October 2010: In Brief

Life Highlights:
Walking on Sunshine (The Gluten-Free Version): I used to think maybe I’d be well, now baby I’m sure.  And I just still love that I feel like I’ve now found my cure.  Now every time I wake up, my head feels so light and so goo-od.  Cause now I don’t have so much snot hanging round me no more.  Now I’m walking on sunshine. Who-ah. I’m walking on sunshine. Who-ah.  I’m walking on sunshine. Who-ah. And don’t it feel good!

(If you don’t know the real song from the 80’s, here’s the You Tube link.)

Fiction Books Finished:
Mamba Point, by Kurtis Scaletta (*** 1/2) [2010]  After his family moves from the U.S. to Monrovia, Liberia, anxious twelve-year-old Linus is determined to break through his fears and become adventurous.  His older brother, Larry, has decided he’s now going by the much cooler nickname "Law".  When the new Linus discovers his connection to mamba snakes and the new Law discovers the U.S. Embassy teen world, things become a little more interesting than either brother planned. Set in 1980’s Liberia, Mamba Point is a unique coming of age story with a touch of African folklore and magic realism spun into the plot. It would make a good family or classroom read aloud.  

Full disclosure: Kurtis was a member of one of my writing groups. Despite my personal connection, I think even readers that don’t know him will enjoy his story as much as I did.  [For ages 10 and up. Read on Kindle for Droid Phone]

Foxes (** 1/2) – The movie The Runaways made me curious about Cherie Currie’s life story.  Foxes, a movie which Currie made during her acting period, is an almost documentary-like fiction movie about four teen girls growing up in the dysfunctional drugged-up world of Los Angeles during the late 70’s.  Currie plays the girl with the most troubled home and Jodie Foster is the stand out of the four new actors. From a historical point of view it was an interesting movie, though it’s a bit on the depressing side. [Rated R for drug use, language, and a bit of sexuality.  Watched on DVD from Netflix.]

Jennifer’s Body (****) [2009] Amanda Seyfried stars in this fun horror movie as Anita "Needy" Lesnicky, just a regular high school girl in a dysfunctional friendship with her best friend Jennifer.  Everything changes the night Jennifer drags Needy to see the band Low Shoulder at the local dive bar.  Now something seems wrong with Jennifer, boys at school keep dying, and Needy is the only one who can save them.

While Jennifer’s Body isn’t exactly a feminist movie, it comes a lot closer than most horror films.  It’s also more of a gore-and-parody kind of horror movie than a truly scary one.  How much you enjoy it depends on your view of Diablo Cody’s writing.  If you thought the writing in the movie Juno was fresh and clever, you’ll probably have a ton of fun watching this movie too.  If you thought Cody was trying too hard, this movie isn’t for you.

Amanda Seyfried has the acting chops to pull off the starring role and Megan Fox is perfect as hot mean girl Jennifer. There are a number of fun cameos too.  Adam Brody (Seth from The OC) gives a deliciously slimy performance as Low Shoulder’s lead singer and Kyle Gallner (Beav… I mean, Cassidy, from Veronica Mars) plays a tasty looking Emo-Goth boy.  [Unrated on DVD but probably for mid-teens and up.  Watched on DVD through Netflix.]

I tried out a bunch of new shows this season to choose my dozen regular shows for the Fall season. And the winners are: The Big Bang Theory, Castle, The Event, Fringe, Glee, The Good Wife, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Nikita, Supernatural, and Terriers. I’m also watching season two of the X-Files in French on DVD. What TV shows made your cut?

September 2010: In Brief (Part 2)

Fiction Books Finished:
Mockingjay (The Final Book of The Hunger Games), by Suzanne Collins (****) [2010] – Whether she’s writing swashbuckling fantasy novels for elementary schoolers or dystopian action-adventure stories for teens, Suzanne Collins’ novels can be summed up in one phrase: "War is Hell." That sentiment goes doubly true for the satisfying final installment in The Hunger Games series.

The neat thing about his series is that it’s equally appealing to both teens and adults, which makes for excellent family discussion.  It’s true this story won’t appeal to those who are uncomfortable with violence — even if it’s not glorified.  But if you’re the type who doesn’t mind a battle trilogy this series provides for meaty family book club discussion about the emotional and physical horrors of war — even necessary war.

