Thursday, February 27, 2014


The Death of Bees, Lisa O'Donnell, HarperCollins, 2013, 310 pp

It would be interesting to count up the number of novels written about children raised, neglected, abused, and/or deserted by bad parents. Reading such stories always make me either wish people had to get a license to reproduce or fills me with wonder at the resilience of the children who survive such upbringings. The Death of Bees delivered both sides of that emotional divide.

Marnie and Nelly live in a Glasgow housing estate, sort of like what are called the projects in the United States. Their parents are, or I should say were, drug addicts who have turned up dead one morning. Marnie at 15 is the elder sister and does her best to take care of 12 year old Nelly, who is somewhat challenged, perhaps a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome. The goal is to keep the deaths a secret and to stay away from welfare and foster care.

In alternating chapters we get the story from these two barely reliable narrators. It is grim but there are moments of levity and the obligatory element of hope. 

This was a reading group pick. As usual, most of the ladies reacted in various tones of shock and horror. It makes me wonder under what rocks they live. Praise should go to Lisa O'Donnell for making the tale palatable to them. Isn't it about time to realize that there are vast levels of difference amongst the 99%?

Anyway, I liked reading the book due to the honest portrayals of all the characters including the gay neighbor who rescues them, the suspicious grandfather, etc. The happy ending was a little too pat but if it had all ended in grief and disaster I am sure Lisa O'Donnell would not have been able to sell her novel.

Such stories leave me wondering if there is nothing to be done about our world except to practice random acts of kindness.

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

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Hombre, Elmore Leonard, Ballantine Books, 1961, 190 pp

Somehow I thought this was Elmore Leonard's first novel. In fact, it was his fifth. He began publishing Westerns in 1953 with The Bounty Hunters. But for me Hombre is a good place to start.

Hombre was the name given to John Russell, a tough and fearless white man raised partly by Apaches. The story is set in Arizona mining country complete with stage coaches, outlaws, and a big pile of money over which the other main characters commit violence and crime.

I hadn't known that Leonard started out with Westerns. Though his style is not as flashy as it became, the voice is recognizable as is the timing of the plot and the hint of philosophy underlying it.

A movie version starring Paul Newman was released in 1967 but since I have not yet seen it, the climax in the novel came as a complete surprise to me. Hombre is a hero alright but with Elmore Leonard's brand on him.

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

Saturday, February 22, 2014


A House For Mr Biswas, V S Naipaul, McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc, 1961, 531 pp

V S Naipaul's fourth novel is his longest so far. Still mining the Trinidadian Indian Hindu community amid which he grew up, the locations, people, traditions, the Pundits and the strivers, the remnants of the Indian caste system, are all in play. Having read all four books, I swear I feel as though I know these people well.

This is a more somber book. Some humor remains but it felt as though Naipaul's affection for his people had waned. The story covers the entire life of Mr Biswas from his birth under a few bad signs to his death. One funny thing is that the author calls him Mr Biswas throughout and rarely uses his first name.

Mr Biswas lost his father at a young age and was reared mostly by relatives in varying stages of poverty. He had virtually no self confidence but his lifelong dream was to have a house of his own. He eventually married into a wealthy family, got a job as a newspaper reporter, and had four children. Until the age of forty, he was doomed to live in the houses of his wife's family where he felt belittled.

I am puzzled as to why I found the novel so readable. The writing is assured and in a style not quite resembling any other author. Besides immersing the reader in the society and times of Trinidad, including the harbor city Port of Spain, Naipaul brings to life the customs, strivings, and intimate details of these people. He made me feel their absurdities as well as their eternal efforts to rise from the indentured workers who were their ancestors into participation in mid 20th century life by means of education and grasping onto any possible business opportunities.

So it is an immigrant story in the long run and that is pretty much the story of the world: people who have come from somewhere else either by choice or because of wars and slavery, intermingling their lives, customs and beliefs with other peoples. It is essentially a sad story and so is the life of Mr Biswas threaded with defeats and humiliations.

I kept hoping he would triumph somehow but his accomplishments were miniscule, reminding me that history is actually made up mostly of people living from day to day with hopes that are largely dashed but always harboring those hopes as an incentive to rise above mere survival.

A House For Mr Biswas is considered to be Naipaul's breakout book. After this he moved on to writing novels set in Great Britain and around the world. He has won both the Booker Prize and the Nobel along with a reputation bespattered in recent years with charges of misogyny and racism. In the numerous portrayals of beatings of children and wives along with a deep distrust of anyone not Hindu that pepper his early novels, I can see how his influences would make it difficult to achieve any level of "political correctness." Perhaps he has carried Mr Biswas with him throughout his life.

