Monday, October 23, 2017


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Edgar & Lucy, Victor Lodato, St Martin's Press, 2017, 526 pp
I had never heard of this author or his book until a reading group selected it. I am so glad they did! I loved every page.
Victor Lodato is a playwright, poet and novelist, an occasional short story and essay writer. He has won awards and gotten a ton of writing fellowships. A hardworking writer, he was born and raised in New Jersey, the state where I grew up. This is his second novel.

I loved the characters, even the "unlikable" ones of which there are many. I loved the oddness of the story which borders on the improbable but feels completely plausible while you are reading it. I loved the steady tension of the tale, though some of the reading group members felt he dragged it out too long. Personally, I feel any novelist who can keep me turning the pages in a state of high anxiety for that long deserves high praise.

Edgar Allan Fini is an eight-year-old albino, being mostly raised by his grandmother in a small New Jersey town. Lucy is his unstable, unwilling mother. Edgar's father suffered from some kind of bipolar type mental illness and died when Edgar was an infant. Lucy's father was an abusive alcoholic, so she became a tough, wild young woman, which is why she stayed on with her in-laws after her husband's death and turned the job of raising Edgar over to her mother-in-law. 

We learn most of this from Edgar's young, unreliable viewpoint. He is an Owen Meany sort of precocious kid with a touch of something akin to Asperger Syndrome. I swear this novel has elements of many other novels but is not quite like any of them.

Loss, secrets, abuse, mental illness, alcohol, predatory males, overbearing and overprotective old world grandmothering all paint a picture of blue collar life in New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen should compose the soundtrack if ever there is a movie.

When Edgar is abducted by another unstable, grief-stricken man (though thankfully never sexually abused) both Edgar and Lucy deal with it in their own ways. Will Edgar ever make it back home from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey? Will Lucy ever grow up enough to deal with her past and her present, not to mention her future? That is what creates the tension.

Perhaps Victor Lodato attempted to put too much into what is ostensibly a psychological thriller but I don't think so. I think he pulled it off. His writing is achingly beautiful and his dialogue is pitch perfect, as one would expect from a poet and playwright. His insight into people's hearts and minds rivals Shakespeare, if you ask me.

In summary, the novel is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish. If you know me as a reader, you understand that it has just about everything I look for in a good read. I loved Edgar Allan Fini!

(Edgar & Lucy is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 20, 2017


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A Legacy of Spies, John le Carre, Viking, 2017, 265 pp
Although I have read only eight of the master's books, I am a John le Carre fan. I like his particular combination of thrilling escapades accompanied by the loneliness and doubts of his spies. The title of his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold captured that truth of spy craft, possibly for the first time in literature, as well as inspiring a great Joni Mitchell song, "Come In From The Cold." 
So I picked up A Legacy of Spies with eager anticipation and was richly rewarded by a trip down to memories of the Cold War with all is menace of creeping communism and its moral ambiguity of the end justifies the means. 
George Smiley, infamous and elusive spymaster of the British Secret Service, who straddled the line between the need for secrecy and the wish to protect his agents, is only a shadow during much of the story. Peter Guillam is featured as the retired and genuinely elderly spy pulled back in to the 21st century version of MI6. The service is about to be sued by descendants of key figures from the past and Peter is expected to save them.

He is unwilling, recalcitrant as always, and it is his cynicism that protects him from demands that he reveal old secrets he would prefer to keep cloistered in his heart. After all he lost in that game, those secrets are all he has left.

Some things never change despite the modern stresses on the service. In some of his novels, le Carre has written such indecipherable conclusions, but in this one the ending is perfect.

(A Legacy of Spies is currently available in hardcover on the new book shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


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The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin, Orbit, 2015, 465 pp
I have been amusing myself lately by reading fantasy. N K Jemisin is a woman of color with several accomplishments. She won the Hugo Award two years in a row: 2016 for The Fifth Season and 2017 for The Obelisk Gate, the first two of a trilogy. She is the first African American to win this award. Some say she has redefined the genre as was done by greats such as Ursula Le Guin and William Gibson. How could I not check it out?
I loved it! The Broken Earth trilogy gets its name from the major earthquakes and other disasters occurring periodically on Jemisin's created continent called The Stillness. It is Earth in the far future, practically unrecognizable except for some remnants of an earlier advanced civilization. 

