This debut novel from Chicago Tribune journalist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Julia Keller is gripping from page one…reeling the reader in with clear depictions of small town life, adolescence, and brutal, senseless violence.  Starting out shortly before a seemingly random shooting, the story introduces us to a mother and daughter who are both at odds with each other.  The mother, Bell, works too much, overly dedicated to her job as prosecuting attorney for a small, impoverished county in West Virginia. And her daughter Carla is knee-deep in full-blown teenage rebellion.  Actually, that rebellion sets the stage for the story…while waiting for her mother to pick her up from mandatory “anger management” class, Carla witness one of the most violent acts in Acker’s Gap, WV.  After this, Carla becomes even more of a problem…not only is she still a behavior problem but now she also has upsetting, conflicting issues with what she witnessed.  Bell, in addition to dealing with Carla and with the hunt for the murderer(s), also has other issues contending for space in her frantic world.  Keller, as in her Chicago Tribune articles, truly does have a way with words… bringing characters, places and scenarios to life with true, vivid imagery.  This was one of the best written mysteries I’ve read in ages!  Hopefully, Acker’s Gap, along with Bell, Carla and the other colorful characters of this small town, will be back soon. 

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So I finally got to watch the film Whip It. This was one of those films that I wanted to see immediately after seeing a preview for it. It was quite apropos because I had just re-discovered my love for roller skating, and who doesn’t love Ellen Page? Yet for some reason, I never made it out to see it in the theater. So one evening I had a hankering for something funny and lighthearted. Flipping through the channels I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that Whip It was available on pay-per-view. I don’t normally order movies on PPV, but this seemed like a wise investment.

Four dollars and ninety nine cents later, I was pumped to finally see this film, directed by Drew Barrymore and starring several well known actors such as Ellen Page, Kristen Wig, Juliette Lewis, Eve, Jimmy Fallen to name a few. Ellen Page stars as Bliss, a 17 year old misfit from a small town outside of Austin, Texas, who stumbles upon Roller Derby, which is quite a departure from her history of competing in pageants. She joins and suddenly within weeks her life changes. Bliss who has chosen the derby name “Babe Ruthless” is a timid character, and yet she fits in almost instantly with the tough derby chicks including Maggie Mayhem, Bloody Holly, and Eva Destruction, and in no time becomes the star of the team. Her presence on the team energizes them and the once apathetic Hurl Scouts become fired up and determined to win. All the while she falls for Oliver, your typical indie band rocker, with whom she has a whirlwind romance. The rest of the film deals with her mending her relationship with her bestie Pash, and her mother, whom she has been lying to for weeks.

When the film was over I was wishing I had my $4.99 back. It was an overall disappointment. The plot was so predictable you knew exactly what was going to occur before it happened. It was also fairly unrealistic. Do you know any misfits who double as beauty pageant contestants at age 17? I sure don’t. How do you go from that to roller derby? And how does one become such a skilled roller skater in just weeks? I know it’s just a movie, but still all this bothered me. The love story between Bliss and Oliver was so cheesy you needed crackers just to get through it. Had I not gone into this with such high expectations, I may have enjoyed it a bit more, as it did at least provide a few laughs. In short, I would only recommend this film if you are looking to enjoy a couple hours of mindless entertainment.

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A strong thriller that has small-town and strong families ties intricate to the story. Set in rural New York State, the girlfriend of police detective’s son goes missing and the son is a strong suspect. This disappearance also brings to light the decades-old murder of a local girl who was friends with the detective during his high school years. Never having read Unger, I was surprised by how, not only well-written, but how formed the characters were. We really got to know these people and, as a result of that, you felt and cared for all of them. A VERY powerful thriller!

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Both of these films are masterpieces in historical dramas. Even though produced by BBC both films play as well…over even better…than most historical dramas put on the big screen. Starring Judi Dench as the main matriarchal member of a small Cheshire, England market town that has been slow (if at all) to progress with the times. Dench’s Matty is a spinster who lives with her sister and they, with their friends, control the town more than any mayor or politician could do. What they want, goes. What they say, goes. Over the course of these two great series, the ladies…especially Matty…change. Some die, some get ill, some suffer, some alter their believes about progress. But, all in all, the town of Cranford would not continue to survive and thrive without the ladies of Cranford.

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GREAT series with a stodgy superior detective who’s assistant seems always to be wrong and/or one step behind. Yes, it’s similar to Morse and Lynley, but the rural setting and the clever dialogue make this one stand-out among the others. I really like the rapport between the senior detective Barnaby and his always second-fiddle Sergeant Troy. For those who love British detective shows, this one is a MUST SEE!

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Another Newman/Richard Russo collaboration stems, this time, from Russo’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a dying Maine town and its sad, depressed townspeople. Set in a former mill town, once the mill closed, the people of Empire Falls had nothing to do but be unemployed and desperate. Ed Harris plays main character Miles Roby, who is one of the stronger citizens of Empire Falls, considering he runs the local Empire Grill. But, this life is far from idyllic. Filled, like the novel, with an array of fun, colorful characters, this mini-series is not from one of Russo’s best works, in my opinion, but it still is a strong story that lends itself flawlessly to the screen.

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Clint Eastwood directs and stars as a former violent cowboy who turns over a new leaf. Now a father and a widower, he finds out whether he still has that violent streak. Eastwood and a friend (Morgan Freeman) decide to collect a bounty in a corrupt town, run by a detestable sheriff (Gene Hackman). Called a “psychological” Western, this film won Eastwood his first Oscar for Best Director, in addition to snagging Best Picture and a Supporting Actor Oscar for Hackman.

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Based on a novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Richard Russo, this film is a small, unsung gem…just like the book. Telling the story of Sully, an aged laborer rural New York State who, between his quirky friends and bad health, is not having an easy time of it at late. Russo excels in stories like this…about small towns and small heroes who don’t do the big, grandiose things to get noticed…they do the little things that usually do not come with any form of notoriety…or even appreciation. They are the fathers and sons of the Everyman…and Newman is always your perfect Everyman…even here, in the twilight of his years. Quirky and slow in parts, this film, like the novel and Russo’s other novels, unveils itself slowly and cautiously. But, the unveiling process is a great ride!

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What do they call you? Well, if they call you Mr. Tibbs, watch out. One of the many films of the 1950s and 60s that Sidney Poitier did about race, this one would have to be the best…mostly since it is by far the most powerful. With the films The Defiant Ones (1958) and A Patch of Blue (1965), Poitier had cemented himself as one of the finest actors in American cinema – black or white. With this film, made in 1967 and directed by Norman Jewison, Poitier takes his acting to the next level…sheer power and passion. Also in 1967, he made another “race” based classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That film, though emotional, does not hit at the anger and the murderous rage that racial issues bring out in some people…especially some from the mid-20th Century South, where In the Heat of the Night is based.

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A fun film about a small English town turned upside down when a hair styling contest comes to town. Yes, that’s right. I said a hair styling contest. Didn’t know there was such a thing? Well, this film will get your up to speed. Not anything deep or stylized (no pun intended)…just a fun, entertaining film. Some of the flamboyant hair stylists and the jokes about them are a little over the top, but all in all, a solid comedy with a little romance throw in for good measure.

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