GUNS, BURGLARIES AND MOUNTAINS : NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Travel through time and geography in the new historical fiction coming to our shelves on September 1, from early 20th century New Jersey to 1880’s New York City, all the way to 18th century China and Tibet, and become absorbed in other worlds and other dangers.

GIRL WAITS WITH GUN COVER

Based on the true story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the country, Girl Waits with Gun, by Amy Stewart (author of the very entertaining nonfiction book, The Drunken Botanist), is a rip-roaring adventure story that should be great fun to read. Set in 1914 in Hackensack, New Jersey (of all places!), the book focuses on the Kopp sisters, particularly Constance Kopp. Taller than most men of her time, uninterested in marriage or domesticity, Constance is hiding out with her sisters due to a family secret when a rich owner of a silk factory runs down her buggy and then refuses to pay damages.  The indomitable Constance stands up for herself and her sisters even when the industrialist sends his gang of toughs to intimidate, threaten and even attack them.  The local sheriff enlists her help in convicting the miscreants and Constance faces not only the powerful evildoers but her own family past as well.  Fans of historical fiction and particularly fans of Rhys Bowen’s Molly Maguire series should have a great time with this novel.

HOUSE OF THIEVES COVER

Going back a little earlier in New York history, House of Thieves, by Charles Belfoure, puts an innocent man in the grip of a notorious gang of thieves and killers who run the city’s underworld in the 1880’s.  The protagonist, John Cross, is a respectable architect, the last man anyone would expect to be helping criminals burgle the houses of wealthy New Yorkers, but John’s son has amassed impossible gambling debts and the only way John could possibly get his son out of trouble is by using his knowledge to help the gang.  Though he turns out to have a rare skill for picking out the most vulnerable people with the most valuable items, John is walking a very fine line, and with each succeeding job, he runs increasing risks of exposure and the destruction of himself and his family.  For a riveting look at the interconnected world of high society rich and organized criminals in turn of the century New York City, this is a must read.

JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN COVER

A murder is the fulcrum turning the book Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart, which is set in the borderlands between Tibet and China in 1708, so right away you know you’re not in a time or place that’s familiar to most readers.  A librarian, Li Du, has been exiled from the kingdom of China, and passes through Dayan, the last town inside China on his way to Tibet.  There he encounters a multitude of travelers, merchants and soldiers, all gathering here to witness a solar eclipse commanded by the Emperor himself.  In the midst of this chaos, a Jesuit missionary is murdered. The officials of the town want to declare the murder the work of Tibetan bandits, but Li Du is unconvinced. There are a lot of people with a lot of secrets, a lot of things going on under the surface of this seemingly ordinary town.  Will he stay, violating the terms of his exile, and seek out the truth, and if he does, what will be the cost to Li Du?  Between the unusual setting and the decidedly different sleuth, Jade Dragon Mountain should be an intriguing and absorbing novel.

LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AX — FOR GOOD REASON! MAPLECROFT AND CHAPELWOOD BOOKS

I’ve always been interested in the case of Lizzie Borden, a woman in Victorian Falls River, Massachusetts, who essentially got away with murder (at least as far as the legal system goes; she lived the rest of her life after her trial in isolation from her community). Probably you’re familiar with the general outlines of the case, at least from the doggerel: “Lizzie Borden took an ax/Gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father forty-one.”  The thing that always intrigued me was the complete lack of motive.  Granted, Lizzie and her sister were living in close quarters with their father and stepmother; granted, there were intrafamilial tensions; granted, the murder took place in the middle of a heat wave in a time without air conditioning and everybody was on edge. Still, these factors don’t explain why she, of all people, committed those crimes, of all possible crimes.

maplecroft cover

Which was why I was so delighted to read Maplecroft, by Cherie Priest, a novel that imagines what was REALLY going on in that house in Falls River before the crime. A short, flippant description of the book would be “Lizzie Borden meets up with H. P. Lovecraft monsters”, but that wouldn’t convey all the fun of the book.  In this version of events, Lizzie had to kill her stepmother and father because they were turning into horrible monsters; she took action to save the town from an unbelievable evil, and the doctor who testified on her behalf at her trial had an inkling of what was really happening.  The book is set years after the killings, when Lizzie and her sister, Emma, are living in a house they bought away from the center of town, and the evil Lizzie fought against before is gathering strength.  The book is rife with strong and interesting characters, the plot zings along, the atmosphere is gothic without being over the top, and it is just a great fun read.

