Tuesday, December 24, 2013



As of tomorrow, I am taking the rest of December off from blogging. I am just going to read. Yes, a reading vacation. Can' think of a better kind.

Thank you to all of you from around the world who visit and read my blog. I do not make any income from this blog unless you count the free books I get from publishers who want me to review them. I look at it as my service to literature and writers and readers. The only thing I could ask for in return is more comments, especially if you have read the books I review and would like to share your reading experience. If you have trouble posting a comment please let me know. My email address can be found in the profile section.

I will be back on or about New Year's Day with my top favorites list, the reading group update and more reviews. Meanwhile here are some suggestions of books that approach Christmas from many different viewpoints. They are all books I have read and enjoyed.

Wishing you a happy and non-stressful Holiday Week with lots of good reading!!

There are three holiday stories in this collection: two about Christmas and one about Thanksgiving. It is all autobiographical and gives us insight into Capote and the childhood that strongly influenced him. The writing is exquisite.

"In 'The Sister of the Angels,' Elizabeth Goudge takes us back to the City of Bells, and tells an enchanting story about Henrietta, a young girl in love with every nook and cranny of her grandfather's cathedral. This is a perfect story for the holiday season, and, because of its peace and charm, a book to cherish all the year round." (Publisher's blurb)
Henrietta is an orphan adopted by a minister and his wife, a charming but realistic child. The novel has the theme of someone returning from an earlier life to finish what was left unfinished. 

Owen Meany is one of the most amazing characters I have run across in a book. When I read books like this, I feel so ordinary. Actually, I know I am not, but I don't even know people with this much depth. It makes me feel like trying to be normal is a ridiculous pursuit.

The main point of the novel is that the human spirit has nothing to do with environment. Some fulfill their destiny no matter what the circumstances. The section with the Christmas pageant is moving beyond belief.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


Guilty or Not, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2013, 222 pp

Full disclosure: Alice Zogg has been a friend of mine for almost a decade. We have been in a writers group together and a reading group. During that time she has written and self-published a mystery novel every year. I have read all but the first one and reviewed most of them here on Keep The Wisdom.

Guilty or Not is the ninth mystery in her R A Huber series. I had not been a mystery reader before I met Alice but because of her I now read mysteries regularly, becoming ever more familiar with the genre. Meanwhile Alice, who taught herself to write mysteries just because she wanted to, has been honing her craft. The new one is her best yet.

R A Huber, first name Regula, is a retired woman who reinvented herself as a private investigator. This time she has been hired by a young man to find a murderer. Jonathan's friend Rachel, about to stand trial for the murder of her fiance, is innocent in his eyes.

In a race for time, Huber must sort through the family secrets of the dead man, a fellow who was highly successful in business but incapable of being faithful to one woman. Rachel, whose heart is broken, is strangely passive about the whole thing.

From Italian restaurants to a luxury home in Pasadena, CA; from a CEO's boardroom to an Alaskan cruise ship, R A Huber tracks the real culprit, using her superior intellect to sort through the evidence. As usual, she forgets to protect her own safety.

In a dramatic eleventh hour courtroom scene, she manages to save Rachel from life without parole and live to solve another crime.

But the biggest surprise of all to me is the news from Alice. She has told me that this may be the last of her R A Huber series because she has plans for a whole new direction in her next book. Having watched and read her for so long, I am confident I will be reviewing that next one in about a year.

(Guilty or Not is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 19, 2013


Horseman, Pass By, Larry McMurtry, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1961, 179 pp

I've read Larry McMurtry over the years, mostly the famous ones, and have always liked his romantic cowboys and quirky females. Horseman, Pass By was his first published novel. Two years later it was adapted into the movie Hud starring Paul Newman. I remember that movie but it changed the book in a couple radical ways.

Horseman, Pass By, at 179 pages, is just barely a novel. Lonnie Bannon, raised by his grandfather on a West Texas cattle ranch, is coming of age. Hud is his stepbrother, son of the grandfather's second wife. In the novel he is a somewhat background character, someone whom Lonnie watches, just as he watches everyone else-his grandfather, the ranch hands, his buddies in town and Halmea, the black housekeeper/cook. Halmea fuels Lonnie's sexual fantasies while also being a mother substitute. (In the movie, this character is white and has a different name.) 

It's a great little book with a stoic old rancher, a disastrous cattle disease, and Hud's attempts to inherit the ranch. Seen through the eyes of a teenage boy who idolizes his grandfather but has been left to figure out life pretty much on his own, the story throbs with Texas-style adolescent angst.

I was prepared for a throw away first novel. Instead I got a little masterpiece containing all of McMurtry's virtues as a writer without the sentimental excesses he got into later. I am going to watch Hud again but I bet I'll end up liking the book more than the movie.

(Horseman, Pass By is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, December 16, 2013


The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster, Yearling, 1961, 256 pp

(posted on Monday, somehow Sunday got away from me)
Though this fantasy classic was published in 1961 and meant for children, by 1961 I was starting high school. Trying to wend my way through boys, popular girls, and Latin class; trying desperately and hopelessly to shed my nerdy image, I was mostly reading Seventeen magazine. In fact, I had never heard of The Phantom Tollbooth until I read Lev Grossman's The Magicians a few years ago.

When I worked at Once Upon A Time Bookstore, I would restock the Yearling paperback reissue on the shelf almost weekly it seemed and be drawn to the intense blue cover and the dog with a clock embedded in his side. Finally it came up on the 1961 list of My Big Fat Reading Project and I read it.

