TESTOSTERONE REX, AWARD WINNER

If you’ll recall, a month ago I wrote about the Royal Society Shortlist for the Science Book Prize for 2017( THE ROYAL SOCIETY SCIENCE BOOK PRIZE SHORTLIST AT THE FIELD LIBRARY), and about all the nominees we had on the shelves at The Field Library.  You might also recall that I was personally rooting for Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society, by Cordelia Fine, because I had read and loved the book myself.

I’m delighted to announce that the prize has been awarded for 2017, and that my personal favorite is in fact the winner.  Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society, which combines top notch scholarship with a keen sense of humor and humanism, has won some well-deserved recognition for what the Royal Society Judges referred to as its “ cracking critique of the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ hypothesis.”  

It’s well-written, well-researched, and funny to boot.  See what the experts saw, and take out your own copy today!

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DRUGS, ROBOTS AND PIRATES: WELCOME TO AUTONOMOUS

Imagine a future a hundred thirty years or so removed from ours, with certain trends we can already see in the present turning more serious and having more of an impact on our lives, things like corporate influence in people’s lives, the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, essential drugs getting more and more expensive, to the point where the majority of people can’t afford them. Then throw in piracy and robots and gender questions, and what do you have?  

You have Autonomous, a debut novel by Annalee Newitz, and even if you’re not big on science fiction in general and “hard” science fiction in particular, there are things that might tempt you into reading this novel.

Let’s start with Jack, the protagonist, who’s a pirate.  She’s a Robin Hood figure living and working in a submarine, reverse engineering the drugs that people need to stay alive, and giving them away to people who can’t afford the “legal” prices.  There’s obviously not a lot of money in that particular enterprise, so in order to make a living, she also reverse engineers other kinds of drugs and sells them.  The submarine is not just because pirates should live in or on the water, but because it keeps her out of the range of people who want to stop her (such as the pharmaceutical industry people).

Naturally something goes wrong.  There wouldn’t be a story if something didn’t go wrong.  In this case, Jack reverse engineers a productivity drug which is supposed to make people better workers. All well and good except for two things: first, it turns out to be incredibly addictive, and second, it turns out to work all too well, to the point where people are compelled to keep working endlessly until they crack or die.  Jack is horrified, as any normal person would be, to see the effects of her drug, and she determines to find a way to cure the problem she’s caused.

Meanwhile, the drug companies she’s taking advantage of want to stop her, and so they’ve hired an unlikely pair of hunters, Eliasz, a human military agent with mood issues, and Paladin, a robot.  Here’s where we get into the gender issues, as Eliasz and Paladin start developing romantic and sexual feelings for each other, except they have to first get past Eliasz’s refusal to allow himself feelings for someone he considers a male.  Paladin, who has never considered itself male or female, has to decide on its gender, which it does in an interesting way.

Action and adventure, thought-provoking ideas about where our society is going, fascinating characters: if you’re in the mood for some good speculative fiction, give Autonomous a read.

 

THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD LONGLIST FOR NONFICTION 2017 — HERE AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

The National Book Foundation has announced the long list of nominees for the Nonfiction Awards for 2017, the books which are, in their judgment, the best nonfiction books published in the last year, and The Field Library has six of the finalists here for you.  If you are interested in the state of nonfiction nowadays, come in and check out what the National Book Foundation has chosen as the best of the best.

