As many of you know, this year The Field Library is running a reading challenge in which we have a number of different categories in which people are encouraged to read, ranging from how-to book to cozy mysteries, from manga to books about natural disasters (yeah, we are deliberately all over the place; the goal is to get everybody to read outside their comfort zones).  Our latest category is “Read a Science Fiction Book”, and if you’re the kind of person who sees the words “science fiction” and automatically thinks, “not for me, that’s not my kind of book,” allow me to disabuse you of that notion and encourage you to try one of the many different kinds of science fiction books we have here at The Field Library.

Of course we have the classics, the books by H. G. Wells and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and the names you’ve probably heard many times before.  If you’re a fan of classic science fiction, you might want to check out one of our collections of short stories from the classic era, like Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, or Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree, to add to your repertoire.

But what if you’re not into classic science fiction?  You still can find something in this category you’ll enjoy reading, because the category is so broad.

Let’s say you want something funny to read, something not too deep, something that will make you laugh aloud.  Try Space Opera by Catherynne Valente (reviewed here), or try any of the books in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series by Douglas Adams.  The destruction of the earth to make room for an interspace bypass is just the beginning of this very quirky and funny series, which leads us to the reason the earth was built in the first place and the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything (42, just for your information), not to mention the causes of the most deadly war in galactic history.  You get to meet the one-time President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox (my favorite character), Marvin the Paranoid Android (immensely quotable), and a host of other bizarre creatures. Better yet, all the books are relatively short and fast reads, so you can devour them quickly. Oh, and if you saw the ill-conceived movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t let that prejudice you; the book is so much better.

Or perhaps you’re more of a graphic novel kind of person.  There are some terrific science fiction graphic novel series, but let me point you in the direction of two that I particularly love.  There’s Y: the Last Man, by Brian Vaughn.  The premise is that all of a sudden, all male mammals in the world (including those in utero) died, with the exception of one man, Yorick Brown, and Ampersand, his Capuchin monkey.  An all-female society struggles to deal with the immediate chaos and the question of what actually happened and whether it can be fixed, with the probability of human extinction looming over them all. Filled with fascinating characters and a plot that twists and turns, the series keeps you turning pages.  Saga, also by Brian Vaughn and Fiona Staples, isn’t finished yet (and we all know my rule about not reading series until they’re finished, a rule that I have violated from time to time), but it is so wonderful I’m willing to wait for each installation. You might say Saga is a story of star-crossed lovers from different races which are at war with each other, and that is part of the story, but only part.  Alana and Marko shouldn’t have anything to do with each other, but they fall in love and have a child, Hazel (who grows up over the course of the series), and it seems as if everyone in the galaxy is out to get them for various reasons. Just describing the cast of characters gives you an idea of the breadth of the worlds Vaughn and Staples have created: a ghost babysitter, a giant cat that announces whether someone is telling the truth or not, robot people, amphibian characters, winged people, horned people, people who look like giant insects.  And all of them are characters, with families and politics and relationships and issues of their own.  Somehow the authors keep all the plot lines clear and ever-developing. The art is amazing, wonderfully visualizing the worlds and the people who populate them.  Try just the first volume and you’ll be hooked.

You can also get your mind blown by big concept science fiction, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, reviewed here, which talks about what the world would be like after catastrophic global climate change causes all the oceans to rise dramatically, focusing specifically on how New York City would deal with being partially underwater.  Or you could read Semiosis by Sue Burke, which I reviewed here, a book that follows generations of settlers on a world where the dominant intelligence belongs to plants rather than mammal-like beings.  

Or, if you’re not sure whether you’re going to find something you’ll like, try short stories.  One of the best ways to see what speculative fiction is all about is to check out what the people in the field think is the best stuff being written.  Try one of the Nebula awards compilations, or any one of the Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year collections, and you’re sure to find something that speaks to you.

In retrospect, maybe I should have narrowed the category down when I was setting up the challenge for this year, because there’s so much science fiction here at The Field Library, and of such variety, but that should just make it easier to test the waters, try something new and get a sense of how broad and wonderful the genre actually is.  Come to The Field Library and check out our display if you want some more ideas.




I confess it: I’m a sucker for the big concept nonfiction book, much more than I am for other kinds of nonfiction.  You know what I’m talking about: the book that takes on the large issues with a twist, something I wouldn’t have considered before. I’m not really interested in the books that tell us we’re doomed and there’s nothing anyone can do (or there’s nothing anyone can do that’s remotely practical); my feeling is, if that’s the case, why even bother reading about it?  A recent book that offers fascinating and (at least to me) novel solutions to America’s problems is Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life, by Eric Klinenberg, and I recommend it highly for anyone who wants to think about how we can make America work better.

