Saturday, March 31, 2018


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The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E Lockhart, Hyperion Books, 2008, 342 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Frankie Landau-Banks at age 14: Debate Club. Her father's "bunny rabbit." A mildly geeky girl attending a highly competitive boarding school.

Frankie Landau-Banks at age 15: A knockout figure. A sharp tongue. A chip on her shoulder. And a gorgeous new senior boyfriend: the supremely goofy, word-obsessed Matthew Livingston.

Frankie Landau-Banks. No longer the kind of girl to take "no" for an answer. Especially when "no" means she's excluded from her boyfriend's all-male secret society. Not when her ex-boyfriend shows up in the strangest of places. Not when she knows she's smarter than any of them. When she knows Matthew's lying to her. And when there are so many, many pranks to be done.

Frankie Landau-Banks, at age 16: Possibly a criminal mastermind.

This is the story of how she got that way.

My Review:
Here we have the March selection of my 2018 Challenge to read a book a month from the last 12 years of my TBR lists. It falls into the Young Adult genre, I had it on my shelves, and it was great fun.
I have provided you with the Goodreads summary because it conveys the plot better than I could. 
What I liked:
It is a boarding school novel. I never went to boarding school and am fairly sure that was a good thing, but I love reading books set in them.
Frankie Landau-Banks is a wondrous character. She blooms like a swan in her sophomore year from awkward nerd into a secret nerd with a goddess body. Once she snags a boyfriend she practices the age old advice not to let him know how smart she is but soon realizes doing so has made her invisible.
How she rises above that advice, uses her several super powers, and comes out on top is a story that would give a female of any age good dreams and a warm, happy heart.
I think I need to read more E Lockhart. 

(The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Thursday, March 29, 2018


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Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 267 pp

I have been reading Louise Erdrich for over a decade. While I have not read her early novels yet, I have read most of her 21st century ones. And I have loved every one of them. However, I have noticed that her work has a polarizing effect on readers. From reviewers to bloggers to Goodreads to reading groups, they either love her books or purely cannot stand them. It seems to have happened again with this one.

I was captivated by this futuristic story of an Ojibwe woman, adopted and raised by an impossibly liberal white couple, on the run from that white world, desperately searching for her Ojibwe roots, and in great danger.

Cedar is 26 years old when she finally meets her birth family who live on the res. She is pregnant at a time when a strange anomaly has appeared. Evolution seems to have gone in reverse, causing women to give birth to abominations. The government has stepped in to sequester all pregnant women with the purpose to do away with the "unnatural" babies and to keep in captivity the women who gestate normal babies so as to prolong humanity.

Cedar, having had an excellent education and an almost perfect childhood, is no dummy. She edits a progressive magazine, is married to a man she loves (and feels she can trust) and she has courage in abundance. When she finds herself pregnant though, all bets are off. She suddenly becomes obsessed with learning about her origins and is quickly made aware that she cannot truly trust anyone.

It is a wild tale, a thriller really, infused with Erdrich's usual mix of facetiousness and clear eyed portrayal of the relations between Native Americans and the white patriarchy. The characters in her novel leap off the page as complex beings, all of whom are dealing with the times in the best ways they know how.

A notable national book reviewer asked if we really need another Handmaid's Tale. What a silly question! Of course we do!! That is like asking if we really need another WWII novel or Holocaust novel or Civil War novel or slavery novel, etc, etc, etc. Also I don't believe we have had an apocalyptic novel that includes Native Americans. (Correct me if I am wrong about that.) I could also be wrong when I say that Louise Erdrich has not written a thriller before, so she had a right to do that.

Bottom line: You can believe the negative reviews or find out for yourself by reading the book. Even if you do read it, you could be dismayed because this one is a new adventure from Louise Erdrich. I think she created something shocking and wonderful.

(Future Home of the Living God is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


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The Unicorn, Iris Murdoch, Viking Press, 1963, 270 pp
This is the eighth novel I have read by Iris Murdoch. As usual I am reading them in order of publication. I find it hard to believe she did not win the Booker Prize until 1978, for her novel The Sea, The Sea. I have been impressed and entertained by each one I have read so far.

