It seems appropriate that, so soon after I put up the display, lists, and post about the adult fairy tale category for this year’s Reading Challenge, The Field Library acquired The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, which is a collection of very dark short stories based on various famous or less famous fairy tales (and children’s stories, which I’ll get to in a minute).  It’s a quick read, but be warned: all of the stories are warped, and some of them are quite disturbing.

Do you need to know the original stories in order to appreciate The Merry Spinster? No, though you probably are at least generally aware of the outlines of such stories as The Little Mermaid (here told as “The Daughter Cells”), The Wind in the Willows (here “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”), or “The Frog Princess” (here “The Frog’s Princess”).  As with any retellings of famous stories, you are of course better able to appreciate the new version if you’re familiar with the original, but you can read these stories without a lot of knowledge of their source material.

And what stories they are!  Some of them, like “The Daughter Cells,” just take the original story and look at it through a completely different lens: consider what a mermaid would really be like and exactly how she might view humankind, keeping in mind that creatures that live underwater might not have such a human-oriented point of view.  “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” told by an angel who had various tasks to fulfill in the time of the Bible, seems perfectly reasonable until you get to the end (the angel’s encounter with Jacob), and think about the twist in the story and what it means for the future.

Though these stories are creepy, they’re not really “horror” as I see them. Some of them, though, are genuinely scary and even haunting.  For instance, The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child, and Ortberg’s version, “The Rabbit,” follows the original fairly closely and then diverges to absolutely ruin my memory of the original, turning it into something nightmarishly chilling. Similarly, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” here would make anyone scared of Rat and Mole and Badger and horribly sympathetic to poor Toad.

If you don’t mind having some really creepy dreams, and you enjoy looking at famous stories from different angles, and you have a dark sensibility, then by all means give The Merry Spinster a read.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.



If you would like to experience a new and unique perspective on the cliche of “humans colonizing a different world and encountering aliens there”, I heartily recommend the book Semiosis, by Sue Burke.

The colonists fleeing a dying earth and finding their way to a planet they name Pax happen to land on the wrong planet, not the one they were aiming for, but in the circumstances they decide to make a go of it here even though it’s not ideal (few of the minerals they need to keep their machinery running can be found on this planet, and the gravity is greater than they’re used to).  The world, described in great and enlightening detail, is very strange to the colonists. They’re prepared to deal with potentially dangerous and hostile animals, but it takes a real effort of imagination for them to realize that the most dangerous and potentially hostile beings on this planet are the plants, and that their only hope of surviving is to ally themselves with the right plants.

The book proceeds by generations. Each chapter is told by a different narrator, from a later generation than the one who narrated the last one, though one of the characters, Stevland, a rainbow bamboo who develops from a completely strange being into a citizen, and even a moderator of the colony, shows up in a few chapters, his* perspective changing over time and as a result of his interactions with other moderators.

The humans’ interactions with Stevland are fraught and complicated, partly because it’s difficult for humans to understand what Stevland is really trying to do. He helps them tremendously, providing them with food and with necessary supplements to keep them healthy or to help them solve some of their physical problems, but that ability to help them by adding things to their food could also allow Stevland to make them passive slaves or to change their personalities altogether.  How much can they trust him when he’s so different from them? The pull between survival, albeit in a sort of symbiotic relationship with a plant, and independence, albeit with the potential for utter destruction, plays out in different ways over generations.

One of the threads that runs through the book is the Glassmakers, another alien species which preceded the humans on Pax, developed a relationship with Stevland and then abandoned him and the elaborate and beautiful city they’d built. Who were they?  Why had they left? Are they still around? Can humans and Glassmakers live harmoniously together?

The world-building in this book is outstanding. Everything works together, even as most of the things are different in fundamental ways from their closest equivalents on earth. The intrusion of the humans (and the Glassmakers) into this ecosystem causes a major upheaval that takes generations to work out. What I really liked about this book, and why I recommend it so heartily, is the characters, the human beings (and no matter how the planet and Stevland change them, they are still recognizably and relatably human beings) and Stevland, their attempts to deal with their unusual circumstances, and their struggles to remain true to their principles as those principles are tested by a world so different from the world in which the principles were incubated.


