The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar

The Story HourThe Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
Published by Harper
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

From the publisher:

An experienced psychologist, Maggie carefully maintains emotional distance from her patients. But when she meets a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, Lakshmi is desperately lonely and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store.

Moved by her plight, Maggie treats Lakshmi in her home office for free, quickly realizing that the despondent woman doesn’t need a shrink; she needs a friend. Determined to empower Lakshmi as a woman who feels valued in her own right, Maggie abandons protocol, and soon doctor and patient have become close friends.

But while their relationship is deeply affectionate, it is also warped by conflicting expectations. When Maggie and Lakshmi open up and share long-buried secrets, the revelations will jeopardize their close bond, shake their faith in each other, and force them to confront painful choices.

Thrity Umrigar is a very reliable author – she delivers smart, well-written fiction with interesting characters usually from a culture other than my own. I always enjoy her books and I knew going into The Story Hour, I was in for another enjoyable read. I was not wrong.

I found Maggie incredibly annoying, selfish, and overall unlikable, but I do think that she’s not unrealistic. There are plenty of people in the world like Maggie, and although I don’t want them in my (real) life, I’m OK with them in fiction because I can appreciate an author’s ability to write a character like Maggie.

Lakshmi, on the other hand, I loved, rooted for, and wanted to hug. Her loneliness in her marriage, discomfort and unfamiliarity with the United States, and lack of independence from her husband broke my heart. Ultimately Maggie is a catalyst for change in her life and I loved watching Lakshmi blossom and grow into a stronger, more confident person. As the novel goes on, the reader learns more about Lakshmi’s past, and let’s just say, she’s not perfect either – but her choices were always made with clear eyes and with the best of intentions, and I could only admire her for the risks she took and choices she made in the name of love and respect for her family.

The book took several turns I never saw coming, and the ending is the kind of ambiguous one that I actually like. Enough is wrapped up to make me happy, and I choose to believe the loose ends will tie the way I want – that the characters get what I hope for them and things work out in their favor.

I really enjoyed The Story Hour! Umrigar delivers once again, highly recommended!

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

The Book of Unknown AmericansThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Hendriquez
Published by Knopf

From the publisher:

After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave México and come to America. But upon settling at Redwood Apartments, a two-story cinderblock complex just off a highway in Delaware, they discover that Maribel’s recovery-the piece of the American Dream on which they’ve pinned all their hopes-will not be easy. Every task seems to confront them with language, racial, and cultural obstacles. At Redwood also lives Mayor Toro, a high school sophomore whose family arrived from Panamà fifteen years ago. Mayor sees in Maribel something others do not: that beyond her lovely face, and beneath the damage she’s sustained, is a gentle, funny, and wise spirit. But as the two grow closer, violence casts a shadow over all their futures in America. Peopled with deeply sympathetic characters, this poignant yet unsentimental tale of young love tells a riveting story of unflinching honesty and humanity that offers a resonant new definition of what it means to be an American. An instant classic is born.

I loved The World in Half, the first novel by Henriquez, so it was a no-brainer that I’d pick up The Book of Unknown Americans eventually. I found everything I was hoping for in this book: a unique perspective, memorable characters, great writing, and a truly emotional story that brought me to tears. It’s really a beautiful novel in a lot of ways.

I need to read more fiction about different cultures because I always, always love the fresh perspective and a look into a life different from my own. That was certainly the case with this novel – I loved getting inside the Riveras’ home and lives and understanding what the United States would be like (terrifying) for someone brand new to this country who doesn’t speak the language. I can’t even imagine the heartbreak and fear that would  come from sending your child to a school at which you can’t communicate with his/her teachers, administrators, or even the bus driver. Henriquez did such an incredible job getting the immigrant experience across to the reader and I so appreciate her doing so.

Maribel is a sweet but incredibly innocent girl, and I loved seeing the relationship between she and Mayor develop – he truly was there for her and watched out for her and would have done absolutely anything to protect her. For me, though, Maribel’s mother, Alma, is the character that really shined in this novel. Her determination to provide the best for her child is palpable, you can feel her deep love for her child and husband and her desire to do whatever it takes for both of them. The United States is nothing like she’d hoped it would be, yet she continues every single day to persevere and make the best of things, despite terribly difficult odds and circumstances.

The book is heartbreaking in the best and worst ways. As a reader you want the best for this family, but you can’t help but realize that goal is near impossible. The ending shattered me but at the same time, I was left with even more respect and hope for this family.

I really loved this book – it’s just so beautiful and tells a story that most of us need to read. Highly recommended.

The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeThe Three by Sarah Lotz
Published by Little, Brown and Company

From the publisher:

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioral problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behavior becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

The premise of The Three didn’t grab me like it did a lot of others, but when everyone and their mother began raving about it, I knew I had to get on board. I chose it for one of my book clubs – meeting later this week – because I thought it might generate some discussion and because everyone who loved it couldn’t possibly be wrong, right?

