READING IN A TIME OF QUARANTINE, PART 2: OLD SCHOOL

If you’re someone who has no access to physical libraries right now because they’re closed (in New York, for some reason, libraries aren’t considered “essential”; go figure), and for whatever reasons you can’t access electronic resources or don’t feel reading on devices is the same as “really reading” and yet you’re dying for reading material while you’re staying at home, are you completely out of luck?

No, of course not.

This is the time to look around your house and check out all the books and other reading material you already have at home*.  If you’re like me, there are probably a lot of books in bookcases, on end tables, on nightstands and all over the place in your house.  Those books come in two different categories: the ones you’ve never read, and the ones you’ve read before. Both of those can come in handy in a crisis like this.

Let’s start with the ones you’ve never read.  You might be the kind of virtuous person who never buys books without reading them.  I’m not. There are all kinds of reasons why I have books I haven’t read: people gave them to me, I bought them used and they were really cheap, I bought them because they looked interesting but then I never got around to reading them, they were advance review copies I picked up at Book Expo or the equivalent.  Now is the time to start reading those books.

Maybe you didn’t read them before because you didn’t have time (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which has been sitting on a shelf on my computer table for YEARS).  Now you have time.

Maybe you did start reading them and then got distracted. If the distraction’s gone, why not give the book another try?

Maybe it’s a classic, one of those books you got because you always intended to read it, and then you were so intimidated by it that you couldn’t bring yourself to start it, or you started it and then were overwhelmed and couldn’t bring yourself to finish it.  Ulysses is that book for me; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started that book and never got farther than a hundred pages in or so.  Wouldn’t it feel great to check that one off my life list?

Maybe you started it, put it down for a bit and then lost it (don’t laugh, I’ve done that more often than I care to admit).  Now you can dig it up again and give it another try.

Maybe the reason you never finished it was because it wasn’t the right time for you.  There are just books that you’re not ready to read until you’ve experienced certain things.  For instance, I’ve long thought it was stupid of English teachers to assign Dickens’ Great Expectations to high school students, not because it’s by Dickens (whom I love), but because the themes of the book are much more likely to resonate with adults who’ve had a chance to see the distance between their youthful dreams and the realities they’ve made than with kids who haven’t been disillusioned that way yet. So if there’s a book you’ve kept on your shelves but never read because it didn’t seem to have anything to say to you, maybe your life has changed enough that the book will resonate with you now when it didn’t before.

Now let’s turn to the books you’ve already read. If you’ve read them and kept them around, you must have liked them (or else you just couldn’t figure out how to get rid of them or give them away, but even so, if they were books you really hated, even the person who’s most afraid of destroying books would find a way to get rid of them). There’s definitely something to be said for reacquainting yourself with old friends like that. If it’s been a long time since you read them, all the better.  You might not even remember the plot or the characters, so it will be like reading them for the first time.

And even if you remember the plot and the characters and bits of dialogue, so what? Sometimes you can read something a second (or third, or fourth . . . ) time and see things you didn’t see the first time, when you were reading for plot, or turning pages so quickly you didn’t notice details. Sometimes it’s cool to be able to see the nearly invisible structure that makes a book work, to notice the footwork that leads to the exciting and brilliant effects.

Besides, with the books you’ve already read, you know what you’re getting, so you can choose the book or books that gives you what you want or need right now.  When I’m feeling the need for funny short stories about British lawyers, I turn to my collection of Rumpole books by John Mortimer. When I want some American history, I can choose my era, reading Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson for a thrilling one volume history of the Civil War, or Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris about Theodore Roosevelt, or Passionate Sage by Joseph Ellis, about the later years of President John Adams (yes, I am a history nerd; is anyone surprised?).  Or I can go through my collection of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (I’m not sure I have all of them, but I have quite a few), for some wonderful characters and brilliant satire.  I can slant my reading to my mood and be sure of getting something I’ll enjoy, and how often can you say that about something new?

So if you’re a reader and you’re feeling anxious about this current shutdown of libraries, you can find ways to keep yourself happy and well-read.  And don’t worry, there will be plenty of new books to devour when the libraries open up again. Promise.

 

*If for some reason you don’t have any other reading material at home, then I’m sorry, you really are out of luck.  But if you’re a reader, I’m willing to bet you have reading material at home somewhere. Keep looking.

