AN ALTERNATE HISTORY OF JFK: THE SUMMER I MET JACK

The administration of John F. Kennedy ended more than 50 years ago, and yet there’s still this fascination with the Kennedys, with what JFK actually did, with what he and his siblings might have done, with that whole era of American history, so recent and yet so far removed from today.  In some ways, the Kennedys are our home-grown version of royalty in terms of the way people follow all the gossip and doings of generations of the family. If you are a Kennedy watcher, then you may be interested in a new book by Michelle Gable, The Summer I Met Jack.

As you might be able to guess from the title, the narrator and main character of the book is not herself a Kennedy. She’s based on a real person, and the story is grounded, at least initially, in events that actually happened.  Alicia Corning Clark arrived in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, in 1950 to work as a maid for the Kennedy family. A beautiful Polish refugee, Alicia was entranced by the family and especially by Jack, the eldest son and a rising politician. The two fell in love and even, in this book, were engaged to be married, until Joseph Kennedy, Jack’s father, flew into a rage and forbid the marriage.  

This might or might not have broken Alicia’s heart, but she left Massachusetts for Hollywood, and found plenty of consolation there, with relationships with people like Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas, and marriage to a wealthy Singer (of the sewing machine business).  Through all her adventures, though, she kept in touch with Jack Kennedy, and then, on the eve of his inauguration as President, they met again, to confront their past and the effects of their behavior on each other.

Whether the two of them did have a child together, as the book suggests, is an open question. J. Edgar Hoover claimed she was blackmailing JFK over their illegitimate child, so someone believed it was possible at least. The Summer I Met Jack is a sort of alternate history novel, a following through on the “what if”s of the Camelot period of our history.  If you’re a Kennedy fan, or curious about what might have happened, check out The Summer I Met Jack.

Advertisements

THE BOOKS OF SUMMER, 2018

It’s obviously not summer yet according to the thermometer and the (lack of) sun these days, and even by the calendar it’s not going to be summer until late June, BUT in the world of books, summer reading starts much earlier than actual summer.  Which makes perfect sense, really: when do you really want to read about beaches and vacations? When you’re actually at the shore or actually taking a vacation, or before that, when you still have time to dream about those things and long for them?  I don’t know about you, but I’m in the “read vacation books BEFORE vacation” group. Fortunately for me, and for people in this category, The Field Library has a collection of summer reads already, in late May, for your reading and dreaming pleasure.

Mary Kay Andrews is well known to people who want a good beach read, or a good pre-beach read.  Her latest, The High Tide Club, gives us everything we want in a summer read: a gorgeous location (the barrier islands of South Carolina), family intrigue, characters coming together to either discover their relationships or rediscover them, and intrigue as well.  Brooke Trapnell is an attorney who’s very surprised to be summoned to the crumbling pink mansion, Shellhaven, of rich and incredibly eccentric 99 year old Josephine Bettendorf Warrick. It’s not that she doesn’t know of Josephine by reputation, but she has no idea why Josephine would summon her for legal work when they’ve never met before and Josephine already has a high powered Atlanta law firm doing all her legal business.  Josephine tells her a story of old friendships, betrayals, and a long unsolved murder. She wants Brooke to bring together the heirs of her old friends, the members of the High Tide Club (a name they chose after some skinny dipping escapades) so that she can make amends to them, and unite these disparate strangers for the first time. But while Brooke is willing to do this, she’s also inadvertently digging up some old secrets which just might make someone incredibly rich, or the victim of a murderer.  

Another of the great beach read writers is Mary Alice Monroe, especially with her Beach House series, set in the Isle of Palms off the coast of South Carolina.  The newest book in the series is Beach House Reunion.  This is not a series where you have to read all the books in order (though it helps ground you with the characters if you do); you can start with this one and then go back and see what happened to these people in this place before the events of this book.  Doesn’t everybody need a place to go where their friends and family are around to support you, listen to you and give you advice when you need it, a safe haven that’s in a beautiful location to boot?  For Cara Rutledge, still grieving for her dead husband and now taking on the responsibility of a new adopted baby, the Isle of Palms is the perfect place to return to, a place where her late mother’s influence is still everywhere and where her friends and family remain, a place she can start over.  For her niece, Linnea, who recently graduated college but hasn’t found a real job yet, it’s a place where she can work as a nanny for Cara’s baby, Hope, while she gets her bearings and decides what she really wants to do with her life. It’s a home, it’s the shore, it’s a place to move forward and try new things in the comfort of old friends and old memories.

