Book Review: Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards

Five Total Strangers
by
Natalie D. Richards

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This Young Adult thriller is just as good or better than many of the adult thrillers I’ve recently read! Five Total Strangers is about Mira Hayes, a high school art student traveling home for Christmas from San Diego to Pittsburgh. When a snowstorm strands her in Newark, she accepts a ride from Harper Chung, her seatmate on the flight. Harper, a college student at Pomona, has rented an SUV and offered rides to three others: Brecken, an intense pre-med student from UC Berkeley, Josh, a tall blond with sleepy eyes and a knee brace and Kayla, a willowy girl who sleeps a lot. At first, Mira thinks the others all know each other, but she soon discovers that they are all strangers, with an emphasis on strange.

But Mira doesn’t care as long as she gets home for Christmas. It’s just Mira and her mom this year and it’s also the anniversary of her aunt’s death, her mother’s twin. Plus she’s just discovered that her mom and stepfather have split. After a year of helping her mom through a devastating loss, Mira has become her mother’s emotional caretaker and getting home is a must.

Treacherous driving conditions become the first layer of suspense. Then, one by one, the strangers’ belongings, important ones, go missing. Someone is lying and Mira doesn’t know whom to trust. Things get weirder when they stop along the way and outsiders become involved. As tension builds, Mira asks herself, “What if one of us isn’t in this car to get home at all? What if one of us got in this car for all the wrong reasons?”

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll stop with the plot development! I thought this was an excellent story and that the characters were realistic teens and early twenty-somethings. Like Mira, readers won’t be sure who’s trustworthy and who’s evil because they all have secrets (even Mira, who hasn’t told them she’s only in high school). Harper keeps looking at her phone in horror. Brecken smiles like a wolf. Josh doesn’t want help or attention and Kayla, when she’s awake acts strangely. Readers want Mira to get home safely, but they also want to know what’s up with these people.

Although the subplot of Mira wanting to get home to her mom is more young-adult oriented, the suspense is on par with adult thrillers. This is a fast, satisfying read and I recommend it to all readers who like thrillers.

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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: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by
Stephen Chbosky

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’d never read this best-selling coming-of-age story, first published in 1999. It has more than 15 thousand reviews on Amazon, so I’m not sure if what I say will add anything new to the discussion, but here goes:

Set outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it’s the story of Charlie, a fifteen-year-old boy, as he navigates his first year of high school. In epistolary format, Charlie writes to an unnamed friend about his feelings and experiences. Although he is awkward and shy, he makes friends with seniors and twins Patrick and Sam (a girl) and they introduce Charlie to their friend group. Charlie immediately develops a crush on Sam.

At school, Charlie’s English teacher, Bill sees something in Charlie and gives him extra reading assignments, encouraging him to talk and write about the books he reads. Charlie’s impressions of To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Peter Pan, A Separate Peace, This Side of Paradise, The Fountainhead and many other classics are regular mentions in his letters.

That’s the basic structure of the story, but there is much going on beneath Charlie’s day-to-day experiences. Readers will pick up on hints of Charlie’s emotional instability as he talks about his family life, his college freshman brother, high school senior sister, their parents and the death of his Aunt Helen.

Bill tells Charlie he needs to participate in life and Charlie does his best, but he prefers to be on the sidelines, observing his new friends at parties, where he earns the “wallflower” name. Charlie witnesses the usual teenage drama, including new romances and breakups. He feels the best when he’s with Patrick and Sam, driving and listening to music, a feeling he describes as “infinite.”

Charlie is an unusual mix of innocence, insight and emotion, and likable for displaying these vulnerabilities. But, although he’s a regular at parties, gets a girlfriend, and frequently drinks, smokes pot and tries other drugs with his friends, he yields to their feelings, doing what he thinks they want him to do.

Friendships break, shift and change during the school year and Charlie is either falling or reaching a new understanding of his unexplained feelings. When his friends graduate, he must confront changes and his sophomore year without them.

I enjoyed reading this story, which is a curious mix of optimism and angst. What I liked most about it is that the characters, even when they face overwhelming problems, share resilience and a resolve to keep moving forward.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a frequent title on lists of banned books because of its mature content covering sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and physical and sexual abuse. Some readers may object to the content, although I think it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of adolescence.

