Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Arcadia, Iain Pears, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 510 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Henry Lytten - a spy turned academic and writer - sits at his desk in Oxford in 1962, dreaming of other worlds.

He embarks on the story of Jay, an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up within the embrace of his family in a rural, peaceful world - a kind of Arcadia. But when a supernatural vision causes Jay to question the rules of his world, he is launched on a life-changing journey.

Lytten also imagines a different society, highly regulated and dominated by technology, which is trying to master the science of time travel.

Meanwhile - in the real world - one of Lytten's former intelligence colleagues tracks him down for one last assignment.

As he and his characters struggle with questions of free will, love, duty and the power of the imagination, Lytten discovers he is not sure how he wants his stories to end, nor even who is imaginary...

My Review:
Reading this novel was pure fun for me.

An Oxford professor in 1962, who was a spy in WWII, turns his hand to writing a fantasy novel that contains no magic. His teenage neighbor Rosie, who feeds his cat, stumbles through a portal into another world that turns out to be the world the professor imagined for his novel. A rebellious psychomathematician from the 24th century uses her own invention to escape from her boss, returns to 1939 and becomes a temporary spy herself.

Many time periods; real and fantasy and futuristic worlds; adventures and love affairs and a supercapitalist combine in surprising ways. It is a bit of a crazy mashup of several genres but somehow Iain Pears makes it work.

That is more than I knew going in. I just knew I have liked every Iain Pears novel I have read and started reading. So I'm not going to say more. Either you'll find your way into and out of Arcadia or you won't. Hint: you should be a fan of complex plots and have read either C S Lewis or JRR Tolkein in your youth, with possibly a tad of Isaac Asimov. 

(Arcadia is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, July 17, 2016


California writer Carolyn See passed away this week. She was the author of seven novels, one memoir, and one of my favorite books about writing. Lisa See is her daughter. I remember seeing them together on a panel at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. They were quite a pair.

Carolyn See had a wry and dry sense of humor about life, marriage, family, and being female. If you came of age in the 60s like I did, her novels will bring it all back: the feminism, the politics, the substances. If you have lived any part of your life in California or especially Los Angeles, you will feel right at home in her works.

The Novels:
The Rest is Done With Mirrors 1970: This was the first one I read.
Mothers, Daughters 1977: This was the second.
Rhine Maidens 1981
Golden Days 1986
Making History 1991
The Handyman 1999
There Will Never Be Another You 2006: I read this as soon as it came out and saw her at an author event at the now defunct Dutton's Books. She really knew how to give a reading.
The Memoir:
Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America 1995: I think I will read this in honor of the life she just completed. Then I will read the rest of the novels before the year is out.
The Book on Writing:
Making A Literary Life 2002: So many things I learned from this book and still do to this day.
So long Carolyn. Thanks for the lulz!

Friday, July 15, 2016


Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 324 pp

Mazie Phillips is the daughter of a bad father and his oppressed wife. At some point in their childhood, the eldest sister Rosie left home and got established in New York City. A year later Rosie came and got the two younger sisters, Mazie and Jeanie. Rosie by then had a husband named Louis and the two of them proceed to raise the younger sisters.

The form of the novel is a bit wonky. Mazie's story is told from several intermingled viewpoints including her diary, people who knew her over the years, and someone who is trying to get Mazie to write her life story. Despite the patchy way in which this form reveals that life, it does all come together by the end.

The "family" of Louis, Rosie, Mazie and Jeanie is not quite like the families one usually reads about in novels. That is why I ended up liking the book so much. No one is privileged or even normal. I found a few similarities to a couple of Amy Bloom's novels: Away and Lucky Us. In fact, I completely love Amy Bloom and am glad to have found an author like her.

Rosie does her best trying to raise her sisters, but she has her own troubles and eventually the girls grow up and get away from her. They are all unlucky in love and relationships and friendships but Mazie is the one who ends up caring for the lot of them. In addition she takes on many of the bums in the neighborhood, especially during the Depression and helps them in a warmhearted and non-judgemental fashion.

The book is a glittering yet raunchy piece of historical fiction that brings to life the lesser streets of New York City from 1907 to 1939: the Jazz Age, the Suffrage movement, prohibition, and the Depression. Inspired by the essay "Mazie" in Joseph Mitchell's Up In the Old Hotel, Ms Attenberg carries it off with humor, pathos and a ton of heart. Mazie, who was Jewish but whose best friend was a nun, who drank and smoked and had many lovers, came by her sainthood in the usual way: through love, suffering, pity, and hardship.

The story closes with her last diary entry and by then you have gotten to know a character you will be unlikely to forget.