Lev Grossman has talked in interviews about his fascination with portals. The phantom tollbooth is a portal, like the wardrobe, the fractional train platform, and the amulet. But the book itself is riddled with something I love even more than portals: words, word play, plays on words.

Milo, the hero, is a bored and lazy boy who finds most things a waste of time, the process of seeking knowledge being the greatest. Once Milo passes through the tollbooth, driving a little sort of Smart car, he travels over the Foothills of Confusion to the city of Dictionopolis, acquires Tock the ticking watch dog, takes on a quest to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason from the Mountains of Ignorance and becomes a literate person.

I would have loved this book in 6th grade. Alas it was published two years later. Reading it now, I had no fond memories to look back on and its "lessons" were too obvious for me. I would have giggled about jumping to the Island of Conclusions,  encountering the Gross Exaggeration, and the Threadbare Excuse.

The saddest thing of all is thinking about what children to whom I could recommend The Phantom Tollbooth today. Except for the most nerdy middle grade bookworms with advanced vocabularies, I fear it would just go over the heads of most contemporary children.

(The Phantom Tollbooth is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and ebook by order.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013


The Casual Vacancy, J K Rowling, Little Brown and Company, 2012, 503pp

I did not find J K Rowling's first novel for adults as impressive as I did her second, The Cuckoo's Calling. But I did like it and appreciate what she addressed in the story.

For My Big Fat Reading Project I read a non-fiction book by Vance Packard entitled The Status Seekers, 1959. One of the points he made about the United States was that we are not a classless society despite our democratic view of ourselves. Neither is Great Britain, though they have a much longer history of class consciousness. Rowling pointed up the wide gap between those with money and those without in her fictional little town of Pagford and she did it well.

I was prepared for the large array of characters from reviews I had read, so I did what I usually do in that case: made a list of characters as I read. It helped a great deal and by about 40 pages in I was tracking with all of them.

Once the story got going I was fully engaged with all those characters and wanted to know what would happen to them. The second half flew by and her narrative climax worked for me. The unfortunate got what you would expect and the rich bad guys got what they deserved.

Maybe because she wrote for kids, has kids, and followed four kids through 10 years of their lives in the Harry Potter series, she has got kids and teen down. The teens were the most interesting people in the story and the most convincing.

Lest any negative or snarky reviews put you off, I hereby declare that the woman can write. I can't imagine what the pressures of fame and fortune must be like for her but those pressures have not diminished her drive to do what she loves. I admire her and will read whatever she creates.

(The Casual Vacancy is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce, Random House, 2012, 320 pp

I was surprised that I liked this unlikely novel as much as I did. I am not a crier so I give Rachel Joyce plenty of credit for making me cry so many times. I could have felt manipulated I suppose, but I didn't.

Harold Fry had so much misfortune in his life. The few good things that happened to him were not enough to make up for the bad stuff. When he decides to make his long walk of more than 600 miles to repay an obligation to one of the two good people in his life, he is able to get outside of himself enough to gain some perspective. Walking will do that.

I read the book for a reading group discussion. A close friend who is also in this group disliked the novel completely, wondering why Harold didn't just drive to see his old friend and get there in a few hours. Others found the pacing of the story problematical.

Having recently read Wild by Cheryl Strayed, I was willing to believe that walking was an essential element. I did not mind the slow and fractured revelations of Harold's misfortunes. In fact, it was the juxtaposition of the walking pace with the drama of his life that kept the story from plodding.

I have never read Pilgrim's Progress except for a few pages many years ago which bored me to insensibility, but the title, the events of Harold's pilgrimage and a quote from John Bunyan at the beginning, made me compare the two while reading. The author has said that Pilgrim's Progress was not a conscious model for her except in that Harold is an ordinary guy, an everyman.

In any case, I liked the walk. I was impressed by the ways that Harold's encounters with strangers opened his eyes to what actually makes up life. I wasn't sure about the final scenes between Harold and his wife.

Probably the story works best for older women than anyone else. Its main emotional theme is regret, a feeling more prevalent in later life than when one is young. At least for me, it was Harold's consuming regrets that made me cry. That he became free of his regrets made me cry too. By the end, I decided to let my own regrets go, so thank you to Rachel Joyce for that.

(The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, December 07, 2013


Hild, Nicola Griffith, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2013, 536 pp

I have spent the last four days in seventh century Britain so fully engrossed in its brutal and beautiful world that sitting down at my computer feels like I have come back to the future.

Saint Hilda of Whitby, daughter of a Northumbrian prince, grew up to become an Abbess, a trainer of bishops for the growing Christian church in Britain, and a consultant to kings and princes, but except for a brief mention in The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, aka the Father of English History, the details of her early life are scant.

Nicola Griffith, award-winning author of science fiction and mystery novels, grew up in Yorkshire, on the coast of Great Britain, formerly part of Northumbria. In 2008 she set out to write a historical novel based there. She now lives in Seattle but says, "I'm the product of two thousand years of history." She has been visiting Whitby at least once a year for about 30 years and researching the time period corresponding to Hild's first twenty years for over a decade. The result is her fictional creation of what might have been the young life of Hild.

Like many dedicated readers of fiction, I have long been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur. It wasn't until I read The Mists of Avalon in 1988 that I realized what I wanted to know about was the transition from the old pagan mysteries to the Roman religion based on Jesus Christ. At least in the Western world, it was an insidious transformation from a more balanced male/female culture to the partriarchal template under which we still live.

