Vacation Reading: Yours, Mine, and Ours

We went on an extended-family vacation a few weeks ago, which gave Les and I a rare but wonderful opportunity: reading together!

This meant Leslie reading out loud to me while I drove one of the vans on the way to Missouri. She timed it perfectly so that we read the final paragraphs of These Happy Golden Years as we literally pulled into the parking lot of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield.

Once we arrived at our final destination (NOT Laura’s house, sadly), we settled in to reading our own books in close proximity and then trading them back and forth as we finished.

Photo Jun 27

 

One of the first nights we were all together we celebrated all of our summer birthdays. Leslie and I were showered with books and book-themed gifts. (Does our family love us, or what?)

birthday books

Finally, it meant Leslie stealing one of the books that I had gotten for my birthday to read on her drive home. Just yesterday she told me that she was just going to ship me another copy from Amazon because she wasn’t going to give my original one back!

I was going to post a a detailed Vacation Reads summary, but Leslie covered almost all of my titles with her June recap! (See aforementioned book swapping.) SO…I’ll keep it simple.

Still Life by Louise Penny

I’ve never claimed to be into murder mysteries, but I’m making a happy exception for this series. These plots are interesting without being icky; much more about human nature and relationships than about the grisly details of a character’s untimely demise. Still Life is book 1 and I’ve heard the series just gets better from here!

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Plazza

A total change of pace, this novel set in the rapidly changing world of fashion publishing is delightfully larger-than-life. Editor Imogen has paid her dues and risen to the top of her field until she is usurped by her 26-year old former assistant who returns to Glossy magazine with an MBA. Manic catfighting ensues.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I read this a long time ago and liked it okay, but after years of Leslie’s fangirling I decided to give it another try. She was right! I totally loved the snarky tone and the creative narrative structure.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull

I was excited to discover that the author of my all-time favorite memoir, Almost French, had written a follow-up companion. It’s always fun to catch up with beloved characters. But honestly, if I hadn’t already had a connection to the characters, I don’t know if this book would have captured my interest. The tone is much more melancholy (the main theme is Turnbull’s struggle with infertility and her longing for a child), and the pacing is inconsistent. For example, a description of a deep-sea dive might go on for pages, but (SPOILER!) the long-awaited baby turns one just a few pages after his birth. The strongest points of this memoir are Sarah’s struggles and successes as a foreign member of a new culture– this time in Tahiti.

 

But enough about me…what have you been reading on your summer vacation?

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The Girl You Left Behind (JoJoMoyes)

In a word: Feel-good

The Girl You Left Behind

If you follow us on Instagram you may remember that I almost didn’t even finish this one. But I am so glad I did!

The first quarter of the book set up the back story in this enjoyable past/present mystery. The story of two sisters holding down the home front in German-occupied France felt SO reminiscent of The Nightingale that I thought it might be better to try it again later. But as I kept reading, I found myself caught up in the other half of the narrative: the modern-day story of sweet and sad Liv, stumbling into a new love four years after the tragic death of her husband.

There’s a lot to like about this book. Moyes is a good storyteller, and her writing is clear and uncomplicated. For bluffer history nerds like myself, the historical setting was interesting. And while I am in the minority, at least according to Goodreads and Amazon reviews, I also enjoyed the modern-day story, which revolves around the mystery of a painting: a portrait by a lesser-known Impressionist, once hung in a French hotel, taken to France after the war, now in the possession of a British architect who bought it on a sidewalk in Spain.

Now, I said that this book will appeal to history bluffs, not serious scholars, and I kind of think the same is true of semi-literary readers as well. The plot and characters would not hold up under intense scrutiny, and I suspect the historical details would not fare much better. So if you have high standards in either of these areas, you may pooh-pooh this selection. But if you’re able to enjoy a story without asking too many questions, this may be right up your alley.

Many of the issues in the story are serious– World War I in the past and a tragic widow in the present, not to mention morally complex themes like wartime infidelity and post-war reparations. Nevertheless, I’m categorizing this as a beach read– somehow it just doesn’t feel that heavy when it’s all said and done, thanks in part to a very satisfying ending. (A bit too neat? Perhaps. But like I said before, don’t ask too many questions.)

A Kate Morton Roundup

I discovered Kate Morton a year and a half ago. I just finished all five of her novels, and each one has been a compelling read.

Kate Morton Roundup

Here’s what you always get with Kate Morton: A mystery or secret from the past. A split narrative– a person in the present seeks to discover the secret by reading old documents, interviewing people in nursing homes, and searching through old attics and trunks. Meanwhile, the original story unfolds from the perspective of one or more of the involved persons, often set against the backdrop of World War I or II. And–my favorite part– a twist at the end, which has been known to make me talk out loud to my book when I stumble upon it. (Usually, I say “WHAT?” and then I tell the secret to my nearby husband, who will never read the book, and who can never fully appreciate my shock.)

Now that I’ve completed the entire Kate Morton catalog to date, here’s my personal ranking of each title:

#1: The Secret Keeper
I had mixed feelings about this one the whole way through, because I didn’t like some of the characters. But the last fifty pages bumped this one all the way to the top of my list. The ending is perfect, in my opinion– the perfect blend of shocking, redemptive, and full of poetic justice for all.

#2: The Lake House
This one is fun because one of the main characters is a writer, and it’s always interesting to read novels about novelists. Before I read this, I heard someone say that the ending is just a bit too neat, and I wonder if that tainted my perspective? But…I felt like the ending was just a bit too neat. (The final fifty pages were my least favorite part of the book, but I loved getting there–the twists and turns of the unfolding mystery kept me guessing!)

#3: The House at Riverton
This was my first experience with Morton, and I can still quote the line that wrecked me when I read it. I’d tell you, but it’s a spoiler! This plot and conclusion are terrific, but tragic, which is why it’s bumped to third place. I like the redemption that comes at the end of #1 and #2.

#4: The Forgotten Garden
This one featured sad but compelling characters, including another writer, which is always a plus. However, the plot lacked the shocking conclusion. I read the last few pages thinking, “Oh, okay,” instead of “AAAHHHH!” Apparently the Morton Twist is very important to me, because this one tiny flaw knocked an otherwise interesting story all the way to fourth place.

#5: The Distant Hours
I finished this one late last night, at least an hour after I’d intended to be asleep. It has everything I look for in a Kate Morton book, including not one but several surprising twists. But everything was just so SAD, I closed the book feeling totally bummed out. It had several elements that always make me despair: former-glory estates, regretful old people, tragic misunderstandings, untreated/mistreated mental illness, dysfunctional families, traumatized children. I mentioned in another post that I’d been wanting a book that made me feel all the feels, but I take it back. Some feels are better left unfelt.