CHAPELWOOD COVER

Why am I talking about this now?  Because it turns out Maplecroft was the first in a series, and the second book, Chapelwood, is arriving at the library on September 1.  You should probably read Maplecroft first (and obviously I would recommend it anyway because it was so much fun to read), but it’s not essential.  Set in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1920’s, a place where a serial killer, nicknamed Harry the Hatchet, has been rampaging, the book brings Lizzie in conflict with a church which seems to be planning human sacrifice to bring about the return of the same evil Lizzie fought against in Maplecroft. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Lizzie’s adventures, especially if some of the same characters (including one very mysterious agent) from the first book return for this one.  

NEW SHORT STORIES FOR ALL TASTES

Sometimes you don’t have the time to read through a whole novel, even a relatively short one. Sometimes all you can muster attention for is a short story or two, and when you’re in that kind of mood, come and check out our new collections of short stories. Some of the collections are all stories by one author, while others contain stories by numerous different authors on the same theme.

THE STATE WE'RE IN COVER

Ann Beattie is famous for her short stories, which have won her international acclaim and awards ranging from an award for excellence from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters to the PEN/Malamud award for excellence in the short story form. Her newest book is called The State We’re In: Maine Stories, and the stories are limited in geographical scope (mostly to Maine) and in character (the main characters are all women), and one character, Jocelyn, a teenager attempting to make sense of the world around her, is a focal point or a connector for many of the stories.  But within those limitations, Beattie manages to illuminate many aspects of the human condition with her famous dry wit and eye for the telling detail.

A MANUAL FOR CLEANING WOMEN

A Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin, showcases the talents of another top notch short story writer, though one who’s much less famous than Ann Beattie.  Lucia Berlin’s stories take place mostly in the Southwestern United States, and her characters tend to be hard living women, trying to get by in difficult circumstances: working as a cleaning lady, going through drug rehab, abortions, affairs with the wrong people, poverty. Her stories shine with brilliant language, the perfect choice of words ( young teenagers blowing smoke “like petulant dragons”), and a deep abiding sympathy for the characters and their predicaments.

PRESS START TO PLAY COVER

For a change of pace, the book Press Play to Start, edited by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, is a collection of stories by different authors with a single theme: video games of all sorts, from the oldest text based kind to the most modern multiplayer ones.  The authors include some famous names, both in and out of science fiction: Andy Weir, author of The Martian, Hugh Howey, author of Wool, Holly Black, Ken Liu and T.C. Boyle, to name a few.  If you’re of a certain age and/or an aficionado of various types of video games, you’re sure to find stories in this collection that speak to you and bring back memories (or creep you out).

NEW AND FASCINATING SCIENCE FICTION

THE END OF ALL THINGS COVER

For fans of science fiction, John Scalzi needs no introduction: winner of the John Campbell award for his first novel, Old Man’s War, winner of the Hugo (well deserved) for his brilliant and funny book Redshirts (which you should definitely read if you are even a casual Star Trek fan), author most recently of the excellent book Lock-in (a sort of science fiction mystery), and frequent nominee for all the major science fiction awards.  Even non science fiction die-hards will find much to enjoy in Scalzi’s books, and should give him a try.  His newest book, The End of All Things, is set in the same universe as Old Man’s War and its sequels, and takes us to a universe in which humanity is only one of many starfaring races, and far from the dominant one.  The Colonial Union, an organization which used earth’s excess population to create colonies and soldiers, is now out of favor with the people back on earth, at the same time its forces are diminishing and different alien races are probing for any signs of weakness.  As if that weren’t enough, there’s evidence that someone is deliberately setting alien races against humans, and against each other, for reasons of his or her own.  In a race against time, Colonial Defense Force Lieutenant Harry WIlson and Colonial Union diplomats try to placate a suspicious and hostile earth population and find out and stop whoever’s behind the increasing hostility from alien races before it’s too late.  

