RHYS BOWEN, MARGARET MARON AND LINDA FAIRSTEIN: NEW MYSTERIES IN FAVORITE SERIES

One of the great pleasures of reading mysteries is following series: the fun of watching characters grow and develop from book to book, the delight of growing familiarity with a place, a world, the kinds of cases and problems solved by your favorite characters.  In the next couple of weeks, the Field Library will be getting new volumes in several ongoing, much-loved series.

malice at the palace cover

The latest in Rhys Bowen’s lighthearted Royal Spyness series comes out on August 4. In Malice at the Palace, our heroine, Georgie (35th in line to the British throne) finds herself in the supposedly haunted Kensington Palace, accompanying Princess Marina of Greece, who is to marry George, prince of England.  This seems like a simple enough task for the irrepressible Georgie, until the body of one of Prince George’s former flames is discovered in the palace, and scandal threatens to prevent the marriage altogether. This will never do, so it’s up to Georgie to find out who killed the woman and why.

long upon the land cover

Long Upon the Land, by Margaret Maron, is the latest in her series featuring Judge Deborah Knotts, dealing with crime and family secrets in rural North Carolina.  In this novel, Deborah’s father, Kezzie, discovers the body of a man bludgeoned to death. The corpse is found on his land, and it turns out the dead man was a long-time rival of Kezzie’s.  When Deborah starts asking her brothers questions about the rivalry, they turn strangely reluctant to talk.  Naturally she wants to clear her family from any suspicion of murder, but things are more complicated than she expected, and she finds herself digging deeper and deeper into her own family history, even though the answers might not be ones she wants to hear.

DEVIL'S BRIDGE COVER

Linda Fairstein’s Alexandra Cooper series, set in New York City, takes a surprising and intense turn in her latest, Devil’s Bridge.  Alexandra has disappeared, and it’s up to her close friend, Detective Mike Chapman, to try to find out what happened to her.  Given her past decade as a prosecutor who made many enemies among the people she sent to jail, a recent security breach that could be more dangerous than anyone suspected, and the increasing intimacy of Alexandra’s relationship with Mike before her disappearance, this case is unusually complicated. Fairstein is especially skilled at evoking a sense of place, and the more familiar you are with Manhattan and environs, the more you’ll enjoy the way the settings for the investigations come alive and become almost another character in her mysteries.

If you’re already a fan of these series, you need no further introduction.  If you haven’t met these characters yet, give them a try!

LIGHTHEARTED READING FOR HOT SUMMER DAYS

Sometimes, especially in the hot, steamy days of summer, you don’t want to do any heavy reading. All you want is something lighthearted and funny, maybe even a little goofy, to take to the beach or with you on vacation or in an air-conditioned room to relax with as you read.  A few new books coming out this week at the library should just fill the bill.

how to write a novel cover

Despite what its title sounds like, How to Write a Novel, by Melanie Sumner, is NOT a how-to book or even nonfiction.  It is instead a charming, funny book about a twelve and a half year old girl, Aris (short for Aristotle) Thibodoux, who believes the way to solve her problems is by writing a bestselling novel based loosely on her weird family.  She has plenty of material: her widowed mother is an English professor who’s making a mess of her dating life, her younger brother Max hits people and is in therapy (when there are other people in the family who could certainly use it).  As Aris observes what’s going on around her, she’s both perceptive and naive but always funny, and her efforts to fit real life into the “rules” of her guidebook on how to write a novel in thirty days (sounds like someone’s sending up National Novel Writing Month), remind us of the vast differences, sometimes, between fiction and life.

lord of the wings cover

Lord of the Wings is the latest in Donna Andrews’ mystery series featuring Meg Langslow, a female blacksmith who somehow keeps getting involved in bizarre goings on in her hometown in Caerphilly, Virginia.  The series is fast and funny, with all kinds of quirky characters, related to Meg by marriage or family, as well as regulars in the town in which she lives. Meg is often the only sensible person in a crowd of people who are cheerfully losing their heads, and it’s the contrast between her reactions and what’s going on around her that makes these books work.  Lord of the Wings takes place at Halloween, when, in addition to the town’s going overboard in its efforts to make the place into Spooky City USA, a body is found in the zoo and a suspicious fire starts in the Haunted House, and Meg has to figure out what’s going on and prevent more disasters, while also managing her job and making sure her twin first grade sons get the costumes they feel they need for the grand Halloween festivities.

