Wednesday, April 30, 2014


All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld, Pantheon Books, 2014, 229 pp

When I finished reading Evie Wyld's first novel, After the Fall, a Still Small Voice, I knew I would be reading every other novel she would write. Some readers like to go to the peaks of forbidding mountains, some to dense jungles or the bottom of the sea. I like the fierce environments of Australia.

All the Birds, Singing takes place both in Australia and on the West coast of England. Lots of sheep, raising and shearing of; plenty of people who are more feral than the animals. Jake Whyte is a woman, a survivor of many of the worst things that can happen to a woman.

When the novel opens on Jake's sheep farm in England, we meet a capable, independent female, devoid of trust, living like a hermit with only her collie (named Dog), a flock of sheep, and the crows. Something or someone is killing her sheep, one by one, inducing a combination of rage and terror in the woman's long dead heart.

In alternating chapters the devastating tale of Jake's life unspools in reverse order. I loved how the author did that. The main tone of Jake's life is terror; how to avoid it, how to escape it, how to not be consumed by it. As the present mystery moves forward, Jake's deeply concealed past moves backward. The tension created is visceral.

The best novels are like this, where the unfolding of the tale creates the reading adventure. They are also the hardest to write about because almost everything I could say would be the most terrible sort of spoiler. I would spoil another reader's experience. 

I will just say that Jake Whyte defies mostly all the expectations readers and authors bring to female characters. In fact, she reminded me of Kerewin in The Bone People. In fact, the emotional impact of All the Birds, Singing reminded me of The Bone People.

(All the Birds, Singing is available in hardcover and audio by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, April 25, 2014


The Spinoza Problem, Irvin D Yalom, Basic Books, 2012, 308 pp

I learned of this author through one of my friends on Goodreads. Yalom is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, a practicing psychiatrist, and an author of nonfiction as well as novels. The Spinoza Problem is a philosophical novel and I chose to read it as an introduction to Yalom because I admire Spinoza.

I have mentioned before, in my ranting about books and reading, my life long difficulties with studying philosophy. My only real success in this endeavor came when I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant, in which he gives a biography and summary of the writings of fifteen well known philosophers from Plato to John Dewey. I finally understood that these thinkers and writers learned from their predecessors, then enlarged upon or revised or argued against them, continuing to make the subject relevant for their times.

It was Durant's portrait of Spinoza that inspired my admiration. Since then, being a lover of novels, I confess I have fulfilled my philosophical curiosity by reading fiction based on the subject.

A philosophical novel is not usually a page turner due to the necessary extent and depth of its ideas. A serial killer kills, a philosopher thinks. The Spinoza Problem was fairly snappy though due to an intriguing dual plot. The story of Spinoza runs from 1656, the year he was excommunicated by Jewish leaders in Amsterdam, to 1666 when his loyal friend Franco warns him not to publish his critique of the Bible under his own name. The connection and dialogue between these two men serve to convey Spinoza's main ideas to the reader.

But we also get the sense of deep isolation and loneliness under which Spinoza worked on his ideas. The price paid for freedom of thought is high. In addition, the author creates the atmosphere for Jews living in Europe following the Spanish Inquisition. 

Intertwined with Spinoza's is a secondary story following Alfred Rosenberg, also a historical figure, from his teenage years as a student in 1910 Estonia to his adult years as a leading member of the Nazi party being the editor of Hitler's propaganda filled newspaper. The Spinoza problem for Alfred, an admirer of Goethe, was how the German genius could have held a Jewish philosopher in such high regard. Rosenberg was an anti-Semite of the first order and ultimately hanged as a war criminal for his part in creating the Final Solution.

Using a fictional psychoanalyst named Friedrich Pfister, Yalom explores Rosenberg's mental makeup. The sessions between them present both a historically accurate picture of mental health practices in the early 20th century as well as an analysis of the psychosis of an anti-Semite.

Thus the novel is an intriguing contrast between two men who both suffered from isolation and loneliness, who both held fiercely to radical ideas, and who both impacted history. Yet Spinoza's impact was to bring religious inquiry from superstition and manipulation into the realm of reason. Rosenberg's was to further the aims of hatred and oppression.

What then are good reasons to read philosophical novels? Philosophy is a calling, not well remunerated unless one teaches or publishes. It has its own language generally directed toward other philosophers or serious students of the subject. But to be human is to wonder about life and its quandaries.

