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.”
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.