Top Favorites of 2011 (In A,B,C Order)

2011 was a good year for me. I started biking, went on a writing retreat, camped at Assateague, and visited Vermont.  I even finished a first draft of my middle grade novel!  It's spectacularly crappy, but it's got a beginning, middle and end, and now I can start revising it into something better. 

I also did all my grocery shopping by foot or bike, bought all most all my produce at farmer's markets, and did the majority of my cooking from scratch this year.  Plus, I watched my oldest kid graduate from high school and sent him off to college. 

I was disappointed by how little I read in 2011 though. Hopefully in 2012 I can figure out how to do all those things and read more too. Anyone know where I can buy a Time-Turner like Hermione used in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? That would be useful. Here are my favorites during 2011:

Books – Middle Grade Fiction (Total Read -5)
Bartimaeus: The Ring of Solomon, by Jonathan Stroud
Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger

Books – Young Adult Fiction (Total Read – 9)
All Unquiet Things, by Anna Jarzab
#Legend, by Marie Lu
# Lola and the Boy Next Door, by Stephanie Perkins

(I also read 3 fiction books for adults.)

Books- Non-Fiction (Total Read – 7)
#Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, by Stephanie Staal
The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the Word's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, by James W. Stigler and James Hiebert – review coming

Movies (Total Watched – 19)
After the Wedding
#Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Music Albums (Total Listened To – 28)
#Adele, 21
Florence & The Machine, Lungs
The Frames, Cost
The Glitch Mob, Drink The Sea
Jack in the Box, Play It Again Jack!
K'naan, Troubadour
#Movits, Out of My Head
The Rapture, Pieces of the People We Love
Sufjan Stevens, Come on Feel the Illinoise & Age of Adz
#Vanessa Carlton, Best of Vanessa Carlton

TV Shows (Total Shows Watched – 42)
#Being Erica
#The Big Bang Theory
#The Good Wife
#Parks and Recreation
Skins, series 5
#The Vampire Diaries

Honorable Mentions:
#Up All Night
#Doctor Who

# – Indicates the book, movie, album, or TV season debuted in  2011.  Many of my favorites were works I discover this year but debuted earlier.

Middle Grade Fiction – For around 9-14 years or 4th-8th grades
Young Adult Fiction – For around 12 years and up or  7th grade and up

Three More Late-Blooming Shows To Watch During The Holiday Repeat Season, Part 2

Why You Didn't Watch It The First Time: The previews for Nikita made the show seem like an bland, exploitative copy of La Femme Nikita. Also, the pilot took itself too seriously and the twist that makes the series different didn't come until the very end after you probably already stopped watching.

Why You Should Give It Another Chance:  Nikita is an entertaining escapist pleasure. At first glance it seems like a glossy spy vs. spy thriller with lots of pretty people, but the show has heart, likable characters, and has even found its humorous side in season two.  I especially like that the character Nikita is so reserved and serious.  Like Olivia Dunham on Fringe, Nikita keeps her emotions below the surface and focuses on her mission with an intensity usually reserved for male characters. Just when the show seems predictable, the writers do something to surprise me.

Why You Didn't Watch It The First Time: F/X burdened Terriers with a stupid name and a horrible advertising campaign so it was hard to know what the show was about.

Why You Should Give it Another Chance: This quirky detective show is like a cross between The Rockford Files and Veronica Mars.  The leads are down and out guys in need of a second chance.  Their banter and amiable friendship is entertaining and the cases they take start off as low-key and realistic, but quickly turn tense and dangerous while still maintaining a sense of humor.  It's only 13-episodes long and the main mystery is tied up in a satisfying way.

The Vampire Diaries
Why You Didn't Watch It The First Time: The first few episodes are mediocre and seem like a bland CW version of Twilight.

Why You Should Give it Another Chance: Somewhere between episodes 7 and 9 of season one the show takes off and changes into a plot-driven guilty pleasure that is tons of fun, where the villains do evil things and the heroine gets to be gutsy and assertive and doesn't just sit around waiting to be saved. The show combines the best parts of a small town soap opera with the fun supernatural action of vampires and witches, and because it's on the CW, every character is not only entertaining but super pretty too.

All three shows are now available on Netflix Instant viewing.

Late-Blooming TV Shows That Deserve a Second Chance, Part 1

When I start a new TV series it's hard to tell if a promising but rocky show will improve or get disappointingly worse. The great thing about Netflix instant– and other streaming sites — is that I get a second chance to watch the entertaining late-bloomers. Streaming shows online lets me plow through the first couple awkward episodes so I can get to the good stuff. Here are three shows now streaming on Netflix Instant that I think are worth a second chance:

Why You Didn't Watch It The First Time: Joss Whedon's story about mind control and high tech prostitution started out as a 21st century Charlie's Angels with the appealing Eliza Dusku (Faith from Buffy) going on mildly interesting weekly engagements.  The first couple episodes were watchable but they lacked Whedon's heart and quippy dialog.

Why You Should Give it Another Chance: Starting with episode 6, the series takes off. The characters begin to grow, new information is revealed that changes your understanding of what is going on, and the show gets increasingly funnier, tenser, and more emotionally engaging. It's satisfying watching this 26-episode show go from a superficial gig-of-the-week story to a tense dystopian action-adventure with a few romances and lots of character development.

