Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Wingshooters, Nina Revoyr, Akashic Books, 2011, 250 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Michelle LeBeau, the child of a white American father and a Japanese mother, lives with her grandparents in Deerhorn, Wisconsin--a small town that had been entirely white before her arrival. Rejected and bullied, Michelle spends her time reading, avoiding fights, and roaming the countryside with her dog Brett. She idolizes her grandfather, Charlie LeBeau, an expert hunter and former minor league baseball player who is one of the town's most respected men. Charlie strongly disapproves of his son's marriage to Michelle's mother but dotes on his only grandchild.

This fragile peace is threatened when the expansion of the local clinic leads to the arrival of the Garretts, a young black couple from Chicago. The Garretts' presence deeply upsets most of the residents of Deerhorn--when Mr. Garrett makes a controversial accusation against one of the town leaders, who is also Charlie LeBeau's best friend.
My Review:
I had no idea how powerful this novel would be. Nina Revoyr's other novels have been set in California but this one takes place in a small Wisconsin town, though the Japanese angle is still represented by Michelle LeBeau, daughter of a white American father and a Japanese mother. She is the sole person of color in Deerhorn and is an outcast at school where she is tormented by her classmates.
When her father brought a Japanese wife home the family disapproved. Michelle's mother eventually abandoned them and her father took off after her, leaving Michelle with a grandfather who doted on her and a grandmother who fed and tolerated her.
It is a heartbreaking story, all the more because of what Michelle goes through as her father's promises to return for her go unfulfilled and her hero worship for grandpa is foreshadowed to be destroyed. 
When an African American couple from Chicago come into this hidebound, racist, and ultimately violent community, all of their prejudices and inhumanity are exposed and put to the test. It is a chilling portrait of a small and insulated town where no views have changed for generations. The ultra-conservative wing of America holds sway as the townspeople do whatever they feel they must to "preserve their way of life."
This is the second book I've read this year set in the Midwest. (Kitchens of the Great Midwest was the other one.) When I first moved from Michigan to Los Angeles in 1991, I missed what I had experienced as the open friendliness and strong family ties of the region. But like anywhere, a dark underbelly of human fears and close mindedness dwelt side by side with those American values.
So if you want your eyes opened further to the great divides in American society that is what you will get, right up close and personal, with accurately drawn characters. But if you can't take cruelty and violence perpetrated by men against women, children, and animals, be warned.
One of Nina Revoyr's many sobering truths comes at the end. No one ever fully recovers from trauma. We live with our hurts and losses for all of our lives. To me that explains why humanity doesn't change much. The wonder is that some people rise above it all and still care for and about their fellow humans.
I haven't looked back over my year in reading yet, but this just may have been the most emotionally powerful book I read all year. 
(Wingshooters is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, December 27, 2015


Fail-Safe, Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, McGraw-Hill, 1962, 286 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Something has gone wrong. A group of American bombers armed with nuclear weapons is streaking past the fail-safe point, beyond recall, and no one knows why. Their destination -- Moscow.

In a bomb shelter beneath the White House, the calm young president turns to his Russian translator and says, "I think we are ready to talk to Premier Kruschchev." Not far away, in the War Room at the Pentagon, the secretary of defense and his aides watch with growing anxiety as the luminous blips crawl across a huge screen map. High over the Bering Strait in a large Vindicator bomber, a colonel stares in disbelief at the attack code number on his fail-safe box and wonders if it could possibly be a mistake.