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald (who already has a Pulitzer Prize under her belt), is the kind of big history book I personally am fascinated to read,  the kind of book that takes on a big subject and follows it through centuries.  In this case, the book traces the rise of the Evangelical religious movement from its birth as a rebellion against the Protestant Establishment in the Great Awakenings in the 18th and 19th centuries through its split between Northern and Southern sections around the time of the Civil War, through the efforts of Billy Graham to bring all the Protestant groups together in one big tent after World War II to the recent use of social issues by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to bring the white evangelicals into the arms of the Republican party.  By putting the movement in its historical context, FitzGerald allows the reader to understand where the movement has been and where it might be going in the future.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, by James Forman, Jr., takes a subject many people have been paying attention to in the last few years and gives a new perspective on that.  Forman is not only a Yale Law professor, but he was a former public defender, so he has both practical and academic expertise in the field of crime and punishment and the disproportionate effect certain policies have had on communities of color. Forman reminds us that when the drug policies which now send so many African Americans to jail were instituted, they were often supported by prominent members of the African American communities involved, who were trying to protect their communities from high crime and especially drug crimes, without realizing what the consequences would be.  Locking Up Our Own provides yet another, and valuable, way of looking at the criminal justice system and the people caught in its toils.

I consider myself well versed in American history, but I was startled to learn that in the 1920’s in this country, the richest group of people per capita were members of the Osage Native American tribe, due to the discovery of oil under their lands.  What happened to them is the subject of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, by David Grann, a book that reads like a murder mystery, only one that’s actually based on fact. Members of the tribe began dying under mysterious circumstances, and most people who tried to investigate were also killed.  The FBI itself was brought in to solve the cases, and failed ignominiously.  J. Edgar Hoover, the new director of the Bureau, turned in desperation to a former Texas Ranger who put together a group of investigators, including the only Native American in the Bureau, and, using the era’s best technology and techniques of detection, they began to uncover a conspiracy the likes of which would make people like John Grisham and James Patterson salivate.  

Naomi Klein is no stranger to awards or hard-hitting, bestselling nonfiction, so it’s no surprise that her latest book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, is on the longlist for the National Book Award.  She explains the rise of Trump and his policies as the logical extension of trends that have been bubbling beneath the world’s surface for decades, and connects his policies to worldwide trends in growing militarism, corporatism and nationalism that are dangerous to the world.  Because she’s not just a doomsayer, Klein also outlines a way of turning this situation from a danger to an opportunity to make the world better in what she categorizes as a time of need.  A thought-provoking book, whatever your politics.

While we’re on the subject of current politics, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, by Nancy MacLean, takes a deeper look at the origins of the Radical Right movement and traces how it’s entangled itself with the Republican Party establishment.  The Radical Right, by MacLean’s account, originated with one James McGill Buchanan, a Nobel Prize winning economist and bitter opponent of the Civil Rights movement in the South, who came up with brilliant, if nasty, methods of keeping power away from “undesirables.”  When Charles Koch, a multimillionaire, latched onto Buchanan’s ideas and supported them with vast amounts of money, the warping of our political system started for real. If you want to know how the wealthy manage to turn the system to their advantage against the rest of us, Democracy in Chains is an excellent place to start, as the National Book Foundation recognized by including it in the longlist for this year.

 

THE STRANGE WORLD OF THE BRAIN: OCTOBER’S FIELD NOTES CHOICE, THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT

Thanks again to everybody who came to the September meeting of the Field Notes Book Group and engaged in a lively discussion of Half Broke Horses.  At the end of the meeting, we voted on the book (and the date) for next month’s meeting.

We will be meeting on October 28 this time, which is not the usual third Saturday of the month.  This is because the annual Battle of the Books will be occurring on October 21, the third Saturday, and a couple of people associated with the group will be either attending or volunteering at the Battle of the Books.  

The book we will be reading in October is an oldie but goodie: the late great Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. For those of us who have already read this book, it’s a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the fantastic but very human stories of people caught in the midst of neurological disorders, told with Sacks’ powerful compassion and storytelling abilities.  And for people who have somehow missed this book the first time around, you’ve got a treat coming: fascinating accounts of people whose brains do not work the way normal people’s do, and how they have managed to live with and adapt to their different neurological conditions.  It’s the farthest thing from dry and clinical you could imagine, and we are likely to have another interesting discussion about the people and issues the book raises.

The books will be available at the circulation desk of The Field Library this week (September 18-24), so come in and pick up your copy, and then join us at the Gallery in the library on October 28, from 11 to 12:30, for coffee and refreshments and good discussion.  Hope to see you there!

