Book Bites



Summer Time!

Just back from vacation, where I could blissfully read, read, read! Found some goodies and then some.

Calypso by David Sedaris

I do a happy dance whenever my favorite writer releases a new set of his hilarious essays, even if I’ve already read a majority of them in The New Yorker. By now, fans have grown accustomed to his family; long-time (often exasperated) partner Hugh, with whom he shares a home in England and his kooky band of siblings who we’ve known pretty much since childhood. (If you’re a novice, start with Naked and read his books chronologically, if audio books are your thing he reads his own, all the better.) Many stories take place at The Sea Section, his recently purchased, long-dreamed of sea side home in his native Georgia, to bring his siblings together for special occasions…so long as he can call the shots and stay in the best room. He also returns to his life in England (there’s a great tale about his “pet” fox), wacky shopping excursions with his siblings in Japan and curious accounts from his wide ranging travels on exhausting book tours. While always witty, a common thread throughout focuses on the much darker issue of his sister’s suicide (Now We Are a Five), and how he and his family are coping. For all his levity, Sedaris is pretty much brutally honest regarding his sister’s mental illness, frustration and abandonment, while still wrestling with unimaginable guilt. As always, he presents an honest, ugly, very funny view of his world.

The Gunners, by Rebecca Kauffman

A coming of age story but, oh, so much more. Told primarily from the POV of Mikey, who’s pretty much been going blind his whole life (hmmm…what else has he been blind to?) who reunites with four friends from childhood, in town for the funeral of Sally, who mysteriously extracted herself from the group in high school and now, ten years later, has jumped off a nearby bridge. The Gunners was the name on the mailbox in front of an abandoned house where these misfits congregated in their youth, goofing off in elementary school and eventually boozing and smoking into their high school years. Living in a blue collar section of Buffalo, NY, all the “Gunners” grew up in ramshackle, often broken homes, together forming a tight bond despite teenage tensions and secrets…many, it turns out, having to do with Sally. The story alternates between flashbacks to these formative years and the present day funeral weekend, where we learn the aches and pains each have endured and survived into adulthood, while they try to make sense of Sally’s sad fate. Although it initially seems that Mikey and Sally had the strongest bond, it becomes apparent each had their own history and carry guilt that they feel contributed to her shunning the group in the end. I truly loved this story and all of these characters and the strength of their childhood friendship that ultimately created this beautiful, unusual family.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By the end of this novel I felt like I knew these characters so very well. At the start I thought it would focus primarily on Greer, a college student who, like many young women has strong opinions but is afraid to raise her voice. Best friend, Zee, a lesbian activist, drags her to a lecture by Faith Frank, a famous feminist whose words and image resonate fiercely with Greer, so much so that she seeks out a job opportunity upon graduating. We also get to know Cory, Greer’s long distance boyfriend, the boy next door growing up, whose life and relationship with Greer goes wildly off course when a family tragedy alters his world. Wolitzer takes us deeply into each character’s past and what shaped them, from family dynamics, well into adulthood. Amid the girl power there is also some good old catty deception at play and Wolitzer isn’t afraid to let the men show their vulnerability. A looming question, is doing the right thing for others all that noble if you give up on yourself?

April Showers = Quality Reading Time

While I haven’t had as much time to devote to reading/blogging (such is life), I will continue to share my favorites as they come along. I mean, we’re all busy right? No one should waste their time on the duds!! Loved the following, hope you do too!!

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Although their first year of marriage may not be perfect (conflicting desires about having a baby, trust issues, in-law headaches) there’s no denying that Roy and Celestial have a strong, passionate bond. When Roy is wrongly accused of a crime and sent to prison, the letters the two exchange express, at first, a fierce loyalty to one another, but as years pass and Celestial’s career as an artist grows, she begins to live life without him. The epistolary part of the story made me weepy on many counts, their early love, the unfairness of the situation, the fact that so much time apart will, of course, cause their relationship to unravel. I understood Celestial’s need for freedom just as I ached for Roy, trapped in a cage. When Roy is absolved years later, he returns to find that an old friend has taken up residence in Celestial’s life and, from here, the story flashes back to their early years together. In addition to their marriage, I loved how the author incorporated interesting complexities in the marriages of both Celestial and Roy’s parents, and the strong opinions each family has regarding this very delicate situation. Oprah still knows how to pick ‘em!

