THE BEST BAND THAT NEVER EXISTED: DAISY JONES & THE SIX

I don’t know whether you’re the type of person who pays attention to celebrity book selections or not. Working in The Field Library, I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that most of these famous people’s book groups aren’t really creating the kind of “everybody has to read this book right now because this person chose it” that Oprah’s club did when it was first starting. Even Oprah’s books don’t create that kind of wild enthusiasm anymore.  However, sometimes it’s good to know which books are going to get the buzz of a celebrity endorsement, and the next book club selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club is Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and it looks as if it’s going to be a fun read.

It’s hard for me to think about books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s as “historical” novels (I was growing up then! That can’t be history! History happened before I was born!), but as a matter of fact, the world of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, where Daisy Jones is set, is different enough from the modern world as to seem like a different world, not only a different time, and Reid captures that era with loving attention to detail.

Daisy Jones is a would-be singer, living in Los Angeles, sneaking into clubs on the Strip, sleeping with rock stars, doing drugs and drinking, and dreaming of becoming a star herself. The Six is an up and coming band, led by the somewhat emo (not a term then, of course) Billy Dunne.  It’s only when Daisy joins The Six that they become major stars, and naturally there’s chemistry and drama between Daisy and Billy, there’s the obligatory sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the meteoric rise and the tragic fall of the band. The whole thing is told as a faux oral history, with interviews (note to those doing this year’s challenge: this would count as an epistolary novel) with different people involved in the story. There’s even a playlist at the end of the book for those who want the complete musical experience.

This is a book people are going to be talking about, so get a jump on the conversation (as soon as our new system comes up — March 14) and pick up a copy of Daisy Jones & the Six.

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NEW AND EXCITING HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

While we’re waiting for the Westchester Library System to make the full transition to its new software, and all the books released after February 18 are finally available (and not just sitting on a table in the back of the library, waiting for cataloging!), let’s focus some attention on books released before the freeze.  In this particular case, I want to call your attention to some of the newest history books available here at the Field, ranging from England in the 1600’s to Revolutionary War era America, to Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls, takes us to the era of one of the most famous witch hunts in English history, the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 (a good 80 years before our own famous Salem witch trials), through the persons of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a young wife trying to find a way to survive her latest pregnancy, and Alice Gray, a midwife promising to help her.  As the fear of witchcraft heightens in the countryside, Alice falls under suspicion, and Fleetwood is forced to wonder whether this woman is really just the healing woman she says she is or whether her skills come from a pact with the devil. And in either case, if Alice is in danger of being tried and executed as a witch, how will Fleetwood and her baby survive?  A different look at witch trials, The Familiars asks the question of how much witch scares were reflections of fears about women in general.

If I told you that Dear George, Dear Mary, by Mary Calvi, is about our first President, odds are that you’d be thinking “Mary? You mean Martha, don’t you?”  After all, we all know that Martha Washington was George Washington’s wife. However, before he was President, before he knew or married Martha Dandridge Custis, George Washington fell in love with another woman, Mary Philipse, a New York heiress and one of the richest women in North America (the name Philipse should sound familiar to people like me who live in Westchester County). The novel, based on hundreds of letters and journal entries and other primary sources, gives us a different portrait of the Founding Father, not only his private life but also the origins of his feelings about Great Britain and the sources of the greatness he would demonstrate in the American Revolution and later.  Why George didn’t marry Mary Philipse, what happened to Mary, and how the two of them lived their respective destinies is the heart of this fascinating historical novel.

Want to go a little farther afield in your historical fiction?  How about trying Alan Brennert’s sequel to his bestselling Moloka’i, the newly published Daughter of Moloka’i, which takes place in Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.  The protagonist, Ruth, was born in the leper colony at Kalaupapa to a woman suffering from leprosy, and given up for adoption.  Adopted by a Japanese couple who raise her on a grape and stawberry farm in California (you have an idea where this is going, don’t you?), Ruth is sent to the internment camp at Manzanar.  After the war, however, she is contacted by Rachel, who claims to be her biological mother, and comes to discover the truth about her past, and about Rachel’s life in the leper colony. The two women, separated for most of Ruth’s life, find their similarities and their differences and the great love that binds them together despite everything.

