Monday, December 31, 2018


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Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, WW Norton & Company, 2016, 345 pp
For my last review of 2018, I bring you this amazing debut novel. It was the September, 2016 selection of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club, a subscription and a case for why I continue to subscribe there, because I get books I might otherwise not have heard of let alone read. 
I went from reading The After Party directly to Here Comes the Sun, only to find that it is another novel about a mother trying and failing miserably to protect her daughter, in this case two daughters. This time though the setting is Jamaica and the social strata is near the bottom instead of the top. Also, the older sister tries and fails to protect the younger though in different ways than the two best friends in The After Party. Those similarities made me think about how human frailties show up just about everywhere and in many kinds of lives.

For many upscale Americans, Jamaica is a tourist destination and that fact plays a part in the story. For many indigenous Jamaicans their island country, still part of the British Commonwealth, is a mix of those involved with a growing economy and those struggling to move out of poverty. The family in the novel represents that same mix.

Margot, the older sister, was taught by her single mother to trade sex for survival. She has a mid-level job at a resort hotel but her main earnings come from late night sexual encounters with hotel guests. At that she is supremely successful and she uses those earnings to ensure her younger sister Thandi finishes at her private Catholic high school and goes to college and beyond to become a doctor. No one asks Thandi if she wants this but it seems to be the best way to give her a chance at life, higher social status and security.

The plan goes right off the rails. Here Comes the Sun is a tragedy of large proportions. Not one of these three females gets what she wants despite Herculean effort. Not a novel for those who like happy endings where hard work, intelligence and talent pay off for women. It is however another true picture of the failure of post-colonial globalism and interference by foreign governments.

Why read it? Because the writing is incredibly good and it is a microcosmic story showing the shameful underside of our supposedly wonderful, prosperous, democratic macrocosmic world. 

Yet Nicole Dennis-Benn is so far having a happy ending. She was born and raised in Jamaica but emerged from the underside and now lives, writes and teaches in Brooklyn, happily married to her wife. Her second novel, Patsy, will be published in 2019. I will read it!

(Here Comes the Sun is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 28, 2018


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The After Party, Anton DiSclafani, Riverhead Books, 2016, 369 pp
This was my final selection for my self-created 2018 challenge to read a book a month from the last 12 years of my TBR lists. I have mixed feelings about it. I absolutely loved this author's debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. This second novel, though it mines similar themes, did not quite measure up to the wonder of the first one.
Set in the 1950s uber-rich Houston, TX, neighborhood of River Oaks, it is almost a psychological thriller. Joan Fortier and Cece Buchanan have been best friends practically since birth. When Cece's mother dies, she is taken in by the Fortier family at 14 years of age, since her father had abandoned his wife and daughter and remarried. 

As they move through high school, Joan becomes stranger and wilder every year while Cece becomes obsessed with their almost sister-like relationship. Thus the plot revolves around why these two act the way they do and whether or not Cece will follow her friend into self-destruction or take advantage of her good fortune to create the life she wants.

It is also a story about the truly horrible things mothers do in trying to keep daughters "pure" and "acceptable" and, truth be told, safe. An age old problem that is always made more tricky when the daughter is into sex and rebellion and not at all interested in being pure or acceptable. The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls was another version of that story.

I can't quite put my finger on why I liked The After Party less. The plotting was tight and good, though the characters were less well drawn. The atmosphere of oil wealth and privilege was clearly well researched but this time the author seemed more removed from the scene and her research overwhelmed the emotion. I found the ending weak and not completely believable.

Still, I do admire the author's unflinching ability to take on the disastrous results when mothers fail to help their children navigate puberty. That is how we end up with the whole ridiculous scene we still have when it comes to sex. Patriarchy is the more guilty party but Matriarchy follows close behind. OK, I said that, though I also think an enlightened matriarchy could solve the whole thing in a few generations.

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2018


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Julian, Gore Vidal, Little Brown and Company, 1964, 502 pp
Though it took me a full week to read, this is an excellent piece of historical fiction. Gore Vidal was known for many things. One of those was his historical fiction, it being one of the several ways he examined corruption and militarism in government. He does this brilliantly in Julian.
Julian the Apostate was Emperor of the Roman Empire from 361-363 AD. His attempts to re-establish pagan polytheism and counter political subversion by Christian monotheism were short-lived though they continued to resound for centuries. This fictional account shows how he grew from a child who feared for his life into a philosophy student and then became Emperor against all odds. It was then that militarism overcame him as a means to complete his aims and he was assassinated, after which Christianity became synonymous with the failing empire and then became an empire of its own.
The novel is a fascinating account of life in the fourth century from Rome to Gaul to Constantinople to Persia. It is written as Julian's memoirs so all the political and religious upheaval is seen through his eyes. Interspersed are comments and correspondence between Julian's mentor in philosophy, Libanius (who is attempting to write a biography of the man) and Priscus, Julian's former close compatriot who had the memoir hidden away. These asides open up the story to other viewpoints, a good thing because Julian is in some ways an unreliable narrator.
Having studied this period of history in Will Durant's Caesar and Christ, it was wonderful to get inside Julian's mind. I read slowly because philosophy, of which there is plenty from Aristotle to Plato and onward, requires a certain kind of attention. I confess that I skimmed over the many battle scenes but the author does painlessly show Julian's military genius.