Hild, who lived a century after Arthur, was born a "pagan" under the Anglo-Saxon deity Woden yet became a Christian saint. Her mother called her "the light of the world." In Nicola Griffith's imagination she becomes a girl of preternatural intelligence, strong willed, observant, able to see the patterns in natural life and in human relations both personal and political.

She is one of those characters balanced on the bleeding edge between the male and female principles, between knowledge and intuition. She learns to read, she is brave, knows how to wield a knife, and does not shrink from violence. Yet she loves both men and women with a full heart. She is pushed into the role of the King's seer by her wily and ambitious mother and uses that position to keep those she loves safe in a treacherous and bloodthirsty world.

How could I not become completely entangled with her fate? She holds her own amongst many of my favorite heroes and heroines: from Ayla of Clan of the Cave Bear to Morgaine of The Mists of Avalon to Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall to Killashandra Ree of The Crystal Singer Trilogy and many more.

A word to the skeptical: The book is long. It moves at the pace of Medieval life, with the seasons and long periods of daily drudgery broken by feasting and sudden outbursts of war. It vacillates between the contemplative inner life of Hild and her feats of strength. Like most courts in these locations, they move from place to place on a regular basis and these locations, as well as the characters, are named in the Old English style, which can become confusing. A list of characters, a glossary and old maps are helpful.

But as expected from a speculative fiction writer, Nicola Griffith is a master of world building and she employs her vast research only in service of the story. Her writing is poetic and tuneful, like lyrics to a song. Either one likes this sort of thing or one doesn't and the author does not hold your hand. You must work for your reading pleasure just as the characters must work everyday to ensure their survival, but it is all leavened with wry humor, sex, and plenty of beer and mead.

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

Thursday, December 05, 2013


The Light in the Ruins, Chris Bohjalian, Doubleday, 2013, 309 pp

Sometimes, well actually often, I come across coincidences in my reading. This time it was a back to back occurrence. I finished Daughter of Silence published in 1961, then read The Last Man Standing, followed immediately by The Light in the Ruins. All three novels are set in the Tuscany region of Italy. The first and the third concern murders committed as revenge with a taint of vendetta and roots buried in World War II; the middle one is set in the future. It was like spending a century in Tuscany.

The Last Man Standing was the most impressive of the three. Where Daughter of Silence was overly wordy, The Light in the Ruins featured smooth, easy prose and told a better story but though I was kept guessing about who committed the murders, it was too simply written. Neither one was strong on characterization. Picky, I know. I sound like a judge on American Idol.

Thanks to a comment on my review of Daughter of Silence, I have learned that I have better books by Morris L West to look forward to. The Light in the Ruins was the first book I've read by Chris Bohjalian. At this point I would read him again if I was stuck somewhere without any books but ones written by him. Unless someone can recommend a better book by Bohjalian I am moving on.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


The Last Man Standing, Davide Longo, MacLehose Press, (translated from Italian by Silvester Mazzarella), 2013, 256 pp

This month I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing this post-apocalyptic novel by Italian author Davide Longo. Interesting that I read it between two other books set in Italy, Daughter of Silence by Morris L West (published in 1961) and The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian (published in 2013 and to be reviewed here on this blog in the next few days.) Reading a book by an author who actually lives there was a fitting antidote to what I found lacking in the other two novels. Reading a post-apocalyptic story set somewhere besides the United States gave me a fascinating look at the different ways a societal breakdown could affect a different culture.

My review of The Last Man Standing was written for BookBrowse, so I am under an agreement to them to direct readers of this blog to their site to peruse the review. Normally you would need to be a subscriber to read it but from today until Sunday, December 8, you can read it on the homepage as part of the Editor's Choice feature.

My review begins thus:
In The Last Man Standing, Italian author Davide Longo's first novel to be translated into English, a double apocalypse transforms a literary author into a hero when his country deteriorates into anarchy after an economic collapse. Leonardo has trashed his career and his family and retreated to the village of his birth. As Italy descends into chaos with fuel, food, and services getting more scarce month by month, he sits in a room full of thousands of books waiting for things to improve...
Read the rest here.

(The Last Man Standing is available in hardcover and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 29, 2013



The above is a motto of independent bookstores but also describes my holiday so far. I haven't had to cook much but food is plentiful, oh my.

Today is a magical day, being the birth date of three incredible authors.

Louisa May Alcott, 1832. I used to know the first page of Little Women by heart because I read it so many times. It was the first book that made me want to write a novel someday. Still working on that. LOL!

C S Lewis, 1898. I also read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe over and over, but my favorite book of his was Till We Have Faces.

Madeleine L'Engle, 1918. A Wrinkle in Time made her famous but her early novels are special and unique for their insight into creative females coming of age, especially The Small Rain.

It is a nice rainy morning in LA and I am reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catheyanne M Valente. Have to do something besides eat!

Are you reading or just eating?

Sunday, November 24, 2013


John Steinbeck, Writer, Jackson J Benson, The Viking Press, 1984, 1041 pp

I like to read biographies of authors I admire. Usually I read the author's novels first and then the biography but in this case I read the biography of John Steinbeck as I read the novels. It worked out well because Jackson Benson wrote about Steinbeck's writing of each book and what was going on in his life as he wrote. I found it reassuring to learn about the agonies he went through as he wrote, the self doubt, the difficulty in settling down to write. I have similar problems, the difference being that he finished and published many novels.

Because of My Big Fat Reading Project, I started reading Steinbeck in 2003 with The Grapes of Wrath which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. I've been reading this life of Steinbeck for 10 years! Of course since the man lived for 66 years, I read it in one-sixth of the time it took him to live his life. 

