Sunday, August 17, 2014

Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty
Putnam      2014
480 pages     Fiction

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty was a major surprise to me. At first glance, it appears to be a romp through kindergarten with the kids and their parents, but oh, it is so much more. It is brilliant.

In the first chapter of Big Little Lies, we discover that that someone is going to die on "Trivia Night", a fundraiser  at the elementary school on the Pirriwee Peninsula near Sydney Australia. So, the reader is primed for the death, but we don't know who, how or why someone will die. That isn't revealed until the end of the book, and quite frankly, while the revelation of the dead person is not a shock, the person committing the so-called crime is a big shock.

Moriarty has small town life down pat, including small town gossiping and small town helicopter parents. And the reader thinks that this is what the book is going to be about. So, by the time the subject matter gets darker, the readers who settled in for a light read becomes more and more engrossed and more and more distraught. What calamity is going to happen to one of these characters that have become so finely developed?

We meet a group of kindergarten parents on orientation day. Jane is a young single parent of Ziggy, the product of a one night stand. Madeline has three children, including a kindergartener named Chloe. Unfortunately for Madeline, her ex-husband also has a kindergartener in the same class with her daughter.  While Madeline is the glue that holds this small group together, she is not without her problems. Her teenage daughter from her first marriage wants to live with her dad, and Madeline is saddened by this turn of events. And then there is Celeste, the rich and beautiful wife of a hedge fund manager, and the mother of twins, Max and Josh. For all her beauty, Celeste is a lost soul.

Almost immediately problems arise for Jane because Ziggy is accused of bullying the daughter of a school helicopter mother, and petitions circulate among the parents to suspend him from school. Various parents weigh in on the problems with Ziggy, and the viciousness and pettiness increases. We are continuously reminded that it is getting closer to the Trivia Night at school, and the tension rises both at school and in the homes of the three families. 

The entire plot unfolds in a chatty, offhand kind of way—just like any relationship novel. The seemingly minor incidents build in such a way that the reader becomes totally caught up in the events. There's lots of bitchiness and cattiness that bring an immense amount of pleasure to the reader. Even at the Trivia Night, when the death happens, the narrative is so delightful that the humor almost overrides the tragedy of the event. I don't want to tell more of the plot because I want you to be as involved and surprised as I was.

However, all is not light and breezy. Moriarty delves deeply into parenting styles, bullying, and more importantly, domestic abuse. Her portrayal of the sadistic husband is extremely chilling, and the way in which the victim-wife responds to the abuse is exactly on target. She catches the reader completely off guard, and the response is almost visceral. The Washington Post says that "Big Little Lies tolls a warning bell about the big little lies we tell in order to survive."

 Readers have been almost universal in their love of this book, and the review in the New York Times was glowing. Moriarty's earlier book The Husband's Secret was also a favorite with readers. I may need to try that next. Early on, I was reminded of Where'd You Go Bernadette which I read a year or so ago and loved, but I have to say that Big Little Lies is much deeper and denser. 

Liane Moriarty's website.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Cove

by Ron Rash
Ecco     2012
255 pages     Fiction

Ron Rash, poet, novelist, and professor, says that he doesn't begin his books with an outline or a plot. He begins with an image and then "I just see where the image will take me." In The Cove, the image has taken him to a very dark place in backwoods North Carolina, a cove so mysterious that the people in the neighboring village of Mars Hill are afraid to go near the place. 

With both of their parents dead, Laurel and her brother Hank are trying to piece together a farm on the land they own in the area of the cove. Hank has just returned from the war in Germany (World War I, that is) having lost his hand in battle. Hank is getting on with his life; he has plans to be married, although his fiancĂ© is superfluous to the plot and we don't get to know her.  Laurel has the disadvantage of a large birthmark which makes her a castoff in the village because people think that she may be a witch. She is stuck in the cove, lonely and disillusioned. She is so lonely that she "remembered how once she'd leaned close just to see her breath condense on the mirror's glass." One day while washing clothes in the stream, she hears a beautiful flute playing and discovers a drifter living in the woods. After he is stung by bees, Laurel brings him back to the house to heal. She discovers that he is a mute named Walter. Although he cannot communicate with more than just hand motions and head nods, it is apparent that there is more to Walter than meets the eye. Hank is struggling to do the farm work because of his lost hand, so they convince Walter to stay for a few days to help with the farm work. 

This is one part of the plot. The other part of the plot concerns the effect the war is having on the people of this small Carolina village, far from the action of the war. Like Hank, several of their sons have gone off to war; some haven't returned, and others are damaged by the war. The local recruiter is Sgt. Chauncey Feith, the deeply insecure son of the local banker, who prides himself on keeping the community attuned to the war and its young men enlisting. The community is deeply afraid of "the Huns" and their paranoia is fed by Feith. I was reminded of the short novel, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, which my book club read last year. Both deal with the effects of war on a small community. In The Moon is Down, the community is in Norway. 

