DOWN BUT NOT COMPLETELY OUT: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

There seems to be a bit of a boomlet in books about people who, on the surface at least, seem to be at best misanthropic and at worst kind of nasty, who in the course of the book either are revealed as being better people than that first impression indicates, or who become better people over the course of the book.  I get the appeal: doesn’t everybody love the moment in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge is transformed into a loving, generous person? It’s more than that, of course: there’s a sneaky pleasure in watching Scrooge treat people abominably in the beginning of the story, maybe even a secret glee when he says the things that sometimes occur to us which we would never say ourselves (want proof of that?  Consider that some of the most famous lines of the book are from Scrooge in the first part, not after his transformation), all redeemed by our knowledge that he, too, will reach a point where he would never say anything so heartless.  We both like sharing the experience of being misanthropic and judging the person who acts on those feelings, and believing that even this person can be transformed into someone good and worthy.

It was with that kind of mentality that I started reading Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman, which is a book we’re reading for one of my book groups.  The back cover description seemed to promise this kind of book: Eleanor, our protagonist, lives a very tightly ordered life, has standards of behavior which most people fail, and then comes into contact with two other people, an IT specialist at her place of work and an elderly man who gets into an accident in front of her, who help her see that there’s more to life than she’s let herself believe. With that description, and my experience of other books of this kind (Britt-Marie Was Here, for instance), I thought I had a pretty good idea of what the book would be like.

I was wrong.

Eleanor Oliphant is a more complex character than the stereotype, and there are hints of that from the very beginning of the book: her face is scarred (and, although she doesn’t describe the scars too dramatically, it becomes clear over the course of the book that these are serious, major scars that change her whole appearance), she gets periodic visits from social workers. She drinks straight vodka, and not just a little, either, every night, suggesting some major issues.  There are hints, very subtle at first, that she’s had a traumatic past.  And even the regular calls from her mother, who’s clearly a horrible person with a knack for skewering Eleanor where she’s most vulnerable, carry a hint of mystery.  Eleanor doesn’t say where her mother is calling from, though she implies it’s an institution of some sort, possibly prison, possibly a mental hospital, and there’s never a question in Eleanor’s mind that her mother belongs there, whichever kind of institution it is.

Her relationship with Raymond, the IT person, isn’t the road to romance you might expect, partly because Eleanor, from the beginning of the book, has a deep and delusional crush on the lead singer of a band she’s seen live.  While she doesn’t even allow herself to consider Raymond a romantic possibility at first (she’s merciless in her internal critiques of his appearance, his hygiene, etc.), she is crushed when she feels he might be getting romantically involved with someone else. His mother, an elderly lady living on her own, treats Eleanor as a friend, practically a member of the family, from the first time they meet. Sam, the elderly man she and Raymond rescue when they see him falling in public, immediately welcomes both Raymond and Eleanor into his family.  Eleanor’s skittishness with people’s families also hints at a darker past, as does her longing to be part of a family.

The revelations about Eleanor’s past are heartbreaking, all the more so because they don’t come as a complete surprise.  That is, I expected something awful, but the extent of it was worse than I suspected.  And kudos to the author for still managing to surprise me with one aspect of Eleanor’s background (no spoilers here).

There is a happy ending of sorts; in that, at least, the book follows the pattern.  But getting there is an unexpected journey, one well worth taking.

 

I can hardly wait to discuss this one with my Drum Hill Book Group.