Klinenberg starts out with a provocative scenario, a terrible heat wave in Chicago that resulted in a number of deaths in poorer neighborhoods.  The interesting thing was that two neighborhoods, in close proximity, with similar demographics (income level, ethnic distribution, etc.) had wildly different death rates.  Why did more people survive in one neighborhood than in the other? Asking that question led to deeper questions about resilience and what makes one neighborhood or one housing project work while another turns into a disaster area, and this brought him to the heart of this book, the question of what social infrastructure is, how it works, and how we can make more of it.

This is a book full of anecdotes and stories, not a lot of dull statistics.  The author begins with an easy and familiar illustration of what social infrastructure is, by taking us to a branch of the New York Public Library.  Now, I’m not going to lie: obviously I’m a big booster of libraries, and anyone who praises libraries is already on my good side, but he does more than just talk up all the programs the libraries provide. He demonstrates how a good public library is a place that brings together people of different social and economic classes, building relationships between and among people who might not ever have anything to do with each other socially otherwise. He then progresses to other examples, some obvious (when they’re pointed out) and some surprising, until it’s clear he knows what he’s talking about and the promise of his subtitle (and do all nonfiction books have to have subtitles?  Is there some kind of rule about that?) seems well-grounded and not an empty promise to sell books.

One of the more eye-opening chapters talks about the infamous “broken windows” theory of policing (you know, where bad actors see that things aren’t kept up and therefore feel free to steal, sell drugs and engage in other illegal activities without fear of reprisal, so therefore the police crack down on the small offenses to prevent the big ones from happening), and turns it around, focusing on the abandoned properties that are usually part of the initial supposition of the theory.  He studies neighborhoods where those abandoned properties are turned into community parks and gardens, and how that changes the whole feel of the neighborhood, lowering its crime in the process. This chapter was excerpted in a recent New Yorker issue, so it may sound familiar to you, but it’s nonetheless fascinating and very plausible.

The author’s agenda isn’t right wing or left wing, but very practical: he wants Americans to have a civic life again, and to be more resilient in the face of disasters or near disasters, and his ideas for how we can achieve these goals are backed up by evidence and seem extremely reasonable.  For a good read about important issues and a fascinating look into urban planning and how that impacts our lives, check out Palaces for the People.  You won’t regret it.


“I was having an emotion, and I hate that.”

You read a line like that and you know you’re reading yet another of the Murderbot Diaries.  Exit Strategy, the latest book in the series (and possibly the last one) by Martha Wells, brings the whole story arc that began back in All Systems Red to a satisfying conclusion. Delighted as I am (and you know I am) to have another Murderbot book to devour (I read it in a day), I’m still a little sorry to have finished it, not because it’s a disappointment (it is most definitely NOT a disappointment), but because now I don’t have any new books in the series to anticipate.

Murderbot has had all kinds of adventures since it last encountered the humans from the Preservation system in All Systems Red, including discovering the reason it thought of itself as Murderbot, the reason it destroyed its control system, and some incredibly bad shenanigans of GrayCris Corporation, which is now fighting against Dr. Mensah and the other colonists. In fact, under the guise of “negotiating” with the Preservation people, GrayCris has taken Dr. Mensah hostage, and it is up to Murderbot to get the damning evidence of GrayCris’ illegal behavior to Dr. Mensah and save her from whatever horrible fate GrayCris had in mind for her.  Naturally this would be much easier if Murderbot was an ordinary Security bot, but since it freed itself, it doesn’t have the same firepower as it used to have, but what it’s gained is cunning and the ability to tap into other bots’ systems and use them for its own purposes. Murderbot has now dropped the pretense that it doesn’t care about human beings or want to protect them; these humans are important to it, especially Dr. Mensah who freed it from its official servitude.

As has been the case throughout the series, the book is filled with action, fighting and plotting and escaping from danger and causing more danger. It’s a pleasure to watch Murderbot manipulate other computers and bots, and even humans, into helping it, as it puts into place “what I was designating as Operation Not Actually A Completely Terrible Plan.”  The real fun is Murderbot’s narration, a voice filled with snark and sarcasm and a certain charm as well.  Over the course of the four books, Murderbot’s character has developed and grown, and what started out as something like what would have happened in the movie Alien if the AI had had a heart and a real desire to protect the humans has now turned into a story about the relationship between robots and human beings, between human beings and corporations, and about the possibilities for change.

