SWIPING RIGHT FOR A NEW ROMANTIC COMEDY

The classic Shakespearean comedy involves mistaken identities and the complications that ensue, usually ending up with the right people getting together and ending happily.  It’s a theme that’s been used for romantic comedies for centuries, and it’s about time the trope was updated for the modern world. My Favorite Half-Night Stand, by Christina Lauren, is a modern and clever use of the old mistaken identity plot.

As with this year’s hit book, The Kiss Quotient, the main character here is a woman who has very little experience with the whole dating/romance scene.  Millie is a scientist, “one of the guys”, who’s much better at dealing with research into serial killers than at finding men who interest her romantically.  She’s a professor at Santa Barbara and hangs out with four other professors, all male, and all equally clueless about dating. When the group gets invited to a university function that turns out to be — horrors! — black tie, they decide they’re all going to bring a “plus one”, even if they have to find their dates through online dating services.

However, once they make the pact but before she actually starts the online dating process, Millie finds herself involved in a sexy half night stand with one of the other professors in the group, Reid.  The two of them are surprised at how much they enjoyed themselves, but they’re determined to remain just friends.

The online dating process for her is pretty gruesome.  While her male colleagues get all kinds of interesting women responding to their listings, all Millie gets are creepy people and obscene pictures.  So she creates a different identity for the dating app: Catherine, who can be all the things Millie is not, including vulnerable and open.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, who finds the profile for “Catherine” and starts corresponding with her: Reid, who knows the real life Millie but would never guess that she’s the same person he’s been connecting with online (if you’re picturing The Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, you’re thinking along the right lines).  

Does Millie manage to come clean with Reid?  Does she figure out how to reconcile her real world and her online selves?  Is there a happy ever after? Do you need to read something light and charming with all that’s going on in the world?  Read My Favorite Half-Night Stand and find out the answers.

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A HAUNTED HOUSE FOR THE MODERN ERA

If you’ve been wondering whether the old trope of the haunted house still has resonance and power to scare, or at least unnerve people, or if you’re in the mood for something really dark in this holiday season, check out The Mansion, by Ezekiel Boone, but be sure to keep the lights on.

This is not your ordinary haunted house story, though it has some of the elements: mysterious deaths, a house that is more than an ordinary dwelling, buried secrets and the sense that something malevolent is working its will through the house. This house also has computer programs and cutting edge technology, along with the simmering tensions of a Silicon Valley startup.

Once upon a time, Billy and Shawn were living on the verge of destitution, spending their days and nights in a tiny, ramshackle cabin outside a falling down mansion, designing the next big computer, a revolutionary machine they named Eagle Logic.  Unfortunately, the strains of poverty and overwork, and interpersonal tensions exacerbated by those factors destroyed their friendship. A third partner mysteriously disappeared, Shawn’s girlfriend left him for Billy, and Shawn took Eagle Logic and made himself a fortune.

Time passed, and didn’t treat Billy well, while Shawn became world famous and nearly infinitely rich.  With the world as his oyster, Shawn turned back to a program he and Billy once worked on that hadn’t succeeded: a program they named Nellie that would control a house completely.  And what house does he choose? Why, the mansion that loomed outside their cabin when he and Billy were first working together, of course.

Since I’ve already told you this is a haunted house story, you can probably guess what happens next: the program doesn’t work the way Shawn intended it to, some of the people working on the house die mysteriously of supposed accidents, and as things begin to fall apart, Shawn decides he needs to reach out to Billy to try to fix what’s broken. But bringing Billy back is also bringing back the issues that broke the pair up in the first place, and Nellie may have some deadly secrets in the source code, as the two of them are about to find out.

Adding computers, which most of us use but don’t entirely understand, to the Gothic world of haunted houses that seek to destroy those who live in them is a brilliant idea.  Taking the notion of a “smart” house and exploring all the dark and sinister possibilities of the concept is not only creepy but timely. If you’re in the mood for a different kind of haunted house thriller, The Mansion is waiting for you.

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER — MAYBE

Many of us have read lots of mysteries and seen tons of movies and television shows about the criminal justice system from all kinds of angles, and after a while you get the feeling you might be able to outsmart the system if you really had to.  Even if you’ve never personally wondered about your own ability to get away with murder, you might well have second-guessed the killer in a book or movie, noticing his or her mistakes and feeling superior because you never would have made those mistakes yourself.

