ALL IN THE FAMILY: NEW THRILLERS AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

This week we’re going to look at some new thrillers at The Field which turn on the issue of family relations, whether the family member is the person missing, the person setting an example (good or bad) for the protagonist, or the erstwhile criminal himself, and, surprisingly, there are several new thrillers where everything turns on family relations.

Let’s start with Fiona Barton, who made such a splash with her bestseller, The Widow, last year. Her new book is called The Child, and it starts with a disturbing scene: as an old house is being destroyed as part of a gentrifying effort in London, the skeleton of a baby is found, evidently buried for years. Four women are drawn into this mystery, with varying degrees of knowledge and eagerness to find out what’s really going on. The first is Kate Waters, a journalist who recognizes this tiny skeleton as the start of what could be a blockbusting story, though she doesn’t have any idea how far the story will lead her. Another is Angela Irving, a woman whose baby was stolen from the maternity ward decades ago, and who now feels this could be her child’s remains. And then there’s Emma Simmonds, a young woman with a severe anxiety disorder who’s terrified that her past may have caught up with her, and Jude, Emma’s mother who has had a turbulent relationship with her for years. Who was the Building Site Baby and how did the bones end up here?  It’s the sort of book that you pick up and find yourself carrying with you at all times, eager to see how it all comes together.

Mary Kubica’s new book, Every Last Lie, also tells a story from two different perspectives, but in this case the perspectives are those of a (now deceased) husband in the months before his death, and his wife, bereft beginning to wonder what, if anything, she really knew about her husband and his life.  Nick, the husband, and their four year old daughter, Maisie, are in a car accident that proves fatal to Nick but that leaves Maisie surprisingly unhurt, or at least unhurt physically. Clara, Nick’s widow, would have been willing to see this loss as a tragic accident except that Maisie starts having night terrors about the day of the accident. Is it possible that Nick was killed on purpose? But who would have wanted Nick dead?  Clara can’t let the questions alone, and digs deeper and deeper into her husband’s life, and soon everything she thought she knew about him, and about their life together, is called into terrifying question.

Helena Pelletier, the protagonist of The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne, knows who her father is, but she’s spent most of her life trying to keep that from the rest of the world, including her husband and children and the people with whom she works. Her father was no ordinary person: he had abducted Helena’s mother, a teenager, and kept her captive for years in a remote cabin in the Michigan Upper Peninsula, where Helena was born and spent the first years of her life. Helena, like all children, assumed that her reality was normal, and that everybody hunted and fished and roamed the wilds without seeing another human being other than their parents, and she even loved her father, despite his tempers, until she discovered what he was really capable of. Now, after twenty years, Helena’s father has escaped from prison into the marshlands. Helena knows she’s the only one who could possibly track him down, like it or not, and she sets out to find her father, the Marsh King, who’s more dangerous than he’s ever been before.

The parent figure who haunts the background of Meg Gardiner’s Unsub was a police officer, not a criminal, but his shadow looms heavily over Caitlin Hendrix when a killer who terrorized the city years ago seems to resurface.  The serial killer, known as the Prophet (and loosely based on the Zodiac Killer of San Francisco, who has never been caught to this day), killed eleven seemingly unrelated victims in the 1990’s, leaving the symbol for Mercury on their bodies afterwards. Caitlin’s father, Mark, was the head investigator on the case, and the mind games the killer played with him, together with his own strong sense of responsibility for the safety of his city, nearly drove Mark insane.  Twenty years later, Caitlin has sort of followed in her father’s footsteps,  working as a narcotics detective in the same city, when two new victims are found with the Prophet’s marks on them. Could it be the same killer or a copycat? Caitlin ignores her father’s warnings and dives deeply into the investigation of these continuing murders, determined to do what her father couldn’t: find the killer and stop him, without destroying herself and everything she cares about in the process.

 

JULY FIELD NOTES BOOK: LIFE AFTER LIFE

After an entertaining discussion of Crooked Heart, the Field Notes Book Group decided that we will continue meeting over the summer (so no reading of 970 + pages books this summer!), and chose the next book the group will read: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson.

