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.

HOW QUIXOTIC: QUICHOTTE

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, is probably one of those books everybody knows about without having actually read (like A Tale of Two Cities, or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).  Here’s where I tell you to check out the original book (in translation unless you’re fluent in Spanish), which is surprisingly modern in its sensibility and also extremely funny, but even if you don’t do that, you probably know some of the important details: Don Quixote’s delusions of being a knight errant, his supposed squire, Sancho Panza, and — if you know no others of their adventures — his attack on a windmill which he mistook for an enchanter.  The story has been dramatized in many different forms, and has been adapted and re-adapted over the centuries since its publication (much like the works of Cervantes’ English contemporary, William Shakespeare).

Now the time has come for a new, modern take on Don Quixote, this time in a novel that’s been shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker award: Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie takes the basic characters and takes them for a spin: the elderly Alonso Quijana who dreams himself into a knight errant named Don Quixote becomes, in this version, a salesman, Quichotte, who’s obsessed with television (as opposed to the knightly romances of the original), and who has convinced himself he’s in love with a tv star (as opposed to the neighboring peasant girl the original Quixote turned into the lady Dulcinea). The Sancho Panza in this version is Quichotte’s imaginary son, Sancho Panza, with whom he sets out on a cross-country adventure to prove himself worthy of her love.  The cross-country trip is set here in modern-day America, a place bizarre enough in reality, made stranger and more bizarre through Quichotte’s delusions.

But wait, there’s more!  In the same way Cervantes used the original Don Quixote to comment on the book which created him (I told you it was surprisingly modern), Rushdie uses Quichotte’s creator, a middle-aged writer of mediocre spy novels, Sam DuChamp, to act as a counterpoint to Quichotte, and you just know that eventually the fictitious Quichotte and the real life DuChamp are going to meet up and interact, as the lines between truth and fiction seem to blur in the real world these days.

Obviously you don’t have to have read Don Quixote to read or enjoy Quichotte; obviously you will have more fun with Rushdie’s version the more you know about the original.  But if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through modern America, presented by a master storyteller, by all means check out Quichotte.  And do yourself a favor and acquaint yourself with one of the great classics of world literature (Don Quixote) while you’re at it.

 

WHERE THE COMPANY RUNS EVERYTHING: THE WAREHOUSE

There isn’t exactly a category for speculative thrillers, as compared to psychological or military thrillers, but if there were, the new book, The Warehouse, by Rob Hart, would certainly fall into that category.

In the sort of alternate future world of The Warehouse, a giant technology company called Cloud, has pretty much taken over the whole American economy.  Everybody, it seems, either buys from Cloud or works for Cloud. Paxton, one of our protagonists, takes a job as a security guard at a Cloud facility, and ends up living and working on site. Cloud has ever so helpfully set up facilities where people can live and work, complete with entertainment halls, open plan offices, and vast warehouses (in an echo of historical examples like Pullman’s villages for their workers in the late nineteenth century).  The world outside Cloud’s doors is pretty bleak, so Paxton starts to feel he’s doing all right for himself, even if there are some hints that Cloud may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Zinnia appears to be one of Paxton’s co-workers, another drone in the hive that is the Cloud. He would never imagine that she’s actually an outside agitator, infiltrating the world of Cloud to figure out what’s really going on inside this behemoth.  She befriends Paxton, or so he thinks. She begins to see him as the key who could open up the darkest truths inside the company, if she’s willing to sacrifice him to get what she wants.

Her plan risks their lives as Paxton begins to see the underside of the life he’s managed to construct inside Cloud and the ugly truths about what Cloud is willing to do to keep its power and its secrets.

Of course there’s no company like Cloud now; that’s what makes it speculative. And yet, with just a few little changes to our current society and the current tech giants operating in it, the world of The Warehouse could just be the image of our future, and a thrilling and terrifying future it could be, if Hart’s vision is close to accurate.  

So if ordinary conspiracies and dangerous corporations seem too ho-hum for you, why not take a look at an alternate future with even scarier conspiracies and corporations?  Give The Warehouse a try.

 

A WALK IN THE WOODS: NEXT FIELD NOTES READ

Thanks to everybody who came to the Field Notes Book Group this July.  Our discussion of Everything I Never Told You was one of the best discussions we’d ever had (in my opinion): talk about parents’ expectations for children, the reasons people hide truths from even the people they love, cultural differences between Chinese Americans and non-Chinese Americans, discussion about the characters and how the book left us with hope for the future, even about whether Lydia committed suicide or not.  We barely had time to choose our book for August 17, but we managed to choose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.

