THE TIGHTENING GYRE: TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN

John Green really knows how to create memorable characters who tug at your heartstrings.  I defy anyone with a heart to read The Fault in Our Stars without crying, for instance.  His latest book, which I read on a recommendation from a member of the Field Notes Book Group (thanks, Michelle!), is another young adult book whose main character, Aza, is dealing with a lot of issues, but who is anything but a stereotyped Young Adult Female Protagonist.

Aza is a person who lives mostly in her own head, which is a frightening place to be. Her internal voice is obsessed with disease and death, to the point where she’s terrified of kissing someone she deeply cares about because she’s afraid his bacteria entering her body will interact with her bacteria and end up killing her.  When we first meet her in the high school cafeteria, she’s so mentally absorbed with her own biome that she can barely pay attention to her best friend, Daisy, or anything else around her.  Aza is not easy to live with; her widowed mother struggles to understand her and keep her from suffering unduly, her therapist has to deal with Aza’s tendency to stop taking her medication, and that best friend, Daisy, has had to work around what looks like Aza’s utter self-centeredness and selfishness for years.

Daisy, who’s more plugged in to the real world than Aza could ever be, starts the plot rolling with a report on a substantial reward being offered for any information that could lead to the discovery of a rich man on the run from prosecutors for fraud and other criminal charges.  Daisy remembers that Aza used to be friends (or at least acquaintances) with the man’s son, Davis, and pushes Aza to reignite that relationship (despite Davis’ going to a private school on the other side of the river from Daisy and Aza; little details like that do not faze Daisy) so they can find a clue to where Davis’ father might have gone. 

Despite herself, Aza does meet up again with Davis (with some help from Daisy), and he does remember her, and clearly has at least friendly feelings for her.  He’s living with his younger brother, Noah; their mother died years before and now, with their father missing, Davis is acting as a guardian for his brother, for which he is not the least prepared, despite all the family wealth.  Davis is no dummy; he knows all about the reward and realizes that the prospect of a reward could be responsible for Aza’s reappearance into his life, so he tries to take the money question off the table, so he and Aza can have a real relationship.

Little does he know how difficult that is for Aza.  We, the readers, know this deeply because we’re inside Aza’s head with her, trapped in what she refers to as the spiral, the tightening gyre of thoughts she can’t escape or ignore.  That she manages to get as close as she does to Davis, that she manages to make a connection with his younger brother, is the result of a massive effort on her part.  She keeps trying to explain to Davis why she’s acting in what she recognizes seems like a bizarre way to anyone else, and Davis, for his part, is much more understanding and kind than most rich young men would be in the circumstances.

One of the things I like about this book, besides the mystery (which the characters do solve by the end), is the relationship between Daisy and Aza.  This isn’t the classic Harry Potter type scenario where best friends just exist to play their parts in the hero’s story, where the friends show a superhuman patience and understanding all the time so the hero can do whatever he wants to do, secure in the knowledge of their loyalty.  Daisy is a real person, a complicated and funny person, whose history with Aza means she can be quite kind to her friend (whom she refers to as Holmesy, from Aza’s last name; at one point Daisy tells her that Aza shouldn’t be so mean to Holmesy, which is quite insightful), but whose depth as a character means she can also resent Aza’s endless inner focus.  The two of them finally have a fight about that, while Aza is driving them somewhere (not the best location for something like that, obviously), which leads to terrible consequences, mostly for Aza, but I was glad they had the fight and got the resentment and frustrations out in the open, as real friends should. Daisy is anything but the flat, perfect friend stereotype, and the book is richer for her loud, exuberant presence in it.

This isn’t a story with the kind of plot you expect.  Green’s smart: he has Aza suggest, late in the book, that her story follows the classic path where she finds the missing man, is cured of her mental illness and marries Davis and lives happily ever after, just so you can see how unlikely that particular plotline is in these circumstances.  While the mystery is in fact solved and Aza does work on her mental health issues, this isn’t a book where the miracle occurs and everybody comes out ahead, and it’s a stronger book for it.  The resolution is satisfying without being totally happy.  The characters you’ve come to care about over the course of the book (and you care about most of them, a tribute to Green’s skill) end up in a better place, whatever that means for each of them.

An excellent book that brings mental illness to vivid, painful life, Turtles All the Way Down is also a great read, the sort of book that absorbs you and won’t let go. 

