CORNUCOPIA OF NEW FICTION AT THE FIELD!

Sometimes it just happens that a vast number of exciting new books are all released on the same day, and it just so happens that Tuesday, April 5, is going to be one of those days.  I’ll be writing up previews and reviews of many of those books in the next week or so, but just mark your calendars and be sure to come in next week to see all the great new books that will be appearing on our shelves.  Take a look for yourself:

the translation of love     murder of mary russell  lilac girls cover  the 14th colony.jpg  one in a million boy cover   family jewels cover.jpg

visitor cover  the beast cover.jpg  dodgers cover.jpg  one with you cover  my grandmother cover.jpg  miller's valley cover.jpg

tuesday nights cover.jpg  every heart cover.jpg  night work cover.jpg  sent to the devil  three martini.jpg  exposure cover

 

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THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT — NEW HORROR AT THE FIELD

As the spring begins and those wind storms rattle all the parts of your house that came loose during the winter, do you find yourself starting at strange noises?  As people start to come outside and socialize again after the winter, do you ever wonder what these strangers got up to when they were all locked away inside from the cold?  Are you in the mood for a little chilling, a little fear, to counteract all the new life beginning in the spring?  If so, you’ve come to the right place, because we’ve got some new horror books just waiting for you at the Field Library.

stopped heart cover

Let’s start with one of the oldest tropes of horror fiction: the haunted house.  The Stopped Heart, by Julie Myerson, takes that cliche and runs with it straight into the darkest places.  Naturally there’s a family moving into a lovely house, in this case a lovely cottage on the edge of a small village, a cottage with a gorgeous garden leading to a picture-perfect apple orchard.  The house hasn’t been occupied for a while (always a danger sign in these books), but it’s so beautiful in its old-fashioned way, and the couple who move there are trying to recover from a horrible experience (also often the background of the protagonists in a haunted house story), so they believe the place’s beauty will help them.  There’s a past story, too: one hundred fifty years ago a tree fell in the front of the house and landed on a young redheaded man.  He should have died, but he didn’t, and the family that lived in the house then took him in, although the oldest daughter starts picking up a sense that he’s somehow evil and dangerous to them.  When Mary Coles, one of the new owners of the house in the present, starts seeing and hearing things that aren’t, or shouldn’t be, there, including glimpses of a red haired young man, the questions arise: is she going mad or is there something very wrong with this idyllic house?

QUIET NEIGHBORS COVER

If a haunted house isn’t enough of a draw for you, how about a haunted bookstore? Does that spark your interest the way it sparks mine?  If so, you’re in for a treat: Catriona McPherson has written Quiet Neighbors, about a young woman trying to escape a dangerous present by hiding out in the town of Lowell, and specifically working in its chaotic and strange bookstore.  She even gets an affordable place to live in the town.  True, it’s right next door to the graveyard, but at least her neighbors are quiet and — she thinks — unlikely to cause her any problems.  There are secrets in the bookstore and the the protagonist’s long dead neighbors have secrets of their own, and the past and present are set to collide in a very dangerous (and scary) way.

fellside cover

And then let’s turn to an author who’s riding on the wave of a terrific book a couple of years ago.  M. R. Carey got my attention with The Girl With All the Gifts (and if you haven’t read that yet, go and read it!  A suspenseful, moving, disturbing book that I couldn’t put down, it’s well worth your time), and has now come out with another book that’s on my To Be Read list, Fellside.  The protagonist of this book, Jess, is a convicted murderer of a child, locked away in prison. She doesn’t remember anything about the night when the death happened, when the building in which she and the child upstairs were living caught on fire and burned down, but she’s beginning to believe she must have been responsible, when she’s visited by the ghost of the dead child.  He tells her she didn’t kill him, but he needs her to help him find (and punish) the real murderer.  Not an easy task, especially for a “child killer” released into the general population of a notorious prison where the other prisoners don’t particularly like child killers.  If Jess is half as good and moving a character as Melanie, in The Girl with All the Gifts, this should be a spectacular read.

Of course, for those of you joining me in the 2016 Reading Challenge, one of the categories is “Read a Horror Novel,” and you could hardly do better than to pick up one of these three new horror books at the Field.

