Wednesday, October 31, 2018


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New Boy, Tracy Chevalier, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2017, 204 pp
New Boy is a retelling of Othello set in a 1970s elementary school in Washington, DC. In those days elementary went up to 6th grade, followed by 7th and 8th grades for junior high. The kids in the story are sixth graders.
All the major characters from the play are represented. Osei Kokote is Othello. He is the son of an African diplomat, used to being the new boy as this is his fifth school in five years and used to being the lone Black boy. Beautiful, blond Dee, the most popular girl and her teacher's pet, plays the Desdemona character. Between two recess periods on Osei's first day at school, he and Dee are beginning a relationship.

The dastardly sociopath Ian takes Iago's part and decides to destroy the budding attraction between Dee and the new boy. He employs his sycophantish friend Rod and recent girlfriend Mimi to rig various situations on the playground.
For much of the novel I was a bit bored. Aside from some trigger words it felt like a young adult story. The writing is simple in style and the kids are usual preteens. Gradually I began to admire the true to life racism, the volatile upheavals between classmates, and the sexual attractions and competitions. Yes, I remember to this day how it was when we were twelve going on thirteen.
Even though I had just read the Shakespeare play and knew it would end in tragedy, I wanted things to end happily for Dee and Osei. I hoped at least one of the bumbling and clueless faculty would act intelligently enough to save the day. 
I closed the book full of admiration for the author's intricate portrayals of Shakespeare's tale of bullying, betrayal and jealousy. She captured every nuance of the play. I think New Boy should be required reading for middle school teachers and parents of preteens. The kids probably don't need to read it. They are living it.
I found myself pondering the book for days and comparing it to The Hate U Give which I had read just two weeks earlier.
(New Boy is available in hardcover and paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Monday, October 29, 2018


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Sunburn, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, 2018, 290 pp
I have wanted to try this author for quite a while, so when the One Book At A Time reading group picked Sunburn, I was happy. This is her latest book. It was great and I am hooked.
Polly and Adam meet in a small-town Delaware tavern. Polly is on the run from an abusive husband. Adam has been hired as a PI to find Polly. She left a daughter behind when she ran but has even worse deeds and deeper secrets behind that. Though she has her reasons, Polly has not been a good girl.

Adam likes to make a bundle of money doing investigations and then take off to exotic locations for long vacations. He has no desire to settle down. He and Polly fall into lust, it turns into love, but though neither is any kind of dummy, they keep their secrets from each other until they just cannot any longer. The climax of their story is explosive.

I realize that all of the above sounds like many other psychological suspense stories. For me this one stands above and outside of that genre. Mostly that is because of Polly and the complexity of her character. She starts out appearing to be a victim, she is super smart, and she has a surprisingly big heart but not in the ways one usually thinks of a bighearted woman. Not at all!

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


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The Map of Salt and Stars, Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Simon & Schuster, 2018, 352 pp
I have been wanting to read a novel based in Syria and this was an excellent one with which to start. The author is Syrian/American, has had short stories published here and there, and this is her first novel. It was an epic and glorious read.
The story is set in two time periods, as so many novels are lately. In this case the device works perfectly and I was completely immersed in both. The current period is 2011/2012. Nour is the youngest of three daughters. She is the only one of their Syrian parents born in the United States. While living in New York City, her beloved father dies after filling Nour with stories of their family homeland.

When Nour's mother moves her and her sisters back to Syria, the girl repeats those stories to herself in an attempt to keep her father in her heart while she adjusts to Syria.

Nour's favorite stories feature Rawiya from the 12th century, who ran away from her home in the North African town of Ceuta, just across the Straight of Gibraltar from Spain. Rawiya disguised herself as a boy, managed to apprentice herself to the most famous mapmaker of the time and had incredible adventures. Her story fills the earlier time period in the book.

When the 21st century Syrian War reaches Homs, where Nour and her family returned to live, their home is bombed into rubble and they escape with only a few belongings. Soon they realize they are refugees and must make a desperate journey westward, hoping to qualify for asylum in America.

Nour's journey and Rawiya's cover similar paths. As the novel alternates between the two, the details of both timelines are brought to life. Both young women come of age; both are longing for home.

