Tuesday, October 28, 2014

LOVE ANTHONY






Love Anthony, Lisa Genova, Gallery Books, 2012, 306 pp



When I was growing up there basically two groups of people: normal people and then all the rest. Of course that was simplistic. As a young woman I became interested in all the people who weren't "normal," as did most of society. Now we've got names for all the different kinds of people though unfortunately many of those names are mostly labels.

One kind of unusual person is devoted to understanding differences among people and passing the info on to others. That is a worthy human endeavor, if not always appreciated. Lisa Genova is such a person. She has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard and has written three novels about people who suffer from neurological difficulties.

Still Alice (2007) which she originally self-published, was about a Harvard professor with early onset Alzheimer's disease. It became a bestseller and the author was signed by Simon & Schuster. Left Neglected (2011) is the story of a woman trying to recover from a brain injury.

Love Anthony deals with autism. When Anthony was diagnosed as autistic at the age of three, Olivia and her husband had the "reason" for Anthony's differences but their marriage could not hold up when Anthony died some years later.

Olivia separates from her husband and escapes to their summer cottage on Nantucket. After a lonely winter she meets Beth, mother of three and also separated. Due to a series of coincidences and synchronicities they impact each others' lives in positive ways.

I read this for a reading group. Many members, as well as bloggers and readers who post on Goodreads, were dismayed by some unlikely elements in the plot, by its almost chick lit flavor, and by a "different" approach to the relationship between Anthony, Olivia, and Beth. It is as though they were spiritually connected. 

I was not bothered by any of those criticisms. I have an interest in such things as synchronicity, non-verbal connections, and especially the many ways that women help each other. I thought the writing was just fine, even brilliant at times.

The insight into the mind of an autistic child is done so well. It is sensitive, down-to-earth, and because of her education and experience I believe Lisa Genova. Because of my various spiritual studies, women's studies, and experience I think Olivia and Beth are realistic characters. Love Anthony was a good read for me. Now I want to read her other two books.

Is anyone completely "normal?" Of course not!


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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A BET TURNED DEADLY






A Bet Turned Deadly, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2014, 226 pp



My friend Alice Zogg has just released her 10th novel, a mystery with a complete shocker of an ending and a new direction for the author.

If you have read any of her earlier books, your are familiar with private investigator R A Huber and her assistant Andi. But Regula and Andi play no part in A Bet Turned Deadly, though the setting is still in the Los Angeles area. An even bigger change is that the narrator of this new book is a man!

James Eaton, a successful mystery writer, bets his best friend Jacob $1000 that he can't find a dozen people willing to give up their computers, cell phones, and tablets for a week. The bet results in a camping trip to an isolated spot in the Angeles National Forest. During the week in the woods, one camper dies.

Ms Zogg has always had a talent for plotting and this book showcases that talent in spades. It is the impeccable pacing that makes it a page turner. I kept waiting for a slip up in James' voice, thinking surely I would hear a female tone creep in, but she never faltered. I believed the character on every page. If you have ever spent time in the Angeles National Forest, you will recognize that she got it perfectly.

A Bet Turned Deadly is not long. You could almost read it in one sitting. It is proof that a person can learn to write novels by writing them. I admit to not trying very hard to figure out who done it when I read a murder mystery, but if you can figure out who murdered that camper before it is revealed you should say so in the comments. (Not who did it; just that you did!)
 
Read about all of Alice Zogg's books at her website.


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

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

THE MAGICIAN'S LAND






The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman, Viking, 2014, 401 pp



About a month ago during a killer heat wave of temperatures between 105 and 108 degrees, I was forced to go out into the world for a doctor's appointment. I have hardly ever gone to doctors for most of my life but now am at an age when it is a regular occurrence. Trust me, this is relevant to my review of the third volume of Lev Grossman's Magicians Trilogy.

