NEW MURDERBOT = NEW REASONS TO REJOICE

Why do I love the Murderbot Diaries so much?  I really do, you know, to the point where I make it a point to order them for the collection whenever they come out, put them on hold for myself immediately (even before they’re published), and devour each of them in more or less one sitting (they are novellas and not long, but still, there aren’t many books I’ll throw myself into like that, long or short).  What is it about a series of books about a former security robot who’s more interested in watching movies and television shows than acting like a tough robot, who’s painfully awkward when it comes to dealing with humans, and who claims not to care about human beings but whose actions always seem to contradict those statements?

I bring this up now because I just finished reading Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells’ newest addition to the series, and I loved it. While I have publicly said that I don’t want to start an unfinished series, I’ll make an exception for this one, because I was delighted to see that Wells has left open the possibility (likelihood) of another sequel, while at the same time giving this book a proper resolution (this is not something that’s easy to do when you’re talking about a series of books; often the middle books leave the reader hanging so they’ll want to pick up the next book).

Once again we have the inimitable Murderbot on a mission of its own, trying to keep its status as a free bot secret from other bots and from human beings.  Ever since it disabled its governor, before the first book, Murderbot has not been forced to use the same rules of ordinary Security Units, rules which require the unit to sacrifice everything to protect the humans under its care, but somehow, even without being forced, and even while claiming it has no particular interest in protecting any humans, it still ends up taking actions that seem self-sacrificing and protective of the humans under its care. Contrary to the popular notion that a Security Unit without its governor would go berserk and start killing everyone in sight, Murderbot just wants to be left alone to watch movies and television shows by itself.

In the last book, Murderbot ended up helping a group of humans by pretending to be an augmented human being, but it justified its involvement because it was getting paid for it.  In this book, Murderbot is pretending to be a human being AND a security unit (it’s complicated), and it’s not even getting paid, but it did make a promise to Miki (which Murderbot contemptuously refers to as a “pet bot”) that it would keep the humans safe in exchange for being able to use Miki’s sensory apparatus, and so it justifies the heroic efforts it makes to protect this group of humans by this.

Aside from Murderbot’s evolving attitudes toward humans, or rather, its changing understanding of its attitudes toward humans, we also get to watch Murderbot’s attitude toward other robots, from the mindless transports to the ART which played such an important part in the last book, to Miki, whose childlike friendliness and innocence initially drives Murderbot crazy until Miki shows sides of itself (and of its humans) which surprise Murderbot (and this reader).

The plot is intricate but clear, with plenty of action, characters you find yourself caring about, and, of course,  the wonderful voice of Murderbot itself. May there be many more books in the series!

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FAVORITE BOOKS FROM THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

I’ve already written about the general rules I’ve used in choosing which books are good for a book group, based on my years of leading the Field Notes group here at the library.  Now I have the fun of sharing some of what I consider to be the best books we’ve read in the group. I am NOT saying that everybody in the group loved all these books; as I mentioned in the last book group post, you are never going to find a book that everybody loves, or even that everybody likes (by the same token, you’re unlikely to find one that everybody dislikes).  These are the ones I personally enjoyed most, which provoked some of the most interesting discussions among our people, and I hope they’ll give ideas to other book groups looking for good reads.

The first book I chose for the group is still one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  This book won the National Book Award in 2009, and this is one instance where I feel the award was absolutely earned. The thread around which all the different stories in the book spin is the 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philip Petit (though he’s not named here), but don’t for a minute think it’s all about his daring acrobatics.  No, this is a book about people, and it’s a book about New York City at a particular time, and McCann brilliantly brings both his characters and his setting to life, as the stories interweave and connect in unexpected ways. What could an Irish monk living among prostitutes have in common with an upper class woman who lost her son in Vietnam? What could both those characters have in common with a Bohemian young woman who’s involved in a hit and run accident that results in death?  Not all the storylines tear at your heart, but several of them do, and the deep sympathy McCann shows for all his characters, the skill with which he brings them together and then separates them, the clear love he has for New York City in all its flaws and dangers, makes this a magical book and a great spark for discussion.