whirligig cover

Traveling from Virginia to the wilds of Scotland, we have the book, Whirligig, by Magnus Macintyre, a comic romp starring a fat middle aged man who finds himself traveling to the wilds of Scotland and smack in the middle of a rural community’s upheaval over a proposed wind farm.  Claypole, our protagonist, has no idea what he’s doing among all these eccentrics, or even which side he’s supposed to be on, but he finds himself drawn into the dispute, dealing with the eccentric power of nature, hippies with hallucinogenic drugs, families with dark secrets, all in an effort to transform himself into a hero to the woman who brought him there.  If you’re a fan of movies like Local Hero or other fish out of water comedies, this should be a great summer read.

THE MAP OF CHAOS — WHO SHOULDN’T READ IT

the map of chaos cover

The Map of Chaos, the new book by Felix Palma, is not for everybody.  In fact, there are whole categories of people who shouldn’t even try to read it.

If you’re a person who likes linear narratives, this book is not for you.  If you want chapter two to pick up exactly where chapter one left off, and having to wait a few chapters to see what was actually going on in chapter one drives you crazy, then you’re not going to enjoy this book.  The opening chapter drops us into an alternate Victorian England where two men are trying to persuade the powers that be of the proper way to save the world, and those two people are H. G. Wells and Lewis Carroll. The chapter ends with a nightmarish creature killing various characters and H.G. Wells and his wife, Jane, escaping through a wormhole to another world.  The author does not return to that particular plotline for hundreds of pages!  There are other plotlines that appear and disappear, only to be brought back and resolved much later.  You have to keep track of what happened earlier in the book, though Palma does help you by reminding you of where these particular characters were and what they were doing the last time you saw them.

If you don’t like fiction starring historical characters, don’t bother with this one.  The protagonists of this book are H. G. Wells (the author of War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Invisible Man, among others), and his wife, Jane.  Supporting characters include Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes), as well as some characters familiar to readers of The Map of Time and The Map of Space, and some brand new characters from other versions of this universe.  Palma plays fair: the characters based on real people are fairly close to the historical record, though with a few twists and turns.

If you don’t like an author’s breaking the fourth wall, this book will annoy you.  The author often talks directly to the reader, mentioning things that are going to happen, suggesting how the reader will react to different lines of the plot and upcoming revelations.  The author recreates the voice of a narrator in a classic Victorian novel (think Dickens, or Eliot, or Hardy), and if you don’t like that particular style, you’re going to find this annoying (though Palma doesn’t do it that often).  On the other hand, if you’re a fan of Victorian novels, you’ll appreciate the skill with which Palma recreates this style, and enjoy his dry sense of humor.

If you don’t like steampunk or science fiction in any form, you’ll probably not like this book. The whole premise of this book involves multiple universes, people who have the ability to jump from one universe to another, and it’s all set in different versions of Victorian England, including one in which there’s a werewolf, and one in which there’s a special unit of Scotland Yard dedicated to investigating supernatural phenomena.  If you have a taste for steampunk, this book will be right up your alley, and if you’ve never read steampunk, this series would be a fun introduction.

If you want a predictable narrative, this is absolutely the wrong book for you.  Whenever you think you know where the plot is going, something wholly unexpected happens.  Even if you’ve read the first two books in the series (which isn’t necessary in order to enjoy this book), and you think you know how this author’s mind works, there are still twists and turns in the narrative that will startle you and delight you (this is a series of books where I’ve laughed aloud in delight at the way a plot resolves itself).  These are not the “jump the shark” kinds of twists, either, where you feel the author is putting in a twist just for the sake of a twist; these are organic (if a little off the wall) and make perfect sense in the context of this world.

