Saturday, August 29, 2020



Your House Will Pay, Steph Cha, Ecco, 2019, 244 pp


I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. It was my suggestion and we all found it amazing.

The story concerns racial tension in Los Angeles and is told from the viewpoints of two families, one African American, one Korean American.

In 1991, at the time of the Rodney King beating, a Korean American woman shot and killed Ava Matthews, an African American teenager who she thought was shoplifting in her pharmacy. The woman was charged with manslaughter but got off with no jail time.

Almost three decades later, the relatives of the Black victim and a daughter of the Korean family come into conflict again.

Grace Park was in the womb when her mother shot Ava Matthews. She grew up never knowing what her mother did. Now, thanks to her older sister, she does.

Shawn Matthews, brother of Ava, has served time in prison, as has his cousin Ray. Now they are both trying to live right but it's a struggle everyday.

When another shocking murder rocks Los Angeles, the families collide.

Steph Cha based her Ava Matthews on a real character and a real case from 1991. In fictionalizing the story she sought to show the tensions as well as the possibility for reconciliation between the two families.

Because the members of our reading group have all lived in the Los Angeles area for many years, we know of all these incidents, especially the Rodney King case, the resulting riots, and the tensions in South Central. For us, the novel brought a much deeper understanding of what life is like for such families, the trauma they carry, the resentments between them, the faulty working of law enforcement and the courts.

Perhaps for non-Angelenos, the impact would not hit so close to home but it would still give readers an accurate look behind the scenes of racial tension in any of our cities.

Steph Cha is Korean American, born in Korea Town, Los Angeles, in 1986. She has written a crime series featuring Juniper Song, a Korean American private investigator. Your House Will Pay is her fourth novel. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2020




Imago, Octavia E Butler, Warner Books, 1989, 225 pp


After finishing Adulthood Rites, I went right on to the final book in Butler's Lilith's Brood series because there was nothing else I wanted to read right then. I had to know how the story ended.

Lilith increases her brood with Jodahs, the first construct ooloi. The alien Oankali comprise three sexes: male, female and ooloi (non-sexed or combined or androgynous, referred to as "it.") How ahead of her time Butler was, though in fact she was preceded by Ursula LeGuin in some ways.

A construct ooloi then is non-sexed Oankali plus part human. The ooloi are genetic manipulators. They can cure genetic diseases, the kind that are passed on hereditarily, with just a touch of a tentacle.

Jodahs is looked upon as a dangerous new sort by both Oankali and humans. It has equal ability to cure and deform or even create plagues. What will it do when reaching maturity?

In Dawn, the first book, Lilith became the first construct female. Adulthood Rites featured a construct male. Now in Imago, the first construct ooloi emerges. Though all three books contain much emotion, Imago is the most emotional yet. Written in first person, the reader gets to feel the androgynous point of view which can be strange for a male or female individual. Yet not so strange after all once one has read the book.

I was deeply moved by this one. Jodahs's quest is to create a new state of affairs on Earth by merging and modifying both Oankali and human. It felt hopeful to me. Not that I would necessarily want to become part alien but that by weaving and blending sexual orientation, race, genetics and customs, a "construct" society might be able to live in some kind of peace.

I have been coming to the idea, for some time now, that human beings are all on a spectrum, sexually, emotionally, mentally and racially. We could create a better sort of life by recognizing that in each other instead of violently rejecting differences.

More Octavia Butler, please.

Monday, August 24, 2020




Adulthood Rites, Octavia E Butler, Warner Books, 1988, 268 pp


This is the second book in Butler's Lilith's Brood series, aka The Xenogenesis series. It follows Dawn. The story opens with the birth of Akin, born of Lilith. He is a "construct" male, meaning he is part human, part Oankali, who are the aliens who captured humans in the first book. 

Lilith and her family are back on Earth, living in an uneasy peace with humans who refused to be subject to the Oankali and call themselves resistors. The neutral gender Oankali, called Ooloi, rendered all humans infertile unless they have children with Ooloi genetic "help." The resistors sometimes steal a human-looking construct child in their desperation to have one of their own.

 Akin was stolen when he was only an infant, though he has advanced abilities. Adulthood Rites follows Akin's growth to young manhood. After he escapes the resistor village, he struggles to reconcile his dual nature and to understand humans. He becomes a mediator between the two species and brings about a compromise so that the resistors can reproduce.

 Akin pays dearly for his efforts and much of that is tough to read about. Octavia Butler is exploring what she calls a "self-destructive contradiction" in humans between high intelligence and a hierarchical nature. The Oankali believe this contradiction dooms humans to war and other catastrophes that threaten to wipe out the human race.

