Saturday, October 15, 2016

Books Read in September

The Lake House by Kate Morton.
The story: Flashing between the past and the present, Morton presents the mystery of a little boy lost and the subsequent disintegration of his family. Baby Theo, beloved only son of the Edevane family, disappeared one night without a trace. 75 years later, his older sisters are the only ones left in the family. They moved away from the beloved lake house soon after his disappearance. Enter Detective Sadie Sparrow, who's on forced leave from the department because of a case gone bad. While visiting her grandfather, she discovers an abandoned estate and an unsolved mystery from 75 years ago.
Me: Kate Morton is one of my favorite contemporary writers. She is kinda magical. Her stories are mesmerizing and her language simply beautiful. I've read and reviewed The Forgotten GardenThe House at Riverton, and The Distant Hours. I also read The Secret Keeper but apparently didn't review it. I love all of them! Out of all, this one was probably the least riveting to me, but it was still absolutely fantastic. I highly recommend anything and everything by Kate Morton.

Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas.
Long-time favorite that I teach in my high school World Lit class. Reviewed here.

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens.
The story: Joe worked hard to get to college. His childhood was tough with an alcoholic mother and an autistic younger brother. An English class assignment requires that he interview an older person and write that person's biography. He heads to the nursing home and is given the only person there without Alzheimer's: a dying convict. Throughout the book, Joe discovers that there is a lot more to Carl than his murder conviction. He is determined to find the truth about Carl's story before Carl dies of cancer—but the real story turns out to be a dangerous one still. While searching for resolution, Joe's mother abandons his brother, and Joe has to deal with childhood demons of his own.
Me: First, I loved the main character, Joe, and his brother Jeremy. Joe's just a good guy who takes incredibly good care of his brother. I loved the story of Carl, too. The book got a little far-fetched when Joe meets up with the murder victim's family, but that's OK. The writing was great and the story really compelling. A great read.

Descent by Tim Johnston.
The story: A family heads from Wisconsin to Colorado for one last family vacation before Caitlin heads off to college. Caitlin is a runner, and she and her younger brother, Sean, head up to the mountains first thing in the morning for a run/bike. And then the impossible happens: Sean is hit by a car, and Caitlin hitches a ride down the mountain, she thinks for help. Big mistake. The rest of the novel follows each character:  Grant and Angela (the parents) and Sean as the navigate the search for Caitlin and the aftermath—the years without her.
Me: This book was seriously hard-pounding. I could not stop reading it, practically ignoring everything and everyone else in my life for a couple of days. And this is not just a gripping plot read: Johnston is a terrific writer. He's refined. Sharp. Introspective. I cannot even believe that he doesn't have 5 other novels for me to read. He needs to get busy on his next novel.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Books Read in August

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman.
The story: Ove is the definition of grumpy old man. He's bitter, cranky, judgmental, and rude. He sees the world in absolute black and white. He's the guy in the neighborhood who makes sure no one breaks any rules and no one has any fun. He's mad, and he wants everyone else to be mad, too. And then new neighbors move in next door, and Parvaneh, the wife, just keeps loving him, no matter how prickly and exasperating he is.
Me: I LOVE THIS BOOK!!! I feel like, between Ove and Harold Fry, I've seen the redemption of two wonderful old men this summer. This is a novel of tremendous tenderness, sadness, and joy. You can't help but feel utter hope in the human race upon reading this book. It reaffirms what we all know: that beyond a bitter exterior can rest a heart of pure gold. Highly recommended.

The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner.
The story: Many years ago in the Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner set out to find the happiest places on Earth. In his newest travelogue of sorts, Weiner looks for the smartest places in the world. Why were places like Athens, Florence, Edinburgh, Calcutta, Vienna, and the Silicon Valley hotbeds of creativity? Why did geniuses seem flourish there? Are geniuses born or made? What are the attributes of a creative place? Weiner takes us on a tour of eight different places, studying the characteristics of that city and its geniuses. It's a historical text, sociological study, and travelogue all together.
Me: So, I was off my usual 4-5 books this month because this book took me a little over three weeks to get through. Three weeks! There are so many great questions raised and interesting fodder for discussion, such as:
• Is creativity contagious?
• Are we more creative in crowds?
• Is chaos an essential ingredient to creativity?
• Does it take a city to raise a genius?
• Why do pockets of geniuses seem to flourish and then fade away?
I love the idea that “what is honored in a country will be cultivated there." What are we stifling in America by boxing in our future geniuses? It's a sad thought. This was our book club pick for September, and it was a fascinating read. I took copious notes and look forward to discussing a variety of topics with my fellow book club members.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Books Read in July

