Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Books (The Sunday Salon)

In 2011 I read and reviewed 42 books here on SmallWorld Reads, and probably read a total of 10 others (juvenile fiction read aloud to my kids and/or books re-read for British Lit). This is down a few from my previous years. (See my other Best of the Years posts.) I have no excuses, other than that I fall asleep more easily than I used to. And so without further adieu, here are my lists.

Top 10 Books Read in 2011

Bloodroot by Amy Greene. From my review: "I didn't want Bloodroot to end. I miss it."

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom. From my review: "I wish I had another book guaranteed this good to anticipate!"

March by Geraldine Brooks. Based on the character of Mr. March from Little Women. From my review: "Who is the real Mr. March? A devout minister, a coward, an adulterer, a doting father? Ultimately he is not the man his wife or daughters think he is, but he's also not the man he thinks he is."

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. From my review: "Oh my goodness. I laughed sooo hard while reading this book. I was actually guffawing."

My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira. From my review: "This novel set during the Civil War was so fabulous, so compelling that I mourned when I had finished it"

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. From my review: "This is definitely worth a read, especially if you enjoy reading around the outskirts of WW2—those unknown stories, the little snippets of lives changed forever."

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Re-read. From my review: "I love re-reading a novel and having it seem completely new."

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. From my review: "Adichie is a phenomenal storyteller and a lyrical writer—my absolute favorite combination."

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. From my review: Focuses on an English butler "whose sole job it is to serve others, even when it means sacrificing—or not being allowed to have—a life of one’s own."

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather. From my review: "This is one of those books in which I wanted to keep underlining passages and turning down page corners. Such moments of profundity! Such perfectly poetic descriptions!"

* This is the place where I am supposed to pick out my absolute favorite of the year, but I don't think I can. I can only narrow it down to two. Interestingly, these are both debut novels: Bloodroot by Amy Greene and My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira.

* As always, most of the books I read in 2011 were fiction; however, I do love nonfiction, particularly memoirs, and read a few:

* I added 42 book to my Ever-Growing TBR list, and I marked off 24. (Weirdly, those numbers are exactly the same as last year's.) My TBR list continues to grow faster than I can conquer it. But that's OK. I learned about books from posts on The Sunday Salon, Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books, the Book Review Carnival, from various internet sources, and especially from other book bloggers.

* • Below is the total list of books read, minus the juvenile fiction. Each link leads to a review. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Linked up on Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books: Best of the Year edition

Book Review: The Midwife's Confession

Diane Chamberlain’s The Midwife’s Confession was nearly impossible for me to put down—the perfect kind of book for Christmas vacation. The novel takes the reader on a wild ride of revelations in the lives of three long-time friends. Emerson, Tara, and Noelle have been a tight-knit trio for 20 years and think they know everything about each other. But Noelle’s suicide shocks her two best friends. Turns out Noelle led a secret life, filled with skeletons and betrayals. In their search to discover why Noelle killed herself, Tara and Emerson uncover most—but not all—of Noelle’s secrets.

The story unfolds through the perspectives of several characters both in flashback and in present day: Emerson, Tara, Noelle, and others. Noelle is the least knowable of the characters, veiled to the reader in the same way she is veiled to her friends. We never find out some of Noelle’s story, which did bother me. I like things all neatly tied together in the end. But all the other components come together fairly well, and a good twist or two provide a couple of satisfactory “a-ha” moments. I also appreciated that Chamberlian did not go where I thought she was headed a few times.

This is my second Diane Chamberlain book (I read The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes earlier this year), and I will definitely be reading more. Like CeeCee Wilkes, The Midwife’s Confession is filled with implausible events, but I didn’t care. I liked the stories so well that I allowed myself to believe them.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans is my third Kazuo Ishiguro novel and definitely my least favorite. The Remains of the Day (my review here) was beautiful both in its simplicity and its complexity, and Never Let Me Go was absolutely fascinating. I felt a little lost, though, in When We Were Orphans. Honestly, I felt like Ishiguro is so much smarter than me that I just wasn’t quite getting it. I say this because I think it is important to give huge credit to Ishiguro for being an amazing writer and to admit that sometimes I just miss things as a reader. Or maybe I don't want to work as hard as I need to in order to fully appreciate such a masterful writer.

Christopher Banks is an orphan. He spent his first nine years in Shanghai, where his father worked for a British trading company in the opium business. When his parents disappear within days of each other, Christopher is sent to England. He never quite fits in at his school, but ultimately he becomes a world-famous detective. He enjoys his fame and is terrible proud of his career, especially in that he can show up his former classmates with his success. His ultimate wish is to solve the mystery of his parents’ disappearance. Are they dead or have they been kidnapped? He heads back to Shanghai to figure out what really went on in his fuzzy childhood.