The original title of the 1984 hardcover Viking edition was The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer. It makes him sound like a cartoon superhero. In fact, though he was not looking for fame or fortune, the man always pursued adventure and travel. He had a strong interest in heroic deeds.

Since Benson already wrote over 1000 pages, I don't need to write more paragraphs except to say it was wonderful to get such a full picture of an author whose novels I have loved. He was a complex, tempestuous person who married three times and had an unhappy relationship with his kids but kept the same literary agent and publisher for his entire career. Despite his interpersonal issues, he cared passionately for people, justice, and his country.

I always manage to forget the subject of a biography will die at the end. When Steinbeck died, I cried. Thanks to Jackson J Benson's hard work and sympathetic understanding, I almost felt I had known John Steinbeck.

(John Steinbeck, Writer is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


Daughter of Silence, Morris L West, Dell Publishing, 1961, 243 pp

I didn't like this one. It was the #8 bestseller in 1961 and is the story of a murder trial in Tuscany written by a popular Australian author. The characters all have troubled personalities. Two psychiatrists involved in the trial spout lots of Freudian analysis. The writing is turgid and I could see the climax coming long before it happened.

To make the legal angle more exciting, the author introduces the ancient Italian practice of vendetta. That was interesting to a point but because West is not Italian, it all feels like an outsider and a spectator trying to make sense of people and traditions he does not truly understand.

The female characters are ridiculous: the murderer (a woman) is deeply crazy due to childhood trauma, the lawyer's wife is compulsively promiscuous, while a young painter is wise and compassionate beyond her years. Standard bestseller types who still show up in current novels such as Gone Girl.

I call this kind of book "bestseller bullshit" though some authors, such as Harold Robbins with The Carpetbaggers, are so good at it they at least entertain the reader.

(Daughter of Silence is out of print. It is best found in libraries or through used book sellers.)

Friday, November 15, 2013


The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt, Little Brown and Company, 2013, 771 pp

This extraordinary novel will definitely go on my top favorite books list for 2013. Despite its length I read it in four days, each day reading more pages than the day before and staying up later than the night before.

I finally read The Secret History two years ago at the insistence of a reader friend. My experience was mixed and it was one of those books I liked better after I finished it than I did while reading it.

The Goldfinch grabbed me right away. I had obligations in life during those four days but all I wanted to do was read about Theo Decker. First he was deserted by his father, then he lost his mother in a terrible explosion in a New York City art museum, and then one thing after another happened until he finally got some semblance of control over his life. What Donna Tartt does with this plot pretty much defies description though hundreds of reviewers and bloggers have tried.


1. The character of Theo; thoroughly modern but so Dickensian.
2. His functionally alcoholic Russian friend Boris. Frenemy?
3. The thing Theo did while still in shock from the explosion that he then had to keep to himself, making his life a misery. (Now that I think of it, The Secret History had a similar theme but Tartt takes it to a whole new level.)
4. Theo's hopeless love for Pippa.
5. The way Hobart and Blackwell was a portal to another world for Theo.
6. The author's deft and compassionate portrayal of PTSD. I have not seen it done better.
7. The seamless melding of a coming-of-age tale, a love story, a thriller, and an apologia for art, with the philosophy of life Theo settles on at the end.

I was going for a Top Ten List but by the time I got to #7, I had said all I wanted to say.

Of course not all novels can be this great though I wish more of them were.

(The Goldfinch is currently available on the shelf in hardcover at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an eBook by order.)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I am a little bit late this month. I am running behind on everything it seems. I hope I am not late for New Year's Day!

The New Book Club:

Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group:

One Book At A Time:

Bookie Babes:

What are your reading groups reading in November?

I would also love to see comments on books that provoked good discussions.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller, Grove Press, 1961, 318 pp

This book was published in something like 1934 in France and was instantly banned everywhere else. It was called immoral and smutty and indeed I first read it while at a babysitting job in the 1960s during my ongoing search for the truth about sex.

Beginning with Nabokov's Lolita and D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, the famous obscenity trials of the 1950s brought such books into legitimate print in the United States. Many of them became overnight bestsellers. Tropic of Cancer was the #6 bestseller in 1961.

I suppose you could say that these books started the sexual revolution. They certainly did for me. Raised in a German Lutheran family under the thumb of guilt, trying to be "good" and fascinated with being "bad," they led me down the treacherous path of "personal freedom."

When I read Tropic of Cancer in my teens I was thrilled to learn all the dirty words and to discover that some people had sex whenever they felt like it and just because they wanted to. Somehow it was lost on me that Henry Miller was a guy while I was a girl. Even today, despite Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, and all my other spiritual sisters in crime, women and personal freedom, women and sex, women and just about anything else you can think of is still a long work in progress.

Reading Miller now in my mid 60s, I saw that he was even more dangerous than the old Puritan hierarchy ever dreamed. (Or maybe they knew?) His auto-biographical fiction was a big fuck you to the repressive control of progress, materialism, money-grubbing, and even, if I may be so bold, to the imperialist vision of the Western white man's world where if everyone just agreed with big cars, Coca Cola, and democracy, we would have utopia (translation: world domination) across the earth.

Basically the man was an anarchist; not the angry, destructive kind but the happy, optimistic kind. So OK, I am now old enough to know that life is various and complicated, that easy answers are not available. But wow, it sure was bracing to read his propulsive, all-caution-to-the-wind, song of himself. Even when he was hungry, cold, and broke on the streets of Paris, you get the feeling the kid's alright.

