Sunday, December 21, 2014

HOLIDAY VACATION TRIP




Leaving today for points east and south. Going to visit family and drive many miles. I love a road trip. I am going to hang out with real people and give the internet a break. Well, not entirely. I will have a device or two with me. 

If you like music, here are links to my CDs of original music recorded a while back. You can listen to any of the songs for free, you can download tunes or full CDs, or you can buy them. Happy listening!


http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/judykrueger
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/krueger2
http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/krueger

I will be back in January with the Favorite Books Read in 2014 post and more reviews.

Thanks for visiting and reading and commenting!

Friday, December 19, 2014

THE CHILDREN ACT






The Children Act, Ian McEwan, Nan A Talese, 2014, 240 pp



I liked this novel more than I expected to. It is about family, marriage, children, religion and the law. The title refers to a bit of English law: "When a court determines any question with respect to...the upbringing of a child...the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration."

This piece of legislation from 1989 is a giant step towards civilization from the climate of British legal views on children in the days when Charles Dickens grew up. I kept finding myself thinking of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield as I read.

But the child in question here is only months away from turning 18. Because he was raised and protected from the world by devout Jehovah's Witnesses, he has a childlike view of life and the world. He is dying of a disease (was it leukemia? I don't recall) and could possibly be saved by a blood transfusion but his parents will not allow it as that would violate their religious beliefs. 

Fiona Maye, a middle aged, childless High Court judge in family court holds the power to decide what has become a legal battle between the parents and the hospital where the boy lies dying. Concurrent with the progression of the case is a horrific problem in Fiona's marriage.

In almost perfect prose with impeccable timing, the drama plays out. Each character is poised on some brink where passions and disappointments in life meet the person's capacity for making good and sensible judgements. Or you could call it an inner battle of maturity meets childishness. 

Of course, no one really ever wins in such battles. Life is not that simple and is in fact messy. Turning 18 or even 60 is no guarantee of maturity. McEwan keeps the reader captive on these brinks he created which makes for an incredibly good read. He does not judge, even while every character makes judgements and thus we see ourselves and others with increased empathy.

I read this for one of my reading groups and we had one of our best discussions ever.


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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY






Death Comes to Pemberley, P D James, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 291 pp


I have previously read three books by P D James: her first, Cover Her Face, 1962; The Lighthouse, next to last of the Inspector Adam Dalgliesh books, 2005; and the stand alone Children of Men, 1992. 

I liked best the one that got low stars and tepid reviews: Children of Men. In her mysteries she is too sedate and slow moving for me. Children of Men had zing.

When one of my reading groups chose Death Comes to Pemberley, I was rightfully concerned. I don't much enjoy Jane Austen either. Ms James' book is written as a sequel to Pride and Prejudice with a murder mystery for the plot. I anticipated a dreadfully boring read and that is what it was for me. Exactly half of the reading group felt as I did and the other half loved it. There was no middle ground.

I think for Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice geeks the book would be perfect. The two authors would certainly have been besties had they lived in the same era.

Ten days after I finished reading Death Comes to Penderley death came to P D James. I feel a bit mean now for hating her book. I admire her for a long successful career and for her contributions to the playing field of female mystery writers.


(Death Comes to Pemberley is available in paperback on the mystery shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

THE ROSIE PROJECT






The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion, Simon & Schuster, 2013, 320 pp


I read this for a reading group that I did not attend, but since I had intended to go and started the book with not much time to read, I read it super fast. Fortunately it was that kind of book and I did not dislike it particularly. But it is characterized by that light, slightly humorous writing found in TV shows, so not much of it remains in my memory.

A guy who is some type of heavy scientist residing somewhere on the asperger/autism spectrum is in want of a wife. He devises a project to find one who will match with his peculiarities and instead finds Rosie. He and Rosie run through the obligatory romantic comedy tropes.

