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.

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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.

CHEER UP WITH A FUN READ

Sometimes you just need to read something light and charming to help you deal with the woes of the world, or the miserable weather in a month that should be warm and springlike, and if you’re in that kind of mood, come by The Field Library and check out three of our new books, which will put a smile on your face regardless of the outside world.

Start with The Bride Test, by Helen Hoang.  Hoang is the author of the wildly successful book, The Kiss Quotient, and her new book promises to be as good-hearted and charming as that one. Khai Diep, the hero of the book, is on the autism spectrum.  He believes there’s something wrong with him, that he doesn’t have any feelings, but his family recognizes that he does in fact feel things, he just needs to process his emotions in a different way from most people (and here let’s praise his family for being so sensible about his neurological differences).  His mother takes matters into her own hands and goes back to the Old Country, Vietnam, to find him a bride. There she finds our heroine, Esme Tran, a mixed race young woman who doesn’t feel as if she belongs anywhere. Given the opportunity to go to America, even if it means she has to make a complete stranger fall in love with her, Esme’s eager to take her chances.  Things don’t work out quite the way she expected, though: instead of helping Khai to fall in love with her, she’s starting to fall for him. With the clock ticking and Esme’s time in the United States limited, Khai has to discover that there’s more than one way to feel, and that maybe he’s not as damaged as he always believed.

The “enemies turning into friends, or more than friends” trope is an old and solid one in romantic comedy, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a lot of fun, and The Unhoneymooners, by Christina Lauren, proves just how entertaining it can be (and hey, these tropes became tropes because they work, right?).  The setup: Olive and Ami are twins, but it seems Ami got all the good luck and Olive got all the bad luck. Olive loses her job, gets involved in inexplicable accidents, and Ami not only gets the nicest guy as her fiancee, but she manages to finance her wedding AND her honeymoon through contest winnings  Olive is used to her bad luck and her sister’s fabulous luck, which even extends to Olive’s pairing with the best man, her enemy, Ethan Thomas (and yes, of course she could choose not to be the maid of honor and then avoid him, but family matters are complicated). But then their relative luck shifts, when everybody at the wedding reception falls ill from food poisoning EXCEPT Olive and Ethan.  The honeymoon is all paid for, and the bride and groom are in no position to take advantage of it, so . . . Olive and Ethan take their places, pretending to be honeymooners to be able to spend a free vacation in Maui. Of course, over the time of the fake honeymoon, Olive begins to enjoy spending time with Ethan, and maybe this un-honeymoon could turn into the beginning of something wonderful.

Or, if world events are making you crazy, try an alternative foreign relations problem in Red, White & Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston.  In this book, the President of the United States is a woman with a teenage son, Alex, and Alex has a beef with the Crown Prince of England, Harry, to the point where a picture of the two of them mixing it up emerges and almost causes a breach in diplomatic relations.  Cooler heads prevail on both sides, and the handlers of the two young men set up a fake reconciliation between the prince and the First Son. What starts out as fake, however, takes a turn for the real, as Alex gets to know Harry as a person and not just as a figurehead.  The fake friendship becomes a real romance, though a secret one, and the question becomes whether honesty might be the best policy, whether true love really does conquer all, and whether diplomatic relations between Great Britain and the United States can survive a romance between the crown prince of one and the First Son of the other.  And really, isn’t that a much more pleasant foreign relations problem than some of the ones we’re actually dealing with?

So take a break from all the miserable weather and the frustrating world of the daily news, and check out some fun new books from The Field Library.

STEAMPUNK CAIRO: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015

Steampunk, the subgenre that is usually set in the Victorian era (19th century), using steam powered technology, as if other kinds of motors were never invented.  It can be a lot of fun to read, if you’re interested in alternate histories or you just like the idea of stopping the clock at a particular historical moment and moving forward in a different direction from what actually happened.  The fashions inspired by steampunk are also pretty cool. One problem with the genre, though, is that it does tend to be kind of Euro-centric, often focused on England. If you’re going to reimagine a whole era, you should be aware that there’s more to the world than America and western Europe, and it would be fun to see how these technologies play out in other societies.  If you’re interested in a non-European take on steampunk, let me recommend a new book, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djeli Clark.  Set in 1912 Cairo, Egypt, it blends the fun elements of steampunk with Middle Eastern history and mythology.

It starts with our protagonist, Agent Hamed Nasr of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities (don’t you just love the title?  Don’t you just want to hear more about the work this particular ministry does?), meeting an official of the Train Safety and Maintenance organization to discuss the recent haunting of one of the local tram cars.  The car has apparently been noticeably haunted for a while, but things have escalated to the point where its ghost (or whatever the supernatural entity is) has now attacked a female passenger, and now something must be done. Hamed expects that this will be an ordinary exorcism (and frankly, as far as I’m concerned, just watching an exorcism of a tram car would be interesting enough), but of course there are complications that make this a major headache for Hamed and his new partner (don’t all detective stories start with an experienced officer working for the first time with a new partner?), including the nature of the being haunting the tram car (hint: it’s not an ordinary ghost), the presence of suffragists (and not just human women, either) shaking up the foundations of the society.  

