Category Archives: Fiction

DNF ALERT! BITTERSWEET by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Folks, it appears that we are in a DNF situation.

I requested Bittersweet from the library because breathless reviews told me that it would be impossible to put down, that it was one of THE reads of the summer. It’s about a girl who goes home with her college roommate to a compound in New Hampshire where the roommate’s large, rich family spends its summers. Shadows and secrets abound.

I started Bittersweet last week, and am about 120 pages in. Now the book is overdue; I can’t extend it because it has holds at the library; and I am going to give up and not finish it. I can’t remember the last time I  didn’t finish a book. Here’s why I am giving up:

  1. 1. It just isn’t grabbing me. I’ve had long stretches to read (ie cross-country flights) and I couldn’t get into it.
  2. I think I got my fill of rich WASPs on summer compounds with We Were Liars.
  3. The characters are inscrutable and inconsistent, in addition to being unlikeable.
  4. I went on Goodreads and learned the Big Secrets from people’s spoiler reviews.
  5. I cannot stand having overdue books. Like the Tell Tale Heart beating beneath the floorboards, overdue library books eat at me, emitting a disapproving glow from wherever they are in the house until I return them. This one is a week (!) late.

So I’ve blown a whole summer week on Bittersweet and can’t even add it to my yearly book count. Oh well. Life’s too short; I’m moving on.

THE BLESSINGS by Elise Juska

Oh, The Blessings is My. Type. Of. Book.

The Blessings, by Elise Juska, is domestic fiction at its finest: the story of a large, Irish Catholic Philadelphia family told from many different characters’ perspectives over the course of two decades. There are four siblings in the Blessing family- two girls and two boys – and each marries and has kids, so there are many people to get to know – grandparents, kids, spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. Over the course of the book, the extended Blessing family endures the stuff that many families do: births, deaths, illnesses, graduations and vacations, plus financial struggles, depression, infertility, aging parents, juvenile deliquency, etc.

The Blessings is a quiet novel, in that there is not a lot of drama. Juska’s style is even and understated, and the book goes from year to year, event to event, without fanfare. She follows the normal patterns of life – the aging of generations from kids to young adults to parents; from adolescents to parents to children of older parents. But The Blessings is anything but boring or ordinary. I loved it. I especially appreciated how Juska told the story: each chapter was written from a different character’s perspective. And often, the life event being described in that chapter was conveyed by someone unexpected, someone removed from the situation, but with a unique perspective on it. The death of the Blessing patriarch, John, was told through the eyes of his oldest granddaughter, Abby. The depression felt by the wife of one of the Blessing children, John Jr., after his premature death from cancer was told through the perspective of her sister-in-law, Kate. Stories are teased out over the course of many years, though the eyes of multiple characters.

The Blessings are flawed, everyday people. They have their highs and lows. But they are immensely real and sympathetic. And while the book deals with a lot of depressing topics, there is a lot of joy here too, in the everyday lives and relationships that the Blessings have with each other. This is a book that reminds you to appreciate the even, “in-between” times of life, because it can change quickly. Some of the characters find peace by the end, and some don’t. Isn’t that pretty much how life is?

I listened to The Blessings on audio, performed by the sublime Therese Plummer. Therese told me that she comes from a similar large, Catholic family, which means that she knows of which she’s narrating. She did such a beautiful job with these characters, particularly Helen, the grandmother, and Patrick, the youngest son. I was sad to see the book end as much for the story as for the chance to listen to Therese narrate so compassionately.

I don’t know how the whole blurbing process goes for books, but I assume that authors tend to blurb books by other authors who are likely to have an overlapping audience. I therefore wasn’t surprised to see that The Blessings was blurbed by Stewart O’Nan, Siobhan Fallon, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Jennifer Close, all of whom I have read and three of whom I have read multiple books from. I clearly have a type.

Go read (or listen to) The Blessings.

Depressing-o-Meter: kinda high for this one, given the number of sad topics. 8 out of 10.

WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart



I don’t usually read YA fiction that everyone else is talking and blogging about, but I made an exception for We Were Liars by E. Lockhart because someone told me, “Read it. Don’t read about it, just read it.” I was intrigued by her advice, and requested it from the library. The fact that all copies were checked out and I had to wait until it came in only heightened my curiosity. It eventually came in, and I read it.