READING IN A TIME OF QUARANTINE, PART 1: ELECTRONIC WONDERS

So maybe you’re stuck at home in quarantine.  Maybe you’re not actually sick yourself, but your state’s governor has instituted a “For the love of God, stay home!” order, and maybe (as is the case in New York, where I live and work) the government in its great wisdom has failed to include libraries in the list of “essential businesses.”  I know, it’s terrible! Not being able to go to the library and check out the new book (or the old books, or all the books by that author of the book you just read and loved) makes everything harder, and of course everybody knows that reading is a great way to get through hard times.

You can’t go to the physical library, but at least here in Westchester County, you can go to the virtual library.  Take your library card for a spin (as I always tell people) and head over to www.westchesterlibraries.org and take a look at all the cool stuff under the tab “Listen, Read and Watch.”  You can check out ebooks and e-audiobooks (which you can listen to on your phone or any other device) from four different collections (Overdrive, Freading, RB Digital Audiobooks and Hoopla) with varying degrees of effort.

Don’t have a Westchester library card?  You still have ebook options that don’t require you to pay money to get reading material. If you live in the State of New York, you can get a New York Public Library card and access all kinds of digital resources (https://www.nypl.org/).

Wherever you are, you can check out Gutenberg (https://www.gutenberg.org/), and get THOUSANDS of ebooks.  Granted, you’re not going to get the latest bestsellers on Gutenberg, but think of all those classic books you always told yourself you wanted to read.  Now that you have the time, if you have the devices, you can get your (virtual) hands on them via Gutenberg. For instance, if you want something surprisingly timely, you could check out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (about the bubonic plague in London; nonfiction), or The Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio (sort of The Canterbury Tales in Italy, except that the storytellers are quarantined outside of the city due to plague), or, one of my personal favorites, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death (seriously, for a short story, it packs a wallop).  If you’re looking for something a little less on point (and I wouldn’t blame you), you could read Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (great witty dialogue), or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (and if all you know about the book is the Lilliputians, you’re in for a treat when you read the whole thing), or The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (one of the great misanthropes, but so funny as well as biting).  You could check out P. G. Wodehouse if you’re in the mood for something light and funny, or you could read Jane Austen or Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle and lose yourself in a different era. Or, if you really feel ambitious, there are the huge classics: Moby Dick, War and Peace, Les Miserables.  Nothing like a sweeping, epic novel to take you away from your current limitations.

Ah, you say, that’s all well and good, but I don’t know how to read books on my devices, or I don’t like reading e-books.  What should I do then? Keep watching this space. I’ll be talking about that next.

SHOPPING HERE CAN REALLY WRECK YOUR REALITY

It might seem too easy to make fun of a big store like IKEA, to suggest that it’s a soul-destroying place to work and/or to shop.  There have been novels using IKEA as a setting for horror (the excellent Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix), and now we have a new speculative fiction novella mixing a store like IKEA and quantum entanglement and post breakup angst, and it is GREAT fun.

The book is Finna, by Nino Cipri.  Our protagonist, Ava, is having a bad day at the outset of the novel.  She’s hung over, she’s recently broken up with her lover, who worked in the same dreadful store she works in (so she has gone out of her way to schedule her shifts so she won’t come into contact with Jules, her former lover), and she’s been called in to cover the shift of a co-worker.  Naturally, that schedule change brings her face to face with Jules, the one person she doesn’t want to see.

As if that weren’t bad and complicated enough, Ava then learns that a customer’s grandmother just disappeared. When Ava and Jules go looking for the elderly woman, they find that one of the showrooms seems to be changing, as if a completely different room were joined to this one.

Now, if you stopped here and tried to imagine what would happen next, you would probably figure that there’s something strange going on in the store, that the (jerk) manager would deny that anything was out of the ordinary, and somehow our main characters would end up wandering through different dimensions or alternate realities which nobody knew anything about.

You would be wrong.

In this book, the manager brings all the staff into a room to talk to them about the store’s known wormhole problem, and shows them a badly made, old-fashioned training movie the company made about how to deal with the situation when a customer disappears into one of those wormholes.  There is a machine that has to be put together which will use quantum engagement to find the missing person in whichever of the millions of alternate realities the person entered, and the two staff people with the least seniority are “volunteered” to go looking for the customer.  In this case (you don’t need me to tell you this, do you?) the two people with the least seniority are Ava and Jules, so they get the Finna (the machine) and off they go.

