Saturday, March 29, 2014


Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2012, 288 pp

Reading this novel was pure fun with just enough meat in the story to keep me happy. In fact it was a refreshing break from all those thick tomes and challenging worldviews I have been plowing through since January in preparation for the Tournament of Books.

Robin Sloan does challenge a current worldview: is the rapid takeover of internet and computing technology ruining the world for book lovers and book readers?

When Clay Jannon, young web designer, loses his job in the Silicone Valley economic meltdown, he gets himself hired at Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore only to find that in addition to his paltry wage he has gone through a portal. The bookstore has just a few odd customers who arrive during his graveyard shift. They don't buy books; they "check out" obscure volumes from the shelves of books that Clay has been forbidden to read.

Everyone (except possibly Mr Penumbra) knows when you tell a person in his early 20s that something is forbidden, he will look at it. Clay does and falls into a secret society searching for the key to immortality.

Besides being savvy in all things concerning digital marketing, Clay has equally cool friends doing equally modern things. Together they invade Mr Penumbra's world, run up against an evil cult-like leader, and do their best to force a singularity moment.

Somehow the author pulls off a feat that has crossed genres and age groups. His book appeals to reading groups, fantasy geeks, as well as the iPod and Google generation. What do you know? We all like books and bookstores and story telling. We are all human!
I'm not saying this will happen for everyone who reads Mr Penumbra, but I had a revelation. Yes, the internet and Google and handheld devices can distract us, can invade our privacy, can contain false information, and turn us into victims of sophisticated marketing techniques, but you know what? This is the world we live in now and it is still up to each of us to decide how to use these tools. For fun, for profit, for nefarious purposes, for the rapid exchange of ideas, for whatever the user decides. 
Me, I joined Twitter. LOL!!

(Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and eBook by order.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


The Good Lord Bird, James McBride, Riverhead Books, 2013, 417 pp

I read this for the Tournament of Books. As of this morning, it won its fourth round and could very well go on to win the Tournament. It also received the 2013 National Book Award. I've not read either of James McBride's previous novels even though I loved his memoir, The Color of Water. I wasn't expecting to like The Good Lord Bird that much so I'm happy to be able to say I did.

I have recently complained about satire not successfully done in The Dinner by Herman Koch and praised it as well done in Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Both of those books went down in the first round of TOB. I'm not sure James McBride is on a winning streak due to his satire, but in my opinion it is the most impeccably done of the three but is also so subtle, it is easy to miss.

The story of John Brown and his ill-fated raid on the Harper's Ferry armory is one you always hear about but without much detail. Now I have possibly more detail that I know what to do with, but I certainly know what happened. Thank you James McBride for turning your research into an entertaining story.

McBride's narrator is Onion, freed from slavery by John Brown but curiously enslaved to the man in other ways. As a scrappy 12-year-old boy pretending to be a girl, he is an unreliable source of information whose combination of innocence and self-protective impulses provide wry interpretations of John Brown, abolitionists, and the white man. By the end I was pretty sure Onion's voice was James McBride, a trick requiring some very cool literary skill.

You may wonder how the Civil War got started. If you have read much literature about the war, you will have come across numerous answers to that question. If you believe James McBride, it was the cauldron of Bleeding Kansas which spawned a man like John Brown, driven by the word of God to free all the slaves; whose fanaticism put him in Harper's Ferry at just the right time.

But then you finish The Good Lord Bird, nearly convinced that maybe the author was just putting you on. As one slave character says to Onion, "Every nigger got the same job. Their job is to tell a story the white man likes."

(The Good Lord Bird is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in July, 2014)

Monday, March 24, 2014


Little Failure, Gary Shteyngart, Random House, 2014, 368 pp

Gary Shteyngart has written a possibly perfect memoir, in which we learn about the tears and sorrows behind his Russian clown persona. Though many authors have woven the immigrant experience into their development as writers, he adds accents I've not read before.