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

As a friend of mine in book group likes to say before bringing up a sticky topic, “I don’t mean to be controversial, but…” Red Clocks takes place in a future where abortion is illegal and in vitro fertilization is banned. See what I mean? The story focuses on five women in rainy Newville, a small town outside Salem, WA: The Biographer, a single woman desperate to have a child, teacher to The Daughter, the teenager with the unwanted pregnancy (you knew there had to be one). The Mender, basically the town witch (whose lineage goes back to Salem, MA) who lives in the woods and knows her herbs and potions. The Wife, whose crumbling marriage and harried existence is the one who’s supposed to have it all, right? And Eivor, a nineteenth century Dutch pioneer in understanding ice formations…? Don’t worry, it all makes sense. Just an observation, obviously this is a story for and about women, but either the author kinda hates men or feels her characters should…they’re all jerks or dopes. As the women’s lives intertwine in this tiny town, we see how each is affected by the law and needs to rise above their powerlessness to make some brave choices on their own. This novel grabbed me from the start with pages reading like poetry in a an imaginary situation made to feel all too real in our current times.

Educated by Tara Westover

In this fascinating memoir, Westover shares stories from her childhood and formative years, living off the grid on Buck’s Peak, a mountain in Idaho. Her father was basically a fundamentalist nut, preparing for the end of days, stockpiling weapons and food and refusing to let his children attend public school or receive medical attention, despite the fact that his reckless behavior often led to dangerous accidents for his wife and family. Good thing mom is the local medicine woman. As the older sons age and begin to question their father, older brother, Tyler, opts to get an education and encourages Tara to buy textbooks and take the ACT to enter college as a home-schooled student. As a result, she taught herself algebra and with help from others outside her immediate family was accepted at Brigham Young University at age 17. Her fish-out-of-water tales trying in vain to acclimate to college life among the “sinners” is cringe-worthy…the poor girl had absolutely no life skills and was still operating under her father’s strict religious rules while completely overwhelmed by the amount of school work the little sense most of it makes (she is unaware Europe is a continent and has never heard of the Holocaust). Combined with being pretty much broke, it is a miracle she had the fortitude to push through the many obstacles (and failed tests) she had to overcome. Thankfully, there were several professors who saw her intelligence and convinced her to believe in herself and move away from her old life. As she begins to think for herself and experience the world she struggled with her anger toward her parents and one abusive brother while still yearning for their acceptance. It make for a heartbreaking, inspiring journey.

Is it Spring Yet?

If you’re chilly, grab a blanket and warm up with one of these fine reads. Yes, I get hung up on coming-of-age stories and there’s no shortage here, however, they range from a fascinating look at a family living off the land in the wilds of Alaska to another group of sisters and brothers trying to defy fate and, finally, a young man’s ghost story.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
Leni, a teenager in the late 1970s, has bounced from town to town with her aimless parents for most of her life. Her father, Ernt, returned from the Vietnam war after years as a POW and struggles to hold down a job while denying a serious case of PTSD. When a war buddy leaves him a patch of land and a shack in a remote area of Alaska, the family heads for the last frontier for (another) new start. At first, life off-the-grid goes smoothly, thanks to seasoned neighbors who guide them through preparations for the harsh winter ahead, but when the days grow short and dark, Ernt starts to lose it and bad dreams and paranoia are taken out aggressively on his wife, Cora. Though Leni often feels helpless she is determined to keep her mother safe from her father’s horrible abuse while trying to understand her mother’s fierce loyalty to the man Ernt was be before the war. As Ernt grows more and more destructive he alienates himself from the community, only to have this sturdy cast of characters rally around Leni and Cora. I have to say, in terms of pacing, the pattern of abuse goes on a little long…we get it, the father beats the wife, says he sorry, she’ll never leave him. When Leni grows close to a local boy with dreams of college, she starts to see a way out, although once an exit plan takes shape things take an unforeseen turn and Leni and Cora need to make some very difficult choices, turning the second half of the book into a real page turner, culminating in a satisfying and teary ending (sniff!) as Leni’s life plays out into adulthood. I wasn’t surprised to read in the acknowledgements that the author spent a lot of time in Alaska growing up, you feel both her love for adventure and this wild land in every page.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Very cool premise, bored and enduring a sweltering summer of ’69, the four young Gold siblings seek out a woman near by, rumored to have a special power: she can predict the day and year of your death. The mysterious gypsy’s predictions will impact major decisions each of the Golds will make later in life. If they hadn’t known, would they have taken a different road? Ten years later Simon, the youngest, who has always known he is gay, is desperate to escape a future taking over dad’s tailoring business, so with the promise of a short life, he ditches high school and heads to San Francisco with Klara, his rebellious flaky sister, who harbors dreams of becoming a professional magician. When Simon is embraced by the gay community and becomes a dancer, he eventually realizes he is willing to sacrifice his family so he can be to be true to himself. Klara finds love and a partner as she builds her routine as a magician, but the loss of a beloved sibling (and the gypsy’s haunting prophecy) lead to heavy drinking and fatigue over years of mediocre success, which takes its mental toll. Daniel, a doctor, believes in science (not superstition!) but when he finds his career in jeopardy during a tense holiday with a resentful in-law, his anxiety and resentment over the past lead him down a dangerous path. Varya, the oldest, ends up living a strictly structured existence as a scientist whose goal is to extend human life expectancy, but when a stranger arrives with a link to her secret past, she is forced to face the family she has constantly pushed away. A haunting, unique story about the choices we make, and why.