Not all the books we’ve read are novels, and one of my favorites is a nonfiction book, H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald.  I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, and I think a memoir is a particularly difficult kind of book to pull off well, but MacDonald seemingly effortlessly combines a memoir of her grief over her father’s sudden death, her efforts to train a goshawk, Mabel (it’s a quirk that the most dangerous and fearsome raptors are often given the most non-threatening names — really, can you imagine being scared by someone named Mabel?), and a reflection on the life and work of T. H. White (author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Once and Future King, but also the author of The Goshawk, which is MacDonald’s focus here) into a seamless, beautifully written reflection on nature and grief and our role in the natural world.  There’s a lot about falconry, and a lot about her father’s life and death, but none of it seems excessive or unnecessary, and one of the things a good book group book can do is illuminate subjects you might not have paid attention to otherwise.

One of the books that surprised me was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. On the surface, it looked like the kind of feel-good book that would become a best-seller just because it’s about personal growth, a man discovering how to feel again, etc. And if you just read the description of the plot, that’s what it sounds like: Harold Fry is a middle-aged man stuck in a job that’s meaningless to him, in a marriage that has turned dull and possibly dead, when he finds out that Queenie Hennessey, a woman who once meant a great deal to him, is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles away.  Instead of mailing the note he wrote to her, he finds himself walking from his home to her hospice, calling the hospice along the way to tell her not to die until he gets there. It is a tale of transformation, but not at all the way you expect it to be, and Harold is not the only one transformed.  His road trip is really a pilgrimage, and he suffers not only the obvious strains of someone who hasn’t done any real exercise for years suddenly trying to walk the spine of England but the spiritual pains of facing his life and all the things he didn’t do that he should have done, for Queenie, but also for other people.  The ending is earned and unexpected at the same time, and it’s the characters who make the book wonderful. One thing I applaud the author for is the map she helpfully provided at the beginning of the book, for those of us who are not English and/or only have the vaguest idea of English geography, so we can keep track of where Harold is and where he’s going.  This was a poignant read, full of heart and soul.

And, speaking of soul, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an incredible read, its subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End a very accurate description of what the book is about.  Gawande is a surgeon, but also a terrific writer, vivid and clear, expert at choosing just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he’s making, and what points they are!  Basically he talks about aging and death, how we deal with them in our culture (spoiler: not well at all), how they are treated in other cultures, and how we might be able to do better, how some people and institutions are already doing better and what we could learn from them. He talks about his patients and his family (most poignantly about his father’s decline and death), and about his own experiences as a young doctor and a more experienced doctor who’s learned from his past mistakes.  It’s a short book, but there’s so much in it, not just information (though there’s plenty of that, and eye-opening information for the most part) but insights and ideas and questions.

One of the pleasures I’ve had as leader of the book group is the opportunity to push books that I love, and sometimes I’ve been able to persuade the group to read one of my personal favorites (which has its potential downsides; when I love a book, it’s hard for me to hear other people disparaging it, but that’s part of the job).  A book I have been recommending to people for years, which our group read just last year, is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  What a fun book that is! Set in Barcelona in 1945, when the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh and people are just beginning to recover from the war, the story centers around a book, or rather a series of books, and their mysterious author, and someone who is apparently trying to destroy all the copies of all the books this author ever wrote.  Our protagonist, Daniel, is a young man, the son of a bookseller, who has fallen in love with this particular author’s book and determines to find out who’s trying to eliminate the author’s work so completely. He is surrounded by a cast of amazing, vivid characters, villains and heroes and heroines, and his quest takes him through all levels of Barcelona’s society, through some wonderfully described settings, and through murder, madness and doomed love.  It is everything you could want from an adventure novel, and while I try not to be judgmental in general, I have to say that I would wonder about someone who could read this book and not enjoy it. Just getting the group to discuss the various characters will lead to a fun and scintillating discussion, before you even get into the plot and the history and the rest of the wonders of this book.

Obviously these aren’t all the good books we’ve read over the years, just the ones that stand out in my memory as having been great reads and having produced great discussions. Here’s to the years we’ve already spent reading and discussing (and sometimes arguing) about books, and the years and books ahead of us!

 

WHO ARE YOUR PARENTS, REALLY?

A couple of new mysteries/thrillers explore the question of what we really know about the people closest to us, the people who, for better or worse, shaped us: our parents.  In Allison Brennan’s new book, Abandoned, as well as in Caz Frear’s Sweet Little Lies, adult children are brought face to face with the lies and deceptions of their parents (a mother in one case, a father in the other), and have to use their professional skills to get to the bottom of the biggest mysteries of their pasts.

