NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS

Women protagonists are becoming more and more common these days in thrillers, proof of which is three new thrillers at The Field Library, all of which turn on women’s secrets, in very different ways.

Dear Wife, by Kimberly Bell, takes two familiar tropes and brings them together to create suspense.  The one trope is the abused woman leaving her husband and changing her identity; in this case, it’s Beth Murphy, who has been planning her escape for a year, working out all the details of her new life before she actually leaves her abusive husband.  The most important thing in the world for her is to make sure he can’t possibly find her. On the other end of the spectrum is Sabine Hardison, who just disappears altogether while her husband is away on a business trip. The police investigating the matter find only her abandoned car, and some signs of possible foul play, but as they dig deeper, more secrets emerge: evidence there could have been trouble between the husband and wife, and the suggestion that he might be better off without her.  What actually happened to Sabine, and what does her disappearance have to do with Beth’s escape? The two women are more closely connected than they seem at first, and the truth will out, no matter who wants to keep it secret.

Rachel Gaston, the protagonist of Lisa Jackson’s new book, Paranoid, is in a different situation. When she was a teenager, she shot her half brother to death.  It was an accident, she insisted; someone had changed the air gun she thought she was carrying that night for a real weapon and she didn’t realize it until after she’d shot it at Luke when he surprised her. She didn’t mean to kill him, but his death and her role in it has haunted her ever since, ruining her marriage and filling her nights with nightmares.  Now she’s approaching her high school reunion, and naturally she finds herself remembering Luke’s death, but also noticing other strange things around her: objects being moved when she’s not looking, strange cologne wafting through the air, the feeling of being watched, her car being tailed. Is she losing it? Or is the person who was really responsible for Luke’s death still around, still killing, keeping track of her for sinister reasons of his or her own?

Kelley Armstrong’s new thriller, Wherever She Goes, starts with a bang, figuratively: single mother Aubrey Finch sees a little boy being taken away from a public playground against his will. Like any good citizen, she reports this to the police, expecting an immediate response.  Instead, she’s met with skepticism: the child’s mother can’t be found, there was no report of any missing child, and kidnappings are the sorts of crimes people report immediately. People start wondering about Aubrey herself, why she’s insisting on this kidnapping that doesn’t seem to have happened.  She is, after all, a stay at home mother who’s lost custody of her child, which indicates to most people that there must be something seriously wrong with her, and she herself knows she has secrets she’s been keeping from everyone around her, including those nearest and dearest to her. She’s sure about what she witnessed, and she realizes she’s the only person who has any chance of saving that child, but can she act as she should, considering all the skeletons in her closet which could come out and destroy her?

Disappearing women, accidental killers, kidnappings that might or might not be: take your pick and check out the new thrillers while they’re hot.

WHEN YOUR FAKE SELF GETS MORE ROMANCE THAN YOUR REAL ONE: MY FAVORITE HALF NIGHT STAND

The premise of Christina Lauren’s new book, My Favorite Half Night Stand, seems like it could either be something really cringe-worthy or something kind of fun.  Our protagonist is a female professor who’s got a bunch of guy friends, all of whom are single, and all of them are invited to a black tie function to which they each feel they need dates.  They agree to use this dating app to find potential partners, and when Millie (our protagonist) can’t get any decent responses, she creates a fictional persona, in which she can be more herself, and naturally the one of her friends she really cares about becomes a match for that fake persona, and one thing leads to another.

Obviously if I’m writing about it here, it’s not cringe-worthy (for the most part, I don’t spend time tearing apart things I don’t like; I’m more likely to be pushing the things I do like), and that’s due to the characters, who manage NOT to be like people from The Big Bang Theory but like real people.

Take Millie.  She won me over on the second page of the book, when she admitted to having a lifelong fascination with female serial killers, which dated back to her interest in Lizzie Borden as a seventh grader (I mean, really, who wouldn’t be fascinated with the Lizzie Borden case?), and which led her to become a professor of criminology.  It’s not her academic specialty that has kept her single through her late twenties, though, as much as her unwillingness to let anyone, even the people she cares about, know much about the real Millie. She’s deft at deflecting people with questions about themselves, or with humor, and since she mostly hangs out with a group of guys in the world of academia, she doesn’t usually have to worry that anyone will notice how guarded she is, despite her outgoing personality in general.

