Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Stay Gone Days by Steve Yarbrough

That Steve Yarbrough isn’t one of our most well-known American authors is a conundrum. He’s championed and praised by great writers including Ron Rash and Julia Glass, yet many readers don’t know him. His writing celebrates ordinary lives and quietly makes them feel extraordinary and perhaps it’s that subdued style that keeps him below the radar. In his latest novel, Stay Gone Days, he’s captured the lives of two estranged sisters living on separate continents. If you loved the characters, setting, and language of Ann Patchett’s Dutch House, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, or Anne Tyler’s many novels, you’ll find Stay Gone Days equally compelling with its intimate portraits of sisters Ella and Caroline Cole. 

After a tragic accident in the small Mississippi town where they grew up, teenagers Ella and Caroline become separated. They were always different with elder Ella making perfect grades and doing what she was told in their small, all-white private school, one they attended despite being dirt poor. Caroline was more of a rebel often skipping school. “Today, Caroline determines, will be a Stay Gone Day. She’ll leave school on the sly and stay gone until tomorrow.” Later, the sisters head in different directions with Ella getting a voice scholarship to the Berklee College of Music then dropping out and becoming a waitress and Caroline traveling west and eventually having to escape from a violent ex-boyfriend. Both of them carry deep emotional wounds, yet they carry on.

Ella meets and marries dependable Martin, also a Berklee dropout, who becomes a record producer. He has money and an old, comfortable home where they raise two daughters and Ella seems to find peace although her escalating intake of alcohol might say otherwise. Martin tries to get her to visit her hometown, but something always interferes. Still, Ella continuously searches for her sister, but it appears that Caroline Cole has disappeared. 

Caroline hasn’t disappeared though and she knows exactly where Ella is. Caroline has settled in Warsaw where she enjoys teaching English while working on her writing. She’s built a decent life in Poland. Then, one day, Ella walks into a bookstore and sees a novel called Stay Gone Days written by Karo Kohl. The book, a chronicle of estranged sisters, opens the door to a possible reunion. 

In Yarbrough’s skilled hands, we inhabit Ella’s and Caroline’s lives as we observe the quotidian details evolve. We find ourselves cheering for them to reconcile as Yarbrough has made us know them well enough that we’re certain of their need for each other. Steve Yarbrough makes it matter to us. He makes us feel a deep longing for them to be together. He makes us care and isn’t that what fine novelists do? 

Summing it Up: Read Stay Gone Days to fall into an authentic rendering of a family dynamic that is both personal and universal. Read it to escape into expertly depicted settings in rural Mississippi, Cape Cod, the Boston suburbs, Northern California, Rome, and Warsaw. Savor it for the intimate stories of two sisters who will capture your heart.

Rating: 5 Stars

Categories: Five Stars, Fiction, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

Publication Date: April 19, 2022

Author Website: https://www.steveyarbrough.net

An Interview with the Author: https://southernreviewofbooks.com/2022/04/19/stay-gone-days-steve-yarbrough-interview/

What Others Are Saying: 

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9781632461353

Masterful and moving, Stay Gone Days is the story of the diverging yet ultimately intertwined destinies of two sisters, told on a scale both intimate and sweeping. I followed them across continents and decades, through loves and losses, always on the edge of my seat. I finished with tears in my eyes and wonder in my heart.” — Julia Glass

“There is so much to praise about this novel: the vivid, precise language, the expansiveness of the settings, how deeply we come to care about Caroline and Ella. But it all leads to this: we enter many books, but only a few enter us, then lodge in our consciousness as deeply as lived memories. Stay Gone Days is one of these. Steve Yarbrough is one of our country’s finest living novelists.” —Ron Rash

Saturday, April 9, 2022

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

The Violin Conspiracy is a tantalizing thriller combined with a coming-of-age novel that explores racism in the world of classical music.  Ray is a high school senior and a gifted violinist. His mother wants him to quit school, get his GED, find a job at Popeye’s, and help her pay bills. His Grandma Nora loves hearing him play and tells him how he inherited his talent from her grandfather whose enslaver gave her grandfather the fiddle he played. Grandma Nora finds the fiddle in her attic and gives it to Ray before her death. The instrument is in bad shape, but finally, Ray has his own violin. 

Encouraged by a wonderful teacher, Ray goes to college and becomes an accomplished  violinist. When it’s discovered that Ray’s fiddle is a Stradivarius worth 10 million dollars, Ray becomes a media sensation while he’s training to compete in the elite Tchaikovsky Competition. Two weeks before he’s to leave for Moscow, his violin is mysteriously stolen. Ray’s remaining family thinks they deserve to split the insurance money if the violin isn’t recovered. The descendants of his great grandfather’s enslaver say it belongs to them. As Ray juggles practicing for the competition with trying to recover his violin and fighting the claims of the two families, the tension builds. 

Just below the surface, staccato bursts of racist micro aggressions and more serious racist attacks threaten Ray’s ambitions. 

“So here’s what you do if you’re a Black guy trying to make it work in an unfamiliar world:,” Ray tells us. “ You just put your head down and do the work. You do twice as much work as the white guy sitting next to you and you do it twice as often, and you get half as far. But you do it.” 

Underlying the mystery of the violin’s disappearance is the music that forms a literary soundtrack for the novel. The reader is enveloped in the sounds of Ray’s music and the expert writing makes the reader feel that it’s actually playing. I read this novel, but I could swear that I heard Ray’s strings. 

Author Brendan Slocumb has been a music educator for Kindergarten through 12th grades for 23 years. He’s played the violin with several orchestras and is the concertmaster for the NOVA-Annandale Symphony Orchestra. His musical knowledge and experiences make the novel real. 

Summing It Up: Read The Violin Conspiracy to experience a young Black man’s will to succeed as a classical violinist when the world tries to hold him back. Keep turning the pages faster after his Stradivarius is stolen and every clue leads to a new and frightening development. Listen to the soundtrack in your head as the music builds. Embrace your concerns as Ray’s family and the descendants of his ancestor’s enslaver try to cheat him.

Rating: 5 Stars

Publication Date: February 1, 2022

Categories: Fiction, Five Stars, Mysteries and Thrillers, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Author Website: https://www.brendanslocumb.com/

Interview with the Author: https://youtu.be/giiUNtoGuF8

Read an Excerpt:  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/688511/the-violin-conspiracy-by-brendan-slocumb/

Reading Group Guide:  https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/688511/the-violin-conspiracy-by-brendan-slocumb/

What Others are Saying:

Kirkus Reviews: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/brendan-slocumb/the-violin-conspiracy/?page=2

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/books/review/the-violin-conspiracy-brendan-slocumb.html

NPR: https://www.npr.org/2022/02/07/1078283114/thriller-the-violin-conspiracy-addresses-racism-in-classical-music

Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/9780593315415

The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2022/02/02/violin-conspiracy-brendan-slocumb/

“Finally, classical music gets the complex treatment it deserves. A wide-eyed look at the art form and it’s discontents.” — Gary Shteyngart

“Utterly original and downright gripping, The Violin Conspiracy is more than a mystery—it’s an unflinching peek into the heart and soul of a gifted Black violinist striving to pursue his passion in the face of adversity. Brendan Slocumb’s debut is an essential lesson in artistry, prejudice, and persistence.”  — Zaria Daliia Harris