Tag Archives: divorce

The Last Thing on My Mind

The Silent Wife: A Novel by A. S. A. Harrison (Penguin, $16.00, 326 pages)

The Silent Wife (nook book)

Wow. This is likely to be the reaction of most readers after completing the novel, The Silent Wife, by the late author A. S. A. Harrison. The taut, prickly, engaging story centers on counselor Jodi and building contractor Todd, involved in a common law marriage for over twenty years. Jodi is finally content, living in a beautiful apartment overlooking Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Then she learns that Todd is about to leave her to marry his best friend’s daughter.

The ever-calm Jodi finds that her life is quickly unraveling, especially after Todd’s attorney serves her with an eviction notice. Eventually she realizes that she must do something, and elects to pursue a course of action that may leave some blood on her hands.

The fault with the telling is that some readers will — as this one did — figure out the logical conclusion before the final pages. Still, this is a very cleverly written story that would shine on the silver screen. (Hollywood loves this stuff.) Coming soon to a theater near you?

Harrison was a major new talent. Had she lived, she no doubt would have produced a series of highly successful novels.

Wow.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “I gobbled it down in one sitting.” Anne Lamott

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Up Around the Bend

The Authors: Four Women and One Man

A Woman of Interest by Cindy Zimmerman (WIS Global, $24.95, 230 pages)

Sometimes a memoir can be so personal that the reader senses the author’s self-absorption on every page. A book that is not much more than a monologue begs the question, who is the intended reader?

Ken Rotcop, a Hollywood screenwriter pitchman, opens the book with his advice to Cindy Zimmerman to write her own story rather than use him as a biographer. Cindy’s ex-husband was murdered on the day their contentious divorce was finalized. She was, of course, considered a person of interest in the Phoenix, Arizona police investigation of Paul Zimmerman’s murder. Ken’s advice to Cindy is to write her side of the story in longhand, 20 pages at a time and send them along to him for compilation.

While there is a sensational aspect to Cindy’s story, she is not alone. A messy divorce from a controlling, competitive man who doesn’t like to work for others plays out pretty much the way hers does. Countless others will relate to her, but why re-live pain and suffering? There’s no payoff.

Fear in the Sunlight: A New Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey and Alfred Hitchcock (Bourbon Street Books, $14.99, 412 pages)

Clearly, Nicola Upson has strong ties to the theater and the mystery genre. Ms. Upson is a regular contributor to BBC radio, has reviewed crime novels and has years of theater experience as well. Her writing style combines traditional theater and motion picture cinematic techniques to draw the reader into a period with ties to the present day.

Fear in the Sunlight is one of Ms. Upson’s mystery series featuring real-life 1930s writer Josephine Tey. The story centers on a seemingly-idyllic weekend in Portmeirion, Wales. The location is a real place; however, the resort is the re-creation of a Mediterranean seaside resort created by a famous architect. Ms. Upson uses Alfred Hitchcock’s proclivity for playing tricks on his minions as the catalyst for several gruesome murders that take place during his resort party weekend.

Desire is the undercurrent – Josephine’s for Marta, a woman already in a relationship with a model/actress; a villager’s ex-husband for his ex-wife; Archie’s, a police chief inspector, for Josephine. Each of these characters has made choices based on their inability to step up and declare true feelings. Mr. Hitchcock’s desire for control and the admiration of his wife adds to the messiness. And to further muddy the plot, a seemingly-pivotal character, artist Bridget, connects Archie to his past.

Sadly, the layout of the book is confusing with gestures and observations inserted within paragraphs of dialogue. This has the unsettling effect of forcing the reader to reread to determine just who is doing the talking. There’s too much effort required for this reviewer to relax and enjoy the mystery.

A Medal for Murder: A Kate Shackleton Mystery by Frances Brody (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 424 pages)

The setting of A Medal for Murder is England in the 1920s, an idyllic time for crime solving. The right mix of mobility (motor cars) and technology (telephone and telegraph) keeps the story moving along at a pleasant place. Our detective, Kate Shackleton, is a well-bred lady who is a sleuth, complete with an ex-policeman assistant named Jim Sykes.