What would happen if you were a criminal defense lawyer, married to another criminal defense lawyer, and you felt the need to take justice into your own hands?  Would that be easier or harder than for an ordinary civilian? Well, Natalie and Will, the protagonists in For Better and Worse, by Margot Hunt, put themselves in that position.  They met when they were both in law school, and bonded from the first in a what if game: what if they wanted to kill someone together, would they be able to get away with it? It was just a game, a somewhat peculiar icebreaker (but perfectly reasonable if you’re dealing with law students), but law students are accustomed to dealing with hypotheticals, and for Nat and Will, the game led to romance and later to marriage and a son.

It would have remained just a memory of a game they played except that life circumstances suddenly made it relevant again.  Nat and Will, both criminal defense attorneys, discover that the school principal has molested their young son. Nat, furious as any mother would be, with the added knowledge of the system that only someone who’s worked in it for decades would have, wants to protect her son from the molester, but also from the potential damage a trial would do to him as a witness.  While Will feels they should report the crime to the police, but Nat has other plans, and her other plans end up involving Will, whether he wants to be drawn into her crimes or not.

Are they as clever as they think they are?  Can they outsmart the police? Should they? Neither Nat nor Will is exactly a likeable character, but that’s pretty common nowadays in thrillers (thanks a lot, Gone Girl, for making that a trend).  While it’s a fast read and nothing deep or profound, the questions For Better and Worse raises about justice and whether vigilante action can ever be justified, even in terrible cases like the one here, are fascinating and keep the pages turning.

 

ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN: MEG, JO, BETH, AMY

I usually don’t change my opinions about a  book just because of what critics thought of it, or what other readers thought of it, nor do I believe it’s essential to know everything that was going on in the author’s life when the book was written in order to understand the book. Sometimes, in fact, it’s detrimental to learn more about the author’s life, especially when there’s a possibility that the book was semi-autobiographical.  However, even if a book like Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters by Anne Boyd Rioux doesn’t change my opinions about the fundamentals of Little Women, I still found it an interesting read, and it did give me perspective on Louisa May Alcott and the writing of the book.

At the outset, I feel there are a lot of nonfiction books that would have been great magazine articles which lose some of their power by being padded out to book length. While Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy doesn’t quite fall into that category, there’s a certain amount of repetition in the text, and there are details about more modern books and television shows that supposedly show the influence of Little Women that feel more like filler than like useful insights into the book.

Rioux gives an excellent short biography of Louisa May Alcott, locating her in her specific time and place, demonstrating how her fictional family, the Marches, was in some ways a revision, a fantasized and more bearable version of her own family.  If, for instance, you’re wondering why Mr. March, the father in Little Women, plays so small a part in the book, even after he returns from the war, knowing what kind of father Bronson Alcott was helps put Mr. March in perspective.  Louisa had little enough experience of a father who was deeply involved in the life of his family, as opposed to living up to his own dreams and ideals regardless of how they affected his family, so her placing Mr. March deeply in the background makes him actually an improvement on the father she knew.  

There’s always the question of how much Jo March was based on Louisa May Alcott herself, and the book does a good job of drawing the parallels between Louisa’s career and Jo’s.  Like her literary alter ego, Alcott wrote gothic, sensationalistic stories to make money to help support her family, but ultimately made her lasting fame by writing more realistic works about families she knew.  When Jo considers her future after Beth’s death and sees herself as a spinster aunt, and Alcott interjects a few paragraphs extolling the virtues of maiden aunts, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to guess that Alcott herself never married or had children of her own. It’s possible that in a different era, Alcott might have been brave enough to allow Jo not to marry anyone, but in the era in which she lived and wrote, that would have been a bridge too far.  As it was, Alcott deliberately subverted the expectations of her readers by having Jo turn down Laurie’s proposal and instead get married to Professor Bhaer, one of the least romantic men in the novel.

