Sunday, February 28, 2021


 Though February was only 28 days short, it felt long. On the other hand I only read 9 books, I fell behind on my reviews and distractions were many. I started out with a book that took seven days to read, I had two missions of mercy to accomplish and I got my second COVID vaccine giving me a somewhat lost day feeling some reactions to the shot 24 hours later. I feel fine now and ready to take on March with renewed vigor.

It was satisfying to have read so much translated fiction and to put in more time than I have lately on My Big Fat Reading Project. I also finished a rough draft of a chapter for the book I am writing. 

Stats: 9 books read. 5 written by women. 2 mystery/thriller. 1 historical fiction. 2 nonfiction. 1 sci fi. 1 memoir. 3 translated. 3 for My Big Fat Reading Project.

Places I went: Poland, France, Egypt, United States (Maryland, Connecticut, Alabama, Wisconsin), Outer Space.

Authors New To Me: Casey Cep, Stanislaw Lem, David Tromblay

Favorites: Poland, Afterlife, Furious Hours, Birds of America

How was your reading in February? Have you read any of these books? 

Thursday, February 25, 2021


 Afterlife, Julia Alvarez, Algonquin Books, 2020, 256 pp

I read this for my One Book At A Time reading group. I loved it.

I have a vague memory of having read How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, this author's first novel, about four sisters adapting to New York City after being uprooted from their Dominican Republic home. All I remember is that I did not like it much, found the sisters too flighty and self-involved. I think that says more about me as a reader back then than about Julia Alvarez as an author.

Afterlife, her first adult novel in over 14 years, centers on Antonia; a senior woman, a retired professor of literature and a devastated new widow. This is an author writing what she knows (some of the story feels autobiographical) and what she doesn't know (she still has her husband.)

While Antonia is trying and mostly failing to deal with her bereavement, she is hit from all sides by the suffering of others, including her three sisters and an undocumented pregnant Mexican teen who shows up in her neighborhood. With all these distractions and calls upon her to assist others she finds a way to go on living, with new purpose and hope.

I loved the writing, which is as light as a backyard bird and as full of emotion and imagery as a poem. Antonia's mind and soul are full of literary references from the books she has read and taught for most of her life. Those insights provide sustenance but also require realignment when brought to bear on real life.

I can't say I loved all the characters because many are unlikable but I found empathy for them. Those sisters are just as self-involved and out of control emotionally, while equally bound by their loyalty to each other, as the Garcia sisters were.

All is leavened by moments of almost laugh-out-loud humor, keeping the dark tragedies of the story from overwhelming the tale. I felt cared for as a reader by this largehearted author.

Depending on the day you ask, I still sometimes feel like a 40-something woman but in truth I am in the same age bracket as Julia Alvarez. That may be why I felt her story so deeply. Work, family, politics, loss, can all be so disappointing. Novels like this keep me going when I need encouragement.

Sunday, February 21, 2021


 Poland, James A Michener, Random House, 1983, 556 pp

This is the 15th book I have read by this master of historical fiction. Though it has been on my shelves for many years I read it at this time because I had two other novels coming up written by Polish authors. I became interested in the country and its authors through a member of The Tinies reading group who is of Polish descent and has visited there several times. I wanted to learn more.

Michener begins: "In a small Polish farm community during the fall planting season of 1981, events occurred which electrified the world, sending reverberations of magnitude to capitals as diverse as Washington, Peking and especially Moscow." Who knew?

In 1981, Poland was still under Soviet Communist rule. The farmers of that small community sent a representative to meet with Communist officials proposing a farmers union in order to better their economic status. They were denied but the meeting was a turning point in Poland's fight to free themselves the Soviet Union.

In Chapter 2, the story jumps back to 1200 AD in the times of Genghis Khan and proceeds forward, following members of three families and their descendants to show how Poland reached that 20th century crisis. It is a tale of Nobles, Kings, Clergy, merchants, Jews, small land holders and peasants.

