Monday, October 31, 2011


The Borrowers Afield, Mary Norton, Harcourt Brace & World, 1955, 215 pp


In the second book of The Borrowers series, Pod, Homily and Arrietty are on the run after escaping from the terrible Mrs Driver and the ferret. No long able to live snugly beneath the kitchen in the big house, they are forced to run, hide from field mice and insects, and sleep in ditches.

Finally they take up residence in an abandoned boot and adopt a vegetarian diet. Homily tries to be brave but is miserably out of her element. Pod is his usual resourceful self. Arrietty however is thrilled to be in the great outdoors. She ventures far and wide and when she meets Spiller, a mysterious and feral Borrower youth, she sets in motion the family's salvation.

I read this one as a child but didn't remember it as well. It is just as delightful and imaginative as the first book. I did not read the other two in the series because by the time The Borrowers Afloat was published in 1959, I was twelve years old and had moved on as a reader. I will be reading Afloat and Aloft soon though thanks to my Big Fat Reading Project.

(The Borrowers Afield is available in hardcover, paperback or eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, October 29, 2011


State of Wonder, Ann Patchett, HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011, 353 pp

In her latest novel, Ann Patchett returns to South America, but the setting and subject matter differ dramatically from that of Bel Canto. It was Bel Canto that made me her fan though for some reason since then I have only read The Patron Saint of Liars (her first novel and my favorite) and Run, which I liked very much but which did not have the success of Bel Canto. Over the past nineteen years she has only published six novels but like some of my other best-loved authors, the pace of a novel about every three years seems to keep her quality high.

State of Wonder begins slowly in the midst of a Minnesota winter. The opening is dramatic with the news that Marina Singh's colleague Anders Eckman has succumbed to fever in the Amazonian jungle.

Marina is a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company, a single woman in her thirties having an affair with the company's CEO, a rather reserved and lonely person. The news of Eckman's death hits hard but when her lover/boss virtually orders her to travel to Brazil and investigate the situation, her life changes in multiple ways.

However, the novel is nearly half over by the time she actually reaches the jungle and confronts the potential villain of the story, her former medical professor and the key researcher for the company, Dr Annick Swenson. The long set up is a risky move since all the action in the novel takes place at the jungle research camp. We have learned that Dr Swenson has been developing a fertility drug and that the two women have collided in the past, but it is not until we meet Swenson that her draconian personality becomes real.

I did not mind the leisurely opening pace because I happen to love Patchett's writing. As a reader, I feel as safe in her hands as I do riding in the backseat of a car with a good driver. This author has similar sentiments to mine when it comes to women, families, love and children. Every character in her books has redeeming qualities and difficult quirks. No one ever fully lives up to what others expect of them and to me that is quite like real life.

The fertility issue is of course a hot one these days and the novel is full of astute observations on that subject. Somehow fertility is and yet is not the main theme. Either instead of or in addition to the questions of childbearing, is the theme of life purposes and how both men and women, civilized and primitive, carry out these purposes amidst the pressures of family and society.

Ann Patchett has almost become an old fashioned author by now, especially because she is so invested in matters of family and love. I would imagine she is most admired by middle-aged women. I wonder if young women find her relevant.

After a startling denouement in State of Wonder, she leaves quite a few plot threads unresolved. All the main characters experience life changing moments in the Amazon basin, leaving the reader to imagine what will happen to them after the novel ends. I like that!

(State of Wonder is available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an e-book.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011


The Pact, Jodi Picoult, William Morrow and Company, 1998, 389 pp

Jodi Picoult is a writer who tackles the thorny moral issues we face in modern life. She is one of many, particularly female, authors who approach novel writing with a similar focus: Sara Paretsky, Anita Shreve, the late Olivia Goldsmith, Meg Wolitzer, to name a few. These novelists serve the purpose in fiction loosely called "to entertain and inform." In my opinion they vary widely in writing skill and I would place Jodi Picoult somewhere in the middle range between horrible and great.

The Pact is her fifth novel out of eighteen. The story is anchored by two teenagers, Chris and Emily, who were raised together by neighboring families, making their relationship something like a very close brother and sister bond. As teens they begin having sex and falling in love.