*Stevland chooses his gender, as he chooses the name the humans use for him.


As many of you know, I am running this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge, the purpose of which is to encourage people to get acquainted with different aspects of the library’s collection and stretch our reading horizons.  From time to time I’ll write about a category here, to give a little more information and insight about what’s good, what I love, in that category (why yes, I did choose some of the categories because they’re the types of books I love myself — why do you ask?). I already did that for Time Travel Books here, and now I’m going to talk about Adult Fairy Tales and some of my personal favorites in this category.

I could almost have filled an entire category with Neil Gaiman’s books; one of the things he’s really good at is creating his own versions of fairy tales, either new takes on old stories (e.g., The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is awesome) or stories of his own which feel like fairy tales (e.g., Neverwhere, which was also made into an excellent BBC mini series).  His collections of short stories include quirky and often dark takes on famous fairy tales, too, so if you’re a short story fan, do check out his collections.  But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorites of his, the excellent (and surprisingly short) The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  I’m not usually a fan of the “framing story”, where the real story is being told by a character in the story, who intrudes at the beginning and the end; I usually find that a clumsy device and think the framing part could be excised easily without any damage to the story. HOWEVER, in this particular case, the framing story really works, and adds depth and poignance to the story you’ve already read.  I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you.  A middle aged man returns to the scene of his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary period of his life, when terrifying forces converged on his family and the only people who were capable of saving him and his family were three women, a girl who’s apparently his age, an adult woman and an old woman who claims to remember the Big Bang itself.  Gaiman’s prose is gorgeous, his grasp of myth and archetype is amazing, and this is just a terrific book all around.

A very different, but equally wonderful, book is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in a vividly rendered New York City at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th.  Chava is a golem, created by a Polish rabbi who died while he was transporting her with him to America. Ahmad is a jinni, a fire spirit from Syria, only recently released from the bottle that imprisoned him.  The two of them meet and develop an unlikely but poignant relationship as each of them navigates his or her way through their respective cultures and tries to find out his or her origin and purpose in this world.  The book focuses on Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore, not the usual stuff of fairy tales we’re familiar with, and brings these very different and very unusual characters to life.  

Alaska in the 1920’s doesn’t seem like a likely setting for a fairy tale, but once you’ve read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, you’ll change your mind. The setting is unusual, but the storyline, about a couple who long for a child of their own and can’t have one the usual way until they build themselves a child out of snow, which then seems to create a real live child, is classic fairy tale stuff. The child, who seems to be a part of the wilderness herself, calls herself Faina, and Jack and Mabel, the couple at the heart of the story, come to love her as if she were their own child, born to them.  However, she isn’t really their child; there’s more to her than any of them know, and as Jack and Mabel discover, fairy tales don’t always end with happily ever after.  This is a book with a wonderful sense of place (a great book to read in the hottest part of summer, because I guarantee you’ll feel cooler just reading it) and a poignant plot with believable characters.

And then there’s Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is the kind of book you dive into and forget your surroundings while you become absorbed in the world of the book. While the main plot of the book concerns Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been trained practically from birth to be rivals but who find themselves falling in love with each other (to the consternation of their mysterious mentors), it is the circus world in which they live that really stays with you after you finish the book.  The circus itself is mysterious and wondrous, appearing without warning in a place and then disappearing just as quickly, only open at night, and filled with the most amazing things, the sort of acts and displays you will never find anywhere else. There’s magic here, in the plot, in the descriptions of the circus, in the whole world Morgenstern’s created, and yes, there is a very satisfying ending (though I’m not sure I would go as far as to say it’s a Happily Ever After ending, all things considered).  A book club favorite and an absorbing read, The Night Circus is the best kind of adult fairy tale.


How do you follow up a bestselling book that spent twenty weeks on the New York Times list and has been fodder for book clubs for years?  Well, if you’re Kristin Hannah, you leave World War II and France behind and set your next book in 1970’s Alaska, and the result is The Great Alone.  If you enjoyed The Nightingale, you will definitely love The Great Alone, and if you’re one of the rare people who didn’t read The Nightingale, you’ll still love The Great Alone if you’re a fan of dramatic books with an incredible sense of place and time.

