The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys
by
Elizabeth Strout

Rating:

If you loved Olive Kitteridge as much as I did, you may want to take a look at The Burgess Boys. It’s a different kind of book, but there are many things to like about this story of Jim and Bob Burgess and Bob’s twin sister, Susan. We meet them as fifty-something adults, deep into their lives and full of complex problems, set into place when, as young children playing in the family car, they rolled down the driveway and over their father, killing him.

Bob is found at the wheel and, and at age four, shoulders the blame for this terrible accident. He has endured a lifetime of complicated family dynamics and at the opening of the story is an affable, but divorced and lonely borderline alcoholic lawyer. He’s overpowered by his brother Jim, a famous defense attorney turned corporate lawyer, who has spent a lifetime berating and punishing Bob for their father’s death. Susan has her own problems with her son Zachary, who has been arrested for throwing a pig’s head into a Somali mosque. The two brothers try to help her and their lives change in major ways.

This is a book full of thoughts, conversations, arguments, feelings and reflections. This slower pace may frustrate some readers, because the story seems to reach a point of going nowhere, only to pick up deep into the second half. I am wondering if Strout has deliberately constructed her story to show how the characters begin the story deeply rutted into their lives and very slowly undergo major changes that drive the story to its conclusion.

I think Strout does a great job showing how grown siblings communicate with each other, something that is frustrating to view as an outsider, but can ring true for many.

I like Bob’s character the most because of his great ability to soothe people and calm situations, despite his arguably messed-up life. He has deep thoughts that are presented in a simple way and a manner of connecting with people that makes a real difference. For me, that quality rises above his other major flaws. Jim’s character, although arrogant, has many realistic traits and he is complicated in a different way. His outer finish of confidence and authority carry him far, but the way he lashes out at Bob makes him difficult to like. I like how Strout shows how they change in relation to their flaws.

It’s hard to name the real plot in this story and that’s where I think there’s a problem. Strout introduces the reader to the Somali people who have moved to Susan’s town and the difficulties they have had integrating and being accepted. And although Zach’s character pulls them into the Burgess story line, there is something forced here. Again, I’d like to think it’s deliberate on Strout’s part, to show how very hard it was for the Somalis. But, except for Abdikarim and his character’s initial struggle to fit in and later assimilation, it’s hard to know the rest of the Somali immigrants.

And you either like open endings or you hate them. I like open endings because they allow me to think about the characters long after I’ve finished the book. And I think this kind of ending realistically shows how there is never a perfectly neat finish to people’s complicated and messy lives.


Want more? Click below for more Strout stories:

Olive Kitteridge the book

Olive Kitteridge the HBO miniseries

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What’s That Book? Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

whats-that-book

TitleRules of Civility

Author:  Amor Towles

Genre: Fiction

Rating:  3 stars

What’s it about?  High society New York in 1937 in which characters search for love and success in Post Depression New York. The story follows Katey Kontent, a secretary on Wall Street and banker Tinker Grey, who meet by chance at a jazz club in Greenwich Village. Katey begins a year-long mingle with the upper class elite, with plenty of challenges.

How did you hear about it?  Selected by my book club. I was attracted to the book cover too, which made me want to get right into it.

Closing comments:  I like reading about New York during the late 1930s. It is always interesting to think of parents and grandparents who lived through those times. It’s only natural to cheer for Towles’ young characters as they search for love and success.

Towles had a good idea, throwing together Katey, Eve and Tinker. It’s fun to watch the sparks fly as they get to know each other and form alliances. Characters are somewhat unrealistic, however, too perfect, too self-assured and well-read.

All in all, though, a light and entertaining read.

Contributor:  Ginette


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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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