Maxine Revere, the protagonist of Abandoned, has built a career for herself as an author and the host of a true crime television show involving investigations of cold cases.  She’s very successful, but there’s one mystery that’s haunted her all her life: what happened to her mother, Martha, who dropped her off with her grandmother when Max was 9 and then never returned?  For six years, her mother would keep in sporadic touch, mostly with a postcard around Max’s birthday, but then she stopped the postcards, stopped taking her allowance from her trust fund, and disappeared off the face of the earth. Seven years later, she was officially declared dead, but no body was found, and Max never felt any real closure.  So when she finds information about a car her mother was using that was found, abandoned, shortly after all communications from her mother ceased, Max sets out to investigate, using all the skills she’s honed in her professional career. She knew her mother had been involved with one Jimmy Truman, a con man, and that Martha had been joining in his grifts and cons with great pleasure.  Could one of those cons have turned deadly? Max starts asking questions and digging into the records of this town in the Chesapeake Bay area where the car had been found, and where Jimmy Truman’s brother is still living. The brother is a man of substance, married with children and a good reputation, and he is not interested at all in digging up anything about his disreputable brother or his brother’s girlfriend.  The F.B.I., however, seems interested in this very old case, and Max joins forces with the FBI agent to find out what, exactly, happened to Martha and why.

Cat Kinsella, the London policewoman who’s the protagonist of Sweet Little Lies, is estranged from her father, who’s running a pub in London.  She starts investigating the murder of a young housewife who was strangled not far from her father’s pub, and is deeply disturbed to receive an anonymous message linking this murder to the disappearance of a young woman in Ireland 18 years before.  That particular disappearance has haunted Cat for years. She met the victim, Maryanne, with her family just before Maryanne’s disappearance, and even though her father swore he’d never met the girl or knew anything about the disappearance, Cat knew he was lying at the time. Charming and dissolute, her father was not a man to be trusted, and Cat learned that when she was quite young.  But there’s a big difference between being a liar and a philanderer and being a murderer, and now that the old case has been brought back to her attention, Cat feels she has to find out, once and for all, whether her father might have murdered Maryanne, and might have murdered this victim as well. Digging into the past is always a dangerous endeavor, especially when you have some reason to suspect you’re going to find a buried crime in your digging, but it’s worse when you’re a police officer.  Cat throws ethics and rules to the wind in her eagerness, her desperation, to discover what really happened in both these cases, though she may not be happy with what she ends up discovering.

 

A COZY BROMANCE MYSTERY THAT GOES ALL THE WAY TO THE TOP

If you are a person who dislikes President Obama, then you can stop reading right here, because Hope Never Dies, a parody mystery by Andrew Shaffer, the author of the Fifty Shades of Grey parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey, could be described in one sentence as President Obama and Vice President Biden solve a mystery together.  If, however, the cover of the book makes you giggle, and if you’ve been enjoying the various internet memes with the two of them, then you should definitely put this one on hold (it’s very popular at this moment) and settle in for a fun read.

The premise is straightforward.  Joe Biden is feeling old and boring after the end of the administration, especially when he sees Barack Obama skiing and hobnobbing with famous people and leaving him out of all the fun.  But then he discovers that one of his favorite Amtrak conductors has just died in suspicious circumstances, leaving behind a widow and children. Biden doesn’t believe it was just an accident, and neither does Obama, who joins with Biden to investigate what really happened and whether the conductor was the real target or the accident was meant for someone else, someone higher up.

With a solid mystery and the Obama-Biden bromance that has ignited so many internet memes, Hope Never Dies is a lighthearted romp that’s just the thing to read if reading or listening to the news is too depressing.

BOOK CLUB BOOKS, PART 1

Let’s talk about book group books.  I’ve been leading the Field Notes Book Group for some years now, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts about the things you need for a good book group discussion.

You want books that people are going to want to read.  Obviously if you choose a book and most of the people in the group don’t want to read it, or are unable or unwilling to read the whole thing, you’re going to have trouble coming up with a good discussion of the book.  Sometimes a book that’s too long is a problem (though we solved that problem once by choosing a long book, Shantaram, in June and reading it over the summer, meeting in September to discuss it; clearly that’s not always an option, of course).  Sometimes a book is too dense, especially if it’s a nonfiction book, or sometimes the language of the book is too difficult for people to get into (to my surprise, that was a problem with Persuasion; the old-fashioned language Jane Austen uses wasn’t a barrier for me, but it was for a number of the readers).  

