JULY FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE NIGHT CIRCUS

The Field Notes Book Club once again braved the wilds of Zoom and met to discuss The Wonder by Emma Donoghue with vigor and interesting questions and insights, despite problems with internet availability and all the usual difficulties that come with online meetings of groups.  After our discussion, we chose the book for July, which is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

The Night Circus was a bestseller when it first came out, and deserved all the plaudits it won.  The story takes place in the world of a special circus that only appears at nights, without any advance publicity, and disappears just as magically.  Celia and Marco, the protagonists, are two magicians who have been trained from earliest childhood to compete with each other, their mentors being involved in a secretive game played via their proteges.  Celia and Marco are deliberately kept ignorant of the deeper rules of the game, most importantly that only one of them can survive it.  As their lives intertwine with each other’s and with the circus itself, they start to fall in love, which makes everything so much more complicated and puts the circus itself at risk.

Morgenstern’s writing is gorgeous; you can fall into her sentences and images and want to live there. Her world-building is great fun, and the characters are mysterious and fascinating.  I’ve already read this book in the past (as you’ll know from my review of The Starless Sea, her second book) and loved it, and I expect it will make for great discussions when we meet again, virtually, on July 18 at 11:00.  The book is available through Overdrive in the Westchester Library System. 

Since this is going to be another virtual meeting, if you are interested in joining us and are not a formal member of the group, send me an email (my address is listed here) and I’ll add you to the zoom invitation when the time comes. 

 

FIELD OF MYSTERY JULY SELECTION: THE TRESPASSER

Running a book group meeting via Zoom has its challenges, like the varying quality of people’s internet access (few things are more frustrating than being in the middle of a discussion and having everything freeze on your computer), but it’s especially challenging when you’re having a meeting months after most of you read the book.  The Field of Mystery Book Group dealt with that hurdle on Saturday, gamely discussing Joe Ide’s IQ, which we’d taken out back in March, and remembering enough of it to be able to talk knowledgeably and interestingly about the characters and the plot and the setting of the book.  I call that a victory!

We also chose our next book for our next meeting on July 11 at 11:00.  Because of the way things are working with the Westchester Library System’s holds policy, it made sense for us to choose a book that’s available on Overdrive.  Fortunately there are many interesting books there which have enough copies that all the members of the group can get one.  We ended up choosing Tana French’s The Trespasser.

The Trespasser is one of the books (not the first) in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, but the series is written so that you can start anywhere, since each book focuses on a different member of the squad.  In this one, our protagonist is Detective Antoinette Conway, who’s facing harassment and trouble at work and is near to the breaking point when she gets the case of a young woman found dead in her apartment.  It should be simple: it looks like the classic case of a lovers’ quarrel turned to murder, and yet Antoinette recognizes the victim somehow, and the case proves to be deeper and more complicated than it appeared.  Antoinette’s own emotional state, close to paranoia, doesn’t make things easier for her.  She can’t tell whether the difficulties she’s having with the case are due to the atmosphere in the squad or real problems with the victim and the murder.

Since this is a Zoom book club meeting, if you’re interested in joining us on July 11, email me and I’ll send you the link to join us in the discussion.  For the rest of the members of the Field of Mystery Book Group, to use the immortal words of Sherlock Holmes, the game is afoot!

BOOK GROUPS IN A TIME OF CORONA VIRUS

Since it now appears the library will be closed till May 15 at the earliest, two months after the last time we were open (sob!), and since the Field Notes Book Group already put off its March meeting, we decided to attempt a meeting via zoom (what else?).  As one member noted, there was something ironic in the concept of discussing Because Internet exclusively online.

This was, I freely admit, a bad choice for the book club. Most of the members didn’t read it, and only one person liked it.  The kinder remarks were that it didn’t hold people’s interest. I will not mention some of the less kind remarks. Lesson learned!

But the hard part of running a book club during Shelter in Place is the question of how to choose the next book.  Other book groups probably don’t have this problem, as they just assume people will buy whatever book is chosen, but this is a library sponsored book group, and, aside from my scruples about expecting people to run out and buy books they may not like, I generally want people to use library resources for book group.  Unfortunately, this isn’t possible at the moment. And while there are all kinds of ebooks and e-audiobooks available through the Westchester Library System, the problem is that there might not be enough copies for everyone in the book group to get one.

