I LIKED MY LIFE: NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After a lively discussion of Life After Life, the Field Notes Book Group has selected its book for the month of August, and it’s a good one: I Liked My Life, by Abby Fabiaschi.

Before the beginning of the book, Maddy, a charming, intelligent housewife and mother of a bright, somewhat prickly teenage daughter, has jumped to her death off the roof of the library at Wellesley College. Maddy is our first point of view character,  sharing narrative duties with Brady, her husband, and Eve, her daughter, and she opens the book with observations about who should be Brady’s next wife.  Maddy is sort of haunting her family, but in the most benign fashion possible (Brady hears her laughter in his head; Eve hears her mother singing sometimes), trying very hard to take care of them even after her death.

I know this sounds like it’s going to be a very depressing book, but, surprisingly, it’s not at all.  Maddy’s voice is so funny, her observations so acute and accurate, and her intentions so clearly for the best, that you can’t help liking her.  While Eve and Brady are going through a lot in the aftermath of Maddy’s death, they are also acute observers and, especially in the case of Eve, quite funny in a sort of dark, ironic way.

The big question that drives you through this immensely readable book (I read it in one day) is, why did Maddy, who seems to be the most grounded, generous and intelligent person around, kill herself?  Why would someone who’s so devoted to her loved ones’ welfare, and someone who knows from personal experience how devastating suicide can be for the ones left behind, do this?  Was she trying to shame her family?  Did she have some secret depression, some pressure nobody else knew about?  As her husband and daughter move through their somewhat rocky  mourning process, they struggle with these questions, as do the readers.  

Without spoiling anything, I will tell you the book wraps everything up and answers all your questions in a very satisfying way.

The books will be available to check out at the circulation desk at The Field Library this week. Come in and pick one up, and then join us on Saturday, August 19, from 11 to 12:30 p.m. for discussion, coffee and snacks.

Advertisements

THE GODS MUST BE FUNNY: THE MANAGEMENT STYLE OF THE SUPREME BEINGS

Tom Holt is not a man who takes much of anything seriously. He writes humorous fantasy that takes aim at all the cliches and tropes of fantasy fiction and turns them inside out in the funniest way possible (don’t believe me?  Try some of his other books, including Outsorcerer’s Apprentice,  and The Good, the Bad and the Smug, here at The Field Library).  In his latest book, The Management Style of the Supreme Beings, he changes his focus a little and starts with the premise that God decides to sell off the whole planet earth and everything on it to the Venturi Brothers, a pair of aliens (originally from Mars, though they’ve been all over the universe since) who have the whole supreme being thing worked out in their own way.  The Venturi brothers are not bad, necessarily — in fact, they’re beyond all this “good and bad” stuff in general — but they’re instituting a new regime for the earth and everything is going to be quite different as long as they’re in charge.

You can tell from that much of a description that this is not a reverent book (by any means), and if you’re uncomfortable with an author taking (fairly gentle) pot shots at Christian theology, probably this is not the book for you.  

However, if you’re not easily offended, and if you’re curious about how the world would work if this whole “good — bad” dichotomy weren’t the basis for morality, or if you like a warped adventure story that takes you from heaven to hell to other galaxies and all kinds of places in between, that subverts many of the tropes of adventure fiction (take that, Indiana Jones and your pulp forbears!), then you should definitely read The Management Style of the Supreme Beings.  It’s a fast read filled with laugh aloud lines and warped characters (also warped looks at characters you think you know).

For instance, we have Kevin, God’s other son, the one who never seemed to find a place o fit in with the divine scheme, and who rebels against God’s sale of the earth and all that’s on it to the Venturis.  Yes, he’s supposed to keep away from the earth, but he can’t quite seem to do that, and his two Uncles (Raffa and Gabe, whom you might recognize as the angels Rafael and Gabriel, respectively) have their supernatural hands full trying to keep him out of trouble.

We also have Jersey, an Indiana Jones type of character who’s spent his whole life trying to find the ultimate answer to the existence of God, only to discover, when the Venturi brothers take over, that now everybody knows who the gods are around here, and now he has nothing left to look for, so his life loses its meaning until he discovers a secret that’s been kept for millennia, the secret of another god, one who’s never gone away.