FUN WITH SNAKES IN FLORIDA: SQUEEZE ME

Although I am a long time fan of Carl Hiaasen, I have to admit I was slow to read his latest book, Squeeze Me. Not because I thought it wouldn’t be funny — this is Carl Hiaasen, after all — but because a good part of the convoluted plot turned on the Florida doings of former President Trump, and I was not ready to deal with him as a fictional character when the book came out last September.  A year later, I was in a better frame of mind, and I’m here to report that this is definitely classic Hiaasen, twisted and off the wall and, most of all, funny.

A word of warning: if you are a fan of former President Trump, you will not enjoy this book. However, if you know anything about Carl Hiaasen and his politics (read some of his nonfiction if you want to get a deeper sense of who he is and what makes him angry), you could probably predict that he would not be a fan of our 45th president, so this isn’t a surprise.

Angela (Angie), the protagonist of this book, is a classic Hiaasen protagonist.  She’s a wildlife extractor (when we first meet her, she’s arriving at a fancy party to remove a very large Burmese python which is lurking on the grounds of the establishment), and she used to have a more responsible position with the government until she let her temper get the better of her in an event that ended up giving her a felony criminal record and a one-handed stalker.  In Hiaasen’s books, this kind of flawed protagonist who has a strong sense of right and wrong and a certain flexibility when it comes to following some of the rules usually ends up doing the right thing ultimately but only after a LOT of twists and turns.

The plot involves a character’s being eaten by the aforementioned giant python, and the shenanigans by which most of the other characters try to cover up or lie about her demise, with ever worsening results.  As the first character was a major fan of President Trump (here referred to by the supposed Secret Service name of Mastodon), the president, staying nearby in Florida, takes the matter personally and jumps in with both feet to prejudice the investigation of her “murder,” leading to the arrest and imprisonment of an innocent man.  Angie, who knows how the victim died, refuses to allow Diego, the innocent man, to be railroaded, and, between trying to straighten that out and dealing with her increasingly nutty stalker in her own way (which involves a bobcat — yes, I mean the animal — among other things), she’s got her hands full.

There was a point about halfway through the book where I thought everything was about to be wrapped up and I couldn’t imagine how Hiaasen was going to keep going for another half a book.  I should have known better.  Whenever things look as if they’re going to go smoothly, he throws in another twist, often in the form of murder (there’s a fair amount of violence in this book, which is so grotesque for the most part that it hardly seems real; Hiaasen doesn’t dwell on the details, either, so you don’t necessarily need a strong stomach to read him).  In this case, things lead up to an amazingly complicated and bizarre climax involving giant snakes let loose in critical places, a malfunctioning tanning bed, and a liaison between the First Lady (here referred to as “Mockingbird” by the Secret Service) and one of the Secret Service agents supposedly guarding her.  Trust me, it all makes sense in context, and if you’re willing to dive in with Hiaasen, you won’t be sorry.  I was especially delighted to see one of his long time characters, the former governor of Florida gone rogue in the Everglades and now known as Skink, playing a vital role in the plot.  Skink is, in my opinion, one of Hiaasen’s greatest creations (and this is saying something, considering the rogue’s gallery of bizarre and entertaining characters he’s created over the years), and I look forward to seeing him again whenever I open a new book by Hiaasen.

Oh, one more warning: if you have any fear of snakes, you might want to pass this book by (even though you’d be missing a lot of fun).  There are a lot of snakes in here, and all of them are huge and dangerous, and if the thought of reading about snakes eating people freaks you out, you probably won’t enjoy this (though, to be fair, there’s only one person actually eaten by a snake in the course of the book).

If you enjoy your humor on the bizarre side and if you’ve devoured Carl Hiaasen in the past, do yourself a favor and dive into Squeeze Me.  Your only real danger is that the Who song by the same name will undoubtedly be stuck in your head (at least, that’s what happened to me), and it’s a small price to pay for so much fun.

FIELD NOTES SEES DOUBLE: THE ECHO WIFE

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I really do love my book groups.  I love choosing the possibilities for the group to decide on, I love getting the books for the members, and I love the discussions of the books each month.  Each group has a different flavor, a different character, even when some people are members of more than one group.  This Saturday the Field Notes group had a rousing, and funny, discussion of our September book, Remember: The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, by Lisa Genova, with people sharing their own experiences with memory, with Alzheimer’s disease, and with the tricks and techniques and suggestions in the book.  After this discussion, we turned to the difficult process of choosing a book for October.

Actually, it wasn’t that difficult. It may be that I poured it on a little for the book, The Echo Wife (which I’ve already read and discussed here) when describing our selections, and maybe I was extra persuasive when it came to that one (I must remember to use this power for good and not for evil), because that was a pretty overwhelming favorite (the fact that it’s a short book helped, of course; we’re all busy people and can feel daunted by a really long book to read).