If you like ancient history, Julian is not to be missed. The parallels with our time are startling and worrisome.

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

Monday, December 24, 2018


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Liberty Falling, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 1999, 321 pp
One more post before it is officially Christmas Eve, because I am determined to end the year with all the books I have read reviewed! 
Mystery writer Nevada Barr was a ranger at various National Parks and has written 19 novels set in the parks. This one is her seventh and I have been reading them in order. I read them in the spirit of reader activism during these days of the current administration's tactics favoring profit over preservation when it comes to our supposedly protected national lands.

Liberty Falling takes place at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis National Monuments on Liberty and Ellis Islands. Park ranger Anna Pigeon, the protagonist in all of the novels, is on leave of absence to be with her beloved sister Molly, in intensive care after a case of pneumonia turned dangerously complicated. Since park rangers are relatively low paid government employees, Anna is staying with a friend on Liberty Island.
As she often does, Anna finds herself in emotional turmoil, fearing she will lose her sister and abhorring the crowded confines of New York City where her husband died many years ago. When she is not at Molly's bedside, she prefers exploring the overgrown abandoned hospitals, medical wards and old staff quarters on Ellis Island.

Then the tension builds further after Anna tumbles through a crumbling staircase in one of those buildings. Was it an accident?  A young girl falls to her death from a Statue of Liberty lookout. Was she pushed? Finally a park administrator dies from a similar fall and Anna goes into full investigator mode because though she is officially on leave, investigating is what she does wherever she is.

If you have read the earlier books you may remember a certain FBI agent who has been romantically involved with both sisters. He shows up too! I say this every time I read another Anna Pigeon story but the author has once more outdone herself with her plotting, her dives into the psychological depths of her characters, and the intricate building of suspense.

Liberty Falling is set in the late 1990s so the Twin Towers still loom but terrorism within the United States shows its ugly face before Anna solves the several mysteries that have entangled her. Nevada Barr is firmly in my top three favorite female crime novelists alongside Sara Paretsky and Tana French.
(Liberty Falling is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, December 22, 2018


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The Little Girls, Elizabeth Bowen, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, 307 pp
I don't think people read Elizabeth Bowen much anymore, except for a few of my friends on Goodreads. She began publishing novels in the 1930s, a bit prior to where My Big Fat Reading Project begins at 1940. I have read three of her novels now. I began with The Heat of the Day, found in a used bookstore in Ireland in 2005. Then I read her atmospheric A World of Love, set in a crumbling Irish manor house. 
The Little Girls was published in 1964, the year I am currently, though slowly, reading. As in the two others I have read, I had to slow down and adjust to her sentences. Not many authors these days write sentences which require the reader to pay attention. I fear that a deadly combination of MFA programs, bestsellers that take no more effort than watching TV, and lowering literacy rates (I know, I am a snob) have put us out of the habit of following such sentences. However, in the way that a soft spoken person draws you closer, so does she pull you in towards her carefully developed characters.

Three British women who were friends in school just before the outbreak of WWI are brought back together by the eccentric Dinah in the early 1960s. Their reunion is fraught with all their old rivalries and escapades. The novel moves between those two time periods, a commonplace in many of today's novels though it has been done before and in this case both are equally compelling.

It took many pages for me to identify the three characters because Bowen is (deliberately?) vague as to who is speaking and each one has a nickname as well as a new last name in the present time. Again, she was requiring me to pay attention and pulling me in, page by page, as to how and why those three little girls got up to such pranks and why that might affect them later.

By the end, I felt I had known these women for years. I loved the way she showed that we don't change much, that our embryonic personalities in childhood stay with us as we mature, though with age comes an ability to better understand those we have known since those early years.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


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Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, 2018, 461 pp
As far as I can tell, readers either love Barbara Kingsolver's novels unconditionally, love her earlier novels but not anything after The Poisonwood Bible, or complain bitterly about her "preaching." I fall in the first category. I love the many ways she has branched out and matured as a novelist. If anyone is going to preach to me it will be her.
Unsheltered has a complex double plot. One is in the here and now with all the tensions of our contrasting American outlooks. The other takes place in the same New Jersey town, in fact in the same house, during the post Civil War period when religious bible thumpers were desperate to discredit Charles Darwin.

In her brilliant fashion she gets to include the natural world, politics, social friction, and generational family misunderstanding. The super-imposed images of a house falling down around its occupants while those occupants were restrained from repairs by a lack of finance works as a perfect metaphor for people caught up in social change.

What spoke to me the most though was the relationship between the present day Willa and her two adult children. Willa and I share a secret sorrow. We thought we did our best for our children only to wake up one day and find that they feel we were major screw ups as moms.

What's more, we do not understand their approaches to life. All we can do is worry. I really, really loved the ways that Willa's daughter Tig (nickname for Antigone, don't ask, you will find out) explains the world we live in now to her bewildered mother.

The novel completes a full circle for the author. In her first novel, The Bean Trees, daughter Taylor Greer  rejects her rural background. In Unsheltered, Tig returns to the simple life. What remains true is the divide between parents and kids. What is even more true is the kids always have a plan.

