Tuesday, November 26, 2019


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Juliet the Maniac, Juliet Escoria, Melville House, 2019, 316 pp
Juliet Escoria is the current wife of Scott McClanahan, whose novel The Sarah Book I reviewed last. I received both books through my subscription to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club. The Sarah Book had been languishing on my pile of unread TNB books so when I received Juliet the Maniac recently I decided to read the two books back to back. I admit to a bit of voyeurism in wanting to see how these two writers came to be married. Ha! I learned not a thing about that.
Juliet's book is a fictionalized account of her own teenage years. A genre called autofiction has been around since a French author, Serge Dubrovsky, coined the term in reference to his novel, Fils. (ref: Wikipedia.) In her interview on Otherppl, Juliet says that after years of trying to write her story in memoir form, she was finally able to do so in an autofiction format. She does it quite well.

When Juliet was 14 years old, during a period of stress as an honors student aiming for a prestigious college where she intended to study literature, she began to experience hallucinations, panic attacks and insomnia. Then came self-harm and ultimately a suicide attempt. She was diagnosed as bipolar and put on a cocktail of psychiatric drugs.

Possibly because she was only 14 and it was the 1990s, she also began drinking and consuming street drugs. The upshot of all that, after a second suicide attempt, was her parents enrolling her in a "therapeutic boarding school" in a remote area of Northern California.

Juliet came from a middle class Southern California family, not deprived in any way, with loving parents. These parents were so committed to saving her life that they committed her.

For some reason I am drawn to such stories: The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, are a few I have read. Actually I know the reason. I had a bit of a breakdown during my sophomore year in college. I begged my parents to get me to a psychiatrist but my father, for no reason he ever explained, refused. All he would say was that it was dangerous to fool around with someone's mind. That was in the mid-60s.

Somehow I recovered enough to work out my problems as a young college woman on my own, although not in any ways that made my parents happy. All in all though, I feel I've had something like a guardian angel watching over me and here I am.

Juliet's "therapeutic boarding school" used a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, psych meds and restraint on its patients along with regular schooling and some other weird and questionable techniques. But she managed to "graduate" and return home, then go on to college. She writes about the whole experience with an exquisite realism touched with humor and no self pity. Her intelligence and bravery come shining through her prose.

According to her Otherppl interview, she is able to function in life on a finely-tuned prescription of medications though the fine tuning has put her through its own kind of hell. She now teaches, she has published a collection of poetry, Witch Hunt, and a story collection, Black Cloud. It appears to be a happy occurrence that she and Scott McClanahan found each other.

Her book, Juliet the Maniac, is amazing in my opinion. I hope that the young women who need such books to know they are not alone, find hers.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


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The Sarah Book, Scott McClanahan, Tyrant Books, 2017, 233 pp
I first read Scott McClanahan when I read his earlier novel, Hill William, as part of the 2014 Tournament of Books. It was a gut punch of a novel and I barely survived reading it.
The Sarah Book is a sequel and investigates how the protagonist from Hill William managed to screw up his marriage to Sarah, the woman he was dating in that earlier book.

It is just as gritty and sad and upsetting, except you might say there are more moments of humor and lightheartedness. I too was unable to keep my first marriage together so there was that connection for me. Still, I grew up privileged while Scott grew up in Appalachia and still lives there.

Here's the thing: After reading Hill William, I felt depressed about how unfair life is. The author has suffered from depression but he has also seemingly read everything, he is a successful teacher of writing, and he keeps publishing his own books. Plus is happily married to the author of the next book I will review: Juliet the Maniac.

I went and relistened to his interview on Otherppl. He has a unique approach to life. I bet he still gets depressed sometimes. We all do. Somehow he manages to convey that to be born is to have a chance, no matter our circumstances or mistakes. I think he is right.

Thursday, November 21, 2019


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The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday, 2019, 224 pp
Another one of the best books I have read this year! Though there are many gruesome scenes, the power of this novel is astonishing.
You probably already know that it is about two boys sentenced to a vicious reform school during the Jim Crow era in Florida. I recall a character who went through something similar in The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, but here it is the focus of the story.

The boys are opposites in many ways. Turner is worldly wise and Elwood is a somewhat wide-eyed innocent. But they become fast friends and have a large influence on each other.

Having read two of the three volumes of the biography of Martin Luther King by Taylor Branch, I was familiar with the many words of that man which Elwood had taken to heart. For much of The Nickel Boys, it seemed that Whitehead was refuting those words by means of his dark and disastrous story.

