HORROR IN THE HUDSON VALLEY: HEX

Are you ready for a good creepy book, set in a fictitious town here in the Hudson Valley?  Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, is coming out next week and should be a real stay-up-late-reading-with-the-lights-on kind of book (and also it qualifies as a horror book for the 2016 Reading Challenge, for those who are looking for a good book in that category).

The book, a bestseller in the Netherlands where it was first published, takes us to a picturesque Hudson Valley Town, Black Spring, which has been haunted for three centuries by Katherine, the Black Spring Witch, a disturbing figure who wanders the streets of the town, appearing in children’s rooms, her eyes and mouth sewn shut.  Everyone in town knows that something terrible will happen if ever she opens her eyes.

Anyone who is born in the town can’t leave.  Anyone who settles in the town stays there.  The leaders of the community use high tech surveillance to keep track of the witch’s presence and wanderings at all times, and to make sure her existence and her actions are kept secret from the outside world.  The program is called HEX, and it has kept stories about Black Spring out of the world’s knowledge for decades.

However, times are changing, and while teenagers in the past might have disliked the restrictions living in Black Spring placed on their lives, there wasn’t much they could do about the situation.  Modern teenagers, by contrast,  believe they can do something about their isolation and their sense of living under perpetual lockdown.  So when Katherine shows up in the room of one of the boys, he takes pictures of her and posts them on social media, thus upending the town’s whole structure and bringing all kinds of unintended consequences, not just on them but on everyone in the town.

Who was Katherine?  What would happen if she were able to speak or to open her eyes?  What happened in the town in the past that brought this curse on them? What will happen when the secrets of Black Spring go viral?  Dive into the bizarre and creepy world of Hex and find out!

CHILD’S PLAY: CHARMING NEW BOOKS AT THE FIELD

Sometimes you just need a warm hearted book that will reawaken your faith in human nature, in the goodness of your fellow human beings.  Even I, with my obvious taste for the weird and the dark, sometimes need to clean my palate with a book that’s gentle and kindhearted.  If you’re in that kind of mood, you’re in luck, because we have some new and charming books available here at the Field, just waiting for you to check them out. One of the things they all have in common, besides a lot of heart and an interest in quirky people, is a main character who’s young and dealing, one way or another, with the oddities of the adult world.

my grandmother cover

There are times when the title alone gives you a good hint about what kind of book it is.  One such book is My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, by Fredrik Backman, the author of the charming international bestseller, A Man Called Ove. Our protagonist, Elsa, is seven years old and not like other little girls.  Her best and closest friend is her grandmother, seventy-seven and all out crazed, the kind of old lady who stands on her balcony shooting paintball guns at strangers who come to the house to talk about Jesus.  Elsa’s grandmother’s last request is that Elsa bring letters asking for forgiveness from all the people she’d wronged during her life, and in fulfilling this request, Elsa discovers a world of quirky, strange people, the underlying reality of the fairy tales her grandmother told her, and the wonders of her grandmother’s life.  

one in a million boy cover

Death is also a spark for the events of The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood.  The protagonist is Quinn Parker, a musician who’s spent so much time on the road he’s missed out on the life of his strange, Guinness Book of World Records obsessed son. When the 11 year old boy dies, Quinn is filled with guilt and tries to make up for his failure as a father by finishing the requirements of the Boy Scout Merit Badge his son had been working on at the time of his death. This brings Quinn into contact with Ova Vitkus, a 104 year old immigrant woman whom the boy had talked into going for the world’s record as the oldest licensed driver in the world.  The more time Quinn spends with Ova, the more he comes to appreciate the son he never knew, and the people his son’s brief life touched.

FATHER'S DAY COVER

Father’s Day, by Simon van Booy, is a story of redemption and love, in which a young orphan girl, Harry, is taken to live with her disabled uncle Jason, who’s a felon with a violent past and not a great present.  Somehow Harry’s social worker sees more to Jason than most of the world does, and persuades him to become Harry’s legal guardian.  The book is told partly in the present, where Harry is an adult woman living in Paris and waiting for her uncle to visit for Father’s Day, and partly through her reminiscences of her past with Uncle Jason. While it sounds like a cliche to have a six year old girl redeeming a distant relative through her love, Van Booy brings a new depth and empathy to all his characters and creates a story that will remain in readers’ hearts.

NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP READING: LITTLE BEE

The selection for May for the Field Notes Book Group was suggested by one of the members, and it’s a great read and an even better seed for discussions.  The book is Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and we’ll be meeting to discuss it at the library on May 21 from 11 to 12:30.

The book, told in the alternating voices of Little Bee and Sarah, begins with Little Bee, a young Nigerian girl, languishing in a detention center for illegal immigrants in England.  She’s been there for two years with few prospects of ever getting out, when a seeming miracle occurs and she and three other refugee women are released from the center.  Little Bee knows only two people in the country of England, Sarah and Sarah’s husband, Andrew, and so when she has to find a place to stay, she calls Andrew, setting in motion a series of events tragic and poignant.

