Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: Queen of the Big Time

I haven't met an Adriana Trigiani novel that I haven't liked. I love the Big Stone Gap books especially, probably because of my obsession with Southern lit. Queen of the Big Time has a totally different feel to it; but like the Big Stone Gap books, it's fast-paced and easy going. Sometimes those kinds of books are completely necessary.

Queen of the Big Time focuses on an Italian-American young girl/woman, Nella, her family, and the entire Italian-American part of town. Having grown up in a town that was largely Italian-American, I was hugely attracted to the novel. Set in rural Pennsylvania in the early- to mid-1900s, the novel follows Nella from a 13-year-old girl who dreams of going to college to a 60-year-old woman with some regrets but on the whole, a happy life. Sounds trite, I know, but it really isn't. Trigiani creates worlds that I am sad to leave when her novels end.

This isn't world-changing, powerful literature. It's a great story with characters you may have met in your own life. I'd even have to use the word, "heartwarming." But in a good way. If you are looking for reading that doesn't suck the life out of you with intensity, I'd recommend any and all of Trigiani's books.

Other Books by Trigiani:
Big Stone Gap, Big Cherry Holler, and Home to Big Stone Gap
Milk Glass Moon
Lucia, Lucia
Viola in Real Life
Very Valentine
Brava, Valentine

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Sunday Salon: Summer Reading

I'm back in the swing of things, now that the school year is winding down. I'm not so bone tired at night that I fall asleep after 2 pages of the current book; I don't have to devote time to reading books that I'm teaching for various classes; and, occasionally, I just read a chapter or two during the day, just because I can.

Right now I'm reading (and enjoying) Adriana Trigiani's Queen of the Big Time, and I have a few books in the physical stack next to my bed to read: New Stories from the South 2009, Arctic Homestead, The Kid Who Climbed Everest, and a book written by a friend. I also have somewhere between 150-200 books on my Ever-Growing TBR list and a bad habit of picking up books at the library that aren't even on my list.

I regularly read the book bloggers that I follow as well as Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books to pick up new titles, and I am just getting back to more thoroughly reading the Sunday Salon posts. Book bloggers are simply amazing; I love adding new titles to my list, and, well, reading them. Here's a list of books I've added recently to my TBR list:

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead: The Frank Meeink Story as told by Jody M. Roy, Ph.D. (reviewed at Musings of a Bookish Kitty)
Bloodroot by Amy Greene (reviewed at New Dork Review)
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (reviewed everywhere I turn!)
Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian (Reviewed at In the Pages)
Some Girls by Jillian Lauren (reviewed by Book Club Classics)
South of Broad by Pat Conroy (reviewed at Books and Cooks)
Whiter Than Snow by Sandra Dallas

I'm looking forward to a long summer of luxurious reading!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

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Book Review: The Saffron Kitchen

I really wanted to love this book by Yasmin Crowther. It has one of those book jackets that is so terribly appealing, especially in the way it feels. Yes, I really wanted to love this book. I love the word "saffron."

But I just couldn't love it. There was something not quite right in the telling of the story. For one, the POV changed not chapter by chapter, which I can deal with, but by sections within chapters. Unmarked sections that made me say, "Wait, who? Huh?" Add that in with occasional flashbacks, and the effect was perplexing and jarring.

The story itself lacked deep feeling. I never connected at any level—as a woman, daughter, wife, or mother—with any of the characters. There is Maryam, an Iranian woman in her 60s who leaves her home of 40 years in England to go back to Iran and her childhood love, Ali. And there is Sara, her Anglo-Iranian daughter, who has a miscarriage in the opening scene which is apparently caused by Maryam. That whole scene was confusing to me and probably set the tone for the rest of the book. Sara is furious with her mother for causing her miscarriage, of course, and also for leaving her father and returning to Iran after a lifetime spent together.

As I said, the story for me lacked deep feeling, but it wasn't too deeply buried beneath the surface. Every now and then I could glimpse the makings of a really good story. This is Crowther's debut novel, and I have a feeling she'll be able to iron out the wrinkles in her next novel. All the pieces are there—she has good dialogue and nice writing—but just not quite put together.

