The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The VacationersThe Vacationers by Emma Straub
Published by Riverhead Books

From the publisher:

For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated.

This is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. With wry humor and tremendous heart, Emma Straub delivers a richly satisfying story of a family in the midst of a maelstrom of change, emerging irrevocably altered yet whole.

What could be more appropriate than reading a book about being on vacation while actually being on vacation yourself? Nothing, that’s what, so that’s exactly when I read this book – on vacation in Mexico. Unlike the characters, I was with friends and was having a great time, with absolutely no drama. But that certainly didn’t keep me from enjoying these characters and their drama – because drama was aplenty in this novel, and I loved every second of it.

While none of the characters are particularly likable, they all have mostly good intentions, and the drama is mostly a matter of people choosing not to reveal pieces of themselves to the ones they love. We all show our “best self” most of the time – it’s when you tear down those walls and become vulnerable and show people your truth that great relationships happen. For a variety of reasons, each of the characters in this book have a hard time with that, to some degree or another, which of course creates huge issues in their relationships.

Ultimately, I feel like this is a book about how all relationships are about choices. To stay in a marriage is a choice each member of the couple makes every single day. To continue a friendship through ups and downs, through lies and betrayals and struggles, is a choice to forgive a friend who has hurt you or choose to detach yourself from that friendship and move on. To have a parent-child relationship, especially for teens or grown children, is a choice that both the parent and child must make and actively work to manage and grow the relationship from childhood into adulthood – because it has to change as the child grows up. The last sentence of the book illustrates this theme perfectly and it’s probably my favorite last sentence of a book I’ve read, ever.

I really, really liked this book and I am looking forward to reading more from Emma Staub!

These Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff

These Days Are OursThese Days Are Ours by Michelle Haimoff
Published by Grand Central Publishing

From the publisher:

Six months after September 11th, New Yorkers are instructed to get on with their lives despite the terror advisories, streets filled with 9/11 merchandise, and mail that may contain Anthrax.

But for Hailey, still jobless after college and living in her family’s Fifth Avenue penthouse, getting on with life means getting closer to Michael Brenner, the Princeton graduate and future human rights lawyer who seems to have it all. The city feels as if it’s on the brink of apocalypse, and seeking out any sort of future seems pointless. So Hailey and her friends – Katie, already working at Morgan Stanley; Randy, a trust-fund kid who wears sweaters with holes in them; and Jess, confident of her future success regardless of her present inertia – stay out all night, dream up get rich quick schemes and aspire to greatness while questioning how much that greatness really matters.

But when Hailey meets Adrian, a transplanted Pennsylvanian and recent Brown graduate who doesn’t belong to Hailey’s privileged mileu, she begins to realize that her view of the world might not be the only one there is, and soon she is questioning everything she thought she knew.

I’m surprised this book didn’t get more attention from bloggers when it was published. A lot of bloggers I know would really relate to These Days Are Ours simply because a lot of them are of the same generation as the characters in the novel. I’m a little younger than Hailey and her friends – I was seventeen on 9/11, these characters were twenty-two – but the ages are similar enough that I related to them to a fair degree.

I totally experienced the post-college “what the hell am I going to do with my life?” paralyzing feelings that these characters face, although in my case I had to get a job pretty darn quick because those college loans weren’t going to pay themselves. So I wasn’t anything like these spoiled, rich New York City kids – but the feelings of missing college life, wondering what to do with this crazy thing called adulthood, I got that. I experienced it myself, and Haimoff captured those feelings perfectly here.

Something else that Haimoff just totally got was how when you’re a certain age with very few real responsibilities to speak of, the smallest things can feel like big moments. I can’t really explain it but while on the surface, these characters did almost nothing with their days, to them each new experience, each time they had a poignant conversation with each other, was momentous. I remember that feeling and I get it – and Haimoff gets it too.

These Days Are Ours is short, but there’s quite a bit of character growth in Hailey – to the point where she went from someone who really annoyed me in the beginning to someone I really liked and rooted for by the end. Whatever the book may seem to be on the surface, it’s not. What it IS is smart, funny, true, and like a snapshot from another time – a time not all that long ago, but emotionally way far away. Does that make sense? It’s good, though, really good – if any of the things I said even remotely strikes a chord with you, pick up These Days Are Ours.

