Sometimes it seems as if the tiniest things can change your entire life, and you wonder what would have happened if, for instance, you’d missed that train instead of catching it, or if you’d gotten this job instead of that one.  Of course, life is full of coincidences and things that just happen to fall in a particular way, and adults don’t expect to be able to plan everything and be able to follow their plans without unforeseen calamities or roadblocks.

But what if these seeming coincidences were nothing of the sort?  What if they were all part of a plan? What if there were people whose jobs were to set up certain coincidences and make certain unlikely things happen, so that other, more important, things would follow? Einstein is reputed to have said “God does not play dice with the universe.”  What if he was right?

That is the beginning of the fascinating premise of a new book, The Coincidence Makers, by Yoav Blum.  There IS a grand plan, and there are people who are spending all their time working to set up those coincidences and “accidents” that lead to that plan’s working.  Three characters went through a “coincidence training course,” where they learned how to set up apparently random events so the people involved would never suspect they were planned, and after they graduated from the course, joined a secret organization as Coincidence Makers, where they’ve been working the last two years.

One day, Guy, one of the Coincidence Makers, receives an assignment that’s at a much higher level than anything he’s tried before.  He realizes that it’s a big deal and that it’s going to be much more difficult and more complicated than his usual job, but even he has no idea how serious it is, how many things it’s going to impact, including his own life.  A mysterious killer shows up as well, and over the course of this mission, Guy and his companions learn new things about fate, free will, and the nature of love.

The premise is so intriguing you almost have to read the book itself to see how it plays out, and what the big mission is. Check out The Coincidence Makers  and see for yourself.



After a fun, party atmosphere-d discussion of our March book, Furiously Happy, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen our book for April 21, our next meeting, and it’s Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren.  Copies of the book will be available starting this week (March 19 on) at The Field Library Circulation Desk, so come on in and pick up your copy, and then get ready to join us on April 21, from 11:00 to 12:30, at The Field Library Gallery.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s memoir of her life as a scientist, and it’s been given all kinds of recognitions: the National Book Critics Award for Autobiography, a New York Times Notable book, inclusion on the Best of the Year lists for the Washington Post, Time, NPR and others, as well as a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.  

Hope is an excellent narrator, describing her development as a budding scientist from her earliest days helping her father in his college laboratory in a small town in Minnesota through her high powered career in various universities.  All along, she shares not only her stories of her own education, but of the people she works with, including Bill, her lab manager who’s both brilliant and (like so many scientists) a bit eccentric, and shares her enthusiasm and love for the world of plants, which surrounds us but which most of us don’t even really see at all, let alone understand.

It’s a fun read and a fascinating one, so come and join us in what will undoubtedly be another great discussion (with snacks!).



It seems appropriate that, so soon after I put up the display, lists, and post about the adult fairy tale category for this year’s Reading Challenge, The Field Library acquired The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, which is a collection of very dark short stories based on various famous or less famous fairy tales (and children’s stories, which I’ll get to in a minute).  It’s a quick read, but be warned: all of the stories are warped, and some of them are quite disturbing.

Do you need to know the original stories in order to appreciate The Merry Spinster? No, though you probably are at least generally aware of the outlines of such stories as The Little Mermaid (here told as “The Daughter Cells”), The Wind in the Willows (here “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”), or “The Frog Princess” (here “The Frog’s Princess”).  As with any retellings of famous stories, you are of course better able to appreciate the new version if you’re familiar with the original, but you can read these stories without a lot of knowledge of their source material.

And what stories they are!  Some of them, like “The Daughter Cells,” just take the original story and look at it through a completely different lens: consider what a mermaid would really be like and exactly how she might view humankind, keeping in mind that creatures that live underwater might not have such a human-oriented point of view.  “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” told by an angel who had various tasks to fulfill in the time of the Bible, seems perfectly reasonable until you get to the end (the angel’s encounter with Jacob), and think about the twist in the story and what it means for the future.

