POST HUMAN WORLD, AS TOLD BY A CROW: HOLLOW KINGDOM

If I start out by telling you that Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton, is the story of the zombie apocalypse, as narrated (mostly) by a domesticated crow named S. T.,you’re probably thinking it’s going to be told with a certain amount of attitude, that there will be a lot of action in it, and that it (or at least parts of it) will be funny in a Sean of the Dead kind of way.  You’d be correct. What would surprise you is how poignant and powerful the book is.  At least, that certainly surprised me. It’s a terrific book, moving and beautiful in places while also being dark and funny and obscene in others.

Let’s start out with S.T.’s language.  He’s the main narrator, and I won’t even tell you what S.T. stands for (don’t worry, he tells you right away); suffice it to say it’s two four letter words relating to his color and general shape. He has a foul mouth, there’s no question about it.  He comes by it naturally, of course. We don’t actually see much of the man who taught him to speak, but what we find out about Big Jim makes it clear he wasn’t the most refined of people, and the language he used is the language S. T. uses. If you’re a person who’s offended by multiple f-bombs, you probably won’t be able to get through this book.

Which would be a shame, because you’d be missing something really special.

S.T. is a wonderful character.  Raised by the crude and somewhat boorish Big Jim, he refers to human beings as “mofos” (think of Samuel L. Jackson whenever he uses that term), but affectionately.  At the outset of the book, and for quite a while, he thinks of himself as something other than a crow, maybe part human, maybe a human in the shape of a crow. He sneers at the rest of the crows in his neighborhood, and has endless admiration for the mofos, both the ones he’s actually met and lived with and near and the ones he’s heard about and seen on television. If it weren’t for the whole humans turning into zombies thing, he would probably spend his whole life living with Big Jim and Dennis, Big Jim’s hound dog, ignoring the rest of the world.

Of course, something happens, and people start changing in terrible ways. I keep using the word “zombie,” but that’s not what S.T. thinks, and it’s not entirely accurate. Humans devolve into mindless creatures, eating anything that they find (including, horribly, their own pets in some cases), chasing after cell phones and ipads whenever they see them.  Domestics like S.T. and Dennis have to find ways to survive without humans as all the human infrastructure is overwhelmed by a resurgent nature, including all the creatures that ordinarily live in human territories (crows, other birds, raccoons, squirrels, opossums, etc) and the inhabitants of the Seattle Zoo, now freed and making themselves at home.

The book is surprisingly poignant, partly because of some of the things that happen along the line (warning: some characters we care about are killed), but mostly, I think, because our guide through the bulk of  the story is S.T. We first see him in sarcastic and snarky mode, but very soon we discover the depth of his heart, his eagerness to find a cure for Big Jim (a funny and poignant scene in itself), his recognition that Dennis, the hound, is suffering from depression and his efforts to make Dennis happy again.  His relationship with Dennis, in particular, changes over the course of the book from his referring to the dog as having “weapon grade incompetence” to his referring to him as “my Dennis,” and trying to protect him from the outside world, seeing him as a part of S.T.’s “murder” (as crow groups are called).

Unlike the wild animals, S.T. misses us mofos.  He remembers his relationship with Big Jim, and wishes he could get that back.  He thinks with regret of all the wonderful things we mofos invented and did, which the animals now taking over the world will not be able to recreate. He sees the writings the last healthy humans wrote, saying “We did this to ourselves,” and “we deserve this,” and he doesn’t agree with them, though most of the other animals do.  S.T. wants to save what we did best, difficult as that might turn out to be.

Over the course of the book, S.T. changes.  He’s still a dual-natured creature, part crow and part domesticated animal.  There’s always going to be a part of him that’s shaped by Big Jim, by his experiences with humans, but he comes to accept his crow side, and to be accepted by the wild crows for the first time.

There’s plenty of action, plenty of danger, to keep you turning the pages, but ultimately it’s the animals, and especially S. T. (who’s not the only narrator, but the main one; the others, including especially the Mother Tree, add a lot to the book’s depth) who keep you caring, keep you feeling. We don’t need to know how the plague started, but we find out anyway (and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise and the power of it), and as we watch it ravage the human world, and what happens to human beings who survive (spoiler: it’s not good), you might think this is a downer of a book, too sad to read in dark times.

Ultimately, though, it’s not a downer.  There’s hope in the book, hope for the future of the world, even if it’s a world that doesn’t include human beings. I confess I’m not sure about the end; it’s a satisfying end, but it’s not the end I thought we were leading up to, and I’m still not entirely sure it was the right way to end the book.

Set aside some time, because this is a book that sucks you right in and holds you until you’re finished, and drop in to Hollow Kingdom.  You’ll ultimately be glad you did.

