Let’s just start out by saying that the new Murderbot book, Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells, is a fun novella that you can read and enjoy in a day.  All right, maybe more than a day if you can tear yourself away from it (I found that hard to do myself), but it’s a quick read and a great fun, and if you’re a fan of the series (and how could you not be?), that’s really all you need to know (well, all you need to know if you’re a fan is that it’s out and available for your reading pleasure).

But I’m not going to stop there, even though the mere existence of a Murderbot book is enough to get me reading it. I realize that other people might actually want to know what it’s about.  

In a way, this is a murder mystery with Murderbot acting as a sort of private detective with very specialized skills and a somewhat different approach to solving the problem.  A human is found dead on Preservation Station, where Murderbot is currently living. Preservation Station is not a high crime area, and murders of humans are extremely rare.  Nobody seems to know who the victim was or why the victim was killed.

Ordinarily, Murderbot would not be getting involved, because Murderbot prefers to spend as little time dealing with the foibles of humans as possible (it prefers to watch serials), and, given Murderbot’s unique status as a former Security Bot who is now to be treated as a person, it would definitely not want to be dealing with the Port Authority investigators who have trouble trusting it.  Their distrust is reasonable in context, because none of them has ever dealt with someone like Murderbot before, and generations of serials and fiction about murderous SecBots make most humans afraid of anyone who looks like a SecBot.

However, because nobody knows who the dead human was or why he was murdered, and the clues are disturbingly few and far between, there’s a possibility this murder might be connected to the enemies of Murderbot’s humans, and Murderbot is not going to allow any assassins to get near its people.  If that means cooperating with the authorities investigating this murder, so be it.

I’m pleased to report that Murderbot is as sarcastic and as misanthropic as ever, and, without going into too much detail of the plot (the surprises are half the fun), once again Murderbot finds itself saving human lives whether it likes the idea or not. 

The book is more of a thriller than a mystery, since we don’t know enough about what’s going on to be able to guess who did it and why before Murderbot reveals it, but it works well as a thriller, especially when we start to learn what’s at stake and why the human was murdered the way he was.  There is, as usual in these books, a great fight scene in which Murderbot has to use all its cleverness and all its augmentations to come out victorious (and no, that’s not a spoiler; all these books are written in the first person so you KNOW Murderbot is going to live).  

While it’s not the most poignant book in the series, it’s full of action, sarcasm and Murderbot’s unique take on humans and their behavior, and the conclusion, especially between Murderbot and the head of station security, is extremely satisfying (and gives us hope for more adventures).  Welcome back, Murderbot!


When the FIeld Notes Book Group met on Saturday to discusts our most recent selection, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Observed, we had an entertaining time talking about our favorite of author Gottlieb’s patients, and whether we would rather have her or her therapist, Wendell, if we needed therapy.  Then, of course, it was time to decide on our next book, and that was a surprisingly difficult decision, requiring not one, not two, but three votes before we ended up with a winner: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe.

This nonfiction book won best nonfiction book from the National Book Critics Circle and the Orwell Prize, was longlisted for the National Book Award and was listed as one of the top ten books of the year by the New York Times.  Keefe expands on an article he wrote for The New Yorker about the murder of 38 year old mother of ten, who in 1972 was dragged out of her house in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and never seen alive again.  Everyone knew the Irish Republican Army was behind her abduction, but no one in the neighborhood would talk about it.  Decades later, after the peace treaty quieted things down in Northern Ireland, her body washed up on the shore, identified by her children because of the blue safety pin attached to her dress.

Keefe doesn’t just describe the killing, which was a notorious event in the context of what the Irish call “the Troubles” (and can you imagine anyone else who would refer to decades of internecine conflict and murder as “The Troubles”?).  He delves deeper into the lives of all the people touched by the violence, from the murderers to the victims, showing how everyone was affected, even decades later.

Copies of the book will be available at the circulation desk at The Field Library, and we will be meeting — at long last! — live and in person at the library itself on June 19, from 11 to 12:30.  We will still be going hybrid, so there will be a zoom link available if anyone who’s not in the group, or not in the immediate vicinity, wants to join. Just email me at if you want the link a week before the meeting, and I’ll send it to you.  Looking forward to a great discussion, with coffee and snacks available.


It seems to me that a lot of writers of historical fiction are following a trend that I don’t particularly like.  I recently read The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn, which was a selection for my book club for the senior citizens at the local senior housing.  The book itself was good, a lot of it quite gripping, and yet even though I liked it, it followed a pattern that I’ve seen at lot in recent historical novels, and in some ways The Alice Network is a perfect example of what’s wrong with that technique.