While it’s moderately interesting to read about the development and the critical responses to the different film and stage versions of Little Women, I would have liked more analysis of the book and of the characters, and fewer repetitive quotations of people, especially women, talking about Jo’s being their inspiration for writing. Rioux discusses the questions of whether Little Women is a feminist book or a regressive book, whether it actually subverts the standards of the time and if so, how much, and gives a nicely balanced view of opinions on both sides.  She shows how, despite the overt support of marriage as the best life for a woman, Little Women actually advocates for a less patriarchal, more egalitarian kind of marriage, not just in the case of Jo and her professor, an unconventional couple, but also in the much more seemingly ordinary marriage of Meg and John. Marriage is not the end of the story, or the end of the growth of a woman’s character; Meg and John spend a certain amount of time learning how to be spouses and how to be parents together (a confession: those chapters I skimmed when I first read the book because I thought nothing could be more boring than reading about Meg now that she was married and a mother).

A case can be made that Little Women discourages women from living their dreams, considering that Amy gives up art because she’s not a genius, and Jo ends the book running a school for boys and putting off writing her masterpiece.  However, a case can also be made that Alcott supports women (and men) testing the waters, doing unconventional things (like Jo’s moving to New York and delivering her manuscripts to publishers directly) to see whether their dreams are practical.  Even Jo’s ending is a postponement rather than and end to her writing career, and, as Rioux reminds us, in the third book in the series Jo’s Boys, Jo writes a book not unlike Little Women and it becomes a success (this is a particular trope that I dislike in general, the book about a writer where the climax is that the writer writes this very book you’re reading, but Louisa May Alcott was one of the first people to do it, so I’ll cut her some slack).

Probably the most intriguing insight of this book has to do with the cause of Beth’s death, which is left fairly vague in Little Women.  Looking at Beth’s childlike nature and her unwillingness to grow up as symptoms of depression and possible eating disorders, none of which would have been diagnosed as such at the time, but both of which undoubtedly existed in Alcott’s world, makes a certain amount of sense and turns her death into something more meaningful than her just being too good for this world.

If you enjoyed Little Women and you want a little more background into the book and the causes for its popularity, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is a good place to start, and don’t feel guilty if you decide to skip the chapters on Gilmore Girls or the movie versions of the book; you’ll still get a good read and some extra dimensions on the classic book.

 

HOW THE OTHER HALF WINS: THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN

If you’re in the mood for a charming and lighthearted book (and who isn’t, these dark days?), let me recommend a new book, set in the (to me) alien world of beauty pageants, The Accidental Beauty Queen, by Teri Wilson.

The main characters are a pair of identical twins, identical in face and body though certainly not in personality or life goals. Ginny Gorman is determined to win fame as a beauty queen and has been competing in pageants since she was old enough to lisp the expected answers to her goals for the world.  She lives on Instagram, is a sensation wherever she goes, and will not stop until she wins the ultimate title of Miss American Treasure. Her sister, Charlotte, by contrast, is shy and retiring. She works as a librarian (of course) in an elementary school and is perfectly happy to live through her books and her job, with no more attention paid to her than would be paid to any other librarian.

You can already see where this is going, can’t you?  

Of course Ginny brings Charlotte to a beauty pageant to act as her good luck charm, and of course, Ginny suffers an allergic reaction the night before the pageant that ruins her looks for the next three days at least.  So what’s a disappointed and desperate identical twin to do? Persuade her identical twin sister to pretend to be her, of course. Identical twins do this all the time in books and movies, and hilarity ensues, as well as opportunities for each twin to learn more about the other’s life.

Charlotte being a good-hearted sister, she goes along with Ginny’s plea despite some serious reservations on her part, and so she is introduced to all the things she’s never had time or inclination for: hair extensions, push up bras, false eyelashes, stiletto heels, glitter, and a feverish focus on looks to the exclusion of everything else. Naturally she’s going to make all kinds of mistakes, but she also comes to see that there’s more to the other beauty contestants than the stereotype harpies sabotaging each other on their way to the crown. She starts to learn more about her sister’s world, and about herself.  There’s even a (mild) romance along the line.

For a humorous look at family and beauty, with amusing characters and women supporting each other, check out The Accidental Beauty Queen.

JANE YOLEN DOES IT AGAIN: HOW TO FRACTURE A FAIRY TALE

It should come as no surprise if you’ve been following my blog that I am a fan of Jane Yolen, though I confess I have not read all her writings.  How could I? She’s written more than 365 books, in all different genres, for all different ages, and won just about every writing award she could have, including Hugo, Nebula, Caldecott, and World Fantasy awards. So it was with delight and fascination that I picked up her new book of short stories, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, and I have to say, they do not disappoint.  If you’re a fan, grab this book, no further information is necessary.  If you’re not a fan yet, this is a good place to start, because the short stories in it demonstrate some of her range, her  sense of humor, her powerful use of language, and her sensibility.