(A House For Mr Biswas is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014


How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid, Riverhead Books, 2013, 228 pp

I was so impressed by the writing in this short novel that I am determined to read both of Mohsin Hamid's earlier novels.

This one is the story of one Asian man's rise from the poorest of rural boys to wealth and corporate power. Hamid uses the construct of a self-help book with the book's author speaking to the aspiring man in the second person.

Many readers and reviewers found both the self-help book conceit and the second person voice either unimpressive or annoying. I found it an inventive if not brilliant way of telling a story that has featured in various novels over the past several years, including The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga as well as Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire.

This novel is also a consummate piece of satire about business practices in today's world including rapacious criminality and the personal sacrifice entailed in becoming a self-made success.

The relationship between this unnamed entrepreneur and the one woman he ever loved is bittersweet but again creates an underlying treatise on the ways that both poverty and materialism can break down the human requirements for family and connection.

That all this depth and breadth is packed into a slim and compulsively readable novel is a feat not found in several of the long novels published in 2013.

(How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


The Golden Arrow, Anna Redmond, Assembly! Press, 2014, 282 pp

The Golden Arrow is the first volume of a fantasy trilogy by first-time novelist Anna Redmond. Intermingling political strife with magic, the tale pits a ruthless ruler, the offspring of a deposed noble family, the Queen Mother and her royal granddaughter against each other as they contest for power.

Patria is a country conquered two decades ago by an enemy state and now governed by Archibald Mercer as a supposed egalitarian society. In truth, though its monarchy was toppled, Patria is ruled as much as it ever was by means of power and influence with the former noble class anxious to regain its wealth and position.

When the Queen Mother awakens from the coma into which she sank after the King's defeat and death, intrigue arises and lives are again in peril.

Nicola, a ravishing beauty at sixteen, daughter of a once powerful family, walks blithely into danger. Her father has arranged an alliance with the Queen Mother by agreeing to have Nicola bound to the surviving Princess Eloise in an ancient and erotic ritual that will make the two young women sisters of each others' hearts as well as lovers.

Joseph de Brulle, Nicola's brother, ambitious and reared in the current political climate, dreams of regaining honor for his family by demonstrating merit and complete support of Mercer's politics.

Alas, Nicola and Joseph are far too innocent and sheltered to comprehend the forces at work around them. The best parts of this expertly plotted novel are the moments of dawning awareness to the realities of their lives as these two attempt to realize their youthful dreams and passions.

I was immediately drawn in as much for the plot as for the more than a few surprising touches:

News travels in Patria by means of "pamphlets" which are a sort of People Magazine/Facebook/blog complete with images and gossip. Nicola and her girlfriends pore over these daily issues as girls everywhere do while members of the government track their rivals.

Along with evolving plot points, the pages of The Golden Arrow sparkle with descriptions of elaborate gowns, social affairs, and the tempting dishes enjoyed by the upper class: roast kid, crisped fowls, lotus buns, comfits with herbs and spices, whiskey chocolates.

Each main character leaps off the page through glimpses of individual episodes of distress, violence, and even madness. The many scenes of ritual and passion between Nicola and Princess Eloise are written with graceful eroticism. As the tale unfolded I felt I was in the hands of a seasoned writer.

The final chapters reveal the meaning and purpose of the Golden Arrow. Yet the book ends with much of its mystery unresolved and left me wishing I could open the sequel right away and keep reading. All very impressive!

I have known Anna Redmond for almost a decade because she is married to my nephew. They also live in the Los Angeles area, are raising two daughters, and regularly attend our family gatherings. When Anna told me last fall that she had finally sold her novel, I begged for a copy and promised a review. Because I knew she read lots of books and was smart as well as savvy, I was reasonably confident I would like her work. Obviously, I loved it!
In today's publishing world it is harder than ever for a new author to become known. I asked Anna if she would answer a few questions about herself as a writer. Here are her answers:

KTW: How long have you been writing? In fiction terms, have you always written fantasy?

AR: I've been writing since I learned how to spell, but I think I've only been a true writer for a couple of years. I discovered this later than I should, really, but there is a profound difference between writing (even writing well) and being a writer. Being a writer means having the courage to take your idea, jump into it, and see it through to end - - which by the way, is something I struggled to do for many years, through half-finished manuscripts in many different genres. When I started writing fantasy fiction, it felt freeing and empowering in a way that was really very profound. At least for me, right now, it felt like the right genre to tell my story.

