Monday, August 31, 2009


Till We Have Faces, C S Lewis, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1956, 309 pp

It is possible that this book made me a feminist. I realize what a weird thing that is to say, considering that the author is male and a Christian writer; also considering that the story is a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. But it was a favorite book of mine as a teenager and I read it over and over during my high school years. It never failed to give me an emotional beating.

Orual, the heroine, is the ugly older sister of Psyche, whom she loves deeply. When bad things happen to Psyche, Orual tries to save her but only ends up destroying her instead. Orual is left with bitterness towards all of life but especially towards "the gods." Although she eventually becomes the Queen of her country and a wise woman, her own life is forever ruined.

It is one of the saddest books I have ever read. I too have a younger sister whom I have always loved, though nothing very bad has ever happened to her. I was fixated on how to be beautiful as a teen and though I was probably a decent looking young woman, I usually felt ugly. But reading the book now as a woman in her early 60s, I realized that it was Orual's intelligence and toughness that appealed to me the most, even as a teenager.

She took nothing lying down; she always fought back, against her father, against restrictions imposed on her as a female and against her fate. She rose to all occasions, learned to ride horses, to fight with swords, to lead an army, to make her country solvent and impregnable, etc, etc. From her beloved Greek teacher, she learned how to think and thereby to outwit any oppressors. But she lost her sister through her own refusal to take advice from anyone. The one man she loved, she could never have. After losing Psyche, her long life was arid and empty.

Tragedy was a Greek invention or possibly they merely recognized it as the underlying theme of life. Juxtaposed to tragedy in the human heart is hope and the pursuit of happiness. In Till We Have Faces, C S Lewis has brought this conundrum to life in what I consider his best book.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Killing Orders, Sara Paretsky, William Morrow and Company Inc, 1985, 288 pp

Sara Paretsky is as fearless as her private investigator V I Warshawski. In Killing Orders she takes on the Catholic Church in a story of financial corruption and Mafia connections. She also gets in some good digs against the church's anti-abortion views.

Like Harry Potter in The Order of the Phoenix, Warshawski gets deserted by her friends and is in a bad mood throughout most of the book. She is dealing with way too many factors which she doesn't fully understand, including the truth about her long dead mother. She loses most of her material possessions and does not know who she can trust. As usual, she comes to extreme physical harm.

But it is her heart that is in the most danger as she presses on toward the truth and while she solves the crime, she loses the better part of whatever moral innocence she might have had left. It was all oddly and deeply affecting for a mystery novel and I cried at the end.

(This book is available in mass market paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Codex, Lev Grossman, Harcourt Inc, 2004, 348 pp

Since my next paid review will be on the latest book by this author, I decided to do my homework and read his earlier book. Grossman had a first novel published in 1997, entitled Warp, about a recent Harvard graduate trying to figure out what to do with his life, but I skipped that one. Looking at Lev Grossman's bio, I learned that he is a Harvard grad, a Gen X guy himself and eventually landed at "Time" magazine as their book critic.

In Codex, Edward Wozny, a successful young New York investment banker, has just landed a significant promotion to a bank in London and has two weeks off before starting the new job. It is his first vacation in years and having been a Type A workaholic, he is majorly adrift after just one day.

Within hours, he has fallen into a mysterious world of the obscenely rich and weird and has begun a quest to find a missing medieval book, a codex. Also on that first day of the rest of his life, Edward's college friend Seph, a computer geek, has given him a burned CD of a new computer game called MOMUS, which inserts the player into a quest, starring himself. Edward quickly finds himself addicted and playing instead of sleeping or eating. Soon that virtual reality begins to parallel his so-called real life.

One more thing: Edward enlists the help of Margaret Napier, brilliant Medieval scholar and consummate book nerd. Off we go on what is called a "literary thriller", reminiscent of Micheal Gruber's Book of Air and Shadows or Geraldine Brook's People of the Book, with the added "Wired" feel of cyber punk. Thoroughly entertaining!

Books like this would be perfect for readers in their 30s, if only that age group still read books. Luckily I get to read and enjoy them, getting a vicarious thrill of excitement and recalling my own mad years of early adulthood. Because, as Edward finds out, whether it is marriage, children or a career, most of us settle in the end for a settled down life.

(The books mentioned in this review are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. People of the Book and The Book of Air and Shadows are usually in stock and on the shelves.)