Reid, her closest friend, who becomes, very early on, a friend with benefits, is also a fully developed character.  While he does go on at some length about Millie’s attractiveness (so much so that I was afraid, early on, that this was going to be one of those stories where the heroine is stunningly beautiful but doesn’t realize it, as if such creatures actually exist in the real world; fortunately, that didn’t happen), he’s a good observer of other people’s characters and doesn’t just live for his relationship, quirky as it is, with Millie, or with his other friends either.

Computer dating is different for the guys than for Millie.  While they get some interesting hits, real women who have things going for them and who seem genuinely invested in starting relationships, she finds herself receiving dick pictures and getting responses from jerks.  While some of this is just the difference between how the sexes use dating apps, some of it is also because Millie, in her initial profile, tells very little about her real self, and doesn’t give much for any worthwhile prospects to latch onto.  She realizes this (her friends tell her this), and then decides to create “Catherine” (her middle name), another profile in which she can experiment with being more open about her past, her feelings, herself. She tells herself this is a sort of scientific experiment, with her original profile as a control, but when Reid is matched up with Catherine’s profile, Millie makes the mistake of responding to him as “Catherine.”  At first she’s sure he’ll recognize some of the references she makes in her emails and will guess that it’s really her, but when he doesn’t, she can’t seem to tell him the truth, and of course one thing leads to another.

This is a sort of romantic comedy, a modern day version of Cyrano de Bergerac with the sexes reversed.  It turns on the question of honesty, of what friends owe to each other and what Millie needs to learn in order to become a better human being (she’s not a bad human being even at the outset, but even she knows she’s not living the way she should be) and to have a chance at real love.  Of course you know that ultimately (spoiler!) there’s a happy ending, but the fun of the book is seeing how it comes about, and rooting for the two likable protagonists to see each other clearly and find out how good they are for each other. 

A THRILLER WHERE REALITY ITSELF IS AT STAKE: RECURSION

What if you couldn’t count on your own memory?  What if the things you thought you remembered weren’t actually things that happened to you, or to anyone?  What if other people were also “remembering” things that didn’t happen? What if there were some kind of disease that spread this kind of false memory among people, and what if the disease were contagious?

This is part of the premise for a new, and very different, thriller, Recursion, by Blake Crouch, and what a premise it is!  The two main characters are a police officer and a neurologist, who are working together to save the world, not from an evil corporation or a would-be dictator, but from the unmaking of reality that results from the spread of false memories.

New York Police Officer Barry Sutton is investigating a suicide, which should be straightforward, except for the reason the woman committed suicide: she claimed that her son’s entire existence had been erased.  As Sutton begins to dig into the person’s past, he starts finding evidence of a truly terrifying disease that seems to be planting false memories in people’s minds, driving them insane or worse.

Neuroscientist Helena Smith is acting with only the best motives.  She wants to find a way people can preserve and relive their most precious memories, and she’s been working on technology that will do that.  What could possibly go wrong? If you’ve read any speculative fiction at all, you can imagine the answers to that question.

It begins to seem that memory creates reality in a deep and profound way.  Sutton and Smith find themselves fighting against a force that actually unmakes the past itself, changing everything about the world as we know it, and making it much harder for them to find a way to stop its effects, let alone restore the past and the present.

If you’re interested in a thriller that incorporates speculative fiction and deep philosophical ideas about the nature of reality itself but that’s also a page-turner, you owe it to yourself to check out Recursion.

JULY 2019 FIELD NOTES CHOICE: EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU

After a vigorous discussion of American history and the gaps between American ideals and American realities, with impressive insights from those members of the group who didn’t grow up in America, the Field Notes Book Group chose its book for July: Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

You might think that a book which starts out telling you one of the main characters is dead would be either morbid or lacking in suspense or both, but in the case of this book, you’d be wrong.  Knowing before the characters do that Lydia is dead creates a Hitchcockian sense of suspense from the outset as we watch her sister and brother and her parents go through their ordinary daily lives, innocent of the event that’s going to shake up their world.