 

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SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE IN FUTURE AMERICA: THE HOUND OF JUSTICE

In order to get the most out of the second book in the Janet Watson Chronicles, The Hound of Justice, by Claire O’Dell, you first have to read the first book, A Study in Honor.  This is not one of those series you can read out of order or start anywhere; if you haven’t read A Study in Honor, I highly recommend it on its own merits and also as a basis for reading this excellent new novel.

The other thing you have to let go of when you start this book is the notion that this is an African American Female version of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, set in a future and very damaged America.  Yes, you do have a Doctor Watson, in this case Janet rather than John, African American rather than English, who was injured in a war in which she served (and I have to give O’Dell credit for not screwing around with the nature of Janet Watson’s injury: she got part of her arm blown off and in addition to the post-traumatic stress, she has an artificial arm to get used to using; the original John Watson was injured either in his arm or his leg and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never quite seemed to have made up his mind which it was).  And yes, you do have a brilliant and eccentric Holmes, in this case Sara rather than Sherlock, who has connections inside and outside of government and who has musical ability (piano in Sara’s case, violin in Sherlock’s) and a habit of dragging her companion into complicated mysterious situations without sharing a lot of information about what they’re doing or what she knows about what’s going on. But if you come to this book looking for a twisty, complicated Sherlock Holmes type mystery where the genius detective sees and deduces from clues neither Watson nor the reader can see clearly or understand properly, you are going to be disappointed. And that would be too bad, because you’d be missing out on a very entertaining, suspenseful book just because you’re looking for the wrong thing.

The Hound of Justice picks up where A Study in Honor left off, with Watson set up in a really nice job she doesn’t feel she deserves in the Georgetown Medical Center in Washington D.C., with a new and very expensive artificial arm she’s learning how to use.  She’s sharing a room, again, with Sara Holmes, who is cooling her heels, having been placed on sabbatical by whatever government agency employs her (it’s never clear to Watson exactly who’s paying the bills here).  The book starts with a literal bang: on the day of the inauguration of a new president, bombs go off in D.C. and a number of people are killed. Watson happens to witness the bomb blast, and immediately goes to her hospital to help with the damaged survivors. This attack, it turns out, was set up and organized by a group of terrorists associated with the New Confederacy, who are trying to keep the United States from negotiating a peace with the New Confederacy (and this is why I told you you should really read the first book).  It seems Holmes’ and Watson’s adversary from the previous book, Irene Adler (a name that will be familiar to any fans of Sherlock Holmes), who seemed to be killed at the end of that book, is still alive and might be involved with this terrorist activity.

If this were a Sherlock Holmes type story, the next thing that would happen is that Holmes would be called upon by some representative of the government to investigate what’s going on, and Watson would be called upon to help.  While that’s sort of what happens, the focus here is on Watson and her life without Sara Holmes, her efforts to overcome the PTSD of her initial injury, her efforts to rehabilitate herself and work her new arm well enough to return to surgery, and the complications her relationship with Sara brings to her life in general.  Something is going wrong at the hospital: people are being treated for routine ailments and sent home, and then days later return to the hospital to die horribly.  

And then Sara disappears, after intimations that the government is watching Sara and Janet’s every move.  Micha, Sara’s mysterious cousin, reaches out to Janet in Sara’s name, saying Sara needs her to come behind enemy lines in the New Confederacy, without giving a lot of detail or explanation.  As an African American woman, and a veteran of the New Civil War, Janet wants nothing less than to sneak across the war zone, but she forces herself to go to Sara’s help anyway, and finds herself in an adventure of false identities, underground resistance cells and a massive and frightening conspiracy worthy of the best of John LeCarre.  Even in the movies which bore the least resemblance to the original Holmes stories, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson never faced anything as dangerous as this.

The worldbuilding here is excellent; without doing any info dumps, the author manages to give us a vivid picture of a future, and frighteningly plausible, America, an America where the North and South have once again gone to war, but this time with weapons of the 21st century, not the 19th.  She shows us how that war, that political situation, affects everything in the lives of her characters, and she’s especially good at showing how such a world would affect people of color (who comprise most of the characters in the book).

Janet Watson is a character you want to follow, a person you care about: damaged but working on it, proud but willing to admit mistakes, a person whose relationships with her family are complicated but healing (or at least capable of being healed), a person who’s dedicated to her work and the people she cares about. She’s a vivid narrator, even in situations where she herself isn’t sure of what’s going on or what’s going to happen.  

