Monday, August 29, 2011


The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Heidi W Durrow, Algonquin Books, 2010, 264 pp

I have read some great books this summer but this one was the most beautifully written. Rachel is the daughter of Roger, African American soldier, and Nella, a Scandinavian woman whom Roger married during his service in Germany. As the story opens, we only know that Rachel has somehow lost her family and has been taken in by Roger's mother. Grandma is a hard working woman living in a mostly Black Portland, Oregon neighborhood. She has set ideas about bringing up girl children and is fundamentally kind, though she did not approve of Rachel's mother.

With the lightest touch, Durrow shows us Rachel's emotional state, her grief, her struggle to adapt to Grandma's house and life, her conflicts with schoolmates. Eventually you come to realize the horrendous degree of what happened to Rachel, Nella and Roger.

So much sorrow drenches the first half of the story, my heart literally ached. Then more loss and disaster occurs. Still the style and voice of Heidi Durrow just holds you steady, never letting you look away from the devastating results of racism but keeping you secure in the perception that Rachel is no ordinary victim.

As years pass and Rachel finds her place in this new society (outside the military, in a racially divided town) she gets so darn brave and reckless that she scared me to death. I worried she was too damaged to stand up to all that life was asking of her.

In the end, Durrow shows us not all people are dangerous. Because of love, support, and understanding, because of a generosity of spirit found in some people, Rachel grows into young adulthood with a chance to navigate life as a mixed race woman with a tragic past.

The novel is emotional without being sentimental. It is socially conscious without preaching. Most of all though it is exquisitely written with a Toni Morrison influence that is uncanny. Please, Ms Durrow, keep writing novels.

(The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, August 28, 2011


The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1958, 205 pp


I read this book several times as a kid and it had remained in my memory as a book I loved though I did not remember what it was about. It won the Newbery Award in 1959, the year I turned 13.

At that time there was not a separate genre for Young Adult readers. In my library, where my mother took us every week, there was a children's room and the rest was adult. I would go to the children's room and pick out my own books. This one probably spoke out to me because of the cover, with Kit standing in the marshes looking to the river surrounded by cloudy skies all done in shades of bluish-green. I also had a fascination with witches in my pre-teen years.

Reading it again was the strangest combination of familiarity beneath what felt like a first read. I truly did not remember that the story took place amidst Puritans in the 1760s. I surely did not recall that Kit came from Barbados. It is entirely possible that I had never heard of Barbados when I was 12 and might have been only vaguely aware of what constituted a Puritan.

So I realized (again) that kids can read anything that holds their interest while lacking all manner of factual information related to the book. I can't to this day figure out how that can be true, but it is so. When I read The Winthrop Woman last summer, it was probably all the many readings of The Witch of Blackbird Pond which made it feel so familiar.

The other aspect fairly lost on me back in the day was the romance and love story. I see now that Elizabeth George Speare must have known her Jane Austen. This time, it still took me more than half the story to realize that Kit belonged with Nat. I am not usually so dim about romantic intrigue so I can only assume that Ms Speare was a great writer.

I think what I loved about this book as a girl was Kit herself, with all her warm-hearted impulsiveness, her flaws and her bravery. I could identify with the personality type down to the last brightly hued silk gown along with her love for Hannah and Prudence.

If a book written over fifty years ago can still make me cry (and it did, several times) it is a "good novel" for sure and for all time.

(The Witch of Blackbird Pond is available in paperback on the Newbery shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011


The Ugly American, William J Lederer & Eugene Burdick, W W Norton Company, 1958, 285 pp

Though The Ugly American was published in 1958, it rose to #6 on the bestseller list in 1959. Set in the fictional country Sarkhan, it is a fictional account of American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and particularly in Vietnam. The writing style is reminiscent of James Michener, especially his early books such as Tales of the South Pacific. I was surprised at what a page turner it was and read it in just a few hours.

In the 1950s, America had decided that the USSR was our greatest enemy, that Communism was dedicated to the eradication of our "way of life," that foreign aid was the solution to successfully overcoming these threats to freedom and democracy. America, it would seem, was born in revolt against a powerful enemy and so must always have one selected to keep us going.