It is all very endearing and witty and brings a few new aspects to the nerdy guy meets hot girl story. Being set in Australia, I was constantly having to readjust my internal GPS because the novel seemed so American in most ways.

Nice comfort read but it won't change your life. You already know this story.


(The Rosie Project is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 12, 2014

AN UNFINISHED LIFE: JOHN F KENNEDY





An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy, Robert Dallek, Little Brown and Company, 2003, 711 pp


I have now completed the third biography on my list of US Presidents who have been in office during my lifetime: Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. It appears that to be taken seriously a presidential biography must be a door-stopper no matter how long their lives or how many terms they served. John F Kennedy only lived for 46 years and only held the Presidency for 1000 days but he still got 711 pages of text from Robert Dallek.

This reading about presidents' lives is probably the most difficult of my various reading projects but also hugely satisfying in terms of an overview of American federal government and politics. Who they were and how they became presidents is a mirror on American life. But the main idea I have come to is that the news media gives us a distinctly skewed view of our presidents and the disconnect between who they really are and what they have to deal with as the leaders of our country compared to what we are told about that while it is happening only grows wider as the new media keeps up with technological changes over the years.

Despite huge swaths of boring day by day depictions of JFK's nomination and election campaigns as well as the major crises he faced during his term, I learned much more about the man than I was ever taught in school. I gained an understanding of why he was and continues to be so revered. He was THE man for the times in 1960; young, handsome, intelligent, and forward looking. He was also a consummate politician with an inborn sense of how to advance his career, complemented by what he learned from his father. He was far more ill for his entire life than was publicly known. Medicated to his eyeballs much of the time, his health was a risk and a big long story covered fully in Dallek's book.

Though I suspect the author down pedaled it to a large degree, Kennedy was an unrepentant and continuous womanizer. As a teenager I was infatuated with the romance between Jack and Jackie. In An Unfinished Life, Jackie only gets about 20 pages, so now I will need to read some books that give more of her side of the story. I was left feeling it was all a political show.

I wonder if I could have or should have read a different Kennedy biography. Robert Dallek's dull and pedestrian writing style certainly did not match his flamboyant subject.


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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

THE MADONNAS OF ECHO PARK






The Madonnas of Echo Park, Brando Skyhorse, Free Press, 2010, 199 pp


Brief news flash: Both of my cataract surgeries are now complete. I can see everything without glasses! Well, except for small print close up in poorly lit places, for which I use those reading glasses you can buy at pharmacies. I am so happy!

Now onto my review. Except for a trip on the week of Christmas, I shall be posting regularly again. Thank you for your patience.

My hand-crafted, boutique, and very special Tiny Book Group is on a project to read books set in Los Angeles. All three of us are from elsewhere, having come to LA in middle age. Echo Park is a Los Angeles neighborhood that began as a Mexican ghetto and has lately succumbed to gentrification. Brando Skyhorse grew up in Echo Park in the 1980s.

His truly wonderful novel is a successful example of a novel written as a series of collected stories featuring characters who appear again and again. By the end you know how they are connected through family and events.

"We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours." There is so much history in that opening sentence. It took my breath away. But history is the last thing on the minds of Skyhorse's characters. Their minds are crowded with fears of deportation, struggles to learn English, make a living, and assimilate.

Every living American today, except for Native Americans, is an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. I wonder how many immigrant novels have been written here. Brando Skyhorse (descended from Mexicans but raised to think that his Native American step-father was his biological father) took this often told story and made it pulse with sights, smells, tastes, loves, deaths, and the infinite variety of human longings.

The Tiny Book Group met in Echo Park to discuss the book. We ate lunch at Xoia Vietnamese Eats.
We got pastries at Masa of Echo Park Bakery & Cafe.
We strolled to Echo Park Lake to eat our treats,
then to Stories Books to choose our next read.
All the while we talked about the book and wondered, "Where have all the Mexicans gone?"