Once a vast land, areas of Poland have been carved away over time by the barbarian Tartars, Russia, the Austro Hungarian Empire, and Germany. The propensity of their Nobles to hang on to their lands, castles and riches plays out in relation to what amounted to slavery among the peasants, or serfs as they were then called. For centuries self-interested interactions between the Nobles and surrounding hostile nations led to wars and lack of a strong government for Poland. 

Such a tempestuous journey from Medieval to modern times makes for absorbing reading. Wars and battles, victories and losses, bravery and love of country, artist and musicians (Chopin), a majestic landscape of rivers, mountains and forests. Always the backbreaking work of serfs to keep the population fed and served and to provide cannon fodder for the wars.

Because the novel was published in 1983, plenty has happened for Poland since. The current government has been free of the Soviet Union for several decades now but is right wing and conservative. I looked up some of the history of those decades. Though the country is more sound economically, a strong Catholic presence and the tone of the government impacts women's rights and the freedoms of writers. 

It is good to have the long range picture, including the horrors of WWII, the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet influence after that war, and the ongoing conflicts between Christians and Jews in Poland. In fact, it is difficult to understand the current news about any country so foreign to Americans. Michener's book filled in the gaps in my knowledge and was well worth spending a week to read.

Friday, February 19, 2021


 Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Mariner Books, 2021, 233 pp

It is widely known that I have not been a fan of short stories. By reading more of them lately I am discovering what makes a short story satisfying for me, though I am not ready to articulate that clearly yet.

Land of Big Numbers was a miracle. Every story in this collection is great. The author is, I believe, Chinese-American and a journalist who spent four years as a Beijing-based correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She seems to have soaked up the essence of 21st century Chinese life.

Each story grabbed me from the first line. It was as if the characters were right in the room with me. Tension builds quietly yet relentlessly tale by tale. I found myself almost holding my breath until I learned what would happen, each time for 10 stories. The theme tying them together is the better life for Chinese people under the current government at the cost of some of their freedom. A heady concept created by this author without outright judgement. 

Thanks to The Nervous Breakdown Book Club for selecting Land of Big Numbers as the January 2021 book. Thanks to Brad Listi at the Otherppl podcast for a penetrating interview with Te-Ping Chen. I will be watching for more from this author.

Monday, February 15, 2021


 Exposing the Past, Alice Zogg, Aventine Press, 2020, 223 pp

Have you ever come across a stranger who looked just like you? I once did many years ago. I saw "myself" across a crowded ballroom. It was extremely disorienting. Was I where I was standing or was I on the other side of the room? I never saw her again. I was not sure I wanted to. I hoped I had imagined the whole thing.

Not so for two of the main characters in Alice Zogg's latest stand alone mystery. Sherry Rinaldi saw her Doppelgänger in the mirror next to her in the ladies room while on vacation on Maui, Hawaii. The two women spoke, joking about being twins. They exchanged first names, discovered they both lived in California; Sherri in Pasadena and Kirsten in San Diego. Then they went their separate ways.

Sherri could not let it go though and despite her husband's strongly worded advice, she pursued the connection. She tracked Kirsten down and eventually they learn the truth but not until another woman dies.

Exposing the Past is an expertly plotted mystery, very up-to-date with DNA testing, cell phone texting and much driving up and down the Interstate 5 freeway. The two women found their answers back in the 1970s.

Alice Zogg is my friend. We met shortly after she had self-published her second book. I reviewed that one for a local paper and she has given me a copy of each new book when it comes out. We meet for lunch occasionally and talk about writing. She has 15 books to her credit now. I have 15 years of blogging about books to mine and a book I am always working on but feel I may never finish.

Life is wonderfully strange but fiction can be stranger, as it is in Exposing the Past. There can also be danger in writing about the past. My book is autobiographical in part and I have spent some uncomfortable days, even weeks, as I look at my past and that of the world. Alice too has written a memoir, mainly for her descendants, though she let me read it. Of course, she wrote hers in just a few months!

Thursday, February 11, 2021


 To Mervas, Elizabeth Rynell, Archipelago Books, 2010, 192 pp (originally published as Till Mervas by Albert Bonniers Forlag, Stockholm, Sweden, 2002; translated from the Swedish by Victoria Haggblom)

I have been neglecting my Archipelago Books shelf for too long. I must say that every book I have read from this excellent publishing house of translated literature has provided great reading. To Mervas was no exception.