They don’t have to be books everybody’s going to like.  This is important, because you are NOT going to find books that everybody likes, not if you have a lively group (and that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  Some of the best discussions we’ve had were about books that at least some people disliked, and disliked vehemently (we even had one discussion where just about everybody in the group disliked the book, and that was a fun meeting).  What you don’t want are books that people are lukewarm about, because there’s nothing much to say about those books once you’ve said “Yeah, it was okay, I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it.”

They should be books at least some people in the group are really going to like.  You can have a meeting where everybody hates the book and everybody feels so strongly they want to explain exactly what they hated about the book (it’s better if they hate different things about the book), but unless that’s the kind of energy you want to deal with at every meeting, you’ll do better if those meetings are few and far between.

The book should have something worth discussing, beyond just the characters and the plot. Yes, these are good places to start.  A book where you dislike or disbelieve every character is not going to be one you enjoy reading, and I personally have little patience for novels which don’t have some semblance of a plot.  But if you want to have a discussion that’s longer than a few minutes, picking a book that’s all about the “twisty” plot isn’t going to work; once the people in the group have finished arguing about whether that twist made sense or whether they were or weren’t surprised by it, there’s not a lot more to say. A book that’s set in a place or time people weren’t familiar with before reading it can lead to great discussions; a book that turns on issues people in the group didn’t know about can be a revelation.  

On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to choose something controversial just for the sake of being edgy, unless you have the kind of group where most of the people have no problem reading in your face kind of books. This includes books where there’s a lot of cursing, or a lot of sex, or a lot of violence (so, no Jo Nesbo for my book group!), if you know some members of your group are going to be turned off by those things. Trust me, you will not be limited to children’s books or the blandest of novels if you’re being careful about language or violence, and your group will be long lasting if you’re not deliberately choosing books that will offend some of the members.

Along the same lines, when the group is selecting a book, if there’s a topic that is genuinely offensive to one member of the group, even if the rest of the group might want to read it, it’s respectful of the feelings of that member to take the book out of consideration for selection.  This came up once in our group: among the books I had suggested for the next month was Quicksand, a novel about a school shooting. It turned out to be a fascinating psychological study of a young woman who was being charged with murder in connection with the shooting, but two people in the group said they absolutely did not want to read anything involving a school shooting, so that was that. Could we have had an exciting and deep discussion of the issues in that book?  Sure. Would it have been appropriate if the book were triggering or unduly upsetting to one of the members? No.

The book you choose doesn’t have to be something you yourself have already read, either. Sometimes that makes it easier to sell a book to the group if it’s one I’m enthusiastic about and know is a great read because I’ve already read it (maybe multiple times), but a book group is about exploration and discovery, for the leader as well as for the members. Sometimes you just have to take a chance on something you haven’t read yet, putting yourself in the same position as the rest of the group. If nothing else, choosing a book you haven’t read means you don’t feel you have to justify the book to everybody else if it turns out other people aren’t as enthusiastic as you are about it.

It’s up to the people in the group whether you want to do nonfiction as well as fiction, or whether you want to limit yourselves to a particular category of books.  Some of the best books we’ve read in the group have been nonfiction (the question of which books I think have been the best will have to wait for another post), though not all the nonfiction books have been winners. If you’re going to read nonfiction, I think you have to be careful about finding books that will appeal to the whole group, books that aren’t too technical but at the same time aren’t too superficial, which can be more difficult than choosing novels for a group.

Finally, while you can use online listings of “the best books” of the year, or the “best nonfiction” or the like, I recommend that you don’t just rely on those lists, unless you’re very familiar with the reviewers and have a sense of what they think is good or not.  The one book I mentioned that just about everybody in the group hated was one chosen from a group of the “best books of the year,” which made all of us wonder about what the criteria were for calling something the “best.”

Still to come: my choices for the best books we’ve read so far in book group.  Stay tuned!

 

MORE THAN JUST SHERLOCK HOLMES SET IN THE FUTURE

I am and have been a big Sherlock Holmes fan since college, when I devoured the complete Arthur Conan Doyle collection in more or less one gulp.  I’ve read many other versions of the stories, and have definite opinions about the various incarnations of Holmes and Watson in television and movies (don’t get me started about Sherlock, for instance, Benedict Cumberbatch to the contrary notwithstanding). So when I heard about A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell, which is advertised as a Sherlock Holmes and John Watson novel set in the near future in which the main characters are African American women, of course I wanted to read it.