The point in The Ugly American is not that we should fail to fight against Communism, but that we were going about it in all the wrong ways. The authors claimed that incidents in the book were true with only the names changed. According to their views, we were losing the fight against Communism in Southeast Asia because our diplomats and foreign service workers were alienating the peoples of Vietnam, Indonesia, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand due to arrogance, rudeness, and the inappropriate appropriations of billions of dollars in those countries.

Ambassadors and their administrative aides seldom knew anything about the countries where they served, could not speak the languages and consequently were woefully out of touch with the peoples. In contrast to the chapters exemplifying the above are others about honest, hardworking, well intentioned Americans who actually helped certain Asian villagers improve their lots by small effective measures such as showing them how to farm more effectively or start small industries.

The book had a large impact in America and some say it led the way to the formation of the Peace Corps. I was surprised to see a chapter, "The Lessons of War," in which a US Army Major, one of the good ones, studied Mao Tse-tung's writings on war and figured out why the Western armies cannot ever win against Asian guerillas.

As I finished the book, I wondered if it was still relevant today. After all, haven't we won in Asia because of Coca Cola, Hollywood movies, fashion, the internet, and all that? I came across Mekong Network that featured a review of The Ugly American. Bruce Sharpe, founder of the site, is an American who became involved with modern day issues in Southeast Asia after he began tutoring refugees from those countries in Chicago. The last line of his review states,
"And yet America's foreign policy is still haunted by the same mistakes. The Cold War is long finished and communism discredited, but it hardly matters. Who needs an enemy like communism, when you are already your own worst enemy?"

So we still have a problem with our image, not only in the Middle East but also in Asia. And yes, The Ugly American is still relevant.

I know that I have readers of this blog from Southeast Asian countries. I am curious to know if any of you have read The Ugly American and would like to hear from you. Did you find the book to be true or false or some combination?

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Good Omens, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, William Morrow, 1990, 369 pp

Surely I am going to get some dissenting comments for this review. Left to my own reading plan I would have read this book when I ran out of anything else to read that was written by Neil Gaiman. Alas, it was chosen by one of my reading groups. I found it mildly entertaining but did not love it, though it seems nearly everyone else in the world did. I was in good company at the reading group meeting though. They nearly all disliked it so much that only three of us even finished the book.

So what do we have here? We have Armageddon made funny, in a British humor style. Actually the humor is the best part and is usually truly funny. We have a demon and an angel who are friends and secretly don't want the world to end. Also a cool group of kids who call themselves The Them.

The potential is there. The similarities to A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a book I love) are numerous. Satire is probably one of the trickiest genres, but I thought Neil Gaiman was adulterated by the addition of Terry Pratchett. Oh yes, and did I mention there are footnotes? I purely hate footnotes in fiction. They are bad enough in non-fiction.

What I learned:
1) I am a tough customer when it comes to humorous fiction.
2) I don't need to read Terry Pratchett this life time.
3) The Apocalypse is best approached with humor. Serious novelists would do better to remain in the present or the past.
4) I love Neil Gaiman so much that I will forgive him anything.

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

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Lady Chatterley's Lover, D H Lawrence, Penguin Classics (most recent edition, pub 2010), 1928 in Italy, 1959 in United States, 283 pp

Banned for over 30 years in Great Britain and the United States, Lawrence's novel about his sexual theories has become famous. Lady Chatterley, married to a man paralyzed physically and emotionally in World War I, falls in love with the gardener. They have a passionate affair.

The writing is not good, in my opinion, but all feminists thank the author for putting forth the idea that women should enjoy sex and have orgasms.

I reread this a few years ago for one of my reading groups. It sparked a lively discussion! The youngest member of the group wondered what all the fuss was about. The ban was lifted in the United States in 1959 and Lady Chatterley's Lover was the #5 bestseller in that year. I recall reading the book while on a babysitting job in the early 60s when I was a teenager trying to learn about sex.

When is the first time you read it?

(Lady Chatterley's Lover is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Sea of Poppies,
Amitav Ghosh, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008, 468 pp

I have wanted to read this novel since it was published in 2008. It is the first of a trilogy. The second volume, River of Smoke, is being published in September, 2011.

Sea of Poppies is a wonderful book written somewhat in the style of Salman Rushdie with a bit of Charles Dickens thrown in. I was also reminded of some of the great historical fiction from the 1940s which I have read as part of My Big Fat Reading Project, especially Mika Waltari's The Egyptian and The Adventurer.