 

INTRIGUE IN ELIZABETHAN ENGLAND: A COLUMN OF FIRE

In a way, it’s hard to remember that Ken Follett got his start writing thrillers (The Eye of the Needle was his breakthrough book back in 1978, and he won an Edgar Award for that as best novel), since his most recent books, all of which have been bestsellers, have been huge historical novels (most recently the Century Trilogy, following a cast of characters from World War I through World War II and into the 1980’s).  He first broke away from the thriller vein with a wonderful and absorbing book about the building of a cathedral in the middle ages, The Pillars of the Earth.  He followed this up, years later, with World Without End, set in the same English town but two centuries later, with the descendants of some of the characters from the first book.  Now, nine years after World Without End, Ken Follett has returned to that world with his newest book, A Column of Fire.  If you’re the sort of person (as I am) who loves to dive into a different world (whether it’s a real historical place or something created wholly from the author’s imagination) and live there for a while, then set aside some time for A Column of Fire (set aside a fair amount of time, since the book is 916 pages long).

We are back in Knightsbridge, home of the cathedral in Pillars, and scene of the action in World Without End, but now it’s two hundred years after the last book, and Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne of England, though not as securely as she would prefer.  The Reformation in England is still in its early days, and Catholics and Protestants are struggling for power, creating an almost insurmountable divide between people in the two groups. Ned Willard, the protagonist of A Column of Fire, is prevented from marrying the woman he loves because of religious differences, and instead he goes to work as a secret agent for Queen Elizabeth.  As violence erupts through the country and across Europe, Ned finds himself in the middle of endless intrigue and danger, both to himself and to the queen he’s pledged to protect.  Assassination plots, invasion plans and uprisings are common, and Elizabeth, to stay on the throne, needs to stay abreast of all the possible problems that could topple her reign and send England into civil war.  The spy system created by Elizabeth and her people became the basis for the British Secret Service in modern times.

Set in a tumultuous period of English history, with all the attention to detail and fascinating characters, historical and invented, A Column of Fire is the kind of book that draws you right in and makes you forget, for a while at least, what century this is.  If you’re a historical fiction fan, or a Tudor history buff, come in and pick up A Column of Fire.

MURDER AND MAYHEM IN EAST TEXAS: BLUEBIRD, BLUEBIRD

I’ve long contended that the best mysteries and thrillers are the ones that take you to a place you’re not familiar with and wouldn’t know anything about if you weren’t dropped deep into the area via the book.  Think of the works of Jo Nesbo and his view of Oslo, Norway, or the wonderful series of books involving Dr. Siri Paiboun in Cambodia, written by Colin Cotterill, and how the books take you to a different part of the world and let you absorb the atmosphere, for good and bad.  

Add to that list the new book by Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird, which is set in the exotic (to me, anyway) area of East Texas.

Like many a mystery, this one turns on a troubled investigator who’s gotten in trouble with his law enforcement job and is investigating a complicated and potentially dangerous case more or less on his own, but Darren Matthews, the protagonist of Bluebird, Bluebird, is not your typical noirish hero.

He’s an African American man who’s working as a Texas Ranger, a difficult job made more difficult by his race and his background. He’s been suspended from his job with the Rangers because he went out of his way to help a man whose granddaughter was being harassed by a member of the Texas Aryan Brotherhood, and the harasser was subsequently murdered, making Darren a potential witness in the case.  The last thing he needs is to go home to the small town of Lark, and involve himself in another messy, racially-tinged murder case, but that’s what he finds himself doing.

Two people, an African American lawyer from Chicago, with roots in the Lark area, and a white woman who’s a resident of Lark, are both found murdered in the bayou within days of each other. As Darren tries to find out what really happened and who’s responsible for the murders, he runs up against the power structure of the town, the local chapters of the Texas Aryan Brotherhood, and a lot of people who don’t want him around and especially don’t want him digging into the secrets of the town, and who aren’t afraid to make it clear that bad things could happen to him if he sticks around.  Darren’s sense of duty, his understanding of the way things are done in this town, and his stubborn desire to see justice done propel him through a very dangerous situation.

