Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Knopf
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Station Eleven was one of my most anticipated reads this year. When I met Emily St. John Mandel at SIBA 2012, I almost died … I fangirled so hard. This book was fantastic and absolutely did not disappoint.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and what I love about this author is she finds unique and surprising ways to make the various characters and their story arcs come together. The book is full of those “ah-ha” moments when you understand how one character and/or timeline is related to something that you thought was entirely separate. The ONE thing I didn’t love about Station Eleven is that, at times, the characters felt a bit at arms’ length from me as the reader. While they were written incredibly well, I didn’t always feel the closeness to the characters I wanted. That being said, that is literally the only thing I didn’t love about this book.

However! I loved so much about this novel. The fact that this is a post-apocalyptic novel shouldn’t scare you away, as it is entirely different from any book of its kind that I’ve read before. For the most part, the story takes place fifteen years after the flu that destroys the world, so the characters are in a place where they have survived the worst of it and are deeply entrenched in a new way of life. So much of this book is not really about the end of the world at all, it’s about the people who are left and the lives they’ve clung to, the new world they’ve made for themselves.

And her writing is to die for. There is a short chapter listing many of the things the world lost once the flu destroyed everything and this might be my very favorite part of the whole book. It’s just such a perfect snapshot of how beautiful Mandel’s writing is – how clear and concise, yet filled to the brim with so much feeling and emotion it is. I just love it.

I’m not sure what else to say because Station Eleven is truly excellent. I am so happy Mandel is getting so much attention for this novel because she’s the kind of author you don’t see every day. Her stuff is unique and interesting and she is truly so talented. Highly recommended!

 

My Real Children by Jo Walton

My Real ChildrenMy Real Children by Jo Walton
Published by Tor Books

From the publisher:

It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Okay, so I loved this book. Let’s just start there. Not just “oh it’s a great book” love, but “OMG AMAZEBALLS I need more Jo Walton in my life!!!” love. So that being said, I’m not sure I can quite do the book justice. But I’ll try.

I was going to start by saying that I hadn’t read a book like this before, but that’s not exactly true, because My Real Children reminded me of The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. And I really, really liked that book. A LOT. But it’s a bit long, and very literary, and while those things are fantastic and I enjoy a meaty, literary novel from time to time, My Real Children felt … easier? More authentic? Not sure exactly what I mean, but it was smoother, I was wrapped up in Patricia’s story, her two lives, from the very first page, and it was like I was a part of both stories, rather than being outside of them as a reader.

This novel just delivers so much to think about. If you had the option of choosing a life of personal happiness while the world around you was slowly going to shambles OR a mostly peaceful, normalish world with an incredibly unhappy personal life, which would you choose? I think I know what I’d pick, but even on the surface, the “happier” life for Patricia has a ton of challenges and things that just make it really, really hard. And even in her disastrous personal life, ultimately there are things that happen that are beautiful and bring pure joy to her life … so which is “better”? Which is the actual life that Patricia lived?

What I like about My Real Children is that it asks a lot of questions but gives very few answers. It leaves most everything up to the reader’s own interpretation. When I first finished the book, that annoyed me, but upon thinking about it for several weeks I admire what Walton did. I love that I’m still thinking about this book over a month after I finished reading it. I like that I’m wanting to go back and reread it, to try to decipher for myself some clues that Walton may have left throughout the text to help me uncover what her intentions with Patricia’s lives actually were (I don’t know if there are clues, but I want there to be). I love that I’m hoping Walton’s other books are as fantastic as this because I am already a huge fan of hers.

I loved this book. Please read it. That is all.

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

The House We Grew Up InThe House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
Published by Atria Books
Review copy provided by She Reads

From the publisher:

Meet the Bird family. They live in a honey-colored house in a picture-perfect Cotswolds village, with rambling, unkempt gardens stretching beyond. Pragmatic Meg, dreamy Beth, and tow-headed twins Rory and Rhys all attend the village school and eat home-cooked meals together every night. Their father is a sweet gangly man named Colin, who still looks like a teenager with floppy hair and owlish, round-framed glasses. Their mother is a beautiful hippy named Lorelei, who exists entirely in the moment. And she makes every moment sparkle in her children’s lives.

Then one Easter weekend, tragedy comes to call. The event is so devastating that, almost imperceptibly, it begins to tear the family apart. Years pass as the children become adults, find new relationships, and develop their own separate lives. Soon it seems as though they’ve never been a family at all. But then something happens that calls them back to the house they grew up in — and to what really happened that Easter weekend so many years ago.

