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OCTOBER BOOKS BY BESTSELLING AUTHORS — COMING SOON!

The beginning of October brings all kinds of good books by bestselling authors.  Get ready to put them on hold (or take a chance and come in and find express copies on the shelves) and settle in for a great read.

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John Sandford has a new book starring Virgil Flowers, and, to everybody’s surprise, it doesn’t have Prey in the title. It’s called Escape Clause (and you wouldn’t have found it because you probably would have been looking for something with Prey in the title, admit it!), and Virgil has his hands full in this one.  On one hand, two Siberian tigers have disappeared from the Minnesota Zoo, and the authorities are afraid the animals have been stolen for their organs, which are prized in Chinese medicine.  On the other, more personal hand, Virgil’s serious relationship with his girlfriend, Frankie, is jeopardized when Frankie’s sister moves in and starts making the moves on Virgil.  As the two challenges intertwine, Virgil has all he can do to keep his head above water.

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Naturally, James Patterson also has a new book coming out, this one the latest in his Private series, called Missing. Eliza Moss comes to the agency looking for information about her disappeared father, who happened to be the CEO of a high-profile research company.  It should be an easy enough matter, except that it’s not just the man himself who’s disappeared: there don’t seem to be any traces of his past anywhere, as if he had never existed at all.  What kind of people could make someone disappear that completely, and why?  Private isn’t the only one looking for this man, either: there are ruthless people who want to find him and other ruthless people who want to destroy him altogether, and the question becomes, who’s going to get to him first.

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Two by Two is the newest book by Nicholas Sparks, and, like all Nicholas Sparks books, it explores the nature of love and relationships with tear-jerking reality. Our protagonist is Russell Green, a 32 year old man who seems, at the beginning of the book, to have it all: a successful career as an ad executive, a beautiful house in Raleigh, North Carolina, a wonderful wife and a lovable six year old daughter.  Below this shining surface, however, there are serious fault lines Russell is ignoring, and when the crash comes he is utterly devastated, left without job or beloved wife, trying to pick up the pieces as a single parent. His new life is both terrifying and emotionally fulfilling, testing him beyond anything he ever imagined.

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And while we’re on the subject of emotional books, Jodi Picoult is coming out with a new book in October as well, and, like many of her books (especially her most recent, The Storyteller), it turns on issues in the news, showing the human costs of political questions.  In this book, a white supremacist couple comes to a hospital for the birth of their child, but insists that Ruth, a black nurse, not be allowed to touch their baby.  Ruth is reassigned and a white nurse handles the delivery.  Later, when the baby goes into cardiac distress when Ruth is on duty, she hesitates before performing CPR.  When tragedy occurs, Ruth is charged criminally, and is assigned a white public defender who really doesn’t want to bring race into the case.  As the two people prepare for what is going to be a bruising, painful trial, they begin to learn more about each other’s lives, and the deeper issues facing them. Expect a heartfelt book that keeps you reading through the night, with characters you care about.  

SEPTEMBER HISTORICAL MYSTERIES

Check out some of the new historical mysteries at the Field this month, which combine the intricate problem-solving of a good mystery with the rich details of a good historical novel.

 

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If you read and enjoyed Girl Waits with Gun, Amy Stewart’s novel based on the real life exploits of one of the first female deputy sheriffs, then you will be delighted to hear that there’s a sequel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, which follows the continuing adventures of Constance Kopp as she breaks barriers for women crime fighters with the aid of her indomitable sisters, Norma and Fleurette.  In this novel, Constance’s position is threatened by the appearance of a German-speaking con man in the period just prior to America’s entry into World War I, and so she springs into action, tracking him down through New York City as well as her native Bergen County, New Jersey, and once again dealing with crime, politics, sexist attitudes (though they wouldn’t have been called that at the time), the ambitions and intrigues of her sisters and the fascinating development of the relationship between Constance and the (married) county sheriff, Heath.  For a vivid and fun look at a period often ignored in American history, you could hardly do better than to enter the company of Constance Kopp in this series.