Part of the answer can be found in this video, but most of the answers have been encapsulated in The Madonnas of Echo Park.

One more thing: reading and learning about the incident that inspired the book's title was a little piece of literary magic.


(The Madonnas of Echo Park is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)
 
 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

TWO EYES ARE BETTER THAN ONE






UPDATE


Two weeks after cataract surgery on the right eye and I have almost 20/20 vision for distance. My eyes don't look like the above image which I copied from Google. My eyes look more like Margaret Atwood's or Jane Smiley's or Hilary Clinton's. These are all eyes that have seen a lot, as have mine, eyes that have read millions of words. 
I've been stumbling around without my glasses because they don't work for me anymore. My left eye also has a cataract and is extremely near-sighted. Cooking for Thanksgiving was a challenge but I managed not to cut off any fingers by wearing my glasses with the right lens covered in duct tape. It has been quite an adventure. I can drive in the daytime and see better than I have in years. At night I need mild sunglasses to cut down on the glare from headlights, street lights, etc. Last night in the rain was truly scary but luckily I was only a few blocks from home.

But I can read! And I have been reading. As you can see I managed to post one review here but it was so stressful looking from my handwritten review to the computer screen, even with reading glasses, that I haven't done another.

Monday I got the good news that my second surgery will be this coming Monday! By next Tuesday morning I should be able to see distance in the right eye, middle (computer) distance in the left. Might need reading glasses for close distance like reading books or iBooks. I should be able to see better than I have for decades. No more progressive lenses, no more glasses for everyday tasks. Thanks to modern medicine, my wonderful ophthalmologist/surgeon and her team of technicians, eye drops, and my adoring husband who drives me to surgery and check ups. Thanks to Medicare. 

But OMG my eyes were nicely hidden behind glasses and I could not really see what they looked like. Life is quite a joke sometimes. Yesterday I spent money on new eye cream and face cream. I gave myself a mud pack facial. Face it, Judy. You are not young anymore.

Still I can read, I can drive, I can go to Texas and see my grandchildren for Christmas. I can come home in the New Year and hopefully read more books than ever. Maybe I can even post a couple more reviews before the year is over.

Thanks for your patience!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

MAYA'S NOTEBOOK






Maya's Notebook, Isabel Allende, HarperCollins, 2013, 387 pp


Isabel Allende never lets me down. Whether she writes a novel about a comic book hero (Zorro), a memoir about losing her daughter to a rare disease (Paula), or a coming-of-age/young adult hybrid (Maya's Notebook), I read happily absorbed in the story and the characters. Behind everything she writes is an underlying sense of history and a humanist creed about the worth of individuals.

Maya: deserted physically by her mother and emotionally by her father, was raised by her grandparents-Nini, a strong, protective, mystical woman who escaped from Chile during the politically troubled 1970s and Popo, a gentle and loving African-American astronomer and professor. When Popo dies, Maya goes majorly off the rails, leaves high school, runs away, and descends into drug abuse with all the attendant horrors.

Eventually Nini finds and rescues her but by then she is in so much trouble that Nini sends her to a remote Chilean island to hide out. There, Maya begins to keep a journal and documents her journey back to sanity while making a record of how she got so crazy. Thus Maya's Notebook is exactly that. Maya's story told in Maya's voice. 

Though this is a gritty story with plenty of human degradation, criminality, sex, and drugs, it has equal amounts of beauty. Nini's purple house in Berkeley, CA, and her fellow members of the People's Independent Republic of Berkeley embody a beauty of spirit. The island in the archipelago of Chiloe, where Maya lives for a year comprises wild beauty, native myths, the encroachments of modern civilization, and Manual Arias. Manual is Nini's old friend who has consented to take Maya in and protect her. Their initial meeting goes like this:

"I'm Manual Arias," the man introduced himself in English.
"Hi. I'm on the run from the FBI, Interpol, and a Las Vegas criminal gang," I announced bluntly, to avoid any misunderstandings.
"Congratulations," he said.
"I haven't killed anybody and frankly, I don't think any of them would go to the trouble of coming to look for me all the way down here in the asshole of the world."
"Thanks."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to insult your country, man. Actually it's really pretty, lots of green and lots of water, but look how far away it is!"
"From what?"
"From California, from civilization, from the rest of the world. My Nini didn't tell me it'd be cold."
"It's summer," he informed me.

