The Imposter (2012)

Movie – There are some who feel truth is just as good as fiction and at times better. The Imposter is one of those stories that may be better than fiction. For watchers of Spanish cinema, like something out of a Pedro Almodóvar film. It is a documentary about a missing child, Nicolas Barclay. In 1994 a family in Texas reported their son missing. He turns up three and a half years later in Spain. Or does he? The Barclays do not see their “son” for the first time until he is back in Texas. Their child was a blond hair blue eyed boy. The person they are reunited with is neither blond nor blue eyed, with a profound Spanish accent, and seems to look older than 16, which is the around the age Nicolas should be.

The Imposter will take you on a trip with twists and turns throughout only to leave you with more questions. There are questions about the person claiming to be Nicolas. Who is he, what is he doing, and why is he doing this? In addition, why does the family accept this stranger as their son? Serious criminal accusations will keep the viewer questioning what is going on in this family. All of this will leave you with more questions that may or may not be fully answered by the end of the film.

Whether you like true-crime or enjoy fiction, The Imposter will give you a good story, almost as good as, or even better than most mysteries. This one is for those who enjoy mysteries, thrillers, true-crimes, and love plot twists.

How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

how-to-start-a-fireBook – Best friends and college roommates at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1990’s, Anna, Kate and Georgianna share adventures, life-stories and secrets. Anna is the ringleader, who makes up games for every party they attend. A risk-taker and at odds with her austere, wealthy family, her life begins to spiral out of control. Kate is reserved and follows Anna’s lead. She hides herself in obsessive research about various and random topics, including mushrooms, redwoods and planets. George loves nature and becomes a forest ranger. A beauty, she easily attracts the attention of men, but often settles for unsatisfying  relationships.

Twenty years after college, the women find themselves retracing the paths their lives have taken. The story alternates between their viewpoints and bounces back and forth from the past to the present. I slowly discovered that one evening in particular influenced the lives of all three. I liked getting to know these characters and how their interests, talents and personalities threaded through their friendship. Lisa Lutz also wrote the popular Spellman Files series.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Book-  Despite living in a small Texas town collectively obsessed with football and the local Miss Clover City beauty pageant, Willowdean Dickson has managed to carve out a niche away from all that, looking to her deceased shut-in aunt Lucy for guidance. This is no mean feat, given that Will’s (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her) mother is a former Miss Clover City winner and current pageant bigwig. However, the pageant draws Will into its orbit. First her best friend Ellen begins to hang out with pageant hopefuls, creating a distance between herself and Will where none existed before. Then Will enters a secret affair with the laconic Bo, an enigmatic-but-hot fast food coworker whom she’s crushed on for months.

Though Will is a bigger girl, she has up to this point in the story projected confidence. However, Bo’s keeping her a secret, and her niggling suspicion that her mother is ashamed of her, damages her confidence. In a wild bid to prove to herself to herself and to do what her aunt Lucy had always dreamed of doing, she, and a ragtag band of other unlikely candidates, enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. What follows is a campy high school coming-of-age experience reminiscent of Hairspray. Perhaps the best, most refreshing thing about Dumplin’ is that, unlike other stories in this vein and much like real life, the fat protagonist is allowed to remain fat; she doesn’t magically lose weight the moment she locates her self-confidence.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Book – I admit it, I have watched Hoarders. It’s fascinating and horrifying all at once, and even while I felt like a bad person for watching these people’s lives splashed all over TV, I couldn’t look away. But what’s really going on when someone hoards? What are they thinking, and when they’re putting themselves in danger, how can we help them? Randy Frost is one of the few psychologists studying hoarding and its treatments – most therapists and psychiatrists say that it can’t be treated at all – and Stuff is his explanation, for a popular audience, of exactly what’s going on here.

According to Frost, hoarding happens on a spectrum, and a lot of things that are pathological in hoarders are things we all do – using our things as a way to express our identity, for instance, or using our things as a kind of security blanket. This is a little unsettling to read, to be honest, because you can see just how short the distance is from “I am most comfortable when surrounded by my own things” to “I can’t cope with my things going away.” He explains why dramatic clean-outs like they do on TV almost never work, and why they’re sometimes dangerous. I found the whole thing fascinating, and it certainly prompted me to re-think of my own relationship to my stuff.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Book – Mia is the “good girl” in this page turning novel of psychological suspense.  She is an art teacher at an alternative high school and somewhat of a disappointment to her high profile Chicago judge father, since his other daughter and Mia’s sister is an attorney and following in his footsteps.  Her family connection results in Mia being kidnapped.  The man who abducts her, Colin, is being paid off to lure her on the pretense of a one night stand and deliver her to another party that will demand a ransom.  But for some reason Colin decides not to turn her over and hides out with Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota.  Eventually Mia is saved, but is suffering from amnesia, having blocked the incident from her mind.  There is a lot going on in this story.  It is told from the perspective of 4 characters: Mia, Colin, Mia’s mother – Eve, and Gabe – the detective assigned to the case. It also jumps back and forth in time chronicling events during the incident and the aftermath. But readers will not be disappointed while trying to find out what really did happen and why, which is not revealed until the very end.

This book would probably appeal to fans of Gone Girl, but is less violent and graphic. 

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.