I don’t really know where to start with this novel. The summary is one that will make you think these children grew up with a perfect life, until one horrific event shattered everything, but truth be told, that’s not really the case. The Bird family had never been perfect – in fact, it seemed to me that they were only hanging on by a thread when everything suddenly spiraled out of control. All that being said, this book is about a family with some MAJOR problems.

While each character in this novel is flawed in their own way, Lorelai – the matriarch of the family – really takes the cake. She is unable to deal with the devastating event that happened to this family, so she turns away from her husband and kids, and begins a relationship with another woman, and begins hoarding so much stuff to the point that, eventually, no one can even live in the home. When they siblings and their father eventually come back to the house, years have gone on like this and they are shocked to discover what Lorelai’s house has become. Most of the book is about the family coming together, figuring things out and learning to deal with one another – learning to forgive when forgiveness doesn’t seem possible.

There’s a lot to take in here - The House We Grew Up In isn’t an easy, quick read by any means. This family’s problems run far and deep, and every single person in this novel has issues that they are unable or unwilling to deal with. But these are the kinds of novels I tend to really enjoy – these family drama type books, where you get to know the characters intimately and coming away feeling like they are real people, like you just got to know another family. This is the way I felt upon finishing this novel, and I ultimately enjoyed it quite a bit. It was incredibly sad to watch this family unravel so quickly, but that made the efforts each one put in towards coming back together that much more meaningful.

Lisa Jewell is a new author to me and I really appreciate everything she’s done with this read. I will definitely be looking for more of her books in the future!

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Big Little LiesBig Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Published by Putnam Adult

From the publisher:

Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:   Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

I was so happy when my book club chose this as our October read because I was dying to read it anyway. Liane Moriarty is one of those authors who just gets it. She doesn’t write light fiction – she writes books about Big Issues, dressed up in a pretty package to throw you off the scent. But this, my friends, is no fluffy stuff. There are major things happening in this book.

In the beginning of the story, you learn that someone has died at a school function. But you don’t know who, or why, or how, only that the police are suspicious that foul play was involved. As the book goes on, the puzzle pieces slowly click into place and you begin to think about what might have happened, who could have died and who might have had something to do with it. But it’s not crystal clear until the very end. All of that added up to a very suspenseful novel, besides the fact that the book is filled with all kinds of other drama.

There is domestic violence in Big Little Lies. Moriarty doesn’t shy away from the reality of that, from what it feels like to be abused, physically and emotionally, and what it feels like to love that person and want desperately for them to be different. She doesn’t shy away from how terrifying it is for a person to know that they are trapped in a situation in which they have zero control, that if a woman leaves her abuser he is more than likely going to find her and hurt her worse than ever, even attempting to kill her. This is not a joke, and Moriarty treats it with the seriousness it deserves. This character needs help, desperately, and as a reader you can’t help but get that awful nauseous feeling in your stomach every time these characters have an altercation – it is horrifying and sad and incredibly, terrifyingly, real.

There’s so much to love about this book and I don’t know quite what else to say. The characters are incredibly well-drawn, the dialogue is spot-on, and the plot moves along at a perfect pace. Moriarty totally gets it and I want to devour everything she’s written. She’s truly fantastic and you need to read Big Little Lies.

Reunion by Hannah Pittard

Reunion: A NovelReunion by Hannah Pittard
Published by Grand Central Publishing
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewer’s Program

From the publisher:

Five minutes before her flight is set to take off, Kate Pulaski, failed screenwriter and newly-failed wife, learns that her estranged father killed himself. More shocked than saddened by the news, she reluctantly gives in to her older siblings’ request that she join them–and her many half-siblings, and most of her father’s five former wives–in Atlanta, their birthplace, for a final farewell.

Written with huge heart and bracing wit, REUNION takes place over the following four days, as family secrets are revealed, personal deceits are uncovered, and Kate–an inveterate liar looking for a way to come clean–slowly begins to acknowledge the overwhelming similarities between herself and the man she never thought she’d claim as an influence, much less a father.

I didn’t really like Pittard’s debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, but to be honest when I saw this book I only recognized the name of the author and couldn’t remember why. Upon finishing Reunion, I realized who the author was and my reaction to this read overall made perfect sense. I definitely liked this one better than her first novel, but it still wasn’t a home run for me.

