Saturday, December 23, 2017


Wishing all my followers, visitors, and those who comment here a wonderful holiday week!

My Christmas cactus bloomed for Thanksgiving this year. It is a new one, only two years old and though I forgot to take a picture, it looked somewhat like this one. 

I am taking a blogging vacation in favor of reading as many more books as I can before the year ends. I will be back in the New Year with my list of what were my Top 25 best books read this year. Then probably daily reviews to catch up on what I read in December.

I am also taking a break from the news, social media, and all things horrible and upsetting. It will all still be there when I return, I am sure. I feel chagrined at the growing tones of hatred and conflict and wish to spend my energy thinking about how most people are basically good and remembering that politics, war, and arguing has never solved much of anything.

Random acts of kindness and understanding will be my operating basis and my New Year's Resolution.

May creativity and clear thinking be what brings us through these times!

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


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The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2017, 328 pp
A wondrous and fun read! What is it about British women who write fantasy-type novels? Something special, that is for sure.
Merrick Treymayne has been an intrepid agent for the East India Company but now he is laid up in the family home with a bum leg. (Thanks to Shadow of the Moon I was grooved in on the circumstances of that august company in 1859.) His former boss at the India Office recalls him for an expedition to fetch quinine from the Amazonian region of Peru.

Clem Markham, based on a historical figure, and Merrick's best friend, is to lead the expedition. He is one of those gung-ho types and convinces his friend that he can make it in the jungle despite the leg. Merrick does but his leg hurts the whole time and he is forever grousing about it.

The best character in this story full of amazing characters, is Rafael, a Peruvian Catholic priest. He is also the preserver of Andean spiritual traditions and cares for the markayuq: wooden statues which are considered to be actual people turned to stone, can move around in mysterious ways, and are guardians of sacred spaces.

(OK, so in the two volumes I've read so far of N K Jemison's Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, there are creatures called Stone Eaters, humans who turn to stone! Is this a thing? I have not come across this in any book before.)
Raphael is himself afflicted with a degenerative condition that gives him bouts of unconsciousness lasting anywhere from hours to months, is very old, very wise, has known two ancestors of Merrick's who also made expeditions to Peru, and becomes Merrick's best friend ever.
Bedlam is a village, also called New Bethlehem. The author's imagination and world-building skills make it one the most astonishing creations I have ever found in fantasy.

The novel is also historical fiction because the East India Company did send expeditions to Peru to obtain quinine from the bark of cinchona trees, desperately needed to treat its workers in the East who suffered from malaria. So there is another whole plot concerning the dastardly practices of people trying to bring cuttings of the tree out of Peru and the natives who seek to prevent this First World rip-off of their natural resources.

By now, I hope you are dying to read the book and I hope you do. I must warn you that as thrilling as it is, it does not move at a thriller pace. The opening section at Merrick's home is confusing in the extreme. You just have to go with it because all becomes, mostly, clear by the end. The bits that remain mysterious are lost in the mists of time and explain why world travelers always put Machu Picchu on their bucket lists.

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

Saturday, December 16, 2017


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Miss Jane, Brad Watson, W W Norton & Company, 2016, 279 pp
I recommended this fine novel to one of my reading groups and all but one member in a mixed group of men and women found it to be great. I don't remember how I heard of it but it was an exciting find.
A new genre, possibly named by Nicola Griffith, is called Crip Lit. The name makes me cringe but it is a genre that brings awareness of what it is like to be physically compromised. Brad Watson's story is based on his great-aunt who was born in rural, early 20th century Mississippi with a genital birth defect.

Jane is a late-life child of an impoverished farming couple. Brought into the world by a midwife who then called in the local doctor, the infant is an abomination in the eyes of her mother. Though the mother follows the doctor's instructions in how to care for the baby she can never give her heart to the girl. Jane gets whatever love she has from her older sister, her father and the doctor. 

The story of her long life is sad but she grows into a woman who overcomes her inability to have children or a husband by finding connections to the natural world. In some ways it is tough to read about her condition and what it put her through but the writing is so beautiful, evoking life in the South and moving along at such a soothing pace that I was captivated.

If not for her father, her sister and the intelligent and caring doctor, Jane would have led a horrible existence, possibly even died as a baby. One could say that might have been a blessing. The story shows however, that there are many ways to live, even find love, joy and strength despite unspeakable suffering and adversity.

Earlier this year I read Little Nothing by Marisa Silver, a novel with a similar theme about a girl who was a dwarf. From both books I was able to find empathy for people with major physical imperfections. I must admit that I am no better than most people and have always had an aversion to individuals with disabilities, whether physical or mental.

The truth is that no human being is perfect. I thank the authors who have given me insight into human beings who have been shunned by most of the rest of us for all of mankind's existence.

(Miss Jane is available by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Occasion For Loving, Nadine Gordimer, The Viking Press, 1963, 308 pp
I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a Nadine Gordimer novel but it was up next on the 1963 list of My Big Fat Reading Project. I opened the book and was immediately swept away by this story of an interracial love affair set deep in the days of Apartheid in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Jessie and Tom Stillwell are white liberals who do not countenance the "color bar." In fact, they claim not to see color. They live in a somewhat ramshackle fashion with four children, he a professor and she rather a job hopper but always working to support causes. When they agree to take in a young couple as house guests all of their views are challenged.

