NEW HISTORICAL FICTION TO SURPRISE YOU: ACT OF OBLIVION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEFORE THE VOLCANO: THE WOLF DEN

Let’s start by saying it’s a pleasure to see a new historical novel that is NOT about World War II.  It’s not that I have anything against that period of history, and there are a lot of excellent novels about the war and its effects on different groups of people, but really, there is more to history than just World War II.

For instance, you could have the first book in a trilogy about ancient Pompeii. Yes, THAT Pompeii, the place that was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, one of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history.  The Wolf Den, by Elodie Harper, is not about the volcano (though it is the first in a trilogy, so who knows whether we’ll get to the eruption by the end of the series?), but about the people who lived in Pompeii when it was still a functioning city, and specifically about Amara, once the beloved daughter of a well-respected Greek doctor, who was forced into slavery and prostitution after her father’s death left the family destitute.  She finds herself in one of the brothels of the city, but she isn’t defeated and she doesn’t intend to remain a slave or a prostitute forever.  She manages to find sisterhood with the other women in the house, and to find other opportunities on the streets of Pompeii, a vibrant and exciting city in the Roman Empire.

Anyone who, like me, read Four Lost Cities, which showed a fascinating and different view of Pompeii, will be interested to see a novel that looks at the vacation city of Pompeii in its glory with an eye toward the people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, that sees the city and its people through the eyes of a prostitute, a sharp witted woman who uses her looks and her brains to rise above her situation.  If that sounds like you, come and take out The Wolf Den and settle in for a vivid and engrossing historical read.

NEW ROMANTIC COMEDIES FOR VALENTINE’S DAY (AND AFTER)

So it’s almost Valentine’s Day, and what could be more apropos than reading a good new romantic comedy in time for Valentine’s Day?  Luckily for you, The Field Library has several new romantic comedies, just waiting to be taken out and enjoyed.

Let’s start with one of the classic tropes. Bet you can guess what the inspiration for Ramon and Julieta, by Alana Quintana Albertson, is.  Ramon is a go-getter, a man who achieves all his goals, from getting an Ivy League education to making his father’s taco empire bigger and better. So when the beautiful woman who stole his heart on the Dia de los Muertos disappears, he fully intends to find her again.  The woman in question is Julieta, a celebrity chef who’s doing everything in her power to keep her family’s sea to table taqueria viable.  Imagine her surprise when she discovers that her new landlord, who is planning to buy the building in which she has her business, is the sexy man she met on the Dia de los Muertos and for whom she fell so hard. Worse yet, his father stole her mother’s taco recipe and used that to create his empire of Taco King restaurants, so there’s great animosity between the two families to begin with, and the likelihood that his family is going to replace Julieta’s family’s restaurant with another Taco King just makes things worse.  Can the pair find their way to a happily ever after with all the tensions between their families and differences between their backgrounds?   

Perhaps you’d prefer another trope, the second chance at love.  If so, Count Your Lucky Stars, by Alexandria Bellefleur, should be right up your alley.  Margot Cooper is burned out on love, and prefers her one night stands to any possibility of a relationship.  This puts her in an awkward position when her friends get engaged and ask her to be the Best Woman.  Things get much more complicated when, touring the wedding venue, she recognizes the wedding planner as Olivia Grant, the woman who first broke Margot’s heart and who, apparently, still has the power to make Margot’s heart race.  Olivia, for her part, never expected to see Margot again, and then, to make things more complicated still, Olivia’s living arrangements fall through and Margot invites her to stay temporarily in Margot’s spare room.  Close proximity with her first love makes Margot think seriously about that no-commitment policy of hers.  Is it possible she and Olivia can take advantage of their second chance together?

