WHEN THE RULES DON’T WORK: IN AN ABSENT DREAM

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which has already won Hugo and Nebula awards and which, to my delight, shows no signs of ending in the near future.  The first book was Every Heart a Doorway, followed by the prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (review), followed by Beneath the Sugar Sky (review), and now by the newest, In An Absent Dream.

The first two books are more closely related than any of the others, but you can easily read any of them independently, or read them out of order without getting confused.  The basic concept is that there’s a home for children who’ve come back to the mundane world from more fantastic places (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia), who aren’t able to forget their other worlds and long to find a doorway or other portal back. There’s an inherent poignance, as the characters have all lost something precious and not all of them are going to be able to get it back, but that uncertainty and longing gives the books their tension and suspense.

In An Absent Dream departs a little from the usual structure, in that we don’t see the Home until the very end of the book, but it’s still at heart a story of a girl who gets to escape her normal existence by traveling to and staying in another world, at least for a while.

Katherine Lundy, our protagonist, is a quiet, well-behaved, book-loving girl of six when she finds the door in the tree that leads her to the Goblin Market for the first time. Since her father is the principal of the school she attends, Katherine has no friends and few deep connections to the human world, other than her parents, her older brother who barely interacts with her at all, and her baby sister who’s hardly a person yet. So she has little reason to hesitate when she sees the sign on the door in the tree that says “Be Sure.”

She enters the Goblin Market, a world where various kinds of humans, non-humans and partial humans live and work in reasonable harmony due to the operation of the market, which keeps everything fair by making everyone follow some straightforward rules: ask for nothing; names have power, always give fair value; remember the curfew.  The most important rule, it turns out, is the one about giving fair value. An uneven exchange results in debt, and too much debt can cause a person to be changed into something else (we see a couple of characters changed, partially or completely, into birds as a result of debts).

Katherine, who renames herself Lundy, meets another girl, called Moon, and Moon introduces her to the way the rules work and to the Archivist, an older woman who proves to be very important to Lundy’s future in the Goblin Market.

Lundy passes in and out of the Goblin Market a few times, and we get to know her and to see what the pull of that world is for her. The concept of fair value is fascinating, and the way the world is set up to make the transactions work is absorbing, as are the relationships between Lundy and Moon, Lundy and the Archivist, and Lundy and her family (especially her father and her sister) when she returns to this world.  And all the time, the clock is ticking down to Lundy’s curfew, the time she has to decide where she really belongs and to make a commitment to that world.

Obviously, since it’s part of this series, I had a feeling all along that Lundy wasn’t going to have a happy ending in the Goblin Market, but the suspense arises from not knowing what exactly is going to happen to her and how, and knowing or guessing in advance doesn’t make the ending any less poignant.

Like all the books in the series, In an Absent Dream is short, a novella rather than a novel, and that’s good and bad. It’s good because you can (and I did) read the whole book in a day, and it’s bad because the author has to leave certain things out (what did happen when Lundy and Moon battled the Wasp Queen, and what actually happened to Mockerie?). The lack of some details really doesn’t hurt the book, but you should be prepared for a book in which you sometimes have to read between the lines and guess at things.

Reading In an Absent Dream made me both impatient for the next book in the series and wanting to reread the first three books again.  It’s that good, moving, fascinating and thought provoking. If you’ve read any of the other books, I don’t need to tell you to hurry out to pick this one up and read it.  If you haven’t read the series (and why not?), do yourself a favor and check out In an Absent Dream and dive into a strange world of rules and debts and an all-powerful market that makes everything “fair.”

 

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NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: GOLDEN STATE

In this era of “fake news” and lies and the necessity of fact checkers, there’s something really appealing about the idea of a society where truth is the ultimate virtue and anyone who lies, even a little, is punished for it.  That’s the world of Golden State, by Ben H. Winters. Before you decide this is the world for you, however, you might want to consider, as Winters does, all the implications of how such a world would work and whether it would be an actual improvement over what we have now.