FINCHES OF MARS COVER

Brian Aldiss has won just about every award available to science fiction authors: the Hugo, the Nebula, the Campbell.  His Helliconia series was breathtaking in its scope and breadth, and his novella, “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s A.I.  Artificial Intelligence.  So when he comes out with a new book, it’s definitely worth reading.  Finches of Mars, which just arrived on our shelves this month, starts with a disturbing premise: earth has become all but uninhabitable, due to ecological disasters, overpopulation and endless war, and a group of humans cling to their precarious existence on Mars, living in towers and attempting to form a new society without religion, art or politics. The colony is dependent on earth for food, and people on earth are increasingly reluctant to supply it, the colonists discover the existence of indigenous life on Mars, and, worst of all, in the ten years the colony has been in existence, no human babies have survived more than a few hours.  While this sounds like a total downer, the book is breathtaking and ultimately hopeful, as readers of Aldiss would expect.

THE BEAUTIFUL BUREAUCRAT COVER

A different kind of science fiction book, The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips is set in a world disturbingly like our own in the not-too-distant future.  The protagonist, Josephine, has been out of work for a while when she accepts a position at The Database, a mysterious employer which requires her to input endless streams of numbers into a computer.  It’s a boring job, if you’re only talking about the work, but gradually the place starts to creep Josephine out, and she begins to intuit that there’s more to this job, and to her employer, than she’d originally suspected.  People start to disappear and then reappear without explanation, including her husband.  Who or what exactly is she working for and what exactly is her work leading to?The book has been compared to Kafka and Murakami, The Twilight Zone and The Yellow Wallpaper, and it’s an entertaining, if haunting, ride.

DELVING INTO THE DEPTHS: NEW MYSTERIES AT THE FIELD

Some terrific mystery and suspense writers have new books coming out this week and next week, so if you’re interested in an exciting read that will keep you on the edge of your seat, come in and take a look at our new mysteries.

the drowned boy cover

If you haven’t been reading Karin Fossum, a Norwegian writer whose main character is Inspector Konrad Sejer, you’ve been missing a treat.  Fossum is not as dark and depressing as other famous Scandinavian writers (Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson, to name two), nor is Sejer a brooding alcoholic.  He is, rather, a civilized man, a widower who treats suspects, witnesses and colleagues with courtesy.  The books are psychologically observant, turning more on the reasons for a crime than the gruesome details of the crime.  The latest in the series, The Drowned Boy, comes out on August 25.  A child with Down’s Syndrome has died, supposedly drowned in a pond when his mother was briefly attending to something else.  It wouldn’t seem more than an accident, except that soap is found in the boy’s lungs. The mother changes her story, and doesn’t seem to act like a grieving parent.  Was it murder?  Was it an accident?  Sejer investigates, and the book delves deeply into the relationship between the parents and their child, with Fossum’s characteristic deep empathy for troubled human beings in every situation.  When you’ve finished this one, if you like her style and her characters, you can go back to the beginning of the series and get to know them better (there are few things as delightful in the reading world as discovering that a writer you love has more books to explore).

HOSTAGE TAKER COVER

Stephanie Pintoff is not as well known to general readers as other mystery writers, but she is an Edgar award winner (and the author of a great series set in early 20th century New York City which I personally wish she would return to), and an excellent writer.  Her latest book, Hostage Taker, is probably going to be the first book in a series involving the Vidoc Squad, starring former FBI investigator Eve Rossi, and it starts the series with a punch.  Someone is holding hostages at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City shortly before Christmas, and has wired the building to explode if anyone tries to break in.  The unknown hostage taker knows Eve well, asking for her personally to act as negotiator, demanding that five different and seemingly unconnected people be brought to act as “witnesses.”  The Vidoc Squad is comprised of criminals with specific skills, whose backgrounds are woven through the story.  The plot is twisted and suspenseful, with unexpected developments throughout. Eve is a strong character, just the sort you want to meet again and again as the series progresses.  A page turner!