Then there’s Bernie, a human being who’s been working for Uncle Nick in hell for a long time before the sell-off, and who uses his brilliant management skills to make hell into a great tourist destination after the new regime comes to power.  I might add that “Uncle Nick” comes across as a much more interesting (and sympathetic) character than you would expect from his traditional depiction, and has real affection for Bernie (to the point of offering to let Bernie take over the joint when Nick retires).

All of this is fun and the plot is entertaining and complicated enough to keep you going, but the thing that makes this book rise to true heights of goofy fun is the inclusion of Santa Claus as a character.  It turns out he’s not exactly what we always thought he was, and he is NOT pleased at the new management of the planet.  He knows when you are sleeping, after all, and knows when you’re awake, and “good” and “bad” are not things he’s willing to give up on without a fight.

If the news is getting you down and you really feel the need for escape, you could hardly do better than to turn to The Management Style of the Supreme Beings.

 

HUNTED IN THE ZOO: FIERCE KINGDOM

Some of the best thrillers start with a perfectly ordinary situation and then ask, “What if?”  What if people were lapsing into comas in a hospital after simple operations for sinister reasons? What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs on a special island?  And now, in Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips, the question is, what would you do if you were a mother of a young child and the two of you were caught in an active shooter situation, and what if that active shooter situation took place at the local zoo?

Aren’t you intrigued already?  

Joan is spending a pre-Halloween day at the zoo with her four year old son, enjoying the exhibits and their time together.  It’s an all but perfect day as they’re leaving, just before the zoo is closing, and suddenly she hears what she thinks at first is firecrackers and then recognizes as gunfire.  Then she sees that what she thought were fallen scarecrows on the path are much more sinister and scary.  Realizing there are active shooters at the zoo, she takes her son and runs back inside to hide with him for their protection. Her son, Lincoln, is only 4 years old and doesn’t really understand why he needs to keep calm and quiet, how very dangerous everything is, so not only does Joan have to think fast and keep away from the shooters, but she has to make sure Lincoln doesn’t accidentally do something that will endanger them both.

Now everything the two of them had seen and enjoyed during the day takes on a different aspect: the hidden pathways, the exhibits that are being renovated, the carousel, the snack machines are no longer interesting things to see and explore, but potentially life-saving hiding places.  Joan and her son are trapped in the zoo, almost as much as the zoo animals themselves.  What is she willing to do to survive and to protect her precious son?  

She’s not the only one trapped inside the zoo, and we see the perspectives of some of those other characters as well as the killers themselves, but the heart of the book is Joan and Lincoln, their bond, their danger, and the moment by moment decisions she has to make that could have catastrophic consequences for her and her child.  This is the kind of book you won’t want to put down.

A DARK FUTURE FOR WOMEN: GATHER THE DAUGHTERS

One of the biggest hits on television this past year has been the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the book of which has also been a bestseller (again).  Perhaps there’s something in the zeitgeist that leads to the proliferation of dystopias.  One of the newest, and one that should especially appeal to people who appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale, is Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed.

There has been some kind of horrible catastrophe in the outside world long before the book starts, and most of the world has been turned into an incinerated wasteland.  Here on this island, however, ten men and their families set up a colony years before, creating a new society with appalling (to me, at least) rules and roles.  The religion is a sort of ancestor worship, information is strictly restricted, and breeding tightly controlled. Only special descendants of the original ten settlers, called Wanderers, are allowed to leave the island and explore the wastelands outside, searching for salvageable detritus.

Women have one role in this society: to bear children.  As soon as a girl reaches puberty, she begins her Summer of Fruition, a ritual designed to take her from adolescence to matrimony, and then she starts bearing children until she’s no longer useful, and then she commits ritualized suicide.  

The younger children, the ones who haven’t yet reached adolescence, get to run wild for the summers, their older sisters either married or in their Summers of Fruition, their parents indoors.  They do whatever they want, roaming the island, fighting over food and shelter and precedence, and then, one summer, young Caitlin Jacobs sees something she shouldn’t, something terrifying and against all the laws of the island.

She takes this information to Janey Solomon, a 17 year old leader by nature who’s so opposed to the prospect of marrying and becoming a breeder that she’s been starving herself to death. She urgently sets out to find out the truth about Caitlin’s discovery while she’s still capable of doing so, and she prepares the girls to rebel against the system, even though that might be the death of them all.