Along the way he meets Sarah Hemmings, a society girl who is also an orphan. Her goal appears to be to marry someone rich and famous, and Christopher can’t seem to believe that she would actually love him, a misfit, even though he is a well-respected detective. Ultimately she invites him to run away with her, but he feels compelled to figure out what happened to his parents.

I didn’t exactly connect with the story, but I think the lack of connecting with Christopher is purposeful. He is emotionally detached in many ways, having left a secure life with his mother to being an outsider, alone in the world. I think that I could read a review of the book on someone else’s blog and hit myself on the head saying, “OH! So THAT’S what was going on!!” I think I would have liked this book a lot more in my 20s, when my mind was less filled with my own reality and more able to delve into the labyrinth of a novel like When We Were Orphans.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review: The Bride's House

I love Sandra Dallas. I think I have ready every one of her novels, and The Bride's House is one of my favorites. (Tallgrass still holds that spot.) Dallas knows how to create likeable characters and stories that just work out right.

In The Bride's House Dallas tells the stories of three generations of women, starting in 1880 with 17-year-old Nealie. Like many of her novels, this one is set in a Colorado mining community. Life can be rough in these mining towns, and often all the East Coast societal codes are ignored. Nealie falls in love and gets pregnant soon after arriving in town, but the father runs away quickly when he finds out. Or so she thinks.

A young man who is deeply in love with her agrees to marry her anyway, and her life begins in a beautiful new house in the center of town—what becomes known as the Bride's House. The first section of the book is devoted to Nealie's story, the middle to her daughter Pearl's, and the last one wraps them all together with her granddaughter Susan's own story. Casting his generous and benevolent but possessive shadow over all of them is Charlie Dumas, Nealie's husband-to-the-rescue, and his lock-box filled with family secrets.

I loved this book. Dallas captures a particular time in American history, fills it with breathing characters, and tells a story that is perfectly satisfying.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Sunday Salon: Holiday Reading

Look at that lovely stack of books! I am planning on lots and lots of luxurious reading time during the next few weeks, until our activities start again in January. I was incredibly lucky at the library yesterday, finding 9 books on my TBR list actually available!

Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass (our January book club book)
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
At Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy
The Only True Genius in the Family by Jennie Nash
The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls
The Midwife's Confession by Diane Chamberlain
The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
The Bride's House by Sandra Dallas

So far this year I've read 40 books (yikes--that is really low for me!), and 21 of them have been from my TBR list. And I've added something like 45 books to my list. I usually manage to get several books read during the holidays, but 9 will be challenging!

I started with the Sandra Dallas book. What's on your holiday reading list?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: Purple Hibiscus

I am absolutely astounded by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun (my 2008 review here). I read the latter a few of years ago and was blown away, and Purple Hibiscus was just as powerful. Adichie is a phenomenal storyteller and a lyrical writer—my absolute favorite combination. Here there is no stilted dialogue, no stiff, trite characters.

Set in Nigeria, Purple Hibiscus is the story of Kambili and JaJa, seemingly privileged children of a rich and powerful man. But there Papa has a dark side. While he treats the community generously, he is religious fanatic and punishes any family member who appears to be backsliding. His wife and children live in constant fear of the next beating; his father and sister live impoverished, barely able to eat, because he won't give them money without an implicit agreement that they will live according to his belief system.

At 15 and 17, Kambili and JaJa are reluctantly allowed to spend a week with their aunt and cousins. For the first time, they are exposed to what family life could really be like. Kambili is socially handicapped ("Is there something wrong with her?" asks her teenaged cousin), petrified of saying the wrong thing or of displeasing her father. She is certain that her Papa will know if she does anything that is unauthorized by him (he sends a schedule along with them to follow). I love how Kambili focuses on her relatives' laughter. The whole concept of laughter and conversation about anything other than religion is completely foreign to her, but she desperately wants to take part in this new life.

The short visit to their aunt's house is a turning point in the lives of Kambili and Jaja, and their life gets much more difficult as a result—but they also gain hope. They know that there is a life outside of their father's compound and people who love them without condition.

This book is difficult to read because of the horrible abuse, but it is so well worth it. I wish Adichie had more novels for me to devour, but I will be reading her book of short stories, The Thing Around Your Neck.

