MARCH FIELD NOTES SELECTION: PERESTROIKA IN PARIS

The Field Notes Book Group met to discuss Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book a number of us hadn’t finished and didn’t particularly like. Sometimes discussing a book on which people’s opinions are divided leads to better discussions, though, and we saw some interesting things in Mrs. Dalloway, before we voted on our book selection for March, Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris. Copies will be available at the Circulation Desk at The Field Library, so come in and get yours (yes, we’re physically open, so you can actually come in again!).

Don’t let the name of the book fool you. This is about as far from a book about politics or the Cold War as you can get. Perestroika, you see, is a racehorse, a filly who’s curious about the world and due to that curiosity ends up wandering out of her stall one night and walking all the way to Paris. There she encounters a street smart dog named Frida, and a couple of other animals (a pair of mallards and a smart-alec raven, among others), and stays out of sight of the human Parisians, until they meet up with Etienne, an orphaned boy living with his increasingly fragile grandmother in a quiet, secluded area. This is the kind of book I would have snapped up and devoured when I was a kid, and I, for one, am looking forward to reading it and discussing it with the Field Notes group.

So if you’re interested in reading a different kind of book group book, come on in and pick up a copy and then join us on zoom on March 20 from 11 to 12:30. We’ll almost certainly have an excellent time.

HOOFBEATS OF ANOTHER WORLD: ACROSS THE GREEN GRASS FIELDS

I hope I have already made it clear that I will eagerly read any and every book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, starting with the first, Every Heart a Doorway, and continuing through her most recent, Across the Green Grass Fields.  McGuire’s ability to create compelling characters and situate them in fascinating worlds, giving us believable people no matter how exotic and strange their surroundings might be, make her one of my go-to authors.  Across the Green Grass Fields is a worthy addition to the series, and its being relatively short (only a novella, technically), makes it a fast read to boot. 

There are basically two kinds of books in the series.  One kind, starting with Every Heart a Doorway itself, looks at what happens when a child returns from a sojourn in another reality and is unable to adjust to his or her ordinary, original world.  The other kind takes us with these children to their other worldly experiences, of which Across the Green Grass Fields is an example. Both kinds are excellent reads, though I confess to being a little more interested in the first type.  It’s terrific to watch McGuire’s worldbuilding (such diversity! So many different worlds with different issues), but on some level the story of a child going to another world and discovering how to survive there is an old formula, going back to the likes of Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia.  Examining how those children yearn to return to worlds that make more sense to them is more novel and potentially allows a deeper view of the characters.

Across the Green Grass Fields introduces us to Regan, a seemingly ordinary girl, living in an ordinary town, dealing with the complexities of pre-teen female social interactions.  Regan discovers how cruel the social star of her school is when the girl not only turns one of their friends, Heather, into basically an un-person, but puts Regan in the position of going along with Laurel, the queen bee, and losing Heather’s friendship, or sticking up for Heather and becoming an outcast like her.  Regan chooses Laurel, not without regrets, and quickly learns the lesson that conforming is the only way to stay on Laurel’s good side and in the social swim (and to lose Laurel’s good opinion is to drown).  Regan’s love for horses is socially acceptable, as long as she keeps it within Laurel’s boundaries, but she has to keep her real feelings to herself.

Pause here to appreciate McGuire’s deep insight into the world of female friendships at that age.  You will cringe when you read this part, whether you were the victim, the queen bee, or the witness/associate when you were that age. 

Of course what happens is that Regan ends up not conforming to Laurel’s idea of what a girl should be.  It’s through no fault of Regan’s; she discovers she’s intersex and will never go through puberty the way the other girls will.  She confesses this to Laurel, evidently under the misguided impression that Laurel will understand, and Laurel, of course, not only doesn’t understand but goes into hysterics, which do not bode well for Regan’s future in school.

Running away from that whole horror scene, Regan encounters a door that leads her to another world, a world where all the inhabitants are horses of one sort or another.  She’s taken in by a group of centaurs who are unicorn herders (and I, for one, will never look at unicorns quite the same way after reading about these unicorns), and, despite her obvious differences with the centaurs, is treated as a member of the tribe.  Having a human staying with them gives the centaurs prestige; everybody in the Hooflands knows that when a human comes through the door, something major is going to happen.  Humans are the heroes who save the inhabitants of the Hooflands from disaster, and even though there isn’t any obvious disaster right now, Regan’s appearance means the inevitable disaster will be resolved favorably.

As Regan comes to terms with what kind of heroism is expected of her and how she’s supposed to save the people she’s come to love, we get to see more of the Hooflands, the different creatures who live there, their forms of government, the way they see each other. The characters are interesting, the world rich and well-designed, and it’s a pleasure to spend time with Regan here.  Regan’s insights about what’s wrong with the Hooflands are informed by her experiences there and her own experiences among her human peers, and you get the strong impression that when she returns to her own world at the end of the book she will be a different kind of person than the Laurel acolyte she was when she left.

