A WARM STORY FOR COLD TIMES

There are times when you’re ready to read something challenging, something that takes a lot of work on your part, that forces you to contemplate complicated ideas you wouldn’t ordinarily think about.  The holiday season is usually not one of those times. In the coldest, most stressful part of the year, if you’re thinking about reading at all, probably what you’re looking for is something fairly short, not too difficult, and, if possible, something that will make you feel good rather than depress you about the state of the world or about humankind.  If that’s your situation, then we have a book for you, the newest book by Elizabeth Berg, The Story of Arthur Truluv.

No, that’s not actually the main character’s name, in case the notion of someone actually being called “Truluv” strikes you as too icky-sweet to bear. Arthur Moses is an elderly man whose wife died a year before the beginning of the book.  He is having trouble adjusting to life alone.  His life revolves around tending his roses, taking care of his cat, and going every day to the cemetery where his wife is buried.  There he has lunch, feeling she’s keeping him company as she did all the years of their marriage.  

Then one day he encounters Maddie, an 18 year old girl who’s hiding out in the cemetery rather than have lunch at school, where she’s bullied by other kids.  Her mother died when she was born and her father barely seems to know she exists.  She is, in other words, extremely lonely and ready to meet someone as gentle and kind hearted as Arthur.  She’s the one who nicknames him “Arthur Truluv”, and she and Arthur begin to build their own family, helping each other deal with their grief and loneliness.  Then Lucille, Arthur’s neighbor, a great baker but also a lonely person, joins their circle, and the three of them work together to find their way to start again.

It is not, as you can imagine, a book filled with suspense and high stakes adventure, but it is a book filled with warmth and emotion, the kind of book that’s perfect for the holidays or for any time you feel the need to believe in the goodness of people again.  

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WANT TO LIVE FOREVER? MAYBE NOT

The desire to live forever is a deep rooted one, and there have been all kinds of stories and books about how that might be accomplished, from myths and fables to novels and movies. The newest effort to imagine how someone might be able to cheat death is Stanley Bing’s Immortal Life: A Soon to Be True Story.

Set in the not-too-distant future, the book focuses on one Arthur Vogel, a trillionaire tech giant whose empire ranges all the way to Mars, and who’s already extended his life, through various means, to 127 years.  Now even those methods aren’t working anymore and his body is fading, but still Arthur’s not ready to let go.  His newest plan is to transfer his consciousness, his self, into a new, young body.  That body, Gene, has been specifically created for the purpose of extending Arthur’s life.  The only problem (and you know there has to be a problem) is that Gene is a person in his own right (at least in his own mind), and Gene does not want to be just the shell that houses Arthur’s consciousness for the rest of his days.

Once Arthur and Gene are joined (you didn’t think there was any possibility Gene would be able to prevent Arthur’s consciousness from being implanted in him, did you?), the battle begins. Arthur wants to take over the world by gaining control of the cloud into which all humanity is plugged, and Gene wants to free humanity from bondage to the cloud, to their virtual existence.  Two different personalities in the same body, fighting for control of the body and fighting for the control of the world: add this to a sly sense of humor and a satirical look at current trends in connectedness and in the growing gap between the super rich and the poor, taken to logical extremes, and you have an entertaining look at how immortality might be achieved (by the wealthy, at least) and whether it’s a good idea.  Come and check it out for yourself.

 

THE MOTHER OF COMPUTERS: ENCHANTRESS OF NUMBERS

If you had to guess what would happen to Ada Lovelace, the only legitimate child of the infamous Lord Byron, the romantic poet described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”, you might well imagine that she became a poet, or a notorious libertine (like her famous father), or that she reacted against her father’s life and disappeared into the silence of history. Almost certainly you would not guess that she grew up to be an outstanding mathematician, in an era when women were actively discouraged from obtaining higher education at all, let alone learning math, or that she collaborated with Charles Babbage in the invention of the computer.  But in fact, Ada Lovelace earned her fame (or deserved her fame) as a woman with a brilliant mathematical mind, not as the daughter of a wild and dissolute poet.  

