SPRING INTO NEW THRILLERS

How about some thrilling reading to get you through the transitional days when Mother Nature can’t seem to make up her mind about whether it’s actually spring or still winter?  You can choose between domestic thrillers, classic dangers-from-the-past-coming-back-to-haunt-you thrillers and up to the minute this-could-bring-about-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it thrillers. We’ve got them all in the new fiction section of The Field Library.

Perhaps you’re turning your nose up at the idea of a “domestic” thriller, but if you’re talking about My Lovely Wife, by Samantha Downing, you’re making a mistake.  The tag line for this book is “Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, and admit it, you’re already intrigued (especially if you, like me, were a fan of Dexter in his early days).  Our protagonists are your ordinary seeming married couple. They met, fell in love, got married, had kids, bought a house together. They’ve been married 15 years, and maybe their relationship is getting a little stale.  Maybe they’re snapping at each other a little more than they used to do. Maybe they need something to spice their marriage up, something like, oh, I don’t know, perhaps figuring out creative ways to get away with murder?  If you have a twisted mind, this is probably the first book you should pick up and read.

Iris Johansen has been writing thrillers centering around Eve Duncan, the forensic sculptor, for more than twenty years now (the first one, The Face of Deception, was published in 1998), and yet there are still new facets to the character and her world to explore.  In the latest in the series, Dark Tribute, the focus is on Cara Delaney, Eve’s ward. Cara is finally getting settled in her life as a professional musician when she is kidnapped by someone who’s got a grudge against her grandfather and is willing to use her to get back at her family.  The past she thought was safely behind her is now a source of extreme danger to Cara and everyone she cares about, and the question is, can Cara save her own life and the lives of those close to her?

Catherine Coulter heightens the stakes in her newest book, The Last Second. What her main characters, Special Agents Nicholas Drummond and Michaela Caine, have to do is prevent someone from loosing an electromagnetic pulse over the earth’s atmosphere that would kill all earth’s electronic communications.  No biggie, right? France has launched its own communications satellite, and its second-in-command is a woman who believes her life was saved by aliens on a prior spacewalk, and who believes the aliens will allow her to join them and become immortal if she changes earth’s destiny by deploying the EMP.  With the clock running out and the destruction of what makes our modern world work imminent, this is one of those books you keep reading long past your bedtime, to find out what’s going to happen.

And isn’t that what thrillers are all about?

MAYBE SECOND CHANCES HAPPEN: GRACE AFTER HENRY

How do you move on after a tragedy?  What if life gives you a second chance?  What if you think it’s a second chance but it really isn’t?  These questions, and their surprising answers, are at the heart of the charming debut novel, Grace After Henry, by Eithne Shortall, new at The Field Library.

Grace and Henry were the perfect couple; he was the love of her life and the two of them were buying their dream house in Dublin, ready to move in.  Then tragedy struck: Henry was killed in a bicycle accident, leaving Grace alone and nearly destroyed by grief.

She struggles to move on, but it’s really difficult, living in the house they bought together,  returning to her job, her daily life, watching television with her neighbor. Everything reminds her of Henry, to the point where she’s starting to see him in other people.  She knows this is a problem, especially when the person she mistakes for Henry turns out to be someone altogether different who may not even look that much like him, objectively.

But then one day a plumber shows up at her house, looking exactly like Henry, for real.  And he has a good reason to look like Henry: he’s Andy, Henry’s long-lost twin brother. He’s come to Dublin to find out what happened to Henry, and he is both so like Henry and so unlike Henry that Grace isn’t sure whether she’s being given a second chance to be with Henry again or whether she’s losing her mind.  Does she really want to move on, or does she really want to cling relentlessly to the past which was so much happier for her?

It’s a book about grief and loss, but it’s also a book about resilience, about quirky ordinary people trying to make the best of difficult (and even strange) circumstances.  And it’s set in Dublin, the author’s hometown and a charming and fabulous city itself, which is another point in the book’s favor. So if you’re in the mood for a funny-sad charming book that will take you away from Peekskill, give Grace After Henry a try.

 

THE RIVER THAT RUNS THROUGH US: EVERYTHING UNDER

If you’re going to write a modern version of an ancient myth or story, one way you can do it is to be straightforward and take the elements of the original story and put them in a modern setting. This requires more imagination than you might think; look at The Mere Wife (one of my favorite reads for 2018 and a stunning re-imagining of Beowulf) for an example of how to do it right. Another way is to take the elements of the original and turn them into something completely different, while still retaining the heart of the myth, and that’s what Daisy Johnson does in Everything Under, a strange and beautiful book.