The Ship of Brides by JoJo Moyes (2014)
The story: This novel is based on the true story of 650 Australian war brides who crossed the sea in an aircraft carrier from Australia to Great Britain to be reunited with their mostly British husbands in 1946. (The author's grandmother was one of the brides.) The book focuses mainly on four of the brides, as well as on the captain and a Marine. The novel is framed by the present as an old woman sees a ship and flashes back to her sea journey. This frame scene was extremely confusing, as were the first several chapters before the ship departs, jumping from character to character as she (or he) prepares to leave. The story eventually all came together when the ship departs, and from that point on, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel.
Me: Once I got past the initial confusion and jumping around, I became really engrossed by the book and all the characters. I love novels based on true historical events, especially unknown bits of history like this. I asked my Dad, a WW2 vet and an avid historian, if he knew anything about these war brides, and he had never heard of this. Kudos to Moyes to telling the story for these women and their descendants. 650 women who left their continent for another world: that's quite a story to tell! It wasn't a perfect novel; some of the story lines felt disconnected and extraneous. Still, it was quite interesting and unusual. Recommended.

Lost in Translation by Nicole Mones (1999)
The story: Alice is an expatriate living in China. She's a translator who likes Chinese men— a lot. A lot of Chinese men. She's fleeing a childhood with a famous politician father who was also a racist. When she was in her mid 20s, her father forbade her to marry a Chinese man, and she's been drifting from man to man ever since. Enter Adam Spencer, an American archeologist who hopes to find the famed Peking Man and needs Alice to translate for him. From there, the story goes to the search for Peking Man, Alice's search for her own identity, and Alice's love story with Dr. Lin, another archeologist.
Me: I had an extremely difficult time immersing myself in this novel at first, but I think that more likely because I kept putting it down to read other books that had quick due dates at the library. Mones is an excellent writer, first of all. Her prose is captivating and requires slow reading (unlike, for example, JoJo Moyes). This is not a "plot read": this is a book with many complex layers, reflective of the Chinese culture that permeates the novel. Alice herself is an extremely complex character, a brilliant woman driven by demons and a constant search for wholeness. I ultimately became engrossed in the novel and fascinated by the complexities of this dual cultural life of Alice, who so desperately wants to be a true Chinese. I recommend this novel, but it is much more than a beach read. Be prepared to concentrate.

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner (1976)
The story: Joe is a retired literary agent, who does the proverbial puttering around the house. His wife, Ruth, is fairly disgusted with him. He seems to just be done with life. A postcard from an old friend prompts him to find a set of journals he kept during a particularly difficult time in his life: right after the death of their only son. Although Joe is a historically uncommunicative person, Ruth begs his to read the journals aloud to him. Through the journals, they are able to see each other and, perhaps more importantly, Joe is able to see himself as something other than a passive spectator of his own life.
Me: Wallace Stegner is, well, one of the best American novelists. I mean, I'm kind of sheepish to even be writing a review of one of his novels on a silly little blog. One feels the presence of greatness between the pages of such a book.  As I was reading this short novel, I was struck by the careful construction of each and every sentence, by the obvious love of language and the ability to manipulate it in such a fluid and powerful way. There are writers who are purely storytellers, and there are writers who are artists as well. Stegner is falls into the latter category, of course. The plot is really almost insignificant in such a novel. Joe and Ruth— how intimately we know them after reading this. They become living, breathing people, rather than the flat, silly characters of so many other entertaining yet fluffy books written today. They are the people next door, your parents' friends, the couple who you see at the grocery store every week. You realize that in another 20 years or so, you'll be Joe and Ruth, with your own journals to read and stories to reconfigure. Highly recommended. Savor it, and appreciate Stegner's incredible gift.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2012)
The story: Don Tillman wants a wife. He's a brilliant, handsome genetics professor who also, unbeknownst to himself, displays all the characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome. He has little patience for social customs and has failed miserably at any conventional attempts at dating, so  he devises the Wife Project: a 16-page questionnaire/application that will eliminate all but the perfect wife. She can't smoke, drink much, dye her hair, wear lipstick, etc. And then he accidentally meets Rosie, who is a perfectly unqualified candidate, so he thinks.
Me: I loved everything about this novel. I laughed out loud many times and read the whole darn thing through in one afternoon, in spite of having a dozen other things I should have been doing. I happened to have recently spent time with a friend who could be Don in real life, so I was especially attuned to the quirks, patterns, and absolute lovableness of a guy like Don. (It's never explicitly stated that Don has Asperger's, nor is my friend officially diagnosed.) Anyway, this is just a funny, sweet, smart, and happy story. I wanted it to be twice as long as it was, but, fortunately, there is a second Rosie novel which I hope to find soon. Highly recommended!

