After a stimulating discussion on Little Women, the Field Notes Book Group decided on next month’s selection, and, yes, I might have had a little influence on the choice of books (not that I pushed or anything, but I did strongly recommend our chosen book).  For January 12, 2019, we’re going to be reading Circe by Madeline Miller.  As always, the group will meet at 11:00 in the gallery, and there will be snacks and coffee provided, and, as always, copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk at The Field Library.

I’ve already written about Circe.  It’s been chosen as one of the best books of the year by a number of publications already, and with good reason: it’s a terrific read.  If you’re familiar with The Odyssey or with Greek mythology in general, you’ll really appreciate Miller’s take on some of the more famous characters (including Odysseus and Daedalus), but even if you know nothing of the original story, you’ll have no trouble following Circe’s story here.  As I’ve said before, Circe was always one of my favorite characters in Greek mythology, and it’s going to be fun to discuss Miller’s take on her story.

Come and pick up a copy of the book, and then join us on January 12 to travel back in time and see the other side of The Odyssey.



Did you ever read a book that was so good it made you want to look up the author and read everything else that person ever wrote, including short stories, novels, essays, shopping lists?  I’ve had that experience a few times this year, and the most recent time was with The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle.  This book was tied for the World Fantasy Award for 2018, and, having read it, I can certainly understand how this would have been one of the very best.  It’s so good I now have Victor Lavalle on my list of authors whose back catalog I want to explore at length.

One of the things that makes The Changeling such a powerful read is how deeply it’s grounded in the real world. Yes, it’s a fantasy novel, and yes, there are some supernatural things going on (though it takes you a while to realize what they are, and they are not necessarily the things you think might be supernatural, and I am not going to be more specific about that, lest I spoil the fun of the book), but the world in which the main characters live and move is the incredibly detailed and believable world of modern day New York City.  The parties’ baby is born, for instance, in a subway car stuck between stations, and both the details of the labor and birth and the details of the setting are so vivid you feel as if you were actually witnessing it as it happened. The climactic battle takes place in Forest Hills, Queens, in a park and a neighborhood that likewise is filled with mundane, telling details that make it clear this is a place the author knows and understands.

Apollo Kagwa and his wife, Emma, are African Americans with pasts they think they understand.  Apollo’s father deserted the family when Apollo was a child, leaving him with a strange box of memorabilia and a creepy recurring dream.  Emma and her sister lost their parents in a house fire when Emma was only five. Both of these stories are partially true, and both characters find out, in the course of this book, how the people they love and trust have lied to them (from the best possible motives in both cases), and how those lies have shaped their lives since.

The two of them fall in love, get married, and have a baby, Brian (in the subway car; the fact of the baby’s being born there turns out to be significant for the story as well as something nobody who reads this book is ever going to forget), and just when everything should be going their way, disaster strikes.  They’re both sleep deprived (as people with newborns often are), Apollo’s starting to get those dreams again, and Emma is acting strangely. Possibly it’s postpartum depression, possibly something more sinister, but Emma’s attitude toward the baby changes, as she starts denying this baby is hers, and then, more disturbingly, that Brian is a baby at all.  In a horrific, nightmarish scene, she turns on Apollo and then on Brian, and then disappears altogether.

Things are not what they seem, neither Apollo nor Emma, nor Emma’s actions, and it’s up to Apollo to find the truth and restore what he can of his family and his life.

This would be a fabulous book group read (for a book group strong enough to deal with the violence at the heart of the book; that scene with Emma and Apollo is not for the fainthearted or the weak of stomach), bringing up questions of parenthood and how far one goes to protect one’s children, the use of fairy tales or other untrue stories to convey more important truths, the presence of what Fred Rogers would call “helpers,” the way racism seeps through the story and changes the way these characters react from the ways white characters would in similar circumstances.

But more than anything else, this is one hell of a read.  Once you get sucked into the story, you have to keep reading to find out what happens, and no matter how strange and even supernatural the events of the story are, you’re with Lavalle for the long haul and ready to follow him to the ends of the earth, or to Forest Hills, whichever comes first.

If you’re ready for a good, dark, scary but enthralling read, check out The Changeling, but make sure you set aside enough time to read the whole thing in one sitting.  


The classic Shakespearean comedy involves mistaken identities and the complications that ensue, usually ending up with the right people getting together and ending happily.  It’s a theme that’s been used for romantic comedies for centuries, and it’s about time the trope was updated for the modern world. My Favorite Half-Night Stand, by Christina Lauren, is a modern and clever use of the old mistaken identity plot.

