POSTHUMOUS GIFTS FROM P. D. JAMES: SLEEP NO MORE

What do you do if you want to read something suspenseful, with interesting characters, dark subject matter and surprising but satisfying twists, and yet you’re in the beginning of the holiday season and can’t make the time to sit down with a full novel?  You’re in luck, because a new collection of short suspenseful stories by the late great P.D. James has just been published, and Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales will help scratch that mystery/suspense itch even in the few moments you’re able to snatch from your crazed schedule.

P. D. James has always been a great psychological writer, and a fine prose stylist at the same time. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about her novels is her ability to get inside the minds of such different characters and inhabit them fully, no matter how warped or even demented the character might seem to someone on the outside, and in the world of the short story, she’s demonstrated her ability to bring that laser like focus on characters together with her fiendish plotting and expert scene-setting in small, bite-sized but still delicious (to strain the metaphor a bit) servings.

This collection includes one classic locked room murder (“The Murder of Santa Claus,”) a creepy story about a young girl who’s forgotten the first ten years of her life and is drawn, for reasons she can’t understand, to graveyards (“The Girl who Loved Graveyards”) and a story told by an elderly man to his greedy heirs, confessing to a terrible crime decades before (“Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday”) The stories all turn on surprising twists that make sense even as they overturn whatever you thought was going on earlier (unlike some stories where the twists seem to be there just for the sake of having twists, and yes, I’m looking at you, Gone Girl), on issues of revenge and justice. You can read them as Golden Age mysteries a la Agatha Christie, or as psychological studies set in decades past, or you can just read them and revel in the delights of a master at work.

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CHRISTMAS IS THE BEST TIME FOR MYSTERIES

Ah, the holiday season, filled with food and gifts and peace on earth and . . . crime?  It may sometimes seem, if you’re a mystery fan, that all this sweetness and light and peace on earth stuff makes it harder for you to find the kinds of reads you really like, but have no fear.  Two of our best mystery authors have just published Christmas books that include all the seasonal stuff, mixed with crimes to be solved.

If you’re a mystery fan, you’re probably familiar with Rhys Bowen, and if you haven’t read her, then you’re definitely missing out. She has two current series, the Molly Murphy one (set in New York in the early 1900’s), and the Royal Spyness series (set in Britain in the 1930’s), and she also wrote the delightful series involving Constable Evan Evans (set in a village in Wales). Depending on your tastes, you definitely want to read one or more of those series, but her current Christmas-related mystery, The Ghost of Christmas Past, happens to be in the Molly Murphy series.

You don’t need to have read any of the other novels in the series to jump into this one; Bowen is very good at bringing you up to speed (though of course if you enjoy this one you should definitely go back and read the others). Molly is recovering from her recent experiences in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and her recent miscarriage when she and her husband are invited to spend the Christmas holidays with a family who has a mansion on the Hudson (hmm, wonder where that might be).  The family’s Christmas spirit is a bit strained, though, because ten years ago, Charlotte, the daughter of the family, wandered off in the snow and disappeared without a trace.  Molly, an investigator by trade and sympathetic to the sorrow of a mother yearning for her lost child, wants to help but can’t really come up with anything the police didn’t already, though she does suspect the people in the house know more than they’re admitting about the events of ten years ago.  Then comes Christmas Eve, and the appearance of a young girl at the door, claiming to be Charlotte. Who is she? If she really is Charlotte, where has she been and what happened to her for all these years? And if she isn’t really Charlotte, who is she and why is she here?  

Anne Perry needs no introduction to mystery fans either.  She’s the author of multiple series of historical mysteries, from William Monk (a particular favorite of mine) to Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, to Joseph Reavely (set in World War I). She has also been writing Christmas themed novellas for years, set in the Victorian era in Great Britain.  Her newest Christmas book is A Christmas Return, whose protagonist is Mariah Ellison, the grandmother of Charlotte Pitt.  When Mariah receives an ominous Christmas present that revives memories of a 20 year old murder which estranged her from her friend, the widow of the victim.  In the spirit of the season, Mariah heads out to Surrey to join with the murdered man’s grandson to unearth new evidence, discover a suspect for the murder, and find out that the picturesque Surrey hills and the happy spirits of the Christmas season are only masks for the dark and disturbing secrets hidden beneath.