India, 1938, is in the clutches of the British and their template of empire building, the East India Company. Having converted most of India's agriculture to the raising of poppies, thus devastating the country's ability to feed her own people, the Company is gearing up for the Opium Wars with China. Free trade is the religion of empire building but the Chinese Emperor has objected to the systematic drugging of his populace and is attempting to control the importation of opium. Coming on the heels of the abolition of the slave trade, Britain's coffers are severely jeopardized.

That is the historical context from an Indian point of view and is educational as well as enlightening in terms of 19th century world history. Such issues were not addressed when I studied history in school. But the delight of Sea of Poppies arises from its characters. Here you have a destitute poppy grower, a deposed Raja, various indentured laborers, a sailor born of his slave mother and her master from Baltimore, MD, as well as various British mariners, businessmen and more.

All of these characters play roles in the manning up and filling with passengers of the Ibis, a ship destined for the Opium Wars. Despite such a large cast, you get to know most of them well and are seduced into caring about them. Their backgrounds, sorrows, hopes and dreams are the driving force of the story.

That is not all. Amitav Ghosh has also created a philosophical tale about change, migration and the intermingling of nationalities, social castes and language. His polyglot of tongues and slang come close to overwhelming the reader with unfamiliar words, but he does just enough explication and provides a glossary of sorts, so that you can satisfy your desperate desire to find out what happens next.

I love books like this. After reading plenty of contemporary literary fiction, which tends to dwell in small, almost claustrophobic worlds of towns, or single families, or one current event, reading Sea of Poppies is like embarking on a voyage on the open sea amongst passengers from many lands and backgrounds under a huge open expanse of sky.

As befits a traditional series, the book ends on a total cliffhanger, leaving you longing for the next installment. Thankfully, I've only got to wait a month or so.

(Sea of Poppies is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, August 19, 2011


Exodus, Leon Uris, Doubleday, 1958, 599 pp

The #1 bestseller of 1959 was this long book about the history of the Zionist movement and the founding of modern day Israel. I have previously read The Hope, Herman Wouk's novel, which takes up the story in 1958 soon after Exodus ends, and carries it through the Six Day War of 1967. Wouk provides the reader with the 1950s American government's views on the conflict. I have also read A Tale of Love and Darkness, in which Amos Oz gives his account of growing up in Jerusalem in the 40s and 50s.

The result for me of reading all three comprises a start on being able to see into the complexities of Israel. I can't say that I understand all the ramifications of what is so rightly called a "conflict." It seems clear to me that Great Britain has behaved treacherously since before World War II, when it comes to dealing with both the Jews and the Arabs. In Exodus, the British come off very badly indeed and are accused of playing both sides, inflaming the Arabs to a point where any resolution looks unlikely until the end of time.

Leon Uris is not much of a writer. His characters, especially the women, are as flat as pancakes. His plotting skills depend on the history he obviously researched. Too many skirmishes and battles along with endless accounts of overcoming a lack of weapons and ammunition with clever strategy, add a good 100 pages to what is already an overly long book.

What he did convey brilliantly however is the power of purpose and hope to bring back to life a people who by the end of the Holocaust had been as beaten down, oppressed and overcome as any group of human beings on this earth.

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

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


The Rules of the Tunnel, My Brief Period of Madness, Ned Zeman, Gotham Books, 2011, 307 pp

Who knew that reading a memoir about depression, mania and amnesia could be so much fun? You read about Ned Zeman's descent into madness and begin to feel a bit mad yourself. You wonder if your aren't possibly bipolar. But you don't feel depressed for a moment while reading this manic handbook of his journey through today's mental health system.

Ned Zeman, a long-time writer for Vanity Fair, has that zippy, ironic, right up to the moment style. He knows his territory because that is what reporters do; they find out all there is to know about their topic. Add to that the experiences he has had writing about eccentric adventurers who were about as manic as they come, who pushed all known limits, and who died young in places like Antarctica.

