AFTER THE EPIDEMICS: TWO NEW HORROR BOOKS AT THE FIELD

It’s about time for another infusion of horror into your reading lives, and we have two new books by well-known horror authors to get your spine chilling and your pulse racing.

the fireman cover

Let’s start with Joe Hill’s new book, The Fireman.  For those who are doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this book qualifies in TWO categories: horror and post-apocalyptic/dystopian book (and yes, you can use one book for more than one category; that’s explicitly allowed in the rules), so that’s another reason to pick it up.  The premise is genuinely disturbing: a terrible contagious disease is infecting the world.  Called Dragonscale by the public (of course there’s a scientific name, but Dragonscale is so much more descriptive), the symptoms include a skin condition that gives the sufferers gold and black scales (making them pretty obvious to people around them).  The disease almost inevitably leads to the victim’s spontaneously combusting. There’s no antidote, no cure, no vaccine, and nobody knows where it came from or what to do about it.  Our protagonist is a pregnant nurse, Harper.  Before she came down with the disease herself, when she was just treating dozens of victims (before her hospital burned down, and you know those things are related), she and her husband, Jacob, agreed that if either of them were infected, they wouldn’t wait till the disease killed them.  However, now that she’s both pregnant and infected with the disease, she wants to stay alive until she can give birth, hopefully to an uninfected child.  Her husband does not agree.  The world is falling apart, and groups of vigilantes, called Cremation Squads, are chasing down and killing not only obviously infected people, but anyone they believe might be infected.  Into this horror comes a strange man, infected with Dragonscale himself but able to control the fire.  He calls himself the Fireman and he offers Harper a chance for survival, but at what cost?  

the city of mirrors cover

The other book is the third book in a trilogy that has attracted thousands and thousands of loyal fans.  The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin is also a post-apocalyptic novel, the climax of the Passage trilogy (the first two, for those who haven’t started the series yet, are The Passage and The Twelve). The first book introduced us to a world where a vampire bat virus turned infectious and created legions of vampires, destroying civilization, except for the one young woman who had the power to stop them.  The second book deepened the chaos and danger, bringing the human characters face to face with a horrifying cabal of creatures whose plans for the future were much worse than the extinction of the human race, and the three main characters had to face the possibility of their own sacrifice in order to save the world.  Now, in City of Mirrors, the cabal has been broken, the hundred years of night have ended, and people are re-emerging to face the prospect of creating a new civilization, a new world.  Unfortunately, though, not all of the cabal members were destroyed: the one who remains is more dangerous than all the others combined, and is out to destroy Amy, the one woman who has the ability to stand up to him and his kind and keep the darkness from overpowering the world.  It’s always a treat to reach the conclusion of a well-written series, and The City of Mirrors promises to reward those who have lived through the enthralling horrors of the first two books.

 

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READ A BOOK SET IN THE MIDDLE EAST: 2016 READING CHALLENGE BOOK: ALIF THE UNSEEN

One of the categories in the 2016 Read Harder Challenge is to “read a book set in the Middle East.”  Those who are doing the challenge with me have recently received my list of books in our library and in the library system which qualify for that category (which are also listed here, for anyone who’s looking), but I feel I should give a special shout out to the book I read for that category, Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson.

I’m going to share the review I wrote for Goodreads right after I finished the book, because I don’t think anything I wrote now (months after I read it) would convey my enthusiasm and delight as much as my initial, spontaneous reaction.

What a terrific read! Not like anything else I’ve read in a long time, and not just because it’s a fantasy that revolves around Islamic mythology instead of the much more usual Western/Christian mythology. It sucked me in and I read the whole thing in one day because I couldn’t put it down.

