25 April 2017

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Genre: General adult fiction, women's fiction
Format: Free ARC through Penguin's First to Read program (no compensation for review)
Expected publication date: 02 May 2017

Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this post. If you click through and make a purchase, I will get a few coins and my coffee budget will thank you. However, if you are skint and have to borrow the book from your library, I understand.

The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman is a novel about the aftermath of grief. Not the immediate aftermath, but what a person goes through after the casseroles stop coming and friends stop tiptoeing around. Thankfully, it avoids the tendency to make the grieving widow look like a freak because she wasn't ready to start dating a year after losing her spouse.

At the opening of the book, Lilian has been a widow for three years. After her husband's death in a car accident, she had a mental breakdown and had to be hospitalized. With the help of family, friends, and a good doctor, Lilian was able to get back to handling the normal routines of her life like going to her job as a textbook illustrator and taking care of her two young daughters. That was a major achievement, but now the sameness of her life is starting to get to her. That's when Lilian's boss signs her up for a gardening class so she can illustrate a set of gardening guides and a group of new friends comes into her life.

The subject may give the impression that this story is maudlin, but that isn't the case. The banter between Lilian and other characters is lively, while the expression of what it felt like for Lilian to witness her husband's death and go through a breakdown was moving. The little interstitial bits about how to grow different vegetables felt almost like a gimmick, but they don't detract from the enjoyment of the book and are easy to skip.

Stories that revolve around a group of disparate strangers who encounter each other through an activity like a knitting group or a cooking class can suffer from the issue of telling instead of showing. Waxman avoided this problem by showing every scene from Lilian's point of view. Any information the reader finds out about the other characters is the result of Lilian seeing it or hearing it herself. This makes the story feel much more active than when an invisible narrator just tells you everything the characters are doing.

In The Garden of Small Beginnings, Waxman has given us a contemporary view of creating a new life after loss. There is nothing revolutionary or shocking in the outcome of the story, but it is still one that can be appreciated by mature readers who have gone through such a tragedy themselves.

The Garden of Small Beginnings at Amazon
The Garden of Small Beginnings at Book Depository
The Garden of Small Beginnings at Overdrive

06 April 2017

The Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Genre: General adult fiction, women's fiction
Format: Free ARC through NetGalley (no compensation for review)
Expected publication date: 25 Apr 2017

Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this post. If you click through and make a purchase, I will get a few coins and my coffee budget will thank you. However, if you are skint and have to borrow the book from your library, I understand.

The Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey is a historical novel set in 1908 and based on a real organization by the same name. It follows four young women -- Caprice, Ada, Maria, and Thea -- who are daughters of Italian and Jewish immigrants in Boston's North End. Each of them is trying to reconcile their families' traditional ways with their own American-born ambitions. Caprice wants to open a shop, Ada is hiding her aspirations for higher education from her father, Maria's desire to protect her family is leading her down the wrong path, and Thea makes a choice to stick with tradition despite the disapproval of her friends.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this book because I had forgotten what genre it was by the time I started reading it. For three-quarters of the book, it read like a novel for 12-year-old girls. I'm talking about books handed to girls when I was 12, not the angst-ridden YA novels that are aimed at that age group now.  The usual types are represented: Maria is the head-turning beauty, Ada is the crazy smart one, Thea is the plain and chubby one (although Healey avoids saying it), and Caprice is the one who keeps them all together. It was all about the four main characters being friends to the end, a bit like a historical Babysitter's Club book. Despite reading young, the book occasionally has a melancholy tone because the women all realize that they are on the cusp of changes that will limit their time together. There were also some references to organized crime and domineering men in the last fourth of the book that almost made it read like an adult book, but not quite.

Healey says that she wrote this book after doing research on Paul Revere pottery, which was created by members of the actual Saturday Evening Girls Club and currently is considered a collector's item. I wish there had been more of the club's workings in the book.  Instead, it was used mostly as the location for conversations. At the opening of the novel, the main characters have already been members of the club for seven years, so the reader doesn't get a sense of how the club has helped them in their lives, even though the characters are often saying thank you to the women who run it.

Overall, the book is fine. It is the kind of book that sits right in the middle. Healey gives us a slice of life in the 1900s in the tenements, but it is the sanitized version. Characters mention things like hunger and prostitution in passing, but the reader doesn't feel the sting of them. I can't really say that the book ends on a cliffhanger, but the reader says goodbye to the characters at the start of some major decisions and doesn't get to see them through. I would say that if you want a light historical to cleanse your reading palate between other books, this would be it.

The Saturday Evening Girls Club at Amazon
The Saturday Evening Girls Club at Book Depository

01 April 2017

National Poetry Month is Here!

April is National Poetry Month. I think I knew this is the back of my mind somewhere, but it still caught me by surprise this week. As a result, I haven't prepared anything to read for this month. My preference is more modern poetry (when you have forgotten Sunday: the love story by Gwendolyn Brooks, for example) and especially love poetry, so that is what I will be seeking out. Suggestions are welcome.

In addition to reading poetry, I plan to write more poetry this month, as well. It has been almost 10 years since I wrote poetry on a regular basis. One of my goals for 2017 is to write more in general with the vague idea that I might actually attempt a novel this year, but so far my writing has been more of the blogging variety. I'm glad that I've resurrected my blogs but I want to push myself towards writing fiction, so I hope that getting back into the poetry groove will help with that. I know that prose and verse are two different things, but at least I'll be writing, right? If you are interested, I'll be posting my poetry scribblings on my other blog, Straddling The Century Line.

27 March 2017

Gun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: Free ARC through NetGalley (no compensation for review)
Expected publication date: 12 Apr 2017

Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this post. If you click through and make a purchase, I will get a few coins and my coffee budget will thank you. However, if you are skint and have to borrow the book from your library, I understand.