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2018


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The Glass Cell, Patricia Highsmith, W W Norton, 1964, 249 pp
I have now read six novels by Patricia Highsmith. She was truly a unique and excellent writer. Unique because of her unabashed look at evil and psychological misfits; excellent because her books are shorn of frills while she puts her readers smack inside the heads of her protagonists, whether male or female.

Earlier this year I read Rachel Kushner's prison story The Mars Room. The Glass Cell is also a prison story but in this one a man goes to a State Penitentiary for a financial crime he did not commit. In fact, Philip Carter was framed. He is no hardened criminal. He was a naive guy, madly in love with his beautiful wife and toddler son, and in no way prepared for the brutality of prison.

The book opens in the early months of his six year sentence. Philip's naivete leads him into an incident of extreme prison guard violence, only exacerbating his victim hood. All through the first half of the story, Philip is hoping his lawyers can get a retrial while he tries to hold onto his marriage.

Some months ago I also read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, another story of a wrongful incarceration, this time due to racism, impacting a young marriage. In The Glass Cell, Philip becomes suspicious that Hazel, his wife, is having an affair with one of his lawyers. 

As gruesome as his time in prison is, Philip gets a lot more savvy about life. His easy-going personality goes through change after change. So the true excitement begins when he is finally released after serving the full six years and systematically goes after his enemies. He has learned much about how the criminal mind works and how to get away with criminal activity!

Highsmith came to write The Glass Cell after a fan letter from a prison inmate led to a correspondence between them. It is a perceptive fictional account of what she learned about the psychological trauma caused by imprisonment and an indictment of the failure in rehabilitation by the prison system. It is also a compelling read.

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

Sunday, December 16, 2018


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Becoming, Michelle Obama, Crown, 2018, 421 pp
I have not bought too many hardcovers this year (more than I planned but not too many) but I bought this one. It is the best political memoir I have ever read, because it is by a female and because this female is an outstanding human being!
This is the story of her whole life so far, so it is actually a mid-life autobiography. To learn about the factors that went into making one your heroines is an astonishing experience. I loved how much she lets you in to her heart, mind, and personality.

What is it really like to be First Lady? Well, you will learn that in this book. Any novelist who plans to write a fictionalized First Lady should read this for research.

What is it like to be married to the endlessly hopeful, always reading, never tiring Barack Obama? It is not easy, as you could imagine, but she loves him so much!

What is it like to raise two daughters for eight years in the White House? A challenge and she met it with her usual grace and humor. What a cool mom!

I think what I loved most though was reading about her worries, her insecurities, her obsessions. I bet she even played them down some, because come on, a Black woman in her position?

"When they go low, we go high." Channeling Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and every long-suffering, long-loving Black mother who lives to make sure her children grow up, make a life, realize some dreams. As far as I am concerned that statement is the first commandment for making positive change. Michelle Obama's story is a handbook for how it is done.

I admit I spend far too much time on toxic Twitter. I can't stop, no matter how riled up and anxious I get. Becoming was like the ultimate anti-anxiety, anti-depressant. I don't take those in pill form, I get that effect from reading about heroic people who truly effect change. I was reminded that this time we are having now, this too shall pass. I was reminded that we were set an example of what leadership looks like, what patriotism looks like, what social justice looks like, by two people with all their perfect imperfections who actually give way more than a f*#k about our country and the world.

Becoming is an incredible achievement. Just read it!
(Becoming is available in hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 14, 2018


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Killers of the Flower Moon, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann, Doubleday, 2017, 291 pp
I have been interested in this work of investigative non-fiction but it took one of my reading groups to get me to read it. Winner of the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, nominated for the National Book Award, and a bestseller in 2017, it is an excellent account of one of America's most brutal criminal conspiracies. It made my blood boil.
In the 1920s, oil was discovered beneath the ground on the Osage Indian Nation reservation in Oklahoma. These were not the original lands of the Osage, but the rocky, presumably worthless territory they were driven to from their home lands in Kansas. Thanks to a wise and wily Osage leader, the Oklahoma land and any minerals beneath belonged to the tribe by American government decree. To obtain the oil, prospectors had to pay the Osage for leases and royalties.

Thus these native Americans became the wealthiest people per capita of the world at the time. Of course, our government has a pitiful history of going back on agreements made with the natives of this land. Once the millions started rolling in, a new law was passed requiring the Osage to have white "guardians" to manage their wealth. Such guardians cheated many of the people out of the money and became rich themselves.

However, that was not enough to assuage the white man's greed. Some of them began to marry into Osage families and then systematically kill off the Indian owners of the oil leases by outright murder and secret poisoning.

David Grann, through years of research, put together the whole sordid story including the partially successful work of the fledgling FBI, newly under the leadership of J Edgar Hoover, to uncover the criminal activities behind the killings. Therein lies another whole story of Hoover's questionable motives for creating an investigation in the first place.

The book reads like a murder mystery although I admit I did some skimming through many pages of procedural and trials. My husband, who also read it and enjoys crime stories, as well as many of my reading group members who work or have worked in the legal profession, loved all that stuff.

I am glad I read the book. By now it is old news as far as the historical and present day perfidy that defines America's dealing with the natives of our land. This book filled in another piece of that tragedy. Though I live with all the benefits of the white, European mad quest for progress, I can never be entirely proud of our legacy. 

I will never understand these rapacious methods of conquest, though they have gone on for millennia. If a reckoning ever comes, books like these will show what and how much atonement must be made.

