Book review: ‘A Vacation On The Island of Ex-Boyfriends’ by Stacy Bierlein

Ever fantasize about seeing a lover again? In these scenarios you’re likely dressed to kill, looking as gorgeous and slim as you ever have; your hair is perfectly arranged, smile dazzling. The ex-boyfriend catches you mid-laugh as you hang on the arm of your handsome new guy (a doctor or pilot or scientist, natch), who delights the crowd with his fourth hilarious story of the evening. An your old guy? He’s just another worn-out shoe. You remember loving it once, but in a distant way. And anyway, you’ve found a better replacement.

Now imagine seeing an ex-boyfriend again . . . with all your former lovers. Not in a singular, crystallized moment — and not when you’re looking your best. When you’re on a desert island, left wondering how you could have ended up stranded with every punk you ever dated. The men are lined up before you: the tall ones; the short ones; the ones who couldn’t keep a job. The female friend with whom you were planning to vacation is on the island, too, with her former flames vying for her attention. But yours? Well, they’re as lackluster as ever. Only the one you never really had — the one you desperately wanted, but couldn’t make work — seems interested. And you’re not sure you want to go down that road.

Thus begins Stacy Bierlein’s A Vacation On The Island of Ex-Boyfriends, a collection of unrelated short stories detailing many women’s struggles to find, keep, steal or forget love. There’s romantic love, familial love, the love of a mother for her child. The love between lovers; the love between a daughter and her father. It’s all here in varying shades, catapulted between different cities and countries. Between a bevy of characters who are all searching, desperately searching, for something.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this book. It had a promising start, with the titular story probably being my favorite in the set — I mean, who doesn’t love the idea of an island filled with ex-boyfriends? (Not that that would be so great in real life — but, you know.) Some stories are first-person accounts — and I tended to like those best. Having a theatre background meant I read those like monologues, picturing a single woman speaking against a dark backdrop. With a spotlight. And that worked for me.

On the whole, though, I didn’t feel particularly compelled to keep reading. Some stories were shorter than others, and my attention ping-ponged as I continued. One reviewer notes the tidy lack of a beginning, middle and end to each individual work, and I agree. Overall, I finished feeling rather unsatisfied — like something was missing. I wanted a little closure, I guess. And that didn’t happen.

Though the lighthearted cover only begins to hint at romantic discord, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends is definitely more in the literary fiction camp. Bierlein’s writing is fluid and her descriptions evocative, but the short story format didn’t really work for me. I think I would enjoy reading a full-length book by her — and possibly continue on with some of the characters she introduces, especially the dot artist in Chicago. But as a whole, I wasn’t emotionally involved. It felt incomplete.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0615529771 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Twitter
Review copy provided by LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘You Know When The Men Are Gone’ by Siobhan Fallon

In this collection of short stories, Siobhan Fallon — herself a military wife — provides poignant vignettes of life as both a service member on the frontlines of the war in Iraq and the families waiting for their safe return.

At Fort Hood, Texas, women of different ages and backgrounds are sewn together with a common thread: they are all married to Army men either presently deployed or just home from Iraq. By turns life-affirming, poignant and heartbreaking, You Know When The Men Are Gone is a series of stories that had me tentatively turning each page, a little afraid of what I would find written there.

Military life isn’t foreign to me. Both my grandfathers served in Korea and Vietnam, and my ex-boyfriend was deployed to Iraq early on in the war. Many of the details here felt familiar to me. My grandmother has often shared letters between her father — my great-grandfather — and his wife back home in Pennsylvania. He was stationed in the Pacific during World War II and often wrote long, eloquent letters to the family eagerly waiting for news of his safety. When you went off to war, you went off to war. My grandmother was just a child — a girl unsure of where her father was, or why.

Technology has changed enough to allow more frequent communication from abroad. Fallon’s characters communicate with their loved ones through email and Skype, Facebook and traditional mail, but the women at home are often left to interpret the veiled communication from their husbands half a world away. When one waits too long for word from Iraq, she logs into his email account to see if he’s safe. Searching for signs that he’s logged on recently, the wife discovers provocative emails between he and a female service member. Without any way of verifying if he’s actually having an affair, she’s left to stew in her own juices.

Here’s the thing about You Know When The Men Are Gone: it doesn’t sugar-coat anything. These stories are not cheery. Military wives’ lives can be fraught with uncertainty, waiting, disappointment, waiting, anxiety, waiting and . . . waiting. Fallon neither raises these women onto pedestals or belittles their experiences; she does an admirable job of showing both the positives and negatives of loving a man who is serving his country. Through her vignettes, constantly shifting narrators and settings, Fallon also demonstrates what a microcosm a military base can be. Fort Hood has everything a military family could need, she writes; why go anywhere else?