The philosophical novel then forms a bridge from the deep thinker in his ivory tower and the everyday person. By putting those ideas into story form, such novels encourage us to look more closely at ourselves, our fellow humans, our societies and governments. We become included in a conscious conduct of life and in the pursuit of truth.

Can you recommend any good philosophical novels to me?

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein, Hyperion, 2012, 332 pp

I was not looking forward to reading this. I have read enough WWII novels to last me several lifetimes. But the reading group must go on! Inside the front cover no less than 15 awards and accolades are listed. You know what? The book is amazing and she earned everyone of those prizes and best-ofs. Not your ordinary WWII novel.

The story features a female pilot and a female spy who are the kind of best friends who should grow old together. Alas, there is a war on and one of them is doomed.

Code Name Verity is one of those books that grabs you with a voice, goes into a bit of a confusing lull that forces the reader to figure out what is going on, and then by sheer ingeniousness of plot, just blows your head off. The characters are so complex and admirable and intelligent and brave. There are men in the story but I hardly noticed them because the two young women shone so brightly.

I'm not sure why it was marketed as Young Adult. The two friends are young but not teens. Some quite grizzly torture scenes might give a sensitive reader nightmares. But the strength and determination and sheer guts of those women, in the face of hardship and the horrors of war, show a side of females not usually seen in war stories. It would make a great movie.

(Code Name Verity is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available in hardcover and eBook by order.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014


The Indigo Notebook, Laura Resau, Delacorte Press, 2009, 315 pp

I came across this author on someone's blog and must apologize to said blogger for not remembering who you are. But thanks so much because The Indigo Notebook turned out to be a unique and wonderful YA read.

The story opens as 15-year-old Zeeta is flying from Laos to Ecuador with her flighty, blissed out, aging hippie mom. Layla, the mom, likes to move to a different country every year, making her living as an ESL teacher and hooking up with equally dreamy and usually feckless boyfriends.

Zeeta is left to be the practical one and longs for a suburban life in Maryland and a Handsome Magazine Dad. Luckily, her lifestyle has bestowed the gifts of making friends easily and learning languages quickly.

Once they are settled, Zeeta meets Wendall, an adopted teen from Colorado, who has come to spend the summer in Ecuador and search for his birth parents. They fall in love and help each other through their troubles. Actually, Zeeta does most of the helping. She is just that type.

This is not a Traveling Pants romance nor is it Eleanor & Park dysfunctional parents angst. Yes, there is the exotic location but with realistic local characters, traditions, foods, and hardships. Also Zeeta rebels against her mom but then worries when Layla starts dating a Handsome Magazine Dad and loses all her wacky, New Age sparkle.

For me, it was just about a perfect YA novel. The plot kept twisting in many unexpected ways and the happy ending gives almost everyone what they want. There are two sequels, The Ruby Notebook and The Jade Notebook. I will be reading them.

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi, Riverhead Books, 2014, 308 pp

What a great year for novels 2014 is shaping up to be! This is the fourth new novel I have read this year and I have been enchanted with each read. I'm quite sure Helen Oyeyemi intended to enchant me, playing around the way she does with the Snow White fairy tale and re-imagining it as a meditation on race, beauty, and envy.

Boy is a woman who escapes a truly horrific childhood. In fact, the level of its horror is not fully revealed until the end of the book and I could never have guessed it in a million years. A pale, white-blond, brainy type with a strange relationship to mirrors, she marries a widower and becomes stepmother to a spoiled and precocious beauty named Snow. When Boy and her husband have a child, named Bird, the infant's dark skin is proof that Mr Skinner is a light-skinned African American passing for white. Boy discovers her evil side.

Quite a set up, but by the time all this has happened, I was under Oyeyemi's spell. Not worried about inconsistencies or less than fully developed characters, on the contrary I decided that in the author's mind the story made total sense and the characters were completely formed. She didn't feel the need to explain every little thing, nor did I need her to.

Sometimes I have a sort of reverse snobbery about authors who retell classics like Shakespeare plays or folk tales or, god forbid, Jane Austen books. But such is the artistry and wild abandon displayed in Boy, Snow, Bird that I was content to be duped, to marvel at the unbelievable, and to care passionately about Boy and Snow and Bird.