Linked up with the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: Backseat Saints

I've had Backseat Saints on my TBR list for quite awhile, so it jumped out at me as I was browsing the library stacks. But I hesitated, thinking "Didn't I not really like the last Joshilyn Jackson book I read?" Actually, I remembered being faintly irritated with the last one I read.

But I checked it out anyway and spent a few days or a week in the crazy world of Rose Mae Lolley, abandoned by her mother and abused by men. I noticed that the reviewers on give this book 5 stars over and over again, so obviously there is something wrong with me. I just could not appreciate this novel. It was too snappy for me. I couldn't believe the character of Rose Mae Lolley—she didn't make any sense to me. Oh, I know. That was probably the point of the book in some way, but it just didn't all come together for me.

And I've got a name thing going on again with this book, as I did with The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. Rose Mae goes between that name (her given) and Ro (her current). In other words, in the past she is Rose Mae, and in the present she is Ro. Except sometimes she is Ro with Rose Mae trying to get through to the surface. So when she tries to shoot her husband, is she Ro or Rose Mae? I understand what the author was trying to do (bad girl self vs. good girl self); it just didn't work for me. Something was missing—some vital connection. Maybe, for me, the disconnect was in the writing.

Here's the thing: I am a poet. I love books that love and caress the art of writing, that can blow me away with a combination of words or make me ache with something indescribable. I tend toward loving books that are quieter and more thoughtful. Backseat Saints deals with a terrible subject—spousal abuse—and the abuse scenes are very well written. But something didn't connect for me between the powerful abuse scenes and Ro Grandee's snappy comebacks. I guess I wanted her to think more. I couldn't feel her enough.

This isn't a rousing endorsement of the book. Maybe you will like it, but there was too much going on in it for me. A mother who shows back up as a fortune teller in an airport, various saints who appear suddently in the middle of the book, sweet old boyfriends who turn out to be abusers as well, and a whole lot of make-up sex. Too much going on, too fast-paced, too much disconnection. But again, I am apparently the only person in the reading world who doesn't think this is an amazing book. So read it for yourself. The end.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Sunday Salon: November in Review

Books Read in November
(click for reviews)
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (part ghost story, part tale of decaying estates of England)
  • Away by Amy Bloom (based on the legend of the woman who walked to Russia)
  • Saving Cee-Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman (motherless girl rescued by her relatives and friends)
  • Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Best Book of the Month
Hmmmm. None of them were phenomenal, but I enjoyed the first three. Backseat Saints, not so much.

Guest Review
My Dad read and reviewed Shadows Walking by Douglass Skopp as part of the book's virtual tour.

Read Alouds (with 10-year-old)
Born in the Year of Courage by Emily Crofford
The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop

Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
Wherever you Go by Joan Leegant (reviewed by Bibliophiliac)

Currently Reading
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Club News
Our book club had its first weekend retreat. We had a blast! We also picked upcoming books for the next several months. Not surprisingly, all of my book choices were rejected because they sounded too depressing. Instead, we have a couple of mysteries, a memoir, and a humorous one. I've been reassured that we can read a depressing book after the winter months. Our upcoming books are:
We also went to see The Help together. I read the book a year ago and loved the movie. Those who had just read the book were disappointed that so much was left out but enjoyed the movie. Fortunately, I don't remember details from a year ago!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book Review: The Little Stranger

I've had Sarah Waters on my radar for awhile, so I picked up The Little Stranger on the to-be-shelved stacks at the library. So...this book actually gave me shivers. I was even scared when I awoke in the middle of the night and had to walk down our hallway to the bathroom. C-r-e-e-p-y!

The Little Stranger is a ghost story, although I didn't really know this when I began reading it. That's probably good, because I wouldn't normally willingly pick up a gothic ghost story novel! The story centers on Dr. Faraday and his obsession with Hundreds Hall, where his mother was once a servant, and its strange inhabitants, the Ayres family. Hundreds Hall is a decaying house, once the center of a great estate, where strange things begin to happen. The brother goes crazy, the mother unhinged, and Faraday and the sister, Caroline, engage in a strange dance. Faraday is insistent that the family keep Hundreds Hall intact, in spite of its obvious haunting.

This reminded me somewhat of Diana Satterfield's The Thirteenth Tale. And although I liked Satterfield's novel much better, this one was extremely engaging, providing just enough shivers, excellent writing, and memorable characters. I definitely recommend this and will keep Sarah Waters on my TBR radar.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Book Review: Away

I picked up this book by Amy Bloom on the to-be-shelved stacks at the library solely because of the book cover. Yes, I know the adage. In this case, I nearly tossed the book aside after the first 50 pages. It was so disturbing.

