June 25th, 2014

books

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Cadence comes from wealth. She spends her summers on her family's private island in Massachusetts, alongside her cousins, her aunts and uncles, her maternal grandparents, their dogs, and, of course, her own parents. That is, until her parents split up; then her father is out of the picture. But everything's fine. That is, until her grandmother dies; then people stop talking about her. But everything's fine. That is, until Cady experiences a physical trauma and she cannot remember what happened the summer she was fifteen. For the next two years, as she struggles to keep her head above water and to recover her memories, only bits and pieces of that summer surface. She writes down what she can recall. She begs her mother, her cousins, and the boy she loves to tell her what happened. When she finally discovers the truth, nothing will ever be the same.

Everyone is buzzing about We Were Liars, and with good reason: the ending must be read to be believed.

But here's the thing that really struck me about the story: It's about things falling apart. Relationships, people, stability, memories, and secrets all unraveling. It's about destruction, both subconscious and self-imposed, subtle and blatant.

We've all heard variations on the saying, "You can't move into the future until you accept your past." Cady lost part of herself at age 15, and until she knows what and why and how, she is broken and stuck. The accident not only led to amnesia but also debilitating headaches that last for days, her mind and her body pushing her, failing her, trapping her, betraying her.

This book captures how precious summers can be: separate from the school year, a time full of ambition and things to do or lazy days at the beach or hiding out alone in your room with a good book. Summer, to Cady, means time with her same-age cousins - snarky Johnny and lovely Mirren - and Gat, the nephew of Johnny's mother's boyfriend, who has been visiting the island with the Sinclair family since he was eight years old. The kinship Cadence feels with Mirren, Gat, and Johnny is special. Lockhart captures those summer relationships that fade in the fall, then get revived every June:

We never kept in touch over the school year. Not much, anyway, though we'd tried when we were younger. We'd text, or tag each other in summer photos, especially in September, but we'd inevitably fade out over a month or so. Somehow, Beechwood's magic never carried over into our everyday lives. We didn't want to hear about school friends and clubs and sports teams. Instead, we knew our affection would revive when we saw one another on the dock the following June, salt spray in the air, pale sun glinting off the water. - Pages 35-36

I've been a fan of E. Lockhart's writing for some time now. As evidenced by the above passage, she has a way with words. With its underlying mystery, We Were Liars is different from her previous works. It is haunting. The release date coupled with the setting makes it a good pick for a summer read, though readers will most likely stay up all night, turning pages and waiting for the other shoe to drop, just as anxious as the protagonist to uncover the secrets of Cadence's fifteenth (and seventeenth) summer.

If you enjoyed We Were Liars, you will also dig Boy Heaven by Laura Kasischke. Trust me. Read my review of Boy Heaven. I would love to hear from people who have read both of these books. Leave a comment below!

We Were Liars has been acquired by Imperative Entertainment, and Lockhart wrote the feature script. You go, E. I hope they make the movie you've created.

I included We Were Liars on my Tough Issues for Teens booklist.

Check out my reviews of E. Lockhart's novels The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and Dramarama.

smile, Alicia Silverstone

The Summer I Saved the World...in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz

This summer, 13-year-old Nina is going to make the world a better place, one day (and one good deed) at a time.

After looking around the cul-de-sac, Nina decides to help out her friends and neighbors in small but remarkable ways. She decides to do 65 anonymous good deeds, one for every day of summer vacation. While some of these activities and gifts are planned in advance, others are spur-of-the-moment, but all of them are based on what the people around her truly need. Nina listens to people, and she listens to her heart. She can tell when someone needs a pick-me-up or a helping hand. Sometimes, she simply leaves an item on someone's doorstep or in their mailbox to make them smile; other times, she simply offers them her shoulder to lean on.

Nina's own house could use some smiles, too. Nina's grandmother, who taught her to value simple truths, passed away exactly one year ago. Now, with her lawyer parents immersed in their current case and her college-bound brother barely ever home, Nina yearns to have a real conversation with her family. Meanwhile, her best friend Jorie is flirting with boys and planning their dates for the homecoming dance, but Nina's not really into that yet. Even though she is kind of seeing her long-time friend Eli in a new light...

As the summer continues, some neighbors seem to appreciate the good deeds while others are grow suspicious, thinking they are pranks. Mostly, though, Nina's actions have the intended result: they brighten someone's day and serve as a reminder than somebody cares. As her "little efforts" rub off on others, Nina realizes that "doing good is contagious," and she continues to practice random acts of kindness simply because she likes helping others.

The transition from middle school to high school can be all sorts of things - overwhelming, intimidating, exciting, nerve-wracking, eye-opening - all at once. This book moves through the summer between eighth and ninth grade with a naturally flowing narrative fueled by a thoughtful, selfless protagonist. Nina is truly a good person, without a hidden agenda, which is so refreshing. This novel is filled with moments that are poignant and uplifting without ever being preachy or cloying. Nina's resolve and voice grows stronger, and she is never once tempted to brag about her good deeds.

Many books and films showcase the end of a friendship, often with the old friend burning or blowing off the protagonist. But not all friendships end in a big blow-up. Not all friendships end. They change, just like (as) people change. The bond between Jorie and Nina stretches like taffy throughout the book, stretching and straining as their priorities change. Hurwitz does a wonderful job of examining the strangeness and sadness that comes when friendships are tested, when you feel like you are growing apart from someone you've known for so long:

In first grade, when Jorie moved into the cul-de-sac, we had playdates and did the things first-grade girls do. That was enough back then. But now? Jorie and I are in between two places. Like an intermission between the first and second acts of a play. I'm not sure how things are going to end up. - Pages 9-10

I miss the girl who couldn't glue, brought me the towel after we jumped into the water, made sure I was okay. The girl I knew. - Page 114

This is just one example of the connections Nina makes. Hurwitz masterfully creates distinctive, realistic characters and allows her leading lady to have clear relationships and storylines with different people. This includes her older brother, Matt; her workaholic parents; Eli, her friend who is literally the boy next door; Eli's adorable little brother, Thomas, who fancies himself a superhero; Sariah, a new friend in her summer art class; and others on her street, ranging from high-strung Mrs. Millman, who bosses around her dog and her husband, to the extremely pregnant Mrs. Cantaloni and her energetic three young sons, from the soft-spoken Mrs. Chung to the elusive Mr. Dembrowski. Oh, and a fox.

In short: The Summer I Saved the World...in 65 Days by Michele Weber Hurwitz is delightful. Pick it up, and pay it forward.

Favorite supporting character: Thomas.

Favorite (and unexpected) scene: Running. (Another favorite moment: The swings.)

This is Michele's second novel for tweens. If you liked Nina's story, make sure to pick up the author's first book, Calli Be Gold! Also check out See You At Harry's by Jo Knowles (alert: you'll need Kleenex for that one) and The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. On the surface, these books might not seem that similar, but consider them like a variety pack, your summer trail mix, with different but complimentary flavors. Let me know what you think!

Related booklists:
Transition Times
Middle School Must-Haves