Wednesday, August 29, 2018


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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl, Random House, 1964, 155 pp
I really do not know why I have eight children's books on my 1964 list. I am not sure why I included Roald Dahl in My Big Fat Reading Project. I have grave doubts about what this author was up to. He is one of those morally ambiguous English dudes and I feel queasy about such men who write for children.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the story of a poor boy, so poor that he only gets one candy bar a year, who obtains one of five golden tickets to a tour of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. According to a few of my reading group friends, Dahl's books for children were read to them by their mothers and they loved them.

I have a complicated relationship with sugar in general, chocolate in particular. It is one of my addictions though I have learned to manage it. I had a birthday this month and allowed myself several pieces of chocolate cake. I was just as happy as Charlie when I was eating it but felt horrid for a few days afterwards.

Four of the five kids who get to tour Willy Wonka's factory are horrid little buggers and they each get what is coming to them. Charlie gets to stay and inherits the factory.

The story contains a good amount of preaching against bad behavior, being spoiled, and especially the dangers of television. Nevertheless, everyone eats sugar and chocolate exclusively for the whole day. I know, I know. That was my dream too as a kid, growing up in a home where sugar was tightly restricted.

There have been two movies: one in 1971 for which Dahl wrote the screenplay and one in 2005 directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp. I think I have seen the later one.

So now you know all about the book and a little about me and chocolate.

Have you read this book? Did you read it to your kids? Have you seen either movie? Please, weigh in!

(Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is available in paperback on the shelves in the children's section at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, August 27, 2018


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White Houses, Amy Bloom, Random House, 2018, 213 pp
I love Amy Bloom. I have read all three of her earlier novels, Love Invents Us, Away, Lucky Us. She always surprises me. She writes stories that no one else does, about finding love in the most unexpected places.
In this, her latest novel, an impoverished and abused girl from South Dakota scrabbles her way to New York City and becomes the most prominent woman reporter in depression era America. Lorena Hickock meets the rich and privileged Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on FDR's first presidential campaign. Lorena and Eleanor fall in love.

This story is told by Lorena, as it would have to be. She was the one who saved all their letters, bequeathing them to the Roosevelt Library on her death with the instruction that they not be opened for 10 years.

A relationship so deep, that brought both women the love they had each despaired of ever finding, was doomed from the start. Amy Bloom read the letters and wrote her fictional account to show how love can be made almost impossible by differences, in background and the culture which surrounds it and the duties and freedoms neither woman could ignore.

It is a heartbreakingly beautiful story. There are possibly readers who cannot bring themselves to picture Eleanor Roosevelt as she is presented. I found a couple at the reading group where we discussed the novel.

I know from her novels that Amy Bloom can picture anyone in the most exceptional ways. I loved White Houses as much as each of her earlier novels.

(White Houses is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 25, 2018


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All Clear, Connie Willis, Ballantine Books, 2010, 641 pp
A couple weeks ago I read Black Out by Connie Willis. It ended abruptly because it was actually half a book. The other half is All Clear, so I squinched it into my reading plan for August lest I forget the story and the characters.
After finishing this volume, though I found out how the story ended, I was still uncertain about how and why these time traveling historians from 2060 Oxford to the London of WWII ended up with some still trapped in 1940 while others made it back to the future.

The major concern of the tale is whether or not time travelers change the past. The obvious answer would be, how could they not? The book's answer seems to be yes and no.

While I was fairly well entertained throughout both books, I am not satisfied with such ambiguity after reading 1132 pages. I have looked at many reviews and most of them have various guesses as to what Connie Willis was intending to suggest.

I am happy to have become acquainted with this author but am not sure I will read her again.

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

Thursday, August 23, 2018


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Turtles All the Way Down, John Green, Dutton Books, 2017, 286 pp
I read this young adult novel for Molly's reading group. We chose it because Molly's teenage daughter had it assigned for her summer read by her school. She attended our meeting and it was just the best thing to have her input. Whenever I read YA lit, I wish I knew some young adults to talk with about the book.
Two teens renew their friendship, originally formed when they met as kids at "sad camp," where they were sent because they had each lost a parent. Aza had lost her dad, Davis his mom.

Aza suffers from OCD. She falls into compulsive thinking due to a fear of a certain bacteria, Clostridium difficule.

"I have these thoughts that Dr Karen Singh (her therapist) calls 'intrusives,' but the first time she said it, I heard 'invasives,' which I like better, because like invasive weeds, these thoughts seem to arrive at my biosphere from some faraway land, and then they spread out of control."

When these thoughts arrive they spiral endlessly, the spiral tightens, and Aza practices behaviors which are harmful but she can't not do them. John Green describes all this so well. It turns out that he has had OCD all his life and has been helped by medication and therapy to manage his condition.

