A WOMAN IN THE PINKERTON AGENCY: GIRL IN DISGUISE

If you see the title Girl in Disguise, the new book by Greer MacAllister, you could be forgiven for assuming that it’s just another book with “girl” in the title, trying to cash in on the popularity of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.  But if you pass the book by because of that mistaken impression, you’d be depriving yourself of a very different kind of experience: the pleasure of reading a book based on a real life historical figure who had some pretty outrageous adventures.

GIRL IN DISGUISE COVER

Kate Warne, the protagonist of Girl in Disguise, was a real person who lived in the middle of the 19th century.  A widow with no money, no connections, and little education, Kate didn’t have a lot of prospects in 1856 Chicago, but what she lacked in money and polish she made up for in guts and intelligence.  She had the nerve to approach Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous detective agency, and persuade him that he needed to hire her as an operative, and she succeeded.  She had a skill for disguise and manipulation, and could make herself believable as all kinds of women, from Southern belles to prostitutes, from society ladies to servants, and because of her talents and her quick wits, she was able to infiltrate all aspects of Chicago society and track down criminals and would-be criminals with aplomb.

 

Naturally, as a woman in a man’s profession before and during the Civil War, Kate had to deal with her co-workers’ attitudes in addition to the dangers of her actual job, but the same nerve and intelligence that got her the job in the first place allowed her to deal with their sexism and their assumptions about what she could and couldn’t do.

 

This is the best kind of historical fiction: well-researched and imagined (unfortunately there aren’t many primary sources about Kate Warne, since many of the Pinkerton records were destroyed in the Chicago Fire, but the author used what was available and worked from there), and great fun to read. If you enjoyed Girl Waits with Gun, you’re going to love this one.

POLICING DURING THE TROUBLES: ADRIAN MCKINTY’S SEAN DUFFY NOVELS

Perhaps it’s too soon after St. Patrick’s Day and the celebration of all things Irish to bring up the country’s unfortunate and fairly recent history, the guerrilla war between paramilitary organizations associated with the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland, which the Irish, with characteristic understatement, refer to as the Troubles.  However, if you are interested in getting a sense of what it was like to live in Northern Ireland during that tempestuous period (which more or less ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Belfast agreement), but don’t want to delve into nonfiction, let me suggest a fascinating alternative: the series of novels by Adrian McKinty revolving around Sean Duffy, a Catholic police officer in Belfast, who not only has to deal with all the ordinary crimes police officers face all over the world, but also the suspicions of his fellow officers due to his religion and background, and the suspicion of his fellow Catholics due to his profession.  Sean is an interesting character, and he grows and develops over the series of books, the most recent of which has the (in my opinion too long) title of Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

police at the station and they don't look friendly cover

You could start with the most recent book, which finds Sean investigating a particularly bizarre murder: a man shot with a crossbow in front of his own home in 1988 Belfast.  As is the case with good police procedural series (such as the Harry Hole novels of Jo Nesbo, set in Norway), there is more going on than just the investigation of a single case, and here Sean has a lot on his plate: his relationship is falling apart, he’s in trouble (not for the first time in the series) with Internal Affairs, and there’s some unknown person or persons hunting him for reasons he doesn’t know.  As he digs into the murder case, he finds himself getting closer and closer to his own destruction.

 

But if you, like me, want to start a series at the beginning, you can read them in order: first, The Cold, Cold Ground, then I Hear the Sirens in the Street, then In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, then Gun Street Girl, then Rain Dogs and finally you can turn to the latest.  You won’t be disappointed, and by the end of the series you’ll probably feel you have a much better insight into what was really going on between the nationalists and the loyalists and the ordinary people caught between the paramilitary groups during the Troubles.

