HAUNTED HOUSES, GOTHIC AND TIME-TRAVELING

There are haunted houses and then there are really weird haunted houses.  Here at the Field Library, we have two new horror books about different kinds of haunted houses.  Those of you who are doing the 2016 Reading Challenge might want to take a look at these, which satisfy the “read a horror book” part of the challenge, and the rest of you might just be in the mood for a good flesh-creeping story.

medusa's web cover

Tim Powers is known for his prodigious imagination which frequently leads to books that are off the wall and bizarre.  His latest is Medusa’s Web, starts off dark and gets stranger as it goes along.  When their aunt commits suicide, Scott and Madeline Madden return to Caveat, an eerie and decaying old mansion in the Hollywood Hills where they were brought up. Their cousins, who are still living there, are pretty hostile and don’t want them to stay. Of course there are reasons for this hostility: the cousins have grown addicted to the use of these odd abstract drawings which have the power to flatten time, transporting them to the past and future unpredictably.  Scott wants to get out of the “House of Usher in the Hollywood Hills”, but his sister is being drawn into the house and its secrets, its supernatural links between past and present, and if Scott wants to save her and himself, he’s going to have to investigate the world of 1920’s Hollywood as well as the present.  In classic Tim Powers fashion, time is fluid and there is much more going on below the surface than anyone notices.

black rabbit hall cover

If you’re more interested in a good Gothic read, the book you want to check out is Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase. In 1969 a family lived at Black Rabbit Hall in Cornwall, using the house as a refuge from their lives in London.  They lived an idyllic life there, time seeming to stretch out forever, until tragedy struck.  Forty years later, Lorna, a young bride to be, remembering a childhood visit to the house, decides she wants to hold her wedding in the bed and breakfast that the mansion has turned into.  The place is falling apart, dilapidated and damaged, and Lorna’s fiance can’t understand why she is so obsessed with the place and its past.  The story is told in two voices, one from 1969 and Lorna’s from 2009, as heartbreaking secrets are revealed and the connections between the two people and the dark memories of Black Rabbit Hall are revealed.

 

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NEW SPECULATIVE FICTION AT THE FIELD: THE FUTURE, THE PAST, AND UNDOING REALITY

The newest science fiction books at the Field take readers on a series of bizarre and fascinating adventures, sometimes digging up a questionable past, sometimes shaking up the past and possibly the future as well.  

gentleman jole and the red queen

Let’s start with a new entry in the long-running and much-loved Miles Vorkosigan saga  by Lois McMaster Bujold, this one called Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. For those who are fans of the series, there’s nothing more I need say about the book: knowing there’s another Vorkosigan book is enough.  For those who aren’t (yet) fans of Bujold’s series, this is a late book in the series and you might want to start at the beginning (a book called Falling Free) and come to this in turn.  If you’re a fan, this book looks at Miles’ mother, Cordelia, after his father’s death, and her plans to start a new family and how those plans may unseat and confuse all the political alliances of her home planet.  Miles himself gets into the act, investigating what has been going on with his mother and what she’s doing now, and he discovers that not only is the future in dispute, but the past as well.

the assimilated cuban's cover

A little weirder, if your tastes run to short stories in the speculative fiction world, is Carlos Hernandez’ collection, An Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria.  Pause here and just contemplate that title.  Wouldn’t you want to read a book with that name?  Of course you would, if only to see what quantum santeria is and how it would fit in a story. But there are other delights and strangenesses waiting for you in this collection: a pianist who uploads his soul into his piano, a character whose punishment for having an affair is a giant horn growing out of his forehead which he refuses to remove, a border patrol agent trying to figure out how to deal with undocumented aliens from another galaxy, just to name a few.  Never boring and always unexpected, this group of stories should hold the interest of anyone who enjoys the wilder side of speculative fiction.

version control cover

And then there’s the unsettling Version Control, by Dexter Palmer.  Rebecca Wright is a woman who thinks she’s gotten past the tragedy in her history.  She’s a successful employee at an online dating service, happy with her job, happy with her husband, a physicist, and yet, there are some things going on that just bother her a little, things that aren’t quite what they should be, what she expects them to be: she enters rooms without knowing what she wanted to do there, she sees the President on television and feels he’s not the right president, and she has dreams, disturbing dreams which might have something to do with her husband’s causality violation device (he refuses to call it a time machine).  Her husband might be working on something that’s going to change the past and maybe undo reality altogether.  Is there anything Rebecca can do to save the world?

Step out of your comfort zone and try our new science fiction at the Field!

NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK: THE HANDMAID’S TALE

Our next book for the Field Notes Book Group, which will be meeting at the library on March 19, 2016, from 11:00 to 12:30 (with coffee and donuts!), is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

This classic dystopian novel* was published thirty years ago (!), and is still as chilling as it was when it first came out.  If you’ve never read it, you’re really missing out, and if you’ve read it before, it’s well worth another read.  Copies are on hold at the Circulation Desk at the library.

The main character, Offred, was not always a Handmaid.  She didn’t always live in the Republic of Gilead.  Once she had a name.  She had a job, a husband, a daughter, a life. Once she lived in the United States of America.  Now she has none of those things, and her country is completely different (or is it?).  

She has value because she is fertile, or is presumed to be.  She is the Handmaid to a high ranking Commander, and it is her job every month to lie in his bed, surrounded by the legs of his wife, and have sex with him in the hopes she will get pregnant and give him an heir.  She is not allowed to read, scarcely allowed to think.  When she leaves the house once a week to do the shopping, there is a uniform she has to wear that reduces her to an object, all but invisible.  Other women are serving women, called Marthas, and older women enforcing the new rules, called Aunts.  Then there are the Wives of the important men, who have what little power is available to women in this new, frightening world.

Over the course of the book, Offred remembers how things used to be, how they came to this pass, and considers what her options are, whether she has any at this point.  She misses her daughter, her husband, her independence.

Is there any escape?  Could something like this happen here in America?  Read, or reread, the book and then come to discuss it with the rest of the group.  Should be a lively discussion!

 

*And yes, for those of us doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, The Handmaid’s Tale definitely qualifies as a dystopian novel for those purposes!

THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND –AND SO DO I

If you’re looking for an entertaining read, one that takes you out of the hustle and bustle of life in the fast lane here in Westchester, if you’re tired of dark and sinister books (at least for the moment), allow me to recommend a real charmer of a new book: The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend, by Katarina Bivald.

The book is a love story to reading, and to books, and if you’re the kind of person who looks for books about book lovers, about the joys of reading and sharing what you read, you’re going to get a kick out of this one.  You can even test yourself (though this is certainly not necessary) by seeing if you’ve read all the books discussed in this novel.

The premise is simple enough: Sara, a quiet young woman from Sweden who’s been working in a bookstore there for years (until it shut down and she lost her job), was corresponding with Amy, a book lover in the small Iowa town of Broken Wheel for a period of time, during which Amy shared all kinds of information, not just about the books the two of them loved, but also about the people in the small town in which she’d lived all her life.  Finally Sara decides to take the plunge and come to Broken Wheel for a visit, even though she’s never been that far from home in her life and her parents are convinced there are nothing but serial killers and crazy people in the United States.

Sara arrives in Broken Wheel and is somewhat taken aback by the emptiness of the town, and more taken aback by her bad timing: she arrives on the day of Amy’s funeral.  Sara had no idea Amy had been sick, let alone that she was likely to die soon.  Sara has no idea what to do: should she return to Sweden with her tail (metaphorically) between her legs or should she stay here in this place where she doesn’t know a single soul?

The people of the town show her extraordinary kindness, encouraging her to stay in Amy’s house, refusing to take any payment for any of the things they sell her in the town.  She feels embarrassed by their generosity and decides to pay them back by opening a bookstore in one of the empty storefronts in town, though there’s no evidence whatsoever that the people in town feel they have any need for any such thing.  But Sara’s love for books and her certainty that there’s a book for everyone, however hard it may be to find that book, begins to win people over.

I’m making this sound as if it’s just a book about Sara and the bookstore, but I’m doing the book a disservice, because it’s full of characters, the charming and quirky people who live in the town, from the gay couple who run the local bar to the young woman who had a child out of wedlock years ago and has lived on the outskirts of the town’s life since to the man deserted by his wife and child years ago who begins to find new life in helping Sara, not to mention the young man with whom the town is trying to match Sara up.  

This was a book I couldn’t put down, not because of the thrill-a-minute plot, but because of the beguiling and enchanting characters, including the late great Amy herself, whose letters to Sara punctuate the chapters and give us a real sense of who she was and what, ultimately, she thought she was doing.  The book has a sly, gentle sense of humor, and compassion even for the least likely people. It even has a very satisfying ending.  Read it if you love books, read it if you love small town America, read it if you, like Sara, believe that there’s a book for everybody.