I have to say, at that point, when the bored retail workers are watching this really awful training film on VHS about how to skip from one timeline to another, and the manager is treating this like finding something unmentionable in the public restrooms, I was sold. As far as I was concerned, the author could do anything in the plot from there on, and I would gleefully follow along.

It’s a wild ride, with everything from carnivorous furniture to weird clones of the company’s retail workers connected to each other via a sinister hive, and Jules and Ava bicker and deal with their relationship issues and save each other from the horrors that might destroy them in one reality or another.  The details are such fun: the finna gets built and rebuilt a couple of times (and come on, aren’t you tickled by the thought of trying to put together a quantum engagement device from the kinds of instructions you’d get with an IKEA sofa, complete with illustrations?), and each time you learn something else about it and begin to wonder more and more about where this came from and how this company got its hands on it.  The device provides a backup if you can’t find the actual person you’re looking for, in case that person got killed by some horrific monster or other, and that turns into an actual plot point.

My only quibble about the book is that I wish it were longer. I would love to see more adventures along the multiverse with these characters. The advantage of its being so short is that it’s the kind of book you can devour in one sitting, laughing all the way.

If you’re in the mood for a quick, fun read that mingles quantum physics with bad relationships, that takes you on a crazy trip through all kinds of human and inhuman possibilities, and that gives you an ending that will make you smile (while still leaving open the possibility of a sequel — please, Nino?), do yourself a favor and check out Finna.

 

AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, LONG AGO

One of the best things about good historical fiction is that it can bring to life particular historical moments and scenes which even history buffs like me weren’t previously aware of. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s new book, The Mercies, is that kind of historical novel, taking us to early 17th century Norway and an isolated island community, first struck with a natural catastrophe and then by a more sinister man-made one.

The first tragedy is a natural one, so absolute it seems almost supernatural to the survivors.  The men of the small, isolated island of Vardo, near the Arctic Circle, set out on a fishing trip one night, and out of nowhere a huge wave flips over all the boats, drowning nearly all the male population of the island in a few moments as their wives, sisters and mothers watch from the shore.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the women of the island try to survive any way they can.  If this involves taking advantage of their Sami neighbors’ charms and runes despite the nominal Christianity of the island’s women, so be it.  If it involves the women taking to the sea and fishing for themselves, even though that’s supposed to be men’s work, they’ll do it. Grief and hard times cause the women to react differently, and rifts that probably already existed before the tragedy become accentuated and stronger over time.

This would be a difficult enough situation if there were no interference from the outside world, which usually has very little to do with Vardo.  However, there are new church leaders, heavily influenced by the work of King James of Scotland, and filled with the desire to straighten out these potentially heathen outlanders and bring them into the church’s fold again.  If you’re like me, when you hear King James’ name, you think of his writings against witches and the witch trials he sparked throughout his territories, and of course when you have women acting in non-traditional ways, and a huge tragedy that seems almost supernatural, accusations of witchcraft are pretty much guaranteed, with wrenching, heartbreaking results.

Our main characters are two women. One is Maren, a resident of the island, who lost her father, brother and fiancee in the storm, and who then tries to hold her family together afterwards.  This is made more complicated by the fact that Maren’s brother’s widow was a Sami woman, and mother and daughter-in-law are becoming more hostile toward each other.

The other woman is Ursa (short for Ursula), daughter of a formerly well-to-do merchant in Bergen, who’s married to the new Commissioner, Absalom Cornet.  Ursa is naive, lost, unsure of her position on the island and only gradually comes to realize what her husband is actually doing on the island, after she’s already begun to build relationships with various women, including Maren.

The author does a great job of recreating the environment.  If ever there was a book with a strong sense of place, this is it.  You can feel the cold, the meagerness of the houses. You can smell the slaughtered reindeer that hang in Ursa’s new home, you can see the isolation of the individual houses and the women who live inside them.  If you want to read a book that takes you out of your ordinary environment, you’ll definitely appreciate this.

The other strength of the book is the characters. It would be too easy for a modern author to turn all the characters, male and female, into stereotypes, spokespeople for various modern points of view. You’d have the staunchly feminist women coming into their own in the absence of men, you’d have the villainous male church officials, you’d have the Christian women being bigoted and narrow minded, you’d have the Sami characters as noble indigenous people being persecuted for no reasons.  It is to Hargrave’s credit that nobody, not even the most heinous person, comes across as a caricature. Even the people who infuriate you (and there are several) have foibles and weaknesses and are neither completely evil nor all-powerful, and our protagonists also have their moments of cowardice and denial. They’re all real people, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can see elements of these characters in modern men and women as well.

