FEMALE PERSPECTIVES ON AMERICAN HISTORY: NEW AT THE FIELD LIBRARY

There’s nothing wrong with reading yet another book about one of the famous male figures of American history, but we have a little something special in our new historical fiction at The Field Library this month: looks at our famous figures from the perspectives of their wives, which manage to illuminate not only the famous figure himself but the world in which the couples lived, in ways a strict focus on the man doesn’t give.

If Alexander Hamilton used to be one of the Founding Fathers most people didn’t know much about, that has certainly changed since the hit musical Hamilton took Broadway by storm, and now people are at least familiar with the story of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, his wife.  However, My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, by Stephanie Kray and Laura Kamoie, takes us a little deeper into Elizabeth’s background and her story than Lin Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton, and we’re the better for it.  Elizabeth wasn’t just the wife of a famous man, after all; she was the daughter of a prominent general and landowner, brought up on the frontier of the American Revolution.  She fell passionately in love with Alexander Hamilton, the penniless, illegitimate aide de camp of General George Washington, married him and shared his fate in time of war and peace. She found herself at the heart of one of America’s first sex scandals, a painful and public betrayal of her and their marriage, but she still managed to work her way to forgiveness.  After her husband’s early death, she fought to secure his place in history and her own legacy. Along the way, we are treated to a vision of the birth of the American Republic, warts and all, with bloodshed and riots and turmoil as well as brilliant compromises and the creation of lasting institutions. While this is a novel and not a biography per se, the authors have taken advantage of the volumes of letters and other primary sources to bring Eliza and her world to vivid life.

Fewer people are familiar with the life of Jefferson Davis, the president of the ill-fated Confederacy (it’s hard to imagine an award winning musical about his life) than with Alexander Hamilton, but Charles Frazer, known for his bestselling and National Book Award-winning novel, Cold Mountain, wants to change that with his new book, Varina.  However, instead of focusing on Davis himself, this book takes his much younger wife, Varina, as its point of view character and sees the Civil War, its antecedents, its battles and its aftermath, through her eyes. Varina was only a teenager, with few marriage prospects, when she married Jefferson Davis, a much older widower.  She was hoping for the security marriage to a well-to-do landowner would bring her, but instead she found her life hitched to the rising star of Davis’ political ambitions, bringing them to the center of the Confederacy with his presidency. When the inevitable happened and Richmond fell, Varina fled for her life with her children, heading south as fugitives with bounties on their heads.  Whatever her intentions, whatever her initial politics, Varina found herself tarred with the brush of her husband’s actions, and discovered that complicity has consequences, regardless of whatever was in her heart.

 

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APRIL BESTSELLERS ON THEIR WAY TO THE FIELD

Some people might say that April is the cruellest month, but April in 2018 is also a month for lots of new books by bestselling authors available at The Field Library, so if you’re looking for something hot to read as the weather (we hope!) turns to spring, take a look at our upcoming new fiction.

Mary Higgins Clark has been writing thrillers for decades, either in series or as standalone books. She’s skilled at taking ordinary people and putting them in extraordinary situations of danger, all the while keeping things plausible as well as thrilling.  Her upcoming book, I’ve Got My Eyes on You, follows that pattern.  An 18 year old girl, Kerry, is murdered, her body found fully clothed in the bottom of her family’s swimming pool after a party.  Her older sister, Aline, who’s a guidance counselor, is determined to find the truth about who killed Kerry: Kerry’s boyfriend, who fought with her at the party? A neighbor angry at not being invited to the party? Someone else entirely?  What Aline doesn’t realize is that her search for the truth might just end up destroying her as it destroyed Kerry.

Lisa Scottoline’s new book is also a stand alone, and also a work of twisty suspense. After Anna starts with a seemingly happy family, Dr. Noah Alderman, his wife Maggie, and his son by his first marriage.  True, Maggie still feels regret for the loss of her daughter, Anna, from her first marriage, whom she hasn’t seen in years, but even that small pain is relieved when Anna returns to Maggie’s life and comes to live with the family.  If anyone thought it would be easy to integrate this beautiful 17 year old girl into their happy lives, they’re quickly disabused of the idea by Anna’s willful disregard of the household rules. Maggie, desperate to have another chance with her daughter, overlooks all the warning signs that things aren’t right, and then tragedy strikes: Anna is killed, and Noah is accused of killing her. Maggie’s whole world is turned inside out as her husband goes on trial for the murder of her daughter.  She investigates, afraid that what she finds out is going to destroy some part of her life, whatever she finds out.

