Saturday, January 30, 2016


West of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan, Viking, 2015, 289 pp
Summary from Indiebound: In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to an asylum and his finances in ruin, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald's life are the focus of Stewart O Nan's graceful and elegiac novel "West of Sunset." With flashbacks to Fitzgerald's glamorous Jazz Age past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on"The Last Tycoon," and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and their daughter, Scottie. The Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel's romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. Written with striking grace and subtlety, this is a wise and intimate portrait of a man trying his best to hold together a world that's flying apart.
My Review: I reviewed this book for an on-line publication last March. I was taking a break from blogging at that time, but it came out in paperback in December, 2015 and was on my list of favorite reads for last year. I am posting the review here now.
What a sad story. A fictionalized tale of F Scott Fitzgerald's last years, it is even sadder than that author's fiction. Stewart O'Nan is masterful at writing about sad, tortured, sometimes broken people. In an interview on Other People, he says he wanted to get inside the facts presented in Fitzgerald biographies and create the actual incidents the man lived through in those last years of his life, so of course it had to be a novel.
We read about the writer's visits with his wife Zelda, who by then is institutionalized and undergoing the barbaric treatments used in the 1930s: electric shock, insulin shock, etc. Sometimes he takes Zelda and their daughter Scottie, by then in boarding school, on week long vacations. Though their love and marriage and family are basically a shambles, they all try desperately and awkwardly but unsuccessfully to be there for each other. Heartbreaking.
But Scott, as he is called in the novel, is the one who must pay for it all. His career as a novelist is also over, his royalties a mere pittance, so he takes a job in Hollywood as a screenwriter in the studio system. The indignities match the pay in their enormity. Scott is an alcoholic though he manages to stay off the booze long enough to write in a tiny office five days a week from nine to six. But there are binges.
Still longing for romance, he falls in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. Still hoping for another bestseller, he begins a novel, The Last Tycoon. It is all a race against disaster and annihilation; a race he loses at the age of 46.
Though O'Nan has never lived in Los Angeles, he captures the city and Hollywood at the end of the 1930s. He includes several celebrities in the story: Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and more, in their interactions with Fitzgerald. This novel has the zing of a Fitzgerald creation layered over the crushing despair of a man who was once the highest paid and most famous writer in America.
From the little I have read about Scott and Zelda, I had formed the opinion that Fitzgerald was a despicable husband who crushed Zelda's creativity and free spirit. In West of Sunset, he comes across as a man burdened with a mentally ill wife. He loved her once, the magic is so over, but he tries to do right by her and Scottie. The truth? Who knows for sure? The novel is possibly as close to Fitzgerald's truth as we will get.
(West of Sunset is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell, Random House, 2004, 509 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite. . . . Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter. . . . From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life. . . . And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a postapocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.

But the story doesn’t end even there. The narrative then boomerangs back through centuries and space, returning by the same route, in reverse, to its starting point. Along the way, Mitchell reveals how his disparate characters connect, how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.

My Review:
Here is the final installment in my year end David Mitchell readathon. It was my second reading of Cloud Atlas and three factors made it more enjoyable than the first.

1) I have since seen the movie. This is a case where the movie, for me, was better than the book. Suddenly I understood what Mitchell was attempting to do with this novel. Also for me, who make mental pictures as I read, it gave me better visuals than my own. The casting is brilliant, especially Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, who were ever present in my mind as I reread.

2) Because I have now read Mitchell's two earlier novels (Ghostwritten and Number9Dream), I have a grip on the author's themes and writing style. When I read Cloud Atlas the first time I was frankly unprepared to appreciate it.

3) I never used to pay much attention to structure when reading fiction but in the three years since my first reading, I have learned to notice how different authors put their stories together. The movie reworked the structure into a more linear tale; the book is anything but.

So this time I saw why some sections end mid-incident (or even mid-sentence in one case) and take up in a later section right where it left off earlier. It was a though I had a map. Therefore I was able to appreciate the several different styles and voices in which Mitchell wrote, a true tour de force!

I enjoyed my reading this time whereas I mostly felt lost before. Having read Ghostwritten I was prepared for the author's worldview of interconnectedness and of how events of the present trace back to occurrences in the past and foreshadow the future. I liked the aspect of a big novel of ideas encompassing both the human comedy and the tragedies of human foibles.

