HOT THRILLERS FOR A COLD DECEMBER

When the weather turns bad and you don’t really want to face the snow and ice outside, what’s better than curling up with a good thriller that will take your mind off the bad weather and everything else?  Luckily for you, we have a group of new thrillers here at The Field Library that will carry you away and keep you feverishly turning those pages. Some are by authors you’ll recognize from earlier thrillers, one you might recognize from another genre, but all of them are experts at creating suspense and keeping readers on the edge of their seats.

Does anyone need to be told who Robin Cook is?  He made his name with his first medical thriller, Coma, back in 1977, and has been writing thrillers (usually bestsellers) ever since.  One of Cook’s strengths is his ability to keep up with new developments in medicine and science and consider how they affect people’s lives.  In his newest book, Genesis, the new development is DNA ancestry testing, which becomes a key point in a murder investigation. A twenty eight year old pregnant woman dies, apparently of a routine drug overdose.  There are, however, some oddities that make the medical examiner and her pathology resident wonder if this is as routine as it seems. The dead woman’s family insists she never used drugs, and the medical establishment is going out of its way to keep the whole matter secret.  And why doesn’t anyone seem interested in the question of who the father of the fetus was and whether he might have known something about the woman’s death? Then one of the dead woman’s friends is murdered, and the medical examiner uses DNA testing to try to find out who the fetus’ male relatives might be.  However, there could well be people who would be willing to kill to keep this information secret, and the more the medical examiner and her resident find out, the more danger they could be putting themselves in.

While Val McDermid might not be as much of a household name as Robin Cook, among mystery fans she’s a rock star. Her newest book, How the Dead Speak, starts in a place where many other series would end, with one of the series characters in jail and the other more or less retired from the police force.  Tony Hill is finding outlets for his talents in jail, and Carol Jordan is working with an informal group investigating past miscarriages of justice. And then the process of construction on a former orphanage stops when a number of small skeletons are unearthed, probably dating from the period when the orphanage was in full swing.  Bad enough, but still more disturbingly, more skeletons turn up in another part of the property, dating from much more recently, one of them identified as the body of someone who’s alive and well and in prison, and involved in Carol’s innocence project. The two characters are brought together as the plot twists and turns in the hands of a master.

For those like me who have ambivalent feelings about Dexter, both the books and the television series, the sight of Jeff Lindsay’s name as author on a new book brings anticipation, tinged with a touch of dread.  I adored Linsday’s first two Dexter novels, and some of the middle ones were well-written, but I felt deeply disappointed by the way he ended the series (to the point where I didn’t even read the last book, Dexter Is Dead, and you know, if you’ve read me at all, that I like to finish series).  He has a lot of talent, and Dexter always had a vivid, entertaining voice (not to mention being a character you felt bad about liking and rooting for, based on the things you saw him doing), so I’m probably more intrigued than worried about his newest book, Just Watch Me. Riley Wolfe, the protagonist of Just Watch Me, isn’t a serial killer, but he is a bad person, a thief, a master of disguise and someone who will resort to violence if he thinks it necessary. He ameliorates some of this antisocial aspects by focusing all his efforts on the top .1%, stealing from the ultra-rich whom he despises.  In this book, he chooses to steal the Crown Jewels of Iran, which are not only (obviously) incredibly valuable, but legendarily impossible to steal, with up to the minute (and beyond) electronic security. He likes a challenge, but in addition to the known difficulties of dealing with the security system, he has a brilliant police officer (a modern day Inspector Javert) who’s chasing him down and is way too close behind him all the way.  If you’re into heist stories, this should be all but irresistible.

