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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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MAN BOOKER AWARD WINNING BOOK AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

On October 17, 2017, the judges for the very prestigious Man Booker Prize announced this year’s winner: George Saunders’ extraordinary book, Lincoln in the Bardo.  The Booker Prize is awarded for what the judges decide is the best novel of the year written in English, and it brings recognition (and sales, of course) to the winning authors and books (sort of like Oprah’s selections, only with broader criteria for the selections).  We have two copies of the book on the shelves here at The Field Library, one of which is an express, so if you want to find out what the Man Booker judges considered to be the finest novel in English for this year, come on in and check it out.

The book is based on a true incident: during Abraham Lincoln’s first term as President. His young son, Willie, died, and the president, in his grief, went to spend a night in the cemetery where the boy’s body was laid.  Saunders starts with this and uses the Buddhist concept of “bardo,” a state of existence between death and rebirth.  In the crypt, young Willie is waiting for his father, but so are a number of other spirits of people who died and are not, for one reason or another, ready to move on to their next lives.

It’s written in the different voices of the ghosts and Lincoln, an unusual style which one of the judges described as being more like a screenplay than like an ordinary novel, and it does take some getting used to, but in the end the book’s form and substance join together to create a moving reflection on grief, the love of parents and children for each other.  It will also give you deep emotional insight into Abraham Lincoln, the man as well as the president.

Come and read it for yourself, but come quickly, because now that it’s won the Booker Prize, Lincoln in the Bardo is going to be extremely popular and hard to get.

A BROTHER’S REVENGE: TWO NEW THRILLERS AT THE FIELD

Two new thrillers coming out this week at the Field Library turn at least partially on the love of siblings, and the pain of losing a sibling to murder.  The protagonists and settings are different, but in both Righteous and Killing Season, the need to bring closure and justice to the death of a beloved sibling makes the story move.

Perhaps you remember my writing about I. Q., a modern day Sherlock Holmes living in East Los Angeles in the modern era (in case you don’t remember, it’s here). Isaiah Quintabe, the hero of the previous book, is back for a new mystery in Righteous, by Joe Ide.  Ten years after his brother’s unsolved murder, Isaiah is still haunted by the death and by the questions it raises, and even his relatively good life now (growing library, growing recognition in his community, growing practice as an investigator, new dog) isn’t enough to keep him from needing to uncover the truth of his brother’s death, even if that investigation brings him face to face with what may be his own Moriarty.  At the same time, he’s trying to find a missing person, a DJ with a gambling habit, who’s also being sought by Chinese Triad gangsters, a furious bookie and her own kind of shaky boyfriend.  The two investigations put together are almost enough to send someone as smart as Isaiah around the bend.

Faye Kellerman needs no introduction to readers of thrillers.  She’s been a bestseller for decades, so when she comes out with a new book, it’s worth reading.  Her newest, Killing Season, is a stand alone book, not one of her series books.  Ben Vicksburg’s older sister, Ellen, was 15 years old, a universally liked, kind, studious person, when she disappeared without a trace.  A year later, Ben found her body in a shallow grave by the side of the river.  The police believed that she was the victim of a psychopath known as the Demon, but Ben, a math genius who sees patterns where other people don’t or can’t, isn’t satisfied with their investigation.  With the surprising help of his school’s popular new girl, Ben starts digging deeper and deeper into the other killings attributed to the Demon, discovering the killer’s methodical and cunning routines.  But as he’s getting closer and closer to the killer, the killer is starting to become more and more aware of him, and Ben might be putting himself and everyone he cares about in the path of someone who has nothing left to lose.

HUNTED IN THE ZOO: FIERCE KINGDOM

Some of the best thrillers start with a perfectly ordinary situation and then ask, “What if?”  What if people were lapsing into comas in a hospital after simple operations for sinister reasons? What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs on a special island?  And now, in Fierce Kingdom, by Gin Phillips, the question is, what would you do if you were a mother of a young child and the two of you were caught in an active shooter situation, and what if that active shooter situation took place at the local zoo?

Aren’t you intrigued already?  

Joan is spending a pre-Halloween day at the zoo with her four year old son, enjoying the exhibits and their time together.  It’s an all but perfect day as they’re leaving, just before the zoo is closing, and suddenly she hears what she thinks at first is firecrackers and then recognizes as gunfire.  Then she sees that what she thought were fallen scarecrows on the path are much more sinister and scary.  Realizing there are active shooters at the zoo, she takes her son and runs back inside to hide with him for their protection. Her son, Lincoln, is only 4 years old and doesn’t really understand why he needs to keep calm and quiet, how very dangerous everything is, so not only does Joan have to think fast and keep away from the shooters, but she has to make sure Lincoln doesn’t accidentally do something that will endanger them both.

