GOODREADS’ TOP FICTION OF THE YEAR, AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Every year, the millions of active readers at Goodreads get to vote on the best books of the year in various categories.  If you’re interested in which books a majority of your fellow readers thought were the best in their respective classes, you’re in luck, because many of the Goodreads winners are here for you at The Field Library.  In this post, I’ll be talking about the fiction categories.  I’ll talk about the nonfiction winners in a subsequent post.

In the category of Mystery and Thrillers, the winner was The Guest List, by Lucy Foley.  This book was a bestseller and also a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book group, as well as being on several other “best of 2020” lists.  This is another of the “group stuck in a remote place and one of them is a killer” kind of books, like One by One.  The group in this case is a wedding party, but not just any wedding party: the groom is a big television star, the bride a magazine publisher, each a celebrity in his or her own right. The setting is an island off the coast of Ireland, with the problems of spotty cell phone reception (you have to have that in an isolated place with a killer kind of book these days) and the unpredictable sea separating it from the mainland. Throw in the usual kinds of petty jealousies and spite, the craziness of a celebrity wedding in general, and then add murder to the mix.  The question isn’t just whodunnit, but why, set amidst the exaggerated emotions of a wedding and reception.

The bestselling book The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennett, was the winner in the category of Historical Fiction.  It tells the story of African American twin sisters in the 1950’s, growing up in a small Southern town until they run away.  But once they get out of that town, their lives diverge dramatically.  One sister ends up returning to her hometown with her black daughter. The other has passed for white so successfully her white husband doesn’t know anything of her past. The thing about the past is that it doesn’t just disappear; it shapes your life whether you want it to or not.  The sisters’ lives intertwine, as do the lives of their children, and the book follows the two families for forty years, not only as a family drama (and who doesn’t love a good family drama?) but as an examination of  the whole concept of “passing,” and the history of black and white relations.

The winner in the category of Fantasy is the first book in the Crescent City series, House of Earth and Blood, by Sarah Maas.  In the world of Crescent City, a half-human, half-fae woman, Bryce, lives a wild life, working and partying hard, until a demon kills her friends.  Angry, bereft and alone, she dives into the investigation, and finds herself working along with Hunt, a fallen angel whose freedom depends on his ability to help her in this investigation.  Naturally, their investigation leads to the dark underside of the city in which they live, and deeper and more dangerous forces putting their whole world at risk.  

In the area of Science Fiction, the top vote getter was To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, by Christopher Paolini, the author of the Eragon series.  The protagonist is Kira Navarez, a space voyager who happens upon an alien artifact on an uncolonized planet.  She’s delighted at first (because she’s obviously never seen any first contact movies, especially any in the Alien series), and then the dust around her starts moving on its own, which is disturbing and even scary.  Interplanetary war erupts, the earth and its colonies are on the brink of destruction, and Kira may be the only hope for humanity’s future. 

The best debut novel, according to Goodreads readers, is a book that’s been a bestseller for months, Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid (though, technically, it came out in 2019).  The plot seems relatively simple and extremely relevant to 2020: Alix, a white woman who’s busy teaching other women how to make the most of their lives, hires Emira, a young black woman, to take care of her young daughter.  One night Emira is at a store with little Briar when a store security officer accuses Emira of kidnapping the child.  The incident is filmed (of course), and goes viral (of course), and Emira is humiliated and upset.  Alix is shocked and decides to fix things for her employee, whether or not Emira wants them “fixed.”  And then someone from Alix’ past shows up and things become much more complicated for both women.  The story we thought we were reading turns out to be much more nuanced and much less predictable.

Of course I’m not suggesting that popular opinion is always right, and there are criticisms of the Goodreads lists every year, but if you’re interested in seeing what some of your fellow avid readers think is the cream of the cream, check these novels out from The Field Library.