The Unicorn is Gothic in feel and setting. It includes her preoccupation with infidelity as well as her philosophic approach to human relationships. A young woman takes a post as governess at Gaze Castle, remote and ancient and crumbling on a desolate coast that feels Irish or Cornish. When Marian arrives she finds no children. Instead she is meant to be a companion and sort of tutor to Alice, a childless woman who has been deserted by her husband. But is that really the true story?

Alice is a recluse in her rooms, given to visions and strange religious compulsions. Marian soon finds herself under the woman's spell but entirely out of her depth among the strange collection of inhabitants in the castle.

There are mysteries. What really happened between Alice and her husband? There are rumors of infidelity and violence. A close friend of the only neighboring family harbors a long term unrequited love for Alice and visits her every summer. Murdoch creates a murky dangerous atmosphere that drew me in page by page with meditations on identity, love, guilt, and reality.

At times the story is so melodramatic, though interspersed with humorous winks at the tragedy being played out, that I would wonder why she wasted her time writing this tale. Marian, young and idealistic, resolves to free Alice from her self-imposed isolation, having determined that it is the others in the household who are keeping her a sort of prisoner. Because Marian doesn't know the half of it, her plans go terribly awry. Thinking she has found an ally in the rejected lover, she becomes confused as to whom she can trust.

In the end, I was won over completely by the creepiness, the wild emotions, the forbidding weather, the rocky cliffs, and raging seas. Feeling a bit played, I finally realized that the author intended to show how life plays us all.

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

Tuesday, March 27, 2018


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Sister of the Bride, Beverly Cleary, HarperCollins Publishers, 1963, 297 pp
My reading this year seems to go in pendulum swings from the horrific to the sublime. After the punch in the solar plexus that was The Power, I went to this sweet story of two sisters in the early 1960s, one of whom (Rosemary) has just gotten engaged and the other (Barbara) who is a junior in high school trying to find a boyfriend.
I loved Beverly Cleary's The Luckiest Girl when I was in middle school. That was the book that started my dream of living in California and even gave me some decent pointers about boys and romance that helped me get through high school. Somehow I missed Judy Blume back then and boy could I have used her books, so Cleary had to be my mentor.

Because this book was published in 1963 and because Cleary always had a sharp eye, it is actually pretty hip. Rosemary is in college at what seems to be Berkley and has strong ideas about being a woman. Though she is determined to marry her somewhat older boyfriend, she is just as determined to finish college and have her own career.

This is however Barbara's story. She dreams of being a bridesmaid. As she watches all the drama in her family around her parents accepting the idea of the marriage and her sister's grownup ideas, she also navigates between two boys who seem to like her. She feels increasingly left out of the wedding plans. She misses her former close relationship with Rosemary. Oh my, it is all so real and portrayed with the author's generous sense of humor and compassion for kids.

Of course it feels quite outdated now. There is not a hint of sex, except when Barbara's little brother teases her about kissing one of the two boys. But those two sisters are wonderful examples of what we were dealing with in those years. The story has a happy, happy ending.

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

Monday, March 26, 2018


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The Power, Naomi Alderman, Viking Press, 2017, 341 pp
I thought this was great! Not everyone agrees. I suggested it for one of my reading groups. Four out of six pretty much hated it and two of those didn't even finish it. One thought it was good but had qualms. Checking out the Goodreads reviews I found a wide range of opinion. The novel does have a slump in the middle where it felt like the author was working out some plot points a bit awkwardly but I appreciated the premise and the way she explicated that.
Something happens to young women, maybe due to radiation or pollution, and it changes their DNA. Suddenly these teenage girls have electrical power in their bodies. They can cause terrible pain, even death, in male bodies, as well as heightened sexual responses. They are definitely "on top" and the men become afraid, very afraid.

The plot is intricate. There is a "voice" who guides one of the female characters. Political angles, religious angles, gangsters, an eastern European country ravaged by civil unrest and terrorists. It is a stew and in that regard not that far off from the world we live in now. 

