MATILDA EMPRESS : A NEW LOOK AT AN AMAZING MEDIEVAL WOMAN

matilda empress

One of the most interesting women in English history is also one of the least known.  Matilda, also known as Maude, was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Her father, Henry I, married her off to the Holy Roman Emperor, despite her being only 8 years old at the time.  She was 24 years old when her husband died of cancer, and then she returned to England, where her younger brother’s accidental death left a void in the royal succession.  Henry married Matilda off to Geoffrey of Anjou (and now she was the older party being married to a pre-teen spouse — ah, the fun of early medieval aristocratic marriages!) and had his nobles swear allegiance to Matilda as his successor on the English throne.

 

Unfortunately for Matilda, things didn’t work out that way and her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who had also been suggested as an heir to Henry, took the throne instead.  Matilda wasn’t the sort to sit back tamely and let someone else take away what she felt to be rightfully hers, so after a little time spent building up her power in Normandy, she enlisted her half brother to rebel against King Stephen in England. A period of civil war ensued, with Matilda controlling parts of England and Stephen controlling other parts, and the areas between the two changing hands frequently (if you’ve ever read any of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, you will be familiar with some of this turmoil).  Loyalties shifted frequently, and battles raged, ending only with the deaths of some of the major players and the Second Crusade, which pulled many nobles out of England for a few years.  Ultimately Matilda withdrew her claims in favor of those of her son, who later became Henry II, and there were rumors Henry might have been her son and Stephen’s as well.

 

If you want to know more about Matilda (and believe me, I’ve only just scratched the surface of her wild life here), you’re in luck.  There’s a new historical novel, Matilda Empress, by Lise Arin, which is coming shortly to the Field Library, focusing on Matilda’s refusal to give up what she believed was hers by right, and her refusal to follow the role set out for women, even royal women, in the middle ages.  If you’re a fan of Sharon Kay Penman’s or Philippa Gregory’s books, set aside some time and dive into the world of Matilda and Stephen when the Norman Conquest of England was still a fairly new thing and the question of who was going to rule the country was an open question.

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ANOTHER LOOK AT LAST YEAR : TIME TRAVEL TOURISM

LAST YEAR COVER

I have a confession to make which probably won’t surprise too many readers of this blog: I don’t actually read everything I write about here (those posts where I talk about three or four books should be evidence of that, especially when they aren’t the only posts in a particular day — I read quickly but not THAT quickly!). Some of my posts are previews of things that are going to come out, which obviously I haven’t read, though some of them (and you can usually tell which ones they are) are in fact reviews of new (or old) books I’ve actually read.

When I write a post previewing books, I rely on the descriptions of the books the publishers provide, which are usually pretty accurate and enough to give you an idea of what the book’s about and whether it’s the kind of book you’d be likely to enjoy. I’ll usually try to read reviews of the book as well, in Publisher’s Weekly or the Library Journal or Booklist, and supplement the description with that information.

But sometimes the publisher’s description, and the reviews in the different publications, fall short of the mark, and I feel that if you knew what the book was really about, you might be more likely to want to read the book. In that case, I want to tell you what the book is really about.

Which brings me to Last Year, by Robert Charles Wilson. I’ve already written a post about the book, at https://fieldlibraryadults.wordpress.com/2016/12/06/passageways-through-time-last-year-a-new-time-travel-novel/. But now that I’ve read the book — or rather, devoured it — I want to provide a more accurate and, hopefully, even more intriguing description of the book.

The original premise is the same: there’s a portal between the 21st century and the 19th, using a very strange and sophisticated device the people from the future call the Mirror. The people from the future built a whole city in what had been a nondescript town in Illinois, referred to as Futurity. People from the future come back to the year 1877, either as workers doing security and entertainment and providing the tech support to keep the future technology running, or as tourists eager to see the “unspoiled” world of America in 1877. At the same time, people who actually live in the 1877 world also work in the City, providing all the kinds of services you’d expect for a hotel and entertainment center, and rich people in 1877 are able to visit this amazing city and see such wonders as a real helicopter and moving pictures. There are rules about what the natives can see and do; there are secrets the people of the future are keeping from the people of the 19th century, for reasons they’re not telling.