Just describing it is difficult, and a description of the plot will sound much less coherent than the book itself is, but I’ll give it a try. In an unnamed Middle Eastern country known as the State, a young man is a computer hacker (a “gray hat” in his terminology) who goes by the hacker handle of Alif; he’s in love with a rich girl who’s engaged to someone else and of course his heart is broken by her breaking up with him, but, because he’s a hacker and not any brokenhearted young man, he creates a program which he calls Tin Sari that identifies the woman no matter what ISP or email she uses by recognizing her keystrokes and her other patterns. This is a dangerous program for him to create and unleash, because the enforcement arm of the State, an anonymous force known as the Hand, would be glad to have a program like that to track down the hackers and other dissidents in the city. When Alif sends his next door neighbor, Dina, a feisty young woman who wears the hijab and is much more pious than Alif, to return something to his former girlfriend, Dina returns with something the former girlfriend sent to him: a book called The Thousand and One Days, incredibly old and, according to legend, written by jinn. This is where things really get hairy, as the Hand finds Alif and is revealed as the man who’s engaged to Alif’s former girlfriend, and suddenly Alif and Dina are on the run and find themselves in the company of Vikram, a jinn himself, and their trek takes them into the world of the jinn as well as the prisons of the state, the colleges of the rich and the garbage dumps of the poor. Did I mention the book was impossible to put down? It’s not just the plot, though that is filled with twists and turns and surprises (quantum computation as metaphor? Secret identities revealed in unusual ways?). It’s also the characters, full bodied and vivid, contradictory and very real, who kept me reading on, wanting to find out what happened to them.

I have to give a special shout out to Dina, who proves to be one of the most important people in the book, and who constantly reveals new strengths and new depths to Alif and also to the reader. She’s one of the strongest female characters I’ve come across lately, but she’s not strong in the stereotypical kick-ass Amazon fighting woman style; it’s the strength of her convictions and the depths of her courage and perseverance (not to mention her charm) that makes her such an unforgettable character.

SAILING AWAY: BEFORE THE WIND

before the wind cover

I’m going to tell you right off the bat that Before the Wind, a novel by Jim Lynch, is terrific, a book you can’t put down, a wonderful read. The reason I’m starting with that is because if you just looked at the book, or even read the inside cover, you wouldn’t necessarily realize what a treasure you were holding in your hands.  A book about sailboats?  A book about a dysfunctional family that built sailboats and raced them?  A book whose plot turns on the father of the family getting all the siblings together for one last race?  You would be well within your rights to put it back on the shelf and looking for something else, thinking you’ve read the basic plot and met these characters before, but you would be cheating yourself of a fabulous reading experience if you did.

You don’t have to be a sailing aficionado to read and love this book. Obviously if you’ve been sailing and fallen in love with it, your experience with Before the Wind will be that much deeper and more pleasurable, but even if you’ve never been on a sailboat, by the time you finish reading this book you will feel the joy of sailing and the pure love of the process.

Yes, this is about a dysfunctional family, but no one in the family is presented as a grotesque or a monster. The father is a bit annoying and I personally wouldn’t want to have to live with him, but he’s understandable even as he badgers his sons and manipulates the rules of the races to get a better handicap (another way of describing what he does is “cheating”, but I’m going to be generous here). The mother is the only non-sailor: she teaches physics at the local high school and is interested in sailing as a function of wave dynamics and wind dynamics and becomes obsessed with solving this famous mathematical problem (which has a million dollar reward for the person who solves it first). The oldest son, Bernard, is on the lam from the law, an anarchist and a smuggler.  The daughter, Ruby, was a sailing savant with an almost supernatural ability to read and anticipate the winds, until she turned her back on sailing and headed to Africa to work on providing medical care to poor people there.

And then there’s Josh, our narrator, the middle child, who’s a man who fixes boats and lives in a run-down marina an hour from where he grew up, the only one of the children who’s still kept in touch with everyone else in the family.  I think it’s because Josh is our point of view character that the book is so warm and generous of heart. He’s so experienced with boats and with repairs that he can take a look at a boat brought in for repair and know immediately whether it’s salvageable and how much time and money it will cost, and whether it would be worth it, from a strict dollars and cents viewpoint, to do the work, and yet he’s so softhearted that he does a lot of work for people without even charging them, just because he feels for them. He’s clear sighted and realistic of vision, but he doesn’t allow that clear (and even a bit cynical) vision to prevent him from doing what he believes in.  These qualities make him the ideal center for this family, someone who can listen to and sympathize with everyone, and because he’s the one describing everyone else, they come across as real, flawed and lovable people and not just bizarre characters created by a novelist.