For anyone who is approaching it the way I did, a word of warning: you are underestimating the book if you’re just expecting a slightly different version of the canonical Holmes and Watson.  It’s better than that, much better.

In some ways, new versions of familiar stories, like the Holmes-Watson canon, are like new versions of fairy tales. You have expectations.  You have a general idea of how the story is likely to go, and while you’re appreciating the new slant or the new twists this author is bringing to the story, a part of you is still watching for the well-known plot elements, the things you know are going to be a necessary part of the story.  Often this adds to the enjoyment of the story, but sometimes, and this is one of those times, your waiting for the familiar elements to show up can distract you from all the good stuff that’s actually going on.

The book is set in the relatively near future of the United States, which is in the midst of another civil war, this one started by the New Confederacy, somewhere in Oklahoma, with battles taking place all over the midwest. Dr. Janet Watson turned down some very impressive job offers in the private sector when she got her medical degree in order to volunteer to become a doctor in the United States Army, to the utter confusion of her sister and her parents. But her selflessness, her sense of duty, is an essential part of Janet’s character, even after the battle that destroyed her arm and the government’s sloppiness that left her with an inadequate mechanical arm as a replacement.

When we first meet Dr. Watson, she is arriving in Washington, D.C., dealing with the Veterans Administration, now strained because of the ongoing war’s demands, and looking for a place to stay.  She’s looking for a job, and of course she can’t be a surgeon again because her artificial arm is not working the way it should, so she ends up being a medical technician at the V.A., someone who’s supervised by an R.N., doing intakes of veterans coming in to see medical personnel, inputting their vitals and requesting tests she believes necessary (subject to the okay of her supervisors).  It’s a come-down for a former surgeon, but she’s glad to have the job at all, living in D.C. being expensive.

And then comes the intervention of a friend who tells her about Sara Holmes, a somewhat eccentric woman of mysterious background and even more mysterious employment (something high level in the government, the friend assumes, and Janet has no way of guessing otherwise), who has some rooms she’s renting and needs, or possibly wants, a roommate.

Now, any Holmes fan will recognize this as the opening of A Study in Scarlet, the novella that introduces Holmes to Watson in the first place.  Any fan will be expecting the kind of show-offy observation from Holmes that establishes his knowledge, his skill at observing and deducing, and his difficulty in following accepted social norms.  You will, however, be disappointed if that’s what you’re looking for here, because Sara isn’t like Sherlock in a lot of ways, and that’s what makes the book especially interesting.

Sara is very intelligent and apparently comes from a moneyed background, unlike Janet.  She knows a lot more than she lets on, and while she occasionally says or does something that demonstrates an almost supernatural knowledge (for instance, before Janet is even offered a job, Sara advises her to take the V.A. job) of what’s going on around her, she doesn’t take one look at a person and describe everything about the person’s life, as Sherlock does constantly. She’s stubborn and willfully mysterious and, unlike the canonical Watson, Janet is not enthralled by her and doesn’t strike up a relationship with her easily. Quite the contrary, for most of the book Janet looks on Sara as someone who, if not maliciously messing with her life, is determined to make everything difficult for Janet.

There is, of course, a mystery (we’re not going to go that far from the canon), but it’s a mystery that Janet herself falls into when one of her patients dies mysteriously (and Janet being Janet, she feels responsible for not saving the woman), and Janet starts digging in the records, trying to find out what went wrong, why the patient died so suddenly.  It’s the digging that gets her into trouble and even ends up threatening her life, because it turns out that other veterans who were in the patient’s unit died suddenly and mysteriously and there’s something connecting all of them. Though neither Janet nor Sara is officially a detective, Sara also becomes involved in the investigation, as it ties in to some other things she was looking into in her more official, if more secretive, capacity (it’s never clear, by the way, exactly what Sara’s position with the government is, but it’s implied she’s working for the CIA or the equivalent), and the two of them travel together to get to the bottom of the mystery, which involves the highest levels of government and powerful corporations.

