FAR AND AWAY THRILLERS

A good thriller can do more than just keep your pulse up and keep the pages turning as you rush to figure out what happened and whether something worse is going to happen soon.  It can also introduce you as a reader to another time, another culture, without reducing any of the tension. Two new thrillers take us to unique and unusual times and places, so if you’re interested in the wilds of Montana in the present time or Iceland during World War II, you’re in luck.

A Sharp Solitude, by Christine Carbo, is set in the gorgeous and very wild Glacier National Park in Montana, and the setting is an essential part of the story.  A journalist, Anne Marie Johnson, was staying near the Canadian border in the wilderness of the Glacier National Park, researching for an article about a canine program where specially trained dogs help do scientific research.  She was interviewing Reeve Landon, owner of one of the dogs in the program, just before her murdered body was found, so Landon is obviously one of the main suspects in her death. Landon contacts his former lover, the mother of his child, FBI investigator Ali Paige, and asks her to help him.  Of course she’s not supposed to be working on this case at all: the crime appears to have been committed outside Federal land, and her relationship with the chief suspect would disqualify her even if the FBI had jurisdiction. But that doesn’t mean she can turn her back on Landon, and so she starts working to find out who really killed Anne Marie, as Landon runs deeper into the wilderness to hide from the tightening noose, at the same time feeling he might deserve this persecution because of a terrible thing he did when he was younger.  The book switches back and forth between his viewpoint and Ali’s, as the characters discover that even in the vastness of the Montana country, no one can truly outrun his past.

Arnaldur Indridason’s The Shadow Killer takes place in 1941 in Iceland, where the British army forces are leaving the island and being replaced by American ones.  A man is murdered in a small apartment in Reykjavik, shot through the head with an American weapon, the blood drawn into a swastika pattern. Two people, neither of whom has much experience investigating murders, are brought together to investigate what happened and who’s responsible.  Their investigation begins with difficulty, as the main suspect, the murdered man’s roommate, is nowhere to be found, and things get more complicated as people who might be suspects include the dead man’s former girlfriend, who had left him to fraternize with the soldiers, and some of the soldiers stationed in the city.  The more the investigators dig into the background of the roommate, the more unsavory it seems, especially his involvement with a Nazi experiment on young children. There are too many secrets people are keeping in this environment of spies and counter spies, locals and foreigners and the background of the war complicating everything, and the question becomes more than just who committed this crime, but encompasses the whole changing world of wartime Iceland.

 

Advertisements

AN ALTERNATE HISTORY OF JFK: THE SUMMER I MET JACK

The administration of John F. Kennedy ended more than 50 years ago, and yet there’s still this fascination with the Kennedys, with what JFK actually did, with what he and his siblings might have done, with that whole era of American history, so recent and yet so far removed from today.  In some ways, the Kennedys are our home-grown version of royalty in terms of the way people follow all the gossip and doings of generations of the family. If you are a Kennedy watcher, then you may be interested in a new book by Michelle Gable, The Summer I Met Jack.

As you might be able to guess from the title, the narrator and main character of the book is not herself a Kennedy. She’s based on a real person, and the story is grounded, at least initially, in events that actually happened.  Alicia Corning Clark arrived in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, in 1950 to work as a maid for the Kennedy family. A beautiful Polish refugee, Alicia was entranced by the family and especially by Jack, the eldest son and a rising politician. The two fell in love and even, in this book, were engaged to be married, until Joseph Kennedy, Jack’s father, flew into a rage and forbid the marriage.  

This might or might not have broken Alicia’s heart, but she left Massachusetts for Hollywood, and found plenty of consolation there, with relationships with people like Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas, and marriage to a wealthy Singer (of the sewing machine business).  Through all her adventures, though, she kept in touch with Jack Kennedy, and then, on the eve of his inauguration as President, they met again, to confront their past and the effects of their behavior on each other.

Whether the two of them did have a child together, as the book suggests, is an open question. J. Edgar Hoover claimed she was blackmailing JFK over their illegitimate child, so someone believed it was possible at least. The Summer I Met Jack is a sort of alternate history novel, a following through on the “what if”s of the Camelot period of our history.  If you’re a Kennedy fan, or curious about what might have happened, check out The Summer I Met Jack.

BECOMING (MORE) HUMAN: ARTIFICIAL CONDITION

You wouldn’t necessarily think a series of novellas about a security bot which refers to itself as “murderbot” would be my cup of tea.  Yes, I like dark writing (hello, Jo Nesbo!), and have a somewhat quirky sense of what’s interesting, but the whole military science fiction subgenre (to which a book involving security bots killing people would seem to belong) isn’t something that usually lights my fire.  