If you’ve read any of the (short!) books in this series, you don’t need me to tell you to rush out and read the last one.  And if you haven’t started with Murderbot (possibly because you’re following my rule of not starting a series until the final volume has been written), now is the perfect time to get out All Systems Red  and read all four straight through.

And, while I realize that the story arc has been wrapped up and justice has been done and the ending is quite satisfying, I can’t help but hope that maybe Martha Wells will add some new volumes of adventures to Murderbot’s saga. Such a wonderful character deserves more.  


The high concept or logline description of Yomi Sarachi’s Mermaid Boys would be: imagine The Little Mermaid (either the original Hans Christian Andersen version or the Disney version) with the genders reversed.  

And there are a certain number of similarities between the two stories: in both versions there’s a member of the mermaid royal family who’s fascinated by the world of the humans, much to the chagrin of the rest of the royal family and the society.  In both versions there’s a human of the opposite sex who falls into the water and is nearly drowned, and the royal mermaid/merman saves the human’s life. In both cases, the human wakes after the mer-person is gone, and a human being of the mer-person’s gender appears to take the credit for the rescue.  In both, the mer-person makes a deal with an undersea magic-worker to become human for a time, at a cost which the mer-person pays, and then the mer-person has to win the heart of the person she or he saved.

However, despite all these similarities, Mermaid Boys is NOT merely a manga version of the popular story with the genders reversed.  This series is doing something more subversive and more interesting and, having read the first volume, I am now eager to continue with the series and see where the author goes with the characters.

Prince Naru, our protagonist, is the epitome of a privileged, even spoiled, royal at the outset of the story.  He’s gorgeous and knows it, he’s accustomed to getting all the attention for whatever he does, and he doesn’t even seem to realize that he is privileged.  He takes his good looks and the adoration of the mermaids for granted, to the point of being rude to the mermaids his parents parade before him as potential brides.  And while the traditional telling of the story would allow this kind of arrogant privilege to go more or less unnoticed, the twist the author gives to Naru’s deal with Mellow, the sea Sorcerer, brings his privilege front and center.  

Mellow offers Naru the Little Mermaid deal: you give me your voice and I’ll turn you human, but Naru has more sense than the Little Mermaid, immediately pointing out that if he can’t communicate with the girl of his dreams, there’s no way he can get her to fall in love with him.  Magic has to be paid for, of course, so Naru has to sacrifice something to get his human legs, and when Mellow offers to take Naru’s “hotness” in exchange for turning him into a human, Naru takes him up on it, only to discover, when he’s a human being, that he is no longer the gorgeous creature all the women flock to.  This is a big surprise for him, and part of the humor of the story is his trying to come to terms with his lack of status as a human being.

The other major and interesting difference between this and the classic story is the role of the beloved human.  When we first see Nami, the girl of his affections, we see her through his eyes and she is your classic manga young girl, all big eyes and long legs and long hair, cute and innocent, so we can be excused for assuming she’s as ditzy as she looks. However, and this is a big however, she is in fact a modern young woman, and she reacts to Naru’s inappropriate attempts to make her fall in love with him (which involve him throwing himself at her when he’s naked and calling her his “mermaid” and referring to her as his future wife before he even knows her name) the way a sensible young woman would: by screaming at him, calling him a pervert and throwing him away from her. He has to make her fall in love with him and he has no clue how to do it, not so much because he’s unused to being human as because he’s unused to having to earn anyone’s love.  Of course, she doesn’t know he’s a merman or that he was the one who saved her from drowning, but it’s still refreshing that she has enough sense of herself and her worth that she’s not going to fall in love with him at first sight, or even at repeated sights (since he’s staying in the inn she’s running). It’s going to be fun watching her react with jaundiced eye to his clumsy puppy dog efforts to win her.

The first volume of the series sets up the characters well, introducing complications into Naru’s situation (when he falls into salt water he turns back into a merman, he can’t tell anyone what he really is or he’ll turn into sea foam and disappear altogether, and there’s another boy who knows his secret and uses it to blackmail him into acting as a personal servant) while giving Naru opportunities to learn how to be a better person, and giving more and more depth to Nami. This is a lighter manga than other ones I’ve been reading lately, and I appreciate that, but I have the feeling there’s going to be some hidden depths here to balance the slapstick humor.