Women in the 1920s were beginning to emerge from their past roles as homebodies. To be sure some women had already moved in that direction, actresses in particular. Author Brody makes good use of the contrasts between ladies, gentlemen and other types. Mrs. Shackleton, who narrates this tale, drives her motor car while Sykes holds on for dear life.

A pawnshop burglary leads to a sleuthing job for Mrs. Shackleton. She meets a wide variety of people whose pawned items were stolen as she tracks them down for the pawnshop owner. The story line is enhanced by quips, fashion and social commentary and generally charming banter among the characters. Mystery fans not familiar with Ms. Brody’s mystery series are encouraged to catch up post haste!

Highly recommended.

A Medal for Murder (nook book)

Miss Dimple Suspects, A Mystery by Mignon F. Ballard (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 260 pages)

The World War II era and the sacrifices made by Americans form the backdrop of this tale. Miss Dimple, a small town school teacher of indeterminate age, appears in this, the third book in a series by prolific mystery writer Mignon Ballard. Author Ballard keeps it real by setting her story in rural Georgia where she grew up during the war. The local colloquialisms (like nattering) and culinary oddities (like piccalilli) remind the reader that we’re not in the big city.

Miss Dimple is a liberal character in an otherwise deeply-engrained closed community of southerners. The impact of the war is felt in the limitations of gasoline and sugar rationing when a young student of Miss Dimple’s goes missing. Xenophobia is woven throughout the story as are offensive attitudes held by the townspeople.

The story is quite engaging and holds the reader’s attention. What are confusing are the odd naming conventions used by author Ballard. (Miss Dimple is variously referred to as Dimple K, Miss Dimple and Dimple.)

Fans of small town drama and mystery will enjoy this cautionary tale.

Recommended.

Grandad, There’s a Head on the Beach: A Jimm Juree Mystery by Colin Cotterill (Minotaur Books, $15.99, 324 pages)

A failing resort named Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant in Maprao, Thailand might as well be the main character in this highly-unusual mystery. The plot is based on a BBC article regarding the treatment of Burmese immigrants in Thailand. The narrator, Jimm Juree, is an investigative journalist whose loyalty to family and the loss of her newspaper job brings her to the resort owned by her mother.

Family, nationalism, corruption and man’s inhumanity to man propel Jimm into countless situations that a wiser woman in her mid-thirties would avoid at all cost. The story unfolds slowly and once the general theme is established, the reader is tossed to and fro like the flotsam on the beach where the resort perches precariously at the whim of violent storms.

Author Cotterill dances up to ugly visions like beheaded Burmese workers, oceanic erosion and police corruption while holding the reader hostage. For contrast and comic relief, he pulls back with outrageous quips and ridiculously funny double entendres. The scene shifts are well-executed and provide the reader with a sense of drama. Jimm Juree is both smart and reckless as she orchestrates the rescue of helpless Burmese workers.

The behind-the-scenes look at Thailand and its political climate was shocking to this reviewer. My experiences in Bangkok, Thailand were nothing like the ones brought out of the shadow in this mystery.

Recommended.

Grandad, there's a head

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 352 pages)

“I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”   Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Paula McLain presents a convincing rendition of the unique but enduring relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, the conscientious and serene Hadley Richardson, in her first novel The Paris Wife.

After a brief and long distance relationship, the confident young twenty-year-old Ernest proposes to Hadley, a conservative spinster in her late twenties.   On the quest for the ideal inspirational setting in which to write, McLain’s story takes us to the art scene in Paris in the 1920s as the aspiring artists – on the brink of greatness – share their hopes and dreams in local cafes.   McLain’s story is so detailed and believable that you can enjoy teaming up with individuals as they meet their fellow artists and enjoy team with individuals such as Gertrude Stein.   Her character Hadley happens to recall a conversation that she and Ernest had while sharing drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald as he announced his hopes for the success of his then-recently written novel The Great Gatsby.