Now, I am not saying that every story in the book is a success, but that’s always the case with collections of short stories, in my experience. There will always be a few that leave me scratching my head, either saying “What was that about?” or “Why was that included in here?”

When Yolen’s good, as she mostly is in this collection, she’s very good.  I’ll just mention a few of my favorites.

Humor-wise, there’s no question: the funniest story in the collection is  “Happy Dens, or A Day in the Old Wolves’ Home”, which is a collection of famous fairy tales twisted to reflect the wolf’s side of the story, as the elderly wolves in an Old Wolves’ Home relate what really happened in the stories of Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and Peter and the Wolf.  You probably know the official versions of those stories, and possibly even some variations, but these are especially amusing, and the idea of a retirement home for wolves, staffed by lambs and pigs, is a clever one.

She can also write a chilling story, as in “Allerleiraugh”, which is a version of Cinderella where the father promises his dying wife he will never marry anyone who isn’t as beautiful as his wife, and when his daughter reaches adolescence, he discovers the only woman who could be as beautiful as his wife.  In the fairy tale, she escapes from her father. In this one, not so much.

They’re not all based on fairy tales, though you can usually see the bones of another story under Yolen’s twists and turns.  For example, the modern story, “Wrestling with Angels”, is based (sort of) on the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel of God and getting the worst of it.  Yolen’s version is a kind of cross between the Biblical story and an episode of the X Files, with a poignant underpinning of parental regret.

And one of the best stories in the collection, in my opinion, “Mama Gone,” isn’t really based on any particular story, but is a vampire story set in the hills of Appalachia, with a unique vampire and a unique and touching way for the main character to defeat the vampire.

There are stories based on Eastern folk tales (“One Ox, Two Ox, Three Ox and the Dragon King”), stories based on Native American stories (“The Woman Who Loved a Bear”), as well as Greek mythology (“Sun/Flight”) and the more recognizable Grimm’s and Mother Goose stories.  She adds a little extra in a section at the end of the book where she discusses the sources and origins of each story and includes a poem related to the story’s themes. The book is a rich feast, whether you’re familiar with her sources or not, and there’s plenty of thought-provoking twists to the stories.

Make the acquaintance of Jane Yolen through this book, and look at old stories with new eyes.  You’ll be glad you did.

 

BEFORE GAME OF THRONES, THERE WAS FIRE AND BLOOD

George R. R. Martin hasn’t finished the epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for the television series, Game of Thrones.  The gaps between volumes in this series are getting longer and longer, and the date of publication for the next book is up in the air.  There’s even some concern that Martin might die before he finishes the projected 7th book in the series (and what will happen then? This gives more basis for my rule about not reading series until they’re finished).  So when I mention that Martin has a new book out in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have to tamp down any unrealistic expectations by saying that it’s a prequel and not the next book in the series.  We’re all going to have to wait for the continuation of the series (the last volume, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, so this is the longest gap between volumes yet), but at least Martin is willing to give us more background in his amazing fantasy world, and we’ll take what we can get.

Fire and Blood, the newest book, is set before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place when the dragons ruled Westeros, and the House Targaryen controlled the dragons. It starts with the creation of the Iron Throne, and the machinations and intrigues of the family that occupied that throne.  It’s presented like a history book, and if you’re a fan of the series (book or television), some of that history is going to be familiar to you at least in passing, because characters in ASOIAF refer back to the famous and infamous events of the past.  However, since this is focused entirely on the Targaryen family and on the dragons, there’s more detail and more ambiguity and more blood and guts than you would be able to get from references in the main series.

Whether you’re going to enjoy the book or not depends on how angry you are at Martin for not finishing the series yet, and how much you’re interested in the details of how the world got to be in the state it was in at the beginning of A Game of Thrones. But if you’re a completist, if you’re intrigued by the questions of what the world was like when there were more dragons and a different set of ruthless characters vying for the throne, or if you’re just ready to take whatever Martin can give you that’s set in this world, then be sure to check out Fire and Blood.

