The Grown Ups — Book Review

IThe Grown Ups have lived a great deal among grown-ups. I have seen them intimately, close at hand. And that hasn’t much improved my opinion of them.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

They had entered the thorny wilderness, and the golden gates of their childhood had for ever closed behind them.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

What does it mean to be a “grown-up”?  That’s one of the questions that Robin Antalek asks in her engaging coming-of-age novel, The Grown Ups. The book opens in the summer of 1997, with Suzie Epstein, Sam Turner, and their friends celebrating Suzie’s fifteenth birthday at a loosely supervised party in Rye, New York. That night, Suzie and Sam embark on a clandestine romance that will last all summer.

Right away, we know something is not right in the neighborhood: “It was the summer all the children in the neighborhood caught a virus.” Soon it becomes apparent that the grown-ups have more serious problems than the stomach flu: “The second time Mr. Epstein caused a scene in the driveway of the Epstein family home, the neighborhood was still under siege by the virus and was unusually quiet for the middle of a summer day.” Read more


10 Favorite Books About Sisters

9780061958274For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on  the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.
Christina Rossetti

Today is my sister’s birthday, and I feel very lucky to have had her love and companionship for 50 years. We grew up loving books together — one of my earliest memories is the two of us playing library, which involved me (the librarian) scolding her for making noise in the library and making her give me money from her piggybank for overdue fines. She eventually broke free of my tyranny and became a professor of Spanish literature — and the mother of four daughters, who are fortunate to have each other as lifelong friends “in calm or stormy weather.”

Some of my favorite childhood books were about sisters. I have to admit that Little Women, the most famous children’s book about sisters, left me cold when I first read it.   But I adored the Little House on the Prairie books, as well as Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series. Children’s books about sisters always feature one spunky sister — Jo, of course, in Little Women; Laura in the Little House books; and Henny in All-of-a-Kind Family. And who could forget Ramona, mischievous little sister to the comparatively well-behaved Beezus?

In honor of sisters everywhere, here are 10 books I loved that explore sisterly bonds: Read more

Jazz Age January: West of Sunset & And So We Read On

24de28664bdf1f004be5425016536035“His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

As I read West of Sunset,  Stewart O’Nan’s lovely, sad fictionalized account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years, I found myself wondering what Maureen Corrigan would think.

Maureen Corrigan has been NPR’s book critic for 25 years. She also reviews regularly for many national publications and is the Critic in Residence at Georgetown University. Last fall, she shared her longtime passion for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece in So We Read on: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures. Often underappreciated and misread because of its brevity and apparent simplicity, the novel is, she says, our “Greatest American Novel”:

Gatsby‘s magic emanates not only from its powerhouse poetic style — in which ordinary American language becomes unearthly — but from the authority with which it nails who we want to be as Americans.

Corrigan, like so many of us, first encountered The Great Gatsby as a teenager. “I thought The Great Gatsby was a boring novel about rich people,” she says in her book’s introduction.”The bad news is that we read it in high school or even (shudder) junior high, when we’re much too young . . .”  Then she spends almost 300 pages explaining why she thinks The Great Gatsby is truly The Great American Novel, worth reading again and again.

“Are you tired of it yet?” my husband and close friends would ask me every so often during the time I was writing this book and, of course, rereading The Great Gatsby. I can honestly answer “No.” I don’t know how he did it, but Fitzgerald wrote a novel that shows me new things every time I read it. That, for me, is the working definition of a great book: one that’s inexhaustible.

The Great Gatsby, originally published in 1925, initially sold poorly and received mixed reviews. By the mid-thirties, not only was the country in a depression — so was Fitzgerald’s career. He suffered from a host of physical illnesses that were complicated by alcoholism; his wife, Zelda, was incarcerated in a mental hospital; and he was deeply in debt. No one at that time would have predicted that Fitzgerald’s short novel would one day be the most widely read books in the world, eventually selling more than 25 million copies.