COLD AND ISOLATING MURDER: ONE BY ONE

Ruth Ware has a talent for taking classic mystery scenarios and adapting them to the modern world without making them any less suspenseful and engrossing.  Her book, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, took the situation of a person who knows herself to be an imposter in a fraught situation and made it new.  Her Turn of the Key took the general shape of Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw and added modern paranoia and spying technology.  And now, in One by One, she’s taken the classic Agatha Christie setup for And Then There Were None and gave it her own special twist, making a book that keeps you guessing and turning the pages to the satisfying conclusion.

The basic shape of the plot is that a group of people is brought together in one place, they are then isolated there and unable to leave, and one person among them is busy murdering the others.  No one knows who the murderer is, or what the motive is, or who’s going to be next.  Agatha Christie might not have invented this plot, but she’s famous for her version of it.

Enter Ruth Ware.  In One by One, a group of the most important people in a tech startup are meeting in an Alpine chateau for skiing and a company meeting.  They all come across as pretty shallow, greedy and entitled people, all except Liz, who’s one of our two narrators (the other narrator is Erin, who works at the chateau).  Liz used to work for Snoop (the startup), but left under what seem to be unfortunate circumstances (though we don’t learn till late in the book exactly what happened and why she left as she did), and she controls a couple of shares of stock which could tip the balance in the decision the company is making about whether to sell the company or not. An offer is on the table which could make the shareholders, even Liz, rich.  The company is in desperate financial straits and might not survive in its current state. There are two definite factions in the company, one led by Eva, who wants to sell, and the other by Topher, the founder of the company who wants to keep it from being sold.  

So we start out with tension, observed by Erin, the chateau’s housekeeper, and agonized over by Liz, who is courted by both sides, none too subtly.  Then there’s a skiing trip from which Eva doesn’t return, and an avalanche cuts the chateau off from the outside world.  There’s no power, there’s no WiFi, there’s no landline, all of which adds stress to the already tightly wound characters. And then another member of the group dies in what might have been a suicide except for the way his computer was also destroyed.  Clearly someone in the group is a murderer, but who could it be?  Who’s next?  As people turn on each other, the outside conditions get worse and worse, and there’s a real question whether the police will get to the chateau and rescue these people before it’s too late.  

Ware tells you at the outset that there were four deaths in connection with this outing. We don’t know, from the clipping she gives us at the start, who the victims were, but we know something terrible is going to happen even before we meet the characters, and on some level you’re keeping count of the deaths, knowing how many there are going to be and wondering which of these rather terrible people will be the next victim (there was one point when a character made a statement to Liz, and as soon as she did, I said aloud, “She’s a dead woman”, and I was right, so it’s not completely surprising).

There are a lot of characters, at least at first, and you might feel you’re never going to be able to keep track of them, but don’t worry about that.  Fairly quickly you get a sense of who the major characters are and what they’re like and how they relate to each other.  Most of the people from Snoop are not nice people; that doesn’t make you root for anyone to die, and you may be surprised at who does get killed and who doesn’t (if you’re basing your guesses on who seems to be the worst person, you might be disappointed), but you do have the somewhat morally ambiguous feeling that maybe this person deserved to be killed.  I like a good morally ambiguous situation in a thriller or a mystery; that adds to the complexity.

I don’t want to give away the twists and turns of the plot.  Suffice it to say that this, like Ware’s other books, grabs you by the throat and pulls you along until you can’t put it down without finishing it.  Discovering who the murderer is doesn’t end the tension, because then there’s the question of whether the murderer will kill the last person who knows their identity.

This might not be the best book to read in the middle of a snowstorm, or in the chilliest part of winter; the descriptions of the weather and the conditions inside the chateau are vivid enough to freeze you by themselves.  On the other hand, if you want to get away from it all, I highly recommend you dive into this thriller, as you’ll forget everything around you as long as you’re stuck in the chateau with these characters. 

THE FIRST FIELD NOTES BOOK SELECTION OF 2021: RANGE: WHY GENERALISTS TRIUMPH IN A SPECIALIZED WORLD

For our last meeting of the Field Notes Book Group for 2020 (may this year end quickly and mercifully!), we had a lively and very funny discussion of Good Omens, picking our favorite characters and our favorite bits from the book, and then went on to choose the first book we’re going to be reading and discussing in 2021, specifically on January 16: Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein.

