Thursday, December 31, 2020


 Unseen City, Amy Shearn, Red Hen Press, 2020, 266 pp

This will be my last review for 2020. I had two more I wanted to post but life got in the way. Next up will be my Top Favorite Reads, my Books Read in December, etc.

The September, 2020 pick of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club was published by an Indie press from my very own city!

I loved Unseen City from the first sentence to the last. Meg Rhys, the main character, is a 40 year old woman who self-identifies as a spinster librarian. She likes men and sex but does not want a husband or to be a wife. All her heroes had resisted wifehood from Jane Austen to Emily Dickinson.

Meg lost her younger sister to a hit and run on the streets of New York but that sister visits her as a ghost in the evenings after work. Besides her cat and books, her passion is contained in the shelves of the Brooklyn Collection, on the second floor of the Brooklyn Central Library where she works; where she has amassed a wealth of understanding about Brooklyn from its 18th century farmlands to it gentrification in the 21st.

However, a man does finally penetrate her spinsterhood. Ellis turns up at the Brooklyn Collection needing a history of the ancient Brooklyn house his family hopes to renovate and sell. This house has a ghost also! Her name is Iris, her story lurks beneath Meg's story and like magic the author ties them together.

Everything I love about novels is encapsulated in Unseen City. The rhythms of the prose, the believability of every character, the layers of history, the accuracy of its present time scenes.

I feel like I will from now on be aware that my house, my property, my town within my city, has all those layers of history beneath it. I think a smart combination of agent, publisher, editor and marketer could have made this novel a bestseller, but that did not happen. So now it is up to readers who tell other readers: READ THIS!!

Thanks to Red Hen Press for putting the book into the world and to TNB for putting it in my hands.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020


 This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire, Nick Flynn, W W Norton & Co, 2020, 275 pp

The other day when I reviewed The Good Family Fitzgerald, I mentioned that I intended to finish reading and reviewing the remaining 2020 selections of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club by the end of the year. I have finished reading the 5 books in this little challenge but with only two days left in December, I may find it even more challenging to fit in all the reviews. 

But first, a bit of a rant. I saw in the news recently that Bertlesmann, the international media conglomerate, who already owns Penguin Random House (itself already a conglomerate of all kinds of formerly independent publishing houses) is now going after Simon & Schuster. While we all realize that publishing is a business and thus must make money/profits, don't you think it feels like all these mergers into one mega corporation presents risks to the diversity of books that reach us? 

So I had the thought that the little indie publishers around the country and the world are going to have to take up the mantle that takes chances on new writers, on experimental writers, even genre writers, that have been choked out of mainstream publishing. I urge you to pay attention to the publishers of the books you read, the books that become bestsellers, have huge marketing budgets, etc, etc. If by chance you feel a sort of stifling sameness about some of these books, I want to point out that my subscription to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club has brought me many novels that are sometimes unusual, sometimes experimental but are almost always excellent reads by little known authors.

This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire is one of those books. It was the August pick, the fourth memoir by Nick Flynn and its publisher, W W Norton, is still privately owned. 

The style is what I would call experimental, short pieces arranged in such a way that brings together the traumatic events of the author's childhood, how he has coped with those events in both self-destructive and constructive ways, how he has figured out his adult relationships and how to live up to his responsibilities. 

The writing is full of contradictions: sadness and humor; insight and unawareness; real and imaginary memories. Because Flynn seems aware of these contradictions, I believed him.

The best parts for me were when he got into how he saw his environment as a kid. Those parts are excellent renditions of how kids try to make sense of what the adults around them are doing.

I also listened to his interview on the Otherppl podcast where I learned about his writing process and found useful ideas and approaches to writing memoir. Flynn teaches writing and it was almost like taking a class from him. If any of you are attempting that tricky descent into your past, I recommend both the book and the interview.

I truly admire people who attempt to raise their consciousness. To me, that is the most important task in life and is the road to developing our potentials as human beings. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020


 Night Boat To Tangier, Kevin Barry, Doubleday, 2019, 255 pp

Summary From Goodreads: 

In the dark waiting room of the ferry terminal in the sketchy Spanish port of Algeciras, two aging Irishmen — Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond, longtime partners in the lucrative and dangerous enterprise of smuggling drugs — sit at night, none too patiently. It is October 23, 2018, and they are expecting Maurice’s estranged daughter (or is she?), Dilly, to either arrive on a boat coming from Tangier or depart on one heading there. This nocturnal vigil will initiate an extraordinary journey back in time to excavate their shared history of violence, romance, mutual betrayals and serial exiles, rendered with the dark humor and the hardboiled Hibernian lyricism that have made Kevin Barry one of the most striking and admired fiction writers at work today.

I read this for a reading group. I had no idea what to expect. The summary above does set the scene. If you look on a map, Algeciras, Spain, and Tangier, Morocco, are separated by the narrow Straight of Gibraltar. It sounds swashbuckling and romantic but the ferry terminal where Maurice and Charlie wait is a study in sinister, haunted decrepitude. Well, so are the two man a study in such adjectives. 

