A WILD RIDE: EAT THE RICH

Sarah Gailey obviously can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.  As we know, I love her The Echo WifeUpright Women Wanted and her most recent, Just Like Home, so when I discovered her graphic novel, Eat the Rich, naturally I had to read it.

It is definitely a Sarah Gailey book, complete with her dark and even twisted characters and plots.  The art, which is by Pius Bak, reminds me of those old EC horror comics, with plenty of blood and suggestions of gore.  Yes, it’s that kind of book.

The plot starts out straightforwardly.  Our protagonist, Joey, is going with her boyfriend, Astor, to meet his family at their “beach house”.  His family and the families they hang around with are ridiculously rich, the “beach house” being more like a mansion and nothing like what Joey expected.  There’s some sense from the outset that things aren’t right in this world of the rich: Astor is a recovering alcoholic who seems to be afraid of his family, and the servants (so many servants!) seem kind of wary of interacting with Joey.  

But there’s more going on than just the difficulties of a normal person adjusting to the world of the super rich, as Joey discovers after a “retirement party” for one of the servants, when she witnesses exactly what happens to the servants who retire, and exactly what keeps these rich people going.  And here’s where Gailey sharpens her knives (metaphorically speaking) and takes aim at our system in which people are so desperate for the essentials of life that they’ll make devil’s bargains to stay afloat, and other people are willing and even eager to take advantage of that desperation.

The characters are vivid and, as is always the case with Sarah Gailey, multidimensional, especially the female characters (Astor’s stepmother is particularly interesting, as is Petal, the Nanny for the young child).  While the premise is pretty dark (read: VERY dark), there’s some hope at the end of the book, though (again, this is Sarah Gailey) hope tinged with some horror.

If you’re a fan of horror graphic novels, or if you’re a fan of Sarah Gailey, this is a fun read (for certain values of “fun”).

TAKING ON GOD: PULLING THE WINGS OFF ANGELS

You have to admire the audacity of author K. J. Parker if only for the high concept of his newest book, Pulling the Wings Off Angels. Put simply, the book is about a man figuring out a way to fight against God and win.  That he manages to make the book work, make it plausible and a page turner and even funny here and there, is amazing and impressive.

For such a short book, it packs quite a wallop. 

Our protagonist is a hapless theology student who has gotten himself in debt to the wrong people.  Specifically, he owes a lot of money to a crime boss by the name of Florio who, in addition to being a ruthless crime boss who has no compunctions about punishing delinquent debtors by removing body parts, also happens to be very interested in theology, a deeply devout believer.  Our protagonist, who is not at all devout, is willing to do anything to keep Florio from keeping his promises of vengeance, so he agrees to find Florio an angel. A specific angel, in fact, which, legend has it, has been imprisoned by our protagonist’s grandfather.  

The legend turns out to be true, and it turns out that Saloninus, the smartest man who ever lived, is behind it.  Saloninus, who seems to have lived an extraordinarily long time, figured out how to create a space that is invisible to God, and, through complicated means, managed to lure an angel into there for our protagonist’s grandfather to trap.

I won’t even try to explain the rest of the plot, which twists and turns and hinges on questions of faith and redemption, justice and mercy and exactly what Saloninus had in mind when he first trapped the grandfather into the whole mess.  Saloninus has a beef with God and basically wants to take God down, and he doesn’t care who he uses to do that or what’s going to happen if he succeeds.

I finished the book, appreciating the tone and the characters and feeling an odd familiarity with the style. I discovered, reading the author’s note in the back of the book, that this author also writes under the name of Tom Holt, and it all made sense: I’ve read and enjoyed many of his Tom Holt books, so why wouldn’t I love this one as well?

It’s a fun read, if you’re into quirky and philosophical, and it’s a novella, so you can knock it off quickly.  Give yourself a different kind of reading experience with Pulling the Wings Off Angels.

A SLOW AND GENTLE RIDE: THE YEAR OF PLEASURES

Some books you devour in one sitting because you have to find out what’s going to happen next or because the writing is so propulsive you can’t stop turning pages.  Other books you read really slowly, not because they’re hard to read or because they’re especially dense, but because you want to savor the writing, spend more time with the characters, and just make the whole thing last longer.  The Year of Pleasures, by Elizabeth Berg, falls in the latter category.

