Monday, July 14, 2014

Summer Reading - Book Reviews

It's time for another installment of Michelle's (Mediocre) Book Reviews. Great news! Recently I've read/listened to books that weren't clunkers!

Also great news -- I joined GoodReads after a recommendation from my friend Emilee. I'd been a member of LibraryThing and just transferred my stuff over. 

Aaaand, we forked over the $50 (pilfered from the kids' activity fund) to join the city's library. We live in the suburb of a medium-sized city with an incredible library system. (Our suburban library system is pretty stellar, too.) For that bargain price, we get access to tons more materials, including digital selections. 

(You can find my last blogged book reports here.)

Orange is the New Black
by Piper Kerman

First up, Orange is the New Black. 

There's a Netflix series by the same name, and currently the second season is available. While I enjoyed most of the first season (warning: it's raunchy), I stopped watching the second season after one episode. Perhaps it's because I'd read the book between seasons. Perhaps it's because Season 2 is bad.

The premise is this: Piper Kerman -- a WASPy girl from the northeast -- lands in prison for a decade-old drug crime she committed during a rebellious phase. She's engaged (to a man named Larry) when she surrenders for incarceration, and the memoir details the impact serving her sentence has on her, her fiancé, and her family. It also describes the different women she meets while locked up, as well as the guards and other prison officials.

There are a few things I liked about this book. First, Kerman doesn't make excuses for her crime, although it's clear she doesn't believe long prison sentences for drug crimes are always appropriate punishments. Also, I like that I was surprised by her description of prison life. It's less antagonistic than I expected. Granted, she's in a minimum security prison. Generally she gets along with everyone and there aren't fights and riots and stuff. That's not to say it's easy, especially when she is transferred to another facility -- but still, no shivs or major hair pulling in this book.

In short, it's not at all like the TV series.

I wasn't uplifted after reading this. I'm sure we've all got opinions about the prison system (educational system, healthcare system, etc. etc. etc.), and I'm sure some folks believe prisoners get what they deserve. But it's impossible for me to read personal stories and see Right and Wrong as black and white and hard-lined.

While it didn't leave me warm and fuzzy, and while there were times I thought I'd slap Kerman if she mentioned her "blond hair" one more time, it was a good memoir.

The Invention of Wings
by Sue Monk Kidd

Next up is The Invention of Wings.

Disclaimer: I am a very big  Sue Monk Kidd fan. Her other two books -- The Mermaid Chair  and The Secret Life of Bees are both on my top 25 list. When I worked at the library, I recommended them to just about anyone who would listen. Even 73-year-old men who were Lee Childs fans. Just kidding. But I do feel like I should admit to being a fangirl when I review an author's book.

Sarah Grimke and her sister Angelina were real-life sisters who spoke out in favor of equal rights for African Americans and women in the early 1800s. This was revolutionary for many reasons: first, even abolitionists weren't advocating equality for the races. Add to that the sister's family roots in the planter class in Charleston, SC, and their parents' ownership of slaves, and well. People were ticked at the ladies, as you can imagine.

Sue Monk Kidd uses their life as inspiration for her novel. She takes liberties in some places and sticks to actual events in others -- all of which she details at the end of the novel. She creates slave characters and makes their lives equally central to the story.

If you want my short review it's this: This book is awesome.

Kidd has a way of turning a phrase and describing an emotion that slays me. (For my next review, I'll take notes while I'm reading. You see, I rarely buy books and instead borrow them from the library. This version was an ebook so POOF! It disappeared from my nook and I can't give you specific examples of the stellar phrase turns.) She also has a way of describing characters so fully that the reader feels connected and invested in their despair, joy, and future.

In truth, I didn't know anything about this book until I read it. I didn't know it was based on a true story or true characters. I'd read a brief synopsis when it was first released, but because my brain has limited space these days, I'd forgotten.

I trusted the advice of Anne Bogel. And Oprah, of course. (It's an Oprah Book Club selection.)

So, don't trust me. Trust Modern Mrs. Darcy and Lady O. It's worth reading.

The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Lastly, there's The Signature of All Things. I will start this review by admitting I am not an Elizabeth Gilbert fan. Eat, Pray, Love didn't do it for me. Now I realize I am one of 10 people on the planet who feels that way, but so be it. (I was a librarian too long to let differences in opinions on books affect friendships. Otherwise I'd have no friends.) 

Brief synopsis: (FOR THE LOVE, this is the only time you will read "brief" in this review as there is nothing "brief" about this novel.) We follow the Whittaker family across two generations and dozens of countries in their adventures, relationships, fortunes, and misfortunes. It begins with Henry, the patriarch of the family whose scrappy determination propels him from poverty into one of the wealthiest Americans in the New World. (Oh, did I mention this novel takes place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries? I sense a pattern here.) Henry's daughter Alma is the main subject for the majority of the novel. She's a brilliant botanist, and we are graced with details of her life from birth to near death. (She's in her 90s at book end, so I'm assuming near death. However, given the length of this book and how many times I wondered if it would end, I wouldn't have been surprised if she lived to 150.)

For me, Signature of All Things started out marvelously. Truly. I loved the description of Henry Whittaker's adventures. He is spunky and resourceful. Gilbert's dialogue writing is a definite strength of hers. I enjoyed Alma's early years, the strange dynamic between Alma and her adopted sister, and the complicated character of Alma's mother. Gilbert introduces new characters effectively, but doesn't bog the reader down with too many characters to remember or flesh out adequately.

