DOUBLE YOUR PLEASURE, DOUBLE YOUR DANGER: THE PUNCH ESCROW

The concept of teleportation has been a part of speculative fiction for decades, usually with a certain amount of hand-waving to explain exactly how it works. Sometimes it’s treated as a means to an end, the way in Star Trek the characters could go from the ship to a planet surface or to another ship without a lot of wasted time. But sometimes, as in The Punch Escrow, a new science fiction book by Tal M. Klein, the actual consequences of using a teleportation device are at the heart of the story.

Joel Byram, the protagonist of the book, is an ordinary guy by the standards of his time (the year 2147). He doesn’t need to worry about aging, thanks to nanobots, or about air pollution, thanks to genetically modified mosquitos (come on, wouldn’t you like to read this book just to see mosquitos being useful for a change?), and transportation is simple and fast, thanks to the teleportation industry run by the world’s most powerful corporation, International Transport. He himself is working in the field of artificial intelligence, trying to make machines act more human.  Because human nature hasn’t changed all that much in the next hundred years, he is also trying to save his deteriorating marriage.

And then one day he’s involved in a teleportation accident, and suddenly there are TWO Joel Byrams running around where there should only be one, and his life is a complete mess.  He’s on the run from International Transport, which does not want the actual mechanics of teleportation to be made public, and he’s also on the run from a religious sect that’s trying to destroy teleportation altogether, AND he’s trying to get back to his wife, who at this point doesn’t realize that there are two Joel Byrams when she might not want either of them.

 

LESS IS MORE

Who hasn’t been in a situation like that of Arthur Less, the protagonist of Andrew Sean Greer’s new book, Less?  All right, we might not all have been sent an invitation to the wedding of our former lover to his new, younger boyfriend when we’re turning fifty and already feeling panicky and irrelevant to the world, but we all know what it’s like to be facing an awkward social situation when we’re already feeling kind of vulnerable, and we all, I think, have felt the impulse to run for our lives to avoid the situation, even if that means we’re running into even more difficult circumstances which are more or less guaranteed to make us into complete fools.

Arthur Less has more than romantic failures to make him feel inadequate.  He’s also a novelist who has never really cracked the big time (people over the course of the book ask him how it feels to know he’s just mediocre), and the big 5-0 looms over him like a thundercloud.  He dithers about the invitation to his former lover’s wedding. On one hand, he doesn’t think he can sit through it without dying of humiliation. On the other hand, he knows that if he just says no to the invitation, everybody at the wedding and reception are going to think he’s bitter, he’s jealous, he just can’t cope (even if all those things are true, he doesn’t want people to think that).  He comes up with what he thinks is a brilliant solution to the problem: instead of simply turning down the wedding invitation, he’s going to accept all these other invitations that are waiting for him, invitations to various writerly events in different parts of the world. He’s going to go on an around-the-world trip that’s (vaguely) work related, and that will prove he’s not trying to avoid his ex lover’s wedding.

Well, you know that’s not going to work. You know, even before reading this charming and funny book, that his various adventures in different parts of the world are all going to go awry, and he’s going to be involved in more humorous disasters than the most hapless P.G. Wodehouse hero. And yet, like the best P. G. Wodehouse heroes, Arthur is sufficiently charming and lovable that you find yourself rooting for him in the midst of all the things going wrong, and hoping that he will win himself a happy ending.  

 

CALIFORNIA AND SOUTHERN DREAMING: NEW THRILLERS

This week we have three new thrillers by authors who are old hands at the suspense/thriller genre, set in California and in the deep South.  Serial killers, sexual harassment and retaliation, newfangled bank robbery and old-fashioned corruption: these three books have it all.

Let’s start in the South, specifically in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, where Ace Atkins’ new book, The Fallen, takes place.  Sheriff Quinn Tolson and his able assistant, Lillie Virgil, are faced with some very slick, very well-prepared bank robbers who are almost supernaturally good at hitting a bank and then disappearing before the law can begin to catch up to them, almost as if they were professionals, almost as if they were following the rules of the Army Rangers, Tolson’s former military outfit. Trying to catch the skillful robbers is complicated by the maneuverings of the county’s truck stop madam, and the self-righteous county official who vows to put the madam out of business, together with an appearance from the old-school Dixie mafia and the disappearance of two teenage boys who might just be the key to solving all these crimes.  If you’ve been reading the continuation of Robert Parker’s Spencer series, written by Atkins, you know the man can paint a vivid picture of Boston, but his heart is definitely in Dixie, as you’ll discover when you dive into the Southern Fried Crime of The Fallen.

