As many of you know, I am running this year’s Field Library Reading Challenge, the purpose of which is to encourage people to get acquainted with different aspects of the library’s collection and stretch our reading horizons.  From time to time I’ll write about a category here, to give a little more information and insight about what’s good, what I love, in that category (why yes, I did choose some of the categories because they’re the types of books I love myself — why do you ask?). I already did that for Time Travel Books here, and now I’m going to talk about Adult Fairy Tales and some of my personal favorites in this category.

I could almost have filled an entire category with Neil Gaiman’s books; one of the things he’s really good at is creating his own versions of fairy tales, either new takes on old stories (e.g., The Sleeper and the Spindle, which is awesome) or stories of his own which feel like fairy tales (e.g., Neverwhere, which was also made into an excellent BBC mini series).  His collections of short stories include quirky and often dark takes on famous fairy tales, too, so if you’re a short story fan, do check out his collections.  But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorites of his, the excellent (and surprisingly short) The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  I’m not usually a fan of the “framing story”, where the real story is being told by a character in the story, who intrudes at the beginning and the end; I usually find that a clumsy device and think the framing part could be excised easily without any damage to the story. HOWEVER, in this particular case, the framing story really works, and adds depth and poignance to the story you’ve already read.  I don’t want to tell you too much about the plot because I don’t want to spoil it for you.  A middle aged man returns to the scene of his childhood home and remembers an extraordinary period of his life, when terrifying forces converged on his family and the only people who were capable of saving him and his family were three women, a girl who’s apparently his age, an adult woman and an old woman who claims to remember the Big Bang itself.  Gaiman’s prose is gorgeous, his grasp of myth and archetype is amazing, and this is just a terrific book all around.

A very different, but equally wonderful, book is Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, which takes place in a vividly rendered New York City at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th.  Chava is a golem, created by a Polish rabbi who died while he was transporting her with him to America. Ahmad is a jinni, a fire spirit from Syria, only recently released from the bottle that imprisoned him.  The two of them meet and develop an unlikely but poignant relationship as each of them navigates his or her way through their respective cultures and tries to find out his or her origin and purpose in this world.  The book focuses on Yiddish and Middle Eastern folklore, not the usual stuff of fairy tales we’re familiar with, and brings these very different and very unusual characters to life.  

Alaska in the 1920’s doesn’t seem like a likely setting for a fairy tale, but once you’ve read Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, you’ll change your mind. The setting is unusual, but the storyline, about a couple who long for a child of their own and can’t have one the usual way until they build themselves a child out of snow, which then seems to create a real live child, is classic fairy tale stuff. The child, who seems to be a part of the wilderness herself, calls herself Faina, and Jack and Mabel, the couple at the heart of the story, come to love her as if she were their own child, born to them.  However, she isn’t really their child; there’s more to her than any of them know, and as Jack and Mabel discover, fairy tales don’t always end with happily ever after.  This is a book with a wonderful sense of place (a great book to read in the hottest part of summer, because I guarantee you’ll feel cooler just reading it) and a poignant plot with believable characters.

And then there’s Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is the kind of book you dive into and forget your surroundings while you become absorbed in the world of the book. While the main plot of the book concerns Celia and Marco, two young magicians who have been trained practically from birth to be rivals but who find themselves falling in love with each other (to the consternation of their mysterious mentors), it is the circus world in which they live that really stays with you after you finish the book.  The circus itself is mysterious and wondrous, appearing without warning in a place and then disappearing just as quickly, only open at night, and filled with the most amazing things, the sort of acts and displays you will never find anywhere else. There’s magic here, in the plot, in the descriptions of the circus, in the whole world Morgenstern’s created, and yes, there is a very satisfying ending (though I’m not sure I would go as far as to say it’s a Happily Ever After ending, all things considered).  A book club favorite and an absorbing read, The Night Circus is the best kind of adult fairy tale.





It should be no secret to anyone who knows me or anyone who’s read this blog that I am a HUGE fan of Neil Gaiman, the brilliant writer of fantasy and the creator of the extraordinary Sandman series of graphic novels (if you have not read Sandman and have any interest in graphic novels, stop right here and run, don’t walk, to get your hands on the series; you’ll thank me for this).  One of the areas in which he’s long been interested is the Norse myths (though he’s also interested in Greek/Roman myths and fairy tales and Shakespeare and lots of other things), which you could tell, not only from the Sandman series but from his Hugo award winning book American Gods (Mr. Wednesday, anyone?), and so it is with great joy that I announce that Neil Gaiman has just published a new book called Norse Mythology, and it’s available right here at the Field Library.


