WOMEN MAKE THRILLERS WORK

Thrillers used to be a man’s world, and if women were characters in them, they were usually femme fatales or damsels in distress, people who were peripheral to the action.  Not anymore! These days the hottest thrillers tend to involve women as the main characters. Think of Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train*, or The Woman in the Window, which have dominated bestseller lists.  Three new thrillers here at The Field Library feature women as main characters in different capacities, in very different situations.  

An Anonymous Girl, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, doesn’t start out in your classic thriller fashion.  Our protagonist, Jessica Farris, signs on for a psychology experiment involving questions of ethics and morality, run by the mysterious Dr. Shields. The ad says the people participating must be women between the ages of 18 and 32, anonymity is guaranteed and the compensation will be generous.  Why shouldn’t Jessica sign on? Answer a few questions, take her money and leave: what could be problematic about that? But then she starts answering the questions and they’re not what she expected, questions like “Could you tell a lie without feeling guilt?” and “Have you ever deeply hurt someone you care about?”  As the questions become more penetrating, more invasive and more disturbing, Jessica starts wondering about the man running the program. Does he know her? Is he trying to manipulate her? The study takes her out of the lab and into the world, requiring her to do certain things, dress certain ways, and Jessica becomes (understandably) paranoid.  Where is this leading? What exactly is being studied and why is she involved in this? An Anonymous Girl is a subtle, psychological thriller that makes you wonder about exactly where you should draw the line in trusting people.

Elle Stowell, the protagonist of The Burglar, by Thomas Perry, is very different from Jessica.  By profession, she’s a high class burglar who uses her looks, intelligence and unconventional skills to get inside the ritziest homes in Bel Air, and steal the most valuable items without getting caught.  It’s an easy, if unconventional life, until one night she breaks into the wrong house, discovering the results of a triple homicide. Suddenly she’s a target instead of a mover and shaker, and in order to keep from becoming the next victim, she has to use her breaking and entering skills, and her smarts, to figure out who the murder victims were and why they were killed, all the while trying to stay out of the cross hairs of the murderers herself.

There are two women at the heart of Freefall, by Jessica Barry: a mother estranged from her daughter, and her daughter who’s running for her life. The daughter, Allison Carpenter, is on a private jet that crashes in the Colorado Rockies, and manages to survive the crash.  Unfortunately for her, walking away from the crash is the easiest thing she has to do, even though she’s isolated in the mountainous wilderness. She’s got a secret that powerful people would kill to preserve, and if those people knew she was still alive, they’d make sure she never got out of the wilds.  Meanwhile, in a small town in Maine, on the other end of the country, Maggie Carpenter, Allison’s mother, learns her daughter is presumed dead in the plane crash. A family tragedy drove Allison away, and Maggie doesn’t know much about her daughter’s present life, even that she was engaged to be married, or why she was flying on a private plane. But she believes Allison’s not dead, and she dedicates herself to finding out more about her lost daughter, including the secrets Allison’s keeping that could mean her death.  The book cuts between Allison’s efforts to make her way out of the forbidding terrain and Maggie’s efforts to discover why Allison is in such trouble to begin with, and possibly find a way to get her out of it.

Three different thrillers, four different women at the heart of them: come in and check them out.

 

*Someday I will talk at greater length about how annoying it is that all these modern books refer to adult women as “girls.” I realize it’s a marketing thing, new books attempting to capitalize on the popularity of bestsellers like Gone Girl, but as far as I’m concerned, if the character in question is over 18 years of age, she’s a woman, not a girl.

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FEBRUARY 2019 FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: THE KINSHIP OF SECRETS

After a lively and interesting discussion of Greek mythology, relations between women and men, between gods and mortals, fate and the coming of age of someone immortal with reference to our January book, Circe, the Field Notes Book Group has chosen our book for February.  On February 16, from 11 to 12:30 at The Field Library, we will be discussing The Kinship of Secrets, by Eugenia Kim.  Come by the Circulation Desk at the library this week to pick up your copy.