However, Martha Wells’ Murderbot series is absolutely wonderful, and I will gladly read the next book, or the next three books, or however many she chooses to write in this series. I loved the first book, All Systems Red, and her newest book, Artificial Condition, picks up where the first one left off and is a great fast and even funny read, without sacrificing any of the deeper questions her main character raises.

Murderbot is the narrator of the books, and a great deal of the fun of the series is Murderbot’s character.  A security bot with built in weapons that can kill and disable humans and bots very effectively (we see this a few times so far in the series), Murderbot disabled its governor a while before the first book, which means it cannot be controlled by outsiders, including the people who own it or rent it out.  You would naturally expect that a device built to kill would, when the governor’s no longer restraining it, turn into a classic killing machine and go rogue and destroy everything and that would be the plot of the series (think of the artificial people in the Aliens series, for instance), but you would be wrong.  What Murderbot wants to do is watch videos in private and do as little of the killing and destroying as it can. It is shy around humans, and, as we discovered in the first book, has real trouble when people treat it as an equal and not as a tool for them to use.  

Without too many spoilers (you can read my review of All Systems Red, or you can just read All Systems Red itself; it’s short and fast), by the end of the first book, Murderbot is free and capable of determining its own destiny.  It isn’t completely free and clear, of course, because if anyone knew that there was a security bot running around without a governor, the authorities would immediately go after Murderbot and at the very least reinstall a governor and wipe its memory, and at the worst, destroy it altogether.  

Murderbot knows there was something that happened to it before the mission in All Systems Red. It doesn’t remember what happened other than the vague outlines that it was involved in killing people. Whether that was the cause of its disabling its governor or the effect, it’s not sure, and obviously that makes a difference to it as a moral being (and yes, Murderbot is, despite its claims to the contrary, a moral being), so it sets out to find out what happened.  Along the way, it finds itself working with a sentient transport (whose every communication with Murderbot is, according to our protagonist, to be imagined being said in the most sarcastic way possible), and, as a matter of disguise, signing on as a security consultant to a group of humans who are negotiating for the return of some stolen files from an untrustworthy and dangerous former employer.  Murderbot takes on this job solely to get authorization to get on and under the surface of the planet where the past incident (all records of which have been scrubbed from the public interfaces) took place, but, being what it is, it feels a duty to the people it’s protecting, and ends up helping them and actually protecting them rather than just dumping them when it’s convenient.

Along the way, we have revelations about what actually happened in the “incident”, and some serious, thought-provoking scenarios that make us question the extent to which these bots are like humans themselves.  I don’t want to make this sound too heavy; there are some very funny exchanges between Murderbot and the ART (the transport), and a scene in which one of Murderbot’s clients, taking it to be human, tries to comfort herself by cuddling Murderbot, to the bot’s horror, and on the whole the mix of serious and amusing is just about perfect.

Artificial Condition, like its predecessor, All Systems Red, is a fast and fun read, and Murderbot is probably the only killer robot I’d ever be willing to follow through the galaxy.  Introduce yourself to the series, and you’ll probably agree.

 

THE BOOKS OF SUMMER, 2018

It’s obviously not summer yet according to the thermometer and the (lack of) sun these days, and even by the calendar it’s not going to be summer until late June, BUT in the world of books, summer reading starts much earlier than actual summer.  Which makes perfect sense, really: when do you really want to read about beaches and vacations? When you’re actually at the shore or actually taking a vacation, or before that, when you still have time to dream about those things and long for them?  I don’t know about you, but I’m in the “read vacation books BEFORE vacation” group. Fortunately for me, and for people in this category, The Field Library has a collection of summer reads already, in late May, for your reading and dreaming pleasure.

Mary Kay Andrews is well known to people who want a good beach read, or a good pre-beach read.  Her latest, The High Tide Club, gives us everything we want in a summer read: a gorgeous location (the barrier islands of South Carolina), family intrigue, characters coming together to either discover their relationships or rediscover them, and intrigue as well.  Brooke Trapnell is an attorney who’s very surprised to be summoned to the crumbling pink mansion, Shellhaven, of rich and incredibly eccentric 99 year old Josephine Bettendorf Warrick. It’s not that she doesn’t know of Josephine by reputation, but she has no idea why Josephine would summon her for legal work when they’ve never met before and Josephine already has a high powered Atlanta law firm doing all her legal business.  Josephine tells her a story of old friendships, betrayals, and a long unsolved murder. She wants Brooke to bring together the heirs of her old friends, the members of the High Tide Club (a name they chose after some skinny dipping escapades) so that she can make amends to them, and unite these disparate strangers for the first time. But while Brooke is willing to do this, she’s also inadvertently digging up some old secrets which just might make someone incredibly rich, or the victim of a murderer.  