Due to a childhood incident of sexual abuse, never revealed to anyone, Emily has problems with the sex though she loves Chris with all her heart. During their senior year in high school, she becomes depressed and pregnant. She decides to kill herself, convincing Chris to help her. After her death, Chris is arrested for murder, held in prison with no bail for over a year, and emerges from the entire experience changed and probably permanently damaged. The two families, who were best friends, turn into enemies.

The entire novel is fraught with issues: how well parents really know their children is a major one, but mainly the troubles and quandaries of teens rule the tale. Though Picoult reveals the death of Emily and the fact that the two lovers had a suicide pact in the first chapters, the reasons for their problems are explained gradually throughout the book, giving it the feel of a mystery.

With all the elements for a blockbuster pageturner and a deep story in place, this was Jodi Picoult's breakout novel. It has an average of 4 stars on both Amazon and Goodreads, though the hardcover is out of print and the paperback was hard to find in my local libraries and bookstores. My fellow reading group members almost all gave it a resounding thumbs up. Then there is me.

I felt squirmy and creeped out the whole time I was reading The Pact. I didn't like the way it was plotted and I was painfully aware of the author's research. Of course, I didn't like Twilight either. Apparently The Pact has been read and loved by many teens, so the author must have touched on what it is like to be a teen. I do approve of that.

The issue that hit me hardest was the disconnect between the loving, devoted parents and their kids. I couldn't believe that such "good" parents could be that clueless about what was going on. If that is a common problem in American families, and I suspect it is, then parents of teens would do well to read this book. I will most likely not read Jodi Picoult again.

(The Pact is available in paperback and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Prospero in Hell, L Jagi Lamplighter, Tom Doherty Associates, 2010, 347 pp

While I enjoyed Prospero Lost, the first volume of Lamplighter's Prospero's Daughter trilogy, this second volume took a leap forward in many ways. Miranda, who is the eldest of Prospero's offspring, was contacted by her father at the beginning of the first book, informing her that one of his spells had gone awry, that he was accidentally trapped in Hell, and that Miranda was to gather the family and warn them of impending doom.

By the end of Prospero Lost she had only found four of her eight siblings, hardly any of whom were on good terms with each other. Many more questions and mysteries had been raised than were answered or solved. As a reader I was mostly impressed but also somewhat overwhelmed by a sprawling plot covering over 400 years and a gargantuan cast of characters both human and supernatural.

Oh reader of little faith! In Prospero in Hell, Miranda locates her remaining siblings, they overcome their differences barely enough to band together, and set off for Hell. Several points of confusion are made clear and Miranda grows into an admirable character even as she remains conflicted, cold and oddly capricious.

The expression "all hell broke loose" takes on new meaning as Prospero's children begin their trek towards the prison of torture that holds their father. Lamplighter's writing blossoms into a Tolkeinian effect both in terms of description and the powers of evil which these characters must overcome.

With this second volume, which belies the tendency of the middle book of a trilogy to be the weakest, Lamplighter demonstrates that she is addressing well thought out themes. What appeared to be a weakness of plotting skills in the first book turns out to be just the beginnings of many complex plot threads that coalesce into an astounding world view. Miranda is not the only contradictory character in the story. Each sibling has deep faults, even if those faults are caused by demons, and the quest to rescue Prospero is the means by which they will overcome weaknesses and grow into their true selves.

Prospero in Hell contains equal parts of despair and hope. By the end I was convinced I was in the hands of a competent fantasy writer and sure that I would follow along to the trilogy's conclusion, experiencing changes in myself as I read.

(Prospero in Hell is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Nightwoods, Charles Frazier, Random House Inc, 2011, 259 pp

I love Charles Frazier. Cold Mountain, the novel, was amazing. Forget the movie. Thirteen Moons was under appreciated because Cold Mountain was so huge. He just gets to something in his characters that no one else does in quite the same way. Possibly it is a Southern thing but also it is just purely great writing from a guy who has the soul of a poet. Both of the previous novels were historical (Civil War and Trail of Tears) but I don't think it was from history that he derived his power as a writer but from the depth and breadth of his characterizations and his ability to bring the natural world surrounding those characters so vividly to life. Though Nightwoods takes place in the 1960s, he has lost none of that power.

Lit and Lola: Lit is that kind of soldier who never moves on. World War II and its grueling mix of boredom, discomfort and violence have never been matched since then for Lit, not to mention the quality of the drugs available. Lola is the teen bride and mother who would rather drink, party and fight with her husband than raise babies.

