Friday, July 29, 2016


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The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016, 281 pp

Summary from Goodreads:
In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke's in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain--a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she's curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. As the three threads intersect, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos mesmerizes while it grapples with the demands of the artistic life, showing how the deceits of the past can forge the present. 

My Review:
This was one of the reading group books I had not already read for July. I am glad we chose it. It is a type of historical novel that takes place in two different eras, 1635 and 1957 with some additional sections set in 2000. 

Sara de Vos was a fictional painter in 1600s Netherlands, loosely based on one of the few female painters of that time. Dominic Smith (Australian and who I thought was female all the time I was reading but is a man) imagines Sara as one of only 25 women who belonged to the Guilds of St Luke, an entity that controlled all aspects of the professional life of artists. It was the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Only one of her paintings still exists in the 20th century.

On the upper east side of New York City in 1957, Marty de Groot's favorite painting is stolen from his penthouse during a party and replaced with a nearly flawless forgery. The original painting, At the Edge of a Wood, was painted by Sara de Vos in the early 1600s. The fake was done by Ellie Shipley due to a youthful folly that she will live to regret. 

Ellie is an aspiring young painter living in her squalid Brooklyn apartment amid canvases, linseed oil, and tubes of paint. (You learn a lot about painting in this book and one of the reading group members who is a painter said it was all accurate.) Being mid the dissertation for her PhD in art history at Columbia, she makes ends meet by working as a restorer of old masterpieces.

The rest of the story is told in alternating time periods. Bad things happen to Sara and Ellie. Marty de Groot is quite a jerk. But there are bittersweet happy endings and satisfying resolutions.

I almost always enjoy novels about artists and art of any kind. This was no exception and a huge cut above most of the current bestsellers.

(The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Wednesday, July 27, 2016


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 The Seed Collectors, Scarlett Thomas, Soft Skull Press, 2016, 370 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Aunt Oleander is dead. In the Garden of England her extended family gather to remember her, to tell stories and to rekindle old memories. To each of her nearest and dearest Oleander has left a precious seed pod. But along with it comes a family secret that could open the hardest of hearts but also break the closest ties...

My Review:
I think perhaps Scarlett Thomas is not for everyone but she is definitely for me! A few years ago I read Our Tragic Universe and fell in love.

Five generations of the Gardener family, botanists and spiritual seekers, are harboring some tragedy and many secrets. When Great Aunt Oleander, of the second generation, dies and leaves a rare and precious seed pod to each of her descendants, the family begins to fracture. Not that there was a lack of trouble while Oleander lived, but as we know from many novels, inheritance can be a sticky thing.

For the remaining Gardeners, old tragedy and secrets start coming out. Not one of the marriages in the third and fourth generation is particularly happy. An infidelity produced Fleur, but strangely she has inherited the bulk of Oleander's property and wealth. Fleur loves Charles but he is her half-brother and therefore forbidden. And so on.

Both the glue that holds these family members together and the weakness that keeps them from fitting in with the rest of the world is an old-fashioned quest for enlightenment. The seed pods possibly contain the answer but also might possibly bring about the enlightening by killing anyone who ingests them.

By the time I reached the end I had met wondrously weird characters, made some sense of the convoluted family connections, and was hit with my own enlightenment. The whole novel is a spoof on people, whether they be rich, talented, famous, or just ordinary, who seek love and answers to life.

It made me a little uncomfortable because I have sought those answers with a stubborn tenacity all my life, though at this point am pretty sure that it is all a con, that life is random, so you make the best of it.

Still, what an entertaining way to be made uncomfortable!

(The Seed Collectors is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, July 24, 2016


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Let Me Die in His Footsteps, Lori Roy, Dutton, 2015, 322 pp

Summary from Goodreads:
On a dark Kentucky night in 1952 exactly halfway between her fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays, Annie Holleran crosses into forbidden territory. Everyone knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines, not since Joseph Carl was buried two decades before, but, armed with a silver-handled flashlight, Annie runs through her family’s lavender fields toward the well on the Baines’ place. At the stroke of midnight, she gazes into the water in search of her future. Not finding what she had hoped for, she turns from the well and when the body she sees there in the moonlight is discovered come morning, Annie will have much to explain and a past to account for. 

My Review: 

This book won the Edgar Award for 2016. Since the prize for mystery novels was created in 1954, I have read eight of the early Edgar winners as part of My Big Fat Reading Project. Four of the first eight winners were written by females and their books were great reads. (See list below.)

