NOVEMBER BOOK CLUB: THE SHADOW OF THE WIND

After our brief foray into pure nonfiction with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by the late great Oliver Sacks, the Field Notes Book Group is once again returning to the world of fiction for our November selection, which we will be discussing on November 18, from 11 to 12:30, and what a novel it is!  Carlos Ruiz-Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is one of my personal favorite books, a real page turner, an international bestseller, with something for everyone.

You know how people say “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore”?  Well, The Shadow of the Wind disproves that claim.  Set in Barcelona after the end of World War II, the book starts with our young protagonist, Daniel, entering the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and choosing the one book he will protect for the rest of his life (already you’re intrigued, aren’t you?  Admit it).  He chooses Julian Carax’s book, The Shadow of the Wind, devours it in one night, and then sets out to find other books by the author.  He is shocked to discover that he may very well have in his possession the ONLY book by Carax still in existence, because someone is busy destroying all the other copies of Carax’s books.  Who’s doing this, and why? Naturally Daniel wants to find this out, but his search leads him to danger and secrets, wonderful characters, mystery and doomed love, adventure and intrigue.

Copies will be available for all members of the group at the Field Library’s Circulation desk.  Come in and pick up your copy, and clear some time on your schedule so you can enjoy the fun of this book.  Join us on November 18, from 11 to 12:30, for coffee, refreshments and lively discussion!

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CHRISTMAS MYSTERY — WITH FINCHES

Considering that the first crop of Christmas-themed books came out in late September (three months before Christmas!), I’m not going to rant about how ridiculous it is to have a new Christmas mystery published in late October (still two months early, and long before most of us are even thinking about the holidays with anything other than a vague sense of dread). Instead, I want to point readers to a series that’s lots of fun and that, despite having a Christmas setting, isn’t about romance and isn’t unduly sweet.

If you haven’t read any of Donna Andrews’ Meg Lanslow mysteries, and you’re a fan of cozies (as compared to the police procedurals or the really dark twisted mysteries from, say, Scandinavia), you’ve been missing out.  Meg, the protagonist of the series, is unusual for a main character in a cozy in that she doesn’t run a shop of any kind, but works as a blacksmith.  She lives with her husband and children in a small town in Virginia, which is also the home of her rather eccentric birth family.  She is, as all such protagonists have to be, quite good at solving mysteries that baffle the police, but the real fun of the series (which is now in its 23rd book) is the interactions among the characters. If you like Grandma Mazur and Stephanie’s relatives in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books, you’ll love Meg and her family. You don’t necessarily need to read the series in order (but once you’re hooked, you’ll want to go back and read them all) to enjoy this book,

How the Finch Stole Christmas is the third Christmas-themed mystery in this series, following last year’s The Nightingales Before Christmas and Duck the Halls in 2014 (if you’re noticing a certain theme in the titles, you’re right). In this book, Meg’s husband, who has in earlier years done a one-man performance of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Christmas time, has decided to expand the performance to include a full cast.  This gives him an opportunity to get his and Meg’s twin sons on stage, one as the young Scrooge and the other as Tiny Tim, which leads to natural complications.  But there’s worse, because one Malcolm Haver joins the cast and immediately causes massive drama.  Malcolm has an ego the size of a planet, a drinking problem, and a contract that allows him to get paid as long as he steps on the stage, regardless of his state of inebriation, and enemies galore.  Meg gets the thankless job of keeping Haver from the bottle as part of her duties as assistant to her husband, the director, and finding out who’s supplying him with liquor.  Also, why are there so many caged finches all over the place?

With just enough Christmas spirit and lots of atmosphere and family humor, and likable, if somewhat eccentric and odd, characters, How the Finch Stole Christmas is a Christmas book you can enjoy even two months before the holidays.

KING LEAR IN 2017: DUNBAR

The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been responsible for some really intriguing modern takes on classic Shakespeare plays, from The Merchant of Venice, in Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson, to The Winter’s Tale as The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson, to Othello reimagined as New Boy by Tracy Chevalier, to Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest, Hag-Seed, to Anne Tyler’s version of The Taming of the Shrew, called Vinegar Girl.  The latest of these tales from Shakespeare is Dunbar, by Edward St. Aubyn, which is a retelling of King Lear.

