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!

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Book – Imagine waking up in the morning thinking you had a one night stand, because the man next to you is a stranger and when you look in the mirror you are shocked to see a woman in her late 40’s, since you think you are 20 something. And the man, Ben, tells you that he has been your husband for 22 years.  This is what happens to Christine every morning in the gripping story Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson.  She has a type of amnesia, supposedly from an accident she had over 20 years ago and each night when she goes to sleep her memories from the previous day are erased.

Every day after Ben leaves for work, Christine receives a phone call from neurologist, Dr. Nash who is trying to treat her condition, reminding her to write in her journal. As she secretly continues writing in her journal and meeting with the doctor, memories slowly start forming.  But instead of relief, Christine becomes fearful and confused, because she finds the words, “don’t trust Ben” written in her journal and she suspects that Ben and Dr. Nash are lying to her.  She is beginning to remember and they are both giving conflicting information about her life.  Are they trying to protect her or harm her?

A heart pounding psychological thriller with a surprise ending. This book has received many starred reviews.  It was also made into a movie by the same title.  Readers who liked Girl on the Train would probably enjoy this novel!

Hamilton: The Original Broadway Cast Recording

Music – If you’re into musical theater (or, indeed, if you watch late-night talk shows), surely by now you’ve heard of Hamilton, the outrageously popular hip-hop musical about Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. If you haven’t: It’s a hip-hop musical. About Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It is, in a word, amazing.

The story follows Hamilton (played by writer & composer Lin-Manuel Miranda) from his arrival in New York City in 1776 through the Revolutionary War, George Washington’s presidency, and to his death in a duel with Aaron Burr (spoilers!) in 1804. Burr, played by Leslie Odom, Jr., narrates, offering a little distance from Hamilton’s own relentless enthusiasm. The music is a brilliant mashup of theatrical flair and the past several decades of hip-hop, quoting both lyrically and musically from sources as diverse as Les Miserables, Beyoncé, Company, Kanye West, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Biggie Smalls.

This show is so dense, complex, and uniformly strong it’s hard to pick out favorite pieces. General Lafayette’s (Daveed Diggs) rap in “Guns and Ships” is a huge amount of fun; Burr’s statement of purpose in “Wait for It” is outstanding; Thomas Jefferson (also Daveed Diggs, in a great piece of double casting) never gets his own showstopper, but he steals every piece he’s in anyway. When it comes down to it, though, it’s Angelica (Renée Elise Goldsbury) and Eliza Schuyler (Philippa Soo) I love best – their songs, particularly “Satisfied” and “Burn,” are some of the best depictions I’ve ever seen of strong women constrained by their place in history.

If you get hooked, there’s plenty of American history to keep you busy, from Ron Chernow’s biography that formed the basis of the show to new titles like War of Two: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Duel That Stunned the Nation and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Unfinished Business (2015)

Movie – The best way to describe Unfinished Business is as a raunchy comedy with family life lessons. Vaughn is a businessman that has just quit his job and ventured out to start his own business to rival his old company. The only way to do that is by landing a big client and beating out his former company.

Throughout the adventure he is joined by the fresh out of water Mike Pancake (Dave Franco) and an old school businessman Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson). Both characters, along with other well-known actors (mainly Nick Frost), lend some laughs and make the movie enjoyable. There is family drama back at home Vaughn is dealing with in his character’s way, which gives the movie that family life lesson feel. This is intermixed with some over the top raunchy comedic scenes not suitable for all ages.

I feel I was taken in two very different directions. On the one hand I found the raunchiness funny. Franco and Wilkinson characters were well played and made the movie funny. But then the family drama put the lead character into perspective and displays him as a family man trying to provide for his family by any means needed. This movie is not for everyone. Fans of Vaughn from Swingers and Made will not enjoy this. However someone looking for those “guy humor” laughs mixed with a warm your heart feeling may want to see this.

Sycamore Row by John Grisham

Book – It’s been a while since I’ve picked up a John Grisham novel and I’m very glad that I read the legal thriller Sycamore Row.  Attorney Jake Brigance from A Time to Kill resurfaces to protect the interests of his client multi-millionaire Seth Hubbard who is battling terminal cancer.  Seth has handwritten  a new will rescinding the one he had previously drawn up at another law firm.  The following day he hangs himself from a tree. The new will cuts out his children, grandchildren, and ex-wives and leaves the bulk of his fortune to his African-American  housekeeper Lettie.

This is Ford County Mississippi, where racial tensions still run high as Jake battles the Hubbard family and an army of lawyers disputing the validity of the new will bestowing an excess of $20 million. Was Seth unduly influenced by Lettie, were his medications and pain clouding his judgement? This is a mystery that tries to get solved in this fast paced, suspenseful legal procedural.  Well written with great character development, this book is a must read!