When I was 13, my family had volumes of Reader's Digest Condensed Books in the den. I read those books over and over because we lived out in the country and didn't have easy access to the public library. Gun in Cheek by Bill Pronzini is the type of book I would have enjoyed back then, but I'm not sure who would read it now.

Gun in Cheek is a Dover reprint of a title released in 1982, and the subtitle is "An Affectionate Guide to the 'Worst' in Mystery Fiction". In modern parlance, I think this book would be called a recap rather than a guide. In sections devoted to amateur detectives, cops, and gothic novels, Pronzini picks two or three novels that he considers "bad" and basically retells the entire story of each one. If you have ever read a TV show episode recap on a website like Previously.tv, then you have this book -- except this book doesn't have quite as much snarky fun. Still, some of the quotes from the actual novels Pronzini is summarizing are amusing.

Because the reading of plot synopses can begin to feel repetitive, this isn't a book that can be read straight through. Dover reprints are affordable enough that it wouldn't be a hardship to have this on a shelf for a bored kid to discover on a Sunday afternoon, most likely when the Internet is down.

Gun in Cheek at Amazon
Gun in Cheek at Overdrive (older edition)
Gun in Cheek at Book Depository

26 March 2017

Sunday Salon: It's a Wash

In January, I wrote a post about reading only from my TBR list until the end of March. I also tried to resist the urge to add any new books during that time. Well, we are almost at the end of March and I'd say that I broke even. I read eight books that have been on my radar for a while, but they came from the free books on my iPad and my wish list at the library. This means my Goodreads TBR list didn't decrease at all. In fact, it increased because I added six books. So, like I said, the challenge was a wash. I'm still going to make an effort to get through the books on my lists, either by reading or purging.

One thing this personal challenge caused me to do is to think more carefully before I add a title to my TBR list. I added six titles in the past three months but there were about 15 titles that I didn't add. My routine has been to add any book whose title I want to remember, and then every few months I delete titles that no longer interest me. There are worse ways to kill time on a lazy afternoon than clearing out my TBR list, but I'd rather spend that time reading.

I also came to the realization that I don't finish books as quickly as I thought. I've read 14 books total since the beginning of the year, but I expected to read twice that many in the space of three months. The reading itself goes quickly, but when I put a book down it takes longer for me to pick it back up. I don't seem to need reading as an escape as much right now as I have during other times of my life. For instance, this time last year I was working a stressful job and I picked up a book every chance I got. I finished 24 books by the end of March 2016 and 11 of those books were novella collections with at least five stories each so they were LONG books. I know that reading isn't a race, but I'm sure I would get more enjoyment out of a book than with whatever else I'm wasting time on.

The last thing that slowed down the clearing-out of my TBR list was that I signed up for NetGalley. In the past, I only requested advanced reader copies (ARCs) occasionally and rarely received them; before this year, I think I only read and reviewed two. However, it occurred to me that I could provide a better reader experience by reviewing some upcoming releases along with the backlist titles. With my past experience, I requested several ARCs at once because I expected that I would have to wait a while to get any. Boy, was I wrong! I got every title I asked for almost immediately. I know that there are bloggers who stack up ARCs and keep requesting more as if it is no big deal, but the pressure of the looming publication date weighs me down. If I don't write a review for each ARC before its publication date I know that I will feel guilty. Currently, I've reviewed two ARCs and have four to read, so I won't be requesting any more for a while. After I read these, I want to get back to knocking titles off my TBR list.

23 March 2017

The Second Chance Tea Shop by Fay Keenan

The Second Chance Tea Shop (Little Somerby)

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Women's fiction, contemporary romance
Format: Free ARC obtained through NetGalley (no compensation for review)
Sweet or hot?: Medium; a few sex scenes, a few curse words

Disclaimer: There are affiliate links in this post. If you click through and make a purchase, I will get a few coins and my coffee budget will thank you. However, if you are skint and have to borrow the book from your library, I understand.

The Second Chance Tea Shop by Fay Keenan chronicles the courtship of Anna Hemingway and Matthew Carter. Anna is a widow with a three-year-old daughter who has returned to her hometown to run the local tea shop and finally get out from under the oppressive grief of losing her husband two years prior. Matthew is the managing director of the local cider farm, and he has a few issues of his own. The book follows them during a year of activities in their village of Little Somerby.

My first thought after finishing this book is that title is slightly misleading. The tea shop of the title does not play as big a role in the story as I expected. With books like The Friday Night Knitting Club and The Shop on Blossom Street, a lot of the action is in the shop or concerns various patrons of the shop. In this book, the shop really is just a place where the heroine works. The regulars are mentioned but they aren't fleshed out in a way that would make the book feel like it had an ensemble cast.There are a few times where Keenan seems to remember the title and makes a reference to the shop being Anna's saving grace, but I didn't get the feeling that it was central to the plot.

Other than that, there was plenty to like about this book. Keenan paints a picture of the village and the various events that makes you want to tarry a while. She gives readers a portrayal of Anna's grieving process that felt realistic without bringing the tone of the book down too much. The kids in the book add to the story without being annoying. Although there is a bit of drama in the second half of the book, it isn't of the nail-biting sort.

The only aspect that could stop you from recommending this book to your maiden auntie is the sex scenes. There isn't exactly the explicit detailing of Card A going into Slot B, but the scenes don't fade to black, either; the lights are on the whole time. It's nowhere near 50 Shades of Grey, but it is surprising considering the tone of the majority of the book.

I received this as an ARC from NetGalley where the publication date is listed as 01 Apr 2017. However, it seems that the book was actually released on 10 Mar 2017. So if you would like to escape into a bit of light romance while the kids are driving you crazy over spring break, give this a try.