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

One Step Too FarOne Step Too Far by Tina Seskis
Published by William Morrow & Company

On the surface, Emily Coleman appears to have it all. Great marriage, job, home, the whole nine yards. Yet one morning, she simply abandons her life and begins a new one, leaving her home in the suburbs for the city of London, changing her name to Cat and rooming in a house full of strangers, and even getting a new job as a receptionist. Obviously Emily is running from something, and she’s convinced herself that her new identity will make the past disappear. But the truth has a way of catching up to people, and Cat won’t be able to run from her demons forever – the question is, just how far will she be able to take this thing?

This book drew me in immediately. You know as a reader that something huge happened to Emily, she’s definitely running from something, but you have no idea what for almost all of the book. The suspense that this situation created cannot be explained, except to say that Seskis took this angle and just ran with it, and did such an excellent job at keeping the tension super-high throughout the entire book. I was on pins and needles while reading the novel, and found it incredibly hard to put down.

I am not quite sure what to make of Emily/Cat. At times she really pissed me off. As I was in the dark about what she was running from, I couldn’t really form an opinion on whether her choice to leave was “valid” or not, but I could feel strongly that she was making bad choices in her new life (which I did). No matter what the situation is, doing drugs and partying and associating with pretty shady characters certainly isn’t going to solve anyone’s problems. So that was difficult for me, but at the same time, I got that Cat was trying to shed her old identity completely, and in doing so she just went full steam ahead, making choices that Emily would never, in her wildest dreams, have considered. But it was still kind of hard to read – like a train wreck that you can’t look away from but wish wasn’t happening.

There’s one thing about this book that really bothered me, and I don’t want to spoil too much, but I have to say this – I really, truly thought there was going to be more to the sister situation than there was. True, she ended up being involved in the big situation that caused Emily to flee, but I felt like Seskis took the reader down a path that didn’t end up being anything at all. I was imagining all kinds of things – the sister wasn’t real, she killed the sister, the sister killed her, she IS the sister, just so many things, none of which ended up being even close to the truth. It felt kind of like manipulation. I don’t know, am I the only one who was bothered by this?

In the end. the big reveal was just as juicy and insane and terribly sad as the book promised, and I was super satisfied with how the whole thing turned out. I very much liked this book and will definitely read more from Seskis. I was highly impressed by this debut novel and I see big things for this author’s future!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – thoughts upon a reread

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Harry Potter, #6)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
Published by Scholastic

I am way far behind on the Harry Potter Readalong, but as of this writing I’ve already finished the last two books, just haven’t made the time to write about them. Well, here are some brief thoughts on the sixth book!

Love love love. I so overwhelmingly love this book and everything about it. I know I said the fifth book was my favorite, and maybe it still is, but this is a very close second. More than anything else about this book, what I truly love about it is just how much Harry learns about the truth of his life and what he has to do, and how much trust Dumbledore FINALLY places in Harry. After years of keeping him in the dark to “protect” him, Dumbledore finally gets that he needs to just be honest, Harry is not a kid anymore (well, I’d argue that a sixteen-year-old boy is most definitely a kid, but for wizarding purposes not so much), and he deserves to hear the whole story, nothing left out. So Dumbledore does a pretty decent job of that, and we readers are treated to the same information. Which is to say, lots and lots of information is thrown at Harry and the reader in this book. I’ve read this one a few times now, and I feel like each time I read it, I catch something that I must have glossed over the first few times. Every time there is something new to me – either I had forgotten a certain detail, or never paid enough attention in past readings to pick up on it.

This is also the book where I fully came to appreciate Rowling’s genius in writing this story. There are things that happen in this book that were foreshadowed several books back, only we as readers had no idea what was to come – but Rowling certainly did! Nothing proves to me more that she is immensely talented than every single word written in this book.