So we went with a fallback: you may recall my earlier discussion of Gutenberg.org, where there are tens of thousands of different e-books available.  Yes, these are older books out of copyright, but so what? The Field Notes group has talked about reading classics anyway, and here’s our opportunity.

Our next choice, therefore, is Oscar Wilde’s immortal play, The Importance of Being Earnest, full of his trademark wit and bon mots, short enough that nobody should feel burdened reading it on screens instead of in paper form, and funny enough that we should be able to laugh a lot when we discuss it.

We’ll be meeting again virtually via zoom on Saturday, May 16, at 11:00.

 

If you are not a member of the book group (due to distance or other factors), this is one meeting you could still join.  If you’re interested, send me an email (my contact information is nmulligan at wlsmail dot org, with @ and . substituted for the words) and I’ll send you an invite.

SHOPPING HERE CAN REALLY WRECK YOUR REALITY

It might seem too easy to make fun of a big store like IKEA, to suggest that it’s a soul-destroying place to work and/or to shop.  There have been novels using IKEA as a setting for horror (the excellent Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix), and now we have a new speculative fiction novella mixing a store like IKEA and quantum entanglement and post breakup angst, and it is GREAT fun.

The book is Finna, by Nino Cipri.  Our protagonist, Ava, is having a bad day at the outset of the novel.  She’s hung over, she’s recently broken up with her lover, who worked in the same dreadful store she works in (so she has gone out of her way to schedule her shifts so she won’t come into contact with Jules, her former lover), and she’s been called in to cover the shift of a co-worker.  Naturally, that schedule change brings her face to face with Jules, the one person she doesn’t want to see.

As if that weren’t bad and complicated enough, Ava then learns that a customer’s grandmother just disappeared. When Ava and Jules go looking for the elderly woman, they find that one of the showrooms seems to be changing, as if a completely different room were joined to this one.

Now, if you stopped here and tried to imagine what would happen next, you would probably figure that there’s something strange going on in the store, that the (jerk) manager would deny that anything was out of the ordinary, and somehow our main characters would end up wandering through different dimensions or alternate realities which nobody knew anything about.

You would be wrong.

In this book, the manager brings all the staff into a room to talk to them about the store’s known wormhole problem, and shows them a badly made, old-fashioned training movie the company made about how to deal with the situation when a customer disappears into one of those wormholes.  There is a machine that has to be put together which will use quantum engagement to find the missing person in whichever of the millions of alternate realities the person entered, and the two staff people with the least seniority are “volunteered” to go looking for the customer.  In this case (you don’t need me to tell you this, do you?) the two people with the least seniority are Ava and Jules, so they get the Finna (the machine) and off they go.

I have to say, at that point, when the bored retail workers are watching this really awful training film on VHS about how to skip from one timeline to another, and the manager is treating this like finding something unmentionable in the public restrooms, I was sold. As far as I was concerned, the author could do anything in the plot from there on, and I would gleefully follow along.

It’s a wild ride, with everything from carnivorous furniture to weird clones of the company’s retail workers connected to each other via a sinister hive, and Jules and Ava bicker and deal with their relationship issues and save each other from the horrors that might destroy them in one reality or another.  The details are such fun: the finna gets built and rebuilt a couple of times (and come on, aren’t you tickled by the thought of trying to put together a quantum engagement device from the kinds of instructions you’d get with an IKEA sofa, complete with illustrations?), and each time you learn something else about it and begin to wonder more and more about where this came from and how this company got its hands on it.  The device provides a backup if you can’t find the actual person you’re looking for, in case that person got killed by some horrific monster or other, and that turns into an actual plot point.

My only quibble about the book is that I wish it were longer. I would love to see more adventures along the multiverse with these characters. The advantage of its being so short is that it’s the kind of book you can devour in one sitting, laughing all the way.

If you’re in the mood for a quick, fun read that mingles quantum physics with bad relationships, that takes you on a crazy trip through all kinds of human and inhuman possibilities, and that gives you an ending that will make you smile (while still leaving open the possibility of a sequel — please, Nino?), do yourself a favor and check out Finna.