Whether or not you’re a fan of manga, if you’re familiar with The Little Mermaid and would like to see a different visioning of it, give Mermaid Boys a try, and you will be pleasantly surprised.


If you take a look at My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis, and you decide not to read it because you think it’s going to be very dark, somber, maybe even morbid, you are doing yourself and the book an injustice.  If you fixate on the notion of an Irish wake and you’re thinking of the stereotype of lots of noise and drunkenness, you’re also doing the book an injustice. This is a terrific, beautifully written book, the kind of book you want to read slowly so you can savor the gorgeous language, the music in the words that practically begs you to read it aloud, and the sense of place that comes across vividly.

It is a book that is suffused with death; Kevin’s father dies in the first chapter, and he also talks about his mother’s death, his brother’s premature death, and his own close brush with the Grim Reaper (his description of the ward where he stayed with elderly men suffering from tuberculosis is like something out of a creepy dream).  It is not, however, a morbid book, or even a depressing one.

Aside from bringing to life a life lived on the very western edge of Ireland, a place that seemed as remote to me as the far end of the world, but that becomes as real and alive to me as my own neighborhood (though a lot more beautiful and raw), Toolis’ book aims to bring his readers face to face with the fact of death, to force us to step away from the whole westernized way of denying death by embalming and funeral homes and all the distancing rituals of death.  The simple rituals of death in rural Irish communities seem very foreign to me — the people wandering in and out of the dying person’s cottage, the vigil that people keep in the room where the body is laid out for a day and a night after the death, the family and friends digging the grave themselves and carrying out the body to the grave themselves. But at the same time, there’s something really warm and inviting about these rituals, and Toolis makes me think about how valuable it would be to have that kind of community around you at such crucial moments.  He also made me think about what we’ve lost in moving away from that kind of intimacy with death.

It’s a gorgeous read, one you want to read aloud so you can taste the poetic language and breathe in the salt air of his home island.  It’s not a memoir, exactly, nor is it exactly a sociological or anthropological study of a culture that’s different from ours. It’s worth reading, however close or far you might be from your own encounter with a loved one’s death.


I knew I liked Edgar Cantero ever since I read his Meddling Kids, but I also knew, from that book, that (a) for him, nothing is sacred, and (b) what he writes is going to be a little off the wall (or a lot off the wall).  So I was eager, but prepared, for his latest book, This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

This is apparently a good year for parodies of the hard boiled detective novel; earlier we had Noir, by Christopher Moore, and a funny, warped book that was, and now we have Cantero’s contribution.  As a strict parody, using all or most of the elements of the genre, Noir is a better bet, but for sheer wackiness and a willingness to really go off the wall, the edge goes to This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us, if only because of the absolutely unique private detective who’s the protagonist of the book.  Or should I say, private detectives who are the protagonists of the book, because AZ Kimrean, our private eye, is actually two people in the same body, a left-brained male named Adrian, and a right brained female named Zoe.  

The explanation for how these two beings exist in one body is kind of sketchy, but you have to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.  Adrian is the Sherlock Holmes type character, all intellect, no heart, brilliant but limited in his dealings with human beings. Zoe, by contrast, drinks and chases men and women, is intuitive and good with people though a bit disorganized. They’ve spent a certain amount of time in various mental institutions (it took a while before someone finally figured out that Adrian wasn’t just arguing with hallucinations, for instance), and they don’t really work together all that well, but half the fun of the book is watching the two of them apply their own unique abilities and perspectives to the case before them.

The plot is complicated, but basically it involves a California crime family whose members are being killed off, possibly by members of another cartel or possibly by someone else.  There’s an undercover FBI officer who calls in Kimrean for help, and there are all kinds of twists and turns and oddities, including Ursula, the young daughter of the leader of the crime family (one of my favorite characters, actually; at one point I seriously thought she might be the murderer, too), a ninja assassin, the question of whether a particular flower is a rose or a chrysanthemum and the like.

From time to time, Adrian knocks out Zoe so he can manage to concentrate on the issues before him without her distracting presence, and I have to say I was pleased when she finally turned the tables on him, though her method of solving the case was hair-raising and incredibly dangerous to all concerned.

This is not the sort of mystery where you can see all the clues and try to outsmart the private eyes, because while Cantero plays fair (mostly), the focus isn’t on the actual way the mystery is solved but on how the characters interact (or don’t).  That said, I was surprised (but not annoyed, as I would be if the solution came completely out of left field) at the identity of the assassin and the reason for the murders, and the ending was quite satisfying, too (a hard thing to achieve these days, as far as I can see).