Boaz Davis is a frustrated composer turned musicologist, returning from Europe with his new wife Ann, to conduct research on Native South African music. He is an old friend of Tom Stillwell's so there seems to be no reason not to take him in. However, Ann is a young, free spirited woman who lives for pleasure and excitement with little regard for consequences.

Before too long, Ann engages in an affair with the well-known African artist Gideon Shibalo. The danger and upset she brings upon her husband and the Stillwell family is the plot. It is illegal for whites and Blacks to have a sexual relationship and the centuries of taboo behind the law make it necessary that the couple only meet in certain fringe areas of the city where the law is unlikely to find them.

Nadine Gordimer's writing is crystalline. I always have to readjust my reading for her. It is as though she chooses every word, constructs every sentence, in a deliberate attempt to pinpoint exactly what she wants to convey. As a reader, I cannot just cruise along on story but am pulled into her worldview and mannerisms. So I surrender and it is pure pleasure for me.

Having read much in the past two years about the Civil Rights movement in America, I found reading about the South African conflict fascinating. In America we brought slaves from Africa to help build our nation. In South Africa, the British and Dutch colonized a nation and enslaved the natives. So the insanity and inhumanity of racism, the laws and taboos, the economic justifications while similar, include subtle differences between the two countries.

If you saw the 2016 movie, Loving, you have an idea of the havoc that ensued when an interracial couple tried to live in the pre-Civil Rights times of mid 20th century America. In Occasion For Loving, Nadine Gordimer depicts not only the struggles of her lovers but also the effects on the whites who attempt to practice their liberal views. This is not so much a political novel as a personal look at the demands of one's moral precepts.

I can't recommend the book enough. It is Nadine Gordimer's third novel. I have read her two earlier ones and in Occasion For Loving she took a giant leap into the subject about which she would write for the rest of her life and for which she won the Nobel Prize.

Monday, December 11, 2017


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Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan, Scribner, 2017, 433 pp
I have long been a fan of Jennifer Egan. She always does something different. This time she has written historical fiction with a noir/crime slant. Still her concerns remain intact. Those are crime and redemption as well as the consequences of decisions made and actions taken. Hovering over those concerns are her clear-eyed view of the way historical changes impact the lives of individuals.
Manhattan Beach opens with a scene featuring the three main characters of the book, Anna Kerrigan, her father Eddie, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles. It is some time after the stock market crash of 1929. Anna is eleven and worships her father, who often takes her with him when he makes his "business" calls. This time they call on the very rich Dexter Styles and Anna perceives a new nervousness in Eddie.

It is a startling opening chapter in which the reader is given only glimpses into what is going on because we see it primarily through her eleven-year-old eyes. Though she is intelligent, perceptive, and feisty, there is plenty she doesn't know about her father and about life.

Most of the rest of the novel is Anna's story with Eddie's and Dexter's woven in. We learn how Anna felt when her father disappeared and how she carved out a life for herself, away from her long suffering mother and her crippled sister, both of whom she also loves deeply. 

By the time WWII begins she is working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard and still bucking anything that could hold her back. Against all odds she becomes a diver, working to maintain and repair ships for the war effort. She also becomes involved with Dexter Styles again and the stories of these three characters circle around each other.

I have read my share of historical fiction but Egan puts a new twist on the genre. The historical bits are woven in like the faintest thread in this tapestry of lives. In fact that thread is so faint that I sometimes felt adrift, but it did not matter because it is the characters and the ways their lives connect that make the novel.

Underlying all that happens to Anna, Eddie and Mr Styles is the world of organized crime, whether it is playing the stock market, doing the dirty work for union bosses, or marrying into a banking family. Anna is a shining beacon of a female. Not a moll, not a floozy, and not a basically nice but defeated woman like her mother, but the kind of female any self-respecting woman would like to be.

Everyone in this novel has secrets, including Anna, and all are crippled in some way because of them. As Anna finds her way back to the dad she had convinced herself she did not love anymore, all those secrets are revealed. Somehow Jennifer Egan makes the novel deeply sad and joyfully alive at the same time.

(Manhattan Beach is currently available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, December 07, 2017


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The Obelisk Gate, N K Jemisin, Orbit, 2016, 391 pp
In the second book of her Broken Earth trilogy, for which N K Jemisin won the Hugo Award for the second year in a row, we continue to follow the characters from the first book, The Fifth Season. A minor character from the first book becomes a major one.
Essun and her daughter Nassun, who were cruelly separated in the earlier book, alternate chapters. If you have ever had a child taken from you, this story will rebreak your heart. The determination of both to find each other in the aftermath of the chaos which began in The Fifth Season, is the emotional heart of the story.

In addition, more of the background to the world of The Stillness is made known to the point where it became crystal clear that this is one of the farthest-into-the-future worlds I have come across in any kind of fiction, ever! Positively chilling to imagine that the forces which are, whether we believe it or not, destroying our earth could lead to what the author posits in these books.

I had a little trouble with the voices. The mother Essun's story is told in second person, her daughter Nassun's in third person, and then there is another third person voice who is not identified. For many pages, this was freaking me out but finally I just went with it. I am hoping it all becomes clear in the final volume. As in the first book, more and more is revealed about what is going on, what happened in the past, and which characters are working for good, which for evil.

