Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: Bitter Orange

Well, friends, I’ve done it: I’ve read my “best book” of 2018, and it’s only going to be downhill from here. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing; I’m just basically 923% positive none of my other reads this year will top it.)

In July, I reached out to Tin House to request a copy of Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller, slated for release October 9. I’d previously read her dark and disturbing family drama, Swimming Lessons, and I was extremely pleased to have been granted an early copy by the publishing gods.

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The novel comes adorned with a dark and mysterious cover that features three oranges — two grouped together, one off to the side; appropriate when one takes into consideration the synopsis:

Frances (“Franny”) is a reclusive 39-year-old woman whose only friend (and roommate — her mother) has just died. She’s never had pals her own age before, and remembers in all-too-vivid detail the humiliation of childhood birthday parties attended out of obligation. As she reaches middle age, Franny is socially isolated and overweight — characteristics I later came to attribute to her mother’s overpowering nature. At any rate, in the wake of her mother’s passing, Franny accepts a stint at Lyntons for the summer. She’s to move to the countryside estate and take stock of its outbuildings and decorative architectural features, then report back to a wealthy American who has just purchased the sprawling property sight-unseen.

Naturally, when Franny discovers she’ll be living with two others, she’s a bit hesitant — how should she greet them? Is it too forward to assume they’ll even speak? But she’s quickly welcomed into Cara and Peter’s lives and granted access to their life-loving ways: late night picnics, drinking on the roof, skinny-dipping in the pond. Ever uncomfortable in her own skin, Franny flirts with the idea of becoming beloved to someone.

When she discovers a peephole in the floor of her bathroom — leading directly into Cara and Peter’s bathroom below hers — Franny is overcome with curiosity . . . and remorse. She can’t resist the temptation to peek into their private lives, but the choice leaves her feeling guilty. And lemme tell y’all: guilt is a beautiful thing when you’re writing a character.

Fuller does SO. MANY. THINGS. right with this novel — the prose is evocative and atmospheric, the very definition of “painting a picture with words.” For example:

“I went into the corridor and looked both ways but there was no one there. I called for them again but heard nothing. The shadow at my back returned, grey air pressing up against me, and I spun around to catch it. Wrongdoing. The word came into my head as if someone had spoken it aloud. “Hello?“ I said, but my voice sounded hollow, and I ran then, along the corridor—the locket around my neck bouncing— out of the staircase door, and up into the daylight.”

And:

“Small grey mounds lay on the floor in various states of decay and I saw they were oranges, and I realized that for years the tree must have been fruiting and dropping them on the stone paving, nature hoping some of them would seed. I flapped my hand in front of my face to keep away the tiny flies and wasps which buzzed around the rotting fruit. There were no orange tree saplings in the orangery; the main tree had been taking all the water and light. But other plants were growing: bindweed snaked across the floor, and the whole of the back wall, which must have been built of brick, once whitewashed and covered with trellis, was pasted with the great hairy trunks of ivy, and almost completely obscured. Many of the iron seats around the sides of the room had rusted away, and there were gaps in the stone pavers where an underfloor heating system must have once supplied warmth.”

And sure, the writing is gorgeous; but what about the meat of the story? That’s what you want to know about, right? Is the plot strong?

In a word:

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I discussed this novel in depth with my bookstagram buddy, @cassinthewilds, and we couldn’t stop swooning over Fuller’s absolutely thrilling current of suspense that slowly builds from the start. I may or may not have referred to Fuller as the Queen of Modern Horror at one point. And it’s a silent horror; that’s the beauty of it. I’m not keen on graphic violence, shock-factor, or gore — I think it takes a great deal more skill to quietly horrify readers — and Bitter Orange does just that. The creep-factor sneaks up on you slowly, until you find yourself asking Why am I reading this at 11:47 pm on a Saturday night when I’m home alone?