In an attempt to make my outing more fun, I stopped at one of my favorite indie bookstores, Vroman's in Pasadena. I was going to splurge and buy Margaret Atwood's new story collection, Stone Mattress. Alas I was one day too early. That book was releasing the next day. So I chose a different sort of magic and bought The Magician's Land in hardcover. Now I own a complete set!

At the beginning of this book, which promised to put a wrap on the turbulent but self-centered life of Quentin Coldwater, I suffered from a certain ennui. Actually, the first couple chapters devoured while having lunch in Vroman's cafe were entrancing: that nerdy bookish magic guy thing Grossman does so well, especially when he combines it with the seedy world weary characters one expects to find in modern novels written by Russian immigrants. But all too soon both Quentin and his friends are suffering from magic gone bad, some set in Fillory, some at Brakebills, and other incidents at revisited locales from the earlier books. Really? Come on Lev. You can do better than that.

Well, in the end he does. In fact he was doing better than I thought all along. He tackles questions like will a self-involved, less-than-top-rate magician ever grow up? Quentin makes strides. But if he does grow up can he still hang out in his beloved Fillory? Also, in an echoing homage to The Chronicles of Narnia, we learn more about the creation of Fillory. Need I say more? If you've read and loved the two earlier books, you can be assured you will love The Magician's Land.

Why were my experiences of the day I bought the book relevant? Because I have been a person who was reluctant to grow up and who believed in magic for too long. The last few years have forced me to become an adult. Though I am about twice the age Quentin is in this book, I was not bored at all to read a story about a magician reaching maturity.

The Magicians was a coming of age story. We don't really have genres or literary categories for the second two volumes of the trilogy. The Magician King was how do you handle life after your schooling is over. This final book is how do you put life together after all the mistakes you made in the middle part.


(The Magician's Land is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 17, 2014

HALF-BLOOD BLUES






Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan, Serpent's Tail, 2011, 319 pp


Some books I love while I am reading them but promptly forget once I am finished. Others are just so-so while I read but I think back on them with pleasure-usually because they end well. With Half-Blood Blues, it was all love, while reading and when I was finished. Now after several weeks have passed the story is still so vivid, I doubt I will ever forget it.

A group of Black American, White German, and one mixed race German musicians had a successful run as a jazz band in Berlin before World War II. They were decimated as a band by Hitler's ban on jazz after he declared it to be degenerate music made by Negroes and Jews. This novel is the story of what became of the them individually and as a group.

The writing is amazing, calling forth the life styles, the rivalries, the joys of making music, and the feel of jazz itself. Perhaps because I have spent my life surrounded by music and musicians, I fell easily into their triumphs and trials. Musicians are a special breed to me, each one being a unique combination of their artistry and a state of being "the other" to most remaining human beings. 

In this tale, hearts are broken, trust is betrayed, lives are lost, dreams die. I experienced every emotion known to man while reading it. Honestly, I don't know how the author did what she did. Esi Edugyan is one of a kind, just like her characters.


(Half-Blood Blues is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

THE RUM DIARY






The Rum Diary, Hunter S Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 1998, 204 pp



I have a fascination with Hunter S Thompson. To me, he is the quintessential bad boy of the late 60s and onward. In your face, always high, and getting away with it. I used to fall for guys like that. I even married one but it didn't last. Still, I have a romantic remnant that attracts me to such rebels.

But I haven't read his books, just his Rolling Stone pieces as they appeared during the years I was reading that mag, before it lost its edge. So, in my usual way, I am starting at the beginning.

The Rum Diary is a book dripping with legend and lore: that Thompson wrote it in 1960 when he was a Hemingway worshipper but couldn't get it published, that Johnny Depp found the manuscript among Thompson's papers and got it published in 1998, that Depp finally got it made as a movie in 2011, six years after Thompson's death. When it comes to Hunter S Thompson, the truth is deeply buried in his outrageous persona.

