Thursday, September 26, 2013



I am going on vacation. I usually do this time of year after the tourists have gone back to work and school. I am driving up the I5 freeway to visit a friend. I have two books on my iPad: Duplex by Kathryn Davis and Thinner Than Skin by Uzma Aslam Khan. In case technology fails, I have two print books: Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. 

But really I plan to relax, hang out with my friend, eat her astounding cooking, maybe take a walk in the woods. I will be back next week with more reviews, perhaps a little travelogue. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


The Cuckoo's Calling, J K Rowling/Robert Galbraith, Mulholland Books/Little Brown and Company, 2013, 448 pp

J K Rowling can sure write a good story. She proved that seven times over with the Harry Potter series. Some say she didn't do as well with her first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy. I haven't read that yet so I can't say. Writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, she demonstrates her chops in The Cuckoo's Calling.

Call it a mystery, a thriller, or a work of crime fiction (it is all of those), she entertained me on every page. Private detective Cormoran Strike and his "temporary" office girl Robin are complex characters whom I grew quite fond of. It is a feat that supermodel Lula Landry comes across as a fully realized character even though she is dead throughout the entire book.

Then there is Rowling's knowing take on pop culture, fame, paparazzi, social networking fans, and too much money. I know that sounds like a lot of stuff but she weaves it in seamlessly.

Finally, I really don't like it when I can figure out who done it before a mystery ends. I had no idea until it was revealed.

That is all I am going to say because any more would spoil the reading experience one way or another. I hope she does a series. I want more of Strike and Robin.

(The Cuckoo's Calling is available on the shelves in hardcover and in eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, September 22, 2013


Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, 2012, 386 pp

Wow! Back to back, I read two of my favorite authors. Immediately after finishing Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam, I began Flight Behavior. It was equally great.

Barbara Kingsolver, aside from being a wonderful storyteller, always brings a societal issue to life with stories about characters living under the influence of said societal issue. In Flight Behavior, Dellarobia Turnbow is a frustrated wife and mother, living in near poverty in a small Appalachian town. The story opens on a day when Dellarobia has decided to be unfaithful to her husband. On the way to a prearranged tryst, she witnesses a forest valley filled with an orange flaming light.

Religion is a big deal in Feathertown, TN and though she is not a true believer, Dellarobia goes to church just because one must. But she is so stunned by the vision in the valley that she feels a miracle has saved her from making a big mistake.

Before long it becomes clear that the valley, which is on her in-laws' property, is filled with butterflies that have detoured from their normal migratory route. Soon enough, the scientist Dr Ovid Byron, the media, the townspeople, and the in-laws are embroiled.

So the story is about climate change, about religious fundamentalism, about the inability of all of us to believe that we have already just about killed off our planet. But it is also about a woman, who through her own foolishness and misfortunes, has just about ruined her life.

Dellarobia, whose high level of intelligence is her best characteristic, muddles her way through the turmoil in her town and family. She emerges with a sense of self she had never had before and makes a decision which split my reading group into two opposing camps.

Kingsolver is an extremely canny author. She gets accused of preaching but actually she never gives easy answers to either the big issues or the personal problems of her characters. She just gets readers thinking about all these things. Do we have a responsibility to our environment no matter what economic status we occupy? Does a woman, especially one with children, have a right to happiness and a fulfilling life? For that matter, what is a fulfilling life?

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

Thursday, September 19, 2013


MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood, Nan A Talese/Doubleday, 2013, 390 pp

Margaret Atwood is one of my top three favorite authors. She is frighteningly intelligent, has a sense of humor, and writes about women better than anyone else. Her speculative fiction trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake, followed by The Year of the Flood, wraps up perfectly in this final volume.

I suppose you could read MaddAddam as a stand alone but if you don't already know Oryx, Crake, Jimmy, the God's Gardeners, and the Crakers, you might not get all that goes on in this one. She delves more deeply into the back-stories of the characters, tying together loose ends and making the whole story even more believable.

