One of the categories in this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge is to read a manga. While our teenage patrons are very big into manga, it’s a category of book that many adults aren’t familiar with, unless they have teenagers who are manga readers. My own introduction into the genre was through my daughter, who helpfully explained to me that you don’t read these books the way you read other books (she explained this AFTER I tried to read left to right and got thoroughly confused), but I confess that since she hasn’t been living at home for the last several years, I got out of the habit and stopped reading manga.  I was glad to have an excuse to return to the genre, and my first choice out of the box is a wonderful, absolutely gorgeous book,  Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side, Vol. 1, by Nagabe, which I highly recommend even — perhaps especially — to people who think they don’t like manga.

The story is fairy-tale simple, until you start thinking about it.  There is the Inside and the Outside. On the Outside there are monsters.  If you touch one of them, or one of them touches you, you will be cursed and turn into a monster yourself.  The people on the Inside are terrified of the Outsiders, to the point where they will hunt down anyone who they think is cursed, and destroy that person.

We first meet Shiva, a pretty fair-haired little girl, who’s out in the woods, picking what look like flowers.  She’s concerned that she shouldn’t stay out there too long because “he” will be angry at her and scold her again. Almost immediately a tall, dark creature emerges from the shadows, beaked and with twisting horns coming out of its head, and we are surprised to discover that this is Shiva’s companion, whom she calls Teacher.  She shows no fear of him, even as he reminds her she is not to touch any of the Outsiders, even he himself.

The story unfolds slowly, and it’s not finished by the end of this volume (I’m obviously going to read the other two to find out how it ends), but it is a powerful and poignant story, conveyed in gorgeous inky tones.  It’s a story about the relationship between Teacher and Shiva, how Shiva first came to live with Teacher, and the danger they are both in from the people on the Inside. The depth of Teacher’s love for Shiva, even as he knows he could curse her with just a touch, even as he keeps secrets from her for her own good, is beautiful and real, and her innocence, which comes across as perfectly reasonable even as she starts to bump up against the real ugliness in her world, is a perfect foil to the darkness of Teacher and his world.  We see empty villages, we see the results of the Insiders’ efforts to protect themselves from the Outsiders, we even see the mythical story that “explains” how the Outsiders first came to be and why they curse the Insiders. The relationship between Shiva and Teacher, anchored in such details as Shiva’s tea parties and the Teacher’s efforts to keep her safe inside the house, upends the obvious good vs. evil, righteous vs. monsters narrative that the Insiders would propagate.

I can’t discuss this book without talking about the art and how amazing it is. Teacher has the head (and hands) of a monster, but the rest of him looks like a tall, slender man, dressed in formal clothes of a hundred years ago (including a cravat), which makes his elongated head and beak, his twisted horns, his white eyes, look all the more strange and disturbing, but his appearance reflects the difference between his personality (gentle and protective) and the way the people on the Inside look at him (as a monster).  The woods are fairy-tale dark, the trees tall and threatening, and the empty village hauntingly drawn. The house in which the two main characters live is detailed and lived-in, the Teacher’s study messy and cluttered, Shiva’s room comfortable and neat. The character who comes closest to looking like the stereotypical manga female is Shiva, but even she isn’t far from what a real young girl looks like, and her rounded face and bright hair heighten the contrast between her and her beloved Teacher and make her innocence visible.

If you think all manga are about violence and competition, if you think you don’t like manga in general, you owe it to yourself to read Siuil, a Run: The Girl from the Other Side.  It may very well change your mind.



As you know, sometimes when I write about a book that’s new to the library, I’m writing a preview and not a review.  Often when that happens, it’s a book that I want to read but haven’t had a chance to read yet. Which sometimes leads to a bit of a dilemma: when I do actually read the book, should I write about it again, because now I know more about it than the publisher’s description gave me, or are there so many other books I should be bringing to people’s attention that it’s wrong to write twice about the same book?  I usually resolve this by doing a review if the book in question is more amazing, more fun, or just wildly different from what it seemed to be when it first came out.