 

LIBRARIANS IN WESTERN IRELAND: THE LIBRARY AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

There are certain kinds of books that just seem to work well. Books about libraries, or about bookstores, or about book lovers, for instance, tend to be fun to read. Books about people finding their best selves or recovering from loss and grief by going to a different (perhaps exotic) location and throwing themselves into the lives of the people there, for another example, tend to be comforting.  And (this may be personal to me, of course) books set in rural Ireland just make my heart happy.

Which is why I’m happy to recommend a new, charming book, The Library at the Edge of the World, by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, which combines all these categories into one. Woman trying to rebuild her life after having the earth pulled out from under her? Check. Working in a library/fighting to save a local library? Check.  Set in the west of Ireland?  Check.  

Hanna Casey, our protagonist, moved away from rural Lissbeg, in western Ireland, when she was a teenager, looking for the sophisticated life, bright lights, big city, and she found it, with a well to do barrister for a husband.  But now things have fallen apart: she found her hotshot husband in bed with another woman and she’s had to move back, humiliatingly, not only to Lissbeg, but to the back bedroom of her mother’s retirement bungalow.  She’s got a job as the town librarian, driving a mobile library van from one isolated town to another, but even that has its problems, since she feels conspicuous in her failure to make it on her own after so flagrantly shaking the dust of the place off her feet when she was younger. Her mother is hard to live with, her daughter is traveling the world, and Hanna tries to gain some independence by restoring a cottage left to her by her great aunt.

Then she discovers that the powers that be are threatening to close the library altogether, and Hanna finds a cause to fight for, and discovers how important her neighbors and family are to her and to her future.

So if the news of the world is getting you down and you’re in need of a feel-good book, check out The Library at the Edge of the World, and take a trip to the west coast of Ireland.

 

WEIRDNESS SQUARED: AFTER THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s going to be very difficult to review Jonathan L. Howard’s new book, After the End of the World, not because it’s a difficult book to read (far from it!), but because it’s so bizarre (yet so much fun), it’s hard to explain exactly what the charm of the book is.

To begin with, it’s a sequel, sort of, to his earlier book, Carter and Lovecraft, and I’m not sure whether you need to have read the first book to understand or enjoy this one.  It certainly helps (and if you’re a fan of the weird, you definitely should read them in order, if only because Carter and Lovecraft is such a wonderful book all by itself).  Suffice it to say that Dan Carter is a former police detective who happens to be descended from one Randolph Carter (if you’re familiar with the work of H. P. Lovecraft, that name will definitely ring a bell for you), and who, in the first book, ends up co-owning a bookstore with Emily Lovecraft, an African American woman who is (and I’m still not sure how this happened, given the man’s famous racism) descended from the writer H. P. Lovecraft.  In the course of their previous adventure, the two of them ended up folding reality so that certain things from their timeline (Providence, Rhode Island, for instance) do not exist and have never existed in this current timeline. Providence is now Arkham, and its local college is Miskatonic University, not Brown.

If the previous paragraph has you confused, then I recommend against reading After the End of the World, because there’s lots more like that in the book.

The beginning of After the End of the World takes place in this alternate reality in the middle of World War II, when the Nazis annihilate Moscow and the surrounding countryside with what appears to be a nuclear bomb. Naturally, this changes the course of the war and the future of the world (without a Soviet Union, there is no Cold War, for instance).  In the present, Nazi Germany is a world power and the United States has made its accommodations with them (the Holocaust did not happen, or not the way it happened in our timeline).  

