OCTOBER FIELD NOTES: THINK AGAIN

One of the things you have to learn to accept gracefully when you’re running a book group is that not everybody will love the same books you love.  On the whole, I would say the Field Notes Book Group appreciated Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip for its humor and its wackiness (and I have to admit, you do have to suspend disbelief to a certain extent to enjoy this, or any of Hiaasen’s books), and even the people who didn’t particularly like it joined energetically in the discussion, so I consider this a big win.

We also chose our book for October, on a second ballot but pretty easily the second time around: Think Again: the Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, by Adam Grant.  Copies are already available at the Field Library circulation desk. 

This nonfiction book, written in an accessible style with plenty of examples, looks at intelligence in a different way than we usually think of it. Grant, a professor at Wharton, advocates arguing as if you’re right, but listening to the other side as if you’re wrong.  He notes that we human beings tend to favor the comfort of conviction over the uncomfortable state of being unsure, which unfortunately leads us to close ourselves off in bubbles of like-minded people and never challenge our biases or our opinions.  True intelligence isn’t just about learning things quickly; it’s about being able to unlearn things that are wrong, which can be much more difficult.  It will be interesting to see how we can learn to think differently and to listen differently.  Heaven knows this is a skill we could use in the modern world.

Join us on October 22 for what promises to be an interesting and stimulating discussion of this nonfiction book.  

THE PLEASURES OF REVISITING AN OLD FRIEND: SKINNY DIP

One of the great pleasures in a reader’s life is rediscovering an old favorite, especially if it’s a book you haven’t read in a number of years.  If it’s been long enough, you can even reread a mystery and not remember all the plot details so you can encounter them anew (there are some mysteries that I am sure I would never remember all the plot details even if I just read them yesterday, such as The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle).  There are books I know I read and loved even if I don’t remember much about them, and while sometimes it’s risky to recommend something you don’t remember all that well, in the case of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, which I persuaded the Field Notes Book Group to read for September, I felt reasonably confident.

Rereading it has been one of those absolute pleasures.  I remembered the inciting incident of the plot, that this woman’s husband pushed her off a cruise ship, intending her to die, but she survived by grabbing hold of a marijuana bale and made it to shore.  There, I remembered, she decided she was going to mess with her husband’s head by haunting his home and his new girlfriend.

All of this was in fact part of the book, so I was remembering that part accurately. I also had a dim memory that it was a really funny, if warped book, and, having just reread it, I can attest that that, too, was accurate.

There was just so much I’d forgotten.  With Hiaasen at his best, the plot is a twisted coil, with several things going on at the same time, and all the characters a little off plumb.  There’s something Wodehousian about his use of coincidence and his interlacing of characters with very different agendas, and I mean that as a high compliment.

Here you have Joey, an heiress and a former champion swimmer, married to a total scumbag, Chaz.  They’ve been married two years, and Joey hasn’t figured out where Chaz makes his money, but trust me, it’s through some slimy fraudulent dealings with people who should not be messed around with.  Chaz, believing Joey’s caught on to what he’s actually doing, decides to kill her and pretend she committed suicide, forgetting Joey’s swimming talents, which save her life.

Joey is rescued by a classic Hiaasen character, Mick Stranahan, a former cop who’s been retired kind of against his wishes and who is now more or less a hermit, but still willing to help out a lady in distress and mess with someone as obnoxious as Chaz.  There’s also a quirky police officer investigating Joey’s disappearance (quirky in his choice of reptilian pets, at the least, and there’s a whole subplot about his snakes) who doesn’t think much of Chaz’ changing story.  Chaz has a girlfriend, Ricca, who he was seeing while he was still married to Joey, and his relationship with Ricca starts to go sideways after the “murder.”  Not to mention Red Hammernut (Dickensian character names, you’ll notice), the big bad guy, rich industrialist who’s poisoning the Everglades and using Chaz to cover his tracks.  And when Chaz seems to be losing it (thanks to Joey and her shenanigans), Hammernut calls on his extremely quirky muscle, Tool, to babysit the rapidly deteriorating Chaz.  

