The Surrogate by Judith Henry Wall

Book – The Surrogate, by Judith Henry Wall is a fantastically thrilling drama.  Twenty-year old Jamie Long is completely broke..  Then she discovers something that will pay a pretty penny, becoming a surrogate.  Thinking she’s hit the jackpot, Jamie immediately agrees to take the job for the Hartmanns, a famously powerful evangelical family.  When she is forced to sign a contract that demands complete secrecy of the surrogacy, Jamie begins to wonder if she’s made a mistake.  While Jamie initially thinks she is merely helping a couple to conceive, she soon discovers the family’s hidden secrets that leave her fearing for her life.

When I think of the word surrogacy,  I remember Phoebe carrying triplets for her brother on Friends, (the tv series), or the comedic perfection of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in Baby Mama. The Surrogate takes a much darker turn, creating a suspense-ridden thriller.  Throughout the story, I was a bit frustrated at the naivety of the main character, Jamie.  She is so overly trusting of this family of strangers, and not at all concerned that the contract demands she move into their home for the pregnancy.  However, all in all I really enjoyed the novel.

Moral of the story?  You can’t trust anyone.  Especially secretive strangers.  Who are extremely wealthy.  And sketchy as heck.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.

I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Book – What would you do if you accidentally came upon a letter from your spouse, addressed to you, but with the instructions that it only be opened in the event of his death? This is the Pandora’s box that Cecelia has to deal with. She is the envy of all the mothers at school for her superb organizational skills and being able to juggle her involvement at school with her thriving Tupperware business. Could the contents of this letter affect her perfect suburban life – married to the perfect man, with whom she has three perfect daughters? She is one of three women from different walks of life who are brought together by sheer coincidence at a Catholic elementary school in Sydney.  The story will keep you turning the pages to find out how their lives are intertwined by a common thread.  The second woman Tess, is shaken by a confession from her husband along with her best friend/cousin Felicity, that they’ve fallen in love with each other. Tess leaves taking her 6 year old son to live with her mother in Sydney, while she sorts things out. And finally we have Rachel, who is older than the other women and is the school secretary, where Cecelia and Tess have their children enrolled. Rachel is consumed by grief and tries to hide her hatred for the P.E. teacher Connor, who is an old flame of Tess.  It turns out that everyone has secrets and readers will be fascinated as the fate of these women unfolds.

If you enjoy this book, you should check out these other titles by Moriarty – Big Little Lies, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, The Last Anniversary, Three Wishes, and What Alice Forgot.

Cinderella (2015)

Movie – And so it begins.  The 2015 film, Cinderellastarts Disney’s new endeavor to take all our favorite childhood films and transform them into live-action remakes.  Don’t get me wrong, I am pretty excited to see a few of them hit the screen, mainly Beauty and The Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Mulan. So, obviously, the premiere of Cinderella was a BIG deal.  Because I love children’s movies, I felt obligated to give the fairy tale remake a try.  With Lily James as our lovely Cinderella, evil stepmother Cate Blanchett, and Helena Bonham Carter as the quirky fairy godmother, the film has a killer cast.

Unlike many previous Cinderella adaptations, this film gave Cinderella’s mother some screentime before she passes, which I thought was a nice touch.  The story moved a bit slowly for my liking, which I understand was probably due to the in depth storytelling of the film.  It seemed there was a greater focus on each of the characters.  For example, the deeper character development of the wicked stepmother helped to see her in a different light, which was a unique change of pace.

I did get caught up with how much the story dragged (in my opinion), which was rather annoying.  And the CGI was a bit much for my taste.  I also thought the main message of the story,  Have courage and be kind, though a good message, was unnecessarily repetitive throughout the movie.  Still the film managed to retain the fairytale magic that made me fall in love with the original story.

Nothing Like the Holidays (2009)

Movie – I would like to start by confessing: I have never seen It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle of 34th Street, or White Christmas. I know many are wondering how this is possible. Sure I’ve caught bits a pieces here and there throughout my life, but I have never sat down to watch any of these three Christmas movies. That being said, I still feel there are great holiday movies other than these three classics. Some of my more recent holiday classic staples include: Elf, Love Actually, The Family Stone, and Nothing Like the Holidays. The first three are more known than the latter.

Nothing Like the Holidays is set in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and tells the story of a normal dysfunctional family going through tough times all around. There are the parents, Anna and Edy who seem to be drifting apart; one son, Jesse who just finished a tour of military service and does not want to take over the family business; a daughter, Roxanna scared to tell her family she is not a Hollywood star; and a another son, Mauricio who is having marital issues. All of them are coming together for the holidays and bringing their problems with them to share.

As I mentioned before, the movie was filmed in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. It does a good job of showcasing some of the neighborhood and some of Chicago’s landmarks. The story is a little cheesy and at times tries too hard to convey emotion. It does a good job of keeping you entertained with the supporting characters and small family issues like the removing of a tree after drinking. Don’t try using power tools while intoxicated kids! Nothing Like the Holidays is a great movie for those looking to change up their holiday movie experience and see another side of Christmas in Chicago.