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Book Club Mom’s October 2020 recap

I had a great October, but it was very busy at work and at home. Despite the busy times, I managed to squeeze in some good books, a movie and some short fiction, as well as keep up with author updates and two new indie author profiles. And I made the leap to Instagram, so far a lot of fun! Click here if you want to connect with me there.

I’ve started using the new block editor, so bear with me as I find my way around.

These are the last of some flowers I grew from seeds over the summer. I forget the name, but aren’t they pretty?

Here’s a rundown of what happened on Book Club Mom this month.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – 5 stars

The Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand – 3.5 stars

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely – 4.5 stars

Looker by Laura Sims – 4 stars

From left: Carrie Rubin, Jill Weatherholt and Giselle Roeder

Carrie Rubin

Jill Weatherholt

Giselle Roeder

From left: Jonathan Pongratz and Bill Moseley

Jonathan Pongratz

Bill Moseley

Rebecca (1940)

The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle

How was your month? I hope you are staying healthy and finding fun things to do.

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Book Review: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

All American Boys
by
Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Here’s a great Young Adult book about the overt and subtle racism in our country, its far-reaching effects on a community and what it means to be an all-American boy. Two high school boys, one black and one white, and an entire community face complicated moral decisions after the black teenager is brutally beaten outside a convenience store.

Rashad and Quinn don’t know each other, but the events outside the store soon connect them. When the manager at Jerry’s accuses Rashad, a black ROTC student, of stealing a bag of chips, Rashad denies it. He wasn’t. In a split second, a white police officer makes a judgement and takes Rashad outside. He handcuffs the boy and pins him down on the sidewalk. Then he beats him and sends him to the hospital. Quinn, considered the town’s finest all-American boy and one of the stars on the basketball team, sees it happen. And worse, he recognizes the police officer. It’s his best friend, Guzzo’s older brother, Paul. Paul has been a mentor to him ever since Quinn’s father died in Afghanistan. How can this be the same person?

Video of the beating goes viral and the mixed community of Springfield divides. Most are outraged by what they see. Others defend the police officer who say he was just doing his job. As Rashad recovers in the hospital, he wonders if he should just move on. “I wasn’t sure what to do about any of it, or if I even wanted anyone else to do anything on my behalf,” he says.

His father agrees, but his older brother, Spoony, won’t let it drop. Too many others have been brutalized for looking a certain way.

Meanwhile, Quinn must confront his own conflicted beliefs. Should he step forward and tell police what he saw? Paul, worried about his job, reassures him, “This just comes with the job,” he says. In the beginning, Quinn tentatively agrees. But some of Quinn’s teammates are friends with Rashad, and Quinn begins to see their side. Should Quinn turn his back on Guzzo and Paul? “I knew there was a problem, and I was beginning to think I was a part of it,” he says.

Soon a mysterious graffiti tag appears on school grounds: “RASHAD IS ABSENT AGAIN TODAY,” the first sign of protest. When classmates organize a march, Quinn knows what he must do, even if his friends are not behind him.

All American Boys is a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor book, and recipient of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature. It’s a great way to invite readers to consider the complex issue of deeply-rooted racism and police brutality. Reynolds and Kiely show how even good people who mean well get trapped into making assumptions about other races and how more should stand up for what is right.

I recommend this excellent Young Adult book to all readers because of its relevance today and because of how well the authors show the many hidden sides of racism.

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Book Review: The Raft by S. A. Bodeen

The Raft
by
S. A. Bodeen

Here’s a fast-moving Young Adult survival story about fifteen-year-old Robie Mitchell, who lives with her parents on the Midway Atoll in the Pacific Islands. The story begins on Honolulu where Robie often stays with her young aunt, A. J. When A. J. is called out of town, Robie convinces her she can remain in Honolulu alone, rather than return to Midway.

But a series of bad decisions puts Robie on a cargo plane back to Midway. The plane crashes into the Pacific and she finds herself on a raft. Robie faces the usual dangers of being lost at sea: dehydration, starvation, and shark attacks are just a few.