And Harry and Ginny! Cue trumpets and a parade because YAY! There are a lot of fans who thought Rowling got this wrong, who felt that Harry and Hermione should have ended up together, but I am not one of them. I love Harry and Ginny together and seeing it happen was oh so satisfying.

The end of this book is soul-crushingly devastating and I cry every single time I read it. It is terrible, awful, so unbelievably painful and every time I read it, I secretly hope that maybe they’ve changed it and IT doesn’t happen. Yet it always does. But it must be done to further the story and get Harry to the point of such anger and resolve that he knows with absolute certainty what he must do, what is his destiny, and that is exactly where the book ends. And I love it.

Obviously this is in no way a “review” of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And it’s also not a comprehensive list of all of my thoughts (of which I have many more). But you get the general idea of my feelings for it, which is my goal.

Thoughts?

Mini-Reviews: Books Everyone is Talking About

Everything I Never Told YouEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press

This novel, about a Chinese-American family in the 1970’s, has gotten a LOT of buzz since its publication last summer. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Lydia, the middle child of the Lee family and the favorite child of her parents, has gone missing, and instead of leaning on one another for support, this family, which was already fragile to begin with, basically comes apart at the seams.

I read this for book club, and while I unfortunately could not attend the meeting, I found out the following month that most everyone didn’t like it. I actually disagreed for the most part, I guess I can’t say I “like” a book this depressing, but I thought it was written very excellently and the author really made me feel for these characters. I didn’t like either adult in this family, but all three of the kids broke my heart for different reasons. I really got close with these characters and felt that sense of urgency as the end of the book approached to finally find out exactly what happened to Lydia. While I can’t say I loved Everything I Never Told You, I thought it was a solid piece of fiction, incredibly well-written, and I can see why it has received such high acclaim.

We Are Not OurselvesWe Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Published by Simon & Schuster

This is an epic family saga type book – think Wally Lamb but a little quieter – exactly the kind of book that I can really sink my teeth into, get involved with the characters, and come away feeling like I’ve gotten to know and love another family, like I have new friends. We Are Not Ourselves follows Eileen Tumulty, raised in Queens by Irish immigrant parents, from about the age of ten – in the 1950’s – to the present. In that time, she takes care of her alcoholic mother, meets practical scientist Ed and gets married, becomes a nurse, has a son Connell, and basically the reader just follows this family throughout their lives.

It may sound boring but it is far from that. There’s a ton of struggle and strife and the push-pull of a marriage and family here. There’s also a Big Event that happens to this family about three-quarters of the way through the book that changes a lot of the direction of the novel. I thought the writing in this novel was incredible and despite its length, i couldn’t put the book down. I really got involved with these characters, and even though I had a difficult time liking any of them, that seemed not to matter as I just felt for them. They didn’t act the way I would have acted, didn’t see the world how I do, yet I couldn’t help but get them. Does that make sense? Anyway, I thought this book was just as great as everyone says and I highly recommend it!

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins
Published by Riverhead Books

If you haven’t heard about this one, you must be living under a rock. In this novel, Rachel is an alcoholic who is mourning her failed marriage and loss of her job, so she rides the train into London each day as if she were going to work and watches the families as she rides by. She makes up names and stories about one particular couple, and when she reads in the newspaper that the woman has disappeared, she decides to get involved in the investigation.

I totally loved this one. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, they certainly didn’t deserve my compassion, but oh my goodness did Hawkins take me on a wild ride here! I could NOT put this book down (especially the last fifty pages – wow!) and was totally engrossed in the story from start to finish. She totally surprised me with the ending and I am just very impressed with what she did here. And for a debut novel, this is incredibly good. Highly recommended – I get why everyone has been buzzing about this one!

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Mr. Mercedes (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #1)Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Published by Scribner

From the publisher:

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.

Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Would you believe that reading Mr. Mercedes was my first time ever reading Stephen King? And that the only reason I read this book is because of one of my book clubs? Crazy, I know. Yet, true. From what I understand, this is one of King’s tamer, more straightforward novels, which kind of makes me nervous to pick up some of his other stuff (because this isn’t exactly tame stuff), but also very, very curious.

