Book Review: The Party by Robyn Harding

The Party
by
Robyn Harding

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

About a month ago, I was getting a haircut and my stylist, knowing I have a book blog and work in a library, told me about a book she liked: The Party, about a sweet sixteen party that went terribly wrong. Curious, I went home and downloaded it from the library. Plots like this are hard to resist because we’re reading them and thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad this isn’t happening to me!”

The Party, set in a posh neighborhood in San Francisco, is all about bad decisions, bad relationships and cyberbullying. And it’s not just the kids who make the bad decisions. The adults are just as bad! There’s more at work here too. Themes of friendship and what’s right work themselves into the reader’s experience. So what sounds like sort of a voyeuristic look at a messed-up group of people points to what’s really important in life, even if the characters don’t get it. And believe me, they don’t!

The story begins as Hannah approaches her sixteenth birthday. She’s been a good girl her whole life, directed by her mom, Kim, who is intent on keeping her daughter on the straight and narrow. Her father, Jeff, is a workaholic and a work-out fiend and he’s in the dog house because of some event that comes out later. Hannah’s an A-student, an athlete and plays piano, but lately she’s been dissatisfied with her high school social life. That changes when she gets a cool boyfriend and Lauren, the most popular girl in school, brings her into the cool crowd. Hannah’s old friends, Marta and Caitlin seem so boring to her now!

Turning sixteen is a big deal and her parents allow a small sleepover, to include Lauren and Ronni, a girl Hannah knew when they were kids, but part of the fast crew now. The girls solemnly agree to Kim’s rules: no alcohol, no drugs and no boys. What Kim doesn’t know is that Jeff, in an impulsive mood and wanting to be the cool dad, sneaks the girls a bottle of pink champagne. That might not be enough to cause too much trouble, except that the girls have brought in a variety of drugs and alcohol. More secret plans ahead, too.

Something bad happens during the night, resulting in a police investigation and a lawsuit. Lauren becomes the ultimate “mean girl” as she and her friends work to destroy their classmate. Other friendships also break and Kim and Jeff’s marriage, due to major indiscretions by both, may not survive.

Harding writes the story from her main characters’ points of view, giving readers a good look into their selfish and shallow thoughts. Hannah exhibits a few redeeming qualities, teetering on the “what’s right” side and readers will wonder where she’ll land.

I enjoyed this read. Harding includes details about the privileged and upscale life, poking fun at the value her characters place on nice things and experiences. I’m looking forward to my next hair appointment so I can tell my stylist that I read the book she recommended!

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Book Review: Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer

Nantucket Sisters
by
Nancy Thayer

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I picked up this beach read to cross off another square on my summer reading bingo card. The squares are filling up and I’ll share the final results next month. Maybe I’ll win the staff prize!

Okay, so this is going to be a light review and I’m going to make a video with some different comments, to tie into my special Beach Read episode of Read React Decide. Stay tuned for that. I’ll link it to this post eventually.

Look at this cover! I loved it. I felt like I was right there on the beach and could imagine a book or two in the bag. This very fast read, despite its 334 pages, is about two women who become friends on Nantucket as five-year-olds. Emily Porter’s parents are wealthy New Yorkers and summer on the island. Their Nantucket house is beautiful. Maggie McIntyre is a local. They have no money and live in a cramped fisherman’s shack that’s been converted into a cottage. Emily’s father deserted them so it’s just Emily, her brother, Ben and their mom.

The story spans more than twenty years, during which the girls grow up, go to college and develop romantic relationships. At the center of the story is Ben. Emily’s girlhood crush on her best friend’s brother develops into a full-blown romance, but the big problem is money. Emily is used to the finer things and Ben can’t provide them. And he’s pretty chippy about it. Meanwhile, Maggie rejected her high school love interest and her geeky best guy friend has moved away. She swears off men for now because she wants to be a writer.

Everything changes when Cameron Chadwick, a loaded Wall Street trader, comes on the scene. His effect on both Emily and Maggie makes for a lot of trouble. Thayer’s task is to figure out how the women (and a hurt Ben) can untangle the mess that results.

I enjoyed this story, but there’s nothing deep here. All the characters are gorgeous, talented and they all go to great colleges. There’s also a lot of insta-love and a good dose of totally unrealistic situations in these pages. But, it’s a soap opera in a book and you have to go into it with that in mind. It’s pure entertainment. Readers looking for realistic situations and character studies will not enjoy Nantucket Sisters unless they leave those expectations behind.

Thayer does a great job describing Nantucket. I enjoyed imagining the houses and landscape. She also explains the challenges the island faces as overdevelopment threatens the environment, tying her characters to these ideas.

