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!

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hard ChoicesHard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publicist

From the publisher:

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s inside account of the crises, choices, and challenges she faced during her four years as America’s 67th Secretary of State, and how those experiences drive her view of the future.

“All of us face hard choices in our lives,” Hillary Rodham Clinton writes at the start of this personal chronicle of years at the center of world events. “Life is about making such choices. Our choices and how we handle them shape the people we become.”

In the aftermath of her 2008 presidential run, she expected to return to representing New York in the United States Senate. To her surprise, her former rival for the Democratic Party nomination, newly elected President Barack Obama, asked her to serve in his administration as Secretary of State. This memoir is the story of the four extraordinary and historic years that followed, and the hard choices that she and her colleagues confronted.

Secretary Clinton and President Obama had to decide how to repair fractured alliances, wind down two wars, and address a global financial crisis. They faced a rising competitor in China, growing threats from Iran and North Korea, and revolutions across the Middle East. Along the way, they grappled with some of the toughest dilemmas of US foreign policy, especially the decision to send Americans into harm’s way, from Afghanistan to Libya to the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

By the end of her tenure, Secretary Clinton had visited 112 countries, traveled nearly one million miles, and gained a truly global perspective on many of the major trends reshaping the landscape of the twenty-first century, from economic inequality to climate change to revolutions in energy, communications, and health. Drawing on conversations with numerous leaders and experts, Secretary Clinton offers her views on what it will take for the United States to compete and thrive in an interdependent world. She makes a passionate case for human rights and the full participation in society of women, youth, and LGBT people. An astute eyewitness to decades of social change, she distinguishes the trendlines from the headlines and describes the progress occurring throughout the world, day after day.

Secretary Clinton’s descriptions of diplomatic conversations at the highest levels offer readers a master class in international relations, as does her analysis of how we can best use “smart power” to deliver security and prosperity in a rapidly changing world—one in which America remains the indispensable nation.

I don’t read a ton of political memoirs, but this one really appealed to me because I’ve always admired Hillary Clinton, for a variety of reasons. This isn’t a place where I discuss politics at all, so I’ll just say that in general, I get where she’s coming from and share many of her beliefs, so I was very interested to learn more about her politics, what she stands for, and the experiences she’d had over her four years as Secretary of State. The fact that she’s obviously considering a presidential run in 2016 certainly didn’t hurt either.

Hard Choices is not an easy read, not by a long shot. Clinton dives deep into her years as Secretary of State and really gets into the politics, risks, and consequences involved in many of the conflicts that arose and decisions that were made throughout those years. That being said, it’s not a difficult read either. Everything is put together in a really accessible way, helping even the most politically naive of us understand the who, what, where, when, and how of many international crises. I learned a TON from this book as a lot of what’s discussed are the things that go on behind the scenes – the situations that America (and the world) never get to hear about as these conflicts are taking place.

I listened to the audio of this book and it was very well done. Kathleen Chalfant was a new voice to me and she did a pretty good job. The only thing that I didn’t love was that Clinton herself narrates the first chapter – making the switch to Chalfant very awkward for my brain to comprehend. Once I got into the audio, though, I was good with Chalfant’s narration.

I found this book exceptionally interesting and got a lot out of it. I think even those who disagree with Clinton’s politics would find something to chew on in this book. So much of it is about international relations and very little of it has to do with her actual beliefs – it’s really just a peek into those four years she spent as Secretary of State, what that actually looked like and what happened in the world throughout that time. Really fascinating stuff.

Highly recommended! Even if you don’t like her. ;)

 

 

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.

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.