TIME TRAVELING THROUGH YOUR OWN LIFE: OONA OUT OF ORDER

As anyone who’s been reading this blog knows, I’m especially fond of books about time travel (mostly fiction, but the occasional nonfiction as well), so when I saw Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore, of course I had to read it, and what a fun puzzle of a book it is!

The concept is unique: Oona is a woman whose birthday is on January 1.  Starting with her 19th birthday, every January 1 she jumps to a different year in her life.  Inside, her consciousness is chronological: she’s 19, then 20, then 21 and so on.  But outside, she might be 50 (while she’s 20 on the inside), then 30, then 40, then 21.  After she turns 19, there is never (as far as we know) a time when her consciousness and her body are the same age.

She tries to prepare herself for these jumps.  As a year comes to an end, she leaves herself a note explaining what’s going on, who she’s supposed to know, what’s going on in her life, to ease the transition.  It doesn’t always work: her notes aren’t always as detailed as they should be, or she doesn’t read them in time, or at least on one occasion, she accidentally burns up a critical part of the note. Sometimes she disregards what her future self tells her, sometimes she tries to follow her own advice and doesn’t quite manage.

Oona is financially secure, because (classic time traveler stuff!) she knows what stocks will turn out to be valuable, and when they should be sold or purchased.  She keeps a binder with that information and updates it every year. 

 It’s good she’s financially secure, because the rest of her life is fairly chaotic.  The two people who are constants throughout her time-jumping life are her mother, Madeline, who knows what’s going on with Oona and who provides her with comfort and consistency, and Kenzie, a young man living in her house who meets her on her first jump and brings her up to speed on 2017 culture (she jumped from 1982, so there are a lot of changes in the world around her), and even Kenzie isn’t there on all her jumps (he’s that much younger than she that on some of her jumps he’s still in elementary school).  

The whole concept is fascinating, bringing up not only the usual time travel questions (can you change your future by changing your past? Can you even change your past?) but some unique ones for the situation (what’s it like to live a year at a time, knowing that at the end of the year you’re going to be living a completely different life? When you know how a relationship is going to end, can you actually throw yourself into the beginning of it?).  

The book only takes us through a few years of Oona’s unique life, so we don’t see, except in glimpses from her letters to herself, what a more mature Oona will be like.  We do get to see how a woman in her 20’s internally deals with being in her 40’s and 20’s and even 50’s externally (and here I have to say that the author seems to understand being 30 and 40 better than being 50; we’re not totally decrepit and falling apart at 50, as I can attest from personal experience!), and on the whole she deals with the tragedies and the complications of her life reasonably well.   Oona gets married (and divorced), loses the love of her life, deals with her mother’s final illness and death (knowing, however, that in the next year she may very well jump to a time when her mother is still alive and well, which changes the nature of grief).  She wastes a year in dissipation and drugs, she travels, learns to play the guitar (which is kind of amusing when a seemingly younger Oona is more skilled at the guitar than her older self as a result of her having learned it when she was older and then spent the next year much younger)(this is the kind of thing that makes the book complicated), learns how to deal with heartache, how to deal with good and bad fortune.  If she doesn’t quite have it all together by the end of the book, you can feel confident that eventually she will.

This is not a book for people who like straightforward narratives. The author helps orient you by telling you at the beginning of each chapter what year it is, how old Oona is internally and externally, but still, things happen out of order. Half the fun of the book is seeing things completed and then seeing how they got that way, but not everybody feels comfortable jumping around in time.  If you’re the kind of person who wants things to be explained, this probably isn’t the book for you, either: nobody understands how or why this is happening to Oona, and you have to take it as a given.

However, if you’re into time travel as I am, and you want to check out a book that will at the very least open up new questions for you about your own life and how you would deal with a truly unique situation, check out Oona Out of Order.

