Category Archives: good storytelling

The Reunion

The Reunion
by Amy Silver
Published by Random House U.K. / Cornerstone
Genre: literature
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
5 / 5

There is nothing about this book that I did not love.

Well, that’s not entirely true. A couple of the characters do things that I don’t like all that much, but I understand why they act as they do. Yes, I wish they didn’t, although the “why” behind their actions makes sense.

I loved this book. Loved, loved, loved.

The premise is not unfamiliar: one character gathers a group of friends to say farewell. In this case, the gatherer is Jen, who is selling what she and her friends call the French house. It was the scene of some of their happier moments together, yet returning there is bittersweet. Jen’s boyfriend and fellow member of the tribe of friends, Conor, is dead, and we quickly discover that the events surrounding his death remain somewhat mysterious. All of the friends were there when it happened, and one of them is directly responsible.

Returning to the French house are Lilah, the broken member of the group who also brings her boyfriend Zac; Andrew and Natalie, a couple whose marriage appears to be splintering, and Dan, Conor’s best friend. As the story unfolds, we learn that there are different connecting relationships between these people; some are still in love with others, while some no longer love others. We see the events through each of their perspectives, as each reveals not only how they feel about the others but also their roles in Conor’s death. At various times, we may favor one character over another, our sympathies sliding from one to the next. That we never fully side with one is a sign of how well this book is written.

The mystery surrounding Conor’s death is answered in its own time, much like Jen and her friends’ grief must unfold and heal in its. Each must come to terms with Conor’s death and how it has affected their lives. In some cases, those effects may not even be realized until the French house weaves its magic. These are flawed people, and those flaws are what make us care about them. When Jen spots blood on the stone steps before her friends arrive, it is symbolic of what will happen between them all while they are there, both in terms of pain and kinship.

This book will cast a spell on you, and you will not be able to put it down. It is absolutely lovely.

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This is W.A.R.

This is W.A.R.
by Lisa Roecker and Laura Roecker
Published by Soho Press
289 pages
Genre: young adult
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview
4 / 5

When Willa Ames-Rowan (the W.A.R. in question) dies in Hawthorne Lake and James Gregory survives, albeit soaked, Willa’s friends and fellow townspeople arrive at one conclusion: James killed her.

Four of Willa’s friends band together to declare war on the Gregory family and determine to seek justice for Willa. It isn’t so much that James and his twin brother Trip act entitled, it’s that they are entitled, and the town allows it. Their grandfather, Captain, controls everything, but the girls are undeterred. James and his family will pay, and that’s all there is to it.

Except, of course, nothing is all that simple.

Each of the girls harbors her own reason for being a part of the war tribunal, and each feels she bears some of the guilt for Willa’s death. As we learn their stories, we also learn what they were up to the night Willa died. The one head we don’t get into is James’s, but it isn’t really necessary. We learn about him through others and through what we see and hear him do.

While there is a mystery surrounding Willa’s death, the particulars of it soon are apparent. That’s not why we enjoy this book, though. We like it because it’s well written, the characters are interesting, and we want to know if justice actually happens.

More than simply a YA story, this is also a look at class consciousness. Most of the action takes place at the Club, where you’re either in or you want to be. The help factors so little in the lives of the members that they don’t bother to edit themselves when maids or bus boys are nearby. Some of the little people exact their own brand of revenge. (One of the workers is underwritten, which is unfortunate; her perspective would have been interesting.) Even the haves can’t have enough, which renders quite a few of them rabidly jealous of the Gregorys.

This is also the story of a friendship between four very different teenage girls. There is distrust between them, but at the same time, they are on each other’s sides. I liked that aspect quite a bit and appreciated that the writers didn’t go for cookie cutter characters.

An enjoyable, fast-paced read.

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Nowhere but Home

Nowhere but Home
by Liza Palmer
Published by William Morrow
384 pages
Genre: chick lit
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4 / 5

When your mother names you after Queen Elizabeth, you might find it challenging to live up to the name. At the very least, you might find it challenging to avoid ridicule.

For Queenie Wake, the name itself is not as big of a burden as her family history. Her mother, a fairly flamboyant diner owner, met with a grisly end, and Queenie’s sister, Merrie Carol, has remained in the girls’ hometown, where she raises her teenage son without benefit of the boy’s father.

If this sounds tangled and vaguely gothic, then so be it. But I will let you know straight away that this is an enjoyable, entertaining book that will wrap itself around your heart and squeeze.

Queenie is a sous chef in a New York hotel restaurant, where she harangues customers for their gauche taste in cuisine. (Never dare to put ketchup on eggs that Queenie prepares for you.) When she loses her job and realizes that another one is not in the offing, she reluctantly returns home to North Star, Texas, population quirky.

