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.

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!