The plot, of course, leads to tragedy, but not until Walter's true identity is revealed, and he and Laurel fall in love—Laurel with the idea that Walter will help her escape the torment of her life in the cove. The reviewer in the USA Today calls it a tragedy "with a self-conscious Shakespearean structure and economy." Rash says that he considers The Cove to be a "very dark fairy tale." To that point, as
Walter wanders in the North Carolina woods "The trees thickened and the woods became as forlorn as those in a sinister fairy tale, a place where the guards claimed lions and bears and wolves roamed. All manner of poisonous serpents and plants thrived here and no step was safe. Immense watery caverns lay just beneath seemingly firm ground. They could give way and a man fall a hundred feet and then into water so utterly dark that the trout living in it were sightless." It's no wonder the townsfolk thought the Cove was haunted.

Beyond the plot, the book is a deeply moving study of a time and place in American life that is gone. Much of the language Rash uses evokes that time and place. This was my first book by Ron Rash. Others include Serena and Nothing Gold Can Stay and The World Made Straight. I am grateful to my friend, Patricia, for introducing me to Rash. I will enjoy reading his other books. One reviewer reminded his readers about a similar author, Paul Harding, whose book Enon I read last year. I loved it as well.

This is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which ended in 1918. My grandma's brother, Harry, was a World War I veteran. He was always a curiosity to my siblings and me, because he hardly ever spoke, watched wrestling all day on television, and put sugar on his tomatoes. In retrospect, I think that he was psychologically damaged by the war and never was able to live a productive life in the years after the war. He moved in with my grandma in his later years, and died shortly after his 100th birthday. Uncle Harry was one of the mysterious people that populated our childhood.

The review in the USA Today.
An interview with Ron Rash in the Daily Beast.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age

by Jason Boog
Touchstone     2014
336 Pages     Nonfiction

Recently I observed a strange thing. Only one grandson did any recreational reading on his own. The others read when they were forced to read or when a parent read to them. How is this possible when their grandmother reads voraciously? Additionally, I noted my toddler grandson knew how to swipe my iPhone to get to the games. So, when I noticed that a librarian I greatly admire, Betsy Bird of the New York Public Library, had written the forward to the new book Born Reading by Jason Boog, I decided that I ought to look into Boog's ideas about how to create lifelong readers. 

The biggest strength of Born Reading is the way Boog takes 15 key concepts, which he calls The Born Reading Playbook, and expands them in each chapter to create parents who know how to interact with their children and children who love to read. He has done the research, talked with the leading experts in child development, and also has created lists of great books and educational apps that will best supplement a child's development. He teaches parents to read "interactively" with their children in a way that makes reading part of the daily life experience.

Two of the things that really attracted me to Born Reading were Boog's research regarding digital media and young children and his observations about interactive reading. As a children's librarian, I am very tuned in to the concept of interactive reading, but I have only observed the consequences of the digital age on my grandchildren, since media has changed dramatically since I retired ten years ago. I valued Boog's opinions on the use of digital media.

Besides all that, Boog has a remarkable website filled with great information for parents on reading with lists of suggested books, websites, and media choices. I have used it on the educational book blog I produce for the online school Free World U.  You can find

Several caveats: Boog is not a librarian, a children's literature expert, nor an educator. He is a writer and a father. The Publisher's Weekly reviewer calls Boog "A know it all rather than an educator or peer" but his material is valuable none the less. A perfect gift for young parents.

This slide presentation is a nice addition to Boog's information.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bones Never Lie

by Kathy Reichs
Bantam Books    2014
334 pages     Fiction

Bones Never Lie is the seventeenth book in the Bones series by Kathy Reichs. And this was my introduction to the series. It was an ok place to begin, although I would guess that the rest of the series is as good as number seventeen. Some Goodreads reviewers thought this was the best one of the series. I can't believe that I missed sixteen other mysteries! Where have I been?

 Dr. Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist working in two cities, Montreal and Charlotte North Carolina. She is the alter ego of the author who is, in reality, one of a very few forensic anthropologists in North America. Brennan is haunted once again by her arch nemesis from Montreal, a woman named Anique Pomperleau, who tortures and kills young girls, sometimes after having kidnapped them, holding them hostage for long periods of time. This time, it appears that a girl has been tortured and killed in North Carolina. Could Pomperleau have come this far south to taunt Brennan? Police in northern Vermont also have a cold case that is similar, but of course, Vermont is close to the Canadian border so police in both countries are involved. As Brennan and her erstwhile partner and sometime lover, Andrew Ryan investigate, several more cold cases arise that seem to be tied to Pomperleau. Surprisingly, Pomperleau is discovered dead, and the detectives know that someone else is out there killing little girls. 

