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.)