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: ‘The Good Wife’ by Jane Porter

The Good WifeWhat I love best about Jane Porter also happens to be what most punches me in the gut: her work really, really draws you in.

You’re not reading about the action, kindly removed from the situation with a cool beverage in an ivory tower; you are all up in the drama, standing sticky in the middle of the muck when things get serious. If you’re looking for an engrossing read you simply cannot put down (and who isn’t?), The Good Wife is awesome. But when your head is full of nonsense and you just want to escape from reality for a bit, it’s terrible.

But also terribly awesome. Because maybe you want to get involved in someone else’s disaster for a bit! Feel their anguish, their pain, their confusion! . . . But maybe you don’t. Maybe you want to just veg out, relax, decompress.

I could not decompress with this book.

Don’t let me give the impression I didn’t like it, however — definitely not true. This is the third in Porter’s Brennan Sisters series (preceded by The Good Woman and The Good Daughter), and suffice it to say I am emotionally invested in this complicated, realistic and loving clan. Picking up The Good Wife, which focuses on sister Sarah, felt like reuniting with family.

And just like family, it got messy. Sarah is the wife of handsome and successful baseball player Boone Walker, a charismatic man who spends more time on the road than with his young family. Left to single parent in Florida, far removed from her Californian crew, Sarah is reeling from two recent losses and struggling to move past Boone’s previous infidelities (not a spoiler — addressed much earlier in the series).

Happening alongside Sarah’s struggles is the story of Lauren, a 30-something baker and entrepreneur whose teen son died tragically the year before the story opens. Also fighting through grief, Lauren is trying to make sense of a new world in which she’s a mother without a child . . . and must try to find a way to move forward in the crumbling aftermath of her previous life. When a sweet, smart teammate of Boone’s expresses an interest in her, leading to the first glimpse of dating she’s experienced in decades, Lauren must dig through the wreckage of the past to walk shakily into the future.

I don’t know who I adored more: Sarah or Lauren. Though they initially live in different parts of the country and are marching into different battles, the two women are remarkably similar, too. I like that Porter doesn’t focus on the Brennan family to the detriment of every other character in the novel, rendering anyone peripheral to the background; anyone introduced in The Good Wife is real and interesting and totally flesh-and-blood, making it a dynamic and personal reading experience.

And it did feel personal. When Sarah hurt, I hurt; when Lauren hurt, I really hurt. It’s a testament to Porter’s skill that she has me so deeply involved with her characters that I can barely tolerate parting with them. It’s been a long time since I got hooked on a series, and the Brennan Sisters books have definitely done that for me. Though sometimes the attention to detail felt exhausting, I still can’t help but marvel at the way Sarah and Lauren’s lives were brought so beautifully to life for me.

If you haven’t read anything by Porter, do yourself a favor and start with The Good Woman. Meg has a big role in this one, too, and the impact of events won’t be the same without gaining your own history with the characters. Porter’s third installment is heartbreaking and thoughtful and touching, and I highly recommend this — and the series.

4.25 out of 5!

Pub: Sept. 3, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Bloom’ by Kelle Hampton

Bloom by Kelle HamptonAs Kelle Hampton and her husband prepare to welcome their second little girl, they have no idea that lovely Nella, new little sister to their beloved Lainey, will present more new challenges — and opportunities — than they could ever have imagined.

Born with Down syndrome, Nella’s condition was a complete shock to the Hamptons . . . especially Kelle, who was suddenly forced to reconcile the dreams she had for the “sister” relationship her daughters would share and left to grapple with how a special-needs child would impact her family. In her honest, raw accounts of the early days of Nella’s life and where her family is now, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected is a captivating, soul-soaring story of a mama whose love for her children knows no bounds.

Hampton is a blogger, writer, photographer — all talents immediately evident at her blog, Enjoying the Small Things. Nella’s story begins as a post in January 2010, and the Hamptons’ lives are forever altered by her arrival. What becomes immediately obvious in Kelle’s retelling is this mother’s pure, raw and unfiltered ability to draw you into her family’s story . . . and hold nothing back.