There’s something about the story of King Lear that attracts writers in general.  Maybe it’s the fairy tale-like setup, the foolish and arrogant king giving his kingdom to his monstrous daughters and throwing away his faithful and loving daughter and then coming to regret his decision.  Maybe it’s because the fear of losing everything that’s important to you as you age is one of those deep rooted fears among human beings.  Whatever the reason, writers have played with the plot of King Lear before St. Aubyn.  A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley, updated the plot to a farm in modern Iowa, and Fool, by Christopher Moore, went back to the source but focused on the character of the Fool rather than the high and mighty personages Shakespeare centered in the story.

The kingdom Henry Dunbar, the protagonist of Dunbar, is preoccupied with is a media empire rather than a kingdom of land, and as he gets to a certain age, he hands over the care of his corporation to his two daughters, only to discover that they are horrible people and that he should have trusted his youngest daughter instead.  After a public mental breakdown, he is sent away to a fancy sanitarium out in the middle of nowhere, his closest companion a demented alcoholic former comedian (the equivalent, of course, of the Fool in the original).  He plots his escape from confinement and flees out into the hills, his family chasing after him, but he has no idea who’s going to catch up to him first, his daughters who are eager to divest him of everything he owns, or his youngest daughter who loves him and wants to save him.

Tapping into issues of trust and family relations, of power and powerlessness, of fear and forgiveness, Dunbar takes one of the most emotionally wrenching Shakespearean tragedies and brings it to life for the modern age.

 

JUST IN TIME FOR HALLOWEEN: STRANGE WEATHER

Just in time for Halloween, Joe Hill has come out with a new horror book, Strange Weather, which is actually four novellas in one volume, for those of us who don’t necessarily have time to read a whole novel at a time but who want something more than just a short story or two.

Joe Hill needs no introduction to horror fans.  Not only is he the son of the Grand Master, Stephen King, but his own books have won him fans and followers in the horror and dark fantasy community. One of his previous books, Horns, was made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, and his other novels, Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and The Fireman, have all been bestsellers (I wrote about The Fireman here ).

One of the novellas, “The Snapshot,” has at its heart a truly disturbing idea: a camera that can erase a person’s memories.  Naturally, if there is such a camera, there’s someone who’s going to use it, and, this being a horror story, the person who’s using it is using it to hurt people.  In this particular case, the person is a nasty guy with tattoos (not that there’s anything wrong with tattoos in general, of course), known as the Phoenician, and he is stalking and terrifying a teenager from Silicon Valley with that sinister camera.

Another novella, “Aloft,” starts with something a little out of the ordinary, though still in the realm of what people have experienced, a man taking his first parachute jump. Then it all goes awry, because instead of falling toward the ground, he finds himself caught on a bizarre solid cloud which seems to have a mind of its own.

Then we travel to Boulder, Colorado, for the novella, “Rain,” where, instead of the ordinary liquid water, shards of crystal fall from the sky and shred people who aren’t under cover.  If that weren’t terrifying enough (where did the crystals come from? Why are they falling here?), then this new apocalyptic rainfall begins to spread to other places.  Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Hill turns to current events (sort of) in the novella, “Loaded.”  It’s the NRA’s dream: a mall cop stops a mass shooting with his own gun, and becomes an instant hero and media darling.  But maybe the truth isn’t what it’s been represented to be, and his story starts falling apart, as does his sanity (here’s where we get into classic horror territory).  He turns to the gun again in the face of an out of control fire, and comes to his final reckoning.

These are not your ordinary horror stories any more than Joe Hill is your ordinary horror writer, but if you want some spooky chills at Halloween, check out Strange Weather.

