BEFORE GAME OF THRONES, THERE WAS FIRE AND BLOOD

George R. R. Martin hasn’t finished the epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for the television series, Game of Thrones.  The gaps between volumes in this series are getting longer and longer, and the date of publication for the next book is up in the air.  There’s even some concern that Martin might die before he finishes the projected 7th book in the series (and what will happen then? This gives more basis for my rule about not reading series until they’re finished).  So when I mention that Martin has a new book out in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have to tamp down any unrealistic expectations by saying that it’s a prequel and not the next book in the series.  We’re all going to have to wait for the continuation of the series (the last volume, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, so this is the longest gap between volumes yet), but at least Martin is willing to give us more background in his amazing fantasy world, and we’ll take what we can get.

Fire and Blood, the newest book, is set before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place when the dragons ruled Westeros, and the House Targaryen controlled the dragons. It starts with the creation of the Iron Throne, and the machinations and intrigues of the family that occupied that throne.  It’s presented like a history book, and if you’re a fan of the series (book or television), some of that history is going to be familiar to you at least in passing, because characters in ASOIAF refer back to the famous and infamous events of the past.  However, since this is focused entirely on the Targaryen family and on the dragons, there’s more detail and more ambiguity and more blood and guts than you would be able to get from references in the main series.

Whether you’re going to enjoy the book or not depends on how angry you are at Martin for not finishing the series yet, and how much you’re interested in the details of how the world got to be in the state it was in at the beginning of A Game of Thrones. But if you’re a completist, if you’re intrigued by the questions of what the world was like when there were more dragons and a different set of ruthless characters vying for the throne, or if you’re just ready to take whatever Martin can give you that’s set in this world, then be sure to check out Fire and Blood.

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ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN

Usually I don’t write about the books the Field Notes Book Group is reading, at least not before the discussion, because I don’t want to prejudice the people in the group, or influence people’s opinions to align with mine (of course, there are probably people in the group who would change their opinions to be the opposite of mine if they knew in advance what my opinion was; it’s a good group).  However, I’m going to make an exception in the case of this month’s book, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, because I have already postponed the meeting once (due to a funeral), and because Little Women is the kind of book people think they know, but might, on rereading (or reading for the first time) discover is more than what they remember. It certainly was that way for me.

As I said to the group in October when we chose the book, I read Little Women when I was 12 years old and hadn’t picked it up since. Most of the women in the group had also read it, similarly in the past.  There were things I remembered vividly about the book from my one reading, and other aspects that were just a general blur. For instance (spoilers ahead), I remembered Amy’s destroying the book Jo wrote (is there anyone who read that book who doesn’t remember that scene? Is there anyone who wasn’t as furious at Amy as Jo was at that? Is there anyone, besides me, who found it impossible to read anything more about Amy for the rest of the book without carrying a grudge for that?).  I remembered Jo’s turning Laurie’s proposal of marriage down (more about that later), and of course I remembered Beth’s death. I had a general sense that all the surviving characters got married and settled by the end of the book, which seemed to me, as a 12 year old girl, to be the only way these kinds of stories got resolved.

Reading Little Women as an adult in the 21st century isn’t like reading modern books. When I tried to explain to my husband (who, like most men, hadn’t read it) what the book was about, I foundered around, finally lamely saying that it was about four young women growing up during and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, in Massachusetts, which is an accurate description as far as it goes. There really isn’t a plot per se. There are incidents, some of which lead to other incidents, but if you’re reading it for an overarching plot, you’re going to be disappointed.

You’ll also be disappointed if you’re looking for a modern writing style. Alcott wrote in the 19th century, before the adage “show, don’t tell” was a mantra drummed into the heads of writers.  She tells a great deal, with frequent authorial commentary on the characters and their behavior. Sometimes it’s like having a moralizing parent telling you a story; you want to urge her to leave out the sermons and get to the action.  If you’ve read other 19th century authors (like Charles Dickens, an author I love, about whom someday I will write at greater length), then you’re prepared for Alcott’s writing style, and willing to be patient with the digressions and the sermonizing.  You’ll also be prepared for the religiosity of the asides, which didn’t strike me as strongly when I was 12 as they did on this rereading.