I can’t remember the last book I read that was so warmhearted, so generous and forgiving, a book that was both exciting and surprising and yet so satisfying.  If you read it, you’ll probably want to go out on a sailboat yourself and experience the beauty and timeless wonder of the intersection of the wind and the water, but there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

 

HORROR OF HORRORS AT THE LIBRARY

Ready for a little horror, something to make your skin crawl, make you keep the lights on at night, startle at odd noises and unusual shadows?  Looking for a horror book to add to your list for the Reading Challenge?  We’ve got what you need in the new books at the Field Library this week.

the doll master

Let’s start with Joyce Carol Oates’ newest collection of stories, The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror.  This book contains six stories, all of them creepy and scary enough to make you lose some sleep.  The title story involves a boy who’s obsessed with his cousin’s doll after the cousin dies of leukemia.  A slightly bizarre but not unheard of way of dealing with grief, to be sure, but he gets stranger as he gets older, and begins collecting “found dolls” from around the neighborhood and storing them together in his carriage house.  What kind of dolls are they, really, and isn’t the whole idea of a collection of dolls that are “found” creepy all by itself?  Talk about the Uncanny Valley! Another story, “Gun Accident”, puts a teenage girl inside her favorite teacher’s house when an intruder breaks in, and just hearing the premise brings up all those old babysitter stories we used to tell when we were teenagers.  Another story, “Equatorial”, takes place on the Galapagos Islands where an affluent American woman begins to have reasons to wonder how well she really knows her charismatic husband, and exactly what he has in mind for her.  Haunting and strange, these stories get under your skin and slip into your nightmares.

the loney

Andrew Michael Hurley’s book, The Loney, newly published in this country, has already won the Best Book of the Year from the British Booksellers Association, and the Costa First Novel Award in Great Britain. It’s one of those eerie, suspenseful novels that moves back and forth in time, building up an atmosphere of doom and dread. Forty years ago, a boy went with his mother and his disabled older brother to a place on the Lancashire coastline known as the Loney.  There was something disturbing about the place even then: the boy’s religious mother wanted a miraculous cure for her older son, but the locals didn’t want these strangers around at all.  The two boys became involved with a glamorous couple staying at a nearby cottage, and were drawn into mysterious and troubling rites.  Now grown up, the younger brother learns of the discovery of a child’s body on that same stretch of coast, and all the memories of that earlier time return to him. He feels he’s the only one who knows the truth about what happened then, and maybe what’s happening now.  Should he keep it to himself?  Can he? What actually did happen forty years ago, and who or what killed the child now?

 

Creep yourself out with new horror at the Field Library.

 

HISTORY UNFOLDING AT THE FIELD

and after the fire

A thread of music — a hitherto undiscovered cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach — winds through the three stories interlocked in And After the Fire, by Lauren Belfer.  It first comes into the possession of Sara Itzig Levy in 1796, a gift from her music tutor, who happens to be the son of the great J.S. Bach himself.  When she discovers how anti-semitic the cantata is, though, she, a Jewish woman, is horrified.  Much later, in 1945, an American soldier takes an old music manuscript from a deserted mansion, and kills a young woman who’s living there, and later still, in 2010, Susanna Kessler, niece of the American soldier, traumatized by an act of violence that shattered her world, inherits the manuscript and begins to search into its provenance, with the hope that she can make things right again.  The more she learns about Sara and how that piece of music affected her and her family, the more she comes to see how her life and Sara’s are intertwined.  

