The Violets of March by Sarah Jio – Book Review

The Violets of March by Sarah Jio
Published by Plum, an imprint of Penguin

When Emily’s marriage falls apart, she doesn’t cry, and she doesn’t rage. In fact, her best friend is a bit worried about the degree to which she is repressing her feelings and Emily quite clearly isn’t actually dealing with her divorce. As a novelist – and a stalled one at that – there is no 9 to 5 job where Emily must clock in, so she finally decides to visit her Great Aunt Bee on Bainbridge Island in Washington for a change of scenery. While there, she runs into an old boyfriend from her youth summering on the island, as well as a slightly mysterious yet handsome neighbor. Even more compelling to Emily than the men she meets, though, is the red journal she finds in the room she is staying in. Did Aunt Bee try her hand at fiction, or is this really the diary of a woman named Esther? And, if so, what happened to her, and what does any of this have to do with the unhealed schism between Aunt Bee and Emily’s mother?

The Violets of March was simply a lovely book. Jio clearly loves her characters dearly, and her fondness for them makes them irresistible to the reader. This may sound like a setup with the potential to be saccharine, but Jio has a great sense of balance and narrative that prevents her story from turning campy or emotionally manipulative, while allowing it to be genuinely moving. Both Emily’s modern story and the mystery of the diary were well drawn, and Jio did a masterful job weaving them together in a way that detracted from neither story.

This was a beautiful and well-written story of redemption, hope, and starting over. I can’t wait to see what Jio has for us next. Highly recommended.

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Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – Mini Review

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
Published by Random House

In The Tigers Wife, Tea Obreht’s gorgeous novel set in a war-ravaged Eastern European country, life, death, and myth coincide. Although Natalia, a young doctor who has recently lost her grandfather, is the central character, Obreht’s narrative also follows Natalia’s grandfather’s periodic encounters with a deathless man, as well as the titular story of the tiger’s wife.

Tea Obreht’s debut novel is beautiful beyond belief. The writing is simply gorgeous, and the plotting impeccable. Obreht weaves a remarkable tale that defies easy description. In fact, I think it is better if I do not try to go into too much detail, as The Tiger’s Wife is so absolutely beautiful that I cannot do it justice.

This is one of those times where I must simply say, trust me, read it.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound | Amazon*

Source: personal copy.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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You Know When The Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon – Book Review

You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin

At one time, I swore off short stories, at least to review. They are always so uneven and difficult to talk about comprehensively. And then I had a chance to talk to Amy Einhorn, the publisher of an imprint I adore at Penguin, and she told me about this short story collection she would be releasing called “You Know When the Men are Gone.” She told me that short stories don’t usually call to her, but these did, and she found herself more captivated than she would have expected by the stories of men and women whose lives are touched by enlistment in the Army, men and women who live at Ft. Hood in Texas – at least when they are not overseas in Iraq.

Short stories about army families. The concept doesn’t immediately grab me and demand to be read, but because of Amy Einhorn’s enthusiasm, I knew I wanted to try “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” If anyone else had published this, if I had not had a chance to sit down with Amy and hear her talk about it, I would likely never have picked this book up, it would not have even been on my radar. If that had been the case, my reading life would have been poorer for it.

You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

The passage above, located on the first page of the first story, stood out to me in particular, partially because it is the title passage from the title story. However, as I reflect back upon the book, it stands out to me again, not because it is the highlight of Fallon’s writing, but because it is indicative of the strength of this collection. The first story starts out strong, and stays strong, and the same is true of the rest of the stories. There always seem to be stories that are weaker than others in collections such as this, it is such a truth that to say so has become a cliche to mention it in a review. This is not the case for “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” I’m sure each individual will resonate with some stories more than others, but none of the stories can be denigrated as a weak link, all are incredibly well-written, and the character development is top notch. Story arcs are not rushed, but still come to a satisfying – if not always tidy – solution at the end of 30 or so pages.

Siobhan Fallon has been compared to Jhumpa Lahiri on the back cover of the book, a daunting claim since Lahiri’s stories seem t be the only ones read by people who aren’t really fans of short stories. In some ways, this may do a disservice to Fallon, whose stories don’t have the same bleakness that characterizes “The Interpreter of Maladies,” a trait which does turn some readers away, despite Lahiri’s brilliant writing. Certainly some of the stories in “You Know When the Men Are Gone” are full of despair, but many also contain kernels of hope. People expecting the same sort of stories that Lahiri tells may not be immediately satisfied – in my opinion that was more closely achieved by Sana Krasikov’s collection “One More Year” – but readers searching for the strength and beauty of writing and storytelling that Lahiri possesses will be very pleased with “You Know When the Men are Gone.”