But there’s a world out there. A big world. And some of the women are tired of waiting — and all too eager to get away.

If you’re not one to gravitate to short stories, I would still give You Know When The Men Are Gone a chance. These characters are in impossible positions in unforgiving circumstances, and not every story is easy to read. I didn’t finish the book with a bubble of happiness in my chest, that’s for sure, but I’m still glad I spent time getting to know Fallon’s characters.

If nothing else, it’s a welcome reminder to thank our veterans and appreciate the sacrifices Americans make every day for our country — and not just the enlisted ones.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0399157204 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Did Jane Austen make her do it? Chatting with editor Laurel Ann Nattress

It’s finally time! After a month of time spent in the wild, Jane Austen Made Me Do It — and talented editor Laurel Ann Nattress — are stopping by write meg! today. I’m pleased to welcome Laurel Ann and thank her for stopping by — and answering some of my most pressing questions.

Let’s take it away . . .


Hi Megan, thanks again for hosting me at Write Meg during my Grand Tour of the blogosphere in celebration of the release of my new Austen-inspired anthology, Jane Austen Made Me Do It.

Meg: Laurel Ann, we “met” years ago and bonded through our mutual love of Jane Austen. Your blog Austenprose has been a big inspiration to me, and I love your focus on Austen’s writing – and the many contemporary spin-offs her books have stimulated. When you’re reading an Austen-inspired work, what elevates it from just a decent read to an amazing one? What qualities make a book unforgettable?

“I have read a few Austenesque books in my day. Am I jaded? Hope not. I usually know by the end of the third chapter if it has wings: a fresh concept skillfully rendered, Austen allusions or her characters reverently portrayed and humor in the form of wit and irony, please. I know. It’s a tall order. I’m fastidious.”

I wrote that on my blog in 2010. I have not changed my mind. Even though my reading taste has evolved since the early years of the Austenesque boom (after the 1995 A&E/BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice) my standards have remained the same.

I read my first Jane Austen-inspired sequel in 1999. It was Marjorie Fasman’s The Diary of Henry Fitzwilliam Darcy. I loved it. It motivated me to read just about everything in print up to that point and to continue reading anything new published in the genre to date. I have not read everything, mind you, but I do try to visit them all.

So what elevates an Austenesque book from decent to unforgettable? For most readers it is what books they have already read to compare against the next one, and personal taste. This might sound like a cop-out, but we are what we have read. Some people love the highly romantic aspects of the genre; others the historical details. I enjoy an Austenesque book for the same reasons that I admire Austen’s writing — her acerbic humor and astute characterizations. If an author uses those qualities successfully, it really grabs my attention. Overall, a great novel needs to take me on an emotional journey, teach me about human relationships and myself. Since these qualities are subjective, what I like, might not please someone else.

“Only a novel… in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” – Northanger Abbey

Meg: Your new anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It debuted in October and features short stories from many fabulous authors, including Laurie Viera Rigler and Adriana Trigiani. It’s so wonderful to see book lovers making the leap from blogger to author/editor. What was the most rewarding part of the editing process for you? And the most challenging?

Thanks Meg! I am indeed the poster girl for following your bliss! I had no idea that blogging would culminate into a book deal, but it did. That was never my original plan, but sometimes magic just happens. All of my planets and stars were aligned on one amazing day in January 2010 and my book was set into motion.

Working with the twenty-four authors was the most amazing part of the process. They were hand selected by me and my editor because we greatly admired their writing. When their stories started arriving months later, it was like Christmas in my email inbox for about two weeks. Seeing what they had created was so exciting. The variety of genres and inspirational basis was far beyond what I had anticipated. From Regency to contemporary, comedy to romance, mystery to paranormal, it is all there. Quite a selection of Austen confections.

One of the most challenging aspects of the editing process was the Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest. Since Jane Austen was so committed to her craft, I thought that it would honor her ideals by leaving a spot open in the anthology for a debut voice. The contest was open to previously unpublished authors and was held online last January. We expected about twenty stories and were blown over when eighty-eight arrived, including your wonderful story Megan, “Spinning White Hair Gold.” Readers narrowed down the list to the Top Ten finalists, and then my editor and I chose the Grand Prize winner. That was a very difficult decision. I greatly admired many of the stories and wanted to include them all, but only one could be selected. Ultimately, we unanimously agreed on “The Love Letter,” by Brenna Aubrey. It was a fantastic contribution and I hope that readers enjoy it also.  

Meg: If you could create an all-star Austen cast for a new production of Pride and Prejudice, who would you love to see in each role?

