Book Review: Camino Beach, by Amanda Callendrier

camino beach review

It's been a minute since I've posted a book review, but I think I'll be posting more in the future. You can always follow my colorful reviews on Goodreads here. Let's get started! 

This book is Camino Beach, by Amanda Callendrier. It's a debut novel and here's a teaser description: 

In this poignant debut loaded with humor, heartbreak, and Southern charm, old friends road-trip their way to solving a mystery and righting a long-ago wrong.

I was attracted purely because of this description, because I love Southern novels; I love road trip stories; and I love mysteries. 

Friends, this book was absolutely none of those things. Note: this review does contain spoilers to the entire nonexistent plot of this book. 

The setting was absolutely nonexistent. If you removed the specific town name, you could plop this novel down in any setting and it would be exactly the same, minus Myrtle Beach. And spoiler alert, they spend approximately 12 hours in Myrtle Beach in one of the most useless and rambling plot lines ever. 

Most importantly, do you want to read a book full of absolutely repulsive characters who have absolutely no conscience or self-awareness? This is the book for you then. 

TRIGGER WARNING: This book contains the sexual abuse of a teenager by a teacher. It is treated like said teenager "cheating" on his girlfriend. It never acknowledges that he was sexually abused by a teacher in a position of power. This is abhorrent. It happens near the end of the book; if it had been "revealed" earlier, I would have put it on my "do not finish" list. I just want to warn you. I didn't like the book before this was revealed, but it made me absolutely sick that I'd obligated myself to review it. 

In 1997, Sarah and Kristen were just two absolutely awful teenage girls in some vague Southern Town. They graduated high school, went on to college, graduated, and went onto equally disappointing lives: Sarah is divorced, lives in an apartment above the bookstore she owns, and routinely treats her next door neighbor/former classmate/best friend, Jack, like absolutely crap; on the opposite end of the spectrum, Kristen is a tiny, blonde former gymnast who married a big ol' slob named Chris (yes, they are both named Kris/Chris) and has three anonymous children that she never talks about except to complain about them. She works some kind of job, but otherwise, buys Jimmy Choos, lives in a McMansion, and drives a Rover. 

In high school, there was a third friend, Roxanne, the only likable one in the bunch. Roxanne was impulsive, self-destructive, and, most of all, fun. However, she disappeared before they graduated and while they did call local boarding schools after her mom (their gym teacher, inexplicably) told them she was sent to boarding school, they didn't do much to find her. 

Except when their 20 year high school reunion rolls around. 

Kristen decides it's time to bite the bullet and find Roxanne. Sarah, our primary narrator, is nervous because she did something "awful" that she is sure is the cause of Roxanne's disappearance. They go on a saga to buy an El Camino because Roxanne owned one. This takes up approximately 1/3 of the book. They buy an El Camino named Elvira. 

Jack decides to join them for the trip to Myrtle Beach, after Kristen's private investigator turns up an address for Roxanne there. We are treated to multiple unpleasant scenes were Sarah is an absolute nightmare of a human to her ex-husband. 

Ok, slight diversion from going over the plot: Sarah got divorced because... reasons? It's never fully explained, which is fine, but she treats her ex like absolute garbage. Why? Because Sarah is a garbage person. There, I said it. Take this character and throw her away; she is a self-centered, obnoxious, mean, vile human being. There is nothing redeemable about Sarah as a character. I do not understand why she has friends or why she received this characterization. She sucks. She divorced her husband because he was slightly resistant to her taking out a loan to buy a bookstore. Listen, do you know how much of a struggle it is to own an independent bookstore? It is NOT easy. I love bookstores and I'd be hesitant too! But this book apparently takes place in an alternate reality where people go to bookstores all the time. Her ex-husband is a professor, a fact that they make fun of every time he is mentioned. That's right, he's the only person in the book who uses his brain and they treat him like dirt. Cool. 

They head for Myrtle Beach. Along the way, they stop in Sarah's college down and Kristen, another garbage person, destroys a college students senior project. Seriously. 

