as he enjoys his wife and children at home.

This concept of an alternate history is intriguing and compelling, and the films of a different outcome (the one we are familiar with) hint at multiple realities. Besides the engrossing plot that constantly keeps you guessing, the acting and writing are superb, and the sets of a Japanese-controlled California and a Nazi-run New York are fascinating. We are hooked on this show that combines science fiction, history, and suspense and can't wait to see what happens in this second season. Incidentally, my husband read the book the show is adapted from but didn't really like it much. He likes the TV version better, as it fleshes out the concept better.

The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon original series so is shown exclusively on Amazon Prime.

Have you seen The Man in the High Castle yet? Have you read the book?


Monday, January 02, 2017

Movie Monday: Sing Street

My husband and I enjoyed a quiet night at home on New Year's Eve, while our sons went to parties. We were having trouble choosing a movie and looking mostly at thrillers (my husband's favorite) when I spotted Sing Street on Netflix. I'd heard great things about this movie, and my husband said he'd rather watch something light and uplifting than something dark and disturbing to start the new year. This one hit the mark! Sing Street is a wonderful drama/comedy about teen boys starting a band in Ireland in the 1980's.

Life at home is hard and getting harder for Conor, a fifteen-year old boy in Dublin in 1985. His parents are constantly yelling at each other, his older brother dropped out of college and stays in his room most of the time, and now his parents have told him he needs to switch schools for financial reasons. He starts at Synge Street school, a public school run by priests, and runs into trouble the very first day, first with a priest who insists that black shoes are required with the school uniform and later with a bully. The only bright spot is that he meets a new friend, Darren.

Walking home, Conor meets the beautiful Raphina, a mysterious girl who says she is a model. Since music videos are all the rage, and Conor has been watching them with his older brother, he tells Raphina he is making a music video with his band and says they need a model to appear in it. With a little encouragement, Raphina agrees. Now all Conor needs is a band.

Conor and Darren post a notice at school and round up three other boys with some musical talent for their band, which they call Sing Street. Conor plays the guitar and sings. At first, they try imitating popular bands, but Conor's brother encourages him to try creating their own unique style. Conor and another band member, Eamon, work together to write songs, and the band practices. They film their first music video on the street after school one day, starring Raphina, and using styles and methods picked up from watching music videos on TV (to great amusement for the audience!). As they practice, both their music and their videos get better and better. Meanwhile, Conor is falling in love with Raphina, though she seems to have an older boyfriend.

This movie is a lot of fun, with some laughs and some serious moments, too. The music is great, with hits by Duran Duran, The Clash, The Cure, and other top groups of the mid-80's, as well as some excellent songs by Sing Street, who are surprisingly talented once they get going. I plan to listen to the soundtrack! The actors are all very good (though we occasionally had a bit of trouble with the Irish accents). It was just what we wanted on New Year's Eve - fun, upbeat, funny, and even moving. You'll root for Conor and his band to succeed on all fronts.

Sing Street is currently available for free on Netflix, on DVD, or for $3.99 to rent on Amazon Prime (link below).