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.)

Saturday, October 12, 2013


A Canticle For Leibowitz, Walter M Miller Jr, J B Lippincott & Co, 1960, 334 pp

This science fiction classic, though published in 1960, won the Hugo Award in 1961. It messed with my head.

The only other sci fi I've read that included the Catholic Church was The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. For my tastes, she did a better job because she used a light touch with the religious stuff. The paperback copy of Canticle that I read, published in 2006, contains an introduction by Russell. She has read it three times. I don't know if I could stand to read it again.

Miller covers three periods of time over thousands of years. Each section, originally written as a novella, deals with a nuclear disaster and a monastery where monks preserve whatever relics of the ruined civilization they have been able to find. They work tirelessly in the hopes that a "civilized" culture can be rebuilt.

Spoiler: the final section says IT CAN'T.

These monks speak Latin to each other. I was forced to take two years of Latin in high school in the early 1960s and I confess I hated it. I saw no use in studying a dead language. When I grew up I discovered a use: understanding words more fully by knowing their Latin origins.

I certainly did not retain enough skill to be able to understand what the monks were saying. Fortunately, because you do need to understand, I found a nifty Wikipedia list of all the Latin phrases in the book with their translations.

Miller's writing isn't bad but it lacks smoothness. Even after getting the Latin translations, I could not read quickly. Though I suspect that human life on Earth may be doomed, it sure did not cheer me up to read Miller's take on it.

All that back-breaking and thankless work to preserve and reinvent scientific knowledge over and over, only to have the psychotic element in mankind demolish it again and again! What a rat race, a squirrel cage, an exercise in futility.

No wonder people need religion. But at least the secular humans get to have some fun and enjoy the good times. The popes and abbots and monks just worry and struggle and try to promote reason while they do a lot of praying.

There is a last ditch, hopeful bit at the end, involving extreme uncertainty, hardship, and more suffering. Reading A Canticle For Leibowitz was like going to the doctor to see about some health problem and finding out you only have a short time to live; no cure. But you may as well draw up your will in case the ones you leave behind might have a better time.

If you have read this book and can give me another viewpoint of it, please leave a comment.

(A Canticle For Leibowitz is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Mary Jane Humphrey
1934 - 2013

As the founder of Once Upon a Time Bookstore, October 4, 1966,  just a short walk down Verdugo Road from our current location, Jane became a pioneer in children's bookselling.  Taking a cue from her dear friend, and neighboring shopkeeper, Fiona Bayliss, Jane treated children's books as gift items -- displaying them, not like traditional bookstores or libraries with spines stacked together on bookshelves, but with the books "faced out" on antique furniture. Showing the artwork of picture books elevated the perception of children's literature and has since been copied by countless other stores. Her love of art, nature and quality literature shone through and our community responded. Jane never dumbed down or thought children inferior, and our shop has always been seen as a bit sophisticated -- not with primary colors screaming for attention, but with cool shades of blue.  Jane's wit,  irreverent humor, whimsy and creativity were her calling cards.  Countless THOUSANDS of children have passed through this store, found reading gems highlighted by Jane and became lovers of literature.  My two children are to be counted among Jane's enduring fans, along with hundreds of grateful parents & grandparents. Our community will long remember her spirit, fortitude and foresight - and will forever be changed.

May she rest in peace with her Mr. Bob and enjoy all the Dixie-land music and books available.

(Written by Maureen Palacios, current owner)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013


Wild, Cheryl Strayed, Alfred A Knopf, 2012, 311 pp

I am wild about this book! Memoir, a travel book of the extreme-adventure type, and a portrait of a certain kind of late 20th century woman. What a combination.

Unmoored by grief over her mother's death, Cheryl was a 22 year old girl gone wild. Sex and drugs and waiting tables. I always got waitress jobs in my wild days--easy to get, easier to quit--but I was not as crazy as Cheryl. On a whim, she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. By herself.

She planned and planned. She saved money, she shopped, she organized, but in the end she was a babe in the woods. Pack too heavy, boots too tight, money too scarce. She did it anyway. She got tough and strong, convincing herself everyday that she was not afraid and would not give up.

I find it interesting that she waited almost twenty years to write and publish the story of her hike. First she wrote an autobiographical novel, then a collection of advice essays, finally the memoir. I like to think that she had to live another chunk of years in order to prove to herself that she truly did transform her life.

Her writing is a mix of swagger, honesty, and suspense. She can also do self-deprecating humor but this is a completely different story from Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.

What I liked most was this: Females are often told to be careful and aware of danger, to stay safe. Cheryl Strayed's book makes the case for a female who can be reckless and wild but still survive, still create a career, a family, and a life that works. She tells us we can learn from hardship, danger, and loss.

(Wild is currently available in paperback on the shelves or in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, October 05, 2013


The New Book Club: 

Tina's Group:

World's Smallest Reading Group:

Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group:

One Book At A Time:

Bookie Babes:

What are your groups reading this month?

Friday, October 04, 2013


The Carpetbaggers, Harold Robbins, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1961, 679 pp

Harold Robbins wrote many bestsellers over his long career and this one was the #4 bestseller in 1961. It was also made into a movie. Robbins hits all the tropes of a big fat trashy page turner. I read tons of books like this when I was in my thirties, raising my sons and dreaming of adventure. It was kind of fun to read one again now that I am such a literary fiction reader.

Jonas Cord, a motherless kid with a Native American cowboy named Nevada Smith as his male nanny, was raised in the Nevada desert on his father's ranch. Mr Cord Sr was a fabulously wealthy, hard bitten tycoon whose tough love left Jonas feeling unloved. When his father keels over from a stroke, Jonas inherits the business at age 20. 

He does his best to become his father, even trying to marry his father's wife. Within a few weeks he suddenly develops business savvy, though he loses out with the wife. He is already a pilot, a womanizer, a hard drinking fearless dude. On it goes through WWI, WWII, the rise of Hollywood, airplanes, and modern life as it was known in the late 1950s.

The women are all beautiful and sexy, the men ruthless and violent, and everyone has something in the past making them act the way they do. Very entertaining, especially the Hollywood parts. I suppose most men wanted to be tycoons and most women wanted to be movie stars in 1961; heck, many still do!

How satisfying to read that the rich and famous also have hard times. Reading it today with all its sex and glamor and business high jinks, I saw that business ethics and Hollywood's methods have always been on the shady side, that human nature craves such stories, and that women are only a couple generations beyond the objectification and exploitation that was simply taken for granted in 1961.

But I never did figure out why the book was called The Carpetbaggers.

(The Carpetbaggers is available in mass market paperback by order [and subject to availability] from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)