The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by
Gabrielle Zevin

Rating:

A.J. Fikry is at a crossroads. He’s a prickly young widower and owner of a small island bookstore off the coast of New England. Business is bad and his favorite book rep has been replaced by the unfamiliar and quirky young Amelia Loman. Deep in grief, he spends his nights drinking in the upstairs apartment. He’s lost, but at least he still has his rare edition of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. Until it’s stolen.

He has little time to focus on the stolen book, however, because of what is waiting for him in the back of the store:  a baby, with a note attached. What to do? There’s only one answer and that is to make a new life for himself.

A.J.’s climb out of darkness is a charming tale about love, friendship and family. Each chapter begins with a clever synopsis of a classic short story, initialed by A.J.  And each story is tied to the events and characters in the book. And while Zevin’s characters are not complex, they combine to form an appealing and amusing group, including one of my favorites, Police Chief Lambiase, leader of the Chief’s Choice Book Club.

Readers will enjoy great dialogue and several laugh-out-loud scenes, including a hilarious author visit and reading. The story isn’t all light, however, and there is a lot more to this book than a simple love story. Zevin includes serious themes of hopelessness and loss and their effects on the characters. Meeting these characters first-hand is a must:  describing them in detail would ruin the experience for future readers.

In the end, the book is overwhelmingly hopeful and uplifting. I especially enjoyed it because the author’s ideas began to sink in after I had finished. Book lovers will appreciate the many references to literature and bookstores and everything in between. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a fast read, but don’t be fooled and don’t be surprised if you pick it up for a second time!

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A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny

A Great Reckoning
by
Louise Penny

Rating:

After a deadly hostage situation, Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache has taken early retirement from the Sûreté du Québec. He’s regrouping in the cozy village of Three Pines with his wife Reine-Marie while he prepares for his new job:  Commander of the Sûreté Academy. There’s been a bad batch of cadets from the police academy, not to mention a corrupt administration, and Gamache is determined to clean house. While some get the axe, new professors are hired, including his boyhood friend, Michel Brébeuf.

Brébeuf is no friend now, however. Their bond shattered after Brébeuf’s unforgivable betrayal while at the Sûreté. Gamache also decides to keep Serge Leduc, formerly second in command at the academy and rumored to be the cruelest and most corrupt at the school. Many are nervous about the changes and wonder, is Gamache doing the right thing?

Classes begin and the cadets and professors settle into the new regime, but it isn’t long before a shocking murder upends the academy. Investigating the murder are Chief Inspector Isabelle Lacoste and an outsider, Deputy Commissioner Paul Gélinas from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Authorities rule out no one, including Gamache and four cadets, who have been researching a mysterious map found in the wall of the Three Pines bistro. Their relationships and personal histories make an excellent second story and I enjoyed seeing how Penny explains their motives and ties them into the mystery. As the story develops, evidence seems to implicate one of the students, the tattooed and pierced Amelia Choquet, and before long, many questions arise about her relationship with Gamache.

Published in 2016, A Great Reckoning is one of Louise Penny’s more recent Armand Gamache mysteries, a very readable and entertaining story. While it’s clear the characters have a lot of history together in her earlier books, I did not have trouble getting right into the story. She includes many of these side characters and subplots, including the residents of Three Pines and some quirky pets which enhance the story nicely, true to the genre. Her many references to tasty food may also inspire the reader to cook up something a little more sophisticated for dinner!

I particularly enjoyed Penny’s references to poetry, ancient philosophy and literature, which tie together many themes and helped me understand how police investigators think and cope with violent situations. I especially liked this line credited to a Buddhist nun:  “Don’t believe everything you think.” In addition, themes of family, long friendships, loyalty and doing the right thing run through every page, something I love to see in a book.

It is tempting to guess the finish as different characters reveal their motives and explain their involvement, but while answers flow freely in the last few chapters, the puzzle isn’t finished until the very last page.

I recommend A Great Reckoning to mystery readers because of its entertaining setting, characters and plot, but all readers will appreciate Penny’s storytelling talent.

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The Chessmen by Peter May

The Chessmen
by
Peter May

Rating:
and 1/2

Rising Celtic rock star Roddy Mackenzie disappeared in the skies more than seventeen years ago. He was never found and presumed dead. The island is therefore stunned when Fin Macleod and Whistler Macaskill discover Roddy’s small aircraft on Lewis Island, submerged for years but laid bare after a wild storm and a fluke bog burst. Roddy’s ID is still in his pocket, but the pilot’s remains are a mere skeleton, revealing little, except for one shocking clue that points to murder. Fin and Whistler stare in disbelief at their close friend’s plane and wonder how Roddy, on the verge of international fame and the leader of their band, wound up at the bottom of a bog.

The Chessmen is the third and final book of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, which features ex-Detective Inspector Fin Macleod and is set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. In this book, Fin is living with his schoolyard sweetheart, Marsaili, following the revelation that Fin is the father of her teenage son. But it’s not all good. Fin has tried his best to put a failed marriage and the unsolved hit-and-run death of his young son behind him. But like the ever-changing landscape of the island, Fin’s future will never be certain.