Something terrible happened in the past, but nobody in the world of Golden State knows what that was, because they do not keep their history.  The United States is no more, and the nation known as Golden State has arisen from what was formerly California.  In this nation, only truth is allowed, and the only people allowed to even consider possibilities other than verifiable fact are the Speculators, special enforcers like our protagonist, Laszlo, who are so sensitive to untruths that they are physically affected by the smallest of white lies, let alone major deceptions.  In order to make sure everyone is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the state has turned into a veritable panopticon. There is no privacy for anyone; everything is always being observed and recorded, and citizens are required to keep diaries of everything they do, and to get other people to verify their versions of events.

Laszlo starts out with a new partner, investigating what should be a fairly simple question of whether someone who fell off a building died as a result of an industrial accident or whether he was pushed. With everything recorded and verified, this should be a piece of cake for Laszlo and his partner, but this is a situation where pulling on one thread begins to unravel everything. Over the course of the story, Laszlo begins to develop from a person who believes in all the rules and how essential they are to the functioning of the world to a person who starts to ask questions, even if they’re dangerous questions that go to the underpinnings of the whole society.  What, after all, IS truth? Who determines what truth is the real thing? How can human beings, storytelling creatures by nature, refrain from ALL forms of untruth?

Golden State probably won’t make you eager to return to a world where truth seems to be a vanishing thing, but it will make you wonder exactly how far we should go to the other extreme of honesty.

 

THE PAST ISN’T NECESSARILY PAST: GHOST WALL

If you’re in the mood for a short, but dense and disturbing, book that makes you think about the concept of progress and human nature, you should definitely check out Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall.  You can probably read it in a day, but it’s the kind of book that will haunt you much longer than that.

Silvie is a modern teenager growing up in the north of England. Her father is a bus driver with a chip on his shoulder the size of a mountain, a man obsessed by the glories of the British past, before all those immigrants came in.  He’s a bully to his wife and his daughter, and Silvie is already plotting how she’s going to leave home as soon as she can, when an opportunity that seems to be uniquely designed for the family presents itself.

A college anthropology class is doing a two week immersion study in which they’re going to try to live, as much as possible, the way their Iron Age ancestors did, leaving all modern civilization behind.  Naturally Silvie’s father schedules his vacation to coincide, and naturally he brings his family along. He has little patience for academic types in general, and he and Silvie have more personal knowledge of ancient survival skills than any of the students, most of whom are just there to get the grades they need.

Silvie slips right in to the whole Iron Age mentality and technology, much more easily than the college students, but while she’s hunting rabbits and scavenging roots for food, she’s also observing the other young people, and imagining a different life for herself, possibly at university, possibly somewhere other than England.

However, there’s more going on than playacting.  Not all of the attitudes and beliefs of the ancient Britons have disappeared entirely from modern people’s thinking, and when the group starts preparing a “ghost wall” like the ones their ancestors made to keep out invaders, disturbing questions about human sacrifices begin to percolate and rise to the surface.

Ghost Wall asks big questions about who we are, how far we’ve really progressed from our ancient roots, and what we might or might not be willing to do to survive.

 

THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

Poor Hannah Green, the protagonist of Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, by Michael Marshall Smith.  At the outset of the book, she’s an 11 year old girl living in Santa Cruz, California, going to school, doing all the usual boring things kids have to do.  Her parents are separating, her mother going to London for a “business trip”, her father sinking into depression as he tries to take care of her and himself. Her life seems utterly mundane and she can’t see any possibility that it’s ever going to be different.  Things pick up a little when her father sends her to stay with her Granddad, a somewhat eccentric itinerant free spirit, living to the north. At least she gets out of school for a while, and she gets to spend time with an interesting person whose behavior is never quite predictable.

Then things start getting a little odd. It turns out that her grandfather is somewhat older than she’d thought.  In fact, he’s a couple of hundred years older. And those bizarre little sculptures he gave her and her parents might not just be attempts at art, but protections against dangerous forces.  Her grandfather, Hannah slowly comes to discover, knows quite a lot about those dangerous forces, because two hundred years ago, he built a device for the devil which converts human evil into energy the devil can use.  Her grandfather has been taking care of this device ever since, but now, for reasons unknown, something has gone wrong with it, and the devil himself is coming to ask for her grandfather’s help, and of course her grandfather isn’t going to leave her alone while he gallivants around creation with the devil.  Mundane is now a thing of the past.