Grief Cottage by Gail Goodwin
Marcus is eleven years old when he is orphaned after his mother is killed in a car accident. Since his father is a big question mark, he is sent to live with his great aunt Charlotte, an eccentric artist living on a small island in South Carolina. Charlotte’s most popular piece of work is a painting of Grief Cottage, a ghostly shell of a house the end of the beach… is that really the title “character” or is it Charlotte’s small cabin where Marcus grieves for his mother and Charlotte broods over a haunting past. Marcus spends the summer visiting grief cottage, trying to befriend the ghost of the boy who died there 50 years before and piecing together the mystery surrounding his death. Often on his own, Marcus frets over an approaching school year in a new place, approaching puberty and overwhelming insecurities, while realizing that reclusive aunt Charlotte, though kind, is a raging alcoholic, whose personal scars slowly come into focus. Fortunately, the parallels between both characters pain pull them closer and will ultimately bond them forever. A quirky band is neighbors look in on Charlotte and keep Marcus company, rounding out a lovely story about how our childhood shapes us.

Oscar Bites!

I’m sure I’m seriously violating some inter-web blog protocols by doing this but guess what? I love movies, too! I have seen seven of the nine movies nominated for Academy Awards this year, so I thought I’d give my two cents on some of the year’s best films. A quick shout out to I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist and The Florida Project that didn’t make the cut but are certainly worth seeing.
*Indicates an individual nomination.

Call Me By Your Name
Set in 1983, this beautiful coming of age story centers on 17-year-old Elio (Timothee Chalamet* is splendid), who is spending a lazy, idyllic summer with his parents at their villa in Northern Italy. When Oliver (Armie Hammer, swoon), a graduate student, arrives to intern with Elio’s father, a friendship blossoms and forces young Elio to acknowledge his attraction to another man. Subtle and moving, the two actors have incredible chemistry and convey a lot with little dialogue and raw emotion. Oh, and so beautifully shot, you’ll want to head to Italy for the summer.

The Darkest Hour
I didn’t see this one… it looked boring, but they can pretty much hand Gary Oldman the Best Actor Oscar for playing Winston Churchill when he enters the Dolby Theater on March 4th…he’s won pretty much every other acting award so far. Speaking of best actor, although he’s under a cloud of harassment accusations it’s a shame James Franco wasn’t recognized, he deserved a nod for The Disaster Artist.

Didn’t love it. I get that this is a great moment in history for Britain when many civilians came to the aid of soldiers trapped on the beach of Dunkirk during World War II, but I just thought the story lines dragged on a bit and it was hard to follow. I’m a fan of director Christopher Nolan*, but it was just ho-hum for me. However, I noticed that this was the number one pick on many critic’s end-of-year lists so there are surely many who would disagree with me and it is definitely one of the more main stream films of the bunch.

Get Out
An African-American college student spends a weekend with his white girl friend and her supposedly liberal, open-minded parents in what turns into a “nightmare” of a satire on race. If I’m honest, I thought this movie was weird. Although it got critical raves and made a lot of money last summer, I just didn’t get the hype, so I was pretty surprised to see it get a nomination, especially instead of one of the snubbed movies mentioned above.

Lady Bird
Yes, it was hyped as having the best review (ever!) from Rotten Tomatoes, and it truly is just. so. good. Director Greta Gerwig* (yay, only the fifth woman ever to be nominated!) gives us a semi-autobiographical account of teen-age angst that rings true from start to finish. Christine, who will only respond to Lady Bird, is in her senior year of high school and desperate to break out of the boring confines of her home town of Sacramento. At its heart is Lady Bird’s love/hate relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf* is fantastic), a parent stressed by finances and constantly frustrated by her willful daughter. Lady Bird encounters first love and it’s painful fall out, followed by a fling with the class bad boy…all of it forming (she hopes) who she will be when she hits the big city. Soirse Ronan* is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking as the passionate rebel (the anti-abortion assembly at her catholic school is especially gasp-worthy). Ladies, see this film.