When depression settles in, when the meds can no longer get him out of bed, after therapist one through five fail to help, he goes the distance to "the treatment of last resort." His troubles with electroconvulsive therapy, known back in the 1950s as shock treatment, are the truly creepy part of the story. He was warned about possible temporary short-term amnesia but like everything else in Ned's life, his reaction was over the top. Despite a team of close friends, a devoted girlfriend and two loving brothers, all attempting to keep watch over him between treatments, he races from city to city, from woman to woman and remembers none of it.

Ultimately, he must use his highly honed researching and profiling skills to reconstruct the two years of memory burned out of his brain by those pesky shocks. This is the only part you find hard to believe. If the human mind is capable of solving the problems of the human mind, Ned Zeman is living proof of that hypothesis. In his case, it is a fitting sort of justice. Here is a guy who specialized in evasion, never quite forthcoming with his therapists, his employers, his girlfriends or his friends. Being dangerously self-involved and compulsively self-defeating, he appeared incapable of listening to the common sense advice from any of them.

Still, you can't help liking and admiring this maddening individual. Because he makes life exciting and like many socially challenged artists, he attracts help and care wherever he goes. Lucky for him, because as he documents, most artists and writers who followed the path of meds, therapist, mental wards and shock treatment are no longer with us. Many of them never wrote again after the "treatment of last resort."

If you have suffered from manic depression or bipolar disorder or the inevitable ups and downs of life, Ned Zeman's memoir will make you think twice about taking those meds. He might just keep you out of mental hospitals altogether. The surprising conclusion, which you don't see coming, takes a mere three pages at the very end of the story. You should definitely read those last three pages.

(The Rules of the Tunnel is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Across the Universe, Beth Revis, Razorbill, 2011, 398 pp

The Sunday Family Read

Wow, did this YA novel have the buzz when it came out earlier this year. I can see why: it is science fiction with a sixteen year old heroine. Truly this is unusual.

Amy decided to join her parents in cryogenic sleep. They are on the spaceship Godspeed headed to a new planet and scheduled to arrive 300 years from when they launched. Amy gets woken up too early and when she realizes that she will be older than her beloved parents when they awaken, she is beyond dismayed. She meets Elder, raised on the ship and being groomed to take over as supreme ruler over the thousands of people who are keeping the ship going until they land. But mysteries and attempted murders of frozen passengers bring them together in an effort to save the day. Really this book has it all.

The story telling and plotting are such that I could not put the book down. There are some glaring flaws in the writing. You could say that it is a new twist on a story that has been told many times by better writers or you could say that Beth Revis's influences are transparent.

All in all, she has opened a genre to teens. Especially cool is the Amy character who exemplifies the teen view of life quite well and is way less annoying than Bella but not quite as cool as Katniss.

I checked out several YA reviewers who are also teens and Across the Universe was pretty much a hit. The blogosphere is now well populated by teenaged reviewers, something I had wished for a couple years ago.

The book is also the first in a trilogy with the second book, A Million Suns, coming out in January 2012.

(Across the Universe is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It can also be ordered from the store for download as an e-book.)

Friday, August 12, 2011


I am engaged in a self-directed study of 20th century literature. I call this My Big Fat Reading Project. Today's post is my reading list for 1958. Most of these books have been reviewed here on my blog. If a title has a star you can search the blog and find the review.

The first 10 books are the top bestsellers of the year, according to Publisher's Weekly as compiled in an out of print book I found in my local library years ago but which is no longer there. Currently you can find these lists in Making the List by Michael Korda, (also out of print but available from used book sellers.)

The next section of my list covers award winners from the year, in the order that those awards were founded.

The final section is my own curated list made up of authors I have decided to follow during the Project, giving myself a full overview of their development as authors. These books are listed alphabetically by title.

If you know of an important book from 1958 that I missed, please mention it in the comments or send me an email (my email address can be found on my profile page. )

1. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak*
2. Anatomy of a Murder, Robert Traver*
3, Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov*
4. Around the World With Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis*
5. From the Terrace, John O'Hara*
6. Eloise at Christmastime, Kay Thompson*
7. Ice Palace, Edna Ferber*
8. The Winthrop Woman, Anya Seton*
9. The Enemy Camp, Jerome Weidman*
10. Victorine, Frances Parkinson Keyes*

PULITZER: A Death in the Family, James Agee
NBA: The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever*
NEWBERY: Rifles for Watie, Harold Keith*
CALDECOTT: Time of Wonder, Robert McCloskey*
EDGAR: Room to Swing, Ed Lacy*
HUGO: The Big Time, Fritz Leiber*