So now I’ve read a few beach reads. I recently read The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons which was also a fast read, but the characters did not appeal to me. I thought Nantucket Sisters was more enjoyable. I listened to the audiobook version of The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand a few years ago and liked it the most because I felt it had more substance.

Do you read beach reads? What ones would you recommend?

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Book Review: Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Hour of the Witch
by
Chris Bohjalian

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Here’s an excellent historical suspense set in 1662 Boston about twenty-four-year-old Mary Deerfield, who is desperate to get away from a violent marriage. When the court magistrates deny a petition for divorce, Mary must return to her husband. Fearful of more cruelty, Mary plots her escape, while mounting evidence of witchcraft threatens to send her to her death.

I enjoyed reading about this time period in early America and how Puritans used God and the Devil to explain things that happened in their lives. Mary is sure she has been framed, but even she secretly wonders if she is possessed by the Devil. The author also highlights the treatment of women during Puritan times. Although her husband is violent, the odds are against Mary when she petitions for a divorce. From the beginning, readers see that Mary is strong-willed and resourceful. She’s willing to accept being ostracized if her divorce is granted, a difficult future, but better than her marriage.

Ultimately, even though her father and one of the magistrates believe her husband has mistreated her, they support the Puritan rules. The reason? Back then, it was acceptable for a husband to physically discipline his wife if it was to teach her to be a good “helpmeet” and to follow the laws of God. Better to send Mary back to her husband to work things out, they reason.

In addition, readers get a closer look at the harsh punishments for other infractions, such as adultery. Anyone suspected or caught in adultery had to face the stocks and a whipping. The author also shows how, although the Puritans relied on herbal remedies and medicines, they feared that those administering them were witches.

I enjoyed this account of Puritan New England, when the fear of God and the Devil ruled. Truly a page-turner, readers will need to untangle characters’ complicated motives and the mystery of the witchcraft evidence. The reward is a better historical understanding of these early settlers’ lives.

This book is a lot different from the other books I’ve read by Chris Bohjalain. It’s much meatier and more historical, although I’ve only read three others, so I’m not an expert. I read Double Bind a long time ago, so it’s not here on my blog, but you can check out these others, which I thought were very good:

The Flight Attendant
The Guest Room

Have you read Hour of the Witch or any other books by Chris Bohjalian? Leave a comment!

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Book Review: The Family by Naomi Krupitsky

The Family
by
Naomi Krupitsky

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You know when you pick a book by chance and it turns out to be a great read? That’s what happened to me with The Family. As I browsed books online, I was attracted to the cover and the storyline. I’m a big fan of The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire, and because I grew up in northern New Jersey, I like reading about places that are familiar to me. But I hadn’t heard of The Family.

Although there’s always a storyline in these movies and shows about getting out of life in the mafia and the dangers that go with leaving, what’s unique about The Family is that all the main characters struggle with the choices they’ve made. They ask themselves two questions: “What would I have done if I hadn’t been pulled into the Family?” and “What control can I take over the life I do lead?” Some, desperate to escape, ask, “How can I get out of this alive?”

The story spans twenty years and begins in 1928 Brooklyn. Readers meet two girlhood friends and next-door neighbors, Sofia Colicchio and Antonia Russo. Sofia’s father, Joey, is ambitious. Antonia’s father, Carlo, however, is not cut out for the violence.

“By the time Carlo was keeping a shaky-handed, shallow-breathed watch outside of rooms where unspeakable acts of violence were doled out for minor infractions against the Fianzo Family, it was too late for him to extract himself.”

Lives and family dynamics change forever when Carlo disappears and Joey is put in charge of his own faction.

Written from a third-person omniscient point of view, readers enter into each character’s inner thoughts and reasonings. Tension develops in a multitude of ways. Lina Russo, Carlo’s wife is trapped. She hates that the Family takes care of her after Carlo’s disappearance and does all she can to withdraw. And though they don’t know the details of the Family business, Sofia and Antonia understand they are part of a family they can never truly leave. Their tendencies waver between making their own lives and accepting their lot. This is especially true when they marry and have children. One thing they do know is that neither wants to be like their mother.

I really liked the historical aspect of this book. The author shows how Italian immigrants played an important role in building New York at the turn of the century, but they resented the lack of respect they got. She describes how the Italian mafia developed and changed during Prohibition and the Depression and how they took advantage of new opportunities during World War 2. What’s interesting are the conflicting roles the Family plays during this time. For example, during the war, they got into the forgery business, selling new identities to Jews fleeing Europe. So, helping desperate people, but charging them to be safe.