I admire N K Jemisin for being so out there with this series. I imagine she wondered if what she was writing would be read by anyone at all, yet still she went ahead and told the story she had to tell. I think one could read these books on a couple different levels, either for the adventure of the tale and/or for its parallels to the world today. In any case, her bravery as a writer paid off. Two Hugo Awards, almost 2000 reviews on Goodreads, and an overall rating of 4.36 stars. 

She also violated every taboo against mixing fantasy, science fiction, and magic in one story. I find that exhilarating. If you love any of those genres, you will love The Broken Earth trilogy. I can't wait to read the final volume, The Stone Sky. Then I will have to decide whether I should read all three books again or read her earlier books.

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

Monday, December 04, 2017


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The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark, Alfred A Knopf, 1963, 142 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Like the May of Teck Club itself—"three times window shattered since 1940 but never directly hit"—its lady inhabitants do their best to act as if the world were back to normal: practicing elocution, and jostling over suitors and a single Schiaparelli gown. The novel's harrowing ending reveals that the girls' giddy literary and amorous peregrinations are hiding some tragically painful war wounds.

Chosen by Anthony Burgess as one of the Best Modern Novels in the Sunday Times of London, The Girls of Slender Means is a taut and eerily perfect novel by an author The New York Times has called "one of this century's finest creators of comic-metaphysical entertainment."
My review:
I can always count on Muriel Spark to cheer me up. "Comic-metaphysical entertainment" indeed. I have now read seven novels by this Scottish born writer and have only scratched the surface of her work. She wrote 24 of them before she died in 2006 at 88 years of age.
These mildly impoverished female survivors of WWII live in an old boarding house in London, surrounded by bomb wreckage. Ages vary and even within the building there is a class hierarchy because it is, after all, Great Britain in the postwar world. Rationing is still a hard burden and they are all single but mostly looking for love
While keeping their chins up, they hold the general feeling that "all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions." Except none of them are all that nice and every one holds wounds of one sort or another, mostly emotional ones.
Why did reading this short novel cheer me up? Because we all harbor certain wounds and life is never certain, but it is entertaining to have a look at how others in another city and country, another century, deal with theirs. Their petty squabbles, their determination to carry on, even the violent ending, made me feel less alone. 
(The Girls of Slender Means is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Saturday, December 02, 2017


I had one of my lowest number of books finished in November ever. For the past few years Thanksgiving has become an event filled with many happy days spent eating, drinking and carrying on with family. This went on for a full week and I don't regret a minute spent! All the books I finished were great except for one. Also, in these interesting times, I am proud to say they were all written by women!!

Stats:6 books read. 6 fiction. 6 by written by women. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 fantasy.
Favorite: Sing, Unburied, Sing.
Least favorite: The Benefactor.

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How was your reading in November? Better than mine I hope!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


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Shadow of the Moon, M M Kaye, St Martin's Press Inc, 1956, 799 pp
Over two decades ago I devoured M M Kaye's The Far Pavillions and Trade Wind. She writes the kind of long books I love: so readable and so historically instructive. Some months ago my blogger friend Helen reviewed Shadow of the Moon on her excellent historical fiction blog, She Reads Novels, reminding me I had missed this one. 
After I read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, I was inspired to learn more about the history of India. I was still too timid to try Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children again after a failed attempt to read it some years ago, so Shadow of the Moon seemed just the thing. It was!

The British East India Company is in the waning years of its heyday. It is about to morph into the British Raj when its power to rule India passed to Queen Victoria after an uprising that nearly bankrupted the world's most powerful trading company.

Through the eyes of Winter de Ballesteros, half British heiress and half Spanish Condessa, this novel tells the story of the rebellion by the Sepoys, the Indian infantry soldiers in the British East India Company army. I really got the sense of how much and for how long India was under the power of the British: for over 250 years under the East India Company and then another 73 years under the British Raj before achieving independence in 1947.

The story goes deeply into the results and discontents of misrule. It is actually astonishing how much political history Ms Kaye covers in a novel that reads like a historical romance.

Winter is a typical heroine for novels of this kind. She is naive and romantic, but strong and brave. After a life of sorrows and losses, she gets her happy ending. Life for women in India was difficult in the extreme. Both English and Indian women suffered in many ways, lost babies, died from disease, and had virtually no rights. Winter can be a frustrating character but considering all the trials she survived from the day of her birth, she became a beloved heroine for me.

I admired how well M M Kaye captured that aspect of womanhood where no matter how brave, smart and resilient a woman was, she was forever being left behind to endure pregnancy, childbirth and early motherhood while her husband took off to settle business and political troubles. It's enough to make me want to watch Wonder Woman over and over!

I loved the book. It took me seven days to read 274 pages of Susan Sontag but only four days to read 799 pages by M M Kaye. I do need both novels of ideas and those with propulsive storytelling in my reading life, but Ms Kaye combined the two so seamlessly. Now I actually feel sufficiently girded to tackle Midnight's Children.

(Shadow of the Moon is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 26, 2017


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The Benefactor, Susan Sontag, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1963, 274 pp
This is Susan Sontag's first novel and the first thing I have read by her. I read it because it is on the 1963 list of My Big Fat Reading Project and because I am reading everything I can by women known to be intellectuals, outside of the usual box of female fiction writers, and possessed of a prickly nature. It was a difficult read.
Hippolyte is a man looking back on coming of age in Paris in the mid 20th century. First of all, why is he called Hippolyte? Hippolyta was Queen of the Amazons in Greek mythology. (I only know this because I looked it up.) Hippolyte has nothing godlike (or goddesslike) about him. In the blurbs and reviews of this book, he is compared to Candide, the main character in Voltaire's novel of that title. I have not read that. So clearly I was out of my depth.