A TALE OF LOVECRAFT: THE NIGHT OCEAN

Someday, decades from now, someone is going to look through the catalog of the Field Library and wonder why there are so many novels about H. P. Lovecraft in our collection, and then they’re going to realize that those books were purchased during the time I was buying new fiction and it will all make sense.   

the night ocean cover

It’s no secret that I’m a fan, not only of H. P. Lovecraft himself, but of modern works that take a slanted or sidewards look at his work and his creations.  I’ve already reviewed Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, a wonderfully book that presented Lizzy Borden’s story in the context of Lovecraftian monsters infiltrating her home, and Carter and Lovecraft, a terrific nightmare of a book involving a descendant of H. P. Lovecraft himself, and there have been others I’ve added to the library’s collection (such as Lovecraft Country, for just one instance) for the fun of it and my love of the weird word Lovecraft created.  Now let’s welcome a new book, about Lovecraft himself and his somewhat bizarre life, called The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge.

 

The book starts in the present, with Charlie WIllett, a man obsessed by H. P. Lovecraft and in particular a strange period of the man’s life: those two months when he was living with a teenage male fan in Florida (this particular detail is factual; Lovecraft did, uncharacteristically, spend an extended period with this person).  Was this just friendship or was there something more going on between the two of them?  The young man, Robert Barlow, killed himself later on when his homosexuality was revealed, so there was certainly smoke, if not fire.  Charlie is on the trail of a legendary Lovecraft intimate diary, the Erotonomicon, its name a parody of the Necronomicon  which figures so heavily in Lovecraft’s work. Just when he believes he’s getting close to the truth about Lovecraft, he vanishes. The police think it’s suicide, but Charlie’s wife, Marina, who’s a psychiatrist, doesn’t believe it.  She sets out to follow her husband’s trail and find out what happened to him, and along the way she retraces the steps of Lovecraft himself and many others of his unusual circle of friends and acolytes.

 

This isn’t a biography of Lovecraft, but something subtler: a look at his life and the people he influenced, literarily and otherwise, and a study of love and deception, of the stories we believe and the stories that betray us.   

 

NEXT BOOK GROUP BOOK: THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Thanks to everybody who came to enjoy the vigorous and interesting discussion of What Alice Forgot at the last meeting of the Field Notes Book Group on March 18, 2017.  

the art of racing in the rain cover

Our next book, chosen by the group, is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  Narrated by Enzo, an extraordinary dog who’s on the verge of death, the book looks back at Enzo’s life with his master, Denny, a mechanic and aspiring race car driver, and all the other people in Denny’s life, including Denny’s wife and their daughter, Zoe.  Enzo is there when Denny meets his wife, Eve, and when Zoe is born at home.  He’s there for all the great moments of Denny’s life, and also all the painful ones, always aspiring to become good enough that in his next life he will be reincarnated as a man.  Be forewarned: the book is a tearjerker, though there are also funny aspects to it as well.

Come and pick up your copy of the book, which will be available at the library this week, and then join us for another entertaining discussion, complete with food and drink, here at the Field Library on April 15, 2017, from 11:00 to 12:30 at the Gallery.  

THE GHOST OF NEW YORK YET TO COME: NEW YORK 2140

NEW YORK 2140

One of the greatest gifts of speculative fiction is the ability of its best authors to extrapolate from the present to imagine, and bring to life, what could result from the continuation of present trends.  Kim Stanley Robinson, an acclaimed science fiction author who has won just about every award possible in the field, has taken on the issue of global climate change in his latest book, New York 2140, and presents us with an eye-opening view of what could happen to New York City in the aftermath of catastrophic oceanic rise brought about by climate change.

In New York 2140, coastal areas all over the world have been inundated by rising ocean waters, and New York City is no longer just one island, but a multitude of islands separated by canals, with only the highest portions of skyscrapers above the water.  It’s still New York City, still a melting pot filled with energy and life, but it’s a very different kind of city now.

