The Children Act (2017)

DVD- This movie is based on the book by Ian McEwan, which has an amazing cast lead by Emma Thompson. She plays a British High Court judge who makes difficult and serious judgements, that affect the life and death of people on a daily basis. Stanley Tucci plays her sexually frustrated, left behind, husband. The film revolves around the child Adam Henry, played by Fionn Whitehead (Dunkirk). Emma Thompson’s character has to decide a whether the hospital has legal standing to authorize Adam to undergo a blood transfusion which will save his life or, grant him the autonomy to trust in a faith that prevents him from accepting blood products.

I found this movie serious and intense. A few of the heavy hitting topics this movie works through include:  religion, law, middle age marriage, affairs, and an infatuated youth of a mature woman.  How courts are governed in Britain, with their customs and rules is an interesting feature, as well. Lastly, the locations depicted in the film, are beautiful.

If you are looking for an excellent, cerebral movie, this is it! If, however, you are looking for a lighthearted movie with the normally-silly Stanley Tucci and Emma Thompson, keep looking!

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Book–In John Green’s first novel since standout hit The Fault in Our Stars six years ago, Turtles All the Way Down follows 16-year-old Aza Holmes. She and her fearless best friend Daisy hear that the criminal billionaire father of Davis, one of Aza’s childhood friends, has gone missing, with a $100,000 reward offered for finding him. Daisy ropes Aza into trying to find him for the reward money. The actual heart of the book, though, is Aza and her struggles with mental illness, anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

Despite the mystery around which the plot revolves, all of the tension and interest in the story derive from Aza’s thoughts and her interior life. If you like John Green’s signature blend of philosophy, eloquence and navel-gazing, this is a great thing: you will love this book. If, like me, you prefer your books to be a touch more plot-driven and full of dialogue, you might prefer John Green’s other books, or possibly another author entirely. What I can say is that Aza has a strong narrative voice and her difficulties with mental illness feel utterly real. If you enjoy this book or want to read more YA books with mental illness themes, I recommend Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan or Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Raw (2016)

Movie–Justine, lifelong vegetarian, comes from a family tradition of vegetarian veterinarians (try saying that 3 times fast). The movie follows her first days at her new school with her upperclassman older sister and her new roommate, the brutal hazing she and the other freshman endure, and the bloody consequences that ensue. The freshman class is drenched in animal blood à la Carrie and made to eat rabbit liver. Justine is pressured into eating it by her sister, despite their vegetarianism. This proves to be a terrible mistake. Justine finds herself with an sudden and insatiable craving for living tissue: hair, raw chicken cutlets, and even human flesh… The nightmarishly oppressive and clinical atmosphere of her school provides the ghastly backdrop for Justine’s struggle, and inevitable failure, to control her urges.

When this movie was screened at the Toronto film festival, some of the viewers fainted, and it’s not hard to see why. One scene in particular that takes place after a bikini waxing gone wrong is very hard to watch. Also, be aware that this movie is in French with English subtitles in case that’s not your thing. If you like Raw, you might also enjoy the cerebral cannibalism found in Hannibal seasons 1-3.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Book–Set in the near future, Palmer’s novel follows Rebecca Wright, a thirty-something recovering alcoholic, and her physicist husband Philip. Philip has been working fruitlessly for many years on a causal volatility device (in layman’s terms, a time machine), and as far as he knows, has not been having much luck. Meanwhile, Rebecca has been having a nagging sense that something is not right; the president is not the right person, her friends’ personalities aren’t quite right, her life isn’t what it should be. Palmer has an interesting take on time travel that, without spoiling anything, powers much of the narrative. For me, the attraction of this book was the depiction of the near-future society, where the president delivers personalized messages to each citizen and cars drive themselves.

While the main character is not, in my opinion, likeable, she is very real and flawed. Palmer’s views on race, gender, marriage, and technology are very much on display here and, regardless of whether you agree with them, they are certainly interesting to read about and only occasionally preachy. Version Control is a perfect sci-fi and literary fiction blend sure to appeal to fans of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

The Stray (2017)

Movie – “Pluto” appeared out of nowhere and made his home with the Davis family. Dad works way too many hours, mom is exhausted dealing with the three kids, and the kids are having a hard time fitting in with those their own age. What can be done to fix these problems?  Adopting a stray dog, of course. In addition, the parents decide that it is time to make a drastic change for the family’s sake.  Afterward, in an effort to better fit in with the kids and gain a new prospective on their lives, dad takes the eldest son and two neighborhood kids on an epic camping trip. A frightful night will leave this group forever altered, including “Pluto.”