Stone Barrington, the long time protagonist of Stuart Woods’ books, returns in Shoot First.  He’s playing golf with, among other people, a brilliant (and, of course, beautiful) woman who’s behind a startup company that’s on the cutting edge of an exciting new technology, when the game is interrupted by a violent attack. It seems someone or more than one someone is trying to get the woman out of the way in order to get to the company’s secrets, but Stone Barrington is not about to let that happen. As Barrington travels from the Florida coast to the beautiful English countryside in search of the mastermind behind these attacks, he may be up against someone much more resourceful and dangerous than anyone else he’s had to deal with in his career to date.

Lucas Davenport, the protagonist of John Sandford’s long-running Prey series, is in a different position at the start of Twisted Prey than the protagonists of the other books here.  He knows who he’s up against, because she’s someone he’s dealt with, unsuccessfully, before. Taryn Grant is a rich psychopath who also happens to be a U. S. Senator.  Though he was never able to prove it in a court of law, Davenport is convinced she murdered three people and got away with it. Now a U.S. Marshal, he’s sure she hasn’t changed in any fundamental way despite her new power, and he’s hearing rumors she’s using classified information she’s been getting in her capacity on the Senate Intelligence Committee for nefarious purposes.  He’s not about to let her get away with her crimes again, but by the same token, she’s not about to let him destroy her now any more than she was in the past. The chase is dangerous, the prey is especially clever and powerful, but one way or another, the two of them are going to have it out.

It wouldn’t be a regular month without a new James Patterson, and in April his new book is from the Women’s Murder Club series, The 17th Suspect (you might have been able to guess that from the title).  Officer Lindsay Boxer is caught up in a series of shootings in the San Francisco area, and one woman decides to act as a confidential informant and give Lindsay a tip about the killer.  To her deepening concern, Lindsay begins to wonder whether this killer might not have some ties within her own police department. The case is getting to her in more ways than one; she’s suffering disturbing medical symptoms that are obstructing her work, at the same time her investigation is exposing more and more problems within the department, and force her to question some of her most basic assumptions about her place in the world.

If you’re interested in any of these new titles, put them on hold, but while you’re waiting, come in and see if our Express copies are on the shelf, especially now that you can take out Express books for two weeks.  Happy reading!

WILDERNESS THREATS: THE WILD INSIDE

There’s something about the untamed wilderness as a setting for a thriller or a horror story that just works. Whatever human evil might be lurking about is augmented and made worse by the weather, the terrain, the unforgiving nature.  While The Great Alone wasn’t a thriller per se, the fact of the family’s living in Alaska adds to the tension and the danger the characters are facing, and a new novel, The Wild Inside, by Jamey Bradbury, also uses the setting of Alaska’s wild country to ratchet up the suspense of the story.

Tracy Petrikoff, the protagonist, has grown up in the remote forests of Alaska, and is a born trapper and hunter. Between tracking animals and training her dogs for the Iditarod, her life is complete, and, aside from her mother’s recent death from a hit and run accident, reasonably happy. But then one day she’s attacked by a stranger in the woods and left there, unconscious.  Her memory of events is jumbled and partial, which bothers her. The next day she spots a stranger who seems oddly familiar, and who’s sporting a serious wound from a hunting knife, very much like the one she carries around at all times. She can’t be sure if he’s the one who attacked her, if she cut him in self defense, if she even managed to fight back when she was attacked.

She’s busy in the aftermath of the attack, helping her father cope with her mother’s death, preparing for the Iditarod, and then Jesse Goodwin, a wanderer, appears, seeking a job, and maybe more than a job.  Tracy can tell that he’s got secrets he’s not telling, maybe something to do with the attack, but since she never told her father that she was attacked in the first place, she can’t tell him now why she’s got doubts about Jesse.  He insinuates himself into the family, and Tracy starts encountering other creepy things: the boot prints outside their home, the threatening face of a stranger in a crowd, and the isolation she’s always treasured begins to seem like a danger rather than a benefit. She needs to find out the truth, about her mother’s death, about her attack, about what’s going on now, out in the wild.

 

HISTORICAL THRILLERS: THE LOST HEIRESS AND THE DANGEROUS NEIGHBORS

Who says that historical novels can’t share characteristics of other kinds of fiction?  Two new historical novels at The Field Library could be read as mysteries or even thrillers, while still demonstrating all the depths of historical detail and research, still illuminating the past, that the best historical fiction shows.