The book opens with Jesse Callum, a security officer from the 1877 world, doing his job as President Ulysses S. Grant visits the City with his wife and various other VIP’s. Jesse, who has something of a colorful past and is quite familiar with violence, notices someone about to shoot the President, and attacks the man, preventing the assassination. The shooter is a native of 1877, a disgruntled former Confederate. The problem is the weapon he uses: a Glock, which could only have come from the future. As you can imagine, the people from the future have NOT been allowing futuristic weapons loose in the world of 1877, where they could change the course of history.
Jesse is paired with Elizabeth, a security guard from the 21st century, to investigate where the gun came from and how it got into the hands of a disgruntled 19th century person. Naturally, Jesse and Elizabeth are very alien to each other; things Jesse takes for granted make no sense to Elizabeth and vice versa. Also naturally, they come to understand each other and to work well together, to the point where Elizabeth saves Jesse’s life and risks her own future to help him and his family.

What’s the morality of being a time tourist? How can you justify having the knowledge to cure diseases that run rampant in the 19th century and keeping it from the people of the time? Or keeping technology secret that would make their world so much better? The man running the City promises that before the Mirror and the people from the future leave forever, they will share what’s appropriate of their knowledge with the people of the present, but who’s he to decide what’s appropriate and what isn’t?

There are runners who came from the future and then tried to escape into lives in the past, and some of them are trying to change history, either by trying to assassinate the man who will turn out to be the father of Adolph Hitler, or by giving out information, and guns, to people in the 19th century who are likely to need them. Is this moral? It’s certainly dangerous, as the history that spools out from the actions of the future people starts to change dramatically from the history we know about: strikes met with greater violence, more riots and lynchings, and general instability.

One of the things I really appreciate about the book is the clear eyed view of the past: it’s not presented as an ideal when people were more “genuine” or better to each other, but as a complicated world where people died young from diseases and infections we don’t see nowadays, women died in childbirth at alarming rates, sanitation was primitive, violence was rampant and attitudes toward different races and religions were appalling from modern perspectives. Similarly, while the people of 1877 may think the modern world is a utopia, we see from Elizabeth and other people that while technology has improved, there are still problems: Elizabeth’s husband is in prison, her mother is raising Elizabeth’s daughter while Elizabeth is working in the City, and one of the reasons she’s taken this job is to make enough money to be able to take care of her daughter.

There’s a lot more going on in the book than just the simplistic “Jesse falls in love with Elizabeth and doesn’t want to lose her,” and I would argue that that’s not even entirely what happens. At the end of the book, Jesse does escape to the future, with Elizabeth, but his reasons are complex and involve a lot more than just romantic attachment.

The world-building is wonderful, the characters vivid and lively, and the plot carries you along, making you think as well as keeping you turning pages. It’s not an ordinary time travel book (if there is such a thing), so if you were reluctant to pick it up because you don’t like paradoxes or the like, you really should give Last Year a try. It’s a great read!

CLARK, WARD, DEAVER, SCOTTOLINE AND BALDACCI: NEW BESTSELLERS COMING TO THE FIELD IN APRIL

Are you waiting to see when your favorite bestselling author is going to release a new book?  Perhaps following a series and holding your breath until the next one comes out to relieve your suspense?  Well, we have a number of new books coming out in April from bestselling authors, so put in your holds quickly or come to the Field Library soon to get your express copy.

all by myself alone

In the first week of April, Mary Higgins Clark’s newest mystery, All By Myself, Alone, will be released.  In some ways this is a classic mystery setup: Celia Kilbridge is on an ocean cruise with various other people, including a very wealthy woman with a priceless gem.  Three days out to sea, the wealthy woman is dead and the gem has disappeared. It’s not quite a locked room mystery, but the thief and murderer must be someone on the ship, and it’s up to Celia, a gem expert herself, together with newfound friends on the cruise, to find out who did it and why.  Unfortunately for Celia, the closer she gets to the solution of the mystery, the greater the target she becomes for the murderer.

the chosen

If your taste runs to more paranormal stories, you’ll be glad to know that there’s a new book in J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, The Chosen, which is also coming to our shelves the first week of April.  Layla, the chosen, a new mother, is the only person who can save Xcor, leader of the Band of Bastards and convicted traitor to the Black Dagger Brotherhood, from torture and death, but she has to convince the brotherhood to give Xcor a chance to prove himself.  Their love for each other is hopeless unless they can somehow bridge the chasm dividing their worlds without causing more war and destruction of everything they hold dear.  With the return of an old enemy and the emergence of a new deity, nothing is safe in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood.