Here is what I think. Naomi Alderman gives us a big what if. What if women had the power over men that men still have over women? She takes it to the ultimate bad outcome, switching the power dynamic, but that does not make life better. I don't think this is a completely serious book. It is satire intended to show up the ridiculous nature of both sides. The only serious side to the novel is a study of power and its inherent problems.

I was completely entertained. I must admit it was thrilling to imagine having enough power to unleash all my female anger and win! I understand why a man might not like the book. Women raping men? Oh no! Hardly any males on Goodreads gave it more than three stars.

I think perhaps Alderman's ideas went over a few heads. I don't think she was trying to be literary. It could have been a graphic novel in some respects. It could become a cult classic, especially among certain women. Because it IS therapeutic to imagine being able to demean, overpower, obstruct and nullify abusive patriarchal men. 

In the end it came down to having to admit that wouldn't work either. We have to keep plugging away at achieving a balance and it will be the women who have to do it. As usual.

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

Sunday, March 25, 2018


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Accidental Eyewitness, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2017, 219 pp
This is the latest mystery from my friend Alice Zogg, who has been writing and self-publishing her twelve books for over a decade. I have read them all and each one gets better. Alice is a self-taught writer though she is a member of Sisters in Crime and participates in their workshops. She is living proof that a person can learn to write by writing. See my interview with her.
The accidental eyewitness in her current book is a child. (Not a spoiler. It say so on the dust cover copy.) Evie and her mother are guests of her uncle, Kurt Nobel, on his own private island where he has built a mansion. Sound familiar? Well, he is a real estate tycoon in southern California.

The occasion is purported to be a celebration of his recent marriage to a pop singer much his junior. The guest list is odd however, including a former fiancee and a political opponent. It doesn't take long before a guest is found dead.

This is one of Ms Zogg's stand alone mysteries. Rather than featuring a private investigator, as most of her earlier books have, the crime must be solved by the nearest off-shore police detective. That turns out to be an excellent device, opening up what is essentially a locked room mystery to include the stories of several characters. Every character is well drawn but eight-year-old Evie is a total gem.

The pace is fast, the clues are lying everywhere, but as usual in an Alice Zogg mystery, I could not figure out who the murderer was until it was revealed.

(Accidental Eyewitness is available in both hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, March 22, 2018


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The Road, Cormac McCarthy, Alfred A Knopf, 2006, 241 pp
I read this as part of my self-created 2018 Challenge to read a book a month from the last 12 years of my TBR lists. ( I organize these lists by year of publication.) The Road won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. I have seen the movie and I have owned the book for many years but somehow never picked it up to read. It is fitting that I did so now since my reading this year is turning out to be littered with post apocalyptic fiction.
From the movie I have indelible images of the devastated land through which a man and his son travel, the ash, the gray skies, the almost utter lack of living creatures except for a few desperate human beings. The cold, the hunger, and the fear.
From the book I got even more of a sense of this father who has nothing and no one left in his life except his son. The boy is quite young, though his age is never specifically given. I pictured him to be about 7 or 8 years old. It is as if the father must protect his son and try to get him to some semblance of safety as a last gasp of human agency.
This bleak disturbing tale takes the road trip novel to new depths. We are accustomed to road trips that take place in cars. The father and his son walk hundreds of miles south in a footrace against winter. The story moves at a walking pace, sometimes a very slow walk, as they push their grocery cart of belongings through mud and slush, but it is a trip taken mostly on the remains of the roads we take for granted in our current lives.
Am I glad I read it? Overall the answer is yes. For the power of McCarthy's writing. For the reminder of what human beings will do for someone they love. Mostly for the realization that came over me days after I finished it. 
We don't know what lies ahead. Will mankind figure out ways to counter the forces of climate change, terrorism and the mushroom cloud that still hovers over our consciousness? Most of us will not live long enough to know.
My realization was that whatever our place is in creation, it was not meant to be as an annihilating, destructive force. Mankind as a species throughout recorded history has committed deeds of small and large scale annihilation and destruction but so has nature. If you believe your holy books, your mythology books, so have the gods. The main thread though, as depicted in much of the fiction I read, is the life force, the will to survive, and love, all of which are in abundance even when forced near to extinction from time to time. 