We do also meet Dilly along about halfway through the story. The wait in the terminal happens over the course of one night but through their conversation and some back story about Dilly, the sad tale of the men's long friendship unspools. 

If it weren't for the lyricism, humor and humanity of Kevin Barry's prose, this novel could have put me into a depression. Instead it left me in a state of wonder. 

I am so glad I read it.

Sunday, December 27, 2020


 Mexican Gothic, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Del Rey, 2020, 254 pp

This was a reading group pick, suggested by me. I was seduced by the gorgeous cover as well as being interested in reading something set in Mexico. Also since I recently read Joyce Carol Oates's gothic novel, Bellefleur, I thought this book would give me another example of the genre.

It is the 1950s and Noemi is something of a Mexico City debutante. Spoiled, enamored of clothes and parties, she chooses the men she dates by their looks and their cars. She is not ready for marriage, in fact would like to attend college and study anthropology.

First though, she is sent by her father to check up on a newly married cousin who is crying for help from her husband's old family mansion high in the mountains. She claims she is being poisoned. If Noemi can bring back a report to her father, he will let her go to University. 

Noemi is full of self-confidence but is innocent as a lamb in most respects. What she finds at the mansion is so creepy, she is soon in as much danger as her cousin. As befits a Gothic heroine her reckless, plucky daring may just get her through.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia is masterful with both description and action. A good dose of horror pervades the story along with an intelligent mystery. Most of the fun of reading Mexican Gothic is following the twists and turns of the plot. For some reason the palpable horror did not turn me off. I just wanted to know what would happen. 

Fans of Bronte, du Maurier and even Mary Stewart will love this look at Gothic horror, Mexican-style and learn some obscure Mexican history at the same time. The author managed to write a story that feels both light and heavy. 

All my reading group members were well pleased.

Saturday, December 26, 2020


 The Good Family Fitzgerald, Joseph Di Prisco, Rare Bird Books, 2020, 404 pp

I have set myself a challenge to read the remaining novels I received this year from my Nervous Breakdown Book Club subscription. The number of books for this challenge is five. The Good Family Fitzgerald, the May selection, was lingering on my shelves because it is long, so I tackled it just after Thanksgiving. All 404 pages of fairly tiny print.

I had not heard of the author, though he has published five previous novels since 2000, as well as 3 poetry collections. He is 70 years old and active in education and literacy projects. In his interview on the Otherppl podcast, he relates the ways in which this novel is based on his own life.

I'll get the negatives out of the way first: the length, the wordiness, the style. Reading the book was like listening to your 70 year old uncle telling tales of the family when you are about 20 yourself. He is a bit out of step with the times though trying to stay relevant. He adds in sentences, whole paragraphs, sometimes pages of anecdotes and details that slow the story down.

The positives: This is a great sprawling family saga about the Irish in late 20th and early 21st century America. The combination of gangsters, lawyers and priests, all in the same family, is provocative and I must say entertaining. Paddy Fitzgerald, the patriarch, has his influence spread across business, real estate and the Catholic Church, all mixed up in a heady if shady stew.

I finally got to the end and was so pleased to find the females saving the day! Mostly I was happy to get to the end though not unhappy to have read it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020


 An American Dream, Norman Mailer, The Dial Press, 1965, 270 pp

Norman Mailer. Was he just a bad man, misogynist, and curmudgeon? Or was he a deep thinker, great writer and possible genius? I think probably both. He was full of himself as a younger man and he liked to antagonize anyone he could. He certainly had trouble with females. Do I read him because it is sensible to know the enemy? No, I think he was so perceptive concerning American society. I aways get insights from his books.

An American Dream was his fourth novel and came ten years after his third. It is a day in the life of Stephen Richards Rojack in which he murders his wife, makes it look like a suicide, faces the cops, starts an affair with another woman, confronts his enormously wealthy father-in-law, while staying drunk the whole time and facing all his demons.

The story is gritty, violent, sexy and psychological in the extreme. I don't particularly recommend it to anyone, but perhaps some men who read it will see themselves and some women will go, umhum, yes, that is what we are up against. In other words, read it at your own risk.

Monday, December 21, 2020


 August Is A Wicked Month, Edna O'Brien, Simon and Schuster, 1965, 220 pp

This review is a complete spoiler, so if you have not read the book and plan to, you might want to read it first. If you don't plan to, you can read this as a plot summary. 

I love Edna O'Brien so much. I just get her and I feel she gets me. She turned 90 on December 15, 2020. Just the other day.

This was her next novel after The Country Girls Trilogy. Ellen, formerly of Ireland, lives in London and is divorced. She and her ex share a son who is eight years old. He mostly lives with Ellen but has weekends with his dad. Oh how I remember those times with my boys and my ex. That did not turn out well for us but things went worse for Ellen. 

When the dad takes the boy for a week long summer camping trip, Ellen decides to go on holiday herself. A fling to assuage her sorrows and to celebrate her freedom. Wild parties on the Riviera with wild people.

