IS THIS CHEATING?

    I’ve read enough thrillers to understand that giving a twist somewhere in the book, preferably close to the end, is almost required.  And a good twist can be a wonderful thing, making you look twice at everything you’ve already read and making you question your assumptions about characters and plot that you thought you understood.  I love that feeling, and the better authors are good at preparing those twists, setting them up early and feeding them along the way while having other things going on in the foreground to distract you.

    I am not happy, however, at the twist that comes out of the blue, or, worse yet, that’s undermined by everything that happened earlier in the book.  I have never yet thrown a book into the wall in a rage, but I’ve come close more than once, and this is the sort of thing that makes that horrible action feel tempting.

    There’s a sort of contract between the author and a reader.  The author can throw twists and turns, can throw red herrings at you en masse, can break up the timeline and jump from character to character at critical moments.  But the author has to play fair.  If you’re in a character’s head, you the reader have the right to expect that you’re really in that person’s head and what’s being shown of the person’s thoughts and emotions are really the thoughts and emotions of that character, however unrealistic those thoughts and emotions might be. The character can know things that you don’t know; that’s certainly fair.  But if the character knows something that puts a different spin on everything that’s going on, and there’s no suggestion that the character’s emotions or thoughts are changed by that knowledge, well, in my mind, that’s cheating.

    I just read a book where that was the problem.  I won’t name it, but we’re in the head of the main character for three quarters of the book.  She’s supposedly the victim of a crime, and she’s running around, reacting to that crime the way you would expect someone to react: with fear, with worry, with confusion.  

    Except the twist is that the crime isn’t real; it’s a setup.  And the main character knows from the outset that it’s not real, that nobody is in danger, that it’s a setup.  She was one of the people setting it up.

    I’m willing to suspend disbelief quite a ways, but this was too far.  If you know nobody is in danger, you are not going to be running around in fear and anxiety for the person who’s supposedly in danger. You can pretend to feel that way; that’s fine.  But in your own mind, you know it’s just pretense.  You would be thinking about how you can keep up this act, whether you’re doing a good enough job of faking what the right emotions would be.  You would be aware of it.

    For the sake of a twist, the author cheated the reader. The author pretended to be giving the reader the character’s real thoughts and emotions and all the while they were fake and there’s no hint they were fake until the big reveal late in the book.

    That’s one author I’ll never read again. 

    And it could have worked, if the author had chosen another point of view for the character. If he’d chosen third person limited, so we only saw what was visible to other people, we could have seen the character going through all the motions and we would have believed her as everybody else does, and when the big reveal came, we could admire what a good actress she was, how she had everybody, including the readers, fooled.

    I’m not a difficult person to please.  I start every book hoping I’ll love it, and very often I do. But the author has to play fair, and if he doesn’t, he’s broken my trust and won’t get it back.

HISTORICAL SPLIT SCREEN, DONE RIGHT: THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS

In the past, I’ve expressed my dislike of the current cliche in historical fiction where you have two stories, one set in the present and one in the past, and they both continue through the book until the end when the author reveals the connection between the present story and the one in the past. Aside from the inherent lack of respect for readers this cliche demonstrates, it usually defeats the purpose of making the book more interesting or relatable, because one of those two stories is almost always more interesting than the other, and you’re rushing through the less interesting one to get to the other one.

It is, however, possible to use this kind of technique well, and for an example of how that can work, may I suggest The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian.  I read this recently in connection with my senior citizens’ book group (and the major criticism on their part was the goriness of the murder part of the book; remind me never to suggest anything by Jo Nesbo for this bunch), and was struck by how in this case the two timelines were equally interesting and played into each other fluidly.

One timeline takes place in Italy during the later days of World War II, where the Rosati family is dealing with the effects of the Nazi occupation on their villa and the surrounding areas, especially the Etruscan tombs which were discovered on the family’s lands.  Various Nazis and Mussolini supporters come to the family to look at the ruins (due to a high level Nazi’s absurd concept that the Etruscans were forebears of the pure Aryans), and the younger daughter of the family, Christina, falls in love with a damaged German Officer, Friederich, to the disapproval of her family (and his superior officers). 

