Review: Perennials by Mandy Berman @MandyBerman

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The quintessential summer read: a sharp, poignant coming-of-age novel about the magic of camp and the enduring power of female friendship, for readers of Stephanie Danler, Anton DiSclafani, Jennifer Close, and Curtis Sittenfeld. At what point does childhood end and adulthood begin? Mandy Berman s evocative debut novel captures, through the lens of summer camp, a place that only appears to be untouched by the passing of time, both the thrills and pain of growing up. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin used to treasure their summers together as campers at Camp Marigold. Now, reunited as counselors after their first year of college, their relationship is more complicated. Rebellious Rachel, a street-smart city kid raised by a single mother, has been losing patience with her best friend s insecurities; Fiona, the middle child of a not-so-perfect suburban family, envies Rachel s popularity with their campers and fellow counselors. For the first time, the two friends start keeping secrets from each other. Through them, as well as from the perspectives of their fellow counselors, campers, and families, we witness the tensions of the turbulent summer build to a tragic event, which forces Rachel and Fiona to confront their pasts and the adults they re becoming. A seductive blast of nostalgia, a striking portrait of adolescent longing, and a tribute to both the complicated nature and the enduring power of female friendship, Perennials will speak to everyone who still remembers that bittersweet moment when innocence is lost forever.

To be honest, as soon as I read the blurb, I was already in love with this novel. Female friendships AND camp? Count me in! And yes. I’m perfectly aware that most of the reviews aren’t glowing and that some of you didn’t fall in love with this book as I did. But hey, sometimes those books are the most interesting ones. The same thing happened with You Don’t Know Me. While I was reading, I knew it wouldn’t be a story that I could recommend to everyone, but I was enjoying it so much that I didn’t care.

Perennials was so not what I expected in the first place. There wasn’t a main character or two, but various protagonists sharing their camp routines. Some of the book was set in the year 2000, but most of it was in 2006, when two of the main characters, Rachel and Fiona, are nineteen and working as counselors in Camp Marigold. We also meet Helen, Fiona’s much wilder sister, Sheera, Mo, Nell… and some of the other counselors as well.

My favorite character was, surprisingly, Rachel. I know that Rachel is not the typical choice and she did make some mistakes, but I admired her attitude towards life. Despite her flaws, she was a really good person and she loved Fiona for who she really was: they were opposites but they complemented each other. I think I enjoyed their interactions so much because we’ve all had those friends from childhood: years go by and you know you have nothing in common anymore, but you still try to stay friends because of everything you’ve been through together. Too many memories.

There are various themes portrayed in this beautiful novel. I’d say friendship is the most obvious one, but this was also what I’d call the “perfect coming of age novel”. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel that captures the coming of age phase as well as Perennials did. It’s about feeling left out, about first loves, about grief and, of course, about family, too.

The writing was my favorite part. Although there wasn’t much going on here (this is not a novel filled with action) Mandy Berman had a way of describing their everyday lives that had me utterly absorbed. I could’ve read about this people’s dreams and hopes forever. The writing was smooth and simple, beautiful and emotional at the same time. And by the time I reached the final part of the book, I was in tears.

Netgalley, Lake Union Publishing, 2017

Blog Tour | When We Danced at the End of the Pier (Sandy Taylor)

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Brighton 1930: Maureen O’Connell is a carefree girl, but her family is on the brink of tragedy, war is looming and life will never be the same again. Jack and Nelson have always been dear friends to Maureen. Despite their different backgrounds, they’ve seen each other through thick and thin. As Maureen blossoms from a little girl into a young woman, the candle she’s always held for Jack burns bright. But just as she’s found love, war wrenches them apart. The man she cherishes with all her heart is leaving. When the bombs start to fall, Maureen and her family find themselves living in the most dangerous of times. With Jack no longer by her side and Nelson at war, Maureen has never felt more alone. Can she look to a brighter future? And will she find the true happiness she’s dreamt of? An utterly gripping and heart-wrenching story about the enduring power of love, hope and friendship during the darkest of days. Perfect for fans of Pam Jenoff, Nadine Dorries and Diney Costeloe.

First things first: the title. Isn’t it beautiful? I absolutely adore it. I was worried: what if I didn’t like the book? No one wants to say they dislike a book with such a beautiful title :O Fortunately, When We Danced at the End of the Pier was a truly enjoyable novel that I can’t wait for you to read.

This is a story about family, friendship and love. A family saga that spans quite a few years and features Maureen, Brenda, Jack, Nelson, Monica, and Maureen and Brenda’s parents. If I had to choose a favorite part, I’d say that the father story broke my heart (and it will break yours too). I desperately wanted to know what was going on, although I kind of suspected. He was a sweet and loving dad and I wanted him to get better. When We Danced at the End of the Pier is one of those novels where all the main characters are good-natured people and you can’t help but root for them. They deserve to be happy (especially my little Brenda!)

