“We Were Liars”

image     We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

As the first grandchild of Harris Sinclair, Cadence has a lot to gain. The Sinclairs are east-coast old money whose family came to the U. S. on the Mayflower. Harris owns a small island, Beechwood, where the family gathers each summer.

Two of the most important summers at Beechwood are when the Sinclair cousins–Cadence, Johnny and Mirren–are eight and when they are fifteen. At eight, they meet Gat, the nephew of the (Indian) boyfriend of one of Harris’s daughters. Gat immediately becomes one of the group, one of the Liars. But his presence creates some ethnic tension. Harris doesn’t like that one of his daughters (Carrie) has brought Indians into the perfectly tall and perfectly blonde family.

Gat returns each summer and is a great friend of Johnny’s. During the Liars’ fifteenth summer, Gat and Cadence fall in love. That much Cadence can remember, but little else. She was in an accident and hurt her head. She ends up with amnesia and horrifying migraine headaches for which she must take strong painkillers. Due to her accident, she is kept from returning to Beechwood for her sixteenth summer. During her seventeenth, she goes back and tries to recall all that happened.

With her memory loss, headaches and medicated state, Cadence is a very unreliable narrator. However, she sees her family as a sort of King Lear story–the bullying granddad with his three daughters who argue about money and inheritance. She also thinks a lot about various fairy tales and how the characters in those tales fare against magic and fate. All of her musings are interesting and pull the reader into her drama, as does her love for Gat and for her cousins. Yet because Cadence is such an unreliable narrator, the reader is in for a crazy ride and some serious shocks about what happened during “summer 15.”

High school housekeeping: If you aren’t used to reading a book with an unreliable narrator, We Were Liars is a great place to start. This novel is wildly popular with professional reviewers. For my own part, I ended with a sense of “No fair!” because it felt like the author had cheated a bit in laying out the story for me, the reader, unreliable narrator or not. But this really is a compelling story. I recommend it to all teens and particularly lovers of mysteries and family dysfunction.

Posted in Fable/Fairy Tale/Fantasy, Family Problems, Fiction, Horror/Mystery/Suspense, Romance, Young Adult Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adult Books: Memoir: “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened”

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson  image

Jenny Lawson grew up in Wall, Texas, a small rural town that it was her goal to escape. Just as in many such tales, we find that in adulthood, the author looks back on the extreme weirdness of her childhood with fondness. And that, yes, she does want to go home again.

The big difference with Lawson is that her recollections are wildly funny rather than nostalgic. I always have students looking for humorous books. If you can handle some profanity (and some common but appropriate terms for body parts–more on that in a later paragraph), this may be your book. And it doesn’t just pander to a need for low humor. It does a great job of showing how some of the most upsetting or mortifying events from childhood can be some of the most useful in simply sensing that you’ve had a life, that you’ve had some fun, that you are not just interchangeable with your friends and neighbors or with kids who grew up in another place.

Most of the wacky events of Lawson’s childhood stem from the facts that her family is fairly poor and that her dad runs a taxidermy shop next to the house. He is always collecting road kill and using both dead and live animals to play jokes on the kids. The family has a pet raccoon until it nearly takes Jenny’s sister’s face off. One of the tribe of turkeys that their dad keeps lands Jenny in a hilarious scene when it follow her to high school and poops everywhere. When they are older, Dad plays jokes on Jenny’s fiance. The first time they meet, Jenny’s dad throws a baby bobcat on Victor to see how he’ll react. He puts baby ducklings in the house to amuse his grandchildren.

It’s small wonder that Lawson ends up with an anxiety disorder, but even that is fodder for wisecracking. And Lawson is just so funny.

After Lawson marries Victor, there is more craziness in their household–they have a surprising number of arguments about how the zombie apocalypse will come off–and in their jobs. Lawson works in a human resources department and has side-splitting stories about the strange things that people do when they apply for jobs–and the entirely inappropriate things they do once they have jobs.

There are a few things that are treated seriously–Lawson has three miscarriages before delivering her daughter, and, well, that’s just not funny. She also has rheumatoid arthritis, which can be both painful and debilitating. But overall, for those of us with little knowledge of rural lives, guns, and wild animals, this memoir is a hoot.

High school housekeeping: Caveat–Lawson uses the f-word a lot. There are also sections at the end of the book–an epilogue, an ending, and then yet more stuff–that aren’t very funny. I’m not sure why they are there, except for the opportunity to use the word ‘vagina’ as much as possible. And while there’s nothing wrong with the word vagina, I think that Lawson is only hoping to get a laugh out of the reader. Which fails. She would have done much better to quit at the end and not add the extras.

