WHEN ACTING BECOMES TOO REAL: BELIEVE ME

What an intriguing premise for a thriller: Claire,  the main character in Believe Me, by J. P. Delaney, is a British woman in America who, trying to make a living as an actress and needing to make money, takes on a job acting as a decoy for divorce lawyers.  Her job is to catch cheating or would-be cheating husbands. Stop right there and consider what kind of job that would be. Yes, it probably would pay well, and it would be a way for Claire to hone her acting skills (though not necessarily roles she could list on a resume), but by the same token it could be quite dangerous, no matter how careful she and her employers are.

Naturally there are rules she has to follow.  She can’t entrap; she can’t seduce. She’s only allowed to be obviously available to the would-be cheater and see what he does. If the person is innocent, then nothing happens and there’s nothing for her to tape. If the person tries to seduce her, then she’s got evidence which the law firm can use on behalf of the “victim” wife, in negotiations or legal proceedings.

All goes well until the wife of one of her targets is murdered, and naturally the prime suspect is the husband Claire has been working on.  The police come to Claire and ask her to continue with the husband, in an effort to get him to confess to his crime so they can arrest him before he kills again.  

It shouldn’t be too hard for someone as experienced as Claire. She’s good at putting on fake accents, creating fake stories, fake personalities. She’s dealt with a number of different kinds of men, cheating and otherwise.  Getting a confession is a little different from getting someone to hit on her, but she believes, at least at first, that it’s something she can handle.

But it seems there’s a difference between dealing with a would-be adulterer and a possible wife-murderer, and as Claire goes deeper into her role, she begins to wonder what the difference is between a decoy and prey.

If you’re a fan of the unreliable narrator thrillers which are so hot right now, or if you’ve read The Girl Before (Delaney’s last book) and enjoyed it, then check out Believe Me and prepare yourself for a twisty thriller.

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WHO CHOSE THESE TITLES? THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, PART ONE

You may have heard of the PBS series, The Great American Read, in which a list of 100 books are presented to be chosen by Americans as their “favorite novel.”  The Field Library, among many others, has a display showcasing various books on the list for people to peruse and vote for.  There are three ways to vote, on the website, posting the hashtag on Facebook or Twitter, or texting the hashtag of the particular book to a particular number.  The list is here

I am not, at the moment, going to talk about the books on the list which I think shouldn’t be there if we’re talking about “great” books; that may be the subject of another post later on.  Right now I would like to talk about some of the head-scratching selections of books by authors who are (and should be) on the list.

The selection process is a bit opaque; the website claims that the initial list came from a statistically representative sampling of American readers, and then it was narrowed down by professionals. The criteria used are here.  I can understand wanting to limit an author to one book, but I do have some issues with the books this group has chosen in a couple of instances.

Let’s start with Mark Twain.  No question in my mind he should be on this list; he’s one of the greatest American writers.  But why would you choose The Adventures of Tom Sawyer over The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? I realize there are issues about the language in Huckleberry Finn, but as a novel, it’s a much deeper, more powerful book than Tom Sawyer, which is a lightweight boy-coming-of-age story.  

Then we have Charles Dickens, another author who absolutely should be listed here. And I’m sure a case could be made for Great Expectations as the book to be representative of his work, but I have a feeling it’s included because a lot of high schools have made it required reading (not that they should; it’s long been my argument that high school kids don’t have the life experience that would make Great Expectations come alive for them), and not because it’s really Dickens’ best or even most representative book.  My personal favorite would be Bleak House, a towering examination of the British legal system, the vast gap between rich and poor, with suspense, mystery, and all the wonderful characters you expect to find in Dickens’ work.  But if Bleak House is too long and too little known (a shame!), why wouldn’t you choose Oliver Twist, or A Tale of Two Cities, both of which are incredibly memorable and both of which have given phrases to our culture that are still used (“Please, sir, could I have some more?” , and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” respectively)?  It seems completely arbitrary to me.