However, and this is a big however, in a surprising twist at the end of the book, I felt that the author was honoring the hopes MLK worked so tirelessly to instill in his people. We discussed that very thing for quite a long while in my reading group.

Now that Colson Whitehead has blown me away by his two latest books, this one and The Underground Railroad, it is time for me to go back and read his earlier work. If you have read his earlier books, which ones have you liked?

Tuesday, November 19, 2019


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A Kind of Freedom, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Counterpoint, 2017, 228 pp
This is a generational story about a black family in New Orleans, beginning in 1944 and ending close to the present day. Though it is a debut novel the writing is smooth, the characters vivid, and the dialogue crackles.
The major world events hitting this family are WWII and Hurricane Katrina. The title refers to the not quite full freedom of black people in New Orleans. Evelyn is the elder daughter of a medical doctor and his energetic wife. Ruby is her younger sister whose forward ways and volatile moods leave Evelyn feeling somewhat in the background.

There are love affairs and marriages, children are born. Relationships don't always last. Children don't turn out as their parents hoped. As the 21st century hits with drugs and crime creeping into their lives, the family gets complicated. But family also holds them together.

I have read and loved Jessamyn Ward's novels, Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied Sing. I loved this one just as much. Ms Sexton's writing style is a bit quieter but she shares Ward's ability to bring her characters alive, showing their pain and their joys.

The sections of the story set in post-Katrina years reveal how racism and inequality affected black lives in its aftermath. I don't think I have read anything that has done that better.

It is especially good news that Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's second novel, The Revisioners, was just published this month.

Sunday, November 17, 2019


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The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2017, 363 pp
I do like fantasy novels when they are done to my rather picky standards. The Girl in the Tower is #2 in Katherine Arden's Winternight Trilogy. These books hit all my loves in fantasy. I would call this trilogy historical, myth-based fantasy.
Vasya is a complex yet believable heroine. She was raised on tales from her nanny, including one about the Frost King, a tale that opens the first book, The Bear and the Nightingale. She can see the spirits that inhabit hearths and barns. Morosko, the Frost King, is a character in these books and someone who Vasya has strong feelings for. Because of all this, she is considered a witch by her family and community.

So, I loved The Girl in the Tower as much as I did the first book. Vasya has grown into a young woman in this one, impersonating a boy and trying to avoid marriage vs the convent as she tries to help her brother who is a monk and her cousin, the Grand Prince of 14th century Moscow, save the kingdom from their dangerous enemies. She also has a fabulous horse!

Lots of story, action, tension and I never wanted to put the book down. So glad there is still one more book to read.

Friday, November 15, 2019


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A Passage to India, E M Forster, Harcourt Inc, 1924, 362 pp
This was the second most challenging book for me in October. It is a classic. I have only ever heard the highest praises for E M Forster and I discovered for myself that he was a wonderful writer. My trouble with it stemmed from the characters. Not that there are too many but each one had a first name, a last name and many of them also had an office title such as Civil Surgeon, the Collector, etc.
Had I not been entranced right away by Forster's melodious language, I might have noticed sooner that he used these names and titles interchangeably as he went along with his story. In the back of my mind I felt there were triple the number of characters than there actually were as Mr Aziz became the underling of the Civil Surgeon, Cyril became the headmaster, etc.

Finally I came to my senses and sought out a character list online. As I studied this, suddenly the whole story came into focus. I admit I felt a bit tricked or perhaps taken advantage of by Mr Forster. I think though that novels from earlier times coddled readers less than our carefully "edited for the masses" bestsellers of today. Another reading lesson learned.

A Passage to India is truly a wonderful story about the clash of cultures, the insensitive ways of colonialism, prejudice, racial tension, religious conflicts, etc. It even contains a mystery centered around a perceived assault by an Indian native on a young British woman. #MeToo in 1920s British ruled India. Who knew? Not me, until one of my reading groups sent me there.

Thursday, November 14, 2019


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The Game of Kings, Dorothy Dunnett, G P Putnam's Sons, 1961, 543 pp
Note: I have some free time this week, something I've not had much of recently. So I am going to pour on the posts in an attempt to get caught up on all the books I have been reading. I hope I don't subtract too much from whatever free time you have!
Summary from Goodreads:
Dunnett introduces her irresistible hero Francis Crawford of Lymond, a scapegrace nobleman of elastic morals and dangerous talents whose tongue is as sharp as his rapier. In 1547 Lymond is returning to his native Scotland, which is threatened by an English invasion. Accused of treason, Lymond leads a band of outlaws in a desperate race to redeem his reputation and save his land. 