The other timeline takes place in 1955, when Francesca, daughter in law of the Rosati family, is horribly murdered in Florence, and the local police, including Serafina, a woman officer who was a partisan fighting against the fascists during the war, are investigating the murder and, necessarily, digging into the family’s past.  Serafina in particular believes that Francesca was murdered in this gory way because of some grudge held from the time of the war, and not just because of her own involvement in the war.  

Bohjalian knows how to create suspense.  Early on in the book we learn that the patriarch of the family is dead and that Francesca’s husband and young children were killed during the war, but it’s a long time before we actually see how those things happened. It’s the old HItchcock technique of showing you the bomb under the table and having people sit at the table talking about something innocent; you’re watching this conversation and screaming to the people that there’s a bomb they should deal with.  Here, every time we see those children, we tense, knowing the fate that’s coming for them but not knowing when it’s going to hit.

Parts of the book are narrated in the first person by the murderer, who is careful not to disclose their identity but drops hints here and there.  This also builds suspense, knowing what the murderer is planning and then seeing everyone else going about their lives and possibly walking into the murderer’s traps.

I personally could have done without the false alarms when you’re convinced a character is about to be killed and it turns out that something else entirely was going on.  The first time that happens, it’s well done. The second time, I was annoyed.  

But these are small complaints.  Serafina is the most interesting character by far, and her memory lapse about the exact circumstances in which she was nearly killed during the war feel reasonable and not just the effort of a writer to play games with his readers.  She’s a believable partisan and a believable police officer in a time and place when women police officers were still a rarity.  The solution to the mystery makes sense, is surprising without being gimmicky, and works on an emotional level.  More, when you discover what sparked the murderer’s fury at the family, you understand the killer’s point of view but you also find yourself wondering about the family’s choices and how much choice they really had when things reached the nadir. 

A mystery that gives you some good historical perspective, some intriguing characters, and a deeper moral question to ponder, The Light in the Ruins demonstrates that even a cliche structure, in the hands of the right author, can be a good read.

WHEN YOU NEED A CHANGE

I recently finished reading a couple of really dark novels, and was in the middle of reading a third, and I just felt so emotionally drained that I knew I needed to read something completely different.  I needed a reading palate cleanser.

Don’t get me wrong: the books I’m talking about (one of which is Once There Were Wolves, which I was reading for the Field Notes Book Group) are well-written and engrossing; for the most part, they’ve been page-turners.  And as anyone who’s read this blog knows, I’m never afraid of a book that goes to scary dark places (no one who’s as big a fan of Jo Nesbo as I am could be sensitive to violence and gore).  Most of the time, I can zoom from one serial killer book to another, from one book in which horrific violence is done to the characters to the next without hesitation.  It’s just that sometimes (like now), it’s just a bit too much.

Possibly it would make more sense to switch my reading around a little, alternating more (and more frequently) than I have been.  It’s easy to fall into a routine, and pick the same kinds of books over and over, and let’s face it, there are a lot of cool thrillers out there (and my running a mystery book group as well as a regular book group makes it more likely that I’m going to find myself reading books in that genre) just begging me to read them. The problem is that too much of a dark thing can make the whole world seem depressing and miserable, and it’s hard to get yourself psyched to keep reading when you know the next thing that happens is going to be terrible and upsetting (and even if you’re wrong and this time the next thing isn’t terrible and upsetting, you still know that terrible and upsetting things are lurking in the near future).  Not to mention that reading some of these books right before bed isn’t really conducive to a good night’s sleep.

Today I headed for the library shelves and chose a couple of rom coms, which I’m going to dive into as soon as I get them home. I might go through one right after the other, as a matter of fact, giving myself completely to the delights of ordinary people doing silly things around each other, making mistakes, opening themselves up and ultimately getting to that happily ever after. 

It doesn’t have to be a romantic comedy, either. That’s just what occurred to me first. I could have also gone for a book of poetry, or essays, or an engrossing nonfiction book. I could even have gone back to an old favorite, just to remind myself that there’s more to read out there than what I’ve been — should I say wallowing? — in recently.

