Monday, December 31, 2012

It's Monday What Are You Reading? and December Book & Movie Round-Up

Happy New Years Eve! First of all, I changed the format and header on this blog -- if you're looking at this via feedreader, please hop over and check it out! Bonus points if you can name all the movies and T.V. shows pictured on the header; a few of them are rather obscure. Details are here.

Secondly, we're looking at ways to improve the content of this blog in the new year, and I'd be most grateful if you'd hop over here and respond to our reader questionnaire, if you haven't done so already. I am loving the suggestions and comments we've gotten so far. :-)

I'm Still Reading:

Flesh by Khanh Ha

from Goodreads: The setting is Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. A boy, Tai, witnesses the beheading of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his head and then to find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. On this quest, Tai’s entire world will shift. FLESH takes the reader into dark and delightful places in the human condition, places where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy may bring you the most comfort. In that emotionally harrowing world, Tai must learn to deal with new responsibilities in his life while at the same time acknowledging his bond, and his resemblance, to a man he barely knew--his father.


Other Books Read This Month:

Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas (4/5 stars)

The shared experience of having survived unbearable grief can be a powerful bond. Eighty-six-year-old Hennie Comfort and 17-year-old Nit Spindle have both lost baby girls. In the harsh, beautiful highlands of Colorado, during the great depression, the two women kindle a friendship. Hennie tells the younger woman stories of her life and of the people of the mining community of Middle Swan, Colorado.

This novel is a collection of short interwoven stories held together by the framework of the two women's friendship. It's a lovely book, showcasing Sandra Dallas's strong storytelling ability and reflecting careful attention to historical detail.

Labor Day by Joyce Maynard (4/5 stars)

What kind of loneliness would drive a single mom and her adolescent son to welcome an escaped convict into their home? Thirteen-year-old Henry, a lonely misfit, and his mom Adele, long divorced and crippled by grief over a stillbirth and multiple miscarriages, find themselves in this situation when a man with a dark past stumbles into their lives. 

This novel is an enjoyable coming of age story and an interesting character study. The author did a good job of taking a challenging, somewhat implausible situation and making it believable and vividly real.

A Brief Lunacy by Cynthia Thayer (3.5/5 stars)

Jessie and Carl are an aging couple worried about their mentally ill daughter, Sylvie. They find themselves taken hostage in their home, a brutal situation that dredges up Carl's long-buried secrets. The author vividly evoked the sense of confusion, fear, shock, and guilt a situation like this would engender. This novel also included beautiful imagery and historical connections that made it more rich and interesting.

For me the character development was fairly strong, but given that this was such a character-driven novel, I expected to feel a deeper connection to the main characters. I also didn't find the mental illness angle as well developed and believable as I'd hoped, and I had several issues with credibility.

The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr by Sandra Byrd  (4.5/5 stars)

I'll give this book one of the highest compliments I can bestow on a novel ... it kept me up until late in the night, wanting to finish it. :-)

This author took a gap in what is known about Tudor England and wove a satisfying, well-crafted story around it. She also created an intelligent, brave, likeable character, Julianna St. John, to offer insight into the life of Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII. For me, this novel was a page-turner. History. Political Intrigue. Romance. Not to mention nasty stuff like beheadings and the plague. A beautifully paced, well constructed plot and a wealth of historical detail that reflects meticulous research.

Movies Seen This Month:

1. Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (5/5 stars) -- This is a wonderful movie about life in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was especially fascinated by its look at various ways people respond to being subject to -- or part of -- a repressive government. My review is here.

2. Fright Night (3.5/5 stars) --Campy fun.

3. Archipelago (3.5/5 stars) -- Quiet, aesthetically pleasing film about a family on the brink of shattering. Features a stand out performance by Kate Fahy. Sarah's review is here.

4. Men In Black 3 (3.5/5 stars) -- To quote Tallahassee in Zombieland, "just good fun for the whole family."

5. Biutiful (5/5 stars) -- Uxbal is a father of two, struggling to make a living in a dodgy business in the streets of Madrid. His estranged wife, a bipolar alcoholic and addict, comes in and out of their lives. In the midst of this, Uxbal is facing his own mortality.

I was surprised at how much I loved this film. I've seen reviewers accuse it of being emotionally exploitative, and others have complained that the movie packs in too many "issues" and storylines. But for me, the emotional impact was genuinely earned. The multiple intertwined stories and characters -- including the sometimes odd, creepy spiritual overtones -- created richness. And they were thematically tied together by experiences of poverty, desperation, guilt, grief, and faltering steps toward redemption.

For me, this was elevated from a remarkable movie to a rare favorite by Javier Bardem's performance. Holy shit! He was amazing.

