Saturday, January 31, 2015


Crystal Eaters, Shane Jones, Two Dollar Radio, 2014, 173 pp

I had a tough time with this novel. I checked it out because I admire indie publisher Two Dollar Radio and I had listened to a podcast interview with the author on Other People. Set in a speculative world, or perhaps allegorical would be a better word, its gritty, even gross details actually made me feel yucky. 

A small extremely poor village with seven dirt roads lies outside an ever encroaching city. The villagers mine crystal and sell it to manufacturers in the city for technological uses. They have mythical beliefs about crystal's properties, the main one being that every living creature is born with 100 units of crystal in their bodies. As life goes on this count steadily lowers due to accidents, injuries, illness, punishments, and emotional turmoil, until all the crystal is gone and death ensues.

Remy is sad throughout the book because both her dog and her mother are dying, her dad is stoically distraught, and her brother is in jail. The most mythical belief of all is that the crystal count can be replenished by ingesting a certain rare and hard to mine color of crystal.

At least that is what I could figure out. The chapters are numbered from 40 down to 0. Remy and her brother love their parents, death is inevitable, but also brings sorrow. The city controls anything that is good in the material world but the powerless villagers still have feelings. 

I admit that the conceit with the crystals is original but the plot is not. If I had to live in that village I would welcome death. 

In a Paris Review interview, Shane Jones says, "...prayer, crystals, myths, folktales, the universe as a system of life and destruction--I'm attracted to these things and they are players in the book."

The book garnered some highly positive, even adoring reviews, but it did not work for me.

(Crystal Eaters is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


Lucky Us, Amy Bloom, Random House, 2014, 256 pp

Amy Bloom just never lets me down as a reader. Lucky Us was the last book I finished in 2014 and it was an auspicious moment when I did. 2014 turned out to be a rough reading year for me: personal issues which possessed my attention, illness, eye surgeries. All I wanted to do was read but sometimes all I could do was play Solitaire on my iPad.

So ending my reading year with a book so satisfying, so aligned with my current views about life, actually I must say, so perfect, reassured me that I could still consider myself a voracious reader but better yet, still be one.

Mainly with Amy Bloom for me, it is about the characters. All are flawed, none are completely admirable, but some manage to live and love and create in spite of their flaws. I also think she gets it that no matter how wonderful a person might be, what matters is how that person deals with the people around her or him.

Eva, half sister to Iris, was the gem among a parade of weak or disreputable or self-serving folks. She was abandoned by her mother, a single mom, a one-time lover of Eva's father. Dumped on her father's doorstep, she and Iris, whose mother has just died, form one of those deep bonds which aid survival but are also in ways dysfunctional.

It is the 1940s. The story travels from Ohio to Hollywood to Long Island. The characters' relationships span from Brooklyn to London. They help each other, betray, rescue, and love each other. Eva is fearless, Iris is reckless. The story could have gone for hundreds of pages and broken your heart.

But it is a short novel, a mere 256 pages. A very artful compression of time, incident, and emotion. I was left not with despair but delight. We are human, we get by or we don't, there are an infinite number of variations on how to live.

And so we go on. Living is a story. Some write them, some read them. I may not get my stories written but I am living a story and I love reading the stories of others.

By the way, each one of the 29 chapter titles is the name of a song from the 1930s and 1940s. I am listening to those songs now after reading the book but I wish I had listened as I read. Go ahead readers. Nerd out on that!

(Lucky Us is available now in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015


My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante, Europa Editions, 2012, 331 pp

Now I have read the book that so many readers I respect and relate to loved. I loved it as well.

There is a magic between childhood friends, no matter the time period or locale. Elena Ferrante captures that magic and its combination of black magic and good. In the early chapters she makes the terrors, the sorrows, the worries between two young girls so real and true. I had those myself as a girl, even to the point of being made sick by them. At the same time, it was some kind of point of honor not to admit how bad those feelings were and a duty to rise above them. So it is with Elena and Lila.

Those two girls lived in postwar Naples, Italy. I grew up in postwar American suburbia, Princeton, NJ, to be exact and my circumstances were much more tame. Somehow these differences don't matter because it is the friendship and connection of growing up together, the changes that affect each girl and alter the relationship, that spoke to me and gave the story its emotional heft.

Anything else I could say would just be gushing. As Alice Sebold's blurb on the front cover says, "Elena Ferrante will blow you away."

Better yet, the third novel in this trilogy about female friendship, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, is on the short list for this year's Tournament of Books, so I have an additional reason to go ahead and binge read the next two volumes!
(My Brilliant Friend is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, January 19, 2015


California, Edan Lepucki, Little Brown & Company, 2014, 393 pp

I didn't keep any notes while reading this novel and I finished it many weeks ago. So I will just write about what still stands out in my mind.

1) Cal (short for California, the guy's college nickname) and his wife Frida. I don't think I know any people who are remotely similar to these characters. It could be an age thing. I think they are late 20s in the story and I kept feeling they were about the same age as the author would have been when she was writing the book, so she ought to know. I have nieces and nephews who are that age but they are not much like Cal or Frida.

2) Their marriage: OK so the setting is some 50 years in the future and this couple have escaped a decayed Los Angeles to live with practically nothing in the California wilderness, but they routinely keep secrets from each other. Big things and stupid little things, for good reasons like protection of the other and for perverse reasons.