TIME FOR MYSTERIES AT THE FIELD

BREAKING WILD COVER

Amy Raye Latour, one of the protagonists in Breaking Wild, by Diane Les Besquets, just feels the need to get away from it all, and she does that by going to wild places.  On this particular instance, she goes with a hunting party of two men, leaving her husband and children behind, when she’s separated from her companions in bad weather and fails to make it back to camp. A massive hunt begins for her, but the weather turns worse and the would-be rescuers begin to believe they’re looking for a body and not a living person.  One searcher, Ranger Pru Hathaway, refuses to believe Amy is dead, and continues looking for her, in the process finding out more and more about Amy and her shadowy past.  The book intercuts between Amy’s struggle to survive and Pru’s increasingly desperate search for the missing woman as secrets are revealed and time is running out.  If you’re ready for a wild ride through dangerous wildernesses and the secrets of the human heart, go for Breaking Wild.

FIND HER COVER

If you’re interested in a darker and more psychologically focused mystery, try Find Her, by Lisa Gardner.  Flora Dane was an ordinary college student when she was kidnapped and held prisoner for a year and a half, enduring more than she ever dreamed was possible.  When she escaped miraculously, she dedicated herself to rebuilding her life and putting that nightmare behind her.  Or has she?  A detective investigating the murder of a man who kidnapped and abused other young women finds links to Flora, and discovers that Flora has been involved, in one way or another, with three other suspects in the five years since her escape.  Has she turned into a vigilante?  Could she possibly help the police investigate the disappearance of another college student under circumstances similar to hers?  And then when Flora herself disappears, the detective realizes that something much more sinister is going on, and she may not escape this time, without a lot of help from the detective, who needs to find her, and fast.

HONKY TONK SAMURAI COVER

But perhaps you’re not in the mood for dark and scary.  Perhaps you’re more interested in the exploits of a couple of misfit private investigators whose major skills seem to be in the areas of getting in trouble and making messes of things.  If that’s your preference, then you should definitely read Honky Tonk Samurai (don’t you just love that name?  Wouldn’t that be enough to make you pick up the book even if you didn’t know anything else about it?) by Joe R. Lansdale. The two main characters are Hap, a former 1960’s rebel, and his partner Leonard, a tough gay black Vietnam veteran.  They start out doing a routine surveillance in Texas, which seems pretty dull until they see a man abusing a dog, and Leonard takes matters into his own fists.  Naturally, the dog owner now wants to press charges against Leonard, making life complicated. It gets more complicated when Lily Buckner, a seemingly sweet grandmotherly type, shows up in their office and threatens to release a video of Leonard beating up the dog owner unless the pair find her missing granddaughter. A little investigation reveals that the used car dealership which was the last place anyone saw the granddaughter happened to be the center of a prostitution ring, and suddenly “complicated” is much too mild a term for the case.  The characters are vivid and unique, the dialogue snappy and smart, and the pacing fast and furious.  Spend some time in the inimitable company of Hap and Leonard and you’ll be glad you did.

MORE TIME TRAVEL AT THE FIELD

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I have a particular soft spot for books about time travel, and if you have similar tastes, you are in luck, because we have not one, not two, but three new books coming to the Field next week which involve time travel (and they demonstrate the breadth of the genre, as they are very different from one another).

arcadia cover

It is a little stretch, I admit, to call Iain Pears’ new novel, Arcadia, a time travel book, but the convoluted plot suggests connections between future and past that bring it into the time travel milieu.  The book starts with Henry Lytten, a professor at Oxford in 1960, dabbling in espionage and trying to write a fantasy novel that will be completely different from those of his forbears, J. R. R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis.  He finds unlikely help in the form of the 15 year old girl, Rosie, who lives next door, and who, in chasing after Lytten’s cat (all science fiction and fantasy novels should have cats in them), finds a doorway into another world via a mirror, an idyllic world where Storytellers are revered above everyone, and where, apparently, the book Lytten was writing has become the source of all knowledge.  Meanwhile, hundreds of years in the  (dystopian) future on the island of Mull, Angela is a psychomathematician who has discovered a number of real parallel worlds, has designed a method of time travel and used it to go back in time and erase all evidence of her work.  The book is complicated and filled with intertwining plotlines (and there’s an app which allows you to choose whichever point of view you want to read) and has all the brain-twisting fun of a good time travel novel.

every anxious wave cover

There is something impressive about the idea of using time travel NOT to change history per se but to make money, and when you’re making money by sending people back in time to the heydays of their favorite bands to see them live in concert, that’s just brilliant.  And that is the premise of Every Anxious Wave, by Mo Daviau, so how could you resist?  These two slackers find a time hole and set up a business to send people back to watch their favorite bands in concert, but then (of course) something goes wrong, and Karl, one of the slackers, finds himself not in 1980 but in 980, long before Europeans made contact with the Americas.  Karl is having a good time in Mannahatta, but his friend and co-business owner, Wayne, is distraught and trying to get him back.  Wayne ends up connecting with Lena, a brilliant and prickly astrophysicist (is there any other kind?), in an effort to find out how to get Karl back, and of course the two fall in love, and Lena can’t resist messing around with time travel herself, which leads (also of course) to more complications and great fun all around.