Until this point, Robie has faced very few difficulties, but as an independent only child, she’s developed many untapped inner strengths. She’s learned much about sea life from her research biologist parents, knowledge that will come in handy on the raft. But, as with all dangerous situations that demand sudden physical and mental strength, Robie must also cope with several quick decisions she’s had to make, including a few moral ones. Now she has plenty of time to consider them.

These worries rotate through Robie’s mind, but the most important task is survival. I enjoyed seeing how she celebrates new hope when she discovers unseen resources on the raft. I also gained confidence in her as she learns to improvise with what little she has. New and dangerous problems are a given as time passes and it’s all up to Robie to figure out how to get rescued.

The author includes interesting details about bird and marine life, including hard facts about how these creatures survive. Bodeen also points to an alarming amount of trash that floats in this part of the Pacific, debris that interferes with sea life. These details make Robie’s story modern and realistic.

The Raft is another YA book I grabbed off the shelf at the library. It’s an easy read and think it would be especially great for reluctant readers and for those who like survival stories.

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Book Review: The Year They Fell by David Kreizman

The Year They Fell
by
David Kreizman

I was in the mood for a Young Adult book so I picked up The Year They Fell by David Kreizman at the library. It’s a teenage drama about five former friends whose lives suddenly change the day their parents head off to an island vacation. The plane crashes and there are no survivors.

Josie, Jack, Archie, Harrison and Dayana were great friends in preschool, but that was a long time ago. Now about to start senior year of high school, their lives are vastly different. Twins Josie and Jack hang with the fast crowd, but Archie, Harrison and Dayana are awkward outsiders to that world.

Josie and Jack may seem perfect, but they have their demons. Josie, queen of the social scene, has a terrible secret. Jack is a hulking football star with a violent temper. The others also struggle. Archie clings to his sketch pad and wonders how he fits into his adoptive white family. Harrison’s dad abandoned him and his mom and he suffers from major anxiety. Dayana’s parents aren’t getting along and she pops pills to cope. In addition, past dynamics from years ago interfere with their current relationships.

As the former friends awkwardly circle each other, Harrison launches an investigation. Soon the group must confront painful details about their parents’ lives. Harrison determines the crash might not be an accident and tries to convince the others with his extensive research.

I enjoyed this fast read, set in River Bank, New Jersey, a town I hadn’t heard of, but was surprised to find in a familiar part of the Jersey shore. In addition to the tragedy, the author packs a lot of major developments and problems into these high schoolers! Probably not realistic and that is my one gripe with the story. The high school setting and dialogue seemed true to life, but I hope no sample set of high schoolers has this many things to deal with.

In addition to suffering tragic loss, Kreizman introduces important themes into his story, including love, friendship, sexual identity, family relationships, fitting in, anxiety, sexual abuse, and drug addiction. While these are all important, I think the story would have been better if the author focused on fewer issues. As a result, the story reads more like a soap opera. Pretty interesting because Kreizman used to write for television soap operas and even spent time as a writer for the WWE. I laughed when I read that because those plots are really over the top!

Despite these comments, I’d still recommend The Year They Fell as an engaging story with modern themes and plenty of teen angst. I also love the cover and think the title is great because it makes potential readers wonder what the story will be.

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Short reviews from 2013: The Fault in Our Stars, The Silent Wife and Old School

In celebration of my 7-year blogging anniversary, here are three short reviews of books I read in 2013.


The Fault in Our Stars
by
John Green

This is the kind of book you are self-propelled to read non-stop until you finish. I loved it because of the many gem-like moments that give you a wonderful, emotional feeling. But this is also a sad story, with heart-breaking moments. Seventeen-year-old Hazel is dying. She meets Gus, a bone cancer survivor, and they fall in love. They have an intense courtship and they know they are short on time.

I think John Green does a great job portraying Hazel and Gus. I have heard others say their conversations are too intellectual for teenagers. I don’t think so and I think he really captures the teenage intensity along with their heightened sense of the loss of time.

Although the story is written through Hazel’s point of view, Green also shows us what it is like to be parents of cancer patients, and how they must prepare themselves for loss. And he shows how Gus and Hazel cling to each other and their friend Isaac, and try to have normal teenage lives.

There are unexpected plot turns and surprising characters, and the story is nicely tied together, with some open endings to keep the reader thinking. I think the ending is uplifting and makes the best of tough loss.