(Killers of the Flower Moon is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018


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Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, 192 pp
This excellent collection of short fiction was the November, 2018, selection of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club. The author is the son of immigrants from Ghana who grew up in a small town just north of Manhattan, a town with a high percentage of African immigrants as well as Black people in general. He is educated and dedicated to literature.
I never know quite how to review short story collections but I do know what appeals to me when I read one. Every story needs to grab me from the first paragraph and each story must be as strong as the strongest one in the book. Friday Black won me over on both counts.

Though the humor and satire found in the book is impeccably done, these are not feel good tales. Dark, edgy, condemning portraits of 21st century America, bold leaps across genre, an imagination that burns through every scene of racism, capitalism, dead souls and human depravity, beat out of each story.

Not hopeless though, not at all. Somehow he taps into the energy and love and audacity that make America the unique conglomeration of dreams and foibles that it is.

This is Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's first book. He has a novel coming and I can't wait to read it.

(Friday Black is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, December 10, 2018


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March Violets, Philip Kerr, Viking, 1989, 246 pp
This was a reading group pick and I liked it but was not sure it was what I wanted to be reading. It is a crime thriller with the twist that it is set in Berlin during the early days of Hitler and the Nazi party of 1936. A historical crime thriller then with a heavy dose of noir. In fact it is the first of Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy. 
Bernie Gunther is an ex-policeman turned freelance private investigator. His specialty is finding missing persons. People went missing hourly in those days as the Nazis disappeared Jews and other undesirables either by execution or sending them to the camps.
A wealthy industrialist summons Bernie to find the murderer of his daughter and son-in-law during which a priceless diamond necklace was stolen. The investigation leads Bernie into a political scandal involving none other than Goring and Himmler. The 1936 Olympic Games take place during the novel and Bernie himself does a stint at Dachau before he finds the killer.

Kerr's writing style so completely mimics Raymond Chandler that I wondered if the author was using a pen name. The difference is that the underworld of Berlin is also the government. March Violets, named after a derisive term referring to new Nazi party converts, evokes the time period when it was safer to be a Nazi even though most Germans hated the idea.

The pace is fast, the clues and dead bodies pile up, and the only reason you know Bernie is going to survive it all is that he appears in eleven subsequent books. At first I found Bernie's tough, fast-talking cynicism a welcome change from all the dour grief of any story involving Hitler, Nazis and the Holocaust. However, since Hitler, the Nazis and the approaching final solution are the setting, it is after all another 246 pages of all that horror.

I might read more of the series but not right away. Some reading group members felt they learned lots of history while reading but I have read so many novels set in the period I did not feel newly enlightened.

(March Violets is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, December 09, 2018


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Second Life, S J Watson, HarperCollins Publishers, 2015, 402 pp
This novel, called "a discretely sexy novel of romantic suspense" by the New York Times, was the July, 2016 selection of The Nervous Breakdown subscription book club. I didn't know what to expect. The author's first novel was a big bestseller in 2011 but I had not read that.
Julia lives in London with her husband, a surgeon, and a teenage son. She has a part time job as a photographer. Her middle class life, it turns out, is a second life for Julia. Right away in the first chapter she learns that her younger sister has been murdered in an alley in Paris. Her past comes back to haunt her and she becomes unraveled.

Julia's first life was full of trouble: a mother who committed suicide, a distant grieving father, a four-year-old sister she had to raise from the time she was eleven. In her early twenties she ran off with an artistic type to Berlin where they lived a wild bohemian life leading her to alcoholism and drug addiction. The "son" she has now is actually her sister's child.

Because the Paris police can find no evidence of her sister's killer, Julia begins her own investigation which leads her into the world of on-line sex, something her sister had been involved with. That is where the story gets erotic and Julia's extreme grief leads her into a questionable relationship.

By that time, though it made me queasy, I was hooked, turning the pages and unable to look away. I am sure there are readers who would be put off, especially because Julia seems so weak and indecisive, so dishonest and impulsive.

I found it all believable due to the character's early life and misspent youth. These are circumstances that can spell doom. The author did a good job with the female characters, with the suspense and even with the sex.

The end is not clear and I know many readers don't like that. You are left to decide Julia's fate for yourself. Annoying as that can be, it got me thinking about the entire story for hours afterward.

(Second Life is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, December 07, 2018


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The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Tor Books, 2014, 390 pp (originally published in China, 2006, translated from the Chinese by Ken Liu)
Wow! If you are not into science fiction you can skip this review but I say wow! I read it as the November selection for my project to read one book a month from my last 12 TBR lists. The first of the Remembrance of Earth's Past Trilogy, the novel won the Hugo award in 2016 and was the first by a Chinese author to do so.
The story opens in 1967 when the Red Guards of the People's Liberation Party, formed at the beginning of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in 1966, have splintered into factions bent on killing each other. Astrophysicist Ye Wenjie watches her mother denounce her physicist father, watches her father killed by four young Red Guards, watches her mother go mad, finds her other closest confidant dead in the woman's apartment, and becomes numb.

This first chapter provides a succinct history of the beginnings of Communist China. Ye Wenjie goes on to become the leader of a group of scientists determined to make contact with an alien civilization in outer space and request their aid for an Earth gone insane.