So if you don’t mind a certain amount of weirdness and violence (not Jo Nesbo level, but there are murders and attempted murders and a lot of people getting punched and knocked out and the like), and you have a taste for a very different take on the classic private eye novel, check out This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.


This has been a banner year for new envisionings of classic works.  Back in April we had Jo Nesbo’s version of Macbeth (see here for my take on that), and now we have a new version of Beowulf, in the form of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife.  But don’t worry if you haven’t read the original (or if, like me, you read the original a LONG time ago).  You can read The Mere Wife with no knowledge of the old English saga and still be blown away by this version, though if you do have some dim memory of Beowulf, you can read the book with a slightly different eye.

While Beowulf was a poem about a monster attacking a king’s hall, and the hero who kills the monster and the monster’s mother (who comes to avenge the monster’s death), The Mere Wife is set in modern times (one of the main characters is a veteran of the Iraq war).  That doesn’t mean there aren’t monsters; in fact, there are probably more monsters in The Mere Wife than in Beowulf, though these ones, for the most part, appear human.

Dana Mills should be dead, and maybe she was: there’s a video of her execution by enemy soldiers which circulated at the time of her capture on You Tube and on television. Somehow she found herself alive and pregnant, with no idea how she survived the execution and no idea how she got pregnant or who the father might be, but she returns to her hometown, officially dead.  Her hometown is officially dead, too, remade into a gated suburban estate, much too upper crust for the likes of her and her baby, Gren. So Dana goes to live inside the mountain beside the estates, in abandoned tunnels from a forgotten train, and she tries to keep her son safe from the people below.

Willa Herot is one of the people in the estate, married to a plastic surgeon, scion of the family that created the estate in the first place.  She, too, has a son: Dylan, a blond, perfect little boy, possibly a bit spoiled but carefully protected nonetheless from anything in the outside world that might harm him. At first glance, Willa seems like an ordinary, even dull, suburban wife, going through the motions of living up to the standards set by the other women of the development, who are the real powers in the neighborhood.  And yet, even at the beginning of the book, when Willa comes across as almost a cliche, from time to time we see the violent thoughts Willa keeps to herself and it’s clear she has hidden depths, just like Dana.

Despite the best efforts of their mothers, eventually Gren and Dylan are going to meet, and their meeting sets up a confrontation between the old and the new, the rich and the working class, the past and the present, from which nobody comes out unscathed.

The characters are what makes this book.  Dana is obviously damaged by her war experiences, and frequently it’s hard to tell whether she’s hallucinating things (the saint with the blown out abdomen with a candle in it is probably an illusion, but what about the old woman riding beside her in a bus to Herot who tells her about her future?), and Willa develops, slowly but inexorably, from someone you might feel sorry for to a woman of steel, hard-edged with ambition and anger, emotionally as dangerous as Willa and as willing to do whatever she feels she has to do in order to protect her son from the monster, Gren.

We never actually see Gren, but there are hints about what he looks like, what kind of creature he might be (considering the circumstances of his conception, he might be anything, and this is the kind of book where monsters are definitely possible), and for most of the book you don’t know what he is, just how people react to him when they see him (and not all of the narrators are reliable, which makes it even more complicated).  Dylan doesn’t have any problem with Gren, but he’s just about the only resident of Herot Estates who sees Gren as a normal boy, a potential friend.

Still, the scariest characters are the chorus of women, who narrate some of the chapters in the first person plural. From early on, we see that Willa’s mother is scarily controlling and judgmental, but she fits in perfectly well with her peers, who prove to be the real powers that govern the estates and, by extension, the outside world as well.  If there are monsters roaming through this book, I’d nominate these women as the worst and scariest of them, cold-blooded and extremely dangerous.

This is a book I devoured in a day, putting everything else aside to find out what happened next. Even knowing (as I did, dimly) that things were not going to end well for most of the characters, I still cared about their fates and whether any kind of justice would be done. It’s a dark, violent book, but enthralling as an exploration of how our world works, and what limits there might be on the love of mothers for their children.


Why do I love the Murderbot Diaries so much?  I really do, you know, to the point where I make it a point to order them for the collection whenever they come out, put them on hold for myself immediately (even before they’re published), and devour each of them in more or less one sitting (they are novellas and not long, but still, there aren’t many books I’ll throw myself into like that, long or short).  What is it about a series of books about a former security robot who’s more interested in watching movies and television shows than acting like a tough robot, who’s painfully awkward when it comes to dealing with humans, and who claims not to care about human beings but whose actions always seem to contradict those statements?