I have not read any recent winners and only one in the last decade was written by a woman. The prize has always been given to a mix of well known authors and ones you don't hear much about otherwise. On a whim, I decided to read this year's winner.

It was a whim that paid off. Set in 1950s Kentucky, the story combines coming-of-age, southern themes, family feuds, and love stories with a mystery. Annie has been raised by her aunt since infancy. Along the way she and the reader learn that her birth mother was a wild woman who disappeared right after Annie was born. She has no idea who her father was but it is widely known that a man was hanged in connection with the loss of her real mother's young brother. In fact, it was the last public hanging in the United States.

Annie has that Southern mixed blessing, sometimes called "the sight" but here it is called "the know how." Are the things she "knows" are going to happen really true or just teenage wishful thinking? A great way to put red herrings into the tale.

Because of the 1950s time period (I loved reading about Southern life, tobacco farming, etc in those times) and the back story set in the 1930s, it is almost historical fiction. Annie is a fascinating character. She is actually an orphan, she is smart and brave, and you just want her to be happy. The only thing I never figured out was the meaning of the title. I would be happy to hear thoughts on that from anyone who has read the book.

Lori Roy won an Edgar for Best First Novel a few years ago. She has two earlier novels I'd like to check out. Recommended for Southern fiction fans. 

Edgar Winners written by women in the first decade of the prize:
Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay
Beast in View by Margaret Millar
A Dram of Poison by Charlotte Armstrong
The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin

(Let Me Die in His Footsteps is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Saturday, July 23, 2016


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Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, Jean H Baker, W W Norton, 1987, 369 pp

I read this for one of my reading groups. I was looking forward to reading it but it is written in a scholarly tone, which made it difficult to get through even 40 pages in a day. 

I did learn more than I knew before about Abraham Lincoln's wife but my attachment to this much maligned First Lady was born when I read the historical novel Love Is Eternal by Irving Stone, the #3 bestseller of 1954. That novel brought her alive.

Baker applied psychology as it was understood in the 1980s and attempted to explain Mary's emotional states and obsessions by calling her a narcissist. I did not totally buy that. Life was violent in early 1860s Kentucky where she was raised. She lost her mother at a young age and later lost three of her four children to illnesses for which there was not workable medicine. Then she lost Abe. That makes a grieving woman, not a narcissist.

She single handedly created the role of First Lady as we see it to this day. She was a victim of some dastardly patriarchal males, simply because she was outgoing and got stuff done. So what if she liked to go shopping? She turned the White House into the showplace it needed to be for a President and world leader. She was the original shopaholic and would be showered with acclaim in today's world. Her remaining son had her committed to an insane asylum on the grounds that she could not handle her finances, even though she made do despite being denied the pension she should have had for the widow of the man who preserved the Union. Good God!

(Mary Todd Lincoln is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Arcadia, Iain Pears, Alfred A Knopf, 2016, 510 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Henry Lytten - a spy turned academic and writer - sits at his desk in Oxford in 1962, dreaming of other worlds.

He embarks on the story of Jay, an eleven-year-old boy who has grown up within the embrace of his family in a rural, peaceful world - a kind of Arcadia. But when a supernatural vision causes Jay to question the rules of his world, he is launched on a life-changing journey.

Lytten also imagines a different society, highly regulated and dominated by technology, which is trying to master the science of time travel.

Meanwhile - in the real world - one of Lytten's former intelligence colleagues tracks him down for one last assignment.

As he and his characters struggle with questions of free will, love, duty and the power of the imagination, Lytten discovers he is not sure how he wants his stories to end, nor even who is imaginary...

My Review:
Reading this novel was pure fun for me.

An Oxford professor in 1962, who was a spy in WWII, turns his hand to writing a fantasy novel that contains no magic. His teenage neighbor Rosie, who feeds his cat, stumbles through a portal into another world that turns out to be the world the professor imagined for his novel. A rebellious psychomathematician from the 24th century uses her own invention to escape from her boss, returns to 1939 and becomes a temporary spy herself.

Many time periods; real and fantasy and futuristic worlds; adventures and love affairs and a supercapitalist combine in surprising ways. It is a bit of a crazy mashup of several genres but somehow Iain Pears makes it work.

That is more than I knew going in. I just knew I have liked every Iain Pears novel I have read and started reading. So I'm not going to say more. Either you'll find your way into and out of Arcadia or you won't. Hint: you should be a fan of complex plots and have read either C S Lewis or JRR Tolkein in your youth, with possibly a tad of Isaac Asimov. 