 

JANE STEELE: A ROLLICKING READ FOR THOSE WHO LOVE VICTORIAN NOVELS

The high concept description of Jane Steele, by Lydnsay Faye, is “What if Jane Eyre were a serial killer?”  For some people, that’s enough to make the book irresistible.  I have to confess that the prepublication materials for the book, which took the famous quote from the original Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”) and juxtaposed it against the quote from this book (“Reader, I murdered him”), were enough to sell me on the book.  If you’re the sort of person who’s fallen in love with the idea of this book from these two lines, you don’t need to read the rest of the review.  Just put a hold on the book and enjoy.

But if you decide that the book is likely to be silly, a one-note takeoff, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and therefore decide to avoid the book for that reason, you would be cheating yourself out of a great fun read, a book that has brought me more laugh out loud moments than anything else I’ve read all year so far.

Jane Steele, a homage of sorts to Jane Eyre, shares a few things in common with the classic: both are first person narrations by a young woman in Victorian England, both women are orphans and have difficult relations with their other relations, both are sent to horrifying boarding schools to get rid of them, both end up as governesses for well to do, mysterious and brooding men with sinister secrets in their past.  Jane Steele, the heroine of this book, even reads Jane Eyre and is a big fan, quoting from it often and approvingly (though she’s not above critiquing some of the other Jane’s less-than-brilliant choices), but her approach to the difficulties of her life is a little different from Jane Eyre’s.  Instead of suffering in silence, she’s wont to taking action, and sometimes that action includes pushing a tormentor into a gully where he breaks his neck, or stabbing someone with a letter opener, or poisoning someone, or — well, you get the picture.

And yet, Jane is such a vivid person, so winning and alive and so much fun to follow through London and environs, and the people she kills are people who absolutely do deserve to die (the author is wonderful at creating true villains; Dickens and Wilkie Collins would be proud of her!), that her actions seem perfectly reasonable and even meritorious in context.

You don’t have to love Victorian novels to enjoy this one, but if you have a taste for the Brontes, or Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, you will really enjoy the way the author sets up her plot, drops her hints, and even names her characters (a police officer whose name is Constable Quillfeather? A lawyer whose name is Cyrus Sneeves? And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg). Jane manages to have a rather modern sensibility without feeling like an anachronism, and her droll sense of humor makes you want to read certain passages aloud.

The plot concerns Jane’s mysterious origins and her possible title to the house on the outskirts of which she was brought up, and the still more mysterious past of her employer, Charles Thornfield, and his very interesting household of Sikh servants and companions.  There’s missing treasure, there’s warrior women and the underside of London, there’s intrigue and romance and suspense, and it’s all carried off in such great style and with such a sense of fun the book is practically irresistible.  Even Charlotte Bronte, author of Jane Eyre, would approve.  Check it out for yourself!

And, as an added bonus, if you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this book definitely counts as a historical novel set before 1900, so you can feel virtuous while you’re enjoying yourself.  What’s not to love?

 

 

THE NORTH WATER: A TRIP THROUGH HELL IN THE ARCTIC

The North Water by Ian Mcguire is a no-holds-barred historical novel set in the waning days of the whaling era, 1859, and takes the reader on a grueling but enthralling trip to the arctic and to the depths of the human heart.  It’s a fast read because you can’t put it down. It’s a book that tests your nerves, because some really terrible things happen in it, but it’s also a book that brings a whole world to life before your eyes.

Patrick Sumner, the protagonist (and as close as we’re going to get to a hero in this book), is a surgeon, lately returned from the British Army, where he served in the Sepoy Uprising in India.  In the midst of the horrors and atrocities of the Delhi campaign, he ended up betrayed and dishonorably discharged from the service.  Desperate for a new life, he signs on with the Volunteer, a whaling ship whose captain is known to be unlucky (there are hints of something terrible having happened to his last ship, though we never find out exactly what the disaster was), and whose owner has already realized that whaling is on its way out and has figured out a better way to make money with his ship, by having an “accident” in the Arctic and collecting the insurance money. Sumner does not realize this at first (though he puts the pieces together by the end of the book), nor does he realize that among the crew on this voyage is a monster in human form, Henry Drax.  Sumner hopes that his tenure on the ship will be peaceful and easy, that he will be able to treat the small injuries and illnesses of the crew and spend most of his time reading and floating away in opium dreams.

