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.  

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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.

 

THE ALMOST FORGOTTEN QUEEN: JANE SEYMOUR

The Tudor era, especially the reigns of Henry VIII and his daughter, Elizabeth, fascinates people, and why not?  Backstabbing, intrigue, love, lust, screwed up families: the royal family and the courtiers and nobles surrounding them did it all, and did things on a grandiose scale.  One of the authorities on that era, and an excellent historical fiction author in general, is Alison Weir, and her new book, third in her series focusing on the wives of Henry VIII, brings to life Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife and the only one who provided him with a legitimate male heir.  Her time as queen was short (not the shortest span of his wives; that honor goes to Anne of Cleves, and I have to say I’m looking forward to reading Weir’s version of her life), and her death less dramatic than that of Anne Boleyn or Katherine Howard, so even people who are into the Tudors are less likely to know much about her.

Weir’s new book, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, sets out to change that and to give Jane her due, and in the process to illuminate a little more the court of Henry VIII and the intrigues boiling around him and his passions.

Jane was so pious as a girl she wanted to become a cloistered nun, but with an aristocratic and very ambitious family, this was not going to happen. Instead, she was sent to serve as a lady in waiting to Henry VIII’s first queen, Katherine of Aragon.  Katherine, devout herself, was very kind to her ladies, treating them almost as her own daughters, and Jane was especially receptive to her affectionate treatment. So it was a shock to her, as it was to many powerful people, when Henry decided he wanted to divorce Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn instead. Through the upheavals that caused, Jane had a ringside seat.  And when Anne, despite all her promises and boasts, also failed to give birth to a son, and Henry’s eye began wandering again, Jane’s powerful family encouraged her to return the king’s affection, which would boost her family’s wealth and standing.

Having seen what Henry was capable of doing to people who thwarted his desires, concerned about her own future but also attracted to Henry as a person, Jane faced danger with courage and faith, and though her life was short, it was certainly full.

You don’t have to have read Weir’s previous two books in this series (Katherine of Aragon: the True Queen, and Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession) to appreciate this book, but odds are that if you read this one, you’ll want to go back and appreciate Weir’s take on the previous two queens of Henry VII.  

THE TRAGEDY OF ASSIMILATION: BETWEEN EARTH AND SKY

If you’re looking for a different sort of history book, one that’s not set in the usual and popular time periods (the 1920’s, World War II, the 1960’s) or places (Europe, New York, California, to name a few), and you want a real emotional reading experience, check out our new historical novel, Between Earth and Sky, by Amanda Skenandor.

Set both in the 1880s and the early 1900s, the book focuses on Alma Mitchell.  In the book’s present time, 1906, she’s a woman married to a lawyer in Philadelphia, living an ordinary life. However, in the 1880s, she was attending the Stover School, a boarding school for Native Americans, run in Wisconsin by her father.  She was the only white pupil, and was supposed to help set an example for the other children, who were there to be “civilized,” which in practice meant to lose their Native American names, languages and heritage, in order to become more like white people.  Alma tried to become one of the students, though there was always a barrier between her and the other students due to her unknowing privilege of being the daughter of the headmaster and her being white. She took for granted that the process of “civilizing” the Native children would be good for them, and she became friends with the most promising of the students, Asku, later known as Harry Muskrat, a bright young man who won a scholarship to Brown University.

All of these memories (and more) are brought back to Alma in 1906 when she reads an article about the murder of a federal agent where the accused murderer is Harry.  She persuades her husband to go west and help in Harry’s defense, and now she’s forced to see what assimilation did to Harry, and to the other people she cared about at the school, and forced to tell her husband about her past and the secrets she’s kept from him as well as from herself.

This is not a feel good kind of book; what was done to the Native Americans in the name of “assimilation” was terrible, making it impossible for them to return to their tribes or to ever become accepted by the dominant white culture.  However, it’s a vivid look at that time and that policy and its effects, and well worth the reading.

THE WORST PANDEMIC IN HISTORY: PALE RIDER

As those of us who have been doing the 2018 Reading Challenge know, one of the categories is to read a book involving biology (which is deliberately a very broad category, encompassing science fiction, classics, books about wildlife, bacteria, dinosaurs, pretty much you name it).  I’ve just finished, and highly recommend, a new nonfiction book involving biology: Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, by Laura Spinney.

