Let’s be honest: haven’t we all, at one time or another, even for just a brief moment, wanted to be a supervillain?  Even I, probably the most Lawful Good you could be short of actual sainthood, have occasionally considered how much more fun it would be to bend the world to my wishes and run everything the right way.  

Whether or not you’re willing to admit to the occasional dream of being a supervillain, you will still enjoy Ryan North’s nonfiction book, How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain.  This is the most fun kind of nonfiction, the kind that keeps a straight face about its ostensible topic and sneaks in all kinds of serious, verifiable information under the pretense of helping you with whatever the ostensible topic is (say, time travel, or supervillainy).

In this case, the author (who’s a comic book writer who’s won a number of awards, so he definitely knows his supervillainy) treats the book as a practical manual for the would-be supervillain who wants to take over the world and do all kinds of dastardly things, but first needs to know how to do the basics, such as choose a hideout, supply one’s self with energy and the other essentials of life, and which particular grandiose schemes are, scientifically speaking, achievable and which are a waste of time and money.  North helpfully includes, at the end of every chapter, a summary of how much this particular aspect is likely to cost, what the downsides are, how long this is likely to continue working and what its profitability is likely to be, all the essentials a would be supervillain needs to take into account.

Along the way, you learn a lot about a variety of things both scientific and less so: how Antarctica is divided up and governed (this turns out to be very important for a supervillain), the geology of the planet (so you can decide whether it makes sense to try to hold the core of the earth hostage for more money than you have ever dreamed of), how to hack into computer systems and gain power for yourself almost legitimately (the “almost” in that sentence is doing a lot of work), how genetic manipulation would really work and what’s actually possible in terms of recreating extinct species, and space exploration in quite a lot of detail.  This is the kind of book where the footnotes make you laugh out loud, and where the sidebars are guaranteed to give you a look at something you’ve never considered but that turns out to be extremely warped and fascinating at the same time.

No book can please everybody; I myself was kind of disappointed by his treatment of time travel (long an interest of mine), and probably there will be schemes you’ve been dreaming about that get shot down by science and practicality in this book, but don’t worry. There are still plenty of ways North sets out whereby you can become rich and powerful beyond your wildest dreams and show the entire world who’s boss.  He even gives you ideas for how to become immortal (and here I have to use my favorite ever Woody Allen line: “I don’t want to become immortal through my work – I want to become immortal through not dying”, which North definitely agrees with) and how to make sure you’re not forgotten for varying lengths of time, including one where time itself seems to have no meaning.  Could you really ask for more from a library book?

This author also wrote the brilliant How to Invent Everything: a Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler, so if you love the humor and the information in this book, you should definitely check that one out as well.

Even if you’re feeling relatively Lawful Good and not in the mood to take over the world, you’ll still get a few good laughs out of How to Take Over the World. And, of course, if you really are plotting to take over the world for your villainous purposes, this is an essential part of your preparation.  Check it out.


What an excellent discussion we had at this Saturday’s meeting of the Field Notes Book Group!  Klara and the Sun certainly gave us food for thought and for discussion, and we took full advantage of it, talking about the soul, about genetic modification, about characters and what makes people human, as well as discussing the plot of this book.

It was a hard choice, but we ended up selecting our book for the month of June, for our meeting on June 18: South to America: a Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, by Imani Perry.  It’s a nonfiction book that’s part history, part current events, part travelog.  Perry, an African-American woman who came from Alabama, takes the position that the rest of America has conveniently demonized the South, placing all our racial sins on the shoulders of the southerners (who, to be fair, do deserve a certain amount of blame) to avoid facing the extent to which the entire country profited by slavery and white supremacy.   She argues that we cannot understand United States history and culture without really understanding the South.  And, to help in that endeavor, she travels through the South, starting in West Virginia (at Harper’s Ferry, in fact), and visiting all the Southern states, meeting people, looking at the area’s past and its present racial dealings.  She’s an excellent writer, a professor at Princeton University and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic magazine, and her insights are interesting, especially to people (like me) who have never spent much time below the Mason-Dixon line and get all their information about the South, especially the Deep South, from popular culture.

Copies of the book are available at the Field Library circulation desk.  Get one and then join us for what promises to be an interesting discussion.


One of my rules for this blog is that I will only post reviews of books that we actually have here at The Field Library.  Hey, it’s my job we’re talking about, and of course I want to promote my library.

So I was a little sorry that I wouldn’t be able to review The Dark Queens: the Bloody Rivalry that Forged the Medieval World, by Shelley Puhak, even though I devoured and loved the book.  I was on the verge of breaking my own rule so I could write about it when, to my delight, I discovered that yes, indeed, The Field Library has a copy of The Dark Queens.  

Read it.  It is so much fun.

Though I am an admitted history nerd, you don’t have to be nuts about history, or particularly knowledgeable about medieval history, especially the history of what later became France, to enjoy this book  The author is so skilled in bringing the characters, the places and the times to life that you will find yourself becoming knowledgeable even as you read on, eager to see what terrible things the major characters are going to do next.