The Echo Wife, by Sarah Gailey, is speculative fiction and a mystery, of sorts, and the sort of book that raises all kinds of questions (which will be fun to discuss in book group).  Evelyn is in a most uncomfortable position: her husband left her for another woman, a younger woman. What makes this worse than usual is that Evelyn is a scientist who’s working on human cloning, and her husband stole her work to create a clone of Evelyn herself, and THAT person, Martine, is the one he left Evelyn for.  When Martine calls Evelyn and tells her that Martine just killed her husband, what does Evelyn do?  She goes to the house to help Martine, of course.

And that’s just the beginning of this twisted novel.  I have to hand it to the author: every time you think you have a grip on what’s going on, she throws in a wicked twist (all reasonable, too; nothing comes completely out of left field) and you’re off balance again.  For such a short book, it packs quite a wallop, as you learn more about Evelyn’s work, about Martine, and about what made Evelyn the way she is.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk, and we’ll be meeting to discuss the book on October 16.  Join us if you can: this will be a fun discussion.

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK SNOB

I have recently faced the painful realization that I am, in fact, a book snob.

I’m not the kind who refuses to read whole genres of books.  As I hope comes across in this blog, I’ll read all kinds of things: speculative fiction, romances, thrillers, mysteries, all varieties of nonfiction.  There’s so much wonderful stuff out there, I would be selling myself short by ignoring any genres or types of books.

Except there is one type I carefully avoid, and the time has come to admit it and try to do better.

Recently my Drum Hill Book group chose the book The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, as the book to read and discuss.  This wasn’t something that appeared out of nowhere, of course; I bring the selections to the group, trying to pick books that are likely to be interesting to the group which also have enough books of the right type (mostly large print) in the library system.  This time I included The Girl on the Train because it had the right numbers and I thought the group might enjoy a bestselling thriller.  I had never read the book before, because it was a bestseller that had been on the bestseller list for years.  I figured (and here’s where the snobbism comes in) that if it was a bestseller it was probably not a good book, and I would probably not enjoy it.

Well, the fact is that I did enjoy The Girl on the Train.  It’s not a great book, and, as some of the people in the book group noted, it wasn’t great literature, but then, it wasn’t trying to be.  It was a decent thriller, and the author did a good job of playing with perspectives and throwing one red herring after another, so that at different points I was convinced that different people (including one of the narrators) might have been the murderers. The twist was set up well (when you looked back, it made sense and didn’t come out of thin air), and the ending was satisfying.  

Are there things I wished had been better?  Sure.  Characters you could root for were few and far between, and there was no reason for the “girl” in the title (one of my bugbears in general), as Rachel, the supposed girl, was clearly an adult.  But even so, decent thrillers that play fair and have good twists and keep you guessing are books I often read and enjoy.  So the only reason I didn’t read this when it first came out was because it was popular.

Part of my snobbishness comes from my blog’s orientation: I figure bestsellers don’t need my promotion, as they’re already going to get lots of readers (I can’t be the only person who will read anything my favorite author writes).  And part of it is having been burned in the past (just because Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller didn’t mean it was good; ditto for Gone Girl, though the two are in no way in the same league of badness) and realizing that my taste seldom coincides with that of the great majority of book-buyers. 

But as they say, the first step toward changing your behavior is recognizing it, and from now on I won’t ignore bestsellers just because they’re bestsellers and popular.  Who knows?  I may find another favorite author that way.  No guarantees, of course, but I’ll at least give them a try.

MURDER WITH A LITERARY BENT: FIELD OF MYSTERY TAKES ON THE POSTSCRIPT MURDERS

Once again the FIeld of Mystery Book Group had a rousing discussion about a book about which most of the group had mixed feelings: When the Stars Go Dark, by Paula McLain.  Whether we were weighing the propriety of using a real life missing child case in a novel like this, or discussing the difference between compassion and insight with reference to the main character, or considering (at some length) whether the book was emotionally balanced, we had no difficulty talking about this book.  And when it came time to choose the book for next month, we actually ended up in a tie, which I broke (it was a tough call, too), and chose The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths.  Copies will be available at the Circulation Desk of The Field Library shortly.

Peggy Smith appears to be just an ordinary 90 year old woman, but there’s more to her, as her caretaker finds out after Peggy’s death. Her flat is filled with crime novels, all of which were dedicated to her.  It seems Peggy had a side hustle as a murder consultant for a crime novelist, helping him come up with different ways to kill off characters.  This wouldn’t be cause for the police to get involved with Peggy’s death, until a gunman breaks into Peggy’s flat and steals one book, the author of which is soon murdered.  The police officer to whom Natalka, Peggy’s caretaker, first went with suspicions about Peggy’s death, starts wondering whether there might have been something odd about that death, and the subsequent deaths of other crime writers.  The investigation, which includes other odd characters along with Detective Inspector Kaur, takes them deeply into the literary world, attempting to find out who’s killing these authors, why they’re being killed, and what those murders might have with a seemingly ordinary little old lady.