Of course that doesn’t happen, and when Sumner discovers that one of the cabin boys has been raped, he feels compelled to act, and when that same boy is found murdered, his body stuffed into a barrel aboard the ship, Sumner pits himself not only against the captain, who wants to set up an easy scapegoat for the heinous acts, but against Drax, who has no compunctions against killing anyone, even the captain.  As the ship proceeds to its inevitable “accident”, and more and more things start to go wrong, the tension rises and you turn pages faster and faster, hoping against hope that somehow Sumner will survive and some kind of justice will be done.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted or for people who object to graphic violence or bad language.  The phrase “swearing like a sailor” is very apt here, and between the f-bombs and the references to women and blacks, the language is true to its time but appalling to a modern reader.  This is a whaling expedition, at least ostensibly, and the men on the ship are casually cruel hunters, killing seals, bears and whales and rendering them for use, all of which is described in vivid and memorable language.

However, if you’re willing to face some rough language and a lot of violence and cruelty, this is one incredible novel, a book you can’t put down. The characters come alive in all their contradictions and complexities, the plot keeps surprising you, and the historical and geographical detail is amazing. Pick up The North Water and take an unforgettable trip.

WEST WITH THE NIGHT: APRIL’S BOOK GROUP BOOK

For April, the Field Notes Book Group will be reading and discussing Beryl Markham’s classic memoir, West with the Night. As usual, we will be meeting at the library on the third Saturday of the month, in this case April 16, from 11:00 to 12:30, and there will be coffee and donuts to aid in the discussion.

Beryl Markham lived a fascinating life and makes it vividly real to her readers.  She grew up in the beginning of the 20th century in what is now Kenya and was then British East Africa, encountering wild animals (she relates a story of the time she got mauled by a lion, and a hunt with her beloved dog for wild boars, among other stories), learning how to train and breed thoroughbreds, and finally learning how to become a pilot, one of the very few women pilots in Africa at the time.

It’s not just that she writes about a world that most of us will never get to experience for ourselves, and a time that has already retreated from living memory. It’s also the way she writes, the poetry of her language, the vividness of her prose, that makes this book a great one to discuss.  She’s capable of writing about a horse race between animals none of us have ever heard of or will ever hear of again and making it so suspenseful you can hardly stop reading, and a few pages later she can describe the beauties of flying at night over a country so dark, so lacking in the comforts and colors of civilization, it’s as if she’s describing another world, but one you wish you could share in person.  

If you’ve read the book before, read it again and savor the style, the language, the vivid descriptions, the world she brings to life.  If you’ve never read it before, you’re in for a treat, so pick it up.  And then come and join us for discussion and goodies.

TRUTH, BEES, SPIES, CLOCKWORK AND THE END OF THE WORLD: WELCOME TO ANGELMAKER

Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, is a wonderful, fun book that’s almost impossible to categorize.  It’s science fiction, sort of, it’s steampunk, sort of, it’s alternate history, sort of, it’s a takeoff on your classic James Bond book, sort of  . . .It’s in a class by itself, or at least in a class with very few others like it.

The book is about preventing the end of the world.

No, the book is about a man discovering his true heritage and embracing his father’s legacy.

No, the book is about the dangers of ultimate truth.

No, the book is about all the amazing and unbelievable things going on that most of us never realize or imagine.

See what I mean?  Every one of those statements is true, but none of them is the complete truth.

It begins with Joe Spork, an unassuming clockmaker who happens to be the son of an infamous gangster, Matthew “Tommy Gun” Spork, and the grandson of a famous clockmaker.  He’s living a quiet life in London, trying to keep his head down and become as little like his father as possible.

However, his path crosses that of Edie Bannister, an elderly lady with a demented and grotesque little dog (the dog, Bastion, plays a big part in the plot).  She seems perfectly harmless, but appearances can be deceiving, because in her youth she was a great spy and even now she has the key to a machine that could in fact destroy the world, and she uses Joe to set that machine in motion.