HOW TO DO CONTACTLESS DELIVERY RIGHT

So here we are in this brave new world.  The library is sort of open; we’re doing what’s called “contactless delivery” (can’t call it “curbside” because we don’t really have a curb people can pull up to), which means that you can call in for items, and if we have the item on our shelves here, we put it on hold, set up an appointment for you to come and get it, check it out to you and then you come at the scheduled time and take the bag with your items.  Yes, it’s a bit cumbersome, and yes, we’re all getting used to this business, and yes, we’re doing this to keep all of us, staff and patrons, as safe as we can, but (you knew there would be a but, didn’t you?) it can be difficult to work from the patron’s side of things.

Some people are really organized; they know who their authors are and when their authors are coming out with new books.  They put the books on hold as soon as they can, and when the books come out, their copy is waiting for them. 

Many people, though, don’t necessarily know what they want.  That’s the reason we have browsing in libraries, and set up displays to help people see what’s new or what’s interesting that they might not have known about.  These people are having a hard time of it, since you can’t really browse our shelves and pick up that intriguing new book that you wouldn’t have heard of but that strikes you when you see the cover or read the description on the flap.  How can you get the books you want if you can’t come in and browse?

Well, one thing you could do is wait.  This contactless pickup phase isn’t going to last forever, and eventually we will be open again for patrons to come in and browse (with some restrictions, of course).

But if you’ve been waiting too long already for a real, physical book, you still have other options.

Let’s say you have a favorite author.  The obvious thing you can do is go online and see if that author has something new coming out (if you can’t go online, you can do this by calling and asking a librarian).  If your author is someone prolific (hi, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Stuart Woods!), you’ll probably find something new you can ask your library for. 

If your author isn’t as prolific, maybe it’s time to find other authors who are like your author.  You can do that through Amazon or Barnes and Noble, both of which have “people who have bought this also bought . . .” lists, or you could go through the Westchester Library Association’s website.  It’s a little complicated but pretty cool: go to www.westchesterlibraries.org, check out the tab marked “listen, read and watch” and go down to NoveList Plus.  There you can type your author’s name in the search box, and when a list of their books comes up, you can find “Title Read-alikes” or “Author Read-alikes”.  Click on one of them and you’ll get a list of suggested books and/or authors who are similar to the one you’ve been reading. 

Or maybe you don’t have a particular author in mind.  Maybe you’re more interested in a genre.  You can search in the system’s catalog by going to the “Account/Catalog” tab on the library system website, and searching under “subject” rather than “keyword” or “title” or “author” (of course, you could use any of those categories as well).  To make it easier to figure out what you can actually get from your library right now, you could change the search category from “Westchester Library System” to your own library.  Your search will give you a list of all the books in that category (science fiction, romance, history) at your library, and then you can place the holds directly from that screen.  Or you could call the library and place holds that way.

NovelList will also give you, on the home page, categories of books that are organized by genres, so you can see what’s out there in a particular genre, and, when you drill down, you can see if our system has the book and if your library has a copy.  You could easily get lost in NoveList, finding new books and authors.

Or, if all else fails, you can call your library and ask us for recommendations.  You can tell the librarian what you’re interested in (“books about the Great Pandemic of 1918” or “books about the Yankees” or “the newest Highlander romances”, for instance), and we’ll be able to find something for you, or at least we’ll try our best.

So give us a try.  Even if you can’t browse as you used to, you can still find books to read and get your hands on some physical books, and we’ll be happy to help any way we can. And remember, we will be slowly phasing our way back to normal library services, so hang in there with us.

JULY FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE NIGHT CIRCUS

The Field Notes Book Club once again braved the wilds of Zoom and met to discuss The Wonder by Emma Donoghue with vigor and interesting questions and insights, despite problems with internet availability and all the usual difficulties that come with online meetings of groups.  After our discussion, we chose the book for July, which is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus was a bestseller when it first came out, and deserved all the plaudits it won.  The story takes place in the world of a special circus that only appears at nights, without any advance publicity, and disappears just as magically.  Celia and Marco, the protagonists, are two magicians who have been trained from earliest childhood to compete with each other, their mentors being involved in a secretive game played via their proteges.  Celia and Marco are deliberately kept ignorant of the deeper rules of the game, most importantly that only one of them can survive it.  As their lives intertwine with each other’s and with the circus itself, they start to fall in love, which makes everything so much more complicated and puts the circus itself at risk.