First published in 1962, when America was still reeling from the Cuban missle crisis, Fail-Safe reflects the apocalyptic attitude that pervaded society during the height of the Cold War, when disaster could have struck at any moment. As more countries develop nuclear capabilities and the potential for new enemies lurks on the horizon, Fail-Safe and its powerful issues continue to respond.
My Review:
This novel was the #6 bestseller of 1962. It was originally serialized in three weekly issues of the Saturday Evening Post in October, 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was an eerie and discomforting read covering a possible breakdown of technology leading to nuclear war.
Of course, that was the fear I lived under in high school. That some mad man would "push the button" and within 24 hours we would all be fried and gone.
The book is liberally loaded with technical terms and nuclear gear, systems, etc. Much was made of the psychology behind military commanders. It gives a look into the secret bunkers and procedures for dealing with threats, attacks, and technical hitches. All of that was as fascinating to me as it must have been to the American public at the time.
The scenes where the President (obviously Kennedy though his name was never used) and Krushchev are on the top secret phone line working out a deal required a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part. It was pretty far from what I read in the Kennedy biography last year. The King Solomon-like deal that Kennedy made in this book was as melodramatic a climax as I have ever read.
I gained a new appreciation for what every President since Truman has had hanging over his head like a Damocles sword. Imagine holding the power to bring about the end of the world! I am still a pacifist, I still believe in nuclear disarmament, but I have got a more realistic idea about the possibilities of my dreams for our planet and mankind coming true.
Hands down the most relevant book I have read this year.
(Fail-Safe is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende, Atria Books, 2015, 322 pp
Summary from Goodreads:
In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco's parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family's Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco's charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.
My Review:
I have loved Isabel Allende ever since I read The House of the Spirits in 1996. By now I have read all of her novels and each one pleased me in different ways. I particularly admire her portrayals of women as strong passionate individuals who do not shy away from using feminine wiles, because they usually do so for the good of most of the people involved. If God is a woman, Isabel Allende was created in her image.
The Japanese Lover is an intriguing mix of history, locations, and issues. Some readers and reviewers have caviled about her trying to stuff too many issues into one novel. I find that an unhelpful objection. Life in the 21st century is a global mix of issues from which none of us are free.
Because of World War II, several characters in the story found themselves displaced and eventually landed in San Francisco, where they became involved with the wealthy Belasco family. Alma was sent by her parents to the Belascos as a teenager  in order to keep her safe from the Nazis. Lonely and sad, she befriended the son of her aunt and uncle's gardener. 
Ichimei Fukuda became the love of her life but they could never marry because of the laws against marriage between whites and Orientals, as they were called then. Just as Ichimei and Alma began to fall in love, the Fukuda family was evacuated to the camps.
Near the end of Alma's long and complicated life, others who are helping her with her memoir get drawn into her story and find answers to the mysteries of their own troubles. 
This intricate dance of fate, love, heartbreak, and redemption demanded that I pay attention to the many individuals and time periods. Yet I was hooked by the urgency to know what happened. It is not that love conquers all. It is that without love we would be sunk. 
(The Japanese Lover is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Last Song Before Night, Ilana C Myer, TOR Books, 2015, 415 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Long ago, poets were Seers with access to powerful magic. Following a cataclysmic battle, the enchantments of Eivar were lost–now a song is only words and music, and no more. But when a dark power threatens the land, poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a task much greater: to restore the lost enchantments to the world. And the road to the Otherworld, where the enchantments reside, will imperil their lives and test the deepest desires of their hearts.
My Review:
This is a debut fantasy novel for adults and I was drawn to it because the central characters are poets and songwriters. One of these is a young woman passing as a male, because women are forbidden to follow the call of that muse.
Sure enough, Lin turns out to be the heroine of the tale and is the most fully realized character, though her fellow poets and musicians are each interesting in their own ways.
Eivar is an invented land with rich merchants and an evil Court Poet who has a strange hold over the King. The story opens as the annual festival of arts and music is about to begin. Poets will complete for the Silver Branch, an award that opens doors at court for the winner.
The country has a glorious past, a Golden Age, when poets and magic flourished, but this past is hidden and almost forgotten due to secret practices that had unleashed a plague. Called The Red Death, it appears to be returning.
The world building and description are wonderful but the plot is convoluted to the point of being hard to follow. Though the characters are all complex and their motives made clear, they never quite came alive for me.
I enjoyed the ideas behind the story and the ventures into magic and lore. That is what kept me reading. But I did not love the novel because it failed to move me emotionally. I think Ilana Myer has much potential though and I would read her next book. 
(Last Song Before Night is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Dracula, Bram Stoker, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003, (first published in 1897), 444pp
Summary from Goodreads: A true masterwork of storytelling, Dracula has transcended generation, language, and culture to become one of the most popular novels ever written. It is a quintessential tale of suspense and horror, boasting one of the most terrifying characters ever born in literature: Count Dracula, a tragic, night-dwelling specter who feeds upon the blood of the living, and whose diabolical passions prey upon the innocent, the helpless, and the beautiful. But Dracula also stands as a bleak allegorical saga of an eternally cursed being whose nocturnal atrocities reflect the dark underside of the supremely moralistic age in which it was originally written -- and the corrupt desires that continue to plague the modern human condition. 
My Review:
I am not recommending this as a holiday season read but it is next in the reviewing queue, so here it goes.
Sometimes my reading groups surprise me. When The Bookie Babes, the first reading group I joined about 10 years ago, chose this one for our November read, I was dismayed. I've never understood or been drawn to the vampire genre. Guess what? I read Dracula and now I get it!
My first surprise was how easy it was to read. Apparently Stoker wrote many novels in his spare time, though this is the only one that has remained in publication. He was an Irish theater manager and critic and lived in the era of Britain's and Europe's emergence out of the old world and into modern times. He kept up on psychology, evolution, and women's rights. He would have killed it on Twitter.
I was also surprised to learn that vampires have featured in folk tales and literature from the earliest times, including Greek and Asian civilizations. A personification of evil and fears perhaps?
Bram Stoker's Dracula is both an origin story for the world's most well known vampire and a thriller. A group of men and one woman use Sherlock Holmes style investigative methods to run the undead menace to ground and annihilate him.
I enjoyed every page and so did everyone else in the group. Who knew?
(Dracula is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2015, 273 pp
Summary from Goodreads: The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s “late plays.” It tells the story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast, but through a series of extraordinary events, father and daughter, and eventually mother too, are reunited.