I have to warn you, the first chapter or so of the book feels cringingly cliche. We have Ernt, the Vietnam veteran husband and father who’s completely messed up by his time in the war, a volatile abusive man who can’t hold onto a job and who is angry at the world. We have his wife, Cora, who’s always making excuses for him and putting up with his behavior (and yes, I realize that I’m viewing a 1970’s character through a 2018 lens, but even in the 1970’s there was some awareness of domestic violence and Cora sometimes seems willfully blind to the obvious signs that Ernt is trouble), and we have the protagonist, the thirteen year old Leni who has been dragged around from one place to another by her somewhat feckless parents.  If you feel you’ve seen them all before, you have some basis for that.

However, once the characters move from the Seattle area to Kaneq, Alaska, painfully unprepared (the classic hippie “living off the land” notion mixed with an invitation from the father of one of Ernt’s Vietnam buddies to come to live near them), the book comes alive. I personally have never been to Alaska, and certainly never came to Alaska in the early 1970’s, but Hannah brings the frontier world to vivid life: the tiny town, the different kinds of homesteads out on the edge of the wilderness, the camaraderie of the locals (one of my favorite characters is Large Marge, a former attorney and a force to be reckoned with) and their eagerness to help these new people get settled and survive.  The weather becomes practically another character (which is one reason this would be a good book to read in the winter because no matter how bad things get around here, you can feel relieved that you’re not living in the Kaneq area in winter). The natural world, the turning of the seasons and the wildlife, both helpful and dangerous, fill the book with verisimilitude.

Leni begins to come into her own, living off the land with her parents, finding her place in the local society, and falling in love with one of the only other kids her age in the school.  There’s a bit of the Romeo and Juliet in her romance with Matthew, who’s the son of one of the most powerful people in the town, a man with whom Ernt is bitterly feuding.  

As the long Alaskan winters close in and Ernt becomes more and more violent and irrational, the book becomes more engrossing. You care about the characters even when they do foolish things, and you find yourself rooting for Leni (and Cora, to a lesser extent) to become the strong, independent woman she is developing into over the course of her time in Alaska. There’s a palpable sense of suspense, mostly involving Ernt.  I’m not going to give away the resolution of the plot, though it’s more complicated than you might imagine, but I will say that there is a happy ending of sorts and it’s worth waiting for.



It shouldn’t be a secret that I love Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series of novellas; I’ve already written about the earlier books in the series.  I’m not alone in my love for these books, either: she won the Hugo and the Nebula for the first one, Every Heart a Doorway, and, while I didn’t read all the nominees in her categories, I can’t say she didn’t deserve to win.  

So naturally, when the latest book in the series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, came out this week, I had to read it immediately, and I’m delighted to report that it is every bit as good as the previous two.

The premise of the series is intriguing enough by itself.  So many children walk through doors or fall through rabbit holes or walk through wardrobes and find themselves in other worlds in literature, and many of them return to this world (though some don’t).  What happens to the returnees who can’t readjust to their former lives?  How hard would it be to turn back into an ordinary teenager when you’ve been a Goblin Prince, or a mermaid, or a Queen of Narnia?  So there’s a special place for children who’ve returned reluctantly to this world and who are hoping to find their way back to the worlds where they belong: Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.  There they are believed (something they don’t experience in the real world), taken seriously, and given the opportunity to seek out the gates or doors or other ways back to the worlds they found in the past.  

Do you have to read the books in order?  No. I didn’t. I read the second book, Down Among the Sticks and Bones before I read Every Heart a Doorway, and I had no problems following the plot or understanding the characters.  Nor do I think I would have had trouble understanding what was going on in this book if I hadn’t read the others. That said, if i’d read them in order, i would have appreciated some of the nuances of Down Among the Sticks and Bones better, so your mileage may vary.  Whichever one you start with, you’re almost certainly going to want to read the others anyway, so why not start at the beginning?

