Friday, August 27, 2010


Rock Paper Tiger, Lisa Brackmann, Soho Press Inc, 2010, 345 pp

 My review of this exciting read by first-time author Lisa Brackmann is now available at BookBrowse for a limited time without a subscription. If you like desperate-white-women-in-China stories, this one is for you.

 "Let's consider some popular qualities of the modern day thriller heroine: a painful incident in her recent past, residence in an exotic locale, a heightened ability to talk trash, and a complete inability to recognize danger as she walks right into it. Ellie Cooper has them all...Read the rest here.

(Rock Paper Tiger is available in hardcover on the new books shelves (AKA the Barn) at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


High Five, Janet Evanovich, St Martin's Press, 1999, 292 pp

 Still making my way through Stephanie Plum's adventures in chronological order, although since Evanovich recently released #16 I wonder if I will ever catch up. I am always amazed at what a great relief it is to read one of these after weeks of reading from the 1950s or from the ever-growing stack of new literary fiction. I am grateful to Ms Evanovich because she does all the work.

  In High Five, Stephanie is supposed to be hunting an FTA, who turns out to be a midget--oops, I mean a small person--but spends more time looking for her missing Uncle Fred. Due to economic necessity, she has also been forced to diversify and do some highly questionable jobs for Ranger. The upside is that Ranger provides her with awesome vehicles, although being Stephanie these cars tend to explode and get stolen.

 But diversifying has entered her love life as well. Since Morelli has refused to marry her the poor girl is refusing him sex and has gotten so horny that she finds herself lusting after Ranger. That leads to the romantic cliffhanger which ends the story.

 Is it OK for reading to be this much fun?

(High Five is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010


On The Beach, Nevil Shute, William Morrow and Company, 1957, 320 pp

 This was one of the scariest books I have ever read. It was the #8 bestseller in 1957. In the story, there has been a nuclear war in the northern hemisphere which wiped out all the people. The characters in the book live in and around Melbourne, Australia. Due to planetary winds the fallout is gradually and relentlessly blowing south, so they all know they are doomed and will die within the next several months. (I don't know if such an outcome is scientifically correct. Comments welcome from more informed readers.)

  While the fictional war was over in 37 days, these people have some time to get used to the idea that they will soon be gone. Nevil Shute does an admirable job of imagining what that would be like. He brings it all to horrible life through a few characters: Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, his young wife Mary and one year old baby; several of their friends; and a US Navy Commander who is stranded in Melbourne with his submarine and crew, the last operational ship on earth.

 In 1957, the prospect of a nuclear World War III loomed as a distinct possibility. I grew up under that potential nuclear cloud. Reading this book now made me realize how numb we have become to the threat of a nuclear end to life as we know it. I also realized that just because it hasn't happened yet in no way signifies that it won't ever happen.

 Impending doom is nearly impossible to deal with mentally and emotionally for human beings. We can deal with what to have for lunch, hoping our children turn out OK, maybe we can even figure out an investment plan in these incomprehensible economic times. However, contemplating the end of the world is a bit beyond the imagination of most. One character in the book becomes a race car driver and tries his best to die in a racing accident before the fall out gets him. Instead, he wins. Truly scary.

 On The Beach was made into a movie in 1959, starring Gregory Peck as the US Navy Commander and Ava Gardner as one of the Australian characters. Though as is usual, much of the story was left out, the movie had almost as much impact as the book. It is worth seeing, if you never have.

(On The Beach is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon, Ballantine Books, 2009, 320 pp

 Wow! This novel blew me away. I read it for a reading group and it was my pick, but it turned out to be different and very much more that I thought it would be from the blurbs I had seen. Yes, it includes identity theft as a plot point, but actually it is about identity: how do we get our identity as a person, how do we become confused about it, lose it, change it? While identity is a timely concept and the story is modern, somehow Dan Chaon also makes it universal, timeless and personal to the reader.

 Then about halfway in, I realized I was reading a sort of hybrid thriller and a mystery, so had to search back in my memory for clues I hadn't spotted as clues. Very tricky, Mr Chaon.

 There are three story lines, each with its own main character, but whenever I put the book down, I could only remember one or at most two of the characters. I began to feel a little bit concerned about my short term memory and went through my daily activities with anxiety and other creepy emotions. Turned out there was a very good reason for all that, which I can't mention because it would be spoiler material.

