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.

Trolls (2017)

Movie – Growing up I was never a big fan of trolls.  The odd little dolls just gave me the heebie jeebies with their creepy, smiling faces.  However, the 2017 movie, Trolls is a whole different story. I adore this film; it’s fun, musical, and just so colorful.  I’ve already watched it three times. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake belt out the lyrics as main characters Poppy and Branch which is a real treat to listen to. I definitely recommend checking out the soundtrack after you watch the film.

Welcome to a world full of never-ending happiness, music, and love! The Trolls are the most joyful creatures who love throwing parties, breaking into song, and most of all, hugs!  Poppy is their beloved ruler, and the very best party thrower. However, these lively beings have a dark past. Years ago, the trolls were attacked by a miserable beastly species called the Bergens.  Since their escape, there have been no Bergen sightings for a long time. When the Bergens suddenly return and kidnap a bunch of trolls, it is up to Poppy to rescue them.  Poppy pairs up with Branch, an intolerable, grumpy troll, and they set off to save their friends. It’s an adventure featuring with unlikely duo, unexpected twists and turns, and fantastic musical numbers.

Everything about this movie makes me happy. The setting is so vibrant and colorful, and I love, love, love all of the trolls and their individual personalities. It’s a quirky, fun story that makes you want to get up and dance! By far one of my favorite films this year, and the best kid’s movie I’ve seen in awhile.

 

Dark Angel (2016)

TV – Do you remember beloved and loyal Anna from Downton Abbey?  This time Joanne Froggart plays a very different character. Mary Ann Cotton was one of Britain’s most notorious and prolific serial killers, believed to have murdered over 20 people in Victorian England. Mary Ann, who became known as the ‘Dark Angel”, just wanted to get ahead of life, escaping the poverty of the coal fields and the hardships of a miner’s family. She did back breaking work, but never earned enough to enjoy the fruits of her labor.  Desperate, she discovered the benefits of life insurance and the effects of arsenic, especially when dispensed in a “nice cup of tea”. She became an expert at poisoning by mimicking the ailments of that time, such as cholera and typhoid fever.  Despite her pre-meditated planning, it’s hard for the viewer not to empathize with her situation – she was abused, hungry, lived in filthy and dangerous environments. She gave birth to 13 children and had four husbands of which it was believed that she murdered 11 0f her children and four of her husbands. In 1873, she was arrested, tried, and hanged for poisoning her stepson. She never admitted to any of the murders.

This is a fascinating Masterpiece Theater Production of a woman whose victims outnumbered even the notorious Jack the Ripper.

Lady Killers by Tori Telfer

Book – It’s hard to find a good true crime book about murderous women. There’s a way in which female killers are often treated less seriously than male killers, as though their femininity makes them somehow cute or trivial even though they’ve killed people. From the title, I was expecting Lady Killers to be something like that. I was pleasantly surprised when what I got instead was a chronicle of the way the contemporary media, and then history, treats women murderers. There are some big names in here (Countess Bathory, obviously; the Bloody Benders) but also a few I’d never heard of, and some I only knew a little about. They aren’t just stories from America and the UK, either – we’ve got murderers here from Egypt, Hungary, Russia, and Ireland. In each story, Telfer picks apart the ways these women are dehumanized (many of them were described as animalistic) or their crimes minimized by making them sexy (bathing in the blood of virgins!) or purely mercenary (killing one husband for the insurance money is one thing, but five?). And then, once they’ve been executed or died in prison, we forget all about them. Aileen Wurnos is far from the first female serial killer, but that was exactly what she was called in the press. In the end, Telfer’s thesis is simple: women are people, and sometimes people are horrible. Fans of Harold Schechter and Skip Hollandsworth should enjoy this very much.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

Book-– Written by former director Neil MacGregor of the National Gallery in London, A History of the World in 100 Objects uses artifacts in the museum to tell the story of the world from our prehistoric origins all the way through to today. MacGregor refreshingly focuses about equally on objects from the Orient as well as the Occident, including such disparate artifacts as a Korean roof tile and a modern-day credit card. The joy of this 700+ page tome comes from how completely knowledgeable and intelligent MacGregor is; I felt MacGregor struck a nice balance between the breadth of topics he covered and the depth he delved into for each topic. I learned more about history, and had more fun doing it, from this book than I ever did in school. If you prefer a listening experience over a reading one, you can also download the entire collection, divided into 100 episodes, from the BBC’s website for free.

If you enjoy this book, you might also like others that take a concrete, artifact-based view of historical events, such as The Civil War in 50 Objects. If you were more intrigued by this book’s birds-eye, macro view of history, try A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (has a science bent) or Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

The Book of Life (2014)

Movie – When the rulers of the lands of the dead make a wager one can only image what will happen to the living. This sounds like the start of a gory horror movie, but it not. It is the premise for an animated-film about the Mexican holiday: Día de Los Muertos. In The Book of Life, La Muerte, the ruler of the Land of the Remembered makes a bet with Xibalba, the rules of the Land of the Forgotten. The wager involves three childhood friends and love.

Xibalba bets that Maria will end up with Joaquín, while La Muerte believes Maria and Manolo are destined to fall in love. Xibalba hedges his bet by presenting Joaquín with a pin that will protect him and makes him the town hero. With no protection, Manolo dies and Xibalba wins the bet. Manolo is transported to the Land of the Remembered where he meets all of his deceased family. He discovers Xibalba’s tricks and vows to travel to the Land of the Forgotten to tell La Muerte so he can get back to Maria.

The animation is colorful and imaginative. The characters were modeled after wooden childrens’ toys. The scenery for the Land of the Remembered depicts some of the most traditional images of Día de Los Muertos. There are colorful sugar skull shapes all over this land. The dead have faces like that of sugar skulls. In addition, there are scenes from the cemeteries where the families have set up offerings and alters with pictures, traditional flowers, candles, favorite foods, and pan de muertos (day of the dead sweet bread).

If you like colorful images, great animation, a cute storyline, and a fiercely independent lead female character, watch this. Also, if you ever wondered about this Mexican holiday, watch The Book of Life to get a small taste of what this holiday means to Mexicans. It is not about worshiping the dead. It is about understanding death is a part of life and this is how you get to celebrate the life of those who have passed on. By showing them how much you love them.

Ghost Summer by Tananarive Due

Book – Tananarive Due is the hidden secret of modern horror fiction. Sick of sparkly vampires? Bored with ghosts? Tired of the same old gothic secrets and bloody horrors and frankly offended by the level of sexual assault? You need to be reading Tananarive Due. One of the luminaries of the Afrofuturism movement (speculative fiction with a focus on Africa and the African diaspora), Due’s characters are gut-wrenchingly real, and her stories, even when horrific, are mesmerizing.

Take, for instance, “The Knowing,” the story of a ten-year-old boy and his mother who knows the date everyone she meets will die. Or “Free Jim’s Mine,” a classic deal-with-the-devil story told from the point of view of a relative, rather than the one who makes the deal, who is trying to escape via the Underground Railroad. Or the title story, “Ghost Summer,” an award-winning novella that expertly brings together backyard ghosts and the ghosts of history and family, all from the viewpoint of young ghost hunter Davie Stephens, who just wanted to be YouTube-famous and got way more than he bargained for. Even readers who aren’t big horror fans would enjoy her work, I think – it’s not graphic, but powerfully emotional, in sometimes heartbreaking but always insightful ways.