THE GAME IS AFOOT, WITH ANGELS: ANGEL OF THE CROWS

Imagine Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a similar, but not identical, Victorian London, a London where vampires and hell hounds are known and more or less understood, where locales are guarded by angels, and where angels who are no longer connected to a place become Nameless, and angels can become Fallen and wreak all kinds of havoc. Then imagine that our erstwhile Sherlock Holmes is actually one of those angels, and Watson’s war wound is somewhat worse in a spiritual sense than it is in the original stories. Then put many of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories in this milieu, and what do you have? You have Angel of the Crows, by Katherine Addison, a wholly faithful and wholly original take on Sherlock Holmes.
Some of the fun of this book is tracing the original stories through their new and somewhat off center incarnations in this book; some of the fun in this book is getting into and figuring out the world Addison has created here.
Watson here is Dr. J. H. Doyle (and already we’re amused by the choice of names), who was wounded in the endless war in Afghanistan (so far so accurate to the original), but whose wound was touched by one of the Fallen and therefore there’s an additional component to Doyle’s injury that makes the good Doctor more endangered than Watson was in the original stories. He is introduced to the Holmes under very similar circumstances  to those in”A Study in Scarlet,” but here Holmes is an angel by the name of Crow, who, unlike his fellow angels, is not attached to a particular location (Baker Street, for instance), but to the whole city of London.
Both characters are somewhat like their counterparts: Crow is a consulting detective, solving cases the police are unable to solve, Doyle is Crow’s sidekick and narrator. At the same time, though, they are different, more interesting, with more depth. Crow’s lack of understanding of the way humans do things (even obvious things like eat and drink and use the toilet) comes from his angelic nature, and is charming rather than off-putting. He’s much less emotionally cold and harsh than Holmes, and his relationship with Doyle is much more a relationship of equals who genuinely care about each other than the canonical relationship between Holmes and Watson. Doyle gets more of a role in solving the cases, sometimes through his medical knowledge, sometimes through his surprising connections with other characters (and no, I won’t spoil the pleasure of finding he identity of the vampire who marks Doyle), and sometimes through the curse he suffered when he was touched by the Fallen on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
If you’re a Holmes fan, as I am, you’ll appreciate all the nods to the famous stories, from “A Study in Scarlet” to “The Sign of the Four” to “The Speckled Band” and many others, some of which get combined in interesting ways, and some of which take novel and surprising turns. You think you know what’s coming, but these characters are NOT Holmes and Watson, but are true to their own intriguing world. In addition to the obvious stories from the canon, the thread running through the book is the behavior of Jack the Ripper (and how many Holmes offshoots have created cases in which he dealt with the Ripper murders?), and yes, in this world the perpetrator is in fact identified and caught, so this is not a loose thread.
I have to say something about the worldbuildlng. The author doesn’t spoon feed you. The characters know much of the details of their world and take them for granted, so you have to pay attention to figure out a lot of the nuances. The relationship between angels and Fallen and Nameless is complicated and I’m not entirely sure, even after reading the book, that I really understand how this works, but the point is that it does work. It makes internal sense and you find yourself suspending disbelief and sitting back to enjoy the ride.
It’s a fun read, and even if your only acquaintance with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson is through the television series Sherlock or Elementary, you’ll find much to enjoy in this very different take on the classic characters, full of surprises and new looks at old friends.

AUGUST FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: ASK AGAIN, YES

The Field Notes Book Group is breaking with tradition, a little, by choosing the book for August BEFORE our meeting rather than after it (long story; it made sense in context).  Our next book, for our meeting on August 15, will be Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane.

Ask Again, Yes was a bestseller last year when it came out and was listed on a number of the “Best of 2019” lists.  The novel follows the lives of Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope and their families over the course of decades.  Francis and Brian first connect as rookie New York City police officers working in the Bronx. Later, they become suburban neighbors, and their wives and children connect as well.  The children, Kate and Peter, born six months apart, become friends and then more than friends, as their parents’ marriages suffer from the strain of one woman’s mental illness and the other’s deep loneliness and isolation.  A tragedy shatters the two families, and Kate and Peter break up, only to find each other and try to work through the pain before it separates them again.

Copies of the book will, as usual, be available at the Circulation Desk, so come in and pick one up.

The meeting will be conducted by zoom, given the size of the group and the face to face limitations the pandemic is imposing on us.  If you’re not a member of the group but want to join the discussion, email me at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, so I can send you a link.

 

JUST FOR FUN: TO HAVE AND TO HOAX

I freely admit it: sometimes I read things just because they’re fun, because they don’t promise to tax my brain or my emotions, because they’re fast and easy and provide some smiles and laughs and don’t require much more from me.  These days, with everything that’s going on, I turn to books like that more and more often, and one of the most enjoyable ones I’ve read recently is To Have and To Hoax, by Martha Waters.