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Going back a little farther in time, and skipping across the ocean to Great Britain, let us introduce you to Laetitia Rodd, the protagonist of Kate Saunders’ new book, The Secrets of Wishtide.  Laetitia is the 52 year old widow of an archdeacon, living fairly quietly in Hampstead with her landlady, Mrs. Benson (who boasts that at one time she rented to John Keats, the poet!).  She’s also a highly discreet private investigator, getting her cases from her barrister brother in nearby Highgate and solving them with a mixture of her native intelligence, highly honed discretion and her perfect cover as a grieving widow.  When her brother asks her to look into the matter of the son of a highly respected family with an inappropriate love interest, Laetitia goes undercover as a governess for the family, and is soon indispensable to them.  The mystery deepens as she begins to see more and more of the family’s lives and secrets, and she realizes this family has more to hide than most people, and what looked like a simple case becomes anything but.  If you enjoy reading about the Victorian world and getting a good look at what it was like to be a woman in that era, you’ll get a kick out of Laetitia and look forward to upcoming books in this series.

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Sometimes a historical mystery can shed light on present day issues and problems, and Thomas Mullen’s Darktown is one of those mysteries.  It’s a police procedural set in the city of Atlanta in the post WWII, pre-Civil Rights era, when a white police department is forced by pressure from above to hire black officers.  But, the time and place being what they are, these black officers are in no way treated like their white colleagues: they can’t drive squad cars, they can’t enter the station through the front door, they can’t make an arrest unless there is a white officer with them.  Trying to do a good job as a police officer under these circumstances is extremely difficult, and when a black woman is beaten to death after having been last seen in a car with a white Atlanta police officer, two black officers from very different backgrounds risk everything they’ve built of their lives to investigate and solve her murder.  

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SALT, SUGAR, FAT : THE NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP READING

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The Field Notes Book Group has chosen our book for our next meeting, and it’s a doozy: Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss.  The author won a Pulitzer Prize for his food writing (he’s the guy who uncovered the “pink slime” that was used in hamburgers in a lot of fast food restaurants), and this particular book won the James Beard Foundation Award for Writing and Literature.  Are Americans becoming more obese because we’re lazy and too stupid to choose proper, healthy foods?  Are we consuming so much sugar and cheese and vast amounts of salt because we want to?  Or are we being cleverly manipulated into overeating and eating the wrong things because the large food companies have deliberately taken advantage of our biological proclivities to sneak extra sugar and salt and fat into our foods?  Moss investigates the history of how our food has become less and less healthy and how we’re becoming more and more obese and the way the biggest food companies have dodged accountability for their role in Americans’ declining health in an eye-opener of a book.

Copies will be on hold at the Field Library, and we will be meeting on Saturday, October 15, from 11 to 12:30 at the Library gallery.  Coffee and donuts will be provided, though, in the circumstances, people might want to skip the donuts.  Come and enjoy a provocative read and what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

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TRAVELING THROUGH TIME VIA HISTORICAL NOVELS AT THE FIELD

Interested in a little trip through the past this month?  You have your choice of places and periods to explore, from the hellish experiences of twins in Auschwitz to the 1850’s in Ireland to a hotel attic in Moscow in the 1920’s to the lives of Chinese-Americans from the 19th century to the present day.

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Let’s start with the earliest period, rural Ireland in the 1850’s, the setting of Emma Donoghue’s new book, The Wonder.  Donoghue, the author of Room, is not only a best-selling author but one who’s been recognized with numerous award nominations, and she knows how to set the scene and create memorable characters.  In The Wonder, a young girl has been on a fast for a number of weeks, subsisting, according to her and her family, only on “manna from heaven.”  She’s become something of an international sensation, her survival an apparent miracle, and tourists as well as journalists crowd to her family’s cottage to witness her miraculous condition.  Not everybody is convinced that there’s something supernatural going on, however, and Lib, a young nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is sent to the cottage to watch the young girl for a couple of weeks to discover whether she’s a fraud or the genuine article. The more Lib looks into the matter, the more she worries about the child’s deteriorating health, and the more she suspects that she’s not really witnessing an expression of faith but a murder in slow motion.