 I don't imagine I will ever forget this book although someday I would like to reread it. The atmosphere of our oddly over-connected but disconnected modern culture which the author has created just out of those common elements of plot, character and description made me look at several aspects of my life in a completely new way. Now that is some righteous fiction!

(Await Your Reply is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier, Victor Gollanz Ltd, 1957, 348 pp (Reprint: University of Pennsylvania Press)

 Scapegoat has an intriguing history as a word. Originally, in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, the High Priest confessed the sins of the people on the Day of Atonement over the head of a live goat which was then allowed to escape, taking the sins with it. From this religious tradition developed the meaning of a person, group or thing who takes the blame for the mistakes or crimes of others.

  In Daphne du Maurier's excellent novel, an English history professor on his way home from holiday in France, is reflecting on his unfulfilling and lonely life when he meets a man in a restaurant. The man, Jean de Gue, is his double but of a very different character. By means of alcohol, possibly a drug, and trickery, the main character wakes up the next day with Jean de Gue's luggage and clothes, finds that his doppelganger has vanished, and that he is being picked up by de Gue's faithful servant.

 Feeling that the police will think him mad, feeling in truth somewhat mad, he allows himself to be taken to a rundown chateau in the country, where he is not suspected by anyone in the family. In this post WWII setting, the three generations live in genteel poverty amid bitterness and a failing glass factory.

 The man takes up Jean de Gue's life, penetrating the several mysteries of the family's past and in a bumbling fashion manages to fix everything and restore the family to happiness. All the while, though the reader is hoping this man will succeed, du Maurier in her inimitable fashion leaves you feeling that it cannot possibly end well. Of course it doesn't but the final scenes do support the title and the theme of the scapegoat. 

 What makes this book so good is the way the author handles all the improbabilities of the story. She had me willingly suspending my disbelief most of the time. Even when I could not believe that the family members did not realize it was a different man, I was so engrossed in the story that I did not care. I also love how this writer always makes some point of wisdom about life in her tales and she did not fail me in this one.

 (There was a movie in 1959, starring Alec Guiness and Bette Davis, with Gore Vidal getting credit on the screenplay. Wow! However, it got negative reviews at the time and is not at Netflix.)

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

Monday, August 16, 2010


The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, Night Shade Books, 2010, 359 pp

 So far, Paolo Bacigalupi has won the Nebula Award for 2010, the Locus Award (a readers poll) and has been nominated for the Hugo Award. So it is a big winning year for this author's first novel which most likely stands as a harbinger for what is to come in sci fi and speculative fiction. Bacigalupi has already been compared to Philip K Dick, William Gibson and Margaret Atwood for his sci fi and environmental chops. I would have to add Graham Greene for the colonial/political/third world savvy displayed. If The Windup Girl were not science fiction, which readers of a certain age often seem to fear with an almost racist mentality, it would be a competitor for the excitement accorded to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. 

 In fact, Emiko, the "windup girl" heroine has some similarities to the tattoo girl. Emiko is genetically engineered and has been abandoned by her former master who once seemed to care for her. She is super human yet severely challenged when it comes to freewill, abused, depressed, yet determined to break free. Being the old feminist I am, I was routing for Emiko to overcome her preprogrammed compulsion to obey and serve.  

 The setting is Bangkok, 2300. Environmental disaster is fairly complete with all that we currently fear: no more oil, rampant plague, genetically modified food plants that succumb to "blister rust" and "genehack weevils," and a sort of futuristic steampunk hybrid of energy solutions. Global food corporations, whose origins lie in a defunct Empire of America, still operate by the same principles as Monsanto and the like. They are hot to get a foothold in Thailand, the one country who has managed to survive the rising ocean, the plagues and the crop killers by sealing itself off from the outside world, employing the feared whiteshirts of the Environmental Ministry to stamp out sources of disease while maintaining a top secret seedbank.

 But there are always cracks in the armor, always greedy villains within and without and perhaps most dangerous, certain wildcard characters who inadvertently upset everything. Paolo Bacigalupi has brilliantly combined all the elements of story telling and produced a fascinating, high energy tale which kept me glued to the page in horror and suspense, unable to turn away.