And if you’d like some beach atmosphere a little closer to home, there’s Judy Blundell’s The High Season, set in the Hamptons on our own Long Island.  Ruthie Beamish has her house in a quiet Long Island town, and she intends to keep it, despite her divorce from her husband.  It’s her nest egg, her retirement savings, her daughter, Jem’s, college fund. The problem is that she has to rent it out every summer in order to afford to stay there the rest of the year. So on Memorial Day, she and her daughter move out so that Adeline Clay, this summer’s renter, can move in with her gorgeous stepson.  But this summer turns out to be different from the usual: Adeline starts trying to take over Ruthie’s life, her friends, her home, her ex-husband, and even making trouble for Ruthie at her job, at which point Ruthie has to start fighting back. The same summer, Jem is beginning to spread her wings with an independent job, but she’s also getting in over her head. Add social climbers, Ruthie’s former lover, mysterious millionaires and all the intrigues of a summer at the Hamptons, and you have the ingredients for a summer that will leave no one unchanged.

AND THEN SUDDENLY EVERYTHING COMES UNDONE: THE GLITCH

The protagonist of The Glitch, a debut novel from Elisabeth Cohen, is a type of character we’ve seen frequently, either in real life or in popular culture: the overworked, overscheduled having-it-all modern woman.

All right, so Shelley Stone might be taking things a little farther than most of us do.  She’s the CEO of a tech company called Conch, whose product is an app that whispers in people’s ears about what they should be doing right now to make their lives better. She’s a wife and mother of two, and she believes she has it all under control.  She’s scheduled her “me” time at 3:30 a.m. while she’s on the treadmill, she schedules sex with her husband when they’re already folding clothes together, and she takes naps while she’s standing in line. She has a nanny, a cook, a driver, an assistant, her kids are overscheduled (learning Mandarin, among other things), and she makes notes to herself to “practice being happy.”  You just know from reading this far that something is going to come crashing down, and of course that’s the plot of the book.

The form of the crash is what makes it interesting.  A young woman shows up, introducing herself as Shelley Stone.  She has the same scar in the same place as our protagonist does, and she claims to be a younger version of Shelley, which she might actually be, except that Shelley doesn’t believe it’s possible.  So what is this person? Is she a spy sent by some rival corporation to undermine Shelley’s company? Is she evidence that the space time continuum is springing a leak and about to disintegrate altogether?  Or is her presence a sign that Shelley is finally cracking under the pressure?

For all of us who feel our lives are too complicated, who occasionally wonder what our younger self would say if she could see us now, for all of us who enjoyed the perspective shift of Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot, for all of us who want a good laugh at ourselves and people like us, The Glitch is just what the doctor ordered.

MONEY CHANGES EVERYTHING: 84K

Pretty much everybody acknowledges that our current criminal justice system isn’t working, though there are as many solutions offered as there are people studying the problems. But if you’re interested in looking at a really outrageous, completely out-of-the-box way a criminal justice system might work, and what the problems of that system might be, Claire North has a novel that’s perfect: 84K.

The premise is that there isn’t jail anymore, at least not for people who can afford to avoid it (so far that sounds familiar, but wait, it gets better).  Capitalism reigns supreme, and the idea of paying your debt to society is literal. Every crime has a price, and once you pay the price for your crime, you’re free of all stigma.  You can, if you have enough money, get away with murder; all you have to do is pay for it. Of course, if you can’t pay for it in money, you pay for it in service (basically slavery by another name), but if you’re rich, the world is basically your oyster and you can do anything you want (this premise reminded me a little of the setup for good and evil in The Management Style of the Supreme Beings by Tom Holt, only much darker).

Our protagonist is Theo Miller, a quiet man who works at the Criminal Audit Office.  His job is to assess the penalties for different crimes, figuring out, for instance, how much a person should have to pay for killing one person as opposed to another.  He does not, at least at the beginning of the book, question the whole system. He assesses the penalties and makes sure the miscreants pay them.

But then it becomes personal, and everything changes for Theo, the unexamined system making its inherent problems obvious to him.  His former girlfriend, Dani, is murdered, and Theo finds her body, with the hired killer standing over her, calmly calling the police to confess to the killing and to set up his payment for the crime.  Suddenly this isn’t another entry on a balance sheet. Now Theo needs to find the person responsible for the woman’s death, and make them pay, in something more than money.

Part dystopian novel, part thriller, 84K (which is the price of Dani’s life) forces us to look at issues of justice, and the question of “paying your debt to society” in a new and darker way.  