How Ada turned into what it would not be an exaggeration to describe as the Mother of Computers is the story Jennifer Chiaverini tells in Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.  Ada was fortunate that her mother was a rigorous mathematician in her own right, and a woman determined to protect her from Byron’s influence, and from any possibility that she might turn out to be like her father. That meant Ada was given tutoring in science and math as she was growing up, and kept away from all pernicious subjects like poetry and literature.  When she entered London society, Ada met the man who would shape the rest of her life, Charles Babbage, who had already built a prototype of his calculating machine, the Difference Engine, and was working on a more complicated and powerful machine, the Analytic Engine.  Ada joined his efforts, determined to help him change the world, and at the same time she pursued her own mathematical studies, fell in love, learned more about her parents’ tempestuous relationship and developed her own fierce imagination.

You don’t have to be a computer nut or a geek to appreciate the world of the 19th century that gave birth to the first computers. You don’t have to be a feminist to appreciate the strength of character that it took for a woman to study math and make a name for herself in the world of science in the 19th century.  But if you’re interested in a fun historical novel that will bring that whole world to life, filled with larger than life characters, by all means check out Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace.

TWO NEW TAKES ON THE END OF THE WORLD

What’s up with all the dystopian novels this year?  Not only people like Stephen King (and let’s face it, you expect Stephen King to come up with dark views of the world), but writers who are not known for writing dystopias are coming out with their own versions.  Cases in point: both Louise Erdrich and Nora Roberts have new books out which deal with the end of the world as we know it.

Future Home of the Living God is not your typical Louise Erdrich book.  Instead of writing about the present (as in The Round House or A Plague of Doves or LaRose), she sets this book in the near, but undetermined, future, and instead of writing about issues of revenge and justice, she’s writing about issues of reproductive freedom and repression (though, to be fair, those issues are related to her usual concerns).  The cataclysm in this case is a massive biological disaster that’s causing women to give birth to increasingly primitive versions of human beings, and in the wake of this “reverse evolution”, society begins to fall apart.  The protagonist, Cedar Hawk Songmaker, was adopted in infancy by a loving Minnesota couple, but when she becomes pregnant (with all the stories of disastrous pregnancies and government attempts to confine and monitor pregnant women), she sets out to find her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman living on a reservation.  All around Cedar, the world is falling apart: her adoptive parents disappear without a trace, families are torn apart, pregnant women are being required to register and rewards are offered for people turning in recalcitrant mothers-to-be.  With the end of humanity in sight, Cedar has to take extraordinary measures to keep herself and her baby safe.

Nora Roberts turns her hand to the end of the world as well in her newest book, Year One. In this case, a disease wiped out half of humanity, and all the usual structures of society failed as well: the electrical grid sputtered, governments collapsed, science and technology no longer worked as they had in the past.  In the new chaos, magick arises, both in the form of witchcraft practiced by Lana Bingham, living with her lover in a loft in a wrecked New York City, and in more sinister forms of power which can lurk anywhere.  Lara and her lover leave New York and head west, along with a disparate group of other survivors: a tech genius living in a non-digital world, a former journalist who no longer has an audience or a medium, a doctor and a paramedic and the woman and children in their care.  Those who are immune to the disease are considered dangerous, and those who show abnormal gifts are also considered dangerous, so this small group is doubly at risk, from what remains of authority and from those who have acquired powers they’re using for evil rather than good.  Warning: this is the first book in a trilogy.  While Nora Roberts is good about finishing her multiple book sets, those who want to follow my rule of thumb about multiple book series (i.e., don’t start them until the last one has come out) might want to wait for the rest of the series. Otherwise, if you’re a Nora Roberts fan, you’ll find plenty to enjoy (in a dark way) in Year One.

2017 GOODREADS TOP FICTION CHOICES AT THE FIELD

Well, it’s December, and aside from the holiday season, it’s the time of year when everybody’s busy compiling their Best of the Year lists. Every year, Goodreads.com has a Readers Choice vote where millions of readers cast their votes in different categories for the best books in a variety of categories. This year, some 3,887,000 votes were cast, and you’ll be delighted to know that here at the Field Library we have the winning books in most of the fiction categories  Come to the Field Library and check the books Goodreads readers have chosen as the best of 2017.

