FIELD OF MYSTERY BOOK GROUP DEBUT

Because apparently I don’t have enough book clubs to run (I run the Field Notes book group here at the library, and the Drum Hill book club at the Drum Hill Senior Living Center), and apparently I’m not reading enough books already, and because (this is absolutely true) there are few things I enjoy as much as reading and discussing books with other readers, I’m starting a new book group here at The Field Library, one focused on mysteries. We’re calling it the Field of Mystery (it’s not actually required that all names of programs play on the name of the library, but clearly we like to do that), and we’re having our first meeting on March 7 from 2 to 3 p.m.  Anyone who’s interested and in the area is more than welcome to come by and help us decide when the group will meet in the future.

Obviously I love mysteries (see my last post on The Death of Mrs. Westaway, if you have any doubts about that), and I’m so excited about all the different new mysteries and series that have been coming out, which I haven’t even had a chance to read yet.  Mysteries that create a version of Sherlock Holmes who’s African American and living in Los Angeles, or mysteries set in the outback of Australia, or historical mysteries set in the last days of the Raj in India, or any number of other unusual mysteries: who wouldn’t want to sample them all and maybe discover a new favorite author? 

I’ve already chosen the first book we’re going to read, IQ, by Joe Ide. I’ve written about this before, here.  Isaiah Quintabe, known as IQ, may be a high school dropout and seem unassuming and modest, but he’s possessed of both a brilliant mind and a fierce desire to help people who need his services.  In his East Los Angeles neighborhood, there are many kinds of cases the police can’t or won’t solve, and people come to IQ for help, which he gives, on a sliding scale based on his clients’ ability to pay.  When he needs money, he takes on the case of a rap mogul whose life is being threatened, and IQ finds himself in deep and dangerous circumstances indeed. The book is the beginning of a series, so anyone who enjoys this character will have more to look forward to.

At our first meeting we’ll set the terms for the future: what kinds of mysteries people want to read, when people want to come, how the group is going to work.  Come and join us, and meet your fellow aficionados in the Peekskill area, and check out our first Field of Mystery book selection.

HOW GREAT MYSTERIES WORK: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY

When it comes to the classic mystery, the tried and true elements will never disappoint.  I’ve been a mystery reader for years, and at this point I can tell what’s going to make a good mystery, or a great one.  Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway hits all the right notes. It’s clever and absorbing, it plays fair and keeps me turning those pages feverishly.  It was a book I’d stay up late to read, a book I could barely put down for things like meals or work, and it’s a book I heartily recommend to anyone who’s a mystery fan or who just likes a well-written, entertaining book.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway was a very popular, bestselling book in 2018, but for some reason I didn’t pick it up myself until I offered it as an option to one of my book groups. They turned it down, but I gave myself the opportunity to read it, and I’m very glad I did.

What does a great mystery need?  First, it needs a compelling main character.  That was one of the problems I had with Gone Girl (which was more of a thriller than a mystery): I couldn’t stand either of the main characters and to this day I am deeply disappointed that the climax of the book wasn’t the two of them dying together in a fire (or some other catastrophe; I wasn’t trying to be limited here).  By contrast, Hal (full name Harriet) Westerby, the point of view character here, is a wonderful person to spend time with. She’s young enough to do stupid things but old enough to realize shortly afterwards how stupid they were.  She was brought up by an adored mother who supported the two of them by telling fortunes and reading Tarot cards on the seafront in Brighton, England.  When her mother dies in a car accident, Hal is thrown into an even more difficult situation as she tries to take over her mother’s role.  She foolishly borrows money from a loan shark, and then discovers she’s never going to be able to pay it back.  Now the loan shark is interested in collecting his money either in cash or by damaging her seriously.  Hal’s brave but not stupid; she needs a place to get away and she needs money to solve her problems, at least for the time being.   When she gets a letter from a lawyer telling her she’s named in the will of her grandmother, Mrs. Westaway, she knows it’s got to be a mistake.  Both her maternal grandparents are dead, and she never knew who her father was, so this couldn’t be his parents.  Still, she’s got a lot of skills cold-reading people who come to her for tarot readings, and she’s desperate, so she decides to go to this funeral and whatever happens afterward, in the hope she might be able to defraud these rich people long enough to get something for herself.