They get to Myrtle Beach and find a hotel that is $60 a night, but also has a bar beside the pool. There are so many awful, useless parts to this book, but the road trip to Myrtle Beach (the only road trip) only takes up about 5 chapters, tops, and is super pointless. 

The next morning, they surprise drop into Roxanne's address. Surprise, it's not Roxanne. It's her mom, Mrs. Wilder, their mean gym teacher. She has no idea where Roxanne is. Cool! They leave, meet Jack's college roommate Bert for margaritas, get drunk in a Mexican restaurant, and then they all get into a massive fight. 

Then, they go home. There is no plot.

This is the part of the novel where I stopped caring. It was so anticlimactic. They literally just go home. Kristen gets a bug in her butt to go check school records; they do and guess what? The school has all their school records. Listen, a records room with your "official record" is a thing that literally doesn't exist. But whatever, in alternate reality where garbage people are allowed to flourish, it's real. It's so exhausting to have this scene. As if there is some giant room in every public school where they keep every piece of banal information about every kid that ever stepped in the building. 

Anyway, they end up finding a sticky note on the back of Roxanne's file with the number of a school that's in, you guessed it, Sarah's college town. They do no research and go. They find Roxanne. She's perfectly normal, living in a nice little house with her daughter, also named Sarah. She is pleasant and happy, but she's not the Roxanne they know. 

Ok, let's back up a minute: throughout all these scenes, we get treated to scenes from high school Sarah. HS Sarah is somehow 400x worse than present day Sarah; she is boring, mean, and absolutely obsessed with herself. So, the entire novel I thought the bad thing she did to Roxanne would be huge: she ratted out Roxanne about drugs or she actually murdered her or SOMETHING. No. Here's what she did: she signed a statement saying that Roxanne had been cheating off her homework to avoid getting her scholarship taken away. 

I'm sorry, but that's not awful. That's barely even bad. That's literally what every teenager would do if they were caught to be helping their friend cheat. Roxanne had been cheating off Sarah; Sarah admitted it; and...?

Anyway, in their meeting with Roxanne, it turns out that's NOT why Roxanne left school. She left because her mom had been messing around with Roxanne's boyfriend. So the principal helped her transfer schools and leave. Cool for Roxanne. She met her current husband, got pregnant, got married. She chilled. Never once does anyone say, "Holy crap, your mom sexually abused a student?" No, they act like her boyfriend Mark cheated on her. These. People. Are. Garbage. 

So, after all that time, the bad thing Sarah did didn't even matter. It's not even part of the story. The only person who cares about it is Sarah because she's obsessed with herself. 

Kristen and Sarah then leave.

Because Sarah is obsessed with her stupid self, she goes to visit the former principal to ask WHY he made her sign that statement. I'm not sure why. It's pretty obvious. They were busting Roxanne, rightfully, for cheating. The principal basically says he just did it to make a point and that it's ok that she signed it because all teenagers do selfish stuff. No kidding, the principal, even though we're supposed to see him as some kind of delusional mean guy, is the only intelligent character in this book; he looks Sarah dead in the face and is like, "people usually grow out of being so selfish, but whatever, you seem like a piece of work." 

Sarah feels enlightened and goes to Kristen's house. Kristen had spent tons of time complaining about her husband; however, when Sarah brings up this past conversation in relation to her talk with the principal, Kristen acts like Sarah is accusing her of something. Listen, Kristen, I know you're a few slices short of a whole pie, but follow along. Kristen ends up getting a new shower head and is suddenly in a better mood, proving that she's an absolutely repulsive, stupid character and Sarah isn't much better. 

So Sarah leaves, feeling pretty low. She calls Bert to ask him to go to the reunion with her and he says no, because Jack made it clear he likes Sarah. Jack is a pushover and while he is pretty obnoxious, he deserves better than Sarah, a woman who literally never thinks of anyone but herself. 

So Sarah goes to the reunion with Jack and proceeds to get drunk within, like, 5 minutes. Then Mark, Roxanne's high school boyfriend who was sexually abused by a teacher, comes up and asks about Roxanne. Sarah, who is awful, acts belligerent and causes a scene; then Jack punches a man who was sexually abused as a teenager by a teacher and they act like he's a hero. Wow, I'm so glad I read this book. 

