Book Club Mom’s Author Update – Noelle A. Granger

Author name: Noelle A. Granger

Genre: Historical fiction

Book: The Last Pilgrim

News: This book was a labor of love (and sweat and tears) for the past four years. It began with the realization that the women of the Mayflower have been much overlooked. Their contributions – backbreaking labor under terrible circumstance – insured the survival of the colony. Colonies begun in the New England region in the 1700s did not survive without women. It was a close call, but I managed to finish the book in the quadricentennial year of the landing of the Mayflower on the New England coast. I am biased, of course.

I grew up in Plymouth and my parents volunteered me to portray various girls and young women in the Pilgrims’ Progress each week during the summer. In high school, I was chosen to be one of the first guides, now called re-enactors, at the newly built Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the original village. I loved it! I guess it was a foretelling of what I would do for the rest of my life – teaching – because I got great satisfaction in telling the Pilgrim story and showing the visitors the houses to which I was assigned.

At some point I decided to write a book about the women and I came across the name of Mary Allerton Cushman, who was four years old when she and her parents sailed on the Mayflower. This remarkable woman lived to the end of the 17th century. She saw and experienced it all – the horrible voyage across the Atlantic, the winter of dying, the starvation and deprivation of the following year until the first crops came in, the interactions with the Native Americans, the wars, an earthquake, epidemics, and a monstrous hurricane.

The Last Pilgrim captures and celebrates the grit and struggle of the Pilgrim women, who stepped off the Mayflower in the winter of 1620 to an unknown world. The Plymouth Colony would not have survived without them.

Mary Allerton Cushman was the last surviving passenger of the Mayflower, dying at age 88 in 1699. Her unusually long life and her relationships with important men – her father, Isaac Allerton and her husband, Thomas Cushman – gave her a front row seat to the history of the Plymouth Colony from its beginnings as the first permanent settlement in New England to when it became part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691.

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

We Were Liars
E. Lockhart


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 We Were 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 We Were 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
Richard Russo


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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Olive Kitteridge the Miniseries

olive kitteridge miniseries
Here’s an excellent miniseries that perfectly portrays the characters in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of stories about the difficult and misunderstood Olive Kitteridge and her relationships with the people in Crosby, Maine.  I had been looking forward for a long time to watch the HBO miniseries.  I liked it so much, I went on an Olive Kitteridge binge:  I re-read the book, then watched the series a second time!

The 2014 HBO miniseries was directed by Lisa Cholodenko and written by Jane Anderson.  It was named Outstanding Limited Series at the 2015 Emmys.  Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins and Bill Murray each won Emmys for their performances.

All the actors “get” their characters.  Frances McDormand is outstanding as Olive.  Richard Jenkins plays a terrific Henry and John Gallagher, Jr. is perfect as Christopher.  I wondered how Bill Murray would be as Jack Kennison.  All my memories of his SNL performances and film comedy made me worry he’d be too silly.  But while there is a hint of humor in Kennison’s character, Murray is great in this role.  McDormand and Murray have a refreshing dynamic between them, in a story that is often serious and dark.

The filming is also excellent, giving the scenes an authentic New England feel.  Cholodenko and Anderson also keep much of the dialogue from the book, which makes the miniseries a great companion piece to Strout’s stories.  And while the miniseries features only a few of the stories, Choldenko includes many details from the others to make it whole.

I highly recommend this miniseries.

If you’re wondering about the cast, here are a few details.  Thanks to for this info and to for the photos, from left, of McDormand, Jenkins, Gallagher, Jr., Murray and Kazan.

  Photo:  christopher-kitteridge-gallagher

jack-kenninson-murray  denise-thibodeaux-kazan

Frances McDormand – Olive.  McDormand has been nominated for an academy award four times for Mississippi Burning (1988), Fargo (1996 – she won Best Actress), Almost Famous (2000) and North Country (2005).

Richard Jenkins – Henry.  Jenkins is known for his movie appearances in Jack Reacher (2012), The Cabin in the Woods (2012) and Step Brothers (2008)

John Gallagher, Jr. – Christopher.  Gallagher has appeared in many television programs, including The West Wing, Law and Order:  SVU, NYPD Blue and Ed.  He played Jim Harper in The Newsroom.

Bill Murray – Jack Kennison.  Murray is well known as an award-winning TV and film actor/comedian for his appearances on Saturday Night Live and many films, including Meatballs (1979), Caddyshack (1980), Stripes (1981), Ghostbusters (1984), Scrooged (1988) and Groundhog Day (1993).  More recently, Murray has won awards for Lost in Translation (2003), Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) and Saint Vincent (2014).

Zoe Kazan – Denise.  Kazan is the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord and is the granddaughter of director Elia Kazan.  She received her degree in Theater from Yale University and appeared with Cynthia Nixon in a production of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”.  Kazan made her Broadway debut as “Marie” in “Come Back Little Sheba”.

Click here to read my review of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

olive kitt pic
Olive Kitteridge

Elizabeth Strout


Olive Kitteridge is Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of thirteen integrated short stories about the people of Crosby, Maine, a seemingly simple town on the New England coast.  The people in Crosby trade news and gossip, but the real stories lie buried deep in the complicated and often painful family relationships that only surface behind their closed doors.

The stories span twenty-five years and focus on the town’s most complicated character, Olive Kitteridge, whose harsh and critical personality is both widely disliked and misunderstood.  Not surprisingly, Olive’s husband, Henry, the town’s pharmacist, and their son, Christopher bear the brunt of her brutal temperament.