The snotty tongued Maya and the reticent Manual eventually help each other to dig out of equally horrific pasts and though the final pages of what is a truly exciting story may be a bit sentimental, they are part of the character of the entire tale.

A troubled teen from a fractured family survives by acquiring a whole tribe, because Maya herself contains a beauty that compels many.

Isabel Allende talks about the book here.


(Maya's Notebook is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PLEASE STAY TUNED






I had cataract surgery on my right eye on Monday. Now I have 20/20 vision in that eye but my old near-sighted left eye still has a cataract which will not be fixed until late December. That boils down to a sort of weird monovision for distance and a somewhat useless left eye. This is not conducive to reading or computer work except in short stints. 

Please bear with me. I will be back. I have a pile of excellent books already ready to review. I will get to them as soon as I am able. 

Meanwhile I am catching up on literary podcasts including the awesome Other People, where Brad Listi interviews cutting edge current authors, often published by small and independent presses. Check it out!

Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

THE INVENTION OF WINGS




 
 
 
There are certain novels that are so wonderful they keep me reading, always hoping I will find another wonderful one. If you are a reader, I am sure you can think of at least ten such novels. What is even more wonderful is how personal this is, how each reader is unique as to what makes a novel wonderful.
 
Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, was such a novel for me. Now I have added her latest novel, The Invention of Wings, to my personal list of wonderful novels. And this is the last time I will use the word wonderful in this review!

The story involves a slave owning family and their slaves. The Grimke household is located in Charleston, NC. In 1803, on her eleventh birthday, Sarah Grimke is given her own personal slave, Hetty, also known as Handful because she is one.

Although her family has always owned slaves, Sarah is horrified by the idea of herself owning another human being. Instead she makes Hetty into a friend and begins teaching her to read. Soon enough both of them are in big trouble, but from that day on Sarah, Hetty, Hetty's mother Charlotte, and Sarah's baby sister Angelina are bound together. 

Sarah and Angelina grow up to be abolitionists and feminists, though of course they are expelled from their family home and from Charleston. All four women struggle, rebel, and suffer before the Civil War has even begun. Each one crosses the treacherous lines and boundaries of family, racism, and patriarchal traditions in a relentless search for freedom.

Readers of this blog know that I take umbrage at writers who unsuccessfully tell stories about other races, nationalities, or countries to which they do not belong. I hereby admit that some authors can manage such a feat convincingly and Sue Monk Kidd has done it twice. But if a person of color reads this review and disagrees, I am open to what you have to say.

I read The Invention of Wings in two days, carried along by the excellence of Ms Kidd's writing craft and immersed in her characters' adventures. I felt proud to be a human being. Here it is 2014 and we still encounter racism and oppression of women on a daily basis but from the beginning of time there have been individuals who stood up to humans oppressing humans and said, "No!"


(The Invention of Wings is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)



Sunday, November 09, 2014

A SEVERED HEAD






A Severed Head, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1961, 248 pp


Martin is happily married to Antonia but also has a mistress names Georgie. Antonia is older than Martin and undergoing analysis. Suddenly she leaves Martin and moves in with Anderson, her analyst. Anderson's sister Honor tells Antonia about Georgie. Honor is such a truly cracked character that she makes the rest of them look only mildly weird in comparison.

Again a 1961 novel about infidelity. In contrast to Wallace Stegner's A Shooting Star, this one is a breath of fresh air with that almost slapstick feeling Murdoch does so well. Every time I felt I had a grip on the plot, she went in exactly the opposite direction I would predict.

