WEIRDNESS SQUARED: AFTER THE END OF THE WORLD

It’s going to be very difficult to review Jonathan L. Howard’s new book, After the End of the World, not because it’s a difficult book to read (far from it!), but because it’s so bizarre (yet so much fun), it’s hard to explain exactly what the charm of the book is.

To begin with, it’s a sequel, sort of, to his earlier book, Carter and Lovecraft, and I’m not sure whether you need to have read the first book to understand or enjoy this one.  It certainly helps (and if you’re a fan of the weird, you definitely should read them in order, if only because Carter and Lovecraft is such a wonderful book all by itself).  Suffice it to say that Dan Carter is a former police detective who happens to be descended from one Randolph Carter (if you’re familiar with the work of H. P. Lovecraft, that name will definitely ring a bell for you), and who, in the first book, ends up co-owning a bookstore with Emily Lovecraft, an African American woman who is (and I’m still not sure how this happened, given the man’s famous racism) descended from the writer H. P. Lovecraft.  In the course of their previous adventure, the two of them ended up folding reality so that certain things from their timeline (Providence, Rhode Island, for instance) do not exist and have never existed in this current timeline. Providence is now Arkham, and its local college is Miskatonic University, not Brown.

If the previous paragraph has you confused, then I recommend against reading After the End of the World, because there’s lots more like that in the book.

The beginning of After the End of the World takes place in this alternate reality in the middle of World War II, when the Nazis annihilate Moscow and the surrounding countryside with what appears to be a nuclear bomb. Naturally, this changes the course of the war and the future of the world (without a Soviet Union, there is no Cold War, for instance).  In the present, Nazi Germany is a world power and the United States has made its accommodations with them (the Holocaust did not happen, or not the way it happened in our timeline).  

Carter is drawn into an investigation of a major scientific collaboration between the people at Miskatonic University and some high powered Nazi scientists, where the results of the experiments so far seem to be too good to be true, and at the same time Lovecraft finds that she has, somehow, a very rare copy of the Necronomicon, a book that (in our reality) was made up by H. P. Lovecraft but in this reality is a real, and very dangerous, thing.

Bizarre human sacrifices, questions about how the Nazis really managed to destroy the Soviet Union and whether or not reality can be unfolded back to our understanding of it, suspenseful confrontations in an isolated island off the coast of Alaska, what happened to the James Bond novels without a Cold War background, the fate of Great Britain after this version of World War II, and the actual stopping of time altogether: this book is a wonderful, enthralling, truly strange read.  The characters are quirky but believable, the plot picks you up and carries you along, and while the book is satisfying in itself (and more satisfying as a sequel to Carter and Lovecraft), there’s a hint that more adventures may be in the offing. If they’re as good as the first two books, then I’m eagerly looking forward to reading them. Come to the Field Library and check them out for yourself.

 

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SLACKERS SAVE THE WORLD FROM INTERDIMENSIONAL HORRORS: WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST READ?

Sometimes a book has the perfect title, that tells you exactly what you’re about to find inside the covers.  The new book by David Wong, What the Hell Did I Just Read? A Novel of Cosmic Horror, is one of those perfectly-titled books.

John and David are two guys in their twenties who don’t seem to have much direction in life.  If it weren’t for Amy, David’s extremely patient girlfriend who also happens to have a full time job that pays enough to live on, they would probably be living on the street, eating out of garbage cans. As it is, they work odd jobs and hang out, but their real forte is investigating nightmarish incursions of other dimensions into the world of their Undisclosed town, and trying to keep monsters from other dimensions from taking over this world.

In this book, the inciting incident seems serious enough: a young child is kidnapped by what looks like a particularly slimy pedophile, with suggestions that this pedophile might not be entirely human. Of course he isn’t human, he’s some kind of shape shifting monster, and as John and David join forces with the child’s father, Ted, a former Special Forces soldier who’s determined to wreak revenge on whoever stole his daughter, the bad guy in question makes himself appear identical to David, so David has to spend a certain amount of his time and energy telling Ted and the police that really, he’s not the kidnapper, no matter how it looks.

