When you read a short description of Steven Rowley’s book, The Guncle, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve read this book, or a version of this book before.  It appears to fit into the category of “(Nicer) Scrooge Story Without the Ghosts and the Christmas Trappings”, where the main character is a seeming curmudgeon or difficult person who is redeemed and revealed to be a much better person by reason of encountering another family or children and spending time with them. There’s nothing wrong with this category; Frederik Backman has done very well by playing with it for years.  It’s just that The Guncle isn’t one of those books, not by a long shot.

Upon the death of his sister in law and his brother’s going into rehab for a drug addiction, Patrick, a gay former situation comedy star who has been living in isolation in Palm Springs, is induced to take on his brother’s two children, Maisie and Grant, while their father is in rehab. Sounds like the trope, doesn’t it?  And while it is a heartwarming story of family, and dealing with grief, it transcends the stereotype mostly because of the kind of character Patrick is.

To put it simply, he’s wonderful.  As a patron said when I asked her about the book (before I read it myself), “He’s the guncle we all wish we had.” He doesn’t start out the book as seemingly misanthropic or difficult; he’s clearly different from the norm, but he’s charming and funny and you find it difficult to imagine that someone like Patrick has actually isolated himself (though there are reasons, and you learn them over time).

His first reaction, when his brother asks him to take the kids, is to refuse, loudly and clearly. He’s not interested in children, not even his niece and nephew, and he believes he has no idea how to take care of them or how to deal with their grief at their mother’s death.  In fact, the impetus for his changing his mind and taking the kids is the intervention of his bossy sister, Clara, who announces that it’s ridiculous for someone like Patrick to look after these children when she has great amounts of experience, having parented her stepchildren. It’s so perfect that Patrick would get his back up and decide to take the responsibility just because his sister gets on his nerves; anyone who has adult siblings can relate.

And, despite his lack of experience with children in general and with these kids in particular, Patrick does an excellent job of taking care of Maisie and Grant.  He makes mistakes, of course, but the kids are generally willing to cut him a break or two, and an uncle who lets them wear what they like, who swims with them in his pool every day and takes them frequently to the dinosaur park, not to mention making Christmas in the summer, even exchanging presents with them and putting up a pink Christmas tree, is worth cultivating, especially since they don’t have a lot of alternatives at this stage of their lives.  

They’re grieving and so is Patrick.  Patrick was friends with their mother, Sara, before she ever met and married Patrick’s brother, and he is as heartbroken by her death as the kids are, as his brother is.  He’s also carrying the grief from the death, years before, of the man he loved, Joe (who sounds, from Patrick’s memories, like a great person). That loss largely drove Patrick out of Hollywood, out of the industry, and into relative isolation.  Patrick has little experience dealing with grief, and a great deal of experience avoiding dealing with it, but somehow he manages to find ways to reach Maisie and Grant, even when they’re behaving their worst, and the three of them begin to heal together.

Of course Patrick, and his relationship with Grant and Maisie, is the heart of the book, and I would probably read anything in which he was a main character, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other delightful and well realized characters populating the book.  Clara, the sister, is almost a stereotype, playing the part of the person who tries to take the children away from Patrick (this is not the main plot, in case you’re worried about cliches), but even she turns into a full-fledged person and not a cartoon villain.  Patrick’s delightful neighbors, JED (what Patrick calls a “throuple”, a threesome of gay men who live together), his new agent, whom he keeps referring to by the names of various mountains (her real name is Cassie Everest — this is Patrick’s sense of humor), and Emory, Patrick’s new friend (who might turn into more) are fun every time we encounter them. 

Yes, it’s a heartwarming book in which all the characters get a chance to change and grow, but don’t worry — there’s nothing saccharine about it, because there is no way in this world that Patrick would ever allow a book starring him to be anything saccharine.  If you’re in the mood for a fun read with lovable characters and great heart, definitely check out The Guncle


Given my long term love for Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (when is he going to write another one of those books?) and for his version of Macbeth (the perfect match), no one should be surprised that I immediately grabbed his newest book, Jealousy Man, which is a collection of short stories, and devoured it immediately.  Knowing my feelings about Nesbo’s writing, is there anything new I can say about Jealousy Man?

