Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ready, Set, Go!

Clockwise: 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Gravity and Rush
I love movie award season and Hollywood stars' mad dash from one back-patting celebration to another; hence my building anticipation for the Golden Globes which air on January 12th. I’m quite literally (not really) on the edge of my seat to see who takes home a shiny golden globe, but more importantly given events in the past, to see who’s there to accept the award and not in the john (yes, Christine Lahti, I’m talking about you). Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are back for what will undoubtedly be an uproarious evening of fun and fake smiles. Last year’s opening monologue was side-splittingly hilarious without being mean, with most stars making it through unscathed, other than poor James Cameron, without facing any of the sarcastic barbs they had to endure from Ricky Gervais the previous year.

The caliber of this year’s round of fall/winter movies was truly award-worthy, so I made a point of actually going to see a ton of them, sorta making me feel like I have a rooting interest in the night’s events (though I won’t be going home with a gift basket or shiny trophy); but while the stars prep and primp all day with hair, makeup and designer gowns, as in year’s past, I will instead clean my house, pick-up snacks, printout a ballot and park myself in front of the TV to send positive vibes to all of my favorites. The Golden Globes separates itself from the Oscars in that it’s supposedly more fun (I'm sure the open bar helps), a little less stuffy, and as stated by Tina and Amy in last year’s show, it's also where the rat-faced people of television mingle with the beautiful people of film, which means I get to not only root for Robert Redford but also for James Spader aka my man Red in The Blacklist.

Below are this year’s Globe movie nominees and my personal picks for the winner in each category; not who I think will win, but who I want to win.

Best Motion Picture – Drama
"12 Years A Slave"
"Captain Phillips"
"Gravity"
"Philomena"
"Rush"

Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy
"American Hustle"
"Her"
"Inside Llewyn Davis"
"Nebraska"
"The Wolf Of Wall Street"

Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years A Slave"
Idris Elba, "Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom"
Tom Hanks, "Captain Phillips"
Matthew McConaughey, "Dallas Buyers Club"
Robert Redford, "All Is Lost"

Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Christian Bale, "American Hustle"
Bruce Dern, "Nebraska"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Oscar Isaac, "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Her"

Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama
Cate Blanchett, "Blue Jasmine"
Sandra Bullock, "Gravity"
Judi Dench, "Philomena"
Emma Thompson, "Saving Mr. Banks"
Kate Winslet, "Labor Day"

Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy
Amy Adams, "American Hustle"
Julie Delpy, "Before Midnight"
Greta Gerwig, "Frances Ha"
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, "Enough Said"
Meryl Streep, "August: Osage County" (Like Cameron says on Modern Family, "Meryl Streep can play Batman and be the right choice. She's perfection.")

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi, "Captain Phillips"
Daniel Bruhl, "Rush"
Bradley Cooper, "American Hustle"
Michael Fassbender, "12 Years A Slave"
Jared Leto, "Dallas Buyers Club"

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, "Blue Jasmine"
Jennifer Lawrence, "American Hustle"
Lupita Nyong'o, "12 Years A Slave" (a travesty if she doesn't win)
Julia Roberts, "August: Osage County"
June Squibb, "Nebraska"

Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, "Gravity"
Paul Greengrass, "Captain Phillips"
Steve McQueen, "12 Years A Slave"
Alexander Payne, "Nebraska"
David O. Russell, "American Hustle"

If you're an awards buff like me, check out this Los Angeles Times page where you can cast your ballot, share your favorites with friends via Facebook and Twitter, and even print your picks. Tune in to NBC on Sunday, January 12th at 8 PM.

2013 Year-End Mini Book Reviews

In writing my 2013 favorite's post, I realized that there are a number of books which I read during this year but prior to my blogging return which I hadn’t reviewed; two of which even made it onto my 2013 favorites list (Murder as a Fine Art and The Ocean at the End of the Lane). In writing my reviews I normally like to write my own little story summary using a quote or two from the book, since what better way is there to give you a gist of its content than with the author’s own words; they’re always much more eloquent than I am; but since all my recent reads were library loans that have been returned, I’m going to skip the personal summary with quotes and instead provide a link to each novel’s Amazon page so that you can read the publisher-provided summary and I can limit my input to just my thoughts and feelings on the book.

I hope you don’t mind the mini-reviews but some of these were great reads and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put them on your radar screen in hopes that they might make it onto your upcoming reading list.

The Never List (Koethi Zan). While the story had potential, I found this book a little disappointing. We’re told that the main character is so damaged by her experience as a captive that for the past 10 years she’s been a virtual recluse in her home, but out of the blue – from one day to the next – she’s ready to fly cross-country to face someone from her darkest nightmares; staking out bad guys like she was out of NYPD Blue. Hmmm? A big reveal near the end was also a little predictable, but despite these issues, it was a relatively suspenseful and enjoyable, if not perfect, read.

Where'd You Go Bernadette (Maria Semple). I really enjoyed this book; it was smart and funny with a thoroughly original character in Bernadette which had me in stitches most of the time, and Bee was equally engaging. I thought the way the story was told through a mosaic of emails, flashbacks, etc. was ingenious; keeping things fresh and engrossing. It’s a little zany, in the best way, but I wouldn’t expect any less from an author who once wrote for Arrested Development.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman). Ooh, I loved this book; as you already know, since it made my favorite’s list for the year. It was a harrowing and thrilling tale that was at times sweet and poignant. I know it was written for adults since at times it conveys a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness you don't normally find in children's literature, but it still reads like a child's fairy tale; a perfect story of good vs. evil, friendship, magic and innocence, which leaves you wanting more and demands a follow-up Lettie story.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home (Carol Rifka Brunt). Three adjectives come to mind when thinking of this book: beautiful, heartbreaking and hopeful. A moving story that poignantly depicts through a child’s eyes the fear and misconceptions that ran rampant in society about the AIDS epidemic during the late 80’s and in turn highlights how far we’ve come. A multiple Kleenex read for me.

The Snow Child (Eowyn Ivey). The only reason this didn’t make my recently published favorites list is because it was published in 2012; if not, it would’ve been right at the top. A wonderful debut novel (amazing someone can crank this out on their first try) that reads like a magical whimsical fairy tale, that keeps you guessing if it’s real or not. The author perfectly captures both the harsh realities of a brutal land and its breathtaking beauty.

The Burgess Boys (Elizabeth Strout). I read this book because I had loved Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning previous novel Olive Kitteridge, and was hopeful of her delivering yet another gem; but I can’t say I really liked it. It was a good story with well-developed characters highlighting the usually interesting sibling dynamics within a family, but at the end of the novel, I just felt like it was all a little pointless and ultimately uninteresting.

The Other Typist (Suzanne Rindell). When I originally read the book jacket, I felt like the story had so much potential, but sadly I ended up not liking or caring about the main character and finding the story very contrived. The constant foreshadowing in the book also made the ending utterly predictable and elements of it unbelievable. I’d say skip it, but to each their own; the book actually has tons of great reviews on Amazon, go figure, so you make the call.

Murder as a Fine Art (David Morrell). I loved this book; a page-turning thriller with a great mystery and even better characters. Morell shares tons of information in the book about Victorian England, like the fact that a woman’s getup with whalebone hoops and corsets weighed around 37 pounds (probably why they’re always swooning in romance novels), but did so without making it seem like a history lesson. The methodical way De Quincey and Emily went about figuring out the crime put me in mind of Holmes and Watson (or current day, Miller and Liu in Elementary).

Monday, December 30, 2013

Must See: The LEGO Movie

I’ve been meaning to share this trailer with you guys since seeing it during (I think) the screening of Frozen. I know what you’re thinking? LEGOs, really? She’s gone off the deep end. Seriously though, watch this trailer, because it is hilarious. I think I was laughing harder than all the kids in the theater. Will Arnett’s casting as Batman is pure genius ("First try!" LOL).



The film tells the story of an ordinary guy named Emmet (Chris Pratt) who is mistaken for the “Special,” the most important person in the universe, and the key to saving the world. With the help and guidance of Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and heroic wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) Emmet undertakes an epic quest to defeat the evil tyrant Lord Business (Will Ferrell) who is bent on destroying the universe by gluing it together. An all-star cast lends their voices including Liam Neeson, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman and Channing Tatum.

The film hits theaters on February 7th, 2014. Can't wait!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Favorites of 2013

With 2014 only days away, this is a perfect opportunity to look back on some of my favorite books, movies and TV shows of the past year. If I were a world traveler, I’d share my favorite locales to visit; a foodie, my dining hot spots; but since I’m a bookworm, slightly reformed couch potato, and movie nut, this is the list which you guys are stuck with.

I’ll caveat the list by saying that there are a number of late movie releases which I hope to see soon, but haven’t yet so the list might need some altering; lastly, the list covers only those films or books released or published in 2013 and while I'm highlighting my favorites I’m not rating them in numerical order, because it really is like comparing apples to oranges; each one is different and special in its own right.