Sunday, August 23, 2009


The Story of a Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008, 195 pp

I liked this book. I like it when an author tweaks my heart in unexpected ways, leaving me wondering how he did it. That is the ultimate alchemy of reading. Now I know why every review I read of The Story of a Marriage led me to expect an entirely different story than what I got.

In under 200 pages, Andrew Sean Greer sets up a scenario, proceeds to reveal that scenario as false and then with tantalizing restraint, uncovers what lies deep in the hearts of his three main characters. Thereby he shows, rather than tells, the realities behind the book's first sentence: "We think we know the ones we love."

I could complain about a few minor points: the way certain revelations feel too abrupt; some unbelievability in the character of Pearlie, the wife; the first person voice that is almost omniscient third person in disguise. But if those were really issues, I doubt that the story of this marriage would have hit me so hard.

I went around for days wondering about my husband, my parents, my sons. Do I really know the ones I love?

(The Story of a Marriage is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Final Stop Albuquerque, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2009, 200 pp

Alice Zogg has done many good things for me. She has forced me to learn how to spell Albuquerque for one. She has been a good friend ever since she sent me an email after reading my very first column about books on our very small local paper. Most of all, she has been an inspiration to me as a writer in two ways.

Alice decided that she wanted to write mysteries. Rather than wait for any gate keeper's permission, she went ahead to write and self-publish her first one, Reaching Checkmate in 2003, though she has forbidden me to read it because, well it was her first and she now doesn't think it is very good. I was inspired by her energy and passion in following her dream.

Also, having read her other five books in the order in which she wrote them, I have proof that if a writer just keeps writing, she keeps improving. As I struggle every day to put words together and make them sound good, I remind myself that Alice has completed and put into print six entire books!

As I say every time I read her newest book, Final Stop Albuquerque is her best one yet. She has always been good with plot. Now she has made a new leap in the creation of her characters. R A Huber, the PI in her mysteries, is no Stephanie Plum; wrong age, wrong city and despite being feisty and determined, she is fairly conservative. But in this new book, we see a bit deeper into Huber and what makes her tick. Her new assistant, Andi is young, impulsive, dresses in jeans, leather and cowboy boots and is the perfect foil for Huber.

When 24-year-old Elena Campione goes missing, R A and Andi go into action, dealing with a mad scientist, a horny nightclub owner, a fractious step-mother and a go cart racer; all complex characters capable of killing Elena. Covering plenty of ground between LA, several Arizona towns and of course Albuquerque, NM, they solve what has become a murder and nearly lose their own lives in the process.

Good stuff. Looking forward to the next one.

(Final Stop Albuquerque is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, Alfred A Knopf, 1996, 399 pp

I have been wanting to read Philip Pullman for a long time. For some reason, his books would call to me from the shelves at work, but it wasn't until the movie for The Golden Compass came out that I seriously put this book on my TBR list. I didn't make it to the theatre to see the movie, so last week the DVD arrived from Netflix and I (almost) always read the book first.

Within thirty pages I was enthralled and grew more amazed after each chapter. This is NOT Narnia. I am not even sure it is a children's book or even YA. Yes, Lyra is only eleven and the story is told from her viewpoint though not in first person, but there are some meaty concepts being put forth here. In fact, omniscient third person in a mostly eleven-year-old voice is a pretty good trick: that young energy propels the plot, the actions, even the emotions, but Pullman gets to put his views in there as well.

His views are fairly unique to him. I have not read a huge amount of fantasy beyond C S Lewis, Tolkein, Anne McCaffrey and Neil Gaiman, but I can recognize a fantasy writer with a well thought out world view. It was clear to me that the uproar from the religious right when the movie came out was not so much because Pullman is an atheist (and is he really?) but because he is strongly against organized religion. I have no problem with that.

What he is in favor of is knowledge, wisdom, freedom of thought. Those are my passions as well, so I am now a Pullman fan.

The writing is wonderful with lots of action. The story moves at a great pace. As far as characters go, I thought the main children and a few sympathetic adults, such as King of the Gyptians John Faa, and Farder Coran, their spiritual leader, were the most fully developed, as naturally were their daemons. The bears, good and evil, were also deep characters. But most of the adults, including Asriel and Mrs Coulter, seemed like types, which was perfect because again, it gave the reader Lyra's perspective. She could understand John Faa, Farder Coram, Iorek Byrnison and even his rival bear, Iofur Raknison, while Asriel and Mrs Coulter were somewhat incomprehensible and dangerous to her. Isn't that just the way it is for children?