Nalini Singh may not be a name we associate with mysteries or thrillers; she’s much better known for her paranormal romance series and her other romances, but all the skills she’s honed in decades of romantic suspense come to the fore in her new thriller, A Madness of Sunshine.  Set in New Zealand (Singh’s home but pretty exotic in the world of mysteries and thrillers), in a particular town where people were, or thought they were, more than just neighbors and schoolmates, until an incident involving several vanished bodies shattered the community. In the aftermath, the people of the town resolved never to talk about what happened, and to pretend, as much as possible, that nothing happened.  You don’t have to be a reader of thrillers to know that pretending something never happened isn’t going to work; thriller readers are rubbing their hands together at the notion, sure that sooner or later that “nothing” is going to resurface with devastating results. Eight years after that first incident, a young woman vanishes in Golden Cove, and the past begins to collide with the present, and ignored dangers return to wreak havoc.  

 

 

 

LITTLE WOMEN, BROUGHT UP TO DATE: MEG & JO

It may seem, this year, as if I am obsessed with Little Women, and it’s true, I have written a fair amount about the book this year, but that’s partly because the Field Notes Book Group read it one month.  In any event, my rereading of the classic book put me in good shape to read the new Meg & Jo, by Virginia Kantra, which is an entertaining update of Louisa May Alcott’s original.

When you’re modernizing a book from the 19th century, it’s always a delicate balancing act to figure out how much to change, to bring a character into the 21st century, and how much to leave the same, so it’s still at heart the same character.  Kantra strikes a good balance here. Meg is still married young, with boy and girl twins, living in the same town in which she grew up. Meg’s being a stay-at home mother is a bigger deal in 2019, and she and her husband, John, negotiated whether she would leave her accounting job and John would change from his low-paying teaching job (which he loved) for a job selling cars (which made more money but wasn’t as satisfying).  No such negotiations were necessary for Meg March in Little Women; the idea that someone would continue working after she married and had children was far from common. 

Jo is a little more complicated.  Of course she still wants to write, and of course she has to work to find herself a way to become a real writer. That’s essential to Jo’s character, and changing that part of her story would radically change the book.  In this version of Jo, she went to New York to get an MFA, and then worked in a newspaper until she was downsized. All she had left of her writing “career” was a blog, Hungry, she wrote about the restaurant business, and since that didn’t pay any amount of real money, she took a job at a high powered restaurant as a line cook, which is where she met Eric Baer, the chef and (this is not giving anything away if you read Little Women) the man with whom she falls in love. 

As you know if you’ve read any of my earlier pieces about Little Women, I had a hard time seeing Dr. Bhaer as a worthy spouse for Jo, and only as an adult could I see him as the anti-Laurie and a better match for her than Laurie would have been (my mother, who told me this when I was 12, would have said “I told you so” if she were still around).  I have absolutely NO problem seeing Eric Baer, the romantic lead in this version, as well-suited for Jo, and that’s because he’s very different from Dr. Bhaer. Yes, they’re both German, they’re both older than Jo, and they’re both loving and good-hearted people, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  Eric is black, an extremely successful chef, divorced with two sons, and quite hot. Jo and Eric have a wonderful physical relationship (not too explicit, don’t worry) before they’ve worked out all the more problematic personal aspects of their relationship.

The plot of the book turns on Meg and Jo’s parents, who are three dimensional and far from perfect and idealized in this version.  In fact, their father comes across as one of those people who’s so good at taking care of people outside of his family that he has no time or energy left to be a loving husband or father to his family.  I have long had my doubts about Mr. March in the original Little Women, since he seemed to do very little to merit all the adoration he got from his daughters, so this take on him feels emotionally right.  Abby, their mother, is like Marmee in the original in her tendency to take care of everybody else until she collapses from lack of self-care.  In this case, she is hospitalized with back problems and ultimately needs surgery to correct them, but didn’t want to worry any of her daughters or ask them to help her. 