In the general category of fiction, the winner is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. A character-driven novel about families and expectations, about the gaps between planned lives and what actually happens.  Elena Richardson is a by-the-rules person who rents a house to Mia Warren, a free-spirited and fairly poor artist.  The Richardson children mingle with Mia’s daughter, the Richardson kids yearning for the kind of freedom that Pearl Warren has, and Pearl longing for the stability and material world the Richardsons have. When a friend of Mia’s changes her mind about giving up a baby for adoption and the would-be adoptive parents, friends of Elena Richardson, fight to keep the child, the rifts between the families and within the town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, are exposed, with shattering results.

The best mystery and thriller, narrowly edging out Dan Brown’s Origin, is Into the Water by Paula Hawkins.  I’ve already written about Into the Water here. Suffice it to say the book is twisty and complicated, a murder mystery that turns on the twisted history of characters who know each other too well and keep too many secrets.

The winner in the category of Historical Fiction is a book we can’t keep on our shelves, Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate, a book that turns on the terrible actions and abuses of a real-life orphanage and adoption scam in the 1930’s, and the long-lasting scars on individuals and families from those nightmares.  I wrote about it here

Without Merit, by Colleen Hoover, won this year’s vote for best romance. The protagonist lives in one of the most colorfully dysfunctional families in literature (her stepmother and mother live in the same house, which actually was a converted church, and that’s not even all of the weird stuff going on with her family), and has her own little quirks, like buying used trophies and pretending they were given to her. When she meets a young man who just might be The One, wouldn’t it just turn out that he’s her identical twin’s boyfriend?  Finally she decides to blow up all the family’s secrets just before she escapes from them for good, but when the escape plan fails, she’s left with the consequences of her truth-telling, even if those consequences mean losing the only guy she’s ever loved.

It’s not surprising that Andy Weir’s second novel, Artemis, is this year’s Goodreads winner in the category of science fiction. After the mind-boggling success of his first book, The Martian, Weir had a built-in audience for whatever science fiction he chose to write next, and he surprised and delighted audiences with his heist-on-the-moon book, Artemis, which I wrote about here.

Nor is it terribly surprising that the winner for best horror of 2017 is Stephen King, though in this case he shares the award with his co-writer and son, Owen King, for Sleeping Beauties. A strange plague affects nearly all the women of the world: when they go to sleep, they’re covered in a gauze-like cocoon, and they don’t wake up on their own. In their sleep, they go to a different world, a place of harmony and peace.  If they’re disturbed or someone tries to break through the cocoon or awaken them, they become feral and violent.  One woman seems to be immune to the disease, but there’s a real question whether she’s a medical freak to be studied or a demon to be destroyed.  The all-male society falls into violence and chaos, as only Stephen King (and his sons) can portray.

 

POSTHUMOUS GIFTS FROM P. D. JAMES: SLEEP NO MORE

What do you do if you want to read something suspenseful, with interesting characters, dark subject matter and surprising but satisfying twists, and yet you’re in the beginning of the holiday season and can’t make the time to sit down with a full novel?  You’re in luck, because a new collection of short suspenseful stories by the late great P.D. James has just been published, and Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales will help scratch that mystery/suspense itch even in the few moments you’re able to snatch from your crazed schedule.

P. D. James has always been a great psychological writer, and a fine prose stylist at the same time. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about her novels is her ability to get inside the minds of such different characters and inhabit them fully, no matter how warped or even demented the character might seem to someone on the outside, and in the world of the short story, she’s demonstrated her ability to bring that laser like focus on characters together with her fiendish plotting and expert scene-setting in small, bite-sized but still delicious (to strain the metaphor a bit) servings.