I assume that Cloud Atlas is both Mitchell's breakout novel and his most well-known. I'm not even halfway through his seven novels but I predict this is not going to be my best-loved one. So far, Ghostwritten  holds that honor. I am in a fever of anticipation for the next four novels and when I finished this one I wanted to pick up the next one immediately. Alas, the holiday week was over and I had to move on, but I am determined to read them all by the end of the year.

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

Monday, January 25, 2016


Number9Dream, David Mitchell, Random House, 2001, 400 pp
Summary from Goodreads: David Mitchell follows his eerily precocious, globe-striding first novel, Ghostwritten, with a work that is in its way even more ambitious. In outward form, number9dream is a Dickensian coming-of-age journey: Young dreamer Eiji Miyake, from remote rural Japan, thrust out on his own by his sister’s death and his mother’s breakdown, comes to Tokyo in pursuit of the father who abandoned him. Stumbling around this strange, awesome city, he trips over and crosses—through a hidden destiny or just monstrously bad luck—a number of its secret power centers. Suddenly, the riddle of his father’s identity becomes just one of the increasingly urgent questions Eiji must answer. Why is the line between the world of his experiences and the world of his dreams so blurry? Why do so many horrible things keep happening to him? What is it about the number 9? To answer these questions, and ultimately to come to terms with his inheritance, Eiji must somehow acquire an insight into the workings of history and fate that would be rare in anyone, much less in a boy from out of town with a price on his head and less than the cost of a Beatles disc to his name.
My Review:
This was the second novel in my year end David Mitchell readathon and is the second novel he published. I went into it having read no reviews of it, therefore having no preconceived notions except excited anticipation because of how much I admired Ghostwritten.
Eiji Miyake is a young man who has left the tiny Japanese village where he grew up to go in search of the father he has never met. He is 20 years old but seems younger, probably due to his limited experience of city life. The reader soon learns that he is a twin, that he lost his twin sister in a tragedy, and that his mother was never married but is in fact an alcoholic who left the twins to be raised by their grandmother. Eiji may not have worldly experience but most of his life so far has been full of deep sorrows.
Now that is a perfect set up for a coming-of-age story built around a quest for a missing parent. Eiji is also a budding guitarist with a lively imagination. His first stake-out, across from an office tower where his father's business is located is so riddled with imaginative scenes but is such a failed enterprise, I feared for his safety and his mind.
But Eiji is a plucky if hapless lad, he is consumed by his quest, and pretty soon I realized his underlying strength was going to see him through all the horrific things that happen to him. He is a combination of Holden Caufield, David Copperfield, Murikami's Kafka, and almost every one of Neal Stephenson's early heroes.
One additional but crucial plot point is Eiji's love of music: jazz and John Lennon to be exact. This is where the dreams come in. The novel's title is also the name of a John Lennon song. There are nine chapters. There are countless dreams.
Though this novel is centered on one character, as opposed to the many protagonists of Ghostwritten, though it follows a start to finish narrative arc, it is still an elaborate puzzle covering philosophical and societal themes, not to mention a poignant love story.

I was captivated on every page. Some parts were confusing but the story never sagged and I felt securely in the hands of a trustworthy spinner of tales. I finished the book eager to begin my rereading of Mitchell's third novel, Cloud Atlas.
Number9Dream is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, January 22, 2016


Not Dark Yet, Berit Ellingsen, Two Dollar Radio, 2015, 183 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Brandon leaves his boyfriend in the city for a quiet life in the mountains, after an affair with a professor ends with Brandon being forced to kill a research animal. It is a violent, unfortunate episode that conjures memories from his military background.

In the mountains, his new neighbors are using the increased temperatures to stage an agricultural project in an effort to combat globally heightened food prices and shortages. Brandon gets swept along with their optimism, while simultaneously applying to a new astronaut training program. However, he learns that these changes—internal, external—are irreversible.