I found it interesting that my teens liked the first two reality-TV-styled-war books better than the final actual-war book.  They both bitterly lamented what they believed was an overly casual death of one of their favorite minor characters.  While they mostly liked the last book, their grievances made for good family conversation.  [YA fiction for ages 13 and up; Read in eBook form on my Kindle for Droid phone]

Fiction Audiobooks:
Alanna (The First Adventure: Song of the Lioness, Book One), by Tamora Pierce (***) [1983] – Somehow I never read a Tamora Pierce fantasy.  I decided to try Alanna, the first in her famous series about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to train to be a knight in her world.  Pierce makes Alanna’s deception and training realistically difficult, but achievable because of Alanna’s determination.  The audiobook read by actress Trini Alvarado was enjoyable.  [YA fiction for ages 10 and up; Listened to on audiobook from Audible.com]

Nonfiction Audiobooks:
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, by Bill McKibben (****) [2010] – In the first half of the book, environmentalist Bill McKibben explains just how quickly climate change is turning our planet into a completely different environment.  Although many climate change skeptics claim scientists have exaggerated the effects of climate change, McKibben gives example after example of how climate change is actually working much faster than any scientist predicted.  Huge shelves of ice on the poles are melting decades before scientists had predicted they would.  McKibben also details how these phenomenal changes are affecting our everyday life, making it harder and harder for us to feed and protect ourselves.

While the first half of the book is pretty depressing, the second half deals with concrete ways for us to live on this new more difficult planet — that McKibben now calls "Eaarth."  (The extra "a" is used to show that this is a very different planet from one we were used to.)  His proposed solutions to keeping life sustainable on this new planet involve working more at a local level than at a national or global level.  Because each region has its own unique solution to our energy and food issues, McKibben calls for more local initiates for using alternative energy sources and to growing food.  His stories about local successes are inspiring and made me want to get out and look for local options in my area.

This is an excellent introduction to the problems and possible solutions to our difficult world situation.  The audiobook made it especially easy for me to make time to read this informative resource.  [Listened to on audiobook through Audible.com]

Dear John (** 1/2) [2010] – I was in the mood for a romantic tearjerker and hoped this movie would satisfy my craving.  Unfortunately, despite solid acting by Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum, as well as an appealing soundtrack, the script for this story was boring and awkward.  *Sigh* That was disappointing.  [Rated PG-13; Watched on Netflix Instant]

Kick-Ass (****) [2010] – This is one of those movies that I suspect people either love or hate.  The movie asks, "Why are there no real superheroes?"  It then goes on to answer that question exploring all the possibilities for what real superheroes would be like.  The results are lame, funny, upsetting, super violent, awesome, and at times, down right disturbing.  If you’re the type of person who is okay with funny and awesome moments mixed with super violent and down right disturbing elements, you’ll probably enjoy watching this wildly fun movie as much as I did.  If that combination doesn’t appeal to you though, this movie is probably not for you.  [Rated R for violence; Watched on DVD from Netflix]

September 2010: In Brief, Part 1

TV- Top 5 Favorites of the Month 
  Castle– Season three continues with clever murder investigations, fun banter, and a sweet father-daughter back story. [New episodes available on Mondays at 10 pm (Eastern Time) on ABC.  Episodes are also available for free viewing the next day on Hulu.]

Fringe– Season three completes Fringe’s journey  from a quasi-sci-fi procedural show into a full-on dystopian sci-fi adventure with procedural elements and I love it. [New episodes available on Thursdays at 9 pm (Eastern Time) on Fox.  Episodes are also available for free viewing on Hulu the next day.  Older episodes are available for rent on DVD at Netflix and for purchase on DVDS or on  iTunes.] 
Want to Catch Up on Fringe Quickly?  The Onion’s A.V. Club has a post with two different ways to catch up on the storyline, for those that are interested.  The first way lists the 20 episodes (out of about 45) that deal with main continuing plotline.  The second way gives just the 7 key episodes.

Scroll down the page to the headline "Addendum for new viewers" to get to the two plans at this link:

The Good Wife– I’m happy to see that season two of this thoughtful legal show is just as good as the first season. [New episodes available on Tuesday at 10 pm (Eastern Time) on CBS.  Episodes are also available for free viewing the next day on CBS Online.]

Nikita– This is at least the fourth version of the now familiar story of a young woman who escapes the quasi-government organization that forced her to be an assassin.  They kill her fiance and she vows to destroy them.  The new version has a slight twist.  It’s not a great show yet, but it has potential.  For now I enjoy the decent action-filled episodes about a strong kickass woman. [New episodes are available on Thursdays at 9 pm on the CW.  Free episodes are also available at CW Online 8 days later.]