The Phantom Thread
I love me some Daniel Day Lewis*, but I skipped this one (again, looked boring). Apparently it’s about a high-end dress maker in 1950s London, who becomes obsessed with his muse.


The Post
Loved! Although I had very little desire to see this movie, cuz, Pentagon Papers? Yawn. I should have known, Spielberg’s still got it and Meryl Streep* never disappoints. A fascinating, suspenseful story of leaked reports from the government proving that multiple administrations sent troops to Vietnam, knowing it was war we could not win. Streep, as usual, transforms into Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post in a (very) male dominated world of board members urging her not to publish the papers while Tom Hank’s Ben Bradlee and crew are fighting for freedom of the press. I know, Spielberg’s been nominated for best director a million times but still, he deserved one here, but alas, didn’t make the Best Director list.

The Shape of Water
I didn’t dig this one and it has the most nominations of the lot. Elisa is a mute woman (Sally Hawkins*), working on the clean-up crew at a creepy government lab during the Cold War, when she discovers and befriends a humanesque sea creature. For some reason the angry agent in charge spends his days torturing it, but the creature finds kindness and trust in his new friend, which is all fine and good but when things turn romantic it was like watching some one fall madly in love with their pet…! I was much more interested in Elisa’s relationship with her next door neighbor (Richard Jenkins* is awesome), a gay, recovering alcoholic and recluse. Beautifully shot, but not my fav.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best for last, this is my favorite picture of the year. Such a departure from the usual who-dunnit, I’m happy Martin McDonagh was nominated for best original screenplay since he was not acknowledged for best director (he was robbed!!) Taking place several months after the brutal murder of a teen age girl in this fictional rural town, the story focuses on a mother’s rage and frustration when the trail goes cold. Mildred (a ferocious Frances McDormand*) rents three billboards calling out the town’s police department for failing to solve the crime. There are so many surprising, intense scenes in this film, it is unpredictable and often hilarious. Where last year’s Oscar winner Moonlight was (to me) relentlessly somber, this felt more like a dark comedy. The performances are incredible, Woody Harrelson* is completely endearing as Ebbing’s sympathetic chief of police. Sam Rockwell* is a half-wit, racist cop who is just as dangerously impulsive as Mildred and their scenes together crackle. Both of these actors deserve the gold.

Happy viewing!

New Year, New Titles!

Between the chaos of the holidays and an unhealthy obsession with the Wordscapes app, I am sorely behind on blogging. But! It’s a New year and that’s what resolutions are for. Hope you enjoy the three books I managed to get to in December…
A House Among The Trees by Julia Glass
Have you read Julia Glass? If not, please read Three Junes immediately. Her latest focuses on Mort Lear, a beloved author and illustrator of children’s books (think Shel Silverstein), whose recent, sudden death leaves behind a bunch of lonely people trying to figure out how to respect his legacy. He’s pulled a fast one in his will, leaving all his art work to be handled by his longtime assistant, Tommy (short for Thomasina), instead of Merry, the museum curator who in charge of the museum dedicated to Mort’s work. Tommy, who has spent decades as a constant companion (no romance here, Mort was gay) is also fielding visits from the latest Oscar winner who will be playing Mort in a feature film about his life. It turns out that Nick Greene, the actor, was in correspondence with Mort prior to his death and has learned some disturbing facts that are not in the screenplay. He is determined, with Tommy’s help, to get an accurate version of Mort on screen. Then Tommy’s troubled brother, Dani, shows up with his own complicated resentments about Mort and Tommy’s history. Seen in flashback, Mort at first glance seems like a puttering old artist who loves to garden, but he becomes larger than life on the page as a charming, sometimes difficult man with some serious secrets. Tommy is constantly exasperated by each new discovery that emerges about Mort’s life, leaving her feeling betrayed since theirs was basically a platonic marriage. Glass knows how to create vivid characters with great depth and parallel storylines that reflect on each character’s past. A richly developed novel.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, Ruth Emmie Lang
Weylyn Grey was raised by wolves and can control the weather….and he has a “magic” pet pig named Merlin. Still with me? If you’re intrigued, try this one, as the rest of the characters in this modern-day fairy tale are far more down to earth. Mary and Weylyn meet as children after she wanders into the woods but because of her disappearance Weylyn is torn from the family he knows and sent to foster care, taken in by a kind minister and his family. Although teenaged Lydia becomes a lifelong “sister,” his strange ways rankle his shrewish foster mother and he is ultimately raised by a local teacher, who believes is his powers…but now the kid is dealing with some major separation anxiety, so it’s little wonder he grows into a solitary, untrusting adult. Fate brings Weylyn back to Mary (who is studying wolves!) only to leave her when his uncontrollable powers put her in danger. It takes tornadoes, hurricanes and a swarm of bees, to help him trust himself and finally let others in. Great line: “I woke with the long yawn of sunrise, with the birds and the beasts and the Sunday school teachers.”

