Thursday, October 20, 2016


Shop Indie Bookstores

The English Assassin, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2002, 383 pp

Summary from Goodreads: When art restorer and occasional Israeli agent Gabriel Allon is sent to Zurich, Switzerland, to restore the painting of a reclusive millionaire banker, he arrives to find his would-be employer murdered at the foot of his Raphael. A secret collection of priceless, illicitly gained Impressionist masterpieces is missing. Gabriel's handlers step out of the shadows to admit the truth-the collector had been silenced-and Gabriel is put back in the high-stakes spy game, battling wits with the rogue assassin he helped to train. 

My Review:
In his second book of the Gabriel Allon series, Daniel Silva takes us to Switzerland. Gabriel has been sent on a supposed art restoration assignment to the home of private banker Augustus Rolfe in Zurich, only to find the man dead. As it turns out, Rolfe had requested the Israeli espionage office to send him a representative, so Gabriel had been dispatched by his longtime handler Shamron, the ruthless spymaster who calls on Allon when he needs something particularly dangerous carried out.

Gabriel lands in a Swiss jail, breaking the foremost rule: "Don't get arrested!" Soon enough he is embroiled in a case of stolen Jewish art, with a crooked Swiss cop and another crazed assassin as his enemies. Of course, Rolfe has a daughter, a world famous concert violinist, whom Gabriel must protect.

The English Assassin gets off to a much quicker start than the first book, The Kill Artist. I suppose this is because Gabriel's backstory is already known to anyone who has read the former book. However, that backstory is lightly filled in so this one could be read alone.

One reason I like spy thrillers is for the knowledge I get about history and political issues that are not always found in history books or the news. I of course knew that the Nazis had stolen money, jewels, and art from Jews during WWII. What I learned in this novel was the extent to which Swiss bankers were implicit in these crimes. In addition, the private Swiss banking system works on another more secretive and well-protected level which still obstructs the recovery of these thefts.

This was a suspenseful read. So much so, that I had to keep reminding myself that there are 14 more books in the series, meaning that Gabriel must have lived through all the scenes in which I was certain he would not survive.

One more surprising aspect was the way several characters changed throughout the story and committed acts of atonement. Appropriate reading for the period of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur during which I read it. 

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016


A Summer Bird-Cage, Margaret Drabble, William Morrow & Company, 1962, 224 pp
One of the pleasures of the 1962 list in My Big Fat Reading Project has been reading first novels by authors I have always wanted to read or authors whose later novels I have read.

Examples: Cover Her Face by P D James, In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Letting Go by Philip Roth, Love and Friendship by Alison Lurie.

Margaret Drabble is the sister of A S Byatt. In the usual way of the media, much has been made over the years about their sibling rivalry. Actually both women have been outspoken about this in interviews and though both are highly acclaimed British novelists still publishing novels, they still don't get along. I get it. I have such a sister.

Another theme in novels by women published in 1962 is a growing awareness of a woman's place in society and in marriage, which would eventually become the Feminist movement, although that question has come up sporadically in novels I have read from earlier years.

Examples: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Love and Friendship by Alison Lurie, An Unofficial Rose by Iris Murdoch.

A Summer Bird-Cage falls into both categories. Sarah, the main character, is a recent Oxford graduate who is working out for herself how to fit her high level of intelligence into adult life. She can't settle on a career, she can't find a man to love, and she is watching other women for clues. Her older sister Louise has always been a torment to her.

As the novel opens, she has been called home for Louise's wedding. All the years of enmity are still there. Louise got the beauty, Sarah the brains. Puzzling to Sarah is why her sister is marrying an older successful novelist who is also a rather despicable man. Did she marry him for his money?

Over the course of a year, she sees the marriages of both her best friend and her sister fall apart as she grapples with her own identity as a woman and as an aspiring writer. The shift of power between the sisters is the most fascinating aspect of the story.

I have read countless novels about this very thing and usually find them good because the relationships between women and sisters are interesting to me and resonate with my experience. What I found exhilarating in this one was the excellent writing. Drabble (only 25 when this first novel was published) is unabashed when it comes to demonstrating her own intelligence. The tone of the writing is modern with an emphasis on dialogue that reads the way people actually talk. 

I want more of Margaret Drabble!

(The Summer Bird-Cage is out of print but can be purchased as a used book or an eboook. I found my copy at the library.)

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Shop Indie Bookstores

Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell, Ecco, 2015, 577 pp

This is the sequel to Doc and my reading group were unanimous on it being a great read, even though it is a Western, a genre we have never read in all the 15 years I have been a member of the group! No one even complained about the length.