The author also describes the Jewish mafia and introduces Saul Grossman, one of the most interesting characters in the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop there.

If you’re considering reading The Family, I’d describe it as more literary and introspective than sensational. The theme of choosing an alternate life reminded me of one of my all-time favorite books, Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

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Book Review: The Girls of August by Anne Rivers Siddons

The Girls of August
by
Anne Rivers Siddons

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’m working on my library’s summer reading Bingo card and picked The Girls of August to fill one of the squares, to read an eBook from the library’s staff picks.

The Girls of August is a beach read about four southern women, Madison, Rachel, Barbara and Melinda, who become best friends when their husbands are in medical school. Every August since, they’ve rented a beach house for an all-girls week of sun, wine, food and gossip. The story, narrated by Madison, opens when the women are in their forties. After a three-year lapse, plans are underway to meet again, but this time it will be without their beloved Melinda, who died in a tragic accident.

After much discussion, the women agree to meet at a new place, but there’s a catch. Melinda’s husband has remarried and his new wife has volunteered to host. Problem is, the new wife, appropriately named Baby, is a free spirit and twenty years younger. She’ll never be able to fill Melinda’s shoes.

Baby’s house is located on the remote fictional Tiger Island where Baby grew up, among the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The women will be all alone, for two weeks this time, except for the Gullah people who live on the other side of the island. The house is gorgeous and fully equipped and Baby shows it off with pride. Madison, Rachel and Barbara settle in, but they can’t let go of Melinda’s memory. To ease their pain, they target Baby with snide remarks and eye rolls. To be fair, Baby is a puzzle. On the surface, she’s immature, acts erratically and prances around the rooms and on the beach half-naked and sometimes naked! Is she reacting to the women or are the women reacting to Baby? In addition Madison senses trouble with her dear friends. Barbara hasn’t stopped drinking since they arrived and Rachel’s dark mood frightens her.

Small calamities, storms and plenty of drama frame this story about friendship and acceptance. To be honest, these weren’t my kind of women. The older friends are selfish and petty, the kind who wield power from inside their clique. Readers will learn more about Baby’s life and why she acts mysteriously. That makes her the most relatable, but none of the characters are fully developed. Siddons also brings the culture of the Gullah people into the story to tie together some of the plot lines. I thought this was the most interesting part of the book.

Anne Rivers Siddons was an American writer of nineteen novels, including The House Next Door (1978), Peachtree Road (1988) and Outer Banks (1991). I realized later that I read Peachtree Road years ago! The Girls of August (2014) was her last novel. Reader reviews suggest it wasn’t her best and I’m thinking about going back to her earlier books to get a better taste of her stories, including Peachtree Road because I don’t remember much! Have you read any of Siddons’ books? Which would you recommend? Leave a comment!

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Books from the sea

Read and reviewed

Summer is a great time to read books about water and the sea. Take a look at this mix of classic tales, popular fiction and nonfiction:

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What happens to a group of young British schoolboys when their plane is shot down and they land on deserted island in the Pacific?

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The classic Hemingway story of Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman who has not caught a fish in eighty-four days

The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott
Light historical fiction and romance written into the history of the Titanic’s voyage, its passengers and the disaster’s aftermath

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
A story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife, who live alone on an island off Western Australia

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Fast-paced, coming-of-age fantasy tale for adults about the mysteries of life, death, nature, the past, and the present

We Are Water by Wally Lamb
A rotating narrative about abuse over time and generations, and its range of effects

The Cay by Theodore Taylor
Touching coming-of-age story about an eleven-year-old American boy living on the island of Curaçao during World War II

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
True survival story of the whaleship Essex, attacked and sunk by an eighty-five foot sperm whale in the Pacific


Read but not reviewed

Billy Budd, Sailor by Herman Melville
A classic Melville story about the battle between good and evil

Jaws by Peter Benchley
Gripping suspense novel about a killer shark off a Long Island beach

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Ahab takes on a killer whale.  Classic story inspired by the whaleship Essex

Gift from the Sea by Ann Morrow Lindbergh
Meditations about love, marriage and family written by Charles Lindbergh’s American wife


Old-time classics

The Happy Return by C.S. Forester

Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Shōgun by James Clavell

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini

Do you have any favorite tales about the sea?

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Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

French Braid
by
Anne Tyler

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I had to wait a long time to get Anne Tyler’s twenty-fourth novel from the library, but it was worth it! Back in the 80s and 90s, I read a lot of her books. Despite the time lapse, I’ve found it easy to fall back into the familiar rhythm of Tyler’s writing style.

