Youth Historical Novel: "The Lions of Little Rock"

While researching The Lions of Little Rock, author Kristin Levine zeroed in on 1958 when Little Rock, Arkansas, was starting to react to forced integration of the public schools. By setting her novel at that time, she gives it a compelling undertone, as readers witness the governor closing the high schools and citizens forming groups such as the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC).

This historical novel for youth offers dynamic characters and plot, starring painfully shy twelve-year-old Marlee. Readers will be moved when Marlee bids good-bye to her beloved older sister who is sent away for high school. Left at home, Marlee struggles to make friends, when suddenly an unexpected friendship with a new girl, Liz, boosts her confidence and helps her to understand where she stands in the fight against racism. I found Levine's book informative, warm, and highly entertaining. Reviews have been strongly positive, including this from the New York Times Book Review: ". . . Satisfying, gratifying, touching, weighty — this authentic piece of work has got soul." Levine also wrote The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.

The Future, on DVD

Written, directed, and starring the quirky Miranda July, The Future tells the story of a thirty-something couple whose decision to adopt a cat changes their perspective on life, literally altering the course of time and testing their faith in themselves and their relationship. The cat, which has a voice over in the film, acts as a symbol for waiting. He needs a month to heal a hurt paw before the couple can take him home. Sophie and Jason decide that the next thirty days is the last free time they’ll ever have, and ponder what to do with their time, their relationship, and their adult lives as they wait for the cat to join their lives. How would you spend your “last” thirty days?

The film can be difficult, and is not for everyone, but this also makes it powerful, strange, and charming at the same time. I’m not a huge fan of Miranda July’s work, such as Me and You and Everyone We Know, but I enjoyed The Future and found it awkwardly engaging. (For fun, you can also have your fortune told weekly by Ms. July.)

"Crossing the Tracks," Tenderhearted Historical Novel for Teens

Poor Iris Baldwin lost her mom as a young child, and now that she is a teen, her overbearing, insensitive dad is sending her away for the summer. Iris feels awkward, alienated, and angry about his latest girlfriend as she spends the summer with kindly Doctor Nesbitt and his elderly mother. Gradually Iris finds friendship, compassion, and a mindset that feels like home. Set in Kansas and Missouri in the 1920s, this coming-of-age novel -- the first by talented author Barbara Stuber -- offers romantic and tragic subplots, including a young neighbor's pregnancy and a violent death in Iris' family.

Once I picked this novel up, I couldn't put it down. After I finished reading it, I was delighted to see that this historical novel was picked in 2011 for Best Fiction for Young Adults by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association. Written for kids in about sixth through eighth grades, the story "offers strong character development and an engaging protagonist," according to School Library Journal. It's a natural for readers drawn to the Great Plains. Check out the author's website here.

Checkout the Thrilling Tale, "God's Spy"

If you are looking for a new adventure and don't shy away from murder, intrigue and graphic violence, God’s Spy could be the next book for you! Originally published in Spain, Juan Gomez-Jurado's God’s Spy is a thrilling story about a serial killer loose in Vatican City just after the death of the last pope, Pope John Paul II. The tale alternates between past events leading to the killer's arrival in Vatican City and the present circumstances, where a new Pope must be elected and potential candidates for the honor are being murdered.

Our serial murderer is revealed from page one, a former priest forced into a rehabilitation home for wayward clergy members with substance abuse problems or sexual repressions that manifest as physical abuse. Led by Paola Dicanti, head of the Laboratory for Behavioral Analysis, investigators must find the killer before another victim can be taken. Using her incredible talents, Paola must get inside of the mind of the disturbed priest and create a profile that will enable investigators to track him down. Definitely not for the faint of heart, this book is a great read if you have an interest in psychological profiling and general intrigue.

Luther, on DVD

BBC’s Luther is a psychological crime drama starring Idris Elba (The Wire) as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. Elba does a smashing job of portraying Luther, a brilliant yet troubled detective with a dark side. While battling crime in London he’s dealing with a prior case that haunts his existence, as well as coping with the fact that his wife has left him. Luther is an impulsive, emotionally-charged man, on the brink of violence, and often unable to control his emotions at times when he should.

The show focuses on Luther and the detectives he works with. As a twist, former murder suspect Alice decides to make Luther a new pet project and the two are locked in a battle of wits. That keeps things interesting, as they realize they have more in common than Luther would like. It’s a definite must-see for fans of British crime dramas or police procedurals. Thus far, Season 1 and Season 2 have been released on DVD, and a third season is in the works. After such cliff hanger endings, I can't wait!

Spoiler Alert!

John Dies at the End.