The basic premise of this nonfiction book is that we as a culture have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to excellence in any given field.  Yes, there are the Mozarts and the Tiger Woods types, who knew practically from birth what they wanted to do with their lives and who spent nearly every waking moment practicing and developing their talents in their particular fields.  And we’ve all heard the 10,000 hour rule, where you need to spend 10,000 hours in an area to become really good at it.  The rest of us, those who didn’t know what we wanted to do when we were young, or even when we got older, who moved from one job to another, from one field to another, we were basically out of luck and never going to become really good at anything.  

This, Epstein says, isn’t true.  In fact, the people who have a broader background, who have done things beyond their particular specialty, who are the most likely to be successful.  He presents counter examples and stories of how generalists have often outshone the most specialized people. 

We didn’t just choose this book to make us feel better for not being child prodigies (though I’m sure that was something in the back of our minds), but because it looks like a good read and likely to produce some great discussions.  We’ll be having copies at the Circulation Desk (probably next week), and we’ll be meeting (virtually, again, I’m afraid) on January 16, 2021, from 11 to 12:30.  If you’re not a member but want to join us, let me know at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll send you a link.  Looking forward to it!

THE NOVEL FOR 2020

I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog that 2020 has been a very strange year.  It’s been a hard year in a lot of respects, and a hard year for reading as well, with the library closed down for months and everybody’s attention spans (including, very definitely, mine) damaged by the stress of the pandemic. 

I have just finished reading what I think is the best book I’ve read all year, a book that is uniquely right for 2020.  It’s called One Night Two Souls Went Walking (and come on, isn’t that the best title for a book you’ve ever heard? Wouldn’t you want to read a book with that title even if you didn’t know anything else about the book), it’s by Ellen Cooney, and it is gorgeously written, deeply moving, spiritual and filled with sorrow but also with hope.

Our unnamed protagonist and narrator is a woman in her thirties who’s an Episcopalian priest, working as a hospital chaplain.  She is no longer, as she calls it, a baby chaplain who doesn’t know what she’s doing.  She’s been working in this hospital for years, but recently, in the wake of budget cuts and the laying off of a number of the other chaplains, she’s just started working the night shift.  Perhaps she’s been working too long.  Perhaps she’s just exhausted, physically and emotionally.  The strain of meeting with people in their most vulnerable moments is starting to get to her, and while she isn’t seriously thinking of quitting this hospital, she does find herself wondering if this is really what she should be doing.  She has doubts, and a hospital at night is a dark place to wrestle with doubts.

Despite her not having a name, our protagonist tells us a lot about herself, what she looks like, what her family is like, how she decided to become an Episcopalian priest when her family was, at least nominally, Catholic (she remembers meeting a Catholic priest at a party when she was a child, and how cruelly he destroyed her hopes of becoming a priest herself; I could feel echoes of similar scenes in my own childhood).  She thinks a lot about souls, what they’re like, where they are, how they might communicate with each other.

She also thinks about death, which makes perfect sense in context: much of what she does, on this night and other nights, is comforting either the person who’s dying or the family of someone who just died. You would think this would make for a depressing read. It doesn’t at all. She is almost always present for the dying people, even when they can’t communicate with her in words (there is one person who basically throws her out of his room, and she doesn’t go back to him, but he’s probably the only one in the book she doesn’t help).  She’s incredibly loving and deeply empathetic, and through her kind (and tired) eyes we see death in a different way.

This is not a book that’s about plot, or about things happening and leading to other things happening.  It’s a very quiet, gentle book, like its protagonist, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to have tissues close by when you read it.  Though it’s not exciting in a thriller-like way, it’s incredibly absorbing.  I couldn’t put it down, myself.  For such a short and simple book, it packs a great deal of emotion, just the kind of emotion I personally need in a year like this.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read this book yourself and be comforted.