But then it gets weirder.  There are other kidnappings, first of a young boy whose mother is associated with a motorcycle gang/religious cult, and then of a whole group of children in a bus, and there seem to be multiple versions of David and John, and even Ted and Amy, wandering through the story, so close to the real versions that even people who know them well have trouble telling if this is a fake or not.  And those children who were supposedly kidnapped?  Well, maybe they’re not who the adults around them think they are, either.  Maybe they’re not even children. Maybe these adults never actually HAD children, but these creatures have persuaded the adults that they are their children.  Maybe there is a deep and terrifying plot behind all this weirdness, and it’s up to Amy and David and John, the last people you would ever want to be in this position,  to save the world.

It’s not for everyone; you have to have a certain willingness to enjoy somewhat juvenile humor involving bodily functions and sex (one of the characters lives above a sex toy shop, and the merchandise of that store figures here and there in the story), and you have to restrain your natural inclination to grab lazy slacker characters and shake them for being such idiots.  However, if you can get past those little issues (and you don’t mind the frequent four letter words), What the Hell Did I Just Read? can be a lot of fun.

It’s warped, it’s bizarre, it’s compulsively readable, and it’s even funny.  If the idea of slackers vs. Lovecraftian monsters from the beyond strikes you as a great premise for a book, then by all means pick up What the Hell Did I Just Read?, and you’ll be in for a treat.

ROAD TRIP THROUGH TIME WITH PARADOX BOUND

As anyone who’s read this blog knows, I’m responsible for buying the new adult fiction at The Field Library.  As such, I buy a lot of books because I know people will want to read them (new books by popular authors, for instance), but sometimes I buy books just because I personally can’t resist them and I want to have them for patrons to read as well.  This explains (partially at least) why there are so many time travel books in our collection.  The newest time travel book The Field Library has acquired is Paradox Bound, by Peter Clines, and it is great fun, a book I’m going to be recommending to patrons for some time (see what I did there?).

Eli Teague is an ordinary guy, living in what seems to him like the most backward small town in Maine, where everything is kind of behind the times and nothing exciting ever happens.  Until something exciting does happen, three times: he meets the same young woman, dressed in Revolutionary War garb (complete with tricorn hat!), and driving a Model A Ford, that happens to run on water rather than gas.  She appears in his life when he’s 8 years old, then when he’s in his teens, and then, when he meets her for the third time when he’s 29, things start getting seriously strange.  There are faceless men chasing this woman, and Eli feels the need to help her or at least warn her, so he heads down to Boston to intercept her, and from there on, he’s caught up in a wild trip with the woman (Harry, short for Harriet), driving across the country and through history, in search of — what else? — the American Dream, which turns out to be an actual thing that has been stolen. The loss of the American Dream is responsible for the strange things happening to the country, and whoever finds it and holds it can shape the future of America.  As you can guess, Harry and Eli aren’t the only people on the road looking for it, with good motives or bad.  

And I’m not going to go into more detail on the plot than that, because it’s the sort of book you’re going to want to discover for yourself.  The faceless men are literally without faces (they wear clear plastic masks which somehow make them even scarier), and they are great villains, implacable because of their certainty and practically indestructible.  Harry and Eli are fun characters as you get to know them, and they interact with a slew of other fascinating people (including John Henry, who has his own special train to travel through history, as opposed to the antique cars many of the other characters use).  There’s even a town called Hourglass where the time travelers meet up at one of three special bars, and since the same person can be there on multiple timelines, there are strict rules about where you can go and with whom you can interact while you’re in Hourglass.  There are, of course, paradoxes, and great plot twists and turns, with some scenes reappearing a couple of times from different perspectives (one of the great pleasures of time travel fiction, in my opinion, is seeing a character in a scene, not knowing who that character is or what he’s doing there, and then later discovering that the mystery character is someone you know, only from a different time; if this sounds confusing, then you haven’t read enough time travel novels).  There’s danger, there’s adventure, and there’s a satisfying ending that you don’t entirely anticipate. It’s wonderful fun, picking you up and taking you on the most amazing road trip through time and space that will make you look at those odd little towns that seem to have been forgotten by time in an entirely different light.