Fin has a new job. He’s been hired to track down salmon poachers at the Red River Estate. Big Kenny Maclean is his boss and he has major beef with Whistler, a notorious poacher. Whistler is also a long-term tenant at Red River, but has never paid rent. What’s worse, Whistler’s wife left him years ago for Kenny, taking their baby girl with her, now part of a custody battle. The complex dynamics between these three men and the history of the ties their ancestors shared provide the backdrop for a story with many crossed alliances.

The title refers to a famous set of chess pieces, originally from Lewis, but on display off-island, as well as a specially commissioned set of three-foot pieces, hand-carved by Whistler, directly related to the problem of Whistler’s unpaid rent.

A sub-plot revolves around the Reverend Donald Murray and events from the second book in which Donald killed a man. He’s been legally cleared, but the church has him on trial for breaking the 6th Commandment.

May switches from present to past and fills in the history of Fin’s days at university. This period explains the relationship between Fin, who hauls equipment for the band, Whistler, Roddy and the other band members, including the beautiful Mairead. Friendship, family, faith and loyalty are prominent themes as clues to Roddy’s murder focus on complicated relationships and romantic rivalries.

I enjoyed reading The Chessmen because of May’s talent for joining plot and landscape in his stories. While the story is very readable, it is not as strong as The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man. Once the murder investigation is underway, the poaching story line disappears. And although the reader learns about the importance of the chess pieces, I thought they would have a more important symbolic role. In addition, after reading two books in the series, I felt betrayed to learn of important new characters from Fin’s childhood that were not introduced until book three.

The book finishes quickly with a wild chase and rushed tie-togethers and although I was glad for some of the endings, I wondered what happened to other unfinished story lines.

All in all, however, The Chessmen is a must-read for those who have read the first two books and I will look for more Peter May books to add to my shelf.


Start from the beginning of The Lewis Trilogy!

Book 1: The Blackhouse


Book 2:  The Lewis Man


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The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

The Silent Sister
by
Diane Chamberlain

Rating:

When buried family secrets surface, one thing is certain: once revealed, nothing will be the same. Twenty-five-year-old Riley McPherson has grown up believing her older sister Lisa, a talented violinist, committed suicide when Riley was two and her sister was seventeen. She’d always believed Lisa was depressed and that the pressures of her musical training and performing were what caused her to take her life. But that may not be what happened.

When Riley’s father dies, she returns to New Bern, North Carolina to clear out and sell her childhood home. Her mother died years earlier and now the responsibility is Riley’s. And now the truth lays hidden in her mother and father’s things. Was Riley’s childhood based on a lie? Is Lisa still alive? Riley wants to find out.

Her brother Danny doesn’t care and he won’t help. He’s bitter enough about being brought up in a family that tried to erase their memories of what happened. Without Danny, she feels completely alone and overwhelmed by the task. And she feels both hopeful and betrayed to think Lisa may be alive but left them all to start a new life. How she longs for someone to call family!

Diane Chamberlain has written an interesting story that is part mystery and part psychological study about the rippling effects of family members’ decisions to do what seems best at the time. Told partly from Riley’s point of view and later alternating with Lisa’s story, it’s a clever way to show the two women’s thoughts as they face different challenges. As Riley finds answers and new secrets, she must ask herself how far she should go to learn the truth.

The Silent Sister is an easy and entertaining read and, although the topic is serious, the story is light and somewhat unrealistic, yet predictable in its telling. Chamberlain’s characters are simple and stereotyped, but I enjoyed reading about them and felt happy for Riley as she adjusted to her newly-defined family.

I recommend The Silent Sister to readers who like family stories and are looking for a light and entertaining reading escape.

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The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

The Flight Attendant
by
Chris Bohjalian

Rating:

What’s the best thing to do when you wake up after a night of heavy drinking and discover you are in bed with a man who has been brutally murdered? Flight attendant Cassie Bowden doesn’t remember much about her night in the lavish Royal Phoenician hotel in Dubai, but even in a blackout, she can’t believe she could have slashed Alexander Sokolov’s throat. Head pounding, she has no time to think. In a moment of self-preservation, she follows her instinct to get out fast. Can she get back to New York before the maid service discovers Sokolov’s body? Will the authorities trace his death to Cassie?

In or out of the country, Cassie has big problems, ranging from years of drinking to the present problem of running from a murder scene in a foreign country. She may have believed Sokolov was just another friendly hookup, but there is much beneath the surface. Spies, international intrigue and a mysterious woman named Miranda enrich an already exciting plot. As the authorities zero in on her, Cassie’s reckless and drunken behavior only dig her deeper into trouble. Old friends, coworkers, family and new one-nighters keep the reader guessing who’s really on Cassie’s side and, as the bad characters emerge, one thing becomes clear:  her life is in danger.

I thoroughly enjoyed this exciting and modern story about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and in which bad judgment gets mixed up with dangerous characters. In addition, readers will appreciate the way Bohjalian adds many references to literature, rounding out his characters and enhancing the story’s themes. Relationships gone bad is one of his primary themes, as Cassie tries to reconcile her father’s alcoholism and the mysterious Miranda struggles to understand her own father.

Careful reading at certain points is required for some of the more complicated plot developments, but the reader is always rewarded with helpful summaries.

The story drives through a nail-biting confrontation between its players and concludes with a satisfying wrap-up. I recommend The Flight Attendant to readers who enjoy suspense and studies of human relationships.

I received an ARC of The Flight Attendant from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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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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