Mary Doria Russell set out to tell the truest story she could about the shoot-out at the O K Corral in Tombstone, AZ. Her goal was to dispel the myths that have grown up about Wyatt Earp. She accomplished both, including taking the tale all the way to Earp's death many years later, delineating how those myths came about. One member of the group felt sad to learn that this hero of hers was not the wonderful man she had always revered. A peril of reading good literature, I guess.

The novel packs a lot of history and I felt I had learned more than I ever knew before about that time period in America. Somehow, though I grew up with Wyatt Earp as one of my heroes, I had never realized that the O K Corral incident occurred in 1881, just twenty years after the Civil War began. Though the Eastern part of the country was quite civilized at that time, the West was still wild, violent, and only slightly lawful.

Life for women in those Western towns was especially brutal. Most single women who found themselves there were forced to turn to prostitution to survive. Only one of the Earp brothers was married to his woman, though they were mostly faithful. But mining of gold, copper, and other minerals brought businessmen from the East and made them rich and influential. The enmity between the North and the South was still a driving social and political force with deep divisions between the two. In fact, it was politics and money that created the conditions leading up to the massacre that lasted only thirty seconds and left everyone involved either dead or scarred for life.

It is truly a monumental read and gives much food for thought. In light of our current Presidential campaign, please read and ponder the Author's Note found at the beginning of the novel:

"The poles of American politics have been stable since the presidential election of 1800. A federalist party proclaiming, 'We are a nation of laws' has always been opposed by a 'Don't tread on me' party that resists regulation in the name of personal liberty. Since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, they've been called the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. Please note that in the 1880s, those labels were reversed."

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

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Shop Indie Bookstores

Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Lydia Millet, WW Norton & Company, 2016, 250 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Blending domestic thriller and psychological horror, this compelling page-turner follows a mother fleeing her estranged husband.

Lydia Millet’s chilling new novel is the first-person account of a young mother, Anna, escaping her cold and unfaithful husband, a businessman who’s just launched his first campaign for political office. When Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to Maine, the two go into hiding in a run-down motel on the coast. But the longer they stay, the less the guests in the dingy motel look like typical tourists—and the less Ned resembles a typical candidate. As his pursuit of Anna and their child moves from threatening to criminal, Ned begins to alter his wife’s world in ways she never could have imagined.

A double-edged and satisfying story with a strong female protagonist, a thrilling plot, and a creeping sense of the apocalyptic, Sweet Lamb of Heaven builds to a shattering ending with profound implications for its characters—and for all of us.

My Review: (originally published at LitBreak)
Earlier this year, as soon as I heard news of Lydia Millet’s newest novel, I diligently set about reading the last two novels of her recent trilogy (How the Dead Dream, Ghostlights, Magnificence). Even when this author writes a trilogy, it is more like three loosely connected novels, the way some novels are a collection of loosely connected stories. I finished the trilogy satisfied that she had given me three distinct examples of her worldview shown through the eyes of three related characters.

As I began to read some of the early publicity for Sweet Lamb of Heaven, I became somewhat alarmed. I got the impression that it was a type of thriller with a runaway mother and child being pursued by a creepy husband. Was she pandering? I mean, anyone who loves Millet will tell you she deserves to be better known. Had she lowered herself to write something possibly more commercially successful?

I will admit, sometimes I am a reader of little faith. I need not have worried. In fact, she has written the anti-Gone Girl. Surely you read that and can admit to doing so. Possibly you saw the movie. I did both and mostly felt annoyed, a bit insulted, though I had to admire the twist at the end.

Anna is an unhappy wife with a young daughter she decided to have even though her husband Ned “threw his hands into the air palms-forward” when she insisted on going through with her pregnancy. “Afterward his schedule got fuller, his long work hours longer, his attention more completely diverted.” Anna admits she began to give up on him from that point.

She has Lena on her own with only hospital staff attending. When she wakes up after the birth she begins to hear voices. It is a cacophony of overlapping voices and continuous whenever she is near Lena. Only when Lena is sleeping or when Anna in desperation gets a sitter and leaves the house, do the voices leave her in peace. Out of the babble she discerns a word (powa or poa) and a phrase (The living spring from the dead.)

A diligent researcher, she moves through possible causes. Delirium, post-partum depression, ear or neurology issues, hallucinations, demons. She calls it “the voice” and keeps a diary. On one of the rare evenings when Ned comes home for dinner, in one of the most eerie moments in the book, he hears the voice too!