The way Robinson shows us the new world is by taking us through one skyscraper and the people who live in it: police officers, lawyers, market traders, coders, building superintendents, internet stars, orphans, readers.  He twines their lives together and, through these characters, looks at animal extinctions, immigration, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and other issues all too relevant today. The diversity of the characters and the complexity of their interactions makes it feel very much like a portrait of New York City, or of a New York City that could be in the plausible future.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come if the visions shown him are of what will be or what might be.  One could ask the same question of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and hope the answer will be the same, and that we can change before New York 2140 becomes a portrait of reality.

 

A LITTLE IRISH CHARM AT THE FIELD: HIMSELF

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day (March 17, for those who have trouble keeping track), when everybody pretends to be Irish, a new book, set in the rural Irish countryside and filled with the sorts of characters you only find in Ireland, is coming to the Field Library.  

himself cover

Himself by Jess Kidd stars a classic rogue: a charmer and car thief by the name of Mahony who was found on the steps of an orphanage as a baby, and grew up in Dublin always believing that his mother, whom he never knew, gave him up voluntarily.  But then one day he receives an anonymous letter that suggests his mother might have been the victim of foul play and his abandonment might not have been quite as voluntary as he’d assumed.  

 

What else can he do?  He heads back to Mulderrig, the rural village of his birth, determined to get to the bottom of these allegations.  Naturally, his arrival in the village stirs up all kinds of trouble, because naturally there are secrets galore kept by the people who knew Mahony’s mother.  Since he’s still a stranger to the town, Mahoney needs the help of an insider to dig into the past. He chooses the one person guaranteed to infuriate both the politically conservative and the pious: Mrs. Cauley, a woman who’s not only a retired actress but an anarchist as well.  The investigation takes in the living and the dead (because in Mulderrig the dead can be as chatty as the living), leads to the wrath of the local priest, letter bombs, poisoned scones and the performance of the most controversial play in Irish history (and if you’re familiar with that particular play, you might be imagining certain parallels between its plot and the plot of this book).

 

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year with a book filled with the natural and the supernatural, mystery and folklore, characters galore and the quintessential Irish wit and love of language: Himself.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO? WAKING LIONS

waking lions cover

Dr. Eitan Green, in Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, believes he has it made.  He’s a successful neurosurgeon living in Israel, happily married to a police detective, with two fine sons.  Everything is going his way, until one night when he’s driving home from the hospital where he works, he’s tired and not paying attention, and he hits someone.  He gets out of the car and looks at the person he hit, a migrant from Eritrea in Africa.  It’s clear to him that the man is beyond help.  He should call the police, set the wheels of the system in motion but he makes a different decision: he can’t do anything for the man, so he just drives off.

 

Already we have a problem, right? We have a person who’s basically doing good work who has a moral lapse.  The fact that his wife is a police officer complicates things, but that’s not the worst of it, as it turns out: Dr. Green dropped his wallet at the scene of the crime, and the widow of the victim comes to Dr. Green and confronts him with it and her knowledge that he was responsible for the hit and run.

 

At this point, you’re thinking we’re in a blackmail story, and we sort of are, but it’s not the kind of blackmail you’re expecting.  The widow, Sikrit, does not want money from the doctor.  She demands something that’s ultimately more dangerous and more life-changing from him: that he provide medical services to the migrants living on the outskirts of the community who are, because of their status, are in desperate need of medical help and can’t get any on their own.

 

At the same time that Dr. Green is being drawn into a world he’s never had any contact with (hardly ever even thought about), his wife is investigating that hit and run accident, not realizing that she’s coming closer and closer to finding that her own husband is the guilty party.

 

Yes, the book has all the accouterments of a thriller, but there’s a lot more going on under the covers here: questions of individual morality and the larger morality of societies, responsibility and justice.  For a good, thought-provoking read, try Waking Lions.

PLAGUES AND PEOPLE: GET WELL SOON

While I don’t often write about nonfiction here, when I read a nonfiction book I really love, I just have to share the fun of it, and such a book is Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, by Jennifer Wright.  Now, I realize that title makes it sound like a real downer, though for those of us (like me) who are fascinated by outbreaks of terrible diseases there’s nothing wrong with a book about history’s worst plagues.  This book, though, is far from a downer, even if you’re not one of us, because the author has a knack for describing even the most horrible things with wit and vividness.