BOOKS (*Updated post-publishing)
Doctor Sleep. Snuck this one in under the wire. This Stephen King follow-up to The Shining is long, but oh so worth it. A page-turning thriller with elements of horror for some spine-tingling fun. Soo good!

Murder as a Fine Art. A compelling historical mystery written by David Morrell, the acclaimed author of First Blood and Brotherhood of the Rose; the novel is a murder mystery built around real author, Thomas De Quincey, who becomes a suspect in a series of copycat murders to those he covered 43 years earlier in an essay entitled “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”

Orphan Train. Historical fiction with a bittersweet and poignant tale surrounding the tragic reality of orphan trains during the late 1920s.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane. My first book from author Neil Gaiman; this fantasy novel ensnared me in its captivating web and made me a believer in all things magic.

The Silver Star. Funny, sweet and charming this captivating story about two intrepid young sisters easily won my heart.

MOVIES
All is Lost. Loved this movie! It’s got one actor (Robert Redford) and all of five minutes of dialogue, but it keeps you riveted to the screen and on the edge of your seat for all two hours. A must see.

Frozen. Love cartoons or animated films, as they call them nowadays, and this film became a new Disney favorite of mine.

Gravity. A movie-going experience which I’m not likely to forget anytime soon. Not a lot of meat on the bone as they say; no character development or a lot of plot, but it was nonetheless nail-biting and the sheer scope of the cinematography was breathtaking.

About Time. A wistful and sigh-inducing movie that left me dreaming of true love and happily ever after; what more could you ask for? (other than maybe an actual Prince and happily ever after).

Philomena. This movie was a life-lesson on forgiveness captured on film; a poignant story and definite tear-jerker which was all the more evocative because I knew it was based on a true story.

TELEVISION
The Blacklist. What can I say? You guys know I am officially obsessed with this show. The writing is out of this world, the action fast paced and thrilling, and the acting—better said – James Spader – Wow; he is reason numero uno why I watch this show.

Bob's Burgers. I love the Belcher family, every one: Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene and last, but not least, Louise. One of the funniest and possibly most underrated shows on TV; I love their dry humor, silliness, the motley cast of screwball characters, and the great storytelling featured in each episode.

Derek. This was a happenstance discovery; a British show featured on Netflix that just touched my heart. It was funny but more than that it was poignant and sweet, and at times bittersweet. I needed a Kleenex during more than one episode, but I loved it nonetheless. I read online there might be a season 2…here’s hoping.

Once Upon A Time. I was a little lax in my viewing, doing most of it OnDemand, but the show is still as engrossing and fresh as ever. Gold is still the man, but I’m pleased with the new direction they’re taking Regina; love the sassy softer side of the Evil Queen.

I would be remiss in not saying that while the above list comprises my favorite entertainment from 2013 which offered me countless hours of escapism and enjoyment, the truly best and most memorable parts of 2013 were all those moments shared with family and friends. I couldn't write a post long enough to capture all of the special moments (made so by there mere fact that I was sharing it with those I love) which I enjoyed throughout the year. Whether sitting on the couch with my brother watching a movie or frolicking in the pool with my knuckleheads during a heat wave; or enjoying a great home-cooked meal by my sister-in-law or a scrumptious Uruguayan dish made by my cousin Susana, served with a side helping of side-splitting laughs and a bittersweet reminder of my mom’s great cooking; each is etched in my heart. The list could go on and on, but like I said, this post would be ridiculously long (though I guess it already is).

Anyway, God willing, you and I will have countless happy moments to look back on at the end of 2014 too, and hopefully I’ll have a new list of great books, movies, and TV to share with you also.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Someone Else's Love Story

Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson is the first book I’ve ever read by this author, but it definitely won’t be the last. I finished it last Tuesday and between work, volunteering, last-minute Christmas shopping, and then the actual holidays, this is the first chance I’ve gotten to sit down and actually write a post. I loved everything about the book – the lovable characters, the witty, hilarious humor, and last but not least, the sweet and heart-warming love stories. Yup, two happy endings for the price of one! If you are a hopeless romantic like moi, you will love this book as much as I did.

In Someone’s Else’s Love Story Shandi Pierce and her genius three-year old son, Nathan aka Natty Bumppo, have just moved out of her mom’s home where she lived for the past 17 years since she was four-years old and her parents had split up. Shandi was trading her mom’s, Mimmy, mountainside retreat for her dad’s three bedroom condo in order to reduce a four-hour road trip to a 10 minute commute on her daily drive to the Georgia State Campus where she attends classes. Walcott, Shandi’s best friend since the age of five when they met as “the outsiders at a milk-white elementary school in a so-white-it-was-practically-Wonder-Bread county" where Shandi "was the only half-a-Jew for miles, and Walcott was the sperm-donated product of a pair of lesbians” was yet again proving his best-friendhood by helping her pack, load up the car, and keep Natty entertained on the drive to the condo.

An inopportune stop for snacks at a gas station mini-mart while on the drive to Atlanta causes an unexpected turn in Shandi’s life since that’s where she falls madly in love with William Ashe, at gunpoint no less, when during a hold-up at the mini-mart William selflessly puts his big body between the gun and Natty. “And that was it. That was when it happened. I lowered my body to the ground, and all of me was falling, faster than I could physically move, way further than a glance or an attraction, falling so hard into deep, red, desperate love…I fell all the way to the molten center of the earth, blazing into total, perfect feeling for the big blond wall of a man who had put himself between my child and bullets, before our eyes had ever met, before I so much as knew his name.” A wounded but captured perp and two shot people later, including William, Shandi is sure this thing between them is “destiny” though unfortunately the feelings aren’t mutual.

When William uttered the word “destiny” after being shot it didn’t have the same love-fueled meaning that Shandi thought; that fateful day at the gas station was exactly one year since the tragic loss of someone William loved, and through his bold and reckless act of heroism the destiny he sought was escape from the unrelenting pain of his loss. William is a brilliant geneticist who believes in science and numbers, not destiny, fate or God; but as Shandi takes care of him during his recovery from the gunshot, the two form an unlikely bond and reveal unexpected truths to one another which will help them each heal, forgive, and meet their respective destinies head-on.

This was such a funny, charming and poignant novel. It perfectly captures the beauty of forgiveness and how by facing our fears and letting go of the mistakes and demons in our past we can both discover our future and be stronger person for it. Like the book jacket perfectly states “it’s a story about discovering what we want and ultimately finding what we need.”

The characters are perfectly written. I loved Shandi and the more I learned about her and the experiences she’d faced despite her young age, I couldn’t help but root for her happiness; even if at times she seemed a little confused about where that happiness awaited her. William was a lovable hunk of a man; his only flaw being the fact that at times he was a “computer brain” - his genius causing him to sometimes overthink the meaningful moments in his life, instead of just feeling with his heart. Shandi and William’s respective best friends, Walcott and Paula, are a huge part of the novel and Paula in particular was just a joy to read about. She was incredibly sassy, flawed and downright hilarious. I can only hope that the next book is about Paula. Some secondary characters in novels are just so wonderful, that they manage to grab a little place all of their own in your heart, and such was the case with Paula.

There are some unexpected reveals in the book that I didn’t see coming, but which I loved. It may not be a thriller but Someone Else's Love Story is no less of a page-turner for I was completely drawn in by the lives, loves and regrets of these authentic and memorable characters and I couldn't wait to get to the last page in hopes that they'd each find a happily ever after of their own.

This, That and the Other

I hope all of you had a very Merry Christmas. I took last Monday and Tuesday off from work and headed up to Connecticut early to spend some extra aunt-time with my knuckleheads. I can happily report that everyone loved their gifts (phew…what a relief!), and now after all the holiday-related distractions; shopping, wrapping, visiting, etc., I’m officially done painting the town beige and I’m ready to get back to my usual book reading, TV watching, blogging routine.

With Christmas behind me, this coming week will be much more relaxing. New Year’s Eve isn’t a big event for me so I’ll be keeping it homey and low key; a nice dinner, a good movie, and if my eyelids hold up, maybe watch the Times Square ball drop at midnight. My mom had a couple New Year’s eve traditions (superstitions) which I’ll keep alive; eat 12 grapes at the strike of midnight and wear pink undies to ring in the New Year (not sure what the origins are of either, but I’ll hedge my bets and do both in hopes of attracting some good luck in 2014).

I don’t normally do the whole New Year’s resolution thing, because like it said in a cartoon I once read, resolutions are best defined as “to do” lists for the first week of January. Nonetheless, I’m choosing to think positive and setting “goals” instead of hard-and-fast resolutions, this way I’m not too hard on myself when I ultimately flake out on one, two or all of them before January is even through. With that said, my limited 2014 goals include losing a few (or a lot) pounds, being more active, learning something new (knitting, Italian?), and helping others.

