This Is Us (2016)

TV Series – This is a show that started airing in September 2016. After reading all the hubbub about this one, I decided it was worth watching an episode or two to see what it’s all about. I fell in LOVE with this series. Its focus is 3 same age siblings (Kevin, Kate, and Randall)  and their parents (Jack and Rebecca). It bounces back and forth from current time (2016-2017) , to segments of the past (1989-1995) showing how they grew up and became who they are today. Even as adults their stories intertwine with each other and everyone around them. With the title being This is us- I think everyone can relate to a character or situation. This series seems to hit on a lot of topics all at the same time: Weight, Fear, Race, Emotional trauma, Death, Marriage, Alcohol, Finance, Drugs.

I am not going to lie to you – this series is definitely an emotional heavy hitter, but sit down with a box of Kleenex, a chocolate bar, and some tea and enjoy the journey this family has to show you.

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.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Book–Becky Bloomwood is a reluctant financial journalist with a dirty secret:  she can’t stop spending money. Despite harassment from creditors, Becky cannot resist the siren song of shiny new things, particularly clothes, to the point where she invents a dying aunt to justify borrowing money to buy a new scarf. She tries spending less money (and fails), tries making more money (and fails), and even tries marrying rich. The fun of this novel comes from watching Becky squirm; she has a knack for getting herself into sticky, embarrassing situations reminiscent of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and is a delightfully flawed character who with a distinctive and strong narrative voice. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, Confessions of a Shopaholic is chick lit at its light, airy, and compulsively readable best.

If you like this book because of the fashion focus, you’ll also love The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (and its sequel), the Haley Randolph series by Dorothy Howell (start with Handbags and Homicide), and the rest of the Shopaholic series. If you’d have liked this one better if only Becky weren’t so darn shallow, try some of Rainbow Rowell’s books, like Attachments, or A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.

 

 

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Book – Eleanor Oliphant is an awkward young woman who doesn’t have any friends. She works as an administrator in a design firm and spends her weekends drinking enough vodka so that she is neither drunk nor sober. Her only contact with people outside of work are shopkeepers, utility men and weekly phone conversations with her institutionalized mother. Then, Eleanor wins a set of tickets to a concert and develops a crush on one of the singers. Eleanor decides she must improve herself to win his love and changes (and hilarity) ensue. Eleanor’s observations about people’s habits and pop culture and her attitude about life are entertaining, but also also give a glimpse of what she has endured. I loved reading about Eleanor’s transformation and her eccentric new friends. If you liked The Rosie Project or Britt-Marie Was Here, you’ll enjoy this book.

Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist

Book – Josh Sundquist is a spunky motivational speaker and Paralympian. He lost his left leg to cancer at nine years old, and often pulls from his daily experiences dealing with his disability. Sundquist is a hilarious speaker and writer; I definitely recommend checking out some of his performances. He has also composed two memoirs, and Love and First Sight is his first novel.

In Love and First Sight, we meet sixteen-year-old Will Porter. Will is blind, and he is starting high school at a hearing school.  His first day does not go well; he manages to grope a classmate, make a girl cry hysterically, and sits on somebody in the lunchroom. But then he meets quiet, sweet Cecily who he quickly develops a crush on. When Will learns that a new type of medical operation could potentially return his sight, he is overwhelmed with the excitement of seeing the world for the first time. However, Will never anticipated the challenges he would face with the miracle of sight. Things are not quite what he expected, especially when it comes to Cecily. While Will’s friends described Cecily’s appearance to him when he was blind, Will finds that the girl he’s fallen so hard for doesn’t meet the typical standards of beauty. Though he knows it shouldn’t matter what she looks like, Will feels betrayed, and is unprepared for all the changes his newfound sight has brought to him. A coming of age story of young love, life-changing decisions and friendship.

For more fiction stories dealing with blindness, check out: Love Blind by Christa Desir, and Things Not Seen* by Andrew Clements (*Followed by Things Hoped For, and Things That Are. All three books of the trilogy are available on our pre-loaded Middle School Battle of the Books Kindle.)

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Book – Anything Is Possible is a set of connected short stories about the people living in the small, rural town of Amgash, Illinois. Retired school janitor Tommy Guptill reflects on the lives of some of the former students as he shops for a birthday gift for his wife. The three Barton siblings attended the school and  we learn about their difficult childhood and lives as adults. Linda Peterson-Cornell relates the consequences of her husband’s voyeurism and infidelities. A war veteran searches for love and redemption. I loved seeing characters through the eyes of different townspeople, as they encountered them in their daily lives. Despite the obstacles and difficulties they faced, there were also moments of grace and hope. I have found myself reflecting on these stories and on the bonds of families and friends. Stout also wrote Olive Kitteridge, My Name is Lucy Barton, Amy and Isabelle and other popular novels.

