Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?

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Thank you to Hazel Loutsis, for providing me with a copy of her travel book, Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own?: My Gap Year Traveling Solo at Sixty, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– Hazel Loutsis was a single British woman approaching sixty, when she had a life-altering thought while at the dentist: rather than paying thousands of pounds for a procedure that she didn’t really need, she would spend the money on traveling the world. Loutsis put her affairs in order, bought a good backpack, and flew to India, to begin her year of adventure.

LIKE– Loutsis has an amazing adventurous spirit, embracing all of the experiences that come her way. She picks destinations that are off-the-beaten path, rarely declines trying new things, and truly gets to know the people living in the places that she visits.

I was intrigued by Loutsis style of travel. She keeps it simple, mostly staying in hostels (usually filled with college students) or in accommodations where she volunteers to earn her keep. She is easy-going when it comes to camping, long bus rides, and general discomfort. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could embrace her style of travel, yet I’m envious of the incredible experiences she had during her year abroad. It was certainly a deeper experience than the average traveler. Many times, these experiences seem to come as a reward for her experiencing discomfort, like amazing views after a grueling hike. Loutsis often favored small towns and nature, over big cities- which is also opposite to me. It was engaging to read a travel report from someone so different from myself.

My favorite part was when Loutsis decided to sleep under the stars, while on a tour of the Australian outback. She managed to sleep through Dingos raiding the camp. The Dingos stole sneakers from another woman in the group. Loutsis is told not to worry, since the Dingos don’t usually attack people!

I love travel writing, because it allows me to live vicariously through the author’s journey: Are We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is no exception. Thanks to Loutsis, I have many destinations to add to my bucket list!

DISLIKEAre We Really Going to Let Mum Backpack on Her Own, is a straight-up travel journal. It was just like reading a travel diary from a friend and lacked a sense of style that is found in professional travel writing.

RECOMMEND- Maybe. I certainly admire Loutsis and I found much of her book to be enjoyable. That said, I’m not sure that it was unique among the many travel books that are on the market and certainly less polished.

The Late Show

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Last May, I visited family in England and I was kindly given a copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show, from my brother-in-law’s father, a fellow book-lover. He primarily passed along the book because he was surprised that I had not read Connelly, especially since many of his novels are set in my hometown of Los Angeles, California.

PLOT– After being harassed by a male colleague, Detective Renee Ballard is moved to the graveyard shift, also referred to as “The Late Show.” A victim of rape, Ballard lives a life that keeps her on the move. She is an ace employee, but her personal life is messy and she often chooses to sleep on the beach, rather than maintain the trappings of a normal life.

She’s on the beat, when two intense cases come her way: a shooting at a local bar and a near deadly assault. As Ballard becomes involved with both cases, she faces discrimination and road blocks from fellow detectives in the LAPD, coworkers who would rather she found a different job. Ballard must outwit them, sometimes breaking protocol and placing herself in grave danger, to both provide justice for the victims and prove that she is a worthy detective.

LIKE– I love that Ballard is a strong, kick-ass female protagonist. She’s tough as nails and smart. I think most women can relate to facing some degree of workplace discrimination or harassment. Ballard faces both, in a job that is mostly male. Although she is clearly emotionally affected by it, she doesn’t let it stop her from proving her right to be there. While It is frustrating that women have to “prove” themselves, Connelly writes this aspect of the female perspective in a way that rings true.

I love the Los Angeles setting, especially as I’m now living in a different area and feeling homesick for my hometown. The setting brought up some interesting thoughts for me. The man who gave me The Late Show is British and has never visited Los Angeles. I wondered what he thought or imagined, based on Connelly’s descriptions, Los Angeles to look like? I didn’t have to stretch my imagination very far, as I’ve been to many of the locations in The Late Show. My own local knowledge eclipses Connelly’s descriptions. It made me think back to all of the novels that I’ve read that are set in England and now that I’ve visited England many times, I can’t even remember what I thought when books/movies/TV, formed my knowledge.

Connelly does a great job at crafting intense, danger-filled action scenes. His writing is cinematic.

DISLIKE– I believe that this is my first crime/detective novel. It is my first experience with Connelly. I don’t have experience with the genre and as such, I was put-off by all of the police lingo. It felt heavy-handed. Do detectives really talk like that? Maybe they do, but as a reader unfamiliar with the genre, it grew old and was cheesy.

RECOMMENDThe Late Show is not my cup of tea, but I know that Connelly is incredibly popular and I think fans of this genre would love his latest protagonist, Renee Ballard. I’m happy to have had the chance to read something that I would not have normally picked, but I would unlikely seek out his other books.

Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners

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Thank you to Harlequin- Hanover Square Press for providing me with a copy of Gretchen Anthony’s novel, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT- Cerise Baumgartner is pregnant with her first child and her parents are thrilled. Thrilled and very involved, especially Cerise’s over-bearing mother, Violet. Violet likes Cerise’s girlfriend, Barb, but is left feeling concerned and nosy over how the child was conceived, a personal issue that neither Barb nor Cerise is willing to disclose.