KTW: In your interview at Science Fiction Book Club, you mention Alexandre Dumas and The Three Musketeers as an influence. Would you care to comment on your influences among fantasy writers?

AR: Ray Bradbury was a huge early influence. He wrote more science fiction than fantasy, although I would argue that a number of his stories were really a blend of the two. I actually remember writing him a letter when I was twelve or thirteen. In terms of contemporaries, I really enjoyed the Game of Thrones series, and structurally, it was an influence in how I chose to construct The Golden Arrow.

KTW: Your novel has an assured political viewpoint. Am I remembering correctly that you have a degree from Harvard in political science? If so, were you aware of that knowledge and training coming into play in the story?

AR: I actually studied Economics and Information Technology Policy! But close - certainly took my fair share of courses at the Kennedy School (of Government) at Harvard. I think what was a bigger influence than my degree, though, was really my family's background - we immigrated from Russia when I was five, and growing up, I watched a lot of communist-era films. I found the way that the politics had filtered down into everyday life to be fascinating. The nature of the propaganda was so different from the way that I was growing up in the U.S. I draw on a lot of that in Golden Arrow.

KTW: Would you place your book into a specific sub-genre of fantasy? I would call it political and erotic fantasy but I don't want to say that if you object to those labels.

AR: Ha! Love it. Political and erotic fantasy. I think that may be a new category. It's always hard for a writer to categorize her own work. My publisher described it as a "political fantasy thriller laced with sex and intrigue." My writing group pushed me to include more sex in the first novel. I held them off, promising more in the second book in the series!

The Golden Arrow was released this month by the publishing arm of the Science Fiction Book Club. It can be purchased there in hardcover and is also available from Amazon in hardcover and as an eBook.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


The Crooked Mirror, A Memoir of Polish-Jewish Reconciliation, Louise Steinman, Beacon Press, 2013, 240 pp

In graceful and heartfelt prose, Louise Steinman captures a horrific topic: the results and residue of the Holocaust in Poland. Thanks to my reader friend with whom I formed the World's Smallest Reading Group (just the two of us), I learned about and read The Crooked Mirror.

Louise Steinman, daughter of Polish Jewish immigrants, had lived all her life without learning a thing about her family's past. Her mother could not even say the word Poland and Louise was only told that the country allowed almost all of Poland's Jews to be exterminated and possibly was even complicit in the genocide.

I immediately sympathized with her dilemma. One of the reasons I decided to write my own autobiography was because my parents rarely talked about their ancestors, nor as it turned out did they know much about them. All my ancestors were German immigrants who came to the United States in the mid to late 1800s. Two world wars with Germany as America's enemy had effectively silenced my grandparents about their origins. In their efforts to assimilate and blend in, neither their native language nor tales of the families' pasts survived.

By the time Louise Steinman began her quest and odyssey into the past, she was a practicing American Jew in Los Angeles whose rabbi was also a Zen Buddhist. Only in LA, right? The purpose of her first trip to Poland, by invitation of the rabbi, was to attend an International Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This experience led her to Radomsko, her grandparent's Polish hometown, and ultimately to a more complete understanding of the complexity of Polish-Jewish relations.

Having read John Hersey's The Wall and Leon Uris's Mila 18 (both are fictional accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto), as well as The Patagonian Hare, the memoir of Claude Lanzmann (creator of the Holocaust movie Shoa which I watched), I was fairly well prepared historically to appreciate the emotional prejudices Steinman had to confront. None of this reading prepared me at all for the reading group discussion of The Crooked Mirror.

My friend brought another friend to the meeting. Both of them are Jews of Polish descent. My friend has been to Poland twice and her friend at least four times, including visits to the hometowns of their forebears. The book meant more to them than I could have imagined.

My ancestors were Lutheran and emigrated for economic reasons. These women's ancestors were obliterated almost without a trace. Our discussion ranged far and wide leaving me with many of my preconceived notions rearranged.

To all of these women goes my admiration for their courage in facing the past and their willingness to help heal a countrywide breach caused by the evils of both the Nazis and post WWII Communism. Though the history of the persecution towards the Jewish people dates much further back than 1939, there was a time when Jews and Catholics in Poland lived shoulder to shoulder in tolerance and cooperation.

Steinman's memoir follows her progression from tentative inquiry through increased involvement and finally to enough healing to allow hope. To this day hardly any Jews live in the entire country of Poland, but efforts by both Jews and present day Polish Catholics have brought to light what really happened. In older times "a Polish Catholic painted the zodiac on the ceiling of Radomsko's Great Synagogue and a Polish Jewish tinsmith designed the spires of the town's cathedral."

