Book review: ‘The Vacationers’ by Emma Straub

The VacationersA summer getaway to a friend’s swanky pad in lush, fragrant Spain seems like a perfect opportunity for the Posts to reconnect. The family unveils secrets and struggles to move past old hurts to emerge a stronger group after two weeks in the Spanish sun.

Franny and Jim are ostensibly there to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, but they seem as distant and disconnected as a couple can be. Their children — Sylvia, a spirited young woman, and Bobby, her struggling brother — are there largely under duress, especially as Bobby drags his older girlfriend Carmen along for the ride.

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers is one long, drawn-out drama between dueling spouses and their grown or nearly-grown children. Its praises have been sung by countless media outlets as being the perfect addition to your beach bag, and the Washington Post basically wanted to make out with it. I read that review twice wondering if I’d gone temporarily insane or read an entirely different book, and . . . nope. Same book.

Just a vastly different reaction.

Though smart, irreverent and well-written, I found The Vacationers exceptionally tedious. Depressing. Sad. Basically, it was a bummer — and nothing like I anticipated. Certainly not like my beloved Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Straub’s 2012 work, which was sweeping and atmospheric and lovely.

This was boring. Just: dull.

For me, the book failed mostly due to its unlikeable characters. Franny is a tyrant, wanting to control her world and family and vacation to the point of lunacy. I mean, I got it; I understood why she’d desperately want to feel some sense of power in light of everything happening within her marriage. It made perfect sense. But it certainly wasn’t fun to read about.

Of everyone, I felt the most for Jim — a man haunted and crucified by one incredibly bad decision. I mean, the guy screwed up big time; that’s undeniable. And the coldness between he and Franny seemed realistic and heartbreaking. I felt for both sides, absolutely, but Jim’s suffering was unbearable to watch — rubbernecking at the scene of a tragic accident. I couldn’t wait to get past it.

Oh, there are some tender moments — and Straub is certainly a talented writer. She’s insightful, polished, intuitive; her novels are deceptively easy to read. You’ll sit down for a tiny rest thinking you’ll read just one chapter, and suddenly it’s dark and your spouse is begging you to turn out the light. I never considered abandoning this one, even as I began to roll my eyes. I still cared . . . just not enough.

For as much as I failed to connect with The Vacationers, I appreciated Straub’s way with words and would pick up a future novel. But I didn’t feel guilty about tucking this one into a hotel drawer during my California vacation in May. Hopefully a traveler passing through Three Rivers will have better luck with it than I did . . .


2 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher


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Book review: ‘Wallflower in Bloom’ by Claire Cook

Wallflower in BloomAccustomed to lurking in her famous guru brother’s shadow, Deirdre “Dee” Griffin longs to step out from behind her successful siblings and create a path that’s all her own — but fate seems to have other plans. Single, in her thirties and living in a renovated sheep shed on her brother’s vast estate, Dee knows she can’t continue on as his mousy social media adviser. But how to move forward?

When an opportunity to break a leg on “Dancing With the Stars” falls into her waiting lap, she leaps at the chance to pursue a passion — any passion — and get away from Tag’s influence. Even if her time on the show doesn’t necessarily go as planned, the joy is always in the journey.

Claire Cook’s Wallflower in Bloom is a lighthearted, fun and delightful read that made running errands in the company of the audio book a pleasure. Dee is the underdog character we love to root for, and the story had a vibe akin to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” There’s no wedding, per say, and Dee isn’t as bad off as Toula, but this transformation story was every bit as satisfying and enjoyable.

What really makes the story is Dee’s complicated relationship with her superstar brother and two sisters: a gaggle of four trying to navigate their roles as adults in each other’s lives. Their relationships are complicated by the fact that Tag Griffin is a global brand employing his family members . . . meaning Dee takes orders from her little brother, and a bossy one at that. Though she could have gotten another job, sure, it was easier to do what was comfortable. I get that.

There’s a little romance, some intrigue, plenty of funny family drama and Los Angeles scenery. Wallflower in Bloom is more chocolate mousse than meat-and-potatoes, but it hit the spot all the same. Dee’s transformation from a timid woman hiding behind a computer to a blossoming dancer, even a haphazard one, was fun — and her sense of humor and delightful narration made this a frothy, laugh-out-loud read I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to chick lit lovers.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘The Here and Now’ by Ann Brashares

The Here and NowSeventeen-year-old Prenna James knows the rules. In exchange for her freedom, she and her fellow travelers must not let anyone know where — or, more specifically, when — they come from. That a group of “immigrants” has found a way to open a portal in time to journey back to an illness-free Earth is a wonder . . . one that cannot be discovered.