But I kept reading, and I'm glad I did. This isn't a book I'll throw at my book club and demand they read it. They don't, as a whole, like wading through tragic, depressing novels to get to the happy ending.

And Away is disturbing, depressing, and tragic. Lillian is a Russian Jew who witnessed the slaughter of her entire family, lost her three-year-old daughter, and then made her way to America alone in the 1920s. She does what she can to survive, including becoming the mistress of a Yiddish theatre director and his actor son. When a cousin arrives from Russia and informs Lillian that her daughter, Sophie, is actually alive, Lillian is determined to head to Siberia to find her.

Lillian is a focused, determined young mother on a quest, and she'll do anything to find her daughter. Traveling by train, boat, horse, and foot from New York City, she ultimately ends up traveling alone in the Alaskan wilderness, hoping to cross into Siberia. Along the way she meets an array of people, from exceptionally kind to exceptionally perverse.

One of my very favorite parts of the novel—and I absolutely loved this—is that Amy Bloom ties up all the loose ends of the cast of characters when they step out of the story. When Lillian leaves the director and his son back in New York, Bloom tells the reader what happens to them. When she parts ways with the prostitute in Seattle, Bloom follows through, in just a few paragraphs, with the rest of the prostitute's life. I loved that.

Away is loosely based on Lillian Alling, a woman who attempted to walk from New York City to Russia in 1927. The book is sexually explicit, disturbing, and terribly tragic—but at the end, I am glad that I continued reading. Without Bloom's device of following the futures of the characters, I'm not sure I would have been so satisfied. But I absolutely love closure, and she does it so very well.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Book Review: Saving Cee-Cee Honeycutt

In Beth Hoffma's debut novel, Cee-Cee Honeycutt spends her first 12 years in cold Ohio with an unstable, unhappy, and ultimately crazy mother who lives completely in the past, reliving her days as the Vidalia Queen in Savannah. Cee-Cee, a social outcast, is known in the small town as the crazy lady's daughter. Her father rarely makes an appearance, and when he does, her mother is even more miserable.

When her mother is killed in a car accident, Cee-Cee's great-aunt Tootie rescues her, much to the relief of Cee-Cee's cold and detached father. Cee-Cee is introduced to Savannah, Georgia, a world that is completely different from the only one she has ever known. A typical cast of quirky southern chick lit characters become Cee-Cee's circle of friends: the black housekeeper, the exotic neighbor, the rich snob, and, of course, Aunt Tootie.

I liked this book. It has moments of fluff and predictability, but I actually really loved Cee-Cee, Aunt Tootie, and Oletta, the housekeeper. The stereotypical neighbors were fine for a little diversion and levity, but the saving of Cee-Cee story was really sweet and well done. This is one of those perfect reads for between heavier (or depressing, as my book club friends insist) novels.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: Shadows Walking

When I received Shadows Walking in the mail to review, I knew immediately that this is one that my Dad would be much more qualified to review. My father is a voracious reader and a historian. And as a World War II veteran, my father was there—he has seen those shadows walking. He was extremely moved by Shadows Walking, read it thoroughly once and skimmed it another time. And here is what he has to say:

"...out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow... " Macbeth

When the world was still young and bright and innocent, two twelve-year-old boys solemnly performed the blood brother ritual. Johann pricked Philip’s finger, Philip cut Johan’s; they mixed their blood and swore eternal friendship. Johann is gentile, Philip Jewish. In 1914, their schooling complete, Johann, Philip and all their school class enlist in the Wehrmacht and go off to World War I.

Forty years later, Germany is a shambles. Millions upon millions of Germans are dead, Russians in their millions; Frenchmen, Britons, Italians, even Americans. Six million Jews have been murdered; like so many others, Philip is dead at Auschwitz.

In Nuremburg’s Palace of Justice, Johann is a janitor watching the trials of The Doctors—the German physicians who led the medical atrocities of the Nazis in the name of “science." What happened to those golden days before WW1? How did the horrors of Hitler’s Nazism capture the German nation? How could the Holocaust erupt and then overcome Deutschland?

Historian Douglas Skopp uses Johann Brenner, the gentile boy from Bavaria to approach these questions. How did Hitler’s Nazism capture Germany? How did Hitler’s Nazism capture Johann Brenner? How did the Holocaust engulf the Jews of all Europe? Ask Johann Brenner how he contributed to Holocaust!

Perhaps for Johann Brenner, it began in Munich in 1923. Waiting to have a beer with Philip, Johann chances on a street preacher, haranguing a little crowd of ragged veterans. The haranger is a short, nondescript little man, sporting a ridiculous mustache and a shrill, penetrating voice. But this little man speaks eloquently of the times— hard times, and all the fault of die Juden!
    —Why did we lost the war? Die Juden!
    —Why Versailles? Die Juden!
    —Who keeps Germany from her destiny? Die Juden! Die Juden! Juden! Die Juden!