These are all great characters, not a stereotype in the bunch, made delightfully odd by their personalities and their quirks, and their interplay is both surprising and inevitable based on who they are and what they’ve already done.  

There is violence in this book (Tool is good at his job), but for the most part it’s so over the top you can’t really be freaked out by it.  There are points where you are sure that even Hiaasen can’t possibly make all this work out right, but he does.  Justice is served (if in a warped fashion), people get what they deserve, and the ending is quite satisfying.

If I’d been afraid I would be disappointed on revisiting this book, I’m delighted to report that wasn’t the case.  If you haven’t made Hiaasen’s acquaintance before, this is a great book to introduce you to his work.  I’m looking forward to discussing his humor, his characters and his plotting with the folks in the Field Notes Book Group, and wish you the pleasure of diving into Skinny Dip yourself.

NEW HISTORICAL FICTION TO SURPRISE YOU: ACT OF OBLIVION

I’ve written before about the tendency in modern historical fiction to focus almost exclusively on World War II, and how frustrating it can be.  Yes, World War II is important, and it’s recent enough that readers can have some sense of what the world was like then, but when you’re talking historical fiction, you’re talking about the entire span of history from the dawn of time to last year (or a decade ago); the years from 1939 to 1945 are just a tiny fraction of that.

So I’m delighted to call attention to Robert Harris’ new novel, Act of Oblivion, which takes on a fascinating and little known historical fact and turns it into a suspenseful thriller.  

In the aftermath of the restoration of King Charles II to the English throne in 1660, all the people who’d been involved in the execution of King Charles I were hunted down and executed.  Or rather, most of them were.  Act of Oblivion tells the gripping story of two men who were deeply involved in the trial and execution of King Charles I who escaped to New England, and were pursued there by an agent of the Crown.

Puritan New England is practically a different world, and the betrayals and confused loyalties of the English Civil War are little known, even to people who are familiar with historical fiction, and when you add a chase between an implacable and clever hunter and two experienced military men, all of them in a strange country where the stakes couldn’t be higher (in the 17th century, you would be lucky to be simply executed; punishments for treason were ghastly and drawn out), you have the makings of a different kind of exciting historical novel.  Robert Harris has written some famous alternate histories (Fatherland, about a world in which Hitler won WWII, was made into a movie) and has a keen grasp of historical detail.

If you, like me, are interested in historical fiction that looks at the whole breadth of history, of if you’re looking for a good, gripping read that’s different from other thrillers, check out Act of Oblivion.

COMING SOON TO A LIBRARY NEAR YOU: THE WORLD WE MAKE

One of the best perks to my job is that I get to see what’s going to be published in advance of its release date.  Of course I wouldn’t take (undue) advantage of this knowledge by putting things on hold before anyone else even knows the things are coming out (at least, not most of the time), but knowing that something exciting is coming soon is definitely a thrill. 

Okay, so November 1 isn’t quite as soon as I would like, but I just discovered that The World We Make, by N. K. Jemisin, is coming out on that date, and I’m tremendously excited about it.  The World We Make is the sequel to The City We Became, and if you read my blog, you’ll know I loved that book with a holy passion, and the only thing that worried me about it was that it was part of a series and I didn’t want to have to wait years to see how it came out.  The good news is that the series is only two books, and here we are, with the second book on the near horizon.

For those who don’t remember, The City We Became was speculative fiction (nominated for Nebula and Hugo Awards, among others, and won the British Fantasy Award and the Locus Award for best fantasy) in which cities are sentient beings, with avatars who protect them.  The City of New York, lovingly and vividly portrayed in this book, has not one but six avatars, the primary, who stands for the whole city, and one person for each of the boroughs.  The city barely comes alive before it’s under attack by The Enemy, the Woman in White, who turns out to be an avatar from another city of a different kind. The book was filled with wonderful characters, and pits the Lovecraftian dislike of/fear of cities against the vibrant multicultural life of a modern city (and, at least in that book, the modern city wins out).  