Another strength lies in Fuller’s characterization of the two leading females, Cara and Frances. Both display complex, deeply-rooted psychological . . . disturbances? . . . which are a direct result of their relationships with their mothers. In turn, their relationships with other humans are also tainted by these past experiences — Franny’s inability to live without her mother has rendered her incapable of self confidence and independence. I’ll leave Cara to you for analysis, dear readers, but just know this — the parallels between the two women are utterly fascinating.

I thought I knew how the book would end. I was certain there’d be a murder, and I was equally sure I knew “whodunnit” — alas, I was absolutely incorrect in my musings. The resolution left me a bit breathless, and to be honest, I’m already looking forward to rereading the novel to follow the trail of breadcrumbs again (this time with the conclusion in mind). I will warn you, though: once you start thinking about the narrative, and the characters, and the concept of truth — you’re going to have a few questions to consider at the end of this book.

Overall: 5 stars. Do not wait to read this book. Pre-order it today. I get nothing if you do, but you’ll get a freaking amazing thrill and I’ll have more friends to talk about this new obsession of mine with.

Also: for fans of Shirley Jackson, “A Rose for Emily,” and Shutter Island. 

Review: Something Wonderful

When I was growing up, my family lived out in the country on a cattle ranch, surrounded by luxurious acres of rolling hills, creek beds lined with ancient trees, and an endless chorus of katydids and bullfrogs that became the background music of our childhood. Perhaps the greatest thing about where we grew up, though, was the fact that our grandparents lived a half mile away — a measly 90-second jaunt down the gravel road on our bikes, refuge from our mother’s chore list in the summertime months.

It was there, in Grandma Simon’s sunken living room — replete with faux-walnut wood paneling and innumerable picture frames that sorely needed dusting — that I came to know (*dramatic pause*) the the-uh-tuh.

Oklahoma! strikes me as the first musical she introduced my sister and me to, but that could just be the fuzzy recollection of twenty-some years gone by. We reenacted Curley’s opening number (“Oh, what a beautiful morning! Oh, what a beautiful day!”) and belted “Oooooooooooooooooooo-klahoma!” at the top of our lungs, most likely whilst racing back home on our be-streamered bicycles.

Grandma showed us The Sound of Music and The King and I and Carousel and South Pacific — I’m pretty sure my sister sang about washing a man outta her hair every time she showered for months after. Rodgers and Hammerstein became the sort of names my sister — who later became a theater major and remains invested in theatrical work to this day — uttered with the reverence one might reserve for May Crowning at church. We lived and breathed musicals during the summer months, when that dratted school couldn’t occupy all of our Grandma-visiting hours.

All this is to say: when I had the opportunity to read Todd Purdum’s newly released biography about the musical gods themselves, titled Something Wonderful, I jumped. And then I dragged my feet a bit, because a year since Grandma’s passing felt too soon to be reading something that reminded me of moments we had shared and cherished so much. When I finally began reading, though, I was thrown into a nostalgic world of musical and theatrical bliss, and filled with a longing to watch the film adaptations of the stories my childhood was steeped in.

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Something Wonderful is, through my rose-tinged perspective, truly something darling. Purdum explores the relationship between the composer and lyricist, starting well before the two ever began collaborating and following their paths to the end. This work is an exhaustive look at the achievements (and failures) of the artists’ lives, no mean feat, to be sure. Purdum takes readers on a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s creative works, starting at the beginning and working his way — albeit slowly — to the bittersweet success of The Sound of Music, which surely remains one of the most widely-known and beloved musicals of all time.

Although the work lacked the fluid telling I’ve come to love in narrative nonfiction (there was so. much. detail.), I was compelled by Purdum’s telling, often chuckling or snorting in disbelief or shedding a tear or two at some tragedy or another. Of course, some of this emotional response is undoubtedly connected to my own attached memories; but I ultimately feel that Purdum captured an essence of life in his book.

