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!

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.