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Leaving Ireland for Moscow, we turn to Amor Towles’ new book, A Gentleman in Moscow.  Count Alexander Rostov, the protagonist of the book, is an aristocrat, a gentleman, a man who has never had to work a day in his life, like many of his predecessors.  It’s just his bad luck that he happened to live in the time of the Russian Revolution.  He is judged to be an unrepentant aristocrat by one of the Bolshevik tribunals in the 1920’s, and is sentenced to virtual imprisonment in the Metropol, a grand hotel in Moscow across the street from the Kremlin.  He’s lucky at that, considering the fates of many other aristocrats in Russia in that era, though he doesn’t particularly feel fortunate to be living in a small attic room, cut off from all the things he thought were necessary for life, and placed in a position to witness some of the most tumultuous years of Russian history.  Strangely enough, as his physical circumstances shrink, his emotional ones broaden.  A Gentleman in Moscow is history as revealed through the particular vision of a fascinating man.

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The horrors of the Nazi concentration camps are the setting of Mischling, by Affinity Konar, and in particular “Mengele’s Zoo” in Auschwitz, where the infamous Dr. Mengele conducted his experiments on identical twins.  Pearl and Stasha Zagorski are a pair of identical twins taken to the camp with their mother and grandmother, and are immediately chosen for Mengele’s experiments.  In some respects they are privileged over other inmates, but in other respects their lives are more gruesome, and when Pearl disappears from the camp, Stasha mourns but refuses to give up hope that her other half might still be alive somewhere.  The camp is liberated by the Red Army in 1945, and Stasha joins up with Feliks, a boy seeking revenge for the loss of his twin, to find their way through the devastation of post-war Poland, seeking justice for all that Mengele did to them and to those like them.  

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Finally, we turn to a multigenerational novel about the experience of Chinese Americans over the last century in The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies,  The book tells the stories of four different Chinese Americans in four different eras and illuminates how family, one of the pillars of Chinese society, became shattered and changed as a result of immigration to America, and how a new kind of Chinese family developed in the new world, based on different ties.  From a railroad baron’s valet who inadvertently causes an explosion in Chinese labor in America to an early Chinese American movie star through the victim of a hate crime that ignites outrage in the Asian American community to a biracial couple heading to China to adopt an orphan, The Fortunes brings history to vivid life.

 

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THE MAGIC OF SUMMERLONG

As everybody knows (I hope!),I’m responsible for buying all the new hardcover and trade paperback fiction at the Field Library, which is a part of my job I absolutely love.  There are some books I pretty much have to buy — the bestsellers, the books by the authors I know our patrons follow, the big books that everybody is likely to be talking about this season — but then there are some books I buy because I really love the author or the series myself and can’t bear to think that our library wouldn’t have a copy of these books.

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The most recent book of that sort is Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle. I have been crazy about this man’s writing since I was 12 and bought a paperback copy of his book, The Last Unicorn (and if you’ve never read that book, or you’ve only seen the movie, stop reading this post right now and run out and get your hands on a copy of the book.  It’s that wonderful).  He’s won all kinds of awards — the Hugo, the Nebula — because his writing is gorgeous, his characters vivid, his takes on traditional fantasy notions unique and beautiful.

Summerlong is his first book in ten years (that’s a long time to wait), and it’s well worth the wait.  If you’ve never read his work before, this would be a great place to start (though I still highly recommend The Last Unicorn and also The Folk of the Air, among others).

In a very real place, Gardner Island off the coast of Washington State, there live three very real people: Abe, a retired college professor working on a book about Wat Tyler and the Peasant Rebellion of the 14th century, Joanna, a senior flight attendant taking a regular route between Seattle and Chicago, and Lily, Joanna’s twenty-something lesbian daughter, working at a local radio station. Joanna and Abe have been lovers for more than 20 years, and they’ve worked out a stable relationship, both with each other and with the prickly Lily. They have their routines and their favorite places.  One of their favorite places is a particular diner in town, and there one night they see a new waitress, beautiful and mysterious, a young woman named Lioness who looks as if she stepped out of a Renaissance painting.  