I could tell you that it’s based on the story of Oedipus, and it is, sort of, but you’d get two thirds of the way through the winding, elliptical narrative before you’d even begin to see the elements of the original myth, and in so doing, you’d miss out on half of what makes this book so compelling.

Gretel is our narrator, and one of the point of view characters. She’s in her thirties, living a quiet life as a lexicographer in England, having been abandoned by her mother when she was a teenager. As we begin to see, even when Gretel was living with her mother, Sarah, it was hardly a normal childhood: isolated on a boat moored in a river, having little contact with the outside world, even creating a language of their own that nobody else could understand, Gretel’s lucky she turned out as normal as she did. She hardly ever thinks about her missing mother until she receives an email supposedly from Sarah, telling Gretel she’s lost.

Gretel then begins a search for her mother, and the novel begins winding through past and present, through what Gretel discovers in the present and what she remembers, and what she’s able to recreate of the past, especially of one particular winter when she and her mother were joined on their boat by a young man named Marcus.

Sarah in the present is a force of nature, but one beginning to fall apart. Whether she’s suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia, she both recognizes Gretel and has no idea who this young woman is, and Gretel tries to take care of her mother and figure out what Sarah needs so desperately to tell her.

Gretel, interesting narrator as she is, isn’t the only point of view character in the book. Giving their own unique perspectives on the story are Fiona, a gender queer person who never met Gretel or Sarah but knows an awful lot about Marcus before he was Marcus, and Marcus himself, formerly Margot.

This is one of those books where the setting is almost a character in itself. The river on which they live is wild and scary, inhabited by people who don’t seem to belong anywhere else, and, possibly, by a monster Sarah and Gretel refer to as the Bonak, and the Canal Thief of the past, rumored and possibly seen by Marcus and some of the others. The river feels like a mythical place, where there could be monsters, where the past and present are as fluid and sometimes cryptic as the language Sarah and Gretel spoke to each other, as the relationships among the main characters.

Everything Under is an immersive book, literary and allusive, and finally, when all the secrets have been unearthed and justice done or not done, deeply emotional and haunting. Check it out.

THE FEELING ROBOT: TODAY I AM CAREY

If you’re the type of person who says, “I don’t like science fiction,” because you think it’s all space opera and high tech whiz bang science that you’re not going to understand, then boy, do I have a book for you!  Today I Am Carey, by Martin L. Shoemaker (a well respected speculative fiction short story writer) is a science fiction book that is NOT like the stereotype.  It is, instead, a deeply emotional and human book, asking some of the most profound questions of what makes someone human, through the prism of an empathic robot named Carey.

Carey is a robot designed to be a caretaker for people with Alzheimer’s.  It’s paired with Mildred, an elderly lady who’s losing her memories. Carey’s job is to make Mildred comfortable by taking the parts of the people she thinks she’s seeing and interacting with.  After she dies, Carey is left with the beginnings of its emotional education and nowhere official to use those abilities, so Carey, who cannot die or age, spends time with Mildred’s remaining family, dealing with the overworked scientist, Paul, the dedicated teacher, Susan, and their daughter, Millie, who grows up with Carey as her best friend.  And Carey, for its part, grows up as well.

Told as a series of electronic diary entries by Carey, the book is deceptively short, but emotionally deep, a shining example of the breadth of modern science fiction. Even if you think you don’t like science fiction, give Carey a try, and it might well change your mind.

GOING TO THE DOGS FOR THE APRIL BOOK GROUP

After a vigorous discussion of A Reliable Wife, which some members of the group considered “depraved” (doesn’t that make you want to read it?), the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for our April meeting, a nonfiction book, Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz.  On April 27, from 11:00 to 12:30, the Field Notes group will be discussing this book in the Teen section of the library, and, as usual, there will be coffee and snacks, including but possibly not limited to Dunkin Donuts Munchkins.

The subtitle of Inside of A Dog (and we know all nonfiction books have to have a subtitle, don’t we?) is What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.  While Horowitz is a dog owner herself, she’s also a scientist, and it’s the scientist’s eye she turns on the development of dogs and the intricacies of dog behavior, without being at all dry or dull.  For those of us who are dog lovers, this book will, I guarantee, show you aspects of man’s best friend that you hadn’t considered before, and even those of us who aren’t totally into dogs already will be fascinated by how much we don’t know, or think we know (wrongly) about what it’s like to be a dog, and how dogs fit into the human world.