Maureen was the protagonist and a classic goody two-shoes. I’m not saying she wasn’t as interesting as the others (after all, she was the key of everything), but there were times when I wanted to sit down and talk to her, knock some sense into her. For example, she falls in love with Jack the very first time they meet and she already knows they’re going to marry one day. She doesn’t even tell him about it! I wanted to tell her that you can fall in love more than once, that there are different types of love, and that your teenage sweetheart isn’t always the person you’re supposed to be with. Maybe yes, of course, but not always. I think you can now guess who I was rooting for 😉

Even though I was completely engaged from the beginning, I still felt the writing was maybe too saccharine, as I don’t have much patience when it comes to cheesy stuff. However, I noticed that, as the main characters grew up, the writing evolved as well. And I kind of liked that, as it felt natural and fitting: the writing being a reflection of the characters’ minds. It was a rather short book but it made a lasting impression.

This is not a book filled with action, as you can expect from the title, the cover and the blurb. I remember reaching 25% and thinking that not much had happened yet, but still, there hadn’t been a dull moment. I was totally engrossed by the setting, the story and these characters. I already felt they were part of my family and their day-to-day tribulations were as engaging as any thriller I’ve recently read.

I also remember moments when I felt I had something in my eye… Finally, don’t worry if you see this is #3 in a trilogy. I didn’t know that but this can be read as a standalone. And what a lovely read!

 

Netgalley, Bookouture, 2017

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About the author
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Sandy Taylor grew up on a council estate near Brighton. There were no books in the house, so Sandy’s love of the written word was nurtured in the little local library. Leaving school at fifteen, Sandy worked in a series of factories before landing a job at Butlins in Minehead. This career change led her to becoming a singer, a stand up comic and eventually a playwright and novelist.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep (Joanna Cannon)

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Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a quirky and utterly charming debut about a community in need of absolution and two girls learning what it means to belong. England, 1976. Mrs. Creasy is missing and the Avenue is alive with whispers. The neighbors blame her sudden disappearance on the heat wave, but ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly aren’t convinced. As the summer shimmers endlessly on, the girls decide to take matters into their own hands. Inspired by the local vicar, they go looking for God—they believe that if they find Him they might also find Mrs. Creasy and bring her home. Spunky, spirited Grace and quiet, thoughtful Tilly go door to door in search of clues. The cul-de-sac starts to give up its secrets, and the amateur detectives uncover much more than ever imagined. As they try to make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, a complicated history of deception begins to emerge. Everyone on the Avenue has something to hide, a reason for not fitting in. In the suffocating heat of the summer, the ability to guard these differences becomes impossible. Along with the parched lawns and the melting pavement, the lives of all the neighbors begin to unravel. What the girls don’t realize is that the lies told to conceal what happened one fateful day about a decade ago are the same ones Mrs. Creasy was beginning to peel back just before she disappeared.

“A summer of Space Hoppers and dancing queens, when Dolly Parton begged Jolene not to take her man, and we all stared at the surface of Mars and felt small.”

I’m sure you know that feeling… When you’re completely captivated by a book and you haven’t even finished it but you already know it’s going to be among your favorites. That’s what I felt with The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. And I’m fully aware that this is not going to be a novel for everyone (I’ve read mixed reviews and we all have different tastes, after all), but it was perfect for me and just what I needed this past weekend.

“He doesn’t look like a murderer,” said Tilly.
“What does a murderer look like?”
“They usually have mustaches,” she said “and are much fatter.”

Joanna Cannon is a master of storytelling and this is just the kind of story I wish I had crafted. I love the writing, the humour, the references, the characters… I’ve already said it before, but small-town tales full of peculiar characters are one of my favorite ingredients in a story and I had been looking for a book that made me feel like Tall Oaks did, for quite a while. I’m so glad I found it!

“The policeman was very tall even after he took his hat off”

This is not even a town, but an Avenue. Nosy neighbors judging each other and taking matters into their own hands. In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, we travel back to 1976, during an extremely hot summer. Mrs Creasy is missing and Grace and Tilly (two lovely ten-year-olds) are determined to find her. Because God is everywhere and so they need to ask Him to bring Mrs Creasy back. But why is He so hard to find? And is that Him on a drainpipe (that part was hilarious). I think Grace might be one of my favorite narrators ever, but Tilly was just the loveliest girl I’ve ever encountered in a book. She was only ten years old but I wanted her as my friend.

“You were the one who found Him, though, Tilly; not Grace”
“But we’re friends” Tilly looked at me. “We go halves on everything. Even Jesus”.