To begin with the good stuff, part of The Alice Network tells the story of a spy ring run by women in France in World War I.  No, that’s not a typo; the spy network was in the first world war and not the second, which already sets the book apart from a lot of recent historical fiction.  Perhaps it’s because the last people who actually fought in that war are dying, perhaps it’s because Americans played more of a role in World War II than in World War I, but there are probably five novels about the second world war for every novel about the first.  I’m all in favor of learning more about the less well-known aspects of history, and I personally think it’s a shame that Americans seem to know so little about World War I.  Read this book and you will have a much better grounding in what was going on in the middle of that war.

Not only is the part of the story set in World War I interesting because it’s not the Nazis and all the tropes we’re familiar with from books and movies, it’s fascinating because most of the characters risking their lives to find out information about the German war machine and get that information to the Allies are women.  Women’s roles in society were so much more restricted in the ‘teens than they were in the 1940’s that any woman who had the nerve and the skills to work as a spy in that era was really someone outstanding.

The characters in that part of the book are outstanding, especially Eve, our main character.  A young woman who speaks English, German and French fluently, albeit with a stutter, Eve starts out as a file clerk, seen as boring at best and probably slightly retarded at worst, until an English officer sees her potential and recruits her to be trained as a spy.  All her passion, all her intelligence, all her resourcefulness comes to the fore as she is sent to occupied France and meets the leader of the network, another wonderful character, known officially as Alice but preferring to be called Lili.  Lili is bold and mercurial, a woman who’s been around the block a few times, who’s heroic and ingenious and incredibly lucky, finding ways to carry crucial information out under the very noses of the occupiers.  Eve gets herself a job in a restaurant run by a collaborator, where the German soldiers tend to hang out after hours, and she begins a tightrope walk between hearing and passing on everything of importance the officers say and keeping a humble, almost stupid exterior so no one will suspect her.  This act becomes more difficult when the collaborator, her boss, begins to take an interest in her as a potential mistress.  

This part of the book is terrific: fast paced, tense, with high stakes and danger all around. Even knowing the big picture (who won the war, for instance) doesn’t keep you from worrying about how Lili and the rest of her network are going to survive.

If this were the whole book, I would recommend it unreservedly as an excellent historical novel, full of great characters (mostly based on real people) and a vivid sense of time and place.  The problem is that that’s not the whole book.

There’s a framing story, you see, and this is the plot device I see so much in historical novels these days, and a device I’m coming to dislike.  We don’t start the book with Eve and her adventures.  We start with Charlotte (Charlie), a rich young American in 1947 who’s pregnant out of wedlock and going to Europe with her mother to get her Little Problem taken care of (the euphemisms are hers and her mother’s not mine, but it’s clear what they’re talking about) in a clinic in Switzerland.  Unbeknownst to her mother, Charlie’s really interested in going to Europe to try to track down her cousin, Rose, who disappeared sometime during World War II, recently ended.  Charlie gives her mother the slip and finds her way to a much older and embittered Eve who may have some information about what happened to Rose.  Charlie gets Eve to help her search for Rose, going to Lille where Eve spent much of her time during WWI, and so we hear Eve’s story in between chapters of Charlie’s story.

The biggest problems I have with this device in general are that one of those storylines is going to be much less interesting than the other by the nature of the device, and that in some respects the device is insulting to readers.

In this case, for instance, I might have been more interested in Charlie’s story if it weren’t being juxtaposed with Eve’s much more dramatic and tense one.  Charlie is a character with some depth, and her growing awareness of what she’s doing and why she’s doing it is well handled, as is her relationship with her parents and with her traveling companions. If this were the story we focused on, I wouldn’t mind reading it.

But, given Eve’s adventures, every time we move away from her imminent danger, her deprivations, the tension of whether someone in the network will be caught or not, to Charlie’s story, Charlie can’t help but lose. I found myself impatient with the Charlie chapters, eager to get back to Eve and Lili and their world.

And of course, because we see Eve in the Charlie story, decades after WWI, we know from the outset that she survives (albeit damaged; we figure out early on that she’s been tortured).  While it’s good to know she’s not killed (some of the other characters aren’t so lucky), that knowledge tempers our experience of her story (the same way having a first person narration changes our sense of whether the main character’s going to survive), reducing the suspense.

Then somehow the author has to bring those two storylines together, and that’s the weakest part of this book.  Without giving too much away, I have to say the use of coincidence in the climax of the Charlie story took me out of the story to consider whether this one person would really be that connected to both those stories.