I mentioned earlier that this is a novella and so things move quickly.  My one criticism of this particular book is that I felt a little rushed toward the climax of the book.  I would have liked to spend more time with Gristle, the kelpie, and Zephyr, the peryton, when they accompany Regan on her journey to the castle. 

If you’re a fan of the Wayward Children series, you’ll want to read this no matter what I say.  If you’ve never started the series, this is a standalone that’s an excellent place to get a feel for what you’ve been missing. 

THE CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS . . . AND FIGHTS EVIL: THE CITY WE BECAME

I broke one of my own rules in reading N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, and I am so glad I did.

As I’ve already said, I make it a general practice not to read a book in a series that’s not finished. I hate books that don’t end in a satisfying way, and a lot of books that are in series set up sequels by making their climaxes cliffhangers (hello, The Fellowship of the Ring!). Then, too, if there’s a time gap between the first book’s getting published and the next one’s coming out, it’s hard to remember the important details from one book to the next (a common criticism for George R. R. Martin and the Song of Fire and Ice series; how long has it been since the most recent book?).  If the whole series is finished, then I can be sure I can go from book one immediately to book two and be satisfied.

And yet, here we have The City We Became, which makes no pretenses of being a standalone book.  Given the plot of the series (which I’ll get to), there’s no way Jemisin could have written the whole thing in one volume.  The book just came out last year, so the odds that the next book would be available to read when I finished this one were pretty slim (and the sequel isn’t out yet, nor, as far as I can tell, will it come out in the near future).  By my own practices, I should have left this book alone till the trilogy was finished, and yet I couldn’t wait.  The concept was so intriguing I had to try it, and the biggest problem with first books in trilogies (the ending) turned out to be no problem at all.

The concept of the book is audacious.  Cities, it turns out, can be living entities. Not all cities do this, but some cities with sufficient life to them can break through different realities and come to life.  When a city comes to life, a human being (or multiple human beings) act as its avatars, embodying the city in the world. A newborn city is vulnerable to attacks from an outside enemy (this is one of the brilliant parts): a Lovecraftian reality that hates everything cities stand for and wants to destroy them.  Generally, once a city is actually past its birth throes, it’s safe from this enemy, but in the case of New York City, the subject of this book, the rules no longer seem to apply.

Pause here to appreciate the brilliance of having a city stand against the whole Lovecraftian mythos.  It’s well known that H. P. Lovecraft, while the father of a lot of modern horror, wrote some amazingly problematic work.  He was a racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic and misogynistic person,and that comes through in his writings loud and clear. Numerous modern writers have engaged with his work on that level: Lovecraft Country, by Matt Ruff, for instance, and Carter and Lovecraft by Jonathan L. Howard.  I can’t remember a book that takes on Lovecraft so directly, aiming at his fear of the different, fear of the melting pot, fear of all the things that make cities vibrant and alive, by having his world trying to destroy cities at their birth.

But this isn’t just a high concept book.  It has terrific characters and a plot that never lets up, never lets you off the hook for a moment.  It’s a page-turner extraordinaire, with vivid settings, tons of action and even a fair amount of humor.  I couldn’t put it down and devoured it in two days.

There is one young man who is the avatar for the whole city of New York, who fights off an attack from the Enemy as soon as the city starts being born, but is so damaged in the fight he has to go into hiding, waiting for the avatars of the boroughs to come and help him.

And then there are the avatars, people who were ordinary enough as exemplars of their respective boroughs but given powers and vision to make them much more once they become avatars.  Manny, who’s the avatar for Manhattan, is a young African American man who’s lost his pre-avatar memory but knows what he used to do was inflict violence on other people.  Brooklyn, the avatar for Brooklyn, is a former rap star who is now a city councilwoman, an African American woman who lives in a brownstone with her aging father and her teenage daughter.  Padmini, an immigrant graduate student who’s devoted to math, is the avatar for Queens, and is having trouble dealing with this whole avatar for the borough and fighting against the Enemy to save the whole city concept.  And then there’s Bronca, my personal favorite character, an older Lenape woman who’s a lesbian, running an arts center in the Bronx; she’s the elder among the group, the one who has a deeper sense of what’s going on and what has to happen.  The most troublesome of the bunch is Aislin Houlihan, the avatar of Staten Island (of course): she’s white (again, of course), daughter of a racist police officer, and afraid of going to The City at the same time she’s drawn to it.  While each of the avatars is approached and/or attacked by the enemy in the form of the Woman in White (more about her in a moment), Aislin is the only one who finds her sympathetic, the only one who’s willing to betray her city for her relationship with the Woman in White.