Marta, a solitary middle-aged Swedish spinster with a troubled past, receives a letter from her lover of over 25 years ago. He writes, "Marta, Mart! I'm in Mervas. It is not possible to get any farther away. And no closer either. Your Kosti."

Though I have never been to Sweden, I have read enough novels set there to have a feel for the country. Never had I heard of Mervas. I learned that it is a region of abandoned mining in the far north.

Marta's journal entries from the November day she receives Kosti's letter, reveal her childhood (brutal), her affair with Kosti (aborted by a huge argument), and her sad life ever since. She struggles with her fear of moving out of her lonely existence and a conviction that going to find Kosti is her last chance to make something meaningful of her life.

The writing is crystal clear, both in the telling of Marta's inner turmoil and in describing the journey she does finally make to Mervas. Elisabeth Rynell is both a poet and and a novelist. To Mervas is her third novel and the first to appear in English. 

It is a story of hope. Even a woman like Marta, who has suffered from terrible trauma and losses, can pull from her suppressed memory the moments when she had strength and so venture again into life.

I loved this novel from its gorgeous cover to its final page.

Sunday, February 07, 2021


 Though my reading groups are still meeting on Zoom, I did not feel like finding another Zoom image for this post. The books and the discussions are the thing, after all. Only three meetings this month as The Tinies are still on hold due to the illness of one member. 

My best news of the month so far is that my husband and I have received the first dose of the Corona Virus vaccine. Many of my reading group members, since we are predominately over 65, have also received first doses. It takes persistence and paying attention to get appointments and I wish it could all be rolling out faster, but the wave has begun!

All the books for my groups are new to me and I am looking forward to each one. Have you read any of these books?

One Book At A Time:

I have enjoyed the previous books I have read by Julia Alvarez. This is her first adult novel in 15 years and it features a retired woman and sounds just as entrancing.

Bookie Babes:

I am always interested in anything more I can learn about Harper Lee, so while I have felt a little overbalanced with non fiction lately, I will willingly read this.

Carol's Group:

Tokarczuk is another author I have enjoyed. This one has been called a "deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale." It is set in the author's native Poland, a land with uncounted bones beneath the soil. Just today I will finish James Michener's Poland, read so that I know more of the history of the country.

Saturday, February 06, 2021


 The Darkest Evening, Ann Cleeves, Minotaur Books, 2020, 299 pp

I read this mystery set in Northumberland for my Bookie Babes reading group. It is the ninth in a series featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. She is a delightful curmudgeon, middle-aged, competent, single and not thin. I did not feel hindered by not having read the earlier books in the series.

It was a great January read filled with snow and cold and icy roads back in the hills. A manor house surrounded by farms traps Vera's team and the inhabitants due to a blizzard. 

Vera's family home is the manor house, though because of her loser father, she is on the underdog side of the family. Lots of class issues as you would expect in Great Britain, though cell phones (with spotty reception) as well as some rowdy teens put the reader in the present.

A murder, a plucky toddler, questions about parentage and rocky marriages all give plenty of red herrings. I never did figure out who the murderer was until Vera did. I was entertained and not one thing bothered me.

I probably won't get into the earlier books, at least not right away, but it is good to know about if I'm looking for a new series to love.

Have you read Ann Cleeves?

Monday, February 01, 2021


 January was a good month for reading. I read 13 books, including several short reads, several page turning mysteries and thrillers, even two books of short stories.

Stats: 13 books read. 13 fiction. 8 written by women. 6 thrillers/mysteries. 1 horrorish. 1 for my Big Fat Reading Project. 2 translated.

Countries I visited: Ireland, United States (Colorado, Arkansas, California), Germany, France, Great Britain, Sweden, China. 

Authors New To Me: Charlotte McConaghy, Ann Cleeves, Jarret Middleton, Elisabeth Rynell, Te-Ping Chen.

Favorites: Migrations, Red Pill, To Mervas, Land of Big Numbers

Have you read any of these books? What were your favorite reads in January?