When Rini falls out of the sky and splashes into the pond at the school, her clothes melting in the water, that’s not too unusual for this school.  When she demands to see her mother, Sumi, that turns out to be a bit more of a problem, since Sumi is dead.  Worse, Sumi died here, at the school, before she ever got a chance to return to her world, get married and have a baby.  Even in the nonsense world of Confection, from which Rini came, you can’t actually exist if your mother died before you were born, and Rini is already starting to disappear, piece by piece, so her quest to get her mother back is quite urgent (her slow disappearance is much creepier than that of the main character in Back to the Future, if you’re thinking in those terms).

Fortunately for her, there are several students who are willing to help her: Christopher, who came from a world of the dead and who has the ability to pipe skeletons out of their graves, Kade, the assistant to Eleanor West and future head of the school, Nadya, an exile from an underwater world, and Cora, our protagonist, fat and unloved in this world but a mermaid and heroine in the world she’s trying to find.  Together they journey through graveyards and another world of the dead (where a character from Every Heart a Doorway managed to return), and finally to Confection itself, there to face the evil Queen of Cakes who was defeated by Sumi in the timeline where Sumi lived to return to Confection, but who is now taking over the world and reshaping it in her own image.  

One of the things Seanan McGuire does really well is worldbuilding; even though we don’t spend a lot of time in the World of the Dead, it’s vivid and real and entirely different from Confection, where we do spend a lot of time.  And Confection is both entirely logical, within its own nonsensical rules, and genuinely bizarre: seas of strawberry soda, cornfields of candy corn, buildings made of gingerbread, everything edible and everything made of sugar in one form or another, including some of the people.  The Queen of Cakes is truly disturbing and a worthy foe for Rini and the others.

You care about the characters and genuinely want to see them succeed.  Whenever someone finds his or her way back to the world he or she longs for, it’s emotionally satisfying.  Even if you’re not a fan of fantasy, give Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children a try, and I think you’ll be caught up in the world.  Or should I say worlds?


Is there some unwritten law in publishing that all nonfiction books have to have subtitles, as if the ordinary title isn’t enough? It certainly seems to be a trend, and while sometimes the subtitle gives you a better clue about the contents of the book than you would have had from the title itself, sometimes the subtitle can be a little misleading.  Case in point: Wild Things : The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, by Bruce Handy.  It is an excellent book and an entertaining read, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected from the subtitle.

Consider it yourself.  Wouldn’t you think a book with that subtitle would talk about how as an adult rereading children’s books you see different things in them, things too subtle or too adult for you to have picked up when you were young? That’s not really what happens in this book, though.  For the most part, the author chooses a children’s book or series per chapter (sometimes he’ll put a couple together if they’re thematically linked), talks about the book, and then gives an often entertaining and enlightening history of the writer and the publication of the book in the first place.  Occasionally, very occasionally, he’ll talk about how his children reacted to the book when he read it to them and how their reactions differed from his when he experienced the book as a child, but that’s not the focus of the book.  So if you’re looking for a more personal experience of encountering children’s books as an adult, this is not the book you’re looking for.

However, it is a fun book to read, especially if you enjoy and are familiar with the classics of children’s literature.  You don’t have to agree with the author on all his evaluations of the books; I personally cannot understand how anyone couldn’t love Where the Wild Things Are, a book I not only read as a child and read to my child when she was young but also used to take with me when I babysat as a teenager, and, unlike Handy, I found Anne of Green Gables to be delightful and fun.  

That doesn’t matter, though. You can disagree with the weight he gives to different books, but you will still enjoy his enthusiasm for the books he likes, and the fascinating details he unearths about the authors (especially the lesser known ones, like Margaret Wise Brown, of Goodnight Moon fame.  Who would have guessed she was such a bohemian kind of flake, the kind of woman who would blow her whole first advance from one of her books on a room full of flowers?). He raises, but doesn’t always answer, some interesting questions about the books, too. For instance, why are the boys who are heroes of the classic boy books (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and of course Peter Pan) allowed to remain boys throughout the books, while the girls in the classic girl books (the March girls in Little Women, Laura in the Little House series, Anne in the Anne of Green Gables books) have to grow up and get married and become adults?  