So there’s nothing wrong with switching gears now and then.  You should never feel defensive about what you’re reading, and if you need something that’s going to make you cry, that’s fine.  If you need something that’s not going to make you feel as if everything is just a meaningless nightmare, that’s also fine.  It’s a big literary world out there, and there’s something that will work for whatever mood you’re in, give you whatever you need.  All you have to do is look.

JO NESBO TAKES ON SHORT STORIES IN JEALOUSY MAN

Given my long term love for Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (when is he going to write another one of those books?) and for his version of Macbeth (the perfect match), no one should be surprised that I immediately grabbed his newest book, Jealousy Man, which is a collection of short stories, and devoured it immediately.  Knowing my feelings about Nesbo’s writing, is there anything new I can say about Jealousy Man?

Yeah. Damn, the man can write short stories!

This is not a given.  The Harry Hole books are full length novels, and they’re built on multiple plotlines, multiple characters, interacting. Some of those plotlines take several books to come to a conclusion, and characters continue from book to book, changing over time.  You can’t do all those things in short stories; you’re limited, usually, to one plotline and a few characters, a short time period and a tight set of locations.  

The best stories in this book, in my opinion, are the longer ones, which might be novelette length rather than, technically, short stories.  Yes, some of the real short stories here are fine: the opening story, “London”, manages to create two characters, an interesting concept and a twist in few pages, and “The Line” is chilling and effective in a very tight form, and the others are good, certainly readable and enjoyable, if dark.  He really does his best work, though, in the longer stories.

The title story, “The Jealousy Man” involves two separate characters who have gotten away with murder, one of them a police officer, one a person of interest in a police investigation.  The characters are complex, the setting (a Greek island) unusual for Nesbo, and the plot’s strands mingle past and present to turn the story into a meditation on guilt and second chances that’s fascinating.

And then there’s “Rat Island,” the longest story in the book, and the one that caused me to put the book down and walk away for a while when I finished it.  It’s a dystopian story about the aftermath of a virus and the breakdown of civilization (gee, wonder when he got that idea, huh?), and how the people who remain cope.  He manages to give us two different point of view characters, very different (this is tough to do in a short story) but both survivors, and the story turns on questions of relationships, of revenge, of what the rule of law means when all the institutions that enforce the laws are falling apart.  It’s a page turner of a story, the only one that comes close to the level of dark violence you find in the Harry Hole novels (though not quite as horrible as that), and ultimately you’re left thinking about morality and whether there are any good people in the story.

He stretches into some speculative fiction concepts in “The Cicadas” and in “The Shredder,” and takes the big concepts of multiple timelines and of eternal life and turns them into very human, albeit very dark, stories.  

If you’re a fan of Jo Nesbo, of course you should read this book.  There are no Harry Hole stories, unfortunately, but the stories here are thought provoking and disturbing.  If you’re not a fan of Nesbo because of his often gruesome violence, you might want to try this book because he doesn’t go quite as far here, and it’s a good introduction to the way he thinks and the way he writes.  It’s a page-turner, it’s well-written and it will haunt you.  

THE BEST OF THE BEST: NATIONAL BOOK AWARD NOVEL SHORTLIST FOR 2021

The 2021 National Book Awards short list has just come out, and you can check out four of the five possibilities at The Field Library.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a new book by Anthony Doerr, whose last book was the Pulitzer-Prize winning and bestselling All the Light We Cannot See. This book is more ambitious, covering three different storylines in three different historical periods, connected by a single story. Anna, an orphan in 15th century Constantinople, reads the story to her sick sister as the city is besieged.  In a library in modern-day Idaho, an elderly man rehearses a play of that story with five children, not realizing someone has planted a bomb in the library where they are practicing.  And years in the future,  a woman on a spaceship who has never even seen earth is piecing together that same story as she remembers her father telling it to her.  A novel about our interconnectedness and what we owe to the past and to the future.

Lauren Groff, the author of the novel Matrix, is also no stranger to awards after her last bestseller, Fates and Furies.  Her new book, Matrix, is a historical novel set in the 12th century.  Marie de France, the protagonist, is thrown out of the court of Eleanor of Acquitaine and sent to England to be the abbess of an impoverished and run down abbey.  Here Marie finds her niche and builds the abbey up from a place of starving, sick women into a powerhouse, all the while fighting against the cultural limitations on women’s power in the period.