Atmospheric and filled with local detail, Bluebird, Bluebird is a suspenseful read that might, we hope, turn into the beginning of a series involving this intriguing character and his milieu.

 

MODERN DAY HAUNTED HOUSE: THE GRIP OF IT

To me, the classic, the ur haunted house story is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and if you have a taste for the classics of horror and you haven’t read that one yet, stop reading this and hurry to get your hands on it.  A good haunted house story relies not on stupid people doing things that no sensible person would consider doing (the “don’t go into the basement!” syndrome), but on an atmosphere built up of details, each one slightly off, but together creating a sense of inescapable dread.

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc, is a haunted house story that’s worthy of being compared to The Haunting of Hill House.  It’s short, as a good horror story should be, and it’s creepy and disturbing and it’s an altogether engrossing read.

The two main characters, Julie and James, are a young married couple moving out of the city to get away from their problems, mostly James’ gambling.  They go, as characters do in horror stories, to a place unfamiliar to them (though Julie’s friend from school, Connie, lives in the town and gets Julie a job with her company, so she’s not totally out on a stringer), in the hopes of making a new start.  They buy a house at the end of a cul de sac, with dark woods encroaching on the edges of their lawn and the sea beyond the woods, and few neighbors.

Almost as soon as they move in, the house starts getting to them.  The book is told in alternating chapters by Julie and James, and you have no trouble telling who is who.  I’m usually not a fan of the alternating viewpoint technique, but it works in this case because you find yourself wondering which one of them is plugged in, if either one of them is, and the house has different effects on both of them, as well as on their relationship (though none of the effects is good).

It’s the little details that get to you: the strange extra spaces of the house itself, the children playing murder games in the woods (but there are no children living in the neighborhood), the strange sensation of someone breathing on the couple as they’re sleeping (an experience shared by Julie’s visiting parents, so this is not just Julie and James losing it), strange writing on the walls, a journal found with writing that nobody can read, and hints of terrible things that may or may not have happened in this house in the past.  Then there are the bigger wrong things with the situation: the bruises that appear and grow on Julie’s body without any cause, the way the woods seem to move closer and closer to the house.  Their nearest neighbor, Rolf, is the stuff of nightmares: he’s unfriendly but is staring at them all the time, things appear from his house in their house and vice versa, James and Julie separately find themselves in Rolf’s house when they think they’re in their own, and Rolf’s disappearance, which brings the skeptical police into the orbit of the main characters.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to have everything explained by the end, this is not a book for you.  There is no easy explanation of what happened to the house, who Rolf was, why Julie and James were affected this way.  There are hints, though, and I personally find the suggestion of something terrible more frightening, more emotionally upsetting, than pages and pages of backstory “explaining” the otherwise inexplicable.

The Grip of It isn’t for everybody, but if you’re in the mood for a nice creepy haunted house story you won’t soon forget, give it a read.  You won’t be disappointed.

WOMEN IN TROUBLE: NEW THRILLERS

This week we have some new and exciting thrillers at The Field Library where women are the focus, as witnesses to crimes, as investigators of crimes, as potential or actual victims of crimes.

Christina Dodd’s new book, The Woman Who Couldn’t Scream, starts off with an intriguing (and somewhat disturbing) title. Merida Falcon, the protagonist, lost her voice due to a traumatic accident in her past.  After the incident, she was married to a rich, elderly man who treated her as a trophy wife, there to adorn his arm and do his bidding without question.  After nine years of marriage, her husband died, and she deliberately moved, changed her name and set out to reinvent herself, with the unspoken goal of finding and getting revenge on the man she’d loved who betrayed her.  Disappearing, though, isn’t as easy as she’d thought: it turns out that the sheriff of Virtue Falls, her new home, is someone Merida knew in her school days, and a former lover is searching for her.  More disturbing, someone is stalking and slashing women in the town to death, and she’s beginning to wonder whether this person might have something to do with her injuries, and if he or she is out to get her now, when she doesn’t know who, if anyone, she can trust.