The queens in question are Brunhild and Fredegund.  Brunhild was the daughter of a Visigoth king in Spain; Fredegund started her rise to power as a slave girl in one of the kingdoms of divided France.  They ended up as sisters-in-law, and each one became a powerful queen through her husband and through becoming regent for her son (and in one case, her grandson).  This was in an era when women did not formally have much power, but as the author makes clear, there were many ways for a woman, especially a high-born woman, to become a force in her world, whether on a throne or running a monastery.  

Amid the shifting alliances and ever changing boundaries between groups after the fall of the Roman Empire and before nations as we know them now began to emerge, the book is full of assassinations, invasions, betrayals, murders, suspicious deaths and incredible reversals of fortune, and the author makes them all vivid and exciting so you feel as if you’re reading a great epic novel and not a history book. I couldn’t put it down, and once you dive into it, you’ll be caught up, too. You may end up with a favorite character (I did), or you may just watch the machinations and alliances and betrayals with fascinated horror, but you will not be bored, and you will emerge from this book with a sense of chaotic early medieval history, and an appreciation for two women (at least) who refused to let little things like custom and church tell them what they could and couldn’t do.

The author reflects, at the end of the book, on how both queens were deliberately erased from history, but how they have both survived, in one form or another, in folk tales and legends.  She has done a marvelous job of bringing them into the light they deserve, and giving us a wonderful history lesson in the bargain.


You may not think you’d be interested in a book by John Scalzi, a well-known, award-winning science fiction author, especially when the book is called something as outrageous-sounding as The Kaiju Preservation Society.  You might be thinking, “I don’t like science fiction,” or “I don’t like books about monsters,” or even “What on earth is a Kaiju?”  

Let me tell you, you want to read this book.  It is great fun, a book you can devour in a day or two, and whatever your preconceptions about science fiction or monster books, this book will blow them away.  It is funny and exciting and just a romp, and don’t we all need a good fun read once in a while?

Our protagonist, Jamie, is an ordinary schlub, a man with a master’s degree in literature and a love of science fiction.  At the outset, he’s working for a startup just before the pandemic hits, and the man who’s running the startup (a horrible person we love to hate) fires him just for the hell of it, offering him a job as a “deliverator,” which is a glorified Grub Hub driver.  Things are going downhill until Jamie is offered a job by one of the people he’s delivering food to: working for an animal rights kind of organization, doing grunt work, but paying well.  He takes the job, more or less sight unseen, only to discover that it’s not the kind of animal rights organization he thought it was.

In fact, and this is where the book starts to get fun, his employer is the Kaiju Preservation Society, his job will take him to an alternate earth where, for some reason, mammals never evolved but giant monstrous kaiju did.  Think Godzilla and his ilk.  In fact, the first night Jamie and his cohort arrives at the base, they’re going to watch two movies, Godzilla and Pacific Rim. Most of the people working for KPS on site are scientists of one sort or another, studying these monsters, but there will always be a need for support staff to keep things going for the scientists, and that’s where Jamie comes in.  

Having Jamie as our protagonist means we don’t get a lot of scientific babble about how the creatures work or how the evolution of this particular planet occurred.  We get just enough to have a sense of their dangerousness and what it takes to stay alive here.  For those who are interested in the science, Scalzi gives you a few intriguing hints (the interaction between the Kaiju and their parasites, for instance, or the way the Kaiju are powered by atomic reactions, for another), but the focus here is on the characters and the story.

Jamie is a wise-ass, a genre-savvy character, but he cares about doing his job and he cares about the people he works with.  When a group of high-powered tourists comes to visit the planet, and it includes his former boss, Jamie begins to understand that maybe the Kaiju aren’t the most dangerous things on the planet, and maybe his job involves protecting the Kaiju from people as much as protecting people from Kaiju.  He’s not heroic in any way, shape or form; often he will trip and fall when setting foot on the planetary surface, he has to be trained in the use of weapons (and he has no natural skill with any of them), and his major job involves lifting stuff and dragging it around.  And yet, when push comes to shove, Jamie is one of the few people who might be able to prevent a disaster of cosmic proportions on our earth.

This book would make a wonderful movie.  It reads like a good action film; it moves quickly and is filled with plausible, interesting characters you want to root for (and characters you’re happy to root against).  The Kaiju aren’t described in any detail, so you can use your imagination to visualize them (and their parasites and the other creatures that inhabit this strange world).  

Whatever your feelings about monsters or science fiction, if you’re in the mood for a fun, quick page turner of a book written by a master of the genre, check out The Kaiju Preservation Society, and thank me later.


You don’t need to agree on all aspects of a book to have a good discussion.  The Field of Mystery Group had some major disagreements about certain aspects of our May book, Razorblade Tears, but we had a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion about the themes and characters of the book nonetheless.  And we managed to choose our book for June, which is My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa.