 

EXPLORING THE DARK SECRETS OF THE PAST: THE NEXT FIELD NOTES SELECTION

After a vigorous and interesting discussion of The Kinship of Secrets, talking about secrets and families, about the differences between cultures and within cultures, about what constitutes good writing and what doesn’t, the Field Notes Book Group chose our book for our March meeting, which will take place at The Field Library on March 16 at 11:00.  The book is A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick.  Copies will be available at the circulation desk this week.

A Reliable Wife is a historical novel set in the turn of the century rural Wisconsin, where Ralph Truitt, a rich man haunted by tragedy, has sent for a woman to be a “reliable wife.” The woman who has answered his ad is not what she seems, though: Catherine Land is no simple honest woman, but a woman with a dark past and secrets of her own, whose intentions with respect to Ralph are sinister in the extreme.  However, Ralph isn’t the easily manipulated rube she thought she was marrying, and the two of them will develop their own strange and twisted relationship, where nothing comes out the way either of them expects.

Come and join us for what promises to be a fascinating exploration of human nature and human deception.  We will have the usual snacks and coffee and scintillating company on March 16 at The Field Library.

 

FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION

The kind of historical fiction I particularly enjoy is the type where the author takes something famous, something most people know about in a vague sense, and, by looking at it from a different perspective, brings it to new life.  Whether it’s The Wizard of Oz movie being made, or the home front in England during World War I, two new historical novels here at The Field Library bring us those kinds of new insights.

L. Frank Baum is well known, and deservedly so, for having written The Wizard of Oz, though probably more people these days are familiar with the 1939 movie made from the book. Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts, brings us to the period when the movie was being made, seeing the events through the eyes of Maud Baum, the widow of L. Frank Baum.  Coming to Hollywood to try to make sure the movie remains true to the spirit of her husband’s book, Maud remembers her past with Frank, her days as a Suffragist, and her attempt to save the girl who was the model for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Seeing Judy Garland rehearsing for the role of Dorothy, Maud feels the need to try to protect her, from the studio, from her stage mother, from the pressures all around her, and maybe save her as she couldn’t save the real Dorothy. Finding Dorothy is a rich look at the lives behind the famous story, and a portrait of a real woman’s fierce struggle against the constraints of her time and her role.

Rhys Bowen, author of the new book, The Victory Garden, is no stranger to historical fiction, between her Molly Murphy mystery series, set in New York around the turn of the century and her previous books set during World War II (In Farleigh Field and The Tuscan Child), she clearly has a talent for bringing the past to life.  The Victory Garden is set in England during World War I (the Great War, as they called it then), with the character of Emily Bryce eager to do her part to help her country in time of war, despite her parents’ strenuous opposition.  She falls in love with an Australian pilot at a local hospital, and when he’s sent back to the front, she finds work as a Land Girl, tending a large Devonshire estate. She discovers she’s pregnant, she’s not married, and her lover has died a hero’s death in the war, a devastating combination of blows. Pretending to be a war widow, Emily grows up quickly, inspired by her work and the community of people, mostly women, surrounding her.  For those of us who are fans of Rhys Bowen, picking up this book is a no-brainer. For historical fiction fans who haven’t yet encountered her, this is an excellent place to make her acquaintance.

 

 

TRULY UNIQUE WESTERN MYSTERY: THE BEST BAD THINGS

If you’re bored by the usual detective stories or the usual historical novels, or if you think you’ve seen it all in westerns, do we have a book for you!  The Best Bad Things, by Katrina Carrasco, is a unique combination of mystery, western and historical fiction, with some gender fluidity and cross-dressing thrown in to make it still more interesting.

The setting is Port Townsend in 1887, a wild and woolly frontier town in Washington State.