I bring this up now because I just finished reading Rogue Protocol, Martha Wells’ newest addition to the series, and I loved it. While I have publicly said that I don’t want to start an unfinished series, I’ll make an exception for this one, because I was delighted to see that Wells has left open the possibility (likelihood) of another sequel, while at the same time giving this book a proper resolution (this is not something that’s easy to do when you’re talking about a series of books; often the middle books leave the reader hanging so they’ll want to pick up the next book).

Once again we have the inimitable Murderbot on a mission of its own, trying to keep its status as a free bot secret from other bots and from human beings.  Ever since it disabled its governor, before the first book, Murderbot has not been forced to use the same rules of ordinary Security Units, rules which require the unit to sacrifice everything to protect the humans under its care, but somehow, even without being forced, and even while claiming it has no particular interest in protecting any humans, it still ends up taking actions that seem self-sacrificing and protective of the humans under its care. Contrary to the popular notion that a Security Unit without its governor would go berserk and start killing everyone in sight, Murderbot just wants to be left alone to watch movies and television shows by itself.

In the last book, Murderbot ended up helping a group of humans by pretending to be an augmented human being, but it justified its involvement because it was getting paid for it.  In this book, Murderbot is pretending to be a human being AND a security unit (it’s complicated), and it’s not even getting paid, but it did make a promise to Miki (which Murderbot contemptuously refers to as a “pet bot”) that it would keep the humans safe in exchange for being able to use Miki’s sensory apparatus, and so it justifies the heroic efforts it makes to protect this group of humans by this.

Aside from Murderbot’s evolving attitudes toward humans, or rather, its changing understanding of its attitudes toward humans, we also get to watch Murderbot’s attitude toward other robots, from the mindless transports to the ART which played such an important part in the last book, to Miki, whose childlike friendliness and innocence initially drives Murderbot crazy until Miki shows sides of itself (and of its humans) which surprise Murderbot (and this reader).

The plot is intricate but clear, with plenty of action, characters you find yourself caring about, and, of course,  the wonderful voice of Murderbot itself. May there be many more books in the series!


EDITED TO ADD: I’m not the only one who loves Murderbot.  The first book in the series, All Systems Red, just won a Hugo award as Best Novella!  So if my word isn’t good enough for you (and if it isn’t, why are you reading this??), you can at least take the word of the Hugo voters that Murderbot is a terrific series.


I’ve already written about the general rules I’ve used in choosing which books are good for a book group, based on my years of leading the Field Notes group here at the library.  Now I have the fun of sharing some of what I consider to be the best books we’ve read in the group. I am NOT saying that everybody in the group loved all these books; as I mentioned in the last book group post, you are never going to find a book that everybody loves, or even that everybody likes (by the same token, you’re unlikely to find one that everybody dislikes).  These are the ones I personally enjoyed most, which provoked some of the most interesting discussions among our people, and I hope they’ll give ideas to other book groups looking for good reads.

The first book I chose for the group is still one of my favorites, Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.  This book won the National Book Award in 2009, and this is one instance where I feel the award was absolutely earned. The thread around which all the different stories in the book spin is the 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center by Philip Petit (though he’s not named here), but don’t for a minute think it’s all about his daring acrobatics.  No, this is a book about people, and it’s a book about New York City at a particular time, and McCann brilliantly brings both his characters and his setting to life, as the stories interweave and connect in unexpected ways. What could an Irish monk living among prostitutes have in common with an upper class woman who lost her son in Vietnam? What could both those characters have in common with a Bohemian young woman who’s involved in a hit and run accident that results in death?  Not all the storylines tear at your heart, but several of them do, and the deep sympathy McCann shows for all his characters, the skill with which he brings them together and then separates them, the clear love he has for New York City in all its flaws and dangers, makes this a magical book and a great spark for discussion.

Not all the books we’ve read are novels, and one of my favorites is a nonfiction book, H Is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald.  I’m not a fan of memoirs in general, and I think a memoir is a particularly difficult kind of book to pull off well, but MacDonald seemingly effortlessly combines a memoir of her grief over her father’s sudden death, her efforts to train a goshawk, Mabel (it’s a quirk that the most dangerous and fearsome raptors are often given the most non-threatening names — really, can you imagine being scared by someone named Mabel?), and a reflection on the life and work of T. H. White (author of one of my favorite childhood books, The Once and Future King, but also the author of The Goshawk, which is MacDonald’s focus here) into a seamless, beautifully written reflection on nature and grief and our role in the natural world.  There’s a lot about falconry, and a lot about her father’s life and death, but none of it seems excessive or unnecessary, and one of the things a good book group book can do is illuminate subjects you might not have paid attention to otherwise.

