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!