So this wasn’t really a Sherlock Holmes story in the classic sense; there were no leaps of brilliant logic, no far-fetched deductions from tiny clues that solve the mysteries.  Janet Watson is no John Watson, somewhat slow and always amazed by whatever drops of insight Holmes might deign to share. But in some ways the relationship between the two characters is so much fuller and more developed than the originals, as the characters themselves are fascinating and well-rounded.  The world in which they live is both recognizable as one that could develop from current conditions but also different (and the world building is unobtrusive but extensive), and the highest compliment I can pay this book is saying that I want more books with these two characters and their world, even if they really aren’t African American Sherlock Holmes and Watson as advertised (they’re better).

 

THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, PART 2: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE THESE BOOKS

I have already written about The Great American Read, the program set up by PBS to determine Americans’ favorite novel (here).  In my last post, I discussed the odd choices the selectors made with respect to some of the authors. This time, to balance things out a little, I’m going to talk about the books that were excellently chosen, some of which I wouldn’t have expected to see in a list chosen by the public like this.  I’m not saying which books I’m voting for (truth to tell, I haven’t decided yet, and may split my votes over several books and several days), but I do want to highlight some of the books that will probably get my votes.

Some of them are obvious.  I’ve only loved Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, since I was a child, and passed that love on to my daughter (one year I planned an Alice in Wonderland party for her, and we had a blast).  The absurdity of the whole book, the inside jokes, the bizarre characters, the poems (which of course I memorized; I can still rattle off “You Are Old, Father Williams” after many decades), all of it tickled my imagination as a child and still does (try The Annotated Alice, if you want to get all the inside jokes and the references).

I have long contended that The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is one of the Great American Novels (I realize there are people who disagree with me, but I believe they just haven’t read it in the right mood yet).  Such a short book, but so gorgeously written! You could just sit there and read and reread certain passages just to savor the beautiful language (one of the ways to tell, in my opinion, if a book is beautifully written, is to read the opening paragraphs and the closing ones, and if they sing, you know you’ve got something special in your hands), and the themes of rich and poor, of self-creation and the American Dream, are still powerful today (there are many people in public life, for instance, who could be described as the sort of “careless people” Daisy and Tom Buchanan were, and if you’ve read the book, you know what I’m talking about).

But I also confess to a deep love for Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which I am gobsmacked to find on this list, not because it’s not a great book (it’s a wonderful book), but because I think most people haven’t read it and know nothing more of it than the opening section set in Lilliput.  Which is a shame, because the other worlds Gulliver finds himself shipwrecked in are at least as impressive as Lilliput and provide the same satirical thrusts within seeming fantasy, and the last portion of the book, where Gulliver visits the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos (horses and human beings, respectively), is heartbreaking as well as biting. This, like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is one of those books people think they know without ever having read it, and that’s a real shame.

For different reasons, I’m surprised and delighted to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, on this list. I don’t care if anyone wants to say it’s not great literature, because if you look at some of the other books on the list (which I will not go into now; that may be another post), it’s very clear that a book doesn’t need to be great literature to be included here.  The fact is, the book (the first of a trilogy — well, it’s technically more than a trilogy but that’s because Adams regrettably kept adding books to the group, when he really should have stopped with Life, The Universe, and Everything, the third book and a natural ending point) is brilliant and funny, science fiction meeting Monty Python, containing warped ideas about the nature of human intelligence and the purpose of the earth, with unforgettable characters and a plot that never goes where you expect it to.  A fast read and a funny one, The Hitchhiker’s Guide probably won’t win this contest, but if its inclusion on the list means more people read it, I can only cheer.  

Having The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan, on the list is a wonderful thing.  While her body of work since then has certainly been impressive, I confess I still have a special place in my heart for The Joy Luck Club. Not only is it an #OwnVoices book, and not only are the characters varied and vividly drawn, but the structure of the book, with the alternating stories from mothers in China and in America and daughters in America (and, at the very end, in China), works brilliantly with the book’s theme of mothers and daughters and the strains of being immigrants and first generation Americans.  If you haven’t read Joy Luck yet, let this be encouragement to get around to it.