Helen Oyeyemi is a beautiful black woman, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants raised in middle class conditions in London and educated in the best schools. This is her fifth novel (I must read the other four), she has won all kinds of accolades, but really I think she is a wizard.

(Boy, Snow, Bird is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Shop Indie Bookstores

A Fall of Moondust, Arthur C Clarke, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961, 231 pp

How serendipitous that I should blog about A Fall of Moondust the morning after the lunar eclipse. In fact, the eclipse was way more impressive. This was the least liked book of Clarke's I've read so far. The plot kept me reading. As usual, the author delves into some philosophical questions about mankind. But the device of a cruiser traveling across the Sea of Thirst on the moon only to become buried in the dust by a moon quake was too much like other such movies/novels: meet the characters, disaster strikes, characters either deal of freak out, captain and crew must rise to the occasion, rescue efforts, success or failure.

Not to say that Clarke does a bad or even mediocre job of it. He is after all Arthur C Clarke. In a 1986 Introduction to his 1961 novel, he explains that before the Apollo, Armstrong, and Aldrin, astronomers postulated that the lunar plains were composed of extremely fine dust. So you see the Sea of Thirst was aptly named. The cruiser is the "Selene" after the Greek goddess of the moon.

Clarke's doses of hard science were accessible, even for a science-challenged person like me. The love story is nicely done in a 1950s way, though does hint at premarital sex. But what else are a ship's captain and his sole stewardess going to do to relieve their stress? Pat Harris, the captain, has relationship issues and ruminates, "If there was a clear-cut scientific test that could tell when you were in love, (he) had not yet come across it." Cute!

On board the "Selene" is a nutjob passenger who believes in UFOs and paranoically blames the accident on a superior intelligence who is "after him." Clarke then spends some pages debunking the whole flying saucer myth from a scientist's perspective.

So despite some out-dated science and a hackneyed theme, Arthur C Clarke created an entertaining story while contributing to mankind's myth of someday living on the moon.

(A Fall of Moondust is out of print as a paper book, there is no eBook, but an audio version on CD is sometimes available by special order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014


Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline, William Morrow, 2013, 273 pp

When this novel was published about a year ago, I knew there was no way I wasn't going to read it. I have some kind of fracture in my psyche where I mourn and pine for children who become orphaned for any reason. 

No such trauma happened to me. I was a wanted and loved child and raised by well-meaning, competent and loving parents. However, for some reason, I habitually wondered if I had been adopted and was going to be told when I got "old enough."

I have been working off and on over many years on a novel about a foster mom and have done some research myself on the history of orphanages, foster care, and adoption, including the orphan train phenomenon. All I will say is the entire subject is fraught with as much abuse as it is with good intentions.

Christina Baker Kline did plenty of research and created a fine story bracketed by the orphan train era (1854 to 1929) and the current foster care program in this country. One of her characters was an orphan train rider of Irish descent whose life turned out well despite much suffering, loss, and abuse in childhood. The novel's drama is built on the connection between this woman and a modern day fostered teen about to age out of the system.

Together these two, almost unwittingly, enable each other to heal and come to understandings about their lives. Though the architecture of the story is a bit too obviously contrived and the writing somewhat lighter than the topic demands, I did my share of weeping as I read. I have to credit the author for that.

(Orphan Train is available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an eBook by order.)

Wednesday, April 09, 2014


The Son, Philipp Meyer, HarperCollins Publishers, 2013, 572 pp

Perhaps because this was the final book I read for the Tournament of Books and I was a bit weary of the project by then, I found reading The Son a chore. 

Perhaps because I so admired American Rust, I longed for a similar emotional impact and became annoyed when that sort of jolt came so much less often in this novel.

In any case, I was disappointed. It was only my self-imposed intention to read the entire TOB list before the tournament ended that kept me going. I felt pretty intrepid as a reader for making the goal-the first time in my four years of following the tournament-but I hold a slight grudge against Philipp Meyer for making the last sprint feel like a marathon.

I did not mind taking another look at Texas history, since half of my immediate family now lives there. In fact, my 12 year old granddaughter is being forced to study the history of Texas at school. Perhaps it is shallow of me, but I like Larry McMurtry better. 