    Germany was a fertile soil in 1923, a soil waiting to be planted with all the hatred, the venom that Adolph Hitler could spew. But Hitler was persuasive, if illogical – Johann (and Germany) are seduced. Hitler’s theme of der Volk and “blood purity” of course formed the basic rationale for the removals – removals of Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and mentally ill and handicapped, and, later, of Poles and Russians and other inferiors.

    Hitler is not the only seducer. For Johann, a "great” physician, Brandt, reinforces Johann’s disquiet and his growing contempt for Jews and other undesirables. Brandt is part of the driving force that leads to Holocaust.

    Johann is not corrupted in one fell swoop; his corruption is gradual, so gradual that he cannot see his entrapment. He participates in compulsory sterilization procedures, framed in the concept of eugenics and for the good of the Volk. Eventually we find Johann working in Auschwitz, carrying out medical “research.” His particular specialty was castrations – mass castrations to produce docile slaves who could not reproduce and so spoil the sacred blood of the Volk.

    We pity Johann as he carries out his assault on humanity, we pity him because he is not able to see the depth of evil to which he is contributing. Only when his boyhood friend, his blood brother Philip the Jew arrives at Auschwitz via cattle car does Johann begin to recognize his own evil.

    Johann finds shadows walking in Munich – men with no present, no future. Men from the trenches, men who will always be soldiers, old soldiers, shadows walking in the past.

    And the question for the reader lurks at the end: what evil lies in all of us just below the surface?

    Many thanks to my Dad, Dr. James Cummins, for taking the time to read and thoughtfully review Shadows Walking. The book is on a virtual tour for the month of November. Be sure to visit these other blogs for more reviews!

    Monday, November 7th
    Review at Impressions in Ink

    Monday, November 14th
    Review at A Bookish Affair

    Thursday, November 17th
    Review at The Book Garden

    Monday, November 21st
    Author Interview at A Bookish Affair

    Thursday, November 24th
    Review at Confessions of a Book Hoarder

    Monday, November 28th
    Author Guest Post at Confessions of a Book Hoarder

    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    The Sunday Salon: October in Review

    Books Read in October (click for reviews)
    One Second After by William Forstchen
    The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
    Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

    Best Book of the Month
    The Kitchen House. Oh my goodness! Loved it!

    Read Alouds
    The Phantom Tollbooth

    Currently Reading
    The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

    Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
    Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett
    The Time Between by Mary Duenas
    A Thousand Lives by Julia Scheeres
    The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (recommended at Rebecca Reads)
    The First Wife by Emily Barr (recommended by Fleur Fisher)
    The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian
    A Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
    Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
    Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

    Top 3 Most Visited Reviews This Month on SmallWorld Reads
    The Great Gilly Hopkins
    Snowflower and the Secret Fan

    Saturday, October 29, 2011

    Book Review: One Second After

    One Second After by William Forstchen is our November book club choice. This is not a book I would normally pick out to read, and that's just one of the many things I love about book club.

    This novel is set in Black Mountain, NC, not too far from where I live. The main character is a history professor and retired military man with two daughters. One afternoon they notice a strange silence and discover that the cars on the interstate aren't moving. Eventually they discover that absolutely no electrical devices are working. The professor soon figures out that a nuclear bomb contained an electromagnetic pulse that destroyed anything electrical. I wasn't terribly interested in all that, but I'm sure some readers would find that discussion fascinating.

    The rest of the novel focuses on how a town survives when it's thrust back hundreds of years. I really appreciated how Forstchen tackled the town bit by bit: what happens in the nursing homes, to people who rely on medicines, to the mentally unstable. How parents starve themselves so their children can have a bit of food. How inevitably, bands of terrorists form and roam the countryside, killing for food.

    The writing itself was aggravating but I managed to get through it as a plot read. Way too much dreadfully forced, cheesy dialogue. Stiff action. Bad editing. But again, it was a great plot read. It doesn't hold a candle to Stephen King's The Stand or Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but it was interesting.

    Linked up with Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

    Saturday, October 15, 2011

    Book Review: The Kitchen House

    Oh my goodness. Have you read Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House? If not, go quickly and buy it, borrow it, or take it off your TBR pile. I wish I had another book guaranteed this good to anticipate!