Olive speaks her mind.  She apologizes to no one and alienates many.  But something happens over time:  the reader discovers that, while Olive has no patience for simps and ninnies, she cares very much about the emotionally vulnerable, and intervenes at crucial times, using a keen instinct.  If only she could treat Henry and Christopher this way.  Olive’s everyday interactions with her family are so unpleasant they cause deep and lasting damage.  As years pass and lives change, however, Strout offers a better look at Olive’s marriage.  The author shows glimpses of hope, renewed connections and a true understanding of a very complicated woman.

Olive Kitteridge is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Strout takes a simple Maine town and adds layers and layers of themes, including depression, love, family, marriage, infidelity, growing old and forgiveness.  Her characters show that goodness exists right next to all the flaws and faults of human interaction.  One of my favorite things about Olive is how she works out her frustrations in the garden.  The hearty yet fragile beauty of flowers is everywhere in these stories, an excellent metaphor.  In addition to flowers, Strout includes the subtle yet prominent influence of nature and the sea in her characters’ lives. Sub-themes of religion and politics add further understanding of her characters.

While all of the thirteen stories are terrific, my favorites are “Pharmacy” in which Strout shows Henry’s lovable and caring personality, “Incoming Tide”, a story of critical human connection and “River”, a hopeful look to the future.

Olive Kitteridge is the type of book you can read more than once.  This was my second read and I enjoyed as much as the first, picking up on wonderful details about the characters and town.

This book has made it to my All-Time Top Ten List!

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Death in a Red Canvas Chair by N. A. Granger

Death in a Red Canvas Chair

N.A. Granger


When a female body is posed at the far end of a youth soccer field, no one seems to notice. No one, that is, except Rhe Brewster, an emergency room nurse with an eye for detail and a knack for putting her nose where it doesn’t belong.

Death in a Red Canvas Chair is Noelle Granger’s debut mystery novel, the first in a series about Rhe Brewster and her adventures as an amateur detective. It’s set in the fictional town of Pequod, Maine and offers a nice backdrop of New England coastal living. I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I do know that all mysteries follow a certain framework, and Death in a Red Canvas Chair is true to this format. Granger presents an intriguing crime, introduces some shady characters, some good guys and muddles it up with some characters you’re not too sure about.

It’s a well-organized, light and entertaining plot-driven read that invites you to solve the crime before you reach the final pages. It’s not too gory or too violent, but there’s enough action and suspense and a few rough moments to keep the story moving. And there are a couple of red herrings to mix things up a little. The author also adds a running list of what Rhe and her colleagues eat, and frequent references to coffee suggest that this mystery will be solved with a great deal of caffeine.

The author’s PhD in anatomy certainly shows, which comes in handy with the medical lingo and, being a sailor myself, I appreciated accuracy of the boat scenes. She offers some character quirkiness as well, mixed in with humor and that helps flesh out the characters and make it an enjoyable read. Marital and family conflicts also add dimension to Granger’s characters.

Death in a Red Canvas Chair is polished and tight and it’s easy to imagine Rhe Brewster becoming mired in a lot more mysteries!

Also by N.A. Granger:  Death in a Dacron Sail

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Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower picMayflower
Nathaniel Philbrick


Do you think you know all about the Mayflower? Check out Nathaniel Philbrick’s comprehensive and scholarly account that begins with Mayflower’s voyage in 1620 and ends with the conclusion of King Philip’s War in 1676. These 102 Separatists and Non-Separatists struggled to survive when they arrived in Plymouth and did anything they could to keep from starving or freezing to death. Made up of printers and weavers and other tradesmen, women and children, they were woefully unprepared for the desperate conditions that killed nearly half of them in the first year.

I think Philbrick’s goal in this book is to dispel the comfortable myth of the harmonious relationship between settlers and native Americans, happily sitting at a Thanksgiving table. He tells a much more complicated story of the knotty relationships between the original settlers and their neighboring Indian tribes, who had their own dynamics and conflicts between tribal leaders to manage.

The obvious question is just how did it happen that all the Indians’ land was transferred over to the settlers? An ultimately colossal problem and tragedy, it started with a small act, a trade that seemed fair at the time and was agreeable to both sides. Subsequent trading of land for guns and other English goods also seemed fair to the Indians and the English and Philbrick works to explain how that trading system went terribly bad.

There are many players in this time period, most notably William Bradford, William Brewster, Captain Miles Standish, the Winslows, Massasoit and his sons Alexander and Philip, later known as King Philip. I liked reading about the early political and strategic maneuvering between the English settlers and with the native American tribes. The period of relative peace during these early times was the most interesting to me because it showed the progress and development of communities. Being an Easterner, I also liked thinking about what the land and shorelines were like in New England so many years ago.

Philbrick explains in great detail the events leading up to King Philip’s War and the horribly violent acts committed by both armies. It was also interesting reading about the battles during this war, whose English leaders included Benjamin Church, Major William Bradford and James Cudworth.  There were many confusing alliances between the English and some “friendly” Indian tribes and there were also forced alliances between some Indian leaders, some of whom were women. Philbrick explains the many superior fighting strategies used by the Indians in the forests and swamps.  An ingenious Indian fort built in a Rhode Island swamp shows what shrewd fighters and defenders the Native Americans were during this time.

An excellent and informative read. I started out knowing the basic facts of how America began, and how native Americans taught the settlers how to grown corn and how to use fish as a fertilizer.  Now I know more and the story is a lot more complicated!

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Check out another interesting book by Nathaniel Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea.  Click here to read my review.
In the Heart of the Sea