You’re probably thinking of something huge and destructive when I mention a doomsday machine, something like a thermonuclear bomb or worse.  You will be surprised, then, to learn that the device is actually a truth machine, and it’s operated by these little gold clockwork bees in hives all around the world.

It’s this kind of surprising playing with expectations that makes this book such a delight to read.  As Joe inadvertently turns on the machine, he finds himself in a world of trouble, chased by murky government agents as well as creepy automaton-like cultists, helped by Edie and by his father’s law firm (and I have to say right here that I LOVED the lawyer, Mercer, who helps Joe, and that if Stuart Woods’ character, Stone Barrington, had half the power and cleverness Mercer has, he would be a happy man), Polly (Mercer’s sister, who becomes Joe’s partner in more ways than one), a monk in the Ruskinite cult, and a group of former associates of Joe’s gangster father.

And of course there is a supervillain, because there would have to be in a book like this.  He is Shem Shem Tsien, a handsome, incredibly intelligent and agile sociopath, an arch nemesis of Edie’s from decades ago and a nemesis of Joe’s for reasons that become clear late in the book.  Most supervillains just want to rule the world, but Shem Shem Tsien has bigger ambitions: he wants to be God.  He wants to take over the whole universe and, thanks to the device Joe has set in motion, he may actually succeed.

In addition to the riveting plot and the wonderfully quirky characters (many of them women: Edie herself is a prize, and Polly is great fun, but there’s also Joe’s mother, now a nun, and Dotty Catty, Shem Shem Tsien’s mother, among others), the book is alive with great descriptions: the creepy place where the device is kept, the Ada Lovelace, a handmade train with surprising powers, the court of Shem Shem Tsien, the underground market and so forth.  The author brings this whole wacky world to life and makes it believable and worth saving.

Set aside a block of time and give yourself the pleasure of reading Angelmaker.  You won’t be disappointed.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE: MY DECADE BOOK

As part of the 2016 Reading Challenge, I read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (so now you know how old, at least in general, I am), a very unusual kind of haunted house book in that there are no ghosts to speak of, but the house itself is deeply disturbing.

The premise of the book is simple enough, and any aficionado of horror movies will recognize it: there is a house that’s supposed to be haunted, and four individuals are spending time in the house, investigating whether it is or isn’t haunted.  The leader of the group is a doctor, and he invites the nonresident owner of the house, Luke, and two young women, Theodora and Eleanor, chosen because of their psychic sensitivities.  The whole book is told through Eleanor’s perspective, and you have to admire the skill with which Jackson keeps us inside Eleanor’s head as the house begins to assert itself and begins, in fact, to show a creepy interest in Eleanor in particular, though she’s had no previous connection with the house.

Eleanor has her issues, though they are not the sort of issues you’d see in a protagonist in a modern horror story.  She’s kind of mousy and repressed, and up until this trip she really hasn’t gone far from the house in which she grew up, the house in which she lived, until very recently, with her dying mother. She is not a reliable narrator, and that’s part of the fun of the book, trying to figure out how much of what she sees and experiences is really there and how much is the product of her own warped way of looking at the world.

Something is definitely wrong with Hill House, and it’s not all just Eleanor’s perceptions. The house is built just slightly off, so doors do not stay open no matter what you do, and the design of the rooms in the house is deliberately confusing: things you should be able to see out of one window are invisible, rooms open up into other rooms when they should communicate with the outside world, and even maps of the house don’t help people find their way around.

One of the real charms of the book is the way Jackson suggests horrors without describing them in detail.  There’s a scene at night where Theodora and Eleanor are together in their room and there are terrible noises coming from outside the door, as if someone or something were trying to get in.  The noises are so vividly described you feel as if you’re there with the women, and yet you never actually find out what caused the noises.  Likewise, there’s a scene later in the book with a picnic which Eleanor and Theodora witness; the details are not described, so all you see is the way the women react to it, and in some ways that’s scarier than if you actually saw who or what was at that picnic.

The Haunting of Hill House is an old-fashioned book, and you wouldn’t mistake it for a book written in 2016, and yet if you let yourself fall under its spell, it definitely packs a punch of its own.  If you’re doing the Reading Challenge, this book was made into a movie, The Haunting (which we have available for borrowing at the library), and it’s an interesting example of how a movie can be different from a book and still faithful to its spirit.