Charles Lamb said “New Year's Day is every man's birthday;” the first day of a new year and a chance to wipe the slate clean and have another go at our dreams and goals. Kept resolutions or not, I’m hoping that 2014 is a great year for all of us; filled with good health, happiness, joy, laughter, love, peace, prosperity, friends and family, and any other blessings God is willing to generously share with us. Happy New Year to each of you and remember:
Another fresh new year is here . . .
Another year to live!
To banish worry, doubt, and fear,
To love and laugh and give!

This bright new year is given me
To live each day with zest . . .
To daily grow and try to be
My highest and my best!

I have the opportunity
Once more to right some wrongs,
To pray for peace, to plant a tree,
And sing more joyful songs!

- William Arthur Ward
Let's all make 2014 a great one!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Hours

I, and most of New York, enjoyed a wonderful little snowstorm on Saturday. I truly don’t mind the snow when it falls on the weekends. I love the silence that seems to envelop our surroundings. I love seeing the white flakes falling and leaving a pristine blanket that hides all the fallen leaves and dirty streets. I love hunkering down at home with snacks, books and movies and when I get bored or downright lazy settling in for a long winter’s nap in a warm cozy bed, which is exactly what I did. After some more productive endeavors though (laundry and house cleaning), I ended the evening with dinner and dessert (yummy tiramisu), and capped off the night with a movie, Hours; the Paul Walker (of Fast & Furious fame) film released after his tragic and untimely death in a car accident. The film is supposedly in theaters now, but also available in OnDemand which is where I saw it.

Hours is set in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and focuses on Nolan and Abigail Hayes, a young married couple who in the midst of the storm fatefully arrive at a hospital to deliver their first child, which is arriving five weeks early. As the night’s tragic events unfold, Nolan is left widowed when Abigail dies during childbirth, leaving him to face an uncertain future with his infant daughter. As the hours pass and the storm rages outside, the new father struggles to cope with his pain and loss, while trying to focus on the beautiful baby created from his and his wife’s love. Since the baby is a preemie, the doctor informs Nolan that she’ll need to be on a ventilator for at least 48 hours, and in blatant foreshadowing states that you’ll know she’s out of the woods when you hear her cry for the first time.

Conditions in the city and at the hospital turn dire and despite all denials of a need for panic, doctors and patients quickly begin to be evacuated, a step Nolan can’t take given his daughter’s need for a ventilator so he's left behind alone at the hospital, except for his daughter, waiting for help to arrive. When things couldn’t seem to get worse, they do; for as the sun peeks through the clouds signifying the end of the storm, the levees break. The streets are flooded hampering hopes for rescue and then the hospital’s lower floors are flooded, the rising water taking with it not only the lights but the building’s main backup generators. As the hours pass and hope seems futile, Nolan can only rely on a small hand-cranked battery to keep his daughter’s ventilator functioning, all while facing unexpected life-threatening dangers in his struggle to keep his baby daughter alive.

Hours was a compelling film which truly does justice to Walker’s growing talent. The film is a departure from Walker’s usual action films (The Fast and Furious or Into the Blue) in that it features a touching and poignant story with just enough thrills to keep it interesting instead of two hours straight of high-speed pursuits and blow 'em up shootouts. The film features an hour-by-hour countdown clock for the day's events that helps build the tension, while more thrilling scenes depicting a desperate Nolan battling looting drug addicts ultimately show Walker at his action-hero best.

I am not surprised at Walker’s attempts to stretch himself through this more demanding role, it seems like most young stars want to be seen as more than just a one-trick pony; but I am surprised by the fact that he totally delivered. The success of the story falls squarely on Walker’s shoulders and his believability as a man struggling to stay afloat of his sadness, anger, despair, and desperation; and he easily conveys every emotion. There was only one time in the film where I felt the moment was too big for him (when Nolan's informed of his wife's death), but there were countless other tender moments in the film; when he’s talking to his baby, telling her about his and Abigail’s love story or sharing words of wisdom from his own father, when you forget the pretty face and are instead touched by his gentleness and find yourself inexorably falling under his spell and fervently rooting for his character's survival, as if this was a real life or death struggle.

If you’re a Paul Walker fan, you’ll want to see Hours; and if you’re not, you should see it to get a full measure of the talent and potential that we've lost. Hours is an engrossing drama which highlights the strength of the human spirit and the determined power of love, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Author Spotlight: Rosamund Lupton

I have my friend Lani to thank for discovering this great new author, since she's the one that coerced and guilted me into reading Rosamund Lupton's debut novel Sister; she did so with cries for reciprocity since according to her she reads every book I recommend (she doesn't really) but I don't do the same with her recommendations, I'll take the fifth on that. Ultimately, I was very grateful for her persistence because the book turned out to be a compelling and memorable read. Impressed by Lupton's brilliant debut, I then searched for any other novels she might have published and found Afterwards. While both books are mystery thrillers which highlight through their characters the dynamics involved in varying familial bonds (in one obviously sisters, hence the title, and the other a mother/daughter relationship), Afterwards differentiates itself in its use of a paranormal narrative device which allows through the use of an out of body experience both main characters in the book free license to roam despite their physical limitations and in turn have access to people, conversations and events which they wouldn't have otherwise.

Prior to these two novels, Lupton was a copywriter and reviewer for the Literary Review, as well as a script-writer for television and film, writing original screenplays. Having read both novels, the reader can definitely appreciate Lupton's reliance on her screenwriter's sensibility in crafting well-developed characters, as well as scenes and dialogue that are tense, powerful and suspenseful on the page but which you can also readily imagine on the screen. Whether by intent or accident, film seems to be the final destination for most well-written and successful books nowadays and Sister and Afterwards I'm sure will be no exception to that rule.

I loved both books and would eagerly and whole-heartedly recommend each to family and friends. The mysteries, twists and red herrings in each keep things interesting and readers turning the page, but it is the family drama and the bonds of love covered in each that pack the emotional punch and make them more than your typical whodunnit. Whether it was Bee's search for the truth behind her sister's death or Grace's determined zeal in protecting her son and daughter, each exemplifies the lengths and sacrificies which we are willing to make for those we love. At their heart, they are truly stories of love and courage that merely rely on cryptic crimes and clever storytelling to better capture a reader's attention.

Sister. When her mom calls to tell her that Tess, her younger sister, is missing, Bee returns home to London on the first flight. Tess has always been a free spirit, an artist who takes risks, while conservative Bee couldn’t be more different. Bee is used to watching out for her wayward sibling and is fiercely protective of Tess (and has always been a little stern about her antics). But then Tess is found dead, apparently by her own hand. Bee is certain that Tess didn't commit suicide. Their family and the police accept the sad reality, but Bee feels sure that Tess has been murdered. Single-minded in her search for a killer, Bee moves into Tess's apartment and throws herself headlong into her sister's life — and all its secrets...As a determined Bee gives her statement to the lead investigator, her story reveals a predator who got away with murder — and an obsession that may cost Bee her own life.

Afterwards. The school is on fire. Her children are inside. Grace runs toward the burning building, desperate to reach them. In the aftermath of the devastating fire which tears her family apart, Grace embarks on a mission to find the person responsible and protect her children from further harm. This fire was not an accident, and her daughter Jenny may still be in grave danger. Grace is the only one who can discover the culprit, and she will do whatever it takes to save her family and find out who committed the crime that rocked their lives. While unearthing truths about her life that may help her find answers, Grace learns more about everyone around her — and finds she has courage she never knew she possessed.

As a sister myself, though to two brothers, I could totally relate to the inexorable bond which is at the heart of Sister's emotional narrative. The kind of bond that transcends words, distance, time and even death. Bee relates her story, both uncovering the truth behind Tess' murder and the events which were its precursor, to the reader in the form of a letter to Tess; a letter which she writes because she simply needs to talk to her or run the risk of losing a part of herself. So despite doubts about the true depths of their closeness, her own emotional turmoil, and risks to her own safety, Bee zealously digs for the truth, questioning a possible stalker, an ex-professor and more in her unquenching thirst for justice. The twists and revelations are both gripping and at times emotionally draining, as each page is fraught with tension, suspense and the utter poignancy of Bee's love which you feel right up to the last words of the book ("I'm sorry. I love you. I always will)."

As I said Afterwards had the paranormal aspect to the story which made it different and interesting. As we meet Grace she shares with the reader waking up "trapped under the hull of a vast ship wrecked on the ocean floor" and slipping out of the wrecked ship of her body and swimming upwards towards the daylight. After seeing the "body part of her" in the hospital bed she frantically searches for and finds her daughter, who is also critically injured. Her out of body eavesdropping permits Grace to learn about the extent of their injuries, while also searching for the truth about the fire and the shadowy figure she sees trying to visit Jenny's hospital room. As events transpire and secrets are revealed, similar to Bee's letter to Tess in Sister, Grace shares her fears and discoveries with the reader through a running dialogue to her husband, despite the fact that he can't actually hear her.

In Afterwards I found the mystery surrounding the fire and its culprit a little weak, but was totally blown away by the rest of the novel; a story of a mother's incredible love for her child ("For nine months, I'd had her heart beating inside my body, two heartbeats for every one of mine...The girl I'd recognize among a thousand faces. My second heartbeat"), and the depths to which that unswerving love will take her. Afterwards is beautiful, heartbreaking, and haunting; a tale that you will talk about for days and carry in your heart for longer.