As with her other books, French Braid is about marriage and family relationships. Set in Baltimore, Tyler looks at three generations of the Garrett family and asks the question, “What is a normal family?” Because the Garretts seem anything but normal. They’re disjointed and noncommunicative, even when they’re together. Past hurts remain buried, but show themselves in unexpected moments. Many of them have solitary personalities. Others don’t know how to connect. Robin, for example, adores Mercy, but he’s awkward around her. And Mercy is too caught up in her painting to notice.

French Braid isn’t a chronological story. Tyler jumps around and readers get to know the family through a variety of situations and points of view. She begins with Serena in 2010, returning from Philadelphia with her college boyfriend. On the train, they argue about families. The boyfriend is baffled by Serena’s detached comments, especially after they’d run into a cousin she’d barely recognized at the train station. She tries to explain why they don’t see that side of the family much. “It’s Uncle David, really. My mom says she can’t understand it. He used to be so outgoing when he was a little boy…”

Soon we’re back in 1959 when Robin and Mercy take their three children on their only family vacation This first generation of Garretts are all a little detached. Mercy spends her time painting, leaving the meals to Alice. Lily meets a boy. Robin heads to the lake and David, just seven years old, seems happy to stay out of the water and play by himself. He does not want to learn to swim and grows quiet at the suggestion.

Next it’s 1970 and David heads off to college. Robin and Mercy talk about their empty nest and what they will do together, but Mercy has her own plans, edging bit by bit away from her husband.

I don’t want to give more away, so I’ll stop here. I’ve had to think about this book to let it sink in. The Garretts are frustratingly distant, especially Mercy. At first, it seems to be only a bunch of unrelated snippets of time, but then you begin to see a connection between generations. For example, I didn’t like Mercy because I thought she was selfish, but later when I saw how she connected with her granddaughter, Candle, I felt I understood her better. Still selfish though, in my opinion!

Over time, the family reassembles in haphazard ways. Interestingly, it’s a couple of the in-laws who smooth the rough edges and help their spouses understand. What it all comes down to is that there is no real definition of family. Tyler also seems to suggest is that the Garretts need to define themselves as individuals, alone.

French Braid is a deceptively simple story that explores uncomfortable family dynamics. In the end, I felt understood the Garretts better. Like everyone, they’re just looking for happiness. At the finish, Tyler brings us to the present as David and his family manage during the pandemic. David’s heartening connection with his grandson makes you feel full of hope for the whole group.

This sounds like a depressing story, but it’s not! It’s full of both touching and amusing moments. Tyler’s ability to see into the complex ways families relate to each other comes through time and again. I enjoyed French Braid very much and recommend it to readers who like stories about marriage, families and relationships.

Check out my reviews of these other books by Anne Tyler:

The Beginner’s Goodbye
Breathing Lessons
A Spool of Blue Thread

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Book Review: Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel

Stiltsville
by
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I enjoyed Daniel’s Sea Creatures so much, I went back to read her debut novel which begins in the same community of stilt houses in the sand flats off Miami’s coast. This is also a story about marriage, family and relationships. It was interesting to read Stiltsville after Sea Creatures because I can see the where her unique writing style and character development begins.

When Frances Ellerby and Dennis DuVal meet at the DuVal family’s stilt house in 1969, they are twenty-somethings playing at being adults. Sparks fly and Daniel chronicles their relationship and marriage for thirty years. It’s not a perfect union, however, and they face many of the typical the pitfalls of married life.

I liked a lot of things about Stiltsville because I like reading about the ocean and boats. The author spent much of her childhood at her family’s stilt house and it’s obvious she knows what she’s talking about.  In addition, the stilt house community has a lot of draw because it is so different. Daniel does a great job describing the stilt houses and the dangers that exist, things people on land wouldn’t even think about. I think her other strength is in portraying the tensions and conflicts these characters face as they start their adult lives. I especially liked reading about Frances and Dennis’s early years because there’s a certain excitement in the time before things happen. That shows.

There’s a definite slow-down as time passes, however, and there are a few undeveloped story lines that would have been fun to know about. Frances’s friendship with Marse begins with a lot of tension and I think the early Marse is a great complex character. As the years go on, however, her personality mellows and becomes a little stereo-typed.  I also would have liked to have learned more about their daughter Margo, who struggles in her teens and during college, and about her marriage to Stuart, who has the potential to be one of the more interesting characters. 

Daniel also introduces several historical events into the plot which I think must be very hard to do.  There’s a shift in her writing style as this happens and I prefer when Frances returns to her thoughts about her own life. These events help bring authenticity to the Miami time and setting, however, and help to make the story whole. But the book is otherwise well-constructed and if you like to have the details of your story tied up in the end, you will enjoy this.