If you want to replicate my experience, and you’ve been curious about this “Gothic tale of failed romance in an entrenched East Coast family still enslaved to the rigid WASP codes”, then don’t read the rest of this review until you’ve read We Were Liars. (Then come back and tell me what you thought.)

If you want to know more before you commit to We Were Liars, then read on, but beware that it might spoil your experience a bit.

We Were Liars is about a privileged family with an island off of Martha’s Vineyard. Each summer, the patriarch of the family and his wife, along with their three daughters and a collection of grandchildren, come to the island and live in the four estates that have been built, one for each nuclear family. The story is told from the perspective of 15 year-old Cadence, the oldest grandchild. The “Liars” are two of Cadence’s cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and an Indian boy named Gat whose uncle is dating Johnny’s mother.

The Liars are thick as thieves each summer, and the book is rich with the smells and sounds of that epic season, when it seems that each sense is heightened not only by the weather and physical surroundings but also by adolescence and the sense that nothing is ever as important as when you are a teenager. There is a lot of commentary about the family, and the daughters’ infighting and currying favor with the rich grandfather, who controls the pursestrings and the inheritances. Gat serves as the Liars’ conscience: he is the one that points out that Cady never bothers to learn the names of the help and raises questions about income redistribution and the fundamental unfairness of property ownership.

Something happens during that fateful Summer Fifteen, however, when Cady finds herself in the ocean one night, barely dressed, with a head injury so severe that she leaves the island for the rest of the summer and doesn’t return for two years. What happened that night? Why was she on the beach by herself, and why can’t she remember anything about it? Why won’t her cousins and Gat (which whom she is in love) engage with her and fill her in on what they remember?

SPOILER ALERT.

Like fans of “The Crying Game” (she’s a guy!) and “The Sixth Sense” (he sees dead people!), people who have read We Were Liars will tell you not to tell anyone anything about it. Yes, there is a spoiler. I was pretty much on notice that there was going to be a spoiler, and I have to say, I didn’t find it too hard to figure out what it was. Unlike the people on Goodreads who are all, “OH MY GOD I DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING”, I saw it coming. So I was not as blown away by We Were Liars as I might have been, but I did like it. It’s a quick read and I enjoyed the dark and dramatic atmosphere that Lockhart created.  I gave it a solid 3 stars out of 5 on Goodreads.

Have you read it? Did you figure out the spoiler beforehand?

CUTTING TEETH by Julia Fierro

Oh, the delicious sendup of Brooklyn parenting that takes place in Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro!


Take five families from the same playgroup, send them to a beach house on Long Island for a weekend, and watch the sparks fly. The cast of characters: Nicole, an anxious, OCD mother to a 4 year-old boy; Susannah and Allie, a lesbian couple with 4 year-old twins who are expecting another baby; Rip, a stay-at-home dad with a 4 year-old boy; Tiffany, mom to a 4 year-old girl and the mom who doesn’t quite fit in; and Leigh, mom to a 4 year-old boy (who is possibly on the spectrum) and an infant girl, who brings her nanny along to help her cope. However, although there are certainly a lot of caricatures here, Fierro surprisingly makes most of these characters pretty sympathetic by the end of the book.

Fierro layers the minutiae of parenting – from slathering sunblock and preparing snacks to dealing with tantrums and bossy kids – with the big issues facing the couples. Allie is an absentee parent and Susannah wants to move to the ‘burbs. Rip’s sperm don’t work, but his wife doesn’t want another kid or to go through IVF again. Leigh is a trust fund baby who has run out of cash and embezzled money from the pre-school PTA. Tiffany is hiding her white trash roots, trying to fit in among the fancy Brooklyn moms who attend her toddler music classes. And Nicole is hiding a secret: she is traumatized by a rumor of the apocalypse that she learned about on Urbanmama.com and keeps survival bags packed in the trunk of her car.

Over the course of the weekend, parenting styles will clash, secrets will be exposed, infidelity will occur, and a child will wander off, causing a police-driven manhunt. And the couples (and in one case, two friends) will confront the tough issues bubbling right under the surface. It isn’t really accurate to call Cutting Teeth a satire, given Fierro’s ultimate kindness to these stressed out, self-absorbed parents. But her writing is sharp and her observations so accurate that no one (save Tenzin, the Tibetan nanny) emerges unscathed. She nails the stress and exhaustion of modern parenting and pushes her playgroup to their limits.