In the case of Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente, the description of the book pre-publication was accurate as far as it went, but it didn’t nearly go far enough, which is why I feel compelled to tell you what a fabulous, funny, inventive and just plain wonderful book it is, to encourage as many people with similar senses of humor to mine (and there must be some of you out there, right?) to check this book out and enjoy it.

I’m a big fan of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, at least the first three books of the series (he lost some steam after Life, the Universe and Everything, in my opinion), and, having cut my teeth on that warped humor, I’m always looking for someone who can write with as much verve and wit as Adams had.  Space Opera, I’m pleased to announce, is a worthy successor to the Hitchhiker’s Guide, and I can hardly come up with higher praise than that.

The initial alien encounter is nothing like anything you’ve seen in the movies or in other books; as the author dryly observes, it’s much more like the work of Sir Looney of the Tunes than Sir Ridley of the Scott (quoting from Decibel’s beloved Nana).  It’s weird, it’s funny, and it sets the tone for the book quite nicely. I started laughing at that part and didn’t stop until the end, even reading some of the funnier lines out loud to anyone who would listen.

Humanity has to compete in the Metagalactic Grand Prix, but the aliens who first encounter us have a list of the potential performers who might, just possibly, if miracles occur, keep the human race from being destroyed.  Unfortunately for us, most of the performers on the list (including Yoko Ono — does that give you an idea of the aliens’ taste?) are dead, so they are left with Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, two thirds of whom are in fact still alive, even if they’re not performing together, or even performing at all, anymore.  

The aliens are varied and wonderful. They are far from humanoid, and Valente seems to delight in creating different kinds of aliens and imagining what their cultures might be like, what their ideas of musical performance might be like, even what their ideas of sex are like (my personal favorite is the alien race whose idea of sex is brushing hair and sharing feelings, which doesn’t exactly mean what you and I think it means). We get to see previous Grand Prix performances from various winners and near-winners, and, like Decibel himself, we can easily see that the chances of humans being able to keep from placing dead last in the competition are nearly nonexistent.

Of course, this being the kind of book it is, you’re pretty sure from the outset that humanity is not going to be destroyed by the aliens, which means that somehow there’s going to be a “victory”, which just means Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes don’t actually come in dead last.  The suspense in the book comes from not knowing exactly how this miracle is going to be pulled off, especially when we discover that cheating is not only allowed but encouraged, and one way some of the alien races manage to succeed in the competition is by hobbling other performers. Humans being both newcomers and ridiculously soft and easy to manipulate, there are all kinds of characters out to sabotage our protagonists before they even set foot on the stage.  

The book is light and hysterically funny. Valente bounces cheerfully back and forth, from tales of the Sentience Wars and their immediate aftermath to depictions of previous Grand Prixes to the background of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes.  It’s a wild ride and a vastly entertaining one. If the world is getting you down and you desperately need a break, I highly recommend Space Opera.


Here’s the premise of the newest thriller by Paul Tremblay, The Cabin at the End of the World: a family (two dads and one daughter) is taking a vacation at a remote cabin on a lake in New Hampshire.  There’s no phone reception and no wi-fi. The nearest neighbor is a good two miles or more away, the only access roads are dirt and rutted.

If you’re a fan of horror fiction, you’re probably already filling in the blanks for what happens next, and the interesting thing is, you won’t be far off.  Yes, this family is going to be threatened; yes, there will be strangers coming to the house and ensconcing themselves in it without the consent of the family.  Yes, the isolation is going to come into play and make the family’s situation all the more difficult to resolve in their favor.

There are a few quirks, though.  Those four strangers who come to the cabin are carrying some unidentifiable objects which might or might not be weapons. The first one, who meets the daughter (Wen) outside the cabin, is a kindly seeming person who wins her trust immediately, and then tells her that none of what is about to happen is her fault.  When the others arrive, they inform Wen that her fathers won’t want to let them into the house, but they have to be there because otherwise the world will come to an end. They need the help of Wen’s fathers to save the world from destruction, no matter how strange that might sound.

