The Furies by Natalie Haynes

The FuriesThe Furies by Natalie Haynes
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

When Alex Morris loses her fiancé in dreadful circumstances, she moves from London to Edinburgh to make a break with the past. Alex takes a job at a Pupil Referral Unit, which accepts the students excluded from other schools in the city. These are troubled, difficult kids and Alex is terrified of what she’s taken on.

There is one class – a group of five teenagers – who intimidate Alex and every other teacher on The Unit. But with the help of the Greek tragedies she teaches, Alex gradually develops a rapport with them. Finding them enthralled by tales of cruel fate and bloody revenge, she even begins to worry that they are taking her lessons to heart, and that a whole new tragedy is being performed, right in front of her…

My number one recommendation to those of you who decide to pick up this book based on the summary and/or the fact that it has been compared to novels like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is this: Lower your expectations.

I say this because I decided to read The Furies for those exact reasons, and I found myself disappointed. Had I gone into the book blind, however, I think I would have felt differently about my reading experience.

There are several great things about this book. I love almost any book set in a school setting, preferably boarding school, and while this isn’t a book in a boarding school, it had enough of that insular, school-is-everything feel to it that I was immensely satisfied with the setting. The characters are rich and leap right off the page – although Alex seems a bit one-note in the beginning, as the novel goes on, the fact that her guard is always up (even to the reader) makes perfect sense once the reader understands her better. The students are interesting, different, and none of them are obvious – they each evolve and grow over the course of the novel and make unexpected choices. I liked Robert and admired his protectiveness over Alex and over his students.

The focus on Greek tragedies was unique, but I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly interested in learning about these plays along with the students. What I did like, though, was each individual students’ take on what they were learning, I liked how they each took the plays and figured out a way to make them personal, to connect them with their real lives somehow.

In the end, though, I was disappointed by what I felt was a lackluster climax, especially when I felt that the book was barreling towards something that was supposed to be very suspenseful, interesting, psychological thriller-ish even. It wasn’t any of those things, and while it was not exactly what I suspected, it wasn’t difficult to guess either – the ending certainly wasn’t shocking.

Here’s the bottom line: Go into The Furies with no expectations and you can’t be disappointed. It is a solid novel with excellent characters and writing, a book that I simply built up in my head to be more than it was in reality. I liked it but, unfortunately, expected something different from what I got, and the fact that I was left underwhelmed is no one’s fault but my own. Read it for yourself and let me know what you think.

In the Age of Love and Chocolate by Gabrielle Zevin

In the Age of Love and Chocolate (Birthright, #3)In the Age of Love and Chocolate by Gabrielle Zevin
Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

From the publisher:

All These Things I’ve Done, the first novel in the Birthright series, introduced us to timeless heroine Anya Balanchine, a plucky sixteen year old with the heart of a girl and the responsibilities of a grown woman. Now eighteen, life has been more bitter than sweet for Anya. She has lost her parents and her grandmother, and has spent the better part of her high school years in trouble with the law. Perhaps hardest of all, her decision to open a nightclub with her old nemesis Charles Delacroix has cost Anya her relationship with Win.

Still, it is Anya’s nature to soldier on. She puts the loss of Win behind her and focuses on her work. Against the odds, the nightclub becomes an enormous success, and Anya feels like she is on her way and that nothing will ever go wrong for her again. But after a terrible misjudgment leaves Anya fighting for her life, she is forced to reckon with her choices and to let people help her for the first time in her life.

It’s really hard to talk about a conclusion of a series to people who may or may not have read the rest of the series. So instead, what I’ll do is recommend that you pick up this awesome YA series, beginning with All These Things I’ve Done.

In these books, Zevin imagines a world only about 75 years from now where chocolate and coffee are illegal. Anya Balanchine is our main character, a plucky, smart, and determined teenager who is dedicated to her family and will do anything to protect those she loves. Oh, and she’s the daughter of a major player in organized crime – her family is in the illegal chocolate business.

There are so many things about this series I loved, and I’m happy to say that the conclusion to it was almost perfect.