The backstory is revealed slowly, both from Little Bee’s point of view and Sarah’s, but it’s clear from the outset of the book that the initial encounter between the couple of Little Bee on a beach in Nigeria was shattering for all of them.  The whole story is revealed at about the midpoint of the book, and it is every bit as terrible as you, the reader, have been dreading it would be, and then the question is, what are these people going to do now that Little Bee is here in England.

It’s not a light or a funny book, but the writing is terrific, even when the characters are relating incredibly poignant and painful experiences.  While Sarah, an upper middle class married woman with a child and a career as an editor of a fashion magazine, is the sort of person we meet in many novels, she has quirks of her own, and her past interactions with Little Bee, the reason she was in Nigeria in the first place and her response to the incident, together with her actions once Little Bee arrives on her doorstep, make her unique and intriguing.

Other characters, including four year old Charlie who insists on wearing his Batman suit everywhere and being addressed as Batman, Andrew, Sarah’s husband, and Little Bee’s older sister, are well-developed and interesting as well.

But the real heart of the story is Little Bee, and she is a memorable and powerful character, her voice rich and full, her courage and resilience marvelous.  More than anything else, you read this story to root for her, to wish for her success and her happy ending.

A book that asks questions about the moral responsibility of First World people in Third World tragedies, that looks at English civilization from a very different and eye-opening perspective, and brings us into a compelling story of human loss and love: come read and discuss Little Bee at the next Field Notes meeting on May 21.  We’ll even have donuts and coffee!

READING CHALLENGE: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION SET BEFORE 1900 AT THE FIELD

If you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, you know that one of the categories is “Read a book of historical fiction set before 1900.”  If you’re not doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, you’re missing out, but that’s another topic altogether. It might seem a little difficult to find historical fiction set before 1900 (especially since I haven’t sent out a list of books that qualify yet), so, in the interest of giving you options, here are some books that qualify for that part of the challenge which have come out in the last couple of months.  Even if you’re not doing the challenge, these books cover interesting time periods and characters and are well worth checking out.

goddess of fire cover

Let’s start with Goddess of Fire by Bharti Kirchner, set in India in the 17th century, just at the beginning of the British East India Company’s involvement with India.  The main character is Moorti, a very young widow who’s about to be thrown on her husband’s funeral pyre for suttee when she is rescued by a very unlikely angel of mercy: Job Charnock, a founding member of the East India Company. She’s renamed Maria and begins her life with the company, first as a servant and then, as she learns English, as a more vital part of the company.  There are many books about the British Raj as it became established in India, but few that take you inside the beginning of the East India Company’s reign, and fewer still with a main character as likable as Moorti/Maria.  

margaret the first cover

For another book about a remarkable real life woman, try Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton.  A very unusual woman for her time, Margaret (formerly an attendant the queen of England) married a man, William Cavendish, who encouraged her to think for herself and to write. When she returned from exile at the end of the English Civil War, she became a scandal and a celebrity, known for her writing and her wild behavior (appearing topless at a theatrical premiere, for instance), but she was no 17th century Kardashian.  She was the first woman ever invited to join the Royal Society of London, and a mainstay of the Scientific Revolution, and her story is as vivid and full of life as “Mad Madge” herself.

last confession of thomas hawkins

If you’re in the mood for a picaresque story of someone who’s lived a wild life in the 18th century in London, there’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Hodgson.  The main character, Thomas Hawkins, is on his way to the gallows as the book begins, and he’s explaining how none of the trouble he got into along the way was actually his fault, or the result of any malice on his part.  True, he was living in sin with his girlfriend. True, he said the wrong thing to the local criminal mastermind, and true, he really shouldn’t have gotten involved helping the king’s mistress get away from a brutal and desperate husband, especially since that involved him Queen Caroline, who’s promised him a pardon if he keeps his mouth shut, but really, he was always trying  to do the right thing.  Whether that will keep him off the gallows is a good question, and the heart of this rollicking book.

nelly dean cover

I’ve recently written about my love for revisitings of famous books, and Nelly Dean, by Alison Case, falls into that category as well as the historical fiction before 1900.  For those who actually read Wuthering Heights, instead of just seeing the movie(s), the name of Nelly Dean will be quite familiar: she’s the servant who tells the story of Heathcliff and Cathy and all the Gothic details of life at Wuthering Heights.  She doesn’t talk about herself in the classic book, so Alison Case has taken it upon herself to give Nelly a back story and a new perspective on all the much more famous characters of the book.  If you’re a fan of Wuthering Heights, give yourself the gift of another take on the story of passion, heartbreak and redemption.

