Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

little fires everywhere ng

The affluent and well-tended community of Shaker Heights, Ohio was created nearly one hundred years ago with the aim to build a suburban utopia. Precisely planned and governed by copious rules and restrictions, the community aims to be perfect in every way. Shaker Heights has excellent schools, no crime, generous community resources, natural beauty and a uniform look and feel that sends the message to visitors that Shaker Heights is flawless. Being a Quaker village, the town does welcome some poor and disenfranchised individuals into its utopia… as long as they are willing to hide any of the problems or imperfections behind a well-tended facade. The wealthy living there feel not only entitled and safe, but also virtuous for allowing their “less than” neighbors to stay.

“Shaker Heights has been founded…with the idea of creating a utopia. Order — and regulation, the father of order — had been the Shaker’s key to harmony. They had regulated everything to…make a little refuge in the world. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shaker’s had lived it so strongly it has seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up their with a deep propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws.” 22-23

Into this community come Mia Warren — a wayward artist and jane-of-all-trades — and her teenage daughter Pearl. The mother and daughter move into a rental property owned by Elena and Bill Richardson; whose great wealth allows them to earmark the rental for “needy” tenants. Having lived a nomadic and often spare lifestyle up until now, Mia has arrived in Shaker Heights with a promise to Pearl: they will stay put long enough for Pearl (a genius student) to finish her diploma at the community’s elite public high school and get into college.

Almost immediately, Pearl and Mia draw the attention of the Richardson’s four children. The two sons in the family are drawn to Pearl with her eccentric, bohemian beauty and her stunning intelligence. The oldest Richardson’s daughter Lexie, sees a shy and slightly nerdy girl to take under her wing and Izzy, the youngest daughter, becomes enamored with Mia. To Izzy, Mia is everything the other mothers in Shaker Heights are not: wild, non-conformist, and artistic — a woman who does not care at all about following the rules or fitting in.

Mia, despite her initial unease at the rigidity of the community, settles in once she realizes her daughter is thriving in school and has made friends with the Richardson children. But soon her unease returns, as Pearl begins to grow even closer with the wealthy, wild, Richardson kids: mimicking their behavior and allowing them to assert more and more influence over her.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person, your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. Each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be to return to that place again.” 122

Meanwhile, Elena Richardson notices that her daughter Izzy’s infatuation with Mia continues to grow and (like Mia) worries about the influence this very different, wild, rule-adverse woman has over her daughter. As a woman who has build her life around restraint and obedience, Mia represents someone who is determined cause trouble and upset the “natural” order of things. A solution presents itself: Mia will work part-time as the Richardson’s housekeeper and both women can keep an eye out on the other.

“All her life, Elena had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Better to control the spark and pass it from one generation to the next. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never — set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity.” 161

Mia Warren has spent her adult life hiding and running, but is determined to keep her head down and allow her daughter these few years to be a normal teen. However, Mia is inadvertently drawn into a local scandal — one that pits a poor immigrant woman against one of the town’s wealthiest families — that threatens to expose her secrets to the world, and more importantly, to Pearl.

Once the initial story has been established, Ng’s wonderful writing and story-telling really get a chance to deepen and pull readers further in. Soon we get glimpses deep into the hearts of each of the characters — teen and adult — and see their pain, their worries, and learn more about what motivates their actions. It is in this second half of the book where the author’s characters really shine, and where she is able to present a series of troubling mysteries that she expertly unravels for us.

A wonderfully written and compelling story about what it means to be a mother; what it means to be a family; and what the risks are to disobeying the rules…and the (sometimes even greater) risks to following them.



The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny (2009)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Series, #5

the brutal telling

Just as fall is beginning to creep into the woods of Quebec, another murder brings Chief Inspector Armand Gamache back to the village of Three Pines. A body has been found in the town’s beloved bistro, run by Olivier, and shocks the entire village.

This murder investigation is unlike any the Chief and his team have previously investigated. The victim is a man known by no one: who has no name, no home, no neighbors, absolutely nothing at all that allows the police to identify him. Without knowing who the man is, it seems impossible to determine why someone would want to kill him.