The second problem I have with this technique is that it assumes that readers won’t be interested in the underlying story (Eve’s, in this case) unless we’re brought into it by someone closer to our own time. It’s as if the authors of historical fiction don’t have confidence in readers’ willingness to enter into the world of the past on its own terms.  Speaking only for myself, I’m happy to jump right into the real story (Eve’s).  I don’t need to have someone lead me by the hand.

So this is both a review and a reader’s rant.  Yes, The Alice Network is a good read, especially in the parts set in World War I, but please, could writers of historical fiction give us a break and cut out those framing stories?  Trust your sense of what the real story is, and trust your readers to jump right into that past story, and I think it’ll be better for all of us.


I’m just going to put it right out there: I love Jenny Lawson.  I’ve read all her books and her blog, and something about her mixture of pathos and ridiculous humor just speaks to me in a deep and profound way.  When Field Notes read her book, Furiously Happy, I was one of the biggest cheerleaders for the book, and so when her newest book, Broken (in the Best Possible Way) came out, I was one of the first readers.

Of course I love it.  Didn’t I start out saying I love her?

Jenny Lawson has been struggling with mental health and physical health issues for a long time, and she doesn’t sugarcoat those struggles.  There’s a chapter in this book which is a letter to her health insurance company, explaining how they’re basically trying to kill her by refusing to pay for treatments she needs to stay alive, and that is a scorcher of a chapter. If I were her insurance company, I would do pretty much anything to keep the world from realizing I behaved that badly (on the other hand, health insurance companies are in the business to make money and so they probably don’t care if they’re portrayed as heartless).  When she talks seriously about her health issues, her honesty is heartbreaking.

Which is not to say that the book is all serious.  Far from it.  In fact, there are chapters that are so funny you will probably find yourself reading whole paragraphs aloud to anyone in your immediate vicinity, even if they beg you to stop because they’re going to read the book themselves. There are chapters that I would advise you NOT to read if you’re in public (like in a coffee shop, which is where I read them), including “Awkwarding Brings Us Together,” which is a hilarious collection of people’s descriptions of cringeworthy things they’ve done in public.  I can’t imagine how you could read this without laughing loud enough to disturb other patrons or anyone sitting within earshot.  Her discussions of her fights with her husband (and sorry, Jenny, but I agree with the people who think he’s a saint for putting up with you) are side-splitting and somehow entirely believable, however absurd they turn out (starting with needing a battery for the electric toothbrush and ending up with screaming about whether Jenny used Victor’s toothbrush for the dogs).

Come for the humor (it’s abundant), stay for the insights (hard-won and painful), and just get to know and enjoy Jenny Lawson’s unique view of the world. 


One thing I really love is a book that surprises me.  You know what I mean: the kind of book where you think you know where the author is going, what’s going to happen to whom, and then the author surprises you by taking the stereotype or the trope and upending it, and doing that so fluidly and with such care that it feels inevitable.  Rachel Joyce managed this trick brilliantly in her earlier book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and she does it again in her latest book, Miss Benson’s Beetle.

When you read the description of the book, you get a definite idea of the tropes you’re going to see: here’s Margery Benson, a middle class English woman who decides to go to New Caledonia to find a specimen of a beetle nobody’s sure exists, and she finds a really unlikely and obviously unsuitable “assistant”, Enid Pretty (even the name sound unsuitable) who goes with her on her trip.  Already you’re thinking Margery Benson is every unfulfilled, lonely middle aged woman in literature who finally tries for her dream, and Enid Pretty is the wild child, the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl who helps Margery out of her dull boring life.

You’re wrong, and I was wrong when I made those assumptions before reading the book, and it was my own fault. Joyce already demonstrated that she could turn stereotypical characters inside out and give them full, rich, moving lives in The Unlikely Pilgrimage.  She does an even better job here.

When we meet Margery as an adult (we see her briefly as a child, right before her father’s suicide), she’s a middle aged teacher of home economics at what feels like an especially dreary school in the 1950’s.  England hasn’t come out of its postwar slump, everything is rationed, and Margery has given up any hope of a real life.  She’s shocked out of her misery by a cruel prank by her students and, more or less out of the blue, she decides she’s going to go to New Caledonia and look for the golden beetle which supposedly lives there but has never been properly discovered.  It’s a crazy idea: she has little money, no experience of exploring anything, she’s never been out of England, doesn’t speak any of the languages of New Caledonia, and is the last person any authorities in the scientific world would trust even if she did manage to find the beetle. And yet, the idea of the beetle caught her imagination when she was a child and never entirely left her; she’s incredibly knowledgeable about beetles and about how to pin and describe insects, and she has the mind of a scientist in an unlikely body.