But the worst, in my opinion, is the choice of The Sirens of Titan for Kurt Vonnegut. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read The Sirens of Titan and enjoyed it, and there are memorable scenes in that book, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s one of his earlier works and not as good as his later (sometimes) better known books. Wouldn’t you think Slaughterhouse Five would be the choice?  A best-selling, best known book by Vonnegut, it’s much more representative of the things people love about his work.  And if you’re being a hipster and deliberately not choosing Slaughterhouse Five because it’s so famous, I can think of two other Vonnegut books off the top of my head which are better reads and more moving than The Sirens of Titan.  Specifically, Mother Night, a short but powerful book about an American who impersonates a Nazi in World War II Germany while secretly acting as an American spy, and what happens to him when he’s hiding out under a false identity in New York after the war (the book has a lot of good stuff in it, but the real takeaway is that we become what we pretend to be, so we should be careful what we pretend to be; tell me that’s not a good moral for this day and age!), or, if that’s not off the wall enough, Cat’s Cradle, a book about the end of the world, caused not by nuclear war but by the existence of a substance called Ice 9, an anti-war book (like so many of Vonnegut’s) absurd and funny and tragic at the same time.

Of course, I’m not finished going through the list and reacting to it, so keep watching this blog for more (I might even rant about the books that I believe should NOT be on the list no matter what).

AUGUST 2018 FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP: MY BRILLIANT FRIEND

Having discovered this month that the group is not fond of Annie Dillard’s essays, at least not in the collected form (sort of a Greatest Hits version) found in The Abundance, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen a novel for our August selection, the international bestseller, My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, which should inspire lots of interesting discussion when we meet again on August 18, at The Field Library Gallery from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

My Brilliant Friend, the first book in a four book series (and yes, the series is complete, an important factor as far as I’m concerned) that follows two girls, quiet and bookish Elena and fiery wild Lila, in their friendship starting in the 1950’s in a tough, poor neighborhood near Naples, Italy.  The first book, the one we’re reading, starts with the two girls as 10 year olds beginning their real friendship, but also developing the strains in the friendship, as Lila comes across to Elena as in every way smarter, more beautiful and more ambitious than Elena, but at the same time more limited by her family circumstances.  A very intimate, detailed portrait of two particular people and one particular time and place, My Brilliant Friend is a book people have raved about since it first appeared.

So come in to The Field Library and pick up a copy at the Circulation desk, and then join us on August 18 for lively discussion, coffee and donuts.

MONEY, POWER, CLASS AND INTRIGUE: THE SUMMER WIVES

Winthrop Island, a fictitious island off the New England coast in the Long Island Sound, is the setting for Beatriz Williams’ new book, The Summer Wives. It’s a place where the rich come to summer, drink cocktails and keep away from the hoi polloi.  It is also a place where the locals, who are Portuguese and working class, live year round and spend their summers working for the rich people, but other than the necessary interactions of employer-employee, the two groups could be living on different planets for all they know of each other.

Such an environment, of course, is ripe for drama, and Williams stirs it up expertly. We start with Miranda Schuyler in 1951 arriving on the island for her mother’s wedding to Hugh Fisher, one of the richest and most influential of the rich crowd.  Still mourning her father’s death in World War II, Miranda needs a guide to the intricacies of the social scene on Winthrop, which her new stepsister, Isobel, is more than happy to provide.

Naturally, Miranda is also intrigued by the locals, and in particular one local, Joseph Vargas, whose father runs the lighthouse that’s overlooked by Fisher’s mansion. Joseph had been involved in an intense friendship (or possibly something more than that) with Isobel Fisher, Miranda’s stepsister, but he and Miranda start a relationship of their own, a relationship that is doomed when Hugh Fisher is murdered and Joseph is charged with the murder.

Fast forward twenty years.  Miranda has been away from the island for two decades, living a life as a famed Shakespearean actress, but in the aftermath of a disastrous relationship, she’s coming back to Winthrop to find herself again.  It happens that Joseph Vargas has escaped from prison and is also heading back to WInthrop. Things have changed a lot on the island, but some things remain the same, and now Miranda is determined to find out the truth about what happened to her stepfather all those years before, to exonerate the man she loved, no matter what may happen when deep secrets of the rich and famous are exposed, even by someone who was almost one of their own.