Luce and Lily: The daughters of these two, who were abandoned by their mother and neglected by their father; who grew up destined to be harmed by men.

Such potential caricatures of dysfunctional life take on roles suitable for a parable in the hands of Frazier. When Lily's husband Bud, a character straight out of Flannery O'Connor territory, kills her in cold blood, the state dumps Lily's fraternal twin youngsters on Luce. These kids have obvious signs of abuse, something to which Luce is no stranger. She herself is living practically like a hermit in a rundown former summer lodge as a nominal caretaker, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. When she learns that Bud has been acquitted of the murder, she knows such will not be her destiny.

Charles Frazier takes a good half of the novel setting this up but every few pages he drops in another startling fact. By the time it becomes clear that Bud is the psychopath bent on ruining Luce's entire family, I was so wrought up and unbalanced there was nothing left to do but read on, never knowing who would live and who would die.

The problem then was that Frazier's writing is so fine, it needs to be savored. These people are as unique as all human beings are; not one of them can be wholly admired or detested. The mountains, the weather, the flora, close around the story, as much a part of the tale as any other aspect. And those kids--my goodness.

The question in all of Charles Frazier's novels has to do with how our humanity to others can possibly survive when one insanely evil person can ruin it for everyone around him. Bud was made to go to church as a child, where his natural born criminal instincts left him open to the message that the sacred shedding of blood mattered above all else. The proffered answer in Nightwoods is that shared blood can redeem a lost soul now and then, but not always and not for good.

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright, W W Norton & Company, 2011, 259 pp

I spent the summer reading plenty of novels by smart, young, cutting-edge writers. It was fun and exhilarating. But as fall approached and the days grew shorter, it felt appropriate to read a novel about adultery and its consequences by a seasoned author who knows the pathways of the heart.

The Forgotten Waltz, set in and around Dublin, encompasses those incredible years when Ireland, after all its sad centuries of impoverished outsider status, finally got to be a player in the mad scramble for wealth that characterized the early years of the millennium. Gina Moynihan, recently married career woman, feeling she can have any kind of life, house, job, or husband that she wants, falls in love with an older married man over a period of five years and infrequent encounters.

At first it is simply lust, drunken indulgence, meeting Sean Vallely in hotel rooms. The kissing is more transporting than the actual sex; the sneaking around more exciting than the man himself. In what Gina suspects is an attempt by Sean's wife to check out the competition, she receives an invitation to the Vallely's annual New Year's Day party. Something about the encounter with her lover's wife and daughter Evie raises a dalliance into a full-blown affair. An almost innocent air of just fooling around becomes the messy business of adultery.

The novel begins in 2009, after all the dirty deeds have broken up two marriages. Gina, who narrates her own tale, is looking back in an effort to understand how she came to be living in her deceased mother's house with a man who now seems rather ordinary. She tells us, "I can't be too bothered here with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn't make sense." The style of Enright's discerning look at many types of love is in tune with the above quotation. Gina looks back over the past seven years like someone awaking from a dream or coming out of an obsession. It does not all make sense, even to the reader.

In the first sentence of the preface we learn that, "If it hadn't been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive." We also learn that there was something peculiar about this child, Evie. That preface is an almost too subtle hint that Evie is a central and important character, but not until the very end of the novel do we find out why and how.

What did Gina want? What did Sean want? It is not clear and I found myself fascinated and puzzled but unable to stop thinking about those questions until I had found my own answers several hours after turning the last page. What appears to be a story of adultery has a secret layer. In her Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering, Anne Enright told a dark and shameful family saga. The Forgotten Waltz is perhaps lighter, but it is nonetheless an examination of Irish family life as it plays out in our fractured contemporary world.

(The Forgotten Waltz is available in hardcover and e-book by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, October 15, 2011


You Deserve Nothing, Alexander Maksik, Europa Editions, 2011, 320 pp

I had many high expectations for this novel. It is set in Paris, a city I love. It was given to me by a reading friend who has similar tastes. It was edited by Alice Sebold. Most of all, I had read that the author was inspired by Albert Camus's The Stranger, a book and an author I rather revere. However, as the title proclaims, I deserve nothing.

Reading the book was pure pleasure, almost guilty pleasure. What could be more enjoyable than a love story between an older man and a very young woman, set in Paris? I was in bliss reading Diane Johnson's Le Divorce. I devoured both Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan. Don't even get me started on Simone de Beauvoir's The Mandarins.