But in the beginning, John was alive and well when David Wong’s book started as a free webserial in 2001. It garnered enough popularity (approximately 70,000 fans) to get a more concrete existence and was printed as a paperback in 2007. Now, it has been adapted to film and premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

This comedic horror story centers around two friends, eccentric slacker John and self-deprecating, sarcastic Dave, a dog named Molly, and their experiences with, and caused by, a drug called "Soy Sauce." The drug is said to cause hallucinations and "out-of-body experiences" for the users. But John and Dave start finding themselves in situations that seem more real and even less explainable.

Strange deaths start occurring. Molly, the dog, is finding herself in strange instances of trouble and heroism. People are going missing, being possessed by evil, and all hell may literally be breaking loose. Dave is not thrilled about their new paranormally-enhanced life, but John loves all their unusual encounters and dives in headfirst. It looks like it's up to John and Dave to save the day, willingly or unwillingly. With less than 400 pages, this book is a quick read, full of genuinely frightening things as well as genuine hilariousness.

Outstanding Teen Book: "Sorta Like a Rock Star"

Seventeen-year-old Amber Appleton is homeless and virtually unparented. She struggles living in the school bus her mom drives, but somehow manages to do amazing things in her community – visiting lonely old people, teaching English and music to Korean Catholic women, and befriending an eccentric Vietnam veteran and his dog. She also is part of a school "marketing club" which calls itself Frank's Freaks Force Federation. She is, as the title says, Sorta Like a Rock Star.

But when violent tragedy strikes her life, she succumbs to weeks of deep depression. This part of the book is more than enough to break a reader's heart. Eventually, though, Amber heals, emerging stronger than ever, with her joyful spirit and remarkable ability to help and inspire others. This is an amazing feel-good story in which all the fascinating people in Amber's life are ultimately brought together. Matthew Quick is a superb writer and storyteller whose latest book is Boy21. Check it out.

Melancholia, on DVD

Writer and director Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, is not just another “end of the world” movie, it’s also a story of the complex relationship between two sisters. A wedding reception at a lavish Scandinavian countryside home sets the scene for this dark and beautifully made film. Newlyweds Justine and Michael celebrate their nuptials at the home of Justine’s sister Claire and her scientist husband John. With their opinionated family members in attendance, including the girls’ mother who bad mouths all marriages, it makes for quite the melancholy reception. Kirsten Dunst portrays the deeply depressed bride so wonderfully that it appears effortless, which earned her the best actress prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

The dreary state of the reception leads one to believe that the new marriage is doomed from the start. At the same time, the planet Melancholia is on a slow path towards earth, which has the sisters on edge as they try to comfort Claire's son and deal with Justine's illness while the giant blue planet's collision course taunts them. It is cinematically breathtaking and unsettling. I’m not usually a fan of films of an apocalyptic nature, but there’s something about this one. Perhaps he beauty helps balance the tension?

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

The documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at O’Brien’s 32-city music and comedy show known as The Legally Prohibited from Being Funny on Television Tour.

The tour was a result of O’Brien stepping away from "The Tonight Show" after a dramatic dispute with NBC over moving the show’s timeslot from 11:35 pm to 12:05 am, following Jay Leno. O’Brien didn’t agree with the deal and walked away from the show with a settlement, but was contractually banned from appearing on radio or TV for six months.

The talk show host didn’t want to stop the late-night comedy act, so he took it on the road, in a most interesting fashion. I saw it performed live, and it was indeed a wonderful ruckus.

The film is an in-depth look into the birth of the tour, how the live comedic material was brought to life. It follows O’Brien and crew on an emotional backstage look at what it takes to do so much in so little time. Conan fans will appreciate the candid look at his life during such a tumultuous time. Two weeks after the successful live show wrapped, O’Brien began preparations for his newest late night show, Conan, which now airs on TBS.

International Romance: Embrace This Teen Novel

Jennifer E. Smith has created a mini-masterpiece in The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight. Sophisticated and heartwarming, the novel stars charming and intelligent 17-year-old Hadley Sullivan, who is four minutes late for a JFK-to-London flight for her father's second wedding.

Her feelings about the wedding, and the bride she has never met, are complicated, to say the least. As she waits for the next flight to London, she meets Oliver, a sharp, witty Brit who is going to college in the United States and is bound for London for complicated family reasons of his own.

Oliver is in seat 18C, Hadley is in 18A, and the elderly, long-married woman who at first sits between them is a hoot. There is plenty of snappy dialogue here, plus surprise plot twists and believability of characters. The plot, which unfolds over a 24-hour stretch, will make you -- or perhaps remake you -- into a true believer in true love when it is least anticipated. Sigh.

The book also does a fine job with family connections and humor. As Publishers Weekly notes, Smith's book is a "fast-paced and entertaining novel with a superlatively romantic premise."

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