Is there going to be another book in the series?  Maybe. The author leaves an opening at the end, while still wrapping up this plot satisfyingly.  I would be delighted to read another book with these characters in this setting, but if there isn’t going to be another, I’m still glad I’ve read these two, and I definitely recommend them to anyone who wants a good, absorbing, suspenseful read with characters different from the run of the mill protagonists in suspense novels.

 

BEING SNARKY ABOUT THE MOVIES

Those of you participating in the 2019 Field Library Reading Challenge know the next category we’re promoting is “Read a Book About Movies.”  Really, this is one category that’s almost too easy. We have all kinds of books about movies, from novels to insider looks at the industry itself to books about the making of particular (usually classic) movies, to books about all the movies you haven’t seen yet but should (a sub-industry in itself), to collections of movie criticism to biographies and autobiographies about and by some of the big names in the industry.  If you can’t find something you want to read in all of that, you’re simply not trying.

Allow me here to suggest a particularly funny entry in this category, Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler, by Joe Queenan. This is not a new book (it was published in 2000), and some of the movies referenced in it might seem a little obscure (let’s face it, the real dogs from almost twenty years ago are mercifully forgotten), but the snarkiness is still as funny as ever, and most of his targets are movies and trends in movies that you will find familiar even 19 years later.

This is the kind of book you dip into when you need a good laugh.  Most of the essays in the book were written for Movieline magazine (now, sadly, no longer in business), and they tend to be kind of quirky.  For instance, in the first essay Queenan sets out to prove that many of the more ridiculous things people get away with in movies would never work in real life.  He does this by attempting them himself: trying to see whether you could be killed by having a bookcase fall on you as happens in Howard’s End, or whether someone who’s blind could actually walk across a New York City street without being killed, as in Scent of a Woman. In the title essay, he actually goes to different theaters and becomes that jerk who shouts out stupid and rude remarks about the movie, to see (a) if it’s fun and (b) if and when someone will stop him.  If you were in an audience where he was doing this trick, you would find him incredibly obnoxious, but when you read about it, it’s actually incredibly funny. He looks with great seriousness at movies about Irish people to determine which is the “biggest load of blarney” (I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the fun by telling you the answer to that one), comments on the trend of handsome actors getting beat up in movies, does a brief stint as the Bad Movie Angel, reimbursing people who have actually paid money to see really terrible movies, and discusses the unfortunate likelihood that if you send someone to a video store for a particular movie, you are likely to get any one of a number of similar sounding movies, owing to Hollywood’s lack of imagination (yes, I know there aren’t video stores anymore; look at that one as a historical document if you like).

I have to warn you in advance that if you like any movies from the late 90’s or earlier, odds are good Queenan hates them.  This is not a book that gives glowing reviews of anything, so prepare yourself. But even if he’s talking about a movie you have warm feelings for, you have to appreciate his wise-ass commentary, which is nothing if not vivid (and funny).  For instance, he describes Robert DeNiro’s hairstyle in the remake of Cape Fear as “creat[ing] the impression that a rat marinated in Vaseline has been surgically grafted onto his neck.”  Describing Cujo, Queenan remarks that it is “set in Maine, where people don’t get out often enough, and even when they do, they’re still in Maine.”  One of my favorite lines is when Queenan describes an actor as “Looking about as comfortable amidst his mountain of medical research textbooks as Keanu Reeves would look with the concordance to the Complete Works of Moliere” (a cheap shot, but a funny one).  

When you need a serious dose of snark, when you don’t want a book to give you more movies you feel you should see but to make you feel better about the movies you’ve managed to avoid, do yourself a favor and pick up Confessions of a Cineplex Heckler.  

TIME IS NOT ON HER SIDE: THE MARRIAGE CLOCK

Leila Abid, the protagonist of The Marriage Clock, by Zara Raheem, has a problem, and it’s her parents.  Not an unusual situation for a 26 year old woman who’s living with her parents after college, and certainly not an unusual situation for a first generation American daughter of immigrant parents.  Her Muslim Indian parents believe it’s past time she got married. At 26, she’s practically an old maid by old country standards, and her mother especially feels that she has failed as a parent (at one point she wails to her husband and Leila, “We are going to be old and without grandchildren! Our noses will be cut!”).  

It would be easier for Leila to deal with her parents’ pressure if she completely rebelled against their assumptions and didn’t see marriage as one of the main goals of her life.  But, though she grew up in America and went away to college, there’s a part of Leila that believes in Bollywood romance as if it’s something she’s likely to get for herself. In fact, though she won’t agree that marriage is half of her fate, she did, when she was in college, make up a list of all the qualities her ideal man should have (a list that her roommate wrote on seven napkins), all derived from her favorite Bollywood movies.  She wants romance as much as her parents want her married, but she wants it on her own terms, while they’re already starting to interfere in her life, setting her up with the sons of their extended circle of friends 

In desperation, and to keep her parents from forcing the issue, Leila agrees that she’ll do her own matchmaking and if she can’t find a prospective husband by the date of her parents’ thirtieth anniversary, three months away, she’ll let them find her a husband.  Her parents are big believers in arranged marriages. Theirs was arranged, and the two of them barely met before they were married to each other, and here they are, happily married for almost thirty years.