Please read these books! They are awesome.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

LandlineLandline by Rainbow Rowell
Published by St. Martin’s Press

From the publisher:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect for him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened

Don’t you hate it when you read a book by a favorite author and the book isn’t OMG AMAZING like you think all of that author’s books should be? Well … this was the case for me with Landline. What’s annoying is that I feel like if another author had written this same book I might have thought more highly of it … but since I have such high expectations for Rowell, it fell a little flat for me.

The main issue I had with the novel is that I plain didn’t like Neal, and I didn’t see the love between the two of them at all, not once in the entire novel. Even when Rowell is showing the reader the younger Neal, the Neal Georgie fell in love with all those years ago, I didn’t get it. He was just … there … and I don’t know if maybe Georgie liked that about him, that he was the polar opposite of Seth, the polar opposite of the kinds of people she worked with and was friends with and maybe had been with in the past, or what, but I personally didn’t get it.

The things that Rowell excels at are still here, though, for the most part. Smart, zippy dialogue. A main character that doesn’t have it all figured out but is certainly trying (while my feeling for Neal weren’t great, I LOVED Georgie). Family dynamics that are complicated, interesting, and funny. I did like a lot of elements of the book, truly I did. I just think, overall, it wasn’t quite up to her usual standards.

I loved how the book ended, though. Regardless of my feelings about Neal, he’s still the one Georgie chose to marry all those years ago, and ultimately I feel like the book was her coming to terms with the fact that marriage is a choice, you choose to be with someone every day, and she actually decided in the end to make a real choice about her marriage and her life. I felt like she finally understood that she couldn’t just sit back and let life happen to her, she couldn’t just hope that she and Neal would work out, that she had to actively work on her marriage and herself if she wanted to be happy. I feel like that’s the message here and it’s a good, very important one. So good on you, Rowell, for that.

Overall, Landline is my least favorite of Rowell’s novels but still one to consider. And I think I would have liked it more if my expectations weren’t so darn high. Oh well.

California by Edan Lepucki

CaliforniaCalifornia by Edan Lepucki
Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable despite the isolation and hardships they face. Consumed by fear of the future and mourning for a past they can’t reclaim, they seek comfort and solace in one other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.

Terrified of the unknown but unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses its own dangers. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.

California is almost two separate novels in one. In the beginning of the book, and for the first, oh at least 100 pages, Cal and Frida are all alone, living off the land, in this small shack they found after fleeing Los Angeles. They are happy in their solitude and believe, truly, that the two of them are all each other needs in the world. They meet another family about 50 pages in, and while the other family keeps their distance for the most part, they end up having a camaraderie with them and become friends, sort of. And a bonus – the other couple has been living in the wilderness a lot longer than Cal and Frida have, and are able to teach them skills that make their lives even better.

Just about halfway through the book, Frida and Cal decide to go exploring, and end up finding an entire community they never knew existed. While the people, on the surface, seem to take to Cal and Frida and allow them to be a part of the community, it’s abundantly clear that everyone is holding information back from them, everyone has secrets of their own, and there are huge, important things that Cal and Frida are not being told.

I actually liked both halves of this novel, for very different reasons. I liked the isolationist part because I felt like I was really getting to know and understand the two characters – individually and as a couple. Even in the beginning, Cal and Frida are far from perfect – even though they are super close and rely on one another for everything, they are still holding things back from each other at times. I was also very intrigued by the other family, although it felt from the first meeting that something weird was going on with that family, like there was this strange vibe running underneath all of their interactions.

The second half is more chaotic, and becomes confusing for the reader as it’s unclear who Cal and Frida can trust (and can they even trust each other is a question that’s raised too). But I liked how Lepucki revealed information very slowly to the reader, at the same pace as Frida was getting it herself, and even when it seems like all the cards are on the table (or should be) there are still things about this community that just don’t make sense. I liked the feeling of almost understanding, but there being that extra something just under the surface that I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around. But I have to say, none of the characters in this community were very likable, so I felt like if I stuck with Frida, kept rooting for her, I wouldn’t be too disappointed by whatever happened. And for the most part, I was right.