I’m going to be honest with you, just as Kelle is honest with us: her reaction to Nella’s Down syndrome was tough to read. She painfully describes the days and nights following her daughter’s birth, in which she writhed and sobbed and questioned her faith. I felt physically uncomfortable hearing Kelle’s reaction, but the story is obviously a retrospective. We understand that Kelle doesn’t feel this way now and, in fact, she frequently mentions her own embarrassment about her behavior. We know how much she adores Nella now — but she doesn’t prune the past. She chooses not to remove the ugly bits, even knowing how ugly they really are.

And that is the power of Bloom: Kelle invites us in, knowing we could judge her. Frown at her. Gossip about her. She invites us in because this story — her story — is an important one to tell, and she wants us to understand that Nella truly is a blessing. Their blessing. And if she couldn’t yet understand it that January night, she gets it now.

I read this story in two days, picking it up immediately after a copy arrived in the mail. I read it during my lunch break, hunched over a dry sandwich; I read it while waiting for my fiance to come home and ask about dinner; I read it while making dinner, which proved to be tricky; and I read it until 1 a.m. the following evening, wrapping up the Hamptons’ saga with half-shut, drowsy eyes. And then I found Kelle’s website because I needed updates.

Bloom is real, honest, gut-wrenching. It’s thought-provoking — what would I do in this situation? — and it’s painful. It’s also beautiful and realistic and something I couldn’t stop reading, because I have so much respect and admiration for Kelle — and so much jealousy regarding her giant, awesome net of friends (and how they get her through). The women in her life are amazing, and she makes no bones about the importance of their faith, inspiration and guidance in the weeks, months and years after Nella’s birth.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how truly gorgeous this paperback is. As Kelle is a talented photographer, the pictures in Bloom are her own — and each big moment is illustrated with a stunning shot or two. The book is the perfect blend of photographs and narrative, but make no mistake: the words themselves? Super important. This ain’t some picture book with a few captions pasted in, friends; Kelle is a fantastic, engaging writer, and I closed the final page with so much love for her family. The photos tell their own stories, and the book wouldn’t be as powerful without them.

If you appreciate memoirs, stories of family, books that detail adversity and rising above . . . well, I’ve got a book for you. Readers don’t need children of their own to appreciate Bloom and its universal truths about love, life and relationships, though I imagine the story will resonate even more powerfully for parents. This was the type of book I finished and wished I’d read a little more slowly. It’s the sort of tale I will return to again for courage and inspiration — and bless little Nella, who is too precious for words.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062045040 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Evel Knievel Days’ by Pauls Toutonghi

Evel Knievel DaysLeaving this hardcover propped on the arm of the couch, my mom spotted the title and snapped her head up in surprise. “You’re reading a book about Evel Knievel?” she squeaked.

“Not exactly,” I replied with a shrug of my shoulders — and with some difficulty, I began to describe the plot of Pauls Toutonghi’s novel. This book has nothing to do with the famous daredevil beyond the fact that the main character, Khosi, hails from Knievel’s own hometown of Butte, Montana . . . or does it?

Twenty-something Khosi Saqr knows every nook of Butte — and has never really imagined venturing beyond its borders. Growing up as the biracial son of a white American mother and an Egyptian father, Khosi’s relationship with his mom has been greatly altered — and strengthened — by the absence of his father.

After Pops takes off to stay one step ahead of the disreputable folks to whom he owes gambled cash, Khosi has been his mother’s emotional support system for decades. He’s focused on his job at a historic estate and managed to navigate his two worlds — the American one, the mysterious Egyptian one — and created an identity for himself. But when his dad reappears in Montana after twenty years away, running off before Khosi even gets a hard look at the man, his forgotten son will embark on a once-in-a-lifetime journey.