My Review:
This was the most challenging book I read in October. Normally I read about 30 pages an hour. It took me three days to read 119 pages and six more days to finish. In the end, it was also one of the most rewarding.

The barriers to my reading speed were the time period (1547 was not a known time to me), the humongous list of characters (though thankfully a character list is provided), the politics between Scotland and England in that time, and a fairly convoluted plot. With quite a bit of help from the internet, I conquered all!

A Game of Kings is the first in Dorothy Dunnett's six book series, The Lymond Chronicles. Francis Crawford of Lymond is a fantastic character whom I now intend to follow to the end of the series. He reminded me of one of my favorite Neal Stephenson characters, Jack Shaftoe from his Baroque Cycle trilogy.

Francis is  a wily, outrageous, determined patriot of Scotland, carrying deep personal burdens, who comes within inches of being hanged by his own people. It is as though he embodies all the evil of those he fights against. He understands the craven qualities of his enemies so completely that he defeats them by aping them.

I learned a lot more than Scottish history by reading and figuring out The Game of Kings. It was an education in how to read. If I want to read such deep and twisty historical books (and I do), I have to put in some work of my own. 16th century Scotland had many differences from present day America.
A big theme in the book is chess and I have never mastered that game's intricacies, but I was forced to understand it a bit better as Dunnett uses it as a metaphor for the times when kings and queens ruled the world.

So, thank you to Dorothy Dunnett (1923-2001) and to Helen at She Reads Novels. Dorothy must have been someone close to genius. Helen is one of the most knowledgeable bloggers I know when it comes to historical fiction and she introduced me to Dorothy.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019


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The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith, Coward-McCann, 1954, 265 pp
This was Highsmith's third novel, published a year before The Talented Mr Ripley. As in Strangers On A Train, her first novel, it concerns a double murder. Two men lose their wives to what appears to be murder, but one of those men did kill his wife and the other did not. To twist things a bit more, both wives died in similar ways.
The two husbands become involved with each other in an antagonistic manner. Then there is the cop who wants to make a name for himself by solving the murders and pits these two men against each other further, in an effort to get confessions from both.

Her theme of the psychology of evil and violence which pervades her novels in is full play in The Blunderer. I have quite a few of her novels left to read and I am curious as to whether she just keeps working on that theme or if it evolves into more.

I guess I will find out eventually.

Sunday, November 10, 2019



The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It has been awarded annually since 1938 by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.

I do not know how this whim came about but one day I got the idea to read a decade of Caldecott Medal winners. I have always included the Caldecott winners in the years of My Big Fat Reading Project. When I read those winning books from the 1940s and 1950s I recognized a few because my mom read to me and my sisters every night before bed. For some reason I wanted to compare the books from a decade I had not gotten to yet.  I chose the 1990s.

Here are the ten books I read with short comments on each:
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1990: Ed Young translated and illustrated this Chinese version of the Red-Riding Hood tale. Po Po is the grandmother. The mother of her three grandchildren leaves to visit Po Po because it is her birthday. While she is gone, a wolf comes to the children's home, claiming to be their grandmother. After figuring out that it is not Po Po, they trick the wolf. In fact, the kill it!
The illustrations are watercolor and pastel, appearing in panels, soft-edged with mists and shadows but also lots of color.

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1991: I had to read this one several times before I "got it." Each double-page spread is divided into quadrants, each showing a part of four different stories that by the end seem to merge. I wonder if a child would understand it more easily than I did.

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1992: This story involves frogs who fly about on lily pads one night. Leaving their wetlands pond they invade a neighborhood where they frolic about in the yards and streets in the moonlight until they return to their pond at dawn. 
The story is as crazy as a cartoon but the illustrations have the look of art.

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1993: One of my favorites. With illustrations reminiscent of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the author creates a story based on Charles Blondin, the famous 19th century French tightrope walker. Mirette, a daredevil of a little girl who is always climbing on things, meets a famous tightrope walker who has come to rest at her mother's inn after an accident. He has become afraid of heights.
By convincing the man to teach her, she helps him recover from his fear. A more magical and beautiful picture book I had never read.

