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!

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Torn AwayTorn Away by Jennifer Brown
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

From the publisher:

Jersey Cameron has always loved a good storm. Watching the clouds roll in and the wind pick up. Smelling the electricity in the air. Dancing barefoot in the rain. She lives in the Midwest, after all, where the weather is sure to keep you guessing. Jersey knows what to do when the tornado sirens sound. But she never could have prepared for this.

When her town is devastated by a tornado, Jersey loses everything. As she struggles to overcome her grief, she’s sent to live with relatives she hardly knows-family who might as well be strangers. In an unfamiliar place, can Jersey discover that even on the darkest of days, there are some things no tornado can destroy?

I was a huge fan of Jennifer Brown’s first two novels for teens, Hate List and Bitter End, but she’s written several since that I haven’t read, so I was excited to dive back into her work with Torn Away. Let me tell you, this book left me an emotional wreck. From beginning to end, I held Jersey close to my heart and what happens to her in this novel is beyond devastating. I read this book in one sitting and I pretty much sobbed throughout the entire second half.

The thing about Torn Away is that the book starts with this tornado, almost from the very first page. The reader gets to know about Jersey’s life before the tornado through flashbacks and her describing things for the reader – so really, the whole book is just Jersey and what she’s going through, you don’t have much time to get to know other characters. So it’s next to impossible NOT to let this one character take over the reader’s whole heart as the story goes on.

What happens to Jersey is beyond heartbreaking. Not only does she lose her family, home, friends, everything to this tornado, but the one person left in her life (her stepfather) ends up sending her away to her biological father’s family – a family she’s never even met, let alone is close enough to where she’d want to live with them. This family is AWFUL. I cried the entire way through Jersey’s time with these people, I just could not get how it was possible to treat another person, your FAMILY member at that, so horribly. 

Oh, and about Jersey’s stepfather? Yes, he lost everything too, but my goodness what a selfish man he was. It was just truly sad to read how he basically refused to take care of her and passed her off to whoever would take her. So, so sad. 

Ultimately Jersey does end up with people who love her and her story is one of hope and resilience against the most difficult of odds. I was satisfied with the ending, after feeling so deeply for Jersey I was desperate for her to find the love and home she needed. This is an emotionally difficult read, but it’s so worth it. Jersey will crawl into your heart and stay there, and she’s not a character I’ll soon forget. Highly recommended.

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownAll Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Published by Atria Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

Allison Weiss is a typical working mother, trying to balance a business, aging parents, a demanding daughter, and a marriage. But when the website she develops takes off, she finds herself challenged to the point of being completely overwhelmed. Her husband’s becoming distant, her daughter’s acting spoiled, her father is dealing with early Alzheimer’s, and her mother’s barely dealing at all. As she struggles to hold her home and work life together, and meet all of the needs of the people around her, Allison finds that the painkillers she was prescribed for a back injury help her deal with more than just physical discomfort—they help her feel calm and get her through her increasingly hectic days. Sure, she worries a bit that the bottles seem to empty a bit faster each week, but it’s not like she’s some Hollywood starlet partying all night, or a homeless person who’s lost everything. It’s not as if she has an actual problem.

However, when Allison’s use gets to the point that she can no longer control—or hide—it, she ends up in a world she never thought she’d experience outside of a movie theater: rehab. Amid the teenage heroin addicts, the alcoholic grandmothers, the barely-trained “recovery coaches,” and the counselors who seem to believe that one mode of recovery fits all, Allison struggles to get her life back on track, even as she’s convincing herself that she’s not as bad off as the women around her.

Jennifer Weiner is one of my go-to authors – as soon as I know she has a new book out, I’m on it. It was obvious to me that I would read All Fall Down no matter what I heard about it, but the fact that I’ve heard nothing but good things didn’t hurt. I’m happy to say that this novel falls within the range of some of her very best books, and its darker, more serious edge makes it a little different from what she usually does. It’s always fun when a much-beloved author switches things up a bit, especially when the change is for the better.

When a book focuses almost exclusively on one main character, and that character makes deplorable choices, it can be tricky for an author to get the reader to connect to the character and make the reader interested enough in the character’s journey to keep reading. Well, apparently this is not very tricky for Weiner because she nailed it. While Allison is selfish and so deep in her addiction she barely registers the needs of those around her (including her own child), I couldn’t help but root for her to get better. Watching her self-destruct and spiral down into a haze of pain pills was heartbreaking but I continued to hope for the best and have the belief that she would eventually snap out of it and realize the damage she was causing to herself and everyone who loved her.

Another thing Weiner totally nailed is addiction itself. I know exactly how, to the addict, the only thing that matters is the next fix, how the addicted brain is convinced that if only you get one more fix, the next day is the day you will easily quit, easily give up the addiction for the happy life you are desperate for. But the next morning, you wake up, need another fix, and the cycle starts over again. Weiner completely got this. Allison’s life was a vicious cycle of taking too many pills, deciding to quit, and taking too many pills again.

