Pieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser

Pieces of UsPieces of Us by Margie Gelbwasser
Published by Flux Books
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Every summer, brothers Alex and Kyle and sisters Julie and Katie get together at the lakeside community where both sets of grandparents reside. When the four of them are together, they can forget their real lives and become different teenagers. But when the school year starts back up, Alex cannot control his rage at his father who killed himself and at his mother who he blames for his father’s death, and Kyle is angry at Alex’s abuse and at his mother for not caring about how Alex acts. Katie pretends to be the perfect, popular, happy girl that everyone thinks she is, while hiding a devastating secret that would destroy her if anyone found out, and Julie is busy fading into the background of their home, with a mother who doesn’t care about her and a sister who doesn’t want her around. When Katie’s huge secret threatens to get out, these four teens’ lives will be changed forever.

I don’t even know what to say about Pieces of Us. This novel is suspenseful and absolutely heartbreaking. The characters are the kind that you simultaneously love and hate, the story is the kind that is incredibly difficult to put down. But I don’t want to talk too much about the story itself, because it’s best that you go in not knowing much about Katie’s big secret or what these four teens come to mean to one another.

I cannot tell you eloquently enough the difficulty I had with these characters! I felt so much sympathy for each one of them, yet their actions at times made me unbelievably angry. Alex, most especially, was really a horrible person with the things that he did, but at the same time it was clear that his emotional pain was causing him to be such an abusive, raging person. He had been through so much emotional turmoil in his short life, and he took all that energy and channeled it into treating everyone else horrifically. It broke my heart and made me want to throw the book across the room. But I also wanted to hug him and help him heal. Do you see the conundrum? And the other three made me feel the same way, to a degree, just for different reasons.

Pieces of Us is pretty sexually graphic, so I wouldn’t recommend it for younger teens. But for those of you that can handle books that don’t shy away from real-life pain and incredibly heartbreaking situations, Pieces of Us is a good choice. You will hate these characters but love them too. You will be angry at the book but also desperate to find out how everything turns out. Recommended for readers with a high emotional pain tolerance.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

From the Hardcover editionIs Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Random House

Mindy Kaling, best known for her role as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, is more than what meets the eye. She is not only a head writer for the same television show in which she is an actress, but she also has experience writing and starring in an Off-Broadway show. In this hilarious memoir, Mindy gives her take on boys, shopping, fame, comedy, and what it’s really like to work at The Office. 

I’ve seen Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Compared to Bossypants, Tina Fey’s memoir, and in fact Kaling actually addresses that in the book, but I have to tell you that the books aren’t much alike. Besides both being memoirs of female comedy writers and actresses, they don’t have anything else in common. Kaling has a personality and writing style that is all her own, and the subjects she covers in her book are completely different from what Fey discusses in hers.

However, they are both good in different ways! Kaling has the kind of humor that I highly enjoy – she is hilarious and self-deprecating and not afraid to laugh at her own expense, while still having the confidence that a person must need to be successful in her industry. She is a regular person who grew up with regular immigrant parents and a big brother. She endured bullying to a degree as a kid because she was always, as she calls it, “chubby”. Her confidence in herself and belief in what she truly wanted to do led her to become a comedy writer for The Office, and it was fun for me to read about the journey she took to get there.

I really liked this one. I think you will enjoy it even if you aren’t a fan of The Office, although familiarity with Kaling in that respect certainly helps. If you enjoy funny, sarcastic, self-deprecating humor, Kaling is your girl. Give her memoir a try.

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman

This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman
Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins

Liz Bergamots is enjoying her life in New York City with her husband, Richard, and two children, Jake and Coco. But everything changes for Liz when fifteen-year-old Jake is sent a sexually explicit video by a thirteen-year-old girl with a crush on him. Without even thinking, Jake forwards the video to a friend, who forwards it to another friend, and so on, and before he knows it, the video has gone viral. How each member of this family chooses to react to this situation has devastating effects on everything that follows.

My book club chose This Beautiful Life as the February selection, a choice I was completely on board with because I thought the premise of this one sounded fascinating and, unfortunately, entirely realistic. I was sad that I had to miss the meeting due to a work conflict, but had I been there, I would have been a loud voice saying that I was NOT a fan of this novel. Let me tell you why.