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

Tuesday, March 20, 2018


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The Ice Palace, Tarjei Vesaas, William Morrow & Co, 1963, 176 pp (originally published in Norway, translated from the Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan)
I learned of this exquisite novel from John Self's blog Asylum. John Self is a reviewer for The Guardian but he reads many more books than he gets to review, hence the blog. 
Tarjei Vesaas, the author of the novel, was an acclaimed Norwegian poet and novelist (1897-1970) who came within a hair's breath of winning the Nobel Prize, but didn't, in 1964. A serendipitous moment occurred this week when I saw on Lithub that it was the anniversary of his death.

This novel is the story of two eleven-year-old girls who meet at school. Siss has lived in her town all of her life and is the one at school who other kids consider their leader. Unn is the new girl, recently taken in by her aunt after her single mom has died.

The two girls spend an afternoon in Unn's room, getting to know each other. The connection is intense with an underlying sensual throb. Unn tells Siss she has a secret she had never told anyone. She doesn't tell it to Siss either but does say she is not sure she will go to heaven. You feel this is the beginning of a deep friendship.

Within 48 hours Unn has vanished in an ice storm, so the rest of the story relates how Siss deals with the fallout of that.

My little plot summary sounds like a YA novel you might pick up in contemporary times but it is nothing like that. It is mysterious, psychological though not heavy handedly so, and so beautifully written. I kept finding myself holding my breath as I read.

I can't tell you more because anything else I say would be a spoiler, but if you love amazing writing and decide to read The Ice Palace, all will be revealed in a short time. I read the book in one evening. Even if you have a bad memory, you will remember what it is like to be eleven years old.

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

Saturday, March 17, 2018


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The Child Finder, Rene Denfeld, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 184 pp
I had read and loved Rene Denfeld's first novel, The Enchanted, so I was happy when one of my reading groups chose this one. It is just as good.
Naomi is an investigator who finds lost, missing, and abducted children. Based in Oregon, she was a lost child herself who was eventually found and taken in by a wise and wonderful foster mother. She is known to certain police officers and parents who have a word of mouth network that brings her cases. Naomi also has much buried trauma that gives her nightmares and keeps her from forming close relationships, but she is an expert in her field. She is the "child finder."

The novel is a mystery. Madison Culver, the captive of a disturbed man who abducted her, has been lost for three years. All her parents know is that she vanished into the woods at five years old while the family was looking for a live Christmas tree. They have hired Naomi to look for their daughter. The brilliant construction of the novel lets us see both Madison's story in captivity and Naomi's investigation. While the reader knows that Madison is alive, neither Naomi nor Madison's parents can be sure though they feel she is.

The second mystery concerns what is buried in Naomi's psyche. Will she remember? Can she ever form an attachment to the foster brother who loves her?

Despite some quite graphic and disturbing scenes, there is so much tenderness in this story that it prevents the reader from getting overwhelmed. Also as it is fairly short and fast moving, you don't have to stay inside the horror too long. The suspense caused my heart to pound many times.

Rene Denfeld is a heroine to me. She has deep compassion and wisdom about the human condition. She never seems to fall prey to despair. She seeks truth and justice but not vengeance or blame. If more of our leaders had even an ounce of all that, we would have a better world. She inspires me.

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

Thursday, March 15, 2018


Shoo-Fly Girl, Lois Lenski, J B Lippincott Company, 1963, 176 pp
I have not read much children's literature lately so this was a nice change. Lois Lenski wrote many books for children as well as doing her own illustrations. I loved her American Regional Series and read many of them as a child. I have re-read them over the past few years. Each book tells the story of a child and family in a different region of the United States back when regions were actually regional.
Shoo-Fly Girl is Suzanna growing up in an Amish family on a farm in Lancaster County, PA. Other families have cars, television, and ready made clothes. Suzanna and her siblings ride in horse-drawn buggies, wear clothes made by their mother, and do not even use electricity, though it is the early 1960s.