It’s a pleasure to be reintroduced to some of your favorite children’s books in the company of such a knowledgeable enthusiast, even when you disagree with him on the value of some of those books.  If you haven’t read all the books he writes about (I haven’t, I admit it), then he provides a good introduction and makes you want to read them for the first time, and he gives you a good excuse to dig up your old copies of your favorites and reread them in the light of his insights and his judgments.


A collection of short stories all written by one person is a bit of a risky endeavor.  If the writer isn’t really good, after a while all the stories start to sound the same, or share the same themes or the same flaws.  It takes a good writer, like Jane Yolen, to take a collection of stories written over a period of years and turn it into a delight like The Emerald Circus.  When you consider how many of the stories in this book are based on famous works of literature we’re all fairly familiar with, her achievement is all the more impressive.

It does help if you’re a fan of Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of King Arthur, because she takes several stories from those worlds.  If you’re a fan of The Wizard of Oz or of Peter Pan, or even if you aren’t, you’ll find her takes on those works to be interesting and quirky.

I personally loved “Lost Girls,” a story set in the world of Peter Pan in which Darla, a modern girl whose mother is a lawyer and who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, leads the other Wendys to assert their own rights to adventure and to have the Lost Boys clean up their own messes (one of the things I liked about this story, other than the pirates, who were wonderful, was the vision of Peter Pan himself; I’m kind of partial to versions of Peter Pan which don’t see him as a wonderful innocent).

In my opinion, the best of the Alice in Wonderland themed stories was “Tough Alice”.  Here, Alice frequently finds herself in Wonderland, but always has to deal with the dangerous Jabberwock, until this particular time when she figures out how to defeat the monster.  Clearly Jane Yolen has a feel for the characters of Wonderland, including the Beamish Boy (from the poem “Jabberwocky”) and the various queens, and her sly sense of humor really works here.

Poignantly, she portrays Lancelot of King Arthur’s Camelot as a monk seeking Guinevere’s bones to ask her forgiveness for the way he treated her (and Arthur) in the story “The Quiet Monk.”  She incorporates a real archaeological discovery in Glastonbury into the story, and allows a younger monk (who idolizes Lancelot even before he realizes who this new monk actually is) to be the point of view character.

One of the longer stories in the collection is called “Evian Steel,” and it’s a sort of prequel to the Arthurian legend, explaining (in a way) the creation of the famous Excalibur and how the Lady of the Lake came to have it for him.  While I was personally delighted to recognize some of the characters from the legends (not that I particularly liked all the portrayals, especially not her concept of Morgan le Fay), the best thing about the story is the world she creates, an island where women live and men are forbidden, and the swords they make are made powerful by the blood of their creators.

Her version of The Wizard of Oz is called “Blown Away,” and is told by one of the men working on Uncle Henry’s farm.  It’s both realistic and fantastic, and while there’s no Oz per se, Dorothy does get blown away into another life, another world, and discovers her true self there, returning to the farm only long enough to illuminate the lives of the people she left behind.

She also takes on real life characters, mostly writers, in her stories, starting with Hans Christian Andersen and continuing with Edgar Allan Poe (not her best story in the collection, in my opinion), and Emily Dickinson (in an award winning story that manages to capture not only Dickinson’s unique vision of the world but even the way she used language), and putting them in different settings to imagine what might have made them what they were.

Of course, not all the stories work or are equally good. I could have done without the Beauty and the Beast/Gift of the Magi mashup, and a take on Red Riding Hood just didn’t do much for me, but this is to be expected in a collection of stories.  Some will work better than others, some will be more fun than others, and even the ones I wasn’t thrilled with were well-written.

If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to a book, if you’re a fan of short stories in general, or if you’ve got a taste for fantasy with a feminist twist, then by all means check out The Emerald Circus.


So it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time that when I put together The Field Library 2018 Reading Challenge, one of the categories would have to be time travel.  I am, I freely confess it, a sucker for a good time travel book, and, in addition to the list of time travel books which I have posted on the Challenge page, I would like to provide some personal recommendations for particular books involving time travel which are dear to my heart (and excellent books as well, of course).

