CTHULHU, DR. JEKYLL, TALKING GHOSTS AND BARON MUNCHAUSEN: NEW QUIRKY BOOKS AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

If you, like me, have a taste for the odd, the hard-to-characterize, the quirky, then you’re in the right place. This month the library has quite a selection of odd, hard-to-describe and downright weird books for your reading pleasure (and, sometimes, to enable you to say, “What on earth is going on in this book and why am I enjoying it so much?”).

sherlock-holmes-and-the-shadwell-shadows

There’s enough oddball stuff going on in late Victorian and early Edwardian era England that the temptation to bring Sherlock Holmes into the strange corners of that world has to be irresistible.  James Lovegrove is not the first to combine Sherlock Holmes with H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (Neil Gaiman did it earlier, in the brilliant short story, “A Study in Emerald,” to be found in his collection , Fragile Things, which is wonderful and also available in the Field Library), but there’s plenty of room for more than one Holmes-Cthulhu pastiche in the world. With that in mind, let’s welcome Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows, which takes us to the beginning of the famous detective’s career, and places him in an environment in which there’s an outbreak of insanity in London’s East End, reducing ordinary people to gibbering wrecks, and a strange creeping fog hiding what could be terrifying apparitions.  Holmes, as we all know, focuses his attention on reality and not superstition, and so he believes these odd phenomena are connected to a sinister new drug lord from the East, extending his empire to London.  However, this is one time when eliminating the impossible is more difficult than Holmes imagines, and he finds himself dealing with something much bigger and stranger than a mere criminal.  This is the first book in what should be a most entertaining (if quirky) series, so get in on the ground floor now.

the-jekyll-revelation

And while we’re talking about late Victorian horrors, let’s not forget one of my favorites, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, fodder for generations of imitations and homages, and now the source for a new book, The Jekyll Revelation, by Robert Masello.  Rafael Salazar, in modern day California, is an environmental scientist on a routine patrol in Topanga Canyon who happens to find an antique trunk instead of a poacher.  The trunk contains, among other things, a handwritten journal by Robert Louis Stevenson, discussing the details of how he came to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and insinuating that he has information about the true identity of Jack the Ripper.  The trunk also contains a small bottle containing the last of Dr. Jekyll’s infamous potion, and there are others in modern California who are very interested in that formula, and not for purely altruistic purposes.  The story alternates between Rafe’s current situation and excerpts from Stevenson’s journal, building suspense as monsters from the past prepare to rise again in the present.

whole-towns-talking-cover

Perhaps you’re interested in something less dark, especially around the holiday season.  If so, then turn your attention to Fannie Flagg’s newest book, The Whole Town’s Talking.  Fannie Flagg is probably best known for her book (turned into a movie) Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, so quirky is pretty much her middle name. The Whole Town’s Talking starts with an interesting premise: the deceased residents of this small town in Missouri are waking up underground and reconnecting with their living loved ones, over the course of 150 years.  Naturally, when you’re talking about that long a period, the living and the dead get used to this kind of interaction (come on, admit it: you’re interested in reading it just from that premise — I certainly am) and take it more or less for granted.  Until one day when the deceased residents start disappearing for good, and the living in the town have to investigate and discover what’s happening and whether it can be stopped — or whether it should be stopped. Billed as “a surprising story of life, afterlife and the mysterious goings-on of ordinary people,” The Whole Town’s Talking gives a different perspective on our ordinary world.

return-of-munchausen

Perhaps you’ve never heard of the great Baron Hieronymous von Munchausen, a larger than life character famous throughout Europe during the 19th century for his tall tales (you might have come across him in the 1988 movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame), but if you’re in the mood to make his acquaintance, try The Return of Munchausen, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, new to the Field Library, in which the Baron reappears in 20th century Europe, just around the time of World War I.  What could be more absurd to the Baron than the machinations and tenuous peace in Europe after the horrors of war, and where would imagination be more valuable?  If it’s not possible for the baron to change the future of Europe through diplomacy, perhaps he can hold up a mirror to its absurdities and cause the people in power to reconsider their disastrous courses, and in the meantime, he will continue to be larger than life and stand up for the power of imagination to its most absurd extent.

VICTORY! A LOOK BACK AT THE 2016 READING CHALLENGE

Those who have been following this blog will remember that around this time last year, I entered into the 2016 Reading Challenge, courtesy of Book Riot (which titled it the “Read Harder Challenge”), and invited anyone who was interested to stretch his or her reading horizons to join me.  We would take a journey together over the course of 2016 in which we would read books in twenty four different categories; to “win” the contest here at the Field Library, a person would have to read 80% of the categories, or 19 books.

We have winners! Lots of winners!  Sixty six people originally signed up for the contest, out of whom 33 read and reported reading at least one book.  Out of those 33 actual readers, 14 won the contest, reading at least 19 books in categories including “Read a horror book”, “Read a book aloud to someone else”, “Read the first book in a series by a person of color”, “Read a book by an author from Southeast Asia,” and “Read a food memoir.”  As a group, we read an amazing total of 452 books over the course of the year!