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES COVER

The book  Smaller and Smaller Circles is by a first time author, F. H. Batacan, but it won the National Book Award in the Philippines, where the novel is set, so the author obviously knows her stuff.  And what a plot it is! There’s a serial killer (fairly standard stuff in mysteries these days) roaming the slums of Manila (not at all the usual setting for a mystery), killing preteen boys in 1997.  Police resources in Manila are stretched thin to begin with, and this area, a literal dump inhabited by people who live on what they scavenge there (like the people in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, only set in Manila rather than Mumbai), is not a place where those scarce resources are likely to be deployed, no matter how many boys are killed. Enter two Jesuit priests, one a forensic anthropologist, one a psychologist, trying to track down the killer and stop him while at the same time struggling against the efforts of an ambitious attorney to shut them out of the investigation and the secretive nature of the Church to which they are ultimately answerable.  Called the first Philippine noir, the book is a suspenseful vista into a culture not often seen in crime or mystery novels, and well worth checking out.

COME TO THE FIRST MEETING OF THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP!

let the great world spin cover

Do you love books?  Do you love discussing books, arguing about them, sharing your brilliant insights about books with other people who also care about books and love to read?  

If so, then you’re in the right place.  The Field Library Books Notes book club is starting up for the new year, with the first meeting on September 19 (that’s a Saturday) from 11:00 to 12:30.  There will be refreshments and there will be discussions, possibly even passionate ones, about the book, and it will be fun.

The book we’re reading for the first meeting is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.  This is not a new book; it came out in 2009 and won the National Book Award that year.  If you’ve read it before, it’s well worth another read, and if you haven’t read it before, you’ve got a treat ahead of you.

Let the Great World Spin is about New York City in 1974, when Philippe Petit (who is not named in the novel but who is definitely a character) walked on a tightrope between the then-brand-new World Trade Towers, while beneath him a variety of New Yorkers interact in painful and surprising and redemptive ways.  It’s a great snapshot of a different time, when nobody had cell phones, when the internet didn’t exist but was in the process of being shaped (there are hackers calling from California to phone booths in New York to find out what’s going on, and there are computer programmers sent to Vietnam in the beginnings of Arpanet), when the Twin Towers were a symbol of hope and not a memory of disaster, when the city was grittier and felt more in danger of falling apart entirely.  It’s a book filled with death but also with hope, with vivid characters whose connections are surprising and believable, a book overflowing with a sense of New York and New Yorkers.

We’ve got copies behind the desk, ready to be checked out by anyone who’s interested in coming to the first meeting.  Come and join us for lively discussions and intriguing books!

QUIRKY BOOKS OF AUGUST

What better way to spend the dog days of summer than curled up with a good book in air conditioned splendor?  And what better time to read an unusual, perhaps even odd, certainly quirky book, than in the tail end of the summer?  With that in mind, we have several new quirky books for your perusal.

the incarnations cover

Suppose you’re just going through an ordinary day, doing your job as a taxi driver, and you get a note from an anonymous person who claims to be your soulmate who has come looking for you. Suppose you got another letter from this same person, describing one of your past lives which you don’t remember, and then there’s another letter, and another, filled with details which link you to this supposed soulmate.  Then you start to feel someone’s watching you, possibly this anonymous soulmate.  What would you do?  This is the intriguing premise of The Incarnations by Susan Barker, newly arrived in the library.  Set in Beijing, the book mixes history, folklore, suspense and intrigue in an epic combination.

fishbowl cover

Too epic for you?  Too hot to consider thousands of years of history and reincarnation?  How about a more focused book, taking place over a very short period of time? Consider Fishbowl by Bradley Somer. As the title suggests, this is a book told from the point of view of a goldfish, but not just any goldfish. Ian, this goldfish, has decided to see more of the world than he’s been able to view from his bowl in an upper floor of an apartment building, so he leaps out of the fishbowl and is airborne, falling past all the other people living their interesting lives in the apartment building. You wouldn’t think this would be enough to sustain a book (and it is a fairly short one), but you would be wrong.  A book with heart and humor, Fishbowl has been compared to The Art of Racing in the Rain and Tales of the City.