Despite being full of hard science and math, I had little trouble reading such a complex story. It address the problems we face now: a world on the brink of the collapse of civilization compounded by an increasing discrediting of science. Even the scientists attempting to carry out their bold plan are in conflict.

Later in the story we learn about the alien civilization from their point of view. They are on their way to Earth! It seems that their arrival will possibly save the planet but will destroy humanity.

Wild, crazy, though not improbable. The tale told in this novel shot my mind into outer space and gave me much to ponder, because we have all the daily disasters and annoyances but what if there was a bigger picture? If so, is mankind as a whole capable of the intelligence and decency required to save itself as a species? If not, is there truly a species or a greater power out there who cares? Since I think about this almost every day, I was completely involved in the story.

I want to, but I don't want to, peek ahead and see what conclusion this author comes to. I think it would clear my mind more just to keep reading the trilogy to the end. Earlier this year I read the full Broken Earth trilogy by N K Jemisin and felt a fragile sense of hope. Hope. That factor can get a Black man elected as POTUS, can keep migrants coming here, can get me up in the morning and through my days. I am curious to see where Cixin Liu stands.

The day after I finished the book, NASA's InSight Lander touched down safely on Mars. As I watched the live streaming video of that I wondered, where will we all end up?

(The Three-Body Problem is available in paperback on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, December 05, 2018


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History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017, 275 pp
This reading group pick, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, was a beautifully written first novel that did not entirely work for me. Despite the wonderful prose, it was unrelievedly sad. Perhaps I was not in the mood for so much sadness.
Linda tells her story from memories she has as a young woman, interspersing details of her current life. It is obvious that she has not moved on from her odd childhood and her traumatic high school years. 

She has no memory of a mother in babyhood, just another girl child with whom she slept. The commune in the northern Minnesota woods where she was born dissolved, leaving a man and woman whom she calls mother and dad. Her only friend growing up was a Native American girl named Lily.

When a family moves into a cabin across the lake, Linda becomes the babysitter for their four-year-old boy, Paul. This is such a Are You My Mother? story. Sometimes Linda wonders if the cold, reproving aging hippy she calls mother is really her mom. Perhaps Paul's mother would be a better one.

The Gardner family is almost more weird than Linda's own but it takes the whole book to find out why. By then Linda feels complicit in the tragedy that strikes them.

The disjointed, dreamy tone got to me. This study in human disconnection without any glimmer of hope left me depressed. Some say that we read to know we are not alone. I am not anywhere near as alone as Linda, but all these lonely people got into my soul and I was just bereft.

Unfortunately I missed the reading group discussion due to illness, but several of them emailed me their thoughts and it was clear that even after a good long talk about the novel, they were not able to pinpoint exactly why no one liked the book entirely.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018


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The Last Cruise, Kate Christensen, Doubleday, 2018, 286 pp
I read a couple of novels by this author several years ago. When I saw she had a new one I decided to try it and it was just fine.
It has all the elements of a good story: the final voyage of a vintage cruise ship, good characters, great food writing, some romance, and one of those endings that spark debates in reading groups and on Goodreads. 

I was almost discouraged by a somewhat slow start, where all the main characters were introduced though I never forgot who was who after that. Then some of the ship's crew stage a walkout due to employment issues, the excitement builds, and grave danger falls upon the ship itself. What started as a nostalgic cruise turned into a race with disaster. Finally came the enigmatic final pages.

It was definitely worth a couple reading days and kept me entertained.

(The Last Cruise is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) The paperback will be out in June, 2019)

Monday, December 03, 2018


December is a big reading group month this year. Two of my groups always have a holiday party and I am hosting one at my house. Though I have already read two of the books, I look forward to discussing them. The Bookie Babes do not read a book in December, we just party, do a book exchange and vote for our favorite book of the year while eating and drinking in a restaurant. It's all good.

Molly's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Tina's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Do you have any reading groups scheduled in December? What are you discussing?

Sunday, December 02, 2018


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The Chandelier, Clarice Lispector, New Directions, 2018, 373 pp (originally published 1946; translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser and Magdelena Edwards)
Brazilian author Clarice Lispector is acclaimed internationally by literary authors and lovers of literary fiction. I read her first novel, Near To the Wild Heart, a couple years ago and was nearly defeated.
I decided to try one more book, her second novel. I "studied" it by reading a few pages a day and taking notes. Her style at this point was deep stream of consciousness, not my favorite, but I wanted to see how she got that interior consciousness of a female's every thought and sensation. My purpose after reading the book was to practice or fool around with writing like that and see if I could get more of my inner life and emotion into the autobiography I am writing.

The almost non-existent plot is a girl's growing up from early childhood to young womanhood. Taking notes kept me aware of that sequence. At times Virginia seems almost mentally ill as far as how she reacts to life, the settings and the people around her. In any case, she is far from what would be considered a "normal" female. But is she?

When I finished the novel, I realized that, at least at times in my most secret thoughts while being a female who has always questioned what she was being taught about life as a female, I have been to some degree divorced from "normal."

Since reading the book, I find myself when I am with my female friends and family members, listening for those inner realities. It was a worthy study for me.

Next is to do the writing practice and see if I can capture that a bit in my own storytelling about my life. Writing is hard enough as far as just getting down the words, but I recently watched a talk by Lydia Yuknavitch where she explains what she calls "corporeal writing." (You can find videos of her talks about this by googling "corporeal writing.") I am ready to see if I can get to that level of deeper stuff.

