I just spend a glorious 10 days on vacation! Glorious, because VACATION. Also glorious, because my husband and I traveled to two beautiful southern cities, Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, ending with a few days of utter relaxation at Hilton Head Island, doing not much more than sitting on beach chairs, wading in the ocean, and basking in the sun.
Oh, and did I mention reading? Because I did a little reading. Enough to cause darling hubby to shake his head at me a few times and lovingly call me ridiculous.
Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read on vacation, with my take on the vacation-worthiness of each book. The number of little beach umbrellas reflects my own personal feelings about whether or not this is a good choice for tucking into your beach-tote!
Rainwater by Sandra Brown: Set during the Depression in drought-stricken Texas, this is the story of a single mother who runs a boarding house while caring for her autistic son, and the stranger who comes to stay and ends up changing both of their lives. I’ll admit that I never would have picked this up if it weren’t my book group’s pick for July. It looks and feels like the kind of book you’d pick up in a supermarket check-out line. That said, I was surprisingly engrossed by the story. Rainwater‘s depiction of the historical setting was very interesting, and I learned a few things about the time period that were completely new to me. That may make the book sound stuffy, and it’s not. The love story is sweet and passionate and unexpected, includes some strong commentary on social justice issues, and has an ending at once tragic and uplifting. The writing isn’t exactly literary, but it’s a quick and compelling read.
Fire and Ice and So Sure of Death, books 1 & 2 in the Liam Campbell series by Dana Stabenow. Big surprise for anyone who reads my blog from time to time — I’m a huge fan of Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak series, and have gotten far enough into that series that I needed to detour into her related series about Alaska State Trooper Liam Campbell. The Liam books did not let me down in the slightest, and are perfect vacation reads: Fast-paced, great characters, unusual settings, mysteries that kept me engaged, and personal relationships that are fresh, believable, and utterly engaging.
The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian: This is a heartbreaker of a story, a historical novel focusing on the Armenian genocide of 1915, as seen through the eyes of a young American woman who travels to Aleppo to offer aid and assistance to survivors. Elizabeth’s eyes are opened by the horrors she witnesses, while at the same time, she discovers love in a most unexpected place. The historical elements are framed by a modern-day woman’s exploration of her grandparents’ histories. The modern-day story felt more like a distraction to me, as what really gripped me was the story of Elizabeth, Armen, and the other supporting characters we meet in 1915. The Sandcastle Girls is powerful, beautiful, and devastating, and is a must-read — and yet, I don’t think I’d recommend it as a vacation read. It’s an amazing book, don’t get me wrong, and I think everyone should read it — but the seriousness of the subject matter and the unrelenting suffering portrayed here don’t jibe very well with beach umbrellas, flip-flops, and cold fruity cocktails. Read this book — but read it at home.
Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans tells the story of a young boy evacuated from London during WWII. Noel is an odd little duck, and when his eccentric godmother/guardian dies, he’s left without a soul to care for him. Vee is a con woman who schemes to earn a little cash because she really has no other way of supporting her deadbeat son and her doddering mother. Vee takes Noel in so that she can collect the fostering fee for housing evacuees, but the two soon find that his brains combined with her slippery ethics make for successful money-making. This is an unusual and offbeat story, with a lot of charm, plenty of humor, and lots of heart-tugging sentiment too. The historical setting is nicely conveyed, and the mood is sincere and sometimes sad, but never so heavy as to make reading it a drag. I definitely recommend the book, and I enjoyed it while swinging in a hammock.
The Long Walk by Stephen King: Ooooh. This is a good one. I’d never heard of this book, one of King’s earlier works (written under his Richard Bachman pseudonym), until I saw Bonnie’s review on For the Love of Words (check it out here — great review!). In The Long Walk, 100 teen-aged boys participate in a walk that continues until only one is left standing… because all the others are dead. The boys start at the Maine/Canada border, and walk. That’s it. They walk — and walk, and walk, never falling below a 4-mile-per-hour pace, because if they do, that’s a warning. And after three warnings, the next infraction means you’re shot to death by the armed guards who travel alongside the walkers. The boys never stop, not to eat, sleep, or pee. If they fall or pass out or get a cramp, that could mean the end. Wow, is this a disturbing book, and yet it’s so, so good. Meanwhile, the boys who walk talk and reflect and learn the truth hidden inside the deepest, darkest corners of their hearts and minds. Why they walk is only explained at a surface level (there’s a Prize), but it’s clear without ever being explicitly shown that this is an alternate version of the United States in which watching a group of boys walk to death is high entertainment, and which is bleak enough that the 1 in 100 shot at the Prize is enough to get more or less sensible boys to bet their lives.
You might think that all this makes The Long Walk too dark for a vacation read… but no. Stephen King is pretty much always perfect for vacation. The fast-paced storytelling and immersive experience makes you happy to glance up and see the sun still shining. It’s horror, but (oh, this makes me sound like a bad person) totally fun horror.
Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall: I loved this book! Set during the Civil War, this historical novel tells the story of Iris Dunleavy, a young woman who somewhat blindly enters into a marriage with a plantation owner, only to realize that his cruelty is more than she can bear. When she attempts to expose his crimes, he instead has her declared insane and sends her away to an island asylum to be “cured” of her irrational defiance and delusions. While there, Iris meets Ambrose, a Confederate soldier haunted by his wartime experience. Iris and Ambrose fall in love, but Iris’s determination to escape with her lover and start a new life is doomed from the start. It’s a haunting and tragic love story, beautifully written, with an unusual setting and a memorable and well-defined cast of supporting characters. I just adored this one. Sad? Yes. And still, I consider it a great vacation read. The asylum is set on Sanibel Island off the coast of Florida, and the descriptions of the beaches, sea, birds, and sky give Blue Asylum a feeling of sunshine and freshness, even when the plot makes me want to cry.
And that’s my vacation reading wrap-up! As you can see, I read some amazing books — not all are books I’d describe as beach reads, but not a single dud among the bunch.
If I had to pick one to recommend the most, I’d say definitely check out Blue Asylum. For anyone who loves historical fiction, powerful love stories, and strong female lead characters, this is a can’t-miss book.