This is a great fun book, one you’ll keep reading just because you have no idea what’s going to happen next: at one point the devil, Hannah, her grandfather and an accident imp named Vaneclaw find themselves in a spot in Siberia which is the exact middle of nowhere; at another point, Hannah finds herself in hell, though it’s called the Behind here and isn’t at all the sort of hell you’d picture from Dante and other medieval sources.  They run into all sorts of other characters, both demonic and human (and non human and non demonic, but I’m not going to spoil the fun on that). One of the critical mechanisms in the plot involves an antique roller coaster (and believe me, you will never ride an old roller coaster with quite the same mentality again after reading this). All the while, the author has such a sure sense of character and plot that you’re confident this will all come together somehow, but you have no idea how, and that’s what keeps you reading.

Well, that’s part of what keeps you reading.  The other part is the characters, all of whom are vivid and fully developed, from Hannah (who is not, fortunately, one of those utterly precocious and unbelievable children you see too often in fiction, especially fantasy), to her grandfather (whose hidden depths never quite obliterate our sense of who he has been throughout the book), to Hannah’s parents (both clearly drawn and neither a cliche of midlife crisis and working too hard to be a good spouse or a good parent), to the aforementioned Vaneclaw (whom most of the characters can’t see, but who is described as looking like a large mushroom with arms and legs), to Nash (a particularly nasty gang member who’s traveling across country to fulfill a destiny he can’t quite understand), to the devil himself.

I really want to give a shout out to the author for the character of the devil. It’s not easy to take a figure so infamous, so often portrayed in fiction and movies and the like, and make him fresh and interesting, but Smith manages that trick.  The devil is not a nice guy; he doesn’t even have redeeming social value, and a couple of times in the course of the book I had to stop and wonder why I was rooting for him to succeed when he spends so much of his time and energy causing destruction and misery to others. But I do root for him, and Hannah’s grandfather and the rest of the characters on his side, to succeed, despite his horrible behavior in general.

The book is full of surprises, including the humor that pops up here and there, and the way the plot winds and unwinds itself, and the way the characters keep revealing different abilities and quirks.  The ending is satisfying without being obvious, and from now on I, for one, will be looking around for other books by Michael Marshall Smith, if they’re as much fun as this one.

ANOTHER SIDE OF DRACULA: RENFIELD, SLAVE OF DRACULA

I’m a cautious fan of alternate versions of famous books.  Sometimes a new writer looking at a classic is able to illuminate it, show us aspects we never would have seen for ourselves.  Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is a good example of this, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants working in the Bennet’s household.  It can be difficult, though, to get it right, especially if the point of view character in the new book is someone who doesn’t last through the whole of the original book.  Renfield, Slave of Dracula, by Barbara Hambly, stars one of those characters, and if Barbara Hambly weren’t an excellent writer (she is; go check out her other books, especially her Benjamin January mystery series), I would have been reluctant to give the book a try.  Which would have been too bad, because she manages to pull it off: a view of the events of Dracula from a character who’s usually seen as minor, which brings depth to that character and to all the other characters he touches.

We all know the outlines of Renfield’s story from Dracula: he’s the guy who was involved with Dracula before Jonathan Harker, who had a complete breakdown as a result and ended up in the asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward, eating flies and spiders and ranting about the lives he needed to ingest.  He’s something of a grotesque in the original, a contrast to Jonathan and a person who invites Dracula into the asylum where Mina Harker is staying, so Dracula can attack her and so the rest of the book’s plot can unfold. In the original, Dracula kills Renfield in the asylum for his unfaithfulness, long before Van Helsing and the others chase Dracula to his home in Transylvania.  

Hambly turns Renfield into a person with his own history, his own needs and his conflicts.  For most of the book, Renfield relates his side of events via letters to his absent wife and daughter, whom he has hidden away before his commitment to Seward’s asylum, to protect them from his wife’s conniving family.*  He comes across as an erudite, educated man with a past in India of the British Raj, and his obsession with eating flies and spiders and the like becomes more understandable (though still kind of bizarre). His relationship with Dracula is complex; we never learn how he met Dracula and how Dracula achieved his power over Renfield, but he finds himself seeing through Dracula’s eyes and feeling what his master feels (which, by the way, gives us the events we’re familiar with from Dracula).  He’s a sympathetic character, especially when you see how mentally ill people are treated in this era and especially in this asylum, where the lovesick Dr. Seward isn’t paying too much attention to how his staff earns extra money.  