Meg, as the daughter on the spot, immediately sets out to take care of her mother’s health problems and her business, along with taking care of Meg’s adorable toddlers, even when the additional load of responsibilities proves almost too much to cope with alone.  Jo, working at a demanding job in New York City, is torn between her work (and her burgeoning relationship with Eric) and her eagerness to help Meg and her mother. The other two girls, Beth and Amy, are living farther away and don’t play as much of a role in this book (they’re going to get one of their own later), so much of the plot turns on how Meg and Jo deal with their parents’ issues and their own.  Any adult who’s had to take responsibility for an aging parent with health issues will appreciate the realism of their reactions and their behavior, toward their parents and each other, and I’m impressed at the way the author uses this fairly common adult problem to give us a way to focus on the adult lives of Meg and Jo.

The book is charming and well-written, the characters draw you in, whether you’re a fan of Little Women or not, and it’s a fun read overall, especially in the holiday season.  Re-acquaint yourself with the March sisters in the modern world, and settle in for a good read.

STORIES OF THE TRANSFORMED: WAKE, SIREN

If you read a lot of Greek myths, or if you read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you might start to notice a number of similar things going on, specifically mortals having various kinds of interactions with gods and ending up getting changed into something else either to escape the god’s attention or to be punished for the way they responded to the gods. The stories are always told from the point of view of the gods, so it was only a matter of time before someone flipped the narratives to tell these stories from the point of view of the mortals.  We are very lucky that this someone was Nina Maclaughlin, whose new book, Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung is a terrific read, chilling and moving, eye-opening and poetic, true to the spirit of the original myths and still infused with a modern sensibility.

I have to confess that I hadn’t encountered all the characters in this book before; there are a few whose stories were unfamiliar to me, despite early exposure to D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but that didn’t make those stories any less fascinating (and when you get the general sense of how gods and mortals interact in these myths, you can guess how things are going to turn out even if you’re not familiar with these particular characters).  There are also many of the more familiar characters, such as Arachne and Daphne and Eurydice. If you’re wondering whether you could “get” the stories without knowing all the myths, the answer (as usual with retellings) is yes. Of course, you get more out of the story if you’re familiar with the underlying myth, but trust me, you’ll be able to follow what’s going on in most of the stories even if you’ve never heard of these characters before.

You should be warned, though: these are not fun stories to read.  Rape is a frequent element, as the gods (usually Zeus and Apollo) tend not to take “no” for an answer, and Maclaughlin doesn’t downplay the pain and trauma of rape just because it’s a god doing it. You are always in the point of view, usually first person, of the mortal character, and the characters’ reactions vary as any human being’s reactions would, from terror to rage. The transformations from human to animal or from human to plant or inanimate object are depicted vividly and there is graphic violence in some of the stories, including frequent f-bombs.

If you’re strong enough to face so much pain and anger, though, you’re in for a revelatory experience, and not all of the stories end sadly (spoiler alert: most of them do). One of the most surprising was the story of Eurydice (whose story with Orpheus is one of the backbones of the Broadway musical, Hadestown), one of the last stories in the book, and one I highly recommend, even if you don’t read all the stories (though of course you should).  The protagonists differ from each other and from the characters on whom they’re based, but they’re all fascinating, their voices vivid and their predicaments painfully real. 

Whether or not you’re familiar with the original myths, you should definitely check out Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung for an enthralling and somewhat terrifying view of relations between gods and mortals. 

DECEMBER 2019 FIELD NOTES BOOK: MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER

It’s that time of the month again: this past Saturday the Field Notes Book Group met for a lively discussion of our November book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, covering such issues as the reputations of Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson, scapegoating in war, the way history repeats falsehoods as if they were truths.  Then we chose the book for our December meeting, and if you’re thinking it would be something light and cheerful, maybe holiday themed, you’re way off. Our next book is My Sister, the Serial Killer, by Oyinkan Brathwaite.

