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.

 

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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.

THE MONSTERS’ DAUGHTERS SOLVE THE CASE: THE STRANGE CASE OF THE ALCHEMIST’S DAUGHTER

One of the best things about my job buying new fiction for the Field Library is that, among all the bestsellers and soon-to-be-bestsellers and well reviewed fiction by famous people I buy every month, I also get to pick out some books that might be a little less well-known, a little more, shall we say, quirky. Those are the kinds of books I choose because I want to read them myself, and sometimes it’s hard to restrain myself from grabbing them as soon as they’re released, before anyone else gets a chance to read them.  The most recent of those quirky fun books is The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss.

 

Let’s see.  We have Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solving a mystery.  We have references to and characters from Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, we have the whole Victorian scene, we have strong female characters solving problems . . . if we added time travel (and perhaps a little Lovecraftian horror), this would be my ideal novel!

 

The book starts with Mary Jekyll, daughter of the famous Dr. Henry Jekyll, left an orphan after her mother’s death, facing destitution.  She has to let all her servants go and even so, she’s running out of money.  Realizing that there’s a reward for the capture of the infamous Edward Hyde, a figure she remembers briefly from her childhood, Mary decides to find him and get the reward, which should at least keep her household solvent for a while. To do this, she needs to consult with the world’s only consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.

 

However, before she can do that, she discovers that her mother had been sending money to the Magdalene Sisters, who are running a house for fallen women in Whitechapel.  Curious about what that could involve, she goes to the house and discovers Diana Hyde, a wild child whose manners are appalling and whose behavior has been scandalizing the nuns for so long they’re eager to hand her over to Mary, whom Diana greets as her “sister.”

 

In short order, they find themselves at the scene of the murder and subsequent mutilation of a prostitute in Whitechapel, which turns out to be one of a series of such murders and mutilations. There’s evidence that this murder is connected to a special society of scientists, a society to which Dr. Jekyll (and various other people) had belonged, according to papers Mary’s mother had kept for her. Investigating the secret society brings them to meet one Catherine Moreau and Justine Frankenstein, both of whom are acting as freaks in a show, and one Beatrice Rappacini, whose touch is dangerous and whose breath is poisonous, thanks to her father, and as the women team up, each bringing her unique skills to the solution of the mystery (with the help of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, of course), Mary discovers more things about her father and Mr. Hyde which she wishes she hadn’t learned.

 

Now, obviously I know, as does anyone who’s read the source material, that Dr. Jekyll never married, let alone had children, that Victor Frankenstein didn’t make a female creature for his monster (after promising to do so), and that the puma woman on the Island of Dr. Moreau didn’t survive that book’s conflagration.  I’m sure Theodora Goss knows this, too, so she goes out of her way to explain how these things happened, how the stories we think we know aren’t as accurate as we believe they are. And frankly, the characters themselves are so delightful and fascinating that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and my knowledge of the source materials to go along with the story.

 

It’s Catherine who’s telling the story, mostly from the point of view of Mary, but the other characters interject frequently, correcting Catherine’s prose and depictions of their inner states. This may seem, in the abstract, to be a really annoying plot device, but over the course of the book it gives extra life and charm to the narrative, showing off the distinct voices and preoccupations of the characters and adding to the vividness of the story.

 

Can you read this and enjoy it if you know nothing about the 19th century victorian novels that provide the source material for these characters?  If all you know about them is what you’ve seen in movies?  Absolutely. Mary and Diana, Beatrice, Catherine and Justine give short versions of their backstories, and these are sufficient to let you know who they are and where they came from, and you should have no trouble following their adventures with only what’s within these pages.

 

HOWEVER, if you, like me, are a fan of the classics, if you’ve read the books from which the characters come, you will find this even more enjoyable.  What a delight, for instance, to discover that the nearly unflappable Poole from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had a wife who is as practical and devoted as he was, and to meet her as a major character in this book!  How much fun it is to see Renfield, of Dracula fame, staying in an asylum and collecting his “little lives.” Restoring life to Justine, the servant girl unfairly accused of murder in the original Frankenstein, just feels right (and this Justine talks and thinks the way you would expect that character to, which makes her even better).  And seeing the Puma Woman, whose story was dreadful and painful to read in The Island of Dr. Moreau, not only surviving but thriving, is a real relief.

 

So if you’re in the mood for a rollicking Victorian adventure that shows respect to the classics without being totally bound by them, a book that easily passes the Bechdel Test, by all means take out The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.  You won’t be disappointed.