Oh–I think it goes without saying that Lawson is exaggerating about most of what happened in her life so that she can get a laugh. But just in case–now you know.


Posted in Biography/Memoir, Family Problems, Mature Readers, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mystery/Humor: “Croak”

Croak by Gina Damico  croak

For no reason she can figure out, sixteen-year-old Lex Bartleby is one crazy angry girl. Previously normal and a good student, the high school junior can barely get through a day of school without punching someone out. The only reason that she isn’t kicked out of school a week before summer is that her very loving parents devise a plan to turn her around. She has to spend the summer in the country (Adirondacks) with her Uncle Mort, whom she hasn’t seen she she was six. Lex is sick about the idea of being taken away from her twin sister and forced into  the boredom of the tiny town of Croak.

But Croak isn’t the hell hole Lex thought it would be. Or–rather hell holes are not really so hellish when she gets the insiders’ version. With the help of Uncle Mort, Lex discovers she is perfectly suited to reaping the souls of the dead and helping them move on to the afterlife. And the afterlife can be quite entertaining, not at all what people usually envision.

The downside to Lex’s new job is its very long hours; the upside is her partner Driggs, who is clever, insightful, and hot. The push-pull of their relationship is very funny and brings a good deal of humor to the novel, which is more of a mystery than it is a horror book.

Finding new friends, Lex may come to enjoy her reaping. But when there is no explanation for deaths of some of the people she and Driggs are sent to collect, things get scary fast, and no one is safe–including the reapers themselves.
High school housekeeping: For a quick, engaging teen read, Croak is perfect. It has all the best elements of a novel. You may have to finish in one sitting. Mystery and romance are combined with perfect pacing, witty dialogue, and deeper questions about right, wrong and vigilante justice. A great summer read for all teens–don’t miss this one!

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Adult Books for Teens: Common Core: Nonfiction: “In the Garden of Beasts”

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson   garden of beasts

William E. Dodd wasn’t President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first choice for United States Ambassador to Germany in the early 1930s, just as Adolf Hitler rose to power–nor even the president’s second or third choice. And Dodd himself had good reason to refuse the post (as others had done). He was a history professor at the University of Chicago, who was working on a multi-volume history of the Old South. It was the great goal of his life to finish that work. He was already in his early 60’s, which was fairly old in the 1930’s when people didn’t live as long as many do now. But Dodd and his wife had ambitions for him, and there was prestige in the post. So the couple took both of their adult children and set off for Germany.

In 1933, Hitler, then Germany’s chancellor, was consolidating his power. The president of the German Weimar Republic was still alive, but he was ill. Hitler was in the process of surrounding himself with men who would bend themselves to his will; he was blaming the Jews for the defeat of Germany in WW I and for Germany’s economic woes. Already, there were sanctions and violence against German Jews. Dachau was the model for other concentration camps. Euthanasia of ‘idiots’ and people that the German government considered imperfect was gearing up. Even Americans who visited Germany, unaware of the brutal culture that had become the norm, were frequently hauled off and beaten in prisons for not giving the Hitler salute when a procession of storm troopers passed.

Imagine walking into this charged political atmosphere as a new Ambassador to Germany from the United States. Dodd and his family didn’t grasp what was happening. Dodd had studied in Germany in his youth and had a deep affection for the German people. For him–and for everyone around him–Hitler and the men surrounding him (Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler) seemed like a group of buffoons. They were thought of as overgrown adolescents whose power couldn’t be maintained. They were just too ridiculous, too power hungry, too ruinous for Germany. Everyone was waiting for them to be tossed from power within a year or so.

In The Garden of Beasts looks at the rise of Hitler, mainly through the viewpoints of Dodd and his daughter, Martha. Martha appeared to think of herself as more daring and unconventional than the reader sees her. While it is true that her sexual mores were unconventional for the 1930s–she had many affairs, including with Nazi officials–Martha fell prey to surface appearances. At first the Nazis and SS men seemed decent to her because they were charming. She was also quite taken in by Soviet-style communism and fell in love with a Russian diplomat. She was disabused of her Soviet fantasy when she visited the USSR. Eventually, there was no denying the outrageous brutality of the Nazis. Martha came to understand how frightening they were.

William Dodd, although he wanted to give the Nazis a chance, came to a quicker understanding of their true nature than his daughter did. He was living in a country where the word “fanatic’ had become a positive way of describing someone. Neighbors were reporting neighbors to the German police; everyone lived in a constant state of fear. Dodd tried to sound a warning to government officials and anyone who would listen that the Nazis were bent on destroying Europe and its culture. That  they were preparing for war. That the United States would probably have to get involved.