Talk about an intriguing premise and opening!  Paloma, the protagonist of My Sweet Girl, is a young woman who was adopted from a Sri Lankan orphanage as a child, and brought up with the best of everything.  When we meet her, for some reason she has been cut off from her adoptive parents’ money, and is trying to find a way to pay off her roommate, who is blackmailing her about something to do with her past in Sri Lanka.  She comes home to discover her roommate dead in a pool of blood.  When the police arrive on the scene, not only is the roommate’s body not there, nor is there any evidence of any murder, but there’s no evidence he was ever there in the first place.  Is Paloma’s secret safe, now that her would-be blackmailer is dead?  Or is she in more trouble than ever from whoever killed her roommate?  And what’s that secret she’s so terrified that anyone else will discover, and what, exactly, happened between her and her adoptive parents to make them cut her off?  

Copies of the book are already available at the Field Library circulation desk.  Join us when we meet on Saturday, June 4, at 10:30 (later than our usual meeting time) to discuss what promises to be a fun read.


As soon as I saw that Catriona Ward was coming out with a new book,Sundial, after her brilliant Last House on Needless Street, I knew I was going to want to read it.  An author who can surprise me without playing stupid tricks, who creates characters you think you understand until she reveals completely different sides to them, who fills her books with a sense of suspense amounting to dread: this is someone to follow.  And, despite the high expectations I had for Sundial after her last book, she did not let me down.  This is a page turner you won’t be able to put down.

Whereas Last House played with the conventions of serial killer novels, Sundial starts you out with what seems like a standard sort of suburban marital novel: husband’s cheating on wife, wife’s aware of it, they’re playing nasty games with each other and the children are being affected.  Except, of course, since we’re dealing with Catriona Ward, none of this is anything like normal.  The wife, Rob (even her name is strange), is really tightly wound, maybe even mentally ill.  Her thoughts about her children are disturbing, but she’s also writing a novel of her own for relaxation, and that novel, a take off on boarding house middle grade novels, goes far off the rails. Her husband, Irving, has something to hold over her head which he alludes to without being definite, something having to do with Rob’s past.  And the children – well, they’re different, too.  Annie, the younger daughter, seems a perfect innocent, but her older sister, Callie, shows signs she may also be anything but normal: she talks to “pale” creatures who might be ghosts, she has scary (to us) thoughts about her parents, she creates drawings of animals, on the backs of which she has glued the bones of the animals.  When things reach a peak, and Rob suspects Callie of trying to kill Annie (and we have some evidence that Callie may have done this, and other things, in the past), Rob realizes she has to do something, over her husband’s objections.  She decides to take Callie with her to Sundial, the remote outpost in the desert where Rob grew up among hippies and would-be scientists.

When the two of them are in Sundial, we bounce between the very tense and disturbing present (is Rob getting ready to kill Callie?) and Rob’s even more disturbing memories of her past, growing up with her twin, Jack, in a compound where their parents are reprogramming dogs to take away the dogs’ fear.  The relationship between Rob and Jack is clearly fraught, and the fact that Jack isn’t still around suggests dark secrets (as if we need more to make us tense in this environment).  Gradually we are led to suspect things about Rob and about what she’s capable of, but I want to remind you that Ward’s greatest skill is to lead you to the edge of certainty and then pull the rug out from under you, showing you something entirely different.  She does this with Rob, she does this with Irving, she does it with Callie, and I wouldn’t dream of giving any of this away because the revelations are literally breathtaking.

One warning I will give: if you are at all squeamish, this is not a book for you.  If you are upset by the thought of people hurting animals, this is not the book for you, either.  

If, on the other hand, you’re ready for a roller coaster of a read, with characters you care about (even though you don’t know them as well as you think you do) and a plot that continually surprises and horrifies you, you’re in the right place. Pick up Sundial and prepare to ignore everything else around you as you dive into this vivid and terrible world.


After a more contentious discussion than we usually have in the Field Notes Book Group on Saturday (only peripherally connected to our book this month, The Confidence Men), the group chose our book for the month of May, Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017, and one can hardly argue with the award.  Anyone who’s read his The Remains of the Day or his heartbreaking Never Let Me Go knows the breadth of his writing, his ability to create entirely different worlds and fill them with characters for whom we feel great compassion. From a World War II butler in England to a young woman living in a future startlingly like our present but with one significant difference, Ishiguro knows no limits.

Klara and the Sun, his latest book and the first since the Nobel Prize, is set in a somewhat dystopian future.  Our main character, Klara, is an Artificial Friend, waiting, at the outset of the book, in a store for someone to purchase her.  She’s extremely observant and a gifted mimic, and lives in hope that she will be bought and become a friend to some young person.  She’s purchased for a sickly teenager, but she’s been warned not to trust too much to the promises of human beings. The book, like so many of Ishiguro’s, asks deep questions about who we are, what makes us human, what is love.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk in advance of our May 21st meeting. Come and pick one up and join us for what promises to be an interesting discussion, complete with coffee and donuts.