The Silent Wife
by
A. S. A. Harrison

What’s beneath the surface of a seemingly happy relationship? Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert have a smooth way of being together and it’s worked for twenty-some years. They’ve never officially married, but it doesn’t matter. This is a marriage and they have a nice rhythm, live a very nice life and have everything they want.

Then we get to know them a little better. Todd is a big person with a big personality. He’s made a success of himself in real estate, flipping office buildings in Chicago. He loves Jodi, but has other relationships. Jodi works part-time as a psychologist, seeing patients in their home. She loves Todd, likes taking care of him and making their life nice and comfortable.  She also likes the routine of their life and looks the other way because she’s settled.

Then things begin to happen and the balance is upset. What comes next is a look at how far a person will go to make things right and fair.

Harrison has written a great story and I enjoyed every word. Her characters are fun and, despite the dark side of the plot, strangely likable. The story unfolds in a comfortable and humorous way.  I liked their life, their condo, their conversations and what they ate.  I liked the nice way they had with each other. I think she does a terrific job introducing these characters.

I like the way Harrison builds suspense and then returns to the plot, giving the reader a taste of what’s to come. The story moves at a very good pace and still provides a solid background.

Through therapy sessions that are a required part of Jodi’s training, Harrison explores Jodi’s character, her childhood and the events that shape her. Harrison helps the reader understand these characters by applying psychological theory to their backgrounds. This element adds a nice layer to the story.

There are surprises and twists all the way to the end and that makes it work. I wish I could have read it in one sitting!


Old School
by
Tobias Wolff

I thought this was a very interesting premise for a book, in which actual authors become characters in the story. Wolff’s story takes place in 1960 at an elite Eastern prep school for boys, which takes pride in its literary connections and achievements. The plot revolves around the school’s literary contest, whose winners are given an audience with famous authors.

Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway are featured and, at a reception in Rand’s honor, students and faculty participate in an extended discussion of her characters and philosophies in Rand’s novel The Fountainhead.

There are more complex parts of the story as well. The narrator, on scholarship to the school, is acutely aware of class distinction and privilege and keeps his modest background and Jewish heritage a secret. He struggles with his own self-image as he mirrors the looks and actions of his wealthy classmates, inviting the false assumption of wealth and class. The contest puts him at the center of a scandal that reveals deceptions and radiates to classmates and faculty. Its conclusion shows Wolff’s characters in their true form.

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Book Review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

Sadie
by
Courtney Summers

Sadie Hunter is nineteen and missing. She left the Sparkling River Estates trailer park in Cold Creek, Colorado and the only clue is an abandoned car found in Fairfield. Where is she? On a revenge trip, hunting for the person who killed her thirteen-year-old sister, Mattie.

When podcast producer West McCray and his boss learn of Sadie’s disappearance, they know they have a story to tell and create a serial podcast called “The Girls.” While McCray conducts interviews and follows leads, Sadie follows her own leads, desperate to catch up and kill the man responsible.

Sadie alternates between a script of McCray’s podcast and Sadie’s personal narrative of her search for justice. In telling, she reveals painful details about her alcoholic and drug-addicted mother, Claire, who hooks up with a string of move-in boyfriends. She ignores Sadie, who develops a paralyzing stutter, and favors little Mattie. When Claire abandons her daughters, young Mattie is nearly crushed, and Sadie steps in. Determined to give Mattie a decent upbringing, Sadie drops out of high school to be around for her little sister. The sisters are close because, besides May Beth Foster, their surrogate grandmother and manager of the trailer park, they’re all they have. But by the time Mattie is thirteen, she’s resentful and rebellious, sure she can handle herself.

Sadie had done her best, but she was just a girl too. Now she wonders what more she could have done to protect her sister.

In her search, Sadie makes risky connections, but she’s ready for anything, with a switchblade in her pocket, vowing to carve her name into the killer’s soul. She’s not afraid and reasons,

…here’s the thing I tell myself to dull the sharp edges of everything that’s surely left to come: The worst has already happened.

She meets and befriends others, seeking information, but also getting a taste of the privileged life in Montgomery, Colorado. Sadie has only known hardship and neglect and at one point when she connects with a boy her age, she wonders,

why can’t I let myself be worth a moment’s tenderness?