She makes you think about Africans brought to America and other colonized countries resulting in their subsequent struggles to integrate into White society. She makes you ponder the outcomes of colonization around the world. These subjects become real in the context of her characters who are caught in such struggles. That is the brilliance of the books in this series. In her own way, she is as eloquent as James Baldwin was.



Saturday, August 22, 2020


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Oligarchy, Scarlett Thomas, Counterpoint Press, 2020, 230 pp
I have been a fan of British author Scarlett Thomas for many years. She is a bit of an acquired taste for some readers but I took to her right away. Her latest is the story of a young girl, illegitimate daughter of a Russian mother. 
Her birth father has just discovered her existence and has sent her off to private school in England. The father is the oligarch. She has never met him but suddenly she is catapulted out of her impoverished existence with her mother. He has showered her with money, gifts and a seemingly unlimited credit card.
So that is one oddball theme in itself. The real story at boarding school is how all these teenage girls develop eating disorders as they each try to be the thinnest one. Amid all that is a mystery about certain girls who disappear or die with a certain teacher being suspiciously involved. The plot catapults along while Natasha, the Russian heroine, gets advice from her father's sister on how to deal with it all.

Like most of the stories by Scarlett Thomas that I have read, the novel is equal parts heartbreaking and hilarious. The social commentary and the adventure of one female dealing with personal demons left me wondering how she would get through.

I loved it. Natasha survives and gets a clue, as in she starts eating again. I know, that might be a spoiler but how she escapes disaster is what matters. I could imagine that she would go on to have a good life, as do those of us who survive young adulthood.

Sunday, August 16, 2020


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The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern,  Doubleday, 2019, 494 pp
This is not so much a review as it is a prose poem about what this book was to me. As maddening as it sometimes was, this is my kind of book and I loved it. A huge sprawling story about stories, it includes a land beneath the earth on the shores of a starless sea. A labyrinth filled with stories. Three young adult characters, just beyond their teenage years, searching for their destinies and longing for connection.
Doors, which may be anywhere, lead into this land. As she did in The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern, who seems to be made out of stories herself, created The Starless Sea out of her own longings. She certainly tapped into mine.

As I sat at my desk for hours trying to figure out how to write about this book and taking notes, I wrote: Stories, stories everywhere. The stories that are the life I've lived, the stories that run in my thoughts, the stories I've read, the stories I have dreamed but not yet lived.

If it took Erin Morgenstern years to arrange this magical novel into 494 pages, I think the best thing I can do is to encourage readers who long for books like this to just go ahead and read The Starless Sea. You will be whisked away from the horrors of today where you will meet characters dealing with their own troubles, finding their own pathways to their hearts' desires and braving their own inner demons.

These are timeless matters and now is a time to step back or step away for contemplation, to take a voyage on the Starless Sea. The news will still be bad when you return but you might be refreshed, ready to have another go at your own story.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


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James Baldwin: A Biography, David Leeming, Alfred A Knopf, 1994, 388 pp
This is one of the best author biographies I have ever read. If I love or admire an author, and there is a biography available, I like to read it. Often I follow the author's life as I read their works. I did that with John Steinbeck and discovered that I enjoyed learning what was going on in his life as he wrote each novel.
I was going to follow that plan with James Baldwin but I got so involved with his personal story that I could not stop. David Leeming's way of revealing Baldwin is respectful and sensitive. He traces the man's development from an impoverished Harlem kid, son of a preacher, through the lucky breaks that gave him chances to build on his natural intelligence and improve his writing skills as well as figure out his sexual orientation and his place in the world. From all of that experience he became one of the leading Black writers of the 20th century.
Authors are not always "nice" people leading steady, secure lives. They are often driven by certain demons and James Baldwin was no exception. He suffered emotionally, he blazed with righteousness in many public situations, and I feel he created one of the most profound understandings of race relations in America ever.
I have read four of Baldwin's novels so far: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, and If Beale Street Could Talk. Reading the biography was like taking a class from a really great professor. It deepened my understanding of those novels, both as to how he came to write them and some of the literary aspects I had either missed or not fully grasped.
David Leeming is a professor of literature. He was also a close friend of Baldwin's from 1961 until the author's death in 1988. Baldwin authorized Leeming to write his biography and left all his papers to him.
Now I look forward to reading the rest of James Baldwin's novels, stories and essay collections while having this book as a resource. I especially liked learning about Baldwin's relationships with Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many other civil rights leaders, through which I got an excellent overview of the Black race's ongoing fight for freedom. That was James Baldwin's fight, his life and his obsession.