Carter is drawn into an investigation of a major scientific collaboration between the people at Miskatonic University and some high powered Nazi scientists, where the results of the experiments so far seem to be too good to be true, and at the same time Lovecraft finds that she has, somehow, a very rare copy of the Necronomicon, a book that (in our reality) was made up by H. P. Lovecraft but in this reality is a real, and very dangerous, thing.

Bizarre human sacrifices, questions about how the Nazis really managed to destroy the Soviet Union and whether or not reality can be unfolded back to our understanding of it, suspenseful confrontations in an isolated island off the coast of Alaska, what happened to the James Bond novels without a Cold War background, the fate of Great Britain after this version of World War II, and the actual stopping of time altogether: this book is a wonderful, enthralling, truly strange read.  The characters are quirky but believable, the plot picks you up and carries you along, and while the book is satisfying in itself (and more satisfying as a sequel to Carter and Lovecraft), there’s a hint that more adventures may be in the offing. If they’re as good as the first two books, then I’m eagerly looking forward to reading them. Come to the Field Library and check them out for yourself.

 

MERMAIDS ARE REAL — AND KILLERS! INTO THE DROWNING DEEP

Of course, we all know there’s no such things as mermaids.  There are all kinds of scientific reasons why such creatures couldn’t possibly exist, and we all know how the first stories of mermaids began as stories from delusional sailors who mistook various kinds of sea creatures for women with fishtails. Movies like Splash and The Little Mermaid are just fantasies, and everybody knows that.

That’s the opening premise of Mira Grant’s new novel, Into the Drowning Deep. Of course there aren’t any such things as mermaids.  The crew of the ship Atargatis set out for the Mariana Trench to make a mockumentary about legendary sea creatures, and somehow the ship was lost at sea with all hands.There was some film footage recovered from the wreck which appeared to show something terrible happening to the crew, but there’s still controversy about that footage. Maybe it was just a hoax, a publicity stunt, faked.  But what if it was real?

Another ship is setting out, with a different crew.  Some of these people are true believers, convinced that there are really legendary sea creatures, including Kraken and mer-people, and they’re trying to validate their life’s work. Some are out for the thrill of the hunt, some are there to provide muscle/protection in case there really is something down there that’s dangerous. Some want to find out what actually happened to the Atargatis and its crew. Among the latter group is Victoria Stewart, an ambitious young scientist who wants to find out, once and for all, what happened to her sister, who went missing on that ill-fated ship.

Naturally, with a setup like that, you know there really is something terrible waiting for the crew of the new ship (named Melusine — yeah, the author knows what she’s doing here), and half the fun is waiting for the horrors to start, while the other half is enjoying the exciting story of survival against a terrible, unknowable threat.

I might note that Mira Grant is a pen name for Seanan McGuire, whose books, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, were among my favorite fantasy novels of the past year, so you know you’re in very good hands when you dive into Into the Drowning Deep.

 

THE WICKED BOY: OUR DECEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP READ

After a fun discussion of The Shadow of the Wind, our November book club read (and what a juicy, entertaining read it was; I highly recommend it to anyone, in or out of the book group), we have chosen the next book for the Field Notes Book Group, a nonfiction historical true crime book, The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Killer, by Kate Summerscale.

You may be thinking, from the title, that it’s a book about a Victorian person who kills children, which would be gruesome enough (think of the second plotline in The Devil in the White City for an American example), but in fact it’s even more peculiar, because the book focuses on a child (technically teenager) who, along with his brother, kills his mother and is charged with murder. One of the brothers confessed and testified against the other, but the other, Robert, was found to be insane and sentenced to the infamous Broadmoor lunatic asylum at age 13.  And that’s just the beginning of his story.