I can just hear some of my reading group ladies getting riled up because not one character is likable or admirable. I certainly did not imagine that the tortured, non-self-aware Martin would end up with ...ah, I can't say. But as she tells Martin, "This has nothing to do with happiness, nothing whatever."

And that is the joke percolating through the whole tale. Many of us tried open marriage in the 70s. What a Pandora's Box! We should have read The Severed Head first.


(A Severed Head is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 07, 2014

THE LIE







The Lie, Hesh Kestin, Scribner, 2014, 229 pp



Once again a reading group steered me to a book I'd never heard about and am glad I read. The Lie is set in Israel and though it is standard fare as thrillers go, the author (a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces) gives readers a provocative look at today's issues.
 
Dahlia Barr, a tough attorney based in Jerusalem and known for defending Palestinians accused of terrorism, accepts recruitment into the Israeli security establishment. She believes she can change the system from within and do away with torture.
 
Then her 21 year old son, a soldier, is kidnapped by Hezbollah and the political becomes personal for Dahlia.
 
I have read David Grossman's To The End Of The Land and Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness, not to mention a great amount of historical fiction about war. It is the mothers who suffer most, at least from my point of view. 
 
In this novel I found a mother who was in a position to do much more than wait at home in fear and grief but that very position put her straight into the most difficult conflict of her life. What a gripping story.


(The Lie is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 03, 2014

A SHOOTING STAR




Wallace Stegner has been an uneven novelist for this reader. I first read his 1943 historical The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a book I could not put down. The Preacher and the Slave, about Joe Hill and the Wobblies was also riveting. A couple others left me either bored or less than enraptured.

He was a great writer both in craft and the conveying of emotion, but sometimes I feel he tried too hard, even to the point of preaching his message too obviously. In A Shooting Star he went overboard on wordiness, his story arc took too long to arc, and while he tried hard to understand his female protagonist, a judgmental flavor spoiled the result.

I've had a time reading my 1961 list, as it has featured many long books and some weaker books by authors I have previously admired. However, as harbingers of cultural change to come, especially the sexual revolution of the late 60s and the second wave of feminism in the 70s, many of these novels are examples of how writers had their fingers on the pulse of change before it became apparent in mainstream culture.

Sabrina Castro, raised in a deeply screwed up but fabulously wealthy family, married a physician. As her husband became successful with rich matrons in Los Angeles, he began to neglect Sabrina. Because she was not able to conceive a child, she was restless, unfulfilled, and lonely. What does a woman in such straights do? She takes a lover. Thus the drama begins.

And goes on and on. Stegner creates tension with Sabrina's indecision about her marriage, her husband (a sanctimonious jerk), and her future. I am fully aware that female dithering is commonplace. I have been guilty of it myself. Reading about it drives me to distraction.

So OK, he gets that aspect of female life and it is in the 1950s when a woman could not easily go outside of accepted societal norms, no matter how rich she was, but it still went on too long. I also detected whiffs of Freudian concepts about females suffering from infantile behavior. Yuck! A woman working through issues with a messed up mother is not infantile, she is working through issues.

Bottom line: worth reading as a sign of the times; maddening that it took me six days to do so.


(A Shooting Star is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)



Friday, October 31, 2014

NOVEMBER READING GROUP UPDATE







Pondering the elasticity of time today. October felt endless this year but it also feels like I did the October Reading Group Update just the other day. Here it is: the books we will be reading as we transition from Trick or Treat to Thanksgiving. Let the reading and the eating begin!!


Tiny Book Group:


New Book Club:


Once Upon A Time Adult Reading Group:


Tina's Group:


Bookie Babes:


One Book At A Time:

Luckily I have already read two of these books. Otherwise I might not have time to eat!

What are your reading groups devouring this month?