As with this year’s hit book, The Kiss Quotient, the main character here is a woman who has very little experience with the whole dating/romance scene.  Millie is a scientist, “one of the guys”, who’s much better at dealing with research into serial killers than at finding men who interest her romantically.  She’s a professor at Santa Barbara and hangs out with four other professors, all male, and all equally clueless about dating. When the group gets invited to a university function that turns out to be — horrors! — black tie, they decide they’re all going to bring a “plus one”, even if they have to find their dates through online dating services.

However, once they make the pact but before she actually starts the online dating process, Millie finds herself involved in a sexy half night stand with one of the other professors in the group, Reid.  The two of them are surprised at how much they enjoyed themselves, but they’re determined to remain just friends.

The online dating process for her is pretty gruesome.  While her male colleagues get all kinds of interesting women responding to their listings, all Millie gets are creepy people and obscene pictures.  So she creates a different identity for the dating app: Catherine, who can be all the things Millie is not, including vulnerable and open.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, who finds the profile for “Catherine” and starts corresponding with her: Reid, who knows the real life Millie but would never guess that she’s the same person he’s been connecting with online (if you’re picturing The Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, you’re thinking along the right lines).  

Does Millie manage to come clean with Reid?  Does she figure out how to reconcile her real world and her online selves?  Is there a happy ever after? Do you need to read something light and charming with all that’s going on in the world?  Read My Favorite Half-Night Stand and find out the answers.


If you’ve been wondering whether the old trope of the haunted house still has resonance and power to scare, or at least unnerve people, or if you’re in the mood for something really dark in this holiday season, check out The Mansion, by Ezekiel Boone, but be sure to keep the lights on.

This is not your ordinary haunted house story, though it has some of the elements: mysterious deaths, a house that is more than an ordinary dwelling, buried secrets and the sense that something malevolent is working its will through the house. This house also has computer programs and cutting edge technology, along with the simmering tensions of a Silicon Valley startup.

Once upon a time, Billy and Shawn were living on the verge of destitution, spending their days and nights in a tiny, ramshackle cabin outside a falling down mansion, designing the next big computer, a revolutionary machine they named Eagle Logic.  Unfortunately, the strains of poverty and overwork, and interpersonal tensions exacerbated by those factors destroyed their friendship. A third partner mysteriously disappeared, Shawn’s girlfriend left him for Billy, and Shawn took Eagle Logic and made himself a fortune.

Time passed, and didn’t treat Billy well, while Shawn became world famous and nearly infinitely rich.  With the world as his oyster, Shawn turned back to a program he and Billy once worked on that hadn’t succeeded: a program they named Nellie that would control a house completely.  And what house does he choose? Why, the mansion that loomed outside their cabin when he and Billy were first working together, of course.

Since I’ve already told you this is a haunted house story, you can probably guess what happens next: the program doesn’t work the way Shawn intended it to, some of the people working on the house die mysteriously of supposed accidents, and as things begin to fall apart, Shawn decides he needs to reach out to Billy to try to fix what’s broken. But bringing Billy back is also bringing back the issues that broke the pair up in the first place, and Nellie may have some deadly secrets in the source code, as the two of them are about to find out.

Adding computers, which most of us use but don’t entirely understand, to the Gothic world of haunted houses that seek to destroy those who live in them is a brilliant idea.  Taking the notion of a “smart” house and exploring all the dark and sinister possibilities of the concept is not only creepy but timely. If you’re in the mood for a different kind of haunted house thriller, The Mansion is waiting for you.


Many of us have read lots of mysteries and seen tons of movies and television shows about the criminal justice system from all kinds of angles, and after a while you get the feeling you might be able to outsmart the system if you really had to.  Even if you’ve never personally wondered about your own ability to get away with murder, you might well have second-guessed the killer in a book or movie, noticing his or her mistakes and feeling superior because you never would have made those mistakes yourself.

What would happen if you were a criminal defense lawyer, married to another criminal defense lawyer, and you felt the need to take justice into your own hands?  Would that be easier or harder than for an ordinary civilian? Well, Natalie and Will, the protagonists in For Better and Worse, by Margot Hunt, put themselves in that position.  They met when they were both in law school, and bonded from the first in a what if game: what if they wanted to kill someone together, would they be able to get away with it? It was just a game, a somewhat peculiar icebreaker (but perfectly reasonable if you’re dealing with law students), but law students are accustomed to dealing with hypotheticals, and for Nat and Will, the game led to romance and later to marriage and a son.

It would have remained just a memory of a game they played except that life circumstances suddenly made it relevant again.  Nat and Will, both criminal defense attorneys, discover that the school principal has molested their young son. Nat, furious as any mother would be, with the added knowledge of the system that only someone who’s worked in it for decades would have, wants to protect her son from the molester, but also from the potential damage a trial would do to him as a witness.  While Will feels they should report the crime to the police, but Nat has other plans, and her other plans end up involving Will, whether he wants to be drawn into her crimes or not.