The survivors of the pandemic that wiped out most of the human race at the end of Oryx and Crake are holed up in a rustic dwelling subsisting on whatever they can scavenge and fortifying their space against the crazed Painballers. They have been joined by the bio-engineered Crakers and are also dealing with possible interbreeding.

Though Atwood achieved wide spread acclaim after The Handmaid's Tale won the Booker Prize in 1986, I don't think that was her best novel. In her novels Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin she reached a pinnacle, defining the roles of women in society while writing novels as compelling as any bestselling fiction. Where else could she go but back to the future?

The heroine in MaddAddam is Toby. She is the one whose practicality and level-headedness kept things together for the God's Gardeners in The Year of the Flood. But she also fell in love with the renegade Zeb, whose checkered life story is finally revealed in full. Toby is no babe, she has been beat up by life, and she has a few flaws. Atwood uses the love story between Toby and Zeb to great tragicomic effect, tackling sexual jealousy and possessiveness, commitment and promiscuity, as well as testosterone vs estrogen. In fact, the entire novel contemplates whether or not, given another chance, the human race could create a better pattern for existence.

One of the ways humans create the future is by telling stories about the past. Toby gets the role of storyteller as she invents for the Crakers, in terms they can understand, tales about who they are, where they came from, and how they can help the hapless, violent, destructive humans. Crake created his creatures to be free of the characteristics that spell doom for the human race, but evil is still afloat in the wake of the waterless flood. The Crakers need protection but the humans need abilities only the Crakers have.

We know these books are just stories about what if we go on as we are. Margaret Atwood has said so. She is not making predictions, though many of the details are based on prodigious scientific research, making them all possibilities. But in a great interview with KCRW's Michael Silverblatt on his show BookWorm, she makes it clear that she has hope for us idiots. If you are in despair about the state of the world, I highly recommend reading the trilogy in full. If you just want an entertaining story about the future, you will get that as well.

(MaddAddam is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aflred A Knopf, 2013, 340 pp
Earlier this summer, I began Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie. It was tough going and I spent as much time in the dictionary and on the Internet as I did reading, due to my ignorance of Indian history. Because I am a book reviewer and am ruled by deadlines, I had to abandon that book and so far have not gotten back to it. But it turned out to have been time well spent because the time scape fits with the beginning of The Lowland and I was at least somewhat in the know about the early years after India achieved independence.

Jhumpa Lahiri is not Salman Rushdie and The Lowland is not Midnight's Children but both are challenging books. Lahiri lacks any sense of humor; she is concerned with the serious side of history and family but she has a sixth sense for the emotional detritus of family conflict and the subtle effects that social and political upheaval can infuse into personal life.

The story revolves around two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born 15 months apart in a suburb of Calcutta shortly after World War II. Subhash is the elder brother but has no memory of life before Udayan arrived. They might as well have been twins. 

The opening chapters cover their childhood, their schooling, their pranks, the bond between them and the development of their eventual separation. Subhash is the obedient, conservative and somewhat fearful brother while Udayan is bold, daring, and defiant. They are both brilliant in school, studying science, and by college show promise while bringing pride to their middle class parents.

Udayan becomes a member of a communist group dedicated to righting the wrongs in India. It is the 1960s; his heroes are Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung. Subhash opts for study in America. Enter The Woman. Udayan falls in love with his best friend's sister, Gauri. This young woman has been raised by her grandparents who took her in when she was a small child. Left to her own devices, she is not a protected Indian girl but allowed to attend University and to spend all her time studying philosophy.

She and Udayan marry and go to live with his parents, as is traditional, but because she was not a wife chosen by the family, she brings shame to the household. Within a year of the marriage Udayan is killed by police because of his revolutionary and subversive activities. Subhash comes home to find Gauri rejected but still living in the family home. She is also pregnant. Driven by grief and sympathy, Subhash marries her and takes her back to America. Nothing goes right after that point and in fact goes about as wrong as could be.