This collection includes one classic locked room murder (“The Murder of Santa Claus,”) a creepy story about a young girl who’s forgotten the first ten years of her life and is drawn, for reasons she can’t understand, to graveyards (“The Girl who Loved Graveyards”) and a story told by an elderly man to his greedy heirs, confessing to a terrible crime decades before (“Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday”) The stories all turn on surprising twists that make sense even as they overturn whatever you thought was going on earlier (unlike some stories where the twists seem to be there just for the sake of having twists, and yes, I’m looking at you, Gone Girl), on issues of revenge and justice. You can read them as Golden Age mysteries a la Agatha Christie, or as psychological studies set in decades past, or you can just read them and revel in the delights of a master at work.

CHRISTMAS IS THE BEST TIME FOR MYSTERIES

Ah, the holiday season, filled with food and gifts and peace on earth and . . . crime?  It may sometimes seem, if you’re a mystery fan, that all this sweetness and light and peace on earth stuff makes it harder for you to find the kinds of reads you really like, but have no fear.  Two of our best mystery authors have just published Christmas books that include all the seasonal stuff, mixed with crimes to be solved.

If you’re a mystery fan, you’re probably familiar with Rhys Bowen, and if you haven’t read her, then you’re definitely missing out. She has two current series, the Molly Murphy one (set in New York in the early 1900’s), and the Royal Spyness series (set in Britain in the 1930’s), and she also wrote the delightful series involving Constable Evan Evans (set in a village in Wales). Depending on your tastes, you definitely want to read one or more of those series, but her current Christmas-related mystery, The Ghost of Christmas Past, happens to be in the Molly Murphy series.

You don’t need to have read any of the other novels in the series to jump into this one; Bowen is very good at bringing you up to speed (though of course if you enjoy this one you should definitely go back and read the others). Molly is recovering from her recent experiences in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and her recent miscarriage when she and her husband are invited to spend the Christmas holidays with a family who has a mansion on the Hudson (hmm, wonder where that might be).  The family’s Christmas spirit is a bit strained, though, because ten years ago, Charlotte, the daughter of the family, wandered off in the snow and disappeared without a trace.  Molly, an investigator by trade and sympathetic to the sorrow of a mother yearning for her lost child, wants to help but can’t really come up with anything the police didn’t already, though she does suspect the people in the house know more than they’re admitting about the events of ten years ago.  Then comes Christmas Eve, and the appearance of a young girl at the door, claiming to be Charlotte. Who is she? If she really is Charlotte, where has she been and what happened to her for all these years? And if she isn’t really Charlotte, who is she and why is she here?  

Anne Perry needs no introduction to mystery fans either.  She’s the author of multiple series of historical mysteries, from William Monk (a particular favorite of mine) to Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, to Joseph Reavely (set in World War I). She has also been writing Christmas themed novellas for years, set in the Victorian era in Great Britain.  Her newest Christmas book is A Christmas Return, whose protagonist is Mariah Ellison, the grandmother of Charlotte Pitt.  When Mariah receives an ominous Christmas present that revives memories of a 20 year old murder which estranged her from her friend, the widow of the victim.  In the spirit of the season, Mariah heads out to Surrey to join with the murdered man’s grandson to unearth new evidence, discover a suspect for the murder, and find out that the picturesque Surrey hills and the happy spirits of the Christmas season are only masks for the dark and disturbing secrets hidden beneath.

 

LIBRARIANS IN WESTERN IRELAND: THE LIBRARY AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD

There are certain kinds of books that just seem to work well. Books about libraries, or about bookstores, or about book lovers, for instance, tend to be fun to read. Books about people finding their best selves or recovering from loss and grief by going to a different (perhaps exotic) location and throwing themselves into the lives of the people there, for another example, tend to be comforting.  And (this may be personal to me, of course) books set in rural Ireland just make my heart happy.

Which is why I’m happy to recommend a new, charming book, The Library at the Edge of the World, by Felicity Hayes-McCoy, which combines all these categories into one. Woman trying to rebuild her life after having the earth pulled out from under her? Check. Working in a library/fighting to save a local library? Check.  Set in the west of Ireland?  Check.  