For decades people have been fascinated with the doomed Romanov family, executed in Ekaterinburg after the Russian Revolution, and one of the reasons for this fascination is the possibility that Grand Duchess Anastasia might have survived.  Certainly there were people who claimed to be Anastasia, the most famous of whom was Anna Anderson, whose legal case to prove her relationship to the family of the Czar lasted for years. Out of this background comes the new novel, I Was Anastasia, by Ariel Lawhon, which looks at the Anna Anderson case and the facts, such as we know them, of the execution of Grand Duchess Anastasia with her family. The story starts with a young woman being pulled out of a freezing canal in Berlin in 1920, unable or unwilling to explain how she got there, but her body bears evidence of some horrible injuries. She looks startlingly like the famous Anastasia, and when she is able to speak, she claims to be that Anastasia. Some people want to believe her, others believe she’s just trying to steal the Romanov family fortune. Interspersed within this young woman’s story is the story of Anastasia and the fall of the Romanov family, all asking the big questions: what is identity? Who was telling the truth in this situation and what does the truth mean?  With the structure of the modern unreliable narrator/multiple voices thriller mingled with the actual known facts of Anna Anderson’s lawsuit and Anastasia’s life, I Was Anastasia is a fascinating “what if?”

While Mary Monroe’s One House Over starts in the 1920’s, as I Was Anastasia does, this isn’t an unreliable narrator book, but more the kind of book that sets a long slow fuse between the happiness at the beginning of the book and the horrible things that are going to happen to the characters as a result of subtle things going on in the plot.  As is often the case with this kind of thriller/suspense story, it starts out with the main characters in a happy place. Joyce and Odell Watson are living a good life in their small Alabama community in the 1920’s: a good, solid marriage, a thriving business, respect from their fellow residents, escape from poverty, a chance at a real family.  The only fly in the ointment at the beginning is their sneaking desire to just cut loose once, see what it’s like not to be constrained by respectability. When their new neighbors turn out to be bootleggers, living the high life, the Watsons have their chance to try to be different. As they find out more about their neighbors’ shady past and their secrets, they try to pull away from them, but they discover that it’s much harder to walk away from friends like that than it is to let them insinuate themselves into your lives in the first place.  And gradually, they find themselves in danger of losing everything they’ve ever valued.

 

IS IT REALLY A COINCIDENCE?

Sometimes it seems as if the tiniest things can change your entire life, and you wonder what would have happened if, for instance, you’d missed that train instead of catching it, or if you’d gotten this job instead of that one.  Of course, life is full of coincidences and things that just happen to fall in a particular way, and adults don’t expect to be able to plan everything and be able to follow their plans without unforeseen calamities or roadblocks.

But what if these seeming coincidences were nothing of the sort?  What if they were all part of a plan? What if there were people whose jobs were to set up certain coincidences and make certain unlikely things happen, so that other, more important, things would follow? Einstein is reputed to have said “God does not play dice with the universe.”  What if he was right?

That is the beginning of the fascinating premise of a new book, The Coincidence Makers, by Yoav Blum.  There IS a grand plan, and there are people who are spending all their time working to set up those coincidences and “accidents” that lead to that plan’s working.  Three characters went through a “coincidence training course,” where they learned how to set up apparently random events so the people involved would never suspect they were planned, and after they graduated from the course, joined a secret organization as Coincidence Makers, where they’ve been working the last two years.

One day, Guy, one of the Coincidence Makers, receives an assignment that’s at a much higher level than anything he’s tried before.  He realizes that it’s a big deal and that it’s going to be much more difficult and more complicated than his usual job, but even he has no idea how serious it is, how many things it’s going to impact, including his own life.  A mysterious killer shows up as well, and over the course of this mission, Guy and his companions learn new things about fate, free will, and the nature of love.

The premise is so intriguing you almost have to read the book itself to see how it plays out, and what the big mission is. Check out The Coincidence Makers  and see for yourself.

LAB GIRL: NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION

After a fun, party atmosphere-d discussion of our March book, Furiously Happy, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen our book for April 21, our next meeting, and it’s Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren.  Copies of the book will be available starting this week (March 19 on) at The Field Library Circulation Desk, so come on in and pick up your copy, and then get ready to join us on April 21, from 11:00 to 12:30, at The Field Library Gallery.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s memoir of her life as a scientist, and it’s been given all kinds of recognitions: the National Book Critics Award for Autobiography, a New York Times Notable book, inclusion on the Best of the Year lists for the Washington Post, Time, NPR and others, as well as a finalist for the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award.  