The Map of Salt and Stars could have been a difficult read for me, even though the writing is exceptional, due to the absolute foreignness of the locations. However, I had recently read the section of Will Durant's The Age of Faith, wherein he tells the history of the Islamic Civilization in the Middle Ages. I had learned about all the key players and conflicts between Islam and Christianity as well as the rise and fall of rulers from 569 to 1258 AD. The mapmaker, al-Idrisi, to whom Rawiya was apprenticed was a real personage in those days and I had read about him!

That knowledge and the maps provided in the novel kept me oriented. I happen to love maps and use them often while reading. My own mental map of the routes both young women traveled from Syria through Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Algeria and Morocco to the town of Ceuta on the Straight of Gibraltar is now pretty fully formed. I think most readers who love history could follow the story just fine but if your geography of that area is lacking, use maps.

Now when I read the news of what is happening in those countries I have images to go with it. When I read about the beleaguered refugees of today, I can picture their day to day struggles and dangers. I can feel their losses of home and identity.

I think Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar channeled the map making skills and story telling gifts of her characters. For the politics of Syria and the Middle East of today we can read the news but she filled in the personal details of a culture that was once a major world power but is now being torn apart and in danger of oblivion. What a great read!

PS: Tomorrow morning I embark on a dream vacation to Zion National Park with my husband. I have wanted to go there for a long time. So I will be back to blogging next week.

(The Map of Salt and Stars is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. The paperback will be released in March, 2019.)

Monday, October 22, 2018


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An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Algonquin Books, 2018, 306 pp
As I sat down to write this review the other day, I was suffering from a sense of despair about life and the world. In An American Marriage I found two young African Americans who fall in love,  marry, and then have their lives destroyed by a wrongful sentencing of the husband to twelve years in prison for a rape he did not commit. This did not happen back in the 1950s but in the present day. To despair or not despair, that is the question.
The marriage falls apart, the center cannot hold. The wife, allowed to be at large in the world, can be productive enough not to be destroyed. She can create her art, run her business, have friends and even a lover. That does not mean she is happy or even secure. It just means she is not imprisoned.

The husband has lost pretty much all agency in his life. If he has to serve his entire sentence his life will be half over by the time he is free. He tries, through letters and visits, to hold on to his wife but his future depends on a lawyer, an appeal, and the courts. He is not in control of any of it.

The wife appears to be the stronger of the two though she is not inherently either a better or worse person than her husband. They muddle along. The marriage may not have lasted in any case due to the personality differences between them. She is strong in support of her freedom of choice as a woman, an artist and a person. But so is the husband though his approach to life differs from hers. As it is, his incarceration becomes the main destructive element.

So, white vs black, woman vs man, freedom vs various forces that deny it. This novel is less cheerful than her earlier Silver Sparrow but no less well written. It must have been hard to get the story right. Universal human issues set in a particular American location and time. It is full of emotion, almost too full, but she reined it in and made it feel real and true.

(An American Marriage is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Saturday, October 20, 2018


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The Ill-Fated Scientist, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2018, 200 pp
Once again my friend Alice Zogg, self-published mystery writer, has surpassed all her previous books with this new standalone mystery.
Tara Blunt is a syndicated columnist with no private investigator experience who finds herself looking into a mysterious death. A brilliant scientist, in the running to win a $5 million contest, is dead from an explosion in his lab. Tara had arrived to interview him just minutes after the explosion.
I liked Tara right away. She is an interesting modern young woman, with baggage of course, mainly a series of unfortunate relationships with men. She just can't let the death of the scientist go, especially because he had created a product that would replace all types of petroleum-based packaging. In fact, that was the story she had come to interview him for.
She treats her investigation as she would in following down a news story. Soon enough she must determine which of four men she should believe. One of them is bound to want her silenced, probably permanently.
Alice Zogg has always been good at plots. In this book she has amped up her dialogue, her character building and the overall pace. I could not put this one down. 

(The Ill-Fated Scientist is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, October 18, 2018


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Flood, Robert Penn Warren, Random House, 1964, 440 pp
When I started reading Flood I somehow though it was Robert Penn Warren's last novel and I was sad. When I finished reading what turned out to be a mostly unsatisfying turgid slog, I learned that he had written two more novels in the 1970s and I was sad. Flood did not make me want to read more.
After over 50 wandering and confusing pages, I figured out that Brad Tolliver, a successful mid 20th century screenwriter and Yasha Jones, a famous director (both fictional characters) have come to a tiny Tennessee town to make a movie.