Yeah. Damn, the man can write short stories!

This is not a given.  The Harry Hole books are full length novels, and they’re built on multiple plotlines, multiple characters, interacting. Some of those plotlines take several books to come to a conclusion, and characters continue from book to book, changing over time.  You can’t do all those things in short stories; you’re limited, usually, to one plotline and a few characters, a short time period and a tight set of locations.  

The best stories in this book, in my opinion, are the longer ones, which might be novelette length rather than, technically, short stories.  Yes, some of the real short stories here are fine: the opening story, “London”, manages to create two characters, an interesting concept and a twist in few pages, and “The Line” is chilling and effective in a very tight form, and the others are good, certainly readable and enjoyable, if dark.  He really does his best work, though, in the longer stories.

The title story, “The Jealousy Man” involves two separate characters who have gotten away with murder, one of them a police officer, one a person of interest in a police investigation.  The characters are complex, the setting (a Greek island) unusual for Nesbo, and the plot’s strands mingle past and present to turn the story into a meditation on guilt and second chances that’s fascinating.

And then there’s “Rat Island,” the longest story in the book, and the one that caused me to put the book down and walk away for a while when I finished it.  It’s a dystopian story about the aftermath of a virus and the breakdown of civilization (gee, wonder when he got that idea, huh?), and how the people who remain cope.  He manages to give us two different point of view characters, very different (this is tough to do in a short story) but both survivors, and the story turns on questions of relationships, of revenge, of what the rule of law means when all the institutions that enforce the laws are falling apart.  It’s a page turner of a story, the only one that comes close to the level of dark violence you find in the Harry Hole novels (though not quite as horrible as that), and ultimately you’re left thinking about morality and whether there are any good people in the story.

He stretches into some speculative fiction concepts in “The Cicadas” and in “The Shredder,” and takes the big concepts of multiple timelines and of eternal life and turns them into very human, albeit very dark, stories.  

If you’re a fan of Jo Nesbo, of course you should read this book.  There are no Harry Hole stories, unfortunately, but the stories here are thought provoking and disturbing.  If you’re not a fan of Nesbo because of his often gruesome violence, you might want to try this book because he doesn’t go quite as far here, and it’s a good introduction to the way he thinks and the way he writes.  It’s a page-turner, it’s well-written and it will haunt you.  


Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again, as the leaves change, the pumpkins ripen, the decorations cover people’s houses and yards.  Halloween is at hand, and, to help celebrate it, The Field Library has some new creepy reads to keep you up late, noticing every little sound outside and inside your house. 

Want something a little self-aware, a little meta?  You could hardly do better than Stephen Graham Jones’ newest novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw.  The book has been described as Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th.  The protagonist, Jade Daniels, is a half-Indian outcast with an absent mother, an abusive father, and a world of anger inside her.  She protects herself emotionally by a devotion to horror movies, especially the kind where the slasher comes back to avenge himself or herself on a town that did him or her wrong.  She looks at her town through that lens, and when the murders actually start happening, she’s the only one who can see clearly what’s going on.  It’s one thing to be a fan of slasher movies; it’s another thing to be living in one.

If I told you one of the newest horror books involves a talking pig, you’d probably be skeptical, and yet, that’s the premise of Pearl, Josh Malerman’s newest novel, and it promises to be an extremely creepy book.  There’s a report in a high school that a 7th grader beheaded one of his pigs, at the insistence of Pearl, another of the family’s pigs.  Naturally, high school kids being what they are, several of them have to check this out for themselves, and when they arrive at the barn in question, they come face to face with Pearl, who starts manipulating their minds.  One of the group is attacked by a swarm of pigs at Pearl’s command, and though one girl gets free enough to call 911, of COURSE the police laugh off her story.  But now Pearl has discovered he has the ability to reach human minds at a greater distance, and there’s a whole world waiting for him beyond the barnyard.

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the cover of Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw is utterly scary, as befits its contents.  There’s an old mansion in Japan which was built on the bones of a bride, and its walls are stuffed with the remains of girls sacrificed to keep the bride company.  Classic haunted house, right?  And the last place people should be getting together to celebrate a wedding, of all things, but this is horror and people are reckless in horror and do things they really shouldn’t.  In this case, the party dissolves into drunkenness and pain as old secrets are revealed, but that’s just the prelude before the house, and the angry ghost in it, takes over.