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn (1994)
The story: While visiting Wentwater Court and writing an article about this noble family of England, Daisy Dalrymple stumbles into a murder investigation. The story takes place in the 1920s, and there is a predictable cast of characters doing and saying predictable things. The detective interviews the whole family, etc. etc.
Me: It was a simple mystery. There was nothing surprising, particularly satisfying, memorable, or even terribly interesting. I read it because it is our August book for book club. I don't really have anything to say about it other than I have no idea what we can possibly discuss at our next meeting. Man dies, someone did it, and who did it isn't much of a mystery. I guess if you like simple, cozy, sleepy British mysteries, then perhaps you will enjoy this?

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce.
The story:  First, you must read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry for this novel to make sense. But that's good news, because Harold Fry is absolutely fabulous. If you've already read Harold Fry, then very quickly run and get this book. This is the story of Queenie, who waits in hospice for Harold Fry to walk across England to reach her before she dies. In Harold Fry, we journey with him as he makes his physical and emotional pilgrimage. In this novel, though, we hear Queenie's side of the story. And what a tragic yet beautiful story it is.
Me: "If only memory were a library with everything stored where it should be. If only you could walk to the desk and say to the assistant, I'd like to return the painful memories about David Fry or indeed his mother and take out some happier ones please." Rachel Joyce is simply an incredibly storyteller. I thought Harold Fry was pretty much a perfect novel, but The Love Song is possibly even better. And the two together? Power couple. I read it all in one day. Told from the perspective of Queenie, who is on her deathbed, the novel was bittersweet and so beautiful written. She pulls back layer after layer of memory to reveal the story of her love affair with Harold Fry and, in a sense, with his son David. These two novels together will no doubt be if not by favorite of the year, then certainly in the top 5.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Books Read in June