I’m not going to lie: this book is historically accurate (there’s a note at the end detailing the real life events that inspired it), and therefore it is not a fun, light read. People did terrible things during witch hysteria, and Hargrave doesn’t sugar coat any of it. However, despite the darkness and the violence of a lot of the book, there is a satisfying ending, not a happy one, but one that feels right for the characters and the time. 

If you’re interested in a historical novel that draws you in and won’t let you go, check out The Mercies.

THRILLER HOOKS TO GRAB YOU

How do you choose a thriller to read, especially if you aren’t familiar with the author already?  Well, the easiest way is to check out the hook. If the premise is something new and original, there’s a good chance that’s the book you’re going to want to read first.  Here are some new thrillers with (in my opinion) really intriguing premises, to spark your interest and send you to our shelves.

Amnesia is always fun, even though it’s almost a cliche by this point.  How’s this for a premise: woman wakes up in a hospital after having been struck by lightning (!!).  Her mother is dead. She was found down the street, unconscious. She can’t remember anything about her mother’s death. The police see her as a potential suspect.  How can she clear her name if she genuinely can’t remember, and someone else seems determined to keep her from remembering? That’s the premise of Behind Every Lie, by Christina McDonald.

Perfect Little Children, by Sophie Hannah, has a premise that’s practically guaranteed to make readers want to pick it up. Our protagonist has been estranged from her former best friend for 12 years.  Last time she saw her friend, the friend’s two kids were three and five years old. When she sees her friend and her friend’s two children now, the friend has aged. The children haven’t. How is that possible?

And while we’re on the subject of children, there’s The Only Child, by Mi-Ae Seo, in which a psychologist gets a chance to talk to a particularly horrible serial killer about his life, and at the same time her stepdaughter from her husband’s previous marriage appears in her life, showing some of the same behaviors and creepy approaches as the serial killer.  What actually happened to the child’s mother and grandparents? Why is the serial killer giving the psychologist advice about how to take care of this child?

Then there’s the question of what happens to someone who was kidnapped and rescued immediately, but still suffers the aftereffects of her abduction.  In the case of the protagonist of The Lucky One, by Lori Rader-Day, she spends her time trying to find clues to help families of other missing people find their loved ones.  Then one day she sees the face of her kidnapper on the website, and even though the picture is immediately removed, she’s on a mission to find him before he can get someone else.

Consider the case of a murder trial, which the prosecution considers an open and shut case, in which the defendant is acquitted because one juror believed in his innocence.  Then, ten years later, a documentary starts investigating that particular trial, with a focus on the one holdout juror who persuaded all the others not to convict. One of the jurors is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and the evidence seems to point to the holdout as the culprit.  Did she do it? Why would she? What really happened in that jury room a decade before? The Holdout, by Graham Moore, builds its suspense on that situation and those questions. 

If any or all of these sound like a fun read, head down to The Field Library and check out our new thrillers.  Who knows, maybe you’ll find a new author to follow as well.

 

FIELD OF MYSTERY BOOK GROUP DEBUT

Because apparently I don’t have enough book clubs to run (I run the Field Notes book group here at the library, and the Drum Hill book club at the Drum Hill Senior Living Center), and apparently I’m not reading enough books already, and because (this is absolutely true) there are few things I enjoy as much as reading and discussing books with other readers, I’m starting a new book group here at The Field Library, one focused on mysteries. We’re calling it the Field of Mystery (it’s not actually required that all names of programs play on the name of the library, but clearly we like to do that), and we’re having our first meeting on March 7 from 2 to 3 p.m.  Anyone who’s interested and in the area is more than welcome to come by and help us decide when the group will meet in the future.

Obviously I love mysteries (see my last post on The Death of Mrs. Westaway, if you have any doubts about that), and I’m so excited about all the different new mysteries and series that have been coming out, which I haven’t even had a chance to read yet.  Mysteries that create a version of Sherlock Holmes who’s African American and living in Los Angeles, or mysteries set in the outback of Australia, or historical mysteries set in the last days of the Raj in India, or any number of other unusual mysteries: who wouldn’t want to sample them all and maybe discover a new favorite author? 

