TOUGH GUYS, MYSTERIOUS DAMES . . .AND ALIENS: NOIR

If you’ve never read Christopher Moore, you don’t know what you’ve been missing.  His books are hard to explain, funny but kind of warped at the same time (for instance, Lamb, a version of the Gospels narrated by Jesus’ childhood pal, Biff, or The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, or Fluke, or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings, or — a personal favorite of mine — The Stupidest Angel, a Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror).  His latest book, Noir, reads like a Raymond Chandler novel as seen through the lens of Bugs Bunny.  It’s set in 1947 San Francisco, and is populated by bartenders with dark secrets, corrupt police officers, generals trying to get into the exclusive Bohemian Grove, wisecracking beautiful women with secrets of their own, mysterious agents of some kind dressed in black suits and wearing sunglasses all the time, black mamba snakes and, of course, aliens.

If some of these things don’t sound as if they belong in a mystery novel, especially a noir mystery novel, that’s just because you don’t have the imagination Christopher Moore does. Trust me, when you read the book, everything works together in strange and bizarre, but ultimately pretty funny, ways.

The book starts with Sammy, a bartender in a seedy bar, also known as Sammy Two-Toes, who’s got a secret past his boss is holding over his head, discovering said boss dead in a back room of the bar, having been bitten by a black mamba snake that happened to be there because of Sammy.  Oops. And then we go back to the beginning of the story, when Stilton, a gorgeous blonde, strolls into the bar and steals Sammy’s heart (as dames do in this kind of story), and a U.S. Air Force general enters the bar, looking for Sammy’s boss, to see if he can get some wholesome looking women to go to the Bohemian Grove with him, and of course his boss delegates this to Sammy.  

Add in Sammy’s friend, Eddie Moo Shoo (not his real name, of course), and his uncle in Chinatown, add the corrupt cop, Pookie O’Hara, who’s looking for trouble and finds it, add in Myrtle,  a friend of Stilton’s (a/k/a The Cheese), and Myrtle’s special cross-dressing girlfriend, and a slew of other strange and quirky characters, one narrator who’s not human, and an alien, and you have the makings of a very complicated and funny story.

Between money-making schemes involving venomous snakes, racist police officers getting what they have coming to them, flying saucers seen over the Pacific coast, bizarre rituals at retreats for the rich and powerful, and cross-country chases with an alien in tow, the plot twists and turns, the cast of characters increases and becomes increasingly odd, but Moore keeps all the balls in the air surprisingly well, and fills the book with wisecracks and atmosphere, leading to a satisfying ending (with an epilogue explaining how much of the book is based on actual facts).

For an entertaining jaunt through post war San Francisco with a somewhat warped point of view, check out Noir.  Trench coat is optional.

 

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BLASTS FROM THE PAST: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Take a trip through time, back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, in England and in America, with two of our newest historical novels here at The Field Library.

Alexander McCall Smith needs no introduction to millions of readers, including some devoted fans here at The Field; his series reads, including The Number One Detective Agency series and the 44 Scotland series, have been bestsellers for years, and his stand-alone books are also wildly popular.  He has a knack for creating characters who, however quirky they may be, are real and lovable, and in his newest book, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, one of those lovable characters happens to be a dog.  Peter Woodhouse is a Border Collie who has been mistreated by his owner and is rescued by Val Elliot, a young English woman working on a farm during World War II.  She gives the dog to her (soon to be more than) friend, Mike, an American pilot stationed at a nearby base. Peter Woodhouse becomes the mascot of the air base, accompanying the pilots on their missions, and Val and Mike become engaged, and all seems destined for an easy happy ending until the entry of Ubi, a German corporal, whom Peter Woodhouse brings onto the scene.  The potential for disaster with Ubi’s presence on the scene is matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the potential for a great and rewarding friendship among former enemies. With his trademark charm and love of his characters, McCall Smith has created a historical novel to love.

Esme Silver, the protagonist of The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharp, is growing up in the same general period as that of The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, but a world away, geographically (in the vicinity of Las Vegas, rather than in England) and in living situation. Her father is a small-time crook, trying to get noticed by Bugsy Siegel and his crew, and her mother is a beautiful actress who’s looking for her big break as well.  When Esme’s father gets a chance to get in on the ground floor (so to speak) of the building of the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas, Esme’s life takes a major turn as well, when she catches the attention of Nate Stein, one of the most powerful men in Vegas. The Esme who narrates the story is in her 20’s, looking back on the wild world in which she came of age, a world filled with gangsters and movie moguls, many of whom seemed indistinguishable from each other, and looking back on the rise and fall of her somewhat complicated parents as well as her own discoveries about life and love.  