Morgenstern’s writing is gorgeous; you can fall into her sentences and images and want to live there. Her world-building is great fun, and the characters are mysterious and fascinating.  I’ve already read this book in the past (as you’ll know from my review of The Starless Sea, her second book) and loved it, and I expect it will make for great discussions when we meet again, virtually, on July 18 at 11:00.  The book is available through Overdrive in the Westchester Library System. 

Since this is going to be another virtual meeting, if you are interested in joining us and are not a formal member of the group, send me an email (my address is listed here) and I’ll add you to the zoom invitation when the time comes. 

 

MURDERBOT’S BACK, BIGGER AND BADDER THAN EVER: NETWORK EFFECT

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows how much I love Martha Wells’ Murderbot series.  I have been gleefully devouring each of the four novellas in the series as they came out, and raving about them to anyone who will listen (and some who won’t).  I’m not alone in my love for the SecBot who disabled its governor and would rather watch soap operas than kill things, but kills things when it has to do so. The series has won Hugo and Nebula and Locus awards. Those of us who read the first four novellas were hoping we would get another Murderbot story, and Wells has obliged us with a full length Murderbot novel, Network Effect.

You may be wondering if Murderbot’s mixture of cynicism and heart, sarcasm and action, could be sustained over the longer length of a novel.  Wonder no more.  Network Effect is as much fun as all of the novellas, and there is no sense of padding or struggle to fill the space.  In fact, the new book brings us two Murderbot narrators (three if you count the recordings from Murderbot’s therapy after its last adventure in Exit Strategy, which are included here for reasons that become clear late in the book) and yet another SecBot, which calls itself Three.  We also get reacquainted with ART from Artificial Condition, a character which is a perfect foil for Murderbot.

Is this a book you can read without having read the others?  Not really, but why wouldn’t you have read the first four books when I’ve been telling you how wonderful they are?

Murderbot is mostly just minding its business and keeping an eye on the family of its friend, Dr. Mensah, when it and several of its humans are kidnapped and pulled into a transport ship traveling through a wormhole.  The ship, the Perihelion, has itself been invaded by alien matter and humanoids who seem partially alien themselves.  Naturally Murderbot gets involved in saving its humans and dealing with ART and ART’s demands.  The plot is  convoluted (and involves, at one point, Murderbot’s making a copy of itself, so you have Murderbot 01 and Murderbot 02 and a perfectly charming and bizarre scene in which the two Murderbots are arguing with each other), with tons of action and danger, with evil corporations (even more evil than they are nowadays) and alien planets, seen through the eyes of our unique independent SecBot, who hides its heart under a shell of cynicism and sarcasm (ART is even better at this).  Murderbot may pretend it only wants to watch its serials in peace, but when its human friends are in danger, it’s ready to risk its own life to protect them.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the plot because I don’t want to spoil it.  Suffice it to say that Murderbot is in fine form here, and the satisfying plot leaves us with the hope, once again, that we’ll be treated to some more of Murderbot’s adventures.

Even though the library’s only allowing holds on our own materials, you can certainly put a hold on Network Effect (of COURSE I’ve ordered it for us), AND you can get a copy even faster via Overdrive.  So what are you waiting for?  Get Network Effect and return to the world of Murderbot for a great adventure.

FIELD OF MYSTERY JULY SELECTION: THE TRESPASSER

Running a book group meeting via Zoom has its challenges, like the varying quality of people’s internet access (few things are more frustrating than being in the middle of a discussion and having everything freeze on your computer), but it’s especially challenging when you’re having a meeting months after most of you read the book.  The Field of Mystery Book Group dealt with that hurdle on Saturday, gamely discussing Joe Ide’s IQ, which we’d taken out back in March, and remembering enough of it to be able to talk knowledgeably and interestingly about the characters and the plot and the setting of the book.  I call that a victory!