Come and join us on April 27 for what promises to be a lively discussion of all things canine and Alexandra Horowitz’s approach to the world of dogs. Copies of the book are available at the Field Library circulation desk, as usual.

HOW TO KEEP CHILL ABOUT YOUR SYMPTOMS: AM I DYING?

Modern medicine is really amazing.  There are any number of diseases and conditions that can be diagnosed early and treated or even cured, which wouldn’t have been possible a decade or more ago, and this is terrific.  However, with this great technology and all these improvements in diagnosis and other medical procedures, we now have more anxiety about various physical symptoms, wondering what our response should be to, say, abdominal pain, or a racing heart, or a rash.  Here to help is a wonderful new book, Am I Dying?! by Christopher Kelly and Marc Eisenberg, two doctors who want people to know when to worry, when to chill out, and when to get to the emergency room as soon as possible.

It’s the kind of book you don’t have to read through (though if you’re a hypochondriac you might want to read from cover to cover), but can peruse for particular problems, particular issues and get the answers you’re looking for. It’s well organized: each section pertains to a different part of the body (head and neck, chest and back, belly, “lady parts”, “gentleman parts”, bathroom trouble, arms and legs, skin and hair), and each chapter describes a different set of symptoms (headaches, dizziness, chest pain, sore throat, etc.).  When you find the symptom you’re concerned about, there’s a description of the symptom and then tells you when you should “take a chill pill” (i.e., there’s nothing to worry about, it’s normal or it will take care of itself without medical intervention), when you should make an appointment (the symptom might be a sign of something more serious that needs medication or other medical care), and when you should go to the emergency room (self explanatory). The descriptions and explanations are written in clear, layperson language, and even the sections that tell you to go to the emergency room are presented in a non-scary way.  Imagine having a doctor on call (who doesn’t charge you for the calls!) who will listen to you explain what you’re feeling and then explain what’s likely to be happening and what you should do next, and that’s this book.

You don’t have to be a hypochondriac to think Am I Dying?! is a fascinating and worthwhile book.  All you have to be is someone who’s concerned about his or her health and who wants to know what to do next.  

THE BEST BAND THAT NEVER EXISTED: DAISY JONES & THE SIX

I don’t know whether you’re the type of person who pays attention to celebrity book selections or not. Working in The Field Library, I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that most of these famous people’s book groups aren’t really creating the kind of “everybody has to read this book right now because this person chose it” that Oprah’s club did when it was first starting. Even Oprah’s books don’t create that kind of wild enthusiasm anymore.  However, sometimes it’s good to know which books are going to get the buzz of a celebrity endorsement, and the next book club selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club is Daisy Jones & the Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and it looks as if it’s going to be a fun read.

It’s hard for me to think about books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s as “historical” novels (I was growing up then! That can’t be history! History happened before I was born!), but as a matter of fact, the world of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, where Daisy Jones is set, is different enough from the modern world as to seem like a different world, not only a different time, and Reid captures that era with loving attention to detail.

Daisy Jones is a would-be singer, living in Los Angeles, sneaking into clubs on the Strip, sleeping with rock stars, doing drugs and drinking, and dreaming of becoming a star herself. The Six is an up and coming band, led by the somewhat emo (not a term then, of course) Billy Dunne.  It’s only when Daisy joins The Six that they become major stars, and naturally there’s chemistry and drama between Daisy and Billy, there’s the obligatory sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the meteoric rise and the tragic fall of the band. The whole thing is told as a faux oral history, with interviews (note to those doing this year’s challenge: this would count as an epistolary novel) with different people involved in the story. There’s even a playlist at the end of the book for those who want the complete musical experience.

This is a book people are going to be talking about, so get a jump on the conversation (as soon as our new system comes up — March 14) and pick up a copy of Daisy Jones & the Six.

NEW AND EXCITING HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

While we’re waiting for the Westchester Library System to make the full transition to its new software, and all the books released after February 18 are finally available (and not just sitting on a table in the back of the library, waiting for cataloging!), let’s focus some attention on books released before the freeze.  In this particular case, I want to call your attention to some of the newest history books available here at the Field, ranging from England in the 1600’s to Revolutionary War era America, to Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls, takes us to the era of one of the most famous witch hunts in English history, the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 (a good 80 years before our own famous Salem witch trials), through the persons of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a young wife trying to find a way to survive her latest pregnancy, and Alice Gray, a midwife promising to help her.  As the fear of witchcraft heightens in the countryside, Alice falls under suspicion, and Fleetwood is forced to wonder whether this woman is really just the healing woman she says she is or whether her skills come from a pact with the devil. And in either case, if Alice is in danger of being tried and executed as a witch, how will Fleetwood and her baby survive?  A different look at witch trials, The Familiars asks the question of how much witch scares were reflections of fears about women in general.