Why You Didn't Watch It The First Time:  Fox messed around with the order of the episodes for this Joss Whedon show. They shelved the engaging 2-part pilot and started out with a lesser single plot episode so the show got disappointing reviews.

Why You Should Give It Another Chance: The fantastic cast has gone on to star in more successful shows but Firefly was series where they got to play their favorite roles.  Check out a younger, thinner Nathan Fillion (Richard Castle on Castle) as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a rebel trying to eek out a  life on his own terms as a captain of a one of the few freelance ships in an authoritarian empire.  The rest of the cast of space cowboys is equally good and stars Adam Baldwin, Gina Torres, Ron Glass, Alan Tudyk,Summer Glau, etc.  Also, Christina Hendricks (Joan from Mad Men) is a recurring character in several episodes. This fun, action-packed series is only 13 episodes long and has an accompanying movie that wraps up the plot in a satisfying way.

Friday Night Lights
Why You Didn't Watch It The First Time: The first few episodes use a handheld camera technique that might make some viewers queasy, but the show quickly drops it.  Also, the second season has some over the top soap opera type plots that the show wisely abandons too.

Why You Should Give it Another Chance: This wonderful show about small town life in a football obsessed Texan town is worth watching even if you don't like football.  It's one of the best shows I've seen on families, teens, marriage, and small town life.  The five season series also excels at letting its high school characters graduate and move on while introducing equally interesting new characters. 

(Next week I'll review three more shows.)

The Advantage Serial TV Has Over Movies, Plus Reviews for Bridesmaids, Inception, and Harry Potter

With so many TV repeats, November and December are the perfect months for me to catch up on movies I've been wanting to see.

Year: 2011
Genre: Comedy
Format: Watched at home on Netflix DVD rental
Rating: *** 1/2

A funny movie about two best friends whose relationship changes when one gets engaged and asks the other to be her maid of honor.  This buddy movie will make you laugh.  There's some good mocking of the wedding industry and how over-the-top it's become. It's true that you need to like gross humor to enjoy some of the funniest scenes.  I also wish there were less scenes of Annie being sad. Overall though, I enjoyed this funny movie about women and their friendships. It's a good addition to the buddy film genre.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Year: 2009, 2010, 2011
Genre: fantasy and adventure
Format: watched on my computer with iTunes rental
Rating: ****, *** 1/2, ****

It takes me a few minutes to adjust to each Harry Potter movie because most of the characters (except Harry) look different than I imagined them when I read the books.  Hermione, especially, is much prettier in the movie than she's described in the books. This is what happens when you read the bulk of a series before any movies are made. 

Once I adjust though, I enjoy these movies.  They really do stay true to the books and make the stories come alive. The last movie is especially exciting as it ties up the whole series quite nicely.  *Sigh*  It's sad to be done with Harry Potter now.

Year: 2010
Genre: sci-fi, action-adventure
Format: Watched at home on Netflix DVD rental
Rating: *** 1/2

I finally saw this movie about a group of thieves who steal information by going into a person's dream.  It's a cool concept. The likable cast is lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, one of those actors who makes it easy to identify with his character right away.  The stakes for his character are set really high too, so I wanted him to succeed.  Overall, I enjoyed the movie but it didn't blow me away.

What Inception Taught Me About the Limits of Movies and the Advantages of Serial TV:
Inception made me realize the disadvantage movies have over modern TV shows. Before the days of VCRs, DVDs, DVRs,iTunes, Hulu, and Netflix, TV shows tended to have self-contained episodes without a lot of character development.  Some shows — like, Castle or The Big Bang Theory — still use this model.  But now many TV shows equal or surpass movies with the types of complex and emotionally rewarding stories they tell because viewers can easily catch up on episodes or whole seasons they've missed,   Serial TV is my favorite.  I especially love shows where there's a problem of the week but also a season long arc.

For every story — book, movie, or TV form — the viewer or reader has to invest in an initial amount of time getting to know the characters and understanding the story background. For Inception, I was confused for 30 minutes before I understood what was going on and who these characters were.  Since the total movie was 148 minutes, that meant there was only 2 hours left to tell the story and let me enjoy the characters.  That's not a lot of enjoyment for my 30-minute investment.

The viewer really only gets to know the main character. All the other characters– like the characters played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ellen Page — were support for the main character.  Considering the amount of concentration I needed to keep all the different plot layers straight, the pay-off wasn't all that great.  The main character was the only one who developed and changed. I kept thinking how much better this story would be if it were the first season of a TV show.  Then I'd discover all the back stories of the supporting characters too, so when they did the final job, the stakes would be that much higher.

When Fringe had an episode with a similar set up to Inception, it took me a shorter time to understand what was going on –even though I hadn't seen Inception yet– and the emotional pay off was bigger because I already knew the characters and cared about them.  I wasn't just concerned about Olivia and if she'd survive her dream, I was concerned about all of them surviving. Plus, I cared how their struggle in the dream would affect the relationships between them too.  That's why I prefer serial TV over movies now.