So that’s the setup: Leila has three months to find a man who meets all her criteria.  She gets matched up by her friends, by her mother (cheating a little, but her mother would claim it’s in a good cause).  She does speed dating and internet matchmaking, and, you will not be surprised to learn, none of these works out well. The varying kinds of disasters she encounters in her desperate chase to find Mr. Perfect are pretty funny (though at times you do wonder whether her author is being a little cruel to make sure she doesn’t find ANYONE appropriate), but she’s always aware of the rushing past of time and the imminence of her deadline. 

One of the more charming things about this book is the way the author plays with and then subverts the tropes of romantic comedies. Several times along the way, you think you know where things are going: when the man she meets through her mother and her mother’s friend actually calls her back to see her without chaperones, when she meets someone attractive in classic romantic comedy form. You start predicting the happily ever after, but then something unexpected happens and you realize, as Leila does, that life isn’t a Bollywood movie and maybe she needs to rethink her goals.

The characters who surround Leila are fun in their own right: her mother is more than just the Mrs. Bennett India style stereotype, her divorced Indian American friend (her difficulties are eye-opening and very different from Leila’s), even her perfect Indian cousin who does everything Leila’s parents wish she could do (naturally Leila ends up going to India for her cousin’s wedding, and naturally things are not what they seem in India, either) is revealed to be a full fledged person, worthy of love.  While a lot of the male characters come off pretty badly (the author explains in an afterword that these scenes were based on her own dating misadventures), a couple of them are charming and interesting as well.

All along the line, Raheem brings us the flavor of Leila’s Muslim Indian American world, the subtle ways her life is different from that of other American 26 year olds, things Leila takes for granted and things she’s as aware of as we are.  

It’s not your typical romantic comedy, deliberately so, but there is a satisfying ending, and Leila gets what she finally wants, and what she deserves.  If you’re in the mood for a different kind of romantic comedy, with a charming and lovable (if somewhat cursed by bad luck) protagonist, then check out The Marriage Clock.

TIME TRAVEL ENEMIES AND CORRESPONDENTS: THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE THE TIME WAR

The first thing you need to know about This Is How You Lose the TIme War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is that it’s not an ordinary time travel book.

Not that there is or should be such a thing, of course. In my opinion, the very best, most fun and interesting time travel books take full advantage of all the possibilities that time travel offers to break up narratives, to play with the whole idea of cause and effect, of certainty and mortality, and imagine boldly what it would be like if time were more fluid than we can imagine.  Take a couple of my favorites, The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas, or The Map of Time, by Felix Palma, and luxuriate in what kind of fun you can have with the possibilities.

But to get back to This Is How You Lose the Time War, even for a book where the main characters can and do travel through the infinite possibilities of time, this is unusual, and kind of hard to describe.

There’s a war between two very different groups, the Garden and the Agency, each of them dedicating themselves and their agents to the creation and braiding of different strands of time to create the future each wants.  The organizations are nearly infinitely patient, willing to contemplate and work in multiple potential timelines, to have their works thwarted by agents of the other side and to thwart their enemies’ efforts. The agents, none of whom are human by any definition we’d accept, live immortally, diving in and out of possible pasts, possible futures, going “upthread” or “downthread” to create or undo whatever will make their preferred future happen.

One of our two main characters is Red, of the Agency. You might think of her as a robot, or a cyborg, but that’s not entirely accurate; she’s mechanized, she’s part of a post Singularity world of machines, but she’s not just a machine.  The other main character is Blue, of the Garden. She’s part of a consciousness that embraces all living things as one. She’s organic-based but not really a plant, though grown like one. 

They “meet” for the first time on a battlefield, where Blue leaves Red a taunting note which starts out “Burn before reading.”  Red feels the need to respond, and thus begins a correspondence between the erstwhile enemies which starts out as more or less trash talk, though delivered in unique and bizarre ways (inside the rings of a giant tree, under the skin of a living seal, just to name two), but gradually becomes a way for the two of them to reveal things about themselves that neither would ever tell anyone else. Over time (and what do they have but time?), the two of them develop a deeper relationship.  Because they’re “enemies”, the more they communicate with each other, the more they’re in danger from their respective leaders, and the more likely they are to get caught. They both know this, but still find themselves reaching out to each other, sharing their lives, their feelings, sometimes actually saving each other from destruction.

