Book review: ‘The Last Camellia’ by Sarah Jio

The Last CamelliaIn 2000, American Addison Sinclair has packed up to live the dream of many an anglophile: she and her writer husband, Rex, are freshly arrived at a newly-purchased family estate in the English countryside. Livingston Manor’s past unfurls through the stoic and elderly housekeeper, Miss Dilloway, and the many botany books Addison discovers in the home.

Once she learns of Flora, an amateur botanist and fellow American once contracted to care for Lord Livingston’s four children as a nanny . . . and something more sinister. What became of her? As Addison learns more about the Livingstons’ camellia orchard and the ill-fated woman who once loved them, decades-old murder mysteries combine with the ghostly specter of Addison’s past to unearth a hotbed of secrets.

Sarah Jio is quickly becoming a star in the world of historical fiction. With The Last Camellia, her fourth novel, the dual narratives of two Americans marooned at Livingston Manor in England intersect in consistent — if somewhat predictable — ways.

So. The good. It’s impossible to traverse Livingston Manor without pausing to smell the roses, so to speak. The atmosphere Jio creates is intoxicating: a grand British estate; a severe but kindhearted housekeeper; mysterious children kept under lock and key; a glorious, hidden conservatory in the center of the mansion. Though all the camellia talk became tiring, especially when discussing the elusive Middlebury Pink, I appreciated the warmth and grandeur conveyed in this vivid story. I never forgot where I was — and the manor could easily have been something out of “Downton Abbey.”

Maybe that’s why I was initially drawn into the story? The talk of servants and lords, the distinctly British feel. The air of mystery is inescapable, having me question Addison’s present and Flora’s past in one fell swoop.

But then I figured everything out.

Look, putting the pieces together doesn’t always preclude me from enjoying a story. As a reader, I’m not always astute; sometimes I read for the sheer pleasure of it, refusing to slide the various clues into place. I’m the same way with movies. Though the answers seem obvious, I don’t play along. I just keep turning the pages, waiting to be surprised the way an author likely intended.

Other times, though? Well, other times I just can’t help but figure things out. Little clues feel learn toward sledgehammers instead of  subtleties. For as much as I enjoy Jio’s stories, I can’t shake the feeling that they’re a little too much “tell” and not enough “show” for me.

In the case of The Last Camellia, I was far more invested in Flora than Addison; an air of mystery lingered longer with our mysterious nanny-turned-flower-stalker than it did for our modern character. I never really got a sense of Addison — and her back story felt hokey, honestly. The transitions were clunky. We shuffle from 2000 to 1940 and then to “fifteen years earlier,” when a teenage Addison was taken in by a drunken aunt. The circumstances surrounding Addison’s childhood and formative years, meeting Rex, getting married — all left out. I never got a sense of Rex and the Sinclair family, either; they were just kind of . . . there. We know Rex is at Livingston Manor to write a novel and is, perhaps, drawing inspiration from his wife’s discoveries about previous tenants, but he feels a bit like a prop. The story isn’t about him, I know, but it was hard to ignore someone tossed into the action with no real part to play.

The Livingston family, on the other hand, felt much better realized. Eldest daughter Katherine was realistically drawn and sympathetic. Her interactions with Flora could be frustrating, but one can’t help but feel for a girl who has lost her mother. Flora’s yearning for her family was palpable, while the developing “romance” with a character connected to the Livingstons in an unexpected way was never fully developed. Because I never dug in deep with Flora and her beau, I couldn’t fully appreciate the dramatic conclusion. And the mystery that failed to really be a mystery just left me indifferent.

Despite my issues, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy this story — because I really did. I read the whole thing in a few days, tearing through it once I’d reached the halfway point. Jio has a talent for wrapping readers up in her stories and a gift for the dual narrative. The shifts between past and present weren’t always seamless, but it’s a quick read with enough historical intrigue to keep readers happy. If you’ve enjoyed Jio’s previous novels or are simply looking for a fun story with a modern and vintage vibe, The Last Camellia may be just the ticket.

3.5 out of 5!

Pub: May 28, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Bungalow’ by Sarah Jio

When her best friend announces she’s leaving to volunteer as a nurse in the heart of World War II, Anne Calloway doesn’t hesitate to join her. No matter that Anne is young and nearing her own wedding to a caring if bland sort of man. Seattle will always be home, Anne knows, but the opportunity to join Kitty in Bora-Bora is too exciting to forgo. Plus, everyone is joining up to serve our country — and shouldn’t she try to help the boys out there on the frontlines?

