FLOOD YOUR LIFE WITH BOOKS FOR THE NEW YEAR

I’ve been reading about this wonderful custom in Iceland called Jolabokaflod, in which people give each other books for Christmas and spend Christmas Eve reading their new books.  I think it’s a terrific idea and, though I’m too late for Christmas 2021, I want to propose we try it for New Year’s Eve.

It doesn’t have to involve gifts; it doesn’t even have to involve new books, though if you got new books for the holidays or if you went to the library to take out dozens of books because you’ve got some time off and thought you could catch up on your reading, you certainly could spend the time reading new books.  I just love, and want to encourage, the idea of setting aside a particular night to read.  Just read.  Dive into a book and let yourself be carried away.  Leave behind all the craziness of the world around you and remember why you love to read in the first place.

I’m proposing New Year’s Eve.  Yeah, I know in America we tend to spend New Year’s Eve at parties of various sorts, drinking too much and whooping it up as the old year ends and the new one begins, but especially this year with the Omicron COVID variant rampaging and many group events being curtailed or canceled altogether, it feels like a good time for a new ritual, something a little less dangerous and a little less likely to leave us starting the new year feeling hungover and a little delicate.  Considering that New Year’s Day is a holiday for many people, you don’t even have to feel guilty about staying up later than usual to finish just one more chapter, because you don’t have to get up early the next day.

I’ve got a stack of books I’m either reading at this moment or ready to start reading.  I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to a flood of books, a flood of reading, and beginning a new year pumped up with the delights of reading.  I hope you can join me.

WHAT MAKES A ROM COM WORK: THE SECONDARY CHARACTERS OF SECOND FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Romantic comedies are the comfort food of my reading life.  There, I’ve said it. 

Sometimes you just need to read something that you KNOW will make you feel good by the end, something that you can pretty much guarantee will not be depressing or dispiriting, something that might even make you laugh and get you a little weepy (but the good kind of weepy, if you know what I mean), and for me, that’s a good Romantic Comedy novel.  Over the last year or two, I’ve been mixing my usual dark and quirky reading fare (you know, mysteries and thrillers and the occasional Murderbot book) with palate cleansers of the Rom Com variety and it’s worked for me.  

My most recent encounter has been with Second First Impressions, by Sally Thorne, and a great fun read it was, too.  Reading it, I came to the conclusion that what makes a great rom com is the secondary characters, and in this book they were spectacularly fun.

Yes, I know the protagonists are important, too, and their attraction to each other (as well as the obstacles that keep them apart for most of the book) has to be realistic.  You have to want them to succeed, even if there are times in the course of the book where you really want to smack one or the other over the head to get them to act like sensible human beings.  In this case, the protagonists are Ruthie, a sweet and good hearted if somewhat easily-put-uponable (is that even a word?) person, who’s working like a maniac at a retirement home for rich people for years, and Teddy, the seemingly feckless son of the man whose company owns the retirement home and whose company may or may not decide to kill the whole place and redevelop it as something that will make more money.  Ruthie has low self-esteem and gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian years before; at this point she doesn’t believe she will ever leave this job.  Teddy, for all his tattoos and his apparent lack of seriousness, is also good-hearted and someone who falls head over heels in love with Ruthie, whether she believes in his love or not; he’s a kinder, better person than Ruthie gives him credit for being, as we see pretty much from the outset.  They are both good people with real issues, and they definitely deserve each other, so yes, we are rooting for them from the start.

But it’s the secondary characters who really make this book.  Let’s start with Melanie Sasaki, the temp who’s working with Ruthie as an administrator.  Mel is a firecracker, a person as full of life as Ruthie is full of repression.  Mel intends to straighten Ruthie out using what she calls the Sasaki Method, her own invention to walk Ruthie step by step from her blocked and repressed life into a life with a boyfriend and something more than just her job to look forward to. Mel is determined and clear-eyed, and she’s basically the backbone of the plot, keeping Ruthie moving in the right direction even as she distrusts Teddy as a potential boyfriend.  Mel is the kind of best friend you want in your corner, no matter how pathetic your life may seem.