The Kinship of Secrets is the story of a divided family.  In the late 1940’s, the Korean family of Najin and Calvin Cho leave Korea for the United States, taking their older daughter, Maran, with them, and leaving behind their infant daughter, Inja, with their extended family in Korea.  They all expect Najin and Calvin will return to pick up Inja and take her with them to America, but the Korean War intervenes, and what was supposed to be a brief separation turns into many years. Inja grows up in Korea, knowing she has a family but considering them ghosts, and Maran grows up in suburban America, always aware of her missing sister. The book is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of the two sisters, and explores the consequences of war on one family, and the bonds of family that bring them together while the Korean War and its aftermath push them apart.

In some ways the Korean War is a forgotten war in America, and even when we do hear about it or read about it, we seldom see it from the point of view of people expatriated from Korea.  The book promises to give us a different perspective on America and Korea, and I’m looking forward to our discussions. Come and join us.

 

WOMEN’S PERSPECTIVES ON WORLD WAR II

It seems these days that World War II is the most popular era for historical fiction, with a new novel about some aspect of the war coming out nearly every month.  In January we have two new World War II novels, each one looking at a different aspect of the war, and each one looking at it through the eyes of women doing more than just keeping the home fires burning and waiting for their men to return home.

The Light Over London, by Julia Kelly, follows a familiar pattern for modern historical novels, the modern day character learning about her counterpart in a past time, her life being illuminated in some way by the history she’s learning. Cara Hargraves is working for a gruff antiques dealer when she discovers an unfinished diary from World War II, with a picture of a young woman in uniform, at an estate sale.  Reading the diary leads her to investigate the story behind it, and there we are in the second narrative of the book with 19 year old Louise Keene, living in Cornwall in 1941. Her ideas about her life and her future are upended when she meets Paul, a dashing RAF officer, stationed at a nearby base. His unit’s deployment leads Louise to look beyond her narrow life and become a Gunner Girl, a woman in the British army’s anti-aircraft unit, stationed in London during the Blitz.  She takes pride in her ability to identify enemy planes, and in the accuracy of her calculations, leading the male gunners to shoot down the attacking aircraft, but of course life in London during this dangerous period is scary and filled with risks. She clings to the hope that she and Paul will be reunited after the war, but life is precarious during wartime and her real education in life and love is just beginning. There are parallels between the lives of the two women, and Cara is inspired by Louise’s story to investigate the war experiences of her own grandmother, who never spoke much about what she did in the war.

The protagonist of The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict, is a real person: Hedy Lamarr, and her story is incredible enough to seem more fitting for a novel than a biography.   Her extraordinary beauty got her married to a prominent arms dealer in the early stages of the Third Reich, and probably protected her from being rounded up with other Jews and killed.  As she and her husband moved in the highest social circles of the Nazis, she was continually underestimated, assumed to be a pretty airhead, but all the while she was paying attention to everything she heard about the highest level plans of the Third Reich.  She disguised herself and made a daring escape from her husband’s castle, to emerge in Hollywood as a film star, but even that wasn’t the whole extent of her extraordinary life. She didn’t want to spend her time making money in movies when the war was raging, so she turned her scientific mind toward helping radio-controlled torpedoes avoid having their frequencies jammed, a technology that was later adopted by the U.S. Navy, and that still later became the basis for secure Wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS.  

Even if you consider yourself a World War II buff, there are undoubtedly things in these two novels that will be new to you, and if you have only a general knowledge of the war and how it affected non-combatants, you will find these two books fascinating.

NEW YEAR, NEW CHALLENGE

As anyone who knows me or has read my work knows, I am a major fan of the library, The Field Library in particular (it’s my home library, as well as my employer!).  I have loved libraries since I was a kid in New Jersey, and I can’t imagine living anywhere without a library. I love working here: I love buying the new fiction, I love seeing all the new books as soon as they come out, I love giving people library cards, I love recommending books to people (especially when people come back and tell me they enjoyed the recommendations), I love giving people the items they’ve put on hold. In many ways, this is my dream job.