1. Balthazar, Lawrence Durrell*
2. The Bell, Iris Murdoch*
3. The Best of Everything, Rona Jaffe*
4. Boulevard, Robert Sabatier
5. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Truman Capote*
6. Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac*
7. The End of the Road, John Barth*
8. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, Jorge Amado*
9. A Game for the Living, Patricia Highsmith*
10. The Ginger Man, J P Donleavy*
11. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Robert A Heinlein*
12. The Long Dream, Richard Wright*
13. The Lost Traveler, Sanora Babb*
14. The Luckiest Girl, Beverly Cleary*
15. Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir*
16. Methuselah's Children, Robert A Heinlein*
17. Mount Olive, Lawrence Durrell*
18. Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart*
19. Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Kenzaburo Oe*
20. Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene*
21. Playback, Raymond Chandler*
22. A Ripple From the Storm, Doris Lessing*
23. Robinson, Muriel Spark*
24. The Suffrage of Elvira, V S Naipaul*
25. The Sundial, Shirley Jackson*
26. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
27. Where the Air is Clear, Carlos Fuentes*
28. The White Witch, Elizabeth Goudge
29. A World of Strangers, Nadine Gordimer*

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


A Novel Bookstore, Laurence Cosse, Europa Editions, 2009, 416 pp

I enjoyed this book immensely while I was reading it and thought about it for days afterward, not for the writing, not for the mystery, but because of the subject matter. Two people, a rich woman and a book lover, start a bookstore in Paris. They have a distinct vision: they will only sell "good novels" from over the years by authors from many countries. By independent bookstore standards, they are wildly successful and then come the attacks.

The purported mystery concerning who is behind the attacks is not much except a sort of framework for telling the story. It does not even get satisfactorily solved. Half of the reading group in which we discussed the book were very mad about that!

The writing is just barely alright and I could not tell if the translation was to blame or the original French. I think some of both. There were an inordinate number of sentences that were odd, incomprehensible or just plain bad. That is ironic for a novel about the best written novels of the past 300 years.

In the end, none of these quibbles mattered a bit. For myself, a bookstore lover, a reading fool, a former bookseller and a novice writer, it was just plain wonderful to read about the planning, the decisions on what to carry, the ordering and stocking of the shelves, the day to day life of the store. How well I know the drama inherent in just that.

I also reveled in the characters. Francesca, the founder and owner, is a fascinating woman with a quintessential European past as well as a deep seated purpose to do something with her life that matters. Though Ivan, the manager and bookseller, is severely challenged when it comes to women and affairs of the heart, he is consistently an interesting and complex character. His love interest, Alis, is straight out of a Simone de Beauvoir novel.

Despite the clunky plotting and disastrous sentences, Laurence Cosse writes passages about the importance of literature that are as eloquent as Camus, as heartfelt as Barbara Kingsolver. This book is a tribute to books, writers, and bookstores while sounding a warning to civilization about what we stand to lose if we let literature be determined only by the bottom line.

She raises all the current issues and questions about the state of literature today. By the end of our reading group discussion, we had delved into all of them.

(A Novel Bookstore is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, August 08, 2011


A World of Strangers, Nadine Gordimer, Simon & Schuster, 1958, 312 pp

As always, when I begin a story or novel by Nadine Gordimer, I have to reset something in my mind in order to navigate her sentences. They are beautiful sentences but are somehow constructed differently than what I am used to reading in fiction. Someday I will take the time to analyze why and how.

Because no sooner do I make the mental reset, than I am absorbed into her story. In A World of Strangers she has created a compelling main character, Tobias Hood, a man! The exclamation point is meant to show my astonishment at how she could write an entire novel in first person as a man. It works; she nailed the viewpoint completely.

Toby Hood, a young Englishman with already formed strong views about life, is sent to run the Johannesburg office of his uncle's publishing company. Raised by liberal parents post WW II, educated at Oxford, Toby is in complete rebellion against causes and wants nothing to do with the abstractions of racial issues or politics. He enjoys living the privileged life.