 One more thing: A couple months ago I turned down an assignment to review Dexter Palmer's debut novel, The Dream of Perpetual Motion. I read it and hated it for the writing style and the characters. I hereby eat crow. There is a new kind of writing rising up from a new generation, raised on TV shows I have never watched, music I don't listen to, and the undeniable influence of the Internet. It stands to reason that fiction of all genres is changing as it always does. It has taken me a while, but I think I am catching on. If you care to join me, read The Windup Girl.

(The Windup Girl is available in hardcover or paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010



I missed posting this feature last weekend. As I recall, my reading in July was disappointing and not very prolific. Let's see if that is true. Here is the list:

Papa You're Crazy, William Saroyan. From the 1957 list. In his usual autobiographical way, Saroyan writes about bringing his son to live with him for a few months on the Santa Monica beach and giving the boy some pointers on being a writer. Not bad.

The Furies, Fernanda Eberstadt. I so loved her latest novel, Rat, that I wanted to read more. This one was incredible. Best thing I read all month.

Judy's Journey, Lois Lenski. Missed this one when I read the 1947 list. I read it many times while growing up, it had a significant impact on my life and re-reading was quite fine.

From the Terrace, John O'Hara. Here is where I ran into trouble. This 897 page bestseller from 1958 took me a week to read, was OK but had a terrible, horrible, very bad ending which depressed the hell out of me for days.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi. Wow!! The latest Nebula Award winner blew me away. Not a happy story but so powerful. Set in the future in Bangkok, it is as good as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Actually the writing is better.

Rock Paper Tiger, Lisa Brackmann. Fantastic first novel about a young American woman trying to find herself in modern China while being pursued by three types of security agents. 

The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton. Another tome from 1958 though this one was great historical fiction about early days in Massachusetts colony.

Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon. One of the better contemporary novels I have read. Mysterious, odd, convoluted story about identity. 

High Five, Janet Evanovich. Well, I couldn't go through a whole summer month without Stephanie Plum. Could I?

Barn Blind, Jane Smiley. Her first novel and a promising debut. Originally I was going to take a "reading vacation" and spend the whole month of July just reading Jane Smiley. Clearly that did not happen.

Around the World With Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis. One more from 1958. About ten times better than the original Auntie Mame. Funny, sarcastic take on Americans in prewar Europe and the Middle East. 

OK, so I see that it wasn't a bad reading month after all. There are some real gems there. But I only finished 11 books which is low for me. What was worse is that I only read three books from the 1958 list; a personal problem, I know, but still. I blame it all on John O'Hara.

What did you read in July?

Friday, August 13, 2010


Eloise in Paris, Kay Thompson, Simon & Schuster, 1957, 62 pp

 The second Eloise book was the #6 bestseller in 1957. I found it even more charming and funny than the first, perhaps because I know Paris better than Manhattan. 

  It is clear that Nanny had more fun in Paris and though Mother sends cables, we still do not meet her. You find out what it is like to fly in an airplane in 1957 with 37 pieces of luggage! Imagine that in today's world.

 This was my first foray into the 1957 reading list and gave me hope that the year might not be all that boring.

(Eloise in Paris is available on the picture book shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


The Furies, Fernanda Eberstadt, Alfred A Knopf, 2003, 451 pp

 Fernanda Eberstadt is an author I discovered when I reviewed Rat for BookBrowse. The Furies almost did me in. It is wise and witty while at the same time serious and sad. The author has said on her website, "Few writers...have tackled the subject of pregnancy and children...the whole experience of bearing and giving birth to a baby has gone strangely unrecorded." Well tackle it she does, with the ferocity of a Greek tragedian: note the title. Her recording of bearing and giving birth to a baby is accomplished with excruciating detail, but so is her recording of the power of motherlove and the all encompassing nature of raising an infant: the obsession, exhaustion and joy.

 Eberstadt has written a most modern story. Gwen is a 30-something career woman in the midst of the 90s boom. She works in New York City, lives in a high end apartment, regularly travels the world and loves Russia with a passionate idealism. Gideon lives in a rent controlled dump, creating anarchist puppet theater and harbors a mix of Jewish mysticism and 70s socialist views. Their explosive sexual coupling is straight out of a Joni Mitchell song. At first I thought I was reading about a great love story, with two lost and lonely souls overcoming all barriers to create one of the world's great passions.

