Saturday, December 31, 2016


December may have been my best reading month this year. Despite the parties, the holiday preps, and some long fat books, I read 10! I had hoped to wrap up the 1962 list for My Big Fat Reading Project but alas I only read two of those and still have eight to go. Instead I have spent the days after Christmas reading from my towering TBR stacks and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Except for one that was only tolerable, I loved every other book I read. I had hoped to get reviews posted for all the December books by tonight. That did not happen either. I was reading! 

Stats: 10 read. Fiction: 10. Written by women: 7. Reread: 1. Historical (at least partially): 3. Mystery/thriller: 2. Translated: 1. Big Fat Reading Project books: 2.
Favorites: Moonglow, Swing Time, The Story of the Lost Child.
Least favorite: Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


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Moonglow, Michael Chabon, HarperCollins, 2016, 429 pp

Summary from Goodreads: In 1989, fresh from the publication of his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon traveled to his mother’s home in Oakland, California to visit his terminally ill grandfather. Tongue loosened by powerful painkillers, memory stirred by the imminence of death, Chabon’s grandfather shared recollections and told stories the younger man had never heard before, uncovering bits and pieces of a history long buried and forgotten. That dreamlike week of revelations forms the basis for the novel Moonglow,...
It is a tale of madness, of war and adventure, of sex and desire and ordinary love, of existential doubt and model rocketry, of the shining aspirations and demonic underpinnings of American technological accomplishment at mid-century and, above all, of the destructive impact—and the creative power—of the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies.  

My Review:
My reading in December has included so many great novels and this is one of them. Michael Chabon takes the memories of a week spent with his dying grandfather and by refiguring them as fiction, spins a yarn that covers how the history of that man's lifetime determined the history of the author's family.

Grandfather's history goes back to WWII, continues into postwar times when Nazi scientists were recruited for American development of both weapons and space travel, and continues on to demonstrate the ways that the past creates the present for individuals, families, societies, and even extends into the future.

The grandfather is a larger-than-life character. Because Chabon's week with him happened just after he had published The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, his first novel, anyone who has read his later novels can see influences from his grandfather's tales in the characters Chabon created later. 

I found in Moonglow a more sober Chabon. Some of the freewheeling hysteria of his recent novels is subdued. Not that Grandfather was not a freewheeling character, not that he was not surrounded by hysteria for much of his life, but that the author in looking back now finds it also full of sorrows and a certain regret.

As much as I am fascinated by debut novels, when an author is often the freshest he or she may ever be and still sparkling with innocence, I realized while reading this one why I like the works of an author's later more mature work. Because no one can see the big picture of how one's life is embedded in the ways of the world around one until one is about half-way through. That big picture is sobering indeed as you see the interlocking pieces and how they formed the jigsaw puzzle that is your present.

One feature of the story I particularly liked was Chabon's growing understanding of his mother and his maternal grandmother. We all have at least one of the former and two of the latter. As children all we can do is love or, failing that, put up with them, but by middle-age we can see behind the scenes of their lives and understand some of why they shaped our lives as they did.

I think Moonglow may be best appreciated by an older reader though hopefully has much potential insight to reveal for a younger one. My only qualm after finishing it was wondering how long I must wait for the next Chabon novel. Well, there are a few of his I have not read yet, so I can console myself with those.

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016


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The King Must Die, Mary Renault, Random House, 1958, 338 pp

I am always excited to find a new author to admire. Of course, Mary Renault is not new to the world. She was born in London in 1905 and died in 1983, having built for herself a reputation for vivid historical novels, many of them set in Ancient Greece. She was named by J F Kennedy as his favorite author. I have meant to read her for years and am so pleased to have found a wonderful writer with a great deal of scholarship and intelligence backing up her fiction.

The King Must Die is the first of two novels covering the life of Theseus, a legendary hero of ancient Athens. Mary Renault takes quite some literary license with the legend, the major one being that Theseus was not of heroic size but was of short stature. She explains the archeological evidence for this in her Author's Note, painting him as "a light-weight; brave and aggressive, physically tough and quick; highly sexed and rather promiscuous, touchily proud, but with a feeling for the underdog; resembling Alexander in his precocious competence, gift of leadership, and romantic sense of destiny."