But obviously it’s not just about the numbers (impressive as the numbers are).  I personally have read books this year that I wouldn’t even have thought to look at in other years, and I read a lot.  It’s been great fun, discovering new writers, different genres, and sharing the adventure with other readers in the area. If you ever feel as if you’re in a reading rut, or if you just can’t seem to find something new and interesting to read, join in the next Reading Challenge.  I’ll be announcing it as soon as the new list comes out, and you know I’ll be leaping in and cheering on anyone who joins in.

PASSAGEWAYS THROUGH TIME: LAST YEAR, A NEW TIME TRAVEL NOVEL

last-year-cover

As all readers of this blog must know by now, I love time travel. LOVE it.  All the paradoxes the concept creates, all the possibilities of changing the future and changing the past, the brain-twisting notions of identity and memory and history, all of it fascinates me.  So when I have a chance to get a new and potentially interesting book about time travel, odds are really good that I’ll get it.  Case in point: Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson, which presents a new and bizarre, but fascinating, notion of time travel.

The idea is time travel tourism.  In our modern 21st century world, the technology has been invented to allow people to travel into a particular point in the past. Each of these points represents an alternate past, the same as ours up until the moment the doorway opens. From the moment the first time traveler appears there, that world’s future changes, and no one can predict what will happen in that world from then on. Once a passageway opens to a particular time, that’s the only way that time can be reached, and when it closes, no one can go back to that past.

Admit it, you’re intrigued already.  But that’s just the background.  There’s more.

There’s a little town in late 19th century Ohio which is the terminus of one such passageway, and has been for almost a decade.  The existence of the time travelers is no secret to anyone on either end of the passageway. As a matter of fact, the people in the 19th century town have built a city at the terminus, whose whole function is to accommodate the time travelers from our time. But there’s a cost: as the people in the town become more sophisticated, their town seems much less like the past that people want to visit.  Its popularity is starting to decline. People want the “real” past and not this half and half life. The passageway is going to close soon.

Which would be a real problem for the book’s protagonist, Jessie Cullen, who’s spent his life in that Ohio town and who has fallen in love with a woman from our time. He is not going to let her just disappear from his life forever. No, he’s going to follow her to the future, no matter how hard that is, no matter what he has to risk.

Will he manage?  What will happen if he does succeed?  When the past and future collide, what you have is a heck of a mind-bending story.  Case in point: Last Year.

PEOPLE OF THE PAST : NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Let’s all go forward into the past, with some new and fascinating insights into people both famous and less famous in our new historical fiction selections.

valiant-gentlemen-cover

Some people’s lives are so contradictory and so rich that mere biography doesn’t seem to do them justice.  Such a person was Roger Casement, the protagonist of Sabina Morris’ new book, Valiant Gentlemen.  A closeted gay man in a time when homosexuality was a crime, he had a gift for friendships, for Irish patriotism and for humanitarianism.  His friendship with the Englishman, Herbert Ward, and Ward’s Argentine-American wife, Sarita Sanford, is at the core of this book, which takes Casement and Ward from their experiences in the Congo, exposing the horrors of Belgian rule there (if you’re interested in that period of Casement’s life, be sure to check out Nisi Shawl’s Everfair for another perspective on the Congo and the human rights abuses there), through Ward’s marriage and raising of a family in France, and brings the two of them to disparate paths in World War I, where Ward joined the British Army and Casement began conspiring with the Germans to help liberate Ireland in the disastrous Easter Uprising of 1916.  The inherent tensions between the two friends are brought to the fore and notions of loyalty and patriotism become more than just abstract ideas in this poignant and riveting novel.

victoria-cover

And then there are people everybody thinks they know, people so famous that entire eras of history are named after them, like Queen Victoria.  Though perhaps we don’t know as much about what Queen Victoria was really like as we think, and here to remedy that lack is Daisy Goodwin’s novel, Victoria. The book starts with Victoria’s life as an unregarded princess, considered plain, unprepossessing and totally dominated by her mother (with whom she shared a bedroom until she was 18 years old!).  Only with the death of King William IV, her uncle, and her accession to the throne of England did Victoria begin to show the steel of her character and her capacity to rule, much to the surprise of almost everybody who knew her. If you think of Queen Victoria as a repressed woman who did nothing but disapprove of things and give birth to numerous children, you’ll enjoy discovering the real Victoria in Goodwin’s new book.

the-spy

Another real life person who has become a famous name without people’s really knowing what she was like is Mata Hari, the exotic dancer, courtesan and — possibly — spy, who is also the protagonist of The Spy by Paul Coelho.  Though her name is synonymous with treachery and betrayal, Coelho suggests there was little concrete evidence to prove she was actually spying for the Germans during World War I, despite her being executed as a spy by the French. The Spy is written as Mata Hari’s memoir in letters, which she’s writing on the eve of her execution, looking back on her life choices from the time she was growing up in a small Dutch town to her miserable marriage to an alcoholic man in Java to her rise to celebrity in Paris in the pre-war and early war years. You may well end up with a different, certainly a more nuanced, view of the famous courtesan after reading this book.