Hanna Casey, our protagonist, moved away from rural Lissbeg, in western Ireland, when she was a teenager, looking for the sophisticated life, bright lights, big city, and she found it, with a well to do barrister for a husband.  But now things have fallen apart: she found her hotshot husband in bed with another woman and she’s had to move back, humiliatingly, not only to Lissbeg, but to the back bedroom of her mother’s retirement bungalow.  She’s got a job as the town librarian, driving a mobile library van from one isolated town to another, but even that has its problems, since she feels conspicuous in her failure to make it on her own after so flagrantly shaking the dust of the place off her feet when she was younger. Her mother is hard to live with, her daughter is traveling the world, and Hanna tries to gain some independence by restoring a cottage left to her by her great aunt.

Then she discovers that the powers that be are threatening to close the library altogether, and Hanna finds a cause to fight for, and discovers how important her neighbors and family are to her and to her future.

So if the news of the world is getting you down and you’re in need of a feel-good book, check out The Library at the Edge of the World, and take a trip to the west coast of Ireland.

 

MERMAIDS ARE REAL — AND KILLERS! INTO THE DROWNING DEEP

Of course, we all know there’s no such things as mermaids.  There are all kinds of scientific reasons why such creatures couldn’t possibly exist, and we all know how the first stories of mermaids began as stories from delusional sailors who mistook various kinds of sea creatures for women with fishtails. Movies like Splash and The Little Mermaid are just fantasies, and everybody knows that.

That’s the opening premise of Mira Grant’s new novel, Into the Drowning Deep. Of course there aren’t any such things as mermaids.  The crew of the ship Atargatis set out for the Mariana Trench to make a mockumentary about legendary sea creatures, and somehow the ship was lost at sea with all hands.There was some film footage recovered from the wreck which appeared to show something terrible happening to the crew, but there’s still controversy about that footage. Maybe it was just a hoax, a publicity stunt, faked.  But what if it was real?

Another ship is setting out, with a different crew.  Some of these people are true believers, convinced that there are really legendary sea creatures, including Kraken and mer-people, and they’re trying to validate their life’s work. Some are out for the thrill of the hunt, some are there to provide muscle/protection in case there really is something down there that’s dangerous. Some want to find out what actually happened to the Atargatis and its crew. Among the latter group is Victoria Stewart, an ambitious young scientist who wants to find out, once and for all, what happened to her sister, who went missing on that ill-fated ship.

Naturally, with a setup like that, you know there really is something terrible waiting for the crew of the new ship (named Melusine — yeah, the author knows what she’s doing here), and half the fun is waiting for the horrors to start, while the other half is enjoying the exciting story of survival against a terrible, unknowable threat.

I might note that Mira Grant is a pen name for Seanan McGuire, whose books, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones, were among my favorite fantasy novels of the past year, so you know you’re in very good hands when you dive into Into the Drowning Deep.

 

THE WICKED BOY: OUR DECEMBER FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP READ

After a fun discussion of The Shadow of the Wind, our November book club read (and what a juicy, entertaining read it was; I highly recommend it to anyone, in or out of the book group), we have chosen the next book for the Field Notes Book Group, a nonfiction historical true crime book, The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Killer, by Kate Summerscale.

You may be thinking, from the title, that it’s a book about a Victorian person who kills children, which would be gruesome enough (think of the second plotline in The Devil in the White City for an American example), but in fact it’s even more peculiar, because the book focuses on a child (technically teenager) who, along with his brother, kills his mother and is charged with murder. One of the brothers confessed and testified against the other, but the other, Robert, was found to be insane and sentenced to the infamous Broadmoor lunatic asylum at age 13.  And that’s just the beginning of his story.

Meticulously researched, this book reads like a novel rather than nonfiction.  The writing is so vivid you feel as if you’re actually there in the working class London neighborhood where the brothers and their mother lived, and living through the events as they happened. If you have any interest in Victorian London (say, you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan or a Charles Dickens fan), if you have a taste for true crime, if you’re interested in seeing different views of childhood, insanity, and the dangers of pulp fiction (substitute violent comic books, television, violent video games), this is a great read and will undoubtedly lead to fascinating discussion.

Come to the Field Library and pick up your copy of the book this week, and then join us on December 16 in the Field Library Gallery from 11:00 to 12:30 for coffee, refreshments and what promises to be a lively discussion of murder, mores and the Victorian era.