Now everything the two of them had seen and enjoyed during the day takes on a different aspect: the hidden pathways, the exhibits that are being renovated, the carousel, the snack machines are no longer interesting things to see and explore, but potentially life-saving hiding places.  Joan and her son are trapped in the zoo, almost as much as the zoo animals themselves.  What is she willing to do to survive and to protect her precious son?  

She’s not the only one trapped inside the zoo, and we see the perspectives of some of those other characters as well as the killers themselves, but the heart of the book is Joan and Lincoln, their bond, their danger, and the moment by moment decisions she has to make that could have catastrophic consequences for her and her child.  This is the kind of book you won’t want to put down.

A DARK FUTURE FOR WOMEN: GATHER THE DAUGHTERS

One of the biggest hits on television this past year has been the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the book of which has also been a bestseller (again).  Perhaps there’s something in the zeitgeist that leads to the proliferation of dystopias.  One of the newest, and one that should especially appeal to people who appreciate The Handmaid’s Tale, is Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed.

There has been some kind of horrible catastrophe in the outside world long before the book starts, and most of the world has been turned into an incinerated wasteland.  Here on this island, however, ten men and their families set up a colony years before, creating a new society with appalling (to me, at least) rules and roles.  The religion is a sort of ancestor worship, information is strictly restricted, and breeding tightly controlled. Only special descendants of the original ten settlers, called Wanderers, are allowed to leave the island and explore the wastelands outside, searching for salvageable detritus.

Women have one role in this society: to bear children.  As soon as a girl reaches puberty, she begins her Summer of Fruition, a ritual designed to take her from adolescence to matrimony, and then she starts bearing children until she’s no longer useful, and then she commits ritualized suicide.  

The younger children, the ones who haven’t yet reached adolescence, get to run wild for the summers, their older sisters either married or in their Summers of Fruition, their parents indoors.  They do whatever they want, roaming the island, fighting over food and shelter and precedence, and then, one summer, young Caitlin Jacobs sees something she shouldn’t, something terrifying and against all the laws of the island.

She takes this information to Janey Solomon, a 17 year old leader by nature who’s so opposed to the prospect of marrying and becoming a breeder that she’s been starving herself to death. She urgently sets out to find out the truth about Caitlin’s discovery while she’s still capable of doing so, and she prepares the girls to rebel against the system, even though that might be the death of them all.

There’s something horrible but intriguing about a society that bears some resemblance to aspects of our own (if you think I’m exaggerating, try Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jon Krakauer), carried to a nightmarish extreme.  What would you do?  How would you survive in such a world?  Read Gather the Daughters and imagine for yourself how that society would work and what you’d do to accommodate yourself (or not) to it.

DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE, DOUBLE YOUR DANGER: THE PUNCH ESCROW

The concept of teleportation has been a part of speculative fiction for decades, usually with a certain amount of hand-waving to explain exactly how it works. Sometimes it’s treated as a means to an end, the way in Star Trek the characters could go from the ship to a planet surface or to another ship without a lot of wasted time. But sometimes, as in The Punch Escrow, a new science fiction book by Tal M. Klein, the actual consequences of using a teleportation device are at the heart of the story.

Joel Byram, the protagonist of the book, is an ordinary guy by the standards of his time (the year 2147). He doesn’t need to worry about aging, thanks to nanobots, or about air pollution, thanks to genetically modified mosquitos (come on, wouldn’t you like to read this book just to see mosquitos being useful for a change?), and transportation is simple and fast, thanks to the teleportation industry run by the world’s most powerful corporation, International Transport. He himself is working in the field of artificial intelligence, trying to make machines act more human.  Because human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the next hundred years, he is also trying to save his deteriorating marriage.

And then one day he’s involved in a teleportation accident, and suddenly there are TWO Joel Byrams running around where there should only be one, and his life is a complete mess.  He’s on the run from International Transport, which does not want the actual mechanics of teleportation to be made public, and he’s also on the run from a religious sect that’s trying to destroy teleportation altogether, AND he’s trying to get back to his wife, who at this point doesn’t realize that there are two Joel Byrams when she might not want either of them.