I don’t want to give away the plot of this book beyond that. It builds slowly; you need to be patient to get to know these characters as they get to know each other, so be patient.  They grow on you, the book grows on you, so that by the time you’re at the climax, you feel a part of both Red and Blue.

The chapters alternate between Red’s point of view and Blue’s, and the first part of each chapter explains where the character is (and when), and what she’s doing, and how she finds the communication from the other, and the last part of each chapter is the letter from the other character. While the letters are wonderful, growing more and more elaborate and playful, more meaningful and emotional, I have to say the narrative parts of the book are also engrossing, if you pause to think about what the characters are doing and how their actions would affect the timeline (instead of just hurrying through to get to the letter, which I could certainly understand). How would the world be different if the peoples of Mesoamerica had already been exposed to smallpox and other European diseases long before first contact between Europeans and Americans?  What would have happened if people from the Inca empire had made their way across the Pacific and reached the Philippines, or even China?  The notion of multiple strands of history in which Romeo and Juliet was performed, sometimes as a comedy, sometimes as a tragedy, is charming, too, and these are just the background details that create a vivid world (or worlds) against which the main story of Red and Blue is played out.

This isn’t as confusing as some time travel books (I always tell people to stick with The Time Traveler’s Wife for 75 pages before giving up, because it’s very confusing at the beginning and then you find your bearings), but it packs an emotional punch that’s very satisfying.  If you’re a fan of the genre (as I am), you’ll really enjoy This Is How You Lose the Time War.

HOW LOW CAN YOU GO, JO NESBO? KNIFE

As everybody knows, I’m a big fan of Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, so of course when the newest book in the series, Knife, was released last week I dropped everything else I was reading to devote myself to it.  Having finished it, the big question in my mind is, why does Jo Nesbo hate his creation so much?

I get why a writer would get sick of a popular character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s frustration with Sherlock Holmes led him to kill the detective off in “The Final Problem,” though he did have to bring him back again in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”  It seems to me that it would be easy enough to stop writing about a character if you’re tired of him or her. You don’t actually have to kill him (or ruin him; I’m looking at you, Jeff Lindsay, and what you did to Dexter in that series). But maybe it seems to the author that only the most drastic methods will free them from this particular character, and I understand that.

What Nesbo does to Harry Hole, however, is of a different caliber.  Just killing him off would be one thing (he seemed to do that at the end of one book, Phantom, in a particularly shattering way), but Nesbo seems to delight in torturing his protagonist.  By the start of this book, Harry has a terrific scar across part of his face, a metal replacement for one of his fingers, and those are just the physical marks of all the horrible things that have happened to him over the years; the psychological tortures have also taken a major toll.

And even so, Harry starts out this book in what looks like the bottom of the pit: separated from Rakel without hope of reconciliation, drunk to the point of blacking out and forgetting where he’s been or what he’s done during those blackouts, getting thrown out of the bar he used to own.  We don’t know what happened (yet) to get Rakel to the point of ending things with him altogether, but we can see from Harry’s state that it must have been something dreadful.

And, believe it or not, that’s just the beginning and turns out NOT to be the deepest depths Harry is going to sink to.  Things actually get worse from there. Harry becomes a suspect in a murder investigation and is prohibited from investigating it because of his proximity to the victim, which makes it more difficult for him to try to clear his name and find out who’s the actual perpetrator.  Naturally, being officially forbidden from having anything to do with the investigation doesn’t prevent him from digging, though what he finds out just makes things darker and darker.

Nesbo hasn’t lost his fiendish touch when it comes to plotting. I can pretty much guarantee you will never figure out who was the real killer until the final revelation, not because he cheats by holding things back from you (he shows you everything you need to know, though he’s careful not to make any of it obvious), but because there are so many characters who could be the killer, and every time Harry thinks, and you think, he’s found the guilty party, Nesbo pulls the rug out from under you and makes it clear this person couldn’t be the one. Reading this book is like riding a roller coaster, but one of the modern ones with the hairpin curves you take at 90 miles an hour so you hang on for dear life the whole time, and you’re not even sure, till you get out of there alive, whether you were enjoying yourself or not.

There comes a point in every Jo Nesbo book I’ve read so far where the plot becomes so propulsive I can’t put the book down because I MUST find out how it resolves.  This one is no exception: two or three plots came together in the last fifty pages in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. It was completely satisfying, the kind of ending that wraps everything up and leaves you feeling things came out the way they should.