The Prophets, a debut novel by Robert Jones, Jr., is a love story between two enslaved young men on a plantation in the Deep South, but much more than that.  Isaiah and Samuel’s love is something all the other enslaved people know about, but it doesn’t cause any particular problems until one man, another enslaved person, seeking to curry favor with the master, starts preaching the Gospel and turning people against each other. The cast of characters includes not only the white people and the African American people living on the plantation, but also the spirits of the African Americans’ ancestors, and, though it’s a book set in the antebellum era in the South, it also speaks to our present circumstances.

Often awards committees choose what I call “wild card” books, books that are unusual in their structure, content, style, and I would nominate Jason Mott’s Hell of a Book for the 2021 wild card selection.  It’s a book about an African American on a seemingly endless and absurd book tour, fighting off pressure from his agent to write another book (but nothing too racial, which, according to the agent, won’t sell), and dealing with The Kid, a possible hallucination, possibly imaginary companion. At the same time, and running parallel to the author’s adventures, there’s a storyline about Soot, a young African American boy trying to learn how to be invisible in order to stay safe in White America.  The book has been described as funny and heartrending at the same time, and has been compared to the best of Kurt Vonnegut.

So if you’re interested in what might be the best novels written this year, be sure to check out these National Book Award shortlist selections here at The Field Library.

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK SNOB

I have recently faced the painful realization that I am, in fact, a book snob.

I’m not the kind who refuses to read whole genres of books.  As I hope comes across in this blog, I’ll read all kinds of things: speculative fiction, romances, thrillers, mysteries, all varieties of nonfiction.  There’s so much wonderful stuff out there, I would be selling myself short by ignoring any genres or types of books.

Except there is one type I carefully avoid, and the time has come to admit it and try to do better.

Recently my Drum Hill Book group chose the book The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, as the book to read and discuss.  This wasn’t something that appeared out of nowhere, of course; I bring the selections to the group, trying to pick books that are likely to be interesting to the group which also have enough books of the right type (mostly large print) in the library system.  This time I included The Girl on the Train because it had the right numbers and I thought the group might enjoy a bestselling thriller.  I had never read the book before, because it was a bestseller that had been on the bestseller list for years.  I figured (and here’s where the snobbism comes in) that if it was a bestseller it was probably not a good book, and I would probably not enjoy it.

Well, the fact is that I did enjoy The Girl on the Train.  It’s not a great book, and, as some of the people in the book group noted, it wasn’t great literature, but then, it wasn’t trying to be.  It was a decent thriller, and the author did a good job of playing with perspectives and throwing one red herring after another, so that at different points I was convinced that different people (including one of the narrators) might have been the murderers. The twist was set up well (when you looked back, it made sense and didn’t come out of thin air), and the ending was satisfying.  

Are there things I wished had been better?  Sure.  Characters you could root for were few and far between, and there was no reason for the “girl” in the title (one of my bugbears in general), as Rachel, the supposed girl, was clearly an adult.  But even so, decent thrillers that play fair and have good twists and keep you guessing are books I often read and enjoy.  So the only reason I didn’t read this when it first came out was because it was popular.

Part of my snobbishness comes from my blog’s orientation: I figure bestsellers don’t need my promotion, as they’re already going to get lots of readers (I can’t be the only person who will read anything my favorite author writes).  And part of it is having been burned in the past (just because Fifty Shades of Grey was a bestseller didn’t mean it was good; ditto for Gone Girl, though the two are in no way in the same league of badness) and realizing that my taste seldom coincides with that of the great majority of book-buyers. 

But as they say, the first step toward changing your behavior is recognizing it, and from now on I won’t ignore bestsellers just because they’re bestsellers and popular.  Who knows?  I may find another favorite author that way.  No guarantees, of course, but I’ll at least give them a try.

MAGIC AND MYSTERY IN ALTERNATE RECONSTRUCTION PHILADELPHIA: THE CONDUCTORS

Nicole Glover’s debut novel, The Conductors, is a little hard to characterize. It involves magic, so it’s sort of fantasy; it’s set in an alternate version of Philadelphia during the era of Reconstruction, so it’s alternate history; it involves a murder that needs to be solved by a pair of investigators, so it’s a mystery; its main characters are all African Americans, which makes it unusual in all those categories.  It transcends all its categories and becomes something unique, and uniquely interesting.