Vanity Fair Diaries by Tina Brown
If you’re like me, a pop culture freak who came of age in the ‘80s, this one delights. After an initially disastrous relaunch of Vanity Fair, Conde Nast brought Brown, not yet 30, from across the pond and named her editor-in-chief. As such, she became the toast of New York City, wooing notable talent, such as Annie Leibovitz, whose celebrity covers have become iconic images, as well as writers for both hard-hitting political pieces and frothy high society scandal stories from the likes of Maureen Orth and Dominic Dunne. Brown reminisces on schmoozing at dinner parties and rubbing elbows with everyone from Calvin Klein to Henry Kissinger, keeping the tone curious and diplomatic, rarely getting catty even with those who really deserved a diary dressing down (although she did NOT like Jackie Kennedy). But all was not glitz and glamour, as she juggled office politics, demanding advertisers, publicists of spoiled celebrities, all while diving into motherhood with a child who would later be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Brown also shows the shocking contrast of her glamorous life style against the back drop of a city where the homeless situation was rampant, and the raging AIDS epidemic took many of her friends and colleagues. Her interesting perspective as a Brit in this crazy American city makes for a fun, absorbing memoir.

New Fall Titles!

Quickly got through three great books this month! With that in mind, following the reviews I may sometimes include one or two I didn’t stick with. Often a book is too similar to something I’ve just read or, in this case, was just too grim. That certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time… And please, don’t be shy with the comment section! Send me your thoughts or recent titles you’d like to recommend!!

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Here’s one to get you in a holiday mood! Perhaps I was judging a book by its cover, but I worried this one might be “chick-litty,” however I whizzed through it and found it way more complex and amusing than I’d assumed. Olivia, an aid doctor just returned from Liberia is under quarantine for the haag virus for seven days with her family in their ramshackle country estate in England during Christmas holiday. She’s feeling as disconnected as ever from her family; dippy sister, Phoebe, recently engaged is obsessing over wedding plans, and her parents are keeping some serious yuletide secrets. Emma, the matriarch is overcompensating to make everyone happy, despite her recent cancer diagnosis, which she’s decided not to share the family until after the quarantine. Thorny father Andrew has been recently contacted by the American son he never knew existed…who is on his way to England. As Olivia frets over a colleague’s haag diagnosis from afar we get a better understanding about her prickliness around her spoiled family once she recounts her work and the suffering she witnessed in Africa. Once everyone’s secrets are revealed years of being pissed off and resentful come to a boil (it’s no cliché here, those Brits are re-pressed!) forcing all them to take a closer look at their relationships and themselves. Emma needs to stop ignoring the growing chasm between herself and her husband and Andrew needs to make some changes in his unsatisfying work life to be less grumpy. As the story wraps up the American son pops in and Phoebe’s wedding plans go awry and things wound up downright suspenseful and emotional…I LOVED this book!!!

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Yes, John Green is labeled a YA writer, but hey, we were all teenagers once, am I right? Which means his stories connect with young and old…ish….and his characters are usually tackling issues well beyond their years. I mean, if you read Green’s The Fault In Our Stars where Hazel and Augustus battle cancer and didn’t love it AND cry…you have no soul. This time around he’s zeroing in on teen anxiety through sixteen-year-old Aza Holmes (Holmsey to her BFF), whose father died when she was eight. In other typical John Green fashion, she also has a hilarious sidekick, said BFF, Daisy who works at Chuckie Cheese and writes Star Wars fan fiction (she has a hell of a lot more followers than I do!). When news hits that a local billionaire is on the lam amid fraud and bribery charges, Daisy decides she and Aza will track him down and receive the $100,000 reward. Free college here they come! After all they have an “in,” Aza was once friendly with the missing rich guy’s son, Davis, after “meeting at a sad camp for kids with dead parents.” She’s pretty much just humoring Daisy but when she meets up with Davis, it obvious this kid has the weight of the word on his shoulders, having lost his mother at an early age, and now a father who’s abandoned him and his younger brother. The two connect when Aza realizes Davis accepts and embraces her, anxiety warts and all. For those of you blessed with never having this kind of anxiety, John Green nails it. The spirals, fear of being crazy, the narcissism that comes with the constant misery of irrational thoughts and feelings…it’s exhausting. Yeah, been there, and clearly so has the author. I wish this novel had been around when I was experiencing teen anxiety because Green does an excellent job letting people of all ages know that they are not alone.