A historical novel that’s also a good summer read, with secrets, intrigue, The Summer Wives is just the book to take with you on vacation or for a long hot weekend.

 

SPIES AND COUNTER SPIES, HISTORY AND ALTERNATE HISTORY IN WORLD WAR I: BLACK CHAMBER

Alternate histories, if properly researched and well-written, can be a great deal of fun, and can give you a new perspective on what actually happened by showing you what might have happened if one or two details had been different.  

Allow me to introduce you to what may be the first book in an alternate history series, but one which is entertaining and complete in itself: Black Chamber, by S. M. Stirling. One of the more interesting things about the premise of this book is that it’s focused on World War I, not the more popular WWII versions.

In Stirling’s world, just before the Republican Convention in 1912, the President and presumed nominee of the party, William Howard Taft, dropped dead suddenly, and Theodore Roosevelt (who, as we history buffs know, ran against Taft and Wilson on a third party ticket) leaped into the void and became the Republican Party nominee. With the Republican vote no longer split between Taft and Roosevelt, in this reality Roosevelt handily won election over Wilson (remember, there was no amendment limiting the number of times a person could be president at that point).  While World War I began in August 1914 as it did in this reality, with Theodore Roosevelt as president, the United States was much better prepared to enter the war in 1916 (rather than in 1917, as in this reality).

The war is not going well for the Triple Entente in 1916; the Central Powers are basically winning in Europe, Africa and western Asia, and President Roosevelt knows or suspects the German Empire is working on something that will keep the United States from entering the war. To find out exactly what’s going on, Roosevelt turns to the Black Chamber, his spy agency and a forerunner to the CIA, and the Black Chamber turns to one of its best agents, Luz O’Malley Arostegui.  As you can guess from her name, she has a very complicated background, and she is called upon to pose as a Mexican Revolutionary who’s interested in joining up with the Germans. In a transatlantic dirigible voyage, she meets the German spy she’s been sent to follow, and she begins to work to earn his trust and find out his secrets, which turn out to involve a terrible weapon to be used against the American mainland.

Imagine James Bond, crossed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and place her in a unique post-Victorian world, and you have the makings of an engrossing and fun read.  You obviously don’t need to know all about World War I in order to follow and enjoy this book, but also obviously, the more you know about the actual events, the more you can appreciate the fascinating changes Stirling has made to his world.

MOTHER AND DAUGHTER: THE BOND THAT KILLS

What’s more beautiful than the bond between a mother and child?  What’s more celebrated in our culture? Isn’t mother love the foundation for a person’s whole outlook on his or her future life?  

But what if there’s something wrong with the bond between mother and child?  As any honest parent will admit, there are times when that particular bond is strained by the behavior of even the best child, and the notion of the demon child is also rooted deep within our culture.  If you’re ready to see the horrific possibilities of a mother-child bond gone wrong, then check out Baby Teeth, by Zoje Stage, an award-winning playwright and filmmaker, for a domestic thriller that will give any new mother (or older mother) pause.

Suzette Jensen, the protagonist, knew from the outset that having a child would be difficult for her because of her fragile health, and that she didn’t have much of a role model when it came to being a good mother.  But she and her husband, Alex, decided to bring a child into the world anyway, and when Hannah was born, both parents were delighted.

However, Hannah was not the sweet, loving, or easy child Suzette hoped for.  As a matter of fact, Hannah turned out to be an extraordinarily difficult child. When the book opens, Hannah is seven years old, willful and aggressive.  She can read and write, but she refuses to talk. She’s already been kicked out of kindergarten because of her behavior toward other kids, and Suzette is forced to home-school her. The battle of wills between Hannah and Suzette worsens over time. Hannah resents her mother’s rules and any attempts to discipline her, and she makes her feelings clear.