 

AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, LONG AGO

One of the best things about good historical fiction is that it can bring to life particular historical moments and scenes which even history buffs like me weren’t previously aware of. Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s new book, The Mercies, is that kind of historical novel, taking us to early 17th century Norway and an isolated island community, first struck with a natural catastrophe and then by a more sinister man-made one.

The first tragedy is a natural one, so absolute it seems almost supernatural to the survivors.  The men of the small, isolated island of Vardo, near the Arctic Circle, set out on a fishing trip one night, and out of nowhere a huge wave flips over all the boats, drowning nearly all the male population of the island in a few moments as their wives, sisters and mothers watch from the shore.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the women of the island try to survive any way they can.  If this involves taking advantage of their Sami neighbors’ charms and runes despite the nominal Christianity of the island’s women, so be it.  If it involves the women taking to the sea and fishing for themselves, even though that’s supposed to be men’s work, they’ll do it. Grief and hard times cause the women to react differently, and rifts that probably already existed before the tragedy become accentuated and stronger over time.

This would be a difficult enough situation if there were no interference from the outside world, which usually has very little to do with Vardo.  However, there are new church leaders, heavily influenced by the work of King James of Scotland, and filled with the desire to straighten out these potentially heathen outlanders and bring them into the church’s fold again.  If you’re like me, when you hear King James’ name, you think of his writings against witches and the witch trials he sparked throughout his territories, and of course when you have women acting in non-traditional ways, and a huge tragedy that seems almost supernatural, accusations of witchcraft are pretty much guaranteed, with wrenching, heartbreaking results.

Our main characters are two women. One is Maren, a resident of the island, who lost her father, brother and fiancee in the storm, and who then tries to hold her family together afterwards.  This is made more complicated by the fact that Maren’s brother’s widow was a Sami woman, and mother and daughter-in-law are becoming more hostile toward each other.

The other woman is Ursa (short for Ursula), daughter of a formerly well-to-do merchant in Bergen, who’s married to the new Commissioner, Absalom Cornet.  Ursa is naive, lost, unsure of her position on the island and only gradually comes to realize what her husband is actually doing on the island, after she’s already begun to build relationships with various women, including Maren.

The author does a great job of recreating the environment.  If ever there was a book with a strong sense of place, this is it.  You can feel the cold, the meagerness of the houses. You can smell the slaughtered reindeer that hang in Ursa’s new home, you can see the isolation of the individual houses and the women who live inside them.  If you want to read a book that takes you out of your ordinary environment, you’ll definitely appreciate this.

The other strength of the book is the characters. It would be too easy for a modern author to turn all the characters, male and female, into stereotypes, spokespeople for various modern points of view. You’d have the staunchly feminist women coming into their own in the absence of men, you’d have the villainous male church officials, you’d have the Christian women being bigoted and narrow minded, you’d have the Sami characters as noble indigenous people being persecuted for no reasons.  It is to Hargrave’s credit that nobody, not even the most heinous person, comes across as a caricature. Even the people who infuriate you (and there are several) have foibles and weaknesses and are neither completely evil nor all-powerful, and our protagonists also have their moments of cowardice and denial. They’re all real people, and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can see elements of these characters in modern men and women as well.

I’m not going to lie: this book is historically accurate (there’s a note at the end detailing the real life events that inspired it), and therefore it is not a fun, light read. People did terrible things during witch hysteria, and Hargrave doesn’t sugar coat any of it. However, despite the darkness and the violence of a lot of the book, there is a satisfying ending, not a happy one, but one that feels right for the characters and the time. 

If you’re interested in a historical novel that draws you in and won’t let you go, check out The Mercies.

THRILLER HOOKS TO GRAB YOU

How do you choose a thriller to read, especially if you aren’t familiar with the author already?  Well, the easiest way is to check out the hook. If the premise is something new and original, there’s a good chance that’s the book you’re going to want to read first.  Here are some new thrillers with (in my opinion) really intriguing premises, to spark your interest and send you to our shelves.