So, Evel Knievel Days is both a unique and a familiar story. Equal parts coming-of-age story and exploration of heritage, Toutonghi’s novel is unlike anything I’ve read before — and even successfully managed to weave an element of magical realism into an otherwise grounded tale. Though very specific to Khosi’s divided existence, the novel still holds universal appeal. I read it quickly and eagerly, admiring the author’s ability to assemble such a diverse but memorable cast.

Here we have Khosi, a funny and erudite young man who spends a whole lotta time with his complicated mother, and he’s this slightly awkward, awesome narrator you can’t help but love. His (mostly) unrequited crush on his childhood best friend, Natasha, shows us he’s more than capable of love — but his tenuous connection to his father and the Egyptian culture makes him feel quite “in between.” Toutonghi allows Khosi to be known to readers without slamming us with too many details — and I appreciated the way we’re given just enough information about what our main man is thinking.

So where does Evel Knievel come into all this? Khosi is an obsessive-compulsive who must find it in himself to take the largest plunge of his life: running off to finally come face-to-face with his ne’er-do-well father. Making that trip is the biggest, scariest leap of his life — and like Butte’s favorite son, Khosi must stare into the chasm, face his fear . . . and do it anyway. Khosi’s connection to the famous daredevil felt authentic and well-explored, and I liked that Toutonghi had just enough references to Knievel to tie it together but kept it from getting schlocky.

Though I was a little stumped by the introduction of a ghost/hallucination in the middle of the narrative, it’s obvious that Khosi’s divided heritage is central to the plot. Well-paced and thought-provoking, Evel Knievel Days raised some interesting questions about family, love and connection, and I’d heartily recommend it to fans of literary and contemporary fiction. Plus? Totally allows for some awesome armchair traveling!

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1416532390 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Pretty One’ by Lucinda Rosenfeld

The Pretty OneSo I started writing a summary for Lucinda Rosenfeld’s The Pretty One: A Novel about Sisters, but it became so convoluted that I just can’t do it, and I’m going to totally throw in the towel and give you the publisher’s description. Trust me: it’s better this way.

“Perfect. Pretty. Political. For nearly forty years, the Hellinger sisters of Hastings-on-Hudson — namely Imperia (Perri), Olympia (Pia), and Augusta (Gus) — have played the roles set down by their loving but domineering mother. Perri, a mother of three, rules her four-bedroom palace in Westchester with a velvet fist, managing to fold even fitted sheets into immaculate rectangles. Pia, a gorgeous and fashionable Chelsea art gallery worker, still turns heads after becoming a single mother via sperm donation. And Gus, a fiercely independent lawyer and activist, doesn’t let her break-up from her girlfriend stop her from attending New Year’s Day protests on her way to family brunch.

But the Hellinger women aren’t pulling off their roles the way they once did. Perri, increasingly filled with rage over the lack of appreciation from her recently unemployed husband Mike, is engaging in a steamy text flirtation with a college fling. Meanwhile Pia, desperate to find someone to share in the pain and joy of raising her three-year-old daughter Lola, can’t stop fantasizing about Donor #6103. And Gus, heartbroken over the loss of her girlfriend, finds herself magnetically drawn to Jeff, Mike’s frat boy of a little brother. Each woman is unable to believe that anyone, especially her sisters, could understand what it’s like to be her. But when a freak accident lands their mother to the hospital, a chain of events is set in motion that will send each Hellinger sister rocketing out of her comfort zone, leaving her to wonder: was this the role she was truly born to play?” (Goodreads)

Sisters. Is there a more complicated but meaningful relationship in the world? Many authors have discussed this complex dynamic with varying levels of success — and being the oldest of two girls myself, I’m often drawn to tales of sisterhood and its many incarnations.

I went into The Pretty One hoping for an entertaining, thought-provoking examination of family — and while I got that in small bursts, those moments were few and far between. I found Rosenfeld’s novel to be a fairly depressing mash-up of stereotypes that didn’t shed any light — or delight — on her twisty, ambivalent characters.