I hated the ending until I learned that this is the first book in a planned trilogy. Then I hated that it’s a trilogy. UGH.

Anyway – while California wasn’t perfect for me, I liked it more than I expected to and (unfortunately) I’ll be reading the second book if/when it comes out. I can’t be left hanging like this!

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian

Close Your Eyes, Hold HandsClose Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Doubleday

From the publisher:

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is the story of Emily Shepard, a homeless girl living in an igloo made of garbage bags in Burlington. Nearly a year ago, a power plant in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont had a meltdown, and both of Emily’s parents were killed. Devastatingly, her father was in charge of the plant, and the meltdown may have been his fault—was he drunk when it happened? Thousands of people are forced to leave their homes in the Kingdom; rivers and forests are destroyed; and Emily feels certain that as the daughter of the most hated man in America, she is in danger. So instead of following the social workers and her classmates after the meltdown, Emily takes off on her own for Burlington, where she survives by stealing, sleeping on the floor of a drug dealer’s house, inventing a new identity for herself, and befriending a young homeless kid named Cameron. But Emily can’t outrun her past, can’t escape her grief, can’t hide forever-and so she comes up with the only plan that she can.

While I haven’t read all of Bohjalian’s books, I have long been a fan of his work, and it’s entirely possible that Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is his best novel yet – and that’s saying a lot because I can’t think of a book I’ve read of his I haven’t loved. It’s been a week or so since I finished reading this book and I still can’t stop thinking about it (although I’ve finished a few books since).

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is heartbreaking and devastating and for most of the book it seems like it is not possible for anything good to happen to Emily, ever. What is amazing to me is how well Bohjalian got into the mind of a sixteen-year-old girl. While incredibly resourceful and intelligent, Emily’s thinking is clearly that of a teenager. Instead of turning to adults in her life for help (her friends’ parents, teachers, whoever), she is terrified by the potential that they will blame her for her father’s mistake, and instead runs away and becomes a homeless person who occasionally does drugs and sells her body for a place to sleep at night and/or something to eat. It’s obvious to the reader that if Emily had just let a trusted adult help her in those first few days after the fallout, her life could have been entirely different, but it’s impossible for Emily, in her teenage brain, to see that possibility.

But I’m not trying to downplay Emily’s choices – she truly felt that she had no choices and so she made the best possible life she could have. She made decisions out of fear, yes, but she was going through a terrifying situation that I cannot even imagine having to endure. She went from one day having a mostly great life to the next day every single element of that life had been taken from her. She then led a pretty desperate existence, but was so determined, so plucky and smart and tough and so many other things I could NEVER be – my admiration for her runs far and deep. I loved her.

I cried several times while reading this book. OMG THE DOG. (That’s all I will say about the dog.) This is an extremely dark, mostly sad, book, but in the end there is redemption and hope, I promise. You just have to make it through the muck and horribleness to get there.

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands is an emotionally difficult read but very worth it. It’s beautiful in its own way and Emily is a character you won’t soon forget. Highly recommended.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

From the publisher:

Meet the Cooke family. Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke. As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover. Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.

Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism. And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.

And Fern, Rosemary’s beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief? Fern’s is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

First of all, there are some summaries of this book that give away a pretty big spoiler, something that is integral to the book, but something that you don’t find out until maybe 75 pages in, something that I personally was very, very happy I didn’t know going in. So don’t read any summaries but the one above, and you will enjoy the surprise as I did.

Rosemary isn’t particularly likable in the beginning of the book, but as the reader learns more about this family it becomes very apparent just why that is the case. This family is so the opposite of normal, yet in some ways they are a typical American family, damaged and dysfunctional and yet still full of love for one another.

There’s so much I want to say about this book but cannot because I don’t want to ruin it for you. It’s so, so gorgeous and heartbreaking and I couldn’t put it down. I sobbed while reading it and when I think about it too hard, I get teary-eyed once again. I loved We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and I highly encourage you to read it too.

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!