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Melinda Ott has commented on (158) products.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven

Melinda Ott, February 24, 2015

This book has been out for less than 6 months and I already feel like I'm the last person in the world to read it. That alone should tell you something about this book.

The post-apocalyptic theme is big now--I don't want to write it off as a trend (such as the vampires of a few years ago) because I think there is more to it than that. I think our interest in these storylines says something about where we are in our current world. While I find the dystopian flavor of this idea to be little too common, I do appreciate books such as Station Eleven (and Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles) that take a more present look at a post-apocalyptic world.

There are three major time settings in this book. We start as the pandemic--the Georgia Flu--hits the world and kills the vast majority of the population. Mandel doesn't focus too much on the actual deaths, but rather on the survivors, which is something I appreciated (especially as I started reading this shortly after my own bout wit an obviously less deadly, but still icky, flu).. We then jump ahead almost 2 decades where the world is a lawless place populated by small settlements in the ruins of our current world. In the midst of this, we also have flashbacks to well before the pandemic and the life of the actor Arthur Leander, his friend Clark, and his 3 ex-wives.

I should warn potential readers here that this is a book based at least equally on flashbacks as on the current narrative. Mandel handles this with ease and I think she uses these different pieces well to bring the story together However, I know that there are people who don't like excessive use of flashbacks in use. While I don't think that Mandel's use is excessive, I can see how it might not work for some readers.

Mandel's language is just lovely and I found her way of taking the mundane and making it art interesting. For example, there is a fair amount of Shakespeare in this story--Arthur dies during a performance of King Lear, the actors from the Traveling Symphony perform A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the entire plot is, well, Shakespearean. However, in the same way and given almost the same weight, are lines from Star Trek: Voyager. And,no, it does not come across as pop culture pandering. Instead, it shows that there is art and beauty in every age (I'll take Mandel's word on the importance of Star Trek: Voyager, though...)

It is hard to pinpoint one main character in this novel. There is Arthur, who dies as the novel begins, but whose life ties everything together. Circling around Arthur are 2 of his 3 ex-wives, his best friend, the man who tried to save his life, and the child actress who witnessed his death. Other than ex-wife #2 who was more a plot device than anything, these character worked their way into my heart and I think I fell a little bit in love with all of them.

This book is a quiet one, quieter than one might expect after reading the synopsis. It is not as if nothing happens in this book, but it is much more concerned with the characters, their lives, and their experiences that create the beauty of this book. I would recommend this book to anyone (who doesn't have a flashback aversion).
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The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (Iowa Short Fiction Award) by Heather A Slomski
The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (Iowa Short Fiction Award)

Melinda Ott, February 19, 2015

I've recently become a fan of short story collections--I can read a story a day or every two days and feel like I've been able to savor it. On the flip side, I sometimes find them hard to review--do we review it in parts or as a whole? It depends on the books, but in this case I think it is best to look at the stories as a whole.

These are not "feel good" romances, which is what one might expect from the title. Instead, they are more like what happens after "happily ever after" or when real life invades our romantic dreams. I think that the short story format works very well with such themes. Slomski is able to tell her story with just enough plot and detail to convey her point, but she never runs into the danger of become too maudlin over the frustrated lovers.

There is a very "experimental" feel about this collection. Some stories are a page long, others a few pages, and a couple border on novellas. Scene and narration style change between each story, yet Slomski uses theme to tie everything together. It would be hard for me to pick a favorite story. I would really love to read "Neighbors" developed as a novel and the first story, "The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons" was very visual and read almost like a scene from a movie. I found the final story, "Before the Story Ends" especially heartbreaking because, sadly, I could relate to it.

As much as I enjoyed this collection, I hesitate to say that it is something I would universally recommend. As I said, the stories feel experimental, which is something I think people who are just "looking for a book to read" might not appreciate. While I appreciate authors pushing the boundaries a bit, I know that some readers may have problems with that. However, I would readily give this title to anyone looking for a fresh new voice in short fiction.
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The Midwife of Hope River: A Novel of an American Midwife by Patricia Harman
The Midwife of Hope River: A Novel of an American Midwife

Melinda Ott, February 17, 2015

First, I have a confession. This book has been sitting on my bedside table, waiting to be read, for over 2 years. Obviously, the premise of this novel intrigued me enough to buy the book, but I just never had that push to actually read it until recently when I as contacted to review The Reluctant Midwife, the sequel to this novel. That was what I needed to finally get this book out of the TBR pile.