"Like most Soviet Jews, like most immigrants from Communist nations, my parents were deeply conservative, and they never thought much of the four years I had spent at my liberal alma mater, Oberlin College, studying Marxist politics and book writing. On his first visit to Oberlin my father stood on a giant vagina painted in the middle of the quad by the campus lesbian, gay, and bisexual organization, oblivious to the rising tide of hissing and camp around him, as he enumerated to me the differences between laserjet and inkjet printers, specifically the price points of the cartridges. If I'm not mistaken, he thought he was standing on a peach."

That quote is only the second half of a paragraph and there I heard the voice of the author who could write The Russian Debutante's Handbook. I expected to be entertained in a novel with such a title but had no idea I would be as entertained in a memoir called Little Failure.

And so it goes. His asthmatic early childhood in a cold one-room Soviet apartment; his parents' mystification once they made it to the United States in 1979; his miserable years in a Hebrew elementary school. The only hope you have for his survival is that he has lived for over 40 years and published three acclaimed novels.

It took Oberlin, lots and lots of drugs and alcohol, but also as we learn, the secret love of his father (secret because of all the beatings) to raise Mr Shteyngart up from his mother's curse when she named him Failurchka or Little Failure. I got the idea that no one was more surprised about this than the author himself.

My happiest moment (and Gary's luckiest) was when Chang-rae Lee read a draft of The Russian Debutante's Handbook and convinced his agent to represent Gary. I wondered if it was the immigrant connection, since these two authors write so differently: Chang-rae Lee with his serious measured prose and Gary Shteyngart who writes like a guy riding a unicycle, always on the verge of taking a tumble. I suppose it takes balance to write either way.

In 1996, Shteyngart had a panic attack while in Strand's looking at a photograph of the Chesme Church in Leningrad, a place he passed and marveled at daily as a toddler. In 2011, he made his sixth or seventh trip to Russia, trips that began in 1999. He had his parents with him and they tour their former life in the former Soviet Union together.

In Little Failure, Chapter 25, called "The Final Revelation," reads like the greatest of Russian novels as written by Gary Shteyngart. Somehow I had not realized that was where he was going with this memoir, but he so generously shares his revelations with us. 

A life is not a straight line.

(Little Failure is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in September, 2014.)

Friday, March 21, 2014


Hill William, Scott McClanahan, Tyrant Books, 2013, 200 pp

Here is another book I would never have come across if not for The Tournament of Books. It is a coming of age tale but not much like any such story I have read before.

The opening sentences: "I used to hit myself in the face. Of course, I had to be careful about hitting myself now that I was dating Sarah. One night we got into a fight and I went into the bathroom to get rid of that sick feeling in my shoulders, and I did it. I wasn't feeling any better afterwards, so I hit myself in the face one more time."

I don't know to whom I could recommend this book. It is dark and gritty and unrelievedly disturbing. I guess I could recommend it to people like myself who like to read dark and gritty stuff. It is the story of a boy who grew up in poverty in Appalachia with bad parenting and numerous sociopathic types for boyhood friends and neighbors.

It is also a story of this young man trying mightily but not completely successfully to overcome his origins. I'm pretty sure it is autobiographical so the fact that Scott McClanahan has written and published six books is proof that he is in some ways winning his battle.

I read stories like this to remind myself now many people in the United States live so far from the "American Dream," lest I forget. Whatever the American Dream is though, it is a powerful force and here is this guy reaching for it in his own way.
Reading Hill William, I felt ridiculous for ever once complaining about my life. I realized again what an awesome responsibility it is to be a parent. I wondered for the billionth time why life in the world has to be the unbalanced mess that it is. Yes, the resilience of the human spirit, that driving force of fiction, produces amazement whenever we contemplate it, but I can't help wondering if the optimism with which I regard that resilience is misguided.

Getting better, making progress, being and doing and having more? Is that a worthy plan for a sentient being? Is there even an answer to that question? It's what we do no matter the cost.

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki, Viking Penguin, 2013, 418 pp

I loved this book because after all is said, it was so cool. Besides it various charms, it is about Buddhist philosophy and I have a weakness for philosophical fiction. And I think of myself as a time being (defined in the second paragraph of the first page of the first chapter in the novel as "someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or will ever be.") And the title is a play on words. My father taught me about plays on words and we delighted in making them up, so I am still making them up with my husband and still delight in coming across them.