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

Saturday, December 01, 2018


I had another excellent reading month in November with 14 books read. Only one was what I would call a long book, several were quite short, over half were written by women and over half were written by authors new to me. I managed to write reviews for all but the last two by the end of the month, but have only posted 7 of those reviews. My intentions for December are to catch up on posting all reviews and to make my yearly goal of 144 books read. Lest you think I am being too hard on myself, be assured that I am having fun doing this!

Stats: 14 books read. 14 fiction. 8 written by women. 3 thriller. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 young readers. 1 science fiction. 1 poetry. 2 translated.

Countries visited: United States, Great Britain, Brazil, China, Germany

Authors new to me: Donald Hamilton, Louise Fitzhugh, Lydia Kiesling, Emily Fridlund, Cixin Liu, S J Watson, Philip Kerr, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Favorite books: The Golden State, The Three-Body Problem
Least favorite: History of Wolves

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How did your November reading go? Have you read any of these? What were your best reads last month?

Friday, November 30, 2018


The Garrick Year, Margaret Drabble, William Morrow & Company, 1964, 221 pp
Of the last 19 novels I have read, 15 were written by women. I have reveled in being so immersed in the female point of view and somehow thrilled to be assured there are so many ways to be female.
The Garrick Year is Margaret Drabble's second novel. She is British, the sister of A S Byatt, and a frightfully good writer who is perceptively tart with humorous undertones.

Emma, mother of two small children, is married to an actor in the early 1960s. She has a chance for a career in television, not as an actor but more as some kind of show host. David, her husband, is an actor and equally ambitious for a career in the theater and possibly movies.

When an American heiress funds the renovation of the Garrick Theater in a provincial English town, David is called by the prestigious director to act in several plays for a season there. Emma gives in, not gracefully, so they rent out their London home, set off for Hereford with kids and au pair, and the fireworks begin.

For these two strong and restless as well as self-centered persons in their late twenties, life is never dull, except for Emma's dull hours in a hideous house with her kids. She is a house-proud woman. Emma and David contend, they are so much alike in some ways, they make up with humor and heart.

I loved the book for the characters (after all theater people are all characters, on stage and off), for the tension between this couple, for the absolute truthfulness about the confines of parenthood and fidelity. Emma is one of the great young married mothers I have met in literature. I understood her every emotion and action because I went through all that in my early married days.

The novel captures what it was like for women in the mid 60s when feminism was a barely conceived movement but we were all feeling it and finding our way. It was good to remember how much we loved our loving, our children, but also our freedom.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018


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How to (Un)cage a Girl, Francesca Lia Block, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, 120 pp
This book of poetry is by the author of the stupendous Weetzie Bat, my favorite YA novel ever! After I finished the WB Yeats collection in September, I went to my shelves and found only three books of poetry: an already read collection of Edna St Vincent Millay, The Standard Book of British and American Verse published in 1932, and a signed advance reader copy of these poems by Block. That night I opened How to (Un)cage a Girl and resumed my new poem-a-day practice.
There is no doubt that these poems come from the unique sensibility of Francesca Lia Block. Magical, emotional, probably auto-biographical. In three sections she does teenage years, young woman years, and more mature woman years.

The poems express the secret thoughts of women. While they are set in a world of adventurous, sometimes misbehaving females, I think that even the most proper, well-behaved women have these secret thoughts and feelings.

I just ordered Sylvia Plath's Ariel. Female poetry is what I need these days. Are you reading poetry? If yes, what?

Monday, November 26, 2018


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If Morning Ever Comes, Anne Tyler, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, 265 pp
This is Anne Tyler's first novel. The other day I read her latest, Clock Dance. Bookends! Don't be put off by the silly reprint cover shown here. I don't know what they were thinking. 
Only 22 when it was published, she got a rave review by Orville Prescott in the New York Times. Not bad for a young woman's first novel in 1964. I learned that she studied writing with Reynolds Price in college. Maybe he gave her a hand in getting published.

It is quite a Southern story with echoes of Eudora Welty. Ben Joe Hawks is studying law at Columbia, though not because he necessarily wants to be a lawyer. He has a widowed mother and six sisters back in North Carolina and feels responsible for them. 

Suddenly one morning he hops a train and heads home. He feels worried about all those females. When he arrives they are all like, "Oh, hi," but don't see any need to be worried over. 

Of course you can't go home again, especially to the South in mid-twentieth century America. That was also the theme of that disappointing Robert Penn Warren novel Flood I read recently. Tyler's book has plenty of emotion but it is not melodramatic. Her trademark human but offbeat characters are already there.

Apparently she has said she wishes she could disown her early novels. If I could have a chat with her I would say don't. I have a soft spot for first novels. It is like looking at a baby and trying to picture how that individual will grow and become to be.

I had a soft spot for young Ben Joe Hawks. There is something endearing about a lone male in a house full of females. As he tries to knit his past into his present, I felt all those females should have worried about him!