The air is clean. Mosquitoes are nothing more than a nuisance. Prenna doesn’t take any of her freedoms from Earth’s ravages for granted — not after barely surviving a plague that claimed countless lives almost a century in the future. Though her arrival isn’t without suspicion, she manages to dodge the questions of other teens . . . and even those of Ethan Jarves, a handsome classmate linked to Prenna from the beginning.

When a chain of events cause Prenna to question everything she’s been told about how and why the travelers are there, she must decide for herself how to move forward. And is love, regardless of the cost, really worth it?

Ann Brashares’ The Here and Now the latest in a batch of young adult fiction with a dystopian angle . . . and, you know, it was pretty interesting. It’s no Life As We Knew It, but it’s certainly not terrible. Something about the story has me leaning toward ambivalence, though; I can’t pinpoint anything wrong with it, but it didn’t hold my attention the way I would have liked.

Prenna’s wit, intelligence and cunning carried the story for me, though. As it becomes apparent the elders aren’t exactly disclosing the truth to their “family” of sorts, I wanted Prenna to break away and do something bold — especially when we discovered something could be done. The suspense of finding out the significance of a date and the true identity of a friend kept the pace moving forward, and the story’s pivotal scenes were pretty compelling.

The Here and Now takes place in modern-day America — more than half a century before a mosquito-born illness wipes out huge swaths of the population. On the whole, the world-building was . . . sufficient? Okay? I would have loved more details about future America, actually, but I suppose that wasn’t the real point. The plan was to prevent the awful future, even if that wasn’t initially the goal. So to hear tons about a ravaged world would probably have been pointless.

Still.

Billed partially as a romance, the evolution of Ethan and Prenna’s relationship felt pretty realistic. I saw Prenna as the cute kick-butt type — and Ethan, for all his quirkiness, definitely had the hunk factor going on. I loved that he was sharp and clever and always willing to help, and learning his fate really added to his impact for me. Their first-love fumblings felt true-to-life and sweet, and I loved how supportive they were of one another without falling into unabashed “But I can’t live without you!” cheesiness. I don’t do cornball. (Well, most of the time.)

Fans of young adult fiction with a healthy dash of dystopian disaster will find an interesting — if not entirely unique — tale in The Here and Now, which was a quick and easy read. Brashares has earned her spot with YA fans through the beloved Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, and her latest is worth a read. It didn’t rock my world . . . but was certainly an entertaining escape.


3.5 out of 5!

Pub: April 8, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Facebook
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘All Fall Down’ by Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownAs a mother, wife, blogger and daughter, Allison Weiss is well-versed in responsibility. Between her “freelance” (read: time-consuming) gig writing on feminist issues and her adorable but tough young daughter, Allison’s days are a whirlwind of activity . . . and doubt. Though her life looks frame-worthy on the outside — big house in the suburbs; charming journalist husband; funny and independent kid — on the inside? Well, it’s a little more complicated.

As her father begins to succumb to Alzheimer’s and her mother, always aloof, starts to crumble, Allison foists that additional weight on her shoulders. Coupled with increasing online notoriety and distance from her husband, the pressure Allison feels to hold up her family begins to crack her facade. If she pops a few pain pills, remnants from an old Zumba injury, who is she really hurting? The meds make her feel calm, confident, in control. Drugs — prescription drugs, she always notes — erase the self-doubt that plagues her; they make her stronger. Better.

And so it goes . . . for a while. But when Allison’s life begins to veer uncontrollably, casting her into greater shadows as everything unravels, can she cope?

Jennifer Weiner’s All Fall Down is arguably the grittiest of her works to date. Don’t get me wrong: Allison is still the funny, strong heroine I’ve come to expect from one of my favorite authors, but it deals with some pretty complex and frightening issues. That’s what makes it so startling: Allison is an Everywoman. She has her problems, sure, but they’re nothing beyond the scope of what many women deal with every day. She admits this herself.

But her manner of coping . . .

In spending time with All Fall Down, one can’t help but realize we’re all addicted to something. Beyond obvious issues like alcohol and drug abuse, how many of us haven’t zoned out with a bag of cookies? Or an hour on Facebook? Or a Zulily shopping spree (free shipping until midnight!)? We all have our coping mechanisms, our ways of tuning out the stresses of the day to finally find some measure of peace.

Allison’s method happens to be destructive, nearly costing her everything she loves and holds dear. Just because she doesn’t follow the “typical” stereotype of a drug addict doesn’t mean she isn’t one, and I found her path to acceptance realistic and heartbreaking. She’s a little damaged on the inside, but who isn’t? Her descent into dependence is gradual enough that she doesn’t notice, and that’s what made it so chilling.