Then there’s always the opposites-attract trope which is always fun in romantic comedies.  If that’s your sweet spot, check out Lease on Love by Falon Ballard. Both Sadie and Jack are in a bad place in their lives, though for different reasons.  Sadie has just been passed over for a big promotion at work and lost her apartment as well.  Jack’s parents died suddenly and recently and he’s completely lost. When Sadie, looking for a one night stand, accidentally confuses a rental app for a dating app (I’ve never used either kind of app myself, so I’m not sure how easy that would be to do, but there is alcohol involved, which certainly helps), she finds herself at Jack’s brownstone in Brooklyn.  Jack doesn’t quite know what to make of bubbly Sadie, but he’s willing to let her use his spare room, and she makes herself at home, making Jack feel more at home in the process.  They are polar opposites in many respects, but could they discover that each one of them is just what the other needs?

If you’ve read any romantic comedies, you know the answer to each of these questions is an enthusiastic yes.  Give yourself the pleasure of finding out how these couples get to their happily ever afters for a good Valentine’s Day read.

SPECULATIVE FICTION FOR ALL TASTES

One of the coolest things about speculative fiction is that it’s so protean.  Whatever your particular bent, whatever kinds of stories you’re interested in, there’s some speculative fiction that will give you just what you’re looking for. We have a wide variety of new speculative fiction here at The Field Library that demonstrates that for you.

For instance, say you’re an old school science fiction fan.  You like stories about future technology, how that’s going to shape our world and change things.  You’re exactly the right person to read Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson.  If you’re a fan of technological thrillers, odds are you already know Stephenson’s work and are ready to read the book just because he wrote it.  This book takes on the question of global climate change.  It’s set in a near future world where the worst of climate change has already started to happen: superstorms, rising sea levels, more virulent pandemic diseases.  One billionaire has a plan for how to reverse climate change.  Can it work?  Will the cure be worse than the disease?

In the same way, if you’re a fan of classic epic fantasy, just knowing that Terry Brooks is starting a new series with his Child of Light is enough to catch your interest.  Brooks, the author of the Shannara series, starts with a new world and a new plot.  Auris Afton Grieg is a 19 year old human who’s been imprisoned since she was 15.  She doesn’t know why, and she doesn’t remember much of her life from before her imprisonment, but she knows that the adult prison to which she’s supposed to be transferred is going to be worse.  She and some of her friends escape into a world she finds unfamiliar, and she immediately meets a handsome but alien stranger who claims to be a Fae and claims, despite the lack of any resemblance between them, that she’s a Fae as well.  As Auris and her new companion, Harrow, navigate this world of magic and strangeness, Auris begins to discover more and more about herself, and how to heal herself and maybe her world as well. 

Star Mother, by Charlie N. Homberg, author of the Spellmaker and Spellbreaker books, goes in a different direction than the author’s other books.  In this world, stars are born to mortal mothers, and the star’s birth inevitably kills the human who gives birth to it.  Ceris chooses to birth a star, knowing the risk, to help her family’s honor, and to everybody’s surprise, Ceris survives the birth.  Only when she tries to return home afterwards, she discovers that seven hundred years have passed instead of nine months, and everything has changed.  She’s joined in her search for her descendants by a godling, Ristriel, who’s incorporeal, a trickster and a fugitive, who’s the only one who could possibly get her where she needs to go.

And then there are the books that look as if they’re fantasy but turn out to be something else, such as Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  It starts out with obvious fantasy elements: a world with a princess who’s trying to protect her homeland from a demon by invoking an age-old pact between her family and the local wizard.  However, things are not what they seem.  The so-called wizard is actually an anthropologist studying the culture, and he’s sworn to non-interference.  At the same time, though, he can see clearly that the threat to the kingdom isn’t a demon but something else, something more dangerous.  The possibilities are intriguing: can the “wizard” do anything to help without jeopardizing his work?  Can he remain scientific and keep from intervening even if he realizes the people are going to be destroyed?