He lived almost 88 years!

(Tropic of Cancer is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 08, 2013


The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1961, 281 pp

This is the last one of John Steinbeck's novels, published the year before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. I have now read all of his novels in order of publication from The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, forward. Someday I will go back and read his earlier novels but for the purposes of My Big Fat Reading Project I am done with Steinbeck.

With the exception of The Pearl, I have quite liked and sometimes loved these novels. Steinbeck, during his lifetime, was plagued by dismissive if not downright hostile reviews from the East Coast literary establishment. Yet his books sold well and often appeared on bestseller lists. This one was the #10 bestseller of 1961. 

I find him unpretentious and even humorous at times. He is the Woody Guthrie of American literature, taking up for the common man and the struggles with virtue faced in lives of under privilege.

Steinbeck was largely self-educated, brought up by his father on Shakespeare. The title of The Winter of Our Discontent is a quotation from the first line of Shakespeare's Richard III. The novel's protagonist, Ethan Allen Hawley, is the descendant of a prosperous family whose fortunes were made in the days of seafaring and whale oil. 

But the last of that fortune was squandered by Ethan's father in one ill-advised investment. All that is left is the family home where Ethan lives in genteel poverty with his beloved wife and two children. He works as a clerk in Bay Hampton's grocery store, owned by an Italian immigrant. 

Though Ethan knows his wife would like a higher standard of living so she could hold her head up more proudly in the town, that his kids would like to keep up with other kids at school, he is not himself ambitious. One Good Friday morning he undergoes a sudden change of heart and determines to redirect his economic future by engaging in the dubious practices that currently pass as "getting ahead" in late 1950s American life.

He is not unintelligent nor is he a coward. By availing himself of the political and economic facts from his banker, he betrays his best friend and cooks up a foolproof scheme to restore his rightful place in Bay Hampton.

The 1950s and 1960s were littered with novels about the soul-crushing effects of working for money and status, e.g. the bestselling The Man With the Gray Flannel Suit; the literary Revolutionary Road. Steinbeck comes at the theme as only he could with his gimlet eye of truth, the sensibility of a man who truly loved his wife, the empathy earned by having himself acquired fame and fortune but not happiness.

As he said in a letter to his agent in 1957, "I think it is true that any man, novelist or not, when he comes to maturity has a very deep sense that he will not win the quest. He knows his failings, his shortcomings and particularly his memories of sins, sins of cruelty, of thoughtlessness, of disloyalty, of adultery, and these will not permit him to win..."

In this mood, he wrote The Winter of Our Discontent.

(The Winter of Our Discontent is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 06, 2013


At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcon, Riverhead Books, 2013, 372 pp

When I read Daniel Alarcon's first novel, I knew I had found a writer I would follow, that I would read every novel he would write. It has been a long wait, five and a half years to be exact, since I read the last page of Lost City Radio.

His new novel is similar in location, an unnamed South American country, but later in time. The civil war that had displaced and separated so many people in the first book has been over for almost a decade and the evidences of war have been built over until the capital city resembles a late 20th century peaceful and upwardly mobile urban area.

Thus the revolutionary tone of upheaval, chaos, and sacrifice that permeates the earlier novel is missing. Alarcon still excels in creating tortured characters longing for people they will not connect with and ideals they will not achieve but he is forced to tell the story from such a different angle.  For the first half of At Night We Walk in Circles, I thought I might be reading a different author.

Nelson grew up during the war, called "the anxious years" by his father. A few years after the war ended, Nelson entered the Conservatory, apparently a theater school. The young man became obsessed with Henry Nunez, playwright and leader of the revolutionary guerrilla theater troupe Deciembre. Though he is an inexperienced and mediocre actor, his hero worship lands him a role in the touring revival of Nunez's notorious play The Idiot President. During the war years a performance of this play had resulted in Henry being accused of terrorism and sentenced to spend several years in a dreaded prison known as the Collectors.

Nelson sets off with Henry and another actor, traveling deep into the interior, learning the acting craft from Henry as they put on performances in town squares, school auditoriums, private homes and vacant lots. By this time the novel is almost half over and it is hard to tell what is the point of all of Nelson's insecure, anguished approach to life. In fact, Henry's past had become central to the story: his arrest, his prison years. and his broken spirit since returning to the outside.

Suddenly a convergence of past and present propels Nelson into an impossible situation leaving him trapped in a desolate mountain village. All the earlier pages have been the set up to Nelson's fate. Despite my love for Lost City Radio and my admiration for Alarcon's writing, I had come to that middle point of the novel feeling lost, bored, and let down. Partly due to Nelson's maddeningly indecisive and withdrawn personality and equally due to a slow pace and no apparent plot, I seriously considered reading something else.

I turned the next page and all had changed. Nelson was clearly doomed but where his fate was leading him and how the past and present were tangled and what Alarcon is telling us about identity, character, imagination, and about the intersections between the political and the personal, became the most interesting things in my world.

In addition to the problematic construction of his story, it turns out that the narrator is not the author but a mysterious character whose identity is finally revealed after that sudden change in the middle. I was pleased that Alarcon rescued me and left me somewhat awestruck by the end. Over time, I have a feeling my memory of reading At Night We Walk in Circles will be a fond one. Walking in circles at night in the prison yard with his fellow inmates was Henry's antidote for the horrors of his confinement there. Reading this novel evoked a similar feeling.