 

This book, recommended to me by my friend Betsy Tomic, is a different kind of historical novel, set in England from 1910 through World War II, and showcasing in a vivid way all the different choices we make and how even the smallest changes from one set of circumstances to another can make all the difference in the world.

 

Ursula, the protagonist, is born and dies over and over and over. Think of Groundhog Day, though more serious: a seemingly endless repetition of opportunities, where Ursula sometimes remembers (a little) what happened to her the last time she was faced with this crossroads and sometimes she just lucks out and manages to make a different decision this time. The problem, of course, is that the new decision takes her down yet another path, with its own dangers and disasters, and then those need to be avoided the next time around as well. That she lives through (or doesn’t live through, as the case may be) World War I, the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the buildup to World War II, and the Blitz makes this a historical novel, but a very special kind of historical novel, where the character gets multiple chances to try to make a difference, to make it right at last.

 

Sounds intriguing?  Of course it does!  Come to the library to pick up your copy and then come and join us on July 29 in the Field Library Gallery from 11:00 to 12:30 for insightful discussion and, of course, coffee and snacks.

OPRAH’S NEWEST PICK: BEHOLD THE DREAMERS

I’m not sure if Oprah Winfrey has quite the clout in the publishing world that she used to have, when her mentioning a book would be enough to turn the book into a best-seller, but her book club recommendations still carry a certain amount of weight, and her latest book club pick is a book we have here at the Field Library if you’d like to check it out for yourself.

 

The book is Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, and, for those of us doing the 2017 Reading Challenge (don’t think I’ve forgotten!), it counts as an immigration narrative and also as a debut novel (always good to find a book that satisfies more than one category).

 

The book focuses on two families in the shadow of the financial collapse of 2007. Jende Jonga, a recent immigrant from Cameroon, is living in Harlem with his wife, Neni, and their six year old son when he gets what looks like a terrific job as a chauffeur to Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers (you are probably already shuddering at where this is going to go), and Clark’s wife even offers Neni a job at the family’s summer home in (of course) the Hamptons.  Things are looking up for the Jonga family, and they finally have hopes of getting a foothold on the ladder to the American middle class.

 

As you guessed from hearing the magic words, Lehman Brothers, things are not all going well in paradise, as the Jongas come to discover, and when everything falls apart for their employers (and nearly for the entire world economy), their marriage, and the Edwards’ marriage, suffer nearly impossible strains.  Are they going to survive the fall? And if so, how?

 

Come and pick up your copy of Behold the Dreamers and see for yourself whether Oprah has made a good pick this month.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? QUICKSAND, A THRILLER

When the Field Notes Book Group was considering what book to read next, one of the books I suggested was Quicksand, by Malin Persson Giolito, because (although I hadn’t read it yet myself), it looked like an intriguing book, the sort that could spark lively discussions (and there were enough copies available in the system that we could put them on hold for all the members of the group).  However, a couple of people were vehemently opposed to choosing that book because of the subject matter, a school shooting, and we’re not going to read books that any members of the group are really opposed to reading.

 

Even though the group wasn’t going to read it, I was sufficiently interested in the subject matter and the reviews the book got (which were excellent), that I picked it up for myself (and read it before the book we ARE going to read for the book group, which probably makes me a bad group leader).

 

Don’t be turned off by the subject matter. If you like suspense-filled books, especially books that keep you wondering and turning the pages relentlessly, you owe it to yourself to give Quicksand a try.

 

The book is narrated by Maja (real name: Maria), who is, at the outset of the book and throughout it, on trial for her part in the mass shooting at her high school, at which her boyfriend, Sebastian, was the main shooter. As the book begins, we see (briefly) the immediate aftermath of the shooting, but it’s not graphic, and it sets up the questions that haunt us the rest of the book: what actually happened on that morning at school, and what, exactly, did Maja do before and during the shooting.

 

Maja is a fascinating character. She’s a teenager, and she has the typical teenager attitudes to some extent: she makes up nasty nicknames for different people she has to deal with (one of her lawyers is the Pancake, another person is the Perm, etc.), she looks at the system and the people she has to deal with with all the deep cynicism of a disaffected teen. At times, especially early in the book, she seems almost sociopathically emotionless, and her cold tone can be really off-putting, but ultimately she’s a real person, making all the mistakes and immature decisions a teenager would be likely to make in her position.