To Alex, Hannah is a strong-willed, precocious child, his perfect darling, and Hannah really loves her father and is happiest when she’s with him. He can’t see anything wrong with her, and he thinks his wife is exaggerating when she complains about the way Hannah is behaving.

Suzette knows Hannah hates her and is jealous of her.  She believes Hannah is trying to come between her and Alex, and maybe wants Suzette out of the picture altogether. But is anyone going to believe Suzette or take any action before it’s too late?

 

MAKE SPACE OR DIE: THE CALCULATING STARS

Maybe you’re one of those people who doesn’t read science fiction, for whatever reasons (too much science? Too geeky? Too much baggage? Too unrealistic?), and maybe you’re a person who doesn’t read alternate history, for whatever reasons (don’t know enough about the real history to appreciate it, or know too much about the real history to appreciate it).  No matter your previous experiences, you really should read Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, because it might just change your mind about those genres and your preferences.  If you saw and enjoyed the movie or the book Hidden Figures, that’s even more reason to pick up this fast moving alternate history science fiction novel.

It starts with a bang, literally: a meteorite hits the earth off the Chesapeake Bay in 1952, wiping out Washington, D.C., surrounding areas, and destroying great portions of the eastern United States.  Our protagonist, Elma York, happens to be on vacation with her husband in the Poconos at the time of the impact, and, due to her background as a WASP pilot in World War II, she’s able to fly herself and her husband to safety.  She is not only a former pilot, she’s also a brilliant mathematician, a “computer”, as women doing calculations for the space program were called at the time. Her husband is an engineer for NACA, the predecessor of NASA. Elma realizes fairly quickly that what the earth is facing is an extinction level event (remember what happened to the dinosaurs?  Similar issues), and she and her husband have to persuade the world that humanity’s only hope is to get off the planet while it’s still habitable.

If you thought the push to put a man on the moon in the 1960’s was intense, imagine what it would have been like if there were a life-ending time limit on its success.  In this alternate reality, space flight is prioritized to a much higher degree, and everyone is needed.

Except that this is also set in a 1950’s world that’s not too different from ours (other than that little extinction level event), so when Elma decides she wants to do more than just calculate how to get a man off the earth, that she wants to be an astronaut herself, she’s set herself up for a real uphill battle.  Not only is she a woman (already disqualifying), but she has an anxiety disorder which requires that she take medications (and attitudes toward mental health, especially mental health treated with drugs, were worse in the 1950’s than they are now); all her brilliance and all her piloting experience may not be enough to outweigh those disadvantages.  She discovers, in the course of her fight to be recognized and to do what she longs to do, that she’s not the only one in this position: her relations with African American “computers” (and again we’re in Hidden Figures territory) show her that other people are even more disadvantaged and treated worse than she.

With the future of humanity at stake, and an almost literal ticking time bomb (the world will likely be uninhabitable within a decade or two), sexism, racism and ableism are luxuries the world can’t afford, and Elma battles to save her world and live her dream at the same time.

I will warn you, this is the first book in a duology, but I might just relax my rule on multiple book series for this one, especially since the second book is coming out next month (and we WILL be getting it here at The Field Library).

If this sounds exciting to you (and it should!), do yourself a favor and hurry to read The Calculating Stars.  It will open your eyes and give you a great read in the bargain.

ADVICE FOR THE HOME FRONT: DEAR MRS. BIRD

The last few years have seen a number of books about World War II, especially on the home front (whether that home front was in America or elsewhere).  Possibly they’re popular because we like to look back to a time when things seemed simpler, more black and white. Possibly they’re popular because we know the good guys won that one, and since then it’s been much harder to be sure if the good guys are winning or not. Whatever the reason, we’re lucky to be able to enjoy a good, charming historical novel set in London in 1940, Dear Mrs. Bird, by A. J. Pearce.

Patriotic and energetic, young Emmeline Lake wants to do her part for the war effort.  First she volunteers as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Service, but what she really wants is to be a Lady War Correspondent. The advertisement for the job with the London Evening Chronicle, while not exactly focused that way, fills her with hope that she can be on the right path soon.