Have you ever considered going for a hot-air balloon ride?  Well, if you have, you may change your mind after reading Dead Woman Walking, by Sharon Bolton.  The story begins with Jessica and her sister, Isabel, among a group of people taking a ride on a hot-air balloon, which Jessica chose as a special treat for her sister.  As they’re riding on the air currents, the people in the balloon witness a man on the ground below beating a woman and then shooting her.  Jessica actually takes pictures of the murderer, and he sees her doing so.  When the balloon crashes, killing everyone on board except Jessica, the thrills really begin.  The killer knows she’s still alive, and he wants to eliminate the last remaining witness. Both the police, investigating the crash, and the killer, responsible for the crash, are looking for Jessica, and she’s trying to keep alive, but can she actually trust anyone in these circumstances?  

Milly, the protagonist of Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land, also has some issues with trust, which are perfectly natural in the circumstances.  Milly’s mother is a serial killer.  Milly realized she was the only one who could stop her mother, by informing on her, and ultimately testifying against her at her trial.  For her protection, Milly is given a new name, a foster care placement with an affluent family, and a spot in an exclusive private school.  But things aren’t simple or straightforward even in these circumstances: her foster sister bullies her, one of her teachers betrays her trust, and her new friend tempts her to behave badly, and, with the trial coming up, Milly has to wrestle with her situation: is she bad by nature, or by nurture?  Does she have the ability to be a good person or is she in fact her mother’s daughter?

 

THE SECRET HISTORY OF A FAMILY: BEFORE WE WERE YOURS

One of the cool things about historical fiction is the way a well-written novel will bring to life a period or an aspect of history you might never have heard of otherwise.  Lisa Wingate’s new novel, Before We Were Yours, does just that, turning as it does on the real-life horrors of an infamous adoption scheme from Tennessee in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The book follows the stories of two different women, Rill, who starts out with her poor family living on a houseboat on the Mississippi River in 1939, and Avery, a successful lawyer living in present-day South Carolina, two people who wouldn’t seem to have anything in common, though of course they do (they wouldn’t both be in the book otherwise, right?).  

Rill is keeping an eye on her four younger siblings when her mother goes into labor and her father has to accompany her mother to a hospital on the mainland.  Then everything goes wrong for the family.  The children are dragged off their houseboat home by official-looking people and put in the Tennessee Children’s Home Society Orphanage, for what they are assured is a short stay until their parents can come and pick them up again.  This is a lie; they have fallen into the clutches of Georgia Tann, who sees the children who come into her custody as resources, to be stolen from their biological families and, if they’re desirable, sold to rich families.  If they’re not desirable, they are left to starve or to suffer other horrible kinds of abuse.  Rill is desperate to keep her family together, but she’s just a 12 year old herself.

Avery, in modern day America, goes home to Tennessee to help her Senator father with some health issues.  In the course of visiting a nursing home, she discovers a completely unrelated older woman who somehow has a picture of Avery’s grandmother.  Avery’s grandmother is slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s and her memory is going, so for Avery to find out what the connection is between her grandmother and this other woman, she’s going to have to work hard and dig deeply into whatever information is available.  The answers she finds, though, shake her to the core, making her question everything she thought she knew about her family and her background.

Based on actual heartbreaking records of the wrongs done to poor families by a sociopathic woman with connections to the state and the law, Before We Were Yours is a great example of how to do historical fiction right.

 

THRILLERS TO KEEP YOU UP AT NIGHT

As the seasons change, it’s time to settle down with new projects, including new books.  And what better category of book to start your fall than a page-turning thriller?  We have several new thrillers at The Field Library that should give you exactly the pulse-pounding entertainment you need.

