Thursday, May 31, 2018


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Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton, Berkley, 2018, 356 pp
I proposed this novel to one of my reading groups. It turned out to be more in the romance genre than I expected but that is OK. The particular group in question includes several very busy people who also try to get each book read and I like to suggest books that will make their reading efforts pleasurable as well as informative. We have read other books set in Cuba and they have gone over well. This one was no exception.
Despite the heavy romantic hand of Chanel Cleeton, she wrote a book that taught me a great deal about what Castro's revolution was like for the many levels of society in Havana and what are the effects that still linger today. Once again, a revolution intended to bring about a more equitable society turned into another oppressive regime because revolutionary leaders often have little to no experience in governance and because power almost always corrupts.

Marisol Ferrera is the great granddaughter of a wealthy Cuban family who decided to flee when Castro ousted Batista. The family's successful sugar business and their opulent lifestyle were in great danger. Because of generations of experience, the family was able to recreated their wealth in Miami. 

Marisol grew up hearing romantic stories of Cuba from her grandmother. When she died with a deathbed wish to have her ashes scattered in Cuba, Marisol went to fulfill that wish.

As a journalist she got into Cuba with a limited visa to do an article on tourism in the country. While she was there discovering her roots she also fell into a relationship with a political dissident, the grandson of her grandmother's former best friend. Being an innocent and naive Cuban/American, Marisol had no idea that she might be under surveillance or that the political climate in Cuba was as volatile as ever.

She also learns all of grandmother's secrets, including the true identity of her father but in the end must make a desperate escape with her new lover in tow.

It was an engrossing and exciting read along the lines of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. While the writing was not truly great, there are not many political romances set in Cuba.

(Next Year in Havana is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018


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Lawn Boy, Jonathan Evison, Algonquin Books, 2018, 310 pp
I have been a fan of Jonathan Evison since I read his first novel, All About Lulu, published in 2008. I have read all of his four previous novels, I have been to all of his author appearances in Los Angeles except for the one he made this year at the LA Times Festival of Books. I loved his second and third books (West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.) His last novel, This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, was a letdown for me, so much so that I did not post my review of it on the blog.
In his latest, Lawn Boy, he tells the story of Mike Munoz, a Mexican/American young man living on the edge of poverty in a small town outside of Seattle. Mike lives with his mother and his mentally challenged brother, while working as a lawn boy on a landscaping crew. He is in his early 20s and is fully aware of his life being a stereotype.

As a human being he is pretty normal. Despite his lowly existence he reads fiction. In fact, fiction is his primary escape and he even dreams of writing the Great American Landscaping Novel. He has a passion and great talent for creating shrub sculptures. He has no luck at all with women. Finally his expertise at doing stupid things that derail his life is epic.

I had some issues with this novel, some of the same ones as I did with Harriet Chance, although I ended up loving the book. The main issue was the voice of Mike Munoz. Since the novel is told entirely in first person, there is no getting away from that voice. Munoz repeats himself continually, he over thinks every little thing. For me he was a somewhat unconvincing construct of a tough but innocent guy.

But what do I know? I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, late middle-aged woman. I have no clue what it is like to be Mike Munoz. I have a little bit of experience with class-conscious, low income problems due to my own stupid turns in life. I have a Mexican lawn boy of my own who tells me stories about his life if I lend him my ear.

Jonathan Evison has experience with many of Mike Munoz's problems so I should just trust him that a half Hispanic man raised by a hard working single mom could talk like that and still be ultimately saved by reading books.

I feel like I know the author somewhat because I have read all his novels and watched his author events and many of his videoed interviews and followed him on Facebook for so many years. At least I know him as an author if not personally. So why not take him at his word, so to speak, and admire his portrayal of an "everyman" like Mike Munoz? Years from now, if people are still paying attention to books and writers, he will probably be known on a level with Zola, George Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, etc, for telling us the stories of everyday people and how they get overlooked in the novels of our current society.

(Lawn Boy is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, May 28, 2018


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Armageddon, Leon Uris, Doubleday & Company, 1964, 632 pp
At #4 on the 1964 bestseller list comes another tome by Leon Uris. I have now read four of his novels because he was a big bestselling author in his day, so I had an idea of what I was in for. Historical, wordy, repetitive writing and cheesy romantic scenes are just the way it goes with Leon Uris. To his credit and probably why he was so popular, he gets into the nooks and crannies of history not always found in such fiction.
Armageddon is a novel of Berlin spanning the events from the tail end of World War II up through the Berlin airlift. Most people know that Germany was divided among the Allies after the war and that Berlin was situated in the Russian sector, later known as East Germany during the Cold War. Eventually this cockeyed plan, cooked up by the Potsdam Conference just after the war ended, became so untenable that the Soviets built the infamous Berlin Wall. 