Amnesia is always fun, even though it’s almost a cliche by this point.  How’s this for a premise: woman wakes up in a hospital after having been struck by lightning (!!).  Her mother is dead. She was found down the street, unconscious. She can’t remember anything about her mother’s death. The police see her as a potential suspect.  How can she clear her name if she genuinely can’t remember, and someone else seems determined to keep her from remembering? That’s the premise of Behind Every Lie, by Christina McDonald.

Perfect Little Children, by Sophie Hannah, has a premise that’s practically guaranteed to make readers want to pick it up. Our protagonist has been estranged from her former best friend for 12 years.  Last time she saw her friend, the friend’s two kids were three and five years old. When she sees her friend and her friend’s two children now, the friend has aged. The children haven’t. How is that possible?

And while we’re on the subject of children, there’s The Only Child, by Mi-Ae Seo, in which a psychologist gets a chance to talk to a particularly horrible serial killer about his life, and at the same time her stepdaughter from her husband’s previous marriage appears in her life, showing some of the same behaviors and creepy approaches as the serial killer.  What actually happened to the child’s mother and grandparents? Why is the serial killer giving the psychologist advice about how to take care of this child?

Then there’s the question of what happens to someone who was kidnapped and rescued immediately, but still suffers the aftereffects of her abduction.  In the case of the protagonist of The Lucky One, by Lori Rader-Day, she spends her time trying to find clues to help families of other missing people find their loved ones.  Then one day she sees the face of her kidnapper on the website, and even though the picture is immediately removed, she’s on a mission to find him before he can get someone else.

Consider the case of a murder trial, which the prosecution considers an open and shut case, in which the defendant is acquitted because one juror believed in his innocence.  Then, ten years later, a documentary starts investigating that particular trial, with a focus on the one holdout juror who persuaded all the others not to convict. One of the jurors is found dead in suspicious circumstances, and the evidence seems to point to the holdout as the culprit.  Did she do it? Why would she? What really happened in that jury room a decade before? The Holdout, by Graham Moore, builds its suspense on that situation and those questions. 

If any or all of these sound like a fun read, head down to The Field Library and check out our new thrillers.  Who knows, maybe you’ll find a new author to follow as well.

 

HOW GREAT MYSTERIES WORK: THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY

When it comes to the classic mystery, the tried and true elements will never disappoint.  I’ve been a mystery reader for years, and at this point I can tell what’s going to make a good mystery, or a great one.  Ruth Ware’s The Death of Mrs. Westaway hits all the right notes. It’s clever and absorbing, it plays fair and keeps me turning those pages feverishly.  It was a book I’d stay up late to read, a book I could barely put down for things like meals or work, and it’s a book I heartily recommend to anyone who’s a mystery fan or who just likes a well-written, entertaining book.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway was a very popular, bestselling book in 2018, but for some reason I didn’t pick it up myself until I offered it as an option to one of my book groups. They turned it down, but I gave myself the opportunity to read it, and I’m very glad I did.

What does a great mystery need?  First, it needs a compelling main character.  That was one of the problems I had with Gone Girl (which was more of a thriller than a mystery): I couldn’t stand either of the main characters and to this day I am deeply disappointed that the climax of the book wasn’t the two of them dying together in a fire (or some other catastrophe; I wasn’t trying to be limited here).  By contrast, Hal (full name Harriet) Westerby, the point of view character here, is a wonderful person to spend time with. She’s young enough to do stupid things but old enough to realize shortly afterwards how stupid they were.  She was brought up by an adored mother who supported the two of them by telling fortunes and reading Tarot cards on the seafront in Brighton, England.  When her mother dies in a car accident, Hal is thrown into an even more difficult situation as she tries to take over her mother’s role.  She foolishly borrows money from a loan shark, and then discovers she’s never going to be able to pay it back.  Now the loan shark is interested in collecting his money either in cash or by damaging her seriously.  Hal’s brave but not stupid; she needs a place to get away and she needs money to solve her problems, at least for the time being.   When she gets a letter from a lawyer telling her she’s named in the will of her grandmother, Mrs. Westaway, she knows it’s got to be a mistake.  Both her maternal grandparents are dead, and she never knew who her father was, so this couldn’t be his parents.  Still, she’s got a lot of skills cold-reading people who come to her for tarot readings, and she’s desperate, so she decides to go to this funeral and whatever happens afterward, in the hope she might be able to defraud these rich people long enough to get something for herself.