Theseus tells his own story and it is as wild and full of adventure as you would expect from a man who may have had Poseidon for a father and who killed the famous Minotaur, that half bull/half man who fed on human flesh. She makes this complex character come to life, carefully depicting the ways he learned to use his mind as well as his courage and strength to overcome enemies and obstacles.

A few years ago I managed to get through Will Durant's The Life of Greece. I loved having Theseus fleshed out as it were and the daily world of ancient Athens and Crete made real. I already have the second volume, The Bull From the Sea, on my shelf. I look forward to reading her other novels about Plato, Alexander and more.

I want to thank Helen and her She Reads Novels blog for having a part in leading me to finally reading Mary Renault.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016


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A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving, William Morrow, 1989, 627 pp

I am a big fan of John Irving. Whatever wild tangent he goes off on, I accept his novels unconditionally. He puts so much of himself, his views, his character, into every one. And his capacity for exploring and celebrating all the weirdness of humanity is of the highest order.

I first read Owen Meany in 1999. At that time, I had previously read Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp and loved both. Owen Meany felt like his masterpiece then and on rereading it now (for a reading group discussion) and having read five other of his books, I have decided it still holds that position for me.

I have written elsewhere about the practice of rereading, something I rarely do. In this case, it was an entirely worthwhile experience. The seventeen years of living I have done since the first reading afforded me a much deeper penetration into the story and the characters.

Owen himself seemed both more tragic yet less Christ-like than he did before. The narrator, John, seemed more worthy of pity. I mean, to have someone as odd as Owen make him become a Christian is just, I don't know, so weird. But none of that matters because this is a novel about how one's childhood and youth, one's family and hometown, the historical events one lives through, one's friends and enemies, create the life one will lead as an adult.

I had completely forgotten the influence of the Vietnam War and somehow had not felt as searingly the intelligence of Owen, his visions, his ability to orchestrate events. On my first reading John barely registered for me. He moved to Canada for Pete's sake!

I was a war protestor in the late 60s and helped lots of guys evade the draft. That draft was a Damocles sword hanging over so many lives. I think reading The Sympathizer this year reawakened many memories and added to the depth of my experience reading Owen Meany now.

All in all, this was a highlight of my year of reading in 2016. 

(A Prayer For Owen Meany is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


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Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2016, 571 pp

Summary from Goodreads: How do we fulfill our conflicting duties as father, husband, and son; wife and mother; child and adult? Jew and American? How can we claim our own identities when our lives are linked so closely to others’? These are the questions at the heart of Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel in eleven years--a work of extraordinary scope and heartbreaking intimacy.

Unfolding over four tumultuous weeks, in present-day Washington, D.C., Here I Am is the story of a fracturing family in a moment of crisis. As Jacob and Julia and their three sons are forced to confront the distances between the lives they think they want and the lives they are living, a catastrophic earthquake sets in motion a quickly escalating conflict in the Middle East. At stake is the very meaning of home--and the fundamental question of how much life one can bear.

My Review:
At its heart, Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel is the story of a marriage unraveling. That the couple are upper-middle-class American Jews in the early 21st century only adds to it richness.

Jacob and Julie's initial passion turns out to be unsustainable in the face of parenthood, disappointed careers and, possibly most of all, the unrealistic demands they have placed on each other. While some readers and critics have complained about the novel being autobiographical, I say there are legions of married couples who find themselves unable/unwilling to fulfill their marriage vows but how many can write about it as well?

Others express the criticism that Foer has taken on too much for one novel: marriage, children, religious identity, Israel, etc. For me the kids were possibly the best feature in the story and I already knew he could do kids right from reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I also wonder how any serious novelist can write about contemporary times without including the spiritual and political aspects of life. They are so intrinsically bound together in these times.

I was impressed, I found the book easy to read, it challenged my mind, and the characters, if rarely admirable, were complex and fascinating. I was thinking about it for days after I finished reading. 