Even where Hambly diverges from the original plot, she’s scrupulous about using characters and events that are part of the original.  In this version, Renfield allies himself with Dracula’s wives, who have come to England to follow their master and to make sure he’s not setting himself up a new harem in England.  We’ve seen the wives in Dracula, though they weren’t as differentiated as they are here.  Each has her own personality (Elizabeth, the oldest, is the most like her husband, cold and cruel), and one of them, Nomie, sees Renfield as more than just a means to their ends but as a person in his own right. She becomes such a major character that if you’re aware of the fates of Dracula’s wives, you spend a lot of time worrying about her fate and how Renfield is going to react to it.

Ah, you ask, but how does the author get around the death of Renfield?  Very cleverly, I answer, but I’m not going to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that his destiny makes perfect sense in the context of the vampire world (and that’s as much of a hint as I’m going to give), allowing him to be an actor in the events that lead to Dracula’s destruction.

There’s one major twist in the book which I didn’t foresee, but, shocking as it is at the time, when I thought about what we already knew up to that point, it felt fair, not as if the author were twisting the plot just for the sake of twists (coughGoneGirlcough).  Renfield is our protagonist; he’s not a hero, but he’s understandable and he brings new light to Dracula and the other characters around him.

You don’t have to have read Dracula in order to enjoy this book (though why haven’t you read it? It’s a fun book and a classic); what you probably already know from having seen various movie versions of Dracula and what you know from living in this culture will be enough to give you all the background you need. Of course, if you have read the original, it’s even more fun to read this.  Introduce yourself to a new and fascinating Renfield, here at The Field Library.

 

*And yes, this means this book can be used as an epistolary novel for the purposes of the 2019 Reading Challenge.

 

WOMEN MAKE THRILLERS WORK

Thrillers used to be a man’s world, and if women were characters in them, they were usually femme fatales or damsels in distress, people who were peripheral to the action.  Not anymore! These days the hottest thrillers tend to involve women as the main characters. Think of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train*, or The Woman in the Window, which have dominated bestseller lists.  Three new thrillers here at The Field Library feature women as main characters in different capacities, in very different situations.  

An Anonymous Girl, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, doesn’t start out in your classic thriller fashion.  Our protagonist, Jessica Farris, signs on for a psychology experiment involving questions of ethics and morality, run by the mysterious Dr. Shields. The ad says the people participating must be women between the ages of 18 and 32, anonymity is guaranteed and the compensation will be generous.  Why shouldn’t Jessica sign on? Answer a few questions, take her money and leave: what could be problematic about that? But then she starts answering the questions and they’re not what she expected, questions like “Could you tell a lie without feeling guilt?” and “Have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about?”  As the questions become more penetrating, more invasive and more disturbing, Jessica starts wondering about the man running the program. Does he know her? Is he trying to manipulate her? The study takes her out of the lab and into the world, requiring her to do certain things, dress certain ways, and Jessica becomes (understandably) paranoid.  Where is this leading? What exactly is being studied and why is she involved in this? An Anonymous Girl is a subtle, psychological thriller that makes you wonder about exactly where you should draw the line in trusting people.

Elle Stowell, the protagonist of The Burglar, by Thomas Perry, is very different from Jessica.  By profession, she’s a high class burglar who uses her looks, intelligence and unconventional skills to get inside the ritziest homes in Bel Air, and steal the most valuable items without getting caught.  It’s an easy, if unconventional life, until one night she breaks into the wrong house, discovering the results of a triple homicide. Suddenly she’s a target instead of a mover and shaker, and in order to keep from becoming the next victim, she has to use her breaking and entering skills, and her smarts, to figure out who the murder victims were and why they were killed, all the while trying to stay out of the cross hairs of the murderers herself.