(Saint Mazie is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith, Simon & Schuster, 2004, 336 pp
Summary from Goodreads: In Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko returns for his most enigmatic and baffling case: the death of one of Russia's new billionaires, which leads him to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion -- closed to the world since 1986's nuclear disaster. It is still aglow with radioactivity, now inhabited only by the militia, shady scavengers, a few reckless scientists, and some elderly peasants who refuse to relocate. Renko's journey to this ghostly netherworld, the crimes he uncovers there, and the secrets they reveal about the New Russia make for an unforgettable adventure.
My Review:
After I read Voices From Chernobyl, someone told me about Wolves Eat Dogs. I am glad I read it because it makes a good companion piece to the other book. On the other hand, if I hadn't read Voices first, I would have been seriously lost.
Because Smith's book is a political/crime thriller, the pace is fast, the brutality is frequent, and the plot is thick. But he does address the Soviet government corruption and cover up of the nuclear meltdown as well as that of the Russian mafia after the fall of the Soviet Union. He truly brings that gnarly situation alive and so makes the point that humans cannot be trusted with nuclear power as did Voices From Chernobyl.
Svetlana Alexievich hinted at such things via the people she interviewed but she is Russian and has been viewed with suspicion by her government. Martin Cruz Smith is American.
Wolves Eat Dogs (a comment made often by the people who live near Chernobyl) is the 5th book in Smith's Arkady Renko series. I think I read Gorky Park way back when. I think I might read the rest one day.  
(Wolves Eat Dogs is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, July 10, 2016


The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld, HarperCollins, 2014, 233 pp
One of the best books I have read this year. No matter what your views on capital punishment and the death penalty, it will make you rethink everything. Even if you come through with the same views, you may find yourself examining those views more deeply than you ever have before.
The novel is told partly from the POV of a male prisoner on death row in an old rundown prison somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He is considered the worst criminal there even by the other prisoners. You learn his life history.

On the other side of the story is "the Lady." She works for a group of lawyers who try to get the death penalty changed to life imprisonment or to get retrials for inmates who are possibly wrongly convicted. By means of close third person, you get to know this woman and how she came to be doing such work.

A fallen priest, assigned to be prison chaplain to atone for his misdeeds, and prison employees both honest and corrupt round out the main characters.

What comes to light are the dangerous and foul conditions of prison life, the virtual impossibility of any rehabilitation taking place, and the ways prisoners cope. Most disturbing for me were the tales about how some of the prisoners were actually made into psychopaths by the miserable circumstances of their lives starting in childhood. The Lady had just as miserable a life but managed to keep some semblance of sanity as well as a huge amount of empathy. The ending is somewhat happy but I worried about that the whole time I was reading.

Rene Denfeld is herself a death penalty investigator with an almost terrifying imagination. This is her first novel. Our reading group had one of our best discussions ever.

(The Enchanted is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016


The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 553 pp
 I loved this book. Not because it is perfect but because it is a great big huge dramatic tale with a heroine I almost wish I could have been. Lilliet Berne is an opera diva in Paris. It is the 1800s and she has secrets including her real name, how she got to Paris, and some of the things she had to do to get where she is. An orphan, a survivor of the fever that killed her family on a Minnesota homestead, and born with a rare soprano voice. What's more, she feels certain she is under a curse.

When the story opens, she has one last achievement she longs for--an original role, meaning the lead in an opera written for her, and thus a chance at immortality. When the role comes her way, the curse determines that it could expose her worst secrets and ruin her. Only four people know what those secrets are.

The plot therefore is a construct of her search for those people combined with the story of her life. It has a pattern: victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat, a pattern that spells tragedy.

Set in the days of Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie, it is an opulent Paris layered on to the lower world of servants, prostitutes, and profligates. Lilliet is at the mercy of a famous tenor who believes he owns her, in love with a mysterious composer, and beholden to an evil Comtesse for reasons partly unknown to her.

Best of all though is Lilliet's impossible quest for freedom. She is forever seeking to escape her perceived destiny. As she says on page 25, "Why was there never an opera that ended with a soprano that was free?"

Alexander Chee has so completely created a 19th century novel that I was there, all through the twists and turns up to the surprising climax. It took me nine days to read because his sentences do not allow fast reading. I let him set the pace, succumbed to the atmosphere, worried about Lilliet as I am aware I was supposed to, and met his terms. 

This is a larger than life story, like a legend or an opera. Lilliet is an almost fantastical creature, but show me an artist of any kind who becomes successful and renowned who isn't a bit beyond mere human.

(The Queen of the Night is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 04, 2016


How is that for a summery look? Me, I am ready for a vacation from reading groups and this month I will get one, sort of. Only 4 meetings and I have already read 3 of the books! Meaning I get to read what I want, or what some bloggers call "reading my own damn books."

Summer is when you get to do what you want, right? Instead of having assignments and deadlines and schedules. At least I have retained that from my teen years! 
Laura's Group:
One Book At A Time:
Bookie Babes:

Tina's Group:

Happy 4th of July. Happy reading. Happy Summer!!