Share the Warmth

Calling all warm and generous hearts in Westchester County, NY! Did you know that in Westchester County nearly 12 percent of children newborn to age 18 live in poverty? Despite that startling fact, we can take heart in knowing that there are wonderful organizations trying to make a difference; Kid’s Kloset is one such program that since its inception in 2011 has provided approximately 3,000 local children with clothing, diapers, strollers and other items.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, in addition to volunteering weekly at my town’s local food pantry, I also volunteer on a sporadic basis for Kid's Kloset which is a not-for-profit, volunteer-driven program affiliated with Westchester Jewish Community Services that helps provide assistance to Westchester County children in need. The program collects clothing donations for children from newborns to 18 years old which are then sorted based on sex, age, size and season, and then all clothing deemed usable (they won’t keep items that are ripped, stained, etc.; basically, if you wouldn’t want your own child to wear it, they won’t pass it on to a child in need) is used to prepare what they call “bags of love.” Each bag of love is prepared in response to requests received from public schools, churches, shelters, social workers, etc. and contains a week’s worth of outfits; all in hopes of offering needy children clothes they can both feel comfortable and confident in for school and day-to-day activities.

The need is there year-round but it’s even more crucial during the winter months when the lack of a coat means a child will go cold and no mittens means little fingers will be exposed to biting temperatures. If you live locally and have children, please go through their closets and see if there are any clothes you can spare. Your generosity will help a child keep warm this winter. In particular, please note that a recent email I received from Kid’s Kloset specifically identified a need for boy and girl’s clothing (including outerwear) for sizes 3T – 8 (but all sizes are welcomed!). If you’d like to help, please visit the Kid’s Kloset site for contact information and drop-off locations.

I’ve passed it on, now it’s up to you to help make a difference. Remember “nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Xanadu

During yesterday’s winter storm, I went in to work early and left work right on time so as to avoid any icy roads and in doing so got home early enough to not only catch up on the last three episodes I was behind on in Once Upon A Time, but also enjoy the cheesetastic spectacular which is Xanadu; the 1980s film musical starring the beautiful Olivia Newton-John, the talented Gene Kelly and Michael Beck. Oh, I just love this movie. It is beyond cheesy, hokey and downright bad, but that's what makes it so great! If you accept and revel in its theatrical mediocrity; from the atrocious acting, paper thin plot, and horrendous choreography (on roller skates no less), you’ll have a blast because the rest, namely the music, is great; with tons of fun still to be had rolling your eyes at the film’s attempts at witty repartee, while singing along with ELOs great soundtrack.

Xanadu tells the tale of Sonny Malone (Beck), a talented yet struggling artist who left his paying position painting enlarged album covers for store windows to try and make it in the art world, only to have to come back with his tail between his legs, hat in hand to ask for his old job back. Demoralized by his predicament, Sonny is headed back into the office when a beautiful stranger, whom we later learn is named Kira (Newton-John), roller skates up to him, plants a kiss on his lips and skates away. Sonny is even more intrigued by his mystery woman when she appears on the new album cover he’s been assigned to paint. Having just been re-hired but no less determined to find his dream girl, Sonny drops everything at work and takes off to find her (I really don’t know how he remained employed because he does this at various times throughout the film). He heads to the beach where he first spotted her and comes across Danny McGuire (Kelly), a former Big Band musician who is now filthy rich and looking to open up a nightclub like the one he had in his heyday.

After leaving Danny, some slapstick humor ensues featuring a bike ride off a pier but Sonny finally tracks Kira down at a rundown abandoned building where she’s roller skating. In between wooing Kira and befriending Danny, Sonny does manage to find his way into the office for like 5 minutes, only to run off again for an impromptu dance number on a special-effects laden soundstage. Ultimately, with some none too subtle pushing from Kira, Sonny and Danny become partners in building Xanadu, the hottest new nightclub in town, and guess what, you’ll never see this coming, but they decide to build it in the building which appeared in the album cover Sonny was painting and where Kira was skating. The two lovebirds are unfortunately due for some rocky seas ahead though when Kira confesses to Sonny that she is actually a muse (she’s the Muse of Dance) sent to earth to bring about Xanadu, and sadly she committed a big muse no-no by falling in love, and now her father Zeus wants her back home and pronto. Sonny is heartbroken about losing his girl but hey, she’s a muse, so he’s ready to move on, but oh so wise Danny steps in and slaps some sense into him, telling him if she’s his dream girl then he can’t just give up; he’s got to fight for her love no matter what, and so the search is on.

Hmmm…you’re intrigued aren’t you? I know you’re just dying to know now if true love wins the day or not. Alas, you’ll have to hit Red Box or OnDemand to find out. Seriously, like I said above, this is really a fun movie if a bit (alright, maybe more than a bit) silly, but by the end I think you’ll love its camp as much as I do. The choreography is one scene short of atrocious, redeemed only by a wonderful “dream” sequence song and dance number between Kelly and Newton-John. Beck was by far the weakest in the cast as far as acting, though he was probably hired more as eye candy than for his thespian talents.

Onto the good stuff, the music; every song in the film is pure magic. My favorites are ELO’s featured songs, including “I’m Alive”, “Don’t Walk Away” which plays during an adorable animated sequence ala the film Enchanted, and “All Over the World;” though I’ll also throw some love to Olivia’s titular song “Xanadu.”

While some may say Xana-don’t to this cult classic, I say Xana-do rent Xanadu for a couple hours of campy fun that will take you on a musical trip down memory lane and leave you humming for hours.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Remembering & Honoring Sandy Hook

This Saturday, December 14th marks the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. A year of pain and sorrow for the families of loved ones ripped from their arms much too soon. At this difficult time I keep them in my thoughts and prayers and grieve for their loss; for every day they don’t get to see their child’s smiling face, for every missed birthday and milestone, and for the stolen promise of tomorrow when those bright young children would’ve become amazing men and women, maybe talented doctors or lawyers and/or caring mothers and fathers of their own.

Life is so precarious and the hand of fate so fickle. I take heart in believing that though God, in all his infinite wisdom and power, might not have stopped this heinous crime from happening, whether because of his gift to us of free will or some other to us unimaginable reason (I truly don’t know, for who am I but a lowly servant to question His will), he was nonetheless present at Sandy Hook on that fateful day; he was there comforting a scared or wounded child, he was there giving strength to a frightened yet brave teacher, he was there with the EMTs and police responding to frantic calls. He was undoubtedly there with each one of them to ease their pain, fear and sorrow, as he was and continues to be with all the loved ones that lost someone on that winter day; and above all else I know that when all was said and done on that dark, dark day that left so many hearts broken, he was there in heaven to welcome 26 new angels into his arms.

After senseless tragedies like Sandy Hook or Aurora, we are reminded of our true priorities in life. The grief of each family impacted by these events should serve as a reminder to us all to hug our loved ones close, to tell them how much we love them, and to not take a single moment for granted for tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us. During a news conference yesterday, many of the Sandy Hook parents bravely stood in front of the cameras and said that on the eve of this first anniversary they will be lighting a candle for their loved one in memory of the last night they spent with their child. One after another stepped up, saying: I will light a candle for Jack; I will light a candle for Olivia; I will light a candle for Victoria, and so on. As I listened with tears in my eyes, I thought of the countless simple tasks they might remember from that long ago night; tasks that we (and maybe they did too) sometimes take for granted or which we in our ignorance feel burdened by because of other responsibilities; whether as a parent it's helping with homework, brushing teeth, breaking up sibling fights or reading a bedtime story; or as grown adults dealing with elderly parents, answering pesky phone calls and inconvenient appointments; treasured moments shared with our loved ones, which we sometimes don’t fully value until they're gone.

It is also in these moments of darkness when the better angels of our nature come to the fore. There is a belief in the Buddhist faith that like the beautiful lotus flower grows out of the mud and blossoms above the muddy water, we (humans) too can rise above our struggles and sufferings in life. I know there is truth in those words for even in the midst of the Sandy Hook tragedy and innumerous others like it, good has blossomed. Whether it’s the countless acts of kindness shared with Sandy Hook survivors and grieving families, the worthy foundations started in memory of those lost, as families look to help others as a source of hope for the future and remembrance of the past, or laws and legislations enacted for our safety in order to save another parent, son or daughter from living the same nightmare in the future.

In that same incredibly moving news conference I mentioned above, the Sandy Hook parents asked the media to stay away from Newtown on Saturday to let them grieve in private and also asked each of us to mark the date and honor their loved one with an act of kindness or service. So this Saturday hold your loved ones just a little closer, remember that even the most thankless task and chore for a loved one means you have them with you, say a prayer for the 26 souls lost at Sandy Hook, and touch someone else’s life with kindness and love; do all of these for Charlotte, Josephine, Daniel, Arielle, Rachel, Jessica, Victoria, Benjamin, AnneMarie, Dawn, Caroline, Ana, Madeleine, Catherine, Noah, James, Mary, Emilie, Lauren, Allison, Chase, Dylan, Jesse, Olivia, Jack and Grace. May they rest in peace and be forever in God’s loving care.