I read “You Know When the Men are Gone” over the space of a single day, even pausing between stories, making myself read something else or step away from the book for awhile, to make the experience last longer. At the end, however, I simply couldn’t keep myself from returning to it time and again, until I found myself at the end of the collection, and experiencing my first disappointment brought to me by Fallon’s book: that there are only eight stories.

Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

Source: Publisher, via a trade show.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane – Book Review

The Report by Jessica Francis Kane
Published by Graywolf Press

In 1943, a shelter in Bethnal Green, London became the site of the largest civilian accident of World War II. Citizens of Bethnal Green, anticipating a retaliatory air strike, crowded into the station. Before 9pm, 173 of them were dead, although the Germans did not bomb London that night. After the accident, there was much finger-pointing in many directions: from the lack of light and the late arrival of the constable to the general existence of Jewish refugees. In order to quell unrest, the government appoints the young and popular local magistrate, Laurence Dunne, to conduct a private investigation. He works with surprising speed to create a report he hopes will mend the broken ties of the city in general and Bethnal Green in particular.

When I picked up “The Report,” I expected a competent novelization of a fascinating historical event and mystery. I also expected the account to be somewhat dry, if interesting, based both on the less than titilating title and the fact that it is essentially the story of how a governmental report came to be. Still, I was interested enough in the Bethnal Green tragedy, of which I had never heard before, to give it a go.

How wrong I was to be expecting something dry!

Kane takes an ensemble cast of characters and manages to make all of their stories compelling, without spending so much time on character development that she loses the thread of the story. A major element in this success is the inclusion of a secondary storyline, that of a documentary film maker – who has his own ties to the tragedy – who contacts Dunne to enlist his help in a documentary that will memorialize the 30th anniversary of Dunne’s report. This storyline serves as a nice foil to the primary storyline, ┬ámoving events along and explaining what is necessary, without being overly expository.

“The Report” is a surprisingly compelling novel about a seemingly unlikely subject. A fabulous read if you are at all curious to explore history and human nature. Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher for review.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell – Book Review

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Published by Random House

The last thing Gail Caldwell expected to find when training her dog Clementine was a best friend, but that is exactly what she found in Caroline Knapp, and more. Gail and Caroline’s dog trainer suggested then spend some time together because they were so alike. Both women had puppies they’d gotten less than a year ago, they were both writers, both recovering alcoholics, athletic, and incredibly independent. From that fateful meeting, the women formed a lasting bond that would sustain them until Caroline’s death of lung cancer, a short time after being diagnosed.

Released earlier this August, “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is getting a lot of buzz. While I was at BEA, a representative of Random House listed it as one of the publishing house’s top 5 picks for book clubs this coming year. I must say, for about 140 pages, I didn’t really see it, and that is a long time in a book that is less than 190 pages long.

It also took me about that long to realize what my problem was with it. “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” is billed as a memoir of Gail and Caroline’s friendship, but it was almost more of an extended essay about their friendship, without the strong narrative of many of my favorite memoirs. Not that Caldwell didn’t have a strong voice, she does, but her writing milieu is on the critical side. Caroline was the columnist and memoirist in their relationship. Knowing this I’m not surprised that “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” was so much more like an essay, but it did not grab me as quickly as a more narrative-driven version of this story might have.

Of course, I can imagine that in many was, the essay structure was easier to write than the narrative would have been. There is so much love and pain, friendship and grief in this story, that for Gail to have gone deep into the story of her relationship with Caroline might have been deeply painful. Unfortunately, the pain is much of what makes this story so compelling. It was during Caroline’s sickness and after her death, the last 40 or so pages, that “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” really came into its own. Suddenly the pages seemed to be almost turning themselves, and my heart was fully immersed in this story.

Although I’m sure it would have been infinitely more difficult to write, I wish that Caldwell had been able to infuse more of the emotion from the end of “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” into the beginning of the book. However, even though I more appreciated the book for what it was than truly loved it, I think it is a must-read for any woman who has lost a close friend.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received at BEA.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.