If you read both Stiltsville and Sea Creatures, you will be interested to see how Daniel experiments with themes and the ideas of marriage and family in Stiltsville. The mixed attractions of danger and the beauty of the stilt house settings are apparent in both. She also introduces the Stiltsville hermit in her first book – I enjoyed that!  And of course, the forces of nature play in both books.

This is an easy entertaining read with a relaxed and contented ending.  I’m looking forward to what comes next!

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Book Review: Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures
by
Susanna Daniel

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Susanna Daniel does something very different in Sea Creatures, a novel set in Miami, Florida. She has written a great story about love, marriage, family, death, art, weather and the sea and the disabling effects of sleep disorders and selective mutism. Reading this combination of words, I wonder how she did it. Sea Creatures is a very well-written novel. Georgia and Graham and their young son Frankie have returned to the area after a scandal involving Graham’s parasomnia, a severe wakefulness and sleep-walking condition which has caused three-year-old Frankie to stop talking. They buy a houseboat and anchor it off Georgia’s father’s dock.  The story begins and unfolds during the summer of 1992.

A great deal of the plot takes place in Stiltsville, a community of about a dozen stilt homes, built on sand flats about a mile offshore. These homes actually exist and the author spent many of her own childhood in her family’s stilt house. Her first novel is actually titled Stiltsville and is the winner of the BEN/Binhgam prize for outstanding debut work published in 2010.

stiltsville house pic
Here’s a picture of one of the stilt houses. Only seven remain.

Daniel has a very talented way of telling a story. We get to know her characters through Georgia’s perspective and watch as her marriage founders. Georgia’s job as an errand-runner for sixty-one-year-old Charlie Hicks, a stilt house hermit, turns into something quite different for Georgia and Frankie.  And while Graham is on an extended assignment studying hurricanes, her life begins to change in unlikely ways.

The characters are so different; you might want to call them quirky. But they aren’t and their appeal grows as the plot develops. In addition to my long list of what this story is about, Daniel has created thematic layers, in which the main characters try to make meaning out of loss. Did they act quickly enough and do enough at the important hour? Did they say the right things? Did they treat the family who was left fairly? When regret surfaces, what do they do? She also shows the impact of reckless behavior and makes you wonder why certain people are drawn to these risks. And how much risk is too much – where do you draw the line? Daniel also shows how the powerful forces of nature and Hurricane Andrew can change everything.

Her characters also have that real quality of not being one hundred percent likable. Georgia is a loving mother, but she makes foolish choices. Charlie has a wonderful way of communicating, but has behaved badly. Georgia’s father Harvey seems to retreat during crucial times, but redeems himself at the end.  And Graham – he’s so troubled, but you want to help him, even when Georgia doesn’t.

The plot develops nicely. Seemingly unimportant events and facts, mentioned throughout, help tie characters and events together. Daniel’s descriptions of the water, boats and Stiltsville are easy to imagine and make the story flow.

There’s a lot to think about in Sea Creatures, an easy, but intelligent read. Daniel is currently at work on her third novel. Meantime I think I’ll be checking out Stiltsville!

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On my list – these books about libraries!

Maybe I’m slow in seeing this trend, but have you noticed there are more and more books about libraries? For me it started with The Library Book by Susan Orlean (read my review here). That was a couple years ago. Here are four fiction books I’d like to read (all descriptions from Goodreads). For many more, check out the links at the bottom of this post.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson: In 1936, tucked deep into the woods of Troublesome Creek, KY, lives blue-skinned 19-year-old Cussy Carter, the last living female of the rare Blue People ancestry. The lonely young Appalachian woman joins the historical Pack Horse Library Project of Kentucky and becomes a librarian, riding across slippery creek beds and up treacherous mountains on her faithful mule to deliver books and other reading material to the impoverished hill people of Eastern Kentucky.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig: Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices . . . Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles: Based on the true World War II story of the heroic librarians at the American Library in Paris, this is an unforgettable story of romance, friendship, family, and the power of literature to bring us together, perfect for fans of The Lilac Girls and The Paris Wife.

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray: The remarkable, little-known story of Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s personal librarian—who became one of the most powerful women in New York despite the dangerous secret she kept in order to make her dreams come true, from New York Times bestselling author Marie Benedict and acclaimed author Victoria Christopher Murray.

I’ve read a couple other books about libraries. Click the links for reviews.

I Work at a Public Library by Gina Sheridan
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Beyond the Bookends
Bibliofile
Book Riot 1
Book Riot 2
Goodreads

What are some of your favorite library-themed books?

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