But even I, after working at the library for 11 years, am not familiar with all the good stuff on the shelves here. When I look for something to read, I, like many other patrons and readers in general, tend to stick to the same books, the same genres, the same type of books.  I wouldn’t say I’m in a rut, exactly, but I would say that I, like many other readers, sometimes need a little push to get me out of my reading comfort zone.

Which is why I’m setting up the 2019 Field Library Reading Challenge.  Those of you who have done the challenges in the last couple of years know what to expect, and for those who haven’t done this before, the rules are simple enough.  I’m posting a list of categories, and your goal is to read at least one book in each category. I will be regularly posting lists of books that fulfill the different categories here on the blog, and, if you sign up with your email address (send to me at nmulligan@wlsmail.org and I’ll add you to the list), I’ll send the list to your email on a regular basis as well.  There will be displays of books in each category at the library, but of course you’re welcome to put any of the books on hold to receive wherever and whenever you want.

Give it a try: stretch your mind, try different books, different authors, different kinds of books.  Let’s make 2019 a year in which we all find new books to love!

Here’s the list (you can pick up a copy at the Circulation Desk, too):

Read a Book about Mental Health

Read a Book about Astronomy

Read a Book about Games

Read a Book about Photography

Read a collection of short stories

Read an epistolary novel OR collection of letters

Read a book involving Math

Read a book about philosophy

Read a book about history other than US History

Read a book about money

Read a book about espionage

Read a book about law

Read a book about movies

From time to time over the year, I’ll also be highlighting different categories here in the blog, so keep watching this space, and keep reading.

Happy New Year!

JANUARY SELECTION FOR THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP

After a stimulating discussion on Little Women, the Field Notes Book Group decided on next month’s selection, and, yes, I might have had a little influence on the choice of books (not that I pushed or anything, but I did strongly recommend our chosen book).  For January 12, 2019, we’re going to be reading Circe by Madeline Miller.  As always, the group will meet at 11:00 in the gallery, and there will be snacks and coffee provided, and, as always, copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk at The Field Library.

I’ve already written about Circe.  It’s been chosen as one of the best books of the year by a number of publications already, and with good reason: it’s a terrific read.  If you’re familiar with The Odyssey or with Greek mythology in general, you’ll really appreciate Miller’s take on some of the more famous characters (including Odysseus and Daedalus), but even if you know nothing of the original story, you’ll have no trouble following Circe’s story here.  As I’ve said before, Circe was always one of my favorite characters in Greek mythology, and it’s going to be fun to discuss Miller’s take on her story.

Come and pick up a copy of the book, and then join us on January 12 to travel back in time and see the other side of The Odyssey.

 

SWIPING RIGHT FOR A NEW ROMANTIC COMEDY

The classic Shakespearean comedy involves mistaken identities and the complications that ensue, usually ending up with the right people getting together and ending happily.  It’s a theme that’s been used for romantic comedies for centuries, and it’s about time the trope was updated for the modern world. My Favorite Half-Night Stand, by Christina Lauren, is a modern and clever use of the old mistaken identity plot.

As with this year’s hit book, The Kiss Quotient, the main character here is a woman who has very little experience with the whole dating/romance scene.  Millie is a scientist, “one of the guys”, who’s much better at dealing with research into serial killers than at finding men who interest her romantically.  She’s a professor at Santa Barbara and hangs out with four other professors, all male, and all equally clueless about dating. When the group gets invited to a university function that turns out to be — horrors! — black tie, they decide they’re all going to bring a “plus one”, even if they have to find their dates through online dating services.

However, once they make the pact but before she actually starts the online dating process, Millie finds herself involved in a sexy half night stand with one of the other professors in the group, Reid.  The two of them are surprised at how much they enjoyed themselves, but they’re determined to remain just friends.

The online dating process for her is pretty gruesome.  While her male colleagues get all kinds of interesting women responding to their listings, all Millie gets are creepy people and obscene pictures.  So she creates a different identity for the dating app: Catherine, who can be all the things Millie is not, including vulnerable and open.

You’ve already guessed, I’m sure, who finds the profile for “Catherine” and starts corresponding with her: Reid, who knows the real life Millie but would never guess that she’s the same person he’s been connecting with online (if you’re picturing The Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, you’re thinking along the right lines).  