TESTOSTERONE REX, AWARD WINNER

If you’ll recall, a month ago I wrote about the Royal Society Shortlist for the Science Book Prize for 2017( THE ROYAL SOCIETY SCIENCE BOOK PRIZE SHORTLIST AT THE FIELD LIBRARY), and about all the nominees we had on the shelves at The Field Library.  You might also recall that I was personally rooting for Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society, by Cordelia Fine, because I had read and loved the book myself.

I’m delighted to announce that the prize has been awarded for 2017, and that my personal favorite is in fact the winner.  Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science and Society, which combines top notch scholarship with a keen sense of humor and humanism, has won some well-deserved recognition for what the Royal Society Judges referred to as its “ cracking critique of the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ hypothesis.”  

It’s well-written, well-researched, and funny to boot.  See what the experts saw, and take out your own copy today!

MODERN DAY HAUNTED HOUSE: THE GRIP OF IT

To me, the classic, the ur haunted house story is Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and if you have a taste for the classics of horror and you haven’t read that one yet, stop reading this and hurry to get your hands on it.  A good haunted house story relies not on stupid people doing things that no sensible person would consider doing (the “don’t go into the basement!” syndrome), but on an atmosphere built up of details, each one slightly off, but together creating a sense of inescapable dread.

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc, is a haunted house story that’s worthy of being compared to The Haunting of Hill House.  It’s short, as a good horror story should be, and it’s creepy and disturbing and it’s an altogether engrossing read.

The two main characters, Julie and James, are a young married couple moving out of the city to get away from their problems, mostly James’ gambling.  They go, as characters do in horror stories, to a place unfamiliar to them (though Julie’s friend from school, Connie, lives in the town and gets Julie a job with her company, so she’s not totally out on a stringer), in the hopes of making a new start.  They buy a house at the end of a cul de sac, with dark woods encroaching on the edges of their lawn and the sea beyond the woods, and few neighbors.

Almost as soon as they move in, the house starts getting to them.  The book is told in alternating chapters by Julie and James, and you have no trouble telling who is who.  I’m usually not a fan of the alternating viewpoint technique, but it works in this case because you find yourself wondering which one of them is plugged in, if either one of them is, and the house has different effects on both of them, as well as on their relationship (though none of the effects is good).

It’s the little details that get to you: the strange extra spaces of the house itself, the children playing murder games in the woods (but there are no children living in the neighborhood), the strange sensation of someone breathing on the couple as they’re sleeping (an experience shared by Julie’s visiting parents, so this is not just Julie and James losing it), strange writing on the walls, a journal found with writing that nobody can read, and hints of terrible things that may or may not have happened in this house in the past.  Then there are the bigger wrong things with the situation: the bruises that appear and grow on Julie’s body without any cause, the way the woods seem to move closer and closer to the house.  Their nearest neighbor, Rolf, is the stuff of nightmares: he’s unfriendly but is staring at them all the time, things appear from his house in their house and vice versa, James and Julie separately find themselves in Rolf’s house when they think they’re in their own, and Rolf’s disappearance, which brings the skeptical police into the orbit of the main characters.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to have everything explained by the end, this is not a book for you.  There is no easy explanation of what happened to the house, who Rolf was, why Julie and James were affected this way.  There are hints, though, and I personally find the suggestion of something terrible more frightening, more emotionally upsetting, than pages and pages of backstory “explaining” the otherwise inexplicable.

The Grip of It isn’t for everybody, but if you’re in the mood for a nice creepy haunted house story you won’t soon forget, give it a read.  You won’t be disappointed.

I LIKED MY LIFE: NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After a lively discussion of Life After Life, the Field Notes Book Group has selected its book for the month of August, and it’s a good one: I Liked My Life, by Abby Fabiaschi.

Before the beginning of the book, Maddy, a charming, intelligent housewife and mother of a bright, somewhat prickly teenage daughter, has jumped to her death off the roof of the library at Wellesley College. Maddy is our first point of view character,  sharing narrative duties with Brady, her husband, and Eve, her daughter, and she opens the book with observations about who should be Brady’s next wife.  Maddy is sort of haunting her family, but in the most benign fashion possible (Brady hears her laughter in his head; Eve hears her mother singing sometimes), trying very hard to take care of them even after her death.