Fiddlersburg is Brad's hometown and is less than a year from being underwater. The Tennessee Valley Authority is building another dam in that controversial government plan to bring electricity to Appalachia. 

Brad and his sister are the offspring of a swamp rat father and a respectable woman of the town. The family history is complex and sordid, of the type you might expect in a Faulkner novel. In the course of the novel it all comes out. Brad confronts his many demons and has a sort of rebirth at the end.

This is Robert Penn Warren alright, complete with the search for identity and truth as people sit on moonlit porches drinking, talking, and revealing long buried secrets. It just was not up to the standard that I feel the author set up in some of his earlier books.

It seemed to take forever to read and that melodramatic tendency he had used to good effect in his better novels fell flat for me. I may skip those last two novels. On the other hand, I may read them eventually because he has let me down and then gone on to surprise me before.
Have you read this one or any of his other novels?

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018


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The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas, HarperCollins, 2017, 444 pp
I chose to read this Young Adult novel for Banned Books Week. It was on the list of the most challenged books in 2018. It won several awards and was nominated for slews of others. The movie adaptation will be in theaters on October 19th. It is amazingly well written for a first novel.

Starr Carter is a sixteen-year-old African American girl living between two worlds. She resides in a poor neighborhood where her father runs a grocery story and her mother works at a medical clinic. She attends a top of the line prep school in an affluent area of her unnamed city. 

One night she runs into her childhood best friend at a party. They go for a drive and are pulled over for no reason by a white police officer who shoots Khalil in the back for no other good reason.

Starr's uncle on her mother's side is also a police officer. Thus follows a months long story during which Starr finds her voice, her courage, and tries to do the right things while she mourns her friend and her neighborhood goes up in flames due to gang violence, protests and unrelenting media attention.

Angie Thomas brought the things we see in the news to full life with all the nuances of the stuff that African Americans must navigate no matter how hard they try and no matter what paths they choose. Starr is portrayed realistically as the teenager she is who has to deal with so many conflicts and hard questions that would more than challenge a grown woman.

The lies about Khalil in the press, the threats against her family by a local drug lord, the confusing past of her own parents, combine with the fact that she is the only living person, besides the trigger happy cop, who knows what really happened on that fateful night. No matter what she says or doesn't say, she could endanger herself, her family and her community.

I loved many things about the book but two of those things stand out. By making Starr and her friends completely believable teens, I felt every sentence was true. By not talking down at all to a young adult audience, Angie Thomas wrote possibly one of the best books I have read in the genre. 

(The Hate U Give is available in a movie tie-in hardcover edition on the shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Friday, October 12, 2018


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Mermaids in Paradise, Lydia Millet, W W Norton, 2015, 290 pp
Sometimes fun is what I want in a book. This medium length novel was complete fun all the way through. It was the September pick of my 2018 challenge to read one book a month from the TBR lists I compile each year. If you have followed my reviews for a while you know that I have loved all four previous novels I have read by Lydia Millet. Mermaids in Paradise was no exception.
The story is hilarious, endearing and satirical, all in one. Deb and Chip have navigated through their families' input on their wedding day. Deb is an opinionated though clear thinking modern woman while Chip is easy going. They are a perfect balance for each other.

Soon enough they are on their honeymoon at a Caribbean island resort complete with a high-end restaurant that serves meals on a platform over the water. Chip meets other guests in his friendly outgoing way, one of whom is a marine biologist. Nancy is there to study the health of the coral reefs in our current toxic oceans. While doing so she encounters what appear to be actual mermaids.

Word gets out and the parent company of the resort swoops in to capture the mermaids in an initial step to develop a theme park featuring those mythical creatures. You practically get whip lash from the speed at which an idyllic honeymoon turns into something of an eco thriller.

However, Lydia Millet's writing through the voice of Deb, who narrates the story, keeps it light and breezy. Considering there are mermaids involved, Lydia and Deb also keep it real.

I must admit I was not enticed by the cover or even the title. Truly I had very little idea what I was getting into but I sure am glad I did! Next time you visit the Caribbean be sure to take this novel with you.

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

Tuesday, October 09, 2018


For the Good of the Cause, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Praeger Publishers, 1964, 94 pp. (Translated from the Russian by David Floyd and Max Hayward)
This short novel was the second of Solzhenitsyn's works to be published in the Soviet Union. When Khrushchev succeeded Stalin, he made an attempt to lighten the worst aspects of his predecessor's rule without undermining the Soviet system.