Another of the great beach read writers is Mary Alice Monroe, especially with her Beach House series, set in the Isle of Palms off the coast of South Carolina.  The newest book in the series is Beach House Reunion.  This is not a series where you have to read all the books in order (though it helps ground you with the characters if you do); you can start with this one and then go back and see what happened to these people in this place before the events of this book.  Doesn’t everybody need a place to go where their friends and family are around to support you, listen to you and give you advice when you need it, a safe haven that’s in a beautiful location to boot?  For Cara Rutledge, still grieving for her dead husband and now taking on the responsibility of a new adopted baby, the Isle of Palms is the perfect place to return to, a place where her late mother’s influence is still everywhere and where her friends and family remain, a place she can start over.  For her niece, Linnea, who recently graduated college but hasn’t found a real job yet, it’s a place where she can work as a nanny for Cara’s baby, Hope, while she gets her bearings and decides what she really wants to do with her life. It’s a home, it’s the shore, it’s a place to move forward and try new things in the comfort of old friends and old memories.

And if you’d like some beach atmosphere a little closer to home, there’s Judy Blundell’s The High Season, set in the Hamptons on our own Long Island.  Ruthie Beamish has her house in a quiet Long Island town, and she intends to keep it, despite her divorce from her husband.  It’s her nest egg, her retirement savings, her daughter, Jem’s, college fund. The problem is that she has to rent it out every summer in order to afford to stay there the rest of the year. So on Memorial Day, she and her daughter move out so that Adeline Clay, this summer’s renter, can move in with her gorgeous stepson.  But this summer turns out to be different from the usual: Adeline starts trying to take over Ruthie’s life, her friends, her home, her ex-husband, and even making trouble for Ruthie at her job, at which point Ruthie has to start fighting back. The same summer, Jem is beginning to spread her wings with an independent job, but she’s also getting in over her head. Add social climbers, Ruthie’s former lover, mysterious millionaires and all the intrigues of a summer at the Hamptons, and you have the ingredients for a summer that will leave no one unchanged.

AND THEN SUDDENLY EVERYTHING COMES UNDONE: THE GLITCH

The protagonist of The Glitch, a debut novel from Elisabeth Cohen, is a type of character we’ve seen frequently, either in real life or in popular culture: the overworked, overscheduled having-it-all modern woman.

All right, so Shelley Stone might be taking things a little farther than most of us do.  She’s the CEO of a tech company called Conch, whose product is an app that whispers in people’s ears about what they should be doing right now to make their lives better. She’s a wife and mother of two, and she believes she has it all under control.  She’s scheduled her “me” time at 3:30 a.m. while she’s on the treadmill, she schedules sex with her husband when they’re already folding clothes together, and she takes naps while she’s standing in line. She has a nanny, a cook, a driver, an assistant, her kids are overscheduled (learning Mandarin, among other things), and she makes notes to herself to “practice being happy.”  You just know from reading this far that something is going to come crashing down, and of course that’s the plot of the book.

The form of the crash is what makes it interesting.  A young woman shows up, introducing herself as Shelley Stone.  She has the same scar in the same place as our protagonist does, and she claims to be a younger version of Shelley, which she might actually be, except that Shelley doesn’t believe it’s possible.  So what is this person? Is she a spy sent by some rival corporation to undermine Shelley’s company? Is she evidence that the space time continuum is springing a leak and about to disintegrate altogether?  Or is her presence a sign that Shelley is finally cracking under the pressure?

For all of us who feel our lives are too complicated, who occasionally wonder what our younger self would say if she could see us now, for all of us who enjoyed the perspective shift of Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, for all of us who want a good laugh at ourselves and people like us, The Glitch is just what the doctor ordered.

MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING: 84K

Pretty much everybody acknowledges that our current criminal justice system isn’t working, though there are as many solutions offered as there are people studying the problems. But if you’re interested in looking at a really outrageous, completely out-of-the-box way a criminal justice system might work, and what the problems of that system might be, Claire North has a novel that’s perfect: 84K.

The premise is that there isn’t jail anymore, at least not for people who can afford to avoid it (so far that sounds familiar, but wait, it gets better).  Capitalism reigns supreme, and the idea of paying your debt to society is literal. Every crime has a price, and once you pay the price for your crime, you’re free of all stigma.  You can, if you have enough money, get away with murder; all you have to do is pay for it. Of course, if you can’t pay for it in money, you pay for it in service (basically slavery by another name), but if you’re rich, the world is basically your oyster and you can do anything you want (this premise reminded me a little of the setup for good and evil in The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt, only much darker).