The reader will understand why Ernest was so inspired during the couple’s trips to Europe, especially while watching the bullfights in Pamplona.   The reader will also sympathize with Hadley, the ever-loyal wife who strives to maintain the attention of her husband, standing by his side through circumstances that even the strongest of us would run from.   The depth of the conversations and the personalities of the characters come alive in McLain’s dialogues and Hadley’s interpretations of the relationships that develop during this phase of Ernest’s life (including his union with his second wife).

McLain does a remarkable job of defining all her characters and in describing the landscapes and cultures of the couple’s travels.   You will become so entranced with her story you will no doubt forget that you’re not actually reading Hadley’s autobiography.

The story left me with a desire to rediscover Hemmingway by rereading A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.   I know that I look forward to my next trip to Paris where, while sitting at some of the same cafes once visited by the Hemmingways, I will try to imagine what it was like for this young couple in the local art scene during the Roaring Twenties.   I will also contemplate what Ernest Hemmingway’s life may have been like if he had remained with his first love, Hadley.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Paris Wife was released in a trade paperback version on November 27, 2012.

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A Coming Attraction

A Working Theory of Love: A Novel by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press, $25.95, 336 pages)

This debut novel by Scott Hutchins – a University of Michigan graduate, a former Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program and a current Instructor at Stanford University – will be released on October 2, 2012.   The protagonist, Neill Bassett, lives in a San Francisco apartment building “on the south hill overlooking Dolores Park.”   He commutes to work in Menlo Park, where he works at a small but innovative Silicon Valley company.   Here is a synopsis of A Working Theory of Love:

Neil Bassett is now just going through the motions, again joining the San Francisco singles scene after the implosion of his very short-lived starter marriage to ex-wife Erin.   He’s begun to live a life of routine, living with his cat in the apartment that he and Erin once shared.   On one otherwise ordinary day he discovers that his upstairs neighbor Fred has broken a hip.   Neil summons an ambulance, and when the paramedics arrive Fred says to Neil, “I’m sorry, Neill.   I’m sorry.   I’m so sorry.”   This sets Neil to wondering about life itself — was Fred apologizing for “his basic existence in this world, the inconvenience of his living and breathing?”

Neil’s physician father committed suicide ten years earlier, leaving behind personal diaries of thousands of pages.   The artificial intelligence company Neil works for, Amiante Systems, is using the diaries to create a human-like computer which uses the words of Neil’s late dad to communicate.   To Neil’s surprise, the experiment seems to be working as the computer not only gains an apparent conscious awareness it even begins asking Neill difficult questions about his childhood.

While in a state of shock over the events at Amiante, Neil meets an intended one-night stand named Rachel.   He falls for her and wonders what his life would be like in her company; and, yet, he remains bogged down with his feelings for Erin.   To make matters worse, Erin continues to intersect with Neil at unlikely and unexpected times.   When Neil discovers a missing year in the diaries – a year that might unleash the secret to his parents’ seemingly troubled marriage and perhaps the reason for his father’s suicide – everything Neil thought he knew about his past comes into question.   Neil now becomes paralyzed with confusion and indecision. 

Scott Hutchins’s story deals with love, grief and reconciliation while teaching us about life’s lessons.   He shows us how we have the chance to be free once we let go of the idea that we’re trapped by our family histories – our sad or disappointing childhoods, our poor youthful decisions, and our unintended miscommunications with those we love and have loved.   A Working Theory of Love presents the reader with a unique, highly gifted new writing talent in the form of Scott Hutchins.

“A brainy, bright, laughter-through tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel…  This book’s got something for everyone!”   Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story and Absurdistan

“Scott Hutchins’s wonderful new novel is right on the border of what is possible…  The book is brilliantly observant about the way we live now, and its comic and haunting story will stay lodged in the reader’s memory.”   Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love

“It takes a genius, a supercomputer, a disembodied voice, and a man who’s stopped believing to create A Working Theory of Love, Scott Hutchins’s brilliantly inventive deubt novel…  This book is astonishing.”   Adam Johnson, author of The Orphan Master’s Son

Joseph Arellano

The synopsis of A Working Theory of Love was based on information provided by the publisher, and on an Advanced Uncorrected Proof.   The novel will be released in hardbound form in October, and will also be available as a Nook Book and Kindle Edition download.