Henrietta and Benjamin Rhodes, husband and wife, known as Hetty and Benjy, were conductors on the Underground Railroad during the period before the Civil War, using a unique kind of magic that relies on the constellations as part of their repertoire. Now, in the postwar period, they live in the Free Black community in Philadelphia, using their talents to investigate crimes and issues which the white police force ignores, and they’re especially sought after when there’s a hint of the supernatural in a crime in their ward.

When a person they’d helped rescue from slavery is found dead in an alley, Hetty and Benjy have to figure out whether this was murder, and whether this, and later kilings, are parts of a pattern or an isolated cases.  As they investigate, Hetty begins to discover that she doesn’t know some of the people closest to her as well as she thought she did, including her husband (and as an aside, if this isn’t a classic mystery trope, I don’t know what is). 

The realities of our version of Reconstruction and the book’s version of the era extend all the way into the different kinds of magic that are used.  There’s one kind that only white people can use, one kind (based on African, West Indian and Native American beliefs) that Hetty and Benjy use, and another kind that uses potions, based on herbs. It makes a kind of ugly sense that even the world of magic would be segregated by race, and the relationship between the black community of the Seventh Ward and the white establishment, especially the police, is also all too likely.

Don’t let the use of magic keep you from reading this if you’re a mystery fan. Likewise, if you’re a historical fiction reader, The Conductors will appeal to your knowledge of this era in American history, despite its mystery and magic (or perhaps because of them).  Check out The Conductors and give yourself a unique treat.

MARCH FIELD NOTES SELECTION: PERESTROIKA IN PARIS

The Field Notes Book Group met to discuss Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a book a number of us hadn’t finished and didn’t particularly like. Sometimes discussing a book on which people’s opinions are divided leads to better discussions, though, and we saw some interesting things in Mrs. Dalloway, before we voted on our book selection for March, Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris. Copies will be available at the Circulation Desk at The Field Library, so come in and get yours (yes, we’re physically open, so you can actually come in again!).

Don’t let the name of the book fool you. This is about as far from a book about politics or the Cold War as you can get. Perestroika, you see, is a racehorse, a filly who’s curious about the world and due to that curiosity ends up wandering out of her stall one night and walking all the way to Paris. There she encounters a street smart dog named Frida, and a couple of other animals (a pair of mallards and a smart-alec raven, among others), and stays out of sight of the human Parisians, until they meet up with Etienne, an orphaned boy living with his increasingly fragile grandmother in a quiet, secluded area. This is the kind of book I would have snapped up and devoured when I was a kid, and I, for one, am looking forward to reading it and discussing it with the Field Notes group.

So if you’re interested in reading a different kind of book group book, come on in and pick up a copy and then join us on zoom on March 20 from 11 to 12:30. We’ll almost certainly have an excellent time.

THE NOVEL FOR 2020

I don’t have to tell anyone reading this blog that 2020 has been a very strange year.  It’s been a hard year in a lot of respects, and a hard year for reading as well, with the library closed down for months and everybody’s attention spans (including, very definitely, mine) damaged by the stress of the pandemic. 

I have just finished reading what I think is the best book I’ve read all year, a book that is uniquely right for 2020.  It’s called One Night Two Souls Went Walking (and come on, isn’t that the best title for a book you’ve ever heard? Wouldn’t you want to read a book with that title even if you didn’t know anything else about the book), it’s by Ellen Cooney, and it is gorgeously written, deeply moving, spiritual and filled with sorrow but also with hope.

Our unnamed protagonist and narrator is a woman in her thirties who’s an Episcopalian priest, working as a hospital chaplain.  She is no longer, as she calls it, a baby chaplain who doesn’t know what she’s doing.  She’s been working in this hospital for years, but recently, in the wake of budget cuts and the laying off of a number of the other chaplains, she’s just started working the night shift.  Perhaps she’s been working too long.  Perhaps she’s just exhausted, physically and emotionally.  The strain of meeting with people in their most vulnerable moments is starting to get to her, and while she isn’t seriously thinking of quitting this hospital, she does find herself wondering if this is really what she should be doing.  She has doubts, and a hospital at night is a dark place to wrestle with doubts.