    The Kitchen House is the story of Lavinia, a little Irish immigrant orphan who becomes an indentured servant on a Virginia plantation, and the family that raises her—and the family that owns her. What Lavinia doesn't understand is that she is white and her adopted family is the property of the master: the slaves of the big house.

    As she grows into womanhood, she is forced to acknowledge that she is a white girl, and her family is black. What she refuses to deny, however, is that they are, indeed, her family. She has to learn to carefully straddle the two worlds, to protect those she loves, and to simply survive a brutal introduction into adulthood.

    I know. It sounds like a "been there, done that" kind of novel. The plot line I've given merely scratches the surface. There is nothing sentimental or trite about this novel. Grissom is a master storyteller. Told from the perspectives of both Lavinia as well as Belle, her adoptive mother who is the master's illegitimate daughter, the novel is fast-paced, beautifully written, and absolutely compelling.

    In an interview, author Grissom hints that she may be writing more on some of the characters in this novel. I can only hope!

    Linked up on Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books

    Saturday, October 8, 2011

    The Sunday Salon: September in Review

    Books Read in September (click for my reviews)
    Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich
    Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

    (Pretty sure that is an all time low for my monthly reading. Yikes!!)

    Special Event

    I got to hear Amy Greene, author of the fabulous Bloodroot, read at our local college! She was so wonderful and inspiring. I can hardly wait for her next book!

    Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
    Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
    Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum
    What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage
    Carved in Bone by Jefferson Bass
    Coming Up for Air by Patti Callahan Henry
    Close Your Eyes by Amanda Eye Ward

    Read Aloud to 10-Year-Old
    The Master Puppeteer
    The Indian in the Cupboard

    Currently Reading
    One Second After by William Forstchen

    Top 3 Most Visited Reviews This Month on SmallWorld Reads
    Snowflower and the Secret Fan
    Children's Books on Slavery

    Book Review: Song of the Lark

    My son, now in his sophomore year in college, switched his major to English literature in the middle of his freshman year. I never imagined the burst of joy I would feel when I heard those beautiful words, "I think I'm going to change my major." It isn't that I didn't approve of his former major (entertainment industry), it's just that he is the quintessential English major.

    All that to say: when I quizzed him on his favorite book all year, he named Willa Cather's Song of the Lark without hesitation. I am proud to say that I introduced my son to Willa Cather with My Antonia, which I actually didn't read until a few years ago. Oh my goodness. How I adored that book! I have no idea how Willa Cather escaped me all of my years as an English major.

    But I had never even heard of Song of the Lark until my son had to read it for a class. I grabbed it from his bookshelf a few weeks ago when I discovered I had nothing to read. Notice I said "a few weeks ago." I was in one of those fall-asleep-after-3-pages kind of months. But that has no reflection on the book.

    I loved it. This is the story of a little immigrant girl with a very big voice in a tiny town in Colorado. Everyone in Moonstone knows that Thea is different. It is no surprise when an inheritance from an admirer allows her to go to Chicago to study music. Ultimately she becomes a great opera singer, but not without tremendous sacrifice. This is the portrait of the artist as a young woman and more: the classic struggle of the artist with herself, with society, with the people who love her.

    Cather's prose is phenomenal. This is one of those books in which I wanted to keep underlining passages and turning down page corners. Such moments of profundity! Such perfectly poetic descriptions! I am quite sure that Cather is severely neglected in the study of American literature. I don't understand why she is left out of the traditional canon. In my experience students respond enthusiastically to My Antonia, and I suspect Song of the Lark—with its themes of coming of age, search for identity, and struggle of the artist— would also widely appeal to students.

    And adults, of course. I loved this novel, not as much as My Antonia, but tremendously. I noticed that there is a PBS movie of Song of the Lark. Sadly, neither Netflix nor our local public library carries it.

    Saturday, September 24, 2011

    Book Review: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

    Barbara Ehrenreich— highly educated, financially comfortable— goes undercover to see what life would be like as a minimum-wage worker in America. How can someone survive on $6-7/hour?

    Ehrenreich, a journalist by trade, spent a month in each of three locations—Florida, Maine, and Minnesota— as a waitress, hotel housekeeper, maid, and Walmart worker. (She did not inform her co-workers or bosses of her "real" life until her last day at each place of employment.) Her goal was to live like her co-workers (although with the benefit of three important tools: a car, a laptop, and $1000 in start-up funds).

    Her life quickly became extraordinarily difficult. Affordable housing in all cases turned out to be barely habitable trailers, hotel rooms, tiny apartments. Her jobs were emotionally demeaning and physically hard. I'm sure that it was terribly hard for her that people didn't recognize her intelligence, although she never says this. I get the feeling that she often wanted to cry out, "You can't treat me like this: I have a PhD!"