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1994: Allen Say wrote and illustrated this one. He honors his Japanese grandfather with his own paintings to recreate the love of both of them for Japan and America. The grandfather was an immigrant who took Allen to visit Japan years later. Both felt a constant desire to be in each country at the same time.

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1994: Sometimes the winning books are both written and illustrated by the same person. In this one, the author wrote a fine story about what riots might mean to the children who live through them, inspired by the Los Angeles riots in 1992. 
David Diaz won for his striking illustrations with boldly colored drawings of the characters set against collages of objects. The results are a stunning synergy of talent.

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1995: This was the funniest of the books I read for the project. In fact, it is hilarious.
Officer Buckle collects safety tips and goes around to schools sharing his tips with the kids. They are very bored.
Then his department gets a dog named Gloria, a trained K-9. Buckle starts taking Gloria along on his safety speeches and the kids love it. You'll have to read it to see why.

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1996: I felt this one might be too scary for little children. It is based on the medieval legend of the Golem, a tale of supernatural forces called upon by a rabbi to fight the oppression of Jews in 1580s Prague.
The illustrations are stunning. There are many more words of text than in most picture books. I loved learning the original legend and I think somewhat older children would benefit from learning it too.
I also admire the ALA for awarding the prize to this author.
In A Note at the back of the book, a fuller explanation of Golem and its history is given, along with details about how oppression of Jews gave rise to the establishment of Israel.

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1998: Another one of my favorites for the decade. The author and illustrator creates a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale based on several different versions.
The illustrations are all his original oil paintings with lots of peacocks! As well as recreating the tale, his paintings are in the Italian Renaissance style. 
In his author's note he references the history of the fairy tale and mentions the versions he consulted. The book is so beautiful, I want to purchase my own copy.

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1999: We come to the end of this project with a biography! Wilson Bentley was born in 1865 in Jericho, VT, where he lived all his life. His family were farmers. He is the first known photographer of snowflakes.
First line: "In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world."
The author tells the story of Bentley's life and that is a story of what can happen when you follow a passion.
Mary Azarian, the illustrator who won the medal, filled the book with woodcuts colored in the blues and whites and grays of a Vermont winter, accented with reds, greens and wood shades.
A wonderful book because it is filled with wonder.

I hope you enjoyed this brief tour through a decade of Caldecott Medal winners. All of these books are in print and available at your favorite bookstore or local library. My gratitude goes out to the Los Angeles Public Library for keeping all the books in their catalogue and to my local branch librarians who helped me locate the books. 

If you have little ones in your life, any of these books would make excellent holiday gifts.

Do you have any tales of your own about reading these books to kids or having them read to you?

Friday, November 08, 2019


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The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E Harrow, Redbook Books, 2019, 371 pp
Just today I was proclaiming on one of my friend's blogs that I don't read romance novels. Then I sat down to write this review and realized that I do like love stories. The Ten Thousand Doors of January is built around two wonderful love stories set amidst a complex historical tale in the 19th century. The narrator is a woman who lost her mother in infancy and whose father comes and goes, so she is a little more than half an orphan.
When our heroine, named January, was seven she found a door to another world. The world she lived in was a world of privilege as the ward of an extremely rich man who seemed to be her protector. He was also the man responsible for sending her father on long journeys for reasons unknown to January. The door she found as a young girl and and a strange book she found later may contain answers to the mystery of her life.

I loved this book with all my heart. Not everyone does, including the other two readers with whom I discussed it, but I love them for leading me to the book. Alix E Harrow was trained as an historian, though she jumped that track and wrote a debut novel that may have a flaw or two but deals with portals to other worlds. The villains of the story are evil rich men who would have those portals closed lest they let in new and strange ideas that might upset the order upon which their wealth depends.

Ever since I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a child, I have been fascinated by the idea of portals that lead to other worlds. Therefore this novel was just right for me. There are wonders beyond portals, full of adventure and often danger, but always possibilities that you might find your true self, not to mention true love.

If that sort of thing appeals to you, you will want to read The Ten Thousand Doors of January.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019


Big month for reading groups, though two of my groups are reading the same book! Watch for it.

Molly's Group:
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Tiny Book Club:
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One Book At A Time:
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Carol's Group:
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Bookie Babes: 
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Have you read and/or discussed any of these? What will your reading groups discuss in November?