 

The narrative goes back and forth in time, one line following her trial’s progress and another line jumping back to explain what happened and how she got into this situation, setting up the other characters involved in the shooting as shooters and victims, but it’s never confusing. You always know when and where you are, and it’s easy to keep track of the timeline.

 

The book is set in Sweden, where the justice system is quite different from ours (a non-jury trial for murder? Really?), but again, don’t let that throw you, because Maja is in the same position we’re in, as an outsider experiencing the trial for the first time and wondering about the oddities of the structure.

 

One of the strengths of the book is the characters, not just Maja herself (though she’s quite a creation, doing things that make you want to yell at her and things that make you want to comfort her), but the people around her, especially Sebastian, Amanda (her best friend, whom she shot to death — I’m not giving anything away, because that’s set out in the first page or two), and Samir, her not-quite boyfriend who plays a critical role in all the events leading up to the shooting. Her parents, her grandfather, her younger sister, the attorneys on her team, all are subjected to Maja’s skeptical gaze and revealed through her (admittedly partial) experiences of them.

 

I couldn’t put the book down, as it rushed ahead to the revelation of what happened right before the shooting, what Maja did and didn’t do, and what happens at the trial. I wouldn’t DREAM of spoiling any of that for you.  Take out the book and immerse yourself in it to find out for yourself. I will say, though, that the ending was satisfying and that the surprises that were dropped here and there weren’t the kind of twists-for-the-sake-of-having-twists you see in some other thrillers (I’m looking at YOU, Gone Girl), but things that made sense and felt right in the context of the story.

 

Yes, this is a book that turns on a school shooting, but it’s unique and well-written and wildly suspenseful, and if you have a taste for dark thrillers, you should definitely give it a try.

FIND YOURSELF ON THE FRENCH COAST: THE LITTLE FRENCH BISTRO

Isn’t it a classic fantasy to get away from it all, take off to a new place (preferably somewhere beautiful and/or exciting) and start a completely new life?  Especially if your ordinary life is less than you hoped it would be, or even downright painful or difficult, the idea of reinventing yourself in a new location is really attractive.  This is the premise of Nina George’s charming new book, The Little French Bistro, and if this is a fantasy of yours, you should definitely take a look.

Marianne, the main character, has been married to a mean, disapproving man for over forty years, and by the time the two of them go on vacation to Paris at the beginning of this book, she’s lost so much of her sense of who she is and what she wants that the only way she can imagine getting free of the situation is by killing herself. So she jumps off a bridge into the Seine River, only to be rescued by a homeless person living on the shore.  Her oafish husband, proving himself a complete jerk, responds by berating her in the hospital for ruining his vacation.  He takes off for their home in Germany without her, telling her to get psychiatric help and come home.

Marianne doesn’t obey him this time (if she did, this wouldn’t be much of a book). She takes off for the coast of Brittany, the “end of the world,” figuring she’ll end it all there.  Instead, she discovers the people of the area, their warmth and quirkiness, and she begins to return to life herself, learning French (isn’t that part of the fantasy, that even though you don’t even know the language, you’ll still be able to make yourself at home in this new place?), making friends, discovering the talents she’d been stifling all her life, and basically giving herself, with the encouragement of the people in the village, a second chance to live and love.  When her husband comes to track her down and confront her, will she have the inner strength and self-respect to stand up to him?

 

Full of rich and well-drawn characters and set lovingly in some of the most beautiful country of France, The Little French Bistro is the kind of book to take to the beach or to dive into when you’re in need of a break and reassurance that dreams sometimes do come true. Come and get it at the Field Library!

THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES, MYSTERY STYLE: MATCHUP

We all have our favorite thrillers and mystery series characters, and after a while, we have a pretty good sense of what, say, Harry Hole (in Jo Nesbo’s series) is likely to do in particular circumstances, or where V. I. Warshawski (in Sara Paretsky’s series) is likely to find the cases she’s investigating. There’s a certain comfort in that predictability (and I’d argue that’s one of the reasons we like to read series in the first place), but sometimes you just wonder what would happen if these characters were taken out of their comfort zones, matched up with other characters from other series, and made to work together.  If that idea strikes you as intriguing, then you’ll probably want to read the new collection of short stories, edited by Lee Child, entitled Matchup: The Battle of the Sexes Just Got Thrilling.