The disasters have been going on for centuries and whenever one occurs it changes the civilization as the survivors live on and then rebuild. Such a period is called a Season. The story opens with a fresh disaster: earthquake, fire and massive destruction.

Essun comes home from work one day to find her son killed and her daughter kidnapped by her husband and her own life in danger. Essun is secretly an orogene, a person with a magical gift to draw power from the earth itself. 

Orogenes are one of the greatest magical creatures I have come across. They are crucial to saving and protecting humans from these disasters but they are feared and kept in a kind of slavery. In order for Essun to find her daughter she must use her powers but hide them at the same time because long ago she went rogue.

It is a complex story along the lines of the kind of games I have never learned to play. The author provides a glossary and a history of the Seasons in the back of the book. Unless you are adept as a gamer, use them! There is a whole world and system to learn. As the tale progresses, runs backward and forward, as the characters constantly morph into what you least expect, danger and daring and violence build. J K Jemisin makes you want to work harder as a reader than you might have thought you could and then rewards you with a fantastic adventure.

Living through this summer of some the worst fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes ever in my lifetime, along with wars, threats of wars, and untold numbers of displaced people roaming the world, this amazing book both put all that into perspective and had the effect of making me feel less terrified and more able to face the facts of the state we are in.

Then the book ended and I went right to the library to get the next volume, The Obelisk Gate. Thank goodness the third volume, The Stone Sky, was published in August, because I can't stop!

(The Fifth Season is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 13, 2017


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Beartown, Fredrick Backman, Atria Books, 2017, 415 pp (translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith)
Summary from Goodreads: People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.
My Review: 
Well. One of the ways I sometimes feel like I might be truly crazy but just don't know it, is when so many readers love a book, give it 5 stars and rave reviews, and I find it awful, deplorable, even possibly dangerous. I purely hated this book. I'll admit the story has a can't-look-away quality to it, so because I read it for my favorite reading group and because it was recommended to the group by a good friend, I got through it.
I will just say that over and above the facts that the characters are cliches and the author continuously tells the reader what she should think about every incident, the bottom line is this: a 14-year-old girl is raped by a 16-year-old hockey star and he totally gets away with it. The author curiously did not tell the reader what to think about that.

Mansplaining, predatory males, male sports heroes who get away with despicable actions; I know what I think about all that. In light of the recent disclosures about Harvey Weinstein, I cannot and will not recommend this book to anyone. Perhaps I read it wrong, but I don't think so.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


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The Tenants of Moonbloom, Edward Lewis Wallant, Harcourt, 1963, 245 pp
 I don't remember how this novel landed on my 1963 list. I must have read a review somewhere and ordered a copy. That sounds likely because the edition I have is a New York Review of Books Classics reprint. When it came along on my list I picked it up and read it.

At first and for quite a while actually, it was one of those unprepossessing stories about a sad sack guy named Norman Moonbloom who had drifted mostly downward in life. He works as a rent collector for his brother Irwin, a slumlord in late 1950s Manhattan.

Everything is dark and gloomy and falling apart, both the apartments in subdivided brownstones and their inhabitants. You go through a couple days with Norman as he makes his rounds and meet all the tenants. It all felt very much like an early Saul Bellow or Bernard Malumud novel with eccentric, socially maladjusted characters. The maladjusted tenants all complain to the maladjusted Norman about whatever is broken down in their apartments, from stoves to toilets to cracked flooring, stuck windows and buckling walls. Poverty being barely tolerable, exaggerated by high rents and shoddy management. Ho hum.

Suddenly it turns into the story of a young man, Norman, who has never connected much with life or the people around him, but for no known reason bursts into a guy who cares. A guy who defies his penny pinching brother and goes on a crusade to fix everything in those crumbling buildings. A guy who think he can fix those crumbling people or at least bring some light and comfort into their lives.

At that point I had to go on reading, all the while knowing Norman could not fix anyone, probably not even himself, but fascinated and even laughing at the slapstick of Norman's and his handyman Gaylord's do-it-yourself attempts to fix stuff.