For me, everything about this book was a wonder. I love the parallel universes, the mystery of Dust, the nefarious use of children ("for their own good", of course) and Lyra's deep sense of loyalty and fair play. The conceit of the daemons as human souls is brilliant. How can any reader not be dying to read Book 2, The Subtle Knife, after such a cliff hanger of an ending.

(All of the books of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy are available in paperback versions of the single volumes, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. We also have the omnibus volume of His Dark Materials in paperback.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Writing in an Age of Silence, Sara Paretsky, Verso, 2007, 138 pp

I am reading my way through Paretsky's V I Warshawski mystery novels. I have read four of the twelve so far and liked them all. This slim volume is a combination memoir and polemic on why she writes what she writes.

Ms Paretsky grew up in Kansas, where she and her siblings were kept isolated on the outskirts of town because her brilliant but dysfunctional parents were also Jewish and could not buy property in town. Drinking, fighting, violence and drudgery were the key elements of her childhood. But so was reading; she escaped, she got an education and the second wave of feminism came along just in time.

This author is clearly a liberal; championing underdogs of all types and adamantly opposed to corruption in big business and government. That is clear in her novels. She was also strongly anti-Bush, a hot topic in 2007 when the book was published, which sounds dated already in 2009. But her diatribes against the Patriot Act and Homeland Security are strident, as are her opinions on the anti-abortionists.

Women are usually accused of being strident when we speak up. The Old Testament prophets were also strident and mocked. Are our women of a certain age the new prophets? Possibly so. Barbara Kingsolver was labeled strident for things she had to say in her Small Wonder essays. I must read those someday.

I most enjoyed Paretsky's stories of becoming a writer. In fact, that is a story I never tire of reading and in the telling of it she is at her most eloquent. Jonatha Brooke, my second most favorite singer/songwriter after Joni Mitchell, wrote a song called "The Angel in the House" (recorded on an album of the same title in 1993 when she was still a member of the band The Story.) A line from that song has stuck with me always, "Even in my wildest heart, I cannot kill the angel in the house." Turns out it all goes back to Virginia Woolf and an essay she wrote entitled "Professions for Women" (available on line at Professions for Women and in the book Death of the Moth & Other Essays) in which Woolf takes on the phantom of the selfless sacrificial female ideal of the 19th century, whose sole purpose was to soothe, to flatter and to comfort the male. In a poem by Coventry Patmore, celebrating domestic bliss, this type of woman is named the Angel in the House. "Killing the angel in the house," wrote Virginia Woolf, "is part of the occupation of a woman writer."

Sara Paretsky had her own Angel in the House to overcome. She writes about how she did it, she mentions Jonatha Brooke and Virginia Woolf. I now have The Death of the Moth & Other Essays on order. One of the best things about reading is the way one thing leads to another in a continuous path of discovery and realization. Thank you Sara Paretsky for connecting those dots for me.

(The books mentioned here are available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


The Reader, Bernard Schlink, Pantheon, 1997, 218 pp

Rarely does a book just ram into my heart and mind like The Reader did and then leave me feeling deeply satisfied with the whole experience. I've yet to see the movie but suspect it will not disappoint.

Anyone who has seen the movie (probably more people than have read the book) will know the whole plot but I don't want to give it away. Easily half of the greatness of the book is the way the plot is revealed and I for one, did not see any of it coming. Each revelation caused me to catch my breath and marvel.

The theme of guilt is strong and tough and hit me where I live because of my ancestry (German) and religious upbringing (Lutheran). Schlink creates a stew of desire, sin and lost dreams but the broth is guilt: personal, familial, societal and judicial. If that sounds daunting and heavy, it is; but the writing is so perfect and seems to soothe the reader, seems to indicate that it will be alright in the end. Until the end, when nothing is right.

Michael Berg, a teen just recovering from a long illness, with hormones raging and longing for a closeness with his father that he will never have, tells the story from his viewpoint. He is a typical European postwar individual, growing up in a world with few ideals.

Hannah is a mature woman with a hard, cynical veneer that barely hides all manner of conflicts as mysterious to Michael as they are to herself. Once they begin a relationship, they are locked together by forces that neither understand. In an admirable economy of words, Schlink takes us through the years, the twists and turns that seem to ruin Michael's life, until we see that the ruin is mankind's.