 

LESS IS MORE

Who hasn’t been in a situation like that of Arthur Less, the protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s new book, Less?  All right, we might not all have been sent an invitation to the wedding of our former lover to his new, younger boyfriend when we’re turning fifty and already feeling panicky and irrelevant to the world, but we all know what it’s like to be facing an awkward social situation when we’re already feeling kind of vulnerable, and we all, I think, have felt the impulse to run for our lives to avoid the situation, even if that means we’re running into even more difficult circumstances which are more or less guaranteed to make us into complete fools.

Arthur Less has more than romantic failures to make him feel inadequate.  He’s also a novelist who has never really cracked the big time (people over the course of the book ask him how it feels to know he’s just mediocre), and the big 5-0 looms over him like a thundercloud.  He dithers about the invitation to his former lover’s wedding. On one hand, he doesn’t think he can sit through it without dying of humiliation. On the other hand, he knows that if he just says no to the invitation, everybody at the wedding and reception are going to think he’s bitter, he’s jealous, he just can’t cope (even if all those things are true, he doesn’t want people to think that).  He comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution to the problem: instead of simply turning down the wedding invitation, he’s going to accept all these other invitations that are waiting for him, invitations to various writerly events in different parts of the world. He’s going to go on an around-the-world trip that’s (vaguely) work related, and that will prove he’s not trying to avoid his ex lover’s wedding.

Well, you know that’s not going to work. You know, even before reading this charming and funny book, that his various adventures in different parts of the world are all going to go awry, and he’s going to be involved in more humorous disasters than the most hapless P.G. Wodehouse hero. And yet, like the best P. G. Wodehouse heroes, Arthur is sufficiently charming and lovable that you find yourself rooting for him in the midst of all the things going wrong, and hoping that he will win himself a happy ending.  

 

CALIFORNIA AND SOUTHERN DREAMING: NEW THRILLERS

This week we have three new thrillers by authors who are old hands at the suspense/thriller genre, set in California and in the deep South.  Serial killers, sexual harassment and retaliation, newfangled bank robbery and old-fashioned corruption: these three books have it all.

Let’s start in the South, specifically in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, where Ace Atkins’ new book, The Fallen, takes place.  Sheriff Quinn Tolson and his able assistant, Lillie Virgil, are faced with some very slick, very well-prepared bank robbers who are almost supernaturally good at hitting a bank and then disappearing before the law can begin to catch up to them, almost as if they were professionals, almost as if they were following the rules of the Army Rangers, Tolson’s former military outfit. Trying to catch the skillful robbers is complicated by the maneuverings of the county’s truck stop madam, and the self-righteous county official who vows to put the madam out of business, together with an appearance from the old-school Dixie mafia and the disappearance of two teenage boys who might just be the key to solving all these crimes.  If you’ve been reading the continuation of Robert Parker’s Spencer series, written by Atkins, you know the man can paint a vivid picture of Boston, but his heart is definitely in Dixie, as you’ll discover when you dive into the Southern Fried Crime of The Fallen.

What would the suspense and thriller genre be without a good serial killer or two?  Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen, no strangers to the world of killers and those who stalk them, have come up with quite a serial killer in Look Behind You. Kendra Michaels, the protagonist of the book, lives in San Diego when a serial killer starts leaving what at first seem odd, disconnected objects at the scenes of each of his murders, all of which, disturbingly, take place around Kendra’s home and office. She’s not surprised when the FBI comes to question her about the crimes, and she’s more than ready to cooperate, especially when she discovers that the objects aren’t random after all: they’re artifacts from other unsolved serial killer cases around the country, and, to make them worse, they’re all things which were known only to the police working on those cases and never revealed to the general public.  As Kendra works with the FBI to find and stop this killer, she becomes more and more convinced that she is, in some way, a target herself, that the killer is specifically trying to communicate with her and that he might even be one of the people supposedly working to catch the killer.

You would be forgiven for assuming, when you see the name of Michael Connelly on the cover of a new thriller, that you’re going to be reading a new Harry Bosch novel, but you will be surprised to discover that the protagonist of his newest book, The Late Show, is in some ways very different from Bosch, though still a compelling character. Renee Ballard is a Los Angeles police officer, but ever since she reported her supervisor for sexual harassment, she’s been relegated to what’s contemptuously known as the Late Show, the overnight shift. There she and her coworkers may catch interesting cases, but at the end of the shift they have to hand them over to the day shift officers, so they never actually finish any of their cases. To someone as driven and dedicated as Renee, this is totally unacceptable (especially since she is essentially being punished for doing the right thing).  So when she catches two cases, one involving a brutal torture and near murder of a transgender woman, and the other involving a non-terrorist but still appalling shooting at a nightclub, she decides she’s not going to give them up. She’ll still do her regular night shift, but she’s also going to continue to investigate those two cases during the day (sleep?  Who needs sleep?), without the permission of her supervisors, and mostly without their knowledge.  Tough and determined as she is, Renee intends to follow both cases to their resolution, no matter what the bad guys or her own department throw at her.