Though these stories are creepy, they’re not really “horror” as I see them. Some of them, though, are genuinely scary and even haunting.  For instance, The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child, and Ortberg’s version, “The Rabbit,” follows the original fairly closely and then diverges to absolutely ruin my memory of the original, turning it into something nightmarishly chilling. Similarly, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” here would make anyone scared of Rat and Mole and Badger and horribly sympathetic to poor Toad.

If you don’t mind having some really creepy dreams, and you enjoy looking at famous stories from different angles, and you have a dark sensibility, then by all means give The Merry Spinster a read.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Three new thrillers have just arrived at The Field Library, all turning, in one way or another, on the question of memory. Hard as it is to solve a mystery when you have all the pieces available to you, it’s logarithmically more difficult to solve the mystery when you yourself have serious blank spaces in your memory, and those blank spaces could be where the most important information resides.  

Police officer Doug Brock, the protagonist of David Rosenfelt’s Fade to Black, suffers from traumatic amnesia.  Shot in the line of duty before the book begins, Doug is trying to rebuild his life, retrieving some of his memories and joining an amnesia support group to help him work on getting the rest of his memories.  So it makes sense to him to try to help another man from the amnesia group who has made a most disturbing discovery. In Sean Connor’s attic, he says, he’s found a scrapbook of a murder victim, but he has no memory of the girl or why he might have put that scrapbook together. Doug takes the matter to his chief and reopens the closed case of this girl’s murder, only to discover that he himself had a personal connection to the case (a surprise to him).  As he investigates, the case causes him to question everything he knows about Sean, about the case, and about his own past.

Cassandra Bowden has few excuses for her own lack of memory in Chris Bohjalian’s The Flight Attendant. She’s a binge alcoholic, and has many times drunk herself into complete blackouts, which are starting to interfere with her job as a flight attendant. However, what happens when she wakes up from a bender in a Dubai hotel is much worse than any hangover she’s ever encountered before. The man in bed beside her is dead, clearly murdered, and Cassandra has no memory of anything having to do with the man, how she got there, how he got there, what might have happened to him.  She then makes a disastrous decision: she doesn’t call the police, but begins to lie about what happened. She lies to the people she works with, she lies to the people she’s serving in First Class, and, most dangerously of all, she lies to the FBI agents who are waiting for her in New York. With so many lies and so little memory, Cassandra has put herself into a position where it may no longer be possible for her to tell the truth, even if she could figure it out. Who killed the man?  Could she have done it? If she didn’t, how did she end up in bed with a murdered man?

Alice Feeny’s Sometimes I Lie involves a protagonist with even more serious problems than Doug or Cassandra.  Amber Reynolds is a victim of shut in syndrome. She’s in a coma; she can’t move, speak, or even open her eyes, but she can hear everything that’s going on around her. The people around her don’t know she can hear and understand them, and there’s nothing she can do to make them aware of her conscious state. If this isn’t nightmare fuel by itself, there’s more.  She can’t remember what happened to her, but she has a suspicion her husband, who no longer loves her, had something to do with her present state. She goes back and forth in her mind between her scary present situation, the events of the week before her accident, and childhood memories from 20 years before, trying to find the truth in a world of lies and half truths.


What happens when some seemingly incurable condition or illness is suddenly cured?  Is it a sign that the illness was wrongly diagnosed in the first place, or is it a sign that something supernatural has happened? Or is there another alternative?  

These are the questions at the heart of Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles.  The book’s protagonist, Cameron Harris, fought in Afghanistan, and, after a traumatizing accident, was rendered paraplegic.  He’s been living a difficult life with his sister in a battered Biloxi, Mississippi, neighborhood for the last four years, just barely making it.  And then one day, for no particular reason, he rises out of his wheelchair and is able to walk again.

Now he’s the center of national and even international attention, much to his own dismay.  Journalists are investigating his “miracle”, and even emissaries from the Vatican are digging into Cameron’s life, his injury and his recovery, trying to determine whether this was really a certifiable miracle or some kind of medical breakthrough.