What Leon Uris does in the book is to show the early events leading up to the country being split in two. He covers the immediate disaffection between the Soviet Union and the other Allies: US, UK, and France. He includes the exposure of Hitler's concentration camps, the entire devastation wreaked upon Germany, the denial of the Germans as to Hitler's atrocities, and the extreme divergence between Russian plans for a communist takeover of Eastern Europe compared with the Western Allies' ideas for German reconstruction.

The book contains deep, complicated political history made accessible to those of us who are not political scholars. This is what went on behind the fairly slanted news stories put forth by each of the Allied countries.

His characters show the amount of hatred and fear carried by Americans, French, British, Russian and German people both in the political and military spheres as well as among the German populace. I was struck by the sheer degree of ill will that war generates, which is maybe more destructive even than the bombing, killing and devastation war brings to both victors and losers.

When it comes time for the airlift, brought about due to a Communist embargo on goods passing between their sector and the Western ones, the excitement mounts. That embargo has the potential for mass starvation and death by disease and freezing in those other sectors but is also a bid for communist control of the entire country.

The American general in charge of his sector must go to Washington and convince President Truman to override the Pentagon and Congress in approving funds and materiel. Pilots and planes are called back into service and they perform thrilling feats.

All in all, a worthwhile read that goes a long way to explicating how and why the Cold War came into being.

(Armageddon is out of print but can be found in libraries and from used book sellers.)

Friday, May 25, 2018


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Appassionata, Eva Hoffman, Other Press, 2009, 265 pp
A beautiful story of contrasts, lovely but tragic, both light and deep at the same time, this was my April selection for my challenge to read a book a month from my old TBR lists. It was one of those books I bought on impulse after reading a review.
The title refers to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No 23. Isabel Merton, a concert pianist, spends long periods on tour in Europe, Australia, South America and even China. Her life is a constant sequence of plane flights, hotels, and concerts. She lives for the performances which take her and her audiences soaring on the wings of music and emotion but is also familiar with the aftermath of post performance let down.

Isabel's life in her hometown New York City involves an ex-husband with whom she is still friendly but about whom she has guilt feelings. The itinerant life of her tours have begun to leave her feeling fragmented and without meaningful interaction with other people.

One night at a party she meets an intriguing man, a political exile from Chechnya. Anzor is high strung, vague about what he actually does, and sexy. They begin a relationship consisting of meeting in various cities where they both happen to be. The physical passion between them is as exhilarating to Isabel as playing music but their backgrounds could not be further apart.

A growing awareness of Anzor's political work and beliefs and his strong connection to his homeland where war rages, brings Isabel to question her whole life and her lack of involvement with the early 21st century world of constant wars and political inequality.

The reader can see that this relationship has little chance of surviving the differences between Isabel and Anzor, but Isabel cannot. When the break comes she is devastated as well as inconsolable. That part was hard to read but Eva Hoffman's exquisite writing brought both her main character and this reader through.

I loved the book because of my own experiences with music but also for the doomed love story. So deftly did the author create it, I marveled at how she did it. The woman has had quite a life herself, emigrating from Krakow, Poland in her teens, working as a senior editor at the New York Times and as a literary critic. She has lived in the shadow of war and political upheaval, she has had the best of educations, and written many books. I want to read more of them.

(Appassionata seems to be out of print but is available as an eBook and from selected used book sellers.)