The two main time beings in the story are Nao (pronounced now) and Ruth. Nao is a Japanese teenager who grew up in the Silicon Valley where her dad was a programmer for a start up but lost his job in the recent economic crash. Now they are back in Tokyo, poverty stricken. Nao's dad is depressed and suicidal, her mother is disturbed and clueless, while Nao is being bullied at school making her depressed and suicidal but trying to get a clue by writing a diary.

Ruth is a writer living on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her brilliant but challenged husband. One day Nao's diary washes up on the shore inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox. Ruth has been trying to write a memoir but has become completely blocked. When she finds the lunchbox, she develops an obsession with Nao's diary and in fact with the girl's existence, fearing that the lunchbox has arrived as a piece of debris from Japan's tsunami.

The rest of the story is about a mysterious connection between these two time beings, so if my overly long synopsis sounds intriguing you must read the novel. It is not a perfect novel. It is uneven at times, there is not exactly a plot, Nao's voice is narcissistic teen angst and Ruth's voice is narcissistic middle-aged blocked writer angst.

In the end, especially due to Nao's 104-year-old great-grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun, it all worked for me. One of my earliest life decisions was to live 100 years. Now I am not sure I want to but if that is my fate, I want to be as wise and cool and hip as Nao's great-grandmother.

(A Tale For The Time Being is available on the shelf in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective, Donald J Sobol, Dutton Children's Books, 1964, 88 pp


This is the first book in the Encyclopedia Brown 28 book series. I read it as research for my novel. I've seen these books for years at the bookstore where I used to work and at libraries. They are all short chapter books recommended for reader aged 7 and up.

Pretty good. Each chapter concerns a mystery case solved by the well-read and logical thinker Encyclopedia Brown, who is 10. His real name is Leroy but everyone except his parents and teachers call him by his nickname because his "head was like an encyclopedia. It was filled with facts he had learned from books. He was like a complete library walking around in sneakers."

Mr Brown, his father, is the chief of police for their small town. Idaville, in this first book, is typical for the mid 60s. Kids ride all around on their bikes and are allowed to roam about after dark. After Encyclopedia helps his father solve a puzzling case, using observation and logic in the style of Sherlock Holmes, he decides to go into the detective business himself.

He makes up handbills (now there is an old term) and a sign, charges 25¢ per day (plus expenses) and eventually takes on a bodyguard and junior partner named Sally Kimbal.

At the end of each chapter, after the mystery has been solved, are the words HOW DID ENCYCLOPEDIA KNOW THIS? or some variation of that question. The reader is directed to a page in the back of the book for the solution. Of course, I tried to figure out each one on my own first and I imagine a young reader would do the same.

I wonder if Donald Sobol updates the environment as the series progresses. The 28th book was published in 2012. I hope my library has it. Does anyone know?

(Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014


The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara, Doublday, 2013, 362 pp

Culture clash! A research scientist of dubious moral character discovers a source of extreme longevity in the meat of a turtle on an unspoiled Pacific island. It is one of the oldest tales on earth: the serpent in the garden; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the discovery of fire; the splitting of the atom; test tube genetics; information technology. What will those humans do next?

I happen to like the story of man's perilous road to scientific knowledge. I would not for a moment dream of seeking to halt it. My world view is comprised of what I call "optimistic anarchy" meaning that I have a slender but sturdy belief that mankind can work out its destiny into eternity.

But we need such tales of caution as Ms Yanagihara presents in The People in the Trees. Ann Patchett told hers in State of Wonder. Barbara Kingsolver tells hers in almost every book she writes. Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy is another example. The People in the Trees has as its mad scientist Norton Perina, a suitably complex character. He goes too far, though he wins a Nobel Prize, and his attempts to make amends are foiled by his own troubled nature.

The author chose to have Perina's story told by a worshipful associate, a man who is blind to Perina's faults and whose certainty that genius trumps, even excuses, behavioral lapses is clearly stated. The brilliant writing in the novel enables us to see through this hagiography. Actually she creates a double veil for us to peer through, since the associate is the transcriber and editor of Perina's memoirs.