What happens when a person becomes a symbol? What happens to his life and his privacy, to his deepest secrets?  What actually happened to Cameron, and how does his “miracle” affect everybody else around him, including the people drawn into his orbit through his new celebrity, the people who want to believe and the people who want to prove there was nothing supernatural about what happened?

Anatomy of a Miracle is that rare book that looks into questions of faith and rationality, science and the limits of science, and the way our culture turns people into celebrities.

For those who are interested, this book is the next pick of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club Central, so there will probably be a lot of buzz about it in the near future.



Who says horror books should only come out around Halloween?  There’s definitely something to be said for winter as the season of horror: being stuck indoors by snow and ice, at the mercy of whatever demons you brought in with you, or whatever supernatural forces you encounter there (see The Shining or Traveler’s Rest  for examples).  And this March, facing all these late snowstorms, we can luxuriate in the dark creepiness of some new horror books at The Field Library.

Snowstorms and being stranded by weather brings to mind one of the most infamous disasters of the trek westward, the Donner Party, which just happens to be the subject of The Hunger, by Alma Katsu. The Donner Party was a group that tried to cross the Rockies in 1846 by a different route, got lost, got stranded and snowbound, and ended up eating each other’s dead bodies before they were rescued.  This is historical, and gruesome, fact. The Hunger takes it a step or two farther, speculating about whether the bad luck that seemed to haunt the party was something more, a malignant force following the party, seeking its destruction.  As the group of men, women and children travels across the Sierra Nevada mountains, and people start disappearing, those who continue onward begin to wonder whether there’s something terrifying waiting for them beyond the mountains, as the Native American stories suggest, or whether that evil is coming along with them and has been there from the start.  If you like your historical fiction on the dark and scary side, be sure to check out The Hunger.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing creepier than dolls, particularly dolls that look like real people; it’s the whole uncanny valley thing that gets to me, so the concept underlying The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, unnerves me and probably will unnerve anyone else who feels similarly.  Nicely Gothic in setting, the Victorian era protagonist is Elsie, a young woman who marries a rich, handsome man, moves to his estate with him, and prepares for an easy life.  Unfortunately for her, her husband dies a few weeks into their marriage, and she’s pregnant, left with his somewhat disturbing cousin for company, her servants angry and sullen, surrounded by a village of hostile locals.  It gets worse when she discovers a locked door in the house, and behind that door (am I the only one shouting, “Don’t open that door!”?), she finds a carved wooden figure that looks surprisingly like her. The village people have superstitions about those silent companions, and Elsie tries to disregard those stories, until she notices that the figure’s eyes are following her.  What’s going on here? Is the house haunted? Is Elsie?

Take your mind off your own inconveniences by reading about people who have it much worse. Check out our new horror books.


If you would like to experience a new and unique perspective on the cliche of “humans colonizing a different world and encountering aliens there”, I heartily recommend the book Semiosis, by Sue Burke.

The colonists fleeing a dying earth and finding their way to a planet they name Pax happen to land on the wrong planet, not the one they were aiming for, but in the circumstances they decide to make a go of it here even though it’s not ideal (few of the minerals they need to keep their machinery running can be found on this planet, and the gravity is greater than they’re used to).  The world, described in great and enlightening detail, is very strange to the colonists. They’re prepared to deal with potentially dangerous and hostile animals, but it takes a real effort of imagination for them to realize that the most dangerous and potentially hostile beings on this planet are the plants, and that their only hope of surviving is to ally themselves with the right plants.

The book proceeds by generations. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, from a later generation than the one who narrated the last one, though one of the characters, Stevland, a rainbow bamboo who develops from a completely strange being into a citizen, and even a moderator of the colony, shows up in a few chapters, his* perspective changing over time and as a result of his interactions with other moderators.