So who are these people?  Are they really some kind of heroes who are about to save the world, in which case their invading this small family’s home might seem justified, if not a great experience for the family?  Or are they survivalist nutcases, convinced of the imminent apocalypse and seeing signs that nobody else sees because the signs don’t exist? Four men talking about the end of the world: could they be the Biblical Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in new circumstances but with the same basic mission?  Were they telling the truth when they told Wen they weren’t going to hurt her or her fathers, and how could you possibly trust these men?

You should be warned that this is a book that includes violence, and serious violence at that; if you’re squeamish you might want to choose something else. But if you’re in the mood for a book that will keep you frantically turning pages and that will ask questions you haven’t thought about for years, then by all means give The Cabin at the End of the World a try.


This is the time of year, especially when we’re dealing with temperatures of 90 + degrees F, when my thoughts turn to the idea of travel, especially travel to somewhere really cool, possibly even cold. It’s in the summer that I first read the book The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (and if you haven’t read that novel, this would be the perfect time of year to read it, as it’s an excellent book and set in Alaska, I’m just saying), and it’s in the summer that I just read one of the best travel books I’ve encountered in the last few years, Tip of the Iceberg: My 3,000 Mile Journey Around Wild Alaska, the Last Great American Frontier, by Mark Adams.  Whether you’ve always had a secret hankering for a trip to the 49th State (as I have), or whether you’re just in the mood for a well-written, vivid and entertaining book about a place most of us are fairly unfamiliar with, I highly recommend Tip of the Iceberg.

A travel book, for me, is something different from a guidebook. I’ll take a guidebook with me when I go somewhere, so I can find out what the cool places to eat are, where the museums are and what the other potential spots of interest are in the area. A travel book, though, is more like taking the trip without actually leaving home, exploring and experiencing a place with someone who shares his or her insights into this part of the world. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to travel books; the person taking me on this trip needs to be someone with a sense of humor, a willingness to seek out and ask questions of the people who live and/or work in the area, and someone who isn’t too full of him or herself.  The person shouldn’t get in the way of the place, essentially. And, for someone who’s a history buff as I am, if the writer of the travel book can give me a good look at the history of the area, that’s definitely a big selling point.

Which is why I love this book so much. Mark Adams is traveling around the coast of Alaska in the modern era, using the kinds of transports (by sea and air, for the most part) any one of us could use nowadays, but he’s also retracing (to the extent possible) an earlier trip by Edward H. Harriman, the railroad magnate and millionaire (back when being a millionaire was a much bigger deal), who brought some of the best scientists in the country with him to explore the Alaska territory in 1899. The story of Mark’s modern expedition is interspersed with the story of the Harriman expedition, and the combination is magical. The contrast between the conditions of Harriman’s floating university, which included such brilliant people as John Muir and Clinton Merriam, one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and the conditions in which Mark Adams is traversing the same coast, with a lot less luxury and far fewer intellectual heavyweights, is pretty funny, and Mark makes the most of it. He also points out the changes wrought in the Alaska countryside and especially its glaciers (which were such powerful attractants to Muir) by global climate change in the century between the two trips, not in a polemical way, but matter-of-factly, describing what they saw and experienced and what he’s seeing and experiencing.  

And then there are the characters and situations he encounters.  While this isn’t really a humor book, there are certain parts, including his discussions of bear encounters and the sort of information visitors are given with respect to bears, that had me laughing out loud.  He had a knack for finding the most interesting characters in any of the places he went, however small or large, and getting those people to open up to him. There are certain aspects of the trip which I wouldn’t want to duplicate (an expedition where he and his guide just barely managed to get to base before their transportation left in a horrible storm was one of those nerve-wracking situations that was, undoubtedly, a lot more fun to read about than to experience in person), but on the whole, if I were going to Alaska to journey the inner passage, Mark Adams is just the kind of person I would want to have as my guide and companion. He’s funny and knowledgeable, he’s willing to let people teach him things, and willing to look with a clear eye at the world around him. He writes vividly, whether about the experiences of the members of the Harriman expedition or about the people sleeping on the decks of small ferries he’s taking from one point to another, and by the end of the book I certainly felt I’d been there with him.