MAN BOOKER AWARD WINNING BOOK AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

On October 17, 2017, the judges for the very prestigious Man Booker Prize announced this year’s winner: George Saunders’ extraordinary book, Lincoln in the Bardo.  The Booker Prize is awarded for what the judges decide is the best novel of the year written in English, and it brings recognition (and sales, of course) to the winning authors and books (sort of like Oprah’s selections, only with broader criteria for the selections).  We have two copies of the book on the shelves here at The Field Library, one of which is an express, so if you want to find out what the Man Booker judges considered to be the finest novel in English for this year, come on in and check it out.

The book is based on a true incident: during Abraham Lincoln’s first term as President. His young son, Willie, died, and the president, in his grief, went to spend a night in the cemetery where the boy’s body was laid.  Saunders starts with this and uses the Buddhist concept of “bardo,” a state of existence between death and rebirth.  In the crypt, young Willie is waiting for his father, but so are a number of other spirits of people who died and are not, for one reason or another, ready to move on to their next lives.

It’s written in the different voices of the ghosts and Lincoln, an unusual style which one of the judges described as being more like a screenplay than like an ordinary novel, and it does take some getting used to, but in the end the book’s form and substance join together to create a moving reflection on grief, the love of parents and children for each other.  It will also give you deep emotional insight into Abraham Lincoln, the man as well as the president.

Come and read it for yourself, but come quickly, because now that it’s won the Booker Prize, Lincoln in the Bardo is going to be extremely popular and hard to get.

ROLES REVERSED: THE POWER

This has been quite a year for dystopian books.  Even older books like 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here have become bestsellers, and one of the classic feminist dystopian novels, The Handmaid’s Tale, not only returned to the bestseller list but also inspired an extremely popular Hulu television series. A new speculative fiction book, The Power, by Naomi Alderman, is a different kind of dystopian book, though it shares some concerns with the more famous The Handmaid’s Tale.

In The Power, some teenage girls discover that they have the ability to produce electricity in their bodies and channel it through their hands, giving people electrical shocks that can torture or maim, or even kill.  That’s a startling beginning, but when all teenage girls discover they have this power, and older women have it, too, the world is in for a major change.

If patriarchal society is based on the greater physical power of men as compared to women, how can it possibly last when women become more physically powerful?

Some of the things that happen are predictable: men no longer rape women, women and girls who have been abused by men in the past are able to take their revenge. But what happens to religion?  If you have entire religions based on the notion of a God the Father, when mothers become more powerful than fathers, that concept has to change as well, with concomitant shocks running through the whole structure of religion.  What happens to the little details of everyday life, even things like who gets to read which stories on the evening news?  

The story is told through the voices of four people, three women and one man who’s witnessing the changes in society as a result of women’s new abilities.  One woman, an abused foster child, reinvents herself as a goddess on earth; another, the daughter of a mobster, finds herself capable of greater shocks than anyone else, and takes full advantage of this; the third, an ambitious politician, has to decide whether to hold back on the use of her electrical power or use it to advance her career.  

The author has no illusions about how much better women are inherently than men. She’s not creating a utopia where the world is ruled by saner, more emotionally stable, more nurturing women.  Giving one gender power over the other leads to all the corruptions of unbalanced power, nor are men willing to give up their traditional roles as leaders of society’s institutions without a fight.

Like the best dystopian novels, The Power makes you look at the world around you with new eyes, and makes you think about things you took for granted.

A BROTHER’S REVENGE: TWO NEW THRILLERS AT THE FIELD

Two new thrillers coming out this week at the Field Library turn at least partially on the love of siblings, and the pain of losing a sibling to murder.  The protagonists and settings are different, but in both Righteous and Killing Season, the need to bring closure and justice to the death of a beloved sibling makes the story move.

Perhaps you remember my writing about I. Q., a modern day Sherlock Holmes living in East Los Angeles in the modern era (in case you don’t remember, it’s here). Isaiah Quintabe, the hero of the previous book, is back for a new mystery in Righteous, by Joe Ide.  Ten years after his brother’s unsolved murder, Isaiah is still haunted by the death and by the questions it raises, and even his relatively good life now (growing library, growing recognition in his community, growing practice as an investigator, new dog) isn’t enough to keep him from needing to uncover the truth of his brother’s death, even if that investigation brings him face to face with what may be his own Moriarty.  At the same time, he’s trying to find a missing person, a DJ with a gambling habit, who’s also being sought by Chinese Triad gangsters, a furious bookie and her own kind of shaky boyfriend.  The two investigations put together are almost enough to send someone as smart as Isaiah around the bend.