Kristen and Roxanne then bust into the reunion, dressed to the nines. They all go outside and make the real Camino Beach and get even more drunk in the back of it. It turns out, Roxanne did name her daughter after Sarah (WHY) and apparently had watched Sarah a few times while she was at college because she literally lived in the same town. This is proof that Sarah is totally self-absorbed; Roxanne had been in this sandwich place once while Sarah was there and SARAH DIDN'T EVEN NOTICE. 

Eventually, Jack confesses that, actually, he really likes Sarah. They kiss. It's totally inexplicable why Jack likes her because, again, Sarah is an absolute garbage can of a human being. 

If you want to read a book about the most self-absorbed awful people in the entire universe, go ahead. Read it. I have no idea why it was written. A bunch of boring, mean white women going on an adventure to find the friend they treated like crap 20 years ago. Nothing redeemable. Nothing to learn. Awful people not getting their comeuppance.

Is it Bad to Write Bad Reviews?

I'm a very active Goodreads reviewer. (You can add me on Goodreads here.) Since I read a good number of NetGalley books, and some of those books are categorically Not So Great, I end up writing a fair number of bad or so-so reviews. Sometimes, I get replies that my review is too harsh (as if holding authors and editors to standards of grammar and cohesive plots is "too harsh", but ok) or a "doozy." 

I read a lot of romance novels. And I'd say about 75% of published romance novels are categorically "bad." They might be "so bad they're good" or that kind of guilty pleasure bad. But they're still bad, in terms of plot and characterization. That's what I review for: is the plot cohesive? Are the characters well-rounded? Are their actions believable within their universe and personality? No? Then, you have work to do. 

There are a pretty high number of Goodreads users who start reviews with something like, "If I don't like a book, I don't finish it or review it." So basically, they only review the books they like. That's fine, but how does that help other readers decide if a book is worth their time? How does it help bring attention to something a newer author needs to work on? How does it help people find diverse books? Here's the thing: it doesn't. 

It's not possible to like everything. And that's ok. 

I love reading! I even love reading terrible books (really). But if I start a book with all 5-star reviews and realize halfway through it feels like it was written all in one sitting with absolutely no editing work or attempt at cohesiveness, well, I'm gonna be a little disappointed. And I'll start to question my sanity. What are those 5-star reviewers seeing that I'm not? It leads to me feeling a little, well, confused. Then I remember: so many people just don't write bad reviews. They don't want to do it. 

I totally understand. When you're reviewing a book, you're reviewing someone's work. Even if it is bad, it's something they worked hard on. But that being said, no one can improve if they aren't told how to. They can't change things if they don't know they need to, if they don't know that it isn't working. As a writer who really struggles to share my work publicly, it can be stressful to ask for feedback on something that feels so personal--but you need feedback to grow. Even professional author's need readers feedback to see what works and what doesn't. 

Readers also need that feedback to make better decisions about what books they want to read. 

So, is it bad to write bad reviews? Is it mean? Should I stop doing it? No, absolutely not. Writing critical reviews of books isn't a personal attack on an author; it's a necessary part of interacting in the literary world. We have to be critical some times to effect change and improve literature. 

Book Review: "Four of a Kind," by Kellie Sheridan

I started this book fully prepared to dislike it. Between the cover and the description, it seemed like a lot of Bad Waiting to Happen. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Which just goes to show, you can't judge a book by its cover. 

Disclaimer: A received a copy for an honest review from NetGalley. Also, this review does contain spoilers. 

Yes, there is a little bit that could do to be changed. Mainly, the quads' R-names really should have been rethought; I still can't 100% tell the difference between Reilly and Reece. Realistically, new parents of identical quadruplet girls would not name all of them incredibly similar sounding names: Reilly, Reece, Reagan, and Rhiannon. That was the first unbelievable hurdle to jump over (never mind the statistical possibility of identical quadruplets, all of whom are perfectly fine with no lasting difficulties from, I don't know, sharing a womb). 