In The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s cover version of The Winter’s Tale, we move from London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crisis, to a storm-ravaged American city called New Bohemia. Her story is one of childhood friendship, money, status, technology and the elliptical nature of time. Written with energy and wit, this is a story of the consuming power of jealousy on the one hand, and redemption and the enduring love of a lost child on the other.
My Review:
There is probably not another writer who could make me read a Shakespeare play. Jeanette Winterson, whose writing always excites me, has filled the role that no English teacher ever played for me during my school days. Because I had not realized she included a summary of The Winter’s Tale at the beginning of her retelling, I read the play first and enjoyed it more than I expected I would. That in turn enhanced the sheer fun of reading The Gap of Time.

It is a story that works on the equation of jealousy plus power equals bad stuff happens. Leo, an unemployed banker following the crash of 2008, was so talented at making money that he started his own hedge fund in the middle of the ensuing recession and became disgustingly wealthy. Then he convinced the beautiful and talented MiMi, famous songstress, to marry him. Yet within eight years, just before the birth of their second child, Leo fell into an insane jealous conviction that MiMi and his best friend were having an affair, meaning the baby was not his. Using his wealth and power he proceeded to ruin numerous lives and lose everyone he cared about.

In The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is a King, Hermione is his queen, and Polixenes, also a King, is Leontes’s childhood friend. Leo is the modern equivalent of royalty, a king of finance. Xeno creates brilliant games and takes the video sport to sophisticated new levels of content. He is also gay, in love with both Leo and MiMi, though not cuckolding Leo. It’s complicated, as we say in modern parlance. A tragic love triangle as they said in the 1600s.

Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, spiced his play with humor. I don’t know enough about his oeuvre to speak of his talent for tragicomedy. I do know that Jeanette Winterson ran with the comic bits, making use of the dark hilarity in our modern era. As far as philosophizing about tragedy and time, her talent is equal to the bard’s.

Within the first twelve pages she is slinging around sentences like this: “You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow.”  “What is memory anyway but a painful dispute with the past?” “I discover that grief means living with someone who is not there.”

The Winter’s Tale has a dearth of back story. Winterson provides us with plenty: how Leo and Xeno became best friends in boarding school after some severe maternal rejection; how Leo met MiMi and got Xeno to play Cupid during his days of courting; how the man who ended up raising Perdita, the daughter Leo gave away, came to be the wise and cool dude he is; and a few more. Brilliantly done because the somewhat unlikely happy ending in the play becomes a believable outcome in the novel.

I could say more. It is a complex tale and several other characters help make it so. An abundance of delectable scenes, snappy dialogue, and digressions about the vagaries of time, make the reader feel she is watching a Shakespeare play. I don’t want to spoil the magic.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Henry and the Clubhouse, Beverly Cleary, Dell/Yearling, 1962, 192 pp
As part of My Big Fat Reading Project, I am reading my way through Beverly Cleary's books. The Henry series are for young readers aged 8-12.
Good old Henry, the youngest paper boy in town, decides to build a clubhouse in his backyard, along with his friends Robert and Murph. But Murph doesn't like girls so he insists it be a "Boys Only" clubhouse.

Henry as usual is juggling multiple problems: One of his good friends is Beezus, who is a girl. He has to keep his paper route going while also working on building the clubhouse. The paper route includes collecting from customers and he is trying to get up the guts to sign up new customers.

Then there is Ramona, the troublesome younger sister of Beezus. She begins following Henry around on his route. Then one day she locks him in the clubhouse and won't let him out until her tells her the secret password. He has to get out so he can do his route that day.

Henry's number one worry is that he wants his father to be proud of him. He bungles his way through and comes out a winner all around.

What I liked best about this one is the way it shows how much kids worry. Harry Potter is a top worrier in children's fiction but here Henry takes second place as the world's most worried boy.

(Henry and the Clubhouse is on the shelves in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015


The joys and overeating of being in so many reading groups:
 Five extra Christmas/Hanukka parties.
Voting on our favorite book of the year.
Secret White Elephant book exchanges where you get books no one wants to read.
Eating, drinking, and celebrating the reading life.
Here are the books my groups are reading in December. (One of these days I will get this post done at the beginning of the month. Ha Ha.)
New Book Club:
Tiny Book Club:
Tina's Group:
Bookie Babes:
Party Only!!
One Book At A Time:
And not one sappy holiday book in the bunch. Well, Art of Racing in the Rain has the potential for sappiness but is not a holiday story. I will let you know.
What are your reading groups doing this month?