West of Sunset opens as Fitzgerald, badly in need of money to pay for Zelda’s medical care and his daughter Scottie’s private school tuition, heads west to Hollywood to take a screenwriting job at a movie studio: Read more

Why I Hate Reading Challenges — And Why I’m Participating in One

IMG_1244I keep hearing about reading “challenges”.  Readers challenge themselves to read a certain number of books or pages in a year, or they try to read certain types of books that are outside their comfort zones. These challenges don’t appeal to me at all. I know a lot of avid readers find them fun and rewarding, but the message I get from the challenges is that reading is a chore and people need all the encouragement they can get. This message seems to start in grade school, when children are forced to read for a prescribed length of time and to read books that are of no interest to them. Read more

Island Fog — Book Review and Author Interview

Island FogThe future draped before him like an island fog: dank, listless, and inscrutable. Possibly even dangerous. Only his next step was visible, nothing beyond.
“Island Fog”

The air feels more wet and more cold than even five minutes ago, a thicker texture of gray. You are in the high tide of afternoon fog.
“How Long Will You Tarry?”

Strange things happen in John Vanderslice’s Island Fog, sometimes under the mysterious cover of fog and sometimes out in the open. The eleven linked stories in Island Fog all take place on Nantucket, a small island (49 square miles) 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The haunting, often surreal stories are tied together by the island’s unique history and geography. The collection begins with a story set in 1795, “Guilty Look”, and ends with “Island Fog”, a story that takes place in 2005. In both stories, the protagonist is nightmarishly trapped in a situation that doesn’t seem to offer any hope of escape. A respected wigmaker and bank board member is determined guilty of theft on the basis of a “guilty look”, despite the fact he has located one of the actual criminals, and a college student becomes ensnared in an unbreakable “employment contract” with a diabolical employer. The sinister undertones in these stories, and in several others, reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s dark and ominous short fiction, set in seemingly peaceful New England towns. Read more

10 Books to Read This Winter

A few months ago, I shared a list of 10 books to read in the fall. I’ve read most of them — and Jane Smiley and Colm Tóibín, I apologize! I’ll get to Some Luck and Nora Webster very soon, I promise. I know they’re both going to be wonderful. (I really need to read Some Luck because the second book in Smiley’s trilogy, Early Warning, is coming out in April. )

Even though I still have many, many books from 2014 (and before) in my to-read stack, the publishing industry is not going to wait for me, or anyone, to catch up. So here’s a list of 10 exciting new books with winter 2015 publication dates. Is it a coincidence that three of them have “girl” in the title? Did the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl convince publishers and authors that “girl” is the magic word? I’ve already found several intriguing “girl” books coming out this spring — Hyacinth Girls, Girl Underwater, Girl at War . . .

962ab117cc4ac2dd9054af8b597fde98First of all, happy publication day to Christopher Scotton, whose debut novel, The Secret Wisdom of the Earth, is undoubtedly going to be one of my favorite books of 2015. It’s a  coming-of-age story set in Appalachia 30 years ago. Following a family tragedy, 14-year-old Kevin is sent to spend the summer with his veterinarian grandfather (“Pops”) in Medgar, Kentucky. Pops, whose life has brought him wisdom and an unwavering moral compass, will remind readers of Atticus Finch. Medgar is a depressed coal town facing a massive mountaintop removal operation that is blowing up the hills, backfilling the hollows — and deeply dividing the townspeople. The violent events of that summer will begin Kevin’s transformation from a wounded boy into an adult.9781594633669M

If you’re in the mood for a very smart, well-plotted psychological thriller, I recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (due next Tuesday, January 13). I read the entire book on one cold, rainy Sunday, thanks to a suggestion from my friend Sue at the Cottage Book Shop. The New York Times says: “The Girl on the Train has more fun with unreliable narration than any chiller since Gone Girl, the book still entrenched on best-seller lists two and a half years after publication because nothing better has come along. The Girl on the Train has Gone Girl-type fun with unreliable spouses, too.” I’m not sure I’d agree that “nothing better has come along” — what about The Headmaster’s Wife?

Tim Johnston has written a YA novel and a collection of short stories, but Descent (published today) is his first novel for adults. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s been receiving great reviews. Here’s what NPR has to say, including the inevitable Gone Girl comparison:

The premise of Descent may sound pretty straightforward: One summer morning while vacationing with her family in the foothills of the Rockies, a young girl, a high-school athlete in her senior year, goes out for a run in the higher altitudes — and disappears.

And Moby-Dick‘s about the whaling industry.

A good genre writer might have turned this into a conventional suspense novel, making us worry about the missing girl with every page that goes by — but Tim Johnston has written a book that makes Gone Girl seem gimmicky and forced. I worried about the missing girl with every page, yes. But I also suffered every torment felt by her family, father, mother, brother, and those linked to the family. So this is a thriller plus!