Not for the squeamish, The People in the Trees reveals tribal custom, jungle living, and the scientific method in full living color and detail. It raises just about every conceivable question about the fine lines between science and spirituality, ceremony and abuse, sanity and madness, progress and destruction. 

Of all the Tournament of Books contenders this year, I found this one the hardest to read in terms of horrific scenes and yet the most rewarding for it provocative nature.

(The People in the Trees is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in April 2014.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Delacorte Press, 1961, 202 pp

This is the book I mentioned in my review of The Dinner, as an example of perfectly executed satire and moral ambiguity. I love opening a Vonnegut novel because I never know what I am going to find. Even when he stumbles, as I feel he did in The Sirens of Titan, he is so uniquely himself and I am never bored.

Howard W Campbell Jr: ersatz Nazi spewing out propaganda for the Party in WWII, undercover CIA spy, loving husband. He is writing his memoirs while languishing in an Israeli prison awaiting trial for war crimes. Vonnegut sets the stage in his introduction:

"This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."

Good advice for all the Facebook addicted people of the world, though in 2014 apt to fall on deaf ears.

So Howard explains how an American lives in Germany, marries a German woman, gets caught up in the prewar Nazi madness, finds himself promulgating Nazi propaganda on worldwide radio, embedding intelligence after his recruitment to the CIA, escapes back to the United States without his wife and without any CIA backup, lives in hiding in a New York City walk up, meets with Fascist types and trickery and eventual betrayal to the Israelis.

It is a mad tale and a cynical as well as bleak assessment of politics, anti-Semitism, and the dangers of pretending. All the while making the reader laugh, smirk, and cringe at the same time.

Truly amazing!

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

Sunday, March 09, 2014


Tell The Wolves I'm Home, Carol Rifka Brunt, The Dial Press, 2012, 355pp

I am not usually a fan of what I call Terminal Illness Lit (you know, cancer, AIDS, etc) but this one wormed its way into my heart because it is also about sisters, unconditional love, and coming of age, with a complete nerd as its heroine. Oh yes, there is also art (painting) involved.

Shy, misunderstood June Elbus, who would rather live in the Middle Ages, lost her beloved uncle to AIDS in 1987 when she was 14. It is hard to remember now, but in 1987 AIDS was barely understood and causing great alarm as well as gross amounts of hurtful commentary. 

Thus in June's family, Uncle Finn, his illness, his lifestyle, and finally his death had divided them in many ways, making June's grief and mourning even more lonely. She forms a friendship with her uncle's still living lover and gropes her way through to healing and redemption.

If this does not sound like your cup of tea, you would not be missing that much if you passed on the novel. For me, it was the kind of book I liked while reading it but promptly forgot when I was done.

The writing is good and not mushy or sentimental. Brunt gives June the believable voice of a girl her age. She also does the trick of making an unreliable narrator become reliable as June matures and figures out what is going on.

I had trouble believing the parents as characters. They are portrayed as loving parents but are so out of touch with their teen daughters, it belies the love. I had a similar problem with the parents in Jodi Picoult's The Pact. In fact, I swore I would never read Picoult again because I don't trust her.

Carol Rifka Brunt retained my trust. I am aware that raising teens in America these days is one of the more challenging enterprises an adult can attempt, so I would recommend Tell The Wolves I'm Home to parents of teens if only to alert them to how much they might be in the dark about their offspring and to how much love, communication, and caring it takes.

In the end, June becomes the heroine who saves her family, recovers her sister's love, and finally is able to participate in the world. It is all somewhat unbelievable but if only the believable happened in life, we would be in even worse straits than we are. Isn't that one of the purposes of fiction? To present us with various possibilities?

(Tell The Wolves I'm Home is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, March 06, 2014


The Tuner of Silences, Mia Couto, translated from the Portuguese by David Brookshaw, Biblioasis, 2013, 282 pp

I read this because it was on the short list for the Tournament of Books. The reading experience was similar to reading other novels set in African countries and written by African writers. It felt very foreign and outside of my own experience. And yet I felt an affinity with and understanding of the characters caused by the excellence of the writing and I suppose the translation also.