The humans’ interactions with Stevland are fraught and complicated, partly because it’s difficult for humans to understand what Stevland is really trying to do. He helps them tremendously, providing them with food and with necessary supplements to keep them healthy or to help them solve some of their physical problems, but that ability to help them by adding things to their food could also allow Stevland to make them passive slaves or to change their personalities altogether.  How much can they trust him when he’s so different from them? The pull between survival, albeit in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a plant, and independence, albeit with the potential for utter destruction, plays out in different ways over generations.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the Glassmakers, another alien species which preceded the humans on Pax, developed a relationship with Stevland and then abandoned him and the elaborate and beautiful city they’d built. Who were they?  Why had they left? Are they still around? Can humans and Glassmakers live harmoniously together?

The world-building in this book is outstanding. Everything works together, even as most of the things are different in fundamental ways from their closest equivalents on earth. The intrusion of the humans (and the Glassmakers) into this ecosystem causes a major upheaval that takes generations to work out. What I really liked about this book, and why I recommend it so heartily, is the characters, the human beings (and no matter how the planet and Stevland change them, they are still recognizably and relatably human beings) and Stevland, their attempts to deal with their unusual circumstances, and their struggles to remain true to their principles as those principles are tested by a world so different from the world in which the principles were incubated.


*Stevland chooses his gender, as he chooses the name the humans use for him.


There might be a better person to write a novel about Chicago in the 1920’s than David Mamet, famous for his screenplays for the movies The Untouchables  and Wag the Dog and his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Glengarry Glen Ross, but it’s hard to imagine who that might be.  Mamet’s new book, Chicago, is his first novel in decades, and it’s set in the rich and dangerous world of Prohibition era Chicago, like The Untouchables.

The protagonist is Mike Hodge, a veteran of World War I, currently working for the Chicago Tribune. As a newspaper writer, he’s got a front row seat to observe all the corruption and crime, all the aspects of the dark underbelly of the city.  He should have known better than to fall in love with Annie Walsh, since he knew perfectly well that her family was involved with organized crime.  But he did fall in love with her, and when she gets murdered, he’s not about to let her go unavenged.  And so begins a tale which interweaves Mamet’s vivid and hard-boiled characters with real life figures, including the legendary Al Capone.

If you’ve seen Mamet’s plays or movies, you have a pretty good idea of what to expect from his novel: dense, quick moving dialogue, plots involving crosses and double crosses, and compromised characters. If you’re a fan of David Mamet, all you need to know is the name of his new book.   If you’re interested in 1920’s Chicago, and you enjoy witty, hard-boiled dialogue that does most of the heavy lifting in telling the story, this is a don’t miss book for you, too.


As many of you know, I am running this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge, the purpose of which is to encourage people to get acquainted with different aspects of the library’s collection and stretch our reading horizons.  From time to time I’ll write about a category here, to give a little more information and insight about what’s good, what I love, in that category (why yes, I did choose some of the categories because they’re the types of books I love myself — why do you ask?). I already did that for Time Travel Books here, and now I’m going to talk about Adult Fairy Tales and some of my personal favorites in this category.

I could almost have filled an entire category with Neil Gaiman’s books; one of the things he’s really good at is creating his own versions of fairy tales, either new takes on old stories (e.g., The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is awesome) or stories of his own which feel like fairy tales (e.g., Neverwhere, which was also made into an excellent BBC mini series).  His collections of short stories include quirky and often dark takes on famous fairy tales, too, so if you’re a short story fan, do check out his collections.  But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorites of his, the excellent (and surprisingly short) The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  I’m not usually a fan of the “framing story”, where the real story is being told by a character in the story, who intrudes at the beginning and the end; I usually find that a clumsy device and think the framing part could be excised easily without any damage to the story. HOWEVER, in this particular case, the framing story really works, and adds depth and poignance to the story you’ve already read.  I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you.  A middle aged man returns to the scene of his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary period of his life, when terrifying forces converged on his family and the only people who were capable of saving him and his family were three women, a girl who’s apparently his age, an adult woman and an old woman who claims to remember the Big Bang itself.  Gaiman’s prose is gorgeous, his grasp of myth and archetype is amazing, and this is just a terrific book all around.