Right! I totally get why people loved this novel, and while I didn’t LOOOOVE it myself, I liked it a LOT. It’s the kind of book that is unputdownable, and I definitely raced through it as I desperately hoped for some answers as to why the heck these three kids survived, and just what exactly was behind these simultaneous plane crashes.

This is actually a story within a story, as the entire book is a book written by a fictional journalist, using interviews, newspaper articles, and other medium to create the full story of these plane crashes, subsequent investigations, and getting to know the families of the three children who survived. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s incredibly creative and I think the format worked really well.

Lots of people said they found this book creepy, and that wasn’t really the case for me, with the major exception of the very beginning, where one of the plane crashes is lived through in meticulous detail by someone who perished in that crash. The rest of the book wasn’t exactly scary, but it was tension-filled and had me on the edge of my seat. The kids were a little creepy, but actually the media hysteria and attention surrounding them was even more so. It caused me to really think about how strong of an impact the media has on our day-to-day lives and how the media can take one event and turn it into a complete circus – way, way more than necessary.

Unfortunately, I kind of hated the ending. I don’t always mind ambiguous endings but in this case I wanted more answers. I felt like the book was racing toward an actual conclusion and one wasn’t provided for the reader at all.

Overall – highly recommended! I couldn’t put this book down and I loved the creativity of the whole thing. While the ending left much to be desired, it was still a worthwhile read for me.

The Heiresses by Sara Shepard

The HeiressesThe Heiresses by Sara Shepard
Published by Harper

From the publisher:

You know the Saybrooks. Everyone does. Perhaps you’ve read a profile of them in People or have seen their pictures in the society pages of Vogue. Perhaps while walking along that choice block on Fifth Avenue, you’ve been tempted to enter the ornate limestone building with their family name etched into the pediment above the door.

The only thing more flawless than a Saybrook’s diamond solitaire is the family behind the jewelry empire. Beauties, entrepreneurs, debutantes, and style mavens, they are the epitome of New York City’s high society. But being a Saybrook comes at a price—they are heirs not only to a dizzying fortune but also to a decades-old family curse.

Tragedy strikes the prominent family yet again when thirty-four-year-old Poppy, the most exquisite Saybrook of them all, flings herself from the window of her TriBeCa office. Everyone is shocked that a woman who had it all would end her own life. Then her cousins receive an ominous threat: one heiress down, four to go.

Was it suicide… or murder? In the aftermath of the tragedy, the remaining heiresses—Corinne, the perfectionist; Rowan, the workaholic; Aster, the hedonist; and Natasha, the enigma—wrestle with feelings of sadness, guilt, and, most of all, fear. Now they must uncover the truth about their family before they lose the only thing money can’t buy: their lives.

While I’ve never read the Pretty Little Liars books, I do love the TV show on ABC Family, and I’ve enjoyed Shepard’s adult novels, so it didn’t surprise me one bit that I was drawn to The Heiresses. I have to admit that this novel’s premise intrigued me a lot. Rich people, intricate family drama, and a mystery? Sign me up!

The thing about The Heiresses that’s funny is I can SEE it becoming another TV show. It’s got the perfect set-up for TV, and since it’s going to be a series, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes another Pretty Little Liars. And honestly, while I think I’d love watching this on TV, I didn’t love it as a novel. I was entertained for sure, but that’s about where my enjoyment of the novel ended.

I think there were too many characters and too many secrets for this short of a novel – while I think Shepard handled them all well, a few of the characters felt flat and one-note to me. For example, Natasha has distanced herself from the family, but after Poppy’s death she comes back, yet Shepard still gives her very little face time in the book. So the reader has no chance to get to know her, which makes the big reveal at the end (about why she left the family) kind of a let-down – there was no opportunity to care about her as a character throughout the book.

There’s a lot of stuff about these women feeling like they have to play a certain role, and be perfect because they are part of a famous family, and it just seemed kind of … superficial? Obvious? I’m not sure what the word is that I’m looking for.

The Heiresses is a planned series, but I don’t think I’ll read the rest of the books. What I will do, though, is watch the TV show if it ever happens.

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Torn AwayTorn Away by Jennifer Brown
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher:

Jersey Cameron has always loved a good storm. Watching the clouds roll in and the wind pick up. Smelling the electricity in the air. Dancing barefoot in the rain. She lives in the Midwest, after all, where the weather is sure to keep you guessing. Jersey knows what to do when the tornado sirens sound. But she never could have prepared for this.

When her town is devastated by a tornado, Jersey loses everything. As she struggles to overcome her grief, she’s sent to live with relatives she hardly knows-family who might as well be strangers. In an unfamiliar place, can Jersey discover that even on the darkest of days, there are some things no tornado can destroy?

I was a huge fan of Jennifer Brown’s first two novels for teens, Hate List and Bitter End, but she’s written several since that I haven’t read, so I was excited to dive back into her work with Torn Away. Let me tell you, this book left me an emotional wreck. From beginning to end, I held Jersey close to my heart and what happens to her in this novel is beyond devastating. I read this book in one sitting and I pretty much sobbed throughout the entire second half.