the burial hour

Jeffery Deaver has been writing books in his Lincoln Rhyme series for twenty years now,  and is still going strong with his thirteenth book, The Burial Hour, coming out the second week of April.  When a man is kidnapped in broad daylight, according to the 8 year old who’s the only witness, and a small noose is left at the scene as the only clue, Rhyme and Amelia Sachs are called in to help investigate.  Things become more complicated when another kidnapping, done in an almost identical fashion, takes place across the ocean, in Naples, Italy.  The intricacies of coordinating an investigation with officials from other countries are bad enough, but Rhyme and Sachs soon realize things are not what they seem, and shadowy parties around the globe are interested in this investigation.

one perfectl ie

Lisa Scottoline is a bestselling author who can do series (the Rosato & Associates books, for instance) and stand-alone thrillers with equal ease and skill.  Her next book, The Perfect Lie, coming out in the second week of April, is a stand-alone book, a family thriller set in the suburbs. A single mother is worried about her son who’s very shy but so talented a high school pitcher that his future, both in college and in the major leagues afterwards, seems assured, except that he’s falling under the influence of a teammate, an outwardly successful and brilliant young man who’s hiding a much darker side and a past that doesn’t stand up to close examination.  When a stranger comes in, impersonating a teacher, and a beloved teacher dies in what might be a suicide or might be murder, the mother realizes she’s in a fight for the life and very soul of her son, a fight she can’t afford to lose.

 

the fix cover

People who have been following David Baldacci’s Amos Decker series will be delighted to know there’s a new book coming out in mid-April that continues Decker’s high profile adventures.  In The Fix, Decker is working on a murder-suicide that occurred right outside the FBI headquarters.  The location makes it suspicious enough, but Decker is having a hard time connecting the shooter and the victim and finding a motive for the crime.  He’s ordered off the case, but it becomes clear to him that finding that connection is vital, not only for his career, but for national security itself.

 

A WOMAN IN THE PINKERTON AGENCY: GIRL IN DISGUISE

If you see the title Girl in Disguise, the new book by Greer MacAllister, you could be forgiven for assuming that it’s just another book with “girl” in the title, trying to cash in on the popularity of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.  But if you pass the book by because of that mistaken impression, you’d be depriving yourself of a very different kind of experience: the pleasure of reading a book based on a real life historical figure who had some pretty outrageous adventures.

GIRL IN DISGUISE COVER

Kate Warne, the protagonist of Girl in Disguise, was a real person who lived in the middle of the 19th century.  A widow with no money, no connections, and little education, Kate didn’t have a lot of prospects in 1856 Chicago, but what she lacked in money and polish she made up for in guts and intelligence.  She had the nerve to approach Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous detective agency, and persuade him that he needed to hire her as an operative, and she succeeded.  She had a skill for disguise and manipulation, and could make herself believable as all kinds of women, from Southern belles to prostitutes, from society ladies to servants, and because of her talents and her quick wits, she was able to infiltrate all aspects of Chicago society and track down criminals and would-be criminals with aplomb.

 

Naturally, as a woman in a man’s profession before and during the Civil War, Kate had to deal with her co-workers’ attitudes in addition to the dangers of her actual job, but the same nerve and intelligence that got her the job in the first place allowed her to deal with their sexism and their assumptions about what she could and couldn’t do.

 

This is the best kind of historical fiction: well-researched and imagined (unfortunately there aren’t many primary sources about Kate Warne, since many of the Pinkerton records were destroyed in the Chicago Fire, but the author used what was available and worked from there), and great fun to read. If you enjoyed Girl Waits with Gun, you’re going to love this one.

POLICING DURING THE TROUBLES: ADRIAN MCKINTY’S SEAN DUFFY NOVELS

Perhaps it’s too soon after St. Patrick’s Day and the celebration of all things Irish to bring up the country’s unfortunate and fairly recent history, the guerrilla war between paramilitary organizations associated with the Catholics and the Protestants in Northern Ireland, which the Irish, with characteristic understatement, refer to as the Troubles.  However, if you are interested in getting a sense of what it was like to live in Northern Ireland during that tempestuous period (which more or less ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Belfast agreement), but don’t want to delve into nonfiction, let me suggest a fascinating alternative: the series of novels by Adrian McKinty revolving around Sean Duffy, a Catholic police officer in Belfast, who not only has to deal with all the ordinary crimes police officers face all over the world, but also the suspicions of his fellow officers due to his religion and background, and the suspicion of his fellow Catholics due to his profession.  Sean is an interesting character, and he grows and develops over the series of books, the most recent of which has the (in my opinion too long) title of Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.

police at the station and they don't look friendly cover

You could start with the most recent book, which finds Sean investigating a particularly bizarre murder: a man shot with a crossbow in front of his own home in 1988 Belfast.  As is the case with good police procedural series (such as the Harry Hole novels of Jo Nesbo, set in Norway), there is more going on than just the investigation of a single case, and here Sean has a lot on his plate: his relationship is falling apart, he’s in trouble (not for the first time in the series) with Internal Affairs, and there’s some unknown person or persons hunting him for reasons he doesn’t know.  As he digs into the murder case, he finds himself getting closer and closer to his own destruction.