(If Morning Ever Comes is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 23, 2018


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The Golden State, Lydia Kiesling, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2018, 290 pp
Let me start by saying that I adored this novel. I have spent more time thinking about how to review it than I did reading it. (It was compulsively easy to read.) During the days I spent thinking about what I wanted to say, I have gone out to lunch, picked up new glasses, had dinner and plenty of drinks at a music event and listened to the hour long interview with Lydia Kiesling on the Otherppl podcast. Meanwhile the library due date for the book has come and gone. Time, as they say, is up.
Daphne, the mother of 14-month-old Honey, her first child, has been juggling too much for too long. Her Turkish husband has been kept out of the United States by immigration bureaucratic fuckery for months. She has a full time job and a good daycare for Honey but money is tight, her somewhat cool job involves more bureaucracy, and she is lonely for her husband.

One Friday she has a mild meltdown. On the way to work, she turns around, goes back to their apartment, packs up basic necessities, picks up Honey from daycare and splits. Since this happens in San Francisco, CA, USA, Daphne has a car. She also has an inherited mobile home (the nice kind with a yard on a piece of property) in a small high desert town.

During her ten days there, she spends hour after hour with Honey, pretty much obsessing over her current life situation. Such is the writing skill of Lydia Kiesling that she turns these ten days of the minutia of toddler care, the odd encounters smart, liberal Daphne has with the Trump supporters in town, the obsessive pingponging of her mind, into a gripping narrative.

I have not spent hours at a time with small children for many years; over 40 years ago with my own, almost 20 years ago with my grandchildren. I have apparently not forgotten the strange brew of deep love for them and even deeper boredom as the hours pass. I always felt overcome by the love and guilty about the boredom. I have never felt more understood about all of that than I did while reading The Golden State.

Then, all of a sudden (though surely both Daphne and I should have seen it coming) this young woman involves herself so impetuously in an ill-advised situation that I feared for her and Honey for the last 90 pages. I mean real fear, heart-pounding, foreboding fear.

I got to know Lydia Kiesling's writing through a regular feature on The Millions, one of the first highly successful literary blogs. She wrote brilliant, interesting reviews about many of the 100 Modern Library novels. I was drawn to her voice, her perceptions, her style. In fact, she had the most influence on me as a reviewer out of the countless book reviewers I have read. She is now the editor of The Millions and The Golden State is her first novel. From the first page I recognized that voice.

If you are a mom, not the perfect kind but the kind who wants (or wanted) to be as perfect as possible without losing touch with the rest of your life, I recommend this novel. It is like therapy and the writing is as perfect as we all wanted to be.

If you are Lydia Kiesling and you read this review, I hope I did your novel justice without giving away too much but leaving all the other delights therein for other readers to discover on their own.

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


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Clock Dance, Anne Tyler, Alfred A Knopf, 2018, 292 pp
This wonderful novel is the latest from Anne Tyler and proves (at least to me) that she has not lost one whit of the qualities that infuse all of her work: deep perception of human beings and of what makes life hard and where joy might be found. This is her 22nd novel in 54 years of publishing. It is the sixth one I have read and I don't intend to stop until I have read them all.
Willa Drake, my goodness, had a long path to finding herself. She had her reasons from childhood. She is one of those women who has every good quality you could hope for in a person except the ability to assert herself. I know in these days of whatever stage of feminism we are in, we like stories of strong women who can do it all and have it all. Maybe that is because there are still too many women like Willa.

The novel is also full of the slightly off characters who people Anne Tyler's stories. Sometimes I think we, especially Americans, like to hang out with fairly mainstream people, though look where that has gotten us.

Willa is on husband number two, when she makes an impulsive decision that opens up her life at the age of 61. Impulsive decisions are not new for her. What is new is that this one brings her what she wants.

Another theme in Anne Tyler's books is that our faults or negative qualities or shortcomings can work in our favor when we least expect it. I always find that an encouraging idea.

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

Monday, November 19, 2018


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Death of a Citizen, Donald Hamilton, Titan Books, 1960, 227 pp
Some months ago I wondered out loud on this blog if there were any novels about the early days of the CIA during the Cold War. Lisa at Captivated Reader went to work for me and found the Matt Helm series. Death of a Citizen is the first in that series.
Matt Helm had worked for the CIA (or its preceding organization) during WWII. He left the service after the war, married a lovely woman and had two kids. He became a writer of popular Westerns and thought he had made a pretty good life for himself.

However, his old boss, now a CIA guy, came looking for him in the guise of Helm's former partner during the war. His assassin nature reared up, as well as his lust for Tina, that former partner. He was back at it. This time he was supposed to save the life of an American nuclear physicist.

Death of a Citizen is a fast-paced thriller with plenty of sex, blood, double-crosses and mysterious persons. Matt has a style all his own preferring knives and pistols. His attitude toward women is definitely mid-20th century and his mental state is naturally conflicted. 

I liked the book well enough to try a couple more in the series. I hadn't thought the CIA carried out missions inside the United States. I thought that was the FBI's territory. Clearly I have more to learn.

Sunday, November 18, 2018


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Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh, Random House, 1964, 300 pp
It was with great anticipation that I opened this middle grade novel from 1964. I have often come across characters in other novels who mention Harriet, as well as writers who extol the book for being influential to them from childhood. In fact, Miriam Toews, author of All My Puny Sorrows, said in an interview that Harriet the Spy was one of her favorite books as a kid.
I was expecting a lot and I got a lot but not what I expected. It is true that Harriet is plucky, always a good personality trait for a middle grade female protagonist. It is also true that she has to learn hard lessons and overcome a sort of bullying. She is not, however, a particularly nice child.

