Book review: ‘Vanity Fare’ by Megan Caldwell

Vanity FareLattes! Books! New York City! I felt I couldn’t go wrong with Megan Caldwell’s Vanity Fare, a novel that promised witty literary references with a side of scones (man, I love scones). But in the end? I couldn’t help but feel like I’d prepared to tuck into a really great piece of pie and found myself handed slimy kidney beans instead. They were filling, yes . . . but not what I’d been craving.

Now that 40-year-old Molly Hagan is staring down the barrel of impending financial insecurity, a writing gig penning food-related copy for a new bakery seems like the answer to her fervent prayers. She can keep her 6-year-old son fed, care for her bankrupt mother and begin to rebuild post-divorce.

The job working with Simon, a handsome pastry chef expanding into the American market, starts out a little rocky — especially when the charming Brit can’t help but flirt with Molly, who tries hard to project polish and professionalism. But soon business tensions, divorce tensions and sexual tension with another man — the stoic but secretly warmhearted Nick, an assistant of Simon’s — threatens to boil over. And Molly must figure out how to keep it all together.

So, starting with the good, the New York setting and encroaching restaurant opening — near the New York Public Library! — was delightful. I loved the sights and smells depicted in the city, even if Molly seemed to spend half the book riding the subway to meet business associates. Seriously, why all the subway talk? I guess we’re supposed to get that Molly is a Working Mom, you know, and it’s not easy for her to bop around Manhattan like all these other unattached wealthy nitwits. But by the third or fourth depiction of Molly donning a black outfit and commuting from the suburbs, I started to feel a little stabby.

Much of this book, in fact, made me feel stabby. Simon was a jerk. Nick was . . . well, not really a jerk, but still not someone I could tolerate for very long. Nondescript. Vanity Fare had promise but could have chopped off a good fourth of the story, and Molly’s time talking to a therapist was so tedious. Overall, it was just long. And unsatisfying.

I did narrowly finish, mostly due to the setting and foodie talk, but didn’t feel anything for Molly. We just never gelled. And because I never bonded with her or felt interested in her journey, most of the book began to feel like a slog. It was all just . . . eh. A room-temperature glass of milk.

But stars for food-related copy that begins each chapter: Yeast of Eden, Tart of Darkness. Though it wasn’t enough to save this one for me, I definitely dug the creativity.

2.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062188364 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by LibraryThing in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘All the Summer Girls’ by Meg Donohue

All the Summer GirlsThree friends, three cities, three completely different lives . . . and one summer house filled with memories, ready to be revisited — or best left in the past.

In Philadelphia, good girl Kate is dumped by her fiance the day she learns she is pregnant with his child. In New York City, beautiful stay-at-home mom Vanessa is obsessively searching the Internet for news of an old flame. And in San Francisco, Dani, the aspiring writer who can’t seem to put down a book — or a cocktail — long enough to open her laptop, has just been fired . . . again.

In an effort to regroup, Kate, Vanessa, and Dani retreat to the New Jersey beach town where they once spent their summers. Emboldened by the seductive cadences of the shore, the women being to realize how much their lives, and friendships, have been shaped by the choices they made one fateful night on the beach eight years earlier — and the secrets that only now threaten to surface. (Goodreads)

Meg Donohue’s All the Summer Girls is a story of friendship.

Oh, it’s about more than that, too — like motherhood and substance abuse and grief and first love. But beyond those tiny, inconsequential little topics? It’s friendship. Sisterhood. The bonds of women — the marks we make upon each other, and how we flounder or thrive in the aftermath of loss.

A fateful night one summer eight years before drove a wedge between this once-inseparable trio: three friends who grew up visiting the same beach house each summer in Avalon, New Jersey. It took me about 30 pages to clarify who was with whom and what they were doing and where they lived, etc., but once I had the principle players down, I was hooked on Donohue’s latest. Her sophomore effort delved much deeper into her characters’ interior lives than How To Eat A Cupcake, which I really appreciated. And who couldn’t use a little literary vacation to the Jersey Shore? (Sans Snooki, of course.)

Almost a decade later, each woman is carrying a secret — or a half-truth — about one tragic night. Though Kate and Vanessa have moved jerkily forward, Dani is as broken as ever. Despite her messy edges (or maybe because of them?), Dani was my favorite character. An aspiring novelist and lost soul who wanders San Francisco like a ghost, Dani dances with too many personal demons . . . and I really felt for her. More than the others. When she reunites with Vanessa and Kate after losing her twelfth job in seven years (no small feat), we know her tough, somber exterior is just a mask.