That said, it’s a better book than I remembered in a number of ways, and well worth reading, or rereading if it’s been a long time since you joined the March girls.

For one thing, it’s a story of girls coming of age. A pet peeve of mine is that there are boatloads of books and movies about boys coming of age in various circumstances, and girls and women are expected to read or watch them, but stories of girls growing up and becoming women are much scarcer and much less likely to become part of the canon. If Tom Sawyer can be considered a classic American novel, Little Women can serve as its female counterpart.

Then there are the characters. The parents remain mostly archetypes; Marmee is everyone’s ideal mother, watchful of her children but not suffocatingly so, always ready with good advice when a person is ready to listen to it, but not pushing anyone to do things her way at the outset. She’s warm-hearted and affectionate, and so much the center of the girls’ lives that she gets the closing line in the book (Jo gets the opening line). The girls’ father is away at the Civil War at the outset of the book, and there’s drama when he’s wounded and Marmee has to go and nurse him, and drama when the father comes home, but after that, he’s just a figure in the background.

In the foreground are the four “little women” of the title: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in order of age. They’re sisters and they act like sisters, which is refreshing. One thing I remembered liking about the book when I first read it, which I still like, is the relationships between and among the sisters, the alliances and antagonisms within the group as well as the girls’  loyalty to each other against any outsiders. Yes, it was probably convenient for Alcott to match Meg, the oldest, with Amy, the youngest, and to have Jo, the wild one, be especially close to saintly Beth, but those combinations also make sense within a family universe. Naturally Amy and Jo would butt heads and fight with each other; Amy is the somewhat spoiled youngest child and Jo is stubborn and independent.  Naturally Jo and Meg would go to parties together as the two oldest and since they’re only a year apart in age. Naturally they would confide in each other as having more in common (their jobs, their ages) than either one would with the younger girls. In their relationships with each other, they feel like real girls, like sisters in the 20th and 21st century, as well as in the 19th.

My favorite character, then and now, is Jo. I have a feeling she’s everybody’s favorite character, not because she’s a Mary Sue for the author (though I suspect Alcott based Jo on herself to greater or lesser extent; Jo’s an aspiring writer who’s trying to support her family through her writing, as Louisa May Alcott was), but because she’s the one character who’s not an archetype, who seems to break free of the expectations readers have for a girl in her position. She’s far from perfect. She is, as I mentioned, stubborn and difficult. She loses out on the chance to take a much anticipated trip to Europe because she’s deliberately being contrary when she and Amy go to make visits to relatives (a sequence that’s very funny because of Jo’s behavior even as we, the readers, know it’s going to end up biting her), for instance, and while she sees how her behavior contributed to her losing out on that trip, she doesn’t really change her behavior either. On the other hand, Jo is wildly brave and willing to defy expectations for her gender.  She gets her long hair cut off to raise money for her mother to go to Washington to take care of her father, which surprises all her sisters and everybody around her as her long hair was her one beauty. She writes stories and actually takes them to newspapers to be published, facing personal rejection with gumption and guts. She turns down a marriage proposal that would seem to be really advantageous for her and for her family, because she doesn’t love the suitor that way. She ends up running a home and school for boys, while her sisters engage in much more ordinary and socially sanctioned pursuits. Yes, she does get married; I suppose Alcott felt she had to marry Jo off eventually rather than have her be a spinster aunt (and maybe that was wish fulfillment on the part of Louisa May Alcott, who never did get married and was a spinster aunt), but it’s an unconventional and unexpected marriage, which makes it fitting for someone who’s as willing to buck conventions as Jo is.