Harriet is impulsive, nosy, noisy, sometimes rude and quite judgmental about the grownups and kids she interacts with. She carries a notebook with her at all times, jotting down her observations about these people. She goes to school and does her homework but considers her real work to be spying. Everyday after school she visits locations on her "route" and notes what is going on. 

Eventually I got used to Harriet, even feeling sympathetic to her approach to life and admired her independence. Being the only child of wealthy parents who had turned her over to a "nurse" whom she calls Ole Golly (a wise sort who encourages Harriet while giving good life advice) it is quite a shock to the girl and the reader when Golly finds a suitor, marries him and moves away.

Harriet's journal and her disturbing behavior after Golly leaves land her in big trouble at school. She overcomes it but the lesson she "learns" is to remain true to herself and use her proclivities more cunningly to turn her situation around.

By the end, I got why so many admire the book. It is a story for rebels, outliers, fiercely independent types, and of course writers. Harriet discovers she is a writer but also that her spying powers her writing. She could grow up to someone like Patricia Highsmith!!

Warning to moms: if you want your daughters to become nice, well-behaved women who fit in comfortably, don't let them read this one.

(Harriet the Spy is available in paperback and hardcover on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018


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All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews, McSweeney's, 2014, 321 pp
Sometimes a novel has so much heart, is so full of love, humor and good cheer in the face of hard times, that when I finish reading it I feel I have been given a huge gift I didn't even know I needed or wanted. All My Puny Sorrows was such a novel for me.
In fact, words fail me as I try to figure out how to write a review. I have had the book on my shelves for some time. I put it as the October book for my own 2018 challenge to read a book a month from my last 12 years of TBR lists. I am so happy I did.

So I will just say that if you have ever had a gnarly sorrow in your life which seemed to have no solution or for which you could find no solace, you must read All My Puny Sorrows.

Monday, November 12, 2018


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Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck, New Directions, 2017, 283 pp (originally published in Germany by Albrecht Knaus Verlag, 2015; translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.)
This reading group pick was an interesting look at another country's immigration problems. I had heard much praise for Jenny Erpenbeck's fiction and was glad to be introduced.
Set in Berlin, it is a ripped-from-the-headlines topic put into a fictional story. Richard, a retired classics professor, is at loose ends. His wife is no longer living and he feels without a project.

He notices some African refugees on a hunger strike outside the tent city where they have been living. Curious, he makes up a questionnaire and begins to interview individual refugees. Little by little, he becomes involved with several of the men, trying to help them. Naturally that forces him to learn about how his country is handling what has becomes something of a crisis.

Of course, the rulings and proceedings are a Kafkaesque maze of barriers for the refugees. They are not allowed to work without proper papers which are nearly impossible for them to get. Then the news makes these people look like moochers wanting handouts.

As Richard develops relationships with some of these men, the reader learns how much they have lost, how bored they are with nothing to do after being used to hard work in their home countries, and how the wars at home created by outside interference both political and business related have caused them to be forced to flee. It is enough to make your blood boil.

I recently read The Map of Salt and Stars, another angle on this mess. Richard with his classics knowledge does this cool thing of relating current turmoil to ancient history. Go, Went, Gone added even more understanding to realizations I have been having about how history is going.

It seems to me that the history of mankind on this planet is a continuous series of upheavals as peoples vie for resources, territory, and power. Sometimes there are periods of peace in one area or another, other times certain rulers amass enough power to control large areas for long periods of time. Thus advances are made in science, art and philosophy but eventually conflict erupts again, when the less powerful and the oppressed rise up.

It is as if the cultures of the world are contained in a vast Cuisinart. All gets churned, sliced and diced as new groups rise to power. Right now in the world that start button on the Cuisinart is being held down and nobody likes it. Yet the daily lives and stories of us all go on.

I didn't love Go, Went, Gone as much as I did The Map of Salt and Stars but it gave me more to think about. Jenny Erpenbeck is a wonderful writer and I will read her earlier novels.

(Go, Went, Gone is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, November 09, 2018


I'm From Electric Peak, Bud Smith, Artistically Declined Press, 2016, 130 pp
Basically a novella from an indie press and indie writer Bud Smith, this was the April, 2016 selection from The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. I have been reading one book a month from the club in an effort to at least not fall further behind since I am maintaining my subscription there. The books come once a month and keep piling up on their own special stack on my shelves. 
I'm From Electric Peak is a gritty romp of a read that I would have been sorry to miss. Kody Green is an orphan, a teen who escaped from the Mayweather home for wayward youth. He is in love with Teal Carticelli and plans to talk her parents out of sending her to Italy after they forced her to have an abortion. Kody was the father.

The story is wild, the violence is so over the top that it takes on cartoon proportions, the love between Kody and Teal is epic. Soon they are on the run, stealing cars to keep moving, having bittersweet but harrowing adventures across the country.

One blurb on the back of the book put it in the genre of outlaw love stories and it does have a Bonnie and Clyde essence. I would put it in the genre of young loser dudes of America. I loved every page and read it in a couple hours. It is worth any number of nonfiction books on the "broken heart of America" as another blurb called it.

I don't think I will ever forget Kody and Teal.