Vanessa. Despite empathizing with her desire to sift through the painful end of a first love, I found something about her to be off-putting. Despite all she’s gone through in her marriage, something about her was alarming. But she didn’t irk me, persay; just functioned more as an enigma. I knew her the least of the women — and was the least interested in her.

But Kate. My Type-A side could relate to this serious, steadfast lawyer; my tender side broke in half as she struggled with the end of an engagement and new, unexpected pregnancy (all facts revealed almost immediately, so no spoilers). She’s never come to terms with what happened in Avalon eight years ago, changing her family forever, and her fiance’s ultimatum that she come to terms with it was heartbreaking. And that her friends would declare A Kate is a Kate is a Kate felt, to me, like the highest kind of compliment. She’s loyal, honest and true.

The book is quick and fast and, dare I say it, an excellent “beach read.” I hesitate to use the term too often because we hear it all the time as soon as Memorial Day rolls around. Plus, you know, some readers dismiss “beach reads” as fluffy entertainment — and All the Summer Girls has real heart. I felt the ends were wrapped nicely without convenient “tied with a bow” packaging, and I appreciated the resolute — even hopeful — close. After the heartache, it was a balm.

With mystery, beautiful language and a gorgeous beach backdrop, Donohue’s story will appeal to fans of women’s fiction, novels on friendship and books laced with emotion and drama in equal measure. All the Summer Girls deserves that much-coveted spot next to your SPF 30 — or the spot on your nightstand to simply take you away.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062203819 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘From the Kitchen of Half Truth’ by Maria Goodin

From the Kitchen of Half TruthAfter a tumultuous and fantastical childhood, Meg May craves logic. Reason, order and methodology have led her into the world of science — and the arms of a serious, straight-forward boyfriend. Now 21, she feels miles away from the world she once inhabited with her mother in the English countryside — but she’s being called back. Meg’s mother is dying.

Sweet, big-hearted cook Valerie May provided the love her daughter craved — but not the answers. Fed stories about their past that sounded more like fairy tales than memories, Meg is desperate for the truth about her biological father and her mother’s illness. She feels time running between her fingers, threatening to dissolve completely, before Valerie is truly too sick to be truthful — but even fact-finding, logic-loving Meg can’t predict how her mother’s tales will unravel.

Maria Goodin’s From the Kitchen of Half Truth is a haunting, often meandering story of one young woman’s quest to learn her roots — and it can be a little hard to define. On one hand, Goodin’s writing is reminiscent of Sarah Addison Allen: full of magical realism and incongruous details; lilting and lovely, like a cool evening breeze. In the next breath, we’re given Meg’s point of view — and shes’ so cold and odd and detached from life, and somehow clinging to this too-old-for-her drip of a boyfriend.

Though I felt her frustration with Valerie, I couldn’t help but be on Val’s “side.” Meg grows up with one loving, present parent, but she can’t help questioning her mother’s stories about a deceased pastry-chef father and other extended family. Valerie’s stories are truly outlandish, and often sound like the ramblings of a delusional madwoman. No one could hear her tales and think, even for a moment, that she’s sane. I mean, seriously.

And yet. Valerie’s denial regarding her advanced illness and impending death softened me to her, and I felt Meg’s desperation for answers deep in my gut. As the story progresses and Meg continues her quest for the truth, I was eager to fit the pieces together myself — and felt Goodin masterfully guided us through the Mays’ history. The transitions never felt wonky. Valerie’s anecdotes about Meg’s childhood were balanced with the present, even though Meg in the present isn’t someone I really wanted to befriend.

I guess that’s what kept this in “good” territory instead of “great”: Meg rubbed me the wrong way. I felt for her, but not with her. Even the emotionally-charged scenes toward the end didn’t move me the way they would have if, say, Meg hadn’t seemed like such a shell of a person. I felt the love interest introduced partway through was just a distraction, though I did appreciate some of Meg’s transition by the close. And, you know, I might have teared up during one pivotal, community-oriented scene.

First published under the title Nutmeg in the U.K., Goodin’s take on motherhood, truth and love was interesting. Fans of magical touches and family dramas with a touch of mystery might find From the Kitchen of Half Truth to be an intriguing story. Goodin’s creativity was awesome — even if the lead character didn’t win me over. I wouldn’t hesitate to read her work again.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1402279485 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Best of Us’ by Sarah Pekkanen

The Best of UsHurricane Betty isn’t the only storm a-brewin’.

“Following a once-in-a-lifetime invitation, a group of old college friends leap at the chance to bring their husbands for a week’s vacation at a private villa in Jamaica to celebrate a former classmate’s thirty-fifth birthday.