NEXT FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP SELECTION: JANE AUSTEN’S PERSUASION

Considering that the majority of the attendees at this month’s book group meeting did not like/enjoy the book of the month, My Absolute Darling (and that is a polite understatement), we nonetheless had a rousing discussion about what constitutes good writing, is it enough to be dealing with an important issue if the treatment is sensational, how much can an author manipulate his or her readers, what makes us think an author is male or female, and so forth.

However, wanting a break from the excitement (and annoyance) of our last book, we’ve chosen a tried and true classic for the next meeting, which will be from 11:00 to 12:30 on Saturday, June 16, in the Field Library Gallery: Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Copies will be available at the Circulation desk this week.

It’s long been my contention that two of the major romance novel plots originated with Jane Austen: the one where people meet and initially want nothing to do with each other but then gradually come to fall in love with each other, which is, of course, Pride and Prejudice, and also the one where two people were together once, broke up for some reason, and now get another chance to see if they can end up together, and that is the plot of Persuasion.

All of Jane Austen’s trademark sly wit is on display here, in her last finished book, and the classic humor of characters revealing more about themselves than they believe they’re doing, but Anne Elliott, the protagonist of Persuasion, is a different kind of heroine than Jane Austen fans might be expecting.  Neither as snarky and vivacious as Elizabeth Bennett nor as lively and overbearing as Emma Woodhouse, Anne is quiet, gentle, a keen observer and a passionate person. Unlike some of Austen’s other heroines, Anne doesn’t put her foot in her mouth or make rash decisions that cause her trouble later; her biggest mistake was turning down the proposal of naval captain Frederick Wentworth some years before, on the advice of her mother’s closest friend.  Now Captain Wentworth is back in the picture, seemingly determined to marry anyone but Anne, and Anne is forced to watch his flirtation with the younger women who live nearby, and keep her mouth shut about her own emotions.

This is one of my all-time favorite Jane Austen books, and one of my favorite books, period.  Enjoy the excellent writing, the delightful characters (in addition to Anne, there’s Mrs. Croft, the admiral’s wife, who is one of the most sensible people in the book, after Anne herself, and great fun to spend time with), and of course the happy ending (this is not a spoiler, trust me).  Join us for what promises to be a fun discussion, with our usual coffee and donuts as snacks.

HOW CAN YOU BE SURE? NEW THRILLERS

If you’re in the mood for a thriller that not only keeps you guessing about who did what but also about whether what you’re seeing really happened at all, then you’re in luck, because we have two new thrillers here at The Field Library which each, in its own way, plays with our expectations of what’s actually going on.

Michael Koryta’s How It Happened starts off with a seemingly familiar trope: a person of dubious credibility comes in to the police to confess to her role in a crime, and people, for the most part, don’t believe her because of that credibility problem, but one officer does believe her. In this instance, the person doing the confessing is Kimberly Crepeau, well known in her Maine community as a snitch, a liar, a heroin addict and a generally no good human being.  However, Rob Barrett, the FBI investigator listening to her confession, has long suspected she had something to do with the killings of two prominent people in the community, whose bodies were never found. His expertise is in telling truthful confessions from false ones, and he is convinced that this is one of the true confessions. Except that the bodies are found 200 miles away from where she said they’d be, killed in a different way than she described, and with a different person’s DNA over them, which would seem to be proof Kimberly was, once again, lying. Barrett is disgraced and reassigned, but the father of the murdered woman doesn’t consider the case closed, and Barrett finds himself drawn back into the matter, into Kimberly’s confession and how the murders actually happened, in the interests of comforting a grieving father and seeing justice done once and for all.

Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin, by contrast, involves two main characters who may or may not be what they claim to be.  One protagonist is a young woman who’s become obsessed with the murder of her sister, researching every detail of her sister’s last days, training herself to find and deal with the man who killed her sister. And now she believes she’s found him, found him and lured him out of the halfway house he was in by claiming to be his long-lost daughter. The man in question was a documentary photographer in his day, and took some eerie, haunting pictures around scenes where unsolved crimes were committed. Now he claims not to remember anything about that past, and doesn’t recognize his supposed daughter either, but he goes on a road trip with her through Texas, to the sites where he took those pictures. He denies being a serial killer; she doesn’t believe him. He claims to have dementia, and seems to have some degree of dementia; could he be faking it?  Is she what she claims to be? Is she the grieving, haunted sister of a murder victim, or is she a con artist with her own agenda? As the road trip progresses, neither one of the main characters seems completely trustworthy, and the question of what’s really going on becomes slipperier and slipperier.