 

The idea of the collection is similar to that of FaceOff, which came out in 2014: pair up bestselling authors in the genre and get them to figure out how their characters might end up working together, on what kind of case, and how they would solve the crimes.  The difference here is that the authors paired up are male and female (though their respective characters aren’t necessarily of different genders), with different styles and takes on the world of thrillers.

 

So, for instance, you have Kathy Reichs bringing her Temperance Brennan character, a forensic anthropologist, together with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher in a story called “Faking a Murderer.”  How would they work together, with their very different styles and approaches?  Or you bring together Lisa Scottoline’s Bennie Rosato, a tough lawyer, and Nelson DeMille’s John Corey, who dislikes lawyers, in a story called “Getaway.”  Or Sandra Brown’s Lee Coburn (last seen touching down in Jackson Hole, Wyoming) meets up with C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett, and, after some initial problems, they work together to keep alive against some bad guys in “Honor & . . .”

 

You get the idea.  You might not be familiar with all these authors and their characters, but that makes it even better.  You get to see your favorites and meet some new characters, some new authors, in different settings and outside their normal comfort zones.  Even if you’re not a big fan of short stories in general, summer’s a great time to read shorter things (with all the relaxing going on, you don’t have the attention span to give to a long, intricate novel anyway), and Matchup is just the ticket for thriller/mystery fans.

 

MYSTERIES WITHIN MYSTERIES: ANTHONY HOROWITZ’S MAGPIE MURDERS

If you’re in the mood for a puzzle mystery, the kind that doesn’t involve excessive violence or the whole noir sense that the world is a mess and all you can do is try to survive in it (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those kinds of mysteries; I read all kinds), but the kind that gives you an intricate setting, numerous clues and red herrings and forces you to try to solve the mystery along with the detective, or if you’re the kind of person who says “They just don’t write ‘em like that anymore,” then you’re going to love Anthony Horowitz’s new book, Magpie Murders, a sort of homage to the golden era of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, but twistier and more complex.

magpie murders

Horowitz is no stranger to the golden age of mysteries; in fact, he’s written a couple of Sherlock Holmes books himself, at least one of which (The House of Silk) was so well-written and so true to the characters set up in Doyle’s universe that I believe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself would have heartily approved of it.

 

Magpie Murders is actually two mysteries in one (more bang for your buck).  The framing story, which is a mystery itself, features Susan Ryland, an editor at a small publishing house, who’s been working with Alan Conway for years.  Conway is the author of a series of bestselling Agatha-Christie-like novels starring a detective, Atticus Pund (who’s very like Christie’s famous Hercule Poirot) solving crimes in sleepy English villages.  The author is not a particularly nice person, but Susan puts up with his behavior because his books sell so well and the publisher can’t afford to lose the money he brings them.  

 

When she starts reading his latest manuscript, Susan doesn’t expect anything out of the ordinary for him, and at first it does seem like another Pund mystery in an English village.  The manuscript is presented in this book, so we are put in Susan’s shoes, reading it with her, seeing the murder and the various suspects and the clues of various sorts.  Susan begins to suspect that there’s more going on in this particular manuscript than meets the eye, as if there are things below the surface of a seemingly ordinary private detective story. She gets close to the climax of the manuscript, only to discover that the last couple of chapters (where the detective actually solves the crimes) are missing.

 

Things go from bad to worse when she goes to meet with the author, Alan Conway, and discovers that he’s dead, possibly a suicide, possibly a murder.  Now the details that nagged at Susan while she was reading the manuscript become clues she’s going to pursue in order to find out the truth about Conway’s own death.

 

It’s not every mystery writer who can interweave two different mysteries in the same novel and keep them both intriguing and suspenseful, but if anyone can, it’s Anthony Horowitz, and Magpie Murders is a twisty, challenging puzzle for real mystery aficionados.