(Here I Am is currently available in hardcover on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 18, 2016


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Something Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury, Alfred A Knopf, 1962, 307 pp

Ray Bradbury's classic was going to be my Halloween book. I am glad I chose We Have Always Lived in the Castle. They are both about dealing with evil but Shirley Jackson did it better.

In Something Wicked, the story takes place in Green Town, IL, a week before Halloween when a ratty carnival comes to town, blown in on a dark and stormy night. Best friends Jim and Will, both just days from turning 14, can't resist. They live next door to each other and have years of practice sneaking out at night.

What they witness at that carnival freaks out each boy in a different way. Will runs from it, Jim is drawn in. What follows is loss of innocence, one boy coming to an understanding with his father, while the other figures out his deepest desires.

It is a classic story about good vs evil, innocence vs experience, and the cusp of adulthood. I had a problem, as I usually do reading Bradbury, with his awkward and overwrought prose and with the transparency of his themes. I was sorely tempted to leave the book unfinished but I kept reading and hoping to figure out what makes this book so admired by so many.

So I finished, I did not figure it out, and I am done with reading Ray Bradbury. I have read seven of his books and had the same experience nearly every time. I liked The Martian Chronicles best, but I prefer Neil Gaiman for innocence lost stories and Shirley Jackson for creepy evil ones. 

(Something Wicked This Way Comes is currently available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


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Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea, Little Brown and Company, 2009, 338 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn't the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village--they've all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men--her own "Siete Magníficos"--to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.

Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman's quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

My Review:
I loved this book! It was fun to read with wonderful characters but was also a light satire about heavy and complex issues: Mexico in the 21st century, the failings of its government, the ridiculous tourist trap that is Tijuana, the dangers of crossing the border into the USA, and the different fates of Mexican immigrants both legal and illegal. If that was not enough, it contains a quest, a road trip, and a coming of age story.

As ambitious as all that sounds, Urrea pulled it off seemingly without effort. Nayeli is one of those heroines who captures both your heart and mind, so determined, so ethical, heedless of danger and compassionate.

If you have never been to Mexico (that would include me), or if you live in America but were born there, or if you are some combination of both, I think you would find much to enjoy as well as ponder in the novel.

As far as "building a wall" goes, well good luck with that!  

Monday, December 12, 2016


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My Real Children, Jo Walton, Tor Books, 2014, 320 pp

The election happened. I could not read fiction. I had a review deadline for The Terranauts and was almost through reading that so I got professional (more than I can say for some politicians I will not name) and finished it. I had the next book on my reading plan for the week sitting there but I just couldn't start it. 

One of the little known blessings of e-readers is that I have almost a library of unread books there that I forget I own. Like a recovering invalid, I flipped through all those titles and Jo Walton called out to me. Better yet, she rescued me.

When the story opens, Patricia is in one of the upper tiers of a senior facility. She surreptitiously checks the notes clipped to the end of her bed, where nurses list actions taken, medications given, and evaluations: "confused today" "very confused." Patricia's memory is slipping away but when she remembers to check the notes she can also find out the date.

Patricia is the most confused about her children. "Sometimes she knew with solid certainty that she had four children, and five more stillbirths: nine times giving birth in floods of blood and pain, and of those, four surviving. At other times she knows equally well that she had two children, both born by caesarean section late in her life after she had given up hope. Two children of her body, and another, a stepchild, dearest of them all."

In her reality, all of these children visit her. Very confused she is!

My Real Children is one of those stories of alternate lives a person could have; like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life or Making It Up by Penelope Lively. All of these books feature women whose lives are matters of chance, as are everyone's, but with the added, or should I say, lessened chances that women have. 

Love, sex, marriage, childbearing and child raising all dependent on sufficient or not enough knowledge, opportunity, support, and freedom.

How many times have I thought, what if I had not made that choice (of husband, job, religious affiliation, school, move, pregnancy, separation, etc.) 

I loved Patricia in all her variations and I loved the way Jo Walton constructed her novel. I am not one who goes in for "comfort fiction." This is not that but I did feel comforted and it was what I needed the day I read it. 