(At Night We Walk in Circles is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 03, 2013


Broken Harbor, Tana French, Penguin Group, 2012, 447 pp

As of this, her fourth novel, Tana French is officially on my list of favorite authors. She is brilliant at combining mystery, police procedural, and psychological insight while setting her stories in the lives and people of 21st century Ireland. Her writing is literary and her characters seem to breath on you while you read.

Broken Harbor, of all her novels, owes the most to current events. When the Celtic Tiger went off into the wilderness of European Union economic collapse to die a sad and terrible death, Ireland was hit hard in the building, new housing, and real estate market. 

Broken Harbor had been a rustic, seaside area but was renamed Brianstown during the boom and built up into a suburban estate with an ocean view. Now it has become a ghost community of abandoned half-finished homes where the few remaining families live with sewage problems and no street lights in crumbling homes they can no longer afford miles away from family and friends. It is a perfect modern gothic setting.

A big case hits the Dublin Murder Squad. Pat Spain and two small children living in Brianstown are found murdered; his wife severely injured and at the point of death. The case goes to Detective "Scorcher" Kennedy, ambitious but middle-aged and eager to recover his position of the highest rate of solves on the squad. Tana French develops many layers in the intersection between Kennedy and the family as she explores her timeless theme of the ways a buried past can return to haunt a person.

Kennedy spent summers in Broken Harbor as a child. It was there that his mother committed suicide after which his little sister became mentally unstable. He has assembled a persona and approach to life meant to overcome and put order into his tragic childhood. Though he is brusque and opinionated, he is used to being in control at work and in his personal life.

Jenny Spain married her teenage sweetheart and when he became successful, they moved to Brianstown intending to live the modern middle class dream. Jenny was also someone accustomed to being in full control of her life but when Pat loses his job it all deteriorates. Now she lies in the hospital unable or unwilling to talk. She is Kennedy's only living witness to the murders.

I read this immediately after finishing Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois. Again the use of cell phone records and evidence from Pat Spain's internet searches and on-line chats fueled the investigation though here the murderer is found and the motive made clear. Kennedy gets his solve by the end but the cost is brutal. This is one of the best descent into madness tales I've read, especially because more than one character walks down that slippery slope.

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Cartwheel, Jennifer duBois, Random House Inc, 2013, 326 pp

Right up front I have to say that I did not like this as much as her first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes. I had signed up to discuss Cartwheel as part of an on-line book discussion so possibly I pushed myself to read it at a time not ideal for me. I felt annoyed while reading it.

I think that generally fictionalized accounts of real life events are not my favorite novels. Some are better than others but I can usually feel a certain constraint affecting authors I otherwise enjoy. Cartwheel is "loosely inspired" by the story of Amanda Knox, an exchange student in Italy accused of murdering her roommate. I knew nothing about Amanda Knox, but in this story of an exchange student in Argentina arrested for the murder of her roommate, I missed the emotional impact of Ms duBois's astounding first novel.

I suspect however that my annoyance stemmed from the pervasive influence of the tabloid press, social networking, and the current practice of police being able to subpoena the cell phone and internet data of an accused criminal. All of these factors now carry much more weight than ever before in a criminal investigation. Being confronted with this makes me want to never send another text or email, never post another blog and go off Facebook. It just creeps me out to the max.

I found myself desperate to know for sure whether or not Lily killed her roommate, but it was not made clear and I was unable to decide for myself. In fact, I could not decide much about any of the main characters.

I get it that really knowing another person is nearly impossible. I am aware that we all see other people through our own perceptions. Heck, sometimes I feel I don't really know the people closest to me. Lately I can't figure out how I feel about President Obama. I admit that Jennifer duBois made me look at these upsetting truths about life and that made me mad.

I recognized the skill by which she created this disturbing mess of human weakness and probable injustice. Yes, Lily Hayes was naive and careless, unable to see the consequences of her actions. But aren't we all like that to a degree? And how can anyone live if we must be so careful and savvy about the world to avoid ruining our lives irreparably? I was left feeling that life itself is a lost cause.

This author really got to me in both of her novels. The first time, I loved it. This time I almost hated it.

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

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Thinner Than Skin, Uzma Aslam Khan, Clockroot Books, 2012, 299 pp

There are plenty of ways to get and be lost in this world. Because I have a poor sense of direction, I get lost easily. Because I am drawn to novels by authors from locations and cultures distinct from my own, I often feel lost while I am reading. The impact on me from Uzma Aslam Kahn's fourth novel was a vertigo of feeling lost, afraid, and anxious.

Thinner Than Skin opens with the meditation on her former life by a woman making the yearly journey from the plains to the highlands of summer. Maryam walks along the shore of a lake with her daughter, a mare, a filly, three buffaloes, four goats, and numerous sheep. Two mountain peaks, mist, and a wind that carries a sense of foreboding. Maryam has a vision of a strange man. Where is she? I do not know. Already in the first three pages I am lost as well as filled with Maryam's foreboding.

I read on and meet Nadir and his girlfriend Farhana, sleeping in a cabin in a place called Kaghan. Finally I find out they are in Northern Pakistan, having traveled from San Francisco. Both are of Pakistani descent, their relationship is as rocky as a steep mountainside, and by the end of that chapter I know they are both doomed in some way because of their youth and self-involvement. Despite education and a certain amount of privilege, they are essentially clueless.

I get to the end of the novel. I have been all over a part of the world so foreign to me that even a map showing Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikstan as they relate to Afghanistan and Pakistan makes me feel lost. The distance between Nadir and Maryam, in worldview, in emotional response, in human interaction, is so vast that though they are both Pakistani and human, they may as well be alien species to each other.