Come and check them out, but be sure to keep the lights on, just in case.


The Field Notes Book Group surpassed its usual high level of discussion on Saturday as we talked about Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, our October selection.  We touched on issues of patriarchy, parenting, consent, what kind of person the protagonist really was, what kind of person her clone was, the responsibility of a cloned person for the actions of the man from whom he was cloned, and other topics.  It was such a lively discussion that we barely had a chance to look at the selections for the month of November. At the request of one of the members, I had specifically limited our selections to books that could be considered uplifting. It was such a close vote that I had to be the tie-breaker, and while I would have been happy reading any of the selections (which is usually the case; after all, I’m the one who selects them in the first place), I threw my weight behind Ruth Hogan’s The Keeper of Lost Things, so that’s what we’ll be reading for next month.

Anthony Peardew had an unfortunate experience 40 years ago when he lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancee and she died shortly thereafter.  He then started dedicating himself to finding lost things and writing about them and trying to reunite them with their owners.  As he grew older and closer to death, he began to worry that he hadn’t done enough with his lost treasures, and so he left everything, including his treasures and his life’s mission, to his unsuspecting assistant, Laura.  

Laura had been something of a lost soul herself, in the aftermath of a bitter divorce.  When she inherited Anthony’s mansion and lost things (and an irritable ghost in the bargain), she wasn’t sure how she could possibly do what Anthony wanted her to do.  And then, in small steps, she began to reenter the world, reaching out to the neighbor’s daughter, Sunshine, to the gardener, Freddy, and developing new friendships as she tried to do what Anthony would have done himself: bring the lost things to those who needed them back.

Join us in November for our discussion of what promises to be a charming and uplifting book.  I can’t guarantee that we’ll have quite the same far-ranging discussion we had this month, but I’m sure we’ll have a good time with The Keeper of Lost Things.


When I read the last page of Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples’s 9th volume of Saga, the amazing science fiction graphic novel series, I was heartbroken (you know why, if you read it, and if you haven’t yet, I’m not going to spoil it for you), but I was even more heartbroken when years passed and there was no succeeding volume.  The creators said they were burned out and needed time to regroup, but I was afraid (and I bet a lot of other fans were, too) that the writer and artist would never come back to this series and that heartbreaking spot would be the end of it.

Fortunately for all of us, Saga is not dead, and the next edition will be published in January, 2022, and will continue for years to come. 

Now, if you’re asking why you should care, let me explain why Saga is such an outstanding series.  If you’re a reader of speculative fiction, or if you’re a reader of graphic novels in general, you owe it to yourself to read this terrific series, which has won numerous awards including the Eisner (in graphic novels) and the Hugo (in speculative fiction).

But even if you don’t consider yourself an aficionado of either of these genres, you’re missing out if you don’t at least try Saga, and let me tell you why.  It’s science fiction with a heart, telling the story of two star-crossed lovers from different planets which happen to be at war with each other.  Alana met Markos when he was a prisoner of war and she his guard, and they ultimately fell in love with each other and had a child, Hazel, together. Their marriage, and especially their child, have put them in the cross hairs of the leaders of both sides of the war, and they are on the run for their lives for most of the series. After all, if Alana’s people and Markos’ people can fall in love and have children together, how can you continue to justify this endless war?   Along the way they encounter all kinds of aliens, some of whom become their allies and their found family, some of whom are out to kill them.  The worldbuilding alone, the variations on the different kinds of beings that populate those worlds, are incredible, but at no point do the author and artist forget that the beings they’re depicting are individuals, shaped by their different cultures but accepting or rebelling against those cultures in their own individual ways.  It’s so refreshing to have authors who don’t treat other cultures, including alien cultures, as monoliths.  And what characters fill these pages!  We all have our favorites (Lying Cat is extremely popular, for instance), but the most important thing is that none of them is flat, all of them have the potential to change and most of them do, over the course of this long story.  We care so much about these characters that when bad things happen to them (and they do), we hurt for them.