FBI AND NYPD: NEW THRILLERS AT THE FIELD

One of the fascinations of thrillers is the way they take us out of our normal lives and throw us into the kinds of situations most of us will never face.  I know that I personally will never be an FBI agent or a top New York City police officer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to experience the excitements of those jobs vicariously, through a well-written thriller, and that’s great because both Dean Koontz and Don Winslow (both masters of the genre) have just published new thrillers in which the main characters are, respectively, an FBI agent and a high powered New York City Police officer.

the silent corner

Dean Koontz, a bestselling author, is starting a new series with his book, The Silent Corner, featuring Jane Hawk, an FBI agent who’s nobody’s fool, brave and resourceful and stubborn enough to follow clues no matter where they might lead.  At the outset of the book, she’s mourning her brilliant and talented husband who, for no reason anyone could understand, abruptly committed suicide. Whenever someone commits suicide, the survivors spend a lot of time trying to understand the causes, but in this case, Jane’s more confused than most.  Her husband showed no signs of depression, no unusual worries, no behavioral changes. There seemed to be no reason for him to kill himself when and as he did.  Jane discovers something odd: her husband wasn’t the only bright, successful person to commit suicide more or less out of the blue recently.  In fact, the number of suicides has been skyrocketing, and Jane starts digging to find out why.  What links these bizarre deaths?  Could someone or something be orchestrating them?  Jane finds herself on the run, off the grid, trying to find the answers while at the same time dodging the people who want to kill her to keep her from learning the truth, people who will stop at nothing to protect their secret. Their mistake is taking on the wrong person, because Jane is as cold-blooded, as ruthless, and as relentless as they are, and she’s not stopping.

the force

If you read Don Winslow’s previous thriller, The Cartel, then you know he understands the world of police officers and criminals deeply.  His newest book, The Force, shows us New York City through the eyes of Denny Malone, an eighteen year veteran of the police, known as the King of Manhattan North, the leader of an elite special unit waging war on gangs, guns and drugs without any restrictions.  He’s seen it all, been through everything the city could throw at a cop, and he would do whatever it takes to protect his city, whether by legal means or illegal ones. What most people don’t know about Denny is that he’s dirty himself.  After one of the biggest drug busts in the city’s history, Denny and his friends stole millions of dollars in heroin and cash.  Now the FBI is squeezing him, and he’s trying to protect himself, the woman he loves, his brothers and sisters in blue, and somehow survive in the maelstrom he’s partially created for himself, as the city itself totters on the verge of a racial conflagration.  If you’re a fan of Joseph Wambaugh (or am I dating myself?), or the television series, The Wire, or the books of Ed McBain, then you’re going to love The Force.

ENTER THE DARK FAIRY TALE: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES

There are so many classic children’s stories about an ordinary child or two (or three or four) leaving the ordinary world through some extraordinary means (Alice down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, the Pevensies through the back of an ordinary seeming closet) and entering a strange and wonderful (or strange and frightening) place. Add to that collection Seanan McGuire’s new novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is sort of a prequel to her Nebula Award winning, Every Heart a Doorway.  Don’t worry, though: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway in order to appreciate and enjoy the story of Jacqueline and Jillian and their sojourn in The Moors in this book.

down among the sticks and bones

It reads like a dark fairy tale, one in which the narrator inserts herself (a little) into the narrative, commenting dryly about the events she’s describing, and while that’s not always a technique that works for me personally, in this case the narrator’s wry observations add depth to the events and the characters.

 

The fairy tale begins with classic bad fairy tale parents, the sort who don’t deserve any children.  They see their twin daughters as extensions of themselves, accessories to be paraded around before other couples in their social set, but not as human beings with their own needs and desires and thoughts.  They’d originally decided they wanted a boy (for the father) and a girl (for the mother) but when the babies were born identical twin girls, they solved the “problem” by the father’s treating Jillian as a tomboy, making her, as much as he could, like the son he wished he had, and the mother’s turning Jacqueline into the little princess she saw as the ideal daughter. Jacqueline and Jillian managed to reach the age of five without permanent damage because their paternal grandmother, Louise, came to take care of them and give them all the nurturing their cold parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, but then, of course (in classic fairy tale bad parent fashion), the parents sent Louise away in the middle of the night, telling the girls she didn’t love them anymore.