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book – Although his epic trilogy gave rise to the modern fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote dozens of stories simply for the entertainment of his children, John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. (The spiders in The Hobbit were reportedly there specifically to scare Michael.) Between 1920, when John was three, and 1942, when Priscilla was 13, he wrote letters from Father Christmas to the children (presumably in answer to their own letters). They arrived in envelopes with stamps and a North Pole postage mark, fully illustrated, and told of all the adventures of Father Christmas, his elves and the North Polar Bear. (In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Father Christmas writes that they have been battling goblins.)

While nothing like Lord of the Rings, The Father Christmas Letters (and the second edition, Letters from Father Christmas, with slightly different content) are charming stories, and a wonderful addition to your seasonal celebrations. And maybe they’ll inspire a Christmas tradition for your own family. After all, what could be better than writing a letter to Santa and actually getting one in reply?

Microshelters by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen

Book – Deek Diedricksen travels around the world searching for the most creative and interesting tiny structures. His book highlights 59 small structures, including tree houses, tiny houses, caravans, cabins and playhouses. Their uses range from full-time living to vacation homes to backyard writing or zen retreats. Photos, floor plans and narratives offer showcase the clever uses of space and design ideas. Upcycling and recycling are components of most of the structures. Polycarbonate roofing was used for walls in some cases, pot lids and water jugs were used for a window in one structure. Sometimes height was used for additional space, with access through ladders or even staggered shelving. He also has led building and design workshops. Deek also includes chapters on the necessary tools, how to salvage and decorate and offers six plans with construction details. If you enjoy this book, you may also want to check out The Big Tiny by Dee Williams or Shed Decor by Sally Coulthard.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Book – I recognize that it is blasphemy of the highest order to suggest that any YA book about a group of young magic-users growing into their powers could actually be better than Harry Potter.  So let’s settle for ‘every bit as good,’ and ‘a wonderful new series to fill the Potter-shaped hole in your heart,’ and go from there.

Twelve-year-old Sunny is an outsider in more ways than she realizes.  Besides the culture shock of moving to Nigeria, her parents’ first home, after living in New York all her life, Sunny’s albinism keeps her out of the sun and away from the soccer games she loves.  Only school offers a chance to make friends, and these new friends know something about Sunny that she never knew about herself: she is one of the Leopard People, a keeper of secret powers that make her part of a secret worldwide community of magic-users.   Learning to access her new spirit face and the invisibility powers it brings is thrilling.  But Sunny and her friends also have a darker task to tackle: tracking down a magical child-killer and ending his reign of terror.

Akata Witch is an exciting, fresh and thoroughly enjoyable take on the magician-in-training trope.   While the deep vein of Nigerian culture underlying the tale is part of what makes it stand out in the sea of YA fantasy, Sunny’s American-born perspective makes this an easy world for an American reader to enter.  The result is a story with rich, original world-building that will leave you eager for the planned sequel, due in fall 2016.

The Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Book –  For a delectable romantic comedy, check out The Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan.

Meet Polly Waterford, a distraught young woman who is reeling from a toxic break-up.  When she is forced to move out of her boyfriend’s apartment, she has nowhere to go.  And that’s how she finds her escape, on the seaside of Cornwall in a tiny little house in the middle of nowhere.  All alone and far from home, Polly is overcome with loneliness.  She does the only thing she can do, she bakes.  Soon, what was only a comforting hobby turns into much more as the locals discover Polly’s mouth-watering baked goods.

However, the town baker has taken an instant dislike to Polly who has stolen all of her customers.  Can Polly ever escape a life of drama? What will she do when her toxic ex-boyfriend shows up in Cornwall?  This charming tale is full of drama, humor and romance–and of course visions of fresh baked bread.  Enjoy this sweet story that will keep you cozy in the chilly months ahead.

As a sappy romantic, I adore a good love story.  I particularly love romances that take place in a bakery, or food service setting.  If you liked The Little Beach Street Bakery, try The Lost Recipe for Happiness by Barbara O’Neal, and Since You’ve Been Gone by Anouska Knight.

 

 

Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Series 1 (2013)

TV Series – The Honorable Miss Fisher is the James Bond of lady private investigators—she’s got the fancy car, the sumptuous home, the gorgeous wardrobe, and the slick pearl-handled pistol.  Based on a series by author Kerry Greenwood and set in 1920s in Melbourne, Australia, this series features lush flapper-era costumes, gorgeous period sets, and intriguing historical details.  Stories in this series cover the gamut of Australian society and straddle social classes, dealing with such disparate topics as clandestine back-alley abortion providers and high-society charity functions.

Despite the historical setting, however, Phryne feels very much like a modern character.  She is the head of her own odd household which includes her butler (named, appropriately, Mr. Butler), her companion Dot, surrogate daughter Jane, and various other lovers and lost souls she collects. Fans of series like Bones and X-Files will appreciate the romantic chemistry between Phryne and Detective Inspector Jack Robinson, a dashing and sardonic policeman with whom she often collaborates.  Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries will especially appeal to fans of the wide variety of BBC detective shows, such as Inspector Morse and Murdoch Mysteries.  We also own series 2 and 3 of this one, as well as the novels the series is based on, so feel free to make an afternoon of it!