And if you don’t usually like child narrators, keep in mind that there are plenty of chapters told from the point of view of every neighbor, as each one of them has a secret of their own… It even features flashbacks. I knew this was a special story because it made me laugh (I highly value that in a book!) and smile and it would also be a great novel for teenagers, as I believe its message is still relevant. It’s about judging others by their appearance, fitting in and what friendship really means.

So yes, I admit I have a soft spot for quirky coming of age stories, both in books and films; and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep was a wonderful one. If that weren’t enough, it’s also a mystery of sorts, although told in a lighter tone (even if it deals with some dark themes).

Why do I suddenly want Angel Delight?

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Scribner, 2015

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (Hannah Tinti)

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After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter Loo to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past – a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. Both a coming of age novel and a literary thriller, THE TWELVE LIVES OF SAMUEL HAWLEY explores what it means to be a hero, and the price we pay to protect the people we love most.

This novel had one of the most wonderful beginnings I’ve read in quite some time. As soon as I started reading The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, I knew it would be a highly unique story. Hours later, I had finished it and I knew I had been right: I had never read something quite like this. However, my initial delight wasn’t always present, as I admit I struggled a bit because of its length.

I wouldn’t say this is a mystery; it’s more like a coming of age story and a contemporary action thriller: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a tale about family, loneliness and fitting in. The writing by Hannah Tinti is brilliant and the characters are simply unforgettable. I think we can expect a film sometime in the next few years.

Who are the main characters? Let’s introduce you to Samuel Hawley and Loo (father and daughter). They’ve just moved to Olympus, Massachusetts and they’re having a hard time fitting in. Years pass (Loo is twelve at first and seventeen in the last chapter) while we’re witness of their struggles and endless adventures. At the same time, there are some flashback chapters where we learn about Samuel’s 12 lives (bullet scars that he carries on his body). Initially, I thought this flashbacks were a great idea, but the more I read, the more these parts felt repetitive. For once, I was more interested in the present story, especially Loo’s “coming of age”.

As I said, Loo was simply amazing (independent, strong and complex) and, even though we didn’t get to know her that much, Mabel Ridge was also a character I wanted to know more about. The mystery surrounding Loo’s mother, Lily, was one of my favorite aspects of the book. And I appreciated how the author made no excuses for anyone’s behavior. After all, when you love someone, you’re able to overlook their mistakes… Blood is thicker than water.

In the end, I think I will remember this book because there’s something quite special about it. It hasn’t been my favorite read of the year, but I’m not sure I’ll read something quite like it anytime soon. And that’s not something you can say often.

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Netgalley, Tinder Press, 2017

Dollbaby (Laura Lane McNeal)

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When Ibby Bell’s father dies unexpectedly in the summer of 1964, her mother unceremoniously deposits Ibby with her eccentric grandmother Fannie and throws in her father’s urn for good measure. Fannie’s New Orleans house is like no place Ibby has ever been—and Fannie, who has a tendency to end up in the local asylum—is like no one she has ever met. Fortunately, Fannie’s black cook, Queenie, and her smart-mouthed daughter, Dollbaby, take it upon themselves to initiate Ibby into the ways of the South, both its grand traditions and its darkest secrets. For Fannie’s own family history is fraught with tragedy, hidden behind the closed rooms in her ornate Uptown mansion. It will take Ibby’s arrival to begin to unlock the mysteries there. And it will take Queenie and Dollbaby’s hard-won wisdom to show Ibby that family can sometimes be found in the least expected places.

This was undoubtedly the best book I could possibly read after finishing SirensDollbaby was a sweet and easy-to-read novel, a quirky southern tale for those who’re looking for a lovely adventure. After endless crime books and psychological thrillers, sometimes you need something different.

This is the story of Ibby, whose father suddenly dies after a silly bicycle accident. Her mother, who never showed she cared for her, takes Libby to live with her grandmother Fannie and her help: Queenie and Dollbaby. Throughout the years, Ibby will learn it all about family, secrets, and life in the south.

I can’t resist a good southern story, especially if it’s set in the past. Dollbaby had all those details I enjoy about this kind of novels, but the plot never seemed to advance, not until the very end. Quiet novels are among my favorites and the characters in this book were odd and adorable at the same time, but that wasn’t enough for me, not this time.

In addition, the “big secret” didn’t feel like something particularly innovative or surprising. What I’m trying to say is that Dollbaby was a nice and pleasant read, but nothing extraordinary that I hadn’t read or watched before in countless of movies.

Dollbaby was a short and fun book, and while I enjoyed Ibby’s story and grew to like her and her family, the novel didn’t manage to completely captivate me like other similar books (The Help, The Education of Dixie Dupree). It was definitely sweet and I read it in a matter of hours, but I don’t think it will stay with me forever.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Penguin Books, 2015