NEW TWISTS ON OLD TALES: THE EMERALD CIRCUS

A collection of short stories all written by one person is a bit of a risky endeavor.  If the writer isn’t really good, after a while all the stories start to sound the same, or share the same themes or the same flaws.  It takes a good writer, like Jane Yolen, to take a collection of stories written over a period of years and turn it into a delight like The Emerald Circus.  When you consider how many of the stories in this book are based on famous works of literature we’re all fairly familiar with, her achievement is all the more impressive.

It does help if you’re a fan of Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of King Arthur, because she takes several stories from those worlds.  If you’re a fan of The Wizard of Oz or of Peter Pan, or even if you aren’t, you’ll find her takes on those works to be interesting and quirky.

I personally loved “Lost Girls,” a story set in the world of Peter Pan in which Darla, a modern girl whose mother is a lawyer and who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, leads the other Wendys to assert their own rights to adventure and to have the Lost Boys clean up their own messes (one of the things I liked about this story, other than the pirates, who were wonderful, was the vision of Peter Pan himself; I’m kind of partial to versions of Peter Pan which don’t see him as a wonderful innocent).

In my opinion, the best of the Alice in Wonderland themed stories was “Tough Alice”.  Here, Alice frequently finds herself in Wonderland, but always has to deal with the dangerous Jabberwock, until this particular time when she figures out how to defeat the monster.  Clearly Jane Yolen has a feel for the characters of Wonderland, including the Beamish Boy (from the poem “Jabberwocky”) and the various queens, and her sly sense of humor really works here.

Poignantly, she portrays Lancelot of King Arthur’s Camelot as a monk seeking Guinevere’s bones to ask her forgiveness for the way he treated her (and Arthur) in the story “The Quiet Monk.”  She incorporates a real archaeological discovery in Glastonbury into the story, and allows a younger monk (who idolizes Lancelot even before he realizes who this new monk actually is) to be the point of view character.

One of the longer stories in the collection is called “Evian Steel,” and it’s a sort of prequel to the Arthurian legend, explaining (in a way) the creation of the famous Excalibur and how the Lady of the Lake came to have it for him.  While I was personally delighted to recognize some of the characters from the legends (not that I particularly liked all the portrayals, especially not her concept of Morgan le Fay), the best thing about the story is the world she creates, an island where women live and men are forbidden, and the swords they make are made powerful by the blood of their creators.

Her version of The Wizard of Oz is called “Blown Away,” and is told by one of the men working on Uncle Henry’s farm.  It’s both realistic and fantastic, and while there’s no Oz per se, Dorothy does get blown away into another life, another world, and discovers her true self there, returning to the farm only long enough to illuminate the lives of the people she left behind.

She also takes on real life characters, mostly writers, in her stories, starting with Hans Christian Andersen and continuing with Edgar Allan Poe (not her best story in the collection, in my opinion), and Emily Dickinson (in an award winning story that manages to capture not only Dickinson’s unique vision of the world but even the way she used language), and putting them in different settings to imagine what might have made them what they were.

Of course, not all the stories work or are equally good. I could have done without the Beauty and the Beast/Gift of the Magi mashup, and a take on Red Riding Hood just didn’t do much for me, but this is to be expected in a collection of stories.  Some will work better than others, some will be more fun than others, and even the ones I wasn’t thrilled with were well-written.

If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to a book, if you’re a fan of short stories in general, or if you’ve got a taste for fantasy with a feminist twist, then by all means check out The Emerald Circus.

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TIME TRAVEL FOR FUN AND PROFIT

So it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time that when I put together The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge, one of the categories would have to be time travel.  I am, I freely confess it, a sucker for a good time travel book, and, in addition to the list of time travel books which I have posted on the Challenge page, I would like to provide some personal recommendations for particular books involving time travel which are dear to my heart (and excellent books as well, of course).

Strange as it seems, the Field Library does NOT have a copy of the original time travel book, H. G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine (we do have a children’s retelling of that book, but it’s not quite the same, is it?).  However, don’t be too downhearted, because we have H. G. Wells himself as a character in one of my favorite time travel novels, The Map of Time, by Felix Palma. You don’t have to have read The Time Machine to appreciate Wells’ character in The Map of Time (though of course if you are familiar with his work, this book and its sequels become even more entertaining), because he’s quite an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character in his own right here.  The book involves several supposed time travel schemes, one to make money, one to save a person’s life, and one that involves real actual time travel.  The intertwining plots are surprisingly easy to follow, and it’s a lot of fun to read. This is in fact the first book in a trilogy, but I have to emphasize that it is a full-fledged and complete story in its own right.  As I was reading it the first time (it bears rereading, to appreciate exactly how Palma put the whole thing together) and I got close to the end of the book, I was afraid that there was no way he was going to make everything work (if I’d known it was the first book of a trilogy I would have been even more worried), but in fact, all the plots are resolved, and brilliantly (I was so delighted when I reached the climax of the book I actually laughed aloud when I was reading it).  You don’t have to read The Map of the Sky or The Map of Chaos, the next two books in the series, in order to love this book, but if you enjoy this one, you will LOVE the next two as well, even if they’re not part of this year’s challenge.