What would the suspense and thriller genre be without a good serial killer or two?  Iris Johansen and Roy Johansen, no strangers to the world of killers and those who stalk them, have come up with quite a serial killer in Look Behind You. Kendra Michaels, the protagonist of the book, lives in San Diego when a serial killer starts leaving what at first seem odd, disconnected objects at the scenes of each of his murders, all of which, disturbingly, take place around Kendra’s home and office. She’s not surprised when the FBI comes to question her about the crimes, and she’s more than ready to cooperate, especially when she discovers that the objects aren’t random after all: they’re artifacts from other unsolved serial killer cases around the country, and, to make them worse, they’re all things which were known only to the police working on those cases and never revealed to the general public.  As Kendra works with the FBI to find and stop this killer, she becomes more and more convinced that she is, in some way, a target herself, that the killer is specifically trying to communicate with her and that he might even be one of the people supposedly working to catch the killer.

You would be forgiven for assuming, when you see the name of Michael Connelly on the cover of a new thriller, that you’re going to be reading a new Harry Bosch novel, but you will be surprised to discover that the protagonist of his newest book, The Late Show, is in some ways very different from Bosch, though still a compelling character. Renee Ballard is a Los Angeles police officer, but ever since she reported her supervisor for sexual harassment, she’s been relegated to what’s contemptuously known as the Late Show, the overnight shift. There she and her coworkers may catch interesting cases, but at the end of the shift they have to hand them over to the day shift officers, so they never actually finish any of their cases. To someone as driven and dedicated as Renee, this is totally unacceptable (especially since she is essentially being punished for doing the right thing).  So when she catches two cases, one involving a brutal torture and near murder of a transgender woman, and the other involving a non-terrorist but still appalling shooting at a nightclub, she decides she’s not going to give them up. She’ll still do her regular night shift, but she’s also going to continue to investigate those two cases during the day (sleep?  Who needs sleep?), without the permission of her supervisors, and mostly without their knowledge.  Tough and determined as she is, Renee intends to follow both cases to their resolution, no matter what the bad guys or her own department throw at her.

COOL OFF WITH SOUTH POLE STATION AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

I don’t know about you, but when it gets hot and sticky as it has been this late July, the thought of going somewhere cool, maybe even somewhere that’s actually COLD, is awfully appealing.  Which is why the new novel, South Pole Station, by Ashley Shelby, strikes me as a great late summer read, if only for the concept.

Would YOU go and live at the South Pole for a whole season, no matter how messed up your life might be otherwise?  Knowing that the average temperature is -54 degrees fahrenheit and that there’s no sunshine for six months of the year and that you would be living with a group of people who have in common very little beyond the quirks that might allow them to survive in such an extreme environment, what would it take for you to take that leap?

Cooper Gosling, the protagonist of South Pole Station, is looking for an escape, though perhaps she might have been able to do something a little less drastic.  She’s thirty, she just lost a family member to suicide, her artistic career is foundering and her love life isn’t much better.  To her own surprise, she passes the test to determine whether she could handle living in Antarctica, and she decides to go for it, and really get away from it all.

Basically, you have all the charms and quirks and potential problems of living in a small community of people who have nowhere else to go, mixed with the extreme physical environment of the South Pole. There are certainly a number of quirky people at the station with Cooper, including a cook with deep, Machiavellian ambitions, an attractive astrophysicist, and the gay black station manager who keeps things moving.  When Cooper finds herself befriending a new scientist whose goal is to disprove global warming (to the dismay and hostility of the other climate scientists at the station), she nearly upends all the conventions of the station and risks her own status and even her work there.

When the weather is so beastly hot and humid that you feel you’re walking through blood just to get across the street, check out South Pole Station.  Come for the cold (and descriptions of the cold), stay for the humor and the heart.

YOUR CHILDHOOD JUST GOT WEIRDER: MEDDLING KIDS

There are, I believe, two kinds of people.  One kind will hear the description of the book, Meddling Kids, by Edgar Cantero, as “Scooby Doo meets H. P. Lovecraft,” and say, “where is it? I want to read it immediately if not sooner!” and the other kind will roll eyes and say, “What kind of mind comes up with nonsense like this?”  Since I’m the one who bought Meddling Kids  for the Field Library’s shelves, you can guess which group I identify with (and you probably could have guessed that from reading this blog over the last couple of years).  So, if you’re of the “what kind of mind comes up with nonsense like this?” group, feel free to skip this post and read something else instead.