Hamed and Onsi, his partner, are charming characters, and the milieu of 1912 Cairo, with its airships and mechanical people, its djinn and other spirits, is a wonderful place in which to spend some time with our protagonists.  If you like steampunk but wish it were a little more diverse, or if you’ve shied away from the genre because you’re not interested in Victorian England, check out The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (and we’re the only library in Westchester County that has it).

 

CELEBRATE MOTHER’S DAY WITH NEW THRILLERS

I’m sure this isn’t done deliberately by publishers or writers, but it does strike me as interesting that just in time for Mother’s Day, we have two new thrillers, both of which involve mothers and motherhood as a critical element in ratcheting up the suspense.  Whether you’re getting sick of all the sweetness of the usual Mother’s Day tributes or whether you just appreciate a good dark look at something we’re all very familiar with, check out these new thrillers at The Field Library.

One of the hardest things a mother can face is the disappearance of a child, whether that disappearance is due to death or crime or whether the child in question has been in trouble or alienated from his family for a long time before the disappearance.  It must be worse to have to face that grief if your day job is as a psychotherapist, dealing with other people’s painful emotions on a regular basis. That’s the starting situation for Ruth Hartland, the protagonist of A Good Enough Mother, by Bev Thomas.  Ruth’s son, Tom, disappeared a year and a half ago, and while she has no reason to hope he’ll return, she still doesn’t have any kind of closure, and the half life of waiting and almost hoping is draining her.  So probably it’s not a great idea for her to treat her new patient, Dan, who looks strikingly like Tom and reminds Ruth in dangerous ways of her lost and damaged son, but Ruth does anyway, setting herself up for a professional and personal nightmare.

Those first days and weeks of motherhood can be really stressful for a family and especially for a mother who’s just given birth.  So it’s natural enough that a new mother like Lauren Tranter would be utterly exhausted and maybe having irrational thoughts in Little Darlings by Melanie Golding.  When she tells people that she saw someone in her hospital room trying to steal her newborn twins and replace them with other babies, nobody believes her, even her doctor.  But a month later, the twins disappear from her side at a park, and when they’re found, she’s convinced they aren’t really her children. Again, nobody believes her, attributing her wild talk to the stress she’s suffering, but Lauren is convinced, and she intends to get her real children back.  The concept of stolen babies replaced with changelings is a very old one, with deep roots; it was explored in a terrifying and enthralling way in The Changeling, this year’s Fantasy Award winner (reviewed here).  If Little Darlings is half as creepy and disturbing as that book, it’s going to be a fun Mother’s Day read (for certain definitions of “fun”).

Celebrate Mother’s Day by contemplating the worst that can happen to mothers.  Come in and check out our new thrillers.

DO-IT-YOURSELF HAUNTED HOUSE: THE INVITED

What’s the point of having tropes in a genre if you can’t have some fun with them?  And by “fun”, sometimes I mean “turning the trope on its head to bring it to new and terrible life.”  Case in point, the classic haunted house story, given a ferocious twist in Jennifer McMahon’s new book, The Invited.

We all know how a haunted house story goes: someone innocent and naive moves into an old house, looking for comfort and change.  Maybe it’s city people moving to the country to try to simplify their lives, maybe it’s newlyweds or a new family looking for a nice place to live that’s not too expensive.  The house in question turns out to have been built on a graveyard, or to be the scene of some horrible murder or murders in the past, and the newcomers are terrorized by the ghosts resident in the house. There have been quirky versions of this trope (for my money, one of the best is We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson; if you haven’t read that book, check it out immediately), but the basic outlines of the haunted house story are familiar to us all.

Helen and Nate, the couple at the center of The Invited, move from the suburbs to purchase 44 acres of rural land in Vermont.  There, they plan to build their ultimate dream house, so they can live a simpler, more authentic, life. However, the land comes with a violent past.  Back in 1924, a young woman, Hattie Breckenridge, was hanged by a mob for a crime that was actually committed by her daughter. When Helen finds out about this, she’s fascinated.  As a former history teacher, she wants to learn more about the Breckenridges and their lives and deaths, and as she starts digging (figuratively speaking), she starts adding historical artifacts to the house she and her husband are building: bricks from an old mill, a beam from a former schoolhouse, and the like.  Hattie, it turns out, was only the first of three generations of Breckenridge women who died under suspicious circumstances, as Helen discovers. In the meantime, between her obsession with the past and the pieces of that past she’s incorporating into her new house, Helen and Nate are building a haunted house, where the Breckenridge women still seem to be seeking something necessary and dangerous. Of course, they don’t realize what they’ve done until it’s too late . . .

Find out what happens when you inadvertently invite damaged and frightening spirits into your dream house, in The Invited.

 

HUMAN AND ROBOT INTERSECTION: MACHINES LIKE ME

Ian McEwan can always be counted on to write something interesting, whether he’s playing in the worlds of historical fiction (Atonement), or modern “problem” dramas (The Children Act).  Not content to stay in one genre, he has now turned his hand to speculative fiction in his newest book, Machines Like Me.