The Comfort Food Diaries by Emily Nunn

For fans of Eat, Pray, Love, Nunn’s memoir starts off with similar heartbreak, a successful food writer in Chicago, she loses her job and her beloved brother, Oliver, to suicide. Her grief makes her realize that her emotionally detached fiancé is a complete jerk, so he’s gone, too… all in the first chapter…! Oh, and she’s a functioning alcoholic (girl is messed UP!). But, through the magic of Facebook, she reaches into the void for help and quickly finds a community of people who share their own heartache and encourage her to go on a food tour to reconnect with old friends and new. At the start of her adventure, wobbly from rehab, she visits her cousin and oldest friend in Atlanta and they embark on a pilgrimage into southern cooking with a host of cousins whose specialties range from peanut brittle to pickles and smoking their own ham while explaining the history and family lore of each. By including recipes and memories of the people who make them allows the author a kind of therapeutic unpacking of some of the deep-rooted unhappiness she experienced in her family, growing up in Galax, VA. Although a vivid character, her manic, hysterical mother thrived on reminding her five kids that motherhood prevented her from being a “star.” Eye roll. As an adult she is frustrated by her repressed siblings who refuse to talk about Oliver’s death, but as she travels around, reconnecting with extended family and old friends, always over food, she begins to leave behind the toxic relationships, forgiving both her family and herself, and finally finding the peace and comfort in life she so desperately needed. Great, inspiring redemption story.

Tried it, but couldn’t get through it….

The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst

Focused on one crumbling family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this story was just too…heavy. Never-the-less, I mention it because it felt authentic in terms of the devastation left behind in New Orleans, was well written and is currently receiving phenomenal reviews.


Cozy Up To These Fun Fall Reads

I know, It’s been a foreva! I blame a time-consuming hurricane and a dearth of blog-worthy reading material, but hopefully you’ll find the wait was worth it. Per usual, I’m a sucker for family drama and this one is a doozy. And, just in time for Halloween, I’m liking both a haunting ghost story (but not the scary kind!) and a novel filled with magic by one of my favorites authors. Happy Fall!

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Take one upper class family of six, introduce a gypsy-artist single mom with a teenage daughter and watch the classes collide. This well crafted novel touches on the many facets of what makes a “happy” family and more importantly, that appearances are rarely what they seem.

Elana, known with a wink throughout the story as Mrs. Richardson has, by design, the perfect family. A respected attorney-husband, a career as reporter for the local paper and four gifted, beautiful teenagers. You get that we’re supposed to hate her, right? When Mrs. Richardson rents out their investment rental to a young mother and her teenage daughter, she sees it strictly as a form of philanthropy. Shouldn’t even the underprivileged have a chance to live in her idyllic enclave? Mia is a drifter with a secret she fiercely keeps hidden from daughter Pearl, they’ve moved from city to city, based on the length of Mia’s latest art project, which she then sells to a dealer in New York and moves on. But brainiac Pearl wants to stay put for a while, at least to get through high school and Mia relents…for now. Mrs. Richardson’s son, Moody, is soon besotted by Pearl, and she becomes a fixture at the Richardson household, carrying a crush for oldest brother, Trip, and befriending their dramatic sister, Lexi. The only stand alone is Izzy, the youngest, an impulsive black sheep, who thrives on driving her mother to distraction (like Mia, clearly one of the most interesting among this cast of characters). When Mia starts working at the Richardson’s as a housekeeper, she takes Izzy under her wing as an artist’s apprentice, but more importantly, teaches her the importance of passion and independence, not exactly a direction Mrs. Richardson would support. Once these characters and relationships are formed, both family and community are divided by a local couple in the process of adopting an abandoned baby, and the mother who returns to claim her child. On both personal and ethical levels we are given various sides of what defines a mother, which ultimately delves into Mia’s mysterious back story and the shattering of the Richardson’s perfect facade. So well done.