I’ve already chosen the first book we’re going to read, IQ, by Joe Ide. I’ve written about this before, here.  Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ, may be a high school dropout and seem unassuming and modest, but he’s possessed of both a brilliant mind and a fierce desire to help people who need his services.  In his East Los Angeles neighborhood, there are many kinds of cases the police can’t or won’t solve, and people come to IQ for help, which he gives, on a sliding scale based on his clients’ ability to pay.  When he needs money, he takes on the case of a rap mogul whose life is being threatened, and IQ finds himself in deep and dangerous circumstances indeed. The book is the beginning of a series, so anyone who enjoys this character will have more to look forward to.

At our first meeting we’ll set the terms for the future: what kinds of mysteries people want to read, when people want to come, how the group is going to work.  Come and join us, and meet your fellow aficionados in the Peekskill area, and check out our first Field of Mystery book selection.

HOW GREAT MYSTERIES WORK: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY

When it comes to the classic mystery, the tried and true elements will never disappoint.  I’ve been a mystery reader for years, and at this point I can tell what’s going to make a good mystery, or a great one.  Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway hits all the right notes. It’s clever and absorbing, it plays fair and keeps me turning those pages feverishly.  It was a book I’d stay up late to read, a book I could barely put down for things like meals or work, and it’s a book I heartily recommend to anyone who’s a mystery fan or who just likes a well-written, entertaining book.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway was a very popular, bestselling book in 2018, but for some reason I didn’t pick it up myself until I offered it as an option to one of my book groups. They turned it down, but I gave myself the opportunity to read it, and I’m very glad I did.

What does a great mystery need?  First, it needs a compelling main character.  That was one of the problems I had with Gone Girl (which was more of a thriller than a mystery): I couldn’t stand either of the main characters and to this day I am deeply disappointed that the climax of the book wasn’t the two of them dying together in a fire (or some other catastrophe; I wasn’t trying to be limited here).  By contrast, Hal (full name Harriet) Westerby, the point of view character here, is a wonderful person to spend time with. She’s young enough to do stupid things but old enough to realize shortly afterwards how stupid they were.  She was brought up by an adored mother who supported the two of them by telling fortunes and reading Tarot cards on the seafront in Brighton, England.  When her mother dies in a car accident, Hal is thrown into an even more difficult situation as she tries to take over her mother’s role.  She foolishly borrows money from a loan shark, and then discovers she’s never going to be able to pay it back.  Now the loan shark is interested in collecting his money either in cash or by damaging her seriously.  Hal’s brave but not stupid; she needs a place to get away and she needs money to solve her problems, at least for the time being.   When she gets a letter from a lawyer telling her she’s named in the will of her grandmother, Mrs. Westaway, she knows it’s got to be a mistake.  Both her maternal grandparents are dead, and she never knew who her father was, so this couldn’t be his parents.  Still, she’s got a lot of skills cold-reading people who come to her for tarot readings, and she’s desperate, so she decides to go to this funeral and whatever happens afterward, in the hope she might be able to defraud these rich people long enough to get something for herself.

The next thing a good mystery needs is a twisty plot, and an author who plays fair, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway has both those things.  In fact, I would argue that a great mystery needs several questions the main character and the reader are trying to solve, and that all those questions need to twine around each other so that solving one brings you closer to understanding another.  Here we have several sets of questions: is Hal going to get away with pretending to be this Harriet Westaway?  Are her newfound “relatives”, or the lawyer, or the sinister housekeeper, going to figure her out?  Was there really a connection between her mother and this family, and if so, what was it?  What’s the connection between the writer of the diary entries that intercut the main narrative and Hal’s story?  What really happened to the missing Westaway sister?  Why did Mrs. Westaway set up her will the way she did?  All these are compelling questions that keep you reading, and all of these get answered by the end, in satisfying ways (I don’t have to tell you how annoying it is when an author pulls a solution out of thin air, and doesn’t bother to give you the clues which would have enabled you to guess at if for yourself).