Our main character, Alma Rosales, is quite a character. She had been trained by the legendary Pinkerton Detective Agency as a detective, but got fired for bad behavior, including her penchant for disguising herself as a man.  She then switched sides in the war on crime, coming to work for Delphine Beaumond, her former lover and now the head of an opium smuggling operation. When a shipment of opium goes missing, Delphine wants it tracked down and Alma is delighted to take the job.  Disguising herself as Jack Camp, she infiltrates the opium gang, gaining the trust (she thinks) of the union boss (a man who’s very interesting to her for other reasons as well) and her fellow workers, finding out what happened to the opium and who’s the traitor in the organization, while at the same time sending messages to the Pinkerton investigators who are closing in on the gang, trying to dissuade them from cracking down just yet.  

She’s having fun playing all these different roles, but as double crosses and betrayals mount up and it becomes harder and harder to tell who’s on whose side, Alma runs the risk of letting something slip and being uncovered as a spy, a traitor, a woman, in an environment where any of those things could cause her destruction.

A complicated plot, a vivid and detailed setting, and a main character like few others in mysteries, westerns OR historical novels make this one to check out.

 

A MAGICAL VERSION OF THE FOUNDING OF LIBERIA

What genre would you think you were in if you had characters who could  survive being bitten by a viper and left for dead, who showed superhuman strength, or who could fade into invisibility when called by the earth?  What if this same book showed characters surviving slavery in America and in Jamaica, joining together with an African exile to help create a new nation for freed American slaves? If you’re thinking this is magical realism mixed with historical fiction, that’s probably as close as you can come to characterizing the newest book selection for Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club, She Would Be King, by Wayetu Moore.

Gbessa, the one who, if she were a man, would be king (the title of the book), is a witch who, it turns out, cannot die.  She’s been exiled from her West African village, starved, bitten by a viper and left for dead, but she survives it all and makes her way to Monrovia, the settlement that will be the capital of the nation of Liberia.  June Dey is a slave on a plantation in Virginia, and he has been hiding his superhuman strength from everyone until one day when he is pushed to his limits by an overseer and ends up having to flee the country. Norman Aragon is the child of a white British colonizer and a Jamaican slave, and he has the power to fade into near invisibility when the earth calls upon him, as his mother did before him  These three characters meet in the jungles outside of Monrovia, in what will become Liberia, and realize (with some help from the wind, which is the narrator of the book and a character in its own right) that their special talents need to be joined together to help them and their people overcome the barriers that keep them oppressed.

Not many people know about Liberia, about its founding as a homeland for freed American slaves, or about the difficult issues that arose when once again a colonizing power set new people into a land that was already occupied by other people who had been living there for centuries.  She Would Be King is not, strictly speaking, historical fiction (there’s too much magic in it for that), but it is a debut novel that serves as an introduction to the historical reality of the founding and early days of the nation of Liberia and its close relationship over the years with the United States of America. A novel with a huge canvas and a sweeping sense of history and of the African diaspora, She Would Be King is a fascinating choice for Sarah Jessica Parker, and for adventurous readers here as well.

MERCHANTS, COURTESANS AND 18TH CENTURY ENGLAND: THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK

If you’re in the mood for an intriguing historical novel that peers into all the shadowy places of England in the early stages of the British Empire, and that brings to life characters you don’t ordinarily encounter in historical fiction, then take a look at The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowen, a debut novel that will take you to a different world.

Jonah Hancock is a prosperous merchant in 1780’s London.  One night he’s startled to learn that one of his ship’s captains has sold the entire ship (without Hancock’s knowledge or consent, of course) in order to buy something unique: a mermaid.  When the captain shows Jonah the “mermaid” in question, it’s not what he expects (nor what we expect): instead of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, it’s a dead creature, the size of a baby, brown, with scary teeth and claws and a fish tail.  Since he can’t get back his ship, Jonah makes the best of what he’s got, and decides to charge people to come and look at his mermaid.

His mermaid becomes a sensation, and he is invited to display it at a very exclusive house run by one Mrs. Chappell. What he doesn’t realize until after he’s brought his mermaid there is that this is a house of prostitution (one of many things he’s never had any experiences with before).

Angelica Neal is a beautiful and desirable woman, sophisticated in the ways of a certain segment of London society.  She is in fact a courtesan who, until very recently, was the mistress of a rich man who died and made no provision for her after his death.  That’s not an unusual situation for someone in Angelica’s position, but it does put her in a position where she needs to make a change and take care of herself when she meets Jonah and his mermaid.