If I told you that Dear George, Dear Mary, by Mary Calvi, is about our first President, odds are that you’d be thinking “Mary? You mean Martha, don’t you?”  After all, we all know that Martha Washington was George Washington’s wife. However, before he was President, before he knew or married Martha Dandridge Custis, George Washington fell in love with another woman, Mary Philipse, a New York heiress and one of the richest women in North America (the name Philipse should sound familiar to people like me who live in Westchester County). The novel, based on hundreds of letters and journal entries and other primary sources, gives us a different portrait of the Founding Father, not only his private life but also the origins of his feelings about Great Britain and the sources of the greatness he would demonstrate in the American Revolution and later.  Why George didn’t marry Mary Philipse, what happened to Mary, and how the two of them lived their respective destinies is the heart of this fascinating historical novel.

Want to go a little farther afield in your historical fiction?  How about trying Alan Brennert’s sequel to his bestselling Moloka’i, the newly published Daughter of Moloka’i, which takes place in Hawaii and California in the early part of the 20th century.  The protagonist, Ruth, was born in the leper colony at Kalaupapa to a woman suffering from leprosy, and given up for adoption.  Adopted by a Japanese couple who raise her on a grape and stawberry farm in California (you have an idea where this is going, don’t you?), Ruth is sent to the internment camp at Manzanar.  After the war, however, she is contacted by Rachel, who claims to be her biological mother, and comes to discover the truth about her past, and about Rachel’s life in the leper colony. The two women, separated for most of Ruth’s life, find their similarities and their differences and the great love that binds them together despite everything.

 

BRAM STOKER NOMINEES HERE AT THE FIELD

Every year, the Horror Writers Association gives out an award, the aptly named Bram Stoker Award, for high achievements in horror, and this year, four out of the five nominees for Superior Achievement in a Novel are available at The Field Library.  If you’re a horror fan, odds are you’ve already encountered these books, but even if you don’t think of yourself as a horror person, you still might find something intriguing to read in the novels nominated for the Stoker.

One of the books, The Hunger, by Alma Katsu, about the already-nightmarish Donner Party turned supernatural and more horrible, I’ve already written about here. If you like your horror based on historic fact, or if you’re intrigued by the idea of American westward expansion as the setting for a horror novel, you should definitely check out The Hunger.

Another of this year’s nominees, Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman, was also the subject of a blog post here. The story of a woman who periodically falls into deathlike comas, and whose evil husband intends to get his hands on her fortune by burying her while she’s in one of those comas.  The thing that makes her situation real horror is that when she’s in this state, she’s fully aware of her surroundings, even though she can’t do anything. Being buried alive has long been a trope of horror, but Malerman puts a new spin on it.

If you’re more interested in apocalyptic fiction with a horror bent, another of the nominees, The Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay, fills the bill.  Already discussed here, the book takes a situation that’s often seen in horror movies — the family camping in an isolated cabin, no wi-fi, no phones, no way of contacting the outside world, and then a group of possibly threatening strangers shows up at the cabin, carrying what might be weapons.  Tremblay takes this in a surprising direction, though, as the strangers claim they need the family’s help to prevent the end of the world. Who are the strangers? Are they telling the truth? If they are, how could the family possibly prevent the end of the world?

And finally, it’s appropriate that one of the contenders for the Bram Stoker Award is a spinoff on the real life story of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.  The book, Dracul, is by Dacre Stoker (a descendant of Bram) and J. D. Barker and is based, partially, on notes Bram Stoker left behind.  It’s sort of a prequel to Dracula, speculating that Bram Stoker based the famous book on his own real life encounter with a vampire.  As a child, Stoker was sickly and spent a lot of time in the care of a young woman named Ellen Crone.  A series of strange deaths occurred in a nearby town, and that, combined with Ellen’s bizarre behavior, led him and his sister, Matilda, to suspect the young woman was not what she seemed. She disappeared abruptly, only to reappear years later, and Bram found himself standing alone against an indescribable evil, scribbling down the facts as he remembered them while he waited for the longest night of his life.

Historical horror, classic horror tropes given new life, and a throwback to the masterwork of horror: check out the nominees and give yourself a good scare.