Visit My Sandy Hook Family, a heartfelt online memorial created by the families, to learn a little more about each one of the names above, as well as the organizations and funds established in their honor.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Wicked Girls

I read The Wicked Girls during my blogging hiatus but I still wanted to write a review and let you guys in on the fun by sharing my insights on this gripping page-turner with a memorable twist ending. The Wicked Girls is the debut novel by Alex Marwood, which is actually the pseudonym of a British journalist who has worked extensively across the UK press. The novel is a mystery thriller set in a seaside resort town where a number of gruesome murders of young female tourists have taken place, and the story juxtapositions the mystery surrounding the current murders with the story behind the shared troubled past of the two female protagonists.

The novel’s prologue starts in 1986 when two 11 year old girls, Jade Walker and Annabel Oldacre, both from completely different paths in life (one from a troubled and poor family, the other the daughter of a prominent businessman) meet for the first time only to have their lives forever changed when by the end of that fateful day the two are charged with the murder of a local four year old girl.

Twenty-five years have passed since that terrible day. Having suffered significantly diverging fates post-trial, Jade and Bel “to all intents and purposes, ceased to exist when they vanished into the system,” and are now known to their family and friends as Kirsty Lindsay, a journalist and married mother of two, and Amber Gordon, a single carnival cleaner, respectively. The fates conspire yet again to bring these two women together when Kirsty is sent to cover the latest murder to take place in Whitmouth, and Amber has the terrible misfortune of being the one to find the body in the mirror maze of her amusement park.

When these two virtual strangers whose past is forever linked meet again, Amber is the first struck with recognition and “she feels her heart, thump-thump-thump, feels the strength leave her limbs, sees darkness creep in around the edge of her vision. This can’t be happening. It can’t.” As reality then hits Kirsty, she calls out "Bel", which only serves to jolt Amber like a cattle prod, “No!” she shouts, “I don’t know that name. That’s not my name. Just – shut up. Shut up! You know we’re not meant to see each other. You know! Are you mad? Go away!” Sadly, this freak meeting is only the start of a new nightmare faced by Kirsty and Amber, as they’ve each walked into the sick web of a deranged psychopath that threatens to uncover their dearly guarded secret and in turn destroy the new life they each hold dear.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was a smart, perfectly paced and compelling thriller. The novel alternates between past and present, and through flashbacks interspersed between chapters we get a detailed narrative on the timeline and actual events of the momentous day that changed the course of Kirsty/Jade and Amber/Bel’s lives. As we delve into the present lives of these two women, Marwood does a great job in making them human, vulnerable and ultimately likable and sympathetic characters. As for the truth of the past, it is not until near the end of the book that the reader can fully grasp the extent of the tragedy which transpired as a result of two children’s poor decisions and how they haunt them still as adults.

For my taste, the present day mystery in the novel was actually its weakest point, since I think most readers will either outright solve or at least have an inkling as to the suspect's identity relatively early in the story, but the narrative set 25 years earlier more than makes up for what that’s lacking. Jade and Bel’s story offers an insightful statement on the deplorable consequences of a rush to judgment, how the media colors and skews society’s perceptions, and how the quality of juvenile detention centers can make or break the young lives that walk through their halls.

As I mentioned at the onset of this review, the book does have a twist ending, which in hindsight shouldn’t have been unexpected. While I understand the author’s purpose in using the twist, I don’t necessarily like it, though I will admit it does add a bittersweet poignancy to the novel which it might not have had otherwise. The Wicked Girls is a captivating and at times unsettling read which you won’t want to put down once you start.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Frozen

I could rationalize going to see this kid's movie by telling you that like all my recent movie screenings I'm trying to see all those films which I think will be receiving Oscar nominations in January, but the God's honest truth is that I love animated movies and TV shows too. In fact one of my favorite, must-see shows on TV right now is Bob's Burgers on FOX, which I watch religiously and absolutely love. Anyway, back on topic. Frozen is Disney's latest animated film featuring the voices of Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Idina Menzel, and Josh Gad as the main characters Anna, Kristoff, Elsa and Olaf, respectively. I think I was the only unaccompanied adult in the theater, but most parents seemed to busy to care. I'm so glad that I went, kid's movie or not, because Frozen was a truly sweet and, contrary to its title, warm-hearted fairy tale.

In Frozen, Princess Elsa of the kingdom of Arendelle has magical powers over ice and snow. As a child, Elsa uses her powers to thrill and entertain her precocious younger sister Anna; creating falling snow in the castle's ballroom so that the two can play and create a snowman who loves warm hugs. One day as the loving sisters play, Elsa accidentally zaps Anna with her power. With the help of magical trolls, the King and Queen save their young child and also erase her memories of her sister's gift. The trolls warn them of the dire consquences which could come to pass if Anna's heart is accidentally frozen next time. Fearful of Elsa's lack of control over her growing powers, which actually become heightened when Elsa is frightened, the King and Queen try to maintain the secret of her powers and also protect everyone by shutting the castle off from the rest of the kingdom; while Elsa horrified by the injury she caused her beloved baby sister, isolates herself in her room causing a rift which grows over the years between her and Anna.

Years go by and the girls grow into young women. Tragedy strikes when during a brief voyage the King and Queen perish at sea and Elsa and Anna are orphaned. Three years after the tragic loss, the castle doors are once again opened to its citizens when the day arrives for Elsa's summer coronation. As soon as the castle doors are open, like a puppy let off her leash, young Anna glories in her new found freedom and promptly falls in love with a newly met prince; while at the castle, reserved Elsa is focused on just making it through the ceremony without revealing her gift (and curse). The coronation ceremony goes off without a hitch but when Anna inadvertently causes Elsa to reveal her powers to the kingdom's citizenry who turn away from her in fear, Elsa flees the castle and unknowingly plunges her kingdom into eternal winter, so plucky Anna decides to rescue the day by going after her sister. With the help of ice seller Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, as well as Olaf the snowman, Anna braves snow, ice and even a snow monster to save both the Kingdom and her sister.

Disney has flawlessly captured a beautiful winter wonderland in this film. Frozen features breathtaking animation, a compelling story of sisterly love with two endearing and vibrant young heroines, and a great soundtrack with catchy and memorable songs. Awe-inspiring shots of swirling snow, an ice encased fjord, and a crystalline ice castle which glitters and sparkles like a diamond as its spires reach towards the sky serve as the perfect winter backdrop for this seasonally appropriate tale. Oh and lest I forget, it features a hilarious scene-stealing snowman by the name of Olaf, that will just melt your heart. The film is a loosely based adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Snow Queen," and through its charm, humor and adventure it cements itself as a new Disney classic, worthy of being compared to earlier standouts such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, or Beauty and the Beast.

The fairy tale offers viewers the expected Disney princess character in the lead (actually two for the price of one), though not in typical form. In Anna you have an endearing young girl who might be sweet and wholesome like the norm, but whom is also spunky, quirky and a bit of a goofball, while Elsa is more closely tailored to the Disney princess mold - vulnerable, regal and surprisingly strong. Olaf's goofy and wholesome humor had kids and adults alike chuckling at his antics, while ooh and ahhing over his kindness and heart. Olaf's humor-filled sidekick role put me in mind of another Disney scene-stealer, Donkey from Shrek.

Like most Disney animated films, Frozen is a musical so each voice star had ample opportunity to shine (except for maybe Groff aka Kristoff who only sang a few lines of a too cute reindeer-related song). I expected nothing short of brilliance from Broadway talent Idina Menzel (and I got just that), but I had no idea Kristen Bell could sing that incredibly well. My two favorite songs from the film were Idina Menzel's "Let It Go" in which her soaring vocals are equal to her Tony-winning performance of "Defying Gravity" in Wicked, and surprisingly enough Josh Gad's Olaf performance of "In Summer." While his voice might not be on par with Menzel or Bell, the lyrics and delivery where just hilarious and priceless ("Winter’s a good time to stay in and cuddle, But put me in summer and I’ll be a — (imagine deadpan glance at a puddle) happy snowman!").

Frozen is a new Disney classic that will warm even the coldest heart. Grab your coat, hat and mittens and head on over to your nearest theater for this not to be missed gem.