Sunday, November 03, 2019


Something a little different today. A week or so I was nominated for this award by Jessica at The Bookworm Chronicles. In all my 14 years of blogging I have never had such an honor. The Sunshine Blogger Award is an award given to those who are creative, positive and inspiring while spreading sunshine to the blogging community. I didn't know that I spread sunshine to the blogging community but I do try to be creative, positive and inspiring, so I thank Jessica for including me is such company.
Now I am required to nominate others and do some additional steps. 
The Rules:
  • Thank the blogger(s) who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.
  • Answer 11 questions the blogger asked you.
  • Nominate 11 blogs to receive the award and write for them 11 new questions.
  • List the rules and display the sunshine blogger award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

Here are my answers to Jessica's 11 questions:

1. What is your favorite childhood book?

I had so many favorite childhood books and I read them over and over. I read Little Women so many times I had the whole first page memorized so that must have been my favorite then.

2. Who is your book crush?

I don't usually think about having a crush on a character but I want to answer the question. I suppose the most recent character to whom I felt attracted would be the Frost King (Morozko) in Katherine Arden's Winternight Trilogy. I still have one book to go and there is a chance he will let both me and Vasya, the main character, down in the end.

3. What is your favorite book cover?

No problem with this question. Hild by Nicola Griffith.
4. What is the most inspiring book you have read?

Again, Hild for fiction. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir for nonfiction, because a woman was smart and fearless enough to figure out all she did about being a woman who was free.

5. Who is the character you most love to hate?

I love to hate the bad people in the crime/mystery books I read and can't wait to see them get what they deserve!

6. What is your favorite adaptation of a book?
Plenty of these too but most recently The Goldfinch movie. 
7. How many books do you have on your "to-be-read"?
Too many to count. If I did count them I would start would start wishing for immortality!
8. What bookish setting would you like to visit?
9. Who is your favorite author?
I have a top three: Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver.
10.  What is your favorite book series?
Current favorites are by Sara Paretsky (have read all of hers), Nevada Barr and Daniel Silva. These are all crime thrillers and the bad people always get what they deserve-:)
11. What has been the best book you have read so far this year?
This is why I do a Top 25 at the end of each year but I must say that the book that surprised me the most is Disoriental by Negar Djavadi.
Now for my nominations. This is the coolest part because I can introduce bloggers I admire and hope they will get new followers. All of you inspire me in many ways. If you don't wish to nominate others, or answer my questions for you, that is totally cool.
1 Dorothy at The Nature of Things
2 Susan at The Cue Card
5 Brian at Babbling Books
6 CyberKitten at Seeking A Little Truth
7 mudpuddle at Mudpuddle Soup
8 Carrie at Butterfly Reader
9 Esther at Bite Into Books
11 JoAnn at Gulfside Musing

Here are my questions for you:

1 How did you get started blogging?
2 What do you enjoy most about being a book blogger?
3 How long have you kept your blog going?
4 Would you say you have a philosophy behind your blog? If yes, please say what it is.
5 What genres do you enjoy reading the most?
6 Who are your top 3 favorite authors?
7 Do you also attend reading groups? If yes, how many?
8 If you could invite a few authors over for dinner who would they be-even if you had to resurrect some from the dead?
9 How do you find the books you want to read?
10 Do you think authors today are as good as those from earlier years? Better? Worse? Why?
11 Name a few of the best books you have read this year.
I hope you all enjoyed this diversion today! 

Saturday, November 02, 2019


It is all mostly over, for now, but this is what many people's neighborhoods all over California looked like last week as well as earlier in the month. I was blessed to have no fires within view of my home but after three years in a row, we are coming to awareness that life has changed.

Today it looks more like this:

Despite all my drama I managed to meet my books read goal for the month. A mix of difficult and/or long reads, shorter smooth reads, and another 5 picture books to complete my 1990s Caldecott award winners study and I sailed into November feeling accomplished, smarter and entertained.

Stats: 14 books read. 13 fiction. 10 written by women. 2 mystery/thriller. 2 speculative/fantasy. 3 historical fiction. 2 myth-based. 2 for my Big Fat Reading Project. 1 biographical. 5 picture books.

Countries where I went: United States, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Scotland, France.

Authors new to me: Alix E Harrow, E M Forster, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Dorothy Dunnett

Favorites: The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Golem, The Nickel Boys
Least favorite: Black and White

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How was your reading in October? Have you read any of these? What were your favorites?