All four women are desperate for a break and this seems like a perfect opportunity. Tina is drowning under the demands of mothering four young children. Allie needs to escape from the shattering news about an illness that runs in her family. Savannah is carrying the secret of her husband’s infidelity. And, finally, there’s Pauline, who spares no expense to throw her husband an unforgettable birthday celebration, hoping it will gloss over the cracks that have already formed in their new marriage.

he week begins idyllically, filled with languorous days and late nights of drinking and laughter. But as a hurricane approaches the island, turmoil builds, forcing each woman to re-evaluate everything she’s known about the others — and herself.” (Goodreads)

Centering on the dynamics between four very different women, Sarah Pekkanen’s The Best of Us is a novel that reads like a daydream. Seriously, the scenery of Jamaica and the private villa where the group convenes? If the descriptions of sumptuous meals prepared by a private chef and the sunny, perfect beach don’t get you, imagine the comfort and relaxation of having an entire estate to yourself . . . you know, until stuff starts to get real.

And get real it does. Each character packs their own brand of baggage, and readers can only lounge in their favorite armchair and let it all unfold. While I didn’t feel as emotionally invested in the characters as I would have liked, Pekkanen’s quick pacing and non-stop action kept me reading to the dramatic conclusion.

Dramatic, I tell you.

I felt like a fly on the wall in The Best of Us — in a good way, I reckon. There’s so much happening that, at several points, I had to concentrate on who was mad at whom and why and where and what. Verging on being afflicted with the fatal Too Many Characters-itis, it took me a solid 70 pages or so to really get everyone’s stories straight . . . but once I did, it all clicked.

Of the four women, my favorite character was actually Savannah, the newly-separated fiery friend who seemed misunderstood. Though her flirtations with certain members of the group were a little silly, I felt like I got to know her the best — and understood her better than Tina, for example. The only thing I really got about Tina? She’s a tired, stressed-out mom carrying more weight than she’d like, and she and her husband have no intimacy issues. (Perhaps that explains the four kids, no?)

More so than the others, Savannah was dynamic and interesting. As she struggles with her husband’s infidelity and whether to divulge the truth to her friends, I felt like she was the most fleshed-out member of this party. Pauline was a compelling character, too, but I could never really figure out if she truly loved Dwight or was just a hopeless gold-digger. I think it was both — but Dwight was so sweet and nice, I couldn’t forgive her for that. Until Dwight went and did something nasty, and then I was like . . . UMWHATIDONT’KNOWTHESEPEOPLEATALL.

At some point or other, everyone in the book let me down . . . but perhaps that was the point. Regardless of past or present grievances, the couples find a way to move past old hurts. Love isn’t superficial, or transient, or blind. And even with the myriad of issues everyone is facing, they’re taking their marriages seriously. They’re a real commitment. They’re finding their way back to each other . . . even if it takes a hurricane to do so.

In terms of a storm, I guess I expected a little more from Hurricane Betty . . . though the real turmoil revolved around what was actually brewing in the house. The hurricane was a metaphor, of course, for a dozen issues all coming to a head at once. The scene centering on a crazy-butt decision Allie made felt a little over-the-top, but I went with it because of the realization — and resolution — that came after.

Overall, fans of Pekkanen and women’s fiction as a whole will find an interesting, pleasant diversion in The Best of Us. Anyone seeking a bit of afternoon escapism might get lost in the sun and sand of Jamaica, and I appreciated the interesting dynamics between couples. While I didn’t enjoy this one as much as These Girls, it was a fun read.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 1451673515 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Lost Husband’ by Katherine Center

The Lost HusbandLibby Moran is looking for a way out. Widowed with two young children, her only option in the wake of Danny’s death was to move in with her difficult mother. Still adrift three years later, a letter from a long-lost aunt arrives at just the right moment — and prompts her to reevaluate her family’s future. With Aunt Jean offering a place to stay in exchange for help on a working farm in Atwater, Texas, Libby makes an executive decision: she and the kids will feel more comfortable with goats than her mother.

Quitting her soul-sucking day job and piling Abby and Tank in the van, Libby sets out for Jean’s abode — and is fascinated by what she finds. At first exhausted by the early cycles of milking the goats, making cheese and taking their goods to local farmers’ markets, Libby settles into a rhythm with the help of O’Connor, a farm manager with his own complicated past. Rumor is he’s handsome, but you can barely tell with all the scruff.

With the support of an unlikely crew of family and new friends, Libby and the kids begin to discover that — even after tragedy — something can be gained from what was lost.

So. Katherine Center is awesome. I’ve read every one of her books, and they suck me in like nobody’s gull-darn business. The Lost Husband was no different, ending my somewhat hum-drum streak of starting and promptly abandoning books, and I was all up in this novel from start to finish.