Two caveats: If you haven’t read any of the books in the series before, this is NOT the book to start with.  You can either begin with The Redbreast, which was the first one translated into English (and where I started the series), or with the first book written, The Bat, which was only translated after the other books became bestsellers in English.  You’re not going to understand anything that’s going on without meeting and getting to know these characters through the earlier books.

Second warning: while there isn’t as much stomach-turning violence in this book as there has been in others in the series, Nesbo writes very dark stuff, and if you don’t like violence or gore, keep away from Harry Hole.  Maybe keep away from Jo Nesbo altogether (Macbeth was similarly violent and gory).

If, however, you’re like me in that you’ve been following Harry through the many horrible crimes he’s solved over the years, and you have a strong stomach, I can heartily recommend Knife. Run, don’t walk, to the library to get your copy (or at least put it on hold), and then fasten your seat belt, because it’s one wild ride.

DANGEROUS CONFESSIONS: THE CONFESSIONS OF FRANNIE LANGTON

Are you ready for a different kind of historical novel, one that doesn’t start with someone in the present discovering a link to people in the past, one that actually trusts readers to be interested in the events of the past on their own?  Are you ready for a historical novel that takes on issues like racism and slavery from a different perspective than you’re used to seeing? Then take a look at The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins, new at The Field Library, and prepare for a great read.

Frannie Langton is on trial for murdering two people in the house in England where she worked as a servant, and the book is what she’s written to her barrister in response to his desperate request that she give him something he can use to defend her other than her initial response, which was that she couldn’t remember anything.  The circumstances of the murders are definitely against her: she was found in bed with her mistress, both of them covered in blood, the master of the house had been stabbed multiple times and there was a trail of blood going from his room to the mistress’ room. But worse than that, Frannie was black, a former slave from the Jamaica sugar plantations, and in 1826 London, she’s viewed as a savage, possibly not entirely human, and capable of anything.  That George and Marguerite Benham had taken her in when her former owner brought her to England, that they were well known members of upper class society, and that there were all kinds of rumors about the real relationship between Frannie and Marguerite, doesn’t help matters.

The trial serves as a thread that runs through the book; while Frannie tells the story of her life in the plantation and what happened to her once she arrived in England, periodically she returns to the murder case being tried in the Old Bailey Court, with excerpts of the testimony against her sprinkled through the book.  For quite a while, you don’t know exactly what happened, other than the sensational charges themselves, and Frannie takes her time getting to the actual events (in fact, you don’t get the real answers until the very end of the book), let alone the question of what she might or might not have done, how responsible she might have been for the deaths.

Along the way, we get to know Frannie, and she’s quite a character.  She defies stereotypes all along the line: she’s from Jamaica, she grew up on a sugar plantation, but she wasn’t ever a field hand, and her relationship to Langton, the owner of the plantation, and his wife is unclear: both of them seem to know more about Frannie’s background than she does.  She’s literate, she reads novels, and she’s enlisted by Langton as his scribe in the incredibly racist and disgusting experiments he’s conducting to prove the differences between blacks and whites. When he brings her to England to meet George Benham, who had been his collaborator in his researches but who has now disavowed that connection, he leaves her with Benham, as a servant.  She catches Marguerite’s attention, and falls in love with her mistress, all the while knowing that the relationship can never be equal and wondering whether there’s even a relationship at all (Marguerite is a strange woman, well-educated, addicted to laudanum, and hard to figure out in any event). Thrown out of that house, Frannie finds herself in a whorehouse, and then she goes back to the Benham household, shortly before the murders.

Smart and educated enough to see other people clearly and to see how Jamaican and English society are built on assumptions of racial superiority, Frannie nevertheless can’t escape from the expectations of those societies. Frannie’s status as a black woman, a servant, a foreigner, in England is different from what we as Americans in the 21st century would expect, but it’s fascinating to see how racism worked in English society at the time, and you find yourself hoping against hope that Frannie will find some kind of happy ending (no spoilers here; you’re going to have to read this for yourself).

Get absorbed in another time and place and enjoy the powerful perspective of Frannie Langton, former slave, whore and accused murderess.

WHEN YOUR FAKE SELF GETS MORE ROMANCE THAN YOUR REAL ONE: MY FAVORITE HALF NIGHT STAND

The premise of Christina Lauren’s new book, My Favorite Half Night Stand, seems like it could either be something really cringe-worthy or something kind of fun.  Our protagonist is a female professor who’s got a bunch of guy friends, all of whom are single, and all of them are invited to a black tie function to which they each feel they need dates.  They agree to use this dating app to find potential partners, and when Millie (our protagonist) can’t get any decent responses, she creates a fictional persona, in which she can be more herself, and naturally the one of her friends she really cares about becomes a match for that fake persona, and one thing leads to another.