If you think happy endings are insipid or stupid, you probably won’t get full enjoyment from this book. And yes, that is a spoiler, but one I don’t mind giving.  This is not the kind of book that ends with everybody miserable, nor is it the type of book where the ending leaves you scratching your head, trying to figure out exactly WHAT happened.  One of the things I love most about these books is the author’s ability to wrap things up and make an ending that not only resolves everything, but makes it work and leaves the characters (and the reader) in a good place.  Along the way, you have to have faith the author is going to pull all this together, even though it seems impossible that the story of the female werewolf, the invisible man, the old lady who goes to seances, the Book of Chaos of the title, and the strange things appearing and disappearing in mirrors could possibly co-exist in the same book, let alone all twist together to make a coherent narrative, but, trust me, that’s exactly what happens.

If you’re not one of those people, and you want a spellbinding, mind-boggling book that keeps you turning the pages with delight and anticipation, then you could hardly do better than to read The Map of Chaos.  You don’t need to read the previous two books in the series, though you will enjoy certain details of this one better if you’ve read them.  Dive right in and see the universe in a new way!

Dinosaur Lords and Three Moments of an Explosion: New and Strange

dinosaur lords cover

How can you not be eager to read a book which is described (by George R. R. Martin, no less!) as “like a cross between Jurassic Park and Game of Thrones”?  The book is Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan, and it’s coming to our shelves.  The world is sort of like 14th century Europe, but a 14th century world human beings (and other mammals) share with dinosaurs and other “prehistoric” creatures.  Imagine dynastic wars fought by armies of knights mounted on huge duckbilled dinosaurs!  The possibilities are mind-blowing, and by all advance reviews, the author seems to have taken full advantage of his setting, his characters and yes, his dinosaurs. Look for the very distinctive cover on our “Hot Off the Press” bookshelf soon!

three moments of an explosion cover
And if you’re interested in a different kind of weirdness, may I recommend Three Moments of an Explosion by the always fascinating China Mieville?  The author, who has won the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award and the Arthur C. Clarke award (three times!), is known for his wild imagination, his vividly realized worlds different from but often related to our own, and his brilliant prose.  This latest is a collection of his short stories, spanning genres from horror to realism to fantasy, and even people who aren’t familiar with his other, famous works (Perdido Street Station, or Un Lun Dun or The City and the City, for instance) will find wonders to enjoy in this book.

CIRCLING THE SUN: A NEW BOOK FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE PARIS WIFE

                                                                     CIRCLING THE SUN COVER

Paula McLain has a rare gift for taking the lives of real people who lived in extraordinary situations and bringing them to life in fiction.  Her last book, The Paris Wife, took readers to Paris of the 1920’s through the eyes of Hadley Richardson, soon to be Hadley Hemingway, and brought the Lost Generation to vivid engrossing life.  The book was a favorite of book clubs and continues to be very popular among readers looking for an absorbing read.
Now Paula McLain is coming out with a new book, Circling the Sun, about Beryl Markham, a famous pilot, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West.  As is usual with McLain’s work, Beryl emerges here as a flawed but lovable human being, a girl raised in Kenya in the early 20th century, more at home among the Kipsigis people who lived on her father’s estate and with the animals of Africa than with the expatriates who were supposedly her peers. Unhappily married, Beryl had to make her own way as a horse trainer, which brought her into contact with people like Karen Blixen (the author of Out of Africa) and her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, who later became Beryl’s lover as well and helped her realize her true self and her true destiny.
Set in a world very different from 2015 New York, with larger than life characters, both real and fictional,  and imbued with that deep sympathy for her female characters that’s always a part of Paula McLain’s writing, Circling the Sun, which comes out on August 4, should be a terrific read for people who are familiar with 1920’s Kenya and those who know nothing about the period, the place or Beryl Markham.  Don’t miss it!

NEW AND QUIRKY BOOKS AT THE FIELD

It’s that time again, time for new and unusual — some say warped or bizarre, but I prefer the term “quirky” — books to arrive on our shelves, waiting for brave and curious souls to take a look at them.  And here, to make it easier for you to find the newest and oddest books in the fiction collection,  we have some previews.