The novel is about a woman, Betta (which my spellcheck wants to correct to Beretta; make of that what you will), in her 50’s, whose beloved husband recently died of cancer. She and her husband were what Kurt Vonnegut would call “a nation of two”: a couple so complete with each other that the rest of the world hardly seemed to exist for them.  Betta is devastated by her loss, realizing that over the course of her marriage she turned her focus completely toward her husband and her marriage, and now she’s utterly bereft.  On what seems to be a whim, she decides to change everything in her life: she sells the house in which she and her husband lived together in Boston, and drives across the country, stopping in a small town in Illinois where she knows no one and about which she knows nothing.  The book is basically about her settling there, her meeting and starting to find new relationships with local people (all of whom are lovingly drawn), her reaching back to her college housemates, and her getting back on her feet again in a new space.  

And that’s it.  Not a lot of plot per se.  There isn’t even a new romance that develops over the course of the book, which you might expect.  No, you spend all your time with Betta and the people she comes to know and care about, and you come to care about them, too.  The author creates a complete world, vivid and believable, and you just want to spend time there with Betta.  

The book wouldn’t work if Betta weren’t a wholly realized person, but she is.  Her grieving, punctuated by moments of joy and moments of terror, feels entirely natural, and she’s not completely over it by the end of the book, which also feels right.  She’s afraid of making mistakes, and she does make mistakes over the course of the book, she’s afraid of being disloyal to her husband by continuing to live her life, but she manages anyway.  Her husband left her a box with a series of little handwritten slips, which she realizes were his last gift to her, suggestions for how she should carry on after him. That could be a heavy handed overly sentimental plot trick, but Berg handles it lightly and deftly.  We come to know John, Betta’s late husband, almost as well as we come to know Betta herself, even though he dies at the beginning of the book.

I read this book slowly, savoring Betta’s voice, her perspective, and the town in which she plants herself.  I enjoyed it much more than I expected to, though I have read and enjoyed Elizabeth Berg’s writing in the past, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised.

This is not the book to read if you’re interested in a whirlwind ride where every plot development is vital to the future of the world; there’s a time and place for books like that and I love them, too. This is a book to read when you want to slow down, when you want to read for the pleasure of drifting into a gentle world with characters you can love.

DECEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP TAKES ON GENTEEL POVERTY IN I CAPTURE THE CASTLE

One of the best things about book groups, in my experience, is that they often get people to read books they wouldn’t have stumbled upon before, which turn out to be books they enjoy reading.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the November selection for Field Notes Book Group, was one of those books, and even those who didn’t particularly like the book found interesting things to discuss about its insights into family dynamics and animal rights and the relations between humans and animals.   

As usual, at the end of the meeting we chose our book for December, and this one wasn’t even close.  On the first ballot, we overwhelmingly chose I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith, for our next read.  Copies of the book have already been put on hold and will be available soon.

I Capture the Castle is one of those classic books that I, for one, never got around to reading, though it’s got nearly universal kudos from reviewers and readers in the past.  Set in a dilapidated castle in the Sussex countryside in the 1930’s, it’s written in the form of diary entries by our main character, Cassandra Mortmain, who’s trying to improve her speed writing and her writing abilities in general.  She paints a vivid portrait of her extremely eccentric family and their genteel poverty which has led to their selling off most of the ruined castle’s furniture in order to keep food in their mouths and a sort of roof over their heads.  Cassandra and her more beautiful sister, Rose, finding out that a couple of young rich American men have arrived in the area, decide they’re living in a Jane Austen novel and they can solve their problems if Rose marries one of the young men.  Alas for them, life is not a Jane Austen novel.  Luckily for us, in this case life is a much more interesting (and humorous) thing, as the family discovers the complications and difficulties of reaching any kind of a happily ever after in their circumstances.

Any book that opens with the sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” has got a lot going for it, and I expect we will have a lot of fun with this book. Join us if you can for a lively discussion on December 17 at the Field Library.

PART OF OUR WORLD: THE WORLD WE MAKE

Sequels are always a gamble. On one hand, if you love the first book, you know the writer can write and you have characters you’re attached to.  On the other hand, sometimes the writer put the best stuff in the first book and seems to have only written the sequel to make money, not because there was something essential that needed to be added to the first book. Because I’m an optimist at heart, I’m usually eager to try the sequel to a book I loved, and often I’m rewarded.  In the case of The World We Make, by N. K. Jemisin, which is the sequel to The City We Became, I’m so glad I read the second book, because it was totally worthy of its predecessor.

Apparently this was originally going to be a trilogy, but the pandemic and political events caused the author to change her mind and turn this into a duology.  While I’m sorry I won’t be seeing more of these characters and this world, The World We Make is totally satisfying and doesn’t need to be followed by anything.