In a way, the inclusion of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice seems an obvious choice (how many movie versions of this book have there been?  Not to mention all the spinoffs, including a murder mystery version by the late great P. D. James, and various books focusing on different characters who were given short shrift by Austen), though I would be hard-pressed to find an Austen book I didn’t like or want to vote for.  On the other hand, there’s something about the 19th century language and style of sentences Austen uses which take some getting used to for modern readers (as I discovered in a recent book group discussion of Persuasion, which is one of my all-time favorite Austen books), and I like the idea that people who might not otherwise actually READ Pride and Prejudice might pick the book up as a result of this publicity.  The more readers she gets, the better, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m sure Armistead Maupin, writing the first book in the Tales of the City series, never expected his books to be considered almost historical novels, but now, decades after they were written and first became popular, they are a vivid, detailed picture of a particular time and place which has changed a great deal since: San Francisco in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, as AIDS began to make itself felt in the gay community. The stories were originally serialized in newspapers before being collected into books, a la Charles DIckens, but they don’t feel disjointed. There’s an almost soap-opera quality to the way the characters interact with each other over the course of the series, but that doesn’t matter because the characters, straight, gay, bisexual and transgender, are all so real and alive that you care about their relationships and about them. It’s wonderful to see these books included on the Great American Reads list, whether or not they get enough votes to “win.”

 

NEW HISTORICAL FICTION: POST WAR EFFECTS

Two new books of historical fiction touch on World War II (one of them also dives into World War I), but obliquely, from the point of view of people not directly engaged in the fighting but still deeply affected by the war.  

Kate Quinn’s new book, The Alice Network, is one of those historical novels where there are two storylines that eventually converge.  This is a trend in modern historical fiction (consider Before We Were Yours, for instance, or Orphan Train, for another example), and in this case one story takes place in 1947, just after World War II, and the other takes place during World War I.  Both stories center around women and the effects of war. The first protagonist we meet is Charlie (short for Charlotte) St. Clair, an American college student who finds herself unmarried and pregnant; when her mother takes her to Europe to “take care of” her pregnancy, she takes off instead to try to find out what really happened to her beloved cousin, Rose, who disappeared during World War II and whom everybody else believes is dead.  In the course of her search, Charlie finds Eve Gardiner. Eve is an older woman, continually drunk, bitter and miserable, suffering from nightmares of her past, and she has no interest in helping this frivolous young thing, until Charlie mentions some names Eve hadn’t heard in too long. Eve, it turns out, was recruited in 1915 into the Alice Network, a group of female spies in German-occupied France, a group that operated, unseen, right under the noses of the German army.  It was very exciting and very effective until the group was betrayed, and Eve still carries the emotional wounds from the way the network was destroyed. The book shifts back and forth between Eve’s thrilling work behind enemy lines and Charlie’s desperate efforts to find the truth about her cousin, until finally the two stories connect. While Eve and Charlie are fictional characters, the Alice Network really existed, and the author provides, in an endnote, information about the historical basis for the story.

If you judged a book by its cover (always a risky thing to do), you might think Eagle & Crane, by Suzanne Rindell, is a romance, maybe a historical romance, but you’d be underestimating the breadth of this historical novel if you did.  Louis Thorn and Haruto “Harry” Yamada are young men who grew up on neighboring farms in California during the Great Depression, their families rivals because Louis’ father believes Harry’s family “stole” land from their family (and the better, more fertile, land at that). But Louis and Harry both find themselves working as stunt men in Earl Shaw’s Flying Circus, a biplane show barnstorming around the countryside, not entirely legally.  They also find themselves rivals for the love of Ada Brooks, Earl Shaw’s stepdaughter. Then comes the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the internment of Japanese Americans, and Harry and his family are sent to one of the camps, from which Harry and his father manage to escape. While the government is investigating that escape, one of the biplanes from the show crashes and burns, the two Japanese men inside it burned to death. Of course it’s Harry and his father, according to everybody but the FBI agent assigned to the case. There are details that don’t add up and he begins investigating the crash and Harry’s past, and that leads him (and us) to the tangled relationships between the Eagle and Crane, and the truth about what really happened, leading up to that plane crash.

 

WHEN ACTING BECOMES TOO REAL: BELIEVE ME

What an intriguing premise for a thriller: Claire,  the main character in Believe Me, by J. P. Delaney, is a British woman in America who, trying to make a living as an actress and needing to make money, takes on a job acting as a decoy for divorce lawyers.  Her job is to catch cheating or would-be cheating husbands. Stop right there and consider what kind of job that would be. Yes, it probably would pay well, and it would be a way for Claire to hone her acting skills (though not necessarily roles she could list on a resume), but by the same token it could be quite dangerous, no matter how careful she and her employers are.

Naturally there are rules she has to follow.  She can’t entrap; she can’t seduce. She’s only allowed to be obviously available to the would-be cheater and see what he does. If the person is innocent, then nothing happens and there’s nothing for her to tape. If the person tries to seduce her, then she’s got evidence which the law firm can use on behalf of the “victim” wife, in negotiations or legal proceedings.