When Aza and Davis meet again, his billionaire father has disappeared. A reward for information leading to his whereabouts gets Aza's best friend, who writes Star Wars fan fiction, excited. Daisy is from a low income family but desperately wants to go to college.

Trouble starts when Aza and Davis begin to fall in love. So much trouble: between Aza and her mom, between Aza and Daisy, between Aza and Davis. How many love triangles can one girl have?

I didn't love the book with my whole heart but I did like it quite a bit and I learned a lot. John Green is an excellent writer and he gets teens. These kids in the story are smart, compassionate, and all three do their best to navigate the many issues in their lives. They do their homework and get top grades. I am pretty sure not all teens are like this but many are.

The ending was the only part that bothered me. Too abrupt and too neatly tied up. I have to admit though that Aza, Daisy and Davis all deserved a break and a happy ending.

(Turtles All the Way Down is available in a hardcover signed edition on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Sunday, August 19, 2018


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The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander, Henry Holt and Company, 1964, 186 pp
This is the first of yet another series of books for young readers I am now following in My Big Fat Reading Project. I read it because the final book in the series, The High King, won the Newbery Award in 1969. I wanted to read the books leading up to that.
The series is set in an imaginary kingdom, Prydain, inspired by Wales and Welsh legends. Some of the inhabitants are drawn from these legends which were collected in the Mabinogion: the hero Gwydion, the evil Lord of Annuvin, and an oracular pig named Hen Wen. The author invented two young people: Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his feisty female companion in the adventure, Eilonwy.

When Hen Wen suddenly takes off into the forest one day, Taran sets off to find the pig he is responsible for only to find himself in one dangerous situation after another. After a long arduous journey across the mountains and valleys of Prydain, Taran grows from a fumbling aspiring hero into a real one. Eilonwy keeps him from too many ill-advised decisions.

I enjoyed the story and look forward to the rest of the series.
(The Book of Three is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, August 18, 2018


The Bloody Sun, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ace Books, 1964, 372 pp
This is the third book in Marion Zimmer Bradley's very long Darkover series. It follows The Planet Savers and The Sword of Aldones which I read last year. According to the author's introduction in the edition I read, she rewrote the novel is 1979, but she still recommended reading the series in order of original publication. All a bit confounding though I am following her advice to consider The Bloody Sun as #3 in the series, reading the book as part of my 1964 list though it is the updated edition. If you are a fan of this series you know what I am saying here.
Darkover is a planet with two cultures: one is indigenous and ancient, run on myth and magic. The other culture is a colonizing conglomerate of a space federation bent on mining and accumulating riches through science and interstellar conquest.

With its huge red sun, its four differently colored moons, and its ruling class of empaths, Darkover's indigenous culture is steeped in tradition but beginning to question some of those old practices as the empaths are dying out while the Terrans are gaining power.

There has been intermarriage between Darkoverans and Terrans. Jeff Kerwin, an orphan, son of a Darkover mother and a Terran father, has returned to Darkover after growing up on Earth and serving in the Terran space force. He is conflicted about who he is. He wants desperately to learn about his parents. He has some strange abilities he doesn't understand and carries only dreamlike memories of the planet along with a Darkovan matrix jewel.

Before long Jeff finds the sacred council of Comyns, their mysterious Tower and enigmatic Keeper. He is tested and accepted into the council where he mostly feels at home for the first time in his life. As he learns the techniques of their secret powers he also finds conflict and unsettled issues within the council.

Jeff falls in love with the woman most forbidden to him, breaking several taboos. When he is subsequently accused of betraying the Darkovans to his Terran masters, his life becomes more desperate than ever. Choices must be made.

The Bloody Sun was not only a thrilling tale. The whole subject of empathic and telepathic communication, laid out so well by the author, intrigued me. My top two favorite tropes in science fiction and fantasy are time travel and telepathy. Even in the 21st century, there is a branch of psychotherapy that recognizes empaths with their special sensitivity and deals with the phenomenon that can be both a gift and a curse.

Basically I am more excited than ever to continue reading the Darkover books.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


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The Overstory, Richard Powers, W W Norton & Company, 2018, 502 pp
I was going to say this is the best book I have read so far this year but I looked back and saw that I have read many great books in 2018. I will say it is near the top of the best five. It was so great that I could not read anything else for a couple days.
The main characters are trees. They are not given dialogue but Richard Powers and one of his other main characters speak for them. Four main characters come to awareness about trees and their role in the eco-system of planet earth: a female scientist who discovers the trees communicating with each other, a soldier from Vietnam saved by a banyan tree, an artist whose life has been shaped by the dying of the American chestnut, and a college coed brought back to life by what she perceives as creatures of air and light.