This is not a book you want to read if you hate the concept of a romance novel, or if you hate romantic comedies in general, or if you’re going to nitpick historical details in a book set in the 19th century (not that I could find any obvious historical inaccuracies, but then, I wasn’t looking too hard, either).   But if you’re in a non-serious mood and you don’t mind a little silliness on the way to a happy ever after, this book is for you.

Violet and James, the married couple at the center of the book, seemed to have it all: they fell in love immediately, got married quickly, and in so doing escaped her obnoxious mother and his disapproving father.  They were crazy about each other and the envy of their social set, and then, a year after their wedding, they had a fight that basically sent them into separate worlds, from which, over the next four years, they would emerge to snipe at each other and then retreat again. 

We don’t learn for quite a while exactly what the fight was about; both of them refer to it in catastrophic terms, but neither of them is willing to discuss it with their friends or family.  This is done, I think, not just to keep readers wondering, but also to give us a chance to get to know the characters so when we do find out what they were fighting about, we can judge which one of them was in the wrong and why.  

When Violet gets a note that her husband was thrown by a horse and injured, she rushes to his side, only to discover that he didn’t even want his friend to send that message.  Insulted, she decides she’s going to show him, so she pretends she has consumption, and even though he sees through that ruse, he plays along to undermine her, and from there on, the two of them are playing a game of tit for tat, each one trying to prove his or her superiority to the other.  The back and forth is what makes the book funny, since both James and Violet are stubborn and opinionated, and their friends see what we see as well, that these two people still care about each other and, in some ways, deserve each other.

It’s a romance novel, so of course there’s a happy ever after.  That’s one reason I read books like this, to see how we get from the starting point to the happy ending, and I have to say the author did a splendid job of bringing the characters back together, after all the crazy behavior they’ve both engaged in, giving them insights into what they’ve been doing to themselves and each other and making them, by the end of the book, better and happier people in general.

If you’re a fan of classic romantic comedies, you’ll get a kick out of To Have and To Hoax.  And if you’re in the mood for something lighthearted and amusing, give yourself some fun by reading this one. 

AUGUST FIELD OF MYSTERY SELECTION: THE DRY

Thanks to everyone who attended our July Field of Mystery meeting via zoom.  I realize it’s not the perfect situation, but we do the best we can in this season of zoom (sounds like an outtake from Rent, doesn’t it?).  We had an excellent discussion about The Trespasser, by Tana French, and selected The Dry, by Jane Harper, for our reading and discussion at our next meeting (also via zoom) on August 1.

Going from the clouds and rain of the Dublin setting of The Trespasser to the drought-ridden part of Australia for The Dry is a bit of a change, as is the nature of the mystery.   We like to switch things up, obviously.

Federal Agent Aaron Falk returns to the hometown he and his father fled years ago, when Luke, his best friend and the provider of Aaron’s alibi for murder, dies suddenly.  Aaron is not only motivated by sentiment; he received a note telling him his secret is known.  As he and the local detective investigate Luke’s death during the worst drought to hit the area in years, all kinds of secrets held in the small town start raising their ugly heads, jeopardizing Aaron and others as well.

Copies of the book have been placed on hold, so come on in and pick your copy up.  Then join us on August 1, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. for what promises to be another fascinating discussion.  If you’re not currently in the group but want to be, email me at the address on the blog, and I’ll provide you with a link to join us.

 

 

MAGIC FOXES IN SPACE: DRAGON PEARL

One of the cool things about awards is the way they point you to materials you might not have heard about or encountered before.  The Locus Awards (see here) led me to the winner of the Best Young Adult Book, Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, and what a fun book I would have missed if I didn’t pay attention to the awards!

Dragon Pearl, contrary to what you might think of from the title, is a space opera, not a fantasy novel, though there are certainly fantasy elements, including ghosts and magical creatures limiting themselves to human form.  Most of the action of the book (and there’s lots of action!) involves spaceships of one sort or another, battles in space, wormholes and strange planets.

One of the cool things about the book is that the fantastic elements are Korean in origin, and not the usual European shapeshifters and monsters.  There are dragons and goblins and tigers, most of whom use their magic to stay in human form when they’re around other human beings. There are also foxes, but they’re not generally accepted in human company because of their bad reputations.