GET WELL SOON COVER

I confess, I put this book on hold by the title alone, but when I got it and realized who the author was, I was even more delighted to have it.  Jennifer Wright also wrote a very funny book called It Ended Badly, about famous breakups.  You might say that writing humorously about the horrible things people do to each other after a romantic breakup is easier than writing humorously about dreadful diseases, but I’d say it’s a close call, and Jennifer Wright’s ability to see the lighter side of even the most serious things is a real selling point for me.

This book starts with the decline of the Roman Empire, and specifically the Antonine Plague of C.E. 165 – 180, showing us how the ravages of that plague were responsible, at least partly, for the fall of the empire to the barbarians who’d been knocking at the gates of the empire for decades before that without effect (she’s very funny in describing the German efforts to defeat Roman legions).  She also starts with another theme of the book: the way a government responds to a plague can be as important as medical advances in limiting the worst effects of that plague.

Of course she hits all the famous plagues: the Black Death (one of my favorites) of the 14th century, the Great Influenza of 1918 (sometimes erroneously called the Spanish Flu, and you’ll learn from this book why it’s called the Spanish Flu and why that’s inaccurate), cholera, tuberculosis and smallpox.  She touches on some other diseases you might not think of as plagues, such as leprosy, syphilis and polio, and even (this is a little bit of a stretch, I admit, but she writes so well I’m willing to cut her some slack on this) lobotomies.  She even has a section toward the back where she keeps the pictures you might not otherwise want to see (they can be pretty gruesome), just to give everybody what they want. She goes into some detail, salacious and otherwise, about how the diseases were spread and what people did to stop them, and she is always fascinating and, yes, even funny.

If you’d like to read a slightly different perspective on western history, if you’re curious about different diseases of the past and the present and how people reacted to them (from the truly terrifying treatments for the Black Death to the compassionate treatment of the sufferers from St. Vitus’ dance), or if you’d just like a good read, check out Get Well Soon.  You won’t regret it.

CLOSE TO HOME: THRILLERS AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Sometimes the scariest things are the things closest to home, the things we encounter day by day and take for granted: the train we take to work, the troublesome sibling, your spouse and your relationship with him or her.  Some of these new thrillers at the Field Library build their thrills and scariness on those things we deal with on a regular basis.

most dangerous place cover

According to the statistics of the FBI, the most dangerous place for a woman in her 20’s is in a relationship with a man. In The Most Dangerous Place by James Grippando, that truism is about to be put to the test. Jack Swytek, the attorney protagonist of Grippando’s series, thinks he’s just meeting an old friend at the airport when his friend’s wife is arrested in front of the two of them, charged with conspiring to murder a man who raped her back in college. Of course Jack takes on Isabelle’s defense, for his friend’s sake as well as hers, but he soon discovers that the truth here is a lot more complicated than he thought it might be, and questions of guilt and innocence, victim and predator, revenge and self-defense, are nowhere near as clear as he hoped they would be in this twisty thriller.

dead letters cover

Dead Letters, by Caite Dolan-Leach, starts with a set of twins, alike in everything but the way they face the world. Ava, the protagonist, ran away from her family’s vineyard, her absent father, her mother sinking into dementia, her mercurial (to say the least) twin sister, and a romantic betrayal that broke her heart.  She started a whole new life in Paris, leaving upstate New York far behind, until she gets the news her twin sister, Zelda, died, burned to death in a fire.  Ava has to return to deal with the aftermath of Zelda’s death, which turns out not to be real at all, but another of the flamboyant Zelda’s games, a sort of hide and seek which forces Ava to think like her sister, follow her sister’s clues and wind her way into Zelda’s former life, and forces her to look again at their twisted history together and the things that drove her away in the first place.