the lost time accidents cover

The Lost Time Accidents, by John Wray is a little less lighthearted but equally mind-boggling look at time travel, involving a man who wakes up one day to discover that he’s been removed from the stream of time. Desperate to find his way back to normal time, our protagonist, Waldemar Tolliver (“Waldy”) must confront the legacy of his bizarre family, the origins of his broken heart, and his great-grandfather’s lost discovery of the true nature of time. The book races through time and space, from turn of the century Vienna to the concentration camps of WWII to modern day New York City, playing with history and asking the big questions in an unusual and entertaining way.

 

MINETTE WALTERS: FOR DARK AND TWISTED TASTES

If you are already a fan of the dark and twisted books of Minette Walters, then there’s nothing more I need to tell you than that she has a new book, The Cellar out. You’ll run to take it out or put it on hold because you won’t be able to wait to read her latest.

However, if you are not a fan of Minette Walters — if, by some chance, you’ve never heard of her — then allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite writers of dark mysteries, in the hopes that you can get to know her fascinating and twisted books.

 

CELLAR COVER 2

Let’s start with her newest book, The Cellar, which is about a young woman, Muna, who is 14 and has been held as a virtual slave by the Songoli family, a group of African immigrants in London.  She’s been kept in the basement, not allowed to read or write, forced to work for the family, forced to take emotional, physical and even sexual abuse. Then one day the son of the family goes missing and the police get involved looking for him. Now the family has to pretend that Muna is a member of the family and not the victim of a crime, so they give her a real bedroom, decent clothes, and real food.  They talk to her in Hausa, their (and her) native language, and assume she doesn’t understand or speak English.  They are wrong.  They have underestimated Muna, and she is going to take her revenge on all of them.

Her earlier books are works of psychological suspense that are compulsive page-turners, and it’s only at the very end (if then) that the final twist is turned and you understand what was really going on.  If you liked all the plot twists of Gone Girl, you’re going to love Minette Walters.

 

THE SCULPTRESS COVER 2

The Sculptress, for instance, starts with a young woman who’s a nonfiction writer.  After the death of her child, she’s been blocked, and her publisher pushes her to go and write a book about Olive Martin, a grotesquely obese woman who was found cradling the dead and mutilated bodies of her mother and younger sister, who confessed to the murders and was promptly convicted and sent to jail for the crimes.  As the writer starts investigating, though, she begins to discover the differences between the forensic evidence of the murders and the details of Olive’s confession, and it dawns on her that there may have been a terrible miscarriage of justice. Or was there?

 

 

SCOLD'S BRIDLE COVER 2

Another of her books which I enjoyed was The Scold’s Bridle, and again, it’s a case of a gruesome murder and a question of what really happened.  Mathilda Gillespie, a snobbish woman with a tongue like an adder, is found dead in her bath, a bloody knife close to the bath and a scold’s bridle, an instrument of torture used for women accused of nagging too much, on her head.  Was this a bizarre form of suicide or was she murdered?  Sarah Blakeney, the local doctor and one of the few people who actually liked Mathilda, starts looking into the death, her interest turning more personal when she discovers that she stands to inherit Mathilda’s fortune.  The plot twists and turns and by the end you have a completely different view of Mathilda than you did at the beginning.

THE SHAPE OF SNAKES COVER

My personal favorite of her books, though, is The Shape of Snakes. Annie, a black woman, dies under suspicious circumstances in the working class English neighborhood in which she’d lived. She had enemies aplenty, but the authorities eagerly dismiss the case as an accidental death, despite the claims of the woman who found the body.  That woman, our protagonist, nearly has a breakdown over her treatment and the wrongness of the police investigation, and she and her husband leave the country for twenty years.  But she’s never forgotten, and when she comes back to the neighborhood twenty years later, she’s dogged and determined to discover what really happened to Annie.  The casual racism of the police who “investigated” the case, and the cruelty of some of the people in the neighborhood is hard to take, but when the truth is revealed, the climax is really satisfying, as is the final revelation of why the protagonist took this so seriously she was willing to fight this hard for someone she barely knew.