In his youth, Hippolyte was given permission by his indulgent father to live in Paris with a stipend and do whatever he desired. He began to have disturbing dreams and spent most of his time alone interpreting those dreams while trying to relate them to his waking life. He also caroused with his friend Jean-Jacques, an author by day and a secret male hustler by night. Hippolyte then takes a mistress who he mistreats. She haunts him for the rest of his life.

The premise of this faux memoir is that Hippolyte does finally come to a certain understanding about who he is and the life he has lived. I could relate to that because I am trying to do the same thing in writing my own autobiography. The other trouble I had while reading The Benefactor was that I could not bring myself to care about the man.

I have made my maiden voyage into the work of Susan Sontag and it was on a rough sea. The other day I found an essay on Sontag's novels and it gave me enough hope that if I keep reading her I will eventually be rewarded.

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


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Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward, Scribner, 2017, 285 pp

This is an amazing novel! I read it just two weeks before Jesmyn Ward won the 2017 National Book Award for fiction. In fact, it is her second win for that award. She won for her first novel, Salvage the Bones, in 2011.
Sing, Unburied, Sing has ghosts. How many time have I run into ghosts in this year's reading? It tells the story of African American families by revealing one of those families through the eyes of Jojo, who is 13. His mother is black, his father is white. He has assumed the role of mother/father/brother/protector for his baby sister. Kayla is the shimmering star of the book and rendered so exquisitely by the author that you can feel her clinging to Jojo as if she is clinging to you.

Jojo, Kayla and their mother Leonie live with Leonie's parents. Grandpa has secrets in his past, including a prison term. Grandma is dying from cancer. Leonie's brother is dead due to one of those ways Black boys die in this country. Jojo and Kayla's father Michael is in prison on a drug-related charge but he is getting out and Leonie takes her two children on a road trip through two Southern states to pick him up.

Reading Sing, Unburied, Sing was like traveling in a foreign country for a white woman like me. It is almost too much, especially because the writing is so good, putting you into these people's lives. You live with them and with all the ghosts of their people who died of racism, by racism, through racism. Almost too much until I remembered that these are people who live in my country all mixed right in with the white people. 

I have been reading books by and about people of color for decades. About slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights; about the customs, the music, the drugs, and all the work-arounds they have developed just so they can exist in American society. I made a count from my reading records, kept since the 1980s. Out of hundreds of authors I have read, only 33 are African American. 

So you see that the stories we are primarily being told are by white authors. In her acceptance speech for her 2017 win at the National Book Awards ceremony, Jesmyn Ward said, "Throughout my career when I've been rejected, there was sometimes a subtext, and it was this: 'People will not read your work because these are not universal stories.' "

Translation: the predominately white publishing industry assumes that their predominately white readership feels these stories are not universal. What? As Richard Wright said, "White man, listen." Racism and it effects on citizens of all colors is a universal story. How else do we overcome this scourge on our nation if we don't know the stories?

It is a big win for America that Jesmyn Ward has won the National Book Award twice. It is a win worth being proud of for us all. She has brought to us the ghosts who live on in our history.

For your reading adventures, here is a list of the 33 African American writers who have told me their stories:

James Baldwin
Paul Beatty
Gwendolyn Brooks
Pearl Cleage
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Edwidge Danticat
Ralph Ellison
Angela Flournoy
Paula Fox
Yaa Gyasi
Zora Neale Hurston
Marlon James
N K Jemison
Mat Johnson
Edward P Jones
Jamaica Kinkaid
Imbolo Mbue
James McBride
Kim McLarin
Terry McMillan
Toni Morrison
Barack Obama
Dexter Palmer
Ann Petry
Alice Randall
John Ridley
Zadie Smith
Lalita Tademy
Alice Walker
Jesmyn Ward
Dorothy West
Colson Whitehead
Richard Wright
How many of them have you read? 

(Sing, Unburied, Sing is currently available on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 18, 2017


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The Moon By Night, The Austin Family Chronicles Book 2, Madeleine L'Engle, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1963, 270 pp
I love Madeleine L'Engle's books. Aside from A Wrinkle In Time, she has written many other novels, some for adults and some for young adults. The Austin Family Chronicles would be shelved as Young Adult I suppose.
I am not generally a reader of what I call "comfort fiction" but there are a handful of authors who write in a way that comforts me and L'Engle is one of them.
The Austin family was first introduced in Meet The Austins. They are portrayed as a variation on the ideal American family who live in a rural Connecticut town. The time is contemporary for the year the book was published (1960) and they are a tight knit bunch with wise and loving parents.

In The Moon By Night, Vicky Austin is again the narrator. She is now 14, the second of four kids in the family. At this time she is going through the pangs of adolescence, those first stirrings of private thoughts and longings, mostly about boys. She tries to guard this closely in her mind and heart while suffering the inability to fully share with her parents and her adored older brother. 

Oh, I remember those feelings from when I was 14! Because this volume was published in 1963 when I was 15 going on 16, I felt a special affinity for Vicky. That year was possibly the last year of white middle class American life before the country exploded into a chaos of change.