For the Good of the Cause shows how the hope of better times given to ordinary people was crushed by the vast network of Communist officials wanting to maintain the system that gave them power and authority.

The story is set in a provincial town where the students and staff of a technical school have completed construction of a new building. Their pride and sense of accomplishment are dashed when some higher ups decided to put a new research institute in the building, leaving the technical school in their cramped and inadequate quarters.

When the Head of the school tries to fight this decision he is told the bureaucracy's decision is "for the good of the cause." The Head's investigation uncovers dirty dealing behind the scenes but he is powerless to expose it. Who in Moscow would listen? No one. The book is a chilling portrayal of the outright cruelty of Stalin becoming the more hidden control of "the system."
After the author won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970, this was one of his novels cited by the Soviet government as evidence that Solzhenitsyn was a dangerous man of ideas.  An introduction in the Praeger Publications edition I read tells the full story of the eventual censorship of the author's writing by the Soviet Union.

I read the novel first and then the introduction. It is as if Solzhenitsyn told his own future!

Sunday, October 07, 2018


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The Daylight Marriage, Heidi Pitlor, Algonquin Books, 2015, 245 pp
This novel was the March, 2016, pick of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club. (I am trying to catch up reading the books I get from this subscription site, the only one I engage with. Yes, I am 2.5 years behind. Whatever.)
Heidi Pitlor is probably best known for being the series editor for The Best American Short Stories since 2007. She has also written two novels and this one is her second. I listened to the Otherppl podcast interview with her and it was fascinating to hear about the trials and rewards of working on The Best American Short Stories books year after year while raising twins and writing novels.

From the cover of the paperback I read, I thought The Daylight Marriage would be a nice little story about a marriage. I felt bored before I even read the first page. I should have looked more closely at that cover. Do you see how that vase is in midair with the water splashing out? By the end of the first chapter I was certainly not bored.

The story beings with a loud and terrible argument between Hannah and Lovell, her husband of almost 20 years. It is one of those arguments supposedly about one thing that dredges up years of unspoken grievances on both sides.

The next day Hannah disappears. The rest of the novel follows the aftermath of her disappearance in alternate chapters from Hannah's or Lovell's viewpoints. What I had expected turned into a crime story evolving from a marriage that was not good at all.

Though the book is short, it felt longer because the pace is a bit slow. Somehow though the suspense was all the more taut. In the end, I valued this novel several notches above such bestsellers as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. Heidi Pitlor does not use gimmicks, nor does she manipulate the reader's emotions. I felt it was as true as real life.

Two adults with personal baggage that made harmony and intimacy nearly impossible, made parenting a challenge. I was convinced that two basically decent people could cross a line, go over the edge, and destroy a relationship beyond repair.

I once wrote a song with this line in it: "Do you ever wonder if the time comes when it's too late?" In this affecting novel that time came for both husband and wife. There lies tragedy.

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

Friday, October 05, 2018


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Lake Success, Gary Shteyngart, Random House, 2018, 335 pp
One of the best things Russia has given America is Gary Shteyngart. Actually, he is not a thing. He is a person who creates things, namely five novels and a memoir. I have read all but one of his novels and his memoir. His books are nothing short of amazing.
Lake Success is his only novel set entirely in the United States of America. All of his earlier work has included Russia in some way and if you read his memoir, Little Failure, you understand why. Now that America has become more like Russia in some ways, I guess he felt comfortable writing exclusively about the country he lives in instead of the one he came from.

Lake Success is the name of the hedge fund founded by Barry Cohen, circuitously named after The Great Gatsby. The story opens thus: "Barry Cohen, a man with 2.4 billion dollars of assets under management, staggered into the Port Authority Bus Terminal. He was visibly drunk and bleeding. There was a clean slice above his left brow where the nanny's fingernail had gouged him and, from his wife, a teardrop scratch below his eye. It was 3:20 AM."

This is the ultimate road trip novel, one of the ultimate American odyssey tales, and possibly the ultimate tale of the rich white male trying to discover his true self. In this time and place, many Americans are quite aware that the true eye of the needle for white privileged men is coming to awareness of and empathy for other human beings.

I went to hear Gary Shteyngart read from Lake Success a couple weeks ago. Normally listening to an author read aloud from his or her work is a dull, mind numbing experience for me. He pulled it off like a pro, like a top poetry jam dude or a truly funny comedian. Even more entertaining was his story about how he wrote the novel. All of that however might have slipped my mind, as so many things do at my age, had I not read the book.