About that marriage proposal: when I first wrote about the book group’s reading this book, I mentioned wondering whether Jo’s turning down Laurie’s proposal would strike me as more logical this time around, and I’m happy to say that it did. If you read the book closely (as I didn’t when I was 12, but did now), you can see that Jo never thinks of Laurie as anything other than a buddy. While there was (and still sometimes is) a convention that close friends ultimately discover they’re made for each other and get married, Jo makes it clear that this is not her idea of how things are going to work. From early on, before Laurie (their friend and next door neighbor, who’s handsome and charming and also rich) starts thinking romantically about Jo, she’s treating him as one of the guys, and herself as one of the guys, too.  When Laurie goes to college, his friends fall in love with the beautiful, flirtatious Amy, not the boyish and plain spoken Jo, and that’s fine with Jo. She never wants romance in her life (in her stories, that’s a different matter, but she’s got an eye on what sells, so that explains her writing focus), she never moons around about Laurie or any other boy, and when she meets the man she’s ultimately going to marry, she doesn’t think about him as a potential husband until he all but throws himself at her. While I, as a 12 year old, wanted Jo and Laurie to marry because Laurie was so crazy about her and because I wanted Jo to live happily ever after, and that was how women lived happily ever after to my mind, as an adult I can see that Jo really wasn’t interested. If she had married him, she probably would have made a go of it, but it’s clear from his later behavior that Laurie would have wanted a more conventional wife than Jo was ever willing to be. She did the right thing, and in this context it was remarkable that she was able to do it (yes, Elizabeth Bennett turned down two marriage proposals in Pride and Prejudice, but one of them was by the person she ultimately married, and her turning down his proposal was a spark that led to their finally seeing eye to eye later), and not be punished for it.

Although Alcott does, for the most part, send the characters down conventional paths, she also allows them to be ambitious, to take on more of the world than their conventional roles would seem to allow. At the outset, both Meg and Jo are working outside the home, Meg as a governess and Jo as a companion to her rich aunt.  Jo and Amy consider themselves to be artists (Jo a writer and Amy a visual artist), and spend a great deal of time working on their respective crafts. Jo even sells a number of stories and a novel, and makes money to support her family as a result (Alcott feels the need to turn Jo away from the sensational stories she writes at first to something more realistic, possibly like Little Women, though I will forever be grateful that Jo doesn’t turn out to have written Little Women, which is so often the convention in books about young writers; still, I would love to see the kinds of stories Jo wrote before she was tamed, which were probably like the other books Alcott wrote for money).  While Amy (and Laurie) decides that since she’s not a genius she shouldn’t dedicate herself to her art, at no point does the book suggest that Amy didn’t have talent or that she shouldn’t have given her art a decent chance.

Spend some time with Little Women, and I think you’ll appreciate anew the world of the March family, their humors, their tragedies, their growth and maturing.  I’m glad the book group gave me the spur and the opportunity to reread it myself, and I recommend you give it a try as well.

 

ONE IN EVERY FAMILY: MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

There’s one in every family: the problem child, the one who makes trouble for everyone else, the one who wreaks havoc at family functions, who takes up an outsized amount of energy from everyone around them.  Most of us, however, are fortunate enough that the problem member of the family is just annoying and not actually dangerous to other people. That is not the case for poor Koede, the protagonist of My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Brathwaite.  Her beautiful sister, Ayoola, kills her boyfriends when she’s finished with them.  She’s on her third dead boyfriend, and Koede is getting tired of being the practical one, the one who has to clean up after her sister and make sure Ayoola doesn’t get caught.

The book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, so right away you’re dealing with an entirely different system of justice and a somewhat different family structure as well. Korede, as the older sister, the “good” woman who’s a responsible nurse, feels an obligation to take care of her younger sister, Ayoola, even when that obligation involves getting calls from Ayoola to help her dispose of yet another body and clean up another crime scene.

This can’t go on forever, but after three dead boyfriends, what could possibly stop Koede from enabling her sister’s sociopathic ways?  When the handsome doctor on whom Koede’s had a crush forever asks her for her sister’s telephone number, she knows they’re about to cross a line.  She has to stop Ayoola somehow, if only to keep her from destroying all the eligible men in Lagos and possibly in Nigeria.