After a terrible fatal accident for which Nadir and Farhana are responsible, the forces of tribal custom, terrorism, and nature pursue these two across a glacier, across a culture, to an outcome even more doomed than I had foreseen at the beginning.

Then comes the ending where the author leaves me, lost in Nadir's mind but found in Maryam's. A trip in every sense of the word.

(Thinner Than Skin is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013


The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, Doubleday, 2011, 512 pp

I was immediately attracted to The Night Circus when I first heard of it. I love books about magic and magicians. Then I began to read a ton of whiny reviews about how there was no plot and nothing ever happens and it was too slow and long.

Well, I was right in the first place. I loved it the way I loved The Little Princess and The Story of the Amulet when I was a child; the way I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and The Magicians as an adult.

I took it with me on my vacation and it fit perfectly with the forests and snow-capped peak of Mount Shasta. It became a compliment to the beloved magical friend I stayed with, her house filled with paintings and rune rocks, her incredible creations in the kitchen, the big bed I slept in covered in a down quilt with tons of pillows.

I think this is a book for a certain kind of reader. One who loves old world beauty, who is easily captivated by illusion and the unseen, who secretly harbors a longing for the virtues that have gone missing in today's world.

Then there is the high risk game between Celia and Marco, their tragic pasts, the way they are constrained by that type of heartless person found only in the world of faerie. I am always intrigued by a love affair between two equally strong, able, and intelligent people who understand that love includes so many more factors than romance and lust.

If you are one of those readers, you will not be disappointed by The Night Circus.

(The Night Circus is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 25, 2013


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra, Crown Publishing, 2013, 400 pp

Thanks to Tina's Reading Group, I read this excellent first novel sooner rather than later. It has a lot going for it but most of all it is excellently written with wonderfully drawn characters and is readable without being dumbed down in any way. Everyone in the reading group loved it which is sometimes the death knell of discussion, but we talked about it for a good hour or more.

The story is set in Chechnya, after two decades of war. The characters are mostly inhabitants of a small village meaning they have lived through all the horrors and know each other well. An excellent device because the history of Chechnya is long and vast. Instead of a historical novel, Marra gives us the effects of that history on these individuals, making it come alive for readers who live far away and know little or nothing about the place.

According to the author, that was his intention. He is an American, well educated, so how did he do it? He studied for a time in Russia, he spent time in Chechnya, he read (in Russian) everything he could about the place, and discovered there was not a single novel about it in English. So he wrote one.

The main characters:

Eight-year-old Havaa, orphaned by the conflict and hunted by an informer who lives right there in her village.

Akhmed, an incompetent doctor but accomplished artist, who protects and ultimately saves Havaa.

Sonja, a fearsomely great surgeon, who is keeping the one hospital in the area open to treat the wounded and who, against her will and reason, helps Havaa.

The informer, the villain of the piece, though the actual villain is a condition called war, who became who he is due to various complicated factors, all of which are revealed.

It is common in contemporary novels to have a plot that floats in time with much nonlinear jumping around. If we are voracious readers, we have gotten used to it but it is not always done well. Anthony Marra does it throughout his novel but masterfully and only to illuminate the characters, their inner lives, motives and frailties. No sooner does he get you wondering why a character is behaving a certain way than he takes you back and shows you why.

I came to the end feeling I knew Chechnya, its history and peoples and possible future much better than I should have after only 400 pages, a bit of map study and a brief look at Wikipedia. I also knew more about love, evil, honor, and sacrifice. That is amazing!

(A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It will be released in paperback in January, 2014.)

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, Anton DiSclafani, Riverhead Books, 2013, 388 pp

I read this because it is about the sexual awakening of a teenage girl, something I am teaching myself to write about. DiSclafani writes about that, and so much more, very well.

Thea Atwell was raised along with her twin brother in virtual isolation. It is the 1930s, the Depression has hit, and the Atwell family lives far from any major town on a plot of land in Florida. The family has money, the father is a doctor, the children are home-schooled, and the mother loves her house and gardens. The only people they see are the family of the father's brother who has one son.

Thea loves horses and rides her own horse everyday. When she is discovered messing around with her cousin, she is banished from home by her parents. They send her to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls in Georgia where she is abandoned by them at the age of 15. No visits, even when she gets dangerously ill, only letters now and then.

This novel is sad, dreamy, and atmospheric. I loved the writing and the excellent capturing of that time of life when a girl doesn't know enough about life to understand what is happening to her. Thea wants whatever she wants strongly and fearlessly, so of course she suffers mightily. She learns the perils of wanting but she turns her misfortunes to her own advantage as she processes the terrible hurt her family has laid upon her.

Most of all, I admired the author's admission of how strong the sexual desire of a teen girl can be. She takes up the subject where Judy Blume left it in the 1970s.

All mothers of teenage girls would do well to read this novel. Whether we went through our teens easily or tortured, we don't always remember it well and mothers will always worry for their daughters. There have to be ways to deal with these things that are helpful, healthy, and give a young girl the support and understanding she needs. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a good example of how not to handle it but also an example of a girl with a strong sexual appetite who figures it out for herself.

I think Simone de Beauvoir would have loved this novel.

(The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Snow, Orhan Pamuk, Alfred A Knopf, 2004, 426 pp

My accomplishment is making it all the way through a novel by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer who was awarded the Novel Prize for Literature in 2006. I didn't love it completely but I loved things about it.

