25 Women to Read Before You Die

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Melinda Ott has commented on (190) products.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Kitchens of the Great Midwest

Melinda Ott, August 13, 2015

I really don't know if there is a book out there that is more suited to my tastes than this one. I love food and cooking (well, I don't always love cooking--but I love the idea of cooking), I love short story collections (this is a short story collection in novel form, if that makes any sense), and I love the Midwest. So, you know, sign me up.

This book lived up to all of my expectations and then some. The mechanics of this book are unique, which is something I don't come across too often. As I said, it is a short story collection in novel form. By that, I mean that each chapter is a distinct chapter, but they are all tied together through the character of Eva Thorvald. So, is Eva the main character? Well, yes and no. She is definitely the axis around which this book turns, but she appears less and less in the book as it progresses. In turn, other characters take center stage as their lives are touched in surprising ways by Eva. Honestly, if someone told me this was how it went, I never would have thought it would work But it does--marvelously.

At its heart, this is a story of parents and children, specifically mothers and daughters--but you don't see that until you've read the last word. Stradal is not overbearing with his theme and lets it develop organically over all the stories he includes. I appreciated that I wasn't hit over the head with THIS IS WHAT THIS BOOK IS ABOUT and that Stradal let me discover it on my own.

And the food! Yes, there are recipes and I have a mostly love, but a little hate relationship with recipes in novels. I appreciate them but, unless they are collected at the end of the book, I find that they sometimes break up the flow of the narrative. Stradal not only doesn't save the recipes for the end, he puts them right smack dab in the middle of the narrative. Again, this should irritate the heck out of me, but he does it in a way that actually works. This is partly because there aren't that many recipes and also because, when he does include them, it is part of the action of the plot. Oh, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be making Pat Prager's Peanut Butter Bars in the very near future!

Let me close with this, several people that I know will most likely receive copies of this book for Christmas. It is that good!
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The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach by Pam Jenoff
The Last Summer at Chelsea Beach

Melinda Ott, August 11, 2015

When I said that I was reading this book, a number of people told me how much they loved Pam Jenoff's books. I was a little ashamed to admit that this is the first of her novels that I've read. But, I can say now, that it definitely won't be the last.

This book had a lot going for it with me from the get go. I love immigrant stories and World War II historical fiction. Addie is a strong female character who is working to make it on her own but is enamored by the big Irish family next door (at least during the summer). Jenoff delivers on all these points and then some.

I really enjoyed Jenoff's voice. The story is told from Addie's point of view and she sounds like, well, like a young woman in the early 40's--not like an author from the early 21st century. I also really appreciated that Addie faced not only the obvious challenges like, oh, World War II but also some more subtle ones, such as gender equality in relationships.

This book is all over the place, but I mean that in a good way. Addie travels from Italy to the United States and then to England and back, but the action of the only spans 4 years. I found it fascinating how much Addie's world changed in such a short time, but I did question how easily she was able to travel across the Atlantic at pretty much the spur of the moment during wartime.

It shouldn't be a surprise that Addie is the most developed character, but Jenoff keeps the supporting cast from becoming to static. Each of the Connally brothers has a distinct personality, which helps to keep them straight at times. I also liked how Jenoff drew Addie's Aunt Bess. The impression the reader has of her is clearer (and fairer) than the one that Addie gives us.

This was a perfect read at the perfect time for me. It was an intriguing read that kept my attention with a fast plot and tight writing, but it wasn't so heavy that it became a chore. I would definitely recommend this book and I know I'll be reading more by Pam Jenoff in the future.
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Sweet Water (P.S.) by Christina Baker Kline
Sweet Water (P.S.)

Melinda Ott, August 7, 2015

It is no secret that I, like so many others, loved Christina Baker Kline's Orphan Train, which was her most recent novel. Sweet Water was her first novel, and it shows how much she's grown as a writer.

That's a polite way of saying this book is downright painful.

First off, a warning...I will probably tiptoe into spoiler territory. I try to avoid that when I write reviews, but I'm kind of in the "why bother" mode in this one. So, if you still want to read this book at this point, you may want to tune out now.

I will say that Kline's writing talent is evident here. Her prose is readable and mature, but not heavy-handed. The problem with this book is not in the writing, it is in the construction. The plot is barely there and ill-defined. Is it about Cassie trying to "find what she's looking for" with her mother's family? Is it about Cassie's Grandmother's secret? Is it about Cassie's quest to find out what happened to her mother? The answer to all those is this: um, kinda, sorta? I don't think Kline ever had a clear idea of what this book was about and the reader certainly doesn't as they make their way through the story.