    Or maybe I'm projecting. I've worked minimum wage jobs as a college graduate. I've been that waitress in a polyester uniform, silently fuming because the boss was treating me like everyone else. Did he not recognize my ability to write A+ papers?

    Yes, we are the privileged middle class, and the truth is, that while Ehrenreich's book is interesting and enlightening, she can't possibly present a picture of minimum-wage America with three short months in just three random cities. She needed to add in issues of health-care (when she got a rash from her work as a maid, she called her personal dermatologist and got a prescription) and family (as a single woman, she didn't have to face issues of childcare, etc.). She needed to give up her life for a year, not just a few months, and stay in one place—without a car and an emergency fund.

    Ehrenreich tries, though, to present to her readers, presumably the privileged middle class, the life of millions of minimum-wage workers across America. It's hard. It's unthinkable to many of us that one could spend one's entire life working a couple of different jobs, 60-70 hours/week, on $7 an hour. Most people I know have worked in minimum-wage jobs at some point in their lives, but we all knew that we are working there temporarily—until we were done with college or graduate school, for the most part. Even working in those jobs for a set amount of time—with that light at the end of the tunnel—can be terribly depressing and demoralizing.

    The author is condescending at times and often downright snarky, but I still think this is an important read. She doesn't offer any solutions, but she does raise a lot of questions and shed light on the plight of the poor.

    Saturday, September 10, 2011

    The Sunday Salon: August in Review

    Books Read in August (Click on title for reviews)
    Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich (totally forgot to review this one): dark and disturbing
    Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen by Susan Gregg Gilmore (Southern chick lit)
    The German Woman by Paul Griner (WW2 lit)
    The Judas Field by Howard Bahr (dark and gritty Civil War lit)
    The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes by Diane Chamberlain (great story)
    The Queen's Daughter by Susan Coventry. (historical fiction, medieval)
    Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (excellent journey into how minimum-wage America survives)

    Favorite Book of the Month
    Two very different books, but I loved them both: The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes and Nickel and Dimed.

    Added to My Ever-Growing TBR List
    Before the Storm by Diane Chamberlain
    The Midwife's Confession by Diane Chamberlain
    Father, Mother, God: My Journey Out of Christian Science by Lucia Greenhouse
    You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl by Celia Rivenbark

    Read Aloud to 10 Year Old
    Island of the Blue Dolphins

    Currently Reading
    Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

    Top 3 Most Visited Reviews This Month on SmallWorld Reads
    Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
    Murder on the Orient Express

    Monday, September 5, 2011

    Book Review: The German Woman

    Kate Zweig is Paul Griner's The German Woman: British by birth, German by marriage. The novel opens in WWI in Prussia at a field hospital that is about to be obliterated. Kate is a nurse and her husband, Horst, a doctor. They escape to Germany, where their lives become sheer misery, filled with terror, hunger, pain and drudgery.

    Griner leaves Kate and Horst in Germany and moves into London in WWII. Claus is an American filmmaker living in London, now a reluctant British spy. His story is confusing, told in muddled bits and pieces that reflect his own confusion about his true identity. Born of an Irish father and German mother, he can't figure out to whom he owes his loyalty.

    Then Claus meets Kate, who is by now a woman in her mid-40s, who has recently fled Germany to escape the Nazis. We discover, again in bits and pieces, what happened to Kate and Horst in the years between wars. Claus and Kate embark on a romance that is a refuge for both of them in the midst of their war lives. Claus struggles constantly with his role as a spy and with his desire to have his latest film accepted; Kate continues to work as a nurse, which consists mostly of providing medical assistance to civilians caught in the London bombings. They keep secret from each other portions of their pasts, doling out bits and pieces like shards of the broken city all around them.

    Eventually, Claus implodes, egged on by his supervisor. Trained as a spy, he becomes suspicious of everyone, including Kate. But Griner keeps the reader guessing too, wondering if Claus is right about Kate—is she a German spy, or just a woman wounded by war?

    Griner is a fantastic writer. The images in the novel are powerful and memorable: a splotch of red raspberries against the gray ash, a piano played to soothe starvation, a pig lounging in the sun. I didn't exactly understand all the espionage jargon. I couldn't quite grasp what, exactly, Claus was doing; but that is my own ignorance on war espionage. I was frustrated at times with not being able to understand this large part of the novel, but the story of Claus and Kate was compelling enough to keep reading even without understanding a lot of the historical context.

    (Thanks to Bookworm's Dinner for the original recommendation. Other World War II era novels reviewed here.)