Our main character, Min, is a fox herself, from a long line of fox spirits, but her mother and aunties with whom she lives have taught her not to use her fox magic ever.  She’s living on a fairly poor planet in a poverty stricken area with her family, longing to get off planet and see the Thousand Worlds, as her older brother, Jun, did.

And then one day an official arrives at their modest house, telling Min’s mother that Jun deserted his space force ship to search for the legendary Dragon Pearl.  Min knows that’s got to be a lie; her brother was dedicated to joining the Space Forces, and he never would have thrown away his dream, not even for the Dragon Pearl, which has incredible power. After knocking out the official (not entirely accidentally), Min runs away to find her brother.

Min’s a lot of fun.  She’s impulsive and hot tempered, she doesn’t always make good decisions, and she uses her fox Charm and shapeshifting, along with her natural quick wits and resourcefulness, to get herself in and out of sticky situations, but she takes responsibility (for the most part) for her bad decisions, and her loyalty to her beloved brother keeps her going when things seem most impossible. 

The world-building is excellent, too.  I’m not physicist or rocket scientist of any sort, but the mechanisms of the ships’ transportation feel plausible to me, and the limitations on the use of a Gate to jump from one sector to another make sense both physically and dramatically.  One aspect I like in this universe is the concept of “gi”, the life force that animates humans and machines, which engineers and doctors pay attention to in order to make people and ships work properly.  

Ghosts, powerful artifacts, foxes with magic, shapeshifting, dragons causing weather, goblins creating food out of nothing, space battles, family loyalties and secrets, and characters binary and nonbinary, adventure, danger and a satisfying ending: what’s not to love?  Since it’s a YA book (here in The Field Library, we have it in the children’s room), it’s a short book and a fast read, which makes it even better. Want to read what Locus determined was the best YA Speculative Fiction book of the year?  Check out Dragon Pearl.

2020 LOCUS AWARD WINNERS AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Congratulations to the winners of this year’s Locus Awards, given by the Locus Science Fiction Foundation for outstanding achievement in speculative fiction genres.  If you want to read some of the best speculative fiction published in the last year, check out the winners here at The Field Library.

In the category of Best Science Fiction Novel, the winner is The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, a book with an intriguing setting: a world in which one side has endless light, and the other endless freezing darkness.  The only zone where people can live is a slim area between the two extremes, and when a reluctant revolutionary is exiled from one of those cities into the darkness, she’s supposed to die.  That she doesn’t, and why she doesn’t, and what happens to her after that is what makes the book so remarkable.  This book won over The Testaments and The Future of Another Timeline,  both excellent books, so it’s well worth a look.

The Best Fantasy Novel, according to Locus, was Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame, which I’ve already reviewed here. You won’t hear me complaining about the award (we all know how much I love Seanan McGuire, in and out of her Wayward Children series), but its win is all the more impressive considering some of the other finalists, including The Starless Sea (boy, that would be a tough choice!) and Dead Astronauts

Imagine winning the Man Booker Prize one year for a historical novel and then receiving a Locus Award another year for best horror novel, when your competition in that category included Stephen King’s The Institute (or, let’s face it, pretty much any Stephen King novel when the category is horror).  That’s what happened to Marlon James, whose Black Leopard, Red Wolf is this year’s horror winner.  A book based on African mythology and history, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is about a lone hunter named Tracker, on the trail of a mysterious missing boy, who finds himself involved with a group of others looking for the boy, including a shapeshifting leopard man.

The Novella winner is another book I read and loved, This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, a wonderful story of love and war and time travel which I wrote about here.  You can also read some of the finalists, including To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers (which I wrote about here), The Deep by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djeli Clark.

You can read the Best Short Story winner, “The Bookstore at the End of America,” by Charlie Jane Anders (who’s having a good year) in the collection A People’s Future of the United States, here at The Field Library, as well as the Best Anthology, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, edited by Nisi Shawl.

We also have Dragon Pearl, by Yoon Ha Lee, which won Best Young Adult Novel, but I’ll be reviewing that separately (spoiler: I loved it).

So if you want to get a taste of what’s really good in speculative fiction, check out the Locus winners of 2020, here at The Field Library.