How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz

how-to-start-a-fireBook – Best friends and college roommates at UC Santa Cruz in the early 1990’s, Anna, Kate and Georgianna share adventures, life-stories and secrets. Anna is the ringleader, who makes up games for every party they attend. A risk-taker and at odds with her austere, wealthy family, her life begins to spiral out of control. Kate is reserved and follows Anna’s lead. She hides herself in obsessive research about various and random topics, including mushrooms, redwoods and planets. George loves nature and becomes a forest ranger. A beauty, she easily attracts the attention of men, but often settles for unsatisfying  relationships.

Twenty years after college, the women find themselves retracing the paths their lives have taken. The story alternates between their viewpoints and bounces back and forth from the past to the present. I slowly discovered that one evening in particular influenced the lives of all three. I liked getting to know these characters and how their interests, talents and personalities threaded through their friendship. Lisa Lutz also wrote the popular Spellman Files series.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Book-  Despite living in a small Texas town collectively obsessed with football and the local Miss Clover City beauty pageant, Willowdean Dickson has managed to carve out a niche away from all that, looking to her deceased shut-in aunt Lucy for guidance. This is no mean feat, given that Will’s (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her) mother is a former Miss Clover City winner and current pageant bigwig. However, the pageant draws Will into its orbit. First her best friend Ellen begins to hang out with pageant hopefuls, creating a distance between herself and Will where none existed before. Then Will enters a secret affair with the laconic Bo, an enigmatic-but-hot fast food coworker whom she’s crushed on for months.

Though Will is a bigger girl, she has up to this point in the story projected confidence. However, Bo’s keeping her a secret, and her niggling suspicion that her mother is ashamed of her, damages her confidence. In a wild bid to prove to herself to herself and to do what her aunt Lucy had always dreamed of doing, she, and a ragtag band of other unlikely candidates, enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. What follows is a campy high school coming-of-age experience reminiscent of Hairspray. Perhaps the best, most refreshing thing about Dumplin’ is that, unlike other stories in this vein and much like real life, the fat protagonist is allowed to remain fat; she doesn’t magically lose weight the moment she locates her self-confidence.

Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Book – I admit it, I have watched Hoarders. It’s fascinating and horrifying all at once, and even while I felt like a bad person for watching these people’s lives splashed all over TV, I couldn’t look away. But what’s really going on when someone hoards? What are they thinking, and when they’re putting themselves in danger, how can we help them? Randy Frost is one of the few psychologists studying hoarding and its treatments – most therapists and psychiatrists say that it can’t be treated at all – and Stuff is his explanation, for a popular audience, of exactly what’s going on here.

According to Frost, hoarding happens on a spectrum, and a lot of things that are pathological in hoarders are things we all do – using our things as a way to express our identity, for instance, or using our things as a kind of security blanket. This is a little unsettling to read, to be honest, because you can see just how short the distance is from “I am most comfortable when surrounded by my own things” to “I can’t cope with my things going away.” He explains why dramatic clean-outs like they do on TV almost never work, and why they’re sometimes dangerous. I found the whole thing fascinating, and it certainly prompted me to re-think of my own relationship to my stuff.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Book – Mia is the “good girl” in this page turning novel of psychological suspense.  She is an art teacher at an alternative high school and somewhat of a disappointment to her high profile Chicago judge father, since his other daughter and Mia’s sister is an attorney and following in his footsteps.  Her family connection results in Mia being kidnapped.  The man who abducts her, Colin, is being paid off to lure her on the pretense of a one night stand and deliver her to another party that will demand a ransom.  But for some reason Colin decides not to turn her over and hides out with Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota.  Eventually Mia is saved, but is suffering from amnesia, having blocked the incident from her mind.  There is a lot going on in this story.  It is told from the perspective of 4 characters: Mia, Colin, Mia’s mother – Eve, and Gabe – the detective assigned to the case. It also jumps back and forth in time chronicling events during the incident and the aftermath. But readers will not be disappointed while trying to find out what really did happen and why, which is not revealed until the very end.

This book would probably appeal to fans of Gone Girl, but is less violent and graphic. 

The Surrogate by Judith Henry Wall

Book – The Surrogate, by Judith Henry Wall is a fantastically thrilling drama.  Twenty-year old Jamie Long is completely broke..  Then she discovers something that will pay a pretty penny, becoming a surrogate.  Thinking she’s hit the jackpot, Jamie immediately agrees to take the job for the Hartmanns, a famously powerful evangelical family.  When she is forced to sign a contract that demands complete secrecy of the surrogacy, Jamie begins to wonder if she’s made a mistake.  While Jamie initially thinks she is merely helping a couple to conceive, she soon discovers the family’s hidden secrets that leave her fearing for her life.

When I think of the word surrogacy,  I remember Phoebe carrying triplets for her brother on Friends, (the tv series), or the comedic perfection of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in Baby Mama. The Surrogate takes a much darker turn, creating a suspense-ridden thriller.  Throughout the story, I was a bit frustrated at the naivety of the main character, Jamie.  She is so overly trusting of this family of strangers, and not at all concerned that the contract demands she move into their home for the pregnancy.  However, all in all I really enjoyed the novel.

Moral of the story?  You can’t trust anyone.  Especially secretive strangers.  Who are extremely wealthy.  And sketchy as heck.