ANOTHER LOOK AT LITTLE WOMEN

Usually I don’t write about the books the Field Notes Book Group is reading, at least not before the discussion, because I don’t want to prejudice the people in the group, or influence people’s opinions to align with mine (of course, there are probably people in the group who would change their opinions to be the opposite of mine if they knew in advance what my opinion was; it’s a good group).  However, I’m going to make an exception in the case of this month’s book, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, because I have already postponed the meeting once (due to a funeral), and because Little Women is the kind of book people think they know, but might, on rereading (or reading for the first time) discover is more than what they remember. It certainly was that way for me.

As I said to the group in October when we chose the book, I read Little Women when I was 12 years old and hadn’t picked it up since. Most of the women in the group had also read it, similarly in the past.  There were things I remembered vividly about the book from my one reading, and other aspects that were just a general blur. For instance (spoilers ahead), I remembered Amy’s destroying the book Jo wrote (is there anyone who read that book who doesn’t remember that scene? Is there anyone who wasn’t as furious at Amy as Jo was at that? Is there anyone, besides me, who found it impossible to read anything more about Amy for the rest of the book without carrying a grudge for that?).  I remembered Jo’s turning Laurie’s proposal of marriage down (more about that later), and of course I remembered Beth’s death. I had a general sense that all the surviving characters got married and settled by the end of the book, which seemed to me, as a 12 year old girl, to be the only way these kinds of stories got resolved.

Reading Little Women as an adult in the 21st century isn’t like reading modern books. When I tried to explain to my husband (who, like most men, hadn’t read it) what the book was about, I foundered around, finally lamely saying that it was about four young women growing up during and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, in Massachusetts, which is an accurate description as far as it goes. There really isn’t a plot per se. There are incidents, some of which lead to other incidents, but if you’re reading it for an overarching plot, you’re going to be disappointed.

You’ll also be disappointed if you’re looking for a modern writing style. Alcott wrote in the 19th century, before the adage “show, don’t tell” was a mantra drummed into the heads of writers.  She tells a great deal, with frequent authorial commentary on the characters and their behavior. Sometimes it’s like having a moralizing parent telling you a story; you want to urge her to leave out the sermons and get to the action.  If you’ve read other 19th century authors (like Charles Dickens, an author I love, about whom someday I will write at greater length), then you’re prepared for Alcott’s writing style, and willing to be patient with the digressions and the sermonizing.  You’ll also be prepared for the religiosity of the asides, which didn’t strike me as strongly when I was 12 as they did on this rereading.

That said, it’s a better book than I remembered in a number of ways, and well worth reading, or rereading if it’s been a long time since you joined the March girls.

For one thing, it’s a story of girls coming of age. A pet peeve of mine is that there are boatloads of books and movies about boys coming of age in various circumstances, and girls and women are expected to read or watch them, but stories of girls growing up and becoming women are much scarcer and much less likely to become part of the canon. If Tom Sawyer can be considered a classic American novel, Little Women can serve as its female counterpart.

Then there are the characters. The parents remain mostly archetypes; Marmee is everyone’s ideal mother, watchful of her children but not suffocatingly so, always ready with good advice when a person is ready to listen to it, but not pushing anyone to do things her way at the outset. She’s warm-hearted and affectionate, and so much the center of the girls’ lives that she gets the closing line in the book (Jo gets the opening line). The girls’ father is away at the Civil War at the outset of the book, and there’s drama when he’s wounded and Marmee has to go and nurse him, and drama when the father comes home, but after that, he’s just a figure in the background.

In the foreground are the four “little women” of the title: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, in order of age. They’re sisters and they act like sisters, which is refreshing. One thing I remembered liking about the book when I first read it, which I still like, is the relationships between and among the sisters, the alliances and antagonisms within the group as well as the girls’  loyalty to each other against any outsiders. Yes, it was probably convenient for Alcott to match Meg, the oldest, with Amy, the youngest, and to have Jo, the wild one, be especially close to saintly Beth, but those combinations also make sense within a family universe. Naturally Amy and Jo would butt heads and fight with each other; Amy is the somewhat spoiled youngest child and Jo is stubborn and independent.  Naturally Jo and Meg would go to parties together as the two oldest and since they’re only a year apart in age. Naturally they would confide in each other as having more in common (their jobs, their ages) than either one would with the younger girls. In their relationships with each other, they feel like real girls, like sisters in the 20th and 21st century, as well as in the 19th.