So whether you’re interested in American pilots fighting Nazis from England, or interested in the rise of the Las Vegas we’ve come to know, you can’t go wrong checking out our new historical fiction here at the Field.

JO NESBO AND MACBETH: A MARRIAGE MADE IN HELL

In the last three years, the Hogarth Shakespeare series has presented a number of books by modern authors writing their versions of different Shakespeare plays, including Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice), New Boy (Othello), The Gap of Time (A WInter’s Tale), Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew), Hag Seed (The Tempest), and Dunbar (King Lear). It’s a really cool idea, and I’ve written about those books before, but without (I blush to confess) having actually READ any of them.

HOWEVER, when I discovered some months ago (a perq of being in charge of ordering new fiction for the library is getting advance notice of what’s coming out) that Jo Nesbo, of all people, was doing a version of Macbeth, of all plays, I’m sure I started squeeing like a demented fangirl.  We all know how I feel about Jo Nesbo’s books, especially the Harry Hole series, and not only is Macbeth my favorite Shakespeare play (and yes, I know what that says about me), but putting that dark and violent play in the hands of Jo Nesbo, whose books are INCREDIBLY dark and violent, struck me as so absolutely perfect I could barely wait for the book to come out on April 10.  You’d better believe I put a hold on it as soon as humanly possible, and I was the first person to get her hands on the Peekskill copy of the book.

Now I’ve finished reading it and the obvious question is, was it everything I so breathlessly hoped it would be?

The answer is a resounding yes.

One of the interesting things about a modernized version of Shakespeare is that you know the plot. Especially with a plot-driven play like Macbeth, that means you know, the first time you see a major character (Banquo, Duncan, etc.), whether he’s going to be killed or not (spoiler: most of them are killed), which adds a certain poignance to the early scenes with the doomed character and makes the character’s death all the more horrible.

In Nesbo’s version, the setting is an unnamed city in the 1970’s, rather than in the medieval kingdom of Scotland, and most of the characters are police officers (Nesbo playing to his strengths), or criminals of one kind or another.  There are rival drug gangs, one headed by the mysterious and powerful Hecate (those of us who are familiar with the Shakespeare play are raising our eyebrows at the rightness of that), who is doing a certain amount of manipulation behind the scenes to eliminate a too-zealous police commissioner (Duncan) and replace him with a presumably more plaint former head of the local SWAT team (Macbeth). The corruption at all levels of the city’s government and police force, the recent depressing history of the city, and the hopelessness that fills the city are necessary backdrops to the machinations and murders in the forefront of the story.

It is a pleasure to see how Nesbo fills out the characters, giving them backstories and bringing them to vivid (if often terrifying) life. Macbeth here is not married, but is deeply involved with a former prostitute, Lady, who runs the biggest casino in town and who is interested in expanding her empire.  Macbeth himself was an orphan with some dark secrets in his past (one of which is only disclosed fully close to the climax of the book), and Lady has some terrible secrets in her past as well. One of Macbeth’s sort-of secrets (known to several other characters) is that he was addicted to the potent local drug Brew before he became a police officer.  When the time comes for him to kill Duncan, he can only do it under the influence of Brew, which he takes for the first time after having been clean for years (and let’s give it up for Nesbo’s terrific depiction of addiction and falling off the wagon, something we’ve seen him write so vividly about with Harry Hole). Macbeth’s gradual return to drugs over the course of the book doesn’t make his behavior any less reprehensible, but it helps us understand it a little better.

This is Jo Nesbo, and so I shouldn’t have to warn you that there is a LOT of violence in this book, depicted in bloodcurdling, graphic detail.  I personally feel that Shakespeare would have approved of some of the more gory moments in Macbeth, and would have gone that far himself if he’d been able to do so.  If you have a weak stomach or are prone to nightmares based on material in books, this probably wouldn’t be a good book for you, but you wouldn’t be interested in anything by Jo Nesbo anyway if you fell in those categories.

Noting the parallels between the Nesbo version and the Shakespeare version of the story is a real pleasure of the book; Nesbo is very inventive and clever in translating some of the details of Shakespeare’s play into his 1970’s world.  The witches, the ghosts, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking, McDuff’s “not of woman born,” and yes, even Great Birnam Wood Come to Dunsinane all show up in altered versions in this book (Birnam Wood is especially cleverly done).

You know how the story is going to end, and Nesbo doesn’t deviate from the book there (or in any of the other murders). He manages what might, in other hands, be extremely difficult: he brings Macbeth into the modern world without sacrificing suspense or horror.

And now if he would only write another Harry Hole novel. . .