While our protagonists (not just the avatars but their friends and companions, all vividly brought to life) are fun and interesting, filled with the attitudes you would associate with their boroughs, the Enemy (who is also, as it turns out, the avatar for a city, a different kind of city, and no, I’m not going to spoil it for you but if you’re up on your Lovecraft you’ll probably guess what her city is) is wonderful, powerful and creepy, going from attempts to seduce the different avatars into working with her to attempting to destroy them, directly or through her minions.  How her minions become her minions, how you can tell if someone’s been infested by her, is creepy and worthy of Lovecraft himself. She is scary in herself and scary in what she’s trying to do.  You want your protagonists to have a worthy adversary, someone powerful enough to wreak havoc but someone who might still be able to be defeated by the protagonists, and the Woman in White is definitely a worthy adversary. 

Oh, and the ending?  Perfectly satisfying.  Even knowing that this is the first book in the trilogy, we are not left hanging, and what was raised here is resolved, with still plenty of hints about what’s to come.  I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.  

If you love New York City in all its weirdness and its contradictions, you’ll find a kindred spirit in N. K. Jemisin, who clearly knows and loves the city with a passion and who brings a great sense of place to this marvelous, thrilling book.  Give yourself the pleasure of The City We Became.  You won’t regret it.

MARCH FIELD OF MYSTERY SELECTION: THE WORD IS MURDER

At some point, maybe we should have a discussion in the Field of Mystery Book Group about what, exactly, makes something a mystery rather than a thriller.  Publishers don’t help much in this regard, and it would be an interesting way to figure out what books we should be considering for our monthly meetings.  Case in point, this month (February) we read and discussed Winter Counts, by David Heska Wanbli, which won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel.  Several members of the group didn’t consider it a mystery, and while we discussed various aspects of the book, we never quite resolved why it was or wasn’t a mystery.  Something to contemplate in the future.

In the meantime, the book we selected for our March meeting is definitely a mystery by any definition: The Word is Murder, by Anthony Horowitz.  Mystery fans are already familiar with Horowitz’ work (his House of Silk was an excellent Sherlock Holmes novel, one of the best I’ve read that wasn’t written by Conan Doyle himself), but he throws a few curve balls in this novel.  It starts out as your classic murder mystery: an elderly woman goes to a funeral home to make arrangements for her funeral and then six hours later she’s dead, strangled.  A disgraced former detective, Daniel Hawthorne, takes on the investigation, but he wants Anthony Horowitz to work with him, to be a Watson to his Holmes. This Anthony Horowitz shares more than a name with the author of this novel: he’s depicted as doing the same work as our author, and writing the same things, thereby bringing a mind-boggling question of how much of this is faction to the already twisty murder investigation.

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library Circulation Desk, and we’ll be meeting on March 6 from 11 to 12:30 via zoom (ah, someday we’ll actually be able to meet in person again, I devoutly hope!).  If you’re interested in joining us for this discussion, send me an email at nmulligan@wlsmail.org, and I’ll share the link the week of the meeting.

MY HEART’S IN THE HIGHLANDS: CLANLANDS

I realize I am not the target audience of the book Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other, by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish.  Neither of those names meant anything to me, and when I saw the cover, I did not think, “Oooh, it’s those two guys from the Outlander series!” because I have never watched that series, or even an episode. Instead, I saw two men, one younger and one older, wearing kilts, and I saw a book about Scotland, and that’s what interested me.

Even though I’m not the target audience as such, I have to say the book was a lot of fun and informative, too.  So I recommend picking it up even if you know nothing of Diana Gabaldon or the television series.  If you’re interested in the Highlands of Scotland and Scottish history, it’s an excellent starting place.

Ordinarily when I discover that a book is basically a tie-in to a television series, that ends my interest in it, and it’s true, these two actors have a series on the Starz network called Men in Kilts (or at least that’s what the ad at the end of the book says), and the book describes, to some extent, the filming of this series, but the good thing about this particular tie in is that there’s so much more than just “Oh, let me talk about how much fun I had playing this part or filming this bit” and inside details about the making of the series. The byplay between the two authors, the way one keeps responding to the other’s comments, the way they keep making fun of each other, giving each other snotty nicknames, gives the book a lot of humor, and these days I’m really happy to read something that makes me laugh, whatever else might be going on.