This is one case where the title is quite accurate and quite obvious.  This very short novel (I read it in a weekend) is set in Nigeria, where two sisters, Korede and Ayoola, live with their mother.  Korede is a nurse, soon to be a head nurse in her hospital; she’s not particularly pretty and she hasn’t had many (any?) suitors, but she’s reliable and hardworking.  Her younger sister, Ayoola, is beautiful and thoughtless, and possibly a sociopath. She has, before the book begins, killed two boyfriends, and the book opens with her calling Korede to tell her another boyfriend is dead.  Korede has taken it on herself to clean up after her sister, to keep Ayoola from getting caught and possibly sent to jail (Ayoola claims she is always killing men in self-defense, but Korede is starting to doubt this). In addition to using various cleaning products to remove all signs of blood, and getting rid of bodies, Korede also makes a point of keeping her sister from doing stupid things like posting lighthearted things on Instagram when she’s supposed to be worried about her missing boyfriend.  There’s some tension between them at the outset, but when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade, the handsome doctor on whom Korede’s long had a crush, Korede’s confused loyalties come into sharper focus, and she has to make some serious decisions about what she’s going to do with her sister and her life.

Copies of the book are available at the Circulation Desk, so come in and pick one up, and then join us on December 21 at 11:00 a.m. in The Field Library for coffee and refreshments and what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

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. 

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNERS HERE AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

This is the time of year when all the Best Of lists come out, and also a number of the most prestigious awards in the book world, and, lucky you, you can take out the National Book Award Winners in both Nonfiction and Fiction categories right here at The Field Library!

You might not think a novel about a young couple falling in love while they’re both attending a prestigious performing arts high school would be the kind of book to win top awards, but Trust Exercise, by Susan Choi, is the National Book Award winner for 2019, and that’s where the book starts, if not where it ends up. Two freshmen, David and Sarah, both attending a highly competitive performing arts school in 1980’s suburbs, fall passionately in love, their relationship noticed and sometimes interfered with by their friends and their charismatic teacher, Mr. Kingsley.  Things happen, the real world breaks into the rarefied atmosphere of the school, and then we are abruptly dropped into a different situation, years later, with some of the same characters still dealing with the fallout from their time at the school. The perspective shifts in a way that reminds many reviewers of Fates and Furies, and then, just when you think you have an idea of what’s going on, there’s a coda that whiplashes you into yet a third way of looking at events you’ve already seen. The book is about memory, about perspective, about consent and relationships, and power imbalances, and it’s probably the audacious structure of the book that most impressed the National Book Foundation this year.  It’s a bestseller and quite popular, so if it’s not on the shelf when you come in, put it on hold.

The National Book Award for Nonfiction this year goes to The Yellow House, a memoir by Sarah M. Broom of her family and her family’s home in New Orleans. Sarah’s mother bought a shotgun house in New Orleans East in 1961, as the space race was building up and optimism about the future seemed a reasonable response.  Instead, as the family grew to twelve children, the house became more and more dilapidated and the neighborhood around it fell into neglect. While Sarah considered herself the prodigal daughter and left New Orleans, she’d reckoned without the pull of home and family, and even the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, which wiped the Yellow House off the map altogether, couldn’t quench Sarah’s connection to her family’s home.  The book is more than just a story of Sarah’s life and times. It’s also a biography of a hundred years of her family’s history, of one neighborhood in one of America’s most famous cities, and of the effects of class, race and inequality on people trying to get by and survive.  

Check out the National Book Foundation’s choices for the best of the year here at The Field Library. 

2019 FANTASY AWARD WINNER AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

The World Fantasy Awards have just been given for books published in 2018 (well, they couldn’t give awards for books in 2019 yet, could they?  The year isn’t over and there might be a true masterpiece still to be published in the next two months), and The Field Library is proud to have the winner of Best Novel on its shelves, ready for you to take out and enjoy.

Witchmark, by C. L. Polk, attracted a lot of attention when it came out last summer, finding its way to “best of” lists, becoming a finalist for the Locus Best First Novel Prize, being a finalist for the Nebula award for best novel, so its elevation as best fantasy novel of the year comes as little surprise (though I confess I’m a little disappointed that The Mere Wife didn’t win — what a book that is!).  