My favorite character, then and now, is Jo. I have a feeling she’s everybody’s favorite character, not because she’s a Mary Sue for the author (though I suspect Alcott based Jo on herself to greater or lesser extent; Jo’s an aspiring writer who’s trying to support her family through her writing, as Louisa May Alcott was), but because she’s the one character who’s not an archetype, who seems to break free of the expectations readers have for a girl in her position. She’s far from perfect. She is, as I mentioned, stubborn and difficult. She loses out on the chance to take a much anticipated trip to Europe because she’s deliberately being contrary when she and Amy go to make visits to relatives (a sequence that’s very funny because of Jo’s behavior even as we, the readers, know it’s going to end up biting her), for instance, and while she sees how her behavior contributed to her losing out on that trip, she doesn’t really change her behavior either. On the other hand, Jo is wildly brave and willing to defy expectations for her gender.  She gets her long hair cut off to raise money for her mother to go to Washington to take care of her father, which surprises all her sisters and everybody around her as her long hair was her one beauty. She writes stories and actually takes them to newspapers to be published, facing personal rejection with gumption and guts. She turns down a marriage proposal that would seem to be really advantageous for her and for her family, because she doesn’t love the suitor that way. She ends up running a home and school for boys, while her sisters engage in much more ordinary and socially sanctioned pursuits. Yes, she does get married; I suppose Alcott felt she had to marry Jo off eventually rather than have her be a spinster aunt (and maybe that was wish fulfillment on the part of Louisa May Alcott, who never did get married and was a spinster aunt), but it’s an unconventional and unexpected marriage, which makes it fitting for someone who’s as willing to buck conventions as Jo is.

About that marriage proposal: when I first wrote about the book group’s reading this book, I mentioned wondering whether Jo’s turning down Laurie’s proposal would strike me as more logical this time around, and I’m happy to say that it did. If you read the book closely (as I didn’t when I was 12, but did now), you can see that Jo never thinks of Laurie as anything other than a buddy. While there was (and still sometimes is) a convention that close friends ultimately discover they’re made for each other and get married, Jo makes it clear that this is not her idea of how things are going to work. From early on, before Laurie (their friend and next door neighbor, who’s handsome and charming and also rich) starts thinking romantically about Jo, she’s treating him as one of the guys, and herself as one of the guys, too.  When Laurie goes to college, his friends fall in love with the beautiful, flirtatious Amy, not the boyish and plain spoken Jo, and that’s fine with Jo. She never wants romance in her life (in her stories, that’s a different matter, but she’s got an eye on what sells, so that explains her writing focus), she never moons around about Laurie or any other boy, and when she meets the man she’s ultimately going to marry, she doesn’t think about him as a potential husband until he all but throws himself at her. While I, as a 12 year old, wanted Jo and Laurie to marry because Laurie was so crazy about her and because I wanted Jo to live happily ever after, and that was how women lived happily ever after to my mind, as an adult I can see that Jo really wasn’t interested. If she had married him, she probably would have made a go of it, but it’s clear from his later behavior that Laurie would have wanted a more conventional wife than Jo was ever willing to be. She did the right thing, and in this context it was remarkable that she was able to do it (yes, Elizabeth Bennett turned down two marriage proposals in Pride and Prejudice, but one of them was by the person she ultimately married, and her turning down his proposal was a spark that led to their finally seeing eye to eye later), and not be punished for it.

Although Alcott does, for the most part, send the characters down conventional paths, she also allows them to be ambitious, to take on more of the world than their conventional roles would seem to allow. At the outset, both Meg and Jo are working outside the home, Meg as a governess and Jo as a companion to her rich aunt.  Jo and Amy consider themselves to be artists (Jo a writer and Amy a visual artist), and spend a great deal of time working on their respective crafts. Jo even sells a number of stories and a novel, and makes money to support her family as a result (Alcott feels the need to turn Jo away from the sensational stories she writes at first to something more realistic, possibly like Little Women, though I will forever be grateful that Jo doesn’t turn out to have written Little Women, which is so often the convention in books about young writers; still, I would love to see the kinds of stories Jo wrote before she was tamed, which were probably like the other books Alcott wrote for money).  While Amy (and Laurie) decides that since she’s not a genius she shouldn’t dedicate herself to her art, at no point does the book suggest that Amy didn’t have talent or that she shouldn’t have given her art a decent chance.