Hope vs. Fear

“Sometimes I wonder about my life. I lead a small life - well, valuable, but small - and sometimes I wonder, do I do it because I like it, or because I haven't been brave? So much of what I see reminds me of something I read in a book, when shouldn't it be the other way around?”
I didn’t write that quote though it seems pulled straight from my heart (it’s actually from You’ve Got Mail). Those simple words have always touched me but never more so than now that I’m no spring chicken. I guess because I know that countless of my decisions in life are directly attributable to some fear or another, including the fact that I’m single and alone. If I’m honest with myself, I can admit that I’m alone in part because I never put myself out there, granted it could also be because I’m a short, slightly overweight nerd too. In my youth I never went on blind dates or tried online dating, I never went to a bar or a wild ‘n crazy party. While it’s true that I was my mom’s care giver the better part of my adult life and those bars or parties seemed an indulgence I couldn’t afford, since it would mean selfishly leaving her alone to go and have fun, I know in my heart that a part of me welcomed the excuse. Not being able to go because of mom, meant I wouldn’t have to go to a party and risk sitting alone, or go on a blind date and have the guy see me and make a quick U-turn out the door. Rejection has always been my greatest fear; quickly followed by fear of heights, public speaking, large crowds, roller coasters, etc., etc., etc. You get the point.

I wish I could say it was just my romantic life that’s borne the brunt of my insecurities, because my single status is just a matter of fact at this point, but there were other dreams put aside too. I once dreamed of being a writer and when I was younger I actually had the audacity, the temerity to sit down and actually write something, a screenplay. Young and bold, I submitted the screenplay to an online contest and got an honorable mention, but an honorable mention seemed just a kind way of saying it wasn’t good enough, and maybe it really wasn't but I didn't get any better either because it was easier to just quit than be rejected, so now it sits in my drawer collecting dust; and so every road not taken has left me where I am today.

A friend at work jokes about the fact that seemingly all roads lead to Connecticut because it’s where I go to every weekend. The truth is that when mom was with me she was the buffer for my fears, and now that she’s gone I’ve found another safety net in my boys and family. You don’t have to worry about new people liking you when you’re with people who already love you. I tell myself I have to see my knuckleheads every weekend because they need me and I know in part they do, but in reality I need them more; they, as well as my other family and friends, are my joy and a large part of why I might be alone, but I’m never lonely. But now that they are getting older and have less time for their old aunt, it’s a perfect time to branch out and experience new places and things and maybe even use that GPS I got as my 25th year anniversary gift at work.

So at the tender age of 46, actually 45 and 3/4, I’ve decided to live a little bigger; to try and let myself be guided by my hopes instead of my fears. I’m stepping outside of my comfort zone and setting some goals for myself. I’m starting with attending my office Christmas party; wow, don’t go all wild and crazy you say; I know, I know, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Baby steps as Dr. Leo Marvin would say; taking one small step at a time to reach one's goals (sorry for the obscure reference; it’s from What About Bob?, one of Bill Murray’s funniest movies, hey the words are no less insightful just because they come from a fake doctor).

About those goals – they’re not momentous, baby steps remember, but they are a start. I think by the time I’m 80 I’ll be ready for a first date, my Oscar speech, and maybe even some skydiving.

1. Go to the company Christmas party (almost a done deal, it's this coming Friday)
2. Begin writing again
3. Submit a completed screenplay or novel to an online contest or agent; if it fails try, try again…no quitting allowed
4. Visit a new city/place (frequency yet to be determined)
5. Visit Scotland (don’t know why it’s calling to me, but I’ve always wanted to go there; maybe my destiny awaits, it could be my soul mate or a runaway carriage (hmmm...in case of the second, maybe I should rethink the destination)
6. Go on a roller coaster (actually I take this one back, I’m OK with being a chicken in this regard)

Anyway, wish me luck; if my past track record is any indication, I think I’ll need it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

'Tis the Season

The holidays mean so many different things to different people. To some it’s a season of joy, filled with family, friends, gifts and shared memories; while to others it’s a time of sorrow or loneliness, as they dwell on what or whom they’re missing from their lives. Stress unfortunately is part and parcel of holidays even for the cheeriest of us; from out of town guests and holiday parties, to shopping for the perfect gift, to paying for that perfect gift.

In all of the hoopla of shopping, baking and candlestick making (sorry it’s corny, but it’s the only thing that rhymed which came to mind), we sometimes forget the true meaning of the season; we forget that the holidays aren’t (or shouldn’t be) about the best gift or the most gifts, it shouldn’t be about the parties or decorations, it’s really not about receiving at all. The holidays are about giving, not an X-Box or diamond ring, it’s about giving of yourself. It’s about extending a helping hand to someone in need or a hand of friendship to someone who’s lonely. Giving is the best gift we give the world and ourselves, for in giving we receive.

Take the time to give in small ways or large; drop off a toy at a Toys for Tots bin, drop a few dollars in a salvation army collection bucket, or drop off some cans at your church or synagogue or whatever house of worship you visit; and if you don’t visit any, then drop it off at a local shelter. There is no act of kindness too small to make a difference. A simple Barbie could be the only gift a child eagerly opens on Christmas morning. A can of soup might warm someone on a cold winter’s night. If funds are low, then better yet, give of yourself and your time. There is a proverb that says “If you have much, give of your wealth; If you have little, give of your heart.”

Volunteer your time at a soup kitchen, nursing home or hospital; or even an animal shelter, they need TLC too. I volunteer every Thursday at my town’s food pantry and once every couple of months (or sometimes more often) at Kid’s Kloset, a great organization which helps kids. Whether it becomes a part of your weekly schedule or something you do around the holidays, it’s not the amount of time or frequency that matters, it’s that you took the time to care, to think outside of your own stresses and worries (because we all have them), to put someone else first. You know what, you don’t even have to travel far to give, it could be an act of kindness for a friend or co-worker or even a neighbor. Need in all forms is all around us, we don’t have to look far, we just have to open our eyes and hearts to see it.

This holiday season don’t sweat the small stuff; it’s okay if the ham is a little dry, there’s a little dust on the furniture, or Aunt Sue gets the wrong shade of pink sweater. Remember to count your blessings and in your gratitude you’ll find peace; that dry ham means there's food on your table, that dusty furniture means there's a roof over your head, and Aunt Sue's grumbles means you have family gathered around you. It's in giving to others we give thanks for our own blessings.

Give hope, give peace, give love; each a priceless gift free of cost, and remember:
"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Winston Churchill

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

I finished this magical novel late last night and like a special gift you can't wait to present to a treasured love one, I couldn't wait to share with all of you this captivating love story and its unique and memorable main character. In Rita Leganski's debut novel, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, it is 1949 in Bayou Cymbaline, Louisiana when William Arrow falls in love at first sight with Dancy Roman, saying "The curve of her cheekbone transfixed him; the sweep of her jaw threw him down; and the delicacy of her earlobe ran off with his heart." He was a lawyer and she was a waitress at a gumbo joint when they initially meet and slowly, after long walks and driving lessons, slip into courtship. They were opposites in countless ways but "it could never be said that one had fallen harder in love than the other" and so William and Dancy "became a destiny fulfilled" when at the justice of the peace they married and became three. Yes three, for on a beautiful afternoon filled with love and passion "tiny embryonic Bonaventure floated down a fallopian tube and settled in to grow."

Happy beyond their wildest imaginings the young married couple gloried in the day-to-day discoveries of marriage, like learning each others quirks and likes; like she sleeps on her side and he sleeps on his back, and marveled at the miracle they had created in their child. They sang him songs and excitedly watched Dancy's expanding belly for his every flutter and move, and Bonaventure hearing their harmonized breathing would let "the memory of their singing flow(ed) from his ears to his knees and down to his feet, where it caused him to wiggle his toes in his sleep." (See what I mean about magical. Can't you just imagine this little being doing just that. Basking in his parents love, before he's even joined this beautiful world.)

Tragedy strikes though and Dancy's beloved is ripped from her arms before Bonaventure is born, and when Bonaventure finally does arrive, he does so with nary a peep...silent...but with miraculous hearing. For while Bonaventure may not speak, he's been given a divine gift that permits him to hear flowers grow, the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops, his mother's heartbeat across the room, and the gentle voice of his father, who was shot dead by a mysterious stranger known only as the Wanderer. As the years pass and Bonaventure grows into boyhood, he will rely on his father's patient guidance and the help of Trinidad Prefontaine, a creole housekeeper with special gifts of her own, to help heal his family; his grieving mother plagued by guilt, his paternal grandmother burdened with a long-hidden secret which haunts her since her youth, and help his loving father find peace and be able to let go.

Enchanting is the word which best describes this beautiful book for it reads like an enchanted fairy tale of love, family and forgiveness. The Louisiana bayou and New Orleans of yore with all their otherworldly charms and beliefs, including magic, voodoo, and hoodoo, perfectly lend itself as the home for this fanciful tale of healing. While Bonaventure in all his innocence, sweetness and compassion serves as the perfect conduit for the hope and peace his family so desperately needs to begin letting go of their guilt and sorrow, and begin living again. Ms. Leganski does such an incredible job in creating this exquisitely gentle circle of love around Bonaventure; thanks to his mother and grandmother protected from the harsh pain of judgement inflicted by the outside world, though once he starts school other children's taunts and recriminations (as they are wont to do) mar that peace once in a while, for his marvelous gift causes him to standout even when he tries to keep it under wraps.