For those who are unfamiliar with Norse mythology, as compared to the more commonly known Greek/Roman mythology, or whose knowledge of Norse Mythology comes from the Marvel movies about Thor, Gaiman’s book is a great place to acquaint yourself with a universe of giants and dwarves, deities, battles and prophecies, and the great battle of Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and the birth of a new universe.  Meet Odin the All-Seeing, meet Thor, Odin’s son, very strong but not necessarily the brightest of gods, and meet Loki, son of giants, a master manipulator and trickster, among other famous and infamous characters, and follow the arc of the gods from the beginning of the world to their inevitable end.  And the fact that it’s all told by Neil Gaiman, in his inimitable voice with his novelistic brilliance and wit, just makes it more fun.  


If you, like me, have a taste for the odd, the hard-to-characterize, the quirky, then you’re in the right place. This month the library has quite a selection of odd, hard-to-describe and downright weird books for your reading pleasure (and, sometimes, to enable you to say, “What on earth is going on in this book and why am I enjoying it so much?”).


There’s enough oddball stuff going on in late Victorian and early Edwardian era England that the temptation to bring Sherlock Holmes into the strange corners of that world has to be irresistible.  James Lovegrove is not the first to combine Sherlock Holmes with H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos (Neil Gaiman did it earlier, in the brilliant short story, “A Study in Emerald,” to be found in his collection , Fragile Things, which is wonderful and also available in the Field Library), but there’s plenty of room for more than one Holmes-Cthulhu pastiche in the world. With that in mind, let’s welcome Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows, which takes us to the beginning of the famous detective’s career, and places him in an environment in which there’s an outbreak of insanity in London’s East End, reducing ordinary people to gibbering wrecks, and a strange creeping fog hiding what could be terrifying apparitions.  Holmes, as we all know, focuses his attention on reality and not superstition, and so he believes these odd phenomena are connected to a sinister new drug lord from the East, extending his empire to London.  However, this is one time when eliminating the impossible is more difficult than Holmes imagines, and he finds himself dealing with something much bigger and stranger than a mere criminal.  This is the first book in what should be a most entertaining (if quirky) series, so get in on the ground floor now.


And while we’re talking about late Victorian horrors, let’s not forget one of my favorites, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, fodder for generations of imitations and homages, and now the source for a new book, The Jekyll Revelation, by Robert Masello.  Rafael Salazar, in modern day California, is an environmental scientist on a routine patrol in Topanga Canyon who happens to find an antique trunk instead of a poacher.  The trunk contains, among other things, a handwritten journal by Robert Louis Stevenson, discussing the details of how he came to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and insinuating that he has information about the true identity of Jack the Ripper.  The trunk also contains a small bottle containing the last of Dr. Jekyll’s infamous potion, and there are others in modern California who are very interested in that formula, and not for purely altruistic purposes.  The story alternates between Rafe’s current situation and excerpts from Stevenson’s journal, building suspense as monsters from the past prepare to rise again in the present.


Perhaps you’re interested in something less dark, especially around the holiday season.  If so, then turn your attention to Fannie Flagg’s newest book, The Whole Town’s Talking.  Fannie Flagg is probably best known for her book (turned into a movie) Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, so quirky is pretty much her middle name. The Whole Town’s Talking starts with an interesting premise: the deceased residents of this small town in Missouri are waking up underground and reconnecting with their living loved ones, over the course of 150 years.  Naturally, when you’re talking about that long a period, the living and the dead get used to this kind of interaction (come on, admit it: you’re interested in reading it just from that premise — I certainly am) and take it more or less for granted.  Until one day when the deceased residents start disappearing for good, and the living in the town have to investigate and discover what’s happening and whether it can be stopped — or whether it should be stopped. Billed as “a surprising story of life, afterlife and the mysterious goings-on of ordinary people,” The Whole Town’s Talking gives a different perspective on our ordinary world.


Perhaps you’ve never heard of the great Baron Hieronymous von Munchausen, a larger than life character famous throughout Europe during the 19th century for his tall tales (you might have come across him in the 1988 movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, directed by Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame), but if you’re in the mood to make his acquaintance, try The Return of Munchausen, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, new to the Field Library, in which the Baron reappears in 20th century Europe, just around the time of World War I.  What could be more absurd to the Baron than the machinations and tenuous peace in Europe after the horrors of war, and where would imagination be more valuable?  If it’s not possible for the baron to change the future of Europe through diplomacy, perhaps he can hold up a mirror to its absurdities and cause the people in power to reconsider their disastrous courses, and in the meantime, he will continue to be larger than life and stand up for the power of imagination to its most absurd extent.