Lioness comes to live in the garage of Abe’s house, and her odd life begins to intertwine with those of our main characters.  She seems to have special powers, the ability to communicate with Orcas and to bring flowers out of the earth out of season, in addition to the nearly hypnotic attraction she exerts on most of the people around her.  While she’s staying on Gardner Island, the weather becomes extraordinarily beautiful, as if it’s always spring and early summer, with unheard-of consistency (especially in the Northwest Pacific area), and even when it’s fall on nearby islands, it’s still the most balmy and gorgeous season where she’s living.  As long as Lioness is there, the people closest to her start to discover new or buried aspects of their personalities, and their lives begin to change in unexpected ways.

But there’s more to Lioness than the brilliant weather and the warmth of her relations with other people.  She’s running away from someone, dropping the rare hint here and there about what she’s afraid of and why she’s running, and that other someone knows where she is and is coming to get her, and ordinary people like Abe and Joanna and Lily will get caught in the maelstrom.

I don’t want to tell more of the plot, not because it’s one of those plots that depends on a surprise twist or two, but because one of the pleasures of this book is discovering what’s really going on as the characters themselves do, through meetings on ferries and get-togethers at  barbecues and quiet moments of revelation.

Beagle is a master at creating an atmosphere grounded in reality, with details of cars and driveways and kayaks and diners, where strange and uncanny things can happen believably.  Lioness is clearly something other than a normal young woman, and her fear is vivid and understandable even before we know what she’s actually afraid of, but you witness her power and her gentleness and the effect she has on everyone around her.  When her true identity is revealed, you’re not really surprised: it feels right, given everything you’ve already learned about her and her world.

Summerlong is haunting and lovely, filled with fascinating characters and delightful prose.  Read it and savor the work of a brilliant writer.

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QUIRKY NEW TAKES ON OLD TALES FOR SEPTEMBER

For September, if you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, a little quirky, you have an interesting choice: you could read a book narrated by an unborn child, or a book about a person who’s unwittingly made a deal with the devil. Or, of course, you could read both and really go for a wild ride.

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Consider a take-off on the plot of Hamlet: a woman has an affair with her husband’s brother and plots with that brother to murder her husband.  In Hamlet, of course, the title character is the woman’s son who learns of the plot from his father’s ghost and then spends most of the play agonizing about what he should do with this knowledge.  Now suppose that instead of having a young adult faced with the knowledge of his mother’s and uncle’s ill-deeds, the witness is a soon-to-be born child in his mother’s womb.  That may sound like a gimmick and a very risky gimmick at that, and in the hands of most authors, this would be a recipe for disaster.  However, Nutshell, the book in question, is written by Ian McEwan, the author of (among other things) Atonement (winner of the National Book Critics Circle award) and Amsterdam (winner of the Booker prize), and so the odds are really good that this will not feel like a gimmick but a fascinating twist on a well-known and often-explored plot, and certainly worth a try.

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The idea of someone’s making a deal with the devil is another of those tropes that gets taken out for a spin over and over again, from the days of Faust  and The Devil and Daniel Webster through 2016 ‘s The Devil You Know.  You would think there’s not much new that can be done with the idea, but that’s because you haven’t read Dead Souls, by J. Lincoln Fenn, yet.  The clever idea here is to take a modern young woman and put her in the place of Faust or any other victim of the devil.  Fiona Quinn, our protagonist, is a modern young woman who believes her boyfriend might be cheating on her.  When she meets some guy in a bar who calls himself Scratch and claims to be the devil, she’s as skeptical as any sensible person would be. In fact, she thinks this is some kind of new line he’s trying out, even when he offers her one wish in exchange for her immortal soul.  Still thinking it’s some kind of joke, she asks for invisibility, and Scratch tells her she owes him a favor which he will collect on sometime in the future.  If she doesn’t do what he asks, she’s his for eternity. She  thinks nothing more of the whole matter, until she sobers up, gets her wish and realizes, to her horror, that she was in fact dealing with the real devil, and that at any moment she might be called on to do just about anything, with results she can’t even imagine.  Is the devil going to call in his favor?  What would it be?  Can she get out of the promise she unwittingly made?  With wit and imagination, Fenn takes us to the dark side with Fiona and Scratch, a ride you’ll enjoy taking.