Allison’s journey to healing was done so well, too. Addiction is messy and scary and sad and heartbreaking and Weiner got all of that, but she also got how hopeful and beautiful recovery can be. I believed in Allison, in her ability to get better, in the hope and promise that her future held, and I believed that she saw that too. She was incredibly realistic, which made her recovery that much better and more exciting for this reader.

All Fall Down is Jennifer Weiner at her best. Highly recommended.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

One Plus OneOne Plus One by Jojo Moyes
Published by Pamela Dorman Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

This is my third time reading a Jojo Moyes novel (but I do want to read her backlist, I swear) and every time I read one of her books, I’m in awe of her remarkable talent. I literally can NOT stop reading once I’ve started one of her novels. I don’t know what her magic is, exactly, just that she creates characters and situations and dialogue and relationships that are so incredibly easy to relate to and everything just clicks for me.

One Plus One is no different. I loved Jess and I couldn’t help but admire her tenacity and positive spirit, her belief that good people eventually get good things, and that if you just work hard, it will (some day) pay off. I wished she had been a little less naive about her husband – but it did match her personality, because if he’d been a bad person, he would eventually get what’s coming to him, right? In the meantime, she focused on what she could control – and that was being good to him and keeping things together for the children.

Enter Ed – a guy with issues of his own, a selfish person who has lived most of his life thinking only of himself. But for some reason, meeting Jess inspires him to act outside of himself for once and his inner nice guy rises to the surface. I liked Ed, too, but he frustrated me a bit, as he was naive about his own problems and had a lot of trouble taking ownership for the things he created in his own life. Still, it was enjoyable to see him finding his way and growing up emotionally to face the punishment that he rightfully deserved.

The story of how this unlikely pair, along with Jess’s two kids and dog, take a crazy road trip to Scotland is one you just have to experience to understand its beauty. Moyes is just as fantastic as ever and I absolutely loved this novel. Highly, highly recommended.

The Lovebird by Natalie Brown

The LovebirdThe Lovebird by Natalie Brown
Published by Doubleday
Unsolicited review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

Margie Fitzgerald has always had a soft spot for helpless creatures. Her warm heart breaks, her left ovary twinges, and Margie finds herself smitten with sympathy. This is how Margie falls in love with her Latin professor, a lonely widower and single father who trembles visibly in class. This is how Margie joins a band of ragtag student activists called H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Encouraging Animal Rights Today) in liberating lovebirds from their pet-store cages. And this is how Margie becomes involved in a plan so dangerous, so reckless, and so illegal, that she must flee her California college town, cut off contact with her dear old dad, and start fresh in a place unlike anywhere she has ever been. Introducing one of the most unforgettable heroines in recent fiction, The Lovebird is a novel about a girl who can’t abandon a lost cause, who loves animals, and who must travel to the loneliest place on earth to figure out where she really belongs.

From time to time I can be a shallow reader and decide to read books because of the cover alone – which is exactly what I did in this case. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this gorgeous cover, and so I picked up the book and began reading, knowing exactly nothing about what I’d find within the pages.

Imagine my happy surprise upon learning how wonderful The Lovebird is! Admittedly, the beginning is a bit slow and Margie makes a lot of incredibly stupid choices that have enormously bad repercussions – sleeping with her professor only the first in a long list. What bothered me the most about her relationship with her professor was not the relationship itself, but it was that he had a young daughter, a girl who’d already lost her mother, and this girl was now getting emotionally attached to Margie, only to see her father’s relationship with Margie eventually come to its inevitable end – it was just sad! Don’t bring kids into something like that, people!

Anyway, that’s really only a small part in a story about Margie’s growth as a person and as a woman in a scary and confusing time in her life. She literally has to run from the law, and hide from the authorities in a remote Native American reservation, living among complete strangers, some of whom really, really don’t want her there. She’s a shy and quiet person who has gone through life latching onto people and causes and matching her own personality to those around her – and now, in this isolated town, she must find a way to become herself, to figure out what kind of person she wants to be in the world and work toward becoming that person.

The Lovebird is kind of a love story, but it’s more a coming-of-age story, and within its pages are sordid relationships, violence, animal activism, deep sadness but true reawakening of people’s spirits. This is a quiet novel but don’t let that scare you – there’s real depth of emotion here, real people figuring out life, as messy as that can be. And it’s very beautifully written. I really enjoyed it.

That Night by Chevy Stevens

That NightThat Night by Chevy Stevens
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by SheReads

From the publisher:

As a teenager, Toni Murphy had a life full of typical adolescent
complications: a boyfriend she adored, a younger sister she couldn’t relate to, a strained relationship with her parents, and classmates who seemed hell-bent on making her life miserable. Things weren’t easy, but Toni could never have predicted how horrific they would become until her younger sister was brutally murdered one summer night.

Toni and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted of the murder and sent to prison.