For the rest of us, the very name of the book conjures up memories of the climax of nearly every Scooby Doo episodes in which the unmasked villain snarls, “I would have gotten away with it, too, except for those meddling kids!”  Now, imagine if, just once, the mystery WASN’T the result of some jerk in a mask pretending to be a ghost or a monster or whatever the creature of the week was.  Imagine what would have happened if there really was something supernatural going on.

Thirteen years after their last, ostensibly successful, mystery solution, the Blyton Summer Detective Club has dissolved and the members have gone their separate ways, although none of them has found life after the club to be what they expected. In some cases, life after their days of mystery solving has been an absolute disaster.  Andy, the lesbian Latina who’s on the run from the law in two states, decides it’s time to get the gang back together and confront, finally, those haunting loose ends that nearly destroyed them when they spent that last night together in the haunted house thirteen years before. She finds Kerri, the brainiac of the group who’s now a bartender fending off amorous drunks and living with Tim, a Weimaraner descended from the original mascot of the group, and they find Nate, who’s checked himself into the Arkham Asylum years ago (the more astute will recognize another famous reference here), who claims to be in touch with the handsome jock of the group, Peter, who committed suicide years ago. It’s time for them to face their demons, maybe literally, and get past the horrors that nearly broke them back in the day.

This is not a book for everybody, obviously, but if you have a somewhat dark sense of humor and a soft spot in your heart for the teenage mystery solvers of the past (not just the Scooby Doo crew, either; keep your eyes open for references to other famous crime-solving teens) and a love for things weird and Lovecraftian, you’ll definitely want to check out Meddling Kids.

DEATH IS JUST THE BEGINNING: AFTERLIFE

The question of what, if anything, comes after death has fascinated people for thousands of years, and over the years people have come up with all kinds of cosmologies that supposedly answer that question.  This isn’t just the province of philosophy and theology, either; novelists have been creating their own visions of the afterlife for ages as well (for a truly unique vision, I recommend Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, which is also available at the Field Library).  And now Markus Sakey has written a thriller which is also a romance and a speculative fiction novel on the subject, called Afterlife, and if you’re interested in a new take on post-death existence, this is a book not to miss.

Afterlife starts as a thriller: a pair of FBI agents, Will Brody and his supervisor, Claire McCoy, are in Chicago, investigating a terrorist who has already killed 18 people and thrown the whole country into a state of panic. In the midst of this investigation, the two find themselves falling in love and planning for Will to retire from the FBI so that he and Claire can get married without compromising her career.

All of which is thrown into disarray when Will is killed by an explosion set by the sniper he and Claire have been chasing down. From Claire’s point of view, this is a nightmare that renders her already difficult job almost unbearable. For Will, this is the beginning of something new. He wakes up without a scratch to a different Chicago, dark and seemingly abandoned. There are no cars, no planes, none of the people he was just standing beside.  There are people here, though, people like him who died suddenly and violently with a lot of life force left.  Some of them, like Will, are decent people looking for another chance, but others are dangerous and violent, and Will needs to figure out how to survive in this afterlife and find a way to reunite himself with Claire.

The manhunt Will was engaged in doesn’t end with his death; it just gets deeper and more complicated. And when Claire joins him, their love is strengthened by their surroundings and the tasks they’ve set themselves, because heroes remain heroic even after death.

Good vs. evil, life after death, love everlasting: if these aren’t things that interest you, then you can skip this book.  Otherwise, dive into a wild and unique world that will give you a whole new perspective on the Afterlife.

WHO ARE YOU REALLY? NEW THRILLERS AT THE FIELD

 

One of the great tropes in thrillers and mysteries is the person who is not what she or he appears to be.  When someone you think you know well turns out to have a secret past or a different life, it can feel as if the earth has moved under your feet, and that’s a great place for a thriller to go.  Several new thrillers came out this week that touch on this theme, coming from different directions, so come to the Field Library and check them out.

Watch Me Disappear, by Janelle Brown, seems, at the beginning, to be a book about how people deal with the loss of someone close to them.  A year ago, Billie Flanagan, a Berkeley woman who seemed to have an enviable life all around, went on a hike and disappeared. Nothing was found but her shattered cell phone and one hiking boot.  In limbo, her husband, Jonathan, drinks too much and is working on a memoir describing how wonderful his wife was. Her daughter, Olive, is withdrawing from her father and from her friends at her all girls’ school.  But then she starts getting visions of her mother, alive, which Jonathan believes at first are signs that she’s suffering a mental disturbance. However, he begins to change his mind as he digs deeper into Billie’s past and finds that he didn’t know her nearly as well as he thought he did, that maybe she was someone completely different. Jonathan and Olive delve into Billie’s life and disappearance, though what they find might not be what they hoped to find.