I don't know if this is normal in marriages. It is normal in mine but for some reason it felt abnormal for two people who only have each other. Later when they become involved with a community that feels unmistakably like a cult, this compulsion to withhold information causes big trouble and leads them straight into the climax. So it was a great plot device.

3) The end of the story and a couple plot twists before that were for me complete surprises. I liked that. I just could not imagine how and where they would end up but any guesses I made or hoped for were wrong.

4) Lepucki's voice. For the half of the book it felt oddly brittle. She doesn't write like anyone I have been reading lately and I mean that in a good way. She is herself and by the end I was used to that voice, which has not a lot of humor nor is it compassionate. She is telling it the way she sees it.

5) Summary: In a dystopian setting peopled by a young married couple and various other desperate characters, the key tonality is desperation. I felt she took most of the things that are the most dysfunctional in our current world and made them just enough worse so that the rest of the story is believable.

This year I read On Such A Full Sea by Chang Rae Lee, MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood, and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. California is the most like On Such A Full Sea in tone and environment. It was the least like Station Eleven. The ending is not happy but there is really nothing happy in the book although happiness is pursued. It is an engrossing addition to the current crop of post-apocalytic fiction.
(California is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Seven from the Stars, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ace, 1961, 248 pp

An early MZB novel from 1961 or 1962, depending on where you look. I found it an accomplished and entertaining sci fi novel with Heinlein and Asimov influences plus her signature feminist views.

Seven survivors of an intergalactic ship find themselves on Earth near a large Texas city. Each is a level of telepath or telempath also programmed to adapt to wherever they are and assimilate so well that the locals don't recognize them as extra-terrestrials. Earth is considered a Closed Planet meaning they will not be rescued.

As time passes a baby is born, there are conflicts amongst the survivors, and they become involved with a Texas rancher and his family. MZB gets in some semi-political commentary on Mexicans and immigration and treatment of illegals as employees.

Most of all I liked her nicely worked out neuroscience of telepaths (who can receive and transmit worded thoughts in any language they know) versus telempaths (who can probe the thoughts and emotions of all humans as well as translate these into the languages and concepts of any other race.) 

Due to these excellent skills as well as intelligent assimilation most of the seven survive and are able to bring a boon to Earth. Great story!

(Seven from the Stars is out of print but available from used book sellers as well as in ebook form. I found my copy on Nook.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Castle Dor, Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier, Little Brown and Company, 1961, 288 pp

I don't recall how I first heard about Castle Dor. I think it was reviewed by one of my Goodreads friends. Since I am doing a completist reading of du Maurier's novels, I added it to my list.

Castle Dor was an incomplete novel by the very literary and august (according to my research) Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. He died before finishing it. The du Mauriers were friends of Quiller-Couch so his daughter asked Daphne du Maurier to take over and write the rest of the book.

The story is based on the Celtic myth of Tristan and Iseult. Even I, who have only dabbled in mythology, know that tragic story of star-crossed lovers. In this version, which is set in the early 1840s near the Fowey River in the Cornish countryside, certain individuals unknowingly play the parts of the main characters in the legend.

The setting and the slipstream notion of people reliving a story from centuries earlier was the idea of Quiller-Couch. In the prologue he imparts the imaginations of a local doctor who spends the night waiting on a birth by standing on the ancient earthwork of a ruined Castle Dor and begins to fancy that he can perceive the sorrowful tale of those who lived there far in the past.

I loved the concept: "All England is a palimsest of such (quarrel, ancient feud, litigation), scored over with writ of hate and love, begettings of children beneath the hazels, appeals, curses, concealed travails." I was however challenged by the original author's rather florid and wordy style.

In several reviews readers have claimed that the continuation of the writing by du Maurier is seamless. I could tell right away when she took over, partly I suppose because I am familiar with her voice. Suddenly about a third of the way through I could read smoothly and easily without having to reread almost every sentence several times.

Then the book became a pageturner though it never lost that time travel essence. I ended up loving it and feeling as sad as if I hadn't know the lovers were doomed. I admired the skill with which she and Quiller-Couch placed the elements of the legend into the realities of life in the 1840s.

I am glad I read it.

(Castle Dor is available as an ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, January 06, 2015


It was another tough year in my reading life. I only read 92 books in 2014. I averaged a bit less than 2 books a week, only 80 pages average a day. I read 7 books of over 500 pages and possibly more challenging books than in previous years. But the bottom line is that I missed several weeks of reading in May when I was too ill and when my cataract surgery was going on I slowed way down on reading. Then I went on the Christmas road trip and was having much too much fun with real live people and real live scenery to spend any time reading. 

It is all good. I improved my health after that wake up call in May, I have much better eyesight after the surgeries, and my personal sorrows are down to only one. Life is hard, messy, glorious, and always interesting. 

This list is in alphabetical order by title not by favorite, but are the most loved and rewarding books I read in the past year. Not all were published in 2014. I read about 2/3 in real books and the rest on various e-readers. I have posted reviews of all but two books on the list and will post those shortly.

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Bird Skinner, Alice Greenway
Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Boy Snow Bird, Helen Oyeyemi
The Chronicle of Secret Riven, Ronlyn Domingue
The Golden Arrow, Anna Redmond
The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker
Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin
The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart
Long Division, Kiese Laymon
Lucky Us, Amy Bloom
The Madonnas of Echo Park, Brando Skyhorse
The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman
Mood Indigo, Boris Vian
Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
Southland, Nina Revoyr
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki
The Tuner of Silences, Mia Couto