Meticulously researched, this book reads like a novel rather than nonfiction.  The writing is so vivid you feel as if you’re actually there in the working class London neighborhood where the brothers and their mother lived, and living through the events as they happened. If you have any interest in Victorian London (say, you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan or a Charles Dickens fan), if you have a taste for true crime, if you’re interested in seeing different views of childhood, insanity, and the dangers of pulp fiction (substitute violent comic books, television, violent video games), this is a great read and will undoubtedly lead to fascinating discussion.

Come to the Field Library and pick up your copy of the book this week, and then join us on December 16 in the Field Library Gallery from 11:00 to 12:30 for coffee, refreshments and what promises to be a lively discussion of murder, mores and the Victorian era.

 

HEIST ON THE MOON: ARTEMIS

What’s an author to do after he writes a surprising bestseller about a man abandoned on the surface of Mars, trying to survive until people come to rescue him?  If the author in question is Andrew Weir, the answer is, he writes another science fiction book, but this time instead of being set on Mars, it’s set on the moon. And not just on the moon, but on the largest city on the moon, Artemis, which give the book its title.  But rather than being a story of survival under very difficult conditions, and the efforts people on earth are making to save one man’s life, Artemis takes the trope of the heist story and transplants it to the moon.

You see, in the future when the moon has been colonized, it turns out that it’s really hard to make a living there.  It’s a great place to go if you’re rich, a fun place to stay if you’re a tourist (though again you would have to have a lot of money to be a tourist on the moon), but if you’re an ordinary person, trying to make a living, it’s like living in the most expensive city in the world, only more so.  Jazz Bashara has an ordinary job as a porter, but it’s not paying her bills by itself.  So she’s turned to crime, petty crime at first: a contraband item here and there, smuggling one or two things that harm no one and make her a little money.  Key word there is “little.”  As a small time criminal, Jazz isn’t really getting ahead or even staying afloat, so when she’s given the opportunity to make some real money (slugs, as it’s referred to on the moon, for reasons that make sense there) by doing a little sabotage on behalf of a very rich and powerful man, she’s more than willing to go for it.  Naturally, this being the kind of story it is, pulling off the job does not put her in a better position and in fact puts her in grave danger, as she discovers the bodies of two people who have already been killed in connection with this and realizes that she’s most likely next.

This is Andrew Weir, so you know you’re going to get lots of science and worldbuilding, a wisecracking protagonist, and a fast paced plot.  You don’t have to be a big science fiction fan to enjoy Artemis, but if you are, you’ll have even more fun with it.

THE CAT CAN FIX IT: THE ASTONISHING THING

There are plenty of books about dogs and how wonderful dogs are.  Albert Payson Terhune made a profession of writing dog books, as did Jim Kjelgaard, and the trope of children’s books, especially award-winning children’s books, focusing on dogs is so well-established that there’s a book called No More Dead Dogs that plays on it.  Understand, I have nothing against dogs, books about dogs, books from the point of view of dogs, you name it.  But as a cat lover, sometimes I find it a little annoying that there are so many dog books and so few cat books, so when I have the chance to get a book from the point of view of a cat, as compared to a dog, I’m happy to snap it up.

Allow me to introduce you to Boo, the feline heroine/protagonist of Sandi Ward’s debut novel, The Astonishing Thing.  Boo is your classic finicky feline, who doesn’t let just anyone into her heart, but she has grown very fond of and even devoted to her human, Carrie.  Carrie provides food and laps and all the good things Boo requires.  Carrie also takes care of the rest of the non-feline family, including her husband, Tommy, her children and the dog (whom Boo refers to as Not-Cat, and isn’t that EXACTLY how you would expect a cat to think of the household dog?), and everything seems to be going well, until one day when Carrie just leaves, and no one, especially Boo, has any idea what happened or why it happened.  The entire household is in disarray, and Boo worries, as cats would, whether anyone is going to remember to fill her food dish, let alone provide a warm lap for her.  But she’s also curious (a definite cat characteristic) about what happened to “Mother.”  She’s been watching the family very closely and she knows that Carrie loved Tommy and the other members of the family. She knows Carrie didn’t stop loving them. So what led to her departure?  And what, if anything, can a good-hearted and insightful cat do to bring the family back together again?