If I were considerably younger and wanted to have a guilt free affair with an older man, I would definitely do it in Paris. So Alexander Maksik combines quasi-existentialism, youth, romance, and idealism in modern day Paris. His writing is very fine, well-crafted, and fairly traditional in style. He got me invested in every character. I never wanted to put his book down and could read happily for hours at a time. I did not want the story to end.

And yet...

I was left feeling a little bit let down. I was quite aware of the author's admiration for Camus, but I don't think he totally gets Camus. I'm not trying to brag here about how well I get Camus, but when I first read him in my twenties, I didn't understand his novels. (They were pressed on me by my father.) As it turned out, I needed to suffer first. When I read The Stranger again a few years ago, I found the main character, Meursault, a much more compelling character than Will Silver in You Deserve Nothing. The moral ambiguity from which each of these characters suffers is of a different magnitude.

I suppose I am being a bit petty. Alexander Maksik is clearly an ambitious writer and probably destined for a brilliant career. And I did enjoy the book. And he is male. I had more admiration for young Marie than I did for Will Silver with his clay feet. Now there is a down-to-earth French woman for you. Moral ambiguity? Not something French women indulge in.

(You Deserve Nothing is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Wench, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Amistad, 2010, 290 pp

The provocative title would not necessarily have convinced me to read this novel but it was a reading group pick. The eponymous wenches are four slave women in the mid 1800s whose masters bring them on vacation each summer.

Outside Cincinnati, OH, a resort caters to men who enjoy hunting. Both slave-owning Southerners and abolitionist Northerners coexist in uneasy detachment, with the Southerners and the wenches eschewing the hotel for a group of cabins.

When the men go off hunting, often for days at a time, the slave women gather and talk things over. Each of the four is from a different plantation but they have come to know each other over several summers.

A Quaker woman who lives back in the woods with her husband, provides fresh vegetables to the hotel. Her cabin is a stop on the Underground Railroad, so she becomes a source of fascination for the wenches. They begin to steal away for visits to the cabin where they dream of freedom.

I couldn't stop comparing this book to Beloved, because of the location and the subject matter. Though this story draws on the complex fears, attachments and sufferings of the women, it does not begin to wield the power of Toni Morrison's book.

The deepest meanings in Wench came from an examination of the ties these women had with their children who, being fathered by their white masters, lived a precarious existence. Should the plantation wives take up against these offspring, they could be sold away, but the master could also decide to educate a son giving him a chance in life. The daughters of course were doomed to follow in their mother's footsteps.

The decisions these women made about freedom, about their children, and the consequences thereof, provide the tension in the novel. The story gives another look at slavery and the damage done to families because of it.

(Wench is available in paperback and hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available by order as a e-book.)

Thursday, October 06, 2011


Dear Readers,

I will be on vacation for a week. Free from the internet! See you soon.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011


The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Robert Taylor Lewis, Doubleday & Company, 1958, 535 pp

I really didn't feel the need for another novel about the Gold Rush, but I was surprised and impressed by the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1959. It is full of the usual hardships and pitfalls of westward travel in the 1800s: Indians, lawless villains, weather and death. Unique for this sort of tale is the humor.

Jaimie McPheeters is the son of a reluctant medical doctor from Louisville, Kentucky; a man who would rather gamble and dream of great adventures. The story is told from Jaimie's 14 year old point of view interspersed with his father's bombastic letters back to his wife. Between the two voices you get a full picture of their adventures. Jaimie, in his impulsive youthful way, lands himself in trouble and danger over and over. He is a gambler with his own person. But he has no illusions about his father and as he matures he finds it ever more difficult to maintain his belief in the man.

When they finally reach the gold fields they experience the disillusionment you know is coming and go through even harder times. Since they made a group of true friends during their trek, something like a community keeps Jaimie afloat as his father loses the battle with his addictions. The characters in this novel are wonderful.

In the end I felt enriched for having made my way through what amounts to a reading journey. I came to see that some events in history are so vast, so varied, that it takes hundreds of stories to fully cover them.

(The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Prospero Lost, L Jagi Lamplighter, Tom Doherty Associates, 2009, 347 pp

L Jagi Lamplighter spent 15 years writing, re-writing and revising her Prospero's Daughter Trilogy before this first volume was published in 2009. Other compelling data include her history as a roleplaying gamer and the novel's roots in a game she was involved with in the early 1990s. All of this can be perused on her website. It also explains the slightly dated feeling of the novel.