The thing about works such as Something Wonderful: I always pick up a nugget or two of historical import that come as an absolute surprise and charm me to bits. In this case, Purdum sprinkles in references about actors and actresses that tried for parts in the iconic duo’s Broadway productions, but weren’t selected — names that stand out today as some of the best-known thespians of the 20th Century. (I won’t spoil the fun for you, readers.) These little surprises managed to lighten some of the more tedious portions of the biography — sections in which name-dropping is exhaustive but means nothing to the moderate theater-lover such as myself.

Something Wonderful is a delightful history of two of the greatest theatrical contributors of all time. For readers with an interest in live productions or Broadway, I can’t recommend this book enough. For the moderate enthusiast — proceed for nostalgia’s sake, but keep another book on hand to temper the reading.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a date with my grandma’s homemade brownie recipe and Julie Andrews’ Austrian foray.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Henry Holt Books sent me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are my own and were not influenced in any way by the publisher or author.

Review: Suicide Club

Imagine a world in which people have achieved near-immortality: It’s possible to live for four-hundred years. Skin is replaced with a tougher, more luminous counterpart that renders pimples a thing of the past and leaves people literally glowing. Organs are seamlessly replaced as needed, stress is discouraged by government mandates, and the science of healthful eating has been unlocked and dispersed for all.

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Such is the world of debut author Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, a novel in which members are fixated on both life and death — as if it’s possible to focus on one without the other. Lea Kirino is a member of the elite “lifer” society: she enjoys the benefits of a well-paying career, such as a separate living facility with its own bathroom and views of the city; she lives a virtually stress-free existence; she’s engaged to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most well-established bachelors; and she’s got a nearly-flawless life record, with few tarnishes such as dangerous risk-taking behavior, burger-imbibing, and no limb replacements to date. That is, until she steps into oncoming traffic on her 100th birthday.

In a world where life — and the strife for immortality — is sanctimonious, Lea’s actions (I’ll let you read about her reasons) are cause for immediate observation by government-ordered officials, at work and in public and possibly even within the walls of her own home. It’s illegal to take a life, or to show anything less than zeal for living, and Lea’s little “accident” has put her hopes for the Third Wave (read: the Immortality generation) at odds.

Lea soon becomes acquainted with the “Suicide Club,” a group of high-society Lifers who by all outward appearances, seem to be living with adequate demonstrations of joy. However, it becomes clear these privileged individuals seek more than mere immortality, and Lea is forced to broaden her perspective on what it means to truly be life-loving.

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I was utterly mesmerized by the world-building Heng accomplishes in her debut novel — honestly, I haven’t been quite so sucked into a fiction-verse like this in many, many years. It sounds cheesy, but I was honestly reminded of my middle- and high-school years when I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and I found myself quickly steeped in the world that I was reading about.

The book struck me as an interesting portrayal of societal grooming. Characters are taught that living as long as possible is the most worthwhile achievement a person can make. They’re obsessed with prolonging their lives, so much so that relationships — and anything else that is considered cortisol-producing — are minimized and abbreviated. In some ways, the observations in the book felt a bit like a sardonic glance at society’s current fads: characters get their nutrition from a drink, not unlike the juicing and Advocare fanatics who swear by the supreme nutrition of liquefied meals. Characters are zealous about their appearance, fretting over any visible wrinkles or laugh lines, and it is a mark of the truly elite that they are able to receive “treatments” that eliminate signs of aging. Again, I was reminded of our cultural fear of aging, and especially the efforts undertaken to retain youthful features (here’s looking at you, Kardashian troupe).

So, is it possible to enjoy such a novel — one in which characters are ultimately superficial and human relationships are dictated by social class and the placability of such pairings? In a word: YES. I found so much to love in the flawed characters and ideologies of Heng’s futuristic world. This book moved me in deep ways, forcing me to reflect on the darker realities of death as an endpoint — or a destination — of living.