The location where the body was found, at Olivier‘s, offers the only insight early in the case. Was this murder a threat to Olivier? An attempt, as some villagers believe, by a new business rival to destroy the bistro, in an effort to make his own Inn more of a success? Armand is not sure, but his instincts tell him the the bistro owner is at the heart of the crime, even if it is not at all clear how or why.

When the coroner finds that the man was not killed at the bistro, but murdered elsewhere and moved to the bistro, Armand and his team begin to search for the location of the murder, with the hope that this will give them more information on the victim.

The trail they follow leads them deep, deep into the woods surrounding the village to a tiny, hidden cabin. Inside the modest cabin they find the murder scene…and a mountain of antique treasures worth millions of dollars.

Was the man murdered by someone who wanted the treasure for himself? Or by a person to whom the treasure rightfully belonged? Or is there a third and more complex relationship this unknown, unnamed man had with the murderer, one that grew so discordant that a murder was committed in a fit of rage?

It is greed, the deep and dirty desire for more that leads Armand to the killer. The killer, “a hungry ghost” whose emotional emptiness he has long been trying to fill with money but could no longer be satisfied with ordinary riches. The hole in the murderer’s soul demands it all, and death was the only way to get more.


Lies She Told by Cate Holahan (2017)

“To be a writer is to be a life thief. Every day, I rob myself blind.”

Liza Cole is suspense novelist whose career has been on the decline for years; her first book was a run-away best-seller, but her subsequent books have flopped. She needs another successful book launch if there is any hope of keeping her publishing contract alive. The only problem is that her personal life is in disarray: she is undergoing a experimental fertility treatment that leaves her constantly ill, with debilitating migraines, and memory lapses. Further complicating the situation, her husband’s best friend is missing and presumed dead and her husband is falling apart from the stress of the disappearance.

Faced with the end of her career, Liza buckles down and starts a new novel. Her book focuses on a young Manhattan couple, Beth and Jake, new parents adjusting to life with their infant daughter. Beth’s normally engaged husband has begun pulling back, working long hours, and has grown intensely defensive about his activities and appointments. Beth suspects an affair but is terrified to confront Jake: what if he is cheating? Would she have to suffer a divorce and single-motherhood before her daughter was even two months old?

Beth grows clingy and desperate for signs that her husband has remained faithful, and her actions anger Jake and lead him to have her seek psychiatric care for post-partum depression. But her medical treatment does not calm Beth’s fears, but rather spur her on to find out the truth.

Liza’s struggle to write Beth’s story quickly vanishes, suddenly she can cannot stop the story from coming to her. She spends hours and hours writing as Beth, deeply steeped in Beth’s search to uncover her husbands secrets. But soon, Liza’s mind begins to blur her life and Beth’s; and Liza starts to find her own husband’s actions suspicious: is there something to it or is she spending too much time as Beth?

“The faithful often find themselves blindsided. They don’t suspect anything because they can’t imagine doing something so awful themselves.”

In the fictional story, Beth grows wild when she uncovers her husband’s affair and sees him with his lover. In real life, Liza grows more and more doubting of everything her husband tells her. Both women are accused of being over-emotional from hormones, both women have husbands who are acting cold and irrational, but only one of the women is facing a growing rage so strong it might lead to murder…or are they both?

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny (2009)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, #4

a rule against murder penny

Armand Gamache and his beloved wife, Reine-Marie, are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary by visiting a lavish resort deep in the Quebec wilderness. At the hotel Manoir Bellechasse, the couple enjoy gourmet meals; taking long walks in the woods; reading the shade; and swimming in the lake. The only thing disrupting the couple’s tranquility are the Finney family, a group of guests gathered at the resort for a family reunion.

The Finney’s are deeply unhappy family; filled with mistrust and dislike for one another, and their interactions with one another are peppered with insults and abuse. The dark feelings surrounding the family have begun to spill over onto the other guests and staff at the Manoir, who keep getting drawn — unwillingly — into the arguments.

To Armand and Reine-Marie’s great shock, two of their friends from the nearby village of Three Pines, Peter and Clara Morrow, arrive and inform the Inspector they are part of the Finney Family Reunion: Peter Morrow is the son of the family’s long-dead patriarch and the estranged son and brother of the others at the resort.