Postponing her nuptials, Anne journeys to Bora-Bora and begins the tiring, emotionally exhaustive work of caring for the men injured in the Pacific Rim. Always the rebellious one, Kitty wastes no time cavorting with the female-starved soldiers on the island. And Anne meets Westry Green, a charismatic and sensitive military man who shows her a seaside bungalow on a secluded strip of beach. With time, Anne’s connection to Westry only deepens — as does the mystery of who has committed a shocking murder nearby. And how Anne is to live with all that transpires.

Sarah Jio’s The Bungalow is a captivating, exciting read set in a tumultuous time in history. As a narrator, Anne is looking back on the events of 1942 through the patina of time. Now an elderly woman, Anne receives a letter from the past that reawakens many dormant thoughts about that sweltering year. At the encouragement of her granddaughter, Anne tells the story of Westry and Bora-Bora — and it’s startling how much of that time still haunts her. As more details are divulged, the past and present collide in some unexpected ways.

So here’s the thing: The Bungalow didn’t hold too many surprises for me. The plot hinges on some rather unbelievable coincidences and very heavy foreshadowing, and I didn’t feel an ounce of the shock I think I was supposed to experience. This typically irks me as a reader — all the obviousness — but you know what? I really liked his book. I read half of it sitting in a cafe, oblivious to all the noise and coffee-mug-clinking around me, then stayed up late to polish it off that same night.

Isn’t it funny how that happens?

As in her first book, The Violets of March, Jio masterfully transports us to a vulnerable point in American history. I was absolutely transfixed by Anne’s story, wondering endlessly how she was going to weigh her passionate love for Westry against the sturdy, dependable affection of Gerard (ack, even his name is so stuffy). Maybe because I was once in love with a Marine (or perhaps because I’m a sucker for first love in general), I definitely gobbled up the lovers’ saga.

Books set during World War II have such a beautiful, nostalgic feel to them, don’t they? Which is so funny, considering it was a war and all. I know my own grandparents wouldn’t necessarily reflect upon that specific time with longing, but I find myself fascinated with that era here in the twenty-first century. Despite the hardships and turmoil, life seemed simpler then. I envied Anne and Westry and the purity of their love — even if their journey was a difficult one.

Historical fiction fans and those with a penchant for romance — me! — will find The Bungalow charming and memorable. I also appreciated that by the end, loose ends were tied together; I’m getting tired of all these open-ended conclusions. I like answers, people. I don’t need to be smacked over the head with the obvious, mind you, but I don’t always enjoy being left to my own devices.

The Bungalow will release in paperback on Dec. 27. Check out the lovely book trailer, too.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452297672 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Violets of March’ by Sarah Jio

Bainbridge Island has a way of calling people home. It’s just that way for Emily Wilson, a recent divorcee timidly moving forward when she gets a wedding invitation — from her ex-husband. With the support of her best friend, Annabelle, Emily journeys from New York to Washington to see her aunt Bee, a sassy woman in her eighties who happily welcomes her niece to the beach house they once shared.

But life on Bainbridge Island isn’t exactly how Emily remembers. On one of her first nights home, she discovers a red velvet journal — and inside, the enthralling, romantic and heartbreaking story of a woman named Esther. Intrigued, Emily questions Aunt Bee and other residents about her — but never gets a straight answer. And no one admits they know Esther or what became of her . . . though Emily has a sense that it’s up to her to discover the truth.

Sarah Jio’s The Violets of March combines contemporary fiction, historical fiction and romance into one alluring read. Emily is a strong-willed character who loves her family fiercely, but not even Aunt Bee’s cagey responses can keep Emily from wanting to know the truth. It seems like fate that the diary has landed in her lap — and she’s not about to ignore it. Fresh from New York and her heartache there, the journal’s sad tale provides a respite and distraction from her real life.

Though occasionally mired by unrealistic dialogue, Jio’s novel kept me reading quickly. As a heroine, Emily is likable and authentically flawed. She knows she’s not the teen girl who once visited the island and makes no bones about it — not even when she runs into Greg, her summer crush and first love. I liked watching her interact with the men of Bainbridge, especially Jack — and the chemistry between them was palpable. As a male lead, Jack was pretty great: kind; family-oriented; intelligent; handsome. I didn’t fall for him quite the way Em did — quickly, and with few reservations — but I didn’t feel that their story was rushed.

The real crux of the novel, though, is the mystery: who is Esther? What did she mean to the people who loved her — and what is her connection to Emily? I pieced together parts of the story before Emily did, but there were a few surprises left for me by the end! And I was satisfied with how Jio explained the saga and wrapped up loose ends, and didn’t feel like the story was wound up too neatly. Also, we got plenty of back story — and explanation after all was revealed. Once the “mystery” is solved, many books end too quickly — and The Violets of March didn’t suffer that fate. I’m glad.

An intriguing family drama that was a truly pleasant read. Grab your copy April 26.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review