Now, I know they made a movie from this book (improbably starring Robert Redford as Bill Bryson — don’t take my word for it, look at Bryson’s author picture and decide for yourself whether the first actor you’d think of for him would be Redford), but you KNOW the book is better.  Bryson, a man in middle age, with virtually NO mountain climbing or hiking experience, decides, more or less on a whim, that he’s going to hike the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Maine through Georgia, and he even tells his publisher that he’s going to do this, and write about it, so he’s committed, or possibly stuck.  He describes his misadventures (and come on, you know they’re going to be disastrous) with verve and humor. Along the way, he and his friend Katz encounter all the usual perils of the hike, from physical issues through annoying fellow hikers through encounters with wild animals, bringing them all to life with self-deprecating humor.

Join us for a great read and what promises to be a fun discussion of the AT (as Appalachian Trail aficionados refer to it), our favorite humorous anecdotes from the book, and whatever else suggests itself.  Copies of the book will be available for hold at The Field Library, and we’ll be meeting in the Teen Zone at the library on August 17 from 11 to 12:30, complete with donuts and coffee. 

 

THE BEST OF THE LAW: MEET HORACE RUMPOLE

The most recent category in The Field Library’s Reading Challenge for 2019 is “Read a Book About Law,” and frankly, that’s probably the easiest category of the lot.  If you want fiction, there’s the usual Grisham and Turow, Grippando and Scottoline, just to name the most obvious and popular choices. If you’re more a nonfiction person, there are books about famous trials, famous Supreme Court cases, about the operation of the District Attorney’s office, the U.S. Department of Justice, criminal and civil law practitioners.  Nobody should have any trouble finding a book he or she wants to read in this category, but I just want to recommend what I consider to be the best series of books about law and lawyers around: the Rumpole books by John Mortimer. We have a couple of them here at The Field Library, including The First Rumpole Omnibus, which contains Rumpole of the Bailey, The Trials of Rumpole and Rumpole’s Return, a fabulous introduction to this wonderful character and his world.

Horace Rumpole, if you’ve never encountered him in print or on television (Leo McKern portrayed him, brilliantly, on the old Mystery! Series on PBS), is definitely a character.  A British barrister who’s been around the block many times, senior to most of the other barristers in his chambers (don’t worry, you’ll learn all the British terms for the practice of law by reading Rumpole), forever an ordinary barrister and not Queen’s Counsel (which Rumpole refers to as “Queer Customer”), the kind of barrister who gets the high paying, high prestige cases.  While barristers can choose to prosecute or defend accused criminals (and some do both), Rumpole is resolute: he never prosecutes (his argument is that he doesn’t want to be responsible for putting some poor unfortunate in jail), but only does defense. He loves trying cases, and while (as is almost always the case in criminal defense) he loses a lot of his cases, he has more tricks up his sleeve, a greater ability to draw out the truth in cross examination and a greater ability to size up and persuade a jury than almost all of the other barristers around him.  He drinks too much (his favorite cheap drink is a vintage he refers to as “Chateau Thames Embankment” or “Chateau Fleet Street”; in one of my favorite stories he’s involved with wine connoisseurs, where he’s hilariously out of his league), he smokes cigars incessantly, he eats badly and refuses to follow any trends. He’s sarcastic and well-read, and he is riotously funny.

Rumpole is such a great character I would read his escapades even if he were the only person in the stories, but half the enjoyment of the stories lies in the supporting cast, from his long-suffering wife, Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”, as Rumpole calls her behind her back), to the Timson family which seems to consist of thieves, burglars, fences and general fodder for Rumpole’s work, to the (shifting) population of Rumpole’s chambers, all of whom are individualized and given their own nicknames by Rumpole.  He appears before some judges more than once, so you get to recognize them by their names and their behaviors, but even those we only see once are memorable characters in their own right.

Through the many stories (only Rumpole’s Return is a full length novel), we get to see the English justice system in action, we learn the difference between barristers and solicitors, and we get to know an extraordinary collection of characters on all sides of the law.  Honestly, if you want the best possible introduction to the glories and tribulations of the law, you could hardly do better than starting with Horace Rumpole.

THE ROAD GOES EVER ON: THE PARADE

Dave Eggers’ new book, The Parade, is a very unusual kind of novel.  It doesn’t have conventional characters, a conventional setting, or most of the accouterments of modern novels, and to top it all off, it’s extremely short, more like a novella than a novel. But after a somewhat slow start, the book sneaks up on you so that by the time you reach the climax, you’re both surprised and moved by what you’ve been reading.

