This Tender Land is everything I want in a book – heart, depth, humor, sweeping historical elements, mystery, adventure, and an ending that leaves me feeling right with the world. This was my top read for 2021. Originally, I bought it for my husband who gobbled it up in mere days and then raved about it so intensely that I read it just so he’d stop pestering me. He just wanted me to fall in love with it the same way he did. I quickly fell under the book’s spell, so now he’s happy. It’s a Huck Finn and Wizard of Oz-style mash-up adventure set in 1923 during the Great Depression. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy set out on an epic journey after leaving the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota where Native American children were forcibly separated from their families and stripped entirely of their heritage, language, and identity. Odie and Albert O’Banion, both white, were sent to live as orphans at the Lincoln because it was the only place in the area that had room. Odie constantly gets into trouble with Mrs. Brinkman who runs the school and doles out cruel punishments with intense enjoyment. The O’Banion brothers’ best friend, Mose, is a mute Sioux who speaks by sign language. The boys all have a special place in their hearts for little Emmy, daughter of one of their kind teachers. Tragedy strikes in the form of a tornado and a crime that implicates them all, changing the course of their lives forever. They set out in a canoe on the Gilead River, hiding from their secrets and searching for themselves and a place to call home. They meet a caravan of characters, from sinister to divine, where they learn about what friendship, identity, forgiveness, and family really mean. I imagine this book will be studied as a classic someday. The metaphor of the river propelling them on this life journey is mythic and powerful. This is the kind of book where writing is showcased as a craft - finely tuned, layered, and with thoughtful attention to every word and phrase. I felt like these kids were my pals, dragging me along on their river odyssey. I cling to their stories; I ache for their despair and cry fat, happy tears for the brief moments of joy and belonging that juxtapose the gloom of the Depression era setting. William Kent Krueger ingeniously writes this legendary story in a way that feels both nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. This Tender Land has the darkness of Stand By Me [The Body], the wistfulness of the Grapes of Wrath, and the heart of The Princess Bride.
This book should probably be called “Nobody Ever Asked Me About Joni Mitchell.” I was hoping this would be an in-depth look at women's issues and lives in the music industry but was instead reading about Linda Robinson’s favorite female artists while she simultaneously crapped all over Madonna and Taylor Swift. Clearly Robinson has personal beef with both of these women. She is unable to look at their careers and influence objectively. Her critiques scream of personal grudges, and she finds their ambition to be a problem but doesn’t seem to take issue with other artists who share similar drive. She has obvious favorites with the frontrunner being Joni Mitchell, followed by Adele, Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, and Bette Midler. Robinson seems to place great value on artists who don’t have elaborate sets, make-up squads and entourage. Her book breaks the chapters down into themes covering things like appearance, having children, sex, and success. Robinson discusses the pressure female artists feel to avoid aging and seems to judge women for spending time in makeup chairs or for choosing to get plastic surgery. It’s odd and disturbing to read so much negativity about successful women from an author and interviewer so successful in her own right. Her snarky commentary is misogynistic and left me feeling disoriented like the victim of a bait and switch. She wrote the book based off interviews from her years as a music journalist, but the overall structure lends shallow insight. The section on abuse and sexual assault in the music industry is borderline irresponsible.
Typically we like to pack in as much culture and sight-seeing as possible, but with this trip, we decided to maximize laziness to its full potential. We chose an adults-only all-inclusive resort with no intent on leaving the pool/beach except for eating and sleeping. We fulfilled our goals, drank a lot, ate a lot, and learned almost nothing about Mexico. It's what we needed this year.
The first issue we encountered was our transfer from Cancun International Airport to the Valentin. We were ushered outside and had to stand in the sweltering heat for over 45 minutes until our van arrived. The driver kept telling us it would be ten more minutes which eventually led to an eternity dripping with sweat. Our flight arrived about fifteen minutes early, so we expected to have to wait, but everyone was tired and hungry (total of three couples) with the heat pushing us over the edge. It wasn't a great start.
The hotel more than made up for it once we arrived. It's gorgeous: lush grounds, lizards everywhere, flowers blooming around every corner, and incredibly friendly staff. We stayed in the Deluxe Junior Sweet which is the base level accommodation and was fine for our needs. The property is expansive, and they have staff zipping golf carts along the paths willing to take you anywhere at any time.