During those 15 years I was reading and completely enjoying a type of novel that has elements of fantasy or non-reality while it crosses boundaries between science fiction, fantasy and mainstream fiction. (See list of examples at the end of this post.) Only when I was introduced to Prospero Lost did I learn that such novels belong to a genre called "slipstream," coined by sci fi writer Bruce Sterling.

I have had some difficulty writing about Prospero Lost because it does not in all ways measure up to some of these other "slipstream" novels while at the same time it surpasses the wonders of them. One more sentence in this distressingly long prologue: Having a familiarity with Shakespeare's The Tempest enhanced my enjoyment while reading Prospero Lost, but unless you are a hopeless nerd like me it is not required reading.

Prospero Lost introduces Miranda some 500 years after the time of The Tempest. She has been the CEO of Prospero, Inc for many years. Prospero created the company long ago by means of contracts with the Airie Ones (think Ariel in the play) with the purpose of using magic to keep natural disasters at bay and ensure the safety of petroleum and electricity when in human hands.

In The Tempest, Miranda's mother died in childbirth. Since then, Prospero remarried and had seven sons and one daughter. Over the centuries the second wife passed away and the family had disintegrated due to these siblings going off in different directions, taking with them magical gifts from their father and leaving only Miranda to keep Prospero, Inc running. Prospero himself has been up to other secret projects. When Miranda receives a cryptic cry for help from Prospero, she attempts to gather the family back together and give them Propero's warning of impending doom.

Full of conflicting desires, Miranda is hard to pin down as a character. For one thing, she is kept perpetually young and beautiful by a magical water from the end of the world, yet when working for Prospero, Inc she acts like a seasoned executive. She is committed to Eurynome, a Goddess affectionately known as The Lady, who provides guidance in matters both temporal and spiritual. Miranda also has two love interests: Ferdinand, to whom she was engaged at the end of The Tempest, and Astreus, an elf. Her unreasoning loyalty to Prospero compels her to put his demands above all else.

I liked best the overall idea that magic and supernatural entities are at work in the world, unbeknownst to humans. I also found the centuries long history of the Prospero family entertaining and sometimes thrilling. I was not so enamored of the plotting. I suppose that continuous battles with evil enemies are a necessary element in the fantasy genre, but I found them boring after a while, especially since Miranda's immortality means that she can't ever truly lose.

Due to her publisher's wishes, the author broke her 1000+ page tale into a trilogy, so by the end of Prospero Lost, Miranda has found only half of her siblings and is not one whit closer to finding Prospero. But a gift from Atreus, the passionate elf, has put into reach the attainment of her deepest desire. Since that desire is in direct opposition to the foundations of Prospero, Inc, Lamplighter leaves the reader hanging by a cliff. Will magic save the world or destroy it?


Little, Big, John Crowley
A Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
The Thin Place, Kathryn Davis
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Marcia Marquez
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

(Prospero Lost is available in paperback, hardcover and e-book by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, October 02, 2011


Texas Tomboy, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1950, 180 pp


Charlotte, who prefers to be called Charlie, is an eight-year-old growing up on a Texas cattle ranch. She loves to ride out with her father everyday and help him with ranch duties. She has no interest in wearing dresses, helping her mother in the house, or going to school. She memorizes a poem only so her uncle will get her a horse. She is the Texas Tomboy.

Texas is in the third year of a drought. Not a drop of rain has fallen, the cattle are dying of thirst and hunger, and Charlie's ranch is in danger. For her mother, ranching is too hard and stark. She longs to move into town and tries in vain to get Charlie to act like a girl.

I liked this story as much as my other well-loved Lenski books, because Charlie is one of the most complex characters yet. Her stubborn determination is looked upon as selfishness by her mother and older sister, but her dad encourages her to becomes a ranch woman. His only son, the youngest in the family, is not a sturdy lad and is a bit of a mama's boy.

Because of their war with nature and the hardships, Charlie grows up fast and learns to understand the people around her but she never loses her sense of who she is and what she wants. As it turns out, the mother is the selfish one but she learns her own lessons.

Good stuff. I wish I had read this one when I was growing up.

(Texas Tomboy, like all of Lois Lenski Regional Series, is out of print and best found in libraries with a good children's section.)