Despite the heavy subject matter of Center’s latest (out May 7), this is not a serious story. It has serious elements, absolutely, and I may have teared up a few times, but like every story penned by this author? Well, at its core is a capable, loving heroine who doesn’t take herself too seriously . . . and the humor is what carries us through. The playful dynamic between Libby and O’Connor kept us from ever wading into misery, and the kids! Oh, the kids. Second-grader Abby stole every scene, and her little brother Tank also provided much-needed levity.

At its heart, The Lost Husband is about family — and carrying on in the face of tragedy. Three years after her husband’s sudden death, Libby is trying her best to keep her crew happy, healthy and together . . . and if that results in some helicopter parenting, I completely understood. When Abby is being bullied for a slight limp that lingers from a car accident, I wanted to swoop in there and read nasty PeePants Gavinski the riot act myself. Center’s great talent is creating families that feel like your family — and we’re with them every step of the way.

The plot’s quick pace had me glued to my e-reader, sneaking passages whenever possible, and I loved the introduction of Sunshine, a formerly-famous actress hiding out with her grandfather in Atwater. After Libby nearly runs her over on her first day in town, the two become unlikely friends — especially given Sunshine’s ability to “talk” to those on the other side. Informing Libby she can “find” Danny, the titular lost husband, the duo begin a series of “seances” that actually give them a chance to talk, unwind and vent.

More than anything, what Libby needs is a friend.

I was just . . . so pleased with this book. From its rural Texas setting to its vibrant, interesting characters to its descriptions of tough but bucolic country life, Center has created a winner of a tale in her latest work. The budding love story was well-balanced with depictions of family life (and all its complications), and I inhaled this book in just a few days. Fans of Center’s have another gem for their collection — and I expect The Lost Husband to win over new readers, too.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345507940 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Good Daughter’ by Jane Porter

The Good DaughterIn a follow-up to her first Brennan Sisters novel, Jane Porter offers us the next chapter in the dynamic Brennan family’s story — focusing on Kit, a Catholic school English teacher and confidante to all. Single after ending a long, empty relationship and approaching middle age, Kit gives to everyone — her sick mother; her passionate but needy sisters; her students — without reserving any warmth for herself.

After a girls’ weekend at the family’s beach house results in a chance meeting with Jude Knight, a handsome, motorcycle-riding bad boy, Kit steps dangerously into the path of Delilah, a troubled young student in need of help. Wanting to follow her heart but afraid of where it might lead her, Kit tries to be everything for everybody — but needs to learn how to be there for herself.

Jane Porter’s The Good Daughter struck a chord with me, mostly because my life churns around a cycle of guilt. I believe this is, to some extent, just part of being a woman . . . because, you know, we really feel things. Sometimes I feel too many things. And this book? Didn’t help me turn my brain off.

Let’s start with the good, shall we? Porter has a true knack for creating big, boisterous and lovable characters who endear themselves to readers immediately. After finishing The Good Woman last fall, I really looked forward to reconnecting with the Brennans — even with inevitable tragedy on the horizon. Though complicated (which family isn’t?), their love and devotion for one another is obvious. I initially thought this story would center on Tommy and his wife, following their struggle to start a family, and was a little disappointed it was about Kit.


I said it.

Because Kit is . . . I don’t know. She blends in; she plays it safe. This is the whole point of this story, I know: Kit morphing from modest school teacher to impulsive, lively woman. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t recall much about Kit from the first book — and that was pretty telling. The other sisters? The woman with a husband playing baseball in Florida, the twin volunteering in Africa? I remember them. But Kit? She just seemed so . . . school-marmish.

And this book — her story, the titular “good daughter” — didn’t do much to change that. Though Jude posed a passing interest for me, he felt too much like a caricature — and the endless descriptions of his rugged appearance and rough-around-the-edges demeanor felt obvious. I liked him, but he was kind of . . . cardboard. He never felt real.

Blended into Kit’s story is the sad, sad saga of Delilah, the daughter of a meek mother and abusive stepfather. The scenes in which her jerk-face stepdad appeared made me physically uncomfortable, and I often found myself skimming those paragraphs because they were just really sad. Overall? That’s how this book made me feel: bummed. Super bummed. And I didn’t expect that, given how sucked into a story about infidelity I was with Porter’s first installment.

And yet.

Porter obviously has skills, and her writing kept me engaged. But the story itself? I found it much harder to get any enjoyment from the Brennans’ latest struggles, and Kit wasn’t as compelling a lead as Meg. I feel bad, like I’m further contributing to Kit’s marginalization here . . . but I just didn’t like it nearly as much. After finishing the story, I felt a little relieved to put it in my rearview mirror.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0425253422 • 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