Aeeland, the setting of the book, is sort of like Edwardian England, but with magic. Our protagonist, Miles SInger, was born into an aristocratic magical family, but his fate was to be a sort of magical battery for his more talented sister, enslaved to her use, or else to be locked away in an asylum for the rest of his life.  Miles rebelled, ran off to join the war between Aeeland and its neighbor, Laneer, and, when the war was over, returned to Aeeland under a different name and a different identity, hoping to hide all connection with his powerful family and all evidence of his own magical abilities. However, when one of his patients was murdered, and others of his patients began showing supernatural signs of post traumatic stress disorder, Miles found himself drawn into a far-ranging conspiracy that implicated even the most powerful members of society, and even brought him back to face his dangerous family again.  

The book is a fantasy (people have raved about the world building), a mystery, and even, in a subdued way, a romance, and now it’s been named the best fantasy novel of the year, so you have even more reason to check it out here at the Field.

 

MYSTERIOUS WORLDS JUST BESIDE OUR OWN

There’s something tempting about the idea of an alternate world, a place just a short way from our own where everything is different and you can escape from your identity and your ordinary cares. It’s a trope that’s been around for a long time. Think of Alice in Wonderland, or The Chroncles of Narnia, or the Wayward Children series (a personal favorite, as readers of this blog will recognize).  Two new fantasy novels here at The Field Library bring us to very different ideas of the other world lurking just on the other side of a gate, or a book, or the surface of the ocean.

The Starless Sea is the new book by Erin Morgenstern, the author of the wonderful book, The Night Circus (and if you haven’t read that book, by all means hurry to get your hands on a copy and devour it; not that you’ll need it to read this one, since they’re not related at all, but simply because it’s such an absorbing, excellent read).  It’s the kind of book I would want to read not just because it’s written by Morgenstern (one good book and I’m at least going to read your next one, though I may or may not become your fan for life if the next book isn’t as good as the first), but because a library, and books, feature heavily in the plot. A graduate student in Vermont is perusing the shelves of his library when he finds a mysterious book. He starts reading it, enchanted by the stories of prisoners and key keepers and strange acolytes, and then he’s startled to discover a very different story in it: a story from his own childhood, which he’s certainly never shared with the author of this book.  Through clues in this book, he travels to a masquerade in New York, a secret club and then into a very special library beneath the surface of the earth, where there are guardians of the mysterious books and others who are intent on the destruction of the archives altogether. He meets up with companions, the pink-haired protector of the library and its world and a good looking man whose alliances seem to change without warning, and together they explore this weird, alluring and dangerous world as our protagonist uncovers his purpose in the book and in his life.  

A very different world comes to life in The Deep, by Rivers Solomon, author of The Unkindness of Ghosts. The Wajinru are underwater living people, descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slavers. There’s only one among the Wajinru who remembers anything of the people’s past, because it is too brutal and terrible for the rest of them to bear.  The rest have no long term memories at all, and live in the present except once a year, when the historian shares all the rememberings with them and they are able, for a short time, to get a sense of where they came from and why they are here. Yelu is the historian, but she’s too sensitive, too fragile, to be able to hold all the terrible memories, to share them with her people. She hasn’t even been able to find someone who could follow her in the role after she dies, so if something were to happen to her, all those memories she carries would be lost forever.  She breaks, fleeing to the surface and discovering a whole different world that connects to the world her ancestors remember. And now she has to return to her people and somehow make them reclaim their past, their pain, so they can have a future. The novella is short but powerfully written, a take on the whole idea of mer-people that you have probably never considered before.

Get away from this world and find yourself in another.  Check out these new fantasy books here at The Field.

NOVEMBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: DEAD WAKE

Thanks to everybody who showed up for the Field Notes meeting on Saturday, October 26.  Even though many members of the group didn’t like (and didn’t even finish reading) our last book, Fates and Furies, we still had a very lively discussion of the book and the issues it raised.  