Terriers– This is probably my favorite new show. I’ve seen it described as a cross-between The Rockford Files and Veronica Mars.  It’s a quirky detective show about a former cop and recovering alcoholic now working as a private detective while he tries to piece back together his life.  His sidekick is a recovering thief.  The fun banter and unpredictable plots are enjoyable and I like that the women in their lives are fully-developed strong people, instead of stereotypes. 

[New episodes are available on Wednesdays at 10 pm (Eastern Time) on FX.  Episodes are also available for free viewing on FX Online or Hulu  8 days later.   On Hulu you actually need to do the free registration for this particular show since they consider it to be mature.  There’s no registration needed to watch on FX Online though.]

August 2010: In Brief

The Boyfriend List, by E. Lockhart (****) – [2006] Fifteen-year-old Ruby Oliver never thought of herself as the type of person who might have panic attacks or need to see a shrink. Now here she is writing a list of all the boys she’s ever dated, kissed, or thought about, trying to figure out what they have to do with the unfortunate events of the spring dance that led to her first panic attack.

This is another of my favorite YA books.  Ruby Oliver is a charming–but very real– teenage girl trying to figure out how to navigate the tricky path of dating and friendship in high school while also learning to voice her own true feelings.  Audiobook reader Mandy Siegfried’s talent for teen speak makes this audiobook an especially good choice.  [Young Adult Fiction for ages 12 and up]

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan (****) – is an utterly charming book about two very different high school boys –each named Will Grayson– who meet by chance in downtown Chicago.  Their story is told in alternating chapters.  One Will Grayson is reconsidering his rule about not caring too much about anything, while the other Will Grayson is starting to admit he’s gay and cares so much about what others think it’s destroying him.  Add to the mix their new mutual friend, the very gay and proud of it, Tiny Cooper, the football team’s best offensive linesman and the author/composer/star of the new high school musical, "Tiny Dance" and you have one very fun story.

This was an especially good book to listen to in audio form.  The two different narrators make each Will Grayson easy to identify, plus one of them does an excellent separate voice for Tiny Cooper, which is great for the musical scenes.  [2010] [Young Adult Fiction for ages 14 and up]

My Bodyguard (*** 1/2) – [1980] A clever teen in a rough high school tries to enlist the school’s loner to be his body guard.  Somehow I missed seeing this film when it came out 30 years ago.  It was fun spotting well-known actors in their first movie roles.  Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck) plays the loner, Matt Dillon is the school bully, and Joan Cusack plays a friendly classmate.  Jennifer Beals is even in the film with a non-speaking role as another classmate. [Watched on Netflix Instant]

Kamikaze Girls (***) – [2005] A colorful, quirky movie about the unlikely friendship between two eccentric teen girls, biker chick Ichigo and dainty Momoko, a girl who wears frilly dresses and dreams of living in 18th century France. [Watched on DVD from Netflix in Japanese with English subtitles]

Mad Men (season 4) – I think this is my favorite season of Mad Men, so far.

Online Language Learning:
Mi Vida Loca – BBC online has an excellent foreign language webpageMi Vida Loca is their latest and most ambitious program.  It’s a 22-episode beginning online Spanish program with videos and interactive lessons, for free.

It uses a story format with you, the viewer, as one of the characters.  You’re a British student on holiday to visit your friend Theresa in Madrid.  Unfortunately, Theresa can’t make the trip at the last minute, so you’re on your own, staying in Theresa’s flat in Madrid with her friendly, but busy, journalist sister, Merche.  Merche’s dangerous story investigation ends up adding a lot of excitement — and Spanish practice — to your trip.

Mi Vida Loca is a fantastic free Spanish program that’s well worth checking out.  There’s enough meat that even intermediate Spanish students will learn new vocabulary, but still introductory enough for beginners.  (As an added bonus you’ll pick up some British vocabulary too.)


July 2010 In Brief, Part 2

Road Trip – My son and I cruised along Midwestern highways on a 12-hour drive to Lake Michigan, squeezing in plenty of teen driving practice, and passing by a few colleges along the way. I made a road trip playlist of music we both liked: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Violent Femmes, Rage Against the Machine, and the Dr. Horrible Soundtrack, brought lots of gluten-free snacks, and together we sped through the Midwest loving that 70mph Michigan speed limit.