 

SURVIVALISM FOR MAY, 2018: MY ABSOLUTE DARLING

After a vigorous and wide-ranging discussion of Lab Girl, our most recent book, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen the book we’re going to read and discuss for May: My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent.  Our next meeting will be on Saturday, May 19, in The Field Library Gallery, from 11:00 to 12:30, and as usual, there will be snacks (including but not limited to Dunkin Donuts Munchkins) and coffee available for our reading enthusiasts.

My Absolute Darling is a change of pace, a novel after the last three months of nonfiction. A book that placed on numerous best book of the year lists for last year (when it came out), My Absolute Darling is about Turtle, a 14 year old girl growing up in the woods of Northern California. Her mother is dead, and she’s being raised by her father, a man who’s both deeply disturbed and wildly charismatic.  He’s a survivalist, training her to keep away from other human beings and to survive in the event of a catastrophe which he expects to come at any moment. She’s living an expansive life in the wilderness, wandering for miles, familiar with every rock and tree and pond. But in middle school, she has as little contact with other people as she can manage, careful to keep anyone from getting close enough to penetrate her emotional shell. All that changes when she meets Jacob, a high school boy who’s everything she’s not, who tells jokes, lives in a house like a normal person, and looks at her as if she hung the moon.  Gradually Turtle begins to open up, to feel friendship and even a crush, and she looks at the world she’s been living in with new eyes, seeing its limitations, its unsustainable quality, and its dangers. Now she’s going to use the skills her father taught her for new purposes: to escape from him and the life he has in mind for her.

Come to the library and pick up a copy of My Absolute Darling, and then join us on May 19 (when, hopefully, spring will be in the air) from 11:00 to 12:30 in The Field Library Gallery for invigorating discussion and refreshments.

 

EXTREME SPORTS TO THE MAX: HEAD ON

John Scalzi is a terrific science fiction writer (he also has a great blog called Whatever — no, really, that’s its name, look it up for yourself) who can do the big ideas and also be playful, who’s written military science fiction, the sf equivalent of police procedurals, parodies of famous science fiction television.  Really, I don’t think there’s anything he can’t do, so I’m glad to introduce his latest book, Head On.

It’s set in the same universe as Lock In, which dealt with the aftermath of a terrible virus that swept the globe, causing a very unlucky one percent of the people infected to be “locked in”, fully awake and aware but unable to move. Since there were so many people so affected, the world adapted to their situation, with people called “integrators” who allow the locked in people (known as Hadens after the namer of the syndrome) to use their bodies, and robots which the Hadens can use to live somewhat “normal lives.”  Lock In is a brilliant book involving a murder investigation, but you don’t need to have read it to be able to appreciate the new one (though I highly recommend that you read Lock In anyway).

There’s a new sport in this world, Hilketa, which is about as extreme and violent as you could imagine.  The players attack each other with swords and hammers, and the way you win is to get your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts.  Before you give up on the whole concept in horror, remember that this is set in a world where people control artificial bodies. The players are Hadens, and the decapitations that occur in the game don’t really kill anyone.  For some reason (and this is where Scalzi is especially prescient), audiences, including people who are not suffering from Haden Syndrome, are enthralled with this sport.

And then one day an athlete drops dead on the field in the middle of a game. Is it an accident? Is it murder?  We’re thrown into a police procedural where two FBI agents and Haden-related crime investigators have to dig deeply into the game of Hilketa to find out the answers, and in so doing, in classic mystery fashion, they find a lot more about the underground nature of the game, the players, the owners, the fortunes to be made and lost through the games, and the lengths to which people will go to win.  

Scalzi’s world-building is always top-notch, and there’s something intriguing (and a little creepy) about the Hadens and their relationships with non-afflicted people and the world around them, so if you’re interested in excellent science fiction or mysteries or the most extreme of extreme sports, Head On is the book to check out.

THE PULITZER PRIZES COME TO THE FIELD LIBRARY

If you’re interested in reading only the best of the best, books chosen by critics as outstanding in their categories, you probably keep track of the major prizes (the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Man Booker Prize), and you’ll be pleased to know that here at The Field Library we have several of the winners of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize available for you to check out and read.

In the category of fiction, the winner this year is Less, by Andrew Sean Greer, which I wrote about here; the prize committee raves about its “musical prose” and its “expansive . . . structure and range” as well as its “generosity.”  They don’t mention that it’s pretty funny as well, but it is.