One of the books that surprised me was The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce. On the surface, it looked like the kind of feel-good book that would become a best-seller just because it’s about personal growth, a man discovering how to feel again, etc. And if you just read the description of the plot, that’s what it sounds like: Harold Fry is a middle-aged man stuck in a job that’s meaningless to him, in a marriage that has turned dull and possibly dead, when he finds out that Queenie Hennessey, a woman who once meant a great deal to him, is dying in a hospice hundreds of miles away.  Instead of mailing the note he wrote to her, he finds himself walking from his home to her hospice, calling the hospice along the way to tell her not to die until he gets there. It is a tale of transformation, but not at all the way you expect it to be, and Harold is not the only one transformed.  His road trip is really a pilgrimage, and he suffers not only the obvious strains of someone who hasn’t done any real exercise for years suddenly trying to walk the spine of England but the spiritual pains of facing his life and all the things he didn’t do that he should have done, for Queenie, but also for other people.  The ending is earned and unexpected at the same time, and it’s the characters who make the book wonderful. One thing I applaud the author for is the map she helpfully provided at the beginning of the book, for those of us who are not English and/or only have the vaguest idea of English geography, so we can keep track of where Harold is and where he’s going.  This was a poignant read, full of heart and soul.

And, speaking of soul, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is an incredible read, its subtitle, Medicine and What Matters in the End a very accurate description of what the book is about.  Gawande is a surgeon, but also a terrific writer, vivid and clear, expert at choosing just the right anecdote to illustrate the points he’s making, and what points they are!  Basically he talks about aging and death, how we deal with them in our culture (spoiler: not well at all), how they are treated in other cultures, and how we might be able to do better, how some people and institutions are already doing better and what we could learn from them. He talks about his patients and his family (most poignantly about his father’s decline and death), and about his own experiences as a young doctor and a more experienced doctor who’s learned from his past mistakes.  It’s a short book, but there’s so much in it, not just information (though there’s plenty of that, and eye-opening information for the most part) but insights and ideas and questions.

One of the pleasures I’ve had as leader of the book group is the opportunity to push books that I love, and sometimes I’ve been able to persuade the group to read one of my personal favorites (which has its potential downsides; when I love a book, it’s hard for me to hear other people disparaging it, but that’s part of the job).  A book I have been recommending to people for years, which our group read just last year, is The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  What a fun book that is! Set in Barcelona in 1945, when the scars of the Spanish Civil War are still fresh and people are just beginning to recover from the war, the story centers around a book, or rather a series of books, and their mysterious author, and someone who is apparently trying to destroy all the copies of all the books this author ever wrote.  Our protagonist, Daniel, is a young man, the son of a bookseller, who has fallen in love with this particular author’s book and determines to find out who’s trying to eliminate the author’s work so completely. He is surrounded by a cast of amazing, vivid characters, villains and heroes and heroines, and his quest takes him through all levels of Barcelona’s society, through some wonderfully described settings, and through murder, madness and doomed love.  It is everything you could want from an adventure novel, and while I try not to be judgmental in general, I have to say that I would wonder about someone who could read this book and not enjoy it. Just getting the group to discuss the various characters will lead to a fun and scintillating discussion, before you even get into the plot and the history and the rest of the wonders of this book.

Obviously these aren’t all the good books we’ve read over the years, just the ones that stand out in my memory as having been great reads and having produced great discussions. Here’s to the years we’ve already spent reading and discussing (and sometimes arguing) about books, and the years and books ahead of us!



I am and have been a big Sherlock Holmes fan since college, when I devoured the complete Arthur Conan Doyle collection in more or less one gulp.  I’ve read many other versions of the stories, and have definite opinions about the various incarnations of Holmes and Watson in television and movies (don’t get me started about Sherlock, for instance, Benedict Cumberbatch to the contrary notwithstanding). So when I heard about A Study in Honor by Claire O’Dell, which is advertised as a Sherlock Holmes and John Watson novel set in the near future in which the main characters are African American women, of course I wanted to read it.

For anyone who is approaching it the way I did, a word of warning: you are underestimating the book if you’re just expecting a slightly different version of the canonical Holmes and Watson.  It’s better than that, much better.