While Jonah is a fairly traditional and strait laced sort of man, ultimately he ends up marrying Angelica, and even hunting for a real mermaid for her, as the book takes a slight turn into magical realism (from the realism that fills the rest of the book).

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has been compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and, for a more recent example, of Sarah Waters, for its large cast of fascinating characters and its  immersive rendering of the world of late 18th century England.  Take a vacation from the 21st century in the very capable hands of Imogen 

SCANNING A CENTURY: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD FOR SEPTEMBER

When it comes to historical fiction, there are so many different periods you can experience, and three new books that just arrived at The Field Library will give you diverse and fascinating views into the past.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird, shows us an aspect of African American history we don’t often see. Based on a true story, it starts in pre-Civil War Missouri, where Cathy Williams has been taught by her mother to never see herself as a slave, but as a prisoner, the daughter of a daughter of a queen in Africa, a warrior who is destined by her blood to escape her captivity. With that attitude, she joins the service of Union General Philip Sheridan, and, by the end of the war, makes the momentous decision that she’s not going back to servitude.  She disguises herself as a man and joins the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers. She knows what would be likely to happen to her if her deception is discovered by her fellow soldiers, so in addition to the dangers that come with being a soldier in general, and fighting Native Americans on the frontier in particular, she has to navigate the dangers of keeping her gender a secret, and at the same time, she’s looking for her mother and sister, from whom she was separated when she left the farm in Missouri. Cathy is a real heroine, a woman who won’t let anyone get in the way of her doing what she needs to do, and if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through late 19th century American history, then you should check out Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.

Moving ahead in time, The Glass Ocean, written by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White, turns on the fatal last voyage of the RMS Lusitania.  The book twines the life of a woman in the present day with the lives of two women who were on the Lusitania in 1915.  Sarah Blake opens a locked chest belonging to her great grandfather, who died in the German attack on the Lusitania, and discovers a secret that might change history.  She travels to England to meet up with a disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might have a clue that will clear up the mystery. Back in 1915, two very different women are traveling on the ill-fated Lusitania.  One, Caroline Hochstetter, took the voyage to try to re-spark her marriage with her industrialist husband, only to meet up with an old friend (the ancestor of the Member of Parliament Sarah is meeting with in the present time) who’s causing her to re-evaluate her whole life and decide whether to change everything.  The other woman, Tennessee Schaff, is masquerading as an English lady returning home; she’s a con woman pulling what her partner claims is one last scam before they can retire, but she feels there’s something wrong with this scam, and with her partner, something he’s not telling her. The three lives intertwine, with the tragedy of the Lusitania looming large over all their fates.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, takes us into the darkest days of World War II. Lale Sokolov is a Slovakian Jew transported to Auschwitz.  When the Nazis discover he speaks numerous languages, they put him to work as a tattooist for all the incoming prisoners. Imprisoned there for two and a half years, Lale is witness to the worst of human behavior, and some of its brightest moments.  He figures out ways to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews to get food to keep others from starving to death, risking his own life (and his privileged position in the camp) to do so. He meets a fellow prisoner, Gita, and while he’s tattooing her number, he falls in love with her and determines that he’s going to survive and make sure she survives so they can escape the camp and marry.  Based on a true story, The Tattooist of Auschwitz gives us a different view into the horrors of the Holocaust, and the human will to survive and love even in the darkest times.

NEW HISTORICAL FICTION: POST WAR EFFECTS

Two new books of historical fiction touch on World War II (one of them also dives into World War I), but obliquely, from the point of view of people not directly engaged in the fighting but still deeply affected by the war.  