A sublime love story coupled with the universal struggle for personal understanding, Not Dark Yet is an informed novel of consequences with an ever-tightening emotional grip on the reader.
My Review:
At times, because I read incessantly, I grow weary of novels published by the major houses; novels that are written and released with the intention to reach a majority of readers and to sell. For palate cleansing I turn to books from indie publishers. Two Dollar Radio is such a one, run out of their home in Columbus, OH, by a husband and wife team. Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian science writer and novelist who lives in Norway and writes in English. Not Dark Yet is her second novel.
A weird and wondrous novel it is. The first sentence: "Sometimes, in Brandon Minamoto's dreams, he found a globe or a map of the world with a continent he hadn't seen before." He has just left his boyfriend in the city and gone to live in a decrepit cabin in the mountains, seeking quiet. His military experiences and an incident when he felt forced to kill a research owl haunt him. Inner quiet and outer space are his quests. He hopes to be accepted into the space program as an astronaut.
His life in the cabin moves as slowly as a glacier through fall, winter, and early spring. In flash backs we learn his history and gradually come to realize that you wouldn't want this guy in a spaceship with you.
As a teen, he used to dream of a "round body of water the color of the sky" that echoes a fountain he had visited with his mother when he was a toddler.
During a visit to their paternal grandparents in Korea, he and his brother went to a shrine containing the relic of a monk who had been mummified after fasting to death. Then follows a story (from inside Brandon's mind?) of the monk's long and agonizing journey into the spirit world through starvation. Brandon's conclusion is "He wanted to be happy. What more does human life have to offer?"
Self-imposed loneliness, more dreams of a bodiless spirit nature, training his body to survive in space, and a brief foray into environmental terrorism follow. In a refreshing twist, this is not a post-apocalyptic novel but a pre-apocalyptic one. The awareness of climate change, melting ice, rising sea levels, violent storms, food shortages, and animals going extinct, permeate the story.
Written in close third person making you feel you are in Brandon's head, seeing with his eyes, feeling the cold, longing for space, this is a novel that might convince even a climate denier to have another look. Not since Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl have I experienced such an intense second sight meditation on where we are headed. Except that in Not Dark Yet, the elegant symmetry between one man's yearning and the demise of the entire race moves it several paces away from an eco thriller.
The tone is more like early J G Ballard. Deadpan recital of mundane daily events punctuated with explosions of disaster or Brandon's surreal dreams. I finished the book and could not leave the world she had created for hours. I cleaned the house and ordered Christmas presents. I tried to read another book. No go. This is why I read! 
 (This review also appears at Litbreak.)
(Not Dark Yet is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


Ghostwritten, David Mitchell, Random House, 1999, 426 pp
Every year between Christmas and New Year's Day, I choose one author whose unread books I want to complete. I attempt to read as many of those as I can in one week. This year my author was David Mitchell. I had only read Cloud Atlas and it was a tough read for me so I decided to see if I could crack Mitchell's code by reading his novels in order of publication.

He has published seven books, so it was unlikely I would get through all of them. I managed to read the first three and I did crack the code, at least for myself. I had come across some reviews that mentioned how characters from earlier books show up in later ones. Intrigued by such a concept, I decided to take notes and keep track because this literary puzzle appealed to me.

Ghostwritten is his first novel. From Okinawa, Japan, to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Mongolia to Saint Petersburg to London to Ireland to New York and back to Okinawa, characters appear, re-appear, or migrate to new bodies. Their stories intertwine in various ways. The construction is like a kaleidoscope or a prayer wheel. Each person, for good or for evil, encompasses a universe of hopes, dreams, success, failure, and redemption or karma.

I know this sounds a bit presumptuous, but as I read I felt surges of love for my fellowman and an increased awareness of how we are all connected. I found myself wondering how often I interact with another person and we are influencing the course of each other's lives in ways we will never know.

I finished the book rather in awe of how much David Mitchell must have had to hold in his mind to construct such a story. Even more that that, I felt at home with a worldview that seemed familiar because I hold a similar one.

For the last year or so I have been reading and rereading the chapters of Lao Tsu's Tao Te Ching as a daily meditation. I wonder if David Mitchell reads it also.

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

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


I am off to Houston to visit my grandchildren (and their parents, of course.) I'll be back next week with more reviews and answers to your comments.

Monday, January 11, 2016


The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli, Coffee House Press, 2015, 195 pp (translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney)
Summary from Goodreads:
I was born in Pachuca, the Beautiful Windy City, with four premature teeth and my body completely covered in a very fine coat of fuzz. But I'm grateful for that inauspicious start because ugliness, as my other uncle, Eurípides López Sánchez, was given to saying, is character forming.

Highway is a late-in-life world traveler, yarn spinner, collector, and legendary auctioneer. His most precious possessions are the teeth of the "notorious infamous" like Plato, Petrarch, and Virginia Woolf. Written in collaboration with the workers at a Jumex juice factory, Teeth is an elegant, witty, exhilarating romp through the industrial suburbs of Mexico City and Luiselli's own literary influences.