The lives of these desperately unhappy people infested my mind and spirit like the termites in my mimosa tree. I did not lose any limbs, only sleep and any ability to digest food. This is perhaps one of the most disturbing books I have ever read, not due to violence or evil, but because I felt how close we all are to overwhelming despair and dysfunction. Subhash only wanted to be a loving brother and obedient son. Udayan only wanted equality for his fellow men. Gauri only wanted personal freedom. The loss of Udayan could not be overcome.

In the end, Lahiri allows a glimmer of hope brought about by a child. And so it goes. We make our choices or are the victims of circumstance, we suffer the consequences, and the young pick up the pieces. The novelists tell the story over and over. Somehow a story told with this much insight and compassion is a glimmer of hope in itself.

(The Lowland will be published on September 24, 2013 and is available now in hardcover or eBook for pre-order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Baboushka and the Three Kings, Ruth Robbins & Nicholas Sidjakov, Parnassus Press, 1960, 22 pp

This retelling of a Russian Christmas tale won the Caldecott Award for 1961. The illustrations, ink pen with a wash of primary colors, look almost like cartoons.

Baboushka is busy cleaning her small hut when she is visited by the Three Kings who tell her they "have been following a bright star to a place where a Babe is born." They ask Babouhska to join them in the search but she will not leave until her cleaning is done.

The next day she attempts to follow them but heavy snow has covered their trail. Though she goes from village to village she never finds the Kings or the Babe.

The folk tale says that every year children await the coming of Baboushka who leaves "poor but precious gifts" behind her during her yearly search. She is a Russian Santa Claus.

I am so grateful to the Burbank Public Library where I have found every Caldecott winner since 1940. 

I've no idea why this book took the prize in 1961. It is not remotely an American story; the illustrations are perhaps avant garde for the times but didn't impress me. Maybe they wanted toddlers to not be too afraid of the Russians.

(Baboushka and the Three Kings is available in library binding and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, September 12, 2013


Enon, Paul Harding, Random House Inc, 2013, 238 pp

Enon. An abbreviation of a Latin word? A biblical name? Here it is the name of a small town in New England, home of Charlie Crosby. I have not read Tinkers, Paul Harding's Pulitzer Prize winning first novel, but Charlie is the grandson of the man who is dying in Tinkers.

The writing is exquisite. It moves along at the pace of a stroll down a country lane, always imbued with a sense of the history layered in the surroundings.

First paragraph:

"Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception. My only child, Kate, was struck and killed by a car while riding her bicycle home from the beach one afternoon in September, a year ago. She was thirteen. My wife, Susan, and I separated soon afterward."

I honestly don't know how any parent survives the death of a child, especially a young child who still lives at home. Charlie barely did and this is his grieving story.

Charlie is a reader, a life long reader. Since he was a young kid, he read mysteries and horror stories and books on history and art and science and music. He liked big fat tomes so he could linger in other worlds and in other people's lives. Those big books are the sign of a true reader. "What I loved most was how the contents of each batch of books mixed up with one another in my mind to make ideas and images and thoughts I'd never have imagined possible." Exactly!

When Kate dies, Charlie falls apart, completely and utterly. His wife moves back to live with her parents in Minnesota. He met her in college. She was a schoolteacher and he became a guy who took care of people's lawns, just so he could make some money, because he really had no skills or even ambition. His life and all his emotions and energy were invested in Kate. As if he did not have a personality of his own, so lived through her.

Most of the novel is about the unraveling of Charlie. It is gruesome though strangely not without a sort of wry humor. Here and there are some stories about how he met his wife, what their life had been, and about his grandfather George Crosby, a man who repaired clocks. But mostly we go with Charlie as he walks all night long, night after night, in the woods, to the graveyard, around the town. Out of his mind on booze and painkillers and finally hard drugs, he deteriorates before our eyes.

Since Charlie is telling the tale, he must have lived to tell it. Truly though, I was convinced he was going to die. But he doesn't and it appears he was saved by a vision he had when he was just on the edge of passing out as he wandered in the night.