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.)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

SHE IS NOT INVISIBLE






She Is Not Invisible, Marcus Sedgwick, Roaring Book Press, 2013, 216 pp


THE SUNDAY FAMILY READ



I read a review of this book and it sounded good. It is categorized as YA (or TEEN in my library.)

Laureth Peak (named after the stuff in shampoo) is a 16 year old London girl whose father seems to have gone missing and whose mother seems not to care even if she is clearly mad at the dude. Laureth decides to abscond with her 7 year old brother Benjamin and travel to New York City where Jack Peak was last supposed to be.

A few more facts (not spoilers): Dad is a novelist, author of a series of successful humorous novels and a few not so successful serious ones. He has been stuck writing his current novel for several years. Laureth is blind and therefore needs Benjamin to help her get around in an unfamiliar city, though she has a special cell phone adapted for the blind. Benjamin is a great character but the mom is a cipher.

It is all just this side of plausible. Written as a thriller, the pace is fast except for when the author uses excerpts from the father's journal to explain deep concepts about coincidence, synchronicity, and the theories of Freud and Jung concerning such concepts.

I thought the best aspect of the story was the hurtful bullying stuff about her blindness that Laureth had to get over. 

Speaking of synchronicity, I read this book shortly after finishing All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (review coming next), which features a brave blind teenager with a missing father.


(She Is Not Invisible is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 03, 2014

OCTOBER READING GROUP UPDATE






It is 100 degrees in Los Angeles today, at least in the Valley if not downtown. Not Indian Summer, just still hot. But I can feel autumn in the cooler nights. No matter the season, reading groups go on. Already this past Wednesday at Bookie Babes we had the biggest surprise of the year. Most members liked The Dinner by Hermann Koch. I predicted it would be universally hated but only two of us were thumbs down. You will see Bookie Babes on here twice this month. Due to Rosh Hashanah we met a week later than usual and that pushed our September meeting into October.

Here are the already discussed and upcoming books for this month.


Bookie Babes:


New Book Club:


Once Upon A Time Adult Reading Group:


One Book At A Time:


Bookie Babes:


Do you have a good or funny or horrific reading group story? Post it in the comments!


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

HOME IS THE SAILOR






Home Is the Sailor, Jorge Amado, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, (translated from the Portuguese, published by Livaria Martins Editora, 1961), 298 pp



As has become routine for me with Amado's novels, it seemed to take forever to get my reading up to speed in Home Is the Sailor. As in every earlier novel of his though, I came to the end feeling I had been told an informative and entertaining tale.

The eponymous sailor, Vasco Moscosco de Aragao, had never sailed a ship in all of his 60 years. He was the son of a Brazilian businessman and raised by his grandfather in the city, caring nothing for business or hard work. Wealthy and gregarious, he made friends in high places. His only sorrow in life was that he had no title, no rank, no degree. He was only Mr de Aragao.

Or so the story goes. The book's narrator calls himself a historian, while he is in fact a lowly journalist in a town of retirees, whose lover is the whore of a rich man. When Captain Vasco Moscosco de Aragao arrives in town, calling himself a Master Mariner, he instantly becomes the most popular man around due to his exciting tales of adventure on the oceans of the world. The former most popular townsperson becomes jealous and challenges the truth of the Captain's claims.

Our narrator/historian takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of the conflict and the reader is the beneficiary as his findings are related. Twists and turns, cliffhangers, and Amado's signature humor all come together in the second half of the novel which I read at four times the speed as I did the first half.

It could have been that I am not Brazilian, that Portuguese is difficult to translate, that Amado's sentences are eerily similar to William Faulkner's, or that I have been reading so much contemporary fiction. I don't care what caused my trouble. It was worth reading and the theme is oddly contemporary. Captain de Aragao, Master Mariner, was a certain kind of self-made man, composed of his past, his connections, his dreams, and his gift for enjoying life. As Amado says to us on the final page:

"Does truth lie in the everyday events, the daily incidents, in the pettiness and vulgarity most people's lives are composed of, or does the truth have its abode in the dream it is given us to dream to free our sad human condition?"