Want something simpler and more madcap?  Try the late great Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and no, even though this is the second in a series, you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy or follow this one, and in fact this was the first book I read in the series (aside from one tiny spoiler which I didn’t grasp when I read this, I had no problems reading the first book after this one).  The first book explains why the earth was made, and the results from one set of characters’ time travel in this book explains what, exactly, the ancestors of human beings were (it also explains who really runs the universe, but a different set of characters discover that).  The restaurant of the title happens to be poised at the very edge of the total destruction of the universe at the end of time, and in the universe of this series, it makes perfect sense that someone would have figured out how to exploit that moment and make a fine dining experience out of it.  If you’re not too bound by logic and reality and if you have a warped sense of humor (this pretty much describes me), then you’re going to enjoy The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the other two books in the trilogy (if you like Adams, I recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this book, and Life, the Universe and Everything; while there are other books ostensibly in the series, the first three are, in my opinion, the best).

The thing about time travel is that it makes for really complicated plots, and I can’t think of another time travel book I’ve read that has a more complicated plot than The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Our protagonist, Henry, has a genetic condition whereby he will suddenly and without warning jump through time, appearing in different places at different ages. He and Claire, his wife, are very much in love despite the difficulties his chrono-displacement causes.  This is a moving, romantic book, and I have recommended it to dozens of people face to face, so I have no problem recommending it highly here as well. You should be warned, though: the plot jumps around in time and place the way Henry himself does.  Pay attention to the headings of each chapter, which tell you where and when you are with each character, and by the time you’ve gotten through the first fifty pages or so, you’ll get the swing of it. It’s absolutely worth the effort.

The opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is : “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and that’s an accurate description of what’s going on in the book, but there’s so much more going on with the plot and with Billy Pilgrim than mere time travel. The book isn’t told sequentially because Billy Pilgrim, our protagonist, has been kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, aliens who live in four dimensions at once, to whom time is pretty irrelevant (their phrase, which Billy uses himself frequently, is “so it goes”, a fatalistic response to the wrongs of the world); we hop around from Billy’s youth to his early days in World War II to his capture by the Germans and his more or less accidental survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden to his death, then back to his marriage and the birth of his children, then to his experiences on Tralfamadore.  It’s actually easier to follow than the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I personally find it (along with Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night) one of the best books Vonnegut ever wrote.

For more of my thoughts on time travel books, you can check here and here and here.  But please do give the whole time travel genre a try, and not just because it’s one of the categories in this year’s challenge, but because it’s mind boggling and fun.

NEW AND IMPROVED! THE FIELD LIBRARY 2018 READING CHALLENGE IS HERE

For the past couple of years I’ve been running reading challenges for patrons here in the Field Library, using the Read Harder challenge lists from the Book Riot site. And I have to confess that for the first year, 2016, it was a lot of fun, finding the books that fit the categories and enticing readers (including myself) to read them and try different things. A lot of people won the challenge that year and were delighted with their efforts.

But then came 2017, and the Read Harder challenge was less fun, more obscure. It was harder to find books here at the Field Library that would fit the categories (for instance, the book published by a micropress was absolutely impossible, so I cut that category out altogether), and I think I wasn’t alone in finding the choices to be less enticing.  

This year I’m running a reading challenge, but it’s a different one. It’s The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge, and our goal is to explore the resources this library has that many people aren’t aware of.  The categories are broad and, if I do say so myself, sometimes quirky, but I believe it will be fun for anyone who wants to participate with me.

So if you’re interested, whether you’re someone who’s done both the previous challenges or someone who hasn’t even tried one before, or someone who’s interested in getting out of a reading rut but isn’t sure how to do it, come to the Field Library and sign up at the Circulation Desk!  We have multiple copies of the list and over the course of 2018 I’ll be posting lists of books that fall into each of the categories, with displays at the front desk.

Come and explore The Field Library’s collection and boldly read where no one has read before, or at least where you haven’t read before.  Join The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge!