 Trouble is, so did they think but parenthood turns out to be their mutual Achilles heel because both are from badly broken homes, from parental abandonment and all they are really seeking is unconditional love though neither is up to the challenge of providing it. This to me was so real, possibly because I have lived it. The first child of such a romance changes everything in a variety of ways. The sex goes bad, the sharing of responsibility for each other and the child is beyond their basically immature capabilities. A child interferes with each parent's conception of personal freedom and tests every one of their idealistic tenants.

 This is not a Jodi Picoult or Anita Shreve novel. It is way more truthful while also being whip smart sassy and based on a frightening array of knowledge about everything from puppetry to post-communist Russia to world economics to New York City politics and more. Fernanda Eberstadt writes like a Fury herself and while her book is not for the faint of heart, it is about how we live now because of how our forebears lived before. It is about the human condition, how we muddle through and the true cost of love. Just be warned that if you read it to the end, it will take you a while to recover.

(I was shocked to learn that this excellent novel is out of print. It is available at libraries and used booksellers.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Blue Camellia, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Julian Messner Inc, 1957, 430 pp

 Frances Parkinson Keyes had six top 10 bestsellers between 1945 and 1957. I have read them all. Blue Camellia was #5 in 1957. Most of her novels are historical fiction written in the style of women writing for women readers, though almost every book has at least one strong female character who defies convention. She produced over 40 novels in her career and I am happy that I did not have to read all of them.

  The River Road was my favorite with Blue Camllia as a second favorite. It is based on the history of rice cultivation in Louisiana. The story begins when Brent Winslow decides to buy land in Louisiana. He and his wife Mary are the children of Illinois settlers, they are farming people in the late 1800s and have just survived a brutal winter which left Brent bedridden for weeks with pneumonia.

 The story of their move with a nine-year-old daughter, the possibly shady land auction in Louisiana (which turned out fine) and their assimilation into what was essentially a rural Creole population, is good reading. Lavinia, the daughter, becomes a tomboy and runs wild with the Creole children but grows up to be an extremely self-willed and competent woman. Brent Winslow plants, works hard, studies and develops the best variety of rice in the area.

 Most everyone prospers, there are joys and sorrows, Lavinia suffers great loss and heartbreak, but it all comes out well. I've concluded that Keyes' work covers numerous lesser known aspects of American life in the early 20th century. Her research was thorough including her habit to spend extensive periods of time in the locales about which she wrote. She indulges in that wordy style of her times but it reads smoothly while she makes you care deeply about her characters.

(Blue Camellia is out of print but can be found in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Monday, August 09, 2010


An Experiment in Love, Hilary Mantel, Henry Holt and Company, 1996, 250 pp

 I was so enchanted by Wolf Hall that I resolved to read Hilary Mantel's other novels. I had not heard of her before Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize and I don't think she was very well-known in the United States previously, but is highly respected in England. She has published ten novels, An Experiment in Love being her seventh.

  It is a sad, sad tale, very English and it reminded me of Anne Enright's The Gathering. Somehow, Mantel's writing just drags you into the hearts of her characters and keeps you there feeling all their sufferings, fleeting joys, hopes and confusions, as they move through their lives. It is actually excruciating but that is often just what I want in a novel.

 Carmel McBain comes from working class Irish-Catholic parents who settled in one of those mill towns in the Liverpool area (where the Beatles came from.) By the time their only child was born, the town was dying. Both parents worked and scrimped but Carmel's mother, in her own emtionally stunted way, pushed her daughter to aspire for more.

 This is a coming-of-age story of Carmel as she leaves her Catholic girlhood, goes to college in the 60s, learns about and lives through sex, love and birth control while she studies and starves on her scholarship grant. It is a familiar plot, this trajectory of a sheltered young woman moving into fuller life in the big wide treacherous world of late 20th century life. 

 The telling of the tale is what got me. From Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman to Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, we get these stories that are almost the female side of the Holden Caufield thing. And the female experience is more fraught with emotional danger just because we are the second sex.