There are two women at the heart of Freefall, by Jessica Barry: a mother estranged from her daughter, and her daughter who’s running for her life. The daughter, Allison Carpenter, is on a private jet that crashes in the Colorado Rockies, and manages to survive the crash.  Unfortunately for her, walking away from the crash is the easiest thing she has to do, even though she’s isolated in the mountainous wilderness. She’s got a secret that powerful people would kill to preserve, and if those people knew she was still alive, they’d make sure she never got out of the wilds.  Meanwhile, in a small town in Maine, on the other end of the country, Maggie Carpenter, Allison’s mother, learns her daughter is presumed dead in the plane crash. A family tragedy drove Allison away, and Maggie doesn’t know much about her daughter’s present life, even that she was engaged to be married, or why she was flying on a private plane. But she believes Allison’s not dead, and she dedicates herself to finding out more about her lost daughter, including the secrets Allison’s keeping that could mean her death.  The book cuts between Allison’s efforts to make her way out of the forbidding terrain and Maggie’s efforts to discover why Allison is in such trouble to begin with, and possibly find a way to get her out of it.

Three different thrillers, four different women at the heart of them: come in and check them out.

 

*Someday I will talk at greater length about how annoying it is that all these modern books refer to adult women as “girls.” I realize it’s a marketing thing, new books attempting to capitalize on the popularity of bestsellers like Gone Girl, but as far as I’m concerned, if the character in question is over 18 years of age, she’s a woman, not a girl.

FEBRUARY 2019 FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE KINSHIP OF SECRETS

After a lively and interesting discussion of Greek mythology, relations between women and men, between gods and mortals, fate and the coming of age of someone immortal with reference to our January book, Circe, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen our book for February.  On February 16, from 11 to 12:30 at The Field Library, we will be discussing The Kinship of Secrets, by Eugenia Kim.  Come by the Circulation Desk at the library this week to pick up your copy.

The Kinship of Secrets is the story of a divided family.  In the late 1940’s, the Korean family of Najin and Calvin Cho leave Korea for the United States, taking their older daughter, Maran, with them, and leaving behind their infant daughter, Inja, with their extended family in Korea.  They all expect Najin and Calvin will return to pick up Inja and take her with them to America, but the Korean War intervenes, and what was supposed to be a brief separation turns into many years. Inja grows up in Korea, knowing she has a family but considering them ghosts, and Maran grows up in suburban America, always aware of her missing sister. The book is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of the two sisters, and explores the consequences of war on one family, and the bonds of family that bring them together while the Korean War and its aftermath push them apart.

In some ways the Korean War is a forgotten war in America, and even when we do hear about it or read about it, we seldom see it from the point of view of people expatriated from Korea.  The book promises to give us a different perspective on America and Korea, and I’m looking forward to our discussions. Come and join us.

 

MOTHER LOVE: WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE

It seems as if I’ve been circling around Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette for years.  I know I’ve suggested it to the book group a couple of times, though it’s never become one of our selections.  It qualified on last year’s reading challenge as a Book Set in the Arctic or Antarctic (though most of the action of the book takes place in Seattle, the parts set in Antarctica are a key part of the book, and as you know, I am pretty open minded about what qualifies in any given category), and this year it will qualify for the category “Read a Collection of Letters or an Epistolary Novel” (and while there is some actual narration interspersed with the various emails and other documents of the book, this one definitely qualifies as an epistolary novel). If at some point I choose a category like “Read a book about architecture or architects,” it would qualify there, too.  It was, finally, about time I read the book, and, having done so, I’m a little annoyed at myself for having waited so long.

Don’t let the fact of its being an epistolary novel scare you.  While much of the story is told through emails and memos and magazine articles, it is perfectly easy to follow, and in fact, the different tones and perspectives of the writers of those emails make for a great deal of the humor of the book. You have no problem figuring out who’s talking even without looking at the headings of the emails, and of course our narrator’s first person additions and interpolations help set the contexts too.

The thing I loved most about  this book were the characters, and what juicy, fun characters they were!  Bernadette is a middle aged woman with a teenage daughter, a husband who’s a genius working at Microsoft, and serious problems dealing with the world.  She doesn’t fit in with the other mothers at her daughter’s school: she doesn’t volunteer, she doesn’t gossip, and she basically considers those other mothers as “gnats”, small annoying things that aren’t worth the effort to swat. Naturally, those other mothers have issues with her, especially Rachel Griffin (one of the other main characters of the book), and these issues reach tragi-comic proportions as the plot winds on (including a mudslide that nearly destroys Rachel’s house, for which both Rachel and Bernadette share the blame).  Bernadette doesn’t get along well with most people, and spends most of her time in the family’s home, which is a horror movie dream, a former school/home for unwed mothers which leaks everywhere and is being infiltrated by blackberry vines even under the floors. What makes Bernadette’s willingness to hide away in that particular house all the more curious is that, before she became something of a hermit and a professional character, Bernadette was a brilliant architect, awarded a Macarthur Genius Grant back when she was living in L.A. (a case, clearly, of the shoemaker’s kids going barefoot).  She rants at other drivers and at all aspects of Seattle life (don’t get her started on Canadians), she doesn’t care what people think of her, and she’s something of a scandal in town in general. But as we get to see her through her daughter’s eyes, and through her own words, we come to realize that she’s not just a stock “nutty mother” type, but an interesting person we come to care about.