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Comin’ Back to Me

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing, $24.99, 416 pages)

“…he’d spent the year before Brendan’s death sullen and sulky as a little boy…  he’d spent his nights drinking and staring at the Internet instead of trying to explain to Chloe how he felt.”

Great ghost stories – ones that seem both plausible and questionable – don’t come along every day.   One of the most recent great ones was Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.   Symmetry had us so enthralled that we posted three separate reviews of the haunting novel on this site.   Now Christopher Coake has presented a story with all the depth of Symmetry, interestingly set in the neighborhoods of Columbus that adjoin the Ohio State University campus.

Our protagonist, Mark Fife, entered a period of isolating and drinking too much, which spurred his wife Chloe – the true love of his life – to leave him at home one night, supervising their young son Brendan.   Mark orders his son to go upstairs while he drinks and watches an Ohio State basketball game on the TV downstairs.   At some point Mark hears a strange sound and gets up to find that Brendan has fallen down the staircase, and has died from a broken neck.   Thus begins the ruination of Mark’s existence.   Chloe, who blames him for their only child’s death, divorces him and sells the house where the family once happily lived.   Mark goes on to spend years living in a townhouse, drinking far too much and thinking about ending it all.

As the story opens, seven full years have gone by and Mark’s now happy with his life.   He’s met Allie, the upbeat woman he’s engaged to, and he’s got a great friend from college, Lewis, who helps him to remain firmly footed in reality.   And then…  The woman who purchased Mark and Chloe’s former home has a story to tell.   Chloe eventually sends Mark a letter explaining that this woman’s son has seen and heard Brendan’s ghost in the house.   Is this for real or is it simply a ruse for Chloe – who hated Mark when she filed for divorce but now professes to once again be in love with him – to break up Mark’s forthcoming marriage to Allie?

Mark has spent his adult life being powerless when it comes to Chloe, and now she’s asking him to go to their old house to see Brendan’s ghost.   Mark doesn’t believe in ghosts (“I’ve never believed anything like this.   Never.   This is hard.“), he never has, but then remembers that his serious and grounded friend Lewis once saw a ghost – and Lewis now tells him that seeing the ghost was one of the most authentic experiences in his life.

Will Mark run back to Chloe and in the process perhaps re-destroy his own life?   Or will he spurn her and maybe lose out on the chance to again communicate with his long-lost son?   What is real and important in life?   Mark Fife is about to find out…

“…he went over the same looping sentences.   If-thens, what-ifs.   He came to no answers.   Either Brendan was in the house or he wasn’t.   Either way, Mark himself was trapped.   Either way, he would hurt Allison or Chloe.”

Coake writes in an all-too-smooth style; one in which flawed humans are portrayed so realistically that the tale moves along as if it’s being projected onto a film screen.   And, like Niffenegger, there’s a calmness about the telling that draws you in – but with the understanding that you’ll receive hints when the story is about to dramatically explode.

You’ll have to devote the time to reading 400 plus pages to appreciate Coake’s offerings.   It’s a worthwhile price to pay for discovering a highly talented, powerfully skilled writer.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   You Came Back was released on June 12, 2012.  

“When I finished the last page of Christopher Coake’s amazing new novel, I set the book down with a real sense of wonder…  (This story) is less concerned with the supernatural than with the all-too-real specters that haunt us all – the ghosts of our former selves, the ghosts of the lives we might have lived had just a few things turned out differently…  What an incredible writer.”   Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You.