Then disaster. She gets the news that her son was killed by a truck on the side of a road. She stays on the Riviera for a few more weeks. It is August. She enters into an orgy of sex, eating, drinking and swimming with a mysterious guy. That all ends when he disappears and she develops what she fears may be gonorrhea. Worst nightmare scenario.

She finally goes home and works it all out, lets go of loss and failure and resolves to move on. I remember resolving the same. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020


 The Arm of the Starfish, Madeleine L'Engle, Farrar Strasus and Giroux, 1965, 243 pp

I have been following the books of Madeleine L'Engle all through My Big Fat Reading Project. This one is a great tale. Set in the "near future" as of 1965, filed at my library as "children's literature" because as of 1965 there was no such genre as Young Adult. However, Adam is a 17-year-old heading off for a summer job in Portugal before his freshman year at Harvard. 

He intends to become a marine biologist himself. Dr O'Keefe, his prospective employer, is doing groundbreaking research on the regenerative tissues found in the arms of starfish. Adam finds himself in the middle of a battle between pharmaceutical companies for possession of O'Keefe's research.

This is YA like one rarely finds these days. No drugs, no swearing, no sex. There is a sexy girl, the daughter of one of the men who wants to steal the research for his own profit.

Was this eerie to read during the weeks different drug companies were racing to get their COVID vaccines approved? You bet it was.

I love how Madeleine L'Engle always grants her young protagonists so much intelligence and independence. In this one, Adam has to decide all on his own who to trust as well as who to kiss.

Saturday, December 19, 2020


 Hamnet, Maggie O'Farrell, Alfred A Knopf, 2020, 261 pp

[Note: I am on a quest to get reviews of all the books I have read in 2020 posted by the end of the year. So you will be seeing one a day and I hope I am not overwhelming you. You could save them all up and read them on Christmas Day when, no doubt we will all be bored out of our minds.]

Maggie O'Farrell has said in several interviews that she wrote Hamnet in an effort to bring for herself and readers some insight into William Shakespeare as a man and husband and father. She admits she pretty much imagined her novel based on very few facts. She is such a brilliant writer that I believed every word.

In Elizabethan England, the names Hamlet and Hamnet were interchangeable. In 1580 the Black Death crept across the country and into Stratford to claim the life of Shakespeare's only son. If you haven't read this book yet, now would be a good time as we stumble through the winter of our own pandemic.

I was blown away by everything in the book. Reading it gave me complete satisfaction on every page. I loved the way she imagined Agnes, the bard's wife and how she drew the many conflicts in the family life of her characters. Agnes could press the flesh between the thumb and first finger of a person and read into their character. She says she married William because he had more in him that anyone she had ever known!

When you read about the horrific grief accompanying the loss of a child and feel as though you have never read about that particular tragedy before, you know you are in the hands of a great writer. Because of course you have read that tragedy many times.

Why is it not too hard to read this story in these times? Because of the startling and blessed ending of the story which celebrates the power of art (in this case playwriting) to heal and bring joy to those left behind.

Friday, December 18, 2020



My Own Words, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Simon & Schuster, 2016, 334 pp

In November, two of my reading groups chose two books on the subject of RBG, to be discussed a week apart from each other. Right in step with Nonfiction November! I always have a nonfiction book going in which I read a little most days. To complete the two RBG books in time though, I had to read more than a little each day. Honestly, I felt like I was in school but once again it was time well spent.

My Own Words is a collection of the Justice's articles, speeches and Supreme Court opinions. Assisting her in collecting, editing as needed, and writing Introductions for five different sections, were Mary Hartnett and Wendy W Williams. Those women are both professors of law who were also authorized by RBG to write her biography. As far as I know the biography is not yet published.

Having read Sisters In Law last year, some of the material in My Own Words covered ground I had been over before. That was fine because I gained a deeper understanding of the woman herself and of her life's work as well as the workings of the Supreme Court.

Her speeches are both charming and instructional. Her articles and court opinions are quite dense with legal speak and court precedent, making them more challenging reading for me since I still have scant knowledge of law, courts, and our justice system. 

Now I have more of that knowledge, making me better at reading and comprehending the news about Supreme Court cases and decisions. I have come to realize the importance of comprehending these matters as a civic duty and as a voter in our difficult and changing times.

Conversations With RBG, Jeffrey Rosen, Henry Holt and Company, 2019, 260 pp

This was the second book. It was a much quicker read. In a series of conversations, Jeffrey Rosen poses questions to Ms Ginsburg about life, love, liberty, and law. Her answers provided even more insight into the woman behind the image.

Jeffrey Rosen is President and CEO of the National Constitution Center. I have enjoyed many of his articles written for the Center's blog. He has been a friend of RBG since 1991 and it shows in their conversations.

They spoke about her landmark cases, her wonderful and happy marriage to Marty Ginsburg, her relationships with other Supreme Court Justices, and her carefully thought out plans for what she wished to accomplish on the Court.

Of course, my favorite chapter was "Margaret Atwood Meets RBG."