Other Reviews of The Saffron Kitchen
Unified Theory of Nothing Much
Life Wordsmith
Reading Matters
Eclectic Closet
Red Room Library

Friday, April 16, 2010

Book Review: Half Broke Horses

I've been waiting anxiously to get my hands on this novel by Jeannette Walls. Walls' memoir The Glass Castle (my review here) remains one of my favorite books, and certainly in the top 5 memoirs I've ever read. Subtitled "A True-Life Novel," Half Broke Horses is the story of Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a rough-and-tumble ranching/teaching woman. From her birth in a dugout in Texas to her failed marriage in Chicago and then as a rancher's wife back in the southwest, Lily Casey Smith remains indefatigable. She can't be broken—or even half broken—by the elements, the economy, or people.

The story can't be compared to The Glass Castle, so don't even try. Written in a first-person narrative that is as tough as Lily, Half-Broke Horses lacks the emotional depth of The Glass Castle. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth reading; in fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Lily was a remarkable woman, and her life story is full of adventure told in a matter-of-fact way. The novel is fast-paced and well written and certainly stands on its own, without the backdrop of The Glass Castle.

But if you've read The Glass Castle, you'll find yourself searching for signs. How did the negligent Rosemary in Walls' memoir come from such confident, industrious parents? Walls includes plenty of insight into Rosemary's childhood, and it's easy to see that Rosemary could have benefited from some sweet, gentle mothering. When I finished this novel, I immediately wanted to pick up The Glass Castle again to revisit Rosemary and Rex and the continuation of their story.

Other Reviews of Half-Broke Horses
Book Club Classics
Just a Dollop
A Novel Menagerie
The Literate Housewife
Literary Lotus
BookWorm's Dinner

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Sunday Salon: March in Review

Here it is, nearly the middle of April, and I'm still stuck in March. March was a much better reading month than February, and I have high hopes for April

Books Read in March
Still Alice by Lisa Genova--loved it. My review here.
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan--really good. My review here.
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff--excellent but emotionally draining. My review here.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See--started great but came to a screeching halt midway. My review here.
Much Ado About Nothing by Williams Shakespeare

Best Book of the Month
Still Alice. A sad but captivating story of a woman with early onset Altzheimer's.

Now Reading
Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Wells and re-reading (for about the 5th time) Jane Eyre, which I'm currently teaching in a World Lit class.

Reading to/With the Kids
Tucket's Travels series by Gary Paulsen. Fantastic adventure of a boy trying to get to Oregon after Indians ambushed his wagon train. Reading to Duncan.
The Great Depression (American Adventures novel)
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

The school year is winding down, and I'm looking forward to more time for reading in the coming months!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Book Review: Shanghai Girls

I have read and loved Lisa See's novels Snowflower and the Secret Fan (my review) and Peony in Love (my review), so I was really looking forward to Shanghai Girls. This is the story begins in the 1930s with two sisters, Pearl and May, whose perfect life in Shanghai takes and abrupt turn when their father announces that he's gambled away all their money. He has arranged marriages for them with Chinese-American brothers; and although initially they refuse to go to America with their husbands, they eventually must escape when the Japanese attack.

The first one-half to three-fourths of the book was fantastic. I was totally wrapped up in the story and the characters. It was the kind of book that I couldn't wait to pick up and read in the evening. But the last quarter completely lost me. This was a rather odd experience for me. I started out absolutely loving the book and ended up feeling a little empty and annoyed. It was all so rushed at the end, and yet it dragged on and on. I felt myself saying, "Oh, come ON!" in my head a lot.

There was a climatic scene between the sisters nearly at the end that was completely forced and unbelievable. There was no closure. I could think of a dozen places where the book could have ended acceptably, but this ending was the worst possible. The reader is left dangling, feeling certain that there must be a sequel coming up. But honestly, I'm not sure I would read the sequel. By the end of the book, I didn't care about any of the characters anymore.