Pamuk is the Naguib Mahfouz of Turkey. He writes for his countrymen (who don't appreciate him) and for the rest of the world. He tells us about Turkey, both its history and its present. Such a long, turbulent history, and like Egypt it was at the center of world events for a long time. Many different peoples, religions, and political views accompany the nation's awkward progression into the modern world.

Much of that progression can be found in Snow, seen through the eyes of Ka, a poet, and through various characters from the impoverished and forgotten town of Kars. Ka was raised in Istanbul amidst middle class comforts, as was Pamuk. His youthful political efforts and writitngs earned him exile in Germany but in the novel Ka has returned to Turkey for his mother's funeral.

On a whim, he travels to Kars. It is the dead of winter so he arrives just as a blizzard has closed all roads. Soon he is caught up in personal, political, and religious conflicts because he funded his trip by agreeing to write an article about a recent rash of suicides by Muslim girls who were made to remove the veil. Within the first day he falls in love with the beautiful Ipek. Then he is approached by Blue, the terrorist of the region. As he goes around the town, seeking interviews, religious aspirations and doubts are reawakened but most of all, he breaks out of years of writer's block and begins to write poetry again.

In a combination of literary, melodramatic, and comedic writing, Pamuk drew me into the lives of these very foreign people. I loved the insight into how a poem is written. The love affair between Ka and Ipek is more like a soap opera, showing me that no matter the culture men and women can become fools for love. The suspense builds as Ka digs himself deeper and deeper into the political intrigues of the town until I wondered if he would get out alive.

About two thirds into the novel, the author tells his readers that Ka does return to Germany and meets his doom there but somehow this news does not allay the suspense. I would have to read the book again to figure out how he did that.

Snow was named one of the best books of the year by no less than nine major book review sections, including the New York Times. I agree that it is a feat of literature but possibly has a limited readership. It is a challenging and confusing read at times with a distinctly Middle Eastern tone. I felt rewarded by the reading experience because it is a look into people and places so different from what I know and yet so similar in their humanity.

(Snow is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and eBook by order.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013


I don't often post links to other things here but this is so good and so important to readers, writers, booksellers, librarians, and parents, as well as so important to people who couldn't even read it because they can't read, that I couldn't resist.

It is a lecture given by Neil Gaiman to The Reading Agency in London about the value of libraries and the importance of literacy in the world.

Then go to your local library and check out a book. I may be weird, well I am, but I go to the library regularly and check out loads of books even though I may not get to all of them before the due date, because that is a way of keeping libraries around, open, funded, etc. USE THEM!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, Sarah Weinman-editor, Penguin Books, 2013, 352 pp

This post is dedicated to readers and writers of mystery and crime fiction, of which I know a few. Sarah Weinman, queen of mystery and crime fiction reviews, has done a great thing. In this collection of stories, subtitled Stories From the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense, she has revived female writers of such stories from the middle third of the 20th century. These women laid the groundwork for Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Tana French, and many more.

I do not generally enjoy short fiction. I am a novel reader. Short stories just seem too short and don't give me enough time to sink into them before they are over. But back in my teen years when mainstream magazines still published shorts, I read every one I could find in my mom's mags (Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal) as well as my own (Seventeen, Mademoiselle.) After reading this collection, I think I have been trying to read the wrong short stories lately.

These fourteen selections feature daughters, wives, and mothers who are either frustrated with the roles available to them or simply refuse to stay within those roles. I don't mean Rosie the Riveter types or even fast, promiscuous types. These are girls and women, entrenched in domestic life, who go a little nuts and take matters into their own hands.

Each author gets a short bio and career overview before the selected story. A couple of them have already been "rediscovered" in the past decade: Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson in particular.

In "The Heroine," an early story by Highsmith, a young woman whose insane mother has recently died, takes a job as a nanny to convince herself that she is not crazy like her mom. The results are what you would expect from Highsmith. Shirley Jackson's tale of a runaway daughter ends with a psychological plot twist reminiscent of her novel The Road Through the Wall. "Louisa Please Come Home" was first published in Ladies Home Journal in 1960 and I very well may have read it then!

Several stories feature women who resort to murder. The planning, the attention to detail, the multitasking involved, show women whose domestic skills come in quite handy when they put their minds to murder. "The Purple Shroud" by Joyce Harrington takes place at a summer art colony where her serially unfaithful husband teaches painting. Mrs Moon is a weaver and spends the summer weaving the shroud of the title, in which she wraps Mr Moon after she murders him on the last day of that summer session. She is so successful that she sets off in her VW bug to commit another crime.

The calm and deliberate building of suspense interwoven with the motives and inner lives of women are what make reading these stories thrilling, even juicy. You know those days when a man in your life has made you so angry you could just kill him? Well, some women go ahead and do it!

For over a decade I have been carrying out a self-created project of reading 20 to 40 novels for each of the years I have lived, in chronological order, including best sellers, award winners, genre and literary fiction. (Known on this blog as My Big Fat Reading Project.) The Edgar Awards, created by the Mystery Writers of America, began awarding a best novel each year in 1954. In making my way through those winners I was introduced to excellent novels by Charlotte Armstrong, Celia Freeman, and Margaret Millar, all three of whom are featured in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives.

These authors made a living writing mystery and crime novels and short stories. In my opinion they did as much for women as all the stages of feminism have, by counteracting the straightjacket women of the 1950s and early 1960s were expected to wear. Want to know what those women really felt, what they really wanted? Take a look at some of these stories.

(Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)