Spend some time with Little Women, and I think you’ll appreciate anew the world of the March family, their humors, their tragedies, their growth and maturing.  I’m glad the book group gave me the spur and the opportunity to reread it myself, and I recommend you give it a try as well.

 

ONE IN EVERY FAMILY: MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

There’s one in every family: the problem child, the one who makes trouble for everyone else, the one who wreaks havoc at family functions, who takes up an outsized amount of energy from everyone around them.  Most of us, however, are fortunate enough that the problem member of the family is just annoying and not actually dangerous to other people. That is not the case for poor Koede, the protagonist of My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Brathwaite.  Her beautiful sister, Ayoola, kills her boyfriends when she’s finished with them.  She’s on her third dead boyfriend, and Koede is getting tired of being the practical one, the one who has to clean up after her sister and make sure Ayoola doesn’t get caught.

The book is set in Lagos, Nigeria, so right away you’re dealing with an entirely different system of justice and a somewhat different family structure as well. Korede, as the older sister, the “good” woman who’s a responsible nurse, feels an obligation to take care of her younger sister, Ayoola, even when that obligation involves getting calls from Ayoola to help her dispose of yet another body and clean up another crime scene.

This can’t go on forever, but after three dead boyfriends, what could possibly stop Koede from enabling her sister’s sociopathic ways?  When the handsome doctor on whom Koede’s had a crush forever asks her for her sister’s telephone number, she knows they’re about to cross a line.  She has to stop Ayoola somehow, if only to keep her from destroying all the eligible men in Lagos and possibly in Nigeria.

This is not a book for everyone.  While it’s short and punchy, written with wit and a wicked dry sense of humor, with a unique voice and a setting we don’t often see in American fiction, there’s no denying it’s kind of a dark book which starts out with murder and doesn’t let up.  However, if you’re the kind of person who enjoyed Dexter (the books or television series — of course the books were better, if you’d like to check the source out), or you just like a good quirky read, check out My Sister, the Serial Killer.

FOREVER AND A DAY: THE BEGINNINGS OF BOND. JAMES BOND.

James Bond is one of those characters, like Sherlock Holmes, who fascinates people above and beyond the original stories that created him. Generations of moviegoers have watched several different actors portray Bond in films reflecting the times in which the movies were made, more than reflecting the character from the books (this is also true of Sherlock Holmes, of course). Even after the death of Ian Fleming in 1964 (bet that surprised you, because we all thought he’d been around much longer than that; it certainly surprised me), other people have attempted to reboot James Bond in books, with varying success.  

Once again we have a “new” James Bond book, the prequel to Casino Royale, in which Bond made his first literary appearance.  This one, Forever and a Day, has the advantage of being written by Anthony Horowitz.  Horowitz is a genius for imitating the works of different authors, as well as writing his own work.  He did a superb job of writing a Sherlock Holmes novel (House of Silk), he’s written an Agatha Christie pastiche (The Magpie Murders) and he’s written another, well-regarded James Bond novel (Trigger Mortis, in 2015), so he’s well qualified to put himself in Fleming’s shoes and create a young James Bond, right before he became 007 and got his license to kill, and showing the early development of the character we’ve come to know and love.

The book begins with the death of the last agent whose number was 007.  James Bond, an up and coming would-be agent, is elevated to 00 status, and sent to the French Riviera to infiltrate a drug smuggling network his predecessor was working on at the time of his death. Because this is the beginning of his career, Bond is not the super sophisticated secret agent of the later books and movies, and is still learning his craft. Here in this book, in addition to the intrigues and the double-crosses, the terrible villains and the exotic locations, we see the origins of some of Bond’s later famous characteristics: his favorite weapons, his favorite drink (shaken, not stirred), and cigarettes. He meets and falls for a sophisticated older woman, who, in classic Fleming fashion, may or may not be working on his side.  He runs afoul of Scipio, a grotesque evil drug lord, and somehow has to

If you’re a fan of Bond, either from the books or the movies, you should definitely check out Forever and a Day.