The next thing a good mystery needs is a twisty plot, and an author who plays fair, and The Death of Mrs. Westaway has both those things.  In fact, I would argue that a great mystery needs several questions the main character and the reader are trying to solve, and that all those questions need to twine around each other so that solving one brings you closer to understanding another.  Here we have several sets of questions: is Hal going to get away with pretending to be this Harriet Westaway?  Are her newfound “relatives”, or the lawyer, or the sinister housekeeper, going to figure her out?  Was there really a connection between her mother and this family, and if so, what was it?  What’s the connection between the writer of the diary entries that intercut the main narrative and Hal’s story?  What really happened to the missing Westaway sister?  Why did Mrs. Westaway set up her will the way she did?  All these are compelling questions that keep you reading, and all of these get answered by the end, in satisfying ways (I don’t have to tell you how annoying it is when an author pulls a solution out of thin air, and doesn’t bother to give you the clues which would have enabled you to guess at if for yourself).

Another mark of an excellent mystery is good secondary characters.  You can have mysteries where the bad people are fairly obvious, but it’s much more fun to read when any of the characters could be the villains.  Here we have a great cast of family members, all of whom have their quirks, most of whom (at least in the generation older than Hal’s) could be hiding something significant and dangerous, and each of whom acts, at one time or another, as if he’s guilty as sin.  Each of them also has moments of great compassion and even charm, and you’re as puzzled as Hal in trying to decide which, if any, of them is trying to kill her and why.  And that’s not even mentioning the sinister Mrs. Warren, the housekeeper, who would fit well in Rebecca, or the late Mrs. Westaway herself, who is revealed as a truly horrible human being (which raises the question of why she set up her will the way she did, and makes it more interesting yet).  As the plot develops and Hal spends more time with her supposed family, she begins to wonder about her mother as well, even though she would have said, before this, that she knew her mother very well, and indeed it turns out her late mother had some secrets of her own which Hal would have been better off knowing.

The setting, the old house where the Westaways grew up, a once beautiful and majestic building that is now falling into ruin, surrounded by woods and grounds leading to a dark and mysterious lake,  is exactly right, the sort of place where dark secrets would be kept for generations, and all kinds of gothic things might happen.

If you love mysteries and want to read one that’s done right, or if you want a good, suspenseful read with great characters and enough surprises to keep even the most jaded reader interested, then check out The Death of Mrs. Westaway, but make sure you give yourself plenty of time, because you’re not going to want to put it down till you’ve devoured it whole.

 

HAPPY ENDING BOOKS FOR STRESSFUL TIMES

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by life, if the holiday season is stressing you out, and you want something to read to escape, something that will take you away from all this and put a smile on your face, then you’re in luck.  We have a couple of new books at The Field Library which are just the ticket for cheering you up and taking you away from the stresses of everyday life.

How’s this for a premise: a man discovers that his wife of many years has been faking it in bed all that time, and asks for a divorce.  Reeling with shock and hurt pride, the man turns to a group of alpha men who are all part of a secret book group, in which they’re reading romance novels to learn how to be better to the women in their lives.  Sounds like fun? Check out The Bromance Book Club, a new book by Lyssa Kay Adams, and find out whether the hero, Gavin, manages to save his marriage with the help of a Regency romance entitled Courting the Countess.

Or perhaps if you’re feeling your life in general is kind of blah and not going anywhere, you might enjoy taking a look at Get a Life, Chloe Brown, by Talia Hibbert.  Our protagonist, Chloe, is chronically ill and, after a near death experience, looks at her life and realizes she has to change a lot of things.  She makes a list of things she needs to do to get a life, starting with moving out of her family’s house. She’s going to need some help with the other things on her list, and, fortunately for her, the handyman (and secret artist) next door is available to teach her how to loosen up, stop being such a goody goody (gee, I can relate there), and really live her life.

Take a brief break from it all and give yourself a happy escape with these new books at The Field. 

