We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars
by
E. Lockhart

Rating:

Something bad happens during Cadence Eastman’s fifteenth summer on the family’s private island off Martha’s Vineyard. Cady, her cousins Johnny and Mirren and their friend Gat were inseparable and fearless that summer and they would risk everything to break free from the oppressive, greedy and narrow minded Sinclair family pressures.

After an unexplained accident, Cady struggles to remember the events that sent her to the hospital and left her with debilitating migraines. Cady tells us what she can: “I used to be strong, but now I am weak. I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.” She wants to know, especially about Gat, but her family stays quiet and keeps her away from Beechwood Island. Everything is different when she returns for her seventeenth summer, but who will help her remember why?

Who can resist a book about three generations of a wealthy New England family, inseparable friends (nicknamed the Liars), rivalries and teenage love? E. Lockhart does a great job setting the scene:  money, interesting family drama and good looking people with strong chins spending their summers on an idyllic private island. Keeping appearances and hiding weakness are Sinclair rules and the reader soon sees that this kind of lying runs in the family. That’s enough for me, but The Liars is much bigger and is full of mystery and suspense. Lockhart leads the reader through a series of jumps between present and past, filling in details, but leaving a shocking discovery to the final pages.

This is a terrific Young Adult story about how the mysterious events of one summer force an entire family through painful changes that just may bring them closer. I recommend The Liars to readers who like suspenseful family dramas.

I read We Were Liars as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book suggested by a friend.

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Empire Falls by Richard Russo

empire falls pic

Empire Falls
by
Richard Russo

Rating:

Empire Falls is a great novel with many layers and characters and that’s just the kind of story I like to read. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 and HBO made it into a miniseries in 2005 (check it out here). I read it much later than most people, but I think the story and characters survive the time.

Its first layer is about Empire Falls, Maine, a town that is struggling to survive and is controlled by Francine Whiting, of the once-strong Whiting Industries. This backdrop introduces you to those who have chosen to stay and they make up many of Russo’s subsequent interconnecting layers. We learn about Miles Roby, his failed marriage to Janine and his own parents’ unhappy marriage. We meet Janine’s fiancé, Walt Comeau, and try to understand the new life she is about to begin. And later on we see how Miles struggles to understand his mother Grace and the choices she made as a young woman.

But this story is also about Miles and Janine’s high school daughter Tick, her friends Zack Minty, Candace and especially John Voss and these intense teenage relationships and conflicts. Russo has skillfully introduced this sleeper plot and we see how it slowly moves the story to its climax. I also like how Russo includes many other side characters, such as Jimmy Minty, Otto Meyer, Miles’ brother David, Charlene and Father Mark and develops them so we know that their lives are just as complicated, and are key parts of the story.

In addition to an excellent plot that is carefully constructed and both serious and humorous, this story is about the control of money and people, survival and the search for happiness. And on top of that, many of Russo’s characters struggle to understand the meaning of life and religion as they face both painful memories and discoveries.

There are many seemingly small pieces of conversations that, upon a second look, show how much thought went into writing Empire Falls. For example, Russo shows just how complicated father-son relationships are as he parallels Miles and Max with Jimmy Minty and his father. Both Miles and Jimmy hang onto their fathers, despite their flaws. Jimmy says, “He did slap my mom around a little…But I miss him anyway. You only get one father, is the way I look at it.” Later Miles tries to explain to David why he keeps giving their own father a second chance: “He’s pretty good at getting to me. I guess I don’t want to be sold short when I’m old.”

I think my favorite scene is when Jimmy Minty and Miles argue at the football game. Russo shows so well just how someone who is as unsophisticated as Jimmy still has excellent insight into people. Jimmy says, “You’re not the only one people like, okay? And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in…You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives.”

I also think Miles’ relationship with Cindy Whiting is very interesting and was glad to see how Cindy’s character developed from someone pathetic and needy into someone strong and independent. She’s also an example of a character we think is less significant, but who comes up with something important to say. She tells Miles, “It’s like you decided a long time ago that someone like me is incapable of joy…It doesn’t occur to you that I might be happy.”