My Review:
You could call this book experimental, or unclassifiable; you could call it a novel or a collection of vignettes. It is also a work of art in the paper form, is delightful, humorous, and distinctly literary. Though barely a novel in the usual sense, it does tell a story, evoke a place, and is definitely about teeth.

I happen to like all of the above, though I've not had much attention on teeth in my lifetime. Come to think of it however, my mother had dentures from an early age and I do recall many scenes where she was either removing them or putting them back in. Perhaps this why I was drawn to the title.

Gustavo "Highway" Sanchez Sanchez is a denizen of the industrial suburbs of Mexico City. His particular skill is as an auctioneer, a unique one for he uses hyperbolic stories, improvised on the spot, to make the items being auctioned take on more value. Highway also has an entire house full of collectibles. He considers himself an expert in both fields.

In the way of a novel this book gives readers a patchy life story of this caricature of a character. But it is his stories, especially the ones he tells to sell off his own teeth at a crucial down and out moment, which give the book its tone.

Had I gone into it expecting a standard novel form, I would have been dismayed. Luckily I read the Afterword first, something I rarely do, so I was prepared. As I read, I was reminded of the early books of V S Naipaul. The community and its way of life are conjured into focus until I felt I was in the churches, the cafes, and the streets of Highway's part of town.

Probably not a book for most of the readers I know. Definitely a refreshing break from what I usually read.

Saturday, January 09, 2016


Track of the Cat, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 1993, 293 pp
Summary from Goodreads: 
Anna Pigeon fled the turmoil of New York to become a national park ranger, only to discover she hasn't escaped murder and violence. When a colleague is killed, claw marks on the victim's throat and paw prints around the body are too perfect to be those of an alleged killer mountain lion.

My Review:
Some years ago my husband and I made a trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park in January. We thought it would be cool to see those mighty trees in the snow. It was but the snow was about 6 feet deep, it was cold, and the road into Kings Canyon was closed for the winter. We've always planned to go back in a milder season but have not done so yet.

In the gift shop of the visitor's center, I learned about Nevada Barr, who has written 18 mysteries set in United States National Parks, all featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon. I am finally getting around to starting the series.

Track of the Cat is set in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas, east of El Paso. Last year on our road trip to Houston we spotted Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. The park is home to rattlesnakes and mountain lions, heat, deserts, and a variety of pines, junipers, and several deciduous trees.

Because I'd not heard of Nevada Barr except in that gift shop, I was expecting possibly a lesser level of mystery writing. Boy, was I wrong! Anna Pigeon is now my second favorite female investigator, V I Warshawski being the first. Anna is a close second. She is just as tough, fearless, and smart as V I and as dedicated to preserving the wilderness as V I is to preserving justice for all.

In Track of the Cat, Anna discovers a dead fellow female ranger, who appears to have been attacked by a mountain lion. But Anna suspects murder as well as a scheme to justify the hunting of the lions. She faces all manner of harrowing dangers, gets her shoulder dislocated, and nearly dies twice herself. No other park officials believe her suspicions and some become suspects.

Besides great but not overly done description of nature, the suspense is riveting. My heart was literally pounding during parts of the tale. "No, Anna, don't enter that canyon!" But of course she does and lives to feature in 17 more books set in National Parks all over the country.

(Track of the Cat is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, January 07, 2016


China Dolls, Lisa See, Random House, 2014, 376 pp
Summary from Goodreads:
In 1938, Ruby, Helen and Grace, three girls from very different backgrounds, find themselves competing at the same audition for showgirl roles at San Francisco's exclusive "Oriental" nightclub, the Forbidden City. Grace, an American-born Chinese girl has fled the Midwest and an abusive father. Helen is from a Chinese family who have deep roots in San Francisco's Chinatown. And, as both her friends know, Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. At times their differences are pronounced, but the girls grow to depend on one another in order to fulfill their individual dreams. Then, everything changes in a heartbeat with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Suddenly the government is sending innocent Japanese to internment camps under suspicion, and Ruby is one of them. But which of her friends betrayed her?

My Review:
This is Lisa See's latest novel. It came out in 2014 and I finally read it for a reading group. Except for one of her early mystery novels, I have read all her books. She has a style all her own; not flashy, not particularly literary, but sometimes a little heavy on the melodramatic. Her research is impeccable and if you want to know what life has been like for Chinese women over the centuries and for Chinese immigrants to America, she is a good and entertaining source.