Slow start, sudden change, and a tremendous build to the end. I only cared about Norman Moonbloom but it was him learning to care about his tenants that held my attention. In the end the novel was a feat of storytelling in a setting that would normally only induce despair but instead created a sense of hope for humanity.

I took a chance on a book and it paid off.

(The Tenants of Moonbloom is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, October 08, 2017


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The Late Show, Michael Connelly, Little Brown and Company, 2017, 405 pp
I completed my trio of mystery novels with my first Michael Connelly book. His work might be more accurately called crime thriller but since a police investigation is also a "who done it" the genres overlap.
Connelly has been writing for years, publishing 30 books about crime and police in Los Angeles. The Bosch TV series is based on the detective featured in most of his novels. My husband has read almost all of them. For the first time, with The Late Show, his detective is a woman and a brand new character. Renee Ballard lost both parents at a young age but lives part of the time with her grandmother in the suburbs, except when she stays on the beach where she surfs for relaxation and in honor of her dad.
She has been assigned to the night shift, called The Late Show, after having accused her former superior officer of sexual harassment.  That is the punishment she gets from the good old boy network of the department. Her partner is an older cop just waiting for retirement so doesn't like to go too deeply into the cases they come across in the deep of night. Renee is understandably unhappy but mostly she is bored.

Her former partner is one the guys who threw her under the bus. Because they had been a great team and, she thought, also friends, she felt doubly betrayed. One night she and her current partner are sent out to get the initial facts on a triple murder in a local club. When her former partner is assigned to the case the next morning and then murdered himself within a couple days, she cannot resist making her own investigation. Along with another case she finds herself deep in the Los Angeles underground of pornography and dirty cops.

The Late Show is a fast paced and exciting read. Connelly does a fine job portraying his female character, tying in her personal life and her purpose for becoming a cop. It was interesting to me how many parallels existed to Tana French's latest, The Trespasser. Best of all, it is always fun to read a book set in the city where I live. I was so impressed that one of these days I am going to go back and read Connelly's earlier books.

(The Late Show is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 05, 2017


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A Superior Death, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 1994, 303 pp
As noted in my Books Read in September post, I turned to mysteries as a way to ease my overworked brain. A good thing about mysteries is the bad guy or gal gets caught and also gets what is coming to him or her, unlike our current morally ambiguous society. 
After reading A Mind to Murder by P D James, I picked up Nevada Barr's second novel, A Superior Death. Early this year when our current President seemed to be overriding the sanctity of the U S National Parks, I vowed to read one a month of Nevada Barr's mysteries, each set in a different National Park. As with other vows I have taken in my life, I have been faithless. In nine months I have only read one.

Anna Pigeon is a park ranger who also fights crime. In A Superior Death she has been transferred from the dry heat of the Texas high desert (Track of the Cat) to the chilly dampness of Lake Superior at Isle Royale National Park. She is moping a bit and shivering a lot, getting chomped on by mosquitoes and meeting a wide range of eccentric characters, when a grotesque underwater murder surfaces.

A current resident of Isle Royale is found dead in the wreck of an old cargo ship. The few clues available do not add up. The man had seemingly no enemies and was a partner in a concession that provided boat tours to summer visitors at the park. The discovery of his body 260 feet below the chilly surface of the lake coincided with the disappearance of another park ranger's wife, a woman with whom he was rumored to be romantically entangled. Had he made an enemy after all?

As I learned in Track of the Cat, Anna Pigeon is a fearless and determined woman. In this book she is required to learn how to dive deep in the freezing waters. An annoying FBI agent sent in to assist in the investigation is convinced that the crime stems from drug smuggling. A kooky couple, new-age types, believes that the missing wife was eaten, cannibal style, by her husband. If that were not enough, a teenage girl seems to be the victim of an adult sexual predator.

Barr juggles a large list of characters (I wish I had made a list) and is forever moving Pigeon around the island into various coves as well as back and forth between different settlements. I found a great map online allowing me to track her movements. I also learned from my husband, who grew up in Michigan, that he had gone to Boy Scout camp on the island. He is reading the book now.

As the deep dives take their toll, as the chilly fogs move in and out, a bewildering list of possible suspects grows and danger mounts. This was an exciting read full of extreme adventure but also occasional humor. I have renewed my vow!

(A Superior Death is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)