The Whiting family dynamics and history are also very interesting and amusing and Russo has a different style of describing these people, using irony and a cold kind of humor. I liked this part just as much, particularly the story of Francine’s gazebo.

Empire Falls has a tidy and satisfying ending, with just enough open story lines to make me hopeful about the characters and their futures.

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Food for thought – books with food references in their titles

Image: Pixabay

Whether it’s a direct reference or a more subtle metaphor, there is no shortage of book titles that have something to do with food.  It’s always fun to organize collections this way.  These classics, thrillers, children’s books and modern fiction all have this common food trait:


A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s memoir of his days in Paris, where he was part of the expatriate community of writers, artists and creative minds, known now as the “Lost Generation”


Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Capote’s character sketch of Holly Golightly, a nineteen-year-old runaway in New York who tries to escape her sad past


Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin

Exciting medical thriller that tackles the subject of obesity and the food industry’s role in this serious health problem


In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

In his guide to eating right, Pollan simplifies the dizzying task of figuring out what to eat:  Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.


One Hundred Hungry Ants by Elinor J. Pinczes

Entertaining children’s book that uses hungry ants to teach math and a life lesson


Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig

Pete’s mad because it’s raining and he can’t go outside, so his parents turn him into a pizza in this quietly warm children’s story.


Taste by Tracy Ewens

Sophisticated and a little bit spicy romance about young professionals in the restaurant business


The Dinner by Herman Koch

Twisted tale about a seriously messed up and unlikable family with a terrible secret


The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

One of the greatest American stories of endurance ever told.  When The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”


We the Eaters by Ellen Gustafson

An argument for ways “we the eaters” can change the world by fighting against big companies like Monsanto and Cargill and buying more organic and whole foods


What do your books in common?

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A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler


A Spool of Blue Thread
by
Anne Tyler

Rating:

Can a house be a character in a book?  I’ve been thinking about this ever since I finished Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel, A Spool of Blue Thread.  Tyler incorporates her favorite themes of family and relationships into the story and her characters are tightly connected to the Baltimore family’s house on Bouton Road, where three generations have lived.  And in that house the big question remains.  If the anchor is pulled, where will they go?

This is only one of the themes in the book, the question of what ties a family together and how this changes as its members move on, grow older or die.  The Whitshank family is both typical and unique in this regard, with its own set of problems and complex dynamics.  When Abby Whitshank becomes forgetful and Red’s hearing worsens, their adult children come together, messily, to help them.  Contributing to this drama is Denny Whitshank, the third child, and the family’s rebel.  He’s perpetually misunderstood, causing all the problems that come with being a wayward son.  But his siblings privately wonder, has he been their mother’s favorite all this time?

Class distinction and getting ahead drove the family’s patriarch, Junior Whitshank, who came from nothing and built a construction business, including the house on Bouton.  That drive only carries to some of the family and is often in conflict with his wife’s down-home ways and his daughter-in-law, Abby’s social consciousness.  Here’s a good example of a common difference in thinking which can pit family members against each other.

The plot jumps back and forth between the lives of Red, Abby and their children and Junior and Linnie Mae’s marriage a generation before.  Learning the backstory after knowing the characters is one of my favorite story structures because I think it resembles the way we get to know people and understand their actions.

I enjoyed this story very much, in which Tyler creates a complicated family, full of undercurrent secrets and an unacknowledged division between its members.  And despite this division and simmering aggression, they manage to maintain their dedication to each other when they pull together, without question, for emergencies, holidays and group vacations.  I felt invested in these characters, developed my own favorites and hoped for the best when relationships took their hits.

I read this book greedily, thinking I knew how it would end, but I was a little disappointed with its uneventful finish, which will no doubt lead to a lot of book club discussion.  Perhaps such an ending is Tyler’s point, that sometimes the buildup to a big decision makes the day it happens kind of ordinary.

I recommend A Spool of Blue Thread to readers who like stories about families.  If you’re an Anne Tyler fan, you will enjoy this one as much as the others and look forward to the next one!

Check out The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler here.

