Review: The Vines We Planted

It’s hard to tell what I love most about the bookstagram community. The world of bookish photography featuring beautiful locales and steaming lattes (that I will never have in southwest Kansas)? The friendships forged from afar, betwixt book mavens with an affinity for chocolate and cheese? The fact that such a community exists online, where people share a love for something and positively engage with each other to share and revel in that passion?

There is just so much to love about the bookstagram universe. (If you’re on Insta, shoot me a DM & introduce yourself –> @littlereaderontheprairie!) Anyway, one such example: author engagement. A few weeks ago, debut author Joanell Serra shot me a DM and asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing a copy of her first book, The Vines We Planted. 

I always get a little nervous about reviewing books that authors have specifically sent to me (I’m acting like this happens all the time, but really, it’s only happened a few times). It seems safer receiving a book from the publisher, you know? That way there’s no personal connection or awkward feelings if the book is a bust.

Spoiler alert: The Vines We Planted is not a bust.

I received an e-copy of the book, which promptly resulted in an “Oh, damn” reaction on my end: I’m somewhat of a fervent anti-ebook activist. (Print life 4-ever!) As such, I had to read the book on my phone. My optometrist friends are probably smacking their foreheads at this point; but I did it. I read the whole thing on my 4″ screen! Which is kind of a feat in itself, as I’ve only ever finished one other book on my iPhone, having abandoned the other 4-5 I started. If I’m going to read a full book on my phone, it had better be appealing.

Fortunately, The Vines We Planted met my e-reading standards and proved itself worthwhile. The novel is set in modern-day Sonoma Valley, California, where a number of integral characters’ lives intersect via a winery + stable combination farm. Uriel, a 30-year-old ranch hand and horse trainer, is recovering from heartbreak: after an early-20s fling dissolved in the bat of an eye, he married a spirited young woman on a dare. At the start of the novel, she’d died a year or two previously in a tragic accident, leaving Uriel to wallow in a pit of bachelor-despair. Meanwhile, Amanda, 28 years old and finishing her PhD abroad, returns to the valley when she discovers her emotionally-distant father has been diagnosed with cancer. Their lives become entwined as both deal with family crises and secrets from the past that bubble and erupt from the surface.

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If I had to characterize this novel, I’d call it contemporary literature focusing on family drama with a touch of romance. There’s a strong sense of setting in the work, which I am appreciative of: for this western Kansas girl, anything that transports me from the dry, vacant plains is a welcome distraction. Characters are mostly believable — in truth, I had issues with a few of Amanda’s choices/reactions, and these minor blips took me out of the story briefly — and though there is a host of major players, their personalities and circumstances are easily distinguished from one another.

The novel had a desirable blend of familial drama and romance, making it a great summer read. It’s always hard for me to rate books like this — it was engaging, moved along at a good clip, and dabbled in topics that went deeper than the average romance novel; but it also wasn’t the type of read that kept me thinking long after I’d finished. Would I recommend this juicy story to my girlfriends? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to Serious Critics of American Literature? Um. No. And that’s absolutely okay. The Vines We Planted is a perfectly enjoyable, quick read for lazy weekends or travel days.

Overall: 3.5-4 stars. If you’re looking for something dramatic and engaging, read this book. If you’re looking for something that makes a statement about our social climate or that will provoke hours of deep reflection, keep moving.

This novel was sent to me free by the author, Joanell Serra, in exchange for my honest review. The opinions and words in this review are completely my own and the receipt of this book has had no bearing on my reflections.

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