Part of the humanizing of Bernadette comes from her daughter, Bee’s, perspective on her. Bee, a very smart and accomplished young lady who’s planning to go away to boarding school in the East for high school, adores her mother, and sees nothing wrong with Bernadette’s behavior.  She stands up to the other mothers of the school and to anyone else who tries to give Bernadette a hard time, and she’s willing to upend her whole life when Bernadette goes missing.

Which happens twice in the novel, first when Elgin, Bernadette’s husband, tries to stage an intervention to get Bernadette committed to a mental hospital (there’s a lot going on in this book, all of which makes sense in context, but all of which, when looked at from a wider perspective, is kind of bizarre), and Bernadette disappears from a locked bathroom, leaving no note or other hint of where she’s going, and second, when she disappears from a cruise ship in Antarctica.  Bee refuses to believe that her mother is dead, and especially not that she committed suicide, so Bee and her father head down to Antarctica themselves, officially so Bee can get “closure,” but actually so Bee can find out what actually happened to her mother.

I am not doing this funny, fast-moving and charming book justice.  It came out in 2012, so I have come late to its delights (though I am certainly going to read Maria Semple’s other books now that I’ve seen how well she writes), but the best thing about reading in general is that it’s never too late to discover something wonderful.  So spend some time with Bernadette and Bee and the whole wild cast of characters orbiting around them, and settle in for some fun.

 

WOMEN’S PERSPECTIVES ON WORLD WAR II

It seems these days that World War II is the most popular era for historical fiction, with a new novel about some aspect of the war coming out nearly every month.  In January we have two new World War II novels, each one looking at a different aspect of the war, and each one looking at it through the eyes of women doing more than just keeping the home fires burning and waiting for their men to return home.

The Light Over London, by Julia Kelly, follows a familiar pattern for modern historical novels, the modern day character learning about her counterpart in a past time, her life being illuminated in some way by the history she’s learning. Cara Hargraves is working for a gruff antiques dealer when she discovers an unfinished diary from World War II, with a picture of a young woman in uniform, at an estate sale.  Reading the diary leads her to investigate the story behind it, and there we are in the second narrative of the book with 19 year old Louise Keene, living in Cornwall in 1941. Her ideas about her life and her future are upended when she meets Paul, a dashing RAF officer, stationed at a nearby base. His unit’s deployment leads Louise to look beyond her narrow life and become a Gunner Girl, a woman in the British army’s anti-aircraft unit, stationed in London during the Blitz.  She takes pride in her ability to identify enemy planes, and in the accuracy of her calculations, leading the male gunners to shoot down the attacking aircraft, but of course life in London during this dangerous period is scary and filled with risks. She clings to the hope that she and Paul will be reunited after the war, but life is precarious during wartime and her real education in life and love is just beginning. There are parallels between the lives of the two women, and Cara is inspired by Louise’s story to investigate the war experiences of her own grandmother, who never spoke much about what she did in the war.

The protagonist of The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict, is a real person: Hedy Lamarr, and her story is incredible enough to seem more fitting for a novel than a biography.   Her extraordinary beauty got her married to a prominent arms dealer in the early stages of the Third Reich, and probably protected her from being rounded up with other Jews and killed.  As she and her husband moved in the highest social circles of the Nazis, she was continually underestimated, assumed to be a pretty airhead, but all the while she was paying attention to everything she heard about the highest level plans of the Third Reich.  She disguised herself and made a daring escape from her husband’s castle, to emerge in Hollywood as a film star, but even that wasn’t the whole extent of her extraordinary life. She didn’t want to spend her time making money in movies when the war was raging, so she turned her scientific mind toward helping radio-controlled torpedoes avoid having their frequencies jammed, a technology that was later adopted by the U.S. Navy, and that still later became the basis for secure Wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS.  