The best kind of travel books, in my opinion, are the ones where you feel you’ve experienced the trip yourself, but you’re still filled (or newly filled) with the desire to check the place out for yourself.  The Tip of the Iceberg certainly qualifies.  Check it out for yourself.



After an involved and entertaining discussion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion this past Saturday, the Field Notes Book Group has selected its book for our meeting on July 21, 2018: The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard.

This is a bit of a departure for the group.  We’ve read collections of short stories before, but never essays.  However, if you’re going to read essays, it’s a good idea to read essays written by a master of the form, and that’s definitely Annie Dillard.  These essays, as the subtitle indicates, are a mix of her older work and newer pieces, and serve as an excellent introduction to her work. A writer who can be fascinating about grains of sand, as well as more obvious subjects like polar exploration and religion and eclipses, is a writer well worth exploring.

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library Circulation Desk this week.  Come in and pick one up, and then join us for coffee, snacks and scintillating discussion in The Field Library Gallery on July 21 from 11:00 to 12:30 p.m.



I have to say right off the bat that from the time I first read The Odyssey, my favorite character was the witch goddess Circe, who turned Odysseus’ sailors into pigs, and would have (I always believed) turned Odysseus into one as well if he hadn’t cheated (e.g., gotten help from the god Hermes to protect himself).  When my daughter was growing up, she and I listened to the Odds Bodkin version of The Odyssey, in which Circe cheerfully sings, “Pigs, pigs, pigs, is what you are!” as she changes the people into pigs, which was simply adorable. I was always disappointed when Odysseus moved on from Circe’s island, even though Circe does show up as a minor or supporting character in other Greek myths (for instance, she cleansed her niece, Medea, from her guilt for killing her brother as Medea and Jason fled with the Golden Fleece).  So you can imagine my delight to see that Madeline Miller has a new novel, Circe, which tells the story of my favorite character from her point of view.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s just start with that.  Circe comes across as a real person, a very complicated person who’s neither goddess nor mortal but somewhere in between, someone very different from the nymphs who were her mother’s kin and the titans who were her father’s,  someone interested in mortals but not really able to understand them.

Do you need to know the story of the Odyssey or Greek myths in general to be able to follow this book?  Not at all. Circe tells you everything you need to know in the course of the story (and there’s a very helpful index at the back of the book, explaining who’s who and how people are related to each other, because there are a lot of interrelated characters and sometimes it’s hard to keep track).  However, if you DO have some knowledge of the source material, it is a bit more fun, so that when you first meet Pasiphae, Circe’s sister, your mind immediately goes to the birth of the Minotaur and that colors your thinking about her throughout. It’s a pleasure the first time you see characters with whom you’re familiar, and to see them in a new light, but trust me, you’ll get a sense of who Daedalus was and what Scylla was like just by Circe’s descriptions.

If you do know the basic stories of Greek myths, you’ll still be carried along on Miller’s plot, which tells the stories in a new way, giving you a different perspective on well-known characters and stories, without doing an injustice to the classic stories. So, for instance, the story of the punishment of Prometheus, which normally I don’t associate with Circe, comes into play here (and we meet Prometheus himself), and while we’ve all seen Scylla in The Odyssey, here we discover what Scylla was before she became this horrible monster, and who was responsible for the transformation.  

Miller writes vividly: the scene where Circe witnesses the birth of the Minotaur is visceral and terrifying; Circe’s first encounter with Scylla in the latter’s new form is nerve wracking and powerful.  Circe’s encounters with various gods and goddesses (not to mention various titans) make those characters more than human and at the same time recognizable to us mere mortals.

Her encounter with Odysseus is, naturally enough, the heart of the book.  We understand why Circe changes men into pigs (hint: they pretty much earn it), and why she treats Odysseus’ crew that way, and Odysseus’ trick, which infuriated me and seemed unfair in the original story, is something Circe takes in stride.  Unlike some versions of the story, in this version Circe doesn’t immediately bow down to Odysseus, but treats him and his men as her guests for three seasons before he leaves, and does her best to help him and them on their way back to Ithaka, not because she’s cowed by Odysseus but because she cares about him.  He comes across as a complicated human being, manipulative and intelligent, charming and not necessarily trustworthy, someone you could see Circe being attracted to.

