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: Perfect Little World

I had just finished reading The Giver (for the umpteenth time) with my middle school English class when Book of the Month Club revealed its February selections — which included the new release and work of utopian fiction, Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson.

I’m a major fan of dystopian fiction, primarily because the genre provides so many futuristic possibilities for the society we could crumble to in our increasingly dysfunctional world. However, I’ll also be the first to admit that the trope is becoming increasingly trite, especially within the realm of YA fiction. Utopian fiction, though? That is something rare in the world of adult novels, and such an optimistic digression from the herd. Naturally, I had to have the book.

Perfect Little World opens on a vignette of main character Isabelle (Izzy) Poole’s dramatically messy life. A recent high school graduate (like, she graduates that day), Izzy should have the world at her feet. She’s smart — valedictorian, straight-A smart — with a penchant for artwork and literature. She’s also pregnant . . . with her art teacher’s child. Without the guidance of her mother (long deceased) or her father (long drunk), Izzy grapples with her choices for the future, the picture of which grows increasingly tedious, lonely, and impossible. When Izzy is approached with an offer to participate in a scientific experiment of sorts — one that focuses on communal child-rearing and erased boundaries between families — she jumps at the opportunity to create a better life for her unborn child.

The premise appears simple, but of course, is exceptionally complex: ten couples (well, nine plus Izzy) move into a fully staffed living complex isolated from the rest of society, following the birth of their children. As a single parent, Izzy experiences some expected twangs of jealousy: in every difficult situation, she is left to deal with her emotions and doubts on her own, despite the community of parents that should theoretically serve as family members to one another, in addition to their roles as parents for each child. For ten years, the couples will live together, the first five years of which the children will be tended to in a way so as to avoid attachment to any one parent. At the five-year mark, the children will meet their biological parent(s), while hopefully retaining a communal attachment to the rest of the parents and children in the complex.

What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

From the beginning, Wilson draws readers in with an unconventional lead character and a problem that hits so close to home, one can’t help but root for the positive outcome of a social experiment that is so frequently difficult to reconcile with centuries of traditional family values that have been ingrained in the deepest parts of our brains.

The Good: This novel is a fast read — I devoured most of it in one afternoon, as I waited in doctors’ offices and coffee shops. However, it’s probably better consumed over the course of a week, savored bit by glorious bit. The main character — Izzy — is down-to-earth, flawed, and relatable. Her relationship with Mr. Tannehill is one element of the novel that I especially cherished, though at times it was a bit trite. The psychological aspects of the novel are intriguing, and as a parent-to-be, I found myself ruminating over the methods in which society has been taught to raise children. (That said, I have no intention of moving my family into a commune.)

The Bad: The cast in this novel is extensive, and seems more so by the lack of development in supporting characters. If you’re capable of reading through the novel without ever really being able to match a parent to child or particular personality trait, this quality of the writing can be overlooked. (I didn’t let it bother me too much, though I can see why some would complain.) The ending didn’t blow me away, but I was okay with the way the story concluded.

The Verdict: 4/5 stars. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and would highly recommend to anyone looking for an alternative to the heaps of dystopian fiction that have crowded the market over the past few years.