Does Millie manage to come clean with Reid?  Does she figure out how to reconcile her real world and her online selves?  Is there a happy ever after? Do you need to read something light and charming with all that’s going on in the world?  Read My Favorite Half-Night Stand and find out the answers.

A HAUNTED HOUSE FOR THE MODERN ERA

If you’ve been wondering whether the old trope of the haunted house still has resonance and power to scare, or at least unnerve people, or if you’re in the mood for something really dark in this holiday season, check out The Mansion, by Ezekiel Boone, but be sure to keep the lights on.

This is not your ordinary haunted house story, though it has some of the elements: mysterious deaths, a house that is more than an ordinary dwelling, buried secrets and the sense that something malevolent is working its will through the house. This house also has computer programs and cutting edge technology, along with the simmering tensions of a Silicon Valley startup.

Once upon a time, Billy and Shawn were living on the verge of destitution, spending their days and nights in a tiny, ramshackle cabin outside a falling down mansion, designing the next big computer, a revolutionary machine they named Eagle Logic.  Unfortunately, the strains of poverty and overwork, and interpersonal tensions exacerbated by those factors destroyed their friendship. A third partner mysteriously disappeared, Shawn’s girlfriend left him for Billy, and Shawn took Eagle Logic and made himself a fortune.

Time passed, and didn’t treat Billy well, while Shawn became world famous and nearly infinitely rich.  With the world as his oyster, Shawn turned back to a program he and Billy once worked on that hadn’t succeeded: a program they named Nellie that would control a house completely.  And what house does he choose? Why, the mansion that loomed outside their cabin when he and Billy were first working together, of course.

Since I’ve already told you this is a haunted house story, you can probably guess what happens next: the program doesn’t work the way Shawn intended it to, some of the people working on the house die mysteriously of supposed accidents, and as things begin to fall apart, Shawn decides he needs to reach out to Billy to try to fix what’s broken. But bringing Billy back is also bringing back the issues that broke the pair up in the first place, and Nellie may have some deadly secrets in the source code, as the two of them are about to find out.

Adding computers, which most of us use but don’t entirely understand, to the Gothic world of haunted houses that seek to destroy those who live in them is a brilliant idea.  Taking the notion of a “smart” house and exploring all the dark and sinister possibilities of the concept is not only creepy but timely. If you’re in the mood for a different kind of haunted house thriller, The Mansion is waiting for you.

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER — MAYBE

Many of us have read lots of mysteries and seen tons of movies and television shows about the criminal justice system from all kinds of angles, and after a while you get the feeling you might be able to outsmart the system if you really had to.  Even if you’ve never personally wondered about your own ability to get away with murder, you might well have second-guessed the killer in a book or movie, noticing his or her mistakes and feeling superior because you never would have made those mistakes yourself.

What would happen if you were a criminal defense lawyer, married to another criminal defense lawyer, and you felt the need to take justice into your own hands?  Would that be easier or harder than for an ordinary civilian? Well, Natalie and Will, the protagonists in For Better and Worse, by Margot Hunt, put themselves in that position.  They met when they were both in law school, and bonded from the first in a what if game: what if they wanted to kill someone together, would they be able to get away with it? It was just a game, a somewhat peculiar icebreaker (but perfectly reasonable if you’re dealing with law students), but law students are accustomed to dealing with hypotheticals, and for Nat and Will, the game led to romance and later to marriage and a son.

It would have remained just a memory of a game they played except that life circumstances suddenly made it relevant again.  Nat and Will, both criminal defense attorneys, discover that the school principal has molested their young son. Nat, furious as any mother would be, with the added knowledge of the system that only someone who’s worked in it for decades would have, wants to protect her son from the molester, but also from the potential damage a trial would do to him as a witness.  While Will feels they should report the crime to the police, but Nat has other plans, and her other plans end up involving Will, whether he wants to be drawn into her crimes or not.

