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!