Then there are the stereotypes of southerners. Let's see...we have the catty frenemies, the holier than thou preacher's wife, the wild child (there are a couple of those), the old drunk, and the town gossip. All of these characters have shown up in any number of superficial Southern novels, movies, or TV shows. And, if that wasn't enough, there is probably one of the most offensive (and, really, inaccurate) Southern stereotypes out there. I'll give you a second....yep. We have a fair dose of explicit cousin on cousin action. Now, Kline does try to diffuse the situation by stating that they aren't "real cousins" because one of them is adopted. But, then she includes a few post-coital observations about how much the two look alike--very pointed observations (which are both yucky and annoying because she never closes that loop...).

Yes, I know...you need a shower now.

As I said, the one positive aspect was Kline's language. It was the one thing--well, that and the fact that I knew what she could do in Orphan Train that kept me going. However, I'm not going to let this book turn me off Kline's writing. As I said, this was her first novel and, when you compare it to her latest, you can see how much she has grown. If anything, it makes me more likely to read her next book. But, save yourself from the experience of this book and just take my word on it, okay?
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A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master" by Rachel Held Evans
A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband

Melinda Ott, August 5, 2015

This was one of those books that was....exactly what you would think it would be. That isn't a bad thing...it just is what it is. I think the first issue that I should address is the similarity between this book and A.J. Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically. Yes, they are similar--and Evans even mentions that in one point. However, I really feel that Evans has the upper hand in this face off. For one thing, this book has a better focus than A.J. Jacobs' work. While Jacobs seems to come from the viewpoint of, "Hey, let's try to be religious," Evans goes into her project to explore an issue--Biblical Womanhood--that she encounters in her own life.

I will admit I had a little trouble categorizing this book in my mind. On one hand, there is a definitely "Christian Living" element to that. However, while Evans does talk about her own faith, the book itself is more of a cross between a memoir and historical research. This isn't a book I would say is JUST for Christians. It doesn't come across as preachy at all and non-Christian readers, provided they are tolerant of others' beliefs, would probably enjoy it as well, In fact, if there was a group who would be more likely to be offended by this book, it would be Conservative Evangelical Christians.

I really enjoyed Evans's writing. It was casual and conversational, but not at all glib. She is very respectful of beliefs that don't match her own--and my favorite parts were when she referred to Orthodox Judaism and her virtual friend who was serving as her expert. She also includes some of her husband's diary entries, which adds a nice dimension to her narrative.

She did visit some communities and people who were on the more extreme ends of the spectrum--the Amish, a polygamist, a quiverfull follower. I will say that, while these episodes were interesting, they didn't stick with me as much as other parts of the books. Mostly, I remember reading Evans' mishaps as she tried to adopt some extreme behaviors.

All in all, it was a readable, if not exactly surprising, book. I would recommend it to most anyone, and would definitely recommend it over other similar books.
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How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara Oneal
How to Bake a Perfect Life

Melinda Ott, July 31, 2015

Here we have a book featuring a baker and, honestly, I felt like it was baked in a microwave. Some parts were perfect, some parts were overdone and tough, and some parts were raw and undeveloped. I'm left feeling deflated because, what I liked about this book, I really, really liked.

Ramona is a fantastic character. She has a history--she was an unwed teen mother who recently broke with her family and started her own business. She's guarded, as one might expect, but still yearning for companionship. I appreciated that she was human, not perfect. While I rooted for her without, I could still she that she had her own flaws.

O'Neal presents four major plots here (and four, for a book like this, is just too many). Ramona is struggling in her business and wondering what her next steps are. Her very pregnant daughter's husband was critically wounded and must go to him, which understandably causes Ramona worry and stress. Ramona is also needed to become the guardian to her tween step-granddaughter. And, to top all this off, there is a romantic element when "a man from her past" comes back on the scene.

I know that it is the romance that is the selling point of this book, but I felt that this was the least necessary (and least interesting) aspect of the book. Honestly, O'Neal could have lifted that entire plot and its character out of the book and still have enough for a good novel. Or, if this book really was meant to be a "romance," one or two of the other plots should have been left out.

I did think that O'Neal's writing was tight and readable, but I did have one complaint. I'm not a prude, but detailed sex scenes (or, as my mother calls them, "biology lessons") are rather annoying, especially if they don't fit in with the fabric of the book. The more intimate scenes just didn't fit with the narrative style of the rest of the book (but, as I said before, that whole plot didn't really fit). At times, I felt almost as if she had outsourced those pages while she wrote the rest of the book.

Another thing that bugged me...there is a supernatural element in this book. I have nothing against supernatural elements, but I feel that they have to be handled with care. I wouldn't say that O'Neal isn't committed to this element--she follows it throughout the book--but I really felt that she should have handled it differently. How, exactly, I'm not sure. Perhaps she should have made it a larger part of the whole story...I don't know. What I do know is that it just didn't quite jive here.

I don't want to give the impression that I hated this book. As I said, I really enjoyed the main character. The plot(s) also kept me going until the end, even if they sometimes left me scratching my head. This is a lighter read and problems in books like that are easier to forgive. In the end, it was still an entertaining read and is great when you just need something lighter to read when you have a few minutes here and there.
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