There’s something horrible but intriguing about a society that bears some resemblance to aspects of our own (if you think I’m exaggerating, try Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer), carried to a nightmarish extreme.  What would you do?  How would you survive in such a world?  Read Gather the Daughters and imagine for yourself how that society would work and what you’d do to accommodate yourself (or not) to it.

DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE, DOUBLE YOUR DANGER: THE PUNCH ESCROW

The concept of teleportation has been a part of speculative fiction for decades, usually with a certain amount of hand-waving to explain exactly how it works. Sometimes it’s treated as a means to an end, the way in Star Trek the characters could go from the ship to a planet surface or to another ship without a lot of wasted time. But sometimes, as in The Punch Escrow, a new science fiction book by Tal M. Klein, the actual consequences of using a teleportation device are at the heart of the story.

Joel Byram, the protagonist of the book, is an ordinary guy by the standards of his time (the year 2147). He doesn’t need to worry about aging, thanks to nanobots, or about air pollution, thanks to genetically modified mosquitos (come on, wouldn’t you like to read this book just to see mosquitos being useful for a change?), and transportation is simple and fast, thanks to the teleportation industry run by the world’s most powerful corporation, International Transport. He himself is working in the field of artificial intelligence, trying to make machines act more human.  Because human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the next hundred years, he is also trying to save his deteriorating marriage.

And then one day he’s involved in a teleportation accident, and suddenly there are TWO Joel Byrams running around where there should only be one, and his life is a complete mess.  He’s on the run from International Transport, which does not want the actual mechanics of teleportation to be made public, and he’s also on the run from a religious sect that’s trying to destroy teleportation altogether, AND he’s trying to get back to his wife, who at this point doesn’t realize that there are two Joel Byrams when she might not want either of them.

 

LESS IS MORE

Who hasn’t been in a situation like that of Arthur Less, the protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s new book, Less?  All right, we might not all have been sent an invitation to the wedding of our former lover to his new, younger boyfriend when we’re turning fifty and already feeling panicky and irrelevant to the world, but we all know what it’s like to be facing an awkward social situation when we’re already feeling kind of vulnerable, and we all, I think, have felt the impulse to run for our lives to avoid the situation, even if that means we’re running into even more difficult circumstances which are more or less guaranteed to make us into complete fools.

Arthur Less has more than romantic failures to make him feel inadequate.  He’s also a novelist who has never really cracked the big time (people over the course of the book ask him how it feels to know he’s just mediocre), and the big 5-0 looms over him like a thundercloud.  He dithers about the invitation to his former lover’s wedding. On one hand, he doesn’t think he can sit through it without dying of humiliation. On the other hand, he knows that if he just says no to the invitation, everybody at the wedding and reception are going to think he’s bitter, he’s jealous, he just can’t cope (even if all those things are true, he doesn’t want people to think that).  He comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution to the problem: instead of simply turning down the wedding invitation, he’s going to accept all these other invitations that are waiting for him, invitations to various writerly events in different parts of the world. He’s going to go on an around-the-world trip that’s (vaguely) work related, and that will prove he’s not trying to avoid his ex lover’s wedding.

Well, you know that’s not going to work. You know, even before reading this charming and funny book, that his various adventures in different parts of the world are all going to go awry, and he’s going to be involved in more humorous disasters than the most hapless P.G. Wodehouse hero. And yet, like the best P. G. Wodehouse heroes, Arthur is sufficiently charming and lovable that you find yourself rooting for him in the midst of all the things going wrong, and hoping that he will win himself a happy ending.  

 

CALIFORNIA AND SOUTHERN DREAMING: NEW THRILLERS

This week we have three new thrillers by authors who are old hands at the suspense/thriller genre, set in California and in the deep South.  Serial killers, sexual harassment and retaliation, newfangled bank robbery and old-fashioned corruption: these three books have it all.