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SEPTEMBER HISTORICAL FICTION: ASSASSINATIONS AND TEA PLANTATIONS

As the seasons begin to change, check out the newest historical fiction at the Field Library and take a quick vacation to the end of the American Civil War and the Roaring Twenties in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon).

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You wouldn’t think there’s anything new to say about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, but you would be reckoning without the skill of Jennifer Chiaverini, whose previous bestselling historical novels include Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival, Mrs. Grant and Madame Jule, have also explored the period during and just after the American Civil War.  Her newest book, Fates and Traitors, takes the somewhat daring and unusual task of looking at the life of John Wilkes Booth, trying to understand him and his terrible actions, and, as is her wont in her historical novels, she looks at Booth through other people, the people who were connected to him during his life.  The book starts with the part everybody knows: the fateful shots fired at Ford’s Theater which killed Lincoln, but then backtracks, looking at Booth’s upbringing and his life before the assassination, focusing on his relationships with four important women: his mother (a former flower girl at Covent Garden in London), his sister, Asia (his confidant in many regards), his lover, Lucy Lambert Hale (the daughter of a Senator), and his co-conspirator Mary Surratt (who ended up being hanged for her role in the plot).  Will you end up sympathizing with Booth?  Probably not.  Will you be fascinated by his story and understand him better after reading this book?  Quite probably.  

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For a peek at a different historical period in a very different place, let’s turn to The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jeffries.  Gwendoline, a naive young Englishwoman in the 1920’s, marries a widowed tea plantation owner in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  Traveling to a foreign country where she knows no one but her somewhat distant husband, and where the customs, especially ones having to do with the divide between the white planters and the natives who work on the plantations, are very strange to her, Gwendoline soldiers on through her pregnancy and the arrival of her husband’s interfering sister, Verity, but questions start to arise about her husband’s past, more specifically the real cause of death of his first wife.  It’s not just a clever reworking of the famous Rebecca, but a look at the realities of colonial life, the clashes between British overlords and Ceylonese workers who are tired of being treated like subhumans, a mystery to be unraveled and a vivid picture of a place and time most of us know very little about.

 

Hero or Villain? The Iron Man of Africa (Henry Stanley)

EVERFAIR: THE OTHER SIDE OF HEART OF DARKNESS

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Sometimes when an author combines a couple of genres, the result can be kind of a mess, not quite right for either genre (I would put Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in that category), but sometimes the intersection between two genres will illuminate its subject in a way that a single genre book wouldn’t.  In this category is Everfair, by Nisi Shawl, which takes a look at the 19th century development of the Congo by King Leopold II.  The book is a steampunk alternate history, and wholly fascinating.

If the reference to the Congo and King Leopold rings a dim bell for you, it may be because you read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or because you read or heard about the book King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (which, by the way, we have in the Field Library, and which won two historical writing prizes when it first came out).  Briefly, in real life the exploitation and conquest of the Congo between 1885 and 1908 was a horrifying series of atrocities as a result of which approximately half the preexisting population of the country was killed.

Nisi Shawl takes this deeply shameful and atrocious history and asks a “what if” question (the heart of all good speculative fiction, in my opinion): what if the natives of the Congo weren’t as technologically limited as compared to the Europeans of the time?  What if, to be more specific, they had acquired or developed steam technology by the time the Belgians came to exploit the country?  Just the thought of that is enough to make me want to read the book and hope for a happier ending than the human rights horror the actual exploitation of the Congo turned out to be.

The premise is that a group of British Fabians (socialists of a sort) join forces with a group of African American missionaries to purchase land in the Congo from King Leopold, which they call Everfair and use as a sanctuary for native people and also for former slaves returning from the American South and any Africans who were being mistreated.  Surrounded by the forces creating the hell of the Belgian Congo, the people of Everfair have a terrific fight on their hands just to survive, let alone thrive, but they’re determined to govern themselves, invent new technology, and make a world for themselves that’s worth living in.  The book is told from a multiplicity of voices, including many historically silenced: Africans as well as Europeans, East Asians and African Americans, all living in complex relationships with each other and with the forces of history.