i see you cover

If you’re the type of person who lives by a routine, taking the same train to work every day at the same time, following a pretty predictable schedule, you might want to check out I See You by Clare Mackintosh.  Her protagonist, Zoe Walker, lives that kind of predictable life: she takes the same train every day, waits at the same place on the platform, takes the same seat in the car when she catches the train.  Then one night she’s disturbed to see her own picture in a classified ad in the local paper, with a phone number and a website, findtheone.com.  All right, that’s creepy enough, but as days go by and other women’s pictures appear in that ad, and those women become victims of terrible crimes including rape and murder, Zoe becomes more and more frightened, and when she finds out, with the help of a police officer, what the purpose of those ads is, it becomes clearer to her that someone who knows her well is setting her up for a terrible fate.  It could be the person sitting opposite her on the train every day, watching and waiting for his move. For anyone who’s ever felt a little paranoid about the people around you, this is just the book to convince you you’re not crazy after all.

NEW LOOKS AT THE BAD GUYS OF HISTORY, AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Let’s just admit it: the good guys of history can be interesting enough, but the characters who really keep our interest, in historical fiction or actual history, are the villains, the bad guys, the people who lie and manipulate and affect history through their evil deeds.  I say this as someone with a degree in history: the horrible people are usually fascinating to read about.  Which is a good thing, because this week we have two new historical novels which are dedicated to some of the more infamous characters in western history.

the confessions of young nero cover

Starting in chronological order, we have the Roman Emperor Nero. He’s one of those people everybody has a vague knowledge of: the guy who fiddled while Rome burned, the one who threw the Christians to the lions, the man who had his own mother killed and also killed at least one of his wives, a true nephew of his uncle, the Emperor Caligula.  Of course there’s more to the story than that (as we fans of the books and television series I, Claudius know), and now Margaret George, an excellent historical novelist, brings us The Confessions of Young Nero, to fill in some of the blanks and correct, at least a little, the vague image of villainy the name Nero conjures up for most of us. As you can guess from the title, the book doesn’t follow Nero through his debauches and his bad behavior as emperor, but starts with Nero’s earliest childhood, and the forces that shaped him as a person, most especially his bizarre and twisted family.  In other circumstances, Nero might have been a cultured and even artistic person, a follower of Greek philosophy and literature, but since he was born into the Julio-Claudians, he never would have lasted if he’d given free rein to the better side of his nature. Between Caligula’s trying to drown Nero as a baby to Nero’s monstrous mother, Agrippina, scheming and poisoning her way to get Nero on the throne so she could rule through him, Nero learned the hard way that power is everything and whatever you have to do to get and keep that power is all right.  After reading this book, you probably won’t see Nero as a heroic figure, but at least you’ll have a better sense of where he came from and why he turned out the way he did.  And you’ll get to spend some time with some of the amazing and terrifying characters who populated the upper reaches of Imperial Rome.

in the name of the family cover

Moving much later in Italian history, we come to the Renaissance and the infamous Borgia family.  Sarah Dunant, another top-notch historical novelist, has written In the Name of the Family about this clan and the world they dominated, and if you enjoy intrigue and backstabbing and all the worst aspects of politics, you’re going to love the Borgias in this book. Rodrigo Borgia, now holding power as Pope Alexander VI, uses his illegitimate children as weapons to gain and keep power in Florence and beyond: Cesare, his son, could be the model for any number of super villains, with his arrogance, sadism, and the mercenary army he commands, and Lucrezia, the beautiful daughter who’s already been married off to create and cement alliances, and has already had one husband murdered by agents of her brother.  Add to this scheming family a young man who’s studying the ways of power, one Niccolo Machiavelli, who is especially interested in Cesare, and you have the makings of an explosive and thrilling look at one of the more fascinating periods of European history, with characters who are both larger than life and entirely based on real people.  Murder and manipulation, greed and ambition, conspiracy and betrayal: the stuff of a really exciting read.