The next thing a good mystery needs is a twisty plot, and an author who plays fair, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway has both those things.  In fact, I would argue that a great mystery needs several questions the main character and the reader are trying to solve, and that all those questions need to twine around each other so that solving one brings you closer to understanding another.  Here we have several sets of questions: is Hal going to get away with pretending to be this Harriet Westaway?  Are her newfound “relatives”, or the lawyer, or the sinister housekeeper, going to figure her out?  Was there really a connection between her mother and this family, and if so, what was it?  What’s the connection between the writer of the diary entries that intercut the main narrative and Hal’s story?  What really happened to the missing Westaway sister?  Why did Mrs. Westaway set up her will the way she did?  All these are compelling questions that keep you reading, and all of these get answered by the end, in satisfying ways (I don’t have to tell you how annoying it is when an author pulls a solution out of thin air, and doesn’t bother to give you the clues which would have enabled you to guess at if for yourself).

Another mark of an excellent mystery is good secondary characters.  You can have mysteries where the bad people are fairly obvious, but it’s much more fun to read when any of the characters could be the villains.  Here we have a great cast of family members, all of whom have their quirks, most of whom (at least in the generation older than Hal’s) could be hiding something significant and dangerous, and each of whom acts, at one time or another, as if he’s guilty as sin.  Each of them also has moments of great compassion and even charm, and you’re as puzzled as Hal in trying to decide which, if any, of them is trying to kill her and why.  And that’s not even mentioning the sinister Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper, who would fit well in Rebecca, or the late Mrs. Westaway herself, who is revealed as a truly horrible human being (which raises the question of why she set up her will the way she did, and makes it more interesting yet).  As the plot develops and Hal spends more time with her supposed family, she begins to wonder about her mother as well, even though she would have said, before this, that she knew her mother very well, and indeed it turns out her late mother had some secrets of her own which Hal would have been better off knowing.

The setting, the old house where the Westaways grew up, a once beautiful and majestic building that is now falling into ruin, surrounded by woods and grounds leading to a dark and mysterious lake,  is exactly right, the sort of place where dark secrets would be kept for generations, and all kinds of gothic things might happen.

If you love mysteries and want to read one that’s done right, or if you want a good, suspenseful read with great characters and enough surprises to keep even the most jaded reader interested, then check out The Death of Mrs. Westaway, but make sure you give yourself plenty of time, because you’re not going to want to put it down till you’ve devoured it whole.

 

VICTORIAN HIGH ADVENTURE AND WEIRDNESS: THINGS IN JARS

Jess Kidd’s new book, Things in Jars, isn’t for everyone. The first two chapters introduce us to kidnappers, a strange, not quite human child who may or may not be a mermaid, and the ghost of a bare knuckle boxer, not to mention a dead woman and her baby walled up inside a church.  If this combination of characters makes you think this is going to be too weird for you, then this is not your kind of book. But if you’re intrigued, especially when you learn that the book is set in a very realistic (if somewhat bizarre) Victorian London, then get ready for a wild adventure that will keep you turning pages to find out what’s going to happen next, that twists and turns and surprises you with the way past and present join together and inform each other, and that delivers a good, satisfying ending.

The plot seems simple enough: Bridie (short for Bridget) Divine, a supposed widow who’s making her living as an unofficial private investigator, is called in by a lord to investigate the disappearance of his illegitimate daughter, whom he believes has been kidnapped. As Bridie starts looking into the matter, however, she discovers that most of the supposed facts she’s been given are lies, that Christabel, the child in question, may not be human at all, and that there are more dangers to everyone involved than the lord suggested to her at the start.  Her meeting with and cooperation with the aforementioned ghost (whose name is Ruby and who claims to have had a connection of some sort with Bridie, which she has to figure out) adds another dimension to her search, and the plot cuts back and forth between Bridie’s point of view of that of the kidnappers and their captive, Christabel (who is no helpless child, either).

All of this takes place in a Victorian London familiar to anyone who’s read Dickens, a London of high society, rich people collecting natural oddities and unnatural ones, but also of people living on the margins, finding legal and less legal ways to make ends meet. It’s so vivid you can practically smell it, and it feels like a real world, inhabited by real people, even if some of the characters aren’t living people at all.