And then let’s turn to the Parloni sisters, who are so much fun to read about (possibly not as much fun to work for, but we don’t have to do that, do we?).  They’re both old, Renata being 91 and Agatha being 89, but don’t think of your stereotypical old ladies.  They’re bawdy and demanding and loud and insistent on getting what they want.  What they want, or what they claim to want, is an assistant, preferably a young and good-looking man, to be at their beck and call, to run whatever errands they choose (and some of their errands are pretty out there) and basically to put up with whatever abuse they choose to dole out.  These assistants don’t last; some don’t make it through the first week.  When the Parlonis are between young men, Ruthie ends up doing their bidding, so she definitely knows what’s involved in throwing someone to the Parlonis, and she also has a serious interest in making sure they fill that position. Naturally she gives them Teddy, more as a means of getting rid of someone who seems so smug, so commitment-phobic, so unused to working for his living. To everyone’s surprise (well, maybe not Teddy’s), he turns out to be the perfect assistant for them, even bringing them to the tattoo parlor of which he’s trying to become a part owner.  It makes perfect sense that Renata would want a particular tattoo, despite never having had one in the past, and it makes even more sense that she wouldn’t tell anyone else what her tattoo is going to look like (and by the time we get to that point in the book, having seen Renata in action, I would have been willing to believe any kind of tattoo, from the most garish to the most obscene to the most all-encompassing). I believe I want to be one of the Parlonis when I grow up.

There are other secondary characters in the book, from Teddy’s half-sister, Rose, who’s been deputized to make a close inspection of the property and decide its fate, to Kurt, the owner of the secondhand store where Ruthie buys her clothes (who has something of a crush on Ruthie himself, suggesting that Ruthie’s low self-esteem might not be all that valid), and they’re all good and well-drawn, but it’s the persistence and brilliance of Mel and the old lady wildness of the Parlonis that really makes this book stand out among its peers.

Since I have been complaining lately about books that screw up their twists and don’t know how to end properly, I must say there’s a twist that comes late in this book that was not only genuinely surprising but genuinely moving (I mean, full on putting-the-book-down-to-cry moving; I can’t remember the last time I did that), and that worked perfectly in the context of the rest of the book.

Funny, goodhearted, full of life and energy, and of course containing a happy ending: if you need a good comfort read, you could hardly do better than Second First Impressions.  

FIELD NOTES TO START 2022: NO GODS, NO MONSTERS

Thanks so much, Omicron variant of COVID.  Because of concerns and uncertainties brought about by this lovely new variant (you can hear the sarcasm, can’t you?), we had the last Field Notes Book Group meeting of 2021 over zoom.

It’s not just that we’re all tired of zoom and virtual meetings.  It’s not just that we had been meeting in person for several months and had just gotten used to it.  It’s really that virtual meetings aren’t as good as live ones.

If everyone had perfect wifi in their houses, if everybody’s computers never glitched, if zoom itself were without glitches, then maybe you could relax with a virtual meeting.  However, in the real world, people have unstable internet connections, people have trouble hearing each other or speaking in a meeting, and people freeze up or get bounced out of meetings, and it’s just not the same as (and by that I mean inferior to) an in person meeting.

End of rant.

We managed, despite the difficult circumstances, to discuss The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue and our book selections over the course of the year, and we managed to choose the book for next month, so it was, ultimately, a successful book group meeting, if flawed by circumstances beyond our control.

Our selection for January of 2022 is No Gods, No Monsters, by Cadwell Turnbull. This is the kind of quirky book that appeals to me and I hope will appeal to the rest of the group as well.  It starts out as the sort of story you think you know: an African American woman, Laina, gets the news that her brother has been shot and killed by police.  But her assumptions and ours are turned upside down when a video from the police officers’ body cams shows that her brother, while technically unarmed at the time of the shooting, was in fact in werewolf form, and only turned human again after his death.  Thus begins a series of revelations of other so-called monsters emerging from the shadows to claim safety through visibility.  But not all the monsters want to be known, and all kinds of other strange things are happening: disappearances, suicides, hate crimes increase.  And the underlying question that’s most disturbing of all is: why now?  What’s brought these creatures into the light in the first place?

This should lead to a fun discussion, and one I hope we’ll be able to have live and in person on January 15.  Copies of the book have been put on hold and will be available soon, so if you’re interested, come and pick up a copy and join us for what promises to be a wild ride.

MURDERBOT KILLS THEM AT WORLDCON

I am more than delighted to report that Network Effect, the most recent Murderbot book by Martha Wells (and the first Murderbot novel — the rest have been novellas), won the Hugo award for Best Novel in 2021.  And, I might add, it won over a very tough field of competitors, including The City We Became, which I also loved.  On one hand, I’m glad I didn’t have to vote in this competition, but on the other hand, I am so very happy that Murderbot won again, not only because this was a wonderful book that I pretty much inhaled when it first came out, but also because winning awards means the series is likely to continue for more volumes, giving us something more to look forward to.