Of course there’s more to the story, and if you’ve ever wondered what happened or what might have happened to Odysseus after the end of The Odyssey, whether he was able to return to being a mere king in Ithaka after having been one of the heroes of the Trojan War, what his relationship with his wife and his son would be like after his return, Circe gives you some answers, plausible and entirely within the characters of the people in the story.

At about the three quarter mark, when once again Circe was trying to protect herself and those she cared about from the malice of the gods, I was beginning to worry that there couldn’t be a happy ending or even a satisfying ending for this book, but I’m glad to report that I was wrong. It’s an excellent read, a lively and entertaining rethinking of Greek myths, not exactly feminist (Circe wouldn’t understand the concept, so kudos to Miller for not getting anachronistic here), but with a different and refreshing viewpoint.


Sometimes you just need to read something light, something a little out of the ordinary that will make you feel a bit better about the state of the universe (or at least your small portion of it).  And if the book in question is a little romantic and kind of sexy (all right, more than just “kind of sexy,” a book that definitely spends a lot of time and energy on sex), well, so much the better.  I’ve just described the debut novel of Helen Hoang, The Kiss Quotient.

Stella Lane, the 30 year old protagonist of the book, is absolutely brilliant at math.  She believes mathematics defines the universe and she’s developed an algorithm that predicts customer purchases, and she’s wildly successful and well-paid. Still, in the eyes of her mother, she’s not really a success because she’s not married and having babies.  Sounds familiar? Well, it’s a little more complicated than the ordinary career-woman-needs-to-get-a-personal-life story, because Stella is on the autism spectrum. Touching other people is very hard for her, kissing strikes her as bizarre, and as a result, she believes she’s never going to find a man until she knows how to do sex right.  So she hires Michael Phan to teach her what she needs to know about sex and touching.

He’s half-Vietnamese, half-Swedish and gorgeous, a man who’s working as an escort once a week.  He has strict rules about his business, most importantly that he never goes on more than one date with a client, to avoid stalkers and other nasty experiences.  However, there’s something about Stella that makes him want to break the rules. He may be the only man in her life who’s ever really understood Stella, and he’s certainly the only man in her life who’s ever made her comfortable with the physical side of a relationship.  

Are they Made For Each Other?  Of course they are, though (this being a romance) there are obstacles the two of them have to overcome before their inevitable Happily Ever After.  The two main characters are real, warm human beings with flaws and virtues, and Stella’s autism is treated as a part of who she is and not a damage or something that makes her less.  If you liked The Rosie Project (as I did, and our book group did), and if you’re comfortable with a sexy romance plot, definitely pick up The Kiss Quotient and prepare to be charmed.


Ruth Ware, bestselling author of thrillers like In a Dark, Dark Wood, and The Woman in Cabin 10, has written a new thriller that harks back to the classic Gothic novels of old, The Death of Mrs. Westaway., and it should be a lot of fun to read.

The heroine, Hal (confusingly short for Harriet), is not one of your classic innocent Gothic heroines.  She’s in a bad place at the outset of the book: living alone after the death of her mother, trying to make money by doing tarot card readings as her mother taught her, and struggling to pay off debts she’s never going to pay off. Then she receives a mysterious note telling her about the death of a Mrs. Westaway who’s supposedly her grandmother, and informing her she’s one of the heirs of this woman.  Hal knows immediately that this can’t be true; she knows all her grandparents are already dead and she’s never heard of this person. On the other hand, she also knows she has some skills at cold reading people, and the thought of getting some money and maybe getting caught up with her debts is very attractive. So she decides to go to the funeral of the deceased woman and pretend she’s entitled to this inheritance.  

Things aren’t as she expects.  She goes to the (isolated, of course) family mansion, and begins to get a sense that she may indeed be related to the dead woman, and that there’s more to this family and this inheritance than she knows.  She also realizes that someone, maybe more than one someone, knows the secrets of this household and is willing to do anything to keep those secrets. The house is filled with “uncles,” both ordinary seeming and sinister, and a housekeeper who, in classic sinister fashion, knows all the secrets of the family and keeps them to herself.