Suzanna got the nickname Shoo-Fly because one day she ate an entire shoo-fly pie, in secret. There is even a recipe! Her family gives everyone a nickname. It is hard to keep secrets in a family with nine children, though Suzanna and her adored older brother manage to keep quite a few.

The secrets and the experiences of these two children interacting with non-Amish friends are the heart of the story. Do they want to break away and live like their friends do or will they choose to remain Amish and live by the old ways? "We are Amish. We do not change." Those are the words they hear whenever they question the ways of their people.

It is a lovely story. As always, Lois Lenski did her research first, spending several weeks living with the Amish before writing her book. She brings it all to life: the strict but loving parents, the long hard days of chores, the deep underlying closeness and happiness in the family, and the stresses on the children who must come to terms with being different.

In this day and age, it feels a bit cultish though there is no evidence of any psycho, charismatic leader. Just a way of life being handed down for generations, very Bible based. According to what I could find on the internet, they are still going strong in Pennsylvania.
(Lois Lenski's books are out of print but can be found in libraries and through used book sellers.)

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


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The Book of Joan, Lidia Yuknavitch, HarperCollins Publishers, 2017, 267 pp
This novel is the most post, post-apocalyptic one ever. Leave it to Lidia Yuknavitch and her fierce imagination. It is chilling, dense with story, in fact so dense it seems longer than 267 pages. Yet, I read it in two days.
Earth is as destroyed as it can be while still supporting a bit of human life. Climate change and nuclear war have left it radioactive. People must live in caves where they subsist on things that grow in the dark. Violence is still constant.

A beyond evil version of Elon Musk and the remaining wealthy people of the world live on a sort of space station platform, hovering over the planet and uploading any remaining resources via some advanced transporting technology. This leader, Jean de Men, subjects his followers to an uber police state, cult like existence but though most of the inhabitants are decadent and fooled by his "entertainments" there are two rebels.

On Earth, Joan, child-warrior, heroine, possessed of powers that echo the Orogenes in N K Jemison's Broken Earth trilogy, has been "martyred" by Jean de Men. (Actually the Broken Earth trilogy is even more post post-apocalyptic than The Book of Joan, now that I consider it.) Anyway, Joan lives to fight and die another day.

The imagery and personalities in this tale of horror are beyond disturbing. Perhaps only Lidia Yuknavitch could have created such things. The action is non-stop and almost addictive. It is not all gloom and doom however. Out of ultimate destruction comes hope and even possible enlightenment for humanity. If a reader can stomach the horror, The Book of Joan is an amazing read.
I have been drawn to these sorts of books lately. I blame N K Jemison as well as our current President and his lackeys. I hereby create a new genre sobriquet: Not For The Faint Of Heart.
(The Book of Joan is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, March 11, 2018


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Podkayne of Mars, Robert A Heinlein, G P Putnam's Sons, 1963, 170 pp
This sci-fi, adventure, space yarn is the second Heinlein book I have read from 1963. It started out just fine. Podkayne is a teenage girl, born and raised on Mars, with a burning desire to visit Earth and a goal to become a space pilot and commander of deep-space exploration parties. She is smart and brave, not opposed to "marriage in due time," but has big plans for her life.

She loves her family. Her mother is a master engineer, often away from home for her profession, her father a historian, and her younger brother an annoying genius.

After several delays she, her beloved uncle and her brother do set off for a journey to Earth via Venus. They endure radiation storms, Podkayne gets to hang out with pilots and learn, and they get into horrendous danger on Venus.

Along the way are many annoying bits about Podkayne realizing that it doesn't do to appear too intelligent around men and other ideas similar to the advice I used to read in Seventeen magazine in the 1960s. I thought perhaps Heinlein was mocking such ideas. Finally comes the shocking and tragic ending.

Well, it turns out that Heinlein's publishers didn't like this ending and convinced him to change it, but the Phoenix Pick reprint I read (published in 2015) restores his originally intended ending.