Our protagonist is Theo Miller, a quiet man who works at the Criminal Audit Office.  His job is to assess the penalties for different crimes, figuring out, for instance, how much a person should have to pay for killing one person as opposed to another.  He does not, at least at the beginning of the book, question the whole system. He assesses the penalties and makes sure the miscreants pay them.

But then it becomes personal, and everything changes for Theo, the unexamined system making its inherent problems obvious to him.  His former girlfriend, Dani, is murdered, and Theo finds her body, with the hired killer standing over her, calmly calling the police to confess to the killing and to set up his payment for the crime.  Suddenly this isn’t another entry on a balance sheet. Now Theo needs to find the person responsible for the woman’s death, and make them pay, in something more than money.

Part dystopian novel, part thriller, 84K (which is the price of Dani’s life) forces us to look at issues of justice, and the question of “paying your debt to society” in a new and darker way.  

NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION

Considering that the majority of the attendees at this month’s book group meeting did not like/enjoy the book of the month, My Absolute Darling (and that is a polite understatement), we nonetheless had a rousing discussion about what constitutes good writing, is it enough to be dealing with an important issue if the treatment is sensational, how much can an author manipulate his or her readers, what makes us think an author is male or female, and so forth.

However, wanting a break from the excitement (and annoyance) of our last book, we’ve chosen a tried and true classic for the next meeting, which will be from 11:00 to 12:30 on Saturday, June 16, in the Field Library Gallery: Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Copies will be available at the Circulation desk this week.

It’s long been my contention that two of the major romance novel plots originated with Jane Austen: the one where people meet and initially want nothing to do with each other but then gradually come to fall in love with each other, which is, of course, Pride and Prejudice, and also the one where two people were together once, broke up for some reason, and now get another chance to see if they can end up together, and that is the plot of Persuasion.

All of Jane Austen’s trademark sly wit is on display here, in her last finished book, and the classic humor of characters revealing more about themselves than they believe they’re doing, but Anne Elliott, the protagonist of Persuasion, is a different kind of heroine than Jane Austen fans might be expecting.  Neither as snarky and vivacious as Elizabeth Bennett nor as lively and overbearing as Emma Woodhouse, Anne is quiet, gentle, a keen observer and a passionate person. Unlike some of Austen’s other heroines, Anne doesn’t put her foot in her mouth or make rash decisions that cause her trouble later; her biggest mistake was turning down the proposal of naval captain Frederick Wentworth some years before, on the advice of her mother’s closest friend.  Now Captain Wentworth is back in the picture, seemingly determined to marry anyone but Anne, and Anne is forced to watch his flirtation with the younger women who live nearby, and keep her mouth shut about her own emotions.

This is one of my all-time favorite Jane Austen books, and one of my favorite books, period.  Enjoy the excellent writing, the delightful characters (in addition to Anne, there’s Mrs. Croft, the admiral’s wife, who is one of the most sensible people in the book, after Anne herself, and great fun to spend time with), and of course the happy ending (this is not a spoiler, trust me).  Join us for what promises to be a fun discussion, with our usual coffee and donuts as snacks.

HOW CAN YOU BE SURE? NEW THRILLERS

If you’re in the mood for a thriller that not only keeps you guessing about who did what but also about whether what you’re seeing really happened at all, then you’re in luck, because we have two new thrillers here at The Field Library which each, in its own way, plays with our expectations of what’s actually going on.

Michael Koryta’s How It Happened starts off with a seemingly familiar trope: a person of dubious credibility comes in to the police to confess to her role in a crime, and people, for the most part, don’t believe her because of that credibility problem, but one officer does believe her. In this instance, the person doing the confessing is Kimberly Crepeau, well known in her Maine community as a snitch, a liar, a heroin addict and a generally no good human being.  However, Rob Barrett, the FBI investigator listening to her confession, has long suspected she had something to do with the killings of two prominent people in the community, whose bodies were never found. His expertise is in telling truthful confessions from false ones, and he is convinced that this is one of the true confessions. Except that the bodies are found 200 miles away from where she said they’d be, killed in a different way than she described, and with a different person’s DNA over them, which would seem to be proof Kimberly was, once again, lying. Barrett is disgraced and reassigned, but the father of the murdered woman doesn’t consider the case closed, and Barrett finds himself drawn back into the matter, into Kimberly’s confession and how the murders actually happened, in the interests of comforting a grieving father and seeing justice done once and for all.

Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin, by contrast, involves two main characters who may or may not be what they claim to be.  One protagonist is a young woman who’s become obsessed with the murder of her sister, researching every detail of her sister’s last days, training herself to find and deal with the man who killed her sister. And now she believes she’s found him, found him and lured him out of the halfway house he was in by claiming to be his long-lost daughter. The man in question was a documentary photographer in his day, and took some eerie, haunting pictures around scenes where unsolved crimes were committed. Now he claims not to remember anything about that past, and doesn’t recognize his supposed daughter either, but he goes on a road trip with her through Texas, to the sites where he took those pictures. He denies being a serial killer; she doesn’t believe him. He claims to have dementia, and seems to have some degree of dementia; could he be faking it?  Is she what she claims to be? Is she the grieving, haunted sister of a murder victim, or is she a con artist with her own agenda? As the road trip progresses, neither one of the main characters seems completely trustworthy, and the question of what’s really going on becomes slipperier and slipperier.

 

THE ALMOST FORGOTTEN QUEEN: JANE SEYMOUR

The Tudor era, especially the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth, fascinates people, and why not?  Backstabbing, intrigue, love, lust, screwed up families: the royal family and the courtiers and nobles surrounding them did it all, and did things on a grandiose scale.  One of the authorities on that era, and an excellent historical fiction author in general, is Alison Weir, and her new book, third in her series focusing on the wives of Henry VIII, brings to life Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and the only one who provided him with a legitimate male heir.  Her time as queen was short (not the shortest span of his wives; that honor goes to Anne of Cleves, and I have to say I’m looking forward to reading Weir’s version of her life), and her death less dramatic than that of Anne Boleyn or Katherine Howard, so even people who are into the Tudors are less likely to know much about her.

Weir’s new book, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, sets out to change that and to give Jane her due, and in the process to illuminate a little more the court of Henry VIII and the intrigues boiling around him and his passions.

Jane was so pious as a girl she wanted to become a cloistered nun, but with an aristocratic and very ambitious family, this was not going to happen. Instead, she was sent to serve as a lady in waiting to Henry VIII’s first queen, Katherine of Aragon.  Katherine, devout herself, was very kind to her ladies, treating them almost as her own daughters, and Jane was especially receptive to her affectionate treatment. So it was a shock to her, as it was to many powerful people, when Henry decided he wanted to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn instead. Through the upheavals that caused, Jane had a ringside seat.  And when Anne, despite all her promises and boasts, also failed to give birth to a son, and Henry’s eye began wandering again, Jane’s powerful family encouraged her to return the king’s affection, which would boost her family’s wealth and standing.

Having seen what Henry was capable of doing to people who thwarted his desires, concerned about her own future but also attracted to Henry as a person, Jane faced danger with courage and faith, and though her life was short, it was certainly full.

You don’t have to have read Weir’s previous two books in this series (Katherine of Aragon: the True Queen, and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession) to appreciate this book, but odds are that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back and appreciate Weir’s take on the previous two queens of Henry VII.  

THE TRAGEDY OF ASSIMILATION: BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY

If you’re looking for a different sort of history book, one that’s not set in the usual and popular time periods (the 1920’s, World War II, the 1960’s) or places (Europe, New York, California, to name a few), and you want a real emotional reading experience, check out our new historical novel, Between Earth and Sky, by Amanda Skenandor.

Set both in the 1880s and the early 1900s, the book focuses on Alma Mitchell.  In the book’s present time, 1906, she’s a woman married to a lawyer in Philadelphia, living an ordinary life. However, in the 1880s, she was attending the Stover School, a boarding school for Native Americans, run in Wisconsin by her father.  She was the only white pupil, and was supposed to help set an example for the other children, who were there to be “civilized,” which in practice meant to lose their Native American names, languages and heritage, in order to become more like white people.  Alma tried to become one of the students, though there was always a barrier between her and the other students due to her unknowing privilege of being the daughter of the headmaster and her being white. She took for granted that the process of “civilizing” the Native children would be good for them, and she became friends with the most promising of the students, Asku, later known as Harry Muskrat, a bright young man who won a scholarship to Brown University.

All of these memories (and more) are brought back to Alma in 1906 when she reads an article about the murder of a federal agent where the accused murderer is Harry.  She persuades her husband to go west and help in Harry’s defense, and now she’s forced to see what assimilation did to Harry, and to the other people she cared about at the school, and forced to tell her husband about her past and the secrets she’s kept from him as well as from herself.

This is not a feel good kind of book; what was done to the Native Americans in the name of “assimilation” was terrible, making it impossible for them to return to their tribes or to ever become accepted by the dominant white culture.  However, it’s a vivid look at that time and that policy and its effects, and well worth the reading.