 

TRAVELERS REST: COLD, COLD HORROR

One of the greatest advantages of buying new fiction for the library is that I get to see all the wonderful stuff that’s coming out, and to choose the things that seem especially interesting or exciting to me. Of course, one of the disadvantages is that I want to read all the new books and nobody has time to do that!

The moment I ordered Keith Lee Morris’ book Travelers Rest, I knew I wanted to read it, and not just because one of the categories in the 2016 Reading Challenge is “Read a Horror Book” (though that certainly encouraged me).  Followers of the blog will remember that I wrote about it in a preview when it first came out a couple of months ago, and I hope I made it sound really intriguing then.

Now that I’ve read it for myself, I want to encourage everybody who’s doing the Challenge, and everybody who enjoys a great, atmospheric creepy novel to read Travelers Rest for themselves.

If you’re saying to yourself, “Oh, I don’t like horror books,” because you’re thinking of books with monsters and zombies and the like, or books with tons of gore and blood and cruelty, then this is exactly the kind of horror book you’re going to like.  It’s a book that produces its effects by description, by the gradual accumulation of details, by giving you characters you care about and showing you, bit by bit, what’s happening to them, and it is incredibly effective.

The story begins when a family — Tonio, the father, Julia, the mother, Dewey, the son, and Robbie, Tonio’s loser brother — leaves the interstate highway in Idaho one night in a snowstorm, pulling into a town called Good Night and finding themselves at a hotel called Travelers Rest, a dilapidated and creepy hotel that once, clearly, was an opulent place.  From the moment they enter the hotel, it’s clear there’s something very strange about the place, the way the man running the hotel refuses to take any money for their stay, the way different members of the family can see, or almost see, scenes from the past, the way no cell phones work properly and the ancient television only seems to show slow motion images, grainy and strange, of almost familiar figures.  And the snowstorm goes on and on, making it seem very unlikely they’ll be leaving the next morning.  As indeed, they don’t, but not just because of the snowstorm.  The family members are separated and can’t seem to find each other again: Robbie finds the nearest bar and gets back into trouble, Tonio leaves the hotel to find help and can’t seem to get back to the same hotel he left, Julia finds herself perpetually unlocking a door to a room she knows and doesn’t know, a room that changes each time she’s in it, and Dewey, left to himself, manages to meet up with the couple running the diner across the street, a couple who seem to know a lot more about the town and the hotel than they’re saying.

Any horror story involving people stuck in a hotel in a snowstorm has the shadow of Stephen King’s The Shining looming over it, and you probably will think, when the story is beginning, that you’re on familiar turf, but you’re not, and very soon Travelers Rest has pulled you into its unearthly but very believable world, where some people just disappear altogether and others remain in the town as “souvenirs”, unable or unwilling to leave.  The book plays on primal fears of abandonment, of being lost and forgotten by those you love, those on whom you rely, and it packs a wallop.  The first time you actually experience someone disappearing, which comes late in the book (and no, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you who’s the victim), it is absolutely chilling, and by that point you’re so hooked you can’t stop reading until you find out why this family is here, and what’s going to happen to them.

The snowstorm is practically a character in itself, and for those of us who have lived through real blizzards, Morris’ descriptions are wonderfully real and vivid (maybe this would be a good book to read in the middle of summer) and accurate.  The characters, too, come to life, none of them a stereotype even though they start out as near archetypes: Robbie the ne’er do well brother, Tonio the emotionally repressed husband and overprotective father, Dewey the precocious ten year old, Julia the mysterious woman who seems to hold everybody else together.  Add echoes from the past, the possibilities that people are able to be in two places and two times simultaneously, and hints of something terrible that happened a hundred years ago in this very spot, and you have a horror novel that’s intricately plotted, creepy and moving, right to the last sentence, which gave me goose bumps.

Looking for a horror novel for the 2016 Reading Challenge?  Stop off at Travelers Rest for a time you’ll never forget.

NEW TAKES ON OLD TALES

One genre I personally find fascinating is the “new look at classics” book: modern writers looking at Shakespeare, for instance, or creating backstories for neglected characters in famous books (e.g., Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, telling the story of Rochester’s first wife in Jane Eyre).  We have a couple of new books at the Field in this genre, and if you’re interested in seeing something familiar with new eyes, they’re worth checking out.

sent to the devil cover

Lots of people know Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni (especially after the movie, Amadeus, featured it); fewer people know the librettist for the opera, Lorenzo Da Ponte.  However, Sent to the Devil by Laura Lebow should remedy that omission, and give readers a new insight into Da Ponte and his world (this book, I shouldn’t even need to add, also fills the category of “Read a Historical Novel set before 1900” for the 2016 Reading Challenge).  As Da Ponte puts the finishing touches on the libretto for Don Giovanni’s premiere performance in Vienna, the world around him spirals into chaos.  The emperor is off fighting a very unpopular war against the Turks, and people in Vienna are either protesting the war or seeing dangerous Turks everywhere. Closer to home, Da Ponte has been receiving cryptic but vaguely disturbing messages in a strange code which he has no idea how to decode, and then his close friend, Alois, is murdered and strange symbols are carved into his forehead.  Da Ponte agrees to help the police try to solve the murder, only to discover that it is the tip of a proverbial iceberg and there’s more going on than he imagined.  Will he help solve the crime? Will he figure out the coded messages and discover who’s sending them?  Will the performance of Don Giovanni go off without a hitch?  Come and see the world of backstage and behind the scenes in the classic era of opera in Vienna.