So. I was highly entertained by this novel and am finding myself very impressed with King – I get it. He has an incredible talent for writing characters so flawed, so insane batshit crazy, but that are real people. It’s one of those rare things to find in any genre, and to find it in horror/thriller novels is even more special, I think. So first and foremost, I see his talent and am very interested in picking up more of his books.

What I thought was cool about this book is how you know who the bad guy is the whole time, yet there’s still a thrilling sense of urgency throughout the book – will the good guy find the bad guy and stop him in time? Or will thousands of people die? Obviously you need to read the book to find out, but I was furiously turning pages towards the end, biting my nails like a psycho, just desperate to find out how this whole thing turned out.

What I don’t love about these kinds of books is the fact that I’m really squeamish and when something horrible happens that is described in detail, it runs through my head for hours or days or even weeks after I finish a book. There’s only one scene in here that really did that but oh my GOD can I not get that shit out of my head. So I’m scared that more of King’s books have even MORE of this for me to deal with. Anyway.

I thought this book was super great! I will read more of King, I promise. Where should I start?

Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe

Blue StarsBlue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

BLUE STARS brings to life the realities of the modern day home front: how to get through the daily challenges of motherhood and holding down a job while bearing the stress and uncertainty of war, when everything can change in an instant. It tells the story of Ellen, a Midwestern literature professor, who is drawn into the war when her legal ward Michael enlists as a Marine; and of Lacey, a proud Army wife who struggles to pay the bills and keep things going for her son while her husband is deployed. Ellen and Lacey cope with the fear and stress of a loved one at war while trying to get by in a society that often ignores or misunderstands what war means to women today. When Michael and Eddie are injured in Iraq, Ellen and Lacey’s lives become intertwined in Walter Reed Army Hospital, where each woman must live while caring for her wounded soldier. They form an alliance, and an unlikely friendship, while helping each other survive the dislocated world of the army hospital. Whether that means fighting for proper care for their men, sharing a six-pack, or coping with irrevocable loss, Ellen and Lacey pool their strengths to make it through. In the end, both women are changed, not only by the war and its fallout, but by each other.

I almost put down this book after fifty pages. It was difficult for me to get into, I didn’t understand where it was going, and I wasn’t connecting with the characters. Had I done so, I would have made a huge mistake because Blue Stars is a truly great book and, although it didn’t have that punch at the beginning, the rest of the novel more than made up for the rocky start.

This is a difficult one for me to review because I found the reading experience very difficult emotionally. What Ellen and Lacey experience in Blue Stars is something that sadly many American families go through on a daily basis – the care and rehabilitation of a family member injured at war. There were many times throughout this novel that I had to pause, calm myself down, and steel myself to finish the chapter – not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because my emotions were just so affected by the story Tedrowe wrote (a story that is fiction but could absolutely be true, and I am sure many families would say IS very close to the truth of their daily lives).

That being said, I think Tedrowe was extremely successful in what I assume she was trying to do – showcase the plight of the families in this situation. Lacey lost her job, her sanity, and contact with most of her family and friends during the time she spent at the military hospital with her husband. And the conditions of this hospital (which have been documented in many news stories, you can Google Walter Reed to find out more) were beyond deplorable. She went from a very comfortable and mostly peaceful life to living in squalor, married to a man she could no longer recognize, with no idea how to pay for her next meal, much less the bills that were piling up back at home. Oh, and she quickly spiraled into alcoholism while all of this was going on. To put it mildly, she broke my heart. I cannot imagine how unbearable this life is for those who experience it in the real world. So, so hard.

I connected with Ellen much less than I did with Lacey, but that’s not to say her story is any less important or impactful than Lacey’s – it’s just different. What I loved about the two of them is how they were able to rely on one another in this incredibly stressful and overwhelming situation – when all else failed, they had each other. Their friendship was a beautiful story in itself and a joy to read about.

I wish I could tell you a lot more about this book but honestly, just read it. It really did have a huge impact on me emotionally and I had to take some time after finishing it before picking up my next read. Highly recommended.