    Thursday, August 25, 2011

    Book Review: Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

    Yes, it is exactly what the title sounds like: Southern chick lit. And I’m okay with that, especially after reading a heavy duty book like The Judas Field. Who doesn’t need a little bit of contemporary southern melodrama after an intense, grizzly book about the Civil War?

    Susan Gregg Gilmore's Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen is an old story. The preacher’s daughter can’t wait to get out of her tiny home town. Catherine Grace and her sister lost their mother to a drowning accident when they were little girls, and she has always missed her mother terribly. Her father was a great dad, and her next-door neighbor filled lots of motherly jobs, but there is still an emptiness.

    As soon as the Catherine Grace graduates from high school, she moves away to the big city of Atlanta. Her boyfriend back home moves on, but she has no intention of ever returning, so that’s OK.

    Eventually, things happen that force her to return to her tiny hometown.

    Yes, you’ve probably heard that same story line before, but all stories are based on the same basic themes, right? I liked this one. It was fun, a little sappy, and a little surprising.

    If you need a great light read, especially after something that takes a lot of concentration, this is a great choice.

    Saturday, August 20, 2011

    Book Review: The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes

    My goodness. My reading tastes are so odd. This month I've read the hardcore The Judas Field and the fluffy Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, and now I'm somewhere in between with Diane Chamberlain's The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes. But I liked them all, and I really, really liked CeeCee Wilkes.

    The story is pretty crazy and far-fetched, but I didn't care. CeeCee Wilkes is a 16-year-old foster kid smitten by a 22-year-old college student who asks her to do an unthinkable thing: kidnap the governor's wife. Out of love for him, she does it, but the results are disastrous. Well, sort of.

    CeeCee is forced to go underground and take on a new identity until her world comes crashing down nearly 30 years later. I know: it sounds cheesy. But I was spellbound, seriously. I loved this story. Maybe I just needed a book that was dramatic and unlikely, but I read it in about 2 days.

    Guess what? I am going to read more Diane Chamberlain books. Maybe they are cheesy, but at this point in my life, I don't care. I need some cheese.

    (Thanks to S. Krishna for the initial review and recommendation.)

    Book Review: The Judas Field

    My 86-year-old father and I flew out to Seattle (from Tennessee) a few weeks ago to visit his sister, my aunt. Strangely, my father did not bring a book with him for the long flight, so I gave him Howard Bahr's The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civl War. He devoured it well before the end of the flight, which included a long nap on his part, as well.

    At several points while reading, my father said, "Listen to this." He'd then read me a beautifully poetic passage from Bahr's book. My father and I are suckers for word crafting. When he handed it back to me, he said that he really enjoyed it but didn't know if I would like it.

    I did like it, actually. The Judas Field is stark and sad, but the story is well told and vivid. Cass Wakefield is a Civil War veteran, haunted by the horrors of the war. Twenty years after the war, an old friend asks him to take her to Franklin, TN, where her father and brother were killed. She wants to dig up the bodies and rebury them in Mississippi.

    Cass reluctantly agrees and embarks on a painful journey full of horrific memories and an array of ghosts. The discriptions of the battles as remembered by Cass are really amazing; Bahr is masterful enough to conjure up a nearly tangible vision of the horrors of battle. This novel is the gritty heart and soul of a soldier in the midst of slaughter that was the Battle of Franklin.

    The novel is beautifully written and terribly sad, but a truly mesmerizing window into how lives are altered forever by war.

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Book Review: The Queen's Daughter

    Joan, the youngest child and only daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, is The Queen’s Daughter in this novel by Susan Coventry. I must admit to having forgotten most of the details of this medieval time period when Henry II, Eleanor, and Joan's brother Richard the Lionhearted took center stage. I read this solely as a novel, without being able to fit all this into a solid historical context.

    I enjoyed the book. I wish I had brushed up on all the battles, the Crusades, and medieval history in general before I had read it. But as a story of a princess who is forced to choose between loyalty to her father, mother, or brothers and who has no choice but to marry the King of Sicily when she is only 12, the novel was good. There were way too many confusing battle scenes and political references for me, but someone who knows the historical details would probably love all this. My father, for example, who pretty much knows every single bit of history ever, loved The Queen's Daughter.

    I actually read this book because I thought it might be fantastic for a European history class. This could be a good book to enrich a study of medieval history, but I wouldn't really recommend it for kids under 15, as there were several scenes focused on her sexual relationship with her husbands.

    If you're a history buff, you may love this; otherwise, well, I'm not sure the writing was compelling enough for me to give it an enthusiastic thumbs up.