The early chapters left me less than hooked though. There are clues that Ned is some sort of psychopath, some background on the marriage, the fact that Anna brought money to the union, and her views on religion. Anna had loved Ned in the beginning but had failed to see the warning signs, though she is clearly not stupid or crazy, just naïve. She soldiers on with the voice and her research, learning that powa or poa means a Buddhist meditation practice described as a “transference of consciousness” or “mind stream.” But once Ned heard it she stopped looking for its origin or cause.

On the day that one-year-old Lena says her first word, the voice falls silent. Anna realizes that the voice passes through those newly born and when they speak, it moves on. She and her daughter live blissfully through the girl’s toddler years with the presence or absence of Ned nothing more than a slight annoyance. Sadly, Anna had fallen once more into naiveté. Even when she knew that she had to leave him, it took her several years to do so.

By that time, Ned had decided to go into politics as an adjunct to his business ventures. He had had many lovers but suddenly became a “family values” man. Though Anna only took a portion of their assets, he began to stalk her. He needed the appearance of a happy family to support his campaign.

She is only mildly careful about keeping her whereabouts concealed and by the time he finds her, Lena is six and they are living in a remote and somewhat rundown seaside motel on the coast of Maine. Lena is a bright and happy child, very outgoing, alert and smart. In fact, she is one of the most endearing children I have met in a novel. She makes friends with everyone who stays at the motel and her most special grownup friend is Kay, a former nurse for newborns in a small hospital.

Ned snatches Lena with ease and there follow many chapters devoted to Anna’s anguish and anxiety. Nothing unusual except that by now you know the mother and the child so intimately, it is as if it has happened to you. So stealthily that I hardly noticed it though, the awareness of something strange going on with the other guests at the motel had been building. All of them have a personal affliction in common and all of them knew the motel manager before they came to stay.

Here, dear reader is where I leave you. The plot that wove back and forth from past to present but seemed to meander a bit too much suddenly becomes electric with the wizardry of Lydia Millet. Her themes of women who get a grip, of more than meets the eye, of how to live in our increasingly strange society, and of what really holds us together, coalesce. I can tell you that there is a happy ending, but the novel turned out to be a parable and I would not dream of spoiling that for you.

 Just recently, Sweet Lamb of Heaven was included on the fiction long list for the National Book Award. I sincerely hope Lydia Millet wins the prize she deserves.

(Update: The novel did not make the short list for the NBA. I feel it should have.)

Monday, October 10, 2016


Whiskey River, Loren D Estleman, Bantam Books, 1990, 262 pp

Whiskey River begins in 1928 at the height of Prohibition. Jack Dance is an eighteen-year-old on the cusp of becoming one of the top (fictional) gangsters in Detroit. Connie Minor, a young reporter of Greek descent, has just begun his career as a newspaper reporter when the two meet in a blind pig on the night it gets tipped over by the bulls. (I had to look up all this early 20th century slang, so if you don't know those terms, you can too!)

The story is a case of the strange friendship between these two men. As Jack Dance's career, if you want to call it that, rises in the underworld, Connie Minor's follows in journalism due to his reporting on the activities of rum runners and the accompanying police corruption. Minor writes his pieces with all the insight of an inside story. Though he never commits a crime himself, he is often there when they happen. His fascination with Jack Dance, however, does eventually land him in some hot water.

It is a tale you can't put down. The writing is as good as anything by Raymond Chandler, creating the particular flavor of illegal liquor, speakeasies, crime, and violence over the course of about four years.

Reading this one on the heels of The Turner House was a whole experience in itself. Detroit was a mighty city in 1920, almost comparable to Chicago. The two novels are bookends on the rise and fall of a major American city.

My mom was born on New Year's Day in 1919 in a small Michigan town on Lake Huron. Detroit was the closest city. So the first 14 years of her life were the years of Prohibition. How I wish she were still around and I could ask her if she was aware of it and how it impacted her life. She was a very temperate drinker. My dad was not!

I don't remember how I discovered this author or his book. Estleman was born in 1952 in Ann Arbor, MI. Whiskey River is the first in a series of seven novels in which he set out to tell the story of America in the 20th century through the microcosm of Detroit. As he said, "Detroit is the one city whose history mirrors precisely the history of the United States of America." He also wrote many other books yet, despite winning awards, most of his work is out of print already. The Detroit series is now available in eBook form and I plan to read all of them.