Let’s start in the South, specifically in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, where Ace Atkins’ new book, The Fallen, takes place.  Sheriff Quinn Tolson and his able assistant, Lillie Virgil, are faced with some very slick, very well-prepared bank robbers who are almost supernaturally good at hitting a bank and then disappearing before the law can begin to catch up to them, almost as if they were professionals, almost as if they were following the rules of the Army Rangers, Tolson’s former military outfit. Trying to catch the skillful robbers is complicated by the maneuverings of the county’s truck stop madam, and the self-righteous county official who vows to put the madam out of business, together with an appearance from the old-school Dixie mafia and the disappearance of two teenage boys who might just be the key to solving all these crimes.  If you’ve been reading the continuation of Robert Parker’s Spencer series, written by Atkins, you know the man can paint a vivid picture of Boston, but his heart is definitely in Dixie, as you’ll discover when you dive into the Southern Fried Crime of The Fallen.

What would the suspense and thriller genre be without a good serial killer or two?  Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen, no strangers to the world of killers and those who stalk them, have come up with quite a serial killer in Look Behind You. Kendra Michaels, the protagonist of the book, lives in San Diego when a serial killer starts leaving what at first seem odd, disconnected objects at the scenes of each of his murders, all of which, disturbingly, take place around Kendra’s home and office. She’s not surprised when the FBI comes to question her about the crimes, and she’s more than ready to cooperate, especially when she discovers that the objects aren’t random after all: they’re artifacts from other unsolved serial killer cases around the country, and, to make them worse, they’re all things which were known only to the police working on those cases and never revealed to the general public.  As Kendra works with the FBI to find and stop this killer, she becomes more and more convinced that she is, in some way, a target herself, that the killer is specifically trying to communicate with her and that he might even be one of the people supposedly working to catch the killer.

You would be forgiven for assuming, when you see the name of Michael Connelly on the cover of a new thriller, that you’re going to be reading a new Harry Bosch novel, but you will be surprised to discover that the protagonist of his newest book, The Late Show, is in some ways very different from Bosch, though still a compelling character. Renee Ballard is a Los Angeles police officer, but ever since she reported her supervisor for sexual harassment, she’s been relegated to what’s contemptuously known as the Late Show, the overnight shift. There she and her coworkers may catch interesting cases, but at the end of the shift they have to hand them over to the day shift officers, so they never actually finish any of their cases. To someone as driven and dedicated as Renee, this is totally unacceptable (especially since she is essentially being punished for doing the right thing).  So when she catches two cases, one involving a brutal torture and near murder of a transgender woman, and the other involving a non-terrorist but still appalling shooting at a nightclub, she decides she’s not going to give them up. She’ll still do her regular night shift, but she’s also going to continue to investigate those two cases during the day (sleep?  Who needs sleep?), without the permission of her supervisors, and mostly without their knowledge.  Tough and determined as she is, Renee intends to follow both cases to their resolution, no matter what the bad guys or her own department throw at her.

COOL OFF WITH SOUTH POLE STATION AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

I don’t know about you, but when it gets hot and sticky as it has been this late July, the thought of going somewhere cool, maybe even somewhere that’s actually COLD, is awfully appealing.  Which is why the new novel, South Pole Station, by Ashley Shelby, strikes me as a great late summer read, if only for the concept.

Would YOU go and live at the South Pole for a whole season, no matter how messed up your life might be otherwise?  Knowing that the average temperature is -54 degrees fahrenheit and that there’s no sunshine for six months of the year and that you would be living with a group of people who have in common very little beyond the quirks that might allow them to survive in such an extreme environment, what would it take for you to take that leap?

Cooper Gosling, the protagonist of South Pole Station, is looking for an escape, though perhaps she might have been able to do something a little less drastic.  She’s thirty, she just lost a family member to suicide, her artistic career is foundering and her love life isn’t much better.  To her own surprise, she passes the test to determine whether she could handle living in Antarctica, and she decides to go for it, and really get away from it all.

Basically, you have all the charms and quirks and potential problems of living in a small community of people who have nowhere else to go, mixed with the extreme physical environment of the South Pole. There are certainly a number of quirky people at the station with Cooper, including a cook with deep, Machiavellian ambitions, an attractive astrophysicist, and the gay black station manager who keeps things moving.  When Cooper finds herself befriending a new scientist whose goal is to disprove global warming (to the dismay and hostility of the other climate scientists at the station), she nearly upends all the conventions of the station and risks her own status and even her work there.