And finally, if you’re more of a mystery fan, there are science fiction mysteries that add just that note of futuristic technology and different worlds to the age old questions of who did it and why.  For instance, we have Far from the Light of Heaven, by Tade Thompson, in which someone or something murdered a number of the sleeping souls on the colony ship Ragtime.  First mate Michelle Campion discovers this macabre situation when she’s roused from cybersleep at the Lagos Station when the ship docks.  Investigator Rasheed Fin responds to her distress call and has to find out what happened to those people and why, which leads to questions about the Lagos station, the planet to which the colonists were going, and even leads back to earth itself.

Mystery AND speculative fiction?  A marriage made in the heavens indeed.

So come in and check out the variety of speculative fiction here at the Field.  You’re sure to find something that speaks to you.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND . . . BURLESQUE? A CERTAIN APPEAL

As should be obvious from reading my blog, I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  I’m not the kind of fan who holds the original text as so sacred that not one word of it should be changed; in fact, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of different versions of the story (which, in my opinion, contains one of the ur-romance plots, the enemies to friends trope), including one set in modern day Pakistan (Unmarriageable, a wonderful and fun book by Sonia Komal), one told from Darcy’s viewpoint (An Assembly Such as This, by Pamela Aidan).  I’ve even read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith which, while interesting, didn’t really work as a Pride and Prejudice retelling or a zombie story.  It’s the kind of plot, and the kind of characters, that can be retold in many different ways. 

However, I have to give special recognition to the newest Pride and Prejudice version, A Certain Appeal, by Vanessa King, for the sheer audacity of imagining Lizzy Bennet as a burlesque performer in New York City.  Of course, King doesn’t go too far from Lizzy’s inherent nature: she’s an executive assistant in her day job (can’t you just see Lizzy running things in a business setting, being the kind of “assistant” who actually runs the business?), while performing in a burlesque nightclub called Meryton (and again, if you’re familiar with the original, having the club named Meryton — the name of the village in which the Bennet girls spend so much of their time — is a clever idea).  

Some things have to be retained: she and Darcy (a wealth fund manager, which also seems really appropriate) have to meet and there has to be a spark between them and Darcy has to say something disparaging about Lizzy which she overhears and which causes her to write him off as a jerk.  In this case she hears him refer to her as merely “tolerable” (a direct quote from the original), and that’s enough to prejudice her against him.

However, their closest friends get involved with each other and Darcy and Lizzy are thrown together despite themselves, and the book then moves through the basic beats of the original with its own unique spin to the inevitable happy ever after.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or if you’re just in the mood for a new take on the classic enemies-to-lovers trope, check out A Certain Appeal for the fun of it.

NEW HORROR FOR HALLOWEEN

Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again, as the leaves change, the pumpkins ripen, the decorations cover people’s houses and yards.  Halloween is at hand, and, to help celebrate it, The Field Library has some new creepy reads to keep you up late, noticing every little sound outside and inside your house. 

Want something a little self-aware, a little meta?  You could hardly do better than Stephen Graham Jones’ newest novel, My Heart is a Chainsaw.  The book has been described as Shirley Jackson meets Friday the 13th.  The protagonist, Jade Daniels, is a half-Indian outcast with an absent mother, an abusive father, and a world of anger inside her.  She protects herself emotionally by a devotion to horror movies, especially the kind where the slasher comes back to avenge himself or herself on a town that did him or her wrong.  She looks at her town through that lens, and when the murders actually start happening, she’s the only one who can see clearly what’s going on.  It’s one thing to be a fan of slasher movies; it’s another thing to be living in one.

If I told you one of the newest horror books involves a talking pig, you’d probably be skeptical, and yet, that’s the premise of Pearl, Josh Malerman’s newest novel, and it promises to be an extremely creepy book.  There’s a report in a high school that a 7th grader beheaded one of his pigs, at the insistence of Pearl, another of the family’s pigs.  Naturally, high school kids being what they are, several of them have to check this out for themselves, and when they arrive at the barn in question, they come face to face with Pearl, who starts manipulating their minds.  One of the group is attacked by a swarm of pigs at Pearl’s command, and though one girl gets free enough to call 911, of COURSE the police laugh off her story.  But now Pearl has discovered he has the ability to reach human minds at a greater distance, and there’s a whole world waiting for him beyond the barnyard.