Another mark of an excellent mystery is good secondary characters.  You can have mysteries where the bad people are fairly obvious, but it’s much more fun to read when any of the characters could be the villains.  Here we have a great cast of family members, all of whom have their quirks, most of whom (at least in the generation older than Hal’s) could be hiding something significant and dangerous, and each of whom acts, at one time or another, as if he’s guilty as sin.  Each of them also has moments of great compassion and even charm, and you’re as puzzled as Hal in trying to decide which, if any, of them is trying to kill her and why.  And that’s not even mentioning the sinister Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper, who would fit well in Rebecca, or the late Mrs. Westaway herself, who is revealed as a truly horrible human being (which raises the question of why she set up her will the way she did, and makes it more interesting yet).  As the plot develops and Hal spends more time with her supposed family, she begins to wonder about her mother as well, even though she would have said, before this, that she knew her mother very well, and indeed it turns out her late mother had some secrets of her own which Hal would have been better off knowing.

The setting, the old house where the Westaways grew up, a once beautiful and majestic building that is now falling into ruin, surrounded by woods and grounds leading to a dark and mysterious lake,  is exactly right, the sort of place where dark secrets would be kept for generations, and all kinds of gothic things might happen.

If you love mysteries and want to read one that’s done right, or if you want a good, suspenseful read with great characters and enough surprises to keep even the most jaded reader interested, then check out The Death of Mrs. Westaway, but make sure you give yourself plenty of time, because you’re not going to want to put it down till you’ve devoured it whole.

 

VICTORIAN HIGH ADVENTURE AND WEIRDNESS: THINGS IN JARS

Jess Kidd’s new book, Things in Jars, isn’t for everyone. The first two chapters introduce us to kidnappers, a strange, not quite human child who may or may not be a mermaid, and the ghost of a bare knuckle boxer, not to mention a dead woman and her baby walled up inside a church.  If this combination of characters makes you think this is going to be too weird for you, then this is not your kind of book. But if you’re intrigued, especially when you learn that the book is set in a very realistic (if somewhat bizarre) Victorian London, then get ready for a wild adventure that will keep you turning pages to find out what’s going to happen next, that twists and turns and surprises you with the way past and present join together and inform each other, and that delivers a good, satisfying ending.

The plot seems simple enough: Bridie (short for Bridget) Divine, a supposed widow who’s making her living as an unofficial private investigator, is called in by a lord to investigate the disappearance of his illegitimate daughter, whom he believes has been kidnapped. As Bridie starts looking into the matter, however, she discovers that most of the supposed facts she’s been given are lies, that Christabel, the child in question, may not be human at all, and that there are more dangers to everyone involved than the lord suggested to her at the start.  Her meeting with and cooperation with the aforementioned ghost (whose name is Ruby and who claims to have had a connection of some sort with Bridie, which she has to figure out) adds another dimension to her search, and the plot cuts back and forth between Bridie’s point of view of that of the kidnappers and their captive, Christabel (who is no helpless child, either).

All of this takes place in a Victorian London familiar to anyone who’s read Dickens, a London of high society, rich people collecting natural oddities and unnatural ones, but also of people living on the margins, finding legal and less legal ways to make ends meet. It’s so vivid you can practically smell it, and it feels like a real world, inhabited by real people, even if some of the characters aren’t living people at all.

The plot is fun, as you try to figure out what’s really going on along with Bridie, as you follow the sort of bedtime story one of the villains is telling Christabel and guess how much of that is true and fits in with the greater plot, and as the author gradually reveals Bridie’s past and ties it in to what she’s doing now.  The author plays fair with you, giving you most of the clues you need to figure things out by the end but still managing to surprise you from time to time.

But, fun as the plot is to follow, the real pleasure of the book is in the characters.  Bridie is a fully realized person, with all her quirks and failings, her underprivileged upbringing, the way she was shaped by her time in the house of a prominent doctor, her guilt over cases she didn’t manage to solve fast enough, and it’s a delight to spend time with her.  But she’s joined by other vivid and wonderful characters, from Ruby, the ghost (with a full fledged personality and past of his own), to Cora, Bridie’s maid and general all around muscle. The villains are Dickensian, and I mean that in the best possible way. Gideon Eames is the stuff nightmares are made of, and Mrs. Biddy is chilling and dangerous, and their associates and people they deal with are vivid and flawed and untrustworthy and fascinating.  