Are they as clever as they think they are?  Can they outsmart the police? Should they? Neither Nat nor Will is exactly a likeable character, but that’s pretty common nowadays in thrillers (thanks a lot, Gone Girl, for making that a trend).  While it’s a fast read and nothing deep or profound, the questions For Better and Worse raises about justice and whether vigilante action can ever be justified, even in terrible cases like the one here, are fascinating and keep the pages turning.



I usually don’t change my opinions about a  book just because of what critics thought of it, or what other readers thought of it, nor do I believe it’s essential to know everything that was going on in the author’s life when the book was written in order to understand the book. Sometimes, in fact, it’s detrimental to learn more about the author’s life, especially when there’s a possibility that the book was semi-autobiographical.  However, even if a book like Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux doesn’t change my opinions about the fundamentals of Little Women, I still found it an interesting read, and it did give me perspective on Louisa May Alcott and the writing of the book.

At the outset, I feel there are a lot of nonfiction books that would have been great magazine articles which lose some of their power by being padded out to book length. While Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy doesn’t quite fall into that category, there’s a certain amount of repetition in the text, and there are details about more modern books and television shows that supposedly show the influence of Little Women that feel more like filler than like useful insights into the book.

Rioux gives an excellent short biography of Louisa May Alcott, locating her in her specific time and place, demonstrating how her fictional family, the Marches, was in some ways a revision, a fantasized and more bearable version of her own family.  If, for instance, you’re wondering why Mr. March, the father in Little Women, plays so small a part in the book, even after he returns from the war, knowing what kind of father Bronson Alcott was helps put Mr. March in perspective.  Louisa had little enough experience of a father who was deeply involved in the life of his family, as opposed to living up to his own dreams and ideals regardless of how they affected his family, so her placing Mr. March deeply in the background makes him actually an improvement on the father she knew.  

There’s always the question of how much Jo March was based on Louisa May Alcott herself, and the book does a good job of drawing the parallels between Louisa’s career and Jo’s.  Like her literary alter ego, Alcott wrote gothic, sensationalistic stories to make money to help support her family, but ultimately made her lasting fame by writing more realistic works about families she knew.  When Jo considers her future after Beth’s death and sees herself as a spinster aunt, and Alcott interjects a few paragraphs extolling the virtues of maiden aunts, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that Alcott herself never married or had children of her own. It’s possible that in a different era, Alcott might have been brave enough to allow Jo not to marry anyone, but in the era in which she lived and wrote, that would have been a bridge too far.  As it was, Alcott deliberately subverted the expectations of her readers by having Jo turn down Laurie’s proposal and instead get married to Professor Bhaer, one of the least romantic men in the novel.

While it’s moderately interesting to read about the development and the critical responses to the different film and stage versions of Little Women, I would have liked more analysis of the book and of the characters, and fewer repetitive quotations of people, especially women, talking about Jo’s being their inspiration for writing. Rioux discusses the questions of whether Little Women is a feminist book or a regressive book, whether it actually subverts the standards of the time and if so, how much, and gives a nicely balanced view of opinions on both sides.  She shows how, despite the overt support of marriage as the best life for a woman, Little Women actually advocates for a less patriarchal, more egalitarian kind of marriage, not just in the case of Jo and her professor, an unconventional couple, but also in the much more seemingly ordinary marriage of Meg and John. Marriage is not the end of the story, or the end of the growth of a woman’s character; Meg and John spend a certain amount of time learning how to be spouses and how to be parents together (a confession: those chapters I skimmed when I first read the book because I thought nothing could be more boring than reading about Meg now that she was married and a mother).

A case can be made that Little Women discourages women from living their dreams, considering that Amy gives up art because she’s not a genius, and Jo ends the book running a school for boys and putting off writing her masterpiece.  However, a case can also be made that Alcott supports women (and men) testing the waters, doing unconventional things (like Jo’s moving to New York and delivering her manuscripts to publishers directly) to see whether their dreams are practical.  Even Jo’s ending is a postponement rather than and end to her writing career, and, as Rioux reminds us, in the third book in the series Jo’s Boys, Jo writes a book not unlike Little Women and it becomes a success (this is a particular trope that I dislike in general, the book about a writer where the climax is that the writer writes this very book you’re reading, but Louisa May Alcott was one of the first people to do it, so I’ll cut her some slack).

Probably the most intriguing insight of this book has to do with the cause of Beth’s death, which is left fairly vague in Little Women.  Looking at Beth’s childlike nature and her unwillingness to grow up as symptoms of depression and possible eating disorders, none of which would have been diagnosed as such at the time, but both of which undoubtedly existed in Alcott’s world, makes a certain amount of sense and turns her death into something more meaningful than her just being too good for this world.

If you enjoyed Little Women and you want a little more background into the book and the causes for its popularity, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is a good place to start, and don’t feel guilty if you decide to skip the chapters on Gilmore Girls or the movie versions of the book; you’ll still get a good read and some extra dimensions on the classic book.