Here is a link to one of the reviews of Her Fearful Symmetry

https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/what-comes-after/

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Get Over It

From This Moment On: An Autobiography by Shania Twain (Atria Books, $27.99, 448 pages; Audioworks/Simon & Schuster Audio, $29.99, 7 CDs)

An autobiography from a 45-year-old?   Oh my, yes!   Shania Twain has done enough living in her 45 years to put most everyone else in her age group into the category of slacker.   Shania’s deep love of music and the comfort it has provided through a really hard life gives her the right to tell her story.   Although she has received the accolades only dreamed about by singer/songwriters the world over, it is doubtful many of them have experienced the level of childhood deprivation and anxiety that motivates her career.

The version reviewed here is an audio book that is unique because the introduction and epilogue are recorded in Shania’s own voice.   The text of the autobiography is read by Broadway actress and writer, Sherie Rene Scott.   Scott’s voice resonates with the simple, straightforward attitude conveyed by Shania’s words.   Most autobiographies are intended to provide the writer’s side of a story or an event of particular note.   In this case, the narrative serves to inform the public that becoming a world-wide success in the music industry is a daunting task with serious downsides.

Ms. Twain, who began her singing career very early in life as Eilleen Twain, did so at the prompting of her mother.   The family often did not have enough to eat or a secure roof over their heads.   The tale is straight out of a mournful country song.   Daddy and mommy are trapped in a cycle of poverty and spousal abuse, the children are forced to become self-indulgent at a very young age, and tragedy strikes just when Eileen thinks she has escaped the grip of her childhood.

There’s no need to dwell on the timeline or life events that serve as milestones.   The internet has taken care of the particulars for anyone who can use Google.   Rather, it is the one-on-one experience of hearing about Shania’s feelings of yearning and betrayal that are the payoff for a reader/listener.   In some way, the audio book seems the best way to experience her life.   True, there’s no checking back a few pages when a particular passage is noteworthy; however, enough of her wisdom comes across in the telling that the essence is clear and well experienced.

One curiosity of note is that the vocabulary and grammar in the book are well beyond the level of formal education that Shania received in her childhood.   She states that when she was out on her own, she spent time writing songs and playing music while her roommates attended college.   Perhaps Shania absorbed the tone of the more educated people around her.   There’s no doubt that she has a great capacity to learn and benefit from her diligent efforts.   That said, a thoughtful and sensitive editor no doubt assisted in making this a compelling read (or listen).

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A copy of the audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   From This Moment On is also available as an Audible Audio, Kindle Edition, and Nook Book download.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of From This Moment On: A Memoir by Shania Twain.

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Nowhere Man

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Three Rivers Press, $15.99, 352 pages)

Ethically, it was never a problem for me…

The noted writer-reviewer John Updike once said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   If this memoir had been written by an average Joe, it would likely draw comparisons to James Frey’s fake memoir (now labeled fiction), A Million Little Pieces.   Like that work, this account is filled with descriptions of inhaling massive quantities of illegal substances, of dangerous behavior and of hurting oneself and others no matter the consequences.   But this memoir is written by a multi-millionaire musician, one who treats near-priceless Ferrari automobiles like disposable coffee cups, one who walks on 30-story hotel ledges, and one who repeatedly and tragically hurt others:  “I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving…  I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions…”

Suffice it to say that the Eric Clapton found here is not a very nice or likeable person.   He’s a person, who until the end of this account in near present times, sees the world as existing to serve only his own pleasures; so this is at times both an immoral and an amoral telling of the events in his life.   If this sounds too harsh, here are Clapton’s own words:  “I was off having one-night stands and behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way, so my moral health was in appaling condition and only likely to get worse…  I was already trying to sabotage my relationship with Pattie, as if now that I had her, I didn’t want her anymore.”   (emphasis added)

The person who knows little about Clapton prior to picking up this book – something that is not recommended – likely is aware that Clapton took Pattie Boyd Harrison away from George, one of Clapton’s very best friends.   That says volumes about his behavior, behavior which is only ampiflied in the 328 pages of this autobiography.   One might hope that this version of events, written by a spirited musician, would contain some life in it, but it’s flat and omits many of the details that were provided in Pattie Boyd’s earlier-penned memoir, Wonderful Tonight.

