Two Lost Boys by L.F. Robertson

Book – Janet Moodie is an appeals attorney, specializing in death penalty appeals, but since her husband’s suicide she hasn’t worked a death penalty case. That is, until a colleague calls her with an interesting case: Andy Hardy, who was convicted along with his brother of the murder of two women. Andy got the death penalty; his brother got life without parole. And after meeting Andy, that doesn’t seem right. The prosecution argued that Andy was the mastermind behind the crimes, but he’s socially passive, heavily dependent on his mother and tested as intellectually disabled as a child. This is good news for the appeal, but what does it mean about what really happened to those women?

This is by far the most laid-back legal procedural (I certainly can’t call it a thriller) that I’ve ever read. Robertson is a practicing attorney, and she’s written a book about what dramatic legal discoveries are actually like: slow, drawn-out revelations put together piece by piece that usually don’t have dramatic consequences. Despite the high stakes (serial murder! death penalty appeals!), I found this a very soothing read, an enjoyable example of watching someone do a difficult job well, even if the results aren’t Hollywood-worthy.

The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines

Book–Fans of the hit HGTV show Fixer Upper, which focuses on quickly renovating beat-up homes in Waco, Texas to turn a profit and give families their dream home, will be no stranger to Chip and Joanna Gaines, the down-to-earth husband and wife team at the heart of the show. The Magnolia Story traces Chip and Jo’s origins from their parents’ childhoods all the way to the present at their iconic farmhouse, dwelling on their great rapport with and respect for one another along the way. The Gaines come off as truly humble and grateful for the chance to improve Waco and help their family and employees through the opportunities afforded by the show.

I’m by no means a Fixer Upper superfan myself, so I can attest that there is plenty to enjoy here even for those who have seen only a few episodes of the show. I highly recommend the audio book version narrated by Chip and Joanna, which feels like a folksy conversation between the two and showcases their different versions of their shared story. While occasionally a little repetitive and with abrupt jumps in chronology, this fun, squeaky-clean, and meandering memoir will keep you entertained (and make you wish the show was still on Netflix).

A Princess for Christmas (2011)

DVD- Jules Daley is laid off her job as an antique sales person. She is also the legal guardian for her young niece and nephew. With Christmas just around the corner, her outlook on making the best of things is quickly dwindling. Paisley, the butler for the kids distant grandfather, has arrived and invited the whole family to the castle for the holidays. Edward, the grandfather, is not pleased to see these “outsiders” in his home and creates a very cold and distant feeling to the whole holiday season.  Ashton, Edwards only surviving son and the Prince of Castleberry is intrigued with the new arrivals, but still stiff and cold.

Jules starts to settle into castle life etiquette and makes a few changes. For the sake of the holidays in general, but mostly for Milo and Maggie, she decorates the Christmas tree instead of having the staff do it. It takes a while to warm up but Edward comes around and starts to remember what Christmas is all about and how to move on with his grief. At the annual Christmas Ball Jules overhears a conversation that she feels is directed at her, and she tries to run. Will Ashton, who has grown quite fond of her, be able to keep her in Castleberry to explore this budding relationship, or will he loose her and himself along the way?

I think this is one of the best “Hallmark” Christmas movies around. It might be a bit on the sappy love story side for the men folk, but it has lots of love, laughs, and overall heartwarming emotion for everyone.

This Is Us (2016)

TV Series – This is a show that started airing in September 2016. After reading all the hubbub about this one, I decided it was worth watching an episode or two to see what it’s all about. I fell in LOVE with this series. Its focus is 3 same age siblings (Kevin, Kate, and Randall)  and their parents (Jack and Rebecca). It bounces back and forth from current time (2016-2017) , to segments of the past (1989-1995) showing how they grew up and became who they are today. Even as adults their stories intertwine with each other and everyone around them. With the title being This is us- I think everyone can relate to a character or situation. This series seems to hit on a lot of topics all at the same time: Weight, Fear, Race, Emotional trauma, Death, Marriage, Alcohol, Finance, Drugs.

I am not going to lie to you – this series is definitely an emotional heavy hitter, but sit down with a box of Kleenex, a chocolate bar, and some tea and enjoy the journey this family has to show you.