Kate Quinn’s new book, The Alice Network, is one of those historical novels where there are two storylines that eventually converge.  This is a trend in modern historical fiction (consider Before We Were Yours, for instance, or Orphan Train, for another example), and in this case one story takes place in 1947, just after World War II, and the other takes place during World War I.  Both stories center around women and the effects of war. The first protagonist we meet is Charlie (short for Charlotte) St. Clair, an American college student who finds herself unmarried and pregnant; when her mother takes her to Europe to “take care of” her pregnancy, she takes off instead to try to find out what really happened to her beloved cousin, Rose, who disappeared during World War II and whom everybody else believes is dead.  In the course of her search, Charlie finds Eve Gardiner. Eve is an older woman, continually drunk, bitter and miserable, suffering from nightmares of her past, and she has no interest in helping this frivolous young thing, until Charlie mentions some names Eve hadn’t heard in too long. Eve, it turns out, was recruited in 1915 into the Alice Network, a group of female spies in German-occupied France, a group that operated, unseen, right under the noses of the German army.  It was very exciting and very effective until the group was betrayed, and Eve still carries the emotional wounds from the way the network was destroyed. The book shifts back and forth between Eve’s thrilling work behind enemy lines and Charlie’s desperate efforts to find the truth about her cousin, until finally the two stories connect. While Eve and Charlie are fictional characters, the Alice Network really existed, and the author provides, in an endnote, information about the historical basis for the story.

If you judged a book by its cover (always a risky thing to do), you might think Eagle & Crane, by Suzanne Rindell, is a romance, maybe a historical romance, but you’d be underestimating the breadth of this historical novel if you did.  Louis Thorn and Haruto “Harry” Yamada are young men who grew up on neighboring farms in California during the Great Depression, their families rivals because Louis’ father believes Harry’s family “stole” land from their family (and the better, more fertile, land at that). But Louis and Harry both find themselves working as stunt men in Earl Shaw’s Flying Circus, a biplane show barnstorming around the countryside, not entirely legally.  They also find themselves rivals for the love of Ada Brooks, Earl Shaw’s stepdaughter. Then comes the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the internment of Japanese Americans, and Harry and his family are sent to one of the camps, from which Harry and his father manage to escape. While the government is investigating that escape, one of the biplanes from the show crashes and burns, the two Japanese men inside it burned to death. Of course it’s Harry and his father, according to everybody but the FBI agent assigned to the case. There are details that don’t add up and he begins investigating the crash and Harry’s past, and that leads him (and us) to the tangled relationships between the Eagle and Crane, and the truth about what really happened, leading up to that plane crash.

 

MONEY, POWER, CLASS AND INTRIGUE: THE SUMMER WIVES

Winthrop Island, a fictitious island off the New England coast in the Long Island Sound, is the setting for Beatriz Williams’ new book, The Summer Wives. It’s a place where the rich come to summer, drink cocktails and keep away from the hoi polloi.  It is also a place where the locals, who are Portuguese and working class, live year round and spend their summers working for the rich people, but other than the necessary interactions of employer-employee, the two groups could be living on different planets for all they know of each other.

Such an environment, of course, is ripe for drama, and Williams stirs it up expertly. We start with Miranda Schuyler in 1951 arriving on the island for her mother’s wedding to Hugh Fisher, one of the richest and most influential of the rich crowd.  Still mourning her father’s death in World War II, Miranda needs a guide to the intricacies of the social scene on Winthrop, which her new stepsister, Isobel, is more than happy to provide.

Naturally, Miranda is also intrigued by the locals, and in particular one local, Joseph Vargas, whose father runs the lighthouse that’s overlooked by Fisher’s mansion. Joseph had been involved in an intense friendship (or possibly something more than that) with Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s stepsister, but he and Miranda start a relationship of their own, a relationship that is doomed when Hugh Fisher is murdered and Joseph is charged with the murder.

Fast forward twenty years.  Miranda has been away from the island for two decades, living a life as a famed Shakespearean actress, but in the aftermath of a disastrous relationship, she’s coming back to Winthrop to find herself again.  It happens that Joseph Vargas has escaped from prison and is also heading back to WInthrop. Things have changed a lot on the island, but some things remain the same, and now Miranda is determined to find out the truth about what happened to her stepfather all those years before, to exonerate the man she loved, no matter what may happen when deep secrets of the rich and famous are exposed, even by someone who was almost one of their own.

A historical novel that’s also a good summer read, with secrets, intrigue, The Summer Wives is just the book to take with you on vacation or for a long hot weekend.