Johannesburg in the 1950s is a hotbed of racial issues and related politics, so A World of Strangers is a story about the awakening of political consciousness. However, compared to Doris Lessing's Martha, this awakening happens to Toby because of his interactions with people, not because of his exposure to ideas. That is what makes the novel come alive, what made me keep working through thoses sentences and wanting to find out how it would turn out for Toby.

(A World of Strangers is currently out of print. You can find it in libraries or get it from a used book seller.

Sunday, August 07, 2011


Fly Trap, Frances Hardinge, HarperCollins Publishers, 2011, 584 pp


While reading Fly Trap, I was struck by how fantasy, in all its many forms and for any given age group, just might be the most fun one can have as a reader. Who can ever forget their first reading of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Children of the Amulet? Portals to other worlds, strange creatures, and odd twists of time are such lovely flights of imagination in which not everything has to make sense. Always there is the delicious thrill of evil lurking, and always a hero or heroine equal to overcoming that evil.

So while Fly Trap is intended for readers age 11-13, I would recommend it to any reader who is still willing to be transported into another world. Mosca Mye is a fabulous heroine, equal to Harry Potter or Philip Pullman's Lyra Belaqua, and yet is uniquely herself. "Drips fell from the tip of a pointed nose. Beneath a drooping bonnet with a frayed brim, hair spiked and straggled like a tempest-tossed blackbird's nest. An olive green dress two sizes too big was hitched at the waist and daubed knee-high in thick yellow mud. And behind the clinging strands of damp hair, two large black eyes glistened like coal and gave the marketplace a look that spoke of coal's grit, griminess, and hidden fire." That is Mosca - orphan, scrapper, nearly always hungry and cold, careening through life righting wrongs and dreaming of warmth, food and a soft bed.

Her animal companion is an equally hungry goose, Saracen, who also acts as bodyguard. Her human companion and partner in crime is the poet and grifter Eponymous Clent, a man with a quick wit and a horror of a day's work, who is usually talking his way out of the latest disaster he created. The three arrive in Toll hoping to make their way to warmer, more prosperous lands for the winter. Naturally Toll is not what it seems, and they are instantly entangled in both their own deep troubles as well as the twisted circumstances of the town. It is the role of Eponymous to come up with plans, which Mosca carries out despite any amount of hardship and danger.

Toll is a town that serves as the sole gateway from one area to another; it is as two sided as a coin, with daytime and nighttime set simultaneously in the same streets, markets and alleys, though never can the two meet or interact. In this world, a person's place and name is determined by his or her hour of birth. Every house has a patron saint, a little god called a Beloved, and Mosca's Beloved is Palpitattle - He Who Keeps Flies Out of Jams and Butter Churns - explaining Mosca's name, which means housefly. In this town, all are subject to their names and Beloveds, except the Locksmiths who play day against night in an effort to control everything.

In a story of non-stop action and incident, Frances Hardinge magically manages to fill in the back-story from the first volume in the series, Fly By Night, and explain the religion of the Beloveds, the politics of Toll, and the dastardly goal of the evil Locksmiths. Her description of how Toll-by-Day becomes Toll-by-Night rivals the writing of Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. Possibly because I am an adult, I got weary of reading what started to seem an endless tale and thought Hardinge could have left off about 100 pages without harm. However, I remember being of a reading age where the longer the book the better, so I doubt that younger readers would have the same problem.

No matter your age, I highly recommend Fly Trap to those who like the fantasy genre. It would make a great read for a middle-school book group as well.

(Fly Trap is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, August 04, 2011


Where the Air is Clear, Carlos Fuentes, Ivan Obolensky Inc, 1960, 378 pp

So I have entered the world of Fuentes, with his first novel, published in Mexico in 1958. It was a treacherous portal for me. In the first few pages I saw that I needed some background in Mexican history. Thanks to the internet, that was easy and helped me tie together the paltry loose ends I knew about Mexico. I should also point out that Mexican PR in Los Angeles is terrible, so I had to overcome some prejudices to get into Fuentes's head.

Ixca Cienfuegos, a character in the book, is our omniscient third person narrator (when he isn't a first person narrator) who also, according to some, represents the Aztec sun god Huitzilopochtli, come back to avenge himself and Mexico's indigenous peoples on the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors. Confusing? Oh yes.