While some bigger questions went unanswered — chiefly, who/what determines the “number” people are assigned at birth? Is it random? Why? — I wasn’t significantly distracted by these flaws in the plot. If you’re a highly cynical reader, though, you may find more to criticize in that respect.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A thoroughly enjoyable read about living and dying; one that I see myself recommending often!

Review: Whistle in the Dark

The first time I read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was thrilled to my core. Over a decade later, I still remember the tremble of fascination and eeriness that delighted me as the narrator and I spiraled toward the dark conclusion. (If you’ve never read the story, follow the link and do so — it’s a quick read. And one that I consider required reading of like, everyone.)

I suppose the slow-moving paranoia and dedication to uncovering something (that may or may not exist) is what draws me in to Gilman’s work; and it is this same fascination with obsession and the potential for “craziness” that made Emma Healey’s latest novel, Whistle in the Dark, a compelling and spine-tingling read.

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Due out next Tuesday, July 24, from Harper Books, Whistle in the Dark is a slow-burning story about a mother and daughter. The book isn’t rife with action, and it isn’t a “thriller” in the trendy sense of the word, but I was captivated, and I was thrilled, by the time the novel met its end.

Synopsis: Jen Maddox has a pretty normal life: she’s mother to Meg, 26 years old and who’s just told her parents she’s pregnant; and Lana, 15 years old and the epitome of angsty teen. Her husband, Hugh, is a nice guy and the two of them exchange witty banter on a regular basis. “Normal” is the perfect adjective to describe the foursome — until, that is, Lana goes missing on a mother-daughter painting holiday and doesn’t resurface for four days . . . seemingly without a memory of where she was during that time, what happened, and who — if anyone — she was with. As Jen puzzles over the circumstances surrounding her youngest daughter’s disappearance (& recovery), readers learn that Lana has a history of suicidal ideations and depression. Jen is certain this disruption of their lives will lead Lana down a dark path, and frantically seeks to uncover the truth (no matter what the police or her husband think).

I will admit: the book wasn’t quite what I expected when I set out to read it. Based on the cover description, I thought Whistle in the Dark would be more of a fast-paced mystery/suspense novel in which a mother sets off on a journey to uncover the truth about her daughter’s disappearance. And in some ways, this is a fair description of the things that happen in the book; however, a majority of the book is actually devoted to the relationships between family members and Jen’s uncertainty — and resulting timidity — as a mother.

Here’s what I liked about it:

  • Jen’s character, though often frustrating, feels so true to life. While I was irked by her sometimes-passivity, I found her fearfulness of botching things with her tempestuous daughter to be very accurate.
  • The storyline trundles along slowly, but the details that Healey gives us in the family’s daily excursions and mealtimes and arguments feel like a breadcrumb trail that leads to something magnanimous.
  • Whistle in the Dark has just one perspective/POV to follow, and God bless it for that.
  • The prose is something else, my friends. It’s absolutely beautiful in its deliberate, thoughtful way, and I just wanted to write down all the damn phrases to store away somewhere safe, for looking at on rainy days. If ever there were a time to slow clap for an author’s writing style, this would be it.

Here’s what I didn’t love:

  • LANA. She drove me nuts (I feel you, Jen) and I was often repulsed by her behavior. That being said . . . I felt that she, too, was pretty well drawn for a teenager struggling with *not teen angst but real, actual depression*. So, while I hated her a lot, I also related to her, and felt the urge to text my mom several times and say Sorry for being such a difficult depressed shithead in high school. Oof.

Whistle in the Dark is a marvelously drawn, character-driven novel that creates this intimate portrait of a family dealing with the realities of chronic depression and the paranoia that (I assume) exists in parents of children who’ve attempted suicide. There’s an element of dark mystery lurking beneath the surface, as the book centers on the aftermath of Lana’s disappearance/return, and Healey’s ability to produce Jen’s anxiety in the reader (me!) was a truly surreal experience.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read Whistle in the Dark if you’re okay with slow burns and moseying plots and enjoy a dark story with a payoff at the end.