(Arcadia is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, July 17, 2016


California writer Carolyn See passed away this week. She was the author of seven novels, one memoir, and one of my favorite books about writing. Lisa See is her daughter. I remember seeing them together on a panel at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. They were quite a pair.

Carolyn See had a wry and dry sense of humor about life, marriage, family, and being female. If you came of age in the 60s like I did, her novels will bring it all back: the feminism, the politics, the substances. If you have lived any part of your life in California or especially Los Angeles, you will feel right at home in her works.

The Novels:
The Rest is Done With Mirrors 1970: This was the first one I read.
Mothers, Daughters 1977: This was the second.
Rhine Maidens 1981
Golden Days 1986
Making History 1991
The Handyman 1999
There Will Never Be Another You 2006: I read this as soon as it came out and saw her at an author event at the now defunct Dutton's Books. She really knew how to give a reading.
The Memoir:
Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America 1995: I think I will read this in honor of the life she just completed. Then I will read the rest of the novels before the year is out.
The Book on Writing:
Making A Literary Life 2002: So many things I learned from this book and still do to this day.
So long Carolyn. Thanks for the lulz!

Friday, July 15, 2016


Saint Mazie, Jami Attenberg, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 324 pp

Mazie Phillips is the daughter of a bad father and his oppressed wife. At some point in their childhood, the eldest sister Rosie left home and got established in New York City. A year later Rosie came and got the two younger sisters, Mazie and Jeanie. Rosie by then had a husband named Louis and the two of them proceed to raise the younger sisters.

The form of the novel is a bit wonky. Mazie's story is told from several intermingled viewpoints including her diary, people who knew her over the years, and someone who is trying to get Mazie to write her life story. Despite the patchy way in which this form reveals that life, it does all come together by the end.

The "family" of Louis, Rosie, Mazie and Jeanie is not quite like the families one usually reads about in novels. That is why I ended up liking the book so much. No one is privileged or even normal. I found a few similarities to a couple of Amy Bloom's novels: Away and Lucky Us. In fact, I completely love Amy Bloom and am glad to have found an author like her.

Rosie does her best trying to raise her sisters, but she has her own troubles and eventually the girls grow up and get away from her. They are all unlucky in love and relationships and friendships but Mazie is the one who ends up caring for the lot of them. In addition she takes on many of the bums in the neighborhood, especially during the Depression and helps them in a warmhearted and non-judgemental fashion.

The book is a glittering yet raunchy piece of historical fiction that brings to life the lesser streets of New York City from 1907 to 1939: the Jazz Age, the Suffrage movement, prohibition, and the Depression. Inspired by the essay "Mazie" in Joseph Mitchell's Up In the Old Hotel, Ms Attenberg carries it off with humor, pathos and a ton of heart. Mazie, who was Jewish but whose best friend was a nun, who drank and smoked and had many lovers, came by her sainthood in the usual way: through love, suffering, pity, and hardship.

The story closes with her last diary entry and by then you have gotten to know a character you will be unlikely to forget.

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

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith, Simon & Schuster, 2004, 336 pp
Summary from Goodreads: In Wolves Eat Dogs, Renko returns for his most enigmatic and baffling case: the death of one of Russia's new billionaires, which leads him to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion -- closed to the world since 1986's nuclear disaster. It is still aglow with radioactivity, now inhabited only by the militia, shady scavengers, a few reckless scientists, and some elderly peasants who refuse to relocate. Renko's journey to this ghostly netherworld, the crimes he uncovers there, and the secrets they reveal about the New Russia make for an unforgettable adventure.
My Review:
After I read Voices From Chernobyl, someone told me about Wolves Eat Dogs. I am glad I read it because it makes a good companion piece to the other book. On the other hand, if I hadn't read Voices first, I would have been seriously lost.
Because Smith's book is a political/crime thriller, the pace is fast, the brutality is frequent, and the plot is thick. But he does address the Soviet government corruption and cover up of the nuclear meltdown as well as that of the Russian mafia after the fall of the Soviet Union. He truly brings that gnarly situation alive and so makes the point that humans cannot be trusted with nuclear power as did Voices From Chernobyl.
Svetlana Alexievich hinted at such things via the people she interviewed but she is Russian and has been viewed with suspicion by her government. Martin Cruz Smith is American.
Wolves Eat Dogs (a comment made often by the people who live near Chernobyl) is the 5th book in Smith's Arkady Renko series. I think I read Gorky Park way back when. I think I might read the rest one day.  
(Wolves Eat Dogs is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Sunday, July 10, 2016