(This book is on the shelf in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, August 10, 2009


Beneath A Marble Sky, John Shors, Penguin Group, 2004, 344 pp

This historical novel about the building of the Taj Mahal, is a big seller at the store where I work and a reading group favorite around the country. I probably would have skipped it but two of my reading groups picked it, so now I can sell it knowing that it is a perfectly good example of the historical novel genre.

It is also an unabashed romance novel written by a man. Two love stories entwine: that of the last great Emperor of Hindustan and his favorite wife plus an illicit but passionate affair between the Emperor's daughter Jahanara and Isis, the architect of the Taj Mahal. Another obvious great love is the author's for that period of Indian history.

With plenty of action, intrigue, adventure and passion, the story is never dull. Shors addresses the conflicts between Hindu and Muslim, the dichotomy of force versus reason in ruling a country and the theme that force usually prevails but great works of art are born out of reason and passion.

One of the reading group members complained that the princess Jahanara is like the female Indiana Jones. So? What is wrong with that? She is quite a fabulous heroine. Are our reading group readers becoming buried in postmodern cynicism? Now I am trying to think of a recent literary novel with a fabulous heroine.

(This book is available on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 08, 2009


When the World Was Steady, Claire Messud, Granta Books, 1994, 270 pp

Claire Messud had a success with her 2007 title, The Emperor's Children. I decided to read her first novel before reading her latest. I did not care for it. I found it dull and could not bring myself to care for the characters.

Two sisters are opposites in personality and location. Virginia lives in London with her widowed mother. She has never married, is a devout Christian, fussy and nervous. Emmy married a wealthy Australian and moved there but now her husband has left her for a younger, thinner woman. Both sisters are in their 50s when the book begins.

Virginia, who believes in God but certainly not in people, has been recently thrown out of her dull routine by a series of events. She agrees to a journey to the Isle of Skye with her somewhat dotty mother. Emmy, who believes she creates her own luck, is traveling in Bali, looking for some spiritual awakening but merely gets mixed up with various European losers.

I know; it all sounds exotic with plenty of potential, but the characters are not up to the locales nor do they change much despite anything that happens around them. I kept reading and waiting for the moment which would explain why the author wrote the novel, but that moment never arrived. Still, there was some promise in the writing, so I may try another one of her books.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Deadlock, Sara Paretsky, Dial Press, 1984, 263 pp

In her second V I Warshawski mystery, Paretsky has her private investigator looking into the Great Lakes shipping industry. Vic's cousin Boom-Boom, a former hockey star with a ruined ankle, is supposedly the fatal victim of an accident on Chicago's waterfront. He had taken a job with one of the shipping lines and gotten a tad too interested in certain discrepancies.

In the course of determining whether or not her cousin's death was truly an accident, Warshawski prowls the Port of Chicago and ends up stowing away on one of the ships headed for godforsaken Thunder Bay at the northern tip of Lake Superior. One of my favorite things about Paretsky's books is the crackpot, unusual and desperate ideas that Warshawski comes up with to find out what she wants to know. Putting herself at extreme risk is her trademark. She will not be denied and she usually gets badly hurt, which worries me even though I know she will live. That is good mystery writing.

A rather daunting cast of characters required me making a list to keep them all straight and I had to resort to map study in order to picture all the locations. All worth it because the suspense was intense, the plot twists were hairpin turns and the criminals were ruthless.

Warshawski is still my top crime investigator. So smart, so tough and so intrepid.

(This book is available in paperback by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


A Very Special Evening with Kerry Madden
Friday, August 7 at 7 PM
Once Upon A Time Bookstore
2207 Honolulu Avenue, Montrose CA 91020
(between Zeke’s and Rocky Cola Cafe)

( 818) 248-9668

One of our store's most favorite authors - Kerry Madden - is here to discuss her latest book, the young adult biography of author Harper Lee. Arguably the most beloved American classic, Lee's only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is required reading for millions of students. Why did Lee never write another novel? How has the success of the book changed her? Who were her influences? Come hear Madden explain her research in writing the well-reviewed biography. Middle school & high school students, teachers and adults will be fascinated with Madden's painstaking efforts to create a bio truly worthy of this gifted author. Wine & cheese reception.