Faye Kellerman needs no introduction to readers of thrillers.  She’s been a bestseller for decades, so when she comes out with a new book, it’s worth reading.  Her newest, Killing Season, is a stand alone book, not one of her series books.  Ben Vicksburg’s older sister, Ellen, was 15 years old, a universally liked, kind, studious person, when she disappeared without a trace.  A year later, Ben found her body in a shallow grave by the side of the river.  The police believed that she was the victim of a psychopath known as the Demon, but Ben, a math genius who sees patterns where other people don’t or can’t, isn’t satisfied with their investigation.  With the surprising help of his school’s popular new girl, Ben starts digging deeper and deeper into the other killings attributed to the Demon, discovering the killer’s methodical and cunning routines.  But as he’s getting closer and closer to the killer, the killer is starting to become more and more aware of him, and Ben might be putting himself and everyone he cares about in the path of someone who has nothing left to lose.

ROAD TRIP THROUGH TIME WITH PARADOX BOUND

As anyone who’s read this blog knows, I’m responsible for buying the new adult fiction at The Field Library.  As such, I buy a lot of books because I know people will want to read them (new books by popular authors, for instance), but sometimes I buy books just because I personally can’t resist them and I want to have them for patrons to read as well.  This explains (partially at least) why there are so many time travel books in our collection.  The newest time travel book The Field Library has acquired is Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines, and it is great fun, a book I’m going to be recommending to patrons for some time (see what I did there?).

Eli Teague is an ordinary guy, living in what seems to him like the most backward small town in Maine, where everything is kind of behind the times and nothing exciting ever happens.  Until something exciting does happen, three times: he meets the same young woman, dressed in Revolutionary War garb (complete with tricorn hat!), and driving a Model A Ford, that happens to run on water rather than gas.  She appears in his life when he’s 8 years old, then when he’s in his teens, and then, when he meets her for the third time when he’s 29, things start getting seriously strange.  There are faceless men chasing this woman, and Eli feels the need to help her or at least warn her, so he heads down to Boston to intercept her, and from there on, he’s caught up in a wild trip with the woman (Harry, short for Harriet), driving across the country and through history, in search of — what else? — the American Dream, which turns out to be an actual thing that has been stolen. The loss of the American Dream is responsible for the strange things happening to the country, and whoever finds it and holds it can shape the future of America.  As you can guess, Harry and Eli aren’t the only people on the road looking for it, with good motives or bad.  

And I’m not going to go into more detail on the plot than that, because it’s the sort of book you’re going to want to discover for yourself.  The faceless men are literally without faces (they wear clear plastic masks which somehow make them even scarier), and they are great villains, implacable because of their certainty and practically indestructible.  Harry and Eli are fun characters as you get to know them, and they interact with a slew of other fascinating people (including John Henry, who has his own special train to travel through history, as opposed to the antique cars many of the other characters use).  There’s even a town called Hourglass where the time travelers meet up at one of three special bars, and since the same person can be there on multiple timelines, there are strict rules about where you can go and with whom you can interact while you’re in Hourglass.  There are, of course, paradoxes, and great plot twists and turns, with some scenes reappearing a couple of times from different perspectives (one of the great pleasures of time travel fiction, in my opinion, is seeing a character in a scene, not knowing who that character is or what he’s doing there, and then later discovering that the mystery character is someone you know, only from a different time; if this sounds confusing, then you haven’t read enough time travel novels).  There’s danger, there’s adventure, and there’s a satisfying ending that you don’t entirely anticipate. It’s wonderful fun, picking you up and taking you on the most amazing road trip through time and space that will make you look at those odd little towns that seem to have been forgotten by time in an entirely different light.