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Original Essays | September 30, 2014

Benjamin Parzybok: IMG A Brief History of Video Games Played by Mayors, Presidents, and Emperors



Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost... Continue »
  1. $11.20 Sale Trade Paper add to wish list

    Sherwood Nation

    Benjamin Parzybok 9781618730862

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Melinda Ott has commented on (134) products.

Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Food and Love from an American Midwest Family by Kathleen Flinn

Melinda Ott, October 22, 2014

We all know that there is such a thing as Comfort Food, but there is also Comfort Reading--those books that feel like a hug and restore your faith in everyday people. Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good gives you both Comfort Food AND Comfort Reading!

The Flinn family is a typical mid-Century, mid-American family. There are now celebrities in this family and the only one that crosses this family's path is Michael Moore in his younger years. They aren't the saccharine kind of family that you might find on a sit-com or family drama. No, the Flinn's are a fun and loving bunch who pull together through the ups and downs.

Folks, I want to be a part of this family. The parents love each other (really, they are always running off on countless "second honeymoons"), they have an array of eccentrics in their extended family, and Flinn's sister actually runs away to be a clown! Yes, a clown!

Oh, and then there is the food. Other than Julia Child's Beouf Bourginon, we aren't talking about "fancy" food. This is stick to your ribs and warm your soul fare. This is the kind of food that I grew up with--my mother being a good mid-Century, mid-American woman. And there are RECIPES! I really wish I had the hardcopy of this book as it would be easier to go back to the recipes!

I related to this family--like Kathleen, I was the youngest by FAR and was at home long after my siblings had moved out (in my case, many of my siblings had moved out before I was born). While my family didn't especially struggle financially while I was growing up, there were some definite hard times before I came along.

For readers who are into serious memoirs, this may be a bit light. For everyone else--especially foodies--this is a treat. I laughed, I sobbed, and I wanted to eat!
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I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay Mccabe
I Shall Be Near to You

Melinda Ott, September 26, 2014

My friends, it is books like I Shall Be Near To You that made me a reader.

It is no secret that I love historical fiction and it had been a while since I read anything set during the Civil War, so it was with a shrug of my shoulders and a, "what the heck" that I took this one on. I'm almost ashamed to admit that was my initial reaction because this book completely blew me out of the water.

The idea of a woman fighting as a man seems almost exotic to readers, but as is said in the summary, there were over 250 documented accounts of this happening during the Civil War (so much for those who say women aren't fit for combat). I have read other such stories, but they've always had this sort of "hero complex." You know--amazing woman fights stereotypes to fight for her country and become a hero...blah blah blah. I'm not discounting that, but all the stories with this subject that I had read were pretty much the same thing.

This book, however, is different. Rosetta does not don the life of Ross Stone for any lofty nationalistic reason, Instead, she joins to be with her husband--who joined up to earn the money for the two of them to start a new life in the west. Both Rosetta and Jeremiah are characters I could really sink my teeth into. As the book begins, Rosetta lives in a world where she doesn't feel she belongs. With Jeremiah, she finds the "home" she has always wanted, but he's soon gone and she's thrust into a situation worse than before she married him. While I can't imagine ever facing the horrors of war, I never once questioned Rosetta's choice to do so. Jeremiah, on the other hand, has to fight between want he feels is best for his wife and letting her choose her own path. I really can't think of another character in this situation written as well as Jeremiah.

Throughout the book, McCabe shows the horror of war--not graphically, but in the emotional reactions of Rosetta and her fellow soldiers. While there is some battle descriptions (McCabe could not have written this book without them), there is also a deep sense of humanity. Among the soldiers, we see--in addition to the husband and wife of Jeremiah and Rosetta--fathers and sons, brothers, friends. My favorite secondary character was Will, a young soldier with his own burden, but also a deep faith and great compassion.

This is also the story of a marriage. To say that Rosetta and Jeremiah are facing some stressful situations is an understatement. While there is a beautiful sense of romance, this is not a "romantic" book. Instead, it is an illustration of true love and devotion--something that the saccharine "romance" label cannot capture.

I'll admit that I sobbed at several points in this book and I'm tearing up just writing this review. I know there are still a few more months left before I can really make this declaration, but I have a feeling that this will end up being my best read of the year.

Just. Read. This. Book. Okay?
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The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith
The Story of Land and Sea

Melinda Ott, September 18, 2014

There are books that are suspenseful or romantic or funny....The Story of Land and Sea is beautiful.

I was immediately drawn in by Smith's writing. Her voice is surprisingly lyrical for a debut author and, if nothing else, I'm glad that this book introduced me to her work. She was able to vividly recreate the world of late 18th-century North Carolina so well that it made me homesick for the years I spent living in that part of the country.

The characters quickly became dear to my heart. We have John, the ex-Pirate (yes!) turned soldier, his vivacious wife Helen, his spunky daughter Tab, and his widowed father-in-law, Asa. Along with this family, we have Moll, the slave given to Helen when they were both children, and her oldest son, Davy. Each and every character came to life as I read and I fell a bit in love with each and every one of them.