There follows a letter from Heinlein to his agent, dated 1962, stating that his original ending was intended to show that it is all the mother's fault because she was "the highly successful career woman who wouldn't take time to raise her own kids." That aroused my rage and thinking back on the story, all the clues to that viewpoint were there.

I will continue to read Heinlein just to see what else he does and to do my own study of a highly successful career man who held such views, to be aware of how he perpetrated such stuff in his fiction, to keep me aware of this poison as I live and read. It was still the mid 60s when he wrote this one. Maybe he got over it?
I have nothing against motherhood, I have nothing but admiration for women who manage both careers and raising children, and I have respect for women who admit they cannot or do not want to do both and must make a choice. I do have everything against a man prescribing how a woman should lead her life.

(Podkayne of Mars is available in the revised Phoenix Pick paperback with the original ending by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. If you want the 1963 ending you will have to find a used copy of the G Putnam's Sons book published back then.)

Thursday, March 08, 2018


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The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, Grove Press Inc, 1966, (originally published in Barcelona, 1963, translated from the Spanish by Lysander Kemp), 409 pp
I read my first book by this author in 2002. The Green House, his second novel, was one of the challenging literary novels I was starting to read in those years, having somewhat satisfied my desire for trashy, escape reading. I was rekindling my aspirations as a writer and wanting to read Literature. It was around that time that I invented My Big Fat Reading Project. Vargas Llosa was one of the celebrated authors of the Latin American boom and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 2010.
The Time of the Hero is his first novel and also a challenge to read: multiple characters, a disjointed time sequence, switches from third to first person and back again. Often I was not sure who was who, especially since many characters had real names and nicknames. OK. Enough whining. I did catch on and was spellbound by the end.

Most of the book takes place behind the walls of the Leoncio Prado Military Academy on the edge of Lima, Peru. It follows a group of cadets through their four years there, the equivalent of high school. The boys come from different socioeconomic backgrounds and were sent there for various reasons but the underlying intention is to produce soldiers. Peru has a long history of war and unrest.

The titular "hero" was placed in the Academy by his mostly absent, philandering father for the purpose of "making a man of him" and steering him away from the suspected unmanliness of his poetry writing. (Vargas Llosa himself was sent to a military academy by his father for similar reasons. Just goes to show you.)

About eight of these boys stay together as a sort of gang for the duration. They give each other nicknames like The Jaguar, The Boa, Curly, The Slave, and The Poet. The Jaguar is their leader, a tough sociopath who is the best at never getting caught and never giving a fuck about anyone. They drink and smoke, they joke constantly about sex, they have sex with each other (consensual and predatory), all without their teachers and officers catching on.

One night this rowdy group of pubescent male creatures draw straws and send the loser to steal a chemistry exam from the school building. Good grades are one of the conditions of getting leave. Another cadet informs on the guy and is ultimately murdered by one of the boys.

What a gnarly tale! Along the way the back stories and family lives of several characters are revealed including their romantic/lustful encounters with young girls in Lima. The authorities conduct an investigation after the murder and all comes to light but they decide on a cover up to protect the reputation of the Academy, the officers, and the military in general. This includes throwing the most principled and honest officer under the bus.

The novel is a morality tale, a mystery, and a treatise on what constitutes heroism. In the end, the murderer is revealed to the reader as is the fate of The Poet. It is only then that it becomes clear which back story goes with which cadet. I had not seen the denouement coming, the sign of a good novel.

I was left somewhat in awe of how Vargas Llosa constructed such a novel for his first time out. It is perhaps a bit overdone, a bit pretentiously obfuscating, but it shows deep thinking about Peru, life, and big ideas like good, evil, honor, truth, and love.

This quote from Jean Paul Sartre, the epigraph before Part One, sums it up well:
"We play the part of heroes because we're cowards, the part of saints because we're wicked: we play the killer's role because we're dying to murder our fellow man: we play at being because we're liars from the moment we're born."