Strange as it seems, the Field Library does NOT have a copy of the original time travel book, H. G. Wells’ classic, The Time Machine (we do have a children’s retelling of that book, but it’s not quite the same, is it?).  However, don’t be too downhearted, because we have H. G. Wells himself as a character in one of my favorite time travel novels, The Map of Time, by Felix Palma. You don’t have to have read The Time Machine to appreciate Wells’ character in The Map of Time (though of course if you are familiar with his work, this book and its sequels become even more entertaining), because he’s quite an endearing (if sometimes infuriating) character in his own right here.  The book involves several supposed time travel schemes, one to make money, one to save a person’s life, and one that involves real actual time travel.  The intertwining plots are surprisingly easy to follow, and it’s a lot of fun to read. This is in fact the first book in a trilogy, but I have to emphasize that it is a full-fledged and complete story in its own right.  As I was reading it the first time (it bears rereading, to appreciate exactly how Palma put the whole thing together) and I got close to the end of the book, I was afraid that there was no way he was going to make everything work (if I’d known it was the first book of a trilogy I would have been even more worried), but in fact, all the plots are resolved, and brilliantly (I was so delighted when I reached the climax of the book I actually laughed aloud when I was reading it).  You don’t have to read The Map of the Sky or The Map of Chaos, the next two books in the series, in order to love this book, but if you enjoy this one, you will LOVE the next two as well, even if they’re not part of this year’s challenge.

Want something simpler and more madcap?  Try the late great Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the second book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and no, even though this is the second in a series, you don’t have to have read the first one to enjoy or follow this one, and in fact this was the first book I read in the series (aside from one tiny spoiler which I didn’t grasp when I read this, I had no problems reading the first book after this one).  The first book explains why the earth was made, and the results from one set of characters’ time travel in this book explains what, exactly, the ancestors of human beings were (it also explains who really runs the universe, but a different set of characters discover that).  The restaurant of the title happens to be poised at the very edge of the total destruction of the universe at the end of time, and in the universe of this series, it makes perfect sense that someone would have figured out how to exploit that moment and make a fine dining experience out of it.  If you’re not too bound by logic and reality and if you have a warped sense of humor (this pretty much describes me), then you’re going to enjoy The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and the other two books in the trilogy (if you like Adams, I recommend The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, this book, and Life, the Universe and Everything; while there are other books ostensibly in the series, the first three are, in my opinion, the best).

The thing about time travel is that it makes for really complicated plots, and I can’t think of another time travel book I’ve read that has a more complicated plot than The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. Our protagonist, Henry, has a genetic condition whereby he will suddenly and without warning jump through time, appearing in different places at different ages. He and Claire, his wife, are very much in love despite the difficulties his chrono-displacement causes.  This is a moving, romantic book, and I have recommended it to dozens of people face to face, so I have no problem recommending it highly here as well. You should be warned, though: the plot jumps around in time and place the way Henry himself does.  Pay attention to the headings of each chapter, which tell you where and when you are with each character, and by the time you’ve gotten through the first fifty pages or so, you’ll get the swing of it. It’s absolutely worth the effort.

The opening line of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is : “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time,” and that’s an accurate description of what’s going on in the book, but there’s so much more going on with the plot and with Billy Pilgrim than mere time travel. The book isn’t told sequentially because Billy Pilgrim, our protagonist, has been kidnapped by Tralfamadorians, aliens who live in four dimensions at once, to whom time is pretty irrelevant (their phrase, which Billy uses himself frequently, is “so it goes”, a fatalistic response to the wrongs of the world); we hop around from Billy’s youth to his early days in World War II to his capture by the Germans and his more or less accidental survival of the Allied firebombing of Dresden to his death, then back to his marriage and the birth of his children, then to his experiences on Tralfamadore.  It’s actually easier to follow than the beginning of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I personally find it (along with Cat’s Cradle and Mother Night) one of the best books Vonnegut ever wrote.

For more of my thoughts on time travel books, you can check here and here and here.  But please do give the whole time travel genre a try, and not just because it’s one of the categories in this year’s challenge, but because it’s mind boggling and fun.


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.



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.