In some ways, new versions of familiar stories, like the Holmes-Watson canon, are like new versions of fairy tales. You have expectations.  You have a general idea of how the story is likely to go, and while you’re appreciating the new slant or the new twists this author is bringing to the story, a part of you is still watching for the well-known plot elements, the things you know are going to be a necessary part of the story.  Often this adds to the enjoyment of the story, but sometimes, and this is one of those times, your waiting for the familiar elements to show up can distract you from all the good stuff that’s actually going on.

The book is set in the relatively near future of the United States, which is in the midst of another civil war, this one started by the New Confederacy, somewhere in Oklahoma, with battles taking place all over the midwest. Dr. Janet Watson turned down some very impressive job offers in the private sector when she got her medical degree in order to volunteer to become a doctor in the United States Army, to the utter confusion of her sister and her parents. But her selflessness, her sense of duty, is an essential part of Janet’s character, even after the battle that destroyed her arm and the government’s sloppiness that left her with an inadequate mechanical arm as a replacement.

When we first meet Dr. Watson, she is arriving in Washington, D.C., dealing with the Veterans Administration, now strained because of the ongoing war’s demands, and looking for a place to stay.  She’s looking for a job, and of course she can’t be a surgeon again because her artificial arm is not working the way it should, so she ends up being a medical technician at the V.A., someone who’s supervised by an R.N., doing intakes of veterans coming in to see medical personnel, inputting their vitals and requesting tests she believes necessary (subject to the okay of her supervisors).  It’s a come-down for a former surgeon, but she’s glad to have the job at all, living in D.C. being expensive.

And then comes the intervention of a friend who tells her about Sara Holmes, a somewhat eccentric woman of mysterious background and even more mysterious employment (something high level in the government, the friend assumes, and Janet has no way of guessing otherwise), who has some rooms she’s renting and needs, or possibly wants, a roommate.

Now, any Holmes fan will recognize this as the opening of A Study in Scarlet, the novella that introduces Holmes to Watson in the first place.  Any fan will be expecting the kind of show-offy observation from Holmes that establishes his knowledge, his skill at observing and deducing, and his difficulty in following accepted social norms.  You will, however, be disappointed if that’s what you’re looking for here, because Sara isn’t like Sherlock in a lot of ways, and that’s what makes the book especially interesting.

Sara is very intelligent and apparently comes from a moneyed background, unlike Janet.  She knows a lot more than she lets on, and while she occasionally says or does something that demonstrates an almost supernatural knowledge (for instance, before Janet is even offered a job, Sara advises her to take the V.A. job) of what’s going on around her, she doesn’t take one look at a person and describe everything about the person’s life, as Sherlock does constantly. She’s stubborn and willfully mysterious and, unlike the canonical Watson, Janet is not enthralled by her and doesn’t strike up a relationship with her easily. Quite the contrary, for most of the book Janet looks on Sara as someone who, if not maliciously messing with her life, is determined to make everything difficult for Janet.

There is, of course, a mystery (we’re not going to go that far from the canon), but it’s a mystery that Janet herself falls into when one of her patients dies mysteriously (and Janet being Janet, she feels responsible for not saving the woman), and Janet starts digging in the records, trying to find out what went wrong, why the patient died so suddenly.  It’s the digging that gets her into trouble and even ends up threatening her life, because it turns out that other veterans who were in the patient’s unit died suddenly and mysteriously and there’s something connecting all of them. Though neither Janet nor Sara is officially a detective, Sara also becomes involved in the investigation, as it ties in to some other things she was looking into in her more official, if more secretive, capacity (it’s never clear, by the way, exactly what Sara’s position with the government is, but it’s implied she’s working for the CIA or the equivalent), and the two of them travel together to get to the bottom of the mystery, which involves the highest levels of government and powerful corporations.

So this wasn’t really a Sherlock Holmes story in the classic sense; there were no leaps of brilliant logic, no far-fetched deductions from tiny clues that solve the mysteries.  Janet Watson is no John Watson, somewhat slow and always amazed by whatever drops of insight Holmes might deign to share. But in some ways the relationship between the two characters is so much fuller and more developed than the originals, as the characters themselves are fascinating and well-rounded.  The world in which they live is both recognizable as one that could develop from current conditions but also different (and the world building is unobtrusive but extensive), and the highest compliment I can pay this book is saying that I want more books with these two characters and their world, even if they really aren’t African American Sherlock Holmes and Watson as advertised (they’re better).