Review: What We Were Promised

Last week, a highly-anticipated novel made its debut: What We Were Promised, by Lucy Tan. Little, Brown sent me a copy in exchange for an honest review — thanks, publisher friends! — and I decided to dive right in almost immediately after I opened the package.

What We Were Promised is a family saga, of sorts, and chock-full of d-r-a-m-a. Tan crafts a story around the Zhen family: Wei and Lina grew up in China before moving to America to pursue lofty dreams of higher education and corporate success. After twenty-some years, the couple has returned to their motherland, a couple decades older and joined this time by their teenage daughter, Karen. During their years abroad, they accrued wealth and success, and Wei was offered the opportunity to oversee his budding company’s newly-opened Shanghai-branch. They move into an elite hotel community at Lanson Suites, where their laundry, cooking, and cleaning are all accomplished by staff members and Lina doesn’t have to lift a finger to do more than shop for extravagant clothes and accessories. Karen spends most of the year in America at an elite boarding school, but summers with her parents in a land that is completely foreign to her.

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The family lives together, but each person seems to occupy a separate sphere of existence, interacting superficially at mealtimes (when Wei makes it home in time) and during rare moments of collective free time. At first glance, I chalked the characters up as superficial; but after deeper reflections on Wei and Lina’s complicated early relationship, I began to see the characters as complex — albeit often shallow — and savored the unwinding of their histories and present lives.

Woven into the narrative of the Zhen family’s daily life, in poignant juxtaposition, is the telling of Sunny’s experiences as first the family’s maid, and later, their ayi (nanny). Sunny is an anomaly: she’s in her late twenties/early thirties (her age is a bit ambiguous) and although she was married once before, she lives a simple, work-driven life as a single woman — childless, no less — in a society that seems to value women more when they are homemakers and wives and mothers. Sunny’s observations bring another dimension to What We Were Promised, offering readers a juicy (and often, maddening) outsider evaluation of the Zhen household.

While this book didn’t quite shake me as much as I expected it to, I did find a great deal to appreciate in Tan’s work. Her themes of cultural displacement + collective identity gave WWWP a dimension I didn’t think I’d find at the onset of the novel. The family dynamic (or quiet dysfunction, if you will), combined with the bitter taste of rotting dreams, created an atmosphere of regret and desire that made this book a compelling read.

Overall: 4 stars. Read this one if you’re a fan of family dramas and stories that span cultures. What We Were Promised is in the vein of The Leavers (think longing to belong and unfulfilling life choices), Winter Garden (think tension, unresolved pasts, and sibling rivalry/competition/contempt), and

Review: The Ruin

While I find myself increasingly ambivalent about the suspense/thriller genre as a whole, I am finding an increased appreciation for the artfully constructed detective novel. Perhaps this is a nod to earlier years in which I pored over Nancy Drew and Mandie novels, hell-bent on solving the mysteries before they could; perhaps it’s merely a fascination with the minds of those far cleverer than I. At any rate, I don’t even need a rainy day any more to excuse curling up in a poorly-lit room with a dark mystery and my trusty tobacco pipe. (I kid, I kid.)

Dervla McTiernan’s newly-released (in the US) DI novel is an ideal blend of dark, twisty, and Irish — and what more can you ask for in a work of detective fiction?

The novel opens in the past: 1993, rural Ireland, a young Cormac Reilly dispatched on one of his first cases — what he believes to be a routine domestic disturbance call. When he arrives, he discovers a house in disrepair, two young children equally neglected, and a deceased woman, whom he finds to be the mother of the children (and deceased for hours). When Cormac also finds signs of abuse mingled in with the obvious markings of neglect, he gathers the children up and takes them to the nearest hospital. Later, the case is removed from his hands and he moves on with his career.

Twenty years later, in Galway, a young man commits suicide. When his sister returns from the (presumed) dead days later, Cormac Reilly is called to the case by his superiors: it would seem he made the acquaintance of the two some decades previously, on the night their mother died. . . .