By the end of the book I felt I almost knew the woman personally. In the paperback edition I read, Rosen includes an afterword. It recounts his last conversation with the great woman, on December 17, 2019. So you get her own words, including her concerns for the future, just ten months before her death.

I wager that a full biography will appear eventually and I will probably read it. For now I have a fairly complete picture of this towering woman, her heart, her extraordinary intellect, and her unwavering courage.

Thursday, December 17, 2020



Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi, Alfred A Knopf, 2020, 265 pp

I loved this book from the first page to the last. I think Yaa Gyasi has a large, expansive mind. She likes to span the spaces between places, the fault lines between people, and the vast contradictions inside individuals. If you read her first novel, Homegoing, you know this.

Gifty is the daughter of Ghanian immigrants to the United States. As a child she lived as one of the few Black children in a small Southern town. Her mother is a devout Pentecostal but her father, never having felt at home in America, left and returned to Ghana. She adores her older brother Nana, but he succumbed to an overdose after becoming addicted to Oxycontin, prescribed by a doctor for a sports injury.

Her mother has twice succumbed to depression. Gifty turns to neuroscience to discover the scientific basis for addiction and depression. As a PhD candidate at Stanford her only friends are her lab mice and her lab partner.

Though she turned away from religion it is embedded deep in her consciousness. Wading through the distances between science and religion, between aloneness and connection, Gifty is a heroine unlike many others I have come across.

Transcendent Kingdom was a perfect read for the times. As an ideological war rages between those who look to science for answers to COVID and those who refuse to face facts, it made me look more deeply into the intersections of faith, science and love.

Monday, December 14, 2020



This post covers the award winning novels from genres such as science fiction and mystery as well as the prestigious French literary prize, The Priz Goncourt.

The Hugo Award:

The Wanderer, Fritz Leiber, Tom Doherty Associates, 1964, 311 pp

The Wanderer earned Fritz Leiber his second Hugo Award. He won the first time in 1958 with The Big Time. I liked this one a good deal better.

An eclipse of the moon turns out to include the arrival of a rogue planet, four times the diameter of the moon and giving off a bloody and golden light. Humans name it The Wanderer. Once the planet consumes the moon, tidal surges and massive earthquakes make Earth a terror.

In addition to the apocalyptic horror of it all, I thought Leiber did a great job of showing the effects on various people around our planet as tides roll into cities and submerge the streets, as ships at sea try to navigate, as a group of flying saucer buffs come up against the space program, and as an astronaut on the moon is captured by the alien planet.

It took me a while to get used to all the characters and the shifts between their stories, but overall I enjoyed the book as a wild tale. I am discovering that it pays off to read older sci fi. I always think about how it influenced the sci fi of today. The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu, Anathem by Neal Stephenson, Octavia Butler's work, The Broken Earth Trilogy by N K Jemisin. I bet they all read this one when they were growing up.

The Edgar Award:

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carre, Coward-McCann Inc, 1963, 256 pp

This was the #1 bestseller in 1964. The Edgar Award is for mysteries and sometimes thrillers. The movie starring Richard Burton came out in 1965 and has since been included in The Criterion Collection, as seen at the top of this page. My review of the book is here. It is sobering to post this today, just one day after the great John le Carre passed away.

The Nebula Award:

Dune, Frank Herbert, Ace Books, 1965, 473 pp

This award was given for the first time in 1965. I read the book for a reading group in 2018. My review is here. I have not read any of the sequels but I might see the movie version coming out in 2021. The book went on to tie for the Hugo Award in 1966.

The Prix Goncourt:

The Bond, Jaques Borel, Doubleday & Company, 1968, 479 pp (originally published by Editions Gallimard, 1965, translated from the French by Norman Denny)

The Prix Goncourt is known as the premier French literary award, probably comparable to the Pulitzer Prize in the US. It has been awarding French novelists since 1867! I decided to add it to My Big Fat Reading Project whenever I can find an English translation of the winner for the year, which one usually can these days but not so much in earlier years. I found a library copy.

The Bond is an autobiographical novel about a man's rather tortured but undeniably close relationship with his mother. Borel includes a vast amount of detail; in fact one reference I found on described the writing style as Proustian or Joycean. For a while I felt I might not made it through such dense and introspective prose but finally I just gave myself over to it. 

The son in the story was perhaps overly attached to his mother. You find out why as you read. Borel had kept a diary since the age of 14 and drew from it to write the book. 

He portrays France from the post WWI years through WWII and the German occupation, his life in Paris as a child and adult through to the death of his mother. Thus he gives a 20th century personal history of French life during years when France was quite different than it is now. I found this fascinating.

I got plenty of insight into what it takes to write about one's own life. Since I am attempting to do that, it was useful. Having read most of Simone de Beauvior's memoirs, which cover the same time period, I could compare the two. Borel studied at the Sorbonne, as did she. In fact Beauvoir won this prize herself for The Mandarins in 1954, a book which I have read.