Despite its heavy subject matter, I couldn’t help whipping through Allison’s story. The descriptions of her battles with Eloise, her sweet but spirited daughter, made my heart race; her recollections of growing up with an emotionally unavailable mother were so painful. As she reaches out to her husband and receives little support in return, I really hurt for her. And the scenes and memories of her dad had me in tears.

Obviously the stresses compound to the point that she’s relying on narcotics just to function day-to-day, and she can’t keep her secrets — all fall down — forever. As everything began to crumble, I wanted to help. Do something. I felt like screaming at the characters to see what was happening, and the critical juncture at which someone notices what’s happening came as a serious relief to me.

Fast-paced and engrossing, All Fall Down is another winner from Weiner. Unlike her other novels, which tend to follow a variety of women linked by a common thread, Allison is our sole focus — and that worked really well for me. I read this book on vacation in California and couldn’t wait to retreat to our cabin to get a few more snippets before bed. Satisfying and thought-provoking, it’s a story I won’t soon forget.


4 out of 5!

Pub: June 17, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘The Heiresses’ by Sara Shepard

The HeiressesIn the wilds of Manhattan are four wealthy women — all heiresses to the sizable Saybrook diamond fortune. When their grandfather returned from World War II with a rare, valuable gem, he couldn’t have known how his empire would expand . . . or how his granddaughters would someday work to either protect or squander it.

Corinne, Poppy, Aster, Natasha and Rowan are differing cousins with one major bond: the Saybrook name. Though Natasha has renounced her claim to the family fortune, the others spin around the sphere of the successful jewelry company with varying definitions of success. But when tragedy strikes, grievances are aired — and it’s obvious not everyone thinks the Saybrooks walk on water. In fact, someone wants to bring them all down.

Sara Shepard’s The Heiresses is fast-paced rich-people voyeurism at its finest. Manhattan addresses, fancy clothing, scandal, intrigue, mystery . . . and death. It’s basically a nonstop ride as delicious as settling in with your favorite candy, and its serious cliffhanger has me eager for more.

Though I initially feared this story of five powerful women would be stricken with a vicious case of Too Many Characters-itis, it didn’t take long to learn the quirks and foibles of the Saybrook heiresses. Each has a secret they’re guarding: a scandal that could break their famous family wide open. Though I can’t say I really loved any of the ladies, they were certainly entertaining to read about.

I bonded best with Corinne — a woman planning a wedding to the man she’s “supposed” to marry: Dixon, a preppy dude with a trust fund, square jaw and respectable family. Though her fiance was a bit of a caricature (just picture any polo-wearing jock in your life), I found her back story — and one-time love affair — very compelling. In the weeks leading up to her nuptials, Corinne held my attention as I wondered how she would deal with so many conflicting emotions. It was tough — but realistic, I think.

Poppy was a control freak, Rowan a mess. Aster was the stereotypical socialite bent on destroying her father for something he may or may not even have done, and Natasha was a bit of an empty shell. But compiled together? The Saybrook women were an entertaining lot, if only because they led such vastly different lives from my own. Mystery surrounds two unexpected deaths, and the bent of a blogger to expose their every movement keeps them on edge. As readers, we’re compelled to keep going if only to learn — Clue-style — whodunnit.

In the background are a bevy of relationships, lovers, complications and family troubles — as well as a family secret so dark it has the power to destroy them all. I sped through this story like lightning, invested in the plight of the Saybrooks and curious as to who was trying to wreck them (the options seemed endless).

Fans of women’s fiction, New York-based mysteries, contemporary fiction and wealthy family fiction will find The Heiresses to be a worthy addition to their beach bag this summer. I’m already looking forward to the next installment!


4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Lost Lake’ by Sarah Addison Allen

Lost LakeHearing Sarah Addison Allen has a new novel out is enough to send me running for the bookstore. I fell in love with her work in Garden Spells, then had my devotion solidified with The Sugar Queen and The Peach Keeper. Her blend of magic, love and family is often a delight, and I always look forward to losing myself in her work.

All this to say I went into Lost Lake with high expectations . . . and, sadly, they just weren’t met. Despite an intriguing-enough premise and some sweet (if shallow) characters, I never connected with the story or felt any allegiance to this unusual crew of vacationers and locals alike in Lost Lake, Georgia.

Our main cast is comprised of Kate and Devin, a mother-daughter duo grieving the unexpected loss of Kate’s husband. Wanting to escape from her cold mother-in-law and the constraints at home, Kate wakes up from a year of despondency with the idea of visiting her aunt Eby on the lake Eby has called home for decades.