We also chose our next book for our next meeting on July 11 at 11:00.  Because of the way things are working with the Westchester Library System’s holds policy, it made sense for us to choose a book that’s available on Overdrive.  Fortunately there are many interesting books there which have enough copies that all the members of the group can get one.  We ended up choosing Tana French’s The Trespasser.

The Trespasser is one of the books (not the first) in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, but the series is written so that you can start anywhere, since each book focuses on a different member of the squad.  In this one, our protagonist is Detective Antoinette Conway, who’s facing harassment and trouble at work and is near to the breaking point when she gets the case of a young woman found dead in her apartment.  It should be simple: it looks like the classic case of a lovers’ quarrel turned to murder, and yet Antoinette recognizes the victim somehow, and the case proves to be deeper and more complicated than it appeared.  Antoinette’s own emotional state, close to paranoia, doesn’t make things easier for her.  She can’t tell whether the difficulties she’s having with the case are due to the atmosphere in the squad or real problems with the victim and the murder.

Since this is a Zoom book club meeting, if you’re interested in joining us on July 11, email me and I’ll send you the link to join us in the discussion.  For the rest of the members of the Field of Mystery Book Group, to use the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot!

CREEPIER THAN A CULT: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS

A good “whodunnit” isn’t just for police procedurals or for private eye stories.  The question of who committed the crime and why can also be the focal point of a psychological domestic thriller, such as Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs.  The heart of the book is the question of what, exactly, happened in the house in Cheyne Walk, London, the night three adults were found poisoned and a healthy baby was removed from the house by police, and Jewell skillfully plays with our expectations and suspicions before the final reveal.  It’s a fast read and an entertaining one, well worth checking out on Overdrive.

Libby Jones is a fairly ordinary 25 year old, living in London, working for a kitchen design place.  She was adopted, she doesn’t have a lot of money but she’s got a plan for how the rest of her life is going to work, until a letter from a solicitor upends everything she thought she knew about herself and her life.  She discovers that she is the sole heir to a mansion in London, a mansion whose history is kind of dark, and that her parents weren’t killed in a car accident as her adoptive parents told her, but were two of the adults found dead, presumably by suicide, in the house where she was found, which she has now inherited.

At the same time we’re following Libby’s experiences in facing her unexpected past, we’re also given two other storylines.  One involves a woman with two children, living on the fringes of French society after she left an abusive marriage. She’s homeless, her background is shady, she supports herself and her children by playing the violin for tourists, and she is clearly just barely hanging on.  She finds out that Libby has turned 25, the age when she’s to inherit the house, and from then on the woman is scheming to meet up with Libby.  We don’t know why she’s so interested, but what we’re learning about the family that lived in that house gives us reason to feel suspicious of her knowledge and her intentions.

The other story we’re following is being narrated by the son of the dead couple, Henry.  We don’t know where he is or whether he’s even still alive or this is a document he prepared in the past and left for someone to find in the present. He’s telling the story of what happened back in the 1980’s, how the family was gradually infiltrated by a group of strange people, including David, a sinister cult leader type and his family.  Over time, Henry describes how David dominated all the other adults and turned the house into a sort of prison compound from which none of the children were allowed to leave or be seen by the outside world.  Henry’s narrative is filled with foreboding and dread, and gives us just enough information to tie in with what Libby is finding out in the present.

Naturally all three of these storylines are going to come together by the climax of the book, but not in the way you would expect.  Libby has allies, a coworker and the reporter who first wrote up the story of the mansion and who is more than happy to follow up with the one known survivor, but she also has reasons to feel she’s being followed, spied on, and manipulated by people she might or might not know. There’s murder, abuse, and all kinds of ugly things in the past and in the present, but all the ends are tied up in a way that makes sense and is, for the most part, satisfying.

Spend some time with some creepy people, both in the past and in the present, but also with some characters you’re going to like and root for, in this engaging and suspenseful book.