BACK TO SCHOOL NUTTINESS: YOU’VE BEEN VOLUNTEERED

As a new school year begins, parents of young children often find themselves roped into various kinds of “volunteer” duties at their children’s school.  While I’m past that stage of life myself, I remember what that was like and so does Laurie Gelman, whose latest book, You’ve Been Volunteered, takes us once again to the Kansas City school district where Jen Dixon, star of the earlier book, Class Mom, finds herself sucked into the maw of being a class mother again. If you want to look on your issues, present or remembered, of those “volunteer” efforts with a sense of humor, Jen Dixon is a great guide.

She’s been to this rodeo before, having two adult daughters in addition to 8 year old Max.  She’s lived kind of a wild life in her youth (she alludes to it here and there in her dealings with her 20-something daughter who’s wandering through Europe with her boyfriend’s rock group), so she’s not exactly like the (mostly younger) mothers of Max’s contemporaries.  This comes out vividly in the emails she sends out to the other mothers, which are frankly pretty funny and the sort of things I would write if I had no filters and didn’t care what people thought of me.

During the school year, Jen finds herself caught up in running the school safety patrol (and you have to admire the head of the PTA who finagles her into this; it’s very deftly done) in addition to the usual class mother duties (calling the other parents at 4 a.m. when there’s a snow day, for instance, or making sure there are sufficient chaperones for various school outings).  Her husband has buried himself in work in an effort to create and franchise a new set of yoga studios, her son is falling in with a bad crowd (for third grade, at least), her daughters are giving her a hard time, her parents are getting older and more in need of her help, and the rest of her life is filled with incident and accidents of various sorts. She’s very funny when she’s trying for a girls’ night out and her husband is left alone with their sick son (the series of texts between her and her husband, who apparently has no idea where anything is in the house he’s lived in for years is made even funnier when she intersperses them with her private commentary), and the drunken email she sends to everybody in the class list when she and her husband are out in Vegas is cringe-worthy but funny at the same time. 

This isn’t a deep book or one that forces you to confront serious social issues.  This is a lighthearted funny book with a flawed but believable protagonist, surrounded by realistic (if maybe slightly exaggerated) family, friends and fellow third grade parents (and third grade kids, too).  It’s a quick read, and if you need a break from all your life stresses, spend some time with Jen and her cast of characters in You’ve Been Volunteered.  

A TASTE OF SPACE TRAVEL: TO BE TAUGHT, IF FORTUNATE

Novellas are experiencing a bit of a renaissance these days, especially in the area of speculative fiction.  Writers like Martha Wells (the Murderbot series) and Seanan McGuire (the Wayward Children series) and Nnedi Okorafor (the Binti series) have been creating wonderful works, short but satisfying, with all the worldbuilding and characters and plots you’d expect from full scale speculative novels.  Add to the list Becky Chambers’ new novella, To Be Taught, If Fortunate.

The novella is written in the form of a communication from Ariadne, a future astronaut, to the people she left behind on earth, describing the adventures she’s had in space since she and her four companions were sent from earth as part of a citizen funded space exploration program.  Ariadne, an engineer by trade but a jack of all trades along with her companion astronauts, is very matter of fact about her life in space exploration, explaining somaforming, a process which changes humans’ bodies to enable them to live in environments that would otherwise kill them (giving people greater strength, for instance, to handle situations with greater gravity than that of earth, or giving people’s skins glitter to make them visible to each other in a world without much ambient light)(the glitter thing was especially charming to me), explaining what it’s like to wake up after having been in torpor for years at a time.  The four exoplanets she and her companions explore could hardly be more different from each other, but each one adds to the mission’s knowledge of how life works on other worlds. Unfortunately, the trips take decades, and while the crew ages very slowly thanks to their time asleep with their bodily systems slowed, time flies by on earth, and the sporadic communications the crew receive from their home planet show them how very different things are back “home”, if earth really is still home for them.

The planets are a delight.  Clearly Chambers has done her research and used her imagination to create plausible worlds with plausible ecosystems, and she conveys the real delights and terrors of human exploration of other worlds in a way that classic space opera sometimes neglects. All four of the characters face major emotional shocks and react to them, with the help of their companions, over the course of the mission, culminating in the reason Ariadne is sending this message in the first place.  

It’s not a novel, so don’t expect multiple subplots or in depth exploration of character, but you will be satisfied by the trip Ariadne takes and shares with you here. To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a perfect small meal, a taste of space travel.