Hope is an excellent narrator, describing her development as a budding scientist from her earliest days helping her father in his college laboratory in a small town in Minnesota through her high powered career in various universities.  All along, she shares not only her stories of her own education, but of the people she works with, including Bill, her lab manager who’s both brilliant and (like so many scientists) a bit eccentric, and shares her enthusiasm and love for the world of plants, which surrounds us but which most of us don’t even really see at all, let alone understand.

It’s a fun read and a fascinating one, so come and join us in what will undoubtedly be another great discussion (with snacks!).

 

FAIRY TALES TURNED VERY DARK

It seems appropriate that, so soon after I put up the display, lists, and post about the adult fairy tale category for this year’s Reading Challenge, The Field Library acquired The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, which is a collection of very dark short stories based on various famous or less famous fairy tales (and children’s stories, which I’ll get to in a minute).  It’s a quick read, but be warned: all of the stories are warped, and some of them are quite disturbing.

Do you need to know the original stories in order to appreciate The Merry Spinster? No, though you probably are at least generally aware of the outlines of such stories as The Little Mermaid (here told as “The Daughter Cells”), The Wind in the Willows (here “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”), or “The Frog Princess” (here “The Frog’s Princess”).  As with any retellings of famous stories, you are of course better able to appreciate the new version if you’re familiar with the original, but you can read these stories without a lot of knowledge of their source material.

And what stories they are!  Some of them, like “The Daughter Cells,” just take the original story and look at it through a completely different lens: consider what a mermaid would really be like and exactly how she might view humankind, keeping in mind that creatures that live underwater might not have such a human-oriented point of view.  “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” told by an angel who had various tasks to fulfill in the time of the Bible, seems perfectly reasonable until you get to the end (the angel’s encounter with Jacob), and think about the twist in the story and what it means for the future.

Though these stories are creepy, they’re not really “horror” as I see them. Some of them, though, are genuinely scary and even haunting.  For instance, The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child, and Ortberg’s version, “The Rabbit,” follows the original fairly closely and then diverges to absolutely ruin my memory of the original, turning it into something nightmarishly chilling. Similarly, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” here would make anyone scared of Rat and Mole and Badger and horribly sympathetic to poor Toad.

If you don’t mind having some really creepy dreams, and you enjoy looking at famous stories from different angles, and you have a dark sensibility, then by all means give The Merry Spinster a read.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

WHEN MEMORY FAILS: THRILLERS

Three new thrillers have just arrived at The Field Library, all turning, in one way or another, on the question of memory. Hard as it is to solve a mystery when you have all the pieces available to you, it’s logarithmically more difficult to solve the mystery when you yourself have serious blank spaces in your memory, and those blank spaces could be where the most important information resides.  

Police officer Doug Brock, the protagonist of David Rosenfelt’s Fade to Black, suffers from traumatic amnesia.  Shot in the line of duty before the book begins, Doug is trying to rebuild his life, retrieving some of his memories and joining an amnesia support group to help him work on getting the rest of his memories.  So it makes sense to him to try to help another man from the amnesia group who has made a most disturbing discovery. In Sean Connor’s attic, he says, he’s found a scrapbook of a murder victim, but he has no memory of the girl or why he might have put that scrapbook together. Doug takes the matter to his chief and reopens the closed case of this girl’s murder, only to discover that he himself had a personal connection to the case (a surprise to him).  As he investigates, the case causes him to question everything he knows about Sean, about the case, and about his own past.

Cassandra Bowden has few excuses for her own lack of memory in Chris Bohjalian’s The Flight Attendant. She’s a binge alcoholic, and has many times drunk herself into complete blackouts, which are starting to interfere with her job as a flight attendant. However, what happens when she wakes up from a bender in a Dubai hotel is much worse than any hangover she’s ever encountered before. The man in bed beside her is dead, clearly murdered, and Cassandra has no memory of anything having to do with the man, how she got there, how he got there, what might have happened to him.  She then makes a disastrous decision: she doesn’t call the police, but begins to lie about what happened. She lies to the people she works with, she lies to the people she’s serving in First Class, and, most dangerously of all, she lies to the FBI agents who are waiting for her in New York. With so many lies and so little memory, Cassandra has put herself into a position where it may no longer be possible for her to tell the truth, even if she could figure it out. Who killed the man?  Could she have done it? If she didn’t, how did she end up in bed with a murdered man?