China Dolls is set in San Francisco during WWII when Chinese entertainers could only perform in Chinese establishments. It follows three women who maintained a rocky and tumultuous friendship for decades beginning in 1938.

One of the women turns out to be Japanese but she is passing as Chinese and that fact is the source of much trouble during the war. Someone betrays her and she is sent to the camps. The mystery of the novel revolves around who her betrayer was.

What I liked about this one was the look into the prejudice against Asians as played out in the entertainment world. I had learned something about that in Nina Revoyr's The Age of Dreaming, though that book mostly covered the movie business. I also enjoyed the portrayal of female friendship, which as all women know, can be fraught with competition, jealousy, and shifting alliances.

Along with Isabel Allende's The Japanese Lover  and Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, that makes three books I have read recently about WWII as it impacted Japanese people. I love learning history through the many perspectives given to a period due to the imagination/research formula employed by novelists.

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

Tuesday, January 05, 2016


It does not snow where I live in California. It rains though and this year, after all the drought, I swear I am not going to complain when it rains; I am not going to get SAD, I am going to rejoice! It is raining today. Yes!

I have already read two of the books chosen for this month: All the Light We Cannot See and The Invention of Wings. Both are books I loved, so I am happy for another chance to discuss them. Two of The Tiny Book Club's members are of Polish descent so we are starting the year with a book by a Polish author. That fits right in with my goal to read more translated literature and the author is female. It's all good.

The New Book Club:
Tiny Book Club:
Molly's Group:

Bookie Babes:

One Book At A Time:

I would love to know what books your reading groups are reading this month.

Saturday, January 02, 2016


(Well, I used to look like this.)

My year of reading in 2015 was enjoyable, challenging, informative, and all the other good things I get from reading. I did a bit better on number of books read than I have in the past two years. My yearly average since 2002, when I got serious about reading everything I could before I die, has been 122 books. My best year ever was 2010 when I read 160 books. I still can't figure out how I did that!

My recent goals have included reading more books written by women and more literature translated from languages other than English. The stats show I did well on those goals this year. But I slacked off on My Big Fat Reading Project in favor of current releases. I also read 9 books that were well over 500 pages and as anyone who works with statistics knows, it's the high ones and the low ones that really skew the data.

Books Read: 113
Pages Read: 37, 810/Average pages per day: 103/Average books per month: 9
Fiction: 96
Nonfiction: 8
Written by women: 64
Translated: 10
My Big Fat Reading Project: 28
Children/YA: 6
Indie Press: 11
Short Stories: 2
Speculative/Science Fiction/Fantasy: 14
Mystery: 7
Memoir: 2
Drama: 1
Classics: 2
(These numbers add up to more than 113 because some categories overlap)
Enough of that boring stuff. Here is the list of the books I loved the most:
Another Country, James Baldwin
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch
Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat
Euphoria, Lily King
The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell
Not Dark Yet, Berit Ellingsen
Painted Horses, Malcolm Brooks
Preparation For the Next Life, Atticus Lish
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
The World Between Two Covers, Ann Morgan

The titles with links are books I reviewed here on the blog. Starred titles with links are books I reviewed for the Lit Mag Three Guys One Book. But between March and October I posted short reviews only on Goodreads. You can find my 2015 Goodreads reviews here. 

Thanks for following my blog, reading my reviews, and most of all for commenting. While my blog and my Goodreads entries help me keep track of what I read, the main reason I do both things is to connect with other readers and to spread the word on books. I receive no money for those two activities. I am happy to report that in 2016 I will be paid for my reviews on a new Lit Mag: Litbreak, but I am also allowed to post those reviews here.  

Now, onto 2016!

Friday, January 01, 2016


I tried hard to read 11 books in December but was defeated at the end by my reread of Cloud Atlas. I still have 189 pages to go this morning, though I am taking my time and liking it more this time. Every year in the last week of December I try to do a readathon of books by one author. This year I chose David Mitchell and though I started a week early, I still only got through 2.5 of his books. But I have become a total fan and plan to get through the rest of his books in 2016.

Stats: 10 books read. 7 written by women. 10 fiction. 1 translated. 1 reread.
Favorites: The Japanese Lover, Wingshooters, Not Dark Yet, and Track of the Cat, Ghostwritten.

And so it goes. Onto 2016 and more reading adventures.
My Top 25 Books Read in 2015 post is coming tomorrow.
Happy New Year to all my wonderful followers!!