The trope of the person creating his or her ideal human being is an old one, going back to Greek mythology, through G. Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady to the recent Under the Table.  The trope of robots becoming more and more human also has a long and fascinating history, from Isaac Asimov through Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for the movie Blade Runner), through the award winning Murderbot series by Martha Wells.  Now McEwan combines the two for a look at how humanlike robots could really complicate human lives.

McEwan starts with England in an alternate history 1980’s.  Great Britain lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher is fighting for her political life, and Alan Turing, not a martyr to homophobia, makes a breakthrough in artificial intelligence.  In this world, Charlie, our protagonist (and a bit of a loser in general), spends his inheritance to purchase an Adam, a synthetic human being and the most up to date kind of robot. Charlie and his younger girlfriend, Miranda, design Adam’s personality to make him into the ideal person.

Naturally this goes wrong.  There wouldn’t be a story if it didn’t. One of the first things Adam does is fall in love with Miranda.  And, since Adam is physically perfect (and Charlie, like most of us human beings, is not), Miranda finds him attractive and has an affair with him, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Adam begins writing haikus to express his feelings for Miranda. Does he have “feelings” the way human beings do?

Charlie meets with his hero, Alan Turing (a tantalizing vision of what he might have been able to do if he’d taken the jail time instead of the chemical castration for his “unnatural acts” conviction, what he might have done if he’d had more time), and discovers that the robots like Adam (and Eve) are starting to commit suicide, raising questions of why the most highly developed artificial intelligence in the world can’t seem to live with human beings.

A provocative book that raises more questions than it answers, Machines Like Me is a speculative fiction book to give to people who think they don’t like speculative fiction.  

MY FAIR LADY, REVISIONED: UNDER THE TABLE

Add to the growing collection of new versions of older stories Under the Table, Stephanie Evanovich’s take on Pygmalion and My Fair Lady.  In the best tradition of revisionings of classic tales, Evanovich doesn’t just recreate the original story but puts her own spin on it, in this case placing the events in modern day New York City and flipping the genders and the social classes to come up with a new, entertaining romance that’s both an homage to the original(s) and a fun story on its own.

Our protagonist, Zoey Sullivan, fled a bad marriage and the Midwest to live with her fun sister in New York City.  She gave herself three months to get her head straight, and discovered her love of and skill with cooking could lead her to a career and financial independence.  Avoiding her ex, Derek, who’s constantly calling her, Zoe is settling into a new life when she meets Tristan at one of the private parties she caters. She falls in love with his kitchen, which is everything a chef could possibly dream of, and then she turns her attention to Tristan himself.

Tristan is a diamond in the rough: handsome, rich, with lovely manners, but with few social skills and very shy around other people (as an aside, can we have a person who’s got poor social skills who’s not a brilliant computer programmer?  This is getting to be a cliche). Zoe decides to take him in hand and give him some polish, help him learn how to dress, how to act around other people, how to gain confidence in public settings.

Naturally, once he’s starting to shine thanks to her efforts, Zoe realizes that she’s not thinking of him as just an experiment, someone she was helping.  She’s fallen for him, but she has no idea whether he feels anything for her. And as she’s trying to figure out where she’s going with Tristan, who should turn up in New York City but her ex, Derek, looking for a second chance and not willing to take no for an answer.

If you love a good makeover story and enjoy a little romance and wish My Fair Lady had been a little different, check out Under the Table.

BEYOND THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE: LOST AND WANTED

If you’re interested in a new novel that takes on questions of science and faith, of female friendship and the power of the different kinds of love, try Lost and Wanted, by Nell Freudenberger.

Back in the day, Helen Clapp and Charlotte Boyce were closer than sisters, the kind of friends who told each other everything about their lives.  They were college roommates at Harvard, and shared all their struggles and triumphs at school and after: the time a professor hit on Charlie, Helen’s frustrations as a young woman trying to make her way in the world of science, Charlie’s troubles trying to break into the world of Hollywood screenwriting as a black woman, the challenges they both faced as parents.  But as Helen advanced to a tenure track professorship at MIT, wrote bestselling books that explained science to lay people, and arrived at a breakthrough in the esoteric field of fifth dimensional space, Charlie began to disappear from her life. Their calls grew less and less frequent, Charlie became more elusive, and Helen, if she thought of Charlie, assumed they were just growing apart.

Until Charlie died suddenly, and Helen suddenly realized what she’d been missing.

So far, you might think you’re reading a normal “women’s fiction” book, but things take a bit of an odd turn. After Charlie’s death, Helen gets a phone call from her.  This is impossible in Helen’s scientific view of the world, and yet, she can’t help believing that this really was Charlie talking to her, and that brings Helen back into Charlie’s world, her memories of her friendship with Charlie and everything that went along with that, including her long-ago relationship with Neel Jonnal, a prize-winning physicist who’s on the verge of winning a Nobel Prize.  Helen is forced to reconsider the choices she’s made in her life, the rules of science which have always limited and steadied her world.

Did something supernatural happen?  Does friendship survive death?  Are there second chances in life?  Read Lost and Wanted to find out.

 

 

 

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?