 

But if you, like me, want to start a series at the beginning, you can read them in order: first, The Cold, Cold Ground, then I Hear the Sirens in the Street, then In the Morning I’ll Be Gone, then Gun Street Girl, then Rain Dogs and finally you can turn to the latest.  You won’t be disappointed, and by the end of the series you’ll probably feel you have a much better insight into what was really going on between the nationalists and the loyalists and the ordinary people caught between the paramilitary groups during the Troubles.

A TALE OF LOVECRAFT: THE NIGHT OCEAN

Someday, decades from now, someone is going to look through the catalog of the Field Library and wonder why there are so many novels about H. P. Lovecraft in our collection, and then they’re going to realize that those books were purchased during the time I was buying new fiction and it will all make sense.   

the night ocean cover

It’s no secret that I’m a fan, not only of H. P. Lovecraft himself, but of modern works that take a slanted or sidewards look at his work and his creations.  I’ve already reviewed Maplecroft: The Borden Dispatches, a wonderfully book that presented Lizzy Borden’s story in the context of Lovecraftian monsters infiltrating her home, and Carter and Lovecraft, a terrific nightmare of a book involving a descendant of H. P. Lovecraft himself, and there have been others I’ve added to the library’s collection (such as Lovecraft Country, for just one instance) for the fun of it and my love of the weird word Lovecraft created.  Now let’s welcome a new book, about Lovecraft himself and his somewhat bizarre life, called The Night Ocean, by Paul La Farge.

 

The book starts in the present, with Charlie WIllett, a man obsessed by H. P. Lovecraft and in particular a strange period of the man’s life: those two months when he was living with a teenage male fan in Florida (this particular detail is factual; Lovecraft did, uncharacteristically, spend an extended period with this person).  Was this just friendship or was there something more going on between the two of them?  The young man, Robert Barlow, killed himself later on when his homosexuality was revealed, so there was certainly smoke, if not fire.  Charlie is on the trail of a legendary Lovecraft intimate diary, the Erotonomicon, its name a parody of the Necronomicon  which figures so heavily in Lovecraft’s work. Just when he believes he’s getting close to the truth about Lovecraft, he vanishes. The police think it’s suicide, but Charlie’s wife, Marina, who’s a psychiatrist, doesn’t believe it.  She sets out to follow her husband’s trail and find out what happened to him, and along the way she retraces the steps of Lovecraft himself and many others of his unusual circle of friends and acolytes.

 

This isn’t a biography of Lovecraft, but something subtler: a look at his life and the people he influenced, literarily and otherwise, and a study of love and deception, of the stories we believe and the stories that betray us.   

 

NEXT BOOK GROUP BOOK: THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN

Thanks to everybody who came to enjoy the vigorous and interesting discussion of What Alice Forgot at the last meeting of the Field Notes Book Group on March 18, 2017.  

the art of racing in the rain cover

Our next book, chosen by the group, is The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  Narrated by Enzo, an extraordinary dog who’s on the verge of death, the book looks back at Enzo’s life with his master, Denny, a mechanic and aspiring race car driver, and all the other people in Denny’s life, including Denny’s wife and their daughter, Zoe.  Enzo is there when Denny meets his wife, Eve, and when Zoe is born at home.  He’s there for all the great moments of Denny’s life, and also all the painful ones, always aspiring to become good enough that in his next life he will be reincarnated as a man.  Be forewarned: the book is a tearjerker, though there are also funny aspects to it as well.

Come and pick up your copy of the book, which will be available at the library this week, and then join us for another entertaining discussion, complete with food and drink, here at the Field Library on April 22, 2017, from 11:00 to 12:30 at the Gallery.  

CHANGE OF DATE: Entirely my fault.  I’d forgotten that the Field Library will be closed on April 15 and April 16, so of course we can’t have our book group meeting at the library when the library will be closed.  The new date is April 22, a week later. Sorry for the inconvenience!