I am so pumped about the sequel, in which the avatars of New York City join with other cities in the world (who are more distant presences in The City We Became) to defeat the Enemy once and for all.  The only difficulty will be waiting for November 1, when we get our copy here at The Field Library.  If you loved the first book, then you should definitely put in your hold for the second so you don’t have to wait a moment longer than is absolutely necessary.

OCTOBER FIELD OF MYSTERY: NORTHERN SPY

Sometimes you hit a dud, a book that nobody in the book group finds particularly good or interesting, and that pretty much happened in the Field of Mystery Group with our most recent selection, Solitude Creek, by Jeffrey Deaver (for some reason, I found it nearly impossible to get the name of that book right; you would not believe some of the things I called it, entirely innocently).  We still managed to have a lively discussion of the book and what its flaws were, and then when the time came for us to decide on the book for October, we were surprisingly united in our first round choice of Northern Spy, by Flynn Berry.  We will be meeting on October 1, and copies of the book were put on hold and are already coming in to the library.

The book is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the present time.  Though the Good Friday Peace Accords of the 1990’s stopped a great deal of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the IRA is still around and still a problem.  Our protagonist, Tessa, is a new mother working as a producer for the BBC.  When the IRA commits a robbery and there’s a shot of a young woman putting on a mask just before the robbery, the police think it’s Tessa’s sister, and she does resemble Tessa’s sister, but Tessa is confident they’re wrong.  Her sister is against violence and besides, she was on holiday when the robbery took place.  As she digs into the facts of the case, trying to prove her sister’s innocence, Tessa finds herself torn between conflicting loyalties, struggling with her sense of right and wrong, and her desperate need to protect her family, including her baby.

This should be an exciting read and an interesting discussion.  Come and get the book out from the library and then join us on October 1 for discussion and refreshments.

2022 HUGO WINNERS AT THE FIELD

Once again the Hugo Awards have been given to well-deserving writers and works, and once again The Field Library has its share of winners and finalists, so if you’re interested in what the experts in the field consider to be the best in speculative fiction, give these works a look.

The Field Library is especially rich in the area of novellas.  Not only do we have the winner of Best Novella, A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers (reviewed here), but we also have all of the finalists: Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire (reviewed here), Elder Race, by Adrian Tchiakovsky, Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard, The Past is Red, by Catherynne M. Valente, and A Spindle Splintered, by Alix E. Harrow (reviewed here).  The last few years have been a golden age for novellas, which the Hugos define as being between 17,500 and 40,000 words.  If you’re interested in testing the speculative fiction waters but aren’t sure you have the time or energy to devote to a full length book (and, to be fair, some speculative fiction novels are huge), try one of the finalist novellas, including this year’s winner.

I was personally delighted to see that Seanan McGuire won the Hugo for Best Series for her Wayward Children series.  The series, the books of which I’ve reviewed in this blog (here, here, here, here, here and here), involves children who left this world for another one, with different rules, and then were forcibly returned to this world.  The complex worldbuilding, the variety of characters and situations, the compassion McGuire shows for these damaged children, all adds up to a series that deserves the best series award, and more power to her (she has another book in the series coming out in January, just FYI).

The Field Library also has on its shelves The Last Graduate, by Naomi Novik, which won the award for Best Young Adult, though I’m not entirely sure it qualifies as a Young Adult Book, and most of the libraries in our system don’t treat it as such.  Still, Novik is an excellent writer, and this book, the second in a trilogy that began with A Deadly Education (which the library also has), takes the reader deeper into the world of the Scholomance, a dark school of magic that devours its students.  The third book (for people like me who don’t like reading series that aren’t finished) should be coming out this month.