I finished it, but mostly because I was stranded at an auto body shop. For three hours.

My major beef: I found every woman in this novel to be unlikeable, selfish or clueless. Not once did I feel warmth toward Gus, Pia or Perri — though Gus was generally the least loathsome of the trio. Perri’s pursuit of perfection became tiresome, and the points at which I think I was supposed to feel empathy — like during her emotional breakdown, say — I just shook my head. Pia seemed lost in her own world, oblivious to anyone else’s problems, and Gus’s brief dalliance with a dude was ridiculous. In each and every dynamic, something was missing.

I might have been able to cling on and push this one up to a 3-star rating (Rosenfeld’s writing is solid) if this whole weird subplot hadn’t erupted late in the novel. In an effort to not blow that out-of-nowhere revelation wide open, I won’t say much more — other than to acknowledge that while I understood the goal of forcing the sisters to reevaluate their traditional family roles, it came off as forced and completely unrealistic. At that point, the book really jumped the shark.

Oh, there were a few moments of clarity in The Pretty One . . . and I did enjoy the pursuit of discovering the identity of Lola’s father. But overall, lack of emotional connection to the Hellingers made this feel like half a book. I would have loved to explore Carol and Bob’s relationship — now that is a story — but wasn’t given that opportunity. Instead, the cheating and lying and cursing and “I’m never speaking to you again!” nonsense that typically runs rampant in homes with teenagers left me feeling cold. These were grown women, after all.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316213551 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher page
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Lunch With Buddha’ by Roland Merullo

New Yorker Otto Ringling is traveling cross-country with his kids on a devastating errand. Adrift and in mourning, Otto and his college-aged son and daughter join up with Otto’s sister, Cecelia, as well as her young daughter and husband: a charismatic, eccentric spiritual guru named Volya Rinpoche.

In Seattle, the group completes their sad task and prepares to head home — back east for the Ringlings; home to a North Dakota retreat for Cecelia, Rinpoche and Shelsa. Otto’s children will leave and scatter. He will retreat into his work as a food editor, trying to swallow around a hard lump of grief. Unable to turn his mind elsewhere, Otto’s wounds will fester. He will dwell. He will struggle from one day to the next, searching and alone.

Unless . . .

Life and its detours — an endless circle of paths and sanctuaries. Tasked with driving a recently-purchased old truck back to North Dakota, Otto joins Rinpoche on a road trip that will transport them from one coast to the Midwest — through a series of byways, spiritual and physical, that will change them both.

Roland Merullo’s Lunch With Buddha is lyrical, thought-provoking, exquisite. I knew I was in for a treat from the first page, basking in the rich language, and Merullo’s novel is truly a joy for the senses.

Narrator Otto is the perfect mix of skeptic and believer. Hanging with Rinpoche, a revered holy man with an unending philosophical appreciation for life, is enough to change anyone — but Otto doesn’t have accept it. Still smarting from a recent tragedy, he’s not always in the mood for Rinpoche’s musings and non sequiturs — but knows his brother-in-law means well. Traveling together from Washington to North Dakota in a rickety old vehicle allows the pair plenty of chats on life, love and what comes next. And for Otto, a foodie and family man, these chats transcend the simple road trip. (And by the way — how much do I love road trips? This one was great.)

Rinpoche himself is a true character. Enigmatic and fascinated by the strange habits of Americans, his observations — in broken English — reflect U.S. culture through a very unique prism. I loved the questions he asks Otto about the American way of doing things, and his devotion to Cecelia and Shelsa is very sweet. He’s someone completely comfortable in his skin — a man who doesn’t think of vanity, selfishness, cruelty. Regardless of one’s religion, Rinpoche’s thought-provoking prompts and explanations are fascinating.