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Book – Writing is both a craft and an art.  With enough practice, most writers can produce a well-constructed and enjoyable book, but only a sparse few have that other thing–call it a voice, or originality, or authenticity, or heart.  It’s really hard to describe why a Holly Goldberg Sloan book is an occasion and a joy.  She’s just got that touch of art that makes a story special.

Counting by 7s was Sloan’s breakout hit among both child and adult readers, and justifiably so; it’s beyond gorgeous.  Short, her newest book, has some definite similarities, including a young female protagonist growing up through the story, inter-generational friendships, and grief and healing as themes.  But overall it’s a lighter, breezier, more comforting read.  Like Raina Telgemeier’s smash-hit graphic novel for the same audience, Drama, Short centers on a young Theater Kid finding confidence and belonging through a new production.  In this case, the show is The Wizard of Oz, and eleven-year-old Julia, who used to be bothered by her (lack of) height, suddenly finds that it’s her ticket to the spotlight–she’s the only kid her age small enough to land a part as a Munchkin.  An average student and middle child, Julia finds that the production lets her connect with and earn the approval of adults in a way she’s never experienced before, and gives her a safe window into a more complicated, grown-up world.

Short is a quiet book, wonderfully written and touching.  Definitely hand it to any tweens in your life.  And when they’re done, borrow it back from them to have a look for yourself.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

9781594748622Book–Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since Abby’s E.T.-themed birthday in the fourth grade, where Gretchen was the only girl who showed up. Their friendship has been the most significant relationship in both girls’ lives, despite class differences between Abby’s and Gretchen’s families and the vagaries of school friendships. The book is set in Abby and Gretchen’s sophomore year, where they  have climbed up to popularity at their selective high school. Trouble starts, though, at a house party at their friend’s lake house, where the girls decide to try LSD. Gretchen has a bad reaction and disappears into the nearby forest for the night. When she reappears, she is…different.

She ceases bathing, wears the same clothes everyday, scribbles listlessly in a notebook, and, most damningly, ignores her nightly telephone date with Abby. Naturally, when your friend takes a turn for the crazy, your first thought is not that she is possessed by a demon, but eventually it becomes clear that there is more wrong with Gretchen than one bad night can explain. I won’t spoil any of the gratuitous-but-fun demonic evil here, but all of the hallmarks of demonic possession are present and accounted for. Abby must decide whether saving Gretchen’s life is worth risking her own; not only her life, but her precarious standing as a poor scholarship student and all of the success that she has fought so hard for. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is part tongue-in-cheek love letter to the 1980s, part touching best friend story, and part gut-curdling horror, but all fun. Hendrix has mastered the tiny niche genre of injecting over-the-top horror into really unlikely and banal scenarios.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (2016)

MV5BNjQzMTczNjI0Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODY5MTY5OTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,631,1000_AL_Movie –  Having been kicked out of a couple previous middle schools Rafe (Griffin Gluck) is sent to a super conservative strict school with many rules. This school is void of any creativity and personalization. Its more about the test scores than the student taking the test.  Rafes only outlet is a journal he doodles in day in and out. With his active imagination anything is possible. At this new school, along with his best friend Leo, he vows to anonymously (as to not get expelled again) break each and every rule the principal has set.  At home his life is not much better. Mom is dating a total freeloading jerk who hates kids. Rafe and his little sister do the best they can to stick together and get through life. Overall its been a rough few years for Rafe.

To be honest, I was up in the air on if I even wanted to see this one. I wasn’t sure I would be able to empathize with any of the characters of this age group. This movie is rated PG, but I feel the overall story line is superb. The pranks that are pulled in this movie are hysterical, and the dramatic parts are well highly dramatic. This movie had me in tears at the end.  This movie is based off of The Worst Years of My Life by James Paterson and Chris Tebbetts. Although I have yet to read the book, I suspect it will dive into the educational system structure and flaws in a comical manner.

100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

51OY+Ih8XLL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Allan Karlsson is turning 100 and minutes before his birthday party at the nursing home, he makes a last-minute getaway through his bedroom window. He wanders to the nearby train station and purchases a train ticket to take him to a destination as far away as possible. While waiting for the train, an uncouth young man asks him to watch his suitcase while he “takes a dump.” Allan agrees and then is forced to make a quick decision when the train arrives before the young man returns. As Allan is discovered missing, it seems like everyone is looking for him while he meanders his way through villages, adventures and mishaps. Along the way, he meets other characters, including a lifetime scholar turned hot-dog vendor, a self-declared thief, a beauty with a colorful vocabulary, a gangster boss and a lonely policeman. During his journey, Allan reflects on his past, which in Forrest Gump fashion, led him to encounters with famous people including Mao Tse-Tung, President Truman and Stalin. This lively accounting of Allan’s life made me reflect on historical events. While Allan was entertaining, he was not a particularly appealing character to me. He was resourceful, but somehow left a lot of dead people behind, which didn’t seem to trouble him at all. The DVD (same title) is also available for check-out at the Library.