It is easy to see how Kathy Reichs uses her experience to construct her plots. It would take a forensic anthropologist to come up with some of the details that makes Bones Never Lie an exciting book. One reader calls the twist upon which the plot pivots "sticky" and it is so unusual that it truly sticks in your brain. Wait until you read it! The case seems to be going nowhere until Brennan's mother, who is in an assisted living facility facing dementia and cancer, uncovers some of the missing details with rather amazing online sleuthing. This, in itself, is a clever detail that adds to the suspense and enjoyment for the reader.

I received Bones Never Lie  as an advanced reader's copy and I tried to put it aside to read books higher up on my list. For some reason, the book just kept calling to me from the shelf until I tackled it and finished it in a couple of sittings. It was great fun and because my teenage grandson was visiting this week, he loved hearing all the gory details.

A good review on an excellent mystery book blog.
Kathy Reichs website and blog.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Invisible Girls: A Memoir

by Sarah Thebarge
Jerico Books    2013
266 pages     Spiritual Memoir

In her memoir The Invisible Girls, Sarah Thebarge relates two intertwined stories in her life—her struggles with breast cancer and the family of little Somali girls that she has helped for several years Thebarge is also a woman of steadfast faith, which is evident in every aspect of the memoir which covers a span of about five years.

Thebarge has experienced a great deal of change in her life. Her family moved several times as she was growing up, and then she as a young adult moves many times as well--first as the daughter of a fundamentalist pastor, and then as she goes to university and graduate school, creates her career and deals with the extremely invasive cancer. This is probably one of the reasons why she identifies so strongly with five young Somali girls and their mother, who have been abandoned by their father and husband. They are lost in this new land, and in many ways, Thebarge is lost as well. The relationship between Thebarge and the Somali family is healing on both sides as they all struggle to adapt to tremendous change.

Each chapter is a short vignette—either of her cancer and her recovery or of the family that she is helping. She also tells of her failed relationship with her fiancĂ©, who is unable to deal with his girlfriend's cancer. Thebarge's writing moves between the various aspects of her life and relationships and also as she struggles with the fundamentalist, restrictive faith of her upbringing. She has many arguments with God over what she feels is God's abandonment of her.  She writes that as she was recovering from the cancer, she plotted the future of her life. She decided that there must be some greater purpose to her life. Thebarge says: "Between the cancer and the pneumonia, I should have died by now. But God had mercifully healed me. So for now, until He cashed out my chips, what I owed Him was not a death, but a well-lived life." She seems to have reached a compromise with God.  It is at this point in her life that she meets the Somali family.

She takes the title, the Invisible Girls, from the idea that women often are invisible in society. At one point she equates the modest dress of the fundamentalist woman to the modest dress of the Somali woman she is helping. This overt modesty helps create invisibility in women, but she also tells of an incident of preaching the gospel to a young prostitute on the street—another form of an invisible woman. Her goal is to help the Somali girls to grow up to be women who are "too confident to wait for a man to rescue them, and to valuable to stay with a man who abused them." I think that adding this "invisible girl" theme to the book is a bit disingenuous because it feels contrived—perhaps the idea came from an editor who thought that the book needed something more than what Thebarge was delivering.

 The Invisible Girls was created from the blog Thebarge has written as a way of sorting out her life. She intends to use the proceeds from the book to pay for the educations of the five little Somali girls so that they can move out of invisibility into productive American lives.The fund can be found on her blog here:

My hairdresser HIlary has been helping a young Nigerian woman/university student, Rejoice, and her little boy who came to Hilary's church seeking help. Rejoice is a student at Western Michigan University, and because of her unmarried motherhood status, she receives no support from her family. She is seeking asylum in the United States, and in the interim Hilary has taken it upon herself to offer the woman all the help she can. The stories are very similar, and I will take the book to Hilary when I go to see her. (More information about Rejoice and her needs can be found at the Go Fund Me site that Skyridge Church in Kalamazoo has set up.)

When I received The Invisible Girls from the publisher, I did not intend to read the entire book—just enough to get the gist of it so that I could write a short blurb on my blog. Despite its many flaws, it was a quick and inspiring read, and I finished the entire book in a couple of hours. It is one of those books that you read, sigh, and go "Ahh, nice!" and then move on with living. 

An interview with Sarah Thebarge.
Sarah Thebarge's website, blog, and donation site for the Invisible Girls.