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The Fever by Megan Abbott

the-fever
The Fever

by
Megan Abbott

Rating:
bookmarks-3a

Dryden’s small town high school is a normal place until Lise Daniels has a mysterious seizure in class.  And panic takes over when other girls become ill, with alarming and bizarre symptoms.  Doctors are stumped, parents are in a frenzy and, within the dark and secret teenage culture, Lise’s girlfriends wonder who will be next.

Parents point to the HPV vaccine recently given to all the girls and others think it could be toxins in the school or in the closed-off lake in town, thick with strange foam and algae.  But maybe its cause is something entirely different.  Whatever it is, the media jumps in with all the angles and it’s not long before the police get involved.

The Fever is Megan Abbott’s 2014 modern story about complicated adolescence and sexuality, broken families, false friendships and jealousy.  The story’s central figures are chemistry teacher Tom Nash and his high school children, hockey star Eli and Lise’s best friend, Deenie.  News travels at the lightning speed of texts and uploaded YouTube videos, adding fever to the frightening illnesses.  As the investigation continues, the reader learns about the dynamics of Deenie’s friendship with Lise, Gabby Bishop and the weirdly frightening Skye Osbourne, Gabby’s new free-spirited friend with vintage skirts and bangles on her thin arms.

Abbott does a great job portraying the girls in a contrasting light, initially as clingy and giggly schoolgirls, dressed in brightly colored tights and neon sneakers, but also as teenagers obsessed with intense friendships and lost virginity.  Unexplained events and characters add a paranormal layer to this already mysterious story.  I also like how she integrates the town and its dreary environment into the mood of the story, one of my favorite types of storytelling.

The Fever is a quick and dark read, with a mildly compelling plot and somewhat forgettable characters, but it is otherwise entertaining.  I recommend it to anyone who likes stories about teenagers and their secret lives.


reconstructing amelia

And if you like to read about the scary lives of teenagers, you may like Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight.

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What’s That Book? The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

whats-that-book

the-most-dangerous-place-on-earth

Title: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Author:  Lindsey Lee Johnson

Genre: Adult Literary Fiction

Rating:  ****

What’s it about?  Debut novel (2017) about privileged high schoolers from a wealthy suburb of San Francisco.  The story centers around eight high school kids and a new English teacher who tries to connect with them.

It has been three years since the suicide of their eighth grade classmate, Tristan Bloch, and while they have moved on, each is saddled by complex feelings of guilt.  Abigail is a super achiever, Ryan a heartthrob baseball player.  Emma is driven to dance, Nick is an unscrupulous moneymaker, and Elisabeth is a stunning beauty.  Dave must meet his parents’ expectations and Damon has landed in rehab.  And the biggest burden of grief falls on Callie, who reinvents and loses herself in a numbing transformation.

While these may sound like typical advantaged and spoiled teenagers, Johnson does a terrific job developing her characters and defining their painful adolescence, showing that money cannot fix feelings, families or relationships.  Johnson also points to the superficial and damaging effects of social media and its often destructive role in friendships.  She gives the reader a sometimes shocking look into the secret lives of teenagers.

As the friends move through their junior and senior years, a series of dangerous developments threatens to break some and free others, with an imperfect but satisfying finish.

The story is loaded with excellent imagery, one of Johnson’s strongest points, adding that extra layer of quality writing that I love to see.

How did you hear about it?  I saw an online book review and wanted to read it.  I enjoy reading about high school kids because of all the changes they face in a compressed period of time.

Closing comments:  I like books about groups of friends and how their relationships change over time.  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is an excellent story about seeming stereotypes with unique, realistic and modern problems.  Johnson also gives her characters the universal teenage challenge of both fitting in and being comfortable in their own skin.  It reminds me of the 1985 movie, St. Elmo’s Fire (even though those friends are recent college grads) and one of my favorite books, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

Contributor:  Ginette


Have you read something good?  Want to talk about it?
Consider being a contributor to What’s That Book.

Email Book Club Mom at bvitelli2009@gmail.com for information.