Charlatans, the new thriller by Robin Cook, starts with a classic Robin Cook premise: Boston Memorial Hospital, known for its medical innovations, has some new operating rooms set up as hybrid “operating rooms of the future,” and everything is going well until a perfectly healthy patient dies under anesthesia during surgery.  Noah Rothauser, the new chief resident, suspects that Dr. William Mason, an egomaniacal surgeon, made a mistake during the surgery and has been trying to cover it up by pointing fingers at the anesthesiologist, Dr. Ava Lincoln. Then more people start dying under anesthesia, and Noah has to figure out what’s really going on, and the more he investigates, the more interesting (for certain values of interesting) Ava turns out to be, with her multiple online personae.  His own and the hospital’s reputation on the line, Noah needs to determine which doctor is lying and why, before more people die under the knife.

Air Force veteran and PTSD sufferer Clay Hickman has escaped from the mental institution where he was being treated, in T. Jefferson Parker’s The Room of White Fire, and the people who were taking care of Hickman are desperate to bring him back. They hire Roland Ford, a private investigator who used to be a police officer and then a Marine, who saw combat himself in Iraq, to find Hickman. Ford has problems of his own, including his mourning the recent death of his wife, but he’s fairly good at finding people in general, so he assumes this won’t be too difficult. Nor would it be, if the people he’s dealing with were telling him the truth, but it seems that everyone he talks to about Hickman has a different story, and it becomes clearer and clearer to Ford that Hickman knows something that some desperate people would do a great deal to keep him from revealing. Down the rabbit hole Ford goes, into a treacherous world of powerful and dangerous people who force him to question his most basic assumptions about truth, justice and the American Way.

Allison Brennan brings together two of her series characters in her newest book, Shattered.  Maxine Revere is a reporter who’s brought into a case when her friend’s wife has been charged with their son’s murder, and the friend begs Max to prove her innocence. Unfortunately, the police and district attorney believe they’ve got the right woman and won’t share any of their information with an investigative reporter.  Looking for another angle, Max starts digging around in some cold cases involving the deaths of three other young boys, which leads her to the father of Justin Stanton, one of those dead boys.  He’s willing to help Max but only if she’s working with FBI agent Lucy Kincaid, the dead boy’s aunt.  Neither Lucy nor Max is thrilled with the prospect of working with someone else, and someone else she barely knows, but they both, for their own reasons, want the truth about Justin’s death and the deaths of the other boys. As they struggle through the tissue of lies and misinformation about the past cases, they begin to realize that Justin’s killer may still be out there, and may have already chosen the next victim, and they may already be too late to save this one.

As anyone who’s been reading this blog (or listening to me rant at the Circulation desk at the library) knows, I am sick and tired of this trend of using “Girl” in the title of books to suggest a link to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. In the case of Erica Spindler’s new book, The Other Girl, though, I’m willing to let it slide, because the “girl” in the title really is an underage person, a teenager, in fact.  Miranda Rader is a police officer in Harmony, Louisiana, a well-respected, reliable person. But she had to work hard to earn that reputation and to live down her youthful reputation as a wild kid, often in trouble, and known to be a liar.  Kidnapped as a teenager, she escaped and tried to tell the police about the other girl kept captive in the same place, but nobody would believe her. Miranda has put that past behind her, she thinks, until she’s called onto the scene of a brutal murder of the son of a prominent professor in town, and discovers a clipping in his possession describing the night she escaped.  Then a police officer is found murdered, the same officer who took her statement that night, and evidence is found linking Miranda to the crimes.  The past, it seems, is coming after Miranda with a vengeance, and solving these murders will require her to face the things she’s long kept buried, including the nightmares of that other girl she left behind when she saved herself.

So set aside some time to get absorbed in a great thriller and come down to the library to pick up one of these hot new ones, and prepare to lose yourself in an exciting read.