Chasing the North Star by Robert Morgan.
The story: Jonah Williams becomes a runaway slave on his 18th birthday after his master whips him for borrowing a book (thank goodness his master never put it together that Jonah could actually read the book, thanks to his master's wife!). He didn't exactly intend to run away; he didn't think it all through clearly and didn't have  plan. All Jonah knows is that he needs to get as far north as possible. Along the way he meets Angel, who had been her master's plaything since she was a 12-year-old girl. Jonah doesn't want Angel to travel with him, but she keeps popping up wherever he lands. The story takes us on the journey north with them, through a series of narrow escapes and ultimately to freedom.
Me: I didn't love this book.  The first part was extremely slow moving; the details of Jonah moving through the woods, camping out, being cold, etc. were just too tedious for me. I supposed I am largely a dialogue-driven reader, and there was little to none during the first part of the novel. I was just getting to the point of giving up when Angel enters the story. I liked having Angel there; she was more interesting than Jonah, although I found it remarkable that a slave woman could hop on the train and travel and then just happen to meet up with Jonah again. She seemed to always be appearing just when he needed to be rescued, which seemed way too far fetched for me. Robert Morgan is one of my favorite contemporary writers, but this was not one of my favorite books. It's beautifully written, of course, but somehow I wasn't drawn in by the characters enough.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.
The story: When her parents decide to move back to Mexico, Letty is forced to become a parent for the first time, even though her kids are 15 and 6. She has no idea how to take care of her own kids; her parents fed them, clothed them, and raised them while she worked three jobs and partied on her time off. She has no choice but to figure it all out on her own, and, for the most part, she does a decent job. But just as she's starting to get the hang of it, some complications arise: she starts to fall in love with a guy, her son's father returns, and a series of other events threaten to shatter her newly constructed world.
Me: I adored Diffenbaugh's The Language of Flowers, and I really liked this one too-- not as well, but it was a great read. It's not perfect; there was some details that were a bit too contrived or unexplained. But I'm OK with that. I loved the characters, especially Letty and her son Alex. It's a sweet story of growth, family, and overcoming obstacles. Definitely recommended for a light but meaningful read.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica.
The story: Mia, the adult daughter of the well-to-do Judge and Mrs. Dennett, has been kidnapped and is being held in a remote cabin in Minnesota. Mrs. Dennett is beside herself, but the Judge is remote and cold. The story flashes between the past and present through the eyes of various characters: Mrs. Dennett; Colin (the kidnapper); and Gabe, the detective. Sometimes multiple narrators are confusing, but in this case, they are nicely labeled. What a great idea!
Me: Oh my goodness. This book was positively mesmerizing. I almost didn't read it when I saw that Harlequin was the publisher! I wondered why I even had it on my reading list. But honestly,  I could hardly put it down! I loved having the story unfold through the various POVs, and the characters were all lavishly drawn and intriguing. I've seen lots of comparisons to Gone Girl, and I think that's pretty accurate (minus the graphic scenes). HIghly recommended as a psychological thriller.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
The story: Harold Fry, a retired man in his 60s, receives a letter from an old friend who is dying. Next thing he knows, he's started on a walking journey to see that friend. He believes that as long as he walks, she will continue to live. As he walks, he begins to remember various scenes from his life: his childhood, his early marriage, fatherhood. Back home, his wife has a similar inward pilgrimage. Harold and Maureen begin putting aside 20 years of animosity toward each other and wonder how they got so far off track—and if they can ever return.
Me: Oh. My. Goodness. This book (our June book club read) is astounding. I read it in about three sittings, in spite of having a billion other things to do, because it was hard to put down. I love everything about the book: the characters, the setting, the masterful way the author reveals the story. There were all kinds of surprises, and a few times I thought the book was going to take a turn I really didn't want; but in the end it was wrapped up beautifully. Such a great story of redemption, the power of love and memory, and that it's never too late—for anything. Highly recommended!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Books Read in May

After You by JoJo Moyes.
The story: This is the sequel to the popular soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture Me Before You— the story of a woman who falls in love with a quadriplegic. Louisa trudges on with her life, which is interrupted with all kinds of surprises and twists.
Me: I can't really say much about it, as I don't want to spoil Me Before You for those who haven't read it. This was a decent sequel, and I'd definitely recommend it for those who read the first one. If you haven't read the first one, this will make no sense.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.
The story: This novel is geared toward early young-adult readers, but I think anyone would appreciate it. Ada is 10-year-old and has never left her hellish home. She has a clubfoot, which her abusive, slovenly mother considers to be the mark of the devil. The mother tells people—and Ada— that Ada is an idiot. Ada's only touch with the outside world is through her younger brother, Jamie. When WWII looms and London is certain to be bombed, Ada and Jamie evacuate, against their mother's wishes, to the countryside with the other children. They are introduced to a completely foreign world with Susan, their foster mother, and Ada learns that she is a person of tremendous value.
Me: I loved this novel. I'm a big fan of WWII era novels and redemption stories and happy endings. This one has all three and is told simply and beautifully. I loved reading Jamie's and Ada's discoveries about themselves and the world. Susan was also a wonderful character, and readers can't help but root for her as she learns how to love again. Highly recommended for all ages.

Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Morgan Cron.
The story: Ian's home life is a wreck. His parents, once beautiful people who hobnobbed with Hollywood, have fallen into the pit of despair because of his father's alcoholism. From a mansion to a tiny apartment, the family, of which Ian is the youngest and last at home, disintegrates. Ian actively despises his father, who just looks like a pathetic drunk to him. At 16, Ian discovers that his father is actually a CIA agent—one who was once actually brilliant at his job. This discovery in some ways reshapes his image of his father, but Ian never gets what he really needs: a father who acknowledges and loves him as a son. Inevitably, Ian also turns to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain, insisting that he is not like his father. This is Ian's story of struggle and ultimately triumph—although I'm sure the story continues today.
Me: I am a big fan of a well-written memoir. Cron is a fabulous writer. He's poetic and honest, although a bit disjointed at times. I can accept that, though, because his life was so disjointed. Highly recommended if you like memoirs.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. 
The story: During the summer when Frank Drum is 13 years old, there are 5 deaths in his  small hometown in Minnesota. Looking back as a middle-aged man on that summer, Frank remembers all the vivid details and tells the story as part mystery but mostly as a coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence story. This has somewhat of a To Kill a Mockingbird feel to it, a little bit of Stand By Me and even Our Town, sorta. Krueger is a wonderful storyteller, and I was immediately immersed in the novel.
Me: I absolutely loved this book. I read it in an evening and a day, putting aside all the other things I was supposed to get done on that particular day. I really loved everything about it: the characters, the story, the setting, the narrator's voice, Krueger's prose, the mystery, the sadness, the joy. It was truly a wonderfully written story of loss and forgiveness and healing. Highly recommended!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Books Read in April

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes
The story: Jess is a single mom raising a brilliant, quirky daughter as well as her ex-husband's teenage son. She works hard as a housecleaner/bartender and barely has enough money to feed the kids, much less send her daughter to the exclusive private school that has offered her a nearly full scholarship for her math skills. And then she crosses paths with Ed, a multimillionaire who is about to lose everything. The four of them accidentally embark on a journey to get to the Math Olympiad and end up becoming a family.
Me: This was a fun book. It's a beach read. Nothing terribly amazing, just fun and happy for the most part. Great for summer!

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
The story: French sisters Vianne and Isabelle, daughters raised by an emotionally cold father, have approached life completely differently. Vianne is careful, comfortable in her marriage, but fearful; Isabelle, 10 years younger, is impetuous, rebellious, and reckless. When the Nazis invade France, they must both make impossible choices. Vianne's husband is drafted, and she and her young daughter must survive without food or money—and with a German captain living with them. Isabelle joins the Resistance and risks her life daily to save others.
Me: I loved this epic tale of survival during World War II. Isabelle gets more attention; her choices are flashier and more dramatic. But Vianne is the character I can identify with more: the one who does anything she can to provide for her family, the one who doesn't know how strong she is until she is forced to protect those she loves— the one who sometimes makes bad decisions because she doesn't understand how cruel people can be. I am fascinated with WWII stories, largely because there are so many aspects of the war to explore: soldiers on all sides, families and individuals in all kinds of circumstances, the home front, the Holocaust, the Japanese-American experience, the unsung heroes, post-war, etc. And while I've read similar stories, The Nightingale takes a fresh look at how two small people can make a huge difference in a war that encompassed the whole world. Highly recommended.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks.
The story: The Zombie Wars are over—what really happened? This is the history of the Zombie Wars as told by various key players as well as regular people—all survivors of the unthinkable. Around the world, various governments, families, and individuals handled the zombie attacks in different ways. These are their stories of survival, pieced together in interview form.
Me: Meh. I found the interview style of the book to be tedious and confusing. I found myself constantly turning back a page or two, wondering whose POV I was currently reading. I should say that I love zombie movies and shows; I just didn't enjoy the style of this book. I would have loved reading a regular novel chronicling the events, but this left me mostly just feeling meh

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Multiple re-read of my favorite novel. With only one exception, this gets the "book of the year" award from my literature class.
Other posts here on TKAM:
• My Favorite Ever.
Happy 50th to TKAM

Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
Re-read of a wonderful play. My high school students absolutely loved this play! Although it's a portrayal of small-town life in the early 1900s, my kids found it to be both universal and contemporary. Highly recommended reading, even if you've seen the play.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Books Read in March

March was a month of extraordinarily enjoyable books. If every month were like this one for reading, I would never get anything done. Ever. And yet… I only hope that April brings as many fantastic reads.

 Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.
The Story: Although she’s in her late 20s, Louisa takes her very ordinary life day-by-day. She really has no goals or plans for the future. She’s happy with the status quo, which includes living with her parents, her sister, and her baby nephew; continuing her long-term, comfortable though dull relationship with Patrick; and working at the coffee shop. And then the coffee shop closes, and she has to find a new job. She answers an ad for a companion for a quadriplegic, a job for which she is terribly unqualified. She knows nothing about medical care and nothing about the world that once belonged to Will. She’s never left her tiny English village; he traveled in the world of millionaires, seeking extreme adventure whenever he wasn’t closing multimillion dollar business deals. Will is trapped by his paralyzed body, depressed, angry, and suicidal. Louisa finds him rude and cold, but she desperately needs the money. Eventually, they learn to respect and depend on each other, and ultimately they fall in love. But is their love enough to convince Will that life is worth living?
Me: This was our March book club pick, partly because the movie is coming out soon, and it made for great discussion. I must admit that I never before considered what it would be like to live as a quadriplegic. I’m not convinced that Will’s argument was valid: he insisted that his life as a quadriplegic was worse than many other people’s because he lived for high adventure. He was really kind of a selfish jerk. Louisa notes that he never would have even noticed her in his old life—that she would have been part of the woodwork.  The book was full of topics for discussion. Moyes probably tried to encompass too many subjects and used too many stereotypes, but she knows how to write a great page-turner. We’re looking forward to the movie in June!

The Story: The story takes place during World War II in France and Germany. Marie-Laure has been blind since childhood. Her father, the locksmith for the Museum of National History in Paris, takes tender care of her. Because he wanted Marie-Laure to have some independence, he constructed a miniature replica of their neighborhood so that she could memorize each twist and turn, eventually learning to navigate the real neighborhood. Their lives are happy enough until they are forced to flee Nazi-occupied Paris and move in with her great-uncle, who suffers from agoraphobia brought on my PTSD, to Saint-Malo in Normandy. Werner grew up in a German orphanage and is discovered by the Hitler Youth to be a genius at electronics. He is forced to track the Resistance movement. He is disgusted at his part in the war but is too weak to take a stand, which disgusts him even more. Eventually his story converges with Marie-Laure’s, and the results are unforgettable.
Me: Ahhhh. Now this was a beautifully, masterfully written book. I like a good sentimental plot-driven novel now and then, I’ll admit. But what I really love are beautifully written books with a poetic bent to them— books that make me ache with the sadness and the goodness in the world, with the wonder at how people survive terrible, true ordeals. This is a story of survival, of just how good people can be in the darkest of situations. This was a great month of reading, but this was by far the best of the reading list and will no doubt be a contender for my #1 spot this year.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.
The Story: Cadence Sinclair, age 18, begins the story: "Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family. No one is a criminal. No one is an addict. No one is a failure. The Sinclairs are athletic, tall, and handsome. We are old-money Democrats. Our smiles are wide, our chins square, and our tennis serves aggressive. It doesn’t matter if divorce shreds the muscles of our hearts so that they will hardly beat without a struggle. It doesn’t matter if trust-fund money is running out; if credit card bills go unpaid on the kitchen counter. It doesn’t matter if there’s a cluster of pill bottles on the bedside table. It doesn’t matter if one of us is desperately, desperately in love. So much in love that equally desperate measures must be taken. We are Sinclairs. No one is needy. No one is wrong. We live, at least in the summertime, on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. Perhaps that is all you need to know.” But, of course, there is a lot more to know beneath the surface—more than Cadence can possibly remember. Every summer of her whole life, Cadence and her cousins spend the summer on their family complex on Beechwood Island. They call themselves the Liars: Cadence, Mirren, Johnny, and Gat. They are the privileged children of a privileged family, rich and coddled and completing unraveling. Something happened the summer that Cadence was 15, but a traumatic brain injury prevents her from remembering. The novel moves in and out of her memory, flashing back from summer 18 to various summers, puzzling especially over summer 15. It’s a coming-of-age story of young love, family secrets, and carelessness.
Me: I whipped through this young adult novel in an afternoon or two. I seriously could not stop reading it. Lockhart is a beautiful writer: poetic and oh-so-lovely with powerful language and vivid images.  I had absolutely no idea what was coming and had to go back and read several chapters to see what clues I might have missed. I almost didn’t read this book because of the cheesy description: “beautiful, privileged, damaged. We are the Sinclairs.” But I am so glad I did. The writing was beautiful and the story riveting. Great for adults and older teens.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The story: Victoria is a lost soul. She’s just aged out of the foster care system, and, at 18, is ready to live on her own. She is tough, distrustful, and angry except when it comes to flowers. During one year of her young life, she lived with Renata, a woman who taught her the language of flowers: that yarrow, for example, is a cure for a broken heart; that winter cherry indicates deception; that a wisteria stands for welcome. In a lifetime of foster care, this year was the only one in which Victoria was truly loved and accepted, and so, because it’s the only thing Victoria knows how to do, she sabotages her future as Renata’s daughter and heads back into the foster care system. Upon her emancipation at 18, she slowly begins to trust herself and trust people as she discovers that knowing the language of flowers can change lives.  She meets Grant, a young man who also understands flowers, and together they begin healing and restoring their brokenness.
Me: This was a fascinating book. I loved the lesson on the language of flowers and the thought of what carefully chosen flowers can do for people and relationships. (Bonus: Victoria’s “Dictionary of Flowers” is included at the end of the book.) I thought this was a fantastic portrayal of the challenges of foster care, for the child with an attachment disorder, for the social worker, and for foster parents. Victoria sabotages her happiness over and over again because she considers herself so unworthy of love, not because she wants to hurt other people. Her story is handled with tenderness but without romanticizing her future and the lengthy healing process. And I loved the charter of Renata, the woman who loved Victoria as a daughter. Highly recommended—but warning: you’ll want to have flowers in your house all the time, and you’ll wonder what they are saying about you.