book of harlan

A different kind of World War II experience is related in The Book of Harlan, by Bernice L. McFadden. The main characters, Harlan and his best friend Lizard, are African American musicians living in Harlem just before WWII.  Like many others in their position in that time, Harlan and Lizard are lured to Paris, to perform in a hot cafe in the Montmartre district, where their music is appreciated and they are likely to be treated better than in the segregated United States. Unfortunately for the two musicians, when Paris falls to the Nazis, the two of them are sent to the notorious concentration camp at Buchenwald, an experience that changes Harlan’s life forever after.

a fine imitation

Going back in time a little bit to the 1920’s in New York City, A Fine Imitation by Amber Brock presents us with Vera Bellington, a woman who seems to have everything worth having: breeding, money, marriage to a man in the right social circle, and a penthouse on Park Avenue.  Her life behind the shining surface, however, is lacking: her social connections are empty and her apartment too often is empty of anyone but herself as well.  When a charming French artist moves into the building to paint a mural, Vera is intrigued and curious but also suspicious.  She has some secrets of her own, from her days in Vassar College, when she became involved with a charming, exciting friend named Bea, who happened to be an art forger, and who nearly destroyed Vera’s future. Drawn into the secrets of the artist, Vera is forced to face her own past, and different possibilities of her future.

the risen

If you are, for any reason, looking for a historical novel set before 1900 (if, for instance, you’re doing the 2016 Reading Challenge), why not go farther back in time and read The Risen by David Anthony Durham, which takes us back to the days of the Roman Republic and the slave uprising led by the charismatic Spartacus, which nearly brought down the Republic and brought its legendary legions to the brink of unprecedented defeat.  The outlines of the story are well known, being the basis for a classic film and a more recent television series, but Durham brings the more familiar scenario to vivid life, making us feel the amazing rise of the rebels and their heartbreaking defeat.  

NEW SPECULATIVE FICTION AT THE FIELD

sleeping giants cover

Here’s an intriguing opening scene: a young girl rides her bicycle and falls into the earth.  She wakes up inside what looks to her like a square shaped hole whose walls glow with intricate carvings, but the people rescuing her see her resting on the palm of a giant metal hand. This is the beginning of Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel.  Stop there: wouldn’t you want to know what that was all about?  Wouldn’t you be eager to keep reading?  Of course there’s more to the story: years later, the world doesn’t know much more about that giant metal hand than they did when the girl (Rose Franklin — hmm, do you think the name was chosen deliberately?) discovered it by accident in the first place.  Where did it come from? What is it? What does it mean?  Rose, now a physicist studying the artifact, is coming close to figuring the thing out, but will it prove to be a boon to humanity, or a weapon of unfathomable mass destruction?

raft cover

A South African writer, Fred Strydrom, has written a different kind of post-apocalyptic novel in The Raft.  Instead of the usual zombies/disease/nuclear war scenario, Day Zero in this book was when every human being on earth lost his or her memory.  Nobody can mourn, nobody can heal, because nobody knows what happened.  Indeed, to most people it’s not clear that anything did happen (all right, admit it: you’re already intrigued by this premise; I certainly am).  In the aftermath, society has begun to re-form, with people living in isolated communes run like dictatorships.  One man, Kayle Jenner, finds himself on a remote beach, haunted by memories, or something like memories, of his lost son.  When he sets out to try to find his son, he runs into allies and enemies, and slowly begins piecing together what happened on Day Zero, and what that truth means for those who remain. And of course, for those of us doing the 2016 Reading Challenge, this counts as a post-apocalyptic novel: just one more reason to try it!

NEBULA AWARDS

If you’re interested in the bigger picture of speculative fiction, why not dive into the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016, edited by Mercedes Lackey?  The Nebula Awards are voted on by members of the Science FIction and Fantasy Writers of America and are given for best novel, best short story, best novella and novelette, and every year this collection provides readers with the nominees in the short story and novella categories, with excerpts from the nominees in the longer categories.  Find out what speculative fiction writers believe is the best of the best for this year: check out the Nebula Awards Showcase 2016 and expand your horizons.