Once a happening resort area, Lost Lake has fallen into disrepair — and become a victim of changing economic times. With Eby’s beloved husband gone, she no longer feels the passion she once did for the area . . . but can’t bear to leave it behind, either. With dreams of traveling the world again in her retirement, Eby has plans for Lost Lake — but so do other Georgia residents. And they may not go down without a fight.

Like all of Allen’s works, Lost Lake benefits from a sense of the surreal — but nothing in this novel floats quite like her other books. We feel for Kate and Devin as they navigate their sudden loss, but Kate always seemed detached and unyielding to me. I just didn’t bond with her.

But Eby? Eby was priceless. Still kicking rump in her would-be retirement years, I loved the genesis story of how she and George came to meet, marry and defy their families’ expectations by opening up Lost Lake. The stories from their honeymoon in Europe were the definite highlight of the novel for me, and I enjoyed the tale of how they met Lisette — a friend who has also makes her home at Lost Lake — through a mishap in Paris.

If the story had centered on those three, I would have been happier . . . or less annoyed, anyway. Honestly, most of Lost Lake was pretty forgettable for me. It lacked Allen’s trademark warmth, her zing and zip; it felt like a husk of a story instead of a full-blooded novel, and it suffered for that. It was entertaining enough when Kate and Devin finally connect with Eby, but I never bought into Kate’s romance or felt any desire to move forward.

I listened to Lost Lake on audio . . . and I think that’s the only reason I finished it. Though it pains me to pan an Allen novel, this one just lacked life. The story was more interesting when we delved into the past . . . but we had to keep returning to the present. A bummer how that works.


2.5 out of 5!

Pub: 2013 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘Sedition’ by Katharine Grant

SeditionRacy, entertaining and unexpected, Katharine Grant’s Sedition was nothing like I expected and better than I had hoped.

Let me explain.

Though firmly in the historical fiction camp, Katharine Grant’s Sedition is and isn’t romance. Set in London during the 18th century, Grant’s romp is centered on a group of wealthy fathers eager to marry off their daughters — five spoiled, disinterested young women. As the men conspire to teach their girls piano by purchasing an instrument from an eccentric shopkeeper, the girls cook up schemes of their own . . . namely with Monsieur Claude, their new instructor. And he, in turn, has secrets to keep.

Though it seems rather complicated, everything is actually straight forward — at first. He wants her; she wants him; she wants her; he wants none of them. It’s a comedy of errors that often results in some entertaining misunderstandings — but there’s plenty of heart here, too.

The novel centers mostly on Annie Cantabile, the piano virtuoso daughter of the man who sells the families their pianoforte, as well as the woman she befriends and eventually loves. Though every woman takes a turn in the spotlight, we get to know Annie and Alathea Sawneyford the best — and I really felt for both. Born with a cleft palate, Annie is hidden in the shadows at the shop . . . but longs to play music and start a new life away from her callous father. Dedication to her sick mother keeps Annie rooted in London, but a friendship forged unexpectedly with Alathea gives her renewed purpose.

Grant’s story is engrossing, unique and captivating. Not really knowing what to expect going in, I found myself delighted by Sedition and stealing time on vacation to meet up with the characters. The racy content level is pretty high — higher than I would have guessed — but hey, I’m a married woman; I could handle it. Some may take offense to the content, however. (Also, there are some graphic depictions of incest. Just so you know.)

With its endlessly dark subject matter, Grant still managed to keep the tone and feel of the novel light. There were some disturbing messes going down, no doubt, and I did feel disgusted on several occasions, but I think that was intentional. To understand the struggle and longing, we must know the depravity. We must understand the hurt and betrayal and pain.

Sedition is about push-pull power struggles . . . the struggle of women to take control of their bodies and sexuality; a movement to break away from familial expectations. Still, the girls were without many options aside from marrying well . . . and they throw themselves into learning the pianoforte in order to dazzle at a concert attended by the gentlemen of London: a sort of debutante ball without the dancing.

And they dazzle, all right.

Memorable and titillating, Sedition was an enjoyable story. After I got over my initial shock at all the behind-closed-doors carryings-on, I really felt the emotional changes of the characters and thought them realistic. Grant writes with humor and a keen eye for pacing — enough to keep me flying through the pages.

This is a fairly quick read, but it wasn’t without depth and wisdom. I felt connected to Annie Cantabile long after I’d finished the story. Her plight — and desire to break free of expectation, of restraint — was moving. Though selfishly I longed for a happier ending for many of the women, I also knew Sedition concluded in just the way it needed to. Not a novel I’ll soon forget!


4 out of 5!

Pub: April 1, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review