The Lake Michigan Cousin-palooza– About 50 relatives trekked in from all over the country to my aunt and uncle’s beautiful lakeside house for the Fourth of July.  We chatted, talked, conversed, and caught up on all the news while cooking, eating, and building sand castles.  Every evening at sunset we’d crowd on their deck and watch the sun melt orange and pink stripes onto the water.  No wonder we all keep coming back.

Fiction Books Finished:
Feed, by M.T. Anderson (*** 1/2) –  [2002] Titus and his friends are living in the last years of a dying empire where teenagers have a commercial TV and internet system called "The Feed" playing right in their heads.   During a spring break vacation to the moon, Titus meets home-schooled Violet.   When the two of them have their feeds hacked at a nightclub, Titus begins to look on his carefree life differently.  M.T. Anderson creates a vivid futuristic world with its own addictively real teen speak.  It’s a book that was ahead of its time and worth checking out. [YA Science Fiction, for ages 14 and up]

The Next Best Thing to Having the Super Power of Speed Reading:
When my to-read list hit the 100 book mark, I finally faced up to the truth: I read painfully slow. If I can’t have the power of speed reading, listening to audiobooks is the next best thing. There’s a wide selection available, they make my house work more pleasant, and I’m able to "read" at least an extra book a month now.

Audiobooks Finished:
Down the Rabbit Hole: An Echo Falls Mystery, by Peter Abrahams (***) – is an average, but entertaining, YA murder mystery.  Mandy Siegfried, the narrator of the audiobook, is especially good at teen dialog and really made the book come alive for me. [YA mystery, for ages 10 and up]

A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (*** 1/2) – is a sweet, satisfying book about an 11-year-old girl who dreams of playing classical piano in Carnegie Hall, but instead ends up playing the electric organ that her quirky agoraphobic dad bought her. This is a quiet sweet book about coming of age in an eccentric family.   [Middle grade realistic fiction, for ages 9-12 years old]

Non-Fiction Books Finished:
Get Opinionated: A Progressive’s Guide to Finding Your Voice (and Taking a Little Action), by Amanda Marcotte (***) – Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon.net is one of my favorite bloggers. Since she’s blunt, funny, and raised in Texas, calling her a young Molly Ivins is a somewhat apt description, though she’s more into pop culture than Ivins.  Her book is a quick breezy guide of everything progressive from eating local foods to why giving to Planned Parenthood is such an excellent cause.  She even has advice on how to talk to your climate-change denying relatives.  

My favorite part is the beginning descriptions of each type of political person one finds on the Internet: Manic Pixie Dream Girl Liberal Chic, Less Fun Feminist Liberal Chicks, Liberal Dudes, Liberal Dudes Who Scold Feminists About "Important" Issues, Country Club Republicans, Rush Limbaugh Impotents, Your Mom The Swing Voter, etc.  She manages to both accurately sum up and amusingly mock the values of each and every one, including her own category. 

Our Inner Ape, by Frans De Waahl (****) – A fascinating book that explores the social patterns of our two closest relatives– the chimpanzees and the bonobos– and looks at what we can learn about humans from the studies of primates. One of the most interesting finds– for me– was how primate researchers are discovering that social patterns and habits are more environmentally constructed than instinctual. When the primate environment changes, many characteristics like aggression, sexual relations, and social structure change too.

Better Off Ted – This workplace satire never got the attention it deserved.  Netflix instant now has both 13-episode seasons.  So if you’re in the need for something fun, check it out. It took me about 3-4 episodes before I knew the characters well enough to enjoy the show.  After that, I laughed and laughed. [Watched on Netflix Instant]

Doctor Who (season 5) – I thoroughly enjoyed the new doctor and his companion Amy Pond.  The season had a good plot arc with a satisfying finale. [Watched on BBC America, also available on iTunes]

The Guild  (season 1,2,3) –  Felicia Day (Penny from Dr. Horrible) wrote this amusing story about a World-of-Warcraft-type guild who end up meeting each other in person.  Evidently Felicia Day played a lot of World-of-Warcraft between acting gigs and it shows. Her characters both pay homage to and playfully mock  a lot of the gaming stereotypes: the micromanaging guild leader, the guy who misinterprets banter with any female characters as flirting, the gamer trying to escape life, etc. It’s a fun series for anyone into gaming or anyone who lives with a gamer.  [The series started out as web-episodes and is now available on Netflix Instant.]