Even if you consider yourself a World War II buff, there are undoubtedly things in these two novels that will be new to you, and if you have only a general knowledge of the war and how it affected non-combatants, you will find these two books fascinating.

TIME TRAVEL FOR FUN AND CONFUSION

The later part of 2018 was a good time for books about time travel (or possibly I was just looking for time travel books and happened to get lucky).  We had Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates, and Time and Time Again: Sixteen Trips in Time by Robert Silverberg, and Miss Blaine’s Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas, which I’m going to review here.

But first, I want to nominate this book for the worst title of 2018.  Is it easy to remember? Not in the least; I had to look it up myself to check it out.  Is it a clever, pun-like title, or a play on some well-known phrase? Not at all. Is it a title that gives you an idea of the book’s genre?  Nope; between the title and the cover, you’d be forgiven for thinking this might be some kind of historical novel, possibly a romance (and yes, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but obviously we all do, to some extent).  Does the title reflect what the book is about? Not really. Yes, the main character had been a prefect for Miss Blaine, and there is a golden samovar in the story which does play a minor role, but it’s not the focus of the book in any way (I kept hoping, as I read on, that the samovar would play a more prominent part, but it doesn’t). The worst part about the title, though, is that it doesn’t invite a reader to check the book out, and that’s a  shame, because the book is a hoot.

Our protagonist, Shona McMonagle, is a Scottish graduate of the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, a fact of which she is very proud, and a connection which leads directly to her time traveling adventure.  She is, in the present world, a librarian (another reason to like her), and she has a particular loathing for the book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for its slanderous portrayal of her alma mater, to the point where she deliberately tries to keep the book out of the hands of unsuspecting readers (and I will admit here that I had a sneaking admiration for her efforts in that regard; there are books I’ve felt the same way about, though I haven’t gone as far as Shona).  When the founder of the school finds Shona at the library and offers her the opportunity to travel back in time for a week to complete a mission, Shona is the kind of woman who jumps at the opportunity, even though she doesn’t know exactly what the mission is (and for most of the book, she’s in the dark about the nature of her mission, and even about exactly when she finds herself).

She goes back to Tsarist Russia, and finds herself in the middle of a mystery  involving the strange deaths of certain widows, which she assumes is part of her mission.  She’s provided with a house, money, and a serf, “Old Vatrushkin,” who acts as her coachman and in various other capacities as he’s needed.

If you are a fan of Elizabeth Peters, you are going to enjoy Shona.  She has the Amanda Peabody certainty of her rightness, and the indomitable spirit, with a modern feminism and egalitarianism thrown in.  If you are a fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next (and if you haven’t read that series, starting with The Eyre Affair, you don’t know what you’re missing), you’ll also like Shona’s roll-up-your-sleeves-and-deal-with-the-weirdness attitude, which is like Thursday’s.  Shona has all kinds of modern knowledge and skills, but the humor in the story (and there’s a lot of humor in it) lies in the fact that Shona isn’t as smart as she thinks she is.  You, the reader, will be a couple of steps ahead of her, shaking your head at her assumptions, as bodies pile up and attempts are made on her life as she tries to accomplish what she thinks is her mission (she’s wrong about that, too), but that’s part of the fun.

Don’t bother trying to figure out how historically accurate Tsarist Russia is here.  Just sit back and enjoy the wild ride, the amusing characters, from Shona herself to the multitalented “Old Vatrushkin” (who’s actually only 29, so hardly old; he reminds me of Mel Brooks’ character in The Twelve Chairs, in fact), to the evil duchess and the intriguingly gorgeous Sasha and the innocent Lidia and her nanny, and the many almost farcical incidents of the plot (an early scene in which Shona wows a bunch of decadent Russian aristocrats by teaching them Scottish dances is one of my favorites, and it leads to other plot developments later).

There’s a hint at the end of the book that we haven’t seen the last of Shona and her time travels, and I, for one, am looking forward to her future adventures, though I certainly hope whoever names the next book will do a better job and make it more likely that she will have the readership she deserves.