The Enchanted, Rene Denfeld, HarperCollins, 2014, 233 pp
One of the best books I have read this year. No matter what your views on capital punishment and the death penalty, it will make you rethink everything. Even if you come through with the same views, you may find yourself examining those views more deeply than you ever have before.
The novel is told partly from the POV of a male prisoner on death row in an old rundown prison somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He is considered the worst criminal there even by the other prisoners. You learn his life history.

On the other side of the story is "the Lady." She works for a group of lawyers who try to get the death penalty changed to life imprisonment or to get retrials for inmates who are possibly wrongly convicted. By means of close third person, you get to know this woman and how she came to be doing such work.

A fallen priest, assigned to be prison chaplain to atone for his misdeeds, and prison employees both honest and corrupt round out the main characters.

What comes to light are the dangerous and foul conditions of prison life, the virtual impossibility of any rehabilitation taking place, and the ways prisoners cope. Most disturbing for me were the tales about how some of the prisoners were actually made into psychopaths by the miserable circumstances of their lives starting in childhood. The Lady had just as miserable a life but managed to keep some semblance of sanity as well as a huge amount of empathy. The ending is somewhat happy but I worried about that the whole time I was reading.

Rene Denfeld is herself a death penalty investigator with an almost terrifying imagination. This is her first novel. Our reading group had one of our best discussions ever.

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

Wednesday, July 06, 2016


The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 553 pp
 I loved this book. Not because it is perfect but because it is a great big huge dramatic tale with a heroine I almost wish I could have been. Lilliet Berne is an opera diva in Paris. It is the 1800s and she has secrets including her real name, how she got to Paris, and some of the things she had to do to get where she is. An orphan, a survivor of the fever that killed her family on a Minnesota homestead, and born with a rare soprano voice. What's more, she feels certain she is under a curse.

When the story opens, she has one last achievement she longs for--an original role, meaning the lead in an opera written for her, and thus a chance at immortality. When the role comes her way, the curse determines that it could expose her worst secrets and ruin her. Only four people know what those secrets are.

The plot therefore is a construct of her search for those people combined with the story of her life. It has a pattern: victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat, a pattern that spells tragedy.

Set in the days of Napoleon III and his Empress Eugenie, it is an opulent Paris layered on to the lower world of servants, prostitutes, and profligates. Lilliet is at the mercy of a famous tenor who believes he owns her, in love with a mysterious composer, and beholden to an evil Comtesse for reasons partly unknown to her.

Best of all though is Lilliet's impossible quest for freedom. She is forever seeking to escape her perceived destiny. As she says on page 25, "Why was there never an opera that ended with a soprano that was free?"

Alexander Chee has so completely created a 19th century novel that I was there, all through the twists and turns up to the surprising climax. It took me nine days to read because his sentences do not allow fast reading. I let him set the pace, succumbed to the atmosphere, worried about Lilliet as I am aware I was supposed to, and met his terms. 

This is a larger than life story, like a legend or an opera. Lilliet is an almost fantastical creature, but show me an artist of any kind who becomes successful and renowned who isn't a bit beyond mere human.

(The Queen of the Night is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, July 04, 2016


How is that for a summery look? Me, I am ready for a vacation from reading groups and this month I will get one, sort of. Only 4 meetings and I have already read 3 of the books! Meaning I get to read what I want, or what some bloggers call "reading my own damn books."

Summer is when you get to do what you want, right? Instead of having assignments and deadlines and schedules. At least I have retained that from my teen years! 
Laura's Group:
One Book At A Time:
Bookie Babes:

Tina's Group:

Happy 4th of July. Happy reading. Happy Summer!!

Friday, July 01, 2016


I had a good reading month because all but one of the books I read were topnotch. My total is down because two of the books were fairly long; one just had to be savored and I couldn't rush it, the other was one of those books I never wanted to read but had agreed to for a reading group. Even in that one, I learned stuff I didn't know before.

Stats: 8 books read, 7 fiction, 1 biography, 5 by women, 3 by men, 1 translated.

Favorites: The Queen of the Night and The Enchanted
Least favorite: Mary Todd Lincoln, A Biography

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How was your reading month? Any books you recommend? Or not?