So if you have a taste for dark and twisting mysteries that keep you up at night because you can’t bear not to finish them now, give Minette Walters a try.  She has many books, and you don’t have to read them in any particular order.  If you can’t get your hands on her newest, The Cellar, immediately, by all means try one of her other books and see if you’re not hooked as well.

 

NOTE: Since posting this review, I’ve had a chance to read The Cellar, and it is every bit as dark and disturbing as I’d feared (or hoped) it would be.  If you’re interested in reading a more in-depth review, please check out my Goodreads review here.

FROM LINCOLN TO PORTUGAL, FROM WWI TO THE PARIS OPERA: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION

friend of mr lincoln cover

Everybody knows the story of Abraham Lincoln: how he grew up in a log cabin, his mother died when he was young, he taught himself to read, he became a backwoods lawyer and then eventually ran for President and won and became one of our greatest presidents and then was assassinated.  But most of us know the later half of the story, from the time he debated Stephen Douglas and became our president during the Civil War, and we don’t know very much about what Lincoln was like as a young man, when he was first making his way in the world, establishing himself as a lawyer, meeting and ultimately marrying Mary Todd.  Friend to Mr. Lincoln, a new book by Stephen Harrigan, aims to fill in that gap, looking at Lincoln when he was living in Springfield, Illinois, and in the process of becoming the man we know so well.  Telling the story through the eyes of some real friends of Lincoln (Joshua Speed, William Herndon) and a fictional one (a poet named Cage Weatherby) allows us to see Lincoln without the eyes of hindsight, to get a glimpse of the sometimes awkward, sometimes charming, amazingly ambitious and always human and fascinating person who became the legendary Abraham Lincoln (for those of us who are doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this book does count as a “book of historical fiction set before 1900”).

the high mountains of portugal cover

If you enjoyed Life of Pi, you’re in luck: Yann Martel, the author of that book, has come out with a new book, a historical novel called The High Mountains of Portugal.  This time, he’s not taking readers on a voyage with a tiger across the Pacific Ocean.  Instead, he’s taking us on a trip through time, with three narratives set in one location over the course of fifty years.  The first story is set in the beginning of the 20th century, about a man searching for a special crucifix, mentioned in a 17th century diary.  He has some idea of where the crucifix might be, in the remote high mountains of Portugal, and he sets off to find it.  The second story is set in 1938, decades later, introduces us to a coroner in a remote town in Portugal and his encounter with a strange woman (who turns out to have figured in the earlier story) who wants him to perform an autopsy on her husband.  And finally we find ourselves in the 1980’s where a man who’s spent most of his life in Canada suffers a loss that sends him reeling back to the small town in Portugal where he was born, and he, too, encounters the mysterious artifact and is changed by it.  This is Yann Martel, so you shouldn’t be expecting ordinary narrative (and you won’t get one here any more than you did in Life of Pi), but if you like his style of magic realism and beautiful prose, you won’t be disappointed in his newest book.

not all bastards cover

Moving from Portugal over the course of the 20th century to Italy close to the end of World War I, we have Not All Bastards Are From Vienna, a debut novel by Andrea Molesini, which has won the prestigious Campiello Prize in its native Italy.  The book tells the story of the invasion of Italy by Austrian troops in 1917, and uses the occupation of one particular villa by Austrian soldiers to examine the depths of horror and inhumanity, as well as the heights of courage, patriotism and loyalty, engendered by the war. The villa is occupied by Paolo, an orphan who lives with his grandparents, his eccentric aunt and the staff, and it is through his eyes that we see both the actions of the occupying soldiers and the resistance fighters who use the area as a base. When Paolo himself gets involved with a dangerous covert operation, he risks his life and the lives of his beloved family,  and comes face to face with the worst and the best of what the war brings out in people.

queen of the night cover

If you’re the sort of person who hears the name The Queen of the Night and immediately thinks of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, then you’re going to love the historical novel, The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. And even if you don’t know much about opera or about 18th century European high culture, you’re still going to be caught up in The Queen of the Night, a book about Liliet Berne, a famous soprano in the Paris Opera, a famous woman with nothing else to wish for except an operatic role written for her, to make her immortal.  Then a new opera is offered to her, with a part that sopranos dream of.  The only problem is that the story and the character cleave a little too closely to Liliet’s own life, especially the parts she’s been working hard to keep secret for years.  Now she has to find out who could possibly have told the mysterious author of the libretto her secrets, and as she looks through her past, we are taken on a trip from the American frontier through the dizzying heights of France’s Second Empire, watching as Liliet goes from orphan to hippodrome rider to courtesan, to maid to the empress, to diva of the Paris Opera.