Making Winter: A Hygge-Inspired Guide to Surviving the Winter Months by Emily Mitchell

BookHygge, the Danish concept of coziness and wintery happiness, is all the rage right now, but the Danes don’t have the market cornered on winter bliss. Winter is a wonderful time for all kinds of making things – making presents, baking treats, crafting warm and cozy things out of yarn. (Is there anything better than a nice skein of yarn and a hot cup of tea on a snowy afternoon?) In this book, Emily Mitchell offers a range of crafts and activities suitable for the long, cold winter months, including tasty recipes and lovely crochet patterns. Her projects span the whole of winter, from the late days of fall when you can collect freshly-fallen leaves to preserve, to the earliest parts of spring when the first bulbs begin to sprout. Rather than getting depressed about the end of summer, get excited for winter with this wonderful book of ideas.

Funny Games (2008)

MovieFunny Games is, without a doubt the most infuriating film I have ever watched.  I should mention first that horror and thriller films are definitely not my genre of choice, but I can still appreciate what goes into the suspense and jump scares that give me the jitters.  After seeing Funny Games just one time, I adamantly refuse to ever watch it again.  However, I do acknowledge that what enrages me could be someone else’s favorite movie of all time.  To each their own.

It starts as horror stories often do: a family goes on holiday, anticipating a nice, quiet vacation.  Then two strangers show up (stranger danger!), and the trip quickly becomes their worst nightmare.  The two men first arrive at the house of the family requesting to borrow some eggs, but the offenders return with more sinister demands.  The men create a game of torture and violence against the family, who must struggle to stay alive.

Funny Games is brutal, and the way the offenders break the fourth wall and stare down the audience through the screen really makes my skin crawl.  I hate tension in movies, and the tension in this movie is excruciating for me to sit through without wanting to scream.  Maybe this film is worth watching for the horror or thriller enthusiast.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)

Movie – It’s Thanksgiving, and all the girls are going home from their rural boarding school — all the girls, that is, except for Rose, who wants a chance to talk to her boyfriend before meeting her parents, and Kat, whose parents are dead. Fenced in by snow and isolation, things begin to go slowly but inescapably wrong within the near-empty school. Meanwhile, Joan is hitching a ride in the direction of the school with a kindly married couple. If they have any idea what’s waiting for them at the school, they show no signs of it, but they won’t be pleased at what they find.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter is a slow-burn kind of horror movie, the kind where the eerie wrongness creeps up behind you so slowly you hardly know it’s there. If you’re in the market for thrills, look elsewhere, but if you want to become completely terrified of the thick blanket of snow that traps you indoors with whoever — and whatever — is inside with you, this movie directed by the son of Anthony Perkins, made famous by his role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, will be just your cup of tea.

Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy, M.D.

Book–Dr. Tweedy, currently an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University, shares his experiences in this roughly chronological memoir that explores his identity as a black man and how it intersects with his identity as a doctor. He explores his discomfort with the fact that, for so many illnesses, simply being black is a major risk factor, and he is one of only a handful of black students in his medical program. He observes half-seriously that “being black can be bad for your health.” To me, the most interesting parts of the book are in the middle, where he tells various anecdotes about his patients’ reactions to him as a doctor during his residency and observes the inequalities in care received by the rich and the poor, who are disproportionately black. During his education, Tweedy briefly serves as a doctor at a pop-up clinic in a poor, rural area, prescribing whatever medicines his patients can afford and doing his best to make notes for whichever doctor will see them next time. He contrasts this type of patient-doctor relationship to that of his more affluent patients with health insurance, who are able to see the same primary care doctor each visit and receive drugs based on efficacy rather than affordability.

Tweedy makes for an engaging and thoughtful narrator. His account is modest and he remains cognizant of his own biases, having grown up in a middle class household shielded from the disadvantages suffered by many of his patients. If you enjoy Black Man in a White Coat, try Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, another examination of what it means to be a black man in America.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Book – Samuel Hawley and his daughter, Loo, are always on the move. Each time they settle into a new place, Hawley sets up a shrine in their bathroom to honor to his late wife, who drowned when Loo was a baby. Finally, when Loo is a teenager, Hawley decides to try to give her a normal life at his wife’s seaside hometown in Massachusetts. When Hawley competes in the local Greasy Pole Contest, he takes off his shirt to reveal a body riddled with scars from bullet holes. As Hawley and Loo’s latest stop becomes “home,” Hawley reflects on his past and the incidents that led to his scars. Loo begins to reach out to a few of the people in the town and as she matures, she learns about the secrets that bind her and her father. This book is a unique look at family bonds, guilt, sacrifice and the impact of our decisions and how they can ripple through generations.