NEXT BOOK CLUB READ: BEING MORTAL

The Field Notes Book Group is going to end this season with a deep and fascinating read, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande, the surgeon turned author whose previous books, like this one, have all been bestsellers.  The group will be meeting on Saturday, June 18, from 11 to 12:30 at the library, and as usual there will be coffee, doughnut holes and lively discussion.

If you’ve read Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science or Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, you don’t need any introduction to Gawande.  Not only is he a skilled surgeon and a close observer of human nature in some of its most dire circumstances, but he is a vivid and humane writer as well, able to bring complicated and difficult procedures to clear life and make a reader feel as if she or he is actually present.  Gawande also writes periodic articles for New Yorker magazine, and is always a pleasure to read.

The topic of this book might seem depressing.  Who wants to think about nursing homes and end of life directives and all that dreary stuff?  But Gawande contends that our reluctance to look at these issues is part of the problem, and that we can’t deal with the difficulties of the end of life if we can’t even talk about them.  And fundamentally Gawande is not a pessimist or a doomsayer.  He believes there are things we can do that will make things better, not only for the people who are dying but for those who love them, and he describes solutions that are already being tried, alternatives to nursing homes and excessive amounts of medical care at the end of people’s lives which actually work.

Come and pick up your copy of Being Mortal at the library and then join us for a stimulating discussion about the things that really matter.

Turing’s Last Test: The Fall of Man in Wilmslow

If you’re one of the people who was fascinated by the award-winning movie The Imitation Game, about the life of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who was partly responsible for the invention of computers, you might be intrigued by a new book that looks at Alan Turing’s life and death from a slightly different angle: The Fall of Man in Wilmslow: The Death and Life of Alan Turing, by David Lagercrantz.

Lagercrantz is probably better known to American readers for his addition to the Millennium series last year, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, but here we get to see him unburdened by the characters and plots of another author and following his own bent.

The Fall of Man in Wilmslow takes place in the 1950’s in an England under the shadow of the Cold War.  England is reeling from some high level defections to the Soviet Union, and anti-homosexual fervor is at its height. Alan Turing is dead, his death presumed a suicide due to the humiliation of his arrest and conviction for homosexuality. The death of another homosexual pervert, in the thinking of the times, doesn’t really matter.

But for Leonard Correll, a young police officer involved in the case, something doesn’t quite feel right. Correll had a gift for mathematics himself in his youth, but wasn’t able to translate it into a university education or a career in math due to factors beyond his control. He starts digging into the background of this strange man, and bumps into layers and layers of security, before finally discovering one of the best-kept secrets of World War II, the Bletchley Park efforts to crack the Germans’ Enigma Code. He begins to wonder whether this was suicide after all.  But Turing isn’t the only one with secrets, and as Correll digs deeper, he finds some of his own, which lead to his being pursued as a potential threat to national security.

For insight into a particular period of English history, and another look at the life and death of Alan Turing and the tragedy of his death, try The Fall of Man in Wilmslow.

CHARMING NEW BOOKS FOR MAY

britt marie cover

There is something inherently heartwarming about a story of a hard-hearted person learning to be more human and loving.  Think of A Christmas Carol for a classic example. Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman, the author of A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, bestsellers in their native land, is another example.  Britt-Marie starts out the book as something of a pain in the neck: stuck in her ways, not very fond of her fellow human beings, always willing to tell other people what they’re doing wrong. At age 63, she makes a big change in her life: leaving her husband of 43 years and moving to the only place she can afford, a down-on-its-luck town called Borg.  Fastidious Britt-Marie is now living in a place full of noisy children, muddy floors and a rat for a roommate, but that’s not even the worst of it.  The worst of it is that the town needs a soccer coach for the children, and there’s no one else available but — you guessed it — Britt-Marie.  She is a most unlikely coach (for one thing, she hates sports), but she takes on the job and to her surprise, she begins to develop relationships with the children, and becomes more and more a part of the community.  There’s even a man, a handsome and friendly local policeman, who’s attracted to her in her new role.  Can Britt-Marie change?  Can she find happiness?  Of course she can.  Read and enjoy!