If you’re a cat person, you’ll enjoy this book. Even if you’re not a real cat person, you might just find yourself looking at cats (and their people) in a new light.

 

NEW AND EXCITING BESTSELLERS FOR NOVEMBER

Another month, another crop of new books by bestselling authors. One even has TWO books coming out this month (bet you can’t guess which bestselling author that is!), so if you’re a fan of the hottest authors or you just want to be au courant with the books everybody will be reading, come to The Field Library and take a look at our November bestsellers.

Mary Higgins Clark seems to have been writing forever, but she keeps coming up with winners. Her latest book, Every Breath You Take, is the fourth book in her Under Suspicion series (if you want to catch up, we have all the preceding volumes here at the Field), and in this one, Laurie Moran, the protagonist of the series, is using her television program to solve a cold case involving a wealthy woman who was pushed to her death from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art three years earlier.  The case was never solved, though the widow’s young boyfriend was the most likely suspect then, and now.  But as Laurie digs deeper into the case, with help from her father’s Police Department connection, she begins to see that there are many more people who might have been guilty, including people in her own inner circle.  Who should she trust? How far should she go before she finds her own life in danger?

Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s bestselling series, returns in November in The Midnight Line. He’s not looking for trouble, or for anything in particular, when he gets out of a bus at a comfort stop in Wisconsin and sees a West Point ring in a pawn shop.  Reacher knows what it takes to earn that ring, especially for a female cadet, and it doesn’t make sense to him that the owner would have pawned it. Being Jack Reacher, he decides to find the owner of the ring and make sure she’s okay, and of course the trail is much more complicated than Reacher could have anticipated, throwing him in the path of bikers, cops, muscle, and crooks, leading him to the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, and a vast criminal enterprise that only someone like Reacher could break.

You could hardly think of someone less like Jack Reacher than Stephanie Plum, the inept bounty hunter protagonist of Janet Evanovich’s bestselling series. However, her ridiculous lack of sense and ability make her books a lot of fun, and the latest, Hardcore Twenty-Four, is another example.  Can you imagine Jack Reacher getting stuck babysitting someone’s boa constrictor?  Well, that’s just the start of what Stephanie gets herself into: she can’t bring in professional grave robber Simon Diggery (an almost Dickensian name, by the way) until she promises to babysit his boa, Ethel, a job for which she is entirely unqualified. Then headless bodies start showing up, as does Diesel, a hot guy who doesn’t take no for an answer in his professional or personal life, and Stephanie has more problems than she knows how to deal with (and for those who are longtime fans of the series, one of those problems includes the question of Grandma Mazur’s new online boyfriend; any subplots having to do with Grandma Mazur are, of course, worth reading all by themselves).

David Baldacci brings back his top assassins, Will Robie and Jessica Reel, in his new book, End Game, for nonstop action.  Will and Jessica have handled a lot of tough situations as they’ve acted in secret on behalf of the U.S. Government, killing people who represent unique threats to the U.S.  They have always been able to rely on their handler, code named Blue Man, to keep them safe and have their backs.  But now, after a rare vacation, Blue Man has disappeared and no one can get in contact with him.  Will and Jessica assume the worst and spring into action, tracking him to his last known location, a small town in the wilds of Colorado which has become a magnet for crime, drugs and far-right militia groups. But as Will and Jessica discover, there’s a deeper and more sinister threat lurking in this small town, a threat not just to Blue Man and to them, but to all of America as well, and they’re outgunned against an adversary with home court advantage.  Will they be able to get Blue Man back? Will they get out with their own lives?