Join us on October 5 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the STEM room downstairs at the library for what promises to be a lively discussion of a twisted and intriguing mystery.

AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: FERAL CREATURES

As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I absolutely loved Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom.  It was one of my favorite books the year it came out.  When I heard there was a sequel, I was torn between excited anticipation (some fangirl squeeing involved) and apprehension.  Not only was Hollow Kingdom a wonderful book in itself, but it felt complete to me when I read it.  Yes, there was the ending which left some things up in the air, but on the whole, I felt the book said what it wanted to say.  We’ve all seen sequels to movies that really didn’t need sequels, some of which were so bad they actually made us rethink our liking for the original movie (The Matrix sequels come to mind, but of course there are others as well).  I really didn’t want to be in that position with respect to Hollow Kingdom, but at the same time I couldn’t resist putting Feral Creatures on hold so I would be the first one to read our library’s copy.

The verdict?  It’s a great book.  Not, perhaps, quite as outstanding as Hollow Kingdom, but that book had the advantage of being the first, of creating the painful and beautiful world that begins after humanity self-destructs.  That world is the background of Feral Creatures, so you don’t have the piercing joy of discovery.  At the same time, Feral Creatures delves deeper into some of the questions the first book didn’t raise, and the author’s insights are powerful.

We are, once again, hearing the story from S.T., the formerly domesticated crow who was a witness to the end of humanity’s reign over the world.  His position of straddling the two worlds, the wild and the human (or, as he refers to them, mofo’s) gave him insights that other creatures didn’t have, and made him the perfect narrator for the first book, and, as it turns out, for this one as well.  S.T. is a great narrator, funny and observant, snarky and witty, and capable of deep feeling.

He’s in a unique position here: as the book opens, some time after the end of Hollow Kingdom, S.T. is raising what he believes to be the last undamaged Mofo, an Inuit girl he named Dee.  With the help of a group of owls and other creatures, he’s trying to protect her and help her to grow up to be a human being.  There are a couple of problems with this.  One is that many of the wild creatures around them have reason to hate and fear all human beings, even innocent ones like Dee.  Another is that, for all his love and energy and the urgency of his desire to bring Dee up right, S.T. is not human himself, and we mofos are social animals at heart.  Without other human beings to teach her language and customs and culture, she is very unlikely to turn out to be an ordinary human.

Things have not gotten better in the years of Dee’s childhood and early adolescence.  While we might have assumed from the way things were going at the end of Hollow Kingdom that the last mofos would die out in horrible ways, it turns out we can’t even go extinct right.  Instead of the zombie-like creatures of the first book, the mofos now are evolving into different, and more horrible, creatures.  The world is becoming more dangerous than ever for wild creatures, and S.T. and Dee have to leave their haven in Alaska and return to Seattle to fight for what’s left. 

There’s plenty of adventure in the book, plenty of action, many wonderful characters (though not, perhaps, one to break your heart the way Dennis the dog did in the first book), but, as in Hollow Kingdom, there’s more going on than just adventure.  As we watch Dee try to figure out what she is, we start questioning what’s essentially human about us.  Are we doomed to violence?  Is it possible to be a true human being and at the same time be connected to the earth and to nature?  Dee is a figure of hope, as she was at the end of Hollow Kingdom, but she’s also a walking contradiction, and you ache for her, especially when she encounters the changed humans and realizes that they are — at least on some level — the same thing she is.

As S.T. desperately tries to protect his beloved Dee from the world the mofos have made, trying to make her human but not like the damaged humans, fighting against her animal nature at every step, you feel for him, especially if you’re a parent.  Yes, S.T.’s situation is unique, but on some level all parents are trying to find that balance between protecting our children from the cruelties of the world and letting them grow into what they really are, even if what they really are isn’t what we expected them to be.

Should you read Feral Creatures if you liked Hollow Kingdom?  Without a doubt.  You will not be disappointed, and you will be moved.  You should definitely read Hollow Kingdom first, of course, not just because this builds on the characters, situations and relationships of that book, but because it’s an excellent read in its own right.  While the book is dark and sad in a lot of places, it is, ultimately, a hopeful book, suggesting that maybe, even if we blow it, we might get another chance to live properly in this world.