Do you need to read the first book to appreciate this one? Absolutely, but there’s no reason not to read The City We Became, because it’s a terrific book in itself (one of my favorites the year it was published).  Briefly, the premise is that cities have a life of their own, that some of them are able to become conscious entities, with human avatars who embody the life of the city and who protect it from outsiders.  There are many conscious cities in the world, and the youngest one is New York City, which we see being born and immediately being attacked by a horrifying entity that’s out to destroy it.  The entity, represented by the Woman in White, is very Lovecraftian, so expect some terrible tentacled things and mind control and the whole Lovecraft vibe.  New York City has one avatar (Neek), who’s the spirit of the whole contradictory city, and five (or six) avatars, one for each of the boroughs (and Jersey City, which is considered to be part of New York in this world).  The Woman in White (who also represents a city, but a very different kind) tries to attack each of the avatars and then all of them together; she succeeds to some extent with Aislyn, the avatar for (of course) Staten Island, but at the end of the first book, the city is mostly united and has fought her to a draw at least.

But there are new threats, new ways the Woman in White and the city she represents are attempting to undermine New York and, as it turns out, attempting to kill all the cities of this reality.  When we first encounter the evil Panfilo, who’s running  for mayor of New York on a platform of “Make New York Great Again!”, I was worried that Jemisin might be a little too on the nose, that we might be seeing a heavy handed representation of Trump or a Trump clone, but I shouldn’t have worried.  Jemisin’s a much cleverer writer than that, and Panfilo’s just a symptom, not the cause.  Nor is he a major player in the battles and machinations that follow.

I love the characters in these books, the avatars for the boroughs of New York City, the avatars for other world cities (Paris and London are especially well represented, in my opinion), the way they interact with each other and with their cities.  No one would mistake Bronca (the Bronx and my favorite character) for Brooklyn or Brooklyn  for Padmini (Queens) or any of them for Manny (Manhattan); each one has their own challenges over the course of the book, both as ordinary mortals and as super powerful avatars calling on the energies of their respective boroughs to fight their enemies.  There’s a bit more traveling in this book than in the last one, with an especially poignant visit to a city that no longer exists in our world, if it ever did, and the final confrontation with the forces behind the Woman in White is everything you could hope for.  That it leaves us with hope for the future of this world (and others) is one of the things that makes this book such a satisfying read.

I devoured the book in a day and a half. It moves quickly and you care about the characters and the situations they’re in.  If you’ve already read The City We Became and enjoyed it, put this one on hold or grab it at the library and you won’t be disappointed.  If you haven’t, then check out The City We Became and The World We Make and prepare to immerse yourself in a surprising, moving, exciting world.  I promise, you’ll never look at a large city the same way again.

DECEMBER FIELD OF MYSTERY: THE MAID

The best kind of book group discussions, in my opinion, are the ones where everybody’s read the book and everybody has strong opinions about the book.  Under those criteria, the Field of Mystery Book Group had a GREAT discussion of Two Nights in Lisbon on Saturday, in which everybody got involved and everybody shared insights into the book’s plot and characters and issues.  Then we turned to the business of choosing our book for December, and we didn’t even need two rounds of voting to decide.  We’re going to be reading The Maid, by Francine Prose.

I’ve already written about The Maid here. Molly,our main character, works as a maid in a fancy hotel, where her difficulties in reading social cues and responding to situations the way other people do aren’t a problem, most of the time.  She  used to live with her grandmother, who helped her with simple rules to cover most situations, but she’s been having troubles since her grandmother died. Things get worse for her when, in the course of her cleaning a room, she discovers the dead body of a prominent guest.  Her behavior, normal for her but odd-seeming to other people, makes her an object of interest to the police, who think of her as a possible murder suspect.  Poor Molly finds herself in a huge tangle, and only with the help of her friends, some of whom she doesn’t realize are on her side, can she save herself and find the real killer.

It’s a fun read and a relatively short one, which is good considering we’re approaching  the holiday season.  Copies will be available at the Circulation Desk, so if you can join us on December 3, you’ll be in for a good discussion (and refreshments!).

IS THIS CHEATING?

    I’ve read enough thrillers to understand that giving a twist somewhere in the book, preferably close to the end, is almost required.  And a good twist can be a wonderful thing, making you look twice at everything you’ve already read and making you question your assumptions about characters and plot that you thought you understood.  I love that feeling, and the better authors are good at preparing those twists, setting them up early and feeding them along the way while having other things going on in the foreground to distract you.

    I am not happy, however, at the twist that comes out of the blue, or, worse yet, that’s undermined by everything that happened earlier in the book.  I have never yet thrown a book into the wall in a rage, but I’ve come close more than once, and this is the sort of thing that makes that horrible action feel tempting.