(An Experiment in Love is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, August 05, 2010


Rally Round the Flag Boys!, Max Shulman, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1957, 278 pp

The #4 bestseller of 1957 is a piece of fluff about life in the suburbs circa the mid 50s. This is a common theme in books from that decade and is usually handled with wit when it is not a psychological study of dysfunction. Shulman's is heavy on the humor.
 Harry Bannerman works in New York City but lives in a small Connecticut community with his wife, three children, two mortgages and his feeling that romance and excitement are behind him. He loves his wife passionately but she is community-minded and thinks he should grow up.

  In a totally 50s moment, the U S Army installs a Nike missile base on the edge of town. Then the disgruntled wife of a TV exec makes a play for Harry. In addition, there is the young public school teacher who brings psychological analysis to her students.

 Shulman is a fairly good writer and keeps the pace moving. The "slice of life" genre has been around since those early French novelists and I am sure will go on. Humor is the icing.

(Those 1950 bestsellers were apparently not keepers. This one also is out of print and can be obtained only in libraries or from used book sellers.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


Rat, Fernanda Eberstadt, Alfred A Knopf, 2010, 293 pp

 One of the best things about being a reviewer for BookBrowse Magazine is that I am exposed to books I might not have encountered on my own. Rat is an example. I loved it so much that I am now reading the amazing Fernanda Eberstadt's other novels. She is a unique and fearless novelist. 

  Rat is the nickname of Celia, daughter of a single mother, sister to an adopted brother and intrepid teen living in the Pyrenees Orientale region of France. This is the story of how she defied her loving but slightly crazy mom and went off to find her father. My review begins:

      "Once in a while a book comes along that I simply love. I sink into the story and am carried away for hours into another world and another life. I reach the end feeling that I have been on vacation. Rat  did that for me." Read the rest here.

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

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Judy's Journey, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1947, 212 pp

 I missed this one back when I was reading the list for 1947. It is the fourth volume in Lois Lenski's American Regional Series and I read it many times as a child. Being published in the year of my birth and having my name in the title made it special to me.

  But this book also had a large effect on my life. Judy is the oldest child of a migrant worker family. They follow the crops, live in a tent and are often hungry. Judy longs to go to school and live in a real house. Near the end of the book, the family picks crops in New Jersey, the state where I grew up.

 During high school, I had a summer job two years in a row as a teacher's assistant at a facility for migrant worker's children. Our goal was to help them catch up on missed schooling. It was a defining experience for me in terms of life choices and beliefs, but I hadn't realized until I re-read the book this time how it had steered me to take that job. Reading is so amazing!

 I learned at the job how things really were for these kids. Of course, it was 15 years later and most of the children were Black, while Judy's family was white; sharecroppers trying to better themselves. In Judy's Journey, her wishes come true but I am quite certain the kids I met were not so lucky.

(Judy's Journey is out of print, as are all of Lenski's American Regional Series books. Your local library children's section or used bookseller are your options.)

Monday, August 02, 2010


Highlights from July:

 The discussion of Olive Kitteridge at Once Upon A Time gave me another viewpoint compared to the one I got from the discussion in June at Portrait of a Bookstore. I think there is just never too much when it comes to talking about books.

 It was a banner month for the number of readers who enjoyed the books read. If you haven't read The Angel's Game (or The Shadow of the Wind for that matter), just know that the readers of One Book at a Time Reading Group are in love with both. Zafon is the Dickens of the 20th century.

 The Help, over a year on many major bestseller lists in hardcover, turned out to be either loved or hated amongst the Portrait readers. I am always fascinated by the variety of responses to the same book.

 Bookie Babes is the group I have belonged to for the most years. We had a wonderful discussion about identity, anti-heroes and plotting in Await Your Reply.  I could see how much we have grown as readers in terms of the breadth of our choices and our willingness to look at different types of books. Well, our motto is: Take a chance on a book, and we do!

Now onto August:

Adult Discussion Group
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles Shields
Tuesday, August 10; 7:30 pm 

Sunland/Tujunga One Book at a Time
Meets at Mi Casita, Sundland, CA
Contact for Reservation: Lisa
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Thursday, August 19; 7:30 pm

The Man in the Wooden Hat, Jane Gardam
Monday, August 23; 7:00 pm

Mystery Group w/ tea and scones
Finding Nouf, Zoe Ferraris
Wednesday, August 25; 8:30 am

Bookie Babes
In the Woods, Tana French
Wednesday, August 25; 7:30 pm

What did your reading groups read last month? Any exciting tales?