Imagine Emmy’s disappointment when she discovers that, instead of investigating the battlefield and doing real war work, she’s gotten a job as a lowly typist for the famous advice columnist, Henrietta Bird.  She decides to make the best of it and work as hard as she can, but this turns out to be more difficult than she’d thought. It seems Henrietta Bird doesn’t want to deal with any of the readers’ letters that deal with unpleasant things, like going too far with a young man, or not wanting to have children evacuated from London for their safety.  All such letters are to be pitched into the trash, so Mrs. Bird can concentrate on more elevated issues. And besides, the people who are whining about these unsuitable problems should just buck up and straighten themselves out, as far as she’s concerned.

As the Battle of Britain, also known as the Blitz, intensifies and London is bombed repeatedly, Emmy finds she can’t just throw those letters away without doing something.  So on the sly she starts responding herself to the unpleasant letters Mrs. Bird doesn’t want to deal with. And if she happens to use the magazine’s stationery and to sign the letters as Mrs. Bird, well, there can’t be anything too wrong about that, can there? After all, there’s a war on, and the lonely, worried, frightened people writing to the (mostly useless) Mrs. Bird need to know that someone hears them, someone cares about them.

Emmy and her best friend and roommate, Bunty, exemplify the spirit that got Londoners through the Blitz, resilient and brave and ready to respond even to tragedy with a black humor that keeps people from utter despair.  Join Emmy for an insider’s view of women’s lives during the Blitz, and be prepared to lose yourself in Emmy’s charm and endless energy.

CHILL THRILLERS FOR HOT DAYS

Want to be distracted from the heat and humidity of summer, which always seems to find us around the 4th of July?  Try one of our newest thrillers, sure to send chills down your spine and get you so involved in turning the pages faster and faster that you won’t even notice the temperatures outside (or inside).

The Last Time I Lied, by Riley Sager (the author of Final Girls) even involves a summer camp, so there’s a connection to the heat and humidity right there, though this is not the kind of book that would make a parent want to send a child to summer camp. Fifteen years ago, Emma Davis went to Nightingale sleepaway camp for the first time, and became friends with four other girls who shared her cabin.  They played games together, including Two Truths and a Lie, and then one night Emma’s four friends sneaked out of the cabin in the middle of the night, not telling Emma or anyone else where they were going, and none of them was ever seen again. Now Emma is an adult, an artist, her paintings all circling back to that camp and that disturbing night when everything went wrong.  The new administrator of Camp Nightingale sees Emma’s paintings and asks her to come to the camp to be an art instructor, and Emma, who has never come to grips with the disappearances of the other girls, jumps at the opportunity to investigate and try to find the truth. Going back to the same camp, the same cabin, even, Emma starts noticing different things, like the only security camera in the whole camp, pointed at the door of her cabin, and cryptic notes from one of the lost girls about the camp’s origins.  This might be one of those times when finding out about the past could destroy the present as well.

Or, if you’re more interested in a sojourn at a lake in Maine than a summer camp, you could try Stay Hidden, by Paul Doiron.  Ariel Evans, a writer, has been shot by a deer hunter on Maquoit Island, off the coast of Maine, and to Mike Bowditch, the Warden Investigator working the case, it seems pretty straightforward, an accidental death.  When he arrives at the island, though, what seemed simple and obvious becomes much murkier and more dangerous. It turns out Ariel was in the area to research a book she was writing about the island’s notorious hermit, only there are no signs that she made any notes or did any writing while she was there.  The deer hunter who supposedly shot her now denies having done it, and there’s evidence to back him up. So who DID shoot her, and why? As Bowditch starts delving deeper into the mystery, who should return to the island but Ariel Evans herself, very much alive and very much interested in figuring out who might have wanted to kill her (and who got killed instead of her).  The erstwhile murder victim teams up with the investigator, but neither one of them realizes that they’re being hunted by a killer who’s ready to do just about anything to hide his crimes.

Forget about the heat and humidity for a while: stay cool with our newest thrillers here at The Field Library.