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick

Book – Even in the modern age, marriage is the defining question of a woman’s life – even if she decides not to marry, it’s an important decision, sometimes the most important. Through a lens of her own experiences and the stories of women writers she’s found inspiring through her life, Kate Bolick examines ways women have pushed back against this question, carving out lives for themselves in spite of society’s expectations for them.

I wasn’t terribly familiar with most of the women Bolick discusses – Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton – although I did know some of their work, so I was fascinated to learn more about their lives. Bolick is using a broad definition of “spinster” here. Many of these women did marry, but, she argues, they found marriage to be stultifying and damaging to their work, and so they also divorced or lived separately from their husbands rather than sacrifice their lives to something that didn’t work for them. Bolick compares their solitary lives with her own, where even though she’s never married, she dates compulsively throughout her twenties and thirties.

I enjoyed the historical parts of the book more than Bolick’s memoirs, but I think the personal story is important to the book as a whole. We get to learn not only from famous women writers but from Bolick herself, who struggles with modern expectations in an entirely different way from her heroines.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Book – What would you do if you accidentally came upon a letter from your spouse, addressed to you, but with the instructions that it only be opened in the event of his death? This is the Pandora’s box that Cecelia has to deal with. She is the envy of all the mothers at school for her superb organizational skills and being able to juggle her involvement at school with her thriving Tupperware business. Could the contents of this letter affect her perfect suburban life – married to the perfect man, with whom she has three perfect daughters? She is one of three women from different walks of life who are brought together by sheer coincidence at a Catholic elementary school in Sydney.  The story will keep you turning the pages to find out how their lives are intertwined by a common thread.  The second woman Tess, is shaken by a confession from her husband along with her best friend/cousin Felicity, that they’ve fallen in love with each other. Tess leaves taking her 6 year old son to live with her mother in Sydney, while she sorts things out. And finally we have Rachel, who is older than the other women and is the school secretary, where Cecelia and Tess have their children enrolled. Rachel is consumed by grief and tries to hide her hatred for the P.E. teacher Connor, who is an old flame of Tess.  It turns out that everyone has secrets and readers will be fascinated as the fate of these women unfolds.

If you enjoy this book, you should check out these other titles by Moriarty – Big Little Lies, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, The Last Anniversary, Three Wishes, and What Alice Forgot.

The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

Book – Although his epic trilogy gave rise to the modern fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote dozens of stories simply for the entertainment of his children, John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. (The spiders in The Hobbit were reportedly there specifically to scare Michael.) Between 1920, when John was three, and 1942, when Priscilla was 13, he wrote letters from Father Christmas to the children (presumably in answer to their own letters). They arrived in envelopes with stamps and a North Pole postage mark, fully illustrated, and told of all the adventures of Father Christmas, his elves and the North Polar Bear. (In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Father Christmas writes that they have been battling goblins.)

While nothing like Lord of the Rings, The Father Christmas Letters (and the second edition, Letters from Father Christmas, with slightly different content) are charming stories, and a wonderful addition to your seasonal celebrations. And maybe they’ll inspire a Christmas tradition for your own family. After all, what could be better than writing a letter to Santa and actually getting one in reply?

Microshelters by Derek “Deek” Diedricksen

Book – Deek Diedricksen travels around the world searching for the most creative and interesting tiny structures. His book highlights 59 small structures, including tree houses, tiny houses, caravans, cabins and playhouses. Their uses range from full-time living to vacation homes to backyard writing or zen retreats. Photos, floor plans and narratives offer showcase the clever uses of space and design ideas. Upcycling and recycling are components of most of the structures. Polycarbonate roofing was used for walls in some cases, pot lids and water jugs were used for a window in one structure. Sometimes height was used for additional space, with access through ladders or even staggered shelving. He also has led building and design workshops. Deek also includes chapters on the necessary tools, how to salvage and decorate and offers six plans with construction details. If you enjoy this book, you may also want to check out The Big Tiny by Dee Williams or Shed Decor by Sally Coulthard.

Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Book – I recognize that it is blasphemy of the highest order to suggest that any YA book about a group of young magic-users growing into their powers could actually be better than Harry Potter.  So let’s settle for ‘every bit as good,’ and ‘a wonderful new series to fill the Potter-shaped hole in your heart,’ and go from there.

Twelve-year-old Sunny is an outsider in more ways than she realizes.  Besides the culture shock of moving to Nigeria, her parents’ first home, after living in New York all her life, Sunny’s albinism keeps her out of the sun and away from the soccer games she loves.  Only school offers a chance to make friends, and these new friends know something about Sunny that she never knew about herself: she is one of the Leopard People, a keeper of secret powers that make her part of a secret worldwide community of magic-users.   Learning to access her new spirit face and the invisibility powers it brings is thrilling.  But Sunny and her friends also have a darker task to tackle: tracking down a magical child-killer and ending his reign of terror.

Akata Witch is an exciting, fresh and thoroughly enjoyable take on the magician-in-training trope.   While the deep vein of Nigerian culture underlying the tale is part of what makes it stand out in the sea of YA fantasy, Sunny’s American-born perspective makes this an easy world for an American reader to enter.  The result is a story with rich, original world-building that will leave you eager for the planned sequel, due in fall 2016.