Monday, August 10, 2020


Four of my six reading groups are still meeting on Zoom. I have not heard from the other two but four Zoom meetings a month is just about plenty for me. Everyone has worked out their glitches and we are all old pros by now.

Two groups chose the same book again this month. All of the books deal with diversity of one kind or another and that is appropriate for the times. None are about pandemics though. Good!!

One Book At A Time:
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I finished reading this yesterday and it is amazing! 
Just came out in paperback last month.

Carol's Group and Bookie Babes:
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No review I have read prepared me for all that goes on in this novel.
I am reading it now and whoa!!
Tiny Book Club:

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This is a memoir by one of my favorite authors.
Can't wait to read it.
It comes out in paperback this month.
Have you read/discussed any of these books?
Are you meeting with a reading group this month? If yes, what will you discuss?

Saturday, August 08, 2020


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Barn 8, Deb Olin Unferth, Graywolf Press, 2020, 282 pp
My goodness, this crazy novel was so good. Janey, a teenager from Brooklyn, runs away to find the father she has just found out she has. She ends up in Ohio where she falls in with some eco terrorist folks.

They plot the heist of a million chickens, which are from just one agribusiness farm of egg laying chickens. What you learn about how these chickens are treated is almost enough to turn you vegan if your are not already. The author IS vegan. She must have gone through some trauma herself in doing the research. 

Of course the heist goes very wrong but you will have to read the book to find out how it all turns out. Deb Olin Unferth is a fearless writer with a seriously whacked sense of humor and a lot of heart. The characters jump off the page and Janey won my admiration as she came to terms with who she is and what life means. Even the chickens became characters.

I am an omnivore and will remain so, but I am looking more deeply into where my supposedly "cage free" eggs actually come from. 

I received the book as the March selection of the Nervous Breakdown Book Club, a subscription that continues to introduce me to great books and authors who deserve more attention. I listened to the talk with Deb Olin Unferth on the Otherppl podcast and got more insight into the vegetarian lifestyle and views.

Wednesday, August 05, 2020


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Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, Riverhead Books, 2018, 403 pp (originally published in Poland, 2007, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft)
I read this for my Tiny Book Club. It is an experimental novel made up of fragments, written by Tokarczuk as she traveled around Europe in the first decade of the 21st century. It was a challenging read for me because though there are a few story lines, even those are broken up throughout the book. If you read mainly for story, this might not be the book for you, though it has its own particular pleasures.
After I finished the book, I listened to a talk given by Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft, presented on YouTube by Politics and Prose Books. That was good because it answered questions I had. She actually wrote the book 13 years ago. It was not published in English until 2018, after Jennifer Croft translated it and then fought hard to find a publisher. Once it was published in English, it became a finalist for and then won the Man Booker International Prize, after which Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the talk she explained that she intentionally wrote in fragments. She called it a "constellation" novel, comparing the way we look at the stars in a vast sky and group them into constellations in an effort to impose some order. Thus the book is a kind of fiction because it contains stories of other people intermingled with the author's reactions to the places she traveled, to what she saw, to certain areas of knowledge she was pursuing and what she learned. She wanted readers to read all of her fragments and involve ourselves in making our own order out of it.

If that sounds like it requires effort by the reader, I can tell you that it does. The pleasures for me were mostly due to being able to read about such continual and free travel during this time of restricted travel due to COVID. And I was reminded how much one can travel within one's own mind, in fact how much we all do that all the time!

A few years ago I read an earlier novel by this author, House of Day, House of Night. It was also a bit challenging but a more enjoyable read for me. I plan to read her most recently translated novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, soon.

Have you read Flights or any of her other books? If you have reviewed any of them leave a link in the comments or just a comment if you prefer.

Saturday, August 01, 2020


Happy first of August! I chose this image because it it about 100 degrees in my town today and that ocean looked nice and cool.

I had a great reading month in July. Somehow I finished 12 books. My solution to being behind on reviews is only to post reviews of the books I loved the most or found the most interesting. If you see one on the list here that you wish I would review, please let me know in the comments.

Stats: 12 books read. 11 fiction. 6 written by women. 1 sci fi. 1 thriller. 4 for My Big Fat Reading Project. 2 translated. 1 fantasy. 1 biography.

Authors new to me: Octavia Butler, Mark Guerin, Deb Olin Unferth, David Leeming.
Favorites: Dawn, Barn 8, The Starless Sea, James Baldwin biography, Oligarchy
Least favorite: The Man With the Golden Gun

Places I went: New Orleans, Boston, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Poland, France, Great Britain, Vietnam, Cuba, Caribbean, Off World.

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Have you read any of these books? How did you enjoy your reading in July?