Danielle Steel is becoming more prolific as time goes on.  Her last book, Fairytale, came out in October, and this month she’s got Past Perfect. a very different kind of book, a ghost story, a time travel story, an unclassifiable novel about what happens when the past and present collide. The book begins with a modern family, Sibyl and Blake Gregory and their three children, Andrew, Caroline and Charlie, moving from New York to a beautiful old mansion in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco.  The fact that the house is surprisingly inexpensive for its size and location doesn’t give them any pause (obviously they haven’t been watching the right movies), but when an earthquake shakes up the house the first night they move in, they meet the people who lived there a hundred years before, the Butterfield family, all of whom are long dead.  In the days to come, the two families meet up with each other more and more often, sharing meals, memories, and time (as I said, a strange kind of book and hard to categorize).  Is the past actually perfect? Of course not, but it can teach the present a great deal, as the Gregory family comes to learn.

Did you guess which bestselling author has two books coming out this month?  If you said James Patterson, you’re right!  The first to arrive is Count to Ten, which is in the Private series, and is set in India, specifically in Delhi.  After the events in Mumbai (related in Private India: City on Fire, earlier in this series), Santosh has resigned as head of the Private Agency for India, but the head of the global agency wants him back very badly, and persuades him somehow to take on the founding of a new office in Delhi. Santosh has enough to do just fighting his own demons, but a case arises to make things worse.  Barrels full of dissolved human remains have been found in the basement of a house in a fashionable part of Delhi, and, in case that wasn’t harrowing enough, the house belongs to the state government, which is suppressing all public information about the scene and the remains. Just what Santosh needs in a new city when he’s still shaky after the devastation in Mumbai.

Later in the month, Patterson brings back his longest-standing character, Alex Cross in the latest in the only series for which he doesn’t have a co-writer credited.  The newest entry is called The People vs. Alex Cross, and for the first time Alex is on the wrong side of the law, charged with murder after gunning down followers of his nemesis Gary Soneji (whom we met back in the very first book in the series, Along Came a Spider). Alex knows it was in self-defense, but he’s being made into the poster child for trigger-happy cops. Suspended from the police and fighting for his professional life, the last thing Alex should be doing is investigating another serial killer, but when his long time partner, John Sampson, brings him a video that might be connected to the disappearances of a number of young women and asks for his help, Alex can’t say no, and so while he himself is on trial, he’s attempting to solve a series of violent crimes and prevent more.  With the natural suspense of a murder trial running through the book, added to the hunting down of a serial killer, Patterson is at the top of his game, and you can find his new bestsellers right here at the Field.

 

VIVA LA RESISTANCE: RADIO FREE VERMONT

Okay, so maybe you’re tired of politics, especially right after what seemed like a very long election season.  But that shouldn’t keep you from taking a look at Bill McKibben’s debut novel, Radio Free Vermont, and following his quirky but interesting take on what might happen if people in the state of Vermont decided they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore . . . “it” being their being part of the United States.

While this is McKibben’s first novel, it’s certainly not his first book, nor is it his first foray into the world of politics.  His book, The End of Nature, which came out back in 1989 (!) is considered a classic work of environmentalism and one of the first to bring attention to the problem of climate change.

However, here he’s a little more lighthearted. Our protagonist is one Vern Barclay, 72 years old and host of “Radio Free Vermont,” an underground radio station broadcasting from an undisclosed location, and he’s advocating for the radical idea that Vermont should secede from the United States and become its own country, with its own economy.  Though maybe that’s not really what he’s working for. Maybe he’s really just working to get people more involved with their own communities, their own local economies, their own local produce. As Vern talks, people start listening, and, more interestingly, they start acting.  Nothing too radical or dangerous, really, just things like taking over the public broadcasting at the local Starbucks, and giving local middle school students a day off for “Ethan Allen Day”, and hijacking a Coors truck to replace its contents with a local brewery’s products instead (there are probably many people who would applaud such a move even around here).  Full of quirky locals and a certain over the top look at what’s happening to small towns and small communities throughout the country, Radio Free Vermont is a good quick read you’ll enjoy even if you do think you’re sick to death of politics.