Saturday, December 12, 2020



This weekend I will bring you some mini reviews of books that won the big prizes in 1965. Above is a 1965 Mustang, possibly the hottest car of the year, just to give you a bit of lore. For My Big Fat Reading Project, I always read the award winning novels of the year. These days there are over 20 such awards and it is impossible to keep up. In 1965 there were just 8 on the list. Below are the first four.

The Pulitzer Prize:

The Keepers of the House, Shirley Ann Grau, Alfred A Knopf, 1964, 239 pp
The winners are usually published during the year before the prize is awarded. This was a family saga spanning generations of the Howland clan from the days of Andrew Jackson to the 1960s. Abigail Howland is a seventh generation daughter. Her grandfather, also a central character, is an eccentric who still maintains the family's wealth and standing in his Deep South community.

It is extremely well written yet for all its literary quality is a page turner. Civil rights have become law in the nation but as we all know, that law does not penetrate into southern towns much, even to this day.

While William Howland is a fascinating character, his granddaughter Abigail was more interesting because of her increasing awareness as a woman, as a white woman, and ultimately as a fierce warrior for her own rights. How hard it is for people who have viewed life in a certain way for centuries to change those views!

The novel is a look at changing race relations from the white point of view. The entire gambit, from descendants of slavery to the violent men who join the Ku Klux Klan while carrying on with Black women to the "genteel" society white women must navigate is braided together in a gripping tale.

The Newbery Medal:

Shadow of a Bull, Maia Wojciechowska, Atheneum Books, 1964, 155 pp
The first of two major awards for children's books is the Newbery Medal, for books meant for kids aged 8-12. This is a wonderful story about bullfighting. Though it is not a sport I would ever want to attend, bullfighting is an integral part of the culture in Spain. 

Monolo Oliver is the son of the greatest bullfighter in all of Spain, who lost his life in the ring. It is expected that Monolo will repeat his father's success but the boy definitely does not feel any urge to fight bulls.

Still he tries to find his courage. Some of his father's friends teach him the sport and the day comes when he must face his first bull.

In a vibrant coming of age tale, Manolo figures out how to deal with the pressure and find his own way in the world. Wonderful writing and plot. Lots of info on bullfighting, including a glossary. Immersion into the culture surrounding the sport. 

The Caldecott Medal:

May I Bring A Friend?, Beatrice Schenk De Regniers, Atheneum Books, 1964, 48 pp
The Caldecott Medal is an illustrator's award for picture books meant for younger children. 

In this colorful story, a young boy is invited to tea by the King and Queen. He asks if he may bring a friend and they say of course! He brings a giraffe. A lovely time is had by all.

Next he is invited for six more days in a row and brings a different animal, or three, each time. The royal figures love every one.

The illustrations by Beni Montressor, exhibit a color scheme of many shades of purple, yellow, red and orange. A true feast for the eyes!

The National Book Award:

Herzog, Saul Bellow, Viking Press, 1964, 371 pp
Saul Bellow's winning novel was also #3 on the 1964 bestseller list. I reviewed it here and enjoyed it probably the most of the 1965 award winners.

I will be back soon with the remaining awarded books of 1965.

Have you read any of these books? In their own ways each one gives a feel for the mid 1960s.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020


 I thought I would be a little silly with the Zoom reading group image this month. Hope it gives you a laugh.

Only one holiday title for December but a good variety of books, none of which are too long, in case we have so many plans for the season. Not!

It will be a challenge to get in the spirit this year but each group will vote on what was the best book we discussed. There is talk of singing carols or playing a literary game. Readers do usually have good imaginations!

One Book At A Time:

Carol's Group:

Bookie Babes:
Tiny Book Club:

Are you attending any reading groups this month? What will you discuss?
Have you read any of these books?

Monday, December 07, 2020


 Piranesi, Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury, 2020, 264 pp

Summary from Goodreads: Piranesi's house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

Way back in 2005 I read Susanna Clarke's amazing first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I loved her interweaving of magic and reality as it related to history. It made my top favorite books that year.

Now after a 16 year wait, Ms Clarke has graced us with another example of her wondrous writing. Compared to that first novel of 782 pp, this one is a novella but no less eerie, no less gripping.

The summary from Goodreads is a good one and I use it here because to tell you anymore about the plot would spoil everything.

Highlights for me were:

1. Piranesi himself as the main character. He is named after Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th century Italian archaeologist, architect and artist who wrote about fictitious and atmospheric prisons. In this book, Piranesi is experiencing such things.

It becomes clear that he is an unreliable narrator. I love unreliable narrators because their stories always contain code for another story.

2. In the otherworldly house where Piranesi lives, he is being made insane by the other person there through a unique form of gaslighting. This reminded me of two of my favorite 20th century British novelists: Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch who often feature controlling and ill-intentioned characters.

3. The world building is intricate and compelling.

I was curious about Susanna Clarke's long absence from publishing. I looked her up and learned she had been ill for many years with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I feel sorry she had to experience such suffering but she certainly put the insights she gained to good use.

I recommend this book to anyone and everyone!

Friday, December 04, 2020


 Pizza Girl, Jean Kyoung Frazier, Doubleday, 2020, 192 pp

This was the Nervous Breakdown Book Club selection for July, 2020. Jean Kyoung Frazier is a Korean/American woman who lives in Los Angeles and Pizza Girl is her first novel.