    There’s a sort of contract between the author and a reader.  The author can throw twists and turns, can throw red herrings at you en masse, can break up the timeline and jump from character to character at critical moments.  But the author has to play fair.  If you’re in a character’s head, you the reader have the right to expect that you’re really in that person’s head and what’s being shown of the person’s thoughts and emotions are really the thoughts and emotions of that character, however unrealistic those thoughts and emotions might be. The character can know things that you don’t know; that’s certainly fair.  But if the character knows something that puts a different spin on everything that’s going on, and there’s no suggestion that the character’s emotions or thoughts are changed by that knowledge, well, in my mind, that’s cheating.

    I just read a book where that was the problem.  I won’t name it, but we’re in the head of the main character for three quarters of the book.  She’s supposedly the victim of a crime, and she’s running around, reacting to that crime the way you would expect someone to react: with fear, with worry, with confusion.  

    Except the twist is that the crime isn’t real; it’s a setup.  And the main character knows from the outset that it’s not real, that nobody is in danger, that it’s a setup.  She was one of the people setting it up.

    I’m willing to suspend disbelief quite a ways, but this was too far.  If you know nobody is in danger, you are not going to be running around in fear and anxiety for the person who’s supposedly in danger. You can pretend to feel that way; that’s fine.  But in your own mind, you know it’s just pretense.  You would be thinking about how you can keep up this act, whether you’re doing a good enough job of faking what the right emotions would be.  You would be aware of it.

    For the sake of a twist, the author cheated the reader. The author pretended to be giving the reader the character’s real thoughts and emotions and all the while they were fake and there’s no hint they were fake until the big reveal late in the book.

    That’s one author I’ll never read again. 

    And it could have worked, if the author had chosen another point of view for the character. If he’d chosen third person limited, so we only saw what was visible to other people, we could have seen the character going through all the motions and we would have believed her as everybody else does, and when the big reveal came, we could admire what a good actress she was, how she had everybody, including the readers, fooled.

    I’m not a difficult person to please.  I start every book hoping I’ll love it, and very often I do. But the author has to play fair, and if he doesn’t, he’s broken my trust and won’t get it back.

NOVEMBER FIELD NOTES: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

After a vigorous discussion about the ideas and methods covered in our October selection, Think Again, including thoughts about how these ideas could be applied in our own lives, the Field Notes Book Group chose our book for the month of November in our first round of voting.  We chose We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler.  Copies have already been ordered and are on their way to the library.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and shortlisted for the Booker Prize the year it was published, and made an appearance on a number of Best of the Year lists as well.

The novel is about the downfall of a family and the reasons for its downfall.  The Cooke family was once somewhat closer to normal: there was the mother and the father, brother, Lowell, sister, Fern, and sister, Rosemary, who’s our narrator.  Rosemary was a big talker when she was younger, but then something happened and she stopped talking.  Lowell is now on the run from the police as a domestic terrorist, and Fern is no longer a part of the family.  The parents, too, are mere shadows of their former selves, and the big question the book sets out to answer is what happened to change them all so dramatically.  There’s a twist, which I won’t give away (even though some of the reviews do; thanks a lot, Baker & Taylor, among others), but it leaves the book more intriguing rather than less so. I’m not a big fan of books about dysfunctional families (I disagree with Tolstoy’s famous line about happy and unhappy families in general), but this is something a little different.

Join us for what should prove to be a fascinating and far-ranging discussion of this novel.  There will be coffee and donuts, as always, and the camaraderie of a group of opinionated, well-read people.

THE END OF THE WORLD IS CREEPY: LITTLE EVE

When I fall in love with an author’s work, I go all the way.  Catriona Ward, author of The Last House on Needless Street, and Sundial, has become one of those authors I really love, so when I found out she had a new book out, I rushed to get my hands on it.   Technically, her “new” book, Little Eve, isn’t really new; it was written before Last House on Needless Street and won the Shirley Jackson prize for best novel the year it came out.  However, this is the first time it’s been published in this country, so it’s “new” as far as I’m concerned.  

I was wondering if this earlier book would be as good as her later work, and I’m happy to say that yes, it definitely is.  I devoured Little Eve in a little more than a day because it has the same can’t-put-it-down plot, the same ambiguous characters and the same sense of overriding dread that forces the reader to keep going, however squeamishly.