This is not a book for everyone.  While it’s short and punchy, written with wit and a wicked dry sense of humor, with a unique voice and a setting we don’t often see in American fiction, there’s no denying it’s kind of a dark book which starts out with murder and doesn’t let up.  However, if you’re the kind of person who enjoyed Dexter (the books or television series — of course the books were better, if you’d like to check the source out), or you just like a good quirky read, check out My Sister, the Serial Killer.

FOREVER AND A DAY: THE BEGINNINGS OF BOND. JAMES BOND.

James Bond is one of those characters, like Sherlock Holmes, who fascinates people above and beyond the original stories that created him. Generations of moviegoers have watched several different actors portray Bond in films reflecting the times in which the movies were made, more than reflecting the character from the books (this is also true of Sherlock Holmes, of course). Even after the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 (bet that surprised you, because we all thought he’d been around much longer than that; it certainly surprised me), other people have attempted to reboot James Bond in books, with varying success.  

Once again we have a “new” James Bond book, the prequel to Casino Royale, in which Bond made his first literary appearance.  This one, Forever and a Day, has the advantage of being written by Anthony Horowitz.  Horowitz is a genius for imitating the works of different authors, as well as writing his own work.  He did a superb job of writing a Sherlock Holmes novel (House of Silk), he’s written an Agatha Christie pastiche (The Magpie Murders) and he’s written another, well-regarded James Bond novel (Trigger Mortis, in 2015), so he’s well qualified to put himself in Fleming’s shoes and create a young James Bond, right before he became 007 and got his license to kill, and showing the early development of the character we’ve come to know and love.

The book begins with the death of the last agent whose number was 007.  James Bond, an up and coming would-be agent, is elevated to 00 status, and sent to the French Riviera to infiltrate a drug smuggling network his predecessor was working on at the time of his death. Because this is the beginning of his career, Bond is not the super sophisticated secret agent of the later books and movies, and is still learning his craft. Here in this book, in addition to the intrigues and the double-crosses, the terrible villains and the exotic locations, we see the origins of some of Bond’s later famous characteristics: his favorite weapons, his favorite drink (shaken, not stirred), and cigarettes. He meets and falls for a sophisticated older woman, who, in classic Fleming fashion, may or may not be working on his side.  He runs afoul of Scipio, a grotesque evil drug lord, and somehow has to

If you’re a fan of Bond, either from the books or the movies, you should definitely check out Forever and a Day.

 

PRACTICAL HELP FOR TIME TRAVELERS

Say you’ve invented a time machine. Or maybe you’ve stolen a time machine from someone else who invented it.  Or maybe you just happened to find out a way to go back in time. Very exciting, right? But you don’t realize how difficult it’s going to be to live in a different, more primitive, time, without all the conveniences you take for granted.  And I’m not just talking about computers and cell phones and the like; I’m talking about things like fabric, or buttons, or tea or coffee, or alcohol. The culture shock alone would be devastating.

Unless, of course, you’d read (or brought a copy of) How to Invent Everything by Ryan North. I believe there’s an unwritten rule that all nonfiction books have to have a subtitle (check it out sometime and see if you don’t agree with me), and in this case, it’s the subtitle that makes the book’s relevance clear: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler.

The time travel aspect is brilliant.  The premise is that there is this time machine you’ve purchased (it even has a number!), and unfortunately something’s gone wrong, and of course there are no repairable parts in this time machine, so you’re stuck. It then gives you a little flowchart to help you figure out when you’re stranded, based on what’s around you (including whether you’re before the Big Bang or not, whether the earth has a moon, whether there are animals, what kind of animals you see around you), and then proceeds to tell you what you need to invent in order to survive.

You may be thinking this sounds a little science-fiction-y, and the premise certainly is, while the tone is entertaining and light (I wish there were more repair manuals for actual technology written with such a sense of humor). But make no mistake about it: the information in the book, when it comes to explaining why certain things are necessary (charcoal, for instance, is important for more than just doing great barbecue), and how to invent them, is entirely accurate.  If you actually did have to invent, say, penicillin, based on the information in this book, you could do it.