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

Thursday, February 13, 2014


Twelve Years A Slave, Solomon Northup, Derby & Miller, 1853, 235 pp

I read this slave narrative as a reading group pick. Not having previously read any slave narratives, I can't judge it by comparison but I found it a gripping read.

The twist in this one is that Solomon Northup was a freeman in the North who was captured by trickery and sold into slavery, a crime at the time. The drama is how he survived for twelve years and finally arranged to be rescued by people he used to know in the North. And it is dramatic right up to the end.

I presume this book has provided details for many a novel about slavery written since. Should you read it before or after seeing the movie or in addition to seeing the movie? I have not as yet watched the movie so I can't say, but members of my reading group who have, say they make good companions to each other.

I don't guess any of us need to do either to be convinced that slavery is a wicked thing. The worth of the book was its role in the abolitionist movement as well as the power of literature to create change.

My copy was part of an eBook by Timeless Reads that also contains five additional slave narratives including Up From Slavery, the autobiography of Booker T Washington; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Uncle Tom's Cabin; The Life of Josiah Henson; and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. (I have wanted to read the Frederick Douglass book ever since I read Transatlantic by Colum McCann, because Douglass features in that story.) All of these books were first published in the 1800s except for Up From Slavery in 1901.

I read both Twelve Years a Slave and Black Like Me during the week of Martin Luther King Day. That is enough for now but next year I'll have more to read. I also watched The Butler that week. Good for me!

(Twelve Years A Slave is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Shop Indie Bookstores

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson, Little Brown and Company, 2013, 529 pp

A good deal of great writing kept me going in Life After Life but overall I was left feeling less than thrilled by the end. In fact, at the very end I was confused and had to talk it over with a couple reading friends.

Ursula Todd gets born in 1910, then she gets born again and again with different scenarios ensuing. It is kind of like that movie Ground Hog Day, without the humor. She also lives through various parts of her life several times and because of her choices ends up in better or worse states than other times.

Once I got used to not knowing when it was and to finding the clues to when it had been, I didn't mind the time shifts. Anyone who made it through The Time Traveler's Wife, a book I loved completely, can make it through this novel. Some parts were quite gripping, especially the section on the London Blitz in WWII. 

I liked Ursula's crazy aunt and the beloved brother. I didn't think Sylvie, Ursula's mother, quite hung together as a character.

I guess I liked the concept of the book better than the reading of it. It must have been fun to write. Of course, it all got me thinking about points in my life where I could have made different choices and thus have had a different life.

There you have it. A disjointed and inconclusive review, not unlike the novel itself. You are what you read? Most definitely! 

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

Sunday, February 09, 2014


The Borrowers Aloft, Mary Norton, Harcourt Brace & World Inc, 1961, 192 pp

How sad that I have reached the end of The Borrowers series, but what a send off!
The Borrowers came ashore after their harrowing escape by boat in The Borrowers Afloat to find a miniature model village with a ready made home just their size. Of course, it had been discovered by the intrepid Spiller.

This volume begins with a short history of how the model village came into being as a hobby of Mr Pott, a retired railway man. His meticulous craftsmanship reminded me of Keith Stewart, the main character from Nevil Shute's 1960 bestseller, Trustee From the Toolroom.

Mr Pott has a rival, a Mr Platter, wealthy builder who constructed his own model village just across the river with the aim of making money. No sooner are the Clocks are getting settled in Mr Potts' Little Fordham, than they are discovered by Mr Platter who kidnaps the family and imprisons them in his attic for the winter. He is building a house for them in his village where he plans to showcase the little people as his latest attraction.

Anyone who has read the stories of The Borrowers knows that their greatest fear is "being seen." Escape from Mr Platter must be accomplished at all costs. 

Taking their usual roles as Pod the father/inventor, Homily the worried mother, and Arrietty the adventurous discoverer of new things, the family builds a balloon in which they plan to sail out of an attic window to freedom. Arrietty, you may remember, had taught herself to read back in the original house of the first book. There in the attic she found an article about ballooning in an old number of the Illustrated London News.

Their feverish work on the balloon, their departure and journey by air back to Little Fordham, and a climax more surprising than any of the previous stories, make for a suspenseful read. I never read this final book in the series as a kid. By 1961 I was starting high school and reading adult books. But I should have read it because Arrietty turns 16 and realizes that she loves Spiller and wants to marry him. To do so, she must navigate her parents' resistance to such an outlandish proposal while she learns to understand Spiller's fiercely independent personality.