Thursday, May 24, 2018


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The Black Prince, Iris Murdoch, The Viking Press, 1973, 408 pp
Summary from Goodreads: Bradley Pearson, an unsuccessful novelist in his late fifties, has finally left his dull office job as an Inspector of Taxes. Bradley hopes to retire to the country, but predatory friends and relations dash his hopes of a peaceful retirement. He is tormented by his melancholic sister, who has decided to come live with him; his ex-wife, who has infuriating hopes of redeeming the past; her delinquent brother, who wants money and emotional confrontations; and Bradley's friend and rival, Arnold Baffin, a younger, deplorably more successful author of commercial fiction. The ever-mounting action includes marital cross-purposes, seduction, suicide, abduction, romantic idylls, murder, and due process of law. Bradley tries to escape from it all but fails, leading to a violent climax and a coda that casts shifting perspectives on all that has preceded.
My Review:
I am a big fan of Iris Murdoch and this is the eighth novel of hers I have read. For the first time I had some problems with Ms Murdoch. Part of the trouble may be that I have been reading her novels in order of publication and The Black Prince came out nine years and seven novels later than the last novel of hers I read. Obviously an author is going to develop and change over nine years, but I did not get to experience those changes in a gradual way. I read this one now due to it being a reading group pick.
I am familiar with her usual concerns: love, infidelity, religion and philosophy. All are present in The Black Prince. I am accustomed to the somewhat madcap nature of her plots and this novel's plot begins with the protagonist getting a phone call from his friend/enemy Arnold Baffin, who says, "Bradley, could you come around here please, I think that I have just killed my wife."
Two aspects bothered me the most: structure and heavy-handed philosophizing through the voice of Bradley. Iris Murdoch was first and foremost a philosopher who studied and taught at Oxford, though she put her ideas mostly into her 26 novels. 
In the early novels I have read, the philosophical content had been seamlessly melded with the characters, dialogue and plot. In this one, though that form is still employed, there are also long asides during which Bradley expounds on his own character, emotions, and intellectual ideas, completely disrupting and sometimes derailing the plot. While I get the allusions to the black prince made immortal in Shakespeare's Hamlet, I found this so annoying, actually quite disconcerting as a reader.   
 Despite all my whining, I confess that I read the final two thirds of the book in one day so I can only surmise that Murdoch hooked me in the end. Once I figured out that Bradley was just about the ultimate unreliable narrator, I got the joke. I wanted to see where she would take the story, I got used to having the fiction "dream state" shattered over and over, and came limping to the finish line where, for a final time, my ideas about the story were wrenched and rearranged.
At this moment, I can't really recommend the book, except to Murdoch diehards. Who knows though? I may feel differently after I fill in the missed novels. 
In a bizarre and completely unexpected turn of events, I arrived at the reading group meeting to learn that the man who had recommended the book for our discussion had passed away that morning! We mourned him and the fact that he was not there to explain the book to us.
(The Black Prince is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.) 

Thursday, May 17, 2018


I am off to Michigan to visit family. I will be reading but not posting. See you next week!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018


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The Bear and the Nightingale, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2017, 312 pp
I have been wanting to read this since it was first published early last year. Sometimes I just get a feeling about a book and when that happens I am usually right. This is a big fairy tale of a novel, set in medieval Russia where winters are long and icy, where summers are short but glorious, where women have only two options: marriage or convent.
The story opens on a dreary and damp March night. Though Pyotr Vladimirovich is considered a wealthy land owner, the food choices are down to black bread and fermented cabbage, all noses are running, and chilblains are aching. But the oven is warm and Dunya, the family nanny, is about to tell the story of Frost, the frost demon, the winter king.

The stage is thus set for a time when Christianity was in competition with the ancient gods and folk tales, when a woman like Marina, wife of Pyotr and mother of four children, decides to risk one more pregnancy. Once a princess in Moscow, she had been married off to Pyotr at the behest of the Church because she had certain powers they feared.

Marina carried her baby to term but died after naming the girl Vasilisa, who grew up to love the forests, to be able to see and communicate with the household spirits, and who would not be quelled, ever. Not by Dunya, who raised here, not by her father's second wife, and not by the priest who arrived at the village determined to "save" the villagers from the blasphemy of beliefs in the old gods.

It is a wonderful tale complete with a magical horse reminiscent of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and throbbing with Vasilisa's courage and unquenchable demand for freedom. I was also reminded of Marina from Janet Fitch's The Revolution of Marina M, as well as The Night Circus and Naomi Novik's Uprooted. Also The Mists of Avalon because of the conflicts between Christianity and the old beliefs.

I think it takes a special kind of writer to handle magic well in an adult novel. Katherine Arden has proven to me that she is special in that way and I am thrilled to know The Bear and the Nightingale is the first of a trilogy, I want to spend more time with Vasilisa.