I put the book on the 1961 list for My Big Fat Reading Project. I saw the movie last year and it was good. Depp spiffed it up for the 21st century but the book is better; less flashy, more sunk in youthful despair, and the female character is unrecognizable. She is not the one in the movie, she is more pathetic, but most of all she fits right in with the way bad girls were portrayed by male novelists in the early 60s. Hemingway would have approved.

The Rum Diary is a quick read. Since it is about newspaper people working at a failing daily paper in San Juan, Puerto Rico, it reminded me a little of The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, though this is the better book in my opinion. As a piece of Hunter Thompson history, the novel contains numerous harbingers of the man's later writing. Next up: Hell's Angels, 1966!


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

Friday, October 10, 2014

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS






The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber, Hogarth, 2014, 495 pp



Michel Faber's new novel, due to be released on October 28, is itself a book of strange new things. I remember devouring his previous novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. It was historical fiction about a prostitute, a bestseller, mildly trashy but with good writing and a fabulous heroine. The Book of Strange New Things is not any of that.

Peter is a recovering alcoholic and drug user who became a minister after he met and married Beatrice, who nursed him through his final overdose. He is deeply committed to his faith in the way that people are when they give up past bad habits and need something new to hang on to.

Bea is the practical member of the couple, but deeply devoted to keeping Peter happy and sober. When he gets recruited by USIC, a multinational corporation, to go to a planet light years away and serve as Chaplain to its indigenous creatures, Bea is not chosen to go with him. Quite soon, I figured out that they chose Peter because of his wide-eyed gullibility.

So he goes to the planet Oasis, pretty much goes native in short order, and feels more at home with the nonhuman Oasans than with the earthlings. The Book of Strange New Things is the Oasans' name for the Bible. 

Faber does an excellent job of creating Peter's character, his obsession with the Oasans and getting the gospel to them, and his obliviousness to other humans. Every other person on Oasis has something odd about them, some troubled past, but none are looking for religion.

By page 175, I could tell that something was very wrong on Oasis and settled in to the remaining 300 plus pages to find out what that something was. The trouble for me was that it turned out not to be a sci fi thriller/first contact story but rather Peter's true redemption story. 

He is able to communicate with Bea by a sort of interplanetary text messaging device. Like many men who travel for work, my husband included, he is not good at long distance communication. Add to this his extreme self-absorption and marital discord develops.

Religion in science fiction or speculative fiction is somewhat rare and is sometimes done extremely well, as in Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow. You would think it would be used more often. Michel Faber handles the religion aspect well, also the tension in Peter and Bea's marriage, and the beginnings on Earth of an apocalyptic stew of climate change, end of oil, and economic breakdown. He also creates a convincing scenario of USIC, obviously exploiting a new planet for scientific and commercial gain.

In the end though, the novel is just a story about a loser who finally grows up and begins to get a grip. The creepy menace on Oasis, the true reason for the native Oasans' desire for Christianity, and the fate of both planets all just peter out (no pun intended) and it is all about Peter, as it has been for almost 500 pages.


(The Book of Strange New Things is available in various formats for pre-order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE






All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr, Scribner, 2014, 530 pp



I was a satisfied reader throughout this novel. Yet another World War II story set in yet another location, or actually several, but the main one being the walled French city of Saint-Malo. I did not know this city existed prior to reading the novel. It is a place that just begs to have novels set there.

The best war novels for me are the ones set away from the main battles that show the effects of war on various everyday people. Here we have a master of locks at the Natural Museum of History in Paris, his daughter Marie Laure who went blind at the age of six, a reclusive great-uncle who is skilled at radio operation, and the orphan Werner from a German mining town, also skilled with radios.

The novel tells the back stories of these characters, then the story of how their lives converge during the war, and finally a satisfying final section where we find what happened to Marie-Laure and Werner after the war. Did I mention there is a rare and priceless diamond whose mystery is the true engine powering the novel?

It is all put together with the most excellent literary but accessible sentences. Absolutely nothing to complain about and I truly don't understand how anyone could not love this novel, but of course some don't.


(All The Light We Cannot See is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore and in ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)