The story: The novel tells of two young people whose lives become intertwined. the sections switch between Coralie, the mermaid girl, and Eddie, the finder. Coralie’s father is the owner of The Museum of Extraordinary Things in Coney Island in the early 1900s. He is a collector of unusual things, like a dwarf albino alligator, and of unusual people: Siamese twins, a wolf-man, the Butterfly girl, the bird lady. Coralie is unusual too: she has webbed fingers, which she keeps hidden always beneath white gloves. On her tenth birthday, Coralie’s father presents her with her destiny: she is to be the museum’s “human mermaid.” For a while, she becomes the star of the museum, but then things change.
Eddie, born Ezekiel, is a young Jewish man who has renounced— or tried to renounce— his faith and his name. As a child, he and his father escaped their Ukrainian village during a pogrom and made it to Brooklyn, where they are employed as tailors in a factory. Eddie, full of anger at their circumstances, strikes out on his own in a business he things his father would be ashamed of: he works for a “fortune teller.” His job is to track down lost people, errant spouses, missing children. He is good at his job, and for years he mingles with the dregs of society, listening to “loathsome” tales and encountering all kinds of things that a young boy should never see. But in his late teens he encounters a photographer who changes the course of his life, and he quits finding lost people on seedy streets and instead begins finding beauty through photography.
Me: I loved this novel. There are some graphic parts in Coralie’s story that are truly horrifying and difficult to read. Her father is an unscrupulous monster who will do anything for money. But Coralie is a precious, lovely character with an innocent heart and a great capacity for love. Eddie is a rough character at times, but his heart ultimately matches Coralie’s. There are so many kind and compassionate characters in this novel that her father’s cruelty is ultimately defeated. I think I can say that without giving away too much of the book. This was a fascinating story. There were parts that were extremely disturbing, but the triumph of good over evil is clear and satisfying.

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry.
The story: On a ferry ride, a young woman named Troy sees a child in the water, presumably fallen from a passing ferry. Without thinking, she dives into the water and rescues the child. The little boy seems to be an orphan at first, but gradually the story comes out that he was kidnapped. Troy finds his rich father eventually, and she takes the little boy back to him. The mystery, then, becomes finding the kidnappers. Somehow, Troy takes this into her own hands to do. Ultimately, she does discover the mystery and nearly dies doing so. Yawn.
Me: Meh. I liked the narrator/main character, Troy. I liked the little boy and his Dad. But the whole story just fell kind of flat for me. I kept thinking that something really exciting and surprising was going to happen as I slogged through details of Troy cleaning and repairing her bike, teaching computer skills, and shopping. I was looking forward to that "Ah! I didn't see that coming" moment, as I wondered why this rich father and the police weren't able to locate his son during his 5 months of captivity. Instead, the story became laughable when all is revealed. I think I actually shook my head in astonishment, and I know I rolled my eyes. It was all so contrived and so neatly wrapped up in about 10 pages at the end. What?? I had to go back and skim a few chapters to see if I'd missed a bit of foreshadowing or something. Nope. Apparently this is the first in a series featuring Troy, and I will not be reading the series.