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

Wednesday, March 07, 2018


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The Weight of Ink, Rachel Kadish, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 560 pp
This long and complex novel was so much my kind of book; possibly one of the best novels I have ever read. It demands quite a bit of the reader as well as an interest in philosophy. It is one of those stories about intelligent women who just cannot stay in the roles expected of her by society and religion. Set in two time periods, it features a connection across centuries between two specific women. The setting is London in the early 21st century and in the 1600s.
Helen Watt is in her 60s, slowly losing to Parkinson's Disease and a top historian teaching at the university level. When a former student contacts her regarding some 17th century Jewish documents he discovered while renovating his home, Helen finds the kind of thing that can make a historian's career. Due to her health and university politics, she begins a race against time.

The documents include writings by Ester Velasquez, an emigrant to London from Amsterdam. She was an orphan taken in by a rabbi who, blind, and poor, had no scribe to help him. Ester was thus permitted to scribe for him, something women never did back then. The rabbi was a survivor of the Spanish Inquisition who escaped to Amsterdam and had then been sent to London by his temple with the assignment to help the fledgling Jewish community there, as Jews were newly allowed back into Great Britain. 

Ester has a background full of loss and confusion. She is comforted by her access to the rabbi's books and spends all of her free time studying while she learns her way around London. Within a few years the Plague and the Great Fire of London will decimate the city and she will be on her own again.

The novel fairly reeks with history. Both Helen and Ester long for philosophical and historical understanding, while men and romance only create problems for them. They each desire to live in their minds unmolested; longing vs self-preservation are the emotional bedrock of the story in both of their lives.

Then there is the Spinoza connection. I am no expert on philosophy but rather am a self-taught dilettante in the subject. From the reading I have done, Spinoza is my favorite philosopher. Due to Ester's position as a scribe she is able, surreptitiously, to strike up a correspondence with Spinoza, posing as a man. They engage in epistolary discussions about Spinoza's ideas, thereby providing the poor banished Jew with friendship and a sounding board for his wildly heretical thinking. I realize this might not be every reader's cup of tea but it was complete joy to me.

Much more goes on in the story but I think it is best to let other readers discover it on their own. Discovery is another theme in the book actually. If you are someone who has spent time pondering the meaning of life and questioning all you have been taught, there are riches awaiting you in The Weight of Ink.

I read and discussed the book for and with one of my reading groups. Of the eight members, six are Jewish, though not all are practicing. One of us was raised Protestant, one Catholic. Oh what a great discussion we had!

Personally I had an experience of enlightenment as I read but I think that belongs in my autobiography rather than a book review. I only mention it as evidence of how powerful a book this is.

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

Tuesday, March 06, 2018


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On Her Majesty's Secret Service, Ian Fleming, New American Library, 1963, 288 pp
I don't know what came over me but I decided to read all of Ian Fleming's James Bond books as well as see, or see again, all of the movies. The part of my autobiography I am currently working on involves the Cold War years and its effect on my life as a young adult, so I thought reading these books and watching the movies would give me the flavor of that from a spy's perspective. Though there were more literary authors writing spy fiction during the Cold War (John le Carre, Graham Greene, etc), I think it was the glamorous James Bond who captured our imagination in the United States and the movies just inflamed us more.
I made a list of the books. They span 13 years with as many books. The releases of the movies were in a completely different order. For example, Fleming's first book, Casino Royale, was published in 1953 but the movie came out in 1967. The first movie was Dr No in 1962 though that book was published in 1958.

I started with On Her Majesty's Secret Service because it was published in 1963 and that is the year I am reading right now. I don't know yet how I will coordinate the reading and movie watching.

In any case, it was an entertaining read and I knocked it off in one day. There is a beautiful, sexy girl (of course), Bond's old enemy Blofeld from earlier books, the head of the French mafia (the girl's father), a Swiss hideout, lots of skiing, and even genealogy is involved. Bond seems to have found the love of his life but a spy is never in control of his heart's desire.

The skill of Ian Fleming lies in this: you know Bond won't die and you know it won't work out with the girl but he makes you worry desperately for Bond's life and believe that the romance will have a happy ending. Every other spy fiction writer creates his own variation of this, but after reading just one book, I don't think any of them does it better than Ian Fleming.