Despite their attempts at avoiding the terrible family, the couple find them selves with the Finney’s when a huge fight erupts between the siblings, with everyone accusing the others of horrible acts of cruelty and greediness. And when later that night, one of Peter’s sisters — Julia — is murdered, Armand must step in and investigate her death.

The Finney’s are all suspects in Julia’s murder and each is quick to point the finger at one another: all of them has a long list of slights to accuse the others of, and each seems filled with enough rage at their family to be able to commit the crime. Armand calls in his team, sends his beloved wife over the mountain to Three Pines (where he hopes she will be safe until the murderer is found), and gets to work finding out if one of the Finney’s murdered Julia and why; all while having to walk the thin line between friendship and police work with his friends Peter and Clara.

At the heart of the case, it appears, is the family’s long-dead father, whose lack of love for his family and his encouragement of competition and infighting between them has left the surviving family in tatters. The Finney’s are all deeply scarred by a lifetime of discord and anger and they are so well-versed in lies that telling the truth — even if it means finding a killer — is next to impossible to do.

But have Armand and his team made the wrong choice to focus so closely on the family? Are they overlooking the others at the resort, staff and guests, who might be hiding their crime behind the drama the Finney’s keep creating?



The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (2008)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, Book #3

the cruelest month l penny

The worst of winter seems to be receding from the small, lovely village of Three Pines. Snow is melting, flowers are beginning to bloom, and the town residents are cheerfully preparing for the village’s Easter celebrations. In the opening chapters, readers get to catch up with some of the characters they have grown to love in the series’ first two books as they — along with some new faces — plan for egg hunts and potluck lunches.

At the local B&B, the proprietor Gabri has planned a surprise event for Easter weekend — a seance is to be held, lead by a psychic who is visiting the village for the holiday. Some villagers are appalled at the idea of raising the spirits of the dead: some protest that a seance is in bad taste because the town has been the site of two brutal murders in recent years. Others because it seems sacrilege to host a seance during the Easter holidays. A group of villagers who see it as a lark arrive at the B&B on Good Friday. While fun, the seance does not produce any ghosts; which the psychic suggests is because the B&B is too happy of a place and the guests at the seance too cheerful.

Why not try again, it is suggested, but this time, at the haunted Old Hadley House?

The second seance is much darker, the house’s horrific past seems to be much more conducive to calling up the dead. Indeed, the guests at this seance not only stir up the house’s ghosts, but they make a new one when a local woman named Madeline is scared to death during the event.

Once again, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called the the sleepy village to investigate when it becomes clear that Madeline’s death was not only because the woman was very frightened; her death was hastened when she was drugged by someone before the seance began, drugs that helped stop her heart.

By all accounts the dead woman was beloved by all and no one can imagine who would want her dead. Gamache and his team know that love can turn to hate over time, and that some murderers can hide their evil intent even from those closest to them.

As the case plods along, Gamache is introduced to the idea of the “near enemy” theory by town book-shop owner and psychologist, Myrna Landers. It is possible, he is told, that people can hide their true intentions behind the mask of another emotion. What on the surface looks like compassion can really — in the mind of a person with ill-intent — be pity. Some might see a person in love, but inside, he or she might really just be feeling obsessive attachment: a emotion that is dark and controlling. As Gamache begins to ponder this theory, he suspects that the “near enemy” is indeed at the heart of the case. The murder is masquerading as one type of person, while a more sinister and vindictive person lies underneath.

Yet another masterpiece of mystery fiction by Penny, filled with heart, wisdom, and compassion. On to the next book in the series, A Rule Against Murder.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (2017)

rules of magic hoffman

“Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned to you threefold. Fall in love whenever you can.” From the Owen Family Grimoire

The three Owens’ siblings — Franny, Jet, and Vincent — have always known they were different from other Manhattan children: with their child psychologist father who sees them as experiments and a mother who makes them follow harsh, incomprehensible rules and lies to them about her family history.

It is only when they become teenagers that just how different they are becomes clear: mind reading, talking to animals, ability to attract or repel people as they wished, and even occasional glimpses into the future are certainly not common gifts. When they approach their parents about these talents, they are told it is nothing, only nonsense. But the children know there is much, much more to it than that.