Nicci French’s Dark Saturday also turns on a tragedy in the past. Ten years ago, the Docherty family was murdered, all but Hannah, the 18 year old daughter, who was obviously responsible for the killings of the rest of her family. An open and shut case, it appeared, and Hannah was obviously mentally ill and not legally responsible for her actions, so she was locked away in a psychiatric hospital. Now psychotherapist Frieda Klein is sent in to do a psychiatric evaluation of Hannah, but she is shocked to see the difference between the woman she expects to meet and the real Hannah she meets. Far from a psychopathic killer, Hannah comes across as tragic and aged before her time, and maybe, just maybe, as much a victim of the events in the family house as the rest of the family.  Frieda starts wondering if Hannah might even be innocent, but as she starts investigating, Frieda discovers there’s someone out there who has a strong interest in keeping the truth hidden, even if that means killing anyone who comes too close to the truth.

It’s very unusual for an Amish man to kill someone else (in fact it’s against everything the Amish believe in), but Joseph King, an Amish man who was seen as “fallen” from the community,  was convicted of killing his wife and sent to prison for it before the beginning of Linda Castillo’s Down a Dark Road.  Kate Burkholder,  the local chief of police, was herself brought up as Amish and knew  and had a crush on Joseph King when they were both younger.  When she finds out that he has escaped from prison and headed for Planter’s Mill, where she works, she and the rest of the police are worried, and when Joseph brings a gun and takes his five children hostage at their uncle’s farm, things go from bad to worse. Kate is on the scene to try to defuse the situation, and Joseph begs her to help him prove his innocence of his wife’s murder, and lets her go. He’s killed in the standoff, but Kate finds herself haunted by his story, by the apparent change between the young man she thought she knew so well and the supposed murderer, and when the facts don’t line up the way the official story says they should, she can’t help trying to discover what really happened, who really killed Joseph’s wife.  It’s an investigation that’s more dangerous than she knows, pitting her against some of her fellow police officers as well as shadowy figures who really don’t want the truth to come out.

 

SIDEKICK TO END ALL SIDEKICKS: NIMONA

I have just had the pleasure of reading Noelle Stevenson’s graphic novel, Nimona, thanks to a recommendation from our excellent Teen Librarian, Sarah Prosser. I can’t believe I’ve never read this before, but now that I have, I want to recommend it to everybody who has (a) a basic knowledge of the superhero genre and (b) a warped sense of humor.

When you start reading the book, you think all these characters are pure stereotypes: the villain (whose name is Lord Ballister Blackheart, talk about obvious!) with the mechanical arm and the elaborate schemes for world conquest, the pure hero (Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin — see what I mean about the names?) with golden curls and the perfect physique, and Nimona, the young would-be sidekick to Lord Blackheart.  However, you don’t have to read long before you realize how the author is undermining these stereotypes (and having a wonderful time with it).

Nimona is a shapeshifter, enthusiastic about the prospect of causing unbelievable destruction, especially when she discovers exactly WHY Goldenloin and Blackheart are enemies. Considering that she can turn into anything from a small bird to a full size dragon (and many things in between, including a cat and a shark and even a duplicate of Blackheart, among others), she’s well-suited to turn any kind of encounter into near apocalyptic chaos.  Her relationship with Blackheart starts out as somewhat antagonistic, since he has rules and she can’t understand why anyone, especially a villain, would restrict himself to following rules set by the Institution (the real villain in the book).  She has a problem with authority in general, a problem with sticking to the plan (and sometimes that inability on her part is good for both of them), and a low tolerance for things she considers boring (in short, she’s almost a stereotypical teenager — if a teenager had nearly infinite powers of shapeshifting), and Blackheart is incredibly frustrated with her at first.  Obviously, over the course of their adventures together, both of them develop a certain affection and each one is ready to sacrifice to protect the other.

There’s something going on between Goldenloin and Blackheart, something beyond the ordinary hero and villain dynamic, and while Stevenson doesn’t spell it out, the argument could be made that they were more than friends before Goldenloin betrayed Blackheart into his life of villainy.  Just as Blackheart and Nimona reveal deeper layers of their characters beyond their stereotypes, even Goldenloin proves to have hidden depths and potentials beyond his good looks and his naive support of the Institute of Law Enforcement and Heroics.

The book is laugh out loud funny in places (mostly toward the beginning, as Nimona and Blackheart are working out the rules of their relationship), and also becomes exciting and even moving by the end. It’s a fast read, and the art is simple but quite evocative. It’s a delight to read, and the fact that it qualifies as an All Ages Comic for the 2017 Reading Challenge is just icing on a delicious cake.