STICKING THE LANDING: HOW AN ENDING CAN BREAK A BOOK

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how books end, mainly because I’ve read some that do such a terrible job of ending, or that present a reasonable ending and then undermine it. I’m not saying that a book that’s annoying and incredibly flawed throughout will be saved by a spectacularly brilliant ending (though in my experience, a book with a spectacularly brilliant ending will not be annoying or incredibly flawed throughout the rest of it).  I am saying, though, that an author who screws up an ending is doing harm to the book as a whole and annoying readers.

One problem with an ending is that it’s not actually an ending.  I’m not talking here about the nasty practice of surprising the reader by announcing only at the end that this isn’t a fully complete story in itself but part one of a series (though I really do hate that).  I’m talking about a book that wraps everything up nicely and then undermines its own ending.  I’ve read two thrillers recently that did this, and while I liked both books, I think I would have liked them better if they’d had the confidence of their ending.

Without naming names (if you really want to know which they are, you can email me and I’ll tell you), the authors of both those thrillers seemed to feel that merely bringing everything to a satisfying conclusion was for wimps, and that the best way to end a book is to pull the horror movie trick where you think the monster’s gone and everybody’s safe and then, at the very end, you see the monster’s hand reappearing out of the grave (I blame the movie version of Carrie for this; movies might have done that before, but that’s where I first encountered that annoying trope). Especially with a good thriller, where you’ve been tearing through the book, always aware of how high the stakes are and how difficult it’s going to be for the protagonists to succeed, and where there are numerous situations where they come close to succeeding and then fail, and then only finally succeed by the skin of their teeth, you want to feel that there’s closure.  At least I do.  As my heart rate drops back to normal, I want to feel the relief that this time the good guys came out ahead and the horrible disaster didn’t actually occur. I don’t like having the rug pulled out from under me at the last moment (in the last pages, usually) and discovering that, no, whatever horrors the protagonists battled through and survived, their struggles were in vain because the danger is still there and may even be worse.  I don’t mind the situation where the author is saying, “Hey, this could happen again, it was only through sheer luck that we made it this time.”  What I mind is the author’s essentially saying, “You thought we stopped this from happening, but no, we really failed all along and everything you suffered through with the characters was totally useless, ha ha.”

But even that isn’t the worst thing an author can do with an ending. The worst thing is what I saw in another book I read recently (and didn’t review here for this reason), where the author gets to the very end and undermines everything you thought the book was about.  If, for instance, the whole premise of the book is that this person is being unjustly railroaded by the legal system for reasons the person couldn’t control, that the person is the victim of prejudice and because of their background is likely to be convicted of a crime they didn’t commit, and the climax is that the person is acquitted of that crime, and then at the end the author shows you that, yes, the person actually was guilty all along, you the reader have every reason to feel you’ve been wrongly manipulated.

Again, it turns on the premise of the book.  If the whole premise of the book is that you’re reading about a person who does terrible things and you know he’s doing terrible things and yet you’re rooting for him not to be caught (hi, Dexter), it’s okay if you see him evade justice, because that’s the whole theme of the book.  Or if the premise of the book is that you’re dealing with a completely unjust system that will never do the right thing because it’s totally corrupt, seeing someone dodge punishment for a crime he committed feels depressing, but it feels right in that context.  If, on the other hand, the whole premise of the book is that people are treating the protagonist wrongly because of prejudice, and the protagonist is this pure innocent creature who’s being crushed by the system, showing me that the protagonist was in fact guilty of the crime for which they were tried turns the premise on its head. No longer am I thinking about how wrong the other people and the system were.  Now I’m looking back at the protagonist (whom I’m still supposed to see as a wronged, innocent creature) and disliking the character.  Not only that, this wrong ending forced me to see all the other problems with the characters and the plot in general, which I was originally overlooking because I was carried along on the premise of the book. This is, in my opinion, no way to keep a reader happy, and unhappy readers do not come back to read your later books.

The ending is the thing readers are going to remember about the book.  The author needs to trust the readers with an ending that doesn’t insult them.