Her arrival is not quite greeted with joy; Merrie Carol, for one, is a bit hurt that Queenie has been vacant from her and son Cal’s lives. Queenie offers a tepid apology, perhaps offset by her confusion at Merrie Carol’s refusal to leave town. Thanks to a teenage pregnancy, Merrie Carol has been branded as the town harlot. (The identify of Cal’s father is not unknown, but nonetheless kept a secret from the boy.)

Then there is Everett Coburn, the man who got away. He’s the son of a wealthy local family, and the high school romance he shared with Queenie was conducted entirely in secret. Queenie accepted it at the time – anything to be with Everett. But age and wisdom have caused her to be a little resentful. Alas, her irritation is not tempered by any noticeable lapse in attraction. When she sees Everett for the first time, all those old feelings resurface.

Queenie gets a job preparing last meals for death row inmates, a sort of symbolic gesture of her own need to find closure for her mother’s death. Queenie’s life has been a long series of “last meals,” each ushering out one stage of her life as she begins a new one.

This is one of those books that pulls you in its vise-like grasp before you realize that you can’t put it down. What could have been stock characters are instead fully realized and developed. You know these people, and you truly care about them. You want Queenie to find peace, and you want Merrie Carol to be accepted by her fellow townspeople. You want to understand Everett, and you want to hug Cal and ruffle his hair.

Nothing wildly cataclysmic occurs, although the sisters do contend with some emotional upheaval. Despite it feeling like a well worn pair of slippers, nothing predictable occurs. You don’t feel as if you read this book before, even though the characters seem to be familiar friends.

Read it. Enjoy it. It’s a good book.

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The History of Us

The History of Us
by Leah Stewart
Published by Touchstone 
386 pages
Genre: literature
Thanks to edelweiss for the preview
4.5 / 5

A few years ago, I read The Myth of You and Me, and I immediately was captivated by Leah Stewart’s storytelling. She is not a writer who feels it necessary to give us likable characters, nor does she back off from creating people who are deeply, almost painfully flawed.

And so it is with The History of Us, which tells the story of three adults and the aunt who raised them.

It’s been about twenty years since Eloise Hempel received the phone call that changed everything. An ambitious professor at Harvard, Eloise is about to teach a class when she learns that her sister and brother-in-law died in an auto accident. Eloise is the children’s guardian, and she must return home to Cincinnati to raise her two nieces and nephew, something that terrifies Eloise. She tries to enlist her mother, absent even from her life, much less the woman’s grandchildren, but to no avail. Her mother allows Eloise to move into her home, but as far as parenting her wards, Eloise is on her own.

The story largely takes place in the present, with occasional flashbacks to how Eloise adapted to motherhood. Theodora and Josh were old enough to know their parents, but Claire was a toddler at the time of their death. Her memories are hazy, undetermined. She considers Eloise her mother, something that occasionally rankles not just Theodora, but occasionally even Eloise herself. Although Eloise considers herself the children’s mother, and although she is wounded thinking that they consider her anything but, there is still part of her that yearns for her pre-motherhood existence.

Such ambivalence is one reason why Eloise is so believable – and also why she is so unlikable at times. She wants to get rid of her mother’s house, and when Claire moves to New York to pursue a career as a ballerina, Eloise believes she has her chance. Theodora, however, resists. Now, there is a character we alternately love and cringe over. As the one child with the clearest memories of her parents, we understand Theo’s need to cling to anything that represents their memory. In many ways, she thinks of herself as her siblings’ mother, more so than Eloise. And with reason; she shepherded Eloise through those first few years as a mother figure.

Josh is a typical middle child, only son of three children. He’s somewhat flighty, having ditched a career as a successful musician. Whereas he could be crafted as a stereotypical screw up and slacker, Leah Stewart instead presents him as far more complex. When he begins a new relationship, we want him to succeed, even if his paralyzing self-doubt makes us want to slap him.

And then there is Claire. SHE is the character we want to slap. Claire has a secret, you see, and her secret inadvertently binds the rest of the family together. Well, sort of. Leah Stewart won’t take the quick and easy path; instead, she continues to give us complexity. Like her aunt and siblings, Claire is not so easy to categorize.

This family will fascinate you, and you will find yourself wondering if it’s possible for any of them to be happy. Stewart pulls you in to their story, making you feel fully invested in who Eloise, Theo, Josh, and Claire are, what motivates them, frightens them, frees them. Their mistakes are believable, their story told as if it could happen to one of us.

Read this. Read it for the four fascinating characters at its center, as well as for its equally fascinating supporting cast. Read it to lose yourself in good storytelling and solid writing.

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