The other morning I looked up some reviews of the novel and background on the author. While doing so, I realized The Tuner of Silences could be read on two different levels. One is to take what is there with no preconceived ideas which is how I read it.

I found a remnant of a family (a father and two sons, a servant and and uncle) living on the grounds of an abandoned game preserve somewhere in Africa. The wife of the father and mother of the sons is dead. We don't know until near the end of the book how she died but the father has become almost mad with grief and an undefined guilt.

The father runs his sons' lives with an iron hand, literally at times, determined to keep them entirely separate from the outside world. There has been a war (the servant is an ex-soldier) and you get the idea that all is irredeemably lost.

But boys will be boys, especially at ages eleven and sixteen. The uncle and the servant are wild cards as is a Portuguese woman who arrives out of the blue. All of these characters work against the father's desire for disconnection from the world, each in their own different ways.

I ended up loving the story and being moved by everything about it. But I did finish it wondering about its setting and the details of the surrounding world, so that would be the other level on which I could have read it, if I had known those things. I am glad I didn't because part of the spell worked on me was the dribbling out of clues and facts, creating in me the same desperation to know that drives the younger son who is the narrator. I learned what I wanted to know only as he did.

(The Tuner of Silences is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


March came in like a lion in Los Angeles with the biggest rain storm we have had so far this year. While the east and midwest get dumped with snow daily we have been in a drought here all winter. Plus rainy days are the best reading days.

This month all of my reading groups are meeting. I am geeked because there is nothing I love more than discussing books. Luckily for me I have already read one of the books and another will be discussed in two different groups. It is also the Tournament of Books craziness. That began yesterday and I still have four books to read by next week. Am I having fun or what?

In this post I will attempt to make all the book links go to IndieBound. Then, if you want to know more about the book, you can click on the image and find a summary as well as an independent bookstore locator. Here we go:

The New Book Club:

Once Upon A Time Bookstore Adult Fiction Group:

One Book At A Time:

Bookie Babes:

World's Smallest Reading Group:

Tina's Group:

I always like to know what books you are reading in your reading groups. If you are not in a reading group I encourage you to join one. If you need tips on how to find a good reading group, let me know. I am an expert!

Monday, March 03, 2014


The Dinner, Herman Koch, Hogarth, 2013, 292 pp

This is going to be one of my signature rambling reviews. It will not have a theme nor will it have a through line, except that even a week after finishing The Dinner I can't decide what I think about it.

When I first heard of the book last year, because it had a big buzz, I was repelled by both its description and the reviews I read. I decided not to read it. Then it reared its head on the Tournament of Books 2014 list. I'm not exactly sorry I read it but I could have gotten along just fine in my reading life without it.

Two things I somehow hadn't realized are that this is a translated book (from the Dutch) and that it is set in Amsterdam. While the first person narrator (do we ever learn his name?) did strike me as a foreign version of a particular kind of man, someone I would call an asshole/bigot type best avoided at parties and family gatherings, the rest of the novel could have taken place just as easily in Boston or San Francisco or even Houston. So I don't think the problem stems from location.

The voice of Mr Lohman, narrator, was annoying to me in the extreme. I'm fairly sure that was intentional. Besides his misanthropic views, he goes on and on like a right-winger on talk radio. I did not totally buy that his personality defects could be blamed on his unnamed mental illness, though I suppose I do consider people like him to be mentally unbalanced.

What did work for me was the painstaking and intricate revealing of what was really going on with these two sets of parents. It kept me glued to the pages in morbid fascination. Both marketers and readers have compared The Dinner to Gone Girl, another book I read only because of TOB and still can't make up my mind about. I agree with the comparison for two reasons, one being the painstaking intricate reveal.

The other similarity is a slippery as well as disturbing sense of moral ambiguity. I am currently reading Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut and marveling at his ability to write on the bleeding edge between moral ambiguity and satire; wishing there were authors in the 21st century who wrote that way.

I'm not totally sure but I suspect Herman Koch was going for such a thing. Ultimately he didn't quite pull it off due to a bit too much heavy handedness on the moral ambiguity and a certain less-than-exact rendering of satire. The bleeding edge became a chasm in his hands into which I fell and I can't seem to get out.

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