We meet again on November 23 from 11:00 to 12:30 at The Field Library (in the teen zone) to discuss the book we’ve selected for November, which is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.  Copies are available now at the Circulation Desk.

Anyone who’s read The Devil in the White City, an Edgar winning bestseller, knows how skilled a historical writer Erik Larson is, how well he brings to life complex details of the past. His depiction, in this book, of the fateful interaction between the H.M.S. Lusitania and U-Boat 20 in the waters off Ireland in May, 1915, gives readers a vivid picture of the early days of World War I, the conventions of warfare as understood by the Germans and the British.  He paints portraits of all the major players in the sinking of the luxury liner, from the passengers to the captain of the ship to the captain of the U-boat, to the members of the British Intelligence Service who knew what was going to happen but didn’t tell anyone. Too often history is seen with hindsight and everything seems inevitable because this is how events happened; looking at the pivotal sinking of the Lusitania (which was one of the causes for the U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies two years later) from the point of view of people experiencing it as it happened makes clear how contingent this (and most famous historical events) was on a multitude of factors, large and small, which could have gone a different way.

Come and get your copy of the book, and then join us for what promises to be a vigorous discussion and our usual good company, coffee and refreshments.

 

MORE THAN A MEMOIR: WORKING

Why should someone read a book about the process of writing biographies, especially if you’ve never read the biographies the author has written?  When the book is Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing, by Robert Caro, the answer to that question is simple: the book is utterly fascinating, whether you’re a writer or not, whether you’ve ever read his Pulitzer Prize winning biographies of Robert Moses or of Lyndon B. Johnson or not, whether you know anything about him or about his subjects.  As a matter of fact, Working is so well-written, filled with so many fascinating details, that I’m seriously considering actually tackling his massive biographies (the very lengths of which have daunted me in the past).

Caro started out as a reporter on a local New Jersey newspaper and then on Newsweek, and he writes about how those jobs sparked his interest in biography, and how each biography he wrote led to the next.  Winning the respect of his editor on Newsweek, who was originally suspicious of a young reporter who’d graduated from Princeton, by his willingness to dig deep into a political story, Caro learned a principle that would serve him well throughout his career: turn every page. Look at everything, dig deeper, don’t settle for the obvious story or the obvious angle. His nearly obsessive adherence to that rule is the reason his books take so long to write, because his research takes him everywhere, not just through all the archives of famous and less famous people (the Lyndon B. Johnson archives, which he describes vividly, contain millions of documents), but to the places where the subject lived and worked. In the case of Robert Moses, for instance, Caro dug deeply into the reasons why he chose to take certain famers’ lands and skip around the edges of certain rich and connected people’s properties, going to the scene of the expressway and talking to the people who lost their land as a result; he traced down the people who were displaced from one Bronx neighborhood so Moses could build one of his expressways, and he describes those encounters in this book vividly enough that you want to see how he handles these situations in The Power Broker.  When writing his first book about LBJ, Caro and his wife moved into the Hill Country where Johnson was born and raised, to get a sense of what that world was like, to find out how Johnson changed his people’s lives for the better even as a young congressman. 

You can learn, from this book, not only how Caro would work his interviews with various people who were significant in the lives of his subjects, but some tricks of the trade of interviewing in general (you will, for instance, learn the importance of SU in interviewing), how to get people to talk to you, how to nudge them into remembering more details than they might have believed they remembered, how to persuade people to tell the truth, rather than the public story.  I am sure, from reading this, that Caro is an expert interviewer, because he seems to have an infinite capacity for listening and very little ego. 

The book gives a vivid picture of the life of a serious nonfiction writer, from the poverty in which he and his wife lived when he was first researching The Power Broker, to life in the New York Public Library’s research room, to his actual methods of writing the books (longhand? In pencil? Who does that??).

The advantage of reading Working: Researching, Interviewing and Writing is that it’s much shorter than Caro’s prizewinning books, but be warned: it will make you want to dig deeper and maybe even tackle the books themselves.