These four humans plus five others are, in various ways, summoned by the trees which are dying at a fantastic rate in this era of clear cutting and climate change. Most of them meet up during the eco-terrorist protests in the late 20th century American northwestern redwood forests. Remember the tree sitters in Humboldt County, CA, in 1997? Did you ever read The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey? Yes, protesters like that.

The five other individuals also connect with or are influenced by the main four through the ways strangely serendipitous communications sometimes occur between people. These connections are similar to the ways trees communicate, at least they are made similar by the author.

Richard Powers is as lush as an Amazonian rain forest in his writing. He tells the back stories of all nine people, he draws a quantum mechanics/multiverse type literary diagram in stories. He describes the natural world like the scientist he is. If this sounds complex, it is, but not hard to follow or understand. In fact, this is a page turner extraordinaire. 

As wonderful and amazing as these characters are, the trees (their roots, understory, trunks, branches, and overstory) are the heroes of this tale. As when I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, I came to see the natural world in a new light, to be made certain that I am part of it in a complete symbiotic relationship. The major difference between the natural world and humans is that it always knows what it is doing and we hardly ever really do.

Did I feel hopeful after finishing The Overstory? Yes and no. I felt hopeful for the natural world but not for the human race. After we as a species have met our demise, the natural world will recover.

If you read this novel and it doesn't change you, you are either already more enlightened than most or you are part of the problem.

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

Sunday, August 12, 2018


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Between Heaven and Here, Susan Straight, McSweeney's Books, 2012, 234 pp
I love Susan Straight. She is California born and raised, literary, a creative writing professor at UC Riverside and she straddles cultures. Her novels deal with the ethnic mix of her particular home turf in Riverside. She writes about families, mothers, kids and how they protect each other in the dangerous racial climate of 21st century America. She is a master novelist and I cannot imagine why she has not won a Pulitzer or National Book Award.
I had read seven of her eight novels. Back at the end of 2010, I binge-read four of them in a row and came away feeling I had been to a sort of literary religious revival. Those three were Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights, The Gettin Place, A Million Nightingales, and Take One Candle Light A Room. 
In 2012 she published Between Heaven and Here. I bought it right away but ended up hoarding it until I was pretty sure another book was on the horizon. I found an interview from 2016 where she said she was finishing a novel so I took the plunge. I made Between Heaven and Here the July selection for my 2018 Read 12 Books From My TBR Lists project.
This short, rich, searing novel takes place in time between A Million Nightingales and Take One Candle Light A Room. The three books form a trilogy. Glorette, the most beautiful yet most damaged daughter of the extended family who people the three novels, has been found dead in a shopping cart. It is August, the ground is too hard and dry for digging a grave. If the police are brought in her memory will be made ugly and her son Victor will be too traumatized, not to mention probably becoming Social Services bait.
So the body is brought to the family compound in the orange groves. Victor is found and brought to his grandparents. Glorette's uncle Enrique goes in search of the killer. Out come the pickaxes, the shovels and the soaking hose to soften the ground. A grave is prepared.
Perhaps because the two earlier novels softened the hard dry hearts of her readers, we who think we have read it all, the succinct power of these 234 pages is all the stronger. When a troubled member of a large family dies, there are many viewpoints on the tragedy, varied reactions and anxieties. One whom the family has failed to protect has gone down. In flashes of incident, in memories, in the poetry of emotion, Glorette's short life is drawn for us. 

I love Susan Straight even more now and if that new novel doesn't come soon, I may just have to go back and read the first eight books again.

(Between Heaven and Here is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, August 09, 2018


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Black Hearts in Battersea, Joan Aiken, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1964, 233 pp
This book for middle grade readers is the second volume in Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase came first, published in 1962, and I loved it. Black Hearts grew on me but had a slow start and features a minor character from the first book whom I did not remember.
Simon, who grew up in an orphanage near Willoughby Chase, has arrived in London, planning to study painting with Dr Field, an old friend from the orphanage. Dr Field is not at the address he had given Simon in a letter. In fact, he has disappeared but Simon manages to rent his rooms.

All is confusion for Simon but he is plucky. He finds the school where Dr Field had taught and gets a job in a stable yard. He also acquires Dido Twite, the annoying daughter of his landlord, who later proves to be a stalwart friend.

Meanwhile, in Aiken's alternate history, there is afoot a fiendish plot to overthrow the current King by a group of Hanoverians. The house where Simon is staying appears to be a sort of headquarters for the insurrectionist group.

Once the story got going it was non-stop, involving many versions of mistaken identity including the origins of the orphan Simon. There is even a thrilling escape in a balloon!