What I did like about this book were the intricate, completely dysfunctional, family dynamics at play. I’m not sure you can even consider everyone in this book “family” – three ex-wives, one current wife, and their children – basically five separate families all came together for this one guy’s funeral. There’s obviously going to jealousy and tension and all kinds of crazy emotions, and Pittard got those aspects of the book so, so right. Also, the core group is Kate and her older siblings, Elliot and Nell, and, as I usually enjoy reading about siblings, really liked the dynamic of the three of them. Each one is deeply flawed individually, but they each in their own way aim to make one another better – and although they certainly don’t succeed every time, there is a current of unconditional love running through their bond. Basically, they are all the “real” family the three of them have, so they value that family above just about everything else.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like Kate at all – I found her spoiled, selfish, and completely out of touch with how her actions affected those around her. Her brother and sister were slightly better, but still – these people had been seriously scarred by their father’s behavior and by events from their childhoods. While I often can enjoy a book with characters I don’t like, in this case I found that difficult. Also I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending – while some loose ends were wrapped up, and some relationships ended up in a better place than they began, I still didn’t see much character growth happening. Kate still seemed selfish and shallow when the book ended, and that was frustrating for me.

But I do like Pittard’s writing, and I think she takes ordinary situations and adds a creative edge to them that makes her work more interesting than most. I’m still up for whatever she’s got next, with an open mind, because her concepts are so unique, although Reunion was just good for me – not great.

All I Love and Know by Judith Frank

All I Love and Know: A NovelAll I Love and Know by Judith Frank
Published by William Morrow

From the publisher:

For years, Matthew Greene and Daniel Rosen have enjoyed a quiet domestic life together in Northampton, Massachusetts. Opposites in many ways, they have grown together and made their relationship work. But when they learn that Daniel’s twin brother and sister-in-law have been killed in a bombing in Jerusalem, their lives are suddenly, utterly transformed.

In dealing with their families and the need to make a decision about who will raise the deceased couple’s two children, both Matthew and Daniel are confronted with challenges that strike at the very heart of their relationship. What is Matthew’s place in an extended family that does not completely accept him or the commitment he and Daniel have made? How do Daniel’s questions about his identity as a Jewish man affect his life as a gay American? Tensions only intensify when they learn that the deceased parents wanted Matthew and Daniel to adopt the children-six year old Gal, and baby Noam.

The impact this instant new family has on Matthew, Daniel, and their relationship is subtle and heartbreaking, yet not without glimmers of hope. They must learn to reinvent and redefine their bond in profound, sometimes painful ways. What kind of parents can these two men really be? How does a family become strong enough to stay together and endure? And are there limits to honesty or commitment-or love?

All I Love and Know has been compared to a Wally Lamb novel, and Wally Lamb is one of my favorite authors, so it would have been REALLY difficult for Judith Frank to live up to that comparison in my eyes. Well color me shocked – she not only lived up to my expectations, she completely surpassed them. This novel is absolutely fantastic and so complex, so much more than even the above summary explains, so intricate with layers and amazing characters and moral dilemmas and questions that no one can really ever answer … just, the perfect kind of book for me.

I truly do not know what I can say about this novel that will do it justice. These characters are so raw, so real, so unflinchingly honest in their flawed, fragile selves – I wanted to hug them all. There are no bad guys here, every single person is doing their best with an awful, heartbreaking-beyond-words situation – even the ones (mostly Daniel’s sister-in-law’s parents) you aren’t supposed to like I couldn’t help but feel for. They lost their daughter, their only child, only to find out a week later that their daughter’s dying wish was for their grandchildren to be raised in America by a gay couple! I mean – just truly awful, tough stuff. For everyone involved.

This book is everything. It’s about love, about parenting, about gay marriage and gay adoption and being gay in a world that still doesn’t come close to the level of love and acceptance it should, about fitting in and not, about staying committed to a person and a relationship even when what you committed to has completely changed, about death and grieving, about Israel/Palestine conflict/politics, about putting together a family that seems irreparably broken, about how difficult, almost impossible, it is to raise normal, sane children who have been damaged so deeply at such a young age, and even more. I don’t know what else to say. It’s beautiful and sad and broke my heart a million times and I hugged it (literally) when I finished. Because it’s just so good. Judith Frank has written something that will stay with me for a long, long time and I cannot WAIT to see what she does next.

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.