EVEN IN PARADISE COVER

Shakespeare’s King Lear is one of those plays that tends to inspire modern writers.  Not too long ago, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres took on the archetypical plot and characters, and Christopher Moore examined the story from the point of view of the fool in his Fool, some years ago (not entirely successfully, in my opinion; Moore’s gift is for humor and there’s precious little humor to be gleaned from this play). Now we have the new book, Even in Paradise, by Elizabeth Nunez, which takes King Lear to Trinidad, Barbados and Tobago (come on, don’t you just want to read it based on that alone?). Like King Lear, the Trinidadian widower Peter Ducksworth wants to avoid strife arising from the distribution of his property.  Like Lear, he has three adult daughters among whom he wants to distribute the property, and, sadly, like Lear, he makes the fatal mistake of shorting his youngest daughter in favor of his two older daughters, and all the strife he tried to avoid catches up with him and his family.  Elizabeth Nunez brings in issues of race and post colonialism and the history of the Caribbean to this multicultural take on King Lear, bringing new insights into both the Shakespeare story and modern family dynamics.

 

THRILLING MYSTERIES AT THE FIELD THIS APRIL

Among the plethora of new books here at the Field Library this month, we have some really exciting new mysteries, standalones and parts of continuing series.

murder of mary russell cover

If you’re a fan of Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, the title of the latest book, The Murder of Mary Russell, is liable to horrify you.  Could it possibly be that Mary, the late in life spouse of Sherlock Holmes, could be dead and the series over?   When Mary goes missing and Holmes discovers the carpet at 221B Baker Street soaked through with blood, the obvious and deeply disturbing conclusion to draw is that Mary has met with foul play, possibly the worst kind of foul play.  Of course Holmes has to investigate, and one of the delights of this book is that King gives a starring role to the famous Mrs. Hudson, Holmes’ long time and long suffering housekeeper, giving her a back story of her own.  Fans of the series need no further introduction from me, and while this isn’t the book to start with if you’re just being introduced to these characters, if you’ve read a few in the series, you’re definitely going to want to find out if Laurie King followed in the footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and killed off her most popular character.

the father cover

A deeply disturbing and enthralling mystery based on a true story, The Father by Anton Svensson, takes us to Sweden and looks at an extraordinary family of criminals: three brothers, all under the age of 24, with no previous criminal records of any kind, who committed ten bank robberies in two years, confounding the police and riveting the attention of the public.  What warped three innocent boys into master criminals?  Who made them what they became?  The answer, as it turns out, is their father, an appalling character in his own right.  If you’re a fan of Scandinavian mysteries (Jo Nesbo, Stieg Larsson and the like), this should be right up your alley.

poisonous cover

In her newest book, Poisonous, Allison Brennan’s investigative reporter, Max Revere, looks into the death of someone most people didn’t mourn.  Ivy Lake was a nasty teenager, an internet bully, and she fell off a cliff a year before the beginning of this book. Maybe she jumped, maybe she was pushed, maybe it was just an accident.  The only person who grieves over her death is her mentally challenged stepbrother, who can’t understand what happened and whose letter to Max touches her heart enough to make her take on a case she wouldn’t usually touch with a ten foot pole. As she begins to investigate the cold case, Max comes to realize that if this was murder, the killer was and is extraordinarily clever and careful, and could be hiding in plain sight, waiting for the next victim.

close your eyes

Joe O’Laughlin, clinical psychologist, wasn’t planning to get involved in the murder case in Michael Robotham’s Close Your Eyes, but when a former student of his trades on his name and reputation and screws up the investigation, Joe feels compelled to help solve the case.  Two women are murdered in a remote farmhouse, one stabbed multiple times, one posed like Sleeping Beauty awaiting her prince.  As if this weren’t macabre enough by itself, Joe finds links between these killings and a series of attacks in which the victims were choked unconscious and the letter A carved into their foreheads. Joe is drawn deeper and deeper into these cases, matching wits with a merciless killer, and Joe himself may be in danger.

If you’re looking for exciting reads, dark and dangerous, set in the modern day or Victorian era, in California or the wilds of Sweden, come to the Field and check out our newest thrillers and mysteries.