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Caught by Harlan Coben

caught

Caught
by
Harlan Coben

Rating:
bookmarks-4a

When Dan Mercer walks into a televised sting designed to catch sexual predators, TV reporter Wendy Tynes and the New Jersey suburban community are certain of his guilt, even if Dan’s ex-wife says it’s not true.  Then in an alarming development, the courts throw out the evidence.  That’s more than enough for one enraged father to act and when high school senior Haley McWaid goes missing, everyone is ready to pin the crime on Dan.   Are the two cases connected?  Wendy Tynes is beginning to wonder if there’s a bigger story.

Wendy’s intuition points to other suspicious players and she can’t rest until she has it figured out, with the help of police investigators.  Coben introduces many characters who seem to be one way, but have interesting hidden motives that are only made clear as the plot develops.  The investigation takes the reader all around northern Jersey, with a couple Ivy League trips south to Princeton’s campus.

Caught is an exciting thriller that follows the circuitous leads after Dan’s arrest and the questionable motives of the story’s many characters.  It’s a fast-moving and engaging and story that looks at issues of entrapment, vigilantism, destructive viral marketing and, of course, secrets.  In addition to the crimes, Coben includes themes of marriage, families, raising teenagers, careers, and loss and he asks a question that has many answers:  How far would you go to protect your family?

While some of the characters and plot lines stretch logic and plausibility, they are nevertheless entertaining.  And despite the serious subjects, Harlan writes with a good amount of humor.  In addition, any reader with ties to New Jersey will appreciate the unique references.  Coben’s storytelling and writing style make the book a page-turner that is appealing to a broad audience.  I recommend Caught to anyone who likes a fast moving thriller.


Harlan Coben has written twenty-six novels and has over seventy million books in print worldwide.  He has won many awards for his writing.  His first books featured the sports agent character, Myron Bolitar, but he has since branched out to write about other characters. Among his books are two separate series which are set in the New Jersey, New York area.  Each series includes the same main characters, with some who appear in both.

His latest thriller is Home, about a high-profile kidnapping case of two young boys.

I love to imagine a writer’s friend group and found this fun author fact:  Coben has two interesting close friendships.  One with Amherst college fraternity brother, author Dan Brown and the other with high school chum and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Check out Coben’s website at harlancoben.com.

Click here to read about Coben in a 2012 Family Circle interview.

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The Time Between by Karen White

the-time-between
The Time Between

by
Karen White

Rating:
bookmarks-3a

Are sisters “forever” or can secrets can break the bond?  That’s the big question in Karen White’s story about two sets of sisters whose lives are divided by tragedy and broken dreams.  The Time Between traces the modern lives of Eleanor Murray and her wheelchair-bound sister Eve, whose life was forever changed because of a sisterly dare.  We meet the second set of sisters when Finn Beaufain, Eleanor’s daytime boss, hires her for a second job as companion to his elderly aunt, Helena Szarka.

The story takes place on the scenic Edisto Island in South Carolina, where Eleanor and Eve grew up and where Helena and her sister Bernadett followed their older sister Magda after World War II.  Eleanor is a young woman, trapped by guilt and obligation to care for Eve and their arthritic mother.  Her dream of studying piano at Julliard has been dashed and Eve’s husband Glen is a reminder of what could have been.

Helena does not want a companion.  At ninety years old, she is grieving Bernadett’s death and has little patience for Eleanor’s self-absorbed martyrdom.  Their shared love of music may bring them together, but family secrets on both sides block the way.  At Helen’s house, something is strange about the oil paintings that hang on her walls.  And Eleanor’s unspoken and painful thoughts trace back to Eve’s accident.  If only her father were still alive to guide her.

I enjoyed this story of family, mystery, and the parallel look at sisters, written from the surviving sisters’ varying points of view.  I also enjoyed the historical element, which describes the three Szarka sisters as young women during the German invasion of Hungary.  White’s vivid descriptions of Edisto make it easy to picture life on the island, a place that would be nice to visit.  Sweetgrass baskets sold by roadside locals fill Helena’s house and they take on special meaning when Helena enters a forbidden closed-off room at Luna Point.

Helena and Eve are different, but their similarities may be enough to help them understand the decisions they’ve made and see that there are indeed second chances, allowing them to break free from the time between.

The Time Between is a light story with thought provoking themes.  While its plot and characters are often predictable, White writes about many of my favorite subjects, family, relationships, and mysterious old houses with locked doors and forbidden rooms.