The thing about Torn Away is that the book starts with this tornado, almost from the very first page. The reader gets to know about Jersey’s life before the tornado through flashbacks and her describing things for the reader – so really, the whole book is just Jersey and what she’s going through, you don’t have much time to get to know other characters. So it’s next to impossible NOT to let this one character take over the reader’s whole heart as the story goes on.

What happens to Jersey is beyond heartbreaking. Not only does she lose her family, home, friends, everything to this tornado, but the one person left in her life (her stepfather) ends up sending her away to her biological father’s family – a family she’s never even met, let alone is close enough to where she’d want to live with them. This family is AWFUL. I cried the entire way through Jersey’s time with these people, I just could not get how it was possible to treat another person, your FAMILY member at that, so horribly. 

Oh, and about Jersey’s stepfather? Yes, he lost everything too, but my goodness what a selfish man he was. It was just truly sad to read how he basically refused to take care of her and passed her off to whoever would take her. So, so sad. 

Ultimately Jersey does end up with people who love her and her story is one of hope and resilience against the most difficult of odds. I was satisfied with the ending, after feeling so deeply for Jersey I was desperate for her to find the love and home she needed. This is an emotionally difficult read, but it’s so worth it. Jersey will crawl into your heart and stay there, and she’s not a character I’ll soon forget. Highly recommended.

The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
Published by Mulholland Books

From the publisher:

When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.

But as Strike investigates, it becomes clear that there is more to Quine’s disappearance than his wife realizes. The novelist has just completed a manuscript featuring poisonous pen-portraits of almost everyone he knows. If the novel were to be published, it would ruin lives—meaning that there are a lot of people who might want him silenced.

When Quine is found brutally murdered under bizarre circumstances, it becomes a race against time to understand the motivation of a ruthless killer, a killer unlike any Strike has encountered before…

Robert Galbraith, AKA J.K. Rowling, has done it again – written an engaging, thoughtful, suspenseful mystery with fully realized, interesting characters, and overall created another novel that I just could NOT put down.

The Silkworm is darker, grittier, and more gruesome than the first book in this series, but weirdly the gore didn’t bother me (much). It felt appropriate to the story and I didn’t feel that it was gratuitous at all. But I feel it’s important to warn you – there is some gross stuff happening here. The details of Quine’s murder and exactly how he was murdered are pretty horrific, but you’d just have to read the book to understand that it fit the context of Quine’s personality and his life and everything just right.

I don’t even know what to say about The Silkworm, I just enjoyed it SO much. Besides the suspense of trying to figure out the murderer (and it was quite suspenseful, there were LOTS of possible suspects with valid motives), I just loved getting to know Strike and Robin more and I loved the inside look into publishing – something it’s clear Rowling has lots of personal experience with. The way Strike and Robin are developing as characters throughout this series, so far at least, is perfection in my book. The reader is given some of them, but not too much, enough to intrigue and keep reading and keep hoping to get to know them better as the series progresses. The relationship between the two of them took an interesting course in this book but I trust Rowling not to steer them wrong. I also loved how much more involved Robin was in the private investigating, as it definitely seems like she’s going to figure even more prominently in Strike’s practice as this series continues.

I just loved The Silkworm and there’s not much else I can say about it. Galbraith is Rowling at her absolute finest and I’m so excited to continue reading these books.

 

Mini-reviews – The Death Cure and Neverwhere

The Death Cure (Maze Runner, #3)The Death Cure by James Dashner
Published by Delacorte Books for Young Readers

This third book in The Maze Runner trilogy was, thankfully, a good conclusion to the series. After severely disliking the second book, I was nervous to pick up The Death Cure, but luckily for me Dashner turned it around and I was pleasantly surprised by the final installment. What made me happiest about this novel is that, for the most part, answers about this world and why things are the way they are were provided. Also, several of the relationships between characters were solidified to my satisfaction. It’s difficult to review a third book in a series for fear of spoiling the other two books, so I won’t say much else. But the ending was interesting – I thought things were all tied up, but when I was talking to a friend about it, she thought something completely different, which would have meant that Dashner ended the whole thing with an ambiguous twist. So I’m still puzzling over that. Thoughts from those of you who have read the series? Email me if you want!

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks

This paranormal fantasy stuff isn’t usually my thing, but I’ll read just about anything for one of my book clubs, so here we are. Hmm. What to say about Neverwhere? I don’t know that I appreciated it as much as I should have. I feel like Neil Gaiman is this epic author, a guy who has tons of fans and millions of people absolutely adore his books and think he’s a genius, yet I don’t know that I necessarily got what was so special about this novel. Sure, I am overwhelmed by the creativity at work here. This is an entirely new world Gaiman dreamed up and communicated to the reader in amazing detail in just one novel – a pretty incredible feat, in my opinion. I was invested in the main character’s fate and very intrigued by the world Gaiman created. While I was entertained while reading Neverwhere, I never had the experience that I just could not put the book down. I liked this book, it was different from what I usually read and therefore a fun departure from that, but not much else. It wasn’t earth-shattering by any means, at least not for me. What else should I read by Gaiman to get a full picture of his brilliance? Because, sadly, Neverwhere didn’t exactly convince me.