Based on the cover and synopsis of The Stray, the movie has more depth, than I initially thought – which was more along the lines of Homeward Bound or Milo and Otis, with a lighter tone. The story is more than a cute tale with a fluffy dog. The Stray does have a bit of a “churchy” vibe, which isn’t for me, but it does help tie the movie together I suppose. If you are looking to unload tons of emotions in  a short time – this is the movie for you.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Book–Henry “Monty” Montague, bisexual teenager and soon-to-be British lord, is a drunk disappointment to his abusive father. His last hurrah before descending into the doldrums of running the estate at his father’s side is his grand tour, the trip around the European continent that many young male aristocrats take to shore up overseas alliances and soak up some culture. Monty is not interested in alliances or culture; he’s interested in (read: has a massive crush on) his traveling companion, his biracial best friend Percy, and in getting drunk and laid as much as possible. Monty’s tour gets hijacked by his father sending along his sharp-tongued little sister Felicity and, even worse, a chaperone to keep Monty on a strict itinerary. However, when Monty swipes a MacGuffin from one of his father’s allies and highwaymen ransack their carriage to get it back, their tour takes a sharp turn toward adventure, complete with alchemy, pirates, and even true love.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is so darn much fun. Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all such well-drawn characters with great dialog and relationships with each other. While each of the characters has some darkness and secrets in them, the overall tone is optimistic. If I had any complaint about this book, it’s that it felt too modern. Monty’s coolness with his bisexuality (and conception of it as such) among other things seems anachronistic and is not entirely explained away by the Author’s Note at the end. If you enjoy this one, you might also like the Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette for a darker, more complex take on an adventuring and queer romance story or Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda if you were into it for the character dynamics and romance, but not the adventure.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Book – Ginny Moon is an autistic fourteen-year-old finally living in her “Forever House” with her adoptive parents, Maura and Brian. Abused and neglected by her mother, Ginny had been placed into foster care when she was nine. Ginny works with a therapist, Patrice, to help her set up guidelines for more successful relationships and behavior. She struggles to make sense of her world and rituals and rules help her. When her Forever Parents learn they are expecting a baby, their fears about Ginny’s behavior derail her progress. In the midst of their struggle, Ginny becomes increasingly intent on finding Baby Doll, who she remembers leaving behind in a suitcase when her mother was arrested. With her limited ability to communicate, she attempts to explain about Baby Doll. As Ginny’s story unfolds, we meet her biological family and, through Ginny’s eyes, we begin to understand what she is searching for. This poignant story made me think about how easy it is to jump to conclusions instead of really listening to the meaning behind the words. Ginny’s journey shows that life isn’t easy, being a hero isn’t easy and, most of all, being an outsider isn’t easy.

This Is Us (2016)

TV Series – Currently in its third season after first airing in September 2016 – this show still has not lost momentum. After reading all the hype, I decided it was worth watching an episode to see what all the buzz was about. It didn’t take long for me to fall in LOVE with central characters Kevin, Kate and Randall – siblings of the same age and their parents, Jack and Rebecca. Told from shifting perspectives and from the present to the past, we see each one’s trajectory, and what lead them to be the person they are. As when the siblings were young, their stories intertwined with one another, it also does with them in adulthood. The show’s title – This Is Us couldn’t be more apropos, as it reflects characters or life situations we can relate to. The series touches on topics such as:  struggles with weight, fears, race relations, emotional trauma, death, marriage, alcohol and drug, abuse.

The show is definitely an emotional heavy hitter.  Nevertheless, sit down with a box of Kleenex, a chocolate bar, tea and enjoy the journey with this family.

Beast by Brie Spangler

Book--Ever since the 6th grade, Dylan has been larger than other boys. Now at over 6 ft. tall, improbably hairy, and still growing, 15-year-old Dylan (called Beast by his peers) hides his face under hats and feels trapped in a body that doesn’t match his insides. When his school bans hats, Dylan walks off the edge of the school building and breaks his leg. He claims it was an accident. His orthopedist and his mother don’t agree. They send him to counseling for teenagers with self-harming tendencies, where he meets Jamie. Jamie is beautiful, smart, and funny, just the kind of girl that would impress Dylan’s friends. Because this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, Dylan starts to shed some of his shallowness and misogyny as he falls in love with her, and begins to let go of his anger at the world. However, when Dylan learns that Jamie is transgender (a fact that she told him when they first met, had he been listening), he freaks out and pulls away from her. Will Dylan be able to get over his knee-jerk transphobia and apologize to Jamie? Will she be able to forgive him? Will they get back together?

Of course they will. But reading about how is the whole fun of it. I really enjoyed reading about Dylan’s journey from crass and callow teenage boy to sensitive young man. Despite being a fairy tale retelling, Beast stands on its own. If you enjoy this one, you may also enjoy other LBGT classic story retellings aimed at young adults (yes, this is a whole genre) such as Ash by Malinda Lo (retells Cinderella), Great by Sara Benincasa (retells The Great Gatsby), and As I Descended (retells Macbeth).