The Austin family is about to explode into change as well. Dr Austin has accepted a job in New York City so they will move in the fall from their idyllic home to life in the city. Vicky will be forced to leave her friends and the only lifestyle she has ever known and go to a new school, make new friends and experience urban life for the first time.

The parents have decided the whole family will take an extended vacation for the summer, a camping trip across the United States to California and back. The kids are rather appalled at this idea, each for different reasons, but the parents rule. So off they go with their station wagon, tents, and portable stove.

Thus the backdrop for Vicky's first summer as a teen is a road trip and the reader gets to experience National and State Parks with all the various climates, topography, and varieties of people to be found in our vast country. Vicky meets two boys over the course of their travels and must decide on her own, but with intrusive barrages of advice from her parents and siblings, how to understand and love these two very different examples of male creatures who are not family members.

L'Engle manages to sidestep excessive sentimentality, to show examples of good parenting and conjure the feelings of adolescent sexual awakening. Yes, it is rather tame and the escapes from danger a bit unbelievable at times, but I was never bored. 

I think the author was creating in this series the traditional family she wished she'd had. Since I had something close to that when I was growing up, as well as road trips every summer, I felt right at home. I shared Vicky's exasperation; that feeling that your parents will never understand who your really are along with the hope that they will.

(The Moon At Night is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, November 16, 2017


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Magpie Murders, Anthony Horowitz, Harper, 2017, 496 pp
I was looking forward to Magpie Murders, read for one of my reading groups, but while I enjoyed it I wasn't as crazy about it as it seems almost everyone else in the world was. It is a mystery within a mystery, the two are interrelated, and it just felt too long. That may have been because I started reading it a bit too close to the meeting date causing me to rush through in my best power-reading mode.
The mystery within a mystery is one "written" by the fictional Alan Conway, a bestselling British crime writer. His entire book, Magpie Murders, is reproduced in the novel I was reading, also called Magpie Murders. Are you confused yet? I am quite certain that Mr Horowitz intended so.
The actual mystery which must be solved by Alan Conway's editor Susan Ryeland, concerns the death of her author. Did he commit suicide or was he murdered? Why was the manuscript he turned in just days before his death missing the last chapter? It is all too clever by half, as they say in England.
Bottom line: if you like Agatha Christie style mysteries with plenty of red herrings, a long list of suspects, and a sleuth who figures out who and why before you do, you will love this one. In fact, you will double-love it. I liked Alan Conway's mystery better than Anthony Horowitz's. That is just weird because Horowitz wrote them both. 

(Magpie Murders is currently available in hardcover on the mystery shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, November 13, 2017


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Behold the Dreamers, Imbolo Mbue, Random House, 2016, 382 pp
This is an excellent novel. The author, Imbolo Mbue, is an immigrant from Cameroon to the United States, as are two of her main characters. She has been a resident of the US for a decade and got her education here while her characters are basically undocumented and struggling mightily to get legal.
Contrasts are the theme. Jende Jonga and his wife and son live in Harlem. She has a student visa due to expire. Jende is undocumented and working with a questionable lawyer to get a green card. They live close to the poverty line, roaches and all, but are joyful and hopeful for the better life they will give their children.

Clark Edwards and his wife are part of the one percent. He works as a senior executive at Lehman Brothers and hires Jende as his driver. His wife Cindy somehow rose from poverty herself and snagged a trophy husband but she is not happy, drinks too much, and takes pills. Their grown son has refused law school and taken off for India to find a "truer" life.

When Lehman Brothers goes down, Jende loses his job and you know the rest. So, stereotypes possibly but Imolo Mbue uses her characters and the events of the time to show us American citizens with all of our relative wealth and privilege what the American Dream means to us and to them.

The book is unputdownable and made for a good, long, impassioned discussion in my reading group. All kinds of attitudes I hadn't known were harbored in the minds of my fellow readers came to light regarding said dream, immigration, and our lack of understanding about today's immigrants known to us primarily as gardeners and nannies. At one point, as our voices rose around the table where we meet at Barnes & Noble, as one member said, "They don't belong here," a young woman cruised by announcing herself as a Dreamer and said, "Yes we do!" It was a 2017 moment.

(Behold the Dreamers is currently available in paperback on the adult fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017


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Means of Ascent, The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 2, Robert A Caro, Alfred A Knopf, 1990, 412 pp
The second volume of Caro's biography of Lyndon B Johnson is the sordid tale of how he stole his election to the US Senate. That is right. He did! At the time, he was accused of doing so but not busted for it. It was 1948, he lawyered up and escaped justice in the courts. Caro did the research and uncovered facts that had been buried for decades.
Coming in at 412 actual reading pages (not counting notes and index) this volume is approximately half the length of Volume 1, The Path to Power. It covers just seven years. The sense of a man who would do anything and everything to reach his goal of being President of the United States with the underlying thirst for power and the determination to "be somebody" continues. This is Caro's thesis about the man.

I have been discussing POTUS 35 with various friends and acquaintances ever since I finished the first volume in August. Many of them feel he was a great and important Commander-In-Chief. I began reading the series with the negative bias I formed against the man in the late 1960s when I was an anti-war hippy. Nothing I have read so far has disabused me of that bias. I will keep going and attempt to maintain an open mind.

Was his Great Society really great? Was his Civil Rights bill actually effective? Did he know what he was doing in Vietnam? Most important for me is to discover if he ever became a true statesman and leader with the good of our country as his prime motivation, or at least part of it. I get it that being President is a hard job and they all make mistakes.