Told in first person, the heroine of her own story is not having a good time and is telling us about it as she goes. She and her boyfriend live at her mom's. She is newly pregnant and works delivery for a pizza place. Life is happening to her. 

Her alcoholic father has recently died, her Korean mother is supportive of the boyfriend and the pregnancy but does not understand her daughter's grief and driftless behavior.

When the 18-year-old mother to be delivers a pizza to a stay-at-home mother, she feels a connection. Jenny seems adrift herself, confounded by her young son, who is somewhere on the spectrum. She seems lonely stuck at home. She names our heroine Pizza Girl.

So begins a period of even more delusion for the Pizza Girl. She has an instant crush on Jenny leading her to obsess about being with her emotionally and physically, while she takes even more risks, drinks and smokes.

I have seen some reader reviews expressing being put off by such a level of irresponsibility and I get that. Somehow I was not. I worried for Pizza Girl, probably even more than her mother or boyfriend did, but I understood her because I've gone through similar experiences.

Those young years after finishing high school are in some ways even harder than going through puberty. All of a sudden you are on the cusp of adulthood without a clue.

I enjoyed the story and I even liked the ending!

Wednesday, December 02, 2020



I had a good month. For once I can say I did Nonfiction November with two books by and/or about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A first for me was reading the Prix Goncourt (French) winner from 1965: The Bond. Having read so much Simone de Beauvoir and Camus, it wasn't too strange for me but was a long and challenging read.

Stats: 10 books read. 8 fiction. 7 written by women. 1 sci fi. 2 nonfiction. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 1 YA. 1 fantasy. 2 historical fiction. 1 thriller.

Countries I visited: United States, Great Britain, Russia, France, Portugal.

Authors new to me: Jacques Borel, Jeffrey Rosen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Favorites: I liked and mostly loved everything I read but top favorites would have to be Piranesi, Transcendent Kingdom and Hamnet.

I hope your November reading brought you distraction and joy. What did you like the most?

Have you read any of these books?

Saturday, November 28, 2020


The Winter of the Witch, Katherine Arden, Del Rey, 2019, 354 pp

In this final volume of her Winternight Trilogy, Katherine Arden goes ever more deep into the conflicts that have powered all three books.

Vasilisa Pretrovna first appeared in The Bear and the Nightingale as a young girl who loved exploring the forest near her village in medieval Russia. She can see and communicate with the spirits who protect her house, yard and forest from evil. But her devout stepmother is determined that she either marry or be locked away in a convent. At 13, Vasilisa escapes to Moscow in search of her brother.

In The Girl in the Tower, she disguises herself as a boy and on her beloved horse, a magical creature himself, becomes involved in the struggle to save Moscow from forces both tribal and mysterious. These adventures attract the attention of the Grand Prince.

The Winter of the Witch brings Vasilisa into her full powers. She has been denounced as a witch, she has been targeted by the wicked Bear demon, and must flee Moscow to save her life. Her purpose though is to save Moscow and to unite the conflicting worlds of Christianity and the old spirits. Her true love, the Frost King, not even human himself, comes to her aid as do many of the spirits.

So in the final book there is more danger than ever for this brave young woman, there is war in which Moscow is outnumbered by its enemies, and she embraces all her powers. Thus her struggle is both external and internal. Despite horrific losses she prevails.

"What did we gain?" she asks the Frost King.

"A future," he replies. "For men will say in later years that this was the battle that made Rus into a nation of one people."

And the spirit world? Read the entire trilogy and find out! 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020


Alice Paul, Claiming Power, J D Zahinser & Amelia R Fry, Oxford University Press, 2014, 702 pp

Embarrassing as it is, I had never heard of Alice Paul before. I read this for the October meeting of The Bookie Babes reading group. It was tough getting through the book but I don't regret the time spent. Now I know that Alice Paul was the key person who got American women the right to vote in every state by pushing until the 19th Amendment was passed, ratified and adopted on August 26, 1920.

Alice Paul was born and raised Quaker in New Jersey. The book covers her entire life, her thirst for knowledge, her struggle for equal rights for women, and the incredibly strong purpose she found within herself.

Due to a dry, scholarly tone, the book was at time dull, but I am forever grateful to my reading group for choosing to read it as well as to J D Zahniser and Amelia R Fry for all their hard work to ensure the full story got told.

I knew about Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It took 80 years for what they and many, many other women started to become Constitutional Law. To paraphrase Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if you change the law you change society. Changing laws is a long hard process. Ask any woman, any person of color, any immigrant.

Still, injustice and inequality can be put right as long as we who see the need for change do not give up, as long as we recognize how slowly that change comes and how many setbacks need to be overcome.

I will never be as focused, as brave, as full of purpose as Alice Paul was, but I have gotten to know another role model and heroine to inspire me and keep me on my own path.