Just adding a little icing to the cake, Murderbot also won the Hugo for Best Series, and while I might be a little prejudiced in its favor, I have to say it’s been consistently a fun read, filled with action and great characters, including ART (one of my personal favorites, and a character in Network Effect), Dr. Mensah, and, of course, Murderbot itself, irascible, sarcastic, wishing only to be let alone to watch its series but still always finding itself saving those pesky human beings. 

Congratulations to Martha Wells for her splendid achievement, and may Murderbot continue to grumble and complain and roll its eyes at us ridiculous human beings for many years to come.

CLICHE ENDING NEEDS TO STOP

In S. E. Hinton’s book, The Outsiders, published in 1967, the end of the book was Ponyboy’s writing down the story of recent events for a school paper, and — what a surprise — the story he’s starting to write is the novel we’ve just read.

That was an interesting way to end a book, in 1967.  Over the decades that have passed since then, that kind of ending has become more and more frequent, and less and less interesting. It has, in fact, become kind of a cliche, almost as annoying as the “and then he woke up and it was all a dream” ending.  

This ending is one reason I’m always a little leery of books where the main character is a writer, or wants to be a writer; the chances that the book I’ve just read will turn out to be — what a surprise — written by that main character increase.

I recently read a book (and no, I won’t name it; as you know, I don’t name books I don’t like, for the most part), and I had mixed feelings about it as I was reading it, but having that “and he wrote the book with the title of the book you’re reading” as part of the ending just tipped the scales against the book for me. 

It’s laziness on the part of the author. We’re not going to believe this is a true story just because of this trick. It’s not going to bestow any more credibility on events in the book that feel incredible. It feels as if the author is doing some special pleading, trying to get the readers to like the book more because they like the character in the book who supposedly wrote it.  It suggests that the author can’t think of another plot or set of characters for this character to create. 

None of these is a good thing to be thinking about at the conclusion of a book you just read. 

The trope can be done with a little cleverness (the book version of Freaky Friday did it in an amusing way), or it can be done a little obliquely (some might say the ending of The Once and Future King is a version of this trope).  And if the rest of the book is really good and well-written, I’m willing to overlook this little detail, though I guarantee I will roll my eyes at it even if I still like the book. 

But frankly, it’s past time to retire this type of ending.  It’s not clever, it’s not deep, and, at least in my case, when I see an author pulling this kind of thing, I make a mental note not to read anything else by this author.  Give me a good ending, a clever twist, something that reaches back to the beginning of the book in an original way. Give me a “and that book he wrote is what you just read” and the book is in danger of getting thrown across the room.

BOOK GROUP YEAR IN REVIEW: AN EXCELLENT IDEA

One thing I’ve started to do in the last few years with my book groups is to have a little review at the end of the year, letting people vote on which of the books we read together was their favorite and which ones they liked the least. It’s such a good way to wrap up a year together, for all kinds of reasons.

The obvious one is to see what kind of books the group enjoyed most, to help figure out what to suggest for the upcoming year.  Sometimes the vote is straightforward, and there were one or two books which everybody liked, but of course sometimes (especially if your book group tends to be a bit opinionated and contentious) there aren’t any clear “winners.”  Even if there isn’t one book or type of book that comes out ahead with most of the people in the book group, you can still get a sense, in that retrospective, of what people tend to prefer.

But it’s also good because it gives the members a chance to remember what they’ve read over the course of the year. More than once I’ve presented a list of the books from a book group and people looked at it and had no idea what certain books were, even when they were given the titles. We read a lot of things, both in and out of book groups, and often the things you read most recently crowd out things you’ve read long ago.  It can be such fun to be reminded of something you liked when you read it six months ago but that you haven’t thought of in months.  And if a book sparked a lively discussion when you first encountered it, odds are good people will remember that discussion and maybe even return to it (lively discussions are always a good thing in book groups; dead air is a problem). 

And finally, the best thing about a retrospective of the year’s books is the way it reminds all the members of the group of their adventures together over the course of the year. A good book group (and I believe all my book groups are good ones, though I might be slightly biased) will develop a certain camaraderie over time, connections between and among members, a sense of community.  Recalling our past discussions, the things we laughed at and the things we argued about reminds us all of how connected we are as a group, and helps us all keep together over the course of the upcoming year.  Especially in a (maybe) post-pandemic year when we’ve run the gamut from zoom meetings to live and in person meetings, anything that reminds us of what keeps us coming back is a strength, and something to encourage.