The pools are exquisite. We spent very little time on the beach simply because there's so much to do at the pool: huge bars, lots of space to float around, a wild, party side, and a calmer, quieter side. They have various exercise classes happening in the main pool and events including a Michael Jackson impersonator, a mechanical bull, and many other hilarious and entertaining diversions. There's also a pool with a lazy river.
Bar service was great everywhere. The pool bars have all sorts of fun festive drinks and shots, and we tried tons of them. We especially loved the atmosphere at Don Miguel. One night, the piano player took requests, and the guy can literally play EVERY SONG. He plays just by hearing it in his headphones; it was incredible.
This bar also serves some interesting cocktails like this pictured cucumber martini. The wild ones include a flaming coffee drink that the servers pour from overhead as the flames shoot up the trail of the liquid. We also tried the cotton candy cocktails they serve with a puff of the fluffy stuff on top before dissolving it down to a perfectly sweet but not overpowering blend.
Although we did resolve to stay as lazy as possible, I did sneak away for one quick mini-excursion. Three of us did a quick two-hour snorkel led by the hotel's excursion company located near the main pool. We boarded a boat directly off the hotel beach, and they took us to a reef nearby. It was the perfect amount of time, affordable, and in beautiful, clear water. We saw sea stars, a giant conch shell, and colorful fish. It was well-worth it to break up the pool time.
Ultimately, we had a blast. The negatives weren't enough to take away from our fabulous time. I don't know that we'd stay here again, but we enjoyed it immensely and wouldn't hesitate to recommend the Valentin.
Mexican Gothic is reminiscent of an atmospheric Scooby Doo mystery set in Mexico but without the canine hijinks. The thing is...I like Scooby Doo. I really do, but it’s also corny and campy. This is how I feel about Mexican Gothic; I liked it but found the mystery reveal to be a little too absurd and not in line with the rhythm and feel of the first half of the book. Peel off the mask and jinkies, it’s Mr. Howell, the grounds caretaker!
Noemi is living life as a quintessential debutante in 1950s Mexico when her father receives a bizarre letter from her newly married cousin, Catalina, who is clearly unwell. Concerned, Noemi travels to an old, foreboding mansion called High Place to check on her welfare. High Place is cold, dreary, run-down, and staffed by strange people with even stranger rules. Catalina married into the Doyle family, a once powerful and wealthy empire in the mining industry. The family has a long, troubling reputation in their small, countryside village, and rumors swirl about murder and madness. Seduced by the lure of the old house and the puzzling darkness of the Doyle family, Noemi desperately tries to figure out why Catalina won’t or can’t leave only to find herself becoming more and more like a prisoner herself. The Doyle patriarchs are creepy and disturbing. Moreno-Garcia blends the spooky characterization and setting in a masterful writing style. I was hooked up until …
...the mold. The mold in the walls of the house takes on a life of its own, and at first this is pretty fascinating. The house is oozing with decay and a sinister, pulsing dampness that makes it seem alive. I was so excited to see where the author would go with this. Is the mold causing the family’s madness? Will it absorb Noemi and trap her there forever like the rest of this macabre family? Then things take a left turn, and I’m done. I can get on board with evil fungus, but Moreno-Garcia takes the story down a path that crosses into eleventy-billion themes including immortality, rotting old men, eugenics, gender roles, romance, and transmigration. Uncle Howard is decomposing along with High Place - disgusting and perfect for a Gothic horror, but not when it’s jumbled together with all of these other wild plot elements. Uncle Howard and Virgil dabble in theories of natural selection and eugenics – gripping but covered so briefly that it loses steam and feels like a sideshow to the main event. The big reveal at the end was so off the charts that it bordered on ludicrous thus the Scooby-Doo comparison. As much as I enjoy Noemi as one of those “darn meddling kids,” the ending was just too preposterous.
Read it, but prepare yourself to suspend belief on many levels. The characterization and imagery are flawless, and it’s a solid spooky read with some interesting commentary on humanity. “Scooby Doo taught us that the real monsters are humans...and if that isn’t deep, I don’t know what is.”