Since finishing the book, I have watched the feature film, Iron Jawed Angels. It was OK but had I not read this book, the movie would have had much less impact. Hilary Swank portrayed Alice Paul as a little too fluffy. The book give you all sides of her. Like any human being, she had many sides. Her strengths outweighed her weaknesses so definitively that she was able to channel the work of perhaps millions of women who have fought for our rights.

If you can take it, I urge you, whether you are male or female or anywhere on that spectrum to read this book.

Saturday, November 21, 2020


Fifty Words For Rain, Asha Lemmie, Dutton Books, 2020, 464 pp 

I read this for a reading group. I think we all chose it because of the title, the amazing cover and the setting: post WWII Japan. Each of us had mixed feelings about the story leaning towards positive.

Asha Lemmie worked on her first novel for many years, with large breaks in between stints of writing. I can relate! It is an engrossing tale, sometimes a bit too melodramatic, though in the good way that Charles Dickens does melodrama. It was always a page turner, always satisfying, except for the ending. We puzzled over that ending for quite a while in our discussion.

Noriko Kamiza, the central character, has a tragic past. She is the daughter of a Japanese heiress and an African American soldier and was abandoned by both parents. She has been hidden away as a disgrace by her maternal aristocratic grandmother in the attic of the family estate. She has been made to know that she is not worthy, due to her darker skin. Her training is to be silent, never to resist.

Needless to say, that part of Noriko's life is heartbreaking. Though she finally finds a protector and a sense of self in her older brother, more heartbreak follows until she rises above her fears and broken spirit to effect that disturbing ending.

After continuing to be haunted by the novel for many days, I concluded that is was the fairytale atmosphere created by the author that drew me in as I read and kept me captivated until the end. Best of all, she made me ponder which choices I would have made if I were Noriko.

Good read for fans of Lisa See as well as Toni Morrison.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020


Bellefleur, Joyce Carol Oates, Dutton Books, 1980, 724 pp

Back when the libraries were still closed, I went browsing through my own stacks of unread books and pulled out three Joyce Carol Oates novels I have owned for decades. One of those was Angel of Light, but from the dust cover flap I learned that it was preceded by Bellefleur, the first of JCO's foray into the Gothic genre.

I located the book in my library's eBook catalogue and dived in. The novel takes place in a fictional rendition of the Adirondack Mountain region of upstate New York. The Bellefleurs are a large clan who first became wealthy landowners shortly after the Revolutionary War.

The main characters, descendants of the most successful Bellefleurs, live in an enormous Gothic mansion on the shores of Lake Noir. Three generations currently live there but earlier generations continually spill out of attics, armoires, graves and legends. The family is down on its luck when the novel opens. The birth of Germaine, daughter of Gideon and Leah, sets the family on a ruthless plan to recover both their wealth and prestige. Germaine remains a small child through the rest of the book with special powers that drive the plot. 

In the course of numerous unsettling tales of passion, violence, feuds, and reckless adventure we learn the family's history. It takes being able to hold a plethora of characters in one's mind. Since they all, dead or alive, reappear regularly I was somewhat able to keep track. A family tree helped as well.

If you like long novels as much as I do, Bellefleur is wonderfully immersive. Every character looms larger than life and a history of American economic greed in the name of progress is presented in all its horror. From reading world history I know there are such families in every era of civilization. JCO created for us one of our very own American families and I found an allegory for what we have been exposed to politically and socially in the 21st century so far. She wrote the book in the late 1970s so once again played her role as prophetess.

Saturday, November 14, 2020


Going To Meet the Man, James Baldwin, Dial Press, 1965, 249 pp

 This was Baldwin's first collection of short stories. Five had been published in magazines between 1948 and 1960. The remaining three were published for the first time in the book. 

From reading the David Leeming biography, I could see that many of them are based on incidents from Baldwin's life or on people he knew.

Each story is as powerful as any of his novels, well-formed and filled with descriptions that feel present and real, as does the emotional content. In fact, I have rarely read short stories as good as these, especially from that time period. 

The final story, which gave the book its title, could be a summarization of Baldwin's views on racism in America. He delves into the legacy of slavery and the complicated sexual connotations between white and black due to the abuse of slaveowners against black female slaves, which often resulted in mixed race children. He distills what could have been a major thesis into 21 pages of searing fiction.

I have long held an aversion to short stories. Do you like to read them? If yes, can you recommend your favorite short story writers? For me, as with poetry, it works to read only one short story a day. I am considering an attempt to write some of my own.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Mysteries and Thrillers: Mini Reviews

 Over the past weeks, I filled in my more serious reading with some mysteries and thrillers. I feel that this kind of reading gives us a sort of satisfaction because those that deserve it get what is coming to them. So I give you some mini reviews of the ones I have read.

The Fallen Angel, Daniel Silva, HarperCollins, 2012, 464 pp

I keep thinking I am going to get tired of Silva's formula. Well, not yet.

Gabriel Allen, the Israeli assassin, and his wife are living in Rome. He is getting some well deserved rest from his last mission, actually restoring a painting at the Vatican, a Caravaggio. 