I was a little wary of this book. While I love Historical Fiction, it is a genre that tends to breed one of my biggest bookish pet peeves--stories with just too much going on it. To be sure, there are many, many issues addressed in this book--the Great Depression, race relations and the Ku Klux Klan, domestic abuse, women's rights, union and--of course--midwifery. Honestly, if I had known that Harman was going to go into all of these topics, I may not have even started the book. So, it is probably a good thing that I was in the dark about the plethora of subjects.

You see, Harman is probably the first author I've come across who successfully handled so many topics in one novel. This is due in most part to the structure of the novel. Patience Murphy is a woman with a past, and Harman metes out that past slowly over the course of the book. While I never felt that Harman was keeping information from me, I was always aware that there was more to Patience than I knew.

Another factor is, of course, the setting in time and place. This book is set in Depression era West Virginia. In fact, the book begins the day after the stock market crash of 1929. I don't know how Harman could have told many aspects of Patience's story without touching on these areas.

This is a very character-driven book and Harman has created a memorable character in Patience Murphy. Because we (eventually) get her life story, she comes across as a well-rounded, three-dimensional character. She is not perfect, but that makes her human. She is surrounded by a strong supporting cast. There is Bitsy, who she took on almost in charity when she was about to be fired from her domestic position and who became Patience's roommate, assistant, and friend. Mrs. Potts is the aging midwife who hands her "business" over to Patience. And there is Dr. Hester, the vet with whom Patience begins a professional relationship that soon turns into one of trust and friendship.

There are some graphic childbirth scenes which may be hard for squeamish readers. Yet,I found some of those scenes to be the most fascinating in the book. Patience is the first to admit that she is barely qualified to be a midwife and her journal about her work become almost a textbook-in-progress for her. As she meets families in their homes, readers are brought into the hardship of depression era Appalachia.

As I said, this is a very character-driven book, which I enjoy. As a result, the plot is subdued--this is not to say that there is not a plot in this book, but it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters and setting. Because I am a reader who values characters over plot, this did not bother me. However, I can see how other readers may feel that this book lacks the backbone of a strong plot.

Even though it took over 2 years for me to finally read this book, it was worth it and I am now eagerly looking forward to starting The Reluctant Midwife. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in fiction dealing with women's history or 20th century US History.
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Insurgent (Divergent Trilogy) by Veronica Roth
Insurgent (Divergent Trilogy)

Melinda Ott, February 12, 2015

After reading Divergent, I had decided I wouldn't read the rest of the trilogy, but instead would wait for the movie. Then, my husband and I watched Divergent (which I thought was mediocre, but my husband enjoyed) and my non-reader husband wanted to know what happens next. That, of course, meant I had to read Insurgent (not him, of course). So, I did--because I'm a good wife.

In retrospect, I probably just should have waited to see the movie. This is one of those books that drives me crazy--it's not so much a novel as an outline for a motion picture. It has everything one could want in a movie--action, romantic tension ("I love you, but I can I trust you?" "Is he going to break up with me over this?" etc.), and a self-conflicted heroine. Well, maybe not that last part. I think Roth tries very hard to make Tris into Katniss 2.0, but she fails. Katniss doubts about herself arise from her backstory and what has happens to her as the story develops and seems very organic and believable. Tris's are, well, they just sort of appear for no reason that I can find out.

Roth's writing is clear, but basic. I hesitate to say this, but when people criticize young adult fiction, this is the kind of book they are talking about (and, to be clear, there is a plethora of wonderful YA literature out there). I really wanted more depth here, I wanted more back story--things like more of an insight into Caleb's and Tris's earlier relationship or more details of Tobias's pre-Dauntless life would have amplified the story. There were also some weird inconsistencies. For example, at one point Tris is put into a "time out" room in one of the factions. About 50 pages later, Tris mentions that the factions have these time out rooms, but she's never been in one. Uh.....weren't you in one a few chapters earlier?

I found the characters really flat and, at times, ridiculous. Tris, who was somewhat interesting in Divergent, seems to have been demoted to a horror film heroine. She opens a door, thinks that it is a bad sign that the door is unlocked, and continues to walk right through it. The only difference is that she'd have been killed in a horror movie fifteen minutes in.