What Ng does best, in my opinion, is character.  This isn’t a book that turns on surprise twists of plot (though when you find out what actually happened to Lydia and how she died, very late in the book, you may be surprised), but on increasingly deeper understanding of the characters and why they do the things they do. The heartbreaking part of the book isn’t so much Lydia’s death (that’s sad but you know it’s happening from the outset) as the way Lydia’s parents never seemed to see her for who she was when she was alive.

As always, we can promise you coffee and donuts (possibly even more snacks) and scintillating discussion, so come and join us at The Field Library to pick up the books, and then join us on July 20 at 11:00 for our next meeting.

ALMOST TOO LATE: HOW NOT TO DIE ALONE

When I first saw the description of the book, How Not to Die Alone, by Richard Roper, I have to admit I had ambivalent feelings. The bare bones of the plot are that our protagonist, Andrew, works for a branch of the English government, taking care of the burials and funerals of people who have died without heirs or friends or family, and while everyone at his workplace believes he goes home to a wife and family, the truth is that he’s living by himself in a miserable flat, but all this changes when he meets Peggy, a woman who starts working with him and who sets him on the path to a new life.

What I hoped this book would be: a warm, touching book, kind of like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which a lonely person steps out of his self-imposed isolation and begins to find a place in the world.

What I feared this book would be: a manic pixie dream girl comes and, through her loving but deeply unconventional ways, helps some obnoxious guy who’s never put any effort into being a good person live life to the fullest.

Having read the book, I’m happy to report that it was much closer to my hopes than my fears. Andrew comes across, at the beginning of the book, as something of a loser, someone who’s boxed himself into a narrow life because he doesn’t want anything more, but we see early on that he has a good heart.  He attends the funerals of the unfortunate souls who’ve died alone and without any friends or family, and he approaches the difficult part of his job, entering the homes of those people to look for any signs that there might be money for a funeral or any other human beings who might want to know this person has died, and who might mourn the person’s death, with grace and kindness. Frankly, it’s not a job I think I could do, and that Andrew (and the rest of the people in his department) manages to do it at all, and stay sane in the process, is pretty impressive to me.

Peggy, the woman who changes his life, might seem at first like a candidate for manic pixie dream girl: she’s lively, she curses, she approaches Andrew and the job with warmth and enthusiasm, she drinks and she’s not shy about telling people where to go. However, she’s got a complicated life of her own, including a husband who’s got a drinking problem, and two daughters who mean the world to her.  She cares about Andrew, and he comes to care about her, but she’s not here to fix his world. And in fact, at a critical point in the story, she tells him he can’t expect someone else to save him; he has to do it for himself.

Andrew didn’t originally create a wife and children, and a household, out of thin air for the fun of it (Andrew does very few things for the fun of it).  He was in an interview, and he made up a story on the spot, never dreaming he was going to have to live with that story for the rest of his time on the job, inventing increasingly elaborate stories about how he met his wife, what his children are like, and why nobody in the office has ever met them. He knows throughout that this isn’t sustainable; sooner or later people are going to find out the truth, but the longer he manages to keep the story going, the harder it’s going to be, in the end, to admit to reality. And when his supervisor, as a team building effort, institutes a program where people give dinner parties in their homes, Andrew knows his days are numbered.

His brother-in-law is blackmailing him about an inheritance, there are rumors of upcoming layoffs in the department, Peggy’s having difficulties with her marriage, and floating in the background are questions about how Andrew got to be this person in the first place and why he reacts so painfully to the sound of his beloved Ella Fitzgerald singing “Blue Moon,” which is explained late in the book (and when you find out and realize what his brother-in-law is referring to throughout his nasty attacks on Andrew, it’s a painful, poignant moment).  Even in the job itself, which could seem really depressing, there are moments of joy, including Andrew and Peggy tracking down a former lover of one of the deceaseds, and one funeral at least that feels like a real celebration of a life and not merely a routine between the vicar and Andrew as the sole mourner.

In the end, How Not to Die Alone is a warm, goodhearted book, a reminder that it’s almost never too late to start living.