You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but the cover of Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw is utterly scary, as befits its contents.  There’s an old mansion in Japan which was built on the bones of a bride, and its walls are stuffed with the remains of girls sacrificed to keep the bride company.  Classic haunted house, right?  And the last place people should be getting together to celebrate a wedding, of all things, but this is horror and people are reckless in horror and do things they really shouldn’t.  In this case, the party dissolves into drunkenness and pain as old secrets are revealed, but that’s just the prelude before the house, and the angry ghost in it, takes over.

Come and check them out, but be sure to keep the lights on, just in case.

THE BEST OF THE BEST: NATIONAL BOOK AWARD NOVEL SHORTLIST FOR 2021

The 2021 National Book Awards short list has just come out, and you can check out four of the five possibilities at The Field Library.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a new book by Anthony Doerr, whose last book was the Pulitzer-Prize winning and bestselling All the Light We Cannot See. This book is more ambitious, covering three different storylines in three different historical periods, connected by a single story. Anna, an orphan in 15th century Constantinople, reads the story to her sick sister as the city is besieged.  In a library in modern-day Idaho, an elderly man rehearses a play of that story with five children, not realizing someone has planted a bomb in the library where they are practicing.  And years in the future,  a woman on a spaceship who has never even seen earth is piecing together that same story as she remembers her father telling it to her.  A novel about our interconnectedness and what we owe to the past and to the future.

Lauren Groff, the author of the novel Matrix, is also no stranger to awards after her last bestseller, Fates and Furies.  Her new book, Matrix, is a historical novel set in the 12th century.  Marie de France, the protagonist, is thrown out of the court of Eleanor of Acquitaine and sent to England to be the abbess of an impoverished and run down abbey.  Here Marie finds her niche and builds the abbey up from a place of starving, sick women into a powerhouse, all the while fighting against the cultural limitations on women’s power in the period.

The Prophets, a debut novel by Robert Jones, Jr., is a love story between two enslaved young men on a plantation in the Deep South, but much more than that.  Isaiah and Samuel’s love is something all the other enslaved people know about, but it doesn’t cause any particular problems until one man, another enslaved person, seeking to curry favor with the master, starts preaching the Gospel and turning people against each other. The cast of characters includes not only the white people and the African American people living on the plantation, but also the spirits of the African Americans’ ancestors, and, though it’s a book set in the antebellum era in the South, it also speaks to our present circumstances.

Often awards committees choose what I call “wild card” books, books that are unusual in their structure, content, style, and I would nominate Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book for the 2021 wild card selection.  It’s a book about an African American on a seemingly endless and absurd book tour, fighting off pressure from his agent to write another book (but nothing too racial, which, according to the agent, won’t sell), and dealing with The Kid, a possible hallucination, possibly imaginary companion. At the same time, and running parallel to the author’s adventures, there’s a storyline about Soot, a young African American boy trying to learn how to be invisible in order to stay safe in White America.  The book has been described as funny and heartrending at the same time, and has been compared to the best of Kurt Vonnegut.

So if you’re interested in what might be the best novels written this year, be sure to check out these National Book Award shortlist selections here at The Field Library.

NOT ALL HISTORICAL FICTION . . .

Look, I’m as interested in World War II as the next person, even as much as the next history buff, but lately it feels as if nearly every historical novel has to be about World War II in some way, shape or form.  I understand that WWII is a big deal (its being a “world war” would suggest that), and there are all kinds of stories to be told about it, from stories of battles to stories of the home fronts, from stories of the Holocaust to stories of resistance.  It’s just that if you’re talking about history, WWII covers a mere 6 years, and there’s so much more history to read and learn about than this one relatively small period.  I won’t speculate about why there’s so much fiction focusing on this, but if you’re like me and you’re looking for historical novels about something OTHER than WWII, here are some alternatives that might interest you, or at least prove a palate cleanser before you go back to the numerous WWII books.