The year the oldest daughter, Franny, turns seventeen, an summer invitation arrives asking the teens to stay in Salem, Massachusetts with a Great-Aunt who lives in the Owen family ancestral home. All three readily agree to go, despite their father’s protests (their magic should have been nurtured out of them) and their mother’s protests ( they did not know what powerful forces they were tempting.) But the very existence of the invite and the reluctant acknowledgment from their parents that what they could do was magic is too thrilling to ignore.

The teenagers arrive in another world: a place where magical powers are common attributes; where their relatives are considered both cursed and capable of great power; and where they must face the knowledge that the paths they choose could have great consequences.

Franny is curious to know why her mother has lied to her children and hidden from her past. What made her mother so terrified of her children exploring their magical powers? It is in the local library that Franny learns of the curse on the Owens’ witches — cast down upon them more than three-hundred years ago from a women, heartbroken and abandoned– the curse: “ruination for any man who fell in love with them.”

Franny is desperate to know which rules she should follow, the request of the family’s Grimoire, that she “fall in love whenever you can,” or the threat of the family curse that warns of “ruination?” The answer, her beloved aunt tells her, is complicated. It lies in the actions of each member of their family and who they love, but to ignore the curse would be foolish and deeply dangerous.

When a series of accidents, heartbreaks, and deaths occur in quick succession after that summer the three siblings — suddenly alone — know that their magic has grave consequences and that what they choose to do with their powers can indeed ruin their loved ones, and themselves. All three must grapple with the family gifts and the family curse for the rest of their lives: shall they live in fear? In denial? With reckless abandon? What path would be best?

October Family Movie Series!

Every October my family also commits to watching scary (or not-so-scary when my six-year-old is awake) movies on weekends throughout month. Since I received some great feedback when I blogged about our Summer Movies Series, I thought I would put a list of the movies we pull out year after year, and a few of the scary movies we have in the queue this year.

(Read about the summer movie recommendations here )

For the entire family:

  • Hocus Pocus (this is scarier for some kids than others, but our family LOVES it!)
  • ET
  • Hotel Transylvania 1 and 2
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Chamber of Secrets
  • Just Add Magic (Amazon original TV Series)
  • Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Disney 1930s) — find it on YouTube
  • Haunted Pumpkin of Sleepy Hollow — find it on YouTube
  • Spooky Buddies
  • Monsters Inc and Monsters University
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Werewolf
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks and Frankenstein
  • Casper (Disney)
  • Daffy Duck Quackbusters
  • Toy Story Terror (2013, TV special)
  • Curious George’s BooFest
  • Dreamworks Halloween Special
  • Its the Great Pumpkin Halloween Charlie Brown
  • Scooby Doo — All of the movies and episodes are great for Halloween, but some take place on the holiday. Try the movies Goblins King, Witch’s Ghost, Frankencreepy (also episodes “Headless Horseman” “Scarecrow, “Cornfield Clem” “To Switch a Witch”)

For older kids:

  • Monster House (this is PG but it scared my kids before they were 9)
  • Goosebumps (2015)
  • The Haunted Mansion (Disney movie with Eddie Murphy)
  • The Goonies — This movie is rated PG-13 but we let our kids watch it, even our youngest, but we do cover eyes during some scenes and there are a few sex references in the opening scenes.
  • Ghostbusters (PG13)
  • Beetlejuice (PG13)
  • Fun Size (PG13 , parents should watch first as it contains lots of relationship drama)

Some movies the adults are checking out this October:

  • The Cure for Wellness
  • Get Out
  • It (we are heading to the theater to catch the remake!)
  • The Sixth Sense (we always pick a few throwbacks!)
  • Psycho (have to include this amazing classic! plan to make our teen watch to see what a true horror film looks like!)
  • Ouija
  • The Conjuring
  • Friday the 13th (got watch at least one slasher flick!)
  • Scream (and for comparison Scary Movie) which we are watching with our teen, who is convinced he is ready for horror movies.
  • X-Files — so, so many great episodes to watch. Perfect for when we’re too tired for a whole movie, but you want to be scared!