So if you’re in a book group, or running a book group (have I mentioned how much I enjoy running book groups?), consider a year end retrospective, looking back on all the things you’ve read together over the year.  You might be surprised at how enjoyable that is, and you might end up making it a book group tradition.

FIELD OF MYSTERY APPROACHES THE NEW YEAR WITH A BANG: 1222

The Field of Mystery Book Club, meeting for the last time in 2021 on Saturday, had a rousing discussion about our December selection, The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino.  We were delighted by the intricacies of the plot, discussed our mixed feelings about whether the crime in this case (or crimes, as it turned out) should be solved or whether the character(s) should get away with murder, and wondered whether Ishigma was a decent math teacher or not (we concluded he probably wasn’t).  The battle of wits intrigued us all, regardless of our feelings for some of the other characters.  Then, when it came time to choose our selection for January, we had no trouble at all making the selection (on the first vote!): 1222 by Anne Holt.

You could think of this book as a sort of Norwegian And Then There Were None.  The story begins with a train derailment in winter in northern Norway, in the middle of a blizzard.  The passengers leave the train to stay, temporarily, in an old hotel that’s all but abandoned, with only a skeleton crew of staff staying there. Among the passengers is one Hanne Wilhelmsen, a former police officer, now confined to a wheelchair after a gunshot wound, and it turns out to be fortuitous that someone as sharp as Hanne is among them, because almost immediately one of the passengers dies in the hotel.  Hanne starts looking into the death, and another person dies.  Everyone’s still stuck in the hotel due to the blizzard, and it’s beginning to seem like a death trap, where time is running out.

Copies of the book are available at The Field Library circulation desk, so come in and pick yours up and then get ready for what should be a dynamic read and a fascinating discussion when we have our first meeting in 2022 on January 8 at the library.

PUBLISHERS PLAYING GAMES WITH READERS

What do V.C. Andrews, Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, Robert Parker and Dr. Seuss have in common?  

They’re all dead people who are still, somehow, publishing new books regularly.

Now, I have nothing against the idea of dead authors continuing to write and publish.  In fact, I think it would be really cool.  Imagine what Charles Dickens would have to say about modern British (or American) society.  Or what James Baldwin would be writing in 2021, or what Philip K. Dick might come up with if he were aware of modern technology.  The mind boggles.

However, that’s not what’s happening here. What’s happening is that books are coming out with the names of these dead authors prominently displayed, even though they haven’t written a word of the book in question.  Often, as in the case of Robert Ludlum or Robert Parker or Tom Clancy, there’s another author’s name on the cover, much lower and much less prominent, but sometimes the author’s name is just printed there without even an acknowledgment that the author had nothing to do with the book in question (V.C. Andrews, for instance, wrote 7 of her books before her death; everything after that has been written by someone else who STILL, even though people know who it is, doesn’t get any credit for the books).

It’s a kind of fraud, which is annoying in itself, but it also turns authors into commodities. This isn’t a unique product of an author’s imagination, it says: this is a Tom Clancy product, manufactured to his specifications, just like every other Tom Clancy product.  And if people want the original item, and not someone else’s version of those characters, it would be better to only put the name of the actual author on the book, so a reader can make up their own mind about whether they want to read this author’s take on the characters.

I know what the argument is from the publisher’s side: people love these series and they want more books about, say, Spencer (Parker’s creation) or Jason Bourne (Ludlum’s), and they associate these characters with the author’s name, so the publisher is doing readers a service by prominently showing the dead author’s name on the cover.

To which I say, nonsense.  People have been writing about famous characters for a long time (how many different versions of Sherlock Holmes are there out there?), and readers have been able to find the books they’re looking for without having to see the name of a dead author purporting to have written this latest version.  If you want people to know this is a book about, say, Spencer or Jesse Stone, or Jason Bourne or whoever, you can put the character’s name on the cover.  They’ve been doing that with James Bond books for decades, after all, and nobody seems to have any trouble buying those. 

Let’s have honesty in books.  If Tom Clancy isn’t writing the books, don’t put his name on the cover.  If you’re a fan of Spencer, you’ll find books in his series even if they don’t pretend to be by Robert Parker. Give us a little credit and stop treating readers as if we’re unable to read.