COOL OFF WITH SOUTH POLE STATION AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

I don’t know about you, but when it gets hot and sticky as it has been this late July, the thought of going somewhere cool, maybe even somewhere that’s actually COLD, is awfully appealing.  Which is why the new novel, South Pole Station, by Ashley Shelby, strikes me as a great late summer read, if only for the concept.

Would YOU go and live at the South Pole for a whole season, no matter how messed up your life might be otherwise?  Knowing that the average temperature is -54 degrees fahrenheit and that there’s no sunshine for six months of the year and that you would be living with a group of people who have in common very little beyond the quirks that might allow them to survive in such an extreme environment, what would it take for you to take that leap?

Cooper Gosling, the protagonist of South Pole Station, is looking for an escape, though perhaps she might have been able to do something a little less drastic.  She’s thirty, she just lost a family member to suicide, her artistic career is foundering and her love life isn’t much better.  To her own surprise, she passes the test to determine whether she could handle living in Antarctica, and she decides to go for it, and really get away from it all.

Basically, you have all the charms and quirks and potential problems of living in a small community of people who have nowhere else to go, mixed with the extreme physical environment of the South Pole. There are certainly a number of quirky people at the station with Cooper, including a cook with deep, Machiavellian ambitions, an attractive astrophysicist, and the gay black station manager who keeps things moving.  When Cooper finds herself befriending a new scientist whose goal is to disprove global warming (to the dismay and hostility of the other climate scientists at the station), she nearly upends all the conventions of the station and risks her own status and even her work there.

When the weather is so beastly hot and humid that you feel you’re walking through blood just to get across the street, check out South Pole Station.  Come for the cold (and descriptions of the cold), stay for the humor and the heart.

YOUR CHILDHOOD JUST GOT WEIRDER: MEDDLING KIDS

There are, I believe, two kinds of people.  One kind will hear the description of the book, Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, as “Scooby Doo meets H. P. Lovecraft,” and say, “where is it? I want to read it immediately if not sooner!” and the other kind will roll eyes and say, “What kind of mind comes up with nonsense like this?”  Since I’m the one who bought Meddling Kids  for the Field Library’s shelves, you can guess which group I identify with (and you probably could have guessed that from reading this blog over the last couple of years).  So, if you’re of the “what kind of mind comes up with nonsense like this?” group, feel free to skip this post and read something else instead.

For the rest of us, the very name of the book conjures up memories of the climax of nearly every Scooby Doo episodes in which the unmasked villain snarls, “I would have gotten away with it, too, except for those meddling kids!”  Now, imagine if, just once, the mystery WASN’T the result of some jerk in a mask pretending to be a ghost or a monster or whatever the creature of the week was.  Imagine what would have happened if there really was something supernatural going on.

Thirteen years after their last, ostensibly successful, mystery solution, the Blyton Summer Detective Club has dissolved and the members have gone their separate ways, although none of them has found life after the club to be what they expected. In some cases, life after their days of mystery solving has been an absolute disaster.  Andy, the lesbian Latina who’s on the run from the law in two states, decides it’s time to get the gang back together and confront, finally, those haunting loose ends that nearly destroyed them when they spent that last night together in the haunted house thirteen years before. She finds Kerri, the brainiac of the group who’s now a bartender fending off amorous drunks and living with Tim, a Weimaraner descended from the original mascot of the group, and they find Nate, who’s checked himself into the Arkham Asylum years ago (the more astute will recognize another famous reference here), who claims to be in touch with the handsome jock of the group, Peter, who committed suicide years ago. It’s time for them to face their demons, maybe literally, and get past the horrors that nearly broke them back in the day.

This is not a book for everybody, obviously, but if you have a somewhat dark sense of humor and a soft spot in your heart for the teenage mystery solvers of the past (not just the Scooby Doo crew, either; keep your eyes open for references to other famous crime-solving teens) and a love for things weird and Lovecraftian, you’ll definitely want to check out Meddling Kids.