I was fine until 2/3 of the way through the novel, and then I just got bored. There are a few reasons for this, I think. First, I was listening to the book on audio, which means I couldn't skim through the boring parts. You know what I mean. Also, Alma and her husband have problems in their relationship, the reasons for which are obvious to the reader long before they're obvious to her. Or so one would think. After listening to this book for hours and hours and HOURS, I'm not even sure what caused the problems in their marriage. And I guess that's the idea. As much as Alma wants answers and definitive proof -- as she's able to find in her beloved botany and science -- human relations baffle her.

It's a beautifully written novel. I'd be more inclined to recommend it if it were shorter by 200 pages.

Oh, and a word to the wise. Before you borrow an audio book in digital form from the library, you may want to hop on Amazon and find out how many pages it is or how long the audio recording is. I saw 21 parts, but had no idea. That's 21 hours and 44 minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Up next on my list:

Dear Mr. Knightley 
by Katherine Reay
(I'm reading this one on the nook)

Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
(I'm listening to this one, and it's even longer than The Signature of All Things. BUT it's about Tudor England, which happens to be one of my favorite topics EVAH. A cousin recommended it years ago, and I'm shocked it's taken this long to get around to it.)

Your turn! What are you reading? Anything you'd recommend? (I lost all your comments on my last post as IntenseDebate flaked out on me. A couple of you made recommendations, and I didn't write them down. Can you tell me again? I remember one or two of them really excited me.) 

(P.S. Linking up to Modern Mrs. Darcy's Twitterature party.)


  1. I loved The Secret Life of Bees too so thanks for that Sue Monk Kidd recommendation! I also read Orange is the New Black last year and while I found it quite fascinating I haven't bothered with the TV series as I'd heard it was very different. I've just read Pretty Good Number One (can't remember the author, sorry!) a non fiction account of a family travelling and eating in Japan. Made me hungry and made me want to book a ticket to Tokyo immediately! Fiction wise I've recently enjoyed Serena by Ron Rash. I just read Call The Midwife by Jennifer Worth, her memoirs on which the TV series is based.

    1. Oooh, those are great suggestions!! The one about Japan sounds fascinating, and a dear friend of mine recommended Call the Midwife many times, so I'll add it to my list as my next memoir. (Although I'm afraid it will contribute to an even higher baby fever than I already have, ha.) Hmmmm ... Ron Rash is an author I've never heard of. I'll check it out. Getting back into regularly reading fiction again is soooooo exciting for me!!!!
      Thanks for your suggestions, Roslyn!

  2. I keep forgetting to get on good reads! And I got you to join! Ha! I enjoyed "Orange is the New Black". I did not enjoy the tv series. I've had "The Invention of Wings" on my list for a while. I'll probably skip the Gilbert. :-) I'm in the middle of "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls". Page turner. I finished "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" at the beach. It's historical fiction about Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife. Interesting and good, but I got bored about ¾ of the way through. Can't remember what I read before that. We've also read some good stuff aloud with the kids ("The Indian in the Cupboard" - so fun!). I'm going to email you a list of southern bookstore owners' recommendations.

    1. I'm going through and adding all these recommendations to my "want to read" list on GoodReads. I'm starting the Little House series with the kids. Lee is a Hardy Boys fan, but after five of those, I'm ready for something different. ;)

    2. We read the first Little House aloud and enjoyed it! I thought I'd let C explore the others on her own. I read "And When She Was Good" before those. Interesting...A suspenseful character story about a suburban "madam" who uses her wits and cunning to build and run a "business". And if you haven't read "The Book Theif" or "The Goldfinch", you must! Highly recommend both! Guess all these suggestions will keep you busy until Christmas! :-)

  3. I'm #53 on the holds list for The Invention of Wings. Can't wait!

    1. I had to wait a while for it, too, but it was worth the wait!

  4. I'm 1/4 of the way through The Invention of Wings right now! I am SOOO glad I bailed out on the disappointing novel I was reading and picked this one up instead. Loving it so far.

    1. Oooh, I'm glad you're liking it! She has a way of writing from a child's perspective that is engaging and not at all "juvenile." I hope you continue to enjoy it!

  5. Wolf Hall sounds right up my alley…love me some Tudors :)
    I agree with you about Eat, Pray, Love- I did enjoy some of it…I just didn't find it life-changing like some of my friends. I still want to give Signature of All Things a try. I'm curious to see what Gilbert can do with an historical setting.

    1. Gilbert's research was thorough, and even though I know virtually nothing about botany, she did make it interesting.

  6. Yeah....Eat, Pray, Love did nothing for me either!! My sister gave me The Goldfinch for my birthday, but I haven't started reading it yet or even know what the premise behind the book is.... I'm still a big fan of The Book Thief if you haven't given that one a go!!

    1. I'll add The Book Thief to my list! I've seen the Goldfinch floating around, too, so I'm curious about that one.

  7. So I'm embarrassed to admit I usually stick to adolescent lit (HP, Hunger Games, Divergent). So I was excited to see a whole post of books from a trusted reviewer. I think I'll start with The Mermaid Chair and Secret Life of Bees since you highly recommend them before hitting up the others on your list here. Thanks for some new material!

    1. There's no shame in YA! Modern Mrs. Darcy has YA novels on her lists a lot. The only YA fiction I've read is Harry Potter and the Hunger Games, and they weren't terrible! ;) I'd start with The Secret Life of Bees. The Mermaid Chair is one that even Sue Monk Kidd fans ran hot and cold on.

  8. Confession: I've never read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert. (But I loved her TED talk!)

    I just picked up Wolf Hall at the library book sale for a dollar. Money well spent, I suspect. But yeah, it's LONG. :)


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