Joan Aiken has written many novels both for children and adults. She creates wonderful child characters. I was struck, as I was in the Newbery winner for 1964, It's Like This, Cat, how children in those older stories made their way about the cities where they lived. I think I carried that kind of confidence in my ability to roam my town growing up (with plenty of warnings not to talk to strangers or get into a car with a man I did not know) and it gave me a good start in life. 

After two books I am hooked on the series with its Victorian setting and Charles Dickens feel. If you know a reader aged 8-12 who likes historical stuff, these books would fit the bill. 

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

Tuesday, August 07, 2018


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Blind Descent, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 1998, 341 pp
Nevada Barr's sixth novel featuring park ranger Anna Pigeon is set in New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns. The location is known to the National Park Service as CACA. The area contains two of the most famous caves in the world, one of which, Lechuguilla, now harbors an injured caver who is also a close friend of Anna's.
I have never once in my life had the desire to explore caves. I am not really claustrophobic but I don't like the idea of being underground. Anna, on the other hand, suffers badly from claustrophobia. If it hadn't been her dear friend Frieda lying 800 feet below the surface with a concussion and a broken leg, Anna would have begged off.

Now, having read the book with all of Anna's terror and all the minute details of how to maneuver down and through the cave's passages, I am well assured that staying out of caves is the best decision for me. I also learned that I have missed seeing some of the most beautiful formations in the world but I am fine with that. Nevada Barr's exquisite descriptions and Google will suffice.

The first part of the book tells about the harrowing rescue effort to extract Frieda and is a heartstopping tale of extreme adventure . When Anna learns that the accident might actually have been an attempt on the woman's life, the tension mounts. Which of the caving team did it?
I just cannot reveal any more about the plot without serious spoilers. Once the rescue team and the original exploration team finally get out of Lechuguilla, there is an unfortunate lull in the action. Just as we all caught our breath though, the stakes are kicked up several notches and Anna finally exposes the culprits. 
It is hard to imagine how Nevada Barr is going to top this one. 

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

Sunday, August 05, 2018


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Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe, The John Day Company, 1964, 287 pp
This is the final book in Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's African Trilogy. I have read the first two, Things Fall Apart and No Longer At Ease. All three novels do a remarkable job of showing the culture clash of an indigenous people with their colonial invaders. In fact, Achebe is considered the originator of the genre in Africa.
This one spotlights the religious aspect. Ezeulu is the Chief Priest of Ulu, god of six Ibo villages in Eastern Nigeria in the second decade of the 20th century. The British presence there is represented by a District Officer, Captain Winterbottom with his crew, and a Christian Mission.

After a war between two villages, which Ezeulu had been trying to prevent is stopped instead by Captain Winterbottom, the Priest comes to respect the power and influence of the British. He even sends one of his sons to learn Christianity in an effort to discover the secret of such power.

The Priest's power comes from recognition by the villagers that he is their god's representative. However, there are some naysayers who disagree, even among Ezeulu's extended family. His son expends his newfound Christian zeal by attempting to kill a sacred royal python. That act creates an uproar among the villagers so Ezeulu chooses to renew his opposition to the British with mixed results.

I felt I got to know these native Nigerians, as I also did in the earlier books. I was immersed in their family relations, their traditions, and the confusion a foreign culture brings to their ancient ways. Ezeulu is a deeply drawn character. As I am sure Achebe intended, my sympathies were with the Priest. The tragedy he so thoughtfully and cleverly tried to evade was devastating when it came.

Chinua Achebe's ability to blend his descriptions of village life and Ibo beliefs with a humorous take on British bewilderment in the face of such difference does more than any amount of journalism can do to present the full scope of such a scene.

Saturday, August 04, 2018


The reading group schedule is back to full in August with a nice mix of books.

Report on last month's books: Both Little Fires Everywhere and Before We Were Yours inspired lots of conversation and various reactions. It is usually a better discussion when not everyone loves the book. For myself, I have had my fill of popular fiction for a while and look forward to discussing:

Molly's Group:
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One Book At A Time:
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Tina's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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I have read La Rose before but look forward to talking about it with other readers. Have you read any of these books? Have you discussed any in a reading group? What are your groups reading in August?

Thursday, August 02, 2018


July 2018 is officially on record as the hottest July in California, either ever or for a long time. I forget. It was hot. I was reading! Another 12 books!

The places I went in books: Israel, Nigeria, England, USA: Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Wisconsin, California, Tennessee, New Mexico.

Authors new to me: Clifford D Simak, Lisa Wingate, Kathy Fish, Robert Vaughan.
Stats: 12 books read. 11 fiction. 7 written by women. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 non-fiction. 1 thriller. 1 mystery. 1 speculative fiction. 1 for middle-grade readers.
Favorites: The Mars Room, Between Heaven and Here.
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I hope you enjoyed your reading in July. I wish you wonderful books to read in August.