While the so-called Spanish Flu was one of the worst diseases that has struck humanity in recorded history (if not THE worst), causing casualties of between 50 and 100 million in a span of two years, most people don’t know much about it, and it’s been pretty much ignored in history books and classes over the years, not to mention popular science books.  It’s long been a fascination of mine, the way you’re fascinated by something so terrible and so inexplicable you can’t really imagine what it must have been like. Spinney does a good job of explaining it, to the extent we can explain what caused it and how it struck all over the world, how certain people suffered just the symptoms of a regular seasonal flu and others were killed within weeks, if not days.

There were a number of reasons why this particular strain of flu was so deadly and so devastating.  It was a different kind of flu strain than previous ones, so people who had some immunity to more common strains were vulnerable to this one.  It hit the world in the later part of World War I, when public health systems were already strained in dealing with the injured from the wars and public institutions were disrupted, when armies unwittingly created perfect viral mixing pools by bringing together people from all over the country and throwing them together in tight quarters for periods of time.  Because of wartime restrictions on news, details of the spread of the disease within a country were hard to find out, and officials tried to make decisions about quarantines and the like without much information. The state of medical knowledge in 1918 was fairly primitive, too; the germ theory was still fairly new, and the concept of viruses was hard for anyone to believe.  There were no drugs that could help; even the new wonder drug, aspirin, was useless in combating the ravages this influenza worked on the human body (most of the deaths were due to the victim’s body’s immune system overreacting to the threat, in what’s known as the cytokine storm).

Spinney admits when there are gaps in our information. For instance, we don’t even know for sure where the flu originated (though we can be confident it wasn’t in Spain; the reason it’s known as Spanish Flu is because Spain, as a neutral country in WWI, didn’t have the restrictions on its press that combatant countries did, so when the death toll was reported from Spain, people assumed that was where the disease started).  She lays out the arguments for its origin in France, in China and — yes — even in the United States. For a number of reasons, we don’t know who Patient Zero was, or how the disease first struck humans. We’re also guessing about the number of casualties globally, because of gaps in the records, lack of reports from some areas, and the difficulty physicians had in diagnosing the flu in places where people already suffered from cholera and typhus and the like.  We do know it struck all over the world, with India’s death toll extraordinarily high, for instance.

The book is vivid and well-researched, well-written and clear.  She avoids sensationalism (though this is one disease you could certainly be sensational about), and discusses the effects of the influenza on human history (though there were times in that section where I felt she was reaching a little to make her point).  If you have any interest in the history of one of the worst diseases that ever hit humanity, Pale Rider is a great place to start.

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!

 

A PARENT’S NIGHTMARE: THE PERFECT MOTHER

There are always going to be thrillers about world events, about spies and high powered people preventing wars or shaping the future of the world, and there’s certainly a place for books like that (for one thing, they make good movies). But there are other kinds of thrillers, too, the kind focused much more narrowly, featuring people like us, the readers, who are thrown into nightmarish situations that we could only imagine too well, and those are the kinds of thrillers I like to read myself.

A new example of that kind of thriller is The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy. The setup couldn’t be more ordinary, more relate-able: a group of new mothers, all of whose babies were born in the month of May, get together twice a week in Prospect Park to share their stories and to remind themselves that they’re not ONLY mothers, that they have lives outside of their all-demanding babies. What mother, especially of a first or only child, hasn’t felt the urge to do something like that?  

So one Fourth of July night, the mothers get together at a local, hip, bar.  Winnie, a single mother, was kind of reluctant to leave her six week old son with a babysitter, but the other mothers persuaded her it would be fine.  What could go wrong?

Naturally — this is a thriller, after all — something does go wrong.  The baby goes missing. This is the worst fear of any new parent (and of older parents, too), and now Winnie has to find her baby.  Time is running out, secrets are being revealed, marriages are being tested, friendships destroyed, and readers are kept on the edge of their seats, not because the fate of the world is at stake, but because it’s personal.

For a nail-biting book of suspense, check out The Perfect Mother.

 

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).