Friday, October 07, 2016


Shop Indie Bookstores

The Turner House, Angela Flournoy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 338 pp

Summary from Goodreads: The Turners live on Yarrow Street for over fifty years. Their house sees thirteen children get grown and gone—and some return; it sees the arrival of grandchildren, the fall of Detroit's East Side, and the loss of a father. Despite abandoned lots, an embattled city, and the inevitable shift outward to the suburbs, the house still stands. But now, as their powerful mother falls ill and loses her independence, the Turners might lose their family home. Beset by time and a national crisis, the house is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children are called back to decide its fate and to reckon with how each of their pasts might haunt—and shape—their family's future. 

My Review:
Here we have another one of those stories where the grown children must decide what to do with the family home. Except this family is black and the house is in a section of Detroit, MI, decimated by the 2008 crash, by drugs, crime and homeless people, etc, etc. It is more similar to Loving Day than it is to The Past. Even so, families are families and the offspring always have issues with their parents and each other. 

Detroit was the closest city to me when I lived in Ann Arbor, MI, but when I moved to California in 1991 it was still a fairly vibrant city. Just a decade later the population began a steep downtrend as Ford Motor Company moved auto production to other cities causing a major loss of jobs. By 2013, the city declared bankruptcy.

The Turners had lived on an East Side street for over fifty years. From the boom years and through the bust, they raised 13 children in a three bedroom house on the earnings of truck driving Mr Turner. The novel moves back and forth from the present to the postwar past, telling the story of the parents' move to the city from the South in the late 1940s and exposing the fault lines in the family. 

Thirteen siblings and their spouses and children would have made an unwieldy character list but the author provides a family tree and focuses on four of the siblings as well as their aging widowed mother.  She had been the force behind the family but is now on her deathbed.

When most of the brothers and sisters gather to decide what to do with their now empty family home, the house is only worth a tenth of the refinanced mortgage still due. All of the disparate circumstances of their adult lives come into play and and an old tale about a ghost seen by Charles, the eldest son, when he was just a boy plays a large part in the story. (Loving Day had ghosts too!)

The novel is wonderfully constructed, very American in it scope of dreams chased, hopes dashed, and secrets kept, with the decaying city as a background. Racism is a situation but not the major one. What I got from it is a picture of how the changing fortunes of America have affected people who exist in the lower middle class tier of our society and that is primarily an economic story.

The dust cover blurb calls the novel "a celebration of the ways in which our families bring us home." I would call it a study in how the underside of the American Dream takes its toll on even the strongest of families while it prevents families from fully developing that fabled strength.

(The Turner House is currently available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Shop Indie Bookstores

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1991 (first published in Russia in 1962) (translated from the Russian by H T Willets) 182 pp

I have meant to read this for a long time. Though it was not published in English until 1963 (in a translation not authorized by the author) it was originally published in a Soviet literary magazine in 1962. I generally put books onto My Big Fat Reading Project lists in the years when they were first published. The translation I read, published by FSG in 1991, was authorized by the author. Solzhenitsyn went on to write many more novels as well as novellas, plays, and essays. In 1970 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Knowing that this story was set in a Soviet labor camp during the rule of Stalin, I was prepared for a grueling read. I keep a list of books I've read called Prison Camp Lit. None of them has made for pleasant reading. So I was surprised to find it almost lighthearted. 

 Of course, Ivan Denisovich and his fellow inmates are freezing half to death, starving half to death, and worked close to death. They are ill and have no idea when they will be released. Also, some are worse off than others due to various factors but often boiling down to a temperament that does poorly in such circumstances and probably in life as well.

Ivan is a canny fellow. He has figured out how to stay out of trouble, who to befriend, how to regulate the consumption of his precious bits of food and limited minutes of free time. So it is like when you are in a bad school or an oppressive work situation and you figure out how to play the game.

Except it is not like that because he cannot leave without the risk of being killed or actually dying of starvation or exposure in Siberia. Also, he survives with the gnawing uncertainty about what he has available to go back to once he is released.

The bottom line is that it is all seriously gruesome but every time Ivan was successful in navigating all the dangers, even to the smallest degree, I was happy for him. I kept visualizing a better existence for this man and I feel that was due to Solzhenitsyn's writing. It is predicated on the idea that as long as there is life in a person, there is hope. Also that you can take almost everything away from someone but as long as his spirit is not completely broken, you can't take that.

Instead of being depressed after reading about just one day in this man's life, I was uplifted. 

(One Day in the Life of Ivan Denosivich is available in paperback on the Classics shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)