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

The author’s descriptions of life, nature and pain in this ghostly narrative…poetry! Jojo, all of 13, is faced with a lot of family turmoil as he enters manhood, with each family member haunted in their own way. Raised primarily by his caring grandparents, Pop and cancer-stricken Mam, in rural Mississippi, Jojo’s mother, Leoni, is an inconsistent, drug-addicted presence in his life (come to think of it, she’s kind of a ghost in her own sad way). Through his weariness with his mother’s neglect, he watches over his toddler sister, Kayla, who strongly prefers him as caregiver to Leoni, who chafes at their bond, a constant reminder of her own brother, Given, who died tragically when they were teenagers, his death a catalyst to her eventual meth use. We quickly learn that the ghost of Given silently visits Leoni every time she gets high. Meanwhile, Pop has been telling Jojo stories of his youth, about Richie, a boy about Jojo’s age, who Pop looked out for when both were sent to Parchman prison for ridiculously race-based crimes. When Jojo’s father, Michael, is released from Parchman after serving time for drug dealing, Leoni insists she and the children need to fetch him from jail. When they arrive at Parchman, Jojo is visited by the ghost of Richie, who has no recollection of what became of him on earth and is looking to Jojo – and Pop – for answers. The ghostly visits culminate once everyone returns home to find Mam on her deathbed, while people, and spirits, seek some semblance of peace. Sadly, not everyone will find it.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I love Alice Hoffman most when she’s in real magic mode and twenty years after Practical Magic, she revisits the Owens family, the cursed clan of witches descending from Salem, Ma. This prequel focuses on the “Aunts,” Franny and Jet…and their brother, a rare wizard in the coven! If you haven’t read it, no worries, this is fine as a stand alone novel so read them in any order (but don’t cheat and watch the movie…as in most cases it was no match for the book!) To recap the overall gist of PM, the curse was brought about in the 1600s, after Maria Owens was cast out by her awful, married lover and (ya know, being a witch,) placed a hex on any man who dare to love any Owens woman. Fast forward to the 1960s New York City (a very cool setting for this wicked tribe), where Suzanne Owens has escaped from her own failed love story to raise her three children and protect them from their wiccan legacy. While as children Franny, Jet and Vincent would love nothing more that to be “normal” puberty is provoking their powers and pretty much making “normal” an impossibility. Franny can control birds, Jet can read people’s thoughts and Vincent can see the future and, as a whole, they can pretty much control weather and are equally apt at telekinesis. It comes as a relief one summer when they are summoned to spend a few months with mysterious Aunt Isabelle, who resides in Maria’s family manse, casting spells and mixing potions for love-sick locals. Here, they learn some family history…including the love hex. Upon returning to New York, each must decide for themselves how to live with – or without – true love. Franny tries desperately to keep her childhood sweetheart from harm by pushing him away. Jet goes all in and won’t be denied true love, obviously with tragic results and poor, tormented Vincent just wants to figure out where he belongs in his strange world. I must say, I felt the second half of the story felt long and, oddly for this author, the writing a bit clunky, but I did appreciate the way the stories wrapped up and once Practical Magic’s young Gillian and Sally arrive in need of help from the “Aunts” I was down right weepy. Good Halloween fun.

Fall Titles Are Piling Up!!

A nice balance of genres this week, an intriguing true story of a town under attack by arsonists, a humorous novel about marriage and, on the heavier side, a novel of a Pakistani family living under the shadow of their terrorist father.

American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

In a five-month period beginning in November 2012, firefighters in Accomack County, VA, would be called out more than 60 times in a bizarre series of arson cases. Accomack is a rural, isolated peninsula also known as the Eastern Shore of Virginia and while the area is picturesque along the water, Hesse describes the inland area: “It was long. It was isolated. It was emptying of people but full of abandoned houses. It was dark. It was a uniquely perfect place to light a string of fires.” The arsonists are identified early on but it is the motive behind these Bonnie and Clyde pyromaniacs that is both mysterious and riveting. Stories of dedicated volunteer fire fighters and local sheriffs exhaustively running from one fire to the next does the heart good and brings the community together, but the underlying fear of a town under attack by a ghostlike predator hangs over this nervous county. (For levity, there is a small band of camo-clad nitwits who call themselves the East Shore Arsonist Hunters, who camp out in hopes of spotting the bad guys and winning the $25,000 reward…they sell t-shirts!!) Some of the history of the county and research into fire starters is a tad dry but for the most part this true crime reads like a novel and offers some seriously good drama.