The plot is fun, as you try to figure out what’s really going on along with Bridie, as you follow the sort of bedtime story one of the villains is telling Christabel and guess how much of that is true and fits in with the greater plot, and as the author gradually reveals Bridie’s past and ties it in to what she’s doing now.  The author plays fair with you, giving you most of the clues you need to figure things out by the end but still managing to surprise you from time to time.

But, fun as the plot is to follow, the real pleasure of the book is in the characters.  Bridie is a fully realized person, with all her quirks and failings, her underprivileged upbringing, the way she was shaped by her time in the house of a prominent doctor, her guilt over cases she didn’t manage to solve fast enough, and it’s a delight to spend time with her.  But she’s joined by other vivid and wonderful characters, from Ruby, the ghost (with a full fledged personality and past of his own), to Cora, Bridie’s maid and general all around muscle. The villains are Dickensian, and I mean that in the best possible way. Gideon Eames is the stuff nightmares are made of, and Mrs. Biddy is chilling and dangerous, and their associates and people they deal with are vivid and flawed and untrustworthy and fascinating.  

And then there are the supernatural elements of the book, most especially Christabel and what she really is (nothing like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, or most other mermaids you’ve encountered in literature).  The way water and the creatures of water, from snails to newts to seagulls, react to her is both surprising and perfectly sensible in light of what she is.  Her background is explained, in a way, and she becomes more disturbing as you learn more about her and her true nature. The subtlety of Kidd’s description of the buried waterways of London rising because of Christabel is terrific, and if you don’t feel a bit clammy and damp after reading this book, you probably haven’t been paying attention.

So if you want a good read, in the sense of “they don’t write them like that anymore”, and you’re not daunted by a touch of the fantastic and supernatural, then hurry to pick up Things in Jars, and give yourself a block of time to dive into that Victorian London world.  

AND NEXT WE TAKE ON THE INTERNET ITSELF: MARCH 2020 FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

Thanks to the stalwarts of the Field Notes Book Group for the stimulating discussion we had on Saturday about our February book, The Invention of Wings.  Thanks to the members who brought actual pictures of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and books showing the real quilts made by slave women, adding depth and interest to our discussions.  We were so engrossed in talking about our February book that we barely had time to decide on our book for March, but we did, and it’s, as Monty Python used to say, “something completely different.”

The March book is Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, by Gretchen McCullough.  If you feel that the rules of English have been changing faster and faster because of the ubiquitous internet, not only aren’t you alone, you’re absolutely right.  McCullough, a linguist who has been studying the internet for some time, is here to analyze exactly how our informal spoken and written language has been changing, and how that’s a good thing (she’s going to have to work to convince me, I’ll say that right up front).  With chapters on such vital subjects as the rise of emojis, the importance of memes, and how all capitals became a way of shouting online, McCullough takes us through a world we think we know fairly well and lets us see it in a new way.

Copies will be available at the Circulation Desk through the month, so come on in and pick one up, and then join us on March 21 from 11 to 12:30 for coffee, snacks and lots of informal and formal language picking apart Because Internet.

WILD WEST LIBRARIANS: UPRIGHT WOMEN WANTED

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey, isn’t your usual dystopian novel.  It isn’t even your usual speculative fiction novel. But it IS a great deal of fun to read, and it’s only novella length, so if you’re in the mood for a quick visit to a less than great future, with shades of the Wild West and with heroic Librarians as your main characters, check out Upright Women Wanted.

The book is set in a somewhat dystopian future, but instead of the usual burned out cities and zombie ravaged countrysides, it takes place in the American Southwest.  People live in small towns and ranches, connected to each other by the Approved Materials brought to them by bands of roving Librarians in horse drawn carts. Mores are old-fashioned and enforced rigidly; possession of unapproved materials is punishable by death.

At the outset, our protagonist, Esther, has just stowed away on a Librarian’s wagon, running away from her father, the leader of the town, and the man her father intends for her to marry.  She’s been traumatized by watching the hanging of her best friend (more than just a friend) Beatriz, who had been found with unapproved materials. Freaked out by the death of a person she loved, aware of her own unapproved tendencies to love women rather than men, Esther hopes to be able to straighten her life out with the Librarians.  She figures that such hardworking, upright women will help her get over any tendencies she might have toward deviance, physical as well as political.