Monday, December 07, 2015


The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing, Simon and Schuster, 1962, 568 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier years. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine reviles part of her own experience. And in the blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna tries to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.
My Review: I have read eight books by Doris Lessing, mostly in order of publication. Each one has had an impact on me. The Grass Is Singing, her first novel, is still my favorite but all the others remain important to my reading life and to me as a woman.
One of the things I admire is her utter disregard for the critics. She has never pandered to them or to the Western white male dominated literary establishment, possibly not even to her readers. It is an entire travesty that she had to wait until she was 88 years old to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. But as she said at the time, "Oh Christ. It's been going on now for 30 years, I can't get more excited." This was after she had won almost every other prize!
That down-to-earth lack of vanity has got to be what makes her books so meaningful to me. She was a woman, born in the same year as my mother, possessed of a brilliant mind and a high level of courage. All of that comes through in her writing.
The Golden Notebook is a tough read. I don't recommend it lightly. The structure is odd but does serve to illustrate how a woman who wishes to be independent of men, who is creative, who is raising a child by herself, and who at the same time loves men, sex, being in love and being loved, has to compartment her very psyche in order to handle it all. I found that truthful.
Anna's four notebooks are where she records these fragments of herself. Only four, I thought? I must be a basket case because I have many more notebooks than that. Her golden notebook is a symbol of the successful integration of her disparate selves.
The copy I read, procured from the library, is big and heavy. I've had a crick in my neck ever since I finished it. It also has a new introduction, written by the author in 1971, nine years after the novel's original publication. In this introduction she refutes the reviewers, friendly and hostile, in their belittling claim that the book is about the sex war. Nor did she intend for it to be a "trumpet for Women's Liberation."
Her main intent was to present the broad range of women's thoughts and emotions and experiences. Also she worked with the theme of a breakdown being a way of self-healing and rearranging false dichotomies. She admits that "here (the writing) is rougher, more close to experience...more valuable perhaps because it is rawer material."
Anna's breakdown is made so visceral, so disturbing, and yet it was so understandable, at least for me. I would say that Doris Lessing was about 40 years ahead of her time in writing to expose the female psyche.
Due to my upbringing, or possibly my horoscope, who knows, I have been a woman dedicated to "keeping it together" in front of others. I have had the idea that unlovely emotions and breakdowns were something to be ashamed of and should be hidden. Reading this novel was healing for me because, though I will probably still keep it together in front of most people, I no longer feel ashamed of my emotions or breakdowns. 

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

Thursday, December 03, 2015


November went by in a blink. I also lost a week making our Thanksgiving journey. I read a few long books and there you go. The stats are low.

Stats: 7 books read. 4 by women. 1 translated. 1 children's book. 1 speculative.
Favorites: Kafka on the Shore, The Golden Notebook, and The Gap of Time. I did not have a least favorite so that is one good stat!

How did your November reading go?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015


Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami, Alfred A Knopf, 2005, 467 pp, (translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, published in Japan 2002)
Summary from Goodreads: Kafka on the Shore, a tour de force of metaphysical reality, is powered by two remarkable characters: a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister; and an aging simpleton called Nakata, who never recovered from a wartime affliction and now is drawn toward Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. Their odyssey, as mysterious to them as it is to us, is enriched throughout by vivid accomplices and mesmerizing events. Cats and people carry on conversations, a ghostlike pimp employs a Hegel-quoting prostitute, a forest harbors soldiers apparently unaged since World War II, and rainstorms of fish (and worse) fall from the sky. There is a brutal murder, with the identity of both victim and perpetrator a riddle - yet this, along with everything else, is eventually answered, just as the entwined destinies of Kafka and Nakata are gradually revealed, with one escaping his fate entirely and the other given a fresh start on his own.
My Review:  I am no longer a Murakami virgin. He has had his way with me, it was painless, and I am more than satisfied while being left wanting more. 
I had mistakenly thought it would be a challenging read. Instead it was smooth and moved along like a bullet train. Though the novel is set in 21st century Japan, somehow having read The Makioka Sisters just a couple weeks earlier, I felt oriented in the country. Also the story opens with an incident that happened during WWII so at first it almost felt like I was reading a sequel.
I loved the David Mitchell-style way that the story jumped back and forth in time and slowly revealed the connections between the characters.
I loved the ghost story atmosphere, the references to music and literature both Japanese and American, but most of all I loved the characters, even the insane artist dad.
Kafka himself is one of the greatest characters I have come across in all my years of reading. Just to prove that he is an evolved human male, Murakami also created several awesome and believable female characters. He takes the motherless boy trope to new heights.
And yes, it is a metaphysical, magical realism, philosophical novel at the same time.
Since all I can do is gush, I will end here. 
(Kafka on the Shore is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)