No one listened.

The purge of June 30, 1934, ostensibly for treason, appeared to prove the hopelessness in belief that Hitler’s power was a passing fad. This was the date that Hitler appeared to become all powerful. The murder of any official–of any person who might possibly have been critical of Hitler–was a weird thing to happen in a European country in the twentieth century. Yet ordinary people, tired of storm troopers terrorizing them, at first thought the executions are a great thing that would bring some relief.

Afterward, so much savagery took place in Germany that June 30, 1934 may seem to us just the beginning of a dictatorship. But the takeover of the German government wasn’t beyond stopping at this point. However, in August, President of the Weimar Republic, Paul von Hindenburg died. Hitler’s power became absolute.

High school housekeeping: This is an interesting read by the author of The Devil in the White City, which I have also recommended to my students. The use of diaries written by the ambassador and his daughter provide interesting primary source documentation of the events and personalities of the Third Reich. Larson also uses other sources for research, so there’s much to be learned from your reading. What will be most striking to you is how almost no one understood what was taking place in Germany and how it would affect the world.

Posted in Historical Fiction/Historical Element, Human Rights Issues, Non-fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Romance” “Game of Love”

GOL Cover  Game of Love by Ara Grigorian

Though a citizen of Great Britain, Gemma Lennon is a Spanish beauty with azure eyes. While her celebrity has made her wealthy, it is her talent as a tennis player that she dreams of fulfilling. Through injury, often related to bad judgment in romantic relationships, Gemma’s great goal–winning a Grand Slam tournament–has eluded her.

At a particularly low point, after an accident and a lopsided loss at the Australian Open, Gemma meets Andre. Coincidentally, the two land in the same place a few times and end up on a flight together. Gemma doesn’t know exactly what Andre does for a living, but he is clearly brilliant and very good looking as well.

For his own part, Andre has as many reasons to stay away from a new romance as Gemma does. His have more to do with his high-tech job, his responsibilities to anti-terrorist work and his contract as a consultant to M&T, which will yield him a huge bonus if he can stick with the work for another six months.

Yet the pair is immediately attracted to one another, and they are quickly falling in love.

This isn’t a romance about a third party who appears to be a valid romantic rival. In this love triangle, it’s work and its rewards that is the illusory infatuation. This is fun for the reader.The fan of romance may enjoy reading about the lifestyles of Andre and Gemma–wealth and celebrity and all of the nastiness of the paparazzi and the journals and magazines that earn their living by lying about the famous. Yet, on a more personal level, readers will be able to relate to the predicament of balancing work and love, of the attempt to be happy through meaningful work without allowing it to ruin meaningful relationships. Gemma and Andre’s battle is on a grander scale, but ultimately, it’s one that we all have to fight. So, of course, we’re rooting for the good guys.

High school housekeeping: Game of Love is a good choice for teen romance fans. It is refreshing to step away from the usual love triangle. In YA romance novels especially, the ‘wrong partner’ always seems too obvious and, while the author insists that the female protagonist is smart, she is often so stupid about recognizing which man or boy is doing what to harm her that I just tire of her and the whole business. (Strangely, authors of future dystopias do a better job of creating love triangles than authors of YA romances.)

The romance between Gemma and Andre is very sweet and much of the physical aspect of the relationship is left to the imagination. I think this is a good choice for an author to make, and not because I am prudish about teens’ reading. I recently read in a nonfiction book about how to write that sex scenes are very difficult to create because once the writer starts, he stops dealing with his individual characters–they lose their personalities–and enters the mechanics of the physical relationship, which can leave the reader with an ‘oh brother,’ sense of the scene.

One last thing–I’ve had students who have asked me for a book of fiction that has some tennis action in it. I’ve never been able to think of something to recommend. Well, here’s one! Happy reading, romance and tennis fans.

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Adult Books for Teens: “The Harder They Come”

The Harder They Come by T. C. Boyle   harder they come

A cruise to Central America and a stop in Costa Rica sound like a vacation dream for a middle class retired couple. After all, Costa Rica is supposed to be a pretty safe place and all of the side trips have been recommended by the cruise liner and its obsequious crew members. What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. While Sten and his wife are on an eco-tour, hoping to find rare birds and other Costa Rican wildlife, Sten, a Vietnam-era ex-Marine (now 70 years old) has been getting more and more outraged at the bus driver and the second-class tour accommodations as the group nears its destination. On arrival, their tour group is attacked by three armed men who demand all of their valuables. At this point, Sten is feeling fully victimized and not going to take it. He remembers his Marine training—it becomes automatic—and he fights back.