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That’s life! Books about life

Life has many ups and downs, but you can always count on a book to get you through the tougher days.  Heavy or light, fiction or nonfiction, there is no shortage of books on the subject!


Books with the word “life” in the title:

Archie The Married Life
Archie – The Married Life Book 2
by Paul Kupperberg
:  Even comic book characters have challenges and Archie has his hands full with both Betty and Veronica!


Barbarian Days A Surfing Life
Barbarian Days:  A Surfing Life
by William Finnegan:  winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, a self-portrait of a life-long surfer.


Dear Life coverDear Life by Alice Munro:  terrific collection of short fiction by one of the best.


life after life pic

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson:  One of the best books I’ve ever read, Atkinson looks at the what-ifs during the world-changing events of World War II.


Stll Life with Bread Crumbs
Still Life with Bread Crumbs
by Anna Quindlen:  Love enters the picture at all stages of life in this popular story.


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty new
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
by James Thurber:  A henpecked husband escapes into his own world in this Thurber classic.


The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace
by Jeff Hobbs:  an absorbing story about a super smart and caring guy from a poor neighborhood in New Jersey who just couldn’t make it work.


helen-keller-the-story-of-my-life
The Story of My Life
by Helen Keller:  Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing as a baby and overcame tremendous obstacles and became a well-known supporter of many causes.


Of course you don’t have to have the word “life” in the title to write about the subject.  Here are some notables from this year’s reading list:

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway:  Hemingway looks back on his days in Paris and his marriage to Hadley Richardson.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín:  A young Irish woman takes a chance on a better life in America after World War II.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume:  a fictionalized depiction of life in 1950s Elizabeth, New Jersey when three planes crashed in their town.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout:  How do you put the hushed experiences of your childhood into words, and should you?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie:  terrific semi-autobiographical story about a life of poverty on the Spokane Indian reservation.

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler:  Life changes in an instant when a man’s wife dies.  Will he get a chance to fix unreconciled conflicts in his marriage?

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor:  great 1950s historical fiction about the lives of accused spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were the only civilian Americans to be killed for spying for the Russians.

Traveling Mercies – Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott:  an honest and often humorous memoir about finding faith.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas:  A family’s life is transformed after a loved-one’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler:  a solid reminder that successful people put in a lot of time at the bottom, before anyone knows about them.


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Currently reading The Time Between by Karen White

That Girl…Books with “girl” in the title

Who remembers Marlo Thomas in That Girl? Photo: Amazon.com
Who remembers Marlo Thomas in That Girl? Photo: Amazon.com

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has noticed that there are a lot of books out there about that girl.  She’s on a train, she’s in Boston, and then she’s gone.  She’s good, she has a tattoo and wears a pearl earring.  She’s playing with fire and kicking a hornet’s nest.  First she’s in pieces and then she’s interrupted.  You get the idea!

I’ve read and enjoyed many of these and now I’ve added more to my list.  And there are even more “girl” books out there.  Just do a search on Amazon and you will see what I mean.

Calmer Girls by Jennifer Kelland Perry

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Girl in Pieces by Kathleen Glasgow

Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Razor Girl by Carl Hiassen

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

The Girl by Rachel Blakeman

The Girl Before by Rena Olsen

The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

The Girl in the Ice by Robert Bryndza

The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

“The Girl on the Plane” by Mary Gaitskill

The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Lied by Sue Fortin

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

The Girl You Lost by Kathryn Croft

The Girls by Emma Cline

The Last Girl by Joe Hart

The Munich Girl by Phyllis Edgerly Ring

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan

The Winter Girl by Matt Marinovich


And of course there’s this one, which stands alone.

Anne Frank:  The Diary of a Young Girl

anne-frank-the-diary-of-a-young-girl


What girl books have you read?  Can you add to my list?

Calmer Girls  gonegirl  the boston girl  The Good Girl  The Girl on the Train 

the girl with the dragon tattoo pic  The Girl who played with fire pic  The girl who kicked the hornet's nest pic  Girl with a Pearl Earring  The Munich Girl

 

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