Now thirty-four, Toni is out on parole and back in her hometown, struggling to adjust to a new life on the outside. Prison changed her, hardened her, and she’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back. This means having absolutely no contact with Ryan, avoiding fellow parolees looking to pick fights, and steering clear of trouble in all its forms. But nothing is making that easy—not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who doubts Toni’s innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni’s life hell in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. No matter how hard she tries, ignoring her old life to start a new one is impossible. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out what really happened that night.

But the truth might be the most terrifying thing of all.

I was a huge fan of Stevens’ first novel, Still Missing, but was less than thrilled with her second, Never Knowing, and didn’t even bother with her third. So I have to admit that I went into this novel with a bit of trepidation. But I have to say, That Night really impressed me – she’s completely back to the place she was at for her first novel, and I might have even liked this one better than Still Missing.

The thing about this book is that you go into it knowing that you have an unreliable narrator on your hands. Toni’s past isn’t the best, she’s made some serious mistakes, and the love of her life, Ryan, could possibly be a shady character. We have Toni’s memories, which color everything in her favor, although she does admit to being somewhat of a troubled teenager, and then we have the people around her who assumed she and Ryan were guilty based on their preconceived ideas of what kinds of people they were.

Even though I knew I couldn’t trust Toni, I wanted so desperately to believe her from the very beginning. I just couldn’t let myself believe that she would do such a horrible thing and I had my fingers crossed throughout the entire novel for her to find the real killer and get the opportunity to clear her name. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether I could really trust her story or if she was playing me, the reader, for a fool the whole time. The book takes a ton of twists and turns and while I didn’t guess the ending, it was one of those “aha” moments for me and things finally clicked into place. It made so much sense and I loved how Stevens took me on this wild ride and delivered a shocking, but perfect, answer to all of the questions I had along the way.

I’m not sure that Stevens meant for this to happen, but That Night does an excellent job showing just how difficult it is for ex-cons to make any kind of lives for themselves after their sentences are over. Also, it illuminates the fact that once you are labeled something in life, it’s extremely difficult to get out from under that label and make something of yourself. Every single time Toni had something good going for her, her past would rear its ugly head and find a way to drag her down. People would frame her for things and accuse her of things, and immediately it was assumed she was guilty because of her past. It made me stop and think – this is how we treat people who have been convicted of crimes, or even suspected of crimes – crimes they may not have even committed. I know this is a thriller and not a social commentary, but it was a surprisingly interesting element of the novel for me.

Anyway, I was thoroughly impressed with That Night and I’m once again a fan of Chevy Stevens. Highly recommended!

The Never Never Sisters by L. Alison Heller

The Never Never SistersThe Never Never Sisters by L. Alison Heller
Published by NAL Trade
Unsolicited review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

Marriage counselor Paige Reinhardt is counting down the days to summer, eager to reconnect with her workaholic husband at their cozy rental cottage in the Hamptons. But soon a mysterious crisis at Dave’s work ruins their getaway plans. Paige is still figuring out how to handle the unexplained chill in her marriage when her troubled sister suddenly returns after a two-decade silence. Now, instead of enjoying the lazy summer days along the ocean, Paige is navigating the rocky waters of a forgotten bond with her sister in the sweltering city heat.

As she attempts to dig deeper into Dave’s work troubles and some long-held family secrets, Paige is shocked to discover how little she knows about the people closest to her. This summer, the self-proclaimed relationship expert will grapple with her biggest challenge yet: Is it worth risking your most precious relationships in order to find yourself?

This novel appealed to me because I find myself attracted to books about sibling relationships, although to be honest I can’t think of a ton in recent memory that have actually done the complicated relationship between sisters justice. The Never Never Sisters comes pretty close to one of the best I’ve read in that aspect in the past few years. The sisters in this book are basically strangers when the book begins, but over time they get to know each other and end up pretty close by the end of the novel. While Paige’s relationship with her estranged sister is the focus of a lot of the novel, there are lots more issues happening here too – issues in her marriage, rocky relationships with her parents, and even the issues that her clients are facing come up throughout the novel. But although there’s a lot here, it never feels bogged down with all the issues. Instead, Heller handles each of these things with respect and unfolds the story and its issues out for the reader slowly, in a way that gets the reader more and more invested in Paige and her life as the book progresses.

I could really sympathize with Paige in her dealings with her estranged sister. My sister and I are about as opposite as two people can be, and for many years we didn’t get along well at all. We just didn’t get each other whatsoever. That all changed when my niece was born and my sister and I developed a bond unlike anything we’d shared in our lives up to that point, but all that being said, I completely understood Paige’s struggles to understand her sister and empathize with her. The two of them were just SO different, and they had such different life experiences because of the large age gap between them, it was a miracle they managed to find a way to connect at all. It was emotionally rewarding for me to read as the two of them knit their lives and personalities together in such a way that they came to truly understand and love each other.

The Never Never Sisters was the kind of book I really couldn’t put down. I truly found all of the complicated relationships and dramas to be incredibly compelling, and I was so invested in Paige that I absolutely needed to find out how things would end up for her. There’s a lot Paige discovers about her family, her marriage, and herself, and it was truly an enjoyable experience for me to be on this journey with her. Highly recommended.