A word of warning: the book starts with a bang, figuratively speaking: a local man discovering the dead bodies of the residents of an isolated castle arranged in a ritualistic way, with some mutilations, and one of those bodies turns out to be still alive.  It’s an absolutely horrifying scene, grotesque and bloody, and if you can’t handle that opening, you should probably put the book down and try something else.  The book isn’t gory, per se, but there is a lot of violence and body horror, and if that isn’t your thing, you will have a hard time with this book.

We start with what feels like the end, the ritual killings of the people who lived at the castle at Altnaharra, on an isolated island off the coast of Scotland.  Gradually we find out about the people who lived there and the things they believed and did, and how we ended up at that scene.  Interspersed with that story is the story of the survivor, Dinah, telling us how she dealt with the aftermath of her experiences at Altnaharra, and the story of the police officer who became involved with the family, and especially with Evelyn (the Little Eve of the title), before the tragedy.

The family is a cult, run by Uncle, who calls himself the Adder.  He has complete power over the adult women and all the children, whose relationships with him and with each other are murky.  Everyone is kept in line with a combination of promised rewards and immediate punishments.  The promised reward is to be the Adder (the voice of the snake that controls the world in their cult); the punishments are horrific, including being shunned by everyone for periods of time and being locked in an underground room with their mouths sealed shut with pine pitch (!!), unable to eat, drink or speak for days on end.  The “uncle” keeps everyone half starved and scared, and while the kids are sent to school on the mainland because the law requires it, they’re still isolated by the cult’s beliefs, as are the adult women who go into town to sell things from the island and buy the cult’s necessities.  

As usual with Ward, the characters draw you in even as they creep you out. Evelyn is one of our narrators, and we start with the official story that she was the one who killed all the others in the ritual murder.  She’s certainly strange, as anyone would be who grew up in this environment; sometimes you think she’s totally bought into Uncle’s stories and sometimes you think she might be considering breaking free.  Since you start out with people claiming she’s the villain of the piece, as you read the parts of the story leading up to the murder, you find yourself wondering about her, wondering whether she could have done something like that, and how.  She’s capable of terrible things; she’s indirectly the cause of two deaths that we know of, and she commits a horrific act on herself (you will never hear the phrase “an eye for an eye” without a shudder again).  

And yet, this is Catriona Ward, so you’re on guard, because she’s so good at leading you to make assumptions about characters and then pulling the rug out from under those assumptions and making you see everything differently.  The twists here aren’t as dramatic as those in Last House, but they are still powerful, and I’m not going to spoil any of them. Suffice it to say that Catriona Ward knows what she’s doing and nothing in the book is extraneous.

It’s an absolutely engrossing read, if you have a strong enough stomach and aren’t afraid of nightmares.  It’s the season for horror, and Ward delivers a knockout horror novel here.

SCIENCE FICTION MURDER MYSTERY: STATION ETERNITY

While I’m a fan of many different genres of fiction, I always appreciate someone who takes chances and bends the rules of genres, or smashes two genres together and makes it work.  For instance, The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle was a mystery at its heart, but with a serious science fiction twist, and it was brilliant.  I suppose you could call Station Eternity, by Mur Lafferty, a sort of reverse of that: a science fiction book with a mystery twist.

The first great idea in Station Eternity is to center a character who’s like the classic protagonist of cozy mysteries, the person who always seems to find themselves in the middle of a crime and who always ends up solving the mysteries.  It’s a convention of the genre (think Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote) that this one ordinary person is always surrounded by murders and has to solve them, no matter how bucolic or ordinary the setting (and in cozies, it’s usually a bucolic setting of one sort or another, a small town or a rural area), but in real life, a person in that position would NOT be happy about it.  Mallory Viridian, our protagonist here, is a magnet for crime wherever she goes and she is sick of it.  She gets the opportunity to live on a sentient space station (which is another great idea, but a science fiction one), and she reasonably figures that if she’s the only human there, she won’t be dealing with any more murders.  And she’s right, and gets to relax, for a while.

Until the space station agrees to allow others to visit, and then the problems start.  As soon as there’s a shuttle of people and aliens arriving on the space station, they start dying.  Once again, Mallory finds herself in the position of having to be the one to figure out what’s going on and who’s responsible, and once again she has to solve the mystery before everything goes completely haywire.

Putting a character like Mallory into the unique setting of the sentient space station and then throwing murders into the mix is brilliant, and the sort of thing you would expect from Lafferty, whose last book, Six Wakes, was nominated for a Hugo award.

If you’re interested in the sweet spot where science fiction and mystery meet, and you want to read a mystery/science fiction novel with a unique protagonist, then Station Eternity (starting a series called the Midsolar Murders, which gives us hope for more of this) is the book to read.