The biggest problem I had with This Beautiful Life (or problems, I suppose) was the characters. Every single one of them. I hated the way they each reacted to the video and its aftermath, I hated the way they interacted with one another, and I hated the way they each contributed significantly to the destruction of their family. Liz especially reacted so destructively and almost disgustingly to what happened to her son. It was just not good.

Everything about this novel was just sad. The young girl who found it necessary to email a pornographic video of herself to Jake, the person that Jake turned into by the end of the novel, the way the head of the school reacted to this situation – all of it was beyond sad. By the end, there was just nothing about this book that could redeem it in my eyes.

I suppose I did find the writing in This Beautiful Life to be quite good; in fact I might be willing to read another Schulman novel based on the writing alone. But overall I just did not like this book. It may be a fascinating topic, but it just didn’t work for me.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

From the Hardcover editionThe Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

Victoria Jones has spent her entire eighteen years in the foster care system, and the one thing she has taken from her horrific experiences has been the Victorian language of flowers. At eighteen, she ages out of the system and becomes homeless, living in a public park where she cultivates her own little garden. It is there where she is discovered by a local florist, and Victoria finds her calling in creating beautiful bouquets for people that, using the language of flowers, convey exactly the emotions they are trying to showcase. But her carefully constructed new life changes drastically when a stranger at the flower market catches her attention and causes her to reexamine the past she’d thought was left behind forever.

I had seen this book around quite a bit but I only became interested in reading it when my friend Heather said it was one of her favorite books she read last year. I trust her judgment when it comes to great books, so I knew I had to read The Language of Flowers sooner than later. And oh my gosh, Heather was so right about this one! This book will stay with me for a long, long time.

This is the kind of book that, when not reading it, I was obsessively thinking about it. I read a lot of books, but that doesn’t happen to me often, probably because I have a lot of other things going on in my life than what I am currently reading. But, no joke, whenever I was forced to put down The Language of Flowers, I would count the minutes until I could get back to it, even if I could only sneak in a single page I was desperate to get back to Victoria and her story. It was that compelling, that real to me.

And oh my goodness, did I feel for Victoria. That girl broke my heart. Her situation was just so unimaginably awful, I couldn’t even comprehend what it would be like to live in her shoes. She literally had no family, not one person to love her, and as the book goes on it becomes clear that the one person who did love and care for her as a child Victoria pushed away. So, so sad. But she goes on a major emotional, personal journey throughout the course of the novel, and let me tell you, while it was extremely painful to read at times, in the end it was totally worth it. Victoria’s story is like nothing you’ve read before, in the best possible way. She will break your heart and put it back together again, over and over throughout the novel.

I loved this book. LOVED. I sobbed while reading it, in both happy and sad ways. Please read it, you won’t be sorry.

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson

The Underside of JoyThe Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson
Published by Dutton Adult, an imprint of Penguin
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Ella Beene has an idyllic life in northern California with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. But when Joe dies in a freak accident, Ella is left alone to raise these two children that she’s always thought of as her own. Unfortunately, their biological mother, Paige, has a different idea. Although Paige hasn’t seen the children in three years, and everything Ella knows about Paige has led her to believe the children were abandoned by their mother, Paige comes back to town with a different story – and a fight in her to get the children back and reclaim her family as her own. As the custody battle between Ella and Paige gets ugly, secrets that Joe had been keeping from Ella begin to emerge and call into question everything Ella always knew to be true about her husband and his past. She is desperate to keep her children, but she is also desperate for answers about the life she’s so carefully built and cultivated.

When I first picked up The Underside of Joy, I did not know what to expect, which I think was a good thing. I hadn’t read any other reviews of this book and wasn’t familiar with the premise, which definitely contributed to my enjoyment of it. I had no preconceived notions. In fact, I need to make a note to myself to read more books in this fashion – it helped me to just see the book for what it is, not for what my expectations of what it would be or for what I wanted it to be.

Anyway. The Underside of Joy is a fascinating look into a situation that is difficult to imagine – a stepmother and biological mother fighting over these two beautiful, innocent children. There is no good guy or bad guy in this story, even though from the start it seems clear that Ella is the obvious choice for who should raise these kids. But as the story unravels, things come to light that make the reader question his or her assumptions about who is the right mother for these children.