WITCHES BE CRAZY COVER

Sometimes you do pick a book by its title, and in the case of Witches Be Crazy, subtitled A Tale That Happened Once Upon a Time in the Middle of Nowhere, by Logan J. Hunder, it almost doesn’t matter what the book is, because the title alone is so intriguing. The book is, as you might guess, a humorous take on the cliches of epic fantasy: a surly middle aged former blacksmith turned innkeeper turns out to be the only one who can save the kingdom.  In the aftermath of the king’s death, a sexy woman claiming to be his long-lost daughter takes the throne, and only our “hero” , Dungar Loloth, can resist her charms enough to figure out that she may be responsible for the deaths of everybody in the neighboring kingdom and may have similar plans for this one. WIth the dubious help of a possibly insane hobo, Dungar must battle pirates, cultists, radical Amazons and all manner of other fantasy troublemakers to save the world.

the good the bad and the smug cover

Along similar lines of fantasy fiction turned on its head and mocked for all its conventions and cliches, we have The Good, the Bad and the Smug, by Tom Holt.  If you were lucky enough to read his last book, The Outsorcerer’s Apprentice, you need no additional description of this book to encourage you to run out and grab this one.  Outsorcerer was extremely funny, well-plotted and the sort of book you enjoyed more the more familiar you were with the usual sorts of characters and plots and plot devices in fantasy novels and movies. If you haven’t already been introduced to Tom Holt, then you’re in for a treat. While this is a sort of sequel to Outsorcerer, you don’t need to have read the first to leap in at this one, a story about a goblin king whose evil rule is being threatened by a massive and surprising influx of gold into the human kingdoms. With all that gold, the humans are beginning to increase their weaponry for their arms race against the goblins, and Mordak, the goblin king, is sufficiently worried that he enlists the aid of an elf, of all creatures, and in addition to the usual problems between elves and goblins (hating each other on general principles), this particular elf is more interested in the article she wants to write for the elf magazine The Face than she is in saving the world.  Throw in some humans from an alternate universe who have their own interests in making things happen or not happen, and you have the makings of a wonderful, twisted plot with bizarre, entertaining characters in worlds like and unlike our own.

crooked cover

As Monty Python used to say, now for something completely different: a book entitled Crooked, by Austin Grossman, about — of all people — Richard Nixon.  Yes, THE Richard Nixon, but as you’ve never seen or imagined him before.  This Nixon tells his own story of how he stumbled onto a supernatural secret of world-altering proportions, and how that changed everything: the Cold War, Watergate, even Nixon’s marriage.  Is the world ready for a Richard Nixon who’s a heroic figure fighting to protect the world against a supernatural horror beyond imagining?  Speaking only for myself, I can hardly wait to read this alternate history, weird as it may very well be.

NEVER THE SAME AGAIN: ALIAS HOOK AND PETER PAN

Alias Hook coverLately I’ve been seeing previews for the new movie Pan, which will be coming out in October of this year. It looks like a high tech, serious special effects, origin story for Peter Pan, complete with “chosen one” mythology and orphans fated to save the world, and (as you can guess from this short and biased description) I’m almost certainly not going to go see it. But even if it had been a serious remaking of Peter Pan and not a crass scheme to make more money from a classic play, I probably wouldn’t have been interested in seeing it, because my entire outlook on Peter Pan has been changed ever since I read Alias Hook, by Lisa Jensen.

Alias Hook, as the title suggests, is one of those novels that reimagines a classic, well-known story from another point of view. I tend to be a sucker for those kinds of stories, ever since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, which is an excellent and powerful telling of the story of the “madwoman in the attic” from Jane Eyre (if you haven’t read that one, I highly recommend it, even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre recently or at all).