 

 

THE GHOST OF NEW YORK YET TO COME: NEW YORK 2140

NEW YORK 2140

One of the greatest gifts of speculative fiction is the ability of its best authors to extrapolate from the present to imagine, and bring to life, what could result from the continuation of present trends.  Kim Stanley Robinson, an acclaimed science fiction author who has won just about every award possible in the field, has taken on the issue of global climate change in his latest book, New York 2140, and presents us with an eye-opening view of what could happen to New York City in the aftermath of catastrophic oceanic rise brought about by climate change.

In New York 2140, coastal areas all over the world have been inundated by rising ocean waters, and New York City is no longer just one island, but a multitude of islands separated by canals, with only the highest portions of skyscrapers above the water.  It’s still New York City, still a melting pot filled with energy and life, but it’s a very different kind of city now.

The way Robinson shows us the new world is by taking us through one skyscraper and the people who live in it: police officers, lawyers, market traders, coders, building superintendents, internet stars, orphans, readers.  He twines their lives together and, through these characters, looks at animal extinctions, immigration, the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and other issues all too relevant today. The diversity of the characters and the complexity of their interactions makes it feel very much like a portrait of New York City, or of a New York City that could be in the plausible future.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come if the visions shown him are of what will be or what might be.  One could ask the same question of Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and hope the answer will be the same, and that we can change before New York 2140 becomes a portrait of reality.

 

A LITTLE IRISH CHARM AT THE FIELD: HIMSELF

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day (March 17, for those who have trouble keeping track), when everybody pretends to be Irish, a new book, set in the rural Irish countryside and filled with the sorts of characters you only find in Ireland, is coming to the Field Library.  

himself cover

Himself by Jess Kidd stars a classic rogue: a charmer and car thief by the name of Mahony who was found on the steps of an orphanage as a baby, and grew up in Dublin always believing that his mother, whom he never knew, gave him up voluntarily.  But then one day he receives an anonymous letter that suggests his mother might have been the victim of foul play and his abandonment might not have been quite as voluntary as he’d assumed.  

 

What else can he do?  He heads back to Mulderrig, the rural village of his birth, determined to get to the bottom of these allegations.  Naturally, his arrival in the village stirs up all kinds of trouble, because naturally there are secrets galore kept by the people who knew Mahony’s mother.  Since he’s still a stranger to the town, Mahoney needs the help of an insider to dig into the past. He chooses the one person guaranteed to infuriate both the politically conservative and the pious: Mrs. Cauley, a woman who’s not only a retired actress but an anarchist as well.  The investigation takes in the living and the dead (because in Mulderrig the dead can be as chatty as the living), leads to the wrath of the local priest, letter bombs, poisoned scones and the performance of the most controversial play in Irish history (and if you’re familiar with that particular play, you might be imagining certain parallels between its plot and the plot of this book).

 

Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year with a book filled with the natural and the supernatural, mystery and folklore, characters galore and the quintessential Irish wit and love of language: Himself.

WHAT WOULD YOU DO? WAKING LIONS

waking lions cover

Dr. Eitan Green, in Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, believes he has it made.  He’s a successful neurosurgeon living in Israel, happily married to a police detective, with two fine sons.  Everything is going his way, until one night when he’s driving home from the hospital where he works, he’s tired and not paying attention, and he hits someone.  He gets out of the car and looks at the person he hit, a migrant from Eritrea in Africa.  It’s clear to him that the man is beyond help.  He should call the police, set the wheels of the system in motion but he makes a different decision: he can’t do anything for the man, so he just drives off.

 

Already we have a problem, right? We have a person who’s basically doing good work who has a moral lapse.  The fact that his wife is a police officer complicates things, but that’s not the worst of it, as it turns out: Dr. Green dropped his wallet at the scene of the crime, and the widow of the victim comes to Dr. Green and confronts him with it and her knowledge that he was responsible for the hit and run.

 

At this point, you’re thinking we’re in a blackmail story, and we sort of are, but it’s not the kind of blackmail you’re expecting.  The widow, Sikrit, does not want money from the doctor.  She demands something that’s ultimately more dangerous and more life-changing from him: that he provide medical services to the migrants living on the outskirts of the community who are, because of their status, are in desperate need of medical help and can’t get any on their own.

 

At the same time that Dr. Green is being drawn into a world he’s never had any contact with (hardly ever even thought about), his wife is investigating that hit and run accident, not realizing that she’s coming closer and closer to finding that her own husband is the guilty party.

 

Yes, the book has all the accouterments of a thriller, but there’s a lot more going on under the covers here: questions of individual morality and the larger morality of societies, responsibility and justice.  For a good, thought-provoking read, try Waking Lions.