Of course, being mostly a sensible woman, Margery knows she can’t do this by herself, so she advertises for an assistant, someone who can fill in the holes in her own resume and experiences. She interviews one very damaged former prisoner of war who clearly has his own idea of what she’s looking for and who won’t take no for an answer (we see a lot of him), and one take-charge woman who seems to be exactly what Margery needs, but who drops her before the expedition begins.

Which leaves her with Enid.  Enid who dresses like a party girl (pom pom sandals, anyone?), carries an incredible amount of baggage, doesn’t speak any more French than Margery, attracts attention wherever she goes, and has no knowledge of and precious little interest in entomology in general or beetles in particular.  Enid, it turns out, is actually on the run from the police, a thing Margery doesn’t find out till late in the game, and Enid has unfulfilled dreams of her own which would seem to be unlikely to come true on this expedition or in Margery’s company.

The two set off on an adventure: four weeks on a ship to Australia and from there to New Caledonia, vividly described in all their gruesome and wondrous detail.  They encounter storms and seasickness, brutal people and kind ones, environments like nothing either of them has ever experienced before.  They face horrific weather conditions, health problems verging on lethal, ignorance and malice. This is an adventure story in the category of woman against nature, and it’s a page turner.  

Along the way, we get to see the hidden depths in both Margery and Enid.  Again and again they reveal themselves as much more than we originally thought them.  They’re both strong in different ways, and as we learn more of their backgrounds, their life choices (restricted as they were by their positions in their society) make more sense.  They become people we care about, as far from the stereotypes we originally thought them as they could be.

You want them to make it.  You want Margery to find the beetle.  You want Enid to avoid the consequences of her criminal actions back in England. You want a happy ending, no matter how unlikely it seems at various points in the narrative.

Rachel Joyce is too good a writer to create a fake “happy ever after” to this story, but it is a very satisfying ending, moving and, yes, a little surprising, just what we could have expected after such an unusual and  thrilling ride.

If you’re interested in a book that will take you somewhere else, somewhere you’ve never been, with a pair of vivid and real characters, check out Miss Benson’s Beetle, and prepare to be surprised.


It’s not often that a sequel is better than the original (as a matter of fact, it’s not often that a sequel is even as good as the original), but I have to say that Nino Cipri’s Defekt, a sequel to the author’s Finna (which I loved, see here) is even better than the first book.

To be fair, they are different kinds of stories, centered on different characters.  Finna was mostly a romp through the alternate worlds accessible through a wormhole that happened to exist in an Ikea-like store, as explored by two former lovers who both work for that company. By contrast, Defekt delves deeper into the store, and the corporation that runs it, and is more dystopian, more emotional, than Finna, though there are still outbreaks of the humor the first book contained.

When you first meet Derek, the protagonist of Defekt, he’s working yet another endless shift at LitenVarld, the Ikea equivalent.  He’s such a devoted employee he even lives on site in a shipping container furnished with the cast-offs and rejected materials from the store. He’s never taken a vacation or even a sick day, until the day he’s injured by touching a saplike substance that’s dripping off a box.  Though he doesn’t realize it at the time, this is the beginning of a whole new existence for Derek.

At the outset, Derek almost feels over the top, a satirical example of a worker insanely dedicated to his job, though there are hints even at the outset of Derek’s self-awareness, his loneliness, his sense of himself as the perpetual outsider who can’t connect with anyone else at his job, no matter how much he tries.  But once he’s injured by that box sap (described vividly and maybe even horrifically) and decides to take a sick day, for the first time in his life, and he actually takes time off from work, he begins to come into focus as a person, albeit a very naive person.

It’s not exactly punishment for his astonishing lapse of actually taking time off after being injured on the job by something that shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but Derek finds himself being assigned to an inventory team to go through the store and find and “take care of” Defekts.  Defekts are products that have come to life: mutant deadly toilets, toy chests with eye stalks and pincers, sleeper sofas that move on their own.  The team he’s working with, it turns out, is comprised of four duplicates of himself, each slightly different.

At this point I thought I was in for another wild ride through a variety of vividly imagined realities, albeit this time contained in the physical store, but I was wrong.  As Derek comes to grip with the different versions of himself (Dirk, the “natural leader” Derek wishes he were, Darkness, the gender fluid person to whom Derek is attracted, Delilah, the female Derek, and Dex, a sullen and obnoxious teenager), he also  comes to realize what his purpose in life is.  Hint: it’s not pretty.  His relationship to the “defekts” changes, especially when he sees how Dirk (a bully and probably a fascist as well) deals with them, and the more he sees of the “inventory,” the more his attitude toward his employer changes as well.  And slowly Derek comes to see that he has a choice and doesn’t have to be what he was made to be, what he has allowed himself to be all these years.