This one tells the story of one James Benjamin Hook, an intelligent, witty man caught in an endless loop of misery in which he and his band of hapless pirates is repeatedly destroyed and killed (they’re killed; he’s kept alive to torture) by a horrible group of preadolescent boys — Peter Pan and his Lost Boys.  Imagine every horrible boy you’ve ever known, given infinite power to rig the game, change the rules, and wreak havoc on people who can’t escape. That’s Peter Pan, and his cohort follows his lead in everything.  At the beginning of the book, Hook has all but given up on any possibility that he could ever escape, but then suddenly Pamela, an adult woman, not a “Wendy”, appears in Neverland, and all bets are off.  Who is she? What brought her to this place where she has no role to play in the ongoing and repetitive story of Peter Pan and his exploits against Captain Hook?  Could she possibly be the harbinger of change?  Could James hope, at long last, that his misery could come to an end and he might be able to return to the real world?

In the same way that once you’ve read Wicked, you can never look at The Wizard of Oz in the same way again (although it is kind of a mind-bending experience to look at Margaret Hamilton’s performance of the Wicked Witch of the West and try to imagine her as Elphaba), once you’ve read Alias Hook, you’ll never again see Peter Pan as a hero, or Captain Hook as an unworthy villain.  Read and enjoy!

GALILEO’S MIDDLE FINGER: A FASCINATING BOOK, NOT WHAT YOU THINK

Galileo's Middle Finger by Alice Dreger
Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger

We all know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, or its title, but sometimes we all do it, and the publishing industry has to know that.  Look at some of the covers and titles out there, clearly designed to catch the would-be reader’s eye and make a sale, or find a reader.  Case in point: Galileo’s Middle Finger, by Alice Dreger. Look at that cover.  Look at that title, and the subtitle: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science.  Don’t you think you know what the book is about?  I certainly did: it’s about Galileo and his fight with the Catholic Church, and possibly other scientists of the Middle Ages fighting authorities to get their science accepted by the authorities.  Possibly there would be discussions of Nazi and Soviet suppression of science that didn’t fit their ideologies.

I’m here to tell you that is NOT what the book is about.  While the author does bring Galileo into the mix, he’s only a patron saint (as it were) of modern scientists who are fighting, not against an oppressive church or government, but against self-proclaimed experts and political activists who disagree with the conclusions the scientists reach.  The story of medieval and Renaissance scientists fighting the Church is an old and relatively familiar one.  This story is newer, less well known, and fascinating.

Dreger’s story begins with her own involvement in research into intersex people, and her efforts on their behalf to stop doctors from mutilating babies in the name of making them “normal” boys or girls. This introduces her to activists, and brings her into contact with a scientist studying transgender women.  This scientist is attacked by prominent transgender women for his theory that not all transgender women are people with women’s brains in a man’s body.  Dreger investigates the claims that the scientist abused his subjects, failed to get proper consent, violated their privacy and otherwise falsified his data, and discovers that none of the allegations were true, though they received so much publicity that most people believe they’re true.

Horrified at the realization that people who she wants to believe are the “good guys,” members of oppressed minorities, could try to shut down truthful science because it contradicts their beliefs, Dreger starts investigating the case of an anthropologist who studied a tribe of people in the Amazon area, only to be attacked by opposing parties who claimed he paid members of the tribe to murder other people, lied to his subjects and falsified his research.  The anthropologist’s name was dragged through the mud, he lost funding and his reputation was seriously damaged, but it turned out that the allegations were themselves false and the people raising them had serious conflicts of interest.

This is a passionate book by a historian who’s involved in the controversies she’s reporting on, so read the book with that in mind. It is certainly not an objective book, nor does it pretend to be.  But it raises important questions about how much we really do support scientific inquiry into objective truth, especially when that objective truth contradicts our deeply held beliefs, and how, in the absence of serious journalism, there are any checks and balances on the power of organized groups to try to shout down unpleasant truths. It’s a fascinating, well-written book (well documented, too — check out the footnotes), even if it’s not at all what you might think it’s about when you see the cover.

TIME TRAVEL THE EASY WAY: NEW HISTORICAL NOVELS

There’s nothing like a good historical novel, one that’s well-researched as well as filled with fascinating characters (real life as well as fictional) and a complex, enthralling plot. I know this is probably heresy for someone with a degree in history to admit, but you can learn as much about a historical period and even, sometimes, a historical event by reading a good novel as you can by reading nonfiction, and it can be a lot more fun.