The book has been compared to the works of Agatha Christie, but with a modern flair.  If you like mysteries that let you play along with the main character, looking for clues and inferences as she does, and you like atmospheric books where the setting is as important as the people in it, you should definitely check out The Death of Mrs. Westaway.


There are all kinds of books suggesting a dystopian future, involving things like alien invasions, zombie plagues, nuclear winter, global warming, the list goes on and on.  However, The Book of M, by Peng Shepherd, has an absolutely unique reason for the world’s ending: people start losing their shadows, and with their shadows, their memories.  If you’ve ever dealt with someone who’s suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, you’ll immediately realize how nightmarish the prospect of someone’s losing their memories is, and you can easily imagine what a horror show it would be if millions of people began suffering the same syndrome at once.

The Forgetting, as the syndrome is aptly called, started in India with one person losing his shadow, and nobody understanding what was happening or where this would lead.  Soon, however, the disease spread around the world like a plague, with people losing their shadows and then their memories and then turning into something other than human.

The book starts with Ory and Max, a married couple hiding out in the wilds, hoping to escape the disease by staying isolated and away from what passes for civilization (which, of course, would be devastated by millions of people losing their memories, and that’s without considering the other side effects of the Forgetting). They almost live a normal life until the day Max’s shadow starts to disappear.  Frightened by the prospect of what she might do to Ory if she loses her memories altogether, Max runs away, but Ory refuses to let her go and follows her trail through a strange and damaged America. Both Max and Ory encounter bandits, would-be warriors, and a weird cult that worships the shadowless ones. The world around them loses its coherence and sense along with people’s memories of an ordinary world, as if the only thing that made reality follow accepted laws is people’s willingness to believe that it does.

It’s not just a dystopian novel; it’s also a love story, a reflection on the importance of memories and human connections.  If you loved Station Eleven (as I did), or if you’ve had experiences with people losing their memories, this is definitely a book you’re going to want to read.



Barbara Ehrenreich is a treasure, as anyone who’s read any of her bestselling books (including the wonderful Nickel and Dimed: on (Not) Getting by in America and Dancing in the Streets: a History of Collective Joy and Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, just to name a few) can readily attest.  She is not someone who takes any received “wisdom” for granted, no matter what kinds of “experts” (all quotations deliberate on my part) espouse that “wisdom.”  She’s got a great skeptical mind and a willingness to dig deeply, and I’ve never yet read one of her books without at least one “Really? That’s amazing!” reaction to something she reports.  Ehrenreich is also a good writer, funny and pithy, so you can just sail through her books without even looking at the footnotes if you like (though, if you are an inveterate reader of footnotes, as I am, you’ll find that she can and does document everything she asserts that seems surprising).  

With all that in mind, I heartily recommend her latest book, Natural Causes: an Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. While of course we don’t judge books by their covers, in this case the cover is a perfect reflection of the contents of the book, both funny and (if you think about what she’s saying) a little horrible.

She takes aim at the medical profession first, and all the tests we put ourselves through, and whether those diagnostic tests are necessary.  This is radical enough, but then she goes deeper and suggests not just that the tests might not be necessary, but that getting these tests is actually harmful to us.  Putting her money where her mouth is (so to speak), Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor (who would probably hate to be so described, so I apologize), refuses to get regular cancer screenings and explains to us and to her doctors why.

She goes after a lot of the fads revolving around “wellness”, and mocks the idea of people living forever, or for hundreds of years at least.  When she starts talking about how our bodies really work, and how little control we have over anything that goes on inside us (including the absolutely amazing and terrifying fact that sometimes our immune cells actually help our cancer cells grow and spread, as if they’ve turned against us when they’re supposed to be protecting us), the book is both enlightening and somewhat disturbing, but always a fascinating read.

If you’re in the mood to turn a skeptical eye on many of the basic ideas we have about the control we have over our bodies and our futures, or if you’re a Barbara Ehrenreich fan, this is the book you should definitely read. Come in and check it out.