(On Her Majesty's Secret Service is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, March 03, 2018


March will be another rather quiet month for my reading groups. We really need this flu season to be over.

Last month's roundup report: Both Miss Burma and The Weight of Ink provided long, deep and lively conversations. Actually so did The Child Finder. We covered history, philosophy, and inhumanity to children. Heavy stuff but great for stretching our minds and touching our hearts.

Coming up are two books I had not read before and one (Hillbilly Elegy) I have. I finished The Power last night and can't wait to discuss that one tomorrow afternoon!

Molly's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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Have you read and/or discussed any of these? What is happening in your reading groups, if you participate in such things? Any recommendations?

Friday, March 02, 2018


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Gold Dust Woman, The Biography of Stevie Nicks, Stephen Davis, St Martin's Press, 2017, 312 pp
This is an unauthorized biography, meaning that Stevie Nicks had no say in how it was written and that the author did not interview her directly but based his book on interviews with others who knew or worked with Stevie and on other media sources. 
Given that overall shortcoming, it is still pretty good. If you are or were a Stevie Nicks fan and a Fleetwood Mac fan, there is plenty to like and learn as well as plenty of inside dirt and snark. Good old celebrity culture at work.

I read it in a three day haze of reminiscence, watching videos on YouTube and having those songs running like constant ear worms. Total immersion!

When I made my second attempt at having a career in music, it was 1977. I formed a duo with the man who became my second and current husband. After learning about thirty cover songs in my attic bedroom in Ann Arbor, MI, we went out on auditions.

I was a newly divorced single mom with two small sons and barely any child support from their father, so I had to make a living. I tried working in retail, running daycare in my apartment, spent some time on welfare and food stamps, but the only marketable skill I had was singing.

Those auditions led to playing gigs in restaurants and bars, with a live-in nanny to stay with my boys at night. For a year or so my signature song was "Landslide." Girls would come up to the stage and leave notes requesting the song. Often we played it three times a night.

So yes, I have plenty of memories about Stevie and Fleetwood Mac. We loved the Buckingham Nicks album and my partner practiced Lindsey Buckingham licks for hours. We saw them in concert. We went on to form one of the top cover bands in the Detroit, MI area. It is amazing how much music I have embedded in my mind. Every time I read one of these biographies, they all come floating up.

I loved learning so much about this complicated woman. She is five feet of emotion, drive, creativity, and a tough tenderness. The story follows her entire life from childhood through the Fleetwood Mac years and her solo career, including all her lovers and how she wrote the songs and made the albums. It is a wonder she survived.

I have read other musician biographies by Stephen Davis. He wrote a version of Michael Jackson's Moonwalk, (the published book was edited by Jackson and Jackie Onassis and Davis got no credit for it.) He also co-wrote This Wheel's On Fire with Levon Helm of The Band and, the one I have yet to read, Mick Fleetwood's My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac. Davis is a pro.

Still I hope we eventually get an authorized biography of Stevie Nicks written by a woman or better yet an autobiography.

(Gold Dust Woman is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, March 01, 2018


My February reading was varied, hitting several genres, locations, and time periods. I set myself the challenge to read 12 books a month this year. Not because I want to impress anyone with how much I read but because I have so many books I want to read and I am not getting any younger, so looking at how many years I potentially have left to read, I simply need to read more. Though February is such a short month, I was pleased to have met the goal. Full disclosure: I did it by reading mostly short books at the end of the month.

Stats: 12 books read. 11 fiction. 5 written by women. 6 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 biography. 1 thriller. 1 Sci Fi. 1 children's book. 1 mystery. 2 apocalyptic. 2 translated. 1 Nobel Prize author. 1 Pulitzer Prize author.

Favorites: Gold Dust Woman, The Weight of Ink, The Child Finder, The Ice Palace.
Least favorite: Podkayne of Mars

One problem I am having is keeping up with writing reviews of the books and posting them on the blog. You can expect more frequent posts in the coming weeks as I get caught up.

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Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite books read in February?