This book is more a study than it is a story. Smith takes her time to really delve into each and every relationship in this book--and not a single one of them is simple. However, in exchange, this is not a strongly-plotted novel. Personally, I'm fine with that--I would choose a character-driven book over a plot-driven book any day of the week.

However, because of that, I feel I can't give this book the 5 stars that it was for me. I suspect that some readers may be frustrated with the less-developed plot, especially if they are more interested in the story than the characters. On the other hand, those who put more stock in well developed characters and setting would likely fall in love with this book as I did.
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Wives of the Patriarchs #03: Rachel by Jill Eileen Smith
Wives of the Patriarchs #03: Rachel

Melinda Ott, September 8, 2014

I chose this book almost completely out of curiosity. I had previous read Michal by Jill Eileen Smith and I liked her premise of basing books on wives of notable Old Testament men, but I wasn't sure how she would handle this one.

The story of Rachel and Leah is well known, but here is a very high-level run down for anyone not familiar with the story from the book of Genesis. Jacob, who is a sort of shifty fellow in his own right, flees Canaan for the land of Uncle Laban. There, he sees Rachel and falls in love with her. He works out a deal with her father, Laban (yes, they were cousins--but who wasn't?) that he will work for Laban for 7 years in return for Rachel. He does his time, gets married and the following morning when he lifts the veil---there is Rachel's older sister, Leah. Leah is described as having "beautiful eyes" in the Bible, while Rachel is just plain beautiful. Jacob is not exactly happy about this, but agrees to work for another 7 years for Laban to marry Rachel as well. So, now he's married to two sisters, but only loves one. God takes pity on Leah and "opens" her womb and she starts giving birth to son after son after son (which of course would make someone question Jacob's "eyes only for Rachel" policy). Rachel realizes she is barren, so she gives Jacob her maid Billah to have sons in her stead. Leah, not to be outdone, then gives Jacob her maid Zilpah for more sons--while herself still having children--and a full blown baby making war ensues. Rachel does end up giving birth to Joseph, who becomes a major Patriarch and the subject of a Tim Rice / Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, as well as Benjamin. All in all, Jacob ends up with 13 acknowledged children--12 sons and 1 daughter--from Leah, Rachel, and their maids. (And, of course, family dysfunction carries on...and on...and on...)

So, this is a story of lots and lots of, well, sex. And that is not exactly something you see a lot of in Christian fiction. It is also a story of a lot of really uncomfortable family dynamics, which isn't always fun for the reader. I was really curious to see how Smith handled this, and to my view, she wasn't completely successful.

I will come right about and admit that part of my problem was that I just didn't like how she told this story. Jacob, who has a history of his own scheming (I won't go into it--it's all there in the Book of Genesis) comes across as a lily-white saint. There are some vague references to stealing his brother's birthright, but Smith seems to gloss over that. Frankly, I think he would have been more interesting if Smith had stuck closer to how the Bible's version of him.

Before reading this book, I was firmly in the "Team Leah" camp and this book did nothing to change that. I found the character of Rachel to be childish long past the point when her character should have been behaving in such a way. And, I realize this is petty on my part, but it annoyed me every time that Smith referred to Rachel's beautiful eyes. Yeesh! That is the only thing Leah had and you give it to Rachel?

Smith does a good job of sticking to the scripture but, and this is probably the only time I will every say this, I wish she had taken a bit of artistic liberty in one area. The "rape" of Dinah comes up at the end of this book--where it does in the Bible--and it is just too big of an event to not devote quite of bit time and energy to. I would have been more than happy to forgive that omission from this story.

I will say that Smith does an admirable job of trying to get this story into the "Christian Fiction" genre. Ironically, this book is not overtly "Christian"--what I mean is that a non-Christian reader could read it without feeling they were being preached to or having to struggle with beliefs they may not share.

However, I probably wouldn't recommend this to a non-Christian reader--not because of anything in this book, but because there is a much better book out there. Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, which is the story of Dinah, is a fantastic novel that really digs deep into the relationships between all these women and explores the role of women in the days of the Patriarchs. It is not, however, a Christian novel (Diamant herself is Jewish) and it is more graphic than some readers of Christian Fiction would appreciate. It is for those readers I would recommend this book. For me, however, it just didn't work.
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How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer
How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

Melinda Ott, September 2, 2014

I picked up this book because I had heard a number of good things about it on a few book podcasts I enjoy. It sounded quirky and fun and a good choice to break up a string of heavier books I'd been working through.

This book was both completely and not at all what I expected. It is original and quirky with a touch of magic realism, which I appreciated. Sometimes the quirks were a bit too much for me, but I loved the "not of the world" aspects of the story. Netzer is also fun to read with a keen sense of humor.

I will say the premise of the book intrigued me more than the actual book. At the end of the day, this is a romantic novel (I wouldn't call it a "romance," as it doesn't fit that genre). There are two story lines happening--the budding romance between Irene and George and the secret plan concocted by their mothers Unfortunately, I think the presence of two plots sort of short changed both. Neither story really went as deep as I would have liked and I never really felt like I got close to any of the characters.

I will readily admit that this might be a case of a book just not being a very good fit for the reader. I have reader friends who I think would really enjoy this book, even though I can't say that I did.
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