Even into the Garden of Eden slithered the snake, and so into this sweet tale of family and love, the author has introduced some darkness in the form of the Wanderer. The mystery lies in his identity and throughout the book, we are given clues as to the why for his actions. A disfigured man haunted by personal demons, despite his crime and its repercussions, the reader can't help but feel a measure of sympathy and sorrow for this poor lost soul. The mystery is really the weakest part of the story for I figured it out relatively early, though you don't get definitive confirmation 'til near the end of the book.

The book offers a satisfying resolution to each character's tale, and in so doing leaves the reader with the peace of mind in knowing that these newfound friends we've grown to care about are finally at peace. An uncommon tale that helps us to realize the power of forgiveness, not just towards others, but also for ourselves. The fact that we need to let go of the heavy burdens of past mistakes, past hurts, past pain for "holding on is believing that there's only a past; letting go is knowing that there's a future."

The Voice: It's the Final Countdown

I can’t say or type those words without adding the TA DA DA DA, DA DA DA DA!!! For those of you that don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, click here.

Anyway, it’s actually the semi-final countdown of Season 5 of The Voice; as we slowly creep towards the December 17th finale when we select The Voice! I’m telling you right about now, I’m really ready for the season to end. I always start off the season gung-ho, I tune in for every episode, I exchange texts with my friend during the show and critique performers ala Simon Cowell; but right about now, I start tuning in late, I flip back and forth between channels when there’s someone I don’t like. The problem is that it gets old and now that I know them as performers, I just want to know who will win. But you know the saying, absence makes the heart grow fonder, so the break will be nice and then I'll be raring to go for Season 6; though with the season end of The Voice and the mid-season break of The Blacklist, it'll be weird having Mondays to myself again. Books here I come!

As I mentioned in my last Boob Tube Update post, while my favorite from the auditions (Holly Henry) never made it to the live shows, I found a new favorite in Cole Vosbury and I’ve been actively supporting him (dialing for dollars and voting online) since voting started. By the way, the other four semi-final contestants, as pictured above, are Will Champlin, James Wolpert, Tessanne Chin (all Team Adam), and Jacquie Lee (Team Xtina).

I absolutely love Cole’s raspy, soulful voice and his spot on song choices so far, and I really, really hope he wins; with the only other person I’d be OK with winning being Will. This past Monday each performer got a chance to sing two songs to wow America and while the judges seemed to have preferred Cole’s first song, Hall & Oates’ “Rich Girl”, my personal preference was for song number two, James Morrison’s “Better Man.” I’m really hoping Blake and Cole can make a truly inspired song choice that can offer him the always craved for “moment” (as they say) going into the finals.

As for the other teams, I feel bad for Ceelo since he’s out of the running with the entirety of his team knocked out of the competition, but that is part of the game. To be honest I was shocked when Caroline got the boot, since given the word of mouth about her audition going into the live shows, I pegged her as an early favorite. I’m not a fan of Team Adam, except for Will, and definitely don’t like the perpetually screechy Jacquie Lee from Team Xtina.

Tune in next Monday and vote, vote, vote (for Cole...fingers-crossed). Go Team Blake!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Blacklist: An Obsession

To all fellow Blacklist fans: Holy mackerel was that ("Anslo Garrick") great or what? It doesn’t bear thinking that now we have to wait until January 13th for the next episode of this brilliant new drama. Oh, the inhumanity! I will try to put this time to good use though and continue my Red-obsessed sleuthing.

As I mentioned in my previous Blacklist-related post (Seeing Red), I am determined to crack the Reddington code. I’ve been going back through previous episodes either OnDemand for the more recent episodes or on Amazon, where they are available for the rock bottom price of $1.99 each.

Where to start? First of all, despite this plotline’s obviousness and last night’s hesitant denial by Red, I still think he’s Liz’s dad, though I’m thinking maybe not biological. After all during last night’s episode Cooper said that lab tests confirmed the blood at the church where Garrick was found dead was Reddington’s; with access to Red’s blood and by extension DNA, why doesn’t Liz just send her own blood in for analysis to determine if there’s a DNA match?; she works for the darn FBI so it’s not like she has to wait for Maury Povich’s next “who’s my daddy” episode. I hadn’t thought of that before, but Red could still technically be telling the truth in saying he’s not her dad; maybe he’s not her biological dad, but he could’ve been her stepdad or been bamboozled by Liz’s mom into believing she was his until he learned otherwise; grasping at straws here I know.

We know that Red was part of his daughter’s life prior to his disappearance. Going back to the end of the “Frederick Barnes” episode, when Red visits his old home and remembers the little girl (I assume his daughter) running in the backyard, the last age and height mark on the wall hidden behind the beadboard paneling he rips off was 3, and Sam supposedly adopted Liz around the age of 4, the similarity in ages can’t be mere coincidence.


Another important key to the Red mystery will be determining the identity of the woman in the picture he took from the Stewmaker’s album; I mentioned her in my last post. Here’s a close-up of the pic.


You can see there is a date on the bottom of the Polaroid which says 12-90. According to Ressler’s spiel on Red during the Pilot episode, Red disappeared in 1990 when expected home by his wife and daughter for Christmas; another coincidence or maybe the reason behind his disappearance?

A potential clue or insight into Red, though not related to Liz’s parentage, also found in “The Stewmaker” episode was when Red arrives in the nick of time to rescue Liz, and shares with the Stewmaker the parable of the farmer (found in IMDB episode quotes).
“A farmer comes home one day to find that everything that gives meaning to his life is gone. Crops are burned, animals slaughtered, bodies and broken pieces of his life strewn about. Everything that he loved taken from him - his children. One can only imagine the pit of despair, the hours of Job-like lamentations, the burden of existence. He makes a promise to himself in those dark hours. A life's work erupts from his knotted mind. Years go by. His suffering becomes complicated. One day he stops - the farmer who is no longer a farmer - sees the wreckage he's left in his wake. It is now he who burns, he who slaughters, and he knows in his heart he must pay.”
Is this an allegory for Red’s own life? Liz was literally “burned” in the fire, hence the scar on her palm (more on that below); and later in the “Frederick Barnes” episode he says to Liz, “A man who is willing to burn down the world for the one person he cares about, that’s a man I understand.” Yet another revealing quote about Red's true character comes in this last episode, when he says "You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can by its first few chapters, and most certainly by its last", a statement that to me readily defines Red: a good man (which he was before he became the concierge of crime), who lost his way, and is now looking for redemption (hence the Blacklist).

As for Liz’s scar, I personally hadn't noticed this at all, but I found the picture below when searching Google images for The Blacklist. Kudos to whatever brilliant person discovered this! As you can see, Liz’s scar closely resembles, if not exactly matches, the design on the cover of the box Liz found with Tom’s fake passports, gun, cash, etc.; burn or brand? Not sure. The scar obviously bears considerable significance in the story for right upfront in the Pilot, Red makes a point of questioning Liz about it. Red says, tell me about the scar on your palm, and Liz responds, "It was a fire. I was 14" to which Red curiously asks "Someone tried to hurt you?" It's kind of a strange question to ask; I mean if someone says they got hurt in a fire, you wouldn't normally jump to the conclusion that it was a result of an intentional attempt to hurt them; usually you'd assume it was an accident.


Moving on to the crème de la crème “Anslo Garrick” episodes, I wonder what’s up with Red’s curiosity with Ressler and his ex-fiancée, Audrey Bidwell? Up ‘til now it seemed like Red’s sole focus was always Liz, and out of all things why be concerned about Ressler’s love life? More so, why was he so hell bent on saving him? I found it a little curious that they both have the same blood type. What’s up with that? Red even calls attention to the fact saying, what are the odds, after all only 2% of us have that particular type (B-). Hmmm? Food for thought, red herring, or paranoia setting in? I did love the back and forth between Red and Ressler; when Ressler questions doing a field transfusion, and Red is like "Oh, come now Donald. Think how much smarter you'll be afterwards." Love him.

Going back to Audrey, for a split second I thought she might be Lucy Brooks from the ViCAP search, but here they are next to one another, and there is definitely no resemblance there.

Lastly, Alan Alda’s character which I referred to in my last post as Mr. Crowley since that is the name TVGuide had reported, but whom NBC.com is now referring to as Mr. Fitch; anyway, I get a kinda clandestine government agency or CIA vibe from him. I guess it’s yet another question to throw into the mix; who is he, is he responsible for the apple-eating man and what does Red have on him and his organization? Ooh, and don’t you get the feeling that there’s something sketchy about Jane Alexander's character, Diane Fowler, Chief of the D.O.J. Criminal Division? She seemed extremely perturbed about the fact that she was under surveillance. Is she afraid of what someone might have seen her doing?