You have time between now and next January to start the series and get caught up, and I encourage you to do that.  You will not be sorry.


Possibly it’s a result of my having been exposed to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths at an early age, but I’ve long been fascinated by Greek mythology, and especially by retellings and modernizations of Greek myths.  I’m obviously not alone in this (Hadestown, now on Broadway again, is a modern version of two myths, and very popular), and I’ve written about other versions of those myths before (Neon Gods; WAKE, SIREN).  Most recently I read a Young Adult version of the story of Ariadne and Theseus, Lifestyles of Gods and Monsters, by Emily Roberson, which gives the old story an intriguing new twist.

The book’s setting is kind of hard to pin down.  On one hand, people travel by ships as they did in the days of ancient Greek city-states, and worship the Greek gods.  On the other hand, apparently there is an internet and influencers and television shows that are seen all over the (known?) world.  The characters in this setting are a quirky mix of very modern (cameras all over the place, everyone using cell phones, people paying close attention to their ratings on television shows) and ancient (priests taking auspices from doves, gods telling mortals what they’re supposed to do), and it works well enough that you seldom stop to think about how these modern appurtenances could coexist with the worldview of the gods and fate.

Our main character is Ariadne, third daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, the rulers of Crete.  Her two older sisters are beautiful and presented as kind of vain and self-centered (though we do get to see another side of them, which is a good thing), with their own reality show, The Paradoxes, which focuses on their fashions and their romantic lives.  She also has a younger brother whom nobody refers to as a member of the family: Asterion, known to the rest of the world as the Minotaur.  

One of the things I really like about this book is the way the author brings Asterion to life, and shows us the complicated relationship between Ariadne and Asterion.  He’s a monster, but he’s also a boy, and it seems only Ariadne is capable of seeing him as the latter.  True, when he’s in his monster mode he’s terrible, devouring live cows, killing the sons and daughters of Athens sent to Crete as tribute, causing earthquakes in Crete by smashing into the walls of his underground prison.  But Ariadne, the Keeper of the Labyrinth, is able to call him back from his monster stage so she can see his human eyes, and though he can’t speak with his mouth, he and she share a sign language so she can communicate with him. She loves him as her brother, and her constant prayer is for him to be healed.  She spends a lot of energy trying not to see the other side of him.

The battle of the labyrinth is good television, or it used to be back in the early days when there was a genuine sense that sooner or later one of the young Athenians might actually defeat the Minotaur.  As time went on, however, and every single one of the tributes got destroyed by the Minotaur, the show’s ratings dropped, much to the displeasure of Minos.  The show is still broadcast with all the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics in modern days, and there are echoes of The Hunger Games in the depiction of the broadcasts.

Theseus’ entry into the games changes things, and not just because he’s a prince of Athens and not just a handsome athlete.  He and Ariadne fall in love, and suddenly the ratings for the show jump up with the possibility that Ariadne might betray her family and her country because she’s in love, for the first time, and with the son of her people’s enemy.  Ariadne’s family pushes her to play up her romance with Theseus, not that she needs a lot of encouragement there, but Theseus wants to bring an end to the games and Ariadne wants to protect her brother.

Ariadne’s internal struggle makes this more interesting than the original story, in which she just casually betrayed her family by giving Theseus the ball of thread that would allow him to find the Minotaur, destroy it, and get out of the labyrinth again. The author cheats a little by making Asterion himself play a part in the final resolution, but, given what we’ve seen of Asterion and his relationship with Ariadne, his contribution works here, and his death is genuinely poignant (as the Minotaur’s death isn’t in the myth).

The characters struggle with the question of fate, of whether they have choices or whether everything is already determined by the gods. As befits a modern book about young adults, the weight comes down on the side of choice, though there are also revelations about what the gods actually want as compared to what people in power report that the gods want.

Anyone familiar with the original story will be wondering how the author’s going to deal with the later part of it, where Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos after she saved him from the Minotaur.  You can’t have Theseus as an unadorned good guy and have him abandon his beloved; either he’s not such a good guy or he wasn’t really in love with her, and neither of these possibilities is available to Roberson.  Without giving anything away, I will say that she finesses it quite well, and the ending is satisfying.