I know this sounds like it’s going to be a very depressing book, but, surprisingly, it’s not at all.  Maddy’s voice is so funny, her observations so acute and accurate, and her intentions so clearly for the best, that you can’t help liking her.  While Eve and Brady are going through a lot in the aftermath of Maddy’s death, they are also acute observers and, especially in the case of Eve, quite funny in a sort of dark, ironic way.

The big question that drives you through this immensely readable book (I read it in one day) is, why did Maddy, who seems to be the most grounded, generous and intelligent person around, kill herself?  Why would someone who’s so devoted to her loved ones’ welfare, and someone who knows from personal experience how devastating suicide can be for the ones left behind, do this?  Was she trying to shame her family?  Did she have some secret depression, some pressure nobody else knew about?  As her husband and daughter move through their somewhat rocky  mourning process, they struggle with these questions, as do the readers.  

Without spoiling anything, I will tell you the book wraps everything up and answers all your questions in a very satisfying way.

The books will be available to check out at the circulation desk at The Field Library this week. Come in and pick one up, and then join us on Saturday, August 19, from 11 to 12:30 p.m. for discussion, coffee and snacks.

THE GODS MUST BE FUNNY: THE MANAGEMENT STYLE OF THE SUPREME BEINGS

Tom Holt is not a man who takes much of anything seriously. He writes humorous fantasy that takes aim at all the cliches and tropes of fantasy fiction and turns them inside out in the funniest way possible (don’t believe me?  Try some of his other books, including Outsorcerer’s Apprentice,  and The Good, the Bad and the Smug, here at The Field Library).  In his latest book, The Management Style of the Supreme Beings, he changes his focus a little and starts with the premise that God decides to sell off the whole planet earth and everything on it to the Venturi Brothers, a pair of aliens (originally from Mars, though they’ve been all over the universe since) who have the whole supreme being thing worked out in their own way.  The Venturi brothers are not bad, necessarily — in fact, they’re beyond all this “good and bad” stuff in general — but they’re instituting a new regime for the earth and everything is going to be quite different as long as they’re in charge.

You can tell from that much of a description that this is not a reverent book (by any means), and if you’re uncomfortable with an author taking (fairly gentle) pot shots at Christian theology, probably this is not the book for you.  

However, if you’re not easily offended, and if you’re curious about how the world would work if this whole “good — bad” dichotomy weren’t the basis for morality, or if you like a warped adventure story that takes you from heaven to hell to other galaxies and all kinds of places in between, that subverts many of the tropes of adventure fiction (take that, Indiana Jones and your pulp forbears!), then you should definitely read The Management Style of the Supreme Beings.  It’s a fast read filled with laugh aloud lines and warped characters (also warped looks at characters you think you know).

For instance, we have Kevin, God’s other son, the one who never seemed to find a place o fit in with the divine scheme, and who rebels against God’s sale of the earth and all that’s on it to the Venturis.  Yes, he’s supposed to keep away from the earth, but he can’t quite seem to do that, and his two Uncles (Raffa and Gabe, whom you might recognize as the angels Rafael and Gabriel, respectively) have their supernatural hands full trying to keep him out of trouble.

We also have Jersey, an Indiana Jones type of character who’s spent his whole life trying to find the ultimate answer to the existence of God, only to discover, when the Venturi brothers take over, that now everybody knows who the gods are around here, and now he has nothing left to look for, so his life loses its meaning until he discovers a secret that’s been kept for millennia, the secret of another god, one who’s never gone away.

Then there’s Bernie, a human being who’s been working for Uncle Nick in hell for a long time before the sell-off, and who uses his brilliant management skills to make hell into a great tourist destination after the new regime comes to power.  I might add that “Uncle Nick” comes across as a much more interesting (and sympathetic) character than you would expect from his traditional depiction, and has real affection for Bernie (to the point of offering to let Bernie take over the joint when Nick retires).

All of this is fun and the plot is entertaining and complicated enough to keep you going, but the thing that makes this book rise to true heights of goofy fun is the inclusion of Santa Claus as a character.  It turns out he’s not exactly what we always thought he was, and he is NOT pleased at the new management of the planet.  He knows when you are sleeping, after all, and knows when you’re awake, and “good” and “bad” are not things he’s willing to give up on without a fight.

If the news is getting you down and you really feel the need for escape, you could hardly do better than to turn to The Management Style of the Supreme Beings.