"There is a sound that no human ear can hear, coming from a place no human eye can see, from deeper within the earth but also from deep in the sky and the water and inside the trees and inside the rocks. The sound is a voice, coming from a register so low no human can hear it, but many people throughout the town are disturbed from their sleep by it. It is a note from a song the shape of which is too vast ever to know"

That is Charlie describing what saved him. Or what made him decide to save himself, or at least to go on living. I would not call this novel hopeful or inspiring, at times it was frightfully depressing. What kept me going is that it sounded like truth.

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


A Dark Redemption, Stav Sherez, Europa Editions, 2013, 345 pp

My review of this exciting new author's book is available for viewing at BookBrowse until September 13 even if you are not a subscriber. 

My review begins: "I have done my share of deep and heavy reading this summer, so it was a great pleasure to read a crime fiction novel by an author new to me. Not that A Dark Redemption wasn't deep and sometimes heavy, but it is an ideal read for the end of summer: entertaining, compelling, yet addressing issues that stay with us as we return from the beach or vacation." 
You can read the rest of the review here.
( A Dark Redemption is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, September 08, 2013


Mila 18, Leon Uris, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1961, 539 pp

The #4 bestseller of 1961 was another door stopper but mostly a page turner. It is the second version I have read of events concerning the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. I also read John Hersey's The Wall as part of my reading list for 1950. Each book takes a slightly different look at this atrocity but it is hard to say which is better. 

Because he is Leon Uris, he had to put several love stories in his version, but compared to his 1958 bestseller Exodus this book is so much better in terms of writing style and the characters. He makes clear the evil deeds of Hitler and his henchmen when it came to their treatment of Jews, the ways that they fumbled towards the "final solution," the psychopathic inhumanity of all involved, and the methods used to spin the news about what was happening.

In contrast, we see the bravery and humanity of the Jewish leaders as they try to keep as many as possible alive in that ghetto. Mila 18 is the name of the building inside the ghetto where the Jewish resistance had their headquarters.

Both this book and The Wall make it clear that the journals and diaries of certain people inside the ghetto are responsible for the knowledge we now have about what happened there. Even as the final residents were being obliterated, some took the steps necessary to keep the journals secure and get the information about their locations into safe hands.

To me, that is a story worth telling at least twice. As our continuous wars go on, seemingly always presented as a necessary slaughter of people, whether of another religion or another political system, it is sobering to read about how mankind has forever succumbed to such madness. But it is also steadying to read about the victims who resist, who record, and thus live on.

(Mila 18 is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


Here is the line up for September in my reading groups:

The New Book Club:

Once Upon A Time Adult Fiction Group (well once in a while we read non-fiction):

One Book At A Time:

World's Smallest Reading Group:

Bookie Babes:

Some of these groups do welcome new members. If you live in the Los Angeles area and are interested in joining or attending the September meeting, send me an email.

What are your reading groups reading this month?

Monday, September 02, 2013


Voices, Ursula K Le Guin, Harcourt Inc, 2006, 341 pp

This is the second volume of Le Guin's young adult series, the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy. I read Gifts some years ago and found it as great as any other books of hers I have read. 

If possible, I liked Voices even more. Memer of Ansul is an orphan raised in one of the best homes of the city. She lost her mother at birth and is a half-breed resulting from the rape of her mother when a brutal and superstitious race conquered Ansul.

The conquerors fear the written word like some people fear the devil. By means of torture and fire, they found and destroyed all the books in Ansul, or so they thought. Memer finds the hidden library in her home and is taught to read by the master of the house. Being strong willed and a survivor, she becomes involved in an attempt to free Ansul from it occupiers.

Besides the theme of a literate people being oppressed by illiterate, religiously fanatic barbarians, the story includes a beautiful testament to the connection between education, love of learning, and peace. The people of Ansul have resolved their difficulties for centuries through dialogue, not violence. Women are respected, the natural world is held in reverance, and many gods are worshiped as spiritual presences who aid mankind.

Having been different all her life, Memer is open to new ideas and approaches life with an inherent bravery. In other words, she is a heroine and her coming of age coincides with the freeing of Ansul.

Le Guin never preaches or talks down to her readers, adults or teens. Voices was exciting, thought provoking, and worked on me like a blessing from some kick-butt goddesses.

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