We must presume that Clapton wrote this memoir on his own as there’s no attribution to another writer (“Eric Clapton with…”) nor an “as told to” credit.   Frankly it reads as if it were dictated to a stenographer or into a recording device.

There’s little for the rock music lover to discover here, as Clapton’s accounts of playing with certain bands/musicians are sparse, and he never does describe how he came to learn his own brand of playing.   A lot of time – too much, it seems – is devoted to explaining his love of the blues, even though (despite his insistence here) most of his career has centered on playing rock rather than traditional blues music.   And there are many odd and questionable statements throughout the book…  For example, when Cream plays one of its first dates opening for The Who.   Clapton wonders then whether Cream could possibly succeed with just three musicians in the band, even though they saw that The Who (a musical trio – Roger Daltrey generally being just a vocalist) had already proven the success of this musical business model.   Odd.

Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.

Ah, yes, Clapton (in a style reminiscent of John Lennon) blames his bad choices in life on the fact that a parent abandoned him “all those years ago.”   This seems like an excuse that was used for far too many decades.   In his mind, because his mother abandoned him, he was free to seek revenge by abandoning everyone who came into his life; except, of course, that he’s now happy with a third wife and four daughters.   Good for him.

I remember when I was considering reading Boyd’s memoir Wonderful Tonight, and I came across an online comment to the effect that if one read her book one might well cease to be a fan of the musician Eric Clapton.   I feel the same way here – it will be much harder to listen to Disraeli Gears or 24 Nights or Derek and the Dominoes or Journeyman after this.   At one point, Eric Clapton seemed like Forever Man.   In this autobiography, he comes across more like Nowhere Man.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was lent a copy of this book.

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Helplessly Hoping

The Best of Me: A Novel by Nicholas Sparks (Grand Central Publishing; $25.99; 304 pages).

The Violets of March: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume; $15.00; 304 pages)

“He shouldn’t have come back home.   He didn’t belong here, he’d never belong here.”

I had never read a story by Sacramento native Nicholas Sparks, so I had high hopes for The Best of Me, his latest novel that I downloaded as a Nook Book on my Nook Color e-reader.   It starts off very promisingly, a tale of forbidden romance between the well-bred Amanda Collier and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks, Dawson Cole.   Amanda and Dawson grew up in the town of Oriental, North Carolina and societal pressures kept them apart.   Now it’s decades later and both of them are drawn back to Oriental to attend the funeral of Tuck, a man who was a father-figure of sorts for both of them.

Amanda has married a relatively-successful dentist and she’s a mother, but she’s never lost the feelings she had for Dawson.   Dawson, who has pined for Amanda his entire life, has remained single, working on oil rigs and living in a double-wide trailer outside of New Orleans.   The question raised by this story is, “Will Amanda and Dawson finally get together, even if it is late in the day in their lives (Dawson is 42); if so, what will it cost them to change their lives competely?”

Sparks writes in a calm, polite and seemingly timeless fashion, at least through the first four-fifths of the book.   But it’s when the reader gets to that last fifth – in sight of the finish line – that the story falls apart like a child’s sand castle on a beach hit by a high tide.   The ending is nothing less than trite, predictable and tacky; some serious readers are going to find it so bad that they may feel personally insulted.

The Best of Me starts off like a major motion picture but ends like a poor-quality “made for TV” film broadcast at 2:00 in the afternoon on a weekday.   If you love hokey corn packaged as romance literature, you may like this one.   For me, one Nicholas Sparks book is far more than enough.

Fortunately, The Violets of March, the debut novel from Sarah Jio is a fine antidote to having one’s hopes dashed by reading something as predictable as The Best of Me.   Jio has written a story about a young woman who has it all, a fine marriage and a successful writer’s life in Manhattan, when it all falls apart.   Emily Wilson’s husband suddenly leaves her for a younger model, and so she departs for some much needed rest and recuperation at her aunt’s home on Brainbridge Island in Washington State (a ferry ride from Seattle).   Once there, she finds a diary that was written by her lost maternal grandmother Esther, a woman who died under mysterious circumstances at a time when the love of her life had broken her heart.   (Esther, like Amanda Colllier, was married to a man that she did not actually love – a man who served as a substitute for her true love.)