We have a couple of new historical novels in the library this week, worth checking out.

First, we have The French Prize, by James L. Nelson, just released on July 14.  Set in 1799,  after the American Revolution, when the new nation is caught in an undeclared war with France, the novel takes us to sea in a merchant ship captained by Jack Biddlecomb, on its way from Boston to Barbados. Unfortunately for the new-minted captain, he’s sailing into a world of trouble, starting with two unpleasant and difficult passengers aboard the ship, and getting worse as the French are prowling the waters, trying to capture merchant vessels.  Nelson is an acclaimed author of naval history, and his work has been favorably compared to Patrick O’Brien’s beloved series.

The Last Pilot, by Benjamin Johncock, is set in a more recent, more easily recognizable period of American history: the time beginning after World War II and continuing through the 1960’s.  The protagonist, Jim Harrison, is an Air Force test pilot in the 1950’s, trying to break the sound barrier and beat the Soviets, in a milieu familiar to readers of The Right Stuff. He loves his job and his fellow pilots, but leaves when his long-awaited daughter is born, only to return, this time to the newborn space program, after a family tragedy.  With the beginning of the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the space race as a background, the book brings history to life in the spare, elegant prose of a born writer.

Spend some time this month immersed in the past.  You won’t regret it.

THE OTHER SIDE OF ASGARD: JOANNE M. HARRIS’ GOSPEL OF LOKI

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

There’s something about Norse mythology that makes it just a bit more intriguing than Greek mythology.  Maybe it’s because we as a culture aren’t as familiar with the Norse gods and their stories as we are with the Greeks. Maybe it’s because the Norse gods and goddesses seem a little more fallible, a little less elevated, than their Greek counterparts. Or maybe it’s the sense of doom that underlies Norse myths, the ever-present knowledge that all this is going to come crashing down in a battle between good and evil that everybody’s going to lose.

Or maybe it’s Loki, who occupies a unique place in Norse mythology, one of the gods at Asgard but not really one of the Aesir or the Vanir, an outsider who’s never quite one of the gods though he often works with them (and against them), a trickster character who lives by his wits, for good or bad.

A terrific book about Loki is Joanne M. Harris’ The Gospel of Loki, told by the Trickster himself in a voice that is snarky and engaging, cynical and modern.  Most of the great and famous Norse myths are here — how Asgard was built, how Frey lost his magic sword (which he would need, come Ragnarok), how Thor lost his magic hammer, Mjolnir and Loki helped him get it back again, and the adventure of Thor and Loki in the Giants’ city — but because they’re told from Loki’s perspective, they are a little different from the usual versions.  If Loki’s not always the hero of the stories (and he can’t be, because at least half the time he’s the one who gets the gods into trouble in the first place), then he is at least the most interesting character, the one who commands our attention and brings us around to his point of view.

He’s not a nice guy, that’s for sure. He betrays the gods repeatedly. Sometimes he acts out of what seems like nothing more than pure malice (though, to hear his version, that’s never REALLY what’s going on).  He causes endless trouble and suffering, and he never seems to learn from any of his misdeeds. And yet, there’s something appealing about him, especially in Joanne M. Harris’ version: yes, he causes chaos, but that’s because he started out as a creature of chaos and he never entirely loses that aspect of his personality.  Yes, he hurts other gods, but in his version, they were all against him in the first place, and they give as good as they get (for the most part; he doesn’t have any real justification for causing Baldur’s death, or for abandoning his selfless wife).  He’s cunning (maybe a little too much so), opportunistic, quick to take offense and always looking out for himself, but he’s a most entertaining character.

You don’t need to be very familiar with Norse myths to enjoy The Gospel of Loki, but the more knowledge you have of them, the more you’ll enjoy this book, and it might spur you to dig a little deeper into other versions of the myths.  This one is a quick, funny book threaded with a darker strain of destiny and doom, and a wonderful introduction, or reintroduction, to the world of the Norse Gods.