(My Real Children is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Friday, December 09, 2016


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The Terranauts, T C Boyle, Ecco, 2016, 508 pp

Note: I am way behind on posting about the books I have read, so it will be my attempt to catch up by the end of the year. You can always binge read my reviews on that boring time that is Christmas Day after dinner!

This review was originally published at Litbreak.

T C Boyle’s new novel is all about the plot, with the author is at his acerbic best. You would not be blamed for thinking he has no faith at all in humanity until you get to the end. I can’t tell you about that because it would be the final spoiler of all the spoilers I will not reveal.

In case you were living under a rock like I was in 1991, one of the major science experiments of all time called Biosphere 2 put a crew of eight scientists into an artificial glass-enclosed ecological environment for the purposes of demonstrating its ability to support human life leading to the successful colonization of planets. Located in Oracle, AZ, it was a 3.14-acre facility stocked with animals, seeds, trees, and five biomes. The carefully selected four women and four men were committed to remain sealed in for two years with phone lines to headquarters and a viewing window for visitors as the only contact with the outside.

These men and women were called Terranauts but they were human beings with many of the strengths of young, highly educated adults and all of the weaknesses. It is just the sort of story that an author like T C Boyle would be attracted to as a novelist. The publisher calls it “A deep-dive into human behavior in an epic story of science, society, sex, and survival.” It has all of that though Mr Boyle is always and forever mainly interested in human behavior. He does not miss one quirk or forgo any chance to take such behavior to the limit.

The day that the Terranauts go into the biosphere is called Closure. In Part 1, Pre-Closure, we meet the sixteen hopefuls as they vie for the eight spots available and then are chosen much like the sorting ceremony in Harry Potter. Three of the16 tell the story in alternating chapters. Dawn, nickname Eos, is a blonde beauty designated as Manager of Domestic Animals, strong in purpose and loyalty to the project. Ramsay, known as Vodge, will be Water Systems Manager with a second hat of Communications Officer. In addition to his scientific skills he is the consummate PR guy, as well as a ladies man. Linda is passed over, full of rage, and though she had been Dawn’s best friend before closure she turns traitor. Her chapters give the view from outside as she hangs on hoping to be chosen for the second team two years hence.

Included in the cast of main characters are the visionary who had conceived of the project (GC, short for God the Creator, is his nickname, known only to the Terranauts) and his chief aide Judy, nickname Judas. In order for GC to keep his investors happy, all manner of media events and spin must be created, another stress and strain on the outcome.

Reading along, one wonders how such dedicated, trained scientists could possibly be so venal, self-involved, hateful, and scheming. But isn’t that what we have been wondering for the last two years as we suffered through the Presidential campaign and its aftermath? It made for some queasy reading hours.

A good amount of science permeates the novel, though not as much as in The Martian or Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, but the focus is on interpersonal drama, personal motivation, and the very real physical/psychological hardships inside Biosphere 2. Combine that with the fact that these longsuffering candidates, who have worked for years at low pay, will emerge as celebrities when they successfully complete the two year enclosure. Whether they will prevail or not, a whiff of cult essence permeates the mindset of every person involved in the experiment from GC on down through the Terranauts themselves, the 16 upcoming candidates for the next two year enclosure, to all the support staff. It is the classic visionary and his loyal minions scenario that T C Boyle has explored in earlier novels like The Women and The Inner Circle.

Through every shift of loyalties, every emergency, and the many twists of plot, he keeps you hanging by threads of hope and anxiety. Though everyone stays in character, some admirable, some despicable, none of them are without complexity. If you have ever had experiences with cultish groups, you will be fully invested in the novel. If you haven’t, you might not be. Either way, expect some shifts in your own worldview. This is one of his best.

(The Terranauts is available in hardcover and ebook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 08, 2016


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The Suicide of Claire Bishop, Carmiel Banasky, Dzanc Books, 2015, 384 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Greenwich Village, 1959. Claire Bishop sits for a portrait—a gift from her husband—only to discover that what the artist has actually depicted is Claire’s suicide. Haunted by the painting, Claire is forced to redefine herself within a failing marriage and a family history of madness. Shifting ahead to 2004, we meet West, a young man with schizophrenia obsessed with a painting he encounters in a gallery: a mysterious image of a woman’s suicide. Convinced it was painted by his ex-girlfriend, West constructs an elaborate delusion involving time-travel, Hasidism, art-theft, and the terrifying power of representation. When the two characters finally meet, in the present, delusions are shattered and lives are forever changed.

