Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff; Philomel, 292 pages $16.99. Ages 8 to 12.
The author of the intricately plotted “A Tangle of Knots” – a National Book Award nominee – offers a poignant, pitch-perfect study of a kindhearted, struggling fifth-grader, who knows all too well what it’s like to be “almost”: almost good at tetherball, almost smart enough to get more than four words right on his spelling test, almost smart enough to make his parents proud of him. Graff lets Albie tell his story in simple, straightforward style, the overheard conversation that lets him know his grandfather thinks he’s way below average, his mother’s criticism of the “Captain Underpants” books he prefers to the more age-appropriate “Johnny Tremain”; the bullying from an obnoxious classmate at his new public school (after he’s disinvited from the private school he attended before), the ways Albie learns to figure out for himself what it takes to be cool and what it takes to be a friend. An interesting backdrop to the tale, set in Manhattan, is the reality show being filmed of Albie’s best friend, a chess whiz who is one of two sets of triplets in a family living in a neighboring apartment. Graff peoples her tale with memorable characters: a kindly math club teacher with his math jokes, Clarissa the kindly baby sitter and budding artist who understands Albie better than his parents; a classmate Betsy with a stuttering problem. Graff doesn’t tie things up with a pretty bow at the end, but Albie’s hard-learned lessons will be an inspiration to readers.
– Jean Westmoore
The Vacationers by Emma Straub; Riverhead, 304 pages ($26.95)
Readers meet a kindred spirit on the opening page of Emma Straub’s winsome new novel when Jim Post worries about the contents of his suitcase: “Had he packed enough books?”
Yes, this is the sort of person you – or at least I – wouldn’t mind passing a fictional vacation with. The fact that he is disgraced when the novel opens, forced to retire from his job as a men’s magazine editor after an affair with a 23-year-old editorial assistant, dampens that sentiment only slightly.
Jim and Franny, a freelance food writer, are Upper West Side literati whose teenage daughter Sylvia is prone to babbling, when nervous, about which Brontë is most underrated and who compares her mother’s writing style to “Joan Didion, only with an appetite, or like Ruth Reichl, but with an attitude problem.”
The novel centers on a long-planned family vacation to Mallorca celebrating Sylvia’s high school graduation; the secondary celebration, of Jim and Franny’s 35th anniversary, is muted due to the circumstances.
Along for the trip are son Bobby, a struggling Miami real estate agent 10 years older than Sylvia; Carmen, Bobby’s “albatross of a girlfriend” who is more than 10 years his senior; Charles, an artist who is Franny’s best friend; and Lawrence, Charles’ baby-crazy husband.
“The idea had been to be together, everyone nicely trapped, with card games and wine and all the fixings of satisfying summers at their fingertips,” says the narrator, who gives us a peek inside everyone’s head.
Instead, the group coexists while dealing with personal crises that range from embarrassing (Sylvia’s sloppy drunken partying that ended up on Facebook) to momentous (Charles and Lawrence’s adoption plans) to financially devastating (Bobby’s six-figure debt) to personally ruinous (Jim’s affair).
While the characters’ days are mostly filled with humdrum activities – with the exception of the hilarious, dramatic beach trip that injects some slapstick comedy – the plot is driven by the individual dramas and interactions between characters, who are perfectly sketched.
The finest moment of the novel comes near the end, during a routine pancake breakfast. The vacation might be ending, but we’re reminded that the journey – sometimes painful, often joyful – continues.
– Hannah Sampson, Miami Herald