If you have little kids, or live in Brooklyn, or know people who have little kids and/or live in Brooklyn, then I’d suggest picking up Cutting Teeth. And even if you don’t, I suspect you’ll still enjoy this smart novel.

Depressing-O-Meter: 6 out of 10. Lots of stressful and anxiety-inducing stuff in here, but I wouldn’t really call it depressing.

Summer Shorts 2014: SHARKS AND SEALS by Susanna Daniel

I have a special treat for EDIWTB today.

I am participating in a blog post series called Summer Shorts. In this series, a new short story has been featured every day on a different blog, featuring an audiobook narrator reading the work of one of his or her favorite authors. Readers have listened to a different short story for free each day, and can buy the whole collection from Tantor (with 20 additional bonus tracks) for $9.99 (effective through TOMORROW, June 30; after tomorrow the price goes up to $19.99). Proceeds from the purchases will support ProLiteracy, a literacy outreach and advocacy organization.

Here are all of the posts in this series to date. Yesterday’s post was at Miss Susie’s Readings and Observations.

The blog series moves here to EDIWTB today. I am featuring a narration of Susanna Daniel’s story “Sharks and Seals” by Karen White, a longtime friend of EDIWTB and one of the narrators I interviewed for JIAM last year. I have reviewed two of Daniel’s books – Stiltsville and Sea Creatures. You can listen to the story for free TODAY ONLY here:

I am so excited to be able to feature a Q&A with both the author AND the narrator of this story. It was fascinating to ask the same questions of both the woman who wrote the words and the woman who spoke them. I hope that you enjoy the story and the interview!

First, some background on the story, “Sharks and Seals”. It’s short. Really short. Like 3 minutes short. But so well-written, and memorable. It’s about a girl who is encouraged to join the water polo team in high school by a classmate, Stacia.  They become friends, and she spends time at Stacia’s home, where she learns that some families are very different from her own. When a tragedy befalls Stacia, the main character stays in touch with Stacia’s family, maintaining the relationship that has had such an impact on her and opened her eyes to new possibilities in life.

It’s a short story that really packs a punch, with each phrase – each word, even – contributing to the story without a single extraneous note. Like I said, it’s really short – listen to it. You will finish it before you know it.

Here’s the Q&A with Susanna Daniel and Karen White about “Sharks and Seals”.

Q. What was the inspiration for “Sharks and Seals”?

Susanna: I was asked to write the story for a project called Significant Objects, which pairs garage-sale tchotchkes with short stories about those tchotchkes, then auctions off the pairs for charity. I had a photo of two novelty pens, and from that came my story, which is about love and loss — these are the topics of all my work to date, I think, though I’ve written only rarely about a young adult.

Karen: I’ll let Susanna take that one, but I will say that I was very happy to learn that we’d be able to record contemporary fiction this year for Summer Shorts. I started looking around for short pieces online, and it occurred to me, duh, that I could try to find something by an author I’d already worked with and Susanna came to mind right away. I don’t remember how exactly I searched for it, but I ended up on this page with a photo of a shark and a seal pen and this story. I really loved it so I emailed Susanna and happily, both she and the original publisher were willing to let me record it for the Summer Shorts project.

Q: Susanna, “Sharks and Seals” contains two themes that recur across your work – life on, or in, the water, and communication (or lack thereof) among families. What draws you to these themes? Karen, are you a water lover as well (or has performing Susanna’s work turned you into one?)

Susanna: There might come a time when I give a novel the setting of my daily life — landlocked in the Midwest — but I’m not sure it ever will. The water of the ocean, boats, stilt houses, swimming pools: this is the setting of my childhood, and the backdrop for every fictional world I’ve created to date. Parents and children and spouses and siblings — these are the relationships I find most compelling and consequential, in life and fiction.

Karen: Well, I have to confess that while I love living near the water — walking on the beach and playing in the waves, I am NOT a fan of deep water and I am a pretty terrible swimmer. (Some combination of a bad swim team experience at a young age and reading the novel Jaws when I was 12.) On top of that I recorded Sea Creatures right after we’d moved from CA to NC. I grew up in central NC but now I’m on the coast, and reading the very intense descriptions of Hurricane Andrew kind of freaked me out. So I will definitely be evacuating if there’s any inkling of a big hurricane coming here, and praying that my house can take it!