A COLD DEATH: NIGHTBLIND

What is it about the Scandinavian mystery writers?  Why are their books so dark and yet so compelling?  From Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (which I love passionately) to Stieg Larsson’s Millennial series (more popularly known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), to Karin Fossum’s Inspector Sejer books, with a whole lot of other authors in similar veins in between, there’s a whole genre of Scandinavian mysteries, and they’re addictive in the extreme. Perhaps it’s something about the long winters and the long hours of night.  Perhaps it’s the writers’ reaction against the countries’ reputation as the best and happiest places on earth.

The latest entry in this category is Ragnar Jonasson’s Nightblind, a sequel to Snowblind, set in a small town in Iceland which is so quiet and crime-free that nobody locks their doors. Their local police officer, Ari Thor Arason, protagonist of the previous book and a fairly recent arrival from the Big City, Reykjavik,  has an uneasy relationship with the local people.  Then his superior officer is shot, at point blank range, in a deserted house. If Ari hadn’t called in sick that night, he realizes he might have been the victim, which adds a note of urgency to his efforts to solve the crime, as the long arctic night begins to close in. The whole country is shocked at the murder (Iceland’s annual murder rate is in the single digits), especially of a police officer, which puts more pressure on Ari and his new supervisor, sent from the city, to solve the case as soon as possible. But this is going to be more complicated than they imagined, involving dark hidden secrets and a long buried past, local political corruption, a compromised new mayor of the town, and someone who’s being held in a psychiatric hospital in Reykjavik for reasons we don’t learn until fairly late in the book.  The claustrophobic nature of a murder in a small town where everybody knows everybody else and everybody’s hiding something is increased by the bitter Icelandic winter, closing in on everyone and forcing people to stay where they are.

If you’re a fan of good Scandinavian mysteries, or if you just like a good solid mystery where the clues are revealed slowly amid red herrings and dark hints about the way the past casts its shadows on the present, then you should definitely pick up Nightblind.  

COMING TO THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP IN JANUARY, 2018: MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

After a stimulating discussion about The Wicked Boy and Victorian crime, questions of sanity and morality (we really do have great discussions in this group!), the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for our January meeting: My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.

A short and deceptively simple book by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, My Name Is Lucy Barton is narrated by Lucy, looking back on her experience when she was hospitalized for a long period and her estranged mother came to visit her for a period of days.  Neither Lucy nor her mother finds it easy to talk about the things that really matter, Lucy’s childhood and her mother’s life when Lucy and her siblings were growing up, so instead they circle around their truths, talking about other people Lucy knew in her childhood in a small rural community in Amgash, Illinois, and all the while other truths, about Lucy’s childhood, her marriage, her ambitions, and what estranged her from her family, lurk under the surface.  This well-written book is a fast read and yet the characters haunt you for some time after you finish reading it.

Come to the Field Library and pick up your copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, and then join us on January 20, 2018, at the Field Library Gallery from 11:00 to 12:30 for lively discussion and tasty refreshments.

A WARM STORY FOR COLD TIMES

There are times when you’re ready to read something challenging, something that takes a lot of work on your part, that forces you to contemplate complicated ideas you wouldn’t ordinarily think about.  The holiday season is usually not one of those times. In the coldest, most stressful part of the year, if you’re thinking about reading at all, probably what you’re looking for is something fairly short, not too difficult, and, if possible, something that will make you feel good rather than depress you about the state of the world or about humankind.  If that’s your situation, then we have a book for you, the newest book by Elizabeth Berg, The Story of Arthur Truluv.

No, that’s not actually the main character’s name, in case the notion of someone actually being called “Truluv” strikes you as too icky-sweet to bear. Arthur Moses is an elderly man whose wife died a year before the beginning of the book.  He is having trouble adjusting to life alone.  His life revolves around tending his roses, taking care of his cat, and going every day to the cemetery where his wife is buried.  There he has lunch, feeling she’s keeping him company as she did all the years of their marriage.  

Then one day he encounters Maddie, an 18 year old girl who’s hiding out in the cemetery rather than have lunch at school, where she’s bullied by other kids.  Her mother died when she was born and her father barely seems to know she exists.  She is, in other words, extremely lonely and ready to meet someone as gentle and kind hearted as Arthur.  She’s the one who nicknames him “Arthur Truluv”, and she and Arthur begin to build their own family, helping each other deal with their grief and loneliness.  Then Lucille, Arthur’s neighbor, a great baker but also a lonely person, joins their circle, and the three of them work together to find their way to start again.