 

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ROMANCE: MY LADY’S CHOOSING

Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books from when you were a kid?  You started out at one spot, and then at the end of each section you had to decide what you were going to do, and depending on what you chose, you skipped ahead to one of two or three sections, and on and on it went.  You could read the book any number of times, making different choices down the line, and each time it would be a different book.

Why should kids have all the fun? Why should the choose your own path idea be limited to adventure stories?  Kitty Curran and Larissa Zageris have taken these ideas to heart and created an adult’s version of those childhood books, My Lady’s Choosing, which is subtitled “an interactive romance novel”.

You start out as a penniless, but plucky (of course) young woman in 18th century society, about to start the whirl of courtship, and of course there are all kinds of possibilities open to you, all of which are classic romance novel tropes.  Depending on what you choose at different points, your story twists and turns in different ways. For instance, you could flirt with the witty and wealthy baronet Benedict Granville. Or you could find your way to the hardworking, horse-loving Angus McTaggart, a dashing Highlander.  Or, if you want to chase wild and dangerous passion, you could chase after the Byronic (mad bad and dangerous to know) Lord Garroway Craven. You could even put off the whole issue of romance for a while and take up as a Lady’s Companion to the adventuresome Lady Evangeline and travel the Continent with her.  Your choices as a reader lead you through multiple and intertwining storylines, like those classic children’s books, only with more humor and more genre awareness.

Even if you’re not a romance reader (though this book would count as a romance for the purposes of the 2018 Reading Challenge, I’m just mentioning), the very idea of playing with different romance tropes and seeing how they wind up is intriguing and sounds like a great deal of fun.  Don’t you want to see how your choices could bring you to the coveted Happily Ever After? Of course you do, so come on in and check out My Lady’s Choosing, and get ready for some fun.

EDGAR AWARD FINALISTS AND WINNERS AT THE FIELD

I’ve written before about the Edgar Awards, annual awards given by the Mystery Writers of America to recognize the best mysteries published in a particular year.  The Edgars were just given out this month, and I’m delighted to announce that not only do we have the winner for best novel for 2017 right here at The Field Library, but we also have all the finalists competing for the title of best mystery novel.  If you’re a mystery fan and want to know what the writers in the field believe are the best of the best, or if you’re new to mystery and want to start with something you know will be good, this list is an excellent place to start.

Let’s start at the top.  The winner for Best Novel for 2017 is Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke, which I wrote about already. The book, which came out last September, is about an African American Texas Ranger brought back to his hometown in East Texas to solve two murders before the town blows up in racial unrest, risking his reputation and even his life in the process.

Of the four finalists, I’ve already discussed two in this blog, The Dime, by Kathleen Kent (a tough woman cop from Brooklyn relocates to Dallas, and it’s quite a culture shock for her, and for Dallas), and A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee (veteran of the Western Front in WWI goes to Calcutta and is thrown into the middle of the investigation of a very politically sensitive murder).  

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti, is a somewhat different kind of mystery.  The title character has been a fairly rootless loner for all of his daughter’s life, until his daughter, Loo, starts high school in the town where her deceased mother grew up. Struggling to fit in to this milieu, Loo begins to investigate her mother’s past, and in so doing, she discovers more and more about her father’s previous life, and the twelve scars on his body which came from bullets he took during the course of his criminal career. Finally Loo and Samuel must come to terms with the past he’s been running away from for years.

Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue, another of the finalists, is part of a series involving Bernie Gunther, set in the 1950’s, with flashbacks to the late 1930’s as Bernie’s past as an unwilling SS officer during World War II.  Blackmailed by a Stasi officer who knows of Bernie’s past and who wants Bernie to assassinate someone they both know from that past, Bernie escapes the officer and runs for the border, all the while remembering the last case he and the officer worked together, the solving of a murder in Hitler’s mountaintop retreat, a murder that might have connections to some high level Nazis.

From the last days of the Raj to modern day Texas, from the uncovering of a secret criminal life to the echoes of World War II, the best mysteries of the year beckon you here at The Field. Come in and check them out!

 

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FAMOUS: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

We as a culture are just fascinated with the lives of famous people. Not only do we want to read the facts of their lives and their secrets in biographies both authorized and unauthorized, but we also devour novels about the other sides of famous people, seeing their lives through lenses of people we don’t know as well, or just seeing them more fully.  If you’re interested in historical celebrities like Ernest Hemingway and Stan Laurel, you’re in luck, because we have two new books here at The Field which provide illuminating looks at their lives.