And then there are the supernatural elements of the book, most especially Christabel and what she really is (nothing like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or most other mermaids you’ve encountered in literature).  The way water and the creatures of water, from snails to newts to seagulls, react to her is both surprising and perfectly sensible in light of what she is.  Her background is explained, in a way, and she becomes more disturbing as you learn more about her and her true nature. The subtlety of Kidd’s description of the buried waterways of London rising because of Christabel is terrific, and if you don’t feel a bit clammy and damp after reading this book, you probably haven’t been paying attention.

So if you want a good read, in the sense of “they don’t write them like that anymore”, and you’re not daunted by a touch of the fantastic and supernatural, then hurry to pick up Things in Jars, and give yourself a block of time to dive into that Victorian London world.  

AND NEXT WE TAKE ON THE INTERNET ITSELF: MARCH 2020 FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

Thanks to the stalwarts of the Field Notes Book Group for the stimulating discussion we had on Saturday about our February book, The Invention of Wings.  Thanks to the members who brought actual pictures of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and books showing the real quilts made by slave women, adding depth and interest to our discussions.  We were so engrossed in talking about our February book that we barely had time to decide on our book for March, but we did, and it’s, as Monty Python used to say, “something completely different.”

The March book is Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, by Gretchen McCullough.  If you feel that the rules of English have been changing faster and faster because of the ubiquitous internet, not only aren’t you alone, you’re absolutely right.  McCullough, a linguist who has been studying the internet for some time, is here to analyze exactly how our informal spoken and written language has been changing, and how that’s a good thing (she’s going to have to work to convince me, I’ll say that right up front).  With chapters on such vital subjects as the rise of emojis, the importance of memes, and how all capitals became a way of shouting online, McCullough takes us through a world we think we know fairly well and lets us see it in a new way.

Copies will be available at the Circulation Desk through the month, so come on in and pick one up, and then join us on March 21 from 11 to 12:30 for coffee, snacks and lots of informal and formal language picking apart Because Internet.

WILD WEST LIBRARIANS: UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey, isn’t your usual dystopian novel.  It isn’t even your usual speculative fiction novel. But it IS a great deal of fun to read, and it’s only novella length, so if you’re in the mood for a quick visit to a less than great future, with shades of the Wild West and with heroic Librarians as your main characters, check out Upright Women Wanted.

The book is set in a somewhat dystopian future, but instead of the usual burned out cities and zombie ravaged countrysides, it takes place in the American Southwest.  People live in small towns and ranches, connected to each other by the Approved Materials brought to them by bands of roving Librarians in horse drawn carts. Mores are old-fashioned and enforced rigidly; possession of unapproved materials is punishable by death.

At the outset, our protagonist, Esther, has just stowed away on a Librarian’s wagon, running away from her father, the leader of the town, and the man her father intends for her to marry.  She’s been traumatized by watching the hanging of her best friend (more than just a friend) Beatriz, who had been found with unapproved materials. Freaked out by the death of a person she loved, aware of her own unapproved tendencies to love women rather than men, Esther hopes to be able to straighten her life out with the Librarians.  She figures that such hardworking, upright women will help her get over any tendencies she might have toward deviance, physical as well as political.

Boy, is she wrong.

It takes a while for Esther to figure out what the reader can see almost from the outset. Far from being the instruments of the state Esther assumes they are, these Librarians are playing a double game, transporting potentially dangerous materials under the guise of approved ones, and sometimes transporting dangerous people from one place to another as well.  Anyone who remembers how real life American librarians reacted to the requirements of the Patriot Act will have no problem imagining rebellious Librarians in the future. That they also feel no requirement to love in only approved ways just makes them even better role models for Esther.

When the Librarians pick up a trio of women to transport to Utah (and hey, points here for an unexpected twist, that Utah, of all places, turns out to be a hotbed of rebellion), they inadvertently take on more trouble than they anticipated.  Amity, one of those women, is a well known rebel with a price on her head, and the group is pursued by a vicious posse of men who will stop at nothing to get her. Though Amity has killed people in the past, and Esther is shocked at some of the things Amity is accused of doing, the two women find a connection, and Esther is willing to stake her life to protect Amity.

This is a western without the stereotyping and racism, an adventure story in which the men are only secondary characters, a romance, a vision of a possible future.  It’s full of action and humor and vivid characters, and also hope. I would love to see more of this world (the disadvantage of a novella in general) and these people, and I hope Gailey will give us more adventures of Esther and Cye and the other librarians, but even if she doesn’t, I had a lot of fun with the Upright Women here and heartily urge you to make their acquaintance, too.