It is not, as you can imagine, a book filled with suspense and high stakes adventure, but it is a book filled with warmth and emotion, the kind of book that’s perfect for the holidays or for any time you feel the need to believe in the goodness of people again.  

WANT TO LIVE FOREVER? MAYBE NOT

The desire to live forever is a deep rooted one, and there have been all kinds of stories and books about how that might be accomplished, from myths and fables to novels and movies. The newest effort to imagine how someone might be able to cheat death is Stanley Bing’s Immortal Life: A Soon to Be True Story.

Set in the not-too-distant future, the book focuses on one Arthur Vogel, a trillionaire tech giant whose empire ranges all the way to Mars, and who’s already extended his life, through various means, to 127 years.  Now even those methods aren’t working anymore and his body is fading, but still Arthur’s not ready to let go.  His newest plan is to transfer his consciousness, his self, into a new, young body.  That body, Gene, has been specifically created for the purpose of extending Arthur’s life.  The only problem (and you know there has to be a problem) is that Gene is a person in his own right (at least in his own mind), and Gene does not want to be just the shell that houses Arthur’s consciousness for the rest of his days.

Once Arthur and Gene are joined (you didn’t think there was any possibility Gene would be able to prevent Arthur’s consciousness from being implanted in him, did you?), the battle begins. Arthur wants to take over the world by gaining control of the cloud into which all humanity is plugged, and Gene wants to free humanity from bondage to the cloud, to their virtual existence.  Two different personalities in the same body, fighting for control of the body and fighting for the control of the world: add this to a sly sense of humor and a satirical look at current trends in connectedness and in the growing gap between the super rich and the poor, taken to logical extremes, and you have an entertaining look at how immortality might be achieved (by the wealthy, at least) and whether it’s a good idea.  Come and check it out for yourself.

 

THE MOTHER OF COMPUTERS: ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS

If you had to guess what would happen to Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the infamous Lord Byron, the romantic poet described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, you might well imagine that she became a poet, or a notorious libertine (like her famous father), or that she reacted against her father’s life and disappeared into the silence of history. Almost certainly you would not guess that she grew up to be an outstanding mathematician, in an era when women were actively discouraged from obtaining higher education at all, let alone learning math, or that she collaborated with Charles Babbage in the invention of the computer.  But in fact, Ada Lovelace earned her fame (or deserved her fame) as a woman with a brilliant mathematical mind, not as the daughter of a wild and dissolute poet.  

How Ada turned into what it would not be an exaggeration to describe as the Mother of Computers is the story Jennifer Chiaverini tells in Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.  Ada was fortunate that her mother was a rigorous mathematician in her own right, and a woman determined to protect her from Byron’s influence, and from any possibility that she might turn out to be like her father. That meant Ada was given tutoring in science and math as she was growing up, and kept away from all pernicious subjects like poetry and literature.  When she entered London society, Ada met the man who would shape the rest of her life, Charles Babbage, who had already built a prototype of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and was working on a more complicated and powerful machine, the Analytic Engine.  Ada joined his efforts, determined to help him change the world, and at the same time she pursued her own mathematical studies, fell in love, learned more about her parents’ tempestuous relationship and developed her own fierce imagination.

You don’t have to be a computer nut or a geek to appreciate the world of the 19th century that gave birth to the first computers. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate the strength of character that it took for a woman to study math and make a name for herself in the world of science in the 19th century.  But if you’re interested in a fun historical novel that will bring that whole world to life, filled with larger than life characters, by all means check out Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.

TWO NEW TAKES ON THE END OF THE WORLD

What’s up with all the dystopian novels this year?  Not only people like Stephen King (and let’s face it, you expect Stephen King to come up with dark views of the world), but writers who are not known for writing dystopias are coming out with their own versions.  Cases in point: both Louise Erdrich and Nora Roberts have new books out which deal with the end of the world as we know it.

Future Home of the Living God is not your typical Louise Erdrich book.  Instead of writing about the present (as in The Round House or A Plague of Doves or LaRose), she sets this book in the near, but undetermined, future, and instead of writing about issues of revenge and justice, she’s writing about issues of reproductive freedom and repression (though, to be fair, those issues are related to her usual concerns).  The cataclysm in this case is a massive biological disaster that’s causing women to give birth to increasingly primitive versions of human beings, and in the wake of this “reverse evolution”, society begins to fall apart.  The protagonist, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, was adopted in infancy by a loving Minnesota couple, but when she becomes pregnant (with all the stories of disastrous pregnancies and government attempts to confine and monitor pregnant women), she sets out to find her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman living on a reservation.  All around Cedar, the world is falling apart: her adoptive parents disappear without a trace, families are torn apart, pregnant women are being required to register and rewards are offered for people turning in recalcitrant mothers-to-be.  With the end of humanity in sight, Cedar has to take extraordinary measures to keep herself and her baby safe.