6. Almost Famous (4/5 stars) -- Loosely autobiographical film about a 15-year-old hired by Rolling Stone magazine to follow and interview a rock band during their tour. Cute coming-of-age film and a fun romp. I loved all the 70s-era rock 'n roll.

7. Almost Kings (2.5/5 stars) -- Predatory adolescent boys -- keep your daughters at home. Motherless and living with an angry, disabled alcoholic father, Ted looks up to his older brother. He is eager to be inducted into his crowd, which calls itself "The Kings," until he realizes how ugly their antics actually are.

This film had potential -- the first half of the movie was O.K., although the plot and characters suffered from a lack of subtlety. About halfway through, my daughter summed it up nicely, "This is well made, even though it plays like an edgy afterschool special." Then the movie crashed and burned, due to an over-the-top ending.

8. Hanna (4/5 stars) --  Interesting thriller about a 16-year-old girl raised by her father, in a remote location, to be an assassin. When she finds herself in the outside world for the first time, stalked by ruthless killers, she begins to discover what it is to be human and experience the small things that make life worthwhile.

9. Young Adult (3.5/5 stars) -- Dark, edgy variation on a common romantic comedy trope. Upon learning that her ex-boyfriend has fathered a baby with his wife, Mavis sets off on a quest to win him back. Her narcissism becomes more and more apparent as she gets herself mired into a humiliating situation. Interesting character study of a borderline personality.

10. Newlyweds (4/5 stars) -- This is an unusual movie scripted and filmed in an almost documentary style. It's a character- and relationship-driven comedy/drama about Katie and Buzzy, a seemingly grounded, pragmatic couple who married after a very short courtship. They claim to be keeping a comfortable distance between their lives -- "we'll never get on each other's nerves." They quickly find themselves surrounded by a group of infuriatingly and hilariously flaky characters, including Katie's ex-husband Dara, her sister- and brother-in-law Marsha and Max, and his long-estranged half-sister Linda.

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. It has the blend of realism and quirkiness I like, and I found it laugh-out-loud funny. The dialogue is excellent -- writing a script that's consistently witty and funny as well as natural and real is an difficult balance, and this was very well done.

11. Shaun of the Dead (4.5/5 stars) -- What's not to love about this movie? "You've got red on you."

12. Strangers in Good Company (4/5 stars) --  People who don't enjoy slow films will want to skip this one. It's a quiet, virtually plotless film with gorgeous nature shots and a largely ad-libbed script, in which elderly ladies talk about life, love, motherhood, aging, and death. I really enjoyed it.

13. A Christmas Story (4/5 stars) -- My family watches this movie together faithfully every year. "Fra-gee-lay" ... that must be Italian."

14. Nice Guy Johnny (2.5/5 stars) -- I really wanted to like this film after I enjoyed The Newlyweds so much. But I found the dialogue disappointing and the performances underwhelming, and I didn't connect with any of the characters. Sarah's review is here.

15. Burn After Reading (5/5 stars) -- I was in a low mood and needed something to cheer me up so, odd as it may seem, I picked this movie. As soon as the John Malkovich character swaggers into his  boss's office and starts ranting, I burst out laughing. Every time. I just can't help it. One of my favorite Coen films. It's not Fargo, but it's damn good.

16. Last Night (4/5 stars) -- Where is the boundary between marital fidelity and infidelity? Extramarital fantasies and temptations are a normal part of life, but where do you cross the line? At having sex? Or is it more complicated than that? In this slow, thoughtful movie about monogamy and infidelity, Joanna and Michael are separated for a night, due to a business trip, at a rather vulnerable moment in their marriage. Both find themselves tempted to cheat: Michael with an attractive colleague, Laura, and Joanna with Alex, an old flame. I enjoyed the acting and dialogue in this film, with a stand out performance by Guillaume Canet.

 17. Melancholia (unsure how to rate) -- Have you ever watched an impressive movie and appreciated the hell out of it but didn't love it? And you're not quite sure why? This is a technically brilliant film with gorgeous imagery and unforgettable performances. However I found this movie difficult to connect with. It might benefit from a second viewing. Interestingly my daughter, who is a big fan of Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, actually disliked this movie.

18. My Summer of Love (4.5/5 stars) -- Set in the Yorkshire countryside, this film explores the friendship and romance between two girls. My review is here.

19. Ladybird, Ladybird (4/5 stars) -- I deeply appreciate Ken Loach's ability to turn a compassionate eye on members of society many people dismiss. In this case it's a troubled British welfare mom who eventually bears nine children, despite losing six kids, one by one, to the foster care system. My review is here.

20. Sixty Six (3.5/5 stars) -- Bernie is a bit of a misfit and feels invisible in his family. Yearning for attention and affection, he pins his hopes on the perfect Bar Mitzvah. However due to his parents' rapidly dwindling financial prospects and the promise of England being in the World Cup on Bernie's big day, it is unlikely that his hopes will be fulfilled.