The Parade starts out, and seems to be for most of its length, a simple, fable-like story.  There are two main characters, neither of whom has a name (nobody in the whole book has a name, in fact, which takes some getting used to).  They refer to themselves by numbers, our protagonist being Four and his co-worker being Nine. They’ve been flown in to a place in the middle of a southern part of this unnamed country which has just ended a war.  Their job is to pave a road that joins the southern part of the country, the more rural part, where the recent rebellion took place, with the northern part, the more urban and sophisticated part where the seat of the government was, and is again. The idea is that the country will be united physically after the cease fire, and there will be all kinds of good things coming to the south as a result of this new road, starting with a fancy parade from the north on the preplanned day of the road’s completion.  

From the start, we feel we have a pretty clear idea of what kind of people our main characters are.  Four is a rule-keeper, a man who’s driven the machines that spread the asphalt and paint the lines on the roads for years and years.  He’s worked for this company for, apparently, most of his life, and he sets a high value on doing the job right, not getting distracted, not getting involved with outsiders and being punctual and hardworking.  Nine, whose job is to go ahead of Four on a quad, making sure there are no possible obstructions, living or otherwise, to slow down the paver, the RS-80, on its way, is the opposite of Four. Sloppy where Four is tidy, rash where Four is cautious, willing to ignore the rules when he feels like it, eager to interact with the locals through whose lands they pass, Nine is guaranteed to drive Four to distraction.  Four puts up with Nine’s antics as long as they don’t delay the mission, but he imagines how he’s going to get back at Nine for his insubordination and his recklessness.

Along the way, Nine gets into increasing amounts of trouble, and Four finds himself interacting with the locals much more than he ever intended to do.  He’s suspicious and annoyed at himself for bending, and then breaking, the rules, especially when he does so to help Nine, but gradually (VERY gradually) we come to see some of the human side of Four and see him as more than the Felix Unger of this odd couple.  I have to give Eggers credit here for his use of details: the food Four eats, the way he deals with his tent, the way he plugs his earphones in to blot out the sounds of the rest of the world, are all things we begin to see differently as we get to know the character better.  By the end of the book, I even came to feel some sympathy for Four, rigid as he often seems and acts.

I’m not going to give away the plot. It’s the kind of book that’s better experienced than explained. Suffice it to say that, while I had some intimations about where the story would ultimately go, it still packed a surprising wallop at the climax. If you want a short, relatively quick read that makes you think after you’re finished, check out The Parade.

HOW TO FIX YOUR BOOK GROUP

I’m going to assume, rightly or wrongly, that the people who are interested in reading a blog about books, especially new books, and about library goings-on are also people who tend to belong to book clubs.  I run a book group here at The Field Library myself, and am starting another book group at a nearby Senior Living Community (hi, Drum Hill!), but as a library clerk, I also have dealings with other people who are in different book groups.  When four or five patrons come in within a day of each other, all looking for a particular book, odds are good that they’re trying to get the book for their book club.

Maybe you’ve encountered something like this yourself.  A book is chosen for the group, and of course everybody needs to read it before the next meeting (or at least everybody tries to read it before the next meeting).  You have a choice: you can either buy the book (electronically or in print), or you can try to borrow it from your local library. If you don’t know much about the book and aren’t sure you’re going to want to keep it, or if you’re not the kind of person who wants to accumulate books for whatever reason, or you just don’t want to spend money if you don’t have to (all legitimate aims, by the way), you’re going to go to the library to try to get a copy there.

And then you run into a problem, because the person choosing the book for the group hasn’t checked to see if there are any copies available at the local library.  Maybe it’s a new, popular book, a bestseller even, so the book chooser just assumes every library has it. Probably every library does have it, maybe even a couple of copies of it, but because it’s new and popular, all those copies are checked out, and even if you put it on hold, there might be a number of holds already on the book ahead of you (sometimes hundreds, literally), which decreases your chances of getting the book before your next meeting.  Or maybe it’s an older, more obscure book, and there simply aren’t enough copies in the library system to accommodate all the members of your book group.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  When I offer choices of books to the Field Notes Book Group, I’ve already checked to make sure there are enough copies of that book available in the system (not already checked out, not already on hold) that everyone in the group can get one. You can do this, too: check the catalog and look at the number of copies the library system has of the book, and decide accordingly.  If it’s the hottest book of the month and there are a hundred copies, all of which are checked out, and there are three hundred holds, maybe that’s not the book you want to choose for this month. Maybe you want to wait a couple of months so more copies will be available. Maybe your friendly librarian could suggest another book that is more readily available that would also be a great read and discussion starter.  

My personal feeling is that you shouldn’t have to spend money in order to join a book discussion group.  Reading should be free, and the pleasures of reading a book together and talking about it shouldn’t be limited to people who can afford to buy a new hardcover or e-book every month.  Check out your library before you choose the book. Ask for help. I know I’d be delighted to advise book group leaders on good reading selections that their members can get their hands on quickly.  

Give it a try.  You have nothing to lose but your frustrations.