Obviously if I’m writing about it here, it’s not cringe-worthy (for the most part, I don’t spend time tearing apart things I don’t like; I’m more likely to be pushing the things I do like), and that’s due to the characters, who manage NOT to be like people from The Big Bang Theory but like real people.

Take Millie.  She won me over on the second page of the book, when she admitted to having a lifelong fascination with female serial killers, which dated back to her interest in Lizzie Borden as a seventh grader (I mean, really, who wouldn’t be fascinated with the Lizzie Borden case?), and which led her to become a professor of criminology.  It’s not her academic specialty that has kept her single through her late twenties, though, as much as her unwillingness to let anyone, even the people she cares about, know much about the real Millie. She’s deft at deflecting people with questions about themselves, or with humor, and since she mostly hangs out with a group of guys in the world of academia, she doesn’t usually have to worry that anyone will notice how guarded she is, despite her outgoing personality in general.

Reid, her closest friend, who becomes, very early on, a friend with benefits, is also a fully developed character.  While he does go on at some length about Millie’s attractiveness (so much so that I was afraid, early on, that this was going to be one of those stories where the heroine is stunningly beautiful but doesn’t realize it, as if such creatures actually exist in the real world; fortunately, that didn’t happen), he’s a good observer of other people’s characters and doesn’t just live for his relationship, quirky as it is, with Millie, or with his other friends either.

Computer dating is different for the guys than for Millie.  While they get some interesting hits, real women who have things going for them and who seem genuinely invested in starting relationships, she finds herself receiving dick pictures and getting responses from jerks.  While some of this is just the difference between how the sexes use dating apps, some of it is also because Millie, in her initial profile, tells very little about her real self, and doesn’t give much for any worthwhile prospects to latch onto.  She realizes this (her friends tell her this), and then decides to create “Catherine” (her middle name), another profile in which she can experiment with being more open about her past, her feelings, herself. She tells herself this is a sort of scientific experiment, with her original profile as a control, but when Reid is matched up with Catherine’s profile, Millie makes the mistake of responding to him as “Catherine.”  At first she’s sure he’ll recognize some of the references she makes in her emails and will guess that it’s really her, but when he doesn’t, she can’t seem to tell him the truth, and of course one thing leads to another.

This is a sort of romantic comedy, a modern day version of Cyrano de Bergerac with the sexes reversed.  It turns on the question of honesty, of what friends owe to each other and what Millie needs to learn in order to become a better human being (she’s not a bad human being even at the outset, but even she knows she’s not living the way she should be) and to have a chance at real love.  Of course you know that ultimately (spoiler!) there’s a happy ending, but the fun of the book is seeing how it comes about, and rooting for the two likable protagonists to see each other clearly and find out how good they are for each other. 

ALMOST TOO LATE: HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE

When I first saw the description of the book, How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, I have to admit I had ambivalent feelings. The bare bones of the plot are that our protagonist, Andrew, works for a branch of the English government, taking care of the burials and funerals of people who have died without heirs or friends or family, and while everyone at his workplace believes he goes home to a wife and family, the truth is that he’s living by himself in a miserable flat, but all this changes when he meets Peggy, a woman who starts working with him and who sets him on the path to a new life.

What I hoped this book would be: a warm, touching book, kind of like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a lonely person steps out of his self-imposed isolation and begins to find a place in the world.

What I feared this book would be: a manic pixie dream girl comes and, through her loving but deeply unconventional ways, helps some obnoxious guy who’s never put any effort into being a good person live life to the fullest.

Having read the book, I’m happy to report that it was much closer to my hopes than my fears. Andrew comes across, at the beginning of the book, as something of a loser, someone who’s boxed himself into a narrow life because he doesn’t want anything more, but we see early on that he has a good heart.  He attends the funerals of the unfortunate souls who’ve died alone and without any friends or family, and he approaches the difficult part of his job, entering the homes of those people to look for any signs that there might be money for a funeral or any other human beings who might want to know this person has died, and who might mourn the person’s death, with grace and kindness. Frankly, it’s not a job I think I could do, and that Andrew (and the rest of the people in his department) manages to do it at all, and stay sane in the process, is pretty impressive to me.

Peggy, the woman who changes his life, might seem at first like a candidate for manic pixie dream girl: she’s lively, she curses, she approaches Andrew and the job with warmth and enthusiasm, she drinks and she’s not shy about telling people where to go. However, she’s got a complicated life of her own, including a husband who’s got a drinking problem, and two daughters who mean the world to her.  She cares about Andrew, and he comes to care about her, but she’s not here to fix his world. And in fact, at a critical point in the story, she tells him he can’t expect someone else to save him; he has to do it for himself.