Is it a perfect book?  Not quite; there isn’t a decent adult in the book (this may be a function of its being a YA book, of course), the labyrinth didn’t really need the addition of various kinds of traps to make it more exciting, and Theseus is a little too good to be true (even in a myth), but these are small quibbles in the light of a creative and ultimately moving take on an old familiar myth.  If you’re into Greek mythology, check out Lifestyles of Gods and Monsters.


The 2021 National Book Awards short list has just come out, and you can check out four of the five possibilities at The Field Library.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a new book by Anthony Doerr, whose last book was the Pulitzer-Prize winning and bestselling All the Light We Cannot See. This book is more ambitious, covering three different storylines in three different historical periods, connected by a single story. Anna, an orphan in 15th century Constantinople, reads the story to her sick sister as the city is besieged.  In a library in modern-day Idaho, an elderly man rehearses a play of that story with five children, not realizing someone has planted a bomb in the library where they are practicing.  And years in the future,  a woman on a spaceship who has never even seen earth is piecing together that same story as she remembers her father telling it to her.  A novel about our interconnectedness and what we owe to the past and to the future.

Lauren Groff, the author of the novel Matrix, is also no stranger to awards after her last bestseller, Fates and Furies.  Her new book, Matrix, is a historical novel set in the 12th century.  Marie de France, the protagonist, is thrown out of the court of Eleanor of Acquitaine and sent to England to be the abbess of an impoverished and run down abbey.  Here Marie finds her niche and builds the abbey up from a place of starving, sick women into a powerhouse, all the while fighting against the cultural limitations on women’s power in the period.

The Prophets, a debut novel by Robert Jones, Jr., is a love story between two enslaved young men on a plantation in the Deep South, but much more than that.  Isaiah and Samuel’s love is something all the other enslaved people know about, but it doesn’t cause any particular problems until one man, another enslaved person, seeking to curry favor with the master, starts preaching the Gospel and turning people against each other. The cast of characters includes not only the white people and the African American people living on the plantation, but also the spirits of the African Americans’ ancestors, and, though it’s a book set in the antebellum era in the South, it also speaks to our present circumstances.

Often awards committees choose what I call “wild card” books, books that are unusual in their structure, content, style, and I would nominate Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book for the 2021 wild card selection.  It’s a book about an African American on a seemingly endless and absurd book tour, fighting off pressure from his agent to write another book (but nothing too racial, which, according to the agent, won’t sell), and dealing with The Kid, a possible hallucination, possibly imaginary companion. At the same time, and running parallel to the author’s adventures, there’s a storyline about Soot, a young African American boy trying to learn how to be invisible in order to stay safe in White America.  The book has been described as funny and heartrending at the same time, and has been compared to the best of Kurt Vonnegut.

So if you’re interested in what might be the best novels written this year, be sure to check out these National Book Award shortlist selections here at The Field Library.


With book clubs, sometimes it’s really difficult to choose the next book (and I have to be the tie-breaker; I don’t vote in these situations unless there’s a tie), and sometimes it’s pretty straightforward.  In the Field of Mystery Book Group meeting last night, we had no problem deciding which of the selections would be our book for November: The King of Lies, by John Hart.

The King of Lies is set in a small town in North Carolina, where Jackson “Work” Pickens is carrying on after his mother’s death and his father’s disappearance.  Work took over his father’s law practice when his father disappeared, and in the time since then, he’s seen it dwindle from the powerhouse Ezra had created to something that’s barely dragging along.  His marriage isn’t exactly falling apart, but he and his wife have little in common as his wife spends most of her time at the country club.  Things are tolerable until Ezra’s body is found.  

It comes out that Ezra left a fortune, and that means both Work and his sister are prime suspects in their father’s murder.  Work knows his sister was seriously damaged by their father, but he doesn’t believe she’s capable of murder, and he knows he didn’t kill his father.  As he investigates and runs into the official police investigation, old secrets rise to the surface about the family, about the town, about Work himself, and his whole life is blown apart.

Copies of the book will be available at the Field Library circulation desk.  Join us on November 6 for what promises to be an interesting discussion.