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

The main reason I’m recommending this one is that it is laugh-out-loud funny. The story itself is about marriage, exes, children with issues, ordinary yet extraordinary events in everyday lives. A lot of novels cover the same territory, but the humor makes this one very special and only endears us even more to narrator, Graham (plus, I’m always impressed when an author swaps gender with the protagonist…brave!). At the outset of this novel, I feared Graham was tiring of his second wife, Audra, who is younger, vivacious, chatty and knows everyone in their vicinity of New York City. But after an encounter with his first wife, icy Elspeth, the three carve out an unlikely friendship, and we see how much Graham really appreciates his nutty wife and their origami obsessed son, Matthew. Thank goodness, because I want to be friends with Audra, who is flaky, flawed and wonderful. An interesting, witty look at a marriage, despite all its quirks and heartaches.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Once her twin siblings are of University age, Isma leaves London to return to her studies at Amherst, which were abandoned after her mother and grandmother died, leaving the three orphaned, and Isma in charge of raising her adolescent siblings. We see her detained at Heathrow…did I mention that Isma is Muslim and the father missing from this scenario died while carrying out a terrorist attack? As Isma grapples with trying to have a normal life in America, she worries over her sister, Aneeka, a headstrong free-spirit and her aimless brother, Parvais, whom she’s given up contact with…why? Did he follow in his father’s footsteps? In the meantime, Isma meets Eamonn, a charming man with ties to her family in London but with very different religious and political views. Things gets complicated when Eamonn returns to England and seeks out the beautiful Aneeka and a passionate affair is born, much to the distress of Eamonn’s father, a high-ranking Parliament official who wants his son to have nothing to do with a woman with ties to a jihad. Finally, we are introduced to Parvais who has been coerced into following in his father’s footsteps and doesn’t realize that he’s in way over his head until he finds himself in Syria with no passport. As the family attempts to bring him back home, the novel takes on the jittery feel of Homeland episode as loyalties and politics collide. Complicated and intricately plotted, this is a great read.

It’s (still) so hot out there!! Read a book!!

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
A few blogs back I recommended My Name Is Lucy Barton and this is Strout's equally impressive follow-up. While the first story was told from Lucy's point-of-view while recuperating from a mysterious illness and reconnecting with her mother in New York City, this takes us back to her home town in rural Illinois. Each chapter is told by different people mentioned in the first book, characters flowing in and out of stories in this small town that links them together. Man, some of these folks have some serious skeletons in the closet, giving us very juicy stories rooted firmly in the ground. Although Lucy is not a prominent character until the end of the book, she hovers in people's memories throughout; her troubled, poverty-stricken family and the fact that she escaped to become a well-known writer. Like Lucy's brief visit with her mother in the first book, the stories here also touch on relationships and how the past affects them, from the old high school janitor who was kind to Lucy and now looks in on her reclusive brother, to the guidance counselor trying to help Lucy's wayward niece get into college. They all intertwine to create a unified and beautiful look at the good, the bad and the ugly in life. Strout is truly an incredible writer.

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick
One minute is laugh-out-loud funny, the next cringeworthy, as narrator, David Granger, a crusty Vietnam vet recounts his life (to the government?) following brain surgery. Granger paints himself (with very colorful language) as a hard core Republican patriot, but it's soon clear he has a mushy inner core, once we discover his best friends are Vietnamese, black and gay. After he moves in with his weepy liberal son, Hank, and beloved grand daughter, Ella, it turns out that Granger survived a lot more than 'Nam. He returned to find fellow vets in various states of PTSD and drug abuse, which led to meeting, and later losing, his troubled wife, Jessica, whose emotional scars ran as deep as his own. He tells us early on the brain surgery was ordered by the government and took a lot of his memories, so I wasn't sure how reliable of a narrator he would be. That didn't get in the way of this very good story, which includes a possible imaginary friend (he's not sure) from his time in the jungle, becoming a banking and real estate tycoon upon returning from 'Nam and trying to fix up his son with best friend, Sue. Oh and a persistent and important question looms, "Who is Clayton Fire Bear?"

P.S. For fans of Breaking Bad and Better Caul Saul, David Granger reminded me very much of the Jonathan Banks character, Mike Ehrmantraut. Just sayin'.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
This is all about memories… I felt like I was really in this woman's head since this is told in the from a year-in-the-life of Ruth's diary. I know diaries conjure thoughts of deep dark secrets but this is much more reflective as she moves back home after a tough breakup with her fiancé and to help out with her father's recent dementia diagnosis. A beloved history teacher who's been pushed out of the local college due to his illness, her father, Howard, hides out in his home office alternating between moments of lucidity and difficult events like a police escort home after undressing and hanging out on a neighbor's porch. Although it's clear Ruth sees Howard as a wonderful father, we discover he often cheated on her mother (even with dementia!!) and went through a period of raging alcoholism. Brother Linus is quiet and resentful of it all and her mother often takes to hiding away from everyone, too. On a personal note, for anyone who has moved far away from "home," Khong does a nice job with Ruth's perspective of her youth and running into old friends and neighbors that I completely identified with. Interspersed throughout the book are pages from Howard's diary, recounting funny, touching moments with Ruth as a toddler and it is in these pages we start to see the parent-child reversal as Howard deteriorates. Ruth's voice is sometimes sad, often funny and I couldn't help but root for all of them.

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