Paula McLain has already demonstrated her knowledge of the life of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife in her previous bestseller, The Paris Wife.  Returning to that milieu in her newest book, Love and Ruin, McLain takes us into the psyche and life of another of Hemingway’s wives, the brilliant and ambitious Martha Gellhorn. The book opens with Martha, a 28 year old journalist, in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in 1937, investigating and writing about the atrocities committed in that war and focusing on the way the war affected the lives of ordinary people. She sees this as her chance to prove her journalistic chops in a period where women were assumed to be incapable of writing about “manly” pursuits like war.  While there, though, she runs into and falls unexpectedly in love with Ernest Hemingway. In the beginning, the two of them are more or less equally famous and equally advanced in their careers, but then Hemingway publishes For Whom the Bell Tolls, his biggest and most successful novel, and suddenly he’s a huge success, an international celebrity, and they are no longer equals.  What are her options? She faces the horrible choice, not an unusual one for an ambitious woman in this era, of letting her career take a backseat to her husband’s and live in his shadow, or fight for her own reputation, her own success independent of his.  Either way leads to heartbreak for someone, and Martha, a fully realized and rounded person in this rendition, makes her choice, regardless of the consequences to him and to her.

Few people aren’t familiar with the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, from their silent films to their full length “talkies,” but fewer people know the story of how the two met and what their lives together were like. John Connolly aims to fix that in his new novel about Stan Laurel, entitled He. Entering show business in the shadow of the brilliant Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel also rose through the world of English vaudeville to the volatile and dynamic, but also seedy, world of 1920’s Hollywood.  It took a decision by impresario Hal Roach, putting Laurel together with Oliver Hardy, to give Laurel the immortality he’d longed for. The book follows him, and Hardy (known affectionately as Babe) through their long and fruitful partnership, through the more difficult aspects of Laurel’s personal life and the milieu of Hollywood in its golden age, and ends up being an affectionate portrait of a brilliant comedian and a team that changed the course of comedy.  You should be prepared, though: after reading this, you are definitely going to want to watch some of the Laurel and Hardy classics (though that’s certainly not a bad thing).

 

BLASTS FROM THE PAST: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Take a trip through time, back to the 1940’s and 1950’s, in England and in America, with two of our newest historical novels here at The Field Library.

Alexander McCall Smith needs no introduction to millions of readers, including some devoted fans here at The Field; his series reads, including The Number One Detective Agency series and the 44 Scotland series, have been bestsellers for years, and his stand-alone books are also wildly popular.  He has a knack for creating characters who, however quirky they may be, are real and lovable, and in his newest book, The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, one of those lovable characters happens to be a dog.  Peter Woodhouse is a Border Collie who has been mistreated by his owner and is rescued by Val Elliot, a young English woman working on a farm during World War II.  She gives the dog to her (soon to be more than) friend, Mike, an American pilot stationed at a nearby base. Peter Woodhouse becomes the mascot of the air base, accompanying the pilots on their missions, and Val and Mike become engaged, and all seems destined for an easy happy ending until the entry of Ubi, a German corporal, whom Peter Woodhouse brings onto the scene.  The potential for disaster with Ubi’s presence on the scene is matched, and perhaps exceeded, by the potential for a great and rewarding friendship among former enemies. With his trademark charm and love of his characters, McCall Smith has created a historical novel to love.

Esme Silver, the protagonist of The Magnificent Esme Wells, by Adrienne Sharp, is growing up in the same general period as that of The Good Pilot Peter Woodhouse, but a world away, geographically (in the vicinity of Las Vegas, rather than in England) and in living situation. Her father is a small-time crook, trying to get noticed by Bugsy Siegel and his crew, and her mother is a beautiful actress who’s looking for her big break as well.  When Esme’s father gets a chance to get in on the ground floor (so to speak) of the building of the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas, Esme’s life takes a major turn as well, when she catches the attention of Nate Stein, one of the most powerful men in Vegas. The Esme who narrates the story is in her 20’s, looking back on the wild world in which she came of age, a world filled with gangsters and movie moguls, many of whom seemed indistinguishable from each other, and looking back on the rise and fall of her somewhat complicated parents as well as her own discoveries about life and love.  

So whether you’re interested in American pilots fighting Nazis from England, or interested in the rise of the Las Vegas we’ve come to know, you can’t go wrong checking out our new historical fiction here at the Field.