I’m currently reading and enjoying West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan (due January 13) about the last few years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, when he tried to rejuvenate his career by working as a Hollywood screenwriter. I think O’Nan, author of 15 novels, is a brilliant and unappreciated writer. He writes beautifully about everything from the quiet days of an elderly widow (Emily, Alone) to a diphtheria outbreak in mid-19th century Wisconsin (A Prayer for the Dying) to a bankrupt couple trying to save their marriage (The Odds).

1402298684.01.LZZZZZZZThe Magician’s Lie (due January 13), by Greer Macallister, has been described as a cross between Water for Elephants and The Night Circus — sounds intriguing! Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, calling it “top-notch”:

This well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel from Macallister, a poet and short story writer, chronicles the career of America’s preeminent female stage illusionist at the turn of the 20th century, who, as the Amazing Arden, created the lurid, controversial stage act known as the Halved Man. When Arden’s husband is found murdered following her performance in Waterloo, Iowa, she falls under suspicion, particularly after she goes on the lam.

As I’ve mentioned before, I can never resist a boarding school novel. Some are excellent (Old School) and some are not (The Starboard Sea), but I read them all. The Half Brother, by Holly LeCraw, (due February 17) has an unusual perspective: it’s about a young teacher coming of age, not a student. The plot twists are truly amazing. The website The Millions just published its “Great Book Preview” for 2015, listing The Half Brother as one of its most anticipated releases:

The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory.

My friend and coworker Kathy, who has impeccable taste in books, recommends Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby, (due February 3). Funny Girl, about a young TV starlet in 1960s London, is “both a heartfelt defence and a wholly convincing example of what popular entertainment can achieve”, according to the London Telegraph. I love Nick Hornby for the comments 9781594205415Hhe made recently when speaking about his new novel at the Cheltenham Literary Festival:

My real campaign is to get everybody – adult, kids, everybody – to read something that they’re loving. And if they’re not loving it, stop reading it . . . Every time we pick up a book for a sense of duty and we find that we’re struggling to get through it, we’re reinforcing the notion that reading is something you should do but telly is something you want to do. It shouldn’t be like that. Novels should be like TV. It shouldn’t be hard work and we should do ourselves a favour. It doesn’t mean you have to read easy books, because you can have very complicated connections to very difficult books, but as long as you’re racing through it, that’s the thing.

Girl Runner, by Carrie Snyder, (due February 3) was recommended to me by another trusted source (also named Cathy), our HarperCollins sales rep. Inspired by the 1928 Canadian Olympic women’s track team, Girl Runner is the story of female athletes in the 1920s, an era when women’s sports became popular. According to the Canadian publication Quill and Quire:

Girl Runner is a plot-driven narrative of one of those forgotten women, fictional 104-year-old Aganetha “Aggie” Smart. Now wheelchair-bound, alone and abandoned in a nursing home, Aggie asks, “Who will write my obituary?” now that everyone who knew her is gone. The ambitious and uncompromising Aggie reflects on her rich and storied life: her childhood in rural Ontario, her work at the Rosebud Confectionery factory, the friendships she forged, her brief fame as a 1920s Olympic track star and Canadian darling, and her failures and triumphs along the way.

9781250043962Doesn’t everyone sometimes dream of running off to an idyllic tropical island? (Especially if you live in Chicago and the temperature is hovering near zero . . .) The Last Good Paradise, by Tatjana Soli (due February 10) Is about a group of people who have done just that. Soli has one of the best author websites I’ve ever seen, and she introduces her latest novel with a beautiful letter:

Dear Reader:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” 
Mark Twain

A successful attorney at a big Los Angeles law firm is about to open a restaurant with her chef husband. Suddenly they take off, and you find they have gone to the South Pacific with one-way tickets. How does that happen? I find it fascinating when someone starts one life to start another entirely different one, one of the most famous examples being Gauguin . . .

I know March seems far away, but I have to mention Erik Larson’s upcoming book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (due March 10). I’ve loved every one of Larson’s books (In the Garden of Beasts is his most recent, published four years ago) and I have high hopes for Dead Wake. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews has to say:

Larson once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 . . . An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. Compared to Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania (2014), also publishing to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Larson’s is the superior account.

What’s on your winter reading list?