(Home Is the Sailor is out of print and best found in your local library or through used book sellers.)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL






Kabul Beauty School, Deborah Rodriguez, Random House, 2007, 278 pp



This was an interesting read. It was a reading group pick and sparked controversy in the group discussion as it did in the world.

Debbie Rodriguez is the daughter of a hairdresser from Holland, MI. I have spent some time in that town. My Top 40 cover band used to play at the Holiday Inn there in the early 1980s. The first wet burrito I ever ate was at a Mexican Restaurant in Holland. It is a small, mostly blue collar central Michigan town. Debbie is one of those women who do before they think and therefore get a lot done but lead volatile lives.

After a nasty divorce, she leaves her two sons with her mother, gets involved with an NGO and lands in Afghanistan. Within a year, she has a project of her own, backed by Vogue Magazine and Clairol, and starts the first Afghan beauty school in Kabul.

Over the next several years Debbie is either doing total immersion in Afghanistan culture, including marrying a man there, or she is back in the States seeing her sons and drumming up more financial backing for her school.

The book is fast-paced, anecdotal, and entertained me as I learned about the culture, the women, the marriage rites, and the unsettled life of that strange (by American standards) country. Compared to more serious books such as The Bookseller of Kabul or The Swallows of Kabul, Kabul Beauty School made me laugh as well as ponder how women will ever get rights or equality there.

When they do, it will be in part because of women like Rodriguez. She has been criticized both in America and Afghanistan and I don't know how a reader could know for sure if those criticisms are accurate. I believe her when she says that she fell in love with the country and its people. She comes across as having no other agenda than to make the lives of some women better by giving them a skill by which they could make a living. I believe that was her intention.

She made mistakes, she admits it, and finally left because of what she perceived as real threats from the Afghanistan government. I was struck by how much she accomplished precisely because she did not over think things. She just went ahead and got stuff done.

Friday, September 26, 2014

HEADS YOU LOSE






Heads You Lose, Lisa Lutz and David Hayward, G P Putnam's Sons, 2011, 301 pp



Here we have another example of how my reading groups lead me into books I would not otherwise read. This time it was pretty much a losing proposition.

The book started out OK with some laugh out loud humor. The two authors purport to be frenemies. They agree to write alternate chapters (kind of like AdLibs, only whole chapters) and write snarky notes to each other after the other one's chapter. The notes are included.

Story takes place in a very small town near Mt Shasta, CA. There is a murder but as it turns out there are several murders. A brother (who grows and sells pot) and a sister (who works at the local bar) try to solve the murders. The title comes from the fact that the first dead body is missing his head.

I liked some of the humor and Mt Shasta is one of my favorite locations, though some of my romantic notions about the area were thoroughly trashed. As murder mysteries go it wasn't the best I've ever read and the authorial smack down grew old pretty fast.
 
 
(Heads You Lose is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)



Sunday, September 21, 2014

STATION ELEVEN






Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel, Alfred A Knopf, 2014, 232 pp



When I saw the movie based on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I decided not to read the book yet. It has been four years now and I still haven't read it though I am a fan of his writing. I read Station Eleven and realized that of all the post-apocalyptic novels out there, this is the one I wanted to read. It is The Road written by a woman.

In saying this I take nothing away from Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, because as far as I am concerned nothing can be taken away from those three novels. Atwood, as always, works on a larger canvas. Emily St John Mandel brings us the intimate details of small personal lives. 

I finished reading Station Eleven about three weeks ago and am slightly embarrassed to say that I don't remember what the title refers to. One of the reasons the book is not horrific is that the virus that obliterated over 90% of humanity was an incident from more than a decade earlier, but the characters are survivors of that pandemic and the setting is made up of the best of what's still around.