Get this one on your shelf book friends! I may be a convert. I’ve always complained about verse novels, and here I am falling in love with another one. Home is Not a Country took my breath away, and now Clap When You Land revived me. Rich with sadness, longing, loss, and the complexities of being a young adult dealing with tragedy and trauma, this book is a powerhouse. A father dies in a plane crash on his way to the Dominican Republic. Two daughters mourn his tragic death – one in New York City and one in the Dominican. Each girl doesn’t know the other exists until they start piecing things together. In their grief, they find ways to deal with their anger and find forgiveness, family, and each other. Elizabeth Acevedo paints a picture of two very different settings, both colorful and charming. I love how each character tells her story in the back-and-forth chapters, slowing coming to grips with this new reality and the blank spaces that used to be filled with a father’s presence. It’s a really touching story of how ties bind people together in often bittersweet, unplanned ways.
This was a unique, true crime book with two alternating, parallel storylines. Told memoir-style, one story is about Liza Rodman’s childhood growing up in Provincetown, Massachusetts. She was a neglected child whose mother worked at various hotels and left both Liza and her sister in the care of strangers and other acquaintances so she could go out dancing and bar-hopping. One of those strangers just happened to be Tony Costa, a hotel handyman who was also a grisly serial killer. As Liza relates her time with Tony, one of few people who treated her kindly, she also tries to understand why the man she remembers as a friend didn’t make her one of his victims. The other storyline tells of Tony’s troubled childhood marred by sexual abuse and drug addiction eventually leading to a litany of crimes against women, including the gruesome murders he committed throughout the 1960s. I found the dual chapters a fascinating study on the complexity of how a serial killer’s mind works. Tony shows Liza a gentle, humanized version of himself filled with small kindnesses like popsicles and rides in his truck. Was he grooming her or was this the other side of Tony, separate from his cruel, depraved existence? As an adult, Liza grapples with this knowledge and the man she knew versus the one in the news who committed atrocities she never would have dreamed him capable of. I’m a sucker for a serial killer book, and the format of this was one-of-a-kind. Crime fans come running!
This book reminds me so much of Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Two women obsessed with unsolved murders to the point where their lives become intertwined with the stories. Becky Cooper, a Harvard undergrad, hears bits and pieces of a story about a murder that occurred forty years ago. Jane Britton, a 23-year-old grad student in Harvard’s anthropology department was murdered in her apartment, but the rumor mill spins out a different version where she was found dead in the Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology, killed by a professor after threatening to reveal their affair. Cooper begins a slow descent into researching Jane’s life and death becoming so enthralled with finding the truth that she begins merging Jane’s story into her own. In addition to searching for the truth for Jane, Cooper also uncovers an unsurprising amount of misogyny among the elite academics at Harvard. She relates story after story of women’s attempts to climb the academic ladder thwarted by men in positions of power and the silencing culture that an institution like Harvard seems to cultivate. I enjoyed the mystery of Jane’s life and death, but Cooper clearly devoted a huge chunk of her young adult life to this story, and she certainly does it justice but in excruciating detail. I was ready for things to move faster about halfway through, but it just kept slogging along. I applaud Cooper’s dedication and due diligence but can’t say I felt enough of the same mystique and draw to keep me entertained the whole way through this.
I’ve been a big Davis Sedaris fan for the last few years after only discovering him embarrassingly late in life. His sarcasm, wit, and self-deprecating humor slay me in every single thing he writes. The Best of Me is a compilation of some of his best work; some I’ve read before and some were new to me. The thing I love the most about Sedaris is that in addition to writing about the outrageousness of every day observation, he also sneaks in these really poignant thoughts about life, death, family, love, and general human behavior. Although many of his stories are tinged with darkness, he’s an open book about family details, infusing absurdity with deep melancholy when relating anecdotes about his mother’s alcoholism, sister’s suicide, and the rocky relationship he has with his father. My favorite parts of this collection include “Me Talk Pretty One Day” when he tries to explain Easter in French to a Moroccan student; his sister, Lisa’s pet parrot that he refers to as the “little fatso living in my sister’s kitchen”; the neighbors who have no TV and show up for trick-or-treat on the wrong night forcing young David to give up some of his own hoard; and the beach house called the “sea-section.” My all-time favorite story was included in this collection and is a riotous scene where Sedaris is living in the French countryside when some tourists stop for directions as he’s trying to drown a rat in a bucket of water on the front porch. After the tourist comes through the front door, Sedaris starts to realize all of the ways in which his home reflects that of a serial killer. I’ve come across this one many times over the years, and I crack up over and over again. An enjoyable collection that just further cements Sedaris as a master humorist in the literary world. It’s David’s world, and we’re just laughing through it.