As I read the novel, I felt intense sympathy for Ella’s pain and the situation she was in. I also admired her as a character – she was distraught over Joe’s death, panicked over the idea of losing her kids, and desperate for answers about her husband’s past, yet she never felt sorry for herself or did anything other than attempt to move forward and protect her family. I was amazed at her strength in the face of such difficult circumstances and it really made me feel closer to her character. Shockingly, I liked Paige, once I got to know her, as well. She had a much different situation from Ella, but what she was going through was not much easier than what Ella was going through. Once I got to know her and understand her motivations, while I didn’t exactly admire her, I felt for her and wanted desperately for these two women to work something out so the real winner of the whole mess was the kids. so that both women could be a part of their lives.

Halverson deals with many issues in this novel – the death of one’s spouse, custody battles, postpartum depression – yet the book never feels heavy-handed. She carefully weaves all of these themes together into a novel that really works, with characters that shine despite their circumstances. I really enjoyed this one and I highly recommend it.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Published by Dutton Juvenile, an imprint of Penguin

Hazel is a teenager living with terminal cancer. Although she benefited from an experimental drug several years back that extended her life and shrunk her tumor a considerable amount, she knows that her cancer will, one day, kill her. She is forced by her parents to go to a Cancer Kid Support Group, and it is there she meets Augustus Waters – the boy who teaches her that no matter how short life is, it can always surprise you in new and exciting ways.

I am a John Green fangirl, I must admit. Looking for Alaska shattered me to my core [my review]. Paper Towns, while not as emotional of a read for me, was fantastic and I loved the adventure within the novel [my review]. I even liked Will Grayson, Will Grayson quite a bit – and that’s the one John Green that people seem to have mixed opinions on [my review]. So it was with much excitement and anticipation that I picked up The Fault in Our Stars. And wouldn’t you know – John Green did not disappoint, not even a little bit.

You would expect that a book about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love would be unbelievably depressing, but not in Green’s capable hands. He managed to make this story not about the fact that they have cancer, but about two teenagers living life in spite of the fact that at least one of them is terminal. This book is not about the cancer, not at all. It’s about these teenagers, and while their cancer is a very real thing hovering in the background of their lives, affecting every decision they make and everything they can or cannot do with their lives, the book is about Hazel and Augustus – not about Hazel’s cancer or Augustus’ cancer or both.

What can I say? I loved both of them. I can’t even properly “review” this book because my heart was so enmeshed with everything about this story, I can’t separate myself enough to do the book justice. Just read it.

And if you haven’t read a John Green book yet, what the heck are you waiting for? He is amazing. His books are amazing. He is saying something, really and truly, in a profound but very quiet way. It’s incredible and you need to read his novels to get it.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick
Published by Scholastic Press

Twelve-year-old Hugo lives in a Paris train station, alone, as he has been orphaned by his father’s recent passing. When his father died, Hugo quietly took over his duties as clock keeper for the station, and since he has no idea how to cash the stack of paychecks he is compiling, he is forced to steal food at every opportunity just to survive. His life takes a big turn when he meets a young girl whose father runs the toy booth in the train station.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is really something else. Told in both words and pictures, Hugo’s story broke my heart and inspired me at the same time. Selznick’s ability to blend the story of Hugo with his beautiful illustrations is absolutely remarkable and can’t be explained – it needs to be experienced for one to understand how seamlessly he is able to bring together these two elements of the book. The Invention of Hugo Cabret isn’t just a book – it is truly an experience, one that I absolutely loved.

It is impossible for the reader not to fall in love with Hugo immediately. He is such a young child, yet with so much responsibility on his shoulders, and so much emotional baggage to carry around and fight through. But his attitude is one of doing what needs to be done without complaining, without thinking his life could be better, without expecting anything else than what he is used to. He is amazingly mature for his age yet still has held on to the genuine curiosity that only a child can truly have.

I don’t know what else to say about The Invention of Hugo Cabret besides the fact that you should read it. This is truly a magical story, one that is not to be missed.