Finally, what used to be the John Campbell Award for new writers, which has been renamed The Astounding Award for Best New Writer, went to Shelley Parker Chan for her novel, She Who Became the Sun, a book which reimagines the rise to power of the Ming Dynasty in China after the Mongol invasion.  While I’m delighted to see the Hugo voters recognizing the value of stories set in other parts of the world than Europe and North America, I’m a little sorry that one of the other finalists didn’t win.  Micaiah Johnson, who wrote the excellent The Space Between Worlds  (reviewed here), was up for the award but didn’t get it, deserving as she was.

So here you have it. Come to The Field Library and check out our Hugo winners and the finalists who didn’t quite make it, and immerse yourself in the best of speculative fiction.

THE PEOPLE YOU DON’T SEE: THE MAID

The Maid, by Nita Prose, is a different sort of mystery.  It’s not a procedural, because the main character isn’t in law enforcement but is a maid in a hotel where a murder takes place.  But it’s not a cozy, either, despite our protagonist’s humble job, because it’s darker than that.  It’s not the kind of mystery where you’re given the clues and have to work out the answer before the protagonists do (though you are given a number of clues and hints, there are things you don’t know and can’t guess because we’re seeing through the eyes of a character who doesn’t always observe things and usually can’t interpret the things she does observe).  It is, however, a satisfying mystery novel because you care about the main character and because the plot, with one or two small questionable points, is engrossing and keeps you guessing.

Molly Gray, our protagonist, is a young, neuro-atypical woman who works as a maid in a fancy hotel.  She loves her job, and she’s good at it.  Nothing makes her happier than restoring a room to a state of perfect cleanliness.  She doesn’t complain about the state of the rooms she’s left to work on, she doesn’t complain (though she does notice) when other staff people laugh at her or call her a Roomba or a weirdo, or when the guests don’t notice her existence. She doesn’t have a sense that her job is low in status or that she should aspire to something better.  Her beloved grandmother, who raised her and who has died in the last few months, was a maid herself and instilled her simple values in Molly.

Molly is our narrator, so while we see what she sees, we can also see or guess at what those things mean, drawing different conclusions than she does.  Molly is frankly very naive when it comes to men, and there are a couple of occasions in the book where she interprets men’s behavior toward her as more affectionate and genuine than the men intend, and you cringe for her and hope she won’t get crushed when reality sets in (in one of those instances, a man takes advantage of her naivete and basically robs her).  She’s too willing to trust people in general, and that proves to be a problem.

When she discovers the dead body of a wealthy and important guest in his bed in the hotel, her life becomes complicated in the extreme.  Her friendship with the second wife of the deceased puts her in a dangerous position as the police naturally assume Giselle, the wife, had something to do with the man’s death.  The man in question seems to have been a real jerk, as far as Molly’s concerned, but of course she wants to do the right thing, as she understands the right thing.

She innocently tries to cooperate with the police and also protect her friends, or the people she believes to be her friends, but she goes from being a simple witness to a person of interest in the investigation, and even a suspect in the man’s murder.

The author does a great balancing job, staying entirely within Molly’s limited point of view but nonetheless giving us enough details that we can go beyond Molly’s conclusions and make our own guesses about what’s really going on.  She makes us care about Molly and makes her more than just her atypicality; we always realize that Molly has difficulties understanding and interpreting other people’s behavior, but we never feel pity for her or feel that she’s inadequate as a person or that she’s a symbol of what people on the spectrum are like.   

There are one or two spots in the story where I had to lean back and say, “Really?”  The police response, for instance, is almost stereotypical: it seems a mighty big jump to assume that Molly, of all people, was involved in a drug ring and murdered the VIP as a result of that, and Molly’s arrest struck me as the trope where the protagonist is hassled by the authorities to show how good and innocent the protagonist is (a trope I could do without, frankly).  Some of the characters are a little over the top, and not just because Molly sees them as “bad eggs,” but fortunately most of the important characters are more nuanced, and for the most part the plot works, keeps your interest and solves the actual murder in a way that makes sense and feels right, given everything we know about the characters.

It’s a quick read, and you find yourself rooting for Molly, hoping for her happy ending in a world that appreciates her.