Alice Feeny’s Sometimes I Lie involves a protagonist with even more serious problems than Doug or Cassandra.  Amber Reynolds is a victim of shut in syndrome. She’s in a coma; she can’t move, speak, or even open her eyes, but she can hear everything that’s going on around her. The people around her don’t know she can hear and understand them, and there’s nothing she can do to make them aware of her conscious state. If this isn’t nightmare fuel by itself, there’s more.  She can’t remember what happened to her, but she has a suspicion her husband, who no longer loves her, had something to do with her present state. She goes back and forth in her mind between her scary present situation, the events of the week before her accident, and childhood memories from 20 years before, trying to find the truth in a world of lies and half truths.

WHAT MAKES A MIRACLE?

What happens when some seemingly incurable condition or illness is suddenly cured?  Is it a sign that the illness was wrongly diagnosed in the first place, or is it a sign that something supernatural has happened? Or is there another alternative?  

These are the questions at the heart of Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles.  The book’s protagonist, Cameron Harris, fought in Afghanistan, and, after a traumatizing accident, was rendered paraplegic.  He’s been living a difficult life with his sister in a battered Biloxi, Mississippi, neighborhood for the last four years, just barely making it.  And then one day, for no particular reason, he rises out of his wheelchair and is able to walk again.

Now he’s the center of national and even international attention, much to his own dismay.  Journalists are investigating his “miracle”, and even emissaries from the Vatican are digging into Cameron’s life, his injury and his recovery, trying to determine whether this was really a certifiable miracle or some kind of medical breakthrough.

What happens when a person becomes a symbol? What happens to his life and his privacy, to his deepest secrets?  What actually happened to Cameron, and how does his “miracle” affect everybody else around him, including the people drawn into his orbit through his new celebrity, the people who want to believe and the people who want to prove there was nothing supernatural about what happened?

Anatomy of a Miracle is that rare book that looks into questions of faith and rationality, science and the limits of science, and the way our culture turns people into celebrities.

For those who are interested, this book is the next pick of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Book Club Central, so there will probably be a lot of buzz about it in the near future.

 

HISTORICAL HORROR FOR THE END OF WINTER

Who says horror books should only come out around Halloween?  There’s definitely something to be said for winter as the season of horror: being stuck indoors by snow and ice, at the mercy of whatever demons you brought in with you, or whatever supernatural forces you encounter there (see The Shining or Traveler’s Rest  for examples).  And this March, facing all these late snowstorms, we can luxuriate in the dark creepiness of some new horror books at The Field Library.

Snowstorms and being stranded by weather brings to mind one of the most infamous disasters of the trek westward, the Donner Party, which just happens to be the subject of The Hunger, by Alma Katsu. The Donner Party was a group that tried to cross the Rockies in 1846 by a different route, got lost, got stranded and snowbound, and ended up eating each other’s dead bodies before they were rescued.  This is historical, and gruesome, fact. The Hunger takes it a step or two farther, speculating about whether the bad luck that seemed to haunt the party was something more, a malignant force following the party, seeking its destruction.  As the group of men, women and children travels across the Sierra Nevada mountains, and people start disappearing, those who continue onward begin to wonder whether there’s something terrifying waiting for them beyond the mountains, as the Native American stories suggest, or whether that evil is coming along with them and has been there from the start.  If you like your historical fiction on the dark and scary side, be sure to check out The Hunger.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing creepier than dolls, particularly dolls that look like real people; it’s the whole uncanny valley thing that gets to me, so the concept underlying The Silent Companions, by Laura Purcell, unnerves me and probably will unnerve anyone else who feels similarly.  Nicely Gothic in setting, the Victorian era protagonist is Elsie, a young woman who marries a rich, handsome man, moves to his estate with him, and prepares for an easy life.  Unfortunately for her, her husband dies a few weeks into their marriage, and she’s pregnant, left with his somewhat disturbing cousin for company, her servants angry and sullen, surrounded by a village of hostile locals.  It gets worse when she discovers a locked door in the house, and behind that door (am I the only one shouting, “Don’t open that door!”?), she finds a carved wooden figure that looks surprisingly like her. The village people have superstitions about those silent companions, and Elsie tries to disregard those stories, until she notices that the figure’s eyes are following her.  What’s going on here? Is the house haunted? Is Elsie?

Take your mind off your own inconveniences by reading about people who have it much worse. Check out our new horror books.