Both a way of understanding what actually happened in the Congo and a way of imagining how it could have gone differently, Everfair is a book to savor.

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FLORIDA BIZARRE: CARL HIAASEN STRIKES AGAIN WITH RAZOR GIRL

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Carl Hiaasen’s new book, Razor Girl, will be available at the Field Library as of September 6.

If you’re a fan of Hiaasen’s work, that sentence is all you need; you will immediately put the book on hold (but you’ll get it after I do, because I already have it on hold!) and wait with bated breath for the warped delight of a new book by Hiaasen.

If, however, you are unfamiliar with the Florida grotesquerie that is the subject of Hiaasen’s books, allow me to introduce you to a funny, if definitely warped, writer who will make it impossible for you to ever look at Florida in quite the same way again.

It’s hard to describe what that special something is about Hiaasen.  It’s certainly his characters, who range from obituary writers to mafiosi to health inspectors to undercover stunt doubles for wasted pop stars to former governors of Florida who have gone to ground in the Everglades.  Quirky isn’t even the beginning of the description of these people, all of whom are vivid and full of life (even if you’re glad they’re not living in your neighborhood).  But it’s also his twisted plots, the intertwining of disparate, equally bizarre and warped, goings on to come together in a satisfying conclusion.

He also writes nonfiction (most recently Dance of the Reptiles in 2014) and children’s and young adult books (Hoot, Scat, Chomp and Flush), and if you enjoy his unique sensibility, by all means give them a try as well.  But he won my heart with his adult novels.

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One of my favorites, which I often recommend to people, is Skinny Dip. A corrupt marine biologist (yes, they do exist, especially in Hiaasen’s world) is falsifying data so his employer can continue to dump fertilizer illegally in the Everglades.  When he thinks his wife is onto him, he tries to kill her by pushing her overboard off a cruise ship in the Atlantic, only she doesn’t drown. Instead, she manages to ride to shore on a bale of marijuana, and meets up with a former cop.  Since her husband not only tried to kill her but thinks he succeeded, the wife, Joey, joins with the ex cop to keep her existence secret and to mess with her husband’s head, gaslighting him and making him seem less and less stable to the dangerous people he’s working for. I won’t spoil the book by telling you more about the plot, but trust me, it’s hysterical, a roller coaster ride you can’t stop reading.

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His last book, Bad Monkey, starred Andrew Yancy, a former Miami police officer who lost his job because, in a fit of passion, he attacked his then lover’s new lover with a Dust Buster mini vacuum cleaner.  As the book opens, Yancy is working as a health inspector, a job that makes him sick (you, too, will have trouble looking at restaurants in the same way after reading about some of his encounters), but hopes to move to the Sheriff’s office if he can solve a murder case arising from the presence of a severed arm in his freezer (it’s complicated). At the same time, he’s sabotaging the attempts of his jerk of a neighbor to sell the neighbor’s house (in bizarrely inventive ways), and he finds himself involved with the bad monkey of the title, a monkey formerly starring in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, as well as a voodoo queen with homicidal tendencies, and a kinky medical examiner who’s stolen his heart.

It’s a good sign that Yancy shows up in Hiaasen’s newest book, Razor Girl, because he’s such a great character, in a book full of interesting characters.  Our protagonist, Lane Coleman, represents Buck Nance, an accordionist who’s rebranding himself as the star of a redneck reality show.  Lane’s car is rear-ended by a car driven by the notorious Merry Mansfield, the Razor Girl of the title, and the seeming accident is really part of a scam she’s running. Things spiral out of control quickly, as you would expect when you have characters like a New York mafiosi, a man who runs a company called Sedimental Journeys, which steals sand from one beach to put on another that’s eroding, and giant Gambian rats infesting the restaurants Yancy is continuing to inspect. Yancy lives in hope that he will solve a murder and return to being a detective, and possibly the Razor Girl will be the key to getting him there. Naturally, a description like this is wholly inadequate to convey the fun and madness of Carl Hiaasen firing on all cylinders.  The only thing to do is get the book and read it for yourself.