There are actually a plethora of sons in The Son. Only one daughter rather saves the reader from drowning in testosterone, though I'm afraid she did die a slow death from poisoning by that hormone. None of the sons lived up to the sheer balls of Colonel Eli McCullough. In fact, his great granddaughter Jeanne Anne won the contest on bringing the Colonel's philosophy of life into the 21st century.

I felt the author was trying a little too hard to write a Great American Novel, not that he shouldn't have tried. He has an agenda in The Son. He also had one in American Rust but made it more palatable or visceral or personal for this reader.

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

Sunday, April 06, 2014


Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell, St Martin's Press, 2013, 325 pp


The token young adult novel on this year's Tournament of Books has it all: troubled teens, bullying, first love and music. It is a modern day Romeo and Juliet. All I can say is that I wanted to read it everyday, I was completely immersed, and I didn't want it to end.

Eleanor lives in virtual squalor with her dysfunctional parents. Her large body and unruly red hair make her an object of ridicule at her new school. She can't understand her mother's weakness and worries about her horrible crazy stepdad. Surrounded by a self-imposed shell of mistrust, she is always blowing it with Park.

Park is Korean/American with basically good parents, except his dad who is a former soldier wants Park to be more macho. He takes pity on Eleanor during a classic school bus incident and eventually falls in love with her.

You basically know the rest but it turns out you don't exactly. That is why you keep reading. I think the sexual exploration was nicely done and realistic and should not worry parents but it probably does anyway. I am giving this book to my teenage granddaughter.

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

Thursday, April 03, 2014


Long Division, Kiese Laymon, Bolden Books, 2013, 267 pp

Here is another book I would not have read or possibly even heard of if not for the Tournament of Books. It is gut wrenching and powerful. The writing reminded me sometimes of James Baldwin, other times of Alice Walker. The story is a testament to the reality of racism and its continued presence in American culture, despite our half-black president, despite the unparalleled success of Oprah Winfrey.

City is an Alabama boy raised as much by his small town grandma as by his mom. He is smart, he goes to an exclusive high school, and his Black swagger is melded with the insecurities and confusions about life for a Black male in 21st century America.

Due in part to a book called Long Division, given to him by his school counselor, and in part to the ghostly presences in the woods by his grandma's house, City time travels back to 1964 and 1985. A second narrator named City lives in the 1985 sections. Also included in the rather large cast of characters are a missing classmate named Baize, an enigmatic female whose favorite punctuation mark is the ellipsis, and Shalaya Crump, unrequited crush of the 1985 City.

It is a tangled story and sometimes hard to tell which City is narrating or which time period is going on. In the end, that confusion is the book's charm as well as its theme. Time passes, cultures change, technologies progress, but the color of one's skin is still the deal breaker.

In 2013, City and his frenemy Lavender Peeler take part in a grammar competition called "Can You Use That Word in a Sentence," supposed to be free of cultural bias. Turns out it has a liberal agenda designed to prove we are no longer a racist society. After City creates a historic meltdown over the word "niggardly," the video of which goes viral, the contest goes by default to the other minority, a Mexican contestant.

Kiese Laymon, born and raised in Mississippi, is now an associate professor of English and Africana Studies at Vassar College. He has clearly taken to heart the necessity for a Black person to run twice as fast to get half as far. In fact, he has probably run four times as fast. I will read any novel he writes. As Toni Morrison ages, I've wondered who could take her place. I may have found him.

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

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


Don't know where March went. But it is over and that is no April Fool's joke. My reading lesson in March was that I am not a rereader. I know some people are and some writing instructors say you can learn to write better by rereading a book you loved and figuring out what made it so great. When I reread, I usually find the magic is gone. This was not true when I was a kid. Then I read my favorite books over and over. Now I sit there restlessly looking at all the not yet read books on my shelves and wanting to read them! So there!!

Here is the line up for April:

The New Book Club:   

Once Upon A Time Adult Fiction Group:

One Book At A Time:

Bookie Babes:

Tina's Group:

There you have it. I wasn't able to get the book links from Indiebound today. Some glitch on the site. 
I WON'T be rereading The Power and the Glory (read in 2002 and loved it) or Orphan Train (read last month), but I will attend the meetings and discuss. I am looking forward to the James Baldwin and to The Liars' Club.

How do you feel about rereading books?