 

Imprisoned in their rigid roles and not allowed to try any other aspects of their personalities, the twins drift apart, set up as competitors rather than companions, until the rainy day when Jillian entices Jacqueline to go upstairs and explore their grandmother’s former room in the attic, and the two of them (now twelve years old) find themselves going down a stairway inside their grandmother’s trunk, ending up in the strange and dangerous world of the Moors.  There the two of them meet up with the Master, an impressive vampire who runs most of that part of the world, and Dr. Blast, a mad scientist type who’s able to bring the dead back to life, sometimes, and the girls make their choices of which one of them they want to apprentice themselves to for the rest of their time in the Moors (until the door reopens to allow them back into their world).  Their choices are surprising, based on their prior lives and what you think their personalities are, but they come to embrace their new roles, as would-be daughter to the Master and as apprentice to Dr. Blast, to the point where neither one of them really wants to return to the “real world.”  Until they are forced out, and I’m not going to tell you how they’re forced out of the Moors, except to say that it feels perfectly sensible, given what we’ve seen of the two characters and their world.

 

As a sort of fairy tale, there’s not a lot of in depth character development, but the charm of the book is in the world it creates and the people who populate it and how the fateful decisions and their consequences are depicted.  It’s a dark and sad book in its way, and now I want to read Every Heart a Doorway to see what happened next to Jack and Jill.

 

Of course, if you’re doing the 2017 Reading Challenge, this (short!) book counts as a fantasy book for one of the categories.  Just in case you couldn’t find another fantasy book (ha!).  It’s well worth reading even if you’re not doing the challenge, of course.

GET AWAY WITHOUT GOING AWAY: THE IDENTICALS

So maybe you can’t quite get time off for a real vacation, or maybe you can’t go to Cape Cod or Nantucket Island in real life.  That doesn’t prevent you from experiencing nearly all the joys and quirks of going to the Cape in the summer (minus the sunburn and sand in your clothes): you can take out Elin Hilderbrand’s new book, The Identicals, and enjoy a virtual trip, complete with all the vivid details that make a good summer read.

the identicals.jpg

People are always fascinated by twins, the notion of two people who are physically identical or nearly so, and when those twins turn out to have very different personalities, that just makes them more fascinating (and there’s a classic trope of the Evil Twin, which has been a fixture of soap operas and speculative fiction on television for ages).  You start wondering about nature or nurture, and how much control we really have over our personalities and the way we deal with the world.

 

In The Identicals, not only do we have twin sisters, Harper and Tabitha, but we have (sort of) twin islands on which the women live, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard (both of which Hilderbrand knows very well and describes in exquisite detail so you feel you can actually smell the salt water and hear the seabirds).  Originally, Harper and Tabitha were best friends, doing everything together, but when their parents divorced, the girls were forced to separate, with Harper joining her father at his home on Martha’s Vineyard, and Tabitha staying with her mother on Nantucket.  The two girls grow up differently: Harper is laid back and unambitious, sleeping around and taking jobs way beneath her education and abilities, whereas Tabitha is following in their fashion-designer mother’s footsteps, trying to keep her mother’s failing fashion boutique running while also dealing with her daughter, Ainsley, who’s every mother’s nightmare of a teenage daughter.  Although the twins live on islands only 11 miles apart, they are estranged from each other until (there’s always an “until” in these kinds of books) their father dies and Harper has to contact her mother and sister (and run into her niece) again.  And then over the course of the summer, Harper and Tabitha do what many sets of identical twins have done in the past (at least in books): they trade places, with Harper helping at their mother’s store and dealing with the rebellious Ainsley and Tabitha going to Martha’s Vineyard to deal with their father’s falling apart house and Harper’s falling apart reputation.

 

Family secrets, people who really do love each other even if they’re not always aware of it (and don’t always act as if they do), two separate and equally wonderful vacation spots, major and minor characters with minds and lives of their own, and Elin Hilderbrand’s bestselling knack for dialogue and description: come away to the islands off the Cape and start your summer right.

the identicals.jpg