Boy, is she wrong.

It takes a while for Esther to figure out what the reader can see almost from the outset. Far from being the instruments of the state Esther assumes they are, these Librarians are playing a double game, transporting potentially dangerous materials under the guise of approved ones, and sometimes transporting dangerous people from one place to another as well.  Anyone who remembers how real life American librarians reacted to the requirements of the Patriot Act will have no problem imagining rebellious Librarians in the future. That they also feel no requirement to love in only approved ways just makes them even better role models for Esther.

When the Librarians pick up a trio of women to transport to Utah (and hey, points here for an unexpected twist, that Utah, of all places, turns out to be a hotbed of rebellion), they inadvertently take on more trouble than they anticipated.  Amity, one of those women, is a well known rebel with a price on her head, and the group is pursued by a vicious posse of men who will stop at nothing to get her. Though Amity has killed people in the past, and Esther is shocked at some of the things Amity is accused of doing, the two women find a connection, and Esther is willing to stake her life to protect Amity.

This is a western without the stereotyping and racism, an adventure story in which the men are only secondary characters, a romance, a vision of a possible future.  It’s full of action and humor and vivid characters, and also hope. I would love to see more of this world (the disadvantage of a novella in general) and these people, and I hope Gailey will give us more adventures of Esther and Cye and the other librarians, but even if she doesn’t, I had a lot of fun with the Upright Women here and heartily urge you to make their acquaintance, too.

 

BACK INTO THE DARKNESS: COME TUMBLING DOWN

I make no secret of my great love for Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series.  The concept is brilliant: what happens to those children who find portals or other entrances to other worlds, spend time in those other worlds, and then return to our mundane reality?  What happens, in this series, is that most of them find their way to Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, where everybody understands what it’s like to miss your true world and your true self because everybody (from Ms. West herself) has had that experience themselves.  A premise like that leads to a great variety of stories, because the different characters have all come from different worlds: one a world of candy and sweetness, one a world of water, one a world where everything can be bought and sold. The newest book in the series, Come Tumbling Down, is the third one that involves the twins, Jack and Jill, and their lives in The Moors, a world with vampires and mad scientists and, as we discover in this volume, creatures like those of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.  

You can understand why McGuire keeps going back to these characters: Jill, the would-be vampire who kills people with ease and Jack (formerly Jacqueline), the apprentice mad scientist, are the kind of people who create drama.  I would have thought that after Every Heart a Doorway (the first book in the series but, somewhat confusingly, the second book in the story of Jack and Jill), their story was finished, but when you have vampires and mad scientists bringing people back to life again, it’s hard to say anything is ever really over.  

I don’t want to give away any spoilers for earlier volumes in the series, and this new one isn’t something you can follow easily if you haven’t read the previous books (the story of Jack and Jill, in chronological order, is in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, then Every Heart a Doorway, then Come Tumbling Down).  Suffice it to say that when Jack makes a dramatic reappearance at Eleanor West’s School, in Jill’s body, looking for help in regaining his body and resolving the situation between them once and for all, the game is afoot, and various characters you’ve met in earlier books get a chance to accompany Jack to the Moors.

The Moors is a cool, if dark, place, where all the cliches of horror movies come to life (and there’s even a throwaway reference to a Vincent Price movie shot in the Moors), and we get a chance to see some of the more obscure and interesting parts of the world, not just through Jack’s and Kade’s eyes, but through the eyes of other characters who have different perspectives on various aspects of the world (a mermaid facing the Old Ones of the sea is especially intriguing).  

Like all the others in the series, Come Tumbling Down is short, only a novella, and that’s both a strength and a weakness: strength because you really can read it in a day, and weakness because you want more of the story, more of the characters, more of the worlds.  If you’ve read the other books in the series, I don’t need to tell you to grab this one. If you haven’t read the others, what are you waiting for? Dive in and enjoy wonderful characters and vivid stories of what happens after the travelers return to their mundane lives.