Q: Parenthood is also a common theme in Susanna’s work. Susanna, why are you drawn to parenthood so frequently in your storytelling? Karen, do you find yourself incorporating your own parenting persona into your performances of Susanna’s work?

Susanna: I think I’m more specifically interested in how the family persona and the individual collide and coincide. In my second novel, Sea Creatures, the narrator, Georgia, has to find agency despite the fact that she’s become overwhelmed by her sometimes conflicting responsibilities to her husband and son. Parenting is one surefire way to put a characters’ weaknesses and strengths on display.

Karen: I think what has always drawn me to acting (and narration, which to me is definitely acting) is that I am fascinated by how other people think. Acting gets me as close as one can get to experiencing how another person thinks. Obviously in narration we’re playing lots of roles, but in a first person narrative like Sea Creatures, I get to live more completely inside the head of the fictional narrator and let that person’s voice take over. So in some ways I let go of my own thought and speech patterns. That said, I think in the best scenarios, I am asked to record a book because when the powers that be read the book (or its description), they think of me and my voice. So I guess what results is some amalgamation of me and the character. I hope I’m not quite as screwed up as most of the mother roles I end up playing (and I have recorded quite a few books about mothers who have issues) but I do think I’m probably a pretty neurotic mom. For instance, I try REALLY hard not to be a helicopter parent, which is one of the things that drives me crazy in the world these days, but in avoidance of it, I probably do a LOT of overthinking. Nobody wants to live inside my head!

Q:  How much interaction do you two have when Karen is preparing to perform one of Susanna’s works? Susanna, do you give any direction about characters, motives, or specific scenes?

Susanna: I’m not an actor and I have no experience with voice work – I leave that to the experts! Of course I answer any questions, like how something is pronounced.

Karen: I just looked up our email exchange and I only asked her two pronunciation questions! In my opinion, when the writing is good, I don’t really need any other input. All the direction is there, and if anyone tries to impose anything on top of that, it often sticks out like it doesn’t belong. Even if Susanna were to share deleted scenes about characters, I’m not sure it would be useful because the reader doesn’t get those scenes. I think it’s like the narration has to fit inside the frame that the book has created and going outside of that frame is at best unnecessary and at worst, a distraction.

Q: What are the challenges of writing and performing a short work like “Sharks and Seals”?

Susanna: My biggest challenge was the word count — I don’t write short, generally. My narrators usually have a lot more room to breathe. It took about ten times as long to whittle down the word count as to write the first draft.

Karen: What I loved about this story was that it was so low key and almost unemotional, and yet I could still feel all this stuff going on underneath. Simple and complex at the same time. For me, the challenge in recording a short story (and this is a really short one) is that there’s no warm-up time, you have to be in it completely from the get go. Also, I’ll confess that starting a book is always the hardest part for me because there’s usually an uncomfortable period while I’m figuring out the tone and pacing. It’s not unusual for me to do a first chapter and then start all over again if I feel like I didn’t get it. I think I recorded this one a few times before I felt like I had it.

Q. Do you think that short fiction is better suited for our digital attention spans than full-length novels? Or is the focused escape of a novel more important now than ever?

Susanna: Digitally or on paper, there’s really no substitute, for me, for a novel’s breadth — short stories can be very intense and artful, and sometimes, as a reader, I find them overpowering. I read more novels than stories, though I think I can learn more from a really smart short story than from anything else.

Karen: YES. Both! In my pleasure reading life, I feel like I’ve been through periods when all I can handle is short stories, and times when I really need that escape into a longer book (and hate it when its over). I will say that it seems like I have recorded more stories for collections this past year. Maybe it is a new trend in audiobooks…

TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN by Philippa Pearce


Our last mother-daughter book club pick for 2013-2014 was Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. The combination of the end of the year’s competing activities and projects and a book that had some difficult words and a confusing plotline meant that not too many of the girls read the book (including mine). But I read it, so I should get a blog post out of it, right?