It’s a short book, a novella, but it’s full of wild imagination and deep insight into what makes corporations inhuman and what makes us human, and we get the pleasure of watching Derek turn into a person we’re eager to root for.

If you liked Finna, you’re going to love Defekt, though you don’t need to read one to enjoy the other.  If you haven’t tried Finna, you still will enjoy Defekt if you have a taste for speculative fiction with heart and wild imagination.


The back cover of Dial A for Aunties, by Jesse Q. Sutanto, starts off with “When Meddelin Chan ends up accidentally killing her blind date, her meddlesome mother calls for her even more meddlesome aunties to help get rid of the body.”  Now, either you are the sort of person who reads this and knows immediately that this is your kind of book, or you aren’t.  If you aren’t, then you might as well stop reading right here, because there isn’t much I can say that will get you interested in the book.

If, however, you are like me (and like the patron to whom I suggested this book based on the back cover), you will immediately want to read this book, so let me give you more reasons.

It’s not enough that our protagonist accidentally kills her blind date (which might remind you of the beginning of My Sister, The Serial Killer, which was a terrific, if very dark, comedy of a book); it’s not enough that when she calls upon her mother, her mother then turns things over to a group of aunties.  The aunties’ brilliant idea involves putting the corpse in a freezer, which happens to be a cake cooler being sent to the scene of a billionaire’s wedding which the family is running as part of their wedding business.  This is, of course, the biggest wedding the family has put together and their whole future as a business turns on their success here, so the presence of a dead former blind date on the scene is a definite problem.  Oh, yeah, and in addition to all that (as if there needs to be something more), Meddy’s former lover who broke her heart shows up at this same wedding.  Add to all this the fact that the family is Chinese-Indonesian American immigrants, and the book is written by a woman who is all of those things (so you get an own voices perspective), and you have the makings of a lot of fun, for a particular definition of “fun”.

Few things are funnier than chaos that’s happening to someone else, and this book has all the earmarks of the kind of hysterical chaos, complete with scene-stealing larger than life family characters, that makes for laugh out loud comedy.  

Check it out here at The Field Library (but you’ll have to put it on hold because I already persuaded one patron to take it out immediately).


I usually start a post about the next selection for a book group by saying in a general way that this month the group had an interesting or invigorating discussion about the current month’s book, and that’s always true, but this month the Field of Mystery Book Group had an unusual — and delightful — change of pace in our discussion.

You may recall that we read Nev March’s Murder in Old Bombay as our May selection. You may have noticed that every time I write about the next selection for book group during this COVID-inspired programs-via-zoom period, I’ve always added a line about how, if you’re not a member of the group but want to join the discussion, you can send me an email the week of the meeting and I’ll send you the link.  This has hardly ever resulted in anyone’s actually asking for a link to join the club, but hope springs eternal. And this month I received an email the day before the meeting from someone I didn’t know, asking if she could join.  Of course I said yes (the more the merrier).  Then, unbeknownst to me, that person reached out to Nev March herself, the author of the book, and told her about our book group.  Ten minutes before the group was about to begin, I got an email from Nev March, asking if she could sit in on the meeting.  Could she?  I practically broke my keyboard in my haste to write back and send her the invitation.

So what happened this past Saturday was our usual discussion of the book, what we liked, what we found interesting, how we thought about the mystery itself, AND we had the delightful company of Nev March, who was happy to discuss the real life case that inspired the book, the history of the British Raj in this part of India, and other details we asked about.  Not only that, she also shared with us pictures of the places in the book, and pictures of people like the characters in the book, including the real life inspirations for Adi and some of the other characters.  It was serendipitous and wonderful, and a great time was had by all.

Then, of course, we turned to the issue of what we will read for June, and the decision was surprisingly easy: an immediate majority of the people present voted for John Banville’s Snow, and so it will be our next reading.

Snow takes place in Ireland in the 1950’s when Detective Inspector John Strafford is called to the house of a rich Protestant family to investigate the horrific death of a local, and supposedly beloved, priest in their house.  It should be a straightforward matter, but Strafford runs into walls of opposition everywhere he turns, from the accumulating snow that makes it nearly impossible to get around to the secrets of the tightly knit, and tight lipped community surrounding the death.  The family where the priest was killed turns out to be full of warped secrets of their own, and Strafford’s own deputy disappears during the course of his investigation.

Copies of the book will be available at The Field Library Circulation Desk, and we will be meeting again on June 5.  If you’re interested in reading the book and joining the discussion, email me at the week of the meeting and I’ll send you the invitation.  No promises about authors showing up this time, but you never know.