The most modern of the bunch I’ll be talking about today is Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, which is set (unsurprisingly, given the title) during the Dust Bowl of the Depression (so, early 1930’s).  The protagonist is Elsa Woolcott, a young single mother trying to raise two children on a farm on a Texas farm when the land itself seems to turn against them.  Like the Joad family of The Grapes of Wrath, Elsa takes a chance on the promise of California, and, like the Joads, discovers that it’s not all it’s been promised to be, as she faces discrimination, poverty and the hardships of life as a migrant farmer.  

If that’s too recent for you (and maybe too depressing, though it’s a Kristin Hannah book and therefore there’s likely to be a reasonably happy ending), you could skip back to the 1920’s with Catherine Coulter in Blind Tiger, her latest.  Our main characters are a veteran of World War I, who, on coming into a town in Texas, finds himself, as a stranger, the obvious suspect in the abduction of a local woman, and a woman who becomes successful as the owner of a speakeasy and thereby earns herself a lot of enemies. Coulter doesn’t usually do historical fiction, but her suspense novels are well-known and she’s done her research into the time and place for this one.

Even Prohibition is a little overdone in historical fiction (not recent historical fiction, to be sure, but in general), so why not go a little farther back in time with The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner.  While this has one of my less favorite tropes (the modern story paralleling the historical story — see here), the historical part of the story, set in the 1790’s in London, has an intriguing plot.  Nella is the apothecary of the title, and she sells potions to women who need to get rid of a dangerous man in their lives, husband, father, whoever.  Given the state of forensics in those days, it was quite possible for a person to get away with murder via poison, and Nella and her clients take advantage of that, until one of her clients makes a mistake that could jeopardize Nella and everyone associated with her.

And finally, you can go all the way back to the aftermath of the Trojan War in Pat Barker’s latest novel Women of Troy.  In the aftermath of the fall of Troy, the Greeks are stuck on the shores of Illium, quarreling among themselves, having killed off all the warriors of Troy, even the male children of some of them, while the women, formerly queens and ladies, now slaves and prizes of conquest, watch them and try to figure out what their fates will be.  The book jumps off from Euripides’ play, The Trojan Women, and looks unflinchingly at what the lives of the women in the Iliad were like in the face of war, and the timelessness of their fates and their emotions.

If you love World War II fiction, congratulations!  This is a golden time for you.  But if you’re looking for some different historical fiction, check out some of the other eras and worlds portrayed in these recent books at The Field Library.

ANDREW CARNEGIE AWARD WINNER AT THE FIELD

The American Library Association gives out annual awards, the Andrew Carnegie awards, for the best fiction and nonfiction published in the previous year, and the winner for 2021 best fiction was just awarded to Deacon King Kong, by James McBride.  If you’re interested in seeing what librarians think was the best novel of the year, you can check Deacon King King at The Field Library.

James McBride is no stranger to awards; his previous book, The Good Lord Bird, won the National Book award, and his memoir, The Color of Water, sold more than 2 million copies and has become a staple of reading assignments since its publication.

Deacon King Kong starts with a bang, literally, in south Brooklyn, New York, September, 1969, as a cranky elderly African American church deacon known as  Sportcoat pulls out a gun in front of a multitude of witnesses and shoots the local drug dealer dead at point blank range. The book widens its scope to show how this elderly man reached this violent moment and how his action affects all the people in the neighborhood, the witnesses of the shooting, the police, the members of Sportcoat’s Baptist congregation, and Sportcoat himself, revealing connections and secrets among all of them.  The book showcases McBride’s deep faith in humanity and compassion for even the least likely people, and has been a staple for book groups over the last year.

If you haven’t already read it, give Deacon King Kong a chance.