The other day the Tiny Book Club sat in the tiny house of one of our members to share a luncheon and discuss the book. We delved into many aspects of life, past and present, recalling the fairy tales and myths we knew, as we watched a hummingbird circle the new feeder our hostess had recently hung in a tree outside her front wall of windows. The bird never landed on the feeder, but continued to approach it from all angles, then fly away. As though it were not used to a vial of sugar water set out by a human instead of the flowers growing in the beautiful and magical yard. It seemed appropriate.

(The Bear and the Nightingale is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, May 11, 2018


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Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult, Ballantine Books, 2016, 458 pp
Every time I read a Jodi Picoult novel, I vow never to read her again. Several of The Bookie Babes, one of my reading groups, like her books and that is how I came to break my vow. I must admit she did not annoy me as much this time, the more surprising because I also have a gripe about white people who write books about African Americans. 
Ruth Jefferson, a 20 year veteran of nursing women through labor and delivery at a small Connecticut hospital, gets thrown under the bus by that hospital after an infant death. Ruth is an African American who has, through opportunity and hard work, made a good life for herself and her son. The infant's parents are white supremacists who have requested that no African American personnel touch their baby.

After a series of unfortunate events during a double shift, Ruth loses her job and finds herself on trial for murder. Her lawyer is a female, white public defender. The prosecuting attorney is a female, African American and just right now I cannot remember how the white supremacist parents ended up with a Black lawyer. That was improbable number one in the book for me and a typical Picoult move.

We get the back stories of Ruth the nurse and of the parents of the dead baby. We also learn about the public defender's personal life. Twists and turns, plenty of Picoult style info dumping from her research and a somewhat sketchy finale to the murder trial fill in the other trademarks of this author.

I will allow that Jodi Picoult is a skilled writer of page-turning, issue-filled novels. Easy to read, compelling, just juicy enough, with a good grasp of American life in our times. I also decided, with some help from Roxane Gay's review in the New York Times, that a white author has probably got a better chance of reaching a white readership who might never read James Baldwin or even Toni Morrison and other excellent writers of color. So that is a good thing; another pathway for white people to find out what it is like to be Black in America.
(Small Great Things is currently available in paperback at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, May 10, 2018


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You Only Live Twice, Ian Fleming, New American Library, 1964, 218 pp
This was the last James Bond novel written fully by Ian Fleming. Any Bond novel published after 1964 was either finished by editors or written by other authors. It took the #8 spot on the 1964 bestseller list.

I did not know this when I began to read the book. I saw most of the movies over the years but the only other Bond book I have read is On Her Majesty's Secret Service, back in February. Everything about You Only Live Twice is so different from the other book that I wondered if I was reading the same author.

007 was in a slump after the tragedy that ended On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He had flubbed a few missions and was clearly off his game. M, Bond's boss, decided to shake up his spy and revitalize him by sending the man on an "impossible mission" to Japan. (Is that the origin of the name for the Mission Impossible series?)

Off James went to meet up with the head of the Japanese Secret Service, where he proceeded to languish as he learned Japanese culture. It was literally more than halfway through the book before he saw any action. The mission finally started at about 50 pages from the end. So different, though Bond did finally annihilate his old enemy, Ernst Stavro, in a thrilling and dangerous sequence.

Now that I have combed the internet for background and learned that Fleming died just a few months after the book was released, it makes more sense. The author was giving his summing up, complete with deep philosophical questions about life, love, and happiness. Or was he? The last chapter implies that Bond has a few more adventures. Perhaps he meant to provide a hand off to those franchise authors who would take over? Curious.

(You Only Live Twice is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, May 07, 2018


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Herzog, Saul Bellow, The Viking Press, 1964, 371 pp
In Saul Bellow's sixth novel, I met Moses Herzog, another one of this author's unique male characters. The book hit the #3 spot on the bestseller list for 1964 and won the National Book Award in 1965. 
I wasn't sure I was in the mood for a Bellow novel because he demands quite a lot from his readers, but as soon as I was a few pages in, I recognized his familiar voice and we were off.

Moses Herzog is a middle-aged intellectual who has just been divorced by his second wife. He is in a state, hurt, angry, defeated and full of self doubt. He has been cuckolded by a man he considered a friend, he is out of money and the great work of his writing career has become meaningless to him due to his anguish. 

Throughout the book he writes unsent letters to all manner of people, including God, trying to explain how he sees things. In actuality he is trying to explain his life and his place in it to himself.

If this sounds like a book in search of a plot, it sometimes is, especially in the somewhat sagging middle section, but it is about a journey through despair. Despair can cause plenty of sagging.

