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.

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!

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.