Another difficulty was the fact that occasionally, the book does veer into sounding just a little too try hard, including the moments when Reagan seems to slip into seeming, well, too much like a narrator. I think that's one of the biggest downsides of the book; occasionally, Reagan will think something that is so incredibly not something a teenager would think about themselves (such as "Curse my teenage hormones!" What teenager says that!?) that it takes you out of the moment entirely. Basically, Reagan's internal dialogue often did not feel natural or normal, probably because of editing.  

The one thing I will say is that it felt like the book ended just a little too abruptly. It was quite a short book; I read it in a total of perhaps 4 hours. It felt like towards the middle a lot of random "drama" happened, such as Reece dyeing her hair and Rhiannon disappearing. Regarding that second incident, I think Reagan's non-anger at Rhiannon was the most disappointing part of the book; talk about being untrue to teenagers! Rhiannon's behavior lead to Reagan having to abandon her first ever date--what a dick move for her sister to pull. It was an incredibly important moment for Reagan and actually felt like the climax of the novel: Reagan, who is shy and nerdy, is on a date with a guy she really likes. That's the ultimate end-game for Reagan, what her narration has been about essentially since the beginning. And instead of anything happening, the moment is ruined, about 5 minutes in, by her sister's disappearance. And we're supposed to believe that Reagan isn't mad?  

Any teenager, or adult, honestly, would be livid, but Reagan was just "too good" for that. It's those moments where she slips (alongside her parents and sisters) into being just a little "too perfect," just a little idealized. I wanted some messiness from Reagan, but it didn't happen. There were a few moments like this where the reactions of characters seemed to be just too fake and unrealistic. No one, absolutely no one, reacts to teenagers breaking rules with, "Well, maybe we need to readjust the rules." No, if my kid disappeared and turned off her phone, she'd be getting grounded until summer at the very least. But not Rhiannon's parents!

Then, after Rhiannon came back and Reagan got to do a date re-do, the book ends. We get a brief scene where Reagan acts in a play, but that's it. It's a bit anticlimactic; there is no big action that creates tension or changes things. Things seem... the same as when the book started, plus a boyfriend. Maybe Rhiannon's disappearance is meant to be the climax, but it didn't feel like it; Reagan found her within 10 minutes of starting to look, so, you know. 

All this being said, it wasn't an entirely unpleasant book to read; I would definitely recommend it as the start of a series to younger readers (I'd say it's definitely written at around 6th or 7th grade level).

A few additional notes: this book does win points for attempting to include a diverse cast. Based on descriptions, Reagan's love interest, Kurt, appears to be biracial (it's never explicitly stated) and one of the quadruplets (Reilly) identifies as gay. These are just two examples. It is always difficult to praise diversity in a book that centers around four, beautiful, identical, white girls, but alas, I have to give Kellie Sheridan credit for at least including diverse characters, even if they are secondary in this novel. (From my understanding, this is the first in a series about the quadruplets. Here's to hoping for more in the sequels!) 

The Best Book I Read in January: "Life After Life," by Kate Atkinson


When I first wrote my list of 100 books I wanted to read in 2015, I included a few books I'd been wanting to read for months. One of those books was Kate Atkinson's Life After Life

I'd repeatedly carried Life After Life around book stores, put it in my Amazon shopping cart, and read reviews. I'd thought about reading it a lot, but something always stopped me. To be completely honest, I think I was put off by the cover: there is something overly sappy about it, as if it will be a bad romance novel. I'm not a huge fan of novels that are epic, sweeping romance dramas. I just find them a bit boring. I want more from my novels. 

This past weekend, I found myself looking at a few blissful hours of alone time. Danny was sick and had homework to do; I'd cleaned the house, done the laundry, washed the bedding. With so many hours, I didn't want to just sit and watch TV. I spent a way-too-stressful hour looking at my book list and reading reviews on Amazon. 

Twice, I settled on Life After Life and changed my mind. Finally, I bit the bullet and bought the book, sending it to my Kindle. 

I had read reviews, sure, but I wasn't 100% aware of the big plot point until I started reading the book.  I'll get to that in a second though. 