This contemporary novel reveals the voices of twelve different Native characters living in Oakland, California as each struggles to come to grips with his or her identity, history, and heritage while living in an urban community. Tommy Orange interweaves the experience of modern urban Natives with the calling of tradition as all of the characters make their way to the Big Oakland Powwow. They’re all connected in one way or another and reflect the true complexity and variety of Native culture. I really could not get into this. I appreciated the overall theme of the book, but felt disoriented by the shallow characterization and lack of historical background. For example, one of the characters discusses her experience during the occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, and I was completely lost. I don’t know enough about this historical event and felt adrift because it wasn’t explained. I guess I would have a better appreciation for this one if I had more historical context, and It did inspire me to do some research. There are a lot of characters, and this is a short book. I just couldn’t really connect with them, and it read more like individual short stories than a novel with the exception of the very end when things come together. I think the goal was to show all of the characters’ varied lives and experiences in a modern setting and not focus on history as much, but I still felt disconnected along the way.
The Wheelan family are my heroes. They quit their lives for nine months and traveled around the world on a gap year adventure. Not only were their experiences hilarious and exciting, but Charles Wheelan also details how they managed to make it happen along with the disastrous and wonderful parts of each leg of the trip. The trip included Charles, his wife, and their three teenage children. Now of course, a trip like this comes from a certain amount of privilege, and Wheelan does discuss this when explaining how they made their arrangements. They rented their home to relatives who also wanted an adventure in a different state. They found people willing to keep their family pets. The oldest daughter took a classic gap year before her first year of college, and the other two teens completed online school from various parts of the world. Wheelan and his wife take sabbaticals from their jobs in the academic world. They crafted a strict budget and stuck to it. The amount of planning this trip must have taken sends my head spinning but also excites me to another realm. I had daydreams about doing this before I read this book, and now it’s a full-on obsession. Wheelan is funny and presents as the typical embarrassing dad-joke kind of guy. His kids (like all teens) are equal parts bratty, intelligent, loving, sentimental, kind, and all-around great young people. Wheelan doesn’t shy away from sharing the tough parts about adventure travel. One of his daughters gets a flesh-eating bacterial infection. They get swindled in India. They lose two kids (temporarily) in Colombia. Wheelan’s banter with his kids is so familiar and made me smile over and over again. If you like travel, this book will stir your spirit.
I simultaneously hated these characters and loved them beyond words. Jayne is a hot struggling mess of a person. She moves from Texas to New York City to attend fashion school bringing a collection of baggage that new scenery can’t shake off. She lives in a dump of an apartment, illegally rented and mostly disgusting. Her boyfriend is a tool who continues to use her, and her friends are inauthentic. She’s honestly just a sad sack with zero motivation to pull herself out of suffering. Her misery is raw. She’s a real character with deep self-loathing and pain that seeps out of the pages like blood from a wound. Jayne is emotionally estranged from her Korean parents and avoids her sister, June at all costs even though she also lives in New York City. She struggles to make sense of the disconnect she has with her culture, her body and the eating disorder she slowly reveals, her sibling bond or lack thereof, and the painful childhood she endured while living in Texas with immigrant parents. June reveals that she has uterine cancer, and Jayne has to come to terms with what this means for her family, her sister, and herself. June lives in a high-rise, has expensive clothes, an impressive city job, and is everything that Jayne is not. June’s cancer diagnosis not only reveals her fragility, but it also gives way to the cracks in her exacting veneer.
Although this is ultimately Jayne’s story, the sisters are each portrayed in all manner of real characterization: good, bad, and sometimes really ugly. They’re each hilarious, vulgar, self-involved, sensitive, impulsive, loving; they’re all of these things and more. I appreciate how the author, Mary H.K. Choi, doesn’t paint each sister in one single hue but rather shows each dappled in her own colors that vary by day and mood like real people are in ordinary life. This book is moody for all the right reasons, and I found it to be odd, repulsive, mesmerizing, and wonderful. It’s unique in a way that it’s not quite comparable to anything else I’ve read, and for that, I’m smitten.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.