Nora Roberts turns her hand to the end of the world as well in her newest book, Year One. In this case, a disease wiped out half of humanity, and all the usual structures of society failed as well: the electrical grid sputtered, governments collapsed, science and technology no longer worked as they had in the past.  In the new chaos, magick arises, both in the form of witchcraft practiced by Lana Bingham, living with her lover in a loft in a wrecked New York City, and in more sinister forms of power which can lurk anywhere.  Lara and her lover leave New York and head west, along with a disparate group of other survivors: a tech genius living in a non-digital world, a former journalist who no longer has an audience or a medium, a doctor and a paramedic and the woman and children in their care.  Those who are immune to the disease are considered dangerous, and those who show abnormal gifts are also considered dangerous, so this small group is doubly at risk, from what remains of authority and from those who have acquired powers they’re using for evil rather than good.  Warning: this is the first book in a trilogy.  While Nora Roberts is good about finishing her multiple book sets, those who want to follow my rule of thumb about multiple book series (i.e., don’t start them until the last one has come out) might want to wait for the rest of the series. Otherwise, if you’re a Nora Roberts fan, you’ll find plenty to enjoy (in a dark way) in Year One.

2017 GOODREADS TOP FICTION CHOICES AT THE FIELD

Well, it’s December, and aside from the holiday season, it’s the time of year when everybody’s busy compiling their Best of the Year lists. Every year, Goodreads.com has a Readers Choice vote where millions of readers cast their votes in different categories for the best books in a variety of categories. This year, some 3,887,000 votes were cast, and you’ll be delighted to know that here at the Field Library we have the winning books in most of the fiction categories  Come to the Field Library and check the books Goodreads readers have chosen as the best of 2017.

In the general category of fiction, the winner is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. A character-driven novel about families and expectations, about the gaps between planned lives and what actually happens.  Elena Richardson is a by-the-rules person who rents a house to Mia Warren, a free-spirited and fairly poor artist.  The Richardson children mingle with Mia’s daughter, the Richardson kids yearning for the kind of freedom that Pearl Warren has, and Pearl longing for the stability and material world the Richardsons have. When a friend of Mia’s changes her mind about giving up a baby for adoption and the would-be adoptive parents, friends of Elena Richardson, fight to keep the child, the rifts between the families and within the town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, are exposed, with shattering results.

The best mystery and thriller, narrowly edging out Dan Brown’s Origin, is Into the Water by Paula Hawkins.  I’ve already written about Into the Water here. Suffice it to say the book is twisty and complicated, a murder mystery that turns on the twisted history of characters who know each other too well and keep too many secrets.

The winner in the category of Historical Fiction is a book we can’t keep on our shelves, Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, a book that turns on the terrible actions and abuses of a real-life orphanage and adoption scam in the 1930’s, and the long-lasting scars on individuals and families from those nightmares.  I wrote about it here

Without Merit, by Colleen Hoover, won this year’s vote for best romance. The protagonist lives in one of the most colorfully dysfunctional families in literature (her stepmother and mother live in the same house, which actually was a converted church, and that’s not even all of the weird stuff going on with her family), and has her own little quirks, like buying used trophies and pretending they were given to her. When she meets a young man who just might be The One, wouldn’t it just turn out that he’s her identical twin’s boyfriend?  Finally she decides to blow up all the family’s secrets just before she escapes from them for good, but when the escape plan fails, she’s left with the consequences of her truth-telling, even if those consequences mean losing the only guy she’s ever loved.

It’s not surprising that Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is this year’s Goodreads winner in the category of science fiction. After the mind-boggling success of his first book, The Martian, Weir had a built-in audience for whatever science fiction he chose to write next, and he surprised and delighted audiences with his heist-on-the-moon book, Artemis, which I wrote about here.

Nor is it terribly surprising that the winner for best horror of 2017 is Stephen King, though in this case he shares the award with his co-writer and son, Owen King, for Sleeping Beauties. A strange plague affects nearly all the women of the world: when they go to sleep, they’re covered in a gauze-like cocoon, and they don’t wake up on their own. In their sleep, they go to a different world, a place of harmony and peace.  If they’re disturbed or someone tries to break through the cocoon or awaken them, they become feral and violent.  One woman seems to be immune to the disease, but there’s a real question whether she’s a medical freak to be studied or a demon to be destroyed.  The all-male society falls into violence and chaos, as only Stephen King (and his sons) can portray.