 

QUIRKY NEW BOOKS FOR MARCH

Not all the new books fall into easily defined categories, mysteries, historical, speculative fiction, romance or whatever.  Some of the most interesting and rewarding books fall into one of my favorite categories: quirky (some might say “odd” or even “bizarre”, but for obvious reasons I prefer “quirky”).  These are the books that take a slightly skewed look at the world around us, that start from unusual premises and aren’t afraid to go all the way with them.  There are a few new quirky novels here at the library that might be just the thing to pop you out of an ordinary period of reading.

son of the morning cover

What, you might ask, is quirky about the Hundred Years War, that seemingly endless medieval conflict between England and France over the rulership of France which produced Crecy and Agincourt, Henry V and Joan of Arc?  Well, in the new book Son of the Morning: A Novel of the Hundred Years’ War by Mark Alder, the addition of angels and demons definitely changes the whole picture of the war.  As the kings of both England and France face their prospects in the war in the year 1337, they both seek independently to gain the favor of heaven, trying to recruit angels to fight on their side, to the point of sending people out to search for holy men and relics that could get God’s attention and favor.  After a while, though, Edward of England begins to wonder if maybe he’s have better luck seeking out supernatural help from another direction, from hell itself.  Will God actually intervene?  Will Lucifer?  What effects will these potential interventions have on the history of Europe?  

sleep garden cover

Might you be interested in the questions of life after death in a different way?  You might want to try The Sleep Garden by Jim Krusoe.  The book takes place in The Burrow, a strange underground apartment building where “twilight” souls inhabit the space between life and death, and a series of technicians monitor their biological and psychological processes, keeping them supplied with food and oxygen so they can remain in this state of something like purgatory until they are able to move on.  The stories of those twilight people and those who take care of them intertwine, raising questions of what is life, what is death, and what actually survives you.

lovecraft country cover

There’s something about the work of H.P. Lovecraft that seems to inspire writers more than ever.  Perhaps it’s the genuine weirdness of the world he created and its seeming applicability to modern day life, and perhaps it’s Lovecraft’s well-known problems (his racism, his misogyny, his personal weirdness) that inspire people to their own takes on Lovecraft’s work.  In Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, the author takes on the deep rooted racism of Lovecraft’s world head on.  In 1954, the main character, Atticus Turner, is a black man looking for his missing father, in the company of his uncle and childhood friend.  His journey takes him to the manor of one Samuel Brathwaite, and along the way he and his companions encounter both the dangers of being black in a segregated and prejudiced society and the dangers of a supernatural nature.  They find Atticus’ father being held prisoner by a secret cabal with warped rituals that require Atticus himself, and to fight against this terrible sect, Atticus might just have to destroy not only himself but his entire clan.  

blackass cover

The premise of the novel, Blackass, by A. Igoni Barrett, is reminiscent of Kafka: one morning a young Nigerian man wakes up to discover that he’s turned white.  Well, most of him has turned white: his backside is still black.  He changes his name, works on his accent, his behavior, all the things that would ordinarily label him as black, and soon finds himself with a new job, a new life, and connections with people who may be trying to rip him off or use him for their own purposes.  A satire about modern life, especially but not only in Nigeria, a look at the importance we place on appearance and the kind of double dealing and false faces we take for granted in ordinary business life, Blackass is a unique and eye-opening, if quirky, book.

 

THE RICHNESS OF THE PAST: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

One of the great joys of good historical fiction is its ability to transport us out of our modern lives and our modern world and give us a chance to live, if only for a short time, in other worlds and other times.  There are three new historical novels at the library that should be perfect for introducing readers to quirky and fascinating characters and periods of history.