The short description of the book is that it’s an account of a trip these two actors from Outlander took around the Scottish Highlands, including their stops at various points of interest (the site of the battle of Culloden, for instance, and the Loch Ness, for another instance, and many, many castles).  Whenever they stop, they either meet with fascinating people who are associated with this particular place or they delve into the history of the place (the extensive discussion of the massacre at Glencoe, for instance, or an in-depth examination of what actually happened at the battle of Culloden).  They also drink a lot, as you might expect from people touring Scotland (I suppose you could get away from whisky in Scotland if you really tried, but you would have to work at it, and these guys were definitely NOT trying to get away from whisky of various sorts), they meet the modern day Lady Macbeth, they kayak and bicycle and motorcycle (with a sidecar that almost gets one of the men killed), and drive a ridiculous van that seems barely adequate for the roads they’re taking.  They’re obviously having a great time, and they manage to share their enthusiasm and delight with us as well.

Are there frequent discussions of filming Outlander?  Yes, and those would probably be more entertaining to fans of the series, but they’re not completely skippable even if you, like me, have little interest in ever watching the show, and those pandering-to-the-fans parts take up much less of the book than you might suspect.

Do you have to be knowledgeable about Scottish history to appreciate the book?  Not really, though, as always, a little background makes a difference.  For the most part the authors don’t assume their readers are well versed in Scottish or English history, so they clarify whatever needs clarification, and then dive into the wild world of Scottish clan warfare, the battles between the Scots and the English, and the many quirky characters who lived (and still live) in the Highlands. They take such obvious delight in the most outrageous aspects of that history you may find yourself wanting to dig a little deeper into a more serious study.

But in the meantime, this is a book to sit back with and enjoy for what it is: a shared journey, an adventure, with two pretty charming (if often immature acting) characters.

COMING SOON TO A NEIGHBORHOOD NEAR YOU: WHEN NO ONE IS WATCHING

There’s a reason Alyssa Cole’s When No One is Watching was a bestseller and made it onto numerous best of the year lists for 2020: it’s a terrific read.  It’s a thriller, but different from most thrillers in where it’s set, who the protagonists are, and what’s at stake.  

Sydney Green is an African American young woman, born and raised in a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Even though she left the area for what turned out to be a disastrous relationship (which ended up with her partner having her committed to a mental institution), Sydney still felt connected to her original home, so that’s where she went after the end of that relationship.  That her mother was ill and needed her help was just another incentive.

But Sydney discovers almost immediately that you really can’t go home again.  All around her, the neighborhood is changing: families are leaving, replaced by gentrifiers, neighborhood institutions are closing down, replaced by soulless businesses that cater to the newcomers and seem to have no interest in serving the original community.  And there’s that strange new facility that’s being built nearby, which is supposedly going to provide all kinds of jobs and income for the area, VerenTech Pharmaceuticals, which will be treating victims of the opioid epidemic, except the building has security that seems way too serious for what it’s supposed to be. Sydney’s starting to feel her neighborhood is under siege by white, rich newcomers who have nothing but contempt for the African American community that predated them, and who seem only interested in getting “those people” out, by any means necessary.  

The other protagonist of the book is Theo, a white man who’s living, somewhat precariously, with one of the newcomers, his rich girlfriend, Kim.  Kim is embarrassing, a Karen in all but name, ready to call the police on Sydney for not getting out of her way in the local deli.  Theo is interested in Sydney, in the neighborhood, in its history, and he joins with Sydney to research a different kind of local history tour of the area.  This turns into research into what’s really going on now, and why the neighborhood is under such stress. 

Both Sydney and Theo have secrets, and Sydney has little reason to trust Theo, except that she’s running out of options and he has connections she doesn’t.  The tension ratchets up as people disappear, a kid is arrested on dubious grounds, nearly bankrupting his family, and the people pressuring Sydney to sell her mother’s house edge from being annoying to being dangerous.  Sydney’s best friend disappears, and may have been selling her out.  The edges of a really dark and creepy conspiracy begin to appear, and Sydney and Theo are in danger because of what they know and what they’re finding out.

The sense of place in this book is wonderful.  You feel you know every inch of this neighborhood, who lives there, who used to live there, how people took care of each other in formal and informal ways.  The characters, especially the African American characters (and Theo), are vivid and full of life.  Some of the white characters, especially Kim, are just this side of caricature, but Cole is too good a writer to fall back on stereotypes. And, as an added bonus, there’s a great deal of New York history threaded through the plot, never an info dump, never revealed in a way to stop the plot from racing to its wild but somehow inevitable conclusion, but adding a depth to the story that I, a history buff, found wonderful.

The ending is satisfying.  As you know, I really hate books that build and build and then just stop, or that do a great job throughout and then drop the ball at the climax. This isn’t that kind of book. While the revelation about what’s really going on is surprising, it’s not completely out of the blue, and it makes sense, as well as creating a certain kind of justice.

This is a fast read and a good one. Once you get started, you’ll be sucked into When No One Is Watching, and you won’t want to put it down till you reach the end.