When the weather is so beastly hot and humid that you feel you’re walking through blood just to get across the street, check out South Pole Station.  Come for the cold (and descriptions of the cold), stay for the humor and the heart.

YOUR CHILDHOOD JUST GOT WEIRDER: MEDDLING KIDS

There are, I believe, two kinds of people.  One kind will hear the description of the book, Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, as “Scooby Doo meets H. P. Lovecraft,” and say, “where is it? I want to read it immediately if not sooner!” and the other kind will roll eyes and say, “What kind of mind comes up with nonsense like this?”  Since I’m the one who bought Meddling Kids  for the Field Library’s shelves, you can guess which group I identify with (and you probably could have guessed that from reading this blog over the last couple of years).  So, if you’re of the “what kind of mind comes up with nonsense like this?” group, feel free to skip this post and read something else instead.

For the rest of us, the very name of the book conjures up memories of the climax of nearly every Scooby Doo episodes in which the unmasked villain snarls, “I would have gotten away with it, too, except for those meddling kids!”  Now, imagine if, just once, the mystery WASN’T the result of some jerk in a mask pretending to be a ghost or a monster or whatever the creature of the week was.  Imagine what would have happened if there really was something supernatural going on.

Thirteen years after their last, ostensibly successful, mystery solution, the Blyton Summer Detective Club has dissolved and the members have gone their separate ways, although none of them has found life after the club to be what they expected. In some cases, life after their days of mystery solving has been an absolute disaster.  Andy, the lesbian Latina who’s on the run from the law in two states, decides it’s time to get the gang back together and confront, finally, those haunting loose ends that nearly destroyed them when they spent that last night together in the haunted house thirteen years before. She finds Kerri, the brainiac of the group who’s now a bartender fending off amorous drunks and living with Tim, a Weimaraner descended from the original mascot of the group, and they find Nate, who’s checked himself into the Arkham Asylum years ago (the more astute will recognize another famous reference here), who claims to be in touch with the handsome jock of the group, Peter, who committed suicide years ago. It’s time for them to face their demons, maybe literally, and get past the horrors that nearly broke them back in the day.

This is not a book for everybody, obviously, but if you have a somewhat dark sense of humor and a soft spot in your heart for the teenage mystery solvers of the past (not just the Scooby Doo crew, either; keep your eyes open for references to other famous crime-solving teens) and a love for things weird and Lovecraftian, you’ll definitely want to check out Meddling Kids.

DEATH IS JUST THE BEGINNING: AFTERLIFE

The question of what, if anything, comes after death has fascinated people for thousands of years, and over the years people have come up with all kinds of cosmologies that supposedly answer that question.  This isn’t just the province of philosophy and theology, either; novelists have been creating their own visions of the afterlife for ages as well (for a truly unique vision, I recommend Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, which is also available at the Field Library).  And now Markus Sakey has written a thriller which is also a romance and a speculative fiction novel on the subject, called Afterlife, and if you’re interested in a new take on post-death existence, this is a book not to miss.

Afterlife starts as a thriller: a pair of FBI agents, Will Brody and his supervisor, Claire McCoy, are in Chicago, investigating a terrorist who has already killed 18 people and thrown the whole country into a state of panic. In the midst of this investigation, the two find themselves falling in love and planning for Will to retire from the FBI so that he and Claire can get married without compromising her career.

All of which is thrown into disarray when Will is killed by an explosion set by the sniper he and Claire have been chasing down. From Claire’s point of view, this is a nightmare that renders her already difficult job almost unbearable. For Will, this is the beginning of something new. He wakes up without a scratch to a different Chicago, dark and seemingly abandoned. There are no cars, no planes, none of the people he was just standing beside.  There are people here, though, people like him who died suddenly and violently with a lot of life force left.  Some of them, like Will, are decent people looking for another chance, but others are dangerous and violent, and Will needs to figure out how to survive in this afterlife and find a way to reunite himself with Claire.

The manhunt Will was engaged in doesn’t end with his death; it just gets deeper and more complicated. And when Claire joins him, their love is strengthened by their surroundings and the tasks they’ve set themselves, because heroes remain heroic even after death.

Good vs. evil, life after death, love everlasting: if these aren’t things that interest you, then you can skip this book.  Otherwise, dive into a wild and unique world that will give you a whole new perspective on the Afterlife.