Wow, a fantasy Austen team for P&P, right? Okay, here goes:

Richard Armitage as Mr. Darcy; Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth Bennet; Emma Watson as Jane Bingley; Hugh Laurie as Mr. Bennet; Joanna Lumley as Mrs. Bennet; Emily Blunt as Caroline Blingley; Laurence Fox as Mr. Wickham; Harriet Walter as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Charlotte Rampling as Aunt Gardiner. One can dream, can’t one? 

Meg: For an Austen newcomer, which novel would you recommend reading first? Which has inspired you the most on a personal level?

Pride and Prejudice is a great choice for the first Jane Austen book read. It is her most famous and there are so many movie adaptations out there that a new reader is bound to have heard of it or seen one and be familiar with the story. P&P inspired me to love Austen and the unique world that she created. I have read all of her novels, her minor works and letters and I gravitate toward each for different reasons. Some people greatly admire her heroes and heroines: Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth and Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars. I am drawn to her secondary characters: Henry and Mary Crawford, Caroline Bingley, Mary Musgrove, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I enjoy how she develops the darker side of human nature. It challenges me and makes me think.

Meg: What do you hope readers will glean from Jane Austen Made Me Do It? What has its publication meant to you?

I hope that readers will feel uplifted, inspired and in awe that Jane Austen has left such an indelible mark on literature, and then want to read her novels. Jane Austen Made Me Do It is a tribute to her brilliance. She has been delighting readers and inspiring writers for two centuries. I hope that my anthology both honors her and entertains.

The publication of JAMMDI is personal triumph for me. As a single woman of a certain age, it has shown me that we all deserve a “season of second chances.” It’s never too late.

Thanks Meg, for your great questions. It is always a pleasure to visit Write Meg, and I have so enjoyed following your writing career. I am all anticipation of your first novel. I will be the first to wave its flag!

Cheers, Laurel Ann

Editor bio:
A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the author/editor of a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the PBS blog Remotely Connected and the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington. Visit Laurel Ann at her blogs and, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress

Ballantine Books • ISBN: 978-0345524966

Giveaway of Jane Austen
Made Me Do It

Congrats to Elaine, the randomly-selected winner of a copy of Jane Austen Made Me Do It! Elaine, I’ll be contacting you shortly.

Book review: ‘Forgetting English’ by Midge Raymond

In a collection of short stories shuffling between many narrators, places and time periods, Midge Raymond’s Forgetting English offers readers vignettes with a common theme: every story involves a stranger in a strange land. Some are suffering identity crises. Others are smarting from relationships gone awry, or preparing for a painful divorce. Some stumble into illicit love affairs while other search desperately for a connection in a frozen wasteland. Regardless of where they start out, how we leave each character is the genius of Raymond’s writing.

Despite having encountered some great ones, I’m still skeptical of short story collections. Masters like Jhumpa Lahiri have created pure magic in Interpreter of Maladies, for example, but I still find myself shying away from the format. But Raymond is making headway on getting me to admit I’m a fan after all.

With ten short stories in her slim but powerful collection, Raymond introduces us to characters who are shaky and broken. I’m not going to mince words here: most of these shorts feature unhappy people searching for something or someone, and none are cheery. But somehow, despite the somber tone, I didn’t feel depressed while reading . . . and as time went on, I came to appreciate the insights into human nature that Raymond offered in spades.

Each story is an exploration of love and loss and longing, and my favorites in the work are the earliest ones: “First Sunday,” “Translation Memory” and “The Ecstatic Cry.” The latter is told from the perspective of a female researcher working with penguins in their natural Antarctic habitat, and her search for a connection — physical; emotional — really resonated with me. No story is more than 15 or 20 pages, but you immediately feel dropped into a scene and tied to the people offering you their moment.

One of Raymond’s talents is the seamless way in which she fluctuates between speakers. Some stories are told in first person, while others shift to third. I’m partial to “I” narratives as a general rule, but the third-person perspective never bothered me. Raymond’s controlled, lovely language drew me in. In “First Sunday,” two estranged sisters are bonded in an unexpected way — and that story is the one I’ve been thinking of most often.

“As I pass by the window, I hear faint noise outside, like voices. Straining to see, I eventually make out two shapes, heads together, walking slowly toward a corner of the yard. I recognize [them], but then they fold themselves into a blanket, their bodies one, and disappear into the shadows. . . . From my place inside the house, with [them] hidden somewhere among the trees outside, I sense that my sister and I are finally aligned, in a constellation we can accept if not comprehend, just beyond one another’s vision, yet just within reach.”

While each individual story seemed like it could spread on for pages, their brevity is what makes Forgetting English powerful. If you’re nervous about trying short stories after a long stint away, Raymond’s work might be a solid reintroduction. With descriptive, interesting prose and unique narratives, her collection — winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction — is thought-provoking and memorable.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1935708384 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review