But, aside from the entertainment value (and I’m not going to disparage science presented as entertainingly as it is here), the book is great for opening your eyes to how much we take for granted, how certain basic aspects of human life (like spoken and written language, for instance) were first developed (and more or less when they were first developed, which may surprise you if you’re not into anthropology and similar subjects).  This is also the kind of book you can open just about anywhere and get a good laugh and learn something new. Even if you haven’t got a time machine just yet.

 

ON THE REBOUND: THE PROPOSAL

Have you ever watched a ball game and seen one of those proposals on the Jumbotron and wondered whether this was really a romantic gesture or a sign of pure stupidity?  I always hope, when I see one of those scenes, that the couple in question have already been talking about getting married and are both pretty sure the answer is likely to be “yes” before making such a public gesture. There have to be times, however, when someone makes a serious mistake in making some spectacular public proposal, like asking someone whose answer is likely to be “no” or “I hadn’t even thought about it and now that I have, I don’t want to”.  How awful would that be?

That’s the initial situation in The Proposal, by Jasmine Guillory, a new quirky romantic novel.  Nikole Patterson has only been going out with this guy for a few months when she accompanies him to a Dodgers baseball game, and is given the unpleasant surprise of her life when he proposes to her via the scoreboard.  She has no desire whatsoever to marry him, but what an awkward position she’s put in when she says no, in front of millions of people! As her (now former) boyfriend and his friends turn on her in indignation and camera crews approach to film her, she is unexpectedly rescued by a handsome stranger, Carlos Ibarra, who swoops in and pretends to be an old friend, getting her out of a difficult situation with flair.

Since this is 2018, Nik’s troubles aren’t over when she escapes gratefully with Carlos from the ballpark to a bar to be supported by her friends.  The video of the proposal and her reaction to it goes viral (of course), and she’s in a world of hurt and embarrassment on social media. To her relief, Carlos is there for her during all this, too, but she knows someone as good looking and personable and smart as Carlos can’t really be looking for a romantic partner, and certainly wouldn’t be trying to find one this way. So, sure, she’ll have fun with him, hang out and enjoy his company, but she knows better than to expect anything more lasting from him.  Or does she?

This is a romance (think romantic comedy and you’ve got the right mood), so of course there’s going to be a happy ending, and along the way you’ve got charming characters to enjoy (including Carlos’ family and Nik’s female friends).  Watching someone rise from humiliation to joy is always a good thing, and especially with all the dark things going on in the world these days. Take a break and check out The Proposal.

 

TRULY UNIQUE WESTERN MYSTERY: THE BEST BAD THINGS

If you’re bored by the usual detective stories or the usual historical novels, or if you think you’ve seen it all in westerns, do we have a book for you!  The Best Bad Things, by Katrina Carrasco, is a unique combination of mystery, western and historical fiction, with some gender fluidity and cross-dressing thrown in to make it still more interesting.

The setting is Port Townsend in 1887, a wild and woolly frontier town in Washington State.

Our main character, Alma Rosales, is quite a character. She had been trained by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency as a detective, but got fired for bad behavior, including her penchant for disguising herself as a man.  She then switched sides in the war on crime, coming to work for Delphine Beaumond, her former lover and now the head of an opium smuggling operation. When a shipment of opium goes missing, Delphine wants it tracked down and Alma is delighted to take the job.  Disguising herself as Jack Camp, she infiltrates the opium gang, gaining the trust (she thinks) of the union boss (a man who’s very interesting to her for other reasons as well) and her fellow workers, finding out what happened to the opium and who’s the traitor in the organization, while at the same time sending messages to the Pinkerton investigators who are closing in on the gang, trying to dissuade them from cracking down just yet.  

She’s having fun playing all these different roles, but as double crosses and betrayals mount up and it becomes harder and harder to tell who’s on whose side, Alma runs the risk of letting something slip and being uncovered as a spy, a traitor, a woman, in an environment where any of those things could cause her destruction.

A complicated plot, a vivid and detailed setting, and a main character like few others in mysteries, westerns OR historical novels make this one to check out.