You get Barry's life story, how he ended up marrying a woman of Indian descent, what devastation ensued when their son was diagnosed as being on the extreme wrong end of the Asperger/Autism Spectrum, how he came to be on the run from the SEC, and how many painful lessons he had to learn before he even got a clue.

All of that makes a fine story but this is Gary Shteyngart. You know all those books and think pieces about how we managed to elect our current President and what the heck is wrong with America? Oh my, the hand wringing, the anger, the complete identity crisis of the USA? Yes, this is an author of fiction having his say and boy does he.

Barry travels across the country on Greyhound buses, underfunded but undaunted. He has come down from his shaky ivory tower to meet America, the America that hides beneath our plastic shiny veneer. His journey is equal parts hilarious and hideous, delightful and depressing. This novel is exactly what you need after two years of anxiously reading the news and your social media feeds.

Does Barry achieve awareness and empathy? Well, yes and no. A rich white man will always retain certain quirks. He does, after a really long time, become a better human being. As Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." Matthew 19:23-24.

(Lake Success is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Wednesday, October 03, 2018


The best time for reading is upon us. As the weather cools, I am free from the daily tending of my yard. I look forward to snuggling under a blanket and reading my head off as the days grow shorter and the darkness descends.

To recap my September reading group meetings, we had a full immersion with Molly's Group when we read Bel Canto, went to view the movie and then discussed and compared the two. One Book At A Time were mainly all impressed by Isabel Allende's In the Midst of Winter, though I was the supreme champion of the book. At Bookie Babes I participated in the third reading group discussion of A Gentleman in Moscow, another winner with the readers. So, no duds last month except for a general disappointment with the Bel Canto movie.

In October I will read my first book by Laura Lippman, whom I have always meant to read. Then an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello from the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I have already read and loved The Underground Railroad. And The Tiny Book Club is back after our summer hiatus reading a book by German author Jenny Erpenbeck. 

One Book At A Time:
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Tina's Group:
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Bookie Babes:
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Tiny Book Club:
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Have you read or discussed any of these books? What are your reading groups discussing in October?

Tuesday, October 02, 2018


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Flight of a Witch, Ellis Peters, Mysterious Press, 1964, 232 pp
This is the third book in Ellis Peters's Inspector Felse series. I am so glad I discovered this writer and her series. Every book has been great.
The setting is a village in Shropshire, just on the border of Wales. The time is contemporary for 1964. Annet Beck, an 18 year old beauty, is loved by every lad in the town. She has a troubled relationship with her parents and is wont to disappear. This time she walks up into the bordering hills and does not return for five days. When she reappears she claims to have no memory of what she did.

While she was gone a man was murdered in nearby Birmingham and Annet was seen there. Tom Kenyon, a schoolmaster who boards with the Becks, a high school chap (both of whom are in love with Annet) and Inspector Felse set out to solve the mystery.

I think, more than any other mystery series I read, Ellis Peters delves into the psychological depths of human relationships. She does so with so much perception into her characters that I am quite spellbound as I read.

The Hallowmount, the hill over which Annet disappeared, has a local legend for being inhabited by witches. Is Annet secretly a witch? She certainly is a secretive young woman. With exquisite taste Ellis Peters examines sexuality, femininity, passion and crime. It is an intoxicating mix.
(Flight of a Witch is available in hardcover by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore. It is also available as an ebook.)

Monday, October 01, 2018


Once again, by a simple twist of fate, I read 13 books last month. When I finished the W B Yeats poetry collection, after reading it for years, I got a bonus book. Now I am two books ahead on my challenge to read 12 books a month all year. I call that insurance because my reading often gets interfered with by the holidays.

The places I went: Great Britain, Russia, Morocco, France, Ireland, Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, Wales, the Caribbean, and USA.

Authors new to me: Elizabeth Hawes, W B Yeats, Heidi Pitlor, Angie Thomas

Stats: 13 books read. 11 fiction. 9 written by women. 4 for my Big Fat Reading Project. 2 translated. 2 speculative fiction. 1 fantasy. 1 mystery. 1 biography. 1 poetry. 1 Young Adult

Favorites: Spinning Silver, Camus A Romance, Lake Success, Mermaids in Paradise
Least favorites: none

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Have you read any of these books? How did your September reading go?