A very different, but equally wonderful, book is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in a vividly rendered New York City at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th.  Chava is a golem, created by a Polish rabbi who died while he was transporting her with him to America. Ahmad is a jinni, a fire spirit from Syria, only recently released from the bottle that imprisoned him.  The two of them meet and develop an unlikely but poignant relationship as each of them navigates his or her way through their respective cultures and tries to find out his or her origin and purpose in this world.  The book focuses on Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore, not the usual stuff of fairy tales we’re familiar with, and brings these very different and very unusual characters to life.  

Alaska in the 1920’s doesn’t seem like a likely setting for a fairy tale, but once you’ve read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, you’ll change your mind. The setting is unusual, but the storyline, about a couple who long for a child of their own and can’t have one the usual way until they build themselves a child out of snow, which then seems to create a real live child, is classic fairy tale stuff. The child, who seems to be a part of the wilderness herself, calls herself Faina, and Jack and Mabel, the couple at the heart of the story, come to love her as if she were their own child, born to them.  However, she isn’t really their child; there’s more to her than any of them know, and as Jack and Mabel discover, fairy tales don’t always end with happily ever after.  This is a book with a wonderful sense of place (a great book to read in the hottest part of summer, because I guarantee you’ll feel cooler just reading it) and a poignant plot with believable characters.

And then there’s Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is the kind of book you dive into and forget your surroundings while you become absorbed in the world of the book. While the main plot of the book concerns Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been trained practically from birth to be rivals but who find themselves falling in love with each other (to the consternation of their mysterious mentors), it is the circus world in which they live that really stays with you after you finish the book.  The circus itself is mysterious and wondrous, appearing without warning in a place and then disappearing just as quickly, only open at night, and filled with the most amazing things, the sort of acts and displays you will never find anywhere else. There’s magic here, in the plot, in the descriptions of the circus, in the whole world Morgenstern’s created, and yes, there is a very satisfying ending (though I’m not sure I would go as far as to say it’s a Happily Ever After ending, all things considered).  A book club favorite and an absorbing read, The Night Circus is the best kind of adult fairy tale.


If you’re the type of person who likes “real” historical novels, ones that peer into the lives of actual historical figures directly, rather than looking at famous or infamous people through made up characters who happen to orbit around them, and if you’re interested in the era of the 1930’s and 1940’s in America, then we have a new book for you!  It’s Amy Bloom’s newest novel, White Houses, and it tells the story of Lorena Hickok and her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Amy Bloom is an excellent writer, and fond of historical fiction.  Her last book, Lucky Us, followed a rather eccentric pair of sisters through the world of 1940’s America, and it was a fun read, filled with historical detail and fascinating characters.  

Lorena Hickok, known as “Hick”, has become known to the general public, if obliquely, through Ken Burns’ television series about the Roosevelt family, but she was more than just a footnote to the Roosevelts’ marriage. She was, as White Houses demonstrates, a fascinating person in her own right, a woman who started out with nothing and made herself into one of the prominent journalists of the era, which was, it’s worth noting, not an era in which women were assumed to be able to do the same kind of work as men.

Her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, which started when Hick was covering FDR’s first run for the presidency in 1932, forms the spine of the book.  The two women were very different: Hick was outgoing and brash, as she had to be in order to make a success of herself in a man’s world, whereas Eleanor was kind of shy and introverted, unsure whether she had what it took to be the wife of the most powerful man in the world. And while they had to hide the true nature of their “special friendship”, due to the rampant homophobia of the period, this book leaves no doubt that this was love, deep and powerful, shaping their lives.

Hick, our point of view character, had a bird’s eye view of everything that went on in the White House, from Eleanor’s daily routine to FDR’s relationship with his lover, to the behavior of FDR and Eleanor’s children (spoiler alert: they do not come off well in this telling), and seeing things through her intelligent and observant eyes gives us a different perspective on one of the most well known periods of American history.

If you’re doing the Field Library Reading Challenge this year, this book counts for the category of “Read a Book about the Great Depression” (as you can see, I’m pretty loose and forgiving about what fits in particular categories), but you don’t need an excuse to read this lovely historical novel about two extraordinary women.