A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF TIME TRAVEL: BEFORE THE COFFEE GETS COLD

Before the Coffee Gets Cold, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, is a time travel novel, sort of. Yes, in this world you can travel in time from this little obscure coffee shop in Tokyo, but there are a lot of rules which make this different from the ordinary sort of time travel (to the extent there is such a thing). The first and most important rule is that, in this scenario, you can’t change the present.  There go all your hopes of killing Hitler, or preventing someone’s parents from meeting.  That particular rule is enough to dissuade most of the people who might otherwise try to travel in time at this particular coffee shop, but that’s not the only rule.  You have to sit in a particular seat, which is occupied most of the time by a ghost who only gets up now and then to go to the bathroom (don’t ask).  You can only meet with someone else who has been in this particular cafe.  You get a cup of coffee and you have to drink it all before it gets cold.  You can only travel in time while you’re drinking this cup of coffee.   When the coffee cup is empty, you return to the present.

As the first time traveler in this book, Fumiko, angrily says, what exactly is the point of having time travel at all if you can’t change the present and you have to obey all these rules?  And she’s right: the kind of exciting changing the world time travel you see in many other books is not going to happen here. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to take this little trip, as the characters in the book discover.

It’s a short book, a simple one, and a charming one, and you would be surprised (as I was) at how much this weird sort of time travel can affect people’s lives. Four different characters take advantage of the coffee shop’s powers, three of them going into the past, and one going into the future (which, as you might imagine, is more complicated than going back in time), and the experience is life-changing for all of them, though not in the way any of them expects. A woman wants to relive her last meeting with her boyfriend, when he told her he was leaving the country, with the idea that this time she could tell him how she really felt about him, even though she knows he’s still going to leave the country (you can’t change the present, remember?). A woman wants to see her husband, who’s now suffering from Alzheimer’s, before he came down with the disease, when he still remembers who she is and what she is to him.  A woman who had been avoiding her sister for years (we see her avoiding her sister in the present) goes back to meet with her sister the last time her sister came to the cafe.  And another woman goes forward in time to meet her child, whom she knows she will never see grow up.  In each case, being able to be in this other time, knowing what you know now, doesn’t change the other person’s behavior in the present, but it changes your own understanding of the other person and of who and what you are to that person in the present. 

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big fan of time travel in all its variations, and this book is utterly unique in the field. If you’re a fan of time travel, check this variation out. If you’re not interested in time travel because of the whole paradox-avoiding stuff that bends your brain, try this book.  You don’t have to worry about the fabric of space-time.  You just have to suspend your disbelief a little and enter into the warm and friendly world of Before the Coffee Gets Cold.

THE FIRST FIELD OF MYSTERY BOOK FOR 2021

More and more I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s not the best books, necessarily, that lead to the best book group discussions but the books that split the group, where some people think the book was good and others don’t.  In a good group — and I would definitely call the Field of Mystery Book Group a good one — basic differences of opinion can and usually do lead to superior discussions where people share what they found interesting or unbelievable.  That was the kind of discussion we had on Saturday about Little Deaths, our selection for December.  Then, after a very tight voting session, we chose Long Bright River, by Liz Moore, for our first discussion on January 9, 2021.

Mickey is a female police officer working a depressing and deteriorating section of Philadelphia, which she’s been doing for years.  Her sister, Kacey, lives in that neighborhood, an opioid addict.  The sisters are estranged, but Mickey, like a good sister, is always concerned about, and keeping an eye out for, Kacey. When Mickey discovers the first murdered female addict’s body at the same time her sister disappears, she feels she has to find the killer and her sister (hopefully alive), no matter what the cost to herself, her career, or her family.  Mickey, the narrator, has a vivid voice, the voice of someone who’s already seen too much and knows she’s going to see still more.  The book has been chosen on a number of “Best of 2020” lists already and should be an excellent read.

As always, copies of the book will be available at The Field Library circulation desk.  If you are not currently a member of the Field of Mystery group but would like to join, send me an email at nmulligan@wlsmail.org and I’ll send you a link for our zoom meeting on January 9, from 11 to 12:30.  Looking forward to a great read and a fascinating discussion.