There’s so much to love about Lunch With Buddha, a review book I accepted with some trepidation. I was worried I wouldn’t connect with the characters, would find the religious aspects too preachy, wouldn’t relate to Otto and his sad quest. I hadn’t read the first in Merullo’s series, Breakfast With Buddha, and worried I’d miss something by starting with the second book. But something about the description tugged at me — and despite its length, I was completely drawn into Rinpoche and Otto’s tale. No previous knowledge of the Ringling family necessary.

The story’s first-person narration clinched it for me. As Rinpoche and Otto meandered across state lines, meeting others who would teach lessons along the way, I felt like I’d wedged myself into the yurt they were supposed to share or hitched a ride in the back of the cab. Their journey is just that: a journey. One with a destination, yes, but also one without. One that continues long after we’ve closed the book.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0984834575 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns’ by Margaret Dilloway

Galilee “Gal” Garner has a well-ordered life. The 36-year-old science teacher lives alone in the California suburbs, dividing her time between lecturing students and tending to her beloved roses. She’s unattached — and on dialysis. While waiting for the kidney that will save her life, Gal relies on friends and her well-meaning if overbearing mother to help her through the trials of her disease.

When an unexpected visitor from San Francisco disrupts her routine, Gal is left to make sense of another hair-brained scheme cooked up by her big sister. Riley, Gal’s teen niece, is adrift — and in need of a home. With Gal’s sister abroad, ostensibly for “work,” Gal enrolls Riley in the Catholic school where she works and tries to provide a stable home life for her. But the prickly teen is as defensive and private as Gal herself — and they’ll have to reach a compromise before either can move forward.

Margaret Dilloway’s The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns features one of the most irritable main characters I’ve ever encountered. Gal is bitter, jaded, holier-than-thou — a woman who sticks to her guns and doesn’t care who dislikes her. Even those trying to help her — like Dara, her best friend — bear the brunt of Gal’s ill moods and whims. And when someone tries to point them out to her, she becomes even more pious.

It grated on me . . . for a while. Gal walks around correcting others’ grammar, pretending like she doesn’t have a crush on the cute new teacher, flunking students because they just didn’t “study hard enough” on her seemingly impossible tests. Her school’s headmaster takes her to task for her incredible rules, even by Catholic school standards, and still? She will not budge.

That should be Gal’s tagline: Will Not Budge. Will not compromise. Not about her clothing choices (terrible), her grading, her cultivation of roses. Once Gal makes her mind up, that’s it.

For 100 pages, I wanted to clobber her. I wanted to shake her and demonstrate just how selfish and acrid she was being. Riley was certainly no saint, but she was a teenage girl; at least she could use that in her own defense. Gal seemed like nothing more than a spoiled pity-party-thrower — a woman who levied others’ kindness against them and took advantage of their good intentions.

But then. Without realizing it, something clicked over. The animosity I felt for Gal switched to compassion. By bringing her niece into her home, Gal became more compassionate — and more adaptable. She understood the error of her ways, and that she’d blamed others for things for far too long. That the anger and jealousy she felt for Becky, her older sister, was maybe misguided . . . or, at the very least, the symptom of a much larger issue.

Gal began to see there are two sides to every story. And that maybe she’d only ever peered at one.

Then I liked her.

The Care and Handling of Roses With Thorns centers on family, illness, friendship, hope. Though the descriptions of rose cultivation sometimes felt like a little much, this story was Gal’s — and told from her first-person perspective. Before Riley, the roses were her world — and I enjoyed the snippets of caring for the blossoms at the beginning of each chapter.

I absolutely loved Dilloway’s How To Be An American Housewife — it was one of my favorite reads of 2010 — and wasn’t disappointed with her follow-up, though I connected with Dilloway’s Japanese mother and American daughter more than Gal and Riley. Still, Dilloway is a vivid, lush and poignant writer who has more than earned herself a spot on my personal “must read” list. If you’re a fan of contemporary fiction, family dynamics and complicated sister relationships, don’t miss her sophomore novel.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0399157751 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing Early Reviewers
in exchange for my honest review