When Sten is finally back home, we realize that he has many other big issues to contend with. His son, Adam, is schizophrenic and furious that he is being removed from his grandmother’s cabin in the woods, now that the grandmother has died. Self-medicating on various drugs including opium—which can be grown in the forests outside Mendocino—Adam is delusional and thinks of himself as the reincarnation of John Coulter, consummate frontiersman. Part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Coulter later outran Blackfoot Indians for 300 miles to survive a death sentence.

Sten, a former high school principal, volunteers in a citizens’ group that patrols the forests around Mendocino for evidence of Mexican drug cartels, which grow marijuana in those secluded woods. In doing so, they wreck havoc on the environment, using insecticides that poison the animals and pollute the streams. They are laying waste to the flora and fauna of this beautiful redwoods area–the same area inhabited by Adam. They are armed and dangerous.

Enter Sara, a member of the ‘sovereign citizen movement.’ She insists that she is not under the rule of the ‘Republic of California’–not its police, highway patrol or any of its laws, including the one that demands a driver wear a seatbelt. When she is pulled over and refuses to comply with law officers, her much beloved dog is taken to a shelter. This is only the beginning of her problems. About 40 years old, when she meets the 25-year-old Adam, the two outlaws who want to stick it to the man are a dangerous couple. Fueled by sexual desire and paranoid worldviews, they are a lethal combination.

High school housekeeping: This is a wild story, high-octane fuel that will appeal to teens. Its author, T. C. Boyle is also one of today’s great writers. Here, his description and pacing is extraordinary. So much more the reason for grabbing a copy of The Harder They Come. I think some high school students will snigger at the title, but it’s the perfect fit for the story, which begins in Costa Rica with Sten very irritated because reggae music is always playing. A famous line from a reggae song is “And then the harder they come/The harder they fall, one and all.” And boy, is that true in this book.

Posted in Adventure Stories, Controversial Issue/Debate, Environmental Issues, Family Problems, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Mature Readers, Over 375 pages | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not a Drop to Drink”

Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis  not a drop

“Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond.”

Those are the first words of Not a Drop to Drink, and they start you on a reading session you won’t want to stop until the last page.

Lynn’s mother is a better shot than Lynn is, and, from the roof, can pick off intruders who hope to take over the farmhouse, and more importantly, its pond. Lynn must learn what her mother knows, has been learning it from childhood, and is desiring to do some of the difficult work of survival by herself. Intruders aren’t the only problem for the pair. There is the undependable weather, the lack of medicines, the roving coyotes that are far too brazen, fearless about attacking human beings.

It’s the lack of available water in the world that makes Lynn and her mother’s pond so precious. Because it’s their lifeline, they can’t share. And because they are always on guard against intruders, they are pretty much alone is the world, except for one neighbor, Stebbs, whom Mother just refers to as “asshole.” He has a secret source of water, and a friendlier attitude than Lynn’s mom, but she loathes him for reasons Lynn can’t understand.

Still there are moments of happiness in this life, particularly when winter sets in with blizzards. Then it is impossible for intruders to find the farm. Lynn and her mother can rest, can read the great classic poems and warm themselves by the fire.

It is in such a winter that Lynn has seen danger to the South, a group of men forming, who have tried to take over the pond and will certainly try again. But just as she relaxes her guard, noting that there has been no smoke from their encampment in weeks, she believes that another danger is out by the river. And yet what she finds there finally breaks her heart open to empathy, to a sense of fellowship that her mother never taught her, and of which she probably wouldn’t approve. Will it save or destroy Lynn?

High school housekeeping: Not a Drop to Drink is a wonderful YA dystopia about a future in the rural U.S. (Lynn is in Ohio). It’s based on the very real possibility that we will run short on potable water and that people will fight to the death for it. I’m in California and found this timely as the governor has just required citizens to cut their water use by 25%.

McGinnis’s writing is great. Her characters come alive and as Lynn is forced by circumstances to deal with people other than her mom, she gains in insight and empathy. There’s the requisite romance, but it has depth and concerns that you you don’t often find in teen love stories.  On the whole, everything about this novel is plain good stuff. There was only one thing thing that bothered me, and it was so minor that I’m not sure why it kept running through my head. Lynn quotes a famous poem as having the line “not a drop to drink.” The famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has a line “nor any drop to drink.” I kept wanting that to be fixed. But other than that tiny issue, I was in love with the book and look forward to more from the author. All teens should enjoy this one.

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