As the past and present are immersed in a tangled dance of fates, Cormac enters a dangerous game with members of the force — some who can be trusted, and others, apparently, who cannot. As the mystery unravels, McTiernan hurtles readers toward a conclusion that is both unforeseeable and nail-bitingly suspenseful. I raced through this work in a couple of sittings and, truthfully, wouldn’t have put it down if it would’ve been considered socially acceptable to let my 1-year-old fend for himself for a day or two. Sink or swim, right? 😉

The Good: See above for sung praises. I was adequately pleased by character construction, plotting, and the not-so-meandering stories-within-the-story. McTiernan has kicked off what I anticipate will be a brilliant dark series, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the second book (rumor on the street has it coming out March 2019).

The Bad: There are several timelines, stories, and characters — seemingly disjointed — being drawn together in The Ruin. At times, the various side stories can be confusing, if not a bit distracting. For the most part, the conclusion of this work cleared up ambiguities and made the short-lived confusion worthwhile.

The Verdict: 4.5 stars. If you enjoy smart, carefully constructed detective fiction à la Tana French and Robert Galbraith, give The Ruin a closer look.

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.

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

June will be upon us soon, friends, but before you make your TBR pile for the month, take a quick look at Number One Chinese Restaurant by debut author Lillian Li. This title is slated for release June 19 and I am so excited about it! 

From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year-friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

For a debut, this novel was remarkably tightly-woven and, in my humble opinion, well-edited. When it comes to reviewing books, there’s a lot I can forgive about plot — but I can’t stand reading a badly composed narrative. Prose is practically everything to me (really, I’ll completely overlook a boring plot if the writing is melodic) . . . and Li’s work does not disappoint (not in terms of plot, or prose!).

Though comedic at times (Ah-Jack is a charmer, people), the novel has an underlying melancholic vibe as readers unwrap the gift that is Li’s work. Characters are vibrant, in an ironically simple way. I felt like Nan and Pat and Jimmy were all utterly possible human beings, and as such, empathized with their frustrations, shortcomings, and tiny triumphs. I wanted to slap Pat for Nan (y’all, I’m praying my kid somehow eludes the attitude portion of teenage years), I was repulsed by Uncle Pang’s sneaky demeanor, and I wanted to hold Annie soothingly (despite her frequent moments of unlikeable-ness). The characters in this novel weren’t remarkable or amped up or, truth be told, super memorable in the long run; but that’s exactly what made the novel work for me. Everyone was so simply usual, I believed their reactions and was sucked into the storyline.

Perhaps the greatest gem of Number One Chinese Restaurant: Li’s skillful infusion of the concepts of community as family and our inherent human desire to be someone else to meet another’s needs.

I worked in the restaurant industry for five or so years and I can attest to the sense of community (& therefore belonging, or ostracism) that occurs within a restaurant. Relationships are fiercely loyal — until someone fucks up beyond repair — and often, time spent together at work spills over into time outside the restaurant until suddenly, the people you see at work are the people you see at home and the line is so blurred between the two, you aren’t sure who you are without your job (read: your work family). As you read, watch for this development in the Duck House characters as the story unfolds.

Adding to Li’s ability to create absolutely believable characters: the subtle manner in which we learn that each character has crafted some sort of facade, some exterior personality, with which to appease his or her colleagues/family/love interests — and how inherently human that perversion of ourselves is. I was touched by characters’ realizations that they had even tricked themselves into believing (if only for a brief time) that they were this other person, only to realize when the fog had lifted — it was all for someone else’s benefit . . . and in most cases, that personality distortion has not benefitted either parties significantly. Perhaps, Li seems to observe, these personal tweaks we make actually serve to damage us far more greatly than they do to benefit others. After all — everything comes out in the wash, right?

Overall: A solid 4/5 stars. Read this debut if you enjoy family/community dramas.