Most of the characters are members of a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians who call themselves the Traveling Symphony. If I were a post-apocalyptic survivor, I sure would not want to be stuck in some stinking community raising food and scavenging for whatever is left. I'd want to be roaming from settlement to settlement bringing the magic of theater and music to all the sad starving people.

I'd want my closest companions to be called "the second clarinet" and so on and I would be militant towards anyone who messed with my company. I would possess treasured secret memories of actors and musicians who brought salvation to audiences on any given night back when there was electricity, the internet, cell phones, fuel, hotels, abundant food but most of all art.

So it is for the actors and musicians of the Traveling Symphony. They have their memories which become part of the fabric of this tale. They have fierce loyalties to each other and a sense of purpose for their personal and collective existence. This novel is their story.

I have read and loved each of Emily St John Mandel's novels: Last Night in Montreal, The Singer's Gun, and The Lola Quartet. She is a magician who creates spells over her readers by means of characters, language, and a special understanding of all types of artists. She is a one woman trauma unit for victims of horrific events. I want her to have a long successful career as a novelist so I can read each book as it is published.

With Station Eleven she moved from the independent publisher Unbridled Books to the big time of Alfred A Knopf. That move is bringing her the increased recognition she deserves. Knopf better be good to her. I'm already miffed that her book tour does not include an appearance in Los Angeles. But I'm not too worried because a talent like hers could survive anything just as the main character of Station Eleven does.


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

Friday, September 19, 2014

THE CHRONICLE OF SECRET RIVEN




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The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Ronlyn Domingue, Atria Books, 2014, 385 pp



Book Two of The Keeper of Tales trilogy takes place 1000 years after The Mapmaker's War. Secret Riven is the daughter of an ambitious historian and a gifted translator. She is silent as a baby, toddler, and young child, not speaking until she is in second grade.

Her silence is only an outward manifestation of Secret's differences. She can communicate non-verbally with plants and animals. She also suffers from unsettling visions and dreams, many of which leave her either ill or in pain. Ronlyn Domingue has an exceptional ability to make you feel Secret's uniqueness and what it is like for her when she is too young to comprehend what is happening.

"Secret's whole body vibrated with the sound, her being a bell struck with full force. She felt suddenly heavy and strong, as if her body were no longer her own."

The novel's subtitle is An Account of What Preceded the Plague of Silences. Exactly true because the account of Secret's first seventeen years occasionally mentions this plague but by the end of the book the plague is still to come. It did not occur to me until just now that Secret will be especially suited to survive a plague of silences.

In such an eerie story, even more fairytale-like than The Mapmaker's War, every chapter is some degree of strange. A mysterious manuscript sent to Secret's mother to translate causes illness and terrible challenges for both of them. The mother is cold and distant toward her daughter but beloved by the father. A set of myths in an appendix explains the mystical history of Secret's country. She is led into a forest by a red squirrel where an old woman teaches her these myths and provides some much needed mother love. Whenever Secret returns from afternoons in the forest, no time has passed in her world.

The life of this unique and amazing girl is revealed chapter by chapter, year by year, as she grows. In fact, the format is similar to the way I am constructing my memoir. Both mine and Secret's birthdays are in late summer, shortly before a new school year begins, an uncanny coincidence for me.

The pace is slow and dreamy, now and then relieved by incidents between Riven and the country's Prince, who becomes one her best friends. Secret's oddness and psychical suffering are intense, her life unpredictable even as it follows the patterns of daily life, school, and yearly growth. Thus the book contains a never ending tension.

I was made part of this girl's life so deeply and intimately that when the book ended I felt adrift. The conflicts she carried with her for 18 years are by no means resolved. Obviously that will happen in the final volume, still being written according to a recent interview with Domingue, but due to be published next year.

I am fairly sure I will not forget anything about Secret Riven and when I start the next book, her story, her chronicle, will be right there.


(The Chronicle of Secret Riven is available in hardcover and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)