I read Life After Life in two days. That in itself is not an endorsement: I can read most books in two days, one day if I really dedicate myself to it. However, I found myself talking about Life After Life constantly. The first thing I said to Danny about the book was: "I wish I'd thought of it." What did I say after I read Tony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See? "I wish I'd thought of that title, it is killer. Also I wish I could steal his ability to use similes." 

My ringing endorsement is usually the sentiment of "I wish I'd written this; I'm mad that I didn't." 

Life After Life is built around the premise that Ursula Todd is stuck in a time loop: every time she dies, she starts over again. Sometimes, things are different from the very start; in most versions, her mother gives birth alone, her father searching France for her runaway aunt, Izzie. In one version, her father makes it back in time and they raise Izzie's son, Roland, as their own. In a few versions, Ursula dies at birth, or is born dead, or is suffocated by a cat named Queenie (an old wives' tale come to life). Either way, Ursula gets a lot of chances, but the reader is unsure if Ursula is ever 100% aware of her past experiences. 

There are a few events that suggest Ursula is able to tell change what happened. In one version of her life, Ursula drowns as a child while on vacation; the next go around, she becomes terrified to go near the water and her sister pulls her along anyway. She is saved by a man sitting on the beach painting. 

In another version, Ursula's horrible brother, Maurice, throughs her doll out the window; she dies falling off the roof trying to retrieve it. The next time around, her sister, Pamela, uses a stick to pull the doll inside. 

In these small instances, Ursula was filled with dread when approaching the situation: the doll on the ledge, the water's edge. She doesn't really remember, but she knows something is about to happen. As she gets older, if she does get older in that life, she identifies feelings of extreme deja vu, as if she's lived everything before (which, if you buy that she really is living life after life, she has). 

There are other instances where you wonder how aware Ursula is of her past lives. In one life, she is assaulted by one of her brother's friends, Howie; she gets pregnant, has an illegal abortion, and almost dies. The black sheep of the family, she ends up marrying an abusive man and is ultimately beaten to death. In her next life, she doesn't seem aware of Howie's future behavior, but at their first meeting, she promptly punches him in the face. 

In some versions of history, her next door neighbor, Nancy, is murdered while out looking for leaves for a scrapbook; Ursula usually takes another route home, or a detour, in order to intercept Nancy and save her. We don't know how much she knows she's doing this. She just... does it. However, in one version, Ursula is distracted by her crush and Nancy is murdered. Chance didn't work out in that version, I guess. 

The most interesting part of the story is this: Ursula never marries in any of her lives, except two. In one, she marries the man who ultimately beats her to death. In the other, she goes to Germany on a world tour and ends up staying in Germany, marrying a man, and having her daughter, Frieda. In other versions of her life, she never has children. But when she has Frieda, she ends up having to kill her daughter and herself and start over again; she never stays in Germany again, never meets her husband again. It is almost as if Ursula purposefully chooses to never have a child, because she knows in that version of history, her child always dies. 

It might sound boring to read the same life over and over again -- and there are definitely parts where it becomes a little too hint-hint, nudge-nudge -- but it is also incredibly engrossing. Ursula's panic and confusion over her moments of deja vu, her sense of knowing what will happen before it actually does, her grappling with reality is intense. Beyond that, the book paints the idea that sometimes the most important connections in life aren't romantic: Ursula's love stories are few and far between. Instead, the relationship between siblings is examined and poked: the things we do to save our siblings, to make them happy, to keep them from pain. 

In several versions of history, the Todd family maid, Bridget, attend Armistice Day celebrations in London and brings the Spanish Flu back to the Todd home, killing Ursula; in another version, Ursula manages to stay away from Bridget, only for her little brother, Edward, to get sick and die. Over and over again, Ursula struggles to find a way to not just save herself, but to save her siblings; and, it is interesting to note, she is never once concerned with saving Bridget's life. Her ultimate solution is to push Bridget down the stairs, breaking her arm, and, in later versions, to tell Bridget that she'd seen her boyfriend cheating on her. Both work to save the family. 

It makes me wonder what moments would stand out in my life if I were to live it over and over again. What things would I change? What would I do differently? The best kind of novel is one that makes you think deeply about your life and your choices -- and Life After Life does just that.