The next volume, Master of the Senate, should be another eye-opener regarding how our upper legislative body works. It will be the longest volume yet at about 1100 pages. Am I up for the challenge? You bet.

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

Wednesday, November 08, 2017


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Reckless, My Life As A Pretender, Chrissie Hynde, Doubleday, 2015, 312 pp
I meant to read this when it first came out. Then I forgot. Earlier this year I was reminded when my blogger friend Susan at The Cue Card reviewed it.
Who was not a Pretenders fan in the 1980s? I was singing in a cover band at the time (back then it was known as a TOP40 band because we performed the hits of the day as long as people could dance to them.) I sang "Brass In Pocket" with all my heart, though I could never quite capture the sound of Chrissie's voice.

Her memoir is a trip through the 50s, 60s, and 70s. First in her hometown of Akron, OH, where her dad worked for Bell Telephone and her mom was the embodiment of the "feminine mystique." Chrissie was a good girl in her childhood but once she got hooked on music her path was set.

The 60s was high school, getting high, and going to see any band she could get a ride to. Somehow she graduated and got accepted at Kent State. Yes, she was there in the crowd during the shooting of college students protesting the Vietnam War.

Chrissie was not born under a bad sign. She had luck protecting her throughout a wild and dangerous young adult life. She learned guitar, she loved guitar gods, she took anything available to get high, but always she was trying to form a band. It was a long time coming but finally in London, The Pretenders became reality. Her book tells the whole story.

The Pretenders also became on "overnight" success. None of us knew it had taken her over a decade to get there. The substance abuse of course went into overdrive but her luck held. Like any self respecting rocker who plans to have a long career, she eventually quit all the drugs and tours to this day.

Chrissie Hynde is not only a great songwriter. She is a great writer. Reading her book is like having her right in your head telling her incredible story. Quite simply, she rocks!!

(Reckless, My Life As A Pretender is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, November 05, 2017


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The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, W W Norton & Company, 1963, 395 pp
Getting through his iconic feminist text took work but I am so glad I read it. The work of reading it took different forms.
Hardest to read were the passages where she cited primary sources such as Freudian psychiatry, sociology, magazine writing, and the advertising of the times. Only when I reached the end of the book did I appreciate the meticulous way in which she built her thesis. It made for a good many pages of fairly dry reading.

I concluded that she had been influenced by both Simon de Beauvoir's The Second Sex as well as some of Vance Packard's early books such as The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers, The Waste Makers, and The Pyramid Climbers, all of which I have read. She had done her homework and was proving it.

I understand why she did that though, because as a woman writing about women in the early 1960s, she knew she would take some heat and had to stand strong.

Another part of the work for me was all the emotion she evoked. I was only a sophomore/junior in high school when the book was published. I did not know of it then but I wondered if my mother had read it. One day near the end of her life, my mom told me and my sisters that when she was raising us she often felt she had lost track of who she was!

The book got me thinking about and remembering what it was like being raised in a suburban New Jersey town by a stay-at-home mom. I realized that she had channeled all her creativity as a musician into running a home, managing her husband and bringing up three daughters. I also gained plenty of insight into why I felt so smothered by her when I was a kid.

Then I pondered the choices I made as a young wife and mother. I felt chagrined to recognize how much the "feminine mystique" still had a hold on me in those years and caused such conflicted emotions and guilt as I tried to also follow my own dreams and keep a semblance of my own identity.

All in all, it was a rewarding reading experience despite how long it took to get through the book. After all, it was THE book that started second wave feminism. All the later complaints about The Feminine Mystique lacking diversity are true. The women Betty Friedan was writing for were the white, middle class citizens of America. Even so, she hit on universal truths for women: the importance of birth control, legal abortion, education, and the right for all women to be fully contributing members of society.
I feel this is an important book that traces why and how women were sent back home after WWII and what that did to us and our children. It was an eye-opening book to read in 2017.

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


Friday, November 03, 2017


Reading group plans are small this month. Some of my groups are on hiatus due to the holidays. I will not be attending the One Book At A Time meeting nor reading the book, but I am including it anyway.
Bookie Babes: 
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One Book At A Time:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Do you have reading group plans this month? If so, what are you discussing? Do you have any recommendations for good discussion books? 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


October in SoCal is not what it was in my earlier years. The leaves don't turn colors or fall until November. I don't have kids or grandkids around to carve pumpkins with or dress up in costumes. This year it was heat and more heat, fires near my loved ones in NoCal (one family lost a home), but thankfully lots of good reading.

Stats: 10 books read. 7 fiction. 5 written by women. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 3 mystery/crime/thriller. 3 nonfiction. 2 biography. 

Favorites: Edgar & Lucy, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Reckless.
Least favorites: none, I liked them all!

Here is what I read:
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How was your October reading? Favorites? Recommendations?