Of course, someone dies, a woman, in St Peter's. It looks like a possible suicide but neither Gabriel nor the Pope's private secretary think so. It is a delicate matter so Gabriel is on the job again.

Involved are Hezbolla, the Vatican Bank, and a huge act of terrorist sabotage. As always in Silva's books, the plotting is superb. Though Gabriel is in no shape to attempt death defying moves, he can run the operation. A great plot twist just when the Office (Israeli intelligence) thinks they have won ramps the plot up even further.

I was glad to be back fighting terrorism with Gabriel and his team. I have been reading this series for a while and only have eight more to go.

High Country, Nevada Barr, G P Putnam's Sons, 2004, 301 pp

Once again, a best ever in this series featuring Anna Pigeon, National Park Ranger.

Anna goes undercover as a waitress at Yosemite National Park to investigate the disappearance of four young park employees. She sets off into the snowy wilderness only to encounter life threatening events. There is always a bit of romance in Nevada Barr's mysteries. Though Anna is now engaged she finds herself attracted to a chef in the kitchen of the famous Ahwahnee Hotel.

Extreme suspense but of course she solves the case, which boils down to drug dealers. I loved being in Yosemite with her since my husband and I have driven through the park and eaten in that famous restaurant. 

I read this one in two days. It is #12 in the series and I have seven more to go.

Count Zero, William Gibson, Arbor House, 1986, 246 pp

Count Zero follows Neuromancer as the second book in Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy. Sprawl is his term for a future mega-city stretching from Boston to Atlanta, connected by a cyber network populated by jackers, criminals and various semi-religious beings that include AIs.

As wild as this must have sounded in the 1980s, one gets the sense these days that such guys might actually exist in the world.

I liked this one even a bit more than Neuromancer because the main characters had more humanity to them. Like you can be a keyboard cowboy and still have a heart? Plus this time I felt more at home in Gibson's crazy world.

Count Zero is a new character, a misfit high school boy who wants to play in the cyber network and ends up helping Turner, the main character in the earlier book, out of his next hot spot.

 A good technopunk adventure.

Airs Above the Ground, Mary Stewart, Fawcett Publications, 1965, 255 pp

This one came from the 1965 list of My Big Fat Reading Project. It was nominated for an Edgar Award and I have been following her novels through a couple of decades. 

Vanessa March has agreed to escort her best friend's 17 year old son to Austria. Actually she herself is on a mission to track down her husband who is supposedly in Stockholm on business but is worryingly out of touch. Vanessa has just seen his picture in a newsreel story about a circus fire in Austria.

Naturally she fears the worst: that he is with another woman. She and the boy, Timothy, visit the scene of the fire at the circus and stumble into a web of stolen goods, international drug smuggling and the disappearance of a famed Lipizzaner stallion after his groom died in the fire.

In true Stewart fashion, we learn plenty about circus life, dressage and life in an Austrian village. Vanessa and Timothy, on the trail of the stallion, stay in an old castle, now a hotel. The atmosphere there is distinctly Gothic. The details of the horse with his ability to do the dressage movement called "airs above the ground" is woven into the story, which sometimes interrupts the suspense but it always gets back to the mystery soon enough.

I was captivated all the way by this page turner of a mystery.

Have you read any of these books or others by this author? What mysteries or thrillers have you enjoyed lately?

Monday, November 09, 2020


The Princes of Ireland, Edward Rutherfurd, Doubleday, 2004, 765 pp

I attempted to read this historical fiction set in early Ireland years ago when we traveled to the country. Though it is like Rutherfurd's other books as well as like Michener's, in that it follows certain families through the generations, I just could not grasp it. It seemed like too much work.

Early in September I decided to read the biography of WB Yeats I bought last year when I was reading his collected poems. Starting the biography I realized Yeats's life was very much tied up with political events during the years he was writing and though I have read quite a bit of Irish fiction I still have confusions about those conflicts.

I still had The Princes of Ireland on my shelves so I gave it another try. My experience of reading The Thrall's Tale gave me a more determined approach and I found Rutherfurd's book less daunting. He provides maps and family trees. Perhaps I have become a better reader too!

I learned much of what I needed to know. Even though I had pored over maps before our trip there, I got a  better idea of the geography. I learned about the early years (400 AD) when the island's people were Celtic, arranged in families, clans and tribes and divided into five kingdoms, each with it own king. 

Later came the Vikings, then the English and the French. St Patrick brought Christianity which gradually overtook the ancient religions, gods and spirits. The monks of Ireland are included in the book and some of those characters were the ones who kept the written scriptures from falling away during the Medieval centuries. 

By 1533, the English were well ensconced as traders and financial leaders especially in Dublin. The Catholic Church and the Pope were in charge of religion but the Irish people, even those who intermarried with both the Vikings and the English, maintained certain differences and an individualism recalled in their poetry, songs, tales and monuments. 

The book ends with a revolt against the English, rather a cliff hanger. There is a volume two in The Dublin Saga, entitled The Rebels of Ireland, which will take me to 1914. Since Yeats was born in 1865, I should be in better shape to understand his life and times.