Andrew didn’t originally create a wife and children, and a household, out of thin air for the fun of it (Andrew does very few things for the fun of it).  He was in an interview, and he made up a story on the spot, never dreaming he was going to have to live with that story for the rest of his time on the job, inventing increasingly elaborate stories about how he met his wife, what his children are like, and why nobody in the office has ever met them. He knows throughout that this isn’t sustainable; sooner or later people are going to find out the truth, but the longer he manages to keep the story going, the harder it’s going to be, in the end, to admit to reality. And when his supervisor, as a team building effort, institutes a program where people give dinner parties in their homes, Andrew knows his days are numbered.

His brother-in-law is blackmailing him about an inheritance, there are rumors of upcoming layoffs in the department, Peggy’s having difficulties with her marriage, and floating in the background are questions about how Andrew got to be this person in the first place and why he reacts so painfully to the sound of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Moon,” which is explained late in the book (and when you find out and realize what his brother-in-law is referring to throughout his nasty attacks on Andrew, it’s a painful, poignant moment).  Even in the job itself, which could seem really depressing, there are moments of joy, including Andrew and Peggy tracking down a former lover of one of the deceaseds, and one funeral at least that feels like a real celebration of a life and not merely a routine between the vicar and Andrew as the sole mourner.

In the end, How Not to Die Alone is a warm, goodhearted book, a reminder that it’s almost never too late to start living.

REAL LIFE HORROR STORY: MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL

Imagine a Venn diagram where one circle is “This nonfiction book is written like a thriller, so full of exciting detail that even though I know what’s going to happen, I still can’t put it down” and the other circle is “This nonfiction book is so terrifying, the things it depicts are so nightmarish that I have to force myself to pick it up and read it, no matter how well-written it is.”  The very small intersection between those two circles would be where Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham, would fit. It is a terrific read, a real page turner.  At the same time, it is one of the most frightening books I have ever read, especially since it’s all true and accurately reported.

This is one of those books, like Columbine, where you think you know what happened, but as you dive with the author down into the details of what actually happened and why, you discover that what you think you knew bears little resemblance to reality.  This can be a mind-blowing experience even if the events you’re learning more about aren’t horrific; it’s still mind-blowing but much more disturbing if the events are dark and bloody.

You don’t have to be a nuclear physicist or a historian of the former Soviet Union to follow what’s going on in this book; I’m neither, and Higginbotham is so clear, so detailed and so human, in his telling that I could understand (as much as anyone can) what was happening throughout.  He explains the science and gives background to everything you need to know while still keeping the narrative racing forward.

The book doesn’t read like a science or history text.  The closest thing I can compare it to is a horror novel, especially in the beginning, as we meet the people who will play roles in the disaster, from the director of the Chernobyl plant who was responsible for designing the plant and the town that went around it to the individual firefighters who tried, in valiant ignorance, to put out the insanely radioactive and dangerous fires in Reactor Number Four.  I appreciate the author’s ability to bring these distinct people to life, but the whole time I was reading the beginning, I kept wondering which of these people was going to die in the course of the book and how horrible the deaths would be. When things start cascading from disaster to mega-disaster, and the officials are dragging their heels, mired in denial and utterly unprepared for anything of this magnitude, refusing to order the evacuation of the town even as plumes of radiation are exploding out of the plant, the urge to scream at the participants, urging them to “Get those people out of there!” (a la Ellen Ripley in Aliens), was almost irresistible.  

There’s so much going on in this book, and while the officials of the Soviet Union chose their scapegoats to punish for the disaster, Higginbotham is much more measured and makes it quite clear there’s plenty of blame to go around, from the design of the reactor itself to the almost unbelievable arrogance of the scientists running the program who didn’t even try to imagine the worst possible accidents, let alone plan for them, to the people who actually took the steps that led to the meltdown and then tried to fix it without knowing what they were doing or whether anything they did would work. Spoiler alert: most of the things the people did in the beginning either didn’t work at all or made things worse.

There are nightmarish descriptions of the plant and its people in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and gruesome descriptions of how people die from acute radiation poisoning, but really the worst things in the book are the official reactions of the government to this unprecedented accident, the way the Soviet Union’s reflexive secrecy and refusal to admit error made everything worse than it might otherwise have been (though, obviously, things would have been pretty bad even if the various governmental entities had been much more open).

It’s hard to recommend a book that’s this terrifying, even though it’s meticulously researched and incredibly well written, but if you have a strong stomach and the willingness to look at one of the worst disasters in modern times, this is definitely a book you should read.