All goes well until the wife of one of her targets is murdered, and naturally the prime suspect is the husband Claire has been working on.  The police come to Claire and ask her to continue with the husband, in an effort to get him to confess to his crime so they can arrest him before he kills again.  

It shouldn’t be too hard for someone as experienced as Claire. She’s good at putting on fake accents, creating fake stories, fake personalities. She’s dealt with a number of different kinds of men, cheating and otherwise.  Getting a confession is a little different from getting someone to hit on her, but she believes, at least at first, that it’s something she can handle.

But it seems there’s a difference between dealing with a would-be adulterer and a possible wife-murderer, and as Claire goes deeper into her role, she begins to wonder what the difference is between a decoy and prey.

If you’re a fan of the unreliable narrator thrillers which are so hot right now, or if you’ve read The Girl Before (Delaney’s last book) and enjoyed it, then check out Believe Me and prepare yourself for a twisty thriller.

WHO CHOSE THESE TITLES? THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, PART ONE

You may have heard of the PBS series, The Great American Read, in which a list of 100 books are presented to be chosen by Americans as their “favorite novel.”  The Field Library, among many others, has a display showcasing various books on the list for people to peruse and vote for.  There are three ways to vote, on the website, posting the hashtag on Facebook or Twitter, or texting the hashtag of the particular book to a particular number.  The list is here

I am not, at the moment, going to talk about the books on the list which I think shouldn’t be there if we’re talking about “great” books; that may be the subject of another post later on.  Right now I would like to talk about some of the head-scratching selections of books by authors who are (and should be) on the list.

The selection process is a bit opaque; the website claims that the initial list came from a statistically representative sampling of American readers, and then it was narrowed down by professionals. The criteria used are here.  I can understand wanting to limit an author to one book, but I do have some issues with the books this group has chosen in a couple of instances.

Let’s start with Mark Twain.  No question in my mind he should be on this list; he’s one of the greatest American writers.  But why would you choose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? I realize there are issues about the language in Huckleberry Finn, but as a novel, it’s a much deeper, more powerful book than Tom Sawyer, which is a lightweight boy-coming-of-age story.  

Then we have Charles Dickens, another author who absolutely should be listed here. And I’m sure a case could be made for Great Expectations as the book to be representative of his work, but I have a feeling it’s included because a lot of high schools have made it required reading (not that they should; it’s long been my argument that high school kids don’t have the life experience that would make Great Expectations come alive for them), and not because it’s really Dickens’ best or even most representative book.  My personal favorite would be Bleak House, a towering examination of the British legal system, the vast gap between rich and poor, with suspense, mystery, and all the wonderful characters you expect to find in Dickens’ work.  But if Bleak House is too long and too little known (a shame!), why wouldn’t you choose Oliver Twist, or A Tale of Two Cities, both of which are incredibly memorable and both of which have given phrases to our culture that are still used (“Please, sir, could I have some more?” , and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” respectively)?  It seems completely arbitrary to me.

But the worst, in my opinion, is the choice of The Sirens of Titan for Kurt Vonnegut. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read The Sirens of Titan and enjoyed it, and there are memorable scenes in that book, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of his earlier works and not as good as his later (sometimes) better known books. Wouldn’t you think Slaughterhouse Five would be the choice?  A best-selling, best known book by Vonnegut, it’s much more representative of the things people love about his work.  And if you’re being a hipster and deliberately not choosing Slaughterhouse Five because it’s so famous, I can think of two other Vonnegut books off the top of my head which are better reads and more moving than The Sirens of Titan.  Specifically, Mother Night, a short but powerful book about an American who impersonates a Nazi in World War II Germany while secretly acting as an American spy, and what happens to him when he’s hiding out under a false identity in New York after the war (the book has a lot of good stuff in it, but the real takeaway is that we become what we pretend to be, so we should be careful what we pretend to be; tell me that’s not a good moral for this day and age!), or, if that’s not off the wall enough, Cat’s Cradle, a book about the end of the world, caused not by nuclear war but by the existence of a substance called Ice 9, an anti-war book (like so many of Vonnegut’s) absurd and funny and tragic at the same time.

Of course, I’m not finished going through the list and reacting to it, so keep watching this blog for more (I might even rant about the books that I believe should NOT be on the list no matter what).