happy people cover

Another classic and appealing story is the one where a person moves to a completely different environment and is charmed and changed by the locals there.  If this is your cup of tea (and why not?  Everybody needs a dream!), then by all means check out Happy People Read and Drink Coffee by Agnes Martin-Lugard.  Pause for a moment and just consider the title.  Wouldn’t you read a book like that just based on the title alone?  I certainly would!  This book is described as “Under the Tuscan Sun set in Ireland,” which gives you the whole concept (if you’ve read Under the Tuscan Sun, of course).  Our protagonist, Diane, had a happy life in Paris: married, mother of a daughter she loved, owner of a bookstore, nice home, everything you could ask for. Then one accident killed both her husband and her daughter and Diane, reeling from the shock, leaves Paris and France and heads for Ireland.  There she licks her wounds in Mulranny, a small town on the coast, where she’d always wanted to go with her family but never quite made it.  And there she begins to heal, with the help of a number of Irish characters including a handsome but rather abrasive man who lives next door.  Will she return to Paris and her old life or will she put down roots in this new home?  Read the book and find out.

STRONG WOMEN OF MYSTERY AT THE FIELD

Three new mysteries (among a wealth of other new books — watch this blog for more previews) have arrived at the Field Library this week, featuring female protagonists taking on some of the biggest and most difficult questions of their lives.

city of the lost cover

What if there were a special place for people on the run from abusive spouses, a place where they could change their names, change their lives, drop off the grid and be safe?  That’s the setting of City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong: the town of Rockton in the wilds of Canada, where you have to apply to get permission to live, and the people who are allowed to move there are tightly screened for their own protection and the protection of the other people already living there.  Casey Duncan, a homicide detective, applies to move to Rockton with her close friend, Diana, who’s on the run from a violent ex-husband.  Casey is a little different from the other applicants for residence in the town: in her youth, she killed a man, who happened to be the grandson of a mobster.  The town is eager to have Casey for her homicide expertise, since there’s been a murder in the town, for the first time ever.  But there’s more going on in Rockton than Casey imagines, and as she begins to investigate, she starts wondering whether she and her friend might not be in more danger there than out in the world.

i let you go cover

If there’s anything a parent fears more than losing a young child to death, it’s losing a child at least partially due to your own momentary negligence.  Jenna Gray, in I Let You Go, by Clare Mackintosh, finds herself in that horrible situation.  She lets go of her son’s hand for just a second, he darts out into the street, and is killed by a hit and run driver. Devastated by her loss and her grief, second-guessing her actions, Jenna withdraws to a remote location on the Welsh coast.  At the same time she’s trying to come to grips with her loss, two police officers are investigating the hit and run that killed the boy, an investigation that’s frustrating, twist-filled and devastating.  

keep you close cover

Once upon a time, Rowan and Marianne were the best of friends, in the book, Keep You Close, by Lucie Whitehouse. Rowan, a motherless girl with a mostly absent father, was desperate for a family, and Marianne’s family took her in as if she were their own.  In particular, Marianne’s mother, Jacqueline, was exactly the kind of mother Rowan wished she had: kindhearted, feminist, loving. Then after their teenage years Rowan and Marianne drifted apart, knowing little of each other’s lives.  When Rowan discovers that Marianne fell to her death, Rowan finds it hard to believe this could have happened, considering Marianne’s crippling vertigo that would have never allowed her to get close to the edge of a roof.  As she thinks about how much Marianne once meant to her, Rowan finds it impossible to leave her friend’s death without trying to find out what really happened.  Naturally, this brings Rowan back into  the orbit of Marianne’s family again as she discovers more and more about Marianne’s adult life, including the men who are now mourning for her with varying degrees of sincerity. Nothing is as it seems, not even the past Rowan tries to recapture, and the truth about Marianne’s death could be as dangerous to Rowan as it was to Marianne.

Come and make the acquaintance of Casey, Jenna and Rowan at the Field!