Sunday, October 29, 2017


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The Confessor, Daniel Silva, G P Putnam's Sons, 2003, 393 pp

Summary from Goodreads:
Munich: The writer Benjamin Stern entered his flat to see a man standing there, leafing through his research, and said, "Who the hell are you?" In response, the man shot him. As Stern lay dying, the gunman murmured a few words in Latin, then he gathered the writer's papers and left.
Venice: The art restorer Gabriel Allon applied a dab of paint carefully to the Bellini, then saw the boy approaching, a piece of paper in his hand. It would be about Stern, he knew. They would want him to leave right away. With a sigh, the Mossad agent began to put his brushes away.
The Vatican: The pope known as Paul VII - "Pope Accidental," to his detractors - paced in the garden, thinking about the things he knew and the enemies he would make. He believed he understood why God had chosen him for this job, but the road in front of him was hard and exceedingly perilous. If he succeeded, he would revolutionize the church. If not, he might very well destroy it - and himself.

My Review:
Daniel Silva's third novel in his Gabriel Allon series takes place mainly in Rome, where a new (fictional) Pope has plans to reveal the complicity between the Catholic Church and the Nazis during WWII as regards the Final Solution. It is a gripping and well-written thriller.

I am enjoying this series because it gives me insight into the Jewish point of view, at least as regards the Israeli secret service. Truthfully, as I have learned in the many spy thrillers I have read, the secret service of any nation at any time is about as reliable as the governments of the countries served. Dirty deeds and assassinations, carried out in the interests of power and domination, not always based on completely accurate intelligence or good foresight, make for moral ambiguity by the bucketload. 

As it turns out, a controversy has been raging for years in real life between the Catholic Church and Israel as to the role of the Vatican in forwarding the aims of Hitler's Third Reich. The official line of the Church, to this day, is a denial of any complicity in the Holocaust while certain Israeli officials work to expose it.

Naturally, Daniel Silva has told the Israeli side of the story. Given that the persecution of Jews has gone on for centuries, I am inclined to believe his version. Read it and decide for yourself if you are interested.

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

Friday, October 27, 2017


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The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Lisa See, Scribner, 2017, 364 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Li-yan and her family align their lives around the seasons and the farming of tea. There is ritual and routine, and it has been ever thus for generations. Then one day a jeep appears at the village gate—the first automobile any of them have seen—and a stranger arrives.

In this remote Yunnan village, the stranger finds the rare tea he has been seeking and a reticent Akha people. In her biggest seller, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, See introduced the Yao people to her readers. Here she shares the customs of another Chinese ethnic minority, the Akha, whose world will soon change. Li-yan, one of the few educated girls on her mountain, translates for the stranger and is among the first to reject the rules that have shaped her existence. When she has a baby outside of wedlock, rather than stand by tradition, she wraps her daughter in a blanket, with a tea cake hidden in her swaddling, and abandons her in the nearest city.

After mother and daughter have gone their separate ways, Li-yan slowly emerges from the security and insularity of her village to encounter modern life while Haley grows up a privileged and well-loved California girl. Despite Haley’s happy home life, she wonders about her origins; and Li-yan longs for her lost daughter. They both search for and find answers in the tea that has shaped their family’s destiny for generations.

My Review: 
I have read and loved and/or enjoyed all of Lisa See's books. This, her latest, is the best one yet.

Combining Chinese history and modern days in both China and California, she teaches us about tea culture, examines the impact of change in a remote village, and true to her enduring theme of mothers and daughters, excites and tears at our hearts. 

A young girl who breaks with custom and has to give up a baby is a story often lived and often covered in fiction. She makes it new and unique. The economic crash of 2008 is another much written about event but who knew that a Chinese millionaire who made his riches out of cardboard would be affected? Well, he was because shipping is done in boxes. Something I never considered.

This novel is rich with knowledge about another culture, with the ways a mother's love and the longings of two daughters can outlast time and distance, as well as with stories that twist and turn and intertwine. Of course it may be improbable that lucky coincidences can lead to such a happy ending. That was fine with me because the storytelling is so assured. 

Ever since I learned to read, I have loved tales of girls and women who got themselves free of traps due to pluck and luck. In a world filled with disasters, sorrow, loss and dashed dreams, we always need such tales. Lisa See has her own pluck and luck in good measure and thankfully does the hard work necessary to bring the tales to us.

(The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is available in hardcover on the adult fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, October 23, 2017


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Edgar & Lucy, Victor Lodato, St Martin's Press, 2017, 526 pp
I had never heard of this author or his book until a reading group selected it. I am so glad they did! I loved every page.
Victor Lodato is a playwright, poet and novelist, an occasional short story and essay writer. He has won awards and gotten a ton of writing fellowships. A hardworking writer, he was born and raised in New Jersey, the state where I grew up. This is his second novel.

I loved the characters, even the "unlikable" ones of which there are many. I loved the oddness of the story which borders on the improbable but feels completely plausible while you are reading it. I loved the steady tension of the tale, though some of the reading group members felt he dragged it out too long. Personally, I feel any novelist who can keep me turning the pages in a state of high anxiety for that long deserves high praise.

Edgar Allan Fini is an eight-year-old albino, being mostly raised by his grandmother in a small New Jersey town. Lucy is his unstable, unwilling mother. Edgar's father suffered from some kind of bipolar type mental illness and died when Edgar was an infant. Lucy's father was an abusive alcoholic, so she became a tough, wild young woman, which is why she stayed on with her in-laws after her husband's death and turned the job of raising Edgar over to her mother-in-law. 

We learn most of this from Edgar's young, unreliable viewpoint. He is an Owen Meany sort of precocious kid with a touch of something akin to Asperger Syndrome. I swear this novel has elements of many other novels but is not quite like any of them.