Sadie’s narrative and the podcast reveal details about the sisters and advance at a similar pace, but from different angles, until they nearly intersect in Fairfield. By this point, the reader has the full dark story of the sisters’ childhood and Mattie’s death.

I enjoyed reading this fast-paced mystery. At times I wanted to pull Sadie out of the story and give her a good home and at other times I was right there with her, chasing after her sister’s killer. Sadie’s story is dark and heavy, but full of tender and raw feelings. Readers will be surprised and maybe unhappy with the story’s finish, best left alone in reviews. I was a little disappointed, yet I find myself thinking about Sadie days after I’ve finished, always a good sign of a book.

Sadie is the 2019 Edgar Award for Best Young Adult, which honors the best in mystery fiction, nonfiction and television.

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Short reviews from 2013: Twisted, The Shoemaker’s Wife and Steve Jobs

In celebration of my 7-year blogging anniversary, here are three short reviews of books I read in 2013.


Twisted
by
Laurie Halse Anderson

This book is a little bit like a modern Catcher in the Rye and I liked it for that reason. Twisted was on our school district’s summer reading list for rising ninth graders a couple years ago. There is some mature language and content, but I think it is realistic. I think kids want to read something contemporary that has an edge to it and Anderson understands how to incorporate this element into quality writing.

In Twisted, Tyler returns to his senior year of high school, after being punished during the summer for vandalizing the school. He struggles with a poor self-image and how others, most importantly his father, perceive him. Tyler navigates through adolescence and important relationships and, like many coming-of-age stories, learns the true meaning of family and friendship.

Final scenes with his family are raw and emotional and show Anderson at her best.


The Shoemaker’s Wife
by
Adriana Trigiani

I liked this family saga of immigration, near-misses in love and brushes with greatness, with the appropriate doses of disappointment and sadness. It is a light and entertaining read. I enjoyed reading about Italy at the turn of the century and life in the Italian Alps. The author does a nice job bringing the main characters to life.

I think the author’s strengths lie in the story’s initial setting and characters. Her early descriptions of Ciro, Eduardo and their mother are moving. In addition, Trigiani’s descriptions of the Ravanelli family show warmth and devotion. It is the foundation of a really great story.

Ciro’s success as a shoemaker and his assimilation into New York life move at a believable pace. I enjoyed this part of the story much more. Despite the unlikely nature of meeting Enza on her wedding day, we all know it is coming and accept the feel-good moment.

Some other parts I like include Ciro’s relationship with Sister Teresa at the San Nicola Convent. I also like how Ciro is accepted for who he is at the convent, and how the nuns do not force him to be a believer.

An entertaining read and a great way to escape to another time and place!


Steve Jobs
by
Walter Isaacson

This biography gives us the full picture of Steve Jobs, good and bad. It is a detailed history of Jobs, his life and his creations at Apple, NeXT, Pixar and Apple again. And it’s a look at the impatient frustrations of a perfectionist who, with the genius of vision and presentation, liked to distort reality, had poor people skills and thought no rules applied to him.

I don’t know what to think of Steve Jobs. He derived his happiness from creating and was driven to do so. Isaacson shows a man who manipulated people, berated them, and often ignored his wife and children. He regularly took credit for ideas that came from his creative team and rearranged facts to benefit his point, all with no regrets. But time and again he enabled people to achieve the impossible by refusing to believe that something could not be done.  The combination of persistence and genius made him a remarkable man.

AND…Steve Jobs gave us the Mac, fonts, graphics and desktop publishing. Then he gave us the iPhone, the iPod, iTunes and music. He allowed us to re-experience the feelings we used to have in record stores as we excitedly flipped through albums and heard new music on the store speakers. Then he gave us the iPad, movies and books all with a touchscreen. He knew what we wanted, just as he said, before we knew what we wanted.

This was a very interesting read. My only negative comment is that it was sometimes repetitive, particularly on the subjects of distorted reality and Jobs’ belief in closed-end product design. I also thought the author often portrayed Jobs as too much of a beloved hero in the second half of the book, once Jobs returned to Apple. But then again, that’s when we got all these great products. And I don’t think I could live without them.

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