The 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner in the area of biography is  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder  by Caroline Fraser.  Generations have read the Little House on the Prairie books by Wilder, and because they’re semi-autobiographical, we think we know what Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life was like. The brilliance of Fraser’s biography is that it brings the rest of Wilder to life, demonstrating how she shaded and subtly (and not so subtly) changed her history for the books, and telling her real life rags to riches story with vigor and energy.  The Pulitzer committee describes it as “deeply researched and elegantly written,” which is wonderful praise for a biography.

Half Light: Collected Poems 1965-2016, by Frank Bidart, has already won the 2017 National Book Award for poetry, so it’s not a surprise that it’s also a Pulitzer winner. Bidart writes from the perspectives of famous and infamous people, like Vaslav Nijinsky or child murderer Herbert White, as well as from the perspective of his own life, and Half Light brings together some of his best work of the past as well as a new collection of poems, Thirst, surveying his past.  It is, according to the prize committee, “a volume of unyielding ambition and remarkable scope.”

In the category of general nonfiction, James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America won for looking at the problems in our criminal justice system from a unique perspective.  As a former D.C. Public Defender, Forman has intimate knowledge of how the system works and doesn’t work, and one of the premises of his well-researched book is that, contrary to public belief, the whole “war on crime” that began in the 1970’s and that has had such deleterious impacts on poor communities and communities of color was originally supported and encouraged by prominent black officials, worried about the increase in crime and drug addiction and how it would undermine all the good effects of the civil rights movement. A study in unintended consequences and a reminder of recent and nearly forgotten history, the book, according to the committee, is “based on vast experience and deep knowledge of the legal system.”

For all those who are doing the Field Library Reading Challenge this year, I’d like to add that all of these books fulfill the category of “a book that won a Pulitzer/National Book Award”, and Half Light  fills the category of “Poetry published after the year 2000”, so by reading these books you can also get a leg up in the challenge, in addition to reading some wonderful books.

 

 

 

WE WILL ROCK YOU — OR GET HUMANITY DESTROYED

One of my favorite science fiction series is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams (the first three books of the trilogy, anyway; after that the quality declined a bit, in my opinion).  There’s something about the cheerful mixture of science fiction tropes like time travel and galactic wars and faster than light travel with a silly sense of humor (my favorite joke in the first book is when one character says something is “unpleasantly like being drunk,” the other character asks, “What’s so unpleasant about being drunk?” and the first character replies, “You ask a glass of water”) that just does it for me. Along similar lines (science fiction that doesn’t take itself or the genre too seriously), we have a new book, Space Opera by Catherynne Valente (author of Six Gun Snow White, so you know she’s got a kind of warped way of looking at things right off the bat).

In the universe of Space Opera, there had been a series of horrible wars, known as the Sentience Wars, which nearly wiped out all intelligent space-faring life.  In the aftermath, the powers that be decided to create a new tradition to unite and cheer up the denizens of the galaxy: the periodic Metagalacitc Grand Prix.  Imagine a sort of interstellar Eurovision, with undercurrents of former wars mixed in the beauty pageant/concert extravaganza, as various species compete with their versions of song and dance.  This competition is not totally limited to those species already known to be sentient members of the galaxy. If some new species on some small planet somewhere wants to be counted among the movers and shakers as sentient beings, that species is allowed to join the competition. Of course, if the species fails, then it will be ruthlessly eliminated.  Nobody wants a repeat of the Sentience Wars, after all.

Well, you can see where this is going, can’t you?  Those upstarts on the planet earth want to join the civilized galaxy, and are a little surprised to discover that they aren’t going to be accepted through some high level council of leaders, or through some kind of starship battles.  No, they’re going to have to prove themselves by performing. More specifically, singing and dancing. And somehow, the representatives of humanity end up being Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a band that has seen better days even before this competition. The future of the human race will depend on Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, and their ability to rock.

 

 

 

THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES

Imagine one of Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy stories updated to the modern world, with all the intrinsic horror retained. Picture the story of Sleeping Beauty, with an eye to the darker possibilities of the situation.  Take the classic woman in danger scenario and add a new dimension of horror to it. Sound interesting? Then you should definitely check out Josh Malerman’s new book, Unbury Carol.

Meet Carol Evers, a woman with a serious, albeit mostly secret, problem: she’s died frequently already.  Those aren’t real deaths, just comas that imitate death perfectly and last for a few days (probably the sort of thing Juliet faked in Romeo and Juliet).  

One of the people who knows about this condition is her current husband, an evil man who married her for her fortune and who figures he can get his hands on that fortune if Carol “dies”, is declared dead, and buried (alive).  The other person who knows about this is her former lover, the outlaw James Moxie. When he finds out about her husband’s horrible plan, Moxie comes rushing to try to save Carol from a living death.