Add Tom’s Midnight Garden to the list of grade school fiction that involves time travel, along with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (reviewed here). It takes place in the late 1800s. Tom, the main character, has been banished from his home due to his younger brother’s measles. He is sent to live with his aunt and uncle in their apartment in a large house a few hours away by train. The apartment is small and confining, with a small parking lot in the back, but Tom goes exploring in the middle of the night and discovers a huge, beautiful garden at the back of the house that only appears at night.

During his nocturnal escapades in the garden, Tom meets a young girl named Hattie, and they become friends and playmates. Hattie lives in Victorian England and is an orphan who has been adopted by her aunt’s family. Tom visits the garden every night, but Hattie quickly grows older, surpassing Tom in age. She tells Tom that he only visits her once every few months, while from his perspective,  he goes to see Hattie every night that he is staying at his aunt and uncle’s house.

Like most books about time travel, this one hurt my head, in a good way. Is Tom or Hattie a ghost? Why can’t anyone else see Tom other than Hattie and the old gardener, who thinks Tom is the devil? Hattie leaves Tom a pair of ice skates in a secret spot in her room, which he finds in his present day – so was she real? What is Hattie’s connection to the house?

I like time travel books (Time and Again, The Time Traveler’s Wife), and I liked Tom’s Midnight Garden. I definitely liked it more than the other moms and girls who read it. Most thought that it was hard to get into, that it was confusing (true), and that the end wasn’t clear. I found the historical aspects interesting, and was very touched by the relationship between Tom and Hattie. It is apparently a beloved book in England, and was ranked the country’s second-favorite kids’ book of all time in 2007.

If you have a middle grade reader who loves time travel and won’t get turned off by some old-fashioned writing and unfamiliar words, give Tom’s Midnight Garden a try. Just be forewarned that it wasn’t popular with my crew.

32 CANDLES by Ernessa T. Carter


I just finished a book and I really don’t know where to start with the review. The book was 32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter. It’s kind of an odd book, which is why I am having trouble figuring out what to write.

Here are some things about 32 Candles to get started:

  • It is about a poor African-American girl named Davidia growing up in Mississippi with a horribly abusive mother who sleeps with the men of their small town for a living.
  • As a result of her mother’s abuse and bullying by her classmates, Davidia stops speaking entirely.
  • Davidia is obsessed with John Hughes movies, and longs for a “Molly Ringwald ending” for herself.
  • Davidia is also obsessed with the cutest, richest boy in school, who barely knows she’s alive.
  • Davidia escapes from Mississippi before end of high school and moves to LA, where she goes by Davie.
  • Davie’s life in LA turns out to be pretty good, but her high school demons revisit her several years later.
  • Davie, who seems sweet and innocent, really isn’t, at least not all of the time.
  • Does Davie get her Molly Ringwald ending? We don’t find out until the end.

32 Candles sounds like chick lit, I know, but it’s more serious than that. It’s twisty and funny and most of the time unpredictable. Davie is frustratingly flawed, but she’s also entertaining and compelling. Carter’s cast of characters is quirky without being stock players. She clearly knows LA and show business, and portrays a realistic (to me, anyway) view of life as a struggling actor and the fickle nature of fame and success.

I enjoyed reading 32 Candles. There is enough good here that it’s a worthwhile read. It didn’t hang together as cohesively as I’d have liked, I think because it feels like many books in one. There’s the sweet chick lit side, and the darker side of Davie, and then the improbable overlay of the John Hughes canon, which Carter threads throughout the book. As much as I love John Hughes movies (and Sixteen Candles in particular), the references felt forced. Maybe it’s because I found Davie’s love of Hughes’ lily-white movies a little hard to believe. Would a girl with her rough upbringing really have related to, or aspired to be, the wealthy suburban white kids from Shermer High or Jake Ryan’s post-dance party? I’m not sure.

I listened to 32 Candles on audio. It was performed by Adenrele Ojo, and she did a wonderful job of inhabiting Davie. I can’t imagine Davie with a different voice – Ojo conveyed her tough side as well as her vulnerability with equal passion. The audio went quickly and I felt invested and involved the whole time.

I guess I got over my writer’s block about 32 Candles. It’s an odd book, yes, but it’s still a good read.

Depressing-0-Meter: 5 out of 10 (due to Davie’s bleak childhood)