As Violet tries to interfere with her daughter’s life, she has other concerns to contend with, such as her recently retired husband, Ed, who doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Her best friend, Eldris is also going through a crisis. Eldris’ husband, Richard, has lost his job and is acting very secretive. Their son, Kyle, who is also Cerise’s best-friend and the would be godfather to her baby, is being investigated for domestic terrorism. To top it all off, Violet is desperate to please Barb’s parents, who, at least on paper, seem to be the perfect family.

LIKEEvergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a delightful novel. It’s funny and has a lot of heart. I appreciated the complexity of Violet and how the truth of her character unfolds. She is quite a lot to handle early in the story, but Anthony does a fine job of teasing out the details of her inner-life and I finished the story with a very different impression of Violet. One of the overriding themes of the story is love and despite the many flaws that the characters have, there is a lot of love to be found.

I think most people have a Violet Baumgartner in their life. She is a force of nature, but also someone who is very sensitive and hides it behind her controlling behavior. She loves fiercely, but also drives people away with her take-charge attitude. I have relatives that are so similar to Violet, that it was very relatable. I could easily understand Cerise’s reaction to her mother and I’ve been in her position.

I’m a big fan of the Christmas card letter. I even save my favorites that are sent to me, certain families have a way with words. I enjoyed the way that Anthony used Violet’s Christmas card letters to give us backstory about the Baumgartner’s life. It really works well with the story. Although I finished reading Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in February ( on a snowy afternoon), it is definitely an ideal book to read during the Christmas season. It will put you in a holiday mood.

The disastrous dinner party scene at the end really made me laugh. I also found that Anthony had some great plot twists that I did not anticipate.

DISLIKE- Nothing to dislike. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is not a life-changing read, but it is a very cozy, charming story.

RECOMMEND – Yes! If you are looking for a family drama with a strong dose of comedy, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners is a great pick. I throughly enjoyed it. It’s a feel-good story that will give you the warm fuzzies!

Lake Success

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Thank you to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s novel, Lake Success, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Barry Cohen is a wealthy, NYC hedge-fund manger who is having a super-sized mid-life crisis. His career is about to implode and he is likely facing jail time due to an SEC investigation. He hides his troubles from his younger, beautiful wife, Seema. Seema hides an affair that she is having with a married writer who lives in their building, a man whom her husband despises. They both battle with their emotions over their severely autistic son. Barry’s crisis makes him flee the city, catching a Greyhound bus and traveling cross-country to reconnect with his first love, who has no idea that he is coming. The adventures on his trip will take him as far away from his luxury lifestyle as he could have ever imagined.

LIKELake Success is completely unpredictable, hilarious, and quirky. Barry and Seema are both unlikeable, narcissistic characters, that Shteyngart manages to humanize and make relatable. I started out disgusted with them and slowly began to care for both of them.

Barry’s misadventures on the road are a great blend of being outrageous and uproariously funny, with affecting. As Barry comes out of his shell, meeting people that he would have never interacted with in his NYC life, he begins to change.

In one scene, he wanders into a rough neighborhood and has a conversation with a crack dealer. The wacky part of this scene is Barry is asked to leave, so the dealer can ramp up his act for a tour group of “Urban Tourists” who are interested in seeing a poor, ethnic neighborhood. The drug dealer puts on an act for the tourists, becoming the character that they imagine him to be based on their stereotypes. Barry is like the dealer, in his NYC life he plays the part of an upperclass, financial guy with the perfect wife. His son is hidden most of the time, as is anything that breaks the facade of perfection. A huge part of Barry’s crisis is the burden of trying to maintain this facade.

Seema is also dealing with a similar issue and through her affair she begins to shed her facade of perfection. Trying to maintain this facade has actually destroyed their marriage. They cannot communicate and see it as a failing to not only their son, but to their life in general, if they admit that anything is less than perfect. But the problem actually seems to have existed before their marriage, when they first began to date. Seema had a focus on a type of guy that she wanted to marry and Barry fit the profile. Barry was attracted to Seema’s youth and beauty. They seem to be attracted to the idea of each other, rather than actually to each other. Although Seema’s crisis didn’t take her on a road trip, she experiences a dramatic change in perspective. Her character growth is equal to Barry’s change.

DISLIKE– This is minor, but it did take me about 3-4 chapters to really be gripped by the story. After the slow start, I was hooked. Lake Success has both strong story and character arcs, with a very satisfying pay-off at the end.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! I finished Lake Success in late 2018, but life got in the way, so I am writing this review very late. That said, I cannot stop thinking about Lake Success. It made a huge impression on me. Shteyngart is a fabulous writer who has created a multi-layered story with heart and a lot of wicked humor. I look forward to reading his other works. He’s brilliant!