This is a very enjoyable, though somewhat predictable, coming of age story. It was great to see the wonderful Eddie Marsan in a leading role. I also enjoyed Helena Bonham-Carter and Catherine Tate -- it was a treat seeing Catherine Tate outside the Tardis. ;-)

21. No Country for Old Men (5/5 stars) -- I am a huge fan of the Coens' work, but I waited this long to see No Country for Old Men. Why? Good question.

This movie struggles with many of the same issues as Fargo, including greed, violence, and the nature of evil. It also delves into themes of aging in an ever-changing world and facing one's mortality. Magnificent. Best performance ever from Tommy Lee Jones.


22.  Love Actually (4/5 stars) -- This movie holds a special place in my heart. I get kind of sappy and teary eyed when Hugh Grant does the voice-over monologue at the beginning of the film and during the opening and closing scenes of people greeting each other with undisguised tenderness at Heathrow airport.

23. Die Hard (4/5) -- I'm not a fan of action movies, but since my husband watches Love Actually with me every year, I thought we should also watch this on Christmas Eve. He loves his testosterone flicks. As run of the mill action movies go, this one is pretty good, and Alan Rickman's presence helps a lot.


24. The Descendants (4.5/5 stars) -- With his wife Elizabeth on life support after a boating accident, Matt King struggles to take responsibility for his distant relationship from his family and reconnect with this troubled daughters.

I was afraid this would be typical Hollywood fare, but I thought it was quite good. It offers strong dialogue and excellent performances. Anyway, who am I kidding? I would've watched it for the Hawaiian scenery alone.

25. Suburbia (0.5/5 stars) -- Have you ever watched a film that's gotten positive reviews and you hate it so much you wonder if you're missing something? Well, obviously this glimpse at teenage punk culture in the '80s was not my cup of tea. My daughter/co-blogger hated it even more than I did, if that's possible. Her review is here.

26. Some Mother's Son (4.5/5 stars) -- Based on the true story of the 1981 hunger strike in a British prison, in which IRA prisoner Bobby Sands led a protest against the treatment of IRA prisoners as criminals rather than as prisoners of war. The film focuses on the mothers of two of the strikers struggling to save their sons' lives. As you can see from my rating, I liked this film a lot. My review will be posted on Tuesday.

27. Cache (5/5 stars) -- This was my first foray into watching Haneke's films -- frankly, he's a director who's always scared me a bit. Part of my wanted to dislike this film, for reasons I'll explain later. Unfortunately for me, it was freaking brilliant. :-) My review will appear later this week.

28. Dream With the Fishes (3/5 stars) -- This is a quirky dark comedy about two young men who meet under unlikely circumstances. One is a lonely, depressed guy who spends his time spying on the neighbors. The other is drug addicted and suffers from an unspecified life-threatening illness.

At first I was completely absorbed in the odd story and quirky characters. The dialogue on the bridge was priceless. But I gradually lost interest in the story and characters. I found it difficult to maintain a connection with the characters, and a lot of the humor and dialogue seemed a bit forced.

Linking To:

It's Monday, What Are You Reading? hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.


  1. I loved Labor Day...and I'm a big fan of Joyce Maynard's books.

    I see several movies that look tempting...and I did enjoy Young Adult.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and have a great New Year.

  2. Happy New Year! Great round up. I enjoyed The Secret Keeper too.

  3. Prayers for Sale sounds like a touching read.
    Wishing you a happy new year for 2013!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd OUt

  4. Die Hard only 4 out of 5? That makes me a sad panda!

  5. I know I read Prayers for Sale but it was before I blogged and therefore I have no record of it. Did I like it? I think I did? LOL Happy reading and happy 2013!

  6. Yay! You loved Cache! It's easily my favorite film of 2005. Hope you'll check out more of Haneke's work.

    Oh, and I'm a big fan of Love Actually. 4.5/5 for me. :)

  7. Wow, such a great summary of books and movies. I was hoping to finish 'Restless' by William Boyd during my vacation recently but no such luck.

    Glad to see you rated The Descendants and Shaun of the Dead pretty highly, and Love, Actually is pretty sweet all around. I didn't realize then that it was Martin Freeman in the 'porn stars' segment ahah, I LOVE him in The Hobbit!

  8. So many films! I'm very interested in Newlyweds as I've seen a documentary-like film before and it was so different and fun. Loved Love, Actually and Burn After Reading. Books-wise, Prayers for Sale sounds good, and the Byrd's been on my list for a while. Happy new year!

  9. This reminds me that my son and I saw MIB III this summer and he got so upset by the ending and started crying that we had to leave the theater!


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