Loss, secrets, abuse, mental illness, alcohol, predatory males, overbearing and overprotective old world grandmothering all paint a picture of blue collar life in New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen should compose the soundtrack if ever there is a movie.

When Edgar is abducted by another unstable, grief-stricken man (though thankfully never sexually abused) both Edgar and Lucy deal with it in their own ways. Will Edgar ever make it back home from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey? Will Lucy ever grow up enough to deal with her past and her present, not to mention her future? That is what creates the tension.

Perhaps Victor Lodato attempted to put too much into what is ostensibly a psychological thriller but I don't think so. I think he pulled it off. His writing is achingly beautiful and his dialogue is pitch perfect, as one would expect from a poet and playwright. His insight into people's hearts and minds rivals Shakespeare, if you ask me.

In summary, the novel is not for the faint of heart or the squeamish. If you know me as a reader, you understand that it has just about everything I look for in a good read. I loved Edgar Allan Fini!

(Edgar & Lucy is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 20, 2017


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A Legacy of Spies, John le Carre, Viking, 2017, 265 pp
Although I have read only eight of the master's books, I am a John le Carre fan. I like his particular combination of thrilling escapades accompanied by the loneliness and doubts of his spies. The title of his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold captured that truth of spy craft, possibly for the first time in literature, as well as inspiring a great Joni Mitchell song, "Come In From The Cold." 
So I picked up A Legacy of Spies with eager anticipation and was richly rewarded by a trip down to memories of the Cold War with all is menace of creeping communism and its moral ambiguity of the end justifies the means. 
George Smiley, infamous and elusive spymaster of the British Secret Service, who straddled the line between the need for secrecy and the wish to protect his agents, is only a shadow during much of the story. Peter Guillam is featured as the retired and genuinely elderly spy pulled back in to the 21st century version of MI6. The service is about to be sued by descendants of key figures from the past and Peter is expected to save them.

He is unwilling, recalcitrant as always, and it is his cynicism that protects him from demands that he reveal old secrets he would prefer to keep cloistered in his heart. After all he lost in that game, those secrets are all he has left.

Some things never change despite the modern stresses on the service. In some of his novels, le Carre has written such indecipherable conclusions, but in this one the ending is perfect.

(A Legacy of Spies is currently available in hardcover on the new book shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017


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The Fifth Season, N K Jemisin, Orbit, 2015, 465 pp
I have been amusing myself lately by reading fantasy. N K Jemisin is a woman of color with several accomplishments. She won the Hugo Award two years in a row: 2016 for The Fifth Season and 2017 for The Obelisk Gate, the first two of a trilogy. She is the first African American to win this award. Some say she has redefined the genre as was done by greats such as Ursula Le Guin and William Gibson. How could I not check it out?
I loved it! The Broken Earth trilogy gets its name from the major earthquakes and other disasters occurring periodically on Jemisin's created continent called The Stillness. It is Earth in the far future, practically unrecognizable except for some remnants of an earlier advanced civilization. 

The disasters have been going on for centuries and whenever one occurs it changes the civilization as the survivors live on and then rebuild. Such a period is called a Season. The story opens with a fresh disaster: earthquake, fire and massive destruction.

Essun comes home from work one day to find her son killed and her daughter kidnapped by her husband and her own life in danger. Essun is secretly an orogene, a person with a magical gift to draw power from the earth itself. 

Orogenes are one of the greatest magical creatures I have come across. They are crucial to saving and protecting humans from these disasters but they are feared and kept in a kind of slavery. In order for Essun to find her daughter she must use her powers but hide them at the same time because long ago she went rogue.

It is a complex story along the lines of the kind of games I have never learned to play. The author provides a glossary and a history of the Seasons in the back of the book. Unless you are adept as a gamer, use them! There is a whole world and system to learn. As the tale progresses, runs backward and forward, as the characters constantly morph into what you least expect, danger and daring and violence build. J K Jemisin makes you want to work harder as a reader than you might have thought you could and then rewards you with a fantastic adventure.

Living through this summer of some the worst fires, hurricanes, and earthquakes ever in my lifetime, along with wars, threats of wars, and untold numbers of displaced people roaming the world, this amazing book both put all that into perspective and had the effect of making me feel less terrified and more able to face the facts of the state we are in.

Then the book ended and I went right to the library to get the next volume, The Obelisk Gate. Thank goodness the third volume, The Stone Sky, was published in August, because I can't stop!

(The Fifth Season is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 13, 2017


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Beartown, Fredrick Backman, Atria Books, 2017, 415 pp (translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith)
Summary from Goodreads: People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.
My Review: 
Well. One of the ways I sometimes feel like I might be truly crazy but just don't know it, is when so many readers love a book, give it 5 stars and rave reviews, and I find it awful, deplorable, even possibly dangerous. I purely hated this book. I'll admit the story has a can't-look-away quality to it, so because I read it for my favorite reading group and because it was recommended to the group by a good friend, I got through it.
I will just say that over and above the facts that the characters are cliches and the author continuously tells the reader what she should think about every incident, the bottom line is this: a 14-year-old girl is raped by a 16-year-old hockey star and he totally gets away with it. The author curiously did not tell the reader what to think about that.

Mansplaining, predatory males, male sports heroes who get away with despicable actions; I know what I think about all that. In light of the recent disclosures about Harvey Weinstein, I cannot and will not recommend this book to anyone. Perhaps I read it wrong, but I don't think so.