Are they as clever as they think they are?  Can they outsmart the police? Should they? Neither Nat nor Will is exactly a likeable character, but that’s pretty common nowadays in thrillers (thanks a lot, Gone Girl, for making that a trend).  While it’s a fast read and nothing deep or profound, the questions For Better and Worse raises about justice and whether vigilante action can ever be justified, even in terrible cases like the one here, are fascinating and keep the pages turning.

 

HOW THE OTHER HALF WINS: THE ACCIDENTAL BEAUTY QUEEN

If you’re in the mood for a charming and lighthearted book (and who isn’t, these dark days?), let me recommend a new book, set in the (to me) alien world of beauty pageants, The Accidental Beauty Queen, by Teri Wilson.

The main characters are a pair of identical twins, identical in face and body though certainly not in personality or life goals. Ginny Gorman is determined to win fame as a beauty queen and has been competing in pageants since she was old enough to lisp the expected answers to her goals for the world.  She lives on Instagram, is a sensation wherever she goes, and will not stop until she wins the ultimate title of Miss American Treasure. Her sister, Charlotte, by contrast, is shy and retiring. She works as a librarian (of course) in an elementary school and is perfectly happy to live through her books and her job, with no more attention paid to her than would be paid to any other librarian.

You can already see where this is going, can’t you?  

Of course Ginny brings Charlotte to a beauty pageant to act as her good luck charm, and of course, Ginny suffers an allergic reaction the night before the pageant that ruins her looks for the next three days at least.  So what’s a disappointed and desperate identical twin to do? Persuade her identical twin sister to pretend to be her, of course. Identical twins do this all the time in books and movies, and hilarity ensues, as well as opportunities for each twin to learn more about the other’s life.

Charlotte being a good-hearted sister, she goes along with Ginny’s plea despite some serious reservations on her part, and so she is introduced to all the things she’s never had time or inclination for: hair extensions, push up bras, false eyelashes, stiletto heels, glitter, and a feverish focus on looks to the exclusion of everything else. Naturally she’s going to make all kinds of mistakes, but she also comes to see that there’s more to the other beauty contestants than the stereotype harpies sabotaging each other on their way to the crown. She starts to learn more about her sister’s world, and about herself.  There’s even a (mild) romance along the line.

For a humorous look at family and beauty, with amusing characters and women supporting each other, check out The Accidental Beauty Queen.

BEFORE GAME OF THRONES, THERE WAS FIRE AND BLOOD

George R. R. Martin hasn’t finished the epic series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the basis for the television series, Game of Thrones.  The gaps between volumes in this series are getting longer and longer, and the date of publication for the next book is up in the air.  There’s even some concern that Martin might die before he finishes the projected 7th book in the series (and what will happen then? This gives more basis for my rule about not reading series until they’re finished).  So when I mention that Martin has a new book out in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire, I have to tamp down any unrealistic expectations by saying that it’s a prequel and not the next book in the series.  We’re all going to have to wait for the continuation of the series (the last volume, A Dance with Dragons, came out in 2011, so this is the longest gap between volumes yet), but at least Martin is willing to give us more background in his amazing fantasy world, and we’ll take what we can get.

Fire and Blood, the newest book, is set before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place when the dragons ruled Westeros, and the House Targaryen controlled the dragons. It starts with the creation of the Iron Throne, and the machinations and intrigues of the family that occupied that throne.  It’s presented like a history book, and if you’re a fan of the series (book or television), some of that history is going to be familiar to you at least in passing, because characters in ASOIAF refer back to the famous and infamous events of the past.  However, since this is focused entirely on the Targaryen family and on the dragons, there’s more detail and more ambiguity and more blood and guts than you would be able to get from references in the main series.

Whether you’re going to enjoy the book or not depends on how angry you are at Martin for not finishing the series yet, and how much you’re interested in the details of how the world got to be in the state it was in at the beginning of A Game of Thrones. But if you’re a completist, if you’re intrigued by the questions of what the world was like when there were more dragons and a different set of ruthless characters vying for the throne, or if you’re just ready to take whatever Martin can give you that’s set in this world, then be sure to check out Fire and Blood.