If you’re in the mood for a charming and lighthearted book (and who isn’t, these dark days?), let me recommend a new book, set in the (to me) alien world of beauty pageants, The Accidental Beauty Queen, by Teri Wilson.

The main characters are a pair of identical twins, identical in face and body though certainly not in personality or life goals. Ginny Gorman is determined to win fame as a beauty queen and has been competing in pageants since she was old enough to lisp the expected answers to her goals for the world.  She lives on Instagram, is a sensation wherever she goes, and will not stop until she wins the ultimate title of Miss American Treasure. Her sister, Charlotte, by contrast, is shy and retiring. She works as a librarian (of course) in an elementary school and is perfectly happy to live through her books and her job, with no more attention paid to her than would be paid to any other librarian.

You can already see where this is going, can’t you?  

Of course Ginny brings Charlotte to a beauty pageant to act as her good luck charm, and of course, Ginny suffers an allergic reaction the night before the pageant that ruins her looks for the next three days at least.  So what’s a disappointed and desperate identical twin to do? Persuade her identical twin sister to pretend to be her, of course. Identical twins do this all the time in books and movies, and hilarity ensues, as well as opportunities for each twin to learn more about the other’s life.

Charlotte being a good-hearted sister, she goes along with Ginny’s plea despite some serious reservations on her part, and so she is introduced to all the things she’s never had time or inclination for: hair extensions, push up bras, false eyelashes, stiletto heels, glitter, and a feverish focus on looks to the exclusion of everything else. Naturally she’s going to make all kinds of mistakes, but she also comes to see that there’s more to the other beauty contestants than the stereotype harpies sabotaging each other on their way to the crown. She starts to learn more about her sister’s world, and about herself.  There’s even a (mild) romance along the line.

For a humorous look at family and beauty, with amusing characters and women supporting each other, check out The Accidental Beauty Queen.


It should come as no surprise if you’ve been following my blog that I am a fan of Jane Yolen, though I confess I have not read all her writings.  How could I? She’s written more than 365 books, in all different genres, for all different ages, and won just about every writing award she could have, including Hugo, Nebula, Caldecott, and World Fantasy awards. So it was with delight and fascination that I picked up her new book of short stories, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, and I have to say, they do not disappoint.  If you’re a fan, grab this book, no further information is necessary.  If you’re not a fan yet, this is a good place to start, because the short stories in it demonstrate some of her range, her  sense of humor, her powerful use of language, and her sensibility.

Now, I am not saying that every story in the book is a success, but that’s always the case with collections of short stories, in my experience. There will always be a few that leave me scratching my head, either saying “What was that about?” or “Why was that included in here?”

When Yolen’s good, as she mostly is in this collection, she’s very good.  I’ll just mention a few of my favorites.

Humor-wise, there’s no question: the funniest story in the collection is  “Happy Dens, or A Day in the Old Wolves’ Home”, which is a collection of famous fairy tales twisted to reflect the wolf’s side of the story, as the elderly wolves in an Old Wolves’ Home relate what really happened in the stories of Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and Peter and the Wolf.  You probably know the official versions of those stories, and possibly even some variations, but these are especially amusing, and the idea of a retirement home for wolves, staffed by lambs and pigs, is a clever one.

She can also write a chilling story, as in “Allerleiraugh”, which is a version of Cinderella where the father promises his dying wife he will never marry anyone who isn’t as beautiful as his wife, and when his daughter reaches adolescence, he discovers the only woman who could be as beautiful as his wife.  In the fairy tale, she escapes from her father. In this one, not so much.

They’re not all based on fairy tales, though you can usually see the bones of another story under Yolen’s twists and turns.  For example, the modern story, “Wrestling with Angels”, is based (sort of) on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God and getting the worst of it.  Yolen’s version is a kind of cross between the Biblical story and an episode of the X Files, with a poignant underpinning of parental regret.

And one of the best stories in the collection, in my opinion, “Mama Gone,” isn’t really based on any particular story, but is a vampire story set in the hills of Appalachia, with a unique vampire and a unique and touching way for the main character to defeat the vampire.

There are stories based on Eastern folk tales (“One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox and the Dragon King”), stories based on Native American stories (“The Woman Who Loved a Bear”), as well as Greek mythology (“Sun/Flight”) and the more recognizable Grimm’s and Mother Goose stories.  She adds a little extra in a section at the end of the book where she discusses the sources and origins of each story and includes a poem related to the story’s themes. The book is a rich feast, whether you’re familiar with her sources or not, and there’s plenty of thought-provoking twists to the stories.

Make the acquaintance of Jane Yolen through this book, and look at old stories with new eyes.  You’ll be glad you did.