Here, however, was my biggest problem with the book was the fact that much of it was just unnecessary. There is an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Amy destroys Sheldon's world by pointing out that the character of Indiana Jones is completely superfluous to the Indiana Jones movies. Everything that happens in those movies would have happened if he weren't part of that. That is sort of how I felt about the action in this book. There are several confrontation and action scenes, but nothing ever comes out of any of them. The next confrontation would have happened anyway if the previous one hadn't. Instead of a plot, it seems like this is just a string of rather unrelated incidents. Honestly, to get from the beginning to the end of this book, you only need about 1 confrontation and even that one is pretty straightforward.

Okay, after all this complaining, I will say that there are 2 positives about his book. It did keep me reading it, even if it was sometimes out of disgust. Secondly, I am interested to see how the trilogy ends now. I could wait for the movies (because we all know that there are 4 movies in a trilogy now....), but it would probably be faster to just bite the bullet and read Allegiant. Maybe I will, after I get the taste of this one out of my mouth.
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Benjamin Franklin's Bastard by Sally Cabot
Benjamin Franklin's Bastard

Melinda Ott, January 29, 2015

Ah, good old Benjamin Franklin--the guy we all love even though we know he was a bit, well, smarmy. He was, of course, our Bacchanalian Founding Father and we all can identify that balding old man with the Mona Lisa smile who seems just so charming and eccentric.

Let's start with the fact upon which this novel is based. Benjamin Franklin had a long relationship with a woman named Deborah Read. They were never legally married, but she became his common-law wife after they had lived together for 7 years. Into this relationship, he brought his illegitimate son, William (my guess is that Franklin had more than one illegitimate child, but William is the only one he acknowledged). Benjamin and Deborah also had two children together, Francis and Sally. The identity of William's biological mother is not known.

This is where Cabot starts her novel. She begins with Deborah meeting Benjamin, who soon leaves for England and, in doing so, leaves Deborah in the lurch. Cabot then introduces Anne, a woman born into the lower classes and, while working in a tavern, meets Benjamin Franklin and the two begin a relationship which results in William. I don't want to go too much into the plot because I think in doing so I would be ruining part of the experience of reading this book.

I do want to talk about how Cabot handles her characters. None of the major characters are heroes or heroines are ever completely likable (there is one secondary character, Grissom, who I did find very sweet). But they also are not unlikable. It is easy to see how Deborah develops into the woman she ultimately becomes because, well, almost anyone in her position would do the same. It is also easy to understand the motivation behind many of Anne's decisions.

This novel is written in 3rd person, but Cabot goes into the minds of Deborah, Anne, and, later, William. She does not, however, go into the mind of Benjamin and I think that was a very wise choice on her part. Most readers will go into this book with an idea about Benjamin Franklin and, while she doesn't destroy this view, she definitely adds dimension to it and makes you think about him in a bit of a different way. She does knock Benjamin Franklin off his pedestal and puts him down among the rest of the humans--something Franklin himself probably would have hated, but, hey...not even Benjamin Franklin can escape humanity.

There was another thing about this book I really appreciated and I'm going to be a bit vague about it as I don't want to reveal any plot points for readers not familiar with the Franklin family, but stay with me. Both Patriot and Loyalist views are expressed in this book and Cabot very skillfully illustrates that both of these views have value and that one side is not right and the other is not wrong. In my reading experience, the American Revolution and the European theater of World War II are really the only two conflicts where writers are able to get away with clearly labeling "good guys" and "bad guys." I'll leave the Nazis out of this, but I find this really frustrating when it comes to the American Revolution. I find it really frustrating that characters who have Loyalist sentiments are always painted as villains (with the exception of one book I read a year or so ago, where the Patriots were the bad guys...it was still annoying on the other side of the table). Cabot, however, doesn't do that and I believe that is a very important take away from this book.

All in all, Cabot's writing is readable and enjoyable. I did feel, in the second half of the book, she tended to drop and pick up Anne a bit and wish she had a bit more continuity with that character, but other than that, I have no complaints--but plenty of admiration--for this novel.

I really would recommend this book to anyone to read. Yes, it is a historical novel set during the Colonial and Revolutionary period, but I do believe it transcends its setting and genre and makes for an excellent read.
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