Mary Norton accomplished a feat not often repeated in children's literature until J K Rowling had Harry Potter age along with his readers. Brilliant! Now I must see the movie, The Secret World of Arrietty.

(The Borrowers Aloft is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, February 07, 2014


In Dubious Battle, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1936, 313 pp

I did not read Steinbeck's novel about an attempt to organize migrant workers as part of My Big Fat Reading Project because it was published before 1940, the year I chose for the beginning of my project. I read it now for a reading group and must say, it is a much better book than The Grapes of Wrath.

All of the qualities I love best about Steinbeck are here. Great complex characters, description that brings the locations and the weather and the events to life, and a thoughtful look at a big human problem.

The trouble with trying to help a person or specific group with a problem is that the helper is not the person or a member of the group. The main characters from "the party" (Steinbeck does not call them communists but the growers do) come in from the outside. They are desperate characters for their own reasons but they are not migrant workers and their agenda stems from a political consciousness.

Steinbeck gives a brilliant exposition of the methods used to organize downtrodden workers into people who will fight the system: finding or even creating an incident that will ignite them out of apathy, the "end justifies the means" mentality, and the justifications for violence and criminal activity. It has been ever thus when the dregs or unfortunates rise up.

He shows all of it, making his book still vital today. The novel moved me as much as East of Eden.

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

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 2013, 499 pp

Oh my. I loved this book. I didn't want it to end. I wish I was still reading it. Let me see if I can stop gushing and say something intelligent about why I loved it so much.

First of all, Alma Whittaker, so flawed a character yet so brave and in the end so wise. I suppose not all readers will feel that way, especially female readers. I admired her and suffered with her. Of course, I recognized that Gilbert put a good deal of herself into Alma but found nothing wrong with that.

As a piece of historical fiction, the book excels in terms of evoking the times without showing off the research. I am a gardener and the daughter of gardeners so I was captivated by all the botany stuff.

Finally, Gilbert writes in this novel with such balance between the plot and her empathy for her exotic characters. She has got the controlled abandon of Neal Stephenson, the wit of A M Homes, but is fully herself. She kept upending my expectations as to where the story was going in such a brilliant way that I was willing to follow wherever she took me.

Alma, who put almost all of her mind and energies into science, who used her studies and experiments in botany to make sense of the world, eventually arrived at a theory similar to Darwin's. She had published other books and plenty of articles in scientific journals but put off publishing her theory because she had an unanswered question about life, an anomaly that did not fit. Then Darwin's book came out, he acquired fame and credit for the theory of evolution.

By this time Alma was elderly and I loved most of all the insight and light-handed approach Gilbert took with this final disappointment in Alma's life. Between the lines of these final chapters, much gets said about science, truth, men, women, fame, and integrity.

(The Signature of All Things is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, February 03, 2014


Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin, Signet, 1961, 176 pp

I don't read much non-fiction for My Big Fat Reading Project. When I do, I choose books that give me the sense of living amidst the times or that fill in parts of history I never fully learned. Black Like Me gave me a great deal of insight into what life was like for southern Blacks in the early years of the Civil Rights struggle.

The premise is almost unbelievable. A white journalist from Texas, by means of medication and dyes, turns himself into a Negro and spends time with other Negroes in various towns: New Orleans, small towns in Mississippi and Alabama, Atlanta. 

Griffin may have invented immersive journalism. He had a contract for the story with a magazine called Sepia and as far as I can tell, his experiences were the real deal.

He discovered that though he already believed racism to be a terrible thing, white people really had no idea what it was like to be a Negro, especially in the South. He could enter a drug store and make a purchase, but could not sit at the counter to eat. Negroes could only eat at Negro cafes. He could not even get a drink of water and often had to walk many blocks to find a restroom he could use. 

Worst of all was what he came to call "the hate stare." The constant degradation got to him so much that there were times when he felt insane.

It is a moving story and goes far to explain the complex barrier Black people in America have to overcome to gain rights that are inalienable according to our Constitution. Once Griffin's article came out he became an overnight celebrity in the North but was so reviled and threatened in his home town that he moved his family to Mexico to protect their lives. 

This is a short book, well written, and should be read by every American citizen.
(Black Like Me is available in paperback on the Classics shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, February 01, 2014


After a warm and sunny January here in Los Angeles, we are in for cooler weather, clouds, and hopefully some rain. Perfect weather for reading. Here is what we will discuss in my reading groups during February:

Tina's Group

Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group

One Book At A Time

Bookie Babes

What is happening with your reading groups? Any suggestions for books that make for good discussions?