Review: My Ex-Life

Here’s the thing about contemporary fiction: such works are often the soda of literature, bubbling and frothing with excitement for a short while before ultimately falling flat months (or short years) later when political digs and technology references have lost their relevance. Sometimes, though, I get lucky and read a piece of contemporary lit that isn’t just timely and charming, but also thought-provoking and re-read worthy.

My Ex-Life by author Stephen McCauley, unfortunately, falls into the former of the two categories.

30-second synopsis: Middle-aged Julie and her teenage daughter, Mandy, are scrambling to make ends meet in a haphazard (and possibly illegal?) Airbnb in a quaint coastal town in New England. Julie’s got a not-addicted pot problem and Mandy has a rather lackluster enthusiasm for school, work, and life in general. On the other side of the country, Julie’s ex-husband David is facing a mid-life crisis of his own: he’s just been dumped by his considerably-younger-and-thinner boyfriend . . . who is buying the home he rents out from underneath him. David and Julie reunite for a few weeks in the summer, seemingly so David can help sort out Julie’s problems; but the two quickly find that simple fixes and good intentions aren’t always enough to make things right.

Reviews on Goodreads for the newly-published novel seem to fall on two separate ends of the rating spectrum: there are those who love the work, who are absolutely convinced it is of the utmost relevance for this time and that the characters are vividly drawn and ultimately McCauley has done no wrong with this stunning piece of literature; and then, there are the disgruntled and defensive conservatives who have stumbled upon this title that is clearly not intended for them.

I’m falling somewhere between the two: I’m not convinced, by any stretch of the imagination, that this book will ever be a re-read for me (or even a book that I remember much from six months down the road); but I was also not put off by the numerous snarky jabs at Republican values and religious individuals, despite the fact that many of these jabs targeted people in my general demographic (I’m a moderate, white, middle-class Catholic from the Midwest). I didn’t take offense to McCauley’s caustic observations on non-Democrats because, well, to make the assumption that all of those zingers were meant to rankle me just seems rather smug and self-occupied, doesn’t it?

My Ex-Life was quick, if not a bit mind-numbing: there wasn’t a lot in this book that required deeper consideration or reflection. (Maybe if I were middle-aged, there’d be more of the latter?) In this sense, it was a perfect summer read — carefree, easy, and just significant enough to make me feel as though I hadn’t wasted my time. I enjoyed David’s character most, and was appreciative of the novel’s approach to themes of regret and reinvention.

I do have a few gripes that might align with some of the more disgruntled readers’ opinions, though. Primarily: the book felt like one long, drawn out generalization after another. This was my first McCauley book, so I’m not sure whether the author intentionally conflated the novel with hyper-cliched characters and over-generalized observations about cultural groups or if these not-so-subtle proclamations were the author’s beliefs subconsciously masked as “character development.” (I’m willing to bet he’s a smart man, so I’m guessing it was intentional — satirical?) I wasn’t offended by his snarky one-liners about Catholics and Midwesterners; really, I just became weary of how every single character seemed to fulfill some oversaturated stereotype and was somehow a representative for entire cultural or social groups. Also exhausting: every wealthy character was clearly a WASP with evil intentions; every teenage girl was obviously devoid of personal depth and purpose beyond staged selfies; every gay man was certainly abused by his straight friends as a flamboyant stylist and emotional support. The immediate assumptions made by characters — or McCauley? — just became tedious over the course of 300-some pages.

I really wanted to see more complexity to McCauley’s characters; sadly, I felt like the novel digressed too often into snarky zingers intended to wow readers with wit — and these moments ultimately took me “out” of the story and, in turn, out of the characters’ world.

Overall: 3 stars. This book will make for an ultimately engaging, light summer read; but don’t pick it up if you’re staunchly conservative or even mildly religious and take offense to alternative (read: critical) viewpoints.

Thanks to Flatiron Books for the advance copy. All opinions in this review are my own.