All of her life Emily has been told that she looks exactly like her grandmother Esther, and she comes to find that there are some similarities in their lives.   Thus, Emily becomes determined to find out exactly what happened to this woman who she never met.   This is not an easy task, as no one in her mother’s family is willing to talk about what happened in the early 1940s.   Readers raised in families that pride themselves on keeping their secrets deeply buried will identify with this unique story.

Kudos to Jio for fashioning a satisfying ending in which everything comes together, made all the more satisfying due to its lack of predictability.   Jio does not rush events nor does she paste on a false-feeling ending to “…an unsolved family mystery and an unfinished love affair.”

The motto of Emily Wilson’s grandmother Esther was, “True love lives on.”   So does good writing and with The Violets of March, Sarah Jio shows that she’s a writer to watch.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy of The Violets of March was provided by the publisher.   The reviewer paid, unfortunately, for the Nook Book edition of The Best of Me.   (Spark’s novel is sometimes entertaining while one’s reading it, but the elements of the story simply don’t add up or ring true.   In retrospect, there are simply too many improbable and implausible events which precede the groaningly awful ending.)  

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Expecting to Fly

My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir by Mark Whitaker (Simon & Schuster; $25.99; 368 pages)

“Perhaps there was something buried in this memor that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried somewhere…”

The best memoirs take off and soar as they take us on a journey through the writer’s life.   This memoir by CNN Chief Mark Whitaker seemed to taxi on the runway from its beginning on page 1 until its conclusion 367 pages later.   This reader never felt the presence of Whitaker’s mind or personality in an account that was overly flat and dry:  “My mother taught and my father began writing his dissertation and I played with the other faculty  brats in the spacious yard outside while my brother grew into a toddler.”   The language, in fact, was so dry that I began to wish that this had been prepared as an “As told to…” or “With…” version with some energy to it.

It’s difficult to see what major statement about life was meant to be imparted by this work.   Whitaker’s professor father divorced Whitaker’s mother when Mark was young; thus, he seems to view himself as a unique member of a group that “…had grown up without our fathers around and with very little money in the house.”   That’s actually quite a large group in our society.   Moreover, Whitaker reminds us again and again that he wound up at Harvard.

There’s simply far too much here about Whitaker’s time at Harvard, and the lifelong connections he made there.   It seems that wherever Whitaker goes in the world, he meets people – primarily women – of whom he states, “She had also gone to Harvard.”   It becomes a very clubby account, and it’s hard to see why this would be of interest to the general reader.

“Angry men don’t make great husbands.”

In an attempt to create a story of interest, Whitaker casts aspersions on his father who is portrayed as either “a cruel bully or a selfish baby.”   Cleophaus Sylvester “Syl” Whitaker is also portrayed as a major alcoholic although it’s noted that he only missed teaching three classes in a long and distinguished academic career.   (He once entered a rehabilitation center for treatment.)   Syl held numerous impressive teaching and administrative posts at Swarthmore, Rutgers, UCLA (where he was a key assistant to Chancellor Charles E. Young), Princeton, CUNY and the University of Southern California (from which he retired, at age 60, as professor emeritus of political science and former USC College Dean of Social Sciences).   He was never found asleep in a gutter or under a bridge, so it is hard to see how this squares with Whitaker’s notion that his father’s life was an “arc of blazing early success fading into self-destruction and financial hardship.”

Perhaps there was something buried in this memoir that I kept missing, something that I kept searching for in vain.   It may be buried in a sentence such as this one, which I found to be a bit too clouded to understand:  “It was as if the longer I was separated from my father, the more I lost touch with the outgoing child who had modeled himself after him.”

Joseph Arellano

An advance review copy was received from the publisher.   My Long Trip Home will be released on October 18, 2011.

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