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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Junebug is a hard movie to say whether I liked it or I just felt so sorry for the characters I took pity on the film. The best way to describe it is the call it a slice of Southern small-town American living. It’s basically a story about George, who has moved to Chicago but, on a trip back home, reconnects with his Southern roots. Those roots might have been dormant when he fell in love with and married Madeleine, an uptight, highly educated art dealer, but once George gets back home, those dormant characteristics began to surface….from everything from afternoon naps to singing hymns at the local church’s pancake breakfast. The supporting characters are the ones, though, that made this movie special for me. Amy Adams plays Ashley, a pregnant young woman just starved (I mean REALLY STARVED) for affection and attention. She is desperate to like Madeleine, mostly because she has very little positive reinforcement in her life. Ashley’s husband and George’s brother, Johnny, is a gruff loner who shows more attention to his cars than he does to anyone in his family, especially his pregnant wife. Even though Madeleine and George seem to be at the center of the story, I got more out of the supporting characters and their troubles. The Ashley character alone is so complex in her simplicity that she could star in a movie all her own (which might be one of the reasons Amy Adams got so many raves for her over-the-top yet (at the same time) understated performance, including an Oscar nomination for supporting actress).

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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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One of the most loved and acclaimed movies of the 20th Century, Gone with the Wind is the winner of eight Academy Awards®, including Best Picture. Best Actress® winner Vivien Leigh stars as Scarlett O’Hara, who is simply one of the most timeless characters in cinema history, not to mention one of the prettiest Southern Belles ever. Starting in Margaret Mitchell’s iconic novel on life in the South before, after, and during the Civil War, Scarlett became engrained in the American consciousness as the epitome of beauty and selfishness. She spends most of her time pining over a man she can never have (Ashley Wilkes), and when she can finally have him, she wants the one she has had all along (the infamous Rhett Butler). Her fickleness, somehow though, comes off mostly as charming…the men in her life just simply understand that this is how she is. And every time she is let down by one of her beaus, her Mammy (Hattie McDaniel in her Oscar®- winning performance as Best Supporting Actress) is right there to help Scarlett survive. After all, tomorrow is another day!

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Why is this considered a love story? The two main characters hardly even touch until the VERY ending…so doesn’t that make it the antithesis of a romance? Based on Tennessee Williams’ drama, the dialogue says it all here. These two characters, Brick and Maggie, have so much passion…so much desire inside of them, it seems to be eating them alive. Yet, they also cannot be more distance to each other. Their passion is brooding… brewing…boiling under the surface… patiently waiting to explode. It’s more of a simmering romance than we’re used to today and that simmering element, I feel, increases the desire in the audience as well. We are not thrown right into a loving, uncomplicated relationship. We have to get to know these characters and understand them first. And this is fine with us, because they’re Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor and we don’t mind having to spend time with them. So, grab a sweetie and pull up a chair for this one. Something just might boil inside of you…

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The Help by Kathryn Stockett captures the reader with its profiles of black household help and the white women who relinquished the care of homes and children to them in the early 1960’s in Jackson Mississippi. The novel relates story after story of both careless cruelty and careful concern in a time that is not too long gone.

Three strong women are the backbones of the novel. Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan is home from college without a marriage proposal and hopes to be a writer. Coping with the loss of her own son, Aibileen is a black maid who is raising her seventeenth white child. Minny is Aibileen’s best friend who has no trouble saying what she feels and therefore is searching for a new job. Skeeter decides to write a series of interviews of black maids and entangles Aibileen and Minny in her work. The author draws the reader in with careful characterization. These three women have flaws but this only increases their believability and humanity.

The author writes from her experience since she was cherished by a black housekeeper, Demetrie, after her mother deserted the family. Born and raised in Jackson, Stockett loves her home state with true grit. She has lived this life and authenticity shines throughout its pages.

There is so much to this book to reflect upon. Book discussion groups will dissect it with piercing analysis. First of course is the civil rights movement that provides the core of the novel. It’s all here – separate toilets, lunch room sit-ins, King’s march on Washington and the murder of Medgar Evans. What mothers want from their daughters and what daughters really need is prominent. Skeeter is tall and has frizzy hair and her mother frets and worries that she will never have a ring on her finger. Body image, the need for the approval of men and the southern belle mentality of women all are present. The men adore their woman and are courteous and respectful but are easily manipulated. Lots of good old boy hunting trips keep the men sane.

Differences in the friendship of silver spoon white woman and the church going black women also become apparent. The white women have so much time to plot against one another with full radiant smiles. Cooking and cleaning is too much for them and the reader becomes exhausted just reading about the daily chores of the household help. The setting is southern and vivid descriptions of pies, cakes and fried chicken are present in mouth watering glory. The black maids seem to be there for one another and the warmth of their relationships lessens the tense tone. Amid the seriousness of the novel hopeful optimism prevails. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny are strong and smart women but they are also capable of providing light moments and laughter.

I confidently recommend this inviting historical fiction novel for its thoughtful portrayal of the triumph of heart over hate.

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One of the best novels of the 20th Century is wonderfully adapted into one of the best films of the century, as well. Talk about a rarity! Many adaptations, especially those of well-received books, fall far from the mark usually. Either they are generally not good, or they are edited so much that the book’s story is hardly recognizable. In this faithful adaptations, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale stays true…mostly because of the vivid performances, especially by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Peck won his only Oscar for his portrayal as the Southern Gentleman who is both a lawyer who defends innocent, yet African American, Tom Robinson and also the father of Scout and Jem Finch. Wonderfully directed and shot as well… the fictional town Lee created of Maycomb, Georgia really comes to life as a conflicted small-town. And the mood of the era…the 1930s…is also captured. Racism was rampant during these years…especially in the South. Southerners were still bitter over the Civil War and still saw Blacks as slaves. An almost-perfect interpretation of one of the more perfect books of American literature.

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