I felt for Herzog in his manic attempts to outrun the madness he has fallen into, especially because his actions are bound to bring more trouble down on his head. That perception of being misunderstood to the point of doubting one's sanity has happened to most people at some point, but most people cannot write about it like Saul Bellow.

I worried for the man that he might take himself beyond some point from which he could not come back. Yet, in those letters he kept writing I could sense that the cold brilliance of his intellect was always aware of the people and society around him, of his options, and of himself. Since I am a person who regularly attempts to think my way out of problems, I could relate.

Perhaps this is not a novel for everyone though I cannot imagine anyone who ventures into it not being brought under its spell. It is not about being wordy, as so many "serious" writers seem to think. It is about the power of his words, the storm of emotion. He can capture on the page the way most of us feel on both our best and worst days.

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

Friday, May 04, 2018


Reading groups are light this month with only three scheduled. The books selected range from a fairy tale inspired book set in medieval Russia, a romance in Havana, and a non-fiction account of drugs and violence in Los Angeles. Here we go!

Tiny Book Club:
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One Book At A Time:
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Bookie Babes:
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What are your reading groups discussing in May? Do you have any titles to recommend?

Wednesday, May 02, 2018


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Silver Sparrow, Tayari Jones, Algonquin Books, 2011, 340 pp
 This novel was a reading group pick suggested by me. We discussed it until the restaurant where we meet closed and they kicked us out. It is so good and will be on my Top 25 Books Read in 2018.
Set in Atlanta, GA, it is a story of two half-sisters whose father is a bigamist. James Witherspoon married Laverne when he accidentally made her pregnant. She was 14, James was 16. The baby died a few hours after a tough delivery. Ten years later James and Laverne had a daughter named Chaurisse who grew up in a house with her parents.

Unbeknownst to his wife and daughter, James had met and impregnated Gwendolyn, who had a daughter named Dana. She maneuvered James into also marrying her, across the state line in Alabama. Gwen did not want her child to be illegitimate. 

Now James was a bigamist and while Gwen and Dana knew about his other family, Laverne and Chaurisse had no idea a second household existed. James came once a week for dinner with Gwen and Dana. As the girls grew up, James became a successful owner of a limousine service and could afford financial aide to Gwen, with whom he continued a sexual relationship.

All of these people were Black. Gwen worked as a nurse, in fact she worked as hard as any single mom has to work. For relaxation and recreation, she and Dana would engage in "surveillance," spying on the other family, so Dana grew up aware of her father's other life and of her half-sister. She was forbidden to have any contact with Chaurisse, but that restriction broke down when the two girls were in high school and met one day. 

Another twist to this tale is that Laverne and Chaurisse were plain, chunky females while Gwen and Dana were beautiful, slim and blessed with long flowing hair. Hair is a large issue. In the 1980s Black women had exciting options when it came to hair: chemical straightening, extensions, hair pieces, etc. The natural afro of the 60s and 70s was out. Laverne ran a beauty shop in her home and Chaurisse, as her wash and set assistant, learned all the tricks, while Gwen and Dana enjoyed their naturally straight, soft and flowing hair.

The whole story with its many twists, secrets, and longings is just about perfectly told as far as I am concerned. The reading group concurred, every member. There is much humor, thank goodness, and wonderful period detail as well as 1980s history, effortlessly well written sex scenes among both adults and teens, but enough tragedy to break the hardest heart.

It was amazing how the author made James a sympathetic character. All four of those females hungered for his love but in the end, after what amounts to a big catastrophe, one wife and daughter win, while the other two lose.

Just read it!

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

Tuesday, May 01, 2018


Oh my, it was a close shave this last month but on the last two days of April I read two books and made my goal of 12 books read. When I make my reading plans in January, I always forget about gardening. It does take up a good amount of my time from April through September. Then there is the nice sunshine of spring which shows up how dirty my house is and I start at least thinking about spring cleaning. My secret this month was "reading days" where I just spent the whole day and evening reading. I feel like a kid when I do that because back then I could!

Stats: 12 books read. 12 fiction. 7 written by women. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 speculative. 3 thrillers. 1 historical. 1 fantasy. 
Favorites: The Second Mrs Hockaday, Silver Sparrow, Appassionata, The Bear and the Nightingale.
Least favorite: Candy

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What were the best books you read in April? Have you read any of the ones I did? Happy reading in the merry month of May!!