THE DOG MASTER cover

Fish a little too dull for you?  Are you a dog lover?  Have you ever wondered how the first dogs were domesticated?  Are you a fan of novels about prehistory (Jean Auel’s works, for instance)?  Have you read and enjoyed books like A Dog’s Purpose?  In that case, you should definitely try W. Bruce Cameron’s newest book, The Dog Master, set 30,000 years ago in the time of the first ice ages amid the human species’ struggle to adapt to a completely new and different environment.  The book is a coming of age story about a disabled boy who tames a wolf cub and bonds with it in the midst of hostile human tribes and environmental catastrophe.  It’s been described as impossible to put down, and a real treat for animal (and especially dog) lovers. And of course there’s something satisfying about reading a book set in bitter cold when the temperatures hover around the 90’s outside.

MAN BOOKER PRIZE NOMINEES AT THE FIELD

Are you interested in high quality literary fiction?  Do you have trouble figuring out  the best of the best in literary fiction?  You’re in luck: the Man Booker Prize committee has just announced the Man Booker Dozen, also known as the Long List of books eligible for the prize, and we have most of those books right here at the Field Library (unfortunately, some of the books on the long list haven’t even been published in the United States yet, so none of us can read them in this country).

Start with The Green Road by Anne Enright.  She won the Booker prize in 2007 for her book The Gathering.  This book is about the reunion of an Irish family from all corners of the world at the request of their dying matriarch, and has all the drama and emotion you’d expect from that situation, with Enright’s deep sympathy for and understanding of all the characters.

A very different book is A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James. Widely listed among the best books of 2014, this book takes the reader to Jamaica in 1976, when a group of gunmen broke into the home of famous Reggae artist, Bob Marley, attacking and nearly killing him. The book spans decades and follows drug dealers, journalists, killers and ghosts and raises issues of justice and retribution, good and evil, politics and fate.

If your literary tastes run more to fiction set in a more remote past, try The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, also on the Long List.  Focusing on the life and adventures of a Moroccan slave who became the first African explorer of America in the early 16th century, The Moor’s Account gives us the voice of a man whose story has been elided from the official history, but who has a different perspective on American history and colonialism.

Demonstrating that excellent literary fiction can come in many different forms, Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy, is also being considered for the Booker Prize. Unlike the others in this list, Satin Island doesn’t pretend to be realistic fiction, but a surrealistic, possibly speculative fictional and very odd look at a world similar to our present one. The book is written as a collection of musings, anecdotes and attempts by the main character (known as U) to write The Great Report, amid overwhelming layers of data and information pouring into him from the world around him.

Chigozie Obioma’s book, The Fishermen, is set in Nigeria in the 1990’s, beginning as a group of four brothers in a small town encounters a local madman who persuades them that the oldest of the brothers will be killed by one of his siblings.  The prophecy takes on a sinister significance in the family and the narrator, the youngest brother, brings the family as well as the culture and the politics of Nigeria to vivid life.

Lila, by Marilynne Robinson, is a sort of sequel to her Pulitzer Prize winning (and much loved) Gilead. The main character, Lila, has spent her early years wandering the world, all but feral, and when she finds her way to the Iowa town of Gilead and meets the much older minister, John Ames, she slowly begins to create a new life for herself, struggling with the vast distances between the suspicion and wariness her early life taught her and the Christian faith of her new husband.  Robinson takes on issues of faith and morality without heavy-handedness or dogmatism, here as in her previous novels set in Gilead.

And finally, we have Anne Tyler’s latest, A Spool of Blue Thread, also on the long list for the prize. Anyone familiar with Anne Tyler’s work will anticipate some of the common themes here: the setting of Baltimore, the focus on the ins and outs of family life, the attention to detail, the subtle humor, the beauty of her language.  This story spans generations in the lives of the Whitshank family, their lives in the same house in Baltimore, the secrets they keep and have kept from each other and from themselves, and the ties that hold them together.

If you’re looking for high quality literary fiction, or if you want to handicap the Booker Prize short list (you’re going to have a little trouble there since there are other books that have yet to be published in the US on the long list), take a look at the selections here at the Field, and enjoy!