But, unlike the heroine of the classic Sleeping Beauty story, Carol is awake and aware of her situation, terrifying as it is, and she herself is fighting to free herself from the nightmare that’s caught her up.  In the end, even as the two men battle to determine her fate, Carol herself is the one who has to save herself.

The terror of being buried alive is something deep in our psyches. If you’re brave enough to face that vicariously, then Unbury Carol is the book for you.

 

OUTSIDER DETECTIVES TAKE ON AMERICA

The plot of the fish out of water, someone from one culture or world suddenly dropped into another, is a classic that often leads to funny results. Think of movies like Crocodile Dundee or Trading Places or Hot Fuzz.  The premise often works especially well with mysteries and/or detective stories, and we have two new examples of the genre here at The Field Library.

Catriona McPherson is a versatile author; some of her books have been very dark and creepy mysteries (The Child Garden, The Quiet Neighbors), and others have been more in the cozy mystery line.  Her newest book, Scot Free, falls in the category of fish out of water, with a sense of humor reminiscent of the early Stephanie Plum novels of Janet Evanovich (and if you’ve read Evanovich, you know this is a high compliment indeed!). Lexy Campbell, the protagonist, moved from her native Scotland to California because she fell in love with, and married, a sexy American dentist.  She started her marriage counseling practice, settled in, and felt she’d achieved the American Dream. Unfortunately for her, her husband turns out to be less than stellar, and six months after moving to America, Lexy is on her way back to Scotland, broke, divorced and disillusioned. She just has one thing to wrap up before she goes home, and that is her one client, sweet Mrs. Bombarro, who’s in jail for allegedly murdering her husband with a fireworks rocket.  Lexy is convinced that Mrs. Bombarro is innocent and the police are making a big mistake, so she decides to spend a little more time in California to prove this. Needing a place to stay, she finds her way to the Last Ditch Motel, and there she comes into contact with a wild bunch of quirky, charming and downright weird characters. Check out Lexy’s take on the American Dream in general and California in particular, and let’s hope this is just the start of a new and funny series.

For a slightly darker take on America as seen by someone from the outside, there’s Derek B. Miller’s American by Day, which takes Sigrid, a perfectly reasonable Norwegian Police Inspector, across the ocean to America to try to find her missing brother, when it seems his disappearance may have something to do with the death of a prominent African American academic, with whom he’d been romantically involved.  She arrives in New York’s Adirondacks with the kind of knowledge of America a foreigner could get from books and movies, and of course discovers that it’s much stranger and more complicated than she’d guessed. This would be difficult enough, but her police background makes it harder for her to work with, and sometimes against, the local police, whose methods and thinking are very different from her own.  Her observations of the minefield of American politics, race and identity, not to mention the differences between American and Norwegian culture, make this more than just a mystery, but something of a strange mirror that shows us ourselves more clearly than we might find comfortable.

 

GET AWAY FROM IT ALL WITH NEW FICTION

This has certainly been an unpromising spring so far in the Hudson Valley.  Wouldn’t it be delightful to get away from it all and go somewhere romantic and beautiful?  Of course we can’t give everyone plane tickets to Italy and/or Paris, but at least we can provide you with new books that will give you a virtual journey to those lovely places.

Frances Mayes brings her love of and expertise in Tuscany, Italy, to her new book, Women in Sunlight.  Four American women of a certain age relocate to Tuscany for their own reasons.  Kit Raine is a writer working on a biography of a friend of hers whose life still influences Kit’s. Three women decide to subvert the usual expectations of post-retirement life and spend a year living in a rented villa in Tuscany, despite their never having lived abroad before.  When Kit becomes their mentor, helping them adjust to Italian life, all four women find a new sense of adventure, long-forgotten (or at least postponed) dreams and bravery, in the gorgeous (and lusciously described) Tuscan countryside.

For a slightly darker get-away-from-it-all story, try Paris by the Book, by Liam Callanan.  Eccentric author Robert Eady vanishes, leaving Leah,his wife, and their two daughters completely confused, though when they find plane tickets to Paris, they decide to head there in search of the missing man and some explanation of what’s going on. Once there, Leah finds her husband’s unfinished manuscript, set in Paris, and a struggling English language bookstore whose owner is desperate to sell.  To her own vast surprise, Leah buys the bookstore and embarks with her children on a new life in a glamorous place. The family follows the paths of famous Parisian classics (like Madeleine and The Red Balloon), and tries to uncover the secrets of what happened to Robert, even though the answers to those questions may call into question everything Leah thought she knew about her marriage and her new home.

Now, isn’t that better than listening to the grim weather forecasts?  Take a vicarious trip to Tuscany or Paris, or both, courtesy of our new fiction.