Otherwise, there is not much of a plot. The book is more of a commentary on Mexican government and society in the mid 1950s, comprised of vignettes and various intertwined accounts of the lives of the characters. Where the Air is Clear has been compared to Dos Passos's USA Trilogy, which I have not read. But the method of the story telling reminded me a bit of James Michener. (I like James Michener by the way.)

Finally, Fuentes is bemoaning the usual state of affairs after a revolution, where the rebels become the new status quo, creating a new bourgeoisie made up of the nouveau riche. I did learn more about Mexico than I knew before. I think I could grow to like Carlos Fuentes, but I am not there yet.

(Where the Air is Clear is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011


Stone Arabia, Dana Spiotta, Scribner, 2011, 235 pp

Dana Spiotta's third novel hit me so hard and deeply that I haven't been able to write about it for weeks. I won't rehash the plot because you can find that in numerous places on the Web. Briefly, it is a story about a musician and his younger sister in Los Angeles.

What it is really about is the life of a creative individual who was never recognized by the music industry or by pop culture. I would guess that such a fate is usual for a huge percentage of creative persons. Most of us take it more or less in stride, "move on" as they say, find other ways to make a living, sometimes do our creative thing as a hobby. Nik and his sister Denise never moved on.

I was surprised and delighted by Spiotta's previous novel, Eat the Document. In fact I think it was better written than Stone Arabia. But it was about revolutionary politics and its fallout in terms of the personal lives of those involved. I have never participated in anything remotely political, I don't like politics and don't think anyone can achieve positive societal change through it.

I do love music; have been a professional musician and songwriter. I do think that art, music, and literature can effect societal change. In fact, all I have ever truly desired to do in life is play music, read books and try to write both. I have had close to zero success with any of that.

Nik chose to retreat from life, hole up in a cabin in Topanga Canyon, work as a bartender and keep creating. He had about five fans, his sister Denise being number one.

What is success? How much does one person owe another? How true is memory? Is the life we see on television, in the news, more interesting, more impacting than our own little lives? What is creativity for? Big questions in a little book that reminds me, now that I think of it, of the early novels of Carolyn See (mother of Lisa See.) Spiotta says her inspiration as a writer comes from Don DeLillo.

I found Nik, Denise, Denise's daughter Ada, so annoying at times. Only after finishing the novel did I realize that I was supposed to be annoyed. This author gets under your skin and makes you look again at your cherished beliefs in new lights. It is an uncomfortable experience.

For me, she made it all right to feel really sad and discouraged about not having come even close to the dreams I had when I was young. Nik just refused to accept that fact. Whether Spiotta meant for it to happen or not, I ended up seeing him as some kind of tarnished hero.

(Stone Arabia is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, August 01, 2011


The Sundial, Shirley Jackson, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1958, 245 pp

Shirley Jackson was a writer unlike any other. The Sundial was not my favorite book of hers and yet it has all the qualities that are uniquely hers: suspense, psychological insight, humor and irony.

The Hallorans live in a manor house, outside the local village. Grandfather Halloran, a self-made millionaire, built the house and surrounded the estate completely by a wall. "The first Mr Halloran...was a man who, in the astonishment of finding himself extremely wealthy, could think of nothing better to do with his money that set up his own world."

As the story opens, Richard, son of the first Mr Halloran, is head of the house, though he is an invalid suffering from dementia and confined to a wheelchair. Lionel, Richard's son, has been buried that day, having suffered a fatal tumble down the stairs. Richard's current wife, suspected within the family of having pushed the hapless Lionel down the stairs, is clearly in charge.

But Aunt Fanny, Richard's sister, has had a vision: the world is going to end with her father, the first but dead Mr Halloran, promising to protect the family so that they will be the only survivors and will build a new world.

I found all of this less than exciting as I read the first fifty pages. But soon enough, Shirley Jackson put into motion the conflicting interests, the creepy details and the irony until I was intrigued. Oddly enough, through there is a final twist of the plot in the end, it was not the denouement that made the story. It was the characters.

This is an author who has an almost mystical ability to delve into the psychological quirks of people, whether they be her own children, as in Raising Demons, or the disturbed heroine of The Bird's Nest.

(I found The Sundial at one of my local libraries. It does not appear to be easily found on-line. Possibly used bookstores. Anyone have an tips on how to find this book for purchase?)