Despite her not having a name, our protagonist tells us a lot about herself, what she looks like, what her family is like, how she decided to become an Episcopalian priest when her family was, at least nominally, Catholic (she remembers meeting a Catholic priest at a party when she was a child, and how cruelly he destroyed her hopes of becoming a priest herself; I could feel echoes of similar scenes in my own childhood).  She thinks a lot about souls, what they’re like, where they are, how they might communicate with each other.

She also thinks about death, which makes perfect sense in context: much of what she does, on this night and other nights, is comforting either the person who’s dying or the family of someone who just died. You would think this would make for a depressing read. It doesn’t at all. She is almost always present for the dying people, even when they can’t communicate with her in words (there is one person who basically throws her out of his room, and she doesn’t go back to him, but he’s probably the only one in the book she doesn’t help).  She’s incredibly loving and deeply empathetic, and through her kind (and tired) eyes we see death in a different way.

This is not a book that’s about plot, or about things happening and leading to other things happening.  It’s a very quiet, gentle book, like its protagonist, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to have tissues close by when you read it.  Though it’s not exciting in a thriller-like way, it’s incredibly absorbing.  I couldn’t put it down, myself.  For such a short and simple book, it packs a great deal of emotion, just the kind of emotion I personally need in a year like this.  Don’t take my word for it.  Read this book yourself and be comforted.

A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF TIME TRAVEL: BEFORE THE COFFEE GETS COLD

Before the Coffee Gets Cold, by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, is a time travel novel, sort of. Yes, in this world you can travel in time from this little obscure coffee shop in Tokyo, but there are a lot of rules which make this different from the ordinary sort of time travel (to the extent there is such a thing). The first and most important rule is that, in this scenario, you can’t change the present.  There go all your hopes of killing Hitler, or preventing someone’s parents from meeting.  That particular rule is enough to dissuade most of the people who might otherwise try to travel in time at this particular coffee shop, but that’s not the only rule.  You have to sit in a particular seat, which is occupied most of the time by a ghost who only gets up now and then to go to the bathroom (don’t ask).  You can only meet with someone else who has been in this particular cafe.  You get a cup of coffee and you have to drink it all before it gets cold.  You can only travel in time while you’re drinking this cup of coffee.   When the coffee cup is empty, you return to the present.

As the first time traveler in this book, Fumiko, angrily says, what exactly is the point of having time travel at all if you can’t change the present and you have to obey all these rules?  And she’s right: the kind of exciting changing the world time travel you see in many other books is not going to happen here. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile to take this little trip, as the characters in the book discover.

It’s a short book, a simple one, and a charming one, and you would be surprised (as I was) at how much this weird sort of time travel can affect people’s lives. Four different characters take advantage of the coffee shop’s powers, three of them going into the past, and one going into the future (which, as you might imagine, is more complicated than going back in time), and the experience is life-changing for all of them, though not in the way any of them expects. A woman wants to relive her last meeting with her boyfriend, when he told her he was leaving the country, with the idea that this time she could tell him how she really felt about him, even though she knows he’s still going to leave the country (you can’t change the present, remember?). A woman wants to see her husband, who’s now suffering from Alzheimer’s, before he came down with the disease, when he still remembers who she is and what she is to him.  A woman who had been avoiding her sister for years (we see her avoiding her sister in the present) goes back to meet with her sister the last time her sister came to the cafe.  And another woman goes forward in time to meet her child, whom she knows she will never see grow up.  In each case, being able to be in this other time, knowing what you know now, doesn’t change the other person’s behavior in the present, but it changes your own understanding of the other person and of who and what you are to that person in the present. 

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big fan of time travel in all its variations, and this book is utterly unique in the field. If you’re a fan of time travel, check this variation out. If you’re not interested in time travel because of the whole paradox-avoiding stuff that bends your brain, try this book.  You don’t have to worry about the fabric of space-time.  You just have to suspend your disbelief a little and enter into the warm and friendly world of Before the Coffee Gets Cold.