SCARPIA COVER

The main characters of Scarpia, by Piers Paul Read, should be familiar, at least in their general outlines, to fans of Puccini’s great opera, Tosca. Vitello Scarpia, a Sicilian, finds himself caught up in the storms of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars changing the map of Europe.  His fiery passions (well known to fans of the opera) have already cost him a job with the Spanish Royal Guard and sent him to Rome, where his fortunes intertwine with those of the Pope, imperiled by the tide of revolution sweeping across the continent.  A mission to Venice brings him to the attention of the beautiful Floria Tosca, and sets in motion the tragic events depicted in Puccini’s opera.  This book, aside from being a thrilling look at a tumultuous period in European history, also qualifies (for those doing the 2016 reading challenge) as a historical novel set before 1900, so it’s win-win!

mrs houdini cover

Most people know the story of Harry Houdini, but the new novel, Mrs. Houdini, by Victoria Kelly, shows readers a different side of his life and his character by focusing on his widow, Bess, and what happened to her after Houdini’s death.  Houdini had promised to communicate with her from the afterlife if such a thing was possible, using a secret code that only the two of them would know (to protect Bess against frauds, of which there were many in the field of mediums).  In the aftermath of Harry’s death, Bess starts seeing that code everywhere, and in attempting to find out what urgent message Harry is trying to give her, Bess finds herself going back through their history together, from Coney Island to Austria to Hollywood, until his ultimate magic is revealed.

BEHAVE COVER

Sometimes a good historical novel can reveal episodes and sidelines of the past you wouldn’t know about otherwise.  The book Behave, by Andromeda Romano-Lax, is one of those books, focusing on the real person, Rosalie Rayner, who graduated from Vassar College in the 1920’s and found herself working with John B. Watson, the father of behavioral psychology, trying to figure out how babies develop.  The two fell in love, had an affair which cost both of them their jobs, and, after many experiments on babies, the two of them wrote a book on child development which sold hundreds of thousands of copies and helped shape a whole generation of American children.  Rosalie’s fascinating story raises all kinds of questions about the age old questions of mothering and how to raise children.

WOMEN IN MYSTERIES AND THRILLERS AT THE FIELD

the passenger cover

It’s not always a good thing when a writer moves from her comfort zone to try something new, but in the case of Lisa Lutz, known for the Spellman Files series of mysteries involving a private eye and her extremely eccentric family, trying something new is definitely a good idea.  Her newest book, The Passenger, is a far cry from the world of Isabel Spellman; this book is a dark thriller about a woman who has to change her appearance and her identity frequently because of some really scary stuff in her past.  At the beginning of The Passenger, our main character is Tanya Dubois, discovering the recently murdered body of her husband in compromising circumstances.  With years of practice behind her, she dyes her hair, changes her name, cashes in her credit cards and goes on the run.  She meets up with a bartender, named Blue, who offers her shelter and companionship, which might be more dangerous than she, in her current incarnation as Debra, realizes, as her past begins to catch up to her.  For a psychological thriller that’s also a page-turner that will keep you reading all night,  read The Passenger.

jump cut cover

A different kind of female protagonist stars in Jump Cut by Libby Fisher Hellman, a more traditional sort of mystery.  Ellie Forman, a film producer in Chicago, is understandably dismayed when the production she’s working on gets cancelled by the vice president of the company being profiled.  Ellie suspects the vp was spooked by seeing a particular person on the footage, but when she tries to meet the man in question, he is killed in a seeming train accident, leaving her a cigarette package with a zip drive in it, a zip drive with encrypted information that may lead to spies and dangerous people who are willing to do anything, including kidnapping Elile’s daughter, to keep her from finding out what’s really going on.  In over her head, with few people to trust, Ellie has to unravel the mystery and figure out how her little puff piece on a Chicago company turned into such a nightmare.

the silence of the sea cover

Speaking of nightmares, come with us to Iceland for the disturbing mystery The Silence of the Sea, by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, where a luxury yacht arrives at Reykjavik harbor with no one on board at all. Thora Gudmondsdottir, the sleuth in this series, is at first ready to dismiss rumors that this particular yacht is cursed, but then when she enters the ship and thinks she catches a glimpse of one of the missing children, she begins to question her earlier certainties.  There was a full crew and a family on board the ship when it left Lisbon.  What happened to all of those people? And whose body is it that’s washing ashore to the north of the harbor?  In the fine tradition of Scandinavian mystery writers, Yrsa Sigurdardottir serves up a dark and creepy exploration of human evil.