My Review:
Carmiel Banasky's debut novel dwells on two long term taboo subjects concerning human life: suicide and mental illness. It also floats along between two time periods and societal issues: war protests in the 1960s and art theft at the turn of the 20th century. If that were not enough the story includes an Hasidic Jewish convert, a mysterious painter, and a wealthy unfaithful husband. 

It is a challenging read. I do not recommend it to any but the most intrepid readers. Readers who like to go beyond and beneath the standard acceptable ideas about life, family, and society. Readers who walk down the street or stand in lines and wonder about what goes on inside the people they observe around them. Readers who sometimes ponder on whether they are as well-adjusted and happy as they appear to their acquaintances and family members. Readers to whom the phrase "lost in a book" is literal.

The reward for me in reading books like this is the rich understanding of the breadth of ways that human life is lived. We are all connected, we all need help sometimes and faith in something, and we all need to take care of each other.

I have mentioned in other reviews the wonderful Nervous Breakdown Book Club, a monthly subscription service that brings you fiction and non-fiction from both mainstream and overlooked authors. I would not have heard of nor read this novel if not for them.

Brad Listi, the guy behind the book club and the editor of The Nervous Breakdown literary culture mag, also produces a weekly podcast, Otherppl, during which he interviews authors. His interview with Carmiel Banasky is here.

Finally a shout-out to the publisher Dzanc Books, independent, non-profit, and located in my spiritual hometown, Ann Arbor, MI. They publish innovative literary work, mentor emerging writers, and do much other work to advance literature and reading.

Note: I do not receive any compensation from the above entities. I just think they are great and want to spread the word.

(The Suicide of Claire Bishop is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Tuesday, December 06, 2016


In December, all manner of different things take place during my reading group meetings: a special outing to a restaurant, a potluck dinner at my house, voting on our favorite book of the year, wild book exchanges, and even sometimes literary games. I have already made chocolate pie for a group this past Sunday and I am making another one for tomorrow night. Time to eat, drink, and be merrily literary! But we also read and discuss a book...usually.

Tina's Group:

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Laura's Group:

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One Book At A Time:

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Tiny Book Club:

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Are you having any bookish parties this month? 

Monday, December 05, 2016


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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Joan Aiken, Doubleday & Company, 1962, 168 pp


I have read 10 novels by Joan Aiken. I love both her adult stories and the ones for children. She was born in East Sussex, England, in 1924, was the daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken, and died in 2004. She wrote her first novel, The Kingdom and the Cave, when she was 17 and continued to write for her entire life. She portrays children in wondrous ways, similar to Elizabeth Goudge but with magic and supernatural elements instead of religious ones.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is the first in her 11 book series The Wolves Chronicles. The series is set in an alternative history of Britain, but not knowing British history well myself, that barely matters to me. What I love are the children and the story.

Two girls, one rich and exuberant, the other poor but wise, are cousins who have more exciting adventures daily than most girls have yearly. Dangers barely escaped, cruel adults outwitted, loyalty and bravery, are the keys to the tale. The parents are not neglectful, just rather oblivious in their trust of servants and governesses, but also kind and generous. A rather feral boy, reminiscent of Spiller in The Borrowers series, is their champion.

This is breathless, page turning stuff intentionally created to thrill and entertain young readers and probably laid the ground for the best in children's literature today. It makes me happy that I still have dozens of her books left to read, including retellings of all six Jane Austen novels.

The Wolves Chronicles series would make a great holiday gift for enthusiastic female young readers. 

(The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 01, 2016


Despite best intentions, November reading was doomed: election aftermath blues, Thanksgiving trip, and a couple long books. I did however like every single one I read.

Stats: 7 read, 2 by women, 7 fiction, 1 from My Big Fat Reading Project 1962 list.
Favorites: My Real Children and Into the Beautiful North
Least favorite: Something Wicked This Way Comes