So many questions, so little time; actually, what am I talking about, we have plenty of time, six weeks to be exact until the next episode. In the interim, I’ll continue watching and rewatching episodes and Googling my way around the net to search for spoilers or bits of news and come back and share with you guys. I’ll leave you all with one bit of good and one bit of bad news about my beloved new show; first for the good, NBC execs aren’t so dumb after all, announcing today that the network ordered a full 22-episode second season of The Blacklist. Hip, hip, hooray! As for the bad news, we’ll only have a few episodes in January before we have to suffer through yet another hiatus when the network has to break for coverage of the Winter Olympics. Boo! Alas, we shall overcome.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Philomena

I know what you're thinking; another movie? Yes, for there is no such thing as too many movies. On Sunday I got together with a friend for lunch and threw in a movie for good measure. It was wonderful to see each other and catch up and doubly sweet to take in this lovely, heart-warming film together. Inspired by true events and starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, Philomena tells the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman searching for the child she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier.

Philomena was 18 years old when she had a child out of wedlock and in order to hide her family’s shame her father sent her to a convent to birth the child in the obscurity necessary to hide her sin. Required to basically serve as indentured servants for the nuns for four years to cover the cost of their care, Philomena toiled in the laundry every day and was allotted only one treasured hour a day in which she could visit her little boy, Anthony, in the convent’s nursery. When Anthony is 3 years old, he is torn from his mother’s arms and adopted (sold) to an American family, leaving Philomena with only a small black and white picture as a treasured memento of the little boy she loved and lost. Fifty years have passed and now an old woman, a retired nurse and mother, Philomena is still haunted by the sin she kept a secret, so on the eve of Anthony’s birthday, after lighting a candle for him in church, she confesses the truth to her adult daughter Jane.

Armed with this new information, Jane asks Martin Sixmith, an ex-journalist recently sacked from a cushy government job, to help her mother find the truth. At first turning Jane down, saying that such human interest pieces only appeal to weak and ignorant people, Martin quickly changes his mind when he sees the potential in resuscitating his career through a great story. As the two face road blocks placed by the none too helpful nuns, Martin turns to his journalistic contacts in the States, and so this very odd-couple is off to Washington, DC in search of both the truth and Philomena’s lost boy.

Oh what a wonderful, wonderful movie this was; an evocative mix of humor, drama, and a little of bit of suspense which once again, only a day after The Book Thief, left me shedding quite a few tears. The humor is found in Dench’s wonderful portrayal of this naïve and at times dotty old woman, who loves romance novels, and always sees the glass as half full. The drama is found in the injustices which took place to a young girl who placed her trust in people who should’ve cared a little more, and while the suspense isn’t the nail biting kind keeping you on the edge of your seat, it simmers below the surface as you anxiously await for both the truth of Anthony’s whereabouts to be revealed and, God willing, a happy reunion.

Philomena is an example to us all; when she could rage against the injustice of losing her son, she instead focuses on the fact that he was given a life she couldn’t have offered him, and when the nuns hide information, she says they’re doing their best. At every turn when given the opportunity to choose anger or bitterness, she instead embraces forgiveness. At its heart that is what this film is all about, forgiveness. The fact that in holding onto our hatred or bitterness towards those that wrong us, we truly only hurt ourselves. At one point in the film when certain facts are revealed and Martin is furious on Philomena’s behalf, she tells him she doesn’t want to be like him, always angry and hating, for it must be exhausting. Her words brought to mind a quote (from Buddha) which I’d seen on Pinterest: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”

Dame Judi Dench was a revelation in this film. In most of the films I’d seen her in before she’d always conveyed this regal, stoic and stern persona, but in this film she is so open, warm, and vulnerable. She’s pitch perfect in every scene; believably conveying a range of emotions, both her sadness as she longingly looks at her child’s photo, her hurt when she thinks he’d never given her a second thought, and her strength when she forgives the transgressions against her, for as Gandhi said “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” I’d never seen Steve Coogan in any film but I thought he did a wonderful job as the snobbish and sarcastic Martin, offering a cynical counterbalance to Philomena’s blind faith, as well as adding just the right amount of humor to keep otherwise heavy moments a little more light. Coogan also affectingly depicts his character's growth as a caring human being, as Phil (as Martin calls Philomena) becomes someone dear and so much more than just a story.

Truth is stranger than fiction they say, and that couldn’t be truer than in this film. Every twist and turn in this story touches your heart, even more so with the knowledge that it isn’t out of someone’s imagination but the all too true heartache lived by someone very real. In the movie, his editor tells Martin the story he’s writing has to be really, really happy or really, really sad to be good, and the film Philomena is a little of both; a poignant film which offers an incredible life lesson for us all.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Must See: The Grand Budapest Hotel

During yesterday's screening of The Book Thief, they previewed this trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's latest film due for release in March of next year. The film seems to capture all the quirky, clever and slightly off-kilter absurdist humor found in most Anderson creations, such as Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox and The Royal Tenenbaums to name a few, and features some of his usual cast of regulars including Bill Murray and Adrien Brody. While I can't say I'm a huge fan of all Wes Anderson films, I find them kind of hit or miss, this particular trailer definitely struck my funny bone and I can honestly say I'll be eagerly looking out for this film when it hits my local theater. Check it out and see what you think.

The Book Thief

After a healthy dose of family, food and football, I thought what better way to work off my turkey-induced haze than with a great movie and a bucket of popcorn. I came home from Connecticut late Friday night and Saturday morning after a brief round of house cleaning and a visit to the library, I headed off to a matinee screening of The Book Thief, a film adaptation of Markus Zusak's best-selling young adult novel of the same name which stars Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush.

Set in Nazi Germany leading up to and during World War II, we first meet Liesel in 1938 while she's en route with her mother and young brother to the foster parents which will care for the two children. Her sickly brother passes away on the train and never makes it to his destination, so Liesel arrives alone to meet Rosa (Watson) and Hans (Rush) Hubermann. Rosa is a brusque hard woman whom Liesel later describes as constantly rumbling like thunder, while Hans is a sweet and charming man who gently befriends the skittish girl. Sent off to school, Liesel is quickly befriended by Rudy, a sweet boy instantly enamored with his new neighbor, and mocked by the school bully Franz when its revealed in class that she is illiterate. When Hans questions Liesel's ownership of a book that she's holding in bed, "The Gravedigger's Handbook," she confesses that the book wasn't always hers and that she in fact can't read. Kindhearted Hans graciously offers to teach her to read, going so far as to create a blackboard dictionary on his basement walls so that young Liesel can write all the new words read and learned.

As the war draws near, Liesel is adjusting to her new home and parents, when while attending a Nazi rally she witnesses a book burning and at its end, when the streets are seemingly deserted, she rescues a burning book; an act witnessed by Frau Hermann, the Bürgermeister's (equivalent of a mayor) wife, who employs Rosa for laundry service and whom Liesel later befriends during a laundry delivery when the grieving mother lets her read books from the personal library of the son which she lost during World War I. By the war's onset, provisions for the Hubermann family are scarce and the situation becomes even more dire and dangerous when Rosa and Hans begin hiding Max, a Jewish refugee and the son of the war comrade that saved Hans' life during the war and whom he swore help to if it was ever needed. A witness to her parents act of honor, Liesel is sworn to secrecy, even from her best friend Rudy. Enchanted by the newcomer, Liesel befriends Max even caring for him during an illness and stealing books from Frau Hermann's library to read (hence the book thief title) in hopes of reaching him through the healing power of words. Living through the horrors and deprivations of war, Liesel and the Hubermanns bravely face the dangers wrought by a simple act of humanity which will change their lives forever.

I loved this movie; it was equal parts sweet, poignant and heartbreaking. I will readily admit that I was a hot mess by the time I walked out of that theater, and to make matters worse I didn't have even one lousy sheet of Kleenex. The movie doesn't break any new ground in its depiction of the injustices of war and in particular the Holocaust, but it does offer a different viewpoint as the events are seen through the innocent eyes of a child, and in this case, a German child. Another interesting aspect of the movie, which was also part of the novel, is the fact that the tale is narrated by Death; scattered throughout the film, the narrator's insightful words of wisdom on our human frailties strikes a chord of truth and makes the story of this courageous girl and her adoptive family even more compelling.

Not having read the book, I can't speak to how true the film was to the book's narrative and its characters, but to my estimation the film had perfect casting. Geoffrey Rush was kindness and gentleness personified in his portrayal of the honorable Hans Hubermann. He speaks his lines softly, almost meekly, but you are never left in doubt as to the strength of his character's convictions. Emily Watson was brilliant as Rosa, for while she could've easily become a caricature of an evil stepmother or in this case a foster mother, she tempers her harsh words with a small, almost shy smile and in that simple gesture you see that while kind words don't come as easily to her, the love is still there just hiding behind a gruff exterior. While Sophie Nélisse does a wonderful job in her portrayal of Liesel, I thought Nico Liersch as the lovelorn Rudy was the true standout of the child stars.

This film was a truly moving story of life, love and loss, which will both haunt and inspire you. It earnestly and simply reminds us of the fragility of life, the futility of war, and the power of one small act of kindness, and through Liesel and the Hubermanns helps us to also see that there are innocents on both sides of war.