And if you love this book (which of course you will) and want to find more like it, check out Sarah’s brilliant Pathfinder for the book Here.

NONVIOLENCE IN THE FACE OF THE APOCALYPSE: WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL

The question of how you, as an individual and a member of a community, would survive in the event of some major disaster, natural or otherwise, is one that’s provided the energy for all kinds of books and movies, whether the disaster is the rise of zombies, a fire in a high rise building, an invasion by an outside party or whatever. So if I tell you that When the English Fall, by David Williams, is about what happens and how people survive in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, you could be forgiven for rolling your eyes a little and saying, “What, again?”

But what if I tell you that the people who are trying to survive the apocalypse are Amish?  Now THAT makes it a different kind of story.

Told in the form of a diary written by a man named Jacob, the book examines the issues of nonviolence and the preservation of people’s ways of life in the face of extreme stresses.

The apocalyptic event is a massive solar storm that disables all the electronics of modern life, but obviously the lack of electronic devices doesn’t really affect the Amish, who spurn such fripperies. They’re able to continue with their ordinary lives and remain oblivious to the problems suffered by the “English” (translation: anyone who’s not Amish), at least at first.

But the “English” are aware that their Amish neighbors have full storehouses of food, that they’re doing relatively well, and they themselves are in desperate need. They also know that the Amish are historically non-violent, opposed to guns and weapons, and peaceful by culture and upbringing, so it makes sense to some of the more desperate and unethical to raid the farms of the Amish community, more and more violently.

How can the Amish survive if they can’t or won’t fight back against the invaders?  But what will become of them as a people if they turn against their deepest principles in order to survive?

The best post-apocalyptic novels do more than just scare us about our potential vulnerabilities; while they also scare us with the idea of what people are willing to do to survive, the best ones also raise deeper questions about our societies and our values.  Pitting the Amish against the rest of us in a situation of great peril gives us insight into what our modern world has really done to us, and what our true values are.  

 

FRENCH REVOLUTION TO SOWETO UPRISING: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

Whether you’re an aficionado of a particular historical period or you’re always looking for new information on a new area of history, you’re going to find something to interest you in the new historical fiction coming out this month at the Field Library, from the French Revolution to the Soweto Uprising in South Africa, with authors you know and authors you’ll be meeting for the first time.

Allison Pataki needs no introduction to historical fiction buffs. Her last three books (Sisi, The Accidental Empress and The Traitor’s Wife) were New York Times bestsellers, and her newest novel, Where the Light Falls, will almost certainly join them on the list. This book takes characters from different walks of life in France during the later part of the French Revolution (a lawyer moving his family from Marseilles to Paris because that’s where he feels he can do the most good, a young man from an aristocratic family who wants to turn his back on his heritage and join the army instead, and a young woman who is seeking her own kind of independence) and through their struggles and sacrifices illuminates the chaos that turned the ideals of the Revolution into the blood and horror of Robespierre and Danton and the Reign of Terror. If you’re well-versed in the ins and outs of the French Revolution (so different in many ways from the American one that preceded it, but not unlike the Russian Revolution that followed it), you’ll want to read this gripping fictional account. And if you aren’t that sure about the details of the French Revolution, beyond knowing something about guillotines and storming the Bastille and Napoleon, this is a great place to get your feet wet and to spur you to do a little more reading into this most fascinating period of history.

Or, if you’re interested in something a bit more recent, though still in the realm of history, you could read Bianca Marais’ Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, a book set in the 1970’s in a South Africa still living under apartheid.  Robin Conrad is a ten year old white girl in Johannesburg, unaware of how very privileged she is.  Beauty Mbali is a Xhosa woman living in the Bantu homeland attached to South Africa (and treated by that country as a puppet state), a widow trying to raise her children in a rural village; she’s entirely aware that her life is shaped by her race and that there are few if any ways for her to escape her situation.  The Soweto Uprising in 1976, led by black students and brutally repressed by the police, bring these two unlikely people together.  Robin’s parents are killed, and Beauty’s daughter disappears in the aftermath of the uprising. Robin is sent to live with her irresponsible aunt, and Beauty comes to live with her